The wind rushed over my face as I fell, blew back my hair and my coat and roared in my ears. I was falling headfirst, straight toward the ground.
It was terrifying and gut-wrenching and, more than anything else, exhilarating. There is a reason people go skydiving, after all. It was an incredibly glorious sensation, feeling the air whip past me, seeing the lit windows of the hotel behind me blurring by in the night.
Of course, if I didn’t get my act together it would rapidly turn into a lethal sensation as well. I reached out, caught the wind streaming past me, and began to weave it into the right forms. As I fell I turned so that I was parallel to the ground, spread-eagled.
Flying is hard. Even with magic it’s a ridiculously hard thing to pull off. To really fly you have to direct the wind into pushing you in exactly the right direction, and with enough force to move your body weight against gravity. That’s a lot of force to overcome with air alone. On top of that, it means that once you get moving, you move fast. You have to, or else you start to fall. It’s hard to control, too, hard to change directions without breaking yourself or going out of control and hitting something.
All things considered, there aren’t very many people in the whole world who can fly with magic. I’m not one of them.
On the other hand, anybody can fall out of a window. That makes things easier. You don’t have to build up forces at that point; gravity does it for you. Granted, if you mess up it builds up enough force to turn you into an exceptionally messy pancake, but that’s the trade-off you make.
As I fell, I grabbed the wind and used it. First I nudged myself off course, pushing away from the building and slightly to one side so that I would land in a shadowed, quiet area away from prying eyes. As I did that I reached to the air underneath myself, thickening it and churning it into a wind that pushed up against me from below with significant force. It was a parachute, basically. I wasn’t trying to fly. I was just falling more slowly, in a graceful and controlled manner.
I didn’t drift to the ground like a feather. I didn’t hit like a sack of potatoes thrown out of an airplane either, though, so I was counting it as a victory. I struck the ground hard, about as hard as if I’d fallen from the second floor instead of the seventh (don’t ask how I know that, either) and rolled to disperse the momentum and keep from breaking my knees.
As far as I could tell, nobody had seen my exit. If they had (and for some reason told the truth to the police) they would immediately be dismissed as jokers or madmen. That had been part of why I’d done it the way I had, after all; everybody knows that a man doesn’t jump out of a seventh-story window and walk away unharmed. It was, in a somewhat lunatic way, much safer than climbing down.
Don’t you just love that? It was safer to jump out of the freaking window than take the elevator. God, I hate my life some days.
I walked away, quickly, in a random direction. I went about a mile, dropping my sunglasses in a trash can on the way. I’d gotten them on the cheap anyway. Tyrfing I leaned against the corner of a building in the alleyway. It would find its own way back. It always did.
Without those items I was significantly less conspicuous. Still a little strange looking, of course, but I’m used to that.
I stopped at a chain restaurant and had breakfast. I was polite and tipped well—I always do—but otherwise unremarkable. I didn’t think anyone would remember that I had been there. Then I walked about another mile in a different direction before calling another cab. It was, thankfully, not the same driver as before. That might have been awkward.
“How’d the armor work last night?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “I didn’t need it, remember?”
Aiko sniffed. “That’s pathetic. You didn’t use it even once? What kind of a fight is that?”
“The kind I won,” I said reasonably, scratching Snowflake’s ears idly. She was sleeping in her favorite place, which is to say on top of my feet.
“You won too easily. I expected better.”
“Too easily? Is that even possible?”
“Of course,” she scolded me. “What could be more boring than an easy fight? I mean, you have to let them hit you at least once. It’s more exciting that way. Also, nobody bets against an obvious winner, so it’s hard to make a buck unless you at least make it look like a close fight. Unless you throw it, I suppose….”
I snorted. “What about that troll you killed when we were hitting Black’s compound? You didn’t even let the thing get close to you, never mind actually hitting you.”
“Entirely different,” she said airily. “That was graceful, elegant, and aesthetically pleasing. There are professional dancers that can’t look that good while beating someone up. Even if you gave them a sword. You’re a cheap thug by comparison.”
“You’re insane,” I told her. “You realize that, right? You are a menace to yourself and others. A certifiable lunatic. Also, possibly sociopathic. I never did get clear on quite what that means, but I think random violence to strangers has something to do with it.”
“Don’t forget vandal,” she said helpfully. “Or kleptomaniac, that one always sounds good.”
