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About A Fistful of Fire
1. A Man Can Work from Sun to Sun, but a Woman’s Work Is Never Done
2. Your Ignorance Is Their Power
3. Late but Worth the Wait
4. If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention
5. Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover
6. My Family Tree Is Full of Nuts
7. Shop ’til You Drop
8. Don’t Believe Everything You Think
9. Trouble Has Me on Speed Dial
10. Laugh, and the World Laughs with You; Plan, and the World Laughs at You
11. Powered by Delusion
12. Never Do a Bad Job Well
13. Speak Softly and Carry a Big Gun
14. What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
15. Baby on Board
16. Magic Happens
17. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
18. Question Everything
19. Only You Can Prevent Wildfires
20. Dog Is My Copilot
21. Always Give 100%...Unless You’re Giving Blood
22. Betrayal Never Comes from Your Enemies
23. We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
24. Never Go to Bed Angry; Stay Up and Plot Revenge
25. Dogs Have Owners, Cats Have Staff
Also by Rebecca Chastain
Sneak Peek: A Fistful of Frost
About the Author
Madison Fox survived her first week as California’s newest illuminant enforcer, but if her grumpy boss, Mr. Pitt, was impressed, he hasn’t told Madison. In fact, there’s a lot her boss has been closemouthed about, including the dark secret haunting his past.
But Madison’s problems are just igniting. Neighboring regions report an uncharacteristic flare-up of evil, fire-breathing salamanders blaze unchecked across the city, and Black Friday looms. Trapped doing cleanup amid mobs of holiday shoppers, Madison watches from the sidelines as dubious allies insinuate themselves in her region.
As suspicions kindle and the mysterious evil gains strength, Madison must determine who she can trust—and whose rules to follow—before her region and career go up in flames.
Sizzling with adventure and sparking with magic, A Fistful of Fire is fused with Rebecca Chastain’s trademark blend of humor and butt-kicking action.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, dialogue, places, and incidents either are drawn from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, locales, or events is entirely coincidental. Any resemblance to an actual cat is 100 percent intentional and approved by Mack Fu, who shamelessly insisted on being immortalized in the pages of this novel.
Copyright © 2015 by Rebecca Chastain
Excerpt from A Fistful of Frost copyright © by Rebecca Chastain
Cover design by Yocla Designs
Author photograph by Cody Watson
All rights reserved. In accordance with the US Copyright Act of 1976, scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without permission of the author constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. If you would like to use material from this book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained from the publisher. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.
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Mind Your Muse Books
PO Box 374
Rocklin, CA 95677
To Cody, who fans the flames of my creativity.
An inky puddle of atrum pooled in front of a storage closet beside the hotel elevators. Six fist-size imps bopped around in the atrum, their primordial ooze. In the time it took me to pull my collapsible wand of petrified wood from my back pocket and extend it, a chinchilla-shaped bubble swelled in the atrum, growing glassy ebony eyes, a mouthful of needle-like teeth, and tiny feet. Soundlessly, it sprang an inch into the air, disconnecting from the puddle and becoming a seventh fully formed imp.
I pushed lux lucis into the wand, filling the entire length with the white energy. The imps turned, attention snagged by the bright waving light. As one, they opened jaws as tall as their bodies, revealing rows of sharp black teeth and proving they were little more than brainless mouths. I slashed the thin wood through their insubstantial bodies, and the imps exploded into harmless black glitter. By the time the disintegrated atrum sifted to the floor, the flecks were as gray as the carpet.
I smiled and pressed the tip of the wand into my palm, collapsing the hollow segments like an old radio antenna until it was short enough to return to the back pocket of my jeans.
A few days ago, this hotel had been coated top to bottom with atrum, thanks to a video game convention and the mobs of gamer geeks overflowing the event floor. Okay, technically, the nerd herd hadn’t been responsible for the evil, but they’d disseminated it as unwitting hosts. The real evil had been a demon camping in their midst, taking advantage of my newbie enforcer status and weak control of my region. Besting it had nearly killed me, but survival had firmed my resolve to stick to my new career path.
I’d been running cleanup here at ground zero and throughout my region ever since. Eventually I’d catch up and catch my breath.
I crouched next to the empty black puddle. Atrum was the insidious source from which basic evil creatures spawned and on which more complex evil creatures thrived. I found it repulsive and took great delight in destroying it. Though this patch was only two feet across, left alone, the atrum would continue to spawn imps and taint any people who stepped through it.
I gathered lux lucis in my palm. My soul glowed a soft butter white, but as the lux lucis collected in my hand, it brightened like a fluorescent light warming up. If I were using normal sight, a light as bright as my hand would have left a stain on my retina and cast shadows around my feet. But I wasn’t using normal sight; I was viewing the world in Primordium, and no matter how bright the lux lucis, it never cast a shadow. I liked to think of Primordium as soul sight, because Primordium afforded me a black-and-white morality-based view of the world. Living things fell in two categories: white and good, like plants and animals, and black and bad, like imps and their more intelligent cohorts, vervet. It sounded simplistic until humans were thrown into the mix. Normal people’s souls were a patchwork of stains representing a gray scale of unethical decisions.
The pure white souls of enforcers, mine included, were an exception and a necessity. My job was to fight evil, and my soul was my weapon.
I focused on my hand. Moving my body’s lux lucis was a relatively new experience for me. Shoving my soul’s energy into my pet wood wand or straight into an evil creature I could do without thinking, but manipulating the energy took more concentration.
I pushed lux lucis along the top of my hand to my fingertips, then pulled it back down my palm to my wrist, repeating the loop again and again until a seamless cycle of light zipped around my hand. I waited until the crest of lux lucis reached my fingertips, then gave it a flip. Lux lucis jumped from my fingers to the carpet and rolled through the smear of black atrum. White energy ate through dark, leaving the carpet a clean, inanimate gray.
Standing, I brushed my hands together with satisfaction and examined the hallway. Though I knew the carpet’s floral print swirled with pastel colors and the paintings nailed to the beige walls displayed jarringly colorful interpretations of the Sacramento Valley, in Primordium the walls, paintings, and carpet were all the same inanimate charcoal gray. Indirect illumination gave depth to the hall, but trying to determine the light’s source would give me a headache.
