Owl and the Electric Samurai
NO GOOD DEED
4:00 p.m. Backpacker lodge, Fikkal, Nepal
Have you ever had a deep-seated feeling that the world is out to get you?
And I don’t mean for doing something where you might actually deserve it: I mean the kind that happens despite your best intentions to be a good person, turn over a new leaf, and potentially make up for a possible—though clearly not intentional—slight you may have done others . . .
And even though you may be doing your damnedest to fix things, including crossing the globe twice in the last month, you could feel that the universe still decided it was going to tell you that you could royally fuck off?
You know, that kind of “out to get you” feeling?
Because from this side of the backpacker hostel picnic table, sitting across from my Nepal contact, Dev, that was pretty much the vibe I was getting. To be honest, it was the vibe I’d been getting all month, like gum getting tangled in your hair.
I placed my elbows on the worn wood of our table, tucked in a corner of the lodge bar, and gave my onetime classmate and on-again-off-again business associate, Dev Rai, my best “do not fuck with me right now” glare. It wasn’t hard; I’d been wearing it an unprecedented amount this month. Add to that the noise from the evening influx of hikers arriving for the night in the small, foot-of-the-Himalayas-trek stopover town, Fikkal, and the incense the lodge was burning—which, while pleasant on its own, lost its charm when mixed with stale beer—well, let’s just say my patience for playing games was at its end. Not that I’d had much to begin with.
“Dev, you have to give me something,” I said.
He fixed his brown eyes on me, no longer smiling. “What is this I keep hearing about the IAA breathing down everyone’s neck?”
Goddamn it. Rumors reach even the outback at the foot of the Himalayas. The juicier ones first—or in this case, the story of how my using World Quest to track down artifacts may have contributed to the IAA’s recent upgraded interest in locating the game designers. Add to that the kind of scrutiny an open bounty brings to anyone and everyone who ever had contact with the prey. Like Dev . . .
He was pissed. Rightly so. But his glare was nowhere near as effective as mine. He might have had the rugged-mountain-tour-guide act down pat, complete with windburn and calloused hands, but his brown eyes were way too pretty to convey any sort of menace.
Mine, on the other hand? Consider it one of my unsung talents.
I leaned across the table. We might have been tucked under the stairs and out of the way, but as the lodge filled with trekkers coming down for evening beer and dinner, I only trusted our privacy so far. “It’s not what it sounds like,” I told him.
He threw out his hands as he sat back against the wall. “That’s what you said last time!”
I’d kind of been hoping he wouldn’t remember that, or at least not bring it up. Still, I didn’t look away. “Dev, this time is different. I’m not here to steal something.”
Dev’s brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed. “Thievery? Is that what you’re calling it now?”
I winced. Last time had been a Buddhist stone tablet documenting an extinct sect of the religion—one that had been a lot more friendly to the offense-as-the-best-defense way of thinking. It had dated back to the twelfth century and had been written by a monk exiled from Tibet for said offensive activities. Interesting note, my buyer had claimed to be part of a sect trying to rekindle the old, violent Buddhist flame. To each reenactment group their own, I had figured.
Unfortunately the IAA hadn’t seen it that way. “Okay, the tablet wasn’t one of my wisest moments, and yes, I should have mentioned the IAA wanted it kept buried—but this time I’m not in it for profit—”
Dev made a derisive noise over his beer. “And I’m trying to stay off the IAA’s radar, not send out a homing beacon. And word has it that’s exactly what helping you will almost certainly get me—And don’t even try to justify Benji,” he added when I opened my mouth to argue, “and the fact that the IAA is even looking for these two . . .” His expression darkened, though that might have been a trick of the sun setting outside.
Thank you, universe, for doing your damnedest to keep me in everyone’s bad books. At least I know I can count on you for one thing. “Okay, first, that’s not entirely my fault. I didn’t design a game based on all the things the IAA wants kept secret.” Like supernatural monsters, ancient magic artifacts, monsters . . . the monsters bear mentioning twice. “And second, like I keep telling you, the entire reason I’m here is I’m trying to avert a disaster this time, not cause one. For once, why can’t any of you let me put my unique talent for pissing off the IAA to use? For once, that’s all I’m asking here.”
Dev shook his head. “And you trying to avert disaster worries me even more. Artifacts? That I can handle, but screwing the IAA?” He swore and finished off his bottle of Rato-Bhaat beer, depositing the empty bottle on the table with a hollow clatter. “I thought they were going to drag me off to one of their Siberian digs for helping you last time.” Dev pursed his lips and sat back. “Besides, you’re putting words in my mouth. At no point—any point—did I say I guided two guys who fit that description,” he said, pointing at my phone, where I kept the IAA’s bounty file.
“And I’m not an idiot. Anyone with any brains looking for real artifacts and sites in Nepal uses you—I use you. And I can’t be the only one who figured they came this way. There are only so many places to look for Shangri-La.”
That made him pause. I could see it in the way his eyes narrowed and the corner of his mouth twitched. I took a gamble and started to count off the Shangri-La candidates. “The Kunlun Mountains, Hunza Valley in Pakistan, Zhongdian in Yunnan, I even checked out the Muli Monastery in Sichuan, for crying out loud.” I picked up my own empty Rato beer bottle and pointed the end at Dev. “The World Quest dynamic duo checked all those locations, I’m sure of it, and this is the last stop.” The Kanchenjunga region of Nepal, where the Lepcha mountain people had been telling stories about a hidden valley of immortality for ages. Only unlike the other locations, no one knew where it was.
