TWO

Scattered thunderstorms, possibly heavy and severe, in the afternoon hours. A Weather Advisory is in effect for the area beginning at 11 a.m. EASTERN TIME.

Paul had given me five hours to make it out of his Sector; it wasn’t a generous head start, but he knew the Mustang could make it. I had to slow down around Philadelphia, wary of speed traps, but I was still making pretty good time. By my calculations, I’d be out of his territory with about a half hour to spare. I knew he’d set his Djinn to monitor me, so it was no surprise when one appeared— poof—in my passenger seat.

Unlike Lewis’s house Djinn, who had favored the traditional look, this one was hip to the new. She was a well-groomed young black woman, glossily perfect, with cornrowed hair and wraparound dark glasses and a sunshine-yellow pantsuit. I especially liked the yellow nail polish. It was a nice touch.

I managed not to drive the car off the road, though I did fumble a gear change.

“You’ve got a lot of people very upset,” the Djinn said. She had a nice, smoky voice, contralto, with a bit of a whiskey edge. “While it might be amusing, it makes more work for me.”

She skinned down the shades, and I got a look at her beast-yellow eyes. Horror movie monsters never had eyes that scary, or that beautiful.

“I can see it in you,” she said. “It’s burrowing.” She made a clicking sound with her tongue that sounded dry and insectile.

“Paul didn’t see it.”

“Wardens don’t,” she murmured. “Unless they ask us to show them. Which they don’t, because they don’t know the right question to ask.”

Oh. “Want to take it off me?” I asked.

She smiled. “You know the rules,” she said. “A Djinn doesn’t do favors. A Djinn takes orders from her master. You, sistah, are not my master.”

“What if Paul ordered you to take if from me?”

“I think he would not, considering it would destroy me and he would never get another Djinn.” The Djinn put the glasses back on. “You’re already corrupted, I can smell it on you like a rotting wound.”

“Cheer me up some more,” I invited.

She smiled. Long canines showed white in her smile. “Would if I could. You going to make the border?”

“If you don’t fuck around with me.”

She laughed. “Now why would I do that? Everything I do must be in my master’s best interests. Rules of the game. Although if you’d slow down, you might at least make it interesting.”

She seemed oddly talkative, for a Djinn. I decided to indulge my curiosity as we cruised in on I-95 toward Philly. “Must be a bitch, being enslaved and all.”

“Enslaved?” she asked. It didn’t seem to bother her. “We are not enslaved.”

“That’s what they teach us in school.”

She sniffed and drummed yellow talons on Delilah’s window glass. I hoped she wasn’t leaving scratches. “Your school is sadly free of knowledge. Djinn are the children of Fire. We serve as we must serve, as Fire serves when chained and devours when freed.”

“Freed? I thought you were—sort of eternally— um, damned.” Which wasn’t the best way to put it, but I couldn’t think of a politically correct phrase.

She shrugged. “Fire serves no one forever. It is always ready to burn the hand it warms.”

The Djinn were rare—we all knew that. Precious resources. One Djinn per lifetime, no more, and when a Warden died, his or her Djinn just went back into rotation, assigned a new master. Nobody had said anything about them ever getting freed.

She gave me another cool smile. “Too bad you’re going to die. I rather like you. A favor, then. Ask a question.”

“Did Paul tell you to kill me if I don’t make it out of his territory?” I blurted.

She smiled. “That was a poor question,” she said. “Care to try again? Secrets of the universe? Lotto numbers? Whether your true love will be tall, dark, and handsome?”

I thought about it. Never look a gift Djinn in the mouth. “Where’s Lewis?”

She took her glasses off again, and even though I didn’t look at her, I could feel the pressure of those horrible, beautiful eyes. She was a dangerous pet to keep, a sleek predatory beast with bloodlust kept in check only by a constant flow of Kibbles ‘n Bits and a great big magical leash.

“You already know the answer,” she purred.

“Oklahoma? What the hell’s he doing in Oklahoma?”

She looked away. “Saving someone. Is that not what he is always doing?” She practically steamed with contempt. “One of these days, it will cost him.”

“Can we cut out the middleman, here? Just take me to Oklahoma?”

Teeth flashed. “Your favor has been spent, Snow White. Choose better next time.”

“Great. Forget favors. Got any advice?”

“Be kind to your Djinn.”

“I don’t have a Djinn.”

She shrugged. “You will, if you survive. I can smell that on you, too.”

“Wait!” I sensed she was about to poof again. She slid her sunglasses back on and sat, politely bored, swinging one hand in time with Ozzy Osbourne belting out a ditty about war pigs. “Can you give Paul a message for me?”

“I can,” she agreed. “It remains to be seen if I will, Snow White.”

“My name is Joanne.”

“I like Snow White better. I am Rahel,” she said, and pointed toward herself with one neon-yellow talon. Were they longer than they had been? Her teeth flashed into a smile. “Speak.”

“Tell Paul that I’m sorry. And that I still love him.”

She shuddered delicately. “I try to stay out of the sexual business of mortals.”

“Yeah, well, we’re just friends.”

“So say you,” she said, and cocked an elegantly shaped dark eyebrow. “You did not see him later.”

That led to things I shouldn’t be thinking about, not when driving a speeding car. Rahel flicked her fingernails together in a dry, yellow clatter and disappeared.

I tried not to feel quite so relieved.

I didn’t know the Warden in Philadelphia, and I was just as happy to breeze by without making his acquaintance, but I needed a pit stop. I pulled off the highway for gas at the Independence Hall exit. After taking care of the bladder problem and filling up the Mustang, I scouted around for a likely spot to grab a quick cheeseburger for the road. Weariness was starting to liquefy the edges of my brain, and I could have used a nice long nap in a Motel 6, but I was taking Paul seriously. I needed to get out of Philly on time. The idea of Rahel’s having any power over me at all was extremely motivating.

Independence Hall would have made a nice diversion and a great place to stretch my cramped, exhausted legs, but I wasn’t about to risk another lightning bolt in a crowded place. What I saw of it was nice. As I cruised by, I couldn’t help but notice that Ben Franklin—little specs and all—was sitting on a bench reading to a group of absolutely spellbound children. There was no way I wanted to bring my problems into that world. That world didn’t know the sunshine was provided for them, just like the rain, or that somebody had to protect them daily from the fury of the earth and the weather.

It was a nice world to visit, even if I couldn’t live there.

On the way out of town I checked both the horizon and the weather forecasts; the storm was still out there, moving inland in my wake, but Paul’s folks could take care of anything still to do. I could relax and enjoy the drive.

Hopefully.

It was a good seven hours to my next safe haven in Columbus; between here and there lay cities with Wardens I barely knew, not likely to be friendly toward me. The Sector Warden from Philly to Columbus was Rashid Al-Omar, a beautiful man about seven or eight years older than me, known to be a straight arrow and conservative both in weather and everything else you could name. For some reason, most Weather Wardens were conservative; it was the tie-dyed hippie Earth Wardens who’d cornered the liberal market.

Weather Wardens on the right, Earth Wardens on the left… that left Fire Wardens in the middle. My friend Estrella had been a Fire Warden, once upon a time—one of the best. But fire’s a funny thing. Like Rahel said, fire is always ready to burn the hand it warms.

I felt a hot knot of tension ease in my gut as I passed the city limits sign of Philadelphia and America stretched out before me. I was out of Paul’s jurisdiction.

When I checked the rearview mirror, I saw Rahel standing there next to the sign, clicking her cheerful neon talons, watching me with beast-yellow eyes. She waved.

I shivered.

My cheeseburger was greasy but filling. I wasn’t overly concerned about cholesterol; with the Demon Mark on my chest, I wasn’t likely to live long enough to care. I felt it moving, and I flattened my palm over my breast. I wanted to squash it flatter than the tattoo it resembled, but it existed mostly in the aetheric, and there was nothing I could do. I felt its pulse against my fingers. Ick. I wiped my fingers on my blue jeans convulsively and tried a sip of Coke, aspirated down the wrong pipe, choked and coughed. Maybe it was my nerves, maybe it was something more, but I let the Mustang slip the leash a little too much.

I was blasting along at eighty miles an hour west on I-70, just passing Harrisburg, when I heard the wail of a siren start up and I looked in my mirror to see cherry lights popping blue and red behind me.

Well, that was just perfect.

No point in making the evening news by trying to outrun them; I gulped deep breaths and fumbled the Coke back into the cupholder. Downshifted. Pulled over to the side. Delilah’s engine growled, frustrated at the delay, and I sympathized.

My hands were sweating as I waited. The cops didn’t get out of their cruiser for a good three minutes, probably checking the car’s registration and me for outstanding warrants… which, unless they were Wardens, I didn’t have. I wiped my palms on my knees and watched as they got out, one on either side, and did a slow, menacing walk up toward me.

I had already rolled down the window, and the smell of early spring wafted in, sweet with wild-flowers. I knew I looked a mess, and I verified it in the mirror—yep, circles under dark blue eyes, no makeup, lank, needed-to-be-washed black hair. I smelled, too. I needed a shower and sleep.

The cop appeared at my window so suddenly I thought that, like Rahel, he’d planned it for effect.

His mirrored sunglasses reflected my pallid face and mooncalf expression.

“Hi,” I said weakly.

“License, registration, and insurance.”

I handed them over. He took them without comment, but didn’t look at them yet.

“You from Florida, miss?” he asked. The plates on the Mustang were from the Sunshine State. It wasn’t a psychic leap.

“Yes, sir. Saint Petersburg.”

“Uh-huh.” He made it sound suspicious. “You were pushing this beauty pretty hard.”

“I’m sorry about that. It sort of got away from me.” As if a car had ever gotten away from me in my entire life.

