“Domineering ass,” I muttered as I left, in a voice carefully pitched not to carry even to werewolf hearing. Christopher already knew what I thought of his high-handedness, but there are certain forms to observe.
Enrico fell in beside me as I walked out the front door. “Should I take it you’ll be accompanying me tomorrow?” he asked, smirking.
I glowered at him. “Yes. And Kyra’s coming with us too.”
“I guessed as much.” I turned to look at him in surprise‒I wouldn’t even have guessed she was coming‒and he shrugged. “What? Every time I’ve seen you when you’re asking me to get involved with weird shit, she’s right next to you and in it up to her neck. Why would this time be any different?”
I supposed I could understand the logic there. Twisted logic, granted, but at least it was there.
“So where to next?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Up to you.” I checked the time, and found that it was just past six‒it only felt like the middle of the night. “If you have time, we could go get some food and I can give you your first lesson on what life’s like on the real wild side.”
He gave me a concerned look out of the corner of his eye. “Are you sure you don’t want to go home instead? I mean, I know you keep saying you’re all right, but you still look like shit. And you’re making lame jokes again, which is never a good sign. It can wait.”
“After the day I’ve had, you think I want to go home?” I snorted. “Not likely. I think a decent meal is the least I can ask for by now. Besides, I’d much rather you at least got the intro before that meeting tomorrow.”
He sighed, but he didn’t argue, so I was going to count it as good enough. “If you say so,” he muttered in a register I knew I wasn’t supposed to hear. “Where did you want to go?”
I grinned a little as a thought occurred to me. If Enrico wanted to learn, he might as well jump right into things.
“There’s a place not too far from where I live. I don’t think you’ve been there, but it’s where Kyra works.”
Pryce is sort of an interesting guy, even by my standards. Not interesting the way most people are‒if you’re looking for edifying conversation, feel free to keep on looking, because he’s not interested. No, Pryce is interesting because he’s a bit of a conundrum.
He doesn’t have a last name that I know of‒unless Pryce is his last name, in which case his first name is a total mystery to me. A lot of things about Pryce are a mystery to me. I’ve never been there that he wasn’t, not at seven before I go to work or two in the morning when I’ve gone to sleep. When, and even if, he sleeps I don’t know. He’s not human, I’m pretty much certain of that, but I don’t have any idea what he is. Unlike most members of the supernatural crowd Pryce is fiercely nonpartisan.
That’s reflected in his clientele. All of the staff, and almost all the customers, are to one extent or another inhuman, but there’s no one group that can claim any kind of control over the place. There’s also a strict policy of neutrality; you can do whatever you want outside his door, but throw one punch inside and your life isn’t worth small change.
Normal people don’t go there much. Pryce refuses to advertise, and he might even have some kind of spell to keep ordinary humans away. From the outside, his bar looks about the same as the abandoned buildings that are his neighbors.
So Enrico had a certain amount of reason to look concerned when he saw it. Pryce’s bar is not in a good location. It’s not even a bad location. It’s more like the kind of location where even the muggers go in pairs. You’d have to be a bit crazy to start a business there. Enrico looked a bit doubtful when he saw the area, and more so once he realized where I was actually taking him.
“You sure that head injury wasn’t worse than you thought?” he asked. “Because I think you’ve got the wrong place.”
I snorted. “You’re not nearly as funny as you think you are, wise guy. Now come on, you’ll see in a minute.”
I led the way up to the old warehouse Pryce built his bar in. It’s one of several buildings of the same type, spaced around an empty lot he uses for parking. As far as I could tell his is the only one that’s actually in use, but from the outside you’d never know the difference. There’s not really anything to set it apart, not even a sign hanging over the door. His building, for whatever reason, is never marked by the graffiti that was so prevalent in the area, but you couldn’t tell in the dark.
It goes without saying that the lot wasn’t lit. Not even municipal bureaucracy is stupid enough to bother putting streetlights in an area that sketchy.
When I pulled the heavy, anonymous wooden door, though, it was like a whole different world. The interior wasn’t brightly lit, but next to the darkness outside it seemed like it.
