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Plagued by a war between magic and technology, Atlanta has never been so deadly. Good thing Kate Daniels is on the job.
Kate Daniels may have quit the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, but she's still knee-deep in paranormal problems. Or she would be if she could get someone to hire her. Starting her own business has been more challenging than she thought it would be-now that the Order is disparaging her good name. Plus, many potential clients are afraid of getting on the bad side of the Beast Lord, who just happens to be Kate's mate.
So when Atlanta's premier Master of the Dead calls to ask for help with a vampire on the loose, Kate leaps at the chance of some paying work. But it turns out that this is not an isolated incident. Kate needs to get to the bottom of it-and fast, or the city and everyone dear to her may pay the ultimate price...
The ringing of the phone jerked me from my sleep. I clawed my eyes open and rolled off my bed. For some reason, someone had moved the floor several feet lower than I had expected, and I fell and crashed with a thud.
A blond head popped over the side of the bed and a familiar male voice asked, "Are you okay down there?"
Curran. The Beast Lord was in my bed. No, wait a minute, I didn't have a bed, because my insane aunt had destroyed my apartment. I was mated to the Beast Lord, which meant I was in the Keep, in Curran's rooms and in his bed. Our bed. Which was four feet high. Right.
"Would you like me to install one of those child playground slides for you?"
I flipped him off and picked up the phone. "Yes?"
"Good morning, Consort," a female voice said.
Consort? That was new. Usually the shapeshifters called me Alpha or Lady, and occasionally Mate. Being called Mate ranked somewhere between drinking sour milk and getting a root canal on my list of Things I Hated, so most people had learned to avoid that one.
"I have Assistant Principal Parker on the line. He says it's urgent."
Julie. "I'll take it."
Julie was my ward. Nine months ago she "hired" me to find her missing mother. We found her mother's body instead, being eaten by Celtic sea demons who had decided to pop up in the middle of Atlanta and resurrect a wannabe god. It didn't go well for the demons. It didn't go well for Julie either, and I took her in, the way Greg, my now deceased guardian, had taken me in years ago, when my father passed away.
People around me died, usually in horrible and bloody ways, so I'd sent Julie to the best boarding school I could find. Trouble was, Julie hated the school with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. She'd run away three times in the past six months. The last time Assistant Principal Parker called, a girl in the school's locker room had accused Julie of being a whore during the two years she'd spent on the street. My kid took exception to that and decided to communicate that by applying a chair to the offending party's head. I'd told her to go for the gut next time—it left less evidence.
If Parker was calling, Julie was in trouble again, and since he was calling at six o'clock in the morning, that trouble had a capital T attached to it. Julie rarely did anything halfway.
Around me the room lay steeped in gloom. We were on the top floor of the Keep. To my left a window offered a view of the Pack land: an endless dark sky, still untouched by dawn, and below it dark woods rolling into the night. In the distance the half-ruined city stained the horizon. The magic was in full swing—we were lucky it hadn't taken out the phone lines—and the distant industrial-strength feylanterns glowed like tiny blue stars among the crumbling buildings. A ward shielded the window, and when the moonlight hit it just right, the entire scene shimmered with pale silver, as if hidden behind a translucent gauzy curtain.
The female voice came back online. "Consort?"
"He put me on hold."
"So he calls because it's urgent and puts you on hold?"
"Should I hang up?" she asked.
"No, it's okay. I'll hold."
The world's pulse skipped a beat. The ward guarding the window vanished. Something buzzed in the wall and the electric floor lamp on the left blinked and snapped into life, illuminating the night table with a warm yellow glow. I reached over and turned it off.
In the distance, the blue feylantern stars winked out of existence. For a breath, the city was dark. A bright flash sparked with white among the ruins, blossoming into an explosion of light and fire. A moment later a thunderclap rolled through the night. Probably a transponder exploding after the magic wave receded. A weak red glow illuminated the horizon. You'd think it was the sunrise, but the last time I'd checked, the sun rose in the east, not the southwest. I squinted at the red light. Yep, Atlanta was burning. Again.
Magic had drained from the world and technology had once again gained the upper hand. People called it the post-Shift resonance. Magic came and went as it pleased, flooding the world like a tsunami, dragging bizarre monsters into our reality, stalling engines, jamming guns, eating tall buildings, and vanishing again without warning. Nobody knew when it would assault us or how long each wave would last. Eventually magic would win this war, but for now technology was putting up a hell of a fight, and we were stuck in the middle of the chaos, struggling to rebuild a half-ruined world according to new rules.
The phone clicked and Parker's baritone filled my ear. "Good morning, Ms. Daniels. I'm calling to inform you that Julie has left our premises."
Curran's arms closed around me and he hugged me to him. I leaned back against him. "How?"
"She mailed herself."
Parker cleared his throat. "As you know, all of our students are required to perform two hours of school service a day. Julie worked in the mail room. We viewed it as the best location, because she was under near-constant supervision and had no opportunities to leave the building. Apparently, she obtained a large crate, falsified a shipping label, and mailed herself inside it."
Curran chuckled into my ear.
