It was morning. My phone, which had barely any charge left by now, informed me that it was in fact the next morning, and I had slept through a full day after my, ahem, accident. I wasn’t too terribly perturbed by that; it was a small price to pay for still being alive and moving.
It also told me that I had missed three calls, all from the same number, which I did not recognize. Laurel, most likely. She had told me that I would be hearing from her, and she must have been getting either furious or worried by now.
I didn’t feel quite up to dealing with her yet. Besides, I needed to swap my gear now that I knew more about the opposition. As usual, that meant the lab.
I still didn’t know who to trust, but it was sunny and surprisingly warm out, and under the enveloping coat you couldn’t see the bloodstains, so I could walk the streets without concern. It was a bit of a walk to my lab, but not terribly so, and I’m accustomed to walking through the city.
I might have been concerned, after the way it turned out last time, except for one thing. In the middle of the night, you can reasonably expect to corner somebody alone in a side street. That just doesn’t happen at eleven in the morning, and everything about this guy suggested that he wasn’t into direct confrontation or showing himself. It would have been highly out of character for him to attack me directly in broad daylight.
Thankfully, for once the villain appeared to be willing to agree with my analysis of the situation. I saw plenty of shady business on my way to the lab, but nothing excessive or unusual and nothing that smacked of a setup. Of course, I didn’t breathe easy until I was safely behind locks and wards, and even then it was touch and go.
Snowflake walked most of the way with me. I wasn’t sure that I approved of that—she was still my trump card, and I wasn’t certain that I wasn’t currently under surveillance—but sometimes you have to make allowances. She was, end of the day, still a dog, and that was more than just her appearance. She didn’t like being separated from me for long, and especially not when she knew there was a game afoot. Between that and my unexpectedly long silence, I would have had to beat her off with a stick to keep her away, and even that would have been iffy.
She hadn’t seen, heard, or smelled anything useful since I saw her last, so mostly I told her about what had happened to me, and she stuck as close to me as caninely possible, as though to reassure herself that I was still alive. She didn’t say much, but the feeling of her worry echoed down the connection between us with a message all its own.
Back at the lab, I finally took the time to listen to my voicemail. The first message, as I had predicted, was from Laurel telling me that she’d learned something, and that I should call her as soon as I could. The second, left late last night, said that she was assuming I wasn’t responding because I couldn’t (nice job there, Sherlock) and she was going to try and deal with things solo. Of course, like all good morons, she neglected to mention what it was she’d learned, what she was actually doing about it, and where I could find her.
These people, I swear. One of these days maybe I’ll link them to the Evil Overlord list and totally blow their minds. I mean, come on. Have they never watched a movie in their entire life or something?
The third was less than two hours old. For a fraction of a second, I was hoping that she would be telling me that she’d found our culprit, or maybe even that the problem was solved because she’d offed him already.
It was, of course, not that easy. I knew this as soon as the message started. Because, as you may have predicted (I know I did, after that last message), it wasn’t Laurel speaking.
“Hello, Wolf,” said a smooth, confident, slightly muffled masculine voice. “I do hope you’re feeling better. It wouldn’t do for you to be playing at anything less than the top of your game, you know. As you have most likely surmised, I have your Watcher friend in my custody.” There was a brief pause, punctuated by a groan of pain in the background. Laurel, presumably.
“You have twenty-four hours,” he continued. “If you do not find her within that time, she will die. Good hunting, Wolf. I look forward to our next encounter.”
Snowflake swore. At great length, and with startling originality, in three languages.
I was not a happy camper.
I did not, I feel I should hasten to say, give much of a damn what happened to Laurel. She was weird and disturbing, I had no idea how much of her apparent friendliness was a front, and she’d gotten herself into this mess by charging in solo, which even I could have told her was stupid beyond the bad guys’ wildest dreams. As far as I was concerned, she could pretty much cope.
