THE MAGE IN BLACK by Jaye Wells – Extract
The Kum-N-Go’s roadside-chic interior was bathed in a sickly fluorescent glow. The aroma of stale smoke, urinal cakes, and rotgut coffee had me breathing through my mouth on the way back to the ATM. It was my turn to pay for gas, so getting cash took priority over raiding the snack aisle for the moment.
While I entered my code and waited, Adam chatted with the attendant at the front of the store. He glanced over and raised his eyebrows. I lifted a finger and took a moment to admire the way his ass filled out his jeans. Even after sitting in a car for two days straight, he still looked hot with his stubble and road-weary smile. Too bad the mage part made him off-limits.
Before I got caught staring, I moved my gaze to the window. Adam’s SUV and my cherry red Ducati provided the only scenery in the empty parking lot. The bike’s 180 horses rested docilely on a trailer behind Adam’s behemoth. Before we’d left California, he’d argued I wouldn’t need wheels in New York, but I held my ground. That motorcycle was the only good thing left of my old, broken life. Leaving it behind wasn’t an option.
A flash of white caught my attention as Stryx landed on the roof over the gas pumps. The red-eyed owl had followed us all the way from California, and I assumed he’d be joining us in New York. I’d gotten so used to seeing him, I no longer questioned his reason for following me. He never caused trouble, which was more than I could say for my other companions on this road trip from hell.
The headlights from a midnight-black Mercedes lit up the window. It pulled in on the other side of Adam’s car, so I couldn’t see the driver get out. I waited to see if he’d come inside to pay, but loud beeping from the ATM grabbed my attention.
I took the clump of twenties the machine spat out and stashed it in my pocket, relieved the account still worked. Registered under a false name through a bank in the Caymans, the account held the bulk of my savings. When I’d set it up, it was a better-safe-than-sorry measure, but now it was all I had left to my name.
I was turning toward the front of the store when the three redheads came around the back of Adam’s car. My heart sputtered and then kicked into overdrive.
How’d they find me so fast?
“Adam! We’ve got company!” With one hand, I reached for my waistband and grabbed for my gun. I cursed, realizing I’d left it in Adam’s center console along with a box of apple cider bullets. After a few days on the road with no sign of trouble, I’d grown complacent, and now I was about to fight three assassins armed with nothing but the pair of apple-wood chopsticks that held my hair back. Awesome.
The mortal male behind the counter wore a red smock with a nametag that read “Darrell.”
“Go lock yourself in the storeroom,” I told him.
I flashed my fangs and pulled him bodily across the counter. “Get the hell out of here!”
Wetness spread across the front of his wrinkled khakis. He stammered for a moment, then turned tail and ran toward the back of the store.
Adam had already spotted the trouble. “Friends of yours?”
I turned toward the door, watching the three vampires make their way toward us. “The one on the left is Nick Konstantine. Likes to get stabby, so watch your back.” Nick was the kind of vamp who gave the rest of us bad names. He liked to rape his prey before draining them. Nasty dude. “The big guy is Fatty Garza.”
“What’s his specialty? Eating his opponents whole?”
“Something like that.”
“And the female?”
I narrowed my eyes and gripped my gun tighter. “Mischa Petrov.” Just saying that bitch’s name left a bad taste in my mouth.
Adam parted his lips to say more, but the assassins stopped about ten feet back from the door. Mischa’s eyes met mine through the glass doors. She smiled snarkily and nodded.
You ready to die, bitch?
I raised an eyebrow in return.
Adam stood calmly at my side, waiting. He didn’t waste time with unnecessary questions. I knew from experience he could hold his own in a fight, which meant I didn’t have to worry about saving both our asses on my own.
Something shifted. Nothing obvious. No overt signal was given. But one second the whole world seemed to hold its breath, and the next, the air exploded with gunfire. I shoved Adam to our right, and we slid down the aisle in a tangle of limbs.
