“It’s a Wal-Mart,” Kyra said. She was driving, because allowing either Aiko or me behind the wheel right now would be enough to net you a Darwin Award.
“Yeah, that’s right.” I couldn’t see—Aiko and I were in the cargo area of the SUV, because that was the most comfortable way to make everyone fit—but I’d given Kyra very precise directions.
“What are we doing at a Wal-Mart?” she wondered, parking the car.
“Watch and learn,” I said smugly. I love it when I get to keep people in the dark about inconsequential plans. “Oh, and pull around back. I don’t feel like walking.”
Five minutes later, I was standing in front of the employee entrance while the others made sure no one was looking.
“I don’t get it,” Alexis said. “Why are we breaking into a Wal-Mart?”
“You’re remarkably squeamish about breaking rules,” I said, closing the door behind us. It had been locked, but that never really slowed me down much. “Besides, nobody pays attention to those ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ signs anyway.”
“I don’t mind breaking rules, I’d just rather there were a reason for it,” she said tartly.
I chuckled. “Yeah, well, there is one,” I said, leading the way down the maintenance hallway. It was pretty much the same as maintenance hallways everywhere—grey, soulless, and just wide enough to allow a pallet through. We walked down it a short ways and then stopped in front of a janitorial closet. I fiddled the lock open (using magic; I didn’t feel like trying to work picks with my maimed hand at the moment) and then pulled it open with a flourish.
Most janitorial closets, regardless of where you happen to be, have similar contents. Bottles of various cleaners, for example, are a constant. Brooms, mops, buckets, trash cans, all of these are things you would expect to see there.
You would most likely not expect to see a sizable safe.
Everyone (with the exception of Aiko and Snowflake, who’d already known about this) stared at the safe with expressions ranging from dumbfounded to mildly disgusted. “Why do you have a stash here?” Kyra asked, sounding vaguely offended.
“Would you have thought to look for it here?” I asked.
She thought about it for a second. “Good point. How’d you get it in here?”
“Bribed the head of maintenance. Wal-Mart really doesn’t pay their employees enough.”
Anna looked almost unnervingly interested. “Don’t you worry that he’ll steal from you?”
“Not really. It’s pretty much impossible to break into this thing.”
The werewolf looked confused. “He’s got plenty of time to look at it. I don’t know much about safecracking, but I’m pretty sure if you give someone long enough they can figure out the combination.”
“Ha!” I said triumphantly to Aiko. “You see? I told you it would work!”
The kitsune rolled her eyes. “Yes, you’re very clever.”
“I don’t get it,” Anna said, clearly not sure what I was talking about.
“You remember I used to do some work as a locksmith, right?” I said, walking into the closet. Anna nodded. “Well, I made some modifications to this safe. There is no combination. The dial’s just for show; it doesn’t even connect to the locking mechanism.”
“So how do you open it?”
I grinned. “Magic.” The lock was controlled by a simple lever from the inside, easy for even the modest force I could generate with air magic to move. I made a slight effort, and the door clicked open.
Inside was a veritable plethora of odds and ends. I had two full changes of clothes, suitable for every weather from December to July, including shoes. Also present were a sizable medical kit, a pistol with ammunition, a couple of knives, a few stored spells, a coil of rope, a gallon of water, and enough rations to last one person a few days. The small bag hanging from the wall of the safe contained a couple thousand dollars in four currencies, several pieces of jewelry worth at least as much, and various hygiene essentials.
“Nice stash,” Kyra said, staring at it. I think it was a little more than she was expecting.
“Thanks,” I said. “I have quite a few of them set up.”
“Wow,” Anna said. “That seems a little paranoid.”
Kyra broke out laughing. “No shit.” She paused. “You haven’t actually worked with Winter before, have you?”
“No. Is this normal?”
“This is actually pretty tame by Winter’s standards,” Aiko chipped in. “This one time we were doing wetwork for the Watchers. He had three different people tailing the guy working with us, at the same time. That’s a pretty funny story, actually.”
I tuned them out and got dressed. It was a little awkward, and I still felt rather vulnerable without my armor, but at least I wouldn’t be arrested for public indecency. Then I heaved the medical kit out and dropped it on the floor with a thunk. It was about as big as a midsize toolbox, and weighed more than ten pounds. “Would one of you mind giving me a hand with some bandages?” I asked, interrupting Aiko’s story.
