Bryan was the first of the Ferguson family I met. I was fifteen years old at the time, and living with Edward Frodsham’s pack in Wolf, Wyoming. I was strange and fey and full of magic, even then. I’d experienced the death at the end of the hunt a dozen times from both ends, and stranger things besides. I thought I was hard, and in some ways I suppose I was, but I was still a relative innocent. There was no blood on my hands or my teeth, and I hadn’t yet learned to be afraid of the dark.
Thus it was that when, one pleasant summer afternoon, a strange werewolf came out of the forest, I wasn’t yet wise enough to fear him.
I was the first one to see him—in fact, as I later discovered, I was the first one to see him in more than thirteen years. I was sitting alone at the edge of the woods—I often did, in those days, before I came to hate my magic and all the things it let me do—when he appeared. He looked much the same as he had today, almost fifteen years later, except that then his clothes had all been sooty black. I could smell his magic, both wolf and forest—that ability was one of the few that I was born with, and I’ve never known what it’s like not to be as aware of magic as of more material parts of the world. I was curious and not easily frightened. Thus, as soon as I became aware of his presence—which wasn’t as soon as it should have been, because I should have been able to see him coming through the forest through somebody’s eyes, and I hadn’t—I went to say hello.
At first I thought that he wasn’t aware that I was there. Then he looked at me. Unusually, he didn’t seem to have any reaction to the amber eyes and charcoal-grey hair. Then I met his eyes for the first time.
He hadn’t let me go so easily, that time. I’m not sure how long I stood there staring into those forest-green eyes, unable to move or even really to think. It felt like hours, but it couldn’t have been more than a few moments.
“What you are planning is a bad idea,” he said flatly, not bothering with a hello. “It will end badly for many people.” And then he walked past me towards town.
I don’t know what he and Edward talked about. But I do know that Bryan never mentioned what he saw in my eyes, which is sorta ironic I think, given that he turned out to be exactly right. It might have been better for everyone involved, and most especially for the people I wound up killing, if he hadn’t had such respect for my privacy.
Anyway, after that I started asking around. I mean, who wouldn’t, after an encounter like that? What I learned was that I was not the only person who was afraid of Bryan Ferguson, not even among werewolves, and they don’t fear much. In fact, it wasn’t until I went to the Khan’s pack that I was able to learn much of anything. Everyone in Edward’s pack either didn’t know much, or wasn’t willing to talk.
Bryan didn’t get less creepy over time. He vanished, every now and then, for hours or days or weeks or even months, throughout the time I spent with the pack. Nobody knew where he went or why, not even Conn, and even as a kid I found the thought of something Conn didn’t know and couldn’t find out as scary as everything else put together. There was never any warning or regularity to his disappearances, nor could anyone predict where or when he would be seen next. When he did come back, he wouldn’t answer any questions about where he’d been. He would occasionally answer questions about what he’d done, but what he said was always disturbing, and seldom answered as many questions as it raised. Once, for example, I asked him what he’d eaten while he was gone. He replied, “Dragons,” and when I asked what kind he said simply, “The friendly ones,” and refused to elaborate further. What did it mean? I had no idea. I still don’t. Nothing good, I know that much.
He laughed seldom, and when he did it sounded more appropriate to a funeral than anything. There was rarely any recognizable reason to laugh, either. Certainly Bryan never laughed at jokes; he gave the impression that he’d heard every joke you could imagine, and many that you couldn’t, and he hadn’t thought they were funny the first time. No, he laughed at questions, or ordinary statements, or occasionally things so horrid that they made even me gag. Often, or at least more often, he seemed to laugh at nothing at all. This impression was reinforced by the fact that he usually seemed to be paying attention mostly to things that no one else could see. He would stare over your shoulder into space when he talked, and break off suddenly to look at something else. He wouldn’t talk about what he saw, if in fact he saw anything at all.
All of this only made me more desirous of learning about him. Most of what I learned came from his siblings, both of whom were storytellers from way back and fond of me. He was old, had been old when Dolph was born five hundred years ago, and he refused to talk about just how old he was, even to them. They’d never encountered a language he couldn’t speak, including many that I hadn’t even heard of and a couple I hadn’t thought actually existed. He was rich— so rich that he once gave me three grand to buy candy. And like all good mysterious rich people, nobody knew where the money came from. And that was very nearly all they knew for certain.
