Not for nothing is the stopping power of a shotgun so highly regarded. The blast hit me hard enough to send me stumbling sideways, whereupon I promptly tripped and fell face-first onto Snowflake. Her yelp of surprise was buried by the noise of the second shot.
“He shot me,” I said, pushing myself to my feet. “I can’t believe he actually shot me.”
I wasn’t going to get the chance to complain about it. The second shot had been for himself, and there wasn’t much doubt of the result. Suffice to say that, werewolf or not, a shotgun blast to the face from point-blank range is an undeniably effective means of suicide. Kyra would have to hire a really good cleaner to get the stains out.
“Are you okay?” Kyra asked immediately.
“I think so,” I said. “He must have been using a light shot. I think the armor stopped all of it.”
“Not quite all,” Aiko said, touching my cheek. Her fingers came away red. “You weren’t wearing the helmet.”
“I didn’t think I’d need it,” I said numbly. “I mean, I knew Enrico was unhappy, but I never expected…this.”
“It was a bit more of a dick move than I saw coming from him,” Aiko said. “Killing yourself when you’ve got plenty to live for and people who care about you? You have to be a pretty major asshole to do that.”
Kyra looked at the kitsune oddly. “That’s more sentimental than I would have expected from you,” she commented.
Aiko shrugged. “My favorite cousin killed himself when I was around thirty,” she said. “It left an impression. I wasn’t that close to Enrico, but I would imagine you guys are feeling similarly.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I don’t think this was a suicide, not entirely. I think it was murder.”
“The curse you mentioned?” Kyra asked. Her voice was almost calm, if you didn’t listen too closely.
“Yeah,” I said. “Enrico was already on the edge. I think we’ve known that for a while. But based on the timing, it seems pretty clear that this curse was what pushed him over.”
“Who did it?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “But believe me, finding out just went up another step on my priority list.”
Kyra nodded tightly. “You’ll tell me, when you find him.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes,” I said. “Do you know where Anna is?”
Kyra’s composure cracked, just for a moment, and I could see how deeply Enrico’s death had affected her. “You want to tell her about her brother?”
“Among other things.” I glanced at the clock and saw that it was already almost eight. “I’m starving. Maybe we should go for breakfast.”
There are all kinds of breakfast places in the Springs. When pressed, however, I will almost always settle on a comparatively small biker hangout. The reasons for this are multitudinous. For one thing, it’s close enough to the west edge of the city that I could get there without that much trouble. Like most greasy spoons it has good food, large portions, and a cheerful disregard for anything resembling nutrition. And, best of all, the old Native American man who runs the place doesn’t care if I bring Snowflake so long as she doesn’t cause trouble.
“Okay,” Anna said once the coffee had restored her to some semblance of consciousness. “What’s so earth-shatteringly important that it couldn’t wait until eight?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” I said. “Did something happen to you recently, something weird or inexplicable? You might have felt emotions without knowing why, or behaved in a way that you normally wouldn’t. Something like that.”
She frowned and looked away from me. “Yeah,” she said. “A couple of days ago. I don’t know what happened, but I’m missing about twelve hours.”
I nodded. “Could you tell me a little more about what happened?”
“What do you want to know?” she asked hesitantly.
“Well, for starters, what did it feel like?”
“I don’t really know,” she said hesitantly, staring into the coffee. “There’s just a…gap. I don’t remember it at all.”
“What’s the last thing you can remember?” Aiko asked suddenly, not looking up from the origami she was making out of three straw wrappers and a paper napkin.
Anna frowned. “I was…walking home from work. This was on Monday, at around half past eight. It was raining, a little bit. And then….” She trailed off and shook her head. “That’s it.”
“Okay,” I said. The food arrived about then, and for a few minutes there was no conversation of any kind.
Delicious as it was, though, the meal couldn’t distract me indefinitely, and before long I had to get back to business. “What happened next?”
She shrugged. “The next thing I remember is waking up. I was in my bed, just like usual, except I didn’t remember how I got there.”
“Did you feel normal when you woke up?’
Anna shrugged again. “Mostly, yeah. My head hurt a little, and I felt really tired, but mostly normal. There was someone else there when I woke up, a woman. She was tall, with blond hair. She was really thin, too.”
