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Mercy Strange (Legal Magick 2) releases May 28th!
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Genetic data lied all the time.
It claimed that 99% of a human’s genome was the same as a chimpanzee’s—depending, of course, on how you counted it. It said every human was 99.9% the same, and that 99.95% of Mercy’s genetic code was the same as her father and sisters. But sprinkled among her three billion DNA molecules there were thousands, even millions, of sequences that were not identical. Maybe only by a single base pair. And somewhere in there was a key sequence, or maybe a half dozen, that told the truth. Tiny, genetic truth bombs.
And they whispered, Mercy Strange is different.
Only she knew just how much.
The screen in front of Mercy displayed her own genome, a blinding mass of data displayed in 3D that allowed her to see the whole thing then zoom in on a particular sequence. The software interface was custom, as was the artificial intelligence behind it that searched, analyzed, and tested the expressions of genomes to help in her work. She was on an endless genetic egg hunt for the sequences that made all the difference in the expression of Talents—not just her own, but the full profusion of possible magick abilities, as complex as the intelligence that drove it. She could have all the data in the world, but without the key to decoding it, all of it was useless. Except now she’d been handed a key—an illegal gen-magick drug created by a madman—and even after two days of banging her head against the data, she still couldn’t unlock the code.
The letters of the base pairs in front of her were blurring. She’d been at her screen too long. Mercy closed the file and pushed away from her desk, rising up to pace her office. Which was no small feat, given her long, black-lace skirt had two layers over the chiffon that rustled underneath. She’d forgone the heavy lace veil that accompanied it because that simply wasn’t practical in a modern genetics laboratory. The ensemble was the latest in her Victorian Death Couture collection, and she adored the way it felt dangerous—not just because funeral wear was, of course, tinged with death, but because witches widowed in the Victorian Era were considered unpredictable and possibly deadly in their grief. The clothes were a warning as much as mourning. Mercy lifted her death-skirts and worked her way around her piles of Genetics and Magick Today, finally reaching the window of her corner office on the 20th floor that overlooked the skyline of Chicago. The morning was brilliant, the sun glittering off Lake Michigan and the mirrored skyscrapers, but all that vibrancy wasn’t what drew her.
It was the box.
The bookshelves lining her small office held mostly binders of research reports, medical journals, and old-fashioned paper books. She had a thing for paper—the texture and smell and weight in her hands—so reports and books crammed every horizontal surface, including the floor. But tucked at one end of this particular shelf, buttressing all the modern paper knowledge, was a small talisman box. Originally, it stored 19th Century amulets, small stones imbued with harmless charm spells, and it still held two—one for good luck and another for pleasant dreams. Those weren’t what drew her, either—for the tenth time in two days, not that she was counting—to prop open the box and gaze inside.
A red-and-yellow capsule was nestled in the faded velveteen fabric. The charms had very little magick, but the medicine in that pill contained an impossibly powerful amount. The ability to destroy magick. And supposedly to create Talents for the simples who had none. But it was the destructive power that tempted her. This pill was the holy grail of gen-magick research… and it had been created by someone who had no problem with human experimentation, killing people, destroying their magick, and terrorizing a city. It made perfect sense to her that a monster would discover the answer she’d sought for years. She was still analyzing the genomes of the victims, pulling apart the medicine’s gene editing proteins, figuring out how they could sniff out and render impotent the sequences of DNA that created magickal Talents. But she kept coming back to the box and the one pill she’d stolen from the recovered stash, wondering when she’d work up the courage to—
“Taking a break?” a male voice said behind her.
She startled so badly her hand flailed against the box—it banged shut, and she quickly turned around, heart thudding, praying she hadn’t knocked the pill out of the box in the whole awkward and slightly terrified motion.
It was just Quill. “Sorry.” He stepped into her office, the amused look on his face tainted with worry. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
She sighed. “What scares me is that I might never figure this whole thing out.” She forced her hands to relax—they were half curled, reflexively trying to conjure, even though her Talents were mainly in the healing arts with fine motor skills, not combat.
“You’re kidding, right?” He gave her a half-smile. “You’re our resident genius. If you can’t figure it out, we’re pretty well screwed.” Quill Thacker was her personal IT specialist—at least that’s what she called him, in her head, and to his face as well. And he was here to help her wrestle with the vast mountain of data she’d collected and use his AI Talents to piece it into a story that made sense. Before anyone else got hurt.