I heard all kinds of stories about him, though, because werewolves love scary stories too, and like I said, Bryan Ferguson is a bogeyman. Out of all the werewolves I ever heard of, only two were the subject of more stories than Bryan. One was his father. The other was Jack Sheppard, and nobody even pretended those were factual.
The stories about Bryan, though, were exceptionally unnerving. They said that Queen Mab once offered to make him her consort—a position that would have made him one of the most powerful people in the supernatural world—and he laughed in her face and walked away. The most impressive part of that one was, of course, that he wasn’t dead as a result. They said he had been Sigurd, and Beowulf, and Liechtenauer, and the only man to ever beat Musashi in a duel. They said that he had been one of Arthur’s most favored and trusted knights, right up ’til he realized he liked Mordred’s sales pitch more. Depending on the version he might have been Merlin, or Judas, or even Cain. (I didn’t believe those. He was too apathetic about politics to be Merlin, and too Irish for the others.)
Everyone was careful to tell me that these were only stories, and that there was no way they could possibly be true. I knew that they were right.
Except, well, this was Bryan Ferguson we were talking about. And every time someone told me that the stories were just that, stories, I could hear the same thing underneath. They should be impossible—except this was Bryan we were talking about, and you never really knew with him. Much like Conn, he could do so many things, and know so many things, that shouldn’t be possible that you had to wonder, at some point, whether one more was so unbelievable.
I explained all of this to Snowflake as we walked. I wasn’t really sure where to go or what to do from here—Kyra was still digging up info, presumably, and until she got back to me there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. Even once she did, I wasn’t sure there was a lot I could do anyway. There were now officially way, way too many people in this mess for me to sort out. It didn’t help that I still didn’t know who most of them even were, let alone what to do about it. Add to that the fact that at least one of them could very easily have killed me already, and might still kill Aiko (and damn I felt guilty about not having done more there, but it wasn’t like I could even find the place on my own for a visit), and this was not looking good.
And then, of course, there was the fact that I really didn’t want Loki getting his hands on a terribly powerful and powerfully terrible weapon from another pantheon. He had helped me on occasion, but I didn’t let that blind me to the fact that he was far from being one of the good guys. He already had way too much power for anyone’s comfort. And it wasn’t like he’d even reward me if I succeeded. That isn’t the kind of god Loki is.
Of course, he is the kind of god who might follow through on his threat to flay me with a butter knife if I failed him. That kinda put a crimp in any plans to not stick my nose into this firestorm. Granted I’m going to die sometime, but on my list of top ways to kick it that one ranks somewhere slightly below “eaten by ants.”
So what I’m getting at here is that we didn’t have much of a specific destination in mind. But it was too nice of a day to spend indoors. And, in any case, the location of my lab was not the kind of secret that could stay secret from players on this level and my defenses would, likewise, not be sufficient to do more than mildly annoy them. So going home was out, as was going to any of my known hangouts or spending more than around five minutes in any given location. I was going to get caught eventually and it would probably be bad—there was nothing I could do at this point to prevent that, except possibly going even more heavily into debt to even more terrible beings—but there was no sense making it easy on them.
This was also why we stuck to heavily populated areas, rather than going anywhere that nefarious folks could just walk up and murderize us with impunity. This was the smart thing to do. That didn’t make it the fun thing to do, at least not by our standards. Which is why, after several hours of wandering the downtown area, Snowflake and I were both surly and I almost wished that some baddie would show up and try to whack us. In my current mood I would rather enjoy slapping him down.
This was the state of affairs when Kyra called to say that she’d dug something up and could we come meet her pronto, please. Rather than her house she specified an open-air café. I’d never been there, but I’d seen it and knew where it was. Not far from where we already were, which meant we could walk rather than have to go and fetch my car. Just as well, really; somebody probably had it bugged, trapped, and sabotaged to an extent that would make James Bond blush by now.
