About two hours later, after a solid meal that wiped out most of the rest of my cash in pocket, Kyra called to say that Frishberg had delivered, and been paid out of the pack’s bribery account. She phrased it exactly like that, too, which made me laugh. Trust werewolves to have an account set up specifically to make bribing officials more convenient.
We picked it up at her house, reimbursing her three grand while we were there (I figured, given that I was at least partially helping them out, the werewolves could cover the last thousand), and then took the whole stack back to the lab for study. It was, thankfully, a lot more complete than Loki’s dossiers.
I read them all, in detail, a few times. I compared them to each other. I made what guesses I could about the parts that wouldn’t make it into the official report. I took my time about it, being sure not to miss anything. I knew that if I did, it would, inevitably, turn out to be the crucial detail that the entire thing turned on. That’s just how my life goes. It took me about an hour.
Then I threw the whole stack down on the table in frustration. “This makes no sense,” I complained loudly, extending a tendril of energy as I did.
Something like black fog shifted on the surface of the bones in the corner of the room. “Whassat, Boss?” something said in a voice that resembled, more than anything else, a snake sliding across flagstones. It was perfectly intelligible—which, given that the speaker had no body beyond a canine skeleton, it really shouldn’t have been—but it sounded nothing like a human voice.
“This,” I said, gesturing disgustedly at the mess of papers. “This makes no sense whatsoever.”
True dat, Snowflake agreed sourly. She was lying on my feet, eye firmly closed. She’d given up on trying to extract anything valuable from the police documents almost fifteen minutes earlier. I think Loki’s screwing with you.
Legion, who had been about to speak—don’t ask me how I know that, because I have no idea; the demon just had a way of making it known—paused. “Loki’s mixed up in this?” he asked, a touch of something almost like fear in his voice.
It takes a lot to scare a demon.
“Yeah,” I said bitterly. “I’d almost agree with you,” this addressed to Snowflake, “except for one thing. He cashed in his favor for this. Loki’s random, sure, but almost all of the stories paint him as crazy self-interested. Would he throw away even a minor debt for a practical joke?”
Well, she admitted, maybe not. But seriously, this is nutty.
“Hey,” Legion interrupted. “I get that at least one of you was born in a barn, but could you maybe pretend you’ve at least heard of manners as a concept?”
“Three people murdered in the past two weeks,” I said, shuffling the papers back into a stack. “One of them was a werewolf, probably today. Somebody with freaky weird magic crucified him with silver spikes. Before that was some random criminal. Convicted twice on theft, and they think he’s done a lot more. Got shot outside his apartment last week. Then the first one, almost two weeks ago by now, owned a pawn shop. Stabbed twice in the chest. There’s all kinds of weirdness around that one that make me think magic, but by now the residue would be too degraded to be worth checking.”
Legion waited a moment, until it became clear I had nothing more to add. “What’s the connection?” he prompted, for once forgetting to be offensive. The demon enjoys a challenge, intellectual or physical.
Exactly, Snowflake muttered.
I sighed. “Yeah. Pretty much. The connection is, Loki said this morning that there had been three murders in the area, and he wanted me to get to the bottom of it. He implied that there was a theft motive. Beyond that? I got nothing.”
The demon stared at me. “You must be joking.”
I rolled my eyes. “About which part?”
“I’m not sure. I mean, I would have said that the idea of you taking work from Loki was ridiculous, but then you’re moronic enough you might just do it. Then there’s the implication that Loki gives a shit about theft, but that seems a bit too dull for even your sense of humor.”
I thought for a moment. “You know,” I said after a moment, “that’s true. Why the heck would Loki care about a few murders?”
Legion’s eyes, sparks of intensely bright blue light, never moved. The impression that he was rolling them at me was nevertheless very clear. “Why are you asking me?” A moment later, after it became clear that a chagrined response was not forthcoming, he said, “I take that to mean you are not joking.”
I sighed. “Alas, as much as we might all wish otherwise, I am not.” I pushed the stack of papers over toward the demon. “This is all I’ve got. If you notice something, tell me.”
Unfortunately, I hadn’t been exaggerating. There really was quite simply nothing to connect the three incidents. The first, the pawnshop owner, had been a middle-aged woman named Shannon Plumber. No criminal record, no known associations, no significant outstanding debts. It was almost disappointing. I mean, nothing against pawnshops, but you sort of expect them to be dens of iniquity and criminal behavior.
In this case, however, the relative mundanity of her life was more than compensated for by the exotic nature of her death. Shannon had been stabbed twice in the chest. Both wounds were apparently made with the same weapon, and it was a good bit larger than the usual knife. In fact, the coroner’s report indicated that the best guess they had was a sword—not something you encounter commonly these days, unless you live like me. The place had then been ransacked, but apparently nothing had been taken. The inventory was complete, and the cash was still in the register. They hadn’t even stolen the woman’s wallet.
