Twenty-five minutes later, I was sitting in an uncomfortable chair with my back to the wall of a small outdoor cafe. Snowflake was sitting by my feet, and I had a frost giant looming over my shoulder.
Nicolas Pellegrini walked out maybe a minute later. He didn’t look like much; a guy in his late forties, the only thing that would have set him aside in a crowd was the quality of his suit. If you watched him for a while, you might start to see something in his bearing that indicated that he wasn’t anything so simple as an office worker, but it was far from obvious.
I knew better. This was a guy who could look an Alpha in the face and refuse to be pushed around. He had plenty of steel in him.
He walked straight over towards my table. There was one chair on the other side of the table. He considered it for a moment, then looked at the giant standing behind me. “Really, Mr. Wolf,” he said disapprovingly. “Was it necessary to use such an overt intimidation tactic?”
I shrugged. “Minions seemed like an appropriate fashion statement the last time we talked. I didn’t want to come underdressed.”
He sighed and sat down. “I apologize for the delay,” he said. His voice reminded me, once again, of an English teacher. “My secretary did not see fit to inform me of your call. I would have come sooner if he had.”
“That’s fine,” I assured him, watching over his shoulder. I recognized the huge guy standing across the street; he was the same bruiser Pellegrini had brought with him to the last meeting. I imagine he would have intimidated a lot of people. With Haki standing about six inches away, he looked about as threatening as a dog snarling at a grizzly. “You owe me a favor.”
Pellegrini’s smile could have meant anything. “Oh?”
“That was the deal,” I reminded him.
“The favor was to be in exchange for you removing a certain person,” he said mildly. “Preferably in a way that would impress the consequences upon anyone else considering a similar action.”
“Yes,” I said patiently. “And they found her without her skin. Which I told you about at the time. I think that was a suitably impressive response, don’t you?”
“There’s no question about that,” he agreed. “Whether you actually performed that action is less certain.”
I eyed him a moment. Then I sighed. “Look, Mr. Pellegrini,” I said. “We both know this isn’t about that. You aren’t fond of competition, and I’ve accumulated enough influence in this city to make you feel a little concerned. Is that about right?”
There was a brief pause. “Your appraisal is unusually direct,” he said eventually, not answering my question.
“I’m extremely short on time. So I’m going to make this as simple as I can.” I met the mobster’s eyes, making sure to keep my voice and bearing as nonthreatening as I could. I really didn’t want to make him feel defensive right now. “The way I see it, we’re in something of a stalemate here. See, you’re rich. You’ve got a lot more in the way of material resources than I do. You’ve got a lot of manpower. When it comes to contacts, lawyers, political influence, you’ve got me outclassed.”
Pellegrini smiled and said nothing.
“But,” I continued brightly. “I can screw you over pretty hard, too. You’re a smart guy, Mr. Pellegrini. I’m sure you’ve done a certain amount of research on me. You know about the things I’ve done, the people I’ve done, and you’ve got to have a good idea about the problems I could cause for you.”
“Is that a threat?” he asked mildly. I was pretty sure he knew what the answer was, but there were certain stereotypes to uphold.
“Of course not,” I said derisively. “No, what I’m saying here is very simple. I have largely ignored your activities, and this has, perhaps, sent the wrong message. Perhaps you have come to the conclusion that I am weak, and not to be taken seriously.”
“This is not the correct impression,” I said, keeping my voice level and fairly quiet. “I have ignored you because, frankly, what you do is not my problem. I do not police this city, and I have no desire to start. But if, for whatever reason, you’ve decided to make it my business?”
I smiled and met his eye again, and this time I didn’t try to make it a human gesture. “I can do that,” I said softly. “I really can. You want a fight? I can bring one like nothing you’ve ever imagined. I’m in a hurry, however, so I would appreciate it if you could have the dignity to say so, rather than trying to back out of a fair bargain and play word games for the next twenty minutes.”
Pellegrini was silent for a long moment. His eyes, a shade of blue somewhere between denim and the sky in December, were flat and inscrutable. “I’ve had men killed for taking that tone with me in the past,” he said eventually. His tone wasn’t angry; he was simply stating a fact, totally calm.
“What do you know,” I said dryly. “The only person here is Kjaran, and Kjaran doesn’t talk. Nobody has to hear about how I was all rude and disrespectful. Your reputation doesn’t take a hit, and we can interact like reasonable human beings.”
