An icy sensation prickled across the back of Alexandrine Marit's neck and raised gooseflesh on her arms. She looked around for an open window while she absently rubbed herself. Her crappy apartment wasn't big so that took all of two seconds. No open windows. The alternate meaning of that ripple of cold should have penetrated, but she was distracted and not thinking as clearly as she ought to have been.
Her brother, Harsh Marit, had just taken a call on his cell and was now standing with his back three-quarters toward her. Like that was going to make it harder for her to overhear. She wasn't over the shock of him being here. Alive. She still had the shakes. Her emotions see-sawed between elation and disbelief, interspersed with a humiliating urge to cry. With him on the phone, an iPhone for crying out loud, she was trying to get herself calmed down.
"Yes," he said into his phone. A statement made to whoever had called him.
The chill hit again, rolling along the surface of her skin. She resettled herself on the couch, trying to uphold the fiction that she couldn't hear a thing her brother was saying. Harsh wasn't doing much talking. He was listening, really. Mostly listening. Having him here was so overwhelming that, in fact, she completely missed what was happening to her.
She chalked up her reaction to the fact that she was under a lot of stress. Which, you know, was completely reasonable. Ten minutes ago she'd believed her brother was dead. But low and behold, he wasn't. Because he'd knocked on her door, very much alive and, well, hell. Here he was, her long lost presumed dead brother in the flesh. That'd be a shock for just about anybody.
He kept talking and listening. The talking part he carried out in a low voice, very cryptic because, doh, she was sitting right there with functioning eardrums. He did the listening intently. And this time, third time being the charm? she realized that her goose pimply arms had nothing to do with an open window somewhere in her apartment or with being stunned to have her brother here.
No, her reaction was something else entirely.
Her stomach fell to her toes, and she got the itch to stand up. Why now? Like she didn't have enough on her mind already.
Harsh glanced at her once while he was talking, and the odd prickling along her arms stopped. That was strange. Her premonitions didn't usually come and go. They were unpredictable as hell, but when she had one, her physical reactions remained until the situation resolved itself. One way or another. So the fact that her uneasy chill went away made her wonder if she'd got it wrong.
Her brother went back to listening, and the goose bumps crawled along her arms to the back of her neck. Down her spine too. The back of her head felt cold. From the inside. Which pretty much cinched things for her. No mistake.
"Fine," he said to the phone. He disconnected his call and for about ten long seconds stared at the glowing screen. God, that phone was gorgeous. The chill in her head didn't go away. In fact, it got worse.
Oh, shit , she thought.
One time, several years ago when she was a teenager and still living at home, she'd spent several minutes talking with an older guy who seemed perfectly normal. But as they talked, and admittedly, she'd been using half her brain to decide whether she even wanted to flirt with him, which was maybe why she missed the signs at the outset, she just happened to catch his eye, and whoa. She'd looked into the guy's eyes and just knew rock solid; he wants to kill me.
Premonitions were her thing. If there was anything reliable about her limited ability to use magic, that was it. Some things she just knew. It wasn't any big deal to look into someone's eyes and realize sanity was lacking. Any loser with half the empathy doled out to regular folks could do that. But her conviction that the guy was trolling for a kill, that specific something about her, that fell into the premonition category. So she'd left. Pronto. Two days later, a girl's body turned up about a block from where she'd met the guy with all the usual media hooha over women killed in brutal fashion. Nothing happened, though, because the murdered girl was a runaway and poor and turning tricks to support a habit. For three weeks afterward she'd had nightmares about would have happened to her if she hadn't lit out.
Now, just like that day with the killer, Alexandrine knew something bad was going to happen and that the bad thing involved her. Always did with her premonitions. Harsh Marit was back from the dead, and her life was facing a bifurcation. Go one way and she was dead. Go the other way; she stayed alive. A binary set of possibilities. Zero or one. How she would get to the point where she knew which way was dead and which wasn't was anybody's guess. This wasn't one of the more useful that guy's looking to kill me kind of premonitions where her course of action was perfectly clear.
Something bad was going to happen. But she didn't know what. Not yet. She didn't even know if Harsh, specifically, was involved or if it would happen today or a week from today. She just knew something bad was headed her way and that looking at Harsh had set it off.
"Alexandrine," he said. Like her, he was adopted, so they weren't genetically related. Different parents entirely. They didn't look anything alike. He was tall, dark and exotically handsome and she was tall, platinum blonde and probably a little above average in the looks department. She and Harsh might not have a blood relation, but everything else that mattered said they were brother and sister. They'd lived enough years in the same household that she loved him like the big brother he was. That hadn't changed. Harsh tucked his phone into his front pocket. "I'm sorry about that."
