As the maybe-goddess who stank of the desert had promised, I didn’t sleep well.
The nightmares were bad. I had plenty of fodder for bad dreams, and all of them seemed determined to gang up on me tonight. Recollections of my brief stint in Jon’s torture chamber, of the fire that had blinded Snowflake’s right eye, even stuff as far back as standing in the morning sunlight looking at corpses and hearing Edward explain that I’d killed them, all of it came rushing in.
It didn’t help that being awake was hardly better than the nightmares. I could hear Aiko’s rapid, pained breathing, interspersed with occasional screaming and what sounded like convulsions. The doctor murmured soothingly when it seemed particularly bad, which was some minor comfort, but it was still pretty horrible lying there in the dark and imagining what was going on. If I hadn’t needed the sleep so very badly, I doubt I would have been able to keep myself away. As it was, I got very little rest anyway, but that beat nothing.
Eventually, after what felt like years spent lying in that shadowy corner, I felt something prod my shoulder.
“You can stop pretending now,” the doctor said, nudging me with her foot again. Rolling over, I saw for the first time that said foot was bare, and so callused I doubt that fact bothered her. Apparently I hadn’t been at my most observant last night, no surprise.
“What happened?” I asked, pushing myself stiffly to my feet. There’s nothing quite like sleeping in armor to make a guy feel old.
“She’ll live,” the woman explained, looking at Snowflake with an odd expression. “The poison had already inflicted damage when you got here, however, and I expect that there will be some lasting symptoms.”
I swallowed dryly. “How bad?”
“Paresis and hypesthesia of the ipsilateral side,” she said calmly. “Possibly also some muscle damage and mild contusions from the convulsions, and naturally the initial injury will also require a certain amount of time to heal.”
“In English,” I clarified.
“That was English,” she said sharply. “Muscle weakness and impaired sensation on the left side,” she explained. “The risk of death should be passed, assuming that infection is prevented and there are no complications. With reasonable care and therapy, she should be able to walk within the year. To some extent the damage will most likely be permanent, however, and I would strongly advise that you not get your hopes up for anything beyond survival and basic physical competency.” The doctor said all that with about as much emotion as I use describing last week’s meals.
“I apologize for my attitude last night,” I said after a pause to process that. “I was…very stressed.”
“I assure you,” she said dryly, “that it was not the worst I have encountered.” This time she paused. “The kitsune should be awake within a few hours.” Her voice contained the first real emotion I had heard in it, an odd sort of sympathy.
“It would probably be best if I were gone before then,” I said in response to her unvoiced question. I wanted to stay, but it seemed entirely too likely that whatever faerie had attacked us would be coming back for seconds. I didn’t want to be here when he did. It would be dangerous for Aiko, and unforgivably rude to the doctor, whoever she was.
Besides. This wasn’t a good place to fight.
“I understand,” said doctor replied, sounding like she actually did. “She’s welcome to stay here until she no longer requires assistance.”
I thought about it for a moment. Then, deciding that pragmatism was overrated and I’d probably be dead before it could come back and bite me anyway, I said, “Thank you.”
The strange woman smiled back at me, showing teeth that were entirely too white, even, and sharp to be natural. “You are quite welcome, Wolf. Tell your grandfather hello for me.”
The scary doctor had, it turned out, a permanent gate in an attached foyer. That, right there, was impressive. Making a permanent gate between Earth and the Otherside is big, big magic. Big enough, in fact, that I’d only seen it once before, in a weird travel-nexus of sorts that the Watchers used.
So what I’m saying is that finding one in the closet definitely suggested that the doctor was a lot more powerful than she initially appeared. As a matter of fact, it lent a certain amount of credibility to that whole “goddess” comment.
More amusingly yet, said gate led to somewhere in whatever desert it was that made up most of Arizona. I know it has a name, but I can never quite seem to remember it.
A depressingly long time later, Snowflake and I were driving north from New Mexico. It took quite a while to get out of the desert, during which time I think both of us were lucky to avoid heatstroke—even right after dawn, a husky and an armored werewolf have no place in the desert. Finding someone willing to let us hitchhike was an adventure in itself, too, believe me.
Eventually we did manage it. He was an old, somewhat grizzled, and extremely nice man who nevertheless insisted that both of us ride in the back of the truck. I didn’t particularly blame him. I had the armor and all my weapons covered by my cloak, but a scary-looking kid in a trench coat and a husky with an eyepatch are not exactly photogenic at the best of times, let alone in an Arizona desert.
