Trace of Magic

Trace of Magic

Diana Pharaoh Francis

August 2014 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-514-0

Book 1 of The Diamond City Magic Novels


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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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Even the most powerful tracers can’t track you if the magical trace you leave behind is too old. But I can track almost anything, even dead trace. That makes me a unicorn, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and the Lock Ness Monster all rolled into one. In a word, I am unique. A very special snowflake. And if anyone ever finds out, I’ll be dead or a slave to one of the Tyet criminal factions.

Riley Hollis has quietly traced kidnapped children and quietly tipped the cops to their whereabouts one too many times. Now she’s on the radar of Detective Clay Price, a cop in the pocket of a powerful magic Tyet faction. When he blackmails her into doing a dangerous trace for him, Riley will have to break every rule that keeps her safe. Or become a Tyet pawn in a deadly, magical war.


"Francis, a master at creating kick-ass heroines and fast-paced-action romance, starts a new series set in a gritty metropolis situated in and around a giant Rocky Mountain caldera where diamonds are mined and epic snowstorms necessitate doors on the second and third floors of buildings just to give winter access. Riley Hollis is a freelance tracer; she can see a ribbon of color delineating where someone has been, but her hidden talents go far beyond that. Clay Price is a dirty cop who is connected to the Tyet, an organized crime syndicate that makes the Mafia look like kinder, gentler criminals. When Clay comes to Riley with a job, he makes sure she can’t turn him down; at the same time, her sister’s ex-fiancé goes missing. Forensic accounting, a safe full of cryptic clues, and a unique magic system contribute to the appeal of this page-turning urban-fantasy romance that will appeal to readers who like suspenseful, paranormal crime integrated with sizzling-hot lovemaking." — Diana Tixier Herald, BookList Online

4 ½ Stars TOP PICK – RT Magazine

"Best book of the year! Best new character of the year! Best new series all year! I. Loved. This. Book. You gotta read it.” —Faith Hunter, New York Times Bestselling Author of the Jane Yellowrock series

"Diana Pharaoh Francis has crafted a winning paranormal mystery that mixes sizzling sex, magic, and a decades old search for artifacts that could change their world.” —Jeanne Stein, Bestselling Author of The Anna Strong Chronicles

"Trace of Magic caught me up fast and pulled me in tight for a fun, action-and-sass adventure full of deadly magic and dangerous romance. Diana Pharaoh Francis delivers a downright terrific read.” —Devon Monk, nationally Bestselling Author of Hell Bent

"A vividly written world of magic and kick-ass action.” —D.B. Reynolds, Bestselling Author of The Vampires in America series

"A kickass thrill ride with magic, sex, guns and mystery.” —John Hartness, Bestselling Author of The Black Knight Chronicles



Chapter 1

EVERYBODY LEAVES a magical trail of sorts, like an indelible ribbon unrolling behind them. It isn’t actually on this plane, but in a sort of other dimension that only tracers like me can see.

It fades pretty quick for most tracers, disappearing in a matter of hours or maybe a week or two if they are really strong. It never fades for me. I can even see dead trace. It can be tricky to follow, and doing it can leave you vulnerable to the spirit world. I try not to follow dead trace if I can help it. Altogether, those talents make me a unicorn, the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, and the Loch Ness Monster all rolled into one. In a word, I am unique. A very special snowflake.

I grimaced. It makes for an interesting life, in the Chinese curse sense of the word. I spend most of my time figuring out ways to hide out and stay below the radar of every Tyet faction, crew, and boss. I make a living tracking cheating spouses, missing employees (they usually took money with them), missing persons in general, and the occasional thief or housebreaker. It isn’t a lot of money, but then I don’t need much.

On the side, anonymously, I track down stolen kids. Nine out of ten times, some sadist in the Tyet is responsible. About half the time I find the kids alive. If I didn’t look for them, the odds would be about perfect that they’d be found dead. I’m that good. I wish I was better.

I swallowed, my teeth grinding together, thinking of little Philip Johns. He’d never seen his first birthday. His kidnappers had suffocated him with a plastic bag before tossing him into a dumpster. So help me, Nancy Jane Squires was not going to die. Not on my watch.

Nancy Jane and her mother went missing on the second day of January. It was a Tuesday and Nancy Jane’s birthday. She was seven. From the moment I heard about it, I knew it was one of my cases—the ones that either I solved or the victims died. Sometimes they died anyway.

Patti had texted me with the news. She’s my best friend and part owner of the Diamond City Diner, where I hold my office hours, such as they are. She didn’t say much, just: Another one. Check the news. I got the message at eight in the morning as I was on my way to pick up groceries. I never go near my house with my phone on in case I’m being tracked. I had powered it up when I got to the central metro station this morning. By then, Nancy Jane and her mom had been missing more than twelve hours.

I didn’t have a lot of time. This kidnapping stunk of yet another damned Tyet tug-of-war, which meant Nancy Jane and her mother were entirely dispensable. The only good news was they hadn’t been killed on site; that meant the kidnappers hadn’t just wanted to make a bloody statement. They wanted something and needed the girl and her mother alive to get it.

It wasn’t hard to find coverage. The story was plastered all over the place along with an Amber Alert. There weren’t a lot of details. The two had been taken outside a shoe store in Midtown about six thirty the night before. It was out on the south side, where Tyet turf wars seemed to explode every other day. There weren’t any witnesses or video. The kidnappers had used nulls to shut down the magic in the area and vanish all trace.

