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About A Fistful of Frost
1. Sometimes I Question My Sanity; Sometimes It Replies
2. Everyone Complains about the Weather, but No One Wants to Sacrifice a Virgin
3. Speak Truth to Power
4. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
5. I Licked It, so It's Mine
6. Led Astray by Good Intentions
7. I'm Like a Candy Bar: Half Sweet, Half Nuts
8. Happiness Is a Great Dane
9. Only Left-Handed People Are in Their Right Minds
10. Dignity? I Gave That Up Years Ago
11. I Don't Have a Dirty Mind; I Have a Sexy Imagination
12. Your Jealousy Gives Me Energy
13. Where Am I Going and Why Am I in This Handbasket?
14. I Don't Have a Short Temper, I Have a Prompt Reaction to BS
15. Long Live the Queen
16. Don't Run; You'll Only Die Tired
17. Whirled Peas
18. It's Okay if You Disagree with Me; I Can't Force You to Be Right
19. Caught between a Strong Mind and a Fragile Heart
21. The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves
22. I'm a Woman. What's Your Superpower?
23. I May Not Always Be Good but My Intentions Are
24. Are Your Reflexes Good? I Want to Try Something
25. Nevertheless, She Persisted
26. I Want to Be the Person My Dog Thinks I Am
27. Time to Get Chocolate Wasted
28. Without Me, It's Just Aweso
29. What Doesn't Kill You Will Probably Try Again
30. Some Cause Happiness Wherever They Go, Others Whenever They Go
Also by Rebecca Chastain
Sneak Peek: Magic of the Gargoyles
About the Author
Madison Fox is determined to reform Jamie, her half-evil pooka, but the bond linking her to Jamie works both ways. Already, it has manipulated her into bending the rules. If she continues down this path, she could doom her soul. Since her judgment can’t be trusted, a high-ranking inspector now dictates Madison’s every interaction with Jamie, and each directive drives them further apart.
Unfortunately, Madison has bigger issues than the potential degradation of her soul. Winter has struck with a vengeance. Frost moths plague the entire state, reinforcing the artificially frigid temperature. Worse, cold-blooded, soul-stealing enemies are flocking into her region from the north—creatures Madison has little defense against.
With the inspector scrutinizing her every misstep, Madison is in for the battle of her life. If she hopes to survive, she must make an impossible choice: save herself and her region or save Jamie.
An imaginative urban fantasy filled with heart, humor, and plenty of butt-kicking action—A Fistful of Frost is a book you won’t want to miss.
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 resemblances to actual cats are 100 percent intentional. Mack Fu shamelessly insisted on being immortalized in the pages of this novel and all novels in the Madison Fox series. He gracefully agreed to share the literary limelight with his sister, Zenzo, whose kitten likeness is used herein with her permission.
Copyright © 2018 by Rebecca Chastain
Excerpt from Magic of the Gargoyles 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
For Mom, whose compassion, empathy, and love have shaped my life—none of my successes would have been possible without you.
Inspector Pamela Hennessey leaned close, shouting to be heard above the enthusiastic marching band pounding its way across the football field. “Remember what I said, Madison: Show me you’re in control of the pooka. Take charge. You’re not helping Jamie by being soft.”
Avoiding her eyes, I nodded, keenly aware of Jamie standing less than three feet from us. With luck, he hadn’t heard her over the bleating trumpets.
We stood against a retaining wall on the outer rim of the track wrapping Oakmont High’s football field. A flailing, cheering quilt of bundled and blanketed people packed the bleachers, and a steady string of teenagers and their parents filed past on their way to and from the concession stand amidst waves of popcorn and hot dog fumes. Normally Jamie would have been at my elbow, begging for a bowl of nachos, and I would have indulged him, but not with the inspector present. I’d met her less than an hour ago, and I’d already lost track of how many times I’d made a fool of myself in front of her. From here on out, I needed to be a shining example of a perfect pooka-bonded enforcer if I stood a chance of saving face—and saving my region.
Jamie edged closer, his shoulders hunched in a dejected curl, his dichotomous soul churning in agitated waves of black atrum and white lux lucis. I strangled the impulse to comfort him. Like Pamela said, I needed to be firm. Authoritative.
Even if it was my fault Jamie looked lost.
I flexed frozen fingers, encouraging blood and heat back into the digits. A freak cold snap had struck Roseville, California, plummeting the temperature below freezing, and local meteorologists threatened we’d see snow before morning. The novel phenomenon would have been a lot easier to appreciate if I were holed up inside my apartment like a normal person. Normal, however, had hopscotched right over me when I’d been born with the ability to use my soul as a weapon.
A dark shape zipped overhead, and I ducked, my free hand spasming around the clunky necklace resting on my chest. My jerky reaction drew stares, but I pretended not to notice. Quick reflexes could make the difference between living and dying in my line of work. Besides, if the norms could see the swarm of tyv drones buzzing above the stadium, they’d do more than duck; they’d run in terror.
Pretending fear didn’t stretch taut across my nerves, I examined the latest enemy to invade my region. The drones bore an uncanny resemblance to mosquitoes—if mosquitoes grew to the size of pterodactyls. They possessed spiky legs, multifaceted ebony eyes wrapped around triangular heads, and two-foot-long, needle-sharp proboscises for mouths. Where mosquitoes drank blood, the drones devoured lux lucis, the white energy of good people’s souls. This bright, undigested energy in the drones’ translucent abdomens made it possible to track the otherwise black creatures against the obsidian sky, and I told myself it was a blessing. But since I was Roseville’s illuminant enforcer and the person responsible for defending the citizens inside my small region from pernicious, soul-snacking creatures, each glowing drone served as neon-white proof of all the people I’d failed to protect.
An entire sky lit with evidence of my inadequacies as an enforcer, and me standing next to an inspector here to assess my competence. Could this night get any worse?
Pamela gestured to the other enforcer accompanying us and then pointed toward the stands. “Summer, take point but stay close.”
Like a perfect little suck-up, Summer Potts jumped to obey, rushing to kneel in front of the stuffed bleachers, out of sight of the crowds but still able to target the soul-hungry creatures dining on them.
“Here they come. Hold your ground, Madison, and aim for the thorax.”
