Authors: Marjorie M. Liu
Within the Flames
A Dirk & Steele Novel
Marjorie M. Liu
t began as a game. Death was always a game, under civilized circumstances.
Tea was served. Tea and sandwiches, accompanied by glistening cakes and sugared cookies. The guests fidgeted inside the small room with its stone floor and hard wooden chairs: rare antiques made for kings a="+nd queens, in older, darker, years.
In all, six women were present. Three were in their early twenties. Strong girls, with clear skin, bright eyes, and rosy cheeks. Good girls, chosen for their good hearts.
The two women who had lured them here were older, though only just. The woman in charge had chosen
years ago, for reasons that had
to do with goodness.
Which was why they were still alive. Whether or not they stayed that way would depend on how the wind blew. The woman in charge had trained them. She knew what they were capable of. She knew the precautions necessary when dealing with them.
“So,” said one of the newcomers, a lanky brunette with an unseemly penchant for gum chewing. “This is just like a sorority, right?”
The woman in charge set down her tea. “It has been called such, though I prefer to think of our organization as somewhat more . . . mature.”
“I’m a Kappa Kappa Gamma,” replied the girl, smacking her gum. “We’re very mature.”
“Indeed.” The woman smiled. “I think you will be happy with us.”
“And the networking opportunities are good?” asked another girl, a blonde, as blithely oblivious as the rest but with a great deal more intelligence in her eyes. “I suppose you’ve seen my résumé. A computer science degree was supposed to be a sure thing, but no one seems to be hiring. At least, not people they don’t already know.”
“Or who don’t have experience,” added the last of the new girls, also fair-haired, though certainly from a bottle. “It’s worse in the legal field. They’re telling me they need at least two years of prior work at a firm. Christ. Where am I going to get that if no one will even
“That is why we are here,” said the woman in charge. “Bright Futures is an organization dedicated to promoting the advancement of promising young women such as you three. Think of us as . . . headhunters.”
“Yeah,” said the sorority girl, giving one of the older women a cheerful look. “That’s what Betty said.”
Betty wore jeans and a velvet blazer, and lounged like a cat with her arm thrown casually over the back of her chair. Her hair was black, and so were her eyes.
“I told Hillary that we have contacts utuve contin the fashion industry,” she said crisply. “Here in the city.”
“Not just New York. Paris, too,” added Nikola, the other girl whom the woman in charge had trained. Dark-skinned, with lush copper-toned hair, and a sensual mouth that always distracted men. She wore a long red dress that clung to her curves, and her golden earrings fanned downward against her throat.
“Cool,” said the sorority girl, though her companions seemed less impressed. Not that it mattered. The woman in charge thought their color was growing worse, and she had to hide a smile when the young lawyer swayed, blinking hard.
“Is there a bathroom?” she asked, with a touch of embarrassment.
“We’re almost done here,” said the woman in charge. “Can it wait?”
She kept her tone polite but with an edge, a hint of disdain.
The young lawyer stayed seated but gave her a defiant look that under other circumstances might have made the woman in charge think twice about using her as a candidate.
“You don’t look so good,” said Hillary, who had eaten less than the others and had hardly touched her tea.
“I don’t feel well,” said the young lawyer, swaying again, her hands white-knuckled as she gripped the edge of her chair.
“Neither do I,” said the computer science major, who was having trouble keeping her eyes open. “Oh, wow.”
“Wow,” echoed Hillary, her own eyes getting big. “Yeah, maybe you should both find that bathroom.”
“Air. Air would be . . . better,” said the young lawyer, trying to stand. “I think we . . . we should get out of here.”
“Mmm,” said the other girl, covering her mouth with a trembling hand. “Mmm . . . God.”
She pitched forward, landing hard on her knees. She tried to hold herself up, hands braced on the floor, but her elbows quivered so violently it was only seconds before she lost the fight and was curled on her side, panting. The young lawyer fell beside her moments later.
Hillary shot off her chair, gasping when her knees almost buckled. Swaying, swallowing hard, she managed to straighten and shot a concerned look at Betty, who hadn’t moved and was watching the two fallen girls wiololen girth a faint smile.
