On the Cards Book One

On the Cards Book One

Revenge isn't best served cold – it’s best served by someone else….

In one moment, Nadine’s destiny changes. She’s snatched from her life and thrown into the police to work for the twisted but handsome Tom Walker. He has a plan for her, and it will start with solving a murder.

As Nadine is pushed into a tangled mess of intrigue and danger at Tom’s side, she learns one thing. He wants her for something – revenge. And she doesn't mind.

For now. The further she falls into this game – and his arms – the more she’ll struggle to escape.

On the Cards is a complete four-book series. A bombastic action-packed urban fantasy, it will take you on a wild ride of magic, adventure, and romance. It is sure to please fans of Odette C. Bell’s Legal Rites.

Chapter 1

The bus clattered along the uneven road, every bump shaking through my stomach, up my back, and into my clenched hands as I rested them on the warped, stained railing in front of me. My head leaned to the side, and if it weren’t for my thick dark hair between my skull and the glass, I would’ve given myself a bruise.

It wouldn’t have been the first contusion I’d ever picked up on a bus – I hadn’t had the cleanest childhood, shall we say.

I came from one of the old-school magical protection families. Some called us a mob – in reality, we were just a close-knit group who knew how to watch each other’s backs in this screwed magical world.

None of that was the point, was it? My head softly banging repetitively against the thick, bulletproof glass of the bus as it trundled down the road was the least of my troubles. And heck, old-school families like the Russos were very much the least of this city’s problems these days, too.

The bus came to a sudden stop, and reluctantly, I opened my eyes, my cheeks twitching, the move instinctual as I tightened my grip on the railing in front of me, pushed off the glass, and inclined my head toward the driver.

There was a thick, reinforced divider between her and the rest of us. One designed to prevent any attacks that could take out the passengers from compromising her and potentially leaving this large, armored bus in the hands of someone all too willing to crash it into important infrastructure.

As I squinted through the magic-protected mesh, I saw the driver as she yanked her hands off the steering wheel and gestured madly.

Far from seeing a group of terrorists assailing the bus outside, I watched two bored soldiers holding up red halogen lights as they waved the bus through a random checkpoint.

“Are they kidding me? This is the fourth checkpoint today,” I heard the driver mutter angrily from her cockpit.

Shrugging, I got back to resting my head against the glass and trying to shut out the city. If I pushed my mind back into the days of my childhood – no matter how tumultuous they’d seemed at the time – I could kid myself into believing I wasn’t all that unhappy after all.

I made the mistake of keeping my eyes open as I yanked up a handful of my hair and arranged it under my head. I couldn’t stop my gaze from sweeping out of the window and across the city. It locked on the wall. They were still building it, and when it was done, it would separate us from them. The degenerates from the wealthy. The sacrificial lambs from those worthy of being saved.

My hand naturally curled into a fist, and I fought the urge to jam it hard into the already split fabric of the seat in front of me. I had a powerful right hook, and the last thing I wanted to do was be caught for vandalizing a bus as we rattled through a security checkpoint. These soldiers might’ve been pulled from my side of the wall, but the other side paid their wages.

“Bastards,” I whispered softly as my gaze traced from right to left, following that enormous metal monstrosity as the wall rose above the city. I locked my eyes on the gap that was still being built. In a couple of months, it would be done.

Just a couple of months, and if you believed the wealthy on the other side, they’d finally have a way to combat the terrorists, criminals, and delinquents that had flooded the city since the breakdown of the Second War Magic Accords.

I curled a hand into such a tight fist, my nails dug holes in my palms. Pain tingled up my wrist and ate into my elbow, but I didn’t goddamn stop. Stop, and I’d let loose with one of those legendary right hooks and smash the railing of the seat in front of me. It would strike the single mom and her kid seated there, and though I could be a real mean bitch at times, I never directed my ire at the innocent.

Plus, the kid was playing with a set of foundational magic cards, and I had a soft spot for anyone who wanted to learn the hardest magician art of all. It was my signature skill and the only thing that had kept me alive as the bolshiest of the Russos.

I settled for resting back, pushing my legs out, crossing my arms, and closing my eyes so tightly shut, they were like doors to a crypt that would never open again.

I listened to the soft chatter around me. It dried up as the bus was directed deeper through the checkpoint. As dogs and soldiers searched outside, checking the body of the bus for terrorist devices, I stared at my closed eyelids with all the fixity of someone searching for a needle in a haystack. My cousin, Vincent Bruno – or Vinny B for short – always said the world had to watch out whenever I did this. I’d get all quiet, I’d get all stiff, and according to Vinny, at least, I’d get all violent soon after.

But here’s the thing – there was no outlet for my anger anymore. Once, my cousin Gina had made the mistake of getting antsy at a soldier patting her down, and she’d attacked the a-hole with a magical punch. She’d ended up in remand for six months with a permanent mark on her record.

“Just put them away, sweetie.” I tuned into the conversation in front of me as the harassed single mom tried to cajole her kid into putting his cards away.

I got her point. While it seemed like the soldiers were only interested in checking the outside of the bus, that could change rapidly if they figured out there were any magicians on board. Sure, that kid didn’t look any more than 10, and any reasonable person would see he’d be too young to pose any threat, but here’s the thing – since the breakdown of the Accords, reason had died in Terra City. Common sense died second, and basic human decency was still on its way out.

“Please, sweetie, just put the cards away,” the mom begged in a quiet tone that nevertheless had a growing sense of urgency pitching through it. I heard her fumble as she made a grab for the cards.

“No, mom, don’t touch that,” the kid had a chance to say, his already high-pitched voice skipping higher with fear.

My eyes blasted open. It was just in time to see a few sparks of pre-magic leap into the air and crackle along the edge of the seat.

The mom succeeded in batting the cards out of her kid’s hands. They tumbled onto the floor, a few of them still charged with magic.

Well shit. It looked like I had to get involved.

I came from a long-standing magical family. Maybe some called us troublemakers. Okay, a lot of people called us troublemakers. And in their defense, we tended to generate as much mischief as we solved. Not my point. Growing up in a magical family, I was taught from day dot how to respect magical devices. I knew the ins and outs of every single practicing stream, and importantly, I respected magic in all its forms. Maybe the wealthy on the other side of the wall thought magic was just a tool – one that should be concentrated in the hands of those they saw as worthy. Me? I understood magic was the equivalent of a gun. It was dangerous, it was powerful, it didn’t care how much you earned, and if you handed it over to someone who didn’t know what they were doing, it would end in tears.

As more magic sparked out of the cards and sank into the reinforced metal plating of the bottom of the bus, I jumped to my feet.

The mom yelped softly, her quiet scream nevertheless loud enough to echo through to the driver. “What the hell is going on back there?” the already harried driver barked. “You trying to get the soldiers to come on board?”

I brought my foot up, ready to stamp out the magical fire before it could grow.

“No, lady, don’t do that—” the kid said desperately as he leaned out over his railing and groped for his cards.

I stamped on the cards, grinding my foot down as I concentrated. I connected to them just as quickly as electricity rushing through a circuit. My life might’ve been screwed these days – heck, everybody’s lives might’ve been screwed – but I still lived for this. The moment when my mind and my magic would connect to cards, and for a brief glimpse, I’d see a world worth living for again. A world that, however briefly, reminded you anything was possible and every wall, no matter how large and imposing, could crumble in time.

A few charges of magic lapped up the sides of my sturdy boots and crackled along my blue jeans. It felt like being bitten by tiny mouths made from pure electricity.

It would’ve burnt a lesser practitioner. Me? I shrugged it off literally as I brought up a hand, patted it down my jacket as I dislodged a few last charges, and shrugged at the kid.

He stared at me with awe rounding his big brown eyes. “You’re a card magician?”

I had a chance to grin. Then the frigging doors to the bus opened and two burly soldiers barreled in.

“Oh, Jesus,” I muttered through clenched teeth. I pressed my teeth all the way down and forced my lips to curl. “There’s nothing to see here, soldiers.”

“We’ll be the judges of that,” one of them snapped. I caught sight of the guy’s face from under his thick helmet and chin strap. He looked like he was fresh out of school.

Great. The way he held his gun confirmed that assessment. His grip was protective, almost greedy, as if his firearm was the only thing that could protect him – not us.

If I hoped the other soldier with him would be a grounding force, I was fresh out of luck. The guy was a kid, too, and while he didn’t look as gung-ho as his mate, he appeared exactly like a yes-man who would shoot first and sob about it later.

Knowing the drill, I slowly spread my hands and brought them up. “There’s been a mistake.”

The first soldier actually gestured at me with his gun. Here I was, a civilian, and here he was, a soldier tasked to protect me, and he was gesturing with his rifle as wildly as my nonna gesticulating for everyone to come to the dinner table.

I spread my fingers wider. I also tried to spread out a sense of calm. “The magical fire was unintentional,” I said, slowing down each word as I tried to get these idiots to hear before the situation could escalate.

“You’re a magician? Are you a goddamn magician?” the first soldier snapped as he continued to shove his rifle into my face.

I stared at the muzzle. I might’ve been calm up until now, but if anyone had been paying enough attention to me, they would’ve seen that the skin around my eyes stiffened like sheets of concrete. I had this thing about idiots shoving weapons in my face. This thing where I wanted to wrap my hands around their necks, headbutt them, and make them go home to apologize to their mommas for growing up without manners.

I let out a sigh. “Yes, I’m a card magician.”

“What the hell are you doing practicing on this bus? You know that contravenes every single law? It’s a federal crime,” the soldier continued. “You’re coming with us.”

Sorry, every single law? Try the State Transport Regulation Act. And it wasn’t a federal crime – it was a misdemeanor. I might have technically belonged to a less-than-legal mob family, but one thing about playing with the law is knowing it in the first place – which was obviously way above these soldiers’ heads.

Plus, if these two idiots had been worth the skinny paychecks the wealthy were paying them, they would’ve appreciated that the still crackling pack of cards at my feet were literally child’s play. No adult magician would use them.

But these two soldiers seemed fresh out of diapers, sadly.

“You’re coming with us,” the first one growled, shoving the tip of his rifle closer to my face.

I tried to breathe. It wasn’t nerves that suddenly constricted my chest – just deep-bellied anger.

Screw these idiots and screw everyone like them. It was precisely because of unthinking chumps like these two that this city had slipped so far so quickly.

I could’ve pushed the scattered cards with the toe of my boot and pointed out they weren’t mine. I didn’t. One look at the huddling mom out of the corner of my eye, and it was clear I couldn’t bring her or her kid into this.

With another sigh, I brought my hands higher. “Let’s get off the bus,” I managed.

“Cuff her,” the meanest of the soldiers said, his lips curling with genuine pleasure. He looked like he’d just caught one of the faction terrorists – some scum of the earth bastard who enjoyed destroying every semblance of peace this once great city had known. He hadn’t; he’d only caught me.

A part of me wanted to smack this kid on the side of the head and spit in his ear for being such a blind numbskull. The rest of me knew that he would’ve grown up on a steady diet of propaganda that would’ve equated all magical practitioners on the south side of the wall with latent criminals.

Still, they were gonna cuff me? What a frigging waste of their time and mine.

I could’ve pointed out they were contravening several federal laws – real ones – but I didn’t. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve always been a mouthy person who takes pleasure in pointing out the obvious when everyone else can’t see it – but I had sharp-ass survival instincts. That kid kept waving his gun in front of my face, and though he wouldn’t be aware of it, I was all too focused on the slicks of sweat coating his trigger finger. They glistened under the harsh light of the bus as he jammed his rifle even closer to my face. “Cuff her,” he growled at his partner once more.

“They aren’t her cards,” the kid tried.

The mama locked a hand over her child’s mouth.

I spread a hand toward the kid and put one finger up. Though I wanted to press it against my lips in the universal sign to be quiet, to do that I’d have to move, and this idiot soldier was all too ready to roast me if I so much as sneezed.

I stopped myself from rolling my eyes as the other soldier reached around, fumbled with his belt, and grabbed out a set of impeno cuffs. As the short name suggested, they were meant to be impenetrable. It didn’t matter what level of magician you were – it didn’t matter what your friends practiced. If you got cuffed with those, short of the correct key code, you would not be getting out of them.

“Great,” I muttered under my breath, ensuring my voice didn’t travel.

The second soldier muscled past his buddy, grabbed me roughly by the wrist, turned me around, and shoved me hard against the seat railing right in front of the kid.

Tears shimmered in the little guy’s eyes. I watched his lips try to move from underneath his mom’s white-knuckled hand as she kept it clamped on his mouth.

I managed to shrug and shoot him a commiserating smile.

The mom mouthed, “Thank you,” just as the soldiers roughly clamped the cuffs onto my wrists.

“You think we should cuff her ankles, too?” the second soldier asked. “Card sharks can practice with their feet.”

The first soldier snorted derisively. “You really think this,” he grabbed the back of my head and locked his fingers in hard, the fabric of his combat gloves grating against my skull and snagging along my hair, “looks like the kind of card shark who can practice with her feet?”

I managed not to bristle at being referred to as this.

At least, I managed not to react externally. Inside, I promised myself that if I ever got the chance, I would punch this soldier boy out cold.

Nobody on the bus said a word as the soldiers roughly led me off. Plenty of people would’ve seen what happened, but they would all know it was better for me to go down than the kid. Though it wasn’t illegal for the kid to practice magic on the bus, they’d find some way to stick it to him or his mother. I wouldn’t let that happen, even if it meant another mark on my file. While most of this city thought the Russo family created more trouble than we solved, I’d always taken my role as a protector to heart.

Chapter 2

I still remembered when I was all of five years old and grandma had sat me down on her knee. She’d played with my hair affectionately as she’d reached behind her back and pulled out my first set of cards. As she’d lovingly handed them over and pressed them into my grip, her gnarled fingers locking them there with all the strength of steel wire, she’d looked right into my eyes and told me that we Russos protected, no matter the costs and no matter how dirty our hands got in the process. We did what others couldn’t so they could live a better life than us.

“Should we ring her through to the station?” the second soldier asked from behind me as they waited for the doors to open.

“Good point.” The guy grabbed the back of my head again and smashed it hard against the front seat railing as he fumbled with something in his pocket.

It brought my face up close to the man sitting in the front seat behind the driver.

I looked right at the guy. It was kind of unavoidable considering my face was being ground into his railing, my messy hair bunching up and framing my pissed-off expression like neon arrows.

I knew what the guy should look like – like a blank slate. The rest of the passengers were burying themselves in their devices, never making eye contact and never looking up once.

This guy, he looked right at me.

He was in jeans, a gray shirt, and a bomber jacket. It had thick, old fabric that bunched around his hands, obscuring them fully as he kept them shoved in his pockets.

Shit, what was in his pockets?

It was either something about the jacket or the angle of his shoulders that sent a bolt of nerves slamming up my back. Once those nerves hit my bloodstream, they ignited like gasoline.

I hadn’t served in the Second War. I’d been a teenager. But I, like everyone else in my high school class, remembered the years the Accords had taken to break down. Because to us on this side of the wall, it hadn’t been a single day of mayhem. If you asked the media or the government, they’d tell you that on April 26 10 years ago terrorists detonated coordinated blasts throughout the city, killed thousands, and snapped peace with all the ease of a butcher breaking a chicken’s neck. But anyone who’d ever had anything to do with ex-soldiers – like me – knew that peace had been fracturing for years.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself, aren’t I? None of that crap counted. Only one thing mattered right now. As I stared at that man in front of me, I looked right into his eyes, and I swore I could read the bastard’s mind. I’d seen his kind all too often growing up.

His gaze was cold, his cheeks were stiff, and his hands were hidden – the bastard was a terrorist.

Fear bolted through my chest.

The guy shoved his hand harder into his pocket, the move apparently slow but his muscles so frigging stiff, they could’ve snapped.

“Watch out—” I had a chance to say.

I tried to shove into the soldier behind me – I was too late.

The terrorist moved. He snapped to his feet, grabbed something out of his pocket, and threw it forward. It was a careless, easy move, as if the guy had just grabbed a handful of petals and thrown them into the wind.

They were anything but petals.

It was a type of modified, floating bomb.

40 or so quickly spinning yellow discs shot out from his hand. A relic from the war, they were a banned magical grenade. Once deployed, each one of those numerous discs could shoot out at unpredictable angles, attach to targets, and detonate at the will of the magician controlling them.

One of them shot right over my shoulder, close enough that the spinning disc sliced through the tough fabric of my jacket. It slammed right onto the top of that soldier’s helmet behind me.

“What the hell?” the guy screamed.

He didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence. And neither did his buddy get a chance to yank up his rifle and start firing. With a dismissive wave, the terrorist just swiped two fingers to the left, and both those discs did their magic. Literally. Bolts of yellow-blue light blasted into the soldiers, shaking through them with all the ease and lethality of an electric chair. The guy holding me lurched back into the reinforced unit protecting the driver. The whole thing shook so violently, a chunk of it tore away from the ceiling. The soldier was putty by the time he practically melted onto the floor by my feet, his nervous system shot to pieces.

The bus erupted into screams – high-pitched and piercing. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched as that mom grabbed her kid and shoved him down under the seat, protecting him with her shuddering, tensed legs.

Everyone else did the same, huddling at the back of the bus or crumpling in their seats as they tried to make themselves smaller targets. Except for one guy. He’d been seated behind me. He remained exactly where he was, not moving a muscle.

The terrorist jumped to his feet, stretched his shoulders as if that had been no more taxing than a few weights at the gym, then spun to stare at the passengers. I was still exactly where that soldier had left me, my face rammed up against the railing of the terrorist’s seat, my hair bunched around my cheeks, and my hands cuffed behind me.

I wasn’t stupid enough to move.

This would either go down in one of two ways. The terrorist would detonate those remaining spinning discs and take out the bus – and everyone in it – with him. Or there’d be a hostage situation. It would take seconds until the security checkpoint we were parked in realized something was up. We’d be surrounded. If the army negotiators didn’t think they could make it through to this terrorist in time, they’d detonate the bus to contain the threat.

All these thoughts flashed through my mind, one after another, each as fast as lightning.

I never tore my gaze off the bastard.

And I never backed down.

My eyes sliced toward the still crackling playing cards scattered over the floor.

I’d pointed this out before – they were a kid’s set. But I’d failed to mention something. I was not an ordinary card shark. These soldiers and their derogatory comments of me be damned – I was exactly the kind of wicked tarot witch who could practice with not just my feet, but my whole body. I had crafted a deserved reputation on this side of the wall for being a magician like no other. It was time to show my colors.

Slowly, I started to rise, not moving hard but controlling every contraction of every muscle until I must’ve looked like a marionette being rolled out by a pin.

The terrorist still had his back to me, his arms spread out wide as if he was about to start proselytizing from the pulpit. “No need to scream. No need to fear anymore,” the guy said in a tight, wavering tone that sounded as if someone had tied a noose around his throat. Not someone – he had. I could see it from the way he moved. I remembered it from the moment I’d stared into his eyes and seen what he would do. This was the kind of drug-affected idiot ex-soldier who’d lost his mind, lost his principles, and lost all his care for life.

I’d encountered it far too many times to count. One of my own uncles could have turned into a terrorist if the family hadn’t gotten to him in time.

As that single mom whimpered, pressing her legs against her shuddering kid’s body and trying to push the little guy further under the protection of the seat – not that it could do anything against magic bombs – I realized this was only going to end one way. This guy wasn’t going to let us go.

He was gonna kill us.

Sure enough, he opened his hands wider, and I saw the slicks of sweat trailing across his fingers. His head jerked back, and I caught a glimpse of his expression in the reflective glass of the window beside him. Fervent didn’t do it justice. Mad eyes, mad morals, mad mind – it was a phrase my grandmother had used to describe some of the broken soldiers she’d ministered to in the war. She’d always counseled me that when you saw someone that broken, you had two options – get out of their way or put them out of their misery. I was a Russo – so I really only had the one option, didn’t I?

“You don’t need to fear anymore. The wall they are building will be irrelevant. We’ll show them that they can’t control us. The only way to do that,” the terrorist said, his voice shaking down low, “is to take us all out of the equation. Death,” his voice vibrated on that word like the toll of a bell, “is the only true liberator.”

Time to move.

As the guy spread his fingers, I saw little crackles of magic dashing into the air. They sunk into those spinning discs. While two of them had taken down the soldiers, the rest remained poised in the air like a hive of insects waiting for their queen’s order.

The next few seconds unfolded in front of my mind’s eye with all the clarity of a goddamn vision. That bastard would snag hold of those fragments and send each spinning disc, one by one, slamming into the passengers. He’d detonate us like we were nothing more than mere firecrackers.

Screw that.

I shoved forward and rounded my shoulder, slamming it into the guy just before he could snatch hold of the bomb fragments.

I didn’t just use my strength – though let’s face it, it was considerable. I focused my mind like a frigging laser.

I didn’t have any cards on me, but I always had a certain pendant around my neck. It was one my mother had given me before she’d died. It was the Russo family crest, which just so happened to be a playing card – a Jack of Spades. It wasn’t the highest card in the pack, but if you used it right, it could win you any game.

My necklace wasn’t the same as an actual pack of playing cards, but it gave me what I needed – just a spark of magic. It reflected through my shoulder and slammed into the guy, giving my move twice as much energy as I managed to plow him right off the seat. He struck the reinforced window, his head jolting hard to the side. If I’d had my hands free, I would’ve followed up by locking a palm on his skull and pounding it against that mesh wire until splatters of blood painted the seat.

I might’ve stopped the guy from detonating – but I sure as hell hadn’t downed him for good. That fact was proven as, with a roar splitting the air like a lioness ready to claw its prey, the guy spun around, snaking at me with a kick. He used the base of his foot, not his toe – meaning he was trained. He couldn’t be classed as a consummate professional like me, but obviously someone had taught him how to use his body. It was further evidence that somewhere down the line, this guy had been a soldier.

It was an all too familiar story. After the end of the second war, the Accords had been brought in to ensure peace. They’d been written by the wealthy, though, and as such had been drafted by those who thought they had a right to more peace than others. They’d fundamentally failed to address the primary problem at the heart of the war.

Inequality between the magical races and humans; between the wealthy and poor; between the safe and unsafe.

The Accords and the false peace that had ensued had been a recipe for disaster.

As I’d grown up – taking my job to protect as a Russo to heart – I’d encountered way too many screwed up kids from the families of ex-soldiers who’d been downtrodden, kicked to the side, and used. With no hope, their parents had turned to drugs, crime, and occasionally, revenge.

Did I feel compassion? Of course I did. But that compassion could not temper my fist right now.

With the immediacy of this threat pumping through me, slicking my back with sweat and sending charges of nerves bolting into my stomach like discharging batteries, I twisted to the side just in time. The guy’s well-placed kick sailed right by. I could have launched on top of him, practically dislocated my shoulders to pull my arms and cuffs in front of me, and tried to choke the bastard, but I wasn’t that foolish or ambitious.

My cousin Gretchen thought I was the best fighter out of the Russo family – which was saying something, considering we had two heavyweight champions in the current generation. She thought I understood proportionality. I reacted only once I knew what my opponent was capable of. I held back, and importantly, I always had a card up my sleeve.

Yeah, well, I didn’t have one of those up my sleeve today, but I did have a surprise.

Just as the guy threw himself off his seat in a move I could not dodge, I shoved to the side, pushed down to my knee, and twisted.

If you can imagine it, back when I was 14, I did a stint of ballet.

I called it a stint, somewhat like an ex-special forces soldier calls a dangerous tour in some war-torn country a stint, because I’d taken ballet so seriously, I’d kept my slippers around my neck like dog tags.

When I’d seen a doco on how far ballet dancers could push their bodies, my 14-year-old mind had figured out they were the top athletes out there, and I’d thrown myself wholeheartedly into learning their every secret. I shouldn’t have to tell you that I hadn’t become a prima donna. I had, however, taken every lesson to heart. So now as I shoved down to my toes, I kept my power in my knees and ankles. As the guy reached me, smashing a powerful left hook across my jaw, I pushed into the move, not away. I twisted, sinking down then leaping high.

The guy wasn’t expecting it – that move hardly came in the standard operating manual for ex-soldiers. It caught him off guard, and importantly, off balance. I used the opportunity to run right up the side of the seat in front of him as I managed to put some distance between us.

I flipped over the chair, landed on the floor between the seats, and rolled.

It was a gamble. While I was physically fighting this guy, it meant he didn’t have a chance to connect with his bombs. But I couldn’t fight him forever. Luck and my ballet days would only get me so far. To end this fight, I needed cards, and I frigging came across some as I rolled bodily onto the kid’s pack.

As soon as my back pushed against them, I felt their potential.

It sang in my blood. That moment of connecting to them – especially during times of stress and danger – was unlike anything else.

I’d heard it said on multiple occasions that we card magicians were the stupidest of all the practitioners. We insisted on practicing the only form of sorcery that required objects. All other practitioners could generate magic in their own bodies. It meant they were never without weapons. We card magicians required a set in order to fight. But what we sacrificed in redundancy, we more than made up for with power.

Plus, there was something unspeakably special about returning to a set of cards. Other practitioners might carry their houses on their backs, as it were, but every time I picked up a set, it was like returning home.

No more time for philosophy, though – it was time for action. A fact the guy reminded me of as, with an earsplitting growl, he threw himself at me. He tuned into his bomb fragments and dragged them with him.

I connected fully to the kid’s playing set. I didn’t even have to close my eyes. All I had to do was settle my consciousness into them, allowing the equivalent of my magical mind to sink into the pack pinned beneath me as easily as water shifting through sand.

Magic erupted over them, crackling like a sea of ants.

The guy reached me. He shoved his arm to the side, spreading his fingers as little flames escaped over every nail. He used them to connect his hand to the fragments of the bomb.

Judging by the vicious look in this bastard’s eyes, he would cram every bomb fragment down my mouth and pop me like a frigging piñata.

Fat chance.

I punched to my feet. It didn’t matter that I was cuffed and every move wrenched my shoulders, grated my fingers, and left a patina of bruises marching over my flesh like a crappy paint job.

Like I’d said before – I was no stranger to getting contusions on the bus or giving them.

The guy swept the fragments of the bomb toward me.

Time slowed down. The objective part of my mind appreciated that even if a single one of those fragments spun off and struck one of the power units in the side of the bus, we’d all die.

I pushed all my energy and magic into the kid’s playing set until it rose off the floor behind me. It spread around me like a vengeful hand erupting from a grave. It might’ve just been a cheap practice set the mom had no doubt bought at some drugstore, but that didn’t matter. I used it like it was one of the most expensive sets the army had.

I wasn’t aware of anything as I let the pack spread around me like a halo. Not the gasps from the passengers on the bus, not the soldiers outside, not even the interest of the bastard who’d been sitting behind me – the guy who still hadn’t moved. All that mattered to me was forcing as much power into those cards as I could.

“Time to play,” I spat. I let the cards shift. They sliced forward, spinning like daggers.

The guy had maybe 40 or so fragments of his bomb left. I didn’t have 40 cards. This was only a half pack. That didn’t matter. As the age-old saying went – it wasn’t what you had; it was very much how you used it.

As those 20 cards spun around me in an arc, bleeding so much magic, they looked like a thousand candles, they slammed into the cloud of bomb fragments, one after another.

If this had been a real pack, I would’ve had a lot of options at my fingertips. As it was, these cards were little more than a conduit for my anger and desperation. I’d be able to make them explode, and that’s it.

Unlike those bomb fragments, when my cards discharged, they wouldn’t take out the bus and everyone in it. Instead, they were like highly directed, concentrated blasts – the equivalent of a bomb scalpel. As a single one of those cards flew into five of those fragments, magic discharged off the cardboard, sunk into the fragments, clumped them together, and made them implode like little black holes.

It was much, much easier to practice card magic with your hands. Most card sharks never went beyond that skill. Most hadn’t had my upbringing. The Russo family motto – well, one of them – was nothing comes easy.

You don’t practice for best-case scenarios. When you train, you do so in the worst possible conditions, because what the hell is the point of training otherwise?

