I slept like a rock until someone knocked on my bedroom door and triggered a burst of paranoia that sent me scrambling for one of the knives next to the bed before I’d quite opened my eyes. Fortunately I’d managed to convince Aiko that transforming for the first time in years under those circumstances wasn’t the best idea, and as a result I was still human-ish. Aiko wasn’t, which was unfortunate because she was a lot less dangerous in her fox form. Luckily, she didn’t take nearly as long to transform as a werewolf.
“Get up,” Enrico said.
Stabbing your friends is generally not considered good manners, so I settled for glaring at the door. “What are you doing here at,” I checked the clock, “five forty-three in the morning?” I demanded.
The former cop and current werewolf pushed the door open. “Kyra wanted you to come give us a hand with something,” he said as he came in. A moment later, he blanched and walked right back out, closing the door behind himself, his posture conveying embarrassment as clearly as if I’d seen him blushing.
I felt Snowflake’s low chuckle reverberate through my mind. The dog looked like she was still sleeping at the foot of my bed, but it was an act; she’s nearly as paranoid as I am and has much better senses.
Oh shut up, I sent back, dressing hurriedly. I found Enrico sitting at the kitchen table with a cardboard cup of expensive coffee in his hand. He hadn’t brought one for me, because he knew that I’m not much of a coffee person.
“So,” he said awkwardly, staring out the window. “I, ah, knew you were a bit off, Winter, but I have to admit I never got the bestiality vibe from you.”
There were a lot of things I could have said to that, but I tend to be a bit surly at that time of morning. “I don’t know,” I said, with a carefully cultivated tone of academic interest. “‘Bestiality’ is a word coined to describe humans who have sex with animals, right? So if you have one nonhuman entity who looks like an animal but isn’t engaging in consensual sexual activity with another nonhuman entity who doesn’t look like an animal but in some ways is one, can you describe that as bestiality? It seems like another term is needed. Maybe—”
“Forget I asked,” Enrico interrupted. “And Winter? Don’t ever bring up that line of thought again,” he said seriously. “It weirds me out when you people start talking about that sort of thing.”
I frowned. “Us people? What do you mean?”
“Not important,” he said. “This conversation? Moving on now.”
I laughed. “What did Kyra want?”
He frowned. “Not sure,” he said. “Freak squad called her around five. Whatever it is, she sounded pissed.”
“Freak squad?” I asked.
“Officially,” Enrico said dryly, “werewolves are ordinary citizens and require no special treatment by the law. Unofficially, they scare people and most cops want nothing to do with them.”
“Ah. Does the freak squad have an official designation?”
“Yeah. Officially, it’s designated as not existing. Mostly it’s just whatever cops pissed off important people most recently. They take care of all the things that nobody else wants to deal with.”
I grunted. “They call Kyra often?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know. I’m not allowed within a mile of police business.” He smiled thinly. “People might start to wonder why I’m not living with my family in New York the way I said I would be when I quit.”
Aiko walked out and sat on one of the misshapen kitchen chairs backward. Unlike the werewolves, she doesn’t take more than a heartbeat to slide from one shape to the other; just now you’d never guess that she’d been a fox less than ten minutes earlier. “Sucks to be you,” she told Enrico. “So what’s the crisis?”
“What makes you say there’s a crisis?” he asked.
“I’m awake before six,” she replied dryly. “That is, itself, a crisis situation.”
“Kyra wants some help with a crime involving weirdness and possibly werewolves. You interested?”
She frowned and stared blankly into space for a moment. “Love to,” she said, “but probably better not. I have to work today. See you tonight.” She sauntered out, having already collected her completely unnecessary umbrella.
“That is possibly the strangest person I have ever seen,” Enrico said after she left.
I grinned. “You don’t know the half of it.”
“And I hope I never learn. You ready to go see what the boss wants?”
“Thought you weren’t allowed near the police.”
“I’m supposed to give you a ride and drop you off without dallying or talking to anyone.” Enrico’s voice was wry.
I shrugged. “Sure, why not. Not like I had anything better to do today.”
Kyra was waiting for us outside the building. Enrico exchanged a few words with her that I didn’t hear before he left. I didn’t need to hear them; I could see the important bits simply in how they stood, how they interacted with each other. He was, ever so slightly, deferential; she took it in stride, acting as though it was the natural order of things—because, for them, it was.
