“The bodies? What bodies? Come on, Chelsea! You can’t send me after Daisani with just the question! I have to know!”
“I would advise having Alban with you when you ask,” had been Chelsea’s implacable response. She’d invited Margrit to finish her tea, then dismissed her with steely pleasantry that was impossible to stand against. Margrit found herself on the street with an accelerated heartbeat and no answers to her questions.
Wherever the bodies were, whatever they were, asking Daisani a question like that seemed tantamount to suicide. Margrit shot a final glare at the bookstore and stomped away, uncertain of where she was going, but determined to leave Chelsea’s cryptic advice far behind.
Barely a few steps beyond the entryway, Cam’s phone rang, its ringtone so unfamiliar it took Margrit a moment to realize it was her own pocket. She picked up with, “Mom?” and heard Rebecca Knight’s mystified “I’m on the train into the city. What on earth is so important, Margrit? Are you all right?”
“I need financial advice.” The explanation, identical to what she’d left on voice mail earlier, still sounded pathetic. “I’ll explain at your office, okay?”
“Margrit, unless you’ve won the jackpot, I can’t imagine—”
“You really can’t, Mom. You really can’t. I’ll see you in what, about an hour?”
“Forty minutes,” Rebecca said with asperity. “I want a full explanation, Margrit Elizabeth.”
“I know.” Margrit hung up, all too aware she hadn’t promised that explanation. The cell phone told her it was a quarter to seven, and for a moment she considered rushing home to change clothes, as though a smarter outfit would make her mother take her more seriously. Being late, though, would be worse than being untidy, and Margrit sighed, breaking into a ground-eating jog toward the financial district.
She arrived well before Rebecca and paced in front of the office building until a security guard gave her a hard look. Margrit made her hands into fists and found a place to sit, watching the street for her mother’s approach.
Forty minutes from their phone conversation, Rebecca appeared down the street, looking fresh and put-together in a linen pantsuit that made her slim form more imposing. Margrit slumped, wishing anew she’d taken time to go home and change, then reluctantly got to her feet to wave a greeting.
Rebecca paused, purse-lipped, to consider Margrit’s running gear, then with a silence far more condemning than commentary, nodded a greeting to the security guard and key-carded herself into the building, gesturing for Margrit to follow. Feeling considerably more intimidated than she had by the Old Races in the past few days, Margrit shuffled along meekly.
Neither spoke as they took the elevator up to Rebecca’s pale, beautifully appointed office, but once ensconced within its walls, Rebecca turned to her with an arched eyebrow of inquiry that brooked no nonsense and very little leeway for whatever had brought her there, even if it was her own daughter.
Margrit pulled her ponytail out and let unruly curls cascade everywhere as she tried to find a place to begin. A moment’s silence led to blurting, “What I really need to know is if you can provide me with any financial vulnerabilities in Daisani’s empire, and some advice on how to exploit them.” Voiced aloud, the proposition sounded even worse than it had in her imagination. Margrit clenched her teeth, trying to smile, and knew it was a wince.
Rebecca’s brief stare ended in a disbelieving laugh. “Margrit, have you lost your mind?”
“I’m beginning to think that’s possible. Mom…” Margrit trailed off, the absurdity of her request vividly clear to her, and helpless to find another course. “It’s Tony. I—”
“Tony needs information on Eliseo Daisani’s financial weaknesses? I’ve told you before that Eliseo’s not the kind of man you put in jail. I understand Tony’s ambitious, but any pursuit of Eliseo or his corporation is going to end up an embarrassment at best and a dead end to his career at worst. You need to—”
“If I don’t find a way to cut Daisani’s purse strings Tony’s going to die.” Margrit’s voice sounded harsh and loud over her mother’s impassioned tirade. Rebecca went quiet, staring again, and Margrit closed her eyes against the weight of her mother’s regard. “Mom, you do not want to know the details. I’m not saying that because I think you shouldn’t know.”
She forced her eyes open again, meeting Rebecca’s gaze with no little challenge in her own. “I’m saying it because I’ve watched you with Eliseo. Because I’ve watched you shut away what you’re seeing, not because you don’t believe it, but because you don’t want to know. And you know what? That’s fine. I don’t get it, but I don’t have to. But I can promise you that I’ve got to find a way to do this, that you’re my best chance, and that you do not want to know the details.”
