“I can’t believe you let him get away with that!” Kyra exclaimed. “There’s obviously something in that room!”
“I know that,” I growled, slamming the door of the nightclub. “It doesn’t matter.”
“What kind of bullshit is that? Either he’s hiding something, or his boss is, or both! In what way does that not matter?”
“It doesn’t matter because I can’t do anything about it,” I said sourly. “I can’t actually break into Zhang Qiang’s club, not without a lot more reason than I have.”
“He’s right about this one,” Aiko said quietly. “I hate to say it, but he is. We aren’t actually investigating Zhang, remember. It wouldn’t matter if that asshole openly admitted they were storing cocaine and dead bodies in there, we couldn’t do anything about it. It isn’t our business.”
She snorted. “Since when has that stopped you?”
“Since I have responsibilities now,” I sighed. “If I go barging around on his turf without permission, it has consequences. Best-case, Zhang immediately rejects me as arbiter, accuses you of trying to rig the system, and says this is proof of guilt. Ryan gets killed, you’re probably in a lot of trouble, and my reputation is shot to hell. Worst-case, all of that happens but it somehow gets even worse. There’s nothing I can do here, Kyra.”
Kyra opened her mouth to continue protesting, then shut it without saying anything. A moment later, Snowflake and Vigdis both trotted into sight, Vigdis from the alley and Snowflake from under the parked van. Thanks to a small miracle (or, more likely, the late hour) it hadn’t been ticketed or towed. “Is everything clear?” I asked—out loud, so that everyone would know the answer.
Vigdis whined an affirmative. Snowflake, who was in my case less language-challenged, outright said that it was. “Excellent,” I said. “We’d probably better leave before our luck breaks.”
“On it,” Aiko said, pacing over to the alley entrance. She started the process of making a portal to the Otherside.
“Ugh,” Kyra said once she was capable of speech again. “That was a very unpleasant waste of time.”
“Not entirely wasted,” I corrected her, leaning against the wall. We were in a small, nasty alley in the same slum-based domain I’d wanted to avoid. The alley was dark, narrow, and crowded. It stank, too, a nasty odor that combined rotting garbage with vomit and piss to make a uniquely unpleasant whole. It was unfortunate that we’d come here, but not surprising; it was much closer to where we’d left, metaphysically speaking, than El Dorado or Faerie. That made it a much quicker portal, and considering how much of a rush we’d been in to leave I couldn’t blame Aiko for choosing this destination point.
“We got nothing but the runaround,” Kyra groaned. “My head hasn’t hurt this bad since I was human with my last hangover. And the only thing we know is that they aren’t gonna tell us shit. In what way was this not a waste of time?”
“If nothing else,” I said dryly, “we know that they have something worth hiding. Aside from the locked door, did anybody notice anything noteworthy?” I wanted to compare notes as soon as possible, before things could fade.
“Well,” Aiko said immediately, “for starters, there’s that distraction. I don’t care who you are, you don’t get drunks stumbling in at just the right time to draw everyone’s attention without a hell of a lot of planning on the front end.”
“He recognized me,” Ryan said quietly. He looked like he was feeling rather paranoid, constantly glancing up and down the alley, and under the circumstances I could hardly blame him. “I didn’t see him when I was there, and they didn’t get a copy of my ID. So how did he recognize me on sight?”
Which was a very good point. I’d noticed that Schulz kept looking at Ryan in a way that strongly implied he knew who the werewolf was. If what Ryan was saying was true, the manager had no reasonable way to have recognized him. I suppose that Zhang could have handed out photos or something—but, if so, why?
“The janitorial personnel were not speaking German,” Ash contributed. She sounded, as usual, perfectly calm. “I am not sure, but I believe it was a dialect of Turkish. Combined with their menial positions, it seems likely that they are immigrants, possibly illegal.”
What makes you think Schulz actually works there? Snowflake asked suddenly.
What do you mean?
Well, she said slowly, he never provided identification. Zhang didn’t mention him at all, and the only other people there were a bunch of cleaners that didn’t know English. These things don’t exactly scream “trustworthy,” do they?
That’s pretty circumstantial, I pointed out.
Granted. Still worth keeping in mind, though.
