Balancing Act 6.2

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A reasonably short time later, I walked in the door to our…house, I suppose.


It’s a big house. Too big, in some ways; there were times I felt like a pebble rattling around in a container meant for a boulder. The place was just so big, so expensive, so luxurious…it was too much of too much. Houses like that weren’t made for the likes of me.


In spite of that, there was no difficulty guessing where Aiko was. I just had to follow the noise.


Currently, she was in the kitchen. The crashing of pots and pans didn’t quite cover up the sound of a German children’s song about a baby crocodile biting everything in sight, in infuriatingly high pitches and simple words.


I’m not sure which is worse—that Aiko listens to that, or that it was actually one of the top songs in Germany for a long while. And, for that matter, most of Europe. Including countries that don’t even speak German.


Snowflake and I walked straight through the throne room that was also the domain’s only hardwired connection to the outside world. Towards the back of the room, tucked unobtrusively away, was a simple door. It was made of walnut and covered in subtle, intricate carving, and the ornate handle was solid brass—but then, every door in this house looked more or less like that. It wasn’t like it was especially fancy or anything.


I opened the door, causing the music to become significantly louder, and Snowflake and I slipped quietly inside. Aiko knew we were there, of course—the music might cover any sounds we made, but a kitsune would certainly smell us—but she didn’t give any sign of recognition as we walked in and sat at the long hardwood table along the back wall. Well, I sat, anyway; Snowflake promptly flopped down across my feet. Urged on by her mental prodding, I leaned over and undid her collar, setting it and her eyepatch du jour on the table.


A moment later, “Das kleine Krokodil” segued into the next song. She must have been on something of a German kick, because it was a medieval-metal band—In Extremo, I thought, although it might have been Cultus Ferox, or maybe even Subway to Sally. I didn’t know enough German to understand any of them, so I had a hard time telling them apart.


She placed what looked like a tray of brownies into the oven with, perhaps, a little more force than was strictly required, slammed the door shut, and turned to face us with a broad smile. I found that somewhat unsettling—Aiko smiling and food preparation are a potentially dangerous combination, after all—which was probably the point. “Hey,” she said. “Anybody try to kill you?”


“Yeah, actually, but they did a piss-poor job. You poisoned those, didn’t you?”


“Now, Winter,” she said disingenuously. “Would I do a thing like that to you?”


I thought for a moment. “Yes,” I concluded, “given that you’ve tried to poison or drug me fifteen times this month, I think you might.”


She sniffed. “Please. You forgot the one with the sumac extract in your sock drawer.”


“Oh, you’re right. Sorry, sixteen times.”


And that was Aiko in a nutshell.


I thought that I might want to be prepared for something bad to happen the next day.


I mean, gosh, right? What an incredible display of acumen and foresight.


I’d explained last night the situation as it stood, and Aiko wasn’t surprised that my first stop the next morning was the armory. She was pissed as hell that she had to stay at home (she had some choice words about that the first time, in four languages and involving a number of obscene gestures as well), but she knew as well as anyone that leaving the Otherside was an exceedingly unwise thing for her to do.


Her fellow kitsune considered that a fairly lenient penalty for the time she gave me a hand with a dangerous situation she really shouldn’t have. If she violated the terms of that pseudo-house arrest, they might not be so inclined to go easy on her. And, while I didn’t know that much about how kitsune did it—Aiko never talked about her people, literally—most of the time justice in the supernatural world is both very quick and very final.


It was a shame, too, because I would have really liked to have her with me. She was young—less than sixty years old, which was barely adolescent for her kind—but she was also clever, dangerous, and easy to underestimate. I’ve gone into a number of scary places with her, and having seen her in action I would most definitely rather have her on my side than the other guy’s. Aside from Snowflake there’s no one I would rather have watching my back.


As that wasn’t an option, I went with heavy armament instead. My shotgun and pistol both fit under the cloak without showing anything suspicious, while the pockets were filled with stored spells and a couple grenades, plus extra ammo. Tyrfing would come when I called, regardless of distance, but I went ahead and grabbed a few sharp implements, just in case. A smattering of things that might be useful in various magical endeavors—chalk and ink, sand and ash, string, a bag of salt and a bag of stones, a small vial of pure rainwater, that sort of thing—rounded out my personal arsenal.


