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Authors: Lish McBride

Burnt Sugar

BOOK: Burnt Sugar
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Contents

Cover

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Burnt Sugar

Copyright

“Are you sure you're reading that correctly?” I leaned my elbows on the car hood and stared at the hand-drawn map Lock had spread over the hood, his bottle of Moxie acting as an anchor. As homemade maps went, it wasn't the best I'd ever seen. It relied heavily on landmarks and pirate-style directions like “twenty paces past the gnarled oak that looks like a naked old man.”

“Yes,” Lock said, “I'm sure.” He stared at the drawing, as if he could glean more information from it just by furrowing his brow. Ezra wasn't even looking at the map. He was sprawled on the car hood next to it, his sunglasses on and his belly to the sun. Like this, it was all too easy to imagine him in his other form, his kohl-lined eyes closed and his little black booted fox feet pointed to the sky.

Despite the heat, Lock and I both had light jackets on over our tank tops. Jackets have pockets, which is handy for people like us. His was full of seeds, because Lock is half-dryad and his magic is definitely of the nature spirit variety. I guess you could say mine is kind of natural too—forest fires are a part of nature, right? They clear the undergrowth and return nutrients to the soil. I've tried to tell Lock that, but he says the trees aren't buying it. So when we have an assignment that takes us into the woods, Lock takes the lead. Okay, Lock tends to take the lead anyway. Mostly because he's the organized kind who thinks things through while Ezra and I are more by-the-seat-of-our-pants hot mess kind of situations.

So while Lock has seeds, my pockets are filled with things like electrolyte pills, granola bars, emergency cash, and a pocket knife. Everything a young firebug like myself needs.

“Okay,” Lock said, folding up the map and tucking it into his pocket. “I think I have it.” I double-checked my own pockets, making sure I had everything, my fingers automatically tracing the stitching along my cuffs. To the untrained eye, it looked like brightly-colored embroidery. To a witch or anyone who knew a thing or two about rune magic, my jacket was clearly warded. My jeans pockets had the same stitching. I have this embarrassing habit of setting my own clothes on fire when I'm not careful. I'm no prude, but all it takes is one scorched pair of trousers before you learn your lesson about such precautions.

While we readied ourselves, Ezra continued to sprawl like a model out of a teen magazine. Here's the thing about Ezra Sagishi—he's ridiculously good-looking, and he knows it. Between being a fox and being Asian, he sticks out in rural Maine. When you factor in the rest—whiskey-colored eyes, black hair with russet tones, cheekbones that would make a master sculptor throw away his tools in despair, and a perfect physique—the phrase “like a sore thumb” comes to mind. And while you're drinking all that beauty in? He'll pick your pocket. Foxes aren't the best with concepts like “personal property.”

“C'mon,” I said, pulling on his pant leg. “The sooner we get this done, the sooner you can go back to getting your beauty sleep.”

Ezra popped his sunglasses up to look at me. “Are you implying that I would need something as pedestrian as beauty sleep?”

Lock grabbed his other leg and yanked hard, dragging Ezra off the car and onto the ground.

“How pretty do you think you're going to be if we don't finish this job on time, hmm?” With that reminder, our good moods vanished. Ezra became all business and we followed Lock into the woods.

We don't have what I would refer to as normal jobs. Not unless you consider extortion and murder “normal.” Lock and Ezra are tithed to the Coterie, a supernatural mafia run by a vampire named Venus. I know these days vampires have a different reputation—sexy, misunderstood creatures just waiting for someone to see their heart of gold and believe in them. They sparkle and pout but really they're just looking for someone to
love them
. Venus is beautiful, that part is right. But if she has a heart, it's withered and black, and you'd die of extreme old age waiting to see her good side. You can love her all you want, but she'd still use you up and suck you dry. And she'd only sparkle if you covered her in glitter, which I don't recommend if you like doing things like breathing and blinking.

So why do we work for her? We don't really have a choice. As tithes, Lock and Ez traded a few years of their time so that Venus would leave their families alone. I am not a tithe. Venus owns me. I'm Coterie until one of us dies. Venus is incredibly stubborn and has a very long life span. Guess who's probably going to die first?

