“My wife is dead.” His voice shook with barely controlled emotion. His eyes glistened. “She’s my light. She found me in the darkest time of my life and she saw something in me . . . She believed I could be a better man. I didn’t deserve her or the happiness we had. She loved me, Nevada. She loved me so much, in spite of my faults, and I was the luckiest man alive because when I opened my eyes in the morning, I saw her next to me. She had integrity. She was kind and intelligent, and she tried her hardest to do the right thing so this world would be a better place for our child to grow up in. She didn’t deserve this. She deserved to be happy. She deserved a full and long life. Nobody had the right to rob her of it.”

His face contorted with raw pain and grief. I was trying so hard not to cry. “I love her determination. I love her spirit. I’m proud to have been her husband. And now she’s dead. Someone took this wonderful—this truly beautiful—human being and turned her into a corpse. I saw her on the morgue table. She’s just . . . cold and lifeless as if she never was. Everything is gone except for our daughter and my memories. I have to strive to be the man she thought I was. When my daughter grows up, she’ll ask me why her mother was murdered and I’ll have to answer her. I have to account for my actions. I want to tell her that I found those responsible and I made sure they wouldn’t hurt anyone else.”

He brushed moisture from his eyes with a furious swipe of his hand. “Nobody else will do this. Her family doesn’t have the means, my family doesn’t care, and her employer might have murdered her. There is only me. Will you help me? Please.”

He fell silent. He was sitting here asking for my help and I couldn’t throw him out of my office. I just couldn’t. I remembered when Mom sold our house to pay for Dad’s bills. I remembered when we mortgaged the business and kept it from him, because it would’ve killed him faster than any disease. If someone I loved was murdered, I would do the same thing Cornelius did. He had nowhere to turn. If I slammed the door in his face now, I wouldn’t be able to look my reflection in the eye.

I reached into the top drawer of my desk and took out the blue new-client folder. I opened it so it faced him, placed it on the table, and wrote $50,000 in the margins on the front. “This is my retainer. This stays with the agency no matter what happens. It’s nonnegotiable.”

I used my pen to circle the bottom number on the right side. “These are our rates. This job is likely to be high-risk, so the top rate right here will apply. As you can see, it’s a daily and not hourly rate. Depending on the situation, I may have to charge you hazard pay or additional expenses. The retainer acts like a deductible. Once the amount billed to you exceeds it, you will make additional payments in installments of $10,000. After we’re done here, you may want to go to the bank and withdraw at least $20,000 in cash. We may have to bribe people . . .”

“Thank you.”

“This is a bad idea. Please reconsider.”

He shook his head. “No.”

I walked him through the privacy policy and had him sign all of the waivers. “What happens once we find whoever is responsible?”

“I’ll take care of things from there.”

“Meaning you’ll kill your wife’s murderer.”

“It’s the way Houses handle things,” Cornelius said.

“Well, I’m not a House. I’m a person with a family, and I respect and try to obey the laws of this country. I won’t hesitate to defend you or myself, but I won’t condone murder.”

“Understood,” Cornelius said. “How do we start?”

“I need to be able to speak to Matthias Forsberg. I need face-to-face time so I can ask him some questions. I can make the necessary calls tomorrow, but he’ll refuse to see me.”

“You don’t have the social status and you work for his competitor.” Cornelius nodded. “Matthias is an active participant in the Assembly. He never misses a session. Tomorrow happens to be December 15th. The session starts at 9:00 a.m.”

“I don’t have admission to the Assembly.” The Assembly was an unofficial executive body that governed the magic users at state and national levels. The Texas State Assembly met in Houston. A family had to have at least two Prime-caliber magic users in three generations to be considered a House and each House had a single seat. Technically the Assembly had no power within the US government, but, practically, when the Houses spoke in one collective voice, both Congress and the White House listened.

“A family name has to be good for something, right?”

Cornelius smiled. It never reached his eyes. They stayed bitter and haunted. “As a Significant and a scion of a House, I’m free to attend the Assembly and bring a companion of my choice. I intend to be an active participant in this investigation, Ms. Baylor.”

“Call me Nevada,” I told him. “Good. Then we’ll meet here tomorrow at seven.”