The magic hit hard and fast. Nikki Reece knew that the moron had just tapped into a ley line and realized she had about a minute to wrap this up. "Okay, down you go," she muttered, hitting him hard in his solar plexus. She took advantage of his being doubled over to quickly hit him with a spell, hog-tie him and cast the necessary wards. "One, two, three, easy as can be."
"Listen!" he screamed when he realized how hopeless his predicament was. "I can pay you."
"Already getting paid." Nikki flipped open her cell phone.
"Whatever they're paying you, I'll do better."
"Doubt it." She waited for the tone to speak. "Done, I'm in Central. Come and get him."
"You, Mr. Price, are no longer my problem."
"Awwww." Nikki clucked. "All out of niceties? That's okay. I think I like you better like this anyway. Being all reasonable and shit, well, it seemed wrong on you." She grinned.
"When I'm free I'm going to rip out your--"
"Tongue? Eyes? Feed me my heart? What? I've heard it all before." She heard the crunching of gravel, felt the slight change in the air as new magic pulsed, and knew they had arrived. That had been fast. "Well, this has been super fun, but it seems your ride is here." Nikki cast a glance at the entrance to the warehouse; two large men flanked a petite older woman wearing long robes of red. Nikki tried to suppress a shiver but couldn't. Samina had arrived. And boy, was she glad she wasn't at the receiving end of the High Mage's wrath. Samina was one scary mother.
"I see you caught him alive, as requested. Good." The High Mage had eyes the color of winter. Her voice was cold, flat and horribly chilling. "I am glad the reports of your talents were not false or exaggerated." Her eyes narrowed. "I hate dealing with incompetence."
"I live to please," Nikki said dryly. She saw the High Mage's lips tighten. Guess she hadn't been respectful enough for her taste.
"Take him," the High Mage ordered her men. She extended her hand to Nikki. Nikki came closer to the High Mage and saw that she held a brilliant diamond in the palm of her hand. "Your payment," she said.
Nikki took the gem and nodded. "It'll do, thanks." Nikki was certain she saw a flicker of amusement flare to life in the High Mage's cold eyes.
The High Mage inclined her head. And casting one last thoughtful look in Nikki's direction, left.
It was four in the morning when Nikki stumbled into her apartment. After the High Mage had left, she had an hour of cleanup followed by a two-hour drive home. She was beat, and she knew she probably smelled like the inside of a dumpster. She pulled off her boots and collapsed onto the couch. She was so tired she wasn't going to make it to her bedroom. Her cell phone rang, and uttering a curse she flipped it open yelling, "Reece here, what the fuck do you want?"
"Nice way to greet your friend."
"You're not my friend at four in the fucking morning, Sam. You're an interloper. Someone who is screwing with my need to sleep!"
"I knew you went after Price tonight. I wanted to see how it went, know that you're okay."
"Damn it, Sam, not everyone is an insomniac like you. Some of us actually need to sleep."
"Hell." Nikki groaned. "It went fine. Brought him down. High Mage is pleased. Got paid. Am home, can I go to bed now?"
Sam laughed. "Sure, okay, but I'm stopping by later for the full details."
"Fine, whatever. Now fuck off." She snapped the phone shut. "Stupid insomniac friends," she muttered right before her eyes clamped shut and she lost herself in complete exhaustion.
Nikki took three deep gulps of coffee, pushed aside a stack of mail, and furiously tore through the contents of her top drawer. Where the hell was it?
"Looking for these?" Sam held up two manila folders, and laughed when Nikki scowled at him, quickly rushing across the room to snatch the folders out of Sam's hands. "Since these are marked Price, am I right to assume that you 'lost' them under that pile of rubbish sitting on that hunk of wood that is pretending to be a desk?"
"I didn't lose them," Nikki grumbled as she parked herself back behind her desk.
"Really? Because it sure sounded like you were looking for something when I came in."
"I didn't lose them." She held them up triumphantly. "See, they're right here, right where I left them."
Sam snorted. He grimaced at the pile of newspapers currently occupying the only other chair in the room. "Seriously, you've got to clean this dump up."
