The Clerk of the Mercenary Guild waved me over to his counter. Eight years had passed, and he looked exactly the same, as if I had seen him yesterday. Average height, average build, tan skin, brown hair, perpetually around forty-five. He looked like a seasoned bartender, calm, reserved, and ready to whip out the shotgun from under the counter and blast whatever broke through the Guild’s huge metal doors.
Nobody remembered his name. He was just the Clerk, in charge of assigning gigs, tracking down mercs when special jobs came in for them, and handling other mundane admin tasks. He had always been there, and he always would be.
The Clerk saw Monkey holding my hand and smiled. Monkey smiled back. For a little kid, Monkey was very aware of her cuteness and she weaponized it. On our way here, I’d stopped at the 75 Market and bought her three changes of clothes, toiletries, and a backpack. Somehow, she ended up with a small bag of candy, a strip of jerky, and a peach, all freely gifted by the stall keepers. If she’d been allowed access to the market, she wouldn’t be this thin, but normally the market security chased street kids out. My presence validated hers, and my face smoothed away any doubts anyone might have had. Fucked up, but true.
“How can we help you?” the Clerk asked.
“My name is Aurelia Ryder. I’d like to see Barabas Gilliam.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No, but I have money.”
The Clerk nodded. “Let me see what I can do.”
I stepped back a bit. The Clerk lifted the phone, spoke into it, and waved us over again.
“He’ll see you in about fifteen minutes, if you don’t mind waiting.”
“We don’t mind.”
Monkey and I walked to a client reception area to the left and slightly in front of the Clerk’s counter, where several padded chairs were arranged in a horseshoe around a coffee table. From his counter, the Clerk could keep an eye on us and on the front doors.
In its previous incarnation, the Guild used to be a luxury Buckhead hotel, a hollow tower with an atrium in its center. The top of the tower had broken off long ago, gnawed to a nub by magic and then pummeled by a giant. The renovations had stabilized the building, but the height was capped at five floors. Anything taller and you risked magic damage. Now the former hotel served as a base for about three hundred mercenaries, housing an armory, containment cells, storage, barracks, a sick bay, and everything else muscle for hire might need.
Behind us, a food court occupied a good chunk of the floor. Several rough looking people ate at the tables, some alone, some in groups. The air smelled like fresh bread, cooked meat, and strong coffee. That was the first thing Dad did when he took over the Guild – he fixed the food.
Monkey sniffed. “Smells yummy.”
“I thought your tummy hurt?”
“It’s all better now.”
Stella was right. This girl was a bottomless pit.
We waited. Barabas occupied a large office on our left, behind a glass wall. Normally the door was open, and you could see him working at his desk through the glass. Today the plantation shutters behind the glass blocked the view and his door was closed. He must have wanted privacy.
Nobody bothered us. The mercs kept to themselves. They teamed up for larger jobs, but most of them were lone wolf types. They handled jobs the cops wouldn’t or couldn’t, anything from hostile magic hazmat removal to bodyguard detail and armed escort. They drew the line at murder for hire and generally tended to stay on the good side of the law, but aside from that, any job was fair game if it paid enough.
I casually glanced at the exposed ceiling beams high above us. Empty.
The door of Barabas’ office swung open slightly, as someone paused with one hand on the door handle. A low male laugh, a deep grumble, came from the gap.
I swept Monkey into my arms and made a beeline for the women’s restroom. Behind me the door swung open with a faint creak. Don’t run, don’t run, don’t run… Dad was a cat. If I ran, he would notice.
I pushed the restroom door open and we ducked inside. I leaned against the door and braced myself. A long moment passed. Another…
Monkey blinked at me and said in a hushed voice. “Why are we hiding in the bathroom?”
“We are not hiding. We’re executing an evasive maneuver.”
“Because it’s to our strategic advantage.”
Excited voices came muffled through the door. Dad laughed again. It was taking every iota of my willpower to keep the door closed. He wouldn’t recognize me. Of course, he wouldn’t. But if he did, I would have a lot of questions to answer. I wasn’t sure I could lie to Dad, and if I tried, he would probably know.
The voices receded. Someone yelled, “And stay out, you beach bum!” More laughter followed. Finally, it died down.
I waited another half a minute and came out of the bathroom. Barabas’ door was open. The shutters were up, and I saw him sitting at his desk, his blazing red hair standing on end like hedgehog needles.
“He’ll see you now,” the Clerk called.
I waked into Barabas’ office, set Monkey into one of the two client chairs, and took the other.
Barabas looked up. He had an agile face with angular features and sharp, smart green eyes. His skin, so pale it was a wonder he didn’t glow at night, resisted a sunburn with the power only Lyc-V, the shapershifter virus, could achieve. He wore a suit despite the heat, but he’d taken the jacket off and rolled up the sleeves of his blue dress shirt, exposing lean muscular forearms. He hadn’t changed either.
Don’t hold your breath. Act natural. You don’t smell the same.
Barabas studied me and Monkey. “What can I do for you?”
I put a narrow gold bar on his desk. It was about the length of my finger, half inch wide and half an inch tall.
Barabas’ eyebrows crept up. He picked up his phone. “Charles, I need you for a second.”
A moment later, an older Hispanic man walked through the door. He picked up the bar, looked closely at it, and put it down. “Real.”
Barabas nodded and Charles left without another word.
The guildmaster steepled his fingers in front of him. “The Guild is at your disposal.”
For twenty grand, it better be. “This is Monkey.”
Barabas held out his hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Monkey. I’m Barabas Gilliam. I run the Guild.”
Monkey gave him a little wave but kept her hands to herself.
“Monkey is a street kid,” I told him. “She doesn’t trust anyone, especially male adults.”
“A good policy.” Barabas leaned back in his chair.
“I need you to guard her.”
