“You’re not dead,” Aiko said. “Congratulations. Who’s the boring guy?”
“This is Andrews,” I said. “He’s one of Pellegrini’s people. Whatever magic he’s using is also apparently apocalyptically badass, which is fun.”
“I’m strictly freelance,” Andrews said calmly. “And Maker’s concern wasn’t so much about my own talents as the potential interactions it might have with the ongoing situation in Russia.”
“Right,” I sighed. Just what I needed, a pedantic superpower. “You said Pellegrini wanted to talk with us. I’m guessing that you didn’t intend that to be, say, tomorrow?”
“No. And this invitation was for you, specifically.”
“Screw that,” I said cheerfully. “I’ve got a lot of people I’m supposed to be talking to. If Pellegrini is going to raise hell about me bringing Aiko, he suddenly dropped a few steps on my priority list.” I saw that he was hesitating, and said, “Come on. Worst case, we get there and he tells me otherwise. I saw you in there. There’s no way you’re scared of us.”
Andrews went dead still, instantly. It was sort of creepy, actually. Normally, even when people stop moving, they aren’t really still. They fidget, at least a little, blinking, unconscious tics, eye movements, that sort of thing. They can’t stop themselves, because they aren’t even aware they’re doing it.
Andrews wasn’t moving, not even those little unconscious movements. He was still breathing, but other than that he might as well have turned into a statue. It was a short step away from seeing a vampire pull the same trick.
“Very well,” he said, a moment later, his body relaxing back into the normal human state. “Your associate and your hound may accompany us. When we arrive I will ask my employer whether they are welcome in the meeting or they will be waiting outside.”
He resumed walking and we followed him. There was something about what he’d said that bugged me, and it took a couple seconds to realize. Snowflake had stayed outside the building so that she would know if anyone tried to sneak up on us or otherwise cause problems.
Andrews hadn’t ever seen her, to my knowledge, and even if he’d talked to someone who had, that shouldn’t have told him that she was with me right now. So how had he known?
It didn’t matter for the moment, so I tried to put it out of my mind. Outside, Andrews walked briskly across the parking lot, with Aiko and I a few paces behind him. Snowflake caught up within a few seconds, rubbing her head affectionately against my thigh. Armor on armor, there wasn’t a lot to feel, but it was still comforting on a level.
I did pause when Andrews stopped by an expensive-looking silver Mercedes. “Wait,” I said. “We aren’t taking a portal?”
He paused and looked at me oddly. A moment later, he relaxed again. “Ah,” he said, as though he’d just realized something. “You learned that trick from the kitsune, I take it?”
“Yeah,” I said, a little confused. “Why?”
He smiled, the expression almost more of a smirk, and glanced at Aiko. “It’s not my business,” he said. There was an odd emphasis on the words. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to mean, and it was so faint that I optimistically assumed it was just my ears playing tricks on me. “And I don’t interfere with things that aren’t my business. Suffice to say that no, we won’t be taking a portal. Get in the car.”
I glanced at Aiko dubiously, then shrugged and got into the passenger seat. Aiko got in the backseat, and Snowflake sat next to her, her head extended up next to my arm.
What happened after that was one of the more interesting experiences I’d had recently. The streets were dark, more of the streetlights broken or disabled than were functioning properly. The sky was cloudy, blocking even what little light the crescent moon and stars might have provided, with the end result that the Mercedes’s headlights were the only illumination most of the time.
The car was not exactly an off-road vehicle, and the streets were still in pretty crappy condition. Between those factors and the poor illumination, I would have expected Andrews to take it slow and careful on the drive.
Instead, he went a good bit faster than I would have felt comfortable with in full daylight. He was hitting speeds that would have been respectable on the Interstate on a good day, except he was driving mostly on back roads, in the dark, when the quality of those roads was deeply questionable.
I managed to keep from clutching something, but it took a serious exercise of will. Even Snowflake was a little unnerved, and that was saying something. For his part, though, Andrews seemed totally calm, not showing any concern for the possibility of a wreck. And he had the competence to back it up, too. Cars stopped and moving, piles of refuse, the occasional collapsed bridge or building—whatever the obstacle, he swerved around it smoothly. He might only leave a foot or two between the car and the obstruction, but apparently he was just confident enough in his skills that he didn’t care.
Damn. I didn’t know how he did that, how his magic worked, but it was pretty unnerving to deal with. Everything I’d seen so far pointed at his approach being something unusual, well outside what I’d normally seen. Most mages focused their talents on something concrete and immediate—water, fire, force, emotion. My own approach was more vague, focusing on the concept of predation, and extending out to other ideas that related to that concept to a greater or lesser extent. That was good, in that it meant I had a little more versatility than a lot of people managed. It was also problematic, though, in that it meant that I had one very specific thing I did reasonably well, and a whole bunch that I was pretty spectacularly bad at.
