Mission: Magic, Book Two
The Elf Job
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Elves are not the glorious and wise fey of fairy tales. They are greedy, slick pains in the ass and even children know not to trust one. They are guaranteed to be lying or twisting the truth, and inevitably screw over anybody who works for them. The ghosts are bored. Mal’s bored. She’s back together with the love of her life, but that relationship is rocky and tense. She needs a break. She needs to get back to work. Which is the only possible reason she’d accept a job from an elf. Her boyfriend and her accidental demon slave both tell her she’s being stupid and she’s in way over her head, which only makes Mal determined to prove them wrong. Trouble is, they are not wrong. Pretty soon, she finds out just how right they are, and it’s going to take a miracle, some ghosts, a handful of demons, a little voodoo, a siren, and a whole lot of luck if she’s going to survive, much less finish the job.
Mal wasn’t certain how long or far she’d run before she escaped the topiary maze. The walls and paths had a habit of changing themselves up, and a dozen or so of the more bloodthirsty topiary beasts had been zealous about chasing her, especially the hyenas, all in the name of entertainment.
She’d managed to dodge, outsmart, and outrun them without once getting caught. They wouldn’t have killed her, but the whole fun of the topiary was not knowing how badly you might get hurt.
She grimaced, swiping the sweat off her face with her sleeve. Or in her case, the point was distraction. She grabbed a bottle of water from the bag she’d left in a cubicle outside the maze and guzzled half of it. Sweat slicked her skin and matted her hair to her head. She glanced around, wondering where the ghosts had got off to.
They were bored. After almost a month sitting around doing nothing, they weren’t the only ones going stir crazy. She needed a job. She finished her water and picked up her bag. Maybe she should call Ivan.
Her jaw knotted. The idea made her want to punch someone—Ivan would be a good choice—and maybe get her head checked. A few weeks ago, her former boss had sent her out on a job tracking an incubus who’d stolen a mystical box, which Mal was ordered to recover. Only Ivan hadn’t said that the box contained a command stone for a demon. He also hadn’t said that the demon was hunting the box, too. Nor had he said that if the box was opened and someone should happen to touch the command stone, she’d end up irrevocably bound to a demon for the rest of her life.
So’la—the demon in question—had thought of the brilliant idea to manipulate and torture her and Law into opening the box, leaving out the ever-pertinent fact that touching the damned stone was a huge no-no, and now Mal was the demon-bastard’s unwilling master. Of course, if So’la had bothered to tell her what was going on, she’d have helped him open the box and have the damned stone and they’d both be free. But no, he couldn’t be bothered to just ask.
“Fucking idiot,” she muttered. “And then he has the nerve to blame me for enslaving him. Like I even wanted to. Like I like being bound to him.”
Realizing she was talking out loud like a crazy person, she pinched her lips shut and headed for the nearby refreshments bar as her stomach growled. She hadn’t bothered eating when she’d woken up at the crack of dawn to discover herself in bed with a goat and without her boyfriend, Law.
A goat was a poor substitute, even a cute one like Elliot.
She absolutely didn’t resent Law staying out all night. He was Effrayant’s security witch and that meant he was always on the clock. Mal totally understood that. It would have been nice if he’d called though.
She sighed at herself. Please, bitch. Like that really matters. The actual problem was that their relationship was so tense that any time they were together, their conversations were awkward, stilted, and careful and she’d begun to wonder if Law really was busy or if he’d started avoiding her.
She was doing her damnedest to find a comfortable groove with him, but it seemed the only time they really meshed was in bed, and holy shit did they do a lot of hot, kinky, orgasmic meshing. Though in all honesty, the bed wasn’t involved all that often, maybe because it was easier to have sex than one of their uncomfortable conversations. Easier and so much more fun.
When it came to Law, she was a total addict. Just thinking about him made her nipples get hard. She glanced down at herself. Sure enough. Did she have anything near the same effect on Law? It hardly seemed possible.