Bullets ripped through the store, turning it into swiss cheese. Sodas exploded in the refrigerated cases, coating us with cold, sticky wetness. Pulverized chocolate, salty snacks, and tampons rained down to create a PMS-themed collage on the floor.
“You got any weapons?” I yelled over the noise.
“Magic.” I shot him a look. He smiled. “And a Glock.” He pulled a Glock 20 from his waistband and handed it over. Releasing the magazine, I was relieved to find it full. That gave me fifteen rounds. Fifteen nonlethal bullets, considering we were fighting vampires, but I’d still be able to inflict some pain.
Finally, the hailstorm of bullets stopped.
“Yoo-hoo! Sabina?” Mischa called.
“What?” I shouted, and glanced at Adam. “Get ready to create a diversion.”
“Just let me zap them out of here.” I shook my head firmly. This was vampire business. I’d be damned before I let a mancy save me from my own kind. Besides, if anyone was going back to L.A., it was to take a message to my grandmother. And it wouldn’t take three of them to deliver it. But Adam’s magic could come in handy in other ways. I pointed to the fluorescent lights overhead. He nodded coolly and rose into a crouch.
Mischa sighed loudly. “I don’t suppose you’d just surrender now and save us all some time, would you, Mutt?”
I gritted my teeth. Mischa never missed an opportunity to remind me and everyone in hearing distance of my mixed blood. “Riiight. Tell you what, if you’re in such a hurry, why not just put that gun to your temple and squeeze the trigger? It’ll save me the effort.”
“And muss up my hair?” Mischa drawled. “You’re just talking crazy now.”
“Enough of this shit,” Nick said, clearly unimpressed with our banter.
Boots crunched on broken glass, signaling the assassins were on the move. I nodded to Adam.
His lips moved with an incantation, and a zap of energy shot from his fingertips. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I peeked between cereal boxes. Two fluorescent lights exploded above Mischa and Nick, and the metal housings holding the bulbs broke loose and crashed on their heads. Mischa’s gun skittered away, and Nick got knocked to the floor. Fatty, surprisingly agile given his size, jumped aside and started making his way to the back of the store.
With the shelves as cover, I opened fire on Mischa, who’d taken refuge behind a display of travel mugs. Taking aim at the bank of coffee machines behind her, I shot the carafes. Judging from her screams, the coffee shower that splashed on the bitch was roughly the temperature of magma.
One second, Adam crouched next to me, and the next, he inhaled sharply and cursed. I ripped my gaze off Mischa in time to see him pull a throwing star out of his thigh. He tossed it to the ground with an irritated grimace. “Okay,” he said, his jaw tight. “Now I’m annoyed. Seriously—who uses a throwing star?”
I sensed movement behind me. Before Fatty could get his hamhock hands on me, I back-kicked him in the stomach. My boot heel sank into the fleshy layers like I’d stepped into a pool of Jell-O before ricocheting back. Fatty’s belly shook with laughter for a moment before cutting off suddenly. We all went still for a moment, and then everyone shifted into fast-forward.
Mischa, looking like a wet, pissed-off cat, jumped Adam from out of nowhere. As he fended off her claws and kicks, Fatty grabbed me from behind and started squeezing me like a fleshy boa constrictor. He shook me like a rag doll, and the gun fell from my fingers and sparks of light danced in my eyes. I reached back and poked his eye with my index finger. I had to jab a couple of times before he finally released me with a howl.
I barely had time to gasp a few gulps of air before Mischa knocked Adam down and came after me. I backed down the aisle, pulling the apple-wood sticks from my hair. Behind Mischa, Adam went after Fatty in a blur of motion. I didn’t have time to see the outcome of his attack, because just then Mischa produced nunchucks from her back pocket. With a self-satisfied grin, she swung them overhead like helicopter blades. Cans of Spam and packages of pork rinds flew to the floor as she advanced.