There was a moment of silence. Then Alexis rolled her eyes and walked over. “Why am I the one doing this?” she wondered out loud.
“You’re probably the only one with any kind of medical training,” I said, opening the kit. “Most werewolves don’t bother, and Aiko’s…well, Aiko.”
My cousin didn’t really have all that much first aid training, and most of that was of the “battlefield medicine” variety. The result was not very pretty, consisting of a bunch of gauze wrapped around my arm and then fastened with duct tape. I was mostly just looking for something to make sure I didn’t start bleeding all over the place, though, and aesthetically it was still a better pick than exposed bone. That’s really only a valid fashion choice on Halloween.
I threw my cloak over the top of it, covering the bandages. My bandaged hand was still visible, but there wasn’t much I could do about that, and it wasn’t nearly as distinctive as having bandages from the elbow down. Then I grabbed the money and a couple of the stored spells, put everything else back into the safe, and closed it again. As this little escapade had proven, it was worth having.
“Where next?” Kyra asked as we made our way back out through the maintenance hallway, locking it behind us. Nobody’d seen us, fortunately; I hadn’t thought far enough ahead to have an excuse ready.
“I need to crash for a while,” Aiko said. “Sorry and everything, but I’m not going to be standing much longer.”
“The safe house is probably the best place,” I said. “Actually, you should probably all go. I’ll meet you there after I check up on a few things.”
As predicted, this proclamation was followed by righteous indignation from pretty much everyone. “Look,” I sighed after listening to it for a few moments. “I’m not getting in any fights. None of us is in condition for that right now. This is purely an information-gathering run. You go ahead to the safe house, and I’ll be there within a few hours.”
“And if you’re not?” Kyra said dryly.
I snorted. “It probably means I’m dead, in which case you should take everyone you’re fond of and hide out on another continent.”
“At least take the dog with you,” Aiko said. She looked even worse than when she’d woken up, and I didn’t think she had more than ten minutes left in her before she was going to collapse.
“Not even I,” I said dryly, “seriously thought I could convince her to stay away.”
Stop one was the housecarls. I’d had all of the people I was badgering reporting in to them; hopefully, by now someone had come up with something. At this point, even an obscure clue would be a godsend.
I could have just called Sveinn. It would have been a lot more efficient than actually driving down there.
That would have meant standing still, though. I had no idea what kind of resources the person behind all this crap had access to, but I didn’t think it was a coincidence that they’d waited until we were home to sic their monster on us. They clearly weren’t omniscient, and the entity itself hadn’t moved terribly quickly. As long as we were a moving target, I thought we had a pretty decent chance of staying ahead of it.
For much the same reason, I took a roundabout way down to the southern end of the city, moving as quickly as the armored truck could manage. Snowflake and I were both hyper-alert, staring frantically in every direction at once, but we didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Traffic was fairly heavy, as would be expected from the time of day, even on side roads. It was almost sunset, meaning that we had caught the very end of the after-work rush.
I didn’t notice anyone tailing me, but that wasn’t saying all that much. A modified Brinks truck is many things, but subtle isn’t one of them. Any number of people could have been following me from enough of a distance that I wouldn’t have noticed them.
When I pulled up, there were already vehicles parked outside of the house—other than our Lamborghini, I mean. That wasn’t normal.
One of them was almost a perfect match for the SUV that Aiko and the rest had taken to the safe house. Black, with tinted windows, it was quite anonymous. I was pretty sure it was armored, but there was no real way to tell.
The other vehicle was about as far from anonymous as they come. A sleek motorcycle of Japanese design, it looked like it could break speed limits with impunity, because the cops wouldn’t be able to catch it. It was painted a vivid raspberry, with polished chrome fittings. I wasn’t competent to guess how much a bike like that would cost, but I had an uncomfortable feeling that, until recently, it would have been more than I was worth.
I had no idea who had driven either of those vehicles down here, or what they wanted.
I considered just driving away, but eventually decided it wasn’t worth it. Whatever shit was brewing here, I probably couldn’t avoid it forever. Better that I get some idea what was going on.
That decision made, we got out of the truck. I drew up what little dignity I currently had and marched to the door, Snowflake padding along at my side.
