Book: Darkness on Fire

Previous: Acknowledgments
Next: Chapter 2

Chapter 1

Penn Sebastian shifted around in his pile of threadbare blankets, which did little to protect his ass from either the hard concrete or the damp cold of a rainy Seattle day. The need to think good thoughts was riding him hard, and he ran through the exercises that his Handler, Dr. Laurel Young, had prescribed to restore more flexibility to his right hand.

He was probably fooling himself about seeing some improvement. No one expected him to regain full use of his dominant hand, not even him. On that happy thought, he repeated the stretches with his left hand, alternating working each hand in preparation for the weapons workout Barak q’Young, his brother-in-law, had scheduled after Penn’s shift ended.

Most days Penn was okay with his sister hooking up with the guy, even if Barak wasn’t exactly human—or even from this world. But since the man had called a mountain down on his own head to save Lacey from human killers, it would take a harder man than Penn to hold Barak’s alien nature against him. There wasn’t anything the two of them wouldn’t do to keep Lacey safe, which gave them common ground to build on.

Penn resisted the urge to check the expensive watch he kept in his pocket; watching the minutes tick by only made the time drag out more. He wished he could at least read a book, but that was out of character for his well-crafted disguise. Most people averted their eyes as they walked past, not wanting to even make simple eye contact with someone so down on his luck.

A few would drop some coins or even a couple of dollars on his blankets and then hurry on, as if poverty was catching. He used to buy himself an occasional cup of coffee with their largess, but his conscience had put a stop to that. Now he passed the money on to the local food bank.

Another razor-sharp gust of wind cut through his thin jacket and pelted him with a swirl of leaves and dirt. He turned up his collar and yanked his watch cap down over his ears. As if sensing his determination to ignore her efforts to harass him, Mother Nature pulled out all stops. The clouds overhead split wide open and emptied cold rain directly over his head.

Cursing, Penn thought back to the way things used to be, before his life went all to hell with the stroke of a sword. Sometimes, if he tried hard enough, he could almost remember what it felt like to be happy.

God, this never-ending pity party had to stop.

The sound of a nearby door opening snapped him to full attention. Easing his hand beneath the blankets, he gripped his gun, even though he knew that whoever was approaching was a friend—or at least not an enemy.

The footsteps stopped a few feet away. “Penn?”

Penn didn’t bother to look up. “What now, Cullen?”

“I thought you could use a cup of coffee.”

Penn held out his hand and waited for the Paladin to make his final approach. He knew his friends felt sorry for him, but he didn’t want their pity. That didn’t mean he was stupid enough to turn down a hot drink.

“What else did you want?” Because bringing Penn a cup of coffee wasn’t responsible for the tension flowing off his friend in waves.

Cullen frowned down at him. “I don’t want a damn thing, but Devlin said for you to report to him after your shift.”

“No can do.” Penn took a cautious sip of the coffee. “I’ve got a workout scheduled with Barak. Whatever Devlin wants will have to wait.”

“He said no excuses, so do us all a favor and head for his office as soon as you’re relieved here.” Cullen crouched down to look Penn straight in the eye, his concern obvious. “He’s been juggling the schedule all day, trying to keep everything covered and still give a few of us some downtime. I wouldn’t jerk his chain.”

“Fine. Tell him I’ll be there. Now get out of my face. I’m busy sitting on my ass and counting raindrops.”

“You need to snap out of the pity party. God—sometimes I don’t know why we even bother.” Cullen stood up looking thoroughly pissed.

Cullen was usually the calmest of the bunch, and his temper was proof of how overworked the Paladins had been lately. Anyone who could swing a sword had been spending record amounts of time fighting at the barrier. Thanks to his lame arm, Penn was left out of that party.

Cullen tried one more time. “When you’re done with Devlin, give me a holler and we’ll grab a beer and a burger.”

Penn sighed. “A beer sounds good, as long as it doesn’t mess with whatever you and Lusahn have going tonight.”

“Not a problem; I told her I’d be late. She’s taking the kids out for pizza.”

Penn nodded, not wanting to hear what Devlin had to say, but he had no choice. “Okay, I’ll see what’s up with Devlin. One way or the other, I’ll let you know how it goes.”

Cullen feigned a punch at Penn’s head. “It’s nice to see that brain of yours actually does work—sometimes, at least.”

As his friend disappeared back down the alley, Penn’s mind swirled with all the possibilities of why Devlin wanted to see him. He tipped his head back and let the cool splash of raindrops wash across his skin. One way or the other, he had the strangest feeling that things were about to change. He’d see what Devlin had to say and then play the cards he’d been dealt.

An hour later, Penn stood outside Devlin’s door with a boulder-size chip on his shoulder. He couldn’t think of a single thing he’d done wrong lately. A while back, he and Devlin had come to an agreement. Penn would try harder not to screw up and Bane wouldn’t kick his worthless ass out of the Paladins permanently. So far, they’d each held up his end of the deal.

“Are you coming in, Sebastian, or you going to stand out in the hallway all night?” The thick door barely muffled Devlin’s bellow.

Bracing himself for the worst, Penn walked into the office and dropped into the seat facing Devlin’s desk. “You wanted to see me?”

Devlin sniffed the air and gave him the evil eye. “Did you have to show up smelling like wet dog? We do have showers and clean clothes right down the hall.”

Penn had thought about using them, but had decided against it to get this meeting over with quickly. Depending on what kind of burr Devlin had up his backside, Penn might have the rest of his life to clean up.