“Are you?” he asked mildly.
I smiled tightly. “Neither of the above,” I said, and I truly didn’t know whether I was lying. “But that doesn’t need to stop us.”
He considered me for a moment, and then inclined his head slightly. It struck me more as a gesture of respect, as a fencer acknowledging a hit, than agreement. “Very well, Mr. Wolf,” he said, his voice still utterly unreadable. “What favor were you requesting?”
I carefully did not let myself relax. I hadn’t been totally sure that Pellegrini was bluffing, but I didn’t want him to know that. “It’s really more of a mutual benefit thing than a favor. I expect you’re aware of the recent attacks which have, to some extent, focused upon your business interests?”
“Naturally,” he said, with a negligent gesture.
“Good,” I said. “A woman I sometimes associate with named Katie Schmidt is responsible for it. I want you to have your people collect any information you can on her whereabouts, and if possible kill her. They should consider her armed and extremely dangerous, and if they get a shot, hit it with everything they can. I would recommend explosives, or something similarly extreme.”
Pellegrini didn’t even blink. “Do you have any information on her location?”
“My information is incomplete,” I said, gesturing slightly. Kjaran stepped forward and placed a fairly thick folder on the table. “But I have some information on her and several known associates. Kindly instruct your men to report to me if they see any of them. If any of these associates seem to be acting in concert with Schmidt, they should be considered equally dangerous, and a similar shoot-on-sight policy should be enacted.”
“This would represent a significant investment of resources,” Pellegrini said slowly.
I smiled coldly. “I seem to recall having saved you a similar investment in the past,” I said. “And really, this will help you as much as me. You have a great deal invested in this area, and Katie poses a serious risk to those investments.”
He flipped through the folder, then closed it and stood. “Very well, Mr. Wolf,” he said. “I will send out the instructions immediately.”
“Good,” I said, not standing. “Kindly keep me appraised of new developments.”
I’d been expecting Pellegrini to take a little longer than he did. As a result, it was nearly ten minutes before my next appointment sat down in the same chair he’d vacated. I took the chance to snatch a quick meal, as did Snowflake.
Kjaran didn’t. But then, that was hardly a surprise.
Sergeant Kendra Frishberg was, in many ways, the polar opposite of Nicolas Pellegrini. Where his expensive suit stood out here like jewels in a pigsty, Frishberg was wearing worn jeans and a hoodie. Where Pellegrini looked about as physically intimidating as an aging English teacher, Frishberg was on the large and athletic side for a woman, and made no attempt to conceal that fact. She looked vaguely Hispanic, but there was too much of the mongrel visible in her features to pin them down definitively.
You might imagine that the cop/criminal dichotomy was another way in which they represented the opposite ends of a spectrum. I would probably agree, except that Frishberg was not, in any sense of the word, a model police officer. She was the one who was unofficially in charge of the freak squad, the group of cops who were responsible for the unofficial problems which, unofficially, nobody else wanted to deal with. Think X-Files, and then remember that nine-tenths of what a cop in any department does is bullshit and paperwork, and you’ve got a pretty good idea what Frishberg’s job was like.
More importantly at the moment, she was also not at all averse to a little casual bribery. I’d gotten access to files I really had no business looking at a few times thanks to her.
“Shrike,” she said, not bothering with a hello. “It’s been a while.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. I hadn’t seen her since I’d helped her out with a rather amusing situation the year before. “Look, I need a favor.”
I laid the situation out for her in much the same terms as I had for Pellegrini. She wasn’t nearly as argumentative about it as he had been, though. Frishberg didn’t have the ambition that the crime boss did, and she was on much friendlier terms with me.
“You don’t ask for much, do you?” she said dryly when I’d finished. “You do remember that I don’t have any official authority, right?”
“Who said anything about ‘official?'” I asked. “Look, I’m not talking about a formal manhunt. I just want you to take any resources you have on hand and look into things.”
“I don’t think you get what I’m saying. If I do this for you, and someone notices, there’ll be hell to pay. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but I actually get paid to make sure you people don’t cause problems that show up on the official radar.”