I watched horror spill over the guy’s face in the space of a split second as he caught up to the fact that he wasn’t gonna win this.

It was like seeing a mask crack. All that anger, all that apparent fervor – it fell away as I saw a kid underneath. Maybe he’d only been 16 when he’d been conscripted into the Second War. Maybe it had taken his brothers and sisters, his family, his friends. Maybe it had changed everything. But as I blasted through the last of those bomb fragments, I saw the guy with all his lost innocence and misguided rage.

It was too late for sorries, though. It was time to end this.

I still had one card behind me. It was stuck to my back.

As the guy staggered back and his surprise quickly twisted to total desperation, I waited for him to play his last hand before I played mine.

As his eyes opened wider, with groping fingers, he went to shove a hand into his pocket.

He didn’t get a chance to grab anything out. Heck, I didn’t even get the time to use my last card. That guy who’d been sitting there this whole time erupted. And that was no misnomer. He didn’t push from his seat – and God knows he didn’t simply stand. He shot up as if he was a vengeful plume from a volcano.

I’d seen guys move fast before. Heck, I’d taught my cousins to increase their speed by pushing them through grueling drills each morning. This guy was like nothing else. He planted his hands onto the railing in front of him, leaped right over the seat, and tackled the guy.

He smashed through two seats to do it.

As he sailed past, in a split second, I saw he had one hell of a body. Every muscle looked as if it had been carved by Greek gods. His physique was more honed than some Michelangelo statue. And muscles like that don’t come cheap or free – they’re trained every day.

The guy obviously knew how to make the best of his powerful form, because as he tackled the terrorist, he locked his arms harder around the guy’s jacket and wrenched it right off his back.

It happened so fast, I couldn’t keep up. Yeah, that’s right, I couldn’t follow this. As a mob card-shark, if I was having trouble, it was no surprise when it took all of five seconds for the bus to erupt into screams again.

I finally shifted forward just as that guy locked the terrorist in a headlock, one of his massive biceps squeezing the terrorist’s throat with trained efficiency.

My apparent savior looked right at me. He had these strange eyes. Hazel-green but with deep amber flecks, they kinda looked like specks of gold hanging out in weeds.

Maybe that could sum up the guy as well, because his expression was nine parts hard to one single part compassion.

“Don’t just stand there – knock him out,” he screamed.

His words were blunt and forceful like a hammer. I might’ve worked for the mob, but even we didn’t give orders like that. This guy rolled his commands off his tongue with all the ease of a drill sergeant snapping at a soldier.

You would think a tone like that wouldn’t work on me. You would’ve thought, considering my particular independent history, that I would’ve turned up my nose at this bastard’s command.

I didn’t. The guy was right – it was time to end this before anyone else got hurt.

I barely had to connect to the card stuck on my back. It was still charged with magic. Despite all the confusion that had beset my brain, I’d kept a continuous connection to it.

Now I didn’t have to think. I simply spread my consciousness to the side, and the card flicked out from around me. It snapped forward like a loaded spring and smashed right against the terrorist’s head.

The guy’s eyes had a chance to open wide, then magic discharged across his skin and sank into his brain.

With one massive muscular twitch as if he’d just been electrocuted, he stopped moving.

He wasn’t dead. He would, however, be out for a mighty long time.

Sigh, it was over, then?

Yeah. No. It was just getting started.

Chapter 3

I didn’t get a chance to stand there and stare at my apparent savior – the alarms started outside. They split through the air, shaking so violently, I shuddered to the side as if I’d just been slapped.

Halogen lights turned on around the bus, flooding it with illumination. They pinned me to the spot like the glowing equivalent of chains.

Throughout the fight, I’d been operating in fear and uncertainty. Right now true gut-punching despair had a chance to sail through me. It reminded me that the idiot soldiers outside wouldn’t have necessarily followed the fight. There was every chance they thought I was the terrorist.

My eyes opened – my heart opened, too. It had one last chance to flood my body with adrenaline, then I heard the soldiers outside screaming as they brought up their guns.

“Stand down,” the guy with the green-gold eyes snapped. He shoved the comatose terrorist off him, shot to his feet, punched a hand into his pocket, and pulled something out.

… I think I’d remember that moment for the rest of my life. The second my eyes darted up and locked on the softly spinning magical hologram of the Federal Police would change me forever.

This guy was a cop, see, but not just any cop. He was a goddamn federal detective.

In this world, while the army watched our side of the wall, keeping us vagabonds in line, the Federal Police supposedly watched both sides. They were the last true vestige of peace who policed the wealthy and the poor – if you believed the government’s rhetoric, at least.

I’d never even seen a federal agent outside of TV or the papers. Now one proudly lifted his badge higher, and he looked right at me.

My instincts kicked into gear, shuddering through my stomach, jumping into my elbows, and plunging into my hands until they rose of their own accord. I spread them wide in a surrender position. No matter how pissed off I was, no matter how pumped up on adrenaline my body had become, and no matter how good I was with a set of cards, I had my limitations.

This gig was up.

The federal agent just looked at me, cold and unreadable as the doors opened and several soldiers flooded in.

When they went toward me with their rifles, the agent shook his head and stabbed his thumb down at the comatose terrorist. “This is our mark. She’s just a civilian.”

… Just… a civilian?

I’d had it drilled into my head since I could walk that you avoided the police in every form. Sure, you could sass the military occasionally. Maybe you could say something snide to the soldiers at your nearest checkpoint. You could never, however, have anything to do with the police. If you saw them, you ran in the other direction.

I couldn’t run right now, but I could stare in bone-shaking confusion as that federal agent manhandled the comatose terrorist up, shoved him into the waiting arms of several soldiers, then proceeded to check the bus methodically.

I just stood there and stared.

… Because I wasn’t just a civilian. I’d taken that terrorist down with insane magical skills. Before that, I’d intervened and taken the heat for that kid. I knew how federal agents thought. Maybe I had technically saved the day, but he could definitely find numerous crimes to get me on.

So I just waited there, like a carcass on a butcher’s hook ready to be stripped down.

The guy took a long time to check through the bus, and by then, all the other passengers had been taken off. When it was my turn and two green-eared soldiers gestured for me to disembark, I didn’t move a muscle. I locked my gaze on the agent and waited for the inevitable.

The guy was down on his hands and knees checking something at the back of the bus. He was very much not facing me, unless he had eyes in his butt, of course. That didn’t stop him from clearing his throat. “You have two options.”

Here we go.

“You can get off the bus and I’ll debrief you when I’m done here, or you can help me,” the agent said in a completely even tone as if I was just some new recruit and he was explaining basic procedures to me.

“Sorry?” A deep frown cut across my lips. I still couldn’t see his face as he rummaged around at the back of the bus, his arm up to his elbow in some kind of engine unit. So I just frowned at his well-proportioned behind.

“I told you.” He shifted up, patted his hands on his pants, and turned, a splotch of engine grease marking his sharp jaw. “You either get off the bus and we debrief when I’m done, or you help me now.”

I hated people who didn’t explain themselves. I wasn’t blessed with a wealth of time in my life, and I couldn’t waste it waiting around for people to make sense.

He flicked his gaze up and down me unabashedly. I watched as his eyes locked on my feet and swept up. He wasn’t checking out my figure – no, sorry, he was very much checking out my figure. But this was not a lecherous thing. It was like he was cataloging my musculature, my agility, my strength, and my overall use to him.

I’d never felt so split open. It was like someone was parading me nude in front of a farmer. My gut instinct – heck, my every instinct – was to round a hand into a fist and introduce it to his jaw. I managed to just stay there on the balls of my feet and hold his gaze until he finally flicked it up to my eyes.

He wiped his grease-covered hands on his pants again. “You look like the kind of card shark who knows her way around a scene. So help me out.”

… Knows her way around a scene? What, he thought I was some kind of set designer now?

Before the guy could turn around, shove his arms back into the engine unit, and leave that confusing statement dangling there, he pointed beside him. It was very much like a master asking his dog to heel.

I bristled. If I’d been a cat, my hackles would’ve risen so high, I would’ve looked like I had a mohawk growing down my back.

Those two soldiers stood there, and they stared at me, their compressed brows framing their obvious confusion.

One shuffled his feet. “Do we leave her here?”

“Yeah, you leave her here,” the agent snapped as he leaned up again, locked a hand on his face, and swept it down. Grease transferred from under his nails, sliding down his cheeks and over his stubble-covered chin. He obviously didn’t give a shit. And it was just as clear that he didn’t give a shit about explaining what the hell he wanted from me as he continued to dive around in the engine as the two soldiers left.

That just left me standing there, and, you guessed it, staring at his butt.

Outside, things were starting to settle. Those big halogen lights were still locked around the bus, but they were no longer zeroing in on me as if I was a fighter plane about to be shot down by ground artillery. There was commotion, though – but just what you’d expect. More soldiers had flooded into the scene, and while this federal agent checked the inside of the bus, they assessed it from outside. I could see pockets of passengers being questioned, too.

I should be out there, dripping with sweat under those powerful lights as I explained my story, not in here staring at this guy’s appreciable figure while he played bus mechanic for the day.

“You can just stand there staring at my butt, or you can come help me,” he said in a deep, shaking voice that would get your attention even if you were a block away. You know the kind of tone I’m talking about – one that feels like it’ll reach right inside you and shake you from the inside out.

It was almost enough to distract me from the fact this guy had cottoned onto me checking him out.

I frowned harder. “Help you out with what?”

“Look, lady, you’re clearly a very good card shark.”

“And you’re clearly appalling at explaining yourself. What is it you want me to do, Federal Agent?”

“There’s a second bomb on this bus.”

My cheeks paled. It felt like someone found my jugular and squeezed. My lips wobbled open. “What? What kind of bomb?”

“One that could take out not just this bus, but this whole sector point. Now, are you gonna get down on your knees and help me find it?”

I shifted over. It wasn’t the guy’s voice – or the fact he was a federal agent. It was me, my lineage, my morals, and my choice.

I skidded down to my knees. I didn’t even ask if the guy was sure that there was another bomb. My mind ticked back to that terrorist – the moment I’d stared right into his eyes. He’d broken all the way. Every single strand in his mind had snapped – and people like that can and will do anything.

“You sure it’s in the back?” I snapped efficiently.

“We’re 90 percent sure it’s on the bus,” he answered.

Not the question I’d asked, but whatever. I turned around. Every move was quick, and for the first time since this incident had gone down, I didn't measure my pace. Unless this federal agent was playing with me and luring me into a trap, it didn’t matter if I rushed around the bus – no one was going to shoot me anymore.

But if I didn’t find that bomb, being shot would be the least of my troubles, wouldn’t it?

I jolted forward several steps. Despite the fact I was focused on my task, I heard a rustle of fabric as the agent turned over his shoulder to stare at me.

I walked forward another step. I stopped.

I’d blasted through that kid’s card pack – literally. There was nothing left but a few chunks of scattered cardboard that were still glowing a soft, milky yellow-white.

That didn’t mean I had no means to cast magic. I brought up a hand, plunged it down my top, and grabbed my pendant. As my fingers clenched around it, my nails dragging over the embossed metal, I grated my teeth back and forth.

… Was it just my imagination, or could I feel a magical aura? It was faint – as faint as a scream you could hear kilometers off on the wind. But it was there.

A few of my family had been in the army. Heck, a number of everyone’s family had been in the army. A random number, to be exact. It’d taken precisely 2 months of fighting in the second war before lottery conscription had been rolled out. What I was trying to get at was that we Russos knew how to think like soldiers. But we also knew more.

In the army they might tell you not to heed your instincts. They might scream at you that you follow the chain of command, not your gut. We Russos knew better. We dealt with trouble every day, and from the moment you could crawl, you learned to sniff it out.

So it was no surprise that as I took one more step, my boots grinding over one of the smoldering chunks of that kid’s playing pack, I tuned into my instincts, and they blared in my ears.

I shifted my gaze to the left, then to the right. It locked on the seat beside me.

“You got something there?” the guy muttered.

I didn’t answer. With words, at least. I dropped down to my knees, locked my cuffed hands not on the seat, but on the floor beneath it, and looked up.

Yeah. Yeah, I definitely had something.

A wave of terror rushed over me, but I pushed it back. My gaze locked onto a symbol. That was it. It wasn’t a box, it wasn’t a bomb, and it wasn’t a suspicious chunk of circuits. It was a small, rough, quickly carved picture someone had scratched onto the metal support unit of the seat.

The agent didn’t ask again. He shifted over, every movement quick. He got down to his knees.

I pointed up at the symbol. “Red Group,” I said, voice tight.

He wouldn’t need any explanation. The Red Group were one of the most vicious separatist factions, and one of the best equipped.

I reached for the symbol. He snapped his hand out, grabbed my wrist, and held it in place. “You could trigger it.”

“If proximity triggers it, we’d be dead by now. This was the seat that mom was hiding her kid under.”

“It was also the seat right in front of you,” he muttered quickly.

What the hell did that mean? Was I under suspicion after all? Had this just been a game?

The guy still held onto my wrist, securing it in place. He had a rough grip. It wasn’t just his marked, large hands that were clearly used to work. There was just something about this guy that was unpolished. He reminded me of a chunk of gold, all gnarled and covered in dirt. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you’d chuck it to the side.

“You think I did this?” I challenged. A smart person would’ve stayed quiet. I had a certain kind of intelligence, but knowing when to shut the hell up was not part of it.

The guy didn’t even look at me. He didn’t remove his hand, either. “If I thought you were a terrorist, you’d be dead by now.” His statement was cold, to the point, and clearly not a lie.

I stiffened, my leg tensing as it pushed against his. We were close. We were both down on our knees in the same position, our bodies right there alongside one another. I shouldn’t need to tell you from all the ogling I’d been doing that this guy was attractive. Not model-perfect, dazzling-eyes, shiny Ken-doll attractive – but down to earth, gritty, knows-how-to-use-his-body hot.

An entirely situationally-inappropriate flush threatened to climb my cheeks. I wasn’t usually the kind of girl who blushed at a hot guy. I did something about my feelings or pushed them away.

I could hardly shove this guy off or pull him closer.

“What do we do?” I asked in a controlled tone. “That’s a gang mark, sure, but there’s no guarantee there’s a bomb.”

“You’ll quickly find in this job that we don’t work on guarantees. We work on risk.”

I brushed off his comment. People say weird shit in pressured situations. Maybe, despite this guy’s gruff and competent exterior, the federal agent was momentarily confusing me for one of his rookies.

“Then we’ll get off the bus and blow it up,” I suggested. Part of me recognized I was down on my knees next to a bona fide cop suggesting we blow up State transport. If my nonna were here, she would’ve clapped me around my ears and reminded me not to recommend vandalism in front of the Law.

“We don’t know what kind of bomb it is. If we blow it up, we could risk a far greater explosion.”

I made a face. “Wait, what the hell kind of bomb are we talking about here?” I was hardly an explosives expert. And though I did come across a lot of crazy crap working for my family, thankfully high-yield explosives weren’t part of the gig. I still knew enough, however, to appreciate that what this guy was suggesting was not an ordinary bomb.

With enough tech – and a lot of damn magic – you could chain together explosions to create monumental damage. Back 10 years ago when the factions assaulted the city, they used similar devices. One handmade bomb no larger than a mug had taken out a two-kilometer section of the subway.

If we were dealing with a similar device….

I didn’t let myself calculate the probable death toll. I rose slowly. I didn’t shrug out of the guy’s grip. He might’ve been tolerating me, but he was still the one holding all the cards.

He stood up with me. “Get off the bus. I’ll deal with this.”

“How?”

“Not your concern.”

He was right. I hadn’t set this bomb, and the authorities were here. I might not like current politics, but as twisted as this world had become, the government wouldn’t let an explosion go off that could kill every man, woman, and child in this sector.

At least my head knew that. My heart wouldn’t let me move. As the guy released my hand and shrugged toward the front of the bus, I shook my head. I started to tick my mind through the possibilities. That terrorist, though impassioned, didn’t look as if he’d been the kind to set a bomb like this. He’d been too out of it. To pull off a coordinated attack like this, you required precision, a cool, calm mind, and steady resolve.

I hardly had a photographic memory, but when I saw someone’s face, I tended to remember it. As I half closed my eyes, I mentally flicked through all of the passengers.

“I told you you could get off the bus,” the agent said, his tone gruff.

With my hands still handcuffed, and the skin around them raw and chafed, I simply ticked one finger up and to the side to tell the guy to be quiet while I was thinking.

If my brain had been functioning properly, I would’ve realized that was the equivalent of painting a target on my head. Sure, for whatever reason, this guy seemed happy to use me and my skills. If I started sassing him, he wouldn’t ask me to stop – he’d chuck me in prison.

Though I didn’t have a hold of my pendant, as it sat against my chest, the skin tingled, warning me this wasn’t even close to over yet.

“Hey,” the guy said as he reached forward and rested one of those rough hands on my shoulder. Why was it that everything about this man seemed hard as if every night he went home and unpolished himself, like an artist taking a grater to a marble statue to rub off all its shine.

“The driver,” I said, the words snapping into my head quicker than a lightning bolt.

He didn’t shove me. I felt his fingers tense, the move dragging the fabric of my thick leather jacket over my shoulder.

“You suspect the driver?” he demanded.

“Yeah. It’s the only thing that makes sense. I’ve been on this bus since it left the depo. Apart from that kid being shoved under that seat, no one else touched it. And that kid and his mom—”

“Do not have anywhere near the power to place a gang mark like that,” the agent finished off for me.

He pushed me out of the way. It wasn’t harsh, but it was determined. I thought he’d leave me here as he marched off the bus to get the driver. He didn’t. He hooked a hand on my handcuffs and pulled me forward. I felt exactly like I was that dog heeling at its master’s side again.

Internally, I spluttered. Hell, internally, I erupted like a volcano of rage. Externally, I settled for clenching my teeth and pressing my white, pissed off lips against them.

The agent pulled me off the bus and out into the night. Don’t ask me when night fell. When I’d gotten onto this bus, it’d only been late afternoon. Now those powerful halogen lights pushed back the dark night you got on this side of the wall. Though most people could afford electricity, the night was darker on the south side of Terra City. Those in the North thought it was our souls. You know – dark deeds polluting the sky and all that rubbish. They could keep their damn stupid suspicions. The reason it was always so pitch black on this side was that we had rolling blackouts. The power companies cared way more about ensuring power to those who paid their wages.

As I ticked my head up and gazed across the city, I saw that several sectors near us were predictably out of power. This sector point seemed to be taking all the juice as those powerful halogen lights lit up the bus like God pointing through a cloud at his next target to smite.

The agent brought up a hand and ran it over his stubble-lined chin. I could hear the sound of his short nails grating over that ray of blonde-black beard from here.

You see, he didn’t just have strange eyes – his hair was this sandy, nondescript yellow-brown with the occasional flicker of black and red. It felt like someone had just grabbed all the paints when it had come to coloring in this guy.

The agent didn’t let up, and he dragged me forward by my cuffs until we reached a low, squat security building with reinforced mesh wire and soldiers behind. Okay, dragged was probably too abusive a verb. I was hardly being tugged along kicking and screaming behind him. But he did have a determined grip and really goddamn big hands. Had I mentioned that? See, I had a thing for big hands.

Pull yourself together, I commented snidely as he tapped on the mesh window. When the soldiers within didn’t react quickly enough to his presence, he shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out that rotating badge again.

I liked to think I wasn’t the kind of girl to ogle. Okay, maybe I occasionally eyed a handsome man, but I wasn’t the kind to stare slack-jawed at impressive sights. I’d seen a lot. You try working for the mob on the south side of the city. I’d seen magical items that would make an antique dealer’s toes curl. I’d seen books from the old days, card sets, too. And yet, as that agent brought out his badge and pointed to it with a stiff hand, I found myself being drawn toward it.

It was expensive tech, see. For that badge to have a perpetually spinning magical hologram it meant that it had to be fed with energy day in, day out. It would have to be cleaned of magical interference, too, day in, day out. It was an expensive, luxury item, but what was it in the end? Just a goddamn badge.

Maybe once upon a time I would’ve thought it was a stupid waste of money, but as I’d grown up, I’d become a heck of a lot more cynical, and I could appreciate that it made sense to spend more money on your badges than you did on your men. Because symbols, like it or not, were doorways into people’s minds.

This one sure as shit was a doorway into mine. I found myself staring at it, my lips partially agape as it reminded me of what the hell had just happened to me. I was in the hands of a federal agent, literally.

What the heck would he do next?

The agent jammed a finger back toward the bus. “You need to leave that as it is. No one goes in, no one approaches. You also need to isolate the bus driver. She’s my primary suspect, but I don’t want her thinking we’ve rumbled her.”

“We’ve got orders to clear this sector point. They need more juice on the Northside. They’re going to have a blackout from Sectors 1 through 25, and we’re Sector 14,” the harried-looking soldier on the opposite side of the mesh explained.

“Negative. That bus has a gang sign. Red Group,” the agent snarled.

Though the soldier looked as if he’d been about to walk away, he stopped. The skin around his mouth and eyes tightened. Heck, it looked like someone punched a hand through his mouth and grabbed his cheek muscles from the inside, yanking them down and pulling them tight like plastic wrap. “Red Group?” The guy’s voice shot up.

“Yeah. We can’t be a hundred percent sure, but we suspect there’s a secondary bomb onboard. It could be a cluster bomb. You’re going to get on the phone to your superiors, and you’re gonna tell them that a federal agent has demanded all power in this sector be kept ready. Understand?”

It was pretty darn obvious that the soldier understood as he groped toward the phone sitting on the wall. He grabbed it off with slippery fingers, steeled his nerves with a breath, and started dialing.

I felt sorry for the guy. I sure as shit wouldn’t want to have to call the power engineers in the North to tell them he was gonna take their juice.

Then again, if I could switch places with this guy, I sure as heck would.

The agent appeared to ignore me as he grabbed some device from his pocket, typed something into it, communicated with his superiors, then went to walk away. He stopped, turned over his shoulder, and looked at me as if as an afterthought. “You did good today.”

I just frowned at him. “Ah, thanks.” If I’d been in a pushy mood, I would’ve gestured to my handcuffs and demanded they be removed. I just looked at him, a frown marching across my lips.

Why did this guy keep talking to me as if we worked together?

He partially turned away again as he typed on that device.

I wouldn’t call it a phone. It would be some kind of directed communication tool that would only enable him to call home to the Federal Police.

As he typed on it, I found my gaze sweeping out across the military checkpoint.

I located the kid and his mom. They’d already locked gazes on me, because the mom had her arms hooked around the kid’s shoulders as he wept. The little guy looked as if he’d ruined my life. Fat chance. I’d ruined my own life – and I’d been doing it since birth. I tried to smile and wave at the kid, but my arms were getting tired. These cuffs were really taking it out of me. That idiot soldier had tightened them too much.

… I stopped myself.

That idiot soldier was dead.

As a cold wave of realization shifted over me, the agent turned back.

Without a word, he reached forward, grabbed my cuffs, and pulled them close. The thing was, I was still very much in the cuffs, and in pulling them close, he pulled me close. There was nothing I could do to stop myself from banging against his chest, my hands pushing pretty darn near the top of his belt line.

I’d told you before – I wasn’t the kind of girl to blush. Tell that to my cheeks as they started to redden and a rush of tingles shifted through my gut and down into my pelvis.

The agent didn’t notice. In a few quick moves, he opened the handcuffs, and they released with a satisfying click.

He shoved the cuffs into his pocket, the sophisticated devices instantly compacting to allow themselves to be pushed into the tight fabric of the guy’s grey chinos.

I grabbed my hands back and rubbed my wrists. They were raw. It looked like I’d gotten distracted on the bus, found some old wood, and rubbed myself with splinters for a good half hour.

“So… this is it, then?” I asked.

The guy looked at me. “It?”

That impression I’d gotten back on the bus still stood. This guy did not explain himself. Either on purpose or because he was too damn distracted to bring us mere mortals up to speed with his important federal plans.

I brought up a hand and scratched behind my ear. It made me realize just how tangled my hair was. I had lovely long brown hair that usually sat loosely around my shoulders and face. Now it felt like a damn rat’s nest.

I went to neaten it, then reminded myself of where I was and why having messy hair would be the least of my troubles right now.

I shrugged in the direction of the opening to the checkpoint. “Can I leave, Agent? I’m assuming it’s over.”

“Not for you,” he said, delivering his words with all the calm certainty of a weatherman forecasting the rest of your life.

Damn, damn, damn.

So this guy had been playing with me, ha? He’d made me help him, and he wasn’t done yet. It was time to love me and leave me – in prison.

I pressed my lips together, forced a breath through them, and stared at my feet. “What exactly are you gonna pin on me?”

I should’ve measured my words. It was okay to think this guy was corrupt – it was another thing to tell him to his face.

“A recruit badge,” he said with a completely blank tone as if he hadn’t just heard my accusation.

I made a face. You know the kind of face I’m talking about. One where it feels as if some baker grabs every one of your features, kneads them into a dough, then throws them into an industrial mixer. My eyebrows were so scrunched together, I could barely see from underneath them. “I’m sorry, what?” My voice shook wildly. “A recruit badge?”

I wasn’t aware of what my tone did anymore. Heck, it could’ve shot into outer space and taken the rest of me with it, because I would never forget the look the guy shot me next.

“Nadine Russo, you’ve been picked to join the Federal Police.”

I froze on the spot as if every single halogen light in the checkpoint had picked me out once more.

I couldn’t move my lips. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t do anything but stand there and stare at him. This had to be a game, right? All this guy wanted to do was play with me, interrogate me, then throw me in prison. That version of events made sense. This version of events? Where this guy somehow wanted me to join the Federal Police?

It was the stupidest damn thing I’d ever heard.

He kept my gaze, holding it as steady as someone shoving a rifle in my face. No, wait, that was the wrong image. I’d already had plenty of rifles smooshed into my face today. The way this guy held my gaze was like he already knew every single one of my reactions, and no matter what I did, it wouldn’t change his mind.

He looked like a scientist who thoroughly understood his specimen and had gotten to the stage where it was time to put said specimen to work.

My lips dropped open. This guy wasn’t laughing, and he wasn’t dragging me away to interrogate me. “I don’t understand,” I said. I hated it when my voice wavered. I liked to pretend I was strong at least most of the time. I couldn’t even suck in a frigging breath right now. Fear constricted my throat and grabbed hold of my chest like chains.

“You’ve been picked to join the Federal Police,” he repeated in a dead even tone. No, sorry – deadly even tone. He had the kind of expression that said he would not stand here all night and repeat himself.

“I’m not part of the Federal Police,” I said. On the face of it, it was stupid, but on the face of it, so was this. I’d never heard of a magician being recruited to the Federal Police, not from this side of the wall, and sure as shit not from the Russo family.

The guy knew my name. He was a federal damn agent, so presumably he would know the name of my family, too.

He held my gaze for several more seconds and turned back to the checkpoint station as the senior soldier waved to get his attention.

“You isolated the bus driver yet? Are you doing everything I said?”

The soldier nodded. “She’s off on her own. We’re making her think the Transport Authority is coming to give her a commendation for keeping all her passengers safe through the terrorist attack.” He smiled as if he enjoyed that subterfuge.

The agent didn’t. He just nodded, and the cold, keen efficiency of the move told me that to him this was not pleasure – it was necessary.

It didn’t take too long for him to swivel that deadly gaze back to me. “We can head back to base now.”

“I’m sorry, what the fuck are you talking about? We?” I’d kept it in, until now. I knew perfectly well that you did not swear at the police. Sure, you could swear behind their backs, but you could not rip one out right in front of a federal agent.

I couldn’t stop myself.

He sighed. The soldier behind him had been watching this with interest, and as I swore, his cheeks twitched. He went to reprimand me, but the agent just brought his hand up in a stopping motion.

“Nadine Russo,” the agent said again, slowing each word down, “we’ve been watching you for a while. We’ve been watching all the card sharks on the south side of the wall. An opening has come up in the Federal Police for someone just like you. And after what you did tonight,” he jammed a thumb back in the direction of the bus, “you get the job. Welcome to the Federal Police. I am agent Tom Walker. And I will be your boss.”