He shrugged. “Cullen said you wanted me as soon as I got off shift. I’m here. What do you want?”

Devlin leaned back in his chair and gave Penn a hard-eyed stare. “How’s the hand?”

Penn clenched his teeth. It always came down to that, didn’t it? At least Devlin didn’t pussyfoot around like the others did, checking out the thick scar that transected Penn’s right hand and wrist whenever they thought he wouldn’t notice. He couldn’t, wouldn’t lie to Devlin. They’d served together too long for that.

“About the same. Laurel sees some improvement in my right hand, and Barak thinks I’m doing better fighting with my left.” Penn forced his hands to relax. “I’m not convinced either of them are right.”

Devlin nodded as if Penn had just confirmed something he’d suspected all along. “Okay, then. The fact that we’re shorthanded won’t come as a surprise to you. I’ve lost you to normal duty. Hunter is doing better, but he’s got his own patch of hell to guard up north. Even if I need him, he’s an hour out at best. Cullen is back to fighting, but he doesn’t much like it.

“Here’s the thing. I got a phone call from a woman this morning. No idea who she is or how she got my number. I sicced D.J. and Cullen on back-tracing it to see if they can identify the caller, but they haven’t found out anything other than she’s good at hiding her tracks.”

Penn was impressed. Very few could out-cyberdance the two Paladins. But what did it have to do with him?

“I’d like to write it off as a crackpot call, but I can’t. That’s where you come in.” Devlin picked up a tablet and read from his notes.

“According to this mystery woman, the caldera under Yellowstone is becoming increasingly unstable. Normally that wouldn’t concern us. The few stretches of barrier in that area are too small to be of much use to those on the other side. And we all know there’s nothing anyone can do if that pressure cooker decides to blow its top.”

Penn shifted restlessly. “Did you call me in here for a geology lesson?”

Devlin shot him a hard look. “I’m telling you all of this because this woman thinks that the instability isn’t natural. She’s apparently found evidence someone is screwing around with the caldera, trying to siphon off the geothermal energy.”

A sudden chill filled the room. “Siphoning it off to where?”

Devlin looked bleak. “Across the barrier. Her words, by the way, not mine.”

“Who the hell is this woman?”

“Good question—and that is why you’re here. You’re the only man I can spare to find out what the hell is going on. Go home, pack what you need for a few days, grab a few hours’ sleep, and then get your ass to Wyoming.”

He pulled out a stack of cash from a drawer and shoved it across the desk toward Penn. “I’d like to keep this off the books, which means no airline reservations, no charge cards. Right now I don’t trust anyone in the Regents enough to want them involved.”

Penn’s hand shook as he scooped up the money. Holy hell! A mission—a real honest-to-God mission that required a warrior’s skills. Other than providing backup when Hunter Fitzsimon had needed some help, Penn had done nothing for months except park his ass out in the alley while his friends fought and died—and then died again.

Being needed felt damn good. Being trusted to do the job right had him sitting up straighter and wishing he had stopped to clean up before reporting in.

Devlin tossed him the notepad. “You’re to drive to some town called Wolf Cave, check in to the only motel, and wait.”

“For what?” Penn asked as he read over Devlin’s barely legible scrawl.

Devlin looked purely disgusted. “I wish I knew, Penn. For both our sakes, I really wish I knew.”

Two days later, Penn stared into the small bathroom mirror and studied the face reflected there. Before setting off for Wyoming, he’d gotten a haircut and his beard trimmed. His scruffy look had been more than just his street persona disguise; it had provided him with a mask to hide behind while he nursed his wounds.

Leaning in closer to the mirror, he turned his face from one side to the other, studying the lines around his eyes and the ones that bracketed his mouth. Where had those come from? No longer able to do the work he’d trained for his entire life, there wasn’t much left of the man he used to be. He hardly recognized himself at all.

All this waiting wasn’t helping his mood at all. He left the bathroom and crossed his surprisingly comfortable motel room to flop down onto the upholstered chair wedged between the bed and the outside wall. The place offered cable, so at least he could watch sports until the call came. If it came. If this ended up being one giant hoax, Devlin wasn’t the only one who was going to be royally pissed.

As if his frustration conjured it up, the phone on the small bedside table started to ring. Finally, some action! He dove across the bed to snatch the receiver off the hook.

“Yeah?”

“Did Devlin Bane send you?” The woman’s voice sounded hesitant, as if she was having serious second thoughts about talking to him.

“Yeah,” he repeated. “Are you the one who called him?”

She didn’t answer the question. “Across the street from your motel is a diner. I’ll meet you there in fifteen minutes. Go in and sit at the booth in the back corner.”

“And if it’s taken?”

“If you hurry, it won’t be.”

The phone went dead, leaving Penn staring out the window just as a lone car drove by the door and out of the parking lot. Coincidence? No way to know, leaving him no choice but to hike over to the diner and wait. Just in case, though, he wrote down the plate number. If necessary, he’d sic D.J. or Cullen on it later.

He slipped on his jacket, more to hide his shoulder holster than because of the chill in the air. Though he might be walking into a trap, he doubted it. If someone wanted to take out a Paladin, Seattle or Missouri would’ve made a lot more sense than a remote town in Wyoming.

He stepped out into the darkness, pausing to look up at the night sky. There were far more stars scattered overhead than could be normally seen back home in Seattle. For some reason the small pinpoints of light brightened his mood. Reminding himself that the clock was ticking, he locked the door and headed for the neon lights across the road.

Previous: Acknowledgments
Next: Chapter 2