She tried not to let her awareness show, but it wasn't easy, and from the look in his eyes she wondered if he sensed on some level how she'd gone cold inside. For God's sake, she was practically shivering from it. The question for her was whether her brother had any idea what she was now. If he didn't, she'd really prefer to reveal that much later. Much, much later. If ever. Preferably never.
"I need you to do something for me," Harsh said.
"Like what?" The icy-chill in her head went off again, but it wasn't bad. Just enough to know the choice was still coming at her.
"Does it matter?" he asked. His shoulders tensed up.
"Yeah," she said. "It does."
"Don't be difficult about this, Alexandrine. To be honest, I don't have time to explain." His eyes went hard. "Just do it, all right?"
"Just do it?" she said. "Who do hell you think you are? Just do it." Actually, that was a pretty good question. Who the hell was he? Didn't every adopted person eventually ask that question? She had.
Harsh folded his arms across his chest. He didn't look like he'd been dead at any point during the last ten years. Ergo, he must have been alive the entire time including all those times she was crying about losing him. Which, come to think of it, kind of pissed her off. "I'm your brother," he said. The set of his mouth softened, but his eyes stayed hard, and that was downright creepy. "What else would I think, Alexandrine?"
The question was softly put, even fondly. But she didn't doubt there was more to his question. She wished Madhvid were here. She'd know what to do. More importantly, Maddy would probably know what not to do. Her best friend knew a hell of a lot more about this stuff than Alexandrine did.
The security doorbell rang which shocked the hell out of her because she thought it didn't work. They both looked in that direction. Then his phone went off. Again. This ring tone was a series of sonar pings.
"Don't answer it, Harsh." She knew him. He was her big brother, and she just couldn't believe he'd hurt her. If he was here to kill her, her premonition would almost certainly have been more specific. Wouldn't it? It was also possible, she thought, that her premonition had nothing to do with Harsh. "Please?"
"I have to." He slid the phone out of his pocket, touched the screen and said, "Five minutes." Then he looked straight at her and said, "I am your brother, Alexandrine. Nothing has changed that." He met her gaze straight on. "Nothing."
"My brother," she said as he touched the iPhone again. A series of icons appeared on the screen. "Right. My brother." All of a sudden, she felt like she was six instead of twenty-six with all the emotional maturity that implied. She tried to get a handle on herself, but so her evening had been a bit too stressful for that.
"Alexandrine. . . ." He gripped his phone. Hard. "I'm not here to hurt you. You have to believe that."
She did believe that. She really did. "Where have you been?" she asked. He didn't answer. "Mom and Dad had a service for you. It was nice. Very refined. You would have liked it. Lots of crying. Tears. Emotion." At the time Alexandrine had been, what? barely sixteen? The age of attitude. With a capital A. But she sure as heck remembered missing her only brother. After the police decided he had to be dead, even without a body, their lives just. . . stopped. Losing Harsh like that broke the family into little tiny pieces. None of them had ever really recovered.
"I'm sure they did."
Alexandrine jabbed a hand in his direction. Since she'd likely know if she was facing immediate danger, she decided they ought to get on with the surface business of him reappearing in her life. "You can't just drop back in without a word of explanation."
He sighed, but when he spoke his eyes were just as hard as before. "I'm trying to save your life, Alexandrine."
"You're about ten years too late to be saving me, Harsh." Wow. That came out a lot more accusatory than she'd intended. But then, she was upset. And unnerved.
"Full credit for surviving," he said.
"No thanks to you."
His eyes went far away. About a million miles. He hadn't told her yet where he'd been all these years. Why not?
The last time she'd seen her brother, he'd been wearing a suit and tie and his hair was short and neat. Ten years ago, he'd had a beeper surgically attached to his waist, and the damn thing used to go off all the time. Now? The professional look of the newly minted Doctor of Medicine was gone in favor of some kind of uncool grunge look. He wore faded jeans, a ripped t-shirt and battered leather work boots. They didn't fit like they were his. His hair was down to his shoulders and judging from the size of his arms, he'd been spending a lot of time in the gym. Harsh had never been a gym rat. What new doctor had time for that? He'd barely had time for a kid sister once he went off to California.
Someone knocked on her door. Loudly. She lived in a crappy apartment building with broken security so it wasn't any surprise that someone could get upstairs without getting buzzed in. The hair on the back of her neck stood up, though, and she wasn't sure if it was because she was startled or if it had something to do with her premonition. For the count of three she and Harsh stared at each other. Interesting. He didn't ask if she was expecting anyone. And he didn't look surprised.
His iPhone did its sonar ping again. Harsh looked to see who was calling, and boy, did she get a flashback. Thirteenth birthday. Beeper going off. Beloved older brother visiting from Harvard Med-- it wasn't far, the Marit family lived in Brookline --leaving the party before the cake was out. Again.