"My office isn't a dump."
Sam took in the scarred, beat-up furniture, the chipped paint, ragged carpet and broken ceiling fan and nodded slowly. "Yea, so not a dump."
"Listen, did you come here to give me shit about my office? Because if you did, I'm thinking about laying a hex on you."
"Hexes are beneath your pay grade."
"For you I'd make an exception."
"Funny." Sam pushed the newspapers onto the floor and took a seat. "God, you're just an angel in the mornings, aren't you?" He grinned when she gave him the finger. "So, you're in one piece. I don't see any visible wounds. I take it he didn't give you too much trouble?"
Nikki finished her coffee and pushed strands of hair out of her face. Someday she was going to hack the stuff off. "Nothing I couldn't handle. Price was a hack."
"A pretty sophisticated hack." Sam sniffed. "Got any coffee left?" Nikki jerked her head toward the small storage room next to the bathroom. "He managed to elude the Peacers, the Guilds and the High Mage herself. Pretty decent for a hack, don't you think?"
"No, I don't think." Nikki opened the window in back of her. A wash of frigid cold air blasted her face. It was fall in New York City but it felt like winter. "The Peacers are paid to look the other way. The Guilds are so caught up in their internal petty fighting and politics that they never agree on anything, let alone actually get around to sending enforcers out to bring someone down. And the High Mage," Nikki sighed, "I actually think the High Mage could probably have easily brought down Price if she had wanted to."
"Oh?" Sam dropped back into his chair.
"I got the feeling it was some sort of test."
"The High Mage was testing you, for what?"
"Hell if I know. I've been around long enough for her to get wind of me but she's never procured my services before."
"Strange." There was a distinct look of unease in Sam's rich brown eyes. "I don't fully trust that woman."
Nikki barked out a laugh. "The words 'trust' and 'High Mage' don't fit together in the same sentence. No, I don't trust her either, but her money is as good as the next person's. She paid me in a diamond."
Sam whistled. "Nice."
"Yes, it is. Seven perfectly cut carats.
Sam's expression turned thoughtful. "With a seven carat diamond you could afford to redo this office. Buy new furniture, re-carpet the floor, and oh, I don't know, get a shelving system to organize your case folders."
"I like my office the way it is." Nikki snarled. "There is nothing wrong with my office."
"There is nothing right with it either. Hell, you want to say 'unwelcoming,' this is the definition of the word." Sam gestured toward the open window. "The only nice thing in this doom and gloom is that window."
"That window is an Asterix window. It wards and radiates powerful energy."
"I don't care if it spits and brews a mean cup of java, it's the only non-crappy thing in this office. Hell, how long have you been in business, Nikki? Five? Seven years? I don't know how you live like this."
"I don't live like this," she snapped back sarcastically. "I live in my apartment. I work in here." She leaned over her desk. "And I like it, I like it a lot."
Sam sighed and held up his hands. "Okay, I surrender. You like your crappy office, and you're not going to use any of your hard earned money to spruce it up. And I'm completely wasting my breath with my attempts to change your mind."
"And jonesing for a punch in the face," Nikki added.
"And that." Sam grinned. "Now, about tonight."
"Tonight?" Nikki's brow furrowed. "What's going on tonight?"
"Me, you, the gang, and a bottle of Jack at McSorley's."
Nikki winced when realization dawned on her. "Oh shit, I totally--"
"Forgot, yeah, I can see that."
"Okay, so can we reschedule?"
"No. You've rescheduled four times. I'm beginning to think you don't like us."
Nikki rubbed her eyes. "It's not like that, and you know it. I have a lot of paperwork to finish."
"It's always going to be something." Sam got up and walked to the door. "If you give a shit, Nikki, we'll see you at McSorley's at nine tonight.
McSorley's was dark, dingy and smelled like amber ale and cigarettes. It was run by Colin McSorley. Colin had taken over the management of the bar from his father when he had passed ten years ago. The bar hadn't changed in ten years and probably would look the same twenty years from now.
