I don’t like this, Snowflake said for maybe the fourteenth time in the past twelve minutes.
I know, I shot back, keeping the communication as slight as I possibly could, such a minimal investment of energy that even she would barely notice it. The Watcher was supposed to meet me at this intersection in about ten minutes, which I naturally assumed meant that she was already here spying on me. (Paranoid, remember?) I wasn’t quite sure whether it was possible to eavesdrop on my conversations with the husky—probably not, given that she was an animal and that particular gift was rare indeed, but I didn’t feel like taking unnecessary chances. There were already too many involved which I couldn’t eliminate. But as far as the Watchers know, you’re just a dog. That’s the only hole card we have.
I know that, she shot back, the faintest touch of a growl in her mental voice. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.
A couple minutes later, I spotted the ridiculously blatant Watchermobile approaching. It wasn’t hard; the streets are never really empty in the city, not even a relatively small one such as Colorado Springs, but it was almost two in the morning and they were far from busy. I ruffled Snowflake’s ears one more time, and then stood and walked out of the alleyway. Snowflake stayed, ghosting back into the shadows. She should have been painfully obvious—her fur is mostly white, for Loki’s sake—but she disappeared almost instantly. Magic? I dunno. I mean, I’ve seen her do some pretty freaky things—if nothing else, no normal husky can launch herself ten or fifteen feet through the air with enough accuracy to land on a gorillathing’s head, or take a hit from one and keep scrapping, and her ability to find people she considers pack is absolutely uncanny. That’s why she was so unnerved when I was kidnapped—the Otherside, coupled with the (presumably significant) distance, had prevented her from doing so. But she claims not to know anything about doing magic, and I’ve never noticed the smell, so maybe it’s something else going on.
I left her, trying to ignore the twinge of loss I felt, and went to meet my mostly-ally. She stopped in the street with an admirable lack of concern for laws, appropriate behavior, and the cars she forced to drive on the wrong side of the street to go around her FBI-esque behemoth.
“Did you get the information?” Laurel asked as I hoisted myself up into the Watchermobile.
“Maybe,” I said. “Got another lead, anyway. Did you get my stuff?”
“In the backseat.”
With a little contortion, I was able to ascertain that all of the goods we’d purchased from Jacques were still there. I left the shotgun because, as comforting as the idea of having it around was, I was fairly sure it was a wee bit much for the moment, and way too easy to see. The cloak could only cover so much.
I did take the pistol, though, folding it neatly into the cloak, which formed a neat pocket around it. And I dropped a hand grenade in, too, because why the hell not? I mean, it was easily concealable, right? And I’d seen firsthand the damage a couple of these babies could do; they were a custom model, which I’m pretty sure violated several international treaties and were totally illegal for me to even lay eyes on, and they pack one hell of a punch.
“Where now?” the Watcher asked.
Rather than answer directly, I shifted around, trying to get comfortable—for such a huge seat, they didn’t exactly do a great job in that department.
Of course, if my right hand happened to fall right next to my thigh, that was a total coincidence. So was the fact that, prodded by my will, the shadow-stuff of my cloak shifted around beneath the surface and brought my brand-new forty-five to exactly that position. Really. Oh, and so was the knife that slipped into my left sleeve. Totally coincidental. Trust me.
“It seems to me,” I said slowly, “that it’s about time we get some things out of the way.”
She glanced at me. “Such as?”
“Well,” I drawled, “I ain’t stupid, if’n you know what I mean. I know you’re lying to me, okay? That’s cool, I totally get it that you guys are super important and you’ve got all kinds of secrets. But I kinda think this might work better if I, you know, actually knew what was going on in this specific case.” I smiled brightly, showing off bunches of teeth and meeting her eyes. She looked away after only a moment. I get that reaction a lot, and I can’t honestly pretend that I don’t understand it. I’m used to them, but I freely admit that my amber eyes are a bit creepy, especially when you haven’t seen them much, and my smiles generally look more “psycho” than “friendly.”
Most werewolves look different in the wolf form than they do as humans, and especially they look different around the eyes. The hair doesn’t tend to change that much beyond obvious differences in texture and placement, and neither does relative body size—a big man usually turns into a big wolf. But the eyes, the eyes change.
Mine don’t. In fact, I hardly change at all, visually, aside from the obvious.
And I look like a pretty normal wolf.
“I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about,” she lied. It wasn’t a very good lie, which told me that she wasn’t trying to be deceptive. It might be a formality, or a joke of some sort, but I was confident that she would have done a better job than that if she were really lying.
I snorted. “Yeah, I’m sure. Do you have a list of people you know have been affected so far?”
