Rush hour traffic below my apartment window breathed a deep note behind the rise and fall of winter wind. Rain tapped like pinpricks against glass. The only noise besides my own rapid breathing was the cold water pouring into the bathroom sink.
That, and my dead father’s voice.
“Allison.” My father’s voice again. Distant, as if he strained to pitch it across a crowded room, a crowded street, a crowded city.
I was the only one in my apartment. And my father was really dead this time.
I’d gone to his funeral this morning and seen him buried–literally watched as his body was lowered into the grave. There was no mistake, no corpse stealing, no weird magical rituals this time. This time, he didn’t have a second chance, third chance. He was well and truly gone. “Allison.”
“Oh, for cripes’ sake,” I said–yes, out loud–to my empty apartment. “You have got to be kidding me. What the hell, Dad?”
The bathroom mirror in front of me showed my panic. I was still a little too pale from the hospital stay, which made the opalescent mark of magic look even brighter where it wrapped from my fingertips up my right arm, shoulder and on the edge of my collarbone, jaw, and temple. My dark hair was messed from kissing Zayvion Jones a few minutes before in the kitchen, but even though one eye was obscured by hair, a shadow stained my eyes. That shadow, I knew, was my father.
He wasn’t in the room. He was in me.
This was going to put a crimp in my date tonight.
You must, my dead father said in my ear, less than a whisper, more than a thought.
Must nothing. Not this time. Not ever again.
“No. No way,” I said. “No to whatever you were about to tell me. Listen,” I said, cool as a 911 operator talking someone down from a ledge, “you’re dead. I’m sorry about that but I am not going to let you possess me. So follow the light, or go to the other side, or hang around your own house and haunt your accounting ledgers or something. You do not get to stay in my head.”
But I knew my dad. Nothing was not a guarantee he was gone.
How did one dispossess oneself, preferably before one’s hot date in a few hours? The only thing that came to mind was vampires and thresholds and not inviting them across. I doubted vampire stuff would work on my disembodied father. He might have been a soulless bastard, but he was not an actual vampire, since vampires, as far as I knew, did not actually exist.
And even though I was putting up a brave front, it was hard to ignore the fist-hard thump of my heart against my ribs, the salt of cold sweat on my lips.
“Daniel Beckstrom,” I said, putting all my focus and concentration on the words, giving them the weight of my will, “Leave my mind, leave my body, and leave me alone. I do not give you permission to be a part of me.”
Sweat ran a line down my temple. I watched my eyes. Watched as the shadow drew away from my pinprick pupils, dissolving outward like clouds retreating from the sun, until a thick ring of night edged my familiar pale emerald irises.
I blinked, and even the ring of darkness was gone.
I exhaled to slow my breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. I was fine until I swallowed. The taste of wintergreen and leather rolled down the back of my throat. My father’s scents. In my mouth. In me.
He wasn’t gone. Not at all. He was still there somewhere, a moth-wing flutter, soft and fast, behind my eyes.
I thought that flutter was just another side effect from all the magic I’d used lately, another price to pay for trying to save those kidnapped girls and trying to save Anthony.
Bloody memories came to me unbidden: the warehouse with the abducted girls tied down by knotted spells, the kid, Anthony, broken and bloody on the floor. My friend Pike’s mutilated face, his remaining eye fever-bright as he held my hand and made me promise, made me swear to look after the ragtag group of Hounds he called family. Just like he called me family. And my father’s corpse....
I pushed that memory away. The girls were dead, or returned to their families. Anthony was back with his mom, or maybe in juvie; I wasn’t sure. Pike was gone. Dead.
Just like my father should be.
My hands had been under the rush of cold water for so long, they’d gone numb. I pulled my hands out of the water, fumbled the vase and rose I’d been holding. The vase clattered into the sink. I turned off the water and scrubbed my forehead with cold, wet fingers, trying to stop the flutter in my skull.
“We didn’t like each other when you were alive,” I muttered to my father. “You think living in my head is going to change that?”
Find the disks, my father said from the far side of my head.
I resisted the urge to pour mouthwash in my brain.
“Forget about the damn disks. You’re dead, Violet said the police are looking for the disks, and I don’t want you in my head. Go away.”
The flutter scurried off to the back of my brain, so far from my conscious thought I couldn’t feel it any more.
And there it was: the official least comforting thing that had happened all day. Dad was not only in my head, he could speak to me, understand me, and hide from me.
How fabulous was that?
The only bright side? My father, the most powerful magic user I’d ever known, had actually done something I’d ask him to do. Which was a first. But the thought of him curling up cozy in my brain made me want to stab a hot spork through my head.
Since I didn’t have a spork handy, I leaned over the sink and scooped up a palmful of cold water and pressed it against my face. There had to be a better option than a violent sporking. There had to be a way to get rid of my dad.
Think, Allie. There has to be someone who can figure this out.
I was going to see Maeve Flynn tomorrow so she could start teaching me the things about magic the Authority didn’t like regular people to know about. Secret things, like there was a secret group of magic users–the Authority–who ran their own kind of justice in this city and went around deciding who would and wouldn’t be allowed to use magic. Secret things my father had been involved with–including the disks that made magic portable and nearly painless. Dad had been a part of the Authority, and he had been killed because there was some sort of magical war brewing among them.
And Zayvion, who was most definitely a part of the Authority, had lobbied to get me admitted into the group for training with Maeve. I wasn’t convinced it was the best option, but since my choice had been join or have all my memories of how to use magic taken away from me, I’d joined.