Snowflake, who was planning on coming with me, was also armed to the teeth, although she didn’t look it quite so obviously. Her gear was in the closet, too, rather than the armory. So mostly she just sat and watched while I grabbed all this stuff, and then glanced in the mirror to make sure nothing overtly illegal was showing.


I forget, sometimes, just how frigging scary we look. I mean, I look like a juvenile delinquent at the best of times, but this was something else. The long grey-black coat was one thing, but you could clearly see a pair of very expensive black jeans under it, and my black leather boots were custom-tailored. Between that and the half-dozen rings, I looked a lot more wealthy than the average delinquent, and that wealth was a lot more understated. So the overall effect was probably more gangster.


The closets came full-packed when we got the house, of course. At least I wasn’t wearing any silk or velvet.


In spite of that, Snowflake was a long ways my better. It’s hard to look terrifying when you’re a husky—the blue eyes, white-and-black fur, and general dogginess are a bit too cute—but she pulled it off. The eyepatch she’d chosen for the day was simple black leather marked with the fishhook-esque shape of an eihwaz rune—representative of a long e sound, or a yew tree. Given that yew was an excellent wood for weapons, and also somewhat poisonous, it was a…rather ominous emblem, to say the least.


Most people wouldn’t recognize that, of course. But her ears were pierced in a dozen or so places, with metal rings or bits of wood, and a leather cord woven through several of the holes. Her collar was similarly imposing, a heavy band of leather set with a bunch of heavy spikes and bits of bone. It didn’t take a genius to get the message there.


People get nervous when they see us coming, these days. Sometimes they even get scared. A number of people cross themselves at the sight of me, and even in Pryce’s when I walk in some folks walk out.


That bothers me a little, some days. But, in all fairness, not having to deal with petty troublemakers is well worth it. Plus, nobody crowds us!


I sighed, gave up on cheering myself, and walked into the next room over.


The laboratory was, oddly, a less friendly and pleasant room than the armory. The armory was as much for show as use, and as a result was designed to look good. The weapon racks were all polished ebony, with bronze fittings. The knives nestled into thick green velvet, and there were a handful of actual glass display cases. The lighting, cast by some sort of enchanted ceiling panel, was a warm orange.


The lab wasn’t nearly as welcoming. Rather than wood paneling, the room was essentially a marble cube, complete with drains in the floor. The lighting was classic fluorescent-blue, casting everything into sharp relief—no soft shadows here. The furniture, although also made of fine hardwood and marble, was much more angular, more functional. The armory was a place of comfort, but the lab was very much a place of function. It brooked no nonsense.


The effect was somewhat spoiled by the crepe paper and tinsel Aiko had draped around, trying to cheer the place up—but only somewhat. You really had to hand it to the lab—it takes a special sort of room to feel grim and brooding when it looks like Christmas came early.


Alexander’s lab, although a little smaller, was still better stocked. But I’d gotten a fairly impressive stash of reagents and components together, enough to perform a really quite remarkable array of enchantments, rituals, and invocations. That was why I was here now.


I grabbed a few things off the shelves, while Snowflake sat and waited near the door. She doesn’t much like ritual magic. I can’t blame her, because I don’t either—it’s exacting, requiring intense concentration and extreme precision, and it also tends to be rather dangerous. Mess up while performing quick-and-dirty magic like I’d used on the construct, or even most enchantments, and the spell fizzles. Mess up a prolonged ritual and it explodes.


In all fairness, though, this was actually an extremely safe ritual to perform. I hesitate to call it a ritual at all, really; I used a ritual setup, because I wanted to be sure and this wasn’t something I was very practiced at, but someone with a talent for this sort of magic could have achieved the same effect with little more than a word and a gesture.


I wasn’t one of those people, though. So instead I took my double handful of components over to the summoning circle inlaid in the floor.