We did not, of course, walk straight there. If someone had bugged my phone, or if that hadn’t actually been Kyra calling, or if, gods forbid, it was but she’d sold me out—an eventuality which, while I thought it unlikely, had to be taken into account—then doing so was likely to be very, very dangerous for me.
Instead, we took a winding route maybe three times the distance we had to cover, ducking through several alleys and doubling back twice. Neither of us detected anyone following which, while it didn’t mean much when playing against the Sidhe and who knew what else, was the best we could do. We were still ten minutes early, since I hadn’t told Kyra that we were so close to the place already. Rather than go in, we set up shop in the alley next door, hidden behind a Dumpster just out of sight of the main street.
Seven minutes later a poodle around a block away saw Kyra approaching and, as a consequence, so did I. Anything resembling honest predatory instincts had long since been bred out of him, but he was still a dog and what was left was adequate for my purposes.
Kyra was not, I noticed immediately, alone. I couldn’t get any of the conversation—poodles aren’t the smartest dogs going to begin with, and then my connection wasn’t nearly as strong as I would have liked—but I got a decent visual, and that would do. The man she was with looked to be in his early forties, with darkish hair and skin that was surprisingly tan considering how early in the year it was. I couldn’t see his face clearly, but his posture suggested very strongly that he wasn’t one of Kyra’s underlings. In fact, he appeared to consider himself her equal at the least, an attitude not even many humans present in the presence of an Alpha werewolf. Especially not one under stress, and I knew that Kyra was under stress right now. That mess surrounding Enrico’s death was still fresh in her mind, and for another pack death to come right on top of it…well, she wasn’t happy, let’s leave it at that.
They were being tailed. I spotted two, a Hispanic guy who probably weighed two or three of me and wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination fat, and a petite woman who reminded me of a small, furry carnivore—somewhere between a fox and a ferret, perhaps. I naturally assumed there were at least three more that I didn’t see, maybe more.
I didn’t know the strange man well enough to tell, but from her tense posture I was guessing Kyra was aware of their tails. She wasn’t happy about it, but she wasn’t freaking out either. Interesting. I wondered what this was about.
After they got there, I waited for another three or four minutes. The poodle was long gone, and good riddance, but there was a sleek magpie strutting about picking up scraps and I managed to convince him to take a look around for me. Magpies being magpies, and therefore much, much more curious than the average cat, it wasn’t particularly difficult.
Both of the people I’d marked out as tailing Kyra and her unknown friend had stopped in clear view of the café. The big, bruiser-looking fellow was standing across the street looking at his phone—not the most convincing disguise I’d ever seen, not remotely. The woman was doing significantly better, sitting on a bench by the corner and sipping from an expensive coffee of some sort—not being a coffee person, I couldn’t have said what it might be. I also picked out a third man, tall and lean with a sallow, saturnine face, who was examining a store display across the street a bit too closely and for a bit too long to be quite right.
All three of them moved in ways that made me think they were probably carrying concealed weapons of some sort.
Well, at least I knew where I stood.
By this point, Kyra and Mr. Mystery had taken a table out on the patio. It was late for lunch and just a touch early for dinner, so they managed to get a corner table with no one too close nearby. It was also, I observed, out of direct sight of any of the watchers I’d noticed. Interesting.
By that point, I figured I’d learned as much as I was going to from passive observation. This situation wasn’t exactly shouting trustworthy—in fact it was about pegging my Trap-o-Meter—but I reckoned I’d have to spring it anyway, and besides I liked Kyra too much to leave her hanging. Snowflake and I went down the alley to the next street, backtracked a ways, and then approached the café, making it appear that we had just arrived. I didn’t think that anyone would be fooled—Kyra, at least, should know me well enough to realize that I would have been early—but there were certain proprieties to observe, y’know?
I casually vaulted the pseudo-wrought-iron fence around the café’s patio area and dropped into the open seat. I sat with my back to the street, hoping it might make potential attackers think I wasn’t paying attention and thus make them careless, while Snowflake arranged herself so that she could watch my back. The fact that this seating position also let me watch Kyra’s back and that I was right next to the fence for a speedy getaway was, of course, a total coincidence. I would never think to arrange something like that. Really.
