I previously posted this chapter (although it was an earlier version) and debated just picking up where the snippets left off. I decided to go back to the beginning for a couple of reasons: first, it’s been some time since the posts went live and, second, there have been some edits made. This is still not the final version, but is close to it. So, without further delay, here we go.
Living up to my name, heaven help me.
I closed the door and leaned against it, blowing out a long breath. I didn’t need to look up to know the gruff voice matched the gruff expression on my foster father’s face. Of course, it was nearly impossible for him not to look that way. Part troll, part dwarf, and part who knew what, Redmond Oakley no longer bothered with personal glamours to hide his true appearance.
And why should he?
The world now knew elves and fairies, witches and ghosts, even vampires and other things once thought to exist only in ancient myths and bad Hollywood movies were real. The Upheaval changed the world forever. No matter how badly anyone wished otherwise, that was one proverbial genie that wouldn’t be returning to the bottle.
Even now, more than two decades after the Upheaval released wild magics across the globe, there were those who resented paranormals, who feared us, and who wanted us locked in cages or zoos. Others wouldn’t mind if we found ourselves strapped to examination tables in some black site, dissected and worse all so they could find out what made us who and what we are.
Fortunately, they’re in the minority.
Even so, any para with a sense of self-preservation watched their back and not call attention to themselves. That was something Red excelled at. He was short, barely five six inches tall, with a barrel chest and thick arms and legs. His skin was a deep russet. He sported thick greying hair, except for the sides of his head where he shaved it close to his scalp. But it was his almost black eyes and the way they seemed to see everything that one remembered.
The mistake came when someone judged him only on his appearance. That sort of mistake could prove to be fatal—either financially or in a more permanent way. Being smart, Red always managed to do it within the letter of the law, even if only barely at times. But he never took such extreme action for his own benefit. It was always to protect those he took in, his “family” so to speak.
People like me.
My name’s Ellen Ripley Walker, Ripley or Rip to my friends. Yes, my parents were big science fiction fans. For some reason I’ll never understand, they thought it would be a good thing to name me after one of the most kick-ass heroines in the genre. The fact I was born the same year the world turned upside down and inside out only confirmed—to them, at least—that they made the right decision.
For me, well, that’s a different story. The family legacy weighs heavily enough on my shoulders. Add in the name and, well, there are times I want to disappear and become Mary Sue Jones, worried about nothing more dangerous than watering my plants and feeding my cat.
But that’s all a dream and a far cry from my reality.
Welcome to my world. A world where, when I’m not tending bar, I work for the North American Conclave of Paranormals. You might say I’m following in my parents’ footsteps. For generations, since long before the Upheaval, we’ve served the Conclave to help keep our kind in check. The memory of all witch hunts, the religious persecutions over the ages, the fear that caused otherwise rational people to become a mob reminded us of the danger of exposure. Fortunately, there were those who understood the danger.
And that’s where my boss, Red, comes into the picture.
Red runs what he euphemistically calls a reclamation agency. Most of his employees focus on finding paras who have gone missing. Sometimes they disappeared of their own accord. Sometimes it’s because they crossed the wrong person. On very rare occasions—fortunately—it’s because someone abducted them, wanting to find out what made them “special” and didn’t care what they had to do to find out. Those were the tough assignments because they rarely had good endings.
But that’s not the only work we did. Just as Red’s bar, The Red Dragon Brew Company, served as a front for some of his other just barely legal interests, the offices here had another less well-known purpose. Here, Red and “the team” did research and trained. It’s where clients came to discuss their cases. It is also where Red ran interference with—and sometimes for—the Conclave. Not only did that let him protect our town and “family”, but Red was nothing if not mercenary. The Conclave paid well for information and even better to make sure our kind did nothing to stir up trouble with the “normal” humans. The bar allowed us to gather information and monitor those paras who love their drink and drugs and couldn’t hold their tongues if their lives depended on it.
Yes, we. Because I spent most evenings and all too many weekends slinging drinks behind the bar at The Red Dragon Brew Company. It might not be the sort of job most parents want for their kids, but it fit my needs and, well, my folks weren’t around any longer to object. I owed Red for taking me in, and this was one way of repaying him.
“Well? Anything to say for yourself, girl?”
I glanced at my watch and rolled my eyes.
“Late, Red? Really?” I crossed the office and dropped onto one of the two chairs in front of his battered desk. As I did, I considered reaching out with one booted foot and nudging the corner of the desk to see if any of the stacks of files and loose paper would topple over. In the five years I’d worked for him, the stacks had grown and multiplied until there wasn’t a bit of the desktop visible. “It’s barely noon and I’m not scheduled to go on shift at the bar until six.”
“Then why’re you here, Walker? I’m not gonna pay you overtime.” His black eyes glittered, and one corner of his mouth lifted in what someone might generously say was a smile.
I barked out a laugh and crossed my legs. “When have you ever paid overtime, Red? You’re a stingy bastard, but we love you anyway.”
I grinned as he growled. But the sparkle in his eyes gave him away. I might frustrate the hell out of him at the best of times, but he liked me. More than that, he liked the bounties I brought in when he convinced me to agree to take the job. Besides, I always got my paperwork in on time and did my best to make sure the other marshals did as well. That meant money in my pocket and his, something he appreciated more than just about anything else.
“You say that to every guy who signs your paychecks.” His voice rumbled deep in his barrel chest.
“You haven’t signed a check in years, Red. Everything’s digital now.”
“You’re such a bitch, Walker.”
“No argument there, Red.”
