Ill wind, p.1
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       Ill Wind, p.1

         Part #1 of Weather Warden series by Rachel Caine
 
Ill Wind
Chapter One

  ONE

  Cloudy and cool, with an 80 percent possibility of moderate to severe thunderstorms by mid-afternoon.

  Well, thank God this is about to be over, I thought as I drove-well, blew-past the sign that marked the Westchester, Connecticut, city limits. Traffic sucked, not surprisingly; rush hour was still in full swing, and I had to moderate my impatience and ride the brake while I watched for my exit. Calm down. Things will be back to normal in just a few more minutes.

  Okay, so I was a little too optimistic. Also unrealistic, since me and normal have never really been on speaking terms. But, in my defense, I needed all the optimism I could muster right then. I'd been running on adrenaline and bad coffee for more than thirty hours straight. I'd been awake for so long that my eyes felt like they'd been rolled in beach sand and Tabasco sauce. I needed rest. Clean clothes. A shower. Not necessarily in that order.

  First, I had to find the guy who was going to save my life.

  I found the exit, navigated streets and annoying stoplights until I found the residential neighborhood I was looking for. I checked the scrap of paper in my lap, studied curbside house numbers, and finally pulled the car to a stop in front of a nice Colonial-style home, the kind of place a Realtor would describe as a "nice starter. " It had flame-red tulips planted in mannered rows under the windows, and the lawn looked well behaved, too. Weird. Of all the places I'd have expected to find Lewis Levander Orwell, the most powerful man in the world . . . well, this wasn't it. I mean, suburbia? Hello!

  I tapped chipped fingernails on the steering wheel, weighed risks and benefits, and finally popped open the door and stepped out of the car.

  The euphoria I'd felt when I was pulling into town vanished as soon as my feet hit solid ground, crushed under a load of exhaustion. Too much stress, too little sleep, too much fear. Speaking of fear . . . I felt wind on the back of my neck, and I turned to look east. A storm loomed like purple mountains' majesty, big cumulonimbus clouds piled on top of each other like a fifty-car interstate pileup. I could feel it noticing me, in the way storms had. No question about it, I needed to be out of Westchester before that thing decided to pounce. I'd been watching storms crawl along the coast, paralleling me all the way from Florida. The nasty part was that it might actually be the same storm, stalking me.

  They did that sometimes. It was never good.

  Nothing I could do about it right now. I had bigger issues. Up the concrete walk, up three steps lined with geraniums in terra-cotta pots, to a spacious white front door. I knocked and waited, rocking back and forth on three-inch heels that felt like something from the spring collection of the Spanish Inquisition. Bad planning on my part, but then I'd been expecting a pleasant little business meeting, not a two-day panicked flight cross-country. I looked down at myself and winced; the blue French-cuffed polyester shirt was okay, but the tan skirt was a disaster of car-accordioned linen. Ah well. It would have been nice for Lewis to swoon with desire on seeing me, but I'd definitely settle for him pulling my bacon out of the fire.

  Silence. I cupped my hands around my eyes and tried to peer through glass not designed for peering. No movement inside that I could see. With a sinking feeling of disaster, I realized I'd never considered the possibility that my knight in shining armor could be away from the castle.

  I knocked on his door once more, squinted through the glass again, and tried the bell. I heard muffled tones echoing through the house, but nothing stirred. The house looked normal.

  Normal and very, very empty.

  Out where I was, Westchester was enjoying spring sunshine. People walked, kids whooped around on bikes, dogs ran with their tongues hanging out. Inside the house, there was winter silence. I checked the mail slot. Empty. Either he'd been home earlier, or he'd stopped his mail altogether. No papers on the lawn, either.

  I considered my options, but really I had only two: get some idea of where else to look, or lie down and die. I decided to do some scouting. Unfortunately, the grass was damp, and my three-inch heels weren't designed for pathfinding. With some cursing and tripping and excavating myself from spike-heeled holes, I clumped around the house.

  The house had that don't-touch-me feeling that indicated strong wards and protections, but I circled it anyway, checking the windows. Yep, wards on every one, good strong ones. The yard was nice and neat as a pin, with the look of being maintained by a service instead of somebody with a passion for plants. Lewis had a very nice workshop in the back, which was devoted half to woodworking, half to magecraft; that half was warded up the wazoo, no way I could do more than just glance in the window before I had to retreat or get zapped.

  Powerful stuff. That was good-I desperately needed a powerful guy.

  I banged on the back door and squinted in the square of window. Still nothing moving. I could see the living room, decorated in Basic American Normal-looked like everything in it had come out of some upscale catalog. If Lewis lived here, he was a lot more boring than I'd ever imagined.

