I first encountered Zhang five years ago in Portland. I live in Seattle but, like you said, we’re stretched thin. My territory runs from British Columbia down to northern California, and east into Idaho, Nevada, even parts of Montana. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and there are always things that are going to fall through the cracks. I try, but you can’t be everywhere, you know?
That’s how Zhang could get away with it for so long. We don’t know how long he’s been active, but he’s been around for a long time. He’s good at operating under the radar, doesn’t make waves, doesn’t draw attention to himself. He knows how the system works. He’s come across as an asshole in these meetings, but that’s only because he thinks it’s the best approach to take. He can be subtle when he wants.
I don’t even really know how they figured out what he was up to. I sure didn’t have a clue. All I got was a message from my superior saying to go check out some abandoned warehouse, they thought there was something sketchy going on. That’s one of the worst things about being a Watcher. Everything’s always confidential, need-to-know only. They don’t even admit they’ve redacted it, they just don’t tell you anything.
They shouldn’t have sent me. I knew it, and they knew it too. I’m a combat specialist, and this was intelligence work all the way. That’s another thing you get used to working for the Watchers. There’s never enough people available, and the bureaucracy is so thick it can take months to get a specialist sent out. So you have spies trying to fight off vampires, and people like me trying to infiltrate secret societies.
I went in alone—there’s almost never someone available for backup. It was a disaster from the start. Security was heavy, much heavier than I expected. He had wards to five blocks out, golems and armed guards in the building itself. I can do a veil, but like I said, I’m a combat specialist. Hiding from one person is one thing, but something like that? Not a chance. I made it almost two blocks in before one of the wards caught me, and that was it for being sneaky.
They were prepared for a lot of things, but a combat trained mage wasn’t one of them. I killed seven or eight of the guards trying to get in, before the rest started running. I don’t like killing people, especially people who are only in the way because that’s their job. But sometimes you don’t get a chance. Maybe under other circumstances you’d get along great, but he’s on that side and you’re on this side and that’s just how it is. It’s them or you, and if you pick them you aren’t going to last very long in this business.
Anyway, the last five or ten guards ran. I shouldn’t have let them—they’d seen too much—but I don’t have much taste for killing, and they weren’t a threat to me. The golems didn’t run, but they aren’t alive and I don’t have a problem destroying them. They weren’t designed with stopping mages in mind.
I remember thinking, at the time, that that was strange. If they weren’t scared of the Watchers, and it didn’t seem like they were, then who else would they be worried about? What had them so spooked that they kept a small army on hand, if it wasn’t us?
I couldn’t actually get into the warehouse. Breaking wards isn’t something I’m particularly good at, and these were top-notch. Well, backup might be impossible to get, but the Watchers are pretty understanding about unofficial channels. I called in a friend who’s a B and E expert. She took down the wards and we went inside.
It was like walking into a movie set. He had bales of cash sitting around, stacks of gold ingots—I’ve never seen so much money. There were crates of drugs waiting to be shipped, pallets of furs and ivory, art. Monica—that’s the friend I’d called—she majored in art, and she told me that some of the pieces in that place were worth a few million, and there were a lot of them.
Add it all up and there must have been something like a billion dollars in that warehouse. I don’t know what I was expecting when they sent me out there, but it sure wasn’t what I got.
Maybe ten minutes after we got in the door, Zhang showed up. He was just as much of an asshole then as he is now. Told us we were on his property and demanded we leave immediately. Well, I told him I was a Watcher, and he had me call my superior. When he heard what had happened he told me to drop it and leave, immediately. I didn’t like it, but what else was I supposed to do?
Since then I’ve run into Zhang’s operation a dozen times. At first it was unintentional; I just had really weird luck. I caught one of his couriers in Vancouver, almost by accident, and stumbled on a warehouse in San Francisco. When I was sent to Tokyo as backup on a raid, the necromancer we were after turned out to be buying his materials from Zhang. Once that had happened a few times, someone higher up decided we might as well go with it and started picking me for anything that looked like his work.