“You really have to watch it, a car like this. It’s a lot of power for—” He had been, I thought, about to say such a little lady, but sensitivity training had paid off. ” — for everyday driving.”

“Thank you, sir, I will.” Was that a dark cloud moving too fast overhead? I had only the reflection in his glasses to go by, but I could have sworn there was a cloud….

“Just a minute, miss.” He went away with my papers. I leaned over and tried to figure out what was going on above me. I let go of my body just enough to shift into Oversight, and saw myself flickering gold and violet and red, the Mark moving like a nest of worms above my heart. Then I looked up, through the crystalline roof of the Mustang, and I was staring straight down the throat of Hell.

What was happening up there wasn’t obeying any natural laws. It was being forced to happen. I tried to reach for the clouds, the winds, the pressures, but I got shoved aside like a child. Something incredibly strong was manipulating everything from the exosphere on down, all the way to the friction layer. Red flickered in the clouds, and as I watched, it shifted spectrums, into photonegative.

Whatever was about to fall on me, it was going to fall very hard.

The cop popped back in my window, and this time I did flinch—in Oversight, he was a burly, twisted-looking bastard, probably neither good nor bad, but nothing I wanted to tangle with. He handed me a clipboard with something signable on it. I signed. He probably said something. I probably responded. He handed back my papers.

I badly wanted to scream at him to get back in his car, but it wouldn’t have been a good idea; I clutched the ticket in one sweaty palm, fired up the Mustang, and eased it into gear. Carefully. The cops got in their cruiser and sat there, writing up records. I felt a lurch of relief…. At least they weren’t going to be fried like eggs on the pavement. Now all I had to worry about was me.

“Easy,” I chanted to Delilah. “Easy, easy, easy.” We drove, holding it to the speed limit, and overhead the storm grew and swirled and muttered its hatred. It followed. Again, I tried to defuse it, but whatever force controlled it had effectively shut me out. I had seven hours left to go. I wondered if Hell planned to wait that long.

The storm stayed with me into Pittsburgh, traveling like a balloon tethered to the antenna of my car. The weather channel was in a panic. Meteorologists, not being in the know or having Oversight, were unable to predict the consequences, but their outlook was grim. Hell, I knew the consequences, and they were right—the outlook was grim.

After five long hours of steering, I was sweaty and trembling; the Mustang practically drove itself, but I’d worn myself out, trying to get a grip on the factors that were driving the weather system overhead. I could feel other Wardens trying to work on the storm, but it laughed at us. Heavy magic. Big weather.

It was a special kind of torment. The person who’d created the storm knew I was trying to stop it, and the stress of my not knowing when and where it would strike was half the fun for the sick bastard. I thought longingly of Paul. Maybe if I called him… or Rashid… No, they were in this up to their necks already, and if they hadn’t already solved this problem, they weren’t going to be able to do anything for me. So who was doing this? Somebody had come along and brute-forced this thing together, and if it hadn’t been broken up yet by the combined power of the Wardens, it had one hell of a power supply behind it. When I looked at it in Oversight, there was no clear identification, nobody lurking nearby to blame it on. Which meant it was somebody strong enough to do it at a great distance without traveling in Oversight to touch it. That was—incredible. And really, really scary. Who the hell could manage that kind of thing? Very few, I thought. Senior Wardens, World Council members… Lewis.

I had a very bad feeling suddenly.

The world slid by, shadowed by hovering clouds. Spring still tried to be cheerful but lost color as the sun disappeared. Birds fled with me, heading west. Other cars moved in formation, too, their drivers either oblivious or trying to make it despite the odds; I didn’t have a choice. Stopping would be suicide. Driving on was just as bad.

I’d be out of gas by Columbus.

Think. I was a Weather Warden, dammit—maybe not holding on to the best possible reputation these days, but I was damned good at my work. My palms were sweating again. I wiped them, one at a time, and took another swallow of soft drink. My throat was so dry, it clicked. On the seat beside me lay the crumpled wad of ticket that I hadn’t even bothered to read. If I survived this drive, I’d survive a fine from the Pennsylvania State Troopers.

Back at school, old Yorenson had always said there was no such thing as an unstoppable weather system. Weather was as delicate as a house of cards. Remove one card, and the structure would start to collapse; the trick was to plan the collapse. A perfect execution, he’d said, would negate the threat and create a beneficial environment at the same time.

Maybe I’d been thinking about it wrong. I’d been prodding at the storm itself, trying to loosen the magic that bound it together; maybe all I needed to do was change its location. I reached for my cell phone and dialed it one-handed from memory.

Paul’s growling voice. “You’ve got to be kidding. Are you crazy, calling me? I thought we had an agreement.”

“Listen. I know you’re tracking this thing—”

“Yeah, I know it’s centered right over you.” He sounded depressed; I wondered if there was someone listening in. “You know what they taught you, Joanne. You fuck around with the weather, it will fuck around with you.”

“This ain’t a storm cell with a grudge, Paul. Somebody’s driving.”

“The brain trust thinks it’s you. That you’ve gone over the edge.”

“Brilliant,” I sighed. “Just brilliant. You know better.”

“I’m just sayin’.”

I bit my tongue hard enough to taste blood. Blood and ozone. The storm was getting stronger overhead, rotating like a pinwheel. Other cars had run for cover. I was driving all alone now, and up ahead I saw another small town on the horizon.

“Listen, we’re running out of time,” I said. “Help me.”

“We’re trying, dammit, but if you didn’t put this thing together, I don’t know who the hell did. It’s stronger than anything I’ve ever seen—”

“We need to do this together. I need you to create a cold downdraft over the top of this thing. You’re going to do it fast and hard.”

He grunted. “We tried that. Didn’t work.”

“You do it at the same time I create a hot-air mass underneath. We ought to be able to pop this sucker straight up about twenty miles and start kicking the crap out of it with an adiabatic process. I need it in the mesosphere, Paul. We have to rob it of the fuel or we can’t pull it to pieces.”

Paul was quiet for a few seconds, then said, “Give me two minutes.”

“It’s got to be precise.”

“It’ll be precise.”

I sensed he was about to hang up and talked fast. “You got a line to Rashid?”

“Yeah.”

“Apologize for me in advance, and tell him to watch out for the shears,” I said, and hung up.

Basically, the plan was for me to drastically warm and expand the air underneath the entire storm, shoving it upward while Paul created a vertical process to drag it all the way up to the mesosphere, where we could work on it with much greater forces until it fell apart. The downside of it was that creating that kind of sudden, drastic updraft was going to rip apart the stability of this area. Wind shears were a distinct probability—the kind that knocked planes out of the sky. Hence, my warning to Rashid; it would be up to him to handle the devastating side effects.

I watched the digital clock on the dashboard. It took forever to flick over one minute. I felt something happening overhead, a kind of power gathering, and I couldn’t tell if the storm was about to strike or if Paul was marshaling his forces. Either way, not a pleasant sensation seen from my perspective.

The digital clock finally flickered a new number. I reached up, grabbed air, and poured in heat… heated it so rapidly, the molecules had to expand, no matter what the cost. The storm pushed back, but it couldn’t fight two fronts; I felt it being dragged upward by Paul’s cold air funnel, sucked up through the friction layer, the troposphere, the stratosphere. Slowing as it reached the arid, chilly spaces of the mesosphere.

My enemy—whoever he or she was—would have to power that storm with the equivalent energy of fifteen or twenty nuclear reactors just to keep it together, and trying to bring it back down would be almost impossible, given the warm air column I’d created and was maintaining. Warm air beats cold air, given a short time frame. Elementary weather physics.

I felt the moment its creator let go of it. It was impossible for a storm that big to fall apart, but it did—blown apart, just like a puffball. Without the magic that sustained it, it was just random water and gas. I could feel the pressure easing inside my head.

Going, going… gone.

My phone rang. I flipped it open.

“Nice,” Paul said.

“You, too.”

“I can’t change my mind, kid. Don’t come back.”

“I didn’t think you would,” I said. “Don’t worry. I’m not your problem anymore.”

Paul chuckled, a sound that left me warm inside. “That’ll be the day.”

I had just hung up the car phone when the first microburst slammed into the car with the speed of a bullet train and knocked me off the road. I fought the wheel, heard the Mustang scream as it grabbed for traction, but the road might as well have been ice and oil. I skidded. The world lurched. And oh, God, there was somebody in the way, somebody standing by the side of the road, I was going to hit him….

I spun out in a spray of dust, felt a dull thump of impact. My tires caught the grassy edge of the shoulder, and physics took over, giving the car a sickening tilt.

Not the car, I thought in utter despair. Please, not the car.

And then something caught me and steadied me, and Delilah thumped four tires back on the ground. I had the breath knocked out of me, but apart from some tread loss, neither one of us had been hurt much. Delilah was shaking all over. So was I.

I turned off the engine and put my burning forehead on the steering wheel and gulped in air that tasted now as much of fear as of all the old ghosts of fast food, but it was still delicious.

“Sorry, baby,” I whispered to Delilah. “Thought we were both headed for the junkyard.”

It took me a second to remember the rest of it. The dull thump of impact.

Oh, Jesus, I’d hit somebody….

I fumbled with the seat belt, frantic. Oh, God, no— let him be okay….

Somebody tapped on the window. I gave myself whiplash coming around to stare, and saw a shadow… large, dark, and threatening. I sucked in breath to scream.

I blinked, and the shadow resolved into just—a guy. A guy with brown hair that needed trimming and some silly-looking round glasses that reflected blazing sunlight. A nice face, with smile lines around the eyes that said he was older than first glance would take him for. He was wearing a patched olive-green trench coat that for some reason reminded me of World War I—a vintage clothing enthusiast, or somebody who could afford only Salvation Army couture.

I rolled down the window.