The worst part is that we weren’t entirely, or even mostly, joking. She really is all those things, excepting possibly the kleptomaniac. It’s not just drugging my food—that’s harmless, I know her, and she doesn’t do it when there’s weird shit going on anyway. No, my favorite was the time somebody cut her off in traffic, some jerk with an expensive new car who almost caused a wreck. You’ve probably had the same thing happen to you.
What you probably didn’t do was follow them home, slash their tires, wreck their engine, and generally ensure that their car would never run again. Luckily I’d talked her out of planting drugs in their house and then tipping off the cops. That goes a bit too far, in my opinion.
“So what will you do now?” she asked a few minutes later.
“Not sure,” I said. “I kinda doubt I can live and let live with this guy at this point. I don’t see much in the way of a peaceful resolution for this situation.” I sighed. “Unfortunately, I also don’t see how I can get at him. Dude’s freaking invisible. I guess I have to come up with some kind of plan to deal with him.”
“Funny you mention it,” she said in that too-innocent tone that is never safe, no matter who’s using it. “I actually have a plan already.”
I eyed her dubiously. “I don’t want to hear it, do I?”
“Almost certainly not.”
I sighed. “Tell me anyway.”
She did. It took a while, mostly because I kept interrupting with incredulous and caustic comments.
“You are a shitty planner,” I told her. “I have literally heard better plans than that proposed by a dog.”
“Got a better idea?”
“I hate it when you revert to logic,” I muttered. “And no.”
She grinned. It wasn’t a hostile expression, exactly, but it wasn’t comfortable to have aimed in my direction, either. Think Cheshire Cat.
“Fine. Let’s get to it.”
Aiko’s plan was particularly hard for me, because psychologically speaking, I’m a lone wolf. And no, I don’t mean any kind of pun by that. The plain truth is that I don’t run with a pack for a reason, and much of that reason is who I am.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a people-hater, nor do I turn away assistance when it’s offered (obviously). It’s more a matter of first reactions. When I find out about a situation, my impulse isn’t to ask for help or look for someone to tell me what to do. It’s to just go, figure out what to do about the problem, and get it done. Even when I do have help, I’m used to relying on myself. I’m not much good at team tactics.
This particular plan called for me to rely totally on others. Barring extraordinary luck and possibly divine intervention I couldn’t pull it off solo. If my allies decided to leave me out to dry, I was absolutely and utterly screwed. The target would probably be killed shortly afterward, but that wouldn’t be much comfort to me.
But I didn’t have a better idea. And Aiko’s logic, though not a chain that I would ever have conceived of, nevertheless seemed reasonably sound. In this situation, being idiosyncratic to the point of nigh-insanity was probably actually a benefit. There is something to the claim that lunatics are more dangerous than sane people, because they’re so hard to predict.
It was byzantine beyond rationality, but the essence was really very simple. Step one was to call Enrico. I had no way of contacting Luke, who was my only lead on finding Jon. However, he had let slip that one of his cohorts was a policeman named Mike, who had been the source of much of their information before they met Jon.
Now, I was sure there must be plenty of Mikes in an organization the size of the police force. But Mike had been getting information about supernatural monsters through the police force, and as far as I knew Enrico was the only cop in the city that could have provided that information. Enrico wouldn’t have talked to a stranger about that kind of thing, so I was pretty sure he would know which person I should ask.
As it turned out, he did. He asked what I wanted it for, of course, but I put him off.
I’ve done that a lot to him. I actually feel kinda guilty about it.
He was willing to let me get away with it, on the condition that I tell him if things got dangerous. I agreed, which was technically not a lie, because things were already dangerous. He gave me another number, which I promptly called. It rang seven times before a deep, unfriendly voice answered.
“Who is this?”
“You Mike Adams?”
“Yeah. Who are you?”
“My name’s Winter,” I said, grinning. “I hear you know Luke.”
There was a brief pause. Then, he said, “Ah. So that’s what this is about.” His voice, although not overtly hostile as it had been when he answered, was still guarded, untrusting.
“Yep. I think we need to talk.”
“Maybe,” he said guardedly. “Where?”
“The Full Moon Grill,” I told him.
What? The irony amused me.
“Fine. Half an hour.”
“Meet you there. Oh,” I added, “and bring the gang.” I hung up.