Saying that he’s involved in smuggling is an understatement. Zhang is like the Al Capone of the supernatural. He moves drugs, money, contraband, weapons, fugitives—if there’s profit in it, he’s there. I never found another haul like the first one, not anywhere close, but my God, the money involved is unbelievable. Most of it isn’t his, of course; he’s just transporting it. But he’s still worth billions.
Do you see now why the Watchers care about this? It isn’t just that he’s a smuggler. It’s that some of the bans he breaks are ours. One of the shipments I intercepted included everything you need to perform a ritual, one that’s banned for a very good reason. Another had the materials for seriously prohibited research.
I’ve busted him a dozen times, but none of them ever come to anything. Not even a slap on the wrist. Zhang’s untouchable, see? He’s high in his clan, and the Zhang clan is huge—over a thousand Conclave-certified mages, at least five times that number of minor talents and such. We can’t afford to piss them off. Half of the senior mages have used his services at one point or another. He’s got friends in the Twilight Court—he does a lot of shipping to the Otherside—and if the Watchers even look at him funny they raise hell.
We can’t get him.
Moray finished his story, and the room was silent for a long moment. Ash and Unna had come in partway through, and were currently standing at the edge of the room. Assuming what he was saying was true—not at all a safe assumption—well, that was…terrifying, really. It was huge.
“If you can’t do anything to him,” I said at last, “why do you keep chasing him?”
“We can’t do anything to him overtly,” he corrected. “But we can annoy him, interrupt shipments, confiscate the worst things. At some point, when it’s not worth the price of doing business, economics will shut him down.”
“Riiight,” Aiko drawled. “You believe that?”
“Hell no,” Moray said promptly. “You kidding me? We don’t catch one shipment in a hundred. We make less of a dent in his bottom line than spoilage due to vermin. Nobody thinks that’s going to work.” He shrugged. “Nobody’s got a better idea, either.”
“So you need him shut down,” I said slowly. “But you can’t do it yourself. I think I see where this conversation is going, and it scares the shit out of me.”
He grinned. “You’re a smart man, jarl.”
I snorted. “My name is Winter. If you can’t call me that, at least come up with something entertaining.”
“My boss thinks that nightclub is a major processing center for his operation,” Moray continued. “He wants it taken out. Not just disrupted—he wants everything there to disappear. You do that for us, and he’s offering you Conclave recognition. We’re talking about a full membership.”
“Not interested,” I said immediately.
Moray didn’t look surprised. “Do you know how hard some people work to be recognized by the Conclave?” he asked. It sounded like a salesman on the last stop of the day, who couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to pretend that even he thought what he was selling was a good deal.
“Do you know how many people are breathing down my neck already?” I countered. “I don’t need any more, thank you.”
“I don’t blame you,” he said. “Funny thing, though. He told me this twenty minutes after you were suggested as an arbiter for this. Can you guess who came and talked to me five minutes after that?”
“The head of the Watchers?” I guessed. I’d met her once. The experience had been…memorable.
“Good guess. She walks in—and I’ve only spoken with Watcher three times in my life, so she must have thought it was important—and tells me you won’t take that deal. Then she tells me that, when you say no, I’m supposed to tell you that she has a better offer.”
“And what’s that?”
“Access to our information system.”
I paused and shared a glance with Aiko. The Watchers were, first and foremost, the intelligence force of the Conclave. Information was their business. An offer like that was enormous, and almost worth considering.
It also meant that Watcher didn’t just think this was important, she thought it was freaking earthshaking. That probably was not a good thing.
“Why on earth,” I said slowly, “would she think it was a good idea to offer something like that to someone like me?”
“Her exact phrasing,” he said dryly, “was that you’re doing more of our work than half of her people anyway, so she might as well give you some help.”
I snorted. Yep, that sounded like her. “Wonderful. And what exactly does she want me to do?”
“Go to the nightclub. Get the contraband. Make sure he doesn’t get it back.”
“You know,” I said after a moment, “it occurs to me that, in order for them to specifically recommend you for jobs involving Zhang, your superiors must know which jobs involve Zhang. It also occurs to me that most of the Watchers I’ve encountered have been undercover in other groups. It occurs to me that having such a person in Zhang’s organization would be the easiest way to have the information which they must have. In which case, presumably, Watcher also knows what is in this shipment. Given how highly she’s paying, it more than likely contains something risky enough to justify the expense.”