“You okay?” he asked, and adjusted a backpack on his shoulder. Oh. I got it. He was a road dude, somebody who walked for a living, hitching when possible. Homeless by choice, maybe, instead of circumstance. A guy in search of adventure.

Well, he’d sure as hell found it this time.

“Fine. I’m fine,” I croaked, and dragged lank, oily hair back from my face. “You’re okay? I didn’t hit you? No tire tracks on you or anything?”

He shook his head. An earring glinted. I tried to remember which ear meant he was gay, and then doubted myself; the earring thing might be an urban legend. I concluded it was either bullshit or the glint was in the heterosexual ear, because he smiled at me in a warmly nonacademic way.

“So, can you believe this weather? Some crazy stuff going on,” he said. I could imagine… a cloud levitating with the speed of a freight train, straight up, then blowing apart like God himself had smashed it to pieces. Plus Delilah roaring along at top speed and spinning out like NASCAR roadkill. Not something you see every day, even if you are a road dude. “Thought we were really in for it.”

I hoped the we was a generic kind of thing, not a hello-I’ll-be-your-stalker-this-evening warning sign. “Gee, bad weather? I didn’t notice.”

He hitched the backpack again, as if it were giving him some trouble, and nodded as he straightened up. “Well, be careful. Too nice a car to end up in some ditch. Not to mention too nice a lady.”

Gallant, but he was a genuine guy—he’d put the car first. Somehow, that won me over. I wasn’t getting any weird vibes from him, and even the company of some dude smoking grass and getting as one with nature might be better than talking to my car on a hell-drive like this. He even had a nice smile.

I looked at him in Oversight, just to be sure, but there was nothing special about him, nothing dark, nothing bright, nothing but plain old Joe Normal. I opened the passenger door and said, “Need a ride?”

He stopped walking away and looked at me. He had really dark eyes, but dark in a warm, earthy kind of way. If he were a season, he’d be fall.

“Maybe,” he said. “Pack’s getting kind of heavy. What’s the price?”

“Nothing.”

His eyebrows twitched like he thought about raising them. “Nothing’s for nothing.”

“Pleasure of your company.”

“That can be taken a couple of ways,” he said, and shrugged off the pack. It fit into the backseat like a second passenger. He didn’t need as much leg room as Paul. “Not that I’m complaining or anything.”

I felt strongly that that should offend me. “You really think I look like a chick who’d pick up some skanky guy on the side of the road?”

“No,” he said with a sly, Zen-like calm. “And just for clarification, I take exception to the skanky. I have had a bath.”

I waited until he’d strapped himself in safely before Delilah rolled again. Sunlight flickered through trees, tiger-striping the road. A gentle west-to-east breeze rustled leaves. I hadn’t closed my window, and the smooth, cool scented air blew my hair back from my face. It felt good on my flushed skin.

“Not skanky,” I agreed finally. “Rough?”

“You think I look rough?”

“Maybe a little grubby.”

“I’ll accept grubby.”

When I looked over, he chuckled. I laughed, caught the edge of my hysteria, and blamed it on exhaustion and fear. I caught my breath and wiped my face.

He said, “My name’s David, by the way.”

“Joanne.”

“How long have you been on the road?”

“Isn’t that my line?” I asked him. “I think it’s been about thirty-six hours, but I’m really not too sure anymore.”

“Any sleep?”

“Not so much.”

“I guess you know it’s not safe to drive like that.”

“Safer than stopping,” I said, and then wondered why I had; I don’t confide, especially not in normal, mundane people. David nodded and looked out the window. “So how long have you been on the road?”

“A while now. I like it. It’s beautiful out there.” He nodded toward the other side of the glass, where things were whipping by at Mustang speed. “Everybody should get out in the world for a while, just so they know who they are, and why.”

It sounded philosophical and New Agey to me, but hey, I freely admit I’m cynical. “Thanks, I’ll take indoor plumbing, cooked food, and reliable heating any time. Nature’s great. I just don’t think she likes us very much.”

“She likes us fine,” David replied. “But she doesn’t stack the deck for one side or the other, and we seem to think she should. Cockroaches get the same shots as humans, in her view. And I think that’s fair.”

“I’m not about fair. I’m about winning.”

“Nobody wins,” he said. “Or don’t you watch the Discovery Channel?”

“More of a Comedy Central fan, myself. And don’t tell me that you’ve got a cabin with cable stashed in your backpack.”

He out and out grinned this time. “No, but sometimes I take a room at a motel so I can cleaned up and sleep in a bed for a change. You got something against the Discovery Channel?”

“Adult pay-per-view,” I advised him. “Only way to go.”

Strangely, I felt less sleepy and less fogged over with weariness since he’d gotten in the car. Maybe there really was something to misery loving company. Plus, a little casual flirting never failed to get my blood moving.

He looked over at me with a smile that was just saved from being cynical by his gentle eyes.

“Real life,” he said, “is always more interesting. You just never know what will happen.”

What happened was that we drove for another thirty minutes, and the skies were clear and menace free, and I finally was able to pull in for a pit stop at a place called Krazy Ed’s Gas ‘n Food. Krazy Ed himself ran the register. I don’t know if he was Krazy, but he was meaner than a pit bull, and I’d have been willing to bet that he’d killed a few would-be burglars in his time. David stayed quiet, polite, and he got out as quickly as possible with his haul of cheese doodles and Twinkies and diet soda. Evidently his oneness with Mother Nature did not extend to eating organic—or even partially organic— food.

Delilah drank her fill at the pumps, I slid my feet in and out of the now-torturous high heels and asked Krazy Ed if there was anyplace in town he could recommend as a clothing store. Apparently there was. It was a little place called the mall.

“Mall,” I echoed after David and I were back in the car, safely out of Krazy Ed’s reach. “How big a mall can there be in a town this size? A Wal-Mart I could understand, wherever two or three of us are gathered together, but…”

David didn’t say anything. He just pointed to the road sign directly in front of us. It read, green hills outlet mall, biggest in pa! Although, by my calculations, we were just wee miles short of being out of Pennsylvania altogether.

“Oh,” I said. “Pretty big, I guess.”

So we followed the signs.

Big wasn’t the word; the place was frigging enormous. I’d seen major airports that covered less land mass, and the cars—you could have taken a dozen big-city car dealerships and stuck them together in one contiguous lot, and you’d still have fewer vehicles than were choked into narrow rows around the Green Hills Outlet Mall. I offered David the chance to get a ride with some of the thousands of other mall shoppers, but he politely declined and walked into the place with me, hands in his overcoat pockets and eyes full of sly amusement as if he were on some sociology field trip. I wondered how many malls he’d ever been to. The clothes he was wearing weren’t really hand-me-downs after all—blue checkered flannel shirt, blue jeans, lived-in hiking boots, that vintage overcoat. It all looked good quality, with no ground-in dirt—in fact, recently washed. Like David himself. He smelled lightly of male sweat, but nothing stinkier. If he’d been living rough, it certainly hadn’t been any rougher than most vacationers.

Which raised a question, because most guys on the road for a couple of years tended to wear miles on their faces. His was mileage free.

Still. I checked Oversight. He was placidly un-menacing.

“I just need a few things,” I told him. “Clothes. Stuff like that. You can go to the food court if you want to and eat something with some actual nutritional content for a change. My treat.”

We were, in fact, looking at the food court, which was larger and noisier than Barnum and Bailey’s big top. Even the pickiest taste could find something in that maze of color and plastic—from hamburgers to Szechuan, curry to pork pies. David looked mildly impressed. I handed him a twenty-dollar bill. “Knock yourself out. See you back here in an hour. If I don’t see you, I’ll assume you’ve caught another ride, okay?”

He pocketed the twenty without protest and nodded without looking my way. “I’ll be here,” he said. “Don’t forget me.”

Not likely. I looked back over my shoulder when I got to the escalator and saw he was standing there, watching me. The round circles of his glasses caught neon fire as he turned his head, and he walked off into the crowd with his overcoat swinging gracefully around him.

He really was—something. I wasn’t quite sure what. Why the hell had I picked him up? No, that wasn’t the question. A girl could have the occasional weakness for a cute, mysterious stranger. The question was, why the hell was I still with him?

I made the decision that when I was done here, I’d slip out the side exit and leave him on his own. Hell, I’d given him a ride, contributed a twenty to the cause—I’d done more than my duty, right? And there was, well, me to consider. I had my own problems, dammit.

Yes. Definitely. That’s what I would do.

The escalator delivered me to a whole different level of color, this one full of clothes. Trashy clothes, flashy clothes, trendy clothes, clothes even my grandmother would have found too dowdy to wear. I picked a place called Violent Velvet and decided that it deserved a once-over for the name alone.

The color of the season, I discovered, was purple— well, last season, because it was an outlet mall and they were unloading stock that hadn’t sold, but that didn’t matter. I liked purple. I liked purple velvet even better, and since the spring wasn’t so warm, it constituted a comfort-versus-fashion challenge.

Half an hour later I emerged from the fitting room wearing purple hip-hugger pants, a stretch lace white shirt, and a flared purple jacket that harked back to Edwardian styles. Everything I was wearing, from underwear out, was new. It felt so good, it was almost sexual. I paid up, bagged two more outfits and a pair of purple satin pajamas, and reveled in the feel of flat-heeled, fashionably clunky shoes. My feet were shell-shocked but grateful. A quick fifteen-minute stop at the nearby convenience store netted me tampons, toothpaste, toothbrush, travel-size mouth-wash, makeup, and—because a good Girl Scout is always prepared—a discreet travel-size package of condoms. But, I reminded myself again, I was ditching David. So the condoms were more in the way of wishful thinking.

Anyway, it had nothing to do with him. In the outfit I was wearing, I might have a date before I even made it down the escalator.

