There were two more attacks that night. The first was on a local politician I knew to be in the pocket of several businesses and at least one criminal organization—no surprise that he’d been targeted, and I found it difficult to regret his death. The second targeted the residence of Luna Kuzmak, a small-time information marketer and black marketeer. Her apartment building had been pretty thoroughly trashed, but Luna herself was far too canny to be caught that easily. She’d probably figured out that the person summoning this thing had a serious hate on for supernatural predators and criminals, and Luna was in thick with both. All reports agreed that she hadn’t even been in the same neighborhood. I felt a small spark of happiness at that news; Luna and I weren’t friends, but she was a consistent acquaintance, and I liked her well enough.
Less pleasant was the news that several other people in the same building hadn’t been so lucky. Eleven people had been killed and a couple dozen others hospitalized.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t until I heard that that I began to feel truly angry about this. Attacking gangsters and vampires didn’t really upset me—hell, in its own spectacularly misguided way it was an ethically justifiable choice. Trying to kill me was more upsetting on a personal level, for obvious reasons, but that was clearly nothing personal. If I were entirely fair, I had to admit that I’d started that fight, not the other way round.
This was different. Using lethal force on someone who was, at worst, guilty of providing supplies and info to both good and bad people was questionable. Doing so in a way that was practically guaranteed to cause serious collateral damage to dozens of innocents was morally shaky to say the least. To do that when the target wasn’t even there—and when that was fairly predictable—was unconscionable.
“Dawn of the sixth day,” Aiko said as I finished reading the news story and closed the laptop. (Yes, there was a laptop sitting in the safe house. Plentiful funds and pathological obsession with preparing for disaster are a wonderful combo.) “Twenty-four hours remain.”
“That would be a great deal more encouraging if I actually got to do this over as many times as I wanted.”
“Nah,” she said dismissively. “You’d get bored of the same six days within two or three reps.”
“Probably true,” I agreed. “I guess I should just get it right the first time instead.”
“Truly, you must be a tactical genius. Did you have any actual plans?”
“Not really,” I admitted. “Katrin hasn’t contacted me, and the only message from Kikuchi just says that most of the Inquisition don’t appear to be frequenting their usual haunts.” I snorted. “I could have told them that and saved them the time.”
“That’s a tengu for you,” Aiko agreed. “Trap ’em in a burning building and they’ll go through the manual to make sure it’s actually on fire and locate their assigned emergency exit.”
“Can you come up with anything?” I asked. “‘Cause honestly, I’m out of ideas. This is too big.”
She pursed her lips and thought for a moment. “You should contact Pellegrini,” she said after a moment. “He has as much of a stake in this as we do, and a lot more manpower.”
I sighed. “That’s not a bad idea,” I admitted. I didn’t like the idea—I found everything about the crime lord repellant—but what she’d said was true. Pellegrini had money, hordes of minions, and access to a lot of resources that not even Katrin or Kikuchi could claim. Those weren’t things I could ignore, not now. The stakes were too high for squeamishness. “I guess I’ll get started on that.”
Fifteen minutes later, I hung up and glared at the phone. I had contact info for Pellegrini—I have contact info for pretty much everybody in my city—but not a personal number. He must have given his minions a briefing on me, because dropping my name worked wonders, but there was still a legion of secretaries to battle through. Once I’d gotten through to a high enough level of management to get something done, I’d discovered that the gangster was in a meeting that “couldn’t be interrupted,” but he would hear about my call as soon as it was over.
I hate being given the runaround. It feels too much like karma.
Inside the safe house, nothing had changed. Alexis was pacing back and forth, her expression frustrated and scared. Aiko was sitting on one of the camp chairs in the corner of the room, looking at something on the computer. She looked more outwardly relaxed, but I knew her too well to be fooled. Neither of the werewolves had woken up yet.
This was getting ridiculous. A week had passed, and I’d learned nothing. I had to be the most incompetent investigator in the history of incompetent investigation.
Before I could think of what to do next, my phone rang. I looked at it, hoping it would be Pellegrini calling me back. I didn’t recognize the number.
“Hello, Winter,” a female voice said. It was high, and not nearly as bright or innocent as it had been the first time I heard it. I still recognized it, and wished I didn’t. This couldn’t possibly be good news.
“Hello, Katie,” I said, feeling inordinately proud that my voice betrayed nothing of what I was feeling. “What’s new?”
“I think we both know the answer to that,” Katie said sharply.
