We hit the scene, and I started delegating. “All right, I want you to get a perimeter reading—”

“Oh, god. Again?”

I stopped and looked at my companion, puzzled. “What do you mean, again?”

“Again. This.” Farshad made a helpless little gesture, indicating the room we’d just walked into.

I put my kit down on the floor and tried to see whatever it was he was reacting to. It was a nice room. It was a nice house, from what I’d seen on the walk through it. The room in front of us had just the right amount of furniture, less than fifty years old but well crafted, not Ikea specials or en suite acquisitions from a “fine furnishings” catalog. Paintings on the wall were original, if not spectacular, the rugs underfoot quality but not hand-woven. It seemed pretty straightforward and ordinary. For a crime scene, anyway.

“What?” I asked again, aware, even if Farshad wasn’t, that the client was waiting in the hallway outside the room, impatient for us to get on with it. I’d gotten to the office that morning and been handed a job ticket and a trainee. I hadn’t even had time to grab a cup of coffee before we were off to the scene, and my patience might not have been all that patient.

My trainee shook his head, clearly resigned to the fact that I just wasn’t getting it. “Don’t you ever get tired of all this? Perimeter readings, scan-and-pan, collect evidence, sort and discard? You don’t find it boring?” Far swept his hand over the scene, an expression of almost comical resignation on his face. I looked again, then looked back at him.

“Not really, no.”

Farshad was one of our new hires; he’d only been on the job for three months. If he was bored with the routine already, he wouldn’t last to his half-year evaluation.

He opened his mouth to say something, and I held up a hand to stop him. “Just go into fugue and see what you can find, okay?”

Far nodded, sinking onto his haunches and resting his hands on his knees. I counted silently with him as he slipped into the fugue state that made concentrating current easier, and then followed down after him. Once, when I’d been a new-made pup, I’d had to count back, too. Now it was a matter of breathing deep, once, and sliding into my core.

This was Far’s third site. I’d lost count around twenty-five. We’d gotten busy over the past year. That was why we’d hired new staff—and why I was stuck training them.

All right, not entirely fair; everyone was doing newbie-training. But I seemed to be the only one who hated it. Griping, though, did not close the case, and the client was waiting.

An exhale, and I opened my eyes to examine the site again. Seen in mage-sight, the rug and sofa were splattered with a dark stain. Not blood or ichor; that would have shown up with normal eyesight. It didn’t carry any of the neon-sharp trace of current, either, so it wasn’t magical. Something new? Part of me groaned—an open-and-shut investigation would have been nice, considering the paperwork waiting for me back at the office. On the other handÂ…something new? Every sense I had perked up at the thought.

We made it back to the office before lunch, despite the usual Monday transit snafus. At least it hadn’t been raining; it had rained every day for the past week. Summer would be starting soon—maybe the sun would show up eventually.

Venec had set up shop today in the smallest conference room, spreading his gear over the table. When we came in, he leaned back in the single chair at the table, an interesting contrast to his usual hold-up-the-wall stance.


I’d written my own evaluation of the site while we were there, taking samples both magical and physical, but I let Farshad make his initial report unassisted. Far quavered a little under Venec’s sharp bark, but then stood tall and delivered. Good pup.

The job was open-and-shut after all—the client’s son had tried to exorcise a family ghost who was annoying him and ended up attracting a succubus. The ghost escaped; the boy did not. We had the succubus’s trace now, though, so the client could negotiate for her idiot offspring’s return—or not, as she still had two other kids who looked to be smarter than their brother. Whatever happened, it wasn’t our concern any longer. PUPI investigated and handed over our findings; we were not judge, jury, or negotiator.

In slightly longer words, Far was telling Venec exactly that. Minus the comment about possibly not ransoming the teenager: it was a common office opinion that three-year-olds had more tact than I did.

*he’s doing well*

The thought came to me, not in the push of emotions or sensations the way pinging—current-to-current communi-cation—usually did, but a soft voice in my ear, clear and defined. It was unnatural as hell, but after a year of it, I didn’t even flinch.

