As I’d intended, we encountered no further trouble in the world of the sleazy alley. When you see two huge gorillathings get taken down right in front of you without so much as seriously injuring one of their opponents, it tends to restructure your view of the local food chain pretty quick. That was the idea behind that challenge; sometimes demonstrating your willingness and ability to visit swift and blinding violence upon your enemies, with visual aids, is impressive enough that you don’t have to do so again. Granted, I hadn’t expected quite that nice of a demonstration of our prowess, but the theory was sound.
As we walked our surroundings slowly, steadily changed. It was still two in the morning, and I was pretty sure that in this place it would always be two in the morning. There started to be a bit more light, though, and things didn’t look quite so dilapidated.
This shouldn’t be taken to mean that it was any nicer of a place, though. It was just a different kind of bad. Think of it like the difference between moonshine and expensive whiskey. There’s a pretty big difference on the surface, but they’ll have more or less the same effect if you drink it.
So it was still a sleazy neighborhood, is what I’m saying. It was just a different flavor of sleaze. There was less evidence of vandalism, everything was in better upkeep, the alleys didn’t look quite so foreboding, but all of that just served to suggest a higher-class form of corruption. We started walking past neon signs and doors that were actually meant to be opened. I didn’t look closely at them. I was afraid I might see something.
Eventually, after about twenty minutes of walking at a casual pace, we had completely transitioned. Aiko eventually brought us to a halt outside of one of the buildings. This one had more neon than most, but was otherwise unidentifiable. Even standing outside I could hear the pounding bass of the dance music inside quite clearly.
She opened another portal. It felt pretty much exactly like the last one, although at least this time I knew what to expect. It seemed a little milder, too, left all of us a little less shaken. I was still out of breath and felt like I was about to hurl on the other end, though, so maybe not. (Incidentally, have you ever done the heaving-chest thing with injured ribs? It sucks.)
I looked around wonderingly. This place seemed like the polar opposite of the last one; the sky above was pure and perfect blue, the sun shining blindingly down on us from directly above. The structures around us looked like solid silver, although they didn’t make me feel uncomfortable and twitchy the way that much actual silver would. They were impressive, though, most of them looking like massive obelisks that had to be more than thirty stories tall forming a ring about as big as a football field. We were right in the middle of it, standing on grass so lush and green it didn’t even seem real. Through the gaps in the buildings I could see more buildings, all of them at least as huge and incredible-looking as those around us.
This might seem odd, but the most striking difference to me was the smell. The last domain had smelled, to varying extents, like that first alley, a distinctly unsavory smell. Here it smelled like grass, rain, and fresh air. It was refreshing, and just breathing the air seemed to perk all three of us up a bit.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll bite. Where are we now?”
“El Dorado,” she said simply.
I blinked. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
“Well,” she amended, “that’s what I call it. I don’t know what the real name is. I try to stick to backwaters for layover spots. That way you don’t have to worry about, say, stumbling onto the tengu’s sacred mountain or something.”
I don’t think I can really describe walking through El Dorado. The buildings varied, but they were all beautiful. I saw at least a dozen architectural styles, ranging from the obelisks we entered near, through huge step pyramids, to modern skyscrapers. The buildings were made from an impressive variety of materials, too, gold and silver and bronze predominating. The streets, if you could even call them that, were either stone laid in patterns whose beauty would shame most mosaics, or more perfect grass. The whole place smelled wonderful, sometimes adding in an ocean breeze or the smell of flowering trees to the base I had first noticed.
Let me just put it this way. If I were to envision Heaven as a city, the result would probably be a lot like El Dorado.
After about fifteen minutes of strolling idly along the streets, we started seeing other…people, for lack of a better word. The first was a Sidhe, instantly recognizable by the pointed ears, slit-pupil eyes, and inhuman beauty. He ignored us with impressively haughty disdain, walking past going the other direction without even glancing in our direction. Snowflake made a rude comment, very quietly, but otherwise we returned the favor.
About that time we started walking through the more populous areas, apparently, because the streets were almost crowded. I saw three more Sidhe, two male and one female, involved in a quiet but very intense conversation of their own. A pair of trolls, the cheap-muscle of choice for the Sidhe Courts, stood flanking the entrance of a particularly fine tower made from highly polished marble, a huge black hound with glowing yellowish eyes standing beside each one. All four of them stood stock-still and stared out at the passing crowd with identical fixed glares on their ugly faces.
Most of the rest seemed more or less human, but some still stood out. Most interesting, if you ask me, was the cloaked figure ten feet tall and half as wide that moved so smoothly I was pretty sure whatever was under that cloak wasn’t using feet, although it was so totally enveloped it was impossible to tell for sure. The only visible feature was a pair of eyes that literally burned with scarlet flame, but he, she, or it exuded magic more strongly than almost anyone I’d encountered before. People gave the whatever-it-was a wide berth, and it wasn’t hard to see why. The power given off by the cloaked figure reeked of smoke, hot metal, and an endless expanse of desert.
“Wow,” I said as we ducked aside into an alley between two silvery skyscrapers of titanic proportion. “This is a backwater?”
“It’s not usually this busy,” she admitted. “Looks like the Midnight Court is having an event. Ready for the next jump?”
