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White hot, p.1

White Hot, page 1

 part  #2 of  Hidden Legacy Series

 

White Hot
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White Hot


  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Prologue

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Epilogue

  Acknowledgments

  An Excerpt from Wildfire Wildfire

  About the Author

  By Ilona Andrews

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  Prologue

  A wise man once said, “A human mind is the place where emotion and reason are locked in perpetual combat. Sadly for our species, emotion always wins.” I really liked that quote. It explained why, even though I was reasonably intelligent, I kept finding myself doing something really stupid. And it sounded much better than “Nevada Baylor, Total Idiot.”

  “Don’t do this,” Augustine said behind me.

  I looked at the monitor showing Jeff Caldwell. He sat shackled to a chair that was bolted to the floor. He wore prison orange. He didn’t seem like much: an unremarkable man in his fifties, balding, average height, average build, average face. I read a news article about him this morning. He had a job with the city; a wife, who was a schoolteacher; and two children, both in college. He had no magic and wasn’t affiliated with any of the Houses, powerful magic families that ran Houston. His friends described him as a kind, considerate man.

  In his spare time, Jeff Caldwell kidnapped little girls. He kept them alive for up to a week at a time, then he strangled them to death and left their remains in parks surrounded by flowers. His victims were between the ages of five and seven, and the stories their bodies told made you wish that hell existed just so Jeff Caldwell could be sent there after he died. The night before last he had been caught in the act of depositing the tiny corpse of his latest victim in her flower grave and was apprehended. The reign of terror that had gripped Houston for the past year was finally over.

  There was just one problem. Seven-year-old Amy Madrid was still missing. She had been kidnapped two days ago from her school bus stop, less than twenty-five yards from her house. The MO was too similar to Jeff Caldwell’s previous abductions to be a coincidence. He had to have taken her and, if so, it meant she was still alive somewhere. I had followed the story for the past two days waiting for the announcement that Amy was found. The announcement never came.

  Houston PD had had Jeff Caldwell for thirty-six hours. By now the cops had scoured his house, questioned his family, his friends, and his coworkers, and pored over his cell phone records. They interrogated him for hours. Caldwell refused to talk.

  He would talk today.

  “If you do this once, people will expect you to do it again,” Augustine said. “And when you won’t, they’ll be unhappy. This is why Primes don’t engage. We’re only people. We can’t be everywhere at once. If an aquakinetic puts out one fire, the next time something goes ablaze and he fails to be there, the public will turn on him.”

  “I understand,” I said.

  “I don’t think you do. You’re hiding your talent precisely to avoid this kind of scrutiny.”

  I hid my talent because truthseekers like me were extremely rare. If I walked into the police station and wrenched the truth from Jeff Caldwell, a couple of hours later I would get visitors from the military, Homeland Security, FBI, CIA, private Houses, and anyone else who had the need of a one hundred percent accurate interrogator. They would destroy my life. I loved my life. I ran Baylor Investigative Agency, a small, family-owned firm; I took care of my two sisters and two cousins; and I had no plans to change any of it. What I did wasn’t admissible in court. If I took any of those people up on their offer, I wouldn’t be in the courtroom testifying in a nice suit. I’d be at some black site facing a guy tied to a chair and beaten to within an inch of his life, with a bag over his head. People would live or die on my word. It would be dark and dirty, and I would do almost anything to avoid that. Almost.

  “I’ve taken every precaution,” Augustine said, “but despite my best efforts and your . . . outfit, the chance you will be discovered exists.”

  I could see my own reflection in the glass. I wore a green hooded cape that hid me from top to bottom, black gloves, and a ski mask under the hood. The cape and the gloves came courtesy of an Alley Theatre production and belonged to Lady in Green, Scottish Highwaywoman and Heroine of the Highlands. According to Augustine, the outfit was so unusual that people would concentrate on it and nobody would remember my voice, my height, or any other details.

  “I know we’ve had our differences,” Augustine started. “But I wouldn’t advise you to act against your self-interest.”