“Sounds reasonable,” he admitted. “Look, ja—Winter, I already told you this. I’m a combat specialist, and they aren’t big on telling me things. I’m not making the offer, I’m just telling you what it is.”
I am not sure where the conversation would have gone from there, if Sveinn hadn’t walked in at precisely that moment. “Jarl?” he said diffidently. “Someone to see you.”
Behind him came the leader of the half-breeds and changelings who had been following me around. “He knows me,” she rasped.
“I was wondering when I’d see you again,” I said. “Are you ready to talk yet?”
She spat to the side, provoking a wince from Sveinn. (I wasn’t sure if that was because he was offended at her lack of manners, or because he was probably going to be cleaning it up.) “Nothing to say,” she said, her eyes cold and flat.
“You’re still here,” I pointed out. “Might as well talk to me anyway.” She scowled and didn’t say anything. I sighed. “Look, could everyone please leave for a minute?”
Ash, who knew who this was, did not look convinced. “Are you certain that is wise?” she said quietly, but with a sort of muted ferocity. “This person has attempted to do you harm on several occasions, and has freely admitted that she is still not interested in peaceful discourse. Is it not possible, or even probable, that she has come here in the interest of finding you vulnerable?”
Before I could respond, the half-breed rounded on Ash. “You,” she said. “You’re one of us. What you doing with him?”
Ash’s voice turned very, very cold, although it was still quiet and polite. “I am, like you, of half-mortal descent,” she said evenly. “However, I do not in any measure share your attitudes towards Winter. He has shown me nothing but kindness. Should you continue behaving antagonistically towards him, we will have little in common.” She stroked the back of that stuffed cat as she spoke, her motions calm and smooth.
The other girl hesitated. “He done you right,” she rasped. “That truth?”
“It is,” Ash confirmed.
She grunted. “Fine. I’ll talk, Wolf. What you want?”
I looked around the room. “Everyone? This should just take a few minutes.”
People started, with varying degrees of reluctance, to get up and leave. Aiko leaned closer to me. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” she hissed.
“Of course not,” I replied at a similar volume. “But she’s mixed up in this somehow.”
She grunted skeptically. “Don’t get killed.” And then, doubtfully, she joined the rest of them in leaving.
Snowflake, of course, stayed right where she was. I’m not a complete idiot.
“Okay,” I said. “What should I call you?”
“Jackal.” An interesting choice. Nobody thinks nice things about jackals.
“Okay. So what are you guys so pissed off about? I get that you think I killed someone, but I honestly have no clue who you’re talking about.”
“It ain’t easy being a half-breed,” she said. “Or a changeling. My crew, we watch out for each other. We been through tough patches, and all come through.” Jackal’s face contorted into almost insane rage, and her already-raspy voice came out in a growl. “Then last week Morgenstern fucking took Wishbone. Just walked in, grabbed him, and walked back out before we could do anything.”
“Wishbone is another of your group, I take it?”
“And you’re certain it was Morgenstern that took him?”
“Yeah, I’m fucking sure. We ain’t stupid, Wolf.”
Pieces started slotting together in my head, and I saw what was going on. Not entirely; there were still pieces missing, important pieces. But I knew enough to sketch an outline, and more than enough to make me see red.
I’m generally fairly easygoing, but there are some things that make me angry. If I was right about this one, then someone was going to bleed.
“I see,” I said, nodding. “And then when I got involved, you decided that I must have something against you?”
“Pretty much,” she admitted. “Bit stupid, but we had to do something, you know? And then the last time we found you, it seemed kind of funny. Something odd there. Would have kept talking, but Anvil decided we were taking too long.”
I got a sinking feeling. “Anvil. Was that the half-troll?”
“That’s the one,” she rasped. “Why?”
“He attacked me again this morning,” I said. “I ended up throwing him into my wards.”
She went utterly still, and I got the impression that she was seriously considering trying to claw my eyes out. “You killed him.” It wasn’t a question.