Five drones tore themselves from the smorgasbord and whipped toward us on blurred wings. If it’d been just me and the inspector, I would have said the drones were attracted to the pure white shimmer of our souls. I’d yet to meet an evil creature who could resist our untainted lux lucis, not even those smart enough to know they gambled with their lives when they snacked on an enforcer. But with the pooka at my side, his soul surging with restrained power, I might as well have been invisible to the drones.
I reached blindly for Jamie’s arm with my left hand, pushing him behind me without taking my eyes off the incoming drones. “Stay close and don’t feed them.”
Here goes nothing. I yanked my palmquell from my pocket, fumbling with the unfamiliar weapon. Painted in eye-watering shades of mustard, the palmquell resembled a gun, which meant I couldn’t use it with impunity. People tended to frown upon guns—real or fake—being brandished at crowded high school events. Improvising, I pretended to blow on my gloves as if to warm my hands, disguising the palmquell in my fists. With luck, holding it closer to my eyes would improve my atrocious aim.
The drones dove for us, dropping into range before I had steeled my nerves. I shoved a dollop of my soul’s energy into the palmquell, the transfer of lux lucis passing through my wool glove and disappearing into the balsa wood gun’s bone chamber. When I jerked the trigger, a bright white slug of lux lucis arced through the air . . . missing all five drones by several feet. They didn’t slow. I pushed more energy into the gun and fired, missing again. The drones closed the distance between us too fast, and I backed up, jostling Jamie. The urge to flee flooded my body with adrenaline. Giving up on accuracy, I shot nonstop, hoping the sheer quantity of lux lucis in the air would deter the drones or—if I was extremely lucky—hit at least one.
The drones dodged around the scatter of bullets.
I sucked in a sharp breath, fear coiling in my chest. They’d dodged. Not a lot of evil creatures were smart enough for such a simple act of self-preservation. Imps practically killed themselves. Vervet might taunt me first, but ultimately their appetites ruled their actions, making them easy prey. Hounds couldn’t stop themselves from attacking, which made them as predictable as they were dangerous. But drones were the lower caste of a more evolved and terrifying creature called sjel tyver. According to my boss, sjel tyver were the brains of the species, which is why I’d assumed that as their scouts, the drones would fall squarely in the “I think with my stomach, so let me help you kill me” category.
Dodging proved that the drones were notstupid and that they might actually be intelligent.
I expected to hear a buzz when the drones zoomed past, but if their wings made such a prosaic sound, the marching band drowned them out. Without slowing, they swept back over the crowded bleachers, blending in with the rest of the swarm. It should have upset me to watch them revert to attacking defenseless norms; instead, I breathed a sigh of relief for my reprieve.
Stomping my chilly feet in my boots, I shook tension from my limbs and monitored the nearest drones swooping along the rim of the stands. They speared their sharp mouths into people’s shoulders, necks, and most disturbingly, their faces, feeding without slowing. With bodies constructed not from sinew and blood but from atrum, evil energy coalesced into shape and form, the drones existed exclusively in the metaphysical plane of Primordium. In other words, only people like myself and the inspector could see them. The norms should have been equally oblivious to the sharp jabs of the drones’ insubstantial needle snouts, but every single person acted out immediately after being struck: a girl in skintight jeans jumped to her feet and boldly picked her underwear from her crack; an elderly man pelted a woman a few rows in front of him with popcorn, temporarily silencing the woman’s obnoxious noisemaker while she looked around for the culprit; a mom in so many layers of coats that she looked like a walking sleeping bag grabbed her purse and shoved toward the aisle, only to stop, confused, on the stairs. It was as if the drones’ bites prompted people into action, and the action itself didn’t matter.
The deafening performance of the band died for three blissful seconds, and in the relative silence, I heard Jamie laughing. My heart warmed until I realized the source of his humor was the peculiar actions of the helpless victims. Pamela sliced her disapproving glare from Jamie to me, and I flinched, mentally adding another mark against us. Then the band launched into Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” and the crowd went wild, drowning out any chance I had of remedying the moment. Pamela’s attention jerked to the air above my head, and I spun back toward the stands. A trio of drones had split from the swarm, pulled to us by the siren song of my pooka’s soul.
Raising my palmquell, I fired a blast of lux lucis bullets into their midst and pivoted to track two that darted in the same direction. The turn faced me toward the field, Jamie, and—
The inspector was missing.
Wild-eyed, I searched for Pamela, finding her hugging the retaining wall more than twenty feet down the track, almost back to the stadium entrance. Without lifting her hand from her hip, she fired on the attacking drones, and her white bullets streaked through the air as if drawn to their targets.
Panic receded and I sucked in a breath. She hadn’t abandoned me.
Shame chased the thought. I shouldn’t need Pamela to do my job, especially since the inspector hadn’t distanced herself to assist me; she’d backed off so she could dissect my skills—or lack thereof—from a better perspective.
Shunting lux lucis into the palmquell, I sighted on the zigzagging drones. A detached part of me considered how ridiculous I looked to the norms, seemingly staring into the halogen lights, my gloved hands cupped a few inches from my face and my eyes darting back and forth as I tracked drones they couldn’t see. The rest of me didn’t care. In Primordium, the blinding light of the halogens didn’t exist, and I’d work on my covert drone-killing techniques some other time, when we weren’t under attack.
The lead drone faltered—no thanks to any of my shots—and then exploded in a puff of harmless atrum glitter that faded to lifeless gray as it settled on the gravel. I squinted at the next-closest drone, pulsing lux lucis into the palmquell and firing so rapidly it looked as if a single white beam of light extended from the palmquell’s tip.
“Hold still, you stupid inflated mosquito,” I growled.
The drone took two shots from Pamela before I aligned on it; it died with the inspector’s fourth slug of lux lucis before I landed a single hit.
I whirled, hunting for the third drone. It had circled wide, approaching from the hill. I brought my palmquell to bear but hesitated, catching Jamie’s rapt expression. The pooka raised a hand to the drone, a hint of a smile tipping the corners of his mouth, his posture completely at odds with the threat.
He looked like a person caught in a spell.
The sounds of the marching band receded. The crowd ceased to exist. My world narrowed to Jamie and the drone. I pumped lux lucis through the palmquell, but my shots were too slow, and the slender drone flitted through them untouched. No streaks of white bullets came from Pamela’s direction either.
