Wednesday, February 21, 2024

New Thea and Max novella!

Shock of shocks, I'm actually writing a new Thea and Max novella! The working title is "Love and Other Suitably Villainous Schemes," and here's a sneak peek at the first chapter!

(Thea and Max book one) (Thea and Max book two)


Chapter 1: Not Exactly an Invitation

Having a super-spy boyfriend was not at all like the movies made it seem.

For the most part, Thea loved it that way. She vastly preferred their monster-movie nights to dinner in uncomfortably expensive restaurants, and she'd almost entirely broken him of trying to be suave around her. He did tend toward ridiculously dramatic gifts, but he preferred tiger lilies and stuffed video game characters over expensive jewelry and sexy dresses she would never wear.

She wasn't thrilled about the fact that she hardly ever saw him, but she could hardly argue against someone being dedicated to their job. His assignments being far away from her did mean she was in far less physical danger than the usual spy girlfriend. (When she was being sensible, which was less often than she should be these days, she could admit it was a good thing.)

Of course, dating a super-spy did mean dealing with a certain bouts of movie-like absurdity. Say, like when they're trying to surprise you with a long-planned vacation.

Thea blinked at her boss. "An absurdly wealthy, conveniently secretive Italian philanthropist called you." She recapped his explanation in her flattest tone, hoping the sheer impossibility would somehow penetrate the man's brain. She may have been short, with dark skin and curls pulled back into a sensible ponytail, but she'd had a lot of sarcasm practice. "In person, instead of having one of their 10,000 assistants do it. Asking for some random Chicago computer security specialist to fly to Rome to work on some unspecified, open-ended project. He will not only pay for all this, including a per-diem fee that will turn next year's taxes into a nightmare, but he's also planning on spiriting this random specialist around in his private jet."

Charles Porter, whose face could be used as a stock photo for middle managers, frowned at her. "He didn't ask for some random specialist. He asked for you."

Thea didn't bother biting back her exasperated noise. She was absolutely going to say yes to this, because she had no doubt Max was behind this. But the idea that the man didn't see anything even slightly suspicious about this was concerning on several levels. "You do remember we've had armed gunmen in the building before, right? One of our apps was used to fund terrorism?"

Porter shook his head before she'd even finished speaking, making a dismissive gesture. "That's a non-issue. We have had several staff training sessions to deal with those incidents, and if Signor Donato wanted access to our tech he could buy it for far less money than he's buying your services. He's also already paid us a very generous consultation fee, and our financial department has already looked it over. It's 100 percent legitimate."

Thea frowned. Dangling money in front of Porter was an excellent way to get him to overlook any potential weirdness about the setup, but it was also excessive. When he'd gotten her out to Ohio for their last sort-of mission, he'd arranged it through a far subtler application of paperwork and backdated emails. This was just so much less... clever. "I didn't know the company received a consultation fee when it lent out my services."

His gaze slid away from hers as he pretended to mess with something on his computer. "Technically, we don't. Before you, no one had ever requested the services of anyone on our staff." His expression firmed as a thought hit him, and he turned back to give her a pointed look. "Though if this continues, rest assured we will work this into official company policy. It seems Mr. Bascom is friends with several other philanthropists, and was satisfied enough with your work earlier this year that he passed your name around."

It took a second to remember that Mr. Bascom was the name Max had given their fictional Ohio philanthropist. She had no doubt that Max's spy agency (which he also referred to as The Company) had given the man a full online profile, and he'd probably arranged for them to do the same thing with Alessandro Donato. The Italian version of the story was considerably more ridiculous than the Ohio version of the story, but there was precedent. She supposed it made sense that no one but her would get suspicious.

Though she should really talk to Max about setting up some kind of workshop for management: "The Benefits of Healthy Paranoia on the Corporate Bottom Line."

Porter glared, clearly having decided she'd been silent too long. "I don't know why you're arguing about this. Your team is wrapping up your most recent project, and while I am unfortunately aware that you like to be the last person to sign off on everything you can do that remotely. This will boost your reputation far more than it will ours, and the money alone would be stupid to turn down." He paused. "And if you don't, I will ban you from the office for two weeks."

