I saw him
across a crowded room. He
was standing behind a couple of werewolves and a large troll. One
of the Weres was knocking snow off his boots while the other attempted
to hand his overcoat to the troll, who was serving as greeter.
Since in troll terms that involves stomping on potential troublemakers
before they get in the door, then throwing them out on their asses, he
wasn’t getting very far. The Weres finally figured this out and
walked away grumbling.
The other new
arrival kept his floor-length cloak on. Of course, he probably
had more than one reason for that. The hood was up, so I couldn’t
see his face, but from underneath the cape spilled a faint nimbus of
gold. There aren’t too many creatures who cast light shadows, and
of those, only one would have any reason to be visiting Brooklyn’s
seediest occult auction house.
He wasn’t here
to shop. He was here for me.
I whirled and
started for the door to the employees-only area, but a large body in a
too-small tux blocked my way. “Claire.”
I tried to move around him, but he managed to entirely fill the
doorway. If he ever stopped those compulsive gym visits, he’d
have to start edging in sideways.
“Where do you
think you’re going?” The soprano voice out of the gorilla-sized
chest was always a surprise.
bathroom. My contacts are killing me.”
Matt fished my
glasses off the top of my head and settled them on my nose.
“Suffering builds character.”
“I have enough
character, thanks.” I glanced back over my shoulder. “Matt,
please! I need to–”
your paycheck, I agree.” His small brown eyes flickered here and
there nervously as if he knew trouble was about to break out, just
wasn’t sure the direction. Considering what was up for sale
tonight, he was probably right. “I’d feel better having you
closer than the back rooms. We got a lot of volatile stuff here.”
I wondered if
he meant the customers or the merchandise. Either way, I couldn’t
appeal to a higher power. Despite the overuse of steroids and the
bad crew cut, Matt wasn’t a bouncer in a dive on the wrong side of
town. He was old man Gerald’s darling only son and, since
his dad was away on a buying trip, my boss.
nuts and my ass is grass. Dad’ll have me cleaning the stockroom
for the next decade, and who’s gonna pay you under the table then?”
I had a good
comeback about just how little he paid me, but it died on my
lips. The sight of the gray cloak weaving its way across the room
occupied all my attention. There was nothing menacing about it,
unless you knew what was underneath.
Except for the
fact that it was coming straight at me.
I let Matt
maneuver me to the front of the main salon, since his bulk insured that
we’d move faster through the crush of bodies than I could have
alone. We stopped in front of a semi-circle of marble plinths
that held the evening’s wares. None of tonight’s items had been
available for preview, which explained the pre-auction crowd.
Some were of dubious origin and I don’t think Gerald had wanted anyone
to examine them too closely before the sale. But others were
simply too dangerous to have on display without a major safety
precaution. Unfortunately for my plans to cut and run, that
happened to be me.
positioned me at center stage, up a short flight of steps from the
throng of customers. There had been quite a few people on the
platform, despite the attempts of the two trolls stationed at each end
to keep it clear. The trolls didn’t look happy. They were
under orders not to break anyone in two or crack any heads open, kind
of limiting their persuasive abilities. But, as usual, my
appearance cleared the place faster than a gas leak. “That’s
better.” Matt surveyed the empty platform with satisfaction.
“You could put
up the wards,” I pointed out desperately. The plinths were
usually surrounded by magical shields, only they don’t work so well
with me around.
“I don’t trust
the wards, especially not tonight,” Matt said irritably. “What’s
the matter with you?” His tiny eyes scanned the salon, but there
were too many people, and assorted other things, in the way for him to
notice my particular problem. And I wasn’t planning to tell
him. He only paid me a fraction of what I was worth, but a
fraction is better than nothing. And until I sorted out some
personal issues, this was the only income I had. Freaking Matt
out would be extremely bad for my dwindling bank account. And
maybe I was wrong. Maybe a Lord of the Light Fey was suddenly
interested in acquiring a moldy old talisman of dubious provenance, for
which he’d be expected to pay a premium price.
then.” Matt did one more scan of the room. “I need to keep
an eye on the Weres. You think you can manage to stand here and
stay out of trouble?”
“Well . . . I
can stand here.” I didn’t have much choice considering that the
Fey was between me and the exits.
his eyes and moved off to crowd the two werewolves. I thought
that was less than smart. It was another week until the full
moon, but they were already vibrating with repressed energy and
spoiling for a fight. But it was his call, and I had my own
problems: while I’d been distracted, the cloak had disappeared.
