“No, thank you.” One learned very quickly to never eat or drink in the house of a magic user you didn’t know. I didn’t relish sprouting feathers or being turned into a goat.
We sat at the breakfast table. I set my digital recorder on the table, pushed the record button, and said, “Thursday, October twenty-fourth, interview with Cornelius Harrison.”
Cornelius regarded me. He had smart eyes, calm and sardonic. I focused.
“For the record,” he said, “I don’t really want to answer your questions, but I fought with Christina Pierce before, and I have no desire to repeat the experience.”
I waited for my magic to click. It didn’t come. Cornelius was telling the truth. No love lost between him and Adam Pierce’s mother. I made a mental note in case I’d need it later.
“How long have you known Adam?”
“Since we were very young children,” Cornelius said. “Four or five.”
True. “Are you his friend?”
Cornelius laughed quietly, a humorless, dry sound. “Are you a member of House Pierce?”
“No,” I said.
“So you’re hired help?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Are you doing this job under duress?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
Cornelius smiled. “Because nobody in their right mind would go after Adam unless they had no choice. Also because that’s the way House Pierce operates. They use both carrot and stick at the same time. You’re hired help, and I assume at some point you will be paid. I was hired help, but I received no compensation. Quite the opposite. My mother and Christina Pierce went to college together. At some point it was decided that Adam needed a boyhood companion.” He sank an ocean of sarcasm into those two words. “I was volunteered for the job. Nobody asked me or Adam if we were happy with the arrangement.”
“Were you happy with it?”
Cornelius leaned forward a little and said, pronouncing the word with crisp exactness, “No.”
True. “Why not?”
“Because I had the designated role of Adam’s keeper, even though we were roughly the same age. I was the ugly friend who makes a woman look better at a party: less powerful, less wealthy, less significant. When Adam got in trouble, I was supposed to step forward and take the responsibility for the act. Except Adam reveled in rubbing people’s noses in things he did. If he broke something, he would step forward and claim it like it was some worthy deed. Then I received the lion’s share of the punishment because I ‘failed to help him make good choices.’ This arrangement continued until college, where he and I finally went our separate ways. I do not count Adam among my friends. He is somebody I used to know.”
“And yet you posted his bail six times.”
Cornelius sighed. “After college I took some steps to separate myself from my family. I love them, but they tend to use me, and I’ve decided I don’t like being used. When my grandfather died, he left some money to me, which I used to purchase this house. For my sister, this would be a spare residence, one of several. For me and my wife, this is our home. This will likely be the only house we have, and we plan to pass it on to our children.”
His voice told me he was proud of it. He probably thought his house was modest. To me it was a palace. It was all in the frame of reference.
“I took steps to become largely independent of my family,” he continued. “However, at the time of Adam’s first arrest, his mother was in a position to influence my wife’s employment. I was given funds and asked to post his bail.”
“Why go through the trouble? Why didn’t House Pierce bail him out?”
“Because he publicly turned his back on them.” Cornelius grimaced. “His bad boy image would take an unrecoverable hit if it became known that his mommy and daddy put up the money to spring him out of jail.”
“But you, being the ‘boyhood’ companion, were safe.”
This was beginning to look like a dead end.
A hint of movement on the stairs made me turn. A Himalayan cat, its fur cream and chocolate, ran down the stairs, followed by a raccoon and a white ferret.
“Excuse me,” Cornelius said.
The three animals ran to his feet and sat, staring at him.
“I take it Matilda is awake.”
Three heads bobbed in unison.
Cornelius rose, took a sippy cup with a bright red top out of the refrigerator, and washed it under the faucet. The raccoon stood up on her hind legs. Cornelius held the cup out.
“Take the juice to her and entertain her until I come up.”
The raccoon took the juice into her dark paws and ran up the stairs on her hind legs. The cat and the ferret followed.
“You are an animal mage.” They were so rare that I’d only met one before.
“Yes. I’m not a Prime, so you shouldn’t worry about me summoning a pack of wild wolves to rip you to shreds.”
“Why did you wash the cup?”
“Because if I don’t, Edwina will wash it for me. It’s instinct, and she can’t help it. Unfortunately, she can’t distinguish between the water from the sink and the water from the toilet, as both smell clean to her. Are we finished?”
“Just a few basic questions. Do you know where Adam Pierce is?”
True. “Do you have a way to contact him?”
“Does he have any friends or acquaintances with whom he keeps in touch?”
“Not from his old life. I’m his only link. He wasn’t unpopular—he was too handsome and wealthy—but he didn’t form any lasting friendships.”
“Do you have any information that could help me find him?”
“Direct factual information, no. But I can tell you that Christina would never allow her golden boy to suffer discomfort. One way or another, she is supporting him somehow. My advice is to follow the money.”
“End of interview.” I turned off the recorder and pulled out my business card. “Thank you so much, Mr. Harrison. If you happen to speak with Adam Pierce, please give him my number. He allegedly murdered a police officer. His family is worried about him, and I’m his best chance at surviving this mess.”
“You’re not going to ask me if I think he did it?” Cornelius asked.
“Honestly, I don’t care. My job isn’t to prove that he’s innocent. I just have to bring him in in one piece.”