Enrico followed me down the short flight of stairs into the actual room, looking somewhat bemused. It wasn’t exactly crowded, but it also wasn’t empty. There were maybe twenty people sitting at the various tables, eating an impressive variety of food and conversing quietly.
The long bar, a beautiful piece lovingly crafted from walnut, was more sparsely populated. There was one group of three or four people sitting at the end near the door, and one old man at the other end sitting alone and drinking heavily. I didn’t watch him long enough to be sure of that last part, but I was willing to bet that it hadn’t changed from the last time I’d seen him. He’s a regular at Pryce’s and every time I’ve seen him it’s the same story: sitting alone at the bar, going through bottle after bottle of liquor and then leaving without talking to anyone. He never looks drunk, either, no matter how much he’s consumed.
I recognized a few of the other patrons, too. Aside from the old man, one of the people playing pool in the back was a werewolf I’d talked with a few times, and the other was a pleasant young woman I was passingly acquainted with who happened to have a reasonably potent magical talent. A couple people eating at the tables who I knew to some extent exchanged nods or greetings with me as I passed.
The people who come to Pryce’s don’t like each other, necessarily, but…there’s a sort of us-versus-them feeling there. Some of the people who go there, like the werewolves, belong to a larger group, but it attracts a disproportionately large number of the people who‒like me‒are involved in the supernatural community, but are still basically independent of the major factions. And believe me, that puts you in a tough position.
Enrico and I took one of the corner tables, with not many people around. That’s not entirely abnormal among Pryce’s customers, many of whom value their privacy. One of the waiters, a thin-faced man who looked like he was eighty and moved like he was twenty, was by almost immediately to drop off menus. Moving just as quickly, he vanished to go deal with something else.
Enrico looked around, a slightly stunned expression on his face. “This is incredible,” he said quietly. You’d think, with the number of people in there, it would be at least a bit noisy, but it wasn’t. I don’t know whether Pryce uses magic or just good acoustics, but whatever it is it works. You could barely hear the sounds of the bar as a background murmur.
“What is?” I asked.
He gestured vaguely at the room. “This. I mean, to think that something like this is just here, you know? It makes no sense to put something like this out here.”
I shrugged. “Pryce doesn’t have to make sense.”
“The owner,” I said, nodding at him where he stood behind the bar. He was a big man, better than six foot and built like a muscular barrel. There was enough gray in his red hair and beard to pass for any age from forty to sixty, the same as the five years I’d known him. Exactly the same, in fact.
“Huh,” Enrico said. “The owner usually work the bar?”
I snorted. “Always. He doesn’t trust anybody else with it.” One of the other servers came by to get our order. Enrico had already studied the menu thoroughly, although you wouldn’t have known it even if you were watching him closely. He’s very good at looking casual, whatever he’s actually thinking.
“So,” he said, sounding just as casual. I wasn’t fooled. Everything about him said he was getting down to business. “If you’re not a werewolf, what are you?”
I sighed. I don’t like to talk about myself, but he deserved an honest answer. And besides, I had agreed to tell him later. I just hadn’t expected it to be this soon.
“It’s a complicated answer,” I said after a moment’s thought. “But I guess the important part is pretty simple. Do you believe in magic?”
He laughed. “Come on, Winter. I just asked you whether you were a werewolf, and I meant it seriously. I think that’s pretty much a given at this point.”
I shrugged. “You’d be surprised how many people believe in one but not the other. Not always for the reasons you’d expect. Anyway, we’ll call that a yes. Now, lots of things have magic, all right? Werewolves, for example. Some of the people who have magic are, otherwise, indistinguishable from human.”
“Otherwise?” Enrico interrupted. “You mean that they’re not human?”
I shrugged again. “Depends how you define human. In the biological sense, they’re totally human. Mentally, well, magic does things to you. And some of the people with magic use it to do things to themselves that definitely disqualify them from humanity.” I paused to see if he had any other questions, but he seemed to be keeping up all right so I kept going.