I was basking in girl power when suddenly the hair along my scalp prickled, and I knew something was wrong. Weather? No, that was okay, a quick survey of Oversight told me all was well. Something else. I couldn’t pin it down, but the feeling persisted. Something was wrong here, in the middle of all these busy people, all these stores chewing money at a Las Vegas rate. Something to do with air, I thought. But not weather—

I realized I was feeling faint, and I didn’t understand why. I’d been feeling great just a few seconds ago, loving my violent velvet, ready to take on the world. Now I needed to sit down.

I found an unoccupied Victorian-style wrought-iron bench and sat down next to some squatty pine trees. They looked unconvinced by the skylight above, but a finch had somehow found its way in and was perched on one of the branches, watching me with beady finch-eyes. It made a sharp sound that sounded dull and smeared to me, as if I were hearing it underwater, and it snapped its wings and flew away.

Fainter. Sounds fading. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I was breathing faster, but the part of my brain in charge of total freakout was shrieking that something was wrong, wrong, wrong.

I was still trying to figure it out when I slid sideways and fell over on the bench. Cool white-painted iron against my cheek. Felt good. So tired.

People gathered. Lips moved. No sound reached me. I was gasping now, panting fast, and because my hand was by my face, I could see that my fingernail beds were turning a pure, delicate blue.

Something about—about—experiment at school—

Oh, God, I couldn’t breathe. No, that’s not right, I was breathing, but there just wasn’t anything there to breathe. Nothing but my own carbon dioxide.

I remembered, as suddenly and clearly as if it were happening in front of me, that I’d done this before. Not as the subject. As the experimenter.

I’d done this to a lab rat. Removed all the oxygen from the air surrounding him and made it a clear poisonous shell around him, so no matter where he ran, no matter how he tried to get away—

I hadn’t killed the rat. I’d popped the bubble once I’d mastered the technique, and the rat—white, with a pink nose, funny how you remember those things— had scurried off unharmed.

But whoever was practicing on me wasn’t popping the bubble.

Focus, dammit!

My brain was starting to send out hysterical flashes, distress signals. Flashes of color across my eyes. A strangely realistic memory of my mother reaching down for me, giant-size in my perspective. Delilah spinning on the road. Lewis, lying on the ground, blood dripping down his face, reaching out for the last key to his power.

I realized I had stopped breathing and couldn’t seem to make myself start again.

Something wrong. What was it?

Clear as a bell, I heard my mother say, I wish this didn’t have to happen. She sounded so disappointed in me.

Yorenson. Disappointed. Standing at the head of the class, listening to my wrong answer. Really, Joanne, you know this. You know how to do this.

Couldn’t remember. It was dark. Very dark. Warm in there, in the night, but no stars, no moon.

No. Hallway. Something at the end. I was moving toward it without any sensation of moving, there was light, and light and—

I was sitting in a creaking wooden school chair, and the room smelled faintly of Pine-Sol and chalk, and Yorenson pulled at his tweed jacket like a fussy girl and asked me a question that I didn’t understand, and I felt panic rising like storm surge along the coast. I had to get this right, had to. He looked at me in disappointment and turned back to the blackboard. He drew an air molecule, chalk squeaking.

I was the only one in the room. Staying after class. Remedial weather theory. No, that wasn’t right, I had never—

Pay attention, he said, without turning around. Squeaking chalk. This takes delicacy, my dear.

On the board. The answer was on the board. All I had to do was—was—

Crystal sparkles around the edge of Yorenson’s blackboard, eating. Darkness all around, eating the answer.

No.

I reached out with my hand, and the chemical structure on the board became reds and blues and yellows, three-dimensional, spinning, and I plucked away one thing that shouldn’t be there—a yellow grape in the wrong place on the stem—and stuck a blue one in its place.

Again. Faster. Reaching for thousands of spinning models, millions, billions, and it wasn’t my hand that was reaching, it was my mind, it was me.

Yorenson turned from the blackboard and put the chalk down and smiled at me.

Breathe, he said. Don’t forget to breathe.

— and suddenly there was sweet, sweet air in my lungs, and the noise, my God, the noise was terrific, people shouting, feet running, voices, some kind of alarm going off in a store, the hyperactive beat of music in the distance, sweet, sweet chaos.

I swept in breath after breath after breath and listened to my pounding heart and thought, I hated that goddamn class.

Someone was cushioning my head. I blinked and focused and saw that it was David. He looked deathly pale, and I could feel his hands trembling. For some reason his glasses were off, and his face looked different. Stronger. His eyes glittered with flecks of copper.

“Hi,” I whispered. He started to say something, but didn’t.

Somebody slapped an oxygen mask I didn’t need over my face.

Funny how a near death experience can make you hungry. I sat in the food court with David and gulped down a heroic meal of beef kebab, saffron rice, samosas, and some kind of designer water without bubbles or aftertaste. David still looked spooked. He hadn’t said a word to me during the hysteria of the paramedic visit, or the argument over whether or not I was brain-damaged enough to go to the hospital… hadn’t, in fact, said anything to anybody. He’d just stood there at the edge of the chaos, arms folded, watching me with a frown curved between his eyebrows.

It was kind of cute, really.

I had to sign releases and I-won’t-sue waivers, not to mention endure dire predictions of disability and death from the local doc-in-a-box who’d arrived on the scene with personal injury lawyer in tow.

By the time it was over, I’d grabbed David by the elbow and said, “I’m starving,” and he still hadn’t said anything through the entire walking, ordering, and eating process.

Now, as I gulped the last of my water and scooped up the last errant grains of orange-specked rice, he leaned forward and asked, “Done now?”

“Guess so.” I ate a last mouthful of naan, licked my fingers, and used the napkin as a last resort. People were still watching me, either because of my excellent fashion sense or because they were waiting for me to fall down and foam at the mouth again. Probably the most exciting thing to happen in the mall since the Christmas pageant.

He was watching me that way, too. “You want to tell me what’s going on with you?”

“Not really,” I said. “Listen, no offense, but I think it’s better if you just take the twenty I gave you and look for another ride. It isn’t that I don’t like you, it’s just that—”

“You might have another one of those?”

Yeah. I might, this time while driving Delilah at top speed. Or next time, my invisible enemy might decide to wrap a mantle of poison around David instead of me, to distract me while he pulled another little trick out of his magical hat. Somebody really didn’t want me to reach Lewis. Who? Why? Who even knew I was looking? The Djinn, of course, but Djinn didn’t act without orders from their masters.

And that Djinn was Lewis’s, and if Lewis had given me the directions to meet him, he’d hardly be trying to kill me, too. Well, Paul knew, sort of. And Star. Shit. Speculation was getting me nowhere.

“If you have another one of those fits, you’re going to need help,” David said. “Besides, I get the feeling you’re driving a long way. I could use the lift. Really. I’ve got a long way to go.”

“Yeah?” It was the first information David had offered, however oblique. “To where?”

“Phoenix,” he said. “My brother’s in trouble. I’m trying to get to him.”

I found a last grain of rice and coaxed it onto my fork. “What’s his name?”

David hesitated, then looked away. “Joseph.”

“Biblical theme.”

“We’re a very religious family.”

I shoved the tray away and put my hands flat on the table. They weren’t shaking anymore, which was an improvement. And I didn’t feel anything much happening around me, not from an eldritch standpoint, anyway—plenty of screaming kids, arguing adults, booming bass from stereo stores, babble in a hundred languages. All in the real world.

What had almost killed me didn’t belong here, in this world. My enemy had been precise this time, tried to get at me personally. Now that I was on my guard, he wouldn’t have as much opportunity. Next time, he might try something messier.

I couldn’t afford to be around people when that happened.

“Phoenix,” I repeated. “Look, seriously, it’s not safe to be around me, okay? Call it what you want—epileptic fits, demonic possession, poison, Mafia enforcers. It’s just not safe. So do yourself a favor, buy a bus ticket, catch a commercial flight, rent a car, just turn around and walk away. Right now.”

He looked at me seriously from across the teal blue plastic table. Behind him, a neon light sculpture of a parrot climbed a tiled pillar. The brilliant colors made him look drab, a bird in winter colors.

“You’re serious?” he asked.

“As a heart attack.”

He finally nodded and said, “Okay.”

Well, what had I expected? Argument? Heroic measures? Declarations of undying love and loyalty? Hell, he was a road dude, just a guy who’d asked for a ride and gotten in over his head. Cute, but not playing at my power level.

Still. I hadn’t expected him to just say okay and walk away. Not really. Not without even another word. It was a little bit ego-bruising.

Well, as a matter of fact, that wasn’t what he was doing. He had my plastic tray with the empty disposable plates and tableware. He opened a trash receptacle and dumped stuff, slid the tray into a stacker, and ambled back with his hands stuck in his coat pockets.

“I meant to tell you, you look incredibly good in that,” he said. “Purple really likes you.”

He was still waiting. I raised my eyebrows. “Anything else?”

“My backpack,” he said, perfectly reasonably. “It’s in the car.”

“Oh.” I shoved a shopping bag at him. “Make yourself useful.”

He had a truly wicked smile. “I often do.”

We hiked a Yellowstone distance to the car, and even though the sky was clear except for some high cirrus wisps, I kept an eye on it. Lightning had been known to form chains hundreds of miles from a storm center—been known to strike people dead from clear skies. In my case, it wouldn’t be an accident.

Poor Delilah waited where I’d left her, scorched door and all. I unlocked the back and got out David’s backpack. It was surprisingly heavy. He rescued it from me when I almost dropped it.

“What the hell’s in there?” I asked. “Did you rob Fort Knox?”

“Yeah, this is my idea of a quick getaway,” he said, and shrugged into the thing like he’d been doing it all his life. “Tent, portable stove, cookware, clothes, extra boots, and a few dozen books.”