“You’re driving,” I said dryly.
“I know,” she said happily. “Okay, here we go.”
This time the portal formed on the wall of the skyscraper next to us. This one was at least as bad as the first, and maybe even worse; take that list of comparisons I used, and add in that it sounded like screeching metal being played at…actually, I have no idea how many decibels. A lot, anyway. I never got clear on how that whole measurement scale works.
On the other side, we were standing in a pretty good match for where we’d just left, in an alleyway between two skyscrapers. I was, once again, half-collapsed against the wall about to be sick; it was becoming a distressingly familiar feeling.
It appeared to be late afternoon here, wherever here was. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the Otherside; everywhere I’d been over there had a curiously intense quality to it that I hadn’t ever encountered in my world, and this place didn’t. It seemed pretty much like what I was accustomed to, right down to the sounds of traffic.
“Where’d we go this time?” I asked, shoving away from the wall to stand upright.
“Milan,” she said succinctly.
“Oh, no way. You couldn’t have just gone from Colorado to Italy in less than an hour.”
“Technically,” she said wryly, “we didn’t. We lost, oh, about two hours at the first layover; that place always drains a little time.”
“You mean this is seriously Milan?”
She smiled crookedly. “Sure, a little ways off the financial district.”
“That is so awesome.”
“Isn’t it? Now come on, I’ve got somebody for you to meet. Oh, and let me do the talking; it’s better if we don’t sound like tourists.”
She immediately strode down the alley with the ease of long familiarity. I had to hurry to catch up. “So…could we go anywhere like this, or what?”
“You can leave from pretty much anywhere,” she said. “But you can only arrive somewhere you know really well.” She hailed a taxi, giving the man directions in a fluid language I recognized not at all, but which was presumably Italian. As per instructions, I kept my mouth shut. Snowflake, who apparently caused a bit of a problem with the cabby until Aiko said something appropriately placating, slept on the floor.
“I’m surprised you thought this far ahead,” I said in a whisper carefully pitched to be inaudible to a normal human two feet away.
She glanced at me. “Think? In what way is thinking involved here?” she asked in a similar whisper.
“Well, you brought European money. That suggests some kind of thought.”
“Oh,” she said, nodding. “Right. Well, cabs are cheap around here.”
“Yep,” she said, grinning. “I figure once we apply the eight-legged discount, we won’t have to pay much at all.”
I stared. “You can’t be serious.”
She shrugged. “If you say so. I mean, I don’t have any money and you don’t speak Italian, but it’s your call.”
Damn, Snowflake commented, proving that she must have put a few points into feigning sleep the last time she leveled up. I wish you could see your face right now.
Your eyes aren’t even open, I shot back sourly. How would you know?
When you get caught that flat-footed, your face is always worth seeing.
So, long story short, when it came time to pay we bolted. We didn’t get caught, which isn’t really saying all that much. When you have a kitsune and a mage who’s skilled with shadows around, it isn’t hard to go undetected. You don’t even have to be sneaky. It didn’t hurt that Aiko was obviously quite familiar with the area, knowing exactly which alleys to take.
“Okay,” I said, once all the commotion had died down a bit. “That was needlessly exciting. What next?”
“Well,” she said, picking her way fastidiously through the refuse in the alley, “you know I mentioned that I have friends in the black market? One of the best ones lives around here. I figure he might be able to get the information we need, and he can definitely hook you up with some new kit.”
“Great,” I said dryly. “What’s it likely to cost me?”
“Ah,” she said cheerfully. “Life would be terribly boring if it were easy all the time, you know?”
As it turned out, Aiko’s contact lived in an upscale apartment building about a mile from where we ditched the cab, on the fifteenth floor. It used to be that being so high would make me nervous, but magic does have perks. Air magic was one of my few real talents, and while flight was far beyond my skills, I could at least keep myself safe while falling. Actually, like parachutists and the common housecat, I would be in less danger falling from a skyscraper (or an airplane, for that matter) than from a moderately tall building, because I would be certain to have enough time to react.
Aiko walked confidently to the corner apartment and pounded on the door. I could hear movement inside as she did, quiet enough that I doubt a human would have been aware of it. “Jacques!” the kitsune shouted, loudly enough that I winced a little. “I know you’re in there. Open up!”
There was the sound of footsteps, slightly shambling, followed by a beady and bloodshot black eye glaring through the peephole. Jacques must have been satisfied by what he saw, because a moment later it vanished. I counted five different locks and two chains being disengaged before the door opened.
Jacques was…not pretty. His curly black hair was so disheveled I would not have been surprised to literally see rodents nesting in it, his eyes suggested a hardcore alcoholic coming off a week-long binge, and his unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt revealed a disturbing amount of chest hair and an impressive potbelly, which overlapped the waistband of his sweatpants. His feet were bare and—it being my role to notice the most inane of things—I saw that his toenails were yellowed, long, and jagged.
He also had on a scowl of the sort that, even on such an ugly face, I couldn’t help but admire. I don’t think even Alexander had matched that level of sheer belligerence. Not even over that thing with the acid, which I feel I should point out was totally not my fault, no matter what he claims. “Cupcake,” he said with an equal amount of hostility in his voice. “What are you doing here? And who’s the thug?”
