Burn for Me Page 42

Mad Rogan took the lemon wedge off his glass and deposited it onto his appetizer plate, as if it had been some sort of offending bug. “Well, let’s see, what do men in my position usually want?”

“More money?” I sipped from my glass.

“I’m worth one point two billion.”

I choked on my tea.

He waited until I got my coughing under control. “I have investments, and I own several corporations that make money mostly without my involvement. At some point more money is just more money. Some Primes go into research, but it never held any particular interest for me. Occasionally I may improve a spell if I want to accomplish a specific purpose, but I find the idea of dedicating myself to it boring.”

“Professional goals?”

Mad Rogan shook his head. “I’m excellent at only one thing: destruction on a massive scale. Been there, done that, got a lot of fatigue-colored T-shirts. I’ve reached the pinnacle of that career.”

Our food arrived. That was fast.

I bit into my taco. Delicious. “Why did you get out of the army?”

“Do you ever regret mortgaging the business?”

I saw how it was. An answer for an answer. A piece of shrimp slipped out of my taco and landed on my plate. Smooth move.

“Oh God, yes. We should’ve sold it as soon as we knew Dad was sick. We would’ve gotten more money and started the treatment earlier. The experimental therapy was working, it’s just that by the time the mortgage went through, my father was too far gone. But I was very green at that point, and running the business with an established name seemed like a better option. Had we sold it, I would’ve built it back up by now under a different name. But hindsight is twenty-twenty. My mother got a little bit more time with my dad, and he got a little bit more time with us. I have to be content with that.” I realized he was looking at me oddly. “What?”

“It wasn’t what I was asking, but I guess I got my answer anyway.” He tilted his head. “I got out of the military because we were winning the war. When I started, Belize was in ruins and Mexico threatened half a dozen nations in South America. We had to hit hard to turn the tide of war, so I hit hard.”

Now that was the understatement of the century.

“Years later, the coalition had beaten back Mexico and pacified the region. In the end they didn’t even deploy me. Having me in the area was enough to force the other side into retreat. When the conflicts began to die down, the chain of command on our side started talking about going into Mexico. I realized I was a factor in that decision and I resigned my commission, because as much as I enjoy flexing my magic, it was time for someone else to rebuild what I had wrecked. Even if the Mexican Initiative hadn’t been an issue, I would’ve left. The army has no use for me in peacetime. I’m bad at paperwork, and I can’t teach others to do what I do. I’m a killer. So I got out.”

“And now you’re a Prime without a cause.”

“Yes. Most things are not a challenge.” He leaned forward, focusing on me. “When I find a challenge, I devote myself to it.”

Was that about me? Because I wasn’t a challenge. I was a human being. I opened my mouth to tell him that, but he glanced over my shoulder at the parking lot. I turned and looked behind me. A grey Ford Escape pulled into a parking space. It was an older vehicle, with at least ten or twelve years on it. The man who stepped out was in his midtwenties, fit, with broad shoulders and short blond hair. He carried a manila folder and was wearing an ill-fitting black suit, the kind that was probably bought years ago and hung in the back of a closet, wrapped in plastic, extracted solely for funerals, weddings, and job interviews.

The man approached us. Mad Rogan rose. The man offered him his hand. “Troy Linman, Major.”

They shook.

“Sit,” Mad Rogan said.

Troy sat next to me. “Ma’am.”

Ex-soldier. I’d bet every dollar in my wallet on it.

Troy passed the manila envelope to Mad Rogan. Rogan opened it and scanned the contents. “Eleven Bravo?”

“Yes, sir.”

Infantry. Some MOSs, military occupation specialties, translated well to the civilian world. Anything in 68 category, medical, was good. Or 91B, wheeled vehicle mechanic. Eleven Bravo wasn’t one of those MOSs. It was the backbone of the army, but in the civilian world, there wasn’t much you could do with it.

“Why did you get out?” Mad Rogan asked.

Troy hesitated. “I was coming up on my reenlistment. My wife was six months pregnant with our second child, and she didn’t want me to reenlist. She didn’t say anything, but I put two and two together. I was kind of done too. I wanted to get out and try civilian life. I wanted to come home every night.”

“How is it going?”

“We do okay,” Troy said.

His flat voice told me that they weren’t doing okay. Not at all.

Mad Rogan pinned him with his stare. “The background check says your house will be repossessed tomorrow, so I’ll ask again, Mr. Linman. How is it going?”

I couldn’t see Troy’s right hand, but his left had rolled into a tight fist. “I work third shift in a tire-retreading plant and deliver pizza in the evening. My wife works days while I watch the kids. She’s a payroll processing clerk. I’ve been applying everywhere, trying to get a job, any job that would let me work in the daytime. Anywhere with a decent paycheck wants a degree.”

I’d heard this story so many times from so many people that I could guess what he would say next.

“I tried to apply to be a tollbooth operator. They want someone with a bachelor’s. What the hell does a tollbooth operator need a bachelor’s for? Army would pay for me to go to college, but I can’t afford to take the time off. We’ve been trying hard for two years. We just get deeper and deeper in the hole.”

“Did Santino explain what’s involved in working for me?”

Troy nodded. “Yes.”

