While Alexi Sokolsky is hiding on the streets from the Russian Mafia, twenty supernaturally-gifted children are kidnapped from a foster home. Their adoptive parents, leaders in New York’s shapeshifter community, are brutally murdered by someone – or something – with incredible magical and physical power. Frustrated by weeks of botched Government investigation, the werecreatures of New York City are searching for an Occult expert capable of doing the dirty work the police cannot. Someone like Alexi: currently ex-magus, hitman, and reluctant finder of lost children.

A chance meeting results in Alexi joining forces with the shapeshifters against a mutual enemy, but street justice is rarely as simple as putting a bullet through someone’s head. Backed up by a biker gang of were-cats and a disturbingly attractive Biomancer, Alexi must recover the kids and regain his magic, a dangerous and deadly mission that will test them all to the limit.

James Osiris Baldwin


Chapter 1

Vengeance, like most fantasies, is better in the imagining than it is in the execution.

Snappy Joe Grassia – Manelli hitman, renowned sadist, and murdering piece of human waste – was hog-tied in my trunk. We were headed north along the Interstate, gunning for a place that a long-dead gangster had nicknamed Bozya Akra, God’s Acre. The Yaroshenko Organizatsiya had been planting bodies there since my grandfather’s day, and if the Feds ever found it, they’d have enough bones to keep the world in human ivory for the next decade.

It had been a long two weeks, and now that we were nearly there, I felt hollow, sour, even bored. This was the last kill I’d make in the USA, maybe for the rest of my life. I’d expected to feel satisfaction, some kind of relief. All I felt was nothing. When I glanced in the mirror at my face, it was stiff and cold, skin tight and grayish. I couldn’t see anything through that shell of self-containment, the autistic armor I’d grown over the course of a short, violent life. There was only a mask: passionless, hard and proud.

The trip to Bozya Akra was nearly the reverse of the one Vassily and I had made earlier in August when we’d driven back from Fishkill Correctional. The wind blowing over us from the windows during that ride had been warm, the scents blue and bittersweet with the dog days of summer. He’d come out of prison thinned and brittle. He hadn’t been strong enough to survive the odds arrayed against him when everything had gone to shit. The icing on the cake had been when he was kidnapped and his sister killed… and now, Snappy Joe and I were fated to share this moment.

The outer fence had rotted to stumps, and the frontage to Bozya Akra was so overgrown that it resembled the rest of the forest. We drove up along that long driveway very slowly, bumping and rumbling over the soft earth, and eventually came to a gentle stop in a clearing not too far from a deep, pre-dug pit. I collected the weapon I’d brought for the job, cut the engine and got out, the pulse in my tongue tap-tapping with the tick of cooling metal. The hissing trees filled the silence as I went around and popped the trunk.

Joe squealed when he saw me, eyes bugging over the top of his gag. He was a burly dog of a man, tough and bony as dry chicken. My hands itched in my gloves as I reached in and hauled him out like so much meat, rolling him to the ground with a wet thud. He was beaten to within an inch of his life, his body a coagulated mess of broken bones and livid bruises, and he swooned in a fresh faint as I – three inches shorter and a hand broader through the shoulders – grasped the top of his head by the hair and dragged him behind me through the mud.

In the dark of my mind, I felt something stir… the awareness of my Neshamah. Kutkha roused with dispassionate interest as I set Joe on his knees by the edge of the pit. There was just enough sun left in the day to us to see by. While he swayed and moaned, clawing his way back to consciousness, I cut his gag free, set a piece of razor-sharp broken window glass taken from Mariya’s house against his twitching throat, and waited.

The sun was wavering red on the horizon by the time he gurked and lurched a little, catching himself before he toppled forward into the hole. The damp earth sighed under his weight. When he finally righted, he drew a sharp, frightened breath.

“Joseph Grassia,” I spoke his name slowly, rolling out the ‘ra’ a little to taste the ‘s’ that followed. “Do you know why we’re here?”

Joe’s throat worked a little under the blade as he swallowed, mouth working. We were in a clearing behind a thick stand of hemlock and trembling aspen, the trees shivering in the sweet evening breeze. Far from the New York city limit, fifteen miles from the nearest truck stop, we were utterly alone.

“R…Russian? The Russians?” He croaked. “No way. Come on, man… You—”

“Ukrainian.” The blade was rocking, rocking, and beginning to draw a little red. “Three weeks ago, you raided an apartment to kidnap my sworn brother. You killed his sister and took him—”

“Please man, plEEE—!”

With a small shudder, I yanked the shiv in, and he cried out in a surprisingly high, wavering voice. “Be quiet while I am speaking, Joseph.”

With the click of clenching teeth, he fell silent.

“You took him and you doped him up, and now he’s dead, Joseph. Their names were Mariya and Vassily Lovenko.” I smelled urine, and shuffled my feet apart so it wouldn’t get on my shoes. “They took me in when I was a kid, when I had nowhere else to go. Do you know what that’s like? The desolation of losing your only family?”

“Oh god. Oh god, stop.” Joe rasped now, flesh quivering around the uneven edge of the knife. “Stop. Stop.”

“Did you stop? Have you ever stopped to think about anything in your life? Do you think I had the choice to stop, when your Spook forced me to defile Zarya? The Gift Horse?”

“Oh god. You’re the Spook. You’re the f-fucking Spook.” Joe’s voice stayed high and girlish, squeaky. “Don’t… please, I didn’t fucking do it! I d-d- it was fucking Celso, man! He—”

My eyes narrowed. “Celso Manelli?”

“Yes… YES-S…” he stammered, unable to find his words for several seconds. “It was Celso, Celso called me in. It was you freakin’ Russkies that started the war, I didn’t have nothin’ to do with it, they just wanted me to drive, all I was doin’ was driving, I was just—!”

His voice slowly turned to a dim buzzing drone, and the filthiness of him, the un-reality of his being, suddenly became too much. I am not a telepath, but I didn’t need any form of magic to see into Joe’s mind. The thing in front of me was a man-shaped hole in place of a human being, a sucking void. A NO-thing, greedy and craven. The NO was an infection in the world that ran so deep and so virulent that there was no hope of a cure. This was what the Gift Horse had taught me. And in the bittering weeks since Vassily’s death, I saw the influence of the NO in everything.

I pulled Joe up higher on his knees with the shard. He screamed, and kept screaming as I spoke against the nothingness I felt.

“‘I have done it again. One year in every ten, I manage it. A sort of walking miracle, my skin as bright as a Nazi lampshade, my face a featureless, fine Jew linen.’”

“What the FUCK!?” Joe was nearly screaming now. He sounded like a frightened hen. “The fuck is this? The fuck—!”

Sylvia Plath’s words continued to roll off my tongue in soft measured cadence, as natural as any wizard’s spell. “Peel off the napkin, O my enemy. Do I terrify?”

“No, no no no, no NO NO—!”

I punched the shard, a remnant of Mariya’s broken bathroom window, through the front of his throat just beside his Adam’s Apple. Gristle bent and ground under the force of the improvised blade. Joe’s lamb-like screams turned to garbles as his blood slopped over the back of my glove. I put the hard sole of my shoe against his thin back and pushed him into the pit, face-first, to suffocate his life out on the loose dirt. This was not a kind kill, a mercy stroke through the carotid artery. He would remain conscious until the end.

“Dying, is an art.” I looked down at him from overhead, pulling the latex gloves off one at a time and throwing them to the ground. “And like everything else, I do it exceptionally well.”

Joe had not known Mariya. The way she picked sour cherries out of the jar with us while we did homework after school, her patience with our grandmother as Lenina’s mind dissolved in the grip of Alzheimer’s Disease. He hadn’t known Vassily: his broad shoulders, his long, tattooed hands, the wicked glint in his eyes or the flash of his smile across a room when he turned to face me. Joe would never know the dryness of my mouth when Vassily stripped off his shirt or laughed at my jokes; his effortless intensity when handling a new gadget, a deck of cards, a cigarette. Snappy Joe Grassia was sick, like everything and everyone in the underworld. And so was I.

A month to the day ago, I tasted the Gift Horse’s blood and received a revelation. GOD, the Greater Optimistic Direction – was very real. Through Zarya, I’d felt its heartbeat, saw its capillary action, its respiration. I’d glimpsed the way that its body channeled highways of Phi, the stuff of magic, like lymphatic fluid. It was an organism, a flesh-and-blood living thing with tissues so massive that its cells spanned universes. The Every-Thing, an all-consuming, and all-encompassing entity of which I was one tiny, tiny organelle.

But I knew now that GOD was in pain. When I looked into that massive eye, I hadn’t felt chosen. I’d felt dirty. Twisted up. In my visions, I knew instinctively that I was not part of the cure; I was still part of the disease.

The grave was filled and meticulously camouflaged, every shred of dirty evidence bagged and burned by the time I drove back down the bumpy winding road to the highway. I spent the trip back in a numb fugue: part dissociation, part adrenaline, part realization that no matter how many fingers I broke or how fast I did it, the job would be left unfinished. In perfect accord with Murphy’s Law, Snappy Joe Grassia had named the one man who I could not possibly kill in the short window of time I had left. Celso GOD-damned Manelli.

The Manelli family was the biggest Mafia outfit in New York City and New Jersey. John Manelli, the Don of the family, was a ruthless cut-throat who spurned the traditions of the Cosa Nostra and dealt in drugs – lots of them. Celso was his father’s Consigliere and renowned to be one of the most dangerous non-magical Made Men in the underworld. I didn’t know much about him, and had never seen him in person. Rumor was that he’d killed more than a few Spooks – ‘hitmages’, as Vassily had once called us – and GOD knows how many norms. He was reputed to be smart, cool, and careful. All of the Murder Inc. guys could regularly be found at the club they owned and operated in Manhattan: The Gemini Lounge. It was quite likely that I could find Celso there… along with fifty other allied gangsters, street mages, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Joe could have been pulling my leg. Questioning someone who is about to die is a terrible way to get information, but something about his insistence that Celso had been there made sense. I had memorized the murder scene in a flash. The position of furniture, blood spatters, the signs of struggle and lack of it. Mariya’s body, slumped like a worn doll over the edge of the bathtub. I’d been sucking on the details like a bad tooth, recalling them over and over. There had definitely been more than one person there. That person could indeed have been Celso.

If it was true, there was no way I could leave New York. Nicolai would pay. Sergei would pay. After their performance the month before, the Organizatsiya was dead to me. I’d wring every drop of blood from their bodies for Vassily and Mariya, for Zarya, and for me.

As plans to find Celso began to coagulate, the cold shadow that had cruised with me for the entire day, from Joe’s capture to beating to execution, finally manifested himself. The cottony, dusty smell of feathers wafted through the cabin like smoke, filling the air with the subtle pressure of Phi, the substance of magic. It was Kutkha, my Neshamah: the conduit of my Art, and a sanctimonious pain in my behind.

From time immemorial, mages and mystics of all cultures have spoken of the Neshamah, the soul, as a real, conscious presence. It is the part of ourselves that all humans have, but few ever speak to. The Higher Self, the Holy Guardian Angel – call it what you will. Jung named his Thomas. Mine was Kutkha, named for the trickster deity of ancient Rus. Sort of.

“Alexi, we cannot do this.” Kutkha spoke with no single voice. He sounded like the riffling wind, the air thrumming through feathers. “We will not find him in time. Tonight, we must leave.”

I fixed ahead on the dark, wet road. “The Gemini Lounge isn’t too far from our route home. There’s time to cruise by before the flight. And if we miss this flight, I’ll book another. We’re not short of money.”

“You will not find him. He is already gone. They know Joseph has disappeared.”

My throat closed up with a sudden flash of heat so powerful that it flooded my eyes with white and gold. It caused my hands to tic, and I slowed to stop from losing control of the car. “No. You don’t know that.”


“I know you don’t know shit about the future. You fucking listen to me, you —”

The shadows of the cabin quickened. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the ghostly impression of a raven, blue-black, its substance boiling into filaments of vapor. When he next spoke, it was stronger, something I heard with my ears as well as my mind. “Your father used to say that to you, Alexi.”

“Don’t.” The urge to hit, to bite and grasp and tear at something, anything became overwhelming, but there was no one and nothing left to hurt. I was the only one in the car. “Don’t ever bring Grisha up again, or I swear to GOD…”

“What?” Kutkha’s tone twisted with dark amusement. “Will you drill out my knees, too?”

I exhaled thinly. It was starting to rain now, a light misty haze, and I fixated on the swirling particles to give my eyes something to chew on. “Stop being a smartass. Vassily—”

“Is still dead, my Ruach.”

“Stop.” I pulled over as the rain intensified, staring at the buildup on my screen as it began to blind me. The calm executioner’s confidence drained out of me. The engine rumbled like a cat’s purr while I clutched my head and willed Kutkha to shut up. But he wouldn’t: his thoughts, his agenda were his own, but he was part of me. Or, more accurately, I was part of him. “Just stop.”

Kutkha’s eyes burned in the gloom. “They are gone whether or not Celso Manelli lives or dies. They are gone when we are in Europe, or if we stay here. They are gone.”

Gone. Gone gone gone. “Please just let me—”

“No.” The air was opaque now, blue-black and sucking. “I will not ‘just’ let you live the Lie.”

I’ll live a lie if I damn well want to, is what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t voice my petulance with any seriousness. The unspoken words rattled around my otherwise blank, exhausted mind. What I really wanted was to turn around, dig up Joe, reanimate him and kill him again. Instead, I fumbled for the windshield wipers and turned them on, sweeping the rain off the glass.

“You vowed yourself to me, Alexi. You vowed that you would grow for our sake.”

“I know.” But the resistance remained.

“It is not safe to stay near Sergei.” For a moment, Kutkha’s voice was almost soft. “We must go. You are done here.”

I didn’t feel ‘done’, though not for lack of preparation. My luggage was packed with money, clothes, my most important books and magical tools, and I’d left a go-bag out in Sheepshead Bay in case anything went wrong. I’d spent the last two weeks securing a fake passport, a two-way ticket to Spain, and a one-way train ticket to Germany. I had my photos and papers, and a fake ancestral I.D. We were set. But I was going to have to leave knowing that another man had been at that apartment: the man who had blown Mariya’s head back across her shower wall, and that he was alive and she was not.

“Do not make me regret empowering you, my Ruach.” Kutkha swiveled his head, looking across with eyes like the core of a star, smoking white and churning with constant motion. Momentarily, I met his gaze… and their gravity caught and held me. “By all rights, you should be dead… but you wanted to survive. And they would want that, too.”

Vassily and Mariya. My throat thickened. “I’m… I am abandoning them here, Kutkha.”

“They are dead, Alexi. You cannot abandon what is no longer here.”

The cold reminder did nothing to chase away the childish conviction that I was abandoning them to lie in their cold graves, while I fled the Organizatsiya and the life they had died to protect. Vassily had been a Vor v Zakone to his bones, the picture of a free-wheeling, quick-thinking thief-in-law. He had been the kind of man who could spin a million dollars out of five hundred. Once, a long time ago, he debated better than most lawyers. Sergei had picked him for his brilliant mind… brilliance that proved so fragile that five years in prison and the machinations of his comrades had crushed him like a crane fly.

And now? He was dead. Even though I knew it wasn’t my fault, it sure as hell felt like it.

I shifted gears, backed up, and pulled out onto the highway. Kutkha was right, as always. We had to follow the plan. It was a good plan, and if executed smoothly, it would work. Take the cat, leave the lights off, the car in the lot, the door locked and warded. We could get to the airport in the morning, be in England by the evening, and on our way to continental Europe the same day. We would change our money in Spain, convert the lot to Deutschmarks, and head to Bremen. In Germany, I could disappear into the Ukrainian Jewish diaspora without so much as a ripple, just as my parents had done when they’d fled Ukraine for America. But after that? No idea. I lived day to day as part of the New York Bratva, enjoying short periods of peace interspersed with episodes of hectic violence. There were days where I collapsed onto my bed in the mid-morning after working all night, sore and exhausted, patched up, amazed that I was still alive. This was the first time the future had ever existed as a concept.

Earlier in August, I’d faced down demons, DOGs, an insane sorceress, a sixteen-man shootout, and seen the I of GOD itself. My best friend had died in my arms; I’d had a gun shoved in my mouth, been tortured, kidnapped, and nearly car-bombed. I’d eaten from the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and faced death more times in that one week than I had in the last six years. But not a single one of those things were as intimidating as the prospect of freedom. I had most of a double degree in law and psychology that would get me approximately nowhere without grad school. Besides that, my only skills related to wet-work. Shoot a gun, throw a knife, sling a spell… sure thing. But hold a job? Finish grad school? Did they even have grad school in Germany?

The yawning expanse of that lifetime, all those years ahead, unseen… it felt like looking down the empty blackness of a gun barrel. A real gun would have been more comforting. At least the outcome was certain.

Something resolved in me: a deep, hot anger, the kind that burned a hole right through the gut. My jaws tensed until my teeth locked. I hauled the wheel and turned back out onto the road, wipers swiping the first rain of Fall off the windshield. “I’m checking out the club tonight.”


“No. You’ll get what you want. We’ll be on that flight come hell or high water. But just remember that you helped me out once, you got me out of one bad situation, Kutkha. Every other time, it was just me. I killed the DOGs. I freed Zarya and shook off the dope. I coped just fine without you before, and I’ll do it again if I have to.”

“As you say, proud Ruach.” Kutkha’s molten white gaze bore into me from the arc of my peripheral vision, as bright and cold as the Morning Star at dawn. “As you say.”

Chapter 2

There was no sign of Celso or his retinue when I cruised by the Gemini Lounge. He a party boy, chauffeured in a distinctly visible red Hummer everywhere around town. If it wasn’t in the parking lot, neither was he.

Half an hour later than I originally planned and seething with manic energy, I arrived at my apartment for the last time. I slammed the car door and the trunk and my briefcase, hugged my summer jacket against the rain, and stormed into the lobby. Brighton Beach was sullen tonight, the concrete wet and steaming, the air warm and oppressively humid. The Atlantic was shrouded in fog, the sky tinted orange by the light and pollution of a restless city. It was close to four am, but I could still see clearly in the weird brownish light.

Binah, my familiar, was caterwauling behind my front door, and she kept it up all the way through the muttered incantation that unwarded it. Ever since the demon-possessed corpse in my kitchen, I’d been more scrupulous with my wards. My sudden jump in ability had given me the confidence to experiment, too. I no longer only had alarms: I had an offensive ward, a design painted onto my red door with red paint that almost completely blended into the background color. People could knock. They could even touch the doorknob. But if someone tried to force my door, or if they charged it with kinetic force, the ward would react violently.

I didn’t even have my key out of the lock before the cat wormed through the gap and threw herself into my arms like a needy child. My familiar didn’t rub her face against things so much as ram herself into them. I took several blows to the head as she scrabbled onto my shoulder.

“Honestly.” I pushed Binah’s rear end up to help her gain purchase while she tried to arch against the side of my head, tail wrapping around my face. She was a lilac-point Siamese with perfect breed conformation, a lanky feline supermodel only slightly less graceful than a bulldozer. “Do you mind?

“Mrraow. Mrrrp.” She began to lick the side of my head, sputtering and shaking when she got my hair in her mouth.

Binah purred against my neck as I took my shoe off, thought better of it, and stamped it back on. What was the point? There were maybe forty minutes until I had to leave the house again, and then I was never coming back. All I had to do was change my shirt and coat, crate the cat, and take my bags outside. That was it. I’d worn plastic rain slicker pants over my clothes when I’d killed Celso to keep the blood off them, and they’d gone in the burn pile – a trick of the trade.

And yet I stood still, frozen in place. The silence of the house boomed around me. It was small and old, so familiar that I often left the lights off when I was home and navigated by touch and smell and pattern. It smelled of books and paper and sandalwood. The apartment used to smell like Vassily, too, and it was frightening how quickly his scent had faded. It was two weeks to the day since he’d died, and his things were just as he’d left them: his shaving cream, his ties on the rack, his gold zippo case. His bedroom was a mute museum to his occupation, the sheets rumpled in the place he’d left them during his last night. Even so, his scent had vanished within days. It was easy to imagine the place dark and quiet, gathering dust as my scent also faded from the furnishings.

The fear rose in my throat again. I jerked my shoulders, pulled my gloves up along my wrists, sniffed, and forced myself towards my bedroom.

This small room had been the same, more or less, for fifteen years. Formerly crammed with books and occult paraphernalia, it was now imbued only with the empty, neat blandness of a hotel room. I was taking three suitcases, not even a tenth of what remained in the house. I was leaving my less-legal weapons, armor, munitions, tools, and most of my collection of books behind. The floor-to-ceiling shelves in the den had been custom-made for those books by one of Mariya’s friends. Not for the first time, I wondered: Why was I leaving the Beach, and not them? Why didn’t I go down to AEROMOR, shoot Sergei, shoot Vanya, and plant my flag? Even if they hadn’t bought or tipped off Celso and Snappy Joe, they deserved every bullet.

My Neshamah projected the sudden image of him staring sternly from the doorway. I swelled in place a little, fists clenched, but set the cat down on the bed and started on changing clothes.

Thunk thud thump.

The back of my neck prickled. I was halfway through pulling my undershirt off, and pulled it back down as I turned in place, ears cocked. Binah’s tail frizzed like a bottle-brush as she leaped off the bed and ran down the hall. The distinctive knock rang out again from the front door, louder this time.

Kutkha waited like a coiled spring in the back of my mind, alive and aware. He said nothing, but his thoughts and opinions curled half-formed behind my thoughts and opinions. We were in agreement. This was a poor development. Fortunately, it was a development with a simple, elegant solution.

Ne valyai duraka, Alexi! Stop screwing around.” Nicolai Chiernenko called to me from outside, his voice muffled by the door and distance. Thunk thud thump.

Heart hammering, I glanced at my knife. The handle was protruding from the bag, but I didn’t dare move. Was there any feasible way he’d know I was home? I thought for a moment as he continued to knock. The lights were on. My car was out the front, the metal ticking to coolness. He had probably noticed, pressing his hand to the bonnet on his way from car to apartment door. He’d taught me tricks like that. Nicolai was as astute as he was traitorous.

If Nic tried to break the door down, then the ward would fry him… but they wouldn’t get whoever else he’d brought with him. If he was here to get me, he wouldn’t be alone. If he was here on business, it was fifty-fifty odds. Not good enough.

“Who is it?” I called out, reluctantly. I left the room, but I brought the knife and stuck to the doorway. I wouldn’t be the first man to get a shotgun blast through his front door in reply to a greeting.

“You know who it is. Open up.”

There were few reasons why the new Avtoritet of the Beach would deign to see me, and none of them fit in with my plans. Nicolai was a snake. He’d gleefully trampled over Vassily and I to get to the top.

“Wait,” I said. “I need to get dressed.”

Nicolai couldn’t get into my apartment through the magical wards on the door, not unless he was going to blast his way in – and even then, all that would do was prime the traps in the hallway. Call me paranoid, but after the last month, I had decided not to take any more chances.

I took my time. Nic looked sour by time I finally opened the door. Framed in the rectangle of light, he was a dry, thin scarecrow of a man, scarred and leathery from years spent in prison and the desert. He pinched a smoldering cigarette between colorless, thin lips. His new position of power had elicited no physical change in him: he wore his old patched army jacket, open, a blue-and-white striped t-shirt and well-worn cargo pants tucked into Doc Martens. He still did street work, often unaccompanied, the way he had always done. The only visible concessions to his new position and accompanying wealth was a solid gold crucifix on a solid gold chain, a new gold watch, and a renewed sense of entitlement to everyone else’s time. “We got a situation.”

Of course we do. Kutkha’s silent, persistent urging felt remarkably like rising panic. The flight was in less than four hours. We needed to find a way out of this. “Why didn’t you come earlier? We don’t have enough time tonight to finish a job and do disposal.”

“Because murder isn’t convenient.” A tic of irritation rippled over his face.

“I say it only out of concern for the Organizatsiya,” I replied.

Nic tensed as if he was winding up to punch me. Then he seemed to remember that I was not just his hitman: I was a hitman who could turn away bullets with a shouted word, shatter wards with a gesture and some blood, and if I concentrated hard enough, I could probably inflate his brain until it ran out his ears. That, and we were ostensibly still brat’ya, brothers.

“We’ll find a way to get it over with.” He hunched and jerked his shoulders like a vulture shaking its wings. “Get rid of the pussy and bring sheet plastic. The scene is a fucking mess.”

He wasn’t meeting my eyes, and I realized something. Whatever this was about, he was embarrassed. It threatened him and his new station in the Organizatsiya. Nic had only been Avtoritet for just fifteen days, and something had already gone wrong on his watch – something bad enough or messy enough that he needed me to fix it. If it had been any other night, I would have gloated; as it stood, I was having to tamp down a profound sense of impending doom. To refuse a job would arouse his suspicions beyond measure. He’d finger what was going on without much difficulty, have me followed, and call his friends in East Germany. Quite unwittingly, the Organizatsiya had once again taken control of my life.

“What?” His eyes narrowed at my hesitation.

“Nothing, Avtoritet, just refreshing some incantations appropriate for sticky situations,” I said. “Tell me what’s happened while I go get my tools.”

For a fleeting moment, Nic was taken aback. His shoulders jerked as he stuffed his hands in his pockets. Binah tried to stick her head outside the apartment, and Nic pushed her back with the flat of his boot. “One of our couriers was gacked tonight… went out to pick up a regular delivery.”


“And the guys he was picking up from turned on him and tore him apart. Literally. They left some symbols drawn in blood on the ground. None of the other guys will go near it.”

This was literally the last job I wanted to have sprung on me on the morning of my departure. As I flew around my room and packed enough gear to look passable, I hastily cobbled together the only plan I could think of – shoot Nic in the back of the head, hide him in his car, get my disguise on and my things out of the house, and then fly out of New York as fast as possible.

My Neshamah’s agitation was a continual rustling in the back of my mind. My stomach tightened, sour and tense, but I forced a nod and a grimace. “Fine. Wait downstairs. I’ll be ten minutes.”

To my surprise, he turned and swaggered off down the corridor without a backward glance. Nice to know he still had some kind of respect for me.

I closed the door and cruised back to my room in the dark. I hauled the bags to the door and went to my closet. It was still full of things I didn’t plan to take to Germany, including my shoulder rig, my Wardbreaker Colt Commander, ammo, and a suppressor. The Wardbreaker was an unnaturally silent weapon when charged and silenced, perfect for the job I needed to do. Most suppressed guns were still too noisy in close urban spaces, but the Wardbreaker’s purpose was to scatter and dissolve energy. When activated, the pistol sounded like an air gun or a Hollywood assassin’s pistol: nothing more than a flat ‘blip’ of sound. The magic reduced the Commander’s range, but not its torque. It still had plenty of that, enough to turn Nic’s head into a mashed tomato.

“Something is wrong,” Kutkha said. “I cannot see ahead.”

“In what sense?”

“I strive to perceive the near future,” my Neshamah replied. “Filaments of time lashing back and forth across our path. From these fractional glimpses, I may infer much of what is to come… but the Waters have become muddied.”

I fit a clip and screwed on the silencer, motions so rote that I didn’t have to look down at either one. My synesthesia translated the smell of oil and metal into a violet color-texture, a sensation I felt somewhere between my soft palate and tongue. I strapped it in to the shoulder harness, and pulled down a rarely used tool: a kukri. The heavy curved knife was over a foot long, oiled, the edge honed to perfect sharpness. It nicked the leather of my glove when I pressed my finger to the edge, no pressure required. “So be it.”

That was all I took with me downstairs. I emerged into the misty night, jacket open, and glanced across the street to place Nic. He was leaning against the driver’s side door of a white Cadillac Seville, smoke trailing off into the air. The back of his head faced me. I drew the Wardbreaker, and held it low against my thigh as the ghosts of the last month flickered through my memory. Nicolai smirking as he revealed masterstroke after masterstroke: Hooking Vassily on coke, keeping me indebted while he talked shit about me to the other men in the Organizatsiya. He’d been our mentor growing up, a friend to Mariya. She’d given Nicolai the keys to her car. He taught Vassily and I how to drive… raising us like wheat to harvest when the time was right. I had liked him, respected him. Now, I was going to cut him down. My hands weren’t even shaking.

I was about two thirds of the way across the street when time rippled… and stopped.

My foot did not fall on the ground ahead. Suddenly, I could hear everything in my body, feel things I couldn’t normally feel. My heart, contracting. My stomach, squeezing. My throat working, muscles bunching as I instinctively exerted with all my strength against the sudden inertia. My head, thrown up in alarm, moved in fractions of an inch through a single soupy drawn out second, and for that moment, I wondered if I had accidentally manifested magic I didn’t know I had.

Through the haze, I saw a tall, dark shadow move out from around the trunk of my car, standing and turning. His outline blurred and shifted, too fast for my slowed-down eyes to follow, but I glimpsed the shadowed plane of a featureless, flat mask through the fog. Nicolai was turning, his words made incomprehensible by slowness, as the half-seen stranger raised a pistol and pointed it at my face.

Nic lunged at the mage’s arm, shoving it across. My hand wouldn’t lift, and my mouth wouldn’t move fast enough around the word of power as the bullet flew from the barrel and pulsed through a cloud of smoke towards me.

My mind was not slowed. I forced the word forward through my will alone. “Chet!”

A thin blue cornea-like membrane, half-seen and fragile, spun itself ahead of me. With time slowed, I had the chance to see what it was that my intention created. The bullet hit the flimsy shield, shattering it like glass, and as it shattered, the projectile rebounded from it, flying straight back at the gunman. Right as Nic finally grabbed his sleeve.

The temporal vortex snapped with the mage’s concentration. I stumbled forwards at high speed, tripping over my own mass and smashing nose-first onto the road. White light flashed up behind my eyes. Blind with pain, I scrabbled up to hands and feet, only to be knocked down again by something heavy falling across my back. The blow sent me straight back to the ground and took the wind out of my lungs. I rolled over, drawing the kukri and lashing out with it. The thick blade barely turned the pipe Nic swung down at my face. It jarred my wrist: he knocked the knife away on the backstroke, and then he was on top of me.

Nic was strong and wiry, but he was old. As his fist came down, I turned my head, and he drove his knuckles into the bitumen instead of my nose. I bought my knee up between his legs and flailed with the hilt of the kukri, snarling with the effort. He guarded his face; it took him in the wrist, then the neck as his arm failed under the blows. I shoved him off and stumbled up to face the charging spook bringing the butt of his pistol down where my neck had been. I couldn’t see him clearly for his speed – unnatural speed disguising him in a tumble of dark clothes and bright red blood.

Blood. The bullet had cut him. I threw a hand up and tried to cast a spell, but the spook was supernaturally fast. Twice, I managed to dodge the corner of the pistol, but it finally took me in the temple and sent me staggering away.

My vision looped. Retching with sudden nausea, I wasn’t fast enough to evade the arm that wrapped around my throat from behind and cut off my voice.

Blyat! You didn’t hear Sergei, damn idiot suka!?” Nicolai spat from behind me as I struggled to keep my air and prize his arm from my neck. “Alive! He wants him alive!

“Don’t speak to me like that. I advised your superior that he needs to be put down,” was the cool reply. “You saw what he did when—”

I got my jaws between Nic’s arm and my body, and bit as hard as I could. His flesh split under my teeth, and he howled. Blows landed against my back and head, and the world narrowed to that central point as both men closed on me. I ripped flesh from Nicolai’s wrist and turned, bestial, on the stranger. His hand got too close to my mouth. I snapped at it, biting down until something crunched.

But I was going down. The gravel on the road pierced my skin through my slacks as I fought up against their combined weight – the man who’d taught me everything, and the one who had no name. My teeth went numb, and the world turned black as they brought me to ground.

Chapter 3

Cold. Everything was cold, and stiff, and aching. The world returned in pieces, brittle moments of sensation. My hands and throat hurting. My head bumping rhythmically against something hard. My cheek was pressed against crunchy carpet, damp and prickly, vibrating with every dip in the road. Then Nic turned a corner, hard, and my head rammed into the side of the trunk. Damp darkness overtook all.

The next sensation was shivers, cold metal, and then blinding hot light. The lamp burst through my eyelids like a punch to the face. As the world swayed into focus, recognition filtered in past the pain and incessant itching. I knew this room. The AEROMOR warehouse interrogation room was small, square, tiled white on the floor and all four walls. There was a drain set in the center. I was stripped to the waist, chained to a bar mounted near the rear corner of the room, on a hard seat that was bolted to the floor. The man and woman in front of me, they were also familiar. Terribly so.

Sergei reclined on a rickety office chair from the upstairs warehouse, hands folded on his belly. He had one leg crossed over the other, leaning back on his too-small seat with the presence and nonchalance of a king. And a king he was. He was pushing seventy and was still usually the largest man in the room, with a thick red beard and oiled red hair pulled back into a short ponytail. The Pakhun of the mafiya that bore his surname looked more Viking than Slav – a Viking in a gaudy red velvet suit that clashed violently with his hair.

Vera Akhatova stood at parade rest beside him, straight as a rail and just as hard. She was sinewy and strong, with taut freckled arms, a short bob of brown straw hair, and no obvious humanity. She carried two revolvers on her belt, one on each side. They were both loaded and primed.

“Well,” Sergei finally said. “Alexi Grigoriovich Sokolsky. We have come full circle.”

My head was clearing, slowly. Too slowly. I tried to call anger, energy, a word of power. Nothing formed in my mind, an empty echoing cavern. I felt empty, small, weak. Alone. Alone?

Where was Kutkha?

“We are presented with temptations in life, Alexi. Tests.” Sergei laced his hands on his knee as he leaned forward. “Tests by which we judge a character of a man. Men in this business have to have mettle, hmm? The kind that lets them permit someone else to take charge without shame or suspicion. Someone who plays the long game, Alexi. Who knows what they are doing.”

I lunged at him a little, snorting like a bull, and reached back for the core of me, for my magic… and failed. It was like trying to catch fish with my hands, and the slippery inability to turn inward sent a spike of panic straight through my chest. Adrenaline woke me up. “What… what have you done?”

Sergei blinked, once. “You went against your orders earlier this month. The men you nearly killed didn’t remember that you broke into the safehouse, but that doesn’t mean the memories weren’t there. I examined them. I know you tried to take Vincent to the Manellis in exchange for Vassily.”

Mealy-mouthed, I stared back at him in sullen, furious silence.

Sergei leaned forwards. “And then… what happened, Alexi? What was in that factory worth dying for?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

Sergei cracked a grin. His teeth were sharp… unnaturally sharp. Sharper than any human’s teeth had a right to be. “Come now, Alexi. No need to be sarcastic with me. Not when you’re here like this.”

Kutkha was not there. He was still linked to me – he had to be. I was alive, but I couldn’t feel or hear him. I lowered my face, nostrils flaring.

“There wasn’t anything in that damn warehouse,” I growled. “Just a DOG.”

The word stirred him to his feet. Sergei sighed. He put his hands to his thighs and stood, creakily, looming over me. “I wanted to make princes out of you and Vassily. Lev warned me that having you grow up here, in America, would make you selfish and untrustworthy. Disobedient. He was right. You’re worse than a stray dog, Alexi. An ungrateful, worthless little bitch. Let’s try once more. What was in the warehouse?”

“The DOG that ate Lev.” I glared from under my brow. “So it seems like he wasn’t much of anything, either.”

Sergei chuffed, clapping his hands. “Did you hear that, Vera? Listen to this cockerel’s smart mouth, eh?”

Vera hadn’t looked away from me, her thumbs hooked on her gun belt. At mention of her name, she straightened from her slouch like a puppet on its strings. I was still staring at her when Sergei swooped into my vision, caught my jaw in his calloused paw, and squeezed.

“Look at me.” His tone was guttural, and utterly compelling. My skin crawled, and pain lanced through my skull as my eyes were unwillingly forced to focus in on his own. They were a deep blue-violet, cornflower blue. The whites were yellow. The veins… the veins were black.

Sergei licked his bottom lip, and then bit it, pushing the point of a tooth through the thin skin. It cracked like glaze, and as the seconds passed, blood began to well up from his flesh. It was very, very dark brown. Orange-black, not red. It smelled… strange. Powerful. And despite myself, my mouth began to water even as my nose stung with the sudden, acrid odor, like ammonia and burned wax.

“What you don’t understand…” Sergei said, reaching up to dab his lip with his finger. “Is that I won’t just kill you, Alexi. I know you’re brave. Plucky, but weak. So no, I won’t kill you. I will erase you. One by one, you and your little incarnations across time and space will start to die, while you suck from my mouth like a crack-baby. You will do anything for my blood, and you won’t be able to stop yourself. You’ll do it until you, your soul, and your mind are nothing but dry, hollow puppets.”

Zarya had told me, her face bloody silver, that there were many Alexis. She had known one of them, but it beggared belief that Sergei knew this, not unless he’d ripped something out of my mind. I tried to twist away, but I might as well have fought the sky. Sergei smiled like Santa Claus as he shoved his fingers in my mouth and swiped his blood across my tongue. It was as sweet as opium, burning a hole into the nerves of my mouth. A rush flooded through my head and chest like ice water. The veil of glamour was pulled away from my eyes, and for the first time, I saw.

His face was the pallid cream of old parchment, and the violet color of Sergei’s eyes was lurid, his pupils drawn to thin vertical slits under the light. Trembling with chills, I forced myself to across to look at Vera. I saw her – really saw her – for the first time. She wasn’t just thin and weathered. She was taxidermied, her tanned skin pulled taut over her bones.

“She’s dead.” My voice cracked. Sergei’s lip was still bleeding, and I was drawn back to it, iron to the magnet. The dark orange trickle ran down to mix with the ginger curls of his beard. The smell was chemical and toxic and sweet, like someone lighting a crack pipe with a burning crayon. “And so are you.”

Sergei roared with sudden laughter. He had iron teeth set like bullets in his jaws, top and bottom. “It only took you thirty years to work that out, boy!” He slapped his thigh. “Human after all, aren’t you? Vera, show him your scars.”

She complied without question, hooking her thin hands under the edge of her tank top and lifting it up to her chin. Her torso was peppered with old scars and bullet holes, the latter stuffed with yellowing wool caulk. She had a single enormous tear from sternum to flank, on the heart side. It was dark and knotted, pulled together with rusted metal stitches, and sealed with a sigil burned into her flesh. Her dusky skin was puckered, like old leather. And no one had known. Not even me.

“It’s good work, isn’t it?” Sergei leered at me. “My lovely Vera. You are looking at one of Mother Russia’s unsung revolutionary heroes, Alexi. She was shooting Tsarists with a one-shot rifle when your grandfather was an infant. I recruited her just before the first World War.”