There are all kinds of summoning circle out there. Some people use a half-dozen layers of runes and sigils, each a perfect and concentric circle, complete with candles, incense, jewels—the works. Other people, who don’t feel the need to show off or just don’t have the cash, pour out some sand or salt in a vaguely circular way. For most purposes, it doesn’t make nearly the difference newbies usually think it does.


Mine was on the simple end of things, a ring of pure steel perhaps eight or nine feet across—I did not feel any great desire to go summoning things that couldn’t fit inside that circle. The space inside it was pristine white marble, unmarked in any way.


At the four points of the compass (there was no magnetic or geographic north in the Otherside, so I’d just settled on one of the walls of the laboratory as “north” and gone from there), I set out the foci I was using for this summoning. Inside of the circle I placed simple things with a clear association to the entity I was trying to call—a hawk’s feather, a small windchime, a painted fan, and a bit of dandelion fluff. Outside, evenly spaced between those, I placed four small white candles, and lit them—with a match, rather than magic. I’m really not good at fire magic. Then I sat down a few feet away and started working.


The first step was pouring a small jar of sand out in a circle around myself, exerting a slight effort of will as I did to charge it with magic. This was a delicate task, at least for me, and I didn’t want a stray current of energy interfering with what I was doing at a critical moment.


Once that was done, and both circles were humming with just the littlest bit of magic, I got to the real work. I closed my eyes, sat very still, and started concentrating—not on words, or numbers, but on a certain feeling.


Imagine the delicate brush of a spring breeze through the branches. Picture, in exquisite detail, the rush of the wind through your fur. Visualize the patterns autumn leaves make blowing down the streets. Conceptualize the feeling of running free, all bonds broken and fetters burst. Wrap all those images up into a single whole, remove the words until all that’s left is a feeling, and you will have started to touch on the shape of my summoning, the bare bones waiting for something to fill them.


There were no words. There couldn’t be. The being I was trying to contact had no understanding, no concept of words. It had to be all feeling, instinct, impulse; logic, reason, those things would get in the way.


It was hard. I mean, as much as this might surprise some people, I tend to be a pretty careful guy, right? I might tend to the rash occasionally, or not reck as much as perhaps I should to danger, but I’m not careless or, typically, impulsive. This type of thinking was far out of my scope. Between that and my lack of skill with summoning in general, it probably took the better part of twenty minutes for me to shape the magic just right. I’m not quite sure, because any exercise in magic skews your perspective and dislocates your sense of time, but it was a while.


Finally, when I felt that I had the idea as close to perfect as I could, I let the circle around myself drop and let the magic out with a breath. No name—beings such as this don’t understand even the basic idea of names—just my breath slipping out, brushing over the sand before passing out into the world.


Nine of my heartbeats later, there was a presence in the summoning circle—invisible, intangible, but definitely there all the same. I immediately pushed more power into the circle, making it into a barrier. It wouldn’t stop the creature from escaping—very little could do that—but it would prevent it from doing so unconsciously. I reached out, crossing the circle easily, and gently touched the magic of the newcomer.


It smelled like early morning air and brushed across my skin like a gentle breeze fresh off the sea. It spoke, directly into my mind, saying recognition, greeting, acknowledgment, query.


There were no words. There couldn’t be.


I replied in the same manner, all basic concepts, emotions and images. I concentrated on my image of Brick, much as I had on the air spirit itself, the look of him, the exact way his magic smelled. I enquired, very delicately, as to whether it might find him for me, and tell him that I wanted to talk. There was a moment of hesitation, then another burst of recognition, then agreement. Something that was just a little bit more than a passing breeze brushed against my cloak, having slipped through the circle without even realizing it was there, and then the lab was empty again.


It was even odds whether it would do so, of course. I was on good terms with the air spirits—mostly because I was on good terms with Aiko, and she makes a point of maintaining friendly relations with them—but, well, they were still air spirits. That meant flighty, forgetful, inattentive, and careless. There was a very good possibility that it would forget where it was going. On the other hand, it could slip between the Otherside and the real world without any more thought than it had given to my circle, it could pass through practically any magical defenses, and there was no wall ever made that could keep out a determined air spirit.


