I had enough time to stop at home before the meeting, so I did. I wasn’t sure quite what the circumstances of this meeting were going to be, but I was pretty much certain I needed to change my outfit.
A first meeting between supernatural beings is always a touchy matter. Think of it as being like two gunslingers who don’t know each other running into one another in the local saloon. Now, they might not be enemies and they might not be about to fight each other in the street, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t ready for it to happen. So, inevitably, they’re going to be sizing each other up. Checking how well maintained the other guy’s gun is and so forth.
Ideally I wanted to present myself as confident, casual, and ready for trouble. The problem is that there is a thin line between presenting yourself as ready for trouble, and broadcasting the attitude that you’re looking for trouble. Imagine walking into that Wild West saloon with an AK-47, a rocket launcher, two belts of ammo, and a dozen grenades instead of just a pistol. On the other end, though, you have the people who aren’t carrying a weapon at all. Nobody respects those people in a place like that. And, as Machiavelli and even normal businessmen know, it’s never good to bargain with someone who holds you in contempt. It’s even worse with a supernatural predator like a vampire. Present yourself as a weakling and they don’t see you as something to make deals with. They see you as food.
So it was a little tricky deciding how heavily armed I wanted to be. The first thing I did, of course, was change clothing. A T-shirt and cargo pants is fine for working in the lab, but not exactly a good first impression. Fortunately I still had the black pseudo-silk shirt and grey slacks I’d bought for that ill-fated party at Ryujin’s palace. I’d added a number of pockets to the slacks, of course, and there were even a couple small ones carefully hidden in the shirt.
I put all three of my stored spells into pockets—a piece of rock crystal in my left-hand hip pocket, an iron sphere the size of my pinkie nail in an inside pocket, and the most recent glass marble tucked into one sleeve. My rope of shadows went into my right-side pocket, and I slipped a pair of small folding knives into their respective positions as well. I slipped my pendant on over my head as well, and put on a pair of rings.
I debated taking either a gun or Tyrfing, but decided that it would be that little bit too much. Plus they weren’t nearly as easy to conceal as my other gear, most of which could be mistaken for a simple fashion accessory.
I also, over her protests, left Snowflake at home. I wasn’t really expecting this to turn into a fight, and I did not want to bring her onto anybody’s radar.
Pryce’s looked exactly the same as usual, an island of stability in the madness that my world had become. It was kind of comforting, in a weird way; it was like, so long as it was there, my life could still go back to normal. But that was an illusion, and I knew it. I couldn’t go back.
Like it or not, this was the new normal for me.
I walked down the short flight of steps to the floor, inhaling the rich aroma of the bar. It was a lot like any other such place; dozens of kinds of wood blending together into a single tone that formed the base for a complicated scent made up of food and old beer and dozens of other things that had been there so many years it had sunk into the walls. Familiar. Comforting.
It was late, already eleven thirty, but there were still plenty of people there. A few werewolves, a few geezers playing chess in the corner, a handful of folks at the bar drinking. A young woman I was acquainted with was at her usual station at the pool table, playing a vaguely biker-looking fellow. He was winning and she was wearing an uncomfortable expression I was very familiar with, and which made me grin. Rachel was a pool shark of the first order, all the more effective because her slight build and innocent face made her look about as home there as a penguin in a palm tree. If she was losing it was because the money hadn’t come out yet. There were a few other people I knew, and a handful I didn’t, like the table of three college-age kids with the slightly nervous air of people who really don’t belong where they’ve found themselves.
All of that was normal. Several of them turned to look at the door as I opened it, which was normal enough as well; people at Pryce’s tend to be very aware of what’s going on around them. Pryce himself was, as always, behind the bar directing the ebb and flow of the place like a master orchestra conductor. He was a big man, six foot five and muscled like a weightlifter. With Conn’s words in mind I studied him a bit more closely than usual, but I still couldn’t even guess what he might be. He looked the same as he had since I started going there, showing not even the slightest change despite the years that had passed since then. His bright red hair and beard showed the same proportion of grey as always.
When he saw me he beckoned shortly and went back to serving drinks. He didn’t say anything, or watch to be sure I was coming. He didn’t need to. In Pryce’s bar you do what he says, because otherwise bad things happen. It is his own tiny kingdom, and his power there is absolute.
