The roads were bad.
It was strange, the extent to which that idea had simply never occurred to me. In this country, you expected that the road system would work. The traffic might be heavy, there might be blockages or wrecks, or maybe even washouts, but in the end things would be fixed. There would be a way to get from A to B.
But now? That wasn’t so much the case. Cars were abandoned on the side or in the middle of the road, their erstwhile owners nowhere in sight. Some of them looked to have been shredded by something with large claws, and others were burned-out husks, but plenty of the vehicles seemed intact. They were just…left, nobody having the time or inclination to deal with them.
In other places, the damage was more obvious. The support for a bridge had been turned to mud, leaving the whole thing to collapse; we had to drive three blocks to find a way around it, and even then it involved off-road driving and a liberal interpretation of traffic laws. Other than that, a number of traffic lights weren’t working properly, and several roads were barricaded off for no apparent reason.
I wondered how much of it was intentional action, screwing things up for amusement or to serve a greater purpose, and how much of it was simply the consequence of the broader environment. With people scared, communications disrupted, and most governmental bodies in disarray, it was easy to see how things would begin to deteriorate. Minor problems, that normally wouldn’t really be problems, started to accumulate. When a light malfunctioned, there was no crew to fix it. When a car wrecked, there was no one to tow it. The garbage trucks weren’t making their rounds, and as a result it just started to pile up.
It was almost surreal, how rapidly things had started to fall apart. There were a thousand little tasks that had to be done on a regular basis to keep a city running, and with nobody to do them, it didn’t take long to notice the cracks appearing in the facade.
Whatever the reason for the problems, we didn’t see many people on the roads, and I couldn’t blame them. We were driving a heavy armored truck, just one step short of a tank, and it was a good thing because not much else could have managed it.
Finally, after around three times longer than it should have taken, we made it downtown. Here, at least, things looked a little better. The streets were clear, and the buildings were intact. We passed people both walking and driving, and if they seemed scared and hurried, at least they weren’t actually injured.
“Where to now?” Aiko asked, turning up the stereo. It was currently blasting what appeared to be a theremin version of Beethoven’s Ninth at a volume more commonly associated with gangsta rap.
“Look for police, I guess,” I said, shrugging. It seemed like an inefficient way to find somebody, but Frishberg wasn’t answering her phone, and under the circumstances I wasn’t sure what else to do.
It took maybe five minutes for us to find a pair of them, sitting in a cruiser out front of an apartment building. Aiko pulled over next to them and I got out, walked over to their car, and knocked on the driver’s window.
I stood there for a couple seconds before he rolled the window down. “What do you want?” he asked suspiciously. His partner had her hand on her gun.
Not that I could blame them. I mean, even at the best of times, if a guy in armor gets out of a heavily armored truck and walks up to you, a certain amount of caution is pretty reasonable.
“I was hoping you could give me directions,” I said, smiling. They wouldn’t see it behind the helmet, but I was hoping that they would hear it in my voice. “We’re looking for Sergeant Kendra Frishberg. Do you know where she is?”
The driver looked at his partner, then shrugged. “Couple blocks that way,” he said. “Look for the barricades.”
“Thanks,” I said, going back to the truck. I could hear them muttering behind me as I got in. “Go a few blocks east and look for barricades,” I said.
“Barricades? Oh, this should be good.” Aiko was smiling, but I knew her well enough to see through it. She was concerned, even worried, although I didn’t think it had anything to do with the barricades. It had more to do with how the police had responded to me, the suspicion there, the hostility.
I had to admit there was a fair point there. I’d never actually been found innocent of blowing up large chunks of the city, after all, and even if I had been I wasn’t naive enough to think that would matter. Between that and the fact that the current insanity had kicked off during my court hearing, there was almost certainly some lingering animosity there.
Those two had been suspicious just looking at me, the armor and my attitude tipping them off that I wasn’t just another scared civilian. What would happen if they actually figured out who I was? Hell, even Frishberg might not be willing to play along with me at this point.
I didn’t want to think too much about what would happen then. I wasn’t going back in a cage.
It had to be dealt with at some point, though, so we kept driving.
After another two or three minutes, we found what they’d been talking about. A section of street had been cordoned off with caution tape and parked vehicles. There were a handful of cops standing around, making sure nobody crossed it.