Chapter 4

This couldn’t be happening. In every way, shape, and form this could not be happening. Except there was a problem. It was goddamn happening.

Tom Walker had not lied. After he’d wrapped up the incident with the bus, waited for a team of other federal agents to arrive, and dealt with the bus driver personally, he’d taken me back to base. And here I was, ensconced in a private room, staring at a wall, wondering how the crap my life could have slipped so far so fast.

It’d been three days. I’d been allowed to contact my family in a nominal kind of way – one where I’d told them I’d gotten a job on the Northside and that I wouldn’t be home for dinner for a while.

They wouldn’t have believed a word.

Apart from that, these past three days had been a never-ending battery of tests.

Did I want to be here? Oh heck no. With every single fiber of my soul, I wanted to find a set of cards, break through this drab concrete wall in front of me, and run until I left it all behind.

My sense of self-preservation told me that wouldn’t work. I was in the Federal Police’s clutches, and I would be here to stay.

There was a knock on my door, followed swiftly by an officious sounding beep. If you didn’t think beeps could sound officious, you’d never come to the primary Federal Police facility. I swore every single thing in this building was primed to make it sound as if it was better than me, from the officers, to the scientists, to the frigging vending machines.

“Here we go again,” I said, the words practically dragging their way out of my throat. I secured my hands on my knees, pushed up, walked away from my tiny bed, bit my lip, and opened the door.

I was expecting another scientist – some pretty, slim woman in a white coat who looked like she couldn’t hurt a fly but would proceed to put me through the most grueling physical tests known to man until I collapsed at the end of the day.

Not what I got, though.

I hadn’t seen Tom Walker since I’d arrived. Now the bastard stood there and stared at me with that same nonplussed expression.

Tom Walker looked at the world as if it could throw him any number of curveballs and he would throw them back.

He cleared his throat. “You should endeavor to answer your door quicker.”

I hadn’t sassed anyone for three days. That was a real, genuine achievement for someone with lips as big as mine. My sense of self-preservation, as mentioned previously, had kicked in the second I’d been dragged in these doors. But there was something about Tom Walker’s pretty face that goaded me. “I answered the door in 20 seconds. What do you want, 10?”

“Yep,” he said, not picking up my sarcasm at all.

I twitched. I stared over his shoulder and down the corridor. There must’ve been something leading about my expression. Slowly, he turned over his shoulder and stared in the same direction. “There are approximately 30 locked doors between you and the outside of the facility. Then there are several reinforced walls.”

I bristled. “I’m not thinking of escaping.”

He looked right at me. Again he used that gaze on me that made me feel as if he was stripping me down with his eyes.

I’d swiftly gotten over my attraction for Tom. Sure, he still had that same pert butt and chiseled jaw, but his personality was, shall we say, like a frigging wall.

“No, Nadine, you’re not thinking of escaping, are you? Because you’re far too smart for that. You know how this world works. You work for us now, and you will work for us until one of two things happens.”

I snarled. “I die, or I die?”

“You are relieved from duty, or the Federal Police are dissolved.”

I made a face. Dissolved? Who the hell would dissolve the Federal Police? They were part of the constitution.

I opened my mouth, but it was clear Tom had no intention of answering my questions. “You’re with me,” he snapped efficiently as he turned hard on his boot and walked forward.

He was in a strange mishmash of clothes. He had a pair of dark chinos on, a white shirt, and military boots.

If I’d been in a cheeky mood, I would’ve pointed out he looked like a hodgepodge.

I didn’t know what kind of mood I was in, but as I walked behind him, I reminded myself it mattered more what kind of mood he was in. There was a stiffness to his movements – heck, a stiffness to his whole personality. As he walked me forward, it looked as if he was about to lead me into war.

“Am I going to go through more tests today?” I asked.

“You’re coming out on the field.”

“What? I was led to believe it would take months before you guys let me out.”

“You’re not a standard recruit, Nadine. You already know how to practice as a magician, and I fancy you already know your way around the streets, too.”

I spread my teeth. I wouldn’t call it a smile. Nobody this side of a deranged psychopath would call that move charming or friendly in any way.

Over the last three days, I’d had a lot of time to think, in between being thrown around like the military equivalent of a ragdoll, that is. And in that time, I’d accepted that no matter what happened from this point on, my life would never be the same again. I wouldn’t be going back to nonna’s house for fresh pasta every Friday. I wouldn’t be helping my cousins up their speed and agility.

I’d be lucky if I was allowed to see them again.

My skills and my training – and worse, my family knowledge and connections – would now be used for the Man.

I naturally curled a hand into a fist, pumping it hard and rubbing it against the fabric of my nondescript pants.

While Tom looked like he’d been dressed by a military pen pusher, I looked like I’d been dug out of some institution. I was in nondescript blue hospital pants, a nondescript blue hospital tunic, and, to match it all and seal off the outfit, nondescript blue slippers.

I didn’t even have my pendant on me.

Tom, in keeping with his form – even if I’d only spent a handful of hours cumulatively in his presence – did not say a word to me as he walked me down the corridors.

We went into a section I’d never been before, and predictably, as he strode past with me in his wake, everyone stared my way.

Though I’d very much been taken out of my comfort zone, there were aspects of my personality that would never die. The ability to stare a stranger in the eye when they ogled me was one such ability. As I strode behind Tom, in my paper hospital clothes, I made myself look like I belonged here and that even if I walked around naked with a bow tie on, I wouldn’t give a damn.

We finally reached some kind of room, and Tom led me in.

I didn’t know what I was expecting. What I got was some kind of armory.

Though we Russos were one of the more prolific families on the south side of the wall, we didn’t have that many weapons. We weren’t that kind of family. I’d seen collections of guns before, though – guns and every other magical weapon you could think of.

But this?

I couldn’t stop myself from letting out a little gasp. I’d never seen more gear in all my life.

Tom strode past shelves of guns of every size you could think of down to tiny handguns and up to massive shoulder-mounted grenade launchers.

And the guns were only just the beginning. Behind them were rows upon rows of magical items.

My gaze quickly skipped past the weaponry and locked on those talismans.

I didn’t have a set of cards on me, and as I said, they’d already taken away my necklace. That didn’t matter. In my bones, I was still a practitioner, even if I had nothing at my fingertips to show that. I could feel the concentrated magic coming off those various devices. It felt like going from a dry desert only to plunge into the Pacific Ocean.

Nothing could stop a tight shiver from tracing along my spine, racing up my shoulders, and cascading into my jaw. “What the hell?”

Tom strode right up to the final shelf of magic weapons. “You will respect your devices. You will not allow them to be damaged. You will—” he began, clearly about to read me the property disclaimer for every device in here.

I ignored him. Heck, he could have run back, grabbed up a gun, and shoved it into my stomach, and I would’ve still ignored him. Every sense I had locked on that final row of magical devices. They were card sets.

I stared at them, my back tingling with excitement, my stomach rigid with anticipation, and my breath nothing more than a thin wheeze as every muscle contracted and locked me to the spot with awe.

Like I’d said before – in my job as a Russo, I’d come across some pretty crazy card packs. I’d seen the highest military grade stuff – the kind of packs that would make a kid’s playing set look like a speck of dust compared to a planet.

This stuff?

I reached out a hand, immediately going for the pack right at the end of the shelf. It was jet black and encased in a box that looked as if it was a black hole come to life.

I didn’t get to yank that pack off the shelf. Tom grabbed my wrist. It was exactly the same move he’d used on me back on the bus. It was the kind of grip that told you no matter what you did, you would never get past it.

“If you’d been listening to me,” he growled, “you would’ve heard that you don’t get this pack. You get that pack.” He shrugged right back to the beginning of the shelf.

Reluctantly, I tore my gaze off that unspeakably cool jet-black playing set. I let my eyes tick along the equally cool but slightly less powerful sets alongside it until I settled right on the pack he was indicating.

… It was standard – the kind of pack I could buy with a couple hundred bucks at a magic supply store.

I think my expression must’ve looked as if someone had tried to stamp on my face. “What?”

“You need to prove yourself out in the field before we trust you with proper weaponry. Now grab that pack and come with me.”

I stared at him as if I was a kid and he’d just chucked my favorite toys in a bin. Clearing my throat, I shifted out of his grip, grabbed up the standard playing pack, and somehow still managed a smile as I twisted it around in my grip, threw it up, and caught it again.

Back on the bus, I’d said that every time I grabbed a pack, it was like returning home. Sure, I felt like I was cheated considering there were packs in this room more powerful than all the ones I’d ever used put together, but I couldn’t deny the rush I got as my fingers settled on this pack’s case.

It momentarily washed the last three days away and reminded me that, with just a little spark of magic, anything was possible.

“This way,” Tom barked. “We don’t have much time.”

I made a face as I trundled after him. Heck, I made several faces at him. I snarled, really curling my lips up high as I let him know that he was a goddamn bastard for not letting me at least touch that other pack. I also frowned. “What do you mean we’re running out of time? Where are we going, anyway?”

“To investigate a murder.”

I really did make a face now. My lips stiffened, my cheeks drooped down, and my brow compressed hard over my eyes. If you’d been an emotion expert, you would’ve concluded that my expression was one part disgusted anger to one part stomach-kicking fear.

I might’ve been a mob girl all my life, but we did not kill. We protected, remember? And though everyone on the Northside thought we were murderers, we weren’t.

I hadn’t come across many murdered bodies – excluding people who’d been caught up in terrorist attacks. I could count them on one hand, in fact.

Every single time, I had personally tracked down the bastard who’d committed the murder and seen to it that justice had been served.

I had a real thing about people who used their power on others to rob them of their frigging life. Stealing was one thing. Threatening, another. Actually taking someone’s right to exist?

Bastards.

Tom paused. He turned around and looked at me. It was like for the first time he noticed that I was still in hospital wear. “You need to change out of that.”

I looked at him pointedly. And heck, considering I was in a cheeky mood, I stared at his pants, shirt, then face. “Unless you’re gonna give me your clothes, I don’t have anything to change into.”

A part of me expected the federal agent to snap at me for that snarky comment.

Rather than pull me up, he snorted. “My clothes wouldn’t fit you, Nadine.”

“So taking them off is on the cards, then?” I said way before I thought about what I was doing.

It took a second for my brain to catch up to my fat mouth.

Holy shit, had I really said that?

Sure, the guy was hot, but he was very much my master and I was very much not in a position to push his buttons.

He let out a soft chuckle and that was it. He jammed his finger over his shoulder. “Clothes are that way.”

I turned a little too quickly, hoping to hide my flush. I shifted off in the direction he’d pointed, walking around tall shelves stacked with guns until I saw something that belonged in a high school drama cupboard and not a Federal Police lockup. There were rows upon rows upon rows of clothes. There was everything you could imagine, too, from white pants that wouldn’t look amiss on a billionaire’s yacht, to a sequined dress and a feather boa. “What the hell?” I muttered under my breath as I strode over, grabbed up the sequined dress, and let my fingers slip over the smooth metal.

I let out a chuckle as I continued to walk along the row. It honestly looked like this was a dress-up cupboard – a really big one.

“Just pick some casual clothes and get changed,” Tom snapped.

“What, here?” My voice tightened.

“Change room’s over there,” he said in a completely neutral voice.

Yep, of course the change room was over there. I could see it out of the corner of my eye, couldn’t I? So why did I keep acting so awkwardly around this idiot?

As I walked along the rows of clothes, I found a set of suit pants and a shirt. I pulled them out, ensured my blush had damped down, then turned swiftly. I held them up. “This casual enough for you?”

He snorted. “They look like office wear.”

“Well we are the police, aren’t we?”

“No, I’m a Federal Agent. You,” he did that thing where he looked right through me again with those gold-flecked green eyes, “are my rookie.”

“Thanks for reminding me,” I said in the kind of tone that was halfway polite and halfway totally goddamn sarcastic. “But this is my first job as a rookie,” I said pointedly. “What exactly am I expected to wear?”

“That’ll do,” he growled. “Just put them on and hurry up.”

I opened my mouth to tell him he could keep his pants on, but I’d already commented enough about his pants today.

Hooking the clothes under my arm, I walked to the change room and quickly dressed.

There was a mirror, and I dressed with my back to it. Finally, after a few deep breaths, I turned and faced my reflection. As I smoothed my hand up and down the shirt and pants, the strangest frown marked my lips. It was like it came from my childhood self, rising through my history like an unstoppable storm. It was one that told me that I had fallen so damn far. The Nadine Russo who’d grown up in the bosom of her family would never have been able to imagine this.

But hey, this was only just getting started, and I had no clue what would happen next.

“I told you to hurry up,” Tom growled.

“Okay, okay,” I said as I shoved out of the door.

I just stopped myself from doing a little twirl. I was hardly in a romantic comedy here. Tom did not give a shit what I looked like. I didn’t look that good, anyway. I didn’t have the kind of figure that matched the plain up and down lines of suit pants and a shirt.

“It’ll do,” he said with a critical eye. Then he shrugged toward the wall. “Let’s go.”

I looked from him to the wall. I opened my mouth to let out a wisecrack but stopped. Every time I tried to wisecrack, it always backfired. “Are we going to walk through the wall? Blocks of concrete rarely get out of your way politely.”

He snorted. “You’ll find that as a federal agent, most things get out of your way long before you reach them.” With that cryptic statement, he turned hard on his boot and marched over to the wall. Just before he reached it, he brought up his left hand and ran two fingers from the base of his wrist down to the crook of his elbow.

I’d shoved my playing set into my pocket. I hadn’t even pulled them out of their case yet. That meant nothing to me. Like I’d said, I was the kind of highly trained, crazy card shark who could practice with my whole body. I knew how to tune into a card no matter where it was on my form. So there was nothing stopping me from realizing that Tom was practicing magic.

Sure, anyone with a functioning set of eyes would be able to see that, but as a magician, I felt it, and importantly, I sensed his power.

Back on the bus, he’d used little more than his strength to tackle that terrorist. Now I realized Tom had more than strength up his sleeve. Quite literally.

The guy was a body magician. He could write spells and practice power right on his own skin.

A tingle of electricity shot up my spine and into the back of my skull.

Body magicians were extraordinarily strong. I knew that, because one of the first true marks I’d tracked down had been one. The guy had also been my ex-boyfriend. Let me tell you, a body magician was a lover like no other. They were also enemies like no other. No matter what position you thought you had a body magician in, if they had access to their skin and the capacity to draw a symbol on it, they had the ability to fight back. You could cuff them, but it wouldn’t matter. They could hook up a toe and start drawing on the side of their leg. You could tie their feet together, but even then, there’d always be their tongue. Short of using a few tricky magical spells to stick their tongue to the base of their mouth, a body magician could use their wicked lips to cast anything.

I was more than thankful for the fact that Tom had his back to me as he cast that spell. He couldn’t see the way my pupils dilated and my interest in him doubled.

You know how I’d said I’d gotten over my crush on him? Well I sure had – the guy was clearly an asshole, and he was clearly in control of me. Not my point. Now I knew exactly why I was so damn attracted to his hands.

Pull yourself together, idiot, I commented to myself as Tom finished casting the spell.

The wall in front of us started to move. I heard some kind of mechanism initiate from within, and these great booming shakes echoed through the room. It sounded exactly like a mountain getting ready to move, because that was precisely what it was. The wall was approximately 10-meters high and about 30-meters across. It was not a simple piece of engineering to move a structure like that. But with nothing more than a spell, Tom initiated its motors, and the thing grated out of his way.

I let the powerful shudders vibrating through the room distract me from what I’d just learned about Tom.

And it was easy enough to be distracted by the view the receding wall revealed.

We walked out into a car park.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not usually taken head over heels by the view of parked cars. But this was not your ordinary motor lot. This was the Federal Police lockup. Just as I’d walked through row after row of every single conceivable weapon you could imagine, lined up in front of me looked like every vehicle that had ever been made. From tiny, irritating two-seater cars, to massive trucks, to luxury vehicles the likes of which I’d only ever seen in movies.

I pressed my lips together and whistled. “Well damn, I would not want to be paying the insurance on these,” I muttered.

Tom snorted. “Then don’t crash them.”

I frowned. “What does that mean? If I crash, do I have to pay?”

“It means that you have a lot to learn about being a federal agent. Now come on.”

We reached a car. Disappointingly, it wasn’t one of the massive mega trucks, and neither was it one of the ludicrously expensive sports cars. It was a relatively official looking midrange sedan.

I frowned. “What’s this thing’s top speed? Its engine looks tiny.”

“Depends who’s driving it,” he commented as he shifted over to the driver’s side and jumped in.

I paused. It wasn’t the fact that he couldn’t muster up the gentlemanly skills to open the door for me. I hated that chauvinistic bullshit anyway. I paused because of the tone he’d used to say that.

It didn’t matter what the size of its engine was, ha? It just mattered how you used it?

Enough with the innuendo, I thought to myself pointedly as I got into the passenger seat.

I didn’t have to do my seatbelt up. As soon as he shoved the key into the ignition, a harness shifted down from the side of the seat and wrapped around me.

I jolted. “What the hell?”

“Safety first.”

“Sure. Where are we going, anyway? You mentioned something about a murder.”

“You don’t need that fearful tone. I know you’ve dealt with murder scenes before.”

My tone had been perfectly even when I’d said the word murder. Or at least, I thought it had. Ticking my mind back, I remembered it had tightened ever so slightly. Tom was clearly the kind of empath who could recognize when someone was feeling even a flutter of nerves.

I frowned. “How the hell do you know that I’ve dealt with murders before?”

“I know everything about you, Nadine Russo,” he said as he turned the car around and started to drive up a ramp.

It was long, and I couldn’t even see the light of day until we drove around a corner and there, in front of us, was one hell of a door.

It started to open as we approached, and I was treated to the sight of yet another expensive technological marvel at the hands of the Federal Police.

As I pressed a cheek against the window and tilted my head up, I saw magical sparks rupturing from a motor unit and crackling along the top of the door, indicating it possessed not just physical size, but insane magical protection too.

The door, however, could not distract me from that veiled threat.

I frowned and tilted my head back down. “What the hell do you mean you know everything about me?”

“You’re a top class card shark who can practice with her whole body, but you’ve never held onto a proper job – unless you refer to working for the Russo mob as respectable employment, that is.”

I was used to people trying to deliberately push my buttons. Heck, the last three days had been all about these a-holes pushing me to my limits.

Usually, if I was thinking straight, I could let some dickhead insult me all he wanted, and I would keep my cool.

Not today. Not with a comment like that.

“What, you think protecting people isn’t a job worth having?” I snarled.

He chuckled and turned to me just as the car shifted out through those massive doors.

I could see one heck of a sight out of the corner of my eye. It was the massive compound of the Federal Police base. Tom had been right – there was a huge wall protecting the compound from the city beyond. I’d seen pictures of the outside of the Federal Police base, but never anything from inside it. I should have been gaping at it with all my worth. Instead, I stared at him, my jaw hardening.

“The mob doesn’t protect people, Nadine. You look like you’re smart enough to know that.”

“And what, the Federal Police—” I began. I stopped. I swear the ghost of my mother rose up inside me and slapped me right across my face, reminding me where I was and who I was talking to.

I’d said too much. He looked at me pointedly as he negotiated the car through several checkpoints. “Yes, I think the Federal Police protect people. We protected the people on that bus, and we’ll protect people again today when we solve this murder.”

I pressed my lips tightly shut. 1001 insults rose in my mind like a Leviathan ready to strangle the sky.

I’d protected the people on that bus. Yeah, sure, technically he’d taken down the terrorist, but I could have dealt with the guy on my own. I’d been the one who’d figured out the bus driver was dodgy, too. And though no one had bothered to keep me up to speed over the past three days, I’d heard several scientists mutter about the fact the driver had revealed her ties to the Red Group.

And heck, while that was important, it wasn’t even my major point. If this guy thought that we would solve this murder and bring peace today, he was more idiotic than he looked.

Nobody brought justice to the north side of the wall. They were above it.

He held my gaze, not shifting it once as he turned the car through the last checkpoint and joined a busy highway.

I didn’t snarl at the idiot to pay attention to the road. As a body magician, he had all sorts of navigational spells at his fingertips – literally. He could scratch one into the leather case of the steering wheel and proceed to drive with his eyes closed.

“What are you thinking?” he asked directly.

He wasn’t about to get touchy-feely with me. He was about to lure me into an argument. Tom might look like a brick head from one angle, but from another you could see this guy was well versed in getting people to admit to their crimes.

“I’m kind of hungry,” I lied.

“About this job, Nadine. What are you thinking about the Federal Police?”

It was a hell of a question. And it was a hell of a path to lead me down. Though I wanted to tell myself that these goons wouldn’t have spent the last three days training me and outfitting me if they didn’t want to use me, I had to remember that if I stepped out of line, there was nothing stopping them from throwing me in jail.

I clenched my seatbelt harness with a white-knuckled grip. “Nothing.”

He snorted. “Terrible liar. I know what you’re thinking, Nadine. It’s the same thing everybody on your side of the wall thinks. You’re under the impression that no one polices the Northside and that, no matter what they do, they won’t be brought to justice.”

I stared out of the window. Heck, I put so much frigging focus into gazing out of the window, Tom could’ve imploded, and I wouldn’t have noticed.

“The thing about justice is it has many forms.” With that comment, he turned back and concentrated on driving.

… That was it. He didn’t draw me further into the conversation. If he’d pushed just a little bit more, I would’ve exploded and told him exactly what I thought about the Federal Police, the Northside, the government, him, and every other problem I had with the world today. I would have fumed, and it would have been more than enough for him to drag me off to jail.

… But he didn’t push.

And what the hell did it mean that justice had many forms? I’d spent a lifetime doling out justice. It had exactly one form. When someone did something wrong, you punished them – end of story.

We descended into total silence as he drove.

If I hadn’t been so absorbed by him, I would’ve recognized one very important fact. I was on the Northside. Though the Federal Police compound was built inside a section of the wall, we’d quickly taken a highway that swept us far into the North.

I hadn’t been to the North since the breakdown of the Accords.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see clean towers – startling feats of engineering reaching into the sky like crystal fingers.

Even the horizon was different. Everything was dirty, scummy, and frigging glum in the South. Up here? It looked like there was nothing separating you from heaven.

Yet I couldn’t turn around and stare at the clean buildings and expensive cars we passed. I locked all my attention on Tom. I didn’t draw him into a conversation. I started to use the skills my mama had taught me. She hadn’t been the greatest magician. She’d been one hell of a people reader, though. Back before the Accords had broken, she’d studied journalism, and she’d made it her life’s work to uncover people’s secrets. The first rule of doing that, according to her at least, was to uncover the language of their bodies. If you learned to read someone’s body language, you learned to read them, period.

I didn’t exactly have free reign to stare at Tom, though. He quickly cleared his throat. “If you have something to say to me, I suggest you just say it. I’m not used to rookies staring at me.”

I hadn’t been gazing at him obviously – I’d been watching him out of the corner of my eye – but Tom had still picked up on it.

I grabbed my seatbelt harder and straightened. “Why did you pick me, anyway?” I said, quickly realizing I had to come up with a sensible sounding question to change his focus.

“Like I said, we’d been watching you for a while. You’re a good card shark, and you have the kind of skills we need.”

“Exactly how long have you been watching me? You said you knew I’ve dealt with murders,” I said, this time completely controlling my tone so it would take a frigging mind reader to pick up my tense emotion. “Have you guys been watching me for years?”

He snorted. “Try weeks. This position only became available four weeks ago.”

I frowned at him. “The position for a card shark, you mean? Don’t the Federal Police have other card sharks?”

“Yes.”

“So why do you need me?”

He looked at me. Dammit – he was doing it again. His gaze undressed me, but not in a sexy way. In the kind of way that made you feel so frigging vulnerable that you wanted to run and hide under your covers. I settled for grabbing my harness harder and tightening my jaw.

“Because you see things differently.”

I frowned really hard now. “What, because I have the perspective of someone from the South? Hardly something you need up here where the streets are clean and everyone’s wallets are fat.”

“You do what it takes to get the job done.”

I sliced my gaze over to him. “I’m sure that’s the same with you.” I might’ve only known him for a few days, but I was sure of that assessment.

“Not in the same way you work. It doesn’t matter, anyway. That’s in the past. This is the present.”

“And now I’m your rookie, ha? So just shut up, keep my nose down, and do as you say?”

He snorted. As we reached a tricky turn, he pulled his gaze off the road. He swept it toward me in a slow, direct move I would never forget. It felt like being ignored your whole life only for the most important man in existence to notice you.

“We,” he said, emphasizing that word, “do what we need to serve justice. Now read your file.”

I squeezed my eyes together and shook my head. “Sorry, file? Why don’t you ever just explain things properly?”

“You’ll quickly learn that to thrive in this job, you have to think quickly. Now reach into the glove compartment. The file of this case is inside. Memorize it. We’ll reach the Estate Apartments in five minutes.”

Though all I wanted to do was snap at him that he could have mentioned this earlier, as five minutes was hardly long enough to memorize a file, I settled for shooting him a snide look as I nevertheless reached forward, opened the glove compartment, and yanked out a massive manila file.

I wasn’t kidding – this thing was a chunky wad of paper.

Great.

I settled it on my lap and opened it.

The first few entries were photos. One was of a heck of a startling woman.

She looked as if she’d been crafted by a graphic designer. And hey, that wouldn’t be too far off the mark. With enough money – and importantly, with enough pressure to look perfect – there existed any number of modern technologies and magic objects you could use to craft your visage like a Baroque painter perfecting the image of some nymph.

I read the bio on the woman, Celena. She was the daughter of a magic supplier. Not just any magic supplier, though. Richard Bowen.

I pressed my lips together and whistled. “Damn.”

Tom didn’t say anything – he just kept driving. Fortunately he was paying attention to the road. Or at least he nominally was. His eyes were on it, but something told me his mind was elsewhere.

I almost allowed myself to get distracted by trying to figure out exactly what had stolen his thoughts away, but I settled back into the file instead. I leafed through it. The other photos were of Celena Bowen’s boyfriend – a rich playboy called Fred Owen – and the people who lived in the apartments around her.

The wads of paper were personality assessments, CVs, and summaries of each person’s life.

And then, right at the back, there was a photo of a corpse.

Not a person. There was nothing left of the corpse to call it a person. There was a shape of a body, sure, but that's it.

It looked as if someone had taken a person and burnt them with magical fire for hours.

I might’ve been trying to look tough, but that didn’t stop me from closing the file with a snap, nausea rising through my belly.

Tom noticed immediately. “You’ll have to learn to hold your stomach. You’re going to see that corpse in person, after all. That’s where we’re headed. Though the crime scene was found yesterday, we’ve kept it as is.”

“Why? So you can break me in and ensure this rookie doesn’t crack at her first murder scene?”

“Like I said, we already know you’ve dealt with death before. I really don’t think you’re the kind of hardened character who’s gonna lose her stomach at the sight of a burnt corpse. The reason we haven’t touched the scene is we have no clue who that corpse was and no clue how they were murdered. We’ve completed every forensic report, but we’ve got nothing.”

I made a face. Reluctantly, I opened the file and flipped back to the photo of the corpse. My stomach felt as if someone grabbed it, shoved it in a blender, and mixed it with acid. I didn’t gag – I let my eyes trace down that horrendous picture, my interest locking on the degree of burns to the corpse’s body.

The flesh was charred black in places, but in other places, it was this gooey green-white.

Fortunately though I had dealt with murders, I’d never dealt with a victim with magic burns on this level. That didn’t mean I wasn’t familiar with them. I’d seen burns a heck of a lot during the breakdown after the Accords.

I’d been unlucky enough to see a corpse similar to this after a combined magic explosion. I couldn’t stop my mind from ticking back to everything I’d learned that day.

I brought up a hand and scratched along my top lip. “There’s no reason that burns like this would stop you from identifying the body.”

I could sense Tom’s interest doubling. Don’t ask me how – it wasn’t as if he turned to me. He didn’t stare at me as if I was, yet again, a specimen for him to poke. I just knew his curiosity rose.

