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Audrey Callahan left behind her life in the Edge, and she's determined to stay on the straight and narrow. But when her brother gets into hot water, the former thief takes on one last heist and finds herself matching wits with a jack of all trades...
Kaldar Mar-a gambler, lawyer, thief, and spy-expects his latest assignment tracking down a stolen item to be a piece of cake, until Audrey shows up. But when the item falls into the hands of a lethal criminal, Kaldar realizes that in order to finish the job, he's going to need Audrey's help...
If she had only one word to describe Dominic Milano, it would be unflappable, Audrey Callahan reflected. Stocky, hard, balding—he looked like he had just walked out of Central Casting after successfully landing the role of “bulldog–jawed older detective.” He owned Milano Investigations, and under his supervision, the firm ran like clockwork. No emergency rattled Dominic. He never raised his voice. Nothing knocked him off his stride. Before moving to the Pacific Northwest, he’d retired from the Miami Police Department with over a thousand homicide cases under his belt. He’d been there and done that, so nothing surprised him.
That was why watching his furry eyebrows creep up on his forehead was so satisfying.
Dominic plucked the top photograph from the stack on his desk. On it, Spenser “Spense” Bailey jogged down the street. The next shot showed Spense bending over. The next one caught him in a classic baseball–pitch pose, right leg raised, leaning back, a tennis ball in his fingers. Which would be fine and dandy, except that according to his doctor, Spense suffered from a herniated disk in his spine. He was restocking a warehouse when a walk–behind forklift got away from him, and the accident caused him constant, excruciating pain. He could frequently be seen limping around the neighborhood with a cane or a walker. He needed help to get into a car, and he couldn’t drive because the injured disk pinched the nerve in his right leg.
Dominic glanced at Audrey. “These are great. We’ve been following this guy for weeks, and nothing. How did you get these?”
“A very short tennis skirt. He hobbles past a tennis court every Tuesday and Thursday on the way to his physical–therapy sessions.” The hardest part was hitting the ball so it would fly over the tall fence. A loud gasp and a run with an extra bounce in her step, and she had him. “Keep looking. It gets better.”
Dominic flipped through the stack. The next photo showed Spense with a goofy grin on his face carrying two cups of coffee, maneuvering between tables at Starbucks with the grace of a deer.
“You bought him coffee?” Dominic’s eyebrows crawled a little higher.
“Of course not. He bought me coffee. And a fruit salad.” Audrey grinned.
“You really enjoy doing this, don’t you?” Dominic reflected.
She nodded. “He’s a liar and a cheat, who’s been out of work for months on the company’s dime.” And he thought he was so smart. He was practically begging to be cut down to size, and she had just the right pruning shears. Chop–chop.
Dominic moved the coffee picture aside and stopped. “Is this what I think this is?”
The next image showed Spense grasping a man in a warm–up suit from behind and tossing him backward over his head onto a mat.
“That would be Spense demonstrating a German suplex for me.” Audrey gave him a bright smile. “Apparently he’s an amateur MMA fighter. He goes to do his physical therapy on the first floor, and, after the session is over, he walks up the stairs to spar.”
Dominic put his hands together and sighed.
Something was wrong. She leaned back. “Suddenly you don’t seem happy.”
Dominic grimaced. “I look at you, and I’m confused. People who do the best in our line of work are unremarkable. They look just like anyone else, and they’re easily forgettable, so suspects don’t pay attention to them. They have some law–enforcement experience, usually at least some college. You’re too pretty, your hair is too red, your eyes are too big, you laugh too loud, and, according to your transcripts, you barely graduated from high school.”
Warning sirens wailed in her head. Dominic required proof of high–school graduation before employment, so she brought him both her diploma and her senior–year transcript. For some reason, he had bothered to pull her file and review the contents. Her driver’s license was first–rate because it was real. Her birth certificate and her high–school record would pass a cursory inspection, but if he dug any deeper, he’d find smoke. And if he took her fingerprints, he would find criminal records in two states.
Audrey kept the smile firmly in place. “I can’t help having big eyes.”
