Chapter Twenty-five

One crisis down. And speaking of Lewis ... I turned back to the building and studied it again, reading energy signatures. Ah. Of course.

"They've got him," I said. "The Wardens. Lewis is in there."

"Yeah, I know." Jonathan crumpled the cup and tried for a three-pointer in a trash can at least twenty feet away. Naturally, he made it. "Considering that he's the only person who ever successfully stole from the Wardens' vault before, I was considering that a point in our favor. That is, if we can trust him."

"Yes." I didn't hesitate. "Look, in all the time I've known him, Lewis has always been about the greater good. It's one of the reasons the Wardens want him so badly. First, he's so damn powerful that he can make things happen on a massive scale; second, they'd just like it a whole lot better if he was somewhere they could control him. Because they can't count on him doing things the way they want him to all the time."

Lewis had never been ambitious, but if he'd wanted to, he could have snapped his fingers and made things happen in the ranks of the Wardens. For one thing, he could do the work of about a hundred of them, all by himself, and do it with compassion and control. Power like that, he didn't need the approval of the Senior Wardens, or the Council, or any damn body. He was of the live-and-let-live school of thought. Too bad the Wardens didn't feel the same way. They'd been afraid of him since the first day they'd realized what he was, and they couldn't be any less worried about him now.

Especially since he was bad-ass enough that he'd voluntarily given up three Djinn, just to make a point.

Something about the pulse and color shift of that brilliant aura I was watching made me remember how I'd last seen him, at Patrick's apartment. "I think he might be hurt," I said. I remembered Kevin kicking him in the head. "Maybe badly hurt." Paul had said as much. Lewis had shown up at his house looking for information about Yvette-he'd remembered enough to know who had me, apparently. That still didn't mean he'd been functioning at peak efficiency. If he'd tangled with Yvette . . .

"Hurt I can fix." Jonathan stretched, working out the kinks, and pulled a dull green baseball cap from his back pocket. He tugged it in place, one hand on the bill, one on the back. "Ready?"

I looked down at myself and changed into business-ready mode. A black peachskin pantsuit was appropriate anywhere, even inside the UN Building. "Do we have a plan?"

"You distract 'em, I get Lewis to open the vault, we boost David's bottle. Outta there."

"Hell of a plan," I commented dryly. It scared the hell out of me, actually.

His eyes were as hard as frozen flint, and the soft evening light did nothing to make him look any less frightening. He looked serious. "It'll do. Move."

We strolled right past security. I was reminded of the Empire State Building, and surprised myself by missing Rahel intensely; I had liked her. A lot. And it's my fault she's . . . What? Gone? Dead? Discorporated? The Djinn Formerly Known As . . . ? I remembered her skin sloughing away, and couldn't control a sick tremor. The coldlight was intense now, up in the aetheric. Like a constant blizzard. Any Djinn- except, presumably, me or David-who went up there was doomed. Even Jonathan.

The Wardens Association floor required a card key for the elevator, which I didn't have, but it didn't seem to be any big deal for Jonathan; he just put his finger over the slot and got the green light and a lit-up button. The elevator was showing its age, and the trip was slower than usual. We didn't talk, just waited in that pocket-universe silence that people inhabit in elevators, until the door chimed and rolled back on a long, straight hallway lit with featureless pale squares of indirect lighting.

The Hall of Fame. Important-looking heavy plaques recognizing Wardens for achievement above and beyond. They stretched in a row all the way to the end, most of them black-bordered to indicate posthumous awards. The place smelled of artificial vanilla, wood, and the faintest hint of flop sweat; it was a bad day at the office for everyone there. Except the Earth Wardens, presumably, who at least had the comfort of knowing Hollywood wasn't going to become a new coral reef.

The place was buzzing with activity. From a human perspective, it looked like any other busy New York office-smartly dressed people walking with purpose from one room to another, talking tensely to each other or cell phones, carrying reams of paper or folders or computers. No Djinn in attendance. I could see why, as I walked through the halls and dodged around unwary staffers; I was trailing blue glitter like Pinocchio's fairy.

It came to me finally that I was alone. I looked back, but Jonathan had vanished. Poof. Apparently that was part of the plan I wasn't privy to, up front.

I paused in the doorway of a huge round conference room and saw close to twenty of the most powerful Wardens in the world clustered there while a War Room map showed detailed schematics of weather patterns, real-time satellite imagery, infrared scans of the planet's surface to pinpoint hot spots. Yellowstone looked like a whiteout, but it wasn't the only one; there were fires raging in India, in Africa, and in Chile.