I opened my mouth to answer, only for Aiko to cut me off. “This is my boyfriend Shrike,” she said, glaring daggers at me. Only, you know, not literally. You know you’re living the high life when you actually have to specify that. “And his good friend Spike.” Snowflake growled, amused although not displaying it outwardly at all. Even as well as I knew her, and that was pretty damn well, I wouldn’t have guessed if I couldn’t feel her in my head.
“I see your sense of humor hasn’t changed,” Jacques said sourly. “Which is unsurprising, as it was exposed to copious amounts of gin during gestation. Speaking of which, there’s an open bottle with my name on it, so if we could hurry this along….”
“I don’t talk business in the hallway,” Aiko said firmly, pushing past the man. Ballsy of her, really; I don’t think I could have come that close to touching him.
Jacques sighed gustily, exposing me to a foulness of breath I’d previously thought only existed in canids and homeless people who don’t even take the bottle out of the bag. He let her in without protest, though. I exchanged unsure glances with Snowflake, who was every bit as disgruntled as I was, then shrugged and followed. Jacques did up all the locks behind us.
Jacques’s apartment was…pretty much exactly what you’d expect, actually. It smelled bad, like rotting food, mildew, and unwashed clothing, heaps of which could be seen lying around. It had two nice, big windows, but the yellow shades were drawn and all the lights were off, leaving the room gloomy enough that a normal human would likely have had a little trouble getting around. Especially with the junk and detritus lying around in piles on the floor.
“What do you want, Cupcake?” Jacques asked, collapsing on an overstuffed couch with a hideous paisley pattern and scratching his stomach.
Wonderful, Snowflake said, the thought carrying undertones of disgust such as I had seldom received from the dog. This is not what I envisioned in a black marketeer. I’d ask if I could bite him, but I think he’d make me sick.
Smart choice, I replied.
“Information and goods,” Aiko said smoothly, all professionalism. I blinked; this was a side of her I hadn’t seen. Usually she would have made, at the least, a sarcastic rejoinder or two first.
“Information first,” Jacques said. The man grabbed a big glass bottle from a nearby table—I’d been hoping he was joking, but no, it really was open and waiting—and drank from it. Several seconds later he tossed it to the floor, belching. Snowflake winced a little, and I couldn’t really blame her.
“Colorado Springs, Colorado,” Aiko said, taking no apparent notice of the man’s behavior. Or aroma. “A mind-affecting curse has been used on at least ten people in the past week. Conclave Watchers are involved. I want to know who’s responsible, who’s been affected, and what the Watchers are doing about it.”
“When?” Jacques asked, taking another drink and scratching himself.
“Soonest. Dusk at the latest.”
“Info like that won’t come cheap,” he commented. “Especially not in that time frame.”
“I’m prepared to pay,” Aiko said without batting an eye.
The black marketeer grunted. “And the goods?”
“I need a shotgun, at least,” I chipped in.
“Don’t care,” I said. “Prefer a ten-gauge.”
“You sure?” he asked, digging around in his couch and coming up with another bottle. This one was larger, and unopened. Jacques quickly changed that, chugging half of the contents before continuing, “Werewolf like you, that’s a bit light, don’t you think?”
I managed not to react to the fact that he knew I was a werewolf. It’s possible to recognize a werewolf by both sight and smell, but not for the average human. “You have a better idea?” I asked.
He grunted again. “Got a line on a custom-model seven-gauge pump. German engineering, high spread, high power, variable choke. Recoil’s a bit stiff, but I reckon a fellow like you can take it, eh?”
“Hard to find ammo chambered for a seven-gauge,” I commented.
He grinned, showing off a bunch of rotten teeth and a few that were made of gold. “I can hook you up. Standard buckshot, birdshot, and slug rounds. You want to get fancy, I know a guy who does flechettes and specialty stuff, incendiaries and such.”
“And you skim off the top.”
His grin broadened. “How the business works, Shrike. You want it or not?”
“I’ll think about it,” I said in my best disinterested voice. I might not be an expert like Aiko, but I could haggle. “How about a pistol? Nine-millimeter or larger, semiautomatic.”
“I can do you a nine or a forty-five by dusk,” Jacques said immediately. “Nine’s standard. Forty-five’s custom, and I can get specialty and armor-piercing rounds for either.”
“How about silver?”
He gave me a look of deep disgust. “Don’t be ridiculous. Even mainstream companies can do that. I’ve got regular and enhanced silver in any chamber you can name.”
“We’ll take the shotgun and the forty-five,” Aiko said decisively. “Plus standard ammunition. I’ll need a few more of those grenades, too.”
“How’d those work, Cupcake?”
“Not bad,” she demurred. “Anything else, Shrike?”
“Do you have anything nonlethal that would work against a mage?”
Jacques frowned and scratched his face. “Might be able to work something.”
“Do that,” I told him. “I might also consider a few of the regular silver rounds. And maybe some incendiary, if your prices aren’t obscene.”
He chuckled and spat. On his own floor, no less. “Cupcake’s buying,” he said. “Don’t see what business it is of yours. Anything for the doggie?”
“No,” I said coldly. He laughed. No one else did, which didn’t seem to bother him in the least.
“I expect you to have all of that ready by dusk,” Aiko said. “Plus the information.”