I mentally checked the floor off my list of areas to clean and turned to the elevator. An onyx shadow oozed through the seam between the door and the floor, fleshing out into a monkey’s paw tipped with lion claws. A second arm joined the first. Claws sank into the carpet and heaved, pulling the entire body through the paper-thin opening. It puffed into the shape of a vervet, and I shifted my weight to the balls of my feet.
Black as a demon’s soul from the tip of its scorpion tail to the crown of its spiked primate head and coated with the scales of a diseased fish, the vervet was a compact nightmare. I preferred imps. Both creatures spawned from atrum, but at least imps looked like chinchilla fluff balls. Plus, imps lacked any semblance of a brain.
The vervet spotted me and grinned, exposing jagged teeth long enough to spear my arm clean through. I lunged for it, missing when it sprang to the wall.
A door halfway down the hall opened, and a trio of middle-aged women exited their room, laughing and chatting. The vervet swung to look at them, hunger sparking in its dark eyes. I made another grab for it, but it leapt to the ceiling, then the opposite wall. A few more jumps widened the gap between us, then it galloped along the vertical surface as if gravity didn’t exist, its long black talons leaving no marks in the plaster. While I was still reaching for my wand, the vervet pounced on the nylon-clad calf of the lead lady, sinking a mouthful of fangs into her soul. Flecks of atrum replaced her soul’s lux lucis, one swallow at a time. Oblivious, the woman rifled through her purse.
The vervet clawed up her body to her stomach, each talon depositing a prick of atrum to tarnish her soul. Twisting, it took a bite from her companion’s chest. Whatever the host said made the women toss their heads back with fresh mirth. The vervet clambered over them, eating up the joy brightening their souls.
The juxtaposition of the women’s clueless happiness with the spawn of evil snacking on them twisted my stomach. Narrowing my sights on the vervet, I charged.
When the trio spotted me barreling toward them, they finally reacted, first with scowls at my audacity to run in the hallway, then with widening eyes when they spied the petrified wood I brandished fully extended. My badass enforcer vibe, which came across as loony-bin crazy to norms, plastered them against the wall.
When I was within arm’s reach of the vervet—and the woman it clung to—I made a grab for it. The vervet rocketed into the air and swung down the hallway, teeth wide in a silent laugh. The woman jerked and yelled, thinking I’d tried to punch her.
“Sorry!” I stumbled but didn’t slow.
“I’m reporting you to the manager!” one of the women shouted after me.
My shoulders hunched. This was exactly the kind of attention I was supposed to avoid. My job was strictly undercover. Getting arrested tended to hamper an enforcer’s ability to defend her region.
Finding the balance between doing my job and keeping a low profile was a struggle. I couldn’t let the vervet feast on the women. Atrum corrupted. In people who earned their atrum through immoral acts, it created a feedback loop, maintaining a person’s immoral nature—or enhancing it. For innocents like those women, it was possible they might shrug off planted atrum and restore their souls to their natural states, but it was just as likely the atrum would take root, influencing the women to make vile decisions that would spread evil further. Leaving the vervet on the trio could have resulted in a cascade of larger problems.
Plus, it galled me to see good people corrupted. If my tactics had been less than circumspect, so be it.
The hallway cut left at ninety degrees, and the vervet hurled out of sight. I slowed, clutching a cramp in my side. I’d been over this hotel a hundred times in the last two and a half days, and I knew that only ten or fifteen rooms lay beyond the bend before the hallway dead-ended. The vervet was trapped.
I rounded the corner at a jog. A maid’s cart cozied up to a doorway near the end of the hall, the maid absent. The vervet cannonballed into a stack of towels, then collapsed on its back. Lifting one arm, it extended a single dark digit—the middle one of three—sitting up enough to bare a cluttered row of sharp ebony teeth in a grin.
I lowered the pet wood to my side but held myself ready to strike.
“Back at you.” I flipped it off with a sweet smile of my own.
A young maid stepped out of the adjacent room into the crosshairs of my crude gesture. She gasped, crossed herself, and scuttled backward into the room, slamming the door before the vervet could react. A good thing, too. With her light gray soul, she was prime vervet-snack material.
Abashed, I tucked my offending hand behind my back. Frightening the staff would win me no points with my boss. I needed to finish this quickly before she called her manager.
“Hold still and let me kill you, you stupid little bugger.”
The lock slammed home against the other side of the door. Okay. Time to disappear before she called the cops.
I charged the vervet. It bounced to the ceiling at the last minute, but I anticipated the move. Slicing through the air with the wand, I cleaved the vervet in two, pulsing lux lucis into the mutated creature. It exploded. Harmless graying particles floated around my head and shoulders. Grimacing, I ducked aside, surreptitiously wiping my hair. I waited until I reached the empty stairwell before doing a heebie-jeebies dance. When my phone belted out “Hail to the Chief” from my back pocket, I jumped and swallowed a startled shriek.
I pulled my metallic-green cell phone from my pocket. It was my first cell phone ever, newly purchased for this job, and I’d named it Medusa. A week of being on call twenty-four-seven combined with a job that had no defined work hours, and my ardor for the new technology had cooled considerably. I swiped the screen and said hello to my boss.
“Come to the office,” Mr. Pitt said instead of a greeting.
“I’ve got the top two floors left.”
“They’ll wait.” The line went dead.
“Keep up the good work, Madison,” I said on his behalf, pocketing Medusa. “You’re the best.”
Grumpy was Mr. Pitt’s default, or it had been since he’d hired me. He’d wanted a fully trained illuminant enforcer. When my predecessor transferred to another region and no experienced enforcers applied for the job, he’d been forced to accept me. Since I’d spent the first twenty-five years of my life unaware that my ability to see souls was a weapon for fighting evil, I had a lot of catching up to do.
Mr. Pitt had hired Doris, a retired enforcer, to give me some last-minute training, and we squeezed in one packed night of lessons before she left for a family vacation. My boss and I both would have preferred I spend more time learning the ropes before jumping into field work, but the appearance of a demon in our region had necessitated immediate action. A week later, demon vanquished and region almost clean, I felt I deserved a pat on the back, if not a Medal of Valor. Apparently Mr. Pitt needed more proof of my competence than mere survival.
