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All I can see through the night-vision goggles are the eyes of the vampire I’m pressed against; the rest of his face is kind of obscured by the large-caliber handgun I have jammed up his nose. It makes his voice sound extremely nasal.
“I dode know why I shouldund just rip your priddy liddle throde oud,” he says. “I really dode.”
“Well, then, let me explain it to you. My name is Special Agent Jace Valchek and I work for the National Security Agency of the Unnatural States of America. I am a bona fide, one hundred percent real human woman, I’m not from around here, and the shiny piece of metal currently deviating your undead septum is a Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan .454 chambered with silver-tipped, teakwood bullets. I know that last piece of information doesn’t mean a whole lot to you since guns never really caught on in this particular reality, but you saw what it did to your two friends from twenty feet away. I’m a whole lot closer. So unless you’re ready to pay the Grim Reaper the time-debt you owe his bony ass, I’d suggest you think of my weapon as a glorified crossbow that shoots very tiny arrows very, very fast.”
He thinks about it. He stinks of fermented blood and Cloven, the pire equivalent of meth—actually methamphetamine cut with just enough garlic to let it affect his metabolism. His breath, which technically he shouldn’t have, is terrible. I’m going to have to disinfect the gun later just to get the smell off it.
“Whad do you wad?”
“Aristotle Stoker,” I hiss.
“Nebber heard ub hib.”
“Sure you have. AKA the Impaler? Leader of the Free Human Resistance? Same guy that released that video on the net that turned a few million hemovores and lycanthropes into living mummies for a while? That Aristotle Stoker.”
I’m getting real tired of Gus’s bloodsucker-with-a-head-cold routine—plus, my trigger finger’s a bit too close to his fangs—so I ease up, just a little. He takes this as a sign that I was kidding about blowing his head off, and grins. He’s short, pudgy, and balding, and no casting director in my world would ever have hired him to play a vampire. Here, he’s just one more neckbiter on a planet full of the living-challenged.
“Hey, take it easy. I got no reason to stand up for that guy—why would I want to get in the middle of some human thing? I mean, I don’t know much, but you don’t have to go all Lugosi on me.”
“Stoker. Where is he?”
“If I knew, I’d tell you. But I only saw him for like ten minutes, okay? And that was over a week ago. He picked up a few things he had on order, then took off. No idea where he went.”
Gus is a blackmarket dealer in various esoteric items—charms, weapons, the occasional shipment of Cloven or Bane. Right now, we’re in a shipping container buried in the middle of a bunch of other shipping containers in a storage lot just outside Seattle. A real rat-in-a-woodpile kind of office, but pires didn’t need things like light, air, or heat. The only way to get in or out is a tunnel that connects to a sewer outflow pipe, and he keeps guards posted on that. Luckily, I haven’t come alone.
“What did he pick up?”
“Couple of books and an amulet. Amulet was kind of pricey considering that it doesn’t even work, but he paid the bill without haggling.”
“Yeah? What’s it supposed to do?”
“Detect rockheads. Uh, no offense.”
I can hear my partner clear his throat behind me, a noise a bit like gravel in a coffee grinder. “None taken,” he grunts. Charlie Aleph’s a golem, three hundred or so pounds of black volcanic sand poured into a human-shaped, thick-skinned plastic bag and animated by the spiritual essence of a prehistoric tyrannosaur. Not offending him is a good thing. I know people who’ve made whole careers out of it.
“And the books?”
“The Ahasuerus Codex and the Aenigma Veneficium. Don’t ask me why he wanted ’em, ’cause I don’t know.”
Neither do I, but my background in arcane textbooks is limited to what I pick up through osmosis; I’ll have to ask Eisfanger what significance those two titles have when I get back to the office—
Gus tries to bite my hand. Yeah, his mouth is right there, and most pires make a hungry cheetah look slow, but it’s still a loser move—I mean, all I have to do is twitch.
Unluckily for Gus, I’m in a twitchy mood.
His skull slows the bullet down just enough that the slug only ricochets four or five times off the walls—after all, we’re in a big metal box. By the time Gus’s body hits the ground it’s mostly bones; looks like his time-debt was a few decades at least.
“Damn it,” I say. No matter how tough I act, I don’t take ending a life lightly. I never used to, anyway. “I am sick of people not taking me seriously.”
“Tell that to the two other guys you shot,” Charlie says. “The ones lying outside and moaning. Pretty sure they’re reevaluating their estimation of you right now.”
“Sure, after I shoot someone they show me some respect. As long as they don’t collapse in a pile of decomposing calcium, that is.”
“Maybe you should switch to a different weapon.”
“Maybe I should get a more supportive partner.”
“Yeah, I hear there’s a long waiting list for that.”
I give him the finger, which seems to be universal no matter which universe you’re from. He ignores it, which is also standard.
