SOME DAYS MY JOB WAS HARDER THAN OTHERS.
I tapped the ladder with my hand. "See? It's very sturdy, Mrs. McSweeney. You can come down now."
Mrs. McSweeney looked at me from the top of the telephone pole, having obvious doubts about the ladder's and my reliability. Thin, bird–boned, she had to be past seventy. The wind stirred the nimbus of ne white hair around her head and blew open her nightgown, presenting me with sights better left unseen.
"Mrs. McSweeney, I wish you would come down."
She arched her back and sucked in a deep breath. Not again. I sat on the ground and clamped my hands over my ears.
The wail cut through the stillness of the night, sharp like a knife. It hammered the windows of the apartment buildings, wringing a high–pitched hum from the glass. Down the street, dogs yowled as one, matching the cry with unnatural harmony. The lament built, swelling like an avalanche, until I could hear nothing but its complex, layered chorus: the lonely howl of a wolf, the forlorn shriek of a bird, the heart–wrenching cry of a child. She wailed and wailed, as if her heart were being torn out of her chest, lling me with despair.
The magic wave ended. One moment it saturated the world, giving potency to Mrs. McSweeney's cry, and the next it vanished without warning, gone like a line drawn in the sand just before the surf licked it. The technology reasserted itself. The blue feylantern hanging from the top of the pole went dark, as the magic–charged air lost its potency. Electric lights came on in the apartment building.
It was called post–Shift resonance: magic drowned the world in a wave, snufng out anything complex and technological, smothering car engines, jamming automatic weapons, and eroding tall buildings. Mages red ice bolts, skyscrapers fell, and wards ared into life, keeping undesirables from my house. And then, just like that, the magic would vanish, leaving monsters in its wake. Nobody could predict when it would reappear and nobody could prevent it. All we could do was cope with an insane tarantella of magic and technology. That was why I carried a sword. It always worked.
The last echoes of the cry bounced from the brick walls and died.
Mrs. McSweeney stared at me with sad eyes. I picked myself off the ground and waved at her. "I'll be right back."
I trotted into the dark entrance to the apartment, where ve members of the McSweeney family crouched in the gloom. "Tell me again why you can't come out and help me?"
Robert McSweeney, a middle–aged, dark–eyed man with thinning brown hair, shook his head. "Mom thinks we don't know she's a banshee. Look, Ms. Daniels, can you get her down or not? You're the knight of the Order, for Christ's sake."
First, I wasn't a knight; I just worked for the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid. Second, negotiation wasn't my forte. I killed things. Quickly and with much bloodshed.
Getting elderly banshees in denial off telephone poles wasn't something I did often.
"Can you think of anything that might help me?"
Robert's wife, Melinda, sighed. "I don't . . . I mean, she always kept it so under wraps. We've heard her wail before but she was so discreet about it. This isn't normal for her."
An elderly black woman in a mumu descended the staircase. "Has that girl gotten Margie down yet?"
"I'm working on it," I told her.
"You tell her, she better not miss our bingo tomorrow night."
I headed to the pole. Part of me sympathized with Mrs. McSweeney. The three law enforcement agencies that regulated life in the United States post–Shift—the Military Supernatural Defense Unit, or MSDU; the Paranormal Activity Division, or PAD; and my illustrious employer, the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid—all certied banshees as harmless. Nobody had yet been able to link their wails to any deaths or natural disasters. But folklore blamed banshees for all sorts of nefarious things. They were rumored to drive people mad with their screams and kill children with a mere look. Plenty of people would be nervous about living next to a banshee, and I could understand why Mrs. McSweeney went to great lengths to hide who she was. She didn't want her friends to shun her or her family.
Unfortunately, no matter how well you hide, sooner or later your big secret will bite you in the behind, and you might nd yourself standing on a telephone pole, not sure why or how you got there, while the neighborhood pretends not to hear your piercing screeches.
Yeah. I was one to talk. When it came to hiding one's identity, I was an expert. I burned my bloody bandages, so nobody could identify me by the magic in my blood. I hid my power. I tried very hard not to make friends and mostly succeeded. Because when my secret came to life, I wouldn't end up on top of a telephone pole. I would be dead and all my friends would be dead with me.