“Right, so people like that have a lot of names. Technically they’re called different things based on what kind of magic they have, how strong they are, sometimes even what philosophy they have…suffice to say that it gets really complicated sometimes. For now, if you just call everybody with magic a mage, you’ll get along all right. Food’s up.”
He blinked. “That was fast.”
“Pryce runs a fast kitchen.”
“So I’m guessing you’re one of them? The mages you mentioned, I mean,” Enrico said shortly thereafter, in between bites of his steak sandwich.
“Not quite,” I told him with a grin. “I did tell you it was complicated. But I’m close enough to a mage, yeah.”
He meditated on that for a minute. Or maybe he was just eating; I know I was. Eventually, though, his curiosity got the better of him. “What’s that supposed to mean, then? Are you human or aren’t you?”
I shifted uncomfortably. “Depends on your point of view, I suppose. Humanity is…not as clear cut as humans imagine it to be, you know? I’m more human than some, and less so than others.”
“Yeah? That’s the best you can do?” Enrico’s voice was still quiet, but had gained an unpleasant edge. “I’ve put up with this for a long time now, Winter. I understand that you don’t like to talk about yourself, but I’ve had just about enough of your cryptic bullshit.” His voice had risen steadily throughout, and by now he was nearly shouting. “So why don’t you give me a straight answer for once?”
You ever had one of those moments where you say something that maybe came out a little stronger than you intended, and by some unfortunate coincidence everybody hears it? And then everyone in earshot just sort of stops to stare at you, and all the conversations stop all at once? And you’re sitting there looking around, and you realize what just happened, and you just know there’s that “oh shit” expression coming over your face?
This was a lot like that, except I wasn’t the one who said it. Oh, and also it was a lot worse than you’ve probably ever had the misfortune to experience.
Just about everyone in the bar stopped‒stopped talking, stopped eating, stopped drinking…just stopped. The buzz of conversation, not loud in the first place, quieted to the kind of total silence where you could literally hear a pin drop. And almost everyone turned to look at us. It was obvious that most, although not all, of them had heard what Enrico had said, and the few who hadn’t were being rapidly filled in in hushed whispers.
“Shit,” I said, thinking furiously. I could see, out of the corner of my eye, that the pair in back had stopped playing. The werewolf, a nice fellow named Roger, was spinning his pool cue idly in one hand and he was smiling, but his eyes were cold and his weight was poised to move quickly. His partner wasn’t even bothering with the pretense; she was standing dead still, her cue leveled and pointing, from across the room, straight at Enrico’s face.
“Listen very closely. Do exactly what I tell you, and for God’s sake don’t ask questions. I’ll tell you later, okay?” I told Enrico in an urgent whisper. He looked like he wanted to argue, but he must have had some idea of how much colder the atmosphere in that bar had just gotten because he didn’t argue. “Stand up and get out, now. Don’t say anything to me, don’t stop, don’t talk to anybody. Get outside, get in your car. I’ll be out in a minute. Got it?” He nodded again. Then he pushed his chair back and stood, the noise shockingly loud in the stillness.
Most of the people had gone back to whatever they were doing, and background noise had started up again, although I thought I could detect a certain change in it. Quite a few people, though, were still watching every move Enrico made as he walked back to the door. Several people drew back from him as he passed, and although I couldn’t hear it I was pretty sure a couple of them said things to him that were less than polite.
It felt like hours passed before the door swung shut, the hollow boom resounding through the still-quiet room. After a long pause, the tension finally faded, and I let out my breath. Enrico had no idea how lucky he’d just been. If he hadn’t gotten out when he did, there was a good chance he would be regretting it right now. Intensely.
I waited a few minutes, long enough not to look like I was following him out. And also to get a couple to-go boxes for the food, because it had been a long freaking day and I still hadn’t had a decent meal since lunch and I wanted my food, darn it.
“So what was going on in there?” Enrico asked as I slid into the seat next to him.