Paul Giancarlo was there, looking tired and stressed; he was arguing softly with somebody I didn't recognize, gesturing at the weather map and the Doppler radar display. From the hand gestures, I figured he was talking about the massive potential for hail. He was right, if that was where he was going; I could sense the ice forming up in the highest levels of the atmosphere, thick and gray and heavy. Freight-train winds intercepted the ice on the way down, added moisture, tossed it back up to freeze again.

New York City was going to be pelted with a disaster of biblical proportions. This would make baseball-sized hail look like Styrofoam. I had power, but not much, and certainly not enough to disrupt a process with this kind of momentum behind it. There were thirty or forty Wardens still working on it, I sensed. But none of them had Djinn.

And none of them were going to be able to stop it. Not singly, not collectively. It was simply too big, and had too much control of its own destiny. Lewis could stop it, but even then, it would be a tough battle.

Paul's eyes swept over me without pausing as he turned away from the heated debate; his weightlifter-dense muscles were tensed under the soft cotton of his shirt. His tie was loose, his sleeves rolled up. I could feel the anger coming off of him, the metal-sharp smell of sweat.

He knew they were losing.

I wanted to say something to him, anything, but I didn't have the time and it was too much of a risk. I backed out of the doorway and continued down the hall.

Sandwiched between the main conference room and a smaller one just as frantically occupied was a recessed alcove with a bubbling fountain and a whole lot of names inscribed in marble.

The roll of the dead. I paused for a few seconds to look over the names.

Yes, at the bottom, sharp and new-cut: Robert Biringanine. Estrella Almondovar. Joanne Baldwin. There was something really final about seeing that. What was the old saying? It was set in stone. In a way, it was even more final than a coffin.

"Move," a voice at my side whispered. I looked up to find that Jonathan had popped back out of whatever hole he'd gone into; he tugged my elbow in a way that definitely discouraged memory-laning. I walked with him down to the end, where the hallway split off into a T-intersection. We had to dodge an oblivious gopher with two overfull cups of coffee and a wildly scared look in his eyes; trainee, I judged, who was probably going to be begging for an assignment somewhere safe and peaceful, like Omaha, when this was all over. The building seemed to shudder underfoot, and I heard glass rattling in the windows.

The storm was starting to roll in.

"Can't hold it," Jonathan said. His lips were tense, white rimmed, and set in a straight hard line. "Faster we can do this, the better for everybody."

As if to underscore the point, thunder boomed outside, unbelievably loud. This monster had come roaring in fast-too fast for natural forces to be the only thing going on. The blue sparklies were busy little critters.

In Oversight, just about every doorway glowed, due to the accretion of years of Wardens working here. Some were flickering madly, like magic lanterns in a high wind. One near the middle glowed especially brightly, and the power spilling out had a dense, almost gravitational feel to it.

Definitely Lewis, behind that door. I waited for Jonathan to make the next move, but he just put a hand on my arm and pulled me out of the way of another fast-moving clique of Wardens rushing to do damage control. Some of them looked white faced, on the very edge of panic. The pallid smell of L'Air du Temps mingled with the sharp organic aroma of fear.

Distraction, Jonathan said. Keep them looking at you. Do whatever you have to, but keep their attention for at least five minutes. That should give me enough time to get Lewis and get to the vault.

I nodded and opened the door. In the space of three seconds, I moderated my eyes to a demure dove gray, and replaced my black conservative pant-suit with my distraction outfit.

Thank you, Kevin Prentiss, for being such an inspirational little jerk.

French Maid outfit, a handful of colorful balloons, Shirley Temple hair, and a big fake smile. I strolled into the room and found it was an infirmary, full of sterile white room dividers and one occupied bed at the far end, with three people clustered around it.

My high heels clopped loudly on the linoleum, and one of the people leaned out of the range of the curtains to take a look. He stopped, did a double take, and gave me the full-body X-ray scan. A middle-aged man, definitely not immune to the outfit.

"Hi!" I said brightly. "I'm here to deliver a birthday wish-"

"What the hell?" Another man popped out, this one white coated and with a disapproving frown that said doctor. I didn't know him, but then I'd never spent any time in this particular part of the Association. "How'd you get in here?"

I smiled at him and launched into a rousing rendition of Marilyn Monroe's version of "Happy Birthday," complete with the appropriate wiggles and breathy laughs, cozying up to the first man. He looked appreciative, if a little dazed. The doctor just looked apoplectic, and started to turn away to duck back behind the curtains.

I grabbed him and sat him down in a chair, straddled him, and began to do my very best impersonation of a lap dancer. Doctor he might be, but he was definitely a guy. And he was finding it hard to keep professional detachment in the face of my, ah, assets.

I finally attracted the attention of the third person, female, who resembled Nurse Ratched but had a far more generous sense of humor. She had a malicious glint in her eye that convinced me the doctor wasn't the most popular of all the guys on staff.