“Those same stories also tell of demons—yeti and rakshasa—guarding the mountain.”
“And we both know those aren’t the most far-fetched parts of those stories.”
The dark look returned to Dev’s face as he leaned in closer. “There are stories about a hidden valley at Everest as well.”
“Yeah, and that’s where I’m betting all the bounty hunters and mercenaries are right now, and when they figure out that all those stories about the valley being at Everest originated this side of the Himalayan range”—I shrugged—“it won’t take them long to connect the dots to you.”
His brow furrowed, and I noticed his eyes doing their own sweep of the nearby patrons in the bar. I might have been the first to take the Nepalese connection seriously, but Dev was smart. I was only the first of many.
Someone jostled our table, breaking our stalemate momentarily before offering us a rushed apology. The place was more crowded than it had been an hour ago. Come to think of it, it was more crowded than it had been last night. I frowned as a large man, European or American, walked by, headed for the bar. He stood out from the backpacker crowd—older, cleaner, and better dressed.
As the man disappeared into the bar lineup, I shook off my unsettled feeling and turned my attention back to Dev. The man who’d looked out of place hadn’t been searching for anyone. He was probably just a pro climber or hiker trying to get off the beaten Everest track. My paranoia ran well on high, but it wasn’t always right.
“Look, Dev, I can’t guarantee the IAA isn’t going to turn over every stone, including you, to find them, but I can guarantee you I’m the only one doing my damnedest to make sure the IAA never finds them. All I’m asking is where you took them. Then you don’t have to lie when everyone else shows up. You can point them in my direction, and I’ll do the rest.”
I could see Dev’s conviction to staying tight-lipped wavering, and I silently crossed my fingers and toes. Out of all the associates I’d had through my career as an antiquities thief, Dev was one of the few I could honestly say I respected. He’d taken a few archaeology classes with me and Nadya through an exchange program, and he’d completed a master’s—not for research, mind you, but for his family’s tour guide business back in Nepal. An actual archaeologist taking you through Nepalese and Tibetan heritage sites set them apart from other outfits . . . and the fact that it was a relatively open secret that he acted as personal guide for academics and treasure raiders alike looking for the real deal, well, that hadn’t hurt business either.
The point was Dev was good, and he had ethics—limits to what he was willing to turn a blind eye to. He had a reputation for turning down the shadier, sleazier operations and heists, which was rare in my line of work. And deep down Dev knew that despite my fair share of personality faults, I didn’t intentionally screw people over.
Honor amongst thieves . . . or accessories to thieves. Go figure.
Dev shook his head, sat back, and swore. “God help me, I can’t believe I’m doing this. Fine, but get me another beer—and you’re buying,” he said, passing me his empty bottle.
“You won’t regret it,” I started.
He made a face. “I’m doing it as a favor to Nadya, not you. And tell her I said that. And you’ll owe me more than beer!” he called after me as I took both our empty beer bottles in one hand and waved over my shoulder before pushing my way through the crowd.
Okay, maybe he didn’t know deep down I was a good guy. I didn’t care if it was my reputation or his still-lit crush on Nadya that was crumbling his convictions, so long as they crumbled.
The bartender barely glanced at me as I passed him the two empty bottles and a pile of rupees before holding up two fingers.
While I waited for him to retrieve the bottles from the cooler, my attention drifted to the two men beside me shouting at the bartender’s back, demanding what was on tap. Get with the backpacker program. There were three beers, all in bottles.
I frowned as I took in their clothes—expensive and well-fitting mountain gear more suited to climbing than backpacking. All recently laundered, and, to top it off, I could smell their deodorant. South African from their accents, early thirties if I had to guess.
Two more people here today who didn’t quite look or sound like they belonged . . .
My phone began to buzz in my jacket pocket just as the bartender returned with my pair of Rato-Bhaat beers.I balanced them under my arm as I headed back to our table so I could fumble my buzzing phone out. It was Rynn.
That didn’t bode well. Rynn had figured it’d be another two days before he finished tracking down his contact, a recluse of a supernatural who lived off the trails, closer to the foot of Kanchenjunga. Rynn hoped she might be willing to shed some insight on the local Shangri-La legends. Between Rynn’s supernatural contact and Dev, I’d hoped we could get a line on where the World Quest guys had vanished.
But if Rynn was calling me after only two days, well, he’d either found his contact early or stumbled into something that had worried him.
Like mercenaries making an inopportune appearance.
I caught Dev’s attention and held up two fingers before taking up an empty space on the hostel stairs. Dev and I were friendly, but not so friendly that he needed to hear half my conversation with Rynn, which could involve a potential supernatural snafu.
Negotiating the beer, I balanced my phone between my shoulder and ear and answered.
“Rynn, please say it’s good news.”
There was a pause, and Rynn made a small sound as if he was weighing his words carefully. “Well, as you like to say, there is good news and bad news—”
“Good news,” I said before Rynn could finish. Never leave things like that open to interpretation.