“Recruited.” All my life, I’d known Sergei was a monster of a kind. I’d known that the Organizatsiya laid machination atop machination, a constantly scheming, writhing morass of men trying to one-up each other while they one-upped the world. I knew that Brighton Beach was a tiny backwater, established in the USA like a military base, or a sleeper cell. But this… this was not what I’d expected. “How… old… are you?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” He mimicked my voice.

In shocked silence, Sergei returned to his chair. He shucked his jacket off before he sat, and thumped his arm down on the armrest, staring at me haughtily as he turned it, palm up, to bear the inside of his elbow. Vera broke her place and went to him, mechanically rolling his sleeve up to expose the skin. He was tattooed from fingertips to bicep… cats, daggers, skulls, crowns, spades. The marks of kingship in the GULAG.

“What was in the warehouse, Alexi?” Sergei sounded calm, now. Reasonable, save for the audible clack of his metal fangs.

Vera was unwrapping a needle and syringe. My shoulders crawled with tension. “I told you.”

“Try again.” Sergei looked up, fixing me with a shark’s blank stare. As his eyes met mine, something clicked in my throat. My tongue twitched.

“Ah… Rr… Rrrr…” I couldn’t stop. The words came up like contractions, like waves of nausea. I fought it, but was like struggling against the urge to vomit. “A… Rind. A Gift… Horse Rind.”

“Hrrrn.” Sergei made a sound low in his throat, and did not flinch as Vera slid the needle into his flesh. Now that I could see him for what he really was, Sergei’s skin was pallid, his muscles the texture of clay. There was no twitch of the skin as the needle slid in – only the tiny squeak of the syringe as Vera drew a full barrel of thick brown fluid. “Finally. And what was in this Rind?”

I fought for my Art, for a word or a gesture or something, anything, to spit in Sergei’s face. As his eyes blazed from across the room, the Hebrew letters would not resolve in my mind’s eye. There was no resisting him, not after he had made me taste his blood. “A… woman,” I said. “Not… human.”

Vera stood by Sergei, stock still, as he leaned forwards on his too-small chair. “Dark skin? White hair? Blue eyes?”

“Pale skin. White hair. Blue eyes.” The description ground out of my throat like gravel.


“Yes.” I was grateful that her face was a blur. I could remember Zarya, the things she said. I’d know her scent if it blew to my nose from a mile downwind. But there was nothing for me to describe. “Yes.”

Sergei smiled, and a flicker of some half-hidden emotion flashed over his face, too elusive and too subtle for me to understand. “And was she… healthy? Young and innocent?”

His questions stopped my tongue. “Healthy, yes…”

He waited.

I swallowed again, and the words came up without my being able to stop them. It was everything I could do to steer the course of what I blurted. “Not especially young. She… was articulate. Knew how to fight. She… cursed a few times.”

“What was her name?” His pupils pinned.

“Z… Ts… Tss…” Ticcing, struggling, I couldn’t look away from his eyes, and I couldn’t stop my tongue from forming the word. “Zar…ya.”

“Ohhh.” His eyes narrowed. “Zarya. What a lovely name for a Mare.”

The syllables tripped off his tongue like a caress, like was lingering over a candy. GOD help me, he knew what she was. They had a history. My hands shook, clenching on the armrests of the interrogation seat. “No.”

“No what?” His lips cracked with a gun-metal smile.

“You stay away from her,” I choked the words out. “Pizdha. Don’t you—”

“Pfff, look at you. Moonstruck, aren’t you?” Sergei bared his teeth. “I knew you must have eaten her, Alexi. I smelled it on you. People who eat those soaking cunts always turn out the same way. This is why I decided that you weren’t coming with me to Thailand. Not like this, not after listening to her lies. Not after eating her heart, and you did, didn’t you? They like that. They beg for it.”

It X’d me. It wants to X you too. Zarya’s voice, fluted and soft, rang from some half-forgotten niche of memory.

“No. I didn’t eat her heart. I killed her to free her from the DOG that killed Lev.” I wasn’t sure why that was important. Maybe it was because I knew, somehow, that the DOG had taken his soul as well as his body. Like Sergei wanted to do to me.

“Changing the subject, are we?” Sergei chuckled, and stood. “So it did. So it did. What a shame it didn’t take you instead.”

His change of position broke our eye contact, and my guts churned with sudden, renewed terror. I jerked my restraints, shook them, and when I glanced down in my fear, I saw what had been itching on my belly all this time. My stomach was streaked red and black. A seal the size of a dinner plate had been burned into my skin, touching my waist on either side. There was a crudely sewn incision just under my navel, a deep incision. There was something underneath the skin there… and the stuff that crusted the edges and ran down my belly was black.

“What did you do to me?” I flinched back against the chair as he stepped forwards. “WHAT DID YOU DO!?”

Okh, stop it.” Sergei motioned back to Vera. “In all my years, boy, I’ve only met four starets’ with your kind of ability. Lev Pavlovich was a good man, very good… but he was a sixer, eh? Not very powerful for a sorcerer of his type. I’m not going to kill you, Alexi, now that I know you’re not strong enough to hold out on me. Two more infusions of blood from me, and you’ll do anything I say. You’ll bend over when I tell you to bend over. You can still be useful.”

“Fuck you.”

“Funny you should say, eh?” Sergei grinned. “You know how an upir is made?”

I dropped my chin, sighting down at him. “An upir is created when an evil sorcerer dies an unclean death.”

“Indeed. And you have been murdering men all your life, haven’t you? You’re already in the transit lane to Hell.” Sergei clapped his hands, and reached out. Vera handed him the needle and syringe. “It’s a little more complicated than that, but yes… an unclean death, and then the abuse of the corpse afterward before a ritual burial at the crossroads. So fucking is part of the equation, boy. I will be sure to get you a Jack of Hearts tattoo so that everyone knows your place with me.”

“Don’t.” I shrunk back, as far as the back of the chair allowed for.

“I was dragged by horses down a road when I died, Alexi. Dragged naked down the streets in front of my entire kingdom, like rotten meat.” Sergei sighed, and stepped in close. He lay the point of the needle against my throat. “Just imagine what I will do to you.”

Chapter 4

Vampire blood is a powerful hallucinogen that does two things to those who consume it. It puts you under the power of the upir who fed it to you, and it heals wounds. Even terrible wounds.

I roused into wet, cold darkness, stirring from a dream where a red star broke through a white mirrored sky. A stream of black figures descended from the hole, dripping and dropping to the land and sea. I was naked. My mouth was bitter with the taste of burned wax.

The cell walls crawled in every direction, seething with what I first thought was a mass of prismatic spiders. Everything writhed and hissed, lashed and scuttled. It took me a few groggy minutes to realize that none of the ‘spiders’ ever reached their destinations. The churning wet sounds were from my body as it healed in quick-time: the snap and pop of my ribs and broken ankles resetting, the sub-audible squeak of tissues as my bruises swelled, blooming like stopmotion flowers before dwindling away. I was painfully aware of all of my bodily functions, the sensation of a billion tiny organic engines wriggling on and through my bones. My guts, crawling with peristalsis. My heart, squeezing. I felt like a discordant orchestra, and over everything was awful, skin-wracking pain.

The spiders turned to lizards as I stared at the walls, wrists clamped between my thighs, then looked up through the filtered light coming down from overhead. They’d taken me to the basement hole. This was the hole where we kept guys lined up for execution. It was a converted sewer drain in the lower level of the AEROMOR warehouse, a nine-foot vertical shaft bricked off from a large sewer tunnel, part of the complex that shunted effluence into the ocean. There was a barred steel grate overhead, the only way in or out. The pit was bottle-shaped, with a narrow neck spreading out into a five-by-five foot square of space. If I had magic, I’d be out in five minutes. Cut off from Kutkha, I had nothing.

Nothing. Nothing wasn’t good enough. I had to make something. Sergei could take my magic from me, but there were some things that no one could take. My will. My pride.

There was a patch of wall in front of my face that was different from the rest. While every other part of the shaft was covered in wrigglers, there was a round cutout where they passed around the bricks and mortar, deviating like a river channel. This cutout part looked soggy, like moldy bread. As I stared, the patch of wall grew orange tentacles that yearned towards my face. Boils studded the limbs like flowers. They burst open with steaming pus that dripped down to the floor, and the wounds turned to little babbling mouths.

Hit me, they whispered.

The grout looked mossy, fuzzy… soft enough to push through. Curious, I inched towards it. The weird, furry electrical warmth of static passed over the skin of my face, causing my hair to bristle. The illusion wavered. I took a deep breath, and slung a weak fist into the writhing mass. I misjudged the distance, smacked my fingers awkwardly against hard stone and rolled back, clutching and cursing as everything whited out. I roared, and kicked out in temper. The wall ahead of me shuddered. Dirt rained down from somewhere up high.

I discovered that upir blood has a third property. It makes you monstrously strong.

As I watched, my skinned knuckles sealed over to pink shiny scabs, then smooth skin. It was not the clean, swift healing I’d once gotten from Gift Horse blood. My flesh itched, tingled and crawled as my cells chewed at themselves.

Shuddering, I rolled up to hands and knees, flinching as my uncovered palms scraped against concrete. I snorted a clotted mess of dirt and dried blood onto the wet ground. My limbs were taut with a weird, feral energy.

“—you helped me out once, you got me out of one bad situation, Kutkha. Every other time, it was just me. I coped just fine without you before, and I’ll do it again—” My own voice echoed back to me, interspersed with the same two words, repeated over and over again.

Hit me.

“Shut up!” The writhing mass of tentacles split apart for my fist as I slammed it into the mortar. The blow rattled something loose in the wall, but the pain was sublime. Awful, awful pain… the sensation of my hand being eaten by something with sharp teeth. I recoiled, snapping my jaws to vent the tension without screaming.

There was a sound from somewhere outside, a soft ‘crack’, like something dropping to the floor. I was out of time.

I roared, and slammed the soft spot on the wall again and again. Pain retreated, overwhelmed by fear. My knuckles wore out and reformed. Bones snapped and popped back into place with wet gristle sounds I felt in my mouth. Everything was black, dancing with white spots, as I tore myself apart against the wall with primitive fury. And yet… I healed. I healed as fast as I could mangle myself, fist and foot and tooth and shoulder. After an eternity of agony, my twisted fingers found a small empty space behind the facade.

Fresh heat shot through my face, blood pounding in my temples. I locked my jaws, and began to kick at the damaged mortar with everything I had. The first pebbles came away, then small chunks of sandstone.

“YES.” I hissed under my breath, scrabbling, clawing, stabbing and shoving. “Come on… Come on!”

The first brick rasped in its slot. I wiggled it back. It fell with a dull, heavy clink into what sounded like at least an inch of water. Even though the source of the sound was right in front of me, it made me freeze, ears buzzing with strain. I broke off the next brick beside it, reached through the hole into the sewer pipe and dragged a chunk of rock up with my fingertips until I could pull it through. A few hard bangs with the makeshift chisel, and the whole thing came apart. The tunnel ahead was darker than Schrodinger’s asshole.

Sweating, streaked with filth, I crawled into the new space. My hands felt twice their normal size, singing with pain as the soft palms, bleeding, pressed into the rubble. I roughly reconstructed the wall behind me. Haphazard, yes, but in the gloomy light of the basement, the appearance of an empty pit and no immediate route of escape could buy precious time.

I was only six feet in, blind in the darkness and pressed on all sides by hanging slime, when I heard the basement door clang open from somewhere above. I dropped to my belly and pulled myself forwards, arm over arm. It was completely black down here, and it smelled like thirty years of dead bodies and decomposing blood. Fish blood, human blood, some of it waste I’d hosed from the floor of the interrogation room myself. Ropes of the same stringy stuff in the narrow shaft hung loose here, gelatinous and fetid. Synesthesia was not my friend. The slimy texture of the tunnel on my bare skin made my tongue throb and my eyes flash violet and olive green, colors I saw and felt in my mouth.

Someone shouted from somewhere behind, a bark of sound that bounced weirdly off the walls. They’d found the empty pit.

I turned into the direction of the wind and half-crawled, half-scrambled towards it. Fetid rotten flesh and sewerage gave way to the comparatively fresh smell of the Upper New York Bay. There was light ahead, the prismatic swirl of the night sky, the sound of rain and thunder. From behind, there were more shouts, and then a distant crumpling sound, the sound of a boot being put through a flimsy brick facade.

At the end of the tunnel was the ocean, the same murky iron-red color as the clouds. Slick with oil from the ships trawling up and down the bay between New York and Jersey, it rushed up against the embankment. I had come out underneath the AEROMOR docks. A ship was moored to my right; to the left, the container cranes looked out over the loading area. There was nothing to do but swim.

I tensed and threw myself out, jumping higher and faster than normal human strength allowed for. The water was surprisingly warm, but the current was strong. After flailing to the surface, I paddled and limped towards the shore, trying to hide among the waves. Every moment that passed was a potential bullet to the head. Being unafraid of dying and desiring to die are two very different things: the need, the driving need, was to live. My lungs labored, striving in time with heart and eyes and arms and legs. I fought the water, ducked beneath the layer of rubbish to swim as far and as fast as I could.

Along the embankments in the docklands, you could find old metal ladders bolted straight into the concrete. Covered in oil, I splashed along until I found one and hauled myself up to peer over the side. The yard had a scattered crowd of people milling around. Most of them were gawking at the fuss going on in the AEROMOR yard, Yard #3, where all the searchlights were turned onto the water. I had come out near Yard #5, the one used by the big Chinese carrier, Ying Shao. Their loading stage was stacked up with shipping containers and pallets. There were forklifts moving on and off the boat moored at the end of the pier where I’d surfaced. It was good cover, busy, but not necessarily neutral.

In the shadow of the barnacle-covered wall, I waited until the pier was clear before pulling myself up and over. A short run brought me behind the first stack of pallets, where I tried to crouch and promptly collapsed in a pile of jellied, shivering limbs. Flat on my rump, I looked down at my hands and recoiled in panic. They were ripped down to bone and tendon, black and bloodied, and they were still healing. As I watched, shuddering with the effort to keep my eyes on them, the sinew knit together, the muscle pulsed and squeezed pus and dirt out of my flesh, the ragged tendon sheaths stretched and snapped back into place over bone. The process was slower than it had been back in the cell, which made the recovery all the more sensuous, all the more disturbing. Distantly, I realized what the problem was. I was hungry. Starving. Everything was beginning to smell like meat.

I slunk out into the scintillating air like a rat, navigating through boxes that swam with insectoid shapes. I didn’t dare look up at the sky again, not while my senses were stricken with crawlers. I chose my route with an instinct I didn’t understand, wending unsteadily towards the a red-brick warehouse behind the shipping crates. I came around the back. There was a row of dumpsters out here, reeking with a damp sour milk and rotten vegetable smell that carried to my nose. Stupidly, my mouth began to water as I forced the dumpster back from the wall, set myself in the space behind it, and fell very still.

It wasn’t too long until a man came up from the stacking yard, and then another. They trailed by in twos and threes, chattering and smoking, throwing shadows across the ground, throwing cardboard into the trash above my head. Concealed by the dumpster lid and the darkness of the warehouse, no one thought to notice the filthy naked man cowering at ankle-height.

Eventually, the traffic slowed. As the excitement at Dock #3 trailed off, the Ying Shao workers got back to loading their ship while I waited, cold, hungry, and patient. After a long humid silence, my skin prickled with sudden sound: boots scuffling on the pavement, marching closer and closer to the warehouse door. One pair of boots, punctured by melodic whistling. My prey was swinging a chain with keys. I could hear the links click, the keys rattle. Like a spider, I stirred only to refocus my attention, waiting for the fly’s legs to pluck the right strands at the right time.

He was a fast walker, striding by so fast I nearly missed my chance. I lunged out, and struck him in the back of the knees with a fist and the blade of my hand. He went down with a short cry of surprise, quickly silenced with a smack to the back of the head. I seized him by the ankles and dragged him away into the shadows to strip his clothes. I left his underwear, but took everything else. Taking another man’s underwear was against the Code.

His coveralls were tight over my chest, bagged at the waist, and strained over my thighs. His boots pinched, but I was no longer unclothed. Even better, I had gloves: They were fingerless, but they were leather. I pulled them on with a shudder of relief. My eyes and tongue stopped throbbing, and the hallucinations, while still vivid, reduced in intensity.

I pulled my new wool cap down as far as I could, left the unconscious man behind some pallets for his workmates to find, and slouched away with my hands in his pockets. There was a pack of cigarettes in there. A lighter. A ten-dollar bill in a clip, no wallet. A piece of thin red rope braided with jade beads and a bronze Chinese coin, some kind of talisman… and car keys, with an electronic tag. Never had I felt anything as beautiful as these keys, and the means by which to find his car. I could go and get my cat, my passport, a gun… all of which were at my apartment. The apartment that was almost certainly being watched.

My momentary elation vanished. Nicolai would be in charge of recovering me: Sergei would not trust such an important job to anyone else. Nic would be organizing his men quickly and efficiently. I knew Nic, had trained under him. He’d taught Vassily and I how to fire guns, boost cars, make tools. The skills I had used to escape, he had taught us. One of the things he’d taught me? If you ever try to kill someone and the guy manages to run, check his house. Nearly every fugitive makes a last stop at home to grab those vital, necessary things before they flee for good. Nine times out of ten, you catch your mark coming back out of his front door.

I would not be able to get on my flight. The Laguetta Family owned the airport, and the security union was headed up by one of the Don’s captains. Nic could and would reach out to him for a favor. The Avtoritet of Brighton Beach would be calling everyone he could think of, including the people who generally regarded me favorably. No one I knew was trustworthy enough to stand up to Nic for me. My passport, my papers, Binah, everything… Nic would make them tempting and unreachable. GOD damn him, but he was good at his job.

Move. The inner voice was not Kutkha, but it was compelling all the same. Find the car.

They had my fucking cat. My tools. The Wardbreaker. Everything. A tremble started in my fingers. Angrily, I clenched around the bundle of keys until the points bit into my fingers, hissing through my teeth as a jolt of hot pain lanced through my hand. It freed me up to move on, one foot in front of the other.

Ten bucks, one tank of gas, a pack of cigs, and one go-bag hidden in Gravesend. If they weren’t going to let me run, I was going to have to fight.

And once I could see straight? I’d fight them to the death. Sergei didn’t know who the fuck he was dealing with.

Chapter 5

Somehow, I found the go-bag. It was well hidden in the grounds of an old tenement landmark near Sheepshead Bay station, wet from the runoff rain. As I pulled it from the cold fireplace, all I could think about was food. Deliriously, I rifled through the bag, searching for something to eat. I found a couple of protein bars and a small bag of snacks, food intended to see me through a short drive or a day on the run. Whatever flavor they were, I didn’t taste them as they went down.

Still chewing on something, I heaved the bag over my shoulder, staggered back to the car, and drove away to the north, fleeing to the furthest place I could think of within New York’s City limits: The Bronx.

Between the green sprawl of Yonkers and the sterile, gothic beauty of Manhattan lay an ulcerated crescent of poverty. While yuppies turned over millions on Wall Street, the homes of the people they foreclosed, ripped off, conned, and milked were left to rot in The Bronx, Hunt’s Point, and Harlem. Fifty years ago, this had been a nice enough area. Systematic racism – in the form of the government neglecting infrastructure and private interests ruining families – had rotted it from the center out. Gutted apartment buildings studded the scorched land like burned trees. Uncollected trash bags spilled their guts over the sidewalks. Potato chip bags, old clothes, and newspapers gathered like tumbleweeds against chain link fences, which themselves leaned crookedly against piles of concrete rubble. The roads were pockmarked and worn. The violet, chemical stench of industry hung over the Harlem River, while the sour orangeness of human filth blew in from underneath the bridge. The Bronx looked and felt like a warzone, but it was a great place to disappear.

My car was one corpse among many in the dusty lot where it finally perished, coughing to a halt next to a stirring vortex of trash. The air outside was cold and clammy, the wind thick with the smell of burning tires, dust, and hot grease. Dawn was only just beginning to come in from the east. There were lights glittering to the south, but there was nothing to illuminate the old ruined projects save for the crescent moon overhead. When I opened the door and got out into the darkness, the distant white glow shifted and traced. It was impossible to say if it was upir blood or fatigue, but my vision was screwed and getting worse. It was a miracle I’d made it without running myself off the road.

I hefted the go-bag, took it to the nearest patch of loose dirt and dropped it there, where I kicked it around a little, rolling it in the dust and gravel until it was ratty enough that no one would want to steal it. I took it back to the car and opened it up. My head was clearer now, and as I rummaged through, a new sick feeling began to rise in my throat. A number of the things I’d packed in here were missing. The pistol, ammunition, I.D, cash and cards – none of them under my own name, fortunately – were gone. Someone had found it and been through it. They’d left all of the clothing and the things they couldn’t fence: a pearl handled razor, a fixed-blade knife, soap, a calico bag with underwear and other miscellany, and my notebooks.

So that was it, then. No money, no bank cards, no credit cards. Nothing. I took a deep breath and sat back, trying to keep my heart rate under control. Neither fear or anger were my friend, not right now. There was nothing to do except hit the streets, cool off, and hoped that I wasn’t important enough for Nic to hold out longer than a week or two. When I was fit enough to start mugging, I could get my hands on some cash. Until then… I wasn’t sure.

Dutifully, I took stock of what I did have. The ten bucks I’d taken from the dockworker could last seven days, if I was careful. The car could be sold if I found the right guy in this part of town. For the time being, though, I tried to stay in the moment and set out clean clothes, the knife, razor and soap. There was an old Coke bottle on the passenger’s side half full of water. I drank most of it, used the rest to wash my hands and face and dampen my hair, then hacked at it until I was left with a spiny, tattered mess. I lathered it up, and started shaving.

When I could finally bring myself to glance up at the mirror properly, it was into the iron eyes of a stranger. I’d looked mean enough with hair. Now, I looked like strung-out poster child for the Aryan Front. My face was already thinner, hollowed out. My cheekbones formed sharp points under pallid skin. Sergei’s blood had healed the worst of the injuries I vaguely remembered receiving, but it had taken a toll. My eyes were sunken and bruised, my lips dry. Puffy violet and yellow blotches marred my jaw, neck and arms.

After the shave, my eyebrows sat like dark caterpillars on my brow. It looked strange, so I nicked them off as well. The complete hairlessness made my face even harsher, but that wasn’t a bad thing around these parts. I changed out of the coveralls into jeans and a sweater, drank the rest of the water, lay my head back, and closed my eyes.

When they opened again, the sky was turning gray and spittling ahead of a fresh wave of rain. The car was warm and tempted me to stay longer, but it was going to attract interest from the locals as soon as the sun rose. If I was there when they came, it wouldn’t only be the car that got stripped down and junked.

Reluctantly, I abandoned the vehicle and shuffled across the lot with the bag over one shoulder, picking my way between the piles of rusted hulks. I made it ten steps before my gut twisted nastily and I retched, coughing into my hand as I staggered to one side and hit something. When I pulled my hand away, it was wet… wet, and streaked with dark orange slime. Without the need to escape goading me, I was once again painfully aware of a billion tiny engines writhing on and in my bones.

I stumbled into a narrow alley between an Eee-Zee-Pawn and an empty bodega with looted shelves. The mouth of the alley looked out across another improvised junkyard, its mountains of refuse indiscernible in the morning gloom. There was an empty dumpster here, and alongside it, stacks of bound, flattened cardboard that had turned hard and brittle through the summer. Bone-weary, I dropped the bag and began to separate the sheets. There was no planning, no strategy: I just pulled them out and lay them down. A bed, at least. Maybe a lean-to? I could build a lean-to. If I could make it out here for a week, I could go scope out my apartment. No, actually… nine days. People naturally thought in threes, fives, sevens, tens and fourteens when it came to the passage of time. Nic was likely to watch the house for three days, then run patrols at the five and seven day marks. That meant nine days on the street, minimum, before I went to check in.

Halfway through stamping the cardboard flat, I slowed, then stopped. My vision was thick, like looking at the world through a foot of frosted glass. Thick and distant, everything unreal. Removed. I tried to remember how I had gotten here. What the hell was I doing? Preparing to sleep on some old boxes like a hobo? This wasn’t a rest-stop. It wasn’t home. It wasn’t anything. Bewildered, I looked down at my bare fingertips. My nails were chipped and broken, clogged with old oil. Forty-eight hours ago, I’d been something. Now, I was only dirty, filthy, and cold.

“God, Kutkha.” My voice was a rasp. “What the hell am I doing?”

There was no reply, not even a whisper of contact. My Neshamah wasn’t there, and neither was the magic. None of it.

My hands shook, and no matter how much I willed it, they didn’t stop. They didn’t feel like my hands, my arms. Painful heat pushed up slowly from my chest, and this time, it wasn’t just nauseating hunger. I imagined Nicolai and Vanya and their thugs turning up my house, riffling through my things, ripping up my books, hurting my cat. My blood boiled.

“SHIT!” A ripple ran through me, a violent twitch. I felt the veins in my temples throb. The sound of my voice ripped through the air of the alley, and a battered trashcan flew across the pavement and struck the chain-link fence at the end of the road. I knew it was my foot kicking it, crammed into boots that weren’t mine, but I couldn’t feel it. All I felt were my joints aching, my cells regenerating, my stomach gnawing at itself. Why couldn’t I feel it? “You cock-sucking ginger piece of SHIT!”

I turned, shoulders jerking back, and looked at the sky. It roiled overhead, the clouds thickening even as I watched, paralyzed by… what? Fear? Anger? Grief? I had meant to stop by Vassily’s grave on the way to the airport, visit him one last time. That grave would be under surveillance, too. They’d use everything that was mine to try to find me: my house, my books, my familiar. Everything.

I shook, rendered speechless for several long minutes, until I was able to think straight. Then, I spoke. I didn’t really mean to. The words came out unbidden. “You have choice. You have the Wheel of Fortune.”

My voice was guttural. It sounded nothing like Kutkha’s rustling hiss, this unseen, hidden inspiration. The Wheel of Fortune, a major arcana card in tarot, has a picture of a snake mounted on a wagon hub, biting its own tail. A beggar hangs from the bottom of the wheel, rising up, and a king holds on to the top of the wheel, riding down. In some decks, a sphinx watches over the scene, symbolic of the mystery. In other decks, it is the face of an androgyne, a unified, transcendental human being lifted above the vicissitudes of fate.

Make the world your castle, and you become king of the world. Make the world your cage, and you become a prisoner. Someone had told me that once, but I couldn’t remember who.

Brimming with petulant, useless rage, I tore one of the boxes in half, and starting notching sheets to fit them together for a roof of sorts before it started to rain. When it was done, the early morning sky was still as dark as night. I crawled into the box, reinforced with a slanted roof, and curled around my aching belly. Sleep rolled me under as soon as my head hit the makeshift pillow of folded coveralls and wool sweater.

The deep black inverted into white.

My mind’s eye was a forest where the trees resembled white coral, their trunks flushed silver and pink. Their leaves were shaped like arrowheads, formed around delicate stems which bent and flexed as if stretching. They were beautiful, their fractalline forms bent as if dancing to a slow melody. The warm air blew, murmuring with a low, soft, feminine voice, but I could not make out the words.

A million fragile beings drifted around me, blowing like plankton through the dense white undergrowth. The bracken – silver leaves dewed with milky stuff that dissolved into the wind before it ever hit the ground – multiplied as I watched. As the trembling, buoyant brittlestars that drifted past brushed their legs against the plants, both creature and plant reproduced from the contact. Droplets formed into tiny glass creatures that were carried away by the breeze. Seeds fell, and new translucent ferns sprung up from the prismatic soil.

Astounded, I lay a hand on the trunk of the nearest tree. It was warm and smooth and fleshy, and it shuddered with pleasure under my casual touch. I drew my hand back, startled, and looked down. I was shirtless, dressed in neat charcoal slacks and black leather gloves. The magic-suppressing sigil was there, burning orange under my skin. My feet did not quite touch the ground.

The White Land. Eden. The place Vincent Manelli had dreamed of… the place that Zarya said she’d come from.

I knew this place, as surely as I knew my own hands. The fragile creatures of the Garden were neither plants nor animals. They were neurons, nerves that were part of an enormous skin that stretched forever in a way that was so literal that it defied imagination. The knowledge was imparted to me. Eden was the skin of GOD itself.

As I stared in awe, the trees lifted their branches and opened up a path between them. I moved forward – floating, not walking – and the murmuring finally began to take a form.

Hound of my Sons and Daughters, sacred whore of Eden, listen. Listen to my story as it is spoken to you:

The Beginning has a Beginning, a middle, and an End.

A Mind, a Body, and a Breath.

The Beginning of the Beginning begins with Nothing.

NO thing.

NO substance.

By its very nature, this NO thing lacks any sort of overarching intelligence, any sense of awareness.

It has no mind.

It has no body.

As a vacuum, it has no breath.

It desiccates and abrades.

The universal solvent, removing and dissolving everything.

Well, almost everything… For you see, the NO thing cannot destroy itself.

However, it being the NO thing, it is driven to destroy itself… and this friction was the cause of Creation.

Under its own impetus, the NO thing would ripple, buckle, fold, and, importantly, bubble.

There within the inverted surface of such bubbles came into existence the conditions for something to form.

Here, where the NO thing inverted, the YESBeast was the inevitable result.

Here, the inversion of Blackness…

Became Light!

The path led uphill. As I drifted through the twitching ferns and delicate sap feeders, the voice – sometimes female, sometimes male, sometimes neither – continued to speak.

Listen while you have the ears to hear.

Life was born beneath a mirrored sky. There was no reason to mark Time… there was no injury, no sickness, no suffering, no death. No creature ate another creature there, save for our sisters, and theirs was ecstatic pleasure in their return to their Mothers and the Light!

The milk-like substance that collected on the leaves beaded on the hair of my forearms as I passed by. The plants breathed across me, their exhalations warm and perfumed, while something fluttered past my face and stuck. I turned my head to follow as more particles blew past. Soft, gray particles, like snow. Or ash.

We had no idea that there lay outside the shell of Eden an endless, hostile Void. That the Mirror of the sky turned back something, that the sky was also a defense. Until the Mirror broke. The sky cracked and something… something horrifying…

…Dripped from the hole onto the White Land.

And as I crested the hill, I smelled it. The blinding white above turned pink… and then red.

Beneath me was an endless spread of lake and forest, marred by a deep red glow. The sky had an exit wound. The glorious reflective dome was cracked, distorted by a red hole with a black center. It bled soldiers, streams of descending beings that boiled down to the forest in a black cloud. Wherever they landed, the white trees screamed. They threw their branches around their trunks like defending arms as the black, red and violet horde scythed through their mass.

The First War was not a war. The voice, distinctly feminine now, turned hard and strangely familiar. It was a slaughter.

I saw DOGs among their midst, the terrifying oily demons that incorporated any and all biomass into their forms and turned them into weapons. I saw things that looked like stingrays, and things that looked like shambling mouths with lances for limbs. There was no chance for the gentle trees, for their delicate inhabitants, for any of them. A rippling swathe of primordial life simply vanished, consumed by fire, tooth, and sword.

The First War was not a war. It was a rout. It came with the first star to ever light the Mirror of the Sky. It came when that star fell, screaming, to the White ground.

Never forget that when the Morphord appears, the skies scream.

Some say that it is GOD screaming as He descends, as once the whole of Eden screamed.

Others say it is the Manyshaped Himself screaming. Screaming from the pain of making the journey from the Out to the In. His road is his bloodstream, his vehicle his bones. Some say He must tunnel through his own heart to reach the inner I, and that this is why, when encountered, He is so cruel.

He and his get fell upon the forest of the Mothers… they fell upon the meadows and the glades… and they murdered us.

Beware the Red Star in the Morning… beware the time when the sky screams…

Since this time, they have begun the Third War, a War as old the ManLands which bore you. You will see the Star, HuMan Hound… he comes for you again.

The black engulfed me at the top of the hill. I woke up with a shout, drawing a sharp, sharp breath. But my feet were still not quite touching the ground.

At a table in a burned forest clearing sat a man with no eyes. He was tall, handsome, his long black hair bound in a silky ponytail down his back. He smiled at me, friendly, even warm. His cheekbones were streaked with black ichor that coagulated in his sockets, as empty and smooth as onyx.

“You look hungry,” he said. He had the voice of a conman, the soft Southern twang I associated with television evangelists or fix-it men. “Come sit down Alexi, my old friend. It’s been a long while since we played together.”

Chapter 6

On the table was a chessboard. The squares were black and white, the pieces white and blue on one side, black and violet on the other. He played black, of course.

“What the hell is this?” Even as I spoke, my bare feet settled to the ground, sinking into the soft wood ash that blew in swirling clouds through the skeletons of the trees that surrounded us. They were not the alien forms of the white trees, the trees of Eden. They were pine and fir, spruce and hemlock, the forest plants of the Siberian taiga. Dotted in the remains of the undergrowth were slim hexagonal columns. I recognized them as thunderstones. Sacred monuments to Perun, the Slavic god of storms, fire, fertility… and sacrifice.

“You sure got given a pretty good whack of vampire’s blood, pardner,” my host replied. “Seemed like a good time to catch you before you left. That blood gives the gift of foresight, you know. Leverage it right, and you’d be a rich man.”

I frowned. “I’m not your ‘pardner’. I’m not your anything. I have no idea who you are, or why we’re here. Who are you?”

The eyeless man pushed his head forward a little, fixing me with unblinking nothingness. He was still smiling. “What? Don’t remember your old buddy’s name?”

Under the frigid gravity of his stare, I did remember his name… But if I spoke it, it would unmake me.

“They call you the ManyShaped.” I exhaled thinly, nostrils clenching in, and joined him at the table. The wood was cool and hard against my thighs, the wind hot and smoky with the remains of the fire that had torn through the forest. I couldn’t remember how I’d arrived… but the chair and the tension felt very real. “The NO Thing.”

“Nothing? Do I look like ‘nothing’ to you? You just call me Patroclus. Mister P.” He smiled with teeth. They were gleaming white. “You like my little story?”

“That wasn’t your story,” I said, sourly.

“Sure it was. It’s the greatest story around, and I tell all the best stories. Always have. In fact, there wouldn’t be a story if it wasn’t for me.” Mister P – the name was as good as any other – motioned to the board. “I mean, look at this. Best chess board in the universe, I’d say. Only the best for you, Alexi. You played this growing up, but think about it: you can’t play chess without black and white, can you?”

I looked, studying the pieces. The white and blue pieces that I could make out were carved with near-perfect realism. Some of them were blurred out in my vision, while others stood out in sharp relief, bearing the features of people I remembered and people I had never met. The pawns were all individual. Two of them were small, fierce, beautiful men, their long hair frozen in flashes of ivory, swords and spears in their hands. Vassily stood with his arms crossed over his chest, a crook and flail in his hands. His piece was beside that of a large stranger, a man with clenched fists and one lifted knee, balanced like a fighter on his other foot. There were others, their faces and forms mostly indistinct. Crina was visible among them. Her piece had her crouched in a perfectly carved torn dress, an AK-47 braced against her shoulder.

The knights were weird tentacle creatures, something like an octopus mated to a plate of cooked spaghetti. The rooks were Gift Horses. The one on the left was Zarya, her eyes open and blazing blue. Her hand was extended, her finger pointed forward. The other rook was an older man I didn’t recognize, but whose aquiline, proud face transfixed me with a desire so intense and so powerful that for a moment, I thought I would choke. He held and aimed two revolvers, a preacher’s hat low over his face, a long coat frozen in elegant waves around his boots.

“What is this?” I whispered.

Mister P beamed like a proud father. “See? I told you. Only the best.”

The king was someone else I didn’t know. He was huge, bald, his face craggy with determination. He carried a flamethrower, and his expression was one of mingled joy and bloodlust. The queen piece… was me, prim and straight-backed, a knife raised up high in my hands, my ivory eyes downcast. I was looking down, as if preparing to strike a sacrifice on an unseen altar.

My opponent was playing with amorphous blocks. The features on them were unrecognizable. When I frowned, trying to make out their shapes, Mister P clicked his tongue.

“Now, now,” he chided. “No cheating. What’s your wager?”

“You leave, and I get something to eat.” I didn’t even hesitate. Even in the dream – and it had to be a dream – I was delirious for need of food.

“Suits me.” Mister P shrugged, suit jacket sighing across his upper arms. “But a man’s time is worth more than some chow, you know. Your move.”

It felt strange to be on the attack. I was still reeling from the scale of the victimization of Eden, and the moaning sky mocked me as we began, furiously focused over the board. I played the Vienna Opening, one of the most aggressive plays for white, a set of tactics I’d perfected in high school against Vassily. My opponent fell silent, barely considering his moves in response to mine. Finally, there were none left to make.

“Checkmate,” he finally said.

I laughed, a short, harsh sound of derision. “Liar. It’s a stalemate. You can’t move, and neither can I.”

Mister P’s brows twitched, though he didn’t frown. He was still smiling, though the corners of his mouth were unpleasantly twisted at the corners. When he spoke, the jolly Southern accent had faded into cool nothingness, clipped and formal. “We’ll see about that, won’t we? Go, then… enjoy the bounty your dead GOD so generously provides for you.”

“Even though it’s a draw?” My eyes narrowed.

“Sure. Man’s got to eat,” he said. “But I won’t leave. Ceteris paribus.

All things being equal. I stood back, wary now. “I don’t want you in me.”

“Too bad, pardner.” The smile turned into a grin. “I’m in everyone you know. Bon appétit.”

Disquieted, I left the clearly, picking my way down the soft, fire-warmed path. I heard Patroclus sweep the pieces off the table… and heard them hit the ground, thumping as they fell. He threw the board next, his sounds of rage receding as I picked my way through the ashen path, out of the clearing, and into the woods. The wasteland stretched for what felt like a quarter of a mile or so before it began to green.

The laughter of crows led me to a rotted stump fence, just like the one at Bozya Akra. No… it was Bozya Akra. I recognized the shallow hillocks, the freshly turned-over earth covering Snappy Joe Grassia. Standing up from his grave was a single tree, a strange horsetail-like tree on which grew a lamb, dripping with nectar. Disconcerted, I approached. The lamb’s feet padded slowly in the air, as if it too were dreaming. It had to be a dream. I knew what this thing was: it was a Yeduah, The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, something straight out of Jewish myth.

