I brought Tulip to a halt on the corner of Jonesboro and Gammon street, two blocks away from Pastor Haywood’s church. Around me black trees crowded the road, their sharp leaves unnaturally still despite a slight breeze. A small two-story building with boarded up windows perched on the corner to the right, its grimy brown bricks stained with grey mold. Back when I ran the streets, this building served as a rallying point for the North Warren kid gangs.
Street kids knew Pastor Haywood. He fed them, he healed them, and he probably had hidden them when the occasion required.
I reached into my pocket, pulled out a small silver slug, and held it up. Silver was the go-to metal for most magic-related work. It was easy to shape, took enchantment better than any other metal, even gold, and was poisonous to a wide variety of magical creatures, all of which made it hellishly expensive. It could be bought in several forms, shot, wire, and cut rod. A quarter-inch wide rod was standard, and a half-inch long chunk of it was called a slug and went for about $50.
I tossed the slug into the air and caught it in my fist. “Silver.”
They knew all the cops in the area, so they realized I wasn’t one. I was a stranger, and therefore scary, but I also offered silver. Paper money could be ripped or burned. Some of the older pre-Shift notes contained plastic and sometimes fell apart in the magic waves. But silver always held value and it was easy to hide and sell.
“Pastor Haywood.” I held the slug up. “Hurry up. I have things to do.”
The boarded-up window on the first floor quaked. The entire section swung out and a figure squirmed out and landed on the grass. The child ran up to my horse and grinned at me, his teeth white against the backdrop of his dirty face. Ten, maybe twelve, skinny, filthy, smelly. A rat’s tail hung from a loop on his pants. When I left, the Rat Tails were a small gang on the east side of the Warren. They must have expanded.
“What do you want to know, pretty lady?”
I studied the slug in my hand. “Did anything strange happen with Pastor Haywood in the last couple of weeks?”
I sneered at him and tensed slightly. Tulip started walking.
“Wait, wait!” The kid jumped in front of the horse.
Tulip bared her teeth.
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” I told him. “She bites.”
He stepped to the side. “A guy came to see him. We know everybody who comes but we haven’t seen him before. We’d remember him.”
“Why? Tell me about him.” I dropped the slug.
He snatched it out of the air with a cat like quickness and let out a squeak. Shutters banged, bushes rustled, and five kids closed in, all under twelve years old, all equally filthy. They kept their distance in a ragged semicircle.
I took another slug out. “Tell me about the stranger. Where were you when you saw him?”
The leader stared at a small child, maybe about seven or eight, with twigs and beads in her dark hair. “Tell her.”
“I saw him,” the girl said.
“Where were you when you saw him?”
“Why were you inside?”
“Pastor had cookies,” the girl said.
“What kind of cookies?”
“Oatmeal. If you got hurt, he would heal you and give you a cookie.”
Ah. So that’s where this was going. “You hurt yourself to get a cookie?”
“I ran and fell.”
“What happened when you went to see the pastor?”
“He magicked my leg and gave me milk and a cookie. It was this big.” She held fingers of her small hands far apart.
“Did you eat the cookie in the church?”
“Then what happened?”
“I was eating the cookie and a fatso came.”
Fatso meant someone well off, good clothes, expensive jewelry, well-fed. A good mark.
“Did anybody else see the fatso?” I asked.
The kids shook their heads.
That’s what I thought. It wasn’t “we hadn’t seen him before.” It was she hadn’t seen him before. The leader of the little group claimed credit to get the extra silver. Right. I needed to separate her from them. I’d get more information that way.
“You know where Central Market is?”
I leaned down and offered the girl my hand. “Show me and you can tell me about the fatso on the way. I’ll give you this silver at the end.”
She thought about it and grabbed my arm. I lifted her into the saddle in front of me. She weighed nothing. We set off north, toward the old I-75.
“What did the fatso look like?”
“Tall or short?”
“What color hair?”
“Was his skin brown or pale?”
The little gang was trailing us, trying to be inconspicuous as they darted through the brush past the ruined houses.
“What did his face look like?”
She frowned. “He had fake eyes. Like he is nice when other people can see him, but not when he’s by himself.”
“Did he look like the kind of guy who would hit if you stole from him?”
She nodded. Her shoulder hunched a little. She’d been hit before, and she’d learned to roll into a ball.
“Do you remember what the fatso said to the pastor?”
“He said he had holy relics.”
Jackpot. “What kind of holy relics?”