That, right there, was enough to make me think it was a little bit weird. I mean, swords aren’t the weapon of choice of your typical street punk, and to leave without at least grabbing the money was even stranger. It didn’t stop there, though, because they’d also found evidence of fire damage. Not “fire damage” as in “attempted arson.” There were just places—on the walls, the floor, and the ceiling—that were badly scorched. The marks hadn’t been there before the murder.
So that definitely reinforced my impression of weirdness. Patchy fire damage like that made me think of, say, Jimmy Frazier, a burgeoning fire-specialist sorcerer who had a fondness for throwing gouts of flame in a fight. Such blasts were likely to char whatever they hit, but usually didn’t have the duration behind them to really set something alight.
The real kicker, though, was the damage to the ground, both inside the shop and on the sidewalk out front. That part wasn’t random and disconnected. Instead, it formed a distinct pattern where the fire had been.
Namely, footprints. Human footprints, to be exact.
So that definitely suggested a killer with some kind of magic. I mean, the police had some theory about a loony using a blowtorch or something, but I just wasn’t buying that. It made no sense to me at all.
So basically, what I’m saying is that I could have sorta connected that to Humberto. I mean, both killed with magic at scene, check, werewolf means involvement with supernatural, I could see there being a connection and I could see Loki taking notice. The one in between ruined that for me. He’d been a totally normal guy, as such things go. Steve Potts, age twenty-seven, was a dime-store hoodlum. Involved in nine kinds of petty crime, never managed to get up the ambition to go big. Killed in a drive-by shooting as he was walking out of his apartment complex, police figured gang-related.
There was nothing weird or remarkable about that. Nothing. No evidence that magic was involved, no connection to either Humberto or Shannon. Further, Steve wasn’t the kind of guy who would have something worth stealing, not by Loki’s standards. Loki wasn’t the sort to get involved for anything of less than earth-shaking, gut-freezing, hide-under-the-bed-and-pray magnitude.
I was pretty sure that there wasn’t a god out there who would trade away a favor to investigate some random gang shooting. I was also entirely sure that was the name that Loki had given me. The chances that two guys with that name would die violently in a couple weeks in Colorado Springs were pretty much nil.
So, long story short, I was left with a magical killing without a motive, a motivated killing without magic, and a werewolf who’d been brutally murdered for, as far as I could tell, no damn reason at all. The only hint I had was that something had apparently been stolen, something valuable enough that Loki would want it back, and no theft had been detected at any of the murder scenes.
Proceeding from there was, needless to say, a difficult prospect.
By the time all that was sorted out, it was almost sunset. That, in turn, meant that I had an appointment to keep.
I used to have a very, ahem, close relationship with a kitsune named Aiko. That changed a few weeks ago, when she helped me out of a bind against the wishes of her extended family/feudal overlords. I mean this not in the sense of any change in our emotional attachments, but rather in a purely physical sense.
Think of it as being a little like a long-distance relationship, except turned up to eleven. In a normal long-distance relationship, at least these days, you can call, text, write, and email as many times a day as your significant other (or others, I’m not judgmental) is willing to tolerate. Worst case you can probably reach them physically within a few days, because they’re only a few thousand miles away and modern transit is a wonderful thing.
Aiko was in a sort of reverse-house arrest in an entirely different dimension. They did not have cell phone service. That meant that communication was pretty minimal. We used air spirits as go-betweens, but they were incredibly annoying to work with. In addition to having a frustrating name—air spirits aren’t actually spirits, and they aren’t made of air—the things have an extremely limited mentality. They aren’t much good at time, for example, which is why we used sunset as a marker—it’s a lot easier to distinguish something like that than, say, a clock, especially for nonhumans.
Transportation was even harder. It required a lot of work on her part, because she had to make two different gates just to get somewhere she could open a path from the Otherside to Colorado. It also required me to hike a ways out into the sticks, and obviously the whole thing had to be perfectly timed.
All of this meant that I hadn’t seen her for about two weeks. Now, ordinarily I would have said that wasn’t a huge deal. We were both adults, in the most technical sense of the word; we could cope.
However, I also couldn’t call and cancel. I didn’t have the good relationship with the air spirits that she did, and that meant that my chances of calling up one I knew, convincing it to do what I asked, and getting it to understand any message more complicated than “Not coming” were pretty much nil. Without receiving some kind of word from me, she would immediately jump to the conclusion that something had gone catastrophically wrong and I was in need of immediate assistance, or possibly vengeance.
There were all kinds of ways that could go wrong. I mean, Aiko isn’t the most stable person around at the best of times, and she’d previously demonstrated a willingness to go to remarkable extremes for one of the handful of people she cared about.