“Sorry we’re late,” I said brightly. “Traffic, you know.” I didn’t even try and pretend I was telling the truth.
Up close, the unfamiliar man looked slightly less everyday. I wasn’t sure quite what gave me that impression—he was still of average build in every way, and while his understated dark suit was perhaps more expensive than average it didn’t stand out noticeably from the office workers walking by—but I immediately decided not to discount that instinct. Perhaps it was something in his eyes, which were a normal enough shade of blue like jeans worn almost through. Perhaps it was simply the fact that there was enough steel in his spine to stand up to an Alpha that told me that the man facing me was, in his own way, as much a predator as anyone at the table.
“I went ahead and ordered you an iced tea,” Kyra said by way of greeting, apparently studying the menu.
“Thanks,” I said, politely lifting the glass and even wetting my lips, though I didn’t drink—they’d had plenty of time to poison it, after all. Granted that trick was well enough known that the counter, namely coating the glass in a contact poison, was also well known, but again, there were proprieties to observe.
Nothing was said until after we’d ordered food and it arrived. Literally nothing, which told me (among other things) that Kyra didn’t much care for the man she had arrived with. At least, that was the only reason I could think of that she didn’t want to talk in front of him. He ordered a very healthy and very boring salad and drank water, which immediately made me like him less. She had a roast beef sandwich and coffee. I ordered the gyros and didn’t drink my tea.
“Shrike,” Kyra said after the food was there and the waitress was gone. That, right there, told me even more about how things were going down. Aiko started calling me that as her version of a pet name. In spite—or, more likely, because—of my distaste for it, it stuck and I’d wound up using it several times when I wanted the person I was talking to to have something to call me without necessarily telling them my name. For Kyra to use it now suggested even more strongly that she did not trust this man in the least.
This was further reinforced, and largely explained, by what she said next. “This is Nicolas Pellegrini. He’s the leader of the group I mentioned a while back that we were working with.”
That kind of circumlocutional vagueness could only refer to the organized crime syndicate that the pack had been working deals with. Looking at Pellegrini I could see him being a crime lord. His suit and bearing projected the aura of understated wealth made popular by countless gangster movies, and I supposed that anybody who could keep violent criminals in line wouldn’t be easily cowed, even by Alphas. It would explain the tails, too; I wasn’t sure whether gang leaders really took a trusted enforcer or two everywhere they went, but heck, why not?
“Nicolas,” she continued, “this is Shrike. He’s currently representing certain interested parties in this matter.” That, too, was an interesting phrasing, and one that gave me additional information about this interchange. By pointedly referring to me as representing parties other than the pack, Kyra was distancing herself from me. I wasn’t sure why exactly she was playing it like this, but I was definitely getting the sense that she wanted as little to do with this conversation as possible.
Kyra finished making the sandwich disappear, and handed me a plain white envelope that would, with luck, contain the sales ledger of the pawnshop from shortly before things went pear-shaped. She then vaulted the fence and left without another word, waving cheerfully to the thugs as she left. The woman stood up and started walking next to her, seemingly by coincidence, leaving just the gangster’s people still watching us.
Pellegrini looked at me thoughtfully, sipping his water. “Shrike,” he said eventually. “You know, I’ve never much cared for people who use needlessly dramatic sobriquets.”
“You know,” I said honestly, “neither have I. I got stuck with it more or less by accident.” I shrugged. “I can’t say I care for it especially, but I doubt I can lose it at this point.”
He smiled thinly, and I knew that he’d said what he did to gauge my reaction—and also, I suddenly realized, to see whether I would know what a sobriquet was. It was, I thought, probably not the usual type of language for someone in the position I was pretending to. “Ms. Walker seemed to think that you could be of some use to me,” he said. His voice was mild and trustworthy, putting me in mind of an English teacher.
“I’d have to know what you wanted first,” I said, desperately hoping that my ignorance of how to act in this sort of situation wasn’t as obvious as I suspected it was.
“Indeed,” he agreed, steepling his fingers in front of his face in the classic evil-mastermind pose. “As you might expect, Mr. Wolf, my knowledge of operations in this city is more general than specific.” Because his criminal empire, which spanned at least the state of Colorado and probably quite a bit more, was based out of Denver and considered the Springs a mere ancillary.