As spies go, their poor memory and inattentiveness are too critical of weaknesses to be worth it. As messengers, well, I’ve seen worse.


I could have just called Jimmy, of course. But we’ve never gotten along all that great, because he’s an arrogant asshole and a coward to boot, and I have a crippling inability to refrain from pointing it out when he acts like it. Brick and I weren’t too great of friends either—he was too reserved, and I knew too much of his history—but I’d much, much rather get the story from him than Jimmy. Brick I might believe.


Even better, he just might tell me the truth.


I had other ways available to me of finding a person, ways which were more difficult to confound. But, by and large, they were difficult, expensive, or incredibly rude. I could progress to those if I had too, but I thought I’d give this a try first. If I didn’t get a response of some sort, I could always move on to the harder-core efforts later.


It would probably take the air spirit at least a few hours to find Brick, though, and once it did it might take him a while to get back to me. So I figured I had plenty of time to go try other avenues of finding out just what the heck was up among the Inquisition. I hadn’t forgotten the construct, and it didn’t seem nearly as amusing now as it had last night. I mocked them, behind their backs, but the truth is that the Inquisition scared me a little. I mean, they were magic-wielding fanatics, most of whom had dark secrets, all of whom had abilities I couldn’t readily counter. I’d have to be a moron not to be a little bit scared by that.


Especially now that, from everything I’d heard, the bonds holding them together were coming apart like old newspaper in a monsoon. Given how impressive I’d arranged for most of them to think I was, if they started going at each other both sides would make a priority of recruiting me, and a secondary objective of killing me so the other team couldn’t recruit me.


I didn’t think I had to worry about an attack at home, at least. I might not be comfortable living in an Otherside mansion granted by the Fenris Wolf, but it did have one upside over my old cabin—nobody who was less than a god was likely to be able to launch a serious offensive on it.


And if somebody tried, well….good luck. I take my paranoia seriously, and Aiko’s sense of humor is somewhat sadistic. If you attack my house, the biggest problem the police are going to have will most likely be finding enough of you to identify the body.


I figured I’d better take advantage of that peace and quiet while I could, so I took my time cleaning up after the summoning ritual. One of the things Alexander had drilled into my head over and over and over again was that, no matter how busy you were, you kept the lab neat. When you’re working with some of the stuff I kept in my lab, even a small mistake is lethal.


Besides. You never know when you’re going to need a circle on short notice. I’d be a fool not to keep mine ready to go, and that meant keeping it clean.


Snowflake sat patiently by the door while I swept up the sand and threw it out, returning the various props I’d used to their various cabinets and cupboards. She continued to watch patiently while I made sure that everything was secure and not likely to come crashing down the moment I turned my back, went over the floor with a wet rag to make sure I hadn’t missed any sand, and was finally forced to acknowledge that I was just delaying the moment I would have to leave my safe position.


Snowflake and I, in the five-months odd that we’ve been living in the Otherside, have worked out a certain morning routine. We wake up shortly before sunrise—earlier, today, to make time for the summoning—and slip out of bed without waking Aiko, who’s much more of a night-owl type.


We get our gear together—not usually this much, but always some, because I’m paranoid—and go for a walk. While we’re walking the sun comes up, because I like watching the sunrise almost as much as the sunset. Once that’s done and we both feel awake enough to deal with the day, I check my phone for messages.


Once that little ritual is taken care of, we go out for breakfast. Because Aiko is almost as bad at cooking as I am, that usually entails bringing something back for her too—she can’t, of course, come eat with us. After that the three of us can figure out what to do that day. Usually it involves a lot of reading and time in the laboratory. Not always, though, because Aiko’s really bad at being a stay-at-home anything. Frequent excursions and getting into trouble are essential to her wellbeing, and she usually brings us along.


