“That’s the place?” I asked, looking at our destination. It was a moderately-sized office building in the heart of downtown, all worn concrete and gleaming windows.
“That’s it,” my escort said. He’d introduced himself to me as David Brunner; I could smell the movement in his magic, quick and light, but beyond that I didn’t know much of anything about him. He was a Guard, apparently the person who was going to be in charge of their public branch in Colorado Springs.
“Nice digs,” Aiko said. “You own the whole building?”
“Yeah,” David said. “No offense, but you aren’t actually invited in. We’re planning to open areas of the building to the public once we have things up and running for real, but for the moment it’s still restricted to members of the Guards. Not to mention that having you around would make it a little too easy to figure out who Winter really is.”
“No problem,” she said easily. “I think we all knew that I wasn’t exactly going to be signing up with this crew. You don’t want to let me into your clubhouse, that’s fine.”
I eyed for a moment. “Please don’t break in,” I said. “We know you can. You don’t need to prove it.”
“Oh, come on,” she said. “You don’t seriously think I would do something like that, do you?”
“Yeah,” I said dryly. “Given that I’m pretty sure you were already considering it, yes, I do.”
She sniffed. “Fine. I’ll wait outside like a boring person.”
“Thank you.” I turned to David. “Okay, what do I need to know?”
“To start with, I’m the only other person on the local team who knows about the Conclave, the Guards as an organization beyond what’s being developed for the public, or pretty much anything about the political structures you’re used to dealing with. As far as everyone else is concerned, none of that exists, and we’d like to keep it that way.”
I blinked. “These people are that new?”
He smiled thinly. “You have no idea. Speaking of which, I’m also the only one who knows who you are. To the rest of the team, you’re Jonathan Keyes, using the alias Shrike. Here’s your paperwork for that, by the way.” He pulled an envelope out of his pocket and held it out to me.
I didn’t take it. “Shrike,” I said. “Seriously? That’s the name you guys came up with for me?”
“You’re the one who put it on the form. It’s not my problem if you changed your mind.”
I opened my mouth, then sighed and turned back to Aiko. “Shrike,” I said. “You filled out a form saying that I wanted to go by the name Shrike.”
“What?” she said, smirking. “I told you I wanted to have a pet name for you. It just took a little while to actually make it happen.”
“Okay,” I said, taking the envelope. “So apparently I’m going by Shrike now. Joy. You said my fake real name is Jonathan Keyes?”
“That’s right,” David said. “Now, the team does know that you’re a werewolf, as well as very basic information about your magic and your skills. So don’t worry about keeping any of that secret. But your real identity, your political affiliations, and your heritage are all very much secret.”
I snorted. “What do you even know about my heritage?”
“Enough to know that we don’t want them knowing much of anything about it. That means you also have to seem like a different person. So the wolf motif? That’s going to have to go.”
I stared at him for a moment. “You know,” I commented, “I was just thinking that there was not one single thing about this arrangement that I actually liked. Thanks for proving me wrong.”
“What?” David said. He shook his head a moment later. “No, never mind. Not important. Here’s your ID; that’ll get you through the security. Now come on, let’s introduce you to the rest of the team.” He started across the street without waiting for me to answer. I hugged Aiko and then followed.
“You don’t like me very much, do you?” I asked.
David glanced at me, then continued walking. “I think you’re dangerous,” he said. “You’re disruptive, destructive, and you have a history of doing stupid things. To be blunt, you’re exactly what we’re working against here. You just happen to be pointed at even worse things right now.”
I took a few more steps, then said, “You smell sort of bad. Like, whatever cologne you’re using? It’s starting to go rancid. Just so you know.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, reminding me very strongly of Guard. Apparently I had a gift for annoying all of his people, not just the boss.
He swiped his own identification card through the reader at the door. The reader beeped and then the door unlocked with a sharp click. He pulled it open and waved me inside.
I paused outside. “This building is warded?” I asked absently, most of my attention on the wards themselves. I sniffed, analyzing the scent of the magic, and felt around at the edges of the spells.
“Of course,” he said impatiently.
“These are, like, cookie-cutter wards,” I said. “They’re ridiculously generic. And the joints between the different wards are weak. A moron could take this apart.”
“And you think you could do better?” he asked.
“Of course not,” I snapped. “Defensive magic isn’t exactly my strong suit, as you’re well aware. That’s why I hired someone who is good at it, rather than try and cobble it together myself and end up with this kind of sloppy, standardized crap.”
He sighed. “I’ll pass on your recommendation to the higher-ups,” he said, sounding tired. “Now come on. The rest of the team is waiting to meet you.”
The building was in the middle of some fairly extensive renovations. There was a demolition crew gutting the ground floor, clearing out the walls to leave a large, open space, and David said that there was more work being done elsewhere. Apparently the elevators were down for the time being as a part of the renovations, which I was just as glad for. I’ve always much preferred stairs.
“The ground floor is going to be the public area,” David said, climbing the stairs as quickly and easily as I could. That was pretty impressive, for a human, enough to make me wonder whether he had some means of making it easier magically. “We’re going to have a gift shop, a cafe, that sort of thing.”
I blinked. “A gift shop? That’s…why?”
He shrugged. “We need cash,” he said simply. “To pull this arrangement off, we’re going to need a lot of money. We’re planning on getting support from the government once we’re up and running, and until then the funds from our donors should be plenty.” He glanced at me as he said that, a silent reminder that the precise nature of those donors was not public knowledge even here. “But we’ll want to be bringing in some cash on our own, and a gift shop isn’t a bad way of going about that.”