I approached the pole and looked at Mrs. McSweeney. "Alright. I'm going to count to three and then you have to come down."
She shook her head.
"Mrs. McSweeney! You're making a spectacle out of yourself. Your family is worried about you and you have bingo tomorrow night. You don't want to miss it, do you?"
She bit her lip.
"We will do it together." I climbed three steps up the ladder. "On three. One, two, three, step!"
I took a step down and watched her do the same. Thank you, whoever you are upstairs.
"One more. One, two, three, step."
We took another step, and then she took one by herself. I jumped to the ground. "That's it."
Mrs. McSweeney paused. Oh no.
She looked at me with her sad eyes and asked, "You won't tell anyone, will you?"
I glanced at the windows of the apartment building. She had wailed loudly enough to wake the dead and make them call the cops. But in this day and age, people banded together. One couldn't rely on tech or on magic, only on family and neighbors. They were willing to keep her secret, no matter how absurd it seemed, and so was I.
"I won't tell anyone," I promised.
Two minutes later, she was heading to her apartment, and I was wrestling with the ladder, trying to make it t back into the space under the stairs, where the super had gotten it from for me.
My day had started at ve with a frantic man running through the hallway of the Atlanta chapter of the Order and screaming that a dragon with a cat head had gotten into New Hope School and was about to devour the children. The dragon turned out to be a small tatzelwyrm, which I unfortunately was unable to subdue without cutting its head off. That was the rst time I had gotten sprayed with blood today.
Then I had to help Mauro get a two–headed freshwater serpent out of an articial pond at the ruins of One Atlantic Center in Buckhead. The day went downhill from there. It was past midnight now. I was dirty, tired, hungry, smeared with four different types of blood, and I wanted to go home. Also my boots stank because the serpent had vomited a half–eaten cat corpse on my feet.
I nally managed to stuff the ladder in its place and left the apartment building for the parking lot, where my female mule, Marigold, was tied to a metal rack set up there for precisely that purpose. I had gotten within ten feet of her when I saw a half–nished swastika drawn on her rump in green paint. The paint stick lay broken on the ground. There was also some blood and what looked like a tooth. I looked closer. Yep, denitely a tooth.
"Had an adventure, did we?"
Marigold didn't say anything, but I knew from experience that approaching her from behind was Not a Good Idea. She kicked like a mule, probably because she was one.
If not for the Order's brand on her other butt cheek, Marigold might have been stolen tonight. Fortunately, the knights of the Order had a nasty habit of magically tracking thieves and coming down on them like a ton of bricks.
I untied her, mounted, and we braved the night.
Typically technology and magic switched at least once every couple of days, usually more often than that. But two months ago we had been hit with a are, a wave so potent, it drowned the city like a magic tsunami, making impossible things a reality. For three days demons and gods had walked the streets and human monsters had great difculty controlling themselves. I had spent the are on the battleeld, helping a handful of shapeshifters butcher a demonic horde.
It had been an epic occurrence all around. I still had vivid dreams about it, not exactly nightmares, but intoxicating, surreal visions of blood and gleaming blades and death.
The are had burned out, leaving technology rmly in control of the world. For two months, cars started without fail, electricity held the darkness at bay, and air–conditioning made August blissful. We even had TV. On Monday night they had shown a movie, Terminator 2, hammering home the point: it could always be worse.
Then, on Wednesday right around noon, the magic hit and Atlanta went to hell.
I wasn't sure if people had deluded themselves into thinking the magic wouldn't come back or if they had been caught unprepared, but we'd never had so many calls for help since I had started with the Order. Unlike the Mercenary Guild, for which I also worked, the knights of the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid helped anyone and everyone regardless of their ability to pay. They charged only what you could afford and a lot of times nothing at all. We had been ooded with pleas. I managed to catch four hours of sleep on Wednesday night and then it was up and running again. Technically it was Friday now, and I was plagued by persistent fantasies of hot showers, food, and soft sheets. I had made an apple pie a couple of days ago, and I still had a slice left for tonight.
