I did not actually go to sleep.
This should not be taken to imply that I didn’t want to go to sleep. I did. It was still fairly early in the day, from my perspective, but it had been fairly active. Besides, I thought I could use all the rest I could get right now, because things probably weren’t going to get any calmer for a while.
Unfortunately, there was something I had to do. Something I really didn’t want to do.
So, I said to Snowflake, leaning back and closing my eyes. How did you know that guy was coming?
I just kept hearing things, she replied. And then I looked up and saw him on that rooftop.
Uh-huh. And how could you hear him when he was at least, what, two or three blocks away? He wasn’t making that much noise.
I don’t know. Hell, I don’t even know if he’s what kept bugging me. It might have been something else.
I sighed. Snowflake?
You’re a terrible liar. You said they weren’t what you were hearing right before you told me to look up. That implies that you knew what you were hearing, and the context implies that it was him.
There was a long moment of silence, both literal and figurative. Oops, she said at last. I didn’t think about that.
Why did you try and hide it? I said, genuinely confused. You’re my best friend, Snowflake. You don’t need to hide anything from me.
Maybe I just don’t want to talk about it, she said, with an edge to her mental voice.
And that’s fine. But you could have just said so. When have I ever pressured you to talk about something you weren’t comfortable with?
You’re no fun to argue with, you know? she sighed. I mean, it’s like eating a baby squirrel. It accomplishes nothing but making me feel bad. Snowflake was quiet for several seconds. You remember when Carraig crucified you, right?
Yeah. It wasn’t the sort of thing you forgot. I mean, I’ve done some fairly unpleasant things, but being tacked up with silver spikes was definitely among the worst. The feeling of helplessness was almost worse than the pain. And the pain was pretty damn bad.
Well, so do I. You were fighting him in that park, and then he just grabbed you and disappeared. I tried to track him, but there was just nothing there, you know? I was freaking out. I was sure he’d killed you, or he was going to, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I didn’t even know where you were. It was pretty freaking awful.
I can imagine.
Yeah, well. After about ten minutes of this, some guy comes up and says, “He’s still alive.” At first I thought I was just hearing things or something, but he kept talking and it was pretty clear he was talking about you. He could hear me, too.
Wait, he could hear you? There were not very many people who could hear Snowflake’s mental voice. Fewer than a dozen that I’d encountered, in fact, and most of those were pretty scary people.
Damn. Who was this guy?
Snowflake gave the impression of a shrug. No clue. He looked like just some old dude in a hat. He didn’t have any smell, at all, and I didn’t hear a heartbeat either. So definitely not human, or at least not a normal sort of human.
No, it doesn’t sound like. What happened next? I had no idea how this story related to what we’d been talking about, but I was confident she would get back around to it at some point.
He offered me a deal. I’d be able to find you, and then I’d owe him a favor at some point. Well, I knew it was a pretty stupid idea, but I was desperate. So I said yes.
Oh man. There was no way this story ended happily. It is never a good idea to make a deal like that with something powerful enough to follow through on it. Never, never, never ever a good idea.
I mean, I can’t really talk on that one. I’ve done stupider things. I agreed to owe a favor to frigging Loki, even if I didn’t really know it at the time. I am in no position to throw stones. But still.
Right after that I knew where you were, same as usual. Except you were a lot further away, and I knew I shouldn’t be able to feel you at that kind of distance. And it felt weird, too, like I was using a part of my mind I normally didn’t. Well, I didn’t really know what to do, so I went and got Kyra. You know the story from there.
Yeah. So do you still owe this guy a favor?
Yes. I’ve never seen him again to pay it back. There’s one more part, though. When the Wild Hunt rode through town right after that, I could sorta feel them the same way. I mean, I didn’t know what I was feeling at the time. But I knew there was something out there, something big. It felt like it was talking to the same part of me that knew where you were, telling me to come out and take a look. So I did, and that part of me took over.
I see. I presume this is the same part of you that knew that guy was coming a few minutes ago?
Snowflake gave the impression of a shrug. I guess so. I knew there was something out there, but that’s about it.
Fair enough. Tell me if you get any more weird feelings, all right?
No problem. After a brief hesitation, she continued, You aren’t upset at me, right?
I sighed. I wish you’d told me sooner. And I’m upset that you didn’t think you could trust me. But, hell, everybody makes mistakes. I mean, I of all people should know that, right?
Good, she said with a distinct tone of relief. I’d hate to piss off the only guy I can have a conversation with. Talk about awkward.
