Mark didn’t relax once the front door of the condo was closed. He backed his lover’s quieter car out of their driveway in the predawn shadows, turned right, and escaped their court at a crawl.
Please keep meditating until I’m on the freeway. Once he was there, five short minutes would take him to the bay.
White-knuckled and hunched to make his five-ten frame all but disappear, Mark nudged the Prius onto the freeway. Only then did he accelerate, scowling when the tiny vehicle didn’t shoot forward, but seemed to putt-putt-putt like a run-down Chevy.
“You’d think Luke had the eighties Pontiac.”
“This serves my purposes. It’s good for the environment, and I don’t have a lead talon like a certain water dragon I know.”
Mark jumped, and the car swerved.
Luke, casual as a stretching cat, reached over from the passenger seat and steadied the wheel. “Do we need to switch places?”
Fuck. Mark shot a guilty glance at his genie lover. “How long have you been here?”
“Less than thirty seconds. I heard you leave, though. At first I thought you were just going for your morning run, but when I stepped out on the balcony to enjoy the air, I saw my car was gone.” He patted the dashboard. “You must have been desperate for me not to hear you if you stooped to taking this lunch box.”
“So you’re a mind reader too?”
Luke raised one golden eyebrow. “No, that’s just always how you think of her. Face it, my Mark. Your spirit is like your dragon form: eight feet tall, anxious to blow fire, and not meant for confined spaces.”
He winced. “We’ll go home.”
“Nope. I’m curious to see where you were sneaking off to.” Luke rested a hand on Mark’s thigh. “Please? I promise a reward if you’ll indulge my curiosity.” Using his other hand, the genie drew a line from Mark’s chin, down his throat, pausing at his pulse point, and then continuing all the way to his groin.
Mouth watering, Mark couldn’t speak at first. He nodded and covered the hand on his thigh. “Will you promise to stay out of the water?”
“Why did you need to sneak out to go swimming?”
He stared straight ahead. “It’s a little more than that. Will you stay out?”
Luke paused. “All right. I’m not a great swimmer in any case.”
Less than ten minutes later Mark dived beneath the night waves, losing himself in the dark and danger of Tampa Bay in the last hour before false dawn began to lighten the sky. He’d planned to go in naked, but how could he explain that to Luke? So as soon as he could, he lost his trunks, saying a silent apology to the ocean at large for adding one more bit of garbage to its great waters.
Then he changed his human guise for dragon scales.
At once, his sight shifted to black-and-white with overtones of night-vision goggles, and he rolled over in the water, which seemed ten degrees colder, relishing its slinky caress.
A small school of fish shot past him then, and his instincts took over. He loosed a roar that stunned a quarter of his prey. He swallowed those and then made for the rest, circling them to keep them together. At times like this, when he couldn’t fight the monster inside him anymore, the hunt became as much about the capture as about the eating.
When he was sated, he headed in, wondering what kind of excuse Luke would accept this time.
* * * *
Luke trudged up the warehouse steps to the second floor. When his supervisor in the Miscellaneous Magical Creatures Department had assigned him this detail, he had jumped at the chance to get out of the office. Now, when it was far too late to turn back, he was having second thoughts.
“You’ll enjoy this,” his supervisor had said. “Inventory checks aren’t usually a pleasure, but I know you’re interested in everything out of the ordinary.” He’d chuckled as he urged Luke toward the office door. “The head office wouldn’t be sending the executive secretary if this might not prove to be something big.” He’d opened the door. “You’ll meet Mr. Snyder in Warehouse C, first floor.”
Now Luke followed Dan Snyder across the second floor, feeling the press of magic all around him. It was like a wet blanket full of jumping spiders. Whatever had drawn them here would prove to be interesting.
And possibly dangerous.
“It’s just an inconsistency between the computer and what the cleaners saw on the shelves when they came through here last week,” Dan said, his voice tight. “I wouldn’t have brought anyone else, but it was suggested someone...magical...should be with me to tell me anything I couldn’t see for myself.”
“It’s a magical powder keg in here,” Luke said for the third time since he and the executive secretary had entered the building. “Maybe you should—”
Dan stopped walking; his shoulders were tense. “Maybe you should remember I’m not Mark, I don’t think you’re a god, and I don’t really give a shit what you think. If we’re in real danger, I’m sure this”—the thing in his hand reminded Luke of a magic spectrometer—“will tell us when we need to leave.”
The sound of his lover’s name on the other man’s lips froze Luke’s tongue.
Dan glanced back at Luke, and his expression was slightly apologetic. “Let’s just get on with this.” He strode toward the back wall.
If you insist. He followed the slightly taller man to a row of shelves, each bearing its own label.
Dan stopped before a large bay, screening it from Luke’s view. “This was supposed to be a collection of journals written by a ninth-century Irish monk. Obviously, it’s not.”
Luke stepped up beside him. The clay urn stood nearly two feet high and perhaps a foot and a half wide. Stark pictures of fantastic animals covered the entire circumference. Luke saw a lion, a flock of birds, and a hydra along the curve facing him. Greek characters ran around the rim.
“The wax seal looks broken,” Dan said, crouching so that he was eye level with the image of the lion. “I think whatever was in here is long gone.”
The sensation of spiders jumping all over his skin changed to a feeling of the arachnids crawling up his spine in a single, slow column. “I don’t think it’s gone.” He frowned at the Greek letters. This exact configuration looked familiar, which made no sense. He could translate Greek, but looking at these letters made him almost feel like he was looking at a badly composed sentence in English.
Dan said, “Help me lift this out.”
He really didn’t want to touch the thing, but he’d rather be close in case the genie inside woke up. Because the magic-signature was clear. The genie inside the clay pot was more powerful than any being Luke had ever encountered.
Hating his nervousness, Luke helped Dan lift the urn out of its bay, carry it several feet from the wall, and set it down. He circled the urn at a distance, avoiding Dan, who had knelt on the floor. Luke looked for the beginning of the Greek statement. He circled twice, frowning when the translation danced out of his reach.
His cell phone vibrated, and he plucked it out of his pocket, opening it without glancing at the caller ID. He frowned at one etched letter, trying to decipher it. “Hello?”
Mark’s voice was tense. “What’s wrong?”
Oh please. Not this again. “Aren’t three months of false alarms enough?” Although he had to admit Mark might actually be right this time. “I’m okay. I’m in Warehouse C checking out an inventory mistake.” He frowned deeply as he made another revolution, finally putting the words on the urn together: For mine are the labors of Hercules.
His blood froze.
“Something’s wrong, Luke. I can hear it in your voice,” Mark said.
Dan grunted, drawing Luke’s attention.
The man was holding a penknife and chipping away at the wax.
The secretary ignored him.
Mark all but shouted, “Luke—”
Luke grabbed Dan by the back of his shirt as the urn’s top rattled. “Mark, call—”
The magical world exploded. Luke staggered back, still trying to drag Dan with him. Pain bloomed in his chest and temples, and he tried again to make his lover understand. “Mark—”
Speech failed him, and a moment later his body did the same. With a low moan, he passed out.