ONE

Cloudy and cool, with an 80 percent possibility of moderate to severe thunderstorms by mid-afternoon.

Well, thank God this is about to be over, I thought as I drove—well, blew—past the sign that marked the Westchester, Connecticut, city limits. Traffic sucked, not surprisingly; rush hour was still in full swing, and I had to moderate my impatience and ride the brake while I watched for my exit. Calm down. Things will be back to normal in just a few more minutes.

Okay, so I was a little too optimistic. Also unrealistic, since me and normal have never really been on speaking terms. But, in my defense, I needed all the optimism I could muster right then. I’d been running on adrenaline and bad coffee for more than thirty hours straight. I’d been awake for so long that my eyes felt like they’d been rolled in beach sand and Tabasco sauce. I needed rest. Clean clothes. A shower. Not necessarily in that order.

First, I had to find the guy who was going to save my life.

I found the exit, navigated streets and annoying stoplights until I found the residential neighborhood I was looking for. I checked the scrap of paper in my lap, studied curbside house numbers, and finally pulled the car to a stop in front of a nice Colonial-style home, the kind of place a Realtor would describe as a “nice starter.” It had flame-red tulips planted in mannered rows under the windows, and the lawn looked well behaved, too. Weird. Of all the places I’d have expected to find Lewis Levander Orwell, the most powerful man in the world… well, this wasn’t it. I mean, suburbia? Hello!

I tapped chipped fingernails on the steering wheel, weighed risks and benefits, and finally popped open the door and stepped out of the car.

The euphoria I’d felt when I was pulling into town vanished as soon as my feet hit solid ground, crushed under a load of exhaustion. Too much stress, too little sleep, too much fear. Speaking of fear… I felt wind on the back of my neck, and I turned to look east. A storm loomed like purple mountains’ majesty, big cumulonimbus clouds piled on top of each other like a fifty-car interstate pileup. I could feel it noticing me, in the way storms had. No question about it, I needed to be out of Westchester before that thing decided to pounce. I’d been watching storms crawl along the coast, paralleling me all the way from Florida. The nasty part was that it might actually be the same storm, stalking me.

They did that sometimes. It was never good.

Nothing I could do about it right now. I had bigger issues. Up the concrete walk, up three steps lined with geraniums in terra-cotta pots, to a spacious white front door. I knocked and waited, rocking back and forth on three-inch heels that felt like something from the spring collection of the Spanish Inquisition. Bad planning on my part, but then I’d been expecting a pleasant little business meeting, not a two-day panicked flight cross-country. I looked down at myself and winced; the blue French-cuffed polyester shirt was okay, but the tan skirt was a disaster of car-accordioned linen. Ah well. It would have been nice for Lewis to swoon with desire on seeing me, but I’d definitely settle for him pulling my bacon out of the fire.

Silence. I cupped my hands around my eyes and tried to peer through glass not designed for peering. No movement inside that I could see. With a sinking feeling of disaster, I realized I’d never considered the possibility that my knight in shining armor could be away from the castle.

I knocked on his door once more, squinted through the glass again, and tried the bell. I heard muffled tones echoing through the house, but nothing stirred. The house looked normal.

Normal and very, very empty.

Out where I was, Westchester was enjoying spring sunshine. People walked, kids whooped around on bikes, dogs ran with their tongues hanging out. Inside the house, there was winter silence. I checked the mail slot. Empty. Either he’d been home earlier, or he’d stopped his mail altogether. No papers on the lawn, either.

I considered my options, but really I had only two: get some idea of where else to look, or lie down and die. I decided to do some scouting. Unfortunately, the grass was damp, and my three-inch heels weren’t designed for pathfinding. With some cursing and tripping and excavating myself from spike-heeled holes, I clumped around the house.

The house had that don’t-touch-me feeling that indicated strong wards and protections, but I circled it anyway, checking the windows. Yep, wards on every one, good strong ones. The yard was nice and neat as a pin, with the look of being maintained by a service instead of somebody with a passion for plants. Lewis had a very nice workshop in the back, which was devoted half to woodworking, half to magecraft; that half was warded up the wazoo, no way I could do more than just glance in the window before I had to retreat or get zapped.

Powerful stuff. That was good—I desperately needed a powerful guy.

I banged on the back door and squinted in the square of window. Still nothing moving. I could see the living room, decorated in Basic American Normal—looked like everything in it had come out of some upscale catalog. If Lewis lived here, he was a lot more boring than I’d ever imagined.

I had plenty of powerful tricks up my sleeve, but they didn’t include breaking and entering. The kind of powers I possessed, over water and wind, could destroy a house but not open a door. I could have summoned a hailstorm—a small one, okay? — to break a couple of windows, but no, that would be wrong and besides, I’d probably get caught because it was pretty showy stuff. So I resorted to human tactics.

I tossed a rock at the window.

Now, I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to work, but in a way it did; the rock bounced off some thick invisible rubbery surface about a half inch from the window, and the back door slammed open.

“Yes?” snarled the guy who blocked the doorway. He was big, and I mean huge—big, tanned, bald, with two gold earrings that twinkled in the sunny Westchester morning. He was wearing a purple vest with gold embroidery over rippling muscles. I had the impression of dark pants, but I didn’t dare look down. Didn’t matter, his chest was definitely worth checking out. Pecs of the gods, no kidding.

Just my luck. Lewis had left a Djinn at home—his own personal mystical alarm system.

“Hi,” I said brightly. “Lewis around?”

He scowled. “Who wants to know?”

“Joanne Baldwin.” I held out my hand, palm up; the Djinn passed his palm over mine and read the white runes that glittered in its path. “We’re friends. Me and Lewis go way back.”

“Never heard of you,” he said brusquely. Djinn are not known for their chatty nature, or their sunny disposition. In fact, they’re known for being difficult to handle and—if they don’t like you—fully capable of finding some sneaky way to do you in. Not that I was an expert, exactly; Djinn were reserved for bigger fish than me, sort of the equivalent of a company car perk in the Wardens Association. I didn’t even rate a reserved parking space yet.

The Djinn was still staring at me. “Go now,” he rumbled.

I stood my ground. Well, it was really his ground, but I stood it anyway. “Sorry, can’t. I need to talk to Lewis. Urgently.”

“He is not here. Being that you are a Warden, I won’t kill you for your lack of manners.” He started to close the door.

“Wait!” I slapped my hand—coincidentally, the one with the rune—flat against the wood. It wasn’t my upper body strength that made him hesitate, that’s for sure. Even Mr. Universe couldn’t have held a door against a Djinn, much less a five-foot-five woman with more attitude than body mass. “When will he be back?”

The Djinn just stared at me. Djinn eyes are colors not found in the human genome, specially formulated to produce maximum intimidation. Some of them are citrine yellow, some bright fluorescent green, and they’re all scary. This guy’s were a purple that Elizabeth Taylor would have envied. Beautiful, and cold as the colors in arctic ice.

“Look, I need to find him,” I said. “I need his help. There are lives at stake here.”

“Yes?” He hadn’t blinked. “Whose lives?”

“Well, mine, anyway,” I amended, and tried for a sheepish grin. He returned the smile, and I wished he hadn’t; it revealed perfect white teeth that would have looked more appropriate on a great white shark.

“You stink of corruption,” he said. “I will not help you.”

“That’s up to your master, isn’t it?” I shot back. “Come on, he knows me! Just ask him. I know you can. He wouldn’t leave you here without any way to contact him. Not even Lewis goes around abandoning Djinn like disposable pens.”

The purple eyes were really, really getting on my nerves. I could feel the Djinn’s power burning my skin where my hand touched the door, another spiteful tactic to get me to let go so he could slam it shut and ward me clear out to the street. There’s nothing stronger than a Djinn on its home territory. Nothing.

The pain in my hand got worse. Smoke rose from my hand where it pressed against the white-painted wood door, and my whole body shook from nausea and reaction. But I didn’t let go.

“Illusion,” I stammered. The Djinn was still grinning. “Don’t waste my time.”

“My powers could not touch a true Warden,” he said. “If you burn, you burn because you deserve it.”

All right, I’d had about enough of playing with Mr. Clean gone bad. I took my hand away from the door and held it up.

The world breathed around me.

I might have stunk of corruption, but I still commanded the wind, and it slammed into the Djinn with force of a speeding Volkswagen. Djinn are essentially vapor.

I blew him away.

He was gone for about a half-second, and then he re-formed, looking ready to pull my brain out through my nostrils. So I hit him again. And again. The last time, he re-formed very slowly all the way across the room, looking pissed off but respectful. I hadn’t made the mistake of setting foot across his threshold, so he couldn’t strike back. All his awesome power—and it was truly awesome—was useless. So long as I didn’t break the wards, I could stand out there all day and toss microbursts and katabatic gusts.

The Djinn muttered something unpleasant. I held my hand up again. A strong breeze shoved my hair around, and I felt the warm tingle that meant I had at least one more good Djinn-blasting gust at my command.

“I really, really don’t have time to dick around with you,” I said. “Give him my name. Tell him I need to see him. Or else.”

“No one threatens me!” he growled.

“I’m not threatening, sweet pea.” I could feel the white runes on my hand glowing. My dark hair whipped around my face in the wind, which I kept coiling around me, building tornadic speed. “Want to bet I can blow you all the way into a teeny little open bottle and stick a cork in you?”

“You know not what you are doing,” he said, more quietly.

“Wrong, I know exactly what I’m doing. Want another practical demonstration?”

He held up one hand in the universal language of surrender. I let the wind swirl and die. The Djinn reached over and picked up something from the table, and it took me a few seconds to realize it was a cell phone. Good God, the Djinn had entered the age of technology. Next thing you know, a satellite dish in every bottle, broadband Internet, microwave ovens…

The Djinn punched numbers, said something, and turned away from me while he talked. I had the leisure to examine the back of a Djinn, which is something you rarely do. He had a nice ass, but his legs ended in a swirl of vapor somewhere around knee level. Still, not a disappointment.

He finished the call, turned back, and bared pointed teeth at me. Uh-oh, I thought.

“Come inside,” he invited. “No harm will come to you.”

“I’ll wait out here, thanks.” I rocked back and forth. My feet felt like somebody had set them on fire from the soles up, and the couch in the living room looked cushy and inviting. I wished the Djinn hadn’t started being nice. It was harder to maintain my tough-as-nails bitchy attitude, especially when I wanted to cry and curl up in a ball on those nice, soft cushions.

“Suit yourself.” The Djinn turned away to root around in some drawers in the kitchen. He came up with a battery, scowled at it, and threw it back. A corkscrew. One of those clippy things for opened bags of chips. “Ah! Here. Take this.”

He tossed something shiny at me. I caught it and felt a flash of cold, something sharp turning in my fingers, and then I was holding nothing but an expanding breath of mist. I opened my hand and stared down. Nothing to show for it but a faint red mark on my palm. I frowned at it and extended a tingle of Oversight, but there was nothing there. Nothing harmful, anyway.

“What the hell is it?” I asked.

The Djinn shrugged. “A precaution,” he said. Sharp-toothed grin again, very unsettling. “In case you lose your way.”

Before I could offer a polite thanks-but-no-thanks, I felt the steel psychic slam of wards coming up to full strength. The Djinn was evidently done screwing around with me, even as a diversion.

He floated up to the doorway, watching me as I backed down the steps while fighting against it.

“Hey!” I fumed. “Dammit, I just want to talk to him! That’s all! I’m not going to turn him in or anything!”