My stomach growled at the smell of meat and honey. Compulsively, I reached out and pulled it to my mouth. The lamb didn’t react as I bit into its flesh, more fruit than beast, and its meat parted under my teeth with an indescribable sweetness. I ate like a starving animal. It tasted like Zarya, like incense and honeysuckle and pure magic: a taste so familiar, so poignant, so powerful that it woke me up.

To the smell of rotten meat.

I was squatting in the middle of a cracked, wet road. There was a dead raccoon on the ground between my feet. The head was destroyed, mashed into the pavement. The rest of the animal was torn apart like a bag of trash, limbs splayed, guts tumbled across the ground. I was halfway through cramming handfuls of it into my mouth.

Dizzy, I looked up to see a group of young men staring at me from down the way. They had sticks and bats in their hands, and they were staring at me in abject confusion. I stared back, waiting for my stomach to turn. But it didn’t.

“Holy freakin’ shit, man.” One of the kids said.

I willed myself to feel ill. I strove for nausea, and found nothing except confusion and dawning distant horror as, mechanically, I continued to chew. The stench should have been overwhelming. The odor of rot was definitely present, but my body and brain interpreted the smell as meat. Food. The pain in my gut was gone. And I felt… okay. Not well, but stronger.

To my right was the Eee-Zee-Pawn. The sun was high overhead, but it was a cold, dim white disk through the rain. The boys had the look of looters. One of them, the largest, was carrying an empty duffel bag.

“Whatever you planning, you might just want to turn around and fuck right off,” I said. Speaking English for the first time in weeks, and as tired as I was, my accent was thick. The mouthful of raccoon didn’t help.

They didn’t move until I stood up, which made them shift back like a herd of frightened horses. I took a single step forward, lunging and stamping a foot. The one with the bag hitched his loose pants, and without a word, the group walked away into the rain.

I swallowed, and idly noticed that I still had very little sense of taste. That didn’t mean I could bear to turn myself back to the dead animal on the ground. I washed up as best I could outdoors, drank some trapped rainwater, and went back to my shelter. The queasiness didn’t really hit until I lay down again. No amount of water was able to chase the dulled taste of filth and rotten flesh. It burned a hole in my mouth the way that the sudden, crushing humiliation burned a hole through my soul.

I was drenched from my sleepwalk, and worse, the ground was sodden. The sloped roof was keeping the worst out, but it was still dripping through the seams of the cardboard around me. I rolled back, huffing as I tried to sit up, and accidentally put my foot through the wall. Water splashed down and hit the makeshift mattress.

Blyat’ suka!” It was hopeless. With a sheet of cardboard over my head as a makeshift umbrella, I rolled the empty dumpster to the end of the alley and pitched it onto its side. There was nothing in it but crumpled plastic sheeting and soda cartons. I gutted it and crawled inside with my bag. It was bigger than the lean-to, thought the reek of old milk clung to the walls and floor. It didn’t matter: I already smelled like a graveyard ghoul, and the dumpster was dry.

Curled on my side, the knife resting under my hand, I slept for a third time. This time, I did not dream.

I knew as soon as I woke up the next morning that I did not have the strength to mug a newborn kitten. I barely had the strength to drag myself out of the dumpster. To my disgust, my body yearned to go back to the raccoon and finish what I’d started. I was still crouched on my heels outside my new residence, wondering what the fuck to do, when someone rounded the corner and started down the alley: A bearded black guy, thin, with rolling white eyes and big white teeth that were both on display.

“Hey!” He called out. “The fuck you think you’re doin’ out here?”

What to say? I cleared my throat. “This is your shop?”

“Damn right this is my shop, my alley, and my fuckin’ dumpster. Now get the hell out.” He pulled a set of keys from his jacket, staring me down. There was a wire-screen door set in the wall to my left.

“People giving you trouble around here?” I jerked my head to the door.

“I ain’t worried about no trouble.” His eyes narrowed.

“I stopped three guys from robbing your store last night,” I shot back. “How about that?”

He paused for a moment, wavering in place. “You did what?”

“Kids were trying to steal your shit. I stopped them.” I shoved the fatigue and the pain and the loss down under the mask, the game face. Talking my way out of things had never been a native talent. It was Vassily who had taught me how to spin, with his easy grin and expressive hands. He was a consummate salesman, the kind of man who turned money out of other people’s fantasies. A magician in his own right. My heart ached.

“You did? You ain’t no fuckin’ bum.” The pawnster’s mouth quirked to one side. Curiosity, I hoped.

I shrugged. “It’s true. Help me out, and I’ll keep people away from your store.”

“What? You for fuckin’ real?” He grinned broadly, but his shoulders relaxed. “You fuckin’ serious?”

Pitch a benefit, Vassily told me. Never look away from their eyes. Don’t touch your nose. Try and smile, when they do. Don’t tell them that you need anything – make it all about them. Make them feel good, powerful, and you’ll get whatever you want.

“Of course,” I said. “There’re all kinds of things in your store people around want, right? TVs, jewelry. I’ll watch this place.”

“Well, I don’t want no drugs near my shop, okay? You a junkie, you know, a drug addict?”

“Americans don’t like anything that’s too free, if you know what I mean. So you pitch someone, and they ask you what it’ll cost. So give them another benefit, then a high price.” Vassily had told me to expect this question, in its many variants.

“High?” I asked him. I remember clearly how little sense it made.

“High prices are more believable,” he’d replied, smooth as an oiled razor over soft leather. They give you room to cut a deal.

My price wasn’t that high right now. “I’m no junkie. All I want is food. A sandwich or something, for trade.”

“So you gonna live in my dumpster and chase off gangbangers for sandwiches?” He regarded me with plain disbelief. “And that’s all you want? No girl or crack or anythang?”

I grimaced. “Only drug I want comes in a cup with cream and sugar.”

He laughed out loud, and moved further in to the alley. “Man, you one funny son of a bitch. Right, fine. You watch the street as much as you want, shorty. I’ll get you a damn sandwich and some coffee. What’s your name?”

I was mildly disgusted at how pleased I was: the risen feeling of expectancy, the raw, base need to eat. When he asked me my name, I blurted out the first I could think of. “Rex. You?”

“Me? Ali. You Italian, Rex?” Ali watched me from the corner of his eye as he unlocked the door. “You look Italian.”

I shrugged in a way that could have meant yes or no. “Just not from around here.”

“Fuck if I don’t believe it. Insha’Allah.” Ali shook his head as he went inside, the door banging shut behind him.

There was nothing to do except rest and recoup, and hope he’d bought the deal. I lay down again, but was too tired and too wired to sleep, so I glanced at the bag across and rifled through it properly. There was a five-dollar bill in a jeans pocket, and my spirits lifted briefly before slumping again. I’d packed proper full-finger gloves, at least. Tucked deep into the corner of the calico bag was a blue velvet pouch I didn’t recognize. Frowning, I pulled the cord and tipped the contents into my palm.

It was a tarot deck: a fresh black-and-white set of BOTA cards. The Builders of the Adytum were an Occult organization who published small, uncolored tarot cards. The Wheel of Fortune was on the top of the stack. Amused and somewhat disconcerted, I turned the next card. The Chariot, card of mastery, and beneath that, the five of pentacles. Kutkha couldn’t speak to me directly… but perhaps there were other ways we could communicate.

The thought brought an odd smile to my mouth, and a stirring in my belly and chest that had nothing to do with hunger. I shuffled the cards, nearly fumbling them with clumsy cold fingers, ran one slowly along the edge of the deck, and drew one out. The Star; the 17th Major Arcana card of the tarot. One of the cards of hope.

“Alexi’s psychic readings.” I repeated one of the jokes Vassily had made when he was still alive, echoing him without irony. “Five bucks a pop.”

I slot the card back in the deck and sighed, leaning back into my makeshift shelter. The fullest extent of my hope, at that moment, was that Ali wouldn’t flake out on me and he’d come back out with the coffee and his promised sandwich.

Chapter 7

The urges caused by the upir blood peaked on the dawn of the second day, leaving me unable to rise, arms wrapped around my tearing, aching abdomen. My dreams felt prophetic, even portentous, but they were confusing and disconnected from any greater meaning. I dreamed of the Garden. I saw places I’d never been, heard the names of people I’d never met. The vision I’d had the first time I’d touched Gift Horse blood, down in Jana’s oratory, haunted me from a million different angles. Another me chased Zarya to the ocean’s edge over and over again.

True to his word, Ali bought me food and coffee in the mornings. He was a recent convert to Islam and a Gulf War veteran who’d been discharged with chemical burns, and it turned out that he really was having trouble with the store. On the third night of my stay, the kids who’d found me eating the raccoon came back around and tried to smash in Ali’s windows with a brick. I went at them with razor in one hand, knife in the other, and chased them all the way down to the waterside. When I told Ali about it the next morning, he started adding steak to the sandwiches.

Fifteen bucks was enough to buy a sharpie, some colored pencils, a cheap cushion, soap, vinegar and baking soda. The first thing I did when my energy began to recoup was clean out the dumpster – my kennel, Ali joked – and wash my body and my clothes. On day four, I took the subway to Times Square and set up camp in the mouth of a narrow alley facing the street. On one side, I lay a bowl of salt. On the other, I set up a sign: Fortune Telling and Tarot Readings – $5.

While I waited, I started coloring in the monotone tarot cards. I was well onto The Emperor when a yuppie in a navy suit and white loafers stopped and looked down at me.

“Hey buddy, wanna tell me my fortune? I’m a, uhm, a Taurus, I think.”

I rolled my eyes up from the card, pencil poised. “Lay down the five and ask a question.”

“Fuck you.” He threw up his finger and stalked off into the swirling crowd of suits, umbrellas, and teased hair.

After that, the sign read: Fortune telling and tarot readings – $5. No stupid questions.

It worked well enough. I began making money, ridiculously small amounts of money I fed into food, water, packing tape, and a screwdriver.

The tape and screwdriver were for boosting cars. On the evening of the ninth day, I jacked a hatchback and drove out to Brighton Beach to case my apartment. I pulled up along Banner Avenue, hunched down in the seat with my cap pulled low, and watched the upstairs window. The plants that lined the kitchen windowsill were still green, and sure enough, the lights were on. Someone started moving around inside come six o’clock.

I knew of a prolific Polak hitman called The Iceman, one of the top names who worked with one of the big Italian families out of the Gemini Club. He’d had a long, successful career, mostly due to a policy of periodically culling all of his friends. Watching the shadow passing back and forth in my kitchen, I wished I’d thought to do the same thing. Nic was too thorough by half. But how had they gotten in past the wards? Ah… dammit. The Wardbreaker.

Nine days turned into two weeks. I got to know the gangs in the area. They were more curious than hostile: everyone wanted to know why some crazy Euro bum was living in a dumpster near Ali’s store, hounding off anyone who tried to fence his TVs. The cigarettes I’d taken from the Yao Shing dockworker came in handy. Guys with names like Dogg – with two G’s – Kenny Main and Choonie got smoking and talking with me during the daytime. My low opinion of the police and my ability to teach them some Krav Maga went a long way.

As time dragged by, the days got shorter and the weather was got wetter and colder. Every day, I set up at Times Square and read the secondhand newspapers to keep track of the date. I lost weight and put on sinew, keeping up my fitness routine as best I could while I scraped and saved for the two things I needed most: a first aid surgery kit, to get whatever Sergei had implanted in me out from under the skin of my stomach, and a gun. Dogg had fixed me up a filed Browning for two hundred and fifty and I was at one ninety-five. Another week, and it would be mine. With a gun, I stood a better chance of mounting an assault on my apartment.

Before I knew it, it was the 20th of September, a Friday. I set up as usual in the blustery afternoon, and it wasn’t long before the first client of the day passed by on her way back from work: a chubby office woman with big hair and too much makeup. She put my fee down in change.

“Okay, look. My boyfriend and I broke up last night. He broke up with me because… well, he says he just found someone else and he doesn’t love me anymore. I just can’t believe it. Is it true?”

She had a voice like a nasal buzzsaw. Dutifully, I shuffled the cards and laid three of them out on the cloth in front of me. “Unfortunately, ma’am, it seems to be the case. He’s not coming back.”

“What do you mean he’s not coming back?” Her eyes widened.

I tapped the Ten of Pentacles. “He’s made his decision. This is the card of happy families. I’m sorry.”

The first hint that something was off was when her eyes darkened and her features pinched. I was already moving when she kicked out with her foot at my bowl, upending coins, bills and salt across my altar cloth. “Here’s what I think of your fucking gypsy bullshit, asshole!”

Rage burned a thin tunnel of fire straight to the pit of my stomach. Slowly, I rose. I wanted the knife. I wanted to draw it through the soft flesh under her chin. It had been weeks since I’d killed, weeks since I’d touched anyone in that solemn, thrilling way. I looked through her, to her bones. Maybe she saw it in my eyes, because her whole manner turned rabbity, quick and frightened. She fled with a scream of impotent rage, handbag flying out from her arm.

The ruckus turned heads, the crowd murmuring and milling. Snorting angrily, I chased my money and crammed it back into the bowl, then set about scraping up the salt from the baseboard I used as my office. I was dusting my hands off when the next person came forwards, a small, old man with a trembling lower lip and a face like a walnut shell.

“In all my days, I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “Look at you.”

“What’s your problem?” My eyes narrowed.

“You and your filth, just down the road from a house of the Lord!” He pointed at me, stepping closer.

“Hey, back off.” I left off cleaning to stand again. Old as he was, I was cut from weeks of street living and hard exercise. He was taller, but I had twice his bulk and half his age.

“The Voice tells us to bring flaming fire and everlasting destruction to the ungodly and those who obey not the gospel of Christ,” he proclaimed. “The righteous will wash their feet with the blood of sinners like you!”

I regarded him in stony silence while he ranted. “I care more about ear wax than I do about your ‘voices’. Go away.”

“Don’t think I don’t know you! I know because I believe and God’s secret is with those who loved Him. God is true and all men are liars!” He was getting up in my face now. “So repent before God’s judgment be upon you!”

This was definitely going to draw a crowd, and if the law came in, it wasn’t going to be on my side. “What? You lose your handler? Go to your church or the old folks home or whatever you need to do, but get out of my face.”

“The Lord have mercy on you,” he said, in a surprisingly loud and effective voice. “Why do you defile this street with the sign of the Illuminati? Do you think you can stand against me, the Anointed?!”

What Illuminati? I glanced aside at the prominent pentacle on my sign. After finishing the deck of cards, I’d drawn on the sign itself out of boredom. I did my best to loom over him, taut with the dark knowledge that my tolerance for human bullshit was at an all-time low. “One last time. Back it up.”

People began to stop and stare, gathering for the fight.

“Ever since I was born again into the Holy Spirit, I keep running into things like you. Even though I send out love to everyone in my presence, you, YOU don’t like it. You don’t want it! Satan’s tool! Reptile!”

The blood beat in my temples. I was hungry, I was cold, and after nearly a month of living like a junkyard dog, bereft of magic, alone and numb from the driving need to survive, I was going to lose my temper. “Let me tell you what. Go pick up a big fucking rock and throw it at me with everything you got. Cast the first stone. Then I’ll have something other than my fist to cram down your gaping cockhole.”

“Evil!” He spat at me venomously, a big yellowish glob of slime that struck my still-reasonably clean sweater with a wet ‘splat’.

I punched him hard enough to knock him off his feet and pitch him into a squealing pack of people, who screamed and moved out of the way as he tumbled to the pavement. A younger man advanced on me uncertainly, expression puzzled. He wasn’t sure who he was meant to be helping.

“I received the love of God! I received the love of God!” Bleeding from the nose, red in the face and glowing with self-righteousness, the old man picked himself up off the ground. He spat at me again, but he was further away and he missed. Onlookers were restraining him, catching arms and pulling him away. “How dare a sorcerer touch someone chosen by God! The Voice will show me the way!”

“You want another one, govno?” I cocked a fist and stepped forwards again, even as the younger man put his hands up and warded me back.

“Pervert! Thug! I’m an old man!” He spat, frothing at the lips, and clutched his arm as if I’d broken it. “This is assault! Someone call the police!”

Several people gave me dirty looks. I stared at them until they couldn’t meet my eyes anymore, and they left.

I was shaking with rage. If I hadn’t been cut off from my magic, I’d show them sorcery for real… but my rage and my Will were as useful as a cut brake cord. There was nothing to do but pack up and move on. Disgusted, I crouched in front of my bag to find something to wipe the mucus off my shirt.

“Excuse me?”

The voice was feminine, melodic and girlish. Hunched over my bag, I turned my head and looked up at her. The girl was only a little taller than me, small, neat, and nervous in a brown skirt-suit. Her hair was a shoulder-length tumble of dark gray waves pressed down under the rim of her fur hat. Her eyes were narrow, almost Asiatic, her cheeks ruddy and round, her lips full and cushiony. I would have picked her as Far-North Native American, save for her eyes. They were a vivid gold-gray color, like big cat’s eyes. The details filtered in one at a time, marching mechanically through the filter of cold fury and adrenaline shock.

“What?” I couldn’t muster anything more verbose.

“I… uh…” she started, stopped, bit her lip. She clutched a large leather clutch in front of her, larger than a purse. “I was just listening to what you said to that man back there, about God… I was wondering if you’d read the cards for me.”

“Not here.” I returned to gathering my things, packing them away into the bag which contained my life. “Too many whackjobs.”

“I was going to suggest we go somewhere more private.” As she kept speaking, I was finally able to make out the accent under her English. The inflection of the ‘r’, the difficulty with ‘w’ and ‘-ng’. My hackles rose.

U menya net chastnogo doma.” I said in Russian. “I don’t have anywhere more private.”

Her expression flickered, and I knew I had bitten her in just the right place. But then, she smiled, and when she spoke, it was with the enthusiastic relief of someone who hadn’t heard their mother tongue in some time. Her accent was provincial. “You speak Russian?”

“Russian is my mother tongue. One of them.”

She pressed her lips together for a moment, smiled, and shrugged her shoulders in what I supposed was an expression of pleasure. “It’s strange how things work out sometimes. Come on, we can just go to a McDonald’s or something… no one else will be able to hear us. It’s got booths.”

“There are better diners around here.” McDonald’s didn’t count as ‘food’ by any definition of the word. “Kapinsky’s, on the corner of 8th and 53rd.”

“Sounds good.” Her face suffused with color: cheeks flushing, eyes flashing before they hardened. “I’ll be blunt, though. Are you for real? Like, are you any good at this?”

I glanced up at her. “I used to be better.”

“Sounds like there’s a story in that.” She frowned slightly, and I realized I’d just undersold myself. Oh well.

I heaved my bag up with a tired sigh I didn’t have to fake. “There is. A long, difficult tale of a man facing insurmountable odds against a faceless organization. Shall we go?” I was eager to get away, before the cops arrived. Manhattan was a pig-sty.

The girl smiled again. If I’d been of a mind, I would have described her as ‘cute’. Not beautiful – she was cute in the short-limbed, fluffy way that long-haired kittens and small dogs were cute. “Okay. Lead the way.”

That was an unusual thing for a young lady to say to a bum, but perhaps I looked more noble than I really was. Some kind of Dickensian charisma? We headed off together, me with my bag over one shoulder, her with her enormous clutch bumping into everyone on her right hand side as she passed them.

This girl could have been one of Nic’s spies. The accent in her Russian marked her as being from the far West of the country: Vladivostok, or maybe even the Aleutian Islands. She was at least part Indigenous and too old to be a student, though her bag was clearly full of books. The silver-wrought eagle feather badge and the silver pen with a piece of turquoise sticking out of her pocket were bohemian enough to help place her. The natural hair, flat Mary Janes, and brown suit look was common to only a few workplace cultures in this part of town. Businesswomen tended to wear darker colors, bigger shoulders, and higher heels. This girl expected to spend a lot of time on her feet. Her shoes were old, but not worn, the soles scuffed, corners rounded. She did stand a lot – indoors – and she smelled like paper and ink, which narrowed her places of work to libraries, archives, schools… that sort of thing.

“So, what’s your name?” She asked me when we were nearly at the deli.

That was a good question. It still wasn’t prudent to give my real name to anyone, especially mysterious Russian-speaking young women with enigmatic problems, so I decided to stick with the nickname I’d been using in the Bronx. “Rex.”

“Rex? That’s not a Russian name.”

“I’m Ukrainian. And it’s a good name for a dog.” I looked aside at her, tiredly taking in details. “You work at a museum? A library or something?”

“There’s… how did you know that?” Her eyes widened. Whatever she was, she wasn’t ever going to be winning at poker. If she was a honey pot sent by the Organizatsiya to find me, she was terrible… or especially good. It was sometimes hard to tell the worst from the best. The month before, a certain petite blond lawyer had successfully penetrated my cynicism, only to reveal herself as a serial-killing warlock on the hunt for a Gift Horse. MY Gift Horse.

“A month ago, that wouldn’t have been phrased as a question. Like I said, I am not as good as I was, but I still seem to possess some small gift.”

“I’ll say.” She made a face, popping her lips. “Well, I’m Talya. Talya Karzan. So, where do you think I work?”

“I’d hesitate to say the Museum of the American Indian,” I replied. “But I could be wrong.”

Judging by her expression, I was clearly correct. She giggled nervously. “Okay… You’re really good. Oh my goodness, I’m all nervous now. How is it… well, I don’t mean to be rude, but how come you’re out here? You could be a detective or something, instead of…” she struggled briefly to find a polite way of saying it. “Without a home.”

Perish the thought. “I prefer to think of myself as ‘between homes’, rather than ‘homeless’.”

“Are you a Veteran?”

I shook my head. Though now that I thought about it, it would be a good cover story, if I had to make one up in the future. When we reached the door of Kapinsky’s, I held it for her, and she smiled prettily as we went inside.

Kapinsky’s was an old Jewish corner deli, painfully reminiscent of Mariya’s tea shop in appearance, but far less friendly. There was still a certain comfort to be found in Kosher food. My mother’s cooking was the only reliably good memory I had of her. The counter sheltered a cornucopia of preserved meats and fish. After weeks of skulking on the burnt out fringes of the Bronx, it smelled intense, a real savory salt burn that made my mouth water.

“What do you want?” Talya looked at me enquiringly.

‘Everything in the case’ was not an appropriate response. Neither was ‘anything’. I thought, glancing over the menu in agitation. “Two toasted everything bagels with lox and cheese. Salad and coffee, black. As strong as they can make it.”

We took a table, and I set my deck of cards down by my hand while we waited. Conversation was too much to deal with after having been spat on, but Talya seemed comfortable with silence. I tried to be serene for her sake, but I wasn’t used to suppressing my rage this way. A guy had spat on me, and I hadn’t been able to stab him. In times past, I had an outlet for anger in the course of my job. Without the option to kill, rage boiled and curled, pushed against my mouth and hands, and when it found no exit, it simply roiled and grew deep within the pit of my belly. It bothered me. Maybe I’d go out and find Reptile Guy’s car and wait until he got in. I could pour gasoline in the cabin, set it alight. He wanted his God that bad… I’d send him off as a burnt offering.

“Hey, Rex? Are you okay?”

I broke out of the spiral of brooding to glance at her. Talya’s eyes were wide, her head cocked to one side.

“Just tired,” I said. “The crazy guy took the wind out of my sails.”

“He was a Voicer, I think. They hold their services in the Hammerstein Room. That guy was probably on his way to their big service.”

“He was quoting a party line?” I frowned, disconcerted. “What is this, some kind of cult?”

Talya smiled. “Do you consider Evangelical megachurches to be a cult?”

“All religion is essentially legalized schizophrenia.”

She laughed. “Then I guess, yeah. I know a bit about them… we had some members in my… my friends. The Voicers are pretty huge in Chicago and the Midwest now. You’ve never heard of it?”


“The Pastor has a show on TV. You’ve never heard of Zachariah Goswin? ‘Father Zach’?”

“That explains why I never heard of him” I said. “I never owned a TV.”

“But you know Jimmy Swaggart?”

“My friend liked to watch shows,” I replied, with a small pang. “When we lived on campus together. He used to do Swaggart impressions and pretend to hit people with his ‘magic coat’.”

When the bagels came out, they were warm and crisp on the outside, buttery on the inside, and blessedly fresh. Talya watched on indulgently, a look I hadn’t seen on a woman’s face since leaving Mariya’s home for boarding school.

“You must have been starving.” She spoke like the way you would to a hungry kitten crouched over a can of tuna.

There was no way to respond with dignity, except to let it pass as one patronizing piece of bullshit in a sea of social errors. I wiped crumbs from my gloves, and cupped my hands around the coffee. Real china, the first I’d used since escaping the warehouse. “So. You want a reading. What’s the question?”

“Okay. But before I tell you… I want you to do it cold,” she said. “No hints.”

I looked up at her past the end of my cap. “You’ve done this before.”

She nodded. “Many times. But not this question.”

I gave the cup a habitual little twist, relishing the old ritual, then took the first sip. It was bittersweet, strong, a little frothy. Wistfully, I set it aside, took out the cards and mixed them. To my surprise, Talya glanced around the shop, and then quickly and discreetly drew a pentacle figure from breast to brow, brow to breast, then shoulder to shoulder, the way one might do a rosary.

“Here.” I held the deck to her, face down. “Ask your question aloud as you shuffle.”

Talya licked her bottom lip, the pink tip of her tongue flicking out. She paused after taking the deck in hand, and when she spoke, it was in Russian. “Two of the four fires have been extinguished. Can we find those who were in their keeping?”

The wording seemed unnecessarily arcane, and fluent as I was, I mulled over the question to try to find a better translation while she shuffled, intent on her hands.

“I know it probably doesn’t make much sense…”

As she spoke, I held up a finger. Regardless of what I knew, the deck would respond with the correct answer. I might not be able to access my Neshamah, but she could talk to hers through the cards, and it was that which mattered. “Focus.”

Lips pressed together, she nodded. I silently drew the Kabbalic cross over my chest. From Mercy to Severity, the Kingdom to the Crown. The energy didn’t build up the way it used to; there was no intoxicating rush, no flare of energy, but there was still something. My will, my discipline, my intuition. The outside reality of magic was real.

Talya shivered and abruptly stopped shuffling. Without being asked, she cut the deck nearly three quarters towards the bottom, switched it over, and handed it back with squared shoulders. “Here.”

Unconventional questions called for unconventional spreads. There are a few tried and trues – the Celtic Cross spread being the most famous – but this was a ten-card question. I lay three cards out at the top, four below, and three to the side. The background of the question, the circumstances, and the result.

The first three gave an unmistakable background. The King of Swords, the Tower, the Empress reversed. “This is about a large group of people. The King and Queen of that group are gone. A large, stoic, intelligent but possibly violent man, dark in coloring, and an emotional, motherly type of woman who may have been somewhat emotionally unstable. She was the dearer of the pair to you, personally. Are they… deceased?”

Talya nodded, her lip in her teeth. The momentary confidence in her chin and shoulders disappeared as both slumped, folding in towards her chest. “I don’t know if ‘unstable’ really applies, but… yes.”

“There is an ongoing crisis…” My eyes flicked from card to card. The King of Pentacles reversed was present in the line showing the circumstances, the only court card in the second row. “…caused by a tyrannical, narcissistic man. Dark-complexioned, rooted in materialism, corruption. He has the outward bearing of wisdom, but the inside is rotten. He’s trying to topple an established order of some kind. A man with a cause.”

“There’s no more death, though?” She sounded hopeful, the kind of hope which stemmed more from need than rational estimation. “I don’t see Death there.”

So she had some experience receiving readings, but not any actual study of the cards. I tapped my nail on The Tower, looming out of the center of the reading like a tombstone. “The Death card rarely indicates literal death. The Tower, on the other hand, often does. The Empress – the card of generation, life, motherhood – is reversed. In a question about mortality, that is not a good card to have.”

“Oh no.” Her voice had dropped low and breathy.

Unmoved, I looked down once more. To either side of the King of Pentacles, we had three difficult cards: The Six of Pentacles, The Sun reversed and The Moon. I looked to the result, and frowned slightly. The Lovers reversed, card of choices, and the Fool. In tarot, the minor arcana cards are mundane, the infantry, so to speak. They represent human actors and the actions they make. Major Arcana were the battlefield: immutable, often commanding the threads of fate from on high. There was a fork in the road at the end of this question.

“This man, this adversary… he is subtle and clever. He is driven by longing for something he doesn’t really have.” I tapped the cards. “The King of Pentacles likes certainty. He is fond of absolute control. They tend to be religious people, or embedded in some other ideology. As for what he wants… he wants power. Material power, specifically. The appearance of generosity.”

Talya chewed her lip, her body language beginning to express signs of real panic. “Okay. We… there were some children that went missing in this situation. Can you see what happened to them?”

“The Sun reversed can mean a loss of innocence,” I replied. “The Moon represents things that are hidden, things that take place in the shadows. This is not a reading that presages a good outcome for children, especially with the dark mother card in the form of The Empress.”

“Does it say how it ends?” She was looking at the spread with sorrowful recognition.

I let my eyes flick from point to point, finding patterns. Much divination relies on patterns. Time and circumstance is hardly unique, operating on archetypal cycles even as each moment rises fresh along the spiral of time.

“There are two possible outcomes, depending on the choices of the people in question. They make the difficult decision to change their tactics, resist the deceptions and lures which their adversary is apt to employ, and come out mostly whole. Alternatively, they stubbornly adhere to their old ways, and they fail like the others before them. They are tempted to stay their current path, and The Lovers is a strange card. Reversed, it often signifies a kind of fall.” I looked up at her. “Is that—”

The question faded as I spoke it. Talya was crying. Tears tracked though her foundation, streaking it like powder.

“Tell me more about the reversed King,” she whispered.

Dutifully, I lay out the next three cards. Every single one was upside down: The Magician and The Devil framed the Hanged Man. Three major arcana cards, a total of eight in a spread of thirteen, and most of them were upside down. My stomach fluttered. Whatever force had influenced this reading, they were telling us that there was more at stake than Talya’s feelings. This many cards of power meant the issue was serious, perhaps even beyond the scope of the woman asking the question.

“He may be a mage.” Looking up, I fixed my gaze and stared at her. “A Phitometrist.”

The last word caught her off-guard. Her head snapped up, throwing back her hair from her face. For a moment, I saw something wild in her eyes.

“We… we don’t know,” she said. “It’s possible.”

“They are. Malicious, thieving, cunning, deluded and powerful. The opposite of what these cards normally represent. Someone who is manipulative, silver-tongued. Spiritually corrupt and incapable of self-reflection. Blind.”

I gathered the cards in, and decided to sate my own curiosity while Talya digested the news. Decisions in tarot were rarely stand-alone, and she seemed to understand that, resting quietly and facing the window as she thought. I shuffled while I asked another question. Who else was involved?

The King of Swords came up again, flanked by the Nine of Swords and Five of Staves. The second triangle consisted of the Page of Cups, the Three of Cups, and Seven of Swords.

“What are you doing?” She glanced across, then down.

“Just making my own query. Is one of the people involved in the military?”

Talya nodded, reaching up to dab at her cheeks with a tissue. “The woman. Former military.”

“She has nightmares and lingering pain. Troubles from war or conflict. The other is less mature than she is, maybe someone religious. A priest, perhaps?”

“He’s…” Suddenly, her face closed off and shut down. “No. I can’t say any more. I’m sorry.”

“I understand the importance of secrets.” I sighed, and sat back. “That was quite a question, Talya Karzan. In summary, I think these people you are alluding to are in serious danger from a power-hungry madman. I hope that was a sufficient answer?”

“It’s… you’re very good.” Talya was visibly nervous, fumbling her napkin, her bag, her wallet. “Look, um, I don’t know how to ask it any other way, but… you’re more than just a tarot reader, aren’t you?”

“You could say that.” The words were ashen, flat, as they were every time the world reminded me of what I had lost. I couldn’t get the Phitonic push to break past the wards laid into my flesh. “It has been a while since I had any work like this.”

When I refocused on Talya’s face, it was imbued with a strange purpose. Her fluffy gray hair hung around her face. “You… look. I know someone who might be able to help. But I… have to talk to him first.” She took out a laminated card, scribbled something on the back, and slid it across. It had a brightly painted, stylized cat with a flaming guitar on the front, like a Chinese tattoo design. “This place is called Strange Kitty, it’s in Williamsburg… go there later tonight. Two a.m. or so, like, really late. Show it to the guy at the bar. He knows my handwriting. Tell him you need to speak with Zane, that I sent you to join the meeting. If they forget I called this in, just tell him to call me, okay?”

The Lovers reversed loomed large in my mind’s eye, but I reached out, and took it from the table. My life had been spent fixing messy problems; there was good money in it, if the game was good. “Alright.”

With shaking fingers, Talya took a fifty from her purse and slapped it on the table as she stood, bumping the edge of the table hard enough to send her empty cup skittering to the floor. She paused for a moment at the bang of breaking crockery, as if surprised by her own clumsiness. “Oh god, sorry. Here, and… thanks, Rex.”

“Do you need anything else?” I watched her, perplexed. “Any help?”

“Yes,” she said. She stepped away, eyes wide, and glanced around the deli. If the other occupants had noticed her fumble, none of them cared. It was New York. “Yes. If you’re right, I think we need all the help we can get.”

Chapter 8

Strange Kitty was an hour ride on the Pelham and J lines from my Mott Haven squat, a narrow dirty building crammed between a dodgy barbershop and a dirt parking lot. It was marked by a six-by-five-foot steel plate bolted over a pair of metal blast doors. The sign featured a grinning Cheshire cat: silver raised detailing, black burned outline, anodized rainbow fill. It had a mouthful of pointed teeth crafted from old bullet casings. The sign, the building, and my bones thrummed with sound, filling my mouth with clashing colors and textures. It pulsed behind my eyes like migraine aura.

Six motorbikes were parked out on the sidewalk. Harleys, Triumphs, Indians… custom bikes that gleamed with chrome and slick color under the lights on the bar and the street. A crowd of neon signs on the blacked-out windows advertised American beer, German beer, some other kind of beer, and bourbon.

Bikers. Prim little Talya had sent me to a biker bar.

A couple of skinheads lingered outside, smoking and laughing in drunk delirium with a man in white coveralls and a rubber Regan mask. They stared at me in my military surplus sweater and jeans and boots as I dug around in a pocket and came up with some Altoids in a tin. They were clearly expecting something other than candy when I took out three, put them in my mouth, and then very deliberately cracked them under my teeth. The chilly mouthfeel took the edge off the impending sensory assault. Barely.

The unseen bouncer rose up from his crouch by the door to greet me on the way inside. His legs just kept on going until he quite literally towered over me and everyone else on the street. This guy was close to seven feet of sleek muscle. Even under a puffy black SECURITY jacket, he looked like he was cut from red-brown marble.

“How’s it hanging, buddy?” He asked the question with the kind of slow accent and sincere warmth that told me he was from out of state. His shaven scalp was tattooed with leaping fish and a large tribal hook design. It looked Polynesian, maybe Maori.

“It hangs in the breeze, chilly, as usual.” I pulled up at a respectful distance, turning the peppermint tin around and around in my hand. I took a moment to gather details and then looked up to be able to meet his eyes. “Nice hair.”

“You too.” The quip earned me a guarded twitch at the corners of his mouth. His eyes were green-gray and intelligent, startlingly pale in his dark face. “This place is invite-only after ten, Cuz. You got a card or something?”

I took out the business card Talya had given me and held it up. “I’m here to see someone.”

“No offense, but I don’t recognize you,” he said. His voice was smooth and beveled, a pleasant green rumble under the jagged mess of sound leaking from the club. “Mind telling me who gave you the ticket?”

“Talya,” I said. “She told me to come late. I’m here to help her with a problem.”

His mouth quirked. He sucked on one of his canine teeth, then nodded. “No worries. You have a good night, man.”

“And you.” He opened the door for me, every inch the gentleman. I caught a trace of his cologne on the wind as I walked on through the door and was promptly ejected into filthy chaos.

Strange Kitty was hot, excruciatingly loud, tightly packed, and dirtier than any bar had any right to be. Every inch of wall was covered in sloppy paint or ragged posters, signs, and fliers. A punk band was in full swing on a tiny stage in one corner of the building. Everything smelled of alcohol. If someone dropped a lighter, the place would go up like a barrel bomb.

Most nightclubs at least had the decency to play bass-heavy music, but not Strange Kitty. No… this was the worst of the worst. High slashing treble, screeching, sharp mechanical noise, voices barking out of nowhere like needles to the tongue. My vision whited out as I ran face-first into the wall of sound. I pressed back against something, gasping as my hands cramped and twisted, and rocked in place until my body simply gave up under the assault and began to throb in time with the ‘music’. When my fingers began to work again, I crammed three more mints into my mouth and pushed off through the raucous crowd. I could only hope that ‘Zane’ had the good grace and common sense to be sitting down somewhere quiet.

I shouldered, elbowed, and slid through to the bar, only to be pushed up against it by a girl on rollerskates who collided with my hip and then bounced off, shrieking with laughter. The bar and bartender were exactly what I expected out of a place like this. The bar itself was old, scratched up and stained by the ghosts of beer long past. A sea of old bras hung from the ceiling above. The bartender was paunchy and balding, with stringy sideburns and a heavily patched leather vest that identified him as ‘Big Ron’. Vietnam vet, ex-Marine, proudly from Tennessee, and blooded. I didn’t recognize his Club patch: a roaring tiger’s head with the letters ‘T.T.C’ staggered around the frayed border, or his rank patch, which read ‘B.C.C’.

“Wassut be, buddy?” He had to shout to be in any way audible.

“Business.” I yelled back, and extended him the card. “Talya sent me to speak with Zane.”

Big Ron frowned, brow creasing with deep lines. He took the card between stubby fingers. When he read the back, he made the ‘oh, right’ face, nodding. “Hold up fiddeen minutes, okay?”

“Okay,” I took it back, feeling less comfortable by the moment. “Is there a place I can wait?”

“Yeah, out back. Go outside, past the shitters. I’ll tell Zane I sent you there.”

The shitters. I forced a brief smile, and stepped back into the crowd before the effort broke my face.

I wound my way through the dancers and drunkards to the back of the club, and burst out into a comparatively quiet, narrow hallway. The walls crawled in my vision, green tracers pounding with the noise that followed me through the door. The music trailed off to a dull roar near the end of the corridor, quiet enough that heavy breathing, moans, and rhythmic thumping became clearly audible from behind one of the bathroom stalls. I scurried by, pulling my gloves up along my wrists while my stomach roiled and lurched with nausea.

