Barnes & Noble
Zeke’s place resembled a war zone.
The once-lovely mansion could now easily be mistaken for a piece of abstract art. Entire portions had been wished out of existence. I expected the remainder to topple over at any moment. Bits of the debris still smoldered, sending tendrils of gray into the morning light.
Is that gas I smell?
I hadn’t seen or heard from my former lover since the night we saved my corner of genie-dom and, in the process, turned my home into a melted mess. Zeke should’ve at least texted me to come retrieve the bitch who used to be my best friend. Frankly, I’d been relieved to not have to deal with that particular problem, especially since I’d been the one to turn Mena into a dog. Then concern took over and sent me driving to Zeke’s place to check on the man and the pooch.
Only to pull into the driveway of Casa Salvador Dali. All the place needed was a few oozing clocks scattered around.
All of the damage might explain Zeke’s lengthy silence. Or it would’ve, if I hadn’t realized the mayhem couldn’t have been more than a couple hours old.
“Josephine Eugenia Mayweather.” The right proper Basil Hadresham said through the headset pumping sound into my ear. “Love? Are you alright or do I need to send in the troops?”
I’d been discussing my dual antiques business, genie rescue operation with my friend and business partner when I pulled up to the jigsaw mansion. After that, coherent thought left me, and I left Baz hanging on the line. His use of my full name meant it hadn’t been the first time he tried to regain my attention.
“What? Yeah, I’m still here. The problem is Zeke’s not.” I think. I hoped he wasn’t inside somewhere stiff as a door and deader than the knob.
I sniffed the breeze coming off the ruined structure. Zeke’s scent permeated the air—as it should. Nothing in that odor led me to believe his corpse lay inside. And none of it smelled recent enough to lead me to believe he was still on-site.
“I expect he’s at the office. It is the middle of a workday, after all, and a company the size of B.A. Security doesn’t run itself.”
I suspected that the respectable Ezekiel ben Aron, Zeke for short, would ensure his multi-million dollar security firm did, in fact, run quite well without him. But that wasn’t the point. After I described the scene in concise but graphic detail, Basil agreed.
“Any sign of his staff?”
Well, shit. I hadn’t even given a first thought to Hans and Frank—Zeke’s man-mountain bodyguards. Or the cute, little assistant he had whose name escaped me. Or the other genies that had to work inside such a large domicile. Some rescuer of the downtrodden and endangered djinn I turned out to be.
Stepping from my car, I stretched out my senses to locate any signs of life. The only heartbeat larger than a squirrel’s was located somewhere behind the house. I assumed it was Mena’s, and that she was alive and well, unless one of the neighborhood cougars had dropped in for a bite. In the foothills of the Rockies, it could’ve been possible.
I whistled sharply. And was rewarded with my business partner shouting in my ear.
“Oy, love, cut that out! I’d prefer not to have to waste a wish healing my hearing, if you don’t mind.”
“Sorry. I was checking to see if Mena’s tied up behind the house.”
“I doubt that she’d answer. She’s got to still be brassed off at you for transforming her into a dog, I’d think.”
As if I needed him to remind me. It still ached that I lost her to the Efreet menace. When she joined them of her own free will, she left me no choice. I had to turn my best friend into man’s best friend.
I covered the microphone and whistled again. Not a yip in response.
“Enjoying your exercise in futility, love?” he asked when I got back on the line. I ended the call and stifled his British wit. I love my smartass, limey friend, but I was in no mood. He could stew in his curiosity until I figured this out. Which meant talking to the pooch who hated me.
But first things first.
Dipping into my limited well of power, I sent a blast of wish over the dwelling. In no time, all the smoldering parts were extinguished. I shored up the parts that were missing, but they’d have to remain absent. Without blueprints or a diagram, only Zeke knew what was supposed to be where.