“In my defense, he was trying to kill me at the time. I honestly thought he was someone Zhang hired to get me out of the way.”
Jackal nodded. “Yeah, I get it. Don’t matter. There’ll be a reckoning. Ain’t either of us got a choice about that. You know how it is.”
I knew. “Come on,” I said, standing up and walking towards the door. “I can’t bring Anvil back to life, but I think I might be able to make some kind of reparation.”
“I don’t think Wishbone’s dead, and I’m pretty sure I know where he went. We’re going to go find him.” I kept the growl out of my own voice, but not without some difficulty. “Moray,” I said, walking outside. “You still up for that offer?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
“You’re on, with two conditions. One, you don’t cause any more trouble for Ryan. You let this drop, and convince the others to also if you can. Two, you come with me.”
“A chance to do some real damage to the guy who’s been pissing me off for the past five years, and an excuse to annoy him some more?” He grinned sharply. “You drive a hard bargain, Winter. Deal.”
“Wonderful. Ryan, could I talk you and Unna into staying here? I think this will be easier, politically, if you aren’t present for this part.”
He shrugged and glanced at the selkie before answering. “I think we can do that,” he said, and she did not contradict him.
“I’m coming,” Kyra said. I knew better than to argue with her when she used that tone.
“That’s fine,” I said, looking at Alexis.
She sighed. “I know, I know. Stay here and mind the store.” She gave me a hard look. “Don’t make me regret not coming with you, Winter. I don’t want to have to find another teacher.”
I always feel guilty about how glad I am that Alexis got her first lesson in prices and consequences before I became responsible for her. On the one hand, it was horrific for her, and involved quite a few other people dying too. But it also gave her a lasting awareness of how dangerous and cruel the world can be. Other people, under her circumstances, would have thought that they were magic-wielding badasses and resented being excluded. Alexis was aware enough of her own limitations to know that coming with us would be a very bad idea.
“Where are we going?” Jackal asked, hurrying to keep up with me.
“Munich,” I said. I glanced at her. “You don’t have to come. It might be dangerous.”
She spat and fondled the hilt of her knife. “Fuck that. Wishbone’s one of mine. If he’s there, I’m going.”
I could understand that. “All right. Aiko—”
“Don’t even try to leave me here,” she interrupted.
“I was going to say, I have your carbine, is there anything else you need?”
“Oh. No, I’ve already got my armor, so that should be it.”
“Okay.” I glanced at Moray. “I’m guessing you’re armed?”
His smile was about as friendly as that exhibited by a triangular fin rapidly approaching a wounded seal. “Heavily.”
“I’m going to change before we go in this time,” Kyra said, pretty much removing any concern regarding her equipment. I suppose you could devise weaponry for a werewolf in fur, but it really isn’t necessary. Claws and teeth are more than adequate for most tasks.
“All right. I guess we’re going through Leipzig again—”
Moray cleared his throat. “Actually, I can take us directly to Zhang’s club.”
“You aren’t the only one who can predict the obvious,” he said, walking to the edge of the road. I felt him gathering his magic, human-scented with a touch of saltwater, as he began constructing the portal.
I chuckled. “Fair enough.” I looked around, making sure everyone was ready to go, and paused when I realized that Ash was still there.
She noticed me noticing. “I am coming with you,” she said, calm as usual but still very much a statement rather than a question. “The possibility that my presence will have a significant contribution to the completion of your task is non-negligible.”
“I am not telling Bryan you got killed because I dragged you into a firefight.”
She smiled faintly, clearly amused by my concern. “As I have said, I do not consider the danger serious enough to warrant an extreme response. I wish to be of use in this matter, Winter.”
“Bloody hell, you talk weird,” Jackal muttered.
“I have had relatively little opportunity to interact with ordinary humans,” Ash said, seeming quite unperturbed. “And my education has been…perhaps unusual would be the best descriptor.”
Jackal stared at her for a second or two, then rolled her eyes and looked away. “Academy brats,” she muttered, just under the threshold of hearing of a normal human.
