I told you I wouldn’t leave you hanging.
Chief was still alive somewhere in there. I jumped into the hole, landed on the concrete floor of the basement, and moved away from the light streaming through the hole. No need to present a clear target.
Gloom filled the basement, dripping from the web into dark corners. The walls no longer existed. There was only web, white and endless.
My eyes adjusted to the darkness. Shapeshifter vision guaranteed that as long as there was some light, I wouldn’t bump into things.
Wet dark smears marred the concrete. Blood. I followed it.
Ahead the concrete split. A long fissure ran through the floor, at least three feet wide. The apartment building was already none too sturdy. The magic hated tall buildings and gnawed on them, pulverizing brick and mortar until the structure crashed down. The bigger the building, the faster it fell. Ours was too short and too small and so far we had escaped unscathed, but giant holes in the basement didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
A snorting noise came from inside the gap. I leaned over it. A whiff of dog fur stink washed over me. Chief, you silly knucklehead.
I crouched by the hole. The bulldog squirmed below, snorting up a storm. He must’ve fallen into the fissure and the drop was too sheer for him to jump out.
I put my shotgun on the ground and leaned in, grabbing Chief by the scruff of his neck. The bulldog weighed eighty pounds at least. What in the world were the Haffeys feeding him, small elephants? I yanked him out and jumped to my feet, shotgun in my hands. The whole thing took half a second.
Chief pressed against my leg. He was an Olde English Bulldogge, a throwback to the times when the English Bulldog was used for bull-baiting. A powerful, agile dog, Chief feared neither garbage trucks, nor stray dogs or horses. Yet here he was, rubbing against my calf, freaked out.
I took a second to bend down and pet his big head. It will be okay, boy. You’re with me now.
We started forward, moving slowly out of the first narrow room into a wider chamber. The web spanned the walls, creating hiding spots in the corners. Creepy as hell.
I carefully rounded the corner. At the far wall to my right two furnaces sat side by side: the electric for the times when technology had the upper hand and the old-fashioned coal-burning monstrosity for use during the waves, when the magic robbed us of electric current. To the right of the coal furnace stood a large coal bin, a four-foot-high wooden enclosure filled with coal. On the coal, half-buried, lay Mr. Haffey.
Two creatures crawled on the concrete in front of the bin. About thirty inches tall and at least five feet long, they resembled huge wingless wasps, with a wide thorax-chest slimming down before flaring into thick abdomen. Stiff brown bristles covered their beige, nearly translucent bodies. Their heads, bigger than Chief’s massive skull, bore mandibles the size of garden shears. Their claws scraped the concrete as they moved—an eerie, nasty sound.
The left creature stopped and planted its six chitin-sheathed legs. Its tail end tilted up and a stream of viscous liquid shot out, adhering to the wall. The creature scrubbed its butt on the floor, anchoring the stream and moved away as the secretions hardened into pale web.
Ew. Ew, ew, ew.
Mr. Haffey raised his head.
The creatures stopped, fixated on the movement.
The shotgun barked, spitting thunder. The first steel slug punched into the right creature, cutting through the chitin like it was paper-thin plywood. The insect broke in half. Wet innards spilled onto the floor, like a bunch of swim bladders strung together. Without a pause, I turned and put a second shot into its buddy. Chief barked next to me, snapping his jaws. The creatures jerked and flailed, dragging their body chunks. The sour, spike-studded odor filled the air.
Darin Haffey sat up in the bin. “I see Kayla dragged you into this.”
I smiled at him. “No, sir, I just came to borrow a cup of sugar.”
The web obscuring the rest of the room to my left tore.
“Incoming,” Mr. Haffey snapped, raising his firearm.
The first insect burst into the open. I fired. Boom!
Two more. Boom, boom!
Boom, boom, boom!
The broken chitin bodies crashed into each other, making a pile of jerking legs and vomit-inducing entrails.
Boom, boom, boom! Boom!
An insect leaped over the pile, aiming for me. I swung the shotgun up. The impact exploded the creature’s gut, spraying foul liquid over me. Bug juice burned my lips. Ugh.
A smaller insect dashed toward me. Sharp mandibles sliced at my leg. You bastard! Chief rammed the creature, ripping into the thing before I could sink a slug into it.