The tableau on the other sides was…well, not what I was expecting. To say the least.
To the right, my housecarls were arrayed in what wasn’t quite a battle formation. Sveinn was in front, as I would have expected, flanked by Haki on one side and Kjaran on the other. Behind their sheer bulk, it was easy to miss Vigdis and Kyi standing behind them. Even Tindr was there, which was unusual; he’s about as much use in a fight as a housecat, and doesn’t tend to get involved in tense situations.
To my left was quite possibly the last person I would have expected to see. Short and slight, with features that showed a very clear Asian ancestry, she looked about as threatening as a rabbit next to the housecarls. That appearance was deceptive; I’d seen her fight, and while she wasn’t a match for me she was still pretty damn good. Matsuda Kimiko was about my age, making her barely more than a child by kitsune standards, but she had a massive inferiority complex and her way of making up for it involved a great deal of violence.
And, last but most definitely not least, were two men standing directly in front of me. They looked vaguely like the stereotypical image of an FBI agent. Both of them were wearing sober suits and sunglasses, which was just ridiculous at this time of day. One of them had brown hair while the other was blonde, both cut short enough to be hard to grab in a fight, but other than that they could have been twins.
That wasn’t a big deal. The Men in Black look, although not very pleasant aesthetically, was pretty standard for minions, and I wouldn’t have been concerned to see it here, either. No, what concerned me was that both of them reeked of human magic.
I paused for a second when I saw all these people, none of whom I’d been expecting. Then I shrugged and shut the door. “Good evening,” I said to no one in particular.
The mages turned to face me, their motions almost perfectly synchronized. “Good evening,” Blondie said. “Are you Jarl Wolf?” His voice was brisk, clipped, and impersonal, with no accent that I could detect.
I grinned, causing both men to flinch slightly. I don’t really have a friendly smile, and I expect that one was more psychotic than most. “Yes,” I said. “And you might be?”
“My name is Hunter Ivanov,” he said with a badly faked smile. “This is my partner, Klaus Neumann. We’re here on behalf of the Guards, hoping that you might be able to answer a few questions for us.”
Oh shit. “I presume you have some identification?” I stalled.
“Of course,” he said smoothly. Both of them, with that same creepy synchronization, produced a small badge. Made of some reddish metal, they were shaped like starbursts, with a pair of crossed spears inset in gold. Both badges smelled of magic, sharp and biting.
This was so not good. “I see,” I said. “I will be happy to assist you, gentlemen. If you could give me a few minutes to conduct other business?”
“Certainly,” Ivanov said. I was getting the distinct impression that Neumann preferred to say as little as he could get away with.
“Thank you,” I said, stepping past them. “What can I do for you?” I said to Kimiko.
“Birdbrain says hello,” she said. “And he’s still looking.”
I stared. “Kikuchi sent you as his representative?”
I shook my head. Aiko was going to be pissed. And probably also laugh her head off. “Could you convey a message to him for me?” I asked.
She shrugged. “Sure.”
“Thanks,” I said, pulling a sheet of paper and a pen out of my cloak. Bracing the paper against the wall, I wrote a short note and handed it to her. Kimiko nodded and left, slipping between the two Guards as though they were utterly beneath her notice.
I had to admire the kitsune’s poker face. Watching her, you would hardly have realized she could read the note over my shoulder as I wrote it, much less guess what it said. “Wonderful,” I said, turning to Sveinn. “Do you have something to report?”
“Já,” he said, producing a manila folder from…somewhere.
I took it and flipped it open, somewhat awkwardly. I’m used to having two functioning hands, and it’s surprisingly difficult to do pretty much anything with just one. I skimmed the first couple of pages, nodded, and tucked it into my cloak.
“Thank you for your patience,” I said, returning my attention to the two Guards. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”
“We understand that there have been some prohibited activities taking place in this area,” Ivanov said carefully.
“Prohibited activities,” I repeated, biting back a hysterical giggle. Yeah, that was one way to phrase it. “What, specifically, if I might ask?”
“We believe that a dangerous entity has been summoned, possibly repeatedly.”
“Pardon me,” I said, still smiling. “But isn’t the investigation of affairs such as this the responsibility of the Watchers?”
