I felt awkward standing around with the Guards. I imagined it was something like a veteran cop might feel at a Neighborhood Watch meeting. I really was that these people were only playing at being.
The ridiculous costumes were probably not helping things. David was wearing his wingsuit, and I had on the weird feathered thing that Gosnell had designed. The armor was almost as effective as my usual set for most purposes, at least. I’d tested it first thing, and while it wasn’t quite as good as my real suit, it was still decent.
Unsurprisingly, though, those were actually the least absurd of the set. Tawny was in a dull maroon bodysuit with a ballistic vest and a luchador-style mask that left only her eyes exposed, with a featherlike pattern in black. Elyssa was in a similar getup, but lighter, without the vest, and in colors of green and violet. Tony was wearing heavier armor and a police-style helmet in shades of orange—less mobility, but more protection.
Unsurprisingly, Derek’s armor was the best except for possibly mine and David’s. It looked something like mine, with overlapping layers of scales in the general shape of feathers. The feathers were made of steel, with here and there one of silver, and they had lines etched on them. Individually the patterns on each feather were fairly simple, but as the individual feathers slid over each other the lines formed elaborate, shifting geometric designs.
I could feel that the lines were more than just decoration. They were a physical representation of the magic he’d integrated into the metal, a sort of mnemonic guideline he’d used for the magic. It was a clever design, in a lot of ways; each feather was built with its own protections, which were designed to overlap and mesh with each other. The result was marginally weaker than the reinforcements I had on my set, but they were also a little broader, and a lot harder to get around with clever tactics.
All told, it felt more like I was at a costume party than getting ready to go out and search the streets for evildoers. The costuming had a certain style to it, I supposed, and in its own way it looked fairly intimidating. But it just felt like it was trying way, way too hard. I was used to people who could scare the piss out of someone with an expression of mild disapproval. By comparison, this kind of display seemed tawdry.
“All right,” David said. “Shrike, you’re with Crimson going southwest. Spark and Razor, southeast. I’ll take Chainmail and head north. You’ve all got radios; if you run into trouble, use them and we’ll get there as quickly as we can. Any questions?”
“Nope,” I said casually. Everyone else followed suit a moment later, and we started splitting up. David grabbed Derek and started walking north, and a moment later Tony and Elyssa walked off as well, leaving just me and Tawny.
“Guess it’s just you and me now, Shrike,” she said. “You nervous at all?”
I shrugged and started heading southwest, setting a slow enough pace that a human could keep up without too much trouble. “Not really,” I said. “You?”
“A bit,” she admitted. “We didn’t see anything last time out, so I’m still pretty nervous about what’ll happen the first time we have to actually interrupt something.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry to miss the last one.”
“You didn’t miss much,” she said, walking along beside me. “The boss kept us so far away from trouble we couldn’t have found it if we wanted to.”
I snorted. “Yeah, I’m not surprised. Hey, Crim, maybe you can answer a question for me. What the hell is up with the codename bullshit? It sounds ridiculous.”
“We have to use something,” she said reasonably. “I mean, I know Crimson isn’t great, but it beats nothing.”
“Why not just use real names?” I asked. “Jonathan is fine with me. Dressing up like a bird is bad enough, but image is important, whatever, I get it. Calling myself Shrike? That’s just bizarre. It makes me feel like I’m in a comic book or something.”
“I can’t afford to use my real name for this,” she said. “It’s tied to things that couldn’t handle it. Don’t you have a family?”
I shrugged. “Not one worth mentioning. No parents, no siblings, couldn’t care much less what happens to my aunt. I guess I’m married now, but anybody dumb enough to try and get at me through her deserves what happens to them.”
Tawny—Crimson—stopped dead and stared at me. “You’re married?”
“Yeah,” I said dryly. “I didn’t see it coming either, believe me. Anyway, no, I don’t have a family, as such.”
“Well, I do,” she said. “And I can’t afford for them to get mixed up in all this. They’re just people, you know? They aren’t like us, they aren’t transhuman.”
“Hold up,” I said. “Transhuman?”
“People like you and me,” she said. “Werewolves, or people with spooky powers. You know, human, plus a little bit extra.”
I grimaced. “That’s not what that word means. Not quite.”
“Yeah, well, it’s the word I’ve heard used to lump us all in together,” she said. “And my family, they aren’t. My mom, my brother, if something from our side of things goes after them, they don’t stand a chance. And I can’t let that happen.”
“You’re not concerned about your father?”
“He’s dead,” she said stiffly.
“Ah,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“No problem,” she said, although there was very obviously a problem. “It was a month or two ago. I’m starting to get over it, I guess.” Which she very obviously wasn’t, but I wasn’t going to call her on it. We all have our own ways of coping.
I wasn’t in the mood for an awkward silence, so I decided to keep digging on the off chance that it would get me out of the whole rather than make it deeper.