Basically, they’d disappeared into thin air.

I missed my train as I checked the underground rumor sites, and certain social networks. It’s amazing how many Tyet crews post online, either bragging about jobs, setting them up, or threatening people.

In the last decade or so, Diamond City had reverted to something of an Old West/mafia war zone. Way back when diamonds were first discovered here, there’d been a huge rush followed by massive territory wars. Eventually the Tyet had emerged—basically a united consortium of very bad people who ran the diamond trade and the town. Our most lauded town hero, Zachary Kensington, had brokered that pact somehow, bringing order from chaos. But then something happened about ten years ago and all hell broke loose. A lot of it had to do with a changing idea of what the Tyet could or should do and various factions wanting more money, more power, more, more, more. A drug trade had entered the scene as well—Sparkle Dust, or SD.

It was made from minerals found only in the Diamond City Caldera, minerals infused with the magic of their violent birth. It lent normal people small random magic talents for a short time, plus made users feel twenty feet tall and orgasmically good. Supposedly if you already had talent, you could do extra special spells while on it. I’d never tried. It wasn’t worth it. Sparkle Dust was seriously addictive and sold for a pretty penny. For makers and dealers, they could make almost as much as diamond miners. For addicts, it turned them into wraiths. Literally.

The point is that ten years ago, the shit hit the fan, and now there were dozens and dozens of Tyet crews trying to grab a piece of the pie, while the bigger syndicates made and broke alliances trying to control the entire pie. The old Chicago and New York mob families used to have the one unbreakable rule: don’t go after the women and children. The Diamond City Tyet factions have one too: don’t fuck up the diamonds and drug trade. Everything else is on the table, including seven-year-old girls and their mothers.

I hate the Tyet more than I can begin to say. They killed my mother, and if they knew what I could do, they’d hunt me down and repeat the favor on me or take me captive. I’d rather be a corpse than a slave, and I’d rather be free than either. The rest of my family thinks I should get the hell out of the city and go live on the other side of the world. Maybe I will. Before I do, I’m going to find out who killed my mom and what happened to my dad. Then I’m going to make someone pay. After that—I could see myself living in Tahiti. Maybe Venice or Barcelona, or better yet, the Greek coast.

Until then, I planned to do all I could to very quietly make their lives hell. Like finding a way to spike their plans for Nancy Jane and her mom.

I scrolled through the posts I’d pulled up on my phone. Nobody online was claiming responsibility for the Squires kidnapping. Most were pointing fingers at each other, calling names and condemning such heinous acts. Blah-blah-blah. It was nothing more than pots calling the kettles black and made me want to drop them all down the deepest mine shaft I could find.

My next stop was the police feeds. Most cops were dirty. At least, it was safer to assume they were. I hadn’t found one yet who wasn’t, though I liked to think they existed. There was one I trusted more than the others—Detective-Asshole Clay Price. He was a jerk. Arrogant, prickly, and impatient, he worked for Gregg Touray, who was one of the top Tyet bosses in the city. Everybody knew Price was one of Touray’s cop enforcers. He made sure things went Touray’s way when the police were called into a situation, and he passed on whatever information he got. The only reason I trusted him more than other cops is that most of the time, he also actually tended to do his job. He also didn’t like it when innocents got pulled into a Tyet fight, especially kids.

This case wasn’t in his jurisdiction—he worked out of the Downtown—but I was sure he’d have his hand in it. I almost always saw notes from him in these kidnap files.

Accessing case notes on my own was next to impossible. Luckily, I had a tinker friend who was an elite hacker and had given me the keys to the cop feeds in exchange for a top-end null. I didn’t hand those out very often—I was supposed to be a crap tracer with minimal talent. Sean was in the same boat as I was. He wasn’t going to let my secret out, not if he expected me to protect his.

Price had only written a few lines. Nancy Jane’s mother was Tess Squires. The girl’s father, Abe, was a low-level tinker working as a mechanic at the Lazarus mine. No one had seen or heard from him since before the kidnapping. The cops had set up checkpoints at every Diamond City exit and at the airport. Price also noted the family’s address.

I backed out of the system and shut off my phone before I triggered an alarm. I had a place to start. I fished in the inside pocket of my jacket and pulled out a red glass marble. It was a null, one that targeted my own trace rather than voiding the magic around me. I’d activated one on leaving the house, but as planned, it depleted by the time I reached the metro station.

The only time trace vanished for me was when it was nulled. Depending on who made the null and what they told it to do, the trace would reappear after a while. Good nulls, the kind I made, kept a person from leaving any trace at all for as long as the null lasted. They cost a lot more than the others. I had a feeling that Nancy Jane’s kidnappers had gone the cheap route at the shoe store and that their trace would reappear. I was hoping so, anyway.

I’d find out soon enough, but first I wanted to check out the Squire’s house and get a clear trace signature for each. I also wanted to see who else had been there recently, particularly the missing father.

