It was a bad day from the beginning.
It started when I got to work and my boss elected not to show up. He usually wandered in late, sometime around nine-thirty or ten, and at first I thought he was just a little later than usual. By eleven-thirty, though, I was forced to acknowledge that he probably wasn’t coming at all.
That wasn’t terribly unusual‒but usually he would have called me.
Worse, I’d just spent the past three hours trying to get an antique radio to work again only to discover that nothing I could do was ever going to fix it. Somebody had apparently decided to remove several of the more important components. There was no way it was going to function without having at least three or four parts replaced, the cost of which was likely to be prohibitive.
Most places I would have immediately assumed that the owner had been conned and started feeling sorry for them. Unfortunately, Val’s reputation‒and his willingness to take on any job, no matter how strange‒inevitably attracted jokers who thought that giving us a truly impossible task was a wonderful prank.
It was a professional hazard, and a relatively minor one at that. You get used to it after a couple years. Honestly, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me at all except that I’d not only spent hours of work pointlessly, Val would almost certainly have known within a few minutes that it was junk. He’s been doing this a lot longer than me.
So by around noon I was annoyed, frustrated, and had a lovely headache building. Just when I’d decided to ignore the stupid radio for the moment and let Val figure out what to do about it‒teach him to ditch work‒somebody started pounding on the front door.
I went to answer the door. The shop proper, a large if crowded old garage, was separate from the reception area. I was expecting it to be a customer, and I’d already plastered my hi-how-can-I-help-you smile over the scowl that was more in fitting with my mood when I opened the door to the front room.
I’m not very good at that, so it was probably a good thing that it wasn’t a new customer. Fortunately for me Kyra was an old friend, and she knew me well enough that she wasn’t likely to be put off by my mood unless and until it progressed to actively homicidal. In which case odds were good she’d offer to help.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?” I asked curiously. Kyra was a waitress at a local bar catering primarily to the nonhumans of the area. I’ve never actually figured out her schedule‒personally I suspect that the staff at Pryce’s changed the needlessly convoluted schedule on a regular basis, just to screw with my head. Although I suppose it’s possible that I’m taking the whole thing a little bit personally.
“Nah,” Kyra said, shaking her head as she wandered around pretending that she was interested in the antique magazines on the tables. She and I both have…issues with social interaction. By which I mean that I have zero social skills and she has serious psychological problems. “Monday’s my day off.”
I frowned. “I thought that you had Thursday off.”
“C’mon, Winter. I’ve told you this a dozen times, I swear. That’s only on even-numbered weeks. Except in February, then I have both of them off but I work an extra shift on Sunday.”
I believe I’ve made my point.
“So you came to visit me? I’m touched.”
She snorted. “Don’t flatter yourself. I have a job for you.” She pulled a much-folded sheet of paper out of her back pocket and handed it to me.
I took it and looked it over. It was a bit hard to read‒Kyra isn’t a doctor, but you’d never guess it from her writing. Eventually, though, I figured it out. Then I read the whole thing again trying to figure out where I’d gone wrong.
“You want fifteen tables?” I asked incredulously, looking up from the paper.
“That’s right,” Kyra said. Her blue eyes were bright, sparkling with mischief.
“And, ah,” I said glancing back at the paper, “sixty chairs?”
“Or thereabout,” she confirmed, nodding happily. “I’m looking for a variety of sizes on the tables, but seating an average of four or so.”
I pursed my lips. “That’s a rather large order.”
“Well sure,” she said. “But I don’t need them until the end of March. It’s just now January. That gives you plenty of time.”
“Yeah,” I said dryly. “But I think you’re kinda missing the point here. I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but what the hell are you buying fifteen tables for?”
“I’m opening my own restaurant,” she said.
I blinked. Then I looked at her face to try and figure out if this was some elaborate prank. She was smiling, the expression fiercely proud and yet at the same time somehow uncertain, as if she still couldn’t quite believe it herself.
“How’d you get your hands on that kind of money?” I demanded. Kyra’s job pays, as a general rule, even less than mine. And I’m not exactly swimming in cash.
“Well,” she qualified, “It’s not exactly mine. The pack is bankrolling it, and their corporation is going to be the one who technically owns the place. But I’m going to be running it.”