Nikki scanned the bar and stopped when she saw the usual suspects sitting in the back. She made her way over, giving a short salute to Colin who sent a brilliant five-hundred-watt smile in her direction. Sam saw her first, his eyes lighting with pleasure.
"I'm glad you made it," Sam said, giving her a squeeze.
"Yea, well, couldn't have you thinking I didn't give a shit," she said with a smile as she slid into the booth.
"You are looking delicious tonight, Nikki," a voice said to her right.
Nikki rolled her eyes. "Hello, Rex." Only Rex would tell her that she looked delicious. Rex was a Faustas. Before the virus he had lived a fairly simple life as a contractor in Queens. Once the virus hit and mutated his genes he manifested quickly, revealing his Faustas nature. He was sensitive to light, aggressive and much stronger than the average human. Humans called him vampire, but technically he was a Faustas who displayed vampire tendencies. There were many true vampires out there and no one who saw a true vampire next to Rex would mistake the two.
"Here, you need to catch up." Eleanor Baker pushed a glass over to Nikki.
"Thanks." Nikki took the glass, bringing it up to her nose. "Jack and Coke?"
"What else?" Eleanor answered with a grin. With sun-kissed hair, sapphire-blue eyes and snow-white skin, Eleanor possessed an ethereal beauty. She should, being half Fae. "We were beginning to think that you'd forgotten about us."
"Nope," Nikki took a swig of her drink, "just been busy, really busy."
"Mercenary work pays well, I guess."
Nikki stiffened. Ah yes, leave it to Serena to be the bitter root in the group. "Better than Guild work I'd say." She watched Serena's eyes narrow. Oh yea, the petite blonde didn't like her. She put up a pretty decent front, but it was clear to Nikki that she held some animosity toward her. Why? She didn't really care to find out. If the catty witch wanted to parry with words, bring it on. She'd find that she was in over her head really quickly.
"Nikki isn't a mercenary," Eleanor quipped.
Nikki laughed. "Thanks for trying to defend my honor, Eleanor. But Serena knows that. She's just joking, aren't you, joking, Serena?" Nikki's eyes dared her to say anything else.
Serena's nostrils flared, but she dropped her gaze first. "Yea, I'm just joking."
"Okay, so who wants to do a shot?" Sam slapped Nikki's shoulder and motioned the waitress over.
Nikki snorted at Sam's obvious attempt to ease the tension. She quickly downed the shot in front of her while checking out the rest of the table. Trevor was short and brawny. He was a low level mage working his way through the ranks and worked for the same Guild that Serena belonged to. Next to Trevor sat Michael. Like Rex he was a Faustas. He could teleport on a low grade and had some telekinetic power. The table radiated energy but it was clear to anyone with half of a brain that Nikki's aura burned strongest. She could have dampened her aura with a spell, but at McSorley's there was no need to camouflage power. Anyone who came to McSorley's knew it was a haven for Others and for Faustas'.
"Sam told us you just brought down Price," Trevor said. His voice was eager and his eyes gleamed.
Nikki caught Serena's glare, and a small smile formed on her lips. Could it be that simple? Did Serena have a thing for Trevor? Was she jealous? "He did, did he?" She pinched Sam's arm. "I'm going to have to sew your mouth shut, Sam."
"Hey, don't blame me." Sam laughed. "Blame the Jack."
Nikki rolled her eyes. She turned to Trevor. "Yea, it wasn't a big deal."
"Are you kidding?" Trevor leaned forward. "Price eluded the Peacers and the Guild. Hell, we were all talking about him at the Guild, right, Serena?" He didn't wait for Serena to reply before barreling on. "How did you do it? Was it a spell? Could you teach me?"
Oh heaven save her from eager young puppies that wanted a mentor. Although she was only a couple of years older than Trevor, at this moment she felt ancient. "Listen, it wasn't a big deal. Price was an arrogant fuck that thought too much of his abilities and ended up making a fatal mistake."
"Which was?" Trevor prodded.
Would the kid never give up? "He underestimated how effective basic hand-to-hand combat could be, and," she grunted, "he doesn't have a high estimation of women. That's to say, he's a sexist pig."