“Margrit.” Rebecca found nothing to say after the name, mother and daughter looking at one another across a distance that seemed impossibly vast to Margrit. Finally, full minutes later, Rebecca spoke again. “GBI handles a dozen of Eliseo’s largest accounts. You’re right that I could help you, but how could you have ever imagined that I would?” She lifted a hand sharply, cutting off anything Margrit might say. “I understand that you believe Tony’s life is at stake, but I very much doubt Eliseo is the sort to—”
“First, he is, but more important, he’s not the one gunning for Tony. It’s Janx, the guy who used to run the House of Cards up in Harlem. Tony took the House down and Janx is looking for retaliation. If he didn’t owe me a favor, Tony would be dead already. Unfortunately, I owe him one, too, and this is what he’s asking for.”
“What on earth could someone like Janx have against Eliseo?”
Margrit ground her teeth together, then repeated, carefully, “You do not want to know.”
A difficult expression—regret, distress, perhaps mixed with chagrin—crossed Rebecca’s face and faded, leaving it neutral with acceptance. “If you say so, Margrit. But if Tony is being threatened by a criminal, that’s something for the police to deal with, not—”
“Mom!” Exasperated almost to the point of amusement, Margrit tied her hair back up with quick ferocious movements before she trusted herself to speak again. “Mom, if there was any other way to deal with this, I would. There isn’t. So it’s pretty simple, really. Are you going to help me?”
Regret and its closer cousin sorrow left marks in Rebecca’s face this time. “I’m sorry, sweetheart, but you know the answer to that. You know I can’t.”
Margrit turned away, finding one of the soft leather sofas to sit down on hard. Conflicting emotions rattled her: relief and dismay in equal parts, neither of them certain what to do with themselves. She had known on every reasonable level that Rebecca couldn’t possibly agree. It was too black an area, too obviously illegal, and the fact that she herself had been willing to follow it said more than she wanted to consider about the path she’d taken since meeting the Old Races. At the same time, her mother had been the only real inside chance she’d had. “Yeah.” She heard her own voice distantly. “Yeah, I knew that. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No,” Rebecca said, surprisingly cheerful. “You shouldn’t have. And you could have saved us time and trouble by asking on the phone, Margrit, really.”
“There was always the chance you’d say yes. I wanted you here where you could act before you came to your senses.”
“Margrit.” Rebecca’s voice gentled. “There was never any chance I’d say yes.”
Thick pain settled around Margrit’s heart, squeezing. Without that help, legal or not, she was out of options as to how to take Daisani down. Out of options she wanted to consider: Chelsea’s cryptic advice lingered at the back of her mind, nerve-wracking and tantalizing. “I know. But I hoped I was wrong. It wasn’t a bad plan, except for it being illegal. I even had a buyer for the stock.”
“Call your stockholders,” murmured a voice behind Margrit. Familiar voice, touched with the hint of desert sands, and as Rebecca’s face whitened, Margrit realized the pressure around her heart wasn’t just exhausted emotion. Not with the soft, faint threat in Tariq’s words: “Prepare Daisani’s fall, Rebecca Knight, or watch your daughter die.”
An offended part of Margrit’s mind protested, silently, that she’d been dead once lately and facing the sentence twice in a day seemed unfair. As though he heard her thoughts, Tariq leaned in close, body warmth no more than a mist by Margrit’s cheek. “Your life was forfeit, Margrit Knight. Imagine my surprise to see you at Eliseo Daisani’s apartment today.”
Margrit caught her breath, or tried: it hitched, as did her heartbeat. “What were you doing there?” Her voice sounded like Rebecca’s had when she’d stood in this same position, Tariq’s fist around her heart: weak, fluttery, pained.
“Ensuring the glassmaker’s empire was ours. Your offer was generous, but merely cemented a deal already in the making. We had never, since we left our deserts, intended on sharing it.”
Sudden clarity blazed through Margrit, making the pain in her chest seem worse. Clear as gargoyle memory, the moment of exchange between Daisani and Tariq after the trial played vividly for her mind’s eye. “You double-dealing bastard.” A note of admiration wheezed through the words. “You’re playing both sides against the middle. That’s why Daisani wouldn’t agree to let Malik’s death go, even though Janx asked him to. He promised you.”
“So he did, and we cannot allow a lack of retribution. Your life would have sufficed, had Daisani’s gift not made it so hard to take.”
“So now what?” Speaking made Margrit dizzy, but stopping seemed like giving up. “Now you’re going to take him down, too, for backstabbing you whether he meant to or not?”
“In essence.” Tariq sounded smug. “Why settle for one empire when we might command two?”
“You’ll command nothing if you don’t release my daughter.” Rebecca finally broke in, voice strong and confident after Tariq’s murmurs and Margrit’s breathless attempts to keep talking. A surge of pride and panic rose in Margrit: she had hoped to distract the djinn from Rebecca’s presence, though to what end she didn’t know. In case of sunset and a psychic link warning Alban she was in need of rescue, perhaps. Even with a hand fisted around her heart, the idea amused her.
