Benjamin paused in the home’s entryway, frozen by a strange hesitancy. This had to be the easiest job he’d ever done and yet he shivered with adrenaline. His breath sounded harsh, and his hand rose to his face, driven by an irrational urge to remove the black ski mask that covered his features.
“Get yourself together, Black,” he whispered. “Pull this one off and you’re going home.” Maya Stephenson wouldn’t be home for another hour— according to his source, she always worked late on Fridays. Her house was noisy with the expectancy of a home awaiting its occupant. The refrigerator hummed; an aquarium’s aeration system expelled bubbles in bursts of noisy chortles.
In the living room, the aquarium light revealed typical southwestern furnishings. A large spotted fish swam expectantly toward the top of the aquarium as Benjamin approached. Ignoring the fish, he crouched, slicked off a glove and laid the back of his hand on the floor, just beyond the rug. The orangey saltillo tiles were pleasantly warm to the touch.
“Radiant heat and all the extras. I though great artists were supposed to suffer for their art.” An immaculately restored adobe home in Santa Fe, even a small one, had to be worth a king’s ransom.
He pulled the glove back on and left the living room, making his way past the bedroom and bathroom.
His destination, her studio, lay just beyond the bedroom. He plunged into the room like a swimmer into an ice-cold pool, braced for the shock of something: the electric sizzle of magic, perhaps. Instead, he felt nothing out of the ordinary. Maya Stephenson’s studio felt like any another mundane room.
She must have worked in a media other than oil; the studio lacked the acrid smell of turpentine and linseed oil. Diffused by the window screen, a streetlight’s weakened light dusted the amorphous shapes of furniture. He crept across the room to the window, where he fumbled in the darkness, found the pull cord on the window blinds and dropped them closed. Only then did he switch on a small flashlight, keeping its beam low to avoid casting shadows on the closed blinds.
A set of drawers, wide enough for large drawings, stood against the wall to the left. Two wooden poseable artists’ models, a horse and a human sat on the drawers’ top. A pile of sketchpads and loose watercolor paper stood in a drunken stack next to the drawers. A box of colored pencils, more pencils out of the box than in, shared space on her worktable with the ubiquitous cup full of paintbrushes.
Sketches, watercolor and acrylic paintings covered the walls. Recognizing their subjects and feeling a tight sense of unease, Benjamin swept the light toward the opposite side of the room. A large easel held an acrylic painting, which he also ignored. Next to it sat a blocky filing cabinet. Drawn by curiosity, he moved toward it, flashlight illuminating the framed photo that perched atop the cabinet.
Four faces smiled from the photo: a tall elegant man of east Indian descent, his wife, an Asian beauty, and two teenage children, their features a handsome combination of their parents’ ethnicities. He focused the light’s beam squarely on the teenage girl. “Maya Stephenson,” he said, tasting the name on his tongue, realizing it was the first time he’d spoken it aloud— ever. For ten years she’d been just a name, a constant reminder that he didn’t belong. Transfixed, he studied the face of the person who had brought him to this world. Teenage Maya had been pretty cute and against his best judgment—he really didn’t want to think about her—he started to wonder what the grownup version looked like.
“No,” he whispered fiercely. “Focus, Black, focus.”
This job was his ticket to EverVerse, a life beyond the Real, where he could have a life not predicated on the existence of lines on paper. In EverVerse, he could have a family.
Steeling himself for what he was about to see, he played the flashlight’s glow over the walls, searching for the right piece of art, a color image with him and him alone.
The light caught the painting in the easel and a chill ran up Benjamin’s spine. It showed two men, superimposed against a background of an angular cityscape, the sharp edges of buildings delineated by yellow streetlights. To the right, in the foreground, a young man, curly black hair falling just short of his violet-blue eyes, leaned against a building, gun raised, prepared to face what lay beyond the building’s corner. A police detective’s shield hung from his belt. Farther back and to the left, a second man, dressed in black, crouched in the shadows. A diamond necklace dangled from one gloved hand. His dark eyes, filled with predatory wariness, watched the cop. The light bisected his face, revealing fair skin and coppery-red hair.
“Like a goddamn book cover,” Benjamin muttered.
He walked over to the large set of drawers. The top drawer contained landscapes, while the next was filled with crisp commercial art projects. A black-and-white sketch of the red-haired thief was the topmost drawing in the third drawer. He pulled out a knife and used it to riffle through the images. Even with the knife as a buffer, contact with the drawings sent bright spikes of pain up his arm, confirming that they were not what he sought. He closed the drawer, a little too loudly, and opened the next.
“Jackpot.” He found the perfect drawing, rendered in colored pencil. Unlike the others, this one would have no effect on him, so he grasped it with his fingers. Pulling the artwork from the drawer, he started to shut the drawer.
“Don’t move!” Benjamin flinched, instinctively raising both his hands. How had he allowed someone to sneak up on him? Sloppy, Black, sloppy. Mind racing, he turned around, his movement slow and nonthreatening.
“I say, ‘Don’t move,’” the woman said, her voice heavy with an eastern European accent.