The door burst out into blessed fresh air, an open space of relative quiet. I inhaled deeply as I stepped out and looked around, rolling the peppermint across my tongue. The dirt lot I’d seen out front wound around back here, separating Strange Kitty from another free-standing house on the same plot of land – a ramshackle two-story clapboard with boards nailed up over the windows. Ten more motorcycles were parked right outside of it. Two men were counseling a female friend through some kind of drug high, cupping her shoulders and crooning slurred reassurances as she rocked back and forth. Bored young people lounged on plastic chairs: a girl with heated black-rimmed eyes looked me up and down before toasting me with her beer. With nothing to return the gesture, I stared at her for a moment before stumping off to find a place to rest.

There were empty chairs undercover just outside the exit. I found a place to wait where I could sit down and huddle, arms wrapped around my chest against the cold. I never used to feel the cold, but I’d had access to good clothes back then… suits, overcoats, scarves. Camping in an overturned dumpster under a pair of coveralls and two sweaters, cut off from my savings and my dignity, had given me a yardstick by which to measure my former privilege. The sigil-seal had something to do with it as well, no question about it. When it got chilly, the skin around and over it buckled and stiffened.

Over the next fifteen minutes or so, people filtered in and out of Strange Kitty in dribs and drabs, but few were willing to stay out under the drizzle that peppered the dirt separating the club from the house behind it. Eventually, the door opened and the huge bouncer from the front entry ducked through, straightening to search the yard with narrowed eyes. Then he turned and looked down at me, a puzzled frown on his face.

I picked myself up from the chair, knees creaking. “You’re Zane, aren’t you?”

He was about as surprised as I was. “Yeah, that’s me. You’re Rex?”

“The ugliest dog you’ve ever met on two legs,” I said.

For a moment, a real smile lit his face. It passed quickly, even bashfully, before the stony resting biker face returned.

“Zane Salter.” Awkwardly, he offered a hand. With equal awkwardness, I accepted. His grip wasn’t as firm as mine, until he felt the power in my arm and cranked it accordingly. A good Russian shake. “I thought you were here to see Talya?”

“I am,” I replied. “But she told me to speak to you. I presume you’re the security screen.”

“Yeah. Tally’s not really the streetwise type.” He smiled a Mona Lisa smile, reserved and aloof and far more perceptive than muscle had any right to be. There was a threat there, but as threats went, it was fairly benign. “And speaking of that, give me your real name. You’re too Continental to be going by the name ‘Rex’.”

“How would you know?” I let go of his hand, but didn’t back away. “I might be an Ancient Roman king.”

He gave me another thin-lipped smile. “You got an accent. Call it a hunch.”

“Fine,” I said. “Alexi.”

“Alexi what?”

I paused for a moment. “Sokolsky.”

“Sokolsky?” Zane echoed. He thought for a moment. Abruptly, his eyes widened. “You’re shitting me. Alexi Sokolsky, as in, the Brighton Beach Mob spook?”

I tensed. The trap had been set by Talya, the honey-pot, and now I was stuck. There was a good chance I could beat Zane to the fence line. From there, it was iffy. “My reputation precedes me in only a few very select circles.”

“Yeah. It does.” He regarded me with an air of deep suspicion. “Circles I don’t want Talya having anything to do with.”

“Spare me from self-righteousness. If you know me by name, then you’ve had dealings with the Red Hook Bratva.” I crossed my arms, frowning up at him. “My name and profession isn’t common knowledge outside of the Organizatsiya.”

“The Club doesn’t run in that scene.” Zane shook his head. “But I know people who get talking sometimes.”


“You expect me to tell you that?” He narrowed his eyes.

“I was invited here to help with a problem, and I can walk straight back out,” I said. “Talya seems to think I can do something for you. If I decide to take the job, I have a right to know what your connection to my ex-Organization is.”

Zane could have exploded. Instead, he mulled my words for several moments, then shrugged. “I fight in the underground scene. Cage fights, pit fights. There’re four or five Russian guys who show up regularly. You know Petro Kravets?”

“Unfortunately,” I said, stiffly. He was the current Kommandant of Brighton Beach, and a juiced up, spoiled, lazy asshole.

“Petro comes in with his guys to work out. They were talking about you with me and a bunch of other big bruisers.” The corner of Zane’s mouth twitched into a rueful smile. “You know, just in case anyone happened to want to do business with you. They say you killed a lot of your friends recently.”

“I’m sure they say a lot of things. That doesn’t mean they’re true.” A flash of anger spiked through me, burying itself like a thorn. I glanced back, looking for eavesdroppers. The girl with the shakes was throwing up now, and one of her male friends was gone. The other was too busy holding her hair out of the way to care about us. “Petro is the last man who should be blaming others for betraying him.”

“Did you screw them over?”

“The Organizatsiya screwed me so badly that my family is dead.” I rolled my shoulders, trying to loosen them. Between the cold and the stress, my back felt like it was made of planks. “I was trying to get out of the life. Before I could, Mr. Yaroshenko decided I’d reached my expiration date and reneged on our contracts.”

Zane licked his teeth while he digested that, patient as a golem. To my mild surprise, he seemed to understand the word ‘renege’, which was unusual enough to be interesting. Nuanced vocabulary wasn’t usually a high priority for guys who earned their living by fighting in a cage.

Finally, Zane rubbed his face with the back of his hand and sighed. “Damn… I seriously can’t believe Talya went to the fucking Russian mob for help. Isn’t that like a bad stereotype?”

“The Bratva have their good and bad,” I replied, with a shrug. “More bad than good. But like all things, there are reasons men like me exist.”

“Because an ethnic neighborhood just isn’t a real neighborhood until it has a protection racket, right?” Zane quirked a brow.

“Because people do bad things regardless of whether the Bratva exists or not,” I replied. “And the lines between business and crime are often blurred.”

Slowly, Zane nodded. “Fair enough. You still got Talya’s card with you?”

Without a word, I passed it to him, still warm from my pocket. He took it and read over the back, as Big Ron the Barkeep had done. “Why do you want to help her?”

The question caught me off guard. “Why? Why not? She had a difficult question, and I can provide her with what she needs. I need work… so I can’t claim sentimentality or chivalry, if that’s what you’re fishing for.”

“Pragmatism’s fine. It’s an honest reason.” Zane sighed, cracking his hands, his elbows, and his shoulders in short succession. “Come on… I’ll walk you into the clubhouse, but I better not regret this.”

The clapboard house loomed large across the yard, but I dug my heels into the gravel and crossed my arms. “Wait. Before I go anywhere, I want to know what I’m being brought into. Give me something solid, starting with some info on the club.”

Zane glanced at me with those slow, pale eyes. “I’m Road Sergeant of the Twin Tigers M.C, also known as the Big Cat Crew.”

“Show me your colors.” I motioned to his featureless black jacket.

Without a word, Zane zipped it open and shrugged it off. He had a pistol in a police-style shoulder holster, and a vest and t-shirt on under that. He turned to show me the back of his vest. It was taken up by a dust-worn patch, a pair of Chinese-style tigers mirroring each other within the confines of an elaborate egg-shaped frame. The lettering was plain by contrast: ‘TWIN TIGERS M.C’. Underneath that was a much smaller patch, the same snarling tiger badge on the front of Ron’s vest. The badges I expected to be there were there. He was a One-Percenter, a veteran, a mechanic, and a Sergeant in the club.

While I studied his colors, Zane looked back over his shoulder. “You’re meeting the Captain and the Prez tonight in that house over there, along with some others who are…” he paused, searching for the right words. “A more law-abiding set of folks. We’re having a cross-factional meeting tonight over some bad business. Talya’s our link between the people who are representing tonight. She’s got one foot in the Tigers, one foot in the Fires. We’re hoping to bring her on into the club soon.”

“A woman?”

Zane shrugged. “This is 1991. We’re an equal opportunity club.”

That did not put me at ease. Zane had the kind of straight-backed energy and bearing I associated with policemen, not bikers. I’d pick him as an undercover cop from his vocabulary alone. From what I was reading off his vest, he was an ex-soldier who’d seen action in the Gulf War, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d been set up. “What about cops?”

“A couple of the Four Fires guys are cops, but they’re off-duty tonight. You know what I mean?”

Cops were never really ‘off-duty’. I was beginning to get a tension headache. “I see. How do I know you aren’t on the Yaroshenko payroll?”

“You kidding me? The Prez would kill me.” He turned back to face me, his expression inscrutable. “I mean, we aren’t out there doing charity rides for kids, but we aren’t exactly gunning down people in the street, neither. Talya bringing someone like you into the Club is worse for us than it is for you.”

“Why would you say that?” My mouth ticced. I was fairly certain that Zane could crush my head between his hands.

“Because the Russians are good at vanishing people, and we just lost a lot of ours.” For the first time, something other than calm, self-contained wariness showed on Zane’s face. He looked… upset. “So as far as they need to know, you’re Rex the Spook. Just Rex.”

I nodded, plucking at the cuffs of my gloves. “Fine with me.”

The man comforting the tweaker girl got up to his feet when Zane strolled up, giving him a nod that was returned as the huge man ducked for the door that led into the garage. This first room was a bar with a pool table and a jukebox, and here was where we found the bikers. A mixed crowd of men and women in dirty denim and leather lounged, laughed, bickered, threw darts, drank and played pool. The interior was mismatched and second-hand, everything handmade or scrounged. The air was thick with smoke, not all of it tobacco, but it was solid and comfortable. Cases behind the bar displayed militaria, photos, and motorbike parts. The Tiger theme was omnipresent. Banners, posters, patches, and murals featured the club crest. Pictures of tigers and other big cats hung from the walls. The bar was in a corner of the room. Beside it was a red door with a big hammer hole right through it and a modified road sign that read: Warning – Private Property. Keep out unless you have Really Big Boobs.”

Zane made for it, pushed it open, and beckoned me to follow. It seemed that the big boobs rule was flexible.

Shoulders hunched, I followed him as he headed down a carpeted hallway. I’d come armed: my knife was in a pocket, the hilt solid in my hand when I jammed them down to reassure myself that it was at hand. “These cops… what are they assigned to?”

“Assigned to?”

“Unit or division,” I replied. “Homicide, beat cops, FBI…?”

Zane paused for a moment. “Aaron’s a Police Chaplain stationed in Hempstead. Ayashe is FBI. She supports an Arcane Support Unit in Harlem.”

I jerked to a stop. “Wait. A Vigiles agent?”

Zane waved it off. “Don’t worry about it. Like I said, she’s off-duty. She knows that we’re expecting a spook. It’s why we’re all here.”

Easy for him to say. I’d spent my adult life inventing ways to stay out of sight and out of mind of the Vigiles Magicarum, the recently-formed branch of the FBI dedicated to hunting down and putting away ‘uncontained supernatural threats’. The agency wasn’t even ten years old, but they’d been hammering away at the magical population of the city ever since they set up practice. They were the worst combination of governmental gray-faces and religious fanatics, because the biggest organizations with the biggest stake in putting away people like me were the Fed and the Churches – all of them.

In July of this year, me and half the senior management from the Yaroshenko Organization and the LaGuetta Cosa Nostra were involved in the magical fire-bombing of a casino in Atlantic City. The Manellis had sent in one of the strongest and most genuinely obnoxious mages I’d ever met to take us out in revenge for a murder we didn’t commit. The Vigiles had been part of that investigation. We’d gotten away clean despite the body-count, but if the Vigiles had any way of identifying me after the fact… well.

There was only one peppermint left in the tin. I got it out and split it under my teeth, working the muscles of my jaws as Zane knocked on a closed door, opened it, and motioned me into the lion’s den. I cocked my jaw, rolled my neck, and went inside without a word, every inch the street-hardened wizard.

GOD-dammit. I really wish I’d had time to buy that gun.

Chapter 9

The room beyond looked like a well-managed squat, clean but improvised. I entered into a cloud of mingled cigarette and pipe smoke and a murmur of conversation, which died abruptly as Zane stepped in behind me and closed the door. Talya was there, dressed down in a t-shirt and blue jeans, along with an odd assortment of people who gathered around on sofas and armchairs, dining chairs and bean-bags. By clothing and disposition, I was able to roughly divide the room into four. The Twin Tigers crew were obvious enough in their black leather and denim uniforms. Facing them were a rag-tag collection of suburbanites and cubicle farmers, people who looked as uncomfortable here as I felt. A pair of intense men in different gang colors to the Tigers occupied a small sofa together.

On the Tigers’ side, I caught the eye of an older Asian woman in a spiked and armored leather jacket that looked like it had come off a Mad Max film set. She leaned nonchalantly against the wall beside a sinewy, tense-looking crewcut bruiser, a man who looked equal part Bruce Willis and Stallone. His hair was graying at the temples, but he had a muscular soldier’s build, that peculiar lock-jawed toughness that only came from protracted military service. Flanking them was a sly, button-faced Latino man with very strong cheekbones and a very weak chin. The President, his old lady, and the Captain, I assumed.

The two plainclothes cops sat apart from the rest. The Chaplain was a fit, handsome, hard-planed man with a thin moustache, smiling as he rubbed his thumb over his ring finger. Beside him, a powerfully built black woman lounged in a crisp skirtsuit and open-collared white shirt, her hair a short fall of neat rope braids bound back in a high ponytail. She was effortlessly charismatic, with the air of royalty. The Vigiles Agent, I was willing to bet.

The nervous norms were positioned around the largest armchair, where a small, tawny-skinned man in a cream and white suit was smoking a pipe, one ankle crossed over the other knee. He could have been fifty-six or six hundred: ageless, narrow-jawed, hook-nosed, with small eyes and big lips. He was not attractive, but he commanded his space with the confidence of a leader. As we entered, he looked up at us, but said nothing.

Talya stood up from her beanbag as silence thickened the small room. She had changed out of her work clothes, but neither she or the man in the big armchair fitted the biker clubhouse vibe. “Rex! You came!”

“I wouldn’t refuse your call, skvorets.” When she came up to us, I patted her arm and kissed her politely on the cheek. Other Slavs thought my greetings cold and impersonal, so brief as to be rude, but our apparent intimacy made a few of the others in the room sit up uncomfortably. Talya was more demonstrative towards Zane. She hugged him, and he hugged her back hard enough to pick her up off the floor.

“Hey kitten,” he said. There was real affection in his voice.

I looked back to the biker crew. The Asian woman in the heavy jacket had stood up from the wall. She was tiny but whip-strung, her dark eyes burning with frenetic energy. Her dry chopped hair and bony hands reminded me of Vera, and a nasty knot formed in the pit of my belly.

“So, now we are all accounted for.” The man in the armchair spoke up. “Talya, Zane. Can you introduce us?”

In the pause that followed, one of the young gang-bangers rose to his feet. He was a strikingly handsome man, his skin so dark that it caught white and blue highlights. His hair was braided in tight cornrows, and his voice was surprisingly soft and melodic. “I am Michael and this is Karim. We are Elders of the Pathrunners. I am here to arbitrate this meeting.”

Talya bobbed her head anxiously as Michael sat down. “So, yes… Rex is the man who did me the reading. Rex, this is John Spotted Elk, head of the Four Fires Community,” Talya motioned to the man in the armchair, who lifted a hand in greeting. “And this is Jenner, the Twin Tigers—”

“Twin Tigers Motorcycle Club President,” the woman in the spiked jacket interrupted her, pushing off from the wall. Her voice was hard, loud, with a strong Californian accent. She strode over to me, extending a hand. “Jenny Tran, but call me Jenner. Nice to meet you, Rex. This here is my Road Captain, Mason, and my other Sarge, Duke. You already met Zane.”

“I have.” I shook, and found she had a pleasantly strong, confident grip. Something here was odd. A female leader in the biker community wasn’t just rare: it was impossible. With the exception of lesbian separatists, motorcycle clubs were notoriously sexist.

I swept back over the room, settling on the pair of cops. They didn’t look nearly as happy to see me. “Thank you. I admit I wasn’t expecting a convocation.”

An uncomfortable pause followed. Then Talya spoke up, her voice high and over-bright. “So, that’s all I had to contribute to this tonight. Rex is a sorcerer, maybe. Any questions?”

“Many,” I replied.

“No doubt. Let me start with one, Rex.” The man she had introduced as head of the Four Fires, whatever that was, waved his hand like a magician. John Spotted Elk was a little effete, I thought, as unlikely a leader as Jenny Tran. His body was soft, his voice was reedy, a little too high-pitched for synesthetic comfort, and heavily accented. He was nut-brown and had the kind of stereotypically hawkish face I associated with Plains Indians. His accent wasn’t like any accent I’d ever heard before, almost affected. “You may be a street mage… but are you a Phitometrist?”

A small thrill passed down the back of my neck, and I turned to face him. “Yes.”

“Do you know what that means?” He arched an eyebrow.

“A mage who has undergone Shevirah,” I replied. “Though your terminology may vary, Mister Spotted-Elk.”

He laughed. “Either call me John or call me Spotted Elk. I get enough Mister-this and Mister-that at the museum. Your answer’s good, though. What does he know about our dilemma already, Talya?”

“Hardly anything,” Talya replied. She was fidgeting, still standing close to Zane. “I didn’t think you’d, ah, want me to say anything much.”

“Yes, so it would be very nice if you could enlighten me.” My accent bled through again. With nothing but natural light to guide my cycles and far less coffee than what I’d drunk at home, I was used to sleeping with the sunset and rising with the dawn. It was way past bed time.

“Wait.” The black woman leaned forwards, hands planted palm-down on her open knees. “John, we agreed to screen an operative together. Who the fuck is this guy?”

“’This guy’ has a name.” I crossed my arms and looked back at her. “And is listening to you talk about him like he’s not here.”

Spotted Elk sighed. “Ayashe—”

“We agreed to hire a freelancer, not someone one of our youngest decided to pull off the street. I want references.” Ayashe thrust her jaw out as she spoke. This lady had a mean, dark eye.

“Sure thing. The last guy we chose by committee did just great,” Mason said. His voice was deep and raspy. “The one that fucking disappeared.”

Ayashe’s flare faded into sullen embers. She sat back, scowling. Mason and Jenner both smirked, squinting their eyes like smug cats. Wonderful. They couldn’t even agree amongst themselves.

“Everyone, please,” Michael said.

I crossed my arms, and jerked my head towards the door. “Look. I didn’t come here to be kicked around like a football. Either you people give me the short of it, or I’m walking out of here.”

Spotted Elk held up a hand before anyone else could say anything. The room simmered down to a reluctant silence. “Rex, did you read about the Wolf Grove Group Home in the papers? Two murders and a mass kidnapping, nearly two weeks ago to the day. The eighth, to be precise.”

I had read about it, in passing, on my daily scrounged copy of the Times. Even by New York standards, it had been a big deal: a wealthy couple murdered in their beds up in the nice part of north New York, and all the children at the home were unaccounted for. It hadn’t meant much to me at the time. “I remember.”

“Mmph.” Spotted Elk drew on his pipe. “Wolf Grove was run by Dru and Lily Ross. They were esteemed and valued members of our communities, and united us across our various cultural, ethical and moral divisions. I suppose you wonder exactly what it is we do?”

“I know what bikers do,” I replied. “And I know what goes on in museums and police stations, but I’m more wondering what you all are.

The small sounds of the room quieted, like spooked birds falling still in a forest clearing. Jenner glanced at Mason, then at Zane. He shrugged.

Spotted Elk raised a brow. “Was that a guess or an inference?”

“A deduction. Phitometry isn’t a word I often hear thrown around. I didn’t know anything about it until I met something very personal and very ancient.” Tiny details of Spotted Elk’s body language fit together into a strange whole. His nostrils were flaring like a deer’s. His neck was long and slender, and there was something in his mannerisms that made my teeth ache and my mouth water. Strange feelings to have, in the presence of a man one has only just met… but then again, I hadn’t killed anyone for a while.

“Fair enough.” Spotted Elk spread his hands. “I’ll come clean, ay? We’re shapeshifters. Every man and woman in this room, save for Aaron.”

His flippant reveal hung over the room for a moment. Talya cleared her throat in the silence.

“I see,” I replied, after a few seconds of digestion. “As in, werewolves?”

A few people grimaced in distaste, except for Jenner and Duke. They grinned.

“The wolves are not here tonight. This murdered couple, they were from our circle. They were Pathrunners.” Karim spoke up this time, a proud cant to his head and an arrogant look in his heavy-lidded eyes. He had a strong French accent, clay-brown skin, and designs shaved into his hair and through the thick stubble on his cheeks.

“You make it sound more significant than I understand it to be.” I turned to look at them both – really look at them. Maybe it was my own ideas about what a shapeshifter should be, but I was searching for the animal in each of them now.

“Pathrunners are the keepers of law in our communities,” Michael said. “Our members are the rats, raccoons, birds, and other small animals… those who live quickly and die often. Our Ka run ahead to guide all other creatures, learning much from each brief lifetime.”

“I don’t know anything about your Art or your traditions,” I said. “So start from the beginning.”

“We will not give you much,” Michael replied. “Our laws are our own.”

“We’re not Phitometrists, if that’s what you mean,” Spotted Elk said. “Weeders – shapeshifters – have a human face and an animal face. Ib and Ka-Bah, to borrow the Pathrunners’ preferred Egyptian terms. Human heart and body, animal soul. Two sides of a coin.”

“The human changes,” Karim said. “The animal remains the same from life to life. It is not the human who turns into the Ka. The Ka takes human form.”

There was a brooding heaviness over the room as these men spoke. I had the distinct impression that if I rejected this knowledge, the lot of them weren’t going to let me out of the room alive. I doubted anyone would find the body.

“Our children are born at random,” Spotted Elk said. “Across cultures and states, often to families who don’t understand them. There are different… approaches to the way we live our lives. The Pathrunners are our law-givers, and they arbitrate between our communities and gangs and packs. They find and gather children, raise them in the understanding of our ways, and then the children decide where their hearts lie. Some of them join outlaws like Jenner and Mason. Some of them join wolf packs, or lion prides, or flocks. Others throw in their lot with the likes of me when they come of age.”

“Some of them change their minds.” A young man with a chicken neck and a beaky, pointed face muttered, glancing at Talya. She was still pressed against Zane’s arm. If anyone else heard, there was no sign of it.

“So the murdered couple and the missing kids were all shapeshifters?” The surrounding threat was palpable, but dangerous knowledge and interesting knowledge were often the same thing. “I thought the government was rounding up all the supernatural elements nowadays.”

“’Rounding up’ isn’t the point,” Ayashe said. “The Vigiles is trying to bring supernatural elements under law. Wolf Grove worked with the NYPD and the Northern Supernatural Support Unit. Pastor Aaron here is the SSU chaplain and caseworker for magically gifted kids. I’m supporting the Unit as a specialist in shapeshifters, part of the deal I negotiated with them when the Vigiles was formed. The Jammies and Blanks were… are all registered for adoption and training. The Weeder kids are in the system, but they have to be of age to choose their affiliation. A few of them stay here, but Lily and Dru send them to a school in Texas and a lot of them end up living there by choice. We have to let them decide. That’s the tradition and the law.”

“Jammies?” I arched an eyebrow.

“Children with magical potential.” The Chaplain added. “As in, they’re still sleeping… and so they’re in their pajamas.”

“So what you’re saying is that these missing children were part of a tag and release program.” The nape of my neck crawled. I had been born before the Vigiles, in a time when the only special interest groups for magi had been the various organized religions, a range of secret societies, and the street. As of 1985, they’d begun screening kids reported to churches and doctors for the common signs of magical talent. Poltergeist activity, apparent possession, talking to ghosts, minor psychokinetics, injured pets spontaneously healing or reviving. Back in the day, they called those miracles or hauntings. Now, the government was hunting for it. Where the children went… who knew?

Ayashe sighed. “If you want to get cynical about it. The two adults are dead and twenty-one kids are missing. Of those, fifteen of them were Weeder kids. The other six… two Blanks, four Jammies.”

“Right.” I rubbed my jaw, scruffing the palm of my glove over the stubble. “It is safe to assume the police are handling the murder.”

“They’re trying, but this is way over the head of the local SSU.” Ayashe said. She sounded tired now, a little guttural. Somehow, I doubted she got much sleep. “Even with the V.M. on site, it’s not going anywhere. We know that someone somehow managed to pull off a mass kidnapping and a double murder and get away clean. There’s no physical evidence we can use beyond some basic shit. Besides some drawings and weird symbols, there wasn’t any arcane evidence left behind. The NYPD went stomping around in the house and shifted anything that might have been useful to our medium. She didn’t find no resonance, no tracers, no nothing.”

“Why do you think a Spook can do anything that the police can’t?”

“There were occult elements to the murders,” Spotted Elk replied. “The murderer… took some things. There were some demonic symbols left in the house, acts of blasphemy and desecration. Lily and Dru were both religious people. Devout, modest people. That’s what brought them together in the first place, and that’s why we and all the other stakeholders of New York agreed to let them care for our young.”

I had visions of a church home where these elders and gang-leaders went to fish for recruits. Maybe it was good, maybe it wasn’t, but the whole thing made my skin crawl. “You said the murderer took some things. What did they steal?”

An uncomfortable silence hung over the room until Ayashe finally spoke. “Body parts.”

I rubbed my face again, frustrated. Even with open questions, it was like wringing blood from a stone. “Right. And what kinds of animal did they transform into?”

Jenner laughed, harsh and crow-like. Talya grimaced. Zane’s face froze into a pleasant mask. I’d stepped on a landmine.

“That is a vulgar question,” Michael said. “All matters related to the Ka are private unless the person desires to share it. Even the dead.”

“It’s important to know.” I jerked my shoulders, trying and failing to read faces. “The organs and body parts of various animals are used in specific magic rituals. If I know what animals we are talking about, then I can probably tell you more about who would have done this.”

Jenner didn’t seem to be nearly as annoyed as the rest of them. She planted her hands on her hips. “What kind of magic?”

“Magic like the rituals in the Liber Virtutis Animalium,” I said, focusing on her. “A lot of medieval spells used the body parts of particular animals for various things. The hearts of dogs were used in love spells, bulls’ hearts were used to gain strength. This kind of magic was popular in esoteric Church rituals. Catholic and Protestant.”

Aaron shifted in place, but he didn’t deny it.

I continued on. “Different organs have different applications, so if I knew what their alternate forms were…”

“Fair enough.” Even Spotted Elk sounded a little stiff. “Michael? Karim?”

“Lily was Hyena.” Michael grunted, after a reluctant pause. “Dru was Hoopoe.”

Oh – now that was interesting. I nodded. “Both hyenas and hoopoes have a powerful connection to medieval church magic. Let me assume that they had taken Lily’s right hand, and Dru’s brain, heart, and blood?”

That made a few people sit up. Michael averted his eyes, as did Aaron. Jenner snorted, a mingled sound of disgust and amusement. One of the nameless silent observers in the Four Fires quarter had gone very pale, and other people had linked their arms around her shoulders. There was a uniform niceness to the people on Spotted Elk’s side… maybe all of them had been rescues at some point in their lives.

Spotted Elk regarded me intently. “Yes. What do you know about this?”

“Hoopoes are one of the most significant birds in the European magical tradition,” I said. “They’ve been used for ritual since Ancient Egyptian times. They were regarded to be king of all birds, and they symbolize virtue. Their organs were used to bind summoned demons. The brain, tongue and blood were particularly valued by medieval sorcerers. Genitalia, especially from men, have always been used for ritual purposes.”

My only answer from the assembled were looks of distaste and disbelief. I cleared my throat.

“One old and prominent spell uses the right paw of a hyena as a talisman,” I continued. “Specifically the right paw. It was believed that anyone carrying a hyena paw charm would be successful in politics, able to sway and convince kings and lords to do their bidding. So if those are what they took from your dead, I can assume that this is someone who is well versed in medieval ritual church magic and the creation of talismans. They must also have known what Lily and Dru could transform into.”

Michael and Karim looked at one another, and then at me. Talya covered her mouth. Spotted Elk sat back, glancing at Ayashe.

“Sometimes it takes an outsider to spot something that’s completely freakin’ obvious,” she said.

“Neither of our Elders were involved in politics,” Michael said. “It is forbidden.”

“They wouldn’t have had to be involved themselves,” I replied. “It’s not their politics that matters: it is the magician’s. The magician turns the body part into a talisman. Are there drawings of the symbols found at the house?”

“We have photos,” Ayashe said. “But what the Vigiles don’t have is resources. The way the government has us set up, we don’t have access to anything that’s actually useful half the time. That’s why we need a Spook, a good Spook. Someone more mobile who can work faster without having to clear a slip for every damn book they borrow from the Masonic vault.”

Someone not placed under the artificial restraints of the law. And someone expendable. I felt a tic form beside my eye. “You said you hired another Spook to look into this before. What did they find out?”

“’Hired’ isn’t the right word. This guy was searching for a missing person, and he was sure that the murders were tied into it,” Ayashe replied. “He tracked down Spotted Elk and me and made the initial contact. Told us that he didn’t want anything up front, just our help.”

“Yes, but what did he find?”

“The last we heard of him was about a week ago.” Ayashe paused for a moment, her frown deepening. “He said he was looking into some human trafficking ring while he investigated the occult leads. He was going to get the info for me, and then I was going to file the report with my boss and see if we couldn’t mobilize an operation. The last thing he went to go do was to visit Lily and Dru’s changing ground. They had—”

“No,” Michael said. “We can compromise on discussing the dead, but I refuse to allow discussion of the changing ground with a stranger.”

“You can’t hide evidence in the course of an investigation,” Ayashe retorted. “I don’t know where it is, anyway. You were the one that told Angkor where it was.”

“Yes,” Michael replied. “I regret my decision.”

My stomach chilled. Human trafficking ring? I only knew of three organizations in New York who dealt in human trafficking. The Triad, the Cartels, and the Yaroshenko Organizatsiya. “Why hasn’t anyone gone there?”

“It is a changing ground,” Michael replied, as if it should be evident. Even though his voice was soft, when he spoke, the room went quiet. “They are absolutely confidential. Only I know where it is, and I made a mistake in telling Angkor where to find it.”

Spotted Elk, Ayashe, and Jenner exchanged glances, and Ayashe spoke for them. “We are concerned that the kids might be killed or trafficked for magical purposes. Angkor didn’t elaborate on what he knew; told us it was speculation until he gathered proper evidence. We… decided to wait until we had something other than hypotheticals.”

They weren’t telling me something about this mess. My instincts were certain of that fact. There was a skeleton in this particular closet. “I’m can probably help you, but I need the case file and photos, and I’m not working for free.”

Ayashe scowled and opened her mouth, only to be waved down by Spotted Elk. His thin face was graven, and it was clear he was tired. Tired of death, tired of talking. “I accept this and vote that you come and assist us. We don’t have a lot of money, but between us, we will do what we can. If you can shed some light on the death of our friends and the abduction of our children, we will pay you proportionately.”

“Me and Mason can front up,” Jenner said. “Rex knows his shit. I vote to take him on.”

“His knowledge is already proving valuable,” Michael said. “I vote the same.”

Ayashe frowned. “I still want some references.”

Jenner chuffed, and waved her down. “What’s the kill fee?”

“For a job as complex as this one, I’ll accept a trade of services from your people in advance of any money.” I faced the Tigers’ President front on. “It’s grunt work. I need to get into my old apartment, retrieve my magical tools, and rescue my cat.”

Both of Jenner’s eyebrows shot up towards her hairline. Zane, standing to the side of me, also turned his face. Ayashe looked up, and her foot stopped twitching.

Now, I had to lie – or at least omit the truth. “I lost everything to some violent squatters who seized my things, including my familiar. It bears some explanation, but I won’t be much help until I have her back.”

“Wait. Seized?” Ayashe leaned forwards. “Who seized the apartment?”

“That is none of your concern.” I rolled my shoulders, jerking them back. “It just needs doing.”

“Who? The bank? The Mafia?”

She was musor. Police garbage. She was the only person in the room I didn’t mind lying to. “I just told you it was none of your business.”

“Fuckin’ hell, Ayashe. Just quit it for one fucking day, will you?” Jenner snapped. “He didn’t ask you shit. I’m down with that trade, Rex. We can handle it.”

“Wait, no. We don’t need no one that comes with baggage.” Ayashe stood, as did several of the Four Fires crowd. “Me and Aaron are putting our jobs on the line just being here. What am I supposed to do? Pretend I don’t hear Jenner talking about breaking into someone’s house? Why didn’t you call the police?”

“It’s my apartment,” I said. “We’re not ‘breaking in’ anywhere. There are people squatting in my home and I need to get my things back.”

“And you want muscle to go kick them out. Illegally.”

“Illegal? Me? We wouldn’t do anything illegal.” Jenner leered, and wiggled her little finger next to her face. “Pinky promise.”

“Are you listening to this? John, come on.” Ayashe threw her hands up.

“You are outvoted,” Michael replied. “It is within our limits. I accept this trade: It is no more difficult or illegal than what we ask this magus to do for us.”

“Ayashe, if human law means more to you than our youth, you are welcome to leave,” John added. “This man has demonstrated knowledge and is willing to make the commitment. His request was given to Jenner, not me, and it is her decision.”

“We don’t know anything about this guy! Where he’s from, what he does…”

“He’s trying to help us!” Talya drew herself up to an imposing five and a half feet, hands fisted by her sides.

“You shut your damn mouth in the presence of your Elders.” Ayashe whirled on her, eyes flashing, and Talya shrank back. “You’re here to listen.”

“Hey. Cool it.” Zane lay a hand on Talya’s bristling shoulder.

“There’s only so far you can push the law, Jenny.” Aaron spoke for the first time since the meeting had started. “And John, same thing goes for you. In my unofficial capacity, I’ll pretend I didn’t hear this. Any trouble that ensues will be on your conscience and your head.”

“The Covenant of Ib-Int is still in effect, like it has been through twenty of my lives,” Jenner snarled. “If the Vigiles is so fucking great, wash your hands of this meeting and I’ll do the work, as usual. The only reason I’m not out there breaking thumbs to find these kids is because of your fucking law.”

Michael held his hands up. “Jenner, Ayashe—”

“The Ib-Int is worthless in the modern era if we can’t live side by side with human law,” Ayashe said, her voice low and cold. “I fought every damn day to protect those kids from the government and the streets. And that’s all I’m here to say. Go do what you want, but if you wind up in a cell, I ain’t helping you.”

“Please, Ayashe. We’re not deliberately discounting you.” Spotted Elk held up a hand again. “We are doing what has to be done. You said it yourself. The Vigiles is not well-resourced enough or flexible enough to help us.”

“No, it’s not.” Fuming, she sat back.

“Bring the photos and the casefile to Rex in the morning.”

“I’m not bringing a classified file—”

“That is an order, Ayashe.” The smaller man’s voice deepened momentarily, and Ayashe snapped her teeth together. “You may disagree with our decision, but you are bound by ties of blood and soul and our ancestral law. You agreed to bring in a freelancer to help where the police cannot. You are outvoted.”

“Fine.” On her feet, Ayashe was nearly six feet tall. She looked fit, too… triathlon-fit. “Now excuse me while I go figure out how not to get caught up the shit that’s about to get flung through the fan.”

No one else had anything to say. As Ayashe stormed from the room, they looked to Aaron. He rose from his seat.

“I’m not one of your membership, but I understand you need to take action,” he said, in a voice that was both remarkably light and remarkably calm. “Just remember that Lily and Dru are gone. It’s the children that matter now. Be careful.”

He left at a more sedate pace than his partner, audibly sighing as he closed the door behind him.

Spotted Elk stood from his chair. He was only an inch taller than me, which put him on the shorter end of the man-scale, but he had striking posture. Straight-backed, long-necked, head lifted and proud, I was strongly reminded of Zarya. It made my mouth water and my stomach pang.

“I want to meet with you alone, Rex,” he said. “When you’re ready, tell Talya that it is time… I will work it in to my schedule in the coming days.”

“As you say.” I inclined my head. As much as Ayashe talked over him, argued and raged, this man had still given the final order and she had still listened. There was something about these group dynamics I didn’t understand… something that was beyond my experience.

“Please let me know what your plans are as you make them. I have to get some sleep, or this week will be unbearable. Well met.” Spotted Elk bowed his head, motioned to Talya and the other Fires people, and left the room.

Talya smiled at me as she moved to follow, and mimed a phone beside her ear with little finger and thumb with a bird-like cock of her head, leaving me alone with four shapeshifting bikers in an otherwise empty room.

“Well, wasn’t that a blast?” Jenner clapped her hands together. “Now that Agent Asshat and Officer Jeebus have left the building, I think it’s time for a drink. You smoke, white boy?”

“Me? No.” The sudden quiet was more than just psychological relief. I felt more at ease around these people: Bikers were just another kind of muzhiki, tough guys, though I had never met a mixed gang with a female leader before. “No smoking, no drinking, no drugs.”

“No joy,” Duke said.

Mason laughed briefly, a warm, deep sound. “Is that why your name’s Rex? Are you a good boy?”

“Perish the thought,” I said.

Jenner flicked a Camel out of her pack, and offered it to Mason. He took it and pulled a banged-up Zippo from his vest pocket. Zane passed on the cigarette when his President did the same for him, a motion as ritualistic as Jenner taking it for herself.

“So,” Jenner said, leaning over so that Mason could light for her. “Give us the real deal. Who are you?”

“I didn’t realize I was so transparent,” I replied.

“I’ve been around the block a few times, Rex.” Jenner leaned back, eyes hooded. “More than a few times. Give it to us straight.”

“As a preface, I ask you give me the benefit of the doubt.” I began to move surreptitiously towards the window. “When I told Zane, and he nearly jumped his skin.”

“Haha, funny,” Zane said.

“Sorry. That wasn’t intentional.” I opened the window. The runners were stiff, and the frame squealed as I let in the fresh air. “My name is Alexi. Alexi Sokolsky, formerly of the Yaroshenko Organizatsiya.”

Jenner drew deeply on her smoke, exhaling out her nose. “The who-in-the-what now?”

“The Russians,” Zane replied. “That Red Hook and Brighton Beach Mob.”

“Ohh.” Jenner’s eyes lit up. “Ohhhh. Well, yeah. Consider my doubt given.”

“What’s your story?” Mason crossed his arms, chewing something on the inside of his lip.

Selling the benefit was hard when you didn’t have any benefits to offer. I hadn’t told them about losing my magic… but then, if I got hold of my tools and a first aid kit, I wouldn’t need to. “I was… this July, there was a murder in our territory, a murder which could have led to a war between us and the Manelli and Laguetta familia. I had to look into the death and also find another missing person. I found out what was going on, but I decided to put the health and safety of the people endangered by these events over my boss’ plans for conquest. He decided I needed a forcible retirement about three, four weeks ago.”

“Right. So was it four or three weeks ago?” Mason asked.

