“I need your help.”
Someone call Scientific American. Because those four small words—tight, tense, edgy little syllables—were unequivocal proof of a parallel universe.
Or maybe the world really was ending, just like Athena the All Knowing insisted.
“Fiona? Are you there?”
In spite of the desperation she heard—or perhaps because of it—Fiona Dresden didn’t immediately reply. Maxwell Morrison Prescott the III wasn’t her favorite person. Never mind that he was her brother—or step-brother, if you wanted to get technical, which she did—or that a decade had passed since their last brief conversation, which had taken place at the foot of their collective parents’ freshly dug graves. In her lifetime, there were only two things Fiona had ever gotten from Max: a missing front tooth (care of a Tonka truck he’d beamed her with when she was ten) and a broken heart.
Neither of which she cared to revisit.
“Fiona.” He sounded like someone had just totaled his car. Which she had, when she was fourteen. He’d driven a burly Jeep the last time she’d seen him; much better safety features.
“Don’t have a cow,” she told him. “What do you want?”
Did that sound ungracious? Well, tough tittie. She felt ungracious.
“I told you,” he grated, impatience crackling like dry wood catching flame. “I need your help.”
“Don’t make this harder than it already is.”
“Because I should make it easy?” She laughed, a harsh bark of derision. She’d learned well. Would he notice? “What possible use could you have for me now, big brother?”
Silence. Heavy, thick, leaden with something she had no desire to contemplate. It had taken years to regrow the skin he’d peeled from her; she refused to reopen that wound.
And yet, she didn’t disconnect. She didn’t toss her phone to the ground and stomp on it. No, instead she waited for his response, her heart a painful drum in her chest. Frozen and furious and damning herself for trying.
“I need you, Fi.”
The quiet intensity of his tone caused dread to suddenly ripple down her spine, a chilled fingertip that made her skin prickle in ominous warning. Because Max was omnipotent; he didn’t need anyone. Certainly not her. His last words to her on that dreary day a decade ago still danced ghoulishly through her darkest dreams.
I don’t want anything to do with you, Fiona. We aren’t family; we never were.
Ugly words, branded into her soul. He should have just kicked her in the face with one of his sharp-toed cowboy boots. It would’ve hurt less.
“You don’t want anything to do with me,” she reminded him coolly. “Remember?”
More silence. For one endless moment, Fiona thought she’d lost him. And part of her thought: good. Full circle, brother. Karma’s a bitch. But the child she’d been, the one who’d so foolishly believed that they were family—and still did, no matter the reality—waited, breathless with hope.
“I was a dickhead,” he said finally, his tone gruff. “I was angry. I’m sorry.”
Which froze her, motionless, into place. The world really was ending. Because that was not what she’d expected to hear. Honesty; humility. A freaking apology.
“Who are you and what have you done with Max?” she demanded.
“I’m not a kid anymore,” he retorted. “Cut me some fucking slack.”
Another ugly laugh broke from her.
“You threw me away,” she told him flatly, and her throat suddenly filled, and the memory of his desertion stabbed through her like a hot blade. “I owe you nothing.”
More silence. Hang up, you stupid fool. But she didn’t.
“I can’t change it,” he muttered, and he sounded…weary. As if all of the arrogance and angst he’d always worn like a shield had drained away, leaving only fatigue behind.
Not that she cared. Dickhead. On that, they could agree.
Still, how curious that he should…need her. “What do you want?”
“Are you alone?”
An odd question that made her look around. Nothing had changed since the last time she’d looked: the rain was still a cold, steady deluge that left her standing in half an inch of water.
The carnival midway was waterlogged, the ride jocks covered in mud and grass as they struggled to set up the tilt-a-whirl in what was quickly becoming swampland. The games weren’t faring much better, the trailers sinking into the ruts formed last night when they’d pulled in. Even her balloon game, built of wood and lightweight PVC pipe, was slowly settling into the wet ground. Just across the midway, the popcorn wagon sat in two deep puddles that would only get worse once she went to work inside.
Thunder rolled overhead, and someone was listening to Tom Petty. In the row of games across from her everyone was working, setting up their stock and flashing their stands, no matter the storm, because tomorrow was opening day, and there was no “called on account of rain” when three days was all you had to make bank.
“Alone enough,” she told him, and continued to clean the .22 she held. One down, three to go, and the short-range game would be ready to go.
“You’re in Cedar Hills?” Max asked. “At Our Lady of Hope?”
She stilled. “How do you know that?”
“Hatchet. Until Sunday?”
“Stay with me here, Fi. Cedar Hills is only a three day run, right?”
“Right,” she growled, annoyed, and glared at the clouds, smoky gray and deep violet, churning like class four rapids as they rolled in. Stinking rain. “What does that have to do with—”
“I have a witness.”
“A witness. I need some place to stash her. Some place safe.”
Fiona shook her head. Opened her mouth, closed it.
“Some place no one will think to look,” Max added grimly.
“Have you lost your freaking mind?” Because clearly he had. “You’re not getting me involved in your FBI bullshit. No freaking way.”
“No,” she repeated. “I’m not the Witness Protection program! I’m a carny. It’s what you despise most about me. Remember?”
“No,” he said, his voice hard, and she snorted.
“I don’t despise you,” he said evenly. “I never despised you.”
“Did you get hit in the head?” she wanted to know. “Are you concussed?”
“Jesus Christ, Fiona. Was I really such a prick?”
“Really, really such a prick. Like the king of all pricks on a big old dickhead throne.” Another snort escaped her. Was he serious? “You abandoned me, Max. I was fifteen, and you were all I had, and you fucking left. Why the hell should I help you with anything?”