She went through the buffet and took a couple of danishes and a smoothie made from oranges, pomegranate, strawberries, and banana. She stayed away from any of the more exotic foods. She’d foolishly eaten a smoothie made from berries harvested under a blood moon during an unfortunate alignment of the stars and planets, and she still couldn’t remember that entire day.
Mal took a seat near a dancing fountain on the shady edge of the courtyard. About half the tables were filled, despite the early hour. A group of five dark haired fae that Mal couldn’t identify sat nearby. They were each accompanied by a blue-white raiju. Made of lightning, the creatures resembled animals. Two looked like raccoons, only tall like dogs. One was a large porcupine, another appeared to be a badger, and the last was an enormous tiger. As their fae companions ate, the porcupine and badger settled down to nap. The tiger lay with paws crossed, head swiveling back and forth with every movement. The two racoon dogs went off to explore.
As they trotted past Mal, her hair prickled all over her and sent little jolts racing across her scalp. Blue sparks dance over her skin. She rubbed her palms down her arms to settle her hair back down.
The two raiju stopped a dozen feet away to nose under a bush. Sparks danced over their bodies and the grass around their paws blackened, but didn’t catch fire. The auberge was well-prepared for all sorts of supernatural beings and LeeAnne, no matter how annoying, was a good housekeeper.
A couple entered through the meadow archway. Yellow and orange roses draped over the top and hung thick along the stone. The two might have been related or not, might have been a romantic pair or not. Hard to tell with slender-folk, as the modern world had come to call them. Impossibly thin, graveyard pale, with long limbs, fingers, and bodies that looked like stretched taffy, they seemed to be more horror-story ghosts than not. Ironic, since ghosts didn’t really look like anything but what they’d been in life.
They wore loose, silky clothing in festive fuchsia and teal, their bald, domed heads gleaming sickly gray in the sunlight. Jewels glittered along the hems of their sleeves and blousy trouser legs. At seven or so feet tall, they dwarfed the gods who bustled in behind them.
Gods weren’t what a lot of people imagined, like maybe pearly gates and a big chair on a puffy cloud. The category encompassed a range of beings who’d been deified over the years. Some had a lot of power, some didn’t. Getting worshipped gave them power, and a lot depended on how many followers they’d had, how fervently they’d worshipped, how long had it been since that worship occurred, and whether the world still cared at all.
For instance, the whole Loki and Thor in the movies thing had energized the whole Norse group, and the Egyptians constantly got their batteries charged from museum exhibits and tattoos and jewelry and whatever else people gave value too. They all developed a kind of aura that screamed gods, and that’s how you knew what they were, not because of wings or halos or where they lived or who their parents were.
The children of celestials were divines and fell into their own category, and most divines gave birth to other divines. Angels got lumped in there, too. Not that it mattered. Divines and celestials pretty much considered themselves one race, so being able to identify their differences only really mattered if you had a job where you came up against one and needed to know how to fight it.
Mal could identify celestials and divines in her sleep, and generally she preferred to avoid both. Getting worshipped gave some beings weird ideas about interpersonal interactions.
She didn’t recognize any of these. All six were female. The first, despite being incredibly ugly, was weirdly captivating. Her smile was wide, though her gray and yellow teeth reminded Mal of those belonging to a horse. She had dark skin, white hair, and gold jewelry on her arms, legs, and face, along with a bunch of tattoos in vivid inks that moved restlessly over her skin.
The next two were beautiful, one with blue skin and yellow hair. The other had hair so black it seemed to absorb light, her skin painted white with sharp markings in ochre, vermillion, and blue. Her eyes were like faceted rubies.
Next came three women who seemed ageless and yet ancient. They all had an Asian cast to their facial structures, though it could easily have been elfin or some other race altogether. Two had short horns, all three had extra knuckles and long talons, two had cat eyes, one had feathers mixed in her gray hair, and all three had a mouthful of pointed teeth. All six were short, barely scraping five feet tall, and wore couture clothing except for their bare feet.
