Burning flesh created a smell unlike any other he’d ever experienced. Sickeningly sweet while at the same time sticky with death and pain. It was a stench he’d hoped to never come across and yet, over the last months, he’d gagged on it more than once.
The house burned, casting orangey yellow all across the street. Over the cars parked by people who’d simply wanted to slump inside their homes and relax until they had to return to work the following day.
The red of the fire truck would delight children any other time. But the fire made that shiny cheery red into something more sinister. Grime coated the faces of the firefighters who’d been working to put the fire out. But it didn’t hide the resolution that there was nothing else they could do to save those three who’d been caught inside and unable to escape.
“They had to have used an accelerant of some type.” Lark, who still favored the side she hadn’t been shot on, looked on, standing next to him. Her sister, Helena also watched.
This was supposed to be a visit to share information and new spells. And now they’d have to attend yet more funerals.
“They best goddamn back off in my town or there’ll be hell to pay.” Helena wasn’t scrappy and scary like Lark. But she had her own sort of strength and Gage believed the Hunter in charge of Gennessee’s security would indeed take out the murderous asshole humans who’d set a house on fire while the people living there had been locked inside.
People. Others. Witches to be exact. Five of them who shared the house and attended nearby UCLA. Three of whom had been home in bed when the place had been set on fire. Strategically. At the exits so the witches inside couldn’t escape.
The firefighters had tried. Two had been hurt when part of a landing collapsed as they’d valiantly attempted to get to the second story where the bedrooms were.
Impotent fury tightened Gage’s muscles so hard he had a headache. The stench of these young men’s death would live in his system for days, though he believed the memory of it would live far longer. Right next to the memory of how Edwina Owen, his former boss, had looked after she’d been shot just weeks before.
“I don’t know if there’s a peaceful way out of this now.” Helena’s hands, fisted, hung at her side. Rage pulsed from her in wave after wave. Her magick sparked from her body, even as Lark ran a hand up and down her sister’s back.
“I’m not sure there ever was.”
“So you understand, of course, that this . . . attention you’ve garnered of late is detrimental to the firm.”
Shafts of sunlight gleamed against the mahogany furniture in the room. Elegant. Chosen with extreme care.
Molly cocked her head, resisting the urge to lick her lips. Her hands were clasped on the tabletop before her. Her legs were crossed, back straight. They’d never know just how hard she had to work to hold herself together.
“I understand many things, Paul. This is our business, after all. And you know as well as I know, that things like this can be spun into positive attention.” Paul Weller was another named partner. Weak. She had little respect for any man who spent so much time being afraid.
Their business wasn’t for the weak. Or the scared. He was both. His family money and eye for design were the only reasons he was fit to sit at the table with her.
“You can’t honestly believe this will blow over.” Angelica Reynolds spoke from her place to Molly’s right. “I know things have been hard on you, but this is not going away. And it’s costing us money.”
Hard? How many people had died? How many of the ones left were losing everything else? Like Molly was right then. It took every bit of Molly’s control not to slap Angelica’s face. Now that was hard.
“I built this firm. I was the top earner here last year. And the year before, and the one before that too. The biggest clients are those I brought in. Whatever rabble might be making a fuss out there, this is my firm. I made it into what it is today.”
Aaron took a deep breath before he spoke. “No one disputes that. But Angelica is right. This isn’t blowing over. There have been riots in some cities. This morning Bright and Cleen called and they’re going to pull their campaign if you’re not fired. That makes four of our biggest clients all on the way out the door.”
The others at the table she could handle. But knowing Aaron Davidson wasn’t behind her—well, that was a blow.
“Because of you,” Angelica added.
She smiled sweetly at Angelica before turning her attention back to Aaron. “I think it would be best if you just spoke plainly. Otherwise this is a waste of my time.”
If she stayed remote and chilly, she might get through this. She couldn’t stop to think about the cost of putting herself in that place over and over again for the last month. Not then.
“We’ve prepared a generous severance package. Let’s call it a sabbatical to the public so it will appear you’ve left for personal reasons. After all, that’s not so very far from the truth, is it?” Aaron’s gaze skittered away for a moment and she successfully kept her lip from curling. Her muscles burned from holding herself together.
The nausea shifted to a cold, numb emptiness.
“You’re terminating me? A named partner in a firm you all know I built. Based on what?”
“You did not disclose your . . . nationality to us. This is a direct violation of your partnership agreement.” Paul stuttered the first part.
“My nationality is American. I was born here in Chicago, to my mother, who was also born here. In fact, my mother’s family has been here eight generations.”
Aaron sent a glare in Paul’s direction. “Of course you are. To put it bluntly, you’re in violation of several clauses in your contract. Your behavior has led to a stampede of our top clients. You’re costing us money each day you’re still on the letterhead.”