“Books?”

He gave me a pitying look. “You don’t read?”

“I don’t carry the New York Public Library on my back. Hell, I don’t even carry it in the trunk.”

“Your loss.” Now that he had his belongings, he seemed to still be waiting for something. “You going to be okay?”

“Me? Sure.”

“You want to explain what happened back there?” he asked.

“The whole curry thing? Really, I just like Indian food.”

“Funny.” He waited. I waited, too. “You’re not going to explain.”

“That’s the general idea,” I agreed. “You don’t want to know. It’s better that you don’t. Safer.”

He shook his head. Before I could stop him—or figure out if I wanted to stop him—he leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the cheek. I stepped back, raised a hand to touch burning skin, and was surprised by how high my heart rate spiked.

“Take care,” he said. “And take care of Delilah.”

“Yeah.” I wanted to say something profound, but I could barely manage the one word. He turned and walked away, heading back for the mall. Ten steps away, he turned with a dramatic flare of his coat.

“Hey!” he called as he kept walking backwards.

“Yeah?”

“You look like you shopped at Prince’s garage sale,” he said, and smiled—a real, full, beautiful smile.

“Hot, aren’t I?”

“You’re a regular fire hazard.” He waved and turned again, a perfect balletic turn, and kept walking.

I watched him all the way until he disappeared inside. I had opened the driver’s side door, but I didn’t really remember doing it. Warm metal under my hand. I got in and smelled a ghost of his aftershave— something cinnamon, exotic, warm. Turned the ignition key. Delilah started up and purred.

“Just the two of us, baby,” I said. I didn’t like the sound of it nearly as much as I’d thought I would.

When I was ten, I went on vacation with my mom to Disney World, just the two of us. Dad was gone by then, vanished into the sunset like Roy Rogers, only instead of riding Trigger, he was riding his secretary, Eileen Napolitano… not that I knew that when I was ten, I knew only that he was gone and Mom was pissed, and anytime I whined about wanting to paint my toenails orange, she told me she didn’t want me to end up a secretary.

Mom and I went to Disney World together—my sister, Sarah, older than me, had opted snobbishly for two weeks of band camp instead. We arrived in Orlando in the middle of a clear and sunny March afternoon, and by seven o’clock, the weather guys were saying hurricane season was coming early. Nobody believed them. We rode the monorail to our hotel, and I splashed in the pool and squealed over the cartoons on TV as though I hadn’t already seen them twenty times. And Mom looked out the window a lot at the cool velvet sky, the hurricane moon floating in specks of stars.

The following morning we arrived at the Magic Kingdom with clouds boiling from the east—a big black storm wall riding the tide. My mom was never one to let a little rain get her down. We rode the Mine Train and Space Mountain and Haunted Mansion. We rode every ride I was tall enough for, even the ones that made Mom queasy. We bought souvenirs for Sarah, even though I didn’t think she deserved it, after rolling her eyes and being a fourteen-year-old superior little drama queen.

When we were taking pictures with Mickey and Minnie, the rain started. It was like somebody had turned a lake upside down, and the Magic Kingdom turned into the Kingdom of the Sea. If you wanted your picture taken with Charlie the Tuna, it was perfect. By four o’clock, the hardiest Mouseketeers had taken shelter in the hotels, away from the windows and the lightning. Even Pluto got in out of the rain.

Not me and Mom. We were already soaked stupid, so it didn’t really matter much anymore. We whooped and hollered and splashed down Main Street USA, played shark attack in Tomorrowland, and pretended that we’d rented out the whole Disney empire for ourselves, just for one day.

It was the best time we ever had together. And yeah, the rain could have been a coincidence. But when I look back on it now, that was the beginning. Every major moment in my life has been accompanied by dramatic weather, and for a long time, I didn’t know why.

Even after I knew, even after I accepted it was all true, my mom couldn’t. Parents almost never did, apparently; she never really had a chance to come to terms with it. Heart attack at the age of forty-nine. There one minute, gone the next, a shock like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky.

It had occurred to me to wonder, much later, if that had been arranged. I tried not to think about it too much, because it made me consider the path that I’d chosen, or had been chosen for me.

I didn’t get close to people. Not anymore.

Which perfectly explained why I’d had to leave David behind, the way I’d left every part of normal life behind me when I’d taken the oath and joined the Wardens. I was risking my life every time I reached for power. I didn’t have the right to risk anyone else’s along with it.

Too bad. He was really, really cute.

Just outside of town, two miles over the state border, Delilah sputtered. It was just a tiny hitch, but I felt it like a spike driven between my ribs. Oh, God. Not now. Nothing menacing on the weather front, but that didn’t mean opportunity couldn’t knock. Or smash me flat.

Maybe it was nothing, I told myself. Just a ping, just a coincidence, a one-time-only—

Fuck. She chugged again. And again. The engine sputtered and roared back to life.

“Oh, baby, no, don’t do this, don’t—” Delilah wasn’t listening. She gulped air, coughed gas, choked.

We coasted to a halt on the gravel shoulder, next to a road sign proclaiming the wonders of a McDonald’s just five miles ahead on the right. Under Ronald’s cheery leer, I got out and resisted the urge to kick tires. I could fix her. I always fixed her.

But not wearing the new purple velvet. Dammit. I’d bought some more practical clothes, but they were still in the plastic shopping bags in the trunk, and there wasn’t a changing room in sight. Ah well, the road wasn’t that busy, and I was desperate. I grabbed jeans and a button-front shirt and climbed into the backseat.

Getting out of velvet pants is not as easy as it sounds, at least not in the backseat of a Mustang. Not that I hadn’t had practice, but still, there was the embarrassment factor; every time I heard a car, I had to duck down and hold my breath. Finally, I was down to the purple satin panties and lace shirt—no bra, because I’d wanted to make a good impression on David. Which apparently I hadn’t, because he wasn’t here to appreciate it.

I was completely naked except for the panties when I heard a tap on the window behind me, screamed, and threw my velvet jacket over as much of myself as it would cover.

Of course. Why had I ever doubted who it would be?

“You bastard!” I yelped. David looked puzzled and far too innocent to really be innocent. “Jeez! Turn around, would you?”

“Sure.” He did. I scrambled around, pulling on blue jeans first, then making sure I had my eyes boring into his back while I put on the denim button-down. I had a bra somewhere in the shopping bag, but I didn’t want to take the time.

I knocked on the window and slid across the seat, opened the passenger door, and got out to face him.

“It’s a funny story,” he said. “I was just walking along—”

“As if I want to hear it,” I snapped. “Jesus, you scared the crap out of me!”

“Sorry.” He didn’t look sorry, but there was a little color in his cheeks that hadn’t been there last time we’d said good-bye. A little glitter in his eyes that probably wasn’t regret. “I thought you were in trouble.”

“Genius! I am in trouble.” I stomped around, popped Delilah’s hood, and set the prop in place. “The engine folded.”

“Yeah?” He looked over my shoulder. “What is it?”

“Hell if I know.” I started examining hoses. He didn’t bother me, which was odd—how many guys do you know who wouldn’t stand over you and offer advice even if they don’t know a radiator from a radish? After a few minutes, I looked back and saw he’d taken off his pack and was sitting quietly on it, leafing through a paperback. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Reading, what does it look like I’m doing?” He turned down a page at the sound of a car approaching, stood up, and held out a thumb. The truck blew past in a smear of wind and chrome.

“You’re hitching?”

“Beats walking.”

He held out his thumb again. I checked more hoses. They all looked good. The clamps were intact. Dammit. I didn’t think it was a valve problem, but with vintage Mustangs, you never knew. I’d already had Delilah’s engine rebuilt twice.

I spun away from the car, put greasy hands on my hips, and stared at him. “Okay. I may be slow, but eventually I get it. You’re following me.”

He concentrated on trying to flag down a bright yellow Volkswagen bug the exact color of a lemon drop, but it didn’t even slow down.

“It’s the main road out of town,” he said. “And I’m heading for Phoenix, remember?”

“You are following me!” I resisted the urge to kick Delilah’s tire; there was no reason to take it out on the baby. “And you know something.”

“Like what?” He didn’t look concerned. In fact, he didn’t even look interested.

“Like who’s doing this to me.”

“Well, I know it’s not me. Does that help?” He gave up on the road and went back to the easy-chair comfort of his backpack. I gave him a glare and went back to checking hoses, but Delilah didn’t give me any hints.

“Try it again,” David suggested. He was back sitting down, reading. I checked the oil and ignored him. Nope, it was full and grime-free. Double dammit. I couldn’t see anything blown, no telltale sprays of oil or fluid. The block looked good.

No sense in delaying the inevitable. I dropped to the gravel, rolled over, and squirmed under the car.

“Need any help?”

“No,” I yelled. “Go away!”

“Okay.” I heard David get up and walk over to the road as another car approached. It slowed down, then sped up a squeal of tires. “Jerk.”

“Not everybody’s as nice as I am,” I agreed. “Shit. Shit shit shit.” The engine looked good from down here, too. I was getting oil-smeared and gravel-gouged for nothing. “This is just great. Come on, baby, give me a break here.”

I slid back out, cleaned gravel out of the palms of my hands and brushed off my blue jeans, shook dust out of my dark hair, and announced, “I’ll try it again.” David remained unimpressed. He had taken his pack and moved about twenty feet farther down the road and was sitting with his back against the pole of the McDonald’s billboard, reading.

I slid into the driver’s seat and turned the key.

Delilah hummed to life, smooth and even as ever. I idled her for a while, gave her gas, revved her, closed my eyes, and listened for any hitches.

Nothing. I let it fall back to idle and felt the vibration in my skin.