Their posture was anxious. They weren’t scared, exactly—this wasn’t the same as what the civilians were showing. No, this attitude gave the impression of being a response to a specific event, rather than the general climate of the city. There was something going on here, and while the cops might be doing something about, I didn’t get the impression that they were confident it was working.
“Hi,” I said, getting out and walking up to the cordon, Snowflake pacing along beside me. Aiko was locking the truck up behind us. “Can you give me directions to Sergeant Frishberg?”
“She’s busy,” one of the cops said. “We have a situation here.”
I rolled my eyes. “Obviously,” I said, ladling on the sarcasm pretty thickly. “Why did you think we were here? Look, she’s going to want to talk to me. How about you tell me where I can find her?”
He frowned, and I could tell he didn’t believe me, but he wasn’t willing to call me on it, either. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll take you to her.”
“Thanks,” I said, smiling. We followed him to a small building on the corner. The ground floor was a cafe of some kind, while the second floor seemed to be apartments. A sizable group of cops were hanging out around the building, watching it like hawks. I saw a couple of SWAT vehicles, and from the weapons on display they weren’t just for show.
I could smell blood from the building. That wasn’t good; even with my senses, there would have to be a fair amount of blood to smell it from this far away.
Frishberg was standing a short distance from the group, talking on a cell phone. “Hi,” I said, waving at her.
She turned, saw me, stared for a moment, and then hung up, cutting the guy on the other end off mid-tirade. “What the bloody hell are you doing here?”
“Don’t ask me,” Aiko said. “I just drove him here.”
“I was hoping to talk with you,” I said, grinning. “Maybe catch up on how things have been. I haven’t seen you for a while, after all.”
She stared for a couple seconds longer, then turned to the cop who’d escorted me there. “Get back to your position,” she told him. “And forget you ever saw this.”
He frowned. But he went.
“Okay,” Frishberg said, rounding on me. “First off, I had no idea they were planning that. They wouldn’t even let me stop by after you were arrested, or I would have. Second, what the flying fuck made you think it was a good idea to come here? Are you out of your mind?”
“Probably,” I said, shrugging. “But I was telling the truth earlier. I was hoping to talk, get an idea of what’s going on. I’m sure you have info I don’t right now.”
She sighed, running her hand through her hair. It looked like a nervous gesture, but I was fairly confident it was an affectation. Frishberg was too good at lying to have a tell that obvious. “Look,” she said. “As much as I’d like to, I don’t have the time right now. Shit is going crazy right now, and since I’m the only one who’s been dealing with this stuff for years, I’m having to keep an eye on everything myself.”
“So let me clear your schedule a little,” I said. “What’s the crisis here?”
“Hostage situation,” she said. “Some freak walked into the cafe, took most of the staff hostage. They’re upstairs now, and he’s threatening to kill them if we go inside. I was hoping to get a negotiator down here, but apparently that isn’t going to happen.” She glared at the cell phone.
“Cool,” I said. “I’m fairly sure the hostages are already dead, but I can take care of the guy that did it. Give me ten minutes or so.”
The front door was locked, a problem I dealt with easily enough. It was a wooden door, not intended to stand up to an assault, and I kicked it in without much difficulty.
Inside, things were not pretty. There were splatters of blood on the floor and the furniture, although not enough to account for what I’d been smelling, and several overturned chairs. The cooking equipment must have been turned off, because there was no smoke and nothing was on fire, but the air still smelled like burned food. I was hungry, but not even I would call it an appetizing aroma.
“Naughty, naughty,” a voice called from above. “Coming in without an invitation, are we? You know what that means, don’t you?” A moment later a woman screamed. It wasn’t the sort of canned scream that you get in horror movies, or even a terrified running-away sort of scream. This was the kind of scream you hear from someone in too much pain to keep it all inside.
I was a little more familiar with that kind of thing than I wanted to be.
I glanced outside, afraid that the cops would come running when they heard the scream, but nobody did. Good; they were doing what they’d said, at least for the moment.
“I’m not with the police,” I said, dragging one of the tables next to another. Aiko caught on instantly and grabbed a third table, pushing it into position.
“Oh no?” he said, laughing. “Then who are you with?”
“At the moment it’s just me and some friends,” I said, climbing up onto the tables. Aiko passed up a chair, which I positioned in the center of the improvised platform. “You can call me Shrike, by the way.” I didn’t exactly want to use my real name, not when there were a dozen or so cops within earshot. I was sure some of them knew who I was, but there’s a huge difference between knowing something and being unable to provide plausible deniability about knowing it.