For a long moment he said nothing, and Fiona clenched her cellphone. Part of her wanted to hurl it across the midway—or, better, at his head—but another part—that idiotic, foolish child who lived on in quiet, stubborn determination—wanted to believe.
“Please,” he said. A quiet, solemn word, one he’d never before said to her.
One that sounded sincere. One that dumbfounded her.
“Screw you,” she rasped, her throat painfully thick, her eyes burning. “You hurt me, Max. I thought we were family.”
“We are family,” he snarled.
“Since when?” A tear slid down her cheek, and she swiped it away, fury and pain and that sick, twisted hope churning within her. She didn’t want this. To believe again, to trust, to want, only to have him grind her beneath his heel. He would betray her, just like before.
But she was not the child she’d been, not for a long time.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly. Again.
Was he manipulating her? Because he was not above that. But neither was he a man to sacrifice his pride—not for any reason. So if he was saying it, he probably meant it. And he sounded…desperate. Desperate.
As if, for once, she held all the cards.
Stunned, she tried to digest that earthshattering realization. Had she somehow tripped over the extension cord and knocked herself unconscious?
Alternate universe for friggin’ sure.
“Fi.” Max’s voice was tight. “Listen, I know there’s shit we need to hash out, but there’s no time. Not right now. Right now, I need your help. I’ve got a kid in trouble, and if I don’t get her somewhere safe, she’s dead.”
Dead. A kid.
Hang up, Fiona thought. He deserved all of her hate. All of her derision and disappointment and disgust.
But the kid… The kid didn’t. The kid was innocent. Alone. And in trouble.
Something to which Fiona could relate.
“Craptastic.” She sighed. “This is insane.”
“No. This is perfect.”
“Only for you.”
“I can compensate you,” Max said in a hard tone. “If that—”
“You’re being a dickhead again,” she told him. “There’s an entire midway full of people here, Max. Innocent people. Your witness—just by virtue of her presence—will endanger all of them.”
“I’ve got that covered.”
“You can’t possibly,” she protested.
“You have to trust me.”
Another harsh laugh rasped up her throat. “You burned that bridge a long time ago, brother.”
“Then give me a chance to rebuild it.”
Her stupid, foolish heart leapt, and she reached up to rub the back of her neck, more than a little unnerved. This was certifiable.
“The show is the perfect hiding place,” Max insisted. “People rarely look too close. It will work.”
Goddamn it, she wasn’t really considering this, was she? You dumb shit.
“Why?” she demanded. “What’s going on that you can’t keep her in a safe house? Has your precious Bureau been infiltrated?”
Again he said nothing, and the chill winding its way through her veins spread like an ugly stain.
“Awesome,” she said sarcastically.
“Just for a few weeks,” he promised quietly.
It was one thing to endanger herself; it was quite another to endanger her help and everyone on the show. What the hell was she thinking?
“She’s fourteen years old, Fi. Two nights ago she watched her entire family get capped. I have to keep her safe. I’m all she has.”
You were all I had, too. Yet he’d walked away without a backward glance.
And now here he was—because he knew she was hard only on the outside, an inconvenient and often painful truth she did her best to protect, and he was not above using that knowledge—the dickhead—which was spectacularly disappointing, if not surprising. That alone should have been enough to send him packing. But this decision…it wasn’t about Max. It was about an unknown fourteen-year-old kid, who was little more than a child, who—even faceless—Fiona could relate to. She knew what it was to be alone.
So now what? What are you going to do? Who are you going to be?
Who you want to be, or who you should be?
“Three weeks, no more,” she said, her voice hard. “And I’m putting her to work.”
“Deal,” Max said quickly. “We’ll be there tomorrow, before noon.”
He ended the call with an abrupt disconnect, and thunder rumbled overhead, a violent drumbeat that resonated through Fiona’s bones. She squinted up at the darkening sky, her head whirling with the sudden turn of events.
She needed her head examined. To trust Max again, even after he’d proven so unworthy of that trust. And to bring the kind of danger that came with him here… No matter what he’d said about having things covered, all bets were off.
No one would be safe.
Which was on her. Entirely. Because she was cursed with a soft heart, and no matter how much she hated Max, she loved him, too.
Always had, always would.
In her hand, her cell dinged. “Yeah?”
“Thank you,” Max said into her ear and hung up.
“Shit,” she said. Because…thank you.
Another thing he’d never bothered with.
“Shit,” she said again, angry. At him. Herself. Life.
What had happened, to change him so drastically?
And that right there was exactly why she should’ve said no. Because she didn’t know squat about him. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been on leave from Afghanistan to attend their parents’ funeral. She had no clue where he’d been in the decade that followed, not who he’d been, not what he’d been doing. She only knew he was FBI because Hatchet mentioned it once in passing.
Hatchet. Who was the closest thing to family she had, and who’d clearly kept in much closer contact with Max than she’d ever realized.
What the hell was going on?
A federal agent turning to his carny stepsister to keep his witness safe? Please, fool. That’s what the U.S. Marshals were for, no? Men with badges and guns; trained men, armed men. Men with license to do whatever was necessary to protect those they served. Was it not their very job to babysit federal witnesses?
Yes. Yes, it was.
So why would Max turn to her for help—and not them? There had to be a pretty significant reason, and it could be nothing good.
Thunder boomed down again, startling her. The sky had grown dark, and rain was falling in earnest now, heavy sheets that washed down the midway toward the unlit Ferris wheel, where it sat like a giant headstone, looming over the bright array of games, rides and concession trailers. She rubbed at her arms, chilled.
God willing, it wasn’t prophecy.