Authors: Ilona Andrews
Sweep in Peace
Come With Me
A man walked into a darkened room, moving on silent feet. He stopped by the round table, poured a glass of red wine from a bottle, and drank. A refined, slightly oaky taste washed over his mouth. He savored it, watching the stars rise outside an enormous window past the stone balcony. Muffled sounds of a ball filtered through the floor from below. It would be a good twenty minutes, perhaps half an hour, before anyone would discover the body in the office, neatly tucked in behind the desk. By that point he would be long gone.
He almost never did field work himself anymore. But this one, this one was special. Politically insignificant now but personally deeply satisfying. A hint of a smile curved his lips. He supposed some would call him cruel for killing an old man ravaged by magic and disease, and some would call him kind. He was neither. It was simply a thing that had to be done and he did it.
If his old mentor still ran things, he would have caught heat for this little outing. The smile dripped down into a narrow, sardonic frown. Nobody told him what to do anymore. Nobody had the right to berate him. Not even the Crown. He had accomplished far too much for any rebuke. In fact, if the current ruling family had any ambition, they would murder him out of principle, just to maintain power. Thankfully, they were far too civilized and complacent.
At twenty eight he had climbed the ladder of his chosen profession as high as he could. Life was no longer a challenge.
He was so mercilessly bored.
A pale star detached itself from its neighbors, curved over the sky, and drained down in a shower of pale glow onto the balcony. A dark-haired man stepped out of the light. Interesting. The spymaster sipped his wine.
The man wore jeans and a tattered cloak. Not from around here.
“I’m so glad I caught you,” the dark-haired man said. “You’re a hard man to get alone.”
Interesting choice of words. “Wine?”
“No, thanks. I’m on the clock. I’ll come straight to the point. Are you bored?”
The spymaster blinked.
“With this, I mean.” The man indicated the lavish room. “Shifting the future of countries and colonies. Rather small potatoes, don’t you think?”
“It has its moments.”
“How would you like to raise the stakes?” The dark-haired man smiled. “I represent a small but powerful organization. We’re known as Arbitrators. We specialize in dispute resolutions. You’re aware that Earth is but one of the planets in the solar system. There are many star systems and many planets out there. Many dimensions, many different realities even, to be specific. Once these inhabitants of the Greater Beyond decided to have a war. It went rather badly, so when the proverbial nuclear explosions settled, it was agreed that a powerful but neutral body for settling conflicts should be established. We would like to recruit you to be member of that fine body.”
Perhaps the man was insane. But if he weren’t…
“You will receive extensive training and granted funds to maintain your own staff. Sadly you will be forbidden from seeking independent sources of income until your terms of service is over. Nor can you return to your home planet until the expiration of your term.”
“How long is the term of service?”
“About twenty standard years. Most people prefer to do more. Nothing compares to preventing an interstellar war knowing billions of lives hang in the balance.” The man grinned. “It’s a bit of a rush.”
The spymaster felt his pulse rise and strained to hold it in check.
“We recruit only the best and I’m afraid the offer is made only once. You do not get to say goodbye.”
“So I must decide now?”
The spymaster drained his glass.
Below someone screamed.
“And that’s our cue.” The dark-haired man smiled again. “Yes or no?”
“My brother comes with me. I’d like to extend an offer of service to two others.”
“We can arrange that. Of course, you realize that the decision is up to them. We do not compel. We only entice.”
“I’m sure they’ll join me.”
A sound of feet thudding up the stairs rushed from the hallway.
“Very well. We should be off then.” The man offered him his hand. “As corny as it sounds, please take my hand.”
The spymaster held out his hand and the dark-haired man clasped it in a firm handshake. “Welcome to the service, George Camarine. My name is Klaus Demille. I will be your guide for this orientation.”
The door burst open.
Pale glow coated George’s eyes. The last thing he saw were guards lunging at him in a vain attempt to avenge the murder of their master.
“Rest in peace, Spider,” he murmured before the light swallowed him whole.
Some visitors from out of state were convinced that Texas was a dry rolling plain studded with longhorn cattle, oil derricks, and an occasional cowboy in a huge hat. They also believed that our state had only one type of weather – scorching. That wasn’t true at all. In fact, we had two types: drought and flood. This December the town of Red Deer was experiencing the latter kind of weather. The rain poured and poured, turning the world grey, damp, and dreary.
I looked outside the living room window and hugged myself. I could see a section of a flooded street, and past it, the Avalon subdivision, hunkering down under the cascade of cold water. The inside of Gertrude Hunt Bed and Breakfast was warm and dry, but the rain was getting to me all the same. After a week of this downpour, I was ready for a clear sky. Maybe it would let up tomorrow. A girl could hope.