“Hello, Shrike,” he said. “You can call me Keith. I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.”
“Hello, Keith,” I said. Something about the name was familiar, but I couldn’t bring it to mind. “It sounds like you’ve been making things hard for the police recently.” I stood on the chair and reached up experimentally. The ceiling was, just barely, within reach.
“But you’ve already said you aren’t with the police,” he said, in a tone of exaggerated confusion. “So how should it be your business?”
“You’re causing trouble in my town,” I said, calling Tyrfing. I cut a roughly square hole in the ceiling with a couple of strokes, pushing it aside when it fell, and then climbed through. “And that’s always my business,” I concluded, helping Aiko through. Snowflake vaulted up on her own, disdaining the platform I’d assembled.
We were standing in a small kitchen, with puke-green appliances that didn’t look to have been updated since the seventies. The smell of blood was stronger here, and I could smell magic as well, a fae magic of moonless nights and the silence between heartbeats.
A moment later a figure stepped through the doorway, and the smell of magic intensified. He was male, but I hesitated to call him a man; his frame was too warped, his limbs too long, his skin too grey. He was the sort of fae that could pass for human with a light illusion or a heavy coat, but when you looked at him squarely the resemblance was slight. He moved with perfect confidence, though there was a heavy bandage wrapped around his eyes.
I stared at that bandage. It seemed significant, though I wasn’t sure why. It was grey in color, almost the same grey as his skin, but something about the color suggested that it was the result of wear, rather than manufacturing.
“Come now, Shrike,” he said, grinning. His teeth were just a shade too sharp, too long. “This apartment is accessible by exterior stairs, not through the business on the lower floor.”
“That’s why I came in the way I did,” I said, watching him warily. He gave the impression of being someone who would know if I looked away, and capitalize on it. “Or are you going to tell me those stairs aren’t trapped?”
His grin grew even wider, and he started to pace slowly around us. It felt strangely unnerving, frightening in a way I couldn’t quite define, but that made me tense and start looking for the exits. It made me think of a rabbit hiding in the brush while the wolf circles ever closer. The rabbit knows that the safest thing is to stay put, but it wants so very much to run….
“Why should I tell you a thing like that, Shrike, even if it were true? But come, let us not forget our manners. These are your friends, I shall presume? And how are they called?” Keith’s voice was light, casual, totally at odds with his predatory attitude.
“You can call me Cupcake,” Aiko said, turning to keep Keith within her field of view. “And the dog goes by Spike.”
“How intriguing,” he murmured. “I thank you, Shrike, for making this day amusing. I had almost feared that I would be bored, but you have brought fresh interest to my work here.”
I couldn’t say why, but right then was when I realized why his name was familiar. “Keith,” I said. “You wouldn’t happen to be Blind Keith, would you?”
He stopped pacing and turned to face me, his smile gone. “And where would you have heard that name, Shrike?”
I had to swallow twice before I could speak, that same irrational fear making my throat tight and dry. “Erin mentioned you. She said that you were one of the best mercenaries in the Courts.”
“Mercenary,” he said distastefully. “I mislike that word, Shrike, for I am no mercenary, whose loyalties are bought and sold as cheaply as any other commodity.”
“Perhaps not,” I said. “But I think you have something in common with them, don’t you? Even if it is just a certain set of shared acquaintances.”
“Indeed,” he murmured, resuming his slow stalk around us. “And yet I question your wisdom in pushing this topic. You are, I hope, aware that I can snuff out the lives of these human hostages with nothing more than a snap of my fingers?”
I shrugged as nonchalantly as I could, hoping that I wasn’t condemning some poor cafe employee to death. “I’m aware,” I said. “I just don’t see how it’s relevant to this conversation. This is about you and us, not them.”
He regarded me for a moment, then raised his hand and snapped his fingers. Instantly, there was another scream of agony from elsewhere in the apartment, one that ended in a sort of gurgling moan.
Aiko looked like she was about to go running off, looking for the person that was screaming, so I caught her arm. “Nice try,” I said to Keith. “But your hostages are either dead or silenced, or else they would have started begging for help the moment they heard us talking out here.” I supposed it was also possible that they couldn’t hear what was going on, but I doubted it. Blind Keith struck me as the kind of guy who would want his victims to hear what was going on out here.
“What do you call that, then?” he asked, obviously referring to the ongoing moaning sounds.