“See?” I said to Kyra when it became clear that no one else had anything to contribute. “We know that the club’s manager is hiding something, and Zhang probably knows about it. We know the club itself has some sort of other business going on. And we know that, whoever actually killed the guy, it wasn’t a spur of the moment kinda thing. There was a plan, involving at least three people.”
“Okay,” she admitted. “So it wasn’t a total waste of time. I still feel like I’m about to puke up my toenails.”
“You’ll feel better after some sleep,” I assured her. “Speaking of which, if I send you two back to Colorado, are you good to find a hotel on your own?”
“We have to go talk to a friend,” I said, glancing at Aiko. “There’s no need for you to come along when you could be getting some rest. Besides, he doesn’t really like strangers. It’ll be simpler if you aren’t there.”
“Okay,” she said. “What are we doing tomorrow?”
“I’ll call you in the morning. Hopefully we’ll know a little more by then. Vigdis, I want you to go with them and make sure they get to a hotel all right. Then go home and take the rest of the night off.”
“What about me?” Ash asked.
“I’m responsible for your safety at the moment,” I told her. “Unless you object, I’d rather you came with us. You can stay in one of our guest bedrooms tonight.”
The girl did not visibly react, but I got the impression that she was startled all the same. “That would be…good,” she said after a moment. “Thank you.”
I am not fond of Jacques. He’s unpleasant to deal with, and his personal hygiene is so incredibly bad as to be unbelievable. He’s also expensive, and I’m quite sure he sells information about me to his other customers. Dude’s a sleazebag, basically, and I try not to have anything to do with him.
Unfortunately, he’s also a decent information broker. He’s got dirt on everyone, and if he doesn’t know something he can probably find out. He’s never given me all the info I needed about something, but he almost always comes up with enough to put me on the right track. That’s valuable enough that, occasionally, I have to suck it up and pay him a visit.
That is why, some time later, I found myself standing in the hallway of a high-class apartment building in Milan pounding on a door. It took us a while to get there; first I had to open a portal to Colorado Springs for Vigdis and the werewolves, and then Aiko insisted upon walking to a more appropriate location before crossing to Milan. It’s almost like she was getting tired or something.
Walking through a world which was deliberately designed to epitomize the shady neighborhood is not a very safe idea. Surprisingly, though, no one tried to accost us. Possibly they remembered how things went the last time we were there. Once we were in Italy, we took a cab to the high-rise apartment building where Jacques made his pigsty of a home.
It took almost ten minutes of pounding on his door before Jacques responded. (None of the other inhabitants reacted. I wonder sometimes if Jacques is actually the only person that lives there, and all the other apartments are camouflage.) It took him another minute or two to undo the various locks and chains and open the door, at which point we were confronted with the sight of Jacques in all his glory.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. He carried with him a stench of alcohol, spoiled food, and unwashed clothing so vile that a goat would find it nauseating. I had to fight down a gag, and my eyes were watering—a sharper sense of smell than humans possess is not always a benefit.
Visually, the information broker was equally distasteful. His black eyes were so bloodshot they looked red, and his black hair was matted almost to the point of being dreadlocks, and stained with a variety of substances which I had no desire to contemplate further. He was currently wearing a brown robe (what color it might have been originally was impossible to determine) and nothing else. Apparently we’d woken him up.
“Cupcake,” he said sourly. I barely managed to keep myself from wincing away from his breath. “It’s too fucking early to deal with you. Who’s the kid?”
“This is Thorn,” Aiko supplied immediately, before Ash could respond. We all used pseudonyms with Jacques, although I’m sure he knew who we were. It was an etiquette thing, which can have very different meanings with the supernatural criminal community than mainstream society.
“Shrike. Spike. And now Thorn,” he said in disgust. “Your sense of humor’s broken, Cupcake.”
“Well, talking with you sure as hell isn’t going to fix it,” she countered. “Do you have the info?”
He shrugged. “I got it, but you won’t like it.”
“I’ll cope. Come on, I’m not talking business out here.”
Ash gave me a deeply doubtful look as we stepped inside Jacques’s apartment. I couldn’t do much but shrug in a hopefully-reassuring way, because that was pretty much how I felt about it too. Snowflake was making a quiet growling noise—being closer to the ground, she gets even more upset by Jacques’s lack of cleanliness than I do. I wasn’t too concerned; the way I saw it, if he was bothered by their reactions then he probably shouldn’t be running his business from a hovel.