I clattered down the stairs and exited through the quiet lobby. With luck, whatever Mr. Pitt wanted wouldn’t take too much time. I was on a deadline. Tonight I had a date with Dr. Alex Love, the hottest vet in the state.
My stomach flip-flopped as I slid behind the wheel of my Civic and started the car. I’d lusted after the man for three years, and tonight I’d see if reality lived up to my fantasies. And I had plenty of fantasies, several of which I indulged in during the short drive to my office.
Cold November air slapped me back to the present when I slid out of my car a few minutes later. I tried to box up my excitement, but I ruined it by checking the time. Only six hours and fourteen minutes until my date.
I jogged across the parking lot and darted through the glass doors into the heated interior of the two-story office building. Rubbing the chill out of my arms, I walked through the building’s lobby, past the restrooms and elevator, and down a hushed hall. As always, murmured confidential conversations and muted keyboard clacks emanated from the mortgage company, but the temp agency bustled with a louder, no-nonsense air. Passing that door made me smile. My aimless temp days had ended when Mr. Pitt offered me this job. Now I saved the world—or my portion of it—and got paid to do it.
Tucked at the end of the hallway, my region’s headquarters were humble and serene. No one would suspect Illumination Studios was anything other than the tiny bumper sticker company it claimed to be. If my job had entailed working within its confines, I would have been fitted for a straitjacket after three days.
Of course, the fact that I liked sprinting through the suburban neighborhoods of Roseville, California, engaging in skirmishes with evil creatures others couldn’t see, might mean I was already insane.
“Good morning, Sharon,” I sang.
The receptionist tracked my entrance with hard brown eyes, the rest of her body statue still at her tall wooden desk. Behind her, soft white lights glistened on the metallic letters of our fake company, but the same warm glow fell flat across Sharon’s shoulders, shadowing her eyes and thin mouth. I’d met tortoises with more expressive faces—and who were more cheerful.
Focusing on keeping my shoulders relaxed under the receptionist’s inscrutable stare, I strode past the glass-walled conference room—and stuttered to a halt.
Rows of empty, slender spray-topped glass vials lined the long conference table. Rose stood near one end, clutching a bottle in her hands, eyes closed. The Latina’s long dark hair was slicked back in a simple ponytail and she was barefoot. More shocking, she wore jeans and a men’s T-shirt two sizes too big. Since when did Rose swap out her figure-flattering dresses for clothes that could have come from my closet?
I backpedaled to the open doorway, waiting until she opened her eyes before I stepped in.
She squinted at me, then gestured me to her side. “I could use some of that bounce right now.”
“Bounce?” I eased closer, keeping myself and my purse well clear of the table. I wasn’t a complete klutz, but I didn’t want to take any chances with vials set up like fragile dominoes.
“Perky morning cheer. You’ve got it in spades.”
“It’s date day.” I tried not to picture Alex topless, but the image refused to be ignored. Only six hours and eleven minutes.
“Honey, I can’t wait until you finally jump his bones.” She fanned herself. “I’m getting dizzy off your horny fumes.”
“Excuse me for getting a little excited.”
“Excited? Don’t try to lie to an empath. That’s lust, plain and simple. I felt you coming from the parking lot.”
I blushed. She had to be exaggerating. “Fine. I’m lusty. But it’s Dr. Love. Even his name sounds sexy.”
“So does Dr. Bigdick.”
“Hmm, that doesn’t have quite the same ring. Dr. Love is a name you could marry into.”
“Madison Love? It sounds like a Playboy Bunny’s name.”
“A happily married Playboy Bunny’s name, and better than Madison Bigdick.”
Rose snorted. “It can’t be just a name thing. How long’s it been?”
“Since I’ve had a date? Not long.”
Rose let one sculpted eyebrow call me on my lie.
“Okay, okay. Maybe it’s been a while.”
Rose crossed her arms.
“Fine. It’s been a long time. Ages. Forever. I can’t even remember what a penis looks like.”
Rose burst out laughing, and I grinned.
“Hang on. This is good stuff.” She set down the vial she’d been holding, then picked up the next one and closed her eyes. I waited, curiosity growing. Rose cracked an eye to glare at me. “No fidgeting.”
“What are you doing?”
“Making sure we stay in business another season. Now hush.”
I closed my mouth. What was that supposed to mean?
Rose sighed. “Think about that date or get out of the room. Anticipation and lust I can work with; curiosity is just mucking things up.”
“Irritation doesn’t work for me, either. Shoo.” Rose waved a hand at me without opening her eyes. I backed carefully out of the room, waiting until safely outside the glass before sticking my tongue out at her. She smiled without looking.
“That’s a load of carob chips, and you know it!” Mr. Pitt bellowed from his office. I ducked into my cubicle. The blinds on the glass front of Mr. Pitt’s office were drawn, making it impossible to see who received his reaming. For once, it wasn’t me.
“Of course Isabel would prefer—” Pause. “This is damn high and—” Pause. No other voices came from his office. He was on the phone. “Don’t quote me the rules, Liam,” Mr. Pitt shouted. “Fine. No, that won’t work— Fine. Tonight.”
The bang of the phone slamming into the cradle made me jump, and I dropped into my chair.
“MadiSON!” Mr. Pitt bellowed.
Oh joy. What have I done now?
“Yes, Mr. Pitt?” I paused in the doorway of his office. While he was Mr. Pitt to me, my boss’s nameplate said Brad Pitt, a grossly unfair coincidence given my boss’s fleshy red lips, protruding hazel eyes, and a shiny bald crown rimmed with a nest of short gray hair. About the only thing he had in common with the actor who had been named People’sSexiest Man Alive was his age.
At this moment, his face glowed a shade usually seen on the skin of beets. I had a fleeting concern for his blood pressure, and a more lasting concern for myself. Please don’t let him have heard I was terrorizing hotel guests and staff. Let his irritation be focused on a new horribly evil creature that has taken a liking to our region.
I crossed my fingers behind my back.
Of the two leather chairs across from his desk, I chose the one closest to the door and perched on the edge, rehearsing an apology.
Mr. Pitt stared at the laminated map of our region on his wall, his jaw clenching and relaxing. The hotel and a few other areas were marked with red dots. Trouble was brewing in our region. So long as it didn’t interfere with tonight’s date, I’d be happy with a change of scenery. The hotel cleanup was gratifying but repetitive.
