I saw him across the crowded room. He was standing behind a couple of werewolves and a large troll. One of the Weres was knocking snow off his boots while the other attempted to hand his overcoat to the troll, who was serving as greeter. Since in troll terms that involved stomping on potential troublemakers before they got in the door, then throwing them out on their asses, he wasn't getting very far. The Weres finally figured that out and walked away grumbling.
The other new arrival kept his floor-length cloak on. Of course, he probably had more than one reason for that. The hood was up, so I couldn't see his face, but from underneath the cape spilled a faint nimbus of gold. There aren't too many creatures who cast light shadows, and of those, only one would have any reason to be visiting Brooklyn's seediest occult auction house.
He wasn't here to shop. He was here for me.
I whirled and started for the door to the employees-only area, but a large body in a too-small tux blocked my way. "Claire."
"Matt." I tried to move around him, but he managed to entirely fill the doorway. If he ever stopped those compulsive gym visits, he'd have to start edging in sideways.
"Where do you think you're going?" The soprano voice out of the gorilla-size chest was always a surprise.
"To the bathroom. My contacts are killing me."
Matt fished my glasses off the top of my head and settled them on my nose. "Suffering builds character."
"I have enough character, thanks." I glanced back over my shoulder. "Matt, please! I need to - "
"Start earning your paycheck, I agree." His small brown eyes flickered here and there nervously as if he knew trouble was about to break out, but wasn't sure of the direction. Considering what was up for sale tonight, he was probably right. "I'd feel better having you closer than the back rooms. We got a lot of volatile stuff here."
I wondered if he meant the customers or the merchandise. Either way, I couldn't appeal to a higher power. Despite the overuse of steroids and the bad crew cut, Matt wasn't a bouncer in a dive on the wrong side of town. He was old man Gerald's darling only son and, since his dad was away on a buying trip, my boss.
"Anything goes nuts and my ass is grass. Dad'll have me cleaning the stockroom for the next decade, and who's gonna pay you under the table then?"
I had a good comeback about just how little he paid me, but it died on my lips. The sight of the gray cloak weaving its way across the room occupied all my attention. There was nothing menacing about it, unless you knew what was underneath.
Except for the fact that it was coming straight at me.
I let Matt maneuver me to the front of the main salon, since his bulk insured that we'd move faster through the crush of bodies than I could have alone. We stopped in front of a semicircle of marble plinths that held the evening's wares. None of tonight's items had been available for preview, which explained the pre-auction crowd. Some were of dubious origin and I don't think Gerald had wanted anyone to examine them too closely before the sale. But others were simply too dangerous to have on display without a major safety precaution. Unfortunately for my plans to cut and run, that happened to be me.
Matt positioned me at center stage, up a short flight of steps from the throng of customers. There had been quite a few people on the platform, despite the attempts of the two trolls stationed at each end to keep it clear. The trolls didn't look happy. They were under orders not to break anyone in two or crack any heads open, which kind of limited their persuasive abilities. But, as usual, my appearance cleared the place faster than a gas leak.
"That's better." Matt surveyed the empty platform with satisfaction.
"You could put up the wards," I pointed out desperately. The plinths were usually surrounded by magical shields, only they don't work so well with me around.
"I don't trust the wards, especially not tonight," Matt said irritably. "What's the matter with you?" His tiny eyes scanned the salon, but there were too many people - and assorted other things - in the way for him to notice my particular problem. And I wasn't planning to tell him. He only paid me a fraction of what I was worth, but a fraction is better than nothing. And until I sorted out some personal issues, this was the only income I had. Freaking Matt out would be extremely bad for my dwindling bank account. And maybe I was wrong. Maybe a Lord of the Light Fey was suddenly interested in acquiring a moldy old talisman of dubious provenance, for which he'd be expected to pay a premium price.
"Okay, then." Matt did one more scan of the room. "I need to keep an eye on the Weres. You think you can manage to stand here and stay out of trouble?"
"Well... I can stand here." I didn't have much choice considering that the Fey was between me and the exits.
Matt rolled his eyes and moved off to crowd the two werewolves. I thought that was less than smart. It was another week until the full moon, but they were already vibrating with repressed energy and spoiling for a fight. But it was his call, and I had my own problems: while I'd been distracted, the Fey had disappeared.
