THE MAGIC HAD HIT WHILE I WAS PACKING THE essentials into my bag and I had to take Karmelion instead of my regular car. A beat-up rusted truck, bile green in color and missing the left headlight assembly, Karmelion had only one advantage - it ran on water infused with magic and could be driven during a magic wave. Unlike normal cars, the truck did not rumble or murmur or produce any sound one would expect an engine to make. Instead it growled, whined, snarled, and emitted deafening peals of thunder with depressing regularity. Who named it Karmelion, and why, I had no idea. I bought it at a junkyard with the name scrawled on the windshield.
Lucky for me, on a regular day Karmelion had to travel only thirty miles to Savannah. Today I forced it into the ley line, which in itself wasn't bad for it, since the ley line dragged it almost all the way to Atlanta, but the trek across the city didn't do it much good. Now the truck was cooling off in the parking lot behind me, dripping water and sweating magic. It would take me a good fifteen minutes to warm the generator back up, but that was alright. I planned to be here for a while.
I hated Atlanta. I hated cities, period.
I stood on the sidewalk and surveyed the small shabby office building that supposedly contained the Atlanta Chapter of the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid. The Order made efforts to conceal its true size and power, but in this case they had gone overboard. The building, a concrete box three stories high, stuck out like a sore thumb among the stately brick houses flanking it on both sides. The walls sported orange rust stains made by rainwater dripping from the metal roof through the holes in the gutters. Thick metal grates secured small windows, blocked by pale Venetian blinds behind dusty glass.
There had to be another facility in the city. A place where the support staff worked while the field agents put on a nice modest front for the public. It would have a large, state of the art armory, and a computer network, and a database of files on anyone of power - magic or mundane. Somewhere in that database my name sat in its own little niche, the name of a reject, undisciplined and worthless. Just the way I liked it.
I touched the wall. About a quarter of an inch away from the concrete, my finger encountered elastic resistance, as if I was trying to squeeze a tennis ball. A faint shimmer of silver pulsed from my skin and I withdrew my hand. The building was heavily warded against hostile magic. If someone with a lot of juice was to hurl a fireball at it, it would probably bounce off without so much as scorching the gray walls.
I opened one half of the metal double doors and walked inside. A narrow passage stretched to the right of me, terminating at a door boasting a large red-on-white sign: Authorized Personnel Only. My other option was a flight of stairs leading upward.
I took the stairs, noting they were surprisingly clean. Nobody tried to stop me. Nobody asked why I was there.
Look at us, we are helpful and nonthreatening, we live to serve the community, and we even let anyone walk into our office.
The need for an unassuming building I could understand, but public records claimed that the entire Chapter consisted of nine knights: a protector, a piner, a questor, three defenders, and three guardians. Nine people, overseeing a city the size of Atlanta. Yeah.
The stairs ended on a landing with a single metal door painted dull green. A small dagger gleamed weakly on its surface about my eye level. Knocking didn't seem like a good idea, so I swung the door open and let myself in.
A long hallway stretched before me, offering a variety of color to my tired eyes: gray and gray, and yet more gray. The ultra-short carpet boasted plain gray pile; the walls were painted in two shades of gray: lighter on top and a darker gray runner at the bottom. The small warts of electric lights on the ceiling looked gray, too. No doubt the decorator chose a particularly dull smoky glass out of esthetic considerations.
The place looked spotless. Several doors branched from the hallway, probably leading into the inpidual offices. At the very end a large wooden door supported a kite shield enameled black. In the middle of the shield reared a steel lion, polished to a bright gleam. The knight-protector. Just the fellow I needed to see.
I marched through the hallway, aiming for the shield and glancing into the doorways as I passed them. On my left I saw a small armory. A short, well-muscled man sat on a wooden bench polishing a dha. The wide blade of the short Vietnamese sword shimmered slightly as he drew an oiled cloth against its bluish metal. On the right lay a small but immaculate office. A large black man dressed in an expensive suit sat behind the desk, talking on the phone. He saw me, smiled with automatic courtesy, and kept talking.
In his place I wouldn't have given myself a second glance either. I wore my work clothes: jeans loose enough to let me kick a man taller than me in the throat, a green shirt, and comfortable running shoes. Slayer rested in its sheath on my back, partially hidden by my jacket. The saber's hilt protruded above my right shoulder, obscured by my hair gathered into a thick plait. The braid was cumbersome - it slapped my back when I ran and made for an excellent hold in a fight. If I were a little less vain, I would've cut it off, but I've already sacrificed feminine clothes, makeup, and pretty underwear in the name of functionality. I would be damned if I gave up my hair, too.
I reached the protector's door and raised my hand to knock.
"Just a moment, dear," said the stern female voice I had heard through the phone yesterday.
I glanced in its direction and saw a small office cluttered with file cabinets. A large desk sat in the middle of the floor and on top of the desk stood a middle-aged woman. The woman was tall, prim, and very thin, with a halo of curly hair dyed platinum-gray. She wore a stylish blue pantsuit. A matching pair of shoes rested near the leg of the chair she must have used to get on the table.
"He's with someone, dear," the woman said. She raised her hands and proceeded to change the twisted bulb in a feylantern affixed to the ceiling next to an electric light. "You don't have an appointment, do you?"
"Well, you're in luck. He's free for the morning. Why don't you give me your name and the reason for your visit, and we'll see what we can do."
I waited until she finished with the feybulb, told her that I was here in connection with Greg Feldman, and gave her my card. She took it down, showing no reaction at all, and pointed behind me. "There's a waiting area over there, dear."
I turned and walked into the waiting area, which turned out to be just another office, equipped with a black leather sofa and two chairs. A table stood against the wall by the door with a coffeepot, guarded by two stacks of small clay cups. A large jar of sugar cubes stood next to the cups and next to the jar sat two boxes from Duncan's Doughnuts. My hand twitched to the doughnuts, but I restrained myself. Anyone who had the pleasure of trying one of the old Scot's doughnuts quickly learned you couldn't eat just one, and waltzing into the protector's office covered in hand-whipped chocolate cream wasn't a good way to make the right impression.
I found a safe spot by the window, away from the doughnuts, and glanced past the bars to the outside, at the small stretch of the overcast sky, framed by roofs. The Order of Merciful Aid offered just what its name suggested: merciful aid to anyone who asked. If you could pay, they would charge you; and if you couldn't, they would kill shit on your behalf pro bono. Officially their mission statement was to protect humanity against all harm, by magic or by weapon. Trouble was, their definition of harm seemed rather flexible and sometimes merciful aid meant they lopped your head off.
The Order got away with a lot. Its membership was too powerful to be ignored, and the temptation to rely on it was too great. It's been endorsed by the government as the third part of the law enforcement triumvirate. The Paranormal Activity Police pision, the Military Supernatural Defense Units, and the Order of the Knights of Merciful Aid were all supposed to play nice together and keep the general public safe. In reality, it didn't exactly happen that way. The knights of the Order were helpful, competent, and lethal. Unlike the mercenaries of the Guild, they were not motivated by money and they stood by their promises. But unlike the mercs, they also made judgments and they believed that they always knew best.
