I had a problem.
Specifically, I needed money.
I “worked”, if you could call it that, for the Elven Lord Morvilind, a vassal of Duke Tamirlas of Milwaukee. Lord Morvilind had money, a lot of money, but he didn’t pay me a salary or give me an allowance or anything like that. No, he thought that would make me weak and dependent, and he wanted me to be strong and clever so I could fulfill whatever insanely dangerous task he assigned me. To make matters worse, Morvilind employed me to steal various rare and valuable items, and pulling off jobs like that required a lot of specialized equipment.
A lot of specialized, expensive equipment.
So I was always short of money, but I had learned to finance myself. When Morvilind sent me to steal something, it was usually in a bank vault or a museum or the mansion of some rich businessman or Elven noble. There were usually a few other valuable things lying around, and I helped myself to one or two (or five or six) while stealing whatever Morvilind wanted. Once I escaped and fulfilled my mission for Morvilind, I went to my various acquaintances in the black market and turned my valuable items into cash.
That was how I found myself sitting in a smoky bar called the Silver Dollar in Los Angeles, listening to the low beat of the background music as I met with a group of gangsters.
The bar was dim and dank, lit mostly by neon beer signs upon the walls. A babble of voices filled my ears, most of them speaking Spanish. Ever since the days of the High Queen’s Conquest of Earth three hundred years ago, Spanish had been the dominant language of the southwestern United States, so Morvilind’s tutors had taught me the language as a child. Unfortunately, they had taught me formal Castilian Spanish, which meant I invariably sounded formal and stiff, which was a liability when talking to a man like Mr. Rojo and his associates.
Mr. Rojo and three of his “associates” sat across the booth from me. Rojo and two of his men were Hispanic, and the third was white. All four men were grizzled and weathered, with the stern looks of men who had served in the armies of the Elven nobles and the hard eyes of professional criminals. All four of them had guns concealed beneath their coats. There were armed bouncers, but Mr. Rojo owned the building. If he wanted, he could have carried a crate of dynamite inside, and the bouncers would have asked if he needed help lifting it.
Not that he would have done it. Mr. Rojo was far too savvy of a businessman to indulge in violence except when necessary.
He wore a suit that could have paid the rent on my apartment for a year or two, and a magnificent gray mustache that somehow managed to look dignified. While he had the paunch of a man settling into comfortable living, he still had the shoulders and arms of a man who could break some heads if he felt it necessary. On TV, a Hispanic crime lord would sip tequila, but Mr. Rojo invariably drank warm Milwaukee Ducal beer straight from the can.
He was a polite and charming, pleasant and reasonable, and perfectly capable of killing someone who crossed him with his bare hands. Or delegating the task to one of the many, many rough men that filled his bar.
The Silver Dollar was not the sort of place a woman should go alone.
Fortunately, no one here knew that I was a woman.
Lord Morvilind had given me some help with that, at least. He had taught me several magical spells, most of them dealing with illusion and magic of the mind. Granted, if the High Queen’s Inquisition discovered that I knew spells of illusion, they would execute me without a trial. Nevertheless, the spells were useful, and the Masking spell let me change my appearance. Right now I held the Masking spell in place, giving myself the appearance of a gaunt middle-aged man in a battered denim jacket and ragged jeans. It took an effort of will to keep the Mask in place, but it was useful. Mr. Rojo would not take a twenty-year-old woman seriously, but he would pay attention to a middle-aged man.
Especially since the gaunt middle-aged man kept bringing him such valuable merchandise.
Mr. Rojo sipped his beer and waited for me to speak first. His associates sat with blank expressions on their faces, though I knew they kept watch on the Silver Dollar’s patrons. If I did anything threatening, I would likely be riddled with bullets before my corpse hit the ground.
“It is always good to visit the Silver Dollar,” I said. A waitress clad in a skintight red skirt, a white halter top, and red heels approached, wiggling a bit with every step, and put down a tray with drinks. Mr. Rojo lifted his next can of Milwaukee Ducal beer, his associates took their beverages, and I helped myself to a cup of coffee. I needed to keep a clear head for this, and I didn’t want to maintain a Mask while drunk or even buzzed.
A brief smile went over Mr. Rojo’s stern face. “You always speak such polite Spanish, Mr. West,” he said, using the alias I had given him. “So very polite. I would speak to my priest and my aged mother with such language. Or even the High Queen herself.”
“It is a sign of the great esteem I have for you,” I said, taking a sip of coffee. It tasted like motor oil. Whatever virtues the Silver Dollar possessed, a good cup of coffee was not among them. “Also, a very expensive and very wasted education.”
“Wasted? Not at all,” said Mr. Rojo. “It is a relief to find a polite man in our field of work. Speaking of which, perhaps it is time to turn our attention to business.”