Thea bit back several potential arguments to that last bit, knowing it wouldn't help anything. Besides, continuing this conversation would delay the far more important one she needed to have with Max. "I guess I'm saying yes, then." She gave him a dry look. "I had no chance against such a compelling argument."

Porter ignored the sarcasm, rapidly hitting a few keys on his computer. "There. All the information is in your inbox, including the address of his private airstrip and a number you can call if you want a limo to take you there. He'll pick you up personally tomorrow afternoon, because apparently he 'doesn't do mornings.'"

It took real effort for Thea not to roll her eyes, leaving the office with the minimum amount of required politeness. She checked her email on the way out, which also included check-in information for a penthouse suite in an expensive-looking hotel and, for some reason, photos of the private jet. Taken together, it felt more like a haphazard sales pitch than a well-built cover.

Frowning even harder now, she slipped into her office and shut the door. Putting her regular phone back into her pocket, she pulled out the one she used exclusively for talking to a certain jet-setting individual who could be anywhere in the world right now. Normally she waited for Max to reach out to her, since the last thing she wanted to do was interrupt him when it would be dangerous. But there was something about this...

Hopefully, the Company made sure he had voicemail.

Taking a deep breath, she hit the contact that would connect her directly to him. He picked up after only one ring, voice tired but warm as the best blanket. "Hey, beautiful. Calling to save me from my insomnia?"

Thea paused. This was the Max she'd come to know over the last several months. More theatrical than was at all sensible – she could not get him to stop calling her beautiful – but also wonderfully genuine. She'd asked him not to put on a persona when he was with her, and he'd done everything in his power to hold to that.

The thought that had nudged at her since Carter's office sharpened into a knife – the whole Italian philanthropist cover story wasn't his style at all.

Which meant it was someone else's cover story.

Once again, she'd been silent too long. "Thea?" Max sounded far more awake now, a grim edge to her voice. "Something's wrong. Tell me."

Great – now she was worrying him. "I don't suppose someone from your Company set me up to go to Rome?" She hated how uncertain she sounded. "Someone relatively inexperienced, maybe?"

Max went deathly silent for a moment. "They wouldn't do anything with you D or I didn't know about." A dangerous edge was slipping into his voice, but she knew it wasn't aimed at her. "And if D planned something without telling me, you wouldn't think it was an amateur."

Thea thought about the grandmotherly, leather-clad weapons expert who was Max's usual partner. "It's definitely not D," she murmured, as much to herself as at Max. She ran back through the information she'd been given, trying to look at it the way she would have if she hadn't thought Max had set it up. "Has a man named Alessandro Donato popped up in the Company files anywhere? Even just as a possible connection to something?"

For the first time – she was such an idiot – she went to her computer and looked up Donato. A quick search showed a reclusive multimillionaire just like Carter had described him, camera-shy but with his name attached to several charity projects and non-profits. The few shots of him that had been caught at events matched the professional shot Carter had shown her, a distinguished-looking man a few years older than her who wouldn't look out of place on the cover of a romance novel.

In short, not someone who would have anything to do with her.

"I can't find the name anywhere in our system," Max said finally, the frustration clear in his voice. "But that doesn't mean anything. We're a small agency, and no matter how well-connected we are there are things we miss."

"The big question, though, is what interest he would have with me." The question didn't frighten her nearly as much as it should have, even though the answer couldn't be good. She'd rather deal with some rich guy's nefarious plans any day than be in a world where she didn't know Max as well as she thought she did. "I can think of a handful of people already in Europe who are as good at security as I am, and possibly a few who are better. And even if he somehow knows about my hacking, I'm sure there are better people he can afford. There is no reason for him to fly all that way in his private jet to come get me."

"Private—" Max cut himself off with brutal efficiency, and the quiet that immediately followed was filled with the sound of movement. "I'm coming to you. I'll be there by tomorrow morning, your time, at the absolute latest."

It was completely unnecessary, and more than she would have ever dared ask of him. It was exactly what she'd wanted him to say. "There's no way the assignment you're on conveniently happens to be done right when I need you."

The sound of movement didn't slow down in the slightest. "I'll have M come in and wrap things up for me. She owes me a favor."

