Burn for Me Page 10

“Mr. Peralta. I have nothing to say to you. You can show yourself out.” He turned to leave.

I opened the folder and pulled a piece of paper out. “This is the printout of your payments received.”

He stopped and turned on his heel toward me.

I put a second piece of paper on the counter. “This is the printout of your outgoing payments. And this is your payroll.”

He grabbed the paper off the counter. “Where did you get this?”

“We hacked your office computer.”

“That’s illegal!”

I shrugged. “I told you, I’m not the cops.”

He reached for his cell phone. “How about I’ll dial nine-one-one right now and report this?”

I smiled. “Let me get to the end, and if you still want to call the cops, I won’t stop you. If you look over here where I drew a small star? This shows a payment in the amount of nine thousand nine hundred and ninety dollars labeled ‘Motorcycle repairs.’”

The righteous anger died down a little in Gus’s eyes. “So what?”

“This is a recurring payment that’s coming out of Christina Pierce’s personal account.” Mrs. Pierce was a wild guess. The best we’d been able to do was determine that the payment had been made from an account owned by someone within House Pierce. Adam’s mother seemed like a safe bet.

“So? I did some work for Adam back then, and he was low on cash. His family makes payments.”

“No, Mr. Peralta. You and I make payments. Adam Pierce walks in and says, ‘I’ll take one of each color’ and throws down his Visa Black Card. If you look right here, in your payroll, you will see a gentleman by the name of Reginald Harrison listed as an independent contractor. You will also see that Reginald Harrison is paid nine thousand nine hundred and ninety dollars in cash. The nine thousand nine hundred and ninety dollars number is very interesting because the IRS pays attention to any cash transaction in the amount of ten thousand dollars or above.”

“So what? Reginald works for me.”

Lie. “Reginald Harrison’s net worth is close to twenty million dollars, so I very much doubt that. He does have a younger brother, Cornelius Harrison, a very nice man, who happens to be Adam Pierce’s childhood friend. You’re washing Adam’s money. His family makes a payment and you pass it on to Adam in cash, while Reginald claims it on his taxes. You receive five hundred dollars in compensation via the second payment, two days later, once Adam gets his money.”

Gus crossed his arms.

“The payments are made on the seventh of each month. That means the next payment is in two days and Adam Pierce will visit you to pick up his pocket change. I’m guessing you didn’t mention this to the nice detectives who interviewed you.”

If I’d had the manpower, and if I’d been confident that Houston’s finest wouldn’t find Adam for two more days, I would have laid a lovely trap. But Adam would burn through anything I could throw at him, and the manhunt had reached hysterical levels. Talking Adam into surrendering to his House was still my best and only strategy. To do that, I had to show that I wasn’t lying.

“He didn’t do it,” Gus said. “Adam is a stand-up guy.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “Right now most of the city’s police force is foaming at the mouth hoping to blow his brain over the nearest sidewalk. You’re a reasonable man. Honestly, what do you think his chances are of getting out of this alive?”

Gus grimaced. “Look, I don’t know where he is.”

True. “I just want to bring him home safe to his mother. She loves him. He is her baby boy. She doesn’t want to lose him to some trigger-happy SWAT sniper.” I pushed my card across the counter. “Tell him I came by. That’s all I’m asking.”

The shark fin of Montgomery International Investigations rose among the towers of Houston’s downtown, still as menacing as ever. I stuck my tongue at it. It didn’t seem impressed.

I parked and marched to Augustine Montgomery’s office. The immaculate receptionist spoke into her headset and motioned me to follow.

“So how long did it take you to figure out which shade of liquid foundation would cover up your bruise?” she asked.

“About half an hour. Did it work?”



Augustine Montgomery, still impossibly beautiful, raised his eyes from his tablet. “I am not a terrible person.”

“Yes, you are. The note in the file states that House Pierce cut off Adam financially. They are still giving him money. His mother is probably the culprit.”

Augustine leaned back and braided his long fingers into a single fist. If their shredder stopped working, they could just dump the paper over his head and his marble-perfect cheekbones would slice it to ribbons on the way down.

“I was assured that all financial ties were severed.”

I put the printouts of Gustave’s business hijinks on Augustine’s desk. He studied them for a long moment. “Do I want to know how you got these?”


Augustine motioned to me. “Stand here.”

I came over and stood next to him.

“Say nothing,” he said. “I want you to understand that if this information is in error, the consequences for you will be serious.”

His fingers flew over the keyboard. A large monitor came to life, showing an office backdrop and a trim man in a business suit at a desk. Peter Pierce, Adam’s older brother. The traces of Adam’s beauty were definitely there, in the dark eyes, the bold line of the nose, and the shape of the mouth, but Peter lacked the pretty-boy smolder that turned Adam into the darling of the media. Peter was at least ten years older, and he radiated “respectable” the way his young sibling radiated “edgy.”

“Augustine,” Peter said. “Have you found him yet?”

“We’re working on it.”

We meant me, and Peter saw my face. I was now irrevocably connected to the search for Adam.