Dominic sighed again. “Here’s the deal: I hire freelancers to save money. My full–time guys are experienced and educated, which means I have to pay them a decent wage for their time. Unless there is serious money involved, I can’t afford for them to sit on a tough suspect for months, waiting for him to slip up. They get four weeks to crack a case. After that, I have to outsource this kind of stuff to freelancers like you because I can pay you per job. An average freelancer might close one case every couple of months. It’s a good part–time gig for most people.”
He was telling her things she already knew. Nothing to do but nod.
“You’ve been freelancing for me for five months. You closed fourteen cases. That’s a case every two weeks. You made twenty grand.” Dominic fixed her with his unblinking stare. “I can’t afford to keep you on as a freelancer.”
What? “I made you money!”
He held up his hand. “You’re too expensive, Audrey. The only way this professional relationship is going to survive is if you come to work for me full–time.”
“I’ll start you off at thirty grand a year with benefits. Here’s the paperwork.” Dominic handed her a manila envelope. “If you decide to take me up on it, I’ll see you Monday.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“You do that.”
Audrey swiped the file. Her grifter instincts said, “Play it cool,” but then, she didn’t have to con people anymore. Not those who hired her, anyway. “Thank you. Thank you so much. This means the world to me.”
“Everybody needs a chance, Audrey. You earned yours. We’d be glad to have you.” Dominic extended his hand over the table. She shook it and left the office.
A real job. With benefits. Holy crap.
She took the stairs, jogging down the steps to burn off some excitement. A real job being one of the good guys. How about that?
If her parents ever found out, they would flip.
Audrey drove down Rough Ocean Road away from Olympia. Her blue Honda powered on through the gray drizzle that steadily soaked the west side of Cascades. A thick blanket of dense clouds smothered the sky, turning the early evening gloomy and dark. Trees flanked the road: majestic Douglas firs with long emerald needles; black cottonwoods, tall and lean, catching the rain with large branches; red alders with silver–gray bark that almost glowed in the dusk.
A mile and a half ahead, a lonely subdivision of identical houses waited, cradled in the fold of the hill; meanwhile, the road was empty. Nothing but the trees.
Audrey glanced at the clock. Thirty–two minutes so far, not counting the time it took her to stop at a convenience store to get some teriyaki jerky for Ling and the time she spent driving around to different pharmacies. Getting to work would mean an actual commute.
She loved the job with Milano’s investigative agency. She loved every moment of it, from quietly hiding in a car to watch a suspect to running a con on the conmen. They thought they were slick. They didn’t know what slick was.
To be fair, most of the suspects she ran across were conmen of opportunity. They got hurt on the job and liked the disability, or they got tangled in an affair and were too afraid or too arrogant to tell their spouses. They didn’t see what they were doing as a con. They viewed it as a little white lie, the easiest path out of a tough situation. Most of them went about their deceptions in amateur ways. Audrey had been running cons since she could talk. It wasn’t a fair fight, but then, in the world of grifters, “fair” had no meaning.
Ahead, the road forked. The main street rolled right, up the hill, toward the subdivision, while the smaller road branched left, ducking under the canopy of trees. Audrey checked the rearview mirror. The ribbon of pavement behind her stretched into the distance, deserted. The coast was clear.
She smoothly made the turn onto the smaller road and braced herself. Panic punched her in the stomach, right in the solar plexus. Audrey gasped. The world swirled in a dizzying rush, and she let go of the wheel for a second to keep from wrenching the vehicle off the pavement. Pain followed, sharp, prickling every inch of her skin with red–hot needles, and although Audrey had expected it, the ache still caught her by surprise. Pressure squeezed her, then, just like that, all discomfort vanished. She had passed through the boundary.
A warm feeling spread through Audrey, flowing from her chest all the way to her fingertips. She smiled and snapped her fingers. With a warm tingle, tendrils of green glow swirled around her hand. Magic. Also known as flash. She let it die and kept driving.
Back on the main road, in the city of Olympia, in the State of Washington, magic didn’t exist. People who lived there tried to pretend that it did. They flirted with the idea of psychics and street magicians, but they had never encountered the real thing. Most of them wouldn’t even see the side road she took. For them it simply wasn’t there—the woods continued uninterrupted. Every time Audrey crossed into their world, the boundary stripped her magic from her in a rush of pain. That’s why people like her called that place the Broken—when you passed into it, you gave up a part of yourself, and it left you feeling incomplete. Broken like a clock with a missing gear.