Huh. No cloak, but otherwise that sounded like a dead ringer for the Watcher. “Did she say anything?”
“Yeah,” Anna said. “Something about paying debts, and sending messages. I didn’t really understand. She left before I was really awake.”
I nodded. “That makes sense. Have you done anything about this? It seems like it could be pretty frightening.”
“It was,” Anna said emphatically. “I thought about going to a therapist, or asking you for advice, but it just seemed like a really bad idea. I don’t know why.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I told her. “You aren’t crazy. This won’t be happening again, I don’t think.”
“Good,” she said, sounding deeply relieved. “So what’s going on? What happened to me?”
“I’ll tell you the details in a minute,” I said. “But there’s something you should know first.” My voice sounded almost as tired as I felt.
“What is it?”
“What happened to you was the result of magic,” I said dully. “Something designed to inflict pain. The person responsible seems to be targeting the people around me.” I paused, trying to think of a way to frame the next part delicately, and failed. “One of the people targeted was your brother,” I said, somewhat lamely.
Anna winced. “Oh God. What happened?”
“Enrico was already depressed,” I said dully. “He’s never really been the same since he was changed. The spell pushed him over the edge. He shot himself this morning. Lethally.”
“Oh God,” Anna said again. Her voice was choked, and there were tears in her eyes. “I…I need to go to the bathroom,” she said, standing and rushing in that direction.
“So the Watcher was there when she woke up,” Aiko said once Anna was gone. “Think that’s significant?”
“Yeah,” I said. “She knew I’d talk to Anna sooner or later. That message was meant for me.”
Aiko nodded. “Bit of an ambiguous message,” she said, her mouth so stuffed with food that she resembled a squirrel. “Could be a statement of support.”
“That, or a threat. There’s more than one way to pay a debt.”
She nodded again. There wasn’t much more to say on that topic, and for several minutes neither of us spoke. Snowflake complained about the quality of the meat she’d cajoled from the waitress, with remarkable inventiveness in her use of profanity, but there was no real bitterness there.
“Seems like Anna’s been gone a while,” Aiko said at last, wiping up the last of her green chili and eating it.
I shrugged. “Yeah. It’s probably nothing. She wanted some time to cry, I think, get it out of her system. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Aiko looked at me for about five seconds. Then she started laughing.
“Right,” I said. “I’ll go check on her.”
Anna didn’t answer when I pounded on the door of the small unisex bathroom, or when I called her name. I frowned, then checked the handle. It was unlocked.
I opened it and stepped inside, flicking on the light. This showed Anna lying on the floor, to all appearances peacefully asleep.
I had just about enough time to see that before I heard the door close and felt the sudden, depressingly familiar pain of someone hitting me in the head with something hard. Then, while I was still reeling sideways from that, a burlap bag was popped over my head.
I tried to fight back about then. It didn’t go very well. I was blinded, disoriented, and up against a trained fighter. I landed one solid punch, and was rewarded with a grunt of pain. Then there was a brief sensation of falling sideways, followed by another impact to the head, and things faded to a sort of dull, pain-laced red-black.
I woke up, unsurprisingly enough, in pain. The only bright side, if you could even call it that, was that the sack had been removed from my head. The room I was in was entirely dark outside of a small circle of dim light around me, but I could see enough to get the gist of the situation.
I was floating in a large tank of water. It wasn’t especially warm, but I wasn’t in any danger of hypothermia. I was held in position, and my head kept above water, by heavy manacles around my wrists, pinning my arms above my head. They were, needless to say, stainless steel with a tracery of charged silver over top. The silver stung, but hadn’t been in contact with the skin long enough yet to burn me. That gave me a pretty good idea of how long I’d been here; the pain was intense enough that I’d been touching it for at least twenty minutes, but if it had been an hour the skin would have started to burn and blister.
It was a clever setup, really. My arms were numb enough that I couldn’t swim adequately, and I was over at least ten feet of water. Even if I could somehow break the manacles, I would quite likely sink and drown. In the meantime, though, most of my weight was buoyed by the water, so I hadn’t actually separated my shoulders yet.
“This is getting to be too familiar,” I said, sounding only slightly raspy. “What is it with you people and seeing me naked?”