“You haven’t been here long enough to learn the rhythms of this region,” Mr. Pitt said. “You’ll have to take my word that there’s been unusual activity this year. Ours isn’t the only region affected. Isabel’s, Liam’s, Margaret’s, even Kathleen’s and Ron’s have been hit hard.”
I let out my breath. This wasn’t about my tactics at the hotel. Mr. Pitt had also answered one of my questions about the heated conversation I’d just overheard: Liam, fellow recipient of Mr. Pitt’s vitriol, was a warden. That made him Mr. Pitt’s counterpart of another nearby region and boss of his own illuminant enforcer. What had he done to earn Mr. Pitt’s wrath?
“Jacob’s needed this year and can’t be tied up.”
“Who is Jacob?”
“He’s the enforcer of Roseville—everything west of the freeway,” Mr. Pitt clarified when I started to protest.
“Oh.” My region’s western edge followed the line of I-80, which bisected the city. Of the two sides of Roseville, mine was the smaller by more than half.
“Roseville has the ninth largest sales of any city in California, and a majority of those are due to the Galleria,” Mr. Pitt said.
I blinked at the non sequitur. “The mall?”
“Half of Sacramento and people as far away as Colfax and Grass Valley shop there, especially this time of year. The Galleria is a large responsibility, and it takes a lot of time during the holidays.”
“The mall does?”
“Yes, Madison. The mall!” Mr. Pitt swiped a hand over his face, then gripped his armrests. “Which is why I’m assigning you to take over cito duty this year.”
My good mood took a punch to the stomach. “What is cito duty and what does it have to do with the mall?” I didn’t like how much he’d built this up. Mr. Pitt didn’t explain assignments. He delivered them like whip cracks, fast and expecting me to jump.
“Right. Of course you don’t know. The mall swarms with citos this time of year. You’ll be there to stay on top of things and prevent an outbreak.”
I skipped over the obvious question to the most important one. “Do you mean full-time?”
“Yes. It will be good for you.”
Crap. Whatever cito duty was, it was going to suck.
“What about the hotel?”
“After you finish up today, Joy and Will should be able to handle it.” Joy and Will were Illuminea, supposedly born out of lux lucis, though they looked completely human. They behaved like pacifist enforcers: Where I enjoyed killing evil creatures, the Illuminea refused to fight, and they restricted their lux lucis use to positively influencing people. I wasn’t sure how spreading goodwill was going to eliminate the hotel’s residual evil, but that wasn’t my main concern.
“And the rest of my—our—region?”
“Jacob, Rafi, and Summer will look in on things. I’ll talk with Margaret about borrowing her enforcer, too, if it comes to that.”
“Wait. You’re going to stick me in Jacob’s region doing something at the mall, which, again, is in his region, and you’re going to bring him and other enforcers in to do my job? That doesn’t sound right.”
Mr. Pitt’s jaw bounced.
“I’m sure I can do more good in my position.” Alarm bells clanged in my head. Why was I being relegated to this mall task? Why wasn’t I needed in my region, especially if there was an uncharacteristic amount of evil?
“You don’t know enough to know where you can do the most good.” Mr. Pitt planted his hands on his desk and glared.
“All the more reason I should continue to work in my region.” I leaned forward. “At least let me work with these other enforcers. I’m sure I could learn a lot from them.”
“That’s out of the question.” Mr. Pitt’s expression closed.
“Why? What’s wrong with the other enforcers?”
“Nothing. It’s a warden thing. Trust me, I’ve worked long and hard to shape this region. When Doris returns, you’ll get plenty more training. For now, the mall is a good compromise. It’s important work.”
So important that Jacob couldn’t be “tied up” with it? “But—”
“Enough with the hangdog expression, Madison. Think of this as a rite of passage, something all enforcers have to do.”
“Sure. Check in here Friday at five thirty to pick up spray.”
“Five thirty, as in a.m.?” I squeaked.
Mr. Pitt smiled wanly. “Considering the mall will be open from six p.m. Thanksgiving day straight through to Friday, I think I’m being generous.”
“Um, yes. Thank you.” I fidgeted in my seat, then finally asked the question I dreaded. “And citos are?”
“They’re— Ah, you have it! Everything you need to know is in the handbook.” Mr. Pitt gestured to someone in the doorway.
I turned and all thoughts ground to a standstill. Niko Demitrius stood with one shoulder resting against the doorway. He held up a tattered booklet in one hand, but I doubt I would have noticed it if Mr. Pitt hadn’t mentioned it. A few days’ acquaintance wasn’t enough time to inure me to Niko’s aura of competence paired with physical perfection, but at least I didn’t gape as I soaked in his handsome profile.
I stood and fussed unnecessarily with the hem of my sweater. The last time I’d seen Niko, I’d been a mess, strung out on adrenaline and shock after killing a demon. Even so, I’d felt like a real enforcer and basked in Niko’s respect. Yet only three days later, Niko was here to witness Mr. Pitt shuffling me aside because I wasn’t good enough to deal with the “unusual activity” in my own region. The only thing that would make this situation more embarrassing would be if Niko remembered I’d set Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” as my ringtone for him.
“As ordered, one enforcer handbook,” Niko said. Mr. Pitt scurried around his desk, and I stepped between the two leather chairs to make room for him. It was that or move closer to Niko, and my face already felt sunburned from our current proximity.
Mr. Pitt accepted the book as if it were a fragile holy object, frowning and muttering to himself. I pretended to cough, and pressed my cool fingers to my cheeks, willing the blush to fade.
I peeked at Niko again. In the office’s harsh fluorescent lights, his creamy shirt made his dark skin glow. He crossed his arms, and the movement pulled the shirt tight against his well-rounded biceps and flat pecs.
Realizing my peek had become a stare, I shifted my gaze to Niko’s face. He grinned at me, perfect white teeth gleaming.
Where was a sinkhole when I needed one?
“Everything you need to know is in here,” Mr. Pitt said. He set the book in my hands. Despite its leather binding, it weighed no more than a small paperback.
“Yep. Are you feeling okay, Madison? This would be the worst possible time to get sick.” Mr. Pitt stepped close to get a good look at my flushed face. I waved him back.