“I think they need help,” Hillary said.
“Do you?” replied Betty, glancing at her with that same sharp amusement. “You should be more concerned about yourself, sweetheart.”
Hillary frowned. “Why?”
Nikola sighed, examining her nails. “Well, you’re going to feel
mean?” Hillary asked, but the woman in charge had risen while the others were speaking, and unsheathed the obsidian blade hidden inside her leather jacket.
She stood behind Hillary. Betty and Nikola smiled.
“Answer me,” said the girl.
“As you wish,” murmured the woman in charge, and stabbed the dagger into the girl’s side, in the kidney. It was a soft spot, easier than trying to cut her throat—or wound her in the back and risk the blade bouncing off bone.
Hillary shrieked, twisting. The woman muttered a sharp word, power tingling over her skin—and the sorority girl froze, her voice choking in her throat.
Betty and Nikola moved in like vipers. But not toward Hillary.
Betty rolled the lawyer over, and knelt hard on her chest. The girl tried to struggle, but it was a feeble effort that bordered on dreamlike. The computer science major wasn’t moving at all. She barely breathed. Nikola crouched beside her and removed a dagger from within a slit in her long red skirt. Betty held her own weapon. Both she and Nikola looked at the woman in charge.
“Begin,” she said softly.
And so they did.
ater, after the power had been drained from the blood, and all were full and sated—sprawled upon the sticky floor beside three cold corpses—the woman smiled to herself.
“Now we’re ready for her,” she said, closing her eyes and seeing fire. Old fire, old screams.
She would find the dragon. Finally.
Betty and Nikola laughed.
dragon slept beneath New York City.
Her dreams were fitful. Her dreams always were. She had been hiding a long time and had run a great distance with no home, no place to rest her head.
Her home now was humble and small, but it was hers. Filled with light and color, and glass. Small jars of paint, and a canvas to stretch her wings upon.
Others shared her underworld. Men and women, and children. The dragon protected them, when she could. Some, she considered friends. But always from a distance, where it was safe. Safe, for them.
Safe meant being alone.
The dragon had been alone a long time.
But sometimes, like tonight, she dreamed of a man.
And he was made of fire.
ore than twenty-five hundred miles away, Eddie knelt on the polished concrete floor of a glass-walled cage, trying very hard not to catch fire.
The cage was an eight-by-eleven block of concrete and fire-resistant glass, and the door was made of thick steel, framed in that same concrete. No furniture. No blankets. The space had once been part of the dining room, and the double-paned glass wall usually offered Eddie an unobstructed view of the kitchen. There was, however, a privacy curtain that he could draw over the exterior of the cage.
He had used it tonight. There was a guest upstairs.
It was over,
thought Eddie, putting his back to the wall as sparks danced off his clothes.
I was sure it was over.
He had not lost control in almost a year.
He had not needed the cage.
You know why.
Eddie closed his eyes, haunted. Every inch of him, so tender that the softest touch of his clothes hurt as though he were being dragged naked, on gravel.
he told himself.
Eddie breathed, but each breath was hot in his lungs—the same heat burning in his bones, rising through his skin. Smoke rose off his body, singeing his nostrils. He tried to think of cool water, ice, this morning’s silver fog around the Golden Gate Bridge. He imagined the flow of the salt-scented breeze on his face as he’d walked to his favorite coffee shop . . .
Everything, good and normal. Part of the life he had made for himself.
But it meant nothing. His mind kept returning to his mother’s sobs, the broken rasp of her voice—the sound of his grandmother in the background, trying to calm her. Trying, and failing—because she was crying, too.
Tears sizzled against his cheeks. Eddie held his stomach, overwhelmed with grief and anger. So much anger.
He pushed it down. Then he kept pushing, and
methodically bottling his emotions: frustration, unhappiness, regret. He hid them all in a cool dark place inside his heart. He buried them, far away and deep, until he felt raw, empty.
Empty, except for the loneliness. An isolation so profound it bordered on despair.