  I waited for the familiar mosquito buzz of magic telling me he lied. None came. For whatever reason, Augustine was doing his best to talk me out of an arrangement that directly benefited him, and he was sincere about it.

  “Augustine, if one of my sisters was kidnapped, I would do anything to get her back. Right now a little girl is dying of hunger and thirst somewhere. I can’t stand by and let it happen. I just can’t. We have a deal.”

  Augustine Montgomery, head of House Montgomery and owner of Montgomery International Investigations, held the mortgage on our family business. He couldn’t force me to take clients, but he’d called my cell earlier this morning, just as I was walking to the police station, about to destroy my life. He had a client who’d specifically requested my services. I promised to hear the client out if he arranged for me to have an anonymous shot at Jeff Caldwell. Except now he seemed to be having second thoughts.

  I turned and looked at Augustine. An illusion Prime, he could alter his appearance with a thought. Today his face wasn’t just handsome; it was perfect in the way the greatest works of Renaissance art were perfect. His skin was flawless, his pale blond hair brushed with surgical precision, and his features had the kind of regal elegance and a cold air of detachment that begged to be immortalized on canvas or, better yet, in marble.

  “We have a deal,” I repeated.

  Augustine sighed. “Very well. Come with me.”

  I followed him to a wooden door. He opened it. I walked through into a small room with a two-way mirror in the far wall.

  Jeff Caldwell raised his head and looked at me. I searched his eyes and saw nothing. They were flat and devoid of all emotion. Behind him a two-way mirror hid observers. Augustine assured me that only the police would be present.

  The door closed behind me.

  “What is this?” Caldwell asked.

  My magic touched his mind. Ugh. Like sticking your hand into a bucket of slime.

  “I did nothing wrong,” he said.

  True. He actually believed that. His eyes were still flat like those of a toad.

  “Are you just going to stand there? This is ridiculous.”

  “Did you kidnap Amy Madrid?” I asked.

  “No.”

  My magic buzzed in my brain. Lie. You scumbag.

  “Are you holding her somewhere?”

  “No.”

  Lie.

  My magic snapped out and clamped him in its vise. Jeff Caldwell went rigid. His nostrils fluttered as his breathing sped up, racing in tune to his rising pulse. Finally, emotion flooded his eyes, and that emotion was raw, sharp terror.

  I opened my mouth, letting the full power of my magic saturate my voice. It came out low and inhuman. “Tell me where she is.”

  Chapter 1

  Figuring out when people lied came naturally to me and required no effort. Compelling someone to answer my que
stions was a whole different ball game. Until a couple of months ago I didn’t even realize I had the power to do it. Picking through Jeff Caldwell’s mind was like swimming through a sewer. He fought me every step of the way, his will bucking in panic, threatening to shatter his own mind in self-defense. The trick wasn’t getting the information; it was keeping his mind intact enough to stand trial. I’d gotten what I wanted anyway, and when I exited MII’s building, a caravan of cop cars had taken off down Capitol Street, an urgent cacophony of sirens demanding right of way.

  Jeff Caldwell had drained me down to nothing. Driving was an effort. Somehow I made it through Houston’s notorious traffic, turned onto the road leading to our house, and almost blew through a stop sign. It was a bad place, too; delivery trucks had a nasty habit of rolling out this way as if other cars didn’t exist.

  Nothing rolled out today. I glanced down the access road anyway. A two-foot-high steel barrier bristling with thick six-inch-long spikes blocked the street. Judging by the indentations in the pavement it could be lowered into the ground. If you added some blood and tattered cloth on the spikes, it would fit into any postapocalyptic movie. The barrier hadn’t been here a couple of days ago. The last time two trucks collided here must’ve resulted in some serious lawsuit.

