We rode in a truck that had seen a lot of miles—more than two hundred thousand of them, according to the odometer. The windows were open to the heat and humidity and sunshine, all of it powerful even in the early morning. But that was New Orleans for you.
I piled my red hair into a topknot and futzed until the bun was secure, then leaned my head against the door. Even the hot breeze felt better than none. The truck rocking beneath us, the city nearly silent around us, my eyes drifted closed.
“You gonna fall asleep?”
I slitted a glance at the man in the driver’s seat. Liam Quinn was tall and lean, built of hard, stacked muscle. His hair was dark and short, and matched the scruff along his jaw. His eyes were a shockingly bright blue, with lashes dark and thick enough to make a fashionista jealous.
He was undeniably handsome, undeniably sexy, and undeniably off-limits.
And I was getting loopy from lack of sleep. I could have used a ten-minute power nap. Or a four-hour power nap. But since I still had something to prove, I sat up straight, blinked hard to force my eyes to focus. “Nope. Totally awake and eyes on the road and checking my six.”
He looked amused. “You’re just stringing words together. Bounty hunters don’t sleep on the job.”
“I’m a bounty hunter in training,” I pointed out. “And I wasn’t sleeping. I was . . . silently debriefing.”
Liam was the actual bounty hunter, and we’d spent hours searching the Lower Ninth Ward for a wraith, a human infected by magic. We hadn’t found him, which was a bad result for everyone. Containment wouldn’t be happy, and the wraith was still on the loose, still a threat to the public and himself.
“You did good tonight. We didn’t get a great result, but you did good.” He paused. “And I’m still thinking about that football.”
I nodded. “Yeah. I’m still thinking about the baseball cards.” We hadn’t found the wraith in the several abandoned houses we’d searched, but we had found a former bachelor pad with a man cave and plenty of sports memorabilia.
“I know the owners could come back,” I said, letting my fingers surf in the wind outside the truck. “It’s unlikely, but it’s possible. It’s just—somebody really loved those cards, and they’re getting moldier by the day.”
Liam smiled a little. “And you want to put them in the shop.”
The “shop” was Royal Mercantile, my store in the French Quarter. Or what was left of it after the war with the Paranormals.
They’d come through the Veil, the barrier separating their world from ours, and spread destruction and chaos across the south. New Orleans had been ground zero.
“For display and for safety,” I said. “Not for sale.” I glanced at him, his muscles taut beneath the short-sleeved shirt, strong hands on the steering wheel. “You like to sports?”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Do I like to sports? You sound like a woman who’s never said that word before.”
“My dad didn’t care about sportsball.”
“You know that’s not a thing.”
“I do,” I admitted. “But I like the sound of it.” I looked at him, the long, rangy body with a powerful chest and arms.
“I’d say quarterback—possibly receiver. Maybe pitcher, maybe power forward in sportsball.” It wasn’t difficult to imagine him muscling in for a layup.
He shook his head, but a corner of his mouth was still quirked in a grin. “I played sportsball in high school. Power forward.”
“What about you?” he asked.
“I ran track for a couple of years in high school, until I realized I didn’t really like running.”
“You do plenty of running now,” he said, turning onto North Claiborne.
“That’s because I’m chased. If there’d been Paranormals and wraiths chasing me in high school, I’d have put more effort into it.”
When the truck began to slow, I glanced up. The street was clear; we were the only vehicle on the street. “If we’ve run out of gas, you have to carry me back to the Quarter.”
Liam just shook his head. “Look,” he said, pointed to the side of the road.
A billboard in front of an auto repair shop had been covered in eye-searing yellow paint. DEATH TO PARANORMALS had been painted in enormous red letters across it.
“I came down this street yesterday,” Liam said, squinting into the sun as he leaned over to look through the window, his cologne lingering faintly behind him when he sat up again. “That wasn’t there.”
“It’s new,” I said, gesturing to the buckets, brushes, and cans of spray paint that littered the parking lot around the post.
“I don’t suppose you sold that stuff. Know who bought it?”
I shook my head. “The supplies didn’t come from my shop. The only paint I have is white, and I don’t have any spray paint.”
I shook my head again. Whoever had painted the billboard had used foam rollers to color in the large letters. “Only bristle brushes. They’re not from Royal Mercantile.”
The supplies could have come from anywhere—and from anyone with an ax to grind. The war with the Paranormals had started seven years ago and ended a year later, but the billboard proved the animosity hadn’t completely faded.
“We should tell Gunnar,” I said, thinking of one of my closest friends, and the second-in-charge at Containment, the division of the Paranormal Combatant Command that managed everything in the former war zone, including Devil’s Isle, the prison where Paranormals were incarcerated—or were supposed to be. There were fugitive Paras who’d managed to evade imprisonment and fugitive humans newly infected by magic who hadn’t yet been rounded up. That’s why bounty hunters like Liam had jobs.
