Twenty minutes later, Snowflake and I were driving across the city.
That, in itself, was a pretty crazy thing. I mean, I’d spent something like thirty years without a car. I’d gotten so used to not having a vehicle that having to either walk, call for a ride, or take public transport (good luck with that in Colorado Springs) anywhere I might want to go.
Except that I’d received a pretty decent sum of money recently, I think because the group responsible wanted me to like them. It didn’t work, because I don’t consider twenty-five grand an adequate substitute for a friend’s life. But my distaste didn’t stop me from spending it, and about a week ago I’d picked up a decent used car.
Which is how I wound up driving a forest green Jeep down the street, while Snowflake hung her head out the window and mentally urged me to speed up. She wasn’t in any particular hurry; she just likes the feel of the wind in her fur. Having experienced it, I didn’t especially blame her. There’s a reason dogs stick their heads out the window.
I knew when we’d made it to the right place, because I saw Kyra’s wreck of a car parked on the street. My ride wasn’t pretty, but hers made it look like a vintage Caddy. I had no idea how she kept that thing running by this point, given that I was wondering about that when I met her, quite a few years before.
I got out of the car, hands tucked into my cloak. I’d thrown some clothes on underneath it, and shaped the pseudofabric into the classic trench coat to cover the armor, giving me at least some semblance of respectability. Snowflake, too, was dressed up; she’d elected to go with the plain black silk eyepatch today, and I’d even clipped the leather leash to her collar, so as not to freak anybody out walking down the street.
Kyra was standing in the doorway of a fast food restaurant. She was wrapping up a conversation on the phone as we approached; I didn’t overhear anything informative, but from the authoritative tone I was guessing the person on the other hand was one of her werewolves. “Hey, Winter,” she said, dropping the phone into her pocket.
“Hey,” I said. “This the place?”
“Yeah,” she said flatly. That, right there, told me that this was pretty bad. Kyra’s seen, and done, and experienced, a lot of bad things, and she’s good at not showing any emotional reaction to them. For her to sound like that made me think that whatever had happened to Humberto, I could safely say that it would be fairly horrible, even by my standards.
Kyra must have cleared things with the policepersons there, because they let me and Snowflake by without protest. They didn’t look happy about it—the police and I don’t have the best relationship in the world, because of reasons—but they didn’t stop us. Kyra, like most Alphas, keeps on good terms with law enforcement, using bribery, probably blackmail, and a healthy dose of sheer force of personality.
Anyway, they let us by. Unlike most of the crime scenes I’d encountered in my life, they’d already been here and set themselves up, with the yellow tape and everything. There was nobody there but us, Kyra, and a handful of cops. The employees weren’t being allowed in, and I think it would probably have taken a lot to keep the customers there.
I’d sorta expected us to go in, but we didn’t. Kyra led us around back of the restaurant, to a small alley. It was there, right in front of the service entrance, that we encountered what was left of Humberto.
I stared. Then I gagged. Then I stared some more. Beside me, Snowflake was doing more or less the same thing, for once too shocked for words. That’s a bad way to go, she said finally, sounding subdued.
Yeah, I agreed, staring at the body. Very bad.
Humberto had been crucified. Literally crucified, nailed through each of his limbs to a two-by-four. The whole contraption had then been leaned against the wall next to the door.
It was neater than I’d expected. Not much blood, barely enough to smell it. I guess that’s not surprising, all things considered. It wasn’t like the wounds were particularly large.
That isn’t to say that they weren’t painful. I wasn’t exactly an expert, but I was pretty sure that crucifixion was supposed to be a terrible way to die, and I was also pretty sure that this specific case was nastier than most. For one thing, rather than simple iron nails, the killer had used what looked railroad spikes.
Spikes which had, of course, been either made from or coated with silver. Even if it hadn’t been utterly predictable, the smell of its magic was unmistakable. It was highly charged, too, enough to make me itch from three feet away.
You don’t bleed to death if you’re crucified. You suffocate. You have to lift your own weight to breathe, and eventually fatigue, pain, and thirst make that impossible, and then you die. It was, by all accounts, an intensely unpleasant death. That’s why the Romans used it as a means of execution in the first place.
Looking at Humberto, I could believe it. His features were twisted into a veritable rictus—a word I’ve never really had occasion to use before, and yet which seemed entirely appropriate to the occasion. I mean, I’ve never been quite clear what defines a rictus, but I was confident that this was an example.