“Drive,” he said. “You’ll be contacted with directions.”

I was off the back porch and out of the yard and on the sidewalk before I could even think about fighting back.

I flexed my hand, but it didn’t feel any different than it ever had. In Oversight, there was nothing visible but flesh and bone, muscles and nerves, the luminous course of blood moving on its busy way.

The Djinn had smelled the Demon Mark on me. That was bad. Very bad.

It meant I didn’t have much time left.

God has a sense of humor, and in my experience, it is never kind. I’d tempted fate consistently for days now… I hadn’t packed a toothbrush, a change of clothes, or a tampon. Well, at least I had my American Express Platinum, with the infinite credit limit for emergencies… but then again, I didn’t dare use it. My friends and colleagues would be watching for any sign of me, and until I found Lewis—and safety—I didn’t dare attract their attention. If the FBI could find me, the Wardens sure as hell wouldn’t have any trouble.

I kept myself awake as I drove my sweet midnight-blue 71 Mustang out of town by making a mental shopping list. Underwear: check. Toiletries: check. Clothes: definitely. New shoes: a must.

I sniffed the air inside the car. A shower and a car deodorizer wouldn’t hurt, either. Maybe something with that new-car aroma. I love classic cars, but they come with baggage and years of ingrained stinkiness. Feet, sweat, sex, the ancient ghosts of spilled coffee. I smelled it only after a few hours on the road, and maybe it was all in my head, but just now I’d give anything for a clean, fresh scent like they claimed in the commercials.

I rolled down the windows and smelled something else, something more menacing. Rain. The storm was getting closer.

I find that as a Warden, it pays to drive something aerodynamic and fast that the wind will have a hard time shoving over a cliff. Just because I can control weather—with the proper focus—doesn’t mean the weather likes it, or that it won’t decide to screw with me at the most inconvenient times. In my business, we not only understand chaos theory, but we totally abide by it, as well. Chaos happens. Plan for speed.

I accelerated out of town in complete defiance of traffic laws and headed out on the maze that was the Connecticut road system. Basically heading south and west, because that was away from the coming storm, which had turned the eastern sky a heavy gray green. You’ll be contacted with directions. Had the Djinn just screwed with me? Possibly; the Djinn were known for their mean-spirited sense of humor. Maybe he hadn’t gotten hold of Lewis. Maybe Lewis had told him he didn’t want to see me, in which case the only directions the Djinn was honor-bound to give me led straight to hell.

I was in antiques country on CT 66, driving past shops that sold Federal chests and Shaker chairs, some of them even genuine. On a better day, I might have been tempted to stop. My Florida house was due for a redecoration, and I liked the psychic feel of antiques. It was definitely time to get over that Martha Stewart everything-in-its-place phase; I was so tired of pastels and good manners, I could yak. The fantasy that I would be going home—ever—to a normal life was something I was clinging to like a spar on a stormy ocean.

I was just passing a shop that housed every piece of junk from the nineteenth century when suddenly the radio crackled on. Hair on the back of my neck stood rigid, and I knew there was a spell traveling with me. A big, powerful spell, coming, no doubt, from my friendly neighborhood Djinn.

The radio spun channels, picking out its message like words on a ransom note.

A high female voice. “Drive…”

Midrange male. “To…”

Full-throated Broadway show tune. “Oklahoma is OK!”

“What?” I yelped. “You’re kidding, right?”

The radio flipped stations again. It settled on classic rock. “No-no, no, nuh-no, no, no-no-no-no-no no no no, nuh-no.” Either the Djinn was putting me on, which would be seriously unfunny, or the spell was coming from Elsewhere, I hoped not an Elsewhere that began with the letter Hell.

“Very funny,” I muttered. I shifted gears and felt the Mustang stretch and run beneath me like a living thing. “Any special place in Oklahoma? It’s not exactly Rhode Island. There’s a lot of real estate.”

Letters this time. “O… K… C” Oklahoma City.

I got a bad feeling. “No offense, but can I at least get some proof this message is from Lewis?”

“No,” said a female voice, decisively. Static. The radio clicked off.

It could be the Djinn. In fact, it was even likely; I’d embarrassed him, and he owed me payback for that. But he had made a call, and I couldn’t waste the chance if he was honestly giving me instructions on how to find his boss. Djinn had a host of faults, but out-and-out lying wasn’t among them.

And besides, I had to outrun the storm behind me anyway.

“Oklahoma City,” I sighed aloud. “Home of heavy weather. Fabulous.”

The only redeeming thing about it was that I knew the territory, and one of my best friends in the world had retired in OKC. It’d be nice to have a friend, right now. Somebody to count on. Some shoulder to cry on.

I had to look for the silver lining, anyway. Because the storm cloud was pretty damn dark, and only getting worse.

I’d met Lewis Levander Orwell at Princeton. He was a graduate student—already had a degree in science, then a Juris Doctor to practice law. His explanation, strangely, had been that he’d wanted something to fall back on, in case the whole magic thing didn’t work out. Apparently he had the whole Magical Arts thing mixed up with Liberal Arts.

And for a while, it looked like having a fallback career was a good idea. Lewis had been recruited— or drafted—after demonstrating some definite weatherworking abilities at the age of fifteen, but that talent had seemed to fade. He had loads of potential but no actual… nothing concrete to show what his powers might be or what form they might really take. Then, his second year in the Program, he was spotted working in the garden. In the winter, knee-deep in snow. Growing roses.

Red, blooming roses the size of dinner plates. He was honestly surprised that it was hard to do.

He was originally identified as an Earth Warden— someone who could shape living things, alter the land itself, make crops grow in fallow fields, prevent or cause earthquakes and volcanoes. A strong, deep power, and very rare. Then, in his third year of the Program, they’d discovered he also had an affinity for fire. Dual specialties are vanishingly rare. Only five other Wardens in recorded history had ever commanded earth and fire together. Water and air—that was expected, even typical—but earth and fire didn’t blend well. Lewis was talked about a lot. He was, we all heard, expected to do Great Things.

Must have been a lot of pressure, but you’d never have known it from the way he acted. Lewis was quiet; he did his work, went to classes, had some friends but gave the strong impression that if any man was an island, it was Isla Lewis. I admit, I pined after him. I had my reasons.

Unfortunately, Lewis avoided Program girls like the plague—which was kind of my fault, because our first encounter had been, shall we say, memorable. Anyway, he deliberately went for the normal girls. Sociology majors, psych grad students, the occasional goofy art student. Girls whose biggest aspiration was to get a secretarial job at Smith Barney and vacation with their bosses in the Bahamas… unlike those of us in the Program, who dreamed of facing down F5 tornadoes and calming raging rivers.

Because I was not stalking him, just keenly aware of his presence, I happened to be around for The Event, which was what we began calling it later when there was some perspective on what had happened.

That was the night Lewis got the shit kicked out of him by six frat boys on a bender.

It was the Kappa Kappa Psi party, which was a music fraternity… for some odd reason, the band geeks always knew how to throw a bitchen party. Four of us from the Program crashed the scene— Lewis, who came on the arm of some miniature brunette flute player; and Paula Keaton, Ed Hernandez, and me, who came looking for free drinks and the slim possibility of getting charmed out of our underwear. I glimpsed Lewis early on, talking to his flute player but not looking very comfortable; he didn’t drink much, and the party was rolling pretty well.

Flute Girl eventually got swept away on a tide of Everclear punch, and Lewis was left to ramble around on his own. He knew I was there—I think— but we didn’t hook up. If we had… well. Water, bridges, et cetera.

Sometime around 2 a.m., he knocked over a guy’s drink. Pretty stupid reason for what happened, but the reason ceased to matter after the third or fourth round of insults, and suddenly there were six of them and one of him, and punches started flying. Two of them held him down, the others took turns kicking him when he went down. Like everybody else standing around at the party, I was frozen in shock, cold beer in hand. Violence happens so quickly. Unless it’s you taking the beating, it takes time for it to sink in, especially when alcohol’s involved. If you’re an onlooker, reaction comes later, when you’re asking yourself why the hell you didn’t do anything to help.

It couldn’t have been long as serious beatings go, maybe less than a minute, but a guy can get really fucked up in sixty seconds when it’s a free-for-all, six on one. About the time some of the other guys at the party realized they should be doing something and I opened my mouth to scream, Lewis got kicked in the head and he rolled on his side toward me, and I saw his face.

Bloody. Scared to death. Desperate.

He reached out to me. No, that’s wrong; he reached out toward me. He reached for power, as unconsciously as a child reaching for its mother.

The Mother Of Us All reached back.

I felt power sweep over—out of me—in a storm of pins and needles, felt the air gasp around me, felt water drops pulled off my skin and my beer bottle by the sheer power of his call.

The wind hit with the force of a freight train. It was targeted, specific, and it was hungry. I felt its tugging passage, but it barely ruffled my hair; it slammed into the six frat boys and picked them up and swept them across the parking lot, into the side of a brick building, and pinned them there thirty feet off the ground.

Nobody except those who study weather really understands the incredible nature of wind. A fifty-mile-an-hour gust is brutal, but a seventy-five-mile-an-hour gust is more than twice as powerful as that because of the increased pressure per square inch. A ninety-mile wind, three times worse.

These college boys were crushed by, at minimum, a wind of above 120 miles per hour. Enough to fracture bones from the sheer force of the impact. More bones broke from the pressure acting on them as they were held up against the wall. I remember thinking, as I looked at this incredible display of power, My God, he’s going to squeeze them into jelly, but in the next second Lewis blinked and the wind died and they fell thirty feet to the grass.

Chaos followed. Lewis lay on the ground, gasping for air, staring at me. I stared back in total shock. After what seemed like ages, I hurried over to him, hunkered down, and put my hand on his forehead. He felt burning hot.

“Jesus, Lewis, you called the wind,” I blurted. “You’ve got everything. Everything.”

He just managed to nod. He probably didn’t understand exactly what it meant, the state he was in. The Association got there before five minutes was out, and he was loaded into an ambulance accompanied by three of the most powerful Wardens in the entire world, all of them arguing furiously about what had just happened.

He looked afraid. And woozy. I keep thinking that if I’d done something then, said something to him, tried to stop them from taking him away, maybe things would have been different.

But, realistically, probably not.

I drove for about half an hour before I decided the radio wasn’t going to make any more mystical-musical pronouncements. I fished the cell phone one-handed out of my purse and checked the battery level. Two bars. No chance of recharging; I hadn’t had time to pack for basic hygiene, much less handy phone accessories. I paged through the numbers in memory— Mom, Sarah, my dry cleaners, my massage therapist… Ah. Estrella Almondovar. Just who I was looking for.

I punched the speed dial and waited through the clicks and rings, lots of rings, before a sleep-mashed voice mumbled, “This had better be important.”

“Kinda,” I said, with as much fake cheer as I could pack into my voice. “Gooood morning, my little jumping bean.”

She cleared her throat. I could just see her dragging a hand through midnight-black hair, trying to rub away the dreams.

“I got your salsa right here, bimbo,” she said. “Jesus Maria, what time is it?”

“Eight a.m. on the East Coast.”

“Yeah, that’s like six here. You know, big hand on the six, only you can’t see it ’cause it’s dark? What, they don’t teach you time zones in Florida?” I heard sheets rustling. Static clawed the line. “I guess you want something.”