“Do you have any legal authority over this child?”
I knew this was coming. Before taking charge of the Guild, Barabas had been a Pack lawyer. “No. However, she has no living relatives. She is an orphan living on the street. I didn’t kidnap her.”
Barabas turned to Monkey. “Are you an orphan?”
“She’s a witness to a murder.” Technically that wasn’t true but explaining the details would take a while and Barabas didn’t need to know them. “Violent people are looking for her.”
“How long do you expect her to require protection?”
Barabas glanced at the gold bar. “You’re overpaying by at least a half, possibly more.”
“I think you misunderstood. I want you to guard her. You, personally, or …”
Shit. I wasn’t on a first name basis with either of them, and Barabas and Christopher got married after I left. Who took whose last name? Was it Christopher Gilliam, Christopher Steed, or Christopher Gilliam-Steed? Or Christopher Steed-Gilliam? If I said the wrong thing, it would mean I knew them before they got married. Barabas would never let that slide.
“… a member of your family.” Yes! Dodged that bullet. “Hence, the higher fee. Should she require protection after one week, I’ll return with a similar payment.”
It would put a dent in my immediate funds, but it was worth it.
“What if you don’t come back?”
“Then I expect you to do what you feel is right. You have a reputation as an ethical man.”
Barabas pondered the gold, glanced at Monkey, and looked back at me. “Very well. I have just the person.” He raised his voice slightly. “Sophia!”
Monkey eyed him.
The door swung open, and a teenage girl walked in, with a backpack hanging off one shoulder. She looked about fourteen, athletic build, dressed in shorts and a tank top. A pair of ruby red sunglasses perched on her head. Her hair, pulled back into a short ponytail, was the lightest shade of platinum blonde. Barabas was pale, but she was porcelain white, and her eyes, fringed by white eyelashes, had an odd lavender tint. An albino.
“This is my daughter, Sophia,” Barabas said.
Barabas had a daughter? And Conlan hadn’t told me?
“Pleased to meet you,” Sophia said.
“She is a member of my family and she is uniquely qualified for this assignment.”
A red sheen rolled over Sophia’s eyes, and for a second, I saw an outline of a long horizontal pupil before it contracted into a human round shape. A weremongoose. Like Barabas.
Albinism in humans was rare, roughly one in seventeen thousand. In mammals it occurred slightly more often, about one in ten thousand. Albinism in shapeshifters didn’t exist. Albinos carried a higher risk of sunburn and skin cancer, and the lack of eye pigmentation sometimes caused vision problems that required corrective surgery. It was theorized that Lyc-V removed albinism in the womb, though there was no consensus on how exactly it did that. I had seen thousands of shapeshifters. Not a single albino among them.
There was only one way for Sophia to exist, and that way was very illegal. Barabas knew that better than anyone. What did you and Christopher do and how in the world did you get away with it?
“Qualified for what?” Sophia asked.
“Bodyguard detail, twenty-four seven, one week,” Barabas said.
“Pay and a half.”
“Situational, depending on the level of the threat.”
Sophia narrowed her eyes. “I want it in writing, with the hazard bonus scale specified.”
“Done,” Barabas said.
Dear gods, he’d made a small female version of himself.
Sophia smiled. “Who will I be guarding?”
“Me,” Monkey said.
“Hi. I’m Sophia.” Barabas’ daughter held out her hand.
Monkey shook it. “Hi. I’m Monkey. What’s in your bag?”
“What’s a nagaina?” Monkey asked.
Sophia slid her hand into the backpack and pulled out a cobra. Huge and black, it wrapped around her arm and reared up, displaying a bright yellow chest. Monkey froze.
“Sophia, you’re scaring the client,” Barabas said.
“Don’t worry. She’s an Egyptian cobra. They’re pretty docile and they don’t spit venom.” Sophia smiled. “And they don’t eat monkeys.”
She slid the snake back into the bag.
“Are you sure about this?” I asked Barabas.
“Quite. Sophia has a lot of experience, despite her age, and Monkey will be more comfortable with her.”
“This won’t be a peaceful assignment. They will both be in danger.”
“And that’s precisely why Sophia would be an excellent fit.” Barabas smiled, a sharp, controlled baring of his teeth. “She can dedicate herself to this assignment completely. During the day, they will be here, at the Guild. During the night, they will be at our home. If problems arise, my husband and I will handle them. Additionally, we live in a unique community. I assure you, it’s quite safe.”
I bet. “It’s essential that nobody interrogates her about the murder, including Ascanio Ferrara.”
Sophia cracked her knuckles. “Oh, that won’t be a problem.”
Conlan hated Ascanio, and now Sophia wasn’t a fan either. He sure had a way with children.
“Does the Pack have an interest in this case?” Barabas asked.
“I don’t know yet. However, Mr. Ferrara definitely does. Is that a problem?”
“Not at all,” Barabas said. “We do not fall under the Pack’s authority.”
“Great. Here are her clothes and toiletries.” I passed the bag to Barabas. “The fee should cover her food, but please make sure she eats something besides cookies.”
Barabas nodded. “That won’t be a problem.”
“Do you like honey muffins?” Sophia asked Monkey.
Monkey’s eyes lit up. “Are they yummy?”
“Then I like them.”
“I have some in my office.” Sophia held out her hand.
Monkey jumped off her chair, winked at me, and took Sophia’s hand. They walked out of the office.
That wink spelled trouble.
“She is very good at escaping,” I said.
“Sophia is very good at preventing escapes. I promise you, Ms. Ryder, she will be treated well, she will be bathed, fed, and tucked into bed at night, and most of all, she will be under constant supervision.”
I had a nagging feeling he would eat those words, but there was nothing else I could do. I had given all the warnings I could give. I hired them to do a job and I had to let them do it.