Bound in Smoke

Coming Soon!

Chapter 1

Since this is a work in progress, everything subject to change.



~EMBER~



The free test line snaked out the door, down the steps to the sidewalk, and around the corner. On this shitty winter evening, more people with umbrellas and rain gear headed for the building than could possibly be accommodated. The Olompali History Museum just isn’t that big.

The regular police were stationed every few feet, but there were OPC enforcers here, too. Seems like somebody should have anticipated this and found a bigger venue. For fuck’s sake, the last free test authorized by the Olompali division of the Pax Contiguity was over a year ago, and this one was being administered by a trained witch instead of some OPC flunky. Proof that bureaucracies are always inadequate to reality.

My friend Maya was inside holding our place in line while I waited in the vestibule for Aubrey who had never been on time for anything in her life. I was here to support them even though crowds are a huge problem for me. I wasn’t even in like yet and icy fingers of incipient panic traipsed up and down my spine. At least I was out of the rain.

I’ve known Maya since we were in the same group home in our teens. I met Aubrey because she’s a regular at the Blue Owl Cafe where I’ve worked for the last couple of years. Now we’re friends, and all three of us get along great because we’re messed up in different ways.

“Ember!” Aubrey dashed inside, escaping the deluge. She slid over to me so she wouldn’t block the door. “Sorry I’m late.” She closed her umbrella and drops of water splattered every which way. Per usual she was put together and glamorous, unlike yours truly. “My real estate agent would not stop talking. She thinks they’re going to accept my offer.” She dropped her umbrella in the bucket for the purpose and held up both hands, fingers crossed. “I finally said bye and hung up on her.”

“‘S’okay.”

Aubrey wanted to buy a hoarder house about to go into foreclosure or maybe something about a short sale. Houses around here are way out of my reach, so I don’t pay attention to the lingo. From the pictures I’d seen, the house was a tear down and start-the-fuck-over project. “Is Maya here?”

“In line already.” For those who don’t know, Olompali is about fifty miles north of San Francisco in Sonoma County where single family homes start in the mid-six figures and go up from there. A house with land is seven figures easy, and a falling down hoarder house for sale by owner hit the market at half a mil. The rental market is brutal here.

Aubrey surveyed the interior where the buzz and rattle of conversation was already giving me a headache. “It’s going to be standing room only.”

“Yeah.”

Aubrey patted my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Sure.” My upper torso was an acid stew of encroaching panic.

She eyed the line to the lecture room. “I didn’t wear the right shoes to be standing for three hours. Let’s find Maya.”

“Three hours? How long can one stupid test take?”

Aubrey gave me a look. “You know we’re staying for the lecture, right?”

“You didn’t say anything about staying.” Kill me now, please. “I thought you guys were only getting tested.”

“Ember. Nobody said that.”

Maya waved at us from the back third of the line to the door, and we joined her.

“It’s Beathag Nivan,” Aubry said. “Of course we’re staying for her talk.”

The guy in front of us took one look at Aubrey and turned bright red. She pretended not to notice. There was a security station twenty feet from the door to the lecture hall. One OPD police officer checked bags and another wielded a handheld metal detector. One of those Belgian Malinois that cost thousands to train stood at alert with a K-9 officer. I concentrated on breathing because of all the people and how slow the line was moving.

Gorgeous, blonde Aubrey passed through security with barely a glance into her purse. Maya had to empty out her purse before they let her in. My shiv was plastic so I passed the metal detector, but I still got flagged for an additional pat down. I passed that and the dog sniffing test with flying colors, the only two tests I was going to pass for the rest of the night.

By the time I was at the door proper, Maya and Aubrey were already inside. The museum staffer stationed there repeated the same explanation for every. Single. Person.

“Ms. Nivan will sign books afterward. Hold questions for the Q&A later. Help yourself to refreshments. Donations appreciated but not necessary. You can buy books now or after the talk, all proceeds donated to the museum!”

The minute I walked in, alarms went off in my head. There were at least ten Green Jackets in the room. Really? All this security, and they let in Green Jackets? Their reputation for violence is one hundred and eleven percent true. They’ll start an argument just to beat the shit out of anyone who disagrees.

I joined Maya and Aubrey and whispered, “What the hell, you guys?”

“They’d be crazy to start anything,” Maya said.

Exactly. Green Jackets are assholes whose positive tests make them think they’re better than the untested or the negatives. I wasn’t thrilled about being in the same room with them.

A thirty-something brunette sat at a folding table with her back to the wall, a pen in her left hand and a stack of cards and envelopes in front of her. Around her were seven huge men in green suits and matching ties. Their heads were shaved, and I swear I broke out in a sweat when I realized they had to be Nivan’s mageheld bodyguards.