I sighed. I’d been afraid of this. I could probably have talked Frishberg around—just telling her what the stakes were would probably have done it— but I didn’t have time, and I hadn’t forgotten how serious Coyote had been about secrecy. “I’ll owe you one,” I said instead, hating the way the words felt in my mouth. “Any favor you need that I can do.”
Frishberg suddenly didn’t look like she was in the mood to joke around. “Aw, shit,” she muttered. “It’s serious, huh?”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve got a serious time crunch here, though. In or out?”
“In,” she muttered. “Damn you anyway, Wolf.” Frishberg shook her head and stood up. “I’ll tell my people to start looking.”
“Thanks,” I said, standing as well. Snowflake stood and shook herself. “Call if you find anything,” I said, and then hopped the fence onto the sidewalk. Kjaran followed, although he didn’t so much hop the fence as step over it, and we walked off down the street.
Just after we got out of sight of the cafe, a massive eagle swooped down into the alley we were walking down. It was a huge bird, enormously outsized even by the standards of eagles; it could easily have flown off with a medium-sized dog.
When it was ten feet off the ground, I felt a sudden surge of ice-scented magic, and the bird turned into Vigdis. The giant did a casual frontflip and landed on her feet, falling perfectly into stride. Kjaran, without missing a beat or showing any reaction whatsoever, tossed her a simple black sundress, which she began pulling on.
“Did you see anything?” I asked. I’d had her doing overflights while I talked with Pellegrini and Frishberg, under the assumption that there was literally no degree of paranoia which was not currently justified.
She shook her head. “Nothing. Do you think that…thing will come back?”
“Possibly, but I doubt it. Katie’s already missed her chance to take me out before I start catching on, and with that off the table I think I’ve moved well down her list of priorities.”
Vigdis absorbed that for a few moments. “What will you do now?”
“I want you to take Kjaran and Haki and check out our list of known locations. Look for anything out of place, and try to get information out of anyone you think might know something. If you see anything threatening, run. Clear?”
“What if they don’t want to share what they know?” Vigdis asked.
I paused. I wasn’t totally comfortable letting them interrogate people. Vigdis was borderline sociopathic, Haki was antisocial to the point of mental illness, and Kjaran was unlikely to intervene if they started going too far. The chances of an interrogation getting ugly were distressingly high.
But the stakes were too high to back down now. “Use your best judgment,” I said, and hated myself for saying it.
She nodded sharply. “Come on, big guy,” she said to Kjaran. “Let’s go get Haki. There’s work to do.” Gods help me, she sounded excited.
I sighed and kept walking. Snowflake, sensing my mood, didn’t say anything on the way to the hotel room where we’d agreed to rendezvous after my meetings.
We didn’t see anything on the way there. I kept watch, and paid close attention to whether things seemed to be bending around us, but I really didn’t expect to see anything. What I’d said to Vigdis about Katie’s priorities was true, and it had been made pretty clear that sending her monster after me wasn’t likely to pay off. She had no way of knowing just how close those calls had been.
Back in the hotel, a generic chain downtown I’d never used before, I took the stairs to the seventh floor. It was a little inconvenient, but it had a great view and it was high enough up that I could catch myself with magic if I had to jump. That was worth a few flights of stairs.
I didn’t have a key, so I opened the door with the same trick I’d used on my safe. It was harder on a door, because the handle was harder to move, but I’d also spent a lot more time practicing this version. There are enough doors that only lock from the outside to make it worth the effort.
Aiko was the only one who’d beaten us back. “You get anything?”
I shrugged. “Both of them agreed to help, but neither of them was exactly thrilled about it. I don’t expect much. What’s the word at Pryce’s?”
“Same old,” she sighed. “Kuzmak’s fled town, and everybody else’s keeping their heads well down. Kikuchi’s people managed to track down Aubrey, though. Looks like he bought a one-way ticket to New York the day before Katie went apeshit. Didn’t even take his stuff.”
I grunted. “Getting while the getting’s good, you think?”
“It’s Aubrey,” she said dryly. “Guy’s got a worse opinion of humanity than you do. He’d know how safe Colorado is for him with Katie going on a rampage.”
If we lived through this, I was going to have words for Aubrey about that. I didn’t blame him for skipping town. In his position, I’d have done the same thing. But he could have at least warned me first.
If my city burned because he didn’t have the balls to tell me how badly his gang had screwed up, he’d have Hell to pay. Literally, if what Coyote had said was true.