In a way, it was nice to be working with people who didn’t matter all that much. It meant that I didn’t need to be too paranoid about what I said. If I offended Tawny, it wasn’t the end of the world. The nature of her magic was a little unsettling, in terms of what fighting her would entail, but it wasn’t like I was talking to Loki, or even to Lucius. Worst case, I could always just walk away.
So rather than try to backpedal, or shut up and hope she forgot about this, I said, “My parents are dead. I don’t remember them.”
“How’d that happen?” she asked.
I shrugged. “My father was a stranger,” I said. “Never met him, don’t think he knew about me. By the time I even learned who he was he’d been dead for years. My mom killed herself a couple of months after I was born.”
“Bitch. You want to die, that’s on you, but to do that to a kid? Total bitch.”
My lips twitched. “You have no idea. Anyway, I guess I get what you’re saying. I’ve just been a part of all this for so long that it’s hard for me to remember that some people have a life outside of this.”
She looked at me oddly. I couldn’t read her expression behind the mask, but between the eyes and the posture, it was easy to see that she was looking at me oddly. “You don’t look that old,” she said.
I snorted. “You should have learned by now not to pay too much attention to that,” I said. “Looks don’t mean much here.”
“Yeah,” she said. “So how old are you?”
I smiled a little. “Old enough,” I said.
We kept walking for a little while in silence. There was no one else on the street, beyond the occasional passing car. It was almost midnight, and people were reluctant to be outside after dark anymore.
“Okay, I don’t get it,” she said after a minute or two. “What the hell is up with you? You’re working with us, but you really don’t seem much like the rest of us. Like, most of the time you do, but then you start talking about how you’ve been mixed up in transhuman things for ages.”
“Hm,” I said. “Have you ever seen the film The Dirty Dozen? It’s an old war movie about a bunch of convicts who were recruited by the military to go on a suicide mission back in World War II.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I had to watch it for a class, I think.”
“I’m kind of like that,” I said. “I’m something of a bad guy, and under normal circumstances the Guards would probably want nothing to do with me. But I’m also useful, so they gave me the option to work against even worse people on parole.”
“I thought it might be something like that,” she said. “When you say you were a bad guy, how bad are we talking?”
“Bad enough,” I said, chuckling a little. I didn’t point out that I hadn’t been speaking in the past tense. “I mean, I’m not a serial killer or anything. But…yeah. Bad enough.”
“I see,” she said. “So…Jonny Keyes is…?”
“Not the name I was born with,” I said. “Or anything much like it, really. I’m not supposed to tell you who I really am. They’re concerned about me corrupting the youth or some such nonsense, I think.”
“Wow,” she said. “So I get that you can’t talk about the details. But when you say bad, you mean really bad, don’t you?”
“Let me put it this way,” I said. “If the authorities find out who I am, they’d almost certainly give me a death sentence. If they could prove that you knew who I was, I’d lay decent odds on you spending the rest of your life in a cage for having not turned me in. It’s that kind of bad.”
“You know how I said I was a little scared of you a while ago?” she told me. “I think I should have been taking that feeling a hell of a lot more seriously. Is it too late for me to run?”
I snorted. “Oh, come off it,” I said. “You aren’t exactly a paragon of sweetness and light yourself, now, are you?”
She froze. “How do you know about that?” she said, sounding stricken.
I shrugged and kept walking. I’d noticed something a block or so west of us through a stray dog’s ears, and started angling in that direction. I was thinking we were probably going to get some action after all.
“I didn’t know,” I said, answering her question as she started walking again. “It was more of an educated guess. In my experience, this lifestyle doesn’t attract normal, well-adjusted people. You have to be at least a little bit fucked up to voluntarily get into this business, you know? For that matter, just about every transhuman I’ve ever talked to has some kind of trauma in their background. It’s the nature of the world we live in. I usually work under the assumption that everyone’s got skeletons in their closets, bad things that have happened to them, bad things they’ve done to others. Some of us just hide it a little better than others.”
“That seems like a pretty fucking dismal way to look at things,” Tawny said.
I shrugged. “I see it more as a reasonable extension of my experience. Are you going to argue with me? I mean, think about it. From the way you just reacted you’re not an exception, and whatever’s weighing you down, I’d lay good money that I’ve got something worse. I’ve talked to David, and I’m not going to spill his secrets, but I can definitely vouch for him as much of a mess as you and me.”
“And the others?” she said. “You think they fit into this theory?”
“Frankly? Yes, I do. I’m still collecting dossiers on them, but think about it. Spark has a temper, he doesn’t have the best control, and he doesn’t have the best self-control. I’d wager he’s burned someone in the past, probably badly. Razor’s a sociopath, plain and simple. She’s used her magic on herself to the point that it’s warped her mind. Someone like that, with the power to be basically invisible? Not a chance that she hasn’t used it for something ugly somewhere along the line. Honestly, the only person I’m not sure about is Chainmail, and that’s only because I haven’t spent as much time with him.”
“You make it really hard to like you, Shrike,” she said. “Good job remembering the names, though.”
