I SAT AT A TABLE IN MY SHADOWY KITCHEN, STARING down a bottle of Boone's Farm Hard Lemonade, when a magic fluctuation hit. My wards shivered and died, leaving my home stripped of its defenses. The TV flared into life, unnaturally loud in the empty house.
I raised my eyebrow at the bottle and bet it that another urgent bulletin was on.
The bottle lost.
"Urgent bulletin!" Margaret Chang announced. "The Attorney General advises all citizens that any attempt at summoning or other activities resulting in the appearance of a supernaturally powerful being can be hazardous to yourself and to other citizens."
"No shit," I told the bottle.
"Local police have been authorized to subdue any such activities with all due force."
Margaret droned on, while I bit into my sandwich. Who were they kidding? No police force could hope to squash every summoning. It took a qualified wizard to detect a summoning in progress. It required only a half-literate idiot with a twitch of power and a dim idea of how to use it to attempt one. Before you knew it, a three-headed Slavonic god was wreaking havoc in downtown Atlanta, the skies were raining winged snakes, and SWAT was screaming for more ammo. These were unsafe times. But then in safer times, I'd be a woman without a job. The safe tech-world had little use for a magic-touting mercenary like me.
When people had trouble of a magic kind, the kind that cops couldn't or wouldn't handle, they called the Mercenary Guild. If the job happened to fall into my territory, the Guild then called me. I grimaced and rubbed my hip. It still ached after the last job, but the wound had healed better than I expected. That was the first and last time I would agree to go against the Impala Worm without full body armor. The next time they better furnish me with a level four containment suit.
An icy wave of fear and revulsion hit me. My stomach lurched, sending acid to coat the root of my tongue with a bitter aftertaste. Shivers ran along my spine, and the tiny hairs on my neck stood on end.
Something bad was in my house.
I put down my sandwich and hit the mute button on the remote control. On the screen Margaret Chang was joined by a brick-faced man with a high-and-tight haircut and eyes like slate. A cop. Probably Paranormal Activity pision. I put my hand on the dagger that rested on my lap and sat very still.
No sound troubled the silence. A drop of water formed on the sweaty surface of the Boone's Farm bottle and slid down its glistening side.
Something large crawled along the hallway ceiling into the kitchen. I pretended not to see it. It stopped to the left of me and slightly behind, so I didn't have to pretend very hard.
The intruder hesitated, turned, and anchored itself in the corner, where the ceiling met the wall. It sat there, fastened to the paneling by enormous yellow talons, still and silent like a gargoyle in full sunlight. I took a swig from the bottle and set it so I could see the creature's reflection. Nude and hairless, it didn't carry a single ounce of fat on its lean frame. Its skin stretched so tight over the hard cords of muscle, it threatened to snap. Like a thin layer of wax melted over an anatomy model.
Your friendly neighborhood Spiderman.
The vampire raised its left hand. The dagger talons sliced the empty air, back and forth, like curved knitting needles. The vamp turned its head doglike and studied me with eyes luminescent with a particular kind of madness, born of bestial blood thirst and free of any thought or restraint.
In a single motion I whipped around and hurled the dagger. The black blade sliced cleanly into the creature's throat.
The vampire froze. Its yellow claws stopped moving.
Thick, purplish blood swelled around the blade and slowly slid down the naked flesh of the vampire's neck, staining its chest and dripping on the floor. The vampire's features twisted, trying to morph into a different face. It opened its maw, displaying twin fangs, curved like miniature ivory sickles.
"That was extremely inconsiderate, Kate," Ghastek's voice said from the vampire's throat. "Now I have to feed him."
"It's a reflex. Hear a bell, get food. See an undead, throw a knife. Same thing, really."
The vampire's face jerked as if the Master of the Dead controlling it tried to squint.
"What are you drinking?" Ghastek asked.
"You can afford better."
"I don't want better. I like Boone's Farm. And I prefer to do business by phone, and with you, not at all."
"I don't wish to hire you, Kate. This is merely a social call."
I stared at the vampire, wishing I could put my knife into Ghastek's throat. It would feel very good cutting into his flesh. Unfortunately he sat in an armored room many miles away.
"You enjoy screwing with me, don't you, Ghastek?"
The million-dollar question was why. "What is it you want? Make it quick, my Boone's Farm's getting warm."
"I was just wondering," Ghastek said with dry neutrality particular only to him, "when was the last time you saw your guardian?"
The nonchalance in his voice sent tiny shivers down my spine. "Why?"
"No reason. As always, a pleasure."
In a single powerful leap the vampire detached itself from the wall and flew through the open window, taking my knife with it.
I reached for the phone, swearing under my breath, and dialed the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid. No vampire could breach my wards when the magic was in full swing. Ghastek had no way of knowing when the magic would ebb, so he must have been watching my house for some time, waiting for my defensive spells to fail. I took a swig from the bottle. That meant a vamp had been hiding someplace close when I came home last night, and I didn't see or feel it. How reassuring. Might just as well write "Alert R Us" on my merc ID.
One ring. Two. Three. Why would he ask me about Greg?
The phone clicked and a stern female voice delivered a practiced blurb, "Atlanta Chapter of the Order, how may I help you?"
"I would like to speak to Greg Feldman."
A faint note of anxiety pulsed through her voice.
"I don't have to give you my name," I said into the receiver. "I wish to speak to the knight-piner."
A pause issued and a male voice said, "Please, identify yourself."
They were stalling, probably trying to trace the call. What the hell was going on?
"No," I said firmly. "Page seven of your Charter, third paragraph down: 'Any citizen has a right to seek counsel of a knight-piner without fear of retribution or need for identification.' As a citizen, I insist that you put me in contact with the knight-piner now or specify the time he can be reached."