“How do you know that?” he asked.

“My grandmother was a magic medic back during the war. She dealt with a lot of various injuries. She always made a point of teaching us kids magic first-aid. I’m no doctor or anything,” I uselessly pointed out, “but there’s no reason those magic burns should stop you from figuring out who this is. The skeleton looks like it’s intact. And even if the teeth are gone, you should be able to scrape DNA off the bones with modern magical extraction techniques.”

“Correct. Or at least, you would be correct if you weren’t wrong.”

I made a suitably confused face at that. I didn’t bother to point out that Tom was doing it again. Why did he have to say such confusing bullshit? Why couldn’t he just be direct like me?

“Ordinarily, you would be right. There is nothing preventing a magic burns victim from being identified as long as a part of their skeleton remains. But this time, we don’t know what we’re looking at.”

My cheeks scrunched together. “What do you mean?”

“Forensic pathologists have looked over the corpse at the scene, and no matter what they do, they cannot identify it.”

“So who’s missing, then? You obviously know whose apartment it is,” I said as I gestured to the file in my lap. “And I’m assuming you’ve got suspects, or there wouldn’t be so many photos in here.”

“The apartment belongs to Celena Bowen. She was living there with her partner.”

“So who’s missing, then?”

“Every single person in the file.”

I let my lips drop apart. I stopped.

I opened the file again, and I leafed back to the picture of Richard Bowen. I winced as I looked at him. “You serious? Richard Bowen is missing?”

“Yes.”

My mind boggled at the mere possibility. Bowen was about the richest man in Terra City. You know before how I’d pointed out that those on the Northside had found a way to profit from war and peace? Yeah, Richard Bowen would be right up there with the other bastards who’d perfected that art. The thing about magic supplies is people tend to need more weapons and talismans in times of distress than safety. His profits would’ve shot up the second the Accords broke.

That didn’t stop me from frowning goddamn hard as I stared down at his picture. “So you can’t even get off the shape of the corpse and the relative size of its musculature whether it’s a man or a woman?”

“No, we can’t,” Tom said simply.

I just shook my head, confused. “That makes no sense. The corpse is burnt, sure, but it still has a form.”

“Just wait and see for yourself.”

My stomach kicked. I sure as hell didn’t like the look in his eyes or his unreadable tone. And heck, I really didn’t like the fact that we’d just reached the crime scene. Without another word, he pulled up to the side of the street.

I’d been so absorbed by the conversation that I hadn’t realized we’d driven right into one of the most expensive sections of the North.

A massive, pristine tower block pushed high into the sky beside me.

It looked as if it had been crafted out of frigging crystal. It was stunning in every way. And yet, it gave me the impression of paint someone had slapped over a permanent stain.

“We’re here,” Tom announced uselessly as he turned the car off, retracted the harnesses, and jumped up onto the street.

He didn’t come around to open my door for me. He didn’t need to. On autopilot, I opened it and clambered out, never shifting my head down as I stared up at that tower. It engaged my every sense as my eyes swept across it.

One of the first things I noticed was that the air was clean. In the South, smog choked everything. You never opened your window unless you particularly wanted an asthma attack. Here? It was so clean, it was like I’d shoved my face into a bottle of oxygen at a hospital.

More than that, it was clean underfoot. As I took a step toward the tower, my boot didn’t crunch over old cigarette butts, discarded food containers, and general muck. It didn’t crunch against anything. The pavement was so smooth and clean, it looked as if it’d just been laid last night.

“You’re here,” I heard someone mutter from further down the street.

I finally tugged my head down from that sparkling spire and stared across at a police line and two officers standing in front of it. The line blazed in front of the doors to the building. Far from tape flickering in the wind, it was a magical line that blocked the doors off. It was a thick band that looked like nothing more than a laser erected several meters in front of the massive brass doorway.

It was a heck of a lot more than a laser, though. I had enough experience with those kinds of lines to know that unless you were coded to be let through, if your skin touched one, it would hurt.

It would give you magic burns, to be precise. And that just made my mind tick back to that photo in the back of the file.

What the hell was going on here?

Richard Bowen was missing? Why the heck had that not hit the news?

I stopped myself immediately. It probably had hit the news. I’d been living with my head under a rock for the past three days, and my master had only chosen to drag me out into the open because I could be useful to him.

With that cynical thought ringing through my head, I followed Tom through the line. I didn’t even flinch as I passed the police laser. My mind was being drawn back into the case. Luckily enough, the laser didn’t reject me, gouging an inch-deep burn through my stomach.

We walked into a clean atrium.

I kept saying everything was clean, but come on, it was a sharp departure from the world I was used to living in. Trash wasn’t piled up on the sides of the street and everything wasn’t marked with this impossible-to-remove gritty gray-black substance from the constant smog.

It looked like I’d walked into the pages of a fairytale.

… Except a fairytale where there was an unidentifiable burnt corpse several floors up.

Tom strode ahead of me, as quick as a flash of light. It was clear from the rigid movements of his back and the pounding beat of his feet that he wanted to get this done as quickly as he could.

When he’d driven me here from the federal base, he’d kept repeating that we didn’t have much time.

Why?

Sure, I got the importance of catching a killer – my Russo blood would always understand why you needed to act fast to contain threats. But Tom was moving like we had an immediate deadline flashing in front of us.

I frowned hard at him as I pushed into a jog to catch up. I was a good six inches shorter than him. It was enough that as I fell into step behind him, his body cast me into shadow as we walked under a powerful set of hanging lights.

Everything about this building was beautifully crafted. Though it was modern and looked as if it couldn’t be more than two years old, the architect had obviously been inspired by the Art Nouveau movement. There were crafted metal arches lodged into the walls, and the windows were these beautiful Deco affairs that retained all the feel of cathedral windows without any of the religious symbology.

“This is the floor,” he said as we walked up a set of stairs and stopped.

He didn’t need to say that. I felt it. As we walked up that last step, something slammed into my gut. It was this sense that dark magic had been practiced only meters away. The kind of dark magic that gouged a frigging hole in the fabric of space around it.

I wasn’t a superstitious thinker. Okay, okay, I get the irony – I practiced actual magic. Not my point. There was a science to magic, if you let yourself believe it. But there was also a seductive side. With its almost untold power, if you didn’t keep your head on your shoulders, you could start thinking the strangest things could affect your practice. The Internet abounded with myths of objects that could double your skills or recipes that could increase your power and give you precisely what you wanted.

Some of it worked. There really were charms that could increase your power. But it was a momentary thing. And nothing – nothing could ever give you what you wanted for free. There was no universal panacea. And power, though it could be increased, could not be increased without sacrifice.

I was getting way ahead of myself, wasn’t I? My point was that as I walked down that corridor, I felt this sense that some seriously dark shit had gone down here. I didn’t believe in things I couldn’t see, but I couldn’t deny my imagination as it kicked into overdrive.

I didn’t even need Tom to stop in front of a door for me to know that the apartment through it was the one the murder had gone down in. My back stiffened as if someone had shoved a hand into my skull, grabbed my vertebrae, and pulled.

Sweat slicked my top lip, slid between my shoulders, and collected in the webbing of my fingers.

Tom didn’t say a word as he brought up a hand, rolled up the sleeve of his left arm, and started tracing something on his skin.

As he practiced body magic, the air tingled with it.

The door unlocked. I’d never forget that particular click for the rest of my life. It was very much like a door opening to a future I could no longer control.

“Through here,” Tom said needlessly.

We walked in.

The apartment was stunning. It was massive, too. It was way, way larger than the footprint allotted for it. I could tell why. Just by tracing my gaze along the walls, I could see the magical expansion devices embedded in them.

Sure, you could artificially increase the inside footprint of a building without affecting its outside footprint – if you had enough frigging money, magic, and desire.

Usually devices like that were used on critical infrastructure projects. You know, places where the use of that many resources would be justified. Normal people couldn’t buy one for their living rooms.

As I walked in, my shoes pushed against the unbelievably plush carpet that covered the room. It felt like walking on clouds. And hell, that was appropriate considering one wall of the apartment was nothing but windows, and right out there, you could see across the city and up into the horizon. You could track the weather as it hugged the North. You could also fool yourself into thinking that Terra City was a jewel in this country’s crown. This apartment, after all, did not stare at the wall.

I stood in the center of the room, turning around on the spot as I stared at the furniture. Every single piece looked more expensive than the last. There were bona fide antiques from thousands of years ago. There were dressers made out of wood I’d only ever heard of from history books.

Everything showed mastery. It also revealed the personality of the owner in every shining statue, expensive vase, and rare artwork.

The person who owned this apartment – Celena Bowen – needed other people to know that she was wealthy.

“Body’s in here,” Tom said gruffly.

My stomach tightened.

I didn’t slow down, though. I didn’t even hesitate as I walked behind him.

We entered the bedroom.

It was massive. There were two room expanders lodged into the walls, and they made a space that would probably be only 3 meters by 3 meters into 20 meters by 20 meters.

I had never seen a bedroom so large.

But space – and the opulence dripping off every frigging wall – was irrelevant.

The body lying face down in the middle of the room was the only thing that mattered.

I swear time slowed down as I stared at it. This sharp, nauseating sensation washed over me, rushing through my face and collecting in my stomach.

I wasn’t about to throw up. I was just doing what a decent person does when acknowledging the abhorrence of death.

Tom walked over, got down on a knee, and inspected the corpse. He didn’t dare push any part of his body over a glowing faint red line that encircled the body. It would be some kind of police barrier to ensure that DNA or evidence of any fashion couldn’t contaminate the corpse.

I hesitated, letting my gaze sweep around the room once more before I joined him.

I remained standing as he got comfortable on his knees. He shook his head to the side, a certain kind of frown marching across his lips.

A certain kind, because I couldn’t place it. This wasn’t just a symptom of the greater problem I had reading this man. It was that in this moment, Tom became utterly opaque. If he was nauseated by the sight of the corpse, he didn’t show it. If he was the kind of psychopath who didn’t care about death, he also didn’t show it.

He reached forward and pointed at the corpse’s head. “As you can see, the burns cover their entire body.”

“Sure, I can see that. I can also see,” I began, about to point out that it clearly had to be a woman, because the musculature was lean and the physique small.

The words died on my lips. Because the proportions of the corpse seemed to shift. It wasn’t an immediate thing as if someone had just cast an apparition spell. The image didn’t wobble and snap to a different size. It just changed subtly.

A race of nerves erupted over my back and tingled over my skin as if someone had thrown hot coals over my flesh. “What the hell is that?”

“I told you – we can’t identify who the corpse is.”

“You didn’t tell me that the reason we can’t identify it is because it has… some kind of spell cast on it.”

I took pride in identifying magic. I tended to know exactly what I was looking at. But I had no freaking clue right now.

I pushed down to my knees. I hadn’t wanted to get close to the corpse before – now I couldn’t help it.

I was drawn like a moth to a flame. Before I could reach up a hand and try to settle my fingers on the corpse’s burnt face, Tom leaned in, and once more, he grabbed my wrist.

I felt the fact that he’d recently practiced body magic. A few tingles of the stuff were still trapped in his fingers. They had an impossible-to-describe inviting heat. It was the kind of heat that could thaw you on the coldest, snowiest night. It was also the kind of heat that, if you let it, could burn you to a crisp.

“I wasn’t about to touch the corpse. I appreciate that,” I stabbed a finger at the red line, “is some kind of police divider.”

“Then what were you about to do?”

It was a good question. I was so drawn in by the scene that I wasn’t thinking straight.

Rather than admit that, I shoved my free hand into my pocket. I let it clasp around the card set.

If I’d had the chance in the car, and I hadn’t been thoroughly distracted, I would’ve explored the set then.

It was a pretty intimate thing for a card shark to grow accustomed to a new set. It was like our second skin, after all. Your cards, if used right, were an extension of your own body. As I grabbed them up now, I felt that predictable tingle of excitement escaping over my body. The tingle that reminded me that, if I just used magic – and by extension, power – right, any future was possible.

Tom reluctantly let go of my wrist. He kept a frown pressed over his face as he watched me. That frown was a warning. While he was happy to see what I was about to do, if I interfered with the corpse, presumably he would grab me and enfold me in that grip once more.

… Though a part of me wouldn’t mind that, the rest focused on connecting to the pack.

It would take an ordinary card shark a few days to learn the ins and outs of a new set. It took me approximately several seconds. I didn’t even have to look at the cards as I grabbed them out of the case. All I needed was to let my fingers slip across their smooth surfaces. Then, in a rush, I was in.

I felt every card. My mind connected to their unique magic. I pushed into them, and I let them push into me. It was like throwing open the doors to your heart and letting your body spill out until the boundaries of your self crumbled and you expanded.

I pushed my lips together and forced a breath through them. Still not looking at my cards, I selected a single one. I brought it up and spun it in my hand. It started off touching my fingers, but with a crackle of magic, the card lifted as if someone had grabbed it with an invisible hand. It hovered a few centimeters above my thumb until it came to an abrupt stop.

Tom’s eyes were on me. Tom’s every sense was on me. You didn’t need to look at him to know he was using that gaze on me again. But rather than dressing me down this time, it felt like he was lost in his own little world. It felt like as he looked at me, he saw something I could not see.

“Okay, here we go,” I muttered, losing track of the situation – Tom, this opulent room, the last three days, everything. I pushed my mind into the card.

It was a scanning card.

Every single set had its own specific cards. Each card was different in a pack, and while they could cast their own unique spells, you could also combine them.

“We already had a card shark use one of those,” he pointed out.

I didn’t turn to him or acknowledge him in any way. Sure, he might’ve had an ordinary card shark try to scan this corpse – but we’d both ascertained that I wasn’t ordinary.

He had clearly picked me for a reason, and it was time to show him what that reason was.

I flicked the card out of my fingers, and it rose into the air, engulfed in sparks of magic. It easily passed the police line and hovered above the corpse.

“Don’t contaminate it with magic,” he growled.

Again I didn’t react. I focused on that scanning card as, with my free hand, I clenched my fingers into a fist. I dragged my nails over my palm, finding familiar indents as I settled my nails into a specific position.

The scanning card started to spin faster and faster. More magic wafted off it, crackles escaping down and little wisps of yellow smoke rising up.

“Don’t contaminate—” he began.

“I know what I’m doing. As we both ascertained, this isn’t my first murder scene.” I didn’t measure my tone. I snapped at Tom like he was the rookie and I was the seasoned detective.

I didn’t let a single spark from that card fall onto the corpse. I redirected the sparks outward until they tumbled past the police line and scattered innocently over the floor.

I half closed my eyes and concentrated. As that scanning card spun, it initiated the spell trapped within the apparently simple cardboard.

I started to see the room around me. Okay, it’s not like I’d walked in here with my eyes closed. I’d seen it before. But I saw how it really was.

Everything became illuminated in a glow. Blue lines traced along the carpet – along every damn fiber – up the walls, across the bed, and importantly, over to the corpse.

Tom obviously accepted that I wasn’t about to mess with the scene and that all he had to do was kneel there and shut up. He didn’t distract me as I tuned into those blue lines.

While they were detailed around the rest of the room, when it came to the corpse, they looked like nothing more – fittingly – then a chalk outline.

It was like someone had taken all of the data the scanning spell should reveal and rubbed it away.

I didn’t even bother to frown. I’d expected that.

I wasn’t done scanning yet, was I?

Again I didn’t even bother to look at my cards. Instinctively, I selected the right one, and with a charge of magic, I sent it spinning above the corpse. This one crackled a deep green. It surged with power, licks of flame spinning off it and twisting high above like it was a mini fire tornado.

Though my eyes were only half opened and were totally focused on the corpse and my scanning spell, I had just enough awareness left over to see Tom’s expression. His cheeks were slightly contracted, his eyes opening a little wider than usual. Was that awe reflecting in the gruff detective’s gaze?

As my second spell took root, it combined with the first scanning spell.

If Tom had been foolish enough to distract me and ask me what I was doing, I would’ve told him this was a Russo special.

It was time to combine two spells no one else would think of.

Though Vinny B was not a card magician, he was still one of the most creative practitioners I knew. A wordsmith, he cast magic with his mouth – which was pretty appropriate considering Vinny B could talk your ear off in under a minute.

As a wordsmith, he knew novel combinations, and I’d never met someone who could take two seemingly unconnected things, smash them together, and create something that worked. I mean really, Vinny was legendary in our family for inventing the peanut butter chocolate chip strawberry jam pizza. Don’t diss it until you try it, trust me.

Keeping his mouth shut obviously got too hard for Tom, and he cleared his throat. “Just what the hell are you doing?”

“Working,” I growled.

“Let me rephrase my question: tell me what you’re doing,” he said, putting all of his effort into the words tell me.

I sighed, still keeping my eyes half shut as I concentrated on my spells. “That’s a scanning card,” I said with the kind of tone that suggested I was talking to a child.

“Yes, and that,” he jammed his thumb up and indicated the green card, “is a weed spell. That’s the kind of card you’d use if you wanted to spruce up your lawn.”

I snorted. “Know your cards, then, do you?”

“Yes, as I know when someone is wasting my time. I brought you here—”

I didn’t let him finish. I combined the two spells. Literally. I smashed my hands together, and both cards shot into each other. As they connected, magic blasted out sideways.

I was pretty powerful, remember? Which meant that when I imbued my cards with magic, people tended to get out of the way.

As those cards smashed together, jolts of power slammed through the room.

“Dammit,” Tom spat, shoving to his feet, grabbing a hand around my wrist, and clearly intending to pull me up with him. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

I would not be moved. Because I knew exactly what I was doing. My magic discharged, but it didn’t hit anything, and it didn’t contaminate the corpse.

My weed spell intertwined with my scanning spell.

You wouldn’t expect there’d be too many weeds in an apartment on the Northside belonging to the daughter of one of the richest men in the city. I imagined Celena had never even seen a weed.

But here’s the thing – what constitutes a weed comes down to definitions. Weeds are unwanted, unnatural, and there to be removed.

Tom didn’t shift his grip from my wrist, even when it became abundantly clear that I hadn’t just destroyed the room with my incompetence.

“Show me what’s unwanted,” I said, commanding the cards in a strident, powerful tone.

Tom tensed, and I could feel it as his fingers wrapped a little tighter around my wrist.

Though my eyes were only half open, I saw him out of the corner of my vision, and I watched as he finally understood what I was doing.

A slight, impressed smile had a chance to wrap its way around his lips before he swallowed it immediately. “Clever,” he muttered.

Yeah, sure, clever. The words he was looking for was damned impressive. Entire teams of federal agents had gone through here, but they hadn’t thought of doing this, had they?

As my spell took hold, it danced through the room, and blue lines retraced over every object. Including the corpse.

Though someone had clearly cast a spell on the corpse to ensure that it couldn’t be scanned, they’d only removed imprints from the corpse, not the imprints the corpse had left on its environment.

DNA is one thing – the impressions we leave on our environment as human beings another.

This corpse, whoever they’d been when they’d been alive, had had preferences. Deep-seated, personality-defining desires that shaped their world. And there is no more deep-seated preference than the objects, people, and things you wish to remove from your existence. The weeds of your life, to put it another way.

I’m sure you would have gotten from my internal monologue over the past several days that my weeds were firmly rooted in the politics, wealth, and frigging unacceptable privilege of the north side of the wall. I defined myself by what I hated.

It was no different for the corpse.

Green magic crackled over those blue lines. They all converged on the corpse.

“Show me what you can see,” Tom ordered.

It wasn’t a suggestion. His grip tightened, and as a body magician, if he felt like it, he could cast magic with my body. Unpleasant magic. The kind where he could use his force to write a spell into my skin and bones and flesh to trap me in place.

Without a word, I spread my fingers to the side, connected to my cards, and made the spells visible.

I watched as Tom’s eyes opened and he saw the blue and green lines converging over the corpse.

I tried not to swallow a satisfied smile. Why bother? I wanted this bastard to know just how good I was.

Though he didn’t look at me directly, he saw it out of the corner of his eye. “I wouldn’t grin yet. Figuring out what this corpse didn’t like when it was alive is hardly going to help us identify it quickly enough.”

“Quickly enough? Why do you keep acting as if we have an impending deadline?”

“Because somebody was murdered,” he said in the kind of gravelly tone that made me wonder if deep in his belly was some kind of dungeon.

“I get that. And I understand the importance of tracking down a killer quickly. But that doesn’t account for the way you’re acting. Is this coming from the higher-ups? Are they genuinely worried that Richard Bowen is missing?”

“The time you’re spending gas bagging is time you’re wasting.”

This guy wasn’t going to tell me a thing, was he?

If he were a standard employer, this is where I’d threaten the bastard that if he didn’t fess up, I’d walk. There was nowhere to walk to, was there? If I so much as tried to dart out of this room, Tom would either take me down with his insane body magic, or just call every cop in the city.

I hated being backed into a corner. But with no other option, I pushed to my feet and got to work. I strode around the red line, gazing down my nose at the corpse.

It didn’t matter that I walked deliberately through those blue and green lines as they converged over the corpse in the middle of the room. I strode through them with ease, not even a faint tickle alighting over my skin. It was my magic, and I could move through it as I pleased.

It was different for Tom. As he stood up, no doubt to shadow me so I didn’t suddenly trip and face plant his corpse or generally interfere with his crime scene, I watched his shoulders shake.

To a body magician, another practitioner’s magic was a deeply personal thing. I’d heard that some body magicians could smell another practitioner off nothing more than a spark.

I briefly wondered what I smelt like as, getting distracted once more, I watched Tom’s nostrils flare a little.

“You better be paying attention to the corpse and not me,” he growled.

Dammit, how did he do it? I hadn’t even been looking at him directly.

Tom opened his mouth to snap something again, but that device in his pocket vibrated. He shoved a hand in, grabbed it out, opened it, tapped the screen with a magic encased finger, and frowned. “I’ll be just outside.” He looked at me, locking me in his gaze as if he’d just grabbed my shoulders with those big hands of his. “You will not—”

“Interfere with the crime scene or waste time.” I brought my own hands up and spread them as I spread a less than friendly smile over my lips.

He didn’t pull me up on my sarcasm. He walked away, that device in his hand. He held it stiffly. Though Tom was a big, well-trained brute with the kind of musculature that had me checking him out most of the day, he also knew how to move. He didn’t exactly have my agility – I doubted he’d taken ballet or gymnastics. But I’d seen him move with poise. He clearly knew how to loosen his body and not just use it as a hammer. So that made it all the more important as he carried that device – which couldn’t weigh more than 500 grams – as if the thing was some massive, burdensome boulder.

My gaze remained on Tom and his taut shoulders until he was out of the room.

I still had my hand on my pack. I got the urge to shuffle through, find the right card, and send it off after Tom to spy on him.

Maybe Tom could read minds. “Get to work,” he growled from outside.

“Yes, sir,” I said evenly but with an entirely sarcastic expression crumpling my lips.

Thumbing through my cards, I let my gaze dart back to the corpse. That mesh of green and blue lines still hovered over it.

… As hard as it was to admit, Tom was right. Finding out this corpse’s preferences would hardly identify it.

Yet.

I brought my hands up. I kept my pack in one as I spread the other wide, really pushing my little finger and thumb out until it felt like I was about to palm a basketball.

Half closing one eye, I kept the other open.

It was time to fully connect to my cards. With Tom out of the room, I didn’t have to worry that I had a witness. It was a pretty intimate thing to acquaint yourself with a new pack.

Sliding my teeth over my bottom lip, I opened my hand and let my cards float above my palm. One by one, they became electrified with magic. This brilliant gold-red plume of energy engulfed them, sending sparks and trails of smoke twisting with flame high into the air.

I kept the magic contained. I didn’t let crackles of it dart out and contaminate the room. This was not my first rodeo. Tom might think I had no clue how to handle myself around an intricate forensic crime scene – but he had no idea.

It might be one thing for a federal policeman to accidentally leave a fingerprint or a couple of specks of skin behind when assessing a crime. It was another thing entirely to do it when you were in the mob. If you started investigating a rival family, and you broke into their house and left behind any indication that you’d been there – the stakes were a heck of a lot higher than losing your job.

As I became acquainted with my pack, pulsing magic experimentally into each card to see how much they could take, I kept the fingers of my left hand curled in. My nails grated back and forth across my palm in a circle as I contained the magic spilling through the cards. It ensured that every spark and wisp of smoke twisted around the pack and curled back into it. It meant I left nothing behind and I didn’t waste a speck of energy.

As each card became electrified, slowly my lips curled. Sure, this was just a standard pack, but it was a pretty good one. As I said before, every pack had its own unique spells. There were some that were pretty much germane – like the scanning spell I used earlier. Others, you had to combine from base cards like a cook grabbing standard ingredients from the fridge to make a well-known meal.

This pack had a great array of standard spells. For someone like me who was used to combining things, it would be just perfect.

With half an ear, I checked that Tom was still outside conversing with whoever had called him. I allowed myself to become distracted for a split second as I heard his tone. It sounded just as heavy as his shoulders had been when he’d dragged himself outside.

Did Tom have a history? Okay, every single living soul technically had a history. But it was kind of hard for someone like me who’d lived through the hardships of the Southside day in, day out, to accept the possibility that someone from the North could have problems. Unless, of course, your problem was that you couldn’t find enough magic expanders to turn your apartment into a palace.

That assumed something, though, didn’t it? What if Tom wasn’t even from the Northside? What if, just like me, he’d been recruited?

I quickly dismissed that thought. Tom held himself too well to be from my side of the wall. He also had a knowing look in his eye that told everyone he’d seen it all before and that nothing would ever impress him.

I didn’t have to force myself to put all thoughts of him out of my head. It happened naturally as I spread my fingers and connected to each of my cards.

Though I could have easily stood here all day, pumping magic into them and learning their intricacies, I knew Tom certainly wouldn’t spend all day on the phone. If he came back in and I didn’t have anything for him, he’d have something for me – a barbed insult and a trip back to my tiny room where I could stare at the walls for the rest of the day. If I wanted a semblance of freedom – and importantly, the luxury of connecting to my pack – I’d have to show him I could use both properly.

“Okay, here we go.” I spread my fingers. The cards shifted. They started to spin around me. They didn’t move fast. I wasn’t suddenly engulfed like I’d been swallowed by a tornado. Instead, it felt like butterflies fluttering around my waist.

It brought an unbelievably deep, genuine smile to my lips. It made me feel like I was back in the bosom of my family.

I let that sensation push all doubt from my mind. I opened my eyes. “There are weeds in this room,” I commanded the cards. “Weeds belonging to that corpse. Now connect to my weed spell and find me the greatest weed of all.”

An ordinary card shark would not be able to use their whole pack to connect to an existing spell. I’d lost track of how many times I’d already told you that I was not ordinary. This wasn’t me uselessly tooting my own horn, either. Having grown up with my fair share of arrogant boys, I hated braggadocio. This was me genuinely letting you know that what I was doing now wasn’t something your ordinary card shark would even imagine, let alone pull off.

Most card magicians either used their whole pack as a rudimentary magnifier of their power – which is what I’d done back on the bus when I’d set the cards to explode – or they used the spells encased in each card. Very few knew how to cast a spell then get the rest of the pack to assist with it.

Spreading my fingers wide, I allowed the cards to spin around me one more time before they darted off.

I opened my eyes and tracked them through the room. They were like a hive of insects as they briefly hovered over the corpse. They picked up the imprint of my weed spell, then followed those green-blue lines through the room.

I thought they’d remain in the bedroom. I was wrong. Several cards darted right off and out into the main room. I winced a second before I heard Tom growl. It sounded exactly like some alpha wolf snarling to put a lower member of the pack in its place. “What the hell are you doing, Russo?”

Knowing that my pack would not trash this bedroom and would rather faithfully complete the mission I’d given it, I raced through the door. I grabbed a hand on the doorway and twisted around in time to see several of my cards darting around Tom. Three of them was circling his face and another one was shifting close to his back – to his butt, to be precise.