"Kate?" Maxine's stern voice echoed through my head, distant but clear.
I didn't jump. After the marathon of the last forty–eight hours, hearing the Order's telepathic secretary in my head seemed perfectly normal. Sad but true.
"I'm sorry, dear, but the pie might have to wait."
What else was new? Maxine didn't read thoughts on purpose, but if I concentrated on something hard enough, she couldn't help but catch a hint of it.
"I have a green seven, called in by a civilian."
Dead shapeshifter. Anything shapeshifter–related was mine. The shapeshifters distrusted outsiders, and I was the only employee of the Atlanta chapter of the Order who enjoyed Friend of the Pack status. "Enjoyed" being a relative term. Mostly my status meant that the shapeshifters might let me say a couple of words before deciding to llet me. They took paranoid to a new level.
"Where is it?"
"Corner of Ponce de Leon and Dead Cat."
Twenty minutes by mule. Chances were, the Pack already knew the death had taken place. They would be all over the scene, snarling and claiming jurisdiction. Ugh. I turned Marigold and headed north. "I'm on it."
MARIGOLD CHUGGED UP THE STREETS, SLOW BUT
steady, and seemingly tireless. The jagged skyline crawled past me, once–proud buildings reduced to crumbling husks. It was as if magic had set a match to Atlanta but extinguished the ames before the scorched city had a chance to burn to the ground.
Here and there random pinpoint dots of electric lights punctured the darkness. A scent of charcoal smoke spiced with the aroma of seared meat drifted from the Alexander on Ponce apartments. Someone was cooking a midnight dinner. The streets lay deserted. Most people with a crumb of sense knew better than to stay out at night.
A high–pitched howl of a wolf rolled through the city, sending shivers down my spine. I could almost picture her standing upon a concrete rib of a fallen skyscraper, pale fur enameled silver by moonlight, her head raised to expose her shaggy throat as she sung a awless song, tinted with melancholy longing and the promise of a bloody hunt.
A lean shadow skittered from the alley, followed by another. Emaciated, hairless, loping on all fours in a jerky, uncoordinated gait, they crossed the street before me and paused. They had been human at some point but both had been dead for more than a decade. No fat or softness remained on their bodies. No esh—only steel–wire muscle beneath thick hide. Two vampires on the prowl. And they were out of their territory.
"ID," I said. Most navigators knew me by sight just like they knew every member of the Order in Atlanta.
The forefront bloodsucker unhinged his jaw and the navigator's voice issued forth, distorted slightly. "Journeyman Rodriguez, Journeyman Salvo."
Of all the Masters of the Dead, I detested Rowena the least. "You're a long way from the Casino."
"We . . ."
The second bloodsucker opened his mouth, revealing light fangs against his black maw. "He screwed up and got us lost in the Warren."
"I followed the map."
The second bloodsucker stabbed a clawed nger at the sky. "The map's useless if you can't orient for shit. The moon doesn't rise in the north, you moron."
Two idiots. It would be comical if I didn't feel the blood hunger rising from the vamps. If these two knuckleheads lost control for a moment, the bloodsuckers would rip into me.
"Carry on," I said and nudged Marigold.
The vamps took off, the journeymen riding their minds probably bickering somewhere deep within the Casino. The Immortuus pathogen robbed its victims of their egos. Insentient, the vampires obeyed only their hunger for blood, butchering anything with a pulse. The emptiness of a vampiric mind made it a perfect vehicle for necromancers, Masters of the Dead. Most of the Masters served the People. Part cult, part research institute, part corporation, all vomit inducing, the People devoted themselves to the study and care of the undead. They had chapters in most major cities, just like the Order. Here, in Atlanta, they made their den in the Casino.
Among the power brokers of Atlanta, the People ranked pretty high. Only the Pack could match them in the potential for destruction. The People were led by a mysterious legendary gure, who chose to call himself Roland in this day and age. Roland possessed immense power. He was also the man I had been training all my life to kill.