“Typically, it would be,” Ivanov countered, smiling right back at me. “However, interaction with other political bodies falls to us. As this activity has been taking place on territory you claim, that makes it our affair.”
I frowned. “I see.” I had a lot more credit built up with the Watchers; this was the first time I’d ever knowingly encountered a Guard. “Well, then. You’re certainly free to investigate this matter, although I would appreciate it if you would keep me appraised of your findings.”
Both of the Guards were smiling now. They reminded me a little of the expressions you see when you get rival werewolves in the same room—all teeth, no humor. “Why, certainly, jarl,” Ivanov said with obviously false cheer. “In that case, we would be remiss not to inform you that we’ve noticed a peculiar trend among these incidents.”
I was starting to get a really bad feeling about this. “And what might that be?”
“An oddly large number of them seem to involve your political rivals,” Ivanov continued cheerily. “At first we thought it was impossible that such a fine citizen as yourself could be involved in something like this, but the numbers became so telling that we simply had to look. And, well, just imagine how we felt when we discovered that you actually have a known history of associating with demons, and fraternizing with known transgressors of the law!” He shook his head sadly. “Truly, Klaus, it’s just painful to discover such unsavory history in a prominent citizen, isn’t it?” Klaus nodded solemnly.
“Well,” I stalled, hoping that I could come up with a solution. “I can see why you would want to talk to me, then.”
Ivanov’s smile was becoming more openly predatory now. “Do you, jarl? Perhaps you could tell us, then, why as soon as we decided to do so, you seem to have vanished? Indeed, for the past several days nobody seems to have seen you anywhere?” He leaned closer and lowered his voice, as though he were letting me in on a secret. “It’s almost,” he said softly, “like you’ve just been so busy you couldn’t even take the time to attend to your normal business.”
This was ridiculous. Here in about five minutes I was going to have two combat-trained mages trying to remove my liver, and there was no conceivable way I could win. I might be able to beat them—there were half a dozen violent jötnar in close range and itching to spill some blood on my behalf—but I couldn’t do so without using lethal force, and that was a death sentence in the long run. If I killed two Guards who were already clearly suspicious of me, it wouldn’t be long before the entire Conclave was after me. At that point, the only real question was how creative they would get before I died.
And then I noticed something wonderful. It’s strange how much things can change in a short time. Just a few seconds earlier, if I’d seen the walls start to warp and felt a fierce, itching pain in my mutilated hand, I would have thought it was horribly bad news. Now, it felt like the best timed coincidence I’d had in years.
“Look,” I said to the Guards. “We don’t have much time, so shut up and pay attention. I’m not responsible for this mess. I’ve been trying to find the person who is, without much luck. They know it, and they aren’t happy about it. Their last shot at me took me out of action for a few days, which is why I haven’t been around. Here in about a minute they’re going to try again. All of us together can’t even slow this thing down, believe me, and it won’t care who you are.” As I spoke, I made several complicated gestures with my functioning hand.
Sveinn gestured acknowledgment, a simple movement of a couple fingers. A moment later, Kyi slipped away from the group. I doubt the Guards noticed; Kyi is silent when she wants to be, and she has a real talent for fading into the background.
“You realize how pathetic that attempt was, right?” Ivanov said contemptuously.
“Frankly, I don’t give a damn. At the moment, all I care about is not letting that thing peel any more of my skin off. I recommend you guys start running now.” Snowflake and I turned and made for the door, not slowly.
I’d made it less than three steps when there was a loud, hollow thump from the center of the room. My left arm burst into fierce, tingling pain, and the room suddenly felt like a meat freezer.
Time to go.
I went from a hurried walk to a staggering sprint, Snowflake just in front of me. I didn’t bother shutting the door behind us, and I heard shouting and heavy footfalls from behind us, before they were cut off by a loud crashing sound. Theoretically the housecarls would be scattering into the night by now. They’d been forewarned, and they were all fast enough that the monster probably wouldn’t be able to catch any of them.
I couldn’t really afford to worry about any of that right now. I was pretty sure it was after me.
I’d been planning on leaving in the same truck I drove in with; the ridiculously excessive protection would have felt pretty damn good right about now. Unfortunately, its many good qualities don’t exactly include speed, and the acceleration is piss-poor.
That’s why I’d told Kyi to start the Lamborghini instead.