I nodded, reached into the ragged denim jacket I wore, and drew out a small wooden box. It took some concentration to integrate the movement into my Mask, and I moved with careful, slow motions. That was just as well, since it helped encourage Mr. Rojo’s associates not to shoot me. I set the box on the table, flipped open the lid, and slid it towards him.
The gangster leaned forward, gazed at the glittering gemstones within the box for a moment, and then took another sip of his beer.
“A remarkable collection,” said Mr. Rojo. “Where did you acquire them?”
“Their provenance is somewhat cloudy,” I said. That was a polite euphemism. In truth, I had stolen them from the mansion of a Midwestern food magnate. The magnate in question had wound gotten killed during that job, but Mr. Rojo did not need to know that.
Mr. Rojo also didn’t need to know that the food magnate had been a worshipper of the Dark Ones. The Inquisition killed people for possessing that kind of knowledge.
“I see,” said Mr. Rojo. “I assume you wish to liquidate these assets?”
“With all speed,” I said. “I find myself in need of cash, and am willing to sell as quickly as possible.”
A flicker went over Mr. Rojo’s eyes before he could stop it. My need for haste meant that Mr. Rojo could turn an enormous profit on the stones. He need only buy them from me at a reasonable price, wait until the market price went up, and then sell the stones at a high margin. Another man might have tried to murder me and sell the jewels without paying, but Mr. Rojo would not. He was a ruthless criminal boss, but he kept his word, and within certain boundaries his word was irresistible as gravity.
A pity more men did not think like him. It might have been a more practical, if not necessarily better, world.
“A need for a hasty sale implies that this merchandise is…shall we say, rather hotly sought?” said Mr. Rojo. “I do hope you have not brought Homeland Security to my doorstep, Mr. West. While no man is my equal in my devotion to our noble High Queen,” he glanced at where the portrait of the High Queen hung in a place of honor above the bar, above a smaller portrait of Lord Raithmyr, Duke of Los Angeles, “I would not wish to trouble Her Majesty’s servants over such a trifling matter.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about that,” I said. “It is unlikely the original owner shall come in pursuit of the gems.”
Mr. Rojo offered a thin smile beneath his bushy mustache. “Why is that, Mr. West?”
Mr. Rojo grunted. “That could be bad for business.”
“In this case it is improbable,” I said. “The original owner of the gems was killed by a Shadow Hunter.”
His associates shared a look.
“A lie,” said one of the bodyguards, scowling at me. “There are no such things as Shadow Hunters. You have watched too much TV.”
“No,” murmured Mr. Rojo, his black eyes distant. “I met one, long ago.” The eyes became hard and sharp again. “This assassin. How did you know he was a Shadow Hunter?”
“He had black tattoos upon his arms and chest,” I said, “and they moved. They seemed able to heal him, and sometimes they bound together in a sword in his right hand, a sword that could cut through anything. The tattoos were a manifestation of a creature called a Shadowmorph, and it was the Shadowmorph that gave him his abilities.”
“I see,” said Mr. Rojo. He paused to take another sip of his beer. “You are very well informed.”
“In this business, information is valuable,” I said.
“Most true,” said Mr. Rojo.
“He could be making this up,” said another of his bodyguards.
“No,” said Mr. Rojo. “He’s not. We shall not have to fear pursuit of the gems, at least from the High Queen’s servants or Homeland Security or the Policía Federal Ministerial. If a Shadow Hunter kills a target, the Firstborn of the Hunters presents a decree of execution to the authorities. The investigation then is immediately suspended. The Shadow Hunters have that right, granted to them by the High Queen, though of course the Inquisition still kills any Shadow Hunters it can catch.” He offered a thin smile. “Bad blood, it would seem.”
“Of course,” I said, though I hadn’t known that. Corvus, the Shadow Hunter I had met in Milwaukee, had not been forthcoming with information. For all that, he had been a superb fighter. He had been skilled with infiltration. He had also been an excellent kisser…
I shoved that thought right out of my head. A romantic attraction was a liability, a weakness. Morvilind had too much power over me already, and falling in love was an excellent way to lose even more power over myself.
I had learned that one the hard way.
“Then why are you so eager to sell?” said Mr. Rojo. “You could take your time, sell them one at a time for a considerable profit.”
“Because I need the money right now,” I said. I wanted to liquidate the stones a long way from Milwaukee, and I didn’t know how long I had until Morvilind called me back for one of his little errands. “Granted, if you don’t buy them now, that’s fine. It’s not as if I’ll starve to death or I have guys waiting to break my kneecaps if I don’t pay up. I can find another buyer. But I would prefer to deal with the matter now and have done with it.”
“Very well,” said Mr. Rojo. He named a price for the gemstones.
I grinned, but kept the expression from appearing on my Mask.
After that, it was all over but the haggling.