Once we’d made it to Phoenix, the going was a lot easier. We rented a car (a process which made me very glad that I’d taken to carrying a sizable amount of cash whenever I left the house), and then drove. And drove. And drove. And drove.
I never really got into driving, as a concept. Oh, I recognize the value. I just don’t like it. It involves sitting still for long periods, becoming increasingly bored and stiff, and you’re flirting with death the entire time. It’s like a fight, if you took out all the good parts and crossed it with watching TV.
Anyway, around perhaps twelve hours later, when we were just outside of Pueblo, something interesting finally happened. Namely, my phone rang.
“Hey, Winter,” Doug said. “There’s some old guy here who wants to see you. Says his name’s Dwal-something. You know him?”
“Dvalin Kovac?” I asked.
“That’s the one. He a friend of yours or something?”
“A friend?” I chuckled, perhaps a wee bit bitterly. “I used to think so. Tell him I’ll be an hour or so.”
As it turned out, due to heavy traffic and road construction, it was closer to two hours later when I walked into the shop that currently belonged to Doug. Before that, it was mine. Before that, for who knows how long, it was Val’s. It was getting dark, and I wanted nothing so much as a long hot shower, a hearty meal, and to sleep for about fifteen hours. Neither the shower nor the hearty meal was particularly likely, but I figured I could make do with a sponge bath and some raw steak.
I respected Val too much to do any of those things before I went to the shop, though. Besides, I knew the wait would already have strained his—extremely finite at the best of times—patience to the breaking point.
Val hadn’t changed much, in the year and change since I’d seen him. But, then, neither had I.
Not on the outside, anyway.
He looked me up and down, brows lowered disapprovingly. “You sold my shop.”
“Technically,” I said, dropping into one of the chairs, “you gave it to me. And I didn’t sell it for money, I gave it away.”
His frown deepened. “You gave my shop away.” His voice held a depth of disgust usually associated only with unsavory bodily functions. “My shop. You gave it away.”
I sighed. “I thought,” I said, in my best conciliatory tone, “that would be better than getting it blown up. Or burned down, which I suppose is more likely.”
He stared at me. He didn’t say anything. Val typically doesn’t, unless he feels like he needs to for some reason.
“Someone torched my house,” I explained. “And tried to assassinate me, um, six hundred and twenty-two times and counting.”
“Who?” he asked grimly.
I shrugged. “Dunno. Anyways, it seemed pretty clear the best thing I could do for the shop was get myself as far away as possible.”
He grunted. “Maybe. But still,” his voice rose again, “you gave away my shop! And,” his glower returned in force, “you hired a woman! A woman, working in my shop!”
“I heard that!” Kris exclaimed from the workshop proper.
“She needed the work, Val,” I said. “Just like I did, however many years ago. You remember that, right?”
He grunted. “Still. Not proper. Where are you living?”
“I’ve been sleeping in my lab,” I explained, keeping my face straight with an effort. Val talks a good game, but he cares.
“You don’t have a shower there?” he asked.
“No, but I do pretty well with the sink, and I shower at Kyra’s every few days,” I said. “It’s just been a long day.”
Neither of us said anything for a few moments. “I’d thought of taking the business back up,” he said abruptly. “If you’re willing.”
“That’s not my decision to make anymore, Val,” I said gently. “But I don’t think Doug would object too much.” I stood up. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d really like to go get that bath.” I would, too; one of the downsides of being a werewolf, especially after several hours in the desert, was that you could smell yourself at a superhuman level, too.
“Fine,” Val said, waving one hand dismissively. “I have to see what kind of disaster these children have turned my shop into.”
Kyra called me at seven-oh-three in the morning. “There’s something you need to see,” she said grimly. “Somebody’s coming to pick you up.”
That, right there, was a telling indicator that things were serious. I could count on the fingers of one finger how many times she’d sent someone to collect me, and given that it had been Enrico that hardly counted.
I dressed hastily (there’s only so long you can spend in armor, even relatively light and comfy armor like mine, before you need a break, and I hadn’t been able to stand the thought of sleeping in it again) and swallowed a few bites of food before I heard a car pull up outside. I unlocked and opened the door, stepped out into a reasonably heavy rainstorm, and then stood and stared, because there are some things you just don’t see twice.