"Well, I'm still impressed," Trevor said, leaning back in the booth.
"Someone is smitten," Sam whispered into Nikki's ear.
Nikki pinched his arm again, and whispered back, "He's young, he's ambitious and he's sitting across from someone that took down," she rolled her eyes, "a notorious kill. It'll all pass soon enough. He'll get those stars out of his eyes."
"Or you could just take him up on his unspoken offer." Sam's eyes glinted with pleasure at Nikki's obvious discomfort.
"Fuck you and the donkey you rode in on. I'd eat that poor kid alive and spit out his bones."
"Yea, true, but at least you'd get one good meal in. What has it been, three years, Nikki?"
Nikki ground her teeth together. "We are not having this conversation here, Sam. And my sex life is none of your fucking business."
"Were we talking about sex? I thought we were talking about you teaching young and eager Trevor the ropes."
"Oh spare me." Nikki reached for Sam's drink. "Are you drinking this?" She didn't wait for him to answer before downing the shot of Jack. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it."
"What I don't understand," Rex's smooth voice floated across the table, "is why you insist on keeping that office open, Nikki. You have been propositioned by every Guild in the Tri-State area, have you not?"
"And beyond," Nikki mumbled.
"And yet you won't join one. You keep that office in Korea Town open and take jobs from the humans who can barely afford their own rent let alone the fee of a powerful magic user."
"And what of it?" Nikki searched the table for another drink and when she found it empty, waved the waitress over to order another round.
"It seems beneath you," Rex said.
"Oh?" Nikki laughed. "Beneath me? So the humans living in New York City are beneath me? And what's above me, you, the Guilds, the High Mage? Should I be impressed?"
Rex's eyes deepened and darkened. "There is no one above you. You know that, I know that, everyone at this table knows that. What we don't know, what we don't understand, is why you continue to pursue this ridiculous notion of glorified mercenary work."
Nikki yawned theatrically. "This conversation is getting boring, Rex." She cast her eyes over the group. "And I'm sure that everyone at this table would prefer to get drunk than listen to telltale conversation as to why I've chosen my line of work." She looked pointedly at the group, and soon they all jumped in with "yes, getting drunk sounds great." She watched the waitress set down another bottle of Jack and smiled. Jack cured all ails. And if Jack wasn't available there was always Jim or Johnny.
Nikki took a sip of her refilled Jack and Coke and tried to relax. After this past arduous week her body was one large nerve center and even her drink didn't seem to calm her. She was preparing to tell Sam and the gang goodnight when the door to the bar swung open and a wave of scalding heat flooded the room. Nikki stiffened immediately as she recognized the heat signature: shifters, and a large group of them at that. To say she wasn't surprised would be a lie. McSorley's was a haven for the Faustas' and Others, but saw very few shifters.
Shifters had come out in force after the virus had rendered the human populace all but helpless to hunt them. However, a long history of animosity between the shifters and humans kept the shifters apart from the rest of society. Their mystery, power and unmistakable strength had them universally feared, and kept them cloistered. Every once in a while McSorley's saw the odd shifter or two, but a pack, that was rare.
Nikki felt the tension at the table once everyone realized what they were dealing with. She put a reassuring hand on Sam's arm and then focused her attention on the pack of shifters that had just entered the bar. The alpha of the pack was clearly the shifter standing directly in back of the two shifters who had entered the bar first. He wasn't the tallest of the group, nor the handsomest, but the natural, raw power he emitted was the only indicator Nikki needed to the validity of his identity.
"What are you having?" Colin asked the nearest shifter warily.
"Tonic water for me, actually, tonic water all around," the tall, blond shifter in the front answered in a deep voice.
"Six tonics coming right up," Colin said with a tinge of unrestrained anger layering his voice.
"What are they doing so far from the clan?" Eleanor asked.
"Don't know, don't care. If they start anything, I'll finish it," Trevor snapped.