Far ahead, past mountains and miles of rough terrain, another world waited, a mirror to the Broken, full of magic but light on technology. Well, not exactly true, Audrey reflected. The Weird had plenty of complex technology, but it had evolved in a different direction. Most of it functioned with the aid of magic. In the Weird, the power of your magic and the color of your flash determined the course of your life. The brighter you flashed, the better. If you flashed white, you could rub elbows with bluebloods, the Weird’s aristocratic families.
The Weird, like the Broken, was a place of rules and laws. That’s why Audrey preferred to live here, in the no–man’s land between the two dimensions. The locals called it the Edge, and they were right. It was on the edge of both worlds, a place without countries or cops, where the castoffs like her washed ashore. Connecting the two dimensions like a secret overpass, the Edge took everyone. Swindlers, thieves, crazed separatists, clannish families, all were welcome, all were dirt–poor, and all kept to themselves. The Edgers gave no quarter and expected no sympathy.
The road turned to dirt. The trees had changed, too. Ancient spruces spread broad branches from massive buttressed trunks, their limbs dripping with long emerald green beards of tangled moss. Towering narrow hemlocks thrust into the sky, their roots cushioned in ferns. Blue haze clung to narrow spaces between the trunks, hiding otherworldly things with glowing eyes who prowled in search of prey.
As Audrey drove through, bright yellow blossoms of Edger primrose sensed the vibration of the car and snapped open with faint puffs of luminescent pollen. By day the flowers stayed closed and harmless. At night, it was a different story. Take a couple of puffs in your face, and pretty soon you’d forget where you were or why you were here. A couple of weeks ago, Rook, one of the local Edger idiots, got drunk and fell asleep near a patch of them. They found him two days later, sitting up on a tree stump butt naked and covered in ants. This was an old forest, nourished by magic. It didn’t suffer fools, gladly or otherwise.
She steered her Honda up the narrow road, past her driveway, forcing it to climb higher and higher up the mountain. A shadow loomed ahead, blocking the way. She flicked on her brights. An old pine had fallen across the road. She’d have to hoof it to Gnome’s house. The road was muddy with recent rain, and she had new shoes on. Oh well. Shoes could be cleaned.
Audrey parked, pulled the emergency brake as high as it would go, swiped the plastic bags off the seat, and climbed out. Mud squished under the soles of her shoes. She climbed over the tree and trudged up the narrow road, following it all the way up to the top of the mountain. By the time she made it to the clearing, the sky had grown dim. Gnome’s house, a large two–story jumble of weird rooms sticking out at random angles, was all but lost in the gloom.
He was inside. He had to be—his old beat–up Chevy sat on the left side of the house, and Gnome rarely left the top of the mountain anyway. Audrey walked up to the door and tried the handle. Locked. She put her hand to the keyhole and pushed. The magic slid from her fingers in translucent currents of pale green and wove together, sliding into the keyhole. That old ornery knucklehead would probably kill her for this. The lock clicked. Audrey eased the door open smoothly, making sure it didn’t creak, more out of habit than real need.
Flash was a pure expression of one’s magic. But most people born with it had a talent or two hidden up their sleeve. Some Edgers were cursers, some foretold the future. She opened doors.
Audrey passed through the narrow hallway into the main room, sectioned off by tall shelves filled with Gnome’s knickknacks and merchandise. Being a local fence, he had enough inventory to put Costco to shame. He also functioned as an emergency general store. If Edgers needed deodorant or soap in a hurry and didn’t want to drive all the way across the boundary, they stopped at Gnome’s. And ended up paying ten bucks for a tube of toothpaste.
A fit of wet, hoarse coughing came from deeper within the house. Audrey slipped between the shelves, like a silent shadow, and finally stepped out into the clear space in the middle of the room.
Gnome, a huge bear of a man, sat slumped over in his stuffed chair, an open book on a desk in front of him and a shotgun by his chair. Flushed skin, tangled hair, feverish eyes, all hunkered down in a blanket. He looked like a mess.
“There you are.”
He peered at her with watering, bloodshot eyes. “What the hell are you—” Another fit of coughing shook his large frame.
“That sounds awful.”
“What are you—” Gnome sneezed.
