About thirty minutes later, we were standing next to Kyra’s car about a block from the bakery. I’d trailed the scent that far before we left, partially to make sure I could and partially so that the cops would be less likely to notice us coming back. I’m not exactly an expert on police procedure, but I’m pretty sure that they get suspicious about things like that for some reason.
“Okay,” Kyra said calmly, almost managing to cover the waver in her voice. She opened the trunk of her car, which was apparently held shut with duct tape, and pulled out a smallish black suitcase. I’d packed it myself, and it had to weigh eighty pounds, but she handled it like nothing. There are a few perks to being a werewolf. “What all have we got here?” She opened the suitcase to reveal enough guns, knives, and less easily recognized weapons to equip a small army, or a third-world family. Kyra whistled appreciatively. “Nice.”
I grinned and reached in to grab my favorite ten-gauge shotgun out of the bag. At the moment it was loaded with specially prepared iron shot I bought from another werewolf I knew, and was virtually guaranteed to ruin pretty much any faerie’s day. “Take whatever you want,” I said to her, making sure nobody was coming.
“I think that’s everything,” she said a few minutes later, having equipped herself with a pistol, another shotgun, at least two knives, and probably close to ten pounds of iron and steel in various forms.
“All right,” I said, slipping one more knife into a pocket and zipping the suitcase shut. I put the significantly-lighter suitcase back in the trunk and pulled out a couple of heavy black trench coats. “Let’s go.” It wasn’t a perfect disguise, but we should be all right unless we had to enter an official building or go within thirty feet of a metal detector. Or a magnet‒there are certain downsides to hunting something violently allergic to iron.
The fae had been thorough‒very thorough. There wasn’t one gap in his magic that I could tell, and he’d kept it up long after I would have expected most people to let it fade. We followed it on foot‒it had to be on foot, unfortunately, because I couldn’t catch the scent reliably in a car‒for one mile, then two. In spite of his masking spell our quarry had apparently been feeling rather nervous, because his track looped, backtracked, and crossed itself to a frustrating extent.
When it eventually straightened out it headed‒no surprise‒into a part of town bad enough that it probably wouldn’t look out of place in Detroit.
“I feel like I’m in a gangster movie,” Kyra said, sounding somewhat bemused.
I glanced at her, and I had to admit I could see her point. Black trench coat, black boots, black gloves (weighted, incidentally, so that they would function a bit like brass knuckles without being nearly as obvious), set against a background of abandoned lots and boarded-up windows‒I could totally imagine somebody casting her for the role. “Not bad,” I said finally. “But the hat needs a little work.”
She pulled the intensely purple baseball cap off her head and looked at it, as though making sure nobody had stealthily replaced it with a different hat since she put it on. Then, putting it back on‒backwards, of course‒she said, “What’s wrong with my hat?”
“Nothing,” I said dryly. “Although it does suggest that you’ve been taking fashion lessons from Aiko.” Aiko was a kitsune we both knew who happened to be totally and certifiably crazy. She also had all the taste of…actually, I can’t think of any appropriate way to finish that sentence. I’m coming to suspect that there is no appropriate comparison for Aiko.
Kyra snorted. “Not likely. Besides. It is totally gangster. Not like yours.”
“What?” I shook my head. “You’re insane. A black fedora is, like, the most gangster looking hat there is.”
“Well, sure,” she said, rolling her eyes. “But only if we’ve somehow gone back to the nineteen-twenty’s and nobody told me. Nobody wears a fedora anymore, Winter.”
I was about to make a (probably lame, considering that she was more or less right) rejoinder when I noticed something different about the scent of the magic I was following. It is, incidentally, sort of difficult to track something by scent, especially when you’re not used to it. The beginning was sort of rocky, but by now we probably didn’t even look especially drunk.
Anyway. I can’t say exactly what had changed about it, probably because words for that sort of thing don’t actually exist. The closest I can come is to say that it felt deeper somehow, more complex. It was a subtle thing, very easy to miss.
