In the middle of a copse of trees, bordered on one side behind her by a dry creek bed and on the other in front of her by a low stone wall covered with moss and bird shit, Wren Valere crouched, her backside an inch off the leaf-strewn ground, her palms resting on her knees, and her knees complaining about the whole situation. She was tired, sweaty and pissed-off at the universe in general and one person in particular.
"Annoying, ignorant woman," she scolded that person, hidden inside the house on the other side of that wall. "You couldn't have taken the kid to Boston, or Philadelphia, or somewhere semicivilized? No, you had to go all bucolic and pastoral and
leafy." Wren reached up to pull another twig out of her braid, and wiped sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. It was a lovely, autumn-crisp day, pale blue skies overhead, and she was sure that there were hundreds of people driving up and down the winding county road a few miles back for the sole purpose of enjoying the scarlet-and-orange display of the maples and oaks and whatever else those trees were. More power to them.
Wren Valere was not a nature girl. The leaves were pretty, and she was glad it was a nice day, but she wanted to be home, on concrete and steel, surrounded by the familiar and comforting hum of current running through the city. Home was Manhattan, where magic fed on and was fed by the torrents of electricity running in the city's veins. A Talent like hera current-mage, a practitioner of modern magicshad no business being out here in the woods, miles from anything more powerful than a solar powered bug-zapper.Genevieve, you're exaggerating,
she heard her mother's voice say, exasperated. All right, she admitted that she might be overstating things slightly. It still felt like middle-of-no-wheresville to her: too quiet, too green and too still, electrically speaking.
The thought made her reach instinctively, a mental touch stroking the core of current nestled inside her, deep in a non-existent-to-X-rays cavity somewhere in her gut, just to make sure it was still there. Like a bank, you could overdraw and forget to refill, and even though she knew
she had enough in there, it was a nervous twitch, obsessive-compulsive, to make sure, and then make sure again.
Current was similar tobut not quite identical tothe electrical energy the modern world had harnessed to do its bidding. They were, so far as anyone could determine, generated off the same sources, and appeared in the same natural and man-made situations, but with a vastly different result when channeled by their natural conductors. Metal, in the case of electricity: Talent, in the case of current.
The more abstract and technical distinctions between current and electricity were lost on most of the Cosa Nostradamus,
the worldwide magical community, except those very few who made an actual study of it.
Wren wasn't one of those few. She wasn't an academic; she was a Retriever. She came, she stole, she went home, with no interest in the whys, so long as it worked. Although she freely admitted that the feeling of it simmering inside was nice, too. Some Talent described their internal core of magic, the power they carried with them at all times, as a pool of potent liquid, or birds flocking together, their feathers rustling with power. For her, it was a pit of serpents, thick-muscled neon beasts sliding and slithering against each other. The touch filled her with a quiet satisfaction, a sense of power resting under her skin, ready if she needed it.
Reassured, she moved forward through the trees, only to be pulled up short by something tugging on her braid, before realizing that it wasn't an attackor at least, not one she needed to worry about.
Reaching back, Wren removed her braid from the grasp of a branch and scowled at it, as though it alone were responsible for her bad mood. "I hate camping. I hate bugs. I hate trees."
She didn't really hate treesRorani, one of her oldest friends, was a dryad in fact, which made her an actual, honest-to-God tree hugger. Wren had never needed to go camping to know how she felt about it. She preferred luxury hotels to sleeping on the ground.
She did hate bugs, though. Wren grimaced, and reached a hand down the back of her outfit, scratching at something irritating her skin. She pulled her hand away and made a face, shaking the remains of the unidentifiable insect off her fingers. She especially hated bugs that kept trying to crawl under the fabric of her slicks to reach the bare skin underneath.
"Ugh." She wiped her fingers on the grass. "Next job? High-rise. Climate controlled. Coffee shop on the corner." She kept her voice low, more from habit than belief that there was anyone around to hear her. "God, I'd kill for a cup of halfway decent coffee
She really shouldn't be in a bad mood at all, even with bugs and twigs. Coffee and the rest of civilization would be waiting for her when she got home, same as always. This was just a job, and it would be over soon. And money in the bank made every job better, in retrospect.