I had a moment to full-on freak out. Had I badly programmed my cards? Rather than getting them to figure out what the corpse had thought was a weed, had I unconsciously set them to detect the weeds in my existence, instead? In which case, they were bang on the mark, because though I hadn’t set my mind to think of the future, Tom Walker would definitely be the greatest thorn in my side from now on.

Still, it wasn’t a good sign for them to be hovering near his butt – considering it had, ahem, been the butt of too many jokes today. I brought up a hand and ticked my finger to the side, and the cars shifted back.

He looked at me like, quite rightly, I was insane. “Is that your attempt to attack a superior?”

I spluttered. “If I’d wanted to attack you—”

“You would’ve presumably done something a lot more physical,” he finished my sentence.

My stomach kicked. It was stupid. That wasn’t an innuendo – it was a perfectly correct assessment of my personality. Tom was absolutely right. If I ever got it into my stupid head to attack him, I’d use my fists, not my cards. It would be far more satisfying to connect my knuckles to his jaw than to do it through a pack.

“So what the hell are you doing?” Tom growled.

I brought up a hand and scratched my head.

Though I’d called my cards off Tom, and they were thankfully no longer hovering around his butt, they were staying close by.

Which meant what, exactly? Tom Walker had been a weed to that corpse?

When I didn’t answer and I just frowned, Tom shoved his device back in his pocket, strode back into the bedroom, and frowned even deeper as he watched my pack darting around like the aforementioned cloud of insects.

If you came from some desert island and had no clue magic existed, the scene would be crazy. The sight of spinning, magic-encased cards darting around the room, searching under furniture, fluttering through curtains, and otherwise dashing through the air like busy bees was a pretty crazy one to behold.

Tom Walker had not been living under a rock. He also clearly knew his way around card magic. He walked up to the closest card, and with skills that could see him catch a fish out of a river with his bare hands, he plucked one out of the air.

“Hey,” I said, voice yelping high. For good reason. As the body magician snapped my card out of the air, magic erupted over my back and sank into my stomach.

He was interfering with my spell, and it felt like someone rugby tackling me.

Tom appeared to assess the spell cast on the card, then with a reluctant flick, ejected it from his grip and set it back to work.

Then he set his gaze on me as he turned sharply.

He didn’t say anything. Which left me to fill the awkward silence as I ticked my bottom lip down and tried to grin. “Impressed by the fact I can use my whole pack to bolster the spell of one card?” I tried, voice wavering as it pitched up.

“Not particularly. I knew you could do that. Got anything, though?”

Yeah. I did have something. Something that didn’t make any sense. You know those four cards that had been shadowing him before? They were still trying to investigate him. The only thing holding them back was me.

Realizing I couldn’t point that out, I pressed my lips together, probably looking like a fish that was begging to be thrown back into the ocean. Scratching my neck, I shrugged. “I—” I stopped.

My head jerked up and my gaze darted to the side as I felt a rush of magic tingle over my belly.

Tom didn’t need me to say anything. He obviously caught a reflected blast of that magic, too.

“There’s something by the window,” I said as I jolted over with several quick steps. I got down on my knee. There was a big antique dresser next to the window. Four of my cards had shifted underneath it to investigate, and I could see their glowing magical light from here.

I went to settle my hands on the dresser to push it out of the way.

Tom got there first. “Let me.”

I doubted he was being gentlemanly. He didn’t care that I could hurt my poor little lady muscles by trying to shift that heavy cupboard. Nope. He just didn’t want me messing with his crime scene again.

Without even a grunt, he shifted the dresser to the side. As he did, I felt him practice a few quick spells of body magic that no doubt ensured none of his DNA or other body matter could be left behind on the polished wood.

As he pushed the cupboard away, I saw my four cards. Far from congregating around the underside of the chest of drawers, it was a patch of partially stained carpet they were interested in.

Frowning hard, I crunched down to my other knee, locking my hands firmly behind me to demonstrate to Tom that I wasn’t about to drop my hair and fingerprints all over the place like a rookie.

Tom got down on his knees beside me, and he rolled up his left sleeve.

I knew a thing or two about body magicians – dated one, remember? They had preferences for where they cast their magic. Arms and hands were an easy one. They were close and easy to get to. You didn’t have to roll up your pant leg or stretch and try to draw on your shoulder.

But most body practitioners had a specific arm or palm they preferred to draw on. One would be for work, and the other would be for… let’s call it not work.

I tried not to clear my throat at that thought as Tom finished off casting his spell. Magic billowed out, spiraled down, and sunk into the plush carpet. It centered on that stain, circling around it like a finger someone had jabbed into the fibers as it drilled further down into the pile.

This close to Tom, I could feel his heat. Heck, this close, even a non-magician would be able to sense his reflected power. Tom was not your ordinary magician. I mean, come on, hello, of course he wasn’t – he was a federal agent, and though I hadn’t known much about them until I’d joined, I knew they only recruited the best of the best. What I was trying to get at was that Tom was a cut above the rest. There was every chance he was even more powerful than I was.

That was a sobering thought. It also made me pay more attention to his spell as it drilled down into the carpet. Several seconds later, Tom pulsed his hand into a fist, dragged his right thumb down his left arm, then stabbed it there.

I watched as symbols danced over his flesh, sinking in and crackling like fish momentarily resurfacing only to dive back down into some deep lake.

I suddenly wondered how it would feel. I had magic cast on my body. Come on – boyfriends aside, I’d faced my fair share of body magicians. But what would it feel like to set a spell shifting through your arm? Would it be like pushing your own fingers through your bones? Or would it feel like acid eating away at your skin?

I was never usually so distracted by someone else’s stream of practice. It was a stupid time to be distracted, too. If I’d paid attention, I would’ve seen that most of my pack had assembled behind me. Faithful to their mission to find the greatest weed in this apartment, they were clearly all interested in what Tom’s spell would reveal.

“Got it,” he said with satisfaction a second later.

A circular section of the carpet lifted up, carrying the stain with it.

On the surface, the stain was light. We’d only noticed it because we’d concluded something had to be there based on the way my cards had reacted.

The underneath of the carpet pile, however, was a different matter. As Tom’s spell spun the carpet in the air, my lips twitched into a tight line.

Blood. While someone had clearly tried to clean it up from the top of the carpet, it had soaked through to the back.

Tom shoved his hands out and spread his fingers wide. The carpet didn’t land in his hand – come on, crime-scene freak here – it just hovered a few centimeters above as the frowning detective set his gaze sweeping over it.

It wasn’t fair. My spell had found that stain, and all I wanted to do was grab the carpet off him. I settled for shifting as close to his shoulder as I comfortably could. “How old do you think it is?”

“24 hours,” he said with supreme confidence.

He wasn’t a forensic pathologist. But he was a magician, and no doubt his assessment wasn’t about the blood – but about whatever magic had been used to let the blood.

A tight shiver escaped over my back. “Do you know what spell was used?”

He didn’t answer. Instead he did something pretty surprising. Removing one hand from under the hovering carpet chunk, he grabbed up my wrist, turned my palm upward, and handed me the carpet.

The feel of his thumb pushing my fingers open and spreading my palm was… ah, I couldn’t think about that right now.

I settled my full attention on that circle of carpet as it spun above my outstretched fingers.

My scanning spell was still in full force. With most of my pack hovering behind me, I didn’t even need to initiate another spell in order to assess this carpet chunk. All I had to do was half blink an eye closed and concentrate. There in front of me more blue lines spread out, congregating over the chunk of carpet and shifting through the pile. They alighted on that bloodstain and sank into it. They disrupted old charges of magic.

I clenched my teeth. “It was an ice spell,” I said as that fact jumped into my head. “Whoever spilled this blood – they were definitely attacked by an ice spell.”

“That’s what I got, too. Now get up,” Tom snapped.

Damn this guy was hot and cold. No, sorry, scratch that. Damn this guy was lukewarm and cold. He had not treated me in a way that could even come close to being affectionate. Still, it seemed he was happy to compliment me one moment and diss me the next.

I shifted up to my feet.

I wasn’t the one who’d set this carpet sample to spin – that was Tom’s spell. As he followed me to his feet and walked away, striding over to the corpse to frown down at it again, his spell lost none of its power. One of the drawbacks about body magicians was that they were used to practicing at close proximity. I mean, come on, your body is as close to you as anything will ever get. And while all practitioners technically lost their force over distance, it was more marked for body magicians.

Yet as Tom strode away, the spell spinning in my hands did not ebb.

Just how powerful was this guy?

“If we can confirm this corpse was killed with an ice spell, that may help us reverse engineer what happened and who they are.” He crossed his arms as he mused.

“Aren’t you forgetting something? I didn’t ask my cards to find what spell killed the corpse. I told them to find its greatest weed.”

He didn’t even bother to look my way. “That person,” he shrugged at the corpse, “was killed by an ice spell, so it’s pretty safe to assume that at the end of their life they developed a strong and lasting dislike of ice spells.”

I opened my mouth to point out that’s not how I’d programmed the spell. Yeah, of course, if something killed you, whatever remained of your soul after death would form a pretty strong dislike for your murderer and their methods. I’d been precise in casting my weed spell, though. I hadn’t set it to find the magical equivalent of a murder weapon. If I had, why would the first thing my cards have found not been this bloodstain, but Tom?

I kept that one to myself. I locked that observation deep in my frigging chest, and it would take a Titan to break it out again.

Clearing my throat and still holding onto that hovering carpet sample, I realized the best thing to do with Tom was not to argue – it was to show him proof.

With the carpet still in hand, I walked out of the room without telling him what I was doing. I felt his gaze on the back of my neck, but he didn’t pull me up. He didn’t follow me, either. Either he was confident that I wasn’t about to jump out the window and do a runner, or with one of his spells in hand, he was sure that if I tried anything, he knew he could control me.

Walking back into the main room, this time, I stared at it with a critical eye.

My original assessment that the owner of this place had to be someone who needed to be seen as wealthy stood.

It looked like every single example of human weakness and fragility had been removed from the place. There wasn’t even a kitchen. As for the bathroom? I had to assume it was through several doors, or that Celena Bowen had just held on her whole life.

Who did that? Who got rid of every semblance of actual comfort?

Someone who tried to eliminate weakness.

“I’m calling this in,” Tom snapped at me from the other room, his voice having no trouble whatsoever in carrying as it echoed through the cavernous space.

Sure, whatever, I thought back. There was nothing to call in yet. At least, if I were back working for my family, there’d be nothing to call in. We weren’t lone wolves, or anything. We very much hunted in packs, but we also knew that unless and until you really had something, you didn’t bother radioing home. Every time you supplied people with partial facts, you left room for them to reinterpret, and that was the most dangerous thing when you were tracking something down. Your number one enemy was your imagination. It lived to fill in holes and try to find patterns. When you didn’t have enough data, it would start guessing, and guesses were no better than flipping a coin.

“Why is this your greatest weed?” I muttered to myself as I walked all the way around the perimeter of the room.

There wasn’t a speck of dust. There wasn’t a stain on anything, either.

This place didn’t look as if it had been lived in.

I frowned. Though I was quickly accepting that the Federal Police didn’t work like I did, they were professionals. If Celena had never stepped foot in this apartment, they would have figured that out.

So the frown marching relentlessly across my lips told me something else.

Celena was the kind to clean her life of all the evidence of her actually living it. “You hate weakness, don’t you, Celena?” I found myself muttering low enough that Tom wouldn’t be able to hear. “There’s no kitchen and the bathroom is ferreted away where no one can see it. You hate….” My gaze darted down to the carpet in my hand. My eyes expanded, opening wide as I stared at the blood. “Blood,” I filled in.

My gaze darted around the room once more, and I shook my head.

A smile spread my lips. “No, Celena, you hate bleeding.”

It wasn’t the best observation anyone had ever made. Most humans – and mammals – objected to having their skin opened and their veins split.

“You hate showing weakness,” I concluded with a smile. For what is to bleed but to show that you can be injured?

I knew I was right as I heard Tom march into the room. “We’re done here. Now we know it was an ice spell, we can—”

“It’s Celena,” I concluded.

He paused. “You don’t look like the kind to jump to conclusions. That’s one of the reasons I picked you for this job.”

I turned. “I am not the kind to jump to anything. And this isn’t a guess.”

“Sure looks like a guess to me.” He crossed his arms. “All you’ve got is a scrap of carpet. We don’t even know if that blood belongs to Celena yet. Even if it does, it’s not necessarily an indication that she was the victim. She could have been the perpetrator and just cut herself on her own spell.”

I shook my head. “That corpse is Celena. Trust me.”

I wasn’t in the habit of asking federal agents to trust me. Clearly Tom wasn’t in the habit of trusting people anyway, because he shook his head. “That’s not how this job works.”

“You said you wanted to finish this quickly. It’s clear that for some reason you need to wrap this up. I’m telling you not to waste time trying to figure out who the corpse is. It’s Celena.”

“And how exactly do you know that?”

“I set my spell to find the corpse’s greatest weed.”

“I already explained to you that your spell simply detected that bloodstain because a strong aversion would have been created for what killed the person at the time of death.”

“Celena didn’t like to bleed.”

“Most people don’t.” He chuckled, but there was a real edge to it. “You’re disappointing me,” he suddenly added.

It felt like being slapped. Until I reminded myself that I didn’t give a shit that I was disappointing this guy. I arched an eyebrow. “Runs both ways, buddy. I know how I programmed my spell. I set it to find me the greatest weed in that corpse’s life. And it did. You might think that it inadvertently discovered what had ended her life, but that’s not how these spells work. The moment of death, though powerful, is not enough to expunge the way you’ve lived before.”

He didn’t look moved. And he literally wasn’t moved, as he remained there, his arms crossed tightly in front of his chest. It seemed that even if I rammed him with a few eager elephants, the bastard would stay exactly where he was looking just as unimpressed at my theory.

I sighed and tilted my head back. My gaze darted over the ceiling. This place was completely free of any stains or cobwebs, or anything else that would evidence someone had actually been living here.

“You’ve got nothing,” he concluded. “Now come on.”

I ignored him. I was getting all too good at that. I was getting all too drawn into this case, as well. It wasn’t the fact that some rich brat had been murdered. It was just murder itself. Momentarily I didn’t care that Celena belonged to this side of the wall. It didn’t bother me that she was the child of one of the richest – and evilest – men in Terra city. What got to me was that someone had given themselves the right to kill another.

I kept my head tilted back as I stared at the ceiling.

“Come on,” Tom said gruffly. He walked over to me, and I had enough brain cells left over to recognize that if I didn’t move, he’d just grab my wrist and drag me along.

To him, this was over. To me, it was just starting.

I’d left my cards in the bedroom. With a silent command and a twitching swipe of my thumb, they rushed in.

Tom’s jaw stiffened. “I told you to drop this.”

“Nope. You told me to stop wasting time. And if we leave now, we’ll be wasting time.” Without looking at him or my cards, I set them to fly up to the ceiling.

“Nadine,” he growled.

“You’re wrong, and I’m right,” I actually had the balls to say. Blame it on the fact I was distracted.

Wrong thing to point out, though. Tom didn’t bother to growl again. He marched right over. And you guessed it, he grabbed my wrist. This time, his grip was like the equivalent of an impeno cuff locking around the base of my hand.

He didn’t just use his strength. A charge of magic blasted from his fingers and raced into my skin.

It was enough to make my arms jolt as if someone had just slammed an ice-cold bat against my shoulders.

I had a chance to lurch forward. But while his spell affected my body, it hadn’t translated up into my cards yet. They were still exploring the ceiling.

Celena might’ve tried to expunge every last piece of evidence that she was a mere mortal who had weaknesses, but while she could clean her own living space, the floor above was another matter.

She could have used any number of spells to obliterate all existence of her weakness from her own apartment, but presumably she hadn’t had the access or the permission to cast them on the level above.

If I set my cards to scan right through the thick, reinforced concrete ceiling above, I might find something important.

Well, I could’ve found something important. Tom ended my spell swiftly as he yanked me back. A blast of body magic shot from his hand into my arm. It was 10 times stronger than the spell he’d cast seconds ago. I felt it jolt right up and slam into my jaw as if someone had just slapped me.

Most of my cards fell from the air, tumbling like bees that had died midflight.

Most – that is – but not all. Two retained enough magic to continue to dart around the ceiling.

Without tugging his pissed off gaze away from me, Tom spread a hand, curled one finger in, and wrote a symbol on his thumb.

Charges of magic sprang out and slammed into my cards.

Which was a problem. Because my cards had just tripped something.

I was dimly aware of that fact. I had no clue what kind of spell Tom was casting on me, but it had locked me to the spot. It felt like someone had opened my mouth and forced kilos of glue down my gob. My muscles had become sticky, and my bones felt like they’d been replaced by immovable statues. Yet I retained a glimmer of awareness – sufficient to be able to connect to my cards as they discovered something buried deep in the ceiling.

My cards were still operating under the combined scanning and weed spell. They were set to find more evidence of what Celena had tried to remove from her life.

“You’re—” Tom began, no doubt about to snap at me that I was coming with him and he would never let me out again. Hell, maybe he’d just chuck me out the window, wipe his hands of this mess, and go find a card shark who knew how to follow orders.

He didn’t finish his statement. He yanked his head up, and though most of me was shutting down, I watched his cheeks slacken. Before he could spread a hand out and shut down my two remaining cards, realization flooded his expression, paling his usually tanned cheeks and opening his eyes wider. “What the hell—”

My cards were set to defend themselves. Most practitioners included some kind of protection spell when they cast magic. Well, at least most practitioners who’d grown in the South did. You never knew when you’d come across some rival magician – and hey, statistically, you’d do it every day. So if you cast magic, you goddamn defended it.

Whenever I connected to a new pack, and critically, whenever I selected a card, I always imbued it with excess magic so that it could defend itself from environmental spells.

That was the only reason my cards managed to survive as they suddenly discovered some kind of booby-trap. Jolts of magic slammed down from the ceiling and shot into them. They spiraled across the room, darting out of the way like birds escaping a hawk.

Massive crackles of blue-black magic discharged from the ceiling, sinking into the carpet. It was like someone had just uncovered a volcano that was ready to erupt.

Tom jerked to the side as one bolt sliced past us, then in a second I would never forget, he pulled away from me to dart under cover.

I couldn’t move. I really had no clue what he’d cast on me, but it was damn effective. Even as I literally saw my life flashing before my eyes, there was nothing I could do.

Tom reversed direction, shoved his boot into the soft carpet, grunted, and wrapped an arm around my middle.

He tackled me out of the way just as a slice of magic slammed into his shoulder. One that had been meant for me. It struck him so hard, it didn’t just tear off a chunk of his shirt – it gouged out an inch-wide section of flesh beneath.

He didn’t scream, even as his blood splattered over the carpet like someone taking an overripe fruit and hitting it with a hammer.

So I screamed for him – or at least, I tried to push a shriek from my frozen lips.

Instinctively, I went to shove up a hand and lock it on his shoulder to stem the bleeding.

I still couldn’t move.

“Dammit,” Tom finally reacted. Despite the fact he’d just received a near critical blow, his voice didn’t register it. It was pissed off – don’t get me wrong, it sounded as angry as Vinny after a botched job – but it didn’t waver with weakness.

The next thing I knew, he wrapped an arm around my middle and hauled me to the side. He threw me behind the sofa.

As we hunkered behind it, he shoved his back into it, ignoring the blood that slicked down his torn, burnt shirtsleeve. He brought up his hand. It didn’t even shake as he started to trace a circle on his palm.

Out of the corner of my eye, my gaze still languid as my body fought the effects of his spell, I watched the tips of his fingers became electrified with yellow magic. Glowing symbols began to appear on his palm. They lifted up and shot into the couch behind us.

Just as more magic discharged from the ceiling, making it feel as if we’d wandered into a storm, one massive bolt struck the couch.

I would’ve screamed. Instead, I just remained there limply, my back pressed up against the couch as it started to overheat. Before it could explode and I could have the most ignominious death ever as I was walloped on the head by burning cushions, Tom finished his spell. That symbol ruptured from his hand, shot into the air, and spun behind us. It produced an impenetrable shield, one that protected us from the couch as it exploded in chunks of burning foam.

“Dammit,” Tom spat again. He turned over his shoulder, his gaze as sharp as a knife as he assessed the ceiling.

I couldn’t move. Shit, it honestly felt as if Tom had gutted me.

Yeah, okay, so I’d already concluded that Tom was strong, but I would never have assumed he had magic like that up his sleeve.

He clearly wasn’t done yet. He ignored the fact that the top of his shoulder was so injured, I could see right down to the bone. It was completely irrelevant to him, as if he’d picked up nothing more irritating than a scratch. He continued to trace symbols onto his palm. Granted, he had to prop his hand against his knees and he clearly didn’t have the strength to raise his injured arm. Not my point. His gaze, his magic, and everything about him suggested that even if something killed him, he’d goddamn keep going.

I wanted to help. All I could do was lie there on the ground next to him. I could see out of the corner of my eye. Do not ask me what I’d disturbed in the ceiling, but it continued to discharge. For that much magic to be trapped in it… I made a quick calculation and concluded it had to be one humongous spell.

More than that, something clearly kept feeding it. As more magic blasted through the apartment, it was almost as if someone was trying to destroy it with some kind of a self-destruct mechanism.

My body might’ve felt as if it was asleep, but my mind raced.

It didn’t take me long to put two and two together. I’d already ascertained there were several powerful magical devices in this apartment, hadn’t I? The magic expanders.

Tom continued to cast symbols, and he sent them spinning through the room. I watched as mandalas appeared behind him. They shot up to the ceiling. He was clearly trying to shut down the booby-trap.

It wouldn’t work. To destroy it, we had to destroy the things feeding it.

I groaned. It was one hell of an achievement because it felt like pushing past mountains in order to open my lips, let alone to allow my throat to shake with a sigh.

It did not get Tom’s attention. To be fair to him, a little mutter from his partner was hardly more important than the room exploding around his ears.

I managed to do it again. I even pressed my lips together. “Let… let me go.”

“I’ve got this,” he snapped.

Dammit, he didn’t have this. He needed to let me go so I could explain what was going on.

But as I watched him frantically drawing magic on his body, I realized he wasn’t going to do that.

I also realized we were a hundred percent screwed unless we destroyed those magic expanders. The room was starting to burn. It was becoming so filled with magic that objects were spontaneously combusting. I watched as some seriously fancy vases exploded in hails of yellow-white sparks.

That would be us soon. Sure, Tom was turning out to be one hell of a practitioner, but his magic would run out.

You have to do something. Come on, do something, I told myself.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been in a pressured situation. I could sit you down and run you through my life, and it would be one unending adventure. Working for the mob, I’d seen violence that would make an ordinary army brat blush.

I’d also saved my ass on too many occasions to count.

You see, I had this thing – I really didn’t want to die. Sure, I didn’t like my life and what had happened to this city, but I really, really didn’t want to give in by letting it take me and my existence with it.

My mind started to spin. As the room filled with so much magic, Tom’s shields could no longer protect us from the heat, my desperation peaked.

I had to find some way…. The cards.

Though I couldn’t reconnect to the pack Tom had yanked out of the air, there were still those two other cards that had discovered the booby-trap in the first place.

True to the protection spell I’d cast on them, they’d gotten the heck out of the way, and they’d stayed there. Though it was hard to connect my mind to them as my body drooped like a flower left in boiling water, I managed to figure out they’d fled into the bedroom.

I clenched my teeth. It took monumental effort to do it, but I managed it. That’s not all. I connected to my cards fully. I couldn’t move my body; that didn’t matter. I shifted my mind out like a frigging rope until I lassoed them.

There were magic expanders in the two main rooms of this apartment. In order to end this, I’d have to destroy them.

I might’ve managed to mutter before, but now I managed a half scream. I pushed my full awareness into my cards, concentrated on my memory of the bedroom, and set them to seek and destroy.

Those cards were still operating under the combined weed and scanning spell. That wouldn’t matter. As I’d already said, in times of need, you could simply use a pack to magnify your own magic and despair. It’s exactly what I did now as they finally found the two magic expanders in the bedroom.

Destroy them, I thought bitterly.

I set the cards to work. They plunged into the magic expanders. I couldn’t see it in my mind’s eye, but I could feel it in my body. It was like shoving my fists into my memory of those two devices.

A second later, blasts erupted from the bedroom, shook through the floor, and echoed out into our room.

Tom jerked his head around. “What?”

The magic discharging from the ceiling halved.

Yes. I was right.

For the first time since this mess began, I had hope.

And hope started to push back the lingering effects of Tom’s spell.

Either Tom wanted me all limp and useless by his feet while he saved the day, or he didn’t have the magic and attention left over to remove his spell from me.

I had to break it. It would be the only way to release myself and save the day.

Somehow, I managed to crunch up into a seated position.

Tom looked shocked, but there was nothing he could do about it. He had to continuously draw protection symbols on his hand so he didn’t spontaneously combust like everything else in this tortured apartment.

Half closing my eyes, I concentrated on my cards. I brought them back into the main room. They spun into this chaotic mess, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see them darting through clouds of smoke like two little glowing angels rising up from Hell.

There were two magic expanders on either side of the room, so I split the cards up.

I finally got enough control of my body that I could move my hands. I pulsed them to the side and opened my fingers wide. And I goddamn screamed. I screamed like my life had just been turned upside down. Like I’d never see my family again. Like everything I knew had been crushed. I frigging screamed like I didn’t want to die today no matter what the North threw at me.

My cards spun out, struck the magic expanders, and blasted into them.

They exploded in a hail of sparks.

“What the hell are you—” Tom had a chance to say.

Immediately, as if someone had simply flicked off a switch, the booby-trap stopped.

The discharging sparks sank into the carpet, and the magic that had built through the room, threatening to explode, started to ebb.

At first it was clear Tom couldn’t believe it. He remained crouched forward, his injured arm still propped on his knee, blood now covering it right up to his wrist as he continued to draw protection symbols on his hand.

Slowly his gaze ticked to me. “What did you do?”

I wasn’t exactly fighting fit yet, but I found my equilibrium, and I could now move even under the lingering effects of Tom’s spell. It was enough that I spread my lips in what could be classed as half a grimace and half a grin. “The magic expanders were feeding that booby-trap.”

I watched as his eyes widened slightly. He flicked his gaze to the side and looked at the remnants of one of the magic expanders. I’d done a real good job of destroying it. I’d gouged it out of the wall and hit it with the equivalent of a two-ton punch. It looked like I’d been trying to split the steel retaining beams beneath.

Without a word, he drew his gaze back, and he looked at me. His stare drilled into me. I saw it again… Tom looked as if he could see something in me I couldn’t see in myself.

It didn’t last. He pushed up. He wobbled. Good, because if he hadn’t wobbled with an injury like that, I’d start to think that Tom was some kind of automaton.

He didn’t fall, though, and that spoke volumes of his training and determination.

He didn’t reach a hand out to me and help me to my feet.

I staggered up. I had to plant my hands into the floor, re-teach myself how to move, and push. Even then, I was so wobbly, I almost fell into the remains of the couch. “A little help here would be nice. Can you remove your spell on me already, buddy?”

“You seem to be fighting past it yourself. I need to retain my magic,” he added.

His arm looked as if a dinosaur had tried to chew it off.

Though I felt nothing for this guy – okay, occasionally a few tingly charges of attraction – I still winced. “You need to sit down before you fall down.”

“I’m fine. I need to call the authorities and coordinate a response.” He walked right underneath the point where the booby-trap had been set. He tilted his head up and stared.

For the first time I realized there was now a hole in the ceiling to the floor above.

I staggered over. I pressed my lips together and whistled. “Damn, that’ll be expensive to fix. Wait,” a memory rose in me, “before, you said that we couldn’t crash cars because we’d have to pay the insurance fee. Does that—”

If Tom had been in his ordinary mood, maybe he would’ve played with me. As I watched him tilt his head further back, I saw that the only mood he was in was one to catch a killer. “How did you know this was here?”

I went to stare through the hole but rapidly realized that I didn’t have the balance. Tilting my head that far back made me woozy, and I had to shove my hands out to hold myself in place. “I didn’t know a booby-trap was there.”

