Mission: Magic, Book One
The Incubus Trap
Book View Cafe (March 1, 2016)
It’s tough to have a conscience when you kill for a living.
That’s why six years ago, Mallory Jade gave up killing. Now she’s a fixer. Got a problem with a demon? She can help. Infestation of pixies? She’s got you covered. Kidnapped by an undead lich? She’s on her way. Anything you need, so long as she doesn’t have to kill. It’s her one unbreakable rule.
Aside from a few near-death experiences, her new life is good, until her job dumps her in the lap of the man she walked out on six years before. Law Stanger, her former partner and lover, wants her back in his life. He’s not above playing dirty. But Mallory knows it can never work. She has secrets Law can never understand or forgive.
All Mallory wants now is to finish her job–track down an incubus and the precious box he stole–and get the hell out of town before Law shatters her heart again. But it wasn’t fate that drew her and Law together after all these years, it was cunning calculation. Now they must face an enemy more powerful than they can imagine, one that has no intention of leaving anybody alive.
Praise for The Incubus Job:
“Pharaoh Francis does her usual excellent job of creating characters readers instantly care about and stories they can’t wait to explore!” —Romantic Times Book Review
“Wow, I loved this book so, so much. I’m so happy that I accepted it for review because now I have a new series to obsess over (hint: I want book #2 yesterday!!) . . . Like I said when I started this review…I adored this book. And I HIGHLY recommend it. I’m not a huge paranormal reader. I enjoy them, but it’s not a genre I actively seek out. This is a series that I will be haunting the authors blog looking for word of when the next book is coming out. When it comes to paranormal, that’s not normal for me, but I’ve fallen in love with these two characters. I need more from them!” –Smitten With Reading
“These strong compelling characters demand attention while they entertain you with their snarky and explosive relationship in this well-written, fast paced and smooth flowing plot that thrills readers with lots of suspense, excitement, and romance.” –Night Owl Reviews
I got the fish-eye stare from the concierge when I walked past him into the lobby. I passed through the security net, feeling it ripple across my skin like seeking fingers. My lips tightened smugly. I could go out and come back again and totally change my aural signature. It might remember this version of me forever—and it probably would—but it wouldn’t do it a damned bit of good if it never saw this me again.
Effrayant was a mash-up of the Bellagio and the Bates Motel, with a little dash of old-school English castle for flair. Brick and ivy smothered the outside and gave it an air of age. The mansard roof that rose up six or eight stories on top gave it the eerie, death-is-going-to-get-you vibe. The central tower stood a good forty stories high, with four wings sprouting like spokes from its shoulders. Their flat rooftops boasted pools, clubs, restaurants, and helipads, all for the comfort and diversion of the rich, powerful, and supernatural. From the ground, the central rooftop resembled a big green afro, with lush trees billowing up in a thick forest.
If it weren’t for the fact I was on a job, I wouldn’t be caught dead there. Or maybe the opposite was more true: if I weren’t on the job, the only way I’d end up here is dead, though why anybody would want my dead body around was open to debate.
Inside the lobby, elegant dark wood surrounded me. Polished marble and thick carpets, modern furniture, soft lights, and museum-quality art added to the luxurious ambience. Muted opera music wandered through the cavernous lobby. The staff all wore Italian wool uniforms in gray, burgundy, and navy, while customers dressed in designer glitz and blue-collar chic.
I couldn’t blame the bellman for looking at me sideways. Wearing Levi’s, a gray, long-sleeved cotton shirt from the Goodwill;, a pair of tennis shoes that had seen better days, and a blue ball cap, I looked neither glitzy nor chic. I didn’t even look like I could afford to work its elegant halls.
Given the fact that my luggage was nothing more than a ratty backpack, I was more than a little surprised that the security guards inside didn’t try to stop me—with force. Sure, the ghosts make people want to turn and head the other way and let me be someone else’s problem. Security guards ought to be better trained. They shouldn’t let the heebie-jeebies get the better of them, especially working for a joint like this. I get that it’s not every day that you get the ghost push-off from someone made of flesh and blood, but Effrayant liked to brag their security was the best of the best, so these jerks ought to have been all over me like flies on juicy roadkill.