*he’s not going to make it* I sent back, with the added implication of a money bet.

There was a sense of snorting amusement and acceptance of my bet. You took your amusement where you could some days.

The source of that mental snort was now leaning forward in his chair, listening to Far’s report, not a twitch indicating that he wasn’t giving the boy one hundred percent attention. Benjamin Venec. One of the two founding partners of PUPI—Private, Unaffiliated Paranormal Investigations. Tall, dark, and cranky. Sexy as hell, if you liked the type. My boss. And, much to our combined and considerable dismay, my “destined merge,” according to every magical source and Talent we could consult.

That had been, putting it mildly, an unpleasant, unwanted surprise. To both of us.

The Merge was—according to legend, because there were no modern references—what happened when two matched Talent encountered each other, when our cores blended or swirled or something equally annoying and sparkly.

The best hypothesis we could put together was that the Merge was some kind of coded breeding program to make sure there were little baby magic users for the next generation. Talent wasn’t purely genetic, but it did seem to bud in family trees more often than not.

The idea of magic having an ulterior goal was bad enough; being its means was worse. I was twenty-four and in no mood to become a broodmare, even if Venec had been so inclined. More to the point, neither of us took very well to anyone telling us what—or who—our destiny was, especially since it would totally screw with the dynamics of a job we both put first, second, and occasionally third in our lives.

In true rational, adult fashion, we’d therefore both spent the first few months ignoring it. That had been pretty much a failure; when you literally spark around someone, you notice. And so does everyone else. So then we tried managing it, maintaining our distance and shutting down everything except essential contact. That hadn’t worked so well either, especially after Ben was attacked by a hellhound about seven-eight months ago, and I caught the pain-rebound through our connection.

The cat had been out of the bag then; we’d had to tell the others. Awkward didn’t even begin to cover it. But the team dealt with it, mostly. Truthfully, being able to communicate so easily, share information along the thinnest line of current other Talent wouldn’t even sense, made the job much easier. Only problem was, using it bound us together even more, until it became impossible to shut the other out entirely. The Merge was as stubborn as we were, it seemed.

I kept my walls all the way up off-hours, though, and Venec did the same. We stayed out of each other’s personal lives.


Right now, it was all work. Venec now had his gaze fixed on Far in a way that generally made even us old-timers nervous, wondering what we’d missed that the Big Dog was about to point out.

Venec finally relented on the stare and asked, “If you were to approach the scene again, fresh, what would you do differently?”

The right answer to that was “nothing.” You approached every scene the same way: with no expectations or assumptions. Far fumbled it the way all the newbies did, trying to determine what he’d missed that the Big Dog was going to slap him down for. I tuned it out and let a tendril of current skim out into the office. My coworkers’ individual current brushed against me in absent greeting, the magical equivalent of a raised hand or nod, giving me a sense of the office moving: people coming in and out, talking, working out evidence, or just refilling their brains with caffeine and protein.

Lunchtime was serious business in this office. Current burned calories, and a PUP used more current on a daily basis than most Talent did in a month.

The sense of movement was comforting, like mental white noise. All was right with the world, or at least our small corner of it, and I’d learned enough to cherish the moment.

Far stumbled to a halt in his report and risked looking at me. I kept my face still, not sure if I should be frowning or giving an approving nod.

“All right. Good job, you two.” Venec nodded his own approval, making Far sag a little in relief. “Farshad, write up the report and file it. Lou will invoice and close the file. And then go get some lunch. You look paler than normal.”

Far grinned at that, accepting the usual joke—he was about as pale as a thundercloud—and beat a hasty retreat.

“You’re wrong,” Venec said out loud. “He’ll make it.”

Big Dog was still a better judge of people than I could ever hope to be, so I didn’t argue. But the truth was, we’d gone through seven new-hired PUPs in the past nine months, hire-to-fire. One of them, rather spectacularly, had only made it a week before giving notice. Venec had hired all of them; occasionally, even he was wrong.


from DRAGON JUSTICE, © Laura Anne Gilman, 2012


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