Her new life as a librarian suits her. Nobody cares she limps and sometimes requires a cane to walk. She’s wanted for her knowledge, not her lethal magic. She’s surrounded by books, a woman’s best friend.
But when her former employer’s best friend is murdered on the steps of her library, old loyalties and secrets might destroy her—or set her free.
Teaming up with her co-workers to find the killer might keep her from being booked for murder, but unless she’s careful, she’ll find out exactly how far her ex-boss will go to reclaim what is rightfully his.
Her. For life.
A line of cop cars at the library gave me the only clue I needed to decide something had gone terribly wrong. It hadn’t been long enough for the Bugatti’s driver to have crashed and emergency responders to show up. Then, much to my disgust, I spotted the car, which had joined the lineup of rubberneckers trying to figure out what was going on.
The last thing I needed was the police giving my identification card more than a cursory glance. I’d gotten the license number legalized, which had involved sneaking around places I shouldn’t, accessing a computer I had no business touching, and putting some of my odder skills to work.
Then I had lied, lied, lied, claiming amnesia. Thanks to pure luck and evidence of head trauma in the form of somewhat recent scars, I’d gotten away with it.
If my ex-boss learned I could do more with a computer than check my email, he would kill me himself. I’d picked up my skills before he’d hired me, and I’d learned to help a childhood friend escape punishment for a crime he hadn’t committed. I’d witnessed the truth, and I’d learned that day the rich and powerful couldn’t be trusted.
I limped closer to the library, and the stench of blood and gore promised the worst sort of trouble had come to my work.
I remembered that smell well enough.
When I brought out my magic at its dangerous 97.6% potency, I could reduce my victim to a puddle on the sidewalk from instantaneous mass hemorrhaging. I could, if I had it out for my target, burst organs from shunting all of the body’s blood into them at one time. When in a mood, I could crystalize the blood within the body, transforming it to piercing blades capable of shredding most bones.
Only the skull vexed me.
The stench reminded me of why I hated my brand of magic, something most considered so abhorrent they refused to name it at all. Even necromancers had a better reputation, for all they did was manipulate corpses or read the truth on lifeless entrails.
The evidence of someone having used magic a lot like mine dripped from the library’s stone veneer a story and a half overhead. My brows shot up at the spatter distance, which implied whomever had killed the poor bastard had packed a lot of power behind the killing.
I could’ve done a better, cleaner job without turning my victim’s blood into graffiti.
I grimaced at my co-worker’s squealing call of my name. On a good day, Meridian could shatter glass. On a bad one, I worried she’d take out an entire skyscraper with her shrieking.
Today was not a good day.
Rather than snap at her for acting like I was three streets down rather than ten feet away, I limped over, pretending the library wasn’t covered in some poor bastard’s blood. “What’s going on?”
“Somebody exsanguinated Senator Godrin on the front steps.”
I lifted my hand, closed my eyes, and rubbed my temple, wishing I’d gone with the saner 30.5% magical aptitude rating, as I would’ve had access to sufficient painkillers to deal with my developing headache and the current situation, which would shoot me straight to the top of the suspect list should anyone realize my true identity.
Exsanguination, at least the kind capable of spattering blood two stories up, required a rare form of magic. Not only was it rare, only a handful of people around the world had it in the strength required to spray blood such a distance.
I was one of those people. I could spray blood up six stories if someone caught me flat-footed and I needed to eliminate a target. When I eliminated a target in the field when adrenaline flowed, I tended to shoot blood out from any available soft-tissue surface, favoring tear ducts, the ears, nose, and mouth. The smaller the opening, the stronger the spray, and when backed with sufficient magic, the faster it happened.
My poor co-workers would get a taste of what it meant to be among the magically inclined, and none of them would like it. I, in particular, would hate it, especially if someone did a proper evaluation of my aptitude rating. Assuming, of course, that I survived the evaluation and subsequent interrogation should my abilities be discovered by authorities.
Was masking my true rating under such scrutiny even possible?
I’d lied, lied, lied my way through the driver’s license evaluations. I loathed the damned bureaucrat who had come up with the idea to force everyone to register their magical talents if they wanted to drive a car. I’d worn one of the awful evaluation bracelets for over an hour, careful to hide my reactions to having my magic cut off. I’d dealt with the shortness of breath, pain, and other symptoms of having my magic snuffed out with a smile and false cheer, chatting with one of the evaluators about the upcoming car racing season, as he was almost as much of a fan as I was. I figured our talk had distracted him from any symptoms I hadn’t managed to hide. I’d doubled down painting my nails with one of the other testers, too, resulting in the testing session taking long enough they’d recorded the time.