“Ah. It’s you, then?”
“Yeah. It’s me.” Her voice was equal parts defiance and sorrow, as though she weren’t sure whether to ask for congratulations or condolences.
I wasn’t surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised. I suppose I’d always known it would be Katie that turned to the dark side. She was the only pure soul the Inquisition had to offer, and it’s hard find someone darker than the person who used to be so good. “Why’d you do it?” I asked, not really caring what the answer was. It didn’t matter why, not anymore. There was too much blood on her hands to ever come clean.
“I couldn’t stand to watch it anymore,” she said, defiance predominating in her voice now. “They kept getting away with it. We’d take out the ones that went too far, but it never mattered. A week later, it was like we were never there. We didn’t have the power to touch anyone who counted for anything. Well, guess what, Winter? I have the power now. I can finally fix things.”
“You aren’t fixing anything, Katie. How many people have you killed? There were a dozen families in that apartment building. They did nothing wrong.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?” she screamed. I winced away from the phone; clearly, stability was no longer one of Katie’s hirable traits. “Do you think I don’t know what I’ve done? Do you think I don’t hear them screaming when I close my eyes? Because I do! But I don’t have your power, do I? You could have made things better, but you didn’t, and now I have to! I don’t have a scalpel, Winter, but I do have a cannon. And if I have to use a cannon because that’s all I have, I’m fucking well going to do it!” She was breathing heavily. She’d started out screaming, but by the time she finished her rant it sounded like she was practically in tears.
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because it’s not too late,” she whispered. “You could still fix this, Winter. You could still help me make everything better. Please. Help me.”
“Considering that you sent your pet monster to kill me last night,” I said dryly, “you’ll have to forgive me if I sound a little skeptical.”
“I want you to help me,” she said, her voice once again almost calm. “But I can’t afford to have you working against me. You’re too capable. I was hoping that I could remove you from play before you had a chance to get too close.”
“Why change your tune now?”
“It didn’t work,” she said simply. “You got away from it, twice. It’s too late to end this quickly, so I can afford to give you another chance. Please, Winter. It’s not too late.”
“I’m sorry, Katie.”
“Please, Winter,” she said again, as though she weren’t sure what else to say. “You were always a good person. I looked up to you. Why couldn’t you do the right thing?”
I felt as though my heart were breaking. “There is no right thing,” I said bitterly. “There’s never a right thing.”
“Maybe not,” Katie said, her voice growing firm again. “But there is a wrong one. Please, Winter. I can’t give you another chance.”
“I’m sorry, Katie,” I said again, and then I hung up on her.
Loki got the Inquisition together, years before, for his own amusement. That’s what he claims, anyway; some things I’ve learned since then make me wonder whether Loki’s really that shallow, or he’s playing a deeper game. Either way, I believe his claim that every member of the group participated for a different reason. Some of those reasons are noble, while others are rather unsettling, and a few are just plain sad. Matthew gets off on violence, Jimmy’s on an ego trip, Aubrey wants power, and Kris just wanted a friend. With such a diverse range of motives, it’s really no surprise that they fell apart once he stopped taking an active hand in things.
Katie was always the zealot of the bunch. The others mouthed the lines about protecting humanity from monsters, and most of them supported the cause to some extent. But Katie believed. She truly believed, with all her heart, that what they were doing was right, that even when they were doing wrong it was justified by being a necessary evil on the path to a greater good.
On some level, that was an accurate assessment. While I didn’t always agree with their methods, and I thought their capability for understanding a situation was essentially nil, I couldn’t deny that they had a point with their vigilantism. They had, all things considered, done more good than harm. Certainly it was preferable to perform the unsavory acts required to get there out of a sense of duty, rather than for sadistic pleasure or amoral greed. As a result, Katie had always been one of the few members of the Inquisition I respected.
She was also the only one I was genuinely frightened of. It may sound odd, but someone doing terrible things because they feel it’s necessary is almost always scarier than one doing them just for fun. Even the most enthusiastically evil person can only handle so much murder before they get hungry, or sleepy, or simply bored. But someone who’s really, truly dedicated to the cause can keep going forever, because they aren’t in it for pleasure. A guy who’s in it for kicks will balk at some things, because they’re too risky, or too tedious, or too evil. A zealot will do anything, because in their mind everything else is secondary to the cause.