A tall man stepped into the waiting room. The stench hit me almost before I saw him, a sickeningly sweet, lingering odor of rotting garbage. The man wore a sweeping brown trench coat stained with ink and grease spots and smeared with so many varieties of foodstuff and plain trash that he looked like young Joseph in his coat of many colors. The coat hung open in the front to allow a glimpse of an abomination of a shirt: blue and red with green tartan stripes. His filthy khaki pants were held up by orange suspenders. He wore old steel-toed paratrooper boots and leather gloves with their fingers cut off at the first knuckle. On his head sat a felt hat, an old-fashioned fedora, soiled and stained beyond belief. Thick mousy hair dripped in limp strands from under the hat.
He saw me and tipped his hat, holding its rim between his index and middle finger the way some people hold cigarettes, and I got a glimpse of his face: hard lines, three-day stubble, and pale eyes, quick and cold. There was nothing especially threatening in the way he looked at me, but something behind those eyes made me want to raise my hands in the air and back away slowly until it was safe to run for my life.
"Maaaa'am," he drawled.
He scared the shit out of me. I smiled at him. "Good morning." My greeting sounded a lot like "niiice doggy." I'd have to squeeze past him to get to the door.
The receptionist came to my rescue. "You can go in now, dear," she called.
The man stepped aside, bowing slightly, and I walked by him. The side of my jacket brushed against his trench coat, probably picking up enough bacteria to knock out a small army, but I did not pull away.
"Nice to meet you," he murmured as I passed him.
"Nice to meet you, too," I said and escaped into the protector's office.
I found myself in a large room, at least twice the size of the offices I'd seen so far. Heavy burgundy draperies covered the windows, letting in just enough light to create a comfortable gloom. A massive desk of polished cherry-wood dominated the room, supporting a cardboard box, a heavy mesquite wood paperweight with a Texas Ranger badge on top, and a pair of brown cowboy boots. The legs in the boots belonged to a thick-shouldered man, who leaned back in an oversized black leather chair listening to the phone at his ear. The knight-protector.
At some point he must have been very strong but now his muscle was sheathed in what my father had called "hard fat." He was still a large, strong man and he could probably move fast if he needed to, despite the unsightly bulge around his middle. He wore jeans and a navy blue shirt with a fringe. I did not know they even made those anymore. The clothes in which the West was won - or sung into submission - were meant for whiplash-lean men. They made the protector look like Gene Autry gone on a long Twinkie binge.
The knight looked at me. He had a wide face with a massive square jaw and probing blue eyes under heavy eyebrows. His nose was misshapen from being broken too many times. The hat hid the hair, or more likely, the absence of it, but I was willing to bet that what was left of the growth on his head had to be gray and short.
The protector motioned me to one of the smaller red chairs set before the desk. I sat, getting a look into the cardboard box on his desk. It contained a half-eaten jelly doughnut.
The knight resumed listening to the phone conversation, so I looked around his office. A large bookcase, also of dark cherrywood, stood at the opposite wall. Above it I saw a large wooden map of Texas decorated with strips of barbed wire. Golden script etched under each piece announced the name of the manufacturer and the year.
The protector finished his conversation by hanging up the phone without saying a word. "You've got some paper to show me, now's the time."
I handed him my merc ID and half-a-dozen recommendations. He flipped through them.
"Water and Sewer, huh?"
"Gotta be tough or dumb to go down into the sewers these days. So, which one are you?"
"I'm not dumb, but if I tell you I'm tough, you'll peg me for a bravo, so I'm going to smile cryptically." I gave him my best cryptic smile. He did not fall down to his feet, kiss my shoes, and promise me the world. I must be getting rusty.
The protector squinted at the signature. "Mike Tellez. I've worked with him before. You do regular work for him?"
"More or less."
"What was it this time?"
"He had a problem with large pieces of equipment being dragged away. Someone told him he had a baby marakihan."
"They're marine," he said. "They die in fresh water."
An overweight slob who eats powdered jelly doughnuts, wears shirts with fringe, and identifies an obscure magical creature without a momentary pause. Knight-protector. Camouflage expert extraordinaire.
"You got to the bottom of Mike's problem?" he asked.
"Yes. He had the Impala Worm," I said.
If he was impressed, he did not show it. "You kill it?"
Very funny. "No, just made it feel unwelcome."
The memory stabbed me, and for a moment I stumbled again through a dim tunnel flooded with liquid excrement and filth that rose to my hips. My left leg burned with icy pain and I struggled on, half-dragging it, while behind me the enormous pallid body of the Worm spilled its life-blood into the sludge. The slick green blood swirled on the surface, each of its cells a tiny living organism consumed by a single purpose: to reunite. No matter how many times or how many miles apart this creature appeared, it was always the same Impala Worm. There was only one and it regenerated endlessly.
The protector put my papers on his desk. "So, what do you want?"
"I'm investigating the murder of Greg Feldman."
"On whose authority?"
"I see." He leaned back. "Why?"
"For personal reasons."
"Did you know him personally?" He delivered the question in a perfectly neutral tone, but the underlying meaning was all too clear. I felt happy to disappoint him.
"Yes. He was a friend of my father."
"I see," he said again. "Your father wouldn't be available for a statement?"
"I'm sorry," he said.
"Don't be," I said. "You didn't know him."
"Do you have anything that might support your relationship with Greg Feldman?"
I could easily provide him with collaboration. If he was to look me up in his files, he would find that Greg had sponsored my application to the Order, but I did not want to go in that direction.
"Greg Feldman was thirty-nine years old. He was an intensely private man, and he disliked being photographed." I handed him a small rectangle of the photograph. "This is a picture of me and him on the day of my high school graduation. There is an identical picture in his apartment. It's located in his library on the third shelf of the central bookcase."
"I've seen it," the protector said.
How bloody nice. "Can I have that back, please?"
He returned the photo. "Are you aware that you're named as a beneficiary in Greg Feldman's will?"
"No." I would've welcomed a moment to deal with my guilt and gratitude, but the knight-protector plowed on.
"He bequeathed his financial assets to the Order and the Academy." He was watching me for a reaction. Did he think I cared about Greg's money? "Everything else, the library, the weapons, the objects of power, is yours."
I said nothing.
"I've checked on you with the Guild," he said. The blue eyes fixed me in place. "I've heard you're able but hurting for money. The Order's prepared to make you a generous offer for the items in question. You'll find the sum to be more than adequate."
It was an insult and we both knew it. I thought of telling him that if it wasn't for Oklahoman cowboys and Mexican whores having a bit of fun, there would've been no Texans, but that would be counterproductive. One didn't call a knight-protector a whoreson in his own office.
"No, thank you," I said with a pleasant smile.
"Are you sure?" His eyes took my measure. "You look like you could use some money. The Order will give you more than you'd get auctioning it off. My advice, take the money. Buy yourself a decent pair of shoes."
I glanced at my beat-up sneakers. I liked my shoes. I could bleach them. It took the blood right out.
