I walked in the front door of the safe house to find Kyra deeply engrossed in a passionate kiss with Kimiko. They both jumped when I shut the door, and turned to face the noise. Aiko, who seemed to be playing backgammon against Anna, chortled. The kitsune looked a great deal better, thankfully.
“Hi,” I said. “Is there something I should know?”
“Not really,” Kimiko said. “I only set this up to see the look on your face when you opened the door. Which was priceless, by the way.”
I sighed. Of course. “The only surprising thing about that,” I said, “is that you managed to convince Kyra to go along with it.”
“She was actually fairly open to the idea. Although she did talk me out of putting a bucket of paint over the door.”
“You know,” I commented to no one in particular, moving further into the room, “I think I’ve figured something out.” I sat down on one of the half-dozen or so camp chairs scattered around. It wasn’t terribly comfortable, but I was pretty freaking tired and at the moment the idea of sitting down was pleasant enough that I didn’t care all that much what it was on.
“What’s that?” Alexis asked idly. My cousin was in another chair, reading a book about gardening, of all things.
“I’ve learned why there’s usually only one kitsune in any given story. More than that and they incite even incarnations of the Buddha to homicidal rage, so the story never gets out.”
“Cute,” Kimiko said in the tone of voice normally reserved for slugs at least five inches in length. “Why did you ask me to meet you here?”
“I didn’t want to talk in front of Tweedledee and Tweedledum here,” I replied. “Which, for various reasons, is no longer a concern.”
“Are you actively trying to alienate any possible allies?” Ivanov wondered out loud.
Aiko snorted and rolled the dice. “This is nothing,” she said, moving one checker lazily forward to capture a blot. “If he were trying, there would be more bodies, and also something would probably be on fire.”
“Thank you for the vote of confidence,” I sighed. “Is there any chance we could get this conversation on topic?”
“Please,” Alexis said. “Did you have one in mind?”
“Well, there’s always this file I had Sveinn collect on what these freaks have been up to,” I offered, pulling it out of my pocket.
“Any actual information?” Aiko asked, leaving one of her pieces open and smirking at Anna. It was an obvious taunt; even if she managed to capture it, it would be an extremely poor move, tactically. The kitsune had a decisive advantage, and she was pretty clearly going to win unless there was a dramatic shift in fortunes. That wasn’t likely, since she was playing with the magical equivalent of loaded dice. Literally; I bought them as a novelty.
“They’ve just been busy little bees,” I said, glancing over the list Sveinn had compiled. It wasn’t complete—it’s really hard to get much clear information soon after something like this—but it was reasonably thorough, and he’d made notes of which data were from reasonably reliable sources. “Looks like ten targets got hit in the last three days. Eleven if you count the pack house, which, by the way, just got blown up. Again.”
“You blew my house up again?” Kyra said. “Christ, Winter, do you think you could lay off the property damage for a couple years? I liked that house.”
Ivanov cleared his throat. “Ah. Um. They’re only behind ten of those, actually. The seventh one on that list was me.” Everyone in the room turned to stare at him. “What?” he said defensively. “The suspect was uncooperative. Things got out of hand, okay?”
The problem, Snowflake said meditatively a moment later, isn’t so much that we live in a Three Stooges episode. It’s that they couldn’t decide on casting, so everyone we meet is Curly.
Too true, I sighed. “That leaves nine attacks,” I said. “Looks like they’ve got an agenda.” I wasn’t a very good investigator, but I’m not a total moron. When one of the victims was a vampire, and three others were businesses which I knew for a fact Katrin had a stake in, it didn’t take a genius to draw some lines.
A moment later there was a series of sharp, brisk knocks on the door. I tossed the folder on the cot next to me and went to answer it.
The woman standing on the other side was tall and pale, with long ash-blond hair. Other than that she was fairly plain, an impression which was reinforced by the plain black T-shirt and jeans. “Good evening, Wolf,” she said pleasantly. “May I come in?”
I hesitated, then shrugged. “Sure.” I wasn’t totally comfortable with inviting Katrin into my safe house, but at the moment she was a pretty small concern to me.
“Thank you,” she said sweetly, stepping across the threshold after me.
I heard a movement behind me and started to turn.
The next thing I knew, I was pressed against the far wall. My feet were six inches off the ground, and I was supported only by her hand on my neck.
“Who the devil do you think you are?” Katrin hissed at me from a couple inches away. “You think you can order me around? You think you can mock me?”
