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I could shoot Peaches from where I stood. I’d shot through my pocket before. I would have to kill him though, because if he lived, the flies he summoned would turn me into a cluster of boils. Aiming through a pocket was tricky.

Mad Rogan smiled a big, wide, conciliatory grin and raised his hands. “Hey, hey. No need to get worked up. Look, no gun. I can see you’re the man. You’re in charge here.”

“That’s right!”

“You’re a businessman, right?” Mad Rogan kept smiling, his expression pleasant and placating. “Let’s talk, like two businessmen.” He invited Peaches to a bridge stretching back the way we came. “Let’s just calm down for a minute and talk, right, buddy?”

“Talk money, punk.” Peaches moved with Mad Rogan onto the bridge.

Mad Rogan strolled next to him. “I can see you own all of this and you being in charge and all . . .”

Mad Rogan grabbed Peaches by the throat, kicked his feet out from under him, and hurled him into the water as if the tall man weighed nothing.

Several things happened at the same time: I yanked my gun out and took a shooter stance; the barrels of the man’s Glock and the woman’s Chiappa fell off the guns as if sliced off by a razor blade; and Peaches splashed in the water. We all stopped moving, me with my Ruger pointing at the group, and the two shooters staring blankly at their disfigured firearms.

The larger man opened his hand and let the Glock’s remains fall to the ground.

“I’ll f**king kill you!” Peaches howled, rising to his feet, up to his h*ps in water. Dark green dots swirled around him. A swarm of fat flies shot out of his hands, curving around him like a shawl.

Mad Rogan flicked his fingers. The wall of the nearest building broke off in one long, twenty-foot slab, slid off the building, and crushed Peaches.

Oh my God.

Mad Rogan turned to face the crowd. Behind him a large crack split the building’s side, and bricks and mortar rained down onto the first chunk. Nobody screamed.

The last brick fell onto the pile. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

“Now we know,” Mad Rogan said, his voice cold. “I’m in charge. I’m in charge of you. I’m in charge of the guy next to you. I’m in charge of the ground you’re standing on. When I’m gone, I don’t care who is in charge. When I leave here, you can fight and kill each other over who is running things while I’m not here. But let’s be clear: when I’m here, when you see me, I’m in charge.”

The woman lowered her disfigured gun to the floor. The rest of Peaches’ people stood motionless.

“Are there any questions?” Mad Rogan asked.

A short man in a tattered Dallas Cowboys jersey raised his hand slowly. The woman in the tank top grabbed his hand and pushed it down.

“Okay then. You may go.”

By the time I took three breaths, the island was clear.

“Which way is your expert?” Mad Rogan asked me.

Chapter 9

“You killed Peaches.” I stepped over the gap in the bridge.

“Of course I killed him.”

I opened my mouth and closed it.

“Okay,” Mad Rogan said. “This is distracting you, and I need you to function, so let’s fix this. Which part of what happened is upsetting?”

I opened my mouth again and closed it again without saying anything. Peaches would’ve attacked us, possibly killed us, so what Mad Rogan did was justified. It was the sheer sudden brutality of it. It was the way he did it, without any hesitation. One moment Peaches was there, and then he vanished. No trace of him remained. He was crushed out of existence. He was . . . dead.

“Let me help,” he said. “You’ve been taught all your life that killing another person is wrong, and that belief persists even in the face of facts. Not only would Peaches have killed us given the chance, but this way I only had to kill one person rather than kill half a dozen of his followers. I saved several lives, but your conditioning tells you I’ve done the wrong thing. I didn’t. He started it. I finished it.”

“It’s not that. I was getting ready to shoot him in the head.” But when you shot someone, there was a slight chance they might live. There would be a body. What he did was so complete and sudden that I needed a couple of moments to come to terms with it.

“Then what is it?”

“It’s the . . .” I struggled for words. “Splat.”

Mad Rogan glanced at me, his eyes puzzled. “Splat.”

“Yes.”

“I had briefly considered impaling him with one of those steel poles from the roof, but I decided it would be too graphic for you. Would that have been preferable?”

My mind conjured up Peaches with a steel pole sticking out of his stomach. “No.”

“I really would like to know,” he said with genuine curiosity. “The next time I kill someone, I’d like to do it in a way that doesn’t freak you out.”

“How about you don’t kill anybody for a little bit?”

“I can’t make that promise.”

Small talk with the dragon. How are you? Eaten any adventurers lately? Sure, just had one this morning. Look, I still got his femur stuck in my teeth. Is that upsetting to you?

Ahead Xadar building loomed, top three stories above the water, its faded green sign grimy and stained with swamp algae. The tangle of wires on the roof looked like a black spiderweb. Somewhere inside, Bug sat in the center of this web, wrapped in his hysterical brand of crazy. I stopped.

“Don’t kill Bug,” I said. “I’m dead serious.”

Mad Rogan smiled.

“I mean it. Do not murder Bug. If you kill him, our deal is off.”

“Fine,” he said.

I resumed my walking.

“Maybe you should make me a list of people I can kill and ways in which they’re allowed to die,” he said.

“You are not funny.”

“I’m very funny. Just ask Peaches.”

