Burn for Me Page 4

“We will return to the investigation on the arson after the break,” the news anchor announced. “Also, iconic downtown park infested with rats.”

The image of Bridge Park popped on the screen, its life-size bronze statue of a cowboy on a galloping horse front and center.

“Should Harris County officials resort to drastic measures? More after the break.”

Bern walked into the room. “Hey, Nevada, can I borrow you for a moment?”

I got up and followed him out. Without saying a word, we went down the hallway and into the kitchen. It was the closest place where Mom and Grandma wouldn’t overhear us.

“What’s up?”

Bern ran his hand through his short, light brown hair and held out a folder. I opened it and scanned it. John Rutger’s lineage, biography, and background check. A line stood out, highlighted in yellow: Honorable Discharge, Sealed.

I raised my finger. “Aha!”

“Aha,” Bern confirmed.

Usually employers liked hiring ex-servicemen. They were punctual, disciplined, polite, and capable of making quick decisions when needed. But combat mages sent the typical HR manager running in the opposite direction. Nobody wanted a guy stressing out in their office when he had the ability to summon a host of bloodsucking leeches. To circumvent this issue, the Department of Defense started sealing records of some combat-grade personnel. A sealed record didn’t always mean combat-grade magic, but it would’ve given me a nice heads-up. I would’ve approached Rutger’s situation from an entirely different angle.

“I screwed up.” Bern leaned against the counter. His grey eyes were full of remorse. “I had a modern history exam. It’s not my strongest class, and I needed at least a B to keep the scholarship, so I had to cram. I gave it to Leon. He ran the lineage and the background check, but forgot to log in to the DOD database.”

“It’s okay,” I told him. Leon was fifteen. Getting him to sit still for longer than thirty seconds was like trying to herd cats through a shower.

Bern rubbed the bridge of his nose. “No. It’s not okay. You asked me to do it. I should’ve done it. You got hurt. It won’t happen again.”

“Don’t sweat it,” I told him. “I’ve missed stuff before. It happens. Just make it a point from now on to check DOD. Did you get a B?”

He nodded. “It’s kind of interesting, actually. Do you know that story about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow?”

I used to really like history. I even thought of getting a minor in it, but real life got in the way. “Didn’t she knock over a lamp in the barn and start the Great Chicago Fire sometime in the 1860s?”

“In October of 1871,” Bern said. “My professor doesn’t think the cow did it. He thinks it was a mage.”

“In 1871? The Osiris Serum had barely been discovered.”

“It’s a really interesting theory.” Bern shrugged. “You should talk to him sometime. He is a pretty cool guy.”

I smiled. It had taken me four years, including every summer, to limp my way to a criminal justice degree, because I’d had to work. Bern got an academic scholarship because he was smarter than all of us combined, and now he was doing well. He even liked at least one of his classes outside his major.

“There is more,” Bern said. “Montgomery wants to see us.”

My stomach did a pirouette inside me. House Montgomery owned us. When savings and the money from the sale of our home hadn’t been enough to cover Dad’s medical bills, we’d sold the firm to Montgomery. Technically, it was mortgaged. We had a thirty-year repayment term, and every month we squeaked by with the minimum payment. The terms of our mortgage practically made us a subsidiary of Montgomery International Investigations. Montgomery had taken very little interest in us up to this point. We were too small to be of any use to them, and they had no reason to bother us as long as the check had cleared, and our checks always cleared. I made sure of that.

“They said ASAP,” Bern said.

“Did it sound routine?”


Damn it. “Don’t tell Mom or Grandma.”

He nodded. “They’ll just stress.”

“Yes. I’ll call you as soon as I find out what this is about. Hopefully we just forgot to file some form or something.”

I was almost to the door when he called, “Nevada? John Rutger’s wife wired the money. A thousand dollars, as agreed.”

“Good,” I said and escaped. I needed to brush my hair, make myself presentable, and hightail it across town to the glass towers.

Really, how bad could it be?

Chapter 2

The asymmetrical glass tower of Montgomery International Investigations rose above the neighboring office buildings like a shark fin of blue glass. Twenty-five stories tall, it gleamed with hundreds of tinted cobalt windows. It was meant to impress and fill you with awe at House Montgomery’s magnificence. I tried to scrounge up some awe but got only anxiety instead.

I walked through the door to the gleaming elevator, passing through a metal detector. The message from Montgomery said seventeenth floor, so I entered the elevator when the doors whooshed open, pushed the button with 17 on it, and waited as the car shot upward with a whisper.

What the heck could they possibly want?

The doors opened, revealing a wide space punctuated by a receptionist’s desk made of polished stainless steel tubes. At least twenty-five feet separated the glossy dark blue floor and the white ceiling. I stepped out before the elevator closed. The walls were pure white, but the enormous wall of cobalt glass windows behind the receptionist turned the daylight pale blue, as if we were under water. It all felt ultramodern, pristine, and slightly soulless. Even the snow-white orchids on the receptionist’s desk did nothing to add any warmth to the space. MII might as well have wallpapered the place with money and been done with it.