I circled a big pot hole in the old pavement, turned onto Dead Cat, and saw the crime scene under a busted street lamp. Cops and witnesses were nowhere in sight. Gauzy moonlight sifted onto the bodies of seven shapeshifters. None of them was dead.
Two werewolves in animal form swept the scene for scents, carefully padding in widening circles from the narrow mouth of Dead Cat Street. Most shapeshifters in beast form ran larger than their animal counterparts, and these proved no exception: hulking, shaggy beasts taller and thicker than a male Great Dane. Past them, two of their colleagues in human form packed something suspiciously resembling a body into a body bag. Three others walked the perimeter, presumably to keep the onlookers out of the way. As if anyone was dumb enough to linger for a second look.
At my approach, everything stopped. Seven pairs of glowing eyes stared at me: four green, three yellow. Judging by the glow, the shapeshifter crew hovered on the verge of going furry. One of their own was dead and they were out for blood.
I kept my tone light. "You fellows ever thought of hiring out as a Christmas lights crew? You'd make a fortune."
The nearest shapeshifter trotted to me. Bulky with muscle but t, he was in his early forties. His face wore the trademark expression the Pack presented to the outsiders: polite and hard like the rock of Gibraltar. "Good evening, ma'am. This is a private investigation conducted by the Pack. I'm going to have to ask you to please move on."
Ma'am . . . Oy.
I reached into my shirt, pulled out the wallet of transparent plastic I carried on a cord around my neck, and passed it to him. He glanced at my ID, complete with a small square of enchanted silver, and called out, "Order."
Across the street a man congealed from the darkness. One moment there was only a deep night shadow lying like a pool of ink against the wall of the building, and the next there he stood. Six–two, his skin the color of bitter chocolate, and built like a prize ghter. Normally he wore a black cloak, but today he limited himself to black jeans and T–shirt. As he moved toward me, muscles rolled on his chest and arms. His face inspired second thoughts in would–be brawlers. He looked like he broke bones for a living and he loved his job.
"Hello, Jim," I said, keeping my tone friendly. "Fancy meeting you here."
The shapeshifter who had spoken to me took off. Jim came close and patted Marigold's neck.
"Long night?" he asked. His voice was melodious and smooth. He never sang, but you knew he could, and if he decided to do it, women would be hurling themselves into his path.
"You might say that."
Jim was my partner from the days when I worked exclusively for the Mercenary Guild. Some merc gigs required more than one body, and Jim and I tackled them together, mostly because we couldn't stomach working with anybody else. Jim was also alpha of the cat clan and the Pack's chief of security. I'd seen him ght and I would rather take on a nest of pissed–off vipers any day.
"You should go home, Kate." A sheen of faint green rolled over his eyes and vanished, his animal side coming to the surface for a moment.
"What happened here?"
The wolf on the left let out a short yelp. A female shapeshifter ran over to him and picked up something off the ground. I caught a glimpse of it before she stuffed the object into a bag. A human arm, severed at the elbow, still in a sleeve. We had just gone from code green seven to code green ten. Shapeshifter murder. Accidental deaths rarely resulted in detached limbs strewn across the intersection.
"Like I said, Pack business." Jim glanced at me. "You know the law."
The law said that the shapeshifters were an independent group, much like a Native American tribe, with the authority to govern itself. They made their own laws and they had a right to enforce them, as long as those laws didn't affect nonshapeshifters. If the Pack didn't want my help on this investigation, there wasn't a lot I could do about it. "As an agent of the Order, I extend an offer of assistance to the Pack."
"The Pack appreciates the Order's offer of assistance. As of now, we decline. Go home, Kate," Jim repeated. "You look worn–out."
Translation: shoo, puny human. Big, mighty shapeshifters have no need of your silly investigative skills. "You squared this with the cops?"
I sighed, turned Marigold around, and headed home. Someone had died. I wouldn't be the one to nd out why. It irked me on some deep professional level. If it was anybody else but Jim, I would've pushed harder to see the body. But when Jim said no, he meant it. My pushing wouldn't accomplish anything except straining relations between the Pack and the Order. Jim didn't half–ass things, so his crew would be competent and efcient.