With that little task accomplished, I sucked up my trepidation and headed toward the last known location of the ‘mega squirrel’. Zeke had been kind enough to put a fence around a large area of the backyard. Part of me hoped he’d added insult to transformation and left her chained to a little, white doghouse. She’d be easier to find that way, and it might knock some of the holier-than-thou attitude out of her.
As if a change in her behavior now would actually make her a better person. Renouncing the Rules genies have to live by, and becoming an Efreet, was the opposite of what a better person would do, in my opinion. Kind of akin to making Mother Teresa a saint because she mowed down orphans with an Uzi instead of caring for them.
Silence. I had expected a bitchy bark at least. Or maybe a hip-hip-hooray for the mess Zeke’s place was in. Perhaps a bit of rampant gloating. But no.
I opened the gate and stepped through to the backyard. I didn’t see a doghouse, only gorgeous landscaping to go along with the high-end property. Stretching out my enhanced olfactory sense again, I caught pooch-scented wind coming from underneath the deck. As if she could hide from me.
“Don’t make me come in after you.”
Still no movement. I would’ve been afraid for her welfare, except I could detect Mena’s signature haughtiness. The bitch wasn’t coming out of her own free will, probably to show me how much she detested me. Well, if that was how she wanted to play the game, I’d play it. A simple wish landed a whippet-like creature at my feet.
“Don’t hurt me,” she whimpered. Maybe she was pulling the same ‘hurt puppy’ act she’d played when I tried before to coax information out of her. Could be she was remembering how I had to kick her skinny butt and threaten her with transformation to a less cuddly, more slithery creature. If she remembered anything from that day, she wouldn’t play games. I got me the information I wanted last time and I would get it again.
“Tell me what happened here.”
She stuck her shiny, black nose in the air the way she would’ve when it was pert and light brown and human. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, come off it. You’re not that stupid and neither am I. Up until a minute ago, the damn place was smoking. You know exactly what I’m talking about and you’re going to pony up with the information. Unless you want to spend the next few decades as a garter snake.” She shuddered, most likely remembering the last stream of threats I’d thrown at her. I used to think Mena didn’t fear anything more than being around snakes, until I presented her with the idea of becoming one. Talk about motivation.
Lifting one thin shoulder, she said, “Fine. But I don’t know much. Zeke threw me outside when he got back from an errand. Something about the mess I left on his Persian rug.” Her lips spread into a doggy-grin. “When you force someone to become an animal, you shouldn’t be surprised when they act like one.”
“That’s just nasty.”
“That’s the life you chose for me.”
For a moment, guilt washed over me. Then I remembered this bitch was my former psychologist. She had all the tools at hand to burrow under my skin. After all, I’d given them to her. I couldn’t allow her to use them against me now.
“Oh, no you don’t,” I said, wagging my finger at her. “You were the one who made the choices. I simply reacted to them.”
Unabashed, she said, “The scuttlebutt around here is that you did worse to Amun. Turning him into a book? How cruel can you be?”
I thought about the bastard in question. He was the first Efreet I’d ever seen, and the first that had shown up in so long that the majority of djinn were sure they’d wiped the beings out. If Amun hadn’t decided to spend his time killing genies, I still wouldn’t know what an Efreet was. Now, he was spending some quality time on the shelf in my library. I hoped he was thinking about what he’d done. More probable, he spent his free time plotting my demise. And he had boatloads of free time.
“Amun made his choices, too. Now you can either choose to tell me what you know about this mess, or you can join him on a shelf. I’m thinking somewhere between Somerset Maugham and James Michener. I don’t care what your choice is anymore.” I dipped into my power reserves. They weren’t nearly full enough to change anyone into anything. But Mena didn’t need to know that. Since her current incarnation wasn’t imbued with any genie attributes besides immortality, she wouldn’t be able to sense my dwindled energy on her own.
I let myself glow a little so she could see me powering up.
“Whatever. I’ll tell you what little I heard from back here.” She lifted one paw and rubbed at her ear like a cat. “Some people showed up in a black SUV. The kind with the tinted security windows, so I couldn’t really see who was inside. I got a vague impression of four or five bodies wearing dark suits and dark glasses. Glorified extras from that Will Smith movie. But I don’t think they were government agents.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Djinn? Or something worse?”
