MERcURY OUT CoLD
Don’t worry. Dominic was smarter than to beam us right smack into a crowd of tourists at Christmas. One minute, we were in a cozy loft over downtown Rampart, Colorado. The next, we stood under a cluster of trees lining a long park stretching to the Eiffel Tower. Hundreds of white tents spread the entire length, cordoning a gleaming rectangle set aside for ice skaters. Everyone was too busy in their shopping and celebrating to notice us five materializing behind the dark backsides of those tents.
I gazed up at the swooping sculpture of lights. Now that was a Christmas present.
“Champ de Mars.” Dominic pulled his sleeves down under the Echo Watches. The silvery devices had pulled themselves back together, so they resembled antique bracelets, something an archaeologist would have unearthed.
“And here the farthest from home I’ve ever been is Florida,” Brandon murmured.
“Seriously?” I elbowed him. “What about our one and only team-up?”
“Okay, you’re right. San Camillo, before this.” Brandon buttoned his jacket. “And I didn’t even have to fly to either.”
“Mi pobre cabeza.” Ramos massaged his temples. “At least my stomach’s settled. If I’m going to enjoy a night out, I had better be able to enjoy the local cuisine.”
“This way, guys.” Dominic walked backwards, waving at us like he was an air traffic controller. “The restaurant’s a couple blocks over and up Rue de la Federation.”
“You a regular in France?” I caught up with him.
He grinned. “Sort of. My work for Procyon entails a lot of travel, looking for people with familiar faces.”
“And by familiar, you mean exact same faces as people from this dimension.”
“Mercury.” Teget took me by the arm, his expression way too grave for a guy about to party. “I am newly accustomed to your Procyon clan’s operations, but is it not inadvisable to speak of things which the layperson deems to be myth?”
“I’d second that ‘inadvisable’ part,” Brandon said. “Our secrets are important.”
“Good luck getting him to stopper that bottle,” Ramos muttered, his hands jammed into his pockets. “This is Mercury we’re talking about. What is his record, thirty seconds without speaking?”
“Here’s hoping he’s mute when he sleeps, or Loredana will never get any rest,” Dominic said.
Brandon and Ramos chuckled at that. Teget slapped me on the back, hard enough to blow air from my lungs, as he joined in their laughter. My cheeks burned. “Funny guys, really. How about you keep my fiancée out of this.”
“Easy. No offense meant.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I grinned back, but it was a phony one.
The others lapsed into conversations that wove around me. Ramos sidled up as I dropped back from the pack. “What’s bothering you?”
“What? Nothing. This is cool.” I tried on the grin again and spread my arms wide. “I mean, Paris, right?”
“Dominic touched a nerve.”
Ramos made that face that meant he didn’t believe me. Other people get a similar expression if they lick an onion. “Don’t bother faking. I know you. No witty comeback? Something he said stung. That bit about Loredana …”
“Let’s do therapy later.” I sniffed the air. “Hold up. That’s what I think it is. Sausage. Mozzarella. Dominic, you fiend—you found a French pizza joint!”
“Yes, I did.”
We walked right by it.
“Not cool,” I sighed.
“Ours is around the corner.”
Our entourage crossed a narrow intersection by a nice little café, hedged in by the world’s tiniest cars and most diverse collection of scooters. The buildings were all pasty except where red and green Christmas lights lent their glow; Dominic babbled to Brandon about who built what when, and to his credit, our Airfoil seemed fascinated.
My brain had switched over to hungry mode.
The green letters shining under lamps proclaimed “Restaurant Erawan” and the smells, man, the smells told me I’d love the Thai food inside.
Wasn’t long after we all crowded around a window table that we’d turned our full glasses of wine into half glasses. Laughter echoed around the spaces as Brandon bragged about tackling his latest bad guy. Bad lady, really.
“Flipped her car right over, midair.” He demonstrated with one hand, then angled his other hand in for a landing like it was a jet. “I wanted to make everyone back down, so I peeled the bottom off the car like a sardine can.”
Dominic whistled. Teget slapped the table so hard Ramos’ glass bounced. He caught it before it could douse his shirt in Merlot. “Property damage is your thing, isn’t it?”
“They don’t call him Air-foul for nothing,” I said, winking.
Dominic and Ramos dissolved into snorts and chuckles. Brandon’s cheeks reddened but he shook his head, a smirk curving his lips. “I’ve got better things to do than poke monster squids with a stick all night.”
Teget stood, his finger pointed at my face. “He has wounded you! Retaliate!”
“Easy, easy. It’s funny.” I wiped tears from the corner of my eyes and dragged him back into his seat. “Hey, I won’t be too hard on Airfoil, because everybody knows he’s got the coolest supersuit out of all of us.”
“Armored, too,” Brandon said.
“Whatever, flyboy. Pass me the mussels.”
The plate clattered among its neighbors. Two mussels, stuffed full of spices and meats and unidentified deliciousness that burned my mouth in a good way rose from one side, wobbled through the air, and skidded through the lamb sauce congealing on my plate.
Brandon had two fingers raised in my direction. His face was pinched in concentration, until the last one landed. Then he exhaled.