“Hang on a second,” I murmured to Kyra. It took me a moment to determine in which direction the new smell was strongest, but once I did I paced towards it without hesitation. Kyra ghosted along behind me without having to be told, and I knew she was holding a weapon under her coat.
The smell of magic was coming from a small, run-down house that blended in perfectly. The walls were covered in at least a dozen layers of graffiti, almost completely obscuring the brick.
This close to the source, the underlying aroma of power had almost completely overwhelmed the spell I’d traced here. It was unquestionably the work of the same person‒that heavy aroma of pepper was woven all through it‒but there were so many layers to it that I couldn’t initially sort them apart, let alone actually figure out what they were for.
“This the place?” Kyra asked in a whisper‒which was ridiculous considering that we were still outside the building, yet nevertheless felt totally appropriate.
I nodded absently, stepping back a pace to study the building. As I’d expected, under the layers of gang signs and crude art, the base layer of spray paint contained a number of traditional mystic symbols. Stars with varying numbers of points, glyphs and runes, intricate patterns of knots…somebody had really gone all out on this one.
“What is it?”
“Not sure,” I whispered back. “I think it’s mostly more concealment. There’s definitely a block on scrying, and a heavy-duty version of that scent-wiping illusion we already saw. Oh, and another to make it seem unremarkable‒you know, so ordinary your eyes slide right over it if you’re not looking for it specifically.”
She frowned. “Anything to actually keep us out?”
I studied both the symbols‒which had, for the most part, only a tangential relation to the spells, but whatever‒and the scent, which I had largely sorted out. “Don’t think so. Part of what they were trying to do with this was to keep any mages from noticing them, and warding spells are a definite step backward in that department. I think they were counting on obscurity to protect them.”
She grinned wickedly. “Wanna go tell ’em it didn’t work?”
“Sure,” I said, unbuttoning the front of my coat so I could get at the weapons I had stashed underneath more easily. I pulled the shotgun out, chambered a round, and flicked the safety off.
Kyra kicked the door in, which seemed totally unnecessary, but hey. Whatever made her happy.
I’m a firm believer that violence should be, first and foremost, fun.
On the other side of the door was…nothing at all. A small, dark room, almost a closet really, that smelled vaguely musty.
There was one other noteworthy feature in the room, a simple wooden door directly opposite us. It was firmly closed, but there was a warm light leaking out from underneath.
I glanced over the room, seeing a whole bunch more nothing, then looked at Kyra. She shook her head and mouthed the word “No,” telling me that she hadn’t seen, heard, or smelled anything either. I shrugged, then stepped through the doorway. No sense waiting around outside.
Nothing bad happened to me, which suggested that I’d been correct and they hadn’t had a single ward around the building. I slipped across the empty room to the other door, Kyra following so close behind me she was practically stepping on my heels. I paused, then reached out and gently opened the door.
On the other side was what looked like a kitchen, larger than the room we were in but still on the smallish side. It didn’t have any windows, and the light turned out to be coming from a pair of lamps. They illuminated a man sitting at the cheap table playing solitaire with what I was willing to bet was a hand-illuminated deck of Tarot cards.
He wasn’t thin. I’m thin. Kyra’s thin. This man was outright gaunt, practically skeletal. His jet black hair was long enough to brush his shoulders, framing sunken eyes, cheekbones prominent enough to look a little unnatural, and a sharp jawline exaggerated by hollow cheeks. I hadn’t made any noise, but in the same instant I saw him he raised those sunken eyes to look at the door where I was standing.
There didn’t seem to be any point left in secrecy, so I pushed the door the rest of the way open and stepped through, pointing the shotgun at the man in the chair. Kyra followed me in, casually covering the other door with her own gun. I could feel her presence, in the back of my mind, thrumming gently with her anxiety. To anyone else, though, she would have seemed the very essence of calm.