“Half an hour?” Aiko asked.
“Yeah. Give me a ride?”
“What, do I look like a cabbie to you?” she said, already holding her keys.
“Looks aren’t bad,” I said thoughtfully. “But the voice is wrong. You need a Middle Eastern accent, I think, and maybe a touch more sports-announcer. And sound angry. You might want to rant about immigrants not speaking English, even though you’re barely intelligible yourself. That’s always good for a laugh.”
“And you call me crazy,” she muttered.
We were the first ones there, taking the same upper-level table as the last time I’d been there. Such tiny amusements make life worth living, if you ask me. Especially when you don’t have access to the large amusements.
I’d left most of my gear at home, because it wasn’t legal to own. The gun, for example, and the knives. The armor, too, because it was conspicuous and wouldn’t do much to protect me from magic in any case. Besides which they’d be fools to attack me on my home ground. Not that I had any real advantages there, it’s not really my place, but they didn’t know that.
Of course, I’d still brought my other gear, the foci and stored-spells and such. They’d be fools to attack me, but I’d be just as idiotic not to assume that they would.
I ordered breakfast, too, of course. Technically it was closer to lunch, but I’d only woken up recently, a few minutes before Aiko got there. The food was about half gone when Aiko murmured, “Company,” not looking away from the food.
I followed her example, not showing any sign that I had noticed the new arrivals. Fortunately, today the bartender actually was a werewolf, one of the three or four who worked in the restaurant. In fur or out, a werewolf is close enough to an animal for me to work with. With a little magic I got an excellent view of the newcomers through her eyes.
There were about half a dozen of them, Luke Laufson in the lead. Next to him was a big, bluff-looking fellow who, judging by the basso quality of his muttering, was most likely Mike. The rest looked vaguely familiar, and overall they gave the same impression as the last time I’d seen them—which is to say that they looked various flavors of young, unsure, and slightly nervous.
They saw us immediately, of course. A few of them, including Luke and Mike, did a reasonably good job of not showing it. The rest were almost painfully obvious, one man even pointing at our table like an idiot. Mike winced when he saw it, although I suspect that was more because he was a cop than anything.
They lingered for a few minutes downstairs, although I don’t really know why. They must have known we were aware of their presence. Maybe they were waiting for Aiko to leave or something. In any case, when they did make their way up about five minutes later they’d been joined by another two people. Luke was still clearly the leader.
“Mr. Wolf,” he said politely, stopping a short distance from the table. “You had something you wanted to talk about?”
“Call me Winter,” I said. “Please. You’re missing some people.”
“Yes,” he said. “Mac was called in to work unexpectedly. Given that she works at the hospital it seemed somewhat…improper to ask her to come anyway. The others should be joining us shortly.”
“Excellent,” I said. “Maybe some introductions are in order?”
“I suppose so,” he said after a moment. “You already know me, of course, and I understand you’ve spoken with Michael as well. Then Katie’s over there, and that’s Brick Anderson next to her.”
I nodded and made polite sounds. Katie was a small, slight young woman with dark hair, who wore ratty jeans and a T-shirt and no makeup at all. I was betting she was from the college. Brick, which was an even stranger name than mine, was about the exact opposite. He was better than six five, thin as a beanpole (and just what is a beanpole, anyway? It’s ridiculous the comparisons we use, when you think about it), and had close-cropped blond hair.
Luke went around the group. The woman with frizzy blondish hair was Erica, who had been so confrontational the last time I saw these people. The silent man hanging around at the back, who kept his weight on the balls of his feet and who I was almost sure had been loitering around outside when we got there, went by Aubrey. Chuck was a sturdily built guy who looked about twenty-five, dressed in jeans and an oil-stained shirt. Matthew and James, who I was willing to bet went by Jimmy most of the time, were the ones who had arrived late. Kris, who was wearing a sundress and flip-flops, had been sitting at another table when we arrived.
I introduced myself as well, of course, and Aiko, though I didn’t say who she was or why she was there. None of them asked, which suggested either remarkable courtesy or astounding stupidity. With this gang, I wasn’t betting on politeness.