Her logic fiercely tried to argue with the increasing pounding of her heart. "You shouldn't come out here. If you're serious about helping me with this, you'd get here just to have to immediately turn around and fly out to Rome."

"Not if you let me get on the plane with you. Pass me off as your assistant."

She made an exasperated noise. "Actual tech people don't have assistants, and I don't want to risk Donato knowing that and leaving you out on the tarmac."

She could practically feel his tension through the phone. "You'll be alone—"

She'd never had anyone worry about her the way Max did. "He won't try anything on the plane," she said gently, cutting him off. "Whatever he needs me for, it'll involve letting me spend time with his servers."

He was silent for a long moment. "Tell them you want to hire your own security," he said finally, voice still tight. "Make up whatever reason you think he'll believe. I can't go with you on the plane because he'll see it as an insult, but I'll meet you the second you get to Rome."

Her chest tightened. "What if this just turns out to be some run-of-the-mill corporate crime? Won't you get—?"

"Thea." It was his turn to cut her off, soft but oh-so-serious. "There is no way I'm letting you do this alone."

Thea swallowed. "Thank you."

"Always." He let out a breath. "Stay safe. I will be there the second you land."

Even after they said their goodbyes, Thea held onto the phone a little more tightly than it would be at all safe to admit to. Making herself put it back in her pocket, she squared her shoulders and went to work.

She had some research to do.


"Come on, T." Max paced back and forth across his hotel room, feeling like a caged animal. He'd been packed and ready to go for an hour now, had all the necessary background for his security cover set up and ready to go, and had three different potential modes of transportation for whenever he could get out of here. Until R checked in and officially took over his current assignment, however, none of that was going to do him the slightest bit of good.

R was taking far too long to check in. "You have to have something on the guy! Rich people can't go 24 hours without committing some kind of crime!"

T sighed. "We can't exactly pick him up for tax fraud, Max." The Company's main tech expert was definitely trying to use the dad voice he'd perfected with his own brood of adopted rugrats. "And without a full deep dive into his system, which I'm sure Thea is going to want to do herself, I can't even confirm that much."

He couldn't punch anything. It would only slow him down more if he punched something. "Then why reach out to Thea? You saw that he's been handling his security in-house for the last several years, and she's right when she says there are more glamorous experts that would be further up his list! Finding her would take research!"

"And if he did that research, he'd know she’s one of the best."

"Yes, but once he talks to her for five minutes he'll realize she is incredibly suspicious and not about to fall for whatever scheme he's planning!" There were so many things you could do to someone on a plane midflight. Most of them ended by throwing the person out an open hatch. "Whatever he thinks she's going to do for him, she's actually going to make his life a living hell."

He'd run straight into Thea's refusal to go with the program back when they first met, and it turned out to be the best thing that had ever happened to him. But he ran into plenty of people on this job who preferred to solve their complications by killing them, and the thought of Thea alone with one of those kind of people turned his chest into ice.

And the thought of her alone with another professional charmer, who might end up just as enchanted with her as Max was...

He was knocked out of his thoughts when he realized T had been quiet far too long. "You've thought of something, and you're pretty sure I'm not going to like it." Max took a deep breath. "Tell me."

T still took a few moments to respond. "Donato is a notoriously private man, but he wasn't quite as careful about it in his younger years." There was something careful in his voice, like he knew he was delivering bad news. "And one thing the gossip sites all picked up on is that he only dates women in tech."

Max pulled the phone away from his ear long enough to scowl at it properly. "And this helps me how?"

He hesitated again. "Maybe this guy really is just trying to ask her—"

Max cut him off, not wanting to hear it out loud. "I knew what you were trying to say, T! That's not what I'm worried about!"

But that... might be part of the reason he was so desperate to get out there. It felt like he and Thea had barely gotten started on a real relationship, mostly because he was always out on assignment. He knew Thea cared about him, but if this Donato guy had the good sense to start acting genuine he was a lot more attractive a package than Max was. He'd even managed to take Thea to Rome before Max had, damn it.

A part of him couldn't help but feel like it would be really convenient if Donato was guilty of something. Another part wanted Donato to be just the rich idiot he looked like, because otherwise Thea was flying straight into danger without him. If something happened to her, it would kill him.

