I took the third exit off Oceanview and drove toward my new office. Despite the fact that I’d had a huge fight with Bruno last night—well, actually in the wee hours this morning—I was in a pretty good mood. I’d given everyone on staff the morning off today because of the great job they’d done last night; my new desk and safe were being delivered today, and, with any luck, I’d actually be able to unpack and get my personal office organized.
Dawna and I were finally in the process of moving Graves Personal Protection into our spiffy new digs.
We’d managed to purchase a decommissioned, Mission-style church complex from my friend, Emma Landingham, who had spent a fortune renovating and upgrading the property. She’d have kept it, but her new husband got transferred to Seattle. Her loss was Dawna’s and my gain. The place was absolutely gorgeous, with Old World charm and all of the modern amenities and security. Best of all, thanks to the on-site cemetery, it was, and always would be, holy ground. Bad ghosts, demons, and vampires couldn’t cross onto it.
But my absolute favorite thing about the office was that it existed.
My previous office had been close to downtown, in a three-story Victorian. It had a big porch and a little balcony that opened right into my office. I’d loved it, and probably would still be there if it hadn’t been destroyed by a bomb meant for me.
That little fiasco had been all over the local news, so no one would rent to me. For months we’d been working without an office—and I’d had to put up with having boxes of stuff filling my home, and Minnie living with me.
Now I could get my house back to normal. Woot! No more tripping over boxes. No more looking for things here, only to find out they were packed somewhere else. No more litter box in the bathroom. Just the thought of being able to walk easily from room to room made me giddy with pleasure.
I would always have a soft spot in my heart for my dear, departed Victorian, but this office, while a completely different style, was still wonderful. The main structure was a big old stone building with beautiful architectural details and a pair of bell towers. I was a little surprised the church had decided to part with it. Then again, it wasn’t old enough or important enough to qualify for the historical society’s mission trail, and the church itself was small and outdated by modern standards.
Too, the grounds had to have been expensive to keep up. Em had been forced to sink a lot of money into landscaping the courtyard area alone. What had been barren dirt and mown-down weeds was now an aesthetically pleasing area planted in xeriscaping, with wildflowers and native trees. There was a fountain, too, and if I listened hard, up in my office, I could hear the water burbling in it. It was very soothing.
In all, the complex took up more than an acre, including the walled compound with a parking area on the east side and the small cemetery, which held the remains of the first missionaries who had been stationed there, on the west.
There was a rectory attached to the main church by a covered walkway that also passed the graveyard. We had a couple of spare bedrooms in there for when we needed a safe place to stash a protectee, or an employee needed a place to crash. One of the rooms had been Kevin’s before Emma moved out, and he was still using it, with my permission. It seemed more than a fair trade since he was letting a former client use his place in the desert while she acclimated to being one of the monthly furry.
The third building was a small, detached storage shed for the mower and lawn equipment. Since the parking lot was bigger than we really needed, I’d chosen the north end as the location for the casting circle.
Approaching the entry, I hit the button on the automatic gate opener clipped to my sun visor. The gate looked like wrought iron, but was made of heavy-duty, spelled silversteel; it rolled smoothly out of the way. There was barely enough time for my rear bumper to clear the perimeter before the gate began moving back into place. And that perimeter! The magic of it hit my senses like a ripsaw, making me gasp. I keep telling myself I’ll get used to it—but so far, no such luck. I’ve been able to sense the magical perimeters around buildings for a while now. Most are no big deal. The better ones are a little uncomfortable. But this one hurts. Still, it’s only for a minute, and the security it provides is worth the bother and expense.
I was surprised to see a car parked in the lot—a silver-gray Mustang convertible, it belonged to our newest employee, Tim Sawyer.
Tim had been hired just last week to replace Dawna’s cousin, a mage who had been injured in the line of duty. I already liked him. He’s twenty-two years old and biracial, with skin the color of heavily creamed coffee and curly, light-brown hair cropped close to his head. He has a sunny disposition and the kind of grin that lights up a room. He jokes around but knows when to settle down to work. I’d been a bit worried about him, but in the past two days I’d given him two serious challenges. Both times he’d risen to the occasion. As a result we now had no sound problems in the office and a portable spell-casting circle. Fifty percent of that would belong to Graves Personal Protection, and unless I was off on my estimates, it would be bringing us in a very nice chunk of change.