I thought for
a second that I spotted it, trying to meld with the shadows in a
corner, but a second glance told me that it was one of the banshees
that the house used as security alarms. I scanned the room again,
but it was no use. The Fey was simply gone, and I didn’t intend
to wait around for him to show up. For once, Matt was going to
have to make do without me.
I turned on my
heel and pelted down the back stairs of the platform, intending to try
for the fire exit, but something was in my way. I crashed into a
broad, hard chest, and would have gone sprawling if someone hadn’t
caught my shoulder. My glasses fell to the tip of my nose and a
hand pushed them back up. A very attractive hand, I noticed as
sight returned, strong and sun-bronzed. It was attached to an
equally beautiful arm, all slender muscles under a silken sleeve, and
led to a very handsome face. A face with a slight smile curving
its sensual lips and an amused glint in eyes the color of a glacier’s
heart–a pure, crystalline blue.
He stood at
the bottom of the stairs, but I still had to look up to meet those
eyes. That wouldn’t have been true for many men–I’m almost six
feet tall–and the step I was balancing on added another few
inches. But then, he wasn’t a man.
The Fey looked
me over as he set me back on my feet. Despite my best efforts,
his nearness made me shiver. I saw a dark blond eyebrow climb a
fraction of an inch at the unexpected reaction, and a broader smile
broke over his face. I adjusted a strap of my dress and tried to
not let my panic show. Gerald & Company requires formal dress
for important sales–as a way of letting potential buyers know in
advance not to expect any bargains–and I’d thought I looked pretty
good. My usually frizzy red mane had been tamed by almost an hour
with a curling iron and my moss green gown, while not exactly couture,
had once been expensive. Now I was wishing I’d blackened my front
teeth or, better yet, called in sick.
“Do you know,”
he told me, a thread of delight running through his voice, “I’m
beginning to think this evening might not be as dull as I’d imagined.”
I told myself
to pull back, to get some maneuvering room, but my body wasn’t
listening. There was no slowly building passion, no steadily
mounting desire as might have been true with a handsome man. The
attraction was instantaneous and so overwhelming that it left me
lightheaded. I simply wanted him, so much that I had to fight not
to throw myself back into his arms.
Of all the
things I hate about the Fey, number one is the way they make my body
react. I first encountered them when I was sixteen. Father
invited a delegation to visit the family estate, and I was expected to
help entertain. Instead, I dropped things all through dinner,
unable to keep my mind on what I was doing with my body suddenly going
haywire. Their leader had been especially unnerving, with ancient
silver eyes and hair as bright as water in sunlight. I’d been
fascinated by the way it cascaded over his shoulders, a platinum
waterfall that carved tiny prisms from the light whenever he
moved. But my admiration had faded fast when he turned to father
and, without altering the polite, bland expression he’d worn all
evening, asked if perhaps I was ill, to be so clumsy. Father had
laughed off the insult, but I’d been mortified.
Of course, if I’d known why they were
there, I’d have shown up for dinner cross-eyed and twitching.
The Fey slid one hand around my
waist, drawing me against a body that felt like sun-warmed steel.
He used his free hand to produce the evening’s catalogue from under the
cloak and flipped it open. He perused a page, then looked down at
me again. “You aren’t listed.”
“It’s not surprising, considering
the treaty,” he continued. “When are we to have the pleasure of
bidding on you?”
I could feel my cheeks flush,
something that, with my complexion, was probably all too obvious.
I closed my eyes and with a sudden movement, wrenched away. I
smoothed my rumpled gown with slightly shaking hands and glared at
him. “Bite me.”
I caught a gleam in those odd
eyes. “Right here?”
Of all the things I hate about
the Fey, number two would definitely be their sense of
Suddenly, anger started to
override fear. I wasn’t 16 anymore, and Gerald & Company
employed plenty of guards. Not that they’d bothered to furnish me
with one–ordinarily, no magical creature wanted to get close enough to
give me trouble–but there were more than enough posted around the room
to deal with even a Fey. And considering how well the Dark and
Light Fey got along, I thought the trolls might even thank me for the
I looked around for security, but
they’d been distracted by the trouble Matt was having. I hadn’t
seen what started it, but one of the Weres had attacked the leader of
the security team and seemed to be trying to gnaw through its knobby
forearm. The troll looked at him in understandable
bemusement–their skin is approximately the thickness of rawhide–then
snapped his arm, throwing the Were across the room. He hit the
far wall with an audible thump before slowly sliding to the floor,
leaving a big red mark on the gold embossed wallpaper.