“Good news is I made contact with Talie, and she does have some information on Shambhala—Shangri-La. Not the location, mind you, but details I think will be useful. After some bargaining on my part, she’s willing to part with them.”
Details I didn’t have already was good. They also could have waited until Rynn was back at the lodge. “What’s the bad news?” I asked.
Rynn let out a breath. “The bad news is Talie’s contacts in Kathmandu say that we are no longer the only ones looking. They’ve spotted mercenaries arriving in the city—and not just today, over the last week.”
Shit. I glanced back to the bar, but the two out-of-place backpackers were gone. I did notice a table of men who, though dressed the part, were larger and more muscular than most of the people crammed in here.
One of them glanced in my direction and gave me a once-over before turning back to his conversation and beer. Oh I hoped there was an international climbing competition in town. . . .
“What?” I said, missing what Rynn said. I covered my free ear as best I could while not letting the beer bottles crash to the floor. I almost dropped the phone as someone jostled me on their way up the stairs to the rooms and dorms. I stepped closer to the wall, making myself as small as possible. “Look, Rynn—this isn’t a good time to talk . . .”
I trailed off as I spotted another table of suspect backpackers, this time from their matching gear and stoic expressions. I turned toward the wall as one of them glanced up, scanning the room. “The patrons are getting awfully burly. I think I’ve got mercenaries—as in more than one group.”
It was Rynn’s turn to swear. “Add those to the group of Colombians I took care of on my way out, a group of Russians Talie’s people spotted in Kathmandu a few days ago, that’s at least four groups of serious mercenaries that have arrived in Nepal in the last twenty-four hours.”
Four too many in my mind, and I didn’t want to know the details of how Rynn had handled the Colombians, though I was fairly certain it involved his incubus brand of suggestion.
“One, two I could manage, but four?” Rynn didn’t need to finish the sentence. If there was one thing I knew from working with him as Mr. Kurosawa’s intern security head, it was that Rynn liked his risk assessment. I should know, I’d been the source of his professional stress on more than one occasion.
And if he was this worried, I should be running. “I’d say we’ve just about worn our welcome out in Nepal,” I said.
“How much longer do you need, Alix?”
“Not much—another half hour. Look on the bright side, they can’t be on to me. Otherwise they wouldn’t be sitting here drinking beer.”
There was a pause. “Describe them to me,” Rynn said.
“Ah, they look like a pro ski or climbing team. Matching hiking gear, dark, neutral colors, keeping to themselves. At least one of them is South African,” I added, as the two men from the bar joined the table, carrying more bottles.
“Get me a look,” Rynn said.
I turned my camera on. Once I could see my own pretty face, unkempt blond hair shoved under my red flames hat, I inverted the camera so it was showing the picnic table full of burly men in tight-fitting Henleys. “Getting this?”
Rynn swore. “Alix, listen carefully. Get upstairs and pack our stuff. Now. They’re serious.”
“Relax, they haven’t noticed me yet. They aren’t even looking. Probably chasing the same World Quest leads I am.” The World Quest duo had covered their tracks, but with enough effort I’d been able to chase their credit card and travel this far.
I glanced back to where Dev was waiting, frowning at me. I held up the beer and a single finger. In no way did telling him about the mercenaries go in my favor.
“No,” Rynn continued. “I mean, yes they’re mercenaries, but I recognize them. They’re human, and call themselves the Zebras.”
“Zebras? What kind of name for mercenaries is that?”
“The kind who specialize in supernaturals. Have you ever heard the saying ‘Don’t go looking for zebras when you find a hoofprint in Central Park’? It’s a play on that—except these men specialize in finding the monsters, mostly extermination. We leave them alone since they tend to handle smaller problems, but if they’re in Fikkal, a group of at least six, no less . . .” He let the thought trail off.
Shit. “Maybe a couple yeti stumbled into someone’s yak farm?” I offered.
“If the Zebras were here for yeti, there’d only be two. There’s no way they’re here doing reconnaissance for the IAA bounty. They’re looking for a powerful supernatural. Like an incubus.”
Oh, that did not bode well for us. “Nepal is getting awfully crowded. I’d say we’ve worn out our welcome.”
“Can you be ready in ten?”
I hedged my answer as I glanced back at Dev, who was outright glaring at me now. “Give me twenty.”
“Make it fifteen. I’ll meet you in the room—I want to avoid the South Africans. And Alix? Be careful.” Rynn hung up, and I feigned checking my email as I headed back to Dev, stealing another glance at the table of Zebras to make certain they weren’t watching me, all the while trying to calm my own nerves.
Okay, breath, Alix. They aren’t even looking at you.
I slid back onto the bench and passed a frowning Dev his beer.
“What the hell took you so long?” he said.
“Phone call.” I shook my head and gunned a few large gulps of my Rato-Bhaat beer, checking the Zebras once again.
Dev watched, a perplexed look crossing his features. Finally I put my beer down. This was not going to help my new leaf as a responsible antiquities contact. “Okay, do you want the good news or the bad news first?”
He swore. “Bad news,” he said, then took a generous drink of his beer.
A man after my own heart. “Don’t look now, but see the table with the six varsity wannabes at my seven o’clock?”
Dev swore, sat up, and started searching the crowd.
I leaned across the table and grabbed the front of his jacket, pulling him back down. “What about the statement ‘Don’t look now’ did you not understand?” I whispered, although it came out sounding more like a hiss.