"We're not starting anything and we're not finishing anything," Nikki said firmly. "This is the best place in the city for a drink; they know it, and they're having one after a long day of labor." She ignored Sam's snort and continued to watch the pack carefully. They were mostly tall and slender, but muscular where it counted. Their hair color ranged from blond to light brown and their eyes were all, with the exception of the alpha, amber. Cats. They were cats. Now what was the powerful cat pack doing at a bar in downtown Manhattan?
The second, the alpha's right-hand man, sipped his tonic water and scanned the room. When his gaze landed on the back table his body stilled and a large predatory smile broke out on his face. He leaned into his alpha and whispered something into his ear that elicited a smile. The alpha strode forward leisurely. When he reached Nikki's table he stopped.
"Nikki Reece?" He cast his eyes around the table, looking between Eleanor, Serena and Nikki.
Sam grabbed Nikki's arm to keep her from speaking, but nothing, not even Sam's hand was going to keep her quiet if the shifters were after her. "Who's asking?" she piped, jerking up her chin.
The corners of his mouth lifted. "Yes, you are as he said you would be. I am Malik, I would like to speak with you on a matter of some importance."
"It couldn't wait? You had to track me down? You know, I do have office hours."
"We couldn't have just wanted a drink?"
"Give me some credit."
Malik laughed. "Please, Ms. Reece." He held out his hand to her.
Nikki sighed. She began to stand up when everyone at the table protested. Nikki held up her hand. "No, guys, I can take it from here." She followed Malik to the bar, forcing her body to relax as she quickly found herself surrounded by the cat pack. She tossed a look in Colin's direction, telling him without words to stay clear. "All right, now you can tell me what was so important you had to stalk me to my bar instead of using my office like a sane person would do." She ignored the growls and rising energy from the cats surrounding her.
"Not very wise, Ms. Reece, antagonizing the alpha. I know you realize I am the alpha."
"Hard to miss."
"Really?" Malik smiled. "Most would have pinned the title on Eric here, or perhaps Sven."
"Eric is your second, and I'd say that the tall Sven, he's your third."
"How does she know so much?" Sven growled.
"Quiet," Malik commanded, and Sven instantly went silent and dropped his head. "You have a very good grasp of pack dynamics for an outsider."
Nikki shrugged. "I'm technically categorized as an Other by the United States of America. I consider it my obligation, not to mention," she smiled grimly, "a safety precaution, to know about the different factions that run this world now."
"But we are avoided like the plague by your beloved government. Even the Guilds, and the High Mage herself look the other way when shifter politics come into play."
Nikki nodded. "All the more reason to know your ways, don't you think?"
Malik looked pleased. "Knowing our culture may help you yet. All right, we have tarried overlong. It's time to go, Ms. Reece."
Nikki laughed. "Excuse me? You're more than welcome to go. I'm staying put and finishing my evening of excessive drinking."
Malik narrowed his eyes. "You shouldn't poison your body with spirits, Ms. Reece."
"Spare me. If it makes you feel better, my body burns through liquor so fast it is impossible for me to get drunk." She knew the same was said of shifters. Their bodies burned through spirits too quickly for them to get inebriated--although most shifters didn't seem to find spirits to their liking.
"Yes, I believe that does make me feel better. Now." Malik took a hold of her arm. "It is time to go."
"Take your hands off me."
"You will not speak so to the alpha." This came from Sven.
"The alpha said to come." This from Eric.
Nikki felt their anger intensify and she used their anger to fire her will. Her power came easily, filling her body with fire and flowing to her fingers. She knew that her eyes were changing, and heard Malik cry out just before she blasted them with a high volt of pure energy. It was their own power used against them.
"I'll call you guys later!" she called out to Sam and the gang before rushing from the bar. She knew the shifters wouldn't harm them. They had their own strange code of ethics and rules and she knew that attacking innocent bystanders at a bar was against them. No, if the shifters wanted a fight, they'd pursue her. She was five blocks away when she stopped. It was clear they hadn't followed her. She felt none of their energy or presence anywhere near the vicinity. "And just when I thought my life couldn't get more interesting," Nikki muttered, making her way to the nearest subway station. It was time to go home, feed her hamster, and crash. Yea, crash, that sounded good. Really, really good.