“What’s up?” I said as I approached the walnut bar. As always I was impressed by the skill, the pure artistry that had gone into it. I’ve made some pretty things, but nothing like that.
“Meeting,” he said brusquely. “In back.” Pryce is not much given to conversation, and he particularly detests pleasantries and trivialities.
He nodded. “Private room.” Pryce didn’t make any obvious signal, but suddenly one of the waitresses appeared next to him. She led me through several back hallways to a small, unmarked oak door I hadn’t seen before. On the other side was, apparently, Pryce’s private dining room. I guess I must have known he had one, but it hadn’t ever really occurred to me before.
It was nice. Lots of oak and mahogany in the furniture, all of which was handmade and looked very, very expensive. A long conference-room style table, with a dozen or so fancy chairs along it. Oak paneling. Thick carpet, in jet black that I knew must be absolute hell to keep so clean and perfect-looking. A stone fireplace that could roast a whole ox, and which was currently burning merrily despite the warmth of the night. The high vaulted ceiling was more oak. There were maybe a dozen long pennants hanging down from the rafters, the colors vivid and bright beneath the dust. They gave the place a strangely medieval feel, like the great hall of some ancient castle, although nowhere near as large.
They weren’t the flags of human nations. I didn’t recognize most of them, but there was one I knew quite well. It was soft silver-grey, tapering to a single point, with a single black design on it. I thought it looked like a wolf’s face, but it was so stylized and ornate it could easily have been a lion, or a coyote. It could be anything, really. I couldn’t see it from here, but I knew that up close I would see elaborate patterns of filigree and knots in the border around the design.
It was the seal of the Pack, seldom used except on official documents and the like. Which, in turn, indicated that the others were probably emblems of other supernatural nations.
I was early, but—of course—the vampire was there before me. She was leaning against the wall near the fireplace. I’d never encountered a living vamp before, and I was somewhat surprised at how easy it was to tell her apart from a human. Physically it was hard to tell, except for a slightly odd odor, but magically she didn’t resemble a human even a little bit. Her power was strong, strong enough to overwhelm any other scents in the room, and stank of blood and spice. It was a little different than the other vampiric magic I’d smelled, more cumin and less cayenne. That was to be expected; there’s always a little variation, even between identical human twins.
I will admit that I been a bit stereotypical in my expectations. I had, subconsciously, anticipated someone tall and hungry-looking. She would have black hair and skin that hadn’t seen the sun for decades, and be correspondingly pasty. I expected her to be holding a glass of fresh blood, which Pryce quite likely kept on hand for events such as this one, or at least of wine meant to look like blood. Maybe even an opera cloak, for maximum melodrama.
Well, I was right about the tall, and about exactly nothing else. Her hair was ash-blond over blue eyes. She was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved black T-shirt. Oh, and she was drinking Coke out of a glass bottle.
“I hope you don’t mind that I reserved a room,” she said as I looked around. “But I’d rather not have this overheard.”
“Not a problem with me,” I said easily. “I hope you don’t mind if we get right down to business, though. I’d like to get some sleep tonight.”
“Not at all,” she said, sitting down at the table. Unlike the rest of Pryce’s bar, here the furniture all matched. “How much do you know about me?”
“Virtually nothing,” I said. “Other than that you’re a vampire and you wanted to chat.”
Her lips twitched into a frown momentarily. “I see. I suppose you convinced Olivia to tell you what I am.”
It would have been simpler to let her assume that, but I didn’t want to get the girl in trouble. “Nah,” I said lazily. “Didn’t need to. She smelled like you. Just a little bit.” I shrugged. “Wasn’t all that hard to put the pieces together. Speaking of, what’s with the Coke? I thought you lot preferred something a little…warmer.”
She shrugged, the motion fluid and unconcerned. “We require blood. That does not make us incapable of consuming other things. It doesn’t have nutritive value for us, but that’s not what food’s for most of the time, is it?”
“I suppose not.” After all, you could get by on water, bread, and maybe some beans every now and then. Doesn’t mean anybody wants to.
She waited a moment, then raised an eyebrow. “Are you planning to sit down?” she asked me.
“Well, you see, there’s a few things I’m not quite sure about here. For example, you’re a vampire, and that’s not something I’m real comfortable with. I mean, no offense, but you don’t have a stainless reputation, do you?”