Moray was faster and smoother at gating than I was, but not as smooth as Aiko, and I’d seen people way faster. He took us from Colorado to a part of Daylight Faerie I’d never seen before, on the shore of an enormous lake. Between the saltwater scent of his magic, his—likely assumed—name, and the fact that every one of the locations he’d mentioned working in was on the coast, he definitely seemed to have an aquatic theme going.
That impression was not noticeably reduced by his next choice of layover. It was a spot on the shore of an enormous underground river in the middle of a small city, in a domain I’d never visited before and didn’t recognize. Kyra changed while we waited for him to get the second portal running.
After that, we were in Munich, just forty minutes and a little unpleasantness after we’d left. I still found it hard to believe, sometimes, that it was possible to do things like that.
More specifically, we were in the alley down the street from Zhang’s club. It was almost midnight, local time, and primetime for a nightclub. It no longer looked bland and anonymous. Near-ultraviolet light pulsed and flared on the building’s exterior, and my ears were sensitive enough to hear the bass from across the street. There was a line stretching around the corner waiting to get in, and a bouncer standing outside collecting cover charges. He was a big, ugly guy, with a nose that looked like it had been broken more than once and plenty of scars and tattoos. The cheap suit emphasized, rather than hiding, the fact that he was clearly a man accustomed to and employed for violence.
It seemed incredibly tawdry, and I was snarling with distaste just looking at the place. Never mind the smuggling, even Zhang’s cover operations were distasteful. How many people passed through those doors, how much money was spent, in pursuit of a happiness that would never be found inside?
Humans disgust me, sometimes.
“Okay,” I said, turning my back on the sight. “Is everyone ready?”
Snowflake growled under her breath and Kyra whined an affirmative. I could feel both of them in my mind, a complex blend of eagerness, fear, bloodlust, and excitement. Jackal grunted, staring at the people lined up outside with an expression of disgust that likely mirrored my own. Ash simply nodded, face unreadable, while Aiko fondled her tanto and grinned. Moray took a pair of sunglasses out of his suit pocket and slipped them on.
I stared at the Watcher, in his pitch black suit and black sunglasses, and wasn’t sure whether to be amused or disgusted. “Are you going for the Men in Black look on purpose?” I demanded.
“Oh, absolutely. Of course, the shades are also a focus to improve my magical senses.” He smiled thinly. “You aren’t the only one who can be creative, Winter.”
Apparently not. It was a useful reminder; no matter how amusing a Watcher might seem, it was always best to assume they were a cunning genius with five aces up their sleeve.
“All right,” I said. “Let’s go.”
People got out of our way. Perhaps they saw my expression, which was probably not very pleasant. More likely it was that I had Snowflake on one side and Kyra on the other. Kyra’s only average-size for a werewolf, but that still comes to almost two hundred pounds of angry canine staring you down, and Snowflake is a very scary husky.
Whatever the reason, by the time we’d made it to the doors the street was practically deserted. The bouncer watched us approach nervously. We didn’t have any visible weapons, excepting maybe a couple of knives, but Snowflake and Kyra more than made up for it. Besides, you see that many unfriendly people approaching you as a group, you get uncomfortable.
“Get Schulz,” I said to him. “Now.”
I don’t know if the bouncer knew English, or he just recognized Schulz’s name, but he went without arguing.
We waited for several tense minutes in silence. Finally Schulz appeared, sans bouncer. He opened the door, his expression promising a horrible fate for whoever had interrupted his work. Then he saw who was there, and immediately swung the door shut again.
I put my foot in the way, keeping him from closing it, and grabbed him by the collar. “Schulz,” I said quietly, “my patience has been severely tried by the past few days. I’m telling you this as a fair warning, so that you don’t do anything stupid. I’m not in the mood. Clear?”
He nodded and stammered an acknowledgment. I let him go. “Good. I want this club emptied. No customers, no employees. I want this to happen within fifteen minutes.”
“I can’t do that…the cost…I don’t have the authority,” he stammered, semi-coherently.