“In what way is that significant to me?” I asked, not making an effort to sound polite. I hadn’t missed the fact that he used my real name, and I didn’t think it was an accident, either. He wanted me to know that he knew who I was.
If my tone bothered him, he didn’t show it. “Because,” he said calmly, “I wasn’t aware until recently that some of my associates were contracted to recover a certain item.”
“Again, what relation does this have to me?”
Rather than answer me, he pulled a sheet of glossy photo paper out of his coat pocket, unfolded it, and passed it across the table to me. He went back to eating his salad (no dressing, if you were wondering) while I looked at it.
It was distressingly full-color. If it had been greyscale, or a worse photograph, or even just more cheaply printed, there would have been some way to avoid the full meaning of what it displayed, or at least to lessen the blow.
A man I’d never, to my knowledge, seen before stared out of the photograph. I’m not quite sure what he looked like; I couldn’t seem to focus past the expression on his face, which was so profoundly agonized that it almost hurt to look at it, and it wasn’t even the focus of the photo.
As you may have guessed, he was hanging from a crude wooden cross. The nutjob had used more conventional nails on this guy, which seemed like a rather pathetic silver lining. It was a lot bloodier, too, probably because his intestines were hanging out of a broad slash across his abdomen. Oh, and his throat was slashed wide open. That might have had something to do with it.
I fought down the gag that was my first reaction, because it absolutely would not do to have this man see me flinch. But it was definitely not the easiest thing I’ve ever done.
I folded the photo neatly and handed it back to Pellegrini. “I take it that was one of the men who was hired to retrieve the item,” I said as nonchalantly as I could, taking another bite. Macabre of me, perhaps, but then I’d eaten less pleasant meals under more grotesque circumstances. Besides, tzatziki is a terrible thing to waste. And I still couldn’t afford to let this man see me blink.
“Indeed. He was found like that a block from one of my offices. The next morning his employer was similarly killed.”
“Mr. Escobedo, I presume?”
He smiled like a crocodile too satiated to bother with the lamb in front of it. “Quite.”
“I don’t know what Kyra told you, Nick,” I said, matching his smile with one of my own that was every bit as cold—although probably a bit more, you know, mammalian. “But I’m already under contract to return the object in question to someone else.”
He waved my comment off like a particularly tenacious mosquito. “I don’t want it. The buyer is already dead, and possessing this object clearly isn’t particularly healthy.” He wasn’t smiling now. “But this makes me look bad. It makes me look weak. And weakness is bad for business.”
“I’m curious,” I said lightly. “Are you a walking stereotype on purpose, or does it come naturally?”
His eyes were frosty enough that it almost scared me. Or, at least, it might have if I hadn’t traded hard looks with the Khan, the Khan’s children, a demon, a demon-possessed werewolf, Loki, Loki’s son Fenris…you get the idea. It was still scary—I am under no illusions regarding the ability of normal folks to kill you just as dead as anything from the spooky side—but gangsters aren’t the only ones who are aware of the dangers inherent in showing weakness. That was the whole reason I mocked him. It was dangerous to make fun of a guy like this—but in the long run it was more dangerous to let him think he could walk right over me.
“I am going to make this simple,” he said, still sounding like an English teacher though I could see anger of some sort in his eyes. “Remove this individual. Do so in such a way that no one tries something like this again. And I will pay you five thousand dollars.”
“Fair enough,” I agreed. “But I don’t want payment in cash.” I smiled brightly. “You’ll owe me a favor.” Had he been fae I would have had to be a lot more specific, but not even mobsters were anything like as tricky as the fae. And he wouldn’t be bound to the words of his contract anyway. I didn’t figure he’d cheat me, though, because there was one mafia cliché that I knew to be true from personal experience, and that was the importance of reputation. If people didn’t think Pellegrini would follow through on a deal, soon nobody would want to make deals with him at all, and that would be the end of him. That didn’t mean that he wouldn’t screw me over, but it did limit somewhat how he would go about it.
“Fair enough,” he echoed. “Oh,” he added as an afterthought as I got up to leave. “And Wolf? Don’t call me Nick.”