So suffice to say that I felt like it would probably not be wise to ditch that rendezvous without a very good reason.
Besides, it wasn’t like I was making any kind of progress on this. Maybe she would see something we hadn’t. I don’t know that I would say that Aiko is smarter than Snowflake or me, and definitely not Legion. But she is better at thinking around corners, and more than once she’s seen a fact or opportunity I wouldn’t have just by approaching things from a radically different direction.
Which is how I wound up hiking through the same park I’d met Sergeant Frishberg at. Aiko’s gate location here was way, way off the beaten path, somewhere I’m not sure I was even allowed to go. Theoretically, of course, I approve of that, because it seriously decreases the chance that anyone would see something they shouldn’t. On the other hand, it also meant that getting there involved a decent hike, especially when you’re wearing most of a suit of metal armor and carrying several weapons, and there wasn’t anything like a groomed trail most of the way there.
But we made pretty good time, Snowflake and I. There was no way I was leaving the husky alone, not when freaking Loki had as much as warned me that scary things would be after me at any moment. I wasn’t sure whether I was more concerned that they would get her to use as leverage, or that something would eat my face while she wasn’t around to watch my back, but either way, if I had a choice she wouldn’t be leaving my sight for a while.
Conveniently, she had the exact same attitude toward me. She’s a bit clingy at the best of times, courtesy of being a dog, and several times now I’d been kidnapped and threatened with death while she wasn’t around. She had no intention of letting something like that happen again.
So, several minutes before sunset could really be said to be underway, we were waiting at a small alcove in a rock face, well away from anyone else and further protected from prying eyes by a screen of bushes. They were just now leafing out, but the branches alone would do a decent job of concealment.
I passed the time by riding the mind of an owl overhead, just beginning his nightly rounds. It was an excellent view, of course, and there was little chance that I would miss the surge of magic that marked the opening of a gate to the Otherside. Even if I somehow did, Snowflake wouldn’t, and she had ways of getting her point across.
The sunset was decent—not incredible, but decent. The mountains to the west helped, of course; it’s hard to have a really bad sunset against a backdrop like that. The owl managed to snatch a mouse or something similar, too, and the rush of adrenaline and the taste of blood were both quite satisfying, on a visceral level.
Definitely better than a waiting room, overall.
Finally, just when the last colors were fading from the sky, I felt the press of fox-and-spice scented magic. Snowflake gave me a mental prod, but I was already moving. I slipped out of the owl’s mind with a sort of nonverbal Good hunting, and back into my own body.
Portals aren’t nearly as dramatic at the “exit” terminal as from the caster’s side. Instead of an irregular oval of absolute nothingness cut into the air, all we saw was a faint haziness in the air directly in front of the rocks. The husky and I steeled ourselves and then stepped forward.
Portals are every bit as unpleasant from both ends. In fact, I think it might actually be a little worse this direction. There was an instant, an instant that seemed to last years, during which we were…not falling, exactly. That implies orientation, direction, gravity—all things that were notably lacking in the interval between leaving one world and entering another. But there was a sensation of movement, terribly fast movement without any frame of reference I could understand. I had no senses, during that moment, not in the classical sense at any rate. But if you tack together every unpleasant thing you’ve ever felt, the stench of rotting meat and the flash of a strobe light six inches from your eye, pain of bones grating on concrete and the mindless roar of heavy machinery in your ear, if you imagine experiencing all that at once without the insulation of your body between you and it, if you put all that together you have some idea what it’s like to step through a gate to the Otherside.
I lost a few minutes, on the other end. I always did. It was like the sheer awfulness of the trip hit some kind of reset button in my mind. It didn’t do a thing to keep me from experiencing every last bit of how horrible the crossing was, which always strikes me as a bit unfair. But once I made it out, there was just a blank spot.
As usual, the next sensation I received directly was of being doubled over against the nearest available surface (a tree, in this case, which was a distinct improvement over some), panting like I’d run a marathon, and feeling like I was about to learn firsthand what your digestive system looks like when it’s operating on the outside of your body.
Snowflake was, if anything, worse off. She was currently curled around my feet whimpering to herself, and all I could feel from her mentally was an overwhelming wave of nausea. I had no idea why it affected her so much more strongly than me; often the opposite was true, and I’d never worked out a pattern for it. I never asked questions about how that whole system worked, beyond those which were necessary for my own attempts to replicate the magic involved. Those attempts had yet to bear fruit, and it wasn’t something you wanted to rush, but I had hopes that after another year or so of serious practice I might actually be able to open portals for myself. Until then, though, I had no intention of asking any more questions than were absolutely necessary.
