A WEATHER WARDEN STORY
We were enjoying a rare day that did not include doom and apocalypse, and wonder of wonders, it was one of those balmy, beautiful early-summer days that reminded me why I lived in Florida.
It had been David’s idea to do a beach picnic, which, given the lovely, mild weather, was a fantastic idea, but it had been mine to take a drive. A nice long one, on winding roads, for the sheer pleasure of putting tires to asphalt and seeing the world. So we had compromised on a long drive followed by a beach picnic, which was a perfect thing to do on such a lovely day.
Me, I loved to get behind the wheel even more than the prospect of the beach itself. I especially loved to drive really good cars, and this one, a Viper, was right up there in my ranking of awesome rides. Not as sweet as my long-lost Mustang Mona, who’d been a casualty of life in the Weather Warden ranks, but still: nice, and powerful.
David had never said one way or another whether he liked cars, but I suspected he did. Although not much impresses a Djinn. This is an unalterable fact of the world: Djinn—or genies—have been around since the dawn of time, although some are certainly newer than others, and one thing they all share is a sense of historical perspective. By the time you get to your first few hundred years, much less few thousand, I suspect, the “been there, done that” feeling is overwhelming.
Which is why it seemed so unusual to hear my Djinn lover David let out a low whistle as I powered through a turn, and say, “That’s something you don’t see every day.”
I peeled my attention back from the curve and looked where he was looking. Just off the road, with the backdrop of the wetlands, was a mob of vehicles and people, and massive industrial video cameras—high-definition ones, I assumed. Everyone looked ridiculously casual in dress, and highly professional in what he or she was doing.
“Commercial shoot,” I said. It wasn’t that astonishing, in this part of the world. Everybody loved the colors and lifestyle here, and there were probably more still and video cameras clicking away here than anywhere else in the country, except Hollywood. And maybe New York City. “What’s so special…”
And then I saw it.
It was a silvery vision of a car, elegant as something designed by a classical sculptor. Michelangelo, maybe, if he’d worked in metal and sheer engine power. I instinctively took my foot off the gas, staring, because in all my extensive years of car fetishizing, I’d never actually seen anything that cool with my own eyes.
I pulled the Viper over to the side of the road, barely noticing the crunch of tires on gravel, and stared. My mouth was probably hanging open, too. Honestly, David was right—you just did not see that every day. Or, in fact, any day, unless you worked at an Italian car manufacturer, or had $1.7 million to throw around on a set of wheels. “That,” I said, “is a freaking Bugatti Veyron. In the Everglades.” It wasn’t the fastest car in the world—maybe number two?—but it was, to my mind, the most elegantly designed. And, not coincidentally, the most expensive.
David let out a little snort of laughter. “I wasn’t talking about the car,” he said. Well, of course he wasn’t, but I was still adjusting to the fact that there was a Bugatti Veyron sitting there, not twenty feet away from me. A couple of staffers for the shoot were polishing it with soft cloths, not that it needed the help to look its best. I blinked and tried to see what else was in the picture.
Ah. He was talking about the girl. The one in the bikini.
The one in the diamond bikini. Not a bikini with diamonds, not a blinged-out piece of spandex … an actual bikini, made of diamonds. Now that I’d noticed her, it was hard to see how I’d missed her in the first place—the glitter of all those facets was blinding. The girl wearing the thing was getting herself powdered—last-minute primping, just like the car—and she looked almost as sleek and expensive as what she was wearing, and what her backdrop would be. I presumed she was a world-class model, or she wouldn’t be here acting as the prop for all that loot. You didn’t go cheap on the talent in a thing like this.
I blinked as a cloud blotted out the sun. No, not a cloud … a shadow, and then a body, big enough to present a solid flesh barrier to me catching any more glimpses of car, girl, or diamonds. He was, unmistakably, security. I could cleverly discern this by reading the giant letters in white on his black T-shirt, which read SECURITY, but even had he been unlabeled, there would really have been no mistaking him for anything else. He was professional muscle; whether he took it to bodyguarding a star, bouncing a club, or donning an overdone belt as a pro wrestler, he’d made a career out of intimidation.
“Hi,” I said brightly. He scowled down at me from way, way up high. Tall, not only broadly built. “Just wanted to see what was going on.”
“Nothing, ma’am,” he said. “Move on, please.”
“I’m not in the way.” I had no real reason not to immediately put the Viper in gear and drive on, but I didn’t like being scowled at. Or ordered around. “That’s a Bugatti Veyron, right?”
“No idea. Move on.”
“Look—what’s your name?”
“Steve, I promise, I’m just looking. Give me a second and I’ll go.”