I caught the train—half subway/half train really—to the south side of the Downtown shelf. Diamond City is built inside an ancient volcanic caldera in the middle of Colorado, fifty miles south of Gunnison. The crater is more than a hundred miles across and cut in half by the Buffalo River. The river drops in a series of falls on one side, then widens into a big lake near the middle of the caldera before draining out through a network of lava tubes on the other side. The west side is empty lowland meadows that like to flood every spring. Mines make the entire basin and opposite side of the caldera look like it has been bombed, though there have been a few projects to restore the vegetation and prevent erosion and landslides.

Diamond City clings like barnacles to a series of wide basalt shelves on the east side of the river, starting on a broad table of rock at the bottom and rising in steps to the rim of the caldera. The lower part of town houses people who can’t afford the rents higher up. Most of them are either living off the diamond dole, or they’re too new in town to qualify for it. In the summer, the mosquitoes are nasty down in the Bottoms, and in the winter, the ice and snow turns the place into a cold hell.

Right above the Bottoms is the ledge known as Downtown. It’s the city’s widest shelf. It covers a good fifty or sixty square miles all told, with the business district in the heart of it and dozens of little neighborhoods, shopping malls, and industrial parks spreading out from there. There is also a healthy share of smaller diamond mines, though many of those have been closed or are getting so regulated they can’t hardly dig anymore. I live on the north side of Downtown in an old Tyet hideout created more than a century ago and long forgotten by most people.

The next ledge holds Midtown, where people with any money at all live. The neighborhoods on the north side are ritzier than on the south side. They get more sun and are farther from the falls and the noise of the mines. It’s prettier up there, with a lot of parks and trees, a couple of art colonies, and an assortment of glitzy shops and restaurants. The upper rim of the city is Uptown, where you have to have a few million dollars just to buy a dog house. Up there are hundred-acre estates and even a few castles.

I don’t like enclosed spaces, and riding the train underground made me sweat fire-hose style. By the time I reached my stop, my tee shirt was clinging to my back and sides, and my deodorant had probably exhausted itself. I put my jacket back on and pulled up the hood. The wind cut right through me. The temperatures were hanging right around five degrees. We hadn’t had snow since November, and that had all melted off within a few weeks.

I didn’t mind. Winter lasted far too long this high in the Rocky Mountains, and I was never eager for it to arrive. Once the snow started falling, it would pile to the eaves of the houses, and to get in and out, people would have to use their second-and third-floor doors that now exited onto empty air.

I hunched against the wind and fell into a long, ground-eating walk. Traffic was heavy with bicycles zooming past on the sidewalk. The scent of hot bread lured me into a bakery, where I grabbed a cup of hot chocolate and a breakfast sandwich to eat as I went.

The Squires’s place was in a fourplex pinched between the back of a laundry mat and a little Mexican taqueria. Cop cars lined the road, the lights flashing. Orange-and-white sawhorses kept the road clear of traffic. Clusters of people stood on the sidewalk, rubbernecking and gossiping. I sidled up close to one group.

"What’s going on?”

People love to talk about disasters. It’s human nature. A grizzled man with a yellowing beard and a Vietnam vet baseball cap eyed me.

"What’s it to ya?”

People love to talk about disasters, except when those disasters come at the hands of the Tyet. Then they get nervous and closemouthed.

I shrugged. "Nothing. Just wondering how long they’re going to have the street blocked.”

One of his companions, a younger guy with a barely there mustache and a receding hairline, pulled a cigarette from his mouth. "Why? Need to get your car through?”

He laughed as if he’d said something funny. The other men in the little group joined him, then abruptly quieted.

I smiled. "My mom’s getting a new bed today from Barrows.” I named a furniture store down in the Downtown where the prices were reasonable and a lot of working people shopped. "I’m hoping if we tear apart her old bed, she’ll have the new one in time to sleep tonight. She lives a little ways farther by Eaglesdale Church.”

I make a habit of knowing what’s where in Diamond City. At least in Downtown and Midtown. I’ll pick an area and walk it until I remember street names and landmarks. It helps in my line of work. I stay out of Uptown. I look suspicious there, like I’m casing the houses.

Yellow-beard softened. A fictitious mom in need tended to have that sort of effect.

"There’s a route up Calloway, if the truck keeps going past Horton Mines and turns up Mason Lane. It dead-ends into Calloway, and that will take ’em right back to Glasspell.”

We were standing on Glasspell Avenue.

"Thanks,” I said. "I’ll call and make sure they know not to come this way.” I yawned and started up the street toward the Squires’s residence. "You gentlemen take care.”

They forgot me before I’d gone three steps. I kept to the other side of the street from the fourplex, keeping my head down and trudging like I had a long way to go, peering sideways at it from under my hood.

The Squires lived on the end. The living space was upstairs, with a garage underneath. White metal steps rose to the second-floor landing overlooked by a picture window and a white door. Dusky blue paint looked pretty recent. The Squires still had Christmas lights twining around the balcony railing and looping around the window. All in all, the place looked cared for, if a little worn at the elbows and knees.

Cops milled around the yard and went up and down the stairs into the apartment. A uniformed tracer paced back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the house, the green stripes on his sleeves giving his talent away. Detective-Asshole Clay Price stood on the postage-stamp lawn, arms crossed, watching, his expression coldly furious.

He had the silky black hair, pale skin, and blue eyes of the black Irish who’d first come to Diamond City to work the mines. A shadow scruff of beard heightened the angles and hollows of his square jaw and obstinate chin. Above them, his sharply wedged nose was asking to be punched. His lips were firm and straight. He had no laugh lines, like he hadn’t so much as smiled more than once or twice in his entire life.