“So do you have a street address for this place?” Aiko asked. It was quite a while later. We were still in the same stolen van, which had crossed a significant portion of Germany this night. It was beginning to edge on to morning now, and the city had that predawn stillness to it.
Ryan rattled off an address, to which I paid no attention. Aiko might not have felt a need for a transfer point in Munich, but she’d evidently been here a few times, because she didn’t need any further directions.
She eventually parked—illegally, I was pretty sure—in front of a tall, gleaming office building. “It’s in the basement,” Ryan said.
“Okay,” I said, climbing out of the van. “Vigdis, you didn’t happen to grab your dress after you changed, did you?” She growled a negative. “Guess you’re going canine, then. We don’t need the attention you wandering around naked would bring.”
“Should I change too?” Kyra asked. She looked jumpy, and kept glancing up and down the street. I didn’t particularly blame her; being simultaneously ambushed by two distinct factions of lunatics had my nerves going too.
“Not unless you really want to,” I said doubtfully. “We shouldn’t have to fight anybody anyway. And if we do, we’ve got quite a bit of thugpower on our side already.”
“Okay,” I said, looking at the building. A set of sunken stairs led down to the door of the club, which was plain, unmarked steel. It didn’t have any sort of advertisement as to the nature of the place inside. “Vigdis, Snowflake, stay outside. Let me know if anyone comes in after us. If you see the half-troll or the changelings raise hell and then hide or run. Don’t try and fight them alone.”
Vigdis made a sort of resignedly complaining whining sound. Snowflake said, Why do I have to wait outside too?
Because you’re the only one I know can alert me from outside. Besides, I trust you.
I get all the boring jobs, she muttered, slinking off into the mouth of a nearby alleyway. I could tell she wasn’t that upset, though.
“All right,” I said, doing a quick headcount to make sure everyone was present and accounted for. Fortunately, we were down to just me, Aiko, Kyra, Ryan, and Ash; trying to keep track of any more than that would drive me crazy. Crazier. “I have no idea what to expect once we get inside, so we’re playing it by ear.”
It took several minutes of pounding before anyone answered the door, to a width of about three inches. There was a fairly heavy chain keeping it from opening further. A short, somewhat tubby, middle-aged man glared out from the opening. He was bald, with a neatly trimmed black goatee, and wearing a moderately expensive suit. “Who are you?” he said in the absent tones of a busy person already planning the next item on the agenda after a nuisance is dealt with. He had a thick Germanic accent, but I could understand him well enough.
“My name is Winter Wolf,” I said with my most winning smile. “I’m here to investigate the recent…unpleasantness.”
“On whose authority, might I ask?”
“My own, primarily. However, I was also authorized by Zhang Qiang. I understand he owns this establishment?”
The bald man made a sort of displeased grunting sound. “Do you have this in writing?”
“No,” I admitted.
“Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to leave, then.”
I sighed. “Cut the crap. You knew I was coming or you wouldn’t be here at this time of night.” It was well past the time I would expect even a nightclub to close.
He had a pretty good poker face, but not great, and I was watching. I saw his lips tighten and his eyes narrow infinitesimally. He knew, all right, and he wasn’t happy that I’d worked that out. “Mr. Zhang told me to be expecting someone,” he admitted. “Whether that person was you remains to be seen. You have identification, I presume?”
I rolled my eyes. “What, you get people pretending to be me often? Random guys walk up at five in the morning asking to investigate things, is that it? And these people happen to know the name of your super-secret boss?”
“That is immaterial. If I don’t see some identification, I can’t let you in. I’m sorry, Mr. Wolf, but that’s simply how it is.”
I sighed again, then fished around in my cloak until I came up with my license. He looked somewhat disappointed when I presented it.
“Very well,” he said. “And these people are…?”
“With me,” I said firmly. “That’s all you need to know. Now are you going to let us in? Or am I going to inform Mr. Zhang that his employees were needlessly obstructive of my investigation?”
“There is no need for that sort of thing,” he said disapprovingly. “You are, of course, welcome to come inside. I will be quite pleased to show you around.” He removed the chain and opened the door, revealing a very dimly-lit antechamber.
“Thank you,” I said, stepping inside. The rest followed me in. “Would you mind starting by explaining what exactly your position is here?”
“Not at all. My name is Karl Schulz. Mr. Zhang is, as you might imagine, far too busy to directly supervise operations here. I manage things in his absence.”
“Right. And by ‘manage,’ you mean…what, exactly?”