I turned and bumped my head against his chest a few times. It was the nearest hard surface.
"We found the crate near the ley line."
Well, at least she was smart enough to get out of the crate before it was pushed into the magic current. With my luck, she'd end up getting shipped to Cape Horn.
"She'll come back here," I said. "I'll bring her back in a couple of days."
Parker pronounced the words very carefully. "That won't be necessary."
"What do you mean, not necessary?"
He sighed. "Ms. Daniels, we are educators. We're not prison guards. In the past school year Julie has run away three times. She's a very intelligent child, very inventive, and it's painfully obvious that she doesn't want to be here. Nothing short of shackling her to the wall will keep her on our premises, and I'm not convinced that even that would work. I spoke to her after her previous caper, and it's my opinion that she will continue to run away. She doesn't want to be a part of this school. Keeping her here against her will requires a significant expenditure of our resources, and we can't afford to be held liable for any injuries Julie may incur in these escape attempts. We're refunding the remainder of her tuition. I'm very sorry."
If I could reach through the phone, I'd strangle him. On second thought, if I had that type of psychic power, I might pluck Julie from wherever she was instead and drop her in the middle of the room. She would be begging to go back to that bloody school by the time I was done.
Parker cleared his throat again. "I have a list of alternative educational institutions I can recommend to you…"
"That won't be necessary." I hung up. I had a list of alternative educational institutions already. I had put it together after Julie's first escape. She shot all of them down.
A wide grin split Curran's face.
"It's not funny."
"It's very funny. Besides, it's better this way."
I swiped my jeans off the chair and pulled them on. "They kicked my kid out of their school. How the hell is that better?"
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to find Julie and I'll ground her ass until she forgets what the sun looks like, and then I'll go over to that school and pull their legs out."
"It's not funny."
"It's also not their fault. They tried to help her and cut her a lot of slack. She hates that damn school. You shouldn't have put her there in the first place."
"Well, thank you, Your Furriness, for this critique of my parenting decisions."
"It's not a critique, it's a statement of fact. Do you know where your kid is right now? No, you don't. You know where she isn't: she isn't at the school and she isn't here."
Pot, meet kettle. "As I recall, you didn't know where your chief of security and his entire crew were for almost a week." I pulled on my turtleneck.
"I knew exactly where they were. They were with you. I could've fixed that situation, but some wannabe pit fighter stuck her nose into my mess and made a mistake into a disaster."
I picked up my sword. "No, I saved the day. You just don't want to admit it."
Curran leaned forward. "Kate."
The sound of my name in his voice stopped me in midturn. I don't know how the hell he did it, but whenever he said my name, it cut through all other distractions and made me pause, as if he'd clenched me to him and kissed me.
Curran rubbed my shoulders. "Put the sword down for a second."
Fine. I put Slayer back on the night table and crossed my arms.
"Humor me. What's the harm in keeping Julie here? With us? She has a room already. She has a friend—Doolittle's grandniece really likes her."
"Yes, Maddie. There are fifteen hundred shapeshifters in the Pack. One more screwed-up kid isn't going to break anything."
"It's not about that."
"Then what is it?"
"People around me die, Curran. They drop like flies. I've gone through life leaving a trail of dead bodies behind me. My mother is dead, my stepfather is dead, my guardian is dead, my aunt is dead—because I killed her, and when my real father finds me, he'll move heaven and earth to make me dead. I don't want Julie to live stumbling from one violent clash to another, always worried that people she cares about won't survive. You and I will never have normal, but if she stayed in that school, she could have."
Curran shrugged. "The only people who can have normal are the ones unaffected by all the fucked-up shit that happens around them. Julie doesn't want normal. She probably can't deal with it. She'll get out of that school and run right into the fire to prove to herself she can take the heat. It will happen one way or another. Keeping her away just ensures she won't be prepared when she's on her own."
I leaned back against the night table. "I just want her to be safe. I don't want anything bad to happen to her."
Curran pulled me close. "We can keep her safe here. She can go to one of our schools, or we can take her to somewhere in the city. She is yours, but now that we're mated, she's also mine, which makes her the ward of the Beast Lord and his mate. Trust me, nobody wants to piss the two of us off. Besides, we have three hundred shapeshifters in the Keep at any moment, and each one of them will kill anything that threatens her. Can't get safer than that."
He had a point. I couldn't have Julie staying with me before, when I lived in a shabby apartment with failing heat. It got attacked every time I found a lead on one of my cases. I'd worked for the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid back then, and it demanded every ounce of my time. Julie would have been on her own for most of the day, without me to take care of her and make sure she ate and stayed safe. Things were different now. Now Julie could stay here, in the Keep full of homicidal maniacs who grew teeth the size of switchblades and erupted into a violent frenzy when threatened.
Somehow that thought failed to make me feel better.
"You will have to train her one way or another," Curran said. "If you want her to hold her own."
He was right. I knew he was right, but I still didn't like it. "We're about a hundred miles from Macon?"
He nodded. "Give or take."
"She'll be staying away from the ley line and she's carrying wolfsbane."
"Why?" Curran frowned.
