Magic to the Bone ab-1, page 1part #1 of Allie Beckstrom Series
Magic to the Bone
( Allie Beckstrom - 1 )
Using magic means it uses you back — and every spell exacts a price from the user. Some people, however, get out of it by Offloading the cost of magic onto an innocent, then Allison Beckstrom's job is to identify the spell-caster. Allie would rather live a hand-to-mouth existence than accept the family fortune and the strings that come with it, but when she finds a boy dying from a magical Offload that has her father's signature all over it she is thrown back into the world of his black magic.
Magic to the Bone
(The first book in the Allie Beckstrom series)
A novel by Devon Monk
For my family
This book did not come into the world without the guidance of many talented, hardworking people. I owe my deepest gratitude to my outstanding agent, Miriam Kriss, who took a chance on me and then made magic happen. Without her, this book may not be in your hands. My heartfelt thanks to my superb editor, Anne Sowards, not only for believing in this book, but also for putting her time and incredible energy into helping it become the best it could be. And thank you also to editorial assistant Cameron Dufty and all the people at Penguin who have worked so hard to make this book a reality.
Thanks to my amazing cheerleaders and first readers, Dejsha Knight, Dean Woods, Deanne Hicks, and Dianna Rodgers. You have been an unfailing source of strength and joy. This book would be so much less without your insightful comments. I owe you each a drink. Or twelve.
Thank you also to my dear friends Mickey Bellman and Sharon Elaine Thompson for listening to my earliest stories without cringing; Eric Witchey and Nina Kiriki Hoffman for your encouragement and friendship; the Wordos for all those nights at the table; and Loren Coleman for the rejection. If this had remained a short story, it may never have been a book.
Thank you, Mom, Dad, my brothers, sisters, and the rest of my family for showing me that the best way to get through life is with hard work, wild stories, laughter, and togetherness. The words I write wouldn’t be half as bright without all of you in my life.
And lastly, to my husband, Russ, and my sons, Kameron and Konner. You are the three most wonderful men I know. This book would never have been written without your years of patience, love, and support. Thank you for being not just a part of my life, but the very best part. I love you.
It was the morning of my twenty-fifth birthday, and all I wanted was a decent cup of coffee, a hot breakfast, and a couple hours away from the stink of used magic that seeped through the walls of my apartment building every time it rained.
My current fortune of ten bucks wasn’t going to get me that hot breakfast, but it was going to buy a good dark Kenya roast and maybe a muffin down at Get Mugged. What more could a girl ask for?
I took a quick shower, pulled on jeans, a black tank top, and boots. I brushed my dark hair back and tucked it behind my ears, hoping for the short, wet, sexy look. I didn’t bother with makeup. Being six foot tall and the daughter of one of the most notorious businessmen in town got me enough attention. So did my pale green eyes, athletic build, and the family knack for coercion.
I pulled on my jacket, careful not to jostle my left shoulder too much. The scars across my deltoid still hurt, even though it had been three months since the creep with the knife jumped me. I had known the scars might be permanent, but I didn’t know they would hurt so much every time it rained. Blood magic, when improperly wielded by an uneducated street hustler, was a pain that just kept on giving. Lucky me.
One of these days, when my student loans were paid off and I’d dug my credit rating out of the toilet, I’d be able to turn down cheap Hounding jobs that involved back-alley drug deals and black-market revenge spells. Hell, maybe I’d even have enough money to afford a cell phone again.
I patted my pocket to make sure the small, leather-bound book and pen were there. I didn’t go anywhere without those two things. I couldn’t. Not if I wanted to remember who I was when things went bad. And things seemed to be going bad a lot lately.
I made it as far as the door. The phone rang. I paused, trying to decide if I should answer it. The phone had come with the apartment, and like the apartment it was as low-tech as legally allowed, which meant there was no caller ID.
It could be my dad—or more likely his secretary of the month—delivering the obligatory annual birthday lecture. It could be my friend Nola, if she had left her farm and gone into town to use a pay phone. It could be my landlord asking for the rent I hadn’t paid. Or it could be a Hounding job.
I let go of the doorknob and walked over to the phone. Let the happy news begin.
“Allie girl?” It was Mama Rossitto, from the worst part of North Portland. Her voice sounded flat and fuzzy, broken up by the cheap landline. Ever since I did a couple Hounding jobs for Mama a few months ago, she treated me like I was the only person in the city who could trace a line of magic back to its user and abuser.
“Yes, Mama, it’s me.”
“You fix. You fix for us.”
“Can it wait? I was headed to breakfast.”
“You come now. Right now.” Mama’s voice had a pitch in it that had nothing to do with the bad connection. She sounded panicked. Angry. “Boy is hurt. Come now.”
The phone clacked down, but must not have hit the cradle. I heard the clash of dishes pushed into the sink, the sputter of a burner snapping to life, then Mama’s voice, farther off, shouting to one of her many sons—half of whom were runaways she’d taken in, all of whom answered to the name Boy.
I heard something else too, a high, light whistle like a string buzzing in the wind, softer than a wheezy newborn. I’d heard that sound before. I tried to place it, but found holes where my memory should be.