What is she doing? Why did she stop shooting?
The drone bore down on us, zipping wide around my lux lucis stream to strike Jamie. Not going to happen. I shouldered the pooka out of the way, and the drone’s barbedproboscis flicked through my chest as painful as a whip crack. I screamed, short and sharp, clutching my breastbone with my free hand.
Incorporeal creatures weren’t supposed to hurt when they fed!
The drone spun back toward us, angling for Jamie again. Screw this. No way was I going to let a drone inflict that pain on my pooka. I tossed the useless palmquell aside and yanked my pet wood from my pocket. A flick of the wrist extended the telescoping petrified wood weapon into a three-foot wand, every inch of it glistening bright white with as much lux lucis as it could hold. Planting my feet, I raised the wand in front of me like a sword.
The drone’s skittish flight brought it into range, and I burst into motion. Channeling an extra blast of lux lucis down the length of the pet wood, I slashed through the drone’s wings and thorax. The drone exploded. Black glitter rained down on Jamie and me, temporarily obscuring the world.
“We’re leaving. Now.” I grabbed Jamie’s hand before he had a chance to adjust his soul, and his atrum slid cold across my palm. I slapped it back with lux lucis. Jamie flinched and shoved all his soul’s atrum to the far side of his body.
“No. It’s too dangerous.” So long as Jamie was present, the drones wouldn’t stop attacking. Despite looking like a teenage boy, the pooka was still a child, having taken physical form for the first time less than a week ago when he’d imprinted on me, tethering us together for the foreseeable future. He needed protection from so many dangers, not the least of which were evil creatures mesmerized by his power.
I hauled Jamie across the track and shoved through the crowd milling between me and the exit. Jamie stumbled behind me, and I squeezed his hand tighter, afraid I’d lose him. Monitoring the skies for drones, I used the pet wood to poke my way past people who lollygagged in front of us.
“Where are you going?” Pamela demanded.
I hadn’t heard her approach, and I spun, bringing the wand up between us.
“I’m getting Jamie to safety.”
She crossed her arms. “Just Jamie?”
“I can’t protect him out in the open like that.”
Between one breath and the next, all the urgency bled from me. I blinked, confused, and frowned at Jamie’s hand imprisoned in mine. He’d been in danger. The drone had been about to hurt him, and it’d made sense to get him out of the stadium. But—
But I’d killed the drone, and I should have stayed to kill the rest. Furthermore, Jamie had never been in real danger. As a half-evil creature who possessed a frightening amount of atrum himself, the pooka didn’t have anything to fear from a drone. Even if it had taken a bite from him, the drone wouldn’t have gotten anything for its efforts; unlike me, Jamie could prevent creatures from consuming his soul.
Where had that rationality been a moment ago?
Rubbing my chest where the sting of the drone’s bite had already faded, I checked Jamie’s expression, surprised to see wariness pinching his brows. The twin energies of his soul sloshed with agitation on the far side of his body, but his hand in mine—and his entire arm and side—were draped in safe, white energy.
Oh! I’d used my lux lucis against him. I’d hurt him.
What the hell was going on?
Scowling, I turned back to Pamela. The shorter woman stood just beyond reach of my—extended! blazing!—wand. It’d been the most natural thing in the world to draw the weapon in front of the entire stadium. I hadn’t given one thought to the attention I might attract. And how many people had I stabbed with its sharp tip as I’d fled the stadium?
“The first time is the worst,” Pamela said.
Jamie and I shook the ache from our hands when I released him. I collapsed the pet wood and tucked it into my pocket, dismayed when I realized I’d lost the palmquell. I had a vague memory of chucking it . . .
Pamela extended her hand, holding my palmquell out to me. Feeling like I was moving in a dream, I accepted it.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Come here. You need to recharge.”
Pamela led the way to a clump of pines, and I removed a glove and examined my soul. The lux lucis capacity of a palmquell bullet was negligible, but given the quantity of shots I’d fired, it was little wonder my normally cotton-white soul flickered faintly. I planted my hand on the nearest tree, and a cool wash of lux lucis flowed into me from the bark as the pine selflessly replenished my reserves.
“Why did I—” I stopped myself, not sure how to complete the question. Why did I forget all my training? Why did I believe it was imperative to get Jamie away from the drones? Why did I feel like I’d been a different person a few minutes ago? I settled for repeating my original question. “What happened?”
“Drones feed off pieces of souls and inhibitions. They take away your restraint, so whatever it is you want to do in that moment, you do it. The effect tends to last about ten seconds, give or take; then you’re back to normal.”
The anomalies clicked into place: the woman picking her underwear from her butt, the old man chucking popcorn like a child in a food fight—the drones hadn’t evoked action so much as freed people to act. Whatever impulse they’d had the moment the drone fed, they’d acted upon it.
When the drone took a bite from my soul, I’d been concerned with protecting Jamie. After it had fed, nothing else had mattered. I hadn’t thought about the people watching, about my goal to prove myself to Pamela, or even about securing my weapons. My top priority—my only priority—had been Jamie’s safety.
Like a person hypnotized, I’d made the decisions and experienced the emotions, but I hadn’t been in control. Not fully. Which left me playing catch-up even though I’d lived through the events.
“That last drone, why didn’t you shoot it before it struck me?”
“I thought it’d be more informative to see how you reacted.”
Of course. What better way to test an enforcer than to have something strip away her inhibitions to see how she reacted? I released a slow, deliberate breath, telling myself it was the inspector’s job to evaluate my proficiency. Using the drone to do so had simply been pragmatic.
Nevertheless, irritation sharpened my tone when I asked, “And?”
“You confirmed my earlier assessment. You need serious target practice, and you coddle the pooka when you should lead. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Behind Jamie’s back, she gestured to the dark energy pulsing in his soul, her not-so-subtle use of the cliché coming through loud and clear.
As a newly risen pooka, Jamie’s powerful soul encapsulated a fluid, perfect balance of lux lucis and atrum, but his energies wouldn’t stay harmonized for long; he’d gravitate toward one side or the other, and it was my job to ensure Jamie made the kinds of decisions that would transform him into a pure lux lucis creature like myself—only vastly more powerful.
