“Good evening,” I said, dropping into the chair. “You must be Jack.”
The man sitting across from me grinned easily and nodded. “That’s right,” he said. “And that makes you the jarl.” His voice was respectful, but there was a hint of mockery underneath.
“So why do you want to work for me?” I asked. “I don’t get a lot of volunteers.”
He shrugged. “It seems like you have plenty of my kind of work,” he said. “And my last job fell through rather suddenly.”
“Your kind of work,” I said cautiously. “What is that, exactly?”
He smiled at me, a vaguely lopsided smile that didn’t touch his eyes, and pulled a pistol out of his pocket, setting it on the table. “Three guesses,” he said. “And they all involve this.”
I nodded slowly. It was a bit of an aggressive way to introduce yourself, but that didn’t match the rest of his attitude. He seemed casual, almost strangely so. Aside from that one action, I didn’t get the macho vibe off of him.
A test, then? Seeing how I reacted? It seemed plausible.
“You carry a gun,” I said calmly. “That’s unusual for mages, in my experience.”
“They’re useful tools,” he said, still with that odd smile. “And my particular talents don’t lend themselves so well to offensive applications. The gun is a way to compensate.”
“A mage who makes a living off violence, but isn’t good with offensive applications,” I mused. “What are you good at, then?”
“My specialty is more defensive in nature,” he said. If he was offended, it didn’t show. “Kinetic barriers and such. I have some secondary talents as well, of course, but I’m sure you’ll understand if I prefer to keep those to myself for the time being.”
“Of course,” I said. Prying for the exact details of what someone could do before you hired them was more than slightly rude. It gave the impression that you were looking for weakness, and people who had any meaningful dealings with the supernatural learned quickly not to show weakness.
And besides, what he’d already told me was enough. Kinetic barriers were one of the most broadly useful, effective defensive spells around. They were a staple of any combat mage’s arsenal, and my total inability to use them was a problem I’d often been frustrated by. None of my other mages was much better, either. If Jack was really good with them, his value as an employee was suddenly pretty high.
If, of course, being the key word in that sentence.
“Interesting,” I said. “Would you mind demonstrating?”
“Not at all,” he said. His smile looked a bit more honest as he picked up the gun, put it to his temple, and pulled the trigger.
I flinched away a little, more out of surprise than anything, but he just grinned and lowered the gun again. The bullet clattered to the table a moment later, flattened and cracked like he’d shot a concrete wall. “I can also make them reflective,” he said. “So they reverse the force of anything that hits them, instead of just countering it. But that didn’t seem like a good idea in here.”
“That’s a pretty useful ability,” I said. “Anything else I should know about in particular?”
“Not really,” he said, shrugging. “Other than that, most of what I’ve got is only situationally useful. I do have a fair amount of experience, so you don’t need to worry about training me.”
I nodded. “Have you ever worked with the Conclave?” I asked. It was a bit of a risky question, in some ways. The Conclave wasn’t a secret, exactly, but they also weren’t common knowledge. If he didn’t know I’d risk looking crazy, or else I’d give him the idea that I might know other secrets, which was damn near a worst-case scenario when it came to hiring someone on.
And if he did know who they were? In a way, that was even worse. The only way he was likely to know what I was talking about was if he was a member of a recognized mage clan, or else he routinely dealt with people who were. If that was the case, asking the question was as good as an open admission that I also had dealings on that level.
Either way, it was something that I normally wouldn’t have asked without having a decent idea of who he was, how he would react. But I didn’t have time to spare right now, and I needed to know before I could really commit one way or another on hiring him.
Jack narrowed his eyes slightly, and I got the impression that he was thinking about the same things I was. “I’ve done some work with the Guards,” he said carefully. “Strictly as a subcontractor, on some jobs where they wanted more defenses. Is that a problem?”
“No,” I said. “Just checking. I like to know what I’m getting myself into when I hire someone. On that note, is there anything else I should know? Any other obligations you have, anyone who’s out to get you for one reason or another?”
“Not that I know of. I mean, it’s always possible that someone held a grudge for something I did. That’s always a possibility when you’re a freelancer. But I don’t know of anyone that you would need to be concerned by.”
