Chapter Sixteen

I didn't understand that interest could also be hunger. That there were parts of me that were tender and juicy and oh so delicious, and that the world was full of predators who wanted to scoop out those tasty tidbits. No, I didn't understand that.

But my mother did. Be careful, she whispered in my ear. Something's coming. You need to be ready, sweetheart. You need to understand how to see behind the smiles.

What's behind the smiles? I asked her, in my little-child voice. She showed me teeth. Long, sharp, needle-thin teeth, the better to eat you with, my dear.

Don't trust anyone, she hissed. And then she let go, and I fell up into the clouds, and felt myself being stripped raw, pulled apart, burned, broken, destroyed.

See, it was just a dream. Or a memory. Or a nightmare.

Except the parts that actually happened.

Two

The next thing I knew was a rush of cool, sweet air. I convulsively wanted to breathe but I had no lungs, and no body to hold them. Still, part of me knew what to do. I followed the breeze up, out, into the light.

I came out of the perfume vial, which lay on its side on a Chee�tos-dusted coffee table, right next to a much-creased and sticky edition of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. I ghosted up slowly. It felt like I was drugged stupid, unable to will myself to do anything but wait, drifting, for meaning.

Shit. This was so not working out for the best.

"Uhhhh-"

An uncertain human voice. Soft and hesitant as it was, it still echoed through me like a church bell. Something in me went completely still, waiting. I was focused like a predator waiting to pounce.

This felt nothing at all like what had happened between me and Lewis. Nothing at all. It was perfectly horrible.

"Anybody there?" the voice asked. He sounded scared shitless. Good. Welcome to the club, jerk.

"Yes," I said-not that I meant to say anything, I just was compelled to respond. My voice sounded odd, because it was coming from the very thin air I was at the moment. I filed that away for later investigation, when and if I got be scientific about such things. "I'm here."

Oh, God, it was the little bastard who'd beaten Lewis. Lewis . . . God, I'd left him there. How much would he remember? Was he even still alive? Patrick, you bastard. I'd make damn sure somebody paid for this.

Seen close, Psycho Boy didn't look nearly as threatening: a gawky, acne-pocked teenager, all long legs and stick-thin arms, wearing a Metallica T-shirt that had seen too many mosh pits. This pimply kid- she'd called him Kevin, oh God, was I supposed to call him Master?-sat on the edge of an unmade bed and tried to look everywhere at once, eyes darting like crazy but paying particular attention to the corners of the room. He had a lot to look at, and none of it was pretty. The place was like a Dumpster right before pickup day, piled with trash, discarded pizza boxes, old cartons smeared with dried Chinese food. A pile of filthy underwear moldered near the bed. A pinup of a collagen-enhanced, silicone-implanted beauty in a metal bra and thong was pinned crookedly on the ceiling, for maximum viewing in the lying-down position.

Oh, I could already tell this was not going to be pretty. Lewis. God, what happened to Lewis?

Kevin shifted nervously on the bed, which creaked like old joints. "Um ... I command you to appear!" He tried to sound like some medieval wizard, but he came off like a self-conscious bad actor, and blotched bright red over his cheeks and forehead.

And even so, I responded instantly. My body built itself far quicker and better than it had before, all layers simultaneously, and I felt a certain weird cockeyed pride in that, until I looked down at myself.

Oh God.

You already know, right? Of course you do. High-heeled pumps of the come-fuck-me variety. Thigh-high hose fastened with garters. Lacy thong panties under a tiny little black frilly skirt with a white apron. Black corset top, and believe me, I was now filling it. Generously.

I shuddered, looked up and found my reflection staring back at me in the mirror.

Pale skin, fire engine red pouty lips, eyes of an unsettlingly bright shade of silver. I looked like the porn version of Magenta from Rocky Horror.

Kevin looked shocked. Genuinely shocked. Not as much as I felt, though. When I found David again, I was going to ask some very tough questions about the rules of this particular nasty game.

"Mom!" Kevin yelled, and then went pallid as he instantly thought better of that course of action. He dashed to the closed door of the room-decorated with more soft-porn posters-and clicked over two deadbolt locks in fast succession to lock her out. "Uh, never mind, sorry, mistake!"

He turned to face me, back firmly against the door, and I stared at him. Couldn't say anything, really. Couldn't do anything except seethe and wonder what in the hell was happening. She said she wanted David. David had been afraid of that, back at the funeral, I'd sensed it all over him.

Now she had me. Could I warn him away?

I reached for that warm silvery umbilical that stretched into the aetheric, and was relieved to find it still intact. David was still alive, at least, wherever he was and whatever Jonathan had him doing. I tried to send a whisper along the line, but it hit something, some kind of barrier, and died.

When I blinked, I saw a blue coldlight sparkle whirling around me. Oh God. It was not only still there, it was getting worse.