I walked in and all six of the thick-necked best-of-the-best got busy picking lint off their coats, making me the check-in clerk’s problem.
Poor thing. I could tell she wanted to be anywhere else. That’s Tabitha’s fault. She can put the fear of Jesus into just about anyone without trying.
Tonight she was trying.
If I were to say my little teenaged monster didn’t want to come inside Effrayant, it would be about the same thing as calling Hurricane Katrina a slight rain event. Somewhere on my latest job tracking down the incubus, she’d started acting out. When we reached the doors of Effrayant, she went from mild temper tantrums to full-on nuclear meltdown. Apparently she thought the job was too dangerous.
I wanted to tell her to suck it up and settle down, it was just a retrieval job, but she was only a thirteen-year-old girl, and dead or not, her hormones were raging. Stir in a dose of inexplicable terror, and there was no way I was going to get her to listen to reason.
The irony was that she was at least as dangerous as the incubus I was tracking. She still had a lot of PTSD issues from how she got killed. Not that I had any idea how it had actually gone down. I only knew she was pissed as hell and she had nightmares that occasionally leaked into my dreams. If any of what happened in those nightmares had actually happened to her, she had a right to her attitude. Hell, she had a right to have gone completely over the edge into insanity-land. I didn’t think she had, but it’s not like she talked to me. She didn’t talk to anybody. Anyhow, all that meant was that when she got scared, she killed first and asked questions later. Or rather, never asked questions.
So here I was, looking like a hobo with an angry, terrified, homicidal teenaged poltergeist in the nicest hotel on the east coast trying to finally corner an incubus with a stolen box full of who knows what sorts of valuables. That was the job; I was supposed to get the box back.
The chances of this going badly were growing by the second.
Tabitha’s a pretty good killer when she wants to be, which is why I was glad the security guards hadn’t bothered me. I might not have been able to hold her back without serious force, and I didn’t like doing that. It would hurt her. Plus, it reminded her and all the others that I could snuff them out without much effort.
That’s me—Mallory Jade, former exterminator. In the bad old days, if you wanted something or someone killed, for a fee, I’d kill it—from ghosts to banshees to terrorists to disgruntled employees. I don’t even know how many final deaths I’m responsible for; I don’t want to know. I quit that life, left it behind like dust in the rearview. I don’t kill anymore. I’m a fixer now. If you’ve got a problem, I’ll help you fix it, so long as I don’t take anybody’s life or half-life or dead-life. The money’s decent and I get to sleep at night.
Unfortunately these days I sleep with ghosts. They like to attach to sorcerers, which is usually guaranteed suicide. Most of us with enough power to attract ghosts also have enough power to send them off to the final death. It’s a moths-to-the-bug-zapper situation. I’m the rare exception since I’ve sworn off killing. I don’t even like binding them off so they can’t come near me. It’s not like they take up space or weigh anything, and they do have their uses.
Like helping me to fake my aural signature and making unfriendly types look the other way. Unfortunately the desk clerk looked like she wanted to pee her pants. I sighed and pushed down on Tabitha slightly. The other ghosts pressed in on her too, trying to reassure and calm her. The girl-ghost recoiled and struck back. Lightning arced through me. I turned my grimace into a tight smile and leashed her as tight as I dared. I didn’t need her flinging furniture and blowing up computers. Not that I could stop her if that’s what she really wanted to do. Or rather, not that I would.
Stopping her would violate my no-torturing policy. On the other hand, I didn’t want her killing people either. That put me in a bind because no matter what, I wasn’t going to exterminate her and that might be what it took to stop her if she went on a rampage. That meant I’d have to protect any innocent lives and reveal what I was, which would completely defeat the point of being here. On the other hand, with its particular clientele, Effrayant no doubt kept an exterminator on staff. If Tabitha went wild, she risked extermination. I wouldn’t protect her. This was her decision. Choices have consequences. You pay your money, you take your chances.
I could tell that every step I took inside Effrayant only fed her fury and panic. She clawed at me. I could feel things tearing on a metaphysical level. I was getting close to cutting her loose. Had to if I didn’t want to get torn to shreds. Inwardly I groaned. This was so not going to end well.
I glanced back at the door and away. I’d come this far. No turning back now.
“Can I help you?” the clerk murmured, directing the question to the floor as she edged away.