“Great sex,” I sighed. “With a gorgeous man, with a great big—”

“Bank account,” she finished. “Some things never change, eh? Sad thing is, you’ll probably get it. Meanwhile, I get to listen to your wet dreams at you’ve-got-to-be-fucking-kidding-me in the morning.”

I downshifted and drafted behind a semi tractor-trailer hauling ass in the fast lane. With cars like my lovely Delilah, and ever-rising gas prices, it pays to conserve all the fuel you can. The Mustang shuddered from the buffeting before we settled into the slipstream, then purred out her pleasure.

Somewhere in the wilds of Oklahoma, Estrella banged what sounded like metal around, dropped the phone, picked it up. “It’s your dime, Jo. You’ve got until my coffeemaker fills up the first cup, and then I’m gone whether you’re finished or not.”

“Places to see, people to do?”

She snorted. “Chica, you ought to cut down on the crack. I got no place to be and nobody to do, as usual.” That was closer to the truth than either of us wanted to explore.

“Then this would be good news: I’m headed your way.”

“Seriously?” Her tone turned guarded. “What’s wrong?”

“Wrong? Why would it be wrong?” I thwacked myself on the forehead. Estrella—Star, to her friends— knew me too well.

“You’re kidding, right? You—leave a life of topless beaches and hot hard bodies to vacation in Oklahoma?”

“Dying to see you!”

“Right.” She dragged the word through three syllables. “How long has it been?”

“Um…” I couldn’t remember. “A year?”

“Try two.”

“Hey, I keep in touch. Don’t forget the phone calls. Or the Christmas cards.”

“The Christmas cards show up in February,” she said. Okay, she had a point, I wasn’t exactly the most reliable friend in the world. “So what’s the deal, Jo? You need crash space?”

“Maybe. Well. Yeah.” I heard her pouring liquid into a mug. “I should be there in a couple of days. You think I can stop in, maybe just catch a shower and some rest? I may not need it. I’m just saying, maybe. I’ll pay for dinner, honest. And at someplace good, not the local roach factory.”

Star sipped coffee. I was desperately jealous; my mouth watered at the thought. “Tell you what, you maybe show up, I’ll maybe let you in. That’s if you swear there’s not going to be any trouble, like you were in last time.”

“That was so not my fault. Tornadoes are a perfectly natural phenomenon. Not my fault you live where they go for vacation.”

“Hey, we live la vida loca around here, girlfriend. So. Why are you really coming out to the ass-end of nowhere?”

“It’s not the ass-end of nowhere. And besides, you’re there.” I winced again. That sounded suspiciously like what my buddy Andy had said when I asked him if I was getting fat. You’re not fat— you’re my friend! Well, at least it had made me go on a diet.

“Actually… I wasn’t being completely honest before. Something’s kinda wrong. I have to find somebody. It’s important.”

“Somebody around here?”

“Last I heard, he was somewhere close.” I was reluctant to say the name, but hell, Star was right; she knew everybody and everything that went on in that part of the world. “Um, it’s… Lewis.”

“Que?” she blurted. “You know, I was only kidding about the crack, but seriously, are you high? You got any idea how many people have been looking for him since he disappeared?”

“Yeah, I know. Pretty much everybody in the upper circles.”

“What the hell you gonna do when you find him?”

Not anything I could admit to, certainly not to Star. “Look, let’s not get into it, okay? Let’s just call it catching up on old times.”

“Sure. Okay.” She banged more metal—probably skillets. Star was a hell of a cook. “So I’ll watch for you, then.”

I sensed something on her end, something she wanted to ask, so I waited. She finally said, “Hey, you haven’t heard anything, have you? About me?”

“From who?”

“Forget it.”

“No, really? From who?”

Another long hesitation. It wasn’t like her. Star was a do-it girl. “I just get worried sometimes, you know? That they’ll change their minds. Come and finish the job.”

That hit me hard, in unguarded places. I hurt for her. “No, baby, that’s not gonna happen. Everybody agreed, you deserve to hang on to what you have. You know that. Why would they change their minds?”

“Why do they do anything?” She forced a laugh. “Hey, no worries, I’m just freakin’ paranoid—you know that. I listen to the little voices in my head too much.”

I would, too, if I were Star. Which led down paths of speculation where I didn’t want to follow. “Well, now I’m all jealous. I wish I had little voices in my head. Guess I’ll just have to settle for people really being out to get me.”

“Bitch,” she said cordially.

“Bimbo.”

Three or four uninspired insults later, we mutually hung up. I tossed the phone back in the passenger seat. Star would give me shelter, and she’d never rat me out to anyone looking for me, but she was really, really vulnerable. A few years ago, Star had taken a tremendous hit, both physically and emotionally, and she’d been forced to leave the Wardens. Usually, when people leave, they get blocked—a kind of magical lobotomy, to ensure they can’t go rogue. It had been a close thing with Star, but they’d let her keep what little she had left. Provisionally.

And Star was absolutely right—that didn’t mean that somebody wouldn’t show up on her doorstep with official sympathy and orders to rip the essence of power out by the bloody roots. They’d damn sure hop to it if they found me conspiring with her, what with me bearing the Demon Mark and all. God. I shouldn’t be dragging her into this, but there were only a few people in the world I could trust with my CD collection, much less with my life. In fact, there were only three.

Lewis and Star and Paul.

It’ll be okay. If I found Lewis, if he did as I asked, if everything worked out okay… I wouldn’t need to put her at risk.

If. If, if, if.

It was a small word to hang the rest of my future on. Star’s, too.

When I was fifteen, my mother fell in love with a guy named Albert. First of all, I ask you—Albert? I guess it could have been worse. He could have been named Cuthbert or Engelbert, but at fifteen it was still a crushing horror to me. Albert the Bear. Big, hairy guy, with a laugh that sounded like a rusty chain saw and a fashion sense second only to Paul Bunyan for addiction to flannel.

Albert wanted us all to get closer to nature. Even then, knowing next to nothing, I knew it was a really bad idea, but Mom thought he not only hung the moon but painted it, too, so we all packed our outdoorsy equipment and flannel shirts and hiking boots, and headed off into the Big Empty.

Actually, it was Yellowstone National Park, but same diff.

All right, it was beautiful—breathtaking, even to a disaffected fifteen-year-old girl who didn’t want to be pulled away from the mall and her friends for the summer. Beautiful and wild and powerful.

But mostly I was bored, and I wished for TV and MTV and boys. Awesome geysers: check. Incredible vistas: check. Crushing ennui: gotcha.

We hiked. And hiked. And hiked. I wasn’t much for that, and when my boots rubbed blisters on the first day, Albert the Bear wouldn’t let me rest; he told me it would toughen my feet. I sulked and snapped at Mom and wished desperately that I would fall and break my leg so that a good-looking rescue party of tall, dark-haired men would come carry me away. Occasionally I wished Albert would get eaten by a bear, but that was before I actually saw one; once I had, I didn’t wish anybody to get eaten by a bear.

Somehow, we got to the top of whatever ridge we were trying to climb, and while Mom and Albert were admiring the downhill view, I was looking up.

“It’s going to rain,” I said. The sky was a perfect ocean-deep azure, the sun a hot gold coin glittering like sunken treasure. I sat down on a rock and started to take my shoes off.

“Don’t take ’em off,” Albert advised me in his rumbling bass voice. “Feet’ll swell. And I think you’re wrong, Jo. It doesn’t look like rain.”

I craned my neck, shaded my eyes, and looked up at the thick black bulk of him standing over me. Nice to be in the shade. Not so nice to be in Albert’s shade.

“See that?” I pointed to the thin, wispy clouds in perfect waves. “Cirrus clouds, coming out of the east.”

“So?” For some granola-chewing, tree-hugging forest nut, Albert wasn’t very weather wise.

I smiled. “Look.” I grabbed a stick and drew a circle in the dirt. “The planet spins this way, right? East to west.”

“Just figured that out, did you?”

I ignored him and drew an arrow the opposite direction. “Wind moves west to east, against rotation. So why is the wind coming out of the east?”

This time he didn’t say anything. That was fine; I wasn’t listening anyway. “It’s coming out of the east because there’s something rotating—” My stick drew a spiral somewhere over where I guessed we were. ” — that’s changing the direction of the wind. Rotation means a storm.”

He looked over at my mother. She looked back. I figured the silent conversation had something to do with what a freak I was, what the hell were they going to do with me, and on and on and on. Not like I hadn’t already said it and wondered it myself.

I drew some wavy lines in the sand next to the spiral. “Cirrus clouds form way up high—ice crystal clouds, running ahead of a pressure system. So. It’s probably going to rain. Based on how fast they’re moving, it’ll probably be here before dark.”

A freshening eastern breeze frayed my hair out of its braid and plastered strands to my sweating face.

Somewhere out there, beyond the trees, beyond the place where morning started, I could feel it growing, pulling energy from the collision of warm and cold air, condensing water and energy, sucking micro-drops together to form mist, mist to form clouds, clouds to form rain.

I closed my eyes and I could almost taste it, cloud-soft on my tongue, the taste of brass and ozone and cool, clear water. God, it felt good. Tingles all the way inside, deep down. I’d never been out in the open before to a storm forming. It had a raw, wild power I’d never expected.

“Bullshit,” Albert said bluntly, and laughed. “Pretty good try, Jo. Hey, you’ve got quite the con artist there, Nancy.”

My mother wasn’t smiling, and she wasn’t laughing. She looked at me gravely, thumbs hooked in the straps of her backpack, and shifted from one foot to the other. Mom wasn’t used to hiking, either, but she hadn’t complained, hadn’t talked about blisters or being thirsty or being tired.

“Are you quite the con artist, Jo?” she asked me. I didn’t say anything. She turned back to Albert. “We’d better start back.”

“Oh, come on, Nancy, you don’t buy this stuff, do you? She’s fifteen years old, she’s not some damn weatherman. You can tell the weather around here for days around, anyway. Clear as a bell, that’s what this is.”

“There’s high pressure to the south,” I said, lacing up my boots. “Wall cloud forming over the horizon to the east. It’ll be bad by nightfall—it’s moving fast. Warm air always moves faster than cold.”

“We should start back,” Mom repeated. “Now.”

And that was that. Albert the Bear grumbled and muttered, but we started back down the ridge. The first darkness edged over the eastern horizon, like early night, at just after three in the afternoon, and then it flowed like spilled ink, staining the sky. Albert shut up about coddling my fear of nature and devoted his breath to making good time. We scrambled down sheer slopes, jogged down inclines, edged carefully past crumbling paths over open gorges. People talk about nature as a mother, but to me she’s always been Medea, ready and willing to slaughter her children. Every sheer drop we navigated was an open mouth, every jagged rock a naked tooth.

I wasn’t attuned to the land, but even I could sense the power in it, the anger, the desire to smash us like the intruding predators we were. I felt it from the storm, too; the storms that made it into cities were less self-aware, more instinctual. This one pulsed with pure menace.

Warmer air breathed through the trees, rattled branches, and fluttered leaves. The breeze picked up and it carried the sharp scent of rain.

“Faster,” I panted as we hit easier terrain. We ran for it as the storm clouds unfurled octopus tentacles overhead and the rain came down in a punishing silver curtain. Overhead, lightning forked purple white, and without a city to frame it, lightning was huge and powerful, taller than the mountain it struck. Thunder hit like a physical body blow. It rattled through my skin, my cartilage, bones. We’re mostly water, our bodies. Sound travels in waves.