"Do you think I should get some like yours?" I asked, looking at his boots. "Who knows, they might throw a cowboy shirt with a fringe in with them. Maybe even a girdle."
Something stirred in his eyes. "You got a mouth on you."
"Talk's cheap. What can you really do?"
Thin ice. Proceed with caution.
I leaned back. "What can I really do, Sir? I won't do anything to threaten or antagonize the knight-protector in his own office no matter how much he insults me. That would be stupid and highly hazardous to my health. I came here in search of information. I just want to know what Greg Feldman was working on when he died."
For a moment we sat there looking at each other.
The knight-protector sucked the air into his nose with an audible whoosh and said, "You know anything about investigative work?"
"Sure. Annoy the people involved until the guilty party tries to make you go away."
He grimaced. "You know that the Order's investigating this matter?"
In other words, run along, little lady, and let people who are more competent handle it. "Greg Feldman was my only family," I said. "I'll find who or what killed him."
"And then what?"
"I'll burn that bridge when I cross it."
He laced the fingers of his hands into a single fist. "Anything able to take out the knight-piner is packing some power."
"Not for long."
He thought about that for a while. "So happens I could use you," he said.
That was unexpected. "Why the hell would you want me?"
He gave me what he must have considered his cryptic smile. It reminded me of a grizzly awakened in midwinter. "I have my reasons. Here's what I'll do for you. You get a Mutual Aid sticker on your ID, which should open you some doors. You get to use Greg's office. You get to look at the open file and police report."
Open file meant I would get the case as it came to Greg: bare facts and no or little findings. I would have to retrace Greg's steps. It was bloody more than I expected.
"Thank you," I said.
"The file doesn't leave the building," he said. "No copies, no quotes. You'll make a complete report to me and only to me."
"I'm bound by the Guild's disclosure of information act," I said.
He waved it aside. "It's taken care of."
Since when? This knight-protector was going far out of his way to help a worthless merc. Why? People who did me favors made me nervous. On the other hand, it was bad manners to look a gift horse in the mouth. Even if you're getting it from an overweight cracker in a fringe shirt.
"Officially you have no status with me," he said. "Screw up and you're persona non grata."
"We're done," he said.
Outside the receptionist waved me over and asked for my ID. I gave it to her and watched as she affixed a small metallic Mutual Aid sticker to it, an official "stamp" of the Order's interest in my humble work. Some doors would open to me and more would slam in my face. Oh, well.
"Don't mind Ted," the receptionist said, returning my ID. "He's harsh sometimes. My name's Maxine."
"My name's Kate. Would you point out the late knight-piner's office to me?"
"I'd be glad to. The last one on the right."
She smiled and went back to her work. Peachy keen.
I reached Greg's office and stood in the doorway. It didn't look right.
A square window spilled daylight onto the floor, a narrow desk, and two old chairs. To the left, a deep bookshelf ran the length of the wall, threatening to collapse under the weight of meticulously arranged volumes. Four metal file cabinets as tall as me towered at the opposite wall. Stacks of files and papers crowded in the corners, occupied the chairs, and choked the desk.
Someone had gone through Greg's papers. They'd done it carefully. The place wasn't ransacked, but someone had looked at each of Greg's files and didn't return them to their proper place, instead choosing to stack them on the first horizontal surface available. These were Greg's private papers. For some reason, the idea of someone touching Greg's things, going over them, reading his thoughts after his death bothered me.
I stepped through the doorway and felt a protective spell close behind me. Arcane symbols ignited with a pale orange glow, forming complex patterns on the gray carpet. Long twisted lines connected the symbols, crisscrossing and winding about the room, their intersections marked by radiant red dots. Greg had sealed the room with his own blood, and more, he had keyed it to me, otherwise I wouldn't be able to see the spell. Now any magic I did in this room would stay in it, leaving no echo beyond the door. A spell of this complexity would take weeks to set up. Judging by the intensity of the glowing lines, it would absorb one hell of an echo. Why would he do that?
I walked between the files to the bookshelf. It held an old edition of the Almanac of Mystic Creatures, an even older version of the Arcane Dictionary, a Bible, a beautiful edition of the Koran bound in leather and engraved with gold, several other religious volumes, and a thin copy of Spenser's Faerie Queene.
I made my way to the metal cabinets. As expected, they were empty. The shelves were marked in Greg's own unique code, which I couldn't read. It didn't matter really. I picked up the closest stack and carefully slid the first file onto the metal frame.
Two hours later, I finished with the papers on the floor and the chairs and was ready to start on the stacks covering the desk when a large manila envelope stopped me. It lay on top of the central stack, so my name, written with black marker in Greg's cursive, was plainly visible.
I lowered the stacks to the floor, pulled up a chair, and emptied the envelope onto the desk's surface. Two photographs and a letter. In the first photo two couples stood side by side. I recognized my father, a hulking, red-haired man, enormous shoulders spread wide, one arm around a woman who had to be my mother. Some children retain memories of their deceased parents, a shadow of a voice, a hint of a scent, an image. I recalled nothing of her, as if she had never existed. My father kept no photographs of her - it must have been too painful for him - and I knew only what he told me. She was pretty, he had said, and she had long blond hair. I stared at the woman in the photograph. She was short and petite. Her features matched her build, well-formed, delicate, but devoid of fragility. She stood assured, with easy, natural poise, clothed in a kind of magical allure and perfectly aware of her power. She was beautiful.
Both he and Greg told me I resembled her, but no matter how hard I studied her image, I could see no resemblance. My features were bolder. My mouth was larger and not pouting by any stretch of the imagination. I did manage to inherit her eye color, dark brown, but my eyes had an odd cut, almond-shaped, slightly elongated. And my skin was a shade darker. If I overloaded on eyeliner and mascara, I could easily pass for a gypsy.
There was more to it than that - my mother's face had feminine gentleness. Mine didn't, at least not when compared to hers. If we were to stand side by side in a room full of people, I wouldn't get a single glance. And if someone had stopped to chat me up, she could've stolen him with a single smile.
Pretty... Yeah. Nice understatement, Dad.
On the other hand, if the same people had to pick one of us to kick a bad guy in the kneecap, I'd get the vote, no problem.
Next to my mother and father, Greg stood by a lovely Asian woman. Anna. His first wife. Unlike my parents, those two stood a little apart, each maintaining a barely perceptible distance as if their inpidualities would strike a spark if they reached for one another. Greg's eyes were mournful.
I put the photograph face down on the desk.
The other photo was of me, about nine or ten years old, ping into a lake from the branches of a giant poplar. I didn't know he had it or even when it was taken.
I read the letter, a few sparse lines on the white piece of paper, a part of Spenser's poem.
"One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey."
Below four words were written in Greg's blood.
The words blazed with red fire. A powerful spasm gripped me. My lungs constricted, the room blurred, and through the dense fog the beating of my heart sounded loud like the toll of a church bell. A tangle of forces swirled around me, catching me in a twisted mess of slippery, elastic power currents. I reached out, and gripped them, and they carried me forth, far into the amalgam of light and sound. The light permeated me and burst within my mind, sending a myriad of sparks through my skin. The blood in my veins luminesced like molten metal.