"Listen, maybe this is something you should talk to Thea about." The cajoling edge to T's voice would have been deeply annoying if Max hadn't had so much else to worry about. "I'm not saying there's not something suspicious about this guy, but I think it'll be easier to focus if you're not worried about the... emotional aspects of all this."

Max actually considered it for a second, which was proof of just how much of an effect Thea had on him. No matter how he spun it, though, he couldn't see any way it wouldn't make things worse. "Best case scenario, she only gets exasperated about the fact that I'm a jealous idiot instead of full-on hitting me in the face. Worst case scenario, which is the far more likely one, she is incredibly hurt that I took her genuine worry and made it all about my own stupid insecurities."

T sighed again. "Okay, you have a point there. Maybe we could—" He cut off abruptly, and when he spoke again his voice had gone strange. "D's calling me."

Max winced. "I don't suppose there's any chance you could hold her off for, say, 24 hours?"

"Sorry." T sounded genuinely sympathetic, but that wasn't going to be a lot of help to him. "She's a lot scarier than you are."

There was a murmur on the other end of the phone, probably T telling D that he was transferring Max, then the slightest shift in background noise and the cultured British tones of his second favorite person in the world. "Max, really."

Max pinched the bridge of his nose. He'd absolutely planned on reaching out to D, but he'd wanted to wait until he had at least some idea of what was actually going on. "I was going to loop you in on this, I swear it."

"When, exactly?" He could hear her arched eyebrow. "After you'd upset one of the most delightful women I've ever met by turning this into a particularly absurd romantic comedy, or after you've gotten yourself shot by completely missing the fact that this might be about you?"

He had an argument ready well before she'd finished talking. "Don’t try to tell me that things like this actually happen outside of romance novels and spy gambits, which is why this is especially..." The words trailed off as his brain finished processing the rest of what he'd just said. "Wait. You think this is about me?"

D gave an exaggerated sigh. "Max, darling, I know you're smarter than this." Her voice turned chiding. "As delightful as our Thea is, I agree that this seems like something more from our world than a romance novelist's. And as such, you are a far more likely target than she is."

Max went cold. "Someone found out how attached I am," he breathed. "And is trying to use her to get to me." Horrifying possibilities spun through his thoughts. "I need to—"

"Max." The word was urgent enough to cut through the panic spiral. "That is not what I meant, and I will admit that my frustration meant I did not think through my approach nearly as well as I should have. Thea will be fine, and there is no reason for you to do any of the three or four shades of potentially stupid things we both know you're capable of."

Max made himself inhale. It was the only way to argue properly. "How exactly is she fine? If this is somehow a plan to target me, then I have screwed up enough that random bad guys know that I will do anything for—"

"Or maybe they know she's the head tech person at the app company that cracked open an enormous terrorist funding operation, and they assume she's the one who brought it to the Company's attention? They may not be trying to target you specifically, but that will not make you be any less dead if they succeed."

Max closed his eyes, making himself actually breathe this time. "That just makes it even more important that I'm there, because if that is what's going on then she's still in danger from something we did."

D made a frustrated noise. "Will you at least promise me you'll think about being careful? And for the love of good scotch, will you tell me where I need to be to help keep you both alive through this mess?"

The knot in his chest eased a little. "I'll be as close to Thea as humanely possible, which means I won't be in position to express my displeasure with any randomly placed snipers."

She let out a breath. "I would be thrilled to take over that responsibility for you. You will also keep your earbud in your ear, so I can rush to your assistance on the off chance someone tries to kill you in a server room or someplace else equally inconvenient."

"I can agree to that." Max tried to keep his voice light, but he couldn't quite manage it. His hand tightened on the phone. "But if this really is my fault..."

"Max." D's voice was as gentle as he'd ever heard it. "Thea knows how dangerous your life is, and she keeps walking into it open-eyed. If you want proof of that, you were quite literally the reason she was in danger in Ohio and she still insisted on being there. When you gave her the chance to get out, she didn't take it."

His throat closed up, remembering. "And if I told her I was panicking about this, she would absolutely kick my ass."