Unfortunately, I rather doubted Watcher would see it that way. In fact, I reckoned this would be scored as a definite failing mark on my secret police entrance exam. I wasn’t sure whether this would mean, say, a mild reprimand and being passed over for promotions for the next year, or being slowly vivisected. Given that they were the law enforcers for a whole bunch of frighteningly powerful mages and apparently pretty darn good at it, though, I kinda doubted that they would be inclined to be reasonable and understanding about the whole thing. It seemed safe to say that getting one of the boss’s favorite operatives killed on my very first unofficial quasi-mission was a very dumb thing to do.
So I pretty much had to save her, whatever my personal preferences on the matter.
That left me with just one teensy-weensy problem, which was that I still didn’t know who I was chasing, much less where to find his super-secret hideout. And, given that I was working on a short timer now, it didn’t seem like a good idea to just wander aimlessly around town. Colorado Springs, while not exactly Chicago or New York, is still a city of more than six hundred thousand people. The odds of me finding the right place by chance were exactly zero percent.
For that matter, there was no guarantee that she was being held in this city. Heck, given that he’d had at least a couple hours to get his setup perfect, she might be in another state, country, or even a different plane of existence. How the hell was I supposed to comb all the pseudo-infinite depths of the Otherside when I couldn’t even get there without outside intervention, and everyone interested in helping me had already been removed from play?
Not acting was a nonoption. It would cause all kinds of problems later on, and would also leave this freak free to keep torturing and killing my friends.
Looking for her wasn’t much better. It might make me feel better about failing, but it wouldn’t make that failure any less inevitable. Short of divine intervention, there was no way I could pull it off.
And that…well, that was where the problem came in.
Most of the time, when someone says they need divine intervention, it’s just a figure of speech. A way of saying that it can’t happen. I mean, everybody knows that God doesn’t work like that.
That’s not the case for me. I’ve met gods, plural. Occasionally, for reasons of their own, they’ve helped me. It’s never been fun, and it’s never been safe, and it’s never gone the way I wanted it to, but they have helped me.
I could try that route again. This mage might be able to stump me, but nobody hides much of anything from Loki Lie-Smith. He could tell me exactly where to go. Hell, if he felt like it he could arrange every person there to suffer a mysterious case of mass spontaneous combustion. I doubt a being on his level would even notice if the bastard tried to stop him.
The price would be terrible. I was already in debt to him, a debt I took on in exchange for a favor that turned out hardly to be worth it. And that had been from accepting a favor offered. For me to go asking…well, nothing says I’m desperate quite like that. He would know that he could ask the moon of me, and I would have little leverage for bargaining.
I thought about it, I really did, and for once Legion and Snowflake both had the sense not to interrupt.
Then I shook it off. I still had more than twenty hours. There was no need for desperate measures quite yet.
Kyra, recognizing my urgency even if I was still reticent about discussing details over the phone, made it to my lab in record time. I still didn’t have my shotgun, for obvious reasons, but I’d more than made up the lack in other arenas. I even had Tyrfing, on its heavy studded sword belt, stashed neatly under my cloak. It shows up whenever I call—but not always exactly where I want it or expect it, and generally when I know trouble’s coming it’s better just to wear it.
Snowflake, who was still boiling over with emotion from my recent absences, piled into the front seat with me, rather than sprawling across the back as usual. It was a touch cramped with her stretching up from the passenger footwell and across my torso to shove her head out the window, but I didn’t object as strenuously as I might have. To be honest, I’d missed her too. Strange, how you don’t think about how much a part of your life someone is until they aren’t there for a while.
“Start driving,” I said to Kyra, slumping back into the seat. Considering how long I’d spent sleeping, it seemed utterly unfair how tired I still felt. Oh, I know that I should expect it given what I’d been healing, but still. So not fair.
“Where are we going?” she asked. I knew that she was curious about what was going on, but she was also intelligent. She knew that I would tell her, and she knew that if I was talking about something else first there was a reason for it.
Normally I would say it was exceedingly stupid to pull that kind of stunt with a werewolf, doubly stupid with a strongly dominant werewolf, and gratuitously idiotic when dealing with an Alpha. In their world, imperious behavior is something that happens to other people, usually because of them. Fortunately, there are certain benefits to being the Alpha’s best friend.