Lost. Lost in the whirlwind of light.
My mouth opened, struggling to release a word. It wouldn't come and I thought I would die, and then I said it, pouring my power into the weak sound.
The world stopped spinning and I found my place in it. The four words towered before me. I had to say them. I held my power and said the words, willing them, forcing them to become mine.
"Amehe. Tervan. Senehe. Ud."
The flow of power ebbed. I was staring at the white piece of paper. The words were gone and a small puddle of crimson spread across the sheet. I touched it and felt the prickling of magic. My blood. My nose was bleeding.
Pulling a dressing from my pocket, where I always carried some, I pressed it against my nose and leaned back. I'd burn the bandages later. The watch on my wrist said 12:17 p.m. Somehow within those few instants I had lost almost an hour and a half.
The four words of power. Obey, Kill, Protect, and Die. Words so primal, so dangerous, so powerful that they commanded the raw magic itself. Nobody knew how many of them there were, where they came from, or why they held such enormous hold over magic. Even people who had never used magic recognized their meaning and were subject to their power, as if the words were a part of some ancient racial memory we all carried.
It wasn't enough to merely know them; one had to own them. When it came to acquiring power words, there were no second chances. You either conquered them or you died trying, which explained why so few among the magic workers could wield them. Once you made them yours, they belonged to you forever. They had to be wielded with great precision and using them took a chunk of power that left the caster near exhaustion. Greg and my father both warned me that the power words could be resisted, but so far I hadn't had a chance to use them against an opponent that did. They were the last resort, when all else failed.
Now I had six words. Four given to me by Greg and two others: Mine and Release. My father taught them to me long ago. I was twelve and I almost died making them mine. This time it had been too easy.
Maybe the power of the blood grew with age. I wished Greg was alive so I could ask him.
I glanced to the floor. The orange lines of Greg's ward had grown so dim, I could barely see them. They had absorbed everything they could.
The words clamored in my head, shifting and tossing, trying to find their place. Greg's last gift. More precious than anything he could have given me.
Gradually I became aware of someone watching me. I looked up and saw a lean black man in the doorway. He had smiled at me when I passed by his office some three hours earlier.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"Tripped a residual ward," I mumbled, the rag still covering my nose. "Happens. I'm okay."
He eyed me. "You sure?"
"Yeah." Okay, I'm an incompetent moron, go away now.
"I brought you Greg's file." He made no move to enter the room. Smart. If I had tripped a trap set up by Greg, it could hit him as well. "Sorry it's so late. One of our knights had it."
I walked to him and took the file from his hands. "Thanks."
"No problem." He regarded me for a moment and walked away.
I rummaged through Greg's desk for a mirror. Every self-respecting mage had a mirror close to hand. Too many spells required it. Greg's was a rectangle set in a plain wooden frame. I caught my image in it and almost dropped the rag. My hair glowed. It radiated a weak burgundy luminescence, which shifted when I ran my hands through it, as if each inpidual strand of hair was coated with fluorescent paint. I shook my head, but the radiance didn't dim. Growling at it didn't help either and I had not the faintest idea how I could get rid of it.
I hid in the farthest corner of the room, invisible from the door, and opened the file. If you can't make it go away, wait it out.
The last time I assimilated words of power, I was exhausted. Now I felt exhilarated, high on magic. The energy filled me, and I struggled to contain it. I wanted to jump, to run, to do something. Instead I had to hide in a corner and concentrate on the file before me.
The file contained a coroner's report, a summary of a police report, some hurried notes, and several photos of a crime scene. A wide shot showed two bodies sprawled on the asphalt, one corpse stark, pale, and nude and the other a bloody mess of mauled, shredded tissue. I found the close-up of the mauled corpse first. The cadaver lay spread-eagled upon a blood-soaked cloth. Something had ripped into its chest, snapped the breastbone, and tore it away with unbelievable force. The chest cavity lay exposed, the wet, glistening mass of the smashed heart dark against the spongy remains of lungs and the yellow white of the broken ribs. The left arm, wrenched clear of its socket, hung by a thin, bloodied filament.
The next shot showed the close-up of the head. Sad eyes I knew so well looked up into the camera and straight at me. Oh God. I read the caption. This battered piece of human meat was all that remained of Greg.
A lump rose in my throat. I struggled with it for a few agonizing seconds and forced it down. This was not Greg. It was only his corpse.
The next photo provided me with a close look at the other body. This one appeared untouched, all except for the head, which was missing. A broken shard of the spine jutted from the neck stump framed by limp shreds of torn tissue. No other evidence of the head ever being there remained. There was hardly any blood. There should have been pints of it. The body lay at an angle and both carotid and jugular were cleanly severed, so where did all the blood go?
I found four more shots of the corpse and arranged them next to each other on the floor. The smooth marble-white skin of the cadaver stretched tightly over his musculature, as if the body had no fat at all, only lean muscle. Not a single hair marred the epidermis. The scrotum looked shriveled and unusually small in size. I needed a close-up of the hand but there was not one. Somebody had dropped the ball. It did not matter too much, since all of the other telltale signs were there. Even without the nails, the conclusion was plain. I was looking at a dead vampire.
Vampires are dead by definition, but this one had ceased its undead existence. Not even Ghastek, with all of his necromantic powers, could fix a vampire without a head. The sixty-four-thousand-dollar question was who did this vampire belong to? Most People branded their vampires. If this one was branded, it didn't show in any of the shots the moron photographer had taken.
What could wipe out a vampire and a knight-piner? The vampire, super fast and able to take out a SWAT team unaided, would prove hard prey by itself. The vampire plus Greg made for near impossible kill. Yet there they were, both dead.
I leaned back, thinking. The killer would have to possess great power. He would have to be faster than a vampire, strong enough to tear the head off a body, and able to shield himself from Greg's magic and his mace. Off the top of my head the list of possible murderers was rather short.
First, the People could have sought to kill Greg and used one of their vamps as bait. An aged vampire in the hands of an experienced and able Master of the Dead was a weapon like no other. If there was more than one, they could've taken out Greg and their own bloodsucker. It was expensive and improbable, since Greg was particularly effective against vampires, but it wasn't impossible.
Second, the condition of Greg's ravaged corpse pointed to the shapechangers. That kind of damage had to be done with claws and teeth and by more than one set of them. Perhaps it was a loup, a deranged shapechanger. The bodies of those afflicted with Lycos Virus, or Lyc-V for short, yearned to slaughter without discrimination while their minds sought to restrain the bloodlust. If the mind won over the body, a shapechanger became a Free Man of the Code, existing within a well-structured and highly disciplined Pack. If the body conquered the mind, a shapechanger became a loup, a cannibalistic murderer driven mad by hormones, hunting everything and hunted by everyone.