My lab is not in a high-dollar neighborhood. In fact, it’s in probably the closest thing Colorado Springs has to a genuine slum. Wealthy people don’t tend to go there. You don’t see nice cars there very often, either. On the rare occasions you do, they’re usually being driven by Mexican gangsters.
So seeing a spotless lipstick-red sports car stopped in the middle of the road, being driven by a black dude wearing an expensive suit who was built like a professional heavyweight boxer, was an unusual event to say the least.
He honked, just in case there was some question there. I shook my head and locked up behind myself. Warded or not, I never leave the lab without locking both doors. There are too many things in there I don’t want stolen. Then I walked over and got in the car, at which point the smell confirmed that the driver was indeed a werewolf. Snowflake had to sit on my lap, as there was no backseat, which made things rather cramped, but it was nothing we hadn’t done before.
It was at that point that I learned why Kyra had sent someone, rather than just having me drive to meet her. She was in a serious rush. The strange werewolf burned rubber out of there like the hounds of hell were on our tail, pushing that sports car to the limit. I would like to emphasize, at this point, that it was indeed still raining.
“Who’s dead?” I asked over the horns as he made an illegal left turn down a one-way alley.
“No one,” he said grimly. “Yet.”
He was not a chatty guy. He literally didn’t say another word on the drive south, cutting through rush-hour traffic like they were standing still. I considered trying to make conversation—or, at the very least, learn what the heck had Kyra so freaked—but his demeanor prohibited it.
He didn’t take a wrong turn in the maze of curving streets, dead ends, and inaccurate signs that led to the pack house, which was more than I could ever seem to accomplish. He didn’t slow down, either, which struck me as more than slightly reckless. He didn’t seem to move quickly on the way in, but somehow he was still holding the door open by the time I got there. Going in, I saw something I didn’t remember having ever seen before.
Kyra was sitting in the lounge area watching the television. More specifically, she was watching some sort of news program.
“Thanks, Jack,” she called, not looking away from the screen.
“No problem,” the big guy rumbled, and then turned and left.
I walked forward and joined Kyra on the couch. Snowflake, of course, lay down on my feet and closed her eyes—she could look through mine just fine, after all.
The host of whatever show this was had two guests onstage. I knew who both of them were, which was sorta surprising in itself. One of them was a popular actor of some sort, who I only vaguely recognized, and a publically known werewolf. The other, the one currently speaking as I walked in, was a prestigious researcher at a well-known medical school—I didn’t recognize his face, but they had the name at the bottom of the screen. I didn’t know exactly what awards and such he’d won—that, too, wasn’t something I paid all that attention to. In any case, there are only really three things you need to know about him.
He was a werewolf. He wasn’t public about it. And, as I discovered right then, he was hands-down the most magnificent liar I had ever seen, barring Loki and Conn, and the only reason I was ruling those two out was that I’d never actually caught them at it.
“So you don’t believe that werewolves exist?” the interviewer was asking as I came in.
“I don’t,” the scientist said, his voice trustworthy and charismatic and all those other words people use for what werewolves would simply call dominance.
“Well,” the other man said, “I think I’m going to have to take exception to that claim. I can say from personal experience that werewolves definitely exist.”
“You still claim to be one, then?” the scientist asked.
“I most certainly do.”
“So you’re allergic to silver, then?”
“That’s one way to phrase it,” the actor agreed.
“Right. Would you mind if I confirmed that real quick?”
“Not at all.”
The scientist smiled the slow, confident smile of a predator who knows he’s about to win the chase. He pulled a coin out of the pocket of his coat and handed it to the other man.
The actor was good at his job. His mouth tightened as he took the coin. Within a few seconds, there were tears rolling down his face, his jaw was clenched, his hands shook, veins stood out on his forehead. Less than ten seconds after he’d touched the silvery metal, his hands spasmed and the coin landed with a clatter on the floor.
The audience stared in dead silence. None of the werewolves’ promotional material had included anything like this.
The other man clapped slowly. “A masterful performance,” he said, bending down to pick up the coin. “Truly marvelous. In fact, I only have one objection to raise.
The actor raised one slightly unsteady eyebrow. “And what is that, Doctor?”
His smile grew broader, until even a human couldn’t help but recognize it as an expression of victory. “This coin,” he explained, rolling it around in his hand, “is ninety-nine point nine percent pure…platinum.”