“Nowhere yet,” I said, rubbing my temples. I guess my headache was at least distracting me from the bullet wound, but that’s a pretty damn pathetic silver lining. “But I reckon, y’know, moving target and all that.”
She did as I asked, but shot me a concerned glance as she did. “Is somebody chasing you?”
Right. She didn’t know the specifics of what was happening, of course. I hadn’t spoken to her since before that Otherside jaunt. Terribly rude of me, really, especially given that Enrico was one of her people.
All of which would have been too much to say. So I stuck to, “Yeah. Look, I need a favor.”
“Anything I can do,” she said immediately. She meant it, too, which was the scary part.
I shouldn’t have that kind of trust. It isn’t wise.
“I need somebody found.”
“Got any leads?”
“No,” I admitted. “You remember the mages that tried to abduct me from your place?”
“Sure. We looking for the female or the male?”
“Female. Last sighting probably last night or very early this morning. She was driving a black SUV, conspicuous as hell.” I pulled a slip of paper out of my pocket, on which I’d written down the plate numbers as soon as I’d seen the vehicle (paranoid, remember? It has some distinct drawbacks, but it’s not without upsides either) and passed it to her.
“Gotcha,” she said, cutting across several lanes of traffic and turning into a parking lot so that she would have her hands free. “What should they do if they find it?”
“Report,” I said immediately. “No recon, definitely no direct action. This guy’s serious bad news.”
“Wait, what guy?”
“Tell you in a minute.”
She frowned, and I could tell that she didn’t like it one bit, but she didn’t argue, for which I was grateful. I didn’t have the energy to argue right now, and it was imperative that this process be started immediately.
She made two calls, the details of which I won’t bore you with (no, really, there wasn’t any secret information in them that would give something important away—they really were exactly what you would think), and sent a few text messages, and that was that.
And that is the beautiful thing about allies. Alone, I couldn’t hope to find anything, not within my time frame and probably not at all.
Kyra, on the other hand, had just set roughly thirty werewolves, their extensive contacts in the police department, the criminal organization I’d never encountered but which (apparently, I had only heard the vaguest of details) the pack had deals with, and who knows what all else on the trail. That’s a lot of manpower, and between them they covered pretty much all the bases for investigation. If there was a trail to be found in this city they would almost certainly find it.
I could probably have called Conn and had most of the world receive, if not the same treatment, at least a cursory examination. I didn’t want to do that, though, because I’m always nervous about asking favors from the Khan and because the layers of bureaucracy involved would almost not be worth it. Better to start here, and if that failed I could always go to my other contacts.
“Are you going to tell me what’s happening now?” Kyra said in a tone which, although still quite pleasant, nonetheless carried a definite reminder that regardless of how much the Alpha likes you it’s wise not to push it too far. There are appearances to be kept up, after all; if there had been anyone else present, I doubt I’d have been able to get away even with what borderline impudence I had.
“Absolutely,” I said, glancing down and slightly sideways and making sure my voice was in no way challenging. Neither of us cared about such things by this point, of course, but the display of submission would help to soothe the dominant-werewolf impulses she was experiencing.
What a werewolf feels and gets the impulse to do, often an extremely strong impulse, don’t necessarily have anything to do with what she wants to do. It’s enough to make me glad I’m not a pureblooded werewolf, frankly; I still get the urges, but they don’t seem to affect me as much as average. You learn to deal with it, on both sides, but still.
“However,” I continued, “it’s rather a long story, and I’m bloody starving, so….” Snowflake made a sort of enthusiastic yipping sound, reminding me that she also hadn’t been eating regularly in quite some time.
Kyra snorted and started the car again. “Of course you are,” she muttered, softly enough to be indecipherable to a human but not enough to suggest that she didn’t intend us to hear it. “You two, I swear.”
We wound up eating takeout, because neither of us knew a restaurant nearby that would let Snowflake in the door and she was in no mood to be separated from me at the moment. Which, incidentally, was (in addition to being true) a most excellent cover for my own disinclination to discuss this in a public area.