"Yes, she would. One of her most charming qualities." D’s voice warmed. "And if you make sure to watch your own back while you're watching hers, I will do you the immense favor of not passing any of this on to Thea. She's normally a wonderfully logical woman, but I suspect that she would decide my theory meant she was putting you in danger."

Max winced at the thought. "She'd try to keep me away." He'd come up with as many alternate cover stories as he needed to, but no one was quite as good at puncturing his cover stories as she was. "Which would make it a lot harder for me to protect her."

"And neither of you would be thinking clearly, which would make things that much more stressful for me." The background noises picked up briefly on D's end, and it hit him suddenly that it sounded like she was at an airport. "And, though it hasn't occurred to you to ask me yet, I will also reach out to my contacts for some of that juicier underground gossip T wouldn't think to look for."

"Thank you." His chest warmed. "You know, you might actually beat me to Rome."

He could hear her smile. "Well, I wasn't about to let you do this alone." There was a pause. "Speaking of you leaving for Rome, R's tracker suggests that she is currently lingering outside your hotel. There's a chance she's run into trouble, but it's far more likely she's trying to express her displeasure at you for cutting her vacation short."

Max growled at the thought. She owed him. "Quick question – how much trouble will I get in if I kill R?"

"While I do sympathize, she won't be able to take over your assignment if you kill her. The frustration of finding another replacement would certainly outweigh any potential satisfaction."

Max swore, realizing she was right, and grabbed his bag. "Then I should still say goodbye. I have to go not-quite kill a coworker and get on a plane."

D laughed. "Have fun with that, darling. I'll see you soon."

Shoving the phone back into his pocket, Max hurried downstairs to solve the most immediate of his long list of problems.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Chapter 1: One More Terrible Idea


Chapter 1

One More Terrible Idea


Dramatic deaths worked great in songs. If the person died because of their own stupid pride, that was even better.

As the invisible force dragged Jess toward the flames, she felt profound sympathy for the subject of every doomed ballad she’d ever heard. It was easy to get cocky and let yourself walk right into disaster. People were prideful idiots all the time, and on a normal day the worst consequence you had to face was someone shouting at you on the road. You had no idea you’d gotten yourself killed until it was too late, and what was supposed to be a normal day turned into the kind of mess people wrote songs about.

Not that anyone would write this song. The only audience for her desperate attempts to drag herself back up into the dirt was Thomas, who was stuck in this disaster just as deeply as she was. It was her fault he was even here, and if he had any sense he’d let go of her right now and abandon her to her fate. He should at the very least be furious at her for this, but instead he was holding onto her like it was his life on the line. If she got pulled in, Jess had a terrible feeling he'd let himself get dragged in with her.

If there's one thing better suited to a song than an arrogant death, it's a tragedy.


The week had started out so good, too.

It kicked off with a walk that was almost relaxing. Clear skies, a cool breeze, and enough moonlight for Jess to see the road stretched out in front of her. She still had a ways to go before she could call it a night, but she piped a steady stream of her favorite tunes as she walked. A few doors from nearby houses shut as she went by, curtains quickly closing, but Jess didn’t take it as a commentary on her music.

Almost no one liked watching hundreds of rats walk down their street.

With each step, the number kept climbing. Rats trickled out of every house and outbuilding she passed by, emerging from cracks and knotholes to join the ever-increasing rat army behind her. She called them with her music, with the thread of power she wove through every note, and they wanted to follow more than they wanted air.

Some people become witches or sorceresses. Other people had magic that was only good for pest control.

The little boy standing by the side of the road didn’t seem to care, though. All his attention was on the rats, watching them with the kind of rapt fascination she hardly ever saw from anyone over the age of 12. She took one hand off the pipe long enough to wave at him, and the kid delightedly waved back.

As if she’d been watching from the window, the boy’s mother burst out of one of the nearby houses. She hurried over and snatched him up, capping the whole thing off by giving Jess her fiercest glare. Jess responded with the most dramatic wink she could manage, making the woman huff and haul her child back into the house.

The rest of the walk was quiet, ending in an empty field with a flaming trench along the far end. It was how rat piping was always done these days, the rats going into the trench while Jess walked across a bridge set up with magical fire protection. It wasn’t the most pleasant process, but Jess enjoyed eating on a regular basis.   