"Who are you?" Kevin asked me, drawing me back to the world. I didn't feel any compulsion to answer, so I didn't. I just stared at him. The silver eyes had to be unnerving-hell, they'd unnerved me in the mirror-so I kept them straight and level, boring a hole into him. He got nervously, self-consciously strident. "Hey. I asked you a question! You have to answer."

No, I didn't. This kid clearly didn't have the rule book memorized, because he'd forgotten all about the Rule of Three, which even I had known before meeting my first Djinn. Ask three times, they answer. Anything they tell you before then, forget it.

We are consummate, conscienceless liars. And from the pure cold fury boiling inside of me, I was starting to think we had an extra helping of psychopath to go along with it.

The cold stare was getting to him, all right. I could see it in the nervous tic developing around his left eye, and the quick movements of his hands as he tried to figure out the best way to lounge and look cool under pressure. He finally settled for slouching with his hands in his pockets and going for a half-lidded, defiant stare back at me.

"Nice outfit," he said. I didn't smile. The little bastard had done this to me, whether he knew it or not; I had a new appreciation for how little I'd changed when Lewis had claimed me. Obviously, what Lewis wanted and what he saw in me were almost the same things-in retrospect, one hell of a compliment. Kevin wanted a living blow-up doll, apparently. The implications of that were not especially comforting.

He looked pouty when I didn't respond. "Fine, be that way, I don't give a crap."

He did, of course. It only took about another thirty seconds to wait him out. I felt like a participant in Short Attention Span Theater.

"Well?" he snapped, and pushed away from the door. Not much, just a couple of inches, but I still didn't like it. Better if I could keep him cowed and thoroughly unnerved, but unfortunately the shock was starting to leave him, and now his voice was taking on an unpleasant whiny overtone. "Don't just stand there like some dumb slut, do something!"

"What would you like me to do?" I asked. I meant it to be sarcastic, but it came out in a sultry, smoky, seductive purr. Gee, wonderful. I had the 1-900 voice to go with the yard sale Frederick's of Hollywood outfit.

Well, one good thing about the voice, it derailed him completely. He was too hornily captivated to realize that he actually could order me to do things. So far.

This was going to take some real juggling skill. Best thing to do was to take the initiative, and since I didn't feel anything stopping me, I took a step toward him. I made sure my new stance had that Xena Warrior Princess bad-ass cachet to it.

"What's your name?" I asked him. He backed up again, lips parted, brown eyes wide and riveted behind the glasses.

"Kevin-Kevin. Kevin Prentiss." He cleared his throat and tried to make it go deeper than its current punk-kid range. "What's yours?"

"What do you want it to be?" Because I wasn't going to have this horny little bastard calling me by my real name. And the twenty questions was a way to waste time.

"Um . . . Honey?"

I lost my sense of humor. "You're kidding."

"No."

"Really."

He hadn't expected resistance. "Um, no?"

"Okay, let me put it this way: You'd better be kidding."

He blinked. "You're arguing with me?"

"Of course not," I purred. I really did. I wasn't trying to purr, it was just the way things were going today. Apparently, my new voice had a built-in seduction filter. "Why would I argue with you?" Always answer a question with a question.

"I don't know, but you shouldn't be arguing with me, you should be-"

"What?" I interrupted, and crossed my arms. It was, not coincidentally, in the classic I Dream of Jeannie pose. Maybe I could change his subconscious wish. Even frothy pink and orange gauze and a blonde horsetail through an organ-grinder-monkey hat would be preferable to slinking around in this outfit.

He licked his lips, watching me. Uh-oh. Not having the desired effect. "You should be obeying me. Like, when I say do something, you should-"

"You haven't told me to do anything yet," I pointed out.

"Well, I would if you'd just-"

"Take your time."

"Let me-"

"Really. Take your time. Think about it. Because you've only got three wishes."

Which was bullshit, but I figured if he didn't understand the Rule of Three, he probably got his entire Djinn education from Saturday morning cartoons anyway. Man, I really wished I had control of my appearance. Even aside from the currently occurring fashion disaster concerns, it would have been great to do that whole Arabian Nights shtick, half-misted. Plus, no teenage boy is going to assume he can screw a girl with mist for legs.

"Just . . . three?" He sounded breathless. Oh boy. Tell me he hadn't worked these out in advance.

It was too late to switch it to one wish. Damn.

He opened his mouth to blurt out something that I just knew was going to involve hot oil and rubber sheets, so I jumped in with, "You really ought to think about it first. It's like making a deal with the devil. There's always some loophole that ends up turning things sour. Like, you say that you want a million dollars. I give you a million dollar life insurance policy and kill you. See?"

He stopped, mouth still open far enough that I could see some cavities forming on his back molars. Then he got a sly, shallow look in those brown eyes, and closed his mouth and smiled.

"You're trying to stall," he said. "You're afraid of me."

Well, yeah. I'd already seen the dark side of Kevin, as he kicked Lewis in the face with every evidence of sociopathic glee. "Am not."