If I failed, he’d turn dark, and because of the bond linking us, I’d be altered in the process, too.
I couldn’t afford to ignore Pamela’s advice.
Still . . .
“Protecting Jamie from harm is not coddling.”
“Between the two of you, you need protection more than the pooka.”
“The drones wouldn’t hurt me,” Jamie said softly.
“Wouldn’t the drone have taken away your inhibitions?” Surely Pamela would agree that an inhibition-free pooka should be avoided.
Jamie shrugged. “I’m not human.”
Pamela gave me a pointed look.
“Well, good.” I sounded petulant even to myself. The drones can’t hurt Jamie, so why aren’t I ecstatic?
“Indeed,” Pamela agreed. “With the drones drawn to him, we can use the pooka to lure them away from the crowds.”
Bingo. “You want to use Jamie as bait?”
“Is there a problem?”
I held my body stiff, wanting to look away from the challenge in the inspector’s eyes, wanting to check Jamie’s face. Hell yes, there was a problem. Jamie was my pooka, bonded to me and under my protection, even if he claimed he didn’t need it. The idea of using him made my stomach knot. But Pamela was an inspector. She outranked me and my boss. More important, she had actual experience in dealing with pookas. If she said I needed to be firmer with Jamie, then I needed to stiffen my backbone. I couldn’t let the bond manipulate me into spoiling him.
“No, no problem here.”
How had this evening gone to Sucksville so fast?
An hour earlier, I’d parked next to my boss’s orange Fiat at the nether reaches of the Oakmont High School parking lot, a familiar buzz of prehunt anticipation tingling through my limbs. Two days off, even if they had been mandated for recovery, had gone a long way toward restoring my enthusiasm for my job. Squeezing in a much-delayed date with Alex Love last night had done the rest.
I’d had a crush on Alex since the first time I’d shown up at his veterinary clinic with my cat, Mr. Bond, when he was still a kitten. It’d taken a few visits, spaced across a few years, before Alex had asked me out, and then I’d had to postpone. Twice. My reasons had been valid—I’d been a teensy bit busy being bonded by the most powerful pooka born in the last decade and stopping a megalomaniac from setting fire to my entire region—but to Alex, who knew nothing about enforcers and my ongoing battle against evil creatures he couldn’t perceive, I’d simply looked flaky. Fortunately, he’d stuck around. Even better, we’d both agreed the date had been worth the wait.
Mmm, so worth the wait. That man could kiss!
“Are you hungry?” Jamie peered at me from the passenger seat.
“You made a nummy noise.”
“Oh. Ah, no. Just thinking.” I deliberately closed the door on the memories of Alex’s firm lips and focused on the here and now.
The final gloomy rays of the sun had disappeared behind the cloud-choked horizon, and the gray sky bled to a starless black. I’d thought that after revealing the neighboring warden Isabel to be a vengeful rogue and facilitating her removal, my region would thrive and I’d be able to coast for a few weeks. After all, Isabel had been behind most of the evil I’d fought since I’d become Roseville’s enforcer, and with her gone, it stood to reason my workload would be lighter. Even factoring in the temporary expansion of my region to include a third of Isabel’s old territory, I’d expected to be done with today’s work by noon.
I should have known better. Isabel’s actions had warped my region, leaving it primed for a whole new evil creature to invade: sjel tyver. If that wasn’t bad enough—and from everything I’d learned about sjel tyver, it was pretty bad—the higher-ups in the Collaborative Illumination Alliance had decided to send an inspector to monitor the situation. A pooka, a rogue warden, and now sjel tyver proved to be too much unusual activity for the CIA to ignore.
I rolled my shoulders, the creep of nerves tightening my muscles. An inspector outranked my boss, and she would be scrutinizing my every move while in town, including my interactions with Jamie. The pooka’s dual nature had everyone on edge, and they wanted reassurances that I had him under control. Which I did.
I shook my head and shoved from the dim interior of the car, squinting against the harsh blue LED lights illuminating the parking lot. An icy breeze cut through my jacket, and I zipped it closed beneath my chin, fluffing my scarf around my neck for good measure. If I wanted something to worry about, I should start with my boss’s plan for me to fix Roseville’s new arctic environment. Though we hadn’t discussed how yet, he literally expected me to raise the temperature of our slice of the planet.
If it didn’t kill me first, this job was going to give me a major superiority complex.
Bundled in a black leather coat, plaid wool scarf, and dark jeans, Brad Pitt leaned against his pocket-size car. Not the Brad Pitt; Warden Brad Pitt, my boss. Squat, with a balding round head and puffy frog lips, he more resembled Danny DeVito than the hunky actor whose name he shared. If he ever resented the inevitable unflattering comparison, Brad never mentioned it and I never asked.
Jamie bounced from the car, a family-size bag of potato chips in hand, his head whipping back and forth to take in the rapidly filling parking lot and the stream of people trekking to the stadium. He might appear old enough to be a recent Oakmont High alumnus, but my pooka had less experience in the world than a toddler, and everything fascinated him, including the yellow school buses strung in a line along the front of the school, each swarmed by teens in letterman jackets weighed down with instruments. I narrowed my eyes at the scene, groaning when I spotted the bright sign above the entrance.
“What?” Jamie asked, tugging his beanie low over his ears.
“It’s not a football game. It’s a marching band competition.”
“What’s a marching band?”
“A lot more fun when there’s a volume knob included.”
I greeted Brad, then popped open the back door of the Civic to retrieve a pair of wool gloves. Since cold in Roseville usually meant temperatures in the high forties, Jamie and I hadn’t been equipped for a night out in subfreezing elements, and nearly everything we wore had been purchased today. It’d taken three stores to find gloves made from natural fibers rather than synthetic, but wool would conduct lux lucis without adding any resistance, so it’d been worth the hunt. We’d also picked up matching black coats, black beanies, black scarves, and dark jeans. In the flat lamplight, even our hair color looked like it matched, though mine was several shades lighter than Jamie’s onyx locks. With our identical height, strangers probably mistook us for siblings.
If only they could see the difference between our souls.
Underneath our outer layers, we both wore black zip-up sweaters, dark shirts, and long johns—mine neon green because they were cheap, Jamie’s gray because men didn’t get color choices. Short of waterproof pants, we were ready to walk through a blizzard.
