When you have a problem and you don’t know quite how to solve it, there are a few ways you can approach it. You can take the time to investigate the issue carefully and thoroughly, until you know exactly which avenue of inquiry is most likely to yield a solution. Or, if you’re on a tight deadline and you don’t even really have a place to start, you can take a more random approach, trying every path available and hoping that one of them pays off.
Since I seem to be under a time constraint pretty much all the time, it should come as no surprise that I was more familiar with the second method. It’s got some problems, but there are also some definite upsides.
If you want to get good results from that approach, the first thing you have to do is make sure that you have a lot of avenues, with a lot of variety between them. The more ways you have to look at the problem, and the less overlap there is between them, the more likely it is that at least one of them will hit pay dirt.
That’s where obsessive preparation comes in handy. It’s hard to assemble that kind of network on the spot. But if you happen to already have it in place, you can access a lot more information in a hurry than a more considered, precise approach would ever allow you to pull off.
I’m really good at obsessive preparation. So, before we’d even left home, I’d already placed several phone calls. I called Kyra and asked her to meet us in Wyoming in a few hours. I called Katrin Fleischer and left a message saying I wanted to meet with her tonight. I called the housecarls and told them to be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary. I left messages with Brick, Pryce, and Val asking them to let me know if they saw or heard anything. I called the strange, feral half-breed who called herself Jackal, and let her know that I was in the market for information. I called my contact with the Watchers, a sorcerer who called himself Moray, and told him to pull everything they had on summonings in the area and get it to me—I had access to their information network, but it was entirely unofficial, and had to go through certain channels.
All of that, without my having to do any real work or expose myself to anything dangerous. I could get used to this kind of work.
I opened the first portal in a small park a couple of blocks from home. I’m not especially good at opening portals to the Otherside. On the other hand, it’s an incredibly useful talent to have, and being able to do it quickly and easily provides all kinds of options you’d never have otherwise.
I can’t do that. That’s why I’d taken the time to make a focus for that specific kind of magic, and I wore it pretty much everywhere—a ring made out of ice, it wasn’t hard to conceal, if I even felt the need to bother. It was entirely useless for any other task, but it cut the time I took to open a portal from almost twenty minutes to somewhere around ten. That was useful enough to be worth the thirty or forty hours it had taken to make it.
That’s what sucks about magic. It’s useful, sure, and impressive as hell, but that’s mostly because you’re only seeing a tiny part of the process. A mage can throw around gusts of wind, bolts of lightning, or fireballs, and that’s quick and flashy and liable to make their enemies crap themselves and run away—but it’s also the end result of a much longer and more involved process, one that isn’t nearly as fun or impressive as the final product. Behind that one spell, the mage probably has hundreds of hours of study, calculation, practice, and refinement.
It’s much easier to just be a thug with a gun.
After a suitable recovery period and a quick jaunt through the streets of El Dorado, Aiko opened the next portal. This one led from a small alley between a pair of enormous silvery towers to another small alley between a pair of glass-walled skyscrapers. I’d been here several times before, but usually late at night—the time difference between Colorado and Italy is a substantial one, and trying to align schedules between the two is difficult in the extreme.
It was late afternoon here, this time, and I was a little surprised at the difference. The streets, which I was accustomed to seeing empty, were thronging with crowds, most of whom looked like businesspersons—just getting off from work, most likely.
Aiko managed to flag down a cab anyway, largely by dint of being quite willing to elbow a woman in a three-thousand-dollar suit between the ribs with no hesitation. It probably helped that she was with Snowflake and I; we tend not to have many problems with crowding. That turned into a hindrance once she was trying to convince the taxi driver to let us inside his car, of course, but she managed to talk him around. The process seemed to involve a great deal of rapid speech in Italian, which I didn’t understand, and also a fair bit of cash.
Magic is great, but shameless bribery can take you at least as far.
“So,” Alexis said as we got out of the cab. “Not to cramp your style or anything, but what are we doing here?”
Projectile vomiting, probably, Snowflake said gloomily. I swear this place gets nastier every time we come here. I think I can actually smell him all the way out here.
I choked back laughter and answered Alexis’s question. “Aiko knows a guy here,” I said. “He works in the black market, does a lot of business as a knowledge broker.”