Benjamin squinted; his superior night vision discerned a heavyset middle-aged woman and the business end of a shotgun pointed straight at him. She held the weapon braced against her right shoulder, right hand at the trigger, left poised to work the pump action. “Okay. I’m not moving. Now what?” he said. Judging by the steely glint in her eyes, she had no compunctions about shooting him. Short of a blast to the head, the weapon couldn’t kill him, but shotguns made large, painful, disabling holes.
“Now I call police. You go to jail.”
“I’m too pretty to go to jail.” Benjamin winced at his own words. Under stress, he said the stupidest things.
“I do not see ‘pretty.’” She used the gun to gesture at his face. “I see mask. A criminal.” Leveling the weapon at his chest, she said, “Put picture back. Now.”
He lowered the drawing to the drawer. “You can’t shoot me. Imagine the mess.” The drawing back in its place, he kept his hand in the drawer. “Chunks of me splattered all over the place, blood on all the artwork.”
Her dark eyes narrowed, but he saw a flicker of hesitation. Perhaps he could appeal to her innate fastidiousness. “With right cleaner and a little muscle, bloodstains go away.”
Right hand still at the shotgun’s trigger, she reached into her voluminous brown coat and extracted a phone. In his head, he cursed. Who didn’t have a cell phone nowadays? He debated his choices, weight on the balls of his feet, muscles relaxed but tingling wit anticipation. A tour of Santa Fe’s Detention Center struck him as a poor choice, so that left magic.
Magic, by his estimation, was a crutch for an incompetent thief. But if this ordinary woman could sneak up on him so easily, he was the very definition of incompetent.
Watching the woman, he prepared to cast a spell. Magical energy always flowed through his blood, waiting, like a kind of adrenaline, and now he used his anxiety to compress it like a spring, potential energy pushing back, humming inside him.
The little screen on the phone glowed and the woman’s eyes shone green in its light. Her thumb moved over the keypad, and Benjamin inhaled and held his breath. He rubbed his index finger over the top drawing in the drawer, hoping sheets of paper would be a suitable substitute for the usual spell component, a handful of dirt.
Her broad thumb pushed two numbers and Benjamin spoke the spell words, each syllable vibrating the compressed power within him. He exhaled and relaxed. Shaped by the words, the spell roiled down his arm toward the drawings, leaving in its wake a prickly pins-and-needles sensation.
He grabbed a handful of drawings and he flung them to the side just as the spell reached his hand. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a lanky manlike shape built on a framework of fluttering sheets of paper. He didn’t stop to admire his spellwork although, frankly, he was rather surprised it worked at all. Instead he dropped low, rolling toward the woman. The gun roared, but as it was aimed at his doppelganger, buckshot sprayed harmlessly over his head. She didn’t have enough time to pump the next shell into position and he lunged, reaching for the weapon. He grabbed it about six inches from the muzzle and shoved the dangerous end away from him.
She shrieked in outrage and surprise. Pain erupted in his shin as her foot connected with his leg. Benjamin got his other hand around the barrel. Her grip loosened, and for a second he thought the gun was his. Too late he realized why. She shifted her hold on the weapon and drove its stock at his neck.
Though blunted by his grip on the barrel, the force of the wood against his throat brought tears to his eyes. He lost his hold on the weapon just as the woman gave it a fierce tug. She tumbled backward, into the hallway, and Benjamin, seeing his chance, slithered past her and bolted down the hallway for the front door.
“Stop!” she yelled but he flung himself at the door, grappling with the doorknob and spilling out into the night. The gun belched another splatter of buckshot and hot fire etched his shoulder.
He stumbled out into the cold December night and down the short flagstone walkway. The front gate, mercifully, opened easily and he skittered out and dropped low, keeping behind the adobe wall that surrounded the front yard.
Inside the next-door neighbor’s house, a chorus of dogs began barking, soon joined by nearly every dog in the vicinity. Once past the neighbor’s house, Benjamin straightened to his full lanky height and put his long legs to use. If it weren’t in the face of failure, the escape would have been exhilarating.
Instead the tremors of a familiar emotion—despair—moved though his body. By the time he reached his car, which was parked five blocks from her house, it had deepened into depression.
He stopped in the dark pool of shadow cast by a tall adobe wall and yanked the ski mask off, baring his face to the icy, damp air. Snow was coming and the air carried the sooty spice of piñon wood burning in fireplaces. Across the street, parked under a dead streetlight, his car waited. After assuring himself that no one was around, he crossed the street.
He jabbed the key in the ignition but didn’t turn it. How could he have been so stupid? Benjamin Black,master thief, foiled not by a clever lawman, but instead a middle-aged woman? He thunked his forehead against the steering wheel and tried to blink away hot tears.
Haven’t you heard, Black? Real men don’t cry.
A little rivulet of blood, finding a path where his sweatshirt didn’t touch skin, ran from his shoulder and down his chest. He pressed his fingers against the gouges left by the speeding buckshot.
I bleed, but I’m not real. Not in this world.
As though struck by a perverse sense of drama, the streetlight came to life, revealing the young man slumped over the car’s steering wheel. His hair was the color of bright copper.
Text Copyright © 2012 by P. Kirby
Cover Art Copyright © 2012 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ® and ™ are trademarks owned by Harlequin Enterprises Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.