“In approximately seventy percent of the cases, magic passes from parent to child without a significant change in power,” Mad Rogan said. “A few descendants, about three to five percent, show a sudden uptick. The rest lose magic with each generation. You can see traces of this pattern within the same family. Even if both parents are Primes, there is usually a variation in power among their children. You asked me once why I was expected to have no more than three children. This is the other reason. If the first child is a Prime, there is a good statistical chance that the second child might not be. Still, most Houses prefer that the head of the House have at least two additional children. You know what they’re called?”
He glanced at me, his face grim. “Backup plan. The Houses war with each other. We don’t always have the best life expectancy. Do you know why Adam was conceived?”
“No.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
“Because Peter, his brother, was a late bloomer. The full extent of his magic didn’t manifest until he was eleven. They thought he was a dud, and that left only Tatyana, his sister, as the Prime of the House. If someone managed to kill her, House Pierce would be without a Prime. So they hurried on with making another baby just in case.”
“This sounds so cynical. And joyless.”
“It often is,” Mad Rogan said. “If the fading magic effect persists over two generations, that particular bloodline becomes a failed vector. Each generation is weaker than the previous one. The Houses fear one thing and one thing only: losing power. If I’m a failed vector, whoever marries me does so knowing her children will be less magically powerful than she is.”
The pieces came together. “Nobody will touch Harper with a ten-foot pole.”
“Exactly. Her grandfather had strong magic, and that afforded her entrance into society. She probably appeared as a fresh, wide-eyed debutante, sure that she would meet the love of her life and marry into a powerful House. Over the years she realized that men date her, f**k her, but always leave her. She’s twenty-nine. By now the bloom has worn off the rose. She knows the facts, she knows a match with any of the Houses is impossible, but she still wants it desperately. She watched her grandfather be a part of the power circle, she watched her parents wield a fraction of that influence, and she’ll do anything to claw her way back to the top. I’m an unmarried male Prime. I’m powerful, handsome, and filthy rich.”
“Also humble and self-deprecating.” I couldn’t help myself.
“That too,” he said without blinking an eye. “She’ll show. She can’t pass on the chance I might get smitten.”
“That’s really sad. I’m really glad I’m not a Prime, because the lot of you are a bunch of sick bastards.”
Mad Rogan gave me an odd look. “Power has a price. We don’t always want it, but we always end up paying. You held power over life and death yesterday. How does it feel?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” I’m not going to have a heart-to-heart with you.
“The first time I killed someone, and I mean an up close, personal kill where I watched the life fade out of his eyes, I waited. I’d read all the books and watched all the movies, and I knew what was supposed to happen. I was supposed to feel sick, throw up, and then deal with it. So I stood there, waiting, and I felt nothing. So I thought, maybe it will happen next time.”
“No,” he said.
“How many people did you kill?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I stopped counting. It was a hard war.”
His words kept rolling around my head. He shared something private and personal with me. He probably wouldn’t understand, but I felt the urge to tell him about it anyway. I had to tell someone.
“It feels like I lost a part of myself,” I said. “There is a big hole inside me, like something has been violently ripped out. I was brushing my teeth today, and I thought of those two men and the woman. They will never brush their teeth. They’ll never go to breakfast. They’ll never say hello to their mother. They won’t get to do any of those simple things. I caused that. I squeezed the trigger. I realize that they were trying to do the same to me, but I feel guilty and I mourn for them and for me. Something is gone from me forever. I want to be whole again, but I know I will never get it back.”
“What happens if instead of Harper we walk into an ambush and someone points a gun at you?” he asked.
“I’ll shoot him,” I said. “It will be bad later, but I’ll deal with it. It would help if I knew why. Why are they willing to kill? What’s so important that Adam will burn a whole office building just to provide a distraction?”
“That’s a good question,” Mad Rogan said.
“All of it—the bank, the office tower, the team of people—it seems too complicated for Adam.” It had been nagging at me ever since I’d seen the team of fake firefighters go into the tower. “He doesn’t like to work. This whole thing is well organized and carefully planned. He doesn’t strike me as a guy who would bother with that much planning.”
Mad Rogan changed lanes with surgical precision. “I learned a long time ago to only employ the best. I choose my people carefully. They’re competent, well trained, and diligent, and right now they are scouring the city. I have considerable resources at my disposal. I have contacts among people who run Houston’s underworld.”
I didn’t want to know how he got them.
“I’m not telling you this to aggrandize myself. I’m establishing the frame of reference. When I want someone found, they are brought to me within hours.” Mad Rogan glanced at me. “I can’t find Adam Pierce.”
For a moment the calm mask slid and I saw straight into him. He wasn’t just frustrated. He was furious.
“He’s moving through the city like a ghost,” Mad Rogan said. “He appears and disappears at will.”
Now I understood why he had zeroed in on me. Everything his people had done failed, and here I was, buying T-shirts for Adam Pierce.
“Do you think he is being cloaked by an illusion mage?” I asked. Really strong illusionists could distort reality.