She blinked. “Seriously? You’ve got a friend in the black market?” She shook her head. “Wow. That’s…kind of cool, actually.”
I snorted and opened the door to the apartment building. “Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Jacques was something of a letdown.”
A few minutes later I was pounding on Jacques’s door, and trying not to preemptively gag in the expectation of him opening it. Shockingly, it took less than five mintues for him to get to the door; possibly he had actually been conscious this time, rather than in his more normal state of alcohol-induced stupor.
Jacques is not a pretty man. Actually, I’m pretty sure he’s not a man, per se, at all; I doubt he’s anything as simple as a human being. But he both looks and smells like one, in the worst way. An overweight, middle-aged man with jagged yellow toenails, bloodshot eyes, and filthy, matted black hair, he carried a stench of alcohol, sweat, and spoiled food that hung around him in an aura that could have stopped small-caliber bullets. His breath should have been licensed as a weapon, and probably banned by the Geneva conventions while they were at it.
He glared at us through the narrow opening of the door. “Cupcake,” he said sourly. Aiko had introduced herself to him with that pseudonym years ago, before I met her, and it was the only thing I’d ever heard him call her. It’s a matter of etiquette, I think; there’s no way he doesn’t know exactly who we are, but politeness forbids him from using real names. “Shrike,” he continued, which was the name I was stuck with around him. “And Spike. Lovely. Who’s the chick?”
“Cricket,” Aiko said impatiently. “Now hurry up, I’m not talking business out here.”
Jacques snorted and opened the door the rest of the way. “You’re no good at naming things, Cupcake,” he said, stepping out of the way.
“I’ll try to live with myself,” she said dryly, brushing past him without making physical contact. The rest of us followed her into a small, dimly lit living room. Jacques locked the door behind us.
“What do you want?” he asked, dropping heavily onto the couch. It both squealed and squelched, and as usual I resolved to never, ever touch it.
“Information,” I said. “As soon as possible.”
He yawned and grabbed a large bottle seemingly at random off the floor. “What kind?”
“Loki wants something,” I said, watching the information broker closely. “I want to know what.”
Jacques didn’t react. “Hell, Shrike,” he snorted. “Loki wants a shitload of things. You gotta be more specific than that.”
“It has to do with some kind of summoning. And he really wants it. If I didn’t know better I’d say he’s actually scared.”
Jacques looked confused for about three seconds. Then a flash of realization went over his face. “No,” he growled. “Screw you, Shrike, I ain’t touching that. Get out.”
“We’ll pay—” Aiko started.
“You lot aren’t worth it,” he said. “Nobody’s worth that. They’d eat me alive.” I opened my mouth, but he cut me off before I could figure out how to respond. “I said no,” he roared. “Now get the fuck out of here!”
Suddenly Jacques did not look amusing or pathetic at all. He was sitting upright now, one hand shoved down between the cushions of his couch. I thought about some of the weapons I’d bought from him, and how much damage they could do in an enclosed space. I thought further about the fact that we were currently on his turf, and a black marketeer could probably manage all kinds of defenses.
Aiko, Snowflake and I all tend to be reckless. We are not stupid. We left.
“That was exciting,” Alexis said once we were back out on the street.
“Yeah,” Aiko agreed. “I’ve never seen Jacques that upset before.”
Personally, I was rather concerned. I mean, I’d bought some fairly serious info from him in the past—nothing godly, sure, but there were still some awfully powerful groups involved. He’d never even flinched at that, never let his mask slip—but just the mention of this had taken him from zero to sixty pretty damn fast. There’d been steel in his voice when he told us to leave, and I had no doubt he would have resorted to force if we’d resisted. But there had been fear under that, real and genuine terror.
Jacques knew something. He knew what Loki wanted, all right, or thought he did, and it terrified him. It would take a lot of fear to override the man’s innate self-interest. Even if he hadn’t been willing to talk, I would have expected him to try and turn a profit somehow.
What could they have summoned that would make Loki nervous? What could be so bad that Jacques wouldn’t even discuss the topic, at any price?
What on earth had I gotten myself into?
Aiko opened another portal from Milan to Faerie—none of us thought it was a good idea to stay in Italy very long, not after Jacques had blown up like that. He had a lot more resources there than we did, and if he decided we were a threat that needed to be dealt with, there wasn’t a lot that any of us could do about it.
