I’m really hoping to have Fateful Magic finished in another month, but between you and me, butt-in-chair time doesn’t always translate into words on the page. I won’t make promises, but I will do my darndest. If you’d like me to send you an email when the book comes out, sign up for my mailing list. As always, you have my no-spam, no-share guarantee.
There was no sign of Dragovich in the morning when Emilia ventured out for breakfast. As late as she’d heard that piano playing, she hadn’t expected to see him. With any luck, she’d not see him for a day or two, and he’d forget…
She squeezed her eyes shut and put her head in her hands. Forget she’d slapped him.
“Rough night?” a woman’s voice said.
Emilia straightened quickly. Amanda stood in the small dining room’s archway.
“I’m not eager for another like it,” Emilia admitted.
Amanda came and took a seat by her, snagging a warm scone from a plate on the table. “Mr. Dragovich left a message for you.”
“Yes?” Emilia said warily.
“’Tell Emilia that Kisa is well.’”
“Oh!” Emilia sat back in her chair, a hand to her chest. “I’m so glad!”
“Why? What happened?”
“Last night, she left the party with a very bad man.”
Amanda gave one of her wry smiles. “Emilia, they’re all bad men.”
“I know.” She toyed with her teacup, turning it in the saucer. “Mr. Dragovich said he’s worse than all of them.”
Amanda huffed and rolled her eyes. “For what it’s worth, I think that was meant to be reassuring.”
“If he’s the biggest dog in the room, the others won’t come sniffing around.”
“He did imply something like that.” She sipped tea. “He also told me he took care of the problem I spoke with you about. I must thank you for your intervention.”
Amanda gave a dismissive flick of the fingers. “I know you didn’t want to take it to him, so I hope you don’t mind. It seemed the best way to get it solved. Like I told you before, Mr. Dragovich is reasonable.”
“Mm,” Emilia said, stirring her tea.
“Are you…” Amanda began, stopped, started again. “Are things any better for you now?”
“Amanda, please don’t ask me that. I don’t want things to be uncomfortable between us.”
Amanda had brought her Mrs. Always Right cup. She sat back and sipped from it now.
“Believe it or not,” she said, “I completely sympathize with you. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of working for him, either.”
Emilia wet her lips, not sure what to say. “And now?”
Amanda shrugged. “I still have my moments. But this isn’t the kind of job you can quit if you get mad at your boss.”
That surprised a laugh out of Emilia. “No, I suppose not.”
“I don’t want you to think it’s all bad, because it really isn’t. I mean, yes, I work for a crime lord, I can’t make excuses about that. But I owe him.” Amanda studied her coffee mug. “I owe him my life.”
The man inspired loyalty everywhere he turned—honest, well-earned loyalty. It made Emilia’s head hurt.
“He seems…more altruistic than I’d have guessed,” she said carefully.
“I wouldn’t say that. More that he has his own sense of justice.” Amanda tapped the mug near a small, coffee-stained chip in the rim. “Have you heard he took over this territory from another boss?”
“I’m aware of it.”
“About a year and a half ago. The guy he took it from—Arsov—was probably the most despised crime boss in northern California. Even the other bosses—Russian, Italian, Mexican, whatever—hated him.” Amanda shook her head. “A real piece of work. Crazy. Beyond vicious. Some people said he was ex-KGB. Others said the KGB had worked him over one too many times. Whichever it was, when Mr. Dragovich took him down, he couldn’t have chosen a better target. Nobody was heartbroken. In fact, a whole lot of people breathed a sigh of relief.”
“You sound quite well-versed on the matter.”
“Oh, yeah. I made it my business to become well-versed.” Amanda took a bite of scone. “That’s how I got into all this. Actually, that’s not altogether true. My husband was the reason I got into it.”
“I beg your pardon… Your husband drew you in? That’s…” utterly appalling, Emilia wanted to say, but stopped herself.