Above us on the ridge, a tree went up like a torch.

Albert was yelling something about a ranger station. I could barely see. The rain stung like angry wasps, and under the trees the blackness was complete. Better not to stay under the trees anyway, too much risk of drawing another lightning strike.

Pins and needles across my back, at the top of my head.

“Get down!” I yelled, and rolled into a ball on the ground, trying to present the smallest exposure to the storm. I could feel it now—it was like a blind man with an ax hunting a mouse. It wanted me. It was drawn to me.

It hated me.

Lightning hit close, very close. I felt the concussion and heard something that was too loud to be just a sound, it was a force with energy and life of its own.

I was sobbing now because I knew the next time it would get me. It knew where I was. It could smell my fear.

Somebody grabbed my arm and dragged me to my feet. We ran through the darkness, slipping on grass and mud. Deer burst out of the darkness and across our path like white ghosts fleeing a graveyard.

We made it to the ranger station, and I realized only when I saw Mom and Albert were already there, wrapped in blankets and shivering, that the person who’d dragged me up and out from under the storm wasn’t anyone I knew.

She was small and golden skinned and dark haired, and she was laughing as she swept off her park ranger hat and hung it up to dry.

“Nice day for a walk,” the other ranger said, the one handing Mom and Albert steaming cups of coffee. My rescuer grinned at him and looked out the window. Rain lashed the glass as if it were reaching inside for us.

“Yup,” she agreed. “Just about perfect.”

She glanced over at me, and I felt it like a current humming between us. We were the same, shared something fundamental.

The storm wasn’t hunting me. It was hunting us both.

“You should be more careful,” she said. “Some people just aren’t cut out for communing with nature.”

“What’s your excuse?” I shot back. She lifted one shoulder.

“Somebody’s got to be on the front lines,” she said. “Estrella Almondovar. Star, for short.”

I told her my name. We shook hands. She got me a blanket and, instead of coffee, hot cocoa. As she handed it over, she lowered her voice and said, “You have a notice? From the Association?”

“Yeah. I’ll have an Intake Board at eighteen.”

“Well, don’t wait. Start getting the training now, like me—this is my internship. You need it. I’ve seen the Park react like this to only one other person before.”

“Who?” I asked. She gave me a teasing little wouldn’t-you-like-to-know smile.

“You don’t know him,” she said. “But his name is Lewis.”

She went back to the cabin window and stood watching the fire up on the ridge, the one that the first lightning strike started. As I watched, it flickered, sizzled, and went out.

That’s when I knew. She wasn’t a Weather Warden, not like me. She had power over fire.

From that day, we were friends. I don’t really know why; we didn’t have all that much in common, beyond the obvious, but we had a kind of vibe. Energy. We resonated to the same frequencies.

We ended up roomies at Princeton, shared a thousand joys and tragedies and triumphs. She was the best friend I ever had, and it looked for a while like we were going to live charmed lives forever. Smart, beautiful, gifted. Two peas in a pod. Perfect.

And then Yellowstone burned, and everything changed for both of us.

I gloomily considered Oklahoma City. The most direct route was to follow the Connecticut toll roads until I could get on I-90. It would be the better part of a two-day journey. The coffee I’d slammed down in a caffeinated frenzy at 4 a.m. was no more than a memory, and my stomach rumbled to remind me that delicious as it was, mocha was not a food group.

So should I stop to eat, or pile up the miles? My decisions almost always depend on the forecast, so I flipped stations until I got a weather channel.

The storm that had followed me out of Florida was now ravaging the eastern seaboard. I could see darkness amassing on the horizon behind me, and a flanking line at the edges of the supercell. It was starting to turn, driven by Coriolis effect and the powerful internal engine of water heating and cooling; when it completed its rotation, it would be that most dreaded of East Coast storms, the nor’easter.

I didn’t intend to be anywhere near it.

You might wonder why I didn’t just give it a wave of my hand and get rid of it—which was entirely within my powers. Well, Newton was right: action gets reaction. Every time a Warden balks the weather, the power has to go somewhere, and believe me, you don’t want the power of a supercell discharging through you; it’s something on the order of three or four larger-than-average nuclear bombs. If I’d tried directly to make my stalker-storm disperse—waved my hands and parted the winds, to give it a biblical interpretation—I might have succeeded here and created the world’s largest-ever tornado whirling its way directly at me from the opposite direction. Plus, I wasn’t an official Warden in this area… or anywhere, come to that. Not anymore.

Still, I’d been one of the most subtle weatherworkers in history, all my performance reviews said so; I could probably slide it under the radar of anyone who might be looking for me up there in Oversight. Not that I had a lot of choice, really… No matter how fast I drove, this storm was bound to catch me. It had the scent of me now.

I turned the radio on, settled myself comfortably in the body-hugging seat of the Mustang, and began humming while Jim Morrison sang—funnily enough— about riders on the storm. As I drove, I shifted—not gears, but the air above. Cooled it here, warmed it there, slowed the elevator-fast updrafts that were feeding the storm its power. It was delicate work, making sure the energy expended didn’t add up to another problem, and still making enough changes that the storm weakened. Also, I had to do it quietly. Last thing I wanted to do was attract attention from the local officials.

It took about two and a half hours to reduce it from a badass mofo to an inoffensive low-pressure system, which is nothing much if you’re driving a Mustang and listening to a Doors album marathon. I pulled off the road in the parking lot of a roadside diner called the Kountry Kafe, put the car in neutral, and closed my eyes as I left my body to check out the results.

In Oversight, the world looks very different. I lifted my hand in front of my face and saw a tracery of crystal, my aura cool blue edged with flashes of green and—most unsettlingly—streaks of red. Red was bad. Red was trouble. No wonder the Djinn had smelled the Mark on me.

Nothing I could do about it now. I stepped out in my astral form and admired the crystalline perfection of the Mustang, which was even more beautiful in Oversight than in the mundane world. A real magical beauty of a car. One look at the Kountry Kafe convinced me I didn’t want to eat there; it pulsed with bad vibes, like a quaking mass of rancid Jell-O.

I spread my weightless arms and went up. There was no sense of speed—not in this reality—and no sense of resistance, either. I glided up, and up, and up, until the earth curved off beneath me. From that dizzying height, I studied the deforming spiral of the storm. In Oversight it looked almost the same as in the real world, only instead of lightning, the energy displayed in colors—brilliant, vibrant colors that a trained Warden could interpret. I’d done enough with it, I thought. Its overall rotation had been disrupted, and the lightning flickers were showing in golds and greens, sheets of positive and negative charges in scattered glitter. If I’d missed the mark, I would’ve seen reds and a steady photonegative undertone.

I let go, and the planet rushed back at me. The first time I’d traveled in Oversight, I’d absolutely freaked, and no wonder: the sensation of falling back into your body is one of the most terrifying feelings in the world. These days, I enjoyed it like a thrill ride. Few enough thrills in my life recently. Not to mention fewer dates.

I filled my body again, and the world took on weight and form and dimension. Delilah the Mustang assumed her familiar glossy midnight-blue paint job.

My stomach rumbled again. With one last, regretful glance at the Kountry Kafe, I eased on down the road.

The diner where I finally stopped looked outwardly a lot like the last one, but its Oversight characteristics were more encouraging. It was called Vera’s Place. Vera, it turned out, was long gone, but the owner and operator was a perky thirty-year-old named Molly with hair that showed several indecisive home dye jobs and the kind of creamy milkmaid skin that every Hollywood actress wants.

“Pie?” she asked me expectantly as I polished off the last of my open-faced turkey sandwich and mashed potatoes. There wasn’t a lot of commerce going on inside Vera’s Diner; I counted about six old coots and a yuppie couple dressed from the L.L. Bean catalog who sneered at the menu selections and would never even have considered eating something as middle-American as pie. Which decided me.

“What, you think I’m hungry or something?” I asked, and scraped up the last of the delicious pan gravy with the edge of my fork. I got a dimpled smile in response.

“Last one we had in here didn’t eat pie was some hot-shot defense lawyer from L.A.,” she confided. I passed over the turkeyless, gravy-free plate.

“Wouldn’t want to be included in that company,” I agreed. “What kind of pie you got?”

She raised an eyebrow. “You really want the whole list?”

“Just the high points.”

The high points could have filled a couple of pages, single spaced. I decided on chocolate.

“German, cream, or meringue?”

“I’m sorry, is that a choice? Meringue, of course. Definitely.”

The meringue was taller than most three-layer cakes, a hugely delicious confection that went down perfectly cool with the rich, creamy chocolate beneath. The crust was to die for, crisp and delicious. Best pie I ever had. Honest. The Oversight never lies about the quality of food, especially pies.

While I was savoring the last few bites, I took out a road map and looked over the route. Long. Long and boring. I asked Molly about good places to stay and got two recommendations, visited the little Wardens’ room, and went back to my car full of chocolatey satisfaction, with the full intention of finding a Holiday Inn with adult channels and a minibar. One gets fun where one can.

Just as I reached for the car’s door latch, a feeling swept over me, pins and needles, unmistakable and terrifying. I snatched the door open and dived. My feet had just left the ground when lightning hissed up from the dirt where I’d stood, down from the gray clouds, and met in the middle with an awesome snap of power. The flash blinded me. My ears rattled from the force of the boom. I smelled harsh, metallic ozone and thought about how close I’d come to being a fuse in that current.

Lightning can come from a clear sky, but it has to be driven by energy from somewhere, and the storm that I’d doctored no longer had the charge necessary.

There wasn’t any potential—and yet, I could feel it all around me, a strong positive charge in the ground, negative charges building overhead in the clear but humid sky.

In Oversight, chains of electrons formed and rippled like translucent snakes in the sky—a cold hard glitter striking straight for me. Dear God, somebody was doing this. Somebody really powerful.

I rolled over, clawed hair away from my face, and saw that the ground was blackened and smoking where I’d been standing. The diner’s front door banged open, and Molly and the other patrons— even the yuppie couple—crowded around the opening. Too sensible to come outside, too interested to be really safe. I waved at them to show I was all right and started to pull the door of the Mustang shut.

The interior of the open door was charred in a straight line, up and down, poor baby. I hesitated, touched the metal carefully, and found it hot but not scorching. It squeaked in protest when I hauled it closed, but the engine started and the gears still fit.

I had to put some distance between me and what was going on. And I had to undo the damage that had been done up in the atmosphere before lightning started striking like blue-white cobras all over the county, mindless and vicious and enraged. I pulled out on the road and started trying to reverse polarity on the charged particles in the air overhead. The trick was not to try to change everything, just enough links in the chain to break the connections. I chose the particles by feel and instinct, turning that one, and that one, then flipping a whole section like a pancake on a hot griddle.

Breaking the chain of destruction.

The particles rolled back over, connecting faster than thought, heading for me and Delilah.

Dammit!

I hit the gas and Delilah jumped, raced like her life depended on it. I abandoned the sky and focused on the thin line of moisture on the road beneath the tires. I couldn’t change the charge in the earth, couldn’t even sense if the ground had been sensitized, too, but I could control the water. It was something my enemy— whoever that was—might not have thought of.

In the split second before lightning discharged through the open particle chain, I reversed the polarity of the water and snapped its energy feed to the ground.

The circuit broke, and the energy bled off harmlessly in a million directions.

I waited, watching in Oversight, while my body took care of controlling the Mustang’s wild gallop on damp pavement. Watched the living, thinking particles turn and turn and turn, whirring, searching for another circuit to complete.