“No,” I allowed. “And granted, a lot of the stories I’ve heard are biased, I’m sure. But still.”
“Justifiable,” she admitted. “There are many of my kind with whom that kind of caution would be very wise, even laudable.” She paused briefly. “You have my word, if that means anything. I intend no harm to you or yours.”
I considered a moment longer, then shrugged. I’d already come, after all, and I’d rather be hanged for a sheep. “Good enough,” I said, dropping into a chair across the table from her. “So what did you want?”
“You’re involved in my business,” she said simply. “I would like to know why.”
I thought for a moment, then it clicked. “The vampire,” I said. “The one found in the hotel room. He was one of yours?”
Her expression was remote. “Indeed. He was my child. And he was left there as a challenge to me.”
“Well,” I said, “that puts me into an interesting position. See, I’m not so sure I want to get in this guy’s way. I mean, who knows? Maybe I even want to give him a hand.”
“Are you threatening me?” The vampiress sounded more curious than anything.
“Not exactly,” I said. “But honestly?” I shrugged. “If I could kill you right now, without breaking my word or putting people in danger, I probably would. If he wants to, I don’t know that I have anything against him doing it.”
“You have some grievance against me, then?” she asked. “I wasn’t aware that I had done anything to harm you. If I have, please tell me and I would be glad to make reparations.”
“Not to me. See, this isn’t really about something you’ve done. It’s more that I have a problem with what you are.”
“And what is that?”
“A parasite,” I said evenly and without rancor. “You eat people. You kill them and eat them. Now, I won’t say my hands are clean, and I know as well as anyone that werewolves aren’t always the nicest folks around. But they don’t have to kill to survive, and you do. So, and I mean no offense by this, if by killing you I could prevent you from doing that to a bunch more people, that seems like a pretty good deal to me.”
“I see,” she said coldly. “Very dramatic of you. I particularly liked the delivery. Very cool, very casual.” She laughed, the sound low and nasty. “You think that’s what I am? You think I wait in the shadows for some poor fool to walk by and pounce, is that it?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. That or you take him home and keep him there. Kill him by inches instead of all at once. Not sure which one’s worse.”
She looked at me, and I saw something change in her expression. A softening, of sorts. “That’s really what you believe, isn’t it?” She shook her head slowly. “Many do such things, I suppose. But I am not one of them. I do not imprison anyone, nor do I stalk my food and kill it. They stay with me because they choose to do so.”
“Is that because they’re too addicted to you to do anything else?”
“No,” she said simply. “It’s because I help them. Two of my stable were heroin addicts. I rescued them from the gutters and nurtured them to health. Another had severe schizophrenia. She is healthy, now. For the rest I do other things. We’re…a family, of sorts.” She smiled, showing very human-looking teeth. “A dysfunctional family, to be sure. But still family.”
“Okay,” I said after a moment. “Let’s say I believe you. What do you want?”
“I know you were there,” she said calmly. “Afterward. From your words I know that you have some idea who my adversary is.”
Oops. In retrospect, I guess I kinda did give it away.
“And you want me to help you deal with him?”
She shrugged. “If you’d like. Honestly, though, what I’m really here to do is deliver a warning. If you don’t get out of this, it’ll probably be bad for you. From your reputation I’m pretty sure you won’t listen, but I figured it was the least I could do to warn you.”
“You’re right,” I said after a moment. “I won’t listen.”
She smiled, the expression a little warmer than the others she’d given me. “In that case, I’d reward you for any information you can get me.” She dropped a card on the table. It was, like a number of others I had, a simple white business card unmarked by anything except a single telephone number.
I looked at it and didn’t make a move. “We’ll see,” I said. “I still haven’t decided whose side to throw in on here.”
“That’s fine. I’m confident you’ll pick the right side.” She stood up to leave. “Would you like some dinner? On me, of course.”
“I never say no to free food.”
“A wise policy,” she said. “I’ll send someone in. Good evening, Wolf.” She walked out, tossing the empty bottle over her shoulder as she left. She didn’t look back to watch it land neatly in the bin fifteen feet away.
I stayed and ate, slowly and thoughtfully. Then I got up and left. I took the card with me.
Never say no to free food, and never burn a bridge if there’s still a chance you might use it.