She shrugged again. “I couldn’t tell from here. I know I didn’t recognize their voices or their scents, so if they were genies, I’d never met them. Two, maybe three, males got out and headed for the front door. One of them wore too much cologne and another one didn’t have more than a passing acquaintance with personal hygiene. I thought I might’ve caught a third scent, which is why I thought maybe three, but I couldn’t be sure.”
“Okay, a few well-dressed men showed up at Zeke’s door. Not too unusual. And then?”
“I assume they went inside. After a little while, things started to get really interesting. Part of the place blew up. Other parts disappeared. That went on for quite a while, then nothing. After a bit, I heard car doors slamming and the SUV driving away. I don’t know for sure because I was under the porch by then.” She licked her nose and stared at me.
“I did hear someone else in the house after they left, but I don’t know who it was. They shuffled around in there, threw some power for a couple minutes, and then they left, too.”
“They were too quiet for that. Teleported is my guess. It’s been a snooze-fest since then. Well, until you got here.”
“What about you? Why didn’t they come after you?”
“Who the hell knows? No one but your friends knew Zeke had a dog? They didn’t think to look back here? Not that they would’ve found me, if they had searched. Once shit hit the fan, I hid.”
“Under the wooden deck. Smart move if the house had burned down.”
“I wasn’t too worried. I got the short end of the stick here, but at least you gave me a form that could outrun flames. If you’d made me like Amun, I would’ve burned alive.”
I didn’t want to think about how literal a statement that would be. Transformed or not, genies can’t be killed by fire. Hell, I didn’t think genies could be killed at all until Amun proved differently. Apparently they can be killed with an ungrantable wish—the unreleased power of it building inside them until they explode into a million bits of energy. They can also be wished dead by their Masters. Light them on fire and all they do is burn. And hurt.
“So basically, you don’t have any useful information and you can’t help me?” I gazed at the dog, wanting to kick her a little for old time’s sake. I’d wasted too much time cajoling her and listening to her while Zeke was somewhere getting into who knew what kind of trouble.
“You’re smarter than I gave you credit for,” she said, grinning as though someone had rubbed her ears.
Ignoring her dig, I considered my options. They were few and far between. “Any idea what happened to Zeke’s staff?”
“Zeke’s staff? You mean a big pole or something?”
She really was cruising for a swift kick. “The people who work for him. Hans, Frank, that gal.”
“No clue. I didn’t see the big boys leave and I haven’t seen the girl since the day you ruined my life.” Suddenly, her back leg started kicking at her like it had a will of its own. “Ah, that’s good.”
“Mena. Focus. The people who work for Zeke?”
“Maybe they’re inside, transformed into inanimate objects by the guys who nabbed Zeke. Perhaps they’re dead.”
“They aren’t dead.”
“A gal can hope.”
Conjuring a rolled-up newspaper, I whacked her once on the nose. “Bad dog.”
With her attitude, she’d never be allowed the chance to be anything else either. Not like my old dog who’d been one of the transformed Efreet from fifteen decades past, but who’d reformed into someone I now called friend.
Speaking of which, I needed to touch base with Basil when I returned home. Someone had better be close to finding my dog… err, the transformed genie… or heads were going to roll. Perhaps literally. Depending on how pissed I was after this encounter with Mena.
I still felt the need to call home. This situation was frustrating as hell. But I didn’t have any more information for Baz than I had before. He couldn’t help me find Zeke anyway. Too much to do back at the warehouse, keeping our many endeavors running smoothly. He really should give himself a raise.
If anyone was going to locate my ex-lover, it would have to be me. Except I wasn’t sure how to begin. My job was rescuing djinn after someone else had already located them. I never had to sniff them out myself.
“Want a hint?” Mena said in her particularly superior tone.