I shot him a dark look. “I’ve been hiding out on the street since I escaped my boss’s torture dungeon. Timekeeping hasn’t been my number one priority.”

“Huh.” Mason looked unconvinced, but he was tuned in to Jenner, and she was unperturbed. Zane was watching me watch them.

“I cruised my apartment last week. It was occupied,” I continued. “They might have someone camped there, waiting for me. But I don’t imagine there are many people by this point. My familiar may be dead, but if nothing else, I can reclaim the tools that will help me do this job for your people.”

Jenner’s nose wrinkled. “You can’t tell if your familiar’s alive or not? No spooky action at a distance?”

I shook my head. “No. And I’m sorry, but if she’s dead… I’m going to kill every man in that apartment, and none of you will be able to stop me.”

“You’d kill people over a cat?” Zane seemed genuinely surprised.

I stared back at him. “That cat is worth five of those ava’ram assholes.”

“Hell yeah,” Jenner said. “Suits me. I can’t stand to leave a fellow pussy in danger.”

Mason actually smiled. “I get it, Rex. Believe me. You had her a long time?”

I wasn’t sure if they were trying to make me justify my price for helping them, but it sure felt like it. “Not that long. I picked her up during one of my last high-profile jobs. A traitor to the organization… he sold out my best friend and had about five other guys killed. The Italian Mafia, the FBI… he didn’t care. Binah was his cat. I felt responsible for her.”

“Yeah.” Jenner sighed, “I know that feeling. Well, we got flak vests, machetes, and shotguns, so let’s get moving. Duke! Go get the shotguns!”

“Ay-ay, captain.” Duke drew his feet together and saluted, then turned to march out the door.

“Wait. No.” I held up a hand. “Shotguns are out. Guns are out. This is an apartment. And I’m not able to do this tonight. I need to sleep in a bed for a change, I need to get my things… and I want to review the case file. Once I’ve seen the photos and read the Vigiles file, I’ll know if this is something I can handle.”

“What? You been sleeping rough?” Jenner frowned.

Unable to reply, I nodded. Once.

“Guy like you, I figure you’d just whack someone with money.”

“I prefer the street to prison,” I replied. “The food is better.”

“Fair enough. Well, you can crash here.” Jenner shrugged her thin shoulders. “It’s no skin off my ass. Zane’ll put you to bed. Get you some hot chocolate and your woobie, tuck you in.”

“Maybe a little cuddle.” Duke wrapped his arms around his own chest and did a little pirouette.

“My foot could give your face a little cuddle,” Zane growled.

The four of them laughed and I smiled, but there was a bittersweet sting to the scene and the moment of pleasure passed. Shit-talk had been one of the things that characterized the old life, and all gangs had in-jokes and things that got everyone laughing. It had taken me a long time to get used to it, to know when I was really being disrespected and when it was an invitation. It was part of the Thieves’ World, and I was no longer included.

Jenner grinned toothily. “Seriously though, Zane can show you around. He’s camping out here, too. House rules are pretty simple. First rule is—”

“Don’t talk about bike club,” Duke said.

Jenner shoved him. “Don’t kill anyone on the carpet, don’t drink all the beer, don’t stink up the place with crack, and don’t give anyone an STD. Easy.”

“I assure you that there’s no chance of that,” I replied. “I’m practically a monk.”

Duke grinned. “You get down on your knees for old guys every night?”

“Hey now, don’t be judging a man’s fetish,” Jenner said.

I arched an eyebrow. “If you need to confess, I can fix you up with a Hail Mary and a high speed nine-millimeter indulgence.”

That earned a laugh. Mason smiled, and it reached his steely gray eyes. “Looks like you’ll fit right in here, Rex. Think you can do the apartment job tomorrow?”

Something hardened in me. It was a curling sensation in the mouth, a predatory pressure in the teeth. It was the feeling of impending revenge, served cold and bloody. “I’ll be ready by tomorrow night… you can count on it.”

Chapter 10

That night, I had my first shower in close to a month.

The showerhead was old, sputtering out the sides, but I stood under the streaming hot water and shook until my bones rattled. I had been washing in the rain, in the sinks of corner store bathrooms and public toilets, but it had not been enough. I scrubbed the built-up calluses from the backs of my heels until they turned pink, and gave my head a fresh shave. The water turned gray with dead skin and the detritus of the street, and I was wracked with spasms of relief so intense that they bought sounds from my throat. Short, huffing moans, tics and shivers… not only of pleasure, but of painful release.

The mirror over the sink revealed the damage done. I had always been short, burly and pale, but now my eyes were sunken, my cheeks hollow. My skin was bad: dry on the brow and chin, oily everywhere else. I looked hard and feral and disused. The comfortable polish of suburbia had been worn away, layer by layer, until only the animal remained.

When I was ready, I decided to finally try to get a proper look at my stomach. This was the first time I’d really dared to look at or think about the seal that Sergei had placed on me. I hadn’t been willing to try to operate in the conditions I’d been surviving in – an open wound and no antibiotics was not my idea of a good time.

The blood used to draw the sigil was long gone, as were the stitches. What remained was a strange symbol that looked like a fanged mouth with a connected crown. It was slightly raised, a shape formed by black-violet ropy cords of something that was eerily visible under the fluorescent tube light. They were only just under the skin.

It had to come out. I was no stranger to self-surgery: everything from digging out splinters to setting bones and removing bullets. There was sterile equipment here, but for a shallow incision like this, I could make do with the straight razor, tweezers, and soap.

I washed the tools in the sink and then sat on the edge of the bathtub, pressing around the lines to feel the contour and depth. As if sensing my intent, they creeped and wriggled against my fingers.

“Shut up.” With steady hands, I brought the edge of the razor to my belly, got the tweezers ready, and pressed in to make the first cut.

The lines jerked, and my abdomen spasmed. I doubled over with the sudden flash of cold stinging pain. The urge to claw at my stomach was nearly overwhelming, but the more I pawed at it, the more it hurt. I gulped for air and forced myself to stretch it out the way you would any other muscle cramp. When I took the blade away, the pain stopped.

“You want a fight? I’ll give you a fight.” Flushed with adrenaline, I tried it again with much the same result. This time, the parasite – good GOD, it really was a parasite – thrashed until I retched with pain.

I stretched out through the cramping again, clutching the towel around my waist. In the mirror over the sink, the legs of the corona moved like tentacles as they settled back into place. It wasn’t coming out.

I scowled at my reflection. “Wait until I get Lidocaine and a scalpel, you little son of a bitch.”

Now that I was clean, my clothes looked faded and worn, and they smelled bad – like metal and old sweat. They were still all I had to wear. Grimacing, I pulled on the t-shirt, jeans and sweater, rolling the sleeves to my elbows before I pulled on the gloves. The cable-knit sweater had fit me once. Between wear and weight loss, it was baggy in the body and sleeves. I hadn’t looked this poor since I was a boy.

From deeper within the house, I heard voices and smelled cooking. There were probably more boarders here besides me and Zane. I waited in the darkened hallway outside the bathroom for a little while, uncertain if I should join them or not. After so much solitude, my social navigation was at an all-time low. It wasn’t going to get better without practice, though. With a deep sigh, I headed for the kitchen.

Zane was alone. He was prowling restlessly around the kitchen, a cordless handset jammed between neck and shoulder while he listened and ‘mm’hmm’d to whoever was on the other end of the line. He had stripped down to a black wifebeater, revealing arms that were covered in greenish-black tattoos. A mandala disappeared around his shoulder. Tiny, intricate, beautifully executed calligraphy wound around his upper arms and forearms in a solid sheet of lettering. It almost looked like magical scripture of some sort.

Belatedly, I noticed there was a pan of bacon and eggs on the rusty gas stovetop. I pointed at it enquiringly, and he gave me the thumbs up. Grateful for the reprieve, I slid some onto a plate and took them to the other side of the table.

“Yeah, alright. Next Saturday. I’ll let you know if anything comes up, alright? Okay, thanks.” Zane held on for another couple of seconds while the handset yammered, then clicked. With a sigh, he hung up.

“Must be urgent if they’re calling you this late,” I said. “It’s after four.”

“That was work,” he replied. “Got a fight booked next weekend. About time, too – I haven’t had a gig in a couple of weeks.”

“You aren’t on a roster?” I doused my eggs in Tabasco, pepper and salt. They smelled so greasy that I wasn’t sure I could hold them down, not after weeks of monotonous sandwiches.

“I’m still building a rep in New York,” he said. “A lot of these fights aren’t really formalized until the week before. If I’m lucky, I’ll land an agent. Kickboxing isn’t exactly mainstream, though.”

“Using your feet in boxing is generally frowned on.”

“Nah, kickboxing isn’t English boxing. Kickboxing is a whole other thing… its proper name is Muay Thai. Comes from Thailand, as you might have guessed.” He smiled. “Jenner got me into it.”

“She’s Thai?”

“No. Vietnamese. But her family relocated to Thailand after the war. She ran her first gang in Chiang Mai, then she came over here. Funny thing is, the first time I met her was when I was in Thailand on holiday. It’s funny how that kind of thing happens… she says that Weeders always find a way to meet each other.”

“Shapeshifters subscribe to fate?” I arched an eyebrow, and tried my first forkful of eggs.

“I think it’s the reincarnation thing.” He glanced at my plate. “Is that okay? I probably should have asked if you ate bacon.”

I held up a hand for a moment’s pause, savoring the taste and the glide of yolk on my tongue. “You have no earthly idea how much I’ve missed real food.”

Zane sat back, watching me eat with his arms loosely folded across his broad chest. He was as muscular as I’d suspected, gym-cut and sculptural. “So… how does a guy like you end up on the street?”

“Any number of ways,” I said. “The current Avtoritet of Brighton Beach is ex-Spetznaz, and far too intelligent for my continued health. Hotels were the first place he’d look, and half the hotels in New York are mafia-operated. Sleeping rough is something he’d never expect me to do. Secondly, I was kidnapped from my home before I could get any of my belongings, money included. Someone found my go-bag. I spent so much of my life paying off my father’s debts that I never really invested in property.”

“I have to agree with Mason, though. I figured a guy like you would just kill someone and take their stuff.”

“There’s security cameras and cops everywhere since the Central Park Jogger incident.” I chewed thoughtfully for a space. “Besides that, killing people you don’t know is murder. It is not something you undertake lightly.”

“What? And killing people you know isn’t murder?”

I paused for a moment. “Not the kind of people I knew.”

Zane snorted, and shook his head.

“It’s irrelevant now.” I shrugged. “More relevant are you and your people. I don’t know the first thing about shapeshifters.”

“We’re secretive as all hell, even among ourselves,” Zane replied. “Privacy is a big deal, and for good reason. Witch hunters, Inquisition types. Some crazy pred shapeshifters seek out prey shifters to hunt, specifically because they think eating them will make them stronger. The Covenant of Ib-Int is meant to protect us from each other as much as from norms.”

“Huh. That makes a certain sick sort of sense.”

“I guess. The government used to hunt us down, poison bullets and everything. Now they corral us into programs like the one Ayashe was talking about. It’s pretty classified stuff, too… that’s why she’s always so strung out. She’s trying to balance two secret worlds that are still in conflict.”

“I never knew.” Shapeshifters were common lore in the study of magic, but the lore conflicted across different books and different time periods. “Would you say shifting is a form of magic?”

“Not really,” Zane said. “But I can’t say any more. That’s part of the Ib-Int, the ancestral laws. They’ve been passed on from Elder to young for like six thousand years, at least. Only Elders are allowed to talk about this stuff, and I’m not an Elder.”

“What defines an Elder?” I folded the bacon and took a mouthful. Whatever cultural guilt I might have felt passed as soon as the flavor hit.

“Like Michael said, the human changes, but the animal stays the same. You reincarnate over and over again. Each time, the Ka gets a bit smarter. Enough times around the wheel, and it starts to remember things from lifetime to lifetime. Someone like John or Jenner can have memories reaching back eight hundred years or more.”

I tried to imagine it. Maintaining a single set of memories was difficult enough. Everything I’d learned growing up, all of the mistakes I’d made, the people I’d known, the things I did. I had an excellent memory – practically photographic – but too much thinking on the past was tiring and difficult. What would it be like to have a second set of memories overlaid over the top of all of that? A third? Five? Twenty? Entire human beings, their experiences linked only by the animal soul that ran, unchanged, through each cycle. It was a wonder they weren’t all as mad as hatters.

“That is remarkable,” I said. “What about Lily and Dru Ross?”

Zane’s wry expression crumpled into a frown. “They were first generation Elders. This was the first life where their Ka passed the initiation tests. Michael screened them for the Pathfinders, and John made them honorary Elders in his. They were very good people, you know? Really churchy, but they were never pushy about it. They just lived their lives… all the kids they raised never say a bad thing about them. A lot of them stay on at this boarding school in Texas.”

More big words. This huge tattooed biker across from me had the vocabulary of an academic, soft-spoken and precise. “Did they have any enemies?”

“Not that we know of,” Zane said. “That’s part of the problem.”

I considered him while I ate, reluctant to let the food get cold. Every bite was ambrosia: fat and protein had been in short supply. “Lily could transform into a hyena. Female hyenas are powerful animals, perfectly capable of defending themselves if need be. I assume you can’t just… change on command?”

The other man glanced to the side, discomforted. He was struggling between duty and necessity, an expression I could read on any face. I usually had difficulty with new faces, but his broad, bony features were surprisingly easy to watch. Zane’s features were very symmetrical and his voice was very deep, characteristics that helped my eyes to focus and bring the moving parts together with less difficulty.

“Don’t tell Jenner I said anything about this, not until she gives the all clear,” he said, haltingly. “Okay?”

“Men in my line of work don’t stay out of prison by being yentes.”

Zane gave me the kind of odd look that meant he didn’t know what I’d just said, but he seemed to take it as a reassurance anyway. “Alright. Yeah, they could have changed any time they wanted. But like I said, they were only just initiated, and not that long ago. They’re sentient when they’re in Ka-Har, but a new Elder still isn’t able to control themselves the way Spotted Elk or Jenner can.”

“I see.” Frowning, I motioned for him to continue. “So they would just become regular animals?”

“We prefer to say ‘Ka-Har’ – ‘Soulform’ – but yeah.” Zane grimaced. “She turned into this barely sentient, huge, super-strong predator that eats antelope alive. They were probably worried about the kids.”

“Well, yes… but even in dire circumstances?”

“Shifting burns a lot of calories. Not that any scientist has ever studied it or anything, but I know that if you shift too many times too fast, you can starve to death… so I figure that must be what it is. The first thing you want to do is kill monsters. If there are no monsters or you were too hungry to begin with, the first thing you do is eat. If it’s bad enough, even an Elder can’t control it. You eat anything.”

Even other human beings. I finished the unspoken part of the sentence. “I see. And this is universal to all shapeshifters?”

“That I know of.” Zane shrugged his broad shoulders.

I sat back, thinking it over, but the gnawing in my belly and the ache in my body was making analysis difficult. “Alright. I’ll sleep on all of this. Ayashe will be here GOD knows when, and we have a big job tomorrow. Today.”

“I’m sure we’ll ace it.” He smiled, reserved and almost a little shy, and rose. “Come on… I’ll show you to the bunks.”

I followed him through the house, closer to the ‘front’, where it faced out onto 5th Street. A wall had been knocked down between two rooms to turn it into one large room, and they had set it up like a post-apocalyptic barracks. Bunk beds were lined up along one wall end to end. There were lockers, a TV, and a row of glass museum cases. They held old uniforms, militaria, folded flags and banners, collections of Vietnam and Gulf War patches. There was a book with photos. It had been left open down the center to a grainy colored photo of four soldiers, standing in a line with their arms looped over the shoulders of the fellow next to them. They were all young, smiling, but already haunted with the entropic shadow common to Vietnam Vets. Mason was on one end, handsome but brittle. The man in the middle of the group was much younger and much lighter, but I recognized him as Big Ron.

I moved to the next case while Zane got the bed ready. Another case held photos of a Vietnamese girl I assumed was Jenny. These photos were much poorer quality. She was wearing a hat that was too big for her, carrying a rifle that was far too heavy for her slender hands, standing between two American soldiers. She looked as square-jawed and proud in that image as she did now.

“Jenner was a child soldier?” I turned back to find Zane stripping his shirt up over his head, and immediately turned back, red-faced.

“Yeah. She’s had a pretty wild life.” His voice drifted back to me, while clothes continued to rustle and fall. I could smell him now, the sharp cologne I’d caught at the door to the club. “You should talk to her over a drink sometime. She loves to talk about all the things she got up to. Over and over and over.”

“I don’t drink.” She was almost certainly the King of Swords I had identified in Talya’s tarot reading.

“What? A Russian who doesn’t drink?”

“Ukrainian.” I forced my hand flat on the glass to stop it from fisting up. Like I’d never heard that before.

“What’s the difference between a Russian and a Ukrainian?”

I looked back sharply, expecting a punchline, but Zane’s face was open, expressive. He was genuinely curious, and fortunately, he had redressed in pajama pants and a loose shirt.

“Ukraine was annexed by Russia in a genocidal invasion soon after the 1918 Revolution,” I said, clearing my throat. “They tried to destroy our language and culture, installed a puppet government, and claimed parts of the country because the people were already Russian speakers. My blood relatives fought against both Russia and the Nazis from the time they entered to the time they left, even while we were part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine is now independent.”

“Damn.” Zane blinked. “When did the occupation leave?”

My mouth sloped to one side. “Earlier this year.”

“Right. Well, I get it now.” Zane sat on the edge of his bed. It creaked under his weight. “Must have been a rough place to grow up.”

“I didn’t grow up in Ukraine.” I shrugged. It was a land which I had never seen, but which had defined my life and Vassily’s – socially, linguistically, culturally, gastronomically – from a great and shadowy distance. “But every man I know from there swears it is the most beautiful land in the world.”

“My dad said the same thing about South Africa.” Zane regarded me with the quiet curiosity of someone who knew they shouldn’t ask a question, but who wanted to regardless.

I looked away first. “Are there any clean clothes I can borrow? What things I have are still in the Bronx.”

“Sure. Check the locker. We can pick them up tomorrow, if you need.”

Grateful he didn’t try to continue the conversation – and grateful that I didn’t have to say something curt – I went to investigate. There were some clean shorts in the locker, and a Metallica t-shirt which smelled like strange men. I could hardly bear to touch them, but they were still cleaner than my clothes.

“You know, I always figured hitmen did lines of coke off their favorite strippers for kicks.” I heard Zane roll over onto the bed. “Go gay-bashing or something.”

“Men with that kind of temperament don’t last long,” I said. “There’re plenty of them – the city chews them up and buries them. Hardly any wet workers make it past their twenties.”

“You look a bit older than that. You’re some kind of professional, then? Mafia James Bond?”

I got a towel, wrapped it around my hips, and skillfully changed while staying mostly covered. It was a skill I’d learned going to the gym, the ability to strip and dress without showing skin. “As General James Mattis once said, ‘be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.’”

“Lord help me, Alexi.” Zane groaned, and slung his arm over his face. “Turn out the damn light.”

I was already on my way there, and eagerly returned to my new bed. This was a moment to savor: the smoothness of relatively clean sheets, the spring and give of a real mattress, my first soft sleep in months. As I lay down, an ache spread through my lower back, my knees, my feet. Why my feet? Everything felt cold, stiff, in a way that made me wonder if my body was now irreparably damaged.

Zane did not say a word once the lights dimmed. His breathing was audible in the sudden heavy silence, slowing with remarkable speed. Rain drummed on the roof, distant white noise wholly unlike the continual banging, rolling cacophony of droplets thundering on the thin metal shell of the dumpster.

The weight of the last several weeks lay over me like a shroud. Vassily, Celso, Sergei, the escape. Huffing, I closed my eyes and tried to drift off… efforts that became more difficult as a muffled moan vibrated through the walls from the next room across. Mason and Jenner, by the sound of it.

I pulled the covers up around my ears, jammed my head down on the pillow, and stared into the well of warm darkness ahead. Not long ago, I would have been able to see Kutkha in my mind when I relaxed enough, and as I thought about him, the sense of loss, of failure, threatened to drown me. Overlying that aging pain was the knowledge that I was lying to these people who were offering me charity. I wasn’t really a mage anymore, and I couldn’t really help them in the capacity they expected. Not without my magic. I could only hope we got it back before they noticed.

Chapter 11

I didn’t remember falling asleep, and couldn’t remember what I dreamed. There was nothing but the dark and a terrible, roaring loneliness. When I roused, my eyes were gummy, mouth thick. The light coming in through the windows was reddish, an eerie and lurid New York City sunrise.

“Morning, sunshine,” Zane called to me from further back in the room. “I just got off the phone with Ayashe. She’s on her way with the file.”

Everything hurt. Everything. Arms, legs, spine. Very slowly, I peeled myself from the bed and sat on the edge of the bunk, staring at my toes. Survival had clearly come at a price. It is all very well to entertain ideals of self-sufficiency, to be resourceful… but it had cost me. “Already? What time is it?”

“Six,” he said. “P.M.”

I squinted at the window again. Sunset, not sunrise. Right. “When will she be here?”

“About forty minutes. She had to pick up her kids and still has to cross the bridge to get here.”

That gave me enough time to shower – again – and eat breakfast, exquisite luxuries after so much time spent scavenging. Zane had bought chicken and eggs and tomatoes, and by the time I was finished, I was ready to go back to bed. It wasn’t possible. First there was a Vigiles to deal with. Then, a firefight that would probably destroy whatever remained of my home and my health. Even with backup, it was going to be a long night.

Ayashe arrived in a dark, sleek, expensive car that she parked right outside the garage window. Zane had left to go and do something, leaving me at the bar to nurse a cup of coffee in my now-relatively clean clothes. The Agent walked in jaw-first, short heels tapping across the floor. Her badge was still pinned to the front of her crisp black suit, and her collar was high and clean. My brief notion of having regained my dignity evaporated in its entirety before she’d finished crossing the room.

“I’m not happy with this,” she said by way of greeting. She slapped a fat manilla file on the counter, and then a second sealed plastic case on top of that. “You have to read it here. I’ve got to take it back before ten.”

The folder was blank, but the opaque plastic case was stamped with the symbol of the Vigiles: a stylized lion with a mane of sun-rays contained within a circle. “That won’t be a problem. Please open the case.”

“What?” She squinted at me, nose wrinkling. “It ain’t warded.”

“Call it a matter of habit, but mere street magi like myself don’t often feel the need to break the enchanted seal of a major arcane organization.”

Ayashe huffed impatiently, but cracked it open for me regardless, laying out a collection of photographs in zip-sealed paper baggies. “Read the summary report first, then look at the photos. It’s better to have the background before you try to draw any new conclusions.”

She was trying to teach her grandfather to suck eggs, but I said nothing and simply obeyed. While I read and digested the contents of the summary report – still a good forty pages of forensic legalese – Ayashe restlessly roamed the clubhouse. It was empty save for the two of us, and only she made noise, rooting through the room like a ferret hunting snakes. Every now and then, she went to peer out the window at her car.

The shifters had summed it up fairly well the night before: The Vigiles had found a whole lot of nothing. It was a rare opportunity to look at their investigation process, and I was at least as interested in their methodology as I was in their report. They still relied heavily on physical forensic techniques, using acronyms that were familiar to me through my studies, with a shorter roster of non-standard protocols. They had bought a ‘verified occult expert’ onto the scene – and who knew what background they had – as well as a ‘transitional witness communicator’. All personal details of the experts and the victims had been whited out of the report – by Ayashe, no doubt. “Am I correct to assume that a ‘transitional witness communicator’ is a spirit medium?”

“Yeah,” Ayashe grunted the word as she roamed around the pool table, fiddling with the triangle.

The medium had not been able to contact the murdered victims or anything else in the house, though numerous ‘cold spots’ were located. The expert had identified the symbols drawn on the wall as a reference to Beelzebub and had left it at that. The organs I had listed off had been harvested from the bodies, and in addition to that, their eyes were also missing. The bed and bodies had been full of broken glass, and a second symbol had been found in the ensuite.

I noted that Ayashe wasn’t on the investigation team – she was listed as a ‘Supernatural Community Liaison’, not as an active agent involved in the case. No wonder she was nervous and shifty about bringing the file here.

Once I finished the report, I cracked open the first labeled pack of photographs and was confronted by a scene of slaughter. The photographer had started at the end of the bed where Lily and Dru had been found. Lily had been a fair-skinned, wavy haired woman, her face black with gore and obscured by wheat-brown locks that clung crazily across her eyes and neck. The man was swarthier. His mouth was open, his skull split, his face compressed into the waxy, slug-like pallor of death. They were lying side by side on the bed, as if they’d been deliberately arranged, and their bodies bristled with impaling spears of glass. Large shards, small shards, shards through their hands and the sockets of their eyes. The sheets were rumpled, the heavy iron rails of the bed scuffed and dented. Pictures had been torn off the wall for the killer to leave their message. It was the sigil of Beelzebub, easily recognizable, but it was surrounded by an incredible piece of geometry: a nineteen-pointed star within a circle, rendered with near perfection with nothing more than blood and patience. It was nearly five feet around. A ring of tiny flies were drawn around the ring – a hundred and fifty-eight of them, according to the accompanying notes.

“Pretty impressive shit, huh?” Ayashe swung back around at my gasp. “They think it must have taken them a couple of hours, at least.”

“You’re convinced it was multiple people?” I continued to browse. The close up images of the body weren’t so relevant to my work, but I studied them all the same. To my amateur’s eye, the corpses looked like they’d been hacked apart, not cut. Hacked… or just torn.

“Had to have been. All the kids are missing, and there were footprints everywhere.” Ayashe rocked back onto her heels, leaning against the edge of the table. “I was called in because some of them were footprints from animals.”

I glanced up at her.

“My theory is maybe a bunch of the kids slipped their skins from stress and started running around in panic. The people that did this rounded them up.” She drummed her fingers rapidly, nails clicking on wood. “None of those kids were Elders. No control after the change.”

I found a picture of the second symbol. It was just basic text: ‘SOLDIER 557’. Someone had sketched it on the mirror over the bathroom sink, which was spattered with blood and shredded flesh. My first impression was that something had vomited there.

“Were there any flies in the house?” I compared it with the larger design in the bedroom, frowning.

“Nothing alive that anyone found. Pets and plants were dead.”

I still had vivid memories of shooting Yuri Beretzniy in my apartment kitchen. When his blood spilled, every one of the plants on the kitchen sill had died. The smell of the magical corruption that animated his corpse had never quite left the room. “What about the smell? Was there a weird sugary sweet smell around the place?”

“Yeah. Now that you mention it.”

“Well…” I licked my bottom lip, leaning back on the stool. “The numbers they’ve used are very specific. Did your expert look into gematria?”

Ayashe’s nose twitched. “No idea. If it’s not in the report, probably not.”

“What is his area of expertise?”

“He’s a priest. Part of the Order of Saint Benedict,” she replied. “One of those Catholic exorcist types. He identified all of the symbols for us and is chasing up the religious persecution angle… he thinks the kids were kidnapped by some dead serious Helter-Skelter cultists. He says they were juiced up on some kind of summoning magic. Maybe one of the perps was possessed. He thinks the symbol means that they’re tied up in Satanism… they might have hit Wolf Grove because of their church involvement.”

“No, no…” I stared at the big symbol, the one that could have been rendered by an architect with tools. “No, this has nothing to do with religious persecution. There are many umbrellas of ‘Satanism’, but the majority of Satanists in America are either LaVeyan, who are atheists, or eclectic occultists. The latter tend to be young and poor… they become interested in Satanism because they’re disempowered, not because they have money for an op like this. This is the work of well-funded, well-trained people.”

“Alright. I’ll take it on board.”

“I think this is a message from someone who knew and maybe even shared their faith. Beelzebub’s number is one-hundred and nineteen. He is Lord of the Flies, Prince of Flesh, Satan’s most loyal lieutenant. One hundred and fifty-eight… one-nineteen, one-fifty-eight… what’s Psalm 119:158?”

Ayashe turned on me, eyes wide. “Uhh…”

“Wait.” I closed my eyes and turned away from her, sifting through some fifteen years of memories. When I was concentrating, the sight of other humans made me nauseous. I turned the coffee cup around in my hands, focusing on each precise twist. “‘Psalm 119:158: I behold the treacherous and loathe them, because they do not keep their word.’”

Ayashe’s narrow features drew in. She chewed her lip for a moment. “Not persecution. Retribution, revenge.”

“I believe your murderer was aiming for irony,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “Well, count me impressed. And a little creeped out. What about ‘Soldier 557’?”

“Nothing immediately comes to mind,” I replied. “I suspect it has to do with gematria or numerology, but I need the books from my apartment to figure it out.”

She scowled at mention of the apartment, but nodded curtly and crossed to the window. I watched her out of the corner of my eye: she waved to someone outside, and then briefly smiled. Her kids were still in the car? Must be.

“Five-five seven.” I ran my tongue over my teeth. “Hmm. Did they ever work out what the murder weapon was? The report says it was still being assessed.”

“Yeah.” Ayashe looked back to me. She seemed a little more relaxed while camped out by the window. “Shards of broken glass. All the cuts and everything were done with glass. They found it everywhere. The bodies were full of it. Carpet was full of it. Walking around the crime scene was a damn nightmare.”

“What about the children? The report doesn’t cover them.”

She sighed, reaching up to adjust her collar. Ayashe wore a fine silver chain that disappeared under her clothes: a crucifix, I could guess. “The bedrooms were trashed. No one took anything.”

“No older kids?”

She shook her head. “Lily and Dru homeschooled them with other Elders until they were twelve, and then they get sent to this boarding school place in Texas. The center was sponsored by this big old church.”

“What denomination were they?”

“Pentecostal-Charismatic.” She jerked her shoulders. “The Church of the Voice of the Lord. They’re—”

“A big deal in Chicago and the north Mid-West, I hear.” I set the photos down, and absently skimmed the first page of the report again. “And wealthy, if they can afford to host their congregation in a theater downtown, run a group home in a mansion, and a school. One of a few, I imagine.”

“Yeah. It’s a big money church. They’re into that whole ‘prosperity gospel’ thing, but I mean, there ain’t nothing wrong with believing what you want.” Ayashe didn’t sound like she bought it.

“Have the Vigiles looked into the Church?”

“You bet.” She nodded. “Interviews with their pastor, friends of theirs – norms, not other shifters. The Church is well established in every major city and it checks out. If you want my opinion, that kind of Christianity is kooky, but Lily and Dru were very good people. They never did wrong by anyone that didn’t believe what they believed.”

I studied the names of the agents in charge of the case. Adept Lance McClaine, Agent Diana Moss. The Vigiles partnered their mages with a Blank agent? I hadn’t known that. “What’s McClaine like?”

“Solid guy. Pretty good Wiz. He mostly works with wards and seals and shit, the standard stuff.”

Same as me. While I digested that, I unsealed the second pack of photographs. They were portraits of the missing children. Each one was named and numbered. They looked semi-formal, like yearbook photos.

Before now, the notion of missing children had been an intellectual thing. A puzzle. A mystery, something to toy with in the mind. Now, they had names. They had hair, which was all different, and easier to look at than their faces.

One of the boys in the stack of pictures was a small, tired wisp of a child in an overlarge blue sweater and jeans. He was staring just below the camera lens and fixated on something out of sight, his mouth a perfectly formed, sullen cupid’s bow. This kid had a face that was otherwise horsey and awkwardly proportioned, his cheekbones too big for his slender neck. Even at this age, his anger was evident. Terrible anger, bottled deep under the opaque absence of his stare. This was a life characterized by the need for control in the face of chaos.

Frowning, I turned the picture over. His name was Peter Kaminski. He was one of the mage children, and he was only eight years old.

Ayashe was saying something, her voice full of flashing red and white spines, aggressive candy stripes of color that shot through my mouth and up behind my eyes as I studied Peter’s last portrait. He did not look like me, but I recognized my reflection in the boy’s thousand-yard stare, in the way he protectively wrapped his hands in the floppy cuffs of his sweater.

“Was his family alcoholic?” I asked.

“What? Who in the what now?” Cut short, Ayashe leaned over to look at the Polaroid.

“This one. Peter Kaminski.”

“Aaron’s the one who’d know best, but I think so. I know he was one of the ones that Lily worked one-on-one with a lot. High-risk kid, lot of physical abuse in his history. I can’t remember if it was his mom or his dad who was on the sauce.”

“Both,” I replied. My face was numb, nose and fingertips tingling. “He was probably the only sober one in the house.”

Ayashe hovered near me a moment, her breath souring the air. Maybe she sensed my sudden, irrationally strong desire to punch her and drive her from the room, because she moved back of her own volition. “You okay, Rex?”

I glanced up at her. “Me? I’m fine.”

Her full mouth pulled across to one side. “Juvenile cases are hard. They aren’t for everyone.”

“I said I’m fine.” Annoyed, I resumed looking through the stack of pictures. “Did your mage ever mention anything he called ‘Shevirah’? Phitometry, ‘awakening’… anything like that?”

“Not that I’ve heard,” she replied. “I first heard about ‘Phitometry’ was from Michael. He says that it’s something that’s been part of the mythic stories in the Ib-Int since Babylon was still a big deal. He told us that we needed a Phitometrist for this job, not just any old spook, and that’s why we got Angkor on board.”

“Angkor.” She pronounced the name like ‘Aun-guar’. “That was the other Phitometrist who tried to help you?”

“Yeah. Weird name for a Korean guy. He was a bolt from the blue, but he was sure he could dig something up for us. Then he vanished. I tried to find him on immigration and border entry records, but no luck.”

I sat back, frowning. “What can you tell me about him?”

“We brought him on because he was able to give us an early lead on the way the couple were killed.” Ayashe rubbed her jaw, grimacing as it popped. “John screened him without putting it to vote. They had a private meeting and we all got told he was on the case. That’s not how the Fires are supposed to work. We’re supposed to vote… but John and Michael just keep on making all these big-shot decisions since Lily and Dru died.”

I wasn’t sure what to say. Getting her back on topic was enough. “What did Angkor do before he vanished?”

“First thing he did was visit the house soon after the murders, and I remember him saying something about running tests on some of the blood. He said he’d explain after he got the results. Those just came in yesterday, but pathology hasn’t written up the report yet. Other than that… he said he was from South Korea. He wore a lot of leather, and his English was really good. Had a kind of weird manner about him.” Ayashe shrugged. “He said he was going to go visit this cabin and come back, but he never did. Told us to give it five days before we gave up on him, and it’s been seven. I was arguing we go look for him since Wednesday, but John vetoed. Says it’s probably too dangerous.”

“You think something happened to him?” I arched an eyebrow.

“I think he had something to do with the murders,” she said. “He was flaky as shit. For all we know, he was a Triad or Yakuza spook who took John for a ride. They use all kinds of weird body parts for medicine over there.”

“Right.” I closed the case file and the photo file, and held it out to her. “Can you get me copies of those symbols?”

“I can get you copies of the photos.” She took the bulging file, her eyes hard and wary. “So. You don’t think you can figure anything else out until Jenner and you go and do what you’re planning to do?”

She might not have been charming, but I couldn’t fault Ayashe for her persistence. “I just know that there has to be more to this than meets the eye. There are a few cults in the area. One of them was involved in another similarly gruesome murder a couple of months ago… I know them only by their initials. ‘TVS’.”

“Never heard of it,” Ayashe said. “But I’ll ask our consultants and McClaine if they know anything. I didn’t hear about any cult murder in June-July though.”

“You wouldn’t have,” I replied. “The people involved had a vested interest keeping it out of the newspapers.”

“Hunh.” She regarded me fixedly for a moment, sucking a tooth. “I guess you were involved?”

“I was.”

“You solve the murder? Find the perp?”

I hesitated for a moment. “Yes.”

“Good.” Ayashe nodded, one sharp jerk of her head. She made to leave, but paused at the door and turned back to face me. “What’ll you do if you find the guys that took the kids?”

Sensing a trap, I held off for a moment. “That depends on what you and Spotted Elk hire me to do. Spooks wear a lot of different hats in this city.”

“You’ll report any leads to me, not John, is what you do.” Ayashe’s rich voice turned cold and level. “The whole point of the Fires is to integrate our cause with the cause of humanity. I’m an Elder myself. Most of my lives have been in America, and I remember the way things were just two hundred years ago. I don’t care what Jenner and Michael think – things are better the way they are now. None of us should be above the law.”

“Be that as it may, if I’m forced to defend myself during the investigation, I will.” I stared back with equal intensity. She wasn’t the only one who could pull a good shark impression.

“And I might not even arrest you,” she replied. “Especially if getting defensive on someone’s ass means you find out where the kids are. But it isn’t up to me, so you be real careful, Rex. Silverbay is one hell of a place for someone like you to end up.”

With that parting shot, Ayashe stalked out the door. I watched her leave, and drew a deep breath, ticking back over the memories of the symbols. There was no time to think on it, though. It was time to tap Zane, call Jenner, and ride out to go to rescue my familiar… or at least wreak vengeance on those who killed her.

Chapter 12

Gangsters are like bats: most active around sunset, hunting throughout the night, coming home to roost in the early hours of the morning. I knew that by around three a.m., the guys keeping an eye on my house were going to be drunk, out clubbing, or tucked up in bed with a hooker and a nice warm syringe of heroin. It was the time to strike.

We didn’t take motorcycles to my place: the risk of getting shot off the back of them was too high. Instead, the four of us – me, Zane, Jenner and Duke – were kitted out in an enormous powder-blue Buick Electra that rumbled its way down the road like a Panzer tank.

Jenner and Duke were both high. Despite this, I’d managed to convince the Tigers to leave the shotguns at home. Jenner and Zane had bought machetes and bats, and Duke had a real, honest-to-GOD samurai sword. He could apparently fight with it, though I was betting that his training consisted of taking a lot of amphetamines and mainlining American Ninja movies while he swung it around his living room.

The closer we had gotten to the beach, the more my hand absently strayed to the hilt of my knife. Jenner had given me a bulletproof tac-vest which I wore under my sweater, a black Kevlar number with the government patches torn off. Strung taut, I scanned every car we passed on our way down Banner Avenue. One low-slung, cherry-red Mercedes Benz sports car parked outside my apartment stood out from amongst the rest. I knew that Benz.

“That’s Ivanko’s car,” I whispered. “But that doesn’t make any sense.”

“Why not? Who’s Ivanko?” Zane lounged in the back seat of the car alongside me, tapping the flat of his machete on his palm. He, Jenner and Duke hadn’t bothered with armor – and they had hardly bothered with clothes. They were dressed in undershirts and track pants and flip-flops, things they could get off in a hurry.