The loup theory was even less probable than the People theory. For one, the beheaded vamp was untouched except for its neck, and loups tore into everything with maniacal frenzy. Next, Greg would've killed more than one of them, and no other bodies littered the scene. Third, if the murderer was a loup, or more likely, several of them, they would've left a ton of evidence at the scene, everything from saliva and hair to their own blood. The medical examiner's office had genetic profiles on almost all known shapechanger types. As far as I could discern, the file contained no paper showing that any shapechanger DNA had been found at the scene.
Rubbing my face didn't give me any special insights into the situation. Most likely, the murders had been committed by none of the above and for the time being I had to leave it at that.
The autopsy report confirmed the beheaded cadaver as Homo sapiens immortuus, a vampire. An ironic name since the mind of a human died the moment vampirism took hold. The vampires knew no pity and no fear; they couldn't be trained; they had no ego. On a developmental level they stood close to insects, possessing a nervous system and yet incapable of forming thoughts. An insatiable hunger for blood ruled them and they slaughtered everything in their path in their urge to quench it.
I frowned. The file contained no m-scan. All crime scenes involving death or assault were routinely scanned for magic. Technically both the police and MSDU could demand access to this file and be granted such access by a court order. The fact that an m-scan was missing meant that it showed something the Order didn't wish to reveal to the general public. Unless the same cretin that took the photographs somehow managed to drop the scan in the trash.
The only remaining page in the file listed several female names. Sandra Molot, Angelina Gomez, Jennifer Ying, Alisa Konova. None of them sounded familiar, and no explanation of the list was offered.
A fresh examination of my hair revealed that it was no longer glowing. I made a quick dash to the desk and dialed the number listed in the police report.
A gruff voice answered the phone. I introduced myself and asked for the lead detective. "I'm looking into the murder of the knight-piner."
"We've spoken to you people," the man on the other end said. "Read the goddamned report."
"You haven't spoken to me, sir. I would very much appreciate any time you could find for me. Any time at all."
The phone clanged and I was greeted by a disconnect signal. So much for interagency cooperation.
The watch on my wrist showed 12:58 p.m. I'd have time to hit the morgue. The mandatory one-month waiting period for the dead vampires was nowhere close to running out and the MA sticker would ensure that I'd have no problem taking a look at the bloodsucker's body.
I closed the file, placed it into the closest filing cabinet, and made my escape.
THE CITY MORGUE STOOD IN THE MIDDLE OF THE downtown district. Directly across from it, past the wide expanse of the Unnamed Square, rose the golden dome of the Capitol Building. The old morgue had been leveled twice, first by a rogue Master of the Dead, and second by a golem, the same one that created the Unnamed Square when it reduced the five city blocks to rubble in its failed attempt to break through the Capitol's wards.
Even now, six years later, the city council refused to rename the empty space surrounding the Capitol, reasoning that as long as it had no name, nobody could summon anything there.
The new morgue was constructed on the principle of "third time's the charm." A state-of-the-art facility, it looked like the bastard offspring of a prison and a fortress, with a bit of medieval castle thrown in for good measure. The locals joked that if the Capitol Building came under attack again, the State Legislature could just run across the square and hide in the morgue. Looking at it, I could believe it, too. A severe, forbidding building, the morgue loomed among the dolled-up facades of the corporation headquarters like the Grim Reaper at a tea party. Its mercantile neighbors had to be unhappy about its presence in their midst, but could do nothing about it. The morgue got more traffic than all of them. Another sign of the times.
I walked up the wide staircase, between granite columns, and moved through the revolving door into a wide hall. The high windows admitted plenty of light, but failed to banish the gloom completely. It pooled in the corners and along the walls, lying in wait to clutch at the ankles of an unwary passerby. Polished tiles of gray granite covered the floor. Two hallways radiated from the opposite wall, both flooded by blue feylantern light. The tiles ended there, replaced by yellowish linoleum.
The air smelled of death. It wasn't the actual nauseating odor of the rotting flesh, but a different kind of stench, one of chlorine and formaldehyde and bitter medicines, reminiscent of a hospital smell, but nobody would confuse the two. In the hospital, life left its sure signs. Here only its absence could be felt.
There was an information desk between the two hallways. I made my way to it and introduced myself to a clerk in green scrubs. He glanced at my ID and nodded. "He's in seven C. You know where it is?"
"Yes. I've been here before."
"Good. Go ahead, I'll get someone to open it for you."
I took the right hallway to a flight of stairs and went down, into the basement level. I passed section B and came to a stop at its end, where a steel gate barred my progress.
After five minutes or so, hurried steps echoed through the hallway and a woman wearing green scrubs and a stained apron came rushing around the corner. She carried a thick three-ring binder in one hand and a jingling key chain in the other. A few thin wisps of blond hair had escaped her sterile hair net. Dark circles surrounded her eyes and the skin on her face sagged a little.
"Sorry," I said.
"Nahh, don't worry about it," she said, fumbling with the keys. "It didn't hurt to take a walk."
She unlocked the gate and swept past me. I followed her to a reinforced steel door. She opened two locks, stepped back, and barked, "It is I, Julianne, who commands you, and you shall do my bidding. Open!" The magic shifted subtly as the spell released the door. Julianne swung it open. Inside, on a metal table riveted to the floor, lay a nude body. Stark against the stainless steel, it was a queer shade of pale, whitish pink, as if it had been bleached. A silver-steel harness enclosed the cadaver's chest. A chain as thick as my arm stretched from the harness to a ring in the floor.
"We usually just collar them, but with this one..." Julianne waved her hand.
"Yeah." I glanced at the stump of the neck.
"Not that he'll rise or anything. Not without a head. Still, if anything..." She nodded toward the blue circle of a panic button on the nearest wall. "You armed?"
I unsheathed Slayer. Julianne jerked back from the shimmering blade. "Whoa. Okay, that'll work."
I slid the saber back into its sheath. "There was a second body brought in with this one."
"Yeah. Kind of hard to forget that one."
"Any trace evidence?"
"Nice try." Julianne smirked. "That's classified."
"I see," I said. "What about an m-scan?"
"That's classified, too."
I sighed. Greg with his dark eyes and perfect face, mangled and broken, locked away in some cubicle in this lonely, sterile place. I fought the urge to double over and cradle the empty space in my chest.
Julianne touched my shoulder. "Who was he to you?" she asked.
"My guardian," I told her. Apparently my efforts to appear impartial had suffered a spectacular failure.
"You were close?"
"No. We used to be."
I shrugged. "I grew up and he forgot to notice."
"Did he have any kids?"
"No. No wife, no children. Just me."
Julianne glanced at the vampire's corpse with obvious disgust. "You'd think the Order would have enough sensitivity to assign someone not related to this mess."
She gave me an odd look. "How about that. I hope you know what you're doing."
"So do I. There is no chance you'd let me glance at the m-scan?"
She pursued her lips, thinking. "Did you hear that?"
I shook my head.
"I think someone's at the gate. I'm going to go and check on it. I'm putting my binder right here. Now, these are confidential reports. I don't want you looking at them. In particular, I don't want you looking at the reports from the third of this month. Or taking any copies out of this file." She turned and marched out of the room.
I flipped through the notebook. There were eight autopsies on the third. Finding Greg's didn't prove to be a problem.