Flames erupted against his legs and hands, flowing up his arms to arc over his shoulders—down his back like wings. Eddie tried to stop the fire—struggled with all his strength—but it was like trying to catch the wind. The flames slipped around him, through him, and all the control he had so carefully cultivated once again meant nothing.
He was powerless. Helpless. And he hated himself for that.
His spine caught on fire, a deep burn born in his bones, born deeper, rippling from his heart. Eddie closed his eyes, listening to the crackle of flames eating through his jeans and T-shirt, turning them to ash.
He didn’t make a sound, not even when the burn of his skin made him feel as though he would split apart. He pretended not to feel the soaring waves of heat moving around him, wrapping him in a nest of fire that brushed against the walls of his cage.
He c="#0000e tried so hard not to think about his sister’s murderer walking out of prison.
But in the end, it was easier just to burn.
hen Eddie left the cage, a woman was waiting for him.
He happened to know that she was in her early fifties, though she hardly looked it with her loose red hair, creamy skin, and long, supple body clad in black. A patch covered her right eye, and the other was golden, pupil slit like a cat’s. She leaned on the kitchen counter, arms folded over her chest—and even standing still, there was a lethal, inhuman grace about her.
Eddie froze and clutched the curtain around his waist. None of his clothes had made it through the blaze.
“Ma’am,” he said, a little too hoarse.
Her gaze traveled down his body, cold and assessing. “You make me feel so old. How many times will we meet, Edward, before you call me Serena?”
Eddie waited. Serena gave him a slow, dangerous smile and picked up a cloth bag on the counter behind her. She tossed it to him. When he looked inside, he found sweatpants and a T-shirt.
“Roland told me where you keep your things,” she said. “He also mentioned that your skin is sensitive . . . afterward. I chose what seemed soft.”
“Thank you,” Eddie said. “Ma’am.”
Serena tilted her head, golden eye glinting. Eddie stepped back into the cage, letting the curtain fall behind him. The process of dressing made him feel more human—more grounded in his own body—though his skin still ached, and when he moved too quickly, lights danced in his eyes.
When he reemerged, Serena stood at the foot of the stairs.
“They’re waiting,” she said.
Eddie did not move. “No one mentioned that you would be here.”
“Shocking, I know.”
“Yes,” he admitted. “It’s a bad sign. What else has happened?”
“I don’t know. Yet.” Serena gave him a faint, mocking smilnt>mockinge and turned to climb the stairs. “If it’s any consolation, no one told me I’d be in San Francisco tonight. But here I am. I go where there’s trouble.”
“You make trouble,” he replied. “With all due respect.”
She laughed, quietly, and kept climbing.
Eddie did not follow. He watched until she disappeared around the landing, then looked down at his hands. Small, circular scars covered his skin. He rubbed them and shivered.
He was always cold after he lost control. Cold as winter, in his bones. When he felt like this, he couldn’t imagine losing control ever again. Drained of fire, burned out. Safe.
Eddie took a deep breath and climbed the stairs.
He entered an immense room filled with overstuffed couches and low tables sagging with books and newspapers. The top floor, the penthouse suite of an entire building owned by one man, one organization—converted into a home and office. Nine floors that could be traversed by stairs and hidden elevators.
It was night outside. Only a few lamps had been turned on, but the floor-to-ceiling windows let in the scattered light of downtown San Francisco, and that was enough to illuminate the room, softly, as though with starlight.
Two people stood near the windows. Serena still had her arms folded over her chest. The man who stood beside her was taller by half a foot and broad as a bear. His rumpled flannel shirt strained against his shoulders. Thick brown stubble, peppered with gray, covered his jaw. The scent of whiskey clung to him, but that was no surprise. Not for months.
Roland’s bloodshot gaze was compassionate and sad as he studied Eddie. Edged with doubt, too. And pity.
Eddie tamped down anger. “Don’t look at me like that.”
Roland grunted. “Like what?”
“Like I’m broken,” he said hoarsely. “Like I’m you.”
Low blow. Eddie received no satisfaction from the surprise and hurt that flickered across the other man’s face—but he wasn’t sorry, either. He had never thrown a first punch, hardly ever used his fists at all, but for the last year he had wanted to—against the man in front of him. Words were a poor substitute.