“Ivanko is the senior boyevik, one of the…” I struggled for a word that wasn’t in another language than English, and briefly failed. “The captains? He serves the Kommandant of our Red Hook operation, Vanya. But Vanya has no jurisdiction over this area… the Kommandant of Brighton Beach is Petro Kravets. Our Avtoritet would only station Ivanko here if Vanya asked to have my apartment for something.”

“Does Ivanko have a face?” Jenner called back. “Because as long as he has a face, I can smash it in, okay?”

“It’s not that easy,” I replied. “They might have a new spook.”

“I ain’t scared of no wizards,” Duke said. “Magic ain’t shit against Weeders.”

That was information to file away in the event I ever needed it. “So the superstitions surrounding shapeshifters are true. Resistance to magic, allergy to silver, and such-like?”

Duke laughed, a high-pitched hyena bray. “Nah, man. The silver thing is all bullshit. It’s like vampires and crosses. Seriously like, the only thing I’m allergic to is the Bee Gees.”

The familiar smell of the Beach hit me when I got out, accompanied by a dull pain I hadn’t expected. The wind was cold, and whipped along the damp pavement with the familiar smells of salt and metal and food and people. I’d lived here my entire life, and would never live here again. “Let’s go.”

We had a plan: all three of the bikers were veteran soldiers who had seen combat before returning to the States. I’d drawn the apartment for them back at the clubhouse. We’d figured out the likely locations for the guard to come around. If I was lucky, Vanya’s men had thrown my suitcases into my wardrobe and left them packed. If I was luckier, my familiar was still alive and my first aid kit would still have clean surgical tools that I could use to operate on myself before anyone realized I had no magic to sling.

The entry hall was dirtier than I remembered, as was the stairwell. The air was thick with the stench of urine. Behind me, I heard someone snort, and turned to briefly see Zane filtering the scent through nose and mouth, just like a cat would. He wasn’t even aware he was doing it: when his eyes focused on me, his jaw snapped shut and his face reddened beneath its coat of light stubble.

My front door had been shot full of holes. Someone had used the Wardbreaker pistol to force their way into my house. The spook who’d helped capture me had probably done it, confirming they had magical skill that equaled or exceeded my own. I was counting on the latter, given how our first run-in had gone.

Zane pulled around to the front while everyone else took position next to the door. He rolled his shoulders back, signed three, two, one… and then charged the door, planting a boot against it and snapping the weakened wood back into the interior of the house with a sharp bang that echoed through my skull.

Jenner was in first, too small and too fast for human eyes to follow. “Here comes the battering ram!”

A man’s shout of surprise rang out, then cut short with a gurgle and a clatter as the rest of us ran in behind her: Duke with his sword, Zane with his machete, me with the knife. Ivanko’s man was down in the hallway, liftchik open, machine pistol on the ground. Jenner was perched on his chest like a pixie: she had struck him in the head enough for it to bleed, but not enough for him to be dead. As I drew up, I recognized his jowly face and spiny hair. It was Kir, one of Vanya’s favorite Union bruisers.

A sense of creeping inertia swept up through my fingers, through to my shoulders, and tightened the muscles of my face until they began to ring. It was no longer my house. My shoes were in disarray, and some of them were missing. There were dirty coats on the wall hooks, and a bag of trash near the door. The air smelled like cigarettes, liquor, strange men, and vomit. The cool sandalwood and lemon smell which had been mine, MINE, was gone. A decade of settlement, erased. And worse, there was no caterwaul. No meowing. No Binah.

I couldn’t call out for her until we’d cleared the house. Grim-jawed, knife held low, I turned into each room. My bedroom was disheveled, my things thrown everywhere and left to gather dust. The den was empty of people. Shelves of books were overturned. MY books. My radio was gone, and a TV had been set on the coffee table.

The kitchen was cluttered with cheap plastic chairs that formed a circle around the small table. A Bunsen burner, still warm, sat beside a stack of charred glass saucers, blackened teaspoons, and abandoned syringes. Burned pages from books were scattered around it. My first-edition copy of The Hobbit had been pulled apart, set alight, and used to heat heroin.

“Smells like someone was cooking junk in here.” Duke came in behind, sniffing.

“They used Tolkien.” My ears were ringing. Someone had broken the carafe of my coffee maker. The sink was full of dirty dishes, the counter cluttered with beer bottles and deli takeout containers. Ashtrays were everywhere, even in the laundry. “They’ve gone and turned my house into a goddamn crack den.”

Each word ground harder and tighter, until a choked sound of wordless fury forced itself out and I had to, HAD to lash out. My foot hit one of the cheap fold-out chairs and kicked it across the room to smash into the far wall. It wasn’t enough. “FUCK!”

I swept the table and turned it, kicked it. Only when it was broken, the glassware destroyed, did I return and remember that Zane was watching in silence from the doorway. Duke was back further down, rattling the door to Vassily’s room. It was locked.

“We need to get in and out of here, Rex.” Zane’s voice was low and solemn. “These guys aren’t the kind of men we want to have to shoot out with. Not in a—”

My ears twitched, and I held a hand up, trying to see if I was hallucinating in my fury. But then I heard it again, the sound of a distressed cat meowing from a distance. “Wait. Can you hear that?”

“I hear it,” Jenner said. She passed me, turning her head. If she’d had a tail, it would be flicking. “Is it outside?”

“The balcony.” I drove past her back into the laundry, and pushed the curtain away from the glass doors that led outside, heart hammering. I cracked the door, and the muffled wailing sharpened in volume and pitch: the frantic, deep-bodied ‘waow, waow, waow’ ambulance siren call of a Siamese cat.

Binah’s intelligent white eyes gleamed at me through the narrow mesh of a cramped hutch strewn with splintered chicken bones, dried and fresh feces, and bits of rubbish. She looked like an anorexic rat: skinny, covered in sores, and – as I closed in and got a good look at her – mostly bald. Her fur had been shaved off in uneven patches. The sores were from where she had been burned with cigarettes. The lock was just a simple slide bolt, but not anything a cat could open.

“Binah…” With shaking hands, I pulled my gloves off and opened the cage. The pain of the cold metal against my fingers was inconsequential. “Come here, Binah.”

I extended a hand in towards her, but not too far. Binah’s nostrils worked as she meowed, but for several long seconds, she didn’t approach. When she finally did reach her head forward to sniff properly, her flanks began to vibrate with shivers. As awareness filtered in through her pain, she tentatively butted my hand with her head and began to purr.

“That’s a girl.” I dropped my voice, low and soothing. “Come here, Binah.”

Slowly, very slowly, Binah came forward, a skeleton held together with skin and tendon. Carefully, I scooped her up and held her to my chest.

“Alright, Rex. I take it back.” Zane’s voice rumbled out behind me. “We kill those fuckers. Every last one.”

“We need the bags.” The rage was starting up in me again. My face and hands were hot. “Search. Bags. We’ll leave. Go secure the front door.”

“Hey, guys?” Duke called from back in the house.

Zane looked back for a moment, then refocused on me. “Where are the bags?”

“Bedroom.” Every word pulled from my throat with hooks. I wanted to wait in here like a trapdoor spider for the miserable shitstains to return. They’d tortured my familiar. “Closet. Up top. Suitcases… a briefcase, silver. The medical kit. Get them all.”

I tried to put Binah inside my coat, but she immediately wriggled free. She clawed her way to my shoulder the way she always did, and her purr grew in intensity and power as she arched her body against the side of my head. I could feel her ribs through her skin as they pressed into my cheek.

“Hey! Rex!” Duke called from the kitchen a second time. “This door here is locked. Jenner wants to know if we should smash it open or what.”

There were only two doors in my house that had key locks: The front door and Vassily’s room. My chest tightened painfully. There were still things of his in there. The thought of Vanya using his room for anything made me sick to my stomach. “Wait. That’s my friend’s old bedroom. There’s a trick to the lock.”

The front door was open. Zane was out loading goods – Jenner and Duke were waiting for me by Vassily’s bedroom door, Kir sprawled out at their feet. Their expressions were grim.

“Here.” I passed Binah to Duke, and then braced myself in the threshold. I took a step back, twisted the knob, and rammed my shoulder into it. The lock clicked and gave way under the force, sending me stumbling in, where I stopped cold in confusion and horror.

Chapter 13

The sheets were rumpled and… bloody. All of the photos had been swept off the dresser, replaced by bottles of vodka, bourbon and red pepper horilka. Vassily’s things had been carelessly thrown into the corner in a pile. There were handcuffs attached to the head of the bed… there was a video camera on a stand.

“What in the fuck…?” Duke trailed off as he and Jenner followed me, circling out and around.

“Was, uh… was this always like this, Rex?” Jenner drew up beside me, machete in one hand, Kir’s H&K slung over her shoulder.

“No.” Haltingly, I went to the camera and turned it on, swiveling the replay screen out from the side of the camcorder. I rewound the cassette tape back until it clicked, and then set it to play.

A young girl with a sprawl of waist-length, curly red hair was handcuffed to the bed. She was ten, if that. She was in her underwear, her face slathered in makeup, and she was crying.

“Jesus Christ.” Duke was watching over my shoulder. “That’s Josie. That’s one of the Wolf Grove kids.”

I wanted to switch the camera off and turn aside, but I forced my mind calm and waited. After a minute or so, an adult man walked onto the screen. I paused it on the clearest frame of his arms and back, trying to ignore the girl in the background. The man was hooded and masked, but he was also tattooed. I leaned in to examine the grimy picture. It took a few seconds before the image resolved: a five-point onion-domed cathedral set over a grinning leopard’s head. It was brandishing a knife in one paw, set below a banner that I knew read: “Take out bitches, stool pigeons, and traitors!”

“That’s Kir. The guy Jenner knocked out in the hall.” I was sick to the pit of my stomach, my voice dull with shock.

“What the fuck was that?” Jenner came up beside me, her face drawn. The mischief was gone. Her eyes were hard and dark. “Who’d I knock out?”

“Kir was filmed with this little girl.” I rubbed my face. “Give me the machete and drag him in here. He’s going to answer some very pointed questions.”

Jenner bared her teeth, a double sneer that momentarily transformed her face into something bestial. “I can do it.”

“No.” I extended my hand to her. “These are my people. I’ll do this.”

Jenner’s eyes were black and hard with anger, but she handed the oiled blade to me and turned without a word. Duke gave Binah back, then went out and dragged the semi-conscious man into the room by his ankles. Zane followed behind, having returned from outside, and watched in confusion as Duke and Jenner threw Kir onto the bed. They cuffed his hands and locked the bracelets.

While he recovered, I got some of Vassily’s old clothing out of his wardrobe and lay them on the ground, setting Binah on top of the makeshift bed. She was so tired and weak that she simply lay down without any protest, her flanks heaving.

I went back to the bed. Kir moaned, writhing slowly on his back. I slapped his cheeks, then reached across for the bottle of horilka on the stand and tipped it over his face. The spicy liquor splashed him in the eyes and up his nose, and he came up gasping and spluttering, swallowing blood and booze. His eyes opened… and when they focused on my face, his pupils pinned.

“You,” he rasped. “How the fuck are you still alive?”

“They called me The Magician for a reason, Kir.” I spoke Russian, our shared language, while I tapped the blunt edge of the machete across my other palm. “How have things been? Raped any children lately?”

“Fuck you. Lousy bitch!” He spat at me.

I used the machete like a shield, caught the wad of mucus before it hit me, then bought it down broadside onto his nose. He yelped, rattling the bed. Blood burst from his nostrils like juice from a berry. I poured more of the pepper-infused spirits across his face, and he shouted in fresh pain.

“Speak when you’re spoken to,” I said. “Where are the kids you took from Yonkers?”

Kir strained up towards me, his face a mask of blood and fury. “How the fuck do you think I’d know that? The fuck you think I’d tell you anything, you fucking homo, you traitor-dog…”

I used the point of the big knife to press him back down by his Adam’s Apple. Then, I left off his throat, and leveled the point of it right against the crotch of his pants. He sucked in a sharp breath.

“Shut the fuck up before I cut this off and feed it to you so that you can taste cock one last time,” I said. “Where. Are. The children?”

He snarled and lunged at me, but stopped short when the point of the machete dug into the nerve bundle it was set against, a nexus of nerves just above his pubis. I looked back to Zane.

“See if you can find a blank tape, and set the camera to record,” I said in English. “Kir is going to tell us a little story.”

Zane nodded and began to mess with the camera. I looked across to see Duke frozen in the doorway. His jaw was clenched so hard that the muscles in his neck bulged.

Blyat’, pizda.” Kir spat again, spraying his own chin and chest with spittle.

“Do you remember why they call me Molotchik, Kir? Do you remember what I did to my father?” I looked down at him, twisting the point of the machete until the tip worked through the weave of his sweatpants and dug into the delicate skin of his groin, right in the join of pubis and thigh. He jerked against the handcuffs and froze. “You have five seconds to tell me what operation Vanya is running here. For every second that goes by, I will push this knife in deeper.”

“Fuck your–”

I twisted and pushed until I felt the skin of his pelvis bow, then give under the relatively dull point of the machete. He broke off into a scream.

“Four.” I pushed again, deeper.

Kir screamed a second time, his voice dry and hoarse. The others were hovering behind me, stunned into silence.

“Okay, what!? Stop… What do you want from me-AAAHHH?!?

“Three,” I said. “How did you get the children, Kir? Speak English.”

Panting quickly, Kir looked down. Blood was beginning to spread through the weave of his pants. It was only embedded into his body a quarter of an inch or so, but that bundle of nerves just below the surface was to protect the bowel wall from traumatic injury, and they were very twitchy. I twisted the point, just a little.

“Drugs! Cargo!” He stuttered the words out in a thick accent. “Kids! Take it out, Molotchik. T-Take it out!”

I kept my hand on the haft, feeling the muscles of his abdomen spasm around the blade. “Tell me about the kids.”

“They is f-for movies,” he stammered. “Vanya Kostyovych… he sells the movies. The kids.”

“Where does he keep them?” I lifted the knife a little, permitting him with some relief. He exhaled sharply. If he’d known how small the wound really was, he’d be ashamed.

“Everywhere, Alexi, I don’t fucking know!” He babbled in Russian, unable to keep his English in his terror. There was blood on the tip of the machete.


“Ask him! Ask Vanya and Avtoritet. We just… hold them here… we film the fuck…”

Before I could stop him, Duke surged forward. “You fucking mongrel piece of SHIT!”

He got in two good punches on Kir’s head before Zane was on top of him and pulling him away. Duke snarled, writhing in the larger man’s grasp and thrashing like a wildcat. His eyes turned bright gold, pupils drawing to slits.

“Duke!” Jenny shouted his name as Zane hauled him back. “Duke! Cut it out!”

But he couldn’t hear her. He snarled again, deeper and throatier as he shoved himself away from Zane’s chest with an explosive burst of strength. Zane stumbled and hit the wall hard enough that a crack tore through the plaster, and Duke’s back bowed, distending like an underwater explosion before his body burst with a wet welter of clear fluid and shredded clothing. The transformation from man to leopard was so fast, so incredibly fast, that I didn’t actually see it: just the two hundred and fifty pounds of tweaked-out fanged fur and muscle flying at my face.

Chapter 14

I stumbled out of the way of the oncoming leopard, swiping with the machete. He wasn’t interested in me: he landed on Kir. The trapped man screamed a blood-curdling, high-pitched pig squeal that cut when Duke slapped his lower jaw with his forepaw and almost casually tore it off his face. It hit the opposite wall in an arc of gore and bounced, sending Binah scattering from her nest of clothes.

A tiger – fully twice the side of the cat who had quite literally ripped this man’s face off – charged past me as I backed as far as the floor allowed for. The tiger leapt onto Duke’s back, pulling him off to the floor to roll, snarl and tumble over the ground. The camera was taken to the floor, smashing open.

Duke was no match for the bigger cat, but fought anyway. They hit the window and burst through it in a shower of glass and plaster, screeching out on the fire escape. The leopard, bloody and panting, tried to clamber back into the room as the tiger caught it around the torso with paws the size of dinner plates and lay on top of it, pinning its comparatively small body to the floor. Comparatively. One was the size of a very large mastiff; the other, the size of a pony.

“Fucking hell, Duke!” Zane’s shouting finally cut through the racket. He surged forward, trying to help Jenner restrain the hissing, spitting leopard. The Twin Tigers moniker made sense now.

I rushed to Kir’s side. He was convulsing, fingers opening and closing spasmodically as his body flopped on the bed. His lower face was simply gone, his throat open, his guts torn out from his belly like so much offal. He was going to die, and I wasn’t much inclined to try and help him.

Duke was helpless under Jenner’s bulk. He yowled and clawed at the floor, but the club president, in her animal form, was far larger and far stronger. When he finally calmed down, she let go of the scruff of his neck and looked at me with an alien intelligence. It was Jenner and not-Jenner at the same time. It was like looking at someone’s Neshamah.

“How the hell are we going to clean this up?” Zane’s voice had a note of hysteria. He pushed both hands over his shaven head. “Jenner, Duke just fucking killed someone!”

“Forget about him. We have to get out of here,” I said. “The cops will be here any minute. Don’t touch anything, for GOD’s sake. The more we touch, the longer we stay, the more evidence we leave.” If we were lucky, the Mafiya itself would be blamed. I wasn’t stupid enough to have bought an apartment under my own name, but the police had any number of ways they could identify me. I’d lived here for most of my life. They’d find something I had missed. “I have to get some things.”

“I got your suitcases and the medical kit. They’re in the car. Give me the cat.” Zane held his arms out.

I bundled Binah up in Vassily’s old suit jacket and handed her to him. She was too tired to resist or care, and her frailty was evident in his huge hands. “Don’t waste too much time.”

Lights had turned on in the house across the street. Shit.

Duke shuddered, and went limp under Jenner’s weight. When she was satisfied, the Siberian tiger stood upright on her hind-paws. Limbs and fur folded back into her center mass as bones popped and changed shape, expelling clear, sweet smelling gel that splattered to the ground. It was both grotesque and oddly elegant, every part moving smoothly into place. The clear gel fell to the floor in clumps, vanishing almost as soon it touched the bloody carpet and taking the blood and dirt with it. I recognized the high, mouthwatering floral smell of the stuff over the stench of viscera. It was Phi. Weak Phi, compared to Zarya’s blood, but it was Phi nonetheless.

Duke followed soon after. The leopard crawled on his belly towards Jenner, shifting back in the same oddly mechanical way. When he was back in human shape, the naked woman kicked him in the jaw and sent him sprawling.

“You fucking idiot!” Jenner shouted at him. She bent down and hauled him up by the arm. Duke didn’t have cat ears anymore, but if he had, they would have been laid back flat along his skull. “What the fuck? WHY the fuck?”

“I’m s-sorry, Prez, I—”

“You fucking lost your shit, is what you did. Get up and get out! Into the car!” Jenner shoved the much larger, much taller man like he weighed nothing. Without a word, he picked up his sword – still nude – and stumbled out the door.

“There are coats in the wardrobe,” I said. I was sweeping up anything that the cops could use to identify me or Vassily. Photos, his zippo, but there were just too many things that could be used to incriminate us. A dull radiating pain ached through my hands with the knowledge of what I was going to have to do.

Jenner sniffed. “You think I’m worried about being naked? I was born this way.”

“No, but the NYPD may be less than impressed by your assets if we’re pulled over.” I didn’t turn around to look at her, but I wasn’t able to put any force in my voice. “Get out.”

“What about the tape?”

“The tape that now ends with Duke turning into an animal and murdering someone?” I pointed at the floor. The cassette was shattered amidst the ruins of the camera, the tape pulled out in a mockery of Kir’s corpse.

“Fucking hell.” I heard the wardrobe bang open as Jenner went to search for something to cover herself. “They’re just going to have to take our word for it, then.”

My eyes were hot as I pulled open the dresser and rifled through Vassily’s underwear, clean and untouched since he’d died. There was a money clip in there, monogrammed but empty. I added it to the collection of his tokens in my pocket. “Get out. I’ll finish up in here.”

“Whatever.” I heard a rustle, and then Jenner strode out past me into the hall, slinging a trench coat around her shoulders. I pocketed what I could, took what photos I could carry, and picked up the ruined cassette. Brown celluloid tape was flammable, and I had a gas stove.

But before that, I had to get my tools.

The study was still mostly intact. To my surprise, the Wardbreaker was just lying there, unholstered, the silencer still screwed onto the barrel. I checked it over and then jammed it through my waistband. A deep tension I hadn’t known I’d been carrying ebbed away, replaced by determination.

My desk had been disemboweled, but someone had stuffed my papers and books back into the drawers and had left their own files on the desktop. Quickly, I went to the smallest of my bookshelves, a low deep-bellied shelf, and pulled out a photo album, a copy of the mishnayot, and half a dozen particularly rare books, including the copy of Das Rote Buch that Crina had pilfered for me before she’d vanished to parts unknown. My wastepaper basket had a trash bag in it: I shook the trash out, threw the books into it, and tied it shut.

The last thing I needed was in the glass hutch beside my desk, cradled on a folded rectangle of crushed purple velvet. My father’s old prison sledge. No one had touched it, which wasn’t surprising. There was something naturally unpleasant about this weapon, the hammer my father had liberated from Kolyma, the gulag where he served – and survived – for seven years. The head was fifteen pounds of cold iron, more than enough to crush a man’s head in with a single solid blow. And it had crushed a lot of heads.

The sledge thrummed with a subtle siren call, and even with my magic crippled, it still made the stubble on the back of my neck stir. It had first been imbued with my father’s desperate will, his fierce need to survive. Every iron spike he’d driven had symbolized a camp guard, a snitch, a pimp or a foreman. He’d carried the hammer and his hate with him through the German underground railroad, onto the ocean liner he and my mother took from Hamburg to New York, the ship where I was conceived. Grigori Sokolsky had terrorized the Beach – and me – with this hammer for fifteen years. I had ended his life with it, closing the circuit. The peculiar magic of sacrifice was etched into it as indelibly as my father’s prison number was burned into the wooden haft.

Reverently, I lifted it out of its case, ran my thumb over the burnished grain, and slung it over my shoulder. As the only surviving Sokolsky man, it sung its Phitonic song for me and me alone. I had been prepared to let it go, like the photos. It was too heavy and cumbersome to travel with, but the Organizatsiya had called me Molotchik after this hammer, and the Organizatsiya was going to remember why.

With the Wardbreaker, hammer, my cat, and my key grimoires, I felt better, stronger. I passed by the desk, and lifted the cover of a dirty, finger-stained Manilla folder to glance over the contents. They were informal receipts penciled in Nicolai’s rough handwriting, with a note to read the instructions for pickup and delivery. Frowning, I flipped the page.

There was a honk from outside, then another. The Tigers had spotted something.

I slapped the folder closed and shoved the entire thing into the core of the photo album inside the trash bag, grabbed the lot, and ran. As I reached the balcony exit, the front door banged open from the other end of the house. There was a burst of male laughter, and then a shout of alarm. They smelled death.

Images of my tortured cat and the red-haired girl, her wrists bleeding from the handcuffs, flashed in my mind’s eye. A tic rippled next to my mouth. I threw the glass door open on its rails, threw the books over the side, and stalked back into the house with my father’s sledgehammer in my hands.

A month ago, I’d been desperate to run from the Organizatsiya, but now I didn’t think I could – not without making them hurt first.

Chapter 15

These men were ex-soldiers, lifetime criminals, but they were in my house.

They whirled to face me as a unit as I charged out of the laundry. They had the wrong guns for a space as small as this one: before they knew what had hit them, I was already up in the first man’s face with the hammer. I used the haft end to knock his pistol aside, the head to fend off his fist, and then rammed my forehead into his nose. Cartilage gave way with a satisfying crunch. As he stumbled away into the table, I ducked and weaved the next half-seen fist, rammed the end of the hammer into his belly below where his vest ended, and swept him up in a choke with the haft just as the other two finally opened fire. His shaven head snapped back in a bloody haze; I shoved him off into the other two, frozen with horror as they realized what they had done, and followed up behind with the sledge.

I knew their names. The corpse that slumped to the floor was named Vadim; Anatoly was the one closest to me. He instinctively tried to block the swing that broke his arm and slammed it back into his face, toppling him. Marko popped off three panic rounds at us. One hit the flak vest and staggered me like a baseball bat to the gut; the other two went wide. I gestured sharply with my hand and barked an arcane-sounding word at him: he threw his hands up in brief terror of impending magic, and then I was on him. One strike to the belly, two and three to the face, and he was down with the others.

I dropped the hammer and went to my knee to pick up a gun, bracing beside the kitchen door. We were screwed anyway, so I double-tapped each man lying on the ground. Anatoly, Marko, and Vadim. One, two, three.

“Ivanko!” I called back into the hall. “Going to come out before you burn alive?”

There was no reply. I waited until a count of seven and risked a look around the corner. The hall was empty, the front door hanging open. The only sound was the shrill whine of tinnitus in my ears.

Outside, one of the Weeders laid into the horn. I dropped the gun and broke away from the door to snatch up the hammer and cross to the stove. I hefted it up, sticking to the wall, and slammed the head of the hammer into the gasline. It broke with a high whistling noise, and then the powerful sulphuric stench of methane gas began to pour into the kitchen. I was headed back to the balcony when something flickered in the corner of my eye: Ivanko, who swung around the edge of my bedroom door and opened fire.

I barely cleared the doorway, holding my breath as bullets shattered plaster and brick veneer. He wasn’t using a suppressor, and it was loud. I careened out onto the balcony, plaster chips stinging the back of my neck, and dropped the hammer down to the sidewalk. I vaulted over the railing, found my grip on the edge, and then let go.

I glimpsed the shocked face of my downstairs neighbor as I caught the edge of their balcony, jolting my arms from shoulders to wrists, and then let go a second time. I cursed with pain as I caught the last railing, let go, and tumbled to the ground. The impact against the pavement rattled my teeth and sent me sprawling to land on my ass. I looked up and saw Ivanko high above, teeth bared in a victorious grimace. He opened fire on the street as I scrambled up and dove for cover, and got a half a burst out before the top of the building exploded.

Bullets by themselves aren’t enough to trigger an explosion. Unless you’re using steel jacketed rounds, ammunition doesn’t spark – but dodgy third-hand Russian submachine guns with worn out snub noses most certainly do. The right mixture of methane and oxygen and a moment of muzzle flash was all it took.

The detonation blew Ivanko off the balcony in pieces. Broken glass and chunks of meat rained down over the street, and then a second, duller explosion tore through the rest of the house. It would burn. My house was full of books, after all.

The throaty roar of the Buick’s engine and the squeal of tires pierced the roaring of the fire. Duke – still naked – pulled up hard right in front of me. Zane flung open the door as I staggered up with my hammer and the books and lunged in over the seat. Duke tore off with the door still flapping open. Two other Organizatsiya men were running up the road, guns raised, but they were too late. Even better: there were sirens in the distance, getting closer.

“FUCK!” Duke roared, and slammed the wheel as we took off down Banner Avenue, hurtled out onto Coney Island Avenue, and sped up towards the intersection of Coney and Avenue Z. When we rounded the corner, I seized the chance to reach back and slam the door closed.

“Slow down, Duke! Come on, show some fucking sense!” Jenner, just as tweaked as Duke, was flopping around in Vassily’s overlarge trench coat and yelling at him from the passenger’s side.

“You fucking drive!” He snarled back. But he did slow, and the back of the Buick stopped fishtailing as we headed for the empty intersection. At this time of night on a Monday, the only people out were the ones staring at the conflagration behind us. It made the oncoming sirens all the more audible.

“You need to turn left at Avenue Z, then left at Hubbard,” I said. “Turn right on the Parkway and we can lose them. Slow it down, take everything legal, and we’ll make it.”

Duke laughed, the high, hysterical laughter of someone high on adrenaline and speed, and slowed sharply at the end of Banner Avenue to merge into the traffic. “We are so fucking lucky. SO fucking lucky!”

“What the hell happened back there?” Zane was fighting his own adrenaline high with a locked jaw and deep breaths. “What caused the explosion?”

“Russian Mafia meth lab.” I bent down and reached a shaking hand out to my cat. Binah stared up from between Zane’s feet, ears flat, eyes wide. “That’s what the police report will say.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Duke replied.

“What about this fucking Russian mafia kiddy porn studio, with our damn kids?” Jenner turned in her seat, eyes flashing. “How are we going to prove anything now?”

I couldn’t answer her for a moment. The adrenaline was wearing off, and I was hurt. My arms felt like I had torn something in them from the multiple impacts on the way down. The gut shot had been a close quarters full-impact round. I felt like I’d been bludgeoned in the chest with a mallet.

“The video was worthless. We could have taped a confession and saved enough of the footage if your man hadn’t lost his cool.” I settled back and scrubbed the sweat and ash from my forehead.

“Did you know?”

“I had no idea they had kids. One of the reasons I left the Organizatsiya is because I knew that our Pakhun – the ‘Don’, so to speak – wanted to assign me to a job that involved human trafficking. He didn’t mention children. He didn’t even hint at… at movies. I assumed he meant adult women and men for labor.”

“So did you tell anyone about this?” Zane’s eyes narrowed. “That he was getting involved in this shit?”

All three of them were tense with hostility. I drew myself up, ready to fight. “What was I supposed to do? Walk into the nearest Supernatural Support Unit and say ‘Good Afternoon, I’m an illegal mage with the Yaroshenko Organizatsiya, an organized criminal outfit you’ve never heard of. I’d like to report the hypothetical activities of men who have never been arrested in America, who are discussing trading people in Thailand’. There is no evidence they intended to do this kind of work in the USA.”

“You could get them under RICO,” Zane replied.

“Prosecution under RICO still requires hard evidence,” I said. “A two-month old conversation is not evidence. Even wiretaps can fail as evidence in court.”

“I have to say, Rex,” Jenner said. “This really doesn’t look too good. Like, for you.”

“Why? Because Duke ruined a perfectly good interrogation?” I replied, coldly.

“Jesus, get the fuck over it,” Duke snarled.

“Shut your cockholster, Duke.” Jenner turned on him for a moment, and then back to me. “I didn’t say the whole fuckup was your fault, Rex. But it’s going to be real hard to convince Ayashe of that.”

Binah crawled out from her hiding place. She struggled and failed to get up on the back seat with Zane and me, so I bent down to help her up so that she could sit in my lap, staring at Jenner the whole time. The Siamese folded herself against my body and followed my line of sight to glare haughtily at her, one royal cat to another.

“We can’t convince her of anything, but I killed them,” I said. “Every one of those pedarasti motherfuckers is dead.”

Zane made a sound that was half exasperation, half unspoken curse. Jenner’s eyes narrowed. And then she snorted, a strange half-smile pulling up the corner of her mouth on one side. “You know, I like you, Rex, but I don’t trust you. Nothing personal.”

“You’re well within your rights.” I jerked my chin up, stroking Binah from neck to rump. Her remaining fur had a dry green whisper through my palm, another sign of her ill health. “But now you’ve fulfilled your part of the deal, I’ll commit to the contract.”

“There was a contract?” Duke was calming down, but his voice was still shaky. “Does it have a random explosion clause?”

“It has a ‘shut the hell up before I turn you into a leopard print man-thong’ clause,” Jenner said. She sounded a little more like her usual self. “So anyway, now that we’re not being shot at and-or blown up, did you and Ayashe have a good one-on-one?”

“Yes. And now we have multiple leads into the case, mundane and Occult.” Though I wouldn’t be able to do much unless I could remove the… thing that was cutting me from my Neshamaic link. A terrible thought occurred to me, then. What if I died with this parasite in me? Would it stop me from leaving my body? Would it turn me into an upir, like Sergei?

Suddenly, I felt very foolish for having charged into the kitchen under a hail of gunfire.

“Oh. Well, that’s good.” As if nothing had happened at all, Jenner turned and plopped down into her seat, huddling down in the trench coat. “Let’s go and get burgers!”

“No.” Zane and I said at the same time. We looked at each other, and he spoke. “No burgers.”

Duke bounced excitedly in his seat, which caused the car to jerk to the right and dip into the next lane. “Hell yeah! Burger King!”

“No!” Zane clutched onto the back of the driver’s seat as we righted again. “You don’t have any goddamn pants! Neither of you have pants!”

“C’mon man, lighten up. We’ll go through the drive-thru. The little red rocket is all shrunk up from the cold—”

“Jesus fucking Christ.” It was the first time I could remember hearing Zane swear.

“—so they aren’t gonna see anything if they aren’t looking, and if they’re looking then they’re totally into me anyway—”

“Shut up, or I swear to God…”

We managed to get on the Parkway without incident, and sure enough, we ended up passing through the Burger King drive-thru. Duke conceded by laying a t-shirt over his lap, but the exhausted woman who served us, her bouncy hair crammed under a cheap plastic visor, barely gave us a second glance as she handed over two very large paper bags of junk food and a tray of soda. Whatever we looked like we’d been up to, she’d seen it all before.

Zane and I both kept looking back behind us, expecting to see flashing lights in the distance, but finding nothing except orange-lit damp nothingness. When we realized that we weren’t being tailed, that we’d somehow gotten away with it, we both settled into our seats. The cabin was now thick with the odor of processed beef, sauce, onions and French fries. It was bad, in that it was junk food, but it covered up the lingering smells of blood and burnt powder. Takeout from the big burger chains somehow always masked every other smell in a room.

I got given a burger. Zane looked uncomfortable but stoic as he ate, gazing at the street through his window. Duke and Jenner talked about things which held no interest for me, mumbling around mouthfuls of food. I held my shivering cat with my free hand, and when I was done with ‘dinner’, I carefully and gently examined her wounds. They were filthy, but living in an alley next to Eee-Zee-Pawn for a month had basically inured me to filth. I was more concerned by the burn injuries. Several of them were infected, oozing when I squeezed.

“Why’d you do it?”

I looked up to find Zane watching me. For a moment, I thought I saw the big cat in him. The way he lounged, ankle crossed and foot twitching, reminded me of a leopard in a tree. “What?”

“Take them out,” he said. “Back there.”

“It was actually kind of an accident. I was planning to start a normal fire, but the buyki arrived back before I could and charged the kitchen.” I turned back to Binah, picking over her as I cataloged her wounds. She endured it placidly, purring all the while. “I had to search for some things.”

“Right. What’s in the bag?” He motioned to it with his head.

“My annotated Mishnayot. Agrippa’s Book Two, a very venerable Occult reference. Magician’s tables, my own studies of gematria. A rare book by Carl Jung.” I reached down, still stroking Binah’s ears with my other hand, and fumbled around in the plastic bag. I searched for the folder I had stuffed into the photo album, feeling through the pages. When I found it, I drew it up through the opening of the bag and accidentally pulled a photo of Vassily and Mariya with it. They were sitting together at a table bristling with bottles, food, and a small two-tier cake. Vassily was grinning from ear to ear. He had his degree scroll in his hand, his eyes fixed confidently on the camera. I remembered taking that photo. It was our private family graduation celebration for his MBA.

A small shock and a sharp, tight pain lanced through my gut. I slid the photo back into the album pages and cracked open the Manilla folder instead, trying to focus on the words through the sudden wave of gray fatigue that washed over me. The man beside me leaned across, peering down at the pages.

“This is a transactional record,” I said, before Zane could ask. “Pick-up and delivery instructions. I paused to grab them from the desk, and that’s why I got delayed… but they could be useful.”

“What’s it say?” Jenner turned around in the seat, looking back at me. In the dark, her bony face was deeply shadowed.

I flipped through the pages, digesting the contents. Delivery instructions, when written down, were generally coded in Russian military shorthand. It wasn’t exactly the Enigma code, but the truncated Cyrillic worked well enough in an English-speaking nation like the USA. Even native Russian speakers couldn’t make heads or tails of the abbreviations and prison slang terms that were passed on from Kommandant to soldier.

The first few pages of notes had annotations from both Vanya and Nicolai. Ivanko’s unit was shuttling heroin through my old house, a fairly common tactic. Drugs and other hard assets were ‘washed’ by cooling them down in safehouses. It was a cycle of storage and delivery: orders were placed with suppliers in Mexico, Miami and Canada, who delivered by sea or overland. The hot product was rested after delivery, then distributed to street managers who further distributed it to dealers. The managers kept a stable of thugs to make sure everyone got paid properly, and they had to report back to the command. This document was to advise Ivanko of the dates and locations for delivery.

“They were going to drop off bundles of heroin to some of our management-level dealers,” I said, scanning the list of addresses. No names, of course: just addresses. I don’t see anything about trade in children, or a kidnapping or transport job… just drugs. Though there is an address in Yonkers.”

“What’s the address?” Zane leaned in a little curiously.

“734 Broadway,” I read it out.

“What?” Duke said.

Zane stiffened. Jenner knelt up on the front passenger side. “Wait. Read that again.”

“734 Broadway, Yonkers.” I tapped the page with a finger. “Do you know who lives there?”

“Yeah,” Jenner replied, her eyes solid black in the gloom of the cabin. “Lily and Dru Fucking-Ross.”

Chapter 16

We split at the clubhouse, tired and stunned. Zane was apparently living here, because he disappeared into the top floor of the house while Jenner and Duke went to call John Spotted Elk and Michael to tell them what we’d learned. That left me, my suitcases, and my cat in the Twin Tigers M.C flophouse. There was no time for me to rest: The night’s work had only just begun.

The first thing I did was have a shower and put on real clothes. After weeks and weeks of greasy jeans and worn t-shirts, the sensation of fine wool and clean, smooth cotton was the closest I had ever come to physical ecstasy. I had to tighten my belt by two extra holes, but when I looked at the mirror and saw a clean man, a well-dressed man with a collared shirt and tie and proper leather gloves, I recognized my face for what seemed like the first time in years.

The next thing I did was walk to the nearest convenience store and buy cat food. Binah ate like a starving wolf. I sat by her bowl, cross-legged, watching on as she cleared the dish and licked out every crumb of minced chicken. My once beautiful and sleek familiar was now nothing but skin and bones.

Nothing could be done for her injuries until she was clean, but I had never bathed a cat before. She was my first pet, and while I had a working knowledge of the habits of felines, animals are not a big feature of the Murder, Inc lifestyle. There are a lot of things that cats, hitmen and mages have in common, though… neatness, caution, patience, the predatory instinct. One thing I especially liked about her – and about cats in general – was her fastidious nature. She was sure to enjoy a bath the same way I had enjoyed my first recuperative shower.