  I yawned and kept going. Almost home. Almost. I pulled into the lot in front of our warehouse and parked my Mazda minivan between my mother’s blue Honda Element and Bern’s 2005 Ford Mustang. My cousin’s ancient Civic had died a sad death a month ago, when the descendants of two magical families decided to have words in the college parking lot. Their words involved trying to crush each other with five-hundred-pound decorative rocks from the landscaping display. Unfortunately, their aim turned out to be crap and they survived. Their families reimbursed us—and five other car owners—for the damages. Now a gunmetal-grey Mustang occupied the Civic’s former spot.

  No charges had been filed. In our world, magic was the ultimate power. If you had it, you suddenly found that many rules bent around you.

  I dragged myself out of the car and punched the code into the security system. The heavy-duty door clicked; I swung it open, stepped inside, and shut it behind me. The familiar office walls, plain beige carpet, and glass panels greeted me.

  Home.

  Today was over. Finally. I exhaled and took off my shoes. I had stopped by a client’s office before dressing up as a Scottish highwaywoman, so I was still wearing one of my “we’re not poor” outfits. I owned two expensive suits and two matching pairs of heels, and I wore the first when I went to see a client who might be impressed by appearances and the second when I came to collect the payment. The heels I had to put on today should’ve been banned as evil torture devices.

  Someone knocked.

  Maybe I’d imagined it.

  Another knock.

  I turned and checked the monitor. A blond man stood in front of my door. Short and compact, with a serious face and thoughtful blue eyes, he was in his late twenties. A zipped-up brown leather folder rested in his hands. Cornelius Harrison of House Harrison. A few months ago Augustine had strong-armed me into looking for Adam Pierce, a lunatic pyrokinetic with the highest magical pedigree. Cornelius had been forced by his family to play the role of Adam’s “boyhood companion,” a role he had detested. Cornelius had helped me in my investigation. His older sister currently ran House Harrison.

  The Cornelius I remembered was clean-shaven and meticulously dressed. This Cornelius was still well-dressed, but his cheeks were rough with stubble and an unsettling shadow darkened his eyes, as if he had seen something that disturbed him to the very core and was still reeling from the impact.

  A little girl stood next to him, carrying a small Sailor Moon backpack. She had to be about three or four years old. Her hair was dark and straight and her eyes pointed at an Asian heritage, but her features reminded me of Cornelius. Their expressions, solemn and serious, were completely identical. I knew he had a daughter but I’d never met her. A large Doberman Pinscher sat next to the child, as tall as she was.

  What would a member of Houston’s magical elite want from me? Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be good. Baylor Investigative Agency specialized in small-time investigations. Contrary to the PI novels, gorgeous widows in search of their husband’s killer or billionaire bachelors with missing sisters rarely darkened my doorstep. Insurance fraud, cheating spouses, and background checks were our bread and butter. Please don’t let this be a cheating spouse. Those were always so difficult when children were involved.

  I unlocked the door. “Mr. Harrison. How can I help you?”

  “Good evening,” Cornelius said, his voice quiet. His gaze snagged on the shoes in my hand and moved on to my face. “I need your help. Augustine said I could come by.”

  Augustine . . . Oh. So Cornelius was the client Montgomery wanted me to see.

  “Come in, please.”

  I let them in and shut the door.

  “You must be Matilda.” I smiled at the little girl.

  She nodded.

  “Is that your dog?”

  She nodded again.

  “What’s his name?”

  “Bunny,” she said in a small voice.

  Bunny looked at me with the kind of suspicion usually reserved for rattlesnakes. Cornelius was an animal mage, a rare brand of magic, which meant Bunny wasn’t a dog. He was the equivalent of a loaded assault rifle pointed in my direction.

  “He can smile,” Matilda offered. “Smile, Bunny.”

  Bunny showed me a forest of gleaming white fangs. I fought an urge to step back.

  “Is there a place Matilda can wait while we talk?” Cornelius asked.

  “Of course. This way, please.”

  I opened the door to a conference room and flicked on the light. Matilda took off her backpack, put it on the table, then climbed into the nearest chair. She opened her bag and took out a tablet, a coloring book, and some markers.

  Bunny took a spot by Matilda’s feet and gave me the evil eye.