If nothing else, the extra muscle is not infrequently useful for getting out of a dangerous scene. Aiko takes her getting into trouble seriously. By which I mean that—just counting the ones I’ve personally participated in—she’s started eighteen bar fights, four large-scale altercations between shopkeepers, two schisms within a major thieves’ guild (that sort of thing still exists in the Otherside, apparently), a riot, and a religion (don’t ask) in the time I’ve known her.


I strongly suspect that her idea of fun will be the death of all three of us, one of these days. Given how many people want me dead, though, I can’t exactly point fingers on that particular topic.


Things started out pretty much the same today. We were just in time to catch the tail end of the sunrise. It was almost November, and that meant it was late enough that the streets were pretty busy. We passed a number of joggers and dog walkers once we’d left the cesspit of a neighborhood where Fenris’s permanent connection to the Otherside opened. And then things became a lot less normal, when I started checking my messages.


Usually, that was boring, a ritual I conducted mostly out of habit. Oh, I might have missed a casual call from a friend, or various forms of advertisement, but nothing important. I seldom got more than one or two calls a day.


Today, I had a text message from Kris reiterating her request that I find out where Brick had gone. I had a text from Kyra saying hello, asking how I was doing, and inviting me to Wyoming for Thanksgiving. I had a voice message from Edward saying howdy, asking how things were going, and telling me I was welcome to come to Wyoming for Thanksgiving. I had a message from Sergeant Frishberg of the Colorado Springs police saying that somebody had died in a really bizarre way—a noteworthy statement, from the unofficial head of the freak squad—and she was willing to pay me to come have a look at it. And I had a message from my cousin Alexis saying she was in town and would like to see me.


That last one was, of course, the most worrying to me. I mean, murder, mayhem, generalized and massive chaos and destruction, check, right up my alley. Family? Not so much. Alexis was the oldest of my aunt Hilary’s three children, but my mother had been a lot older than her sister. Even Alexis was about a decade younger than me, and between that and my own freakishness, inhumanity, and magic, there was always a sizeable gap between us.


In the dozen years I’d lived in Colorado, not one of my family had come to visit. Not my aunt. Not her husband, who traveled frequently for his work. Not any of my cousins. Not once. I got maybe half a dozen phone calls from them yearly, combined.


So why the hell was Alexis here now? I had a definite feeling I wasn’t going to like the answer to that one.


Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to convince even myself that I would get to dodge the issue indefinitely. My life doesn’t work like that. So, rather than struggle against it, I called her back first.


The ensuing conversation was awkward, stilted, and full of uncomfortable silences—par for the course, essentially. She didn’t mention why she was in Colorado, and I didn’t ask. I gave her directions to a pizza place, and arranged to meet her there for a lunch. I hung up and gave the phone the sort of look I normally reserve for venomous snakes.


I thought about getting breakfast. I really did. But I had a little time left before I could expect to hear from Brick, and I figured that as long as I was being responsible I might as well go all the way. So I called Frishberg back instead.


And that is how I became embroiled in the second hideously dangerous mess.


I’d never been to the morgue before.


I found, to my total lack of surprise, that I hadn’t been missing much. It was better than the hospital, at least. The patients here wouldn’t recover, but that was more than eclipsed by the fact that they were beyond feeling pain.


Better than a hospital—but not by much.


Sergeant Frishberg, whose vaguely Hispanic features belied her Germanic name, met me at the door. She was mildly subdued, wearing formal clothing although not police uniform, and seemed more than a little glad to see me. I immediately discounted that. When I first met her I thought Frishberg was a little clumsy at faking reactions and blending in, but I was starting to suspect that it was all an act to cover the cunning, shrewd, and somewhat brutal mind behind it. I didn’t for a moment believe that a few dead bodies would shake her composure.


“Winter,” she said, nodding slightly. The gesture carried more than a touch of respect. I’d helped the freak squad deal with a couple of the freakier things they’d been called upon to do in the months since I’d met Frishberg, and she’d seen me in action. Apparently it left something of an impression.


I mean, not serious action or anything. But she saw me kill a few things. And this one time I kind of set a building on fire. And there was this one incident involving a rogue vampire and a lot of blueberries. But mostly nothing that serious.