Jacques took another drink from his bottle. Whatever alcoholic concoction was in it, it smelled horrible and made my eyes water, which I guess is the mark of good liquor. “Don’t you worry, Cupcake,” he said, and for just an instant I could see the shadow of something cold and steely in his eyes. It made me respect him more, and like him even less. “I always fill the order.”
“So,” I said innocently. “Cupcake, eh?”
Aiko glared at me. “Shut up,” she said, shutting the door to the apartment building behind us with maybe a little more force than was strictly necessary.
“That’s okay,” I said, ladling on the disingenuousness even thicker. “I’ve got nothing against sugary baked goods.”
“I was a lot younger then, okay?”
“Hey, I understand. It’s not like cupcakes are contenders for the title ‘Most Disturbing Bird in the World’ or something.”
At least you got your own name, Snowflake sniffed. I got used as a prop for your joke.
“You realize that Spike was one of your suggestions for what I should put on your collar, right?” I asked aloud. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, I don’t like communicating mentally with Snowflake while there are other people around. It makes me feel like I’m talking behind their backs.
That’s different, she said haughtily.
“So what now?” I asked.
“I’m starving. How ’bout you?”
“Dinner does sound pretty nice,” I admitted. “Or breakfast. Whatever. But it also sounds kinda problematic, don’t you think?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well,” I said dryly, “I don’t know about you, but I hate legging it on a full stomach.”
Aiko looked confused for a minute, then laughed. “Oh, you mean the money thing? Nah, I was just screwing with you. There should be an ATM around here somewhere.”
I sighed. “Of course.”
There are certain benefits to traveling with somebody who already knows the area. Aside from just the fact that I didn’t speak the language, even. On my own I probably would have wound up in a tourist trap functionally identical to every other such place in the city, if not the country or the world. Aiko, on the other hand, happened to know where to find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a quiet, residential district about as far from the main drag as it was possible to get. I was willing to bet it served just about exclusively local customers.
Aiko ordered, of course, on account of the whole Italian language thing. She also not only got Snowflake in the restaurant, she also got the dog a bowl of water and some raw sausage using the mighty power of shameless bribery.
“This is crazy,” I said quietly while we waited for the food. “How many languages do you even speak?”
She frowned. “You know, I can’t actually remember. Let’s see…Japanese, English, Latin, German, Spanish, Italian, French, a bit of Greek and Arabic, decent with Esperanto…how many is that?”
“Actually, never mind.” I spoke English. I’d tried learning Spanish in college, because I had to do a foreign language class. I remember how to say about a dozen phrases, and not much else.
Aiko laughed. “Don’t feel bad. I pick up languages easily.” She paused. “Also, I’ve got like twenty years on you. That helps.”
And it’s not like you make sense in any of them, Snowflake contributed.
“Still,” I said. “This is…incredible. You do this often?”
“The traveling?” she asked. “Not as often as you’d think. You remember what I said about how you can only go somewhere you already know? Well, I wasn’t kidding. There’s only three places in Colorado Springs I can do safely.”
I blinked. “But you’ve been living there for…how long, actually?”
“Almost ten years now,” she said. “Still. I’ve got one place in Italy, two in Germany, and one in Spain, and that’s all for Europe. Three in one city ain’t bad.” She shook her head. “It’s a ton of work, too. And not the safest way to travel, as you may have noticed.” She grinned, lapsing back into Italian as our server came back with food. “Of course,” Aiko said, “there are certain advantages.”
The food was good. And, honestly, that’s about all I can say about it. It wasn’t much like Italian food I’d had in the past; there was no pasta, for one thing, and nothing I could identify as a marinara sauce either. I didn’t ask what I was eating; I was afraid Aiko might actually know, and nothing can ruin a meal faster than finding out what it actually is. For example, when I ate raw fish eggs for the first time as a kid, I didn’t find out what they actually were until after the meal, and I still practically threw up.
After the meal there wasn’t really much to do. It would be several hours before Jacques had the stuff, and it wasn’t exactly like we could come back later after we went and did other things. If nothing else, it was pretty unlikely that the Watchers would be expecting me to be in Italy, which made this as good a time as any to relax a bit before jumping back into the frying pan.
So we spent the time seeing the sights. The park system was particularly nice. Aiko, as a fox, and Snowflake both napped in the sun for a while in a corner of the park. Strangely, despite the length of time I’d been up and all the things I’d been doing, I felt no need for sleep, and wandered around instead. After they woke up we walked around, Aiko pointing out noteworthy landmarks, most of which I was pretty sure no tour book would mention. Snowflake ate a pair of squirrels and a Chihuahua, and Aiko stole candy from a baby.
And then, alas, it was time to get back to the business of not getting killed horribly. A shame, I know, but occasionally necessary.
“How sure are you about this guy?” I asked while we were going up the stairs.
“Jacques?” Aiko said. “He’s good at what he does.”
“He seems a bit…sketchy.”
She laughed. “It’s a front. I’m not saying he isn’t a hard-drinking womanizer, but he gets the job done.”
“I’m just a little leery, I guess.”
“That’s smart. Don’t get me wrong, Winter, he’s an old friend and all, but the man’s still a scumbag.”