I was afraid that someone might actually answer. Call me a coward if you want, but I’ve found that when you aren’t sure whether you want to know about something, the wisest solution is to just not ask. If I’d known that my whole life, there are all kinds of horrible things I wouldn’t have to live with knowing. My mother, for example. I learned pretty early that asking someone how they’d known my mother was a really bad idea, because most of the time they were only too happy to tell me. In disturbingly graphic detail, usually.
“You’re not going to throw up again, are you?” Aiko asked, crouching just on the edge of my peripheral vision to rub Snowflake’s neck comfortingly. “Only, you know, I showered just last week, and I reckon it should last ’til Friday at least.”
Would it be weird to say that, in spite of my current state of nausea, I felt happy to hear her voice? I honestly have no idea. I never really learned how normal people communicate beyond the point of mimicry. I think that’s probably a large part of how Aiko and I ended up together. Who else could put up with someone that emotionally misshapen?
Case in point: not one of us acknowledged the fact that it had been weeks since we’d seen each other, nor in fact would a casual observer likely have recognized that there was any emotional involvement between us whatsoever. I sat against the tree and waited for my head to stop swimming. Snowflake lay at my feet, eye tightly closed and paws over her ears to block out sound. Aiko jumped, caught the low-hanging branch of a gargantuan maple, and effortlessly pulled herself up to sit on it like a wooden fence.
“So what’s the crisis?” she asked, leaning back on the branch as though sunning herself. There wasn’t any sunlight in this forest. There never was in Nightside Faerie. That wasn’t particularly important. Aiko has never much bothered herself with little things like reality.
“What makes you think there’s a crisis?” I asked, perhaps a little bit defensively.
She laughed. “That’s what I like about you, Winter. There’s always a crisis. It keeps things exciting. So, really, what’s up?”
“Well,” I admitted, “there’s sort of a crisis.”
How often do you find yourself saying that? Snowflake wondered, apparently coherent again. Aiko was, of course, laughing so hard I almost would have worried she’d fall off, except that I knew the fall wouldn’t faze her. Besides, her balance is literally superhuman.
“It isn’t funny,” I said crossly. “Loki’s sticking his nose in again.”
The laughter cut off abruptly. Aiko is at least as scared of Loki as I am, with reason. “Oh. Can I have the lab after you kick it?”
“Very funny. I don’t suppose you’d be interested in actually helping me?”
“‘Course,” she said cheerfully. “Granted, there isn’t all that much I can do from over here. Chocolate ice cream!”
I blinked. “What?”
“Ice cream,” she repeated. “You have any idea how hard it is to find ice cream on the Otherside? It’s ridiculous. Anyway, what did you want me to do?”
I shrugged and pulled the police documents out, tossing them up to her. Embarrassingly, I had to use a bit of air magic to actually get them there; like most paper, they weren’t exactly aerodynamic. “Loki wants me to investigate those,” I said. “And recover any stolen property.”
She grunted, flipping through them. “Pretty random.”
“Frustratingly so,” I agreed. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do at this point.”
“I’m guessing you can’t drop it?”
“No,” I said sourly. “As much as I’d love to, Loki apparently told all the parties involved that he was contracting me to deal with it. Meaning they’ll be trying to kill me whether I do anything or not.”
“Well,” she said, still reading, “I suppose you can always go with that. You know, just wait for somebody to make a go of it and then squeeze ’em for info.”
“That’s a great idea,” I said sarcastically. “Because I’m sure to win that fight. And everyone tells their hatchet men why the hit’s going down, right?”
“Good point. So what do you reckon was stolen?”
“What makes you think anything was?”
“Well, it’s obvious, right?” I stared blankly. Aiko sighed and then continued. “Look, it’s pretty clear that whoever was going through that shop was all kinds of upset. He wanted something, right? Why else would you trash the place like that?”
“But he wasn’t in it for the money. So whatever it is, it must have more than just cash value.” I shook my head. “I already got that. But how do you explain the rest?”
“Simple,” she said, black eyes alight. “He didn’t find it. Maybe someone else beat him to it, maybe it was just sold already. Either way, he doesn’t want the owner talking to anyone else, so he offs her.”
“And the kid?”
She shrugged. “Maybe he was the buyer. Maybe he was just unlucky, and whoever had it realized it was too hot to handle so they dumped it off on him.”
I nodded along. “Reasonable enough. What about Humberto? Doesn’t really fit the pattern, does he?”
She frowned. “Well,” she admitted, “no. Got a better explanation?”
“Well, no. So…what? You think I should be trying to figure out what it is they’re chasing?”
“Best way I can think of to figure out who’s involved,” she agreed. “Besides, it sounds like you have to get your hands on it anyway. Might as well be now.” She hopped lightly down to the ground. “Now come on, I found a really cool waterfall around here.”