“I thought you said the mercenaries weren’t following you,” he whispered back.
“They aren’t—and that’s the good news. They have no idea I’m here or that I’m talking to you. As far as I can tell, they ended up here by complete chance.” Or looking for Rynn, but I figured that was speculation Dev didn’t need to hear right now.
He shook his head before laying it on the picnic table. “I should have listened to Benji. Vampires, mercenaries, the IAA, World Quest—Is there no one on the face of the planet you will not tell to fuck off?”
“Okay, I admit I did not act completely honorably with Benji. Wait a minute, how do you know about the vampires?” A little over a year ago I’d been retrieving an artifact from Ephesus, in Turkey, for a client. A sarcophagus, an old one, which my client, Alexander, unbeknownst to me at the time a vampire, had instructed me not to open.
Yeah, that hadn’t gone well.
Dev lifted his head to glare at me. “I’m off the grid, not oblivious. Frying an ancient vampire in sunlight is the kind of story that gets around. And what did we say about bringing your personal brand of shit into my hometown?”
“Like seriously, you’re a walking disaster of bad luck.” He frowned as he appraised me. “Are you sure you’re not some supernatural bad luck demon?”
“No!” I cringed as I said it a little louder than I would have liked. “Of course not,” I added in a quieter voice, checking to see that Dev’s use of the word supernatural didn’t catch undue attention.
I drew in a breath, held it, then started counting to five. Had I been screwed by my own cohort? Hell yes, and not just by Benji. But I didn’t want to live my life with that as my excuse to act just as badly as everyone else.
Damn Rynn’s pop psychology. I think I preferred it when I got to be the bad guy.
Okay, Owl, new leaf. A responsible leaf. Don’t reduce yourself to insults. Keep the conversation factual, on topic, and, most importantly, civil.
“Dev, I have a plan for the mercenaries,” I started, warning in my voice.
Dev snorted. “What? Leave bread crumbs to a goblin den and hope they don’t come back?”
I clenched my teeth. “Will you knock it off for two seconds so I can explain? Jesus Christ, do you actually think before you speak, or do you just like to hear yourself? Or do you want them to start paying attention to us?”
It was all fine and well to follow Rynn’s advice to keep things civil, but what the hell was I supposed to do when the other person didn’t stop their own shit talking? It takes two, doesn’t it?
Dev sat back and crossed his arms.
“This isn’t some run-of-the-mill treasure quest, this is serious shit list IAA bounty money.”
Dev still looked skeptical, so I added, “Put it this way. They offered me a get-out-of-jail pass and practically offered to give me my degree plus a clean slate. Me, their perennial scapegoat.”
“Fuck,” Dev said, his face turning ashen as the ramifications sunk in.
“They mean business. Even if you didn’t have anything on the World Quest duo, you need to get out of town. Which I would have told you a minute ago if you had listened.”
It wasn’t a closely guarded secret that Frank Caselback and Neil Chansky, the World Quest duos’ real names, had been working on Shangri-La myths before they’d disappeared. Take that logic a step further: their disappearance had something to do with their research. Then take that a step further: there was only a handful of locations on the planet where Shangri-La was fabled to be. . . . “Eventually they were going to put two and two together, and start looking for the guides.” And for the specialized sites in the Himalayas, the kind that attracted IAA attention, Dev was one of the best. He knew it and I knew it. “They’re going to chase down everyone. And it’s not just one group either, Dev—the bounty is big. At some point these guys are going to fire a brain cell or two and decide to start pooling resources.” Or shoot at each other. I had no illusions about that being good for anyone. “For all I know they already have.”
Dev finished off his second beer, taking a much more careful and measured look around. “What are they offering?” he asked.
Knowing the IAA, it depended on what they had on you. I shook my head. “Enough that, as soon as we are done here, you should run, preferably somewhere very warm without a 3G cellular network. I recommend the Cook Islands. They don’t actually have street addresses, so it’s next to impossible for anyone to find you—”
Dev grabbed my arm. “And if they do catch me?”
“Make something up—sell them what they want, take them where they want, do whatever they ask, just don’t piss them off.”
Dev let out a breath. “Jesus. All right, I’ll tell you what I know, but I’m warning you, you might decide you were better off not knowing. Those guys disappeared . . . what? Three, four years ago? They were here in the off-season, I remember them because they needed a guide who wasn’t afraid to go into yeti territory to look at a set of hillside ruins.”
“Looking for Shangri-La,” I said. That matched up with what traces I’d been able to find on their research.
But Dev shook his head. “That’s where it gets weird. They weren’t looking for Shangri-La. I mean, they knew about it, we talked about it on the trek into the hillsides, they knew as much about the local legends as I did, but that’s not what they were here for. They were looking for something else. An old monastery,” he said as he pulled his backpack—a dark red nylon number that made me wonder if he wasn’t nervous about wearing it in front of a yak—onto the table.
Another sect of violent Buddhists? “They must have had a reason. Maybe they thought it was related to Shangri-La.”
Dev shook his head and pulled out a package from inside his backpack, wrapped in brown and roughly the size of a book. “I thought so too,” he said, and unwrapped a book, opening it carefully to where a cloth bookmark had been left before sliding it across the table. “That is what they were looking for.”