“My behavior. And how so?” They would say it. She would not simply crawl out of there and let them make her feel ashamed. This was bigotry plain and simple.
“You’re one of them and you never said! For god’s sake, you’re an abomination and you had no business thinking you’d be allowed to stay here with what you are!” Angelica’s face was red by the time she finished.
“Allowed? One of whom?”
“You’re a goddamned witch! How can we trust you now?”
“That is more than enough, Angelica.” Aaron’s mouth was in a hard line as he glared at the other woman.
Molly looked to Aaron. “More than enough? Please, Aaron, you can get mad that she says it, but by going along with this, you’re giving in to it. As far as I can see, you all think it but she’s the only one who has the guts to say it. As for your charge? My behavior has not changed. My behavior is to get up at five, exercise, come to work where I spend ten to twelve hours each day doing my job. And then I go home. There is nothing in my behavior that could be considered a violation of my agreement with the firm.” She could add some new things to that routine like funerals, being hassled by the cops, being outed by human supremacist groups. Good times.
Aaron heaved a sigh. “The negative attention you’ve garnered because of your . . . whatever you’d call it, status, identity, has impacted the bottom line of the firm.”
“To be clear, because of my genetics, something I’ve kept private because it was none of your business, is the reason I’m being fired. Or rather, because I did not give in to the blackmail of the hate group who finally outed me after stalking me,, my friends and family, I’m to be terminated from this firm. You’re firing me because of who I am. Which, by the way is who I was two weeks ago. Two months ago when you had me on your boat, a boat I remind you that you were able to buy after the success of a campaign I created.”
Aaron’s face colored. “You have been an integral part of this firm. I’ll be the first one to state that. I hate what they’ve done to you. I’m sorry for it. But this is business.”
The last three weeks had gone by in a sickening haze. She’d gotten that proverbial late night call, telling her the man she’d considered her father had simply disappeared and was presumed dead. Not only that, but his oldest daughter, Molly’s best friend, sister and the girl who’d taught Molly how to put on eyeliner, had also disappeared.
Worse, then came the insanity of the reaction from humans as the world of the Others had been exposed.
Little by little, everything she’d known and counted on to keep her anchored and safe had been stolen from her. Funerals were a weekly occurrence. The human-only hate groups had begun to agitate and turn the fear the humans had into rage. Her clients, people she’d known and worked with for years had begun to ease away. There’d been write-in campaigns to get her fired. Her work suffered. Her home had been vandalized multiple times. Several of her neighbors had put up anti-Other signs in their yards and would ignore her, or worse, call her names as she left for work each day.
Work at the public relations firm she had built with Aaron was the one thing she’d counted on, even as her clients had turned skittish in the previous weeks.
That internal wall she’d built inside began to crumble and she saw clearly for the first time in a very long time.
“Business? Your giving in to bigots who’d be siccing dogs on small children for daring to use the whites-only drinking fountain is just business?”
“It’s not the same.” But Aaron didn’t hold her gaze.
“It is the same. Just because you want to be able to celebrate your bigotry and call it something else doesn’t mean anyone with an actual brain should allow you to do it. If you’re ballsy enough to do it, be ballsy enough to call it what it is. Own it like an adult, but don’t expect me to shuffle off in shame because I’m not the one who should be ashamed. You all should be. I have done nothing wrong. In fact, of all of us sitting here at this table, as we’re talking business and all, I’m the one who pays the bills. I’m the one who brings in clients.”
Paul didn’t meet her gaze. “This is uncomfortable for us all. I don’t see why we can’t remain civil.”
“I’m sure you don’t consider the fact that you’re firing me because I’m a witch to be uncivil. But I do. And as such, I only give respect where it’s due. And none of you deserve it.”
“Don’t you at least want to see the details of your severance? We’re trying to take care of you. Even in these difficult times.” Aaron pushed a piece of paper at her.
“You’re not trying to take care of me. You’re trying to cast me off because of my genetics. This is not acceptable. You know this, Aaron. Even if Angelica is too greedy and stupid, you know this. Even Paul knows this.”
Molly didn’t touch the paper but she saw the figures on the first page. Enough money to get her through the next year or so. Help her start her own firm, or relocate. Still, it was money to shut her up after they cast her out.
But the walls were down and all she felt was anger. No, it was past anger now. She was into rage territory and she was seeing things very clearly.
“You should send these to my attorney. He’ll be in touch later this morning.” She stood, brushing her skirt to rid herself of the wrinkles. She’d never let them know how hurt she was. She was better than every single person in that room. And she’d never let them forget it.
Aaron attempted a charming frown. “You can’t mean to fight this. It’ll only bring more negative attention to the firm.”