I presented the doc with the balloons and gave him a big lipstick-heavy kiss.

"Not my birthday," he finally managed to rumble. "Ahem."

I stretched it as long as I could, then gave him another kiss, waved good-bye to the audience, and got a weak-wristed wave from the Warden, nothing from the woman, who was still laughing too hard. I clopped out again, swinging the big bow on the back of the apron with as much vigor as possible to hold their attention.

As soon as the door clicked shut, I misted away. I hadn't seen or felt Jonathan taking Lewis out; I just had to hope he'd managed it. I sped down the hall, past the fountain and my memorial inscription, past all of the heavy weight of the past, hit the floor running in my black pantsuit and conservatively straight hair. I wasn't trying to hide now, and startled staffers moved out of my way. "Hold the elevator!" I yelled, and slid in behind two Wardens in suits and red power ties. We all exchanged weary smiles. I pushed the button for the ground floor.

Nothing happened. No lights. Crap. I didn't have a badge. The security not only wouldn't let me on the floor without a card key, it wouldn't let me off, either. I patted my pockets, looked bothered, and one of the nice gentlemen-neither of whom was heading to the ground-badged for me and pressed the button.

Nice people make things so much easier.

We stopped on the thirty-seventh floor, let one guy out, and were on the way back down again when the elevator shuddered to a sudden, teeth-rattling halt.

"What the-" the remaining Warden said, frowning, and pushed buttons.

A recessed speaker came alive in the wall. "The building is now under a security alert. Please be patient. The elevators will restart momentarily."

He slumped against the wall. "Great. Again."

"Happens a lot?" I asked.

He nodded, gave me a sideways look, and then a full smile, with teeth. "Sign of the times, you know how it is. So. Visiting?"

"From Iowa," I said. "Des Moines office."

"Not a great time to be here, huh? What with the weather."

"Yeah, I thought it looked bad. Actually, I'm Earth, so any storm looks bad to me," I said, and returned the smile tooth for tooth. "You know, Earth . . . corn, peas, wheat . . . breadbasket of the USA?"

"Huh. Would have taken you for a weather girl. Stormy eyes." Ah, romantic weather talk. In the old days, it might have even gotten him somewhere. "My name's Ron."

I said the first thing that popped into my head. "Gidget."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Whoa." Ron had dark thick hair, cut short, and eyes of no particularly interesting shade, but he knew how to focus. "You in for meetings?"

"Actually, just finished. I'm on my way to the airport." Lying wasn't just fun, it was a way to lay false trails. With any luck, they'd be chasing an Earth Warden named Gidget all the way to Des Moines for the next few hours. "They're sending me out to the fire. Maybe I can do some good with animal rescue."

Ron looked dubious. "I wouldn't be trying to go anywhere, in weather like this. I'd just stick around, if I were you. We have a pretty secure storm facility. It doubles as a nuclear shelter, so I'm assuming it'll hold off a tornado if it has to."

"Tornado?" I repeated, and tried to look like a dumb Iowan girl. "You're kidding, right?"

"There's a lot of disturbance in the aetheric. You didn't know?"

"Well, sure. I just figured it was-" I made a vague gesture. Let him fill in the rest.

"Ah. Yeah. You must've heard we caught him." When I stared at him, unmoving, he added the rest. "You know. Lewis. Lewis Orwell?"

"Really?" I tried to sound impressed, and not ready to backhand him into next week for the way-too-satisfied tone he was taking. "Was he here in the city?"

"Close by. New Jersey, as it turned out. All these years, looking for him, and he was right across the state line. Funny how things turn out." Ron nodded sagaciously. "They think he's behind this stuff."

"What?" I didn't have to feign shock on that one.

"Sure. You think it's an accident that they get their hands on him, and all hell breaks loose on not one but three fronts? They've got the West Coast problem under control, but we're going to take a real beating from this storm. Not to mention those poor bastards out in Yellowstone." He leaned closer. "They think he might have some kind of Demon Mark. Anyway, they're getting Marion Bearheart in here. I figure they're going to try to, you know-" He made a yanking-up-by-the-roots gesture. I literally staggered, caught by sick surprise.

"They're going to neuter him?"

He looked surprised at my reaction. "Well, not . . . actually ... I meant they were going to, you know, close off his connections. Make sure he couldn't do something like this again."

I'd known perfectly well what he'd meant. Neutering was the right word for it. Castration. Ripping out the heart and soul of who he was. It was as horribly malicious as throwing acid on the Mona Lisa-Lewis was a treasure, a once-in-a-thousand-years goddamn gift.

They could not do this to him. I wouldn't let them.

I forced a smile. "You're on Marion's staff?"

