John and the redhead drifted across the hotel lobby.
I sat in the lobby’s lounge area, half hidden behind a bushy plant, and pretended to be absorbed in my cell phone, while the small digital camera hidden in my black crocheted purse recorded the lovebirds. The purse had been chosen precisely for its decorative holes.
Rutger and his date stopped a few feet away from me. I furiously shot birds at the snide green pigs on my screen. Move along, nothing to see here, just a young blond woman playing with her phone by some shrubbery.
“I love you,” the redhead said.
True. Deluded fool.
The pigs laughed at me. I really sucked at this game.
“I love you too,” he told her, looking into her eyes.
A familiar irritation built inside me, as if an invisible fly was buzzing around my head. My magic clicked. John was lying. Surprise, surprise.
I felt so sorry for Liz. They had been married for nine years, with two children, an eight-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl. She showed me the pictures when she hired me. Now their marriage was about to sink like the Titanic, and I was watching the iceberg approach.
“Do you mean that?” the redhead asked, looking at him with complete adoration.
“Yes. You know I do.”
Magic buzzed again. Lie.
Most people found lying stressful. Distorting the truth and coming up with a plausible alternative version of reality required a good memory and an agile mind. When John Rutger lied, he did it to your face, looking straight into your eyes. And he seemed really convincing.
“I wish we could be together,” the redhead said. “I’m tired of hiding.”
“I know. But now isn’t the right time. I’m working on it. Don’t worry.”
My cousins had run his lineage. John wasn’t connected to any of the important magical families whose corporations owned Houston. He had no criminal history, but still something about the way he carried himself set me on edge. My instincts said he was dangerous, and I trusted my instincts.
We also ran a credit check. John couldn’t afford a divorce. His record as a stockbroker was acceptable but not stellar. He was mortgaged up to the gills. What wealth he had was tied up in stocks, and divvying them up would be expensive. He knew it too and took pains to cover his tracks. He and the redhead had arrived in separate cars twenty minutes apart. He’d probably let her leave first, and, judging by the tense line of his back, this open display of affection in the lobby wasn’t part of his plan.
The redhead opened her mouth, and John bent down and dutifully kissed her.
Liz would pay us a thousand dollars when I brought her the proof. It was all she could get her hands on without John knowing about it. It wasn’t much, but we weren’t in a position to turn down work, and as far as jobs went, this one was simple. Once they walked out of the hotel, I’d leave through the side exit, notify Liz, and collect our fee.
The hotel doors swung open and Liz Rutger walked into the lobby.
All my nerves came to attention. Why? Why don’t people ever listen to me? We had expressly agreed that she wouldn’t do any sleuthing on her own. Nothing good ever came of it.
Liz saw them kissing and went white as a sheet. John let go of his mistress, his face shocked. The redhead stared at Liz, horrified.
“This isn’t what it looks like,” John said.
It was exactly what it looked like.
“Hi!” Liz said, shockingly loud, her voice brittle. “Who are you? Because I’m his wife!”
The redhead turned and fled into the depths of the hotel.
Liz turned to her husband. “You.”
“Let’s not do this here.”
“Now you’re concerned with appearances? Now?”
“Elizabeth.” His voice vibrated with command. Uh-oh.
“You ruined us. You ruined everything.”
“Listen . . .”
She opened her mouth. The words took a second to come out, as if she had to force them. “I want a divorce.”
I’ve been working for the family business since I was seventeen, and I saw the precise moment adrenaline hit John’s system. Some guys get red-faced and start screaming. Some might freeze—those are your fear biters. Push too far and they will go crazy. John Rutger went flat. All emotions drained from his face. His eyes opened wide, and behind them a hard, calculating mind evaluated the situation with icy precision.
“Okay,” John said quietly. “Let’s talk about this. It’s more than us. It’s also the kids. Come, I’ll take you home.” He reached for her arm.
“Don’t touch me,” she hissed.
“Liz,” he said, his voice perfectly reasonable, his eyes focused and predatory, like the hard stare of a sniper sighting his target. “This isn’t a conversation for the hotel lobby. Don’t make a scene. We’re better than that. I’ll drive.”
There was no way I could let Liz get into his car. His eyes told me that if I let him gain control of her, I would never see her again.
I moved fast and put myself between them.
“Nevada?” Liz blinked, thrown off track.
“Walk away,” I told her.
“Who is this?” John focused on me.
That’s right, look at me, don’t look at her. I’m a bigger threat. I body-blocked Liz, keeping myself between them.
“Liz, go to your car. Don’t drive home. Go to a family member’s house. Now.”
Muscles on John’s jaw bulged as he locked his teeth.
“What?” Liz stared at me.
“You hired her to spy on me.” John shrugged his shoulders and turned his neck like a fighter loosening himself for a fight. “You brought her into our private life.”
“Now!” I barked.
Liz turned and fled.
I raised my hands in the air and backed away toward the exit, making sure the camera in the hotel lobby had me in plain view. Behind me the door hissed as Liz made a break for it.
“It’s over, Mr. Rutger. I’m not a threat.”
“You nosy bitch. You and that harpy are in it together.”