One of the cat-eyed women stopped to pet the raiju tiger and seemed unfazed by the fact that it was made of lightning. The beast leaned into her hand as she scratched behind its ear. Noticing her, the tiger’s companion rose and spoke to her. She laughed, a wild musical sound. He smiled back at her and she joined her companions who giggled together like teenagers.
Mal tensed as she noticed someone else enter behind the gods. He looked every inch a wealthy witch, wearing designer clothing of the casual variety: jeans, cashmere sweater, leather bomber jacket, and a retro pair of Air Jordans. He chatted with a couple of jinns, whose green smoke forms held to a human outline. They had saucer green eyes and green mouths and tongues that became visible when they spoke.
Mal attention riveted on Markham as his assessing gaze swept over the courtyard. Instinct made her duck her head and take a bite of the danish, tasting nothing. Not that he knew who she was.
She damned sure knew who he was.
She reached into her bag and drew out her cell, then silently swore. It was dead. The fuck? She’d charged it overnight. She glanced at a raccoon-dog raiju. It had wandered close to her bag. Could its natural electricity have accidentally shorted out the phone? Drained the battery?
Like it mattered. Bottom line: she couldn’t call Law and she couldn’t take eyes off Markham long enough to go find him. She tossed her phone down. She doubted the ghosts would be coming back soon. Not when they could be out pranking guests.
Not that she blamed them. Doing nothing had been driving them bonkers, too. As in, climbing the wall, clawing the wallpaper, snorting oven-cleaner nuts.
Mal didn’t know how people did this sort of leisure thing without ending up in a rubber room. Law called it relaxing and said it was good for her. Maybe that’s why it was so awful. Anyhow, running herself exhausted in the topiary helped keep her from eating a couple hundred gallons of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream every day, or taking up organizing cupboards in his kitchen. The ghosts, on the other hand, had decided to relieve their boredom in more risky ways. Unlike Mal, they weren’t worried about making a good impression on anybody.
They knew the risks of playing poltergeist tricks in the auberge. As the saying went, play stupid games, win stupid prizes. She just hoped they stayed under LeeAnne’s radar. While they were away from Mal, she couldn’t protect them.
But right now, her problem was how to handle Markham.
She didn’t think for one second he was here for anything so benign as a vacation. He was hunting.
Her gaze slashed back over him. He wasn’t just scum. He was the shit on the bottom of little scum shoes that got tracked in on their floors after walking through the sewers.
Markham was a harvester. Few knew that, otherwise someone would have killed him by now. Harvesters collected magical things from living creatures. Sometimes they kidnapped those creatures and repeatedly cut off or cut out what they wanted and left it to regrow. Sometimes they killed their victims and took what they wanted—bones, blood, hair, skin, brains, scales, feathers . . . .
There was a huge black market for all kinds of body parts and excretions that could be used in spells, hexes, curses, and every other kind of magic out there, and a good harvester could rake in billions.
Markham was very good.
A chill ran through her. Mal quashed it, refusing to let herself be afraid, though she had more reason to fear the bastard than most witches.
She spell-carved—which was stupid, as anybody with a half a brain knew. She’d started cutting spells into herself when she was Law’s partner at Acadia, always afraid she’d fail him at a crucial moment. She’d kept it up through her years as a fixer, finding that too often, having a library of spells at her mental fingertips was the only thing that kept her alive. All well and good, but it made her a rich target for harvesters, should they figure her secret out.
Spell-carving loaded every molecule of her body with magic. Not that anybody knew. She didn’t make a habit of announcing it. All that meant was that Markham probably wasn’t at Effrayant for her.
That raised the question of exactly why was he here? Most people didn’t know he was a harvester because he layered other people between him and the final sale, while he did the harvesting. Plus, he played the part of international playboy angel investor. The world loved him. He was the next best thing to coffee and chocolate.
Mal learned of true nature while on a job to recover a stolen trio of charms. Two were sort of a yin-yang pair, in that they worked together for greatest efficacy. Trouble was, what they worked together to do was suck up all the life within five yards or so. The act of doing so recharged them and they could be used repeatedly, making them a terrific tool for a harvester who wanted to kill a specific target without damaging the merchandise, as it were. The third piece of the set was a ring that protected the wearer from the effects of the charm.