Mercy squinted at him. “If only flattery could be harnessed to power scientific discovery.”
“You mean it can’t?” He grinned wider. “I thought the entirety of medical research was powered by ego. Present company excepted, of course.” He tipped his head to her, and she felt the flush of recognition. He was flirting with her. Again.
“Maybe that’s what I need. More ego.” She smiled, hoping that would dispel the tension, but she kind of fumbled it, still flushed with the leftover shock at being caught with the box wide open. Had Quill seen it? She didn’t think so. Mercy lifted her skirts over the piles of journals on her floor, edging toward her computer station again, but gingerly traipsing past him just brought her closer, which was exactly the wrong signal to send.
Quill held her elbow, helping her balance on her high-heeled boots. “I like you just the way you are, Mercy Strange.”
Shit. Did they have to do this now? Quill was smart and sweet and nice to look at—smokey-grey eyes and a square-carved jaw that was clean-cut gorgeous—and if her life wasn’t so freaking complicated, she’d entertain the idea of sex. A long, hot-and-hard weekend of sex would actually be a fabulous distraction. Sex was easy—it was relationships which were hard. And someone like Quill would definitely look for both.
Only she was no good for both, and he couldn’t ever know why. No one could. “Quill…” She gave him a look like please don’t make me say this…
He grimaced. “I’m talking about the new outfit, of course. Very, um…” He was struggling.
“Impractical?” She eased her elbow from his grasp, but gently, trying to soften the rebuke. “One has to make sacrifices for one’s art.” She squinted at him, teasing, but she also leaned back, putting some distance between them again.
“Don’t give me the death glare.” But he said it lightly, thankfully. There was only a fleeting trace of hurt in his smile. “I’m halfway convinced your makeup is a hex all its own.” He gestured to the elaborate spiderweb she’d painted around her eyes, today’s version in purple to match her lips and the streaks she’d put in her hair.
“Not a hex,” she sniffed dramatically. “A warning.” Then she resumed picking her way around the stacks of papers toward her computer.
“Duly noted.” His smile faltered like he couldn’t decide if she were joking.
It was no joke, but she couldn’t say that, either. How did the saying go? Tell the truth: no one will believe you. In truth, her makeup telegraphed the same message as her dress. Warning: dangerous witch ahead. Her truth was more painful than any lie, so she painted it on her face and let the world make its own assumptions.
Time to change the subject. “Please tell me you’ve got that new AI protocol for me,” she said as she swept her skirts to the side and plopped down, rather gracelessly, into her seat.
“I have.” His voice was back-to-business, thank magick. He came up behind her seat. “I just uploaded the revised version. It should have propagated by now.” He reached past her to tap up the program. He smelled nice—a woodsy scent that could be cologne or just him—and she was painfully aware that meant he could also smell her antique perfume, the kind Victorian witches wore in their mourning to signal their status as dangerous and available.
She made a mental note to throw out that bottle.
“Have you sequenced the new dead guy?” Quill asked as they waited for the program to load. He meant the body the FBI had found two days ago—another victim, another experiment by the lunatic behind this—which had come back with the note, YOU CAN’T STOP THIS. Which was definitely an asshole thing to do—not that serial murderers and illegal human experimentalists were nice people—but Mercy was worried they might be right.
“That brings us to three bodies returned,” Mercy said, “and another dozen dead kidnapped victims from the asylum where they were doing the experiments, plus seventeen victims who are still alive, so a total of thirty-two genomes to analyze for clues as to how these gene drives work.” Thirty-three including her own, but she’d run that analysis separately. She and her father already had their own extensive private research to draw on. The gene drives were the key part—buried inside the red-and-yellow capsule was a second, magick-stabilized pill that held live gene-editing proteins. She was still figuring out the exact mechanism by which the gene drives turned off magick, but the stakes were clear from all the dead and magickally-defunct victims—a drug like this on the streets would be devastating.
Quill gave her a soft look. “Hey, how’s your dad doing? It’s good to see him in the lab again.”