“The werewolves are still out looking for scents?” I asked, dropping onto the bed next to Aiko. There were a couple of chairs, but I was pretty sure they were actually medieval torture instruments in disguise. Snowflake jumped up and curled around my feet.
“Yeah. I sent Kimiko with them to answer any questions. Figured they’d have better odds if they both went furry.”
“Good idea,” I agreed. “I don’t have high hopes for it, though. Katie would definitely know to plan for that.”
“Can you think of anything she wouldn’t know to plan for?” Aiko asked, idly scratching Snowflake’s ears.
“I’ve already tried them all,” I said sourly. “You got anything?”
“Zilch.” Aiko was silent for a long moment. “How long do we wait before we run?” she asked finally, sounding distinctly unhappy.
If my life were a storybook, this is where I would have made some dramatic and inspiring speech about how we’d never give in and run. We’d miraculously pull it off at the last moment, with ten seconds left on Loki’s countdown, and then go home to our happy ending.
But I’ve never been much good at giving speeches, and all my miracles come from the dark side.
“Midnight,” I said after a moment’s thought. Loki gave me until dawn, but I didn’t think this was a good time to cut it close. Midnight would give us about five hours before any reasonable definition of dawn. If that wasn’t enough time to get far, far away, then we weren’t trying hard enough.
“Sounds good,” Aiko said after a moment. “That gives us thirteen hours to find Katie and deal with her.”
Thirteen hours. Well, that sounded fun.
The next nine hours were an exercise in pointlessness, futility, and frustration.
It seemed bizarrely unfair that, with all the effort I’d put into this and all the favors I’d used up, there should be so little result. Of all the avenues I’d taken, none of them had yielded anything worthwhile.
The jötnar hadn’t turned up anyone even worth the bother of interrogating. In five hours of searching, the only person they’d found with any useful information was an old man who said that Katie had moved out of her apartment nearly a month earlier. All three of my housecarls agreed that he wasn’t keeping anything back, and in fact seemed positively eager to gossip about his neighbors. They weren’t the best choice for canvassing a neighborhood, but I was pretty sure they would have found anything obvious, making further investment of resources in that direction a waste of effort.
Kyra and Anna found Katie’s scent in a number of places—apartments, university buildings, restaurants, and the like—but in every case the trail was long since cold. As far as they could tell, Katie hadn’t been to any of her usual haunts in the last two weeks, and most of the trails were more than a month old. Aside from telling us that she’d been planning this for a while, which I’d already guessed, this wasn’t terribly useful.
Frishberg, probably aided and abetted by the various other forces I’d put into motion, had APBs out for Katie, Brick, and Mike. Thus far, there had been a great many false alarms, and nothing useful. They did manage to find Katie’s car, in long-term parking by the airport, but it didn’t seem to have been touched in months. The number she’d called me from turned out to be maybe the last payphone in the city, which wasn’t exactly useful for tracking her down. Katie was the type to drive halfway across town before she used a payphone, just so that if I found it it wouldn’t point me at her lair.
Pellegrini didn’t contact me at all. I wasn’t terribly surprised by that—it had been made very clear that he was cooperating under duress, and I hadn’t expected him to contribute much—but it was still rather disappointing. I hadn’t heard a word from the two Guards, either; presumably they were still too busy trying to prove I was guilty to consider actually helping.
Kikuchi, at least, was following through on his commitment. At this point, I thought he might have accomplished more than I had. Not only had his people managed to track Aubrey down, they’d also found Jimmy. It turned out that I’d been unable to contact him earlier for the simple, rather embarrassing reason that he’d changed his phone number recently. Kikuchi’s minions had interrogated him fairly thoroughly, and come to the conclusion that he was not only not participating in Katie’s schemes, he appeared to have no idea that there was anything going on at all. That fit; Jimmy always was the sort to be oblivious to something right under his nose.
That was the sum total of all our knowledge with four hours or so left to go before midnight. We’d managed to rule out a couple of suspects that were, frankly, fairly long shots to begin with. We’d managed to confirm that Katie wasn’t stupid enough to be caught by looking in incredibly obvious places, which even the dumbest psychic could probably have told us. That was about it.