A mageheld is a demon ritually bound to a human magic user, and until this minute, I hadn’t completely believed that was real thing. Trained magic users like Nivan can have lots of magehelds, but they assign their strongest seven to bodyguard duties. Magehelds weren’t allowed in enforcement zones, but Nivan and the museum had negotiated terms with the OPC.

A Green Jacket with a man-bun funneled people to the lady at the table who I assumed was the author. One at a time so Beathag Nivan could wave a hand at the person at her table then write something on a card. Another Green Jacket slid the card into an envelope, sealed it, and handed it over with a trifold brochure.

Then the person could find a seat.

Maya went first. Nivan waved a hand at her, made a note, and then handed the card to the Green Jacket stationed by her, who sealed it in an envelope and handed a brochure and the envelope to Maya.

She gave us a thumbs up and mimed that she would save us seats.

“Hold on,” the Green Jacket said when Aubrey stepped forward. He looked her up and down but kept his arm extended like he expected Aubrey would make a break for it. As if. What a douche.

Nivan watched Maya walk away before she beckoned to Aubrey. For sure Maya and Aubrey are positives. I’m too fucked up and don’t have any special or unusual talent, so I know I’m a negative. Maya and Aubrey, though. Like, Maya has mad physical control. She can be standing right next to you, and if she doesn’t want you to know, you won’t. Aubrey can make the DMV manual sound amazing. When she’s on a roll, she can convince you a dog is a cat. It wears off, but wow. Good thing they’re not evil.

Man-Bun Green Jacket lowered his arm. “No pictures.”

“Of course not,” Aubrey said.

His arm went up in front of me and just to fuck with him I got too close. “Wait your turn normie bitch.”

I stared at him, and he blinked first. What a wanker. Meanwhile, Nivan did her hand waving notecard thing to Aubrey. I didn’t feel a thing, but those closest shivered. I guess some of them could be faking it, what do I know?

Aubrey slipped her envelope into a side pocket of her purse. “I just finished The Deception of Demons. Fascinating.”

Nivan smiled at her. “I hope you enjoyed it.”

“Definitely. I’m looking forward to your talk.” Aubrey held up the brochure. “I’ve been reading about this, too, and can’t wait to hear more.”

“Thank you.” Nivan folded her arms on the table and tapped the end of the pen on the surface. “We love interested visitors,” she said.

Right before the Green Jacket was going to let me past him, one of the bodyguards signaled for Nivan’s attention. She gestured to him, and he leaned down to speak too softly for me to hear. The witch’s smile froze in place, and when he finished talking, she replied with killing cold: “Find them. Now.” Nivan, still with that frosty smile, nodded in the direction of the Green Jackets. “Send some of them to look.”

Immediately, one of the magehelds by the main door headed to the back of the room, on an intercept course with a knot of Green Jackets. Demons can communicate psychically, and this had to be what was going on.

Man-bun Green Jacket kept his arm blocking me until Nivan nodded. She looked pissed, and I was not thrilled about walking to her table. When I got there, I said, “Can we skip the test? I already know I’m a normal.”

“When were you tested?”

Several Green Jackets left while I stood in front of Nivan. I shrugged. “I am the most normal person you’ll ever meet.”

“You’re here, so why not test you? It won’t take long.”

I spread my arms&emdash;totally unnecessary of course&emdash;and got the same hand-waving rigamarole as everyone else. No doubt about it, she was angry and failing at pretending not to be. My anxiety made the process seem longer, but probably it wasn’t. I grounded myself by staring at the brochure for a place called The Citadel At Jenner.

Finally, Nivan lowered her hand. “There’s nothing wrong with being normal.” She wrote on one of the notecards and handed it to the Green Jacket in charge of envelopes.

“Nope.”

Her smile stayed frosty. “Enjoy the talk.”

I stuffed the brochure in my pocket and opened the envelope the other Green Jacket handed me.

Nivan kept smiling. “Don’t hold up the line. We need to start on time if we’re going to finish before zero hour.”

“I have a quest&emdash;” My headache gave one last agonizing throb before being pushed aside by a cold flash. I swear my eyeballs turned into ice cubes. Ouch. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. In the center of my notecard, she’d written a big zero with a slash through it.

Maya already had our seats saved, so I joined Aubrey at the tables in the back. One had cans of water, sodas, and grocery store baked goods. The other was loaded with stacks of glossy books by Beathag Nivan. Another Green Jacket processed payments. She was about my age, mid-to-early-twenties, and she was freaking busy.

The sum total of my riches consisted of a wadded up dollar, two dimes, and six pennies, so even if I wanted a book, and I did not, I couldn’t afford one. I could donate twenty cents for a brownie, maybe.

Aubrey stuffed twenty dollars in the donation can and handed me a water and a can of coke. “Take something for later, okay?” She knows me. “In case you get hungry.”

“I ate already.” When Aubrey wasn’t looking, I shoved the coke, three individually wrapped cookies, and a slice of pound cake into my jacket pockets. I took a cupcake and a brownie, too.