It was a research journal, the kind I used to use—bound with leather, the pages grid lined. The page Dev had opened to was a collection of handwritten notes. They weren’t on Shangri-La; I had no doubt the rest of the book was full of that, but Dev hadn’t been right either.
I tapped the page. “This isn’t a monastery, Dev. It’s a temple, they were looking for a specific site of worship for the Dzo-nga, the Kanchenjunga Demon.” A local deity of legend worshiped throughout the Kanchenjunga mountain region.
When multiple religions and ethnic tribes managed to agree on a single deity, it usually meant one thing. That it was real . . . and probably ate people.
Seriously, if you want to get humans to worship, you threaten to eat them. Has a much better track record than being nice.
It also wasn’t completely off line with their research on Shangri-La either. The Dzo-nga was tasked in a number of legends with guarding the way to the valley of immortality. They were not to be mistaken with yeti; oh, they were real too . . . just way less exotic than the stories made them out to be . . . or maybe more. I guess it really depended on what you thought of goblin culture and politics expressed in the form of entrail finger painting with yak horns thrown in for good measure.
I scanned through the pages. Whatever the reason they’d been looking for the Dzo-nga temple, it hadn’t been a wild-goose chase. They’d gone through a number of locations—ten in all, with Dev I assumed, between May 3 and May 15, 2011. After the fifteenth, though, they returned to site three, which they’d written off earlier. “What changed after the fifteenth of May?” I asked Dev.
“Avalanche—a small one, but it uncovered a section of caves that we gathered hadn’t been opened for more than a century.” He tapped the diagram, a series of pictures of caves from the outside and another series of diagrams of the inside, carefully grafted on the journal grids. I frowned at the series of pictographs—animals, a few characters, various symbols. Nothing I recognized, but they were carefully categorized along the side and then diagrammed to various locations in the cave.
I frowned at the research notes on the pictographs. The rest of their notes on the caves had been carefully laid out, but these . . . I squinted at the shorthand in the columns but couldn’t make it out. Shit, it was in code.
I glanced back up at Dev. “Any idea what these are?” I asked him.
He spread his hands. “The diagrams? Most likely the Lepcha or early Buddhists left them. What they mean? Frank and Neil never told me what they suspected, though they spent days in those caves taking notes and pictures.”
“What happened?” And how did Dev end up with the journal?
“That is where things get strange. We hiked into the mountains less than a week after the avalanche exposed the caves. We were three days in when I got a call. Another avalanche had occurred not too far from us, caught a dozen mountaineers and hikers. They needed help searching for survivors. I tried to get the two of them to return to a lower camp—the mountain was still dangerous, and you know how finicky goblin-yeti get when there’s that kind of upheaval.”
Goblins in general tended to blame humans for mishaps, but that was more their looking for an excuse to eat any stragglers they came across.
“After two days of helping survivors, I got a call from Neil in the early evening, badly garbled by bad reception, but I picked up the word help. I reached the caves by morning.” He leaned across the table and lowered his voice. “There was nothing left.”
“Are you telling me the yeti got them?” I struck that off as a possibility. First, there’d be no World Quest. Second, there’d have been remains. Very disturbing finger-paint-style remains . . .
“No, I’m saying there was nothing there. No equipment, no remains, no trace,” he said as he leaned forward. “No tracks,” he said, and let it sink in before continuing. “The only thing left was that book. Left by one of the altars to Dzo-nga. I never heard from them again.”
So they had disappeared. “Do you think they found Shangri-La?”
Dev tsked. “What I’m saying is that they found something in those caves. As to what happened?” He shook his head. “I think some things in this world are worth not knowing.” He flipped the pages back to a map, where the caves were marked, including latitude and longitude. They’d even printed out a picture and taped it to the page. “Regardless, I have no intention of returning. You want to trace their steps? Be my guest, but mark my words when I say it’s a bad idea.” Dev finished off my beer, having already finished his own.
I took my phone out and started to photograph the journal, but Dev stopped me before I could take any pictures. “Keep it.”
“You’re giving it to me?” What was the catch?
Dev stood. “You’re damn straight I’m giving it to you. Like you said, someone is eventually going to tell the mercenaries I was the guide who last saw Frank and Neil.” He nodded at the journal. “Better that’s in your hands than mine.”
I tucked the journal into my parka and stood as well. “Remember what I said about those off-the-grid islands.”
He shouldered his backpack and nodded. “I’ll take the advice under serious consideration, but only if you take this piece of advice to heart: my family has lived in these mountains for generations, as far back as we can trace our family tree. We have a different interpretation of the legends that account for the mystical valley than you Westerners do, and it is this: when people start disappearing, never to be seen or heard from again, only fools and small children are so quick to think they ended up in a magical paradise.”
Coming from Dev, it wasn’t advice I was going to take lightly. “Regardless of what they’d found, they have to still be alive.”
Dev nodded, a sobering expression on his face. “Which raises the question, why has no one heard from them outside of that video game in four years? Like I said, there are some questions I am happy not knowing the answers to.”
I took another look around the bar. The mercenaries were still ignoring us, but there was one man, a local guide, who was paying attention. I wondered how long it would be before the locals got paid enough to turn Dev over as the guy who handled the weird shit. Solidarity of a community is one thing, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that everyone has their price. “Dev, three o’clock. Yellow canvas parka, local-looking.”