"Because the last time she took off, Derek picked her up at a ley point and brought her here in a Pack Jeep. He even stopped to get her some fried chicken and ice cream. She had a great time, so I told her that if she pulled this stunt again, she wouldn't get anywhere near the Keep. I would either come myself or send somebody who would find her and take her straight back to the school. No going to the Keep, no getting attention from me and Derek, no gossiping with Maddie, no passing go or collecting two hundred dollars. She wants to avoid being caught, so she's walking home."
Curran grinned. "She's determined, I'll give her that."
"Could you send a tracker out there to watch over her but keep out of sight?"
"What are you thinking?"
"Let her walk. A hundred miles over rugged terrain, it will take her a couple of days." When I was a kid, Voron, my stepfather, would drive me into the woods and drop me off with nothing but a canteen and a knife. Julie wasn't me. But she was a smart kid, good on the street. I had no doubt she could make it to the Keep on her own. Still, better safe than sorry.
"Two birds with one stone: it's a good punishment for running away and when she gets here and we let her stay, she'll feel like she earned it."
"I'll send some wolves out. They'll find her and they'll keep her safe."
I kissed his lips and picked up my sword. "Thank you. And tell them not to spoil her with fried chicken if they have to pick her up."
Curran shook his head. "I can't promise that. I'm not a complete bastard."
My office occupied a small sturdy building on Jeremiah Street, in the northeast part of town. Jeremiah Street used to be called North Arcadia Street, until one day a Southern preacher walked out in the middle of the intersection of North Arcadia and Ponce de Leon and started screaming about hellfire and damnation. He called himself the second Jeremiah and demanded that the passersby repent and cease their idol worship. When the crowd ignored him, he unleashed a meteor shower that leveled two city blocks. By the time a Paranormal Activity Division sniper shot him with a crossbow, the street was a smoking ruin. Since they had to rebuild it from the ground up, they renamed the street after the man who'd demolished it. There was a lesson in there somewhere, but right now I didn't feel like looking for it.
Once technically part of Decatur and now just part of the huge sprawling mess that was Atlanta, Jeremiah Street wasn't as busy as Ponce de Leon, but tinker shops and a large auto repair yard sent a lot of traffic past my place. I left my Jeep idling in the street, got out, unlocked the chain that secured my parking lot, and drove in.
My office must've been a house at one point. The side door from the parking lot led into a small but functional kitchen, which in turn led to the large main room, where my desk waited for me. At the back wall wooden stairs offered access to the loft on the second floor complete with a cot. Several smaller rooms branched from the main room. I used them to store my herbal supply and equipment, both of which currently excelled at collecting dust.
I deposited my bag onto my desk and checked my answering machine. A big red zero looked back at me from the digital display. No messages. Shocking.
I walked to the windows and pulled up the shades. Morning light flooded the room, sectioned by the thick metal bars securing the glass. I unlocked the door on the off chance any prospective clients happened by. It was a huge door, thick and reinforced with steel. I had a feeling that if someone fired a cannon at it, the cannon ball would just bounce off and roll down the street.
I went back to the kitchen, flipped the coffeemaker on, came back to my desk, and landed in my chair. A stack of bills lay in front of me. I gave it an evil eye, but it refused to squeal and take off for the hills.
I sighed, pulled a throwing knife out, and opened the cheap brown envelopes. Electric bill. Water bill. Charged-air bill for the feylanterns. Trash collector bill with a threatening notice to do irreparable harm to my person unless I paid the bill. An envelope from the trash collector with the check for the bill returned. The trash company insisted on misspelling my name as Donovan, despite repeated corrections, and when I sent them the payment, they failed to find my account. Even though I put the account number on the damn check.
We'd gone through this song and dance twice now. I had a feeling that if I walked into their office and carved my name in the wall with my sword, they'd still manage to get it wrong.
I leaned back. Being in the office put me into a sour mood. I'd never had my own business before. I'd worked for a Mercenary Guild, which handled magic hazmat, took the money, and asked no questions. Then I'd worked for the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, which delivered that violent aid on their terms only. The Order and I had parted ways, and now I owned Cutting Edge Investigations. The business officially opened its doors a month ago. I had a solid street reputation and decent connections. I took out an ad in a newspaper, I put the word out on the street, and so far nobody had hired me to do a damn thing.
It drove me nuts. I'd had to rely on the Pack to finance the business, and they had fronted my utility bills for a year. They gave me the loan not because I was an efficient and skilled fighter and not because I at one point had Friend of the Pack status. They gave it to me because I was mated to Curran, which made me the female alpha of the Pack. So far Cutting Edge was turning out to be one of those pet businesses rich men gave to their wives to keep them busy. I wanted it to succeed, God damn it. I wanted to be profitable and stand on my own two feet. If things kept going this way, I would be forced to run up and down the street screaming, "We kill things for money." Maybe someone would take pity and throw some change at me.
The phone rang. I stared at it. You never know. It could be a trick.
The phone rang again. I picked it up. "Cutting Edge."
"Kate," a dry voice vibrated with urgency.
Long time no kill. "Hello, Ghastek." And what would Atlanta's premier Master of the Dead want with me?
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