Augustine leaned back. “I have reason to believe House Pierce is still supplementing his income. I can’t stress how important the financial incentive is to bringing him in safely. If you keep giving him play money, he will keep taking his chances.”

Peter waved his hand. “Yes, yes, we must make it as nasty for him as possible. I remember the lecture. I assure you, no payments have been made to him.”

Augustine ran through the transfer for him.

“Give me the account number,” Peter said.

Augustine typed it in. A computer chimed on Peter’s side. He peered on another monitor to his left and shook his head, his expression grim. He pushed a few keys on the keyboard. “Mother?”

“Yes?” an older female voice said on the other end of the line.

“You have to stop funneling money to Adam.”

“Oh, please, it’s an insignificant amount.”

“He can’t have money, Mother. We’ve discussed this.”

“But then he will be poor. This is ridiculous. Do you want your brother to be poor, Peter? Why do all of you have to make it so unpleasant for him?”

Augustine kept his face perfectly neutral.

Unpleasant. That was a good word, especially considering that right now a widow with two children was getting ready to bury the charred corpse of her husband.

“Perhaps you want him to be like the dirty migrants begging for a dollar by the traffic lights?”

Charming. If I never met Christina Pierce, it would be too soon.

“Yes,” Peter said. “I want him to be poor and desperate. So desperate that he comes to us for help.”

“Absolute and utter . . .”

Peter waved at us and pushed a key on his keyboard. The feed stopped. We both looked at the screen for a blink or two.

“So, if I make less than nine thousand nine hundred and ninety dollars per month, does it mean I can legitimately beg at intersections?” I couldn’t help myself.

Augustine took his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“Do your clients know that you hire dirty migrants?”

“Stop,” Augustine said. “Christina Pierce is a third-generation Prime. She hasn’t been poor a day in her life. It colors her mind-set.”

“If I do track Adam Pierce down, are you going to provide me with support?”

“It depends on the situation.”

Lie. “I stand by my earlier statement. You will have to live with yourself.”

I walked out of his office. My cell phone rang midway through the lobby. An unfamiliar number. I took the call.

“Nevada Baylor.”

“Adam Pierce,” a male voice said. He sounded just like I thought he would, with a slightly sardonic voice, the kind that would fit a self-aware spoiled rich boy to a T.

I had to bait the hook just right. My heart was beating too fast. Deep breath. I could do this.

“Gustave tells me you derailed my money train.”

“Yes, I did. Your brother and your mother are having a conversation about it right now. Does she have something against migrant workers?”

He chuckled. “She probably meant vagrant. So you want to find me?”

“Want is the wrong word. I’m forced to find you. I don’t particularly want to.”

“Who’s forcing you?”

Got you. “What are the chances of you surrendering to me?”

He laughed again, a distinct male chuckle. “Come see me and we’ll talk about it.”

Score. “Sure. Where?”

“Mercer Arboretum, Shade Bog Garden. In half an hour.”

He hung up.

Half an hour. Mercer was twenty miles north of downtown. Twenty miles in Houston traffic might as well have been sixty. Bastard.

I double-timed it to the car, texting Bern on the way. He would still be in class. “AP just called my cell. Meeting in half an hour, at Mercer Arboretum.”

No response.

Bern could track my phone anywhere, but tracking wouldn’t do me any good if Adam turned me into burnt ends. Half an hour would give me just enough time to get to Mercer Arboretum. Not enough time to wrangle any backup. Besides, backup wouldn’t do me any good.

I jumped into my Mazda and drove out of the parking lot like my wheels were on fire. Be interesting. Convince him to turn himself in. Don’t get killed.

I walked into Mercer Arboretum exactly twenty-nine minutes after the call. A two-hundred-and-fifty-acre botanical garden, Mercer was a welcome spot of green shade popular with magical heavyweights. There was something about gardens, and especially flowers, that drew magic users to them even if their magic had nothing to do with plants. I felt it too. All around me flowers bloomed, trees spread their vast canopies, insects fluttered from leaf to leaf, birds sang . . . It was like being wrapped in a cocoon of life, suffused with a simple happiness of existing.

I wasted twenty seconds at a gift kiosk, turned north, and hurried down the trail, my purchase folded in my hand. Men and women passed me, some speaking quietly, some deep in thought. Expensive clothes, beautiful faces, some so flawless that illusion magic had to be involved. There was a point where a human being became too perfect and lost whatever sexual allure they might have been born with. They became untouchable and almost sterile, like plastic mannequins in store windows. Many Primes understood this and left some imperfections, like Augustine Montgomery, but a lot of mages of lower caliber didn’t. Considering how many magic users I passed, this might turn out to be a wild-goose chase. Adam Pierce was too well known, and this place was too public.

The winding path turned into a boardwalk flanked by a black iron rail. The points of the rail bent out toward the nature in arches, as if straight, man-made lines had no business here. Trees crowded in. The air smelled of moisture, that unmistakable wetlands scent of mud and water plants. A bog stretched on both sides of the trail, a few inches of water the color of tea surrounded by thriving green plants and brilliant red irises. The path veered slightly, crossing over the bog, and brought me to a bench. A low stone wall flanked the bench on both sides. On the wall sat Adam Pierce.

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