“Sergeant,” I replied, nodding back. “What new and exciting bundle of horrors do you have for me today?”


Her lips quirked slightly. “Nothing too exciting, actually. Right this way.” She ushered me through the back halls of the morgue. Everything was very, very quiet, and the smell of disinfectant and embalming fluid was thick, but otherwise the place was unremarkable. It could have been an office, albeit one with a fondness for stark hallways and a real aversion to anything identifying them. The place was a maze.


Eventually she went through another door, into a room with an occupied autopsy table. It looked just like a medical table, except that the patient wasn’t breathing, and no effort had been made to make it comfortable and homey.


I’ve seen a significant number of corpses, and made more than a handful. I have seen the effects of werewolf attacks, close-range shotgun blasts, explosions, serious fires, a couple different kinds of poison, and decapitation on a body. Thus, it is with a certain expertise that I say that this particular body was, bar none, the least offensive and disturbing I’d ever seen. It looked like the man—a middle-aged fellow with Asian features who was a touch overweight—had just gone to sleep for a while. Aside from the autopsy marks, there was nothing whatsoever wrong with him.


I examined the body for a while. “Okay,” I said finally. “What killed him?”


“Well,” she drawled, “that’s sort of the problem. As far as they can tell, nothing did.”


“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said dryly, “but he seems pretty dead from where I’m standing.”


“Yep,” she agreed. “Guy’s in perfect health, though. Nothing wrong with him at all. No tissue damage, no poison, disease, nothing. Found him in his house like this.”


I grunted. “How’s that your problem?” I asked. “Chalk it up as one of life’s little mysteries and move on.”


“Normally, I’d agree with you. The problem is, he’s the fourth one this week. Just poof, dead.”


“Oh.” I thought about it for a minute. “You know, on second thought, I can maybe see where that might upset some people. I take it they dumped this on you because it’s weird and they can’t actually call it homicide without a cause of death.”


“That,” Frishberg agreed, “and they’re too busy.” She frowned vaguely, not looking directly at either me or the corpse. “Things are bad out there, Winter. I’ve never seen it like this.”


“Bad how? You mean like increased crime rates or something?”


“Through the roof,” she said dryly. “We’ve had more than thirty murders in the past month. Almost two hundred assaults. A hundred and fifty reported arsons.”


“I take it that’s unusual?”


She eyed me flatly. “We normally see less than thirty murders a year.”


“Oh. So pretty unusual, then.”


The sergeant rolled her eyes. “Bite me. The department’s working its ass off, which means fewer people get sent to the freaks, which means I have to do everything myself, and they dump a shitload more work on my head. And now this shit starts happening.”


Something remarkable happened then. Frishberg shook her head once, briskly, reminding me of Snowflake shedding water, and all the anger and frustration that had built up around her over the past few sentences just…evaporated. A moment before she’d looked ready to bite someone’s head off, and not too picky about whose it might be. Now, she had returned to the carefree, almost placid personality she’d shown up with.


Now that, Snowflake said, approaching awe, is a nice trick. You should learn to do that.


“So,” the sergeant said, quite calmly. “What happened here, and how much will it cost me to find out?”


I grinned at her. “Oh, no charge for you, sergeant. I’m happy to help out my friendly neighborhood police force. Us freaks have to stick together, right?”


Frishberg looked at me in a gimlet manner. “You,” she informed me sourly, “are not nearly as amusing as you think you are.”


True dat, Snowflake sighed. And you only have to listen to him occasionally.


Seems like a bit of a waste, I told her, given that she can’t hear you. Snowflake huffed and laughed at the same time, while I walked over to take a closer look at the mysterious dead guy. “You have any information on who these people were? Like, is there some kind of connection between them or something?”


“Maybe, but I want your take on it first.”