Tariq lifted his gaze to Rebecca, misty presence shimmering in the edge of Margrit’s vision. “You’re in no position to issue commands.”
Rebecca’s eyebrows rose. “Do you have access to the accounts that could bankrupt Eliseo Daisani? No,” she said after a judiciously brief pause. “I didn’t think so. I see a few choices here, Mr.—?”
“Tariq,” Margrit whispered when Tariq didn’t speak. “His name is Tariq.”
“Tariq,” Rebecca repeated. “You can kill Margrit, or me, or both of us, none of which will achieve your goals, or you can release her, earn my goodwill and accomplish what you’re attempting. It seems like a simple decision to me.”
Tariq made a soft, derisive sound. “And what prevents me from killing you when I have what I want?”
“Your word on it,” Rebecca said calmly. She sounded as though she was brokering a business deal, not bargaining for her daughter’s life. Margrit, mixed with admiration and terror, wondered if she sounded like that when bartering with the Old Races. “Your word that you won’t harm Margrit or myself, or any of our family, not now and not ever,” Rebecca concluded.
No, Margrit decided, she didn’t sound that confident, and she didn’t think she was ever that thorough. Tariq laughed, murderous sharp sound. “And you’d trust my word?”
“Yes.” Rebecca spoke with no caveats, no doubts, nothing but serene confidence, and then offered a soft, pointed smile that had put the fear of God, or at least Rebecca Knight, into Margrit for her entire childhood. Something like a laugh tried to break free of her constricted chest as Rebecca explained, almost gently, “I would trust your word because, if for no other reason, you owe Margrit your freedom.”
Tariq’s hand spasmed around her heart, as much show of shock as Margrit had ever seen a djinn indulge in. She was certain his astonishment was echoed in her own face, a suspicion that was confirmed by Rebecca’s brief acknowledging nod.
“Not wanting to know doesn’t mean I don’t watch, Margrit. I understand that sometimes you need a weapon at hand even if you don’t want to use it. Am I right?” She turned her gaze on Tariq, an eyebrow lifted.
For a moment the events of the past hung over them all as though they replayed on a screen, clear and precise. Margrit had faced down Daisani over Tariq’s freedom when the djinn had been captured in a binding circle of vampire’s blood. Daisani had been more than willing—eager, even—to enslave Tariq as punishment for damages done to Rebecca, and Margrit had threatened the vampire with everything she could in order to gain Tariq’s release. It had been a gesture of passion, borne in the moment, and Tariq and Daisani had both thought her a fool. Margrit had had no idea her mother had paused to watch the exchange, and now wondered if the honor that seemed to hold so much sway within the Old Races—even amongst those who denied its power—would be visited upon mortals.
The djinn made a bitter sound and the pressure around Margrit’s heart lessened, then disappeared entirely, leaving an ache of pain in its place. She coughed and doubled over, arms folded against her chest and tears flooding her eyes as she heard him say, “I am no glassmaker to play at this game on levels and levels. This is your one moment of grace, human. I will not be denied a second time or offer another chance.”
Rebecca waited until Margrit looked up with a tight nod that said she was all right, then dipped her head in acknowledgment. “I think we understand each other, then.” She stepped around her desk, switching her computer on with a brisk motion, then glanced around her office.
A pang that had nothing to do with her heart being crushed spasmed through Margrit’s chest. She’d come to ask for what Rebecca was about to do, but she’d known the price was too high and that her mother would refuse. Watching her now take in the office for what was very likely the last time hurt worse than she’d anticipated. “Mom…”
“Eliseo’s major holdings will go on the open market when the bells ring Monday morning,” Rebecca said steadily. “I can’t guarantee it’ll destroy him, but it will certainly be extremely costly.” She sat down at her computer. “You said you had a buyer, Margrit. I suggest you contact him immediately and have him liquidate any holdings he can in order to have cash on hand to purchase with.”
“But what about you?” Recriminations pounded at the inside of Margrit’s skin, trying to break free. If she hadn’t been foolish enough to ask Rebecca to help in the first place, her mother wouldn’t be about to ruin her career. If she’d refused Janx—
Then Tony would be dead. Margrit’s hands knotted into fists. Ruining Daisani’s career was a price she was willing to pay for the detective’s life. Rebecca herself had decided Margrit’s life, and by extension, Tony’s, were worth her own career. There had to be a limit, though, a point at which the needs of the many overrode the good of the one. Two lives was a high price to pay for one. More would become untenable. “It ends here,” Margrit whispered.
Rebecca looked up with a smile. “That will be good enough for me, Margrit. Now go, and take your unpleasant companion with you. I have work to do.”