“Start with the general biography,” Aiko suggested once the door was safely closed and locked. (I wasn’t concerned about being locked in. We outnumbered him, and even if we hadn’t I’ve yet to meet a door that I can’t unlock, break down, or cut up if sufficiently motivated.)
“Give me a minute,” Jacques said sourly, picking his way through piles of discarded food, clothing, and bottles to his couch. It squelched when he sat down. It took him three tries to find a bottle that wasn’t empty, at which point he took a long drink of whatever alcoholic concoction was in it and belched. Loudly.
I hate this place so much, Snowflake said. Do you think he would even notice if I threw up?
I considered the state of the floor. Probably not. I don’t think you’d be the first.
“All right, Cupcake. So this guy you were asking about, Stefan Morgenstern? Well, he was fae through and through. Pureblood Sidhe, from an old family. Morgenstern is actually a family name, which most Sidhe don’t do. They’re closer with this world than most, especially Europe.”
“Which Court are they?” I interjected.
“Both. It’s a big family, they’ve got branches fucking everywhere. Stefan was from the Midnight side of things. His mother was pretty high with Scáthach.”
“Don’t interrupt me,” Jacques said. “And yes, was. She got whacked almost fifty years ago, maybe five years after his younger sister was born. I dunno who did her, but Scáthach was pissed We’re talking, like, epic levels of annoyance.” He took another drink. “Anyway, nobody knows who the father was, so that’s about it. Only family was the sister, Sidhe called Anja. She moved out when she was around twenty, married a knight from the Daylight Court.”
“I remember that,” Aiko said. “There was a huge scandal at the time.”
“Yeah, well. Ain’t every day you get a twenty-year-old Sidhe from an old family marrying anybody, let alone a knight from the other Court. People talked about it. Then she didn’t invite Stefan to the wedding, and that stirred up some shit. Word is, they haven’t even spoken since she left.”
I thought of Anja’s coolly dispassionate attitude and total lack of outrage regarding her brother’s death, and had no difficulty believing that.
“So anyway, that left Stefan pretty much alone. He’s still pretty young by Sidhe standards, no close family, but he’s got all the money he could want and respect for his family name. Not much of a surprise that he fell in with a bad crowd. He started hanging around with the Tylwyth Teg, which was another scandal, actually went so far as to go on hunts with Gwyn ap Nudd. Spent time with people that weren’t any kind of fae, too, which is worse. He was into some shady stuff.”
“Why wouldn’t Scáthach kick him out on his ass at that point?” Aiko asked.
Jacques shrugged. “I dunno. General consensus is that she liked his mother, and now she’s dead she doesn’t want to disrespect the memory or some shit like that. Personally, I have a hard time believing Scáthach would be that sentimental.”
I was with Jacques on that one. It’s hard to imagine a Queen of the Midnight Court—one of the three most powerful figures in a Court composed of the nastiest, most dangerous, most predatory faeries around—as being sentimental. They’d have eaten her alive a long time ago if she were that much of a romantic.
Aiko made a thoughtful sound. “What happened to him after that?”
Jacques shrugged again. “Not much. Got gutted in a club in Germany a few days ago.”
“You know who did it?”
“Official report isn’t out yet. Grapevine says it was a werewolf. Personally, I don’t believe it. Might have been a werewolf that held the knife, but it’s a sucker’s bet that it was one of the fae behind it. My bet is the person responsible was one of his kin, trying to keep the bastard from degrading the family name. More than he already had, I mean.”
“That isn’t very useful,” Aiko noted.
“I said you weren’t gonna like it, Cupcake. That’s all I’ve got.”
“A minute ago,” I said, “you said that Stefan was involved in shady business. What kind of business, exactly, do you mean?”
“Smuggling,” he said simply. “Did a little rough stuff, too. Always on the periphery, but it was there. And he was selling secrets. Bastard was one of my sources in the Courts.” Jacques chuckled, a mirthless sound that hinted at the iron in him. “Guess I’ll be needing a new sucker in Scáthach’s court, eh?”
“I see,” I said. “And that’s all you know?”