“I brought you goodies.” She pulled a box of decongestant pills out of the bag and put it on the desk. “Look, I’ve got canned chicken soup, Theraflu, and here are some cough drops, and here is a box of Puffs tissues with lotion, so you don’t scrub all of the skin off that big beak of yours.”
He stared at her, speechless. Now that was something. If she had a camera, she should take a picture.
“And this here, this is good stuff.” Audrey tapped the plastic cup of Magic Vaporizer. “I had to hunt it down—they don’t make it as much anymore, so I could only get a generic version. Look, you boil some water and put these drops in here and inhale—clears your nose right up. I’ll fix you one, then you can yell at me.”
Five minutes later, she presented him with a steaming vaporizer and made him breathe it in. One, two, three . . .
Gnome sucked in his first breath. “Christ.”
“Told you.” Audrey set a hot bowl of chicken soup on his desk. “Works wonders.”
“How did you know I was sick?”
“Patricia came down the mountain yesterday and we ran into each other at the main road. She said you had a cold and mentioned that you undercharged her for the lanterns by twenty bucks.”
Audrey smiled. “That’s how I knew it was bad. Besides, I was tired of hearing you hack and cough all night. The sound rolls down the mountain, you know. You’re keeping Ling awake.”
“You can’t hear me all the way down there.”
“That’s what you think. Take this generic or Theraflu before bed. Either will knock you out. The red pills are daytime.”
Gnome gave her a suspicious look. “How much is all this gonna cost me?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Gnome shrugged his heavy shoulders and put a spoonful of soup into his mouth. “This doesn’t mean you’re getting a discount.”
Audrey heaved a mock sigh. “Oh well. I guess I’ll have to ply you with sexual favors then.”
Gnome choked on the soup. “I’m old enough to be your grandfather!”
Audrey winked at him, gathering the empty bags. “But you’re not.”
“Get out of here, you and your craziness.”
“Okay, okay, I’m going.” He was fun to tease, and she was in such a good mood.
“What is with you anyway?” he asked. “Why are you grinning?”
“I’ve got a job. With benefits.”
“Well, congratulations,” Gnome said. “Now go on. I’m sick of looking at your face.”
“I’ll see you later.”
She left the house and slogged her way through the mud down to her car. Gnome was a gruff old bear, but he was kind in his own way. Besides, he was the only neighbor she had within two miles. Nobody was around to help them. Either they took care of each other, or they toughed it out on their own.
Backing the Honda down the mountain in the gloom turned out to be harder than Audrey thought. She finally steered the vehicle to the fork where the narrow road leading to her place split off and took the turn. Thick roots burrowed under the road, and her Honda rolled over the bulges, careening and swaying, until it finally popped out into the clearing. On the right, the ground dropped off sharply, plunging down the side of the mountain. On the left, a squat, pale building sat in the shadow of an old spruce. It was a simple structure—a huge stone block of a roof resting on sturdy stone columns that guarded the wooden walls of the house within like the bars of a stone cage. Each three–foot–wide column bore a carving: dragons and men caught in the heat of a battle. A wide bas–relief decorated the roof as well, showing a woman in a chariot pulled by birds with snake heads. The woman gazed down on the slaughter like a goddess from Heaven.
Nobody knew who had built the ruins or why. They dotted that part of the Edge, a tower here, a temple there, gutted by time and elements and covered with moss. The Edgers, being poor and thrifty, knew better than to let them go to waste. They built wooden walls inside the stone frameworks, put in indoor plumbing and electricity illegally siphoned from the neighboring city or provided by generators, and moved right in. If any archaic gods took offense, they had yet to do anything about it.
Audrey parked the car under an ancient scarred maple and turned off the engine. Home, sweet home.
A ball of gray fur dropped off the maple branch and landed on her hood.
Audrey jumped in her seat. Jesus.
The raccoon danced up and down on the hood, chittering in outrage, bright eyes glowing with orange like two bloody moons.
“Ling the Merciless! You get off my car this instant!”
The raccoon spun in place, her gray fur standing on end, put her hand–paws on the windshield, and tried to bite the glass.
“What is it with you?” Audrey popped the car door open.
Ling scurried off the car and leaped into her lap, squirming and coughing. Audrey glanced up. The curtains on her kitchen window were parted slightly. A hair–thin line of bright yellow light spilled through the gap.
Somebody was in her house.
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