I sighed. Of course she did. Up close, the body looked pretty much exactly like it had from farther away. There was something odd about the smell, though, something funny. Not physically—he smelled pretty much the way you would expect of a dead guy in a morgue, in that respect. No, this was a magic smell,


It took me several moments to place it, and when I did it was more confusing than anything. He smelled like a lacking, a void in the background. I’m not sure how to explain it, beyond that. Magic doesn’t leave a trace of itself the way physical scents do, and it fades in hours, so I wouldn’t have expected to smell anything meaningful on him. The problem was that this particular void didn’t feel like the absence of smell. It was more like the smell of absence, like something that should have been present wasn’t. I’d have never noticed it unless I was looking for it, but once I did it was hard not to smell it.


So. Assuming he hadn’t just been a bizarre magical creature I hadn’t previously encountered which smelled like a void—which, given how relatively little of the supernatural world I’d encountered, was entirely possible—it was safe to assume that whatever killed him also caused him to smell like this.


I supposed that something could have ripped his magic away, leaving a hole where it had been. That didn’t fit, though, because every way I knew of to do that to a human being would have left some evidence on the body. Besides, I’d encountered something of the sort before. It didn’t produce this sort of lacuna.


On the other hand, neither did anything else that I knew of. And it seemed logical that, in order to so profoundly alter a person’s magical scent, you would have to alter their magic on an equally basic level. So. Maybe it was a way of taking magic that I didn’t know about.


Working on that assumption, I asked whether it would be possible for me to look at the other bodies. It turned out that it was—I suspect it was illegal, but the freak squad was sorta supposed to do that sort of thing, as I understood it—and it was quickly arranged. All of them appeared more or less the same. I didn’t pay too much attention to that, though, because the important trend was in the scent of their respective magics.


The most recent corpse was the one I’d already seen. The second newest smelled the same, but weaker—if I hadn’t known exactly what to sniff for, I wouldn’t have caught it. The third was so faint I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t my imagination. The fourth smelled perfectly normal.


That supported my guess that this was an effect of the method of killing. Finding one corpse smelling bizarre and unlike anything I’d ever encountered was one thing. Finding four identical ones, in one city, in one week, having all been killed in the same way, seemed…a bit far-fetched.


“All right,” Frishberg said, glaring at me and Snowflake in turn. “What can you tell me?”


“Well,” I said, “not a lot. Assuming I’m right, which I’m pretty sure I am, this is murder. It’s murder with a really unconventional weapon, but still basically murder, which means you can investigate it like any other murder. There’s a limited number of people who could pull this off, and I sorta think anyone who could do this could probably also cover their tracks pretty well, so you probably won’t find them that way. But you can at least figure out the motive.”


She smiled, thin and sharp as a well-honed knife, something of the hard, cold mind under the mask showing through. “Way ahead of you.”


It was my turn to roll my eyes. “I should hope so. Are you ready to tell me what that connection is?”


She glanced first one way, then another, in an exaggerated display of caution, and leaned closer. “They don’t actually exist.”


“No, seriously.”


“Well,” she amended, “officially, at least. No ID. No records of who the bastards were. No fingerprints.”


“You mean the prints aren’t on file?”


“Right. Except for the second one; he actually doesn’t have fingerprints. Never seen shit like it.”


I paused. “Wait a second. I thought you said the last one was in his house. How does that happen without some sort of paper trail?”


She grimaced. “It was a rental. Apparently he paid cash up front, and the owner didn’t ask too many questions.”


“Cash he didn’t have tax records for,” I noted.




“So,” I said slowly. “You’re telling me there are four unidentified people, dead of inexplicable causes, who were involved in shady financial dealings, within one week.”


“You’re catching on. Although, technically, I don’t think you can call it shady when you make a living dealing heroin.”


I stared. “You’re kidding me. How’d you find that out?”


“Corpse number one had a shitload of the stuff,” she said dryly. “Apparently someone matching the description’s wanted in two or three states out east. They were pretty upset when he turned up dead all the way out in Colorado, let me tell you.”


I stared some more. I was starting to see why the freak squad wound up with this. The whole mess sounded too confused, tangled, and generally screwy for anyone to want to deal with it, and that meant it got shoveled to the freaks. “I don’t know if I can help you with that,” I said. “I mean, it sounds to me like some sort of vigilante, but beyond that I have no freaking clue what’s going on.”