Being possessed by a dead relative sounded like something right up Maeve’s alley.
Okay, so I’d talk to her about it and see what she could do.
Now I just needed to get through my date with Zayvion Jones. I so did not want my dad in my head on my first real date with the man I was pretty sure I might love.
Maybe I should cancel.
Zayvion didn’t carry a cell, and I didn’t know his home number. That’s the problem with dating a secret magic assassin, a Closer: you don’t call them, they call you.
So, the date was on. I’d tell Zayvion I had a chaperone. Maybe he could help me figure it out.
Step one: shower. Would my dad feel me naked? Don’t think about that.
Step two: dress. Would my dad see me naked? Really don’t think about that.
And step three: go on a date with Zayvion. Would my dad know what I felt about Zayvion? Would he hear what I thought about him, would he feel me hot and needful for him?
Probably. ‘Cause I’m just lucky that way.
A knock on the door rang out so loud, I yelled and spun, fingers poised to draw a Hold spell. No one in my bathroom. The knock had come from my front door, not my bathroom door.
Magic flared through my bones, slipping my hold on it. The sensuous heat of magic pushed against my skin, stretching me, stretching to get free and I had to exhale to make room for it to move. It pressed heavy in me, a sweet pain, promising anything, everything, so long as I was willing to pay the price for it.
I felt the moth-wing flutter of my dad in my head, his curiosity at the magic inside me.
“You touch it, and I’ll use it to end you,” I said through my teeth.
The curious little moth was very, very still.
Good. At least he could tell when I was not kidding around.
I very carefully spread my fingers apart and then closed them into fists, consciously resisting the temptation to draw the Hold glyph, to cast magic. Because no matter what magic promised, every time I lost control of it, magic used me like a disposable glove at a proctology exam.
I am a river, I thought. Magic flows through me but it does not touch me.
I took another good breath or two, and magic retreated into a more normal rhythm of flowing up from the cisterns deep beneath the city, into me, and, unused, out of me back into the ground.
The knock at the front door rapped out louder.
I fished the vase and rose out of the sink, and put them on the little shelf above the towel rack. The pink rose Zayvion had given me looked a little worse for the wear, but it wasn’t dead yet. Tough flower, roses. All that sweet beauty with the thorns to back it up. I appreciated that.
I dried my hands on my jeans and strode out of the bathroom. I wasn’t expecting company. Well, except for Zayvion. But he said he’d be back in at seven. We had dinner plans. First-date plans. Let’s-be-normal-like-other-normal-people plans.
The knock rattled out again.
There is one thing I can say about living in the city. There isn’t a Ward or Alarm spell on the market strong enough to keep someone from breaking down your door if they have the will, the way, and a strong enough shoulder.
My baseball bat was under the bed, but I always left a hammer on the bookshelf.
Hammers can do all kinds of damage if they are swung low enough.
Yes, it had been that kind of week.
And the knocking just kept coming.
I stopped in front of the door, took a breath and held still both it and magic in me for a second. I recited my little mantra: Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack, all dressed in black, black, black... until the order of those words calmed my racing thoughts.
It took about five seconds. My mind, my thoughts, cleared.
Using magic wasn’t as easy as the actors made it look in the movies. It can’t be cast in states of high emotion–like anger, or say, while freaking out because your freaking dead dad is in your freaking head. Every time you use magic, it uses you back. Sure, you could magic yourself a photographic memory for that big test, for that big interview, for that big stock market job. And all it cost you was a nice case of liver failure.
Or the memory of your lover’s name.
Exhale. Good. Calm? Check. I leaned against the door frame and sniffed. I didn’t draw magic up into my sense of smell, though I was good at that too. Smelling, tracing, tracking, Hounding the burnt lines of spells back to their casters was how I made my living. But I couldn’t smell anything over the oily tang of WD-40 I’d sprayed on the lock the other day.
I peeked through the peephole.
The woman in the hall was dressed in jeans, a knitted vest, button-down blouse and a full length coat. Blonde, about eight inches shorter than my own six feet, she was a little wet. Portland’s good at wet. The best. But even in the unglamourous warp of the peephole, she looked like a million sunny days to me.
Nola Robbins, my best friend in all the world.
I slipped all the locks which slid smoothly–thank you WD-40–and threw open the door.
“Oh, thank God,” she said. “I thought I heard you yell.”
“I did. I’m fine. It’s so good to see you ” I practically flew out of my apartment and into her arms.
Nola hugged me, and I caught the scent of honey and warm summer grass even though it was the middle of winter. The familiar comforting scents of her brought up memories of her non-magical alfalfa farm and old non-magical farmhouse. I inhaled, filling with the scents and memories of pleasant days. I did not want to let her go.
She patted my back, and I gave her one last squeeze.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “Is something wrong?”
“I don’t think so,” she hedged. “What’s up with the hammer?”
I dropped it on the little table by the door. “Just, you know. It’s the city.”
She shook her head. “You could get a dog.”
“Don’t start with me. Come on in.” I belatedly noticed she had a suitcase with her. “Let me help.”
“I got it.” She strolled into my apartment, wheeling the suitcase behind her.
Out of habit, I looked up and down the hall. No one. Not even a shadow on the wall watching us. I hoped.
Irene Goodman Literary Agency
27 W. 24th Street
Suite 700 B
New York, NY 10010