Kyra had always been dominant. It showed in dozens of small ways—her stubbornness, the way that when she encountered a problem she acted to solve it, without spending any time complaining or wishing for someone else to make it go away. For most of the time I’d known her, though, she’d kept it pretty well hidden. Her psychological scars had been such that she kept largely to the background, preferring to let others claim the spotlight.
Since she became…what she was now…things had been changing. She moved with a quiet confidence—something that wasn’t so much buried or muted as it was deemed too obvious to need stated. When she wanted my help—something that had been known to happen before—she didn’t ask in person, didn’t even call. She sent a minion with instructions to bring me.
She was still the same person. In fact, she might have been more the same person than she was before, if that makes any sense. And certainly the changes weren’t bad ones. Her friends could hardly wish they hadn’t happened.
I’d been telling myself that since January. Most of the time I even believed it.
She turned to greet me with a smile—that, at least, hadn’t changed. “Winter. Thanks for coming out here.”
“I was afraid I’d die of curiosity otherwise. So what’s your merry band of werewolves gotten up to now?”
She grimaced and leaned against the wall of the building, a classy hotel in the middle of town. “It actually wasn’t us this time. How much did Enrico tell you about what happened?”
“Virtually nothing,” I told her. “I understand that the group of cops who were unofficially detailed to deal with werewolves called you in the middle of the night for help.”
“It’s not just werewolves,” she said. “They get handed all the problem cases nobody else wants.”
“Sounds like a worse job than mine,” I commented. “They call you often?”
She shrugged. “Occasionally. They know I’m the one to talk to if it looks like the werewolves are acting up. Other than that…sometimes they run into something weird, right? And ever since we went public people assume werewolves are the ones to talk to about weird, God only knows why.”
I could sympathize. I’d recently had someone come into my shop and ask me to recommend a good exorcist. I mean, seriously. An exorcist? Why would you go to a furniture shop looking for an exorcism?
“So what’d they run into this time?”
She frowned. “Wish I knew. They found a body on the fourth floor. Not too big of a deal, except that they can’t find any cause of death. There’s literally nothing wrong with him, except that he’s dead.”
“Huh. That happen often?”
“No clue. They wouldn’t have called me if they weren’t concerned, though. I charge them.” She glanced at me with an impish gleam to her eyes. “Speaking of which, they’re paying you by the hour. I figure if they want an expert that bad, they can cough up the same as for the other consultants.”
“Expert, huh?” I said dubiously. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on much of anything. “What are they paying me to do?”
She shrugged. “Show up. Look around. Make cryptic comments for all I know. I really just wanted to know if it’s something you recognize.”
“Maybe. Any chance I could look at the place?”
“Officially, it’s being treated as a crime scene and nobody gets in. Unofficially…” she grinned. “Unofficially, you’re with me and I go wherever I want to.”
It’s good to be the Alpha.
I paused when we walked in the door, then proceeded more slowly across the room, looking around nervously. The scent of magic lingering in the doorway wasn’t terribly strong, but it was there, and between that and the dead person I was feeling more than usually paranoid.
In the elevator Kyra turned to stare at me. “What are you so twitchy about?” she asked. “You’ve been on crime scenes before.”
“Well, sure,” I said. “But this time I’m allowed to be here. I mean, that’s just weird.” She snorted.
Kyra unlocked the door with a key. The room itself was totally unremarkable. I mean, it was so normal it was a little freaky. Everything looked just like you’d expect from a vacant hotel room. Everything clean, everything tidy. The bed was made with military precision, the carpets vacuumed. In the bathroom everything sparkled, and the towels had been straightened up.
If she hadn’t told me, I would never have guessed that anything amiss had happened here, even with my unnatural senses. There was quite simply nothing there. No physical scent that didn’t belong, no lingering trace of magic. Nothing.
“Did you get a look at the body?” I asked her.
She shook her head. “They took him down to the morgue already. It wasn’t until after they couldn’t turn up anything there that they called me.”
I nodded. “You get any odd scent from the room?”
“Nothing. Come on.”
Back on the ground floor, I paused just long enough to confirm what I already knew. Once I was paying attention to it, I couldn’t just smell magic at the doors; there was a fainter, lingering trace throughout the lobby, especially strong near the front desk and the elevator. The main tone was familiar, human disinfectant. There was another note, very slight, that was almost but not quite like blood; it was spicier, somehow, as though a dash of cayenne had been added.
“Did you find anything?”
“Maybe,” I said. “There wasn’t anybody checked into that room, was there?”