Part of me wanted to wish her to sleep so I could think. Another part remembered how helpful she’d been before she went to the dark side. Her job as my in-house psychologist had made her invaluable, which is partly how she had screwed me so royally. If I could tap into the helpful aspect of her personality, without encountering the asshole aspect, she might move this search along. If she didn’t simply use my need as a means to mess with me.
“Okay. What’s the hint?”
“Scratch my belly first.” She laid in the grass and rolled onto her back. “You wouldn’t believe how much being a dog itches. How any of them can stand being covered in hair is beyond me.”
My jaw dropped. “We don’t have time—”
“I’m not talking until you start scratching. You’re the one holding up the process now.”
I would’ve assumed, after all the years we’d been friends, that wriggling on the ground while I rubbed her stomach would amount to the most humiliating experience ever. But when I dragged my nails through her fur, she groaned in doggy ecstasy. As if the whole thing wasn’t weird enough.
“Alright,” I said. “Out with it.”
“Not yet. Oh, gods, yes. Keep scratching. Yeah, right there.” When her back leg started to kick, I reached my limit of providing poochie-pleasure. “Don’t stop now. This is almost better than sex.”
“That’s why I’m stopping.”
She rolled onto her belly and did her Sphinx imitation. As long as she didn’t start talking in riddles, I didn’t care. “Amun followed you halfway across the world, right?”
“Right, but how did you…?” I remembered a conversation I’d had with Major, my dog who would be djinn again. He told me people say a lot around dogs because they assume their words will never be repeated. I’d never talk openly around a pooch again. “Never mind.”
“From what I heard, a certain would-be lawyer followed him while he was following you.” She sniggered. “I also heard Amun changed him back into a genie. That’ll teach him to try and go human.”
“Get on with it, Mena. You were about to make a point?”
“Fine. But let me tell you, the thought of Amun ruining Michael’s bid for humanity is about the only thing that’s made me smile for weeks now.”
I raised one booted-foot as if I was about to kick her. It wouldn’t be the first time, but I really didn’t want to have to follow through.
“Wait. Think about it. How did Michael follow Amun?”
Now it was my turn to shrug.
“Stavros really should be horse-whipped if you ever catch up to him.”
Her thoughts on my original Master, the genie who stole my humanity and made me the slave, didn’t cool my temper at all. Too bad Mena was right. He’d left out too many details during my training on how to be a genie. Now, ninety-plus years later, I was paying for my ignorance.
“Stavros being an ass is a given. What’s that got to do with anything now?”
A sound like a burp emanated from her. She was scoffing at me. “You can follow a genie if you get a bead on his power signature. That’s probably why they removed Zeke by mortal means. So you’d have a hard time following. Duh.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “How is this helping?”
“You really are dense sometimes, Jo. You knew enough to ask about Zeke’s goons. Chances are if they were here and then they left suddenly, they were either following the car Zeke was in, or they picked up on Zeke’s trail. Find their signatures and you can follow them. All you need is a good whiff of their power to track them anywhere.”
Great. She’s the dog and I’m the one playing bloodhound. Lucky I know where to pick up the scent.
Walking into the house was a breeze, but it shouldn’t have been. Despite the missing chunks, I expected Zeke’s security to be intact. After all, Ezekiel ben Aron was the founder and CEO of the largest security firm west of the Mississippi. If anyone could design a system to withstand a djinn battle, it was him. Which was another reason why this scene smelled funny.
If Zeke’s alarm systems, both the human kind and the genie kind, were down, then he had to know the people who’d come to the door. He had to have invited them inside. The thought of him letting strange men in CIA attire waltz into his home stank like last week’s hummus. But there it was. Empty house. Full of valuables and practically screaming for a catburglar like my father. And not a single thing to stop even the lamest pickpocket.
Regardless of the damage, I would’ve known by that fact alone something was wrong. Zeke would never leave his place that way. Hell, he knew if I ever caught him with his security panties down, I would harass him to no end.
This was some kind of signal. Or at least I hoped it was.