“Schulz,” I said, calm and quiet and very cold, “perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Either you clear the building, or I will do so in a way that prevents you from ever reopening it. Your choice.” How, exactly, I would do that I wasn’t sure. I mean, I could probably scare the customers away—walking in with guns blazing would send them running for the hills, I was fairly sure—but I could hardly afford police attention right now.
Fortunately, Schulz didn’t know that. He looked uncertain for a second or two, then his features firmed and he nodded tightly. “How should I do that?”
“How should I know? Just get them out, without bringing anyone else in. I don’t care how you do it.” He nodded again, and started back into the club. “No,” I said. “You don’t leave my sight.”
Schulz hesitated, looked at my expression and those of the people with me, and then shouted something. The bouncer we’d scared off came trotting up the stairs a moment later, and they had a brief conversation in German. I glanced at Aiko, who nodded; Schulz was giving the appropriate orders. A moment later the bouncer went back into the club, shouting something.
“Great,” I said. “Come on, Schulz, you’re waiting with us.” I almost dragged him across the street to the alley, where we could watch the door. I didn’t want to unnerve the patrons more than was necessary, and seeing us would definitely have unnerved them.
It took surprisingly little time for them to leave. I didn’t know what excuse Schulz had come up with, but people started flooding out of the nightclub within a minute. Most of them were dressed in more-or-less typical nightclub fare, lots of leather and not a whole lot else. A few had much the same scheme, but in a standardized format that made me think they were probably the waitresses Schulz had mentioned, or possibly the strippers. The bartenders got more formal uniforms, and the bouncers came last in their cheap suits, herding the rest in front of them.
“Is that everyone?” I asked quietly. Schulz nodded. “Good. Come on.”
Inside, the club somehow looked even more depressing than it had before. The music was still playing, dance music heavy on the bass and light on melody, harmony, and indeed any musical skills other than keeping a beat. The lights were all in the blue-violet spectrum, and strobed unpleasantly. The smells were thicker, inside, sweat and smoke and booze mingling into something truly nasty.
This place reeks, Snowflake said disgustedly. Why would people pay to be here? I didn’t have an answer for her.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Wolf,” Schulz said once we were inside. “I want you to know I have nothing against you, personally. But my orders were very specific.” Then he barked out three or four syllables in German.
Schulz had no magic to speak of. I could smell him, and his smell was the weak, pale disinfectant of a human with no more power than average.
Zhang, on the other hand, was an experienced mage, and it seemed reasonable to assume that he was pretty good at it. He was, for example, good enough to design spells to react to a certain person saying certain words.
Thus, when Schulz said whatever the code phrase was, there was a surge of power that was strong enough to be slightly disorienting. And then things started coming alive.
I had thought that the floor was made out of concrete, until the concrete started to move and I realized the truth. Parts might have been simple concrete, but at least half of it had been golems—beings carved from stone, then animated by a wizard, probably Zhang himself. They weren’t alive, or conscious, but they could be programmed to follow simple orders, and magic-reinforced stone is damn near indestructible.
I’d fought a golem once before. A witch had used the thing as a guard. It had been just it against me, Snowflake, and half a dozen werewolves, and it had kicked our asses. I only beat it by hitting it with half a dozen high-powered grenades at once.
Granted, that golem had been ten feet tall, and these things were little bigger than the average human. Hell, if I landed a solid hit with Tyrfing I might be able to decapitate them. I wasn’t sure whether that would be lethal, but it seemed like a decent guess.
Of course, there were also something like thirty of them, granite monsters with blank stone masks where their faces should be. Some of them came up between us and the stairs, cutting off any escape, while others were between us and the bar, the office, throughout the room. One golem sprouted directly under Kyra and she jumped to the ground with a startled yip. More stepped out of the walls, leaving hollow spaces behind them.
Holy shit. I did not have that many grenades.
“I’m sorry that things had to take this route,” Schulz said again, making his way through the crowd. The golems let him pass without reaction. “Goodbye, Mr. Wolf.” He walked into the office and closed the door behind himself.
I summoned Tyrfing and unsheathed it. I looked from it to the golems. The comparison was not a comforting one.
The golems charged, silent but for the sound of stony feet on concrete. I laughed and went to meet them.