The pack she was talking about was the werewolf pack. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that Kyra was a werewolf? Sorry. Once you spend a certain amount of time dealing with the supernatural you start to think of that sort of thing as being…not unimportant, exactly, but certainly not the only important part of their character. So you don’t think of people as being first and foremost a species. It would be like thinking of your friends primarily in terms of their racial origins. Which some people actually do, but never mind that.
“That’s…good news?” I hazarded. Kyra’s relations with the rest of the pack aren’t exactly the best in the world.
“It’s better than working as a waitress for the rest of my life,” she said acerbically. “Now, you know more than I do about what’ll work for the tables‒at least I hope you do‒so I won’t tell you how to do that. But I would like‒”
At that point her phone started ringing. She looked at me apologetically, then pulled it out and answered it. And it was at that point that my day went from a moderately unpleasant but basically unremarkable day at work to…something significantly worse. Because the person on the other end was Enrico.
I met Enrico a couple years before I met Kyra. He’s a cop, but that didn’t really have much to do with our relationship until a couple months ago. Both of us wound up being involved in a series of murders (which of us dragged the other one into it is open to interpretation), and in the course of events he wound up learning about the existence of werewolves. So far I’d been dodging the ramifications of that, but I wasn’t kidding myself that the situation would last.
“Kyra,” Enrico said politely. “I don’t suppose you know where Winter is?” I heard him, of course. A cell phone is not a good way to have a private conversation around anything with preternaturally keen ears. And, while my senses aren’t quite as acute as a full-blooded werewolf’s, a cell phone conversation is child’s play.
Kyra looked at me and quirked one eyebrow, a faint smile hovering around the corner of her lips. I nodded slightly, and she said, “Actually, he’s standing right here. Did you want to talk to him?”
“I don’t think I need to, considering that I’m sure he can hear it anyway.” Enrico’s voice held only a trace of amusement. “Could he‒actually, both of you‒come look at this for me? I know he doesn’t like to deal with the police, but this mess reminds me of this autumn….”
Kyra glanced at me again, any trace of amusement in her eyes replaced with worry. I nodded again, and she told Enrico that we would be there. He rattled off an address, which I didn’t bother listening to. It wasn’t like I was going to be driving. Kyra was the one with a car.
I went ahead and locked the shop door, then turned the sign to CLOSED and locked the front door behind us. I wasn’t particularly worried about theft‒there aren’t very many people desperate enough to rob a repair shop, and even if somebody did odds were good that between us Val and I could track them down. And odds were even better that they would regret it immensely. It never hurts to be careful, though. That’s my motto.
Admittedly I am better at making up mottos for myself than sticking to them. But it’s the thought that counts, right?
“This can’t be a coincidence,” Kyra said about a minute after we got in her car.
She waved one hand vaguely. “The address. It can’t be coincidence.”
“Oh. I wasn’t listening. Where are we going, anyway?”
She gave me an exasperated look. “I don’t know the place specifically, but it’s not more than three blocks from the pack’s main office.”
I considered that for a moment. “You know, I think maybe that isn’t a coincidence. Especially what with the murders this autumn being a setup designed to get at the pack.”
She didn’t look away from the road, but I could see her roll her eyes at that. “Gee. I wonder.”
Kyra and I both tend to react to stressful situations in weird ways. She acts tough and pretends it doesn’t matter to her. I…actually I’m not sure how to describe how I react. It varies a lot, but it generally involves inappropriate and badly timed jokes. This would be more pleasant for everyone involved if my sense of humor wasn’t maladjusted.
Unlike most of the crime scenes I’d seen, the police had clearly found this one first. There was a squad car out front, and I was pretty sure all three of the other vehicles in the lot were unmarked police cars. The building was a little bakery, just close enough to downtown that it probably did good business weekdays. I thought I might have been in it once or twice before‒I don’t make it to that part of town often, but I like sugary baked things. If I’d seen it I would have gone to check it out.
Enrico was waiting for us just outside the door. As usual, he looked nothing like a cop‒I’m not entirely sure if he even owns a uniform. He was wearing his respectable face today, and passerby could easily have mistaken him for the building’s owner. He was glancing around nervously as we pulled up, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
What the hell? I’d never seen him this edgy before. Even when he’d first seen Kyra transform, and had almost certainly been afraid for his life as a result, he hadn’t seemed this overtly anxious.