He pulled his head down. “How did you know that Celena was the corpse in the room, then?”

“What, you appreciate I’m right now?”

His gaze darted across my face. It ticked like a pendulum. It made my stomach clench in a way that it hadn’t for years. Why did I feel that, even if I ran around the city and hid under every bed I could find, Tom would always know where I was? Why did it seem that now he’d grabbed hold of me, he’d never let me go again?

“I want you to tell me your process.” He sounded like a teacher. Albeit a teacher who was all too happy to freeze you on the spot with a bone-crunching spell if they didn’t like what you said.

I brought a hand up and went to wipe it over my face. It was only then that I realized there was soot covering it.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that this place was utterly trashed. I also saw the irony. Celena had obviously spent most of her life ensuring that this apartment was free of every sign of weakness. Now it, just like she, had been all but destroyed.

Realizing I didn’t give a shit about the muck on my fingers, I planted my hand over my mouth. I ignored the strong, unpleasant scent of burnt carpet. “I know you think it’s bullshit, but I’m telling you my cards discovered Celena’s weakness. And her weakness was that she hated weakness.”

“And that led you to believe that the corpse in there is Celena and that up here,” he pointed to the ceiling, “was a booby-trap. You told me you don’t jump to conclusions—”

I let my hand slide down and clamp on the back of my head. I got that it sounded like I hadn’t just made a logical leap – but I’d taken the equivalent of a logical rocket and shot off into outer space. “Clearly this is her apartment, and if you take the chance to look around,” I frowned, “sorry, if you’d taken the chance to look around before the place was trashed, you’d have noted that this apartment is sterile. I mean, where’s the kitchen? Where’s the bathroom? Where are the stains? Where are the cobwebs? Where’s the evidence that she actually lived here?”

“She would’ve had a cleaner,” he said.

I snorted. “Unless she’d given that cleaner the task of completely removing all evidence of her existence, then you’re not getting what I’m trying to tell you. This place was too clinical. It was like someone had set magical spells to remove all evidence of them living here.”

Tom did not look moved. He pressed his lips together as if they were clamps. “Maybe the killer did that as a way to remove all evidence of the crime scene.”

I darted my gaze down to his injured shoulder. It was still bleeding. God, with a chunk that big gouged out of his flesh, it would be bleeding for hours if he didn’t seek medical attention. And if he didn’t seek medical attention, he’d face plant the carpet and just bleed out.

I opened my lips to point this out, but I realized Tom would be perfectly aware of how injured he was. For whatever reason, he seemed to want to push through every obstacle in his way to solve this case.

… My mind ticked back to the fact the first thing my cards found had been him.

“Nadine,” he pushed when I didn’t answer quickly enough. “Why assume the killer didn’t do this?”

I sighed as I tried to trail a hand through my hair. It wasn’t just knotty. It felt like somebody had chucked glue over it. “My cards haven’t sensed a spell the likes of which you’re describing – and one that big would’ve left plenty of evidence. Plus, that doesn’t change the facts – where’s the kitchen, where’s the bathroom, where are the family photos on the wall? It didn’t look like a real person lived here.”

Tom, as usual, looked unmoved.

I tilted my head up and looked through the ceiling. “It was clear to me that Celena had removed all evidence of her existence from this place. It was just as clear,” I pointed up at the ceiling, “that she would not have been able to remove it from the dividers between her apartment and the one above. I set my cards to scan the ceiling in the hopes they’d find something.”

“And you found something,” he needlessly concluded.

“Yeah. But what the hell was it?” I took a step forward, finally ignoring my weakness. I shoved all distractions to the side just as Tom was doing. Don’t get me wrong, if I was as injured as him, I would be lying on the floor screaming about it. But I had a history of pulling my socks up when I needed to.

“Booby-trap,” he summarized.

I shook my head. “It was almost like a self-destruct. If that spell had been allowed to run its course, it would’ve completely destroyed this apartment and everything in it.” I crossed my arms.

Far off, I heard sirens. I could guarantee they were coming here.

I turned to look at Tom. This time I pointedly let my gaze slip down to his shoulder. “Unless you’re bionic, I really suggest casting some spells on yourself to stem the bleeding.”

He ignored me. “We need to ascertain if there are any other booby-traps in this apartment.”

I let my gaze sweep around it, and I shrugged. “There aren’t.”

“I told you to stop jumping to conclusions.”

“I told you to trust me,” I said louder. Blame it on the fact I’d had a really hard morning. I wasn’t in the mood to have Tom second-guess my every intuition. “We destroyed the magic expanders. They were the only thing feeding that booby-trap. And once they were destroyed,” I brought up a hand before he could attack me again, “they would’ve created a distributed magical field that would have disrupted existing spells embedded in the room.”

That, right there, was complicated magical field theory. I had not studied it in school. It was the kind of thing you learned on the job if you wanted to stay alive.

Tom shrugged. Yep, that’s it – just a shrug. He didn’t point out I was smart or anything. Nor did he bother to verbally agree with me.

He pushed off through the room. He wobbled. He tried to hide it, but I could see the weakness in his legs.

Before I really knew what I was doing, I strode over and grabbed his free arm, securing my fingers around his elbow.

And that led to one of the most awkward experiences of my life. Slowly, as if he was savoring every second, he tilted his head around and stared at me.

He didn’t practice body magic, he just drew on some skill as a federal agent, because when he locked me in his gaze, it felt like cages slamming down around me.

Maybe I unconsciously reignited the body spell he’d cast on me, but as I stared at him, all thoughts of ever moving from his side slipped away.

I would’ve looked like a gaping idiot as I stared up at him like I’d taken the arm of my first crush. He opened his mouth to say something, but he didn’t get the opportunity. We heard thunderous footfall from outside.

Without another word, he pulled out of my grip. He turned just as the doors opened.

A magical emergency team spilled in. They were all wearing thick hazmat suits covered in glowing symbols.

I couldn’t see their faces – they had large helmets with opaque visors on.

Tom brought up a hand and spread it wide. “Threat is dealt with. We tripped a booby-trap – some kind of self-destruct mechanism. It was in the ceiling. The magic expanders,” he pulled his arms out to the side like he was a flight attendant, “in each of the main rooms were destroyed. They were feeding it.”

He had faithfully repeated everything I’d told him.

Something… as crazy as it sounded, something almost told me that Tom had believed me from the beginning. Heck, maybe he’d even believed me about that body being Celena. So all this had been… what? Just a test?

Though part of me honestly wanted to push over to Tom and secure an arm around his middle to hold him up, the rest shoved away my kind side.

I stared at Tom as I reminded myself I didn’t know a frigging thing about this guy.

He dealt with the magic accident team and sent me outside. I waited in the corridor until he was done.

I expected more police and an ambulance would come. They didn’t. Tom took me down to the car. Once there, he opened the trunk and started packing his wound with magical bandages. They stemmed the bleeding. Maybe they’d even stop nerve damage. They would not, however, kick start the healing process.

I hung back as I stared at him, my gaze drilling into the back of his head. “Really? Aren’t you going to go to the hospital?”

Once he was done, he shut the med kit, shoved it back into the trunk, closed it, and turned to me. He crossed his arms as he leaned on the back of the car. “We’re getting this done today.”

“Sorry?”

“We’re going to solve this murder by the end of today.”

“I might be new to this whole detective thing, but you don’t get to decide when you solve a case. You kind of just have to gather evidence and hope for the best.”

“You are new to this whole detective thing. And you’re new to me, too,” he added opaquely.

I made a face.

“I take it you know how to drive,” he said sarcastically as he nodded toward the driver’s side.

I just laughed.

He held my gaze. “You will not pick up any speeding tickets, do you understand?”

“No, honestly, I don’t. You look like you’re about to die. Why the hell are you so determined to get this case solved today? It’s gonna take an age for that magical accident team to go through the apartment. You won’t have your evidence for several days.”

“We will solve this by the end of tonight.”

“Or what?” I challenged him.

“Or someone else will die.”

My blood chilled. As I looked at him, I realized he wasn’t lying. From now on, he wouldn’t be holding back, either.

Chapter 5

Well, this was weird. I was driving on the Northside. And it was a heck of a lot different to driving down south. In the South, it was chaotic. You could get a couple of blocks only to face a random checkpoint. We had highways, but there were so many broken-down cars, they were more like obstacle courses.

Over here? Not only did every car I passed look as if it was worth more than I’d ever earn in my life, but the highways were wide with so many lanes, they were the road equivalent of palaces.

“Take the shoulder – get off here,” Tom snapped.

Grumbling, I yanked the wheel to the side. I cut off some smooch in an expensive sports car. The guy honked his horn, opened his window, and gestured at me real nicely as he drove past.

I went to copy his gesture, but Tom just growled. “You aren’t here to make enemies.”

I snorted. “Well that’s a first for me.”

“Stop being sarcastic.”

I turned and looked at him. I was a pretty good driver. Even as I negotiated a tight corner on the shoulder as we swept down to a main road, I didn’t look back at the windscreen. “Can I ask you a question?”

It was his turn to snort. “Even if I say no, you’re going to do it anyway. What?”

“What do you have to do with this case?” Boom, I said it. I dropped it like it was a bomb I’d been carrying all day.

… Except obviously I hadn’t dropped it clearly enough, because Tom just looked at me, nonplussed. “I’m the detective in charge of solving it. You that stupid?”

I really looked at him now. Okay, so I had to pay attention to my peripheral vision as we joined traffic, but I’d like to think I still looked frigging bold. “Not what I mean, Agent.” I said the word agent with a careful snarl. “This goes beyond the fact that you are pushing to get this solved in 24 hours.”

He wasn’t looking at me. Directly. He was apparently picking at his wound. I wasn’t stupid. While his gaze was directed down, the rest of his attention was on me.

A part of me – a strong, smart part that I really needed to start listening to – told me to drop this. The rest was done playing by her rules.

Something massive was going on here, wasn’t it? And if I didn’t want to be swallowed whole by it, I needed to put my foot down. “Why did my cards find you?”

His cheeks stiffened. It was a slight move, but by George was it there.

A surge of satisfaction had a chance to bloom through my stomach, then he turned to me. His gaze was cold and sharp. “You don’t know what justice is. You don’t know what you’re looking for. You don’t know what kind of power you have. And ultimately, you have no clue about anything going on in this city,” he concluded as if he’d just summarized my life and this case in one neat, vicious sentence.

I spluttered. “What?”

“Pay attention to the road,” he growled.

“I—” I began, about to tell him that I could drive with my eyes closed. I couldn’t, and he was right – I needed to pay attention, because some fancy car had just cut in front of me.

Swearing as I slowed down, I was a lot more careful the next time I jerked my gaze over to him.

He was now making no attempt to hide the fact he was staring at me with a critical eye.

“I set my cards to find the greatest weed in that corpse’s life, and the first thing they found was you,” I snarled. “So what do you have to do with this case?”

He chuckled. It wasn’t what I expected. It was light. For a second, it was almost like he was a different man and the gloom that usually surrounded Tom lifted to show just a glimmer of light. “You’re a smart girl, Nadine. The Federal Police might not be popular on your side of the wall, but we sure as hell aren’t popular on this side, either. There aren’t too many people who like to submit to justice.”

I ground my teeth together. “I know my cards. I know what I set them to find. So why did they find you?”

“What are you saying?” He looked at me sharply. “Do you think I’m directly related to this case?”

I opened my mouth. My lips paused. To be fair, I didn’t know what I was saying. I was just confused by everything. Dammit, only half an hour ago I’d been in an apartment that had tried to self-destruct.

“If you’d like me to account for my movements, I have solid alibis for the past three days. I was at the base coordinating your training.”

“I don’t think you killed Celena,” I managed.

“Then what are you saying?”

I stared at him. For several seconds, I just took him in. Tom wasn’t just an enigma – he was a mystery the likes of which gods couldn’t even figure out. Heck, if I was a god, I would most definitely set Tom Walker some Sisyphean task and just forget about him for eternity.

Then again, from the perpetually cold look in Tom’s eyes, it felt like he was already enduring some Sisyphean task.

“You don’t need to look at me like that, Nadine. We don’t have that kind of relationship,” he commented.

Damn. That had come left of field. Though all I wanted to do was wisecrack right back at him, I couldn’t stop my cheeks from flushing slightly.

“You’re not here to get to know me. You’re not here to protect me, either,” he chided as he patted his arm and indicated my concern for him back at the apartment. “All you’re here to do is—”

“Follow you around like a dog to her master?” I challenged through clenched teeth.

He chuckled. “Like a card shark to the agent who plucked her out of crime and poverty and gave her another chance.”

I really clenched my teeth together now. Plucked me out of poverty? Gave me another chance? Bullshit. This guy was using me. The question was, why?

We descended into silence.

This would be a great time for me to ask where the hell we were going. All I did instead was go over and over his reaction in my head as he muttered the occasional direction.

The bastard was hiding something. Problem was, of course he was hiding something. He was a federal agent. He worked on the frigging north side of the wall. I would hate to think of the injustices he’d turned a blind eye to over his career. He’d be corrupt through and through. His list of crimes would make even my checkered history blush.

But he had to be hiding something specifically about this case, didn’t he? Or what? I was just using this to distract myself?

I didn’t like that possibility. Nor did I like the fact that as Tom leaned over and brushed against my arm, he pointed to the side of the street. “We’re here.”

It wasn’t the fact that his arm brushed against mine that bothered me. It was the fact that, once more, we were about to be plunged into danger and further confusion.

I yanked the car up to the curb, withdrew the keys from the ignition, and waited as my harness was sucked back into the recess near the door.

I didn’t bother to turn to him. Why even acknowledge this guy? He’d made it clear where I stood in his estimation. I just opened the door and got up onto the pavement.

I had no clue where we were. Like I’d said before, I hadn’t come to the North since the breakdown of the Accords. And since the breakdown of the Accords, the North had become infinitely richer. A fact that was evidenced as I frowned. Though I kind of recognized where we were geographically, I couldn’t recall a single building. They were all new. Tilting my head back, I stared at the high-rises as they practically punctured the clouds like towers of Babel trying to reach heaven.

Tom groaned as he got out of the car.

For half a second, his pain plucked at my heartstrings. It didn’t and couldn’t last. The bastard was choosing to do this. If he wanted to pack a potentially fatal injury with cheap magical bandages and run around all day slowly bleeding out – it was very much his decision. Just as it was his decision to keep me in the dark and use me like a toy.

I crossed my arms, and I stared at him pointedly. “Are you going to tell me where we’re going?”

“We’re going to the casino.”

My lips paused. They were half open, and I looked like someone had just drawn a picture of them on my face – one that would never move again.

He looked at me pointedly. “What? Don’t like casinos?”

I clenched my teeth together. “I’m not going to cheat for you.” The words came out before I could think them through. See, it was automatic. If you were a card shark of my skill, you got roped into cheating at casinos all the time. Even some of my most trusted cousins had tried to make me do it.

I was a lot of things, but I wasn’t a cheater.

Tom actually chucked his head back and laughed. It was the first moment of levity I’d seen him indulge in. “Did you forget who I am?”

“No. As I continue to have no clue who you are,” I snapped.

He stared at the casino briefly then turned back, a smile spreading his lips. “The Federal Police do not need rookie card sharks to cheat for them at casinos. We get our money elsewhere.”

I crossed my arms further in front of my chest, rumpling the fabric of my shirt. “Then what do you want me to do here?”

“Investigate.”

“What?”

“Fred Owen’s family. They own this joint.”

I frowned. “Why didn’t you tell me this in the car?”

“You were too busy trying to pin a murder on me.”

“I never tried to pin the murder on you. I just said you have something to do with this case that you’re not telling me about.”

“Open the trunk of the car,” he spoke right over me. That was the thing about Tom – if he didn’t want to listen to you, he didn’t. I’m sure as a kid if a bully said something he didn’t like, rather than argue, he would’ve just shoved his fingers in his ears and sung obnoxiously.

I rolled my eyes. “What’s in the trunk of the car?”

“A pack. I’m not sure if you’ve forgotten the fact that you left yours back in the apartment. Speaking of which, now is probably a good time to point out that the Federal Police frown on agents who cannot look after their gear.”

I just stared at him with a partially open mouth. He knew very well that I could look after my gear – just as I could look after him. For, without the destruction of my pack, he wouldn’t be here right now.

I just rolled my eyes and walked over to the back of the car. I opened the trunk and rummaged inside until I found a lockbox. It was heavy duty. I mean damn, this thing looked like it was a mini safe. I grabbed the handle and pulled it toward me. It was like shifting a massive truck tire. “What the hell is this thing?”

“Your pack isn’t in there,” he answered without answering my actual question. He shifted past me. He had to lock his good hand on the side of the trunk as a wave of weakness took him.

My damn body acted on autopilot again. What was it about me and my Russo genes that when I saw someone in trouble, I had to act? I grabbed an arm around his middle, pressing him against my side so he couldn’t lose his balance and headbutt that massive steel safebox.

I shouldn’t need to tell you that in grabbing him, it brought my side, my chest, and my leg right up against him. He was chiseled. I mean, damn, the guy’s muscles felt as if they were as taut as springs. I could feel it – just as I could feel his inviting heat right through his clothes.

His body magic seemed to permanently crackle just beneath his surface. It was the kind of magic that made you think of hot—

I didn’t get a chance to finish my thought. He shoved me off. With one hand on my hip, he just pushed me away like a toddler deciding they didn’t want to be friends with you anymore. “I can look after myself,” he snapped.

“You asshole,” I began.

He rummaged around, grabbed a small case, brought it out, unlocked it, and shoved a pack at me.

I took it, but I did not let go of my anger as it rose through me like wildfire.

He steadied himself against the car then turned to me again. “Maybe I haven’t made our relationship clear.”

“We don’t have a relationship.” I put my hand up and spread my fingers, even though I couldn’t move my teeth. They were so stuck together with anger, I swear someone had cemented my jaw. “You’re my master and I’m your dog, and all I need to do is follow you into that casino and bark whenever you tell me too, ha?”

I didn’t bother to watch his reaction. I shoved the cards into my pocket, pushed up onto the curb, and angled toward the casino.

Fuck this guy and screw his emotional luggage. At the end of the day, he was right, and a murder had gone down. All I had to do is concentrate on that.

Tom didn’t say a word to me. He opened that lockbox. I felt a charge of magic wafting out from it. It was powerful. It was concentrated and immediately made me want to dart over and stare into the box to see what was there. I wasn’t that stupid. If I tried, he’d just shove me into traffic.

What the hell was this guy’s problem? Okay, okay, I got it – I was a Russo. I was also kind of a criminal card shark and he was very much a cop. Why did he have to be such a shit, though?

“Stop fuming. You’re more professional than that,” he snapped as he stood up on the pavement beside me. He had a gun in his hand. Presumably, he’d grabbed it from that lockbox.

Though the last thing I wanted to do was look at him right now, I glanced at his gun out of the corner of my eye as he shoved it into the holster around his hips. I saw the butt of the weapon.

I could’ve whistled. I mean damn. That was a powerful, rare magical gun. Though on my side of the wall you didn’t get too many ballistic weapons – unless they were in the hands of the army – it behooved you to keep up with all new armory developments.

That gun was a prototype that had only been released several months ago. It could act as a magic isolator, a magnifier, and, appropriately, a gun. There were a few perpetually glowing symbols on its side, and if you slid your thumb across them, you could select the gun’s function.

“No, you don’t get one of these,” Tom snapped before I could ask. “Now hurry.”

Every time he told me to hurry, I wanted to curl a hand into a fist and smash it against the back of his head.

He strode toward the casino.

Though it would probably get me reprimanded again, I stayed by the car.

It took him five steps until he stopped. It took another five steps until he slowly turned to me. “Come here.”

I pressed a satisfied smile over my face. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“We have to get this done today because someone else will be murdered if we don’t. That is all I need to know.”

“Okay, how do you even know someone else will get murdered? Looks to me as if we’re floundering in this case. Not my point, though.” I looked pointedly at the car. “The trunk’s open, Agent. Unless you want someone to run along and steal your pretty little safebox there, I suggest you close it. You might also want to put on a jacket. That is unless you want Fred Owen’s family to watch you dripping blood all over their atrium. I’m assuming you’re here because you suspect them. I’m also assuming they have enough contacts in town to know that Celena’s apartment was almost destroyed. If you walk in injured, I imagine they’ll put two and two together and figure out you’re a cop.”

He stared at me so stonily, it was like someone had carved his face from granite. Without saying anything, he walked over, closed the trunk, locked the car, and strode up onto the pavement beside me.

“You’re forgetting your jacket,” I said, and this time, despite the fact all I wanted to do was keep smooshing this guy’s face in his idiocy, I slowed my words down. I also let my gaze dart over his features. Maybe he was starting to suffer from blood loss. It would explain why he’d walked away from his open trunk.

“I don’t care if they see that I’m injured. And I want them to know who I am.”

I frowned. “But we are investigating them.”

“Yes. Now come on.” He strode forward.

I watched as he clearly put effort into holding himself straight. He hadn’t taken any drugs whatsoever for his pain. And though presumably he had all sorts of body spells he could cast to assuage his agony, I hadn’t seen him cast them.

Only idiots endured pain when they didn’t have to. But did I really need any more evidence to conclude this guy was an idiot?

And did I really need any more evidence to tell me that he was most definitely connected to this case?

I’d investigated my fair share of crimes. It was so much easier to do that when no one knew that you were investigating them. For him to walk into this establishment clearly bleeding and with no attempt to hide where he’d been and what he’d just done told me one of two things. He really didn’t care, or, importantly, the people here already knew he was a cop.

It was the last one, wasn’t it? Because Tom was connected to this.

That fact started to drive me insane as I followed him into the casino.

All insanity ended as soon as we walked into the atrium. Because as soon as we walked in, I felt the cards.

That was the thing about a card shark in a casino. Not only did I hate to cheat, but I hated to go to casinos at all. While there were plenty of ordinary gamblers playing with nothing more than cardboard sets of playing cards, nearly every single casino these days had a dedicated magic room for card sharks. You couldn’t have a card shark playing ordinary mortals. That would be cheating, remember?

People liked to watch card sharks play. In the big casinos, you had whole rooms dedicated to games that looked more like arenas for gladiators.

All of that meant that as I walked in through the doors, all I could feel were the cards. They surrounded me – underneath in the basement, above in the rooms of the tower, and around me in the atrium. I mean damn, there were even high-class packs behind glass displayed on the walls.

Sheer electricity escaped up my back and raced over my stomach. I had to close my eyes.

“Don’t let them know you’re a card shark,” Tom said quietly as we walked in.

I opened my eyes and locked them on him. A frown etched itself down my lips. “Sorry, you’re only telling me this now?”

“No sarcasm,” he reprimanded quietly as we maneuvered through the packed atrium to get to the reception desk at the end of the room. “Do not let them know what you are,” he reminded me in a low, gravelly tone.

I wanted to beat my head against the wall. Scratch that, I wanted to beat Tom’s head against the wall. Why did he always hold onto information – critically important information – until the last minute?

Was he testing me? Was he just blunt and insufferable? Or was something else going on?

Something else was going on, wasn’t it?

I groaned internally.

We reached the reception desk. It was gaudy. Okay, maybe some people would think it was a lovely display of master craftsmanship. Not me. It had been carved from a chunk of marble and then finished off with gold trimmings. It was so over the top, it could’ve shot off into space.

As I swung my gaze around the room, trying not to let it lock on those cards behind the glass, I appreciated this place had to be expensive. And by extension, the Owens family had to be rich. Yeah, I get it, everyone on the Northside was rich. But there was rich, and then there was mega crazy wealthy where you could buy your own country. The Owens clearly fit into that category.

When one of the exceptionally attractive receptionists noticed us and shimmied over, a smile on her lips as she noted Tom’s attractive face, he cleared his throat. “I am with the Federal Police—”

“You’re injured, sir,” the woman said, her startled gaze locking on his blood-splattered shirt.

“I’m with the Federal police,” he continued, ignoring her.

So it wasn’t just me, ha? I didn’t know if I felt happy about that or even angrier. Did Tom really go around treating the world like it was too stupid to keep up with him? Had his mama just never told him how to be polite? Or did he get a kick out of leading everyone around on a leash?

“We’re investigating the disappearance of Fred Owen. Please arrange a meeting with his parents.”

“They’re both at lunch,” the surprised receptionists stuttered. “I’ll see if the general manager—”

Tom shoved a hand into his pocket, grabbed his badge, and brought it out.

Every single set of eyes in the room locked on it. Anyone who saw one of those badges ground to a halt as if the reptilian side of their brain had just been kicked in the guts. I knew the Federal Police could spark fear in the South, but clearly it was no different up here.

The receptionist paled.

“I’m with the Federal Police,” Tom repeated one last time, his voice hard. “Please arrange a meeting with Genevieve and Stephen Owen.”

The woman gave a shuddering nod. “You can wait out back,” she began.

He put a hand up. “We’ll wander around. Here’s my number.” He reached over, and without being invited, grabbed a piece of paper and scrawled his number on it. “Get them to call me when they’re here.” With that, he walked off.

I made eye contact with the receptionist. If I’d been a good agent, I would’ve shot her a stern look for questioning a federal detective – instead, I shot her a commiserating frown. Yeah, Tom was an asshole, I tried to convey, but at least she only had to deal with him momentarily. I’d be stuck with him for the rest of my life.

That thought really started to settle in as we wandered into one of the game rooms. This casino obviously knew what buttered its bread. Though the atrium was as grand as Versailles, it quickly branched into three open doorways that led into game rooms.

I could sense the cards from here. The stench of them – their power, the hands that had touched them over the years, and their sheer presence wafted around me.

If anyone had been paying attention, they would’ve noticed that my pupils dilated, sweat slicked my brow, and my lips parted. It was like I’d just taken a hit of a drug.

Suddenly it didn’t matter to me that Tom was keeping me on the back-foot. It didn’t even matter that I’d been plucked out of my life and dunked into hell. I tuned the bastard and this mess out as I snapped my gaze onto the game tables.

This wasn’t a dedicated card shark room. It was just mere mortals playing here. That didn’t bother me. My stare swept around every single playing pack as people hunched forward, their bodies so pressured it looked as if they were midway through a fight.

As with any casino, the room was lit with low, sultry lighting. It was either to make it harder for the punters to see their cards, or to keep them in a kind of half-asleep state – one where they would hopefully forget how much they’d lost to the house.

Despite my visceral reaction to this room, as I’d already intimated, I hated gambling. It wasn’t just cheating that got to me – it was betting your life on a roll of the dice. I knew what these punters did not. The house always won, because unlike me, they had no compunction about stacking the deck.

“Control yourself,” Tom suddenly growled. He had his back to me, but apparently that didn’t matter.

Either he could sense I was ogling those cards, or he still had enough of a magical connection to me to feel that I was blissing out here.

Which brought my mind back to the fact that he’d never technically removed that spell from me. I frowned hard, brought a hand up, and scratched my wrist.

“Yeah, I’ve still got a hold of you,” he said, still not turning to me as we strode through the large, opulent gaming hall. “A fact I hope you remember next time you try to act out.”

“If by acting out you mean saving your life, then sure. Are you forgetting what actually went down in the apartment?”

“Are you forgetting that I’m your boss?”

Did this guy live to push my buttons? He said he had an alibi for the murder because for the last three days, he’d been coordinating my training. Considering my training had been about busting my gut and pushing me to my extremes, it was clear Tom had taken every lesson to heart.

We reached the door at the end of the room. Two bouncers were either side of it. The first thing they did was shoot legitimately confused glances at Tom and his bleeding shoulder.

“You can’t come—” one of them began. He was wearing a wire, and I heard as he got a muffled call.

The guy grunted, listened in to the call, then shot his gaze back to Tom. Without another word, he and his buddy grabbed the doors open and let us in.

We walked into a card shark room.

I hadn’t been able to feel the room before, because as I walked through those doors, I saw that they and the wall they were in were so reinforced, you could practice a satanic ritual in here and no one would be able to detect it.

Screw Tom for not warning me where we were going, because the second we walked in, I stopped. My whole body became rigid as I picked up the reflected power of those magic card packs. It was 150 times harder to ignore than the other gaming hall.