There was a croaking, wheezing sort of laugh from somewhere near the base of the tank. “Trust me,” said a croaking, wheezing sort of voice. “I’ve got better things to do than gawk at you.” Which, although somewhat tactless, was probably true.
“That’s what you say,” I said lightly, testing the manacles. They were solid, unfortunately. “But somehow, everyone who kidnaps me seems to insist on stripping me naked first thing. So who is it this time? Vampires, maybe? I haven’t done vampires before.”
“I think you already know.” And I did.
I had, without really thinking about it, expected the head of the Watchers to be an old—but, naturally, still extremely fit—man with a fondness for expensive suits and, perhaps, the occasional martini. Shaken, not stirred, of course.
Well…I was right about the old.
She looked like a skeleton dressed up as a person for Halloween. Barely five feet tall, she was so thin and frail it seemed that she would shatter at a passing breeze. It didn’t help that her simple black robes hung off her frame as though they had been made for someone twice her size. She was leaning on a plain black cane, and still climbed the steps to the lip of my tank only very slowly. She was also very definitely blind; the whole right side of her face was covered in burn scars, resembling half-melted wax more closely than healthy flesh, and her left eye was nothing more than a hollow socket surrounded by claw marks.
And yet for all of that, there was still pride in her posture, and she reeked of magic like lilies and ashes and days gone by. If it came to a physical fight, I could crush her, even if I hadn’t been a werewolf—but I wasn’t at all confident I would live long enough to get near her.
“So what’s with the Gestapo treatment?” I asked, glancing at the manacles.
She started to answer, but was wracked with an ugly coughing fit before she could. Just when I was starting to wonder if she was about to pitch over dead at my metaphorical feet, it subsided and she straightened again. “I thought you might be less likely to do something stupid when you woke up this way,” she rasped. “And given your reputation, I felt you could use all the help you can get in that regard, eh?”
“Thanks,” I said as dryly as I knew how. “Given that I’m awake now, would you mind letting me out?”
“Give me a moment,” the old mage said, walking behind me. A moment later, following a few sharp metallic noises, the manacles snapped open, dropping me fully into the liquid.
“Was this really necessary?” I asked, catching the edge of the tank.
“Restraining you? Or kidnapping you?”
“Either. Or setting your goons on me in the first place, for that matter. I mean, I know it looks suspicious, but I didn’t actually do anything. This time, anyway.”
“Granted, I’m not exactly an unbiased source, but…wait, what? You know?”
“Obviously,” she said. Her driest dry voice was a lot dryer than mine.
“I do what is necessary,” she said, with the flat bedrock certainty of a fanatic. “Now get out of there.” When I hesitated she laughed that terrible, creaking laugh again. “Don’t worry, Wolf. Your modesty is, I assure you, in no danger from me. I don’t have the time to ravish you.”
I shrugged and hauled myself up out of the water. “You seem to have me at something of a disadvantage,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Names are a luxury I haven’t required for some time,” she said, descending the stairs again. “People call me Watcher. You can do the same.”
“The order was never to stop you,” Watcher said, the clicking of her cane against the stone floor providing a counterpoint to the words. Despite her impairment and the cane, she moved with perfect confidence. If I hadn’t seen her face, I would never have guessed that she was blind.
Before you read too much into that, you have to realize that isn’t nearly as much of an impairment to a mage as to a normal person. Magic just gives you such an unfair advantage that, aside from familiarity, actual vision is pretty much superfluous. I’m not even that skilled, and I can still detect air currents and changes in light reflection well enough to play cards blindfolded.
“Yeah, I got to thinking about it, right? And I realized that they were really, really easy to distract. They let me go at Pryce’s, and at Kyra’s. They chased after that decoy, too.”
“All of which you had explanations for,” the old woman pointed out.
“True,” I acknowledged. “The real kicker, though, was the last one. Even at the time, I kept wondering why they let me pull that off. I mean, you’d think that they would have known better than to get within my reach, and it’s pretty hard to believe they wouldn’t have been able to stop me from running.” I shrugged. “Seemed pretty likely that they were trying to make me worried, but not actually do anything about it. Mining me for information, most likely.”