He was quite fortunate she didn’t go with her instinct to slap his face for that. “You’re truly going to sit there—in a chair I chose—and tell me I should accept your bigotry like a good little second-class citizen to save you embarrassment? You’re out of your mind.”
“Be reasonable, Molly. You built this, as you’ve said. Would you really tear it down? For what?”
“For what?” She blinked at him, so incredulous it was a wonder she didn’t start laughing hysterically. She felt her power deep in her belly and panicked a moment that she’d do something she didn’t plan. That would be very bad.
So, instead of going all Carrie on them and setting the place on fire, she took a deep breath and centered herself, just as Rosa had taught her all those years ago. Once she’d gotten her power under control again, she squared her shoulders and glared. “I’m defending myself against a completely unwarranted attack on my person. And for what? Because I’m a witch? What if I had brown skin? Or my religion was different? That’s not acceptable so why should this be? And why on Earth would I stand for it? Do you think I built this place so small-minded hatemongers could simply shove me out and reap my profits? You have another thing coming if you believe I’d simply pack my office up and go quietly.”
She’d been utterly and completely numb for weeks. Now she was awake and they’d better run.
The bitterness and hate rolled off Angelica in waves. “You can’t win and you know it. Now that we know about you and your kind, we’ll make sure you can’t.”
Molly smiled at Angelica and then over to Aaron. “See? Just business.”
Molly wouldn’t give anyone the pleasure of rushing away. She turned her back on that sorry trio and walked to her office on shaky legs.
Her assistant was waiting for her there, her features expectant, then falling when she caught sight of Molly’s demeanor.
“Is it true? Oh my god, it is.” Paige threw her hands up as she began to mutter and pace. “Those assholes!”
Well, this was at least better than the last reception she got so Molly eased into her chair to watch her assistant of five years pace and bitch about the other partners.
Molly needed to be doing something. Anything. She grabbed her phone. “I need to call Jim. Keep the bad words to a minimum.” Paige snorted as Molly dialed her attorney’s office and was put right though.
She laid the entire story out for him as Paige plopped into a nearby chair and gawked.
He asked a few questions as they went and when it was all over he sighed. “You’re the third client this month who’s been terminated for their status.”
She knew it had been happening nationwide to lots of Others. Rosa, her foster mother, still reeling from the death of a child and her husband, had been asked to retire early from her job teaching middle school. Though asked was a nice term for the pressure they laid on her to get out. Molly’s biological mother, a human, had been harassed by groups of students under the flag of PURITY. PURITY who proclaimed to be about love and safety all while digging through trash and turning people’s lives upside down by outing them they way they had with Molly. They even had a television show and a nationally syndicated column called Know Your Enemy where they published lists of names of Others They may as well be wearing white sheets, it was the same thing.
“This is a gray area, but I’m working on it with some other civil rights attorneys across the country. I’ll get something to Aaron by day’s end. Do you . . . are you sure you even want to stay?”
“How can I let them get away with this? If I walk away, I’m saying it’s all right!” She knew really that she didn’t want to work with any of these people ever again. But there were principles at work here. And this was her business, damn it.
“I can get more money out of them to get you out the door. I can probably work it so they have to use a different name. As part of your separation agreement. Even if I win, and I don’t know if I can, do you want to be there with them?” He paused, she knew, looking for the right words. “I’m sorry. You’ve suffered a lot over the last several weeks. I just want you to know that no matter your choice here, I’m on your side.”
She heaved a sigh and fought back nausea. She wanted to go home and hide under the covers. Wanted to pretend the sickness of heart and soul hadn’t beaten her down.
“Take some time. You don’t have to make a decision right this moment.”
“Time.” She snorted. “Why should I have to? They’re trying to push me out for something that is unacceptable. Like I’ve committed a crime or something.”
“You haven’t done anything wrong, Molly. You know it and so do they. I’ll fight for you as hard as I can. But you also know you’re not going to have anything to do but ruminate over this over and over until you make yourself even sicker. Just get out of there a while and make it about yourself. Let me do the obsessing, okay? It’s my job.”
Molly blinked back tears of frustration. “I don’t have much to do here today. My clients, the biggest ones, have fired me.”
That cut deep. Some of them had cloaked it in a bunch of talk about how they couldn’t afford the controversy in this economic and political climate. This after she’d saved them more than once. These were people who she’d had dinner with, had spent time in their homes.
“Go home. I’ll have something messengered over to your place in an hour or so. I’ll lay out all your options and you can think them over. I’ll keep you updated.”
She hung up and looked to Paige, whose anger soothed some of Molly’s agitation.
“This is dumb. They can’t do this. Who freaking cares if you’re a witch or not? What does it have to do with how you do your job?”