“Thanks,” I said dryly. “And I didn’t make the world this way. I just live here. Besides, as I see it the important thing isn’t what you’ve done and what crimes you’re guilty of. It’s where you go from here. It’s trying to be something better tomorrow than you were today. As long as you remember that, as long as you keep trying, I don’t think you can really turn into a monster. You might lose track every now and then, you might slip up, but you’ll never be so bad you can’t get better.”
“For a bad guy, that’s actually a pretty optimistic philosophy,” Tawny said. “Thanks. I…I guess I needed to hear that.”
“No problem. Now, listen up. There’s a mugging going down about a fifty feet in front of us, in that alley.” I pointed. “I’m not expecting us to have any trouble taking care of things. It seems like it’s just a guy with a knife. You might want to be ready just in case, though. It’s possible he’s a transhuman.”
God, I hated using that word for this. The word, the whole implication, it scared me. Talking about mages and werewolves and vampires as being human plus some reminded me uncomfortably of the things Shadow said, about how mages deserved to have power over normal humans. And that was one hell of a slippery slope, paved with good intentions and everything.
But it was apparently the word to use, and even if I could change it, it wasn’t going to happen tonight. So for tonight, I could play along.
Tawny—no, I reminded myself, she was Crimson right now. Crimson’s eyes widened slightly before she nodded. “Okay,” she said. “What do you want me to do?”
“Stay behind me,” I said. “Follow my lead. And if things get too serious, be ready to summon…something. I don’t know, whatever you think’s best. It’s your magic; I can’t really tell you how to use it effectively.”
“Okay,” she said again, picking up her pace. She sounded almost excited now. There was still an edge of fear there, but it wasn’t overwhelming.
I sped up as well, staying ahead of her as we got closer to the alley. As expected, there were two people inside. She looked scared, and had one hand in her purse; she was wearing a moderately expensive dress and high heels, one of which was broken. On her way to or from a party, I was guessing.
He, on the other hand, had a black ski mask and a knife as his main fashion statements. The message painted by the scene was rather clear.
“Stop,” I said, walking into the alley. Crim stood near the entrance, one hand in her pocket.
The guy in the mask froze and then looked back at me. “Walk away,” he said. “This isn’t your problem.”
“See, it kind of is,” I said. “Now, I’m going to lay things out for you in simple terms. I’m not allowed to kill you right now. I’m supposed to be turning over a new leaf, and not killing people is a major part of that. My bosses were very clear on that.” I grinned behind the mask. “On the other hand, my bosses aren’t here right now, are they, Crimson?”
“Nope,” she said back. She was grinning as well, I could hear it in her voice. Getting into the game. I’d thought that she was the type who would.
“So I can make you disappear, and they’ll never have to know,” I continued. I pulled a knife out of its sheath and started toying with it. “What do you say, buddy? You wanna go? Or do you wanna walk away now, and we can all just pretend that this never happened?”
He glanced at the woman, then started walking away. He stepped around me, staying well out of reach.
I almost thought he looked familiar when he was walking. I couldn’t see his face—even his eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, which was pretty ridiculous at midnight—but something about his gait was familiar. I couldn’t place it, though, and it might have been my imagination. So I turned back to the victim as he got past me and started for the alley entrance, where Crim was standing and watching.
“Sorry for the trouble,” I said to the woman, waiting for the guy to get further away. I wasn’t going to let him go—our instructions had clearly stated that we were supposed to apprehend criminals—but I wanted to make sure he wasn’t in a position to take her hostage.
“Me too,” she said, smiling at me. It was an odd smile, self-satisfied and not nearly as frightened as it should have been.
Then she flicked her fingers, and a blast of fire and force hit me right in the face.
I was caught completely flat-footed, without a chance to doge or chill the air around myself to get ready. There were things I could do to mitigate the effects of fire, but I had to actually do them, and that meant I had to be at least a little bit prepared for the fire to happen.
This time, I wasn’t. I just ate the fire, and it sucked.
It didn’t kill me. It wasn’t hot enough or prolonged enough for that, particularly not when the armor was providing some insulation.
But I hit the ground, and I was dazed for a moment afterward. Burns hurt, and while numerous previous exposures had left me somewhat blasé about the pain, I couldn’t completely ignore it.
By the time I was starting to stand, she’d already kicked off the heels, and she was pulling her hand out of the purse. It had a heavy, ugly handgun in it, the sort of weapon you used when you wanted to put someone down and you didn’t particularly want them getting up again afterward.
I glanced over my shoulder, and saw that the “mugger” had his sunglasses and ski mask off as well. I probably still wouldn’t have recognized him, but I could smell his magic on the air and I saw the shadows beginning to twist into the shape of hounds by his sides.
Of course. I knew I recognized him from somewhere. I hadn’t keyed on the woman as much when they attacked my house, or I’d probably have recognized her as well. All we needed now was the guy in the suit to show up and complete the set.
“Die,” the woman said, more flames kindling around her hand as the first of the constructs lunged at me.