In a word, he was gorgeous. And also, he was totally and completely off-limits.

Here’s my one rule: I try very hard not to be stupid. I don’t take the same path home every night, I sleep with a gun under my pillow, I reinforce my nulls every day, I stay out of the spotlight, and I avoid the cops and the Tyet whenever humanly possible. Given that Price was both, he had extra big no-no written all over him. Didn’t make him ugly though. The bad thing was when the pretty scenery noticed me and stomped across the street to stop me.

"Riley Hollis,” he said, glaring down at me. His dark sapphire eyes were intelligent and far too penetrating. "What are you doing here?”

I hated that he knew my name. Not unexpected, given that my cases brought me into his orbit more than I liked, and given that I kept my office hours at the Diamond City Diner, less than two blocks away from his precinct. I still didn’t like him knowing who I was. I really didn’t like him seeing me here. I should have been more careful.

"Detective Price,” I said, pushing my hood back and blinking innocently. "What’s happened?”

"Don’t play games, Miss Hollis. You’re here because you know exactly what’s going on. I want to know who’s paying you and exactly how your client is connected to the Squires.”

I had to admire him. He was a skilled cop. Smart as hell and clearly frustrated. From the expression on his face, it looked like he was bouncing off a dead end. The police tracer must not have been able to pick up anything.

"Sorry, Detective. I saw the lights and decided to see what the fuss was about. I’m on my way to an emergency meeting. Got a lady whose cat went missing.”

At his look of pure disbelief, I shrugged and smiled wryly, playing the part to the hilt. "She’s kind of a shut-in and her family wants her happy. I told them I doubted I could help since animal trace is nearly impossible for me to pick up, but they’re desperate. Seems no one else will even talk to them.”

He tipped his head, eyes narrowed. He didn’t believe me, but he couldn’t exactly hold me for walking down the sidewalk. He reached into his jacket and took out a pen and a notebook, flipping the latter open. "What’s the name of your potential client?”

"I can’t tell you that,” I said. "It’s confidential.”

"You don’t have a confidentiality veil in your line of work.”

I did my best to look sorrowful. I was enjoying his irritation far more than I should have been, especially since every second we spent together made me more memorable. "I’m afraid you’re going to have to get a warrant. I can’t let clients think that I just spew information whenever the police ask for it.”

"This is a kidnapping case,” he ground out, snapping the notebook shut. "A mother and her seven-year-old daughter. So you can damned well cough up your client’s name or you can go to the precinct and wait for me to come question you. Which do you want?”

I chewed my lip. How was I going to get out of this? "I suppose I could help you,” I said. "See if I can see any trace.”

He snorted. "You’re a hack, Miss Hollis. If a department tracer can’t find anything, you sure as hell aren’t going to.”

Just then the man in question shouted Price’s name. He glanced down at me and then across the street. As fast as he’d arrived, he strode away.

"This conversation is not over, Miss Hollis,” he called over his shoulder. "Expect to hear from me again.”



Chapter 2

I HURRIED UP the sidewalk and around a corner out of sight. I hadn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of going out of Price’s mind. I wanted to kick myself. Worst part was, I hadn’t got what I needed, and Nancy Jane and her mom were running out of time. Twenty-four hours was the best window for getting them back alive. After that, well, most times either the victims stayed disappeared or turned up dead.

My only option was to sneak back to the fourplex in order to pick up trace from each of the Squires. I could do that from the alley behind. I didn’t need line of sight, I just had to get close enough. I looped around a couple of blocks to come around behind the apartments.

There was no alley. A row of houses with postage-stamp backyards nestled right up to the property line. I gritted my teeth. Of course. Why would it be easy? I considered knocking on doors until someone let me in to their backyard, but given how the men on the sidewalk had reacted to me, I doubted I’d make much headway. There was a narrow slot between the back fences of the houses and the taqueria and fourplex. The dry cleaner had blocked it off on one end. Yellow crime-scene tape hung across the other, but no one guarded it. It was almost like they wanted me to go in.

I smiled to myself and slouched down the sidewalk along the fence. The sun was shining, and I did my best to look like I belonged there. I ducked under the yellow tape and squeezed into the narrow space. I edged along until shadows disguised my presence, then opened myself to the trace.

The Squires were easy enough to pick up, even with all the cop traffic to confuse the issue. Like I said before, everybody leaves behind a trace trail, unless it’s nulled out in some fashion. I’m betting the police tracer was having a hard time because the Squires’s trace was fading on him. Or rather, his ability to see it made it look like it was fading away. That’s an assumption most people make—that trace fades over time. It doesn’t. The tracer just hasn’t got the power to keep seeing it as it ages.

Anyhow, the apartment was full of the family’s trace. It was easy to find Nancy Jane’s. She had her own room and spent a lot of time in it. Her mother’s trace was all over the house in the kitchen and the bedrooms. The father’s went to the refrigerator—for beer after work or maybe before—then to what I imagined were the table and the couch, then a bedroom and bathroom. He’d gone into the laundry room maybe once.

Nancy Jane’s trace was a ribbon of golden orange. Her mother’s was a dark pink, and her father’s was gray. The man was dead.

