Home > Sinister Magic (Death Before Dragons #1)(7)

Sinister Magic (Death Before Dragons #1)(7)
Author: Lindsay Buroker

“All of them? I ask because it doesn’t sound like you’re willing to give up your job, but there is tension in how it affects your life, and this need you feel to distance yourself from everyone may be affecting you on a personal level.” Mary was going to write distance on my chart in all caps, I could tell. “You might have more luck finding a support group or a relationship, if that is something you seek, among those who you deem capable enough to deal with your shrapnel.”

“I do not seek a relationship, thank you very much. I didn’t come here because I need a hookup.”

“That’s not what I was suggesting.” Her tone was dry now.

Were therapists supposed to be dry? I thought it was a requirement that they radiate love and compassion.

“Is there anything else you want to talk about?” Mary asked.

“No.” I glanced at the clock. We still had more than a half hour left, but I needed to get across town, so I didn’t mind quitting early. “I have stuff to do.”

She hesitated, then pulled out a card. “Here’s my cell phone number if you need to call or text. I don’t always answer, but if you leave a message, I’ll get back to you soon.”

I’d gotten a breathing technique to use, so I didn’t plan to come back for another appointment, much less call her at home, but I accepted the card. “Do you always give the weirdos you see this much access to you?”

“No, but you seem like someone who may need after-hours help.”

What did that mean? That she thought I was a suicide candidate?

“I can’t be more messed up than the guy chanting to himself in the waiting room.”

“Those are song lyrics, I’ve been told. If you want to schedule another appointment, Tara can help.” Mary smiled. “I hope you will.”

“Because the rent is due soon? You can’t possibly have found any of that productive.”

“It’s about what you find productive. But I think you should have started talking to someone the first time you lost a friend because of your work.”

“The person I would have talked to was the person I lost.”


“Yes. I sent the pictures.” I made a face at the phone, specifically the insurance agent on the phone. This was some kind of senior agent that my case had been escalated to. “You sent someone out to see the crash site, right? I’m still trying to arrange a tow.”

Arranging it wasn’t the problem. Paying the huge fee for a truck to drive from the nearest city out along that dirt road was another matter. If the insurance wouldn’t cover it, the wreck could stay there.

A car honked, almost drowning out the reply. I was cutting across Capitol Hill on foot to make my meeting with this Lieutenant Sudo, and the freeway traffic roared nearby.

“How did it get in a tree?” the agent asked, suspicion lacing her tone.

I wished I’d opened with reporting a tornado strike. Oregon wasn’t known for tornadoes, but an internet search had revealed that a couple had touched down there before, if decades apart. It seemed too late to change the story now, especially when I’d already tried two.

“I was off-roading and I had to swerve to avoid hitting—” a dragon, “—a bear. The Jeep flipped and rolled and bounced off a log or something—I couldn’t quite see what. I was thrown out before it ended up in the trees.”

“This is the fourth accident you’ve been in in three years.”

“I know, but I’m in a dangerous line of work.”

“You said you were off-roading.”

“I was. It wasn’t recreational.”

“And what line of work did you say you’re in?”

“I didn’t. It’s top secret. I’m a government contractor.”

“I don’t think we can cover you anymore, ma’am.”

“That’s fine, but you have to pay out on this claim. That’s why I’ve been paying you every month.” That and because the auto loan required it.

The line went dead.

I resisted the urge to whip out Chopper and take out my aggressions on a fire hydrant. Was I supposed to eat it on the Jeep? I still owed twenty grand. My combat bonuses went to paying off informants, buying ammo and gas, and replacing the gear I lost in fights, not making extra car payments.

With an angry huff, I reached the Starbucks Reserve Roastery on Pike and stalked through the big wood doors. It was packed, as usual, and I grimaced at the noise of dozens of conversations, voices raised to be heard over the grinding and transporting of beans through the elaborate equipment on display. This was Colonel Willard’s favorite place, so we always met here, but I was less inclined to endure the hordes of tourists and scents of burning coffee—people who actually liked coffee called it roasting, but it smelled burnt to me—for some substandard replacement contact.

I spotted Sudo immediately. He wore a suit and tie rather than his army uniform, but the short buzz cut screamed military, and he had a familiar manila folder on the table in front of him. As I walked over, I couldn’t help but grimace again. He was even younger than I’d imagined—if he’d graduated from OCS, it must have been that year—and kept glancing at his phone.

