Frishberg looked about as unhappy as I’d ever seen her. “Are you sure?” she asked.
I shrugged and nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “Sure as I can be.”
She grimaced and looked back at the crowd. “Jesus.”
I could see why she was upset. The people looked normal enough. At a glance, they weren’t psycho monsters waiting for a chance to happen. They were sitting or pacing with the same anxious, helpless frustration as anyone else. At a glance, the quarantine building could have been an airport.
But if I hadn’t believed Selene before, some of the incidents that had already taken place were more convincing than I would have liked. The random violence, the arguments that went from mild words to attempted murder in seconds, would have been concerning enough, but if that was all it was I could have told myself that there was still a chance that she was wrong. Those could be written off as the frustration and pent-up anger seeking an outlet.
No, the incident that really convinced me was the one that was more calculating. An eight-year-old girl had cut herself with a smuggled knife, doing it in a way that would look messy and spill a lot of blood without meaningfully crippling her. When that lured one of the police officers maintaining the quarantine in, she’d stabbed him twice in the neck before he managed to get away and backup got there. As far as I knew, that poor bastard was still in ICU.
That wasn’t an act of passion or frustration. That was a calculated attempt at murder, targeted at someone who’d done absolutely nothing to provoke it and carried out in one of the most underhanded, contemptible ways I could think of. And that was an eight year old. By all accounts, before the demon she’d been as peaceful and gentle a soul as you could ask for.
If the demon’s influence had managed to twist her that far, then I had to assume that Selene was correct. Every one of these people was a ticking time bomb.
“Believe me, I’m no happier about it than you are,” I said. “But it’s the only way to minimize the damage.”
“You’re asking me to kill a couple hundred people,” she said. “You call that minimizing the damage?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I do. Look, these people are already dead, in every way that matters. This is just…what’s left behind after they’re gone.”
“Yeah,” she said dryly. “Somehow I doubt my people will see it that way when I tell them to pull the trigger.”
“I’m not asking you to kill anyone,” I said quietly. “Just stay out of the way. We’ll take care of the rest.”
She glanced at me, then looked back at the crowd. Seen from above, from the other side of the one-way mirror, they felt very distant. Not even really real, as such.
“How can you be so sure?” she asked.
I considered for a moment, then sighed. “Look,” I said. “The thing that did this is a literal demon out of Hell. Not in the theological sense, but someone read those stories and thought it would be hilarious to build it. I’ve got an employee who used to work there, and she says she’s familiar with this effect.”
Frishberg turned and stared at me. “You have an employee who used to work for Hell,” she said.
“Yeah. Her name’s Selene. I think you might have met her?”
“I’ve met her,” the sergeant confirmed. “She’s a demon?”
“Yep,” I said. “She used to work as a succubus. She’d seduce people and then tempt them into sin, or convince them to do something that would advance her agenda.”
“Damn.” Frishberg didn’t look surprised, exactly, but she didn’t look happy either. “You trust her?”
“As much as I trust anyone,” I said, shrugging. “She’d know what she’s talking about on this topic, and she’s got no reason to lie to me about it that I can think of. It’s about as reliable of information as I can get.”
She went back to looking at the people. “It disturbs me a little that we’re taking advice from Hell on this,” she said. “It makes me wonder where we’re going after this is done.”
I smiled wryly. It was a broken, lopsided sort of smile, without any humor in it. “I don’t think either of us has to wonder about that,” I said. “I’ve got worse things than this on my conscience, and I’d be surprised if you don’t, too. We aren’t good people, sergeant. Good people couldn’t do the things we do.”
She sighed. “Yeah,” she said. “I guess you’ve got a point.” There was a long, sullen pause. “Let’s get this over with,” she said at last. “Come on.”
Most of the exits to the building had been closed up as part of the quarantine effort. Only one door was still open, and it was guarded around the clock by four police officers with guns and riot gear.
The inhabitants could have overwhelmed them and escaped, of course. They outnumbered the guards fifty to one; at some point, numbers will tell. And I doubted the officers would fight back, not effectively. There were a lot of kids in there, a lot of their former coworkers. They wouldn’t want to hurt them, not until it was too late.
I wasn’t sure why the prisoners hadn’t done that yet. Maybe it was a very human reaction to being scared and isolated. People feeling unsure, hesitating in the face of authority, not wanting to be the one to throw the first stone—those were all very normal. And they might be enough to do this. It wouldn’t be the first time that a group was cowed by a force they could easily have beaten, if they’d only thought it through and worked together. It could be that was all the explanation I needed.