After slathering on sunscreen, I climbed out of the car. It was only a pair of steps from my reserved spot to the door, but even in that short distance I could feel the heat of the sun trying to burn me to a crackly crunch.
I’m an abomination, a human who has been partially turned by a master vampire. It’s caused me a slew of biological changes, including problems with solid food and a severe allergy to sunlight. I’ve been like this for quite a while now, so I’ve worked out some coping mechanisms, but it’s not something I’m happy about. Still, it’s not all bad. Vampire speed, strength, and healing can be damned handy in my line of work—particularly since I find myself protecting clients from the monsters often as not.
I punched in the security code and the door latch clicked, the light on the electronic lock flashing bright green. Stepping from bright sunlight into the shadows of the side entrance was like stepping into a cave. The temperature inside was easily ten degrees cooler, and it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the relative gloom. There was also that sense of calm and peace that so many holy places have, as if years and years of prayers and ceremonies have seeped into the structure itself. I wondered if after we’d been here a while, that feeling would wear off. I hoped not.
“Hey, boss. What’re you doing here?” Tim’s voice came to me from the main area.
“I’m supposed to meet the guys delivering my desk and my safe.”
“I wanted to finish getting my desk together so I can get the patent paperwork done and have the attorney go over it.” He was grinning, his face alight with pride and excitement. I didn’t blame him a bit.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it. I’m headed upstairs.”
He nodded and went back to work.
I strolled down what had once been the main aisle of the church, looking around with proprietary pride, checking out how much of the move had been accomplished. I was pretty pleased with the result. Oh, it was still chaos, but it was organized chaos. The conference table was in the altar area, just below the big screen that could serve as both a television and computerized video display. Separate work areas had been set up on the main floor.
It was all very high tech, and the geeky part of me was overjoyed. Never again would I have to make do with makeshift, thrown-together tech. I was glad my staff hadn’t wanted cubicles. Not only did an open floor plan mean less expense (yay!), cubicles would have ruined the aesthetic. Instead, the four employee desks sat two by two in the main area.
Bubba’s was the desk closest to the dais. I could tell because his desktop was already organized and decorated with a perfect model of a yacht, a photo of him with his wife, Mona, and their daughter, and a baseball autographed by Mr. Cubbie himself, Ernie Banks. A box of files in a banker’s box sat atop the black two-drawer cabinet beside his desk.
Kevin Landingham had taken the desk directly across the aisle from Bubba. Because of his PTSD he has a service dog, Paulie, a golden lab. Her doggie bed and a chew toy were tucked discreetly into the corner formed by his desk and credenza. Kevin’s our tech guy, and despite the PTSD, a complete badass, a former member of a quasi-military organization. He keeps more secrets than a mob boss’s priest. He is also one of the monthly furry.
Tim’s station was in the next row, and it was as messy as the other guys’ were neat. The clutter included papers, books, spell components, a stuffed bat, and God (and Tim) alone knew what other unidentifiable stuff. But I didn’t give him crap about it. First, we were just moving in. Second, I had a sneaking suspicion that he was one of those folks who would be able to find what he wanted in an instant despite the mess, even if no one else could.
The fourth desk was empty. Someone had set it up with all the right stuff—stapler, two-hole punch, the works. But it was, and would remain, barren, until and unless we hired another person.
Since she was my partner, Dawna had an office. On the main floor, it had one glass wall that looked out on the main area. Glancing in, I could see that she was well on the way to having her stuff unpacked and organized. Lucky her.
I kept walking, heading toward the lobby and the stairs that led up to my office in the former choir loft. Emma had used it as her spare bedroom. I’d chosen it as my workspace because I liked the idea of being able to look down and see everything that was going on. I also liked having a bit of privacy. And I absolutely loved the stained-glass windows.
When my old office had been blown to bits, one of the things that grieved me most was the loss of the big stained-glass window that had adorned the stairs leading up to the third floor. Now I had a similar window in my actual office. Mornings like today’s, when the sun shone through the colored glass, were like standing in the midst of a rainbow.
Looking up, I could see over the half-wall that someone had gone to the trouble of assembling most of my office for me. Sweet.