Not that I was ungrateful, but Aubrey could pay twenty dollars for food because she had a good job and parents who’d paid for her college. I was a part time barista and an odd jobs gig worker with no idea who my parents were. I mean, I know their names, but that’s it. Like Maya, I got dumped into the system shortly after I turned three, and my parents, whoever they are, disappeared from my life.

I wolfed down a vanilla cupcake while Aubrey paid for two more books and then we sat next to Maya. Our seats were in the back, and they knew to give me the aisle in case I had a panic attack and needed a quick exit.

I settled in, and Holy Mother of Jesus on a toasted cracker.

Behind and to the right of the currently empty podium was the most gorgeous man I have ever seen in my life. His coal black suit fit like a dream and emphasized the unreal color of his eyes. Like the others in suits, his head was shaved.

Rude to stare, I know, but I did since he wasn’t paying attention to me. I have never once wanted babies, but if this guy asked me to have his, I would say hell yes, how many? Only slightly kidding.

He gave Aubrey a long look. Maya’s no slouch in the looks department either, but Aubrey is unfairly beautiful. She generally goes for the nerdy professor type, and this guy was not a nerdy professor. I say assassin billionaire. Hah, hah. Six-foot-four at least and cheekbones like you wouldn’t believe. His teal eyes were so intense they were visible across the room. His tie was the same color as his eyes. Tall with the kind of muscle that made you fast and strong, what’s not to like about that? Even his shaved head was sexy.

They say the more powerful the demon, the more perfect the human form. This one must be off the charts powerful then. He looked bored and alert at the same time and watched the crowd with contempt and a curl to his mouth just short of mean. Gorgeous and dangerous is my type. Look. I don’t claim to have the best judgment about men, and I have none at all about demons.

Note to self: do not go near any of them. I’d end up dead or pregnant.

Aside from his general hotness, teal-eyes was one of the few people here who wasn’t pasty white. Not Hispanic. Something else. He probably knew more about his people than I knew about mine. I envied him that. Besides the names of my parents, Hector and Maria Azuria, the only thing I know about my people is&emdash;Nothing.

A couple of years ago I saved up for when one of those DNA companies had a sale. Sixty percent Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil, thirty percent European, mostly Spain and Portugal, and ten percent Mesoamerican.

When I was a kid, all my caregivers were Caucasian. Some of them meant well. Others didn’t. Maya and I met in a group home when we were fourteen. She’s the closest thing I have to a sibling. I’ve never gotten hits on relatives any of the times I checked in the intervening months. Literally, nobody is related to me. Nobody in the database.

While I waited for family to turn up, I was studying Spanish from a book I found on my way to work one day, Learn Spanish Faster! People assume I speak Spanish when actually I can only pick out a few words. Slow going on the language skills. Anyway, Mr. Sexy pants I-will-kill-you-with-my-gaze was lighter than me and not Hispanic. Something else.

I leaned over to Aubrey and Maya and flashed my notecard because I needed to distract myself. “Surprise! I’m a zero. What’d you get?”

“I have no idea.” Like I said, for sure Aubrey was a positive. Maya just rolled her eyes, but her envelope was open.

I took out the brochure they’d given me at Nivan’s table. There was a castle-looking building of reddish stone with towers on either side. Smiling people with super white teeth hiked in a rural setting, sat in a classroom, or relaxed on a terrace surrounded by huge oaks. The main heading was Study at The Citadel at Jenner.

Around us people chatted about magic and the amazing things their friend’s cousin’s friend had heard someone did one time at a party. I slouched on my chair, dreading an evening that for absolute sure would include a pitch to learn more at the Citadel at Jenner, limited time discount on offer.

Three bodyguard types left the back of the room to stand behind Nivan’s table, two more on either side. The other two were at the exit, one facing the doorway, the other facing in. One of the Green Jackets who’d gone out earlier came back and consulted with Nivan. She got frosty again. The Green Jacket left the room, taking four others with her. Poor girl was going to need more than a jacket to recover from that icy reception.

I wasn’t feeling so good right now. My brain felt too big for my skull, my eyes hurt, and I was convinced the remaining Green Jackets intended to start something. Why else would they keep looking around the way they were? I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of their violence.

“Drink your coke.” Maya grinned as she flashed her card at me. Plus sign. Called it.

“Am I that obvious?” She’s seen me have a panic attack, and one was building.

She nodded. “You’ll feel better.”

Sugar always helps. Soda would be the perfect chaser for the cupcake frosting that primed my internal pumps. More people arrived, mostly women, but a few men. The gorgeous man in the black suit stayed where he was when one of the museum people turned on the mic at the podium and launched into an introduction. I tuned out. Not on purpose but because there were too many people here, and I did not feel right.

At 7:11 PM, Beathag Nivan stepped behind the podium and tapped the mic, and I ran for the bathroom.

 

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