“Yep. Sorry to say, Shrike, but that’s it.”
“All right. I’ll get you your money within the next two weeks. Ten thousand dollars.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Shrike. This is some pretty valuable—”
I met the information broker’s eyes, and jaded soul though he was, what he saw still convinced him to shut up. “Jacques,” I said quietly, “I have had a long and confusing day. I am not in a pleasant mood right now. Do you really want to irritate me further by haggling when I’ve already offered you ten grand for a few scraps of information you already knew?”
There was a moment of silence. “Ten thousand is fair,” he admitted sullenly. “But I gotta say, Shrike, your negotiation methods are fucking awful. I mean, damn.”
I smiled. “Thank you.”
And then we left.
“Damn, Winter, that was awesome,” Aiko said once we were back out on the street, laughing. “I’ve never seen Jacques get his head handed to him like that.”
“Your phrasing seemed needlessly confrontational,” Ash said. “Was it wise to antagonize one of your allies in that manner?”
“Jacques won’t care,” I said confidently. “He’s a professional. He isn’t about to let a potentially valuable contact go over a little annoyance.” I shook my head. “Besides. He isn’t an ally of mine.”
“It still seems like an unwise decision. Even if he is not your ally, treating him in that way makes him more likely to act in opposition to you, does it not?”
“You’re probably right,” I admitted. “On the other hand, did you see the look on his face? Priceless.”
True dat, Snowflake said. It’s about time he got his comeuppance for making me smell that godawful apartment.
“Your priorities seem rather irresponsible,” Ash said chidingly. But she was smiling when she did.
“Irresponsibility is our collective middle name,” Aiko agreed cheerily. “Speaking of, you want to go get drunk and set fire to someone’s house?”
The worst part is, I’m pretty sure it was a serious offer.
“It sounds like a great way to end the evening,” I sighed. “Unfortunately, Jacques’s information isn’t enough.”
“You want to talk to another broker?” she asked doubtfully. “I know a couple guys, but I’m not sure anybody knows more than we got.”
I smiled crookedly and without much humor. “Oh, I know someone who does. Come on,” I said before they could ask, walking towards a nearby park. “I’ll drive home.”
A little more than half an hour later, we stepped in the front door of the mansion. Getting there had actually been fairly simple, just a quick jaunt through El Dorado and then another portal to an alley near Val’s shop. It was a bit of a walk from there, but not terrible.
“Hey,” Alexis said when we walked in. She was currently lying on a padded bench in the entryway reading a book, on the opposite side of the room from the throne—she took it to heart when I told her how many booby-traps were on that thing. “Everyone still alive?”
“Yep. Ash is staying here for the night, if that’s all right.”
“No problem,” she yawned. “There’s some dinner in the kitchen.”
“You know you don’t have to cook for us, Alexis.”
She snorted. “News flash, Winter. I cook for me. You just happen to eat some of it.” She shrugged. “Besides, this place is a chef’s wet dream. Fresh ingredients I don’t have to buy, all the best equipment, and I don’t have to do any of the cleaning. Those guys on the cooking networks would kill for a setup like this.”
“You know,” I said after a moment, “I find it inexplicably distressing when you talk about the kitchen in a tone more normally reserved for describing societally unacceptable fetishes.”
“Cooking is one thing. I refuse to be your shrink too.” She yawned again and stood up. “I’m going to bed. Wake me if something exciting happens.”
“Your cousin seems quite pleasant,” Ash said once Alexis had left.
“Yeah, she is. We got off to a bit of a rough start, but I think we’re actually doing fairly well. She hasn’t tried to kill me again, at any rate, and that’s gotta count for something, right?”
“Tried to kill you again?” Ash must have been feeling pretty incredulous, because it almost showed in her voice.
“Yeah, it was a bit of an awkward situation. Do you want some of that dinner? I’m starving.”
“Christ, Winter,” Aiko muttered. “You ate an entire schnitzel less than five hours ago.”
“So I’m not entirely comfortable with the prospect of you weighing three hundred pounds!”
“Said the person who can drink a gallon of soda in a day,” I said wryly. That was the literal truth, by the way. I’d measured it once.
“That’s different,” she protested.
That one stumped her for a minute. “Well, it’s me, for one thing,” she managed eventually, stalking off towards the kitchen.