Ramos sipped his wine. “Convenient.”
“I’d show you how I can warm them up to the perfect temperature, but I don’t want to steal Airfoil’s thunder.” I rolled my eyes. “Maybe Dominic could teleport the food into his stomach?”
Dominic grimaced. “The Echo Watches don’t work that way, and I’m hesitant to try anything approaching Brandon’s level of fine control. Seems—messy.”
Teget tore a chunk of chicken off from the whole bird at our table. His teeth stripped meat from the bone. “In battle, mess can seldom be avoided. I doubt there were many complainers of our ‘mess’ when we routed the evil forces of the Whisperer and his minions before they could drown Mercury’s fair city.”
“Drop by the fair city’s City Hall some time and I’m sure the mayor could give you an earful,” Ramos murmured.
That brought another round of laughter from the guys, but my brain had wandered off, back to Dominic’s jibe. Not that he was wrong. I’d zonked out on the couch during one too many episodes of Dr. Who that I knew I did talk in my sleep. Loredana had elbowed me awake and relayed the conversation with glee.
But her getting rest? Well, I had no idea.
See, we hadn’t … Okay. We made the decision we wouldn’t … Was it hot in the restaurant? I sipped some more wine. Ahem. Let’s just say, I had no clue what Loredana’s bedtime routine was. Not firsthand.
Or anybody else’s, for that matter.
I twisted a napkin around my finger. Did that make me a weirdo? I think people assumed, what with how brash I was—that’s a Ramos word, “brash”—that I had experience. Guess what? Wrong.
My phone buzzed. Loredana. Her face smiled at me from the contact list, red eyebrow twitched up above a sapphire-blue eye. The text? <I hope you fellows have quite the time on Dominic’s whirlwind tour. Were he any more gleeful, one would have assumed I gave him carte blanche to design an entire city. I love you.>
A photo followed—Loredana up close, beaming, with three women in the background. A brunette, and two Black women, one with long, curly hair and the other with a shorter do. I recognized the latter as an employee of San Camillo’s chamber of commerce. The others? Seen them around, a few times. But Loredana was private with their names. Her life away from Procyon was hers. I was thankful to be part of it.
The phone trembled in my hand. I shoved it in my pocket. Did I say I was worried about the wedding? The ceremony itself didn’t worry me. Any dope could slap on a tuxedo and talk back to a preacher.
It was the wedding night that made me wish for an astral fiend’s attack.
“…Are you with us, Mercury?”
Teget, seated to my left, tapped on my plate. He tapped a little too hard and a mussel shell flew through the air, aiming for a blond woman’s head as she howled at her date’s joke.
The shell halted in midair, then dropped to the floor.
Brandon winked at us and raised his glass in salute.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m good.” I grinned. “What’s the plan, Dominic? I’m stuffed like a turkey on the wrong holiday. Back to town? Carlito’s, anyone?”
Ramos rolled his eyes but couldn’t get rid of his chuckle. Dominic leaned forward, his whisper so soft I thought he was gonna ask if I knew where the Ark of the Covenant was hidden. “How’s your Polish?”
“Um, I’d say I’m fluent in Google Translate.”
“Don’t eat another bite.” He shoved my plate away and stood up. “Gentlemen? This one’s on me.”
Cheers resounded from our table. Even Ramos raised his credit card with a flourish before stuffing it into his wallet. “As long as I don’t have to pick up the bill for the whole night,” Brandon said. “I’m on a budget.”
“Don’t cheap out on me yet.” I made a show of checking my watch. “We haven’t even hit the ten o’clock mark.”
“You try telling a teenager he can’t get a new computer because his and his colleagues went out for dinner in Paris.”
“That snotty secretary of yours?” I made a face. “Tell him to get his act together answering the phone first, and then he’ll earn it.”
“I am never taking parenting advice from you, ever.” Brandon shook his head.
It wasn’t until we piled out of the restaurant into the chilly air of late-night Paris that Dominic’s weird question stuck in my brain.
“Hang on a sec,” I said. “Polish?”
Dominic shook his cuffs loose. Echo Watches, here we come.
We materialized by a statue of John III Sobieski. That’s who Airfoil—er, Brandon—said the old dude in tarnished bronze was on the horse, who was also bronze.
Dominic led us in a dash across the Targ Drzewny—don’t ask about the pronunciation—and into a café-slash-nightclub called Klub Rozsada. The music was jazzy, loud, and reverberating off the walls. Whatever the old warehouse had been, some enterprising soul had converted it into a combination of coffee bar and dance hall. And when I say dance, I’m not talking about a strobe-lit grind-fest. I meant, dancing. Like swing and whatever else folks were fond of in the Twenties.
Ramos secured us a round table with leather couches not far from the coffee and way too close to the dancing. Brandon brought us over cups of a dark and minty concoction with major zing to it.
“Who’s got the toast?” He swirled his cup. “Because I’ve got to work this weekend and there’s no way I’ll be fit to serve the public if I’m glowering through clenched teeth.”
“City hall?” Ramos asked.
“Library. Same reputation, less pay.”
Ramos and he clinked cups.