Instead, Steve took a step back and waved a hand, and from somewhere behind me, two uniformed Florida state troopers sauntered over, one on my side of the car, one on David’s. The saunter was deceptive, because I didn’t for a moment believe they were being relaxed about it. “Miss,” said the one who bent over on my side of the window. He had a thick Southern accent, a little too Southern for Florida. I was guessing he was a Georgia transplant. “You need to move along now, unless you’ve got a pass.”
David reached into the glove box and brought out something in an envelope, which he handed over without a word to the officer on his side of the car. The trooper unfolded the paper, read it, and said to his partner, “They’ve got a pass, Joe.”
“They do? Let me see that!”
The two passed the paper back and forth for a while, then huddled with the security guard, who came back and leaned in David’s window this time. David was noticeably not bothered or intimidated; he even looked amused, from the light glittering in his brown-bronze eyes. (He was trying to keep his Djinn side from showing, at least. Thankfully.)
“Where’d you get this?” Mr. Security demanded, flourishing the paper.
David jerked his chin at the model. “From her,” he said. “She’s my sister.”
“Your what?” As if no supermodel in the world had siblings, or parents, or any kind of family. Well, they did often look lab-grown, that was a true fact.
“Ask her,” David said, raising his eyebrows. The security dude stalked off, as much as someone so muscle-bound could effectively stalk, and arrived next to the diamond model. He bent over and spoke to her. She leaned past him, looking at David, and then smiled.
“David?” I asked, in a voice that was probably way too confused. “Who is that?”
He smiled, but didn’t answer. Annoying.
Security Steve was trudging his way back, and he looked … apologetic. Not that he had a very mobile sort of face, but I got the subtlety from the hangdog set of his slumped shoulders. He leaned in and said, in a much different kind of voice, “Sorry, sir. Didn’t know who you were. Miss, why don’t you park right over there, next to the director’s car? Miss Whitney wants to say hello.”
“Miss Whitney,” I repeated, and followed parking instructions as David continued with that Cheshire cat grin. “Do I even want to know how you’ve picked up a sudden sister named Miss Whitney?”
“The usual way,” he said. “At least, for me.”
“She’s Djinn,” I guessed. “New Djinn.”
“Not just new. She’s only a few years old. Generationally, she’s no older than you.”
Okay, that was bad news. Whitney was a Djinn—okay, fine, I’d stopped trying to figure out why David liked me better than hot immortal chicks that could move mountains and look any way he wanted them. But the fact was, she was actually my own age, and looked about ten years younger, and at least a dozen points hotter, which already sucked. She was also wearing a couple of million dollars of high-carat diamonds in a skimpy little outfit that left nothing at all to the imagination, not even how expert her bikini wax was.
And she had a cute, infectious smile. The bitch. Honestly, that was just taking it too far.
And she winked at me as we walked toward her; then she swigged some bottled water, and shooed away the two walking-shorts-wearing prettifiers who were hovering around her touching her up. “Well,” she said, with a distinct, low-pitched Southern drawl that made the trooper’s sound like he came from Nebraska. “If it isn’t Mr. Boss himself. Excuse me if I don’t kneel. I think this bikini might leave scars.”
David snorted, but he looked amused. “Whitney, what the hell is this?”
“Fun.” She shrugged a little, which woke a blinding flash of diamonds that must have been a menace to low-flying aircraft. “I get bored just being all-powerful. Can’t a girl have a little fun sometimes?” She must have learned the accent, I decided, from Gone with the Wind. “You’re just jealous ’cause you know this little thing wouldn’t fit you.”
She was saying it to David, but her eyes changed focus, shifting over to me on the last word. Ooooh. I felt the burn, and the shock of getting a Djinn stare at full strength. Whitney’s eyes were brilliant lavender blue, Liz Taylor’s eyes on crack, and there was a lazy mischief in them that reminded me of cats and mice and unfortunate endings for the rodent in the equation.
I put on my best shove-it smile and held out my hand. “Joanne Baldwin,” I said. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Only by rumor,” Whitney agreed languidly, without accepting my handshake. She held up her own and blew on the long, beautifully shaped nails. “Sorry. Polish is still wet.”
That was so lame an excuse that even David lost his smile. “Whit,” he said. “Play nice.”
“Or what, big daddy? You’ll spank me? Mmmmm.” Her tongue glided over her lower lip. Pure suggestion.
His eyes kindled in a hot bronze glow, trapping hers. “Whitney.”
She looked away, and for the first time, I saw a flicker of fear. “Sorry,” she said. “Didn’t mean to be rude.”
“Let’s try this again. What are you doing here?”