She nodded, a little too much. “He’s okay. Good. Thanks.” She looked back to the screen, waiting for the damn program to load. It was still hard to talk about, the terror she felt when her father “died”—an overdose that was a cover for human experimentation. She’d shut down entirely when it happened. Her brain just couldn’t process it. Not only the normal grief she imagined anyone would feel at losing a parent, but she’d always revered her father in a way that was hard to explain. He was good. Honest, kind, and above all, with the purest ethics of anyone she’d ever met. He was her guardrail—he kept her on the right side of things. They worked together on the gen-magick research that Mercy prayed would one day alleviate the problem only she knew about—the one thing no one, not even her father, could know—and when she thought he was dead, it wasn’t just her father that was gone from her life. It was any hope of ever having a normal one of her own.
“Mercy.” Quill’s voice was gentle, but it snapped her back with a jolt.
“Sorry.” She blinked, and her thickly-mascaraed lashes felt wet. Shit. She’d thought she was done with the random crying—and she sure as hell didn’t want to do it in front of Quill. “What have we got here?” she asked of the screen, blinking away the incipient tears.
“It’s okay to still be… affected by it.” Damn him for being sweet.
“I’m okay, Quill.” She cleared her throat. “And I’ll be better if we can figure out who the asshole is that stole my father’s magick.” As much as the pill tempted her, she wanted no small amount of vengeance for the assault on her father. He was a gift to the world with his brilliance and his med-magick Talents. How dare some monster rob a good man like him of the very thing he used to help others? “I’m going to make them pay, Quill.” She peered up at him. “Probably by some legal means like incarceration. But no guarantees.”
A smile tugged at his lips. “I expect no less from you.”
She gave him a short nod and looked back to the screen. “So this new version of the software—it’ll run simulations based off the gene drives we’ve identified in the pill, right?”
“That’s right.” He tapped up something that looked like her normal genome viewer—which was still a custom job that Quill had designed for her—only this version had a whole new screen filled with analysis tools. “You can input your guesses for which sequences you think express which kinds of Talents. The software will sift through and run projections for you, then you take a look and see if it makes sense, then feed that information back in. It’s machine learning, so it’s going to adapt to each new run, each new guess, learning from you and the data at the same time.”
“Have I mentioned lately that you’re a genius?” Mercy flicked a quick smile to him. “This is perfect. Just what I needed.”
He seemed genuinely pleased by that, but not too much. Not awkwardly into flirtation territory again. “We can change it if it’s not doing what you need, but give it some time to spool up first. Run some base cases. Get it trained on the fundamentals. That sort of thing. I’m not the genetics expert here.”
She was nodding, eyes back on the screen. “I’ve got a good first batch of data from the genomes of the victims. But expression is influenced by so many environmental variables—I haven’t even started uploading the data from the victim’s microbiomes and metabolite levels. Plus there are over twenty gene drives in the pill formulation, each presumably targeting a different sequence, a different Talent. That’s a lot of combinations, and I don’t even know the original formulations used during the experiments the victims were actually subjected to. These pills are some new formulation beyond all of that.”
Quill let out a soft laugh. “I’m going to assume that all means it’s complicated and let you tell me when I need to fix something in the code.”
She smiled. “Deal.”
A knock at her door drew both their attention.
Her sister, Ever, hovered at the threshold. “Got a minute?” She was two years older than Mercy’s twenty-six and pretty much solely responsible for getting their father back alive. Mercy had always looked up to Ever’s strong will and even stronger magick—she’d wanted to be Ever when she was a kid—but her sister had earned superhero-for-life status in Mercy’s eyes for bringing their dad home.
“Of course,” Mercy said, swiveling her chair to face the door. Quill stepped back so she could see—her office was tiny. Or maybe it was all the crap she kept everywhere. “What’s up?”
“Zane is here, and he wants to know if this is a good time to talk about the case?” Ever smiled even as Mercy’s heart sank. Special Agent Zane Walker, Magickal Crimes Division, the lead agent on the Resurrectionist case… and Ever’s hot new boyfriend. Mercy had been avoiding him the last two days, since she’d found out they were together, just because she struggled to contain her serious concerns about her sister dating someone like him… and now they were both here?
“Um…” There was absolutely no way out of this. “Sure!” Mercy smiled. Hard.
Ever gave her a look like she was nuts then ducked back out to get Zane.
“Is that Agent Walker?” Quill asked. “The one who’s a…” He flicked a look to the door.
They were probably out of earshot. “Incubus?” Mercy scowled. “Yeah, that’s him. He’s dating Ever.” She couldn’t bring herself to say the reverse—Ever is dating an incubus, on purpose—because she still had very serious reservations about how consensual that relationship was in reality.