“We don’t have much time before the inspector arrives,” Brad said as he scurried around the hood of his car. “Hold out your hands.”
I did, and he dumped an item in each cupped palm.
“The soul breaker goes around your neck. Don’t take it off until you’ve chased the sjel tyver out of our territory.”
I examined the two items. One masqueraded as a mustard-orange glue gun, but its balsa wood frame and straight nozzle said otherwise. Process of elimination made the other item the soul breaker. By weight and appearance, I would have guessed it to be a replica of a barbaric Celtic necklace or perhaps a Southwestern saddle adornment. A sturdy leather cord coiled in my palm, the ends sewn to a band of stiff leather from which hung a curved chunk of bamboo as thick as a roll of quarters through the middle and tapered up the arms. If it’d been a smidgen larger, it could have passed for connected cow horns. As it was, I could slide my fist through the arms of bamboo with room to spare. Bold black Celtic knots adorned both the leather and the apex of the knocker. The whole soul breaker could be summed up in one word: hideous.
Reluctantly, I slid the leather cord over my head and settled the soul breaker against my chest. Hoping it’d look more attractive on a different visual spectrum, I blinked to Primordium. Color siphoned from the world, redefining it in a deceptively simplistic black and white. Everything inanimate—from my green Civic to the churned mud at the edge of the lot to the beige stucco school buildings—became the same shade of charcoal. Electric lights didn’t register in this spectrum, but a vague, ambient illumination prevented the landscape from being washed flat, casting enough shadows to provide definition to objects without ever creating true black. Only two things registered as black in Primordium: evil, or atrum, and the vast nothingness of the sky.
Earth’s atmosphere didn’t register in Primordium, and while the void of space wasn’t filled with atrum, it simply wasn’t occupied by anything. I’d worked hard to ignore the insignificant-speck sensation that wormed through my gut whenever I stood beneath the ebony dome, and I’d been so intent on ignoring the sky that it hadn’t occurred to me until now to wonder: How was I supposed to track a flying atrum-bodied creature against a black backdrop?
“Are you sure there aren’t any sjel tyver here?” I asked.
“Positive. Drones are nearby but not tyver.”
“Nearby? Where?” I spun in a tight circle, scanning the skies.
Brad pointed to the stadium. “At the buffet.”
Crass, but he had a point. Why would a creature that ate people’s souls linger over the slim pickings of the parking lot when it could feast from a congregation?
“I don’t see them,” I said.
“You can’t from here. Focus, Madison. We’ve got a lot of information to cover before the inspector gets here.”
“Are you sure we shouldn’t head in? Letting the drones feed on all those people can’t be good.”
“A few unprotected minutes isn’t going to hurt them much. But if you go charging in there without knowing how to defend yourself, and a tyv shows up, you’re as good as dead.”
“Right. Val made that abundantly clear.”
Val was an often irritable, usually sarcastic, undeniably insecure sentient leather-bound enforcer manual Brad had saddled me with when it became obvious I wasn’t learning fast enough. I wore Val against my hip on a leather strap that draped across my chest. This enabled the handbook to “see,” which went a long way toward improving his general mood. It also ensured he experienced everything I did, which gave him a stake in my survival. I’d put up with hip bruises and occasional strap snags if it meant Val gave me sound, lifesaving advice.
Along with telling me that sjel tyver meant soul thieves in Norwegian and providing a picture of a tyv—which resembled a human-size mosquito—Val had informed me that tyver were “mortally perilous.” After reading that bone-chilling phrase, it was little wonder Val’s entry on sjel tyver was burned into my brain:
When sjel tyver feed off normal humans, they steal memories along with pieces of their victims’ souls. However, the fluid nature of an enforcer’s soul makes it vulnerable, and when a tyv feeds off an enforcer, it can steal the entirety of that person’s soul, leaving her little more than a mindless husk. If the enforcer survives the attack, she will be as good as dead, her body permanently comatose.
Drones, the lower scout caste of the tyv species, looked similar to tyver but had been classified by Val as “mostly harmless” for norms and enforcers. They merely stole scraps of souls when they fed, but if they collected enough soul fragments, they could metamorphose into full tyver.
My job was to make sure none consumed enough soul bits to evolve.
“Is there ever going to be a time when our region isn’t facing a catastrophic threat?” The question blurted out unbidden, whine and all. I’d been an enforcer for less than a month, and I’d been running nonstop, tackling everything from a demon to rampaging, fire-breathing salamanders. Now we had an unprecedented swarm of sjel tyver bearing down on us. Not to sound too juvenile, but . . . it wasn’t fair!
Brad swept a hand across his bald crown. “Eventually, yes. You might even get a chance to become bored. Or fully trained.” He sighed. “I wish I had more time to prepare you. You’re too green to be going up against a creature as strong as a tyv.”
“What else is new?”
Jamie finished shaking the crumbs from the bottom of the chip bag into his mouth and joined us. “What’s this?” he asked, poking the soul breaker.
“The only weapon proven to be effective against tyver,” Brad said.
Jamie gave the bamboo knocker a skeptical eyebrow waggle.
Reminded of the reason I’d blinked to Primordium in the first place, I lifted the soul breaker from my chest to examine it. Nope. It hadn’t transformed into something pretty. I pushed a tendril of lux lucis through my fingers into the bamboo. The light ran up the gray curves and under the connecting leather bar, leaving a faint white glow. The clinging energy didn’t surprise me: Previously living objects like bamboo held and conducted lux lucis; I’d expected nothing less from an enforcer weapon. I pushed more energy into the soul breaker, and lux lucis rushed up the bamboo, across the engraved leather, and overflowed to coat the cord around my neck.
Upside down like this, the necklace resembled an Egyptian ankh. If crosses could ward off vampires, maybe this ugly amulet could ward off sjel tyver. Of course, vampires weren’t real, but the legend had to have started somewhere.
“Is it a talisman?” I asked, twisting the soul breaker back and forth.
Brad scoffed. Wrapping his fist around the bamboo U, he gave it a sharp tug. The bamboo separated from the leather with a soft snick. He held the soul breaker in front of my face, giving me a good look at the exposed tips. Each ended in a razor-sharp hook that glistened white with my residual lux lucis.
“You’re an enforcer, not a priest,” Brad said.