“A hunting adaptation,” I replied immediately. “It’s the scream in the night that makes you leave your shelter, it’s the crying baby that draws you out of your safe place. It’s a will-o’-the-wisp, something to lure you out into the dark until you’re lost and alone and far from home.”
He nodded slowly. “Someone,” he murmured, “has been reading his faerie tales.”
“Yes,” I said. “I have. And one of the first things you learn about the fae is that they have rules. There are always rules, and I think I’ve figured out some of yours.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
“You’re a hunter, Blind Keith,” I said, turning so that I could watch him as he continued to pace around us. “A predator. You want us to run, so that you can chase us. You frighten us so that we will flee, you make us hear things so that we will go to check on them. How many sounds could you mimic? A great many, I suspect. You’ve been pushing us pretty hard, trying to scare us, but I notice you haven’t done a single thing to us. Why not?”
The fear crescendoed, rising to a fever pitch. My legs quivered, my hands shook, and a low whine of fear escaped my throat. Snowflake was whining as well, while Aiko had gone pale as snow and started trembling in my grip. I thought I was about to piss myself or throw up or both, but luckily my body was too confused to manage either.
And then the fear began to subside, first fading and then vanishing entirely, and Blind Keith was laughing softly. “You’ve got spine,” he said. “And to answer your question, it’s more to do with choice than necessity. I respect those with the courage to stand against me.”
“And yet,” I said, “you’re trespassing. I told the truth when I said that this was my city.”
He smiled indulgently. “Don’t think you can threaten me. You may know Erin, but you aren’t on her level. You’re barely more than a puppy, and I’m an old hunter indeed.”
“I might be a puppy,” I said, holding up Tyrfing, “but that doesn’t make me a weakling. I was raised in the Khan’s own pack, because no lesser wolf could tame me. I have seen the gods go to war. And my sword is called Tyrfing, and it has claimed the lives of creatures as old and mighty as you. That’s three ways you owe me respect, Blind Keith, and none of them are small.”
“Ah,” he sighed, stretching the sound out, making it last longer than it should have, longer than human lungs could have managed. “So you’re that wolf cub. I thought you’d be taller. No disrespect was intended, child; I was curious to see how the world is changing, and it seemed natural to come to the place where that change began.”
“Understood,” I said. “But you’re still causing trouble for me, at a time when I have more than enough to deal with. I’d appreciate it if you would stop.”
“I will leave,” he agreed. “And I will converse with you, before I return to the territory you have claimed for your own. Give my regards to your grandfather, Shrike.”
“What a mess,” Frishberg said, watching them carry out the bodies on stretchers. Only one of the hostages had been killed, apparently, and that had happened well before I got there, which was why I’d been smelling blood. But the others were traumatized, emotionally more than physically, and not remotely ready to handle a trip down a ladder on their own.
“Isn’t it just,” I said, also watching. “Everywhere, it sounds like.”
“That’s the funny thing,” she said, glancing at me. “From what I hear, it isn’t everywhere. In fact, it sounds like this is very much a localized thing.”
“Yeah. Some places aren’t doing so bad at all. Seattle, Phoenix, Chicago, San Francisco, the list goes on. Then you’ve got places like Portland, where they’re literally snatching people off the streets. You know why that is?”
I shrugged. “Not most of them. But in Seattle, it’s probably because there’s somebody there that nobody wants to cross. It’s easier and safer to go cause trouble somewhere else than to piss him off.”
“Right,” she said. “Someone like you, maybe?”
I snorted. “Thanks for the compliment, but Moray could eat me alive any time he wanted to.” I hadn’t forgotten what it was like to watch him fight. Water magic wasn’t something that I’d thought of as having a whole lot of combat applications, but he made it work.
“Don’t sell yourself short. We were trying to resolve that situation for almost three hours. You walk in, and five minutes later, bam, problem solved.”
“Maybe,” I said uncomfortably. “That’s just a matter of knowing how to talk to him, though. It’s nothing anybody else couldn’t have done.” I had an idea of where she was going with this, and I didn’t like it, not even a little.
Nor was I disappointed. “Winter,” she said, the first time she’d used my name today. “You owe me a favor.”
“I’m calling it in. Make this be one of the good places. Make sure this city gets through this okay.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking for,” I said, sounding almost as exhausted as I felt.
“Maybe not,” she said. “But I’m asking.”