His gaze still wary, Liam drove on, taking us closer to Devil’s Isle’s towering walls. “Tell Malachi and the others, too. They should know someone’s got an attitude problem.”
Malachi was an angel and a friend, and a member of Delta, a group of humans and Paras dedicated to changing the treatment of Paranormals. Their existence proved that not all Paranormals were enemies, just as the billboard proved that not all humans were allies.
The tricky part was telling the difference.
# # #
It was a Saturday morning in the French Quarter, and there wasn’t a single person in sight. My shop—the first floor of a three-story town house on Royal Street—was one of the lucky buildings that hadn’t been destroyed, although we sold a lot more MREs and bottled water these days than antique sideboards.
Liam sputtered to a stop in front of the store. Our victory flag—a gold fleurs-de-lis on a field of purple—flapped in the breeze from the second-floor balcony.
I climbed out of the truck and into heat that was already oppressive at eight in the morning, then leaned down to look through the open window. “You want to come in for some iced tea?”
“Yes,” Liam said without hesitating, and turned off the truck, followed me to the door. I picked up a scrap of paper and a dead leaf from the tiled threshold, unlocked it.
Anticipating a hot day, I’d left the shop closed up. I’d found a small air conditioner at a swap meet a few weeks before, and I’d managed to get it running. The power had stayed on long enough to cool the air by a few degrees, wring out a little of the humidity.
“Oh, that is nice,” Liam said, pausing inside the door with his eyes closed, black lashes dark against his cheeks and his hands on his lean hips.
Longing, hot and strong as fire, burned through my chest.
I was a Sensitive, one of the few humans exposed to magic who’d developed magical powers as a result. That meant I was a nearly wraith, an almost wraith, a could-be wraith. Liam was supposed to hunt people like me, to lock them safely away in Devil’s Isle. Instead, he’d introduced me to people convinced I could control my magic, that becoming a wraith wasn’t inevitable.
But it was always between us, the possibility the magic would overpower me and he’d be forced to take me in. He believed that would be cruel and unfair to me. And despite the chemistry between us, that wasn’t a gap he’d been able to bridge. So I’d worked to ignore the heat, the connection. It took a lot of conscious effort on my part. And even then, I wasn’t very good at it.
I flipped the CLOSED sign to OPEN, forced myself to put space between us, to walk through the front room past bins of duct tape and bags of Camellia red beans and into the small kitchen. I opened the refrigerator, let the air chill my burning cheeks, then pulled out the pitcher of iced tea. I could’ve used a stiffer drink, but that would have to wait.
I poured two glasses, found Liam standing at the counter’s far end, where I’d spread the shards of a cuckoo clock that had hung in the store. I settled myself on the stool behind the counter, slid his tea over.
“New project?” he asked.
I looked over the piles I’d already separated into wood and metal fragments, the figures of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf that had traveled across the clock’s front. “This is the clock Agent Broussard’s cronies smashed. It was a gift from my father, so I’m going to put it back together.”
“You know how to put together a clock?” he asked, sounding impressed.
I smiled. “With enough time and patience, you can figure anything out. I’m ignoring the mechanisms for now—the gears are so small. I’m going to fix the case first.”
The bell on the door rang as two Containment agents walked in wearing their dark fatigues. I didn’t exhale until they offered small waves, headed for the canned goods. I was still waiting for the shit to hit that particular fan again.
“You want to help?” I asked Liam, offering a bottle of wood glue.
He frowned over the pieces. “I’m not sure this is my crafting sweet spot.”
I snorted, poured glue into a small dish, dabbed a brush in it. “And what would be your crafting sweet spot?”
“Chopping wood,” he said as I daubed glue on the back of a wood sliver. “Changing oil. Fighting marauders.”
“I don’t have any wood that needs chopping, and I don’t have a car. Marauders are more likely. Glad to know you’re prepared for that.”
Liam made a sarcastic sound, then glanced up at the wall of clocks still functioning. “I should get back to Devil’s Isle, say good morning to Eleanor.”
Liam’s grandmother lived in Devil’s Isle, but by her choice. Only a few knew that she could see magic, the result of a blow during the war from a magical weapon.
The door opened and my other two closest friends walked in. Tadji Dupree waved hello as they walked into the store. She wore dark fatigue pants, a flowy tank, and enormous earrings of gold and silver discs that shone against her dark skin.
Gunnar Landreau was tall and militarily fit, with dark, wavy hair, pale skin, and a trickster’s smile. He wore dark Containment fatigues, but he was very decidedly on our side. Whatever “side” that was.
“You two nearly match today,” I said, gesturing at the fatigues as they came forward. “Pulling a Cagney and Lacey thing? Or Abbott and Costello?”