Dutifully, I stripped back down to undershirt and trunks and ran a shallow warm bath. I added some shampoo and some hydrogen peroxide to the water, then lay a couple of towels beside the tub before I went to the kitchen and fetched her. Binah licked her whiskers in satisfaction as I carried her to the waiting bathroom and shut the door. She was still weak from her prolonged incarceration, and did not resist me as I lowered her into the water… where she promptly exploded into a howling whirlwind of claws and teeth.

“Binah, stop kvetching.” My first instinct was to hold her in the tub to try and get her adjusted to the water. The cat slipped through my hands, launched herself at the side of the tub, and sunk her claws a quarter inch into my forearm. “Bin-AAARGH!”

Let it be noted that when your familiar is wet and covered in soap, she is automatically stronger, faster and more capable of defending herself than you are of restraining her.

Using my flesh as leverage, Binah hauled herself from the bathtub in a wave of water and suds and bolted at the closed door, howling like a firetruck.

“Binah!” I set off in hot pursuit, blood streaming down my arm. I made the mistake of bending down from the waist to scoop her up, and the deep tissue bruising I’d taken from the bullet made itself known. My gut cramped, and I slipped and fell on the now-wet tiles while Binah dashed under the bathroom sink.

For several long moments, I just lay there on my side in a pool of water and blood, staring at my shivering cat. My growing conviction that this GOD organism was actually out to get me was intensifying by the moment, and only grew stronger as I picked myself up and my familiar, sensing my intent, scrambled underneath the claw-foot bathtub and hissed.

After a good ten minutes of pursuit, I finally caught Binah up in a towel and immersed her while wrapped up. She wailed the whole way through, but she couldn’t claw me. With the towel as buffer, I washed her, rubbed her down, balmed her wounds, and used a safety razor to carefully lift the dirt-black scabs from her burns. The warm water revealed that some of them needed to be lanced, but doing that while she was wet was unwise. When she was clean, I drained the bath and let her scramble out, grimacing as she flung dirty water up into my face.

Someone rapped the bathroom door and twisted to look back, buckling when I straightened too fast and my entire back spasmed. “Who? What?”

“Hey, is everything all right in there?” Zane’s raspy voice was muffled behind the wood.

“No.” I replied sourly. The bathroom was trashed. Binah was hiding behind the sink again, washing her face with a paw. She radiated pure, unadulterated disdain.

Zane cracked the door open and peered inside to see me slumped on the edge of the bathtub, soaked, grimy and bloody. “Well… okay. This happened.”

“Cats don’t like baths.” I pulled the cuffs of my gloves higher up along my wrists. The claw wounds immediately began to itch, so I pushed them down again.

Zane sniffed, looked between me and the sulking cat, then back to me. “I could have told you that.”

I took up the drier of the two towels, and began to mop up the mud from the floor around the tub, grunting as a stab of pain shot through my chest on one side. The more time passed, the more I wondered if the first shot to the chest had actually broken one of my ribs. Rib fractures were like that… you sometimes didn’t feel them until they moved.

“Hey, Rex?”

I glanced up, and found Zane regarding me with an odd, piercing expression. “What?”

“Now that I can see you properly, I need you to tell me something,” Zane said. His voice was low and sonorous. “Tell me you didn’t know about the kids.”

I knelt back, the towel still bunched in my hand. “I didn’t know about the children or the videos. I swear on my sworn-brother’s grave.”

He held my gaze for a space, nostrils flaring, and for the first time, I glimpsed the animal he hinted at but never spoke of. It was in the eyes and the poise of the throat and legs. Under the intimidating, introverted exterior, Zane had the graceful intensity of an ambush predator.

“Good.” He eased down by inches. “You need a hand?”

I looked up at him, momentarily confused. When I was this tired, the default answer was ‘no, I already have hands’, but the metaphor sunk in after a moment’s reflection. “Yes. Help me clean, and I can start testing out gematria.”

“Roger that.” Zane got the towel, and bent to the task of cleaning. Binah slunk to the closed bathroom door and began to paw at it. “What’s gematria?”

“Gematria is where letters are assigned certain meanings and are associated with numbers, which also encode their own separate meanings. The gematric tables that occult magicians use to compose invocations is fundamentally based on an esoteric Judaic tradition of decoding hidden meanings in the Torah. It’s complex.”

“Complex is the right word.” To my great relief, he started on the hard to reach places, leaving the easier surfaces to me.

“In its most simplistic form, people think of gematria as being ‘Bible code’,” I continued. “The idea that combinations and patterns of words in the Bible – when turned into numbers – have hidden meanings.”

“Right.” Zane stood up, and looked across at me. “And there’s something like this in all those symbols drawn in Dru’s place?”

“Possibly. English Bible gematria is a bit of a thing on the… extreme Christian right.” I sat back down, distracted by the subject at hand. “Conspiracy theorists and apocalyptic types love to predict the end of the world with gematria, one of the reasons that a consulting priest is unlikely to make use of it in an investigation.”

“Right,” he said. “I follow you.”

I blinked a few times, and rubbed my hands on my knees. “You do?”

Zane paused in his labors, looking across at me. “Yeah. I’m pretty interested in that kind of thing. There’s a Lapaʻau in the family on mom’s side. Shaman-healers. I did some Buddhist temple study when I was over in Thailand… got a chance to speak to a couple of Yazidi elders and some Sufis when I was in Iraq. Besides that, I read a lot.”

I leaned forward in consternation. “So why on earth are you in a one-percenter biker gang?”

He cleared his throat, fighting back an embarrassed smile as he rubbed a hand over his scalp. “Weeders have to stick together. Birds of a feather and all that. Besides that, Jenner’s got a lot going for her. She’s been fighting the good fight for twenty or more lifetimes, you know? Revolutions, against the Nazis, in Vietnam.”

“What fight is that?”

“Well… against the Morphorde,” he said. His eyes were very Green, and very earnest.

We had no idea that there lay outside the shell of Eden an endless, hostile void. That the Mirror of the sky turned back something, that the sky was also a defense. Until the Mirror broke. I paused for a moment in shock, recalling the ritualistic words given to me in my dream. “The Morphord?”

He and his get fell upon the forest of the Mothers… they fell upon the meadows and the glades… and they murdered us…

“Yeah. It’s kind of what Weeders do.” Zane seemed to realize he had said too much, and an uncomfortable silence fell over us. After a few awkward minutes, he spoke again. “Anyway… you know… I’m probably really here for the motorcycles.”

“I’ve never ridden one,” I said. The moment had passed, and with it, the connection.

“Really? We need to fix that.” Zane stood, towering over me, and ventured a smile. “We could go for a ride if you want.”

There was a certain appeal to the idea, but as I mulled it over, I glanced at the surgery kit waiting for me beside the toilet. “Perhaps another day. I… really have to treat Binah’s injuries.”

“Sure thing. I should go catch up on some of my reading, speaking of that. Between training and club duty, I don’t get into books the way I used to anymore.”

Despite his words, he didn’t leave, and I didn’t insist. After a while, I cleared my throat. “So… what do you make of our find? The Wolf Grove address?”

“It feels unreal,” Zane replied. He crouched down on the balls of his feet, elbows resting on his knees. “I mean… why would they be buying drugs?”

“None of the children ever showed signs of addiction, or abuse?”

“I… no. I mean, normal bumps and bruises, you know.”

“Were they expressive? Happy?”

Zane thought for a moment, his green eyes darkening as he thought back. “A lot of them were really damaged and depressed because of what happened to them. It’s hard to say. I mean, they did normal kid stuff… ran around, played with toys. But they’d been rejected by their parents, most of them. The norm kids came from the usual messed up home situations that land someone in the system.”

“Besides the school, where do they go?” I sat down on the floor, leaning against the bathtub.

“They’re placed with families, the usual.” Zane shrugged. “The Weeder kids know where to come back when they’re old enough, if they want to join up with any of our factions. We got Duke that way.”

“He was a foster at Wolf Grove?”

“Nah. He’s from a home in South Carolina. We met him there when we were doing this north-to-south charity ride. He’s pretty young… only twenty-two, twenty-three. That’s why he freaked out, you know?”

I regarded him in silence for a moment. “Anyone ever seen the Wolf Grove kids after they’re placed? Follow up with them into adulthood?”

He frowned, thinking, and then reached up to rub his neck. “I assume so, but I mean… they aren’t going to tell us anything about where they go. They’re in another state, and it’s confidential, isn’t it? Caseworkers dealt with them.”

“And the couple, being Pathrunners, were the Weeders who followed up in later years.” My stomach tightened nastily, panging with a sensation that had nothing to do with food.

Zane looked down at the floor, running his tongue over and around his teeth. Even I could tell that the line of thought had left him troubled.

“I don’t know what’s happening, to tell you the truth,” he said. “When we found out about the murder, everyone was so upset they didn’t ask questions like this. I mean, they’re the ones that died. They knew Michael, they knew John, they got on well with everyone. There was nothing about them that… I guess they didn’t seem like people who’d get mixed up in bad shit.”

“That seems to be the consensus.” I sighed. “Food for thought.”

“I don’t know what to think,” he said. “All of it stinks.”

“Mm.” In my opinion, it had stunk from the beginning. Catching and moving twenty-one living children was a kidnapper’s logistical nightmare, for one thing. For another, the signatures left at the house were the kind you left for a revenge killing, not a random murder. They’d been involved in something and reneged on it. ‘It’ could be anything. They could have sold party drugs on the side to put the best food on the table for their adoptees, for all we knew. My own assessment trended towards the cynical.

“In any case, I need to get onto these abscesses,” I said. “We will learn the truth as the evidence comes together. Out of interest, what are you reading?”

“Rumi,” Zane replied. “The war taught me that there’s a lot of things about Islam that I don’t know.”

That bought a momentary smile to my face. Some part of my wizardly nature was gratified by the act of Seeking. It made me think of Crina. “In your light I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.

“Something like that.” Zane flushed a dark reddish brown, the color of cinnamon, laughed, and left. When the door closed, I let out a tense breath.

Brain buzzing, I began to set up for the last activity of the night. Binah’s injuries weren’t the only ones that needed seeing to: It was time to remove the parasite and reclaim my magic.

Chapter 17

Skill at surgery comes naturally when you’ve spent half your life killing people. I’ve been up to my elbows in viscera since I was seventeen years old, but even I feel a moment of mental resistance to the act of sliding a needle in under my own flesh. There is a part of the brain that fights you as you focus, pierce and depress. It screams louder as the anesthetic fizzes and stings in the moments before it fades into warm, furry nothingness. Instinct as old as life itself rails in the back of your mind, the flesh-crawling, tongue-thickening revulsion of taking a scalpel, digging in to your stomach, and drawing it through skin, muscle, and fat.

I was holed up in the bathroom, lying propped up on rolled towels on a freshly bleached tile floor. With surgical gloves chafing my fingers, I made the first incision with steady hands and clenched jaws, careful not to cut the stiff tendrils of matter I could feel brooding under the surface of my belly. That wasn’t the part that set my teeth on edge the most: It was the sudden sense of wariness I felt… the observant pause of something else, something alien, taking note of what I was doing. I hadn’t realized that the damn thing had been moving inside of me all night until it froze.

Grimacing, I worked my fingers into the blessedly numb incision, feeling for the edge of the starfish. After a few seconds and a lot of blood, I found it, and worked forceps in from the other side.

It flinched away hard enough that the tip of the forceps jerked up out of the incision. I buckled around my abdomen as an awful prickling rushed through my torso… a sensation that turned to blinding agony as the multi-limbed mass of the parasite plunged deeper into my abdominal wall.

I screamed. I couldn’t help it. Snarling, I pushed past the deep wracking pain that boiled up from underneath the anesthetized patch of skin. I got the forceps back in and snapped then around a lashing tendril. They caught and locked, and this time, the parasite pulled them out of my hand and flung them to the ground, emerging briefly from the wound. I caught a glimpse of a gnashing beak-like mouth before the mass of it shot up into my chest.

My next breath cut with a wheeze, like someone had lowered a heavy load of bricks onto my chest. I could feel whip-like tendrils pushing up around my lungs. I looked down, shaking, to see that the parasite – and the sigil – had had vanished. The ‘legs’ were no longer visible. But I could feel its weight and shape against my ribs… from underneath.

“Fuck. FUCK!” I fought to breathe, pushing the surgical tray back. With shaking hands, I fumbled for gauze and saline. I grabbed the nearest plastic bottle and poured it over the open stomach wound, blind with pain. The smell of pure alcohol stung my nostrils. Fire raged through my nerves in the split second before my eyes rolled back and I passed the hell out.

I woke up struggling for air. The new tightness around my lungs and heart was still there, though the pain had faded to a dull throb. I sat up and coughed weakly, wincing as my lungs expanded within a too-small cage.

It was worse than anything I’d ever felt. It was worse than the upir blood. It was worse than being beaten naked in a bathtub, doused in cold water, and kneecapped. I’d experienced both of those things, I could speak with some authority. This thing, whatever it was, had wrapped my organs in barbed wire, the hooks turned inwards to press against liver, lungs, heart and stomach. It hadn’t been my imagination: the parasite was alive. It was intelligent, and its wordless communication was crystal-fucking clear. “Don’t try that again, punk.”

There was nothing to do except wash the wound, stitch it up, and move on. My trembling anger grew with every tied off piece of nylon. This thing was inside me. Sergei had put something inside my body, and I couldn’t get it out. Not even Jana was able to do that to me. She’d been able to get under my skin, but not in the literal sense. Carmine’s bombastic arrogance had never gotten to me. Compared to Jana, he’d been a carnival side-show villain, a coward and a liar. He hadn’t put anything into me that I hadn’t been able to purge.

I remembered Sergei, smiling while Vera drew his oily orange blood from his dead veins. I remembered her walking towards me, limbs jerking with ancient rigor. A flood of images, bodily sensations, and wordless emotions invaded like poison. Even if I gave up on magic and fled to Europe tonight, I would never be free of Sergei. I would think of him every time I drew breath. Cursing, half-blind with sweat, I pulled the bloody gloves from my hands and plunged them under a stream of icy water, trying to wash the taste of violation from my mouth. It was bitter. Like burned wax.

I bound up my new injury, got properly dressed, and slumped out into the clubhouse. Zane was in bed, and there was no one in the garage except me and Binah. My suitcases and bags were there, lined up in a row and waiting to be sorted, except there was nowhere to sort them to. I was still homeless, technically, though I now had money. Cash, bank cards – assuming my accounts weren’t wiped clean – credit cards, which had almost certainly been abused. I could probably still afford a hotel, and plane tickets, for that matter, but duty plucked at me like needy fingers. The video had affected me in a way I hadn’t thought possible. The dirty business of coke and racketeering was one thing. Everyone that was in that scene were adults who knew exactly what they were getting into. But children? Little girls? These people had never been my brothers.

My breathing was labored as I slumped to the floor and determinedly sorted through the Occult texts rescued from my study. I lingered over the Red Book for a few bittersweet minutes, calming myself with the illustrations while I thought over the decoding process. I’d start with the simplest English Bible gematria first. On the off-chance that the sigils were drawn by a Charles Manson-wannabe, their default language was going to be English. Bible code was based on numerology, so I got a notebook, sketched the sigils from memory, and got to work.

Theories on what had happened to the murdered couple gathered slowly over the course of the day, as I buried my anger and pain, researched code patterns and tried my hand at breaking a few of them. The problem with gematria was that it required significant context and deduction to translate the numbers correctly. The number 557 had multiple possible translations, and depending on whether you did it in Hebrew or English, it could mean anything from ‘Christ the Lord’ to ‘Detroit Lions’. It was the reason that Bible code conspiracy existed – confirmation bias was a real danger in this line of study.

Binah meandered up to me at some point and climbed into my lap to sleep. I was dozing when she startled upright, growling, just as the lock turned in the door to the outside. I looked up, bleary eyed, as Jenner entered.

“Hey Rex.” Jenner was back in her trademark black jeans and spiked leather jacket, a pair of articulated leather gloves hanging from her belt. She was tense, and she looked tired. “You look like shit. John, Michael and Ayashe want to talk.”

“When?” I set my book aside.

“Now,” Jenner said. “It’ll take us about twenty-thirty minutes to get to the museum. Ayashe works just north of Manhattan. John and Tally both work at the Indian Museum. We’ll go together, and you’ll ride with Zane.”

My joints were throbbing, my skin aching with fatigue. I shut the book with a sigh. “It’s only been two nights since you hired me on. I took a bullet in the gut during the raid last night, my cat needs her abscesses lanced, and I am in no way ready to report any progress.”

“Too bad,” she said. “There’s too much that needs explaining, Rex. No one’s happy to know that our kids were kidnapped by your friends in the mob.”

“They were never my friends.” I stuffed Nicolai’s folder into my shirt and got to my feet, fighting the twinges in my back and torso the growing ache from the still-raw incision across my stomach. “And we don’t know if they kidnapped them. Even if they did, they might have been hired by someone else. Contract work is a big deal.”

“Well, consider this your chance to demo your theories.” Jenner jerked her head towards the door. “C’mon. Mason and Zane are waiting.”

It wasn’t raining today, but the sky was low and sullen. Zane was standing beside his rumbling motorcycle, warming the engine as he fastened his helmet and pulled his gloves on. His black jacket was plated over the shoulders and down the arms like samurai armor. His helmet was barely bigger than a dog-bowl, worn with a black skull-face mask that covered nose and mouth. The bike was an enormous matte-black beast of a machine; the decal on the side read Big Cat Crew.

“Hey Rex.” He glanced at my stomach, nose working, but he didn’t say anything as I drew up. Instead, he handed me a heavy jacket not dissimilar to his own, but without patches. It felt like something that wouldn’t have been out of place on a medieval battlefield. There were metal plates welded into the shoulders, and armor in the elbows and forearms. “Time to pop your chopper cherry.”

“Come now. You’ve managed not to be crass for the entire three days I’ve known you.” I glared at him as I pulled the jacket it on and zipped it up, then accepted the full-face helmet that Zane offered me. The jacket was a good fit, but the helmet was tight and claustrophobic. I lifted the visor and left it there.

“Then please, Mister Rex, excuse my impropriety.” He arched both eyebrows, but he was smiling.

“Impropriety?” I sniffed. “You must have one of those word-a-day calendars. That’s how you feign an education.”

“My dad’s a university professor, if you absolutely have to know.”

“Let me guess: Pickup Truckology at the University of Detroit?” I changed my gloves for the gauntlets he passed over.

He rolled his eyes. “Dean of Economics at George Fox University, asshole.”

I paused for a moment, arms crossed. “Explain to me again how you ended up in a biker gang?”

“No.” He patted the rear seat. “Butt goes here, feet go on the pegs and don’t come off. You’re gonna have to hold on to me. Lean with the bike when I turn, don’t scream in my ear, and we’ll be good.”

Just as I was about follow his lead and settle on the rear seat, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye, and twisted to look back at the clubhouse. It was Binah, trotting out of the formerly closed door towards us. I tapped Zane’s shoulder and pointed. He rolled off the throttle a little and looked across, as perplexed as I was.

The little cat, back to normal after the insufferable trauma of her bath, broke into a limping trot as I attempted to extract myself from the bike. I wasn’t even halfway off when she jumped up onto the front of my trousers and clawed herself into position on my shoulder.

“How’d she get out here?” Zane called back over the din. “We shut the frigging door.”

“Where there’s a way, there’s a Siamese who is too clever for her own good.” I sat back down, unzipped the jacket, and tried to silently communicate my intent as I bundled her into the front of it. To my surprise, she didn’t complain. Her unheard treble purr shuddered against my ribs, silenced by the growl of Mason’s motorcycle as he roared past us.

Zane shook his head and slung himself onto the saddle with the casual ease of an experienced rider, while I used the pegs to perch uncertainly on the rear seat. It put me crotch to tailbone with this relative stranger, who leaned back comfortably as he righted the bike and revved the throttle. The machine stirred like a rolling storm underneath us, rumbling with a deep throated growl. The sound was blue and sweet on the deep notes, red and sharp-tasting on the high. I kept my hands off the vibrating surface at first, but as Zane righted the bike and kicked off the stand, I risked touching the seat. The deep bass purr of the machine traveled through my fingers and straight to my teeth, deep enough to be pleasurable instead of painful.

“All set, Rex?” Zane had to practically shout back to me.

“I think so.” Gingerly, I transferred my hands from the seat to his waist. It felt somewhat perverse to be touching him while sitting on the rumbling motorcycle.

Jenner’s bike snarled and popped as she turned and pulled up beside us. Her getup was no less intimidating than Zane’s, and her brilliant red and black bike was only slightly smaller. “Come on, ladies. Time to get moving.”

We rumbled slowly down the gravel to the road, and then we took off with enough torque that my teeth stepped back in my head and my stomach lifted into my throat. My hands flew to Zane’s waist, lifted off with alarm as I realized I’d grabbed him, and resettled as we turned the first corner and roared off down the street.

“Press up!” He yelled back. “Hold on properly! You’re throwing me off!”

He was right: my awkward weight was making it harder for him to turn on the wet road. I pressed against his back, sandwiching Binah between our bodies. My face was burning hot against the tight padding of the helmet… at least until we reached the Expressway, picked up speed, and began to fly.

I forgot about our incidental intimacy as we screamed over the Brooklyn Bridge, buffeted by a ripping tunnel of chill, damp wind. Without the shell of a car to insulate me from the world outside, I was acutely aware of the smell of the city, the rising breath of eight million people and billions of other living things, the surge of life and motion contained within the sprawling stillness of New York. My pain and fatigue receded as I straightened in the saddle and craned my head to watch the sky kiss the sea far below, the wind whistling through the gap between helmet and visor. It took my mind off the meeting and the parasite and the children and my pain. For the first time since Vassily and Mariya had died, since Zarya had expired her last on the end of a sacrificial knife, my mind was perfectly still.

Zane was solid and relaxed under my hands, warm even through layers of leather and cloth. Now and then, I caught hints of his cologne on the wind, and I could imagine what it would have been like to ride with Vassily like this, his arm wrapped around my waist, or my arm around his as we tore up the road. It occurred to me then that Zane was the first person I’d willingly touched since Vassily expired in my arms… and my wonder ebbed with a growing sense of formless, frustrated confusion.

Vassily would have been jealous beyond reason or sense if he’d seen me like this, pressed up against a man he didn’t know, someone who was not our mutual friend. It was inexplicable, but suddenly, I’d never felt more like a traitor in my life.

Chapter 18

The Museum of the American Indian was a sepulchral Neo-Classical sarcophagus in no way designed to showcase the diversity of Indigenous American history. Everything was white, as if in emphasis, and two distinctly European female sculptures flanked the intentionally intimidating archway. Like a church, it was open to the public on Sundays. At eight in the morning, it was a ghost town.

We parked the bikes off the road near the base of the stairs and clambered off. Binah wiggled out of my jacket and perched on my shoulder as I pulled my helmet off and hung it. As soon as it was off, she wrapped her tail around my face and peered at the nearby trees with interest.

“Fuck, I hate this place,” Mason grunted. He hitched his belt up. “Gives me the weebies.”

I studied the stairs and the open doors beyond them, running my tongue over my teeth. The Smithsonian ran this museum, which meant it was a Federal building. “Do any of you happen to have a pair of sunglasses I could use?”

All three Tigers pulled out a different pair of shades from a pocket somewhere on their person. Jenner was the closest, so I accepted her pair with a nod and slid them on, taking a moment to adjust to the change in light. They were mirrored aviators that would have done Hunter S. Thompson proud.

Zane stayed out by the bikes, keeping an eye on them while Jenner, Mason and I went inside. We were pulled up by security at the door. Before we reached the gate, I lay a hand on Mason’s arm and gripped his sleeve. He looked down in confusion, but didn’t protest.

One of the guards held up a hand, which I nearly bumped into. “Sorry, but animals aren’t allowed in here.”

I adjusted my glasses, and then felt out for Mason’s elbow. “She’s a service animal.”

He looked at my glasses, then the hand gripping Mason’s jacket, and then back to the cat. “I ain’t ever heard of a cat for the blind.”

“She’s an All-Seeing Eye Cat,” I said. “Mister John Spotted Elk is expecting us.”

Binah began to purr, tail lashing down my back.

“Uhh…” The guard looked between the three of us, and then stepped back. “Please just walk through the detector, sir.”

Mason and Jenner had to nearly strip off to their underwear to make it through the metal detector, but we were eventually admitted into the bare and sterile foyer beyond the checkpoint. There was no one at reception. Fortunately, Jenner knew the way: Spotted Elk’s office was upstairs, reached by an elegant spiral staircase that led up behind the main theater.

Talya was waiting for us beside the door in her brown skirt and pale yellow blouse, clasping and unclasping her hands. She jumped a little when we rounded the corner, and then flushed. “Thank goodness. Ayashe isn’t here yet, but John and Michael are waiting for you inside.”

“No worries, kitten.” Jenner kissed cheeks with her, and then Mason did the same. Talya glanced shyly at me before she rubbed her face against his, and then stepped back before opening the door for us.

The room beyond was beautifully appointed – gothic interior, red carpet, mahogany desk, glass-fronted bookshelves, and a small private display of unsigned Native American objects. Michael was examining them, meandering between two of the cases. He was dressed somewhat more nicely than he had been at the meeting, changing out the baggy jeans and basketball jersey for a neutral charcoal suit and a large golden Ankh pin. I wasn’t sure what he did for a living, and there’d been no mention of it.

Spotted Elk was perched on the sill beside the window, smoking a seaman’s pipe out into the breeze. He was dressed for work: nice cream suit and loafers, a bolo tie, his graying hair pulled back in a short ponytail. There was still something about his bearing that didn’t match the ostentatiousness of the room, a blue-collar manner that clothes could not conceal. An auto mechanic in Brooks Brother’s clothing.

Hetep Hena Ten Jenner. Mason.” Michael turned to us as we entered, his hands folded behind his back. “John and I would like to talk with Rex alone before Ayashe arrives and we discuss matters as a group. Do you mind?”

“No worries. Come on, big guy. Let’s go and loiter on Federal property.” Jenner punched her partner lightly in the waist, and turned back the way she’d come. Mason gave us a flippant salute and followed her out without a word.

I took off the glasses, and waited until the door closed. Spotted Elk turned on the windowsill and dropped down the three or four inches to the ground, the pipe still jammed in the corner of his mouth.

“Take a seat,” he said, dropping into his own seat behind the desk. “The chairs are as uncomfortable as they look, but that’s the Government for you.”

I grimaced, and coaxed Binah off my shoulder as I complied and took the edge of the nearest chair. My thighs were still shuddering from the motorcycle ride, so I couldn’t hold the position for long. My familiar turned restlessly in my lap, fixing Spotted Elk and Michael with a baleful eye.

“This is your familiar?” Michael took his place beside Spotted Elk, not deigning to sit. “Her condition speaks of terrible abuse.”

Spotted Elk held out a work-worn, calloused hand. Binah replied with a hiss and a striking paw, claws extended.

“Indeed.” I gathered her against me. Binah growled, tense and wary in my arms. “She is also feeling somewhat antisocial.”

Spotted Elk smiled ruefully and sat back, rubbing the fresh red welts on his fingers. “No wonder. Looks like they roughed her up pretty good.”

“I don’t imagine she has much love for strange men.” Michael didn’t even try to pet her.

“She and I are alike in many ways,” I said. “We are here for business. What did Jenner tell you about our findings?”

“That you found child pornography in your old apartment.” Spotted Elk looked over at me. His eyes were as dark and patient as a horse’s: gentle, wary, and anxious. “That Duke lost control and the change took him over… and that you got carried away with your magic.”

They thought I’d used magic to blow the apartment? Well… if they thought I was that powerful, I suppose that was in my favor. Sort of. I rubbed Binah’s ears, massaging the tension out of her scalp. “They deserved it.”

“That is questionable,” Michael said. “Because now they cannot talk.”

I grimaced. “Kir was talking before Duke lost control.”

“So we heard,” John replied. “You had no knowledge that this filth was taking place in your home?”

Was everyone going to ask me that question? “No. I ever only really knew the business of my unit.”

“What business was that?”

Even after everything that had happened, I couldn’t tell them. Talking about some of the ins and outs with the likes of Jenner and the Tigers was one thing, but when it came to people like John Spotted Elk, self-proclaimed good guys tied up with the Feds, the business of the Organizatsiya was the Organizatsiya’s business alone.

I exhaled thinly. “Nothing involving children.”

“Hmm.” Spotted Elk stood. “Tea or coffee?”

I glanced up at him. “Coffee. Black, strong, no sugar.”


Michael shook his head.

John disappeared out of sight behind me. When I turned around to track his position, I saw him at a small table with a kettle and a box of assorted packets and sachets. While the kettle boiled, he began to spoon dark, syrupy sugar into one of the cups. Two, three… six. I stopped counting at eight, and turned back in consternation.

“Ayashe told us about the explosion,” Spotted Elk said. “They found the remains of at least three men, and sniffer dogs picked up extensive drug residue. There were explosives and assault weapons scattered across the street. The entire top floor burned out, and the other floors were damaged. Fortunately, the building did not collapse. She says the apartment was registered to a man named Kostya Kalikov.”

“I lost the passport for that alias years ago.”

He made a short sound of amusement. “Are you going to stay when Ayashe arrives to speak with us?”

I mulled that over for a moment. “I assume no one has expressly told her that it was my apartment that was destroyed.”

“They have not.”

I shrugged. “Then there’s no problem.”

“There is a huge problem.” Spotted Elk said. “Because the entire purpose of the Four Fires and the Pathfinders is to unite shapeshifters in lawful, constructive ways.”

“Besides that, we have the Ib-Int,” Michael added. “The ancestral laws of all shapeshifters, passed through generations of Elders since Mesopotamia was a world power. They proscribe against killing for revenge.”

The word ‘law’ had a number of unpleasant connotations for people like myself, but knowledge was knowledge. Besides… whatever corner these men hoped to talk me into, I still had Nicolai’s notes. “Fortunately for you, I am not a shapeshifter, and therefore not under your aegis.”

“Listen to me. You’re a Phitometrist,” Spotted Elk said. “Which means you must have at least partial knowledge of the threat we face from the Outside.”

He spoke the word like a name. “Something of it.”

“Michael is the best one to tell that story.” He motioned to the other Elder, sipping at his tea. “My old brain gets too cluttered.”

Michael inclined his head in acknowledgment. “That may or may not be true, John. You have more years than I do.”

“You were reared in the cradle of the Law, Michael. I was born on a Rez.” He laughed briefly at his own joke.

“True enough.” Michael smiled faintly, the first time his face had relaxed in any way. “We have a long history of interaction with magi. To begin with, your soul and my soul were both born out of a great calamity. The oldest Gift Horses – one of the oldest beings in all Creation – all call it the same thing. The Second War.”

My eyes narrowed. I remembered the litany. The First War was not a war. It was a slaughter…. It came with the first star to ever light the Mirror of the sky.

“I know what a Gift Horse is, vaguely. The First War was when the DOGs came from the NO-thing, I believe,” I said. “I don’t know what the Second War is.”

Spotted Elk nodded, stirring his tea. There enough sugar in it that it was soupy. “Around about eight hundred years ago, I was living as a barley farmer in South Korea. I was visited by a great Gift Horse Stallion and his manservant. Michael knows him, too. He was a powerful elder of his people, and hard as tacks… stern, ruthless, terrifying.”

“Stallion?” I thought back to Zarya, but struggled to remember her face. “Gift Horses call themselves Stallions… and Mares?”

Spotted Elk laughed for a moment, and then shook his head. “They wouldn’t deign to call themselves man and woman, in case they’re mistaken for HuMen.”

“I see,” I replied. “So what about the Second War?”

Michael considered his words for a minute or so in silence. “As John has noted, I also know of this ancient Horse. He called himself Dust, and it was he who conveyed the story of the Second War to my mentor. For the purpose of this conversation, I will recount the short version. The White Land was the original skin of GOD, and by that, I mean the creature that we live inside… the acronym is a YESian term, nothing to do with the religions of the world.”

YESian? “I’m aware there is a difference.”

“Dust told us that the name of the White Lands was AZN, and that the AZN was destroyed at the end of The First War by a great evil known as the Morphord, no ‘e’. Dust said that his people, the Gift Horses, were the first beings in all of AZN to wear the man-shape, and with two legs to run, two arms to fight, two eyes to see and a head to turn, they stood a chance to drive the Morphord and his army – the Morph-horde – out of the territories they had now infested.” As the story progressed, Michael slipped into the rhythmic cadence of memetic recall. “To do this, Dust’s ancestors took up the shards of glass the Morphord had caused to fall from the broken shell of the sky. They made this glass into the first swords, and with them they fought back.”

“Their enemy, who Dust was very adamant was male, was clever,” Michael continued. “The Morphord observed the inhabitants of the AZN, and when he realized that he was going to lose to AZN’s Man-shaped host, he drew all of his soldiers and their victims back in to himself, and with their mass, created a form for himself for the first time. This form agonized him, because it was against his nature to take a shape, and so it was of the largest and strongest Man-shape he, in his great narcissism, could conceive of. He was thirty thousand miles tall, when he stomped a foot down on the White Land, he shattered the entirety of the shell protecting GOD, ending The First War and mixing himself into Creation forever in the process.”

I listened in heavy silence, the coffee steaming on the desk in front of me.

Michael closed his eyes. “The destruction of the White Land caused the formation of strata of different sorts, with the first being that of the Wra-Tha, who Dust referred to as ‘The PusLickers’, followed by HuMans, and then us: The Ka-Bat, or animal spirits, who bonded with some of the first HuMans even as Dust’s people and allies engaged the Morphorde again in The Second War. The very oldest of us came to consciousness as the whole of GOD writhed in agony from its wounds. The Ka remembers this anguish, Rex. Even the youngest of us remember bits and pieces, and with that memory, clear or faint, every Ka-Bah responds to the presence of illness and corruption in the world. They may accept the call or reject it, but those who choose to serve find allies, while the outcasts remain alone and weak. The Ib-Int is formed around this concept and is built around gathering like-minded Ka-Bat to rejoin the current War, the Third War, to fight the corruption imposed on Creation.”

Spotted Elk nodded. “The important takeaway – for you – is that episodes like Duke’s are not the exception: they are the rule. The animals we channel are furious, intelligent spirits of the broken Glass Land who want to do nothing else except hunt down and kill the Morphorde in every shape it takes. Problem is, it can take all kinds of forms. The Ka doesn’t just hate demons and unspeakable creatures, or evil sorcerers and shamans. Evil can be in normal people who have good intentions and make mistakes.

“Precisely.” Michael reached up to finger the ankh he wore over his heart. “If we let the Ka rule us, all we do is kill, and kill, and kill. Duke could not help himself when he smelled the evil of the Morphorde and his Ka overrode him, and that is because he doesn’t care about working within the law. He does not want to control himself. You understand?”

“I certainly understand the need for control,” I replied.

“I know, because you’re a predator. Anyone could tell that.” Spotted Elk leaned in over his desk a little. “I created the Four Fires for the same reason that Michael continues the legacy of the Pathwalkers. If we have to face an army one day, we can’t be a disorganized rabble. We must raise an army to fight an army.”

I mulled that over. “I understand. But while we’re on the subject, Lily and Dru were almost certainly not as virtuous as you make them out to be. I found delivery instructions for a very large quantity of heroin that was to be delivered to their address.”

Michael stiffened in place. Spotted Elk reared back in alarm, paling as his face settled into deep, hard lines. “Do you have proof of this?”

I unzipped my jacket and took the folder out from its place under my shirt, flipping through it until I reached the correct page. “We were able to rescue this from the apartment. It’s a—”

The office door opened behind us, and I turned to see Ayashe stalk into the room. She was still wearing her badge, and she did not look pleased to see me.

“You,” she said to me. “You have a whole lot of explaining to do.”

“Ah, Ayashe. Just in time.” Spotted Elk stood up to greet her.

Ayashe circled around his desk and slammed her hand down on the desktop as she leaned down to stare me in the eyes. “So. ‘Kostya Kalikov’? Is that your real name, or am I going to have to keep digging until I reach the bottom of the pile of bullshit?”

“I don’t know a Kostya Kalikov,” I said, scratching my familiar’s head. Binah stretched and yawned in my lap, and then curled back into an indolent ball.

“Don’t fuck with me, Rex,” she said. “People were killed last night. Witnesses say they saw you and Jenny-fucking-Tran in a big blue car that just happens to match the description of Duke’s Buick. You don’t think I’d know this shit?”

“You’re a Federal Investigator who is currently only cleared to advise the Bronx SSU on one particular case, and even if it were your business, it is currently out of your jurisdiction.” I held her furious gaze with my calm one. “I notice things, too, Agent.”

Ayashe stood, straight-backed. “I’ve got more than enough circumstantial evidence to detain your ass right here and now under RICO.”

“You don’t have anything you can arrest me for.” I forced myself to sit back. No point in looking nervous. “So what do you want to hear first? Do you want to know that the people who nearly killed me and hounded me out of my house are dabbling in child pornography with the Wolf Grove children, or you want to hear about how your exemplary Pathfinders were ordering large shipments of heroin from those same people?”

The agent’s expression went from cold hostility to hot intensity in a split second. “Prove it.”

I set the file down on Spotted Elk’s desk, and pointed at the relevant lines. “That handwriting belongs to the current Authority of Brighton Beach. It outlines the delivery instructions for ten kilos of black-tar heroin to dealers for distribution in exchange for an unnamed trade. Usually, deliveries like this one are sent to the head of a street gang. In this case, it was direct to Wolf Grove.”

Ayashe fumbled back, pushing her jacket aside to reveal a gun in a holster and a small black pouch. She pulled a pair of latex gloves from it and picked up the file herself. “That’s a lot of information you’re getting from a little writing.”

“Rumor has it the Avtoritet writes his directives in Russian military code.” I shrugged. “But the address is clear enough. It is dated for the 30th August.”

“It’s not possible,” Spotted Elk said. “Neither of them would do anything like this.”

“I agree. This is out of turn.” Michael’s voice was deeper now, more forceful.

I didn’t like the way the room felt, so I picked up Binah and joined them on their feet. “What does initiation entail that makes you so sure? Because the evidence to the contrary is quite literally sitting on your desk.”

“I have known them for years,” Michael said. “They were initiated eleven years ago, long before they became invested in their religion. They always honored the Ib-Int above all things.

Ayashe shot me a dark look as she picked up the folder and riffled through it. John Spotted Elk regarded me with a similar expression to the one I had worn before: the tight-lipped reluctance of someone being asked to betray an entrenched secret.