He handed the soul breaker to me, and I took it daintily, feeling like an idiot. A tentative test confirmed the hooks were as sharp as they looked, the sides gritty to the touch. When I curled my hand around the apex of the U, the bamboo arms wrapped around the sides of my fist and the hooks extended a few inches past my knuckles. According to Val’s sketch of a tyv, I’d have to be standing inside the circle of the evil insect’s legs to have a chance of killing it with this.
“Are you sure my pet wood wouldn’t be better?” At least it’d give me three feet of reach.
“Even if it were sharp enough, it’s not coated with the necessary ground seal bone to incapacitate a tyv.”
I scrunched up my face. That explained the gritty feel of the soul breaker’s tips. “If tyver are so dangerous, why is the best weapon we’ve got to fight them a horseshoe tipped with fishing hooks? Why not something longer?”
“Because precision matters. The soul breaker’s name is literal: it breaks a tyv’s hold on your soul, and it’s the only thing that will work. If you’re snared by a tyv, the time it takes for your lux lucis to reach the hooks could mean the difference between your survival and your future as a vegetable. You want the hooks to be as short as possible.”
What lovely, nightmare-inducing logic.
“How does it work?” I asked.
“Fill it with lux lucis and stab. Aim for the thorax—the part of the body behind the head. Don’t overthink it.”
I punched the air with the soul breaker.
“Yep. That’s it. Now put it away,” Brad said.
I examined the necklace, or rather the sheath, to determine how the soul breaker reattached. The engraved square of leather parted along the bottom seam to form an upside-down pocket. When I slid the soul breaker tips back into the sheath, magnets glued on the inside of the leather clicked closed, safely encasing the wicked hooks. I jiggled the cord, and the soul breaker swayed, but it didn’t show any signs of falling out.
I clutched the soul breaker and drew it, satisfied when it sprang free in my grip. The thick bamboo fit comfortably in my fist. It might be ugly, but it felt solid. I’d take a well-designed weapon over an attractive, useless one any day.
“What about for the drones?” I asked.
“You won’t need it for the drones. For them, you have the palmquell.”
“Never mind that. We need to teach you how to net— Gummy worms! She’s early.” A cordial smile completely at odds with his words and tone transformed Brad’s face into a beatific mask. I recoiled but he had aimed the expression beyond me. A compact car pulled into the space on the other side of Brad’s Fiat, and I caught a glimpse of two people inside, both with white souls, before they were blocked from view.
“Okay, listen up.” Brad turned his back on the newcomers, dropping his voice to a hiss. All traces of his serene smile vanished. “The inspector holds the fate of both our careers in her hands. She’s the arbitrator of Isabel’s unclaimed region, and she can pass it to whoever she sees fit. By every right, it should go to us.” The feral gleam in his eyes made me want to back up. “Opportunities like this don’t come often, and she’s going to make us prove we’re worthy. I need you on your best behavior, Madison. You and Jamie both. Until I say otherwise, do exactly what Pamela says. Impress her. Knock her socks off. Failing that, don’t embarrass me.”
“I’ve got this,” I promised. I crossed my fingers behind my back and prayed I wasn’t lying.
I expected the inspector to look like an Army Ranger, tall, muscular, and radiating an “I could kill you if I wanted to” vibe. The woman who stepped from the car shattered my assumptions. Midfifties, petite, and pale, with a slash of bright auburn in her chin-length white-blond hair, Inspector Pamela Hennessey didn’t look authoritative until her assessing gaze landed on me. Then I fought not to squirm.
“Madison Fox and the pooka Jamie,” she said, not quite a greeting and not a question. It would have sounded rude if not delivered in her posh British accent. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“All good, I hope,” I quipped.
She eyed me up and down, giving me a noncommittal, “Mmm.”
My smile froze at the corners.
Rose climbed from the driver’s seat and shut the car door with more force than necessary. The Latina empath gave me a curt nod, as if we were strangers and not coworkers and friends. What the hell? I stopped pretending to smile. Jamie shifted closer, brushing his gloved hand against mine, worry crinkling his eyebrows as he read the tension of the group. I gave him a shoulder bump to reassure him, pretending to be relaxed. Pamela’s gaze snapped from our touching hands to our shoulders to our faces, and I fought the urge to leap away from Jamie as if I were doing something wrong.
“Give me a net and let’s get your purity test out of the way, Madison,” the inspector said.
“Pardon me?” Wasn’t a purity test a medieval way to judge a woman’s virginity? Not only had that ship long since sailed, but I also didn’t see how it would be relevant—or anyone’s business. I checked Brad’s neutral expression. Did details about my sex life fall under the impress her or don’t embarrass me category?
The inspector rounded on Brad, wispy-fine hair flaring on either side of her pink headband earmuffs. “She doesn’t know what a purity test is? You haven’t tested her once in the last five days?”
“Madison’s purity has never been in question.”
A warning frizzled down my spine at Brad’s bland tone. She’d put him on the defense. I glanced to Rose for a clue, but she only grimaced and looked away.
“Don’t let your recent victories make you arrogant, Brad,” Pamela said. “Of course her purity is in question. She’s bonded to a pooka.”
Aha! This wasn’t about virginity; this was about Jamie’s dual nature and the metaphysical bond he’d placed on me. I’d been warned—repeatedly—to be careful of Jamie’s darker half; more than one bonded enforcer had been corrupted by a pooka’s morally ambiguous influence. No one had mentioned purity tests.
“This is to see if Jamie has . . . changed me?” I asked, choosing my words carefully in deference to Jamie. Nothing in his expression said he took offense to the insinuation that our link might have tainted me. He saw nothing wrong with wielding atrum as readily as lux lucis, and if I failed a purity test, it’d probably make him happy.
“Changed you?” Pamela echoed. “No. I need to know if the pooka’s bond has sullied you.”
So much for being tactful. I peeked sideways at Jamie, but he hadn’t reacted, his gaze focused beyond Pamela on the people walking by.
“Is there a problem?” the inspector asked.
“No. Of course not, but, Inspector Hennessey—” I shot Brad a desperate look.
“Call me Pamela. Never Pam.”
“Got it. Um, Pamela—”
“She doesn’t know how to make a net,” Brad said for me.