“Astute,” she commented, coughing some more. It wasn’t a pretty sound. “Quite astute of you.”
We turned another corner into a large kitchen. Like the rest of this place, it was made of a combination of natural stone and concrete, and lit by simple fluorescent fixtures. It also contained the first furnishings I’d seen here, Formica counters and a simple, hard-used metal table and chairs. She opened the dented commercial refrigerator and pulled out a plastic-wrapped sub sandwich and a bottle of water, which she tossed at me. “Eat,” she said wearily.
“What makes you think I’m hungry?”
She chuckled. “Werewolves are always hungry. Relax, Wolf, I’m hardly going to poison you at this point, don’t you think?”
I shrugged and tore into the sandwich. It wasn’t great, but it was edible. “What I really don’t get,” I said between bites, “is why I’m here now. If you’re so busy as that, and you already know I’m not responsible, why waste your time?”
Rather than answer me directly, she pulled out one of the chairs and sat down gingerly, leaning the cane against the wall. “A great many people are very interested in you, you know. I’ve had you in custody for less than half an hour, and I’ve already received more than twenty messages about it.”
I blinked. “Really? From who?”
She pulled out a sheaf of papers from an inner pocket of her robe. “This letter,” she said, pulling one off the stack, “is from the current head of the Blake clan.” She pushed it over to me.
I glanced over it. Underneath the flowery language, it was pretty much lambasting the Watchers for overstepping their authority and demanding I be released immediately. “They’re supporting me?” I asked incredulously.
“Indeed. I have similar letters from, let’s see here, clans Cateye, Jäger, and Lackland, among others. Not to mention seven offers of bribery if I find you innocent of all charges and let you go. I also have notes from the Müller, Nagual, New-Day, Li, and Raven clans congratulating me on apprehending a dangerous felon and recommending your immediate execution.”
“I doubt either of us has time for a detailed description of the past ninety years of Conclave politics,” she said dryly. “Suffice to say that when one clan moves, the others perforce do as well.” She shuffled the papers back together and tucked them into her robe. “You’ve become quite the bone of contention, Wolf.”
“What’s that have to do with abducting me?”
She chuckled again. “Everything. If I were to approach you openly, you see, it would be a political disaster. Those who favor the Pack would be sure I was proclaiming support. The rest would throw a hissy fit.” She smiled, a somewhat chilling expression. “On the other hand, if I take you into custody as part of an active investigation, there’s nothing they can say about it. I’m free to do whatever I see fit.”
I didn’t much like the sound of that. “And what do you see fit?”
“That remains to be seen,” she said. “What do you think I should do?”
“Let me go?” I said hopefully.
“But you are a destabilizing influence. That makes releasing you a risk.”
I frowned. “I don’t know about that. The only time I can think of I was involved with your people was that bit with the crazy witch last summer. And, from what I’ve heard, you would’ve done the same thing given the chance.”
She frowned slightly, the motion emphasizing the scars on her face. It was about that time I realized she was also missing three fingers on her left hand, and her right thumb was little more than a stub.
Being a Watcher might, as it turned out, not be the healthiest long-term career plan out there.
“You have a point,” she said after a moment. “But you make a very simple, very common mistake. You see, Wolf, people tend to think that the Watchers exist in order to protect mages. This is quite simply not the case. We protect the world from mages.”
“But you are mages.”
“Exactly,” she said, and there was iron in her voice. “We are mages. We know better than anyone the danger we represent to the world. You want to know why I do this? Because I know what happens otherwise. I know how little it takes. One witch experimenting with blood magic, one shaman making a foolish bargain, one druid gone mad. That’s how much it takes to break the world.”
“Oh, come on. Don’t you think you’re exaggerating a bit? I mean, granted magic can do some scary things, but I hardly think it’s that bad.”
“That is because you have no understanding of how ugly these things can be,” she said calmly.
“I think I’ve seen some fairly nasty things, actually.”
“Have you ever watched a man cry after a witch forces him to rape and kill his own wife and daughter to get revenge for a petty insult?” she asked without any particular inflection. “Have you smelled the aftereffects when the contents of a person’s lungs, stomach, and intestines are heated to such a degree that they explode? Have you ever heard a woman screaming in agony while a wizard offers the spleen he cut out of her to a monster as a bribe, without even having had the decency to kill her first?”