“About what you might expect. I supervise the staff here, ensure that things go the way they’re supposed to. I even make some financial and personnel decisions, although naturally Mr. Zhang has the final word.”
“It sounds like you pretty much run the place,” I noted, as Schulz led us through the antechamber and down a short flight of stairs into the club proper. I imagine that, when it was full of dancing and music and mood lighting, it was a fairly glamorous place. At the moment the music was off, and the lights were of a bright fluorescent variety that left little to the imagination. The only people in sight were a pair of janitors cleaning up the spilled booze and complaining to each other in German. The room stank of alcohol and cleaning products, with a hint left of sweat and smoke from the previous night.
The glamour was much reduced, when you looked at it from behind the scenes. Friday night at the club turns out to be a bit more exciting than dealing with the wreckage of Saturday morning.
“Oh, no,” Schulz said. “No, Mr. Zhang runs everything. I just make sure things operate smoothly in his absence.”
“Strictly middle management, then.”
“That’s exactly right,” he said, beaming.
“And how many people do you employ here?”
“We employ four bartenders full-time, and six waitresses, plus three bouncers. For tax reasons there are also several members of our staff who work as independent contractors.”
“Just checking, but we are talking about strippers, right?” Aiko asked nonchalantly.
Schulz’s flush was made very visible by his lack of hair. “I…ah…yes. Yes, ma’am,” he managed eventually. “And also the custodial staff. We hire a cleaning service.”
“I see,” I said as we reached the main bar. “This is where the, ah, incident occurred, correct?”
“Yes, it is,” he said, trying and failing to suppress a quick glance at Ryan. “Very unfortunate for everyone concerned.”
“I’m sure. Would you mind telling me what happened?”
“Oh, not at all, Mr. Wolf. As I recall, the incident occurred shortly after eleven. Mr. Schneider came in and ordered his usual.”
“Would you say Mr. Schneider was a regular customer here?” I interrupted. I was guessing that was Morgenstern’s alias, although if they kept throwing names at me I’d need to start taking down notes. How embarrassing would that be?
“Oh, yes,” Schulz said. “Came in at least once a week.”
“Did he ever cause any problems?”
“Thank you. Please continue.”
“Of course. There was another customer here, a Mr. Peterson, as I recall. I don’t believe he’d ever come in before, although I might be mistaken. They got into an altercation soon after Mr. Schneider came in.”
“Do you know what the fight was about?”
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Wolf. Something to do with a woman, I believe, but I don’t know the details. Mr. Schmidt—that’s one of our bartenders who was on duty at the time—Mr. Schmidt said that Mr. Peterson had already been drinking for some time. I expect that contributed something to it.”
“I see. And is this Mr. Schmidt here?”
“Unfortunately not. All of our employees leave when we close for the night.”
“You don’t,” Aiko noted.
Schulz acknowledged her with a patronizing smile, which immediately made me dislike him a little more. “I often find it’s easiest to do paperwork when things are quiet,” he said blithely. “Besides, I have to be present to supervise the cleaning staff.”
“And you’re also here every night?” she asked.
“Every night we’re open, yes. We close for holidays.”
“Hella schedule you got.” Aiko sounded like she wanted to straight-up call him a liar. She wouldn’t do so under the circumstances, of course, but tone can work wonders.
“No rest for the wicked,” he said cheerfully. “To return to your question, Mr. Wolf, I’m afraid Mr. Schmidt isn’t here. Tonight is his day off, but he will be back on Monday. You can return then and speak with him if you like.”
“He doesn’t work weekends?” I asked incredulously.
“Everyone needs a rest sometimes,” Schulz said affably. “Mr. Schmidt is our only bartender most weekdays.”
“I see. I apologize for the interruption, Mr. Schulz, please continue.”
“Thank you, Mr. Wolf. Where was I? Ah, yes. As I was saying, Mr. Peterson had already had several drinks. The argument became rather heated, I understand, and one of our bouncers was already on his way. Unfortunately, he did not reach them before things became violent.”
“Did he see who initiated the violence?” I asked.
“No, he didn’t. We were rather crowded that night, and as I’m sure you can imagine it can be difficult to keep track of the details under such circumstances. As a matter of fact, the conflict was over before he reached the bar. There was another disruption at the same time, near the door, and as there appeared to be no immediate need for his services at the bar he made his way in that direction. It wasn’t until he heard another of our customers screaming that he realized what had happened at all.”
“So he didn’t actually see what happened?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“I see. And this other disruption, what became of that?”