She trailed a fingertip over the diamond-set strap of her bikini top, and tapped one of the stones as she lifted her eyebrow. David let out an impatient breath and said, “You can make one. Don’t be stupid!”
“I can’t make one like this one. This one is perfect. You know how I feel about having something that’s perfect.” She licked her lips and glanced over at the car. “That’s perfect, too.”
David growled, low in his throat, in total frustration. “You will not steal anything, Whitney. I’ve told you before. You’re attracting attention with all this, and I won’t have it. Have your fun. Do your photos, and go quietly. I’m warning you.”
Whitney’s purple eyes narrowed, and she tossed her liquidly dark hair back over her shoulders. Its shine and bounce were perfection itself. She didn’t have to battle frizzy hair and uncontrollable curling. “You may be the big dog, David, but don’t you bite too hard. We both know I can give you a street fight if you want it.”
I had never heard anybody—except maybe Ashan, the leader of the other, older half of the Djinn, a right cold bastard—speak to David that way. When he talked, the New Djinn generally listened, and certainly obeyed when push came to shove.
But not this one.
David, though, wasn’t having any nonsense. He smiled. It wasn’t a pretty smile, and it reminded me that as much as I adored him, as much as he was all the good things that a Djinn could be, he had a dark streak. They all did. And his wasn’t small, just deeply buried and tightly leashed. “Don’t push me,” he said. “Or I’ll break you. For good.”
Whitney flipped him off, drained the rest of her bottled water, and tossed the empty to a distantly hovering staffer, who fielded it with long practice. “I’m bored,” she announced. “Let’s get this show on the road, folks!”
She was the talent, which would normally make her pretty low on the order-giving totem pole—but it seemed like Whitney had already established a brand-new paradigm here in the middle of nowhere. The director—a bulky young man who seemed to prefer wearing his baseball cap backward, which was an asinine thing to do in the Florida sun—straightened up from where he was huddled with a group of people, and clapped his hands. “All right, all right, let’s get busy!” he yelled. “Somebody get Whitney in position! And you two, out of the way!”
He meant me and David, of course. Whitney winked at us, and blew David a mocking kiss as one of her makeup staff swooped in to swirl a brush over her face. David and I withdrew to a point outside of the cameras, behind the crew, and he stood there with his feet planted and arms crossed, looking stubborn and worried as he watched them pose Whitney like a life-sized doll, adjusting her for just the right sparkly angle against the Bugatti.
“Who the hell is she, David?” That probably sounded just a little insecure, but Whitney had rattled me. More than any other female (or female-appearing) Djinn I’d ever met, she seemed interested in direct, sexual competition for the attention of my lover, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t think he particularly did, either, which was a relief, but still.
“I told you, she’s very young,” he said. “She’s—unusual.”
“Yeah, I get that.”
“No, you don’t,” he said. “She became Djinn in a way nobody else we’ve seen has been able to accomplish. Whitney died alone. Not with others, not in some mass disaster or slaughter. She died alone, and she became a Djinn.”
That was not the way it worked for the New Djinn (or the Old Djinn, for that matter). Djinn could make the leap from human to superhuman only when there had been enough lives lost to trigger some kind of energy exchange … people dying alone, or even in small groups, wouldn’t do it. David had made me a Djinn once, but he’d cheated, using his own power to sustain me. That hadn’t gone over well, and it hadn’t been sustainable, for either of us.
“She didn’t have another Djinn helping her?”
“Nothing. She just … died, under traumatic circumstances, and then transformed. Jonathan was studying her to find out why, but she’s difficult to control, and I don’t think he got very far with it before—” He didn’t need to continue. We both knew that Jonathan had given his life so that David could live, after our disastrous attempt to keep me Djinn. “She’s extremely powerful. More than any other New Djinn, except me, and that’s only because I’m the Conduit.” David was the direct plug-in for the New Djinn to the powers of the Earth—the center of the spiral. Whatever his normal power level might be, he could draw on the strength of the Mother, and that trumped Whitney or any other New Djinn.
It didn’t look to me like Whitney was the type to accept that without pushing the issue, though.
“She’s—not like the other Djinn I’ve met.”
“More human? She is that. In human life, she was savagely ambitious, and she’s carried that over to life as a Djinn. Whitney’s never seen a challenge she didn’t want to take, or believed she couldn’t win.” He sounded as if he almost admired that—from a distance. “She was a thief and a con artist as a human. She’s carried that over as well. No matter how many times I tell her being Djinn isn’t a license to cause chaos…”
The primping apparently had concluded, and now the still photographer was having his day, having Whitney pout, pose, and lounge with the backdrop of the sports car. She was, I had to admit, good at it. I wished my best friend, Cherise, was at my side; surely she would have had some good, snarky asides to make me feel better.