Not good. That meant Nancy Jane and her mom were being used as leverage against someone else. I’d been hoping the father was the kidnapper so I could use him to track them. I had no idea how to find out who was actually involved, at least not in the next day or so. Price had the juice to uncover more, but he wasn’t going to give me a heart-to-heart, and I couldn’t wait for him to load notes into the computer system. I needed the trace to reappear at the kidnapping site. If it didn’t...

I thought of little Philip Johns. No. I would figure something out.

I inched back down to the entrance and peered out. No one was looking my way. I ducked back under the tape and strode down to the next street and turned out of sight. Next stop, the parking lot where Nancy Jane and her mother had been stolen. I couldn’t help but wonder who’d got the ransom note. Maybe the father’s body had been the proof of commitment and Nancy Jane and her mother were the treasure to be retrieved. In that case, whoever was on the receiving end of the ransom demand might already have paid it or more likely, be in the middle of their own rescue attempt. Or revenge crusade. Maybe they’d already given the two up for dead.

Fuck, but I hated the Tyet. I hated the politics and the trade in bodies that came with it, and the way everybody ran scared of every shadow. They could all burn in hell, and I wouldn’t miss a single one.

I caught the train to Midtown after looking up the shoe store address. It wasn’t that far from where my sister’s ex-fiancé lived. I grimaced. Ex-fiancé, but not ex-out-of-her-life. I didn’t judge, but it was clear that Josh and Taylor were still involved, even if they weren’t planning a marriage. Whatever. Not my problem and not my concern. If Taylor was happy, so was I. Unless making her happy meant annoying the fuck out of me, which happened with irritating regularity.

Encanto wasn’t your ordinary, run-of-the-mill sort of store. It carried designer shoes and high-end name-brand stuff. Nancy Jane’s mother shouldn’t have had the money to shop there.

I wandered into a frozen yogurt shop a couple doors down and took my cup to a table in the window. There were two cop cars still parked in front of the store and a crime-scene van parked nearby. Several men and women collected evidence from around the deserted car, using magic and prosaic tools of the trade. I wasn’t interested in them. I was waiting for the trace to come back. I’d give it another couple or three hours before I gave up. It had been fourteen since the kidnapping, and a null that lasted longer than that would cost a hell of a lot of money. Since most tracers weren’t strong enough to pick up the returning trace, or maybe they just didn’t bother to look for it, I figured it would appear soon if it was going to come back at all.

I’d eaten another yogurt and switched to a cafe for hot cider and a sandwich when the trace returned. There was a tangle left behind by five or more people, including Nancy Jane and her mother. I got up and left money on the table for the tip before wandering down the sidewalk. I only needed a trail. A casual walk-by would give me that.

There were three kidnappers and the two victims. Everybody’s trace was still colorful and very alive. The getaway vehicle had gone out the east exit of the shopping village and headed east toward the escarpment leading up to Uptown. That surprised me. I thought for sure they’d head for Downtown. The kidnappers didn’t strike me as particularly well-funded. Otherwise, they’d have used better nulls. On the other hand, well-funded criminals weren’t necessarily smart, and many were cheap enough to pass for stupid.

I followed on foot, wishing I had my mountain bike. I’d wrecked it in October and hadn’t gotten around to making the necessary repairs.

They never went to Uptown. They hit the Midtown Pearl District, and turned off the main avenue to zigzag through several neighborhoods. I followed down a long wooded drive to a cul-de-sac with only one driveway leading off. The trail disappeared behind a set of wrought-iron gates attached to tall stone walls. Within was an estate with tall, sweeping trees. I could see the blue-slate roof of the house, but that was about it. A quaint-looking stone guard shack stood just inside the gates. A mat of winter-dried vines covered it over.

The guard noticed me immediately. He stepped out, wearing a puffy down parka and a ball cap with gold braid on it. He wore a gun holstered on his hip and had a radio speaker clipped to his collar at the edge of his hood.

I hesitated, then decided that running was not a good option. There was nothing to indicate that Nancy Jane and her mother had left after they arrived. If I took off now that I was seen, I might spook the kidnappers. They could easily kill Tess Squires and her daughter and get rid of the bodies before I could call in the cavalry.

"What do you want?” the guard demanded. He had a deep voice and skin the color of day-old coffee. He rested his hand on his weapon. Like I would be able to attack him through the gates.

I shuffled up closer and wrapped my hands around the iron bars. "Hey, man, it’s really cold out. This place is really a whoop-de-doo, you know what I mean? Like money on the half shell. I don’t need cash. Places like this always have stuff to give away, stuff they don’t want anymore. Maybe something I could sell? Maybe shoes or clothes? I can get good money for those. I’m really struggling. I got kids. The old man died in a rock fall in the mines and left us with nothing. I can’t find a job. I gotta get some food on the table.”

The moment I started talking, a look of pity and disgust shadowed the guard’s features. His eyes slid away from me like I was suddenly invisible. He dropped his hand from his gun.

"Lady, you need to get out of here. Go beg somewhere else. What the hell you doing here anyway? Go to a church or a soup kitchen or something.”

"I will, I will,” I said. "Can’t you just give me a little something? Maybe a watch? Or a couple dollars? I got another few months before I can get on the diamond dole. Just gotta get there. Kids are sick, you know. Haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday. You understand, I know it. You’ve seen down times. I’ll pay everything back. I promise.”

