Agent Hayden Fischer stumbled out of the horseless carriage with a wince. Pain shot up his thin thigh. He could feel the biotoxin as it spread through his blood and ignited each nerve it touched. Ignoring the shouts of his Captain, he hobbled to the stone steps of the San Francisco headquarters for the Bureau of Alchemy.
"Damn it, Hayden, I told you to wait for me to help you," Captain Bryer said.
Bryer shut off the ignition of the horseless and banked the wheels even though they were in one of the rare flat streets in the city. He jumped out and rushed around the Bureau's prized transportation machine to clamp a big hand on Hayden's arm. Under his magnificent black moustache, Bryer's mouth set into a hard frown, but his gray eyes showed gentle concern.
As he climbed the first step, Hayden had to bite back a gasp. Sharp spikes of pain shot through his leg.
"That was an order, Agent Fischer."
Hayden looked over his shoulder. The December night was so foggy that he could barely see the huge United States Mint down the street from headquarters. No one appeared to be out walking at that late hour, although he could hear a horse and carriage down the street. "And let you carry me into headquarters like some fainting miss? I don't think so, sir. I have a reputation to uphold."
Bryer's eyes narrowed. "You have a reputation, all right, but if I were you, I wouldn't be proud of it."
As Hayden gathered the courage to climb the next step, he was spun around and lifted over Captain Bryer's broad shoulder. They were almost the same height, although Bryer had broader shoulders from working out with heavy weights. At least Hayden knew that Bryer wouldn't drop him.
"Hey!" Hayden bit his lip to stop from yelping as the wound on his thigh pressed to Bryer's chest. He refused to give Bryer the satisfaction.
Bryer carried Hayden up the stairs and into the small foyer of bureau headquarters. The imposing stone Queen Anne building was both home and office to the select band of Alchemy Agents. Other than a deep crack in the second stone step leading to the oak door, it hadn't been damaged in the earthquake that leveled most of San Francisco just over a year ago.
They crossed the wood floor and stopped on the faded red Persian rug that ran down the narrow hallway beside the oak staircase.
"Where's the Chief Alchemist?" Bryer's voice boomed through the building.
"I'm here, Captain." The distinctive Boston accent of Chief Alchemist Ryan carried from the landing above the foyer.
Bryer looked up.
"I see our young Agent Fischer has managed to get into another spot of trouble," Ryan said.
"Boys will be boys."