At the desk the concierge frantically mashed buttons on a phone.
If I’d been on my own, I would have turned and run. Some people stand their ground no matter what. In my line of work, a stint at the hospital, coupled with a bill you can’t pay because you’re not working, cures that notion really fast. Given a chance, I’d run like a rabbit, but I had to buy Liz time to get to her car.
John raised his arms, bent at the elbow, palms up, fingers apart, as if he was holding two invisible softballs in his hands. The mage pose. Oh shit.
“Mr. Rutger, don’t do this. Adultery isn’t illegal. You haven’t committed any crimes yet. Please don’t do this.”
His eyes stared at me, cold and hard.
“You can still walk away from this.”
“You thought you could humiliate me. You thought you’d embarrass me.” His face darkened as ghostly magic shadows slid across his skin. Tiny red sparks ignited above his palms and flared. Bright crimson lightning danced, stretching to the tips of his fingers.
Where the hell was the hotel security? I couldn’t take him down first—it would be an assault, and we couldn’t afford to be sued—but they could.
“Let me show you what happens to people who try to humiliate me.”
I dashed to the side.
Thunder pealed. The glass doors of the hotel shattered. The blast wave picked me up off the floor. I saw the chair from the lounge fly at me and I threw my hands up, curling in midair. The wall smashed into my right shoulder. The chair hit my side and face. Ow.
I crashed down next to the shards of a ceramic pot that had held a plant two seconds ago, then I scrambled to my feet.
The red sparks ignited again. He was getting ready for Round Two.
They say a hundred-and-thirty-pound woman has no chance against an athletic two-hundred-pound man. That’s a lie. You just have to make a decision to hurt him and then do it.
I grabbed a heavy potsherd and hurled it at him. It crashed against his chest, knocking him off balance. I ran to him, yanking a Taser from my pocket. He swung at me. It was hard and fast, and it caught me right in the stomach. Tears welled in my eyes. I lunged forward and jammed the Taser against his neck.
The shock surged through him. His eyes bulged.
Please let him go down. Please.
His mouth gaped open. John went rigid and crashed like a log.
I knelt on his neck, pulled a plastic tie from my pocket, and wrestled his hands together, tying them up.
I sat next to him on the floor. My face hurt.
Two men burst from the side doors and ran to us. Their jackets said security. Well, now they show up. Thank God for the cavalry.
In the distance police sirens blared.
Sgt. Munoz, a stocky man twice my age, peered at the security footage. He’d watched it twice already.
“I couldn’t let him put her into the car,” I said from my spot in the chair. My shoulder hurt and the handcuffs on my hands kept me from rubbing it. Being in close proximity to cops filled me with anxiety. I wanted to fidget, but fidgeting would make me look nervous.
“You were right,” Munoz said and tapped the screen, pausing on John Rutger reaching for his wife. “That right there is your dead giveaway. The man’s caught with his pants down and he doesn’t say, ‘Sorry, I f**ked up.’ He doesn’t beg for forgiveness or get angry. He goes cold and tries to get his wife out of the picture.”
“I didn’t provoke him. I didn’t put my hands on him either, until he tried to kill me.”
“I see that.” He turned to me. “That’s a C2 Taser you’ve got there. You do know range on those things is fifteen feet?”
“I didn’t want to take chances. His magic looked electrical to me, and I thought he might block the current.”
Munoz shook his head. “No, he was enerkinetic. Straight magic energy, and trained to use it, courtesy of the U.S. Army. This guy is a vet.”
“Ah.” That explained why Rutger went flat. Dealing with adrenaline was nothing new to him. The fact that he was an enerkinetic made sense too. Pyrokinetics manipulated fire, aquakinetics manipulated water, and enerkinetics manipulated raw magical energy. Nobody was quite sure what the nature of that energy was, but it was a relatively common magic. How in the world did Bern miss all this in the background check? When I got home, my cousin and I would have to have words.
A uniformed cop stuck his head in the door and handed my license back to Munoz. “She checks out.”
Munoz unlocked my cuffs, took them off, and handed me my purse and camera. My cell and my wallet followed. “We have your statement, and we took your memory card. You’ll get it back later. Go home, put some ice on that neck.”
I grinned at him. “Are you going to tell me not to leave town, Sarge?”
Munoz gave me a “yet another smart-ass” look. “No. You went up against a military-grade mage for a grand. If you need the money that bad, you probably can’t afford the gas.”
Three minutes later I climbed into my five-year-old Mazda minivan. The paperwork described the Mazda’s color as “gold.” Everyone else said it was “kind of champagne” or “sort of beige.” Coupled with unmistakable mom car lines, the minivan made for a perfect surveillance vehicle. Nobody paid it any mind. I once followed a guy for two hours in it on a nearly deserted highway, and when the insurance company later showed him the footage demonstrating that his knee worked just fine as he shifted gears in his El Camino, he was terribly surprised.
I turned the mirror. A big red welt that would mature into one hell of a purple bruise blossomed on my neck and the top of my right shoulder, like someone took a handful of blueberries and rubbed it all over me. An equally bright red stain marked my jaw on the left side. I sighed, readjusted the mirror, and headed home.