I didn’t really expect for him to do something like that—but, then, I hadn’t expected him to react the way he had to my question, either. He had no loyalty beyond self-interest, and while that usually made him fairly reliable, I couldn’t predict what he would do right now. This was just too big, and I knew too little about it. Smarter to put some distance between us and him, and give him a chance to cool down and remember what profitable customers we were.
From there it was a relatively simple matter for me to open another portal to Wyoming. It opened in a small clearing in the forest just outside the town of Wolf, where my sort-of foster father had been the Alpha for a century or two.
I hadn’t called Edward. Even if I felt like explaining the situation to him, which I very much didn’t, he wouldn’t have been much help. Edward doesn’t come to Colorado, ever. I don’t know all the details, but I gather that there’s a whole lot of bad blood between him and one of the Colorado Alphas. Whatever happened was a long time ago, close to two hundred years, but werewolves can hold a grudge for millennia. The solution they’d arrived at was to simply avoid each other. He stayed out of Colorado, the other Alpha stayed out of Wyoming, and on the rare occasions they both had to attend a meeting or something, everyone was real careful not to schedule them both in the same place at the same time.
Edward wouldn’t break his word. It just wasn’t the kind of guy he was. Even if he would have, I didn’t want him to. The last thing I needed was another powerful person out to get me.
Fortunately, Edward wasn’t the only werewolf I knew.
It was a fairly long walk to the only bar in town, a small place that had been open for at least a hundred years. I think the same werewolf might have been running it that whole time, too; things tend not to change much in Wolf. It was early in the day still, but the bar was also the only restaurant in town, and there were a handful of people there eating.
“Hey,” Kyra said. “I was starting to wonder if you guys were coming.”
“Travel took a little longer than I was hoping,” I said, staring at the person waiting with her. “What are you doing here?”
Anna Rossi smiled lazily. “Thought I’d come give you a hand,” she said. “What’s up?”
“It’s dangerous,” I said warningly.
Anna rolled her eyes. “So what, she gets to help but I have to stay here? Come on, Winter. If I wanted to be safe that much I wouldn’t be here.”
I wanted to tell her no, but it wouldn’t have been right. Anna was an adult; she could make her own decisions. Heck, it wasn’t like she didn’t already know firsthand that bad things might happen as a result of her helping me. If two missing toes, three broken fingers, and a whole bunch of scars hadn’t taught her that, she was beyond helping.
“All right,” I sighed. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Cool,” Kyra said, standing up straight. “So now that we’ve got that out of the way, what did you want us for, anyway? Last I heard you had plenty of thugs.”
“I do,” I agreed. “I’m actually hoping you might be willing to track someone for me.”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll need your help at all. But I figured I’d better ask early than late.”
“Hang on a second,” Alexis asked. “You’re talking about scent tracking someone, right?”
“Couldn’t Snowflake do that?”
I shrugged. “Sure. But Snowflake’s sense of smell isn’t as acute as a werewolf’s.”
Also I have too much dignity to walk around snuffling the ground, she pointed out. I snorted, and Kyra cracked a smile. Snowflake recently figured out a way to get werewolves to hear her—I have no idea how it works, but I think it has something to do with manipulating the pack connections that are built into a werewolf’s psyche. It’s a very different system from what I do, but it works for her.
“What about you?” Alexis, not being a werewolf, couldn’t hear what Snowflake said. She’s pretty used to missing out on a certain amount of the conversation, though, and it didn’t slow her down much.
“I could. But it’s like anything else. You have to practice to do it well, and I haven’t put in anywhere near as much time as Kyra has.”
“So who are you looking for, anyway?” Kyra asked, clearly impatient with the topic—for obvious reasons, she already knew all this.
I thought about Loki’s expression when he said that this was serious, and remembered Erica Reilly lying on the floor of her dorm without a skin. “Someone who isn’t very smart,” I said. “Are you ready to go? I want to get back before someone blows the city up or something.”
Kyra snorted and shouldered the plain black backpack that had been sitting on the sidewalk by her feet. It looked heavy. “We’ve met you, Winter. I’ve got enough kit here to fight a small war. Let’s go.”