He shot a glance in that direction and swore.
“Let me guess, voted most likely in high school to sell his mother?” Or in this case sell Dev out to the mercenaries. He looked the type too . . . especially the way he was giving us the evil eye.
Dev swore. “No, aahhh, I might have hooked up with his girlfriend last night.”
I did a double take. “Seriously? That does not look like the guy whose girlfriend you want to mess with.”
Dev offered a sheepish shrug. “You won’t mention that to Nadya, will you?”
I didn’t think it was worth mentioning, seeing as Nadya wouldn’t care. My paranoia made me check the room one last time before glancing down at my phone. Fifteen minutes had passed. I needed to be upstairs now. Dev offered me his hand. I took it. “Just be careful, all right?”
“I always am,” Dev said, winking at me. I stood there and watched until he was out the door. No one seemed to notice him leave. Not even the mercenaries.
My turn to disappear. I headed up the stairs to the lodge rooms that ran the length of the second floor. God I hoped Dev kept his head down. I liked Dev—he might not have been a friend exactly, but he was something close. And how the hell did the IAA always manage to pit the entire archaeology community against each other? At some point, shouldn’t we all figure out they were the bad guys and band together?
Only in fairy tales and comic books. In real life, you might actually get hurt. That scares people. It scares me.
On the way down the hall I passed two men who looked like they could be part of one of the mercenary outfits on their way down. They gave me a brief once-over, and I ignored them. It wasn’t unusual for a petite woman to avoid the big, burly, dangerous-looking guys in a backpacker lodge.
When I reached my room at the end of the hall, I checked that the small piece of tape was untouched before checking the handle. Still locked. I fitted the heavy metal key in and carefully opened the door.
The glow the neon streetlights cast through the thin drapes was only enough to show the outlines of the small double bed tucked in the corner and the open closet. No movement, no strange scents.
I reached around the corner and flicked the light switch, watching from the doorway as the ceiling lamp sputtered before finally flickering on, bathing the already yellow-painted room in a buttery glow. Still nothing out of place. I stepped inside and locked the door behind me before checking the window, pushing aside the thin fuchsia and yellow patterned curtains.
Nothing. And no tampering on the windowsill.
I let out my breath. Half the time I didn’t know if my paranoia was getting the better of me or if it was forcing me into a reasonable state of caution.
Not wanting to waste any more time, I fetched our backpacks from the closet and shoveled what extra clothing we’d unpacked inside. Now where the hell was Rynn?
A hand clamped around my waist, another over my mouth, smothering my yelp.
I was spun around, and it felt like for a moment my heart stopped as I looked up into the face of one of the most attractive men I had ever seen. A little taller than me, with close-cropped blond hair and a slim build, he was dressed in a dark fitted jacket that hugged all the right parts of his athletic frame and rivaled anything the mercenaries downstairs were wearing.
Rynn. Son of a bitch. He smiled wide, pleased with his own fucking joke. My surprise and relief at seeing him safe morphed to anger.
I opened my mouth to express how pissed I was, but before I could say anything his lips were on mine, fast and insistent. Rynn was a good kisser, and it took me a second to remember I was pissed off at him. I pushed him away. He was still grinning at me.
“Rynn!” I loud-whispered and smacked him on the shoulder for good measure. That only served to make him laugh. “For Christ’s sake, there are mercenaries outside and you’re sneaking up on me? You said we needed to leave fast!”
He let me go and lifted his hands in surrender, even trying to wipe the amusement off his face. It didn’t do much, which as far as I was concerned meant he wasn’t actually trying.
I’d known Rynn for a year and a half. He’d been my bartender in Tokyo before we’d ever hooked up, and he was one of the few people outside my circle of ex-archaeology grads and antiquities smugglers who’d known about the supernatural and my run-ins with them. More importantly, he’d believed me, which was likely on account of the fact that he himself was an incubus.
Don’t get the wrong idea—the whole feeding-off-sex thing is seriously overplayed. They feed off attraction, but it’s more passive than you’d expect.
He was attractive, but more importantly, there were some other useful powers incubi had beyond sex appeal. If you asked me, that was the lesser of the bunch, and only served to make feeding off the energy of people’s attraction that much easier. Their real talents lay in the usual supernatural cadre—strength, longevity, quick reflexes—along with a couple of extra skills, namely the ability to heal damage and to sense what people were feeling. I figured that had evolved to help them get a leg up for feeding more than anything else, but it had other uses as well, namely persuasion—using emotions to manipulate people’s thoughts. That was where their real power was. I’d seen Rynn do it a few times—had it done on me—and witnessing it happen always left me with chills.
And to think he got his kicks sneaking up on me. “Seriously, and you think I have bad timing?”
The corner of his mouth turned up in a smile. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist. You walked right by me, Alix. Twice.”
I closed my eyes. He’d been standing outside the window. It was open now, the summer air stirring the curtains and carrying in the smell of cooking and incense. “I didn’t even hear you open it.”
“I waited until you had your back turned and got busy with the backpacks. Check outside next time,” he said, and, picking me up, moved me out of the way of the bags so he could give them a quick once-over.
“For someone who fifteen minutes ago sounded like we were in imminent danger, you’re in an awfully good mood.”