From what I’d seen of Andrews’s work, I was guessing he was a step beyond even how I approached things. His magic seemed more abstract, something that didn’t necessarily interact with the world in a way that I could easily categorize or describe.
I didn’t have the faintest idea how he did what he did, and that bugged the hell out of me.
Maybe ten or fifteen minutes later, he skidded to a stop outside a small apartment building. We piled out of the car and stood around, waiting, as Andrews slowly got out of the car and locked it up.
I wanted to make a wisecrack about that kind of driving not being a whole lot safer than an Otherside portal. I restrained myself. It didn’t seem like a good idea.
“Wait here,” he said. “I’m going to go check with my employer about your associates attending the meeting.”
We stood out in the street and waited while he went into the building. It started to drizzle, the sort of fine, cold rain that could drag on for hours. I didn’t care too much about the temperature, and the others were encased in armor, but it was still gloomy.
Maybe three or four minutes later Andrews came back out. “They’re cleared,” he said. “Follow me.”
Inside, things were…quiet. At a glance, the whole building was empty. I didn’t hear anything, I didn’t smell anything out of the ordinary. There were a handful of animals in the building, but nothing I could really get much use out of—rats, mostly, and a handful of pigeons and starlings on the upper floors. Nothing my magic worked well with. A quick glance through them suggested that none of them could see, hear, or smell anything which hinted of human occupation.
Eerie. Had Pellegrini emptied the whole building for this meeting? I didn’t think so; the fact that vermin had already reclaimed the place suggested a longer period of emptiness. It was possible that he owned the whole building, and it had never seen use other than as a front, I supposed.
Or it was possible that it had been a normal apartment building, originally, and then something happened to the residents. Most of the supernatural predators I could think of would have left more signs of their presence, but there were ways to leave this kind of emptiness behind. A vampire could have walked in and just led the residents out without any kind of struggle, to be fed upon later. Some of the fae, or other, more exotic, creatures, could have slaughtered everyone without so much as a drop of blood to show for it.
I shivered a little. This place was creeping me out. Being led by Andrews, who had to be one of the creepiest mages I’d seen, wasn’t helping things. And the fact that I was here to meet with Pellegrini, a ruthless crime lord who could and would arrange my death if he felt it was necessary? That was just icing on the cake.
Andrews led us to apartment 108, where he knocked on the door and opened it without waiting for a response.
The room inside was dim, except for one illuminated table. I think he wanted it to be completely dark, but he was used to working with human vision. The lamp he’d chosen cast enough light that I could see that the rest of the apartment was completely empty. Either he’d cleaned it out completely, or it had never been occupied in the first place.
Andrews walked to the other side of the table and sat down on the other side of the table, to the side of and slightly behind Pellegrini. An enforcer was sitting on his other side, a massive guy that Pellegrini had brought along at least once before that I remembered. He looked like the sort of dumb bruiser that got thrown out of the WWE for extreme brutality, but I was guessing he was smarter than he looked. Strong or not, you didn’t get to be the lieutenant of a guy like Pellegrini if you were dumb.
“Hi,” I said, sitting across from the crime lord. Aiko and Snowflake took up positions flanking me, mirroring the people on the other side of the table.
“Good evening,” Pellegrini said. “I’m glad you could make it.”
“No problem,” I said. “I was hoping to meet with you soon anyway. Although I do have another meeting across town in,” I glanced at my watch, “three hours. Damn, where does the time go?”
He smiled. It was a thin, dry expression, but I almost thought it might be sincere. “I’ll try to keep this brief, then,” he said. “I know that you’ve been building capital recently. I know that you’ve declared yourself the ruler of all things in this city. I’m still trying to determine whether it’s in my best interest to assist you or shut you down. I strongly recommend that you convince me of the former.”
I managed to keep from showing nervousness at that, but it wasn’t easy. Pellegrini might be human, but he’d still kept himself on top of organized crime in this region for at least several years. You didn’t do that unless you were smart, committed, and ruthless. He was the kind of guy that had to be treated with extreme caution.
I took a moment to gather my thoughts, then nodded. “Okay,” I said. “Let me put it this way. You’re a businessman, Mr. Pellegrini. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about business, it’s that you need a stable operating environment to make it profitable. I’m trying to hold things together, keep things from turning into an even bigger mess. As I see it, backing my play is the best way you have to keep business in this city profitable.”
“Assuming,” he said dryly, “that you don’t take action to limit or compete with my business yourself.”
I snorted. “Why would I want to? You think I want to deal in your kind of business?” I shook my head. “No. I’m fine with you still owning the industries you do right now. I’m not interested in dealing drugs or running prostitution. I would have a couple of rules for you to follow, but nothing you’d be too upset by, I don’t think.”
“Rules,” he said, with obvious distaste. “What sort of rules?”