She started to say something, paused, and then pulled an envelope out of an interior pocket of her cloak. It was the ultra-cheap kind you buy at Wal-Mart and had no markings whatsoever. She handed it to me with a grimace and pulled back out into traffic.
I opened the envelope and pulled out a couple sheets of blank, anonymous printer paper. The first one was a letter written neatly in black ink. You might want to consider improving your social skills, Wolf, it read. Just before two? If so, I just won the betting pool. Normally I wouldn’t tolerate this sort of impudence. However, in this case, I’m willing to make an exception. The list is enclosed.
I glanced at the clock. One fifty-seven. I sighed. “She wrote that before I woke up, didn’t she?” I asked rhetorically. It wasn’t signed, but it hardly needed to be.
Laurel glanced at me, seeming almost embarrassed. “Yeah.”
Of course she had. As far as I knew genuine prescience was impossible, which meant that she was just scary smart. Or she’d given Laurel a few dozen letters to pick from, which would also be pretty creepy when it comes to foresight.
I put the letter back into the envelope and examined the other sheet. It was, fortunately, significantly more informative than the letter—not so much because of the names that were on there, as the ones that weren’t.
I had, by this time, memorized the list we’d gotten from Jacques. This was the same—except that it didn’t include anybody that would inspire me to suspicion. That meant no Erica, no Jimmy, no Luna, no Jasmine, no Dr. Witt, no Michael.
In fact, looking at this list, I could see why you would immediately fixate on me. There wasn’t one name on this list that wouldn’t show up on a list of people closely related to me. Except, of course, Abdul, and that was where their forgery fell apart.
See, Jacques was a scumbag. He was a disgusting, reeking, disgusting, shambling, disgusting, pathetic, and disgusting wreck of a probably-not-human being. But, and this was very important, he clearly knew what he was doing. Aiko wouldn’t have vouched for anyone but a top-notch black marketeer. And no top-notch black marketeer would have thrown away a steady customer without a damned good reason. Not due to moral concerns, of course, but because reputation is everything in my world, and a known oathbreaker would soon have no customers at all.
I trusted the Watchers rather less, for obvious reasons. As such, I was inclined to go with Jacques’s list where the two differed—given that it had clearly been prepared with me in mind, I couldn’t trust a thing on the Watchers’ list. And, by comparing the two, it was pretty easy to see what was going on with theirs.
They had deliberately removed any indicator of what was really up, with the exception of the one person they knew I was already aware of. Abdul, really, was the one weakness—they couldn’t cover that up, not when I’d already talked to him. Oh, it wasn’t much—had I not seen the unredacted version, or had Legion not slapped a bit of brain back into me, I probably still wouldn’t have noticed a thing out of place. As it was, though, it was a telling gap, and one that answered most of the questions I’d really been going for when I pressured her for the list.
“Where next?” she asked impatiently, jerking me back to reality.
“Memorial Hospital,” I said absently, tucking the envelope into a pocket.
She looked at me oddly.
I shrugged. “I didn’t pick it.”
Memorial is a decent place, for a hospital. Which, granted, makes it only a slightly higher class of hellhole, but I have to give them credit for trying. And, if I’m being totally honest, a lot of the problem is me, not them.
I hate hospitals. Everybody does, really, but I hate them extra.
What it comes down to is this. Nobody goes to a hospital because they want to be there. Nobody. You go to the hospital because you can’t go anywhere else. Oh, there are different classes of need—the girl in the emergency room who can’t breathe right ’cause she just got shot in the lung is in a whole other world of unhappy than the guy there for some routine tests. But nobody likes going to the hospital. Except maybe a handful of people with really weird fetishes, I guess, but they don’t count.
So lay that down as the base, and remember that I have extra senses to experience it with, and they aren’t much better. Hospitals always smell the same. The first thing I notice, the first thing anybody notices, is the disinfectant. They splash tons of the stuff around, probably trying to cover up all the other smells. Under that you have the blood, the shit, the chemicals with twenty syllables in their names that do things I can’t begin to understand. Then, right on the border between physical and magical odors, you have fear, desperation, agony, death.
I don’t care how much disinfectant and air freshener you pile on. There’s no hiding that kind of stench.
So that right there tells you a lot about why I don’t like hospitals. They’re not pleasant places. But, for me, there’s another layer underneath, and that is the people there.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate sick people. I sure as hell don’t hate doctors. They’re good people. I’m the one with the problem. I have no difficulty admitting that.
I’m not human. I’m a monster, really, by most definitions, and I’m sure not a safe person to be around.
I am a predator.
