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He perched, cross-legged, his legs stretching the black leather of his pants. He was wearing a jacket over a black T-shirt. His hair fell over his face in a ragged wave. A complicated magic circle, drawn in black and white chalk, marked the boardwalk and the wall around him. Three rings within each other, three half circles facing outward, their backs touching the middle ring. Spider-thin perfectly straight lines crossed back and forth within the circles, forming an elaborate pattern. Half circles out meant containment. He was holding in his power.

Years ago when aristocrats were expected to serve in the military, they began practicing with swords as soon as they could walk. Now Primes practiced drawing arcane symbols. If I had to duplicate whatever he had drawn, I would need a picture for reference, a ruler, a pair of compasses to make those circles, and a couple of hours. He probably drew it freehand in a few minutes. It looked perfect.

He was capable of incredible precision and control. Come to think of it, the way he sat, the way he posed during interviews with his best angle to the camera, indicated that he had practiced in front of the mirror. Maybe Adam the Chaotic Rebel was just for show. Maybe everything he did was calculated. Wouldn’t that be just the icing on top of this Cake of Awful? I would have to tread this treacherous water very carefully.

Adam glanced up. Brown eyes took my measure. He looked just like he did in all those photographs. Okay. Now I needed to not get fried as I talked his handsome ass into surrendering.

I went over to the bench. As I passed by him, heat washed over me, as if I had stepped too close to a bonfire. He had made the containment circle and then filled it with heat. I had my Taser in my bag. I could probably shoot him from here, but even if the Taser hit and he went down, getting anywhere close to him was out of the question. The heat would peel the skin off my fingers. Then the shock would wear off, and I would be dead.

I sat down.

Adam Pierce smiled. His face lit up, suddenly boyish and charming, but still a little wicked. So that’s why his mother gave him anything he wanted.

“Nevada. Such a cold name for such a sunny girl.”

Aren’t you smooth? Nevada meant “snow-covered” in Spanish. I was anything but.

Grandma Frida’s parents came to the US from Germany. She was dark haired and light skinned naturally. Grandpa Leon was from Quebec. I didn’t remember much about him except that he was huge and dark-skinned. It caused some issues for both of them, but they loved each other too much to regret it. Together they made my mother, with dark hair and medium brown skin. We didn’t know a lot about Dad’s family. He once told me that his mother was a terrible person and he didn’t want anything to do with her. He looked part Caucasian, part Native American to me, with dark blond hair, but I never asked. All of those genes fell into the melting pot, boiled together, and I came out, with tan skin, brown eyes, and blond hair.

My hair wasn’t silvery blond but a darker, tupelo honey kind of blond. I almost never burned in the sun, just got darker, while my hair turned lighter, especially if I spent the summer swimming. Once, when I was seven, a woman stopped my grandma and me as we were walking to my school. She tried to chew Grandma out for dying my hair. It didn’t go well. Even now people sometimes asked me which salon did the coloring job. Nevada didn’t exactly fit me. There was nothing wintery about me, but I didn’t care what he thought about it.

I shook my left hand, unfolding a Mercer Arboretum gift T-shirt, black with a sage green Mercer logo on it. “For you.”

“You bought me a T-shirt?” He raised one eyebrow.

Every nerve in my body was shivering with tension. Steady. “You keep forgetting to put one on, so I thought I’d bring you one. Since we’re having a serious discussion.”

He leaned forward, his beautiful face framed by soft hair. “Do you find my chest distracting?”

“Yes. Every time I see that panther with horns, it makes me laugh.”

Adam Pierce blinked.

Didn’t expect that, did you? “Just out of curiosity, why horns?”

“It’s Mishepishu, an underwater panther of the Great Lakes. It’s revered by Native American tribes. It has the horns of a deer, the body of a lynx, and the scales of a snake.”

“What is it famous for?”

“It lives in the deepest reaches of the lakes, where they guard copper deposits. Those who cross their waters must pay it tribute.”

“And if the tribute isn’t paid?”

Adam smiled, giving me a small flash of teeth. “Then Mishepishu will kill you. One moment the waters will be placid, and the next you will see your death glaring you in the face.”

So Adam thought of himself as Mishepishu. He ruled, and those who crossed his waters had to pay him tribute. Full of himself didn’t begin to describe it.

Adam was looking me over in a slow, evaluating way. “I don’t believe my mother hired you.”

“Why not?”

“She hires for appearances. Those jeans cost what, fifty dollars?”

“Forty. I got them on sale a couple of years ago. I wore them especially for going to see Gustave.”

“Why?”

“Because I needed him to trust me and I wanted to show him that I’m a working person, just like him. I’m not ‘them.’ I’m not the Man. I don’t even know the Man, although he does occasionally pay my bills. If I went to see your mother, I would’ve worn my Escada suit. It cost sixteen hundred bucks, so your mother wouldn’t be impressed, but at least she wouldn’t dismiss me as a beggar right away.”

Adam’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve looked you up. You’re small potatoes, Snowflake.”

Pet names? Ugh. “Our firm has an excellent reputation.”

“Why would you spend a grand and a half on a suit? Isn’t it like half of your monthly paycheck?”

I forced my voice to be casual and light. “See, this is how I can tell you’ve never been poor. Are you poking at me, or are you genuinely curious?”

He leaned back. “I’m curious. When I start poking at you, you’ll know.”