“I feel fine. If that’s all, I’ll just . . .” I flapped a hand toward the door.
Mr. Pitt glanced to Niko, then back at me. His concerned expression cleared, and he rolled his eyes. “Back to work,” he agreed.
I squeezed between the back side of the leather chair and the glass wall. Niko stepped into the office to give me room to pass.
“Nice seeing you,” I mumbled. Once through the doorway, I took a deep breath to expel tension, only to inhale Niko’s delicious roasted-cinnamon scent. Rushing the few yards to my cubicle, I collapsed into my chair and closed my eyes. That could have been worse. I could have tripped. Or drooled.
After five deep breaths, my brain finally came back online. Niko was an optivus aegis, an illuminant enforcer on steroids whose territory included all of Northern California. He worked where he was most needed, which is why he’d been here when the demon had set up shop in my region. If he was still in the area, it must be due to the unwarranted levels of evil Mr. Pitt mentioned.
And, holy crap, how had I missed the fact that I was going to be stuck at the mall on Black Friday?
I flopped the handbook onto my desk, then laid my head down on top of my crossed arms. I would have guessed the mall on the largest shopping day of the year would be a hub of evil, not where Mr. Pitt would stick his least favorite—and only—enforcer to get her out of the way.
“I’ll be there,” Niko said, his voice clear as he exited Mr. Pitt’s office.
I snapped upright, smoothed my hair with one hand, and rummaged blindly in my purse. Just a busy professional here. I tried to look casual when I glanced up to say good-bye. I was pretty sure the imprint of my sweater’s weave was pressed into my forehead.
“Can I talk with you?” Niko asked.
I wiped damp palms down my thighs. “Okay.”
Niko grabbed his leather coat from the chair in the cubicle adjoining mine and headed toward the rear exit. I followed.
The back door let out onto a small patio tucked between matching two-story office buildings. Cold wind cut through my fleece sweater and shook the bare branches of sweet gum trees spaced around the terrace. I wrapped my arms around myself. Niko shrugged into his jacket and let the door shut behind us. We had the patio-turned-wind-tunnel to ourselves.
Niko stalked to the edge of the patio. I followed on an invisible leash. Beyond the concrete, the hillside dropped steeply, giving us a view of the top of an office building below us and the barren branches of the tree-lined Douglas Boulevard beyond. Small evergreen shrubbery fenced the terrace. I kept my distance, having had the misfortune of seeing a spider the size of my palm in those bushes once.
A swath of leaves faded from green to brown and twirled to the ground when Niko ran his fingertips along the straight line of the nearest trimmed hedge. I blinked to Primordium. Bright midday sunlight dimmed to a subtle, directionless light, and the colors of the world washed to gray scale. Niko’s bright soul drew my eyes like a beacon. Compared to his, my soul looked as weak as melted butter. Niko’s contained the strength of an ancient tree, solid and confident. I wasn’t above a twinge of jealousy.
An arctic gust cleared my head, and I forced myself to be analytical. I’d looked at Niko in Primordium only a few times, but now I thought I detected an uncharacteristic dimness to his impressive soul.
“What’s going on?” I pulled a hand from my armpit to point at his fingers, which he’d moved to rest on a tree trunk. Lux lucis seeped from the tree into Niko, recharging his soul. Unlike the more fragile leaves of the hedge, the tree gave its energy without suffering any visible loss of life. I blinked to normal vision to avoid becoming mesmerized by the swirl of lux lucis.
“I ran into some trouble on the way here. But that’s not what I want to talk about.”
“Oh?” Shifting to the side, I used Niko’s six-foot frame to block the wind.
“The local wardens are holding an emergency strategy meeting tonight to discuss the unusual concentration of evil in this area. Many enforcers are going, and I think you should, too.”
“Tonight?” Any remaining fog of lust whisked away at his words. Fantasizing about Niko was fun, and based on my body’s reactions, I bet the man kicked off some impressive pheromones, but that was just lust. Tonight I had a chance with a man I had more than a physical attraction to. “No. I can’t. I have a date.”
Niko straightened and slid his hands into his pockets. He frowned, and for once his smoldering look had no effect on me. “Reschedule. Brad could really use your support.”
“I know the feeling. I’ve cleaned up the region, done my job. Where’s my support? What do I get? Cito duty, which I suspect is awful.”
“Thanks. No. I think I’ll keep my date.”
Niko waited, silent and patient. I glared at him.
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” I pictured Dr. Love’s—Alex’s—face. His smiling blue eyes with soft crinkles in the corners. His perpetually tousled brown hair that I’d been dreaming of running my hands through since we first met. His shy smile when he asked me out. Anticipation of this date had been my shining carrot dangling at the end of a grueling week.
“If this meeting’s so important, why didn’t Mr. Pitt tell me about it?”
“It’s not mandatory for enforcers to attend.”
“So I could ask Mr. Pitt about it on Friday?” Hope blossomed afresh.
“We need trained, engaged enforcers right now, ones conversant with what’s happening in and around their regions. Enforcers who put their education and region above their social calendars.”
I flinched. That was low. I did want to learn, but not at the expense of my personal happiness.
“Jacob has experience and an interest in his region. That’s why he’s being given more responsibility and you’re being put in the mall.”
I wanted to scream. I yearned for tonight’s date with a feeling akin to homesickness. It had been years since my last serious relationship, and the romantic encounters since weren’t worth noting. In Alex, I saw a potential for happiness and true connection. I didn’t want to ruin my chance before the first date.
I shifted to my toes and back down, shivering against the endless breeze. Tonight’s meeting might be a complete waste of my time. What did it matter if I was there? Apparently I’d be working in the mall, not addressing whatever evil plagued my region.
The beginning of a headache tapped against the inside of my forehead. I’d been playing catch-up since the day I’d been hired, and I wasn’t foolish enough to think I’d come close to learning all the skills needed to perform—and survive—as an enforcer. I knew I should seize every opportunity to learn, which meant attending a meeting that would give me firsthand knowledge of the current threat. Plus, who knew what else I would learn. Maybe something to counter the perpetual “you don’t know enough” argument.
“Mr. Pitt would be happy if I went?” I wasn’t going to cancel my date and piss off my boss just because Niko said it was a good idea.
“Why does Mr. Pitt need my support?”
“Does that mean you’re going?”