She shook her head. “I don’t remember. I wasn’t listening good. Pastor and he talked, and then Pastor said he would think about it, and the fatso left.”
“Then what happened?”
“The next day a car came, and Pastor got into it. He never gets into cars. He came back later.”
“Did he seem okay when he came back?”
She nodded. “The next morning, he got killed.” Her voice got really quiet. “He was nice.”
He was and now he was gone. No more milk and cookies. No more healing when you got hurt. She’d lost the only safe place she had. She was the smallest and the weakest. I could feel her ribs rubbing against my arm. Starved. So starved, she’d learned to hurt herself to get food.
I wanted to take off the street. I had to.
Grandmother’s words surfaced from my memory. “You can’t save everyone. If you try, it will rip apart your soul.” She had tried to save everyone. She’d turned into a monster for their sake. Grandmother made me promise that I would stop trying to rescue every child I saw. In exchange, I could set up as many orphanages as I wanted in the New Shinar. It was a place where no child went hungry.
The little girl in front of me was so tiny. Even if she survived for the next couple of years, I knew exactly what lie ahead: abuse, more abuse, rape, beatings, drugs, death. People liked to think that street kids watched out for each other, that it was like Peter Pan’s band of Lost Boys. It wasn’t like that at all.
If I took her with me, where would I put her? I had a job to do. Sooner or later I’d become a target. Anyone close to me would be a potential hostage. If I left her in the front of the house, she’d get bored and go out. She was a street kid, used to moving around. If I left her in the back of the house, she wouldn’t be able to keep her hands to herself. There were things in that room that could eat her or turn her skin inside out.
If the priests of Moloch got their claws on her, they would cook her alive just to hurt me. I needed to let her go. Once this was over, I would find her again.
“What’s your name?”
“Who named you that?”
“I named myself, because monkeys are smart and cute.”
Fair enough. “There was a blue building on the corner of Harpy Street, Monkey. Is it still there?”
I dropped a slug of silver into her grimy hand. “They’ll take it away from you as soon as I’m gone. Let them have it. Come to the blue building tomorrow. Inside turn left, count eight steps. There is a loose board in the floor. I’ll leave something there for you. Keep low for the next few days. If something else weird happens or if anybody else comes asking about this, go to the Order and ask for Aurelia. They’ll keep you safe until I get there.”
I let her off the horse. She ran back, skinny legs flying, the slug clutched in a small fist. I looked at her over my shoulder until she vanished around the corner.
She was me. Except I was thirteen when Kate took me off the street.
Suddenly I wanted to go home. It scraped at me like claws, ripping through my resolve to the vulnerable soft place I’d been trying to armor. I could picture it in my head, the sunlit kitchen; Dad gliding through the house, quiet like a ghost; Conlan leaping over the fence after running in the woods next door, the massive smelly poodle trailing him; and Mom standing in the kitchen, cooking something, her sword within reach. I wanted to go home and hug the three of them. I’d been gone for eight years. I was so homesick, if I were a wolf, I would’ve howled. I needed to see my family and make sure they were okay.
And if I did, Mom would die.
I exhaled slowly, reasserting control. I was a princess of Shinar. More, I was my mother’s daughter. People in our family didn’t get the luxury of feeling sorry for ourselves. We made a choice to not go home until we killed the monster blocking the front door.
I urged Tulip on, and she started down the street, light on her feet. According to Nick’s file, Pastor Haywood had very few assets, so it was unlikely someone approached him to sell holy relics. Most likely, they wanted to know if the relics had power. Although Methodists rejected holy relics before the Shift, after the magic hit, the existence of holy objects became an undeniable fact. Some items associated with Christianity had power.
As a man of his God, Pastor Haywood would be able to recognize a relic of his deity and determine what it was capable of. I was looking for someone who had or thought he had Christian relics. The first step would be to call to Pastor Haywood’s church of record and see if they referred anyone to him.
I didn’t hold out much hope. Pastor Haywood was famous enough that someone might have found him even without a referral. But it was still worth a try.
Unfortunately, all of that had to wait. I had to go home to put up wards and I had to do it now.
When I mentioned shapeshifters to Fleming, he didn’t contradict me, and he didn’t ask questions. A law enforcement officer, who had no idea shapeshifters had trampled the crime scene he’d been guarding, would want to know details. Why did I think shapeshifters were there? How many shapeshifters? When did they visit? Fleming just let it drop. He must’ve owed the Pack a favor or he took their money. Either way, he would contact them the first chance he got. A team would be dispatched to the scene, and they would track me.