Or it could be that the demon in them was biding its time and waiting for an opportunity to do more damage. Either way, it was best to resolve this as soon as possible. Nothing would be gained by waiting.
I collected my troops on the way. I’d brought only a very specific selection of people to this job, the people I could trust to carry it out without hesitating or turning aside. Vigdis was there, a broad psychopath’s grin on her face. The only other housecarls there were Thraslaug and Nóttolfr; the rest of the jötnar were too honorable, in their own way, for me to be certain they would follow my orders here. Nóttolfr still looked hideous, his body warped in ways that didn’t entirely make sense, but as Selene had said, he was as functional as ever. Of the men that Pellegrini had loaned me, a couple of the hardest were accompanying us, and there were more on nearby rooftops with large rifles. One of the mages who’d signed on with my crew recently was there as well; a fire mage with a penchant for flashy and indiscriminate destruction, he wasn’t shy about the fact that he was a serious pyromaniac. The thrill was in the burning itself for him, rather than in who got hurt or killed in the fire, but he freely admitted that he didn’t care as much as he should about hurting people in the process of getting his kicks.
Matthew wasn’t there; the shapeshifter was a lunatic, but he wasn’t totally without standards, and he had no taste for slaughtering helpless people. Neither of the werewolves was there, and even Snowflake wanted no part of this, so for once there were no quadrupeds with me. Aiko hadn’t come, either. She was physically recovered by now, but she’d made it very clear that she didn’t want to be here for this.
I didn’t blame her. I didn’t want to be here either.
“Clear out,” Frishberg said quietly, walking up to the door.
“Why?” one of the guards asked. He sounded more defensive than curious.
“You don’t want to know,” Frishberg said. She sounded very, very tired. “Trust me on this one. All you need to know is that you’re being relieved. Go get some coffee or something.”
“These people don’t look much like police officers,” the man commented. “Kind of the opposite, actually.”
Frishberg sighed. “Anderson, I’m going to say this once and once only, so pay attention. You never saw these people. None of you did. They were never here. We clear?”
“I don’t understand,” one of the other guards said.
“You’re happier that way,” Frishberg said. “Trust me. Now skedaddle.”
They obviously weren’t happy about it, but they left. I waited for them to be gone, then waved my merry little band of killers inside. The prisoners drew back a little, recognizing by some instinct that something had changed.
“You don’t have to be here for this,” I said to Frishberg, staying outside.
“I signed off on this,” she said, not looking away as the screaming and the bleeding started inside. “I’m not going to pretend that I’m not responsible. I owe them this much.”
“I can respect that,” I said.
“Yeah. I thought you might.”
The fighting, such as it was, was quick and ugly, and completely one-sided. One of the former cops managed to beat her way out through one of the boarded-up exits, but the snipers did their job. She didn’t make it two steps before she hit the ground in a cloud of blood and ravaged organs.
When the slaughter was over, they dragged the few escapees back into the building and splashed enough accelerant around to make the mage’s job an easy one. The fire started moments later, and rapidly grew to engulf the entire building. The flames crackled merrily, warm against my face even at a distance. I wasn’t concerned about the fire department getting there any time soon. They were still busy with the last bits of work from the wildfire.
“The White House issued a statement today,” Frishberg said as we watched the fires burn. “I don’t know if you saw.”
“I saw.” It had been the first thing Selene showed me when I got to the city.
“Apparently the crisis is winding down. In this country, at least. Most of the cities have restored some kind of order, apparently. Even if it is martial law in some places. We’ve got an estimate of the death toll.”
“Oh?” I asked. “That wasn’t in the version I saw.”
She grimaced and nodded. “It isn’t being released to the public yet. Too demoralizing, I think. Close to twenty million so far. They’re still getting numbers in from other countries, but the current guess is close to three hundred million dead worldwide. I can’t even think in numbers big enough to get at the cost of damages.”
“Not surprising,” I said. “This is the biggest thing to happen to the world in a thousand years, probably.”
She grunted. “Yeah.” She watched the fire for a minute. “I asked you to get the city through it in one piece,” she said. “Killing a couple hundred of our own citizens and torching a building to cover it up isn’t quite what I had in mind.”