You can’t reason with a person like that. You can’t talk them out of it, or convince them that what they’re doing is too costly. You can’t intimidate or blackmail them. They care too much for what they’re doing, and too little for anything else.
Katie was that kind of person. She was kind, honest, generous, and she would shove her own mother under a bus without hesitation if that’s what it took to make the world a better place. She wasn’t always like that—when I first met her, she was actually having doubts about the rightness of their cause—but somewhere along the way she’d gotten ruthless. The last time I’d worked with the Inquisition, she’d put a bullet through a human shield to cripple a rogue werewolf. She was torn up about it, but there was no question in anyone’s mind that she would do it again without a moment’s hesitation.
I couldn’t argue with her, really. I would probably have done the same thing. That werewolf really needed to die, and if he’d gotten away I had no doubt that he would have killed the hostage himself. The bullet was by far the kinder fate.
The idea of her having access to this kind of power still scared me absolutely shitless.
“Katie’s the one doing this?” Aiko said a few seconds after I hung up. “Shit. Do you think it’s too late to move to Belize?” She knew Katie as well as I did, and it took her just as long to work through the ramifications of giving her a superweapon.
“I hope not,” I said. “But hopefully it shouldn’t matter. We know who it is now, so it should just be a matter of telling Loki and letting him handle things from here.”
“You called?” Loki’s voice said from a position about six inches behind my left ear.
I think I squeaked. I know I jumped. I landed maybe five feet away, facing backward and scrabbling for weapons. I then tripped over the cot Kyra was sleeping in. I ended up with my chest on the ground (on my injured arm, because of course I was), and my legs draped over the cot.
Any dignity I might have had was already lost, and I didn’t bother trying to pretend otherwise. A little wriggling, helped along by a less-than-subtle shove from Kyra, got me all the way down to the floor. I pushed myself back to my feet, wincing when I forgot and used my left hand, and tried to pretend that little detour was intentional.
Loki, needless to say, was standing right where I’d been, laughing his head off. I wouldn’t have minded, except that everyone else in the room was also laughing at me. Aiko looked like she was about to fall out of her chair, and Snowflake would have been in much the same position except that she was already lying down. Even Anna, once she’d woken up and figured out what I just did, started laughing.
“Nice one, Winter,” Loki said, wiping nonexistent tears from his eyes. He didn’t sound even slightly out of breath, probably because he didn’t need to breathe. “You’re a one-man slapstick show. So what did you want to tell me?”
“I know who you’re looking for,” I said, hating myself for every word. Katie needed to be stopped—there was no question about that. But I didn’t want to hand her over to Loki. I knew only too well what he was capable of, and Katie didn’t deserve that. Nobody deserved that.
But I couldn’t afford to care. The stakes were too high for squeamishness.
“Don’t care,” Loki said casually.
I blinked. “What?”
Loki looked at me directly. I met those mad, whirling eyes, and looked into the wildfire therein. An instant later I was looking at the floor, and shivering a little. I have a hard stare, but when Loki gets serious his would convince a tiger to go back to its chew toy.
“It doesn’t matter who summoned the interloper,” he said, his voice calm and cold. “All that matters is that they be stopped. Tell me, Wolf, can you do that?”
I didn’t look away from the floor. Loki might sound calm, but my instincts were screaming that he was far angrier than I’d ever seen him before, and that meant I was about six inches away from dying horribly. “No,” I said, as submissively as I knew how. My voice wasn’t loud, but it had gone dead silent in the safe house, and I knew that everyone could hear me.
“I thought not. Can you tell me where to go to solve the problem?”
“No,” I admitted. I knew Katie was behind it all, but that didn’t tell me jack about where she was hiding. Katie was always one of the most forward-thinking of the Inquisition, and she was smart enough not to go anywhere I would know to look for her.
“Well, then,” Loki said, sounding almost cheerful again. “It sounds like you have some work to do before dawn, don’t you? I think you’d better get busy.” He snapped his fingers.
Predictably, they produced a sound closer to a large-caliber gunshot than a popgun, accompanied by a bright flash of light. I heard sounds of surprise and pain, particularly from the werewolves, through the ringing in my ears. By the time I could see again, Loki had vanished.
Gods can be such assholes. I mean, a little egotism isn’t all that surprising in a literal deity, but Loki’s insistence on always getting the last word still seems a little unhealthy.
“We’re screwed,” Aiko said a few seconds later. Her voice was mild, devoid of any emotion except a sort of detached curiosity.