He tossed the larger of the backpacks over his shoulder and handed me mine, the smaller, lighter one—mainly because it didn’t have any weapons. I have a strict policy on weapons like guns and stakes. In my experience, it just gives the vampires something else to beat you with, and they take the stakes personally.
I could have pushed, but Rynn and I had both been under a lot of stress the last few weeks. If he was in a good enough mood to play, as opposed to worry about our backs, that had to mean we were ahead of the game for once, despite the fact that we were in a lodge full of mercenaries.
Rynn shook his head at me. “I checked when I came in—no perimeter, no patrol, no trip wires, no sensors. They’re not even looking for supernaturals. Sloppy if you ask me. The South Africans, the Zebras, know better in a place like Fikkal, and an IAA bounty like this is bound to attract some supernatural competition.”
Mercenary-style work was something of a career choice in the supernatural communities—mostly to police each other, but freelancing for a supernatural-smelling job like this?
“Not that we’re going out the front door,” Rynn said. “I’m not that—” He stopped and turned his head to the side, as if listening. The playful mood vanished, and I waited and watched as he hit the light and placed his ear against the door.
I blinked as my eyes adjusted to the sparse neon lights. “What? What happened?” I whispered.
Rynn abandoned the door and, taking my arm, steered me back to the window. “It’s my fault. I got too confident when there weren’t any patrols or sensors.”
“You said they weren’t looking for us!”
“They weren’t—aren’t—but I spoke too soon when I assumed they weren’t keeping their eyes out,” Rynn said.
“Fuck.” I peered at the space between the floorboards and the door where the light seeped through. I could have sworn I saw shadows moving underneath, the kinds caused by feet, but I’ll be damned if I could hear anything.
Rynn stepped outside onto the ledge first, checking to make sure there really was no one there. Once he was certain it was safe, he held out his hand and motioned for me to join him.
I hesitated. I was a professional thief. Gallantry or whatever Rynn was going for was all well and good on paper, not in practice. I could crawl my own way out a window.
“I don’t want them to hear us leaving,” he mouthed more than whispered at me.
I let him lift me out. I’m stubborn, but I also knew I wasn’t as silent as him.
He set me down on the thin ledge out of view of the window as the first clink of a lock pick sounded in the door.
Rynn tapped my shoulder and pointed down to the road two stories down.
“Please say we aren’t jumping,” I said. My ankle was still smarting from our last hurried exit out of New Delhi. There had been a misunderstanding about an artifact I’d been collecting for Mr. Kurosawa . . . and misconception that if they chased me, they might actually get it back. Rynn had vetoed my run through a crowded market, and we’d jumped off a building instead.
“Not twice in the same week,” I said, shaking my head.
“Think of it more as falling to safety.”
“Falling? No, no falling,” I demanded. At least with jumping there was some modicum, some pretence, of control. “Shit!”
Rynn timed it so that he pushed me at the same moment the mercenaries kicked the door open.
If they heard me yelling on the way down, there wasn’t much they could do about it. I didn’t even see if they made it to the window.
We landed with a thud on a tarp. Me first, followed by Rynn, who managed to look more graceful than I did on account of the fact that he got to jump instead of fall. The “tarp” was in fact a jeep—a dilapidated orange jeep encrusted with fuchsia rhinestones done into flower patterns. It roared to life with a sputtering cough as soon as we landed, then started to pull forward.
As it tore down the road, the engine still protesting, I turned on Rynn. “You just pushed me out of a window!”
“Off a ledge. And it couldn’t be avoided. Look, I’m sorry, but better your indignity than the mercenaries.” Rynn swung himself off the tarp so he was balancing on the jeep rail.
I followed his lead but took the other side, ignoring Rynn’s proffered hand. “We humans call that sorry, not sorry,” I said. “And what the hell is wrong with climbing?”
“It’s not fast enough,” he said.
“It’s plenty fast! I climb out of tight spots all the time.” I swung into the seat of the moving jeep beside Rynn. It was a patchwork of colorful blankets that had been sewn and stretched over long-gone padded seats.
His jaw clenched. “And every time you end up having to run through a city chased by someone.” He gave the metal railing of the jeep three hard taps. It picked up speed, making the potholes we went over more pronounced. “This way we skip the chase. Faster.”
“I still think we could have climbed down and avoided tossing me onto a jeep canopy.” I was a little amazed it had held up, to be honest . . . if there was one issue Rynn and I had in our relationship, it was our disagreement over acceptable work risks. Namely, risks that I considered acceptable, he labeled suicidal.
But I was still alive, so my methods couldn’t have been that bad.
“Besides, couldn’t you have done the . . . you know?” I waved my hand around my ear, my usual method to indicate Rynn’s ability to manipulate people’s minds, then grasped the railing as the jeep bounced over an exceptionally deep pothole.
“I doubt it. They’ve probably got chemical inhibitors in their systems.”
“Whoa. Wait, they can do that?”
Rynn gave me a wry look as he dumped his pack into the back. I followed his lead. “I never kid about people with guns. Did you get what you needed?” I nodded and patted the book still tucked in my jacket.
As the jeep coughed and sputtered our retreat up the hill and out of the valley, I got a look out the back at the town fading behind us. I thought I saw a handful of men standing in the lantern-lit road, but with the potholes jostling the jeep I could have been mistaken. I didn’t hear screams, sirens, or any other indication anyone was following us. Considering how fast we left, I figured they were still trying to determine what had happened.