“Who in their right mind would be shopping at a gift shop here?” I demanded.
He snorted. “You might be surprised,” he said dryly. “Remember, this is going to be a high-profile, publicly known organization. People are going to be talking about us. Hell, I’ll be surprised if it takes more than a couple weeks for you to be a celebrity.”
I groaned. “Oh, no,” I said. “I’ve done the celebrity thing before. Vastly overrated.”
“When were you a celebrity?”
“First time the werewolves came out to the public,” I said. “I was one of the names on the list. I didn’t have it as bad as a lot of them, but it was still pretty ridiculous. People barging into my store and ranting about it, or trying to take pictures of me whenever I went outside.”
He laughed. “Well, at least you know what you’re in for.” He glanced at me curiously. “Maybe you can tell me something, though. Why did the werewolves pull that stunt? The whole thing seemed a little…random.”
“You know,” I said slowly, “at the time I agreed with you. Thought it was a terrible idea. But looking back on it, I’d wager the Khan knew that this was coming. The whole supernatural world going public, I mean. The first time was a sort of trial balloon, seeing what the reaction would be and who the most strongly-opposed people were. Then when they went back into the closet for a while, they could arrange for those people to have unfortunate accidents before we went public for real.”
“That’s pretty terrifying,” he said after a moment. “That kind of thinking, I mean. And the way you just talk about them having accidents like it’s nothing. You really think that’s right?”
“We’re talking about people who were lynching werewolves in the streets,” I said coldly. “Or just random people that maybe looked a little like a werewolf if you squinted hard enough. I don’t have a lot of pity for them.”
“I guess that’s fair,” David said, though he didn’t sound convinced. “Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. The tour. So the ground floor is open to the general public. Then the next couple floors are where we’re putting in the support staff and the bureaucracy. Fifth floor is our work area—lab space, workshops, and such.”
“I’m going to want to check that out,” I said. “Is it fully equipped?”
“I thought you might like that part,” he said. “And no, we’re still getting it set up. On the plus side, that does mean that you can put in any special requests. I’ll show you where after you meet your new coworkers. Speaking of, here we are.” He opened the heavy fire door at the next landing and waved me through. “Sixth floor,” he said. “This is our common area. Seventh is the top floor, and that’s where our personal quarters are.”
“Seems a little awkward for us to get to,” I commented. The door opened into a hallway, across from the elevators. To either side there were a handful of doors opening off the hall.
“It’s also hard for anyone else to get to,” he pointed out. “Kind of have to pick one, right?”
“Glad you think so. Well, here we are.” He grinned at me and opened one of the doors.
Looking in, the first thing that struck me was how cozy it was. The floor was covered in pale grey carpet, saved from looking institutional by the thick, plush shag. The walls were a warmer cream color, with several paintings, drawings, photos, and posters on them. There were several leather couches and armchairs scattered around the room, as well as a beanbag and some large cushions. Somebody had hung a green-and-black hammock in the corner, which looked like it was made of parachute fabric. There was a television, a stereo, some video games. The result should have been cluttered and chaotic, but somehow it all seemed to fit together into a harmonious whole.
There were four people in the room when I walked in. A man and a woman were curled up together in the beanbag, a skinny guy was sprawled in one of the armchairs, and a girl with an aggressively red mohawk was lying in the hammock.
“Hey, folks,” David said, following me in and closing the door behind us. “Last one of the team’s finally here. Meet Jonathan. He’s going to be our tank.”
“Nice to meet you,” the guy on the couch said, looking up at me and smiling awkwardly. Now that I looked at him again, I saw that he wasn’t much older than the girl in the hammock; he might be in his twenties, but not by much. “My name’s Derek. I’m mostly good at making things. Like armor and stuff, yeah?”
“That’s an useful ability,” I said.
His awkward smile blossomed into a broad, ecstatic grin. “Thanks,” he said.
“Yeah, yeah,” the girl in the hammock said impatiently. “I’m Tawny and I summon demons. Christ, this is like an AA meeting.”
I considered her for a moment. “I think you and I should have a conversation about that.”
“What, you want me to renounce my heretical ways and go back to being a good girl?”
“Nah,” I said. “Mostly I just want to know what kind of demon you’re summoning. Some are a lot better to work with than others.”
She looked directly at me for the first time, apparently trying to figure out whether I was serious, and then grinned almost as widely as Derek. She was missing some teeth. “I think I might like you, Jonny,” she said. “Tell you what, I’ll have that conversation with you. Who knows, I might even learn something.”
“I look forward to it,” I said.
“Well, not to rush you or anything, but we are on a schedule,” David said. “You already know me. I mostly focus on mobility and providing ranged support.”
“My name’s Anthony,” the guy in the beanbag said. His eyes were solidly closed. “But you can call me Tony. Everyone does. I’m good with fire, primarily, although I do a little work with electricity and light.”
“And I’m Elyssa,” the woman with him said. Despite their physical proximity, they seemed like polar opposites; her eyes were wide open and darted around in a way that made me think she was taking in everything that happened. “I mess with people’s perceptions, especially with attention. Now run along; you don’t want to keep the bossman waiting.”
“Hang on a second,” I said. “What’s the rush?”
“You have some paperwork to file,” David said. “Financial information and such. And then you have a meeting with the public relations team to talk about how your image is going to need to change now that you aren’t operating on your own.”
Tawny laughed. “Good luck with that, Jonny,” she said. “Play nice with the pencil-pushers.”
And on that less-than-comforting note, I was whisked right back out to arrange for the less dramatic aspects of a job that I was already deeply, deeply regretting having agreed to.