I watched them suddenly revert to their natural random state as whoever was behind it let go.

I pulled in a deep breath and realized I was sweating. The car reeked with it.

I rolled down the windows and kept driving, not daring to slow down.

The weather isn’t what you think it is. Not by a long shot.

It’s a predator. In fact, the whole world around you is full of predators you can’t see, can’t sense, that are held in check only by their own whims and the power of about 1 percent of the human population. You want to know why the dinosaurs died out? Look around. They didn’t have any Wardens.

We come in three basic flavors. People who control water and air are Weather Wardens, and we’re in charge of keeping the furious storms the planet stirs up from scouring mankind off the face of the planet. Earth Wardens keep us from joining the great march to extinction by diverting dozens of planet-crushing catastrophes every year. Fire Wardens control—or try to control—the tendency of the planet to burn things to crispy ash. Mother Nature is schizophrenic and homicidal, and the only thing that stands between you and hideous, painful death is a couple of thousand people worldwide hanging on by their fingernails. Happy, huh? Most people don’t want to know that. Hell, most of the time I don’t want to know.

The Wardens are people with one hell of a lot of magical ability, but the Wardens Association is, foremost and always, a bureaucracy. Oh, sure, we’re public servants, saving lives, doing good works, blah blah, but hey, we get paid, and we have structure and job duties and a very nice dental program. Sort of like the IRS, if the IRS kept you from being horribly killed on a daily basis.

In charge are the High Wardens who make up the World Council (which is, oddly, based in the UN Building in New York, although not on any floor most people are likely to visit). Below them you have your National Wardens, who control entire countries, and beneath them Sector Wardens, Regional Wardens, Local Wardens, and Staff.

Nobody expected there would be anything more powerful than a World Council Warden, but then nobody had expected Lewis to pop up, controlling all the elements. Lewis didn’t fit. Or… to be more accurate… he fit in right at the top. A true master of the craft, absolutely unique. Nobody in the great big machine that made up the Association much liked the idea, except they couldn’t very well doubt it, not with Lewis demonstrating it every time they asked by calling fire, water, air, earth. For a while after the incident with the frat boys, Lewis lived like a lab rat, hemmed in by people who desperately wanted to control him, disprove him, understand him, stop him, worship him, destroy him. And some who just wanted his autograph.

I tried to find out what was going on, but I was just an apprentice, even if everybody agreed I had lots of power and promise. There was no way I’d be kept informed about decisions made at the World level. But at some point—and this is just a guess—I think they decided mat it would be safer for everybody if Lewis just didn’t exist.

I think somebody tried to kill him. Worse. I think they were stupid enough to miss.

Anyway, we know that Lewis flew the coop. He vanished with three—count ’em, three—of the precious bottles of Djinn from the Association vaults. Poof. Crime of the century, committed by the most wanted man on earth.

Since then, seven years ago, a lot of people have been looking for Lewis.

I was just the latest.

Lightning bolts out of the blue. Great. Somebody was trying to kill me. Actively. This was new, different, and not very welcome.

It was possible—okay, likely—that this had to do with a guy named Bad Bob Biringanine. Bad Bob was not quite two days dead, I’d been there for his big finish, and it was entirely conceivable that I was going to be held responsible. I might have a slim chance of avoiding that, but only if I came in from the cold and talked to the Wardens Council… and if I did it wearing the Demon Mark, well, that would be the ball game. I could explain, but they’d never believe me. Never.

And in any case, whether they believed me or not, they couldn’t help me.

I was just praying hard that Lewis could. The problem was getting to him before somebody else got to me.

It was possible that the lightning had been an official warning from the Wardens, in which case I was in really deep, no shovel in sight; I needed to know for sure before I decided on my next move. There was only one person I could trust to ask, these days, who was still on the inside. I retrieved the cell phone, checked the charge—down to one slender bar—and speed-dialed another number.

I got Paul on the first ring.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Jo, what did you just do?” It was a bellow, not a question, and I jerked the phone away from my ear, then tentatively moved it back. “Fuckin’ power surge the size of fuckin’ New Jersey, and it’s right in the middle of my Sector! And don’t tell me it wasn’t you, I know your style!”

“It wasn’t me. Well, it was aimed at me, but I didn’t start it,” I said, and waited out the gush of curses. Paul Giancarlo was one of the good guys. His temper was mostly a lot of sound, very little fury; for a guy with Family connections—in the Cosa Nostra sense— he was surprisingly sweet. However, I was in Paul’s Sector, and within it, he was lord and master of the weather, and he took that responsibility very seriously. If I’d been careless with lives, he’d hold a grudge.

Paul bossed about a hundred Regional and Local Wardens, and his chunk of the world ran from somewhere around Montpelier down through Philadephia, Pennsylvania. I was smack in the middle of it. He had the power to make my trip very uncomfortable indeed, since Paul was great in small scale. He could deliver a monsoon with pinpoint accuracy, hang it right over the Mustang no matter where I turned. He could funnel-cloud me up to Oz, if he chose. And I didn’t have time. Besides, conflict between Wardens is rarely good for anybody.

“They’re looking for you,” he said more quietly. “Guess you already know that, since you dropped out of sight like that.”

“Yeah, well, not like I had a choice,” I said.

“What with the murder charges and all,” he agreed.

“It wasn’t murder! It was—” Boy, it sounded lame. ” — self-defense.”

He grunted. “You know, Jo, that defense don’t hold up all that well even in the regular courts, especially when the guy was three times your age and unarmed.”

“Like a Warden’s ever unarmed. This was Bad Bob we’re talking about, after all. Not some helpless old guy I knocked over the head for his wallet.”

He sighed. It rattled the speaker in the phone. “He had a lot of friends. Lot of powerful friends. What the hell possessed you to take it this far? I mean, he could be a bastard, but Jesus, you fucking destroyed his house with him in it, Jo. Not to even mention that this storm you cooked up through all that crap has been focused on you like a guided missile.”

I didn’t want to talk about that, too many things to explain about Bad Bob and Florida. “Later. First things first. Somebody set up an unpredicated lightning bolt.”

A long, expressive whistle. “That’d explain the fucking up of my weather. You’re saying somebody threw it at you? Specifically?”

“I’m saying somebody really good threw it at me. I kind of need to know who. Was it… you know… official?”

“As in, did anybody clear it with me first? Hell no. Take my word for it: This didn’t come through the chain of command.” He paused for a few seconds; I could almost hear him thinking. “Jo, look, this is getting too serious. You’d better come see me. Albany. You know the address.”

I did. “Paul?”

He understood the question before I had to ask it. “I’m not turning you in, babe. I don’t exactly come from a family history of ratting out.”

That said, he hung up. I clutched the phone for a few seconds, trying to decide, but really, I didn’t have a choice. Paul’s suggestions were just polite orders.

I urged the Mustang up another notch on the speeding-fine scale and hauled ass for Albany.

I met Paul when I was eighteen, at my official intake meeting for the Wardens.

It was scheduled at a Holiday Inn outside of Sarasota. I had directions and an appointed time to appear, all on official Warden stationery, and I spent most of the drive wiping sweat from my palms and wishing I could keep on driving and disappear. But the Wardens had made it crystal clear that my presence was required, not requested. They’d also mentioned that they could not only make my life miserable, but if they wanted to, they could put a real unhappy ending on it, as well.

So I walked into the modest little hotel and looked over the meeting-room signs on the board, CULLIGAN COMPANY BOARD MEETING. Nope. LADIES ASSOCIATION OF ROSE GROWERS Probably not. METEOROLOGICAL RESEARCH INSTITUTE. That looked like the right one. I tugged down my skirt one more time, wished I’d worn something businesslike and conservative, and walked down what felt like the Last Mile. The door was closed. I knocked.

That was the first time I met Paul. He made an impression. He opened the door, and for a frozen second, all I could think of was Oh, my God, he’s gorgeous, and he made it that much worse by letting his eyes go wider and giving me that quick, comprehensive X-ray scan men are so good at delivering. He was six feet tall, olive skinned, with dark hair and designer stubble. Body by some very expensive personal trainer, or incredibly good genetics.

“Joanne Baldwin?” he asked, still standing in the doorway. I nodded. “You’re late.”

His voice didn’t match his body; it was low, gravelly, rough. But then again, maybe it did match, because it vibrated in parts of me that generally don’t react to voices. I swallowed hard and hoped my legs weren’t shaking too badly, and I followed him into the room.

Of the seven people there, Paul was definitely the standout for looks, but that didn’t mean anything; I felt potential power zip up and down my spine the minute I stepped inside. Ugly or beautiful, any one of these people could lay waste to entire countries.

The man sitting at the head of the long table stood up. He was older and blank faced, with gray eyes that looked as warm as polished marble. I didn’t know it then, but I was meeting the man in charge of the weather for the entire continental United States, a man who did not generally concern himself with assessing the fitness of some little girl from down in Florida.

“Joanne Baldwin,” he said. It was by way of a formal introduction, and I nodded and fought an impulse to curtsy, which would have been disastrous in the miniskirt anyway. “My name is Martin Oliver. You’ve just met Paul Giancarlo—” A nod from the stud muffin. “Let me introduce the rest of the panel.”

It was a who’s who of People Who Mattered. State Wardens from Texas, Arkansas, Montana. Marion Bearheart, an American Indian woman with kind eyes and an aura powerful enough to shatter glass… and the State Warden for Florida, Bob Biringanine. Bob was a short Irish-looking fellow with a perpetual blush, feathery white hair, and steel-blue eyes. He didn’t like me. I could sense it at his first uninterested glance.

“Sit,” Martin Oliver invited me, and demonstrated the process. I carefully lowered myself into a squeaky black chair. Everybody stared at me for a few seconds. “Coffee?”

“No thanks,” I managed. “Look, I’m not really sure why—”

“You’re here because either you need to be accepted into the Program, or you need to have your powers blunted,” Bob said. “Somebody like you is too dangerous to leave running around wild.”

Martin’s cold gray eyes flicked at him, but Bob didn’t seem to feel the impact. I tried to think of something to say. Nothing volunteered. Bob—Bad Bob, I later learned he was called—shuffled papers and found something that apparently interested him. I couldn’t see what it was.

“There was a storm,” he said. “One year ago. You vectored it around your house.”

Oh. That. I hadn’t thought anybody noticed. My lips were dry again, and so was my mouth. “I had to,” I said. My voice sounded childish and soft. Bad Bob’s gaze pinned me like I was an insect.

“Had to?” he repeated, and traded looks with a couple of the others. “Weeping Christ, girl, do you understand what you did? Your interference added force to the storm. What would just have caused minor damage to your house ended up destroying six others. Because of you. You lack judgment.”

I hadn’t known that. I thought—I thought I’d done the right thing. Carefully. Precisely. The idea that I’d made things worse elsewhere was a completely new one.

“That’s a little harsh,” said Marion Bearheart. She leaned back in her chair and studied me. “We’ve all screwed the pooch from time to time, Bob. You know that. Just last year, Paul dumped seventeen inches of rain on a floodplain when he was supposed to produce a summer shower. How many houses did you wash away, Paul?”

“Five,” Paul grunted. “Thanks for bringing that up as often as possible.”

Bad Bob ignored him, staring straight at Marion. “Paul didn’t get anybody killed.”