“Utterly,” I agreed. “Why did I agree to this again?”
“Because you’re a complete moron with no ability to learn from past mistakes?” Aiko suggested. This was followed by various noises of agreement from everyone except Snowflake, who made hers nonvocally.
“Pretty much,” I sighed. “We need to get moving, though. I don’t think Katie traced that call, but it’s probably best not to rule it out.”
“Where are we going?” Alexis asked, grabbing her backpack off the floor. Alexis wasn’t as paranoid as me, but she was getting there. She certainly didn’t let her jump bag out of arm’s reach at a time like this.
“Shit, I don’t know. Back to the pack house, I guess. I want to see how wrecked it is.” I grabbed my own bag, then grabbed the keys to the SUV from the hook by the door and tossed them to my cousin. Driving with my hand was just not a good idea, and from Kyra’s expression I was pretty sure she’d bite me if I let Aiko drive again.
As we drove south, I tried to figure out why Katie had called me.
I didn’t trust her explanation. That just wasn’t Katie. She looked up to me, and I could see her wanting to give me another chance to join her loony-tunes crusade. But she wasn’t sentimental. If I had to pick one word to describe Katie, “ruthless” would be near the top of the list. I just couldn’t see her throwing away any advantage for what she had to know was the extremely slim chance that I would listen to her.
I trusted my judgment of her character. So, logically, she must have some reason to think it was worth it. There were two ways that could happen—she might think that the cost was smaller than I did, or she might have overestimated the likelihood that she could convince me.
The second possibility wasn’t plausible. We weren’t close, but I’d been dealing with the Inquisition off and on for several years. I’d never been shy about my opinion of their anti-monster crusade. Evidence suggested that Katie’s mental stability wasn’t too hot anymore—which, considering the power she currently held, was a freaking terrifying thought—but I just couldn’t see her misjudging me that grossly.
I groaned to myself and rubbed my temples, where I was already getting a headache. It felt like I was trying to think through fog in a concert hall, and the awfulness of that metaphor just goes to show how stupid I was at the moment. My hand ached, although it didn’t seem to have started bleeding again, and I was ridiculously tired. I’d gotten close to ten hours of sleep, and I felt like I’d been running a marathon all night instead. The skin of my arm didn’t seem to be regenerating as fast as it should have, either. Considering the source of the injury, that worried me more than a little.
I forced myself to think through the path of logic anyway. If Katie had known that calling me was unlikely to provide much benefit, she must have thought that the cost wouldn’t be significant. Revealing that she was responsible for all this was a significant cost; I’d been guessing it was one of the Inquisition, but I couldn’t have pinned it on her specifically.
That, in turn, meant that she must have thought I would figure it out whether she told me or not. I didn’t think there was a huge clue pointing at her that I just hadn’t noticed, which meant that it must be something that hadn’t happened yet. It was about to, though; Katie wouldn’t have given me any more advance knowledge than she could help. Decent tacticians are annoying that way.
But what could she do that would tell me that it was her? By and large, her obsession with hunting monsters was shared by the rest of the Inquisition. She felt more passionate about the topic than most of them, but they had the same targets.
A moment later, I realized what it had to be. “Oh, crap,” I said, digging my phone out of my pocket.
“What is it?” Aiko asked. She was currently sitting next to me in the cargo area of the SUV. She appeared to be browsing NSFW comics on her phone. Because she could, presumably.
“If you were an extremist splinter group from an ideologically extreme gang, and someone gave you way too much power, what’s the first thing you’d do?”
“Kill everyone who ever made fun of my fashion sense,” she replied immediately. “Why?”
“I was just thinking that the only people religious extremists hate more than heathens are heretics.”
Aiko did not take long to see what I was getting at. “You think Katie’s going to take out the rest of the Inquisition?”
“Not all of them,” I said, thinking it through as I spoke. “But Katie was always the most dedicated of the bunch. Now that she has enough power to go it alone, I could see her starting a purge.”
“Maybe,” Aiko said doubtfully. “I don’t know, though. Katie’s psycho, but she’s always been fairly specific. I don’t really see her going after humans deliberately.” Her voice was slightly caustic for that last part. I don’t care for the Inquisition’s monster-hunting agenda, but Aiko’s always been rather more vocal about her disgust than me.
I shrugged and dialed a number from memory. I wasn’t willing to store it in my phone; I don’t really know that much about the finer points of technology, but I was pretty sure somebody could find it there. “It doesn’t hurt anything to give them a heads-up.”