The thin man didn’t seem a bit uncomfortable with having two heavily armed individuals suddenly in his kitchen, or even by the shotgun pointing at his nose‒which was, in itself, a little discomfiting. He smiled and nodded politely before flipping the next card over. “Not bad,” he said, sounding totally nonchalant. “I wasn’t really expecting you for, oh, at least another twenty minutes.” Then, without raising his voice or changing his tone at all, he said, “Now would be good, I should think.”
His transition was so smooth, I actually had my mouth open to ask him what he was talking about when I realized that he wasn’t talking to me. Which, in turn, made it rather obvious what he meant. Unfortunately for me, it was too late by then to do anything about it.
There was no chance to fight back, not even to fire the shotgun. There also wasn’t, as I’d somehow expected, a flash of light. There was just a sharp impact to the back of my head, a burst of sudden and intense pain, and then swiftly falling darkness.
An indefinite length of time later the world came, reluctantly, back into focus. I blinked once or twice, shook my head to clear it‒ow, bad idea‒and then suddenly remembered where I was and laid still again.
I was, from what I could see, lying in the same kitchen I’d seen last. My hands were restrained behind my back somehow, I couldn’t see them without moving, but I seemed to be otherwise all right. I couldn’t have been there long, because my arms hadn’t been stuck in place long enough to get stiff.
My weapons had been taken, of course, and they’d been remarkably thorough about it. By which I mean that I’d been stripped to the skin, which made me intensely uncomfortable on all sorts of levels. I don’t normally have problems with nudity, probably because I’d grown up around werewolves and they put virtually no emphasis on it, but…well. There’s a reason that naked can also mean vulnerable.
And I was feeling plenty vulnerable right now.
A quick glance showed me Kyra, similarly bound. Her hands were held by what looked like a novelty set of handcuffs made from some sort of crystalline substance I’d never seen before in my life. I thought she was still unconscious, until I saw a quick glimpse of an icy blue eye on fire with raw hatred. She was awake, then, and pissed as hell. Unlike me she’d been smart enough not to give that fact away to our captors.
As though on cue, the same casual voice said, “Ah, you’re awake. Good. Sorry for the rough treatment there, but it was a security precaution I’m afraid I had to take.”
Since there didn’t seem to be any point in pretending otherwise, I rolled to an awkward sitting position, ignoring the intense protest from my aching head as I did. The source of the voice proved to be the same man as before. Well, almost the same man, anyway.
It took me a moment to realize what was different about him. He was still thin, his features still sharp and gaunt, but no longer to the point of absurdity. His eyes, I noticed inanely, were a rather disturbing pale grey, almost indistinguishable from the sclera.
We’d been had. He’d probably made himself look like that‒seem to look like that, I reminded myself, because he was almost certainly the faerie we’d been trailing and that meant that this was as much a lie as his former appearance‒purely to make sure we’d be too focused on him to notice that we were walking into an ambush.
He looked down at me for a long moment from where he was seated in the same chair as before, as though studying my features. Then he nodded once, sharply, and said, “Mr. Wolf, I presume? And that makes your associate Miss Walker, correct? I apologize for your current condition, but it seemed wisest. And, considering Miss Walker’s abilities and your own rather singular nature, I don’t expect that it will cause you any lasting harm.”
“Go to hell,” I spat. I tried to literally spit at him, too, but found that my mouth was too dry to manage it satisfactorily.
He frowned down at me, the expression disconcertingly like that of a disappointed father. (Somebody else’s father, I mean; I’ve never met mine.) “Come now, Mr. Wolf. There’s no need for that sort of thing. Oh,” he added, “and Miss Walker? You can stop pretending to be asleep now.”
Kyra hesitated briefly, then shrugged herself into more or less the same position I was in. She’s good at hiding pain; I knew her head had to hurt as badly as mine, but not even the slightest echo of it showed.
I sneered at the man. “You’re kidding. You expect us to cooperate with you when you just took us prisoner?”