Especially since Whitney kept glancing at David between shots, as if all her pouting, sexy posing was personal.
If it affected him, he wasn’t showing it. He watched her with a cool, intense stare, arms folded, clear warning in his body language.
The photos went on for a while, but they were finally done, and a round of applause sounded around the crew.
“Get her set for the video,” the director ordered, and ran over to check focus on his two high-definition rigs, much to the bored chagrin of the camera operators. “Come on, people, the light’s going to go soon!”
“Well, this is exciting,” I said. “And our champagne is getting warm in the car, you know.”
“I know,” David said. “But she’s not here for the chance to look pretty.”
“Then why is she here?”
“She’s a sociopath and a thief, and as far as I know it could be anything. The thing is, if I leave, there’s nothing to stop her.”
Whitney must have heard him, because she straightened from a casual lounging position against the shiny Bugatti, smiled with blinding intensity, and said, “Oh, honey, please. There’s nothing to stop menow!”
In between one breath and the next, she opened the Bugatti’s door, slipped inside, and fired up the engine, which caught with a full-throated, intimidating roar. The director jerked upright, staring, utterly astonished, and dug in his pockets. He came out with a set of keys—the car keys, presumably—and stared from that to Whitney, who was playfully gunning the engine. “How—”
Whitney held up a finger. Her middle one. White bolts of electricity sizzled around it and reflected in her purple eyes. “Greed is bad,” she said. “I’m just helping save all those people who’d see this ad and feel all inadequate about the size of their cars, that’s all.”
And then she put the Bugatti in gear, and arrowed it straight for the cameras.
Somehow, the people managed to scramble out of the way—David probably helped propel them, actually, from the way they were tossed around—and one of the cameras was blown into junk by a leading wave of invisible force before the car’s bumper could touch it. The other was just knocked over like a big, ungainly insect. There was screaming. Some of it, I realized, was coming from a suited man who’d been sitting off to the side. From the horror on his face, he was the owner of either the Bugatti or the diamond bikini, and his insurance had just lapsed.
“Crap,” David sighed, and turned to me. “Would you mind…?”
“Do you really have to ask? Of course I’ll do it.”
I raced for the car, and David took the faster route, blipping directly through the aetheric from where he stood into the passenger seat. Fast as I was getting settled and the engine started, I knew that seconds were ticking. I didn’t think the car I was driving, sweet as it was, had a hope in hell of chasing down a Bugatti with a Djinn driver, but what the hell.
I like a challenge too, Whitney. Let’s play.
* * *
I wasn’t the only one on the trail of the fleeing Bugatti. Behind me, the state troopers had finally gotten their act together and were blaring a siren in the distance, trying to make up distance. They’d never make it. Even their fastest car wasn’t going to catch me, much less Whitney.
“They’ll block her in,” I said as I shifted, pushing the car faster around the next turn. The curves would get worse, and I knew I’d have to shed speed soon, but for now I had to try to make up as much road as I could. “She’ll never make it past the first crossroads.”
“That’s a long way, and she can do a lot of damage before she gets there.”
“Can’t you just—you know—blip over and stop her?”
“Not without destroying the car,” he said. “I thought you wouldn’t want me to do that. I’m trying to disable the engine, but she’s already put a shield around everything I’ve tried.”
He was frowning, and I could see something was bothering him. “What?”
“Whitney’s crazy, but she’s not stupid. She knows this is a no-win chase. The police will block her in, or I’ll find a way to stop her without hurting anyone.”
“Maybe it’s just a joyride.”
“She’s a thief. Not a joyrider. She has a reason for doing this—watch out!”
I saw it just as he did—an alligator, charging out of the swamp and onto the road. A gigantic one, ancient, and definitely nothing to be messed with under the best of circumstances. I didn’t think for a second that the poor gator was doing this of his own accord, though—she’d thrown him in front of us as a living speed bump, with armor and teeth. We’d kill him if we hit him. We’d also damage the car, probably so badly that we’d have to abandon the chase.
“Hang on,” I said, and reached out with Earth powers to literally drag the gator off the road to the other side. Earth powers are not my strong suit, and it felt like picking up a safe with one hand—painful, and all but impossible, but I’m not one to let a little thing like pain and impossibility stop me, and the confused reptile waddled/slid safely out of our path just in time, with his scaly tail flicking to boom against David’s door as we whizzed past. I’d gone as far over to the left as I’d dared to leave plenty of room, and even then, it had been close. Very close.