The receptionist looked up at me. Her face was flawless, pale brown, with big blue eyes and artfully contoured pale pink lips. Her tomato red hair was wrapped in an impeccable French twist. I could see each one of her long eyelashes, and not one had as much as a hint of a clump. She wore a white dress that really wanted to be a sleeve.

The receptionist blinked at my bruised face. “May I help you?”

“I have an appointment with Augustine Montgomery. My name is Nevada Baylor.” I smiled.

The receptionist rose. “Follow me.”

I followed. She was probably the same height as me barefoot, but her heels added about six inches. She clicked her way around the curving wall.

“How long does it take?” I asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“How long does it take you to get dressed for work in the morning?”

“Two and a half hours,” she said.

“Do they pay you overtime for that?”

She stopped before a wall of frosted glass. The white feathers of frost moved and slid across the surface in hypnotic pattern. Here and there a fine thread of pure gold shone and melted. Wow.

A section of the wall slid aside. The receptionist looked at me. I stepped through the opening into a vast office. We must’ve been in a corner of the fin, because the wall to the left and straight ahead consisted of blue glass. A white, ultramodern desk grew seamlessly out of the floor. Behind the desk sat a man in a suit. His head was lowered as he read something on a small tablet, and all I could see was a thick head of dark blond hair styled into a short and no doubt expensive haircut.

I approached and stood by a white chair in front of the desk. Good suit, in that color between grey and true black people sometimes call gunmetal.

The man looked up at me. Sometimes people with talent in illusion minimized their physical flaws with their magic. Judging by his face, Augustine Montgomery was a Prime. His features were perfect, in the way Greek statues were perfect, the lines of his face masculine and crisp but never brutish. Clean-shaven, with a strong nose and a firm mouth, he had the type of beauty that made you stare. His skin nearly glowed, and his green eyes stabbed at you with sharp intelligence from behind nearly invisible eyeglasses. He probably had to have protective detail when he left the building to fend off all the sculptors who wanted to immortalize him in marble.

The glasses were a masterful touch. Without them, he’d be a god on a cloud, but the hair-thin frames let him keep one foot on the ground with us mere mortals.

“Mr. Montgomery,” I said. “My name is Nevada Baylor. You wanted to see me?”

Montgomery valiantly ignored the purple tint of bruises on my face. “Sit down, please.” He pointed to the chair.

I sat.

“I have an assignment for you.”

In the five years they’d owned us, they had never given us an assignment. Please let it be something minor . . .

“We’d like you to apprehend this man.” He slid a photograph across the desk. I leaned forward.

Adam Pierce looked back at me with his crazy eyes.

“Is this a joke?”


I stared at Montgomery.

“In light of recent events, the Pierce family is concerned about Adam’s welfare. They would like us to bring him in. Uninjured. Since you are our subsidiary, we feel you’re perfectly suited to this task. Your portion of the fee will amount to fifty thousand dollars.”

I couldn’t believe it. “We’re a tiny family firm. Look at our records. We aren’t bounty hunters. We do small-time insurance fraud investigations and cheating spouse cases.”

“It’s time to expand your repertoire. You’re showing a ninety percent success rate with your cases. You have our complete confidence.”

We showed a 90 percent success rate because I didn’t take a case unless I knew we could handle it. “He’s a Prime pyrokinetic. We don’t have the manpower.”

Montgomery frowned slightly, as if bothered. “I’m showing one full-time and five part-time employees. Call your people in and concentrate on it.”

“Have you checked the DOBs on those part-time employees? Let me save you the trouble: three of them are under the age of sixteen, and one is barely nineteen. They are my sisters and cousins. You’re asking me to go after Adam Pierce with children.”

Montgomery clicked the keys on his keyboard. “It says here your mother is a decorated army veteran.”

“My mother was critically injured in 1995 during operations in Bosnia. She was captured and put in a hole in the ground for two months with two other soldiers. She was presumed dead and rescued by pure chance, but she suffered permanent damage to her left leg. Her top speed is five miles per hour.”

Montgomery leaned back.

“Her magic talent is in her hand-to-eye coordination,” I continued. “She can shoot people in the head from very far away, which will do absolutely nothing, since you want Pierce alive. And my own magic . . .”

Montgomery focused on me. “Your magic?”

Crap. Their records said I was a dud. “. . . is nonexistent. This is suicide. You have twenty times the resources and manpower we do. Why are you doing this to us? Do you think we have any chance at all?”


My magic buzzed. He just lied. The realization hit me like a load of bricks dumped on my head.

“That’s it, isn’t it? You know bringing Pierce in will be expensive and difficult. You’ll lose people, trained, skilled personnel in whom you’ve invested time and money, and in the end it will cost more than whatever the family is paying you. But you probably can’t turn House Pierce down, so you’re going to give this to us, and when it ends in disaster, you can show them our records. You can tell the Pierces that you assigned it to your best outfit with six employees and a ninety percent success rate. You’ve done all you can. You expect us to fail and possibly die to preserve your bottom line and save face.”

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