Oh, it would have been safe. The Watchers were crazy skilled, granted, but they were still a bureaucratic organization, and I believed The Watcher when she said that they were dealing with serious manpower issues. The chances that whatever faction of them I was dealing with, if in fact that was the enemy here, would have ears in whatever restaurant we wound up in was functionally negligible. It’s just that I was pretty sure there wasn’t such a thing as too careful.
I’ve never been too fond of Chinese food. I don’t really know why. It’s just…meh. It all tastes the same to me. Fortunately, hunger makes everything sweeter, and I tore into the mystery-meat-and-assorted-vegetables-in-anonymous-sauce with a vengeance.
“So since when did you go from the prey to the missing persons specialist?” Kyra asked, arranging her lo mein and soup fastidiously on the ground. We were sitting in a park, which was small and somewhat dilapidated but had a few decent cottonwoods and, most importantly, was otherwise empty. Snowflake, who’d already consumed a sizable amount of food, was napping beside me, where she could use my leg for a pillow.
I shrugged. “Got press-ganged. Couple days ago now, her boss asks me to help deal with this cursing crap and I figured, what the hey, I’ve already got a personal motivation, why not?” I left out the part with the kidnapping; it would only have upset her. “She’s been helping out. Then this morning I got a message from the guy responsible saying he has her captive and she’s dead unless I get there in a day or less.”
She sighed. “Only you,” she said, her tone the sort usually reserved for swearwords. “Only you, Winter.”
“I blame you,” I muttered. “I used to be just a carpenter, you know. But no, you had to go asking me for help. All your fault.”
She chuckled. “So what is the story with that curse, anyway?” She sounded casual, but I wasn’t fooled. I have too much experience with werewolves to be fooled that easy.
“You remember the witch I took down last summer? The one that killed the vampire?” She’d gotten me involved in that one too, as I recalled.
“Starting to look like this is a revenge kick of some kind,” I said, nibbling on an eggroll. It didn’t seem to be toxic, so I went ahead and ate the rest of it. “Somebody who wasn’t happy that we offed him. He’s been going after people with a direct connection to me or to the Inquisition.”
She frowned. “You got a list?”
“Yeah.” I pulled the much-folded sheet out of my cloak and handed it to her. It was a little harder to read now, thanks to my bloodstains all over it, but I’d taken the time to go over it again with a pen at the lab and it was still mostly legible. Besides, as bad as her handwriting is, I don’t think Kyra has the right to judge most anyone’s penmanship.
She got about halfway down. Then, “Michael’s on here?” she asked suddenly.
I stared for a moment. Then I blinked. “Yeah. I guess that with what happened to Enrico—”
—Kyra’s face was, for the barest instant, suffused with the bestial rage that reminds me why werewolves are seen as monsters, and the plastic fork snapped between her fingers—
“—I sorta forgot there were actually two werewolves on there.” I paused. “Shit.”
She already had her phone out again. “He hasn’t reported anything like the symptoms Enrico did,” she commented, sounding almost idle if you didn’t know how to recognize the growl lurking underneath.
My back was aching again, and I rubbed at it—ineffectually, I might add. “Has there been a period, in the last week or so, where you didn’t hear from him for a day or more?”
She frowned in thought. “I think so,” she said eventually.
“Ask him where he was.”
Less than two minutes later, she hung up and told me what I already knew from eavesdropping on her conversation. “Ten minutes after you left my house. He doesn’t know what happened between then and when he woke up the next night in a hotel on the other side of town.”
And Jacques had already known about it. That was some impressively fast work. In fact….
Was it just me, or did that mean he knew before Michael was cured?
And that was when the next piece slotted into place. “Thanks,” I said, finishing up shoveling food into my face. “Call me if you find anything. And remember, don’t try and take this guy solo.”
“What will you be doing?”
I stood and gave her a feral grin. “Preparing. Come on, Snowflake.”