I retreated until I hit a dead end at the row of drink coolers at the back. The gunfire earlier had shattered the glass and most of the bottles and cans, but I managed to find a bottle of apple juice among the wreckage. I popped the top and tossed the contents in Mischa’s face. She inhaled sharply out of surprise, forcing the forbidden fruit juice into her system. I ducked the flailing nunchucks and slammed a chopstick down at an angle behind her collarbone.
Mischa jerked back, falling into a display of Doritos. Her body ignited, and the chips went up in flames with her. The resulting odor was a bizarre mix of smoke, apple, and nacho cheese. In addition to the oddly pleasing scent of Mischa’s death, I experienced the sweet taste of retribution on my tongue. Mischa might have tormented me for years with jokes about my shameful birth, but I’d just gotten the last laugh.
A bellow near the front of the store got my attention. Fatty bent over at the waist, his hands cupping his crotch. Apparently, Adam wasn’t afraid to fight dirty. I smiled and mentally added that to my list of favorite things about him.
I moved to join the mage up front, but right then Nick performed an over-the-counter somersault, landing a foot away from Adam. My scalp tingled as Adam shot the vamp with a bolt of magical energy. Nick flew backward, his head crashing the counter before he collapsed on the floor.
I came up behind Adam and shot Nick a few times for good measure. The wounds wouldn’t kill him. To do that, I’d need to inject a dose of the forbidden fruit into his system first, to strip away his immortality. But I had other plans for Nick.
I crouched next to his limp body. He groaned, his eyes fluttering. Whatever Adam hit him with had scrambled him good. His labored breath had a wheeze to it that made me suspect I’d clipped a lung.
Behind me, I heard the crack of knuckles against skin. Sounded like Fatty had come back for more from Adam. I needed to make this quick so I could help him finish off the obese vamp.
I leaned in close to Nick’s ear. “Tonight’s your lucky night, Nick. I’m going to let you live. But in return you’re going to do something for me.”
His head jerked and his mouth moved, but no sound came out.
“Sabina,” Adam yelled. “A little help here.” A grunt followed his plea.
I held up a finger over my shoulder. “Listen up, ’cause I have to go kill your partner in a sec. Are you listening, Nick?” I pressed a thumb into the wound in Nick’s leg to make sure I had his attention. He moaned in response. I took that for a yes.
“I want you to give my grandmother a message. I want you to tell her what happened here. I want you to look her in the eye.” I grabbed Nick by the chin and forced his gaze to mine. “And then I want you to tell Lavinia I’m coming back for her real soon.”
My job done, I lifted the Glock and coldcocked Nick. His head fell to the side and his mouth went slack. Given the extent of his wounds, he’d probably be down for the count long enough for Adam and me to get the hell out of Dodge. I wasn’t worried he’d give chase. He’d know better.
Another grunt echoed through the store. I rose and saw Adam and Fatty grappling near the magazine rack. I was relieved to see Adam looking relatively uninjured despite being trapped in Fatty’s headlock. Even with Adam’s height and impressive physique, the mage had nothing on four hundred pounds of vampire flesh. I wondered why the mage hadn’t spelled the vamp into submission, but then I saw the brass knuckles glinting on Fatty’s massive hand. Brass is like Kryptonite for mages, which explained why Fatty had survived this long.
I grabbed a bottle of aerosol hairspray from the sundries aisle and ran toward them.
“Hey!” I yelled. When Fatty turned, I blasted him in the eyes with the hairspray. He dropped Adam and shrieked, swiping at his eyes with a huge paw. He ran at me blindly. I backpedaled, raising the gun. But my heel was sticky from the apple juice and slipped out from under me. As I fell, the shot went wide and clipped Fatty’s shoulder instead of his head.
Adam came up from the rear and stabbed the big guy with a stake. Fatty roared in pain but still didn’t explode. I scrambled up, trying to avoid his flailing arms. I ducked, barely avoiding one of his fists.
Adam’s eyes widened. “The stake isn’t big enough to reach his heart,” he whispered loudly.
