Brynn Atwood observed the entrance to McQueenís Auction House, as she had done for the past few minutes while she gathered the courage she needed to leave the safety of her rental car. A steady stream of vehicles entered the parking lot and ejected browsers and buyers, all eager to view todayís auction and visit with acquaintances seen only during these once-a-week sales. Not Brynn. She was certainly the only person whoíd showed up today intending to prevent a murder.
Walking alone into a town populated with and run by loup garou wasnít the smartest thing she had ever done in her twenty-four years, but it certainly counted as the bravest. If she managed to achieve her goal, even her father would have to admit to her courage and to the validity of her visions. He didnít trust in her seer ability, nor did he believe that her vision of him being murdered by a loup garou would come true.
ìSurely you know I would never put myself into a situation that would result in such a calamitous outcome,î her father, Archimedes Atwood, had said the previous day. And as with every chilly encounter between them in the last few months, heíd spoken with the impatience of a strict teacher correcting a belligerent child. ìPerhaps some of your visions have come true on occasion, but do not use me to distract attention from your own disgrace. I have no more time for this nonsense.î
Her visions were always nonsense.
Archimedes was a Prime Magus in the Congress of Magi, one of four, as well as a powerful practitioner of elemental magic. Heíd never hidden his disappointment over Brynnís uncontrollable precognitive powersópowers he had yet to acknowledge were realóor her inability to one day claim his spot on the Congress. She was too weak, a failure as a Magus. She couldnít even manage to keep her job as a Congress tutor for more than two years. All she had left were her infrequent visions, in whatever time or manner they chose to come.
And worse yet, he had all but accused her of fabricating this vision and the need to save him in order to make up for the shame sheíd brought to their name when she was fired. She didnít want the vision to be true. She wanted her father alive for many years to come.
She would figure out how to save him on her own. She would prove her value.
Brynn climbed out of her car and surveyed the quickly filling parking lot. In any new situation, her best first step was to observe her surroundings, study others, and discover the way to best fit in. She had never before attended a public auction of any sort; she knew only that antiques and other goods were bid upon and purchased, sometimes at outrageous prices. Some patrons walked into the building carrying their own boxes, clearly expecting to purchase items. Others entered carrying only cups of coffee or soda, or small children.
The variety of patrons surprised her: young and old, scruffy and well-kempt, couples and singles and large groups, and families. Some drove up with pickups and vans; some parked expensive cars in the narrow, crowded lot. Everyone seemed at ease.
I must stick out like a smoking vampire in daylight.
Standing there like a fool would only garner her unwanted attention. Subtlety was the route to accomplishing her task. Brynn forced her feet to carry her forward, past other vehicles, toward the main entrance. Everyone seemed to be entering the large, barnlike building through those glass double doors. A few people came back to the parking lot from the side of the building, which indicated a back entrance/exit, as well. Sheíd tried to find blueprints of the layout before her arrival, but getting any sort of in-depth information on Cornerstone, Pennsylvania, was next to impossible.
The town had a small population of six hundred forty-one residents, and Brynn could guess that about ten percent were human. Cornerstone was founded by a run of loup garou nearly two centuries ago, and was one of a dozen similar safe havens around the country. Much like the Congress of Magi and a few surviving nests of vampires, loup garou runs required secrecy and anonymity to survive in the modern world. The weekly auctions at McQueenís brought outside income to the town without the interference of tourism or industry, and it kept them from appearing too insular to the outside world.
Her father stubbornly refused to have any faith in her abilities, but Brynnís visions of the future came true without fail, and the most recent had led her here to McQueenís Auction House. Led her to the loup garou sheíd seen standing over her fatherís broken body. The man her careful research told her was named Rook McQueen.
The boy, she corrected.
As a general rule, her people did not trust technology. The Magi trusted tradition and magic above all else. Growing up an only child with few friends, Brynn spent hundreds of hours on her computeróa gift awarded by her father on her twelfth birthday, as a means to keep her mind occupied beyond the limited resources of their homeís physical library. Only weeks before, she had spoken to him of her first vision. In the middle of reading a book, she had seen a clear image of a baby bird falling from a nest. It disturbed her so much that sheíd fled into the backyard in time to see it happen. She scooped the tiny robin up and climbed the tree where she spotted the nest, returning the lost baby to its siblings.
She was so proud when she told her father about it that nightónot only the bird, but the premonition. Her very first display of a Magus power. ìManifestations of a childís overactive imagination,î he had scoffed. ìDo not bother me with these small things, daughter.î
The computer became her gateway to the outside world, a link to knowledge far beyond the borders of her home in Chestnut Hill. And like the young sleuths in the slim novels sheíd loved so much, Brynn taught herself how to research and investigateóskills that had served her well these last few days as she raced to identify her fatherís killer.