“Nothing, Mr. Wolf. It turned out simply to be a pair of inebriated men attempting to enter without paying the cover charge. One of them distracted our doorman, and the other attempted to sneak in.”
“Ah. And did any of your other employees witness the actual violence?”
“Apparently not. Most of them were busy with other tasks, and the man seeking entry was evidently quite noisy about it.”
“Now hang on a second,” Kyra interjected. “I used to work in a bar, okay? And there is no way that a dude sneaking in is gonna distract you from a brawl. Not a chance.”
“As I understand it, he tripped on his way down the stairs.”
“Funny. But still not that good.”
Schulz cleared his throat awkwardly. “I believe you mistake my meaning, ma’am. As he was falling, he grabbed at one of our waitresses in an attempt to remain standing. As you might imagine, our waitress’s uniforms were not chosen for their sturdiness, and hers proved, ah, inadequate to withstand this treatment. Several other people were also knocked down. I am given to understand that the resulting scene was…quite distracting.”
“Oh,” Kyra said, sounding almost embarrassed. “Yes. I can see how that might happen.”
“What happened after the body was discovered?”
Schulz shrugged. “Well, it seemed quite clear that Mr. Peterson was responsible,” he said, once again not quite managing to hide the glance at Ryan. “As he was no longer on the premises, however, we couldn’t do much about it. We informed the police immediately, of course, and gave them what information we had about him. I believe there’s still a warrant for his arrest. We shut down, naturally, and remained closed for some time. Tonight was actually our first night reopened.”
“Why did you close?”
“It was a highly stressful event, Mr. Wolf, for both the staff and our customers. For us not to acknowledge that would be deeply inappropriate.”
“Understood,” I said, nodding. “Would it be all right if we took a look around your establishment?”
“Of course, Mr. Wolf,” he said. “Please, follow me.”
The tour was about what you’d expect. He showed us the bar area, the dance floor, the stage, the restrooms, all fairly standard in appearance. The back room was equipped with a coffee maker, a microwave, an empty fridge, and not much else. Schulz had a small office, which was clean enough to use as a surgery and contained just as much personality. There was a desk with absolutely no hint of individuality—no knickknacks, no family pictures, not even a coffee mug—on which sat a laptop computer, currently turned off.
The office also contained the first thing we’d seen that was even slightly suspicious: a plain steel door, unmarked in any way except for the large keypad lock. As though that weren’t enough, there were also a pair of heavy padlocks keeping it shut, one a combination lock and the other requiring an actual key.
“What’s through there?” I asked, nodding at the door.
“Our storeroom,” Schulz said. If he was concerned by my interest, it didn’t show. “We keep a sizable stock of liquor on hand.”
“Could we take a look at it?”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”
I stopped and turned to look at the man. To his credit, he didn’t shy away from making eye contact; a lot of people are bothered by my amber eyes, but if Schulz noticed it at all he didn’t show it. “You are aware that that could be construed as obstructing my investigation,” I stated. “To say nothing of how suspicious it is that your storeroom should have such an abundance of locks in the first place.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Wolf, but you misunderstand me. Mr. Zhang does not allow anyone but himself and me to enter the storeroom. Without his specific permission, I quite simply cannot show you around the storeroom. ”
“Not even if you’re standing right there?” I said skeptically. “That must be inconvenient when you need to get more alcohol out of storage in a hurry.”
“We try to avoid such extremity,” Schulz said calmly. “Some of our stock is highly valuable, Mr. Wolf. Mr. Zhang wishes to ensure that it remains that way.”
“So let me get this straight. He relies on you to run the place. You make employment decisions. And he doesn’t trust you to keep the help from drinking up the profits?”
“Trust is not the issue under consideration. Mr. Zhang does not allow access to the storage area in his absence as a matter of course. The specific individual in question is immaterial.”
“I see,” I said, not bothering to hide my disappointment. “And there’s no way I could look around? You’re sure of this?”
“Quite sure, Mr. Wolf. I’m sorry, but rules are rules.”
“Well, then. If there’s nothing else, we’ll let you get back to work.”
“What?” Kyra exclaimed. “Come on, Winter, this is obviously—”
“An unfortunate oversight,” Aiko interjected in a singsong. “I’m sure Mr. Zhang simply forgot to arrange matters with Mr. Schulz.”
“I’m sure that’s all it is,” I agreed, staring at Schulz. Now he did look away, clearly made uncomfortable by the blatant hostility in my gaze. “Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Schulz. You were most…helpful. We can show ourselves out.”
“It was no trouble,” he assured me. “I apologize for the misunderstanding. Good evening.”