Now, I’ve had a lot of years to get used to that and I’m not surprised anymore, but the fact remains that there are all kinds of instincts that come with that status. When you’ve spent a decent chunk of your life seeing the world from the point of view of cats, dogs, coyotes, foxes, hawks, and various more exotic animals, it has an effect. It has a profound effect.
And that was before the werewolf thing. Between the two, well, I was more animal than human, mentally. I could cover it up pretty well, but I wasn’t in denial about it. End of the day, I’m a predator. It’s who I am, and it’s what I am, and all the pretty words in the world aren’t going to change that.
And one of the universal truths about predators is that they target the weak.
That’s what they mean when they say that predators can smell fear. If you flinch, if you hesitate or (God forbid) limp, they see that you’re vulnerable. Predators of any stripe have a very strong urge to attack that kind of vulnerability. In fact, most predators’ victims will fall into a few categories. Unless the animal in question is desperate, they tend to be the injured, the young, the sick, and the old. Predators almost never attack a healthy individual of a comparably sized species.
Now look at who goes to hospitals.
So yeah. That’s the real reason I try to avoid hospitals whenever I can. If I’m physically capable of hunting, almost every person I see there provokes a violent instinctual response in me. I see helpless people, and some part of me can’t help but think about what easy prey they would make.
I don’t let it control me, of course. I’ve had my whole life to learn to keep those impulses in check. It’s still an intensely uncomfortable reminder of a part of myself I generally try to keep hidden, though, and it isn’t something I enjoy.
So I don’t go to the hospital often, unless I’m dealing with a life-threatening injury myself.
But Mac worked nights, and I didn’t have the time to wait for her to get off-shift. So, you know, there I was.
“Probably best if you wait here,” I said, unbuckling the seatbelt I’d only put on to stop that infernal dinging noise. Come on, like I don’t know when I’m not wearing the thing?
The Watcher looked at me sidelong. “Something you don’t want me to know?” she asked. Her voice was light, but after seeing how creepily cheery she looked while on the brink of violence I wasn’t trusting it.
“No,” I said. That was truthful enough, as far as it went—I was pretty sure she already knew, I just wasn’t sure I wanted her knowing that I did. “But my source doesn’t like talking to strangers, and introductions would take too long.” Which was also true.
She sighed. “Fine. You aren’t back in half an hour, I’m leaving.”
They weren’t thrilled about me showing up at the emergency room, oddly enough. I couldn’t imagine why. I mean, shady characters showing up at two in the morning, uninjured, wearing a grey-black cloak and refusing to go through the metal detector isn’t a big deal. Must happen all the time.
Okay, so maybe they had a point.
Eventually, though, after a whole lot of fast talking, I got the receptionist to tell Mac to come find me when she got a chance. Then I went back outside, to get away from the smell and to avoid freaking people out more than I already had.
It’s a hard job working nights at the emergency room, okay? They didn’t need me making it harder.
It was almost fifteen minutes later, and I was starting to wonder whether the message had been relayed after all, when Mac finally opened the door and walked out.
Mac was one of those people who…well, the only way I can think of to explain it is that she was too perfect to be real. Seriously, you could pretty much write up a checklist of “hero-appropriate” traits and run down it, and be hard pressed to find something Mac doesn’t fit.
Tall, blond and beautiful? Check, at least for some versions of beauty—not enough character, if you ask me, but I’m a biased source. Well-spoken and always eager to see the best in others? Check. Dedicated to helping people? Absolutely—she works night shift as an ER nurse despite having both hemophobia and trypanophobia (I love how you can just tack things onto -phobia and make new words. It’s hilarious). Presumably they weren’t that serious, because I don’t see how you could work in a hospital if you were really that scared of blood, injury, and needles. But Loki had thought it worth mentioning, and that wasn’t something to dismiss lightly.
Of course, like any good hero, Mac really doesn’t like me all that much. She’s a pacifist—a real pacifist, I mean, the kind who I could actually see refusing to fight back if attacked—and I’m…not. So she looked pretty belligerent when she saw me. “It’s you,” she said, and for a second I thought she would turn right around and go back into the hospital.
“It’s me,” I confirmed. “I need your help.”
“Are you bleeding?”
“No,” I began. She immediately turned to go back in.
I stepped forward and grabbed her by the arm. Not hard—I wasn’t trying to hurt her, and she knew a good few nasty tricks she could have used if I did, especially given that I was making skin contact—but firmly enough that she definitely noticed it. “Wait,” I hissed. “Hear me out here.” She stopped moving, and I let go.
“Touch me again and I sue you for assault,” she said, just as quietly as I had spoken but with a greater quantity of venom. She meant it, too, and she would probably be successful if she did. I mean, she was a pretty white female nurse, I was a creepy looking dude who attracted the attention of the police on a regular basis, and we were within sight of her coworkers. That was the kind of case that causes defense lawyers to make the sign of whatever dark and mysterious gods lawyers worship.