He’d been dead too long to stink of fear and pain. But I still fancied that I caught a ghost of it on the wind, and I wasn’t entirely sure it was my imagination.
“How long ago was this?” I asked Kyra quietly. Speaking loudly seemed…disrespectful.
“The deliveryman found him about half an hour ago,” she said, not looking directly at the body. I could hear the burgeoning anger in her voice. “But we don’t know yet how long ago he actually died for sure, or even whether he died here.”
I sighed. Loki must have known that I would be getting involved with this regardless. Given that it was Kyra’s problem, it was pretty unlikely that anything else would happen. Which meant that that whole scene in the parking garage had been…what? Him screwing with me, the way it seemed he always was? Or was there something deeper going on?
“Who’s your contact in the police?” I asked, absentmindedly rubbing Snowflake’s ears.
“Sergeant Frishberg. She’s…how do I put this….”
“Chief officer of werewolf affairs?” I suggested brightly.
“Something like that, yeah. She’s the unofficial head of the freak squad.” Freak squad being the unofficial term for the unofficial group of cops who had been unofficially assigned to deal with all the weird, freaky, and/or supernatural stuff that, unofficially, nobody else wanted to touch with a pole. Most of them didn’t want to either, which is why the freak squad consisted mainly of those who pissed off higher-ups and couldn’t find a way out of it.
It didn’t help that the government still hadn’t done anything to acknowledge the werewolves, on any level. They hadn’t even bothered to deny that they exist. Strangely, Conn seemed quite happy with that outcome. For his part, he still hadn’t allowed anyone to do anything that might remove that last veneer of plausible deniability. Over a year after his big public reveal, nothing much had changed. It had sure as hell been a lot less of a shock to the system than I’d been expecting, and I was starting to suspect that the whole thing had been a con of some sort.
“How much do you trust her?” I asked.
Kyra shrugged. “Enough? You have to give me some basis for comparison, here. She’s helped me out with some sticky situations, and she’s reliable enough that when I need a hand disposing of evidence or forging documents she’s the one I ask. But she’s willing to let me bribe her in the first place, which doesn’t exactly scream trustworthiness in a cop, you know?”
I nodded thoughtfully. “True. On the other hand, it’s not like somebody like me can go all kosher and aboveboard in the first place, is it?”
“I guess not. You have something in mind here, or did you just want to ask random questions for no reason?”
I shrugged. “Loki’s decided to start screwing with me again, wants me to be his thug in some kind of spooky hoedown. He says this,” I indicated Humberto’s body, “might be related. I thought the police might be the next source of info to look at, so…” I trailed off.
She grunted. “You turn anything up, you bring me in on it.” It wasn’t a request.
I tried anyway. “Look, I know you’re tough, but this is something else, you know? I mean, we’re talking about Loki. He scares other gods, for crying out loud.”
She looked at me levelly. “If you find out who killed my wolf,” she said, enunciating in that extra-clear way usually received for the mentally impaired, “you will bring me in on it.” She paused, and in her eyes was something of the black humor that was her hallmark before…before. “Besides,” she said mischievously. “You really think you can keep me out of this?”
“Well,” I admitted, “no.”
“Thought not,” she said, laughter hiding in her voice. She passed me a business card for one Sgt. Kendra Frishberg, which I casually slid into my pocket. The werewolf paused to spend a moment ruffling Snowflake’s ears, and then walked out toward the street, already pulling her phone back out.
I stayed a few moments longer. I hadn’t told Kyra that I could smell magic. I wasn’t sure why. Some instinct just said that it would be smart to keep it to myself for now, and I didn’t argue. I might have, if it hadn’t been such a strange scent.
There were only so many scents I associated with magic. There was the disinfectant of a pure human, the musk-and-lavender of a werewolf, and the blood-and-spice tones of vampires. And, well, that was about it. Oh, there’s variations on the theme, of course. Mages can range from straight disinfectant to something much closer to bleach, and have all kinds of undertones depending on personality and what magic they’re actually doing. And then, if you smell deep enough, you can actually pick out individuals based on delicate variations in scent, and sometimes even something of their moods and thoughts.
Granted you have your oddballs. I’m one of them. I smell a little like werewolf, because I am a little like werewolf. But I also smell more strongly than most wolves of freshly spilled blood, and then there are tones of ice and freshly cut grass that aren’t quite like anything else I’ve run into. In my experience, my scent is totally unique.