“You’d have to acknowledge my authority for this to work,” I said. “I can’t maintain respect otherwise. Think of it as…we’re equals, but you’re operating in my territory, so you show respect, right? Other than that, most of what I want is stuff that you already enforce on your people. No pushing drugs to kids, no forced prostitution.”
He nodded slowly. “Reasonable,” he said slowly. “But why should I cede my territory in this city to you?”
“Because you can’t hold it anyway. No offense, but we both know it. Andrews said during the conference that you’ve been attacked recently. Those attacks are just going to get worse as more people take an interest and stronger groups get involved. Apparently you’ve handled them so far, but it’s going to get harder.” I shrugged. “I’m basically offering to defend your holdings in this city for you. And I’ve got the ability to do so. As I see it, that’s a pretty good deal for you. All you’d have to give me is recognition and maybe a bit of assistance.”
“Assistance. What sort of assistance?”
“Information, primarily. Possibly funding; I have plenty of cash, but accessing it is difficult at the moment. I might want more concrete support at some point, but I’d negotiate that separately.”
He pressed his lips together and nodded. “Very well. I will consider your offer. In the meantime, I believe you have another meeting to get to.”
I fled, with gratitude and as much dignity as I could muster.
Not having Andrews’s crazy driving skills, we did use a pair of Otherside portals to travel to the north side of the city. On the other end, Aiko took a couple minutes to recover from the effort of making them, then we stole a car. I felt sort of bad about it, but rationalized it away by telling myself that what I was trying to accomplish here was important enough to justify it.
I wasn’t sure that I liked that train of thought. “The ends justify the means” was a hard ideology once you took it past the most basic level. That was how you rationalized things like preemptive war and genocide. At the same time, though, I’d seen what happened when you went too far the other way, doing the “right” thing without paying any attention to what it would cost. There had to be somewhere in between, a way to balance the two and not wind up doing horrible things.
I shook it off and called Kyi. “Are you in position?” I asked, the moment she answered.
“Yes, jarl,” she replied instantly. “Target is within sight and does not seem to have noticed us.”
Was it my imagination, or was her voice a little colder than it had been before? Or maybe it was just circumstance. This was a time for professionalism, after all, not emotion.
“Good,” I said, trying to ignore that thought in the back of my head. “We’re on our way, should arrive soon. Get your people ready to move into final positions.”
“Yes, jarl,” she said, before hanging up.
The location Katrin had chosen for our meeting was a small outdoor amphitheater in a park solidly in the portion of the territory she’d claimed. I felt more than a little anxious as I walked up to it. It felt like I was being watched, probably because I almost certainly was.
The vampire was waiting for us. She was alone, which worried me more than a little. I’d killed Natalie, sort of, but she still had Hrafn. I wasn’t sure why she wouldn’t have brought her right-hand vamp, especially when he was an absolutely lethal fighter. Even by the standards of vampires he was hard to beat.
There were only a couple of reasons I could think of for her to leave him behind. I didn’t like any of them.
“Good evening,” I said, approaching her. Snowflake was growling quietly next to me—she likes vampires even less than I do, generally—but Aiko seemed entirely calm.
“Good evening,” Katrin replied. She was doing that vampire thing, where she didn’t breathe except to talk, and her voice was a dry rasp. “You’re early.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That a problem.”
“Not at all,” she said. “You have been acting up. Making claims on the city.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But you’re one to talk. The way I hear it, you’re snatching people off the street to feed your minions.”
“We need power to maintain order in this city.”
“If that were your only interest, there are other ways you could have gone about it,” I said. “You could have asked for volunteers. You could have asked me or Kikuchi for assistance.”
A thin, cruel smile played around her lips. I might have been projecting a little, but I didn’t think so. “Perhaps.”
I considered her for a moment, then sighed.
So. It was like that, then.
I already knew how this was going to end, had known since before I even agreed to this meeting, but I thought I’d give Katrin one more chance to surprise me. “I’m taking over the city,” I said. “I’m going to keep things stable. Keep the peace. We made a deal, three years ago, that we’d provide assistance to each other against outside threats. Are you going to keep that deal?”
“Here’s the thing,” she said, with that smile still in place. “As I see it, that deal was made in a different context. The world’s moved on since then. So let me give you a counteroffer. You withdraw your claim and get out of the city, and we can let bygones be bygones.”
“I can’t do that,” I said quietly. I supposed that I should have been afraid, or excited, but I mostly just felt sad.
She nodded slowly. “I understand,” she said. “I want you to know that I really did respect you, Winter.”
Then she whistled, loud enough to make me wince.
And then vampires came out of the night. First one, then two, five, ten, then I lost count. Within thirty seconds, there must have been twenty-five or thirty vampires in that amphitheater, standing all around us. Some of them were holding weapons, others weren’t. I doubted it really mattered. If a vampire hit you full strength, it wasn’t too important what they’d hit you with.
“Kill them,” Katrin said, in that same raspy, emotionless voice.