“Very well.” He walked me to the door, opened it, and hesitated. “Ms. Baylor, if you speak to House Pierce, they will claim that Adam was an exemplary human being until he went to college, where he somehow got all these radical ideas into his head. They have most people convinced of it.”
He cleared his throat. “Our elementary school was less than five blocks from my house. When we were in third grade, we were given permission to walk home, with our bodyguard following us at a discreet distance. We would stop at a shop on the way. The first three times we did, Adam stole. Nothing much, a candy bar, a drink. He wasn’t subtle about it. He just took it and walked out of the store, as if he was proud of the act. The fourth time, a relative of the owner grabbed his hand and took the candy bar away from him. Adam burned him. He burned him so badly that by the time the bodyguard got there, the man’s skin had bubbled on his face. I still remember the smell. This acrid, terrible stench of human flesh cooking. House Pierce tried to say that Adam was a child who was completely terrified and lashed out on instinct. They threw enough money at the family, and the whole matter was swept under the rug. But I was there, and I saw his face. Adam wasn’t scared. He was furious. He was punishing the man because he dared to prevent him from stealing.”
Cornelius leaned toward me slightly, his eyes serious. “He would’ve burned that man to death over a candy bar. Adam takes what he wants, and if you tell him no, he will hurt you. That’s the kind of person you’re dealing with. I won’t say good luck, but take care.”
By the time I left Cornelius’ modest palace, the sun had rolled close to the horizon. I sat in my car for a while and surfed the net. A quick search of my inbox revealed no new developments, but a search of motorcycle-related businesses within Houston city limits led me to Gustave’s Custom Cycles. The picture of the business looked a lot like the backdrop in Pierce’s Twitter shot. Gustave’s Custom Cycles was clear across town. By the time I got there, it would be close to getting dark.
Let’s see what was around there . . . Steel Steed Bar and Grill on one side of the shop, Rattlesnake Body Art on the other. If the bikers had a mall, this would be it. That meant that Gustave’s shop was open after dark and would have a steady stream of customers and visitors who came there to be social. If I went there now, I’d have an audience. They all knew each other and I would be coming in as an outsider, asking them to rat out someone they considered a friend. I could talk to the same guys one on one at their jobs during the day and they would be polite and calm. But get them all together, let them soak in a couple of beers, and group machismo kicked in. They would look for trouble, and if trouble walked in in the shape of a young woman with uncomfortable questions, they would rise to the challenge. Best-case scenario, they would catcall and posture and run me off. Worst-case scenario, someone would get hurt. There was no need for that. I could just as readily speak to the owner of Gustave’s tomorrow morning, bright and early, when everyone would be sober.
I started the engine and went home. Adam Pierce had evaded capture for twenty-four hours. He would have to evade it until morning.
The traffic was murder. Unlike predictions of weather men and market analysts, Houston’s world-famous traffic was 100 percent reliable—it never failed to show up and clog the roads. I drove through it, inching forward and avoiding drivers who barreled into the seemingly solid wall of cars as they switched lanes, and thought about Adam Pierce. He hadn’t turned himself in. Nothing on the Twitter feed. Bern was scouring the Internet for any hint of him and Gavin Waller, and Bern was exceptional at what he did. So far he had turned up nothing.
Why torch the bank? Was it a bungled robbery attempt? It wasn’t a political statement, otherwise Adam would’ve left some sort of loud declaratory message. Up yours, oppressors, or something along those lines. Was it a drunken prank that got out of hand? What was Gavin’s role in all of it? I really hoped the boy would come out of this alive, if not for him, then for his mother’s sake. Kelly Waller’s financial record showed a life of sacrifice for her children. Whatever Gavin’s sins were, Adam Pierce was older than he was by almost ten years. He was the ringleader.
How the hell was I going to convince Pierce to come in? John Rutger was nowhere near a Prime, and he’d tossed me against a wall. Too bad I couldn’t spit fire. Wait, that wouldn’t really help me. Too bad I couldn’t spit ice? Theoretically, if you did spit ice, you wouldn’t be able to spit much. A human body held only so much water. Now if I could summon binding chains . . . Pierce would probably melt them. Would molten metal burn him if he was the one who melted it?
Mad Rogan’s image popped into my head. There was something about those blue eyes looking into the camera. Not exactly sadness, but a kind of self-awareness, underscored by a slightly bitter smile. Almost as if he knew he was a human hurricane and regretted it, but he wouldn’t stop. I was probably reading too much into it. How in the world did they contain him in the military? I’d seen firsthand the damage that war did to people. If a Prime snapped, hundreds of soldiers would die.
Forty-five minutes later, when I finally pulled in front of the warehouse, I was tired of the question marks and thinking in circles. And I was really hungry. The moment I stepped into the hallway, the scent of freshly baked biscuits, barbecue sauce, and spicy meat swirled around me. Cinnamon, garlic, cumin . . . mmmm. I pulled my shoes off and let the scent carry me into the kitchen. A note and two plates with pulled pork and biscuits waited for me on the island. The note said, “Nevada, I called it an early night. Help yourself and please take a plate to your grandmother or she’ll forget to eat again.”