The town council representative standing at the end of the trench watched her with a skeptical expression. “Always found pipers kind of creepy, myself. Too close to those sirens you always hear stories about.”

It was hardly an uncommon response. No one really trusted pipers, and they trusted them less when they were young and female. More than that, her olive brown skin and straight black hair made it hard to pass as a local. One more strike against her, on a list that was already long enough.

She put on her best salesman’s smile, imagining stabbing him with the knife in her boot. “I believe you have the rest of my money?”

Reluctantly, he handed her a decently full envelope, then stalked off into the darkness. Jess watched him go, smiling in relief when he finally disappeared from view. “You can come out now.”

Barely a breath later, the emptiness in front of her was replaced by a young man. He had a soft, dark cloud of tightly curled hair, warm brown skin burnished by the firelight, and the kindest eyes Jess had ever seen. She’d been traveling with him for almost a year now, and she still wasn’t tired of looking at him.

“That guy was a jerk.” Thomas Abernathy, official Rat and Mouse Reaper, scowled as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. “If he thinks he can do so much better, why doesn’t he try to get rid of all the mice and rats in town?”

Chest tightening at the fierce protectiveness in his voice, she busied herself with putting both her pipe and the money away in her case. “Thank you for the entertaining visuals. He’s the kind of man who thinks he could order them to behave, then be surprised when they swarmed him.”

Thomas scowled. “He’d deserve it.”

He sounded so serious, as if he was the one who’d been insulted, and Jess had to clear her throat before she could trust her voice. “You wouldn’t have to overhear so many jerks if you didn’t wait here for me during my walk. I’m pretty sure I don’t have another Reaper following me, which means you could come back and do your part of things pretty much any time tonight.”

Thomas’s protective anger instantly disappeared, replaced by a sudden uncertainty she wanted to kick herself for activating. He didn’t like to talk about it much, but Jess had seen it often enough to know staff of the Dr. Abernathy Home for Abandoned Children had a lot to answer for.

He took a step back. “I don’t have to wait here if you don’t want me to. You don’t actually need me to keep track of how many rats and mice you’ve collected, and if you wanted you could just—”

“Hey.” Jess caught the lanyard he always wore around his neck when he was on the job, tugging on it gently. “I don’t want you to stop doing anything. I was just trying to save you a little boredom.”

The uncertainty vanished, his whole face lighting up. “Being bored just means more time to read.” Then his expression softened. “Besides, I like watching you work.”

Anyone with sense would have kissed him for that. Jess had plenty of sense, but she also knew how bad she was for Thomas. If she was nearly as good a person as her partner, she should stay away from him.

She wasn’t going to do that – she refused to let herself say she couldn’t – but she needed to keep herself from making it any worse.

Taking a deep breath, Jess made herself let go of him. “Right now, though, I’m the one who’s keeping you from working.” She tightened the strap on her pipe case to make sure she had something to do with her hands. “Why don’t we—”

The rest of her cover attempt was interrupted by the sound of her pocket magic mirror chiming that she had a new message. Grateful for the distraction, she pulled it out and swiped her finger across the glass. More work for her meant more work for both of them.

Thomas watched her, hesitating as he reached for the I.D. hanging around his neck. “You want to skip following me around tonight, so you can focus on the message?”

“Not a chance. I’d hate to miss hearing you explain something.” Opening the message with one hand, she tried to ignore the familiar tingle as she laid the other hand on his shoulder. There was an entirely practical reason for it – if she let go of him, she’d immediately get dumped back into the regular world and Thomas would end up invisible again. “If you ever want to quit being a Reaper I’m sure someone would hire you as a tour guide.”

Thomas made a rueful noise. “Only someone who was really interested in hearing an itemized history of the local plant life.” He finally slapped his hand against the I.D., making both the darkness and fire disappear in a rush of gray. The only spots of color left in the world were her, Thomas, and the cool blue light of the rats’ discarded life energy floating in small clouds above the flames.

Thomas curled his hand, murmuring a word Jess could never quite catch. An instant later, a glowing, translucent scythe made of energy appeared in his empty grip. According to Thomas, everyone’s life energy stuck around after they died. It normally faded away after a few days, and without the extra boost of the cloak only witches and sorcerers could see it. That meant the less scrupulous ones could absorb the energy as an extra power boost, which tended to be bad news for everyone else.