And he needed to hit someone right now. Right now, more than anything, he needed to inflict some pain.
Roland cleared his throat. “You little shit.”
“I only look like shit. Don’t confuse the two.”
“In your case, it’s the same thing.” Roland tilted his head, watching him. “Are you going to be able to do this? Handle New York?”
Eddie hadn’t told him about his mother’s phone call. He hadn’t needed to. Roland had known from the moment Eddie entered the penthouse, heading for the cage. Some telepaths were like that.
“According to you,” Eddie said, “there’s no one else.”
“That’s not an answer.”
He set his jaw, warmth finally trickling back into his hands. “It’s the only answer I need. You taught me that.”
Roland stilled. Serena murmured, “Generous praise. Given that you’re speaking to a man who hasn’t left his home in over a decade.”
Roland blinked hard, tearing his gaze from Eddie. “
certainly free to go.”
“I wish I could. I have a grandchild I could be visiting right now, and you smell like a drunk.” Serena swung away from Roland to stare out the window. “But the new alliance stands.
wants me here, and I work for
Not Dirk & Steele.”
Eddie was already tired, but hearing those words stole the last of his strength—whatever was left in his heart. He couldn’t keep the bitterness off his face, and it made him feel like a different man. A worse man. Too much like the man who had burned those scars into his hands.
“It’s all the same,” he found himself saying, even though he wanted to stay quiet and hold in that bitterness and bury it, again and again, as he had been burying it for months. “
Dirk & Steele. It’s just family.”
Family and lies. And that was hardest of all to reconcile.
was one of the largest, most powerful corporations in the world. Run by a tight-knit family of men and women who possessed singular gifts of a paranole of a prmal nature, gifts that had been used almost exclusively for material gain.
But more than sixty years ago, members of that same family had broken away to form another, much smaller organization, one founded on values that had nothing to do with money or power . . . but instead, helping others.
organization had become Dirk & Steele. To the public, it was nothing but a high-powered detective agency—but in private it functioned as a refuge. For people like Eddie. And others, who weren’t human by any stretch of the imagination.
Until recently, however, almost no one at Dirk & Steele had been aware that
existed, or that its connections to the agency ran so deep.
one, certainly, had known that Dirk & Steele’s worst enemy, the Consortium—responsible for human trafficking and experimentation, bioterrorism, mass murder—was part of that same family.
Eddie said silently, looking at Roland, knowing he could hear his thoughts.
Your brother runs the Consortium.
You knew all along that it existed, and why.
You never warned us, not even after it was too late.
Too late for me.
Roland flinched, but his bloodshot eyes showed nothing. And Eddie felt nothing except a dull ache when he looked at him.
At the other end of the room, a shadow detached from the wall: a slow, sinuous flow of movement made of perfect, dangerous grace.
Eddie had been aware of that presence from the moment he entered the room, but he still tensed; and so did Serena and Roland. It was impossible not to. The old woman who emerged from the shadows was deadly, in more ways than one.
Little of her face was visible, but her eyes glowed with subtle, golden light. She was Chinese, but so old—and so inhuman—that definitions based on ethnicity held no value.
“Ma’am,” Eddie said, with careful respect.
“Boy,” she replied, and the air seemed to hiss across his skin with power. “I’ve met immortals with younger eyes than you.”
He said nothing. Roland muttered, “Long Nu. Get on with it.”
The old woman’s hand flashed out, trailing light, and touched the corner of Eddie’s mouth. Not with a finger, but a claw—cool as silk, sliding across his lips, down his jaw. He smelled stone and ash, and a hint of sandalwood.
“You know what you have to do?” Long Nu said to him quietly.
“You want me to find a girl. A girl who can control fire.”
“A shape-shifter,” she murmured, as golden light continued to shimmer over her hand, and her flesh rippled with scales. “A dragon.”
Eddie reached up, very slowly, and pushed her hand away from his face. “I don’t understand why you don’t go yourself. One of your kind to another.”