One of three sons of Thomas McQueen, the auction houseís owner, Rook was two years younger than herself, a recent college graduate, and the former lead singer of a popular local rock bandónot exactly the portrait of a killer, loup garou or otherwise. And yet the brief glimpse of him in her vision, skin marked with tattoos, human teeth bared, and hands covered in her fatherís blood, showed him capable of violence, as all loup garou inevitably were.
She would not allow her father to become Rook McQueenís victim. Archimedes Atwood was too important, not only to herself but to the Congress of Magi. The Magi were small in number, and they relied on their leaders to protect them from their enemies, including the volatile, deadly loup garou. And as an elemental Magi, he was among the most powerful. Few others shared his ability to manipulate fire. Their people needed him, so Brynn needed to protect him. She had to find a way to prevent her fatherís murder before it occurred.
The biggest blank in her research was Rookís relationship to the runís Alpha. Brynn had no access to the Congressís files on the loup garou, and she couldnít directly ask her father for the name of Cornerstoneís Alphaóher father had no idea sheíd identified his would-be assassin, or that she was in central Pennsylvania doing reconnaissance on said assassin, instead of at the family home wallowing in her professional disgrace.
A random loup killing her father carried a very different meaning than a loup from within the higher ranks of the runís Alpha familyóthe latter could easily be considered an act of war against the Congress of Magi. A foolishly begun war, as the Magi and loup had maintained an uneasy peace for the last sixty years.
Concentrate, foolish girl, before you get yourself killed. This isnít one of your novels, this is real.
Brynn smoothed her palms down the front of her green t-shirt and tugged at the hem. She stopped, recognizing the nervous gesture, a habit from the two years sheíd worked as a Congress tutor, which required skirts and blouses and high heels. The t-shirt, denim shorts, and Keds combination sheíd chosen for todayís mission had been partly for comfort in the August heat and partly to blend in. The final piece of her costume was the Magus pendant hidden behind the t-shirt, which would act as a sensory mirror and hide her natural scentóany loup sniffing her for signs of ìotherî would smell a common human female, instead of a Magus. The auction attracted dozens of human buyers, but the people who ran it and worked there were still loup. The pendant was her only real protection against their sense of smell.
The stolen pendant, you fool. Plucking it from her fatherís office had nearly given her fits, and her father would be apoplectic when he discovered it was missingóyet another reason to finish her task and return home posthaste. Maybe, just maybe, she could prevent this vision from coming true. She had to try.
Nerves twisted her stomach into a tight ball that nearly squeezed the air from her lungs. The thump of music and drone of voices greeted her as Brynn pushed open the door and stepped inside McQueenís Auction House.
Avesta, protect me, your loyal daughter.
Plea to the Magiís patron sent, Brynn forced her anxiety into the background and paid closer attention to her surroundings. The entrance was spacious, with a short hallway and a brightly painted ìRestroomsî sign on her immediate right. On the left was a bulletin board covered in layers of posters and flyers advertising yard sales and on-site auctions. Past it was a roped-off stairwell going up to parts unknown. A handsome young man in cowboy boots and a matching leather hat leaned near the stairwell, sipping from a Styrofoam cup, as though he lived solely to hold up that particular wall.
His intent gaze landed on her, and she didnít have to search for the copper flecks in his brown eyes to know he was loup garou. Brynnís insides froze, but she forced out a calm, flirty smile. She knew she was attractive enough to gather a few second glances, and he was what she might hesitantly call beautifulóif a man could be considered soówith a slim nose and perfectly symmetrical features. However beautiful, this man was also her enemy. His body was fit, impeccably toned, and even at ease he thrummed with the power of his caged beast. He also wasnít Rook McQueen, so although he was quite pleasant to look at, he did not hold her interest.
He tilted his head in a friendly gesture, then winked. Brynn blushed and ducked her head, a reaction she did not have to fake. Male attention of any sort nowadays left her insides squirrely, a sense of bitter panic residing where her confidence had once dwelled. She also needed to remain inconspicuous while here, and flirting with a local cowboy was not the way to stay alive.
Brynn followed an elderly couple out into the main room. She slipped over to her left, out of the flow of traffic, and absorbed the scene of orderly chaos. An elevated pair of cash registers stood near the entrance, with lines on each side. The customers in line traded personal information for a large index card with a number written in black marker. Cards in hand, the customers went to one of many places in the cavernous room.