It felt like someone had inundated me with packs to drown me under their potential.

Surprisingly, Tom didn’t turn over his shoulder, snap at me, and growl that I should control myself. He shifted in close, hiding me and my reaction as he brought up his phone and apparently checked a message. He didn’t move until I did.

… That had been almost kind. Almost, because in order for it to have been kind, the man who’d done it would’ve had to be kind, too, and I already had ample evidence to disprove that fact. Still, that didn’t stop me frowning as I walked beside Tom.

He seemed to know the room. He navigated over to a large table on the opposite side. It was massive, and it would’ve cost a packet. It was made from expensive inlaid wood and around the edges were freaking gold leaf. It looked as if it had been lifted from Louis the Sixth’s personal boudoir.

Seated around it were card sharks. Card sharks and their benefactors.

While the card magicians prepped for a game, rich folk sat behind them watching like hawks.

I saw more opulence than I had in a long time. The women dripped with jewels and designer clothes, and the men, not to be outdone, had walking sticks and cufflinks and tie pins so encrusted with diamonds, it looked as if they’d been stolen from some maharaja’s safe.

Tom walked right up to the table.

What the hell was he planning? Was he gonna turn it over, chuck a hissy fit, and scream at these rich bastards to tell him what was going on in the city?

Or was he going to use me, after all? That thought had a chance to blast through my mind. There was one chair at the table that hadn’t been filled yet. The game hadn’t started, either. While the card sharks were shifting through their packs, they were only getting a feel for the table and their competition.

Tom did not lead me over and shove me into that seat. He stood back behind the row of rich folk. Though a lot of them stared his way, the two official-looking magician bouncers who were protecting the table didn’t glance at him once. Obviously word of Tom and his purpose here had already spread.

While some people noted Tom’s injury, no one seemed to care.

… As stupid as it sounded, that got to me. If we were on the Southside, people would’ve rushed over and tried to help. Even if Tom had snarled at them, they would have just snapped back and told him if he cared about himself, he’d get help.

These people barely noticed. Which told me all I needed to know. They did not care about Tom. They didn’t care about the blood dripping on the carpet. All they cared about was the game and the money about to exchange hands. Wealth trumped life 10-1.

Still wondering what the hell we were doing here, my gaze sliced around the room. It locked on the back door just as it opened.

In walked a man. There were other ways to describe him than just a man. He was in an eye-wateringly expensive jacket and had a tie pin made out of a 10-carat diamond. The pack of cards clasped in his hand felt as if it had been crafted by God. As my gaze drank all that in and skipped straight to his impossibly handsome face, my vocabulary died. All it left me with was the word man – because this guy embodied masculinity in a way I hadn’t seen before.

He was tall, handsome, and broad-shouldered, and with a pack that powerful – he was a top-level practitioner. He… ah, stuff it. Why try to explain? As I stood there, I felt like a frigging teenager staring at a celebrity crush.

I should have – but definitely couldn’t – control my expression as he walked in.

He sat in the empty chair. A smile spread over his lips. He had one heck of a nice jaw. It was perfectly proportioned as if Pythagoras himself had taken a few weeks to get it just right. He had sandy brown-black hair. He had eyes that were green, and even from here, I could tell they were flecked with gold.

… It took me too long to put two and two together.

I’d seen that particular parcel of features before.

“What the hell?” I mouthed as I ticked my gaze over to Tom.

I wasn’t the only one who suddenly stared at Tom. That handsome stranger shifted back in his seat, gazed around the crowd, then froze as he saw Tom.

Like everyone else, the guy’s gaze locked on Tom’s shoulder, but unlike everyone else, his cheeks paled.

They clearly knew each other, and with familiar features like that, they had to be brothers.

Which opened a door to a flood of questions I could not close.

That card shark looked as if he had more money than every other punter here put together. The fact he’d entered last also told me that based on card shark rules, he was the most powerful man in the room.

And he was Tom’s brother.

One of the bouncers, who was also doubling as the dealer, took a step up to the table. “Owen Casino acknowledges the presence of Card Master Jason Walker.”

There. That’s all I needed to conclude that these two were brothers.

What the hell? What was going on here? Was this a family reunion?

I wanted to kick Tom in the back of the head. I settled for letting my gaze tick back toward Jason. Because damn – the guy was the hottest man I’d ever seen. There was just something about him. I didn’t need to think particularly long to realize what that was as he pulled out his pack. I watched his hands as he thumbed through his cards. His set was easily the most expensive I’d ever seen, but that wasn’t what took my breath away. It was the way he interacted with them. It was… perfect in every way. It made me imagine his hands doing something else entirely.

Nobody paid attention to me – which was great, because it meant I could give all the girly shivers I wanted. Heck, I could probably start waving at my face and no one would care.

I was invisible. Which had its benefits.

Jason shot his brother one last confused, worried look, then set his cards out on the table.

“The stakes are 250 million,” the dealer said in a completely neutral tone.

I almost gagged. I had to jerk a hand up and lock it on my mouth. Sorry, 250 million? That could buy you three sectors in the South. I mean yeah, I get it, clearly these assholes were rich. But who bet 250 million on a game of cards?

The answer was all of these mugs. Though my attention could’ve gone in any which direction, considering I had enough questions to fill the Pacific Ocean, I started to heed my environment. I was in an unfamiliar place, and what did you do when you were somewhere new? You stopped to look around.

As hard as it was, I forced my gaze off the perfect Jason and the confusing as hell Tom, and I started to let it tick around the room. I got a feel for how large it was. I counted the tables. I counted the chairs. Hell, I counted the light fittings. As my directed attention swept across the place, I made a calculated decision about how many magical devices were in here and what would happen if anyone got into a fight.

Once that was done, I moved on to the people. I settled on the two bouncers. They were strong. I mean really strong. They both looked as if they were ex-military, and not your ordinary grunts, but ex-special services. It wasn’t just the fact that I could see a tattoo peeking out of the collar of one of the guys – it was the way they held themselves. They were brick walls, and they knew it. They would also have exceptional magic if they’d been charged to preside over a game worth 250 million.

The bouncers were only the start. The rich folk watching this game were something else. I actually recognized a few of them. Some owned corporations, some were politicians. One of them I was pretty sure was the current mayor of the North.

And then there were the players. Though all I wanted to do was lock my attention back on the sweet, sweet Jason, I forced myself to analyze every other player at the table. As I locked my attention on them methodically, I took down everything from their stature, to their packs, to their probable power.

The conclusion I came up with wasn’t great. Almost everyone here was more powerful than me. Before I could slink away and lick my ego wounds, I had to remind myself that these bastards were used to winning. Yeah, sure, raw power often decided a game – unless you were playing with someone who’d made a life out of making the most out of nothing.

Tom didn’t shift. He didn’t wobble. He didn’t check his arm. He watched the game as it started.

One of the bouncers brought up a hand and swiped it to the side. The guy was a body practitioner, and as he curled a finger in and traced a symbol on the top of his thumb, light erupted around the table. It traced over the wood and blasted into the middle. Plumes of smoke shifted up and collected along the ceiling. The lights in this area turned down to half. It meant that everyone’s gazes locked on the magic illumination as the table continued to glow. The reflected power lit up their eyes and pooled at the edges of their expectant smiles.

The card sharks grabbed their packs.

I didn’t even know what they were playing. There were plenty of different games card sharks could try their hands at. While poker and blackjack were always perennially popular, there were games specifically designed for magicians.

This had to be one of them. As the card sharks opened their packs and let them hover over their hands, I watched as each of them charged with magic.

It’d been bad walking in here – experiencing this was worse. I just stopped myself from grabbing my arms around my middle and shivering. It felt like I’d just jumped into a bath of pure electricity.

Screw Tom for bringing me over here and not warning me. And while I was on that topic, screw him for being so complicated.

If he had just been cut and dry, I would have been able to conclude he was a one-dimensional asshole, and I could get over him. Now I couldn’t stop myself as I swiveled my gaze from his stiff back over to Jason’s worried gaze.

The game started quickly. People as rich as this, after all, had other things to do – namely, making money. And, you know, just running the world.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that the second the game started, the feelings rushing through me became almost indescribable. The power in the air was palpable. It made my teeth shake if I was stupid enough to clench my jaw together.

If Tom noticed my symptoms, he didn’t care. Heck, the more I was putting my mind to it, the more I realized that if Tom Walker had real feelings, they were so buried in that barrel chest of his, even he wouldn’t know they were there.

Tom was… God, I don’t know. A distraction. Who frigging cared if the guy had real feelings? He was my torturer, end of story. The only thing I needed to concentrate on right now was magic.

The game started quickly, and it started hard.

It took me a second to realize what they were playing. My gums tingled and my back itched. Back on my side of the wall, we called this particular game dead man fishing. The goal was to turn your opponent into a dead man, then use him and his pack to go fishing with your rivals. You didn’t actually kill anyone. Though heck, maybe on this side of the wall you did. Perhaps you dragged up some poor sucker from the South, slit their throat, fleeced their pockets, and chuckled all the way to the bank. The real game, however, involved playing your worst cards up to your most powerful. It was dependent on the pack you’d brought and how equally spread each card constituting it was. If you had a top-stacked deck, then the cards right at the top would be the most powerful. If you had an even deck, then each of your cards, as the definition suggests, were evenly matched in power.

The card sharks wouldn’t have been told what game they were playing until they’d arrived, so they wouldn’t have been able to pick their decks in advance. The last damn thing you wanted to do in a game of dead man was to walk through the door with a top-stacked deck. You’d be swallowed whole by the end of your first-round.

Of all the card shark games – not that I played, considering I hated gambling, remember? – dead man fishing was one I had a soft spot for. I figured it taught you a life lesson. You might have serious power up your sleeve, some rare object, some crazy skill, or a lot of money in your wallet, but if you had a fatal weakness, life would fish it out of you, force you to play your hand, and sink you like a stone.

Though maybe I should’ve lost all awareness of the room as the game started and the magical vibes swamping me quadrupled, I didn’t. Blame it on the fact I’d always had the best ears as a Russo – but I heard a creak as the door into the room opened. Not turning around fully, but brushing some hair over my shoulder as I tilted my head to the side slightly, I saw a woman entering the room. She was in expensive clothes, and even from here, I could see she had a massive ruby necklace practically dripping off her throat. She looked like money come to life. But… something felt off.

Jason was about to play his hand. I could feel his power from here. And all I wanted to do was see what the lowest card in his pack was – and more importantly, how he played with those big inviting hands of his. I didn’t. I couldn’t. Something about that woman and the quiet, apparently easy way she walked into the room grabbed my attention and held it fast. A frown marched across my lips, but I hid it, knowing the last thing you wanted to do to a dodgy person was show them you knew they were up to something.

She walked up to the group, and no one bat an eyelid at her. With that necklace, those clothes, and that unnaturally pretty face, she looked as if she belonged.

She didn’t, and second by second, my instincts started to overclock like a computer processor running at full speed.

My gaze darted across her, though I still only dared to look at her out of the corner of my eye. I stopped noticing her clothes, her stature, and the uneasy glint in her eye and started to assess her for magic.

She wasn’t carrying a pack on her – the pockets of her trim, slim-fit suit dress were nonexistent. She couldn’t be a card practitioner, then.

I searched for indications of another practice stream.

She took a step closer to the group. She hooked her hands behind her back. No one noticed the move but me. You see, her shoulders started to strain. It didn’t look as if she was carrying anything heavy. Nope. It was far more worrying than that. As they pushed back and the smooth, slight muscles down her shoulders started to contract and release I realized she was making fine, intricate movements with her hands. The kind of movements you would make, say, when you were drawing on your own skin.

Body magician. More than that, she was practicing magic right now.

I tuned into Tom again. He’d already given me every indication I needed to conclude that he was one hell of a body practitioner. So surely he’d be able to sense when someone in his vicinity was practicing his skill?

Either he did and he didn’t show it, or he didn’t because he was far too distracted staring at his brother.

I could only see the side of Tom’s face, but that didn’t matter. The particular hard frown that had marched over his features told me everything I’d already concluded. They were definitely brothers, and they definitely had a history. Before my mind could become distracted by the fact that Tom’s brother looked like one of the wealthiest men in the North, I watched that woman’s lips spread in a satisfied smile. The kind of smile you’d give if you’d just practiced a complicated, powerful spell in a magically protected casino and no one else had noticed.

One of the bouncers stepped forward. The first round was complete, and as he sliced his hand down and to the left, he indicated the player who’d lost.

The guy swore bitterly, rammed back hard in his seat, and spun around to look at his benefactor. She was a rich old lady who looked as if she’d seen it all before. You know what I mean – the kind of wizened face that told you she usually rolled with surprises. She did not, however, roll with losing. She slammed her hand down on her walking stick – the one that was encrusted with an eight-carat emerald – and she snarled so loudly, she sounded as if she’d swallowed a lioness.

She also shot her player the kind of look that told him he’d pay for losing.

It was enough to distract most people around the table.

Not me. I itched to shove a hand into my pocket and cast a secret scanning spell. Well, secret if I weren’t in a room specifically designed to stop card sharks from casting unseen magic. Because dammit, I was in a room that stopped me from casting unseen magic, I realized, cheeks paling.

Had that been part of Tom’s plan?

Maybe he’d brought me here specifically and this was a setup? Maybe he knew the suspicious dame with the ruby necklace. Perhaps he’d asked her to come here to act all dodgy to see if I could follow orders or if I’d follow my instincts instead.

Or maybe Tom was just an idiot, this woman was up to something, and I was the only person with the sense to see that.

My back pulsated with nerves. The kind of creeping, crawling nerves that made you think someone had just slashed your skin and poured ants down there. I couldn’t cast a scanning spell, but I could watch this woman like a hawk. Which is exactly what I proceeded to do.

“The second round will begin—” one of the bouncers said. He stopped as he twisted his head to the side, brought up a finger, and pressed it against the earpiece behind his left ear. “I understand.” He ended the call quickly and turned back to the rest of us. “The prime benefactors are on their way. The game will pause until they arrive.”

I knew casino talk. Prime benefactors was a nice way to say the casino owners were coming to watch.

Or maybe they were coming to shoo Tom and me away from this game. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that as I continued to stare at that suspicious woman out of the corner of my eye, at this news, her lips stiffened. I’d seen people commit crimes. I’d seen people thinking about committing crimes, too. So as the woman smiled – her lips curling sharply like someone grabbing a pen and drawing a jagged line across a blackboard – I knew what I was looking at. This woman was up to something. And by the looks of it, it would involve the Owens.

I almost shoved forward, grabbed Tom’s shoulder, and whispered a warning in his ear. But the idiot chose that moment to walk away as his phone vibrated.

Dammit. Yeah, so technically I was a federal agent, but Tom had made it abundantly clear that whilst I was nominally working for the Law now, I was very much working for him first. I was not a free agent, and if I went around attacking rich socialites, he’d attack me harder.

I couldn’t just stand here and watch, though.

It didn’t take long for the Owens to arrive. The main doors on the other side of the room opened, and in walked two of the most opulent people I’d seen in a long time. Sure, you kind of got wealthy people on the south side of the wall – but it was the equivalent of taking a sewer rat, giving it a wash, dressing it up in a suit, and shoving a bowler hat on its ratty little head. You couldn’t change what we were underneath.

As I stared at the Owens, they looked as if they’d only ever known wealth, would only ever know wealth, and would be above you no matter how far they sank and how high you rose.

Their privilege was ingrained in their every cell.

“Let the second round begin,” one of the bouncers said as he pushed a hand up and got ready to reopen the board.

Both of the Owens strode up. Though they made brief eye contact with Tom, they didn’t walk over to him. Instead, they pretended as if they were just here for the game. Mrs. Owen even waved with a stiff, regal hand as if she were some monarch parading down the corridors.

Sweat slicked my brow. Hell, it slicked everything. Something was about to go down and—

I watched that suspicious woman move off to the side, her hands still behind her back. She angled toward the Owens.

I didn’t owe these rich bastards anything. Hell, they owed me everything. These were the kind of elitist monsters who’d ruined my life and every life on the south side of the wall. They’d taken and taken and taken. And yet I would not stand here and watch someone take their lives. They didn’t have morals – I did.

The woman brought her hands around. There was no visible magic dancing across them. I couldn’t even feel magic. But it was there. It had to be.

She reached out to shake Stephen Owen’s hand. Something told me that the second he touched it, he’d initiate some spell that would either kill him or come damn close.

I acted. Screw it. I couldn’t keep it in anymore. The part of me that had been born and raised to dole out justice moved. Just before she could ask Stephen to accept her hand, I barreled into her, knocking her to the side.

There was a chorus of surprised shouts. One of them wasn’t surprised, though – it was Tom, and he roared at me.

Whatever. All I cared about was that as I rammed my shoulder into that woman, I felt her magic. I wasn’t a body magician. That didn’t goddamn matter. I felt a spell seething beneath her skin as if her flesh was nothing more than plastic wrap someone had wrapped around poison.

Tom barreled over to me, about to lock a hand on my shoulder and drag me out of here. He didn’t get the opportunity.

That woman moved. She shoved a hand forward. And finally, she showed her colors. Lethal charges of red-black magic crackled between her fingers.

I reached forward to wrap a hand around her throat and drag her back. Tom got there first. Bringing a hand up and flicking one finger down his palm, casting the quickest body spell I’d ever seen, he shoved the Owens out of the way. That meant he caught the brunt of that spell. He might have just cast a protection field in front of his body, but that didn’t matter. With a roar, that woman shoved a hand forward and spread her fingers wide, and lethal charges of dancing red-black magic shot into Tom. His shield was powerful, but she’d been gathering that spell for ages. It would’ve been enough to take out not just Stephen, but his wife and anyone standing too close.

As the spell slammed into Tom’s shield, it ruptured, and magic discharged over him, throwing him back 10 meters. I actually screamed. I screamed like I cared about him. I screamed like he wasn’t my jailor. I screamed like the sight of him being thrown across the room felt like someone ripping out my heart. I didn’t just scream, though. I shoved forward.

I wasn’t the only person who went to intervene. Those two bouncers snapped into action. They jumped over the table, landing either side of the woman.

She snarled, her lips splitting open as her anger billowed through her like a toxic fire.

Both bouncers were body practitioners, and as they shoved forward, they did so in a combined attack. Magic laced their skin, dancing high around them and framing their violent but professional expressions as they went in for a double grab. My earlier assessment was correct, because these two had to be ex-military – I’d seen moves like that before. And with a grab like that, these two could have taken down an elephant.

But this woman was still charged with lethal magic. Though everything unfolded as quickly as someone firing a gun, at the back of my head I deducted that she must’ve been gathering this spell for hours. It was in the exact hue of the black-red crackles that leaped over her skin like fire laced with toxic tar. Despite the men’s combined power, as the woman’s blasts slammed into both bouncers, it took them down. They parted from her like leaves blown off a tree.

She pushed to her feet. There were genuine screams now. Not surprised gasps, but deep-bellied cries. The scariest thing these rich elites had ever experienced was probably a stock dive. Now there was a terrorist in the room, and there was a real chance everyone would die in a hail of blood and magic.

Several people shoved toward the woman while everyone else ran away. One was a tall, lean benefactor, and the other was Jason.

I was closer.

I was also not gonna hold back.

Like I’d said, there was no love lost between Tom and me, but that didn’t mean I was going to let this woman get away with almost killing him.

She shoved to the side, brought a hand up, and sent a blast of magic slicing toward me.

I just dodged.

Sure, the blast was strong, but it wasn’t well-timed, and her aim was off.

She tried to attack me again, but once more, I simply twisted to the side. It was all too easy. Despite the fact she had almost killed the Owens, something about this woman seemed off.

She tried to attack one last time, but when it became clear that I had the kind of moves that could throw me clear of any attack without slowing me down, she turned, desperation flickering in her eyes.

She threw herself toward the opposite wall and that small door Jason had entered through.

I started to run her down. The world narrowed as I did. This once large room became nothing more than a tunnel with me at one end and her at the other – one I would throw myself down like a frigging cannon blasting through a chute.

But I wasn’t alone. Tom picked himself up. Somehow, despite the fact the bastard looked injured enough to be a mangled corpse left over after a particularly vicious bear attack, he still staggered to his feet. I could only see him out of the corner of my eye as I ducked and weaved behind the terrorist.

“Get back here,” he roared.

I really doubted he was talking to the terrorist. Not with that tone. Plus, terrorists weren’t known for acquiescing to the barked requests of the police.

I ignored Tom. He could have screamed in my ear with the magical equivalent of a thousand megaphones, and I wouldn’t have bat an eyelid. My drive for justice billowed in my chest, pushed through my muscles, and shook me forward faster than someone launched from a catapult.

The woman ran at the table. She sent an experimental charge of magic blasting into it, but if she wanted to destroy it to distract me, she was fresh out of luck. This was a magic table, for the love of God – more than that, a card shark table in one hell of a fancy casino. From the wood, to the way it was grown, to the way it was manufactured, to the goddamn rivets holding it in place – everything would’ve been perfectly calculated to withstand magical stress.

The lady might’ve put her all into her spell, but it didn’t matter. Charges of magic blasted into the table, but they scattered across it, discharging down the legs and singeing the carpet beneath without making even a dent in the veneer.

With no other move up her sleeve, she threw herself onto the table, rolled across it, and jumped down on the other side.

On the surface, it was an agile move. It was uncoordinated, though – at least to someone like me. She didn’t throw herself over the table with enough momentum, and halfway across, she had to shift around and scoot on her butt until she dropped down on the other side.

Me? I ran at the table, bolted on top of it, rolled, and leaped down on the other side, completing the move in half the time she had.

“Don’t you dare follow,” Tom blared. If there was one good thing to be said about him, he hadn’t fallen unconscious. He would, though. His voice was wavering as if someone had their hands around his throat.

I tuned him out. I was like a racehorse someone had put blinders on. This always happened when I started to track down a target. Right now, it didn’t matter what side of the wall I was on. It didn’t matter that Tom, yet again, was turning out to have a wealth of secrets. I was like a dog after a bone, and there wasn’t anything either side of the wall that would be able to stop me.

The woman shoved forward, running so quickly, she lost purchase on her heels. She staggered, falling onto the carpet. Her stockinged knees brushed up against burning chunks of magic she’d thrown. Rather than protect herself with a quick body magic spell, she used all of her force to jettison her body forward as if she was a horse that had just been let out of the stalls.

She twisted around, opened her palm, and sent a charge of magic blasting my way.

I didn’t even bother to reach for my pack. I shoved my shoulder forward, grunted like I was about to rugby tackle her, and bodily threw myself into the spell. To be fair, I did connect to my pack, just not visibly. I allowed its presence to bolster me, and as I forced magic into my cards, they forced it back into me. It was enough that while her spell tingled, it didn’t throw me off my feet, and nor did it cause me to go splat on the ceiling.

It wasn't a spell per se, so it didn't reveal to either the room, or the people in it, that I was a card shark.

She was rapidly running out of magic. The lethal charge she’d built and used to attack Tom with was long gone.

I heard one last cry from Tom. He wanted me to come back. Fat chance. From the moment he’d plucked me off that bus, he’d clearly had a purpose for me. That purpose was to track down criminals in a way the rest of his squeaky-clean colleagues could not. If they were here, they’d give up the chase. I wouldn’t give up until someone took out both my knees, and even then, I’d just crawl.

The woman did it again – she reached over her shoulder and let a blast of magic slam out in a violent wave.

It was strong, and maybe if you were less determined than me, you’d be freaked out by it. If you didn’t have my wealth of experience, you might conclude that considering what she’d done earlier, she was a force to be reckoned with.

She wasn’t. She’d be easy as pie to defeat.

You could think that was braggadocio coming from me – it wasn’t. Yeah, sure, this chick had interrupted a card shark game, taken out two bouncers, and almost killed my partner, but she was just a rookie.

You could tell that by the fact that she had to keep concentrating on each spell and she couldn’t split her attention into casting protection on her own damn body.

Someone was using this woman – either powering her through some hidden remote spell I hadn’t been able to detect yet, or through some sort of talisman or transfer symbol on her body.

My eyesight became sharper as I dodged to the side, pitching into a roll and jumping up sharply just as she tried to flatten me with another one of those charges.

I just grunted and chucked myself forward even faster. My gaze narrowed in on her face. I saw fear igniting in her eyes, burning like a fire that was just getting started.

Sweat slicked her brow, and it made the top of her lip glisten as she opened her mouth to sneer.

I just pressed my lips together and goddamn growled back.

I was aware of the fact the main doors into the card shark room blasted open behind me. Casino security came barreling in. The woman’s eyes widened at the sight of them.

Who the hell had sent her?

My mind instantly ticked back to all the mobs I knew. It took too long to remind myself that I was a fish out of frigging water on this side of the wall. With no idea what kind of enemy I could be up against, the smartest thing to do would be to back off and crawl back to Tom.

Screw being smart.

The woman reached the door Jason had walked through – sorry, sauntered through like the amazing perfect physical specimen that he was. Rather than open the door, she brought up a hand, stabbed a finger into her palm, and sent a spell blasting into the door. It shattered the wood. I just had a chance to duck to the side, roll, and dodge out of the path of the shrapnel.

The woman barreled through the smoking, open doorway.

I didn’t need to look back at the card shark table to recall that when she’d tried to blow it up, there’d been no lasting damage. Now she’d somehow managed to scrounge the strength to blast through a reinforced gaming door? That door, like the table, was meant to keep card sharks controlled.

What the hell was going on here?

At the back of my head, I remembered Tom’s warning. He didn’t want me to reveal the fact I was a card shark. I hadn’t revealed anything yet but the fact I was the kind of unarmed crazy chick to run down a terrorist.

Now I shoved a hand into my pocket. I didn’t grab my cards out. I could feel the eyes of the other punters and their supporters on the back of my neck. Sure, I wasn’t about to take the secret of me being a card shark to the grave, but I could at least wait until I was through the door to reveal my true colors. Which is exactly what I did. I reached the door, skidded down to my knees, and rolled through it. Never, ever go through a door someone expects you to run through at head-height. If they have good aim, you won’t have a head by the time you get through.

Sure enough, as I rolled through, I dodged a slice of hot white magic that would’ve slammed into my chin and lips and sunk in like a punch from Hercules himself.

I punched to my feet. I finally pulled my cards out. Goddamn was it satisfying. It would never get old. You could ruin my life, destroy everything I knew, and take my city with it, but you would never be able to change my reaction to a set of cards. It was instinctive. Ingrained. It was buried in my soul, and every time I touched a new pack, it was like a brief glimpse of my everafter – one that told me it would all work out in the end. All I needed was a pack of cards and a hope. And hey, I had both right now.

The woman had made it 20 meters down a long, straight corridor. I watched as she jerked her head over her shoulder, her cheeks paling visibly even from here.

“Yeah, that’s right,” I wasted the breath to snarl. “I’m still alive. And it’s my turn now.”

I wasn’t usually one for one-liners. Only heroes in crappy films and comics had the time to rely on their snarled wit to save the day. But hey, there’s a first time for everything, isn’t there?

More security arrived in the game shark room, but something told me they’d be too busy securing the Owens and the rest of the rich guests to track this terrorist down. Saving the day would be up to me.

She let out another scream. Maybe she thought it was strong. It was scared as hell. She might’ve been a good 20 meters away from me, but I could see her tortured gaze, and her eyes could not lie.

They spoke of a fear stronger than just being tracked down by the Federal Police.

I’d seen wide, gut-wrenching gazes like that before.

This woman was trapped. The question was, between what?

That fact did not pluck at my heartstrings, and it sure as hell didn’t slow me down. Grabbing a hand harder around my pack, without even pulling it out, I mentally selected a protection card. I pulsed magic from my fingers into it, and it was just in time. Rather than spread a hand my way and send another spell shooting into me, she got smarter. She attacked the ceiling instead. The spell smashed into it, and chunks of superheated concrete and steel hailed down. My protection spell held. The smoldering rubble slammed into me, cascaded off my shoulders, and struck the ground. And I kept running.