I’m not sure she even knew what her feet were doing. She was small, smaller than me anyhow. I’m compact: about five foot six and carrying about a hundred and forty-five pounds of lean muscle. And boobs. I’ve got what people call an hourglass shape—big boobs and child-bearing hips. I’ve got thighs that could knock down trees. The clerk—Yun Chee, according to her name tag—was maybe five feet tall, though I doubted it, and probably wore a size zero. She had no hips and no boobs and probably never would without the help of a plastic surgeon.
“I’ve got a reservation,” I said as Tabitha slammed against my inner shields. I flinched as a sensation of not-quite-pain frizzled through my nerves. The bottoms of my feet prickled with needles, and gray fuzz billowed across my eyes. Twitches ran through me, making me look like a tweaker in need of a fix.
“Um. Let me look . . .” Yun Chee said, her voice trailing off as she realized that she had backed up against the cabinet behind her. She was leaning back like she wanted to climb up on top of it. All the same, she kept herself together better than the security guys had. “What’s the name?”
“Carson. Mary Carson.”
She finally scraped up the nerve to actually look at me. Her gaze took in the scar running down my cheek, the half-healed black eye, and the Walmart quality of my clothes. Her back stiffened and she lifted her chin. “Really?” she asked, her brows meeting in disdainful scorn.
You’ve got to love snobby waitstaff. I was willing to bet I had a lot more money in the bank than a lot of her other patrons, and anyway, judging a book by its cover in a place like this could get your head ripped off—literally. You never know who or what you might be talking to.
“Really,” I said firmly. In other circumstances I’d have kicked up holy hell at her attitude—I really enjoy that sort of thing—but occasionally I have enough sense to know better.
“That’s . . . let me see,” she said and inched forward, stretching her fingertips out to the keyboard. If Tabitha hadn’t been wired to blow on a hair trigger, it would have been funny.
“Could you hurry?” I asked. “I need to get settled as soon as possible.” Let her imagine why I needed to.
Once in my room, I could set up wards and let Tabitha loose. She’d shred the place, but I figured that was a basic hazard of hotel ownership, particularly for the sort of clientele Effrayant catered to. All I had to do was get there before she totally melted down.
Unfortunately Yun Chee was not all that quick at her job, and Tabitha was way off the reservation. Before the clerk could finish typing my fake name into her computer, Tabitha launched herself at me again, this time no holds barred. The fury of her panic and rage added to her already substantial strength. I grabbed the edge of the counter, an electric jolt streaking fire through me and turning my legs to Jell-O. Heat flushed through my body. I gritted my teeth, rapidly considering my choices. All of them were bad.
Tabitha hit me again, and I pretended to cough, bending over so the clerk couldn’t see me talking to myself.
“Shut it down or you’re on your own,” I warned the ghost. “Your choice.”
She shrieked inside my head. I swallowed bile as my stomach lurched in reaction. Blood started to trickle from my nose. I sniffed and blocked it with the back of my hand.
“All right, then,” I said, straightening. “If that’s the way you want it.”
I wondered if all thirteen-year-olds took this long to grow up. Tabitha had been with me for the past four years. I don’t know how long she was wandering around before that. Her clothes were pretty modern, but she could have been from anytime in the past forty or fifty years. Nothing about her gave any defining clues, and she never spoke a word to me. The only reason I knew her name was she’d spilled my orange juice one morning and scrawled it on the table. I’d been calling her Squirt. She didn’t like it. She also didn’t like rules and sure as hell didn’t like it when she didn’t get her own way, making her a fairly typical teenager. I didn’t know how much her life and death played into her obnoxious behavior. At the moment, I didn’t care.
I’d warned her and just because her ghost was stuck in hormone hell didn’t mean she didn’t have to follow my rules. After four years with me, she knew I wasn’t going to kill her or bind her, but neither was I going to let her kill me. That meant she was about to be somebody else’s problem and my fixing job was about to get a lot more complicated.
I felt the clamor from the other ghosts as they quadrupled their efforts to settle her down. They knew what was about to happen.