“Let me get this, boys.” I raised my mug. “To the dream team—seriously, the best batch of heroes to kick astral fiends and whatever other crazy threats come barreling through this dimension and the next. Thanks for getting me out of a really lousy afternoon, and not making me pay for a plane ticket.”
That brought a shout of joy from Teget. We clanked our mugs and, after Ramos was done muttering about spilled coffee on his slacks, my brother embraced me. “Mercury, you are a true warrior and a credit to our bloodline. Our parents would be proud.”
Figures he would get all sappy when the vino had been too primo. I put on my best “Aw, shucks,” face and blinked a lot. “You’re great, too.”
He laughed and slapped my back, for what had to be the sixth time that night. Pretty sure I was gonna have a Teget-hand-sized bruise on my shoulder blade in the morning. Then he vanished into the packed crowds of people, all ages, twenties, thirties, ranging up to a few couples who looked they lived through World War II but moved with the skill of ballet students.
I slumped back onto the couch next to Ramos, my shoulder knocking his. I dug out my phone and texted back to Loredana, <Love you too. Have fun out there! Smooch from behind the old Iron Curtain.>
Ramos snorted. “Smooch? You’re practically married as it is.”
“Keep talking, Ramos. You know you’re having fun.”
“Like I said, I enjoy a night out like any other person.” He drank his coffee, arm over the back of the chair, jacket unbuttoned, same as a dozen other guys lounging around the place while couples and batches of ladies danced to a beat as bright as the lights festooning wrought iron railings along the balconies. I hadn’t noticed before—the entire upper floor was a series of balconies and catwalks, leading deeper into the former warehouse.
A lot of people up there. A lot of men, in dark suits. With their hands folded. Standing at attention. Watching. Listening.
Definitely not partying.
“You see them?” Ramos drank more coffee, but his eyes were locked on the balconies like lasers.
“Sure. Bodyguards for oil magnates or tech billionaires. Whoever wants to hang out in jolly Poland.” I glanced at my superhero pals. They were watching the catwalks, too, but once Dominic mentioned post-war construction techniques and Brandon questioned the historical accuracy of those techniques, I remembered they were first and foremost an architect and a librarian. As in, dorks.
“Sure. That sounds plausible.” Ramos swirl his cup. His cup, I noticed, was empty. Nothing to swirl. He sipped from it one more time. “I’m going to go to the bathroom.”
He was gone from the seat before I could grab his sleeve. “Hey! This is my party. Evening out. You’re not a cop here.”
“I’m a cop everywhere.”
“Um, except where you don’t have jurisdiction.”
“That’s true. But I can’t overlook things I see. No more than you can go anywhere without that.” He leaned in and tapped the side of my jacket. His fingertip clinked against metal.
Okay, he got me. Just like American Express. Good thing we didn’t have to sneak the pulsar stave past TSA. “Fair enough. But c’mon—let me send Teget to poke around. Teget’s a warrior and …”
Ramos smirked. “Wayward brother?”
“He is. Apparently.” I checked either end of our seats. Then behind us at the coffee bar. Heck, I even looked down by our feet. “Where’d he go? No portals around …”
Still wearing what had become a smile, Ramos pointed to the right.
Because Teget was in the middle of the dance floor, arms around a tall, black-haired woman with whom he—was that a waltz? A tango? A combination of the two, plus extra steps I’d never seen. Clearly something he’d learned on Meda. Not Earth standard.
“How about that.” I chuckled. “What do you guys think? Gonna see if you can find a match?”
Dominic’s eyes widened. “Wow. He’s good. But I’ll pass. Jess wouldn’t be pleased if someone tagged me on Facebook. And things have been tricky enough.”
I raised an eyebrow at Brandon.
“Don’t look at me.” He grinned. “I’ve got a girlfriend.”
“Well, Ramos, that leaves—”
Yeah, he was gone.
Great. “Hang on, fellas. I’ll be right back. Duty calls.”
I pushed through throngs of people. No sign of Ramos in the hall to the bathrooms. I checked around a couple corners, and when I craned my neck …
The guys on the balconies were letting a pack of suits and dresses into double doors. Once all were admitted, the doors closed.
Ramos sidled along the wall, in the shadows, until he reached a door that was recessed in an alcove. Potted plants as tall as a golden retriever blocked most of the view, but I saw enough to see that sneaky police lieutenant lean against the door. He found his phone and started talking into it. He laughed, shook his head, and launched into an entertaining story with whoever was on the other end.
Faker. No way that was really Ramos.
Then he opened the door and slipped inside.
“Wonderful,” I muttered.
Back at the table, a sweaty version of Teget—sans jacket and tie—flopped onto his seat. “Such an invigorating place! Training for the temple guards does not reach such—”
“Zip it.” I jerked a thumb. “Ramos is on to something. Like, criminal.”
Brandon was at my side first. Dominic sighed, set his coffee cup down, and straightened his tie. “Trouble?” he asked.
“I’d be disappointed if it wasn’t. C’mon, let’s check it out.” But before Brandon could get moving, I put a hand on his shoulder. “You hang back and pay the bill.”
“Because when we break stuff,” I said, stalking toward the stairwell, “I don’t want it tallied on our tab.”