On the way out of the park, we encountered the first assassination attempt since that exploding lightbulb in the beginning. This one was a Goldbergian setup in which a spider web served as the tripwire. Because really, who wouldn’t use a spider web as a tripwire if they could?
Anyway, breaking the spider web triggered a dart launcher, which I dodged easily. Then, as best as I could piece it together later, the impact of the dart against the tree opposite somehow triggered a deadfall. We dove forward, Snowflake easily outdistancing me, and I caught the few pieces of stone that I didn’t dodge in another net of thickened air.
I’m still not quite sure whether it was the triggering of the deadfall, the impact of the rocks on the ground, or maybe even my own use of magic that caused the next stage to activate. What I do know is that, just when I was starting to exhale in relief at surviving another trap, the next one fell. As in, literally; everything beneath the first three inches of dirt had been removed, and somehow then the supporting structure was removed so that the ground collapsed. While I was standing on it.
Let me tell you, twelve feet of vertical drop when you’re not expecting it is nothing to scoff at. Especially when the bottom of the pit is lined with, you guessed it, freaking punji stakes. I managed, by dint of phenomenal good luck, not to get impaled. Hooray. I was not lucky enough to escape what I was confident would be some spectacular bruising patterns, however.
Snowflake, who had been far enough forward to escape both the deadfall and the pit, laughed. Well, in my head it sounded like laughter; audibly, it was more of an amused whining sound.
Oh shut up, I muttered irritably, standing up and brushing myself off. Glancing around, I saw that the pit was only about seven feet across, showing that once again my unknown adversary had been able to predict my reactions with uncanny precision, and the walls were also lined with sharpened stakes.
It was pretty strenuous, but I eventually managed to climb out, using the stakes as handholds. When I finally reached the top, Snowflake was still laughing.
“It isn’t funny,” I said crossly.
No, she said, even her mental voice threatening to be overwhelmed with amusement. It’s hilarious. Man, you should have seen your face.
I thought for a second. Then, “No, I don’t really think so. I mean, I could maybe go for the timing being a little bit funny, but hilarious? Pfft. The thing with the pangolin and the honey badger was way better if you ask me.”
She considered that. The one with the refrigerator? Nah, she said eventually. There wasn’t even any blood that time.
I paused. “You mean there’s blood this time?” I asked cautiously.
Sure, I can smell it from here. You must have nicked yourself on one of the sticks or something.
Now that she’d brought my attention to it, I could smell blood too. I sighed. “It wasn’t the sticks,” I said glumly, twisting around to get a look at my back.
Thankfully, the patch was mostly holding. By which I mean that, rather than a gaping hole big enough to stick a few pencils clear through me, the fall had torn a small hole in my back less than an inch deep.
That was the good news. The bad news was that, even after whatever it was that Mohammed had done, the silver wound was still stubbornly resisting my efforts to simply seal it. Getting at it was more than a little bit of work, but eventually Snowflake and I (Kyra was already gone, in case you didn’t guess that) managed to get a bandage of sorts on it. Lucky me, I’d even thought to pack a rudimentary first aid kit into my pockets. Normally I didn’t bother, because any wound I can take the time to bandage I can take the time to heal, but I’d kinda been expecting something like this.
And I’d just gotten fresh clothes from the lab, too. Some days are just so unfair.
I didn’t hear from Kyra on the way to the shop. I was sorta grateful for that, actually; I had a couple things to get done first, and I knew that when there was a lead she would be wanting to chase it ASAP. I couldn’t blame her for that, but it made it simpler that things were going the way they were.
Kris was minding the desk when I got there. She looked up and tried to plaster the classic hi-how-can-I-help-you customer service smile over the bored expression underneath (I say “tried to,” because she’s even worse at that than I am) when she heard the door. Then she saw that it was me and, in a flash, was out from behind the desk and racing toward me. “Winter,” she exclaimed. “Where have you been? You wouldn’t answer your phone, and nobody knew where you were.”
“Easy,” I said, holding up my hands to keep her from hugging me. “I’m a little tender.” My lips twitched. “You aren’t careful there, somebody might get the idea that you cared.”