“No. How’d you guess?”
“Traces of magic on the ground floor, especially near where other people would have been. The desk, the elevator.”
Kyra was fairly experienced, and there wasn’t anything wrong with her mind. “You think somebody used an invisibility spell to sneak the corpse past the desk?”
“Um. Maybe, but probably not. Actual invisibility is a pain in the ass—very complicated, very difficult, and usually a waste of time. Most people just go for concealment.”
She nodded. “Like that shadow thing you do.”
“Yeah, sometimes. Or you can just convince people that they don’t see you, even though you’re right there—that’s what Garrett did, remember?” I chewed on my lip for a second, thinking. “There’s a supermarket not far from here, right?”
“Couple blocks north. Why?”
“I’ll explain on the way.” We didn’t bother getting her car; it was a short walk, and neither of us was particularly upset by cold.
“The problem with concealment spells,” I told her as we walked, “and with invisibility for that matter, is that there’s only so much you can do. Unless you’re, like, absolutely incredibly good, there’s always going to be gaps in your coverage. Most skilled people know that, and they plan around them. Take invisibility, for example. It’s hard enough to do that it demands your total attention—meaning that you’re not putting any effort into stopping them from hearing you.”
Kyra nodded slowly. “That’s why most people don’t do it, right?”
“Right,” I confirmed. “Why bother working so hard and still having to move quietly, when you can just be really hard to see and still have some left to cover hearing? That’s what I do with the shadows—it’s hard to see somebody covered in shadows standing in a dark corner, and ’cause I’ve been working out I can do a little to muffle things at the same time.”
“What about the other kind of concealment? If you’re just convincing people they can’t see you, it shouldn’t matter how much noise you make, right? You can convince them they can’t hear you just as easily.”
“Yeah. But that has its own limitation. See, because you’re screwing around with their head directly, hitting one person won’t do jack to keep they guy standing next to him from seeing you. You have to get every person individually, and that means you have to know they’re there.” I shrugged. “Like I said. There’s always going to be a gap in your coverage. The trick is to make it overlap with something you don’t need to worry about.”
“So, if you’re standing in a dark room, you put less effort into being invisibility and more into making sure nobody hears you?”
“Exactly. The thing is, humans are your main concern, right? So most mages put a lot of effort into blocking sight and hearing, and almost nothing else.”
She frowned. “But I couldn’t smell them either.”
“Unless maybe you could. Mages don’t smell any different from regular humans.” She knew as well as I did that trying to sort out a specific human scent from a total morass of similar scents such as you find in a public place, like a hotel is functionally impossible if you don’t already know the scent from somewhere else.
She considered that for a moment. “So I take it you’re doing your freaky animal mind meld thing hoping they forgot to conceal themselves from nonhuman senses when they brought him through?”
“Pretty much, yep. I figure a fox is probably the best bet.” Like I said, Kyra’s not stupid.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” she said, smirking suggestively.
“Get your mind out of the gutter, Kyra.” We walked into the store, one of those big twenty-four-hour places. “Don’t suppose you have any cash on you?”
“Sure, if you answer two questions. One, what are we doing here? And two, wouldn’t a spider make more sense? I mean, they say there’s always a spider within three feet of you, right?”
I grimaced. “Maybe if I could do it with a spider. That kind of magic depends on making a connection with the object of the spell. In the greater scheme of things, there’s relatively little difference between me and a fox. Both mammals, both predators—”
“Both interested in your girlfriend,” she interjected, grinning.
I sighed. “We get the point, thank you. Anyway, we’re relatively similar. The more similarity, the easier it is to bridge that gap. A spider is much harder for me to use—not only have I not spent much time thinking like a spider, it’s a freaking arachnid. Not a lot to work with there.”
“Okay. And we’re here because?”
“We’re here because I forgot to grab a pound of raw meat when I woke up this morning, and so did you or I would’ve smelled it.”
She blinked. “You’re bribing it?”
“‘Bribery’ is an ugly word,” I said in a mock-offended voice. “I prefer to think of it as an honest wage for honest work. I mean, it’s taking valuable time—one of the best parts of the day by its standards—to give me a hand. If a human does that, you give him cash. If a fox does it, you should pay him in what he values.” I glanced at the plastic-wrapped packages of meat in the cooler. “Speaking of which, you’re buying, right?”
“Technically, the pack’s buying, and then the police are reimbursing the pack.”
I put the hamburger down and picked up a package of steak. “Cool.”