We reached the building and climbed through a large second-story window. A damp, musty smell emanated from the commercial rug. Slugs crawled across the fallen cubicles. An old motivational poster hung on the wall. It showed a mountain climber hanging by his hands off a cliff. The caption said Break the Boundaries. The glass was cracked.

“Don’t touch anything,” I said. “He has the whole place booby-trapped.”

I followed a narrow path between the cubicles, stopped before a camera mounted in the corner, and held up the vial of orange pills.

An intercom somewhere close crackled with static and a scratchy male voice said, “Stay there. I’ll send Napoleon.” The static cut out.

“Have you ever killed someone?” Mad Rogan asked me.

“No. I saw a man die once.” I shouldn’t have said that.

“How did it happen?”

I glanced at him and stopped. He was focused on me, as if I was about to tell him the most intriguing thing in the world and he was prepared to absorb every word. Even his magic hovered around him, anticipating. For a few moments I had Mad Rogan’s undivided attention, and it wasn’t frightening. It was . . . flattering. As long as I told him things, he would keep looking at me just like that, and that alone was enough incentive to compel most women to tell him anything he wanted. And if I did tell him things, he would likely use them against me in some way.

He was still waiting. Oh what the hell.

“My dad wanted me to get a taste for the different areas of PI work, so when I was sixteen, I interned with a repo agent. He worked with his two sons. Our first few runs were great. We’d find the vehicle, sneak up, and tow it off, like spies on some secret operation in a movie. It was exciting. The guys told me how people try to scam the banks out of money, so we were doing a good thing.”

My lips had gone dry. It still bothered me after almost a decade.

“What happened?” he said, his blue eyes welcoming. A man had no right to be this fiercely sexual without even trying.

“We were trying to repossess a truck from a small suburban home, when a woman came out of the house. She was holding a toddler, and her eyes had this hollow look. She said, ‘Take it. I can’t afford to put gas into it anyway.’ The expression on her face was terrible. I should’ve quit right there. I should’ve called my dad and asked him to come and get me. But I was trying to do the right thing. My dad got me this job, and I was going to do it, even if it sucked.

“The guys just attached the tow, and then this man tore out of the house with a rifle and started shooting at us. No warning. We couldn’t even get into our truck. We just hunkered down behind it. The woman was screaming, but he kept firing at our truck. Doug called the cops. They got there fast. The man shot at the police cruiser, and the cops gunned him down. I saw the bullets hit him in the chest, and then he collapsed. More kids ran out of the house, and everyone started crying and screaming. I remember cops led his wife away and she kept trying to tell them that he was a good man and wouldn’t do something like this. I found out later he lost his job four months before that and his house had gone into foreclosure. My dad came and got me, and I never had to go back.” For which I’d thanked my lucky stars every morning for a month. “Your turn. First person you ever saw die.”

“I was seven,” he said, his voice intimate and quiet. “I was practicing spells, and my grandfather was watching me. He had dozed off in a chair, the way he usually did. Suddenly he clutched his head, groaned, and fell down. I ran to him, but he wasn’t breathing. He had a brain aneurysm. I ran downstairs and told my grandmother that Grandfather died. She told me that laziness was the worst trait in a man, and making up lies to get out of practice wasn’t much better. Then she told Gerard, her servant, to take me to the study and lock me in there. I sat on the floor for two hours looking at my grandfather’s corpse.”

Oh God.

A faint noise came from the hallway. A small dog trotted into view. He was squat, with huge, triangular ears and a pushed-up muzzle that said that somewhere in his ancestry there was an adventurous French bulldog. The origin of the rest of his DNA was a mystery. He was solid black, his coat fuzzy and wiry, and he moved like he owned the place.

“Hey, Napoleon,” I said.

Napoleon regarded me with solemn dark eyes from his cute gargoyle face. Then he turned around and padded into the hallway.

“A dog guide,” Mad Rogan said.

“Yes. Be careful. Bug likes to string clear fishing line around. If you pull one, bad things will happen.”

“What kind of bad things?” he asked.

“Exploding kind.”

We followed Napoleon through the maze of hallways up to the third floor. A heavy steel door barred our way. I took the Taser out of my backpack.

“No killing.”

“I’ll be on my best behavior,” Mad Rogan assured me.

The door clanged and opened, revealing a room lined with monitors. They sprouted from the walls and ceiling on narrow mounts, like rectangular electronic flowers blooming among vines of cables. In the middle of this digital jungle, in a broken circle of keyboards thrusting from the walls, a man sat on a rotating platform. His clothes, a grimy, dark, long-sleeved T-shirt and a pair of fatigue pants that had seen better days, hung on his slight frame. His disheveled dark hair, dragged rather than brushed from his broad, high forehead, competed with his clothes to see which lasted without washing the longest. A small nose and a small mouth combined with a triangular jaw made his face look top-heavy. His big eyes with brown irises burned with a manic intensity. His hands shook.

“Give it to me.” He jumped off his chair. He was about my height and weighed maybe twenty pounds less. “Give me.”

I raised the Taser. “Work first.”

He bounced in place. “I need it. Give it to me.”

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