The trace evidence consisted of four hairs. In the origin column someone penciled Un. Psb Feline der. Unidentified, possibly a feline derivative. Not a feline shapeshifter. They would've pegged it as Homo sapiens with a specific felidae genus.
The long folded sheet of the m-scan came next. Obeying the shake of my hand, it unfolded to its full three feet, presenting a graph drawn by the delicate needles of the magic-scanner. The faint colored lines on the graph wavered, a sure sign of many magic influences colliding in one spot. It was inconclusive by the most lax of standards and no court would have permitted it into evidence. The small header in the top corner identified it as a copy. Oh, goodie.
I squinted, trying to make sense of it. Greg's body had continued to release its magic even after his death and the scanner recorded it as a sloping gray line, sometimes an inch wide, sometimes almost invisible. The deep jagged purple cutting across it had to be the vampire's magic. I looked harder. There was a third line, actually a series of lines, faint and dashing at irregular intervals through the reading. The longest was about a quarter of an inch long and the color was undeterminable. I raised the graph so the light of the ceiling bulb shone through it. The ink stood out. Yellow. What the hell registered yellow?
I tugged at the graph, tearing it along the perforated lines and slid it into my folder. Julianne returned shortly. "Nobody there. Well, I'll leave you to it."
She took the binder and walked out, leaving me with the vampire's corpse. I slipped on a pair of medical gloves and approached the body. The placement of brands depended on the personality of the Master of the Dead. Phillian marked his with a big Eye of Horns smack in the middle of the forehead. Constance marked hers in the left armpit. Since the forehead on this one was conveniently missing, it could have belonged to Phillian. Theoretically. I set about finding the brand.
The armpits were clean, so was the chest, the spine, the back, the buttocks, the inside of the thighs and ankles. The only place remaining was the scrotum, so I spread the vampire's legs. The testicles diminished immediately after the human's death and continued to shrink during the vampire's life. There was a whole study on dating the bloodsuckers based on the size of the reproductive organs. I didn't care how old this one was, but judging by the signs he had to be pushing fifty. And he was clean. No brand. There was a scar, however, cleaving the scrotum at the base on the left side. It looked like it had been stitched together.
A quick glance about told me I would find no scalpel in this room. I took Slayer from its sheath. It smoked, sensing the undead. Thin tendrils of pale haze curved from the blade.
"Don't start dripping," I murmured and pressed the very tip of the edge against the scar.
The undead tissue hissed as the blade sank into the flesh. I let it cut about a quarter of an inch and withdrew the saber, leaving a neat incision. Taking the flap of the skin, I pulled on it lightly, and it came away from the groin, revealing a smooth burn scar about an inch wide and three quarters of an inch long. In the middle of the burned scar sat a neat scorch mark, an arrow tipped with a circle instead of an arrowhead. Ghastek's brand. Why wasn't I surprised?
"You do know there are penalties for mutilating corpses?" said a male voice.
I spun around, blade in my hand. A tall man stood leaning against the doorway. He wore scrubs, which meant he had more right to be here than I did.
"Watch out there," he said.
"Sorry," I lowered the saber. "I don't like being startled."
"Neither do I. Except by young attractive women." He looked to be in his mid-thirties. The colored stripe on his shoulder shone bright orange. Third-level clearance. The tag clipped to his suit confirmed it: I'd gotten a bloody unit supervisor.
A unit supervisor could make a person non grata in the morgue faster than I could blink.
The man waited until I finished staring at his tag and held out his left hand. "My name's Crest."
I peeled off my left glove without putting down Slayer and shook his hand. "Kate. Is there a first name that goes with Crest?"
"Yes, but I don't like it."
A funny guy. Perhaps I would get away without a black eye for dicing a corpse.
"It's a vampire," I said. "I was looking for the brand."
He approached the table to examine my handiwork. I moved to stand across from him. Dr. Crest was actually on the appealing side. Auburn-haired, tall, and quite muscular, judging by the forearms. A pleasant face, open and honest, with large, well-defined features and nice eyes, honey brown and warm. The full mouth was downright sensuous. Attractive fellow, not strictly handsome in a classical sense, but still... He looked up from the body, smiled, and became handsome.
I smiled back, trying to radiate integrity and decency of character. That's right, I'll be very nice to you, sir, just please don't bar me from the morgue.
"Interesting," he said. "I've never seen one concealed in this way."
"Neither have I."
"You see a lot of vampires in your line of work?"
I caught him glancing at me and he lowered his gaze back to the body.
He blinked. "Yes?"
"Do I need to let Julianne know about the brand?" It was the least I could do.
"No. I can tell her myself if you have to run."
A little warning bell went off in my head. The good doctor was a little too accommodating. I would have to make sure that Julianne got my message.
Crest was frowning at the corpse. "A devious place to put a brand."
Ghastek was a devious fellow. "Indeed."
Another pause issued. "Let me walk you upstairs," he said.
How charming. He was trying to make sure that I didn't go on a mutilating rampage. I gave him my knockout smile. "Sure."
He didn't look dazzled. Damn it, that's the second time today my smile had misfired.
We left, walking side by side. I waited while he locked the grate behind us. "So what do you do here, Dr. Crest?"
He grimaced. "I suppose one can call it charity work."
I made the appropriate noise, "Charity?"
"Yes. I perform reconstructive surgery." He glanced at me as if afraid I would demand a nose job. "I make corpses presentable. Not everyone can afford it, so twice a week I do it here pro bono."
"It's kids mostly," he said. "Torn up and mauled. Not a pretty sight. Such a waste."
We reached the upper floor. He waited while I checked out with the clerk and wrote down Julianne's number, and then walked me to the door.
"So I'll see you again sometime?" he said.
"Hopefully not on the operating table," I said and left the building. As I walked away to where Karmelion waited for me, I could feel Crest watching my back.
A man was leaning against my truck. He wore a dark' gray shirt, black jeans, tucked in soft boots, and a black cloak that wanted very much to be a cape. While I was in the morgue, the sun had broken through the clouds, flooding the streets with sunshine. He seemed to shrug off the sun's rays - not a man, but a rectangle of darkness cut in the shroud of sunlight.
The human current streaming up the street bent away from him. People didn't eye him; in fact, they concentrated so hard on ignoring his presence, one could have dropped a twenty dollar bill on the ground and it might have gone unnoticed.
The man's eyes tracked my movement. I stopped a few feet away and looked at him.
He reached into an inside pocket of his cloak and flicked what looked like a long yellow ribbon at me. I caught it in midflight. The smooth, cold body coiled about my wrist, and the serpentine head reared to strike at my face. I clamped its neck with fingers of my left hand and stopped it three inches from my cheek. The snake's tongue danced between the scaly lips. Blood red membranes tinged with brilliant purple flared on both sides of the head, spreading like the wings of an enormous butterfly. The baby winged snake shuddered, trying to take flight, but I held it in check.
"I'm sorry, Jim."