A short while later we were back in Colorado. It took a little longer having Kyra and Anna along—they hadn’t done this as much as the rest of us, and the transitions were harder on them, so we had to wait a few minutes in between for them to recover. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, admittedly; they’d both been coming to visit fairly regularly, and they’d gotten used to the experience. It was still vastly superior to flying.
Moray called while we were in an alleyway not far from Val’s shop, waiting for Kyra to feel well enough to walk again. He told me that the files had been sent, but he didn’t know how much use they would be. The Watchers collect information obsessively, but they have their limits; for them to have specific details available this quickly would be a rare stroke of fortune. Moray also, more quietly, told me that this was being taken seriously—very seriously. He’d received personal orders from Watcher to expedite my request, and she’d also added files that weren’t in the official record.
That wasn’t a good sign. Watcher—the head of the Watchers, that is, whom I’d never heard referred to by any other name—had gotten involved in my business a couple of times in the past. It never ended well. She wasn’t the sort of person who bothered with small things.
The documents had been sent by special courier, and would be waiting at the small mansion which had once belonged to the pack, and was now, however reluctantly, mine. I seldom went there, except to hold court; I’ve never liked the place that much, and that hasn’t improved now that I own it. I’m not willing to tell people where I really live, though, so I always used it for my official address.
That wasn’t a surprise. Mail was too slow, and, predictably enough, the Watchers avoid electronic means of communication like the plague. It isn’t secure enough for their tastes. Encryption is a wonderful thing, but you can’t hack paper. I’d dealt with them a couple of times, and they always sent documents by courier. Their couriers were ridiculously fast, but they still had their limits. The files I wanted wouldn’t arrive for a while.
My next stop was Pryce’s. Pryce himself wouldn’t be much help; he hardly ever strung three words together, and even if I could convince him to he was adamantly neutral. Trying to get him to help me on something this important—and, more to the point, this probably-dangerous—was a laughable proposal.
On the other hand, pretty much everyone in the area who was involved with the supernatural passed through his doors at least occasionally. Pryce’s was where I went when I wanted to get a sense of how the community was feeling. It was also the best place to find my favorite local information dealer. Given that this was a local problem, Luna would probably have the most relevant information available.
It would have to wait, though. It was just now noon, and Pryce’s wouldn’t start filling up for a couple hours. I was also hoping to meet Katrin there, and, obviously, that couldn’t happen for a while. I don’t really know whether vampires burst into flame at the touch of sunlight—popular culture gets a lot of things wrong, and I haven’t seen what happens myself. But they definitely don’t like it much. I’ve never yet seen one out and about in the daytime.
That left us with a few hours to kill. We started by getting lunch at a small Mexican place Kyra was fond of. It was cheap and within walking distance of both Pryce’s and Val’s shop, and as a result we’d both eaten there quite a few times. It had been a long while since those concerns were of particular importance to either of us, but the food was still good.
They didn’t let Snowflake in the building, of course. Most buildings don’t, on account of her looking a bit like a fashion-conscious hellhound. She probably could have convinced them otherwise—intelligence at least on a par with most humans does wonders for your acting ability—but she doesn’t want to. She thinks that the benefits of being terrifying outweigh the costs.
It didn’t take us long to eat—it seldom does; werewolves tend to bear a strong resemblance to their natural cousins in that regard, and Aiko can put away three days’ allotment of sugar and caffeine in less than ten minutes. Alexis ate more slowly, but then she also just didn’t eat as much as the rest of us, so it balanced out.
Anyway, what I’m saying here is that it was still quite early in the day when we walked out into the sunlight. It was uncomfortably warm in my armor; Colorado has a reputation for being freezing cold, but that’s pretty much only in the winter, or in the mountains. It was currently July, and Colorado Springs is not by any reasonable definition in the mountains. Ergo, it was above ninety a lot of days.
“That was nice,” Kyra drawled lazily as Snowflake emerged from under a car across the street. She shouldn’t have been able to hide there—bright white fur is supposed to be a little more conspicuous than that—but none of us were surprised. She’s always been better at concealment than a husky has any right to be. “What now?”
