Gargoyle Lane was a cesspool of dirty magic, of murderers, and criminals. The street was about a mile long, every corner and crevice of it up to no good. The only thing we knew for sure about it was that it was growing. It had been a narrow lane about a block long when it started. Over the years, the dark epicenter of the city began to feed it and it grew. Dangerous things hid here that ate other dangerous things that hid here.
Something howled in the distance as I stepped out of the car. We were at the very edge of Gargoyle Lane. Beyond us, it sprawled for what seemed like miles of desolate city landscape.
Before me, there was a concrete barrier, about fifteen feet high with concertina wire lining it. The government had tried to isolate the growing cesspool of darkness that was Gargoyle Lane when it first sprouted, but it hadn’t done much good.
I swallowed, my eyes falling on the six-foot hole in the wall that was about two feet in width at its widest point. Something big had made that hole once upon a time, but the knowledge of who or what was lost inside the darkness now. The hole was just big enough for one person to enter at a time, making it a perfect ambush spot.
And many times, I’d been ambushed there. None of it had stuck, though.
Harrison had gotten out of the car as well, silently regarding the same hole in the wall next to me and coming to the same conclusion I did. “You shouldn’t go in there without backup.”
“You keep thinking the monsters in there will get me,” I said. I snorted softly. “Trust me. I’ll be fine.” I rubbed my wrists, the binding magic underneath my skin licking against my fingertips. Harrison didn’t need to know that he had a monster of his very own on a leash, one that was worse than ninety percent of the monsters that lived in that place. “I’ll be back soon. Don’t leave without me.”
“Perish the thought.”
“Sarcasm doesn’t suit you, Ian,” I replied. His eyebrow rose. “We need to work on your sense of humor.”
“My sense of humor is fine. It’s my annoyance with you that’s the problem.”
I chuckled and walked to the wall, slipping into the darkness through the small hole.
Despite what it looked like from the outside, Gargoyle Lane wasn’t completely dark. Magic lanterns hung every few feet, creating pockets of dim blue light. I wasn’t sure how long we’d been at the Assembly Hall, but it was long enough for the sun to have set.
“Hey, pretty lady.” I whirled around as a man started walking toward me, his swagger evident in each step. “You alone?”
“No. You’re here.” I smiled at him, but it was the sweet promise of violence that coated my lips. I knew his kind of monster. I’d seen it before. And I knew how to deal with it.
“Lucky me,” he replied, clearly not seeing the signs of danger as I tensed. I rolled my neck, feeling the light pops. “Want to play?”
“I’m not what you think I am. You need to move along, little buddy,” I warned. The little buddy might have been a bit much. His face hardened, his dark eyes casing over me like I was food he desperately craved.
He didn’t take the hint.
Well, I tried.
He stalked me, his thumb pressing against a switchblade in his hand. The blade shot out of its shell as he depressed the button. Then he ran the blade along his forearm, blood welling up along the cut. Magic cut through the air as he prepared a spell.
Fuck. A blood mage. Just frigging great.
“I really don’t have time for your games, bud,” I said. I drew a glyph with one hand and pinched the spell tightly, holding it in place.
He rolled his head from side to side as the magic in his blood lifted into the air. “Oh, baby, you’re going to love what I do to you.”
“You want money? Do you see my clothes? I don’t have anything to give you.” That much was true. I’d been out of prison for a little less than five hours. I didn’t even have an ID card yet, much less a credit card or cash. That was part of the purpose of me even being here in the first place.
“I’ll look for myself, if you don’t mind.”
I sighed, resigning to the fight as he waved his hand through the magic he was manipulating. His blood curled into the air from his arm, forming sharp ends as they crystallized. Before he sent them soaring through the air, I released the glyph I held, the power barreling hard toward my would-be assailant.
It hit him square in the chest and he went down like a rock. The blood poofed out of the air, the magic vanishing as his concentration died. He groaned as I walked over to him. I drew another glyph, this one Hold instead of Impact, and threw it at him. He screamed as his body seized up from the neck down.
I drew the glyph for Burn and held it in my hand, holding it out so he could see it with his panicked eyes. “This one will actually hurt. So, let’s talk. Do you really want to do this, son? Because I’m telling you, I’m not in the mood to play games.”
“Bitch!” He spat at me. “Fucking bitch! I’ll kill you!”
I laughed and leaned closer, kneeling beside him. “Your threats aren’t exactly fearsome when you’re locked flat on your back. Now, I’m going to let you go, and you’re going to have to make a choice. You can come after me again, in which case, I will defend myself, with extreme aggression. Or you can back away and leave, and I’ll forget I ever saw you today.” I put on my best violent smile. “If I have to defend myself, I’m going to be in a bad mood. So, after I pull the blood from your body, I will rip out your teeth and send them home to your mother with pieces of your flesh still stuck to them.”
His eyes widened and he started backpedaling, his mouth running like he couldn’t form the words.
“What’s it going to be?”
“I’ll go! Fuck, I’ll go!”
I stood up, still holding Burn in my hand and released the Hold glyph. He scrambled to his feet, backing away as quickly as he could without putting his back to me.