Dozens of tables of merchandise were set up along the perimeter of the room, three rows deep, and at the center of it all was a dais, two stools, and a microphone. Directly behind the dais was a long row of antique furniture and four glass cases. Rows of mismatched chairs covered the rest of the floor space, facing the dais. At least half the chairs were marked by either sitting bodies or empty boxes waiting for their owners. In the far back of the room, close to Brynnís position, was a food counter advertising sandwiches and chips and cold sodas, and it produced the bitter scent of over-brewed coffee. Opposite Brynn was another set of propped-open double doors, and a steady stream of people moved in and out of a second room that seemed crowded with boxes.
Someone jostled past on a waft of coffee-scented air, alerting Brynn to the competing odors in the room. The food counter fought with the tang of human body odor, as well as the musty stink of old paper and leather. A damp smell, like rain, hung over everything else, reminding her that even though she was surrounded by human beings, nonhumans also mingled. Every loup in the room posed a threat to her safety.
Brynn walked along the back wall, out of the heavier flow of people, alert for her prey. She spotted three other men who set off her loup alarms. Each wore a black t-shirt and jeans, just like the man outside in the cowboy boots.
McQueen employees. They must be.
One of them lingered near the dais, chatting with an older woman in a purple caftan, giving her his full attention while still managing to observe the room. He had a strong facial resemblance to the loup in the entrance, and a stronger resemblance to the photo sheíd found of Rook. Each could easily be one of Rookís two brothers. Brynn swallowed hard, mouth dry. If two of the three McQueen brothers worked here, maybe Rook did, as well. He could appear at any moment.
Your brother may one day murder my father.
The thought saddened her. Rook wasnít just a potential murderer. He was also a brother and a son, and his family would miss him if he were gone. They would also fight to protect him the moment they considered her a threat.
You canít think about that now, foolish girl.
Brynn inhaled a steadying breath. She palmed her right hand in her left, the fingers of her left hand smoothing over the gold band of the ring she wore on her right index finger. The top of the ring appeared to be a piece of costume jewelry, a blue gem the size of a nickel. A blue gem filled with a paralytic poison, developed decades ago to specifically target the loup garouís nervous system. One tap of the ring would send a dose of poison down the ringís band to her hand, and one firm handshake with any loup would put enough on his skin to kill him within an hour. No one would suspect such an innocuous item to be a deadly weapon, which was exactly the reason sheíd stolen it from her fatherís study.
As a small child, she had once overheard him boasting to another Magus of using the ring to drug an unsuspecting loup garou, and they were none the wiser. She had thought this made her father particularly clever, and the moment had stayed with her. Brynn Atwood might walk alone into a loup sanctuary town, but she wouldnít walk in unarmed.
She had a single dose of the antidote hidden in her car in case she accidentally poisoned someoneóno sense in leaving that to chance. She might be willing to kill to protect her father and she would defend herself if attacked, but she would not hurt an innocent loup.
If loup could be considered innocent. Her father would scoff at the notion.
She had considered her plan a dozen different ways before engaging. She didnít rush blindly ahead. She rarely undertook any sort of action without having first clearly considered the potential outcomes. The only action guaranteeing her vision never came true was her removing Rook from the equation. Murdering him first. That was, however, a last resort action that almost guaranteed her own death at loup garou hands, as well as bringing the full power of her fatherís anger down on their run.
She preferred the plan where she observed, gathered information, possibly discovered who the run Alpha was so she could introduce herself, and then took steps to prevent her vision that left all involved happy and healthyóher father especially.
Awareness prickled up her spine just as a male voice said, ìYou look a bit lost, miss.î
Brynn turned, not terribly surprised to find the cowboy from the entrance watching her. The cup was gone, but he still wore the silly leather hat, which cast a shadow over his eyes. It didnít hide his beauty, though.
ìI was supposed to meet someone here, but I donít see them yet,î she said, the rehearsed lie falling easily from her lips.
ìThat explains it, then.î His tone was light, his voice lyrical and calming, but it still held a hint of danger. And challenge.
ìWhy you looked like you were casing the place.î
She laughed without forcing it, finding actual humor in the comment. ìDo you often have problems with armed robbers staging stickups here?î
ìNo, but weíve caught a few thieves over the years, trying to break in and steal items before they go up for sale.î
ìAre you saying I look like a thief?î
ìYou just looked a little lost, thatís all. This your first time here?î
ìItís that obvious?î
He lifted his left shoulder in a shrug. ìMy father owns the place, and Iíve worked for him since I was a kid. I know all of the regulars, and most of the semi-regulars. New faces are easy to spot, especially faces as pretty as yours.î
Two things solidified for Brynn then: this man was definitely one of the McQueen brothers, and he was definitely flirting with her. Inbred disgust at the loupís attention seized her, and she barely managed to stall a physical reaction.