“My rules are simple,” Mad Rogan said. “Be where you’re told to be when you’re told to be. The first time you lie to me will be the last day you’ll work for my House. If you try hard but fail, it won’t be counted against you. Being lazy and sloppy will get you fired. Getting high or drunk will get you fired. Being in debt will get you fired.”

Troy opened his mouth, his face stoic.

“I’ll take care of your foreclosure,” Mad Rogan said.

“With all respect, Major, I came for a job, not charity. I want to work and provide for my family.”

“It’s not charity,” Mad Rogan said. “House Rogan owns all of the loans of its employees. Home, auto, college, anything else. When someone else holds your loan, you become a security risk. I don’t like security risks, so I take care of my own. People who work for me do get hurt. Your medical is covered, your life isn’t. You have a family, so take that into consideration. I pay well, so take some of that money and buy yourself a decent life insurance policy.”

Mad Rogan fell silent.

Troy swallowed. “Am I in?”

“You’re hired.”

Troy’s face went white. He stopped breathing, and for a moment I thought he would pass out. He could deal with rejection. He must’ve braced himself for it so he could get up from this table and walk away with some dignity. But the relief of acceptance was too overwhelming. His entire life had been riding on Mad Rogan’s words, and now he couldn’t process it.

I reached out and touched his hand. “It’s okay.”

He looked at me, stunned.

“It’s okay,” I repeated. “He hired you. Your home is safe. You’re okay. Breathe, Troy.”

Troy inhaled deeply.

Shivers ran down my spine. I finally realized just how dangerous Mad Rogan was. Most Houses had their private armies, but Mad Rogan took it a step further. For Troy it wasn’t just a job. It was a chance to be a man again, to be appreciated for his skills and to provide for his family. It was a new life, and Mad Rogan had given it to him. That’s what he did. He found ex-servicemen at their lowest, gave them a chance to matter, and rewarded them for it. I now understood perfectly the man who had reported to Rogan after the Range Rover had blown up. Rogan didn’t just own them financially. He owned their souls. They thought he was God.

“When do I start?” Troy asked.

Thunder rolled down the street. I jumped off my chair. It came from behind Mad Rogan and to the right. He sprinted, clearing the fence. I ran out of the eating area into the parking lot and caught up with him at Franklin Street, Troy at my heels.

Smoke billowed from the justice center. The thick plume of it poured out of the eleventh floor, rising up. Oh no.

Something shot out of the window directly under the smoke and plummeted to the street. What the hell?

The thing charged down Franklin Street, running toward us on all fours in powerful leaps, half hidden by the vehicles. Something fast and as big as a pickup truck.

“You start now, Mr. Linman,” Mad Rogan said and ran toward the thing. As I pulled my gun out of my purse, Troy Linman yanked off the jacket of his suit, threw it on the ground, and ran after Rogan. I chased them, gun in hand.

The thing cleared the small sedan in its way and landed on the street, out in the open. Shaped like a cheetah with the head of a dog, it was made of metal. Sections of thick pipes sat where its bones would be, and chains wound around the metal skeleton. There was nothing holding it all together, nothing except magic and someone’s will. I’d never seen anything like it. Small animated objects, yes, but this, this was incredible.

The beast slowed and raised its head. A small bright spark shone in its long jaws.

“It’s got the artifact!” I yelled.

Mad Rogan stopped and brought his arms forward. The beast fell apart, sliced in four sections. The pipes and chains crashed to the ground and scattered.

“Find the animator!” Rogan walked toward the metal debris, moving cautiously. The pipes and chains slid apart in front of him, skittering across the pavement. He was sorting through it, looking for the artifact. Troy grabbed a loose pipe that had rolled to our feet and brandished it.

I spun around. An animator mage had to be within a short distance of his or her creation. On our left was a pay-to-park lot, complete with a toll bar and an automated payment booth. Directly in front of us, across La Branch Street, a ten-story parking garage blocked out a chunk of sky. Both were a bad idea for a quick getaway. In a moment, the area would be swarming with bailiffs, marshals, and cops. There was no way to escape quickly through the parking garage or the crowded parking lot. I turned. On our right, an empty square lot took up the entire block. It held only two cars; it had to be a tow-away zone. The animator wouldn’t risk parking there either.

“What are we looking for?” Troy asked, hefting the pipe like a club.

The pipes on the far left shivered.

Rogan turned . . .

The metal debris flew to him, clamping around him with terrible force, trying to crush him. I jerked my gun up. Rogan vanished behind the cage of metal pipes. Chains wrapped around the pipes and squeezed. Metal groaned, sliding and moving. Shooting it would do nothing. I could hit him by accident.

Troy ran at the shifting pile of metal.

“No! We can’t help him. We have to find the animator!”

The metal cage fell apart, as if it had exploded from the inside. Troy froze in the middle of the street. I saw a glimpse of Rogan’s furious face. The metal debris clamped him again and squeezed. He would have no bones left if I didn’t hurry.

“What are we looking for?” Troy yelled.

Rogan’s power was incredible. To go toe to toe with him would take a Prime. “A luxury armored car.”

He turned left, I turned right, scanning the street. A big black Cadillac Escalade was parked on La Branch next to the vacant lot, facing us. Two people sat, one in the driver’s seat, one in the passenger’s.

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