“Crazy cunt!” He yelled the two words at me and ran.
I waited until he vanished behind a building before I released the Burn glyph, absorbing the magic back into me.
God, I hated thugs.
Afew minutes later, I was in front of a broken-down building. It was a high-rise once, but it had been the site of something terrible, as was the story for most of the buildings on this street, and no longer did it barely resemble a high-rise. The glass was all gone, disintegrated with time and magic long past. The supports had held over time, but the magic had eaten away the steel, rusting it away. The top half of the building had fallen long ago.
Gargoyle Lane hadn’t been kind to the buildings here, or its inhabitants. The building was half crumbled, with foil over the broken windows to reflect away the heat. Though knowing who I was going to see, they were probably power collectors as well.
I stepped toward the building, carefully scanning the wreckage of the building. Most of the roof was still standing, but I could feel the force of Squirrel’s magic wards all over the place. It was fortified like a fortress, and the wrong person entering would be fried in a hot second.
I drew out glyphs with my finger from my thumb down to my wrist, across my wrist and up to the tip of my pinky. I didn’t use my natural reservoir of magic. I hadn’t in nearly six years, since I’d left the military. But I used the lesser powered talents, like glyphs and hexes. Things that were powered outside of my body, but I could channel through me.
Slowly, I raised my glyphed hand, pouring magic into it, and holding it still. It churned at my fingertips, waiting to be freed. I scanned the field around the doorway, analyzing the threads of the ward. These were good, better than I remembered. Maybe Squirrel had new knowledge of wards stored in his cheeks.
I let the glyph magic drip out, holding back the tidal wave that wanted to overwhelm me. The tips of it slid along the door’s surface, snipping the threads of the ward apart, peeling the magic away like one would peel an apple until I had enough space for me to slip inside.
I pushed the door open, smiling. He still didn’t lock his door. He could make wards that would fry some of the best mages, but he left his fucking door unlocked. I shut the door behind me, and pulled glyph magic back through me, letting the ward snap back into place behind me as I channeled the magic back into the earth beneath the building.
Wards covered every inch of the large building, and my black steel toe boots echoed as I stepped through the empty space.
Squirrel had been Squirrel for as long as I had known him. No one knew his real name. He’d been an analyst for the CIA because he was a walking processor. He was able to store and access more information inside his brain than anyone else I’d ever known. I’d met him while I was in the military, and our association continued long after I left.
But after three years of CIA misery, he’d left the agency. He wouldn’t talk about it. I wasn’t sure that he could. But most of us knew what happened to people in the CIA with Squirrel’s particular skill set. Like my situation with the General, you didn’t just leave the CIA, unless you convinced them that you were expendable and useless. Squirrel was anything but useless or expendable. I’d helped him to get established in Austin when he’d gotten free of them.
Across the room, the man sat in front of nine screens, each one flickering away with images and video. I heard the clicking clack of his keyboard as he worked, his back to me as I approached. But only an idiot would assume that he wasn’t watching me. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew the slouch.
“I saw you were out,” he said, not moving from his work. He continued typing on the keyboard, as if he barely registered that he was talking to an actual person. He might not have, honestly. His eyes shot from screen to screen. Like his namesake, Squirrel hoarded things, tucked them away for the winter. Only instead of nuts, he hoarded information. It was something the CIA valued in their analysts, and it was something he carried with him when he’d left.
That talent helped to hide him from them. Because when a mage left the CIA, they never really left. The CIA didn’t let good talent go to waste in their eyes. They might have released him from duty, but they’d call him back the second they needed him again. He had to remain, in their eyes, someone they wouldn’t want anymore.
“How are ya, Squirrel?” I asked him as I came to stand next to his workstation. I leaned my ass against an open spot on his desk and folded one arm over the other.
“Good. Been busy,” he replied. “So much to keep track of.”
“I have no doubt. You always occupied yourself.”
“How is Agent Harrison?” he asked. I held my body still, but not too still. I tried to keep relaxed. Squirrel would know what I did. He had access to every surveillance camera in the city, every report that came across any desk. No information would be safe from him.
“He’s himself. I’m not here to talk about him.”
He glanced at me for the first time, his amber eyes raking in my appearance and categorizing it like the analyst he was. His head tilted. “Common goals. Harrison is a good match.”
“Yes,” I said, though he really hadn’t asked a question. He’d picked out why I’d agreed to Harrison’s deal in thirty seconds. I’d wanted out so the General couldn’t take me away, and Harrison needed my help.
“But dangerous. The General won’t be pleased.” No, he wouldn’t. I almost wished I could see the look on his face when he came back to the prison tomorrow and I was gone.
“That’s why you can’t tell anyone right now.”
Squirrel smirked, the first sign of amusement I’d seen on him since I’d come in. “If I had a nickel…”
“You’d be an incredibly rich man just on my secrets.” I smiled.
“What do you need?”
“An empty apartment, a go bag, and a cash fund.”
“I hid all your money away so the feds couldn’t get it,” he replied. Of course he did. That was what Squirrel did. “I’ll open an account you can access without the feds knowing.”