  I had plenty of powerful tricks up my sleeve, but they didn't include breaking and entering. The kind of powers I possessed, over water and wind, could destroy a house but not open a door. I could have summoned a hailstorm-a small one, okay?-to break a couple of windows, but no, that would be wrong and besides, I'd probably get caught because it was pretty showy stuff. So I resorted to human tactics.

  I tossed a rock at the window.

  Now, I was pretty sure it wasn't going to work, but in a way it did; the rock bounced off some thick invisible rubbery surface about a half inch from the window, and the back door slammed open.

  "Yes?" snarled the guy who blocked the doorway. He was big, and I mean huge-big, tanned, bald, with two gold earrings that twinkled in the sunny Westchester morning. He was wearing a purple vest with gold embroidery over rippling muscles. I had the impression of dark pants, but I didn't dare look down. Didn't matter, his chest was definitely worth checking out. Pecs of the gods, no kidding.

  Just my luck. Lewis had left a Djinn at home-his own personal mystical alarm system.

  "Hi," I said brightly. "Lewis around?"

  He scowled. "Who wants to know?"

  "Joanne Baldwin. " I held out my hand, palm up; the Djinn passed his palm over mine and read the white runes that glittered in its path. "We're friends. Me and Lewis go way back. "

  "Never heard of you," he said brusquely. Djinn are not known for their chatty nature, or their sunny disposition. In fact, they're known for being difficult to handle and-if they don't like you-fully capable of finding some sneaky way to do you in. Not that I was an expert, exactly; Djinn were reserved for bigger fish than me, sort of the equivalent of a company car perk in the Wardens Association. I didn't even rate a reserved parking space yet.

  The Djinn was still staring at me. "Go now," he rumbled.

  I stood my ground. Well, it was really his ground, but I stood it anyway. "Sorry, can't. I need to talk to Lewis. Urgently. "

  "He is not here. Being that you are a Warden, I won't kill you for your lack of manners. " He started to close the door.

  "Wait!" I slapped my hand-coincidentally, the one with the rune-flat against the wood. It wasn't my upper body strength that made him hesitate, that's for sure. Even Mr. Universe couldn't have held a door against a Djinn, much less a five-foot-five woman with more attitude than body mass. "When will he be back?"

  The Djinn just stared at me. Djinn eyes are colors not found in the human genome, specially formulated to produce maximum intimidation. Some of them are citrine yellow, some bright fluorescent green, and they're all scary. This guy's were a purple that Elizabeth Taylor would have envied. Beautiful, and cold as the colors in arctic ice.

  "Look, I need to find him," I
said. "I need his help. There are lives at stake here. "

  "Yes?" He hadn't blinked. "Whose lives?"

  "Well, mine, anyway," I amended, and tried for a sheepish grin. He returned the smile, and I wished he hadn't; it revealed perfect white teeth that would have looked more appropriate on a great white shark.

  "You stink of corruption," he said. "I will not help you. "

  "That's up to your master, isn't it?" I shot back. "Come on, he knows me! Just ask him. I know you can. He wouldn't leave you here without any way to contact him. Not even Lewis goes around abandoning Djinn like disposable pens. "

  The purple eyes were really, really getting on my nerves. I could feel the Djinn's power burning my skin where my hand touched the door, another spiteful tactic to get me to let go so he could slam it shut and ward me clear out to the street. There's nothing stronger than a Djinn on its home territory. Nothing.

  The pain in my hand got worse. Smoke rose from my hand where it pressed against the white-painted wood door, and my whole body shook from nausea and reaction. But I didn't let go.

  "Illusion," I stammered. The Djinn was still grinning. "Don't waste my time. "

  "My powers could not touch a true Warden," he said. "If you burn, you burn because you deserve it. "

  All right, I'd had about enough of playing with Mr. Clean gone bad. I took my hand away from the door and held it up.

  The world breathed around me.

  I might have stunk of corruption, but I still commanded the wind, and it slammed into the Djinn with force of a speeding Volkswagen. Djinn are essentially vapor.

  I blew him away.

  He was gone for about a half-second, and then he re-formed, looking ready to pull my brain out through my nostrils. So I hit him again. And again. The last time, he re-formed very slowly all the way across the room, looking pissed off but respectful. I hadn't made the mistake of setting foot across his threshold, so he couldn't strike back. All his awesome power-and it was truly awesome-was useless. So long as I didn't break the wards, I could stand out there all day and toss microbursts and katabatic gusts.

  The Djinn muttered something unpleasant. I held my hand up again. A strong breeze shoved my hair around, and I felt the warm tingle that meant I had at least one more good Djinn-blasting gust at my command.

  "I really, really don't have time to dick around with you," I said. "Give him my name. Tell him I need to see him. Or else. "

  "No one threatens me!" he growled.