“Can’t…breathe….” I wheezed, scrabbling ineffectually at her hand. It didn’t accomplish much; I only had one good hand, and she had a grip like a vise. Behind her I saw that pretty much everybody had managed to get over their shock, and were currently going for weapons.
“Don’t bother,” Katrin called, clearly not speaking to me. “I can snap his neck before you even twitch.” She tossed me to the ground—I landed on my bad arm, of course—and stalked a few paces away. She snatched the folder off the cot and brandished it at me. “Explain,” she spat, flicking it at me.
I managed to catch it before it hit me in the face. “Ow,” I complained. “Jump to conclusions much?”
“You’ve made it damned clear how you feel,” she said, pacing back and forth. “I don’t consider it much of a leap.” Everyone else in the room was huddled in their respective seats, cowering away from the vampire’s wrath. I didn’t blame them; I would have liked to do something similar. I’d never seen Katrin quite this animated. Now that I did, it wasn’t hard to see why the vampires of the city all obeyed her. In that moment, she could have cowed almost anyone with her sheer presence.
But I wasn’t just anyone. I’d stood up to the Khan, who dominated entire continents with nothing but force of personality. I’d mocked freaking Loki to his face, knowing all the while that if he chose he could skin me alive in a heartbeat. And I’d be damned if I bowed to a jumped-up leech just because she waltzed in and strutted around a bit.
Attitudes like that do a lot to explain why werewolves don’t actually rule the world.
“I’m glad to know you think so highly of me,” I said sarcastically. “Seriously, Katrin. Even if I was stupid enough to rock the boat like that, why on earth would I ask you to come here for a chat if I were responsible?”
She hesitated. “There is that, yes,” she admitted. “But you’ve done some fairly random things in the past.”
“Oh, that’s just….” I shook my head and pushed myself to my feet. “Look, Katrin. Do I like you? No, of course not, that’s never been a secret. But I’m not going to deny that you do a lot for stability in this town. I’ve never once actually worked against you, because I can recognize that you’re preferable to the alternative.”
The vampire hesitated. “You’re bleeding,” she said eventually, rather than respond directly.
“Looks like my wound reopened when you threw me on it. Thanks for that, by the way, my day wasn’t quite shitty enough already.”
“Fine,” she sighed. “Let’s assume I believe you. What did you want to talk about?”
“From your reaction, I’m guessing you’ve figured out that the person responsible for the recent disruptions are targeting you specifically.”
She snorted. “No shit. Get to the point.”
“From what I’ve managed to figure out, I’m pretty sure this is a local event,” I said. “There’s no way they could control this at any kind of distance. That rules out a lot of suspects, right there.”
“I’d already figured that out,” Katrin said, pacing back and forth.
“I’m getting there,” I said, annoyed. Dealing with Katrin was always just such a pain in the ass. “I don’t think it’s particularly likely that this is the work of a newcomer on the scene. The targets they’ve chosen suggest a fairly intimate knowledge of local events. It’s possible that this is a coup, but if so it’s been in the works for a long time.”
“So who would it be?” I asked rhetorically. “There aren’t all that many possibilities. It’s safe to assume it wasn’t you, I think—you’ve been hurt a little more than I see you doing just to throw people off the trail. Even if you were willing to go that far, this kind of wanton destruction just isn’t your style. The same thing goes for Kikuchi—if he wanted to take you out for some reason, he wouldn’t summon a monster to take out your lackeys. He’d go after you personally.”
“You’ve cast yourself as the lead suspect again,” Katrin said dryly. “If you have an actual point to make, I recommend you get there soon.”
“Except it doesn’t work for me, either,” I pointed out. “Think about it. Even if you assume I had motive, I just don’t have the ability to summon and control something like this. Not to mention that, oh yeah, I lost most of my hand the last time it attacked me, and I promise you that’s not something I would do for the sake of selling a lie. Not to mention that it isn’t really my style either. Can you honestly say that this seems like something I would do?”
The vampire frowned. “That’s a fair point,” she allowed a moment later. “You typically do your own dirty work.”
“Thank you. So if we’ve ruled out the three major groups, that means it must have been a minor player. I didn’t really have any ideas beyond that, until I saw this.” I set the file down on the cot and flipped it open to the list of attacks. I pointed at two of them.
Katrin looked at my choices and frowned. “I don’t get it,” she said. Behind her, I noticed that both of the Guards were watching with similar interest, although neither of them said anything.