He held up his arms, indicating something about three feet wide. The cloak parted enough to show muscle roll across his chest under the fabric of his shirt. "The nest was this big, Kate." His voice had the smooth, almost melodious tone of a less dangerous, much prettier man. It clashed badly with his bulldog-ugly mug. "You owe me and you stood me up. I had to do the gig single-handed."
The snake twisted in a feeble attempt to sink its fangs into my arm. The long triangular teeth contained no poison but the bite hurt like hell.
"Greg's dead," I said.
There was a tiny pause before he asked, "When?"
"Two days ago. He was murdered."
"You on it?"
We stood for a while, caught in a painful silence. He peeled himself from my truck, moving with the liquid, animal grace that only a master shapechanger could achieve.
"You need anything, you know where to find me."
I nodded and watched him walk up the stairs to the morgue.
He scowled at me over his shoulder. "Yeah?"
"What are you doing at the morgue?"
"Pack business," he said and moved on.
Everyone had business in the morgue these days. Even Jim. I still owed him for this winter when he pulled me out of a mud pit full of melted snow and hydra. He was the closest thing to a partner I had. Once in a while we shared merc jobs from the Guild. This time I had stood him up. I'd have to make it up to him. But first, I'd have to find out who killed Greg. To do that I would have to figure out what Ghastek's vampire was doing at the murder scene.
I eased the pressure on the snake's neck and gently tossed it into the air. The serpent plummeted and suddenly took flight. It soared higher and higher, far above the rooftops into the sunshine, until it finally disappeared from sight.
WHEN IN DOUBT AND IN NEED OF INFORMATION, find a snitch and squeeze him. That was one of the very few investigative techniques I was aware of. As a matter of fact, that and the "annoy principals involved until the guilty party decides to kill you" pretty much summed it up for me. Move over, Sherlock.
I was definitely in doubt and in need of information concerning Ghastek's dead vampire, and I knew just the person to squeeze. He had spiky hair, wore black leather, and called himself Bono after some long-forgotten singer. He was also Ghastek's journeyman.
If you had a talent for necromancy or necronavigation, the care and piloting of the dead, you qualified as an apprentice. Once you added a bit of knowledge to that, you became a journeyman. To move higher required a genuine power and a drive to succeed. Most People never graduated from journeymanship. Bono was on his second year. His knowledge of the dead was almost encyclopedic. The last time we met, he gave me a cut-out article to put into my Almanac - something about some Slavic corpse-eater creature called an upir. But I had a feeling his expertise ended with theory. My guess was he would not grow into a Master of the Dead any time soon.
Bono was easy to find. He frequented Andriano's, a peaceful joint as bars went, unlike the newly redesigned establishments of Atlanta Underground, where bars leaned toward the rowdy and most clubs had the word "pain" in their name. Andriano's occupied a nice little spot on Euclid Avenue in Little Five Points and catered to an almost middle-class crowd.
Bono's pretty face, his hair, and his jacket made sure he was noticed. Women enjoyed his company. He enjoyed them too, but his focus was on quantity. I'd never seen him with the same woman twice. Once in a while someone tried to kick his ass and left a few smears of their blood on the floor and furniture. Anyone who spent his formative years tending to a stable of vampires proved a hard person to fight.
I could've gone straight to the source and just asked Ghastek about his vampire. Trouble was, confronting Ghastek meant I'd have to physically walk into the Casino, where the People had their HQ. Walking into the Casino meant I'd have to meet Nataraja, the People's grand poobah in the city and Ghastek's boss and supervisor. Nataraja was the worst kind of worm, but he had an uncanny sensitivity to magic. My guess was, he wasn't quite sure what he felt when I was around, but he wanted very much to find out. Every time we met our conversation degenerated into him trying to force me into a show of power. That I couldn't afford, especially not now with the four new words of power rattling in my head. I'd have to go to the Casino eventually, but for now squeezing Ghastek's journeyman would suffice.
It was almost 11:00 p.m. when I made it to Andriano's. Bono rarely showed up before dark and I had used the time to hop the leyline back to my place and bring back Betsi, my beat-up old Subaru. It looked like I would be stuck in the city for a while. Since the magic would fall, the way it always did, I'd eventually need a car that worked during tech.
It cost me fifty bucks to have Betsi towed to Greg's place. I was in the wrong business.
I entered Andriano's. The bar stretched the length of the room, guarded by a row of tall stools. A couple of patrons stared into their drinks on the far end. A blonde with her war paint on sipped something fruity from a margarita glass. Through the arched doorway I could see the second room, crowded with red privacy booths, which Andriano must have pilfered from some fast food joint.
The barkeep, long of limb and dark-haired, nodded at me. Lean and phlegmatic, with a narrow, intelligent face, he looked more like a campus intellectual than a bartender. His name was Sergio and he knew how big of a lime slice to put into a Corona, which made him a worthwhile man to know. I passed him two twenties. Sergio bent an eyebrow at me.
"In case anything gets broken. Bono and I are going to chat a bit. Is he here?"
Sergio nodded toward the room with booths and shrugged, palming the twenties. "Stay away from the windows," he said. "Too expensive for you."
The back room was dimly lit with feylanterns. Bono preferred a corner booth, the farthest from the door. I stood for a moment, surveying the scene, and caught sight of his spiky black hair. I marched toward the booth with flags out and guns ready.
Bono had company. Judging by the mystical "hey-baby-I'm-a-student-of-magic" smile that stretched his lips, he had female company. No matter.
He paused his wooing to glance around the room and noticed me. He must have seen something he did not like, because the smile slid off his face. He sat straighter.
I reached back. My fingers grasped Slayer's hilt and withdrew it in a smooth fluid motion. Bono's hand dropped under the table, groping for a gun. He carried a 9mm Colt in his jacket pocket.
I crashed to a halt before the booth. A thin redhead in a strapless short dress sat opposite Bono. I put my saber on the table. Bono "stank" of vampires and the saber fluoresced weakly, a sliver of moonlight against the dark wood. The redhead's eyes went wide. Bono's face relaxed a bit but his gaze never left mine.
"Hey, Bono," I said. "Nice to see you. Fuck any corpses lately?"
The last hope for a relaxing evening bled from his face. "Not any you'd care about."
The redhead scrambled out of the booth and fled, trying to salvage some shred of dignity. Bono threw a wistful look after her retreating backside and turned to me.
"You scared her. Not nice, Kate."
I raised an eyebrow at him and slid in the seat vacated by the redhead.
"Did you read the article I gave you?" he asked.
"You should read it, Kate. You should read about the upiri."
I traced Slayer's blade with my finger. It stung a little as the magic discharge touched my skin.
"I want to know about the piner's death. I want to know why one of Ghastek's bloodsuckers was at the scene. I want to know who was piloting it and what they saw. I want to know what tore his head off. And whatever else you'll find necessary to add."
Bono showed me his teeth. "Feeling a bit on edge today, are you?"
My hand closed about the hilt. "You have no idea."
He leaned back. "Go ahead," he said. "Make a play. I'll ass-fuck you with that saber."
I grinned at him. "You can't take me, Bono. Go ahead and try. You telegraph your punches, you drop your left shoulder, and your gun isn't worth piss with magic up. So come on. Show me what you've got."