My chest hurt, and I rubbed my breastbone. My neck was stiff when I nodded. This had better make Mr. Pitt ecstatic.
“Good. I’ll pick you up at your place at six and fill you in on the way.”
My brain crossed wires, making it sound like I had just agreed to a date with Niko. Worse, I’d betrayed Alex, swapping him with Niko. I opened my mouth to protest, but Niko was already striding away. He stopped and spun on the ball of a foot.
“Treat that handbook like gold. You don’t even want to know how much Brad paid for it.” He spun back toward the parking lot, whistling as he walked. I recognized the tune instantly: “SexyBack.”
Blinking back tears of frustration heaped on embarrassment, I stomped back into the office. Tonight’s date was ruined, but that didn’t mean my entire shot with Alex was sabotaged.
I crossed my fingers that I was right.
By the time I reached my desk, my eyes were dry and I’d unclenched a jaw gritted tight with cold and frustration. I yanked my jacket from my chair, stuffed the handbook in my purse, and stalked out through the back. I really needed to slam something, but the door’s self-closing glider hinge eased it back to the frame with an aggravating soft whoosh of air.
I held myself together until I’d slid into the driver’s seat of my Civic and closed the door. Then I screamed, stomped my feet, slammed my hands on the steering wheel, and embraced a hissy fit that could have taught two-year-olds everywhere a thing or two. When I finished, I brushed my hair out of my face and took a few deep breaths before opening my eyes.
A woman sat in a maroon Mercedes parked in front of me, a water bottle poised in front of her open mouth. She averted huge eyes and fumbled with her door handle. In seconds, she scurried across the pavement on pencil-thin high heels toward the office building.
Sighing, I fished my cell phone out of my purse. There was nothing for it but to call Alex and pray like crazy he didn’t think I was flaky and would still want to go on a date with me.
My stomach roiled. This was going to look awful. I was canceling only five hours and forty-two minutes before our date. I was a flake. Why would Alex want to take another chance on me?
I tucked Medusa in my pants’ pocket and got out of my car. I paced behind the Civic’s bumper, working through what to say. Everything sounded lame. Everything was lame.
“Stupid meeting. Stupid me for prioritizing work above Alex. Stupid Niko for making it impossible for me to say no.” I circled around those thoughts a time or two, savoring my frustration before acknowledging its pointlessness.
I will get information in this meeting. It will be useful and good for my career.
For Niko’s sake, it better be.
Rubbing my nauseous stomach, I dialed the Love and Caring Veterinary Clinic. The receptionist put me on hold when I asked for Dr. Love. A moment later, his smooth, deep voice greeted me.
“Hi, uh, Alex. It’s Madison.”
“Hi, Madison.” I could hear the smile in his voice and grinned in response. “You’re not canceling on me, are you?” He was teasing. My heart plummeted.
“Oh. You are.” The smile was gone.
Crap. Make this right, Dice, I pep-talked myself, using my best friend Bridget’s nickname for me for extra luck. I resumed pacing, my steps quick and sharp. “I am, but I don’t want to. God, if it was up to me, we’d already be on our date.” I smacked myself in the forehead. Now I sounded too eager. “It’s just this meeting came up at work at the last minute. There are some problems with our . . . production, and we need to address it before Black Friday.” It was the truth, but so carefully bent it felt like a lie.
No. Not with that tone of voice, you don’t. “The meeting doesn’t matter,” I hurried on. “The important thing is I was really, really looking forward to tonight, and I can’t even express how bummed I am that I need to postpone it.”
Was that hope in his voice? Or was I hearing what I wanted? “I feel awful for calling you at the last minute like this. Can we move tonight to another night?”
“It sounds like you’re going to be very busy.” He was giving me a way out. Oh, yes, there was hope! It was coated with a healthy dose of caution, but that was understandable. Butterflies boxed in my stomach. I about-faced and paced the other direction, running my shaking free hand through my hair. If I could say the right thing, I could make this right, right now.
“I have been counting the hours until tonight since you asked me out,” I confessed. “I have talked about it with my friends until they were sick of hearing about it.”
That earned me a chuckle. “You really do have a meeting, don’t you?”
“Yes. I tried to get out of it, but I’m so new here, no one is cutting me any slack.”
“What time is it?”
“Six o’clock.” I hadn’t asked what time the meeting was, but that was the time I’d agreed to Niko picking me up. My stomach twisted at the datelike image that evoked.
“Figures. Do you want to meet afterward?”
I froze, everything inside me screaming yes, but I forced myself to think before I spoke. “I want to, but I’m not sure when the meeting will end, and I don’t want to call you later, canceling again.”
“Ah, good point.” He sounded disappointed. Was that a good thing? “We were crazy to try to plan anything so close to Thanksgiving anyway. When should we reschedule?”
I pumped my fist—a move I’d never done before, and I was thankful no one saw me do it now.
I had no idea what my schedule at the mall would be, or even what I’d be doing. However, I didn’t want to push our date out too far. There was only so long Alex could be expected to wait for me. “What about Sunday evening?”
“Sunday. Hmm, let me check.” I heard a few clicks of a keyboard. “That works for me.”
I danced in place.
“Great! And, Alex? I’m really looking forward to our date,” I said, infusing my voice with unedited earnestness.
“So am I.”
When we hung up, my whoop of joy echoed off the buildings and made the smokers near the lobby jump and stare. I didn’t care. I still had a date with Dr. Love!
I slid back behind the wheel and did a seated Snoopy dance. I’d made it work. I’d saved my date and I was going to learn more about my region, all while getting on Mr. Pitt’s good side.
I turned on the car and headed back to the hotel.
Just four days until my date. I’d survive.
At the hotel, I swept through the upper two floors, unearthing and exterminating a nest of imps and a half dozen vervet that had escaped my first dozen passes. Cleaning up after a demon was worse than taking a demon head-on.
My gut constricted, calling me on my lie. Confronting a demon had been the most terrifying experience of my entire life. It was idiotic to claim being bored was worse than being scared witless. I’d taken the job believing the most deadly weapon I needed was the charmingly nicknamed pet wood, or petrified wood wand. After I’d almost died as a result of my ignorance, Niko had loaned me his knife. I hadn’t left home without its comforting weight in my purse since, especially not after killing the demon. I hated the knife, but I hated being vulnerable more.