Cesar Reyes, one of Mal’s not-entirely-ethical competitors, had stolen the charms and she’d tracked him to Markham and stolen them back. In doing so, she’d discovered Markham’s secret. Trouble was, stealing the charms back had spooked him and he’d gone underground. She’d reported him to Acadia, but without concrete proof, they wouldn’t move against him. He had too much clout.
She’d let it go after that, mostly because she’d been attacked by the lich and she’d just not thought about him. Now that he was here in her crosshairs, she wasn’t going to let him get away.
First, she had to convince Law that Markham was a harvester. He used to trust her, but these days trust was in short supply. He’d probably want proof, too. She drew in a breath and let it out slowly. If that happened, she’d deal with Markham by herself. Whatever happened, the bastard damned sure wasn’t going to get away this time.
An employee came by and Mal waved her over.
“Could you get me some paper, please?”
The woman nodded and scurried off without a word. She returned in under two minutes with a pad of paper bearing the Effrayant monogram and a pen. She set it on the table.
“Can I get you anything else?”
Contrary to her lithe, willowy appearance, her voice sounded like ten miles of hard road. If Janice Joplin had had children with a woodchipper, their child would sound like this.
“Yes,” Mal said. “Could you wait a moment and then take this to Lawrence Stanger?”
The woman’s milky blue eyes widened and she nodded, eyeing Mal with a certain amount of awe. Mal figured her for being mixed-raced. She had webbed fingers, and her pale skin was tinged faintly blue and lavender. The tops of her ears were slightly pointed, but if she had gills, Mal didn’t see them. Her hair was short with springy cinnamon curls, and there might have been a glimmer of fine scales running up her neck.
Mal dashed off a quick note to Law explaining who and what Markham was, and that she was watching him. She folded the page and handed it to the employee.
“It’s urgent,” Mal said. “Find him as fast as you can.”
Another nod and the woman strode away. Or maybe ran. She moved so lightly and fluidly, it was difficult to tell.
Mal settled in to wait.
But not for long.
“I’ve been looking for you.”
Crap. LeeAnne. The ice-blonde housekeeper looked perfect, as always. She reminded Mal of the actresses from the forties—glamorous as hell and not a hair out of place. Except for the fact that she also looked like she had a stick crammed up her ass sideways.
Mal groaned inwardly. Was this about the ghosts? What had they done? Or maybe Elliot had gotten into LeeAnne’s underwear drawer again. The goat had no respect for mundane or magical barriers and went wherever he pleased, and it seemed that he pleased to go chew up LeeAnne’s underwear. Not that he was Mal’s responsibility. The adorable critter had been given to Law, and if LeeAnne wanted to complain about the little lingerie nibbler, she could take it up with him. Not Mal’s monkey, not her circus.
“Aren’t you supposed to know pretty much where any guest is at any time?”
LeeAnne smiled with her full red lips and sank gracefully down into the chair opposite. “If you’re suggesting that I shouldn’t have had to look for you, I’ll remind you that you’re not a guest. You’re a …” She paused, as if searching for a word, her icy eyes skewering Mal. “Hmm. I’m not entirely sure what you are. What’s the right word . . . . Freeloader? Or maybe parasite better suits, don’t you think?”
“I may not be your guest, LeeAnne, but I am Law’s and he seems pretty intent on me staying.”
For now, anyhow.
“He does,” she agreed. “And yet all this time, nobody saw any signs he was insane.”
“Maybe there’s just a lot more to me than you know.”
She eyed me. “There would have to be.”
Mal couldn’t help smiling. Sparring with LeeAnne was fun. Plus, she had an ace in the hole. Finding out she’d let a harvester into her precious auberge would ruin LeeAnne’s whole week. She was in no hurry to deliver the news. She’d savor the anticipation just a little longer.
“What do you want?” Mal asked as she yawned. Rude, but then that was the point. It pissed LeeAnne off.