Molly picked up an award statuette. She’d won it only three months before. Three months before when the world was different. She slid it into the large tote next to her desk.
“Fair or not, it’s happening all over the place.” She grabbed some of the photographs from the credenza. A shot of Molly with her foster family, her magickal family, she supposed, at her college graduation. One of her with her biological mother and her maternal grandparents when she’d accepted an award a few years back. Memories of a different world. She placed them in the tote.
“Are you really going to let them do this? None of these dicks would even have a place to work if it weren’t for you.”
“It makes me sad to think they’re going to drive this firm into the ground. All for what? My witch cooties? They can’t catch it, for heaven’s sake.”
“It’s Angelica. She’s been agitating everyone with every single newspaper article and Internet thing she can find. It’s like that nightmare where your sister-in-law sends you mass forwards filled with things a simple visit to snopes.com could tell her were fakes.”
“I’m sure she’s a card-carrying member of PURITY. But that doesn’t matter. Aaron is with her. As is Paul. That’s three of four partners.” She realized they could, and would, be able to terminate her contract. The knowledge was awful and unbearably sad. A whole part of her life was being taken away from her.
Sad or not, she sure wasn’t going to go down without a fight. Or a financial settlement that was far more representative of her value to the firm. She’d start over if she had to, but she’d do it with the money she earned. And they’d have to change the firm’s name.
Still, Paige wasn’t as fortunate to have all the options Molly did. “Look, I can probably work on Aaron’s sense of duty and get you on with one of the others. We approved a new-hire slot just a few weeks ago. You’re terrific and they’ll need you after I leave.”
“You’re not going to let them run you out of town like a criminal, Molly. I’m not going to let you. Hell, you can get your stakes back and start a new firm, this one working for Others. I’ll happily work for you there.”
Molly paused, resting her hip on the desk and thought about that idea.
“Oh, girl. I can see you’re taking that seriously.” Paige sat nearby. “Want me to take some notes? Call some people? We can work out of your place for a while until we get a new office.”
She smiled at Paige, who was also six months pregnant and couldn’t afford to jump ship and risk losing her insurance and the healthy retirement plan she’d begun to build.
“Even if I did that, you’re not in any position to up and leave this job. You need the benefits. For the baby and for Mark too.” Paige’s husband had been laid off from his job four months before and had been looking for a new one ever since. He had some health problems, which made any risky moves by Paige even more precarious.
“You can’t possibly think I’d choose this place without you in it. After the way they’re dumping you? My parents raised me right.”
“Yes, they did. And I appreciate the solidarity. More than you can know. But, Paige, you’re pregnant. Your husband is unemployed. I can’t offer you health care, even if I did start a new firm. Hang on until you have the baby and you’ve used your leave and all that stuff. By then, well, at the very least I can get you on somewhere else.
Pragmatism was something she couldn’t get around. Molly shrugged. “It isn’t right. Not at all. I’m going to fight it, but in the end, I don’t think it’s going to make a difference. Oh, I’ll get more money from them probably, but they won’t have to keep me. And they won’t. Right now, all across the country Others are in a gray area legally. And there are plenty of people who will use that.”
Paige’s pretty face fell as she accepted it. “This is dumb. I hate them.”
Molly laughed without humor. “Yeah, me too. Now, I’m going to take some of this stuff home. But before that, let’s go to a late breakfast. You have my permission to take the rest of the day off.”
When she and Paige came around the corner, Aaron was waiting for her at the elevators.
“You going to check my bag to make sure I’m not stealing pens?”
“Give me a break, Mol.”
“Don’t.” She held her hand up. “You don’t get to call me that. I’m leaving for the day. I have the vacation for it. But I’m not quitting, or saying I’m going on sabbatical. That’s not going to happen.”
“Why don’t you and I go to lunch and talk? Away from here.”
The audacity! “If you’d really wanted that, you wouldn’t have ambushed me here. You’d have spoken to me in advance.”
“It was in the conjecture stage. And then Bright and Cleen called. I’m sorry.” His gaze skated to Paige, hindered by her presence to say anything else.
The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. She moved to walk past and he grabbed her arm. “Molly, please. Be reasonable. You can’t just end a ten-year friendship. I had to make a difficult choice. You should understand that.”
“I don’t understand it at all. I don’t understand you and I will grieve, along with a boatload of other things, that you cared so little about our friendship and this firm that you’d give in to this absurd demand. It’s terrorism, Aaron, and you know it. You do this for them and what will they ask next? Who else might not be . . . enough for them? Hm? Talk about slippery slopes.”
She yanked her arm back.
“My attorney will be contacting you by day’s end.” She let the doors slide closed.