“Good,” I said. “You mentioned that you’re a freelancer, which brings me to my next question. How long are you planning on working for me?”
“As long as you’re paying me,” he said easily. “Most people prefer to hire me for specific jobs, but if you want to do something longer-term, that’s fine with me.”
I frowned. “Someone with your talents, I’d be more inclined to keep you on retainer. How does a hundred grand per month sound, extra for unusually hazardous jobs or expenses?”
He stared at me. “A hundred grand per month,” he repeated. “Are you serious?”
“I’m a very wealthy man,” I said. “And I don’t want you to be tempted to stray. Speaking of which, if you take this deal? You work for me. Not just a little, not casually. You’re one of my people. You stay loyal and I’ll take care of you. You cross me, you betray me or work to undermine my position, I’ll kill you. Plain and simple.”
“I’m a professional,” he said, sounding more than a little offended. “I wouldn’t do that.”
“I’d like to think so,” I sighed. “But you’d be amazed how many people just don’t get that concept. Well, unless you have any more questions, I think we’re good.”
“I’m good,” he said. “What now?”
I grabbed a napkin off the table and a pen from my cloak. “Go to this address,” I said, scrawling it on the napkin. It was mostly legible, I thought. “Big house, on the south side of the city. Ask for Selene. Don’t cause any trouble. She’ll hook you up with the down payment on this month’s pay; it might take a while to get the rest. Funds are tight right now, with how the financial system is going crazy. If you need any kind of equipment, ask her and she’ll see if it can be arranged.”
“Okay,” he said, taking the napkin. “After that? What do you want me to do?”
“Stay there,” I said. “If anybody’s dumb enough to attack the house, I expect you’ll cooperate to defend it. Other than that, just wait. I’ll be there to pick you up at some point.”
He nodded at me. “You got it, Boss,” he said. Then he stood up and started for the door, his hands firmly in his pockets. I noticed that he’d taken the gun back, along with the napkin. I was betting one of those hands was on his gun, and the other might very well be on a weapon he hadn’t shown me. He acted confident, he dressed casually, but Jack was as ready for a fight to break out at any moment as I was.
Then again, I supposed it made sense. A man who specialized in kinetic barriers, who could maintain one on the surface of his skin while he moved, hardly needed to worry about how he dressed. He could walk around naked and be protected as well as I was in my armor. Maybe better.
I felt a pang of jealousy, but pushed it away. I had other talents to compensate.
I looked around, thinking I’d flag down a waiter, but one of them appeared next to my table before I could. Typical of Pryce’s, really. “Food,” I said, pressing a hundred-dollar bill into his hand. “Lots of it, don’t care too much about the details. Meat. And a pitcher of iced tea.”
He nodded once and moved away, slipping easily through the crowd. Not that there was all that much of a crowd. It was getting late, sort of. It was after sundown, and with the way things were going right now that was late enough that a lot of people weren’t happy to be out and about. The ones who were present were tense, jittery.
I’d noticed that the last few times I’d been to Pryce’s. People were tense, scared.
It made me wonder. How long could you keep the tension up, how far could you push it, before things started to break?
Not that much farther, I was guessing. People were resilient, and they could bear up under a lot of stress, but this was a different kind of thing. It was a constant tension, something that never let up. You couldn’t just make it through it, because the next day was just as bad, and the day after that. You couldn’t rest, couldn’t recover from the stress.
People would still be able to cope, I thought. But the ways they coped would be problematic in themselves. People would break, in a variety of ways.
I shook that thought off and stared at the table instead. I was drumming my fingers, I noticed, although I hadn’t realized it.
I forced myself to stop, and shook my head. I needed to get my head in gear. I hadn’t slept in so long that I knew it was starting to affect my performance, and I was so hungry that I couldn’t look around the room for fear that I’d lose it and attack someone for their food. Or maybe even to make them food; I was still a werewolf, after all. It wasn’t like I hadn’t eaten people before.