“And his personal hygiene is appalling,” I agreed. “Honestly, I’m shocked this whole freaking building doesn’t stink.”
Aiko laughed again. “Yeah, Jacques won’t be winning any fashion awards, that’s for sure. Before you ask, though, you don’t have to be worried about the alcohol. I once saw him drink three werewolves under the table in a row. One bottle of gin isn’t going to do much of anything to him.”
I blinked. Werewolves are very efficient at processing alcohol, so much so that I’ve only actually gotten really drunk once in my whole life. The results were ugly enough that I’ve never been tempted to try it again, but it took almost three hours of serious drinking and involved five kinds of hard liquor. I wasn’t sure quite how much of an alcohol intake outdrinking three werewolves would involve, but it sure wasn’t something I would expect even the hardiest of human alcoholics to pull off.
Jacques was, if anything, even slower answering the door this time. “You call this dusk?” he asked sourly as soon as the door was open. “I can still see the sun, Cupcake. Dusk it ain’t.”
“That’s fine,” Aiko said compassionately. “If you aren’t ready yet, we can wait. Right here. Staring at you.”
The black marketeer snorted. “Fuck you, Cupcake.”
“Not even with a gondola pole,” the kitsune said amiably. “You have the goods or not?”
“Luckily for you, I’m the best dealer this side of Sicily. Come on in.”
Jacques had, fortunately, finished his bottle of booze. Unfortunately, he had apparently decided to move right on to a jug of rum the size of my head. And yes, he drank straight from the bottle.
He had, however, swept the table clear—literally, I mean; the stuff that had been on it (mostly empty bottles and dirty dishes, as if you had to ask) was heaped haphazardly on the floor, adding to the crust of old food on the carpet.
In its place was, apparently, the shotgun we were purchasing. It was pretty impressive looking, I must admit. I didn’t know enough about it to recognize the make or model—although, from what Jacques had said, I was pretty sure it wasn’t the kind of thing that would show up in any catalogs anyway—but it had the sleek black look common to a lot of military and pseudo-military weapons. The whole thing looked to be made of metal, presumably anodized or something to give it that black color. Directly under the table a number of anonymous cardboard boxes likely held ammunition.
“Pick it up,” Jacques suggested, collapsing once again onto his couch.
I did so, hefting it and then sighting along it. I was pretty sure it wasn’t loaded, but I didn’t point it at anything I liked anyway, because I’m not a moron. “Heavy,” I commented. It was, too, a lot weightier than the ten-gauge I was used to.
“Maybe so,” he allowed, “but the thing’s damn near to bombproof.”
“Pump action, right?”
“Yep. Seven round magazine. The feeding mechanism’s solid, too; take a hell of a lot to interfere with it.”
That was a good sales point, and something I hadn’t considered before. I probably should have, though; given that one of my primary weapons had a major entropy curse on it, it was the kind of thing I should probably start taking into account. Automatic weapons and Tyrfing were an…exciting combination.
“And the pistol?” Aiko asked suddenly.
Jacques grinned and shoved one hand into a crack in the couch. A moment later he pulled it out, holding an oversized handgun. “Here you go,” he said, laying it down on the table with a sharp click.
It was either the same designer as the shotgun or a pretty damn good impression thereof. It, too, was black, metallic, and heavier than I would have expected. “This is really a forty-five?” I asked, turning it over in my hands. It seemed a little large.
“Yep. Custom design, though; don’t try firing mainline rounds out of it unless you feel like one lucky punk.”
Great. Another wiseass, just what I needed.
“Okay,” Aiko said briskly, leaning forward slightly. “Enough with the weapon ogling. Time to move on to the info.”
“Fine with me,” Jacques replied. “First off, I couldn’t get everything you asked for. The Watchers are treating this like some serious shit.”
“Less complaining, more answers.”
“Okay, okay. Jeez, Cupcake, I’m just trying to help. Okay.” He cleared his throat. “Five days ago, Watchers responded to a reported curse in Manitou Springs, Colorado. Said curse was found to be an exceptionally malicious pain spell operating on a mental level. Human magical signatures were detected, and the Watchers therefore claimed immediate jurisdiction under the provision of—”
“Skip it,” I suggested.
He shrugged. “You’re paying. Anyway, they start looking around, and find another two incidents of the same curse. Apparently that’s where they draw the line, because about that time they started taking it seriously.” He paused to take a swig of rum. “So the Watchers sent it up the chain. I don’t know what orders came back down—my guy on the inside says this is some high-level stuff, straight from the top and all hush-hush. He couldn’t get me anything specific. They assigned three Watchers to the issue, top-level operators and such. Dunno who. Not local operatives, though, or not entirely; he said he had to arrange transportation for some of them.”
“You got anything on their orders?” Aiko asked.
He snorted. “Shit, Cupcake. Thought I just got through telling you I don’t. I can tell you it’s a big fucking deal, though; Watchers are big on the internal secrecy, but my source can usually get something, and this time he’s got nothing for me. Don’t know who they’re pinning this one on, either. Last my guy heard the investigation was still open, but if they don’t get it soon my money says they pick some schmuck to pin it on. The Watchers are in a hard place; they really need a win right now.”