I tapped the first entry on the list. “This was an apartment building near the middle of town,” I said. “As far as I can tell it was the first location they hit, most of a week ago. I’ve had people looking into this for a while, and apparently the only noteworthy thing about the place was a resident on the second floor. Guy was a fairly serious drug dealer.”
“And the other?”
“Condos. Still under construction, but they were expected to be quite profitable. Trace it far enough back, and the financial backing was coming from a major organized crime figure.” I smiled at Katrin. “So you tell me. What local groups have a reasonable amount of power, are completely reckless and irresponsible with how they use it, and hate both vampires and criminals?”
“Oh, shit,” Aiko said suddenly. “You think it’s the Inquisition?”
“Well, it’s a pretty damn unlikely coincidence otherwise, don’t you think?”
“Who are you talking about?” Katrin said, clearly losing what little patience she still had for me.
“Group of low-key mages,” I said, massaging my neck gently. Damn, she had a strong grip. “There’s, oh, maybe half a dozen of them still around. They get up to a fair amount of vigilante activity, and particularly dislike entities they think of as ‘monsters.'”
“I’m familiar with the group. Is that what they call themselves?”
“They never actually settled on a name. We call them that for convenience.”
The vampire smiled, the sort of expression most commonly seen on indulgent felines in the presence of small mammals. “Cute. Do you have any reason beyond a hunch for me to believe you?”
“That’s less than compelling,” she said dryly.
“I have a lot of it,” I muttered. “Okay. Number one: the Watcher who was undercover in the group went silent shortly before this mess started. The timing is a little much for coincidence. Number two: they’ve been frustrated for some time that I haven’t been more proactive about dealing with threats, particularly you.” I nodded at Katrin.
“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “I have as much invested in this city as anyone. There are few people less likely to present a threat to it.”
“You know that. I know that. They’ve never been able to wrap their tiny little brains around the concept, somehow.” I shrugged. “Anyways, that’s beside the point. What I’m saying is that they’ve been getting steadily more upset for the past several months. Number three: at least one of them has at least as much of a vendetta against organized crime. He’s a police officer, in fact, and he takes it seriously.”
Kimiko cleared her throat. “Ex-police, actually. Adams quit a couple of weeks ago. No explanation given.” She noticed that everyone was staring, and shrugged. “You’re not the only one who can make reasonable connections. We’ve been looking into them for a couple days.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Actually, that’s even more damning. At this point, the number of temporal coincidences is a little more than just suspicious. Think about it. They’ve been getting more and more upset recently. Then, suddenly, one of them quits his job—and he kept it quiet, too, or I’d have heard it before now. A few weeks later, a mysterious demonic entity shows up and starts killing people. And everyone it hits just happens to be one of the people they really hate.”
“Our intelligence doesn’t indicate that this group has the power to summon something like that thing,” Ivanov said. He was starting to sound intrigued, now, rather than accusatory. “This is a major piece of work. They’re bit players.”
“There are plenty of ways to get around that,” I said. “I can think of a dozen entities that could have provided them with the power. There are rituals, blood magic, demonic possession….” I shook my head. “I’m sure everyone here can think of ways to deal with that problem. It’s not unreasonable to think that they might too.”
“You’d have to be a fool to take any of those options,” Ivanov said flatly.
“Exactly,” I said excitedly. “See, that’s just it. Everything about these attacks indicates that the person responsible is an idiot. The attacks are haphazard and poorly planned. They sent a monster with functionally limitless destructive power to kill us, and we got away with nothing more impressive than a fast car. If they had any kind of tactical skill, we’d all be dead by now. The timing’s been cramped, like they have a list of jobs and they’re rushing to get through it as fast as they can. They clearly have definite targets, but in every case there’s been extensive collateral damage. This has all the marks of a reckless, careless person with no subtlety or long-term strategy.”
“That much is true,” the Guard said after a moment. “And you think this…Inquisition fits the bill?”
“Oh hell yes,” Aiko interjected. “Speaking as an expert on reckless disregard for the future, I can tell you that they’re a bunch of certifiable morons.”
“I can confirm that,” Katrin added. “While a few of them are reasonably intelligent, the majority have no concern whatsoever for the consequences of their actions.” The vampire mused for a moment. “You make a reasonable case.”
“Thank you,” I said modestly. “Since we all seem to be in agreement that stopping this would be a good thing, perhaps you would be willing to set your people to finding them?”
“And killing them?” Katrin asked, not answering me.
“That would seem to be the appropriate response, yes. Although there are a few it might not be necessary to kill.” I shrugged. “I’m sure you can guess which of them are likely to be involved as well as I can.”