That was where Reapers came in.

“You know, it’s really not fair that you have to wait until they’re already dead,” Jess tried, watch him carefully swing the tip of his scythe through each one of those small clouds of blue light. The light flared and disappeared, going someplace even Thomas hadn’t dared to speculate about. “Especially with those quotas you have to make every month.”

Thomas shook his head as he worked. “If I kill them, the scythe spell somehow knows and won’t let me Reap them.”

When further explanation didn’t come, Jess frowned. “How does that work, exactly?”

This time, it was his turn to sigh. “Honestly, I have no idea. It’s probably a combination of several spells, but I’ve asked various supervisors and none of them seemed to even know what I was talking about.” He made a frustrated noise. “Not that that’s anything new, really.”

Jess would happily punch Thomas’s bosses, but she didn’t want to make his life any harder. “You could probably figure it out,” she prodded gently. “Take it apart yourself, see how it worked.”

Now his expression turned wistful. “That would be nice.” Then he shook his head, firmly enough like he was chasing the thought away. “I’d probably just get in trouble, though.” He inclined his head toward the mirror. “Besides, it’s your work we should be focusing on right now.”

Letting herself be deflected, she activated the mirror message. The smoke swirling on the other side of the glass cleared, revealing an exhausted middle-aged man with a decent suit and the lingering trace of a farmer’s tan. “Miss Tremeau, my name is Arthur Perkins. I’m the mayor of Kensford, a bustling, prosperous town boasting—” He stopped, closing his eyes like something pained him. “But you don’t care about that.”

“Your clients don’t usually sound this stressed, do they?” Thomas asked absently, still focused on his own work.

Jess paused the message. “Sometimes. If his constituents are complaining, or the last piper couldn’t do the job, he’s getting a lot of extra pressure.”

Thomas considered this a moment, then nodded. “That makes sense. The witches from the mirror group mention that sometimes with clients.”

Jess smiled a little. “Are they still trying to get you named an honorary witch so they can make you a member?”

Thomas’s sigh was both affectionate and long-suffering as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. “They’re just trying to be nice. There’s nothing special about the fact that I read a lot.”

There was no way to answer that wouldn’t completely betray her, so she just squeezed his shoulder and restarted the message. On the other side of the mirror, Mayor Perkins cleared his throat. “We’ve talked to the leaders of some of the other cities and towns you’ve done jobs for, and they all say you’re the most thorough piper they’ve ever worked with.”

Jess had just long enough to feel a glow of pride before he ruined it by continuing. “We had to research a little more extensively than usual since we heard your name in an odd way. We put up our usual posting for a piper, and a man named Crispin St. Clair responded. His—”

Alarm spiking, she shut off the mirror message again. “We both know this is a bad idea, right? The last time I took a job over from him, he almost got us both arrested.”

Thomas’s expression gentled. “And after everyone figured out you were right, he was the one who got arrested.”

Taking a deep breath, she restarted the message. “—reputation is unfortunate enough that nearby towns had already warned us against him, but we were desperate.” The mayor grimaced. “Unfortunately, he couldn’t even call a single rat. When confronted him about his failure, he insisted you were somehow to blame. We began researching you, and after hearing the reports it’s clear we desperately need your help.”

She stopped the message completely, far more tempted than she knew she should be. “At least it sounds like it won’t be boring.”

“You don’t have to talk me into it,” he laughed.  “Let me finish up here. Then we’ll get a few hours of sleep and set out for Kensford in the morning.”

Jess grinned. “I’m sure the rats will be excited to see us.” Sending a quick return message, she slipped the magic mirror into her pocket and went back to watching Thomas work.


They made it to Kensford by the following afternoon. Rather than going straight to town hall, they took a detour through the market to restock their provisions and get a better sense of the rat situation. If the mayor had been desperate before Crispin screwed things up, there might be additional complications. If so, Jess needed to find out what they were.

Part of that was keeping an ear open for gossip.

“These rats are a menace! They’ll steal food off a table just like a cat!”

“There was one sleeping in my daughter’s bed last night!”