There were ways to knock a shapeshifter off your scent. Wolfsbane worked well. It had the same effect on a shapeshifter as sticking your head into a bucket of pine pollen had on a human. If a single shapeshifter was following my scent, using it might have been an option. But I wouldn’t be tracked by a single shapeshifter. I would be tracked by a team, so sanding my trail with wolfsbane was futile. I might get the leading tracker, but the rest would just go around the wolfsbane, spread out, and pick up my scent again.
A confrontation with the Pack’s people was imminent, and I wanted to have it on my home turf, safe behind my wards.
I’d been in Atlanta for less than a day. It was entirely too early to start killing people.
I was in the decoy kitchen, sliding the first batch of baking in the oven, when something brushed against the edge of my outer ward. It was almost eight in the evening. Took them long enough. I’d cut through the Central Market on my way back. They must’ve had the devil of a time trying to follow my trail through the open-air market. Hard to track a scent after a horse pees on it.
I draped the kitchen towel over my shoulder and walked to the front door, left open to vent the heat from the stove. The sunset burned across the sky, a gory, violent orange. I concentrated, sinking into my enhanced vision. Three… two…
Contact. Magic nipped at me. A bright green flash pulsed in the empty air and vanished. To the left, a dark four-legged shape jumped out from behind some rubble and dashed down the street, little more than a blur in the fading light. The shapeshifter who’d found my house hurrying to report.
I went back to the kitchen, sat at my strategically sad table, and waited. I felt spent. Fatigue wrapped around my shoulders like a heavy blanket. Too much magic expended too quickly this afternoon setting up the defensive perimeter.
I’d learned the art of wards from my grandfather. He loved to teach, and I’d been hungry to learn. Later my grandmother and her servants refined my education, but the foundation of my magic expertise was built by Roland. If you have to learn magic, studying under a brilliant megalomaniac wizard who thinks he was always right and can’t wait to dazzle you with four millennia of knowledge is a really good choice.
In the few hours since coming back from Central Market, I’d set three concentric rings of wards. I’d need to add four more to them over the next few days, so they would form a Darius pyramid and quadruple my defensive capabilities in an emergency, but time was short and for now three was plenty.
The outer ward, undetectable by most of the people and creatures who crossed it, warned me that someone was coming, sampled the intruder’s magic, and flashed it in a burst of color invisible to anyone who wasn’t sensate. The middle ward wrapped around the building, shielding the front entrance. I’d chosen a runeward, a simple defensive barrier that relied on Elder Futhark runes carved on bone stakes driven into the ground. Solid, powerful, and common enough to not raise any eyebrows. It was also the first ward the Order’s Academy taught to prospective knights, so it went along with my disguise.
The third ward sealed off the hallway leading to the front bedroom and to the secret door, protercting the entire inner chamber. I had raised Enki’s Shield in four hours instead of the full twelve it usually required and got a throbbing headache for my trouble. Still, Grandfather would be proud.
I missed him. He was the monster in our family of monsters, but he was still my grandfather, if not by birth then by choice. When my grandfather wanted to be liked, he was an unstoppable force, and he wanted me to like him. He wasn’t bored in his prison – he was far too brilliant for that – but he wanted to get out and Conlan and I were his link to the outside world. It had been over a month since my last visit. I was overdue.
Magic pinched me. I peeked out of the kitchen in time to see the street light up with green through the doorway. Ascanio walked out of the shadows and strolled up to my house. I thought that trail of grass green I’d noticed at the murder scene looked familiar.
Someone from the Pack was interested in Pastor Haywood’s murder and they sent Ascanio to figure it out. Why? Had this order come from the top? Or was this a Clan Bouda affair? Was someone pulling his stings or was he doing it on his own? All good questions.
Ascanio was never big on following orders. It wouldn’t be out of character for him to do this on his own, but he never acted without aiming for some sort of benefit.
He knocked on my doorframe. I walked out of the kitchen and to the front door.
“The shapeshifer hero. We meet again and so soon.”
Before I was on horseback, in the dark, a dozen yards away, with my hood up. Now less than three feet separated us. He could see my face and it burned a fuse in his brain. For a moment Ascanio forgotten to be suave and simply stared with unnerving, focused intensity.
My timer went off.
Ascanio blinked. “Are you baking cookies?”