David was reading The Merchant of Venice. He was kicked back, relaxed, feet up. His brown hair gleamed red highlights in the sun, and overhead the sky was blue, blue, merciless blue.

I popped the clutch and rolled past him, accelerating. He never looked up.

Ten feet past the billboard, I hit the brakes and skidded to a gravel-spewing stop. In the rearview mirror, I saw him turn down the page, put the book back in his backpack, and heft the thing like it weighed no more than my purse.

He stowed it in the backseat and got in without a word. As he got in, I grabbed his hand and held it palm up, then passed my hand over it and concentrated.

Nothing. If he was a Warden—Earth Warden, I suspected—he had no glyphs. Maybe a Wildling? They were few and far between, from what I’d ever heard, but it was possible he had some kind of talent. Maybe.

He took his hand back, frowning slightly. “And that was—?”

“Checking to see if you washed your hands.”

He looked doubtfully at me—oily, dusty, grimy. I accelerated out onto the open road.

“How’d you find me?” I asked.

“Luck,” he said.

“Yeah,” I agreed gloomily. “Luck. I’ll bet.”

Five miles down the road, I spotted a cloud on the horizon ahead of us. Just a little cloud about the size of my hand. Hardly anything, really.

But I could feel the storm coming back. Son of a bitch.

By the time the sun went down, I was exhausted. I planned to have David take the wheel, but there was a hitch in my brilliant plan.

David didn’t drive.

“At all?” I asked. “I mean, you can’t?”

“I’m from New York,” he explained. As if that explained it. To me, it was like meeting somebody with three heads from the planet Bozbarr. It also caused a big sucking hole in my plans—I hadn’t wanted to pull over at all on the way to Oklahoma, beyond gas and bathroom stops. But the world looked sparkly and jagged, I was floating about an inch outside my body, and my muscles trembled like soggy rubber bands.

I’d kill us both if I tried to go on much longer.

“We’re stopping for the night,” I announced. “I need some rest.”

David nodded. He had a little clip-on light on his book, and he was deep in the perils of one of John Grisham’s lawyers. I wished he would get a little more interested in the prospect of spending the night in a hotel with a hot babe who owned a purple velvet suit, but apparently not happening.

I tried a hint. “Any preference? Trashy decor? Adult channels?”

He turned a page. “Indoor plumbing’s a plus.”

Bigger hint. “Two rooms or one?” I kept looking at the road and the sunset. In my peripheral vision, he still looked relaxed and unfazed, but he marked his place in his book and turned the light off.

“Kind of takes the mystery out of it if you ask,” he said.

“Just thinking out loud.”

“One’s fine.”

Well, that was an answer, but I wasn’t getting the come-hither vibe. David was just about impossible to read, which was funny, considering how much time he spent with the printed page. Ah, well. Truthfully, I was too wasted to be seductive anyway.

Up ahead, the cool blue glow of a motel sign floated like a UFO above the road. Clean sheets, fluffy pillows, little complimentary soaps. It sounded like heaven. Up close, it looked a lot more like purgatory, but any afterlife in a storm.

I checked us in, getting absolutely no reaction from the walleyed clerk to any of my quips, and paid with my fast-dwindling supply of cash. I signed the slip and got the room key and went back out to the car. The chunky orange tag attached to the key said we were in room 128. It was, naturally, on the other side of the building, the dark side, where half the parking lot lights were dead and the other half terminally ill. I pulled Delilah up in a parking space directly in front of the door.

Well, one benefit to the place: it was quiet. Awesomely quiet. Nothing but the wind whispering through trees and rattling a stray plastic bag across the parking lot.

“Shall we?” I asked, and reached down to grab my duffel. David took out his heavy backpack and camping kit. I doubted he would need all of it, but I supposed living on the road makes you less than trusting about that kind of thing.

Once we were inside, my visions of gleaming chrome bathroom fixtures and deep-pile carpeting were crushed. The carpet was indoor-outdoor, the bathroom had last been upgraded in the 1950s, and the sad-clown prints on the walls could never have been remotely fashionable. But it had clean sheets, reasonably fluffy pillows, and (I saw during a fast reconnaissance) complimentary little soaps. So okay. Next door to heaven.

David leaned his backpack against the wall. “One bed,” he said.

“Lucky for you, you brought camping gear.” I flopped down on the bed and immediately felt gravity increase by a factor of ten. The mattress was old and sagged, but it still felt like a cloud under my aching back. “God, I could sleep for days.”

The bed creaked. I hoisted one eyelid and saw that David had perched on the edge, looking down at me. In a perfect world, he would have been all choked up with romantic desire. In my all-too-real reality, he said, “You look terrible.”

“Thanks,” I murmured, and let my eye drift shut. “You charmer. Sheesh.”

The bed creaked again, and I heard him rummaging in his backpack. Footsteps on the carpet. The bathroom door closed, and the shower started up with a stuttering hiss.

Sometime a few minutes later, the sound of running water melted into the steady, stealthy sound of rain. It was raining. That was bad, I could feel it, but I couldn’t think why. Rain tapping the windows, polite at first, then beating harder, impatient to be inside. Wind whispered and rose to a roar, and I heard a rumble of thunder and felt the cold hair-raising frisson of electrons aligning.

A flash of lightning, blue-white, outside the window.

It was coming for me

I pulled awake with a gasp and found David tucking a scratchy blanket around me. I flailed my way out of it and stumbled to the window, ripped aside the curtains, and stared out at the dark.

Quiet. Quiet as the grave. No rain. No thunder. No lightning stabbing at me from above.

“What?” he asked.

It’s looking for me, I wanted to say, but there was no way I could explain that sort of thing. I was so tired, I was incoherent, shaking, almost crying. It’s out there.

“Did it rain?” I managed to ask.

“Don’t think so. Maybe you heard the shower. You haven’t been asleep long.”

Oh. I remembered now. The shower. He’d been taking a shower.

When I turned around, I realized he was wearing nothing but a towel and some well-placed water drops, and it hit me with a cattle-prod jolt that he was absolutely, unquestionably gorgeous. Skin like burnished gold, and under it the best kind of muscles on a man—long, lean, defined without bulging. A gilded thatch of hair on his chest that narrowed to a line down his stomach, pointing the way under the towel.

“Oh,” I blurted. “Wow. You—don’t have much on.”

“No,” he agreed gravely. “I don’t usually sleep in footie pajamas.”

“Would it be too personal to ask what you do sleep in?”

“Pajama bottoms. Unless that bothers you.”

Bothered me? Hell, yes. But in that nice, liquefying, warm-silk way of being bothered, as in “hot and.”

“No,” I said weakly. A drop of water glided down over his shoulder and melted into his chest hair. I had a fantasy so vivid, it raised my skin into goose bumps.

“Okay. You planning to sleep in that?” he asked me. I was still wearing the gritty, oil-stained denim from my try at fixing Delilah, and looking at him in all his glory, I felt grubby and short and smelly.

“Um, no,” I said, grabbed my duffel, and escaped to the bathroom.

Funny how a nice flare of lust can burn off the fog of exhaustion; I stripped off my clothes and kicked them under the sink, stepped into a shower he’d left warm for me. Shampoo and conditioner clustered considerately on the floor near my feet, open bar of soap in the tray… all the comforts of somebody else’s home.

I scrubbed myself pink, washed and strangled the water out of my hair, and wrapped myself in one of the motel’s thin, stiff towels. Record time. I considered shaving my legs, decided no, reconsidered, and then managed to get depilated in under four minutes, with only one tiny little cut near my left ankle.

When I came out into the bedroom, the bed was empty. No David.

He was zipped into a sleeping bag on the floor.

I stood there, dripping and steaming, and said, “You’re kidding.”

He didn’t open his eyes. “You’ve said that to me before. Do I really look that funny?”

“Bastard.” I flopped down on the bed again, squirmed under the covers, and stripped off the towel beneath. “You made me get up for nothing.”

“No,” he corrected. “Now you’re clean and you’ll sleep better.”

He turned over on his side, away from me. I wondered if he was naked inside the sleeping bag, growled in frustration, and put a pillow over my face. Suffocation had no appeal. I took it off and said, “You can bring your sleeping bag up here, you know. Beats sleeping on the floor.”

He didn’t answer for a few seconds, long enough for me to experience total rejection, and then he turned over and raised himself up on one elbow to look at me.

I expected some quip or some question, but he just looked. And then he flipped open the sleeping bag, slid out, and walked over to the bed.

He hadn’t lied. Pajama bottoms. They rode low on his hips.

I folded back the covers. He got in. I lowered my head to rest on the pillow, still watching him, and he rolled up on his left side to face me.

Some sane part of my mind was telling me that this was just some guy I’d picked up on the road, for God’s sake, some guy who could be a rapist or a killer, and that part of my mind was completely right and completely wrong. I knew him in places that had nothing to do with my mind.

“Turn on your side,” he said. I did, feeling like I was already dreaming. The slide of sheets felt cool and soothing on my overheated body.

I could feel him warm at my back, not quite touching. He put a hand on my hip, slid it gently up.

I couldn’t breathe.

He put his fingers at the base of my neck and drew them lightly down the curve of my spine, all the way down. I felt my muscles contract and shiver, and I wanted to stretch like a cat against him; it took all my control not to do it.

If I’d been melting inside before, I was boiling now.

“I’ll have to call a penalty,” he said. His voice sounded far away. “You’re not even wearing a T-shirt. Definitely a violation of the rules.”

His fingertips followed the curve of my hip again.

The tacky room had dropped away, and it was just the two of us, suspended in time and silence. There were no rules for this, none that I’d ever known. Just instinct. I started to turn toward him, and his hand spread out, holding me in place. His breath was warm on the back of my neck, his lips barely touching skin.