I let the panic and desperation ratchet up in my voice, even as I piled more problems on. He didn’t believe me; but he wanted to get rid of me, and I had to make my act believable if he wasn’t going to get suspicious about me being here.

"Look lady, you’ve gotta leave. I don’t know what made you pick this place—”

"The Lord led me here,” I claimed. "He lit the path for me because he knew I’d find help here.” I really hoped I wasn’t going to burn in hell for using the Lord’s name in vain. Not that anybody in heaven knew my name.

"Well, he was wrong. Get lost.”

Just then his radio crackled, and a voice barked, "What’s going on, Randall?”

The guard gave me a furious look and pressed the button on the speaker. "It’s nothing. Just a vagrant, sir. She’s leaving.”

"She’d better be,” the voice snapped back. "Get rid of her now or it’s your head.”

That wasn’t actually a euphemism or an idle threat. I shuddered, but continued to look beseechingly at Randall. He swore and pulled out his wallet and shoved a couple of twenties into my hand.

"That’s it, lady,” he growled. "You go and don’t ever come back. You do and you’ll have reason to regret it.”

I instantly started to retreat, calling blessings down on him and thanking him. I wanted my exit to look like I was afraid he’d change his mind, but really I just wanted to get out of the line of sight of the security cameras and the chance of him noticing I wasn’t quite what I seemed. I’m a jeans and tee-shirt girl. I don’t go for designer wear, and I like hiking boots or running shoes. I wear clothes I can move in and that won’t get shredded when I have to climb over fences or crawl under a hedge. I do those kinds of things more frequently than I like. So it wasn’t that I wasn’t looking the role of the beggar—at least for this kind of neighborhood— but that I was awfully clean and neither my shoes nor my jacket were cheap. If anybody stopped to consider, they’d know I wasn’t what I claimed to be.

I hustled up the roadway. The trees marching along the sides of the road beyond the drainage culvert gave the estate seclusion, and also protected potential witnesses from watching me get murdered.

A sound alerted me to pursuit. I glanced back. The gates had slid open far enough to let Randall out. He was jogging after me, his hat pulled low.

Fear forked through me, and I broke into a jog. I was fit. I walked or biked most everywhere I went, and Randall was carrying a spare tire around his gut. He also had a gun. I wanted distance between us, as much as I could get.

"Hey!” he called. "I got something else for you! The lady of the house wants to meet you!”

He tried to sound enticing. I wasn’t buying. I accelerated. Just over the rise was a four-way stop. After that was about a quarter of a mile with just one or two other houses set well off the road before I got anywhere near population.

Randall swore, and his pace quickened into a long run. Damn, but he was a lot faster than he looked. I started to sprint, hoping he ran out of juice before I did. Not that it would matter. He’d have friends along in a minute. I needed to come up with an escape plan and quick.

I scanned the sides of the road. Tall iron fences threaded behind the trees. Ahead was a driveway with a gate. I wasn’t going to take a chance that Randall would catch up with me while I tried to convince another guard to let me in. Tires squealed behind me. Fuck.

The ground to the right exploded, sending rocks and bits of wood and dirt into the air. I swerved left and something splatted down where I would have been and again exploded. Terrific. Randall didn’t just have a gun, he had magical explosives and good aim. I’d assumed he didn’t have any magical talents—you didn’t end up a security guard if you did. That didn’t mean he didn’t have tricks up his sleeve.

As hard as I try not to be stupid, I’d followed trace into a dead-end trap and then made a ridiculous assumption. I’d been too focused on finding my prey, and now I was paying the price. I deserved to get dead. Not that I was going to go down easy.

I reached into my pocket and fingered the various glass and metal balls I carried. I gripped a steel bearing, about the size of a good-sized grape. I activated it with a pulse of power, feeling the ripple of magic roll through me and out. A null field surrounded me. Nothing magic could penetrate the field until the null’s power zeroed out. If any of Randall’s bombs hit inside the null’s radius, they would be snuffed out.

Bullets, however, were an entirely different story.

I zigzagged back and forth in case he decided to stop and shoot. Given how accurate his bomb-throwing skills were, I expected he was a decent shot as well. The rumble of the car came closer, and I knew I was just about out of time.

I couldn’t see a damned thing that would help me. I was stuck in a narrow chute, with fences to the sides of me and trouble crawling up my ass. I couldn’t outrun a car or a bullet. Stopping would only lead to them killing me faster. They seemed to be in a shoot-first-ask-questions-later sort of mood.

I blew through the intersection without looking for traffic. I was on a slight downhill grade now and gaining a little bit of speed. My legs were just getting warmed up, and despite my having to zig and zag, I was keeping ahead of Randall, who’d begun to lose steam. Up ahead I could see brick buildings where the trees thinned. There was a little shopping area there, I remembered. A neighborhood gathering place, with a common area, a family grocery store, an Italian restaurant, a little movie theater, a donut shop, and I forgot what else. Most importantly, there were people there.

I wasn’t going to make it unless I got rid of the goons chasing me in the car. Behind me the engine revved and tires squealed again. I glanced back over my shoulder. A green car sat in the middle of the intersection. A big SUV had swerved to miss it and had turned down the opposite direction. It was working furiously on getting turned around on the narrow road, but the deep drainage culverts on either side were slowing it down. Men leaned out the window swearing and yelling, and several shots popped off into the air.