“Yes, yes,” she said impatiently. “What do you plan to do?”
“I need to get some rest,” I said bluntly. “I figure I’ll take over in the morning. That’s a more efficient division of labor anyway.”
“We aren’t going to be much help tracking them down,” Ivanov said. “We’ll focus our efforts on general investigation instead, in case your hunch is wrong.”
Yeah, and most of that investigation was going to be targeted at me. I couldn’t blame the Guards; this whole situation was fishy as hell, and from their perspective I was still suspect number one. “That sounds reasonable,” I said, rather than mention any of that. “If that’s all, would you mind heading out? I have something unrelated to discuss with Katrin, and I wouldn’t want to bore you with our personal business.”
“That’s very polite of you,” Ivanov said disingenuously. “We’ll be sure to contact you with any findings.” The Guard stood up and left. Neumann, who still hadn’t said a single word, waited a beat before following. His hostility wasn’t nearly as concealed as Ivanov’s. A few seconds later, Kimiko followed the Guards out, nodding politely to me on her way out.
“Do you really think those two trust you?” Katrin wondered after the door closed.
I snorted. “Get real. Nobody involved in this farce trusts anyone else an inch. No, I fully expect them to be listening in, one way or another. I just asked them to leave out of politeness.”
“Reminding us all once again why it is you’re still not dead,” Katrin said, smiling sharply. “Speaking of which, this is quite a nice safe house you have. Well-stocked, reasonably secure…you clearly put a great deal of forethought into this. The neighborhood was chosen carefully; I didn’t realize there was anything this close to suburbia in this city. The people here aren’t inclined to ask questions, shady characters stick out, and the response time in this area is short. And you kept it remarkably quiet, too; I honestly had no idea you had this set up.”
“I have others,” I growled in response to her implied threat. “And I’ll be ditching this one after this, trust me.”
The vampire laughed softly. “Wise choice. Who knows what might happen otherwise?”
“Natalie is planning some sort of coup,” I said bluntly. I didn’t have the patience to put up with Katrin right now. “She tried to buy me off to let that vampire off the other day.”
“I know,” Katrin said lightly.
I eyed her. “Of course you do.”
“I do appreciate your telling me, though,” she continued in the most cheerful voice I’d ever heard her use. “It speaks well for your trustworthiness.”
“Why, if you don’t mind me asking, are you telling me this? If you didn’t want to be complicit in this little scheme, you could have simply turned her down.”
I shrugged. “I thought it might offend her if I refused her offer to her face.”
“And you think this won’t?” Katrin said dryly. “You have some very odd ideas about Natalie, I think.”
“You and I haven’t ever agreed on much,” I said after a moment. “We aren’t friends, and that isn’t likely to change. But you’ve never tried to use me as a pawn in your vampire games.”
“You’ve made your opinion clear of the matter. There’s no reason to offend you when there are other tasks you are willing to do.”
“Right, and that’s a very wise attitude to take. Natalie is not wise.” I paused to let that sink in. “She deliberately put me in a position where I have no choice but to involve myself in your internal politics, after I’d already made it clear that I had no desire to do so. I don’t appreciate that.”
“So this is a form of petty revenge?”
I shrugged. “In part. It’s also partly to discourage others from trying the same stunt. I have no interest in becoming involved in politics any more than I already am, and if people know that there might be consequence for going against that desire they might hesitate to do so.” I paused. “Honestly, though, it’s mostly just self-preservation. If Natalie did get your position, I’m pretty sure the first thing she’d do would be to stab me in the back. She isn’t the type to reward the people who got her the job.”
“And thus you demonstrate more understanding of her character than many who’ve known her much longer,” Katrin said dryly. “Are you sure you’re not interested in vampirism, Wolf? I could use someone with that acute understanding of human nature. And I expect to have a rather disappointing number of positions open in the near future.”
“Thanks, but hell no.”
“The offer’s open,” she said, smiling. It wasn’t the friendly kind of smile. “I recommend you not worry too much about Natalie, Wolf. I have been aware of my dear quisling for some time now, and I assure you she will be rewarded appropriately for her treachery.”
“I look forward to hearing about it.”
“Good,” Katrin said. Her smile had taken on an even crueler, more predatory cast now. “I have a great deal of work to do, so if you will excuse me…?”
“Of course. Good luck with that.”
“And good hunting to you as well, Wolf,” the vampire said as she left. The door opened and closed by itself, a piece of low-level theatrics which was nevertheless surprisingly effective at unnerving me.