I snorted and set the food on the floorboard between my feet. “Me saving your damn fool life, that’s what.” I shook my head. “See, this is why I don’t like to involve people in this stuff. You try and treat it like it works the same as the world you understand, and it doesn’t. I guess I understand, but it never ends well. There are different rules in my world, and if you don’t understand that it goes badly for you.”
“Have you done this before then?” Enrico asked cautiously.
“I guess you could say I’ve done it a couple times, yeah. Introduced a couple people to this stuff. Given that they’re all dead now I wouldn’t say that’s a good thing, though.” I shook my head again, wearily. “Start driving. You don’t want to be hanging around when they start coming out.”
He frowned and started the car. “I think you’re exaggerating things a bit.”
I snorted again. “See, that’s exactly the problem I’m talking about. You’re used to a world where people take the police seriously. Where you have backup. If you want to last more than five minutes with these people you have to get it through your head right now that this isn’t that world.” I sighed. “I guess we go back to my house now. We need a place to talk, and this was clearly a bad choice.”
His frown had deepened. “Would the people in there really have reacted that badly?” he asked, pulling out of the parking lot.
“Absolutely.” I sighed again. “Look, Enrico. Werewolves and such don’t have a lot of respect for the law. I guarantee you there were five people in there who could have killed you, and nobody would have ever found the body. At least. It probably wouldn’t be the first time, either.”
“Shit,” he muttered under his breath.
“It’s not too late to back out,” I reminded him. “Christopher would understand. So would I, for that matter. If I had the choice I might still back out.”
“But they’d still be out there, wouldn’t they?” He shook his head. “No. I won’t live in ignorance. I don’t care if it would make me happy.”
I grinned. “Good for you. I’m sorry if my explanations seem cryptic; I’m…not very good at this.”
He looked at me. “I thought you said you’d explained it to people before.”
“Um. Sort of. I’ve gotten a couple people involved in it, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually explained things to them.”
I frowned and looked out the window. “Because they were dead before I had the chance, for the most part.”
That pretty much stopped the conversation.
Fortunately, Pryce’s is pretty close to my house. I live way out on the western edge of the city, or‒depending on how you count it‒past the edge of the city. My old, battered cabin doesn’t have any neighbors, probably because nobody in their right mind would consider it a valuable property. I don’t have convenient access to anything‒especially because I don’t have a car, and I hate to bike in the city‒but it wasn’t remote enough to really have nice surroundings or anything like that.
I guess, from most people’s point of view, it’s a crappy place to live. I don’t look at it that way. It was isolated enough that I had solitude pretty much all of the time, which was important to me. Plus, thanks to the money that I’d had when I first moved out to Colorado, I own the cabin and the lot it sits on. Not paying rent counts for quite a bit.
Enrico parked on the street out front. There weren’t any other cars or people in sight; just a broad, barren expanse of scrubland and crabgrass. The terrain was such that, in the dark, you couldn’t really see the lights of the city, making it feel oddly secluded from the rest of the world.
Still carrying the food, I managed to unlock the door after a couple tries and let myself in with Enrico close behind me. I flicked the lights on, making a mental note to replace the burned-out bulb later, and grabbed a couple of plates and glasses from the cupboard. I turned around to find Enrico, who had never seen the interior of my home before, looking around himself with an expression of sickened fascination.
“Holy crap, Winter. You actually live here?” he asked, staring at one of the chairs arranged around the kitchen table. I’d made it years ago, before I really had the hang of it, but it looked better than you’d expect, if you could ignore the fact that one of the legs was about six inches shorter than the rest, so I have to use a phone book as a shim to get it to sit straight.
I snorted. “Not everybody can have the glamorous lifestyle of a police officer. Come on.” My house didn’t originally have a living room, but I don’t really need a second bedroom, so I converted it into a combination of living room and storage area, with a bit of office thrown in on top. Once inside, I set both plates down on the small coffee table, along with the glasses and a pitcher of iced tea.