Tugging the hood of her formfitting black bodysuit over her ears, making sure that the braid was now tucked comfortably inside the fabric, Wren kept crawling forward until she reached a low hedge of some prickly-leaved bushes. Rising up to her knees, she scowled over the shrubbery at the perfectly lovely little cottage on the other side of nowhere.
All right, she told herself, enough with the griping and the moaning. Showtime.
She let herself reassess the scenario, just to get the brain in the right place. The area was on the grid. She could feel the quiet hum of electrical wiresman-made poweroverhead, not far away. There wasn't a lot, but if she suddenly had a need it was there to draw down on. Comforting. And the house wasn't totally isolateddespite the screen of trees, a half-hour hike would bring her back to the highway, and it was probably only a few minutes' drive from the front door to the nearest coffee joint. If, of course, you had a car.
The job had specified no traces, though, which meant that renting a car, even using one of her many fake IDs, was out. Frustrating, but manageable. The client was paying large sums for this to be a spotless, trouble-free Retrieval, and that was what The Wren would deliver. No muss, no fuss, no anything the courts could use at a later date against the client. Everything had to be perfect.
It was more than just ego at stake, that perfection, although she was always about that. This particular job had come to Sergei, her partner/business manager, not through the usual route of the Cosa Nostradamus
or his art world contacts, but through a retired NYC cop now living upstate, a guy named McKierney who moonlighted as a bounty hunter. The client had gone to him originally, but this kind of grab wasn't McKierney's scene. He had heard about The Wren through his own contacts, and had given the client her name and Sergei's contact number as the go-to girl for this particular job.
She didn't get many jobs out of the urban areas, where most of the Cosa
congregated. A satisfied client here, among human Nulls, could open up a whole new market for her, and there was no way she was going to give less than everything to it, even if it involved trees and bugs and crawling around in the dirt. Sergei had drummed that career advice into her head years ago: you never knew when the next client was going to be the million-dollar meal ticket.
Yeah, the job stank, on a bunch of levels. Moneyand clients with moneygot her into a lot of situations she didn't enjoy. But this job had something even better than money to offer: there was absolutely no stink of magic to the Retrieval. After spending a year of their lives immersed in a literal life-and-death struggle, when what seemed like half the city suddenly set out to wipe the streets clear of anything that looked as though it might be magical, and then having to give over another nine months to the job of cleaning up the aftermathand getting her own life back into some kind of order Wren was more than ready for something distinctly unmagical. Even a be-damned custodial he-said-she-said, with a four-year-old kid as the prize.
That was the job she was on, right now. Mommy had grabbed the kid and run. Wren was here to Retrieve him for Daddy, who was the client.
Wren shifted on her haunches, still feeling the creepy-crawling sensation of bug legs on her skin. That was the real reason she was griping, not the green leafy buggy nature thing. Live Retrievals were a bitch. She'd only done two before, and both of them had involved adults. One she'd been able to reason with, the other she'd had Sergei along to help conk the target over the head when the reasoning didn't work.
She steadfastly didn't think of the third live Retrieval she had done. That had been different. That
hadn't been her, entirely.Hadn't it?
Nobody had judged. Nobody had said anything after, except thank you. She had restored a dozen teenagers to their family, broken the spine of the anti-Cosa
organization, the Silence. But Wren didn't list that Retrieval in her nonexistent CV. She didn't talk about it. She tried not to remember anything about it, the hours of cold rage and hot current spinning her out of control, making herfor the second time in her lifeinto a killer, however justified those deaths were, to save the lives of others. No matter that she hadn't been entirely sane at the time.
Inanimate things were easier to Retrieve, every way up and down. Adult live retrievals were bad enough: seriously tough to stash a four-year-old in your knapsack. They tended to squirm.
the challenge was irresistible. The benefits for a job well done were deeply rewarding. So here she was.
Wren didn't let herself think about the morality of the Retrieval, either way. If possession was ni...