Survival in this post-Upheaval world meant being able to take care of yourself. Doing what I did, you’d better be a ball-buster who wasn’t afraid to draw blood if you wanted to live to see the next day. That was the first lesson my mama taught me when she sat me down at the ripe old age of ten and told me this was my legacy. She’d been a marshal until she disappeared on a job for the Conclave. My dad had been one until a feral wyvern killed him protecting its nest.
I’d been nine when Dad died and almost thirteen when Mom didn’t come home. Red took me in and it didn’t take long for him to put me to work. At first, I helped around the office, sweeping the floors, running errands, that sort of thing. Oh, he made sure I finished school, but he also saw to it that I got the training I needed to carry on the family legacy. When I asked him about it a couple of years ago, all he said was he promised my parents and he always kept his promises.
“As long as you remember you’re my bitch.” He grinned and cracked his large, hairy knuckles.
I arched one brow. Nothing else. I didn’t need to do or say anything, not when he paled and swallowed hard, realizing how badly he stepped in it.
He licked his lips once. “You know what I mean, Ripley.”
I waited, watching as sweat pricked out on his forehead. Then I grinned. I didn’t mind letting him sweat, but I knew what he meant.
“No worries, Red. Just don’t say something like that in front of anyone else.” That was all the warning he’d get. “Now that’s out of the way, why did I need to drag my tired ass out of bed before my alarm went off? I assume this warm greeting is your way of saying a job’s come across your desk and it’s not something you want one of the others to deal with.”
He nodded and reached for one of the files. Then he stopped and dropped that hand back onto the desktop. A flicker of concern tickled my spine and I waited, wondering what was going on.
“Something’s going on, Ripley. I don’t know what or I’d tell you.” He lifted a hand to stop me before I could say anything. “Gemma called before I rang you up. She’s worried about something.” Another pause, and this time he frowned. “She didn’t come out and say it. You know what she’s like. She’d not one to get right to the point. But I could tell she’s scared. I heard it in her voice. When I asked what’s wrong, she said she Saw something. It’s bad and it’s coming this way. She asked—asked, Ripley—if I’d send you out to see her.”
My mouth fell open, and I did a credible imitation of a fish out of water. My blood ran cold. As far as most people were concerned, Gemma Blackrock was a Native American witch with a touch of foresight. I knew better, as did Red. Gemma’s a Seer, one of the most reliable I’d ever known. If she said trouble was coming, I believed her.
“She asked for me specifically?”
That simple request scared the shit out of me. Gemma might look like someone’s sweet old grandma, but I knew better. Behind that innocent-looking exterior lay one of the most powerful witches and Seers around. The only other time she asked Red to have me deal with something, I’d come damned close to losing my life and I still bore the scars to remind me.
I was in no hurry for a repeat performance.
“She did. Said for you to come ASAP.”
He didn’t look any happier about it than I felt. This was so not good.
I closed my eyes and gnawed my lower lip. Then I blew out the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.
“All right. But I want double my usual rates and hazard pay. I also want full access to the armory and anything else I might need. That includes any wards I want from Razor.” I thought for a moment. “And, Red, that’s just to go see her and it is all on your dime.” We’d argue about additional contract terms later, after I found out why she wanted to see me and decided just how involved I wanted to be.
“Agreed.” He levered his bulk out of his chair and moved around the desk. “Sign and add your thumbprint.”
I probably should have thought twice, maybe even three times, before reaching for the tablet he held out. Not only because he didn’t argue with my terms but because he already had a contract with them included prepared. The fact he didn’t want to spend a few minutes negotiating terms—something he loved dearly—only confirmed how bad things appeared to be.
Frowning, I scanned the contract. I trusted him, but I also knew he was a shrewd businessman. That meant making sure I knew what I was signing. This time, at least, I saw nothing I needed to clarify or change. The terms were simple. He’d pay what I asked, and, in return, I would meet with Gemma as she requested. I was not obligated to do anything else, and he would contact her once I signed to let her know when to expect me. He would also make sure she understood I was under no obligation to do anything more than hear her out and then report back in.
Simple enough. So why did I have this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that it would come back to bite me—hard—on the ass?
With my luck, it would not only bite me there but take out a big chunk and I really liked my ass, especially the way my jeans hugged it this morning.
I signed and added my thumbprint before handing the tablet back to him. He took it with a single nod.
“I might not be a Seer like Gemma, but I have a bad feeling about this, Ripley. Gear up, weapons and coms, before you head out. Take one of the SUVs instead of your car. And keep your head on a swivel. If Gemma’s worried, I’m worried.”
“Understood.” I thought for a moment. “I am going to stop by Razor’s first. If I’m heading out to Gemma’s and if it’s as bad as we both suspect, I want all the mundane and arcane protections I can get.”
Red and his arsenal could handle the mundane. Razor would take care of the arcane for me.
“Good. Once you get there, tag me and tell me how long you’ll be. I’ll let Gemma know your ETA.”
“Thanks.” Seeing the worry lurking in his dark eyes, I smiled in reassurance. “Don’t worry, Red. I won’t take any unnecessary chances.”
With that, I turned on my heel and left his office. If I stayed any longer, I’d start second-guessing my decision to go see Gemma. Tempting as it was to suddenly come down with a case of the “I don’ wannas”, I couldn’t do that. Not to Red, and not to Gemma.
Hell, I couldn’t do it to the rest of us.
After all, I was a Conclave Marshal. That meant it was my job to deal with problems like the one it seemed might be about to land in my lap.
Welcome to my world, and when can I get off?