The really remarkable thing was that, now that I had the time and attention to spare, I could sort out each of their individual magics by scent. James, like Luke, smelled of fire and heated air, hungry. Brick smelled, essentially, like his namesake. Matthew, Kris and Chuck were sharper and musky, an aroma that reminded me of a werewolf without the lavender tones, while Erica’s power was light and fresh like a morning breeze off the sea. Katie, Aubrey, and Mike were subtler, trickier to figure, though I remembered Luke mentioning that Mike was a shaman.
“All right,” Luke said when that was finished. “That’s all of us. Mac’s at work, like I said, and Doug’s out of town today. What did you want to talk about?”
I frowned. There was something…funny about Luke. I felt like I should know him, somehow, although I couldn’t quite say why. Something in the way he so smoothly took control of things, like a masterful orchestra director, seemed uncannily familiar.
There was no point dwelling on it now, though. “You remember what I told you before?” I asked him. “About Jon.”
“Sure,” he said. The others didn’t look excessively confused, so I presumed that he’d filled them in. “Did you get any proof?”
“Nothing irrefutable,” I said darkly. “Incidentally, what did you call his apprentice? The woman you were going to meet with last night.”
“Olivia,” he said.
I grunted. “Well, that’s something. Same name she gave me. Speaking of which, she was also working for a vampire. The same one who…what do you call it when a vampire makes another vampire?” I asked suddenly. “None of you know? Darn. Anyway, she was the one who made the vampire that I think Jon killed.”
“And you think that’s going to convince us to side against him?” Luke was still the only one speaking up. I had to wonder just how unanimous they were. “We’re more likely to congratulate him for it than anything, you realize.”
“Two points,” I said. “One, I already told you why that’s not such a good idea. Two, don’t you think he should have at least told you? I mean, given that his apprentice was working with the vampire in question, it seems like common sense. Otherwise how would you know not to hit that particular nest?”
Aubrey spoke for the first time. “I notice that you’re speaking of her in the past tense,” he said, startling me a little.
“Oh,” I said. “Um. I take it that means you didn’t see it in the news.” A bunch of blank faces looked back at me, and I frowned. “Huh. I thought sure they would have found the body by now.”
Mike cleared his throat meaningfully. “I take it,” he said carefully, “that you did, in fact, kill Olivia.”
“In all fairness,” I said, “I feel I should point out that she attacked me. Also, I believe that she was an accomplice to at least one murder. Plus whatever fancy language you have for that. Conspiracy to something or other, I’m sure.”
He frowned disapprovingly. “Even if she was,” he said, “and that’s a big if, it doesn’t give you the right to take the law into your own hands.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, you really think they’re going to buy ‘psycho magic ritual’ in the courts as a murder weapon?”
“Besides which,” Aiko said suddenly, “is it not the same as what you’re doing? I admit a certain unfamiliarity with your legal system, but I fail to see the difference between that and your brand of vigilante justice. Unless, perhaps, it’s that what he did was to a human you knew instead of the faceless, nameless horde that you call monsters. In which case perhaps you should reconsider the rightness of your own position.”
Mike looked like he’d swallowed a live eel.
“Do you have any proof of your statements?” Luke asked, dragging the conversation back onto topic by main force.
I shrugged. “Nothing that isn’t dependent on my word. Which, obviously, if you trusted me that much we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“I don’t think we can agree to act based on your suppositions.”
“Don’t blame you,” I said cheerfully. “I have a proposal for you, though.”
“This should be interesting,” he said with a small, humorless grin. The expression nagged at me, making me wonder again why I felt so strongly like I knew him.
“I’m going after Jon,” I said quietly. “I’m sure he’s the one who’s been behind this. And I’m going to take him down. I am not just going to kill him. I will visit such horror upon his head that it will be spoken of in whispers a dozen years hence. I will rain down fire and destruction on his house, and when I walk away there will not be two stones left standing. When I have finished with him even the demons that wait and watch in the darkness beyond our world and feed upon the misery we mortals inflict upon each other will cringe, and Satan himself will laugh when he sees the things I’ve done.” I smiled brightly. “And, you know, I figured there’s no reason for you to get caught in the crossfire. You seem like decent kids and, y’know, I’d really rather not kill you?” I grinned wider, leaned forward a little, lowered my voice. “If he calls…I’d suggest you not answer. You don’t have to help me. Just stay out of my way, and everybody goes home happy.”
We got up and left without another word. And, clever fellow that I am, I’d already eaten or pocketed all the food.
Think ahead, that’s my motto.