“You thought I was Adam’s groupie?” I’d be offended, but it was a waste of time.
“Yes. I thought you were delivering the cash to him. I tailed you to MII. Given their business ties, if the Pierces wanted to funnel money to Adam, using MII would’ve been a logical step. I saw you come out of the building and talk on the phone, then I followed you to Mercer.”
My magic came on high alert. It wasn’t a lie exactly, but it felt off to me.
“How did you follow me to Mercer?”
“I tailed you.”
Lie. My magic bounced up and down like a giddy toddler. Lie, lie, lie. Even if it didn’t, I’d still know he was lying. I always checked to see if I was being followed. It was a habit. The traffic had been too heavy for him to tail me effectively anyway. He’d watched me enter MII and leave my car in the parking lot. He’d done something to my vehicle. Aren’t you a sly devil? That’s okay. Two could play that game.
“I was searching the gardens for you when I heard that idiot’s motorcycle.” He grimaced slightly. Adam Pierce wasn’t his favorite person. If Adam got one of my cousins accused of murder, I wouldn’t be a fan either.
“So instead of talking to me, asking for my credentials, or doing any of those things a normal person would do, you decided to assault me and chain me in your basement?”
He shrugged, a slow, deliberate movement. “It seemed like the most expedient way to obtain the information. And let’s be honest, you weren’t exactly harmed. I even took you home.”
“You dumped me on my doorstep. According to my mother, I looked half dead.”
“Your mother exaggerates. A third dead at most.”
I stared at him. Wow. Just wow.
Our food arrived. Record time.
“I have no idea where Adam is hiding.” I grabbed a piece of salmon roll, smeared some wasabi on it, and stuffed it in my mouth.
“I realize that now. Also the fact that you’re meeting him alone, without any means to capture him, indicates that House Pierce hired MII and you to talk him into surrendering himself into their tender embrace.” He leaned forward. His blue eyes focused on me, his gaze direct and difficult to hold. “MII employs combat-trained mages. Why would they send you? What are you? You’re something. Not a telepath, but something.”
Wouldn’t you like to know? I chewed enthusiastically. Mmm, mmm, yummy sushi. Sorry, can’t talk with my mouth full.
“What’s your take on Adam?” he asked.
I kept chewing, playing for time and trying to think of the right words.
“I promise I won’t share.”
I sipped my tea. “Adam is volatile and chaotic. Every emotion is intense. He craves attention and desperately wants to be seen as cool, almost like a teenager. He likes a challenge, so when someone isn’t instantly knocked off their feet with his sheer awesomeness, he’ll work to prove that he’s awesome. But, like a teenager, he is self-absorbed and can be cruel. He hates rejection, and his need to impress can flip into hate fast. He’s smarter than he lets on, persistent, and dangerous.”
“But you think you can talk him into surrendering himself to his House?”
“It’s possible.” I had captured his attention, which was in my favor, but he was lying to me, which wasn’t. “I cut off his money. Combined with the manhunt, it should put enough pressure on him. He’s flirting with the idea. What’s your take on Adam?”
“A spoiled rich brat with too much free time, a daddy complex, and a sadistic streak a mile wide.”
Okay. We were on the same page then.
Mad Rogan leaned slightly forward, focused on me. “What if I told you that he’s stringing you along?”
“What makes you think that?”
He took a small tablet out of the inner pocket of his suit and passed it to me. I took it, careful not to touch his fingers.
“A show of good faith,” he said.
True. A video was paused on the screen. I flicked it on with a swipe of my finger. A recording of the street in front of First National Bank, probably from a security camera. Was that the video the cops had? “How did you get this?”
“I have my ways.”
On the screen, two figures, one tall, the other shorter and slighter, walked into the camera’s view and stopped before the glass-and-marble facade of the bank. The taller figure, in a familiar leather jacket, set down a metal canister, pulled out a piece of chalk, and crouched, drawing on the asphalt. I couldn’t see what he was drawing, but my money was on a magic circle.
Thirty seconds later, the man spread his feet to shoulder width and raised his arms, elbows bent, fingers of the hands toward each other as if he were holding a large, invisible ball. The other figure opened the canister and began carefully pouring a thick, viscous liquid in front of the first man. A fire dashed through the stream, a quiet, golden flame contained in the invisible sphere between the first man’s hands. The shorter man kept pouring. The fire blazed brighter and brighter.
“Napalm B,” Mad Rogan said. “It’s a thickening agent that makes jellied gasoline.”
“I know. Benzene, gasoline, and polystyrene.” Grandma Frida had outfitted more than one House vehicle with a military-grade flamethrower. Napalm B also burned for almost ten minutes and generated temperatures that beat even Adam Pierce’s fire. It was one of the worst things humankind had ever invented.
Mad Rogan raised his eyebrows. I must’ve surprised him.
The ball of fire between the man’s hands had grown to the size of a basketball. It churned and roiled, a furious inferno contained by magic. The flame brightened to yellow, then blazed with white. The taller man turned, and I saw his face, lit up by the glow of the fireball. Adam Pierce.