“Why not?” Pamela demanded, spinning to confront my boss again, the hem of her wool coat flaring to reveal the calves of her pale leather boots.
“I haven’t had the luxury of instituting a methodical training regimen with Madison.”
“Mmm,” Pamela said.
I was starting to hate that noise.
“And if she encountered a frost moth?” she asked.
“She has a lighter.”
One I’d purchased this afternoon at Brad’s insistence. Shaped like a small blowtorch, with a trigger to ignite the flame, it was the fanciest lighter I’d ever owned. It also had the distinction of being the only lighter I’d ever purchased with the intention of using as a weapon—or at least I thought that was the plan. I pressed my lips together. Now wouldn’t be a good time to confess that after reading Val’s entry on sjel tyver, I’d completely forgotten to ask the handbook about frost moths—what they looked like, where to find them, or how to kill them.
“I can instruct Madison on nets now,” Brad offered.
The inspector shook her head. “Let’s get the inquisition out of the way.”
Pamela pulled her shoulders back and crossed her arms, squaring off in front of me. “Pursuant to the rights granted me as an inspector of the Collaborative Illumination Alliance, I declare my intent to a formal field inquisition of Madison Fox.”
“Acknowledged,” Rose said.
I darted a look from Rose to my boss. Why did Rose appear to be working for Pamela and not Brad? More important: “Did I do something wrong?”
“That’s what I’m about to find out,” Pamela said.
“Pamela is questioning everyone in connection with Isabel,” Brad explained. “A warden going rogue is incredibly rare, and the Triumvirate want to understand how it could have happened and ensure no other rogues are lurking in our midst.”
I let out a breath, trying not to show my relief. Not everything is about me and Jamie, I reminded myself.
“A field inquisition is recognized the same as a trial in front of the Triumvirate,” Brad continued. “Rose will act in the capacity of Truth Seer, and she will judge your responses for honesty.”
Truth Seer seemed an appropriate title for Rose. As an empath, she could sense others’ emotions as if they were her own, which made lying to her impossible. Now that I thought about it, her unwilling participation in everyone else’s emotions could also explain her tense posture. Heck, if she were picking up only my discomfort, it’d be enough to put that scowl on her face.
We all turned when an SUV parked next to my Civic, disgorging distracted parents and disengaged children with noses pressed to phone screens. No one paid attention to our group clustered in the muddy strip between our cars’ bumpers and the fence. Nevertheless, Pamela waited until they walked away before turning back to me. At some invisible signal, Rose stepped forward, expression neutral, and the inquisition began.
“Did you ever work with Isabel?” Pamela asked.
“With? No. I worked in her region at the mall, cleaning up citos for several days.”
“Truth,” Rose intoned.
I twitched and shot Rose a questioning look. She stared into the space between us, her face the mask of a stranger. I curled my toes inside my boots, resisting the impulse to fidget. I’d done nothing wrong. I had no reason to be nervous.
Sure. Nothing bad ever happens to innocent people during inquisitions.
“Have you ever committed an act that caused atrum to accrue on your soul?” Pamela asked.
“On purpose? No.” I ran my fingers down the outside seam of my pants, not quite meeting the inspector’s eyes. “I’ve been fed on by imps and vervet. And a demon . . .” I trailed off, deciding it wasn’t crucial to list every creature that had tainted me with atrum.
Jamie shifted, turning to watch a gangly girl lug a tuba case out of a minivan across the aisle. The pooka’s indifference to the proceedings siphoned some of my nerves, and I took a deep breath and stilled my fingers.
“Listen closely,” the inspector said when my gaze resettled on hers. “Have you ever usedatrum?”
“Do you think you can handle your region without the assistance of Niko?”
The question caught me off guard. As optivus aegis, Niko Demitrius assisted in exterminating the most dangerous and deadly evil creatures throughout Northern California. He had frequented my region several times since I’d been hired, but each time the threat level had warranted his elite-enforcer expertise. With Isabel out of the picture, he wouldn’t need to drop in quite so often.
“Yes, I can do this alone.”
Pamela arched a brow at Rose.
“She believes she can,” Rose said.
“Well, that’s something.” Pamela turned back to me. “To your knowledge, has Brad ever used atrum?”
I frowned. “No.”
“What do you think of Brad as a warden?”
I crossed my arms. What kind of a question was that with Brad standing right beside me? “He’s the best warden I’ve ever worked with.”
“Truth,” Rose said on top of Pamela’s snort. Brad was the only warden I’d ever worked with, and we all knew it.
“Are you in control of your pooka?”
I double-checked Jamie’s location. He hadn’t moved from my side, but all his attention had pivoted to the inspector.
Rose took her time before saying, “Truth.”
“Do you feel a desire to do evil things?”
“No.” I bit off the word.
“Does your bond with the pooka influence your actions?”
I huffed out a breath, uncrossing my arms. Jamie had inflated in my periphery, somehow looming even though we were the same height. I needed to calm down before he decided to step in and “save me” from the inspector.
“Of course the bond affects me. That’s the point of it. But it doesn’t make my decisions for me, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“Would you pass the pooka’s bond to another if you had the opportunity?”
I balled my fists in my pockets and strove to school my expression. I couldn’t decide which was worse: the thought of handing Jamie to another person as if he were an object and not a person, or the fact that Pamela had forced the question on me while Jamie could hear the answer. If I’d had any hesitancy, Rose would have seen through it, and it would have ruined my relationship with Jamie.
“What would make you a better enforcer?”
“Training and experience,” I snarled.
Pamela gave me her first genuine smile, one I wasn’t feeling charitable enough to return. “The trial is complete. Madison Fox, you are free to carry out your duties as an enforcer, barring, of course, passing a purity test.”
“Great.” The moment she looked away, I shook out my hands, trying to dispel my lingering defensiveness. Jamie studied Pamela with the full weight of his power sitting in his eyes, turning away only when a gaggle of teen boys ran past, laughing and shouting at each other.
Brad checked his phone and announced, “Niko’s five minutes out.”
My stomach flipped and my heart rate spiked. I tried to pretend my reaction was rooted in dismay. Niko’s presence meant the sjel tyver were as awful as Val made them out to be, and the optivus aegis thought his substantial skills would be needed to defeat them. Maybe I should have been grateful, but so long as Niko was hanging around, he would be undermining Pamela’s perception of my ability to handle my region.