One of the trolls who usually
flanked the stage had moved to assist with the fight, and the other was
too preoccupied to notice me. I dodged behind the old couple he
was watching through narrow, beady eyes. They’d braved my
presence to check out one of the items for sale–a small, gray rune
stone sitting in solitary splendor on a black velvet cushion. It
was the only thing on the plinth, so I assumed it had to be important,
but the description in the catalogue had been unusually vague–just a
photo and a date in the 10th century.
“I still say it’s a fake,” the
“But what if it isn’t?” The
man looked at it longingly. “One of the Runes of Langgarn–”
The woman gave what could only be
called a snort. “Gerald is bad enough, but I don’t trust that son
of his at all. I’m telling you, it’s not real.” She caught
sight of me and the usual expression of distaste passed over her
features before she could mask it. She nudged her
companion. “Let’s go.”
He ignored her. He was
staring at the rune almost as if hypnotized, and before I could stop
him, he put out a chubby hand as if to actually touch it. The
banshee went off like a hundred police sirens, screeching an alarm that
cut through every other sound like a knife. Red lights bathed the
stage, and the man quickly found himself dangling from the hand of a
very large troll.
“No touching!” the troll
bellowed, giving him a little shake. It sent the man’s head
snapping back and forth hard enough to cause whiplash, but he never
took his eyes off the stone. Not, that is, until the troll threw
him over his shoulder and carted him off somewhere. The woman had
already fled, leaving her companion to face the music on his own.
That left the platform clear again, except for me and the Fey.
It quickly became obvious that I
was on my own. Except for me, Matt and the trolls, the only
employees on duty that night were a cadre of vampires. They were
on loan from Antonio, their master, a Philadelphia mob boss who was one
of the business’s shady backers. They were a cynical, vicious
bunch who seemed to resent having to work for Gerald even more than I
did. One was watching me now, a short, ugly brute with a smirk on
his lopsided features. The only other time I’d seen him smile was
when he “accidentally” smashed a troll into a brick wall with a
five-ton forklift. I didn’t bother to ask for his
Before I could come up with an alternative, a
surprisingly calloused hand engulfed mine. The earlier shock of
the Fey’s touch was back, all the more powerful against my bare
skin. The feeling was nothing like the electric tingle of being
near a mage. The static surge when my power meets that of a
strong magic user often hurts, especially if the mage in question is
deliberately trying to test me. I didn’t feel a challenge here,
but he was definitely doing something.
Outwardly, it probably looked
like he was merely standing there, holding my hand. But I could
feel his power all around me, questing, searching, trying to discover
my secrets. My anger returned big time. He wanted to know
my secret? I’d be happy to show him.
It felt very weird to
deliberately call up my power. Normally, I spend my time tamping
it down, trying not to drain every mage I meet. Even my work at
Gerald’s rarely requires an actual application of strength.
Normally, the slight damping field I naturally exude is enough to calm
down whatever trinket their scouts have dug up. But now I focused
on the Fey’s bright blue aura and pulled.
I tried again. Zilch.
I stared at him in disbelief. I once had a mage tell me that I
had no visible aura, just a black hole that radiated outward, trying to
suck his magic away. He’d been drunk and none too happy with me
at the time, so I’d never known if it was true, but magical creatures
certainly acted like it. And that was when I wasn’t trying.
“Interesting,” the Fey
murmured after a moment, drawing me closer. What felt like a
metaphysical hand stroked down the length of my body, causing me to
shudder. “I’ve never encountered anyone quite like you.”
I could second that emotion. The Fey
I’d met before hadn’t been as susceptible to my abilities as mages,
because their magic works differently from the human variety. But
they had definitely felt something. So why didn’t he?
“Let me go,” I told him,
suppressing another shiver. My body was trying to melt against
him even as my brain was torn between panic and outrage. I don’t
think I sounded too convincing.
“Tell me what you are and I
will. I like to know what I’m bidding on.”
“I’m not part of the
I noticed that Matt had
rounded up the Weres. The unconscious one had been tucked under a
troll’s huge arm, while the other was dangling from the creature’s free
hand by his collar. The Were’s face was alarmingly red and his
eyes were bulging, but they were a hardy breed. He’d get thrown
out before he actually choked to death. Probably.
Matt gave me a thumbs up signal
from beside the door, and pointed at his watch. I
nodded. It was almost show time. “If you’ll excuse me,” I
said stiffly, “I have a job to do.”
“A job?” The Fey sounded
like he didn’t understand the term.