The woman had platinum blond hair cut short in the back and angling down to just below her chin. She wore designer everything and had porcelain skin to die for. She always made Mal feel grubby, like she’d misbuttoned her shirt and put on two different colored socks.
LeeAnne’s eyes had narrowed and her lips pulled into a slight frown.
“Careful, you’ll get lines,” Mal said. “Remember, no laughing, no frowning.” She waved a finger back and forth in the traditional ‘naughty, naughty’ gesture.
The housekeeper fought to keep her expression bland and polite, eventually winning. She jumped right to the point, clearly not wanting to spend more time in Mal’s company than she had to. “I have been approached by a potential client who wishes to meet with you.”
If she’d said she had a pink-polka dotted dildo, Mal couldn’t have been more surprised.
“A potential client?” she repeated with complete imbecility.
LeeAnne tipped her head slightly, her gaze turning condescending. Like she felt sorry for my stupidity handicap. “I believe that is what I said.”
“The party asked that I not reveal that information.” Her smile widened.
Mal gritted her teeth. “When?”
“It was hoped you’d be available at ten.” She glanced at her watch. “That gives you slightly more than an hour.”
“In the Celestial Suite of the Starlight Wing.”
She gestured toward it. Unlike the main tower, which had a mansard roof and looked like a French chateau, this looked far more modern. It shifted shape regularly, though not usually dramatically. It usually retained the black glass walls set with prisms that glittered in the daylight, and sparkled with witchlight at night.
“I’ll have to escort you. You can meet me in the front desk in fifty minutes.”
She started to get up and Mal waved her back down.
“Since I have to go clean up, you’ll have to stay here until Law shows up.”
“I have to wait?” Again with the eyebrow.
Mal nudged her chin. “See that guy over there with the jinns?”
LeeAnne glanced over. “Yes. Why?”
“He’s a harvester. I’m guessing he’s here looking to drum up business.”
The other woman stared at Mal, her eyes turning dark purple. The air felt like it cracked and Mal had to fight not to run for the hills. It wasn’t the fury that poured off the housekeeper like lava off a volcano. That was bad, but nothing compared to the sudden sense of vastness, of standing in front of something so massive and powerful that all you want to do is pee your pants.
And then she said something that shocked Mal to the core.
“You are certain?”
She didn’t ask how Mal knew, or demand proof, or mock her for saying something so obviously ridiculous. LeeAnne took her at her word.
That could only mean the Apocalypse had started.
Mal nodded. “Found out on a job awhile back, but I got pretty sick after and didn’t remember much until I saw him just now. My cell’s dead, so I sent someone to get Law.”
LeeAnne sat back, folding her hands in her lap. “I see. Thank you.”
Mal blinked, completely discombobulated. She stood and made to move away, and turned back. “That’s it? You just believe me? I mean, as far as you’re concerned, I’m that gross smelly grime that builds up inside the garbage disposal. Markham’s a guest and clearly rich and influential. Why are you taking my word for it?”
LeeAnne’s lips thinned into a flat line and she looked like a bunch of cockroaches were having an orgy inside her mouth.
“Despite Law’s assurances, I wasn’t convinced you aren’t a ticking time bomb. I’m still not entirely convinced, but I did investigate you and it turns out you are skilled—if unorthodox—and you seem to have a strict code of ethics. Your clients speak highly of your loyalty and commitment, and you’ve made a number of enemies of the right sort.”
Mal blinked. Had LeeAnne just complimented her? Had hell frozen over? Had a meteor just hit her in the head? Aware she was gaping, she finally scraped up a brilliant reply. “Uh, thanks.”
LeeAnne didn’t respond to Mal’s incredible eloquence, but glanced meaningfully at Markham. “He will be dealt with, I can assure you of that. Now go. I’ve got this.” LeeAnne waved her away.
Mal did as told, shaking her head in wonder. What had just happened? LeeAnne had arranged a potential job for her, she’d actually complimented Mal’s abilities, and she’d believed her about Markham.
Had Mal somehow ended up in the Twilight Zone?