I thought for a second that I spotted him trying to meld with the shadows in a corner, but a second glance told me that it was only one of the banshees that the house used as security alarms. I scanned the room again, but it was no use. The Fey was simply gone, and I didn't intend to wait around for him to show up. For once, Matt was going to have to make do without me.
I turned on my heel and pelted down the back stairs of the platform, intending to try for the fire exit, but something was in my way. I crashed into a broad, hard chest, and would have gone sprawling if someone hadn't caught my shoulder. My glasses fell to the tip of my nose and a hand pushed them back up. A very attractive hand, I noticed as sight returned, strong and sun-bronzed. It was attached to an equally beautiful arm, all slender muscles under a silken sleeve, and led to a very handsome face. A face with a slight smile curving its sensual lips and an amused glint in eyes the color of a glacier's heart - a pure, crystalline blue.
He stood at the bottom of the stairs, but I still had to look up to meet those eyes. That wouldn't have been true for many men - I'm almost six feet tall - and the step I was balancing on added another few inches. But then, he wasn't a man.
The Fey looked me over as he set me back on my feet. Despite my best efforts, his nearness made me shiver and a broader smile broke over his face. I adjusted a strap on my dress and tried not to let my panic show. Gerald & Company requires formal dress for important sales as a way of letting potential buyers know in advance not to expect any bargains, and I'd thought I looked pretty good. My usually frizzy red mane had been tamed by almost an hour with a curling iron and my moss green gown, while not exactly couture, had once been expensive. Now I was wishing I'd blackened my front teeth or, better yet, called in sick.
"Do you know," he told me, a thread of delight running through his voice, "I'm beginning to think this evening might not be as dull as I'd imagined."
I told myself to pull back, to get some maneuvering room, but my body wasn't listening. There was no slowly building passion, no steadily mounting desire as might have been true with a handsome man. Instead, the attraction was instantaneous and so overwhelming that it left me light-headed. I simply wanted him, so much that I had to fight not to throw myself back into his arms.
Of all the things I hate about the Fey, number one is the way they make my body react. I first encountered them when I was sixteen. Father had invited a delegation to visit the family estate, and I was expected to help entertain. Instead, I dropped things all through dinner, unable to keep my mind on what I was doing with my body suddenly going haywire. Their leader had been especially unnerving, with ancient silver eyes and hair as bright as water in sunlight. I'd been fascinated by the way it cascaded over his shoulders, a platinum waterfall that carved tiny prisms from the light whenever he moved. But my admiration had faded fast when he turned to Father and, without altering the polite, bland expression he'd worn all evening, asked if perhaps I was ill, to be so clumsy. Father had laughed off the insult, but I'd been mortified.
Of course, if I'd known why they were there, I'd have shown up for dinner cross-eyed and twitching.
The Fey slid one hand around my waist, drawing me against a body that felt like sun-warmed steel. He used his free hand to produce the evening's catalogue from under the cloak and flipped it open. He perused a page, then looked down at me again. "You aren't listed."
"It's not surprising, considering the treaty," he continued. "When are we to have the pleasure of bidding on you?"
I could feel my cheeks flush, something that, with my complexion, was probably all too obvious. I closed my eyes and with a sudden movement, wrenched away. I smoothed my rumpled gown with slightly shaking hands and glared at him. "Bite me."
I caught a gleam in those odd eyes. "Right here?"
Of all the things I hate about the Fey, number two would definitely be their sense of humor.
Suddenly, anger started to override fear. I wasn't sixteen anymore, and Gerald & Company employed plenty of guards. Not that they'd bothered to furnish me with one - ordinarily, no magical creature wanted to get close enough to give me trouble - but there were more than enough posted around the room to deal with even a Fey. And considering how well the Dark and Light Fey got along, I thought the trolls might even thank me for the excuse.
I looked around for security, but they'd been distracted by the trouble Matt was having. I hadn't seen what started it, but one of the Weres had attacked the leader of the security team and seemed to be trying to gnaw through its knobby forearm. The troll looked at him in understandable bemusement - their skin is approximately the thickness of rawhide - then snapped his arm, throwing the Were across the room. He hit the far wall with an audible thump before slowly sliding to the floor, leaving a big red mark on the gold-embossed wallpaper.