My heart froze up. There was silence around the table. Bob shuffled papers and came up with a newspaper clipping. “Dead in the wreckage of the house were Liza Gutierrez, twenty-nine, and Luis Gutierrez, thirty-one. Three children between the ages of nine and two years escaped with the help of neighbors before the home collapsed.”

It was like listening to someone reading my own obituary. I tried to swallow. Couldn’t. Looked down at faux woodgrain and blinked back tears. I didn’t know I didn’t know I didn’t know. The mantra of the helpless.

And then, a low gravelly voice. “Bullshit.” I looked up to see Paul staring at Bob. “Come on, Bob, she deflected the storm, sure, and she didn’t take the force vectors and wind speed into account, but it still wasn’t a bad job. But then, you didn’t recheck for changing conditions before you started lowering the ceiling up in the mesosphere. You want to sling some blame, I think you ought to get a little on you, too. And for God’s sake, people die. Without us, the whole Atlantic seaboard would be a pile of corpses— you know that as well as anybody. Sometimes you can’t save everybody. Sometimes you can’t even save yourself. You know that. You of all people.”

“Paul,” Martin Oliver said quietly. “Enough.”

Paul shut up. So did Bad Bob, who closed the folder. Martin Oliver opened his own.

“Joanne, maybe what we should be talking about is a great deal more basic. Do you want to be a Warden? It’s not an easy life, and it’s not especially rewarding. You’ll never have fame, and even though you’ll save a lot of lives, you’ll never receive gratitude or recognition. You’ll need to go through another six years of training, minimum, before you’re trusted as a Staff Warden.” His gray eyes studied me with absolute impartiality. “Some people don’t have the temperament for it. I understand that you’re prone to act first and think later.”

I licked my lips. “Sometimes.”

“Under what circumstances would you believe it was permissible to use the kind of powers you’ve been given? To, for instance, get rid of a violent storm?”

“To—save lives?” Nobody had told me there was going to be a test. Dammit.

Martin exchanged a look with Bad Bob. “What about saving property?”

“Um… no.”

“No?” Martin’s eyebrows levitated, making his gray eyes wider. “Is there no time when saving property might be preferable to saving lives?”

My heart was beating too fast; it was hurting my chest. I could hardly swallow for the lump in my throat. “No. I don’t think so.”

“What if the property were, say, a nuclear reactor whose destruction might result in the deaths of thousands more?”

Oh. I hadn’t thought of that one.

“What if the property were the central distribution center for food in a country full of starving people? Would you save the property, or the lives, if by saving lives you starved even more?”

“I don’t know,” I whispered. My hands were shaking. I made them into fists when Bad Bob’s laugh sawed the air.

“She doesn’t know. Well, that’s typical. This is what we end up with these days, a bunch of kids raised on free lunches who never had to make a decision in their lives more important than what TV show to watch. You want to trust her with the power of life and death?” He snorted and shoved my folder into the center of the table. “I’ve heard enough.”

“Wait!” I blurted. “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand.”

Marion Bearheart looked at me from the other side of the table, her warm brown eyes full of compassion. “And do you understand now, Joanne?”

“Sure,” I lied. “I’d save the power plant. And— and the food.”

Silence around the table. Bad Bob stood up. Nobody argued with him; nobody moved so much as a muscle as he raised his hands at shoulder level.

A cloud started forming above our heads. Just mist at first, clinging to the ceiling like fog, and then getting denser, taking on form and shape. I felt humidity sucking up into that thing, fueling power.

“Hey—,” I said. “Um—”

Power leaped through the air, jumping from each one of the Wardens in the room and into that cloud. It was feeding on them, drawing energy. It was… It was…

alive.

Bad Bob watched me with those eerie, cold eyes. “Better do something,” he advised. “Don’t know how long it’s going to be content to just sit there.”

“Do what?” I yelped. I didn’t remember standing, but I was out of my chair, backing away. The power in that room—the uncontrolled, unfocused menace— the sense that the cloud overhead was thinking

I felt it click in on me as if a channel had opened, and something hot and powerful tore out of the cloud at me. I didn’t have time to think, to do anything but just react.

I reached up into the cloud and ripped it apart. No finesse to it, no control, just sheer raw power— and power that got loose, manifested in arcing static electricity from every metal surface. Glass shattered. The pitcher of water on the table hissed into steam.

I ducked into a crouch in the corner until it was all over, and the room was clear and silent.

Very, very silent.

I looked up and saw them all still sitting there, hands on the table. Nobody had moved an inch. Marion was the first to get up; she walked over to a covered cart and took out a thick beach towel, and went about the business of mopping up beads of water from the conference table. Somebody else— probably a Fire Warden—brought the lights back online. Except for a couple of burn marks around the power outlets, it all looked normal enough.

Bad Bob sat back down in his chair, slumped at ease, and propped his chin on his fist. “I rest my case,” he said. “She’s a menace.”

“I agree,” said the snippy-looking librarian type from Arkansas. “I’ve rarely seen anything so completely uncontrolled.”

Martin Oliver shook his head. “She has plenty of power. You know how rare it is to find that.”

They went around the table, each one putting in a comment about my general worthlessness or worthiness. Marion Bearheart voted for me. So did two others.

It came down to Paul Giancarlo, who stood and walked over to me and offered me a hand up. He kept holding my hand until he was sure I wasn’t going to collapse into a faint on the floor.

“You know what this is?” he asked. “What it is we’re deciding here?”

“Whether or not to let me into the Wardens,” I said.

He shook his head, very kindly. “Whether or not to let you live. If I say you can’t be trained, you go into Marion’s keeping, and she and her people try to take away your powers without killing you. Sometimes it works. Sometimes… not so well.”

If he was hoping to scare me, he’d succeeded brilliantly. I wanted to say something, but I honestly had no idea what to try. Everything I’d done so far was wrong. Maybe keeping my mouth shut was the best thing I could do.

He finally smiled. “Not going to beg, are you?”

I shook my head.

“That’s something,” he said, and turned around to Martin Oliver. “I’ll take her on. She can’t cut it, it’s my responsibility. But I think she’s going to be a damn good Warden someday.”

Martin winced. “Not quite yet, though.”

“Yeah, well. Who is, at eighteen?”

“You were,” Martin said. “I was.”

Paul shrugged. “We’re fuckin’ prodigies, Marty. And neither one of us ever had half the power this girl does coming into it.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Bad Bob said. “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”

It was four to three to make me a Warden.

Two hours later, I made it to Albany. Not a bad town, Albany—nice, historic, a little run-down but still the kind of kid-and-dog place that people boast about. Probably smaller than the residents preferred it be, considering it was the state capital and all. I’d hit it in pretty season—tulips bloomed in shocking rows of red and yellow, like velvet rings of fire rippling in the wind around trees and home gardens. I passed through the industrial area near Erie Canal, past narrow brownstones with soot-dark stoops, and turned toward the southend—up Hamilton toward the part of town called—appropriately—the Mansions.

Paul lived in a house that had to cost at least a cool quarter million… with spacious lawn, gracious styling, and a lacy white gazebo in the back overlooking a rose garden. I pulled into the drive and parked the Mustang, let the engine rumble to a stop, and took a little peek into Oversight.

I almost wished I hadn’t. Paul’s house was a castle in the aetheric, I’m talking castle here, with battlements and flags and arrow slits. Not too surprising, since Paul had always been a knight—in the warlike sense, the old-fashioned, bloody, mace-and-sword kind. And his Sector was a fiefdom. Paul’s world was heavy on the black and white. Bad news for Team Me, whose colors these days were gray and grayer.

I dropped back into tulips and Doric columns on the portico as the front door opened. Paul walked out to meet me. However knightly he might have looked in Oversight, in the real world, Paul was pure Italian Stallion… strong, muscular, with bone structure that bordered on godlike. He still had designer stubble, except I’d long ago learned it was really just a permanent five-o’clock shadow. Paul had turned forty a couple of years ago, but it hadn’t slowed him down any, and damn, he was still gorgeous.

Also unfortunately mad as hell at me, at the moment.

“Outta the car,” he said, and jerked a thumb at me.

I rolled down the window with the hand crank. “Not yet.”

He glowered. “Why the fuck not? You don’t trust me?”

“Check out the door,” I said. The marks of the lightning strike had certainly not done wonders for Delilah’s paint job. “C’mon, somebody tried to fry me in my Stuart Weitzmans the last time I got out. I’m not falling for it twice.”

Some of Paul’s anger melted as he looked at the evidence. But, being Paul, he didn’t express any shock or sympathy or ask any touchy-feely questions, either. He said, “You’re scared.”

“No shit. You’d be scared, too.”

“What? You don’t think I could defuse a little lightning bolt?” he asked.

“Let’s just say I’d rather you had four rubber tires between you and it when you give it a shot. C’mon, Paul, get in and we’ll talk. Comfy vinyl seats—”

He grunted. “You know as well as I do that rubber tires won’t do a damn thing against half a million amps.”

“No, but my car has a steel body. It won’t melt like that plastic POS you’re driving over there.” I jerked my chin at his late-model Porsche.

He looked wounded. “Don’t badmouth Christine. She could give you a five-second start and still blow your doors off.” He let the smile come out, finally, and I felt it warm me like a bonfire. I’d lost count of the times we’d debated cars, discussed the finer points of auto repair, trash-talked about who’d win the fantasy drag race. “Jeez, Jo, it’s good to see you. In spite of every little damn thing. Listen, come inside. I promise you’ll be safe.”

“No offense, Paul, but I can’t exactly trust you, can I? You’re a little too far up in the food chain not to know the orders are to detain me for questioning.”

“Sure, I got the memo,” he said. “I’m willing to hear your side of it.”

“You’d be the only one.”

“Not the only one. You may think you’re on your own, kid, but you don’t have to be. You’ve got friends. Now’s the time to count on them. Have a little faith in the system.”

I wanted to—dear God I wanted to—and if it were just a matter of a death and some questions, that would be one thing. The Demon Mark was something else entirely.

“Okay, if Muhammad won’t come to the mountain, whatever,” he said. “Open up.”

I popped open the passenger door. He walked around the car and got in; the springs shuddered at the addition of his weight. Paul, not a small guy, looked uncomfortable squeezed into the shotgun seat, and we fiddled with adjustments until he had circulation, if not leg room.

The smell that filled the car was warm, sexy, and familiar. I sniffed closer to him and raised my eyebrows. Paul’s face reddened. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, it’s just a little aftershave, okay? I got a date for lunch.”

“Lucky her,” I said. “So who’s trying to kill me?”

“Wish it were that simple,” he said, and shifted uncomfortably. “Jesus, would it kill you to do a little reupholstering here? It’s more springs than padding.”

“Yeah, your big fat ass is just used to that luxurious German craftsmanship.” But I knew that what was making him nervous wasn’t the springs in the seat. “Come on, Paul, you have to have some idea.”

“There’s a lot of folks that loved Bad Bob. Personally, I thought he was a gigantic pain in the ass, but that’s just me. No question, he was one hell of a Warden.” Paul shrugged, looked down at his large, strong hands. “I know you two didn’t get along.”

There was a lot I could say about that—a lot I wanted, desperately, to say—but it wasn’t the right time or place, and I wasn’t sure Paul could ever really understand anyway. Things were simpler in Paul’s world. I wish I lived in it.

“You need to tell me what happened that day,” he said when I didn’t start talking. “It’s important. Unless you’re planning on pleading guilty, you need to think about mounting some kind of defense. I can help you. I want to help you.”