“You’re afraid of me,” he whispered. His hand moved into the demilitarized zone of my stomach. “Don’t be afraid.”

It wasn’t him—I was scared of myself. I was tired, vulnerable, frightened, lonely, desperate. I couldn’t trust my own senses, much less… whatever this was. Whoever he was.

I hadn’t thought about the Mark for hours, but now I could feel it moving inside me, turning restlessly as if it hungered as much as I did. Oh, God, I couldn’t concentrate enough to hold it back, not with him so close, so warm.

“Shhh,” he whispered, even though I hadn’t made a sound out loud. His hand moved again, gently, tracing a line of fire from my stomach up between my breasts. Flattened out over my heart. “Be still.”

I felt a lurch inside, a chill, a burst of heat.

The Demon Mark stopped moving.

“How—?” I blurted, and instantly stopped myself from asking. I didn’t want to know. There was so much here I didn’t want to know, because if I knew, then I would have to move away from him, give up this warmth, this beautiful peace.

“Shhh,” he said, and his lips touched the back of my neck. “No questions, no pain, no fear.”

I glimpsed something then, just the edges of something vast and powerful, and I almost knew—

His hand moved again, gliding down, drawing my mind away from what it chased in the dark. His fingers brushed gently over my aching nipples, settled back on my stomach.

“You should sleep,” he whispered. As if I could. As if I could ever sleep again, after feeling this, knowing this…

But it was all slipping away, water through my fingers, air flowing free through the sky. I was falling, and falling, and falling.

His hand moved slowly down and came to rest over the aching emptiness of my womb. It pressed flat and burned his warmth into my deepest places.

“Dream well,” he whispered.

Pleasure came in a wave, drenching me from head to toe, and it went on and on and on. It was the last I knew, except for the dreams.

I dreamed of rain.

* * *

It was raining the night Lewis showed up at my door… the slow, steady, nuturing rain people believe is their birthright on this planet, the kind that had to be squeezed out of Mother Nature with a fist of power. I’d been working at it all damn day, and by the time I got home and sank into a hot bath, I was worn out.

I’d been soaking for about ten minutes when I heard the doorbell ring. Let it ring, part of me sighed. The other part reminded me that I was a responsible adult, a Warden, and besides, the visitor might be either Ed McMahon with a Publishers Clearing House check or—even more unlikely—a gorgeous hunk.

It was the gorgeous hunk possibility that lured me out of the bath. I wrapped a thick ratty blue robe around myself and made wet footprints to the door.

I swung it open to find… nobody there. And then I looked down.

There was a guy huddled in a sitting position against the wall, soaking wet, his brown hair sticking up like porcupine quills. He was shaking, hugging himself for warmth. It took me a full ten seconds to recognize his face and feel the shock.

“Lewis!” I blurted, and before I could think what I was doing, I got my hands under his arms and tugged. No way I could have lifted him myself, but he cooperated and stumbled over the threshold and into my living room, where he proceeded to drip and shiver uncontrollably. I slammed and locked the door, ran to the hall closet, and came back with the warmest blanket I had—considering it was Florida, not so very warm. When I came back, he was sitting down again, this time on the tile floor of the entryway.

I used a tiny jet of power to suck all the water off him and out of his clothes and directed it down the kitchen sink, where it gurgled and drained away. I warmed the blanket at the same time and threw it around his shoulders.

“Hey,” I said, and crouched down. “Not that the floor’s not comfy, but I do have a couch.”

He opened his eyes, and I was surprised by the fear in them. Lewis, afraid. What could scare the most powerful Warden in the world?

“Can’t make it,” he admitted. He did look bad— skinny, almost skeletal, with dirty-pale skin as if he’d been someplace dark for a long time. “Thanks.”

“I vacuumed you off and gave you a blanket,” I said. “Don’t thank me yet. Come on, up.”

We repeated the grabbing-and-hauling and got him to the couch, where he sprawled and proved that a normal-size couch wasn’t designed to accommodate a six-foot-plus guy at full length. I spread the blanket over him. “When’s the last time you ate?”

“Don’t remember,” he murmured. I started to go into the kitchen, but he caught my wrist. “Jo.”

The touch, skin-to-skin, started a burn between us. He let go the second he felt it.

“You’re in trouble,” I said. It wasn’t exactly a stretch. “I get it. And no, I won’t call anybody.”

It was what he wanted. He nodded and closed those warm brown eyes.

When I came back with a microwaved cup of soup, he managed to squirm to a sitting position and sipped it faster than good sense allowed. I pulled up a pale plaid hassock, sat down, and watched him. When he’d sucked the last noodle out of the cup, I took it and laid it aside on the coffee table.

“Good,” he murmured. I put a hand on his forehead. He was burning up with fever. “I’m all right.”

“Yeah, like hell.” I fetched cold medicine from the bathroom and made him swallow two gel capsules with another cup of soup. All nice and domestic. No sound in the apartment except for the steady tick of rain on the roof and windows.

He didn’t say anything until the second cup of soup was finished. He rolled the empty ceramic in his hands, watching me with fever-bright eyes, and finally said, “You’re not going to ask?”

“Do I have any right?” I took the cup and set it back down. “You’re the big boss, Lewis, I’m just a Staffer. You say frog, I jump. You say nurse you back to health—”

He made a rude noise. “Yeah. You’re the mothering type, Jo. And the no-questions-asked type.”

He had a point. “Okay. What the hell are you doing here, showing up starved and sick on my doorstep? It isn’t like we know each other, Lewis. At least, not in any way that matters.”

Cruel but true. Lewis’s eyes widened, and he looked down. “I know you,” he said. “And I trust you.”

“Why?” He gave me an off-kilter smile for answer. I felt myself blush hot up around the cheekbones. “Okay, rephrasing the question. What kind of trouble are you in?”

The smile disappeared, and he looked ill and tired. “The worst kind,” he said. “Council trouble. I broke out.”

I froze, my own mug of soup halfway to my lips. Steam tickled my nose with ghosts of spices. “Broke out?”

“They were keeping me in a hospital, the one where…” He had an inward look, and what flashed across his face didn’t look like a pleasant memory. “They were keeping me at the Pound.”

The Pound was a nickname among the junior Wardens for the hospital Marion Bearheart oversaw, where Wardens checked in and walked out—or were carried out—as regular human beings. The place where we got neutered, or in my case, spayed.

The place where our powers could be ripped away at the roots.

“No,” I whispered, and put the soup down to take his hands. His felt cold, still. “God, Lewis, they couldn’t. Not you.”

“They hadn’t decided, but I knew which way it was going to go. Martin didn’t want it, but the others—” He shrugged. “I don’t fit, Jo, I have too much power, and they can’t control it. They don’t like that.”

No wonder he’d run. He had so much to lose, so much… I couldn’t imagine Marion agreeing to it, but she was sworn to obey, like all of us. Lewis was right not to take the chance.

It explained why he’d come to me like this, wet and sick; he couldn’t use his powers, not even to protect himself from the rain or burn the virus out of his bloodstream. Lewis lit up Oversight like a Roman candle every time he called power. Until he was back at full strength, he couldn’t defend himself.

I put a hand on his burning forehead and stared into his eyes. The sparks jumped between us, weak but still there.

“Trust me?” I asked. He nodded. “Then sleep. Nobody’s going to get you here.”

He fell asleep within minutes, curled under the blanket. I washed the mugs and put them on the dish drainer, went back and let the cooling water out of the bathtub. By the time I’d exchanged the robe for a comfortable tank top and drawstring pants, he was snoring.

He looked very young, but then he was—older than me, but a lot younger than most other Wardens. I sat down on the floor next to the couch, leaned my back up against it, and listened to him sleep while I watched TV with the sound turned down. I didn’t dare close my eyes; I kept watch in Oversight, alert for the approach of anybody who might be on his trail.

Toward morning, the rain stopped, and whether I meant to or not, I fell asleep. When I woke up, Lewis was gone from the couch. I heard the shower running. The floor had taken a horrible toll on my muscles, and by the time I’d worked myself into a standing position and hobbled my way into the kitchen to put on coffee, he was back, dressed in my ratty blue bathrobe. It actually fit. Where it dragged the ground for me, it maintained a politically correct mid-calf length on Lewis, and he didn’t have to roll up the sleeves.

“How do you feel?” I asked, and poured him a mug of liquid morning magic. He sipped it, watching me. His eyes were clearer, anyway, but his hair still stuck up in wet porcupine quills and gave him a vulnerable look.

“Better.”

“Good.” I reached for the coffee cake I’d put out on the counter and winced as another muscle group went on strike. “Wish I could say the same.”

I didn’t see him move toward me, and the shock of his warm hands on my back came as a surprise.

“Do you mind?” he asked.

“Um, hardly.”

He moved his large, capable hands down to my waist and dug his thumbs in, right where it hurt in the long muscles. Slow, deliberate pressure that hurt at first, then dissolved into absolute pleasure. I pulled in a slow breath, let it out, and felt tension leak away from shoulders to toes. “Whoa. Ever consider a career in massage therapy?”

“I’m open to new ideas.” I could hear the smile in his voice. His thumbs pressed more lightly, in slow circles. “Feel good?”

“Any better, I’d lose motor skills.”

“I’m sorry I pulled you into this,” he said. His hands moved up, chasing the tension. “It was—a bad night.”

“I’ve had a few,” I admitted. “It’s okay, you know. You can stay as long as you want to.”

His hands made it to my shoulders and squeezed away hours of stress. “No, I really can’t,” he said. There were a lot of ways to interpret that, but if Lewis meant anything more intimate, I couldn’t tell it from the slow, steady pressure of his fingers on pressure points. His thumbs dug into the nerve clusters just behind my shoulder blades, and I felt my knees go weak.