There was a moment where it was hard to tell who was more shocked—the actor (and damn he was good at faking shock, too), the show host, or the audience. And then, of course, it went to commercial, because that’s how TV works.
“What the hell is this?” Kyra asked, turning to face me.
“They’re playing both sides,” I said thoughtfully. “It’s Conn’s work, it has to be. Nobody else could set something like this up.” I glanced at her. “I take it this is what you wanted me to see?”
She grimaced. “Yeah. It seemed like something you might want to know about, and I know you don’t have a television.”
Over the next hour, Doctor Whatsisname made an extremely convincing case for the recent werewolf phenomenon being an enormous hoax.
None of the werewolves—not one—had been willing to be examined in a clinical study, although several of them had been invited repeatedly and promised significant financial remuneration if they participated. Of the handful of people who had responded, all had proven to be quacks, unwilling or unable to demonstrate any superhuman abilities whatsoever. Most of them had fallen for the same platinum coin trick as the actor—who, I noticed, was not on the stage. He’d served his purpose in this game.
Regarding the lists of werewolves which Conn had arranged to have published, there were a number of questionable facts which had since come to light. For example, almost half of the names on that list belonged to people who either didn’t exist, or were deceased, or who knew nothing about it and had since stated that they were not werewolves, hadn’t signed any of the letters they were supposed to have, and in fact hadn’t even realized their names were on those lists until friends called to ask them about it.
Of the other half, most were entertainers—actors, comedians, that sort of thing. Several of them had openly admitted that the whole thing was a hoax they came up with as a prank, and which had exploded far beyond what they’d intended. The rest—and I was gratified to see my name come up, if only as a passing reference—had largely made significant sums of money on the resulting publicity, and had then absconded with the funds. Granted, at least in my case, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as they made it sound.
Several of the so-called werewolves had business ties that were so far beyond shady as to make even the government blush. The companies which had sprung up selling silver bullets—at, of course, a significant profit—all had at least one “werewolf” on the company board. Most of them were munitions companies which had been started just before the big announcement, and were ready with the silver ammo suspiciously quickly afterward.
Of the videos of werewolf transformations which had been released to the press, seventeen out of twenty-one refused to be examined. Of the other four, three were found to have been obviously altered, and the last withdrew permission at the last moment. Even without study of the film, more than half of the other clips were found to have been clearly—and very badly—Photoshopped. The scientist on stage, who had long since eclipsed the actual show host, played several of these, and pointed out where they had clearly been tampered with. Several didn’t show the change at all, just a man and then, standing in the same place, what appeared to be a dog wearing a lot of makeup.
The live footage, by far the most convincing evidence, had equal or even worse flaws. Much of it, for example, was found to have the same alterations as the other videos. Most of the reporters and cameramen were found to either belong to the same corporations as the so-called werewolves, or suddenly had lots of money in offshore accounts, or both. Most of them had since quit working entirely, several moving to other countries. None responded to a request for comment.
It was incredible. It was astounding. I knew that werewolves were real, I knew that the man talking was also a werewolf, I was practically a werewolf myself. And yet, listening to him, I almost doubted. It was like convincing Newton that gravity was a hoax.
I had no doubt that it was true, either. The evidence would all check out, every “werewolf” would be found to have all kinds of suspicious connections. And, most damning of all, none of us—none of us—would, as we certainly could, prove our reality instantly by shifting on a busy street corner. None of us would, because everyone—even those, like Kyra and me, who hadn’t known ahead of time—had to realize that this was a setup.
It made sense, too, that was the worst thing. Conn hadn’t wanted werewolves to become public knowledge in the first place. He’d only even considered it because he felt that the fae were forcing his hand. Well, after this, it wouldn’t matter what the fae or anyone else did. Werewolves would be the biggest hoax of the twenty-first century, and only the most desperate and deluded would ever believe in us again.
It was a funny thing. You’d think that, once publicized, it would be hard to get people to not believe in werewolves again—but I was betting Conn was right, just based on basic psychology. At this point, anyone who had “fallen for it” would be incredibly embarrassed and want to avoid anything having to do with the subject—they wouldn’t even let you get through the first sentence before they were laughing in your face, overreacting so that no one would think they were falling for the same trick twice. Anyone who hadn’t would be too smug about that fact to pay attention. The timing was right, too—give the public just long enough for things to sink in, just long enough to start wondering why there’d been nothing since the initial reveal, and then spring it.