One of the trolls who usually flanked the stage had moved to assist with the fight, and the other was too preoccupied to notice me. I dodged behind the old couple he was watching through narrow, beady eyes. They'd braved my presence to check out one of the items for sale - a small, gray rune stone sitting in solitary splendor on a black velvet cushion. It was the only thing on the plinth, so I assumed it had to be important, but the description in the catalogue had been unusually vague, just a photo and a date in the tenth century.
"I still say it's a fake," the woman sniffed.
"But what if it isn't?" The man looked at it longingly. "One of the Runes of Langgarn - "
The woman gave what could only be called a snort. "Gerald is bad enough, but I don't trust that son of his at all. I'm telling you, it's not real." She caught sight of me and the usual expression of distaste passed over her features before she could mask it. She nudged her companion. "Let's go."
He ignored her. He was staring at the rune almost as if hypnotized, and before I could stop him, he put out a hand as if to actually touch it. The banshee went off like a hundred police sirens, screeching an alarm that cut through every other sound like a knife. Red lights bathed the stage, and the man quickly found himself dangling from the hand of a very large troll.
"No touching!" the troll bellowed, giving him a little shake. It sent the man's head snapping back and forth hard enough to cause whiplash, but he never took his eyes off the stone. Not, that is, until the troll threw him over his shoulder and carted him off somewhere. The woman had already fled, leaving the platform clear again, except for me and the Fey.
It quickly became obvious that I was on my own. Except for me, Matt and the trolls, the only employees on duty that night were a cadre of vampires. They were on loan from Antonio, their master, a Philadelphia mob boss who was one of the business's shady backers. They were a cynical, vicious bunch who seemed to resent having to work for Gerald even more than I did. One was watching me now, a short, ugly brute with a smirk on his lopsided features. The only other time I'd seen him smile was when he "accidentally" smashed a troll into a brick wall with a five-ton forklift. I didn't bother to ask for his help.
Before I could come up with an alternative, a surprisingly calloused hand engulfed mine. The earlier shock of the Fey's touch was back, all the more powerful against my bare skin. The feeling was nothing like the electric tingle of being near a mage. The static surge when my power meets that of a strong magic user often hurts, especially if the mage in question is deliberately trying to test me. I didn't feel a challenge here, but he was definitely doing something.
Outwardly, it probably looked like he was merely standing there, holding my hand. But I could feel his power all around me, questing, searching, trying to discover my secrets. My anger returned big-time. He wanted to know my secret? I'd be happy to show him.
It felt very weird to deliberately call up my power. Normally, I spend my time tamping it down, trying not to drain every mage I meet. Even my work at Gerald's rarely requires an actual application of strength. Normally, the slight damping field I naturally exude is enough to calm down whatever trinket their scouts have dug up. But now I focused on the Fey's bright blue aura and pulled.
I tried again. Zilch. I stared at him in disbelief. I once had a mage tell me that I had no visible aura, just a black hole that radiated outward, trying to suck his magic away. He'd been drunk and none too happy with me at the time, so I'd never known if it was true, but magical creatures certainly acted like it. And that was when I wasn't trying.
"Interesting," the Fey murmured after a moment, drawing me closer. What felt like a metaphysical hand stroked down the length of my body, causing me to shudder. "I've never encountered anyone quite like you."
I could second that emotion. The Fey I'd met before hadn't been as susceptible to my abilities as mages, because their magic works differently from the human variety. But they had definitely felt something. So why didn't he?
"Let me go," I told him, suppressing another shiver. My body was trying to melt against him even as my brain was torn between panic and outrage. I don't think I sounded too convincing.
"Tell me what you are and I will. I like to know what I'm bidding on."
"I'm not part of the auction!"
I noticed that Matt had rounded up the Weres. The unconscious one had been tucked under a troll's huge arm, while the other was dangling from the creature's free hand by his collar. The Were's face was alarmingly red and his eyes were bulging, but they were a hardy breed. He'd get thrown out before he actually choked to death. Probably.
Matt gave me a thumbs-up signal from beside the door, and pointed at his watch. I nodded. It was almost showtime. "If you'll excuse me," I said stiffly, "I have a job to do."