  "I'm not threatening, sweet pea. " I could feel the white runes on my hand glowing. My dark hair whipped around my face in the wind, which I kept coiling around me, building tornadic speed. "Want to bet I can blow you all the way into a teeny little open bottle and stick a cork in you?"

  "You know not what you are doing," he said, more quietly.

  "Wrong, I know exactly what I'm doing. Want another practical demonstration?"

  He held up one hand in the universal language of surrender. I let the wind swirl and die. The Djinn reached over and picked up something from the table, and it took me a few seconds to realize it was a cell phone. Good God, the Djinn had entered the age of technology. Next thing you know, a satellite dish in every bottle, broadband Internet, microwave ovens . . .

  The Djinn punched numbers, said something, and turned away from me while he talked. I had the leisure to examine the back of a Djinn, which is something you rarely do. He had a nice ass, but his legs ended in a swirl of vapor somewhere around knee level. Still, not a disappointment.

  He finished the call, turned back, and bared pointed teeth at me. Uh-oh, I thought.

  "Come inside," he invited. "No harm will come to you. "

  "I'll wait out here, thanks. " I rocked back and forth. My feet felt like somebody had set them on fire from the soles up, and the couch in the living room looked cushy and inviting. I wished the Djinn hadn't started being nice. It was harder to maintain my tough-as-nails bitchy attitude, especially when I wanted to cry and curl up in a ball on those nice, soft cushions.

  "Suit yourself. " The Djinn turned away to root around in some drawers in the kitchen. He came up with a battery, scowled at it, and threw it back. A corkscrew. One of those clippy things for opened bags of chips. "Ah! Here. Take this. "

  He tossed something shiny at me. I caught it and felt a flash of cold, something sharp turning in my fingers, and then I was holding nothing but an expanding breath of mist. I opened my hand and stared down. Nothing to show for it but a faint red mark on my palm. I frowned at it and extended a tingle of Oversight, but there was nothing there. Nothing harmful, anyway.

  "What the hell is it?" I asked.

  The Djinn shrugged. "A precaution," he said. Sharp-toothed grin again, very unsettling. "In case you lose your way. "

  Before I could offer a polite thanks-but-no-thanks, I felt the steel psychic slam of wards coming up to full strength. The Djinn was evidently done screwing around with me, even as a diversion.

  He floated up to the doorway, watching me as I backed down the steps while fighting against it.

  "Hey!" I fumed. "Dammit, I just want to talk to him! That's all! I'm not going to turn him in or anything!"

  "Drive," he said. "You'll be contacted with directions. "

  I was off the back porch and out of the yard and on the sidewalk before I could even think about fighting back.

  I flexed my hand, but it didn't feel any different than it ever had. In Oversight, there was nothing visible but flesh and bone, muscles and nerves, the luminous course of blood moving on its busy way.

  The Djinn had smelled the Demon Mark on me. That was bad. Very bad.

  It meant I didn't have much time left.

  God has a sense of humor, and in my experience, it is never kind. I'd tempted fate consistently for days now . . . I hadn't packed a toothbrush, a change of clothes, or a tampon. Well, at least I had my American Express Platinum, with the infinite credit limit for emergencies . . . but then again, I didn't dare use it. My friends and colleagues would be watching for any sign of me, and until I found Lewis-and safety-I didn't dare attract their attention. If the FBI could find me, the Wardens sure as hell wouldn't have any trouble.

  I kept myself awake as I drove my sweet midnight-blue '71 Mustang out of town by making a mental shopping list. Underwear: check. Toiletries: check. Clothes: definitely. New shoes: a must.

  I sniffed the air inside the car. A shower and a car deodorizer wouldn't hurt, either. Maybe something with that new-car aroma. I love classic cars, but they come with baggage and years of ingrained stinkiness. Feet, sweat, sex, the ancient ghosts of spilled coffee. I smelled it only after a few hours on the road, and maybe it was all in my head, but just now I'd give anything for a clean, fresh scent like they claimed in the commercials.

  I rolled down the windows and smelled something else, something more menacing. Rain. The storm was getting closer.

  I find that as a Warden, it pays to drive something aerodynamic and fast that the wind will have a hard time shoving over a cliff. Just because I can control weather-with the proper focus-doesn't mean the weather likes it, or that it won't decide to screw with me at the most inconvenient times. In my business, we not only understand chaos theory, but we totally abide by it, as well. Chaos happens. Plan for speed.

  I accelerated out of town in complete defiance of traffic laws and headed out on the maze that was the Connecticut road system. Basically heading south and west, because that was away from the coming storm, which had turned the eastern sky a heavy gray green. You'll be contacted with directions. Had the Djinn just screwed with me? Possibly; the Djinn were known for their mean-spirited sense of humor. Maybe he hadn't gotten hold of Lewis. Maybe Lewis had told him he didn't want to see me, in which case the only directions the Djinn was honor-bound to give me led straight to hell.