“Where’s Colonel Willard?” I sat down facing him, glancing at his small black mug with a pattern in the frothy milk mingling with the coffee.

Annoyance flashed across his face, but he tamped it down. “In the hospital.”

I forgot my own annoyance. “What hospital? What happened?”

He gave me the name of a local hospital, not the army medical center on Fort Lewis I would have expected, then grimly said, “Cancer.”

“Cancer?” I struggled to imagine the forty-five-year-old, tough-as-nails colonel being susceptible to anything so mundane. She competed in triathlons when she wasn’t busting people’s faces in some martial art or another. Coffee was her only vice, as far as I knew, and she ate more servings of vegetables than a goat with a tapeworm.

“Yes. I have your bonus.” Lieutenant Sudo pushed the envelope across to me. “And I must let you know—”

“Wait. You can’t tell me Colonel Willard is in the hospital and drop it. Is she just getting treatment or what? She didn’t have to leave her home, did she?” I waved vaguely toward North Seattle where a few officers who worked in the city, running intelligence and keeping an eye on the magical beings that showed up here, had apartments.

“Her condition is quite advanced. She’s in the hospital for the rest of… until they’re able to get it under control.”

“Quite advanced? How can that be?” The now-familiar tightness returned to my chest. And my throat. I struggled to calm the emotions welling up and squeezing everything. I wasn’t going to use the inhaler in front of this kid. And I definitely wasn’t going to cry. “She has to have been getting all of the usual screenings,” I said reasonably, logically. “She’s not the kind of person who would put that off.”

“I’m not her doctor. Listen, here’s your money—bringing cash is highly unorthodox, I’ll have you know—and I’m here to inform you that we won’t have more work for you until I’ve finished my investigation.”

I blinked slowly. “Investigation?”

Was this kid old enough to investigate more than his comic book collection?

A waiter came over, so Sudo didn’t answer right away.

“Can I get you anything?”

Sudo shook his head and waved at his cup. As if the guy had been asking him.

I started to also shake my head but thought of the colonel. “Do you have any bottles of that cold nitro stuff?”

“Yes. Sweetened or unsweetened?”

“Definitely unsweetened.” I had laid a five on the table, then wondered if that was enough for hoity-toity coffee.

The waiter went to get the order without commenting.

Once he was out of earshot, Sudo answered my question. “I’m an accountant. General Nash—Colonel Willard’s boss—ordered me sent in to see if everything is legitimate and a genuine expense that the taxpayers need to foot.” He pinched his lips together as he regarded me.

“The taxpayers that don’t want to be eaten by wyverns, orcs, or trolls are probably okay with it.”

He curled a lip. The gesture reminded me of the dragon—Zav. But Zav, at least in human form, was handsome enough and old enough to make it look like that aloof haughtiness was perfect for him. Sudo just looked petulant, like someone had stolen the comic books he’d been investigating.

Suddenly suspicious, I opened the envelope to see if there was actually cash in there. I never would have doubted it with Willard.

Sudo’s hand lifted toward it, but he dropped it. He glanced nervously around, as if afraid someone would see us exchanging bills. I couldn’t care less if an undercover police officer came over to talk to us. Sudo could impress the guy by showing him his military ID with accountant stamped on it.

“This is only twenty-five hundred,” I said after counting it. “I usually get a five-thousand-dollar combat bonus.”

“I know. It’s completely unacceptable. Soldiers who go into war zones overseas don’t get that much nearly as often as you’re getting it.”

“Soldiers who go into war zones overseas don’t have to buy their own magical weapons from people who don’t accept credit cards, not to mention traveling all over the Pacific Northwest and staying in hotels without TDY pay, which I don’t get because my position doesn’t officially exist. Willard’s whole office doesn’t officially exist.”

“Giving you that much money is ridiculous, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve started an investigation. Magical weapons.” He scoffed.

I was suddenly certain he’d never encountered a magical being himself. Well, too bad. If he was going to work in Willard’s little unit, he’d learn soon. This wasn’t Fort Lewis out in the tree-filled boonies. Seattle was a port city and a hotbed of visitors of all kinds. All kinds.

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