Have you ever considered acting? Snowflake wondered. I’m sure that if you asked nicely Conn could set you two up with a sitcom.
I don’t think that would end well.
Well, obviously, Snowflake said. But it would be hilarious.
Dinner was spaghetti with meatballs and Italian sausage—proving my cousin’s claim of self-centeredness at least partially false, given that she was vegetarian—several loaves of freshly baked bread, a large and varied salad, and split pea soup. There were also cannoli and brownies, because Alexis knows that I’m addicted to chocolate and Aiko’s capacity for sugar would make a hummingbird blush.
It was, as Ash said, a kind gesture on her part. We—me, Aiko, even Snowflake—were never very good at expressing our emotions, and so most of the time it wound up being conveyed by actions instead. I’m sure you know the sort of thing I’m talking about. Make extra dinner. Stay up to make sure everyone gets home safely. Stick a knife in somebody’s back and then shoot them repeatedly.
Dysfunctional in the extreme? Absolutely. But if you’re going to be psychologically broken, and evidence indicated that we were all pretty much basket cases, you might as well have company.
A short while later Aiko and I were sitting by the fire in the library, while Snowflake slept on my feet. We’d set Ash up in one of the guest bedrooms—there were about a dozen, not counting the one Alexis had taken over—and removed most of the booby traps. Not all of them, because some were just a pain in the ass to disarm, but most of the serious ones were gone, and Ash was smart enough to avoid the rest.
“Okay,” she said. “Have you been holding out on me, Winter? ‘Cause I don’t think you know a better broker than Jacques.”
“Well,” I said slowly, “there’s a funny thing about that. See, Jacques has good information. But he’s looking in from the outside, which limits what he can know. If we ask someone who’s actually a part of the situation, they won’t be relying on hearsay.”
“Please tell me you aren’t talking about who I think you’re talking about.”
“Depends. Are you thinking of Scáthach?”
Aiko closed her eyes for a moment. It looked like she was counting to ten, or possibly praying that I would someday learn. “Yeah,” she said finally. “That’s who I was thinking of. Fucking hell, Winter, are you not going to be satisfied until you get yourself killed?”
“I’m not suicidal, Aiko.”
“Could have fooled me. You can’t just keep playing with fire and not get burned sooner or later. Sidhe politics can eat you alive before you even know what’s happening.”
“I know,” I sighed. “But I owe Kyra, and I don’t have enough time to find things out the safe way. If Morgenstern was in Scáthach’s court there’s not a chance she doesn’t know what he was up to, in detail.” I shrugged. “Besides, she owes me for returning her spear. Hopefully she’ll be willing to cut me a deal.”
“I guess,” she said doubtfully. “It’s just…this is scary stuff, Winter. And you’ve already got Loki breathing down your neck. I’m just worried about you.”
“I am too,” I said honestly. “But I’m glad that you care.”
“Okay,” she said after a moment. “Things are getting mushy in here. Are you planning to summon her?”
The kitsune nodded, clearly not surprised. “What ritual are you using?”
“Cheap,” I countered. “I have no desire to sell my soul for Ryan’s sake. And I can do it tonight.”
“True enough,” she muttered. “Are you doing it now?”
“All right. You know what you’re doing.” She stood up and kissed me. “Good luck. Don’t let her screw you over. Ryan isn’t worth it.” She walked out without another word.
This better not be a mistake, Snowflake said, standing and following Aiko out of the room. I don’t know what I’d do without you.
Seriously, you two. Give it a rest, why don’t you? You keep talking like this, we’ll all develop a sense of empathy and compassion.
Truly a fate worse than death, she laughed. The horror!
I know, right? I said, also smiling.
That smile faded as I stood up. All joking aside, this really was a risky thing to do. The Sidhe are at their most dangerous when they’re making bargains and spinning plots, and Scáthach was one of their Queens.
But everything I’d said to Aiko was still true. And Ryan’s wellbeing wasn’t the only thing riding on this. I hadn’t forgotten Dolph talking about the importance this situation had to Conn’s dealings with the Twilight Court, and I was sure Bryan hadn’t gotten involved for no reason either. When the stakes are like that, you don’t solve the problem without taking some risks.
So I took a deep breath and went out to the garden.