Some easy job this turned out to be. At least I didn’t have to go to the hospital. I grimaced. The welt decided it didn’t like me grimacing. Ow.
The Baylor Investigative Agency started as a family business. We still were a family business. Technically we were owned by someone else now, but they mostly left us alone to run our affairs as we saw fit. We had only three rules. Rule #1: we stayed bought. Once a client hired us, we were loyal to the client. Rule #2: we didn’t break the law. It was a good rule. It kept us out of jail and safe from litigation. And Rule #3, the most important one of all: at the end of the day we still had to be able to look our reflections in the eye. I filed today under Rule #3 day. Maybe I was crazy and John Rutger would’ve taken his wife home and begged her forgiveness on bended knee. But at the end of the day, I had no regrets, and I didn’t have to worry about whether I did the right thing and whether Liz’s two children would ever see their mother again.
Their father was a different story, but he was no longer my problem. He made that mess all on his own.
I cleared the evening traffic on I-290, heading northwest, and turned south. A few minutes later I pulled up in front of our warehouse. Bern’s beat-up black Civic sat in the parking lot, next to Mom’s blue Honda Element. Oh good. Everyone was home.
I parked, went to the door, and punched the code into the security system. The door clicked open, then I let myself in and paused for a second to hear the reassuring clang of the lock sliding home behind me.
When you entered the warehouse from this door, it looked just like an office. We built walls, installed some glass panels, and laid down high-traffic beige carpet. That gave us three office rooms on the left side and a break room and large conference room on the right. The drop ceiling completed the illusion.
I stepped into my office, put the purse and the camera on the desk, and sat in my chair. I really should do a write-up, but I didn’t feel like it. I’d do it later.
The office was soundproof. Around me everything was quiet. A familiar, faint scent of grapefruit oil in the oil warmer floated to me. The oils were my favorite little luxury. I inhaled the fragrance. I was home.
I survived. Had I hit my head on the wall when Rutger had thrown me, I could’ve died today. Right now I could be dead instead of sitting here in my office, twenty feet from my home. My mom could be in the morgue, identifying me on a slab. My heart pounded in my chest. Nausea crept up, squeezing my throat. I leaned forward and concentrated on breathing. Deep, calm breaths. I just had to let myself work through it.
In and out. In and out.
Slowly the anxiety receded.
In and out.
I got up, crossed the office to the break room, opened the door in the back, and stepped into the warehouse. A luxuriously wide hallway stretched left and right, its sealed concrete floor reflecting the light softly. Above me thirty-foot ceilings soared. After we had to sell the house and move into the warehouse, Mom and Dad considered making the inside look just like a real house. Instead we ended up building one large wall separating this section of the warehouse—our living space—from Grandma’s garage so we didn’t have to heat or air-condition the entire twenty-two thousand square feet of the warehouse. The rest of the walls had occurred organically, which was a gentle euphemism for We put them up as needed with whatever material was handy.
If Mom saw me, I wouldn’t get away without a thorough medical exam. All I wanted to do was take a shower and eat some food. This time of the day she was usually with Grandma, helping her work. If I was really quiet, I could just sneak into my room. I padded down the hallway. Think sneaky thoughts . . . Be invisible . . . Hopefully, nothing attention-attracting was going on.
“I’ll kill you!” a familiar high voice howled from the right.
Damn it. Arabella, of course. My youngest sister was in rare form, judging by the pitch.
“That’s real mature!” And that was Catalina, the seventeen-year-old. Two years older than Arabella and eight years younger than me.
I had to break this up before Mom came over to investigate. I sped down the hallway toward the media room.
“At least I’m not a dumb ho who has no friends!”
“At least I’m not fat!”
“At least I am not ugly!”
Neither of them was fat, ugly, or promiscuous. They both were complete drama queens, and if I didn’t break this party up fast, Mom would be on us in seconds.
“I hate you!”
I walked into the media room. Catalina, thin and dark-haired, stood on the right, her arms crossed over her chest. On the left Bern very carefully restrained blond Arabella by holding her by her waist above the floor. Arabella was really strong, but Bern had wrestled through high school and went to a judo club twice a week. Now nineteen and still growing, he stood an inch over six feet tall and weighed about two hundred pounds, most of it powerful, supple muscle. Holding a hundred-pound Arabella wasn’t a problem.
“Let me go!” Arabella snarled.
“Think about what you’re doing,” Bern said, his deep voice patient. “We agreed—no violence.”
“What is it this time?” I asked.
Catalina stabbed her finger in Arabella’s direction. “She never put the cap on my liquid foundation. Now it’s dried out!”
Figured. They never fought about anything important. They never stole from each other, they never tried to sabotage each other’s relationships, and if anyone dared to look at one of them the wrong way, the other one would be the first to charge to her sister’s defense. But if one of them took the other’s hairbrush and didn’t clean it, it was World War III.
“That’s not true . . .” Arabella froze. “Neva, what happened to your face?”
Everything stopped. Then everyone said something at once, really loud.