“Yes, I am. Excuse me.”
I went into the kitchen. Behind me, magic tolled through the house, like a gong. Ascanio had tried to follow and walked right into my second ward.
I pulled the first batch of cookies out of the oven, slid the second tray in, reset my mechanical timer, and went back to the door.
Ascanio leaned in the doorway, arms crossed, a slight smile on his lips. It had to be his sexy, nonchalant pose. I wasn’t sure if I was expected to toss my underwear at his feet or just fall back with my legs in the air. He’d realized that he’d stared like an idiot and overcorrected, like a driver who drifted onto the shoulder and jerked the wheel trying to get back on the highway.
“Keeps out the riff raff.”
A ruby light rolled over his irises. “Can I have a cookie?”
He gave a mock sigh. “I have a feeling this conversation has gotten off on the wrong foot.”
“Not just a hero, but a master detective as well. I can’t wait to be dazzled by your brilliance.”
“I’m not just a pretty face.”
“I don’t recall saying you were pretty.”
The smile stayed on his lips, but his posture lost some of its slouching. “Let me tell you what I’ve detected.”
I smiled back at him. “I can’t wait.”
His gaze snagged on my lips. He blinked again.
Lost the train of thought for a second there, buddy?
“You pretended to be a lightweight on the bridge. You visited the Order and you have an Order ID, which says you are assigned to Atlanta, except you’re not, because the Atlanta Chapter never has more than twenty knights and with you, they are up to twenty-one.”
“You’ve used your brand-new ID to gain access to a crime scene, but you aren’t staying in the Order chapter. Instead you’re living in a hovel on the edge of the most dangerous area of the city, flirting with disaster and baking cookies with expensive chocolate chips.”
Here it comes, the brilliant deduction.
“I have to ask why the Order is so invested in the Pastor Haywood’s murder that they would bring a knight crusader in for it?”
I gave him a gentle slow clap.
It wasn’t a bad assumption. My mom often described knight crusaders as the Order’s janitors. When the Order had a particularly nasty mess on their hands, they threw a crusader at it, who would either clean it up and disappear, or die trying. Crusaders worked undercover, used unorthodox even for the Order, and enjoyed a lot of leeway. If they screwed up, the Order had plausible deniability.
Crusaders were dangerous as hell and often crazy. They didn’t do what they did for accolades. They did it because they believed in their cause. Before Nick Feldman became the Knight Protector, he was a crusader, one of the Order’s best.
I smiled at him again. “Did you expect one?”
Ascanio pushed away from the doorway and looked past me, at my humble abode.
“This place is a dump.”
“Whoever rented it to you should be barred from owning real estate. Nick should’ve never let you stay here.”
“I like it here. Quiet, picturesque, but now that you’ve visited, I have to put a no solicitors sign up front.”
“I’m not here to sell you anything. But I can offer you better accommodations. You’re new to the city, and this really isn’t a good neighborhood.”
“People keep telling me that.”
“Because it’s true.”
My timer went off again. “Hold that thought.”
I went back to the kitchen, rescued my second batch, and turned the oven off. It was good that gas still burned even during the deepest magic waves.
“I can put you in a better house,” Ascanio called from the door. “Free of charge.”
Too crude for him. He was trying to gauge my reaction. I came back to the front and raised my head, inhaling deeply, the way shapeshifters did when they were trying to catch a scent on the breeze. His eyes widened.
“Do you smell that?” I asked him. “What’s that odor, I can’t quite place it…”
I opened my eyes wide. “Bribery. That’s it.”
He recoiled with theatrical shock. “I come here, I offer you a safer place out of the goodness of my heart, and you accuse me of bribery.”
“I have to ask why the Pack is so invested in Pastor Haywood’s murder that they would send the Beta of Clan Bouda to investigate it, bribe the Atlanta PD to gain access to the crime scene, and then stalk and attempt to intimidate and coerce a knight of the Order?”
“I don’t recall intimidating you. If I wanted to intimidate you, I would break through this ward.” He smiled, showing me his sharp white teeth. “And take all of your cookies.”
He promised to break the ward with complete confidence. That wasn’t arrogance, that was experience talking.
The runic ward would stop an average shapeshifter, but then Ascanio Ferrara had never been average. All shapeshifters had two forms, one animal and the other human. Those with talent, had a third, the warrior form, a blend of human and animal devastating in combat. Dad considered Ascanio’s warrior form to be one of the best, a high compliment from a man who was once Beast Lord.