I looked back. The gator was already disappearing into the muddy swampland, grateful to be out of our affairs, I suspected.
I caught a flash of metal up ahead. The Bugatti was still just barely in sight, which meant that even Whitney couldn’t—or didn’t want to—violate the laws of physics. We still had a chance.
Behind us, I heard a crunch of metal. The police car had come to a bad end, presumably, from the disappointed wail of its siren that quickly tailed off into silence. “See if they’re okay, honey,” I said to David. He nodded and blipped out, and I was left alone, steering my roaring Viper at its absolute limit along the narrow, curving road. I was taking turns race-car wide, and I hoped nobody would come bumbling along in a pickup truck for me to sideswipe, but I figured if the Bugatti had managed, I would, too.
The radio in the Viper suddenly let out a loud burst of white noise, and then Whitney’s honey-dipped voice said, “You’re just full of spice, little bit. I can see why David thinks you hung the moon. But just between you and me, I think you’re a little bit out of your depth, sugar.”
The radio wasn’t a two-way, but I told her where she could shove it. It made me feel better. “Language,” she said reprovingly, which meant she could hear me. Or could guess how I’d reply, anyway. “I’m shocked, Joanne. You should slow that pretty little car down before you get hurt. Honestly, why do you care what I get up to? I can see why he cares, and he’s a funny old thing, isn’t he? But you shouldn’t. You and me, we’re a lot alike. We both like fast cars, right? And shiny things.”
“Oh, are we sorority sisters now?” I shot back. “Bite me, Bayou Barbie. What are you doing? Where do you think you can go? That car doesn’t exactly blend in!”
“Doesn’t have to,” she said. “You know, if we were sorority sisters, that would be one kick-ass ball of fun, don’t you think?”
“Whitney, what are you doing?”
“Having fun,” she said, and there was a second of silence. When her voice came back, it sounded different. “Until it’s time not to have fun. And that’s coming up quick.”
“You know, Bikini Spice, you might try being a little less vague and a little more informative, if there’s something important going on.”
“Where’s the fun in that? Oh, by the way, heads up. Incoming!” She giggled, and then the static washed over it, and she was gone.
In the next instant, I saw something hurtling out of the sky into the path of my car, rolling out limply and lying flat on the pavement.
This one was no gator.
This was a man.
Instinct took over, and I slammed the brake and clutch, screaming rubber and pulling the emergency brake for added force. I didn’t want to drag the guy out of the way—for one thing, I wasn’t sure what kind of injuries he had, but they had to be pretty grievous, considering the height from which he’d fallen. “You bitch!” I panted, and managed to skid to a sideways stop with the smoking tires about three inches from the fallen body.
I scrambled out, legs shaking from the adrenaline rush, and fell on my knees next to him. The pavement was scorching hot, and the humid air felt suffocating; a swarm of mosquitoes instantly found me and started in on the bonanza. I blew them away with a pulse of Earth power and carefully put a hand on the man’s forehead. I didn’t know him. He was, as best I could tell, some stranger who’d just gotten caught up in things. I had no idea what he had to do with any of it.
David had described Whitney as a sociopath. This was real evidence that he was right.
The guy was alive, but he was unconscious and pretty badly hurt—internal injuries, a couple of broken bones. I was no expert at healing, but I did what I could, and as I did, I reached deep inside and tugged on the connection that existed between me and David—a kind of permanent cord binding us together. It didn’t take long for him to blip back in, landing at a run on the pavement and kneeling next to me.
“The officers are okay,” he said. “Shaken up and bruised, but no significant injuries.” His face set like stone as he put his hand over mine on the stranger’s forehead. “This one’s different.”
“You noticed,” I said. I had already expended a lot of energy, and now I felt waves of warm, thick, golden power flooding into me, through me, speeding relief to the injured areas of the man’s body. It burned, but I took it without complaint. If Whitney hadn’t felt compelled to stop me, this wouldn’t have happened. A little discomfort was the least I could do. “Okay, I think he’s stable now. Thanks.”
David nodded and eased off the flow of power, which stopped being a painful burn and settled into a gentle mist that soaked into every fiber of my body. It felt glorious, and I took in a deep breath as I savored it. He knew how much power I’d already spent, and this was his way of evening the scales.
“I need you to go back,” I said. “Get him help. I can’t take him with me—there’s no telling what else Whitney will try to pull, and he could get hurt or killed if I put him in the car. Would you?”