So we do what she says. We collect protection money, deliver supernatural beat-downs when necessary, and wade through the blood of her enemies. Not your usual teen job. Our 401K is an unmarked grave and our benefits package blows. We all have nightmares.

As I tripped over a rotting log, I had a feeling that whatever happened in this forest was going into the memory banks for new nightmare fodder. The farther we walked into the forest, the darker it got. Mosquitos whined and the air was thick. The breeze I'd felt out by the car didn't manage to get this far in. The stillness gave the forest an evil vibe.

“Lock, the trees aren't going to come to life and eat us, are they?”

He half-turned my way and frowned. “Why would you say that?”

I shrugged. “This whole forest has a sort of wicked witch fairy tale thing going for it.”

Ezra slipped an arm around my shoulders. “Does that mean we can trade you to the big bad wolf?”

Lock stopped and crossed his arms, giving us a look that Ez and I knew well.

“Did we forget to do our homework?” Ezra whispered in my ear.

“Neither of you read the file, did you?” Lock said accusingly.

“I skimmed it.” I said. “Something about collecting money, blah blah blah.”

“I looked at the pictures,” Ezra added.


There weren't any pictures.
” Lock threw his hands up in a gesture I found to be just a little overdramatic. “I don't know why I'm surprised. Of course neither of you read the file.”

“Why should we when we both know you'll do it?” Ezra asked, stealing a granola bar from my pocket. “It's not our fault you're an enabler.”

Lock scowled at him. “She might need that, Ezra. And if you throw that wrapper on the ground, you're walking home.”

“I would
never
.”

I pulled a hair tie out of my pocket, doing my best to pull back my unruly mess of brown curls. I needed to get some sort of air on my neck. “It's okay, Lock. I have another.”

“That's not the point. You don't know what this job will entail—neither of you do. You might need that fuel.” Lock's natural mother-hen tendencies aside, he did have a point. While it might seem like firebugs create fire from nothing, the fuel for our power actually comes from us. If we over-expend and don't replace our calories quickly, we burn fat. Then muscle. It's best not to dwell on what happens after that. For whatever reason, our electrolyte balance is also affected, hence the pills in my pocket. At best I end up with a nasty hangover if my electrolytes get too far out of whack. At worst? Well, let's just say it's a long list of “that can't be good” followed by a lot of vital bodily systems shutting down.

I stole what was left of the granola bar from Ezra and popped it in my mouth. “There, problem solved. Now how about we skip the rest of the lecture and you fill us in as we walk?”

Lock looked skyward, clearly hoping something from on high would grant him patience with us. Ezra and I were very used to this expression. So used to it that we'd actually choreographed a quick dance in preparation for the next time Lock did it.

“What, exactly, are you doing?” Lock asked when he looked back down.

“I like to call it the Happy Prospector,” I said. “It's a high-class dance we made up.”

“It's actually more of a jig,” Ezra said, really getting into it. “There's also a version called the Angry Prospector that we plan to unveil at a later date.” Lock had once had an unfortunate mustache situation that we try to pretend never happened. If it ever seems like he's bringing that look back, out comes the Angry Prospector, which includes a scowling face and a lot of “dag-nabbits.” It's fun, but I hope we never have to perform it. Lock looks much better now, without that ridiculous mustache. Not as smooth as Ezra, but then, no one's as smooth as Ezra. Lock has a nice spiky-bleached-hair-and-leather-jacket thing going on, though.

Lock tried to keep a straight face as we danced, but gave up. His laughter rang through the unnaturally dark forest, and it felt like everything let out a breath. I swear even I could feel the trees respond to him, stretching their branches in joy.

We started walking again, picking our way through ferns and jack-in-the-pulpits as Lock filled us in. “We are here to do a collection. Dolores Walker—Dolly to her friends, if she has any out here in these creepy woods—has been regular in her payments until a few months ago.”