I would have liked to get out and look myself. I didn’t. My minimal investigative skills were just not likely to find anything that the rest of the people looking wouldn’t have. My time was better spent coordinating everyone else’s efforts and making sure that all the various groups I was trying to manage were kept informed of each new development. I knew that.
That didn’t mean I had to like it.
Dusk found me sitting in the hotel room, watching the sun set through the window and desperately trying to think of any other way I could go about finding Katie, and failing to come up with anything more practical than dowsing. I’d gotten some food and sleep, which did me some good. I still felt abnormally tired, and my maimed hand was throbbing painfully, but I could at least think clearly.
Just when I was getting ready for another round of futilely checking in with every group to make sure they hadn’t heard anything, my phone rang. I recognized the number, but I’d been on the phone with so many people in the last few hours that I had no idea who it was.
“Wolf,” Jackal said tersely when I answered. “Is that sorcerer you told me to look for any good with shadows?”
“Yeah,” I said, starting to feel excited for the first time since I woke up. “Yeah, that’s her specialty. Why?”
“I think we’ve got something for you.”
Jackal looked, under her usual feral attitude, rather satisfied with herself. She was wearing the same thrift-store rejects as the last time I’d seen her, although she’d changed out her minions. Wishbone and Moose had been replaced by a slender, petit woman with features best described as cute. She had long, silky black hair, and pale grey eyes.
“Wolf,” Jackal said, nodding tightly to me. She’d told me to meet her in the parking lot of a smallish grocery store on the north side of the city. “This is Blackcap.”
“Hello,” Blackcap said. Her voice was quiet and hesitant, almost to the point of stuttering.
“I’ve had my people staking out groceries and restaurants since you called me,” Jackal said, pacing restlessly back and forth. “Blackcap, tell them what you saw.”
“Okay,” she said. “It was about an hour ago. There were two people using a shadow-based veil. They came in the front door and then stole about a day’s worth of food. I followed them out the door, but they turned down an alley and they would have noticed me following them.”
“Did you get a good look at them?” I asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Blackcap said, flinching away from me slightly. “They didn’t drop the veil where I could see them.”
“Can you show us the alley where you lost them?” I asked.
Blackcap glanced at Jackal, then nodded. “I can,” she said, her voice a little firmer. “Follow me.”
The alley turned out to be an unremarkable specimen of the type, about three blocks away. I could see why Blackcap hadn’t been willing to follow them in here; it wasn’t a terribly populated area, and she would have a hard time blending in with the handful of people who were present. This wasn’t a nice part of town, and Blackcap looked like she came from a background five times richer and ten times more vulnerable than anyone in sight.
Not that I believed it for a moment. She hung around with Jackal, and from what I’d seen of Jackal she was about as gentle and well-mannered as her namesake. Based on what I’d heard from Aiko, that wasn’t an uncommon result in the harsh, dog-eat-dog society of fae half-breeds. If Blackcap had survived that, it was a safe bet that she was a lot tougher than she looked.
I couldn’t detect anything out of the ordinary in the alley. That wasn’t surprising, really; it had been an hour since Katie had been here, if that was who Blackcap had seen, and she wouldn’t have lingered long. Any trace of the veiling spell would long since have faded, and only in lazily-written stories do bad guys leave obvious calling cards or unique tire treads wherever they go.
Fortunately, I’d come prepared. Almost before I’d gotten a chance to look things over, Kyra and Anna moved past me and started casting for the trail.
Scent bomb, Snowflake informed me a moment later, undoubtedly relaying it from Kyra. I could communicate with werewolves directly, but it was harder, and I needed skin or eye contact to get much detail unless I was in a trance. Peppermint and silver dust. Guess we’re expected.
Yeah, I agreed. It was a little troublesome, but also a good sign. A scent bomb spiked with silver was really only good for one thing. Given that silver was rather expensive stuff, most thieves wouldn’t bother using one unless they had good reason to expect a werewolf to be tracking them. Can they figure something out?
She says she thinks so, Snowflake said after a few moments for everything to work its way through the pipeline. They used too much mint. Kyra thinks they should be able to follow it without having to breathe silver the whole way.
Awesome, I said, starting to grin. It wasn’t the friendly sort of grin. Tell them to follow it as far as they can without risking detection, and go with them to make sure. The rest of us will go get prepped. It’s starting to sound like this might be our ticket to finding Katie, and I want to be ready.