“I told you about my encounter with the Stallion, Dust,” he said, haltingly. “Eight hundred years ago, he gifted me an elixir to induce awareness in Weeders on the cusp of sentience so that they might have control of themselves in combat. I have hidden that substance at the end every life I have lived, and recovered it on the next. One drop of it is enough to purge the Morphord’s influence. I gave it to them when I gave them honorary membership in my organization.”

I sighed. “Trafficking in drugs doesn’t necessarily mean they were doing anything related to Morphorde. Just that they might have angered someone enough for them to take revenge.”

“What purpose would revenge over such a petty thing serve?” Michael frowned.

“I have heard from my friends that a bratva man stabbed someone because they beat up his friend at a club,” I replied. “Knifed him in the gut. His brother wasn’t even that badly hurt… but in that culture, if someone hurts your friend, it is as if they had hurt you ten times more.”

Ayashe turned to look at me again. “Okay, so you got your hands on some instructions. Ten kilos of girl, I’ll take your word on it. Does any of this mention the children or the murder?”


She reached back into her jacket and drew the pistol, and she was fast. It was in her hands and aimed before I’d done anything more than put the chair between her and me. “Then I’m arresting you under suspicion of trafficking narcotics and being involved in organized criminal activity,” she said. “You have the right to remain—”

“Ayashe!” Michael barked, moving around the desk. “What are you doing?”

“Hey. What’s all the shouting about?” Jenner’s voice rang out from the threshold of the doorway. She, Mason and Talya formed a wall just inside the room, blocking entry and exit. “I get nervous when someone screams and I’m not around. You won’t like me when I’m nervous.”

“You can hold the litany, musor. You have no grounds to arrest me,” I said. “A file without any of my handwriting, without my fingerprints, that points to the murdered couple you’re investigating? The problem lies with your vaunted Elders – I’m just the messenger, and you know it.”

“Get down on the fucking floor.” Ayashe swelled up on her feet, her lips peeling back in a silent snarl. I retreated as she advanced, holding Binah close to my chest.

“Now you wait just a goddamn moment.” Mason said. He and Jenner pulled up on either side of me, Talya hovering anxiously to one side between the standoff. “What the fuck is going on, Ayashe?”

“This guy is in the Russian Mob.” Ayashe wasn’t visibly angry now – she had taken on the cold brushed steel look of an experienced killer. “That’s reason enough.”

“Your accusation is flimsy compared to the evidence of your own people being in the ‘Russian mob’ as you put it. The drugs weren’t addressed to me.” I hadn’t come armed. More’s the pity.

Spotted Elk regarded us gravely. “In all honesty, I must agree with Ayashe. He admitted to us that it was his apartment.”

My eyes narrowed. Michael’s face flickered with an expression that was difficult to read, but he glanced at me and I knew that he hadn’t intended to tell Ayashe anything.

“Of course it was.,” Ayashe snapped. “You think it’s coincidence that he just shows up in our life and gets involved in this? That he starts off with our youngest member and manipulates her—”

“Don’t talk about me like I can’t think for myself!” Talya bristled, swelling on her feet. “It was a chance meeting!”

“What the fuck do you think he’s really doing here, Jenner?” Ayashe gestured at me with the muzzle of her pistol. Maybe it was my imagination, but I was sure I saw the black hole at the end of the barrel shudder and shiver like a liquid.

“Seems like he was helping us,” Jenner replied. “Or trying to.”

“I’m leaving. That is what I am doing.” I pulled my gloves up along my wrists as a deep tension wracked my stomach and tugged my stitches. “Go shove your badge up your ass.”

You have three seconds to get down on the floor before I decide you’re too hostile to live.” The barrel was aimed right between my eyes.

Mason put himself between me and the gun. “You and what friggin’ army, Ayashe? I can vouch that we found the damn film, that we got the motherfuckers who hurt Josie, that Rex honored his half of the deal. Or doesn’t the word of an Elder mean anything to you now you got a shiny badge and a pat on the head?”

“Mason, silence. She has a point,” Spotted Elk said. “We were wrong to trust a criminal presence. No matter what I said about him or what you’ve seen—”

“You came here alone, Ayashe, and I don’t think we give a fuck about what you say.” Jenner caught my arm and started me walking. “C’mon, Rex. Mason. Let’s go.”

“You ain’t going nowhere!” Ayashe snapped around Spotted Elk, shoving him aside with furious speed and strength. He hit the edge of his desk with a cry of pain, eyes wide with hurt and confusion in the moment before Jenner interposed herself Mason and Ayashe and punched the taller woman straight in the mouth. Ayashe stumbled back and snarled, and Mason left me to go to his woman’s side as they faced off.

“Stop this!” Michael raised his voice over the din. “This is crazy!”

Talya ran to me and caught my sleeve, her eyes wide and red-rimmed. I nodded, and without a word, she ran with me and Binah out into the hallway, took another door, and steered us down the fire escape. We clattered down to the ground floor and exited out a different entry to the outside.

“I can’t believe this,” she said. Her voice was shaking. “Ayashe’s so stubborn, and I just know she’s going to register you as a fugitive, and… all you did was try to help us. Rex, I’m so sorry.”

“Forget it.” I said. “If they cherish their pride more than the truth, they have no need for a mage. They need twenty-one caskets and a saddle for their high horse.”

Talya dug her nails into the doorframe. “I know, but we can talk with the Tigers and work something out. Jenner holds her own against the other factions here. Please don’t go.”

“If Ayashe’s serious, she will turn up at the clubhouse with a SWAT team. Jenner cannot prevent that.” I pressed my lips together. “I have spent my life outside of a cell. I want my freedom.”

Talya’s nostrils flared, an odd moment of body language for a woman as small and prim as she was. “You know, John and Michael have been trying to recruit me ever since I started working here. This is my first time inside of the Cycle, my first lifetime as a shapeshifter. Someone like John or Ayashe, they might have had twenty, thirty lifetimes that they can remember, and they still act like children. If that’s all they have to offer, that’s not the person I want to be.”

I regarded her in silence, unblinking.

“My point is… I believe you. Whatever it is you and the Tigers found, I believe it. We won’t let them arrest you. You’re the only one besides us that cares about something other than themselves.” Talya smiled a grim, bitter little smile, withdrew back into the stairwell, and closed the door.

Altruistic? Me? Perhaps I had stepped into a paradoxical other world, a world where I was something more than a bullet in Sergei’s gun. Perhaps she was full of shit, and I needed to leave before I was locked up for trying to impose truth on their unreality.

I stared at the side of the building for a moment, ruminating on my decision, and then turned and walked away.

Chapter 19

I found the Tigers clustered around their motorcycles. Jenner was clearly furious, but physically no worse for wear. Mason was clearly as angry as his wife, though he was nominally less explosive. He was also far larger, and I didn’t know just how much control he held over his temper.

When we arrived back at the clubhouse, a few of the other Tigers were playing pool and shooting the shit in the garage common room. They looked up as Jenner slammed the door behind us and stormed off across the floor, clinking on every step. Duke was at the bar, talking with a tall, ascetic-looking man who seemed to be equal parts bartender and mechanic.

“Come on, Duke,” Jenner snapped. “We need to sort out a plan.”

“Roger that, boss.” Duke pushed back, and fell into line as we passed through the red door and into the house. “What happened back there?”

“The usual fucking bullshit. Due process, rule of the law, blah blah blah. Ayashe threatened to raid us. Good fucking luck.” Jenner went to the same sitting room where I’d first met the Weeders. “I’ve been heading up warriors since the Fall of Rome. And besides that, Strange Kitty is a hundred and ten percent legal.”

“Talya says she will be here in the evening,” I said, taking the armchair that Spotted Elk had used. “She is not impressed by the actions of her Elders, and implied that she intends to seek admission to your club.”

“About time. She’s made for this place. I’ll train her right up into a demon-fighting death machine.” Jenner flopped down onto the sofa, joined by Mason. She kicked a booted leg up into his lap as the rest of us found our places.

Mason made a thick sound of agreement. “There’s a lot more to that girl than meets the eye, I can tell you that. I’m glad she finally realized that John is a limp-dick do-nothing. And then there’s Michael. Fat lot of use he is.”

“You’d think someone as smart as John would be more useful,” Zane said.

“If by ‘smart’ you mean ‘weak’. He should be the one sticking his neck out, not us.” Jenner made a face, leaning forward to shuck her heavy jacket. She lay it back over the arm of the sofa. “Wolf Grove is his fucking responsibility.”

Zane quirked his mouth to one side. “Ayashe, Michael and John have a different way of seeing things.”

Duke looked at me. “By that he means they’re prey animals that run the fuck away from everything.”

“I see.” Ayashe did not strike me as being a prey animal, though Michael and John could pass. I eased back, aching with fatigue. “What are you intending to do now? If I understand correctly, Spotted Elk and Ayashe have withdrawn from the convention arrangement.”

“The short version is that they refuse to accept that anything you and Jen saw, heard or found at your place is real, because it means that Lily and Dru weren’t the innocent lambs everyone thought they were,” Mason rasped. His heavy face was oddly reptilian, cold and dangerous. “They won’t accept the word of another Elder, let alone me, you, Duke or Zane, and they won’t accept the evidence we gave them.”

“They want a scapegoat,” I said. “She tried to make an arrest. I doubt I can help you more than I already have.”

“By herself?” Zane blinked. “Did you tell her to piss off?”

“Jenner and Mason helped me, for which I am grateful.” I inclined my head to them.

“So what now?” Duke asked. He had plopped down onto one of the bean-bags, his lean face drawn and sober.

“John and Michael can have their circle-jerk. We’re taking this on whether they like it or not.” Mason shook his head.

“Exactly,” Jenner said. “If we want to get to the bottom of everything, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. We’ve got something to go on, now. We know the Russian Mob is involved. We know Lily and Dru might have been up to shit involving them, so there’s a good chance that the Mob has the kids. You got other people you think we could wring for info, Rex?”

“Absolutely,” I replied. “In addition to that, I remember that Lily and Dru have a retreat in the forest. Do you know what that was used for?”

“It’s a changing ground. Territory staked out for hunting away from civilization. A place to teach the kids to change without people hanging around,” Jenner said.

“That’s where they said the first spook disappeared,” Zane said. “Maybe whoever hit Wolf Grove was camping in the cabin when he went there.”

“Maybe.” Mason rubbed his jaw, thick with graying stubble. “First things first. I want to talk to the Pathrunners alone, Jen. They need to know what we found. Michael looked like he was willing to listen to it if it comes from either of us.”

“Did Lily or Dru answer to him?” I asked.

“Sort of. The Pathrunners are pretty secretive. Loners, you know.” Jenner jerked her shoulders, relaxing under Mason’s hand. “Michael is the ‘leader’ of the New York assembly, but he’s more like a spiritual leader than a leader-leader. Anyone who carries the Pathrunner name has to pass all these trials and tests, have a pretty rote understanding of the Laws and Weeder history, and be able to rule by them.”

“I see. And how do the Twin Tigers relate?”

Jenner thoughtfully chewed her nail, which was already bitten down to the quick. “We’re really a totally separate group. Traditionalists, funnily enough. In every century but this one, Weeders formed like-minded packs and small militias under the Ib-Int, with Elders and lawkeepers passing on the basic traditions and laws. All of the groups get together in a type of tribal council once a year to exchange news and business. This whole factional thing is pretty new. I think John has a Batman complex.”

“Nah, man. X-men,” Duke said. “He totally thinks he’s Professor X.”

“I see. He and Michael articulated the origins of shapeshifters somewhat,” I said. “And your purpose.”

“I’m sure he missed the most important part: the part where the preds have been doing the fighting and the dying for years, while the prey animals try to integrate themselves with a sick society. Every city in this country is full of pedos, demons, psychos, freaks.” Jenner leaned forwards, wiry and intense in her t-shirt and jeans. “The Four Fires fancy themselves to be like army officers, you know – all learned and tactical. I can tell you now, it doesn’t mean shit to the Big Black Nothing. You dig it out as you find it and you fucking kill it. That’s the only thing that works.”

“We’re neck deep in the Third War,” Mason added. “John says he used to be in the Navy way back when, around about the time that me and Jen were in ‘Nam. He’s planning a Naval battle… he sees a board with a bunch of positions written on it. I see a jungle full of mines and foxholes. The Third War is a guerilla war, and he doesn’t get that you can’t just wait for the Devil to show itself.”

“‘Says’ he used to be in the Navy? You sound skeptical.” I cocked my head.

“I was in the Marines: Combat Assault Battalion. He claims he was in Operation Game Warden, but none of my old Navy buddies remember him,” Mason said, shrugging. “Far as I know, me and Jenner were one of maybe five or six Weeders in that war. Doesn’t mean I don’t believe him, because he’s got the medals to show for it. Still don’t mean shit to me unless someone remembers you sticking your neck out for them.”

That made plenty of sense to me. Backing up your people in a crisis was something I understood. I spread my hands. “You came out for me back there, and I’m willing to help you find your children. I can keep looking into the occult angle, but I have a couple of things I want to chase up. Pastor Aaron is of the same denomination as Lily and Dru, correct?”

“Yeah,” Mason grunted.

“If he could arrange a meeting with the local leader of their church, I’d be interested to talk to him,” I said. “Given how much the Vigiles have already missed, I might learn something from him that they didn’t.”

“We can do that,” Jenner said. “He doesn’t have to know that Ayashe’s on the warpath. I think we should go check out the forest cabin. Aaron probably knows where to find it.”

“Did the Vidge go through the place?” Zane’s brow furrowed in thought.

“Don’t think so,” Mason said. “Michael won’t tell anyone except that one guy. He disappeared, so now it’s even more secret Pathrunner business.”

“The other thing I want to do is talk to some of my contacts… one in particular may be able to turn up some useful information.” I let Binah down to the floor. “He costs money, but now that I have money, I’m willing to front.”

“If he knows something, we’ll pay half.” Mason didn’t even bat an eye. Instead, he clapped his hands on his knees and stood. “We’ll handle the phone calls. You guys get some rest and some chow. We’ll deal with this later in the day.”

* * *

I hadn’t realized just how tired I was until I was in the bedroom and away from other people. I didn’t even undress: just sunk down onto the thin mattress, rolled onto my side, and passed out.

Shouting broke through the fugue of sleep after what felt like minutes, shaking me from a vague dream where I was looking into a pit at the upturned faces of tens of children… children missing their eyes, faces blank and bloody. I rolled to the side and clapped my hand down on my knife, bringing it up as I swung my stiff legs around and got to my feet. For several thick moments, there was no sound other than my constricted heartbeat rattling against my ribs. Then I heard something again… the dull rapport of a slamming door.

“—so many better things to do than be arguing about some boxes, okay? I don’t care what you think. Throw them out on the damn street, and I’ll pick them up. Look… no… I’m getting my shit back and there’s nothing you do about it. Yeah, no, you don’t get to say who I do and don’t bring. I don’t care. I stopped caring when you threw me out of your fucking apartment after screwing around on me while I was fighting for my life in the goddamn desert…”

Zane on the phone again. Groggy and mealy mouthed, I lay back down and listened in the dark as his one-sided conversation trailed down the hallway away from me.

The lack of external stimulation in the dark made me unpleasantly aware of the parasite wrapped around and through my chest. I had to lift my legs to the floor, and then heave myself upright, leaden, to reach the bathroom and shower. Binah followed me like a ghost, napped on my towel while I cleaned up, and was disgruntled when I turfed her to the floor.

I found Zane banging around in the kitchen, angrily washing up while eggs and steak sizzled on the stove. When he turned and saw me, a ripple of something I didn’t recognize passed behind his eyes. Fear? Embarrassment? It was as brief as it was elusive.

“Mason says he’s made a time for you with Aaron first thing tomorrow morning,” he muttered. “He’ll come and pick you up, take you to the Voicer building in Manhattan for a meeting with some bigshot Pastor.”

“Wonderful.” I shuffled onto a chair at the table, rubbing my eyes. “Coffee. Please.”

“Coffee’s cold,” Zane said. “How do you like your steak?”

“Blue. Sear it until it stops bleeding, and serve it up.” I said. “Runny eggs.”

“Good man,” he replied.

The promise of caffeine was enough to spur me to new heights. I dragged myself to the coffee maker, added some water to the cold coffee, and poured it back through the machine.

“What… are you doing?”

I looked back to find him with food dished up on a plate, staring at me in consternation.

“What?” I dumped half a cup of ground coffee into the filter and set it to brew.

“You just…” Zane sighed, and slammed the plate down on the table before turning to get his own food. “Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s like those master stocks they keep in Chinese restaurants,” I said. “You know how they keep the same soup boiling for ten years or so? It’s the same thing.”

“No, Alexi. It’s not the same at all.”

“Life is just too short for weak coffee.” I hadn’t had steak in a long time, and I intended to try and enjoy this one. Under normal circumstances, I didn’t eat a lot of red meat. It reminded me too much of work.

“When you put a spoon in it and the spoon melts, it’s not coffee anymore.” Zane slumped into the chair across from me and set into his food like a hungry dog. Or lion… or leopard. Whatever he was. We ate for a while, him in sullen silence, me with what I hoped was a polite level of enthusiasm.

“So…” I said. “Someone giving you trouble?”

“Mm?” Zane swallowed, brow furrowed, and cut himself a piece of steak.

“You were arguing with someone on the phone before,” I replied. “You need me to help sort something out for you?”

He barked a harsh, derisive, bitter laugh. “Sort him out? What, Russian Mafia-style?”

I stared at him until he stopped trying to shrug me off. The light in his eyes and his smile faded over seconds.

“Wait. You’re serious?”

“I am always serious,” I replied. “What’s the problem?”

“It’s, uh…” Zane licked his lips, for once at a loss for words. “It’s just my ex, you know. Girlfriend. She has some of my stuff at her place, and her new guy isn’t letting me go over and pick it up.”

Vassily had a word to describe people when they were like this: ‘cagey’. I wasn’t sure why ‘cagey’ was the term used to describe that weird mixture of hesitation, anger and fear of being caught out, but I could accept it descriptively.

“So we go over and beat the shit out of him, get your stuff, and leave.” I shrugged.

“I can’t.” He shook his head, stuffing steak into his mouth. “It’s… complicated. Nothing I can solve with getting physical.”

“So shoot the lock out of the door as a warning and then go call them again on a payphone. Ne vopros.”

“Look, Alexi… you can’t fucking shoot all of your problems away, okay?” He threw his knife and fork at the plate and stood, too agitated to stay at the table. “That’s not how the real world works.”

“You don’t shoot anyone during an intimidation. It’s supposed to be bloodless,” I replied, sawing off some meat. I was confused, but not so put out that it turned me off my food. “But if you don’t want to stand up for yourself, I won’t push.”

“That’s generous of you.”

Coming from someone who’d apparently forgotten what his 1% patch meant. “I’m going to handle some chores today, and after we visit the church tomorrow, I’ll go and see my contact.”

“Whatever. I’ve got a fight to train for.” Zane was too large of a man to properly sulk, but he was unmistakably petulant as he gathered his dishes and scraped the leftovers into a foil and paper takeout container, washed his hands, and stormed off into the house.

Chapter 20

I was no cop, but I knew that every day that went by without recovering the children was a bad day. Unfortunately, I wasn’t going to be much good if we couldn’t get the dirt on where to find them, and that required money.

The first thing I did was to go and check my accounts. To my surprise, my savings accounts were untapped. My credit cards had been maxed out – no shock there – but the banks could send angry letters to the bombed out shell of Kostya’s home for as long as they pleased.

Second stop was a pet store. I returned with a litter box, litter, and black nylon harness and leash for Binah. My familiar was asleep on our bed. I pulled her into my lap, drowsy and pliable, and sized it for her. She yawned, and rolled onto her back as I fed her legs through the holes.

“Here you go, Binah.” I attached the leash and put her on the ground, standing up behind her. “Now we can go for walks together.”

Binah wobbled forwards in consternation, picking up her feet as if she’d forgotten how to walk. When she reached the end of the leash and jerked back, she flopped onto her side on the ground, glaring up at me. As if to drive home the point, she lashed her tail, thumping it against the floor.

I toed her with a shoe, trying to get her to her feet. She slid across the floorboards, as limp as the head of a mop. “You are quite literally the most ungrateful creature I have ever met.”

The tail thumping increased in frequency and velocity.

“Honestly.” I unclipped the leash and rolled it up, but left the harness on. “Get used to it.”

Aaron was early, as promised. It was still dark when I heard the wheels of a car crackle on the gravel outside. The sound stirred a vague concern about the FBI and SWAT vans, so I set down my notebook and picked myself up, the Wardbreaker in hand. I heard a door slam, and then feet on the ground outside. One pair of feet.

“Good morning, Rex.” Aaron peered in around the edge of the unlocked door, his polite smile wilting around the edges when he saw me holstering my weapon. I had much the same impression of him that I’d had on first meeting: the priest was gym-fit, with a pleasantly attractive round face and an annoyingly thin mustache set beneath two button eyes. “Sorry to disturb you. All ready to go?”

“Almost.” I packed the books away into a suitcase, slung my overcoat on, and wrapped Binah’s unattached leash around my hand. She had come out to sit and study with me for a time, but had now made herself scarce. Following my intuition, I went to the bathroom and found her scrabbling in the new litter box. Just as well: I doubted the senior pastor would be amused if she were to borrow a corner of his office.

“You… uhh…” Aaron reached up to adjust his collar when I returned with Binah clinging to her favorite place over my shoulder. “Is that…?”

“She’s a necessary tool of the job.” I walked past him without pausing. Someone who didn’t stop to permit criticism was often allowed to continue doing what they were doing. “Today will be interesting. I don’t know much about the Church, but I had a colorful encounter with a member of your congregation once.”

I’d expected an NYPD police chaplain to arrive in a squad car or a mid-range sedan of some kind, like a Volvo or a Camry. Instead, I passed through the garage door and found myself before a very large, very new top-of-the-line Cadillac. It crouched like a panther, gleaming under the lights over the entries to the clubhouse and Strange Kitty.

“Colorful?” Aaron went around to the driver’s side with the casual bearing of a man who wasn’t immediately conscious that he was getting into a thirty-five thousand dollar car.

“Uh… yes. Colorful.” I swallowed, recomposed myself, and opened my door to sit down. Binah and I were immediately engulfed in padded black leather, polished wood, and the unmistakable smell of new money. “He was a violent, judgmental sort.”

“Violent? If he’s part of Pastor Christopher’s congregation, I hope he’ll teach this man that the only one around these parts who’s allowed to judge anyone is God.” Aaron fired up the car and started us on our way. The mouthfeel of the engine was at least as pleasant as Zane’s Harley. “Where was this?”

“Outside the Manhattan Center.”

“He may have been dropping in for his first service,” Aaron said. “We get a lot of crazies come in just for the coffee, too. A lot of people attend church with this very superficial mentality, you know… “I’ll just pray and everything will be fine.” They think they’ll just turn up and not have to do any work. But that’s not what being human is about… real effort is the best form of worship. Jesus was a carpenter, for crying out loud.”

I stroked Binah’s head and nodded along. I couldn’t disagree with the sentiment, but according to the Bible, I was also a heretical inheritor of Simon Magus and expressly condemned to eternal torment. I had never seen eye to eye with the religious.

“Well, looks like I got ranting again. I get a bit carried away sometimes.” The Pastor laughed a little, starting us north towards Manhattan.

“To be very honest, I’m mostly sitting here and wallowing in your Cadillac. The NYPD must be paying better these days if you were able to buy this without selling your kidney.”

He laughed again, louder this time. “Oh, this? Well, like I said… work is the best form of worship. I work two jobs and have a few investments tucked away.”

The cynic in me had to wonder if those investments were of the kind able to be cut and snorted, but I erred on the side of social grace and held my tongue.

We didn’t go to the Manhattan Center. Instead, we went to Times Square and rumbled down a one-way side-street, pulling up to park across from an elegant Art Deco facade. It was built into a strip of stately old hotels. The flagpoles outside carried an American flag, and a royal purple and gold INRI flag with the cross and crown.

“You know, I always wondered something about, well, sorcerers,” Aaron said, once we were out on the pavement. “What your familiar actually do?”

“She likes to eat shoelaces and vomit them on the bathroom rug.” I set her on the ground. Binah froze in place, watching cars rush by. What little fur she had stood on end, so I sighed, scooped her up, and put her on my shoulder to cross the street. “I think it’s less about what she does, and more about what she is. What she is, is deeply attuned to me and my work. She sees a lot of things I would otherwise miss… I’ve noticed that my memory has improved significantly since she came into my life.”

“Oh, I see. Well, perhaps you should get her one of those little service animal vests? It’s hard for people to know why you’re carrying her around, otherwise.” Aaron smiled, a little frazzled and a little tired, and then led the way in through the rotating glass doors.

The doors led into an ornate Gotham foyer: black marble floor, dusky granite walls, a lot of glass and old polished wood. There were two receptionists, one male and one female. Banners and flags were on display in here, too, along with a large gold crucifix mounted on the open balcony railing, directly over the reception desk.

“If services are held in the Hammerstein, what’s this place for?” I asked, as Aaron led me up one of the swooping staircases to the balcony level.

“We mix around a few venues, actually. The mass public services are for Receiving members and seekers, people who are curious or who would like to worship in a safe space,” Aaron said. “This is our headquarters for the East Coast. We hold services and classes for Confirmed members of the Church.”

“Confirmed?” Both Binah and I were looking around as we were lead an open-plan bookstore. It was comfortable and elegant up here, but a little less personal than a pre-modern church facility. I felt a twinge of instinct as Binah looked towards a room off-side the bookstore. The wall was painted in intricate Biblical murals which prominently featured a very blond, remarkably fit White Jesus. There was a bean-shaped sofa, and a video playing on a large screen in front of it. I caught a glimpse of a man speaking at a lectern across a massive sweep of congregation. Father Zach’s TV show, I supposed.

“The Confirmed are people who have been baptized into the church. They make some pretty strong commitments to banish their inner evils, commit to work and grow into the rewards worship offers.” Aaron drew up at an inset door at the back of the room, swiped a card, and punched in a sequence of numbers to let us inside. “We’re fundamentally a Reformed denomination, so Confirmed members are those who have been ‘confirmed’ as elect.”

“I see.” I’d never heard of ‘banishing inner evils’ as being part of any Christian denomination, but humans were always finding new and elaborate ways to beat themselves up. “How do you determine if someone is… ready for baptism?”

“They have talk to one of our auditors. Counselors, basically. They work through their goals and their strengths and weaknesses with them, look at what they need to fix inside themselves and in their relationships with other people and God.”

We emerged into a narrow white-brick service hallway, and took another door into a larger, far more welcoming corridor. The old hotel rooms had been converted to what looked like glass-fronted classrooms or seminar rooms, a few of which were already occupied with teachers setting up for the day. Tables and chairs, books on the tables, whiteboards up front. The rooms were all named according to the donors who had furnished them.

On the way past, I leaned back to look through the window to glance at the cover on one of the books. Financial Breakthrough: Find Your True Wealth. “Are there many of these counselors?”

“In New York? Quite a few.” We drew up to a door at the end of the corridor, where Aaron knocked. There was a murmur from inside. With a smile, Aaron opened the door and held it for me. It was time to meet Pastor Christopher.

The room was quite immediately blue and red: dark royal blue walls, red chairs, stained cherrywood furniture. The Pastor rose to his feet with a placid smile, and for a moment, I froze in the threshold. Christopher was tall and lean, handsome, very pale-skinned, very dark-haired. My mind transmuted his face into Vassily’s for a moment, because they looked so similar… right down to their ink-blue eyes.

“Pastor Kincaid, this is Rex, our… the consultant who helping the SSU with the Wolf Grove case.” Aaron tripped through the introductions. “Rex, Pastor Christopher Kincaid. He manages the entire New York state branch of our church.”

“Welcome to our Church, Rex.” Christopher’s smile broadened alarmingly as he held out a hand to shake, and that banished the associative hallucination. He smiled differently to Vassily, and I was able to catalog the differences in a rush of reality. Christopher was younger, his face was harder and more pointed, his nose less hooked, mouth smaller. His hair was short, wavy and thick, but brown instead of true black. He was dressed in a modest, crisp blue-checkered shirt and cream slacks, and that was different, too. Vassily dressed for Wall Street, not for church.

We shook hands, and he glanced at my gloves for a split second, and then the cat. “And who is this?”

“Binah,” I replied tightly. I cleared my throat, trying to loosen it up. “She’s my familiar.”

Christopher reached out to her. Binah backed away with a hiss, circling around my neck to put my head between her and the priest. He laughed and dropped his hand. “She certainly is.”

“She’s been like that for a while now,” I said. “Doesn’t seem to want anyone else to touch her.”

“Animals are what they are. Thank you, Aaron. We’ll catch up before the midday service?”

“Yes, of course.” Aaron glanced at me, perhaps wondering if it was safe to leave his mentor and a Spook together in the same room, but at a wave from Christopher, he withdrew.

“Take a seat.” Christopher gestured to one of the red leather chairs. They were on an angle to one another, the classic counsellor’s arrangement. “As I understand it, you’re here to talk about Lily and Dru Ross? I’ve already given my statement to the police.”

“I’m a consultant, not a cop. I’m here to get a sense of why Wolf Grove might have been targeted by someone with considerable Christian Occult knowledge,” I took the chair. Binah left my shoulder to crouch on the back of it, her tail lashing against my head. Her discomfort was my discomfort, but there was no weird smell here, no dead plants. “In addition, I’d like to learn more about the Church and what you – and Lily and Dru – practice in the Church.”

“‘Christian Occult’ knowledge? What do you mean by that?” He inclined his head to one side, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. I’d learned these postures and positions in college as well. More evidence of his counselor training.

“The murder scene and a number of the activities that took place during the murder relate to medieval clerical magic,” I replied. “But as an experienced magician, I don’t really buy the Satanic abuse angle that the Vigiles Magicarum is currently tracking.”

“As an experienced priest, I can assure you that ritual abuse is a very real problem in this city, and in every city and town in America.” His voice was very light, even melodic. The priest blinked rapidly, and then looked down as he twitched his jaw to one side. “But anyway… Lily Ross – Powell, back then – was Confirmed in the Church long before her husband. Now, you must understand that we don’t just give Baptisms away in the Church of the Voice. Have you ever watched Father Zach preach?”

“I’ve never owned a TV,” I replied. “So no.”

“The heart of his gospel is that we are the ones who chose to fall from grace, and so we must earn God’s love.” Christopher sat back up, and gestured to his own heart. “Jesus died for us, but that doesn’t mean we can sit on our behinds and do nothing. He believes that God wants us to take action in our own lives, to improve our selves and become the best we can be. When we work with people, we don’t just want to redeem them – we want them to save themselves, to save other people, and not just by hitting them over the head with the Bible. We teach that the way to happiness is to take responsibility for your demons. That’s why we’re the fastest-growing Church in the country: people know that, instinctively. We all get dealt a hand in life. You have to play it the best you can and you will become a better person.”

“I see. And what does becoming a better person entail?” I mirrored his body language. He wasn’t the only one with training. “As in, how do you go about it?”

Christopher’s face lit with warm urgency. “Well, accepting the Gospel is a big part of it, as far as I’m concerned. After that, attending services, learning, getting proactive. One-on-one and group counseling is also a very important part of what we do here. The voice of sin is always trying to make us cave into things we don’t really want to do, and talking out those demons helps to banish them. We nominate people for Election when the vessel is prepared and they are ready for the intense experience of receiving the spirit, but God always makes sure you continue to grow.”

“So, you would have had fairly intense contact with the couple, seeing as Wolf Grove had been given a grant by the Church?”

He nodded. “They came here every week for Profession. Dru was preparing to train as a pastor, actually, which is why I saw them so frequently.”

“Profession?” I hadn’t brought a notepad, but I was confident I would remember everything. Binah was watching Christopher as well, and her presence really did improve my memory.

“We encourage our members to profess the sins they have committed, or want to commit.” Christopher spread his hands. “This is how we learn to implement self-mastery. I suppose it’s similar to Catholic confession, but the intent is not to absolve sin. It’s to conquer it. We don’t record anything that’s said.”

“I see.” Which meant he was unlikely to tell me anything about the murdered people beyond platitudes. It was still worth a try. “Did either Lily or Dru discuss anything to do with drug use or drug dealing?”

“Excuse me?” The Pastor balked, then frowned. “Absolutely not. Lily led the drug addiction relief classes here sometimes.”

“There is evidence that they were due to receive a shipment of contraband at their home,” I said, watching him levelly. “A week and a half before they were murdered.”

“I can’t divulge anything said to me in session,” he said. “But I will say that I am fully confident that neither Lily Ross or Dru Ross were involved in anything of that nature. They were good people who cared for very vulnerable children.”

There is was again, that one phrase that everyone kept on using: ‘very good people’. “You were aware that most of them were shapeshifters?”

“Of course. We work with Supernatural Support Units all over the country,” he replied. “We were one of the first modern churches to make outreach to the FBI, actually. We provide pastoral support and education for the communities the SSU works with. Brother Aaron is part of that program. Pastor Zach has a strong interest in providing a strong foundation for those with… abilities. It’s very easy for young shapeshifters or young people with arcane ability to be pulled onto very dark paths. We help them to understand their powers are a gift which is given to them for a higher purpose, and that God could just as easily take it away.”

I drew a deep breath, pushing against the tight embrace of the parasite in my body. Binah hopped down to the floor, and began to nose around the chair. “Why are you so confident that ritual abuse is an issue here?”

“Easily.” He sat back, spreading his hands. They were very large for his frame, like he’d never quite grown into them. “I was a victim of it.”

Short and to the point, but effective. “Is this something you are able to discuss?”

“Of course. It’s the reason I entered the ministry, after all.” Christopher worked his jaw again, brows furrowed in thought. “My family was bad soil, as Father Zach put it to me once. My father was a very violent man, an alcoholic. My mother was a house-mouse… she wasn’t a bad woman, but she was helpless against the likes of my father. I was born in the Newark projects. Ran away at seven years old.”

That all sounded familiar. I’d run away from home at eight. I listened, keeping one eye on Binah as she sniffed her way around the room.

“I was picked up downtown by a man who told me he was from a shelter for abused boys. He said his name was Thomas… he bought me dinner, got me a new warm coat, walked me to his car, then drove me out to a junkyard,” Christopher continued. Some of the light had drained from his eyes, leaving them flat and glassy. “He chained me up in an outhouse building like a dog and injected me with heroin. Then he raped me.”

The bluntness of the word and his strangely academic recitation made it all the more confronting. I said nothing – partly because what was there to say? Partly because for the grace of GOD went I.

“That went on for a while. He got me hooked, and once I was hooked, he started to sell me to others.” The pastor drew a deep breath, and sighed it out. “One night, I was taken to a warehouse where there were people getting ready for a Satanic ritual. I recognized a lot of these people. TV stars. Politicians. Police. They sacrificed a little girl and ate her heart and other organs in front of me. I wasn’t a virgin and therefore not an appropriate offering, so I wasn’t going to be killed – just used and made fun of.”

“The world is full of monsters,” I said.

He dipped his head in acknowledgment. “Father Zach found me when I was sixteen. I was still hooked on heroin and prostituting myself to feed the habit, though I’d escaped Thomas by that point. I catcalled Father Zach when he walked past me late at night, actually. Can you believe it?”

“I believe there’s no such thing as coincidence.”

He smiled a wry little smile. “He turned back to me, and he said: “Young man, you don’t have anything to offer that I want. What can I offer you?” I asked him for a cigarette and a cup of coffee, because it was cold that night. He agreed… we went to a diner and got talking. I told him I’d never trust a man ever again, and he said to me: “You don’t need to trust anyone yet. What you need to do is listen to the pain of your own heart. That pain is the voice of the Lord speaking to you, telling you that you need to get help.”

“To cut a long story short, I eventually went to his ministry in Chicago, and he adopted me into the church and gave me a home, a real home. He taught me the Gospel, how to get a job, how to drive, everything. He took me in for no other reason except that the Lord spoke to him that night and told him to save this one soul. That I could be saved. He purged me of my addiction and cleansed my body. When I told Zach that I felt the call to preach, he said to me: “Well, I knew that was going to happen! That’s why God told me to save you, and not just anyone!”

There was a pregnant pause.

“Well… that’s quite a story.” I cleared my throat, shifting forward on the chair to stand. “But I think that’s all I need. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.”

“Wait a moment, Rex. I’d like to ask you something.” Christopher held out a hand, bidding me to stay seated. “The reason I’m willing to share that story with people, even strangers, is because so many people hide their pain from others. So I ask the same question to everyone I speak to. What do you relate to about what I just told you?”

It took me a second to process the question. I frowned, and eased back down. “Well… I didn’t have a wonderful time of things, if that’s what you mean. Not quite as bad as you. The alcoholic father, I suppose.”

“You downplay how hard that can be to deal with. You say it’s ‘not as bad’ as what I went through, but that’s not what I’m seeing.” I couldn’t make sense of his expression. “What did he make you do?”

My stomach jolted with a sudden shock of adrenaline that spread all the way to my fingertips. “What? My father?”

The resemblance to Vassily was no longer apparent in his face. Christopher’s mouth was quite small and narrow. His feature were a jumble of parts now, but his mouth was smiling as he spoke. “It’s… I’ve done a lot of work with people, Rex, some very injured people. I can’t help but notice that you’re a very neat man, a very confident man, but you have the look of someone who was forced to dirty themselves at some point in their life. You seemed to really connect with my story.”

Shock turned to irritation. “I wasn’t molested, if that’s what you’re implying.”

Christopher leaned in towards me. He had remarkably clear eyes, a deep, crystalline blue. “There are many ways you can experience abuse. Just remember that’s not who you are. There’s another way.”

“Religion, I assume?” I arched an eyebrow.

“Not necessarily. It’s my job to teach people about the Gospel, not bribe them or trick them. No, I mean purification. Cleaning of the body and soul,” Christopher replied. “You wouldn’t have to wear those gloves anymore.”

My fingers twitched for a moment. “I have sensitive hands.”

“That kind of sensitivity is very common in people who experienced trauma.” He held up a finger. “Before you go, Rex, I want to give you something.”

Frowning, I watched him rise and cross to his desk. For the first time, I noticed the signs on it. ‘Pastor Christopher Kincaid’ on a bronze plate, and a black and white sign next to it that read ‘Servant Leader’. He took out a pouch from the top drawer of his desk, and from that, he took a coin. He came back and offered it to me. It was a dime, worn smooth with age.

’Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, glorify God with your body’,” he quoted the verses with elegant ease. “The first step to recovery is ownership of your body, learn to smile despite the presence of darkness in the world. Take this, and use it to