Wow. Either he was lying his head off, or this whole situation was starting to smell pretty fishy. He hadn’t mentioned the Guard involvement, for one thing, or the fact that they seemed pretty confident they knew exactly what had happened. That, combined with the fact that nobody seemed really clear what was going on, made me wonder whether this was really as aboveboard as they wanted me to think.
He grinned and pulled a few, surprisingly unstained sheets of paper out of his shirt pocket. “Now that, I can do.” He handed it to Aiko, who glanced at the top page and then shoved the papers into her own pocket. I didn’t look; from what the Watcher had said I was likely to know a few names on that list, and the last thing I wanted was to have some kind of breakdown here. “Got that from the Watchers’ list,” Jacques said. “And a few other places.”
“All right,” Aiko said. “That’s two of three. Who did it?”
Jacques snorted. “What the hell you think I am Cupcake, a fucking miracle worker? You didn’t give me anything like enough time to have an investigation done. Watchers don’t know shit that I can tell. Who else you think I’m gonna ask, huh?” He shook his head. “Can’t help you on that. Give me a day or so to come up with something, maybe, but I can’t promise anything.”
She sighed. “Fine. Grenades?”
The black marketeer grinned wider, and handed over a heavy-duty plastic case. The kitsune flipped it open and glanced it over cursorily before snapping it closed again.
“About that last thing. I couldn’t come up with anything reliable against mages.”
“Nothing?” I said, disappointed.
“Well,” Jacques hedged, “I wouldn’t say nothing. Flashbangs might work, but then you have a blind, deaf, and disoriented mage who knows he’s under attack but doesn’t know much else.”
Visions of craters and burning buildings filled my mind, and I shuddered a little. “No thanks. Anything else?”
“Taser,” he said simply. “But, obviously, that’s only good for a limited range of targets. Witches aren’t going to be inconvenienced. Neither will any druids, wizards, or sorcerers with an electricity kick. Might as well hand them the gun and get it over with faster.” He shrugged. “Or you can go with a fast-acting tranquilizer delivered with a scoped rifle. That’s probably the best I got.”
I frowned. “Limited usage, though. Can’t think of very many situations where I’d get the chance to use it. And a witch could beat that, too.”
“I know,” he said dryly. “Think of a better idea, feel free to tell me and I’ll sell it to you. Otherwise, that’s what I have. Mages have so much variation in abilities, you really have to plan to the individual.”
I nodded glumly. It wasn’t a surprise, exactly, but I’d been hoping he could give me a silver bullet of some kind. As it was, I was supposed to come up with a specific counter to their abilities when I had no idea what their abilities were.
“Well,” Aiko said briskly. “I think that settles everything except price.”
“Seventy thousand dollars,” Jacques said immediately.
“I’m sorry,” Aiko said, “I don’t think I heard that right. I mean, obviously somebody who didn’t even have the most important part of what we were buying wouldn’t dream of asking that much. Clearly you actually said seven thousand dollars.”
“Seven? Please. Those grenades alone are worth ten. I couldn’t possibly go lower than fifty grand.”
“I could get better grenades than this for five,” the kitsune sniffed. “Twelve.”
“I get it, Cupcake. You want me to starve. That’s what this is about. Forty-five.”
“Oh come on, you drink your meals anyway. And look at this scratch. I’d be doing you a favor to take this crap off your hands. Twenty-five-kay, and that’s my final offer.”
“Twenty-seven, and you tell me what sanctions your people have planned against the Khan for dicking you around with this publicity business,” Jacques shot back immediately.
“Deal. The money and the info will be wired within the week.”
They shook on it, while Snowflake and I hung back at the edges and hoped that nobody looked our way. I swallowed, and tried not to be too obvious about it. I couldn’t afford twenty-seven thousand dollars that casually on the best day I ever had. I was kind of surprised that she could afford it, actually; I’d never quite gotten clear on what Aiko did for a living, but she didn’t live in a way I would associate with someone who could throw money around that casually.
I mean, seriously. She hangs out with me. That’s a pretty good hint, right there.
“So. Since when do you have that kind of cash?” I was currently carrying quite a lot of brand-new, highly illegal equipment. Fortunately, it was for exactly this kind of circumstance that I designed my cloak of shadow; it was currently in the form of a grey-black trench coat of indeterminate material, and doing an admirable job of concealing the gear. It weighed a good bit, but there are some perks to being a werewolf. Or werewolfish, at any rate. I’m actually considering inventing a name for whatever it is I actually am, just so I don’t have to do that whole “almost, but not quite” routine when I introduce myself. It gets old fast.
“Maybe I’m planning to foist the bill on you,” Aiko said lightly, casually leaping down the first flight of stairs and landing in a roll. It was, of course, a beautifully executed maneuver; she doesn’t have my raw strength or speed, but she’s graceful beyond words when she chooses to show it, and agile. It helps that she has the physical condition of a highly athletic teenager combined with the experience of five decades of life; that’s the kind of mix that makes Olympic gymnasts green with envy.
Snowflake and I followed, albeit rather more sedately. “No,” I said. “You aren’t that dumb. I could sell my house and take out a loan and still not be worth that much.”
“Maybe I’ll just default on it, then.”
“You’re not that stupid either,” I said wryly. “You wouldn’t lose one of your favorite contacts for that little. Besides, somebody with that kind of black market connections probably knows a good assassin.”