He arched his eyebrows. “Oh, not at all. In fact, from my perspective you’re the ones at fault here. After all, you barged into my home, bringing with you an arsenal including a significant amount of iron, and proceeded to threaten me with a shotgun without so much as exchanging a greeting.” He paused to take a sip of something I couldn’t see from an opaque mug. “What I’ve done to you is well within the appropriate response to such a thing, I should say.”
“We had cause,” I said, struggling to rein in my anger at the man. “You killed that man this morning.”
“Ah,” he said, showing teeth in a sharklike grin. “And the baker was a friend of yours, then? A long-lost cousin, perhaps?”
“And do I have to know a man to take offense at his death?”
“Touché,” he said, smiling a bit wider. “Would you like a piece of advice, though? You should move on. The incident this morning is hardly the point of this conversation. I understand that you’re upset, and I can appreciate your reasons. At this point, however, your anger is counterproductive.”
“A conversation?” I asked incredulously. “That’s what you call this?”
“Of course,” he pointed out. “Think about this for a moment, Mr. Wolf. You must surely be aware that there are several large men nearby who, if I should for some reason require assistance, will quickly arrive to provide it. And while silver is notoriously inimical to your kind, mine is quite fond of it.” He took another sip. “If I wanted you dead, Mr. Wolf, you would never have woken up. I think you are intelligent enough to recognize that.”
Confusion had gradually overtaken my anger. I wasn’t entirely sure what I had been expecting, but it hadn’t been…this. “So…what?” I asked, genuinely bewildered. “You went to all this work just to set us up for a chat?” I shook my head. “No way. If you wanted to talk that bad, there have got to be easier ways than this.”
His lips twisted slightly. “Indeed. And you may rest assured that, if it were my choice, none of us would be here right now. My employer, however, felt that this was an effective way of communicating their message.” He paused, and a ghost of a smile flickered across his face. “You know, I’m really quite surprised that it worked. They said you were rash, but I must admit I never expected the two of you to be so arrogant as to actually attack me alone.” He took another drink.
I waited for him to continue, but he seemed to have said all he cared to, so eventually I asked, “What message?”
He shrugged. “I have no idea. The instructions were very specific, however. You’re to tell your Alpha that he already knows the message, and that now he also knows the price of ignoring it.” He stood up suddenly, draining his cup. He reached into one pocket and pulled out an old-fashioned toothed key made from the same crystalline material as the handcuffs, placing it dead center on the table.
“I’m confident you’ll be able to free yourselves,” he said calmly, setting his cup over on the counter. “You’ll find your possessions, including your weapons, in the front room.” He waved vaguely at the only other door from the room, which Kyra and I hadn’t seen beyond at all. “I recommend that you not do anything stupid. Please remember that I allowed you to find me this time, and the only reason you’re still alive is because I wasn’t hired to kill you.” He nodded politely to each of us on his way out the door.
It seemed like a short eternity passed between when the door closed and when I dimly heard a car start on the street outside. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding and levered myself to my feet.
“Well,” I said as levelly as I could manage at the moment. “That was…”
“Unpleasant?” Kyra suggested.
“I was going to go with ‘anticlimactic’, but that works too. Hang on a minute and I’ll get those handcuffs off.”
It was a bit of a trick grabbing the key with my hands behind my back, but I managed it, and had Kyra freed moments later.
“I am going to find that bastard,” she murmured as she unlocked my handcuffs. “And I am going to kill him.” Kyra’s voice was soft, almost gentle, but quivering with barely-restrained rage. Kyra has issues. Being imprisoned, being made to feel helpless…suffice to say that it hit on a lot of them.
“Sure we will,” I said softly, making sure my own voice showed no trace of either my building anger or the current of fear running underneath it. Neither was a wise emotion to show around a pissed-off werewolf whose psychological scars had just been prodded with a sharp stick. “Only not quite yet, all right?”
Kyra closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them, they were still flat and cold, but they had lost the sense of imminent danger lurking just beneath the surface. “Of course not,” she said, her voice sounding normal now. “What do we do now?”