Whatever he was feeling, though, it didn’t show in his voice. “Winter,” he said, sounding as casually cheery as always. “Kyra. Can’t believe you’re still driving that hunk of junk. How do you keep it running?”
“Whenever it looks like it’s trying to die on me, I take one part and execute it as an example to the others.” Kyra wasn’t as good as Enrico. Her words were lighthearted, but something in her voice betrayed an underlying tension.
“Sounds like an effective method,” Enrico said seriously. He glanced at me. “You ready?”
“Not at all,” I said cheerfully. “Let’s do it.”
I followed Enrico up to the door of the bakery. At his signal I stopped a ways back, while he went inside and exchanged a few words with the uniformed cop just inside the door. I couldn’t hear what they were saying‒my hearing is good, better than human, but not that good.
After a few seconds he turned and beckoned at me through the glass. I shrugged at Kyra and walked up. It felt just like old times; open the door, smell blood wafting out, make sure you don’t show a reaction to it. Not that different from what any other person in such a situation might do. Although I’m pretty sure most of them would be trying to conceal nausea rather than hunger.
I glanced around on the way in. I’d been in any number of crime scenes before, but this was the first time I’d done it legally. There were a number of police officers standing around, much like you’d expect, although somewhat to my disappointment they didn’t seem to be doing anything more exciting than standing around talking in hushed voices.
I guess I should know better, but somehow it’s always a letdown when you get a glimpse of something that people tend to think is dramatic and it turns out to be all boring and mundane. Happens all the time, believe me. You have to keep in mind that as exciting and dramatic as something sounds to you, odds are good it gets stale quick when you’re doing it professionally.
For once the victim wasn’t hard to find at all. He was lying in a pool of blood on the floor right in front of the counter. More blood was spattered liberally around the room. It was…a lot fresher than I would have expected. The blood was still bright crimson, and hadn’t even really started to dry yet.
I won’t bother describing the corpse for you. You can probably imagine it just fine, and if not you don’t want to know. Let’s just say that the family would very definitely not be having an open casket.
I glanced at Kyra, who nodded slightly. She stalked closer, trying not to make it obvious that she was looking for a scent. She didn’t do an especially good job‒I mean, she wasn’t like snuffling the floor or anything, but anyone who knew what to look for would see what she was doing right away. Fortunately the other cops weren’t people who knew what to look for.
I did more or less the same thing, albeit in a less literal sense. I wandered around the room, looking at the scene and pretending I knew what to look for. The room was a bit damaged, but not too bad; just a few chairs broken, one table overturned. I could have been mistaken, but I was pretty sure there hadn’t been much of a fight here.
As I was walking I encountered…something.
I’m not going to go into my heritage. It would take a while to detail, and the story is both icky and embarrassing for everyone concerned. Suffice to say that my mother was a werewolf, my father was some sort of supernatural beastie, and I only superficially resemble a human. Most of the time it’s nothing but some minor awkwardness, but I did inherit a handful of useful abilities. One of them is being able to sense magic. It’s an unusual gift which, the vast majority of the time, is absolutely useless.
This was one of the other times. As I wandered around the room I caught a definite whiff of magic, which for reasons unknown and possibly unknowable my mind interprets as physical scents. It stung, the way it sometimes burns your nostrils when you go out on a really cold day and inhale through your nose.
That was all fairly normal. That’s how I perceive magic, generally. At the moment I wanted more information, so I lingered and tried to look reasonably normal while I brought it into better focus.
Have you ever been out some night, away from the city lights, and realized that your hearing was working way better than it really ought to? If not, don’t worry; most of the time it’s not exactly fun. This may surprise you, but wandering alone in the forest at night is actually really freaking creepy.
Anyway, the point is that you’re not actually hearing more acutely. It’s more a matter of your mind focusing on the things you hear, because your eyesight isn’t working as well. Like Daredevil, but less permanent. The cool part is that, if you concentrate, you can do the same thing intentionally. Even if you’re talking about weird magic senses instead of hearing.
I’d been practicing lately, and it only took me about fifteen seconds to tighten my focus enough to get some more detailed information. The magic smelled a bit like black pepper, with undertones that were delicate and intertwined enough that I didn’t even try to sort them out, much less map them to the closest mundane equivalent. It didn’t especially matter anyway. I took just long enough to get a vague idea of what I was smelling, then turned my attention back to the rest of the room.