“Look,” I said desperately. “I know we haven’t seen eye-to-eye often—or, well, ever—but I’m trying to help, here.”
She stared at me. She said nothing. She said it very loudly.
“Do you know a Dr. Witt?”
“He’s my boss,” she said bluntly. Her voice wasn’t quite openly hostile.
“Has he behaved…erratically lately?”
She frowned. “He called in sick a few days ago, if that’s what you mean.”
I let out my breath. Damn, it feels good when you take a wild guess and it actually pays off. “What would you say if I told you that he wasn’t sick? That it was the result of a major-league curse? That he was only one of a number of people who have been affected by this curse recently? That at least one of these people has been driven to suicide already, and I have no idea how most of the others have reacted?”
Her frown deepened, but at least it didn’t look like it was directed at me. “Do you have any evidence?”
“I give you my word,” I said seriously—with reason, because that’s a very serious statement on the supernatural side of things; a lot of us, being bloody ancient, are a wee bit old-fashioned, and if somebody learns that you’ve broken your sworn word it’s pretty much curtains for you, buddy. “Other than that….” I pulled the sheet of paper out of my pocket, along with a pen. And yes, I carry a pen everywhere I go. It isn’t the weirdest thing that lives in my pockets, believe me.
Mac watched curiously as I wrote a series of names on at the end of the list the Watchers had given me, finishing with Dr. Witt. “These are the people I know have been hit,” I said. “Abdul is the boyfriend of that girl Aubrey’s been stalking.”
“I’m not sure stalking’s the right word,” she said absently, staring at the sheet of paper. A moment later she looked up and met my eye. “Somebody’s gunning for us,” she said, us in this case referring to the Inquisition.
“Looks like,” I said. “And me too.” I smiled slightly. “Did I mention that this curse involves mental witchcraft designed to inflict pain? It’s almost enough to remind me of the last time we worked together.”
Comprehension dawned. “Jon’s dead, Winter.”
I nodded. “I know. We shot him half a dozen times, I chopped off his head, and then Loki burned what was left.” I tapped the list pointedly. “Doesn’t mean he didn’t have a friend, though. Somebody who might be looking for revenge by now.”
She stared some more. “I see. What should we do about it?” Mac doesn’t much like me, but she’s seen me in action enough to respect me, and she knew that I wouldn’t deceive her about something like this. Plus, if I was right, my own ass was on the line too, and that wasn’t something I was likely to ignore.
I sighed and tucked the sheet of paper back into its pocket. “I don’t know. There’s something very, very fishy going on, and I don’t know who we’re looking for. For now? Wait, be ready, be careful who you trust.”
She nodded firmly. “I can do that. God be with you.” She went back into the hospital without saying goodbye.
I stood there for a moment longer. “I doubt it,” I said finally, though I knew she didn’t hear me. “Why would He start now?”
I turned to leave, feeling incredibly bitter about…well, pretty much everything.
I was, just barely, back within Laurel’s time limit.
“Well?” she asked as I got into the Blatantmobile. I got the distinct impression that her patience was running short, and I honestly couldn’t blame her. From her perspective it must have seemed that I was just burning time, and dragging her around with me while I did it for no apparent reason.
“There was a witch in town a while ago,” I began. “I don’t know his name, but he went by Jon. He was a mentalist, same as the current curse, and he was experimenting with some sort of ritual to drain power from preternatural beings.”
“Really?” she said. “That’s really interesting—”
I held up one hand. “Stop,” I said wearily. “Stop right there. I get it that you don’t like sharing, but I’m not a moron, all right? Maybe you didn’t get involved, that’s cool, but I don’t for a moment believe that you people didn’t collect information on it. So don’t try and give me that line.”
She stared, and I could almost see the gears shifting in her head as I was reclassified from tough-talking werewolf bruiser to tough-talking werewolf bruiser with a brain. Before she could quite finish the process, I continued. “So,” I said, trying and failing to maintain a veneer of politeness. “Please, and I mean this quite seriously, please just answer this one question honestly. If I told you that I have solid evidence that this is related to him, that the person responsible for this curse either is or is employed by a person who was some sort of ally of that mage, what would you think?”
She was silent for a long moment. “I don’t know what that means,” she said finally, and I got the impression that she might actually be being honest for once. Shocking, I know. “I can look into it, but it’ll take time.” She looked at me, and although it was hard to tell for sure through all the lies and insanity, I almost thought it might be a look of concern, or maybe even pity. “Get some sleep, Winter. I’ll call you in the morning.”