Roaring from pain, Fatty took off for the front doors. He crashed through and ran blindly toward the pumps. Adam and I looked at each other for a beat before hauling ass after him. We couldn’t risk some mortal pulling into the station and seeing a huge, bloodied vampire lumbering through the parking lot. We skidded to a halt as Fatty crashed into Adam’s Escalade. He bounced off the rear door and fell to the ground. The SUV rocked from the impact before going still again.
I raised the gun, determined to put an end to Fatty once and for all.
Adam grabbed my arm. “If you miss, you might hit a pump.”
I shot him a glare. “I won’t miss.”
“Well, Miss Sharpshooter, did you think about what’ll happen if you hit him and he ignites close to four gas pumps?”
“Oh.” I lowered the gun. “So what now?”
Adam opened his mouth to answer but stopped when the back door to the Escalade opened. A hoof emerged, followed by a scaly green leg clad in too-short black sweatpants. Fatty heard the sound and cocked his head, like an animal sensing unseen danger. Giguhl emerged fully, raising his arms high above his seven-foot frame in an exaggerated stretch. His poison green Got Evil? T-shirt complemented his black horns nicely.
With a scowl, he focused on the large, groaning vampire to his right. Fatty seemed to have regained some of his sight. His eyes squinted and then widened. He moved surprisingly fast then, jerking to his feet and lumbering away.
Fatty got as far as the air and water station before he tripped. He scrambled to grab a hose and pointed it at us. A pathetic stream of water trickled out.
“What are you going to do?” Giguhl said. “Moisten us?”
Now that we were safely away from the gas pumps, it was time to end this charade. I calmly raised my gun and put my last bullet between Fatty’s eyes. Since the wooden stake had already injected the forbidden fruit into his system and removed his immortality, his girth went up in flames immediately.
“Well, that’s that, then,” Adam said. “I guess I’ll go fill up.” He walked off toward the pumps like he was taking a Sunday stroll. The only sign he’d just survived an assassin attack was the slight limp courtesy of Nick’s throwing star. How he could deal so calmly with the aftermath of such chaos escaped me.
My own body strained for action. Something to work off the residual adrenaline. My gaze strayed to Adam’s retreating form. Something to release the tension. I admired the way his sweat-dampened shirt clung to his muscled torso. Something strenuous and sweaty. I took a step forward.
“Um, Sabina?” Giguhl tugged on my arm.
“What?” I stopped, dragging my eyes from Adam. Giguhl was dancing from hoof to hoof. “What are you doing?”
“I need to see a man about a unicorn.”
And with that, all thoughts of ravaging Adam screeched to a halt. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, Giguhl.”
“It’s not my fault. You know I have a small bladder.”
“Okay, fine, little girl. Go tinkle. But make it quick.”
He ran off toward the doors on the side of the building.
With one last look at the charred mass that used to be Fatty, I turned to walk toward the car. I was almost there when a faint sound made me stop in my tracks. “Godsdammit,” I cursed under my breath. “Look alive, mancy.”
He looked over from the windshield he’d been cleaning. “What’s up?”
Adam cocked his head to listen. “I don’t hear them.”
My vampire hearing caught the sound long before human or mage ears would. “We’ve got about ten minutes. It’s time to go.”
I turned to go tell Giguhl to shake a leg, but a movement inside the store brought me up short. I’d forgotten all about the human, but the shotgun he held told me he hadn’t forgotten about us. I ran back toward the car.
Before Adam could ask why I was running, the shotgun barked. Luckily, the human had no idea how to handle such a powerful weapon. The shot went wide and took a chunk out of the tin roof over our heads.
“What the fuck was that?” Adam yelled.
“The human! I’ll take care of him.”
“Sabina, no! He’s innocent. You can’t kill him.”
Another blast, closer this time. I ducked behind the SUV next to Adam. “You’re fucking kidding me, right?”
