Burn for Me Page 22

“A client.”

Thea’s eyebrows rose. “You’re taking a client into the Pit?”

“There is a first time for everything.”

Thea leaned forward a little and gave Mad Rogan her tough stare. “Okay, client. Standard warning: you have left the Metro Houston area. You are entering territory controlled by House Shaw. This is a limited-security area. If you proceed past the red line at the end of this parking lot, you may be a victim of a violent crime, such as mugging, assault, rape, or murder. House Shaw patrols the water, and if they observe you being a victim of such a crime, they will render aid, but by crossing that red line you acknowledge that House Shaw has a limited ability to assist you. This conversation is being recorded. Do you understand the warning that has been given to you?”

“Yes,” Mad Rogan said.

“Your consent has been recorded and will be used as evidence should you attempt to seek any damages or hold House Shaw liable for any harm happening to you in the Pit. Getting in is easy, getting out is hard. Welcome to the anal sore of Houston. Have fun, kids.”

She popped a paper ticket from the machine on the side of her desk and handed it to Rogan. He took it. The bar rose and he steered the vehicle into the deserted parking lot. He drove to the far end and parked by the foot-wide red line drawn on the pavement. A hundred yards beyond the line, a bayou spread. The murky water the color of green tea lay placid. On the left, the top floor of a once-two-story office building stuck out of the mire. Once-decorative trees stood half submerged next to sunken wrought-iron streetlamps.

Jersey Village used to be one of those small suburban towns Houston was in the habit of swallowing whole as it grew. A boring bedroom community northwest of downtown, Jersey Village slowly grew a robust mini-downtown, with several large tech companies building their offices here. It would’ve continued to exist in happy obscurity if it hadn’t been for the infamous Mayor Bruce. Mayor Thomas Bruce, better known as Bubba Bruce, somehow managed to get himself elected on the platform of being a fun guy to have over to your backyard barbecue. Once in office, Bubba Bruce desperately tried to leave his mark on Houston. He really wanted to build an airport, but since Houston already had one, Bubba decided to build a subway. He was told that Houston was built on marshes and ground moisture would be an issue. Bubba Bruce insisted. He planned to use mages to “push” the groundwater out of the construction areas. Despite vocal opposition to the project by people much smarter than him, he went ahead with it.

Twelve years ago, a cadre of mages broke the ground on the first metro station here, in Jersey Village. They spent a month setting up their spells and finally activated their complicated magic. The water left the area. Without it, the weight of the town proved to be too much, and Jersey Village, which sat atop an empty oil field, promptly sank into the ground. An hour later the water came back with a vengeance, aided by nearby bayous and underground streams. In twenty-four hours, Jersey Village turned into a swamp. Two days later, Mayor Bruce was kicked out of office.

Over the next year the city tried unsuccessfully to drain the area. The suburbanites had cashed in their insurance and fled, while criminals, drug addicts, and homeless squatted in half-flooded buildings. Finally the city council, exhausted by lawsuits and failed attempts to drain the area, gave up and excised the entire flood zone from the Houston metro area, because it was single-handedly doubling Houston’s crime rate. Now private firms patrolled the area. The task of keeping the Pit from completely degenerating into a lawless zone came bundled with some lucrative municipal contracts, so over the years it bounced from House to House. Right now House Shaw was looking after the Pit. They were doing just enough to keep the contract.

Over the last decade, Jersey Village had become the last stop. Magic-warped, gangsters, most wanted—they made their lairs here, hiding from the light in the abandoned offices. The Houses didn’t care, as long as they didn’t get out. The last time I had come here, I’d taken Aisha for backup. It had cost me a grand, and both of us had barely gotten out.

I checked my gun in its shoulder holster and stepped out of the car. Mad Rogan exited on his side. A rickety dock led the way into the Pit, veering off between the buildings. I started down the bridge. Mad Rogan strode next to me.

Bayous had their own primeval beauty, a kind of grim, timeless elegance, with dark, calm water and enormous cypresses, buttressing the shore with their bloated trunks. Jersey Village had none of it. It looked just like a flood zone where the water hadn’t gone away. Here and there the top of a rusted car poked through the dirty water. Some smaller buildings had burst, warped by the flood, spilling moldy trash into the open. Pale green scum floated on the surface. The Pit was ugly and it smelled even worse. Like sticking your head down an old half-drained fish tank.

“Lovely place,” Mad Rogan said.

“Wait until you meet the natives.”

A sardonic smile curved his lips. “Will there be a welcome party?”


He stopped and held his arm out, blocking me. The water in front of us parted. A clawed hand reached out, grabbing the slimy support of the bridge, and a nude woman pulled herself up onto the wooden planks. Her skin was a mottled green. You could play xylophone on her ribs. She blinked at me, her eyes dull and empty.

“How’s life, Cherry?” I asked.

“How the f**k do you think it is? You bring me meat?”

I reached into my backpack and pulled out a plastic container with two big raw chicken drumsticks in it, the thigh meat on. “Bug still alive?”

“Yeah. He’s in his old digs, in Xadar building. Stay away from the main bridge. Peaches and Montrel are in a turf war.”