All those thoughts zipped through my head, nice and logical, but the visceral response of my hormones had little to do with such trivial matters as my safety or my career ambitions. Brad had said Niko and my endocrine system heard sex.
Pamela checked the clock on her phone, then turned to Jamie. “Pooka, I formally request a prophecy.”
“A what?” I asked.
Jamie blinked at the inspector, a slow smile spreading across his face.
“In private,” Pamela added when he opened his mouth. “Come with me.” She strode down the line of parked cars in the opposite direction of the stadium, and Jamie trotted after her without a second glance in my direction.
I took a half step after them, but Brad laid a hand on my arm. “Prophecies are confidential.”
Pamela didn’t stop walking until they reached the end of the row and were almost hidden from sight by the line of vehicles. I leaned to see them better and knocked my head against the chain-link fence.
“Since when is Jamie a fortune-teller?”
“Since birth. He’s a pooka,” Brad said. “Didn’t the handbook inform you about pookas and prophecies?”
“Um, maybe?” I tried to remember Val’s exact wording.
“Check it again.” He turned to Rose, dismissing me. “Did she—”
“Pamela hasn’t allocated any portion of Isabel’s region to anyone,” Rose said.
“Who did you put to inquisition today?”
“Who didn’t we?” Rose tugged her pea coat tighter around her ample frame, popping the collar to shield her neck from a sharp breeze. Fanning silver nails through her long black hair, she pulled the thick mass over her shoulder to drape down her chest like a scarf.
“Did you get any strong impression from her reactions?” Brad asked.
“She liked a few people better than others, but I couldn’t tell if she’s planning on setting anyone up as a new warden.”
“What’d she feel about me during my inquisition?”
Rose stopped fussing with her coat and pinned my boss with a reproving stare. Brad flushed and grimaced.
“Never mind,” he said.
Rose nodded, as if he’d apologized. When they looked my way, I busied myself pulling Val from his strap and opening him across my palm.
In normal sight, every page in the handbook looked blank, like a journal waiting to be filled. Val’s true, quasi-animate nature only became apparent when viewed in Primordium. There, he glowed as bright as I did, his text as dark as normal ink. Black on a living creature meant atrum in every other instance, but on Val, it just made it easier to read his words. I wasn’t sure how that worked, but after I had accepted that a book could be sentient and talk—or write—for itself, I’d stopped worrying too much about the how.
Four words blasted across the page in an excited scrawl: THAT WAS PAMELA HENNESSEY!
“You know her?”
We met once. It was years ago, when she was a mere enforcer, and she told me a story about another handbook she’d known in England. She looks amazing now. Still sharp as a paper cut and strong enough in lux lucis to match even your pooka.
Having seen how much power Jamie could wield, I doubted it, but I didn’t contradict Val. I also didn’t correct his use of “your pooka” rather than Jamie’s name. The relationship between Val and Jamie existed only because both were tied to me. Otherwise my pure lux lucis handbook would never have deigned to associate with a half-atrum pooka.
Words continued to scrawl across Val’s page. Did you know Pamela’s worked on every continent but Antarctica? She speaks three languages and can read hieroglyphics. I think she’s the only person alive to have talked to every handbook.
I eyed the flourishes and curlicues on the fading text. “Does someone have a crush on our inspector?”
Grow up. It’s called respect.
I checked on Jamie, a trickle of unease ruining the delight I took in teasing Val. How long was the inspector going to keep Jamie sequestered down there? Would she put him to an inquisition? If she signaled Rose to join them, I vowed to tag along, too, no matter what Brad said.
I monitored Jamie long enough to be reassured by his calm energy; if he’d been upset, I’d have seen it in the fluid lux lucis and atrum lines of his soul.
“What can you tell me about pooka prophecies?” I asked Val.
Check under “pooka.”
Great, I’d tweaked his pride.
Hoping he wouldn’t pout too long, I flipped through his pages. While most remained blank even in Primordium—to be revealed as Val deemed me worthy of the information—a few held text and sketches. I skimmed past facts on citos, hounds, and imps, stopping when I reached the entry on pookas and rereading the last paragraph:
Pookas are always born in November. In some cultures, they are revered for their ability to bestow prophecies upon others regarding the next year’s events. Other cultures kill them outright.
The first time I’d read the entry, I’d been in shock, overwhelmed by witnessing the birth of a literally magical creature, and I’d skimmed right past Val’s information on prophecies. By the time I’d wrapped my head around Jamie’s ability to transform—at his discretion and seemingly without effort—from a mammoth to a Great Dane to human, I’d completely forgotten the sentence about prophecies. Rereading it now, I found myself less awed than puzzled: How did his ability to shift shapes relate to precognition? Those seemed like two separate types of magic.
I flipped back to Val’s first page.
“What sort of prophecies?”
The kind that foretell the future.
“But why can pookas see the future at all?” I asked, ignoring his sarcasm.
It has to do with their dual natures. Your pooka won’t always have the gift of foresight, but while he’s essentially balanced between good and evil, he’s tuned in to some of the turning points of the future. Val’s uptight handwriting loosened, the spacing between the words increasing. Not a lot is known about how a pooka can see the future, though. Maybe you should ask him about it.
Translation: Val wanted to know, but he didn’t want to talk to Jamie.
“Stay sharp,” Brad barked. “There’s a frost moth headed this way.”
Rose squeezed into the narrow space between me and Brad, eyes darting. “Where? How close? Is it on me?”
“You’re safe,” Brad said, patting Rose awkwardly on the arm. Despite working for the CIA alongside us, her skills as an empath made Rose no more able than a norm to see in Primordium.
“Maybe I should wait in the car.”
“You’re fine. Madison and I both have lighters. We won’t let it feed off you—or us.”
“I’d be more reassured if Madison looked prepared to do more than catch flies.”
I snapped my mouth shut, but I couldn’t tear my gaze from the approaching frost moth. With clumsy gloved fingers, I fumbled in my pocket for the lighter.
“It’s . . . blue,” I said. “Really, really blue.” In the monochromatic spectrum of Primordium, the frost moth’s ten-inch ice-blue wings glowed like twin neon signs as it coasted above a truck five cars away.