“Have you ever tasted it when a werewolf throws up in your face?” I countered. “Because if the conversation keeps going like this I think you’re about to.” I shook my head. “Okay, point taken. Bad shit happens. That doesn’t mean I’m about to start doing it. I mean, seriously. That shit is just freaking creepy.”
“When you were initially changed,” she shot back in the same tired, brutally dispassionate voice, “you murdered four people.”
I paused. “Yes,” I said finally. “I did. And I regret it more than you do, I promise. If killing myself would bring them back, I would probably have done so.” I shook my head. “But it won’t. And if you’ll notice, I haven’t killed and eaten any random people in, gosh, however many years it’s been since then.”
“And the girl whose death you caused? Catherine Lynch, I believe her name was?”
I shrugged. “Same deal. I regret it. I would take it back if I could. And I learned from my mistake. I go out of my way to avoid endangering normal people since then.” I gave her a gimlet stare. (And what is a gimlet, anyway? I swear, if we even thought about the things we say, we’d be amazed.) “All of which you already knew. Look, my time’s valuable, and I’m sure yours is as well, so could you kindly get to the point?”
“The point is to convey to you two pieces of information. Number one, we are always watching. That’s what we do, no pun intended. If you break the rules, we’ll know. We’ll find you. You will run, and you will hide, and in the end you will fight, and you will still die. Because we really are that good.” She smiled a thin, twisted smile.
I believed her. “And the second?”
“We’re the good guys,” she said, with the total certainty generally found only in morons and fanatics. And she didn’t seem stupid. “I know that can be hard to see, at first. But we are. We’re the ones making sure bad things don’t happen to good people.”
I snorted. “You’re doing a hell of a job, then.”
She didn’t seem offended. “That’s a natural reaction,” she said calmly. “But perhaps you should ask yourself what the world would be like if we weren’t around. Trust me when I say that, as bad as it seems sometimes, things could be much worse.”
And, whatever psychoses she had (and I had a feeling it would take a while just to name them all), that I knew to be the truth. Whether she and hers were contributing to the problem or the solution was, of course, another matter entirely.
“Still not seeing the connection,” I said. “Not really my business what you do.”
Rather than answer me she pushed her chair back and stood up. “That does not have to be the case,” she said, ambling down another dimly lit tunnel. I was obligated to follow. Given that she was blind it would be unfair to say that she glanced back at me, but I got the distinct impression that it would also have been accurate. “I can always use a subcontractor. Unofficially, you might say.”
“Payment taking the form of…?”
“Let’s say I’m interested. What happens then?”
“You go back to Colorado and deal with this situation. As an aptitude test, you might say. One of my people will go with you and make sure it gets done. If that works out I might contact you in the future with more work.”
“And if I’m not interested?”
She smiled again, an expression which reminded me more than a little of broken glass, all sharp edges and jagged points and no humor at all. “Whatever gave you the idea that this is optional, Wolf?” We emerged into a room whose purpose I could not identify. There were heavy wooden chests along one wall, long steel tables down the middle, and no other furnishings.
The creepy woman in the red cloak was sitting on one of the chests. It was an unfinished red wood of some kind, maybe rosewood or padauk, although there was no consistent pattern to the chests to tell me for sure. Some were pine, but others were almost ridiculously expensive, including one that I was pretty sure was solid zebrawood. “Mr. Wolf,” the blind Watcher said, “meet Ms. Stark. She will be accompanying you.”
I stared. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“Contrary to popular belief, Wolf, I am not possessed of a sense of humor.”
“You expect me to work with her?”
“Ms. Stark is one of my best operatives.” Said operative hadn’t even looked in our direction the whole time, seemingly oblivious to the conversation being carried on ten feet away.
“Maybe so, but she’s also flippin’ crazy, if you hadn’t noticed. Not to mention that she practically broke my head to get me here.”
She sighed. “Could you please leave for a moment, dear?” she called to the psycho. Said psycho got up immediately and walked out, all without once acknowledging our presence in any other way. Thus leaving me alone with, y’know, the other psycho.
“What’s your problem, Wolf?” she asked bluntly.