She laughed, but otherwise refrained from comment until we were out of the building. “All right,” she said. “You’ve got me. I’m going to pay.” She shrugged carelessly, meandering aimlessly down an alley. That was one of her more curious personality quirks that I’d noticed; unless she specifically needs to, Aiko almost never uses main streets. I have no idea why. “It’s not a big deal, Winter. The money…it doesn’t really matter to me, you know? So,” she continued before I could respond. “What next?”
“Well,” I said slowly, “I guess the first thing is to go over that list. Maybe we’ll see something they didn’t.” Which I really, really didn’t want to do, but that didn’t really have any bearing on the situation. My not knowing about it wouldn’t make things better for anyone.
Aiko looked like she’d just bit into a lime. Not one of those wimpy things, mind you, but a real key lime. Which is to say that she looked about as happy as I felt. “Right,” she said. She led the way back to the park we’d visited earlier, I think as much to put it off as anything. We sat on a park bench and she handed me the stack of papers. Snowflake was, of course, draped over my feet like a furry blanket.
The top page was just a list of names, in alphabetic order. It had a curiously anonymous feel to it, almost sterile in a way. Simple typeface, no distinguishing features, no heading nor anything to indicate who the people were nor who had written it. If you didn’t know better it could be a mailing list.
I knew better, of course, and as a result I was not happy reading that list. It didn’t help that, as the Watcher had indicated, I knew just about every name on it.
Enrico Rossi, obviously. Anna Rossi was on the list too, which was almost worse; Enrico had at least chosen to get involved in my world. Abdullah Ali, who was—provided that this guy didn’t just have a real thing against people named Abdul, which with my luck was entirely possible—the kid I’d seen first. Rachel Brown, an empath I knew from Pryce’s who was, if not a good friend, at least a consistent acquaintance. Erica Reilly’s name came as something of a comfort; if they were going to hurt people, I couldn’t really think of a better victim than Erica. Katie Schmidt. James Frazier, better known as Jimmy. Sergio Hernandez, who owned and operated a Mexican restaurant I’d been eating at since it was a truck on the side of the road. Luna Kuzmak, a shady character who spent a lot of time hanging around Pryce’s and to whom I’d sold a few magical trinkets. She wasn’t a serious mage, and she wasn’t a player on Jacques’s level, but she was clever and she knew quite a few tricks.
Then there were a few names I didn’t know as well. Jasmine A. G. U. A. Rosacea (yes, she actually changed her name to that, and no, I can never remember what all the initials stand for), who had been Kyra’s neighbor when she was just a waitress living in a Manitou Springs apartment. I never spent that much time around her, but my memory suggested an aging hippie, slightly portly, with a passion for gardening and an inexplicable fondness for fortune cookies. Michael Sutcliffe, the bartender at the Full Moon who I’d kept from being shot a while back. Keegan Lynch, who’d been my best friend’s roommate at college right up until I’d had to kill said friend. I hadn’t even realized Keegan was still living in Colorado Springs, but we were pretty good friends up until I killed his sister Catherine.
We kind of fell out after that. I mean, once I’d killed most of the people we were both friends with, it got to be kind of hard to hang out with the guy.
I frowned and pointed at the last name on the list, Dr. Llewellyn Witt, which (in addition to being either unpronounceable or just begging for cheap puns, depending on which name you looked at) was totally unfamiliar to me. “Who’s that guy?” I asked aloud.
The doctor at Memorial, Snowflake supplied. Older guy, had your sorry ass as a patient a few times?
“Oh. Wait a second, how do you know that?”
I visited you in the hospital once, the husky said, sounding—well, not really, but you know what I mean and you have to stretch the language a bit if you deal with this kind of crap on a regular basis—almost embarrassed. He didn’t think to keep me from seeing his computer. I can probably still remember his login information, if you want.
I stared for a moment and then shook my head. “Wow. You’re…kind of scary. You know that, right?”
I relayed her information to Aiko and then stared at the list some more. I’d been trying to avoid thinking about it, but now that I didn’t have something else to distract myself with it really started sinking in.
Thirteen people. Thirteen. Slapped in the face with a literal, for-real torture spell, and for what? Because they happened to know me? I hadn’t even seen some of those people in years.
I couldn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it, but I couldn’t come up with another answer. Oh, some of them, sure—Luna and Jimmy, for example, had both certainly involved themselves in shady dealings to a sufficient extent that I could see somebody going after them. But Jasmine? Sergio? Or, even worse, Anna. I mean, I knew the rest of them, but I liked Anna.
And about then is when the guilt started. Not so much because they’d seemingly been targeted just for knowing me, although that was a definite part of it. No, for me the biggest factor was that it had taken me so long to find out about it. Some jackass had been torturing my associates and friends, and I hadn’t even known about it for over a week, until after somebody else had reported it. Worse yet, even then I only learned it because they thought I was responsible.
That was a pretty heavy kick in the teeth. I didn’t have even a clue what to do about it, either; that might have been the worst part. It’s part of how I think, basically, and a pretty common pattern for werewolves. When something causes me pain, and especially when it does so by hurting someone I care about, my immediate and instinctive impulse is to lash out with violence.