“Not by one mage. He is being cloaked by a team. Cloaking a moving target takes a coordinated effort and a special training. The team we took down in the tower had that kind of proper training.” Rogan grimaced. “Pierce wouldn’t have connections or the knowledge to put an op of this size together. He doesn’t have the finances, he doesn’t know the right people, and even if he had somehow managed to acquire financial backing and contacts, nobody would take him seriously.”
He was right. “It wouldn’t even occur to Adam. He isn’t a team player. Someone else must be pulling his strings.” Anxiety washed over me. “Who could have that much influence over Adam? His own family can’t control him.”
Mad Rogan’s face turned grim. “I don’t know. Maybe Harper can tell us.”
We rode in silence.
“I want some justification for having ended the lives of these people,” I said quietly. “I want to know why.”
“I promise you, we will find out why,” Mad Rogan said.
I didn’t need my magic to tell me he meant it.
The Houston Galleria was the largest mall in Texas. It had hundreds of stores—Nordstrom, Saks, two separate Macy’s—and an ice rink, open year round. It was built in the late ’60s by Gerald D. Hines, who in turn had gotten the idea from Glenn H. McCarthy, Houston’s legendary wildcatter and oil man, known as Diamond Glenn. Since its opening in 1970, the mall had undergone several expansions. We were heading into the newest wing, Galleria IV.
The mall sprawled before us, two levels of stores, all glass, pale tile, enormous vaulted skylights interrupted by white arches. We strolled through it casually. I’d gone for the jeans and blouse again, and I’d brought along my favorite purse, tan leather, light, small, easy to fit over my shoulder, with a modified front compartment that let me pull out my firearm in a fraction of a second. I was carrying a Kahr PM9. At five and a half inches long, it weighed about a pound with the 6-round magazine. It had no hammer, so it wouldn’t catch as I pulled it out of my modified purse, and it had an external safety selector, which made me feel better. My Plan A for when things went wrong was to run away without shooting anyone. Plan B was to show the gun and make the person back off, in which case the last thing I wanted was an accidental discharge. Only Plan C involved actually firing the firearm, and considering where we were, I would have to be very sure I could pull the trigger without injuring an innocent person.
Mad Rogan strode next to me. He wore a grey suit with a black shirt he’d left unbuttoned at the collar. The clothes he wore were neither elaborate nor showy. They just fit him with tailored precision and were exceptionally well made. We should’ve coordinated better. We didn’t exactly fit together, but the Galleria was home to an odd crowd. Young mothers walked with babies in their strollers, mingling with scene teenagers with blue, purple, and pink hair. In front of us, two middle-aged women in expensive pantsuits, their faces smoothed by illusion magic into near plastic perfection, ducked into a store, narrowly avoiding a collision with a man in a ball cap and paint-smeared shorts.
A young woman passing us glanced at Mad Rogan and slowed down. We kept walking, and I saw her reflection in a mirrored display. She was still looking at him in that appraising female way. A couple of men walked out of the store on the right and paused, giving Mad Rogan the same appreciative look. The younger of the two winked at me.
On second thought, no matter what we wore, people would still notice. Mad Rogan wasn’t the most beautiful man in the Galleria, but that masculine . . . aura? Air? Whatever the heck it was, it rolled off him. It was in the set of his shoulders, in the way he walked, as if there was nothing he couldn’t handle. It was in the slight roughness of his skin. In the hardness in his eyes. In a sea of generic illusion faces, he stood out, and people zeroed in on him.
We passed a gift shop selling bouquets of flowers arranged in crystal vases. The middle bouquets held carnations, big, frilly blossoms with gentle pink in the center and pale, wide borders along the petals’ edges. I loved carnations. They were delicate but surprisingly resilient. When roses withered in the vase, carnations still bloomed. And I loved the scent, the delicate, fresh, slightly spicy fragrance.
“What is it?” Mad Rogan asked.
I realized I had glanced at the flowers for a second too long. “Nothing. I just like carnations.”
The fountain by Nordstrom sat on the first floor, a round basin with plants rising up in a tight arrangement in its center. A ring of white underground lights surrounded the plants, glowing gently under the water. A blond stood next to the fountain. She wore a dress made of intertwining, shimmering dark-purple braids, which formed a complex latticework over her shoulders. I had no idea how she managed to even get into that dress, but I had to give it to her, the woman knew how to pose. She stood relaxed but bending back a little, one foot turned inward and pointing toward the other in that slightly awkward pose fashion magazines liked. The dress fit her like a glove, just a quarter inch too loose to turn from form-fitting to vulgar. Her figure was perfect, her waist slender, her legs tan and toned, her br**sts and butt curvy but not too big. She’d dyed her hair from platinum to soft strawberry blond, and it fell in ringlets over her shoulders. Her makeup was fresh and flawless. Too flawless. Harper had had herself spelled before she came to meet us. Nothing too obvious, but human skin typically had pores.
“How can I make it easier for you to tell if she’s lying?” Mad Rogan asked quietly.
“Yes or no answers are best,” I said.