I focused on Tabitha’s aural signature and wrapped it in a loose web of power. I pushed it out of me, beyond my shields, but still holding her in a bubble. She still wasn’t visible. My magic protected her. The moment I withdrew, everybody in the lobby would get a show. A spectacular one, since she was doing her version of Mount St. Helen’s.
Ready or not, here she comes . . .
I let the web unravel, and Tabitha exploded. Electricity arced through the lobby in crackling blue-white cables. Wind blew up out of nowhere. Furniture dragged across the floor toward the spinning center, and various bits of horrendously expensive artwork whirled into the air. Tabitha hung in the air, her long curly blonde hair a halo around her head. She glowed with transparent light, and her eyes had gone completely white. She was totally out of her gourd.
The impressive thing was that despite the arcing electricity and wind picking up the debris, the rest of the lobby was relatively unscathed. Nothing had caught fire, and the computers remained anchored to the counters. That was a damned good security web.
The clerk had begun to float up off her feet and clutched the counter for dear life. The guards pulled out weapons, though what Tasers or guns were going to do to a poltergeist, I didn’t know. I wanted to tell them to put them away before Tabitha got ideas about using them herself, but I figured they ought to know better and if you’re stupid enough to give artillery to a poltergeist, then you deserve what you get.
I used loops of magic to anchor myself down, and my other ghosts protected me from the flying debris. My hat went flying off into the maelstrom. Damn it. I’d just broken it in. Plus now the undyeable and all-too-memorable white streak was revealed. It hooped from my hairline above my left eye around my left ear. Evidence of my encounter with an Ammit demon. Didn’t matter, I supposed. White streak or not, nobody at Effrayant was going to forget me anytime soon, not with Tabitha doing a floor show.
I hit the ground when I heard the first gunshot. I wrapped myself in thick shields. More shots. My mouth dropped open. The guards were actually shooting at a poltergeist. A six-headed electrical hydra snapped at the six idiots. They went rigid and their hair stood on end. Tabitha didn’t let them go.
“Don’t kill them,” I admonished softly, knowing she could hear me. To my astonishment, she listened.
The cables of electricity dissolved and the six guards collapsed to the floor, flopping and jerking. The smell of burning hair made my gorge rise.
“C’mon, Tabitha,” I murmured. “Pull it together. This is not the place, and this is not the time.”
Apparently she wasn’t open to more advice because a chair smashed into me. It bounced off my shields, but the force of it slammed me against the stub wall holding up the counter. I was going to be sore later.
The surge of suppression magic came without warning. It rose up and dropped down like a curtain on closing night of a Broadway show. Tabitha vanished. All the crackling snakes of electricity dissolved. Debris dropped out of the air to hammer the floor. Papers drifted down more slowly, like oversized ticker tape. It looked like a tornado had hit.
I stood. The suppression lay heavily over me. It thickened the air into syrup, making breathing an effort. At least my shields held. I looked around. The guards remained incapacitated on the ground. They smelled like a sewer. Electrocution wasn’t good for bladder and bowel control. Guests hunched stunned against the walls or sprawled like crash-test dummies on the floor. I leaned to look behind the counter. Yun Chee had crawled down to the end and sat with her knees against her chest, her face pressed into her knees.
I sighed. I wanted to be safely out of the way before their exterminator arrived on the scene. I needed to find my mark before he vanished. I didn’t want to spend another three weeks tracking him down.
Underneath the counter was the button to call the housekeeper. Despite the rather menial name, he or she would be in charge of Effrayant. Though I expected the housekeeper was already on the way, I walked around and pressed the button anyway.
The suppression magic didn’t lift. It wouldn’t until the exterminator reset it and got rid of any lingering poltergeists. Tabitha wouldn’t have long between the lifting of the suppression and the exterminator’s summons to make her escape. If she got back to me, I could protect her. If not, she’d be toast. It wouldn’t matter if she ran to China, once the summons was done, without protection, she had to answer.
I hoped she’d make it. She was a pain in the ass, but she was scared, not evil. She deserved to live whatever life she had left.
A heavy wood door swung open to the right of the counter, and a woman who could only be the housekeeper strode through. She was tall and wearing four-inch spike heels, a pencil skirt, and a tailored silk blazer. Her sleek ash blonde hair was shorter in the back with long wings on the sides to frame her porcelain face. She glanced down at the clerk before surveying the lobby. Finally her blue gaze settled on me. Her brows rose in disbelief of my existence in her auberge.