Somehow, my proclaimed 17.2% aptitude rating had survived the licensing process.
I supposed I’d shown just the right symptoms to have some magic in my blood rather than no magic in my blood.
If they’d done a proper blood test and full evaluation, I would’ve been screwed.
It’d been one of the worst days of my life, but I’d gotten my stamp confirming my proposed percentage, a driver’s license that noted my disability but authorized me to drive anyway, a handicap tag should I ever purchase a car, and a warning to keep away from the pure adepts and mundanes, as it wouldn’t do to have my mixed heritage damage future generations.
I stared up at the senator’s blood, observing it trail down the pale stone drop by drop. While we worked at one of the smaller branches of the New York Public Library, we’d gotten one of the city’s heritage sites, which had been lovingly converted into a work of art. While most went to the Midtown West building, which took the top prize for beauty, age, and elegance, we tended to attract the politicians, as we had an excellent reference floor, a quiet place for conferences, and a good location for their wining and dining needs.
We had a prized spot on Fifth Avenue, and patrons could make the hike to the Met without breaking a sweat.
The last thing I needed in my life was a bunch of snooty pure adepts investigating the library over the death of a politician known for his unethical practices, ruthless business dealings, and utter hatred of mundanes. According to my less-than-legal license, I counted as a mundane, as my cover story put me just below the threshold for being able to use any form of magic. If I had put myself at below 15% genetic purity, I would’ve been a prized specimen for those wishing to maintain humanity’s non-magical lineage.
What had I done to deserve such shitty luck in life? Blowing air and restraining my urge to spew curses, I pointed at the crimson stains marring the second story of our library. “That’s quite the spray distance, Meridian.”
She stared up at the blood dripping down the stone to streak over the windows and pool on the building’s antique balconies. While the balconies had long since been blocked off to patrons, many favored sitting by the tall windows to read on the faux antique sedans strategically placed between the stacks. “Oh. He got up there, too? Nice.”
Right. Meridian found even the grisliest use of magic to be intriguing. “Dare I ask where else he splattered?”
If one of the cops heard me, they’d make assumptions; law enforcement types favored spattered while civilians used splattered thanks to a mix of slang and television.
My fellow librarian pointed towards the main entrance of the building. “Mickey got hosed, and he was at the desk.”
If my brows rose any higher, they’d end up in my hair, which I’d decided to wear in a bun to keep it out of the way while hobbling between the stacks. For the blood to have reached the reception desk of our library, the culprit must have ruptured every blood vessel in the victim’s body and expelled it through every available orifice. Alternatively, the culprit could have made a few extra holes to streamline the job. “Is he all right?”
“You know Mickey.”
Yes, I did. Nobody could send him into the mystery, medical, or horror sections, as the sight of blood on a book’s cover might result in him dropping into a faint. “Please tell me he didn’t crack his head open on the desk.”
“No, but I’m not sure if he’s a suspect or evidence. They woke him up, asked him about the incident, and he fainted again. We have a betting pool going over how many times he faints before they’re done asking him questions. Honestly, I can’t imagine them actually thinking he’s a suspect. He can’t even hear the word blood without freaking out. He’s so lucky he’s not a woman.”
Despite the severity of the situation, I snickered at the thought of Mickey trying to deal with the perils of being a woman. I didn’t miss popping more painkillers than my kidneys appreciated to function through a shift guarding Bradley Hampton while my uterus and ovaries attempted to put me in the grave. As I didn’t want to write off having children one day, I’d dealt with it, although things had gotten better for me after the accident that’d almost claimed my life.
Thanks to my falsified magic rating, I’d found a doctor willing to use me as a guinea pig for a treatment meant for pure adepts or mundanes, one that resolved the crippling pain and would allow me to have children later. It’d involved using a mix of medicine and magic to mimic a pregnancy, and after nine months, imitating the so-called joys of childbirth to trick my body into believing I’d had a child. To my relief and the doctor’s delight, I’d suffer through only minimal discomfort before menopause naturally solved the problem for me.
Unfortunately for me, according to my test results and my doctor’s magic, she believed I wouldn’t start menopause until my sixties at the earliest. I blamed my magic for that.
It did a good job of keeping me healthy.
I sighed and shook my head, once again staring at the bloodstained building. “Are you being questioned?”
“I was out having a smoke, so I saw the whole damned thing. They questioned me, but beyond repeating what I’d seen, they had no use for me.”
How sloppy. “What happened?”
“Some asshole in a black car with tinted windows drove by, Senator Godrin lost his head, and they drove off before waiting for the body to hit the ground.”
“Did you say Senator Godrin lost his head?”
“Yeah. The exsanguinator burst the poor man’s head. Popped it like a grape.”