None of the cops seemed to have noticed anything funny about my actions. Enrico had, and was watching me intently, his face a blandly disinterested mask so good I couldn’t even guess what he was thinking. Kyra was looking vaguely in my direction and trying to look bored, with reasonably good results. When she noticed that I was paying attention she met my eye and shook her head very slightly.
She hadn’t been able to get a scent. No surprise there; I’d been expecting it since I first noticed the smell of magic.
Then, almost by accident, I actually saw something while I was wandering around. It was hard to notice against the background of blood splattered around the room, but some of it was clearly not random. The paw print on the tile floor, for example, almost certainly hadn’t happened by chance.
I am not an expert tracker, and much of what I do know revolves around scent tracking. You didn’t have to be particularly knowledgeable, however, to recognize it as a canine track‒and an exceptionally large one. With a little bit more knowledge you might well recognize it as a werewolf print.
You know what the problem is with telling yourself that things could be worse? It never takes the world long to congratulate you on your insight by proving you right.
Kyra, Enrico and I left shortly after that. I wasn’t entirely sure how many of the police officers had really even noted our presence; certainly none of them tried to speak to us.
“So why didn’t you call me directly?” I asked quietly as we loitered around a short distance from the bakery. It had been bugging me for a while, but this was the first opportunity I’d seen to ask without running the risk of being overheard.
Enrico gave me a weird look. “I did. No answer.”
I frowned. “Really?” I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and checked it. “Huh. No battery.” I shrugged. “Happens to everyone, I suppose.”
“Yeah, well. You see what I mean about last autumn?”
“Yep.” Back in August, a handful of werewolves led by a demonically possessed wolf of remarkable insanity had gone on a relatively brief but memorable killing spree. It ended up with them having killed eight people directly that I knew of, and caused the deaths of at least another five or ten. Enrico had seen a few of the bodies involved, which had been rather…messy. Not as bad as this one, but messy.
“So was it the same killer?” he asked quietly.
Kyra snorted. “Definitely not.”
“You sure of that?”
“Absolutely,” I said firmly. “Come on, Enrico. What’s the problem?”
He sighed. “We never got a decent answer to what was going on there. So, when this came up, everybody just assumed it was related.”
I frowned. “But it doesn’t match the pattern at all. I mean, the moon won’t be full again for three weeks. And that was fresh, which means it happened during the daytime.”
Enrico shrugged. “It’s close enough.” He hesitated for a long moment. “Look, Winter. I know you’ve had your reasons for not talking to me. And hell, maybe they’re good ones, I don’t know. But I really think it’s about time you tell me what’s been going on for the last few months.” He gestured vaguely back toward the bakery. “There’s people dying here, man.”
I glanced at Kyra, who provided exactly no support. She’d produced a candy bar from somewhere, and was munching on it. And smirking at me. It wasn’t quite popcorn, but the intent was still pretty clear. No help coming from that quarter.
“Nothing you could have done about it,” I said to Enrico.
“Maybe not,” he acknowledged. “There’s plenty of things I can’t fix. But I can’t really know that unless I have some idea what’s going on. Can I.”
I sighed. “I guess not.” I paused, then relented. “I’ll tell you if you really want me to. But,” I said, holding up my hand to forestall anything he might have said, “you have to understand something. Once you learn about this stuff…there’s no going back, you know? You can’t just walk away from it, ever. It doesn’t matter how bad it gets.”
He considered that for a moment, and I could tell he was taking me seriously. “I think that’s true of everything, though, you know? Everything you learn changes you, and once you know something you can’t just get rid of it. Even if you could, you wouldn’t be you anymore, you know what I mean?”
“I guess so. You’re sure then?”
He nodded firmly.
“Great. I’ll call you when I have a chance to talk about it‒it might take a while.”
He hesitated, then nodded again. “Just as well, I suppose. I need to get back to work.” He walked back toward his car, one of the unmarked ones in the lot.
We watched him go, then Kyra murmured, “What are you in such a hurry about?”
I glanced at her. “Oh, I thought you might like to go have a chat with the fellow who did that.” I jerked my head slightly toward the bakery.
“Yeah, that sounds great, but in case you’ve forgotten I couldn’t get a scent.”