  I was in antiques country on CT 66, driving past shops that sold Federal chests and Shaker chairs, some of th
em even genuine. On a better day, I might have been tempted to stop. My Florida house was due for a redecoration, and I liked the psychic feel of antiques. It was definitely time to get over that Martha Stewart everything-in-its-place phase; I was so tired of pastels and good manners, I could yak. The fantasy that I would be going home-ever-to a normal life was something I was clinging to like a spar on a stormy ocean.

  I was just passing a shop that housed every piece of junk from the nineteenth century when suddenly the radio crackled on. Hair on the back of my neck stood rigid, and I knew there was a spell traveling with me. A big, powerful spell, coming, no doubt, from my friendly neighborhood Djinn.

  The radio spun channels, picking out its message like words on a ransom note.

  A high female voice. "Drive . . . "

  Midrange male. "To . . . "

  Full-throated Broadway show tune. "Oklahoma is OK!"

  "What?" I yelped. "You're kidding, right?"

  The radio flipped stations again. It settled on classic rock. "No-no, no, nuh-no, no, no-no-no-no-no no no no, nuh-no. " Either the Djinn was putting me on, which would be seriously unfunny, or the spell was coming from Elsewhere, I hoped not an Elsewhere that began with the letter Hell.

  "Very funny," I muttered. I shifted gears and felt the Mustang stretch and run beneath me like a living thing. "Any special place in Oklahoma? It's not exactly Rhode Island. There's a lot of real estate. "

  Letters this time. "O . . . K . . . C" Oklahoma City.

  I got a bad feeling. "No offense, but can I at least get some proof this message is from Lewis?"

  "No," said a female voice, decisively. Static. The radio clicked off.

  It could be the Djinn. In fact, it was even likely; I'd embarrassed him, and he owed me payback for that. But he had made a call, and I couldn't waste the chance if he was honestly giving me instructions on how to find his boss. Djinn had a host of faults, but out-and-out lying wasn't among them.

  And besides, I had to outrun the storm behind me anyway.

  "Oklahoma City," I sighed aloud. "Home of heavy weather. Fabulous. "

  The only redeeming thing about it was that I knew the territory, and one of my best friends in the world had retired in OKC. It'd be nice to have a friend, right now. Somebody to count on. Some shoulder to cry on.

  I had to look for the silver lining, anyway. Because the storm cloud was pretty damn dark, and only getting worse.

  I'd met Lewis Levander Orwell at Princeton. He was a graduate student-already had a degree in science, then a Juris Doctor to practice law. His explanation, strangely, had been that he'd wanted something to fall back on, in case the whole magic thing didn't work out. Apparently he had the whole Magical Arts thing mixed up with Liberal Arts.

  And for a while, it looked like having a fallback career was a good idea. Lewis had been recruited- or drafted-after demonstrating some definite weatherworking abilities at the age of fifteen, but that talent had seemed to fade. He had loads of potential but no actual . . . nothing concrete to show what his powers might be or what form they might really take. Then, his second year in the Program, he was spotted working in the garden. In the winter, knee-deep in snow. Growing roses.

  Red, blooming roses the size of dinner plates. He was honestly surprised that it was hard to do.

  He was originally identified as an Earth Warden- someone who could shape living things, alter the land itself, make crops grow in fallow fields, prevent or cause earthquakes and volcanoes. A strong, deep power, and very rare. Then, in his third year of the Program, they'd discovered he also had an affinity for fire. Dual specialties are vanishingly rare. Only five other Wardens in recorded history had ever commanded earth and fire together. Water and air-that was expected, even typical-but earth and fire didn't blend well. Lewis was talked about a lot. He was, we all heard, expected to do Great Things.

  Must have been a lot of pressure, but you'd never have known it from the way he acted. Lewis was quiet; he did his work, went to classes, had some friends but gave the strong impression that if any man was an island, it was Isla Lewis. I admit, I pined after him. I had my reasons.

  Unfortunately, Lewis avoided Program girls like the plague-which was kind of my fault, because our first encounter had been, shall we say, memorable. Anyway, he deliberately went for the normal girls. Sociology majors, psych grad students, the occasional goofy art student. Girls whose biggest aspiration was to get a secretarial job at Smith Barney and vacation with their bosses in the Bahamas . . . unlike those of us in the Program, who dreamed of facing down F5 tornadoes and calming raging rivers.

  Because I was not stalking him, just keenly aware of his presence, I happened to be around for The Event, which was what we began calling it later when there was some perspective on what had happened.

  That was the night Lewis got the shit kicked out of him by six frat boys on a bender.

 
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