The heap of silvery fur curled up on the couch, otherwise known as my recently acquired dog, looked at me over her shoulder as I walked in. I thought her icy blue eyes held a certain tone of reproach, which given her unique nature was probably not actually in my imagination.
“Hey Snowflake,” I said, collapsing onto the couch next to her. “How’s it going?”
She twisted around and shoved her head at me, her expression begging me to scratch her ears. I laughed and obliged her. As always the contact brought with it a sudden rush of sensation; my fingers sliding through her fur, the mouth-watering aroma of the meat I’d brought back with me, an itch on one shoulder that was too much trouble to scratch.
That was all fairly normal for animals, at least when I’m the one we’re talking about. That’s…what I do, you might say. What I am.
What was less normal was the thought‒animal, true, but nevertheless a definite and distinct thought‒that slid into my mind underneath as I shifted my fingers over to her shoulder. You were gone a long time, it said. I don’t want to say that the tone made it a question, because this form of communication had nothing to do with hearing. That’s the best way I have, though, to express the way the ideas associated with the words just appeared inside my head.
It was a long day, I thought back. I left off scratching her and leaned forward to grab my food. “So where were we?” I asked Enrico.
There was a long pause, then I looked up to see him smiling sheepishly at me. “Honestly I forgot. Guess that thing in the bar drove it out of my mind.”
“Oh yeah,” I said, pouring myself a glass of iced tea. “I can see why.”
“So what was all that about?” he pressed.
I shrugged. “Basically? You broke the rules.” I saw by his face that he didn’t understand, so I elaborated. “The supernatural crowd tends to respect privacy a lot more than most people. You can ask all the questions you want, but if somebody doesn’t want to talk, that’s it. You drop the subject and move on.”
He waited for me to continue. When it became clear that I didn’t intend to, he asked, “That’s it? That’s why people were freaking out?”
“Yep, pretty much. Everybody could tell by that last sentence that you were pushing for more detail than I wanted to give. We take that sort of thing seriously.”
“Why? I mean, I’m all for privacy rights but isn’t that a little extreme?”
He’s bothering you, Snowflake whispered in my head. Should I kill him for you?
Of course not. He’s a friend, I sent back. Fortunately, she was still resting her head on my lap; I don’t need a physical connection to establish a mental one, but it helps a lot, and I was tired enough right then that I wanted all the help I could get my hands on.
<sniff>. You never let me kill anybody.
I had to work to keep from smiling as I responded to Enrico. “Yeah, maybe so, but…” I paused. “Supernatural life isn’t exactly pretty. Pretty much all of these people have at least a few memories they’d rather not consider.”
“So does everyone,” Enrico said dryly.
“Not quite in the same way,” I responded seriously. Then, seeing the doubtful expression on his face, I tried a different tack. “Look, maybe an example might help. What would you think if somebody were to walk up to you tomorrow and start asking you questions. How many weapons are there in your house, how skilled are you with them, where are they, do you keep them loaded, and so on. And they just won’t go away. What are you going to assume?”
He thought about it for a minute. “Well, I guess I’d assume that they were planning on doing something to me.”
I nodded. “Why?”
“Because there’s no reason they’d need to know that kind of thing unless they were planning on attacking me or something. I get what you’re saying, Winter, but there’s a bit of a difference between that and just asking what you are, don’t you think?”
“Is there?” I shrugged. “You have to realize that most of these people are pretty paranoid, because the ones who aren’t tend not to last very long. The more you know about somebody, the more effectively you can take advantage of their vulnerabilities. Take Kyra, for example. You could hurt her a lot more than a lot of people, just because you know she’s a werewolf.”
He frowned. “What, like silver bullets or something?”
I nodded. “Right. You don’t even know what being a werewolf means and you can still think of using silver as a weapon, just because you happen to know that she’s a werewolf. So, from the perspective of these people, if you start pressing for more information, you’re trying to kill them.”
“I guess I can understand that, then. Still seems like a bit of an overreaction, though. I mean, it’s not like I was asking them.”