Collection was a nice way of referring to the money people sent to Venus so that they could operate on Coterie turf. And by operate, I mean live. What you paid depended on whether you wanted basic “protection” brought to you by the Coterie—which somewhat ironically protected you mostly from the Coterie itself—or whether you were more of a high-risk venture. Which means you're doing something illegal or morally questionable that might need to be covered up at some point. If you're a creature that eats people, you'll probably pay more than a hobgoblin whose diet leans more to small animals, even if it does mean the occasional house pet goes missing.

“How big were the payments?” Ezra asked.

Lock rattled off a fairly high number and I whistled. “And we're just coming out here now? Why weren't we called in at the first skipped payment?”

We'd come to a fork in the deer trail we'd been following and Lock consulted the map again. The sun cut through the trees here, and the forest floor was alive with summer. A heady mixture of flowers, sun, and rich earth met my nose. For a brief moment I wished I had a different life, one where I was on a forest picnic with my friends. One where there was no Coterie and I didn't have a body-removal service on speed dial. I quashed the daydream. As pleasant as it was, it just served to remind me of a life I could never have.

“I'm not sure why we're only being sent out now,” Lock said after he put the map away and headed toward the left path. “Boss-lady didn't share, but I assume it's something simple like Venus being too busy to deal with someone this far out.”

“Right,” I said, brushing away another mosquito. “Because Venus is often too busy when money is involved.”

Ezra ducked to avoid a spider web. “Actually, it has been a rather busy summer. First we had the ogres, then that werewolf bachelor party incident, and don't forget that thing with the gnomes that Ava totally screwed up. That really ate up a lot of time, and we had to handle all of it ourselves since it was Ava's fault.”

“Yes, thank you Ezra for your specific and blame-heavy explanation. Also, I thought we had an agreement to never, ever mention gnomes again?”

Ezra pushed an errant twig away. “Did we?” It was hard to tell if Ezra had forgotten our ‘let's never mention this again' discussion, or if he was choosing to ignore it. I let it drop.

“Personally, I'd rather forget the werewolf bachelor party,” Lock mumbled.

We walked quietly for a few minutes, the only sounds being the occasional snap of a twig that I stepped on. The boys moved silently. I found the lack of sound to be unnerving. When we'd started at the edge of the woods, it had been noisy. Chickadees, nuthatches, and kinglets called as they flitted by. Branches rustled as squirrels leapt and bees hummed. In here? I only had my friend the mosquito.

“Where are the birds?” I asked.

Ezra tilted his head, sniffing the air. “I was wondering that, too. And the scent … most of the game trails are old. Why?” He stilled, shifting his attention. “There's not much breeze, but every once in a while, I catch a smell. Like gingerbread.” He huffed out a breath. “I'd think there was something wrong with my nose, only I know that's not possible.”

“Right,” Lock said. “Because you're perfect.”

“My nose certainly is, and not just from an aesthetic standpoint.”

“What are the trees saying?” I was still hot and sticky, but I found myself huddling in my jacket.

“They're uneasy,” Lock said. “And it's a spreading kind of thing.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Because I'm feeling uneasy, too.”

“It wouldn't be a Coterie job if we didn't feel uneasy,” I said.

Ez swatted at something. “Let's get this over with. I want to go back to that ice cream stand we passed on the way here.”

We finally made it to a small clearing, the likes of which grace idyllic postcards and the insides of old fairy tale books. Emerald green grass, wildflowers, and a thick mass of wild roses gave the air a sweet smell. A tiny brook burbled at the edge. Butterflies and bees moved in a graceful dance from flower to flower. And smack-dab in the middle of this was a small house and an old-fashioned well.

We stayed hidden at the forest's edge and stared.

Lock spoke first. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Unless we're having a mass hallucination, then yes, it is.” I nudged him with my elbow. “Did the file mention
this
?”

“No,” Lock said, still staring at the cabin. “I don't think Venus knows about this. If she had, the premiums would have gone up.”

“If she didn't know, then it makes you wonder why they were so high in the first place without taking this into account.” Ezra grinned. “At least we know my nose isn't broken.”

“We might need another team.” Lock took out his phone and sighed. “Of course. No signal. Well, I'm at least taking pictures.” He snapped a few from where we hid.

BOOK: Burnt Sugar
5.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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