Oh, there were still boxes everywhere, but it was starting to look really good. It sounded good, too. When we’d first moved in there had been a terrible echo problem. Tim’s very first project had been to come up with a spell that could contain the problem but still leave us able to hear each other. It had been a real challenge, but our new mage had done a fine job with it. Now someone just had to refresh the spell, along with the perimeter, once a week.
I’d barely made it to the top of the stairs when the phone rang. Tim answered it on the first ring. A second later, the intercom buzzed. It took me a minute to find my phone in one of the boxes on the floor. But eventually I was able to answer.
“There’s a guy named Justin on the line. He says his people are at the front gate with your new safe. Shall I let him in?”
“Please.” I hung up and turned around, trying to figure out how to arrange the boxes and chairs so that they wouldn’t be in the way while the safe was installed. The other day, Justin had taken one look at the narrow stairway, with its worn wooden treads, and decided there was no way in hell they were bringing a safe up that way. So he’d charged me to hire four mages to levitate it up from the first floor and maneuver it over the half-wall.
I bent down to shift a bunch of boxes to one side and Minnie the Mouser leapt out at me. I let out one of those “eepy” screams that are so embarrassing, leaping backwards and tripping on something behind me as she bolted between my feet, a little orange and white blur of fur headed for the staircase.
I sat down abruptly in the nearest chair, my heart racing, my breath coming in short little gasps, feeling like an idiot as adrenaline poured through my body from having been startled.
Thus I was right by the phone when it rang again. I picked it up without thinking, from habit. “Graves Personal Protection.” My voice on the line sounded almost normal, not at all like my pulse was pounding.
“Celie, it’s me. Are you okay?” “Me” was Bruno DeLuca, mage extraordinaire and love of my life—at least at the moment. Whether that was going to continue was becoming increasingly dicey if last night’s argument was any indication. I shoved that thought firmly back down and answered.
“Fine. The cat was apparently playing in the boxes and we startled each other.”
He laughed, but only for a second, and it wasn’t the hearty guffaw it normally would’ve been. Something was up.
“I just hung up with Matty. Mom’s worse. I’m headed to Jersey on the next flight out.”
Oh hell. Bruno’s mom, Isabella Rose DeLuca, was a force of nature and one of the most powerful magic-wielders on the planet. But not so long ago, a group of rogue mages had tried to use the node near a supermax prison known as the Needle for dark purposes, and she’d been one of the four mages to step up and stop them. During the battle, more magic than any human body could handle had coursed through her. The instantly visible signs were that her hair turned snow white and she went blind. But the power had done other, and worse, invisible damage. She was dying a slow, agonizing death that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
While I would never say it where Bruno or Matty could hear, I was pretty sure that part of why she’d been so badly hurt was because she’d chosen to take most of the magic into herself rather than allowing it to harm her sons—Bruno and his brother Matteo, also a magic-wielder. She was their mother. She’d protect them. She just would. It did make me worry a little about John Creede, the fourth participant in that working. Him she wouldn’t have gone out of her way to protect.
“I’m so sorry.” I meant it. Isabella and I have had our issues in the past, but I respect the hell out of her, and that last adventure had brought us to something of a truce. I might not be the woman she would’ve chosen for Bruno, but at least she didn’t hate me anymore. “Do you want me to come with?”
“No. Not yet anyway. The doctors think it’s going to be a while still. But she’s asking for me. I notified the university. They’ve got people covering my classes.”
“Do you want me to take care of the house?”
“Is there anything else I can do?” I felt helpless, frustrated, and sad. I could tell just from the sound of his voice that he was hurting so badly. But while I could guard people’s bodies from the monsters, I couldn’t protect the man I loved from this kind of pain. Nobody could, and it sucked.
“You’re doing it. I love you, Celie. And I’m sorry about last night.”
Last night, after an impromptu celebration here at the office for having slain a big bad monster, Bruno and I had gone home together. I would’ve loved to have continued celebrating. Instead, we’d had a fight: Maybe not a break-off-the-engagement and end-of-the-relationship fight, but a big one. It had been about the kind of issues you can’t compromise on. It looked as if his dreams for the future and mine weren’t the same—weren’t even close.
But just the thought of breaking up with him made my throat tight enough that I had a hard time speaking normally.
“Me too,” I croaked.