"Are too."

"Not."

"Too."

We both jumped at a sudden rattle of the doorknob. It jiggled back and forth briskly, three times, and went still. An annoyed female voice said, "Kevin? What are you up to in there?"

"Nothing!" His voice went into the boy's choir range and cracked. "Mom, a little privacy?"

It took me a minute, but I placed the voice with the wish-I-could-forget-it memory of Yvette Prentiss dry-humping Lewis just before all of the trouble began. Mom? Well, she'd certainly got started early, if she was old enough to have a son Kevin's age; she didn't look a minute over thirty. Sure, flawless makeup, Botox and lots of spa treatments could work wonders, but not that many.

I suspected she was the trophy stepmother, stuck with the unattractively teenaged son-by-marriage. The father was obviously out of the picture, no doubt dead, and the kid was one of those ugly iron candelabras you get as a Christmas present and don't dare give away because, well, what would people think? Yvette sure hadn't been dragging the anchor that was Kevin around at my funeral. Would have spoiled her perfect image, not to mention harshed her chances for scoring another bad, rich daddy.

Or maybe I was doing her a disservice. Maybe she'd been knocked up at age thirteen, courageously endured the pregnancy, overcome daunting odds to be a good mother to her obnoxious-going-on-creep of a kid. Maybe she was just looking out for the two of them the best way she knew how, using the natural advantages she'd been given.

Uh-huh. And I was Mother Teresa in a Magenta outfit. Riiiiiight. She'd used the kid to commit assault, at the very least. Homicide was certainly still a possibility. God, Lewis . . .

The doorknob rattled again. Loudly. Longly.

"Open up!" Yvette snapped. She didn't sound like a courageous Madonna figure. She sounded like a bitch with a bad attitude. "Right now, Kevin, or I swear . . .!"

"Um, okay, okay, coming-" Kevin threw me a help me! look. I just stared back. He changed his tone to a scared, tense whisper. "Back in the bottle?"

I didn't feel compelled. I just raised my eyebrows and cocked my head to stare harder. His anxiety level shot up another ten levels, and the whisper got even thinner. "Please? Back in the bottle?"

Yvette hit the door. Hard. It rattled on its hinges.

"You're killing me, here, please! Get back in the bottle!"

Whoops. Command mode. I felt myself instantly dissolving into mist, felt that toilet-bowl swirl of the bottle dragging me in, and braced myself for the pain I knew was coming.

Yep, being squeezed like a baby in a birth canal was not my idea of fun, but there I went into the bottle, and I felt the world tilt as Kevin grabbed it up. Seen close through the glass, his fingers were huge and grimy and definitely nothing I ever wanted to have pawing my skin, substantial or insubstantial.

And then he twisted the stopper home.

Lights out.

I dreamed again. I guess that was what Djinn did in bottles . . . dreamed. Sure as hell wasn't anything else to do. To make matters even more strange, this one wasn't even my dream.

It was David's.

He was pacing restlessly in a strange square glass room I didn't recognize, coat swirling like smoke around him from the violence of his turns. His hands were clenched behind his back, and his whole body vibrated with tension. As I watched, his legs began to blur and become mist; he hissed out something in a language I didn't know and exerted a pulse of will that I could feel even in my drifting, dreaming state.

His legs went solid again.

He threw himself violently against the glass, pressing hard, so hard I felt the effort like a distant earthquake. Outside of the glass, there was a giant-sized world, distorted into warped shapes and weird colors. People moving around out there, giant blobs of color and form. One of them caught my attention- neon yellow outfit. Rahel?

David was inside a bottle. Unlike me, he wasn't sealed in, but for some reason he couldn't get out, either.

Where David was pushing, the thick glass vibrated. I felt the energy building in waves as the thick surface began to whipsaw violently, rippling. David pushed harder. The glass bowed out in a bubble, went from clear to milk white, distorted . . .

David collapsed to his knees. The glass snapped back into shape with a ringing, singing pop of energy. Clear and perfect.

"Let me go," he said hoarsely. He was exhausted. Reflected light glittered on his copper-brushed hair, pale gold skin, bright-penny eyes. "Please, let me go to her. You don't know what you're doing."

No sense of arrival, but suddenly Jonathan was sitting in the far corner. He was still dressed in casual human-normal clothes, but there was nothing normal or human about the power behind his eyes, or the cell-deep weariness. He looked infinitely worse than last I'd seen him.

David climbed back to his feet and turned to face him. "I have to go, Jonathan, now."

"You're not going anywhere," Jonathan said. His voice was thin, tired, and hoarse. "This is the only safe place right now. Going out there is useless. And you know I'm right, so don't give me that look."

David's eyebrows knitted together in an angry line. "What look?"

"That look. The you-don't-understand look. Hell, I understand, I've been in love, too. But the survival of the Free Djinn comes first, it has to. We're talking about losing everything. You want to end up dead, or worse?"

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