“I can’t.”

“Jo.” He twisted in the seat with a creak of springs and looked directly at me. Nothing soft in his eyes now, nothing but direct, unmistakable warning. “You have to. I’m not saying this as your friend, I’m saying it as a Warden. You don’t give yourself up and start telling your side of the story, you know they’re coming after you. You can’t run around loose like this. One of the most powerful guys in the world is dead.”

“You’re going to call the Power Rangers?” That was our own private joke…. Marion Bearheart’s division of the Association had no official name, but they were the justice system of our screwed-up little world. Quietly took care of the problems. Calmly dispensed justice when required. No arrest, no jury, just the gentle, final judgment of the executioner.

He held my eyes. “I don’t have to, and you know it. They’ll find you. They’re already on your trail.”

I had a very cold, cold thought. “You think the lightning bolt—”

“I think it’s a warning, Jo, whether it came from the Rangers or not. This is a serious thing you’re into. You don’t want to laugh it off. Not this time.” He reached out and took my hand, and even in that gentle touch I knew he had enough physical strength to crush my hand like paper. If Paul wanted to restrain me, it wouldn’t exactly be a challenge—unless I wanted to fight on the aetheric. Which made me think of Bad Bob, and I felt a wave of sickness break over me. It left me shaking.

“Stay,” he said. Still a request.

“Thought you had a lunch date.”

“It can wait.” He was looking at me again, watching me in that half-lidded, intense way that carbonated my hormones. And worse, he knew it. If I stayed, I was going to get myself in trouble, one way or another. “I don’t believe you did anything wrong. I think Bad Bob lived up to his reputation, things got out of hand—is that how it was?”

“I can’t do this,” I said, and pulled my hand free. Paul was staring at me with big, calculating brown eyes. His eyebrows pulled together. The smell of aftershave reminded me that I wanted to kiss him, and I sank farther back in my seat, trying not to give in to temptation, trying not to notice the way sunlight slid warm across his cheekbones and turned his skin to gold. God, I wanted comfort. I wanted someone to make everything… better.

I knew better than to believe I could find it anywhere except inside myself.

“You need my help to stabilize the system?” I asked him. The lightning bolt would have torn his careful manipulations to shreds, sending the weather into chaos even if it wasn’t yet visible to the naked eye. He shook his head.

“I’ve got three people on it already. The less work you do in the aetheric, the better,” he said. “And stay the fuck out of Oversight. Especially if you’re determined to keep on with this. You glow like a heat lamp.”

“I don’t have a choice, Paul. I’ve got to keep on with it.”

“I could stop you, you know.”

“I know.” I leaned forward and kissed him. Caught him by surprise. After a few seconds, those sensual full lips warmed under mine. The fantasy had been good; the reality was better. When I pulled back, he had a glazed look in his brown eyes, but he blinked and it cleared up. So much for my ability to cloud men’s minds…

“Jesus,” he breathed.

“It wasn’t that good,” I protested. But he wasn’t kidding. He was looking at me with wider eyes, really staring now. Seeing.

“There’s something wrong with you,” he said. “I can’t see it, but your aura’s turned red. Blood colors, Jo. You know what it means—”

When I looked down at myself, I saw the black writhing form of the Demon’s Mark on my chest, over my heart. It was working its way down. I focused hard and halted its progress, but I couldn’t hold it for long. When I looked up, Paul was in Oversight, right in front of me—layers of green and gold and blue, perfect in their intensity. He’d see it. He had to see it in me.

Back in the real world, he only said, “Are you sick?”

I wanted to tell him. I didn’t know why he couldn’t see it in me, but I needed him to know, to help—to get this thing out of me. I was shaking all over with the desire to tell him.

And I couldn’t afford to. That was the one thing he wouldn’t let slide.

“Sick,” I finally agreed.

“Let me help you. Please, just let me get Marion. She can help you—”

“No!” The protest ripped out of me with so much force, I felt it slam into him like a punch, and he pulled back. I struggled to get my voice under control. “No, she can’t. Nobody can. Understand?”

He kept looking at me, studying me. I felt like he was seeing all the way through to the black shadow of the mark. God, I couldn’t risk that.

“I’ve got to go,” I said. “Are you going to turn me in?”

It was so quiet in the car that I could hear the ticks and pops of Delilah’s engine cooling, hear my own fast heartbeat. Somewhere off in the distance, thunder rumbled. He reached out and touched my cheek with one thick finger, caressed the line of my cheekbone, and then sat back like he wished he hadn’t touched me at all.

“I’m not going to get on the hot line just yet. I’ll give you that much. But we both know Marion’s people will find you. And if they don’t, when the Council calls me to join the hunt, I’ll come at you, sweetheart. You know I will. I have no choice.” He let out a long breath. “Maybe that’s for the best. Because if you’re really sick—”

“I know.” I was no longer looking at him, and I concentrated instead on my hands. My fingernails were ragged and torn. I picked at one and focused on a shiny red bead that appeared at the corner of one cuticle, lifted the hand to my mouth and tasted the warm copper tang of blood.

“You have five hours to get out of my sector,” he said. “Try to come back, and my Djinn will stop you. You don’t set foot in my territory, Joanne. Not until this is over. Understand?”

“Yes.” One-word answers were possible, but just barely. God, this hurt. I’d anticipated everything but how much it would hurt.

Paul reached over and took my hand in his. His skin felt very warm and, startlingly, very rough. He worked with his hands, I remembered. On his car.

“Tell me,” he said. “Tell me where you’re going. I swear, it won’t go anywhere else. I just want to know.”

“I can’t.” And I didn’t dare. Finally, I pulled in a deep breath and said, “I’m going after Lewis.”

He looked confused. Bothered, even. “Lewis?”

“Lewis Orwell.”

“I know who the fuck Lewis is. Everybody knows. Why Lewis?”

“Because he has three Djinn. I met one at his house, so he still has two more. I just need him to give me one.”

“At his house?” Paul repeated. He wasn’t a guy who was surprised often, but his eyebrows shot skyward. “What do you mean, at his house? How can you know where he is?”

“He told me.” I sounded smug when I said it, but there, I’d kept the secret a long time. I deserved a little round of I’m-cooler-than-you, especially with Paul, who was rarely out of the loop. “Long time ago.”

He gave me a richly deserved glare. “I’m not even asking what you did to get it.”

“Hey, I can’t help it if I’m irresistible.” Yes, definitely, that was smugness in my voice. I was comfortable with it. “Which is why he’s going to help me out and given me a Djinn.”

He stared. “You’re fuckin’ crazy. Why the hell would Lewis do that?”

“Because,” I said, before I could think about it, “I think he used to be in love with me.”

Paul shook his head, got out of the car, and then leaned in the passenger side window. An east wind ruffled his hair—storm on the way.

“Jesus, Jo, he’s not the only one,” he said, and walked back into his castle.

I drove out of Albany not knowing exactly how to feel. I loved Paul. I’d always loved him. Paul had written my introduction letter to the program at Princeton. It was because of him that I had the degree and the training to become a real Warden.

It was because of him I wasn’t a drooling shell screaming out my lungs in an asylum, because I knew that despite Marion’s gentle touch, I couldn’t have gone on without my powers. I would have cracked. Paul prevented that.

All the good things in my life had happened because of Paul.

All the bad things had happened because of Bad Bob.

The Wardens have a big fancy home office where they hang plaques of outstanding performers, and Bad Bob’s name was covering the walls. One of the most talented Wardens ever to join the team, he was also one of the most controversial.

He had been a brilliant, temperamental teenager; he’d grown into a brilliant, tantrum-throwing, bad-attitude adult. People feared Bad Bob. Nobody in their right mind wanted to be under him. Even at his own level, or above it, people hated to see him coming.

I got him as a boss.

I’d heard all the stories—Bad Bob threw a drink in the face of the President of the United States, and it had taken all the resources of the Association to get him sprung from Secret Service custody. Bad Bob had walked into a going-away party for a retiring National Warden in England and swilled down an entire bottle of Cristal champagne, when he didn’t even like to drink, just to spite the old boy. He was feared, he was revered, and he was legendary for a reason. It was considered a badge of honor to have a run-in with Bad Bob, something you could dine out on for months.

Weather Wardens sometimes resemble a Keystone Kops comedy more than they do an actual professional organization. That’s because no large organization composed of mavericks with superpowers can ever be said to be truly organized. Yet, somehow, we manage to protect human beings from about 80 percent of the crap that Mother Nature throws at us, in our arrogant, mostly chaotic way.

Nobody, however, had been able to stop Hurricane Andrew.

It had swept in from the Hurricane Zone, looking very much like all its wimpy cousins who’d taken no more than a few well-chosen pressure shifts to counter. Nobody in the Florida office was much worried. Bad Bob, Sector Warden back then, hadn’t even been informed. He had Staff to handle those kinds of things; his responsibility was looking after the macro events and keeping the whole Sector stable over time.

Andrew got out of hand. First two Staff Wardens worked on it, then five, then more. Before it was over, there were literally hundreds of Wardens focused on it, trying to defuse the ticking bomb of the storm.

Even Wardens have to be careful in dealing with a storm of that magnitude. It killed more than twenty of them, shattered the powers of at least ten more, and by the time Bad Bob physically made it to the scene, it had already hit the coast of Florida and begun its raving march of destruction.

I wasn’t there, of course. Too young. But I heard all about it in school.

Bad Bob walked along into the center of the storm and stopped it. All alone.

Oh, damage was done—the worst hurricane to hit the coast in a century. But even in the middle of all that devastation, we knew how much worse it could have been. Andrew was a sentient storm, a storm that had gathered sufficient energy to hold its form and continue to ravage a path of destruction over land for a thousand miles or more. Andrew was angry and hungry in a way few things on this planet can be. And yet Bad Bob had faced it down and made it bow to his will.

After that, even those who thought he was a jerk and an asshole wouldn’t turn down a chance to be on Bad Bob’s team. It was considered both a nightmare and an honor. A badge of courage second to none.

By the dawn of 2002, I’d been a working Warden for four years, mainly up and down the Atlantic coastline. Technically, I was working for Bad Bob in Florida, but as with CEOs of major corporations, his presence was mostly made manifest by phone calls to those far above me, or with a scrawled signature on memos. I reported to Regional Warden John Foster, a capable, easygoing man with a penchant for tweed jackets and pipes, the kind of guy you half expected to have a plummy Oxford accent instead of the North Carolina drawl that came out of his mouth. We did the usual—more rain here, less there, smoothing out a tropical storm into a squall, diverting storms from heavily populated areas. Nothing really dramatic. Nothing important. I screwed up a couple of times—everybody does—and got bawled out by Bad Bob via telephone. It was nothing personal. Everybody gets reamed by Bad Bob at least twice, if you survive on his team at all.

And then in August, Tropical Storm Samuel came calling. Early for hurricane season, but in my experience the worst came early, or it came late. Samuel had some very unusual patterns in it, patterns that reminded us of Andrew. The decision was made, all the way up at the World Council level, to stop the storm before it came anywhere near to posing a threat. Nobody was complacent about that kind of thing anymore.

I’m still surprised that my name came up for that, but then it was still a small-sized thing, not a major event, and I had a solid rep with warm-weather storms. No doubt John Foster had thought it would be good training for me, since it involved working with a Warden on the other side of the pond— Tamara Motumbo, from Mauritania. I’d done tandem manipulation before, but in classroom and lab settings, nothing like the kind of power-sink that lurked out in that womb of storms called the Bermuda Triangle.