“Did their clothes match?” Liam asked, head cocked.
“No,” Gunnar said dryly. “Those were the only duos she could think of. Did you know she didn’t have a television growing up?”
“Deprived child,” Liam said, looking back at me thoughtfully. “Although that does explain ‘sportsball.’”
Tadji snorted, put her messenger bag on the counter with a thud.
“We had a television,” I corrected. “We just didn’t watch it very often.” I gestured to Tadji’s bag. “What do you have in that thing?”
The Containment agents approached the counter with an armful of water and MREs, so I put down my brush and moved to the metal cashbox and receipt pad to deal with their purchases.
“My notes,” she said. “I’m hoping to write up some of my outline today.” Tadji was working on a degree in linguistics. “And I’ve heard a rumor there’s a coffeehouse in Tremé.”
We all went still, looked at her.
“There’s a coffeehouse in New Orleans?” one of the agents asked, hope in her eyes.
“That’s the rumor,” Tadji said. “Woman set up a little café in her living room, sells muffins and coffee. I’m going to check it out.”
“And report back,” I requested, putting the agents’ purchases into a bag and offering their change. I closed the cashbox again, looked at her. “Like, Folgers, or what?” Coffee was relatively rare in the Zone—a high-priced luxury.
Tadji’s eyes gleamed. “I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.”
As the Containment agents left, I looked at Gunnar. “And what’s on your agenda?”
“Keeping the Zone running smoothly, as per usual.” He glanced at Liam. “You find that wraith in the Lower Ninth?”
“We didn’t,” Liam said, and Gunnar looked at me speculatively.
“‘We’?” he asked. “You went with him?”
“Bounty hunter in training,” I said, offering him a salute. “It still makes for good cover.” And gave me a chance to be sure that any wraiths taken into Devil’s Isle were treated as well as possible. We owed them that much, at least.
“No sign of the wraith,” Liam repeated, “but we found something else. Giant billboard on Claiborne. ‘Death to Paranormals’ painted over it.”
“Lovely,” Gunnar said. “I’ll have someone take a look.”
“Who has that much free time on their hands?” Tadji asked.
“There are plenty of people out there with delusions about Paranormals,” Gunnar said. “Plenty of people who believe in conspiracies, or who think the government owed them something after the war.”
In fairness to those people, the government did know about the Veil. But it hadn’t known who’d waited for us on the other side.
Speaking of angry humans, loud voices began to fill the air with what sounded like chanting.
“What is that?” I asked, glancing at the door.
“Maybe protestors?” Liam asked with a frown.
“Could be,” Gunnar said. Liam, Tadji, and I followed him outside, then to the corner and down Conti.
About a dozen men and women, most in their twenties or thirties, but a few older, a few younger, stretched across Bourbon Street. They all wore nubby, homespun fabric in bulky and shapeless tunics and dresses.
Their arms were linked together, and they sang as they walked, their voices woven into an eerie, complex harmony. I didn’t recognize the song, but it sounded like a hymn, with lyrics about death and smiting and Calvary. If this had been a different time, they might have been congregants walking to a country church. But I hadn’t seen many churchgoers carrying bright yellow signs with CLEANSE THE ZONE OR DIE TRYING in searing red paint.
Leading the group was a man with pale skin, dark hair, medium build, and a heavy beard. He was flanked by two women—one pale, one dark, but both with dark eyes that looked across the French Quarter with obvious disdain.
It wasn’t the first time there’d been protestors in the Quarter; there’d been plenty during and shortly after the war, when it was popular to complain about how the war was being fought, or how it had been won. But the war had ended six years ago, and as a Sensitive, I wasn’t feeling very sympathetic to antimagic arm waving.
Liam shifted, moving a protective step closer to me while watching the group with narrowed eyes.
Gunnar’s expression was cold and blank. That was a particular skill of his—that level stare that showed authority and said he wouldn’t take shit from anybody.
The man in the front glanced in our direction, stopped, and lifted his hands. Like an orchestra following a conductor directing his symphony, the protestors stopped behind him, and silence fell again.
He walked toward us. He wore an easy smile, but there was something very cold behind his dark, deep-set eyes.
“Good morning,” he said, in a voice without a hint of Louisiana in it. “Can we talk to you about the Zone?”
Gunnar didn’t waste any time. “You have a permit?”
The man’s eyes flashed with irritation, but his smile didn’t change. “I don’t subscribe to the notion that citizens of this country require a permit to exercise their First Amendment rights.”
Gunnar didn’t even blink.
“Of course,” the man said, “we also respect human laws. It’s just that we believe those laws should be enforced to their logical conclusion.” The man pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket, offered it to Gunnar.
“Any law in particular?” Gunnar asked.
“The Magic Act,” the man said. “All magic is illegal. And all magic should be removed from our world . . . by any means necessary.”
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