He kissed me lightly and faded away in a golden blur on the hot, still air. I crouched down and grabbed the man—whose name I still didn’t know—under the arms and dragged him across the road to a narrow strip of shade, as far out of the way as I could get him without moving him into the swamp. Then I put down a layer of protections around him that soaked into the ground, a kind of keep-away perimeter for all of the biting insects and bigger, more predatory killers that lurked out here, including the snakes. It wasn’t perfect, but it would keep him safe and comfortable for a while.
Best I could do. Whitney had hoped to weigh me down with responsibility, but that was the advantage of having David—we could split the responsibility. He’d return in only a few moments, and I could keep moving.
I got back in the car, geared it up, and took up the chase. The Bugatti was, of course, well out of sight, so I let myself slide out of my body just a little, taking advantage of the aetheric to get a look at the power signatures at work in front of me. It was a kind of supernatural heads-up display, in a confusing array of colors and patterns that didn’t necessarily reflect the real world I lived in, but I’d learned how to process the information as effectively as anyone born human could.
She was ahead of me, still driving, and the Bugatti was a hot silver scar on the riot of color and life around it. Djinn were difficult to see on the aetheric, but the Bugatti had its own signature, and a distinctive one at that. She wouldn’t be able to slip away quite that easily.
And, frankly, she wasn’t even trying. Maybe she was just enjoying the chase.
I concentrated on making up for lost time. In a sense, I was a little glad she’d brought this chase on, selfish as that was; I loved being so tightly bonded with the machine I was driving, feeling the power of the engine and the press of acceleration thrumming through my whole body. It gave me a sense of purpose, of control, of fierce joy that wasn’t like anything else I did. Not even working the weather.
I was an idiot. David would have every right to say so when he caught up to me. Of course, working the weather patterns and driving like a bat out of hell on treacherous roads, in pursuit of a supernatural enemy, was a bit of a stretch, but what the hell. Whitney and I had a lot in common when it came to ambition.
As part of my consciousness handled the necessary mechanics of the road, I split off part of it to do something that sprang from instinct, aptitude, and power—reading the flows of energy that moved through the air, the currents of disturbance and calm. Today was a beautiful day in Florida, which was (now) a little unfortunate; there wasn’t a lot of potential energy to work with. Not impossible, though. Never impossible, in a world where action always brings a reaction, and if you’re clever, you can create a storm out of a breeze without destroying the entire balance of the system.
I didn’t say it was easy, okay? Just possible.
Once you get a certain amount of air disturbed and bouncing off of other, less excited air, you get energy. Every collision of molecules creates energy, and that energy has to go somewhere—in the creation of heat. Heated air pushes on cooled air. Wackiness ensues.
That’s an obvious simplification, but if you’ve ever seen a storm form from the collision of a warm front and a cold front, seen those clouds boil up and turn dark and tower up into the heavens … well. That’s how it works.
And you can start a forest fire by rubbing sticks together, if you’re using the right kind of sticks and the right amount of force. The trick is being able to contain the beast you create, because once you get enough energy together, the dynamite is going to go boom. All you can do is direct the force the way you want it to go.
Needless to say, this is not a job for the timid.
The other complication was that Whitney could have known what I was doing … but then again, if, as David had implied, she was really young for a Djinn, she wouldn’t think of everything. She couldn’t. Someone like David on the run … that was something that was a much harder target. Whitney, in her see-me-from-space bikini and one-of-a-kind sports car? Not so much.
But damn, I hated the idea of hurting that car. Which was why my first lightning strike came down on the road in front of the Bugatti, as close as I could nail it without actually hitting it, and I watched in the neon energy trails of Oversight as the sports car wavered, skidded sideways, and then started to straighten out again. That was okay. The lightning had been a diversion, anyway.
What I was really doing was blowing out her tires with needle-sharp shards of black ice lined up on the road like shredder strips.
Whitney hit them at a reduced speed, thanks to my lightning feint, which saved her from a fiery matinee-worthy crash. I zoomed in on Oversight and saw the wheels explode—both front tires, then both back. And the Bugatti instantly went from a precision racing machine to a hunk of metal clumsily trying to plow the pavement.
Ouch. That was really going to hurt, but it was better than the alternatives.
My radio spit static, and Whitney said, surprised, “You bitch! You are so sneaky!” She laughed, long and loud, and then said, “I think I like you.”
Right about then, David blipped in on the passenger seat of the car.
“The guy on the road?” I asked.
“Safe in the hands of emergency help,” he said. “He’s stable. You blew out her tires?”
“Had to try something. Are you ready to spank this little brat before she gets somebody killed?”
“I’d better let you do it. You’d accuse me of enjoying it too much.”
David knew me all too well, and it made me laugh as I pressed the accelerator and gained ground on our fleeing Djinn.