“I also need everything you can get your hands on about Frank Bedford.”
He stopped, his amber eyes focusing directly on me. “Is that wise?”
“Probably not. Never stopped me before though.”
His lips pursed together. He wasn’t happy with that request. I knew he wouldn’t be. Frank’s records would be as sealed as mine were. And it would be dangerous to try to hack the systems he would need to in order to get them. But he nodded curtly and picked up a pen. “Fine. I’ll send it to this address.” He grabbed my wrist and started writing on my forearm. But it didn’t write with ink. Golden magic inked my skin instead as he wrote out the address. Whoa. Squirrel had a new trick. “Your new apartment. The go bag will be there when you get there. You know the drill.”
“Thank you, Squirrel.” I leaned over and planted a light kiss on his forehead.
He looked stunned for a moment but recovered quickly, turning back to the screens. “It’s been a year, Nicki. Things haven’t just changed. They’ve gotten worse. Business is dangerous now.”
“I know,” I said, quietly as I stood up straight. “Trust me, I know.” It was something I hadn’t stopped thinking about. The General was mobilizing, calling his team back into action. I’d avoided it for now, but Squirrel was right, if not a bit of an understatement. The General would not be pleased with me at all. In the General’s eyes, I was his and his alone. Refusing to come back was like disobeying his orders. “What do you know about the bombing at the Assembly yesterday?”
Squirrel shrugged. “Not much. Whoever is responsible is staying off the dark webs as much as possible. Makes it difficult to see.”
I crossed my arms and frowned. “You did see something?”
“Of course.” He rolled his eyes like I’d said the dumbest thing ever. “Someone moved something rather large from Houston to Austin a few days ago. No one can say what, but it was stored in Gargoyle Lane for three days before it was taken out.”
“How do you know it was here?”
“You feel it,” he replied. “Strong magic object. Anyway, it was removed and an hour later, there was a bombing at the Assembly. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.”
“What kind of device would give off a magic signature like that?”
Squirrel shrugged. “Why don’t you ask your cop friend?”
“He doesn’t know, either. No one has ever been able to blend the technology of a bomb with magic. It shouldn’t be possible.” Magic and tech didn’t play well with each other. One or the other would short out in a disastrous way. “Whoever it is, what would they need for something like that?”
“No way to know unless we knew what they built.”
A trail that went nowhere unless I knew where it had been. “Can you trace a detonator for me?”
“The one the feds found?”
I nodded. Of course he knew about that.
“Sure. You gonna go see Cooke?”
I didn’t want to. Seeing him in the Assembly was like being stabbed by a dull dagger a hundred times. Norman Cooke was the Head of his Family. He was a member of the Assembly. It all put him in the perfect position for his real business. He didn’t just deal in information. He also sought out strong mages that were untrained, signed them into a contract, and sold them to the highest bidder. It was just to the right side of legal. The bulk of his business was contracts with the military. I had suspicions he was involved in my recruitment, though no one had ever confirmed it, I’d never seen my military commission paperwork, and my parents were conveniently dead and unable to answer questions.
“He might try to kill you,” Squirrel said.
“I doubt it. I saw him already.”
“What?” Squirrel’s eyes widened. I’d finally surprised him. “He didn’t even try?”
“He invited me to dinner.” My last crime before I went to prison alleviated Cooke of the heavy burden of four magic amulets, each worth about two million dollars separately. The entire set would probably sell for about twenty million. I had no doubt he would hold on to that particular grudge, especially since I still had the amulets.
“Are you going to go?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
I still didn’t know if I was on the right track. The blown up crime scene didn’t offer much in the way of clues. Only that there was magic, and someone used a circle to maybe power up what I thought might be a bomb. It could be that whoever did it screwed up, the plan backfired, and they blew up in the blast. But why attempt that kind of thing in the basement of a magically fortified building?
Unless… they wanted the fortification. Huh.
“You should take Caleb.”
I blinked and looked at Squirrel. “Why?”
“He’s got the influence to get anywhere he wants. And he’d protect you.”
“I don’t need protection, Squirrel.”
Squirrel rolled his eyes. “Sure, you don’t.” He looked at me. “You can’t take your fed, because Cooke won’t talk if you do.”
I sighed. He was right. Trying to knock on the bad guy doors didn’t work when you brought the good guys with you. They didn’t answer.
“Have you seen Fiona yet?” Squirrel asked, suddenly. I turned to look at him, frowning. He sighed. “You should.”
“I will,” I said.
“Liar.” Squirrel shook his head. “You should see her. She misses you a lot.”
“You took care of her?”
He nodded. “Kept her off the radars like you asked. She doesn’t use her magic that much, so it was pretty easy to keep her under wraps.”
Except everyone wanted to use her against me. “I need you to keep her back door options open. If things don’t go well for me, I need to know she can get out of the city safely.”
Squirrel nodded. “You know I’ll take care of it.” He tossed me something. I caught it.
A key lay in my open palm. I looked at Squirrel. He shrugged. “The key to your new place.”
“Thanks,” I told him and I meant it. Gratitude wasn’t easy for someone like me.