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Up there on the aetheric, once I’d achieve it, things were serene, too; glowing bands of brilliant color, swirling and moving together, everything lazy and calm. Out toward the sea there was energy, but it was carefully balanced, sea and sun and sky. No storms on the way at the moment, and no rain, regardless of Marvelous Marvin’s bogus predictions. Poor Marv. Statistically, he should have been right about eighty-six percent of the time just by predicting sunny and warm in Florida, but no, he had to try to be dramatic about it…

Speaking of which, how exactly did he beat the odds? He shouldn’t. I’d looked at him a dozen times up on the aetheric, though, and he was nothing but what he appeared: an obnoxious normal guy. Blessed with the luck of the entire nation of Ireland, apparently, but a regular human being, not a Warden, no matter how deep-cover. And certainly not a Djinn.

As I floated there, basking in the beauty, I felt something coming around to mess it up. Not weather. People. I blinked and focused and saw three bright centers of energy approaching me on foot across the parking lot. In aetheric-sight, you learn a lot about a person. The one in the center was male, tall, stooped, and comfortable with himself—he wasn’t trying to make himself look bigger or better or scarier than anyone else. The other two, though… different story. One of the women saw herself as a warrior, all steel and armor that was designed more from a book cover than actual practical necessity—steel push-up bra and an impractical metal bikini bottom to match, a sword too big for someone her size to draw, much less swing.

The third was also a woman… elegant, wispy, a little unsettling.

I knew two out of three of them. Ghost-woman was a mystery.

I dropped down into my physical form as footsteps approached, and turned with a smile firmly in place. “John,” I said. “It’s really good to see you again.”

“You, too,” John Foster said. It was a friendly beginning, but really, there was no reason for my former Warden boss to show up this early wanting a word, especially flanked by muscle. In no way could this not be a bad sign.

John wasn’t much different in the real world than he looked in the aetheric—tall, well dressed, a little professorial if such a thing could be considered a downside. He liked tweed. I regretted the tweed, but at least he’d gotten past the sweater vests of earlier years.

My eyes drifted over to the shorter, darker, punker woman standing next to him.

Knew her, too, and the welcome wasn’t so welcome-y. She was glaring at me through dark-rimmed eyes. Shirl was a Fire Warden, powerful, and the last I’d run into her she’d been assigned to Marion’s Power Ranger squad, rounding up renegade Wardens for that ever-looming magical lobotomy. She wasn’t exactly top of the list of people I’d wished would drop in. We hadn’t bonded, back when she had been chasing me across the country.

She’d added some additional facial piercings since the last time I’d seen her, her dyed-black hair was tipped with magenta, and she’d taken up a close, personal friendship with leather. Not an improvement.

The third woman remained a mystery. We’d never met, and I couldn’t tell what her specialty was; but if Shirl was here to cover fire, she was likely an Earth Warden.

“A little early for a social call,” I said, trying to keep it pleasant.

John nodded and stuck his hands in his jacket pockets. Awkward with conflict, John. I wondered why they’d stuck him with the job. Maybe the more senior Wardens were busy. Or maybe they knew I had a soft spot for him and wouldn’t be quite so difficult.

“You already know Shirl,” he said, and gestured to her with an elbow, offhandedly, with a flat tone to his normally warm voice. Ah. He didn’t like her either. Nice to know. “This is Maria Moore, she’s come over from France to help us out.”

Maria, the ghost-girl, was a wispy little thing in the real world, too. Older than she’d looked, up a level, but still a twig. I hoped she wasn’t a Weather Warden; a good strong breeze might blow her out to sea. She looked more like a Djinn than most Djinn I’d ever met.

“Takes three of you to say good morning?” I asked.

“I need you to take a ride with me, Joanne,” John said. He had an interesting voice, blurred with a North Carolina drawl; it always made him sound like he was in no particular hurry or distress. So I couldn’t tell if this was a big deal, a little deal, or a consultation he thought I could help out with… or whether I was taking a ride that would end up with me dead or permanently disabled.

I decided I didn’t really want to find out.

“Sorry,” I said, not as if I in any way meant it. “I really need to get home. I have some appointments—”

“You’re coming with us,” Shirl said flatly. “Whether you like it or not. Get used to the idea.”

I met her eyes. “Or what, Shirl? You’ll get all skinhead on me?”

She’d been kind of hoping that would be my attitude, I could tell. Her hand cupped at her side, and a fireball ignited in her palm. “Or this is going to start loud and end badly.”

I didn’t want to fight. Really. Especially with John Foster in the middle, not to mention the French Ghost, who might or might not be someone I needed to piss off.

I glanced at John, who was stone-faced, and said, “Whoa, there, Sparky, I’m not picking a fight. I just would like a little warning if you’re going to drop in and disrupt my day.”

“Get in the car.”

She wasn’t taking any crap from me. That might have been because I’d kind of kicked her ass the first time around, and she was worried about a repeat; she needn’t have been, as I’d been running on Demon-Mark Power then, and now it was just plain ol’ me, and plain ol’ me was tired and drained and really not up to a big, magical, hand-to-hand battle to the death.

Plus, I wasn’t dressed for it. Stains would never come out of this top.

Maria Moore silently gestured me to a smoky silver Lexus, which I knew for a fact wasn’t John’s; Lexus wasn’t his style. Must have been Maria’s, and come with the ghostly self-image. She was probably aspiring to a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. After just enough hesitation to let them know that I wasn’t always going to be so easily handled, I turned and walked to it, opened the back door and got inside. It was cramped, but then I had longer legs than most women. Maria got in the driver’s seat. I got Shirl as my companion in the back. Joy.

“You want to tell me where we’re going?” I asked.

Maria and John exchanged a glance. “It’ll take us a while to get there,” he said. “I’d suggest you call and cancel your appointments. You’re going to be out most of the day.”

It was a little late to bitch about it, now that the car was moving. I pulled out my cell phone and postponed Mall Day by twenty-four hours, much to Cherise’s disappointment, and settled in for the long haul.

Which, in a Lexus, wasn’t a bad thing.

It was a quiet drive. I dozed, part of the way, because I’d been up since four A.M. and besides, talking to Shirl the Human Pincushion didn’t make for entertaining conversation. She had all the power of someone like Marion Bearheart, and absolutely none of the charm. I missed Marion and all her centered, Native American, Earth Mother attitude. At least she’d threatened me with style and class, and she had a clear moral center. Shirl… well, I wasn’t so sure about any of that. Especially the style and class.

Maria the Ghost sporadically nattered on with John in bright, liquid French.

John was multilingual, which surprised me for some reason. They seemed easy together. Old friends? Current lovers? Couldn’t get a read. I made up dramatic scripts in my head, in which John flew over the Atlantic to sweep Maria off her feet in the shadow of the EiffelTower and the two of them ran around Europe getting into wacky, farcical mistaken-identity bedroom adventures.

Hey, I was bored.

Three and a half hours later, the Lexus made a right turn off the highway, and I started seeing signs of damage. We were entering the area where Tropical Storm Walter had blown in two nights ago. It had been a really bad hurricane season, and even though we were winding down, nobody felt very secure about it. The damage was mostly superficial, it looked like—shredded palm fronds, blown-down fences, the occasional busted sign or toppled billboard. Cleanup crews were out.