Ugh. I hated when high-powered amateurs made more of a mess of a job than necessary. When I decided to end someone’s life, I did so with some finesse, leaving the body intact enough for a viewing. “Please tell me you’re exaggerating.”
“Part of his skull landed across the street.”
I frowned. “And it’s being called an exsanguination? I thought exsanguinators just drained blood.” Well, I could do a hell of a lot more than drain blood from a body, although that ability gave people good reason to fear us. “The skull’s tough. An exsanguinator wouldn’t be able to burst a skull like that.”
I’d tried, although I’d limited my experimentations to animals rather than people. The way I figured, if I couldn’t burst the skull of livestock on route for the dinner table—or even come close—I couldn’t crack open a human’s skull, either.
“The killer was probably working with a telekinetic,” Meridian admitted. “But you’re right. Exsanguinators don’t usually manifest like that. I heard the cops and the adepts they brought in. They know of a few, but they don’t work like that. They have a different style. Now that was an interesting conversation.”
Yeah, I didn’t work like that and had no intention of starting. Even if I stretched my legs and worked some magic, my focus on keeping my magic controlled would hamper me in more ways than one. Habit ruled magic almost as much as natural ability.
I lacked habit, and I’d done my best to leash my natural abilities.
One day, I might even lose my magic altogether from disuse, although it’d still be in my blood, something I could pass down to my children, if I ever had any.
In good news for me, I still had more time than I cared to think about before I hit the end of the road on that.
I considered Meridian’s words, and I recognized she wanted me to bite on the little tidbit of information she dangled in front of me. Before the accident, I’d been curious and inquisitive.
Nothing had changed.
Heaving a sigh for her benefit, I asked, “What was so interesting about that conversation?”
“Did you know there’s a woman who can shoot someone’s blood all the way up to there?” Meridian asked, pointing up to the sixth floor of our library. “All the way to there! And some think she could clear the roof if in a mood. Apparently, her control is so refined she can build pressure in the veins, use her magic to contain it so the vessels don’t rupture, and control the spray. It gets better, though.”
My life sucked, and I’d have to put some serious thought into moving. “How does it get better?”
“She’s a mouse.”
I was a what? “A mouse?” I held my hands apart several inches to indicate the size of a mouse. “Like a rodent? About this big?”
“Personality wise. She’s meek as a mouse, prim and proper, and the prime example of an adept lady. They agreed she could if she wanted, but that it went against all of her training and behavior. And you know how adepts get. They pride themselves in their style, and she’s a mouse.”
The rumor mill had gotten bored, drunk, and possibly high before attacking my reputation, which likely hadn’t survived the onslaught. I could act like a lady, I’d even owned a few gowns, but I’d never gotten to wear them because a bodyguard didn’t wear pretty dresses to social events.
A bodyguard wore a suit.
Sometimes, I’d worn a skirt with my suit, but they’d always allowed for a full range of motion and I’d worn some form of spandex shorts beneath the skirt in case of emergency.
The last time I’d acted like a lady, I’d been at some gala the night before I’d been sold off to Bradley Hampton. Then, I’d found the arrangement pleasant; my parents had gotten lucky with me, with my percentage jumping two complete brackets thanks to a lucky roll of the genetic dice. It happened sometimes.
Once, a pair of mundanes had produced an adept child with a staggering 98.5% rating, with every recessed adept gene becoming dominant in an evolutionary triumph. It happened with adept pairings, too, resulting in a prized pure mundane packed with adept potential.
Those stuck in the middle rarely did anything interesting, although my parents, on the higher end of the spectrum, had bucked the trend with me and my 97.6% rating.
But to be slated as a mouse?
My pride wanted to go into a corner and weep over how far I’d fallen. “I can’t tell if that’s a good or a bad thing,” I admitted.
“Good. She’s the kind of mouse who can turn into a dragon.”
I stared at Meridian. “Did you have a few drinks on the way to work this morning?”
“No, but I wish I had.”
Me, too. “I’m officially late for work.”
“I don’t think we’re working today, but I’ll go tell the boss you did show up and ask what he wants you to do. I think we’ll either be sent home or asked to clean up if the cops ever finish with the place. Wait here. I’ll come back and report. Just don’t go near the cordon. That’s how you get sucked into being questioned, too.”
I owed Meridian for that gem, and I waited at the corner, examining the blood on the library walls while wondering how much of a mess the murder would make of my life.
RJ Blain suffers from a Moleskine journal obsession, a pen fixation, and a terrible tendency to pun without warning.
In her spare time, she daydreams about being a spy. Her contingency plan involves tying her best of enemies to spinning wheels and quoting James Bond villains until satisfied.