“Of course not,” she said. “I’m just saying that if you pull that kind of stunt on me again I’ll kill you and bury you in the backyard so I never need to worry about finding you.” The way she said it was almost creepy, friendly and cheerful and so deadpan I was almost afraid to ask if she was joking. Actually, it reminded me a little of Laurel smiling her little-girl smile and petting her sword.
“Seriously, though,” she continued. “Where were you? And why wouldn’t you answer your phone?”
“Something came up,” I said lightly, flipping the shop sign to CLOSED. That, as much as anything, told her that it was serious. I think it’s critical for a shop to keep regular hours if it wants to attract customers, and I’d made it clear that I didn’t approve of closing the shop during business hours unless there was an emergency or something.
We got Doug from the shop—he’d been running the router, and hadn’t heard a thing—and I explained the whole situation. Except, you know, all the parts I left out. I firmly believe in editing the story to the audience, particularly when it comes to supernatural nasties. Part of what I left out was to remove extraneous details (i.e., traveling the Otherside and learning that Mohammed was a djinn). The rest was because I wasn’t ready to trust anyone, including myself, with the information (i.e., Mr. Nobody the senile mage and my growing suspicion that this mess was in fact part of a bigger picture that I wasn’t quite seeing).
As they listened, an interesting change went over their expressions. Doug went from his baseline of vaguely cheerful, to a closed expression showcasing nothing of what was going on in his head, to something that could only be described as grim. Kris, who was of a naturally more, ah, mercurial temperament, looked progressively more and more angry.
“Do you want our help looking?” Doug asked when I’d finished, his voice as closed and uninformative as his face. Not, I noticed, that he was actually offering to help.
I shrugged. “Maybe if you really want to, but I wouldn’t bother. If the werewolves don’t find something in this city, it’s because there isn’t something to find. No, I was more wondering if you might want to pitch in when we find him.”
Doug hesitated. Kris, eyes gleaming with a very dangerous amount of emotion, did not. “This guy hurt Katie and Erica?” she asked, her voice deceptively calm. Like a lot of the more impulsive, expressive people I know, it’s a bad sign for Kris to sound calm when she should be emotional.
I noticed that she did not mention Jimmy. It’s a crazy little gang they have, and I have no idea how they stay together when so many of them hate each other so much. I guess it’s not really my business, but wow, those people are nuts. Like, more than me.
“Yeah,” I said in answer to her question. “I’m sure of it.”
She smiled nastily. “I’m in.”
Doug looked torn, and for once it was easy to see what he was thinking in his face. On the one hand, he hated violence, and he didn’t really believe that this was the right thing to do. On the other hand, he couldn’t stand the idea of seeing his friends hurt, not when his presence might have prevented it. He might not count me in that regard—I’m not quite sure, and I’ve never had the courage to ask, even indirectly—but Kris most definitely qualified, as did most of the people who would come along to help her.
I felt bad for him, really. Just not enough not to ask.
“Fine,” he said eventually, and unhappily. “Fine.”
I smiled broadly. “Wonderful,” I said. “I’ll be in touch. Spread the word, and be ready.”
The two of them left almost immediately—to get their gear, presumably, and to round up the rest of the gang.
That left me in an interesting position, namely have nothing to do. I considered a lot of options, but none of them really worked. Going out looking myself was a waste of time and energy. I resemble a werewolf quite closely in my fanatical devotion to food, but not even I could really eat again that soon, however much it might have helped the healing process. I was at the shop, but I couldn’t make anything useful in the time available. Normally the work itself would help to calm me and make me feel better, but I couldn’t even convince myself that that would be effective. I was too worked up, too invested. I’d run into a lot of bad things in recent times, but this one hit close to home.
I couldn’t go home, of course. I didn’t have a home to go to.
Eventually, I said screw it and took a nap on the floor of the shop’s showroom. It wasn’t especially fun, but I had my cloak to use as a pillow, and I was tired enough to be grateful for it. Snowflake, who is always grateful for an excuse to sleep, lay down in front of the door, and with that security I took a break from the world.