Quill’s eyebrows rose. “How does that even work?”
“I don’t want to know.” But she did, not out of some perverse sexual curiosity, but because Ever deserved the best. And Zane… just wasn’t it. At first, Mercy had thought he was just some agent the FBI had fielded to help rescue her father—and protect Ever. Even then, Mercy had concerns, but she figured he was basically a weapon, and that was what weapons did, at least in the hands of the good guys. They rescued people and protected them. But they weren’t supposed to date people, and especially not people who were her sister. Ever had always had trouble with her magick, and this just seemed to invite disaster. They’d been together less than a week, but the constant smile Ever had on her face just made Mercy more suspicious. Incubi used mental magick on their victims… and she knew exactly how dangerous that was.
Ever might not even know she was being manipulated.
But Mercy couldn’t say anything—not while they were still working on the case. The family corporation, Strange Technologies, was hip-deep in all of this, and lots of people’s lives were at stake—possibly the entire city. Plus Mercy’s own problems were hanging over her like a ghost of her future self, haunting her with the possibilities. Now wasn’t the time to make a fuss about Ever’s choice in men. Or if it was even a choice. But when this was all done…
Mercy plastered a smile on her face just as Ever returned with Zane—and another man.
Holy hotness. Mercy blinked and kind of automatically—and awkwardly—rose out of her chair. Her office was small and stuffed with stuff, and in the few seconds it took Ever, Zane, Quill, and this new guy to sort themselves out, Mercy openly gawked at him. His clothes were ordinary enough—black leather pants, black t-shirt, long black, leather trenchcoat—but everything was just a little… tight. Or perhaps extremely well-tailored. Something about the way all that light-absorbing fabric hung from his broad shoulders and narrowed to his trim waist and flowed around his clearly muscular chest just spoke manliness to her in a freaking primal way. The others were shuffling into the room, but he seemed to just glide into place, standing at the end of the bookshelf by the window and her box of stolen treasure. And his face… he had a dark shadow of whiskers just shy of rugged, and his long-fingered hand brushed back the sexy mop of dark hair that had fallen across his eyes. His eyes. Deep brown and intense and…
Staring right at her.
Holy magick. She startled, physically, like the shock of him looking at her was enough to rattle her soul. What the hell?
“Hello,” she said, pointedly to the man. “And you are?”
“Here to work with you.” He smiled, and Mercy felt it like a physical thing whispering along every inch of her skin. A flush of heat so intense it stopped her breath. Embarrassment? Attraction? This was way beyond that. This was some fucking mental magick freaking her the hell out.
She whipped her gaze to Zane. “Who is this?” Her heart was thudding, the demand in her voice betraying her sudden alarm. She’d studied every kind of Talent, extensively, and she knew exactly what an incubus’s mental powers were—they unleashed a sort of uncontrolled sexual attraction, and the incubus fed off that energy. If Agent Walker thought she would work with another one of his kind—
“This is Agent Payne.” The look on Zane’s face would have been comical if Mercy was in any way entertaining humor. “He’s from the FBI’s Science and Magick Lab—”
“Why is he here?” Science and Magick? Bullshit. They didn’t do mental magick there. No one did, except maybe off-book spooks buried deep in the government. Even Zane was supposed to be one-of-a-kind, the only incubus employed by the FBI. Was he going to lie about this—
“Mercy, what the heck—” Ever was aghast.
Zane put up his hand to stop her. “It’s okay.”
Agent Walker shutting up her sister just cinched Mercy’s gut tighter. She swung her glare back to Agent Payne. “Why are you here?” she demanded.
His hands were up, but his brown eyes had sharpened to intense. Like he was surprised that she saw through this little charade as if she couldn’t possibly feel whatever mental magick he was trying to use on her. That feeling had tripped all her alarms, and she was two seconds away from spooling up her own magick—just in defense.
“I feel like we’ve gotten off to a bad start.” His voice was like honey, soothing and rich. “Is there some way I can fix that? If not, I’ll just… go.” But he wasn’t moving a muscle, just watching her keenly from the corner with his ridiculously expressive eyes and model-gorgeous face.