But even so, there was a limited range of what magic could smell like. This didn’t fit any of the categories. There was a hint of human disinfectant, but it was far from the strongest note in the medley. That position was held by something dark and cold, the smell of shadows and silences. It was unlike anything I’d encountered before, arousing the telltale tingling sensation of magic less in my nostrils than in my throat. It made me want to sneeze.
If I didn’t have a well-stocked cupboard of poisons, I don’t think I would have caught the last scent. It was sweet, vaguely floral, slightly exotic, not especially noteworthy unless you happened to know it was nightshade.
What did that mean? I didn’t have any idea. I’d never encountered a magical signature in which human was a subtle undertone rather than the dominant scent. Likewise, the primary note, which stubbornly resisted all efforts to equate it to a physical smell, wasn’t anything I’d encountered before. As for the nightshade, well, aside from the obvious, I had no idea what it was indicating.
So yeah, I didn’t feel too guilty for not telling Kyra. What was I supposed to say? “There’s something here but, you know, I really have no idea what it might be or what it means?” I was pretty sure she could figure that out on her own.
Still, it was creepy. It bothered me, and I didn’t linger long. Snowflake stuck close to my heels as we left the alley, and I could feel her unease.
I was too scared to eat.
That, right there, should tell you quite a lot. I mean, can’t sleep, can’t joke, can’t close my eyes without seeing monsters, that’s one thing, but too scared to eat? That was new. I’d been inches from death more times than I could remember clearly, and the fear had faded, but this? This situation filled me with an unfamiliar, very rational kind of fear.
People say that they’re willing to die all the time. And it’s meaningless.
It’s meaningless for a lot of reasons. First off, of course, the vast majority of people who say that are wrong. They aren’t necessarily lying; a lot of people really believe that they’re willing to die for a cause, or a person, or an action figure for that matter, but when push comes to shove they can’t do it. So the first problem you have is sorting out the ones who really aren’t afraid of death.
Then you have to realize something else. This is that, realistically, death isn’t all that scary. I think most people, on some level, realize that death is inevitable. We get so worked up about it that teens pretend they think they’re immortal, but at the end of the day we all recognize that people die. So, when forced to confront that fact, we recognize that dying is essentially something that we don’t have a choice about. “Choosing” to die now rather than later is akin to choosing to eat your spinach before your dessert; ultimately you will have to eat it regardless.
Anyway, I think that’s why you get so many people willing to sacrifice themselves. You see it all the time: zealots willing to die for a cause, mothers for their children, soldiers for their countries, all kinds of people dying just for a paycheck.
That’s why it isn’t a big thing, really, to say that I wasn’t afraid to die. Why should I be? I mean, I’ve seen a lot of death. A whole lot, ever since I was a kid. They say that familiarity breeds contempt; I don’t know if that’s quite right, but I do know that it was hard to be afraid of something as familiar as death.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t want to die. Why should I, after all? My life is pretty nice these days. I’ve got friends, a steady romantic relationship, work I enjoy and which has decent pay. Life’s good, and I have no desire whatsoever at this point to leave it. I don’t want to fall in the sewer either; that doesn’t mean I’m scared of manholes.
Death didn’t scare me. Loki scared me. He scared me like crazy. There was nothing, but nothing, you could put past Loki.
That, really, is the scary thing. The unpredictability. Loki might give you a fortune, just to see what you did with it. Or he might sell you into slavery. Or keep you alive for a thousand years while you’re eaten alive by fire ants. Or all three, one after another or all at once. Worse yet, you would never see any of it coming.
That was scary. That was the kind of fear that crawled inside your skin and made itself at home. It slipped into my organs, climbed around in my bones. Some kinds of fear are fun—the adrenaline rush of an amusement park, say, or its darker cousin that you only ever find when people are fighting to the death. But then there are long-term fears, based less on hormones than on simple logic, which aren’t much fun at all. Things like hospital visits, or waiting for the torturer to finish his lunch break.
Loki scared me like that. And, most disturbing of all, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. If he decided to kill me, I’d never know it. I’d just die.
Which is why, rather than go find something to eat like I’d been planning, I called Kyra’s sergeant right away. Kyra’s name was enough to get me a meeting in an hour.
Snowflake and I were, of course, more than half an hour early. That’s the kind of thing you do when you’re paranoid. There was no way I was going to meet a cop, crooked or otherwise, without casing the joint first.
She showed up almost fifteen minutes early. Perversely, I was satisfied to have been justified in my caution. Snowflake had advised getting some takeout rather than going straight there—huskies are never too scared to eat—but I’d thought that every minute might be valuable.