Since I hadn’t thought I’d see Niko again so soon, I hadn’t felt much urgency to rush out and spend my hard-earned money on a knife of my own. But with Niko back in town, it’d be unprofessional to keep his knife.
Motivated to maintain possession of something sharp and deadly at all times, I rushed through my final sweep of the hotel and wrapped up with enough time to stop by Accessories and More for a replacement knife before getting ready for tonight’s meeting.
Twenty minutes later I sat trapped on Douglas Boulevard when it abruptly turned into a parking lot just beyond the last crossroad. At the edge of Roseville’s city limits, the boulevard squeezed down to two lanes each way and typically jumped from forty miles per hour to sixty. Large swaths of undeveloped tree-filled land swept up one side of the road, a long wall of a subdivision barricaded the other, and the landscaped median made U-turns impossible.
The reason for today’s standstill fast became apparent: Against the sky’s cerulean backdrop, smoke billowed in an angry column close enough to smell through my heater vents. Two fire engines barreled down the shoulder, kicking up gravel against the side of my Civic, sirens deafening through my rolled-up windows.
The Cadillac in front of me crept forward, and I eased up to it again. Inch by inch, we crawled around the bend. Flashing lights and temporary barricades came into view, snaking the backlog through the turn lane and up the opposite side of the road, the two lanes temporarily divided by orange cones. Traffic oozed in both directions under the watchful eye of fluorescent-vested police.
It was impossible not to be a looky-loo. The fire raged through a roadside Christmas tree stand. Rows of display trees ready for tomorrow’s sales burned from crown to base like gigantic candles, but it was the bound trees stacked like a bonfire that shot flames higher than the fire trucks. Passing by, even with a median, two lanes, and an extra twenty feet of open space between me and the fire, muted warmth pressed against my right side. I breathed a sigh of relief when I crept past the final fire truck.
With the show behind us, traffic picked up. A mile later, when cones and flares directed us back to our own side, the road opened up before me. Jacob might have the larger portion of Roseville under his enforcer domain, but my region included the drastically more expensive suburb of Granite Bay, a sprawl of extravagant, spacious housing divisions and horse properties stretching from Roseville’s eastern city limits to the shores of Folsom Lake. Out here, stoplights were a rarity, and few people bothered to notice the speed limit. I surged back to freeway speeds with the rest of the cars around me and rocketed to Accessories and More.
The convenience store crouched in a battered parking lot at the edge of my region. A dozen neon signs behind the window’s iron bars invited customers inside, but I was the only taker. Sharing a barren lot with a liquor store and situated off the lake access road, Accessories and More catered more to visiting boaters than it did to the wealthy locals, with everything from car oil and cell phones to Doritos and highlighters. It also had a glass-front counter where pet wood wands lay alongside a variety of weapons for enforcers and violent normal folks.
“Wow. She still lives and breathes,” Muhamad said in a stage whisper to his business partner, Musad. Or maybe it was Musad who spoke. I couldn’t tell the twins apart.
“Look—all of her limbs are still attached, too, Muhamad,” Musad said, confirming I’d guessed correctly.
“Hardy-har-har. You know, some might not think it’s wise to mock the woman who watches over the region they work in.”
“Meh,” Musad said.
“You’re going to have to try harder to scare us.”
“I only have a week’s experience.” I wriggled my fingers at them like a witch in a B flick.
Both men’s heads fell back in identical laughter. Watching them clasp their belts beneath small beer bellies in the exact same gesture was like watching a man beside a mirror. The only difference between them was the colors of their shirts.
“Oh, good one, Madison Fox,” Muhamad said when he caught his breath.
“Well played, young enforcer. What can we do for you today?”
I pulled Niko’s knife from my purse. I’d had to buy a bigger purse once I started carrying it around. With an eight-inch blade and another five inches for a hilt, the sucker had stuck out of my previous bag like a red flag. I unsheathed the knife and laid it on the glass counter. The wide double-edged blade shone a flat gray, the hilt a flat black. Even in Primordium, the knife looked plain. Invisible in either sight was a bone shaft running the length of the blade. Left to its own nature, lux lucis flowed through living creatures and plants. The second-best conduit was a previously living substance. Hence my extend-O wand made of petrified wood. Regular wood would have worked, too, but the hollowed, expandable-collapsible wands only came in petrified versions for structural strength. In the blade, the bone acted as the conduit for lux lucis.
“Whoa!” Musad backed up, hands raised. “This is all you, Muhamad.”
“What’s a tiny woman like you doing with this half-pint sword?” Muhamad asked. His gaze flicked to the door.
“Niko loaned it to me.”
Musad stepped back up to the counter. “Ah.”
“I need a knife just like this.”
“First, this isn’t a knife. It’s a dagger. Second, it’s too much blade for you. Third, you’ve got it stuffed in your purse, where Niko carries it strapped to his belt. Did you know it’s illegal to carry a blade this length concealed in California?”
I shook my head. I’d ranked it as “more deadly than pet wood” and had tried not to think too much about it.
“Why didn’t you mention this last time you saw me with the knife?” I’d dropped into the shop to replace my pet wood the day after Niko had given me the blade. My original wand hadn’t survived its first encounter with a demon.
“Call me a sucker. I wanted to see you live through your first week.”
“These you can conceal.” Muhamad ignored my sarcasm and pointed through the glass at a fan of folding knives and tiny blades.
“They’re all so small.”
Musad snorted. Muhamad opened the back of the case and pulled out a silver-handled folding knife, unfolded it until it locked open, and laid it on the glass. “Give it a try.”
With a short three-inch blade, the knife was featherlight. Unlike Niko’s dagger, the blade held an edge on only one side. Lux lucis slid easily into the blade but backed up into my palm just as fast. The weak bone shaft could barely hold enough lux lucis to disintegrate an imp. I set the knife down before I burned it out. If I was committing to carrying a knife, I wanted something stronger than pet wood.
“Keep in mind knives are not meant to hold lux lucis. They are designed to be conduits once you’ve stuck the knife in something.”
“I know.” I wiped my hand on my leg. “Got one stronger than a needle?”