It was a perfect evening to snuggle up with a book, play a video game, or watch TV. Except I wanted to do none of those things. I’ve been snuggling up with a book, playing video games, or watching TV every night for the last six months with only my dog, my inn, and its lone guest for company and I was a bit tired of it.
Caldenia exited the kitchen, carrying her cup of tea. She looked to be in her sixties, beautiful, elegant, and cloaked in an air of experience. If you saw her on the street in New York or London, you’d think she was a lady of high society whose days were filled with brunches with friends and charity auctions. Her Grace, Caldenia ka ret Magren was indeed high society, except she preferred world domination to friendly brunches and mass murder to charity. Thankfully those days were behind her.
On this evening she wore a sweeping kimono the color of rose wine with gold accents. It flared as she walked, giving her thin figure a suitably regal air. Her silver hair, usually artfully arranged on her head into a flattering hairdo, drooped slightly. Her makeup looked a little smudged and just a hair short of her typical impeccable perfection. The rain was getting to her as well.
She cleared her throat.
What now? “Your Grace?”
“Dina, I’m bored,” Caldenia announced.
Too bad. I guaranteed her safety, not her entertainment. “What about your game?”
Her Grace gave me a shrug. “I’ve beaten it five times on the Deity setting. I’ve reduced Paris to ashes, because Napoleon annoyed me. I’ve eradicated Gandhi. I’ve crushed George Washington. Empress Wu had potential, so I eliminated her before we ever cleared Bronze Age. The Egyptians are my pawns. I dominate the planet. Oddly, I find myself mildly fascinated by Genghis Khan. A shrewd and savage warrior, possessing a certain magnetism. I left him with a single city and I periodically make ridiculous demands which I know he can’t meet so I can watch him squirm.”
She liked him, so she was torturing him. Her Grace in a nutshell. “What Civilization did you choose?”
“Rome, of course. Any title other than Empress would be unacceptable. That’s not the point. The point, my dear, is that our lives are beginning to feel dreadfully dull. The last guest we had was two months ago.”
She was preaching to the converted. Gertrude Hunt required guests, for financial and other reasons. They were the lifeblood of the inn. Caldenia helped some, but for the inn to thrive, we needed guests, if not a steady stream, then a large party. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to get those guests. Once upon a time, Gertrude Hunt sat on a crossroads of a busy road, but decades passed, the world had changed, the roads shifted, and now Red Deer, Texas was a small town in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t get much traffic.
“Would you like me to pass out fliers on the corner, Your Grace?”
“Do you think it would help you drum up business?”
“Well then, that answers your question. Don’t get snippy, Dina, it really doesn’t become you.”
She glided up the stairs, her kimono waving behind her like a mantle.
I needed tea. Tea would make everything better.
I went to the kitchen and reached for the cup to make myself some tea. My left foot landed in something cold and wet. I looked down. A small yellow puddle greeted me. Well, doesn’t that just take the cake?
My tiny Shih-tzu dashed into the kitchen, her black and white fur waving like a battle flag. She saw my foot in the puddle. Her brain decided to beat a hasty retreat, but her body still kept going. She tripped over her own paws and smacked head first into the island.
“What is this?” I pointed to the puddle.
Beast flipped onto her feet, slunk behind the island, and poked her head out, looking guilty.
“You have a perfectly good doggie door. I don’t care if it’s raining, you go outside.”
Beast slunk about some more and whined.
Magic chimed, a soft not-quite sound only I could hear – the inn letting me know we had guests.
Beast exploded into barks, zooming around the island in excited circles. I hopped on one foot to the kitchen sink, stuck my foot under water, and washed my hands and my foot with soap. The floor under the puddle split, forming a narrow gap. Tile flowed like water and the offending puddle disappeared. The floor resealed itself. I wiped my hands on the kitchen towel, ran to the front door, Beast bounding at my heels, and swung it open.
A white Ford Explorer was parked in the driveway. Through the screen door I saw a man in the driver seat. A woman sat next to him. Behind them two smaller heads moved back and forth – kids in the back seat, probably stir-crazy after a long trip. A nice family. I reached forward with my magic.
I thought the chime didn’t sound quite right.
The man got out and ran to the front door, shielding his glasses from the rain with his hand and stopped under the porch roof. About thirty five, he looked like a typical suburban dad: jeans, T-shirt, and the slightly desperate expression of someone who had been in a car with small children for a several hours.
“Hi!” he said. “I’d like to rent a room.”
This is exactly why Gertrude Hunt had no listed phone number and no online listing. We weren’t on any tourist brochures. How did they even find us? “I’m sorry, we have no vacancy.”
He blinked. “What do you mean, you have no vacancy? It looks like a big house and there are no cars in the driveway.”
“I’m sorry, we have no vacancy.”
The woman got out of the car and ran over. “What’s the hold-up?”