I kept firing. Finally the revolting flood stopped. I waited, listening, but no more skittering came. My calf burned. The pain didn’t bother me too much, but I’d be leaving a blood trail, which would make me ridiculously easy to track. I had five shots left in the AA-12. No way to know if I had killed them all or if this was the calm before the second wave of insects. I had to get Mr. Haffey out of here.
He was sitting in the coal bin, staring at the pile of insect parts. “Damn. That’s some shooting.”
“We aim to please,” I told him.
“You aim like you mean business.”
Funny thing, praise. I knew I was a great shot, but hearing it from the PAD veteran made me all warm and fuzzy anyway. “Have you seen Mrs. Truman?”
“I saw her body. They ripped her to pieces, the assholes.”
Poor Mrs. Truman. “Can you walk?”
“The fuckers got me in the leg. I’m bleeding like a stuck pig.”
That’s why he hid in the coal. He’d buried his leg in the coal dust to smother the scent. Smart. “Time to go then.”
“You listen to me, ” Mr. Haffey put some cop hardness into his gruff voice. “There’s no way for you to get me out. Even if I lean on you, I’m two hundred and twenty pounds and my weight will just take you down with me. Leave me a gun, and you get out of here. Kayla must’ve called over to the station. I’ll hold them off until . . .”
I swung the shotgun over my shoulder and picked him up out of the coal. I wasn’t as strong as a normal shapeshifter, although I was faster and more agile, but still a two-hundred-pound man wasn’t a challenge.
I double-timed it to the hole, Chief at my heels. The bulldog had a death grip on a chitinous leg as long as he was. He had to lean his head back to carry it, but the look in his eyes said no army in the world could take it away.
“This is embarrassing,” Mr. Haffey informed me.
I winked at him. “What, Mrs. Haffey never carried you over the threshold on your wedding night?”
His eyes bulged. “That’s just ridiculous. What are you?”
I’d spent most of my life pretending to be human. But now the hyena was out of the bag, and sooner or later I had to start owning up to it. “A shapeshifter.”
“A bouda.” Well, not exactly. The truth was more complicated, but I wasn’t ready for those explanations yet.
We reached the hole. If I were a regular bouda, I could’ve jumped out of the hole with Mr. Haffey in my arms. But I knew my limits and that wasn’t happening. Throwing him out would injure his dignity beyond repair. “I’m going to lift you. Can you pull yourself up?”
“Is the Pope Catholic?”
I lowered him down, grabbed him by the hips, and heaved. Mr. Haffey pulled himself over the ledge and I got a real close look at that wound. It was a four-inch rip down his leg and touching his sweatpants left my palm bloody. He needed an ambulance yesterday.
I tossed Chief and his prize out of the hole, jumped, caught the edge, and hopped up.
“Will you at least carry me fireman-style?” Mr. Haffey huffed.
“No can do, sir. I’m trying to keep your blood from dripping out of your leg.”
He growled deep under his breath.
I picked him up and started out. “It will all be over soon.”
I caught the familiar scuttling sound behind me, coming from the master bedroom.
“I thought the Order didn’t allow shapeshifters.”
“They don’t. When they figured me out, they fired me.”
The scuttling chased us.
“That’s bullshit right there.” Mr. Haffey shook his head. “And discrimination. You talk to your union rep?”
“Yes, I did. I fought it as long as I could. Anyway, they retired me with full pension. I can’t appeal.”
Mr. Haffey gave me an appraising look. “You took it?”
“Nope. Told them to shove it.”
I dropped him to the floor as gently as I could and spun, shotgun ready.
A huge pale insect lunged at us. I pumped two slugs into it and it thrashed on the floor. I gathered Mr. Haffey up and double-timed it to the door.
“Listen, most of my contacts have retired, but a few of us have kids in the department. If you need a job, I can probably fix up something. The PAD will be glad to have you. You’re a hell of a shot. Shouldn’t let that go to waste.”
“Much appreciated.” I smiled. “But I’ve got a job. I work for a business. My best friend owns it.” I started up the stairs.
“What sort of business?”
“Magic hazmat removal. Protection. That type of thing.”
Mr. Haffey opened his eyes. “Private cop? You went private?”
That’s cop mentality for you. I tell him I’m a shapeshifter and he doesn’t blink an eye. But private cop, oh no, that’s not okay.
“So how’s business?” Mr. Haffey squinted at me.