Amanda nodded seriously. “He ran an investment firm. Garden variety funds for a long time, then he started getting adventurous. High-risk stuff—options, currency trading, venture capital, that type of thing. Somewhere along the line, though, one of his investments turned into a Ponzi scheme.” She ran a thumb along the rim of her cup, tracing the chip there. “I don’t think he did it deliberately. Maybe a hedge fund went south and he panicked. Unfortunately, some of his clients were some nasty people. When the scheme fell apart…” Her fingers whitened on the mug. “They killed him.”
“Oh, Amanda!” Emilia reached over and took her hand. “I’m so sorry.”
Amanda squeezed her hand in return, then released it. “Thanks. It was…” She shook her head. “I still don’t like thinking about it. I got it into my head that I’d get the people who did it. I started digging, looking at his records, talking to clients. When I hit the right one, I worked my way up the food chain, saying I wanted to pay the money back to the person who’d invested it, golly, if only I could find him.”
Dear God. “You must’ve been beside yourself,” Emilia whispered.
“More like out of myself, I think,” Amanda said. “Anyway, the person I ended up facing was one Vadim Dragovich. I thought he was one more lackey, because by then I knew Arsov was the guy I wanted. I went through my song and dance, ‘No, I’m very sorry, Mr. Dragovich, I can’t let anyone except Mr. Arsov have the money.’ I was pretty quickly given to understand Mr. Arsov wouldn’t be getting the money. Ever. Under any circumstances.”
“Weren’t you frightened these people would kill you, too?”
“To be honest, I really didn’t care much then what happened to me. I don’t think I could’ve gone through it all if I had.”
“And Mr. Dragovich—did he realize what you intended?”
“Oh, yeah,” Amanda said with a laugh. “They’d already taken away the switchblade I brought. A gun would’ve been better, but I knew there was no way I’d get one past them. I did have hopes for the knife, though. So there I was in Arsov’s old office in Santa Cruz, staring at Mr. Dragovich sitting there on the other side of his desk while two of his thugs held my arms, thinking ‘Uh-oh. I’m in trouble.’”
“What did he do?”
“He sent his guys out of the office, got up, poured me a cup of coffee and said, ‘What shall I do with you, Mrs. Vaughn?’”
“But—forgive me,” Emilia interrupted, “but are you saying you owe him your life simply because he didn’t…didn’t kill you then?”
“Well, he could have. Most men like him in a similar position would have. But that’s not it. I say he saved my life because if I had managed to catch up with Arsov, the brief—very brief—remainder of my life would’ve been…bad. But he’d already done away with the man responsible for my husband’s death. So actually, I owe him for that, too.”
Emilia restrained herself from pointing out the obvious gap in that logic.
“I know. He didn’t do it for me,” Amanda said, clearly reading the skepticism on her face. “But the result was the same. And then he gave me something to take the place of my rage and grief.”
“I would think,” Emilia said slowly, “it would be terribly difficult to work for him. After all, he was the same sort as the man who killed your husband.”
“It was. I said I didn’t much like the idea of working for him. But he wasn’t going to just let me go, not with everything I knew. He couldn’t afford to. A day earlier, and I might not’ve cared if he killed me. With Arsov dead, I realized I didn’t feel that way anymore.”
Amanda put down her mug and leaned forward. “It’s hard to explain. Sometimes I worry it’s only that I’m justifying it to myself. But Mr. Dragovich is decent. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but he is. For all the things he does that neither of us wants to think about, he’s fair. He’s rational. He cares about the people under him. I think if it was two, three hundred years ago, he’d be the type that would’ve made a good lord. The kind loved by his people while he slaughtered the enemy’s soldiers and burned their villages.”
Emilia almost choked on a bite of scone. “I daresay you’re right,” she managed.
Amanda looked at her a little quizzically. “Sorry. I spend a lot of nights thinking. Cognitive dissonance and all that.”
Emilia wasn’t sure what ‘cognitive dissonance’ was, but she had a guess. “I don’t believe you’re in a position that you must justify yourself, Amanda. It seems you had no choice.”