She was trying all kinds of tricks now, including forming new tires out of random shreds of rubber left on the side of the road by other luckless drivers, but David was focused entirely on undoing whatever she was up to, and I was completely locked into the car, the acceleration, the chase. Overhead, the weather darkened, and clouds formed to block out the hot sun. We were going to get rain, as a consequence of my actions, but it was a good rain. A washing shower, not a flood.
Suddenly, the Bugatti stopped. I could see it now, the silvery gleam of it unreal against the violent greens and dull browns of the swamp, like some crash-landed alien spacecraft. “What’s she doing?” I asked.
“She,” said my radio, “is thanking you very much for completely following the script, sugar. Hang on, now. It’s going to get interesting.”
And then everything changed, completely, because Whitney was not an idiot, a compulsive thief, or a sociopath after all—or if she was those last two things, she certainly wasn’t the first. Because Whitney had been taking us somewhere, and we had just arrived.
I coasted the Viper to a stop behind the tire-less Bugatti—the shreds of rubber had fallen apart again—and David and I jumped out to check inside. No sign of Whitney. David turned in a circle, scanning, and then pointed off into the swamp. “There,” he said. “She’s there.”
It’s useful to have a Djinn along for a run through the Everglades … there’s no good footing, but plenty of stinging, biting, and eating things to take an interest in your passage. I was an Earth Warden in addition to my Weather and Fire powers, but Earth was definitely my weakest skill set, and I was relieved I didn’t have to manage it on the run. David simply created a firm, dry path out of the swamp, straight as an arrow, and made sure that any creatures with an eye to taking offense at our passage were kept otherwise occupied. I saw a couple of alligators eyeing us coldly from the water, but they stayed as motionless as floating logs. The hot, humid air felt like running a treadmill in a sauna, and I was soaked with sweat and gasping for breath in a humiliatingly short time.
We ran into Whitney about five seconds before I was sure I would drop of heat stroke and exhaustion, and I bent over, bracing myself on my knees, gasping and coughing. Whitney, of course, looked perfect. She was still wearing the diamond bikini, which just could not be comfortable on a cross-country trek; I was getting chafed, and nothing I was wearing came in measurements of carats.
Whitney put her hands on her barely clad sparkly hips, and gave me a superior look that made me want to throw up on her high-heeled shoes. “Sweetie, you’re gonna want to pace yourself,” she said. “We ain’t there yet.”
“Where?” It came out as a cross between a howl and a whine, which wasn’t very heroic, and I blamed it on the urge to vomit. I swallowed, straightened up, and clawed hair away from my damp face to try again. “Where are we going?”
“There.” Whitney nodded.
“I don’t see anything.”
David, who’d been about to say something that I was fairly sure would scorch Whitney’s exposed buttocks good, checked himself and spun around, staring upward. I didn’t know why, but then I heard it.
The abused whine of jet engines, getting louder.
David shouted something in a language that I didn’t recognize, but there was no mistaking the command in it, and Whitney lifted her hands to the sky along with him.
A four-engine jet burst out of the clouds, trailing smoke and fire from one wing. Way too low for where it was, which was miles from any decent airport capable of handling an emergency landing. It was an enormous plane, and as I launched myself up into Oversight I saw the black buzzing cloud surrounding it.
Impending death. Terror. The fear of more than three hundred souls, all preparing for the end.
The two Djinn were grabbing hold of the plane, straightening its flight, and I warmed air beneath its swept-back wings, trying to provide lift. It was a huge, ungainly weight without the right balance of physics to support it, and I could sense the terrified but determined pilots trying everything they could to keep it in the air.
“Clear a landing strip!” I yelled to David. “We can’t keep it up!”
He and Whitney had already determined that. Whitney kept her arms up, channeling power to the plane, but pieces were breaking off of it now as the structural flaws began to shatter along fault lines. One of the engines imploded, streaming metal and fire that plunged down toward us. Whitney didn’t flinch, so neither did I. I felt the impact of the twisted metal like a physical shock as it slammed into the water not ten feet from us, sending a tsunami of muddy green toward us. I didn’t bother to stop it. We had more important things to do than stay pretty.
David’s power was breathtaking and precise, and he wielded it quickly—dangerous, for a Djinn, because like Wardens, they had to be concerned with balance. He formed a solid pack of earth, a berm that ran straight through the Everglades, and knocked down enough of the cypress growth to provide a window for the plane’s wings.
“Coming down!” Whitney yelled, and I felt the hot burn of the exhaust as the jet roared right over our heads, so close that I swear I could count the treads on the landing gear, which was winching its way down. The plane wavered, slipped sideways, and Whitney and I clasped hands instinctively and merged our powers, applying force to the side that needed it, bringing the jet back into a semistable glide.