“May I help you?”
“I was checking in. Do you get poltergeists often?” I asked, letting a note of disapproval color my tone.
Her pink lips firmed, her eyes narrowing. “I must apologize, Ms. . . .?”
“Carson. Mary Carson. I have a reservation.”
That caught her up short. She really ought to have known better. I could have pointed out that most people took Howard Hughes to be a vagrant. Not everything was what it seemed. Especially me.
She tapped on the keyboard, her fingernails the same color as her lips. She blinked at the screen and looked up at me. “I have your reservation right here, Ms. Carson. Everything is already taken care of.” All the distrust in her expression was gone, replaced by benevolent welcome. “I’ll show you up myself.”
She led the way across the lobby to the main bank of elevators, stepping around bodies and strewn furniture as if like it happened every day. Already a small staff army was pouring in, helping the injured and straightening the room.
I followed the housekeeper into the elevator with relief. Thank goodness Ivan had made the reservations. He was my current employer and had more money than god. What he wanted, he got, and he’d wanted a room for Mary Carson in Effrayant.
I was to be housed in the main tower, apparently, just below the residence floors. Of course. The priciest rooms. I should have told Ivan I wanted something closer to the ground floor and exits. Not that I couldn’t manage a quick escape with magic, but I preferred not to rely on it more than I had to.
“To answer your question, Ms. Carson, we do try to keep the ghosts out—this is a quality establishment, after all—but occasionally they do find a way. Our exterminator is quite good. Lawrence will have the situation well in hand within the hour,” she said, preening as she delivered the news.
I blinked at her, more than a little surprised. Unpleasantly so. “Stanger?” I asked before I thought to keep my mouth shut. “Law Stanger is your exterminator?”
Both of the housekeeper’s artfully plucked eyebrows arched. If she’d been a cat, her ears would have flattened. She was possessive about him. I wondered if she was screwing him. I wouldn’t be surprised. She was damned beautiful, and I’m sure men panted after her like dogs after a meaty bone.
“Do you know Mr. Stanger?” she asked.
Biblically. Not to mention he used to be my partner when I was still working for Acadia.
“We’ve met,” I said. I wondered if she’d keep the fact I was staying at the auberge a secret if I asked. Discretion was part of her job, after all. It was worth a try. The last person I wanted to see was Law. “I expect he’ll be busy with your little haunting. I’d just as soon not disturb him,” I said as the elevator doors opened.
She gave me a sidelong glance. “Of course. I’ve put you in the Ronce suite on the corner. I’m sure you’ll be very pleased with it.”
Her gaze slid down to my feet then ahead down the hall. I bet it twisted her hard that she didn’t know a damned thing about me and I knew Law. I wondered if her curiosity would win out over discretion. If so, it wouldn’t take him long to put two and two together and come up with the fact that I was Mary Carson. Law was many things. Stupid was not one of them.
I’d better come up with a plan fast. This job was already half derailed thanks to Tabitha; I didn’t want Law to push the train all the way over.
The housekeeper scanned a card over the door lock. The light turned green, and an electronic pad slid out.
“Put your left thumb on the pad please,” she said.
I did as told. Magic flowed over my thumb, and my body pulsed hot. It was over in an instant.
“The lock is now keyed to your aural signature. No one else can enter without your permission, including staff. When you want your room cleaned, simply press the service button inside. All the information on our services is listed in the notebook on the desk. Please do not hesitate to call down if you need anything. My name is LeeAnne Watson. I’ll be happy to look after any of your needs.”
She handed me a linen card embossed in blue and gold. “Enjoy your stay at Effrayant, Ms. Carson. Please do note that all your meals will be comped during your stay as compensation for your difficulties checking in. We have several doctors on staff if you would like to consult anyone, at our cost, of course. Effrayant values your patronage.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You’re very generous.” She wasn’t. It was bare minimum compensation for me nearly getting killed by a poltergeist in the lobby. It’s not as if LeeAnne Watson knew Tabitha being in the auberge was my fault. All the same, I’d take it with a smile and get on with my business. With luck, I’d be gone by tomorrow.
Unfortunately, I’ve never been very lucky.