It still bothered me.
I would call the Paranormal Activity Division in the morning and see if any reports were led. The paranormal cops wouldn't tell me what was in the report, but at least I'd know if Jim had led one. Not that I didn't trust Jim, but it never hurt to check.
AN HOUR LATER I LEFT MARIGOLD IN A SMALL
stable in the parking lot and climbed the stairs to my apartment. I had inherited the place from Greg, my guardian, who had served as knight–diviner with the Order. He had died six months ago. I missed him so much it hurt.
My front door was a sight like no other. I got in, locked the door, pulled off my noxious shoes, and dropped them in the corner. I would deal with them later. I unbuckled the leather harness that held Slayer, my saber, on my back, pulled the saber out, and put it by my bed. The apple pie beckoned. I dragged myself into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and stared at an empty pie plate.
Had I eaten the pie? I didn't remember nishing it. And if I had, I should've taken the empty plate out of the fridge.
The front door had shown no signs of forced entry. I did a quick inventory of the apartment. Nothing missing. Nothing out of place. Greg's library with his artifacts and books looked completely undisturbed.
I must've nished the pie. Considering the insanity of the last forty–eight hours, I had probably just forgotten. Well, that sucked. I took the pie plate, washed it while murmuring curses under my breath, and put it in its place under the stove. I couldn't have pie, but nobody could deny me my shower. I stripped off my clothes, shedding them on the way to the bathroom, crawled into the shower, and drowned the world in hot spray and rosemary soap.
I had just toweled off my hair when the phone rang.
I kicked the door open and stared at the phone, ringing its head off on the small night table by my bed. Nothing good ever happened to me because of phone calls. There was always somebody dead, dying, or making somebody else dead on the other line.
I sighed and picked it up. "Kate Daniels."
"Hello, Kate," said a familiar velvet voice. "I hope I didn't wake you."
Saiman. Just about the last person I wanted to talk to.
Saiman had an encyclopedic knowledge of magic. He was also a shapeshifter—of sorts. I had done a job for him, back when I worked for the Mercenary Guild full–time, and he found me amusing. Because I entertained him, he offered me his services as a magic expert at a criminal discount. Unfortunately, the last time we had met was in the middle of the are, atop a high–rise, where Saiman was dancing naked in the snow. With the largest erection I had ever seen on a human being. He didn't want to let me off that roof either. I had to jump to get away from him.
I kept my voice civil. Kate Daniels, master of diplomacy. "I don't want to speak to you. In fact, I don't wish to continue our association at all."
"That's very unfortunate. However, I have something that might belong to you and I would like to return this item to your custody."
What in the world? "Mail it to me."
"I would but he would prove difcult to t into an envelope."
He? He wasn't good.
"He refuses to speak, but perhaps I can describe him to you: about eighteen, dark, short hair, menacing scowl, large brown eyes. Quite attractive in a puppy way. Judging by the way the tapedum lucidum behind his retinas catches the light, he's a shapeshifter. I'm guessing a wolf. You brought him with you during our last unfortunate encounter. I'm truly sorry about it, by the way."
Derek. My one–time teenage werewolf sidekick. What the hell was he doing at Saiman's apartment?
"Hold the phone to him, please." I kept my voice even. "Derek, answer me so I know he isn't blufng. Are you hurt?"
"No." Derek's voice was laced with a growl. "I can handle this. Don't come here. It isn't safe."
"It's remarkable that he has so much concern for your welfare, provided that he's the one sitting in a cage," Saiman murmured. "You keep the most interesting friends, Kate."
"If you hurt him, I'll have twenty shapeshifters in your apartment foaming at the mouth at your scent."
"Don't worry. I have no desire to bring the Pack's wrath on my head. Your friend is unharmed and contained. I will, however, turn him over to proper authorities unless you come and pick him up by sunrise."
"I'll be there."
Saiman's voice held a slight mocking edge. "I'm looking forward to it."