Randall was still after me. Only now he’d pulled his gun and was setting up to shoot. My heart thudding, I jumped into high gear, jerking back and forth and hoping he wouldn’t hit me.

A bullet struck the ground ten feet ahead of me on the right. My brain went white. An adrenaline bomb exploded in my chest and panic took over. I dove into the nearest culvert, skidding down on my ass and back to the bottom. Roots and tough branches tore my jacket and shredded my hands. The steel null went bouncing off into nowhere.

I landed on tumbled rocks the size of my head. I scrambled up despite the pain blossoming in my left ankle and knee. I clambered over the uneven rocks, gripping weeds on either side for balance. I could hear footsteps above as Randall ran to catch up with me. That’s when I finally got lucky.

On the left, under the road, was a pipe big enough to walk through bent over. It emptied into another culvert. That one ran fifteen or twenty feet down to another drain covered by a steel grate. On my right was a runoff gully from the estate above. Fence bars blocked it, but there was room at the bottom to scooch under, if I sucked in my gut.

I scrabbled at some rocks and pulled them out of the way, then lay on my back to pull myself up under the bottom of the gate. I wasn’t going to make it. I unzipped my coat, sure that at any moment Randall would look down and see me. He was about twenty-five feet back, looking down into the steep ditch. Weeds and scrub bushes blocked his view. The SUV roared up behind him.

"Where’s the bitch?” a woman demanded. "Did you get her?”

"She went to ground in the ditch,” Randall said.

I shoved my coat through the bars and then started to wriggle under. The bars were rusty and rubbed red on my skin and clothes. Rocks cut into my back. I ignored them, shoving with my heels and elbows as my chest cleared the fence. I’m curvy. That means I have boobs. Luckily, they mashed enough to let me through. After that, I squirmed and dragged myself the rest of the way in, pulling my coat back on. I still wasn’t out of the woods. Randall could still see me if he looked in the right spot. I need to find cover.

"You’d better find her.” A male voice threatened this time.

"I get paid to keep people out, not hunt them down,” Randall said, glaring at his companions.

Someone got out of the car. I didn’t waste time looking back. The runoff gully made me a sitting duck. The sides were soft dirt covered in dry pine needles from the trees growing above. I had no handholds, and my knee and ankle screamed every time I tried to crawl up.

"You get paid to do what we tell you to do. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself snacking on my bullets, you understand me, security guard? Find the girl and kill her.”

I chanced a look back. I could only see Randall’s legs and the shoulders and waist of the guy threatening him. It looked like he was prodding his handgun into Randall’s chest.

Randall slapped the gun aside and shoved the smaller man back. "Don’t threaten me, Burke. I’ll cut your balls off and wear them for earrings.”

I had to smile. I was almost beginning to like Randall. Sure, he was trying to kill me, but he had style. I went back to crawling up the gully. I put my back against the steep slant and started walking myself up, bracing my feet on the other side. I dug my hands deep into the soil to find traction, and soon developed a rhythm.

I climbed as quietly as I could. Luckily, the soft soil and the loud voices covered for me. Unfortunately, my pursuers couldn’t fight forever.

"Would the two of you shut the fuck up and get back to finding the girl? We’re screwed if she gets away.” It was the woman again.

"Like she knows anything,” Randall’s attacker said. "She’s a beggar.”

"Or she’s not and someone’s on to us. You want to take the chance?”

There was no reply to that.

"Check the other side,” Randall said. "There’s a storm drain under the road. She probably went through. I’ll keep going on this side.”

I was about level with the road and near the top of the bank inside the fence when he stopped to look down right across from me. I froze. I was in the dappled shadows beneath the trees and my coat was a dusty green. My jeans were covered in dirt. I couldn’t have been better camouflaged. All the same, I knew that if Randall looked up, he’d see me.

"Any sign of her?” the woman hollered from across the road.

I could see her now. She had short brown hair and a stocky body. She carried an Uzi, or something like it, with a sling strap over her shoulder. One man sat in the driver’s seat of the SUV, which was slowly rolling along. The man who’d threatened Randall must have jumped down into the culvert on the other side of the road. Thank goodness I’d climbed out of view; otherwise, he’d have seen me through the pipe.

"Not down here,” he answered. His voice echoed.

"What about you, Randall?” She swung around to look at him.

He stood with his back to her, his gun at his side, looking straight at me. My heart stopped, and I didn’t breathe. He turned away. "Nothing here. We’d better step quick. She might be on her way into town.”

"Shit.” The woman broke into a jog, and the group moved on.

I struggled the rest of the way up to the top and flung myself backward, my legs dangling over the edge of the bank. I felt like throwing up. Why had Randall let me go?

I didn’t have a clue, but I was going to have to pay him back, because I was pretty sure he was going to catch hell for this, if they didn’t kill him.

I fumbled in my pants pocket for my cell phone. It came out with a handful of dirt and pine needles. I shook it off and keyed in my passcode. I had one ghosting call left. Sean had set them up for me, no charge, when he found out what I used them for. His contribution to saving kids. The spell allowed me to call Price directly without him being able trace the call back to me.

I activated the spell and waited for him to come on the line. He answered on the second ring.

"Price,” he growled.