He jumped, then his hand went to his jeans pocket. Brynnís rising alarm calmed when he whipped out a vibrating cell phone and checked a message. ìDamn,î he said as he tucked the phone away again. ìWork calls.î
ìDonít let me keep you.î
ìI hope your friend shows soon. In the meantime, take a look around. Weíve got a lot of great stuff today.î
He eased past her and walked straight up the center aisle of chairs to the dais, directly to the other man she suspected of being a McQueen. She watched them from the corner of her eye, but the other man gestured at the furniture behind the dais. They didnít seem to be talking about her. Sheíd just had a conversation with her targetís brother and no one suspected a thing.
Donít get cocky. Things could still go badly in a momentís time.
She pushed away the voice of reason. A little more confident now, Brynn gave herself permission to look around. It was her first auction, after all. She wandered to the other side of the room, as much to make a show of belonging as to check out some of the items for sale. Sheíd always assumed auctions were full of dirty antiques and shiny glass baubles, but the table nearest her was covered with books. Boxes and boxes of booksóhardcovers, paperbacks, textbooks, in all genres and on all subjects. The reams of knowledge in those boxes made her chest ache for the satisfaction she used to get from teaching.
Until last month, when she was fired from her tutor position and found herself with zero standing among her people, and with no hope for her future.
Maybe after this youíll find a new calling as a Congress investigator.
Smiling at the ridiculous notion, she picked up a thick copy of the annotated works of Homer and smoothed back the torn corner of its dust jacket. Nostalgia for school and learning settled heavily in her chest, so heavily it tried to force up tears. Sheíd briefly considered returning to school and earning a new degree, since history and education hadnít served her very well. Briefly. If the Alpha reacted badly to her presence in his town, or Rook took issue with her allegations, sheíd never get the chance to reconsider her education more thoroughly.
Sheíd never get the chance to do a lot of things. Her father once said that loup justice was swift and merciless.
She put the book down and pinched the bridge of her nose, damming the tears and steeling her nerves. She would not cry, not here in public. Not when she needed to accomplish a job that required her full attention.
A flash of movement caught her attention, and Brynn turned her head toward the entrance. Her gaze drifted up. Above the entrance, probably accessible from that roped-off staircase, was a large window and a room behind. Two men stood at the window, talking and gesturing, in what looked like an office. Probably the managerís office, which gave him a birdís-eye view of his business.
The shorter of the two men captured and held her attention. Hints of a tattoo peeked out from beneath the sleeve of his black t-shirt. Metal glinted in his right earlobe, and another tattooóor possibly the sameócrept down his ear to his neck and disappeared into the collar of his shirt.
Even in profile, Brynn knew him. Fear and rage collided in a storm of cold and heat, and she clenched her hands into tight fists.
Rook McQueen. Her fatherís future killer.
Blood rushed hot in her veins, and her heart thumped harder. He wasnít just a face in a vision any longer. He was real.
ìMaíam?î The strange male voice alarmed Brynn into spinning around too fast. Her elbow clipped the voice owner in the chest and he grunted. Brynnís stomach bottomed out. The man from the front of the room, her second McQueen brother suspect, frowned darkly, and she saw her own death there.
ìIím so sorry,î Brynn said. ìAre you all right?î
ìFine. Iím sorry to bother you, but do you drive a white Dodge Neon?î
She blinked at the odd question about her rental car. ìYes, I do.î
ìSomeone reported that they backed into your car. You may want to come with me and exchange insurance information.î
ìOh for AvóGodís sake.î Brynn mentally slapped herself for the near slip. Using ìAvestaís sakeî in the presence of a loup garou was as obvious as wearing a t-shirt that said ìYes, Iím a Magus Spy. Kill Me.î
ìSmall lot, so it happens once in a while,î the man said. Up close, she better saw the resemblance to the cowboy-wannabe in his narrow nose and hooded eyes. However, the slight roundness in his cheekbones and higher forehead showed a more pronounced similarity to Rook. And he was definitely older than the other two. ìThe auction doesnít start for another forty minutes, if youíre worried about missing something.î
ìNo, itís fine,î Brynn said, even though it wasnít. The coincidence unnerved her, but she had no choice except to see how this played out.
He stepped to the side. ìAfter you.î
She walked to the end of the row of chairs and made her way back toward the auction house entrance, keenly aware of her shadowís presence, and that sheíd just turned her back on one of her peopleís greatest enemies.