"Just like old times, isn't it?" she said under her breath. Except not, because in the intervening years, Harsh had turned into something scary. Different from what she'd become. Out loud, she said, "Save me from what?"
He touched the phone's screen and told the caller, "Not now." Then he hung up. She got the feeling he wanted to shake the gadget. He didn't. Harsh had always been in control of himself. He looked at her and said, "From yourself."
"Huh?" Whoever was at the door knocked again. Three times. Very slowly. Very loudly. Jerk. "Should I get that?" she asked.
He frowned. "I'm trying to save you from yourself, Alexandrine."
Right. He wanted to save her from herself. What a laugh that was, if only he knew. "Too late, bro. I'm a big girl now. All grown up."
"People change in ten or so years," she said. He started pacing, and she leaned against the sofa and watched him. The skin on her arms prickled again and this time she resisted the urge to rub them. Wouldn't do any good anyway. "In that amount of time a girl could grow up to become a responsible, self-sufficient citizen. Like a lawyer or a doctor." Or find out she was a witch. "Take me for example." She'd gone from hell-raising youth to a social misfit to a young woman with a laughably modest talent for magic. Which meant she had to have one of those Evil Day Jobs. She was an actuary. She had a gift for numbers. "I'll be twenty-six in three months. More than old enough to drink hard liquor and vote for president. At the same time if I want."
"I understand you're no longer a child."
The last time she saw her brother, she'd still been living at home in Brookline Massachusetts without any pressing need for a brassiere. Massachusetts was three thousand miles away from the City by the Bay where her brother had been two years into his medical research at the University of California at San Francisco. Her big brother the doctor. Mom and Dad were so proud. And then he disappeared. Dropped off the face of the earth. Presumed dead.
Not so dead after all.
"Things do change, don't they?" she said.
Harsh's phone pinged again. He answered it with, "I told you, five minutes." He touched the screen to disconnect the call and by coincidence Mr. Impatient outside her apartment bammed a fist on her door. Great. The neighbors were going to love that. They were probably calling the landlord now.
"I don't need protection," she said. And the minute she said that, she got a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach because, hell. Maybe she did."I've been on my own a long time, Harsh."
He stopped pacing. She didn't remember his eyes being such a piercing brown. She couldn't dismiss the creepy thought that something more was living behind her brother's eyes. That gave her the shivers, legitimate shivers, not premonition shivers. "When was the last time you talked to Mom and Dad?" he asked.
They'd been so busy re-establishing their relationship that she hadn't gotten around to catching him up on family news. "Talked to Dad two years ago." True statement. Harsh understood there was more and that she was baiting him. But he refused to step in it. Killjoy. "He's dead. Heart attack."
"I didn't know." He closed his fingers around his vibrating phone. "What about Mom?"
Yeah. So where the hell had her brother been that he didn't know anything at all? Turning into a freak didn't stop you from using Google or reading the paper, did it? Or getting on the phone, for that matter. The parents who had raised him and put him through college and medical school, which they would probably have done for her if she'd been a genius, too, had been destroyed because they thought he was dead. "She's gone, too, Harsh. About eight years ago now."
For half a second his expression was the Harsh Marit she'd missed every day for the last ten years of her life. Her chest went tight, and she had to concentrate to keep the tears away. They'd missed too much of each other's lives and now that he was back, she didn't want him to leave again. He opened his mouth then closed it again.
"Cancer." She let out a breath. "Ironic wouldn't you say? Her son the famous oncologist wasn't around to save her life."
He didn't say anything to that, and she felt rotten for the low blow.
"Look," she said. She scrubbed her fingers through her above-the shoulders length hair. "I'm sorry. That was unfair and not very nice. I didn't mean it."
"You're right." He fisted a hand. "I wasn't there." He was quiet for a bit then said in a much lower voice, "I wish I'd been there to help her."
Alexandrine waited for him to tell her where he'd been all this time. He didn't. Again. "So, like I said," she said. "I've been on my own a long time. And nothing all that bad happened." But then, bad encompassed such a wide and varied spectrum. Bad included skipping meals to make the rent. Or getting evicted. Or hanging with a very rough crowd wondering if you'd make it to twenty-one. "I left home, banged around a while, saw the sights. Did some stuff. Went to college."
She'd done things she wasn't going to talk about with anybody. "Now I have a job. I make shit money but they let me telecommute two days a week." She held his gaze. "I rent this lovely hovel in the most beautiful city in the world." She tilted her head back and looked around her Mission District apartment. Ugly one-bedroom for a fourteen hundred bucks a month, and she was lucky to have something that cheap. She brought her attention back to her brother. Ten years was a long time to vanish from someone's life. "I'm not a virgin anymore."
Harsh was taller than she was, which considering she was five-eleven when she slouched, meant he was tall. Tall. Handsome. Doctor. Where the hell had he been for all those years when she could have used a big brother?