“Try out this Bowie.” Muhamad reached into the case and pulled out a black knife a smidgen longer and wider than the folding knife, but solid. The back side was curved and sharp from halfway up the blade to the tip, and lux lucis fell into the blade almost as fast as it did Niko’s dagger.
“This is more like it.”
The brothers shared a look, and Musad slipped from behind the counter.
“Why don’t you put this monster away and we’ll pretend we never saw you carrying it,” Muhamad said.
I set down the Bowie and hefted Niko’s dagger into my purse. It took some wedging, but I got it to the bottom and settled my pet wood, handbook, and wallet on top.
“A purse is a clumsy place for a weapon,” Musad said, coming up beside me. He set a leather case on the counter next to the knife, then slid the Bowie into the sheath. A small snap locked the blade inside. “This attaches to your belt for a horizontal carry. On you, I think the small of your back.” He held the blade up to me, measuring it against my body.
“No way. It would scare people.” It scared me. The odds of accidentally cutting myself on a knife in my purse were low. If I strapped one to me, I’d be lucky to have all my fingers by the end of the week.
“Good thing evil creatures politely wait for you to scrounge up your weapon before they attack,” Muhamad said.
“If I may.” Musad lifted the hem of my sweater with his thumb and forefinger, pressed the flat sheath to my hip, then lowered the fabric over the knife. “Voilà. Problem solved.”
Goose bumps spread across my stomach from the touch of the cool leather. Musad pulled his hand back.
“When you don’t wear it, you can stuff it in that piece of luggage you’re carting around,” Muhamad said. “It’s legally concealable.”
I liked the sound of that. If I were honest with myself, I’d brushed aside qualms about the clumsy location of Niko’s knife more than once. Plus, I would be able to downgrade to a normal-size purse again. “I’ll take it.”
Both men were all smiles as Musad swiped my credit card. The smell of melting plastic must have been in my head. The tiny Bowie was cheaper than a knife the size of Niko’s, but not by much.
The column of smoke from the Christmas tree stand rose black against the red-tinged sunset. As I headed back into Roseville, bumper-to-bumper traffic clogged Douglas all the way from the lake, so I took a left on Auburn Folsom Road and opted for a more circuitous route home. Half the population had the same idea. By the time I pulled under my apartment carport, I had twenty minutes to spare. I ran for the stairs.
Mr. Bond greeted me with a yowl. I pushed the door shut and bent in half, panting from jogging up two flights. The obese Siamese mutt twined between my legs, tromping on my toes and meowing very pointed, crisp words.
“I think I’m glad I can’t understand you.” He chirped in agreement. Straightening, I tossed my purse onto the dining table, hit the play button on my answering machine, and fed Mr. Bond. He quieted in time for me to hear Bridget’s dramatic whisper.
“Your mission, whether or not you choose to accept it, is to ascertain Dr. Love’s kissing skill.” My best friend was almost as excited about my date as I was—or had been. The reminder I wouldn’t be getting up close and personal with Alex’s lips tonight put a slump in my shoulders.
I toed my tennis shoes off and pulled my sweater over my head as the answering machine beeped to the next message.
“Hey, honey, it’s me,” Mom said. “I wanted to remind you to bring potato salad and gravy tomorrow.”
Crap. In the excitement of the previous week, I’d forgotten that I’d promised to contribute to Mom’s Thanksgiving meal. I opened my pantry cupboard, but no potatoes had miraculously translocated to my bare shelf.
“Oh, and there were two fires this afternoon off Highway Sixty-Five,” she continued. “I’m sure it’ll all be cleared up tomorrow, but just in case, take the Lincoln Newcastle Highway. See you tomorrow. Watch out for the pyro.”
Was he going to jump out of the bushes at me? Even if he did, there wasn’t much I could do. Whoever the firebug was, his type of sickness was a problem for ordinary police.
Mom made some baby noises at Mr. Bond before hanging up. I eyed my cat. He was up to his eyebrows in his food bowl, oblivious to the world.
“I hope you got that the first time, because I’m not playing it again.” His tail twitched.
The third message was Dad, whispering. “I told your mom I’d go with her to the gym this morning, and I didn’t. Now she’s threatening to not make pumpkin pie. You’d better bring a backup one just in case.” I could hear Mom call to Dad in the background, then the sound of tools banging. “I’m in my office!” Dad yelled. Quieter, he said, “And bring extra whipped cream.”
“Oscar, who are you on the phone with?” Mom asked, louder now. The message ended with a clatter.
I suspected I wasn’t going to make it through Thanksgiving with my sanity intact.
A shiver reminded me I stood in only a bra and pants, with Niko due to arrive any minute. Snatching up the phone, I headed for my closet. I might not be going on a date tonight, but I was going to meet other illuminant enforcers. I still wanted to dress to impress, or at least to make a good impression.
Halfway to my bedroom, my stomach growled. I turned back to the kitchen. The fridge contained exactly four things: a box of leftover pizza, a half-empty bottle of Gewürztraminer, a bag of salad mix, and strawberry jam. No yogurt.
In an effort to increase my strength as an enforcer, I’d been trying to eat food containing lux lucis. Recharging by absorbing energy from plants was convenient and necessary, but Niko had told me a few days ago that ingesting lux lucis would improve my base level of energy. I’d yet to see a difference. Plus, the options for lux lucis food were limited to fermented food with live bacteria or food freshly picked, such as fruits and vegetables. Cooking killed lux lucis. That left raw foods, and even salads took time to prepare. Which is why I’d eaten more yogurts in the last week than I had in the six months prior while the ingredients of the salad bag had rotted into slimy green soup.
I chewed methodically through one cold meat-and-vegetable-loaded slice of pizza, then washed my hands and dialed Bridget to deliver my bad news. I thumbed through my wardrobe while the phone rang. Everything I owned fell into two categories: comfortable and practical or impractical and sexy. The impractical clothes were all shoved to the back, virtually unworn. All except the orange and cream dress I had set aside for tonight’s thwarted date.
I sighed as Bridget picked up.
“Is this a prank call?” she demanded, though I knew she had caller ID. Traffic sounds hummed in the background.
“What are you wearing?” I panted into the phone.
“About five pounds too many. Some clients sent in chocolates today. Swiss chocolates.”
“I’ve gotta say, I expected a lot more squealing.”
“I would if I were still going on a date.”