The National Weather Service has some nice offices in Coral Gables, Florida—rebuilt after being smashed to scrap metal and splinters by Hurricane Andrew. I arrived that morning feeling loose and relaxed and ready for anything; working in Florida had given me a chance to indulge myself in the quest for the perfect tan and the perfect bikini, and I was feeling confident that I’d finally mastered at least one of them. Six square inches of aqua-blue Lycra priced at about fifteen dollars per square inch. It was in a tiny little shopping bag on Delilah’s front seat, my personal reward-in-advance for the job I was about to do. The plan was to finish up ridding the world of Tropical Storm Samuel, change into the bikini, and hit the beach for the rest of the day.

There was nothing unusual about visiting the NWS offices. We—meaning the Staff Wardens and Regional Wardens—did it all the time. Our badges said visitor or researcher, but at least half the building suspected we were something more, although nobody said it out loud and nobody asked any questions. Lots of significant looks, though. And people handing you free Cokes.

That morning, I signed in at the reception area, clipped my tag on my loose white shirt—which was subbing for a cover-up later at the beach—and exchanged chitchat with the receptionist, a gorgeous African-American woman named Monet. We exchanged bikini-shopping stories, and as we did, I happened to glance down at the visitor log. My eyes froze on a name.

Robert Biringanine.

“Bad Bob’s here?” I asked Monet.

She glanced up at me, looked around, and leaned over closer. “Meeting with somebody,” she confirmed. “I didn’t ask who.”

“Well, I think I’ll just sacrifice a small furry animal to whatever god spared me from that.”

“Baby, I’d sacrifice more than that just to make sure I got out of the meeting all right.” Monet rolled her eyes. “That man eats his own children, I swear.”

“He damn sure eats his Staff’s children. And his Staff.” I checked my watch, which told me I had five minutes to launch. “Better get in there. Later?”

“Later,” she confirmed. “Cuban sandwiches for lunch. There’s a great place about six blocks down. Be there.”

I waved and was buzzed through the door into a high-tech wilderness of cubicles, glass conference rooms, arrays of computers blinking in machine dreams. Two or three of the analysts and meteorologists looked up and watched me pass, but nobody spoke. I knew where I was going, and so did they.

Situation Room B is, technically, a secondary crisis center, but it’s rarely in use; the Wardens use it for an informal office most of the time. I’d been in it five or six times already, so I knew what to expect when I opened the door.

Except that there was someone else already there.

Bad Bob Biringanine stared out at the cloudless blue sky, his feet up, drinking a glass of water with bubbles. I hadn’t seen him in the flesh since my nearly disastrous intake meeting, and I felt myself turn small and weak at the sight of him. Especially when those laser-sharp blue eyes considered and then dismissed me.

“Baldwin, right?” he asked. He had a light tenor voice, neutral with indifference.

“Yes, sir.”

“Just here to observe,” he said. Observe. Like that wasn’t worse than any trouble I might have been in already. Having Bad Bob staring over your shoulder was bound to make even the best Warden nervous, and I wasn’t quite arrogant enough to consider myself the best. Yet.

I sucked it up and sat down to review the file: maps of pressure systems, satellite photos fresh off the printer of the growing circular mass of Tropical Storm Samuel, still lashing empty ocean beyond Bermuda. My opposite number was waiting in a seaport town in Mauritania named Nouakchott; the phone was preprogrammed for speed dial to reach her. Voices don’t carry so well in Oversight. Landlines are always a plus for long-distance work.

“You getting on with it while I’m still young?” Bad Bob asked. He hadn’t moved from his kicked-back spot, was still staring at the view. Funny how I think of it as a view, even though both of us were looking at a clear blue sky, not even any clouds in sight; we were drawn to the boundless and limitless possibilities. When I swallowed, I felt my throat click. There was a carafe of water on the table, sweating diamond drops, but I didn’t feel like showing him that my hands were shaking. I wiped palms against blue jeans.

“Sure,” I said. “No problem.”

I speed-dialed. Tamara Motumbo picked up on the second ring, and we exchanged some nervous pleasantries, through which Bad Bob drummed fingernails against the table. I hurried along to Step One, which was confirmation of the scope of our work. It’s always good to go into a powerful situation with a clear expectation of what you’re supposed to walk out with.

We decided we wanted to disrupt Samuel enough to make it just another squall; no point in trying to wipe out the storm altogether, since it would only move the energy someplace else that might spawn something just as bad. I made notes as I went, and my writing was shaky. Nothing like knowing every move you make is on the record.

“Ready?” I asked Tamara. She said she was, though I’d lay money that neither of us was really sure.

I sucked in a deep breath, let go, and floated out of my body and into Oversight. The room turned gray and misty, but Bad Bob was like a brilliant neon sign, lit up with so much power, it was hard to look at him directly. Red tinged. I wondered if he was sick, but I wasn’t about to ask after his health, not now. I turned away from him, oriented myself with the vast voiding power of the sea, and let the waves of its energy carry me up and out, far up, flying without sound or pressure through the liquid we call air. No clouds in Oversight, either, but there was a low red band of energy over the ocean and a corresponding white one coming down from the mesosphere—clouds later, then, and rain in a day at most. Warming and cooling ocean air is the unimaginably powerful engine that drives the machine of life. Connecting to it like this, right on the coast, was a sensuous, dangerous experience.

I soared. In Oversight, crossing huge distances takes a fraction of real time, but it still felt like a long trip by the time I saw the swirling entity we were calling Samuel. He was a big, growing boy, already well into rebellious adolescence and halfway to becoming a dangerous hooligan. Facing that kind of storm makes you feel small. No, not just small: nonexistent. The forces that formed him and drove him dwarfed anything I could summon out of myself.

I shifted just enough of my consciousness back to my body to ask Tamara on the phone if she had a Djinn.

“Yes,” she said. “You don’t?”

“Getting mine in about six months.”

“So you want me to source.”

“Yeah, please.”

“No problem.”

Technically, I should have been sourcing the power out of a Djinn to do what we were supposed to do…. The Warden nearest the storm usually had the responsibility. Using a Djinn for a source was sort of like having a superconductor in the circuit— it augmented and amplified your power, and assisted in channeling it accurately. The fact that I’d been assigned to this storm without a Djinn to source me was, I realized, not an accident. It was a test.

And Bad Bob was my proctor. Wow. No pressure.

I fought off a cold shiver and got down to business. After about thirty seconds of real time, I saw a shape approaching in Oversight—Tamara. Tall, bright, unusually vivid in her aura colors, with a clear white line of energy linking her back to her home in Mauritania. As I watched, power surged along that link. Her Djinn was delivering the goods.

I reached out to her, and our aetheric bodies touched. Energy jumped the barrier and shot into me, and I had trouble holding on to it; I was not used to Djinn-sourced power at such levels. It felt like being drunk and being dizzy and being in love, and connected to that kind of power I could feel every molecule in the swirling air, every slight variation of temperature between them. It was like…… like playing God.

Somewhere, Bad Bob was watching. That thought shook me out of any sense of divinity and got me to work. There was, predictably, a ridge of high pressure riding in front of Samuel. Seen from Oversight, the whole thing looked remarkably like a freeze-framed explosion, with a pressure null in the center and force traveling out in all directions. You don’t stop a thing like that.

You just weaken the forces that drive it your direction.

Tamara and I worked quickly and—if I may say so—efficiently to smooth out the temperature variations at surface level to cut off the flow of energy up into the monster, and raise the temperature at the top end to create a shorter pressure wave. Small changes, followed by detailed analysis of the effects. One step at a time, always going back to the source… the ocean… for the next tiny change.

The weatherworking took no more than thirty minutes, real time, and Tropical Storm Samuel was reduced to nothing more than a stern southeast wind with some fluffy, rain-heavy clouds. I let go of Tamara— reluctantly—and felt all that power drain away.

I fell back into my body with a rushing suddenness that scared me and told me just how tired I really was. Normally I have more control than that. I’d had no idea how addictive that kind of power could feel, and how ridiculously pathetic I’d feel once it was gone.

Tamara was saying nice things about working with me, in the real world, on the real phone. I remembered how to move my lips and thanked her.

Bad Bob reached across to punch the button to hang up the line.

“Joanne Baldwin,” he said. “Funny. I voted against you that day, you know. At your intake session.”

Like I’d ever forget.

I was too tired to be scared of what he was about to say. I’d just have to eat whatever crap he dished out and try not to yearn for that feeling of being God, because it would be so nice to smack a nice lightning bolt down on his ass. To feel powerful, just once, in his presence.

He put a heavy hand on my shoulder, squeezed, and then patted twice.

“Well, maybe I was wrong,” he said. “You’re not half bad, Baldwin. Got a lot of raw power, that’s for damn sure. More than I’ve ever seen, to be absolutely truthful. I figure with power like that, you might be able to do a lot of damage.”

I wasn’t entirely sure I’d heard that right. I blinked and tried to get my tired brain to follow what he was saying. “Damage? I didn’t…?”

“Oh, no, just the opposite. You really brought home the bacon today.” Now he had both hands on my shoulders. I wondered, for a creeped-out, crazed moment, if he was trying to cop a quick feel. Sexual harassment wasn’t limited to just the normal outside world, after all. If anything, men who held the power to destroy whole countries might have a greater tendency to it. I wondered exactly what to say to get myself out of it.

And then I realized he wasn’t rubbing my shoulders in any suggestive kind of way. It was more like he was holding me down in the chair.

“Okay,” I said slowly. “Well, I really ought to get—”

“Damage is what you’ll do when you go out of control, Baldwin,” he interrupted. “I’ve seen hundreds of kids like you. Jumped up, arrogant little boys and girls who have no idea what the real price of power is. And no respect for it, either.”

“Sir, I’m all about the respect. Promise.”

“No, you’re not,” he said. “Not yet. But you will be.” He didn’t let me go. “You’ve got no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

I didn’t want to admit it. He didn’t care, anyway.

“God, the strength in you,” he said, staring down at me with those merciless eyes. “All that strength, going to waste. You don’t need a Djinn. You don’t need a damn thing. I remember what it was like, being young and stupid. You know what happens, little girl? It goes away. Sooner or later, you get old, you get slow, you lose the edge. And when that happens, people screw you.”

I was too scared to say anything. He wasn’t talking to me, not really; there was something bad going on here, something underneath. His fingers dug into my shoulders like iron spikes.

“You going to screw me, little girl?” He showed his teeth. “I mean in the figurative sense.”

“No, sir,” I whispered. “I wouldn’t.”

“Damn right you wouldn’t.”

I could almost feel something in the room with us, something huge and dark and malevolent. Something violent.

It wants something. Something I have.

Bad Bob seemed to realize it, too. He blinked, shook himself, and took his hands away from my shoulders. I felt the sting of blood rushing back and knew I’d have bruises there later.

“Go on,” he said. “Get out of my sight.”

I suppose I must have walked out, past the meteorologists, through the security door, signed out, handed Monet my badge, probably even said something. But I don’t remember a thing from the getting up part to the part where I was sitting inside my car, gasping for breath and on the verge of tears.

I couldn’t possibly have known how close I came that day to dying, but I sensed it. On some level, I knew.

I headed for the comfort of a beachside bar. On reflection, not the best answer to coping with crisis, but you go with your instincts.

Mine were just… bad.

Contents

Обращение к пользователям