We go back outside—it’s the middle of the night—and call an ambulance for the two muscleheads I shot. One’s a pire, the other’s a thrope; he’s still in half-were form, a large wolf-headed guy dressed in cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. Thropes can’t talk when they’re in were form—their mouths aren’t shaped right for it—but he’s giving off this continual high-pitched whine that’s really getting on my nerves.
“I believe this is yours,” Charlie says. He holds up what’s left of a deformed silver slug between thumb and forefinger.
“Where’d you find that?”
“About two inches into the hole it made in my chest. And my shirt. And my lapel.” Charlie dresses like a private eye from a Raymond Chandler novel, right down to the fedora, but his suits are always immaculately tailored. He appreciates getting holes in them about as much as staining his alligator-skin shoes with raw sewage—which is how we’d started the evening.
“Yeah, ricochets can be a bitch. Sorry. Want some gum to patch it up?”
“And smell like Juicy Fruit for the rest of the night? No thanks. I think I prefer the raw sewage.”
“That’s not sewage. That’s the smell this case is starting to give off.”
“We’ll find him, Jace.”
“Yeah. Sure.” Catching Aristotle Stoker is the only way my employers will give me a ticket back to my own universe, a nice comforting place of global warming, war in the Middle East, nuclear weapons—and no vampires, werewolves, or golems. The only magic I ever want to see again involves a top hat, a rabbit, and maybe a two-drink minimum.
But I’ve been chasing his trail for the last three months, and it’s getting colder and colder. What makes things even worse is that the number of cases I’m being asked to consult on is steadily rising—the consequences of Stoker disseminating a viral video with nasty long-term consequences. Yours truly managed to reverse the immediate mummification effect, but many of the thropes and pires who were exposed are showing varying degrees of mental instability. Until now, the supernatural races of this world have been immune to insanity—as a result, they have very little experience in dealing with it. As a criminal profiler for the FBI, I have lots . . . more, in fact, than anyone on the planet.
So I’m currently in high demand, even if I’m not exactly popular. The other agents in the NSA office I work out of call me the Bloodhound, which I prefer to see as a testament to my tracking abilities as opposed to any reference to a female canine—or the fact that my boss is a pire with a reputation for liking human women. Scarlet Fever, they call it.
Of course, nobody says that to my boss’s face. David Cassius might look like an eighteen-year old blond surfer, but he’s so old his time-debt might actually cause him to fossilize if anyone manages to stake him. Not that I expect that to ever happen—he’s hasn’t stayed undead as long as he has through luck.
The ambulance finally arrives, along with some local law enforcement. The cops aren’t too happy about two wounded thugs and a dead pire, but I don’t much care. I flash my NSA badge and tell them to take it up with my boss if they have a problem.
We climb into our own car, a bulky Crown Vic, and head back for the office. Charlie’s driving while I stare out the window and brood. I’m really more of a snapper than a brooder, so I say, “My Latin isn’t too good, but the Ahasuerus Codex rings a bell.”
“It should. Ahasuerus is supposedly the father of all golems, the guy who created the spell that animates us.”
“And the amulet Stoker bought is supposed to be a lem detector, but it doesn’t work. Not that you guys are real hard to find.”
“Yeah. We’re ubiquitous.”
I shake my head. “That werewitch who tried to kill me—Selkie? She claimed Ahasuerus was still alive.” That wasn’t the only thing she claimed, but I didn’t want to go into that at the moment.
“That’s just an urban legend—like the one about the albino bats that live in subway tunnels and eat people’s eyes.”
“Maybe the amulet Stoker bought isn’t supposed to detect golems. Maybe it’s supposed to detect golem makers.”
“Don’t need an amulet for that. Nearest factory is in Renton.”
My cell jangles. It’s Cassius. “Yeah?” I’m not real big on formality.
“Jace. I need you at a crime scene.”
“Just had one, thanks. Couldn’t eat another bite.”
“This is different. It’s Gretchen.”
That gets my attention. Gretchen Petra is a pire and NSA intelligence analyst, as well as being my closest female friend—in this reality, anyway. She’s been acting kind of odd lately, preoccupied and secretive, but since that’s kind of a given in her line of work I haven’t paid much attention to it.
“What’s wrong? Is she all right?”
“Just get over here.” He gives me an address, then hangs up before I can ask any more questions.
“Okay,” I say. “This is new.”
The crime scene is a penthouse in a high-rise overlooking the bay. From the heavily smoked windows I deduce the occupant is a pire; from the furnishings, an extremely wealthy one.
The body’s draped over a treadmill in the middle of the room. The vic’s dressed in a head-to-toe red outfit with yellow boots, the kind of thing pires wear during the day to shield themselves from sunlight. No goggles, though, and the face mask doesn’t cover the mouth. So far, it doesn’t rank that high on my weirdness scale.
All that’s left of the body is a skeleton, not unusual for a pire. But this guy’s skeleton is green—and giving off what seem to be little arcs of electricity, sparks flickering in the empty eye sockets of his skull, glinting off the polished emerald of his teeth. Just to make sure we get the point, there’s a lightning bolt emblazoned on the chest of the suit and little lightning designs around the wrists and waist.