And the worst part was that there wasn’t much, if anything, I could do about it. I tried to sleep earlier, but I couldn’t rest. When I closed my eyes I saw Snowflake lying in that hospital bed, and that wasn’t going to do me any good. I’d just ordered a massive amount of food, but I knew it wouldn’t do much to assuage my hunger.
It occurred to me that the line of thought I’d had a minute ago, thinking about stress and tension, might be applied to me, too. I could handle a lot, but push hard enough, long enough, and I’d start to break.
I couldn’t follow that thought much further before someone else sat in the chair Jack had vacated. I looked up and saw that it was Luna, and she was grinning at me.
I forced myself to sit up straighter. Luna wasn’t a predator, exactly, and we were almost friends, but the fact remained that she was an exceedingly dangerous person. Showing weakness around her wasn’t a good idea.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m surprised you’re here.”
“Why’s that?” she asked.
“Dangerous times. I figured you’d be hiding out somewhere.”
She rolled her shoulders in an odd, graceful sort of shrug. “I couldn’t stand to stay at home right now,” she said. “If there was ever a time when I wanted my ear to the ground, it’s right now. Dangerous times means opportunity.” She grinned a little wider. “Although I guess you’d know, wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Word on the street is you’re making moves. Big moves, from what I’ve heard.”
“Really,” I said. “What exactly is this word on the street?”
“Depends. What do you have to trade?”
“A bit,” I said cautiously. “But I was actually wondering whether you’d be interested in a different arrangement. Working for me on an ongoing basis, rather than this individual transaction deal.”
“I don’t know,” she said dubiously. “I like my independence. I like working on my own, you know?”
“You like it because of the climate you’ve done it in. Things have been calm, mostly peaceful. The handful of people that actually start problems have mostly left the small fish alone, you know what I mean?”
“And you don’t think that’s going to be true going forward.” It wasn’t a question.
“I know it’s not,” I said quietly. “This…everything is different now. A lot of the protections we’re used to, the rules that limited how aggressive the big players could be, they’re gone. The people we’re talking about here don’t have any problems with the idea of snatching people off the street. I heard from a reliable source that there’s an entire district in Amsterdam that’s empty. Someone went through, killing everyone they saw, and they didn’t stop until there was nothing larger than a cat in a five-block radius.”
She whistled. “Damn.”
“Yeah. If these people are willing to do things like that, do you really think they’ll hesitate to lean on you if they want something.”
She was quiet for a moment. “I feel,” she said at last, “like there’s a word for what you’re doing here. It’s like you’re playing good cop, bad cop, but you’re using the idea of someone else as your bad cop, so you come out looking good. Trying to intimidate me into agreeing to your offer when I’d rather not.”
“In part,” I admitted. “But what I’m saying is still true. I’m offering you protection, stability, and a chance to get in with what might end up being the dominant group in the city. I’m maybe offering you a say in how the world works going forward, even. And all I’m asking for is that you give up a little bit of your independence.” I shrugged. “I get that it’s not an ideal situation. But realistically, I do think this is the best offer you’re going to get. Up to you whether you take it.”
She didn’t look happy, but she didn’t tell me to screw off, either. “How much are you offering?”
“Hundred grand a month,” I said. It was the same offer I’d made Jack. I figured they were about equally valid to my operation, although for very different reasons, in very different ways.
“Hundred grand…damn.” She shook her head. “That’s a lot of money.”
I shrugged. “I make a lot of money these days,” I said. “And that’s not all I’m offering. You’d have a secure base of operations, official authority that a lot of groups will respect. Armed guards when you’re making a deal, protection if somebody comes after you. I’d even give you some funding and logistic support for the deals you make with other groups.”
She looked at me oddly. “You aren’t going to stop me from working with other people?”
“Of course not,” I said, feeling a little confused. Was that what her problem was about? “Most of what I’m hiring you for is your mind, Luna. You know people, and people are willing to deal with you, talk with you. Why would I want you to shut that down?” I shrugged again. “I mean, there’s some information I’d want you to keep private, and I’d want to hear about any unusual requests, but I have no reason to stop you from doing what you’re doing.”
She considered that for a long moment, then sighed. “Fine,” she said. “Where do I go to start?”
“Go to this address,” I said, grabbing a napkin.