“No, that’s not what keeps me awake on bad nights. It’s that…well, most of the time I like working for him. I admire a lot of what he does.”
An increasingly uncomfortable feeling of foreboding crept up on Emilia. “If he does admirable things…”
Did he not do admirable things? Had he not, at Emilia’s bare word, removed Tiff from danger? Hadn’t he made sure Livy’s money was returned to her? And just now, that small kindness of relieving her worry for Kisa, even after—
She rubbed her temple.
“I don’t know if any of this helps,” Amanda said. “I just wanted you to know you’re not alone.”
“You’re very kind,” Emilia said, touching Amanda’s hand again. “I’m grateful for your confidence.”
Although not, she thought, for making me doubt my certainty.
* * *
It’s the proper thing to do, Emilia told herself once again.
She stood outside Dragovich’s office door, fiddling with the hem of her vest. She’d been working herself up to it all morning. All afternoon, too, when she finally heard men’s voices and footsteps in the house.
It was the wisest thing to do, too. The better part of valor and all that.
She wet her lips, took a long breath and knocked.
A word in Russian came from behind the door. She supposed it must be ‘come in,’ so she opened it.
Frowning, Dragovich looked up from his phone. His face cleared when he saw her.
“Emilia.” He beckoned her in.
She shut the door and crossed the room, stopping short of his desk. She stood very straight, trying to convince herself she didn’t feel like a supplicant.
“I must apologize for my behavior to you last night. It was ill-mannered and ill-bred.”
He sat back, studying her. “Ill-conceived, too.”
She bit back the impulse to tell him he’d do well never to make light of her husband again, then. “No doubt.”
Dragovich nodded. “Very well. Apology accepted.”
“I’ll disturb you no longer.” She turned to go.
“Your vision last night. The one you had of Tiffany.”
She turned fully, suddenly anxious. “Yes? Is she—?”
He waved a hand. “She’s well. But your vision was true. The man—his name was Baljic—had done what you saw to many women.”
Emilia squeezed her eyes shut. “Dear God.”
“Your horror last night was understandable. That was maybe more ugliness than you saw before?”
She swallowed hard and nodded. “But for when—what happened to George. My husband,” she added.
“I shouldn’t have taunted you. Torture and murder are no easy things to see. But I’m glad you did this time. Baljic won’t harm another woman.”
She knew what he was telling her: the man was dead. She should’ve been shocked. She certainly shouldn’t be relieved.
“Put down like a mad dog, I suppose,” she said faintly.
Should one say ‘thank you’ in such a situation?
“I can’t promise you won’t see such things again,” he said. “But if you hadn’t, Baljic would’ve had Tiffany. He would’ve had who knows how many others. He’d been doing it a long time.”
“But you—” She stopped, not sure she wanted to know more.
“I, what? I’m as brutal? I won’t lie to you, Emilia. I wouldn’t survive if I wasn’t. But I try to limit it to enemies.”
“How many people in the world survive quite well without it?”
He smiled. “You try to reform me?”
“I’d never dare take on such a task.”
He laughed. “Too big a job, yes. Don’t deceive yourself. Men like me make it possible for people like you to live. We keep the ruffians and outlaws busy.”
She gave a disbelieving huff. “Mr. Dragovich!”
“What happened to ‘Vadim’?”
“This is a ridiculous argument. If not for men like you, there would be nothing to protect from.”
“But there are. There always will be. Why pretend otherwise?”
“Oh, as you will.”
“You admit I’m right?”
“Of course you’re right. But you can’t expect me to condone it.”
“Why not, when it keeps worse in check?”
She touched her forehead and closed her eyes. “What do you want from me, Vadim?”
He leaned forward. “I want you to see working for me isn’t the shame you think. It might have a purpose you approve. It might have more purpose than giving tourists fifteen minutes’ amusement.”
She drew back, stung. “You believe what I do is no more than amusement?”
“You misunderstand, Emilia. I believe you’re worth much more.”
He was maneuvering her. She even knew why. It didn’t make his arguments any less effective. But it was unthinkable that she could do more good working for such a man than she could on her own… Wasn’t it?