“Business is fine.” If by fine, one meant lousy. Between Kate Daniels and me, we had a wealth of skills, a small sea of experience, and enough smears on our reputation to kill a dozen careers. All of our clients were desperate, because by the time they came to us, everybody else had turned them down.
“What does your man think about that?”
Raphael Medrano. The memory of him was so raw, I could conjure his scent by just thinking about him. The strong male healthy scent that drove me crazy . . .
“It didn’t work out,” I said.
Mr. Haffey shifted, uncomfortable. “You need to drop that silliness and get back in uniform. We’re talking retirement, benefits, advance in rank and pay . . .”
I ran up to my door. “Mrs. Haffey!”
The door swung open. Mrs. Haffey’s face went slack. “Oh my God, Darin. Oh God.”
In the distance the familiar sirens blared.
The cavalry arrived with guns and in large numbers. They loaded Mr. Haffey into an ambulance, thanked me for my help and told me that since I was a civilian, I needed to keep the hell out of their way. I didn’t mind. I’d killed most of what was down there and they got all dressed up and went through the trouble of bringing flamethrowers. It was only fair to let them have some fun.
I tended the cut on my leg. There wasn’t much to do about it. Lyc-V, the virus responsible for shapeshifter existence, repaired injuries at an accelerated rate, and by the time I got to it, the gash had sealed itself. In a couple of days, the leg would be like new, without scars. Some Lyc-V gifts were useful. Some, like berserker rage, I could live without.
I was scrubbing the bug juice off my face with my makeup removal washcloth, when the phone rang. I wiped the soap off my face and sprinted into the kitchen to pick it up.
“Nash?” a smooth voice said into the phone.
The smooth voice belonged to Jim, a werejaguar and the Pack’s security chief. He usually went by Jim Black, if you didn’t know him well. I’d dug through his background during my tenure with the Order. His real name was James Damael Shrapshire, a fact I kept to myself, since he didn’t advertise it.
Atlanta’s Shapeshifter Pack was the strongest in the nation, and my relationship with it was complicated. But the Pack backed Cutting Edge, the business Kate owned and for which I now worked. They had supplied the seed money and they were our first priority client.
“Hey, Jim. What can I do for you?” Jim wasn’t a bad guy. Paranoid and secretive, but then cats were odd creatures.
“One of our businesses got hit last night,” Jim said. “Four people are dead.”
Someone obviously had a death wish and that someone wasn’t very bright, because there were much easier ways of committing suicide. The Pack took care of their own and if you hurt their own, they made it a point to take care of you. “Anybody I know?”
“No. Two jackals, a bouda, and a fox from Clan Nimble. I need you to go down there and check it out.”
I headed into the bedroom. “No problem. But why me?”
Jim sighed into the phone. “Andrea, how many years did you spend as a knight?”
“Eight.” I began pulling my clothes onto the bed: socks, work boots, jeans . . .
“How many of those did you spend on active cases?”
“Seven.” I added a box of ammo to the clothes pile on the bed.
“That’s why. You’re the most experienced investigator I’ve got who’s not tied up in something, and I can’t ask the Consort to look into it, because A) she and Curran are working on something else and B) when the Consort gets involved, half of the world blows up.”
Kate the Consort. The title still made me grin. Every time someone used it, she got this martyred look on her face.
“This mess looks to be complicated and the cops are in up to their elbows. I need you to go down there and untangle it.”
Finally. Something I could actually sink my teeth into.
I held the phone between my shoulder and my ear and took a pencil and a notepad off the nightstand. . “You’ve got an address?”
Griffin Street ran through SoNo, one of the former financial districts, sandwiched between Midtown and Downtown. The name came from “South of North Avenue.” It was a bad unstable area, with old office buildings crashing down left and right.
“What were the shapeshifters doing there?”
“Working,” Jim said. “It’s a reclamation site.”
Reclamations. Oh no. No. He wouldn’t do that to me. I kept my voice even. “Who was in charge of the site?”
Please don’t be Raphael, please don’t be Raphael, please don’t . . .
“Medrano Reclamations,” Jim said.
“Raphael is being questioned by some cops, but I’ve sent some lawyers down to make sure they don’t keep him. He’ll join you as soon as they spring him out of there. Look, I know things aren’t good between you and Raphael, but we all have to do things we don’t want to do.”
“Jim,” I cut him off. “I’ve got it. A job is a job. I’m on it.”