“God,” she gasped, the word quivering from her lips.

Nah, I wasn’t God. I was just a pissed off card shark. And I proved that fact as, gripping my pack with all my life, I rolled, stood, and leaped up the frigging wall. Without a pack, I was agile – sure – but I wasn’t like a frigging superhero. With a pack, and with a strong desire to run this woman down before she could cause more mayhem, you could have slapped a cape on me and called me Super Nadine.

Running across the wall and flipping wasn’t just to show my moves – it was a calculated attack. As my feet slammed into the plaster and concrete, I connected to my pack. Specifically, I connected to a card that was in most packs.

Magic had its roots in the mystic understandings of prehistoric man.

Way back when, tens of thousands of years ago, sophisticated scientific theories hadn’t existed. The world had been made up of the five elements, and magical spells had mirrored them. Even these days, you’d find water, earth, fire, wind, and metal in most packs.

You’d also find that most card practitioners had an instinctive control of those five elements. They were often the first cards you learned to control.

But understanding and truly embodying are two very different things. For a card practitioner to eke out every last scrap of magic from a card, they had to become that card. It didn’t mean they needed to shrink down, strip their bones, blood, and flesh, and become cardboard – it meant they had to momentarily suspend all disbelief and trick themselves into thinking they were fire or water or dirt. They had to manifest the power trapped in the cards to unlock their true potential.

It’s precisely what I did now. I just had a standard pack, but that didn’t matter at all. As my feet slammed into the wall, just before I pushed off it and flipped, I drove an earth spell into the concrete. And I broke the wall. Not all of it. I had no intention of completely destroying this casino. If the thought of crashing an expensive car gave me the willies, bringing down a 34-floor tower that had genuine goldleaf covering everything was in another league altogether.

I could, however, understand that I had to take this woman down no matter the costs. And I had to do it now. Someone or something was clearly giving her power, and until I broke that connection, she was an unknown entity.

The wall beneath my feet crumpled for a two-meter by two-meter section. It didn’t crumble into rubble, though – it sliced itself out neatly as if someone had taken a chunk out of a cake.

I didn’t let that chunk of wall crumble into the room that abutted this corridor. Instead, I made it stick to my shoes.

I flipped around. I forced all my power through my body, letting it sink into every centimeter of flesh until I felt like I was nothing more than a perpetually burning candle.

The woman had a chance to open her eyes wide. Yeah, she’d be opening them a heck of a lot wider soon. With a roar that split my lips like a lioness getting ready for the kill, I flipped the wall around and kicked. My foot struck that chunk of concrete and send it hurtling forward.

My pack yanked itself out of my pocket. It shot out of the fabric so fast, it tore a hole in my pants. The pack spread out before me. It was electrified to the point that each card wasn’t recognizable as a card anymore – they were more like doors into infinite power.

The chunk of wall barreled into the woman. Though it would be easy enough to let it knock her against the floor and squish her, I wasn’t interested in killing her, just conclusively knocking her out.

She brought up an arm and tried to pulse her fingers wide as she desperately tried to send a spell slamming into the concrete. She wasn’t fast enough, and she wasn’t strong enough. The concrete reached her. It knocked her off her feet. It hit her with all the force of a pro baseballer slamming a steel bat into an apple.

Her head jerk back, saliva slicked the side of her mouth, and her eyes rolled into the back of her head. She was out for the count.

I was still connected to my earth card, and importantly, to that chunk of concrete. I twisted my hand to the side. That slice of wall hovered in the air. It was a hard spell – taxing beyond anything I’d cast in a long while. I managed to shift the wall around, though, and while I usually wasn’t this neat, I pushed it back into the hole in the wall, resealing it with another pulse of magic from my card.

I had time to let out a sigh.

Then the cavalry caught up. I felt a practitioner barrel down the corridor from the card shark room.

I glanced over my shoulder, expecting Tom.

There was a problem, though – it was his perfect brother, instead.

He skidded to a stop as he saw my pack. It was still burning as if it’d been engulfed in hellfire. His gaze darted down to the comatose woman, then over to me.

I’d just met the guy – okay, we technically hadn’t even met yet – but for some reason I got the impression that the look he stared at with me with was one he had never shot anyone else before. It looked beyond impressed. His lips jerked open. “You’re a card shark?”

“Sure am. I’m a federal agent, too,” I barked.

… Really? This guy was impressed with me, and he was categorically the hottest man I’d ever seen. This was where I should bask in his glory, not shout at him.

His face crumpled in confusion. “You’re a federal agent? I’ve never seen you before.”

“Do you know every federal agent?”

“All the card sharks” he answered pointedly as he slipped his gaze back to my pack.

His gaze traced along each card. I’d already figured out that I really liked his hands, but as I watched the way his eyes moved, tingles escaped through my belly. There was just something about this man. Despite the fact he looked as polished and pretty as a male model from a luxury magazine, underneath…. Hold on, I had more important things to think about right now. I was dealing with a terrorist, remember?

I turned back to her. I also shifted a hand to the side.

As nice as it was to have Jason stare at my pack and appreciate my power, it was a little too intimate.

I closed my pack up, spreading a finger and slicing it down to the left. The pack lost its holy hellfire, came together, and pushed back into the case before slipping back into my pocket.

The fabric was still broken – a whole inch long section of the seam having exploded when the pack had asserted itself.

The real cavalry arrived. If you could call private bouncers for a private casino in the North a cavalry, that was. The cavalry were meant to be the good guys.

They barreled past me, two of them shoving my shoulders as they reached the woman.

I momentarily forgot I was a federal agent. I just stood there, not intervening and not helping as I watched them get down on their knees and check her.

I wasn’t allowed to forget what I was for long. I heard someone take several agonized steps, then the next thing I knew, two sweaty, blood-covered hands locked onto the doorway behind me. With a breath, Tom walked through.

I wanted to control my expression. I needed to remind myself that only 20 minutes ago Tom had told me that I had no right to care for him. Yet something twisted in my gut, and my face opened with relief. “You’re alive.”

“And you’re not doing your job,” he said with a growl. “Do not touch her.” Tom’s voice rose and punched through the corridor with officious ease. “This is a Federal Police matter.”

Either the bouncers were hard of hearing, or they didn’t recognize Tom’s authority.

“This is a Federal Police matter,” Tom growled one last time, his voice hitting the kind of pitch you could not ignore unless you had a death wish.

The two bouncers rose.

I might’ve been several meters back, and I’d put my pack away, but I still caught several charges of magic lacing along the wrist of one of the bouncers as he shoved something into his pocket.

My eyes narrowed.

If I could hope that Tom had seen it, my every hope was dismissed. Tom could barely hold himself up on his feet. He had walked into this casino injured, and to top off his shredded shoulder, he’d just received a near lethal dose of magic. There were blast marks up the side of his frigging face. His shirt was hanging off him. He looked like some kind of mangled action doll. The only thing that seemed to be functioning was his pissed-off expression. He staggered forward, settled his breath, and got down to his knee.

All he had to do was growl for me to realize he wanted me to follow.

I made brief eye contact with Jason. It might’ve only lasted several seconds, but that was more than enough to register complete confusion. Confusion and something else. The way his lips tugged down hard wasn’t right. It suggested he had no clue what he was looking at. Maybe I could put that down to the fact he’d already claimed he knew all of the Federal Police card sharks. His confusion was deeper than that, though.

“Keep your shirt on,” I said as I ran up to Tom. Under other circumstances, that would’ve been a pretty funny, apt comment.

It was the wrong thing to say now. Tom jerked his gaze up, locked it on me, and looked as if he wanted to strangle me. “You shouldn’t have hit her so hard. She needs immediate medical attention. Dammit, we need to find out who she works for,” he spat.

I blinked back my surprise. Tom was glaring at me as if he was disappointed.

I wasn’t the kind to stand around and take other people’s ire that easily, though – especially when they were wrong.

“I just knocked her out. I tapped her with the concrete wall, that’s it.” Okay, I get that the phrase I tapped her with the concrete wall wouldn’t sound reassuring, but I knew how hard I’d hit that woman.

Tom opened his lips, presumably to tell me I was wrong.

Me? I turned around.

“What are you doing?” he demanded.

“I’m telling you, I just knocked her out. So what the hell did those two bouncers do to her?” I growled.

“Nadine—”

I tuned him out. Damn was I getting good at ignoring this asshole when I needed to. I was like a very disobedient dog. Sure, occasionally, maybe I would heel, but when I caught the scent of something I wanted to hunt, I would frigging hunt.

Tom had a chance to growl my name again.

I took several quick steps away from him. “Something else is going on here, Tom.”

“Of course something else is going on.”

“Those two bouncers did something to her, I’m telling you—”

“I believe you,” Tom said.

It was like being slapped – slapped with a whole fistful of surprise. What? Tom believed me? Bullshit he believed me. Tom hated me, was disappointed in me, and was playing games with me.

He just arched an eyebrow at my disbelieving scowl. “Something else is going on here.” He emphasized the word is. “We have to retreat.”

Retreat? You retreated from battles, from wars, from inevitable defeat. You sure as shit did not retreat when you were a policeman and you were tracking down terrorists.

I didn’t point that fact out. I ground my hands into fists. As much as I wanted to follow those bouncers, they’d already disappeared back into the card shark room, and even from here, I could hear that security had flooded the place.

Short of me finding the right bouncer, shoving him against the wall, and ripping open his pocket in front of all his buddies, my ship had sailed.

Tom groaned and tried to get to his feet. I went to grab his elbow to help him up. But I wasn’t the only person trying to assist. Jason snapped in faster, locked a hand around his brother’s arm, and held him steady.

I was treated to the sight of the two brothers staring at each other. Damn, it looked like two lasers meeting midair. Up this close, their resemblance was unmistakable. While Jason had clearly won all the handsome genes, not that Tom was hard on the eyes, Tom had an intensity Jason lacked. It was the kind of intensity that promised you, if given a spark, Tom’s rage could burn like a star.

I watched as Tom’s jaw hardened like setting cement. He wrenched his arm free from his brother and took a pointed step back. Though everything I knew about emergency medicine told me that Tom shouldn’t be able to stand, everything I was starting to learn about Mr. Walker told me he’d damn well find some way to stand anyway. Which is precisely what he did. He also took another step back as if to further emphasize the distance between the two men.

Well, this was awkward. Though the Russo side of me wanted to point out we were still on this case and didn’t have time for crushing family reunions, the rest of me just kicked back and watched.

Tom was turning out to be one of the most complicated guys I’d seen in a while, and I’d grown up with mob strongmen, drug addicts, and broken war vets.

“Tom, don’t be like this. You’re about to pass out,” Jason tried.

Tom obviously did the most adult thing he could think of, and he turned away as if he hadn’t heard his brother’s impassioned plea.

Blame it on the fact I’d had a hard day, but I spluttered, snorting with laughter. It was categorically the worst thing to do. I mean, Tom was right there. My snort didn’t just rattle in his ear, but he could see my amused expression, too.

“I suggest whatever you have to say, you stow it. Now come with me,” he growled.

“I have nothing to say, sir,” I lied. “Where are we headed? The morgue? You going to find a slab to lie down on before you die of blood loss? Sure will save the city in transportation costs for your corpse.”

I had a history of pushing people’s buttons. I’d been hit in the face so many times for a snide remark, my nose was permanently tilted to one side. Not everyone who makes inappropriate wisecracks gets nasal manipulation for their troubles, though – if you wanted to be punched, your joke had to be not just funny, but accurate.

And my comment was as comforting as a pathologist’s scalpel right down Tom’s chest.

He turned his dire gaze on me. I mean damn, if Tom were a religious bloke, you could find yourself believing a stare from those deadly eyes would initiate Armageddon.

I just smiled. Then I pointedly let my gaze slip down his blood-slicked pants and lock on the actual puddle of blood pooling by his expensive shoes.

“I don’t need this right now, Nadine. I doubt she was the only terrorist. Now she’s knocked out – however that happened,” he caveated as he didn’t blink once, “we can’t find out who was pulling her strings.”

Everything was happening so quickly, I hadn’t had a chance to share my suspicions with Tom. Obviously he didn’t need my observations, and the seasoned federal agent already knew perfectly well that woman had been receiving magical force from an outside source.

My eyebrows twitched as my mind ticked over what he’d just said. I took a sharp, pressured step toward him that saw my shoes grind his blood against the smooth, polished floor. “Wait, how many other terrorists do you think there are?”

He offered me a wan smile as if he were proud of the fact I’d skipped from the possibility that there was just one terrorist to the conclusion that there had to be a group. It was the only thing that made sense. For someone to be remotely pumping power into that woman, while you could have done it with certain extraordinarily powerful magical talismans, they would have left their mark – it would’ve been much easier to use a team of trained body practitioners instead. She was a body magician herself – so she would know how to receive remote power.

I don’t know how pale my cheeks became, but from the feel of them, they would no doubt resemble polished bone. “What do you know that you’re not telling me? No, scratch that – it would take way too long for you to spill all your secrets. Where do I go?” I barked.

To think, only this morning I’d been entertaining thoughts of doing a runner from this idiot. Now I was not just letting him give me orders but eliciting them.

“We’ll retreat and wait for reinforcements. You’re not going on your own.”

“Do you want me to drag you along in a body bag?” I spat pointedly.

“I’m fine.”

“Then why are you staggering?”

As I spat the words out, he swayed like he was a sapling in a gale.

I now knew my place around Tom. If I so much as tried to help him, he would probably bite my fingers off like a starving piranha.

His brother clearly didn’t have that compunction, because despite the fact he’d been warned off, Jason ducked in and locked a hand around his brother’s shoulder.

Tom fell against Jason’s side. As Tom’s knees buckled out from underneath him, the agent lost the capacity to push his brother off.

“What are you tracking?” Jason asked, his voice tight with worry. “How many terrorists are there?”

“She’s not going alone—”

“I’ll go with her.” Jason looked at me… and it was an odd damn look.

It wasn’t the way it made me feel – though come on, making direct eye contact with this looker made me feel as if I’d swallowed firecrackers. It was… I had to go back to the fact that when Jason looked at me, he – like Tom – seemed to be appreciating something I could not see.

I’d never been a suspicious soul, and I didn’t engage in paranoia. I believed in facts. It was only by following those that you built a predictable life based on truth. But I could not contain the specific itching nerves that raced down my back and sank into the base of my spine. They tightened my every muscle, making me poised as I stood there. As creepy as it sounded, I felt like a doll some kid had acquired for their latest dollhouse.

It didn’t take me long to shove that image away. All I needed was for Tom to suddenly go limp.

I jerked toward him. “Tom—”

He rolled an eye open and stared at me. “You don’t do anything stupid. You have permission to track down the terrorists and stop them, and that’s it.”

“Fine. Just tell me—”

“I suspect they work for Richard Bowen. There’ll be a group of 5 to 7.”

I receded as if someone had struck me with a chunk of concrete wall. “What? I thought you said Richard Bowen was missing?”

“5 to 7,” Jason repeated. “Where do you think they are in the casino?”

I stared at Tom. If I needed any more evidence to conclude this guy was an asshole, the fact he’d been hiding this from me was all I required. Richard Bowen was clearly not missing. He was also clearly not the corpse we’d almost lost our lives identifying back in Celena’s apartment. Heck, he was clearly the main frigging suspect in this case, but Tom had still dragged me around by the nose all morning making me think we didn’t have any leads.

“I—” Tom began.

“They’d be wherever the Owens are going,” I growled. With my hardened gaze and equally hardened voice, I let Tom – or at least whatever was left of his rapidly dimming consciousness – know just how pissed off I was at him.

“You don’t know that. They might have another target,” Tom tried.

“Yeah, sure. This another test? Well let’s just pretend I’ve passed already. I’m going after the Owens. Don’t worry,” I said as I turned hard on my boot, grinding more of Tom’s blood into the floor, “I won’t take down the whole casino.”

“Nadine,” Tom growled – or at least he tried to. His voice wavered as if someone had played a recording into a 100-kilometer gale.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” Jason said.

“That’s why I’m worried,” Tom had a chance to mutter before his eyes rolled into the back of his head.

Chapter 6

As tempting as it was to wait around for Mr. Beautiful to join me in hunting down the terrorists, I didn’t have time. My protection instincts had kicked into gear, and they grated through my muscles, making me feel like a racehorse that had been tied down.

I pushed past Jason as he gently led Tom’s comatose body down to the floor. I didn’t head back to the card shark room. The Owens wouldn’t be in there anymore. They would’ve been moved. Plus, I needed to investigate the rest of this casino. Richard Bowen was obviously alive, but just as obviously, someone had hired those two bouncers from earlier to knock this terrorist out. In other words, this field was muddy, and the only way to get any perspective would be to rise above it.

“Hey,” Jason called.

“Let’s split up. You go back into the card shark room. They’re going to be more receptive to your presence. Try to find those two bouncers from earlier. See if you can track them back to whoever is giving them orders.”

“I promised Tom we’d do this together.”

“Tom is out for the count. It’s up to us now.”

“I’m not leaving you alone,” Jason said as he easily ran the distance I’d already put between us, his powerful body more than a match for mine.

“I don’t need a hero, buddy. But the people in this casino need us to do our jobs. Head back to the card shark room.”

I felt Jason’s gaze drill into the side of my face. Maybe it only lasted several seconds, but it felt as if it dragged on for longer. “… No, you don’t need a hero, do you? But you probably need a handler.”

So far Jason had seemed a thousand times nicer than Tom. Which wasn’t hard considering Tom’s personality came off like a nuclear bomb in your face. Now I sliced my gaze over to Jason and wondered how far the apple fell from the old tree.

He just stared back. “The Owens were probably moved up to Stephen’s office. There’s a safe room there.”

We reached a set of service stairs. A couple of meters on was the end of the corridor, and there was a large silver lift. Jason angled toward the lift.

I hesitated as a crazy plan formed in my mind. I needed to ditch Jason. It wasn’t just the handler comment – it was the fact he wouldn’t think about this case like I would, and if he kept trying to make decisions for me when I knew better, he’d hamper my speed.

I followed him to the lift. He was the first inside. And the last. He turned around and shoved a broad finger into one of the top floor buttons. “Come on.”

I took a step forward just as the lift started to close. I didn’t enter. I shoved a hand into my pocket. I’d already commanded my cards to pull themselves out of their pack. They were at my fingertips, literally. Without pulling them out, I mentally selected the right card, and I flicked it forward like I was squishing an irritating ant.

No, a handsome one – a man I was mad for ditching. But a man I was nonetheless going to leave behind.

His eyes widened. “What?”

My card spun up, connected to the lift doors, controlled the mechanism that moved them, and forced them to slam shut. The card lodged halfway through the closed doors. It would take even a card shark with Jason’s skills some time to move it.

I took every second I could get as I turned so quickly on my heel, I could have cracked the floor. I reached the stairs and threw myself up them. I might have had a small stature but that didn’t stop me from bolting up two stairs at a time.

I was still connected to my pack. I kept them clasped in one stiff knuckled hand, my fingers driving in as my body became one with each card.

It wouldn’t take long for Jason to reach me. I needed to put some distance between us, and importantly, head somewhere he wouldn’t be able to predict.

Sure, it made sense for Stephen and his wife to return to the safe room in his office. But the hallmark of this entire mess was that nothing made sense. Someone was keeping us on our toes deliberately to stop us from planning ahead.

“And someone is covering their tracks,” I reminded myself, a deep frown cutting across my lips. A recollection of what had gone down in Celena’s apartment flashed through my mind. That self-destruct spell had initiated when I’d started scanning for evidence. But who’s to say it wouldn’t have initiated anyway?

Someone was clearly trying to hide their tracks. That’s why those two bouncers had done a number on that terrorist. If we hadn’t been there, they would’ve no doubt quietly dispatched her.

… Which was presumably what they were doing now.

“Idiot,” I spat at myself. I turned, threw myself down the stairs, reached for a card, and cast it with a flick of my wrist. It cocooned me with a protection spell as I got jack of jumping down the stairs and deliberately rolled down them instead. My body might have thumped over them, but not a single bruise bloomed over my skin.

I reached the base of the stairs, grabbed a hand on the railing, and turned so fast, I actually loosened it from the wall.

I pounded the corridor, heart in my mouth as I turned around a corner.

I expected to see bouncers dispatching that terrorist. I did – there were three of them, and damn were they big brutes.

There was also Mrs. Owen.

As I skidded to a stop several meters away, she jerked her head up.

The skin around her eyes tightened, and her lips pulled hard over her teeth – and that was all I needed to conclude that she was my target.

She looked sprung, and she would only be sprung if—

“You should have gone looking for my husband,” she said in a disappointed but even tone that told me this woman wasn’t just good at confrontation – she was a frigging psychopath. “Now we will have to dispatch two federal agents.” She flicked a dismissive hand my way.

She looked like a bored general sending her soldiers out to decimate some poor undefended village.

Yeah, I wasn’t undefended. And I was now thoroughly frigging pissed off. I had risked my life for this woman’s husband, and so had Tom. And here she was, pulling the strings in the first place.

As I shunted to the side and grabbed my pack with an even harder grip, I realized how much sense this made. Tom thought there were five other body magicians who’d been supplying that terrorist with magic. You wouldn’t need a team that big if you had a single asset in the room – and critically, a crazily powerful one. That asset would have been Mrs. Owen.

Those three bouncers leaped at me like a pack of Dobermans.

Two were body magicians and the other was a card shark.

Oh, how quaint. The guy went for his pack, snarled as slicks of saliva spread across his teeth, and threw his cards out in an arc. Rather than cast a spell, he connected to them and used them as a combined weapon – one that came spiraling my way.

I didn’t bother to duck. I punched up my arm – the same one that was holding my pack. I let my power pulse into it with all my frigging force until my arm lit up like a flame torch.

The guy’s pack sliced into my arm – and I damn well burnt it.

It took power, guts, and a fine knowledge of the interaction of packs – but as I screamed in anger, his pack just exploded.

He was maintaining such a connection to it, the force of the detonation ricocheted into him. The next thing he knew, he was blasted so hard against the wall, he chipped the concrete.

His two friends had hung back, obviously thinking their powerful card shark buddy would end this in the blink of an eye. Now they blinked, sure, but it was in utter surprise.

I took the time to thrust forward. I spread my hand wide. My pack fanned out in front of my fingers. I flicked one electrified card forward. It didn’t shoot toward the two bounces. Instead, it plunged into the floor by their feet.

“Eliminate,” I roared.

An elimination card did exactly as the name suggested – it eliminated whatever it came in contact with. It was by definition a card that was only as strong as the practitioner wielding it. Sure, they probably had fancy versions of that card in more expensive packs, but ultimately, the progeny of the car didn’t matter – just your force of will. And I frigging slammed my mind into the floor right below those bouncers’ feet.

The floor gave way. It just crumbled as if it were an eggshell someone had driven over in a car clocking 200 kilometers an hour.

I’d just dealt with three of this casino’s top bouncers, and it had only taken me 20 seconds.

It wasn’t over yet, though, was it?

Still connecting to my protection spell from earlier, I leaped clean over the hole in the floor and landed on the other side. My hair fanned in front of my face as I slammed a hand onto the floor and rose slowly. I would’ve looked like a ghost pulling myself out of the fog of some haunted cemetery – and I had just the kind of harrowing expression to match.

Mrs. Owen was a psycho and a seriously powerful body magician, sure, but she still had a sense of self-preservation. At my display and the fact my arm was still electrified from the magic I was pumping into my standard pack, she jerked back, her eyes opening to the point of falling out of her head. “Who the hell are you?”

“Federal agent – I’m new. You wouldn’t have seen me before. And you wouldn’t,” I took another step toward her, and I spread my pack out, opening my palm as my cards started to fan around my body, “have any clue what I’m capable of. Now step away from my criminal and my boss.”

Her gaze flashed. Then she attacked. No more words. Just frigging action. As she snapped toward me, I felt magic, and I watched as her jaw stiffened. She would be casting magic by writing on the roof of her mouth.

I felt an invisible force race toward me. If I let it snag hold of my body, it would crush me as effectively as an ant wandering under a mining hauler.

I pulsed to the side, and for the second time in the past half hour, I ran up the wall. This time I didn’t carve out a chunk of it and send it hailing toward Mrs. Owen. I just flipped out of the way. Critically, I managed to get on the opposite side of her as I put my body between her and Tom’s.

As I landed, my cards started to spin faster around me. It would’ve looked as if a small constellation of stars had become trapped in my orbit.

She cast another spell against the roof of her mouth, and the floor started to pitch. Not for her – just for me.

If she thought she could shake me off my feet or replicate the move I’d used on her bouncers, she was fresh out of luck. Without a word, I commanded two of my cards to scoot down and flatten themselves against my boots. I rose a good inch off the floor, and the bucking concrete quickly became irrelevant.

No, sorry – it stopped being my problem, but as I flicked the card forward, it became hers.

Practitioners of different streams could technically attack each other’s spells. All you required was something that utilized the same magic stream. Body practitioners could cast earth spells, and as I’d aptly demonstrated, so could I. But counteracting something and taking it over were two very different things. Attempting to not just circumvent but control another practitioner’s spell was dangerous in every sense of the word. If it backfired, it could give them access to your entire magic stream. If they didn’t like you, no trouble, they’d be able to kill you as easily as someone switching off life support.

We’d already established I was a pretty risky dame. So I thought nothing of opening my hand, spreading my fingers wide, and sending the rest of my pack blasting toward her. It circled her for a second, then plunged down into the concrete. In doing so, as it settled against the floor, it pushed into her magic.

Her eyes opened so wide, I was sure they were hands suddenly grasping at hope as it slipped through their fingers.

I still hovered in the air several inches above the floor. My hands were spread wide, and my eyes were half closed as I forced all of my attention and magic into her spell.

Her lips wobbled and split open, her once calm and psychopathically controlled expression shattering and giving way to the mayhem of total fear. She didn’t give up, though. She fought me every step of the way.

“Fool,” she spat.

“Call me what you want – you’re still going to lose.”

“With power like that, they’ll make you nothing more than a puppet.”

I’d been ready for her to hurl insults my way as her spell failed and she lost ground, but this… what did it mean? Of course they were going to make me a puppet, but the way she said it—

“He’s been looking for someone to enact his revenge,” she snarled.

I wasn’t an idiot. Though I wanted to know what the hell she was talking about, I also knew that psychos like her were adept at manipulation. I just forced all my will into taking hold of her spell and getting access to her total magic system. Once there, it would be nothing more than a click of my fingers, and I would knock her right out.

“Don’t become a doll. Both sides love playing with dolls.”

Okay, it was getting too much for me. My brow condensed. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Everything is a game. It was a game during the war and the Accords, and it’s still a game. Be careful whose piece you become.”

With that, she gave up. Well kind of. She was almost out of magic, anyway, but rather than fight me right to the end, she simply released her hold of her spell.

In a flood, I accessed her magic, and I did it so fast, I knocked her out.

She crumpled, her expensive high heels folding out from underneath her as if she was some great tower that had just been cut from its base.

I jerked forward. “What—” I began.

She started to glow. No, the necklace around her throat started to glow. I’d only noticed it a few seconds ago. It was ruby. It plunged down her neck, and befitting for the wife of the owner of this establishment, it looked more expensive than the building.

Now it pulsed with magical fire.

It took me too long to recognize what was happening.

It was about to blow – and with power like that, it wouldn’t just take me out – it would take out everyone in the corridor.

I couldn’t move—

But someone else could move for me.

Tom launched up from the floor, wrapped a strong arm around my body, and folded me down to my knees. He wrapped a hand over the top of my head, and he practiced body magic. Not just with his body, but with mine.

I felt his power, all around me, gushing through me like an unknown river. It enfolded me and protected me as Mrs. Owen’s necklace exploded.

It took her with it, the terrorist, the card shark bouncer, and half the corridor.

But Tom and I survived more than long enough for him to whisper several gruff words by my ear, “I can’t let you die yet.”

The end of On the Cards Book One. This series is complete. There are four books, and all of them are currently available, so pick them up today.

 


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