And then I recognize him. Of course.
Cassius is standing next to the body, dressed in his usual black business suit. He nods at Charlie and me as we come in, but doesn’t say anything. Damon Eisfanger is examining the body without touching it, but he looks up and waves when he sees me. “Hey, Jace.” Damon’s a thrope with both arctic wolf and pit bull in his lineage, so he’s as pale as an albino and square as a linebacker, with ice-blue eyes and short, bristly white hair. He’s about as geeky as forensics shamans usually are, which is to say a lot. “Pretty bizarre, huh? Know why the skeleton’s green? I think all the calcium in it has been changed into copper. Good conductor, though gold would have been better.”
“Maybe the killer was on a budget. And all the sparks?”
“Lightning. I mean, I’ve only done some preliminary readings, but this is not house current we’re talking about here. This is actual lightning, magically directed. It wants to leave, but there’s nowhere for it to go; the treadmill isn’t grounded.”
“Gretchen was the one that found the body,” Cassius says. “She’s in the bedroom, composing herself.”
“I’ll talk to her in a minute,” I say. “Okay, Eisfanger—even I recognize that costume, and you’re about seventeen levels above me when it comes to geekdom, so go ahead and spit out whatever clever pun you’ve been holding in for the last twenty minutes before you explode.”
Eisfanger looks a little taken aback. “I’m afraid I don’t, uh, have anything to say. I mean, I guess I could say something about this being shocking, but that seems really obvious—”
“That’s all you got? You’ve got a dead superhero named the Flash on your hands and you can’t come up with a single punch line?”
“A what?” Now he just looks confused.
“The Flash. Guy in a red leotard, runs really really fast. I think he had a TV show, too. Come on . . . he’s been Flash-fried. I’ll be back in a Flash, but he won’t. My camera doesn’t work ’cause the Flash is dead. You’re really disappointing me here.”
“A superhero? What is that, a really big sandwich?”
I frown at him. “Really disappointing.”
The expression on Eisfanger’s face has gone from confused to bewildered, and he turns to Cassius to see if he gets the joke. Cassius frowns, too, but at me.
“Jace. Neither Damon nor I have any idea what you’re talking about.”
I stare at them and blink. Something punches me, very softly, in the pit of my stomach. When I first got here—this world, I mean, not this room—that punch would have been a lot more solid. It landed every time I’d been lulled into a sense of normalcy about this world and something abruptly leapt out at me and screamed that I was very, very far from home. You know, like reading the ingredients on a bottle of soda pop and learning it was full of gerbil’s blood, or seeing a commercial for a water bed that lets you literally sleep underwater—handy for those who neither breathe nor prune.
“Comic books,” I say. “You don’t have—wait. I know this world has comic books; Dr. Pete showed me his collection once.”
Eisfanger’s eyes go wide. Cassius doesn’t look surprised, but then he almost never does.
“Comic books?” Eisfanger repeats. He says it with more or less the same intonation you’d use for the phrase, Eat my own liver?
Cassius sighs. “I was afraid of that. The books Dr. Adams showed you were all pre-1956, correct?”
“Uh—I guess so. Why?”
“Because they’ve been illegal since then. Did this Flash exist prior to ’56?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think so.”
“Then we’re dealing with cross-universe contamination.” Cassius studies me with cool, calculating eyes. “The killer may be from your world, Jace.”
He lets that hang in the air a moment, knowing the impact it’ll make on me. “Go talk to Gretchen,” he says. “She could use a friend right now. Second bedroom on the left.”
I’m thinking furiously as I leave. Does a killer from my world mean a possible way back for me? Why the hell would comic books be illegal? And what was Gretchen doing here in the first place?
I knock on the door to the bedroom tentatively. “Gretch? It’s Jace.”
I open the door. Gretchen sits on the edge of a massive canopy bed, her knees together, a box of tissues in her lap. Gretchen’s a pire, apparent age in her mid-thirties, attractive in an intense kind of way. She always wears her blond hair in a tight little bun, her makeup is immaculate, she speaks in an elegant British accent, and her wit is sharp enough to give a suit of armor paper cuts. I’ve compared her, more than once, to a predatory Mary Poppins.
Right now her hair is a straggly mess. Tears have streaked her mascara. Despite that, her voice is strong, her smile firm. “Hello, Jace. I do hope you’re going to lend us a hand.”
I sit down next to her. “Yeah, of course. What happened, Gretch?”
“I—was paying a call on Mr. Aquitaine. He—”
“Aquitaine? Is that—”
“Yes. Saladin Aquitaine. He and I were to go out for dinner. There was no answer when I rang up, so I let myself in. I have a key. I discovered him just as you saw. I called David immediately.”
I hadn’t even known Gretchen was seeing someone. “So you and he were . . . involved.”
“We had an intimate relationship, yes. We’ve known each other for years, but only recently have we decided to . . . explore further options.”
“Friends with benefits?”