“Shush! Calm down; it’s cosmetic. I just need a shower. Also, stop fighting. If you don’t, Mom will come here and I don’t want her to—”
“To what?” Mom walked through the door, limping a little. Her leg was bothering her again. Of average height, she used to be lean and muscular, but the injury had grounded her. She was softer now, with a rounder face. She had dark eyes like me, but her hair was chestnut brown.
Grandma Frida followed, about my height, thin, with a halo of platinum curls stained with machine grease. The familiar, comforting smell of engine oil, rubber, and gunpowder spread through the room. Grandma Frida saw me and her blue eyes got really big. Oh no.
“Penelope, why is the baby hurt?”
The best defense is vigorous offense. “I’m not a baby. I’m twenty-five years old.” I was Grandma’s first grandchild. If she lived until I turned fifty, with grandchildren of my own, I’d still be “the baby.”
“How did this happen?” Mom asked.
Damn it. “Magic blast wave, wall, and a chair.”
“Blast wave?” Bern asked.
“The Rutger case.”
“I thought he was a dud.”
I shook my head. “Enerkinetic magic. He was a vet.”
Bern’s face fell. He frowned and marched out of the room.
“Arabella, get the first-aid kit,” Mom said. “Nevada, lie down. You may have a concussion.”
Arabella took off running.
“It’s not that bad! I don’t have a concussion.”
My mother turned and looked at me. I knew that look. That was the Sgt. Baylor look. There was no escape.
“Did paramedics look at you at the scene?”
“What did they say?”
There was no point in lying. “They said I should go to the hospital just in case.”
My mother pinned me down with her stare. “Did you?”
I sighed and surrendered to my fate.
The next morning I sat in the media room, eating the crepes and sausages Mom made for me. My neck still hurt. My side hurt worse.
Mom sat at the other end of the sectional, sipping her coffee and working on Arabella’s hair. Apparently the latest fashion among high schoolers involved elaborate braids, and Arabella had somehow cajoled Mom into helping her.
On the left side of the screen, a female news anchor with impossibly perfect hair profiled the recent arson at First National, while the right side of the screen showed a tornado of fire engulfing the building. The orange flames billowed out the windows.
“It’s awful,” Mom said.
“Did anybody die?” I asked.
“A security guard. His wife and their two children came by to drop off his dinner and were also burned, but they survived. Apparently Adam Pierce was involved.”
Everyone in Houston knew who Adam Pierce was. Magic users were segregated into five ranks: Minor, Average, Notable, Significant, and Prime. Born with a rare pyrokinetic talent, Pierce had Stainless Steel classification. A pyrokinetic was considered Average if he could melt a cubic foot of ice under a minute. In the same amount of time, Adam Pierce could conjure a fire that would melt a cubic foot of stainless steel. That made Pierce a Prime, the highest rank of magic user. Everybody wanted him—the military, Home Defense, and the private sector.
A wealthy, established family, the Pierces owned Firebug, Inc., the leading provider of industrial forging products. Adam, handsome and magically spectacular, was the pride and joy of House Pierce. He’d grown up wrapped in tender luxury, had gone to all the right schools, had worn all the right clothes, and his future had had golden sparkles all over it. He’d been a rising star and the most eligible bachelor. Then, at the ripe age of twenty-two, he’d given them all the finger, declared himself a radical, and gone off to start a motorcycle gang.
Since then Pierce had been popping up in the news for one thing or another, usually involving cops, crime, and antiestablishment declarations. The media loved him, because his name brought ratings.
As if on cue, Pierce’s portrait filled the right side of the screen. He wore his trademark black jeans and unzipped black leather jacket over bare, muscled chest. A Celtic knot-work tattoo covered his left pectoral, and a snarling panther with horns decorated the right side of his six-pack. Longish brown hair spilled over his beautiful face, highlighting the world’s best cheekbones and a perfect jaw with just the right amount of stubble to add some scruff. If you cleaned him up, he would look almost angelic. As is, he was a tarnished poseur angel, his wings artfully singed with the perfect camera shot in mind.
I’d seen my share of real biker gangsters. Not the weekend bikers, who were doctors and lawyers in real life, but the real deal, the ones who lived on the road. They were hard, not too well kept, and their eyes were made of lead. Pierce was more like the leading man playing a badass in an action movie. Lucky for him, he could make his own background of billowing flames.
“Hot!” Arabella said.
“Stop it,” Mom told her.
Grandma Frida walked into the room. “Ooh, here is my boy.”
“Mother,” Mom growled.
“What? I can’t help it. It’s the devil eyes.”
Pierce did have devil eyes. Deep and dark, the rich brown of coffee grinds, they were unpredictable and full of crazy. He was very nice to look at, but all of the images of him looked staged. He always seemed to know where the camera was. And if I ever saw him in person, I’d run the other way like my back was on fire. If I hesitated, it would be.
“He killed a man,” Mom said.
“He was framed,” Grandma Frida said.
“You don’t even know the story,” Mom said.
Grandma shrugged. “Framed. A man that pretty can’t be a murderer.”
Mother stared at her.
“Penelope, I’m seventy-two years old. You let me enjoy my fantasy.”
“Go Grandma.” Arabella pumped her fist in the air.
“If you insist on being Grandma’s little stooge, she can do your hair,” Mom said.