We stared into the gloom. Darkness and silence.
Someone had taken out our mark with a crossbow bolt. Could have taken us out, as well. We had stood by the body for at least four seconds. More than enough time to squeeze off two shots. I touched Jim and touched my nose. He shook his head. With all the sulfur in the air he probably couldn't smell a skunk if it sprayed him in the face. I lay very still and tried to breathe quietly. Listening was our best bet.
A minute dragged by, long, viscous, and silent. Very slowly Jim shifted into a crouch and nodded to the left. I had a vague feeling the door lay to the right, but in the darkness with some unknown crossbowman waiting, I would trust Jim's senses over mine.
Jim grasped Jeremy's corpse, slung it over his shoulder, and we took off, bending low, running fast, him ahead and me, half-blind in the gloom, slightly behind. Concrete supports flashed by, one, two, three, four. The tech hit, and before I could put down my raised foot, the magic drained from the world, leaving the battered technology in its wake. The fluorescent lamps in the ceiling blinked and snapped into life with a buzz, bathing the garage in a weak man-made glow. The black rectangle of the exit gaped ten feet before us. Jim dived into it. I lunged to the left, behind the nearest support. The salamander in the globe stopped glowing and went to sleep, looking like a harmless black lizard. My long-range weapon was tuckered out.
I set it down on the floor and slid Slayer from its sheath. Salamanders are overrated anyway.
"He's gone," Jim said from the doorway and pointed behind me.
I turned. Far at the back, the concrete wall had crumbled, revealing a narrow passageway probably leading up to the street. He was right. If the bowman wanted to take us out, he had had plenty of time to do it.
"So he sniped our mark and left?"
"Looks that way."
"I don't get it."
Jim shook his head. "Weird shit always happens around you."
"This was your gig, not mine."
A shower of sparks fell from above the door and a green EXIT sign burst into life.
Jim stared at it for a moment, his features twisted in a distinctly feline expression, disgust and fatalism rolled into one, and shook his head again.
"Dibs on the bolt in his back!" I called.
"Be my guest."
Jim's pager went off. He checked it and a familiar neutral mask slid onto his face.
"Oh no, you don't! I can't carry him by myself."
"Pack business." He headed for the exit.
I killed the urge to throw something at the empty doorway. Served me right for taking a job with a guy who served on the Pack Council. It's not that Jim was a bad friend. It's just that for shapeshifters, Pack business always took precedence. On a scale from one to ten, the Pack was eleven and everything else a one.
I stared at a very dead Jeremy lying like a sack of potatoes on the floor. Probably a hundred and fifty pounds, dead weight. There was no way I could carry him and the salamander at the same time. There was no way I could leave the salamander unattended, either. The magic could hit anytime, setting the little lizard ablaze. Plus, the sniper might still be around. I needed to get out of here, and fast.
Jeremy and the salamander, each worth four grand. I no longer did a lot of work for the Guild, and gigs of this size didn't come my way too often. Even split in half with Jim, the bounty would cover my two mortgages for two months. The thought of leaving four grand on the floor made me physically ill.
I looked at Jeremy. I looked at the salamander. Choices, choices.
THE MERCENARY GUILD'S BOUNTY CLERK, A SHORT, trim, dark-haired man, stared at Jeremy's head on the counter. "Where is the rest of him?"
"I had a slight logistics problem."
The clerk's face split in a wide smile. "Jim took off on you, didn't he? That will be one capture ticket then?"
"Two tickets." Jim might be an asshole, but I wouldn't screw him out of his share. He'd get his capture ticket, which entitled him to his half of the bounty.
"Kate, you're a pushover," the clerk said.
I leaned over the counter and offered him my best deranged smile. "Wanna push and see if I fall over?"
"No thanks." The clerk slapped the stack of forms on the counter. "Fill these out."
The inch-thick stack of paperwork promised to occupy me for a good hour. The Guild had pretty lax rules - being an organization of mercenaries, they took keen interest in profit and little else - but death had to be reported to the cops and thus required red tape. The small significance of Jeremy's life was reduced to the price on his head and a lot of carefully framed blank spaces on a piece of paper.
I gave the top form the evil eye. "I don't have to fill out the R20."
"That's right, you work with the Order now." The clerk counted off eight pages from the top of the stack. "There you go, VIP treatment for you."
"Yipee." I swiped my stack.
"Hey, Kate, let me ask you something."
I wanted to fill out my forms, go home, and take a nap. "Shoot."
He reached under the counter. The Mercenary Guild occupied an old Sheraton Hotel on the edge of Buckhead and the clerk's counter had been a lobby bar in that previous life. The clerk pulled out a dark brown bottle and set it in front of me with a shot glass.
"Why, no, I won't drink your mysterious love potion."
He guffawed. "Hennessy. The good stuff. I'll pay for the info."
"Thanks, but I don't drink." Not anymore, anyway. I still kept a bottle of Boone's Farm sangria in my cabinet for a dire emergency, but hard liquor was right out. "What's your question?"
"What's it like to work for the Order?"
"Thinking of joining?"
"No, I'm happy where I'm at. But I've got a nephew. He wants to be a knight."
Perfect. The Order liked them young. All the easier to brainwash. I pulled up a chair. "I'd take a glass of water."
He brought me water and I sipped it. "Basically the Order does the same thing we do: they clear magic hazmat. Let's say you've got a harpy in a tree after a magic wave. You're going to call the cops first."
"If you're stupid." The clerk smirked.
I shrugged. "The cops tell you that they're busy with a giant worm trying to swallow the federal courthouse, instruct you to stay away from the harpy, and tell you they'll come out when they can. The usual. So you call the Guild. Why wait, when for three hundred bucks a couple of mercs will bag the harpy with no fuss and even give your kid a pretty tail feather for his hat, right?"