“So you’re leaving.”

I felt that smile again. “What can I say? I’ve always been a one-night stand.” He smoothed my back with gentle strokes. “I have to go. If I stay with you, it just puts you in the fire with me. You don’t need to attract their attention.”

“Me?” I turned, startled, and found myself chest-to-chest with him. He didn’t step back. “Why?”

“You know why.” His brown eyes were bleak, but they never quite lost their edge of amusement. “They only like Wardens to have so much power. You— you’re different. Not to mention uncontrollable.”

“Hey!” I put my hands on his chest and shoved him back a step. “Watch it, buster.”

“I didn’t mean it in a bad way.” He shrugged. “I mean they can’t control you. So they’ll be watching you, Jo. Don’t give them a reason.”

“You must still have a fever. I’m just Staff, for God’s sake. Why would anybody be watching me?”

Lewis held up his hands in surrender. “Point taken. I’m probably wrong.”

No, he wasn’t. I could tell. I glared at him. “Don’t bullshit me.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know what you are.”

“Well, I don’t know.” I felt my face set into a frown. “You tell me.”

He reached out and took my hand in his.

Skin on skin.

Sparks. Waves of power echoing through me, back to him, amplified as they returned to me.

I pulled free and stepped back until I felt the kitchen counter behind my back. For a few long seconds we just looked at each other, and then he nodded, reached around me to pick up his cup, and wandered back to the bathroom, sipping it.

I barely tasted mine, even though I drank the whole cup while watching the closed door.

When he came back out, he was dressed in the blue jeans, a loose green knit shirt, and hiking boots he’d been wearing when he arrived. Dry, at least. And with some color back in his too-thin face. I went in the bathroom and grabbed the box of cold medicine, added it to a bag of snacks and bottles of water. As care packages go, it wasn’t much. I tossed in the contents of my wallet, which didn’t make an impressive addition, and handed it to him.

His fingers brushed mine, drawing those sparks again. He craved it, I knew. So did I. And neither one of us could afford that.

He’d left something behind in my hand, a folded piece of paper with meticulously crisp corners. I started to unfold it, but he stopped me. “It’s an address,” he said. “If you need me, that’s where you’ll find me. Just don’t—”

“Tell anybody?” I finished, and gave him a faint smile. “You know better.”

“Yeah.”

He leaned forward and folded his arms around me, pulled me into a full-body hug that sent waves echoing and crashing in my head.

When he kissed me, it was like floating on a sea of glittering silver light. So much power…

He was gone before the dazzle cleared. I locked the door behind him and stood for a long time, my hand on the knob, thinking about him. Not that I knew what I felt, or what it meant, or anything at all, really.

But I was worried for him. And about him. And about myself.

Two hours later, the doorbell rang again. This time it was three polite, poker-faced Wardens who had lots of questions to ask me about Lewis.

He was right. From that moment on, they never took their eyes off me. They’ll be watching you, Jo. Don’t give them a reason. I hadn’t meant to, ever.

Just like I hadn’t meant to ever unfold that piece of paper.

And then… Bad Bob had happened.

It was time for Lewis to give a little aid and comfort of his own.

I woke up in the motel one body part at a time— toes first, where sunlight striped warm across them. Legs… thighs… hips… by the time I opened my eyes, I was feeling drowsy and completely relaxed, happier than I had in years.

I felt like I’d had the best sex of my life. But I hadn’t. Had I? No, definitely no merging of body parts had occurred with David. But of course, today was another day, with endless possibilities….

I was lying on my stomach. I rolled over, which should have been one of those graceful movie-star maneuvers, but ended up as a Three Stooges wrapped-in-the-sheets farce. By the time I’d clawed out of the cocoon and pushed tangled hair back from my face, I saw it was all wasted, anyway.

David was gone.

There was a cold hollow in the sheets where he’d been. I let my hand explore that for a few seconds; then I hugged the rumpled bedclothes to my chest and looked around. No sleeping bag on the floor. No backpack leaning against the wall.

I’d been dumped. Comprehensively dumped.

I got up and walked around the room, but there was little sign he’d ever been there, nothing but the outline of his head on the pillow and a single used towel on the counter in the bathroom. I stood there in the antique-white tiled chill and stared at myself in the mirror. The shower and night’s sleep had done me good—still some dark smudges under my eyes, but I looked presentable. And dammit, even though he was gone, I was still humming all over with the aftermath. I closed my eyes and went up into Oversight. My body was glowing honey gold, with a flare of brilliant warm orange centered low, just over my womb. A flare in the shape of David’s hand.

I put my own hand over it and felt something there, almost an electric tingle. Dream well. His whisper moved through me again, and I felt that stirring again, like my whole body wanted to answer.

Dammit. I didn’t know whether I wanted to get on my knees and beg him to come back, or kick his ass from here to California. No, I knew, I just didn’t want to admit it. Tears burned at the corners of my eyes, which was ridiculous, I didn’t even know this guy, how could I possibly be disappointed in him? In myself?

And yet I was. Once again, I’d trusted a guy. Once again, I was on my own, scared and desperate and lonely.

I sat down on the bed and tried not to let it take me over. My hands were shaking, my breath unsteady, and I knew if I started crying, I wouldn’t be able to stop until I was screaming. Too much. The feelings weren’t about David, not really, they were about everything, about the Mark, about Bad Bob, about the helpless sick feeling that I was no longer in control of anything in my life.

I would not cry. Not for this. Not over him.

I ripped the tags off a fresh pair of panties and dressed in my stretch lace shirt and purple velvet. I was going to be defiantly, look-what-you’re-missing-you-asshole gorgeous. I spent time in the bathroom on hair and makeup, and when I was done, it wasn’t like Vogue would be banging down the door, but I looked yummy enough to turn heads. And my hands were almost steady again.

I didn’t have a lot to pack, just the one duffel bag. I jammed things in, zipped it, and was ready to go. I yanked open the door and started to leave, but something stopped me.

The room still felt like David. Still smelled like him. I couldn’t shake the feeling, even though I knew it was crap, that he was still in there somewhere, just out of sight, hiding. But there was no place to hide, and no matter how much of a practical joker he might be, this joke just wasn’t funny.

I’d been intending to slam the door, but instead I closed it quietly, the way David must have when he left me alone with my dreams.

Pretty Miss Delilah glinted and glittered in the parking lot. I unlocked the driver’s side and tossed my duffel in the back and thought about breakfast. I could, I decided, have breakfast, since my stomach was rumbling like an unexploded volcano. And coffee. Thick truck-stop coffee that was more like day-old espresso.

I needed something to live for.

Waffles sounded like as good a place to start as any.

The Waffle House came in the usual yellow, brown, and orange color scheme, bringing back all that nostalgia for avocado appliances and rust-colored shag carpeting from my childhood. I suppose the fact they were still stuck in the 70s was lucky, all things considered, since their prices shared the same time warp. I ordered a large pecan waffle with powdered sugar and crispy bacon. The waitress poured me a gallon-size cup of generic black caffeine. I fiddled with silverware until the food arrived, then gulped down juicy syrup-rich bites, alternating with crunchy bacon nibbles, until I felt better about my world and David’s absence from it.

Business was sparse. Just me and four tired-looking men all in grimy baseball caps, sporting the bouncy physique of guys who spent most of their time driving and eating Ho Hos. Everybody had coffee, straight up, nothing froufrou like latte or decaf; we were all here for the straight stuff, mainlined in big chunky ceramic mugs.

Three extra-large cups later, I was ready to rock ‘n’ roll. I paid the tab to the ancient cashier and turned to look out the big picture windows. In between Day-Glo advertisements for the manager’s specials, I saw that the storm was crawling closer. Not hell-driven, but making a pretty good clip. Still, not a problem yet. I could still outrun it. I didn’t want to do any manipulation; too much risk of discovery by either my secret stalking enemy or the Association, and I wasn’t so sure which, at this point, would be worse. Paul’s tolerance had probably expired at about the point his time limit had clicked off. By now, every Warden in the country might be looking out for me.

As I shoved my wallet back in my pocket, I accidentally knocked over a saltshaker sitting on the counter. The silver top spiraled off, made loopy progress to the edge, and spun in a circle.

I hardly noticed, because of the interesting thing the spilled salt was doing.

It was… talking.

It mounded itself into little white salty letters, which said, Joanne.

I looked around. The cashier had moved on; the waitresses were all making rounds with coffeepots. Just me and the talking salt.

“Um… yeah?” I asked tentatively.

The salt dissolved into a flat white heap again, then scattered wider over the counter. More words. These said, South 25 mi, L on Iron Road.

My heart started pounding harder. I stared at it and finally whispered, “Is this Lewis?”

A pause. The salt wiped itself into one snowy drift, then scattered back out across the faux-wood counter.

Ya think?

“Very funny. I have to get condiments with a sense of humor. Salt was, technically, of the earth…. Lewis would be able to control it. In fact, in a place as generally unnatural as this, it might very well be the only thing he could control enough to get his point across. I was just happy he hadn’t tried to spell out things in runny egg yolks.

Got your attention? the salt asked. Not only arrogant, but pushy, too.

“South twenty-five miles, left on Iron Road,” I repeated. “Got it.” I took in a deep breath and blew it out, scattering the words into tiny white random grains.

It didn’t seem to like that, and sucked itself up into a pile, then flattened out again. A moving finger wrote one word: Good.

It then made a little white smiley-face that immediately blew into randomized scatter as a waitress marched up, tsked the mess, and wiped the spill up with a damp cloth.

“You okay?” I must have had a bizarre look; she was staring at me.

“I’m talking to salt,” I said numbly. “What do you think?”

She shrugged and kept on wiping up. “Missy, I think you should’ve probably gone with the decaf.”

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