I glanced at the sun. Still quite a long time ’til dark. “Go see if the Watchers’ guy dropped of those files,” I decided. It hadn’t been that long since I asked, but the Watchers tend, as a rule, not to let much grass grow under their feet. They don’t have the spare time for it.
I used to drive a Jeep. It was a nice car, very sturdy, and it served me well for a year or two. I’d bought it used, though, and I couldn’t deny that it had some issues. It couldn’t reach highway speeds, for one thing, and that’s a fairly serious problem in a getaway car. Between that and the fact that Aiko’s car had since gone by the wayside (I have no idea what actually happened to the thing; it just disappeared, and by the time I noticed it had already been gone for a few months. I’ve never asked her what she did with it, because I’m not sure I want to know), we’d invested part of Watcher’s blood money the previous winter in new wheels.
Said bribe was somewhere in the vicinity of fifty million dollars. As you might imagine, that meant we probably went a little over the top with the whole project. What good does a fortune do if you can’t squander it?
What I’m getting at here is that Aiko bought a Lamborghini. And yes, I mean that literally. It was expensive as hell, and then I spent a fair chunk more having most of the important bits reinforced with magic. I would have done it myself, but I’m really not skilled with that sort of thing.
Unfortunately, as some car aficionado is doubtless already saying, Lamborghinis only have two seats, which presented certain difficulties under the present circumstances. Even if we’d wanted to pack that many people into that much space, which we didn’t, it still wouldn’t have been an option. We left it parked outside the pack house. It blended into that neighborhood much better. It was still more expensive than some of the houses, but at least it wouldn’t buy most of the block.
Besides. Since that house was built it had been owned by, in order, a pack of werewolves, a pride of rakshasas, and a gaggle of whatever you called my band of freaks. At this point, I figured anyone dumb enough to steal a super-expensive car from out front was pretty much asking for it. The housecarls would probably run them down before they made it off the driveway.
Of course, that wasn’t the only vehicle we’d purchased. We were wasteful, not moronic. I’d purchased an armored truck from a bank (I’m pretty sure that sort of thing wasn’t allowed, but it’s amazing what people will overlook if you wave enough money in front of them). By the time I got finished upgrading it, it was probably sturdy enough to drive over a landmine without suffering any harm.
It was also almost as conspicuous as the Lamborghini, and probably a bit of overkill right now. It was fortunate, then, that we’d also purchased a nicely anonymous SUV, for cases in between. It looked vaguely Men in Blackish, jet black with darkly tinted windows. It was reinforced and armored, as well.
That impression was slightly spoiled by the large bumper sticker which read, in garish red letters: MAKE WAR, NOT LOVE. WE ALREADY HAVE A POPULATION PROBLEM. I hadn’t wanted to put it on there—it ruined any chance the vehicle had of blending—but Aiko had been insistent, and in the end it was just too damn funny for me to argue very much.
Kyra smiled when she saw the bumper sticker, probably because she was the one who’d given it to us.
Aiko wound up driving, probably because Alexis, Snowflake and I were the only ones who had any real experience with Aiko’s driving, and none of us were above a practical joke at the moment. I’m not particularly fond of driving—too many years of not owning a car, I suppose—and apparently Kyra and Anna weren’t in the mood.
I’m pretty sure I saw the exact moment when they started to regret that decision. Aiko was doing eighty down the Interstate at the time. She slid through a gap in traffic perhaps ten or fifteen inches larger than the car, flipped off the semi driver directly behind us, and hit the accelerator. Snowflake, who was currently hanging her head out the window, flashed a steely grin in his direction as we pulled away. Aiko laughed and started fiddling with the stereo, steering one-handed around another car.
The expressions on the werewolves’ faces were priceless. I saw Anna gulp and discreetly check her seatbelt.
Is this…Mongolian throat singing? Snowflake asked after a few moments. Crossed with gangster rap?
I listened for a few minutes. Pretty sure it is, yeah. Could be worse. At least she’s laid off the splittercore. Aiko’s taste in music was…bizarre doesn’t begin to describe it. Neither does erratic. She can quite literally go from Gregorian chant to Viking metal in the space of a song, and sing along with both.
We didn’t actually wreck on the way there, but more because Aiko has a literally superhuman reaction time and the luck of the devil than anything. She navigated the mess of twisting streets leading up to the house flawlessly (which, even after years of visiting the building, was still more than I could reliably do) and slammed to a stop less than two feet from the Lamborghini.