That meant Peaches did away with his former boss. Not good. I passed the container to Cherry. She grabbed the chicken leg and bit into it with triangular crocodile teeth. I stepped around her and kept walking. Mad Rogan followed me.

“A friend of yours?”

“I met her about two years before,” I said. “She’s magic-warped.”

“I can see that.”

Magic was a funny thing. Almost a century and a half ago, when the serum that granted magic powers was first developed, some people took it and gained power, while others turned into monsters. Now, generations later, all of us still carried the potential to become twisted. Sometimes when people tried to augment their power, their magic reacted in terrible ways and they became like Cherry—warped.

“What happened to her?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Her arms have track marks, so she was likely a junkie at some point. Probably sold herself to some institute or House for experimental augmentation and it didn’t go well. I bring her chicken to trade for information.”

“It’s a rare treat for her?” he asked.


“Then you didn’t get a good deal. She didn’t tell you anything to justify the chicken.”

“She told me that Peaches killed Basta and took over the Southside. Montrel has the Northside, and he can be reasonable, but Peaches is batshit crazy and there is no way we can avoid him, because there are only a handful of ways in and out of here, and Xadar building is in the Southside.”

“You could’ve gotten more out of her.”

I turned to him. “What’s your point?”

Mad Rogan loomed next to me. “You bring her chicken because you feel sorry for her.”

“Yes. Why is that a problem?”

“I don’t judge,” he said. “You’re allowed your compassion.”

Oh great. Thank you for permission. “You’re doing that thing again.”

“What thing?”

“The one where you think you can tell me what to do.”

The bridge split and we turned right, away from the main route. Ahead, office buildings stuck out of the water like islands of concrete and brick. The roofs bristled with metal poles supporting tangles of wires. Above the second floor, a wide yellow line crossed each building with words stenciled in yellow: No power below this line.

Mad Rogan’s magic brushed against me and I fought an urge to jump back.

“As I said, I don’t judge,” he said. “If you had kicked her in the face instead of giving her chicken, I’d need to know. If you had hurled the chicken into the water and made her swim for it, I’d need to know that too. The more information I have, the better I can anticipate your actions when it will matter. For example, if a starving man pulls a gun on you and you get the upper hand, you will likely let him go because you will feel sorry for him. That’s the kind of person you are.”

“And what kind of person are you?”

His face was hard. “The kind who shoots first.”

The bridge curved behind the office buildings. We walked past the first half-sunken giant of concrete. Ahead, the bridge ended abruptly. I stopped.

“Damn it.”

“We’ll have to take the main bridge?” Mad Rogan asked.

I reached into my light jacket, pulled my gun out of the holster, and put it in my pocket. Mad Rogan watched me with a slightly amused expression. We turned left, picking our way across a rickety, narrow bridge until it spat us out into the open space between the office buildings. Here the ground rose slightly. Over the years, the Pit’s inhabitants had dumped piles of gravel, concrete, and brick chunks onto it until a narrow rectangular island had formed. Wooden bridges thrust from it, curving in all directions. Directly in front of me, men and women peered from the windows of an abandoned building. To the right, a group of people crowded around something.

I stepped onto the island. The group parted and a tall man strode out. He was skinny and pale, his arms and legs too long for his body. Limp reddish hair framed his face, the tangled strands the exact color of a ripe peach.

“Peaches?” Mad Rogan murmured next to me.


“Anything I need to know?”

“He summons swarms of poisonous swamp flies.”

It’s a known fact that child molesters look just like normal, ordinary people. Peaches looked like you would imagine a child molester might look. His face wasn’t unpleasant, but there was something deeply unsettling in his gaze. Something sick and creepy. It rolled over you like old oil from a fryer.

Peaches pointed over my shoulder at Mad Rogan. “Hey you! You! What the f**k are you doing in my house?”

On his left, a tall man jerked a Glock up. A woman in a black tank top and dirt-smeared jeans next to him raised a Chiappa Rhino. The distinct barrel was a dead giveaway. Just what we needed.

“We don’t want any trouble,” I said. “We’re just passing through.”

“Trouble? I am f**king trouble, bitch!” Peaches waved his arms. His face flushed. He was building himself up. If he’d been a wild turkey, he would have puffed out all his feathers. He’d work himself up to violence in a minute. Mad Rogan must’ve set off some alarm in Peaches’ brain that told him something was to be gained by humiliating him. “You think you can just come through here with your bitch?”

Mad Rogan didn’t answer.

“You mute, punk? You mute?” Spittle flew from Peaches’ lips. He closed the distance.

My heart sped up. My knees trembled slightly from the rush of adrenaline.

Peaches looked like he was about to ram Mad Rogan with his chest. Mad Rogan looked at him. It was a cold, emotionless stare. Peaches decided that two feet of space was close enough. “You’re in my place now! I am in charge here!”

His hand barely missed me as he flailed around. I took a step back.

“Don’t you f**king move! Shoot her if she moves.”

The man on the left clicked the safety off his Glock.

Peaches leaned closer. “I tell you what, if I was in a good mood, I’d f**k you up and send you back without your bitch, but I’m in a bad mood. I’m in a bad mood, punk. I’m gonna shoot your bitch right here and then I’m gonna put you in a hole. You worth money, punk, because you look like you worth money.”

Prev Next