Looked like I wasn’t the only one who got stronger. I’d have to readjust my expectations.
I went to the kitchen, took a cookie, whispered a bit of magic from a forgotten language into it, walked back to the door, and dropped the ward.
I held the cookie out to him. “You think it’s the ward that’s keeping me safe. You want this cookie? Take it.”
He studied me for a moment, his face calculating. He was lighting fast, and he was 99.9 percent sure he was faster than me.
The cookie lay on my palm, waiting. Perfectly harmless.
Ascanio’s nostrils fluttered slightly. He was sampling the air looking for the scent of poison.
I sighed. “Do you want the cookie or not?”
He moved so fast; his hand was a blur. His fingers touched the cookie and went right through it, brushing my palm, so light, like the touch of a moth’s wing. When I was a street kid, I thought I had a light touch. I thought I was quick. Compared to Ascanio, I was a rank amateur. If I ever held something in my hand and he wanted it, I wouldn’t even notice him taking it.
Ascanio stared at the perfectly solid cookie in my hand.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Don’t you want it?”
Moth wings on my palm. He’d tried again.
“Nice trick,” Ascanio said.
“You said you could take all of my cookies and you can’t even grab one. I’m disappointed.” I raised the cookie to my mouth and took a bite. “Mmm. Delicious. You really don’t know what you’re missing.”
He swiped at the cookie, trying to take it out of my mouth. His fingers fanned my lips.
“Hey! Personal space.”
Ascanio opened his mouth.
A female shapeshifter dashed across the yard and slid to a stop next to Ascanio. “I saw him!”
Red burst in Ascanio’s eyes. “Are you sure?”
“Yes!” She waved her hand in front of her. “I saw his face.”
“We’ll finish this later.” Ascanio spun to her. “Show me.”
They sprinted off into the darkness.
I stepped out and yelled. “Wait! You forgot your cookie.”
A distant howl from Unicorn Lane was my only answer. That was fine. I knew he heard me.
I went inside, sealed the ward, and closed the door behind me. So, the Pack, or some part of it, was definitely interested in this murder. Unfortunately, I still had no idea why.
Let’s see, things I learned from this encounter: Ascanio was amazingly fast and he wasn’t shy about using money to get what he wanted. Not a complete waste, but not terribly useful either.
If the Pack wanted access to a murder, they could request it through proper channels. Most of the time, the city let them in. They were the best trackers, and they made an effort to play nice with law enforcement. They also took care of their own criminals, so if a shapeshifter had committed this murder, the Pack would do an internal investigation, apprehend them, and either punish, or depending on the political situation, turn them over to city authorities. It was a win-win arrangement: the Pack avoided unnecessary suspicion and the cops bled less trying to do their job. Subduing an enraged shapeshifter wasn’t a walk in the park.
But the Pack hadn’t requested access. They bribed a cop instead.
So far both Ascanio and Nick were interested in this case and pretending as hard as they could that they weren’t.
I went to the hallway, slid the secret door open, entered my real home, and shut the door behind me. It clanged in place with a reassuring thud. The Enki shield flowed closed, cutting off the outside world.
I whispered a word, and the fey lanterns ignited, bathing the chamber in bright soothing light. Yet another benefit of a classical education. My fey lanterns came with a magic off switch and glowed in a variety of colors, while most people’s fey lanterns were blue and glowed continuously when the magic was up. I wasn’t a fan of blue light, except as a rare accent here and there. Too harsh. The yellow and softer white hues made the space feel homey.
I walked to the cauldron. A small fire was already laid out. I struck a match, let it lick strips of paper, and watched the twigs catch.
So far this murder was all questions and no answers.
I took a bag from my desk, got a pinch of powder from it, and tossed it onto the fire. Light surged in a column and unfolded into a view of a house with brightly lit windows. Nick Feldman sat at a kitchen table, by the first-floor window, eating a sandwich and reading a thick book. The view tilted slightly as Abra readjusted his grip on the branch.
“Stay on him,” I whispered.
The raptor clicked his beak in acknowledgement.
I let go, and the flame died down.
The eagle would call to me if anything happened. As long as the magic stayed up, I would know every move Nick made. Tomorrow I would dig deeper, but before I could do that, I needed to figure out where to start.
I pulled a big stack of papers toward me. I had picked them up on my way home, three months’ worth of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Let’s see if anyone announced their discovery of new Christian relics.