And yet… she felt a certain calmness leak into her, tinged with a spike of embarrassment. Like she’d radically over-reacted to something, and there was no need for alarm, it had all been a great misunderstanding. But that crashed hard into what she was feeling deep in her gut. And, logically, it made little sense. She knew who she was, and what she was capable of, and that witch was a thousand miles from being the over-reacting type.
Her rational brain was having none of this shit.
“Tell me what kind of magick you do—and be honest, because I will know—or get out.”
He tipped his head to her, acknowledging this was an entirely reasonable thing to ask, even though it wasn’t. It was incredibly rude. She’d never been so rude to someone in her entire life. But this guy was a Maximum Panic danger—she could feel it—and it was shoving her so close to using her one Talent, the secret one, the one no one knew about. Which would be an unmitigated disaster. But whatever this guy was, like hell was she letting him fuck with her head. She would shut that shit down. And that—her response—was freaking her out more than anything. She was ready to unleash on this guy, and he’d hardly said ten words.
“I’m Level One certified in various healing arts.” Agent Payne clasped his hands in front of him, the universal sign of I’m not conjuring any magick here, I come in peace. He was the picture of calm as he listed off his skills. “My Talent is primarily micro-fusion with an emphasis in tissue cauterization. I went as far as surgical rounds in medical school, bachelor’s in Biological Magick, but I left that when the FBI came calling, looking for an agent with my specialization. I’ve been working in Science and Magick now for three years. Would you like to see my certifications on file with the Official Registrar of Talents?”
As he talked, the weird sense of calmness left her, and the prickly-heat sensation of his intense sexiness returned… but his straight-forward answer was re-engaging her brain and tamping down the alarm bells ringing in her head.
“And you’re here because…?” She held his stare, letting her body acclimate to the heat that his open gaze gave her. Attraction. Maybe that’s all it was…
A tiny smile appeared on his face, just for a microsecond, then it was gone. “I’m here because I’m no expert in gen-magick… but you are. And I need your help if I’m going to go undercover at Strange Technologies to catch our bad guy.”
“Undercover?” Mercy frowned and looked to her sister.
Ever still had a look of horror on her face, like she just couldn’t believe what an asshole her sister was being. But she nodded. Vigorously.
Okay, maybe this guy was legit. Maybe Mercy had, in fact, over-reacted to the supernova hotness this guy—Agent Payne—oozed from every pore. Maybe he wasn’t an incubus, he just had hyperactive pheromones or something. And it was clear that the random-crying hair-trigger she’d acquired when her father went missing was still lingering. A quick scan of the rest of the room showed Ever was still freaking. Zane had a look of disbelief like all his plans were in danger of going poof. Only Quill was scowling with anything like her own panic-level of concern about Agent Payne walking through the door.
Mercy scooped up her skirts and stepped over her piles of papers—she really needed to tidy up—and crossed the tiny office until she stood right in front of Agent Payne. His eyes had gone ever-so-slightly wider, and a smile kept tugging at his lips. Up close, his preternatural sexiness was even more overwhelming. The boy was just fucking hot. And the sad fact of Mercy’s life was that she hadn’t been affected by that sort of thing in quite a while.
She put out her hand to shake. “Mercy Strange. Sorry, I’m a jerk sometimes.”
Agent Payne’s smile was like a blast furnace of sexy. His hand slipped into hers, and the heat traveled up her arm and all the way down to her toes. “Swift Payne. And the pleasure is all mine.”
Holy fuck, she was going to work with this guy? And not melt? And act like a normal human being? Sweet fucking magick. She shook his hand but pulled away the second it was polite to do so.
“Swift Payne?” She cocked her head. “Your parents have some kind of grievance against you?”
There was a flicker of something—pain—and she instantly regretted her attempt at breaking the awkwardness. Clearly, she couldn’t do anything right around this guy.
“They just had a sense of humor.” But the smile was forced now, and it dimmed the sexual energy that seemed to radiate from the guy.
Which, frankly, was extremely helpful. “All right,” she sighed. “I’m just going to blanket apologize for the entire last two minutes of my life. Good?”
The smile was back. “We’re good.”
She turned to Zane, which was a sudden relief, just not having to look at the Hotness Machine in the corner of her office. “Okay, Agent Walker. How can I help the FBI bring my father’s attackers to justice?” And as she listened to all they had planned, she kept waiting for that sense of heat, of overwhelming sexiness, to settle down. Fade away. Possibly vaporize.
It never did.
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