"Look for the Squires at the end of Sienna Avenue in Midtown,” I said. The ghosting spell disguised my voice for me. "The mansion at the dead end. Hurry.”

I hung up. I wanted to curl up on my side and just sleep, but I wasn’t out of the woods yet—figuratively or literally. I was trespassing. I had to get out of here before whoever owned the place discovered me and decided to tear me limb from limb. Welcome to Diamond City, where private property means stay out or get dead.

I ended up following in the same direction Randall and his compan­ions had gone. I climbed higher into the trees so I couldn’t be seen from the road. Going the other way would take me back to the guardhouse I’d passed. I wasn’t in the mood to chance that.

I climbed up a low hill and eventually found myself facing another fence. On the other side was someone’s backyard. Beyond that was the shopping area I’d been aiming for. The curtains on the back windows of the two-story house were open, and I could hear piano music. A golden retriever poked his head out of a doghouse on the deck, warm breath pluming in the air. Not a good place to escape my prison.

I still hadn’t seen or heard any alarms or signs of imminent attack, so I decided to risk waiting out Price. I went down the fence, ignoring the retriever, who finally noticed me and bounded across the yard, barking furiously.

I passed three more houses and found myself at the corner of the property. On the other side was a foot or two of flat land before a twenty-foot straight drop into the culvert. I sighed. Getting out of here was going to be just about as difficult as getting in had been.

I examined the fence. Glyphs had been etched into the undersides of the crossbars. Fuck me. I’m not sure what they’d do if I touched the fence. It depended on what sort of talent had infused them with magic, but no matter what, I wasn’t getting over without nulling it. The magic where I’d come under must have been disrupted by years of running water and the rust on the fence. I had to go back there.

I hadn’t gone far when a line of black-and-whites whizzed by on the road below. Their lights flashed, but they had no sirens. The third car was one of the new black Camaros. The windows were tinted dark, but I was sure Price was at the wheel. I broke into a jog. Getting down the gully where I’d climbed up was much easier than getting up.

I slid down on my butt, the deep bed of needles protecting me. Landing was more painful, with my twisted ankle and banged-up knee.

Once again I took off my coat to get under the fence, after digging out a few more rocks to make the process easier. Once underneath, I hunch-walked through the storm drain to the other side of the road. I was tempted to follow the cop cars and see what happened, but I didn’t want Price to notice me. He was far from stupid. He’d know I’d found Nancy Jane and her mom, and he’d want to know how.

I couldn’t let him or anyone else know how powerful I really was. I had no doubt his boss, Gregg Touray, would snatch me up in a minute. He had a decent-sized syndicate and was working hard to shut down the rampant violence and reunite the fragmented Tyet factions. Touray tended to protect his own and the hell with everyone else. Don’t get me wrong—he wasn’t the bloodiest of the Tyet bosses, but he sure as hell was no angel. I wasn’t interested in becoming anybody’s puppet, and as long as I was a relative nobody on the Tyet food chain, I had free rein to find out who’d killed my mother and what had happened to my father. Not that I was making any headway. I had zero clues.

My mother was murdered when I was five. One day she was there, the next she wasn’t. Like me, she was a tracer. Unlike me, she wasn’t crazy powerful. At least, not that I’m aware of. All I know about her is what I remember. After she died, Dad boxed up everything that belonged to her and put it into storage. It was all ruined in a fire that burned the place down a few years later. Dad never talked about her. It was like she didn’t exist—except a couple years later, he married my stepmom, Mel, and she could have been my mother’s sister. Same red hair and green eyes, same joy, same warm heart. After my dad went missing on my sixteenth birthday, Mel and my half-sister Taylor and my stepbrothers are all I have left. We’re family—as tight as blood—but I wake every morning wondering who killed my mother. And then there’s the mystery of my father. His trace had simply vanished the day he disappeared. I don’t mean he nulled out and stopped leaving a trail, I mean that there was no trace of him left. Like he’d never even existed. What the hell had happened?

That question drove me. He had so many answers to so many questions about my mom and about me. When I was growing up and I asked anything he didn’t want to tell me, he always put me off, saying I wasn’t ready.

I’d never been ready enough for him.

I realized I was clenching my teeth. Sometimes I wondered if I wanted my dad to have disappeared of his own free will or if I’d rather that he’d been kidnapped. I was torn between missing him with all my heart and a bottomless anger that he’d left me, and not only that, but he’d never bothered to tell me what happened to my mom or why someone would kill her. I always knew it had something to do with me. I don’t know why, but I know it’s a fact. Like water being wet and fire being hot. No doubts.

I never did get groceries. I was too sore, and I looked like I’d been dragged behind a car for a few blocks. I texted Patti to tell her I was okay and that I was on my way home. She ordered me to come to the diner for dinner, but I told her I’d come in for breakfast, then shut my phone down. I needed to be alone. I’d watch the news and make sure Price had found Nancy Jane and her mother. Alive, I thought. He was going to find them alive. After that, I’d soak away the day’s soreness and bruises in my bathtub. I’d had some close calls, and I knew that pretty soon it was going to hit me. I could have died. Randall could have shot me—twice. That didn’t take into account the bombs he’d been throwing. I’d been lucky. The trouble was, luck had a tendency to run out. I had a feeling mine was running on empty, and I really didn’t want to know what was coming around the bend.



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