“Yes, a job. You know,
work? For which I am paid?” After a pause, he released me
and stepped back. The room was more than adequately heated, but I
suddenly felt cold. I hit the button to start the night’s events
with a little more force than absolutely necessary.
The lights dimmed even further
out on the floor, causing a sudden upsurge in conversation, while those
over the plinths glowed brighter. The Fey moved aside as the
huge, dragon’s-head podium rose out of the floor and into place.
It was supposedly the real deal, killed, stuffed and mounted by
Gerald’s father, or so he claimed. Its fake glass eyes surveyed
the room with their usual malevolence, its snout curled into an
expression of disdain.
It didn’t look like something
that had been killed in the heat of battle to me. More likely,
Gerald senior had caught it napping and lopped the head off before it
was fully awake–assuming it wasn’t a clever fake. Gerald’s sold
some genuinely valuable pieces, but caveat emptor was definitely the
house motto. The general feeling was that anyone dumb enough to
buy the magical equivalent of snake oil deserved what they
The Fey came around the side of
the huge head. “You’re part of the auction staff?” He
sounded surprised. I suppose that was fair–Gerald wasn’t in the
habit of hiring people who couldn’t take care of themselves, and I
guess I looked fairly harmless.
Looks can be deceiving.
I waited until a crescendo of
canned music and the automated voice-over announcing the immanent start
of bidding ended. Then I pointed at the nearest plinth. “Do
you know what that is?”
He surveyed the small, quivering
box on top of the marble stand for a beat. “No.”
“It’s a djinn. A very old,
very pissed off one. Gerald recently acquired it from the estate
of the mage who trapped it. Only the spell he put on the
container is deteriorating now that he’s dead, and if it goes all
together before they can unload it, he’s likely to take out half the
The box gave a leap as if it had
heard me, and almost managed to jump off its plinth. I gingerly
sat it back where it belonged, and it quieted down. For the
“How does your presence
prevent that?” The Fey asked, sounding bemused.
I stopped looking for the gavel,
which Matt had mislaid somewhere as usual, to stare at him in
surprise. “You don’t know?”
“Why would I ask if I did?”
“I’m a projective null,” I told
him slowly. What possible reason could he have for faking
ignorance? If he was here for me, he certainly knew what he was
getting. And if he wasn’t, why would he have come?
“You can block magic?” His
expression suddenly became a lot more intense.
“For a certain radius. I’m
here to make sure nothing blows up in a customer’s face.” I
smiled at him sweetly. “At least, not before they can pay.”
“How much of a radius?” His
voice had lost its teasing tone, and was now all business.
I glared at him. I knew
it. For all their magical strength, the Fey had never produced a
null, a fact that seemed to rankle. They’d been looking for a way
to add that particular gift to their magical arsenal for some time, but
with so few nulls to choose from, and most of them too weak to do more
than disrupt a ward now and then, their hunt had been
frustrating. Until they found me.
Father’s dinner guests had
offered him a deal that he could have refused but instead jumped on
like a starving dog does a bone. It must have seemed perfect: a
chance to get rid of an unwanted burden–and a constant reminder of his
wife’s preference for red hair–and get paid handsomely for it to
boot. Too bad for him that I was tipped off.
Great uncle Pip had always had a
soft spot for the one person who didn’t treat him like an idiot
child. By the time the deal was finalized, he’d insured that I
was nowhere to be found. And no one hides better than a
null. The usual tracking spells are useless on us—we simply don’t
register, not even as a norm—and I can walk through most wards as if
they aren’t even there. The Fey did not take my
disappearance well. The nobles who had intended to escort me into
slavery in Faerie instead took back father’s head.
I pushed the memories away and
pointed to a spot off the side of the stage. It was where the
auction assistants usually stood to bring out new items out for
bidding. Since everything for sale tonight was already in place,
no one was likely to be coming or going. “You can stand over
there. We can talk after the sale.” Assuming he could grab
me before I managed to slip away in the mass exodus.
Matt lumbered up beside us.
He was sweating despite the temperature, and his collar appeared to be
eating into his thick neck. “Bidders aren’t allowed on stage,
sir,” he told the Fey with fake bonhomie. “Perhaps you would like
to take a place in front?”
“What I would like–” the Fey
began, but I cut him off with a curse. For the second time
that night, someone came through the main doors who I really didn’t
want to see. In fact, I’d have preferred a whole room full of Fey
to the sight of that narrow, smirking face.
Look for "Buying Trouble" in the Berkley
the Prowl, August 2007!