Damsel Under Stress (Enchanted, Inc. #3)


“She does? How did you find out?”

“I caught the brownie last night while she was cleaning my room. I guess she usually uses an illusion to keep people from seeing her at work. She gave me permission to tell you because I said it would make you feel better, but you can’t let on to Gloria that you know.”

“It does make me feel better. I wonder how long she’s had help.”

“Since you were little, from the sound of it.”

In the front seat, the two gargoyles started singing Christmas carols with great enthusiasm, if very little talent. Rocky might have been one of the few beings in the universe with a worse sense of pitch than I had, and Rollo’s attempts at harmony didn’t work, but their joy was infectious. Before I knew what I was doing, I was singing along, my terrible voice fitting right in. When Owen grinned and joined the chorus, his ability to carry a tune made him seem to be the one out of place.

Soon, the singing had to stop because we’d reached the edges of the city proper and Rocky had to use his voice for shouting instructions to Rollo. Traffic was light on Christmas day, but this was New York, so “light” was a relative term. “Okay, start easing off the gas,” Rocky instructed. “Brake. Inch forward a bit—a little more—not that much. Green light! Go! Go! Go! Wait a second, brake! BRAAAAAAAAAKE!”

I squeezed my eyes shut and turned my head because the rear of the truck in front of us was a little too close for comfort. When I didn’t feel a jolt or hear the screaming of tearing metal, I cautiously opened my eyes, only to close them again. I’d have been a little unnerved at driving myself in city traffic, but being a passenger in these circumstances was almost enough to make me want to get out and walk the rest of the way. The only thing keeping me from it was the fact that this was an unfamiliar neighborhood. It was also pretty cold outside.

It only got worse as we made it into Manhattan proper, where driving down Broadway can be stop-and-go at the best of times. I had a feeling I’d be hearing, “A bit more, no, brake! Go! BRAAAAAKE!” in my nightmares for the next few nights. Other cars had an uncanny way of swerving out of our path, so we made remarkably good time. Finally, the car screeched to a halt in the middle of Times Square, with one wheel up on a curb just inches from a lamppost.

“Okay, folks, here we are,” Rocky announced as Rollo climbed up onto the driver’s seat behind him. “And Sam’s nowhere to be seen, so it looks like we win.” He and Rollo started a victory dance. “We rocked and we rolled, we’re Rock and Roll,” they chanted.

“Guess again, boys,” Sam said as he landed on the hood of the car. “Now, come on. You’ve got to see this.”

Owen opened the car door and climbed out. I followed him. Merlin was already standing in the traffic island, looking up. As soon as I looked around and got my bearings, I realized why we’d been called back to New York. “Holy crap,” I said under my breath.

My voice must not have been as soft as I’d thought, for Merlin turned to me. “I take it you see it, too. And that would mean it’s real, not illusion.”

“Yeah, it’s real, all right.”

All the brightly lit, giant billboards in Times Square were a glaring tribute to one Phelan Idris and his company, Spellworks. One billboard urged people to “Spell Different,” and I doubted we were part of a spelling bee. “Not very original, though,” I commented. “He’s reusing an old Apple slogan that wasn’t that great to begin with.” Another billboard said, “Do magic your way.” There were images of stodgy, gray conformists in suits being bested or shocked by colorful radicals.

“Now we know what he was up to,” Owen said, staring up at the billboards.

“I’m assuming these ads are veiled to the rest of the world,” I said. “Maybe the spell is filtered to target only people with magical ability?”

“That’s probably it,” Owen agreed. “He’s definitely making a splash in a big way, and it appears to be that he’s attempting to legitimize his company among the general magical population. No more photocopied spell instructions sold in hole-in-the-wall shops.”

“I’m afraid the implications are bigger than that,” I said, a sense of gloom filling me as the realization dawned on me. “Do you know how much this kind of thing costs? These ads are really physically here, which means he had to buy the ad space, and that costs millions. He’s bound to have the space for at least a week because New Year’s Eve is a prime high-traffic time here. And this probably isn’t his only advertising. You wallpaper Times Square to make a splash, but you also have to follow it up with ads that everyone else will see. Odds are, this little display is for our benefit so we’ll know he’s gunning for us.”