“Wonderful,” she said sourly. “Just wonderful. I don’t have time for this.”


“I’ll keep an eye out, then. Somebody’s running around doing this sort of thing, I’ll probably be seeing them before too long.”


She looked at me oddly. “You think they might try and take you out?”


“With my luck?” I sighed. “No might about it. Don’t worry, though, I’ll pass along your regards when they do.”


“You do that,” she said. Her eyes gleamed with some emotion I couldn’t quite place, and her voice had steel in it. And then the moment passed, and once again the mask flowed over her features, hiding the real Frishberg behind a veil of incompetence and corruption.


She was, I reflected, one of the more interesting humans I’d met. One of these days I was going to have to find out what she was hiding behind that mask.


Back outside, I made it all of three steps before being interrupted. Again. Surprisingly, it wasn’t an assassination attempt this time. I might have preferred an assassination attempt, but I didn’t get one.


What I got instead was a phone call. From Anna Rossi, possibly the only true, not even slightly preternatural human friend I still had. I debated ignoring it, but eventually sighed and answered. I expected an outpouring of concern, as she’d been expressing on a regular basis ever since her brother killed himself because of me. Somehow, she got the idea that that was messing with my head a bit. I can’t imagine how.


Instead, she said, “Hey, Winter. Whatcha doin’?” Her tone, terse and almost afraid, belied the casual words, and immediately made me tense up and start checking my weapons, more out of habit than anything. I mean, I didn’t exactly need to worry that they’d gone missing.


“Not a whole lot,” I said cautiously. “Why?”


“Well,” she said, “there’s a guy here asking about you. By name, I mean. He says he wants to talk to you, and it’s really important.” She paused. “He makes me a little nervous. I think he might be a werewolf.”


“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I said grimly, and hung up. I cursed under my breath as I stalked over to my car. Anna might not have realized it—or, judging from her tone, she might have—but this guy was threatening her. Or, more accurately, threatening me with her—saying, basically, that if I didn’t come talk to him she’d suffer for it. It was a very veiled, polite threat, but definitely still there.


I don’t take kindly to threats. I take less kindly to people threatening my friends as a way to get to me. Given that this werewolf had done both, I thought we might have a very interesting chat.


And that is how I became embroiled in hideously dangerous mess the third. God, I hate my life some days.

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One Response to Balancing Act 6.2

  1. Emrys

    This is an author’s commentary written after the completion of the series. Spoilers are in a rot13 cipher; if you aren’t familiar with that there are a number of very easy deciphering websites to use. These spoilers may cover the full series, not just this book, and they may make reference to major plot points and character development. You have been warned.

    A notably weak chapter. The density of description early on here, is almost a throwback to the extremely dense exposition of the first few books, and that’s really not a good thing; it interrupts the flow and doesn’t really add much to the story. Then there’s the scene with Frishberg, which struck me as being very stilted and awkward.

    Ultimately, this is definitely a transitional chapter. It gets from point A to point B. It doesn’t do so in a particularly smooth way, but it does what it’s supposed to do.

    Nf n fvqr abgr, gur pvgl orvat va punbf va guvf obbx jnf irel zhpu n fvtavsvpnag guvat. Vg jnf zrnag nf sberfunqbjvat, uvagvat ng jung unccrarq ba n tenaqre fpnyr va gur ynfg srj obbxf. Boivbhfyl guvf bar jnf zhpu zber gnzr guna gung, ohg gur onfvp vqrn jnf gurer: fhcreangheny pbasyvpgf unir pbafrdhraprf sbe gur abezny, uhzna jbeyq. Jura gurer’f abobql va punetr va gur fhcreangheny pbzzhavgl, xrrcvat guvatf fnar naq beqreyl, guvatf fgneg gb snyy ncneg. Guvf vf, nyzbfg rknpgyl, jung unccraf ba n tybony fpnyr yngre ba.

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