Adam’s expression told me he’d been serious. “He can identify us and the car to the police. Unless you want to play Smokey and the Bandit all the way to New York, he’s got to go.”
I moved before he could stop me, pulling the Glock out of my waistband as I went. Behind me, Adam cursed and moved to stop me. Speeding up before he could accomplish his goal, I raised the gun just as Darrell pumped the barrel again.
But before either of us could shoot, a dark figure exploded out of the store. Nick’s second wind hit at exactly the worst moment possible. He grabbed the human, breaking his neck like it was nothing more than a matchstick.
“No!” Adam yelled behind me.
Nick grabbed the shotgun as the human fell. In Darrell’s hands, the shotgun had been troublesome. In Nick’s hands, the same gun scared the shit out of me.
In slow motion, I pivoted and ran toward the bathroom. Two reasons. One, I needed to warn Giguhl and somehow get both of us out alive. Two, the movement turned Nick’s attention away from Adam. I had a better chance at surviving a shotgun blast than the mage.
The brick wall six inches above and just ahead of me exploded. I zigzagged toward the restroom and pounded twice.
“Time to go, G!”
“Jeez, give me a minute!”
“Can’t a demon take a leak without being disturbed?” he grumbled. The door opened as he was pulling his pants up. “What?”
“What happens if you get shot?”
His goat eyes widened. “It hurts.”
“But you won’t die or get sent back to Irkalla, right?”
We hauled ass across the parking lot just as Nick pumped the shotgun again. Adam accelerated to meet us. Giguhl wrenched the SUV’s back door open and dove in just as another blast ripped through the air. I heard the demon yelp, but I was too busy trying to get my own door open. When the latch finally gave way, Adam was already accelerating. I jumped in and grabbed my gun from the console. A click of a button lowered the window, and I ducked through the opening to take care of Nick.
A shot hit somewhere near the rear of the SUV. The car fishtailed as Adam struggled to maintain control. Sparks and a hunk of red, twisted metal appeared in the road behind us.
“That bastard killed my Ducati!” I yelled. With steely resolve, I rested my forearms on the top of the Escalade.
I’m a good shot, but even I have trouble aiming at moving targets from a speeding car. It took three shots. The first hit the Kum-N-Go sign, which exploded in a hail of sparks. The second nicked a gas tank, which bled fuel like a wound. The third punched Nick in the chest. His body ignited instantly and fell right into the puddle of gas.
A huge fireball lit up the night sky, bringing with it a wave of heat that seared my face. I watched the fireworks for a second before ducking back inside.
Adam watched the show through the rearview mirror. A muscle worked in his jaw. “You should have killed Nick when you had the chance.”
“Um, guys?” Giguhl’s voice came from the back seat.
I ignored the demon and jerked my head toward Adam. “Excuse me?”
He turned accusing eyes on me. “You were ready to let the vampire live but couldn’t wait to kill that innocent mortal. Why is that, Sabina?”
“Sabina?” Giguhl moaned.
I narrowed my eyes on the mage. “I had my reasons, and I don’t appreciate your tone, mancy.”
“You had reasons, huh? Well, guess what, your reasons almost got all of us killed.”
“Adam?” Giguhl panted.
I crossed my arms. Adam’s judgey tone pissed me off. He needed to get off that high horse before I knocked him off. “Yeah, you’re right,” I said. “It’s okay for me to kill a vampire, but a human life is precious. I should have given the mortal a hug and then let him blow my head off, right? Gods, you’re such a hypocrite.”
His hands squeezed the steering wheel like he wished it was my neck instead. “I’m saying there is a bigger picture here. Nick was an assassin. The human was an innocent bystander. I know morality is a fluid concept for you, Sabina, but I abide by a code that says you protect the innocent.”
I leaned forward, ready to tell Adam where he could shove his morality.
“Guys!” Giguhl shouted.
Adam and I spun around together and yelled. “What?”
“I’ve been shot in the ass!”
(c) 2010 by Jaye Wells