He leaned back again. “I only say, think about it. Think about what might’ve happened last night, and didn’t. And why.”
Emilia was beginning to understand the meaning of ‘cognitive dissonance.’
* * *
Vadim stood on bare, torn earth, naked steel beams rising against the sickly orange city-glow. A sticky breeze heavy with the marshy reek of salt ponds stirred his hair, flicked at the hem of his coat. Stacks of structural steel, metal decking, drums of cable littered the ground. A crane stood nearby like an enormous, jointed insect. Beneath it, several storage trailers stood in a row. He crunched across clods and bits of construction debris to the last, nearest the crane Emilia had heard Bernard speak of when she read him.
Magic made so many things easier. For instance, moving the crates of arms and ammunition out of this trailer without the commotion, lights and noise of trucks and men. True, moving that much bulk and weight any distance would cost him in other ways. But for now, stealth was his primary concern.
Vadim opened his power, reached for the magic and shaped a transport spell.
An odd, deep fump sounded inside the trailer as the air rushed in to fill the space the crates had occupied. The trailer’s bolts and seams groaned, popped, then settled again.
Vadim hung his head and braced a hand against the trailer’s cold metal, his stomach abruptly roaring with hunger at the expenditure of power. After a moment, he turned and made his way back to his car and the cooler full of sandwiches, soft drinks and candy bars in the trunk.
* * *
“You were right, boss,” Roman said, crossing his arms. “It was a setup.”
Vadim hitched a hip onto the security station desk’s smooth formica. Screens flickered with feeds from around his estate. Alexei, Roman and three more of his men sat or stood around the room. Cigarette smoke twisted and curled between them, acrid.
“Tell me what happened,” Vadim said.
“I can do better than that.”
Roman reached for the laptop on the desk beside him, the ropy scars on his wrist visible past his shirt cuff. He tapped keys and a grainy, green-tinted image came to life on the screen. The skeleton of a building sketched lines across the darkness, the boom of a crane angled across one corner of the screen. The rectangles of storage containers blocked the foreground.
“We did what you said, found a few good places to sit back and watch the site. This—” Roman tapped the computer screen. “—was from a camera we set up on the crane. The cars are out of view from there, but we watched maybe eight or ten unmarked drive up to the site from different directions. They were real cool about it, just parked here and there. One was a delivery van, probably the mobile command center.” Roman turned to meet his eyes. “It was the Feds, boss. Bernard’s in with them.”
Vadim tapped his lips. “Interesting. I wonder who’s on whose payroll?”
Roman leaned over again, moved the slider at the bottom of the image to advance the recording. A panel van trundled into view across the churned dirt, pulled up next to the construction office and turned out the lights.
“There. That van? You can’t see it here, but it had our company’s name, logo, the whole bit. Pretty slick.”
Roman advanced the video again. “This is about two hours after we were supposed to show up. I guess they were getting impatient by then.”
Half a dozen men in helmets and body armor climbed out of the van, sweeping the area with automatic weapons. Flashlight beams streaked the darkness. A few figures approached the construction trailers and set about opening them while the rest stayed on guard. Vadim laughed at their obvious frustration at the contents—or lack of contents, in this case.
Roman stopped the playback, sat back again. “Garry hacked their network. Sounds like when Bernard calls, the heat jumps. They might think he’s their snitch, but Garry heard some things that make us think Bernard’s got some of them on his payroll.”
“He’d be a fool if he didn’t,” Vadim said.
Heads nodded all around.
“So,” Alexei said, turning back and forth in his chair. “Now you know what Bernard planned. What do we do about it, boss?”
Vadim tapped his lips again, pretending to think. “I think I owe him a favor in return. I happen to know he has a shipment of his own coming in soon. One more delicate than what he expected to take from me. Let’s find out where and when and make sure we’re there to save him the trouble of dealing with it.”
Grins and hoots greeted the prospect. The men stood, preparing to start work on the project.