“I know,” I said, nodding. “Somebody laid down a pretty neat spell in there. Did up an illusion to mask the scent. I think there was something supposed to block any attempt to trace them with magic too.”
“Damn,” she muttered. “It’s like Garrett all over again.” Garrett had been the insane, demonically possessed werewolf in August.
“Actually,” I said, “not quite. We’ll probably never know quite how Garrett kept you from tracking him by scent. Whatever he did, it was an instantaneous sort of thing. You do the ritual or whatever, the magic happens, and then it’s over.”
Kyra frowned. “Okay. And this one?”
My lips split into what was probably a rather feral grin. “This time, they used a lingering effect. You cast the spell once and it sort of hangs around and keeps working. That’s why the illusion still fools you, even though they cast it a while ago. The idea is that by the time the structure of the spell decays enough to be nonfunctional, the trail’s already gone cold.”
Kyra’s eyes glittered, and she smiled coldly. “Let me guess. You can break it?”
I shrugged. “Maybe so. In this case, though, that would be a waste of effort.” I grinned a little wider. “Because I can follow it.”
“Should I get in costume, then?” Kyra was asking me whether she should change into the wolf. We seldom referred to that directly. Part of it was a sort of ingrained paranoia‒we probably didn’t have to worry about being overheard right now, but werewolves tend to be a little extreme that way. Part of it was probably also because Kyra hadn’t yet completely gotten over the trauma of her first few years as a werewolf. I don’t know why talking around the subject should make things easier, but somehow it did.
“Not this time, I think,” I told her. “I need to go home and get a few things first. And after that, you’ll probably still do better as you are.”
She gave me a confused look. “Why?” she asked. “You know I’m not exactly good at fighting as a human.”
“Because,” I almost spat, “we’re looking for a faerie.”
Here’s the story of the fae‒which, incidentally, I only learned a relatively short time ago.
If you’ve ever looked for information about fairies, or anything related to them, you know that it’s easy to find a hundred or two contradictory sources in about five minutes. The reason for this is relatively simple. There are a hundred or two‒or a lot more‒different kinds of them, each of which is at least a little different from every other.
According to my teacher, who although he’s an eccentric and somewhat deranged old man is usually right, the fae didn’t even exist as a more-or-less coherent group until about 1000 A.D. That might seem like a long time, but if so it’s only because you’re looking at it from a mortal perspective. There are plenty of fae who are older than that, personally.
Before that they all sort of just agreed not to kill each other, unless they happened to be at war (which, being fae, they often were). For the most part, though, it worked out pretty well. The liosálfar, svartálfar, and dokkálfar didn’t get along, but they managed to stay out of each other’s business. The Sidhe and the Fomorians got along like a house on fire, but for the most part the fighting had died down to just an occasional skirmish.
Around the turn of the millennium, though, it became clear that humanity was there to stay, and had become a pretty serious force through sheer numbers. Actually, it had probably been clear for a couple centuries before that, at least, but immortal beings can be a little slow to react to change. Some of the older werewolves still think telegraphs are newfangled.
So, at that point, a few of the real movers and shakers among those who would eventually be the fae got together and realized that they had more in common than there was separating them. More importantly, they had a common interest. So it was decided, eventually, that although they didn’t have to like each other (or even stop going to war with each other), it would be better for all of them if they established a few basic rules for it.
Fast forward a thousand-odd years, and you get the fae. There’s enormous variation among them‒not surprising, when you consider their origins‒but they do have a few things in common. Almost all of the fae have a serious aversion to iron, which is the only reason they worry about humanity at all. All of them share a few magical skills, too‒illusion so good as to be indistinguishable from reality foremost among them.
I haven’t spent much time around the fae. My boss is one of them, and that’s about it. It doesn’t take a genius, though, to figure out that if you’re smelling an illusion spell good enough to dupe a werewolf completely, and it has a lot in common with the only fae magic you’ve ever smelled, and the fae are notoriously skilled with illusion, just maybe there’s a fae involved somewhere.
Which is why we had to go back to my house first. See, being a generally paranoid bastard, I had a pretty decent assortment of weaponry on hand. I had no real reason to expect to fight one of the fae, but I still had quite a bit of armament designed for that purpose. That’s just how I think. I’ve got so many contingency plans by now that I can’t even remember them all.