“I mirror called my sister in Hammelin to see if my family can stay with hers, but I haven’t been able to get a hold of her. I’m getting desperate.”

At one point, Thomas leaned in close. “If the rats are really as bad as people say, why aren’t they running wild through this place?”

Jess had noticed the same thing. “I would say the rats are too full to eat anything, but the food is all still out in the open. If they’d spent the last few days fighting off rats, they’d have at least a few protective measures in place.” She poked her head underneath the edge of one of the stalls, lifting the display cloth, but no rat ran out with a stolen prize.

Thomas frowned. “There’s no such thing as a polite rat.”

“No, there isn’t.” Jess straightened. “And from the way people are talking…”

The words trailed off as a rat emerged from under a nearby stall, walking casually as if it had all the time in the world. The few people that were nearby shrieked and ran, making the rat jump and run around in circles. When someone went at it with a broom, the rat started squeaking wildly and backed itself into a corner. Still, it didn’t run for real cover until another rat darted out and chased it into a protected area.

Thomas’s brow furrowed, still staring in the direction the rats had gone. “That is a very strange rat.”

“Which would explain why people are freaking out, even though there aren’t that many rats.” Relief loosened a knot she hadn’t even known was in her chest. “A bunch of them accidentally eat some magical grain or something and start acting funny. People get spooked enough to complain to the mayor, and suddenly the entire town has a rat problem.”

Thomas’s expression relaxed a little, but not enough. “I guess that works as a theory. It would have to be a traveling shipment of grain, though – there’s nothing in this area that would qualify.”

“That makes sense.” She nudged his arm. “What this really means, though, is there’s a chance I might get done early tonight. Which means you’ll get done early tonight.”

The idea made his eyes light up again. She firmly ignored how unfairly attractive it made him look. “Which means we might both get some actual sleep.”

Cheered by the thought, they headed to town hall and wrapped up negotiations with the mayor without too much trouble. That night, Thomas headed to his usual position by the trench as Jess started her walk. A surprisingly large crowd had gathered – the rats really had made people nervous – and Jess made sure to put on an extra touch of showmanship. Even though she was nowhere near a center ring, she’d never forgotten her mother’s lessons about putting on a show.

Then she raised her pipe to her lips and started playing. A few steps later, she closed her eyes and reached deep inside her chest. That was where the magic waited, and just like always it came easily to her call.

Except there weren’t enough rats following her. She could only hear a few sets of little feet, even though she’d gone almost a block. Even if Kensford was exaggerating their rat problem, she normally would have called out at least 10 or 15 by this point.

She thought about the rat they’d seen at the market, how oddly it had behaved compared to every other rat she’d seen. Thomas would probably say it was why she was having so much trouble calling them now, maybe even suggest stopping the walk until she could talk to the mayor.

If she was right, though, the weird behavior was the entire reason the mayor and council had called her here in the first place. They certainly wouldn’t see it as a good enough reason for her not to do her job, which meant she’d be fired.

Just like Crispin.

Appalled by the thought, she reached back down for more magic. She had to dig deeper than usual, but when she made the connection it was like a dam bursting. The power rushed through her, pouring into the song so suddenly she stumbled a little.

It only took a few more steps before the rats started coming. She could hear their tiny claws on the cobblestones, flooding into the street the same way her power had into the song. She didn’t turn around, but she’d been doing this long enough she couldn’t stop her brain from estimating the number from the sounds. One hundred… five hundred… eight hundred… A river of rats, when she was used to a steady trickle.

It was fine, though. Jess told herself that she’d just used too much power, pouring it into the song too fast. It didn’t mean anything was wrong.

But they kept coming. More and more rats found her with every step, the sound of them loud enough now to be heard over the music. The townspeople were growing increasingly unnerved, and it was getting harder and harder to pretend she wasn’t feeling the same way.

As the audience thinned, the number of rats started to slow down as well. She could see the trench fire glowing in the distance, holding onto the image as she made it to the empty field. The rats were still following her like an obedient little army, and she just had to cross one last little stretch of dirt. Then she could get the rest of her money, and she and Thomas could—

The thought cut off as Thomas suddenly appeared in the middle of the field, hurrying toward her at a dead run.