"I didn't imagine you were," he said.
"Where have you been, Dr. Marit?" Sarcasm was her specialty. A useful skill in her opinion.
He walked from her crapola analog television to her jam-packed bookcase and back. "I can't tell you." Mr. Impatient knocked on the door and called Harsh's cell phone. At the same time.
"Golly, Harsh, why don't you tell the guy to go get a life?"
He looked at her. Very unsettling, that piercing look. The skin on her arms prickled again. "I can't. Tell you where I've been." He frowned in the direction of the door. "Can we just leave it at that?"
"The land of Oz? Siberia? Witness Protection? Off to find your birth parents like me? Timbuktu? No, wait, that was me."
"You went to Timbuktu?"
"Uh-huh. And you? The Arctic? Prison?" That got her a poisonous look. "You don't have any tats. If you were in prison, you'd have the body art." Which she knew on account of the fact that for longer than she cared to recall, her most bosom buddies were felons complete with homemade tats. She cocked her head. "You were in the military weren't you?" Who else had the ability to make a person completely disappear? "Government something, am I right?"
Harsh stared at her. She didn't think he was going to answer, but instead, Dr. Harsh Marit, her adored big brother, clapped a hand behind his neck and said in a dark, raspy voice, "Prison would be a more accurate description of where I've been."
The desolation in his voice popped her angry-as-a-bee's-burned-behind balloon. "What is you need from me, Harsh?"
His damned phone went off again, and this time he answered with, "Harsh speaking." She watched her brother listen to whoever was on the other end. "No. I'm here. Yeah." He darted a glance at her. She didn't recognize the man behind those eyes. She rubbed the sides of her arms but it didn't make the goose pimples go away. "Not yet. He's outside. Yes. Yes. I know. I will." Then he lost it and burst out with, "For Christ's sake, Nikodemus, she thought I was dead. Cut me a break, would you?"
Alexandrine rose. Her pulse thudded in her ears. The nervous feeling in her stomach refused to go away. Nikodemus? Now there was a name to make a girl sit up. Especially if she was a witch.
"Yes," he replied more easily, still talking into the phone. His eyes were hard again, flat out pitiless, and Alexandrine was left wondering what horrible things her brother had endured all those years he was gone. A motorcycle revved its engine outside. One of those loud, obnoxious bikes driven by jackass men in leather pants.
Harsh disconnected his call, lifted his head and then touched his phone again. After a bit, he said, "Don't you dare leave." He was staring at her. "You want Nikodemus on your ass instead of just me?" he said to the phone.
Well, shit. That gave her another jolt and a half. Him saying a name she'd read about in the books she'd managed to scavenge. Nikodemus? No effing way. She got an all-body chill like you'd would if you found out Jack The Ripper not only wasn't dead but lived next door.
"Park the damn bike and come in. I'll open the door for you."
"News flash, Dr. Marit." She sure as hell didn't want to meet any of his friends. "I can take care of myself. I've been doing it since before you disappeared."
Harsh closed his phone and drew a deep breath. "Not against these guys."
The motorcycle cut off.
"The guys who don't give a shit if you die as long as they get what they're after."
"What?" That happened to be the only word she could recall and it came out sounding like smart ass disbelief which wasn't what she intended at all. It was just that this was too perfectly timed with her premonition for her not to be thinking here it is .
"This is what I want from you, Alexandrine." His gaze pinned her. Gloves off, metaphorically speaking. "I want him to stay here."
"I don't need a babysitter."
Harsh laughed only without actually laughing. "With him here, no one gets to you."
Her brain froze up. Pure ice between her ears. The moment of decision was here. Ringing her doorbell actually. This really was it. The decision, only she still didn't know which way she needed to go. Was the guy on the other side of the door a one or a zero?
After Harsh invited himself to let in his employee in Human Protective Services, there wasn't any sound in her shitty apartment. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend she was alone. But she wasn't. Harsh was facing the door, making goo-goo eyes at it for all she knew. She addressed his back. "I found my biological father."
He turned around just as Mr. Impatient And I Have a Motorcycle knocked. His eyes lasered her. "You did not."
"Yeah," she said, "I did. In Turkey. A little village about two hundred kilometers north of Ankara."
Harsh turned his back on her and strode to the door. Right as he opened it, he said, "Not in Turkey you didn't."
He was right about that. "I found out who he is when I was in Turkey." She waited a beat. "Seems I was born in Turkey. But my dad's Danish. Go figure. His name is Rasmus Kessler, in case you're interested."
He kept his hand on the knob. The door was about an inch or so open. It was impossible to see who was on the other side. "You didn't meet him. You couldn't have."
"How do you know?"
In the light where he was standing it looked like his eyes changed color. Not possible, but that's what it looked like. "Because if you had, Alexandrine, you'd be dead."