We finally settled on a price four and a half percent higher than what Mr. Rojo had originally offered. He gestured, and one of his associates rose and disappeared into the Silver Dollar’s back room, pausing long enough to smack one of the waitresses on the rump. It was a good reminder of why I Masked myself as a man when dealing with men like Mr. Rojo and his associates.
The bodyguard returned a moment later with an envelope, which he passed to Mr. Rojo. The crime boss thumbed through it, nodded in satisfaction, and handed it over to me. I glanced inside and saw that it was full of worn hundred-dollar bills, the High Queen’s stern face gazing at me from the green paper. I nodded and tucked the envelope away.
“A pleasure, as ever,” I said, “doing business with you.” We rose and shook hands. That was always tricky. I squeezed as hard as I could, and focused the Mask around my hand, making sure he didn’t notice that my hand was considerably smaller than the Mask made it look.
“And you, Mr. West,” said Mr. Rojo. “Always a relief to conduct business with an honest man. Feel free to visit the Silver Dollar at any time if you have an enterprise in mind.”
“I’ll do that,” I said. I smiled and turned to go, trying not to flex my fingers. Good Lord, that man had a strong grip.
I made my way across the bar, weaving my way around the tables and the patrons and the waitresses in their tight skirts. My shoulders itched, and it took all my self-control not to look back. I didn’t think Mr. Rojo was the kind of man who would murder me to reclaim his money, but I had been wrong about people before. For that matter, his associates might not share his scruples, and they knew how much unmarked cash I was carrying. Some random drunk in the bar might have watched the deal, and decide to jump me in the street. If so, he would regret it. I was carrying a little .25 pistol in my jacket, and I had a few magical spells that could make life unpleasant for anyone trying to attack me.
But no one stopped me. I opened the door and started to step into the sidewalk, the dry, hot air of the California night washing over me like sandpaper.
And right then, right at that damned moment, Morvilind decided to summon me.
The first day I had met Morvilind fifteen years ago, he had taken a vial of blood from my heart. With that vial, his magic could locate me anywhere, and he could summon me from anywhere.
He could also kill me from anywhere.
I had stolen all kinds of valuable things for Morvilind, and if Homeland Security or the Inquisition (or the Policía Federal Ministerial in Mexico, I suppose) captured me, I could tell them a great many things that would get Morvilind into hot water. Elven nobles could do as they wished, but Morvilind had crossed too many lines. If I was captured and interrogated, he could get into a lot of trouble. The vial of my heart’s blood was his insurance. With it, he could kill me from any distance, making sure his secrets died with me.
Right now, though, he used it to summon me. Morvilind always made sure that I noticed his summons.
He made sure they hurt.
Pain exploded through me, sharp and hot, like burning oil had been injected into my veins. I staggered forward with a strangled gasp, grabbing at the doorframe to keep myself from falling over. It didn’t work, and I pitched over and landed hard on my knees, shivering with pain. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, which was just as well, because if I had, I would have thrown up all over my legs. I pushed my left hand against the concrete, trying to stop my head from spinning.
My Mask. Damn it, my Mask. I concentrated, trying to hold it in place.
“Are you all right?”
I blinked and looked up. A thin man in a double-breasted black suit stood on the sidewalk outside, the streetlamp throwing a long shadow behind him. He was pale and sharp-featured, his black hair oiled and slicked back. He could have been anywhere from twenty to fifty years of age, depending on how the light hit him. His mouth was a thin, tight slash, and his black eyes glittered like obsidian.
I straightened up, pushing against the open door as I got my balance back. The pain of Morvilind’s summons was fading, and I focused my will on my Mask. I was sure I had lost at least some control during my fit, which meant anyone looking at me would have seen an odd shimmer, or maybe my limbs change size and shape.
Since I had fallen over in such a dramatic fashion, probably quite a few people had been looking at me.
“Fine,” I muttered. “I’m fine.” I had to get out of here now.
“Mr. West?” I heard Mr. Rojo call out from inside the Silver Dollar. “Are you all right?” It would be bad for business if I keeled over and died in the bar.
“Yep,” I called back. “Just lost my balance.” I had parked my van in a public lot across the street. A short jog and I would be there, though maybe it would be best to hide until I was sure I was not followed.
I stepped onto the sidewalk, the door swinging shut behind me. The pain from the summoning spell had mostly passed. I would have to text Rusk, Morvilind’s butler, and let him know that I was coming. Otherwise Morvilind would simply repeat the summoning spell every hour, increasing the pain with every casting until I responded or I showed up on his doorstep.
“Are you sure you are all right?” said the thin man, his voice flat and toneless.
“Yes, I’m fine, I drank too much, I’m walking home now,” I said. I didn’t have time to deal with this. I started to walk away.
“You have offended the Dark Ones.”
The words froze me in my tracks…