I saw his eyes and knew my grin had turned into a hungry grimace. "I really need to hurt something. It'll make me feel good." I was almost laughing, having a hard time containing myself. "Give me a reason. Come on, Bono. Just give me a fucking reason."
Magic built around me, drawn from the environment by the emanations from my blood. If magic had color, I would be sitting in a whirlpool of red. Slayer flared bright silver, feeding off my anger. It wanted to slice into warm flesh and I was about to let it.
Bono blinked. He sensed the magic influx and sucked the air into his lungs in a sharp breath. "You're crazy."
His face went slack, and I knew we had stepped away from a cliff. The fight would not happen today.
Bono leaned forward. "What if I told you that we have no involvement with the piner's death? And even if we did, we don't have to speak to you."
That proverbial "we." I chewed on it for a little while and said, "In that case, I'll get up and walk over to the bar, where I'll make two phone calls. First, I'll call the knight-protector, for whom I now work, and tell him that a vampire belonging to Ghastek was involved in his piner's murder. I'll tell him that an effort was made to conceal its brand - which is illegal - and that Ghastek's journeyman declined to discuss the matter with me and threatened my life. Then I'll call Ghastek and inform him that I know the reason why the world just started crashing down around his ears. And I'll explain to him that the reason is you."
He stared at me. "I thought we were on good terms. We nod to each other across the room. We don't bother each other. I shared my research with you."
"You won't do this to me," he said with great surety. "You know what Ghastek would do to me. You're a nice person."
"Just what exactly in my track record gives you the idea that I'm a nice person?"
He had no answer and shook his head. "Why me?"
"Why not? Give me what I want and I'll go away. Or I'll hurt you one way or another."
Bono was in the corner. No way to go but outside the ring. "They're called shadows," he said, his handsome face marked with resignation. "Vampires with concealed brands. Ghastek isn't the only one using them but he uses his a lot, if you catch my drift."
"What was that particular one doing?"
"Tailing the piner. I don't know why."
"Who was piloting it?"
Bono hesitated. "Merkowitz."
"What did he see?"
Bono spread his hands. "Your guess's as good as mine. Do you know what happens to a navigator when the vamp he's piloting dies?"
I had a general idea but more info never hurt. "Enlighten me."
"Unless you guard yourself, you'll suffer death-shock. Meaning you think it's your head being torn off, which leaves your brain very confused. Add to it the explosion of shit the piner threw around and whatever magic the attacker emitted, and you'll get Merkowitz. I never liked the asshole. I have to admit, he makes a fine vegetable."
My heart sank. "Nonresponsive?"
"About as responsive as a brick wall."
"How long will he be like this?"
"They're working on him now, but when he'll come out, nobody knows. It's hard work convincing someone that he isn't dead when his own mind has decided otherwise."
"Do the People have any idea who might have enough juice to beat a piner and a vampire to a pulp?"
Bono looked past me at the wall.
"I need a name," I said.
"Corwin. You didn't hear it from me." He rose in a fluid motion and left.
I waited a few minutes, went to the bar, and drank a cold Corona with a wedge of lime in it. I had frightened Bono.
A small part of me felt bad about it. The larger part reminded me that he piloted vampires for a living and kicked his opponents when they decided to stay down.
Greg's face came to my mind. I took a big swig of Corona. I felt defeated and tired. What a long day... I had hoped for more than Bono had given me. Still, I had a name. And I had Greg's database, against which I could reference it. The day was not a total waste.
DARKNESS CLOAKED THE STAIRWAY OF GREG'S apartment building. Not a single lamp illuminated the concrete steps. When I came to the first landing, I saw why - the electric bulbs had exploded. It happened once in a while during a hard fluctuation in places where the magic hit the strongest. The fluorescent feylamps usually did the job just fine - they ran by converting environmental magic to weak, bluish light - but tonight they were dark, too. The fluctuation must have been too strong, and the lamp converters had overheated and burned out.
I felt odd going back to Greg's place. Not exactly ill at ease, but not happy to be there either. Unfortunately I had no choice. I would have to spend some time in this rotten city and I needed a base. Greg's apartment was perfect: its wards were keyed to me and Greg had maintained a fair collection of basic herbs, reference books, and other useful things. His arsenal was decent, but he leaned toward bludgeoning arms, while I preferred swords. Maces and hammers required too much strength. I was strong for a woman but I harbored no illusions. In a contest of strength a man of my size and my training would pummel me into the ground. Lucky for me very few men had my training.
I climbed the dark stairs, fantasizing about food and a shower. The ward guarding the apartment's door clutched at my hand and opened in a pulse of blue. I entered, kicked off my shoes, and went into the kitchen. The upside of having a magic sword was that its secretions liquefied the undead flesh. On the downside, the blade had to be fed at least once a month, or it would become too brittle and break.
I slid a four-foot-long fish tank from the bottom cabinet and found the bag of feed I've kept at Greg's apartment for emergency purposes. Grayish-brown, the feed resembled coarse wheat flour. Most of it actually was wheat flour, that and metal shavings, copper, iron, and silver, and seashells ground to fine dust, together with bonemeal and chalk.
I filled the tank with water, added a cup of feed, and stirred the mixture with a long wooden spoon until the solution became cloudy and none of the feed remained stuck to the bottom. That done, I dropped the saber into it and washed my hands.
The little ruby light on the answering machine was blinking. It shouldn't have, since the magic was in full swing. Magic was a funny thing. Sometimes phones worked and sometimes they failed.
I settled into my chair and pushed the button on the answering machine. Anna's anxiety-laced voice filled the room. "Kate, it's me." I sat up straighter. Anna didn't get anxious. Perhaps it was Greg's death. Their porce was ten years old, but still she must've felt something for him.
"Listen very carefully, while I remember." Exhaustion crept into her voice and I realized she was fresh from a vision. The fact that she knew I would be in Greg's apartment was so mundane to her she didn't bother to comment on it. Sometimes being a clairvoyant had its uses.
"Woods," Anna's voice said. "Very green, very healthy, late spring or early summer. The air smells of moisture. There are tall wooden idols set under some of the trees. They are old. Time has smoothed the edges of the carvings. The idols shift and change shapes. One looks like an old man, but also a bear with horns, holding something... a saucer of water maybe. Another old man stands on a fish; I think he holds a wheel in his hand. A man with three faces, his eyes covered, sitting deep in the shadow. I can barely see him."
The first was Veles, the third was Triglav. Slavic pantheon. I'd have to look up the second one.
"A man stands before them, surrounded by a brood of his children. They are very wrong. They do not fit, neither human nor animal, neither living nor dead. Behind him stand his servants. They smell of undeath." Anna took a deep breath. "The man is masturbating. To the right something is shimmering in and out of existence, a child maybe? To the left you're sitting cross-legged on the grass and eating a corpse."
"I know Greg's dead," she said. "And I know you're looking for the murderer. You must drop it, Kate. I know you'll ignore me, but I have to warn you. This isn't good, Kate. It's not good at all."
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