The werewolves exited the car in less than a second and a half. They didn’t say anything—both Kyra and Anna were smart enough to realize that Aiko would only be encouraged by a reaction—but their expressions were eloquent. I followed them at a more leisurely pace, grinning, and went inside.
Sveinn met us at the door. I don’t know how he knew that we were coming, but he opened the door before we reached it, his posture ramrod-straight. “Heill, herra,” he said, nodding almost deeply enough to count as a bow.
“Good afternoon, Sveinn,” I replied, moving past him into the building. “Has a file arrived from the Watchers?”
“Já,” he said. “I will bring it.” The jotun jogged upstairs.
“I can’t believe you still haven’t redecorated the place,” Kyra said, looking around dubiously. It was overcast enough that not much light came in the numerous and large windows, casting the throne room into shadow. It made the omnipresent wolf motif look creepier than usual.
“I don’t spend enough time here,” I said, shrugging. “Besides, I’ve always suspected that Skrýmir’s spying on me, and I don’t want to piss him off.”
Sveinn returned, carrying an unmarked folder, taped shut. “Thank you, Sveinn,” I said, taking it. He went back to watching the door. I opened the folder and pulled out a few sheets of paper. There was no letterhead, of course; if you didn’t know where this file came from and where it was bound, you had no business knowing.
The first sheet of paper was a form letter, entirely unsatisfying. The Watchers had no information regarding any unusual summoning activity in the area. It might have been a lie, of course, but I didn’t think so; I’d been useful to Watcher often enough that I didn’t think she’d antagonize me at this point without a reason.
The next paper was much more interesting. I was pretty sure it was one of those papers Moray had mentioned Watcher slipping into the file. It read like an internal memorandum, and I didn’t think anyone outside of the organization was even supposed to know that it existed. It read:
An unusual degree of activity has been observed in the central Colorado region, centered on the city of Colorado Springs. We have reason to believe that prohibited activities are taking place, including but not limited to summoning rituals, proscribed research, and noncompliance with official orders. Any unusual behavior related to this area, or expression of interest therein, is to be considered a subject for official inquiry, and all related information is to be relayed to your superiors.
Your compliance is appreciated.
Well, shit. The Watchers were scrambling to figure out what was going on, too. Hell, I probably knew more than they did right now. This was so not good news. I pulled the last sheet of paper out, dreading what it might say, and glanced it over. Then I blinked.
It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. It was worse.
Brick Anderson hadn’t been seen or heard from for close to a week. That didn’t surprise me too much—when he’d been threatened before, he’d retreated to his hideout in an abandoned mine tunnel. It was almost impossible to reach, and once you got there it was damned near impregnable. It wasn’t too strange that, in the face of what was clearly another very dangerous situation, he might hide there again.
But he hadn’t reported in to the Watchers, either. He hadn’t responded to their messages, or—when they started getting concerned—to emergency channels. A search of his known locations hadn’t turned up anything. All things considered, and keeping in mind that this had gone on for at least a week, it seemed safe to say that Brick had disappeared.
There were several possible explanations for that. It could be that he knew what was going on, and it was bad enough that he needed to take precautions this extensive to feel safe. Or it could be that whoever was responsible had, for whatever reason, removed him from the equation.
Or it could be that Brick himself was responsible.
Personally, I was hoping for that last one. Considering Brick’s combat skill, anything that could take him out without making a show of it was more than I could deal with. At least if this was all Brick’s fault, I had a reasonable starting place and a chance at dealing with him.
Plus I wouldn’t owe him a favor anymore. Bonus!
I passed the file to Aiko, who skimmed the papers and snorted. “Well, we’re a bit screwed, aren’t we?”
“Quite.” I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with this new information. I’d been prepared for the Watchers to have no useful information, but the implication that they were truly concerned by the situation was unsettling. On top of that, I didn’t really believe that Brick was the person we were looking for, which meant that I had to seriously consider the possibility that the culprit had the power, skill, and cunning to remove a combat-trained and paranoid mage without any kind of disturbance.
A moment later Sveinn, standing at the edge of the room, cleared his throat. “Jarl?”