“Yeah, well, most places they wouldn’t have cared. General consensus is anybody stupid enough to answer questions like that deserves what they get. But at Pryce’s…” I frowned, struggling to express what I meant. Some concepts just sound ridiculous in modern English. “The supernatural world is old-fashioned. Really old-fashioned, in some ways. Part of that is the obligation a guest has to his host, and vice versa.”
Enrico nodded as though he’d expected as much. “But wouldn’t that make it less serious? Since I was your guest there?”
“You were my guest, that’s true. And that meant you were breaking another taboo by violating your obligation to me, but that’s beside the point. See, in another sense, both of us were Pryce’s guests there, right? So he also had a right to claim grievance with you, if he wanted.” I frowned. “This is the tricky part. You’ve never been there before, so from their perspective you’re an outsider. I’m a regular.”
“So what you’re saying,” he said slowly, “is that they were reacting to an offense to one of their own. Sort of like…they might not like you, but as soon as someone else challenges you on their home turf it turns into an us-versus-them kind of thing.”
“Yeah,” I said, surprised at his insight. “Yeah, that’s it exactly. How did you know?”
“This may shock you,” he said dryly, “but that’s not exactly an uncommon reaction. Not exclusive to your kind of people, either.” Which, I had to admit, was true enough.
Neither of us said anything for a while, which I was fully in favor of. I disapprove of serious conversation when there’s food to be eaten. Product of a werewolf upbringing, I suppose.
Once we’d finished eating, and I’d cleared the dishes away, I sat back down across from Enrico on the couch. Snowflake promptly sprawled out across my lap‒and I do mean across my lap, with extremities sticking out on every side‒and started dozing. I ruffled her ears affectionately, enjoying the simple and pleasant feelings I was picking up from her. I had enough control over my magic these days that I could have blocked them out if I wanted, but I didn’t bother. I mean, let’s be honest here, most of us can only wish we were that happy.
“Okay,” I said. “I know you probably have a bunch of questions, but there’s way more to this stuff than we can cover in one night. So for now, how about we focus on what you need to know for tomorrow?”
“Sounds good,” Enrico said, his voice having gained an edge again. “Maybe starting with what Christopher said about werewolves coming out of the closet.”
“Um. The way I heard it is that they’re getting concerned that somebody will actually start paying attention and realize that they’ve been here all this time. If that were to happen things would get really ugly‒think the KKK, except that werewolves really aren’t human.”
“If they’re that scared, why wouldn’t they be working harder than ever to stay hidden?” Enrico asked.
I shrugged. “They think it’s inevitable that they won’t be able to hide forever. If people have to believe in them, they want to make sure it’s the right version. Sort of like the difference between believing in Disney and believing in Grimm’s.”
“So which one’s real?”
I shrugged again. “Little of both. They aren’t movie monsters, but they aren’t cute and cuddly either.” I hesitated. “Well, unless they like you. Then they tend to be okay with cuddly, although‒”
“Stop,” he said, shuddering. “I do not want to know how you were going to finish that sentence. Ever.”
I grinned wider. “Oh, that’s nothing. You want to know where it gets really disturbing, remind me to tell you some stories about my mother sometime.”
“I’ll keep that in mind if I ever want to lose my lunch,” he said dryly. “So what version do they want people to believe in?”
I frowned. “Actually, I’m not entirely sure. Christopher said something about wanting to seem like respectable citizens. That’s the center of it. You’d probably have to ask him for the details.” I stood up to get a piece of paper, ignoring Snowflake’s sleepy mental protest at being displaced. “In fact, here’s his phone number. If you have any questions about werewolves, he’s probably a much better source than I am.”
“Thanks,” he said, also standing. “Get some sleep, Winter. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He paused. “Actually, what time tomorrow am I supposed to be seeing you?”
I smiled. “See? That’s a great example of the sort of question you could ask Christopher instead of me.” He laughed. “Good night, Enrico.”
I went to bed almost immediately after he left. Snowflake, of course, promptly jumped up next to me and went to sleep. I let me fade into us, which as a rule I don’t do very often, and slipped from that into darkness myself.