Using magic meant it used you back. Forget the fairy-tale hocus-pocus, wave a wand and bling-o, sparkles and pixie dust crap. Magic, like booze, sex, and drugs, gave as good as it got. But unlike booze and the rest, magic could do incredible good. In the right hands, used the right way, it could save lives, ease pain, and streamline the complexities of the modern world. Magic was revolutionary, like electricity, penicillin, and plastic, and in the thirty years since it had been discovered and made accessible to the general public, magic had done a lot of good.
At first, everyone wanted a piece of it—magically enhanced food, fashion, entertainment, sex. And then the reality of such use set in. Magic always takes its due from the user, and the price is always pain. It didn’t take people long to figure out how to transfer that pain to someone else, though.
Laws were put in place to regulate who could access the magic, and how and why. But there weren’t enough police to keep up with stolen cars and murders in the city, much less the misuse of a force no one can see.
Things went downhill fast, and as far as I can tell, they stayed there.
But while magic made the average Joe pay one painful price each time he used it, sometimes magic double dipped on me. I’d get the expected migraine, flu, roaring fever, or whatever, and then, just for fun, magic would kick a few holes in my memories. It didn’t happen every time, and it didn’t happen in any pattern or for any reason I could fathom. Just sometimes when I use magic, it makes me pay the price in pain, then takes a few of my memories for good measure.
That’s why I carried a little blank book—to record important bits of my life. And it’s also why four years at Harvard, pounding tomes for my masters in business magic, hadn’t worked out quite the way I’d wanted it to. Still, I was a Hound, and I was good at it. Good enough that I could keep food on the table, live in the crappiest part of Old Town,
The phone clattered and the line went dead.
Happy birthday to me.
If Boy had been hurt by magic, Mama should have called 911 for a doctor who knew how to handle those sorts of things, not a Hound like me. Suspicious and superstitious, Mama always thought her family was under magical attack. Not one of the times I’d Hounded for her had her problem been a magical hit. Just bad luck, spoiled meat, and, once, cockroaches the size of small dogs (shudder).
But I had done some other jobs since I’d set up shop here in Portland. Every one of those sent me sniffing the illegal magical Offloads back to corporations. And nine times out of nine, even that kind of proof, my testimony on the stand, and a high-profile trial wouldn’t get the corporation much more than a cash penalty.
I rolled my good shoulder to try to get the kink out of my neck, but only managed to make my arm hurt more. I didn’t want to go. But I couldn’t just ignore her call, and there was no other way to get in touch with her. Mama wouldn’t answer the phone. She was convinced it was tapped, though I couldn’t think of anyone who would be interested in the life of a woman who lived in North Portland, in the broken-down neighborhood of St. John’s, a neglected and mostly forgotten place cut off from the magic that flowed through the rest of the city.
I tipped my head back, stared at the ceiling, and exhaled. Okay. I’d go and make sure Boy was all right. I’d try to talk Mama into calling a doctor. I’d check for any magical wrongdoing. I’d look for rats. I’d bill her half price. Then I would go out for a late birthday breakfast.
A girl could hope, anyway.
I walked out the door and locked it. I didn’t bother with alarm spells. Most single women in the city thought alarm spells would keep them safe, but I knew firsthand that if someone wanted to break into your apartment badly enough, there wasn’t a spell worth paying the price for that could keep them out.
I took the stairs instead of the elevator, because I hate small spaces, and made it to the street in no time. The mid-September morning was gray as a grave and cold enough that my breath came out in plumes of steam. The wind gusted off the Willamette River and rain sliced at my face.
Portland lived up to its name. Even though it was a hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean, it had that industrial, crumbling-brick-warehouse feel of the working port it still was, especially along the banks of the Willamette and Columbia rivers. The Willamette River was practically in my backyard, behind the warehouses and the train and bus stations. Without squinting I could see four of the mismatched bridges that crossed the water, connecting downtown with the east side of the city. Over that river and north, close to where the Willamette and Columbia met, was Mama’s neighborhood.
I zipped my coat, pulled up my hood, and wished I’d thought about putting on a sweater before I left.
A bus wouldn’t get me to Mama’s fast enough. However, the good thing about being a six-foot-tall woman was that cabs, few and far between though they may be, stopped when you whistled. It didn’t hurt that I had my dad’s good looks, either. When I was in the mood to smile, I could get almost anyone to see things my way, even without using magic. True to the Beckstrom blood, I also had a gift for magic-based Influence. But after watching my dad Influence my mother, his lovers, business partners, and even me to get his way, I’d sworn off using it.
It wasn’t like I had wanted to go to Harvard. I had Juilliard in mind: art, not business; music, not magic. But my dad had severe ideas about what constituted a useful education.
I waved down a black-and-white taxi and ducked into the backseat. The driver, a skinny man who smelled like he brushed his hair with bacon drippings, glanced in the rearview. “Where to?”
