Burn for Me Page 9

My mother called it an early night when she missed Dad and didn’t want us to see her cry. I understood. It was five years, but I missed Dad, too. I could close my eyes and imagine him rummaging through the pantry, complaining that someone ate the steak he’d been saving and he was now reduced to eating unnatural things like salad and croutons. Mom was always the hard one. When Dad was around, she laughed. She still laughed now. Just not as often.

I gobbled up my food, rinsed the plate, stuck it into the dishwasher, and took the second plate and a glass of iced tea to the back of the warehouse. Once you passed through the main wall, no hint of our living space remained. It was all motor pool: sealed concrete floor polished to a shiny dark smoothness, tools on the walls, armored vehicles, some with small guns, some with tanklike barrels, crouching in the gloom, and the Grandma smell: gas, engine oil, and gunpowder.

A midsize armored track vehicle sat in the middle of the floor, bathed in the glow of the floodlights. Grandma Frida’s skinny legs in jeans stuck out from under the vehicle. To the right, Arabella lounged on the gutted shell of a Humvee covered by a dark green tarp. I had grown up just like this. When I would get home after school, Mom and Dad would still be gone, so I’d grab a snack and go hang out with Grandma in her shop. You could tell Grandma anything. She said that vehicles spoke to her if she let them. Children did too. She never judged, and even if you cursed or admitted to doing something terminally stupid, she would never tell Mom and Dad. I vented most of my fears and worries here. Then it was Bern’s and Catalina’s turn, then Arabella’s and Leon’s. We all were busy now, so we didn’t visit as much, but at least once a week one of us would end up hanging out here, spilling our guts and shaking our fists.

“Dinner!” I called.

Arabella scooted further up the tarp. She looked glum. Something didn’t go well at school.

Grandma slid from under the vehicle and sat up. “Grub. Yes. Hungry.”

I handed her the plate and nodded at the vehicle. “What’s his name?”

“Thiago.” Grandma touched the metal. Her eyes grew distant for a second—her magic making the connection to the inner workings Thiago’s engine. “Wolf-Spider class. He seems like a Thiago to me.”

Mech-mages like my grandmother were rare. Some made guns, others worked in civil engineering, but all shared a magical connection to things of metal and moving parts. For Grandma Frida, it was armored things that moved. It didn’t matter if they rolled, crawled, or floated. She lived and breathed the deep-voiced rumble of their engines and the smoky odor of their guns. Tanks, field artillery track vehicles, personnel carriers, she loved them all. Luckily, many of the Houses maintained private security forces, and she had a steady supply of clients.

“Is your mom okay?” Grandma asked. “She was in a funk earlier.”

“She’s fine,” I told her. “She just misses Dad, that’s all. I’ve got a question for you.”

“Shoot!” Grandma said.

“In the military, how do they keep mages in line? If one of them snaps, wouldn’t they nuke their whole unit?”

“Shockers,” Grandma Frida said. “Also referred to as joy buzzers, the shakers, squid shivers.”

“Squid shivers?”

“A squid is a navy grunt,” Grandma said. “The navy was the first to use the shockers, because it quickly found out that mages and ships don’t always mix well.”

Made sense. If you set fire to the ship or summon a swarm of poisonous flies, there was nowhere to go.

“It’s some kind of device they implant into your arms. Completely invisible from the outside, but it lets you shock anyone with magic. Hurts you like hell, but it hurts whoever you grab even more. Seriously nasty gadgets. People used to die from those.”

“People who got shocked?” I wondered if Mad Rogan ever got shocked . . . okay, I needed to stop obsessing over those eyes. I was a freshman in high school when that recording was made. He probably didn’t even look the same anymore. He definitely wasn’t the same nineteen-year-old. He’d been through six years of war. War chewed people up and spat out the gristle. If I kept going this way, I’d end up on Herald, trawling for Mad Rogan fanfic. We made love as the city fell around us, raining down concrete in chunks of despair . . . Yeah, right.

Grandma nodded. “The shocked and people who did the shocking. A shock works two ways. First, you have to prime it with your own magic, and only then it hits the other guy as you make contact. It sucks a good chunk out. If it takes too much magic, your body gives out and it’s curtains. First generation of trials had a mortality rate of over thirty percent. By the time Penelope enlisted, they had done a lot better with them. You wouldn’t believe the stuff they’ve got now. I know a guy who can implant one.”

That didn’t surprise me. “Is it illegal?”

“Oh yes.” Grandma grinned. “And you might die from it. You want a set?”

“No, thanks.”

“You sure?” Grandma winked at Arabella. “You wouldn’t need a Taser anymore.”

“No, I’m all good. Besides, the plan is to avoid being in a situation where I have to use the Taser in the first place.”


“For example, I had a chance to interrogate an owner of a biker shop late at night and I decided instead to come home.”

Grandma Frida set the plate down and picked up the five-foot-long breaker bar used to break track on the vehicles. In the right hands, it could disable a tank, and Grandma Frida was an expert. “I don’t understand you, Neva. You’re twenty-five years old. Where is your sense of adventure? When I was your age, I was half a planet away from the place I was born. You’re just so . . . sensible.”