“Actually,” I said wryly, “I’m pretty sure I covered that with the whole ‘flippin’ crazy’ thing earlier.”
Her lips tightened slightly, and she moved her head in a nod so small it might as well not have been there. “I see. Tell me, Wolf, what were you doing in December?”
“December?” I frowned. “Nothing too memorable, I don’t think. Training a couple employees, mostly. I—”
“She was hunting a vampire,” the blind Watcher interrupted me. “We’d noticed a recent increase in activity in and around Detroit, and he was obvious enough about it that the Council allowed us to intervene. It was primarily a Guard operation, but it was serious enough to justify the participation of two Watchers. Seventeen people, Wolf. He murdered seventeen people in the space of four months. All of them were tortured over a period of at least several days, and in one case more than a week.”
“One person survived,” she said, still in that deathly calm, quiet voice. “A little girl. Eight years old, Caucasian, upper middle-class. She was injured, and terrified, but alive. Ms. Stark’s team had to investigate that little girl, Wolf, in order to figure out why she hadn’t died. She was terrified, didn’t want to think about it. They had to interrogate her.”
“It turned out,” she continued, “that the vampire in question had an unusual obsession with children. He had no compunctions about visiting brutality upon anyone, but he preferred hurting children. Young girls, in particular, obsessed him, although we never did figure out why he let this one go. Can you guess how they reacted to that information, Wolf?”
“They baited him,” I said in a near-whisper.
“Once again, you show your astuteness. They did indeed.” She smiled thinly, and with no humor at all. “Of course, no sane parent would ever agree to such a thing. So they kidnapped her. A girl, as much like the previous one as possible. Nine years old, very similar in appearance, named Julia. They staked her out, very nearly literally, in the middle of his favorite hunting ground, and set up a perimeter around her.”
I shuddered. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some nasty things, and I don’t generally consider myself a sensitive guy—but come on. Everybody has limits, and this was brushing up against mine.
I couldn’t see this ending well.
“It should have been safe,” she continued. “But the vampire noticed something, and he was faster than anticipated. He knew that he had no chance in a fight—one vampire against five Guards and two Watchers will die, no questions asked.” She shook her head. “But he was fast enough to get to the girl. Had a knife on her before anybody could connect with an attack.”
“He took her hostage?”
“Exactly. He held a knife to her throat, and promised that he would kill her if they didn’t let him go.”
I stared. “But…that’s crazy. The second he was out of range, he’d have slit her throat anyway.”
“Yes. And even if he had kept his word, it would still have left him free to do the same to dozens of other children. But the Guard who was in command of the operation is a father. His daughter bears a significant resemblance to the girl they used as bait.” She shook her head slowly. “An unfortunate oversight. Had we foreseen that eventuality, things might have been very different, but…well. We did not.”
“He was going to take the deal?” I asked, somewhat surprised at how horrified my own voice sounded.
“Stark claimed that he was, said she could see it in his eyes. Later, he admitted that he was considering it.” Her blind eyes stared off into the distance, and she showed about as much emotion as Legion might have. “She recognized that it was foolish, that it would end badly. And so she did the only thing she could. She shot the hostage herself.”
I stared some more.
“Julia took three military-grade rifle rounds, one of them to the head,” she continued. “She died without feeling it, certainly without weeks of torture. The vampire was too stunned to react properly for several seconds. Seven mages were in ideal combat positions and had absolutely no reason not to annihilate said vampire. It was not a fight, Wolf, it was a slaughter. No one else sustained injuries.”
“Quite. It was a horrible choice. She had a split second in which to make her decision. No time to consider the words of philosophers. No time to think at all. And she chose right. She was smart enough to see that the brutal action was kinder than the softhearted one.”
She turned that terrible sightless gaze on me again. “That is the kind of situation we deal with here, Wolf. Those are the kinds of problems, the kinds of choices, the kinds of people with which she is accustomed to dealing. So before you condemn Ms. Stark, before you call her a psychopath and decry her as a monster, I recommend you consider that. You might not agree with her, you might not like her, but you can at the very least respect her for making the hard choices so that you don’t have to.”
I sighed, and I looked away first. “Fine. I’ll take the psycho with me.”