The tires hit the packed earth with more force than normal, and I saw one of them blow out in a mist of rubber and smoke. David flung out a hand and kept that side of the plane up as the pilots applied brakes.
Whitney and I changed the thickness of the air flowing along the flaps, adding to the drag, burning off speed at about twice the normal rate, until the plane was coasting, then a smoking, scarred wreck sitting motionless on the makeshift runway.
Whitney took a deep breath and closed her eyes, and the doors on the plane popped open. Yellow emergency chutes deployed. I could hear screaming from inside, but there was also shouting, people imposing order onto chaos.
I turned toward Whitney. “How did you know?”
She opened those eerie purple eyes, and for a second, I saw the woman she’d once been … infinitely tired, frightened, and burdened under all that glitter and gleam. “Once you’ve died that way, you know it’s coming,” she said. “It’s just how it is.”
I said, “I thought you died alone.”
Whitney studied me for a few silent seconds, then nodded. “I did,” she said. “I was in a plane that went down in the water. I lived. I lived a long, long time. And nobody found me. Nobody ever will.” I was still holding her hand. She glanced down at our linked fingers. “This don’t make us engaged, you know.”
I let go, feeling a little off balance after all of this craziness. It wasn’t often that someone threw me, but Whitney had, in every possible sense. She wasn’t at all what I’d expected.
“Why didn’t you just tell us about this, if you knew it was coming?”
She shrugged, which set off lots of glittering waves from the diamonds. “What kind of fun is that? I got you here, didn’t I? I just did it my own way.”
“Your way is insane. Go do something useful,” David told her. “Send up a flare for the emergency rescue parties. They’ll be on the way by now.”
She gave him a smart little military salute, which was very weird considering her outfit, and executed a perfect turn to march away.
“Wait!” I said. “The guy you threw in our way on the road. Who was he? Why did you do that?”
She glanced back at the plane. Smoke blew away from the fuselage, and I saw a long, ragged hole, with the fragile metal skin peeled away. “He’s the man who put the bomb on board,” she said. “I didn’t think you’d care if you didn’t stop in time. I wouldn’t have.”
And then she vanished in a mist of diamonds. Gone. I looked over at David, who was shaking his head.
“What?” I asked.
“She took the bikini,” he pointed out. “And nobody’s going to get it back. That’s her price for altruism.”
I laughed. I could hear emergency sirens back toward the road, and I could just see Whitney standing out there glittering like a diamond convention, pointing the way for all the rescuers.
“I think I like her style,” I said.
David rolled his eyes. “You don’t have to be her boss,” he pointed out. “Now. Let’s see to the wounded.”
In the end, there were remarkably few, and most of the injuries were minor. MIRACLE FLIGHT, they called it on the twenty-four-hour news channels, which featured interviews with everybody possible: people who’d been anywhere in the flight path of the plane, the crew, the passengers, and the director of Whitney’s failed commercial shoot, who somehow managed to take high-definition footage of the aircraft on its dramatic flight and landing. He did a documentary. It won an Emmy.
The Case of the Missing Million-Dollar Model occupied headlines for many months, along with positively drooling pictures of Whitney leaning against the Bugatti Veyron with just enough diamonds on her lady parts to make her legal. She was spotted in Rio de Janeiro, and then in Cannes, and then in Argentina and—on the same day—in Shanghai. I think she enjoyed playing Where’s Waldo.
David and I never got our beach picnic, but back home, many hours later, we made do. We moved the furniture out of the way, put down the blanket, and had wine and cheese and bread and each other, and somehow, that was still utterly blissful. As we lay there wrapped in each other’s arms, lit by candlelight, I felt the rumble of suppressed laughter in his chest.
“I was just thinking,” David said. “Whitney. She’s just insane enough to make a good second in command for me, don’t you think? If Rahel can’t do it?”
Rahel was a longtime friend and a very formidable Djinn. I couldn’t imagine any set of circumstances under which Rahel wouldn’t be able to step up to the plate, so I shrugged. “I suppose,” I said. “She’s certainly not the obvious choice.”
He kissed me, long and sweetly. “That’s what everyone said about you,” he told me, and traced his thumb across my damp lips. “I think my instincts are pretty good.”
“And I think you have a weakness for girls in bikinis.”
“You’re not wearing one now.”
“I’m not wearing anything.”
“Oh yes,” he agreed soberly. “I do have a weakness for that.”
And he showed me, all over again.
Copyright © 2011 by Roxanne Longstreet Conrad, Kerrie L. Hughes, and Tekno Books