Sergeant Frishberg wasn’t hard to notice. Oh, she wasn’t in uniform or anything like that. She just wasn’t Enrico. He could have walked straight up to me and clapped me on the shoulder and still caught me by surprise, and I knew him. Next to that, she wasn’t that great. There was something about her bearing, I think, that gave her away.
I’d had her meet me at the park—I mean, the open space, a fact which Snowflake had mockingly reminded me of—not far from where my house was before it burned down. Ostensibly, this wasn’t an unreasonable location. It was public—a fact which was driven home by the absurd number of cars in the lot, even so early in the season. On the other hand, you could be in sight of a lot of people without any of them being able to hear you, making it a reasonably safe place to have a private conversation.
It was also about as close to natural as you could get without getting a lot further from the city proper, which would make magic significantly easier for me. And, because it was pretty close to my old home, I knew most of the predators in the area by…well, not name, because most animals don’t have names in the human sense of the word, but the equivalent. If I needed help and had more than about a minute to get it, I could probably arrange something along those lines. A fox isn’t dangerous, generally speaking, to an adult human. Several dozen foxes, coyotes, feral dogs, and raptors can be. I’d hate to ask something like that of them, but in an emergency it was entirely possible.
I was reasonably confident that she didn’t know about those parts, unless I was getting played already. I probably wouldn’t have to take advantage of it—but let me tell you, it was pretty comforting to be able to set up a potential confrontation on my choice of ground for once. I don’t normally get that privilege.
Snowflake, who was out scouting around because she’s much, much sneakier than me, picked the sergeant out in the parking lot and trailed her up the main path to where I was waiting. I’m pretty sure the cop had no idea she was being followed. For a husky, Snowflake is pretty good at not being seen when she wants to be.
I got a decent glance at her through Snowflake’s eyes as she was walking up. She was casually dressed in a white T-shirt, cargo shorts, and hiking boots. I could pick out a dozen or so hikers in the immediate vicinity wearing practically the same clothes. The rest of her appearance was a fair bit more unusual. Her last name sounded vaguely German to me, but her features were far from classical Western European. The skin, a few shades darker than a tan, made me think she might be Hispanic or Native American, as did the straight black hair, cut short enough not to impair vision. Her eyes, though, reminded me of Aiko more than anything, and the kitsune looks about as Japanese as they come. Frishberg was taller than average for a woman, and fit, but neither one exceptionally so. On the whole, it was hard to draw any real conclusions from her appearance.
I met her, as we’d arranged over the phone, near the main building, not far from the lot. She was looking at one of the informational displays they had set out, and doing a reasonably good impression of a tourist. I walked up next to her, all casual-like. “Lovely weather we’ve been having lately,” I commented, not looking directly at her.
She glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. “Isn’t it,” she agreed blandly. “Walker sent you?”
“In a manner of speaking,” I agreed.
She grunted noncommittally. “What do you need?”
I glanced around to make sure nobody was in earshot. “Information,” I said, passing over a blank business card on which I’d written the three names of interest. To anyone watching, it was an utterly innocuous sight. “Files, incident reports, anything you can scrounge up. Delivered to Kyra posthaste.”
She glanced at the card very briefly as she took it and put it in her pocket. “Five grand,” she said, her tone leaving no room for argument.
I kept myself from wincing. I could, just barely, afford it on what was left of the Watchers’ money, leaving me enough from other sources to get by. It wasn’t an enormous issue—but I’d spent too long too broke to take it lightly. “One now,” I said, pulling out a small envelope and passing it over as well. “The rest on delivery.”
She nodded sharply. “Fair enough.” She made the cash disappear as well, the motion as buttery smooth as a street magician. “Three hours.”
Better, I had to admit, than I’d expected. I nodded once, and we shook on it before she left.
Snowflake found me about five minutes later, just far enough from the beaten path that nobody would notice. That went well, she said. She had, of course, been watching through my own eyes the whole time.
Yeah, I agreed. Guess I didn’t need to worry this time.
She butted my thigh gently, a wordless reassurance that I was justified. Besides, it wasn’t like I’d spent any munitions on it. What now?
I ruffled her fur. Food. I still wasn’t hungry, but I knew that I needed to eat. I would rapidly become ineffective otherwise, after all, and it isn’t wise for a werewolf of any stripe to get too hungry. That’s how bad things happen.