“Have you seen what’s going on in some other places?” I asked dryly. “As far as I can tell, this is a win. I don’t have an exact death rate for the city, but I’d be shocked if it’s much over one percent. The infrastructure is in good enough shape that it stands out when it isn’t working. From where I’m standing, things look a hell of a lot better than they do in some places.”
“Of course they do,” she said. “You’re the one who took the opportunity to set yourself up as a tin-pot dictator. I’m sure this outcome does look good to you.”
Most of my people were still standing near the building, making sure it burned to the ground without damaging the surrounding property. But Thraslaug was nearby, as were a couple of the mercenaries and thugs I’d brought.
As Frishberg said that, they all went dead still and stared at her.
I slowly turned to face her myself, and I could see her flinch back a little as she realized that she’d gone too far. She didn’t say anything, though, and her expression was defiant.
“Fuck you,” I said, my tone calm and remote. “You think I wanted this? You think I wanted this job? Fuck you, sergeant. You have no idea what I’ve given, what I’ve sacrificed for this city.”
She opened her mouth. “No, let me finish,” I said, cutting her off. “I’ve got something to say. You see those people in there, Frishberg? They died because of you. My people contacted you right after you found that thing and offered to help you set up appropriate security measures. You turned us down because you were too concerned with who had jurisdiction to listen to the people that know what they’re talking about.”
She looked like she was about to be sick. She shut her mouth and looked at the fire again.
“I could have walked away from this,” I said. “I could have written this city, this whole fucking world off as a lost cause and gone off on my own. I didn’t, because I wasn’t willing to let that many people die. I stepped up to help, even though I never wanted a position of authority. I spent years wanted for terrorism because I stepped in to stop this entire city from being destroyed. You threw me in prison, you starved me, you beat the shit out of me, you locked silver manacles around my wrists, and I just took it like a submissive little bitch, because I didn’t want to murder people for doing their jobs.”
I took a deep breath and gestured vaguely at the city around us. “And then this,” I said. “Do you have any idea how easy it would have been for me to pitch in on the other side? To just let go and rampage with the rest of them? Hell, I’d probably have been rewarded for it. But no, I agreed to fight for stability and get you guys through the chaos of the transitional period. When those demons showed up, I could have been forgiven for turning my back on you, and they’d have gone through this city like tissue paper. Instead, I made a deal with the devil to get rid of them for you guys.”
She blinked. “You made a deal with the devil?” she asked.
“Effectively,” I said. “But the point is this. I have given up more for this city than you can imagine. And at every step, I have been met with suspicion and ingratitude. You’ve heard of biting the hand that feeds you? You people turn it up to eleven, you know that? And now, when I’ve finally managed to get this under control, you get upset about the methods I’ve used? You call me a dictator because you don’t want to accept that your people couldn’t deal with this?”
“That’s not how it is,” she said.
“Bullshit,” I snapped. “Are you really going to tell me that the mayor could have found a way to handle a bunch of demons? Do you think the city council would have held its own in negotiations with a bunch of vampires?” I snorted. “You have no idea how to deal with this world. After the insult you just gave me, for example, I could tear your head off in the middle of the street and I guarantee you that none of the people here would be shocked or think I was going too far.”
“We’d probably applaud,” Thraslaug said helpfully. “And maybe play a game of football. I’ve always wondered whether that would actually work.”
“Is this supposed to be making me feel better?” Frishberg asked.
“No,” I said. “I don’t really give a fuck how you feel right now, honestly. That’s kind of the point. I’ve had it up to here with this. As far as I’m concerned, this is your last chance to back out. You want me to stop helping you, you tell me right now and I’ll go back to just being the jarl of my own little fiefdom, the way I was for years without upsetting you at all. Otherwise, you can accept that this is my area of expertise and I’m doing the best I can. I don’t tell you how to do your job; kindly return the favor.”
She was staring at me. “You know,” she said conversationally, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this.”
“You’ve never needed to hear it before,” I said. “But I’ve lost my patience. Choose.”
She took a deep breath and then nodded once. “You’ve got a deal,” she said.
“Good,” I said. “Looks like the fire’s finished. I trust you’ll ensure that there’s no legal difficulty?”
“Already taken care of,” she said dismissively.
“All right, then,” I said. “Things should be quiet for the next few days. I’ll be working in the background to set up deals with some other people, establish relations, that sort of thing.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“You know,” I commented, “I think that’s the first time you’ve ever told me that.” I waved to my minions and walked off to where a pair of hired drivers already had the vans running.