“First things first, we get dressed. Then,” I frowned. “Well, I guess we need to talk to Christopher.”
Government among werewolves, although not much like what you’re probably used to, isn’t terribly complicated either. It’s basically a hierarchical dictatorship where your position is determined by personality traits which, although they do change to some degree, are largely inborn. You know, like high school, except not as soul-crushing and petty.
The most dominant wolf is called the Alpha, and the way the system works is pretty much that what he says goes. There are certain limitations, of course. It’s not common, but occasionally, if the Alpha manages to really piss of his pack they’ll rebel. And, at least in this part of the world, there are higher-ups who intervene if things get really bad.
Generally, though, the Alpha has a lot of leeway. Within the pack he can do very nearly whatever he wants. And yes, a lot of the time it gets exactly as ugly as it sounds.
In Colorado Springs the Alpha was a young‒by werewolf standards, which meant only sixty or so‒wolf named Christopher Morgan. He took over a few years ago from one of the Alphas gone so epically bad that the Khan, who theoretically governs the Alphas of North America, Iceland, and Japan, actually stepped in to take him out. Along with a good-sized portion of his pack, who had been equally bad.
Christopher’s a decent person. Better than he should be, maybe, considering how often an Alpha has to make unpalatable decisions. Back when Roland was Alpha, Christopher did a lot to mitigate his insanity. He protected the other wolves, especially the newly Changed, including Kyra.
He lives in a nice neighborhood on the southwestern edge of the city, up in the foothills of Pikes Peak. Unfortunately, that was currently a synonym for “on the other side of the city from us.”
Neither Kyra nor I particularly wanted to walk back to her car. Neither of us was actually injured‒the mercenary, damn him, had been right‒but my head was throbbing, and in spite of how little I’d actually done I was feeling rather tired.
My phone said it was a little past four. I thought a moment, then called Enrico. It was a little early, but his work isn’t exactly a nine-to-five desk job. I might get lucky.
“Hey,” I said when he answered. “You still at work?”
“No,” he replied guardedly. “Why?”
“You haven’t changed your mind about…what we talked about earlier?” The line probably wasn’t tapped, but paranoia was an ingrained habit with me.
“Not at all,” he told me, with not an ounce of doubt in his voice.
I grinned. Looked like Enrico was going to be learning about the spooky side of the street sooner than I’d thought. “I was wondering if you could give me a ride,” I told him. “And then there’s someone you probably ought to meet.”
About twenty minutes later, Enrico pulled up in front of us. It was still fairly early, but it was January; it was already practically dark. “Hey, Kyra,” he said as we got in. “You two look ridiculous.” We were back in full gangster regalia, excluding that purple hat. I don’t care what Kyra says, I will never believe that a purple baseball hat is appropriate attire for a gangster. Regardless of time period. Pimps, maybe, but not gangsters.
“Nonsense,” she said, taking her hat off. “This is my serious face.”
Enrico glanced in the mirror and, without her hat, finally got a glimpse of Kyra’s face. And the bruises starting to show. I’m not entirely sure whether she had caught on before me and started to turn, or if they just had to hit her more than once to put her out of the fight, but she was showing the results of our encounter a lot more than I was. Her left temple was turning a shade of purple not entirely unlike her hat, and I thought she might be developing a black eye too.
“What happened to you guys?” Enrico said, glancing over at me as well.
I managed a tired smile. “Long day. Don’t suppose you have any aspirin?”
He looked at me with worry in his eyes. “Not on me. Look, Winter, should I be taking you to the doctor?”
I shook my head, because I am apparently an idiot incapable of figuring out that an action causes intense pain without multiple repetitions. Then, wincing a little, I said, “No thanks, we’ll be fine. If you could just give Kyra a ride back to her car, and then we can go and talk to the man I mentioned earlier.”
“You sure? Head injuries are nothing to joke about.”
“I’m sure,” Kyra said firmly.