I let the innuendo fly by, pretending I didn’t get it. “When you’re wealthy, you have the luxury of wearing whatever you want. You’re rich. If someone does attempt to judge you by the way you’re dressed, you would find it amusing and rub their nose in it. When you’re poor, your ability to land the job you need or accomplish some social task often depends on what you wear. You have to cross that threshold from supplicant to ‘one of us.’ It’s amazing how doors can open once people stop looking down on you. So you save up, buy one outrageously expensive outfit, and wear it to every special occasion for years as if it’s your everyday clothes. I have two, an Escada and an Armani. Once in a blue moon, a large insurance company or a wealthy member of some House wants to hire us, so I wear one to get the job and the other to deliver results, because I like to be promptly paid. The rest of the time they hang in my closet wrapped in two layers of plastic, and my sisters know that to touch them is to face a penalty of horrible death.”

Adam laughed. It was the rich, self-indulgent laugh of a man who didn’t have a care in the world. “I like you, Snowflake. You’re genuine. Real. Why are you on this job?”

“Because our firm is a subsidiary of Montgomery International and if I don’t bring you in, they will take away the business I worked years to build. My family will be homeless.”

Adam laughed again. Something about my family being homeless must’ve been hilarious.

“How much do you weigh?”

“That’s an odd question. About a hundred and thirty pounds.”

He shook his head. “You don’t lie at all, do you?”

When an occasion called for it, I lied like he wouldn’t believe. “People lie too much, because it’s easier. I don’t lie unless I have to. Adam, you know you can’t evade the cops forever. When they find you, it won’t be ‘put your hands on the back of your head and kneel so we can cuff you.’ It will be a bullet to the brain.”

He leaned his elbow on his knee and rested his chin on his fist. “Mhm.”

“If they don’t find you within the next couple of days, they will offer a reward. Then any junkie on the street will be gunning to turn you in. The only logical way out of this situation is turning yourself in to your House.”

“Why? So I could rot the rest of my life in a cage?”

“I seriously doubt House Pierce will let you rot in a cage. Your mother clearly adores you. She’ll move heaven and earth to keep you out of prison. You have money and power on your side. And anything is better than being dead.”

He focused on me. “Do you think I did it?”

I was beginning to think he did. I forced a shrug. “I don’t care. My job ends with bringing you in.”

He unfolded himself from the wall and touched the chalk with his foot, smudging the perfect line. Heat shot upward in a column. My heart was beating too fast. I tasted metal in my mouth. Adrenaline had kicked in. If he fried me now, I couldn’t do a thing about it.

Adam shrugged off his leather jacket. A whiff of burned fabric polluted the air. Scorched patches appeared on the T-shirt. It melted, turning into ash, and Adam shrugged it off. The sun played on his sculpted chest and washboard abs, highlighting every smooth curve and every hard contour of muscle with golden glow. It was good Grandma Frida wasn’t here. She would have had a heart attack for sure.

Adam reached over and plucked the Mercer T-shirt from my hand. He pulled it on, shrugged on the leather jacket, and grinned at me.

“Adam . . .”

“I’ll think about it, Snowflake.” He winked at me.

I pulled out my cell phone and snapped a picture of him.

He stepped over the stone wall and guided a motorcycle from behind a bush.

He’d taken a motorcycle into Mercer. Into this calm, tranquil place where even bicycles were restricted to only a few trails.

Adam saddled the bike and roared off at breakneck speed.

Well, that went about as well as I had expected.

My hands shook. My body still hadn’t realized the danger had passed. I took a deep breath, trying to calm down.

In front of me the bog spread, a green and brown labyrinth of mud and water. Suddenly it seemed depressing. I wanted flowers, color, and sunlight. I got up and walked south, heading toward the gardens.

I’d failed. Logically I’d known I wouldn’t be able to talk Adam into turning himself in on the first try, but I still had hoped. I was good at talking to people.

Well at least he hadn’t fried me. That was good. I pulled out my cell phone, sent the picture of Adam Pierce to Augustine’s inbox, dialed MII, and asked for Augustine.

“Yes?” his cultured voice said into the phone.

“Check your inbox.”

There was a tiny pause. “Why is he wearing a Mercer Arboretum T-shirt?”

“I bought it for him to cover up the Native American water panther on his chest. He refuses to come in. His exact words were ‘Why? So I could rot the rest of my life in a cage?’ I think I can get him to meet with me again, but I need some assurances from the family. He doesn’t want to go to prison.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” Augustine hung up.

I kept walking. Adam probably did commit the arson. I had no idea what would possess him to torch the bank, but the way he danced around it, flirting with the question, suggested he had something to do with it. Of course, he could just have a persecution complex, let himself be blamed for something he didn’t do, and revel in his victimhood. In any case, whether he did it or not, I had to deliver him to his family. Even spoiled rich boys were entitled to due process. My job ended with him in his mother’s loving arms. What House Pierce did with him afterward wasn’t my problem.

The path brought me to the center of the gardens, to a rectangular plaza surrounded by towering trees. A long water-curtain fountain stretched across the far end of it, a pale concrete beam supported by ten-foot-tall Doric columns. When you came close, water would spill down from it in a cascade of glittering drops, which fell into three narrow basins. Rectangular flower beds and carefully bordered stretches of vibrant green grass dotted the plaza. Several benches sat on the edges. They looked so inviting. I walked over to the bench under a wooden pergola and landed. I just wanted to sit here for a minute.

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