  “Would you like some juice?” I opened the small refrigerator. “I have apple and kiwi-strawberry.”

  “Apple, please.”

  I handed her a juice box.

  “Thank you.”

  There was something oddly adult about the way she held herself. If this was what Cornelius was like when he was a child, Adam Pierce and his chaos must’ve driven him insane. It was no wonder that he’d distanced himself from both Houses.

  “Do you have many clients with children?” Cornelius asked.

  “A few, but the juice boxes are mine. I’m hiding them from my sisters. This is the only place they won’t raid. Let’s talk in my office.”

  I led Cornelius across the hallway to my office and my head almost exploded. A page from Bridal magazine was taped to my office glass door. It showed a woman in a spectacular gown made with long white feathers. Someone—probably Arabella—had cut out my head from some selfie and pasted it over the bride’s. A big heart, drawn in a pink marker and sprinkled with glitter, decorated the bride’s dress. Inside the heart someone had written N+R = LURVE. Little pink hearts floated around my face.

  Killer way to make the first impression. I wished I could fall through the floor.

  Through the glass I could see another bridal photograph, this one embellished with glittering dollar signs, waiting on my desk. On the bride’s dress, big block letters written with Catalina’s painstaking precision, said Marry him. We need college money.

  I had to murder my sisters. There just wasn’t any way around it. No jury on this earth would convict me. I could represent myself and I would still win.

  I pulled the photograph off the glass and swung my office door open. “Please.”

  Cornelius settled into one of my two client’s chairs. I grabbed the second photograph off the desk, crumpled both, and threw them in the trash.

  “Are you getting married?” Cornelius asked.

  “No.”

  R stood for Rogan. Connor Rogan
, except nobody called him that. They called him Mad Rogan, the Scourge of Mexico, the Butcher of Merida, the man who’d nearly leveled downtown Houston trying to save the rest of the city. Mad Rogan and the rest of humanity were never on a first-name basis. He cut buildings in half, threw buses like they were baseballs, and when he and I were done with Adam Pierce, he’d invited me to become his . . . mistress would be the polite term. It took all of my will to turn him down. Even now, when I thought about him, my pulse shot up. Unfortunately, my grandma witnessed our parting fight and decided that sooner or later we would get hitched, a fact she shared with my two sisters and two cousins, and since three of them were under the age of eighteen, the teasing was relentless.

  “Coffee? Tea?” I asked.

  “No, thank you.”

  If I closed my eyes, I could imagine Mad Rogan in my office. I remembered the feel of his hands on my skin. I remembered his taste. I slammed a mental door on that thought so hard my whole skull rattled. Rogan and I were over before we even had a chance to start.

  I took my seat, trying to remember everything I could about Cornelius. He had distanced himself from his House and moved out of their territory to a very comfortable, but modest by the House’s standards, residence. He was a stay-at-home dad, while his wife worked somewhere—I had no idea where. He detested the entire Pierce family. That was pretty much it.

  “Why don’t you tell me about your problem and I can tell you whether or not we’re equipped to handle your issue.”

  “My wife was murdered on Tuesday night.”

  Oh my God. “I’m so sorry.”

  Cornelius sank deeper into his chair. His eyes turned dull as if dusted with ash. His words sat there between us, lead bricks on the table.

  “How did it happen?”

  “My wife is . . . was employed by House Forsberg.”

  “Forsberg Investigative Services?”

  “Yes. She was one of the attorneys in their legal department.”

  Private investigation was a small field and you got to know your competitors pretty quickly. Full-service juggernauts similar to Augustine’s MII were rare. Most of us tended to specialize, and Matthias Forsberg’s firm concentrated on the prevention of corporate espionage, which meant they did bug sweeps, information security audits, and risk assessments. The word on the street was that occasionally, if the check was big enough, they would change hats and engage in the very things they offered to protect you from. Once in a while you’d hear rumors about possible legal action, but no cases had ever reached the public eye, which meant House Forsberg had a robust legal department.

 
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