The shorter man—probably Gavin Waller—raised his hands palms out and pushed. The fireball vanished. The windows of the bank shattered, and flames shot out. First National exploded from the inside out. The fire roared like an enraged grizzly.
That’s right, Gavin Waller was a short-range teleporter. Adam and Gavin stared at the flames, two dark silhouettes against the inferno.
Gavin’s image looked slightly distorted. The next second, the distortion disappeared.
Wait a minute.
I rewound the video a few seconds. Two minutes thirty-one seconds, thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five, missed it. Thirty-two, pause.
Gavin’s silhouette stood frozen on the screen. He was holding something rectangular, and it was bulging out on the left side. I zoomed in closer. A box. He was holding some kind of box. When did he get it?
I rewound the video back. The box popped into Gavin’s hands a millisecond after the fireball disappeared. “What is Gavin Waller holding? He teleported something into his hands.”
“A safe-deposit box.”
“What was in the box?”
“Nobody knows.” Mad Rogan grimaced. “They pulled it out, took something out, and put it back. Adam pressurized the napalm B, and when the magic was no longer containing it, it exploded. The bank employees are still sorting through the wreckage. Part of the vault melted.”
So this wasn’t a political statement. This was a theft, and the arson was just a cover-up. Adam had torched a bank, killed a man, and injured his family just so he could steal something. And he had needed Gavin to teleport his fireball directly into the vault, because coming through the front door would have meant all sorts of alarms going off. By the time he would have made his way to the vault, half of Houston’s finest would have surrounded the bank.
“Gavin isn’t a strong teleporter,” Mad Rogan said. “Someone had to have tagged the right safe-deposit box for him. Someone had gone to that bank and marked the box so Gavin could pull it out with his magic and stick the fireball in its place. That someone wasn’t Adam Pierce or Gavin himself. The point is, this was planned. Pierce pulled off a perfect heist, covered his tracks, and hasn’t said a word about it. Why?”
The heavens opened, and the realization fell out and hit me on the head. “He isn’t done. Adam has an almost pathological need for attention. If he was done with his scheme, he would take a bow. He would go out in a blaze of glory, or let himself be arrested, or turn himself in to his House with a giant show. He wouldn’t be able to resist making a statement one way or another. Instead he’s hiding. And he’s using me to keep his family at bay. As long as I report that I’m making contact and he’s listening, they’ll think there is a chance he’ll turn himself in. They won’t try to capture him. They will concentrate on slowing down the manhunt. I’m making it easier for him to keep going on with his plan.”
“You don’t sound surprised,” he noted.
“I knew he was leading me on. I just didn’t know why. Now I do.” I gave him a bright smile to rub it in. “Thank you for solving the mystery for me.”
Mad Rogan leaned back, his muscular body resting against the chair. “You’re an experienced investigator. You want Adam Pierce, and he is open to making contact with you, but you can’t talk him in and you have no means to subdue him. I want Gavin Waller. I have money and power on my side, but I can’t find him. Lead me to Adam, and I will help you deliver him to House Pierce.”
“You think you can contain Adam Pierce?”
He nodded, his face confident. “Yes. I can’t guarantee he’ll be undamaged after I’m done, but I give you my word he will be alive.”
I folded my napkin and put it on the table. “Thank you for a lovely lunch. The answer is no. I already have an employer.”
“You’ve been employed to find Pierce, not Waller.” Mad Rogan flicked his fingers across the tablet. An electronic check appeared on its surface. “Type in a number.”
I could type in a number large enough to pay off my mortgage to MII. It was tempting. So, so tempting. But you don’t jump into the cage with a wild bear because he’s offering you some of his honey. Right now Pierce and I were just talking. Once Mad Rogan got involved, it would escalate to an open confrontation, and the kind of power he and Pierce threw around meant I could—no, would—get hurt. My life meant nothing at all to either of them. “No, thank you.”
His eyes narrowed. “You’re still upset about the basement.”
“Yes, but my personal dislike of you has nothing to do with my decision. This is a purely professional choice. You’ve broken the law by kidnapping me, and although you apologized, your apology wasn’t sincere. It was a means to an end. You’ve rearranged the restaurant, someone else’s property, to accommodate your personal needs, you lied to me during this conversation, and you tried to trap me into a spell after assuring me that I wouldn’t be harmed.”
“I assured you that you wouldn’t be kidnapped.”
“You are incredibly powerful, and you have a blatant disregard for laws and moral constraints. I’m guessing that you don’t think anything you ever do is wrong. That makes you very dangerous and a huge liability in my line of work. You will break laws and kill to get what you want, and if I manage to survive, I’ll be left with the fallout. So the answer is no.”
“This isn’t wise, Nevada. I take care of my employees.”
The sound of my name coming from him derailed me for a half second. Trading being in debt to MII for servitude to House Rogan. No, thank you. At least with MII there were rules. There was a legal, binding contract, and what they were doing to us was underhanded but within the bounds of that contract. My value to them was tied to my ability as an investigator. My value to Rogan was tied to me somehow getting him together with Adam Pierce, and Rogan wasn’t bound by any rules. I had no business getting in bed with him.