"A job?" The Fey sounded like he didn't understand the term.
"Yes, a job. You know, work? For which I am paid?" After a pause, he released me and stepped back. The room was more than adequately heated, but I suddenly felt cold. I hit the button to start the night's events with a little more force than absolutely necessary.
The lights dimmed even further out on the floor, causing an upsurge in conversation, while those over the plinths glowed brighter. The Fey moved aside as the huge, dragon's-head podium rose out of the floor and into place. It was supposedly the real deal, killed, stuffed and mounted by Gerald's father - or so he claimed. Its fake glass eyes surveyed the room with their usual malevolence, its snout curled into an expression of disdain.
It didn't look like something that had been killed in the heat of battle to me. More likely, Gerald senior had caught it napping and lopped the head off before it was fully awake, assuming it wasn't a clever fake. Gerald's sold some genuinely valuable pieces, but caveat emptor was definitely the house motto. The general feeling was that anyone dumb enough to buy the magical equivalent of snake oil deserved what he got.
The Fey came around the side of the huge head. "You're part of the auction staff?" He sounded surprised. I suppose that was fair - Gerald wasn't in the habit of hiring people who couldn't take care of themselves, and I guess I looked fairly harmless.
Looks can be deceiving.
I waited until a crescendo of canned music and the automated voice-over announcing the imminent start of bidding ended. Then I pointed at the nearest plinth. "Do you know what that is?"
He surveyed the small, quivering box on top of the marble stand for a beat. "No."
"It's a djinn. A very old, very pissed off one. Gerald recently acquired it from the estate of the mage who trapped it. Only the spell he put on the container is deteriorating now that he's dead, and if it goes altogether before they can unload it, he's likely to take out half the block."
The box gave a leap as if it had heard me, and almost managed to jump off its plinth. I gingerly sat it back where it belonged, and it quieted down. For the moment.
"How does your presence prevent that?" the Fey asked, sounding bemused.
I stopped looking for the gavel, which Matt had mislaid somewhere as usual, to stare at him in surprise. "You don't know?"
"Why would I ask if I did?"
"I'm a projective null," I told him slowly. What possible reason could he have for faking ignorance? If he was here for me, he certainly knew what he was getting. And if he wasn't, why would he have come?
"You can block magic?" His expression suddenly became a lot more intense.
"For a certain radius. I'm here to make sure nothing blows up in a customer's face." I smiled at him sweetly. "At least, not before they can pay."
"How much of a radius?" His voice had lost its teasing tone, and was now all business.
I glared at him. I knew it. For all their magical strength, the Fey had never produced a null, a fact that seemed to rankle. They'd been looking for a way to add that particular gift to their magical arsenal for some time, but with so few nulls to choose from, and most of them too weak to do more than disrupt a ward now and then, their hunt had been frustrating. Until they found me.
Father's dinner guests had offered him a deal that he could have refused; instead, he jumped on it like a starving dog does a bone. It must have seemed perfect: a chance to get rid of an unwanted burden - and a constant reminder of his wife's preference for red hair - and get paid handsomely to boot. Too bad for him that I was tipped off. Great-Uncle Pip had always had a soft spot for the one person who didn't treat him like an idiot child. By the time the deal was finalized, he'd insured that I was nowhere to be found. And no one hides better than a null. The usual tracking spells are useless on us; we simply don't register, not even as a norm - and I can walk through most wards as if they aren't even there. The Fey did not take my disappearance well. The nobles who had intended to escort me into slavery in Faerie instead took back Father's head.
I pushed the memories away and pointed to a spot off the side of the stage. It was where the auction assistants usually stood to bring out new items for bidding. Since everything for sale tonight was already in place, no one was likely to be coming or going. "You can stand over there. We can talk after the sale." Assuming he could grab me before I managed to slip away in the mass exodus.
Matt lumbered up beside us. He was sweating despite the temperature, and his collar appeared to be eating into his thick neck. "Bidders aren't allowed on stage, sir," he told the Fey with fake bonhomie. "Perhaps you would like to take a place in front?"
"What I would like - " the Fey began, but I cut him off with a curse. For the second time that night, someone came through the main doors I really didn't want to see. In fact, I'd have preferred a whole room full of Fey to the sight of that narrow, smirking face.