I turned to Rynn, who was also watching our departure from Fikkal. “I can’t believe for once it’s you catching their attention and not me,” I said.
“Well, there’s a first time for everything. And like I said, these guys are good.”
The ambient light vanished as we passed the town limits—Fikkal was a concentrated place and not that large. It didn’t take you long to get out of town, and once you did, the lampposts were gone. Got to admit, after bouncing between large cities and Vegas over the past few weeks, I could appreciate actually seeing the night sky. And the stars . . . all of them, not just the big ones. The fact that the purveying scent of incense and frying foods was also fading, replaced by the clean scent of the mountain forests, was a bonus as well. Something else you didn’t get in Vegas.
I turned to say something along those lines to Rynn, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was leaning over the driver’s seat.
Right, our driver. I wonder who Rynn had roped into getting us out of Dodge.
I frowned as I caught a bit of what Rynn said—lyrical-sounding and light, an awful lot like the language I liked to refer to as “supernatural common.”
I shimmied up to the back of the front seat to get a look at our driver, a feat in itself, since we were out of Fikkal now and the potholes had gotten worse, not better, bouncing the jeep over the uneven side roads.
But as luck would have it, the moon was out, and during a stretch of smooth road I got a good look. He—no, make that a she—was a kid. Twelve at the most, and dressed in a fuchsia tunic and matching pants layered with a heavy orange sari also adorned with fuchsia rhinestones that matched the ones decorating the jeep.
She glanced at me for only a brief moment, but it was enough to get a good look at her beautiful and very childlike face. More importantly though, I got a look at her shining gold eyes.
“Oh hell no,” I said before my filter could kick in. I’d been in a jeep with a childlike supernatural with eyes like that once before—an Apsara, or Balinese luck demon masquerading as a “kid” in Bali.
“Alix, meet Talie,” Rynn said pleasantly.
Yeah. No. “When were you going to tell me a luck demon was driving the car?” I didn’t bother lowering my voice. She knew what she was. “And I thought we agreed not to involve any other supernaturals?” There was already enough of a mess that we’d waded into with the IAA, and now add to that the mercenaries. More supernaturals would make things more complicated, not less. Besides, I didn’t have the best track record with supernaturals; Rynn was the exception, not the rule. I did my damnedest to keep them out of my business and work, not that that had been working for me lately. When the universe keeps throwing lemons at you, saying you won’t make lemonade becomes pretty pointless.
For her part, Talie didn’t bother acknowledging me.
“They prefer the term Apsara—and it’s not exactly the same. Talie has influence over clouds and snow. Kato, as you called him, works with water.”
“Same species, different gig, and that’s a tangent.”
Rynn’s mouth twisted into a frown, the first hint at irritation. He wasn’t a fan of me lumping all supernaturals into one column. The dangerous one. It wasn’t exactly an easy habit to break, considering they were usually trying to kill me. “Completely different temperaments,” he said. “Note, Talie hasn’t told you never to come back. Yet.”
Wait a minute . . . Talie? Taleju, the child goddess of Nepal, the one that was supposed to be reincarnated in the body of a girl every decade or so and forced to live in the guarded temple in Kathmandu?
We came to a stop, not for a sign but for a herd of yaks crossing the road. She caught me staring at her. “Aren’t you supposed to be locked inside a palace in Kathmandu?” My filter was really taking a backseat to my curiosity tonight.
“Alix—” Rynn warned.
Yeah, like hell was I not asking. “The whole reincarnation thing? Is that a myth, or do, you know, are they”—I really didn’t know of a delicate way to put it—“hosts?” Possession by a supernatural entity was rare, but it happened.
She ignored me and turned her attention back on Rynn. “I have a place you can hide, but it won’t offer protection for long, not with their equipment. I’m lucky, but not even a luck demon is that lucky. If you are smart, you will leave.”
Wait a minute. What if we didn’t need to hole up for days? Dev’s warnings be damned. I’d feel better looking into it now rather than later.
I leaned closer and raised my voice. “Look, what about evading them for a few hours? Like heading into some caves at the base of the mountains?” I asked Talie. “A few hours is all we’d need. I even have a location,” I added, and patted my chest so Rynn would get the idea.
Talie gave me a measured once-over, her gold demon eyes shining in the moonlight. “Mountains this time of year have yeti. But I believe a few hours is the kind of luck I can arrange.”
I pulled the journal out and opened it to the map of the cave’s location. “Then this is where we’re heading.”
Talie glanced at the map, then pulled out a cell phone decorated in more pink and yellow rhinestones. “GPS,” she said when she caught me staring. “I’m not a fan of driving these roads at night.” She tapped in the coordinates and fixed the rhinestone-encrusted phone onto the dashboard on a cartoon cat holder. She then turned her attention back on the road and kicked the jeep, sputtering and coughing, into a higher gear, scattering the remaining yaks.
I sat back in the patchwork orange backseat and let out my breath. Now all I had to do was figure out how the cave disappeared Neil and Frank. Preferably without stumbling into being disappeared myself. . . .
My name is Alix Hiboux, better known as Owl, antiquities thief for hire.
Welcome to my life.