My reaction to Aiko’s apparent death is a textbook example, actually. An instant of shock while the reality penetrated, then it triggered a violent response so instinctual and overblown that it overwhelmed rational thought, and quite likely qualified as a psychosis in itself. Given the option, I would gladly be doing the same thing this time, although I couldn’t guarantee I would restrain myself from killing this particular fellow in a cruel and unusual fashion as I had briefly considered doing to the gorillathing. Mugging somebody’s one thing, but agony curses…a quick death really does seem to be too good for some people, y’know?
Anyways, the important thing is that, without any idea who I should target for my revenge or how to go about it, that response was impossible. It left me struggling to express my feelings, which sounds like something you would see on Dr. Phil or something but really is the best way I can think of to phrase it.
Aiko gently took the stack of papers from me, not saying anything, and flipped through them. The rest of the pages seemed to contain dossiers on each of the people named in the list. It occurred to me that she wouldn’t even know most of those names, and after this long I might not even recognize several of them. Somehow that struck me as absurd, and I found myself giggling a little.
I let Aiko read, focusing instead on scratching Snowflake’s ears. It was something to do with my hands while I waited, and the husky insists it isn’t possible to scratch her ears too much. The kitsune took her time, reading through each entry carefully without speaking. When she got to the end she flipped it back to the second page and handed it back to me.
I glanced at the page she’d opened it to. It was the dossier on one Abdullah Ali, age seventeen. Jacques had even obtained a photo to include, maybe a yearbook photograph, which made it clear that this was indeed the same Abdul I’d met. Most of the information was pretty standard. Abdul was apparently a good student; his high school record looked almost as good as the one Conn had had forged to get me into a decent school. His GPA was 3.87, and he was involved in half a dozen or so service and volunteer organizations.
Aiko reached over and tapped one vivid green fingernail on the third paragraph. I read it over again, then looked up at her. “What?”
“Julia Parr is his girlfriend,” she said in that special tone of voice reserved for pointing out the obvious to the mentally impaired.
“I wouldn’t have expected you to make a big deal out of a mixed-race relationship,” I said lightly. “Should I know who this person is?”
“Julia Parr?” she repeated. “You know, the girl Aubrey’s been mooning over for months now?”
“Oh.” It seemed a little weird at first, but I supposed it made a certain amount of sense. Aubrey couldn’t be more than nineteen himself, so the age difference wouldn’t necessarily be disturbingly large in either direction. It was easy to forget that; he was so reserved that he seemed decades older much of the time, especially to someone like me who was used to dealing with ageless beings. I mean, Conn looks even younger than me, and he mentions events seven centuries past as casually as I talk about last week.
“Think it’s connected?”
Gosh, Snowflake said caustically, twitching her tail. Mental human magic being used to hurt people. The only target you hadn’t at least met before was this girl’s boyfriend. Aubrey’s obsessed with her. He’s a human witch with a flair for the mental stuff. Why would I ever think that there’s a connection?
Aiko echoed the dog almost word for word, which was pretty amusing. Not surprising, given that they’re both sarcastic wiseasses, but amusing.
“Okay,” I said, laughing. “It’s someplace to start, at any rate.”
Do we even care? It sounds like the Watchers have this one under control.
“Yeah, I’d like to just walk away,” I said in answer to Snowflake’s question. “But that isn’t a long-term solution. I mean, unless I can prove that this wasn’t me, they’re going to be keeping after me. That isn’t a good idea.”
Aiko sighed. “Nothing’s ever simple when you’re around, you know that? So where next?”
“I dunno. What are the options?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, it looks like Aubrey is the next step, which means Colorado. You said you had three places there we could go, right?”
“Oh,” she said, understanding dawning on her face. “Right. Well…I can reliably do a parking lot on the west side, that park down the road from your house, and the Home Depot at Southgate.”
I blinked. “Wait, what? Why Home Depot?”
She coughed. “It makes it a lot easier to skip out on work.”
“You work at a hardware store?” I asked, incredulous.
“Occasionally,” she said, shrugging. “Honestly, I’m not sure why I still have a job there, I spend so little time actually working. I think mostly it’s that my boss cares about his job even less than I do.”
“That’s fascinating,” I said dryly, “but I was more wondering how you have thirty grand to spare on that kind of paycheck.”
“Oh,” she said. “That. It’s my family, really. I try not to take their money, but it’s there if I need it. So which will it be?”
I mulled it over for a moment. “When you say park, what do you mean?”
“That place just down the road? Think it’s called Red Rock Park or something? There used to be a pretty big quarry in there? That’s where.”
I frowned. “I thought there was a canyon in the name?”
“What, like Red Canyon? Nah, that doesn’t sound right.”
“Maybe it’s Rock Canyon.”
“That’s a moronic name,” she said acerbically. “Besides, I really thought there was a red in there somewhere.”
It’s called the Red Rock Canyon Open Space, you imbeciles.
I coughed self-consciously. “Oh. Anyways, I think that’s the best place.”
“Cool. What’s up when we get there?”
“You remember that spiel you had about detailing a plan before you put it in motion?”
“Hey!” she said hotly. “You can’t use the same excuse twice in a row!”
I chuckled. “Gotcha. Anyways, here’s the plan….”