Arabella perked up, sensing blood in the water. I had to nip this in the bud, or the teasing would never end. She who showed weakness to teenagers would be picked on to death. True fact of life.

“I have a family full of quirky people. Someone has to be sensible so all of you can enjoy being reckless weirdos.”

“You have to live a little.” Grandma fitted the track bar into the cog on the track. “Go out with a bad boy. Run headfirst into a fight. Get roaring drunk. Something!”

A guilt trip. Unfortunately for Grandma, I grew up with four younger siblings. Guilt tripping was sometimes the only reason anything got cleaned in our house. “Grandma, why don’t you knit?”


“Why don’t you knit? All grandmas knit.”

Grandma leaned into the track bar. The track split open and crashed to the floor with a loud clang. She stared at me with big blue eyes. “You want me to knit?”

Arabella snickered.

“If you look in the dictionary under grandmother, you’ll see a little old lady with two knitting needles and a ball of yarn.” I pretended to stir imaginary spaghetti with two imaginary chopsticks. “Sometimes I sit and think, if only my grandma had knitted me a hat or a scarf . . .”

“We live in Houston, Texas!” Grandma wiped her hands with a rag. “You’d get heat stroke.”

“Or a stuffed animal. I would’ve cuddled with it at night.” I sighed heavily. “Oh well. I guess that’s never going to happen.”

Arabella giggled. Grandma pointed the breaker bar at her. “Quiet in the peanut gallery.”

I gave them a nice, sweet smile. “Well, I’m going now. You two have fun. I have to work tomorrow.”

Chapter 4

Gustave’s Custom Cycles occupied a rectangular steel building with corrugated metal walls. It was exactly two hundred feet wide and eight hundred feet long, manufactured by Olympia Steel Buildings, delivered to the site and assembled there four years and seven months ago. Bern had pulled up the city permits for me.

Before I went to bed last night, I spent hours reading the background file on Adam Pierce and whatever Bern had been able to dig up during the day. I read interviews with Adam Pierce’s parents and teachers, tabloid articles, credible gossip on Herald, and what little Adam’s college friends said about him. I read his speeches. Adam liked making speeches, especially after giving his family the finger, and the message wasn’t so much anarchy but right of might. If you can take what you want, you should be able to do so, and government and law enforcement shouldn’t be able to prevent you because they have no right to exist. He threw around terms like negative liberty and quoted Hobbes.

I knew about Hobbes only because my major had required some political science courses. Hobbes was a seventeenth-century English philosopher best known for his belief that without political community, man’s life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Adam had found a different sentiment from Hobbes: “A free man is he that, in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to do what he has a will to.” He repeated it on at least three occasions. Adam felt society hindered his freedom by not letting him do what he wanted to do. Unfortunately for him, if what he wanted to do was set people on fire, he was out of luck. The rest of us wouldn’t stand for that.

I now knew more about Adam Pierce than I ever wanted to. He was smart, at times cruel, and easily bored. He wouldn’t trust me no matter what I did. Establishing some sort of friendship was out of the question. If I tried to be earnest and sincere, he’d laugh; if I tried to use reason, he would yawn. My only chance was to be interesting. I had to catch his attention and hold it.

The Twitter picture of him in front of the bike shop kept bugging me. A real biker didn’t let just any mechanic put hands on his bike. No, real bikers picked their mechanics carefully. There was a good deal of trust involved. So last night I looked into Gustave’s Custom Cycles, and when a couple of red flags went up, I asked Bern to help. He found a number of interesting things. This morning I ate breakfast, put on my jeans and comfortable running shoes in case I had to run for my life, and drove to the motorcycle shop. Adam wanted amusement out of life. I was about to tap him on the shoulder. I just had to do it hard enough for him to turn around.

The building looked older than either of its neighbors. The corrugated walls had suffered some dents over the years. Someone had painted the front facade solid black and airbrushed a hell bike on it: huge, shiny, and framed in billowing flames full of grinning red skulls.

The parking lot held two vehicles, both Dodge trucks, one white, one black. Good. I wouldn’t have to do my show-and-tell in front of the whole class. I parked next to the white truck, grabbed my business fake-leather folder, and walked into the office. Nobody was manning the counter, so I rang the bell and waited.

The door swung open and a man in his early thirties shouldered his way in. Tall and lanky, he looked spare; not underfed but dried like jerky under the sun. He wore a T-shirt smudged with oil and faded old jeans. His skin was a rich olive brown, about a shade or two darker than my own. He’d shaved his head, but a short, carefully shaped beard hugged his jaw. I recognized him from the image Bern had dug up during his research—Gustave Peralta, the owner.

He saw me and blinked. I clearly wasn’t someone he’d expected. “How can I help you?”

“My name is Nevada Baylor. I’m looking for Gustave Peralta.”

“Call me Gus,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

I passed him my business card.

“Private investigator.” He frowned. “That’s new.”

“I was hired by House Pierce to find Adam Pierce.”

“Can’t help you,” Gus said. “Haven’t seen him in the last six months.”

An annoying magic click. A lie.

“He hasn’t visited the shop in the last week?” The Twitter photo was shared this Monday.


A lie.

“Gus . . .”

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