THE PHONE RANG IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT. THE magic wave was in full swing, and the phone shouldn't have worked, but it rang anyway, again and again, outraged over being ignored, until finally I reached over and picked it up.
"Rise and shine, Kate." The smooth cultured voice on the line suggested a slender, elegant, handsome man, all things that Jim was not. At least not in his human shape.
I clawed my eyes open long enough to glance at the windup clock across the room. "Two in the morning. Some of us sleep during the night."
"I've got a gig," Jim said.
I sat up in the bed, wide-awake. A gig was good - I needed the money. "Half."
"Thirty-five percent." Jim's voice hardened.
The phone went silent as my former Guild partner mulled it over. "Okay, forty."
I hung up. The bedroom lay quiet. My curtains were open and moonlight sifted into the room through the metal grate shielding the window. The moonlight acted as a catalyst and the metal bars glowed with a weak bluish patina where the silver in the alloy interacted with the ward spell. Beyond the bars, Atlanta slept like some hulking beast of legend, dark and deceptively peaceful. When the magic wave ended, as it inevitably would, the beast would awaken in an explosion of electric light and possibly gunfire.
My ward wouldn't stop a bullet, but it kept the magic hazmat out of my bedroom, and that was good enough.
The phone rang. I let it ring twice before I picked it up.
"Fine." Jim's voice had a hint of a snarl in it. "Half."
"Where are you?"
"In the parking lot under your window, Kate."
Calling from a pay phone, which shouldn't have worked, either. I reached for my clothes, left by the bed for just such an occasion. "What's the gig?"
"Some arsonist wacko."
FORTY-FIVE MINUTES LATER, I WAS WINDING MY way through an underground garage and cursing Jim under my breath. With the lights knocked out by magic, I couldn't see my hand in front of my nose.
A fireball blossomed in the pitch-black depth of the garage. Huge, churning with violent red and yellow, it roared toward me. I jumped behind the concrete support, my throwing knife sweaty in my hands. Heat bathed me. For a moment I couldn't breathe, and then the fire hurtled past me to burst in an explosion of sparks against the wall.
A thin gleeful cackle emanated from the garage depths. I peeked out from behind the support in the direction of the sound. Nothing but darkness. Where was the tech shift when you needed one?
Across from me at the next row of supports Jim raised his hand and touched his fingers to his thumb a few times, imitating an opening and closing beak. Negotiate. He wanted me to engage a lunatic who had already turned four people into smoking meat. Okay. I could do that.
"Alright, Jeremy!" I yelled into the night. "Give me the salamander and I won't cut your head off!"
Jim put his hand over his face and did some shaking. I thought he was laughing, but I couldn't be sure. Unlike him I didn't have the benefit of enhanced night vision.
Jeremy's cackle reached a hysterical crescendo. "Stupid bitch!"
Jim peeled himself from the support and melted into the darkness, tracking Jeremy's voice. His vision worked better than mine in low light, but even his sight failed in absolute darkness. He had to hunt by sound, which meant I had to keep Jeremy talking. While Jim stalked Jeremy's melodious voice, Jeremy, in turn, stalked me.
Nothing to worry about, just a homicidal pyromaniac armed with a salamander in a sphere of enchanted glass and intent on setting what's left of Atlanta on fire. The main thing was to keep the salamander's sphere safe. If that thing broke, my name would be more famous than Mrs. O'Leary's cow.
"Damn Jeremy, you need to work on your vocabulary. So many good names to call me and the best you could come up with is bitch? Give me the salamander before you hurt yourself."
"Suck my dick...whore!"
A tiny spark flared into existence to the left of me. It hung suspended in the darkness, illuminating both the scaly outline of the salamander's mouth and Jeremy's hands clutching the glass sphere with white-knuckled need. The enchanted glass parted and belched the spark. The air hit the tiny packet of energy and the spark exploded into a fireball.
I ducked behind the support just as the fire smashed against concrete. Flames shot past on both sides of me. The acrid stench of sulfur stung my nostrils.
"That last fireball missed me by a mile. You shoot blanks with your other salamander, too, Jeremy?"
"Eat shit and die!"
Jim had to be close to him by now. I stepped into the open. "Come on, you sniveling shit for brains! Can't you do anything right?"
I saw flames, lunged to the side and hit the floor rolling. Above me the fire howled like an enraged animal. The handle of the knife burned my fingers. The air in my lungs turned to heat, and my eyes watered. I pressed my face into the dusty concrete, praying it didn't get any hotter, and then suddenly it was over.
Screw this. I jumped to my feet and charged in Jeremy's direction. The salamander flared within the sphere. I caught a flash of Jeremy's crooked smile above the glass. It wilted as Jim's dark hands closed around Jeremy's throat. The arsonist slumped, ragdoll limp, the sphere rolling from his weakened fingers...
I dived for it, caught it three inches above the cement, and found myself face-to-face with the salamander. Ruby-red eyes regarded me with mild curiosity, black lips parted, and a long, spiderweb-thin filament of a tongue slithered from the salamander's mouth and kissed the sphere's glass in the reflection of my nose. Hi, I love you, too.
Gingerly I got to my knees and then to my feet. The salamander's presence tugged on my mind, as eager to please as an overly enthusiastic kitten arching her back for a stroke. Visions of flames and heat wavered before me. Let's burn something...I slammed my mental shutters closed, locking her out of my mind. Let's not.
Jim relaxed his hold on Jeremy and the arsonist sagged to the ground like a wet blanket. The whites of his eyes stared at the ceiling from his slack face, caught by death in a moment of utter surprise. No pulse check needed for this one. Shit. There goes the capture bonus.
"You said it was a live-preferred bounty," I murmured. The living Jeremy was worth a lot more than his corpse. We'd still get paid, but we had just waved a third of the money good-bye.
"It is." Jim twisted the body on its side, exposing Jeremy's back. A thin metal shaft, tipped with three black feathers protruded from between Jeremy's shoulders blades. Before my mind had the time to digest its significance, I hit the deck, cradling the salamander. Jim somehow got there before me.