His eyes narrowed. I watched him consider telling a nice girl like me about a bad side of town like that. But he must have decided a fare’s a fare, and a one-way was better than none at all. He pulled into traffic and didn’t look back at me again.
In the best light, like maybe a sunny day in July, the north side of Portland looks like a derelict row of crumbling shops and broken-down bars. On a cold, rainy September day like today, it looks like a wet derelict row of crumbling shops and broken-down bars.
Crawling up from the river, the neighborhood had that rotten-tooth brick-and-board architecture that attracted the poor, the addicted, and the desperate. Unlike most of the rest of Portland, it stood pretty much as it had been built back in the 1800s, except it had one other thing going against it—there was no naturally occurring magic beneath the streets of North Portland. The city had conveniently forgotten to add the fifth quadrant of town into the budget when running the lead and glass networks to make magic available, so now the rest of the city largely ignored the entire area, like a sore beneath the belt everyone knew about, but no one mentioned in polite company.
The driver rolled the cab to a stop just on the other side of the railroad track, and I couldn’t help but smile. He must have heard of the neighborhood’s rules and rep. Outsiders were tolerated in St. John’s most days. Only no one knew which days were most days.
“Want me to wait?” he asked, even though he probably already knew my answer.
“No,” I said, “I’ll bus home. Will ten cover it?” He nodded, and I pressed the money into his hand. I pushed the door open against the wind and got a face full of rain.
I stepped onto the sidewalk and got moving. Mama’s wasn’t far. I took a couple deep breaths, smelled rain, diesel, and the pungent dead-fish-and-salt stench off the river. When the wind shifted, I got a noseful of the sewage treatment plant. Then I caught a hint of something spicy—peppers and onions and garlic from Mama’s restaurant—and grinned.
I didn’t know why, but coming to this part of town always put me in a better mood. Maybe it was a sick sort of kinship, knowing that other people were holding together while everything was falling apart too. There was a certain kind of honesty in the people who lived here, an honesty in the place. No magic to keep the storefronts permanently shiny and clean, no magic to whisk away the stink of too many people living too close together, no magic to give the illusion that everyone wore thousand-dollar designer shoes. I liked the honesty of it, even if that honesty wasn’t always pretty.
Or maybe it was just that I figured it was the last place my dad, or anyone else who expected me to do better by myself (read: do what they wanted me to do) would ever expect to find me. There was something good about this rotten side of town. Something invisible to the eye, but obvious to the soul.
Except for piles of cardboard and a few rusting shopping carts, the street was empty—a hard rain will do that—so it was easy to spot the motion from the doorway to my left. I didn’t even have to turn my head to know it was a man, dark, an inch or two taller than me, wearing a blue ski coat and black ski hat. From the stink of cheap cologne—something with so much pine overtone, I wondered if he had splashed toilet cleaner over his head by mistake—I knew it was Zayvion Jones.
He was new to town, maybe two months or so, and so unpretentiously gorgeous that even the ratty ski coat and knit hat couldn’t stop my stomach from flipping every time I saw him. I knew nothing else about him except that he liked to hang around the edges of North Portland, didn’t appear to be dealing drugs or magic, or doing much of anything else, really. Since he’d shown me no reason to trust or distrust him yet, out of convenience I distrusted him.
“Morning, Ms. Beckstrom,” he said with a voice too soft to belong to a street thug.
“Not yet, it isn’t.” I glanced at him. He had a good, wide smile and a high arch to his cheeks that made me think he had Asian or Native along with the African in his bloodline.
“Might be better soon,” he said. “Buy you breakfast?”
“With what? The fingers in your pocket?”
He chuckled. It had a nice sound to it.
“Maybe dinner sometime?” he asked.
Mama’s place was a squat two-story restaurant with living space on the top floor and eating space on the bottom. It was just a couple blocks down, a painted brick and wood building hunkered against the broody sky. I stopped and turned toward Zayvion. Now that I looked closer, I realized he had good eyes too, brown and soft, and the kind of wide shoulders that said he could hold his own in a fight. He looked like somebody you could trust, somebody who would tell you the truth no matter what and hold you if you asked, no explanation needed.
Why he was following me around made me suspicious as hell.
I thought about drawing on magic to find out if he was tied to someone’s magical strings. Even though St. John’s was a dead zone, Hounding wasn’t impossible to do here. It just meant having to stretch out to tap into the city’s nearest lead and glass conduits that stored and channeled magic, or maybe reach even deeper than that and access the natural magic that pooled like deep cisterns of water beneath all the other parts of Portland.
But I had sworn off using magic unless necessary. Losing bits of one’s memory will make those sorts of resolutions stick. I wasn’t about to pay the price of Hounding a man who was more annoyance than threat. Still, he deserved a quick, clear signal that he was wasting his time.
“Listen. My social life consists of shredding my junk mail and changing the rat traps in my apartment. It’s working for me so far. Why mess with a good thing?”
Those soft brown eyes weren’t buying it, but he was nice enough not to say so. “Some other time maybe,” he said for me.
“Sure.” I started walking again and he came along with me, like I had just told him we were officially long lost best friends.
“Did Mama call you?” he asked.
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