“The rest of the petitions were rescheduled for tonight. Will that work, or…?”
“No, I don’t think I can spare the time. Not for at least a week.” He didn’t say anything for a moment, and I sighed. “What’s the problem?”
“One of the plaintiffs speaks for Katrin.”
I groaned. Katrin would help me in the end—Loki was liable to do something insane and destructive if I didn’t find this summoner for him, and nobody wanted that. Katrin had more invested in this city than I did. The problem was making her see that. I had to talk to her before I could make her realize how high the stakes were. If she thought I was insulting her by making her minion wait, she would put me through the runaround for days.
I’m not sorry that I don’t get along with Katrin. The only way we would get along is if I were to roll over for her, and I’m not willing to do that. But at times like this, I wished I hadn’t gotten into this pissing contest with her.
“All right,” I said. “Fine. I’ll be here tonight.” I resented the time lost, but enlisting Katrin’s resources would be worth it. The vampiress had clout, and minions. Her assistance, even if it was reluctant and limited, would be worth vastly more than another few hours of my time.
Sveinn bowed. “Já. I will tell them to come.” The housecarl left, probably to go do exactly that. Sveinn is nothing if not efficient.
“Right, then,” I said briskly. “Might as well go to Pryce’s now, then. Something tells me I won’t be hearing from Katrin tonight anyway.”
Aiko snorted. “What, just ’cause she’s a prickly, domineering bitch?”
“Now that you mention it, that might have something to do with it, yes.”
Around four hours later, the long summer twilight had reluctantly given way to night. We’d enjoyed an excellent and very large meal, and I got to watch Kyra walk into Pryce’s for the first time in quite a while. It was sort of funny; anyone who didn’t know would have sworn she hadn’t been gone a week. He hadn’t remodeled, of course, and there wasn’t much staff turnover either. Pryce himself didn’t say a word—no surprise there—but a few of his employees and several longtime customers stopped by to say hello.
The bad news was that that was all of the good news. I talked to everyone I knew and the handful of people I didn’t, and everywhere I heard the same thing. There was something going on, something big, but nobody quite knew what. Pryce’s bar had the same charged atmosphere you would expect to find in a warzone. People clumped up and spoke in harsh whispers. I noticed that there was a lot more hard liquor moving than normal. This surfeit was more than balanced by the general lack of cheer, and near-total absence of laughter.
People were scared. They might not know exactly what was happening, but this crowd hadn’t survived this long without developing a weather eye for this sort of thing. They knew that something was up, and that all sorts of people were paying attention to it. That alone was enough to frighten them.
I offered people money, in quantities which literally made me wince. I might have it to spare, but a pile of cash doesn’t make you rich. That’s an attitude, and my attitudes were still those of a guy who’d barely been able to afford food for most of his life. You don’t change that in a year or two. I offered them information in trade. I offered stored spells. I even offered favors, which I normally avoid like the plague.
It didn’t matter. The things I wanted to know simply weren’t available, at any price. Nobody knew. Luna was the best source, as usual, but that wasn’t saying much. She was the only person I talked to who’d heard the summoning angle, and she didn’t have anything concrete.
Long story short, after three hours of work, I’d gotten exactly no result. Rumor and innuendo, whispers and implications, all of these things I could have in bulk, but there wasn’t even a scrap of actual information.
Needless to say, this left me feeling rather frustrated.
“So,” Anna said brightly. “What are we doing here again?”
I glowered at her. “Don’t look at me. I suggested that you stay in a hotel or something until I came up with something you could do.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but my cell phone cut her off before she could. I pulled it out and answered it, because seriously, what else was I going to do under the circumstances?
“Jarl?” Sveinn sounded…a little scared, actually, which couldn’t possibly be good news.
“You said to call if we heard anything unusual? Well, we heard it.”
I perked up instantly. “What’s up?”
“I don’t know. But it sounds like something you need to see for yourself.” He rattled off an address and hung up.
“Sounds like a clue.” Anna sounded, gods help us all, excited.
“Yes,” I said thoughtfully. “Yes, it does. I think we’d better go check it out.”
“Fine.” Kyra sounded distinctly less enthused. “But I’m driving this time.”
I was chuckling as we walked out into the night.