"Afraid so." Ron tried for a sheepish little-boy cute look. It almost worked. "I'm just in training, though. No way they'd let me even in the same room for a procedure like that. They're waiting for at least four other Senior Wardens before they even try anything."

I smiled, nodded, and wished to hell that the elevator would start. Not that I couldn't mist out and get away, but I couldn't do it with Ron staring at me, not if I wanted to have any kind of chance for a clean escape. God, Jonathan, you'd better have him. I'd tear this building down one steel I beam at a time if I had to, to make sure that they didn't carry through on their threats.

No wonder Lewis had been so paranoid all these years, running for his life. I'd have been catatonic, if I'd known what was waiting for me back here among my so-called peers.

Just as I was starting to wonder whether to seduce Ron or knock him out, the elevator jerked again and started sliding down. Fast. A red light on the panel read security lockdown.

"They're sending us to the ground floor," Ron said. "Looks like they'll be searching everybody."

"Fun." I rocked back and forth on my low-heeled shoes, ready for fight or flight, but when the elevator doors opened a navy sports coat type with the UN emblem over his vest pocket waved me impatiently out, along with Ron. I followed his pointing finger. It looked like a mob scene, which was great for fading away. You're never more alone than in a crowd of strangers. All Wardens, even better.

"Hey!" Ron was trying to keep up with me as I slipped between people, heading for the sealed and guarded exits. "Um, Gidget! Wait up!"

I stepped behind two particularly bulky women who looked like they might have been part of a Russian delegation, and disappeared.

Jonathan? I sent silently. No answer. Earth to Jonathan! Dammit, you'd better be there!

Crap. Getting Lewis out of here without taking him through the aetheric was going to be next to impossible, but we had to find a way. We couldn't chance leaving him here.

I waved my hand through the air and watched it collect an insubstantial weight of blue fairy dust. I crushed it into nothing, but that didn't matter; it was a constant blizzard even here. The aetheric would be choked with it. No. We couldn't leave that way.

I caught sight of a familiar face in the crowd, and went cold. Marion Bearheart was here-had just made it in before the lockdown, by the look of it. Her brown suede jacket was spattered with dark drops, and water caught the light in tiny glints in her gray-and-black hair. She looked grim and haunted, arms folded over her chest. She was listening to an earnest stream of dialogue from Martin Oliver, who even now looked like the nattiest, most in-control man on the face of the world. He wasn't in control of much, today, but I still wouldn't have wanted to cross him. He reminded me of somebody ... Ashan, Jonathan's chief rival back in the Djinn bubble. The same kind of severe, uncompromising confidence, and a kind of elegant, almost sexual grace.

I remembered, out of nowhere, a conversation I'd had back in college about a man I'd been thinking of dating. Describe him, my best friend had said. I'd giggled and said, He's sweet. And she'd looked at me very seriously, taken my hands, and said, Corazon, sweet men are only sexy until you realize that they're too weak to hurt you. I hadn't agreed with her-still didn't, in some ways-but there was no denying that dangerous men had a visceral attraction.

The woman who'd said that was on the Wardens' wall of the dead. Like me. I hadn't even had time to mourn her. I didn't even really know if I should, and that was the worst of it.

Marion's cool, strong gaze swept my direction. I quickly put out the don't-notice-me vibe. She scanned right past me, frowned, and turned to someone at her elbow. I focused on her lips. She was asking if he sensed anything strange. He shook his head, but she didn't look convinced.

Man, we needed to get the hell out of here. And I needed to get down to the vault.

A huge, rolling crash of thunder like the world's largest pane of glass dropped from ten thousand feet made everybody in the room flinch and duck. Most clapped hands over their ears. Some, like Marion, turned toward the big picture windows, and the sharp white crack of lightning lit up their strained faces.

I heard the dull thump of the first of the hail hitting the street outside. Ice exploded like a bomb, scattering frozen white shrapnel for twenty feet. Before the debris had rolled to a stop, another piece of football-sized hail crashed down onto the roof of a yellow cab speeding by. It ripped a hole right through the steel.

The storm had shaken loose of any semblance of control, and now it had a target: the only people who had a hope in hell of stopping it.

Us.

I felt it drawing in, focusing around the building, and it was a sense so suffocatingly strong that I wanted to gag. Even as a Djinn, this was oppressive; I couldn't imagine what it would feel like to a Warden. I didn't need to imagine it, actually, all I had to do was look around. They were scared. Scared out of their minds.

"Down to the shelter!" That was Martin Oliver, who'd climbed on top of the security desk to address the crowd of several hundred milling around the lobby. "Everybody! Quickly!" Even now, he looked controlled and calm. No wonder he was the guy in charge.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***