“We’ll talk when I get back.”
“Take care of yourself?”
“Always do,” he answered. “You’ll be careful?”
He worries about me. I know that. I understand. He loves me. And seriously, some of the cases I’ve had the past couple of years would scare the hell out of anybody. Unfortunately, understanding our problems doesn’t solve them. Still, I tried to reassure him. “Dawna and I agreed. No cases this week. We need time to settle into the new office.”
“Right. Look, I’ve gotta go. Love you.”
“Love you.” My voice sounded almost as rough as his. Not that either of us was on the verge of crying or anything.
I hung up the phone and spent a few seconds blinking: First to clear my blurred vision, then in shock. While I’d been distracted by the phone call, the delivery guys had set to work. In midair, directly above my head, a safe that I knew from the specs weighed nearly eight hundred pounds was bobbing gently along. The X drawn in chalk imbued with magic on its base was seeking a similar X on the floor of my office where the boards had been reinforced in preparation for it.
I didn’t move. Sitting right where I was, I was out of the way. Besides, I didn’t want to distract anyone or do anything that might screw with their concentration and cause them to drop the safe on me. That would be bad—probably very, very bad.
As I watched, the safe settled onto the floor, gentle as a feather. Impressive.
As soon as it was in place, I walked over to inspect it. When I got within three feet of it, I could feel the spell work buzzing against my skin. Excellent! Since this was the same model I’d had in my old office, I knew exactly how to set the biometrics and magical settings, and I knew that my weapons and other important gear would be safe against pretty much all comers. Good. I’d been a little nervous, keeping them at the house.
Not terribly nervous—the estate was pretty secure. But I’d had bad experiences in the past. Once, the bad guys had murdered the pool boy and cut off his hand so they could use it to get onto the premises.
And people wonder why I’m so obsessive about security.
I made my way downstairs to sign the receipt for the safe and thank the installation team. I knew they’d relay my thanks to Justin, too. Yes, I paid him well, but over the years, what with him coming by the office to renew the spell work every week, he’d become a buddy. More than once he’d gone above and beyond to help me out, and I always tried to make sure he knew I appreciated it.
The mages passed Dawna on their way out the door.
“Hey, you’re here early.” I greeted her with a grin that won me an answering smile. Dawna Han Long is one of my best buds in the world, despite the fact that she is flat-out gorgeous. Tiny and of Vietnamese descent, she has long black hair, perfect features, and the kind of effortless style that makes cheap clothes look expensive and expensive clothes look dynamite. Today she was wearing a gray sports bra with neon green piping, matching sweatpants, and neon green sneakers. Her hair had been pulled into a ponytail—with a matching green tie—and though she wore no makeup, she still looked stunning. It’s enough to make you sick.
“I remembered they were going to deliver your safe first, then the desk. So I figured I’d come down and wait for the second delivery so that you could move the weapons out of your house. I know you’ve been fretting about them.”
She wasn’t wrong. I have a lot of weapons. Most are valuable. Some are irreplaceable. And it had been a damned nuisance having to run back and forth to get things. I could have put things in the general vault on the ground floor, but I just wasn’t comfortable doing that. I trusted my people not to steal. That wasn’t an issue. Unfortunately, not all of our clients were completely trustworthy, and the vault wasn’t always locked during the workday.
There’s a reason why “lead us not into temptation” comes before “deliver us from evil” in the Lord’s prayer.
“No problema.” Her smile grew into a grin that flashed a hint of dimples. “And don’t forget to drop your clothes off at the cleaners. You don’t want the blood of an über-bat like the one you dealt with last night damaging the spells on one of your best jackets.” Her grin faded a little around the edges as she spoke, but she stayed rock solid. Ten points for her. Last night’s vampire had been the sire of Lillith, a vampire that had tried to make Dawna her Renfield. He’d come after me because I’d killed Lillith and freed Dawna.
Dawna was still in therapy to deal with the aftereffects of what Lillith had done to her, even though that had happened years ago, and I’d worried about yesterday’s events being triggering for her. But she seemed okay and, as usual, was on top of the details.
“Hit the cleaners on the way in, but thanks for the reminder. And if you’re serious about your offer, I’ll head back to the house and pack everything up.”
“I am. Go.”
Copyright © 2016 by C. T. Adams