Snowflake and I scrambled over each other to get in, frantic with terror. The end result found me sitting in the driver’s seat with a husky sprawled across my lap, half-curled trying to fit herself into the car without taking the time to crawl any further in. Undignified, to say the least, but at the moment I absolutely did not give a shit. I slammed the door and stomped on the accelerator—which, given that this was a Lamborghini, was anything but poor. Less than five seconds after the monster appeared, we were burning rubber out the driveway.
Maybe two seconds after that, there was a thump and the weight of the car shifted to the rear somewhat. I glanced back, expecting the worst, only to see Klaus Neumann clinging to the rear bumper. Astonishingly, he was doing so with only one hand; his other arm was busy clutching Hunter Ivanov, who was staring back the way we’d come.
Wow, Snowflake said. We’re already doing forty. How the hell’d they catch us? She paused. For that matter, how the hell is he holding on?
Beats me, I said, most of my attention focused on driving. I’m not a bad driver, but I’m also not usually navigating twisty roads one-handed at maximum speed, so I figured I should probably take it seriously. Open the passenger door for them.
Are you kidding? These guys were like two seconds from trying to kill you back there. I say dump ’em; the thing’ll be doing us a favor to kill ’em.
Snowflake, I sighed. Come on. Please?
Fine, she sniffed. But only ’cause you said please. She started crawling across the seats, muttering vile imprecations in German as she went. German is a good language for imprecating; it has a lot of options.
Apparently Neumann had had the same idea I had, because as I watched he started pulling himself along the side of the vehicle. Considering that we were doing over fifty miles an hour by this point, there wasn’t much in the way of handholds on the side of the car, and he still had a fairly large man clinging to his back, this was pretty damn impressive.
He reached the passenger door about the same time Snowflake managed to get it open—car door handles aren’t really all that compatible with teeth. She barely managed to squirm out of the way as the two Guards tumbled in. Ivanov reached out and caught the door a moment later, pulling it shut. That cut the drag down pretty noticeably, which was good since I was almost to a main road where I would have to worry about traffic.
“Christ,” Ivanov muttered, shifting around to try and fit with Neumann in the passenger seat. Neither of them was all that large, but it really wasn’t meant to seat two. He crossed himself, glancing nervously over his shoulder. “What was that thing?”
Snowflake, who had just about wormed her way back onto my lap by this point, snorted. He isn’t the quickest on the uptake, is he?
“Exactly what I told you it was,” I said, ignoring her. Surprisingly, neither of the Guards reacted to her statement. Not that most people would—the vast majority of people can’t hear Snowflake even if she tries to be heard—but I’d sort of come to expect clan mages to have weird abilities that I didn’t understand.
Then again, one of them had just run fast enough to catch a sports car and shown off strength that was easily on par with a werewolf, despite being pure vanilla human. So maybe Guards just didn’t cross-train in the espionage department.
“Why is it after you?”
I started to answer, then almost lost control going around a corner. I got the car back under control more by luck than skill and snorted. “It sure isn’t trying to deliver the mail,” I said.
“Maybe a letter bomb,” Ivanov agreed. “Are you sure it’s safe to drive at this speed?”
“Do you really want me to slow down?” Before he could respond, I eased off the gas a little. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m pretty sure we’re far enough already, as long as we don’t stop.”
“Good,” the Guard said fervently. “I’ve seen a lot of shit in this work, but that thing’s a new record.”
“Agreed.” We’d made it out of the maze of back roads surrounding the house, fortunately. Rush hour was almost over, and we could probably make good time on the way back north. At this point I figured the first priority was to get back to the others.
We were all quiet for a few moments. I was focused on not crashing into something at high speed—I mean, seriously, talk about an embarrassing way to die. Presumably everyone else was coming to grips with their recent brush with mortality. Excepting Neumann, who would probably have the same attitude of grim silence at a child’s birthday party.
“You realize,” Ivanov said after a few minutes, “that you’re still the prime suspect for summoning that thing.”
“Tell you what. You wait until we’re somewhere relatively safe, and I will be glad to discuss it with you.”
Ivanov opened his mouth to retort, probably with some heat. Then he paused and sighed. “Fair enough. You have somewhere in mind?”
I grinned. “Yeah, as it happens I do.”