There’s no idea quite so certain to be ridiculed as a popular story everyone wanted to believe in, and which for a while most everyone did believe in, which is then shown to be a hoax. Just ask the cold fusion people.
It was genius. It was perfect. It was quite simply the most incredible lie I’d ever seen firsthand. Looking at that masterpiece of deception, I felt what I imagined a pianist might feel watching Mozart in person might. It was humbling.
Eventually, Kyra turned it off and turned to face me. “This is insane,” she said. “This will ruin my reputation. And a lot of others.” Her voice didn’t suggest that this fact particularly bothered her.
“It wouldn’t have worked if it didn’t,” I said distractedly. “Everyone would know you were in on the game.” I shook my head slowly. “Conn must have been planning on this the whole time. The evil genius.”
“Stupid,” she corrected. “There are way too many variables in something this scale. It would have been way too likely for someone to accidentally provide definite proof.” She frowned. “Especially if he didn’t tell people what he was planning.”
I grinned. “I’m sure he had another dozen plans for if that did happen. That’s how Conn works.” I’d played chess with the old werewolf a few times. I never, not one time, won a game, and the few times it looked like I might he proceeded to spring some fiendish trap and win instantly. I generally considered myself a passable player, although it had been a while since I played—but he could make Kasparov look a little out of shape. I don’t say that for no reason. He approached real life the same way—it didn’t matter what you did, he had a dozen plans ready to go for it.
The worst part was that you could never quite tell whether he really did predict what you did, or he just had a contingency plan for what he thought was an extreme long shot. I’d asked him a couple times, and he just smiled at me. It was the most frustrating thing ever.
“Life’s gonna be exciting here for a while,” Kyra said thoughtfully. She sounded, if anything, vaguely intrigued.
I chuckled. “Now you know how I feel.” My life might not be the safest, or the most fun, but I had to admit it was seldom boring these days.
“Speaking of which,” she said. “Progress?”
I grimaced. “Depends. One of the fae apparently decided to kill me because I’m investigating it. Does that count?”
“No,” she said dryly. Simultaneously, Snowflake protested, Hey, we all know he decided to kill us because I’m investigating. Everybody knows you can’t investigate your way out of a can of cat food.
“Speaking of which,” I said, ignoring the dog. “Think you could get me a record of transactions at that pawn shop for the week before the killing?”
She shrugged. “I can try. You think it was a theft after all?” Kyra had, of course, copied the police files before I got them. I wasn’t particularly surprised, nor did I mind. If I hadn’t wanted her reading them I wouldn’t have had them delivered to her address. And it saved time not to talk about them, anyway.
Besides. This way I could check on whether she would snoop on my mail, given the chance. She was my best friend, and I trusted her with my life—but paranoia isn’t just a sometimes thing. I’m not necessarily comfortable with this tendency to test everyone around me, but it’s kept me alive this far.
“I don’t know that it wasn’t a theft,” I said in answer to Kyra’s question. “And the Sidhe are pissed about something. I’ve never heard of murder bothering them all that much, so theft is looking more likely.” I shrugged. “Don’t have a better idea, mainly.”
She grunted. “Works for me. I’ll see what I can do.” She frowned. “You want me to see what I can dig up on the other kid while I’m at it?”
She nodded firmly. “I’ll get right on it. What are you doing?”
I thought for a moment. “Well,” I said eventually, “I think first I’ll consult a demon formed from the destructive impulses found in the natural world. Then I’ll probably be randomly attacked by a monster from ancient stories so obscure that not even mythology geeks remember them, from which I might learn some cryptic facts about my heritage or some sort of big picture which won’t make sense for several years, if ever. Then maybe I’ll do a little breaking-and-entering after, so Snowflake doesn’t get bored.”
She rewarded me with an unamused stare.
I shrugged. “What? You have to be realistic about these things.”
“That is not being realistic. That is a comic book.”
“You’re just upset because you know I’m right,” I said smugly. “Oh, one more thing. Do you think you could get your hands on the spikes they used on Humberto?”
“I’ve already got ’em,” she said. “Didn’t want to leave the things lying around. Why?”
“There was a signature at the scene,” I said. “Some kind of magic I didn’t recognize. I might be able to analyze it, figure something out.”
“Fair enough. Give me a minute to grab them for you, and I’ll let you know when I have the information.”