By the time we reached the pack house, I’d warned most of the living members of the Inquisition about my suspicions. Kris and Doug were both still working for Val, who assured me that he would tell them to clear out immediately. Chuck’s boss was less understanding, but Chuck had never had any particular difficulty walking out on a job. Mac, once she woke up, was entirely willing to run and hide; she might be a pacifist, but that didn’t mean she had to be a fool. Matthew lived well outside of town, but he said that he would run at the first hint of weirdness anyway. He’s psychotic and craves violence, but he isn’t stupid. Honestly, crazy though he is, I think Matthew’s probably the smartest of the bunch. He has a surprisingly accurate understanding of his own capabilities, and he’s never hesitated to back down from impossible odds.
I didn’t have Aubrey’s phone number, though. He’s always been paranoid (pot, kettle, I know), and we don’t really talk much. He’s envious of my ability to defend myself directly, and I’m not comfortable being around anyone who can screw with my head magically. Brick, obviously, wasn’t answering his phone, and I couldn’t get an answer from Jimmy or Mike either.
That was a little scary. Katie having access to nigh-godly destructive power was bad enough. Brick was vastly better educated, Jimmy was on a massive ego trip, and Mike was maybe the only one of the Inquisition as dedicated as Katie. If one or more of them were helping her, things could get even worse.
I couldn’t do much about it until I tracked them down, though. So I shrugged it off as best I could and got out of the car to survey the damage.
It was surprisingly mild, all things considered. The doors of the pack house had been disintegrated, leaving a ten-foot hole in their place, and from what I could see through the hole the ground floor had been more or less gutted. The building itself was still standing, though, and that was more than I’d been expecting. My armored truck out front didn’t even appear to have been touched.
I wasn’t totally sure whether that was a good sign. I mean, yes, I was happy that the place hadn’t been demolished again, and yes, it was good that Katie appeared to be getting a handle on the collateral damage. On the other hand, that might indicate that Katie was learning to control this thing more precisely, and that was definitely not good news. The more she learned, the more dangerous the situation became.
For a situation that started out so dangerous that the nuclear option was actually fairly justifiable, that’s pretty impressive.
“So what are we doing here, again?” Kyra asked, looking over the destruction with an air of faint boredom. If she felt anything at seeing her former home damaged in this way, she kept it hidden.
“Wait for it,” I said, with more confidence than I felt.
Maybe five minutes later, Kyi ghosted out of the trees beside the building. As always, I was impressed at her skill; we were standing in an area I knew well, with literally nothing to do but watch for someone to show up, and I still didn’t see her until after she’d left the trees.
“Kyi,” I said. “Did everyone make it out?”
“Já,” she said, nodding vigorously. “Everyone is safe. Tindr only slipped in the wood, and he is only bruised in pride.”
“Good. Are they still out there?” I gestured vaguely at the trees.
“Já. I am here, if anyone comes back, because I am the quiet one.”
I wondered, idly, whether Kyi had been planning to watch them or kill them. It could go either way. Kyi Greyfell was the least crazy of my housecarls, with the possible exception of Tindr, but she doesn’t carry a bunch of knives and a compound bow for no reason. If I want someone to disappear without a trace, Kyi is by far the best minion I have.
If you ever have to seriously consider which minion is best for a quiet assassination, either your priorities or your life have gotten epically screwed up somewhere along the line. I didn’t want to think too hard about which one described me.
“Good,” I said, trying to focus on the task at hand. It was giving me more trouble than usual. “Go get Haki, Vigdis, and, oh, let’s say Kjaran for me. Tell them to bring their stuff. The rest of you should stay in this area for a few days. I’ll contact you in person or by phone. Clear?”
“Clear,” she said, nodding vigorously. “I bring them now here.” She turned and walked back into the forest without another word.
“Why are you getting more thugs?” Kyra asked a minute or so after the jotun left. “Seems like we have plenty of manpower already.”
“Pellegrini knows you,” I said. I’d never gotten clear on the deals she’d made with the gangster back when she was Alpha, but I was certain they’d been conducted face-to-face. “And, no offense, but the rest of you aren’t all that intimidating. I figure I might as well pick up somebody a little more blatant while we’re here anyway.”
“I thought Pellegrini was giving you the runaround,” Aiko said.
I smiled. It was not a very nice smile. “Oh, he’ll help us. He just needs a little persuading.”