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 fine 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 child. She wailed and wailed, as if her heart was being torn out of her chest, filling me with despair.
The magic crashed. One moment it filled the world, giving potency to Mrs. McSweeney’s cry, and the next it vanished from the world without warning, gone like a line drawn in the sand just before the surf licked it. The technology reasserted itself. The blue fey lantern 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, snuffing out anything complex and technological, smothering car engines, jamming automatic weapons, and eroding tall buildings. Mages fired ice bolts, skyscrapers fell, and wards flared 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’s 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 five 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 Merciful Aid. Second, negotiation wasn’t my forte. I killed things. Quickly and with much bloodshed. Getting elderly banshees in denial off of 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 US post-Shift, the Military Supernatural Defense Unit or MSDU, the Paranormal Activity Division, PAD, and my illustrious employer, the Order of Merciful Aid, all certified banshees as harmless. Nobody has 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 scream 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 length 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 find yourself standing on a telephone pole, not sure why or how you had gotten there, while the neighborhood pretends not to hear your piercing screeches.
Yeah. I was the 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 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 the 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 loud 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 your 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 fit into the space under the stairs, from which the super had gotten it for me.
My day had started at five with a frantic man running through the hallway of the Atlanta Chapter of the Order of Merciful Aid and screaming that a dragon with a cat head had gotten into New Hope School and would 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 first time I got sprayed with blood today.
Then I had to help Mauro get a two-headed fresh water serpent out of an artificial pond at the ruins of One Atlantic Center in Buckhead. It took me and the huge Samoan knight almost an hour, and by the end of the ordeal we were both swearing like a couple of sailors on shore leave, who got kicked out of the bar midway through the ladies night.
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 finally 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-finished 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, definitely 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 the 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 flare, 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 difficulty controlling themselves. I had spent the flare on the battlefield, 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 flare had burned out, leaving technology firmly in control of the world. For two months cars started without fail, electricity held the darkness at bay, and air conditioning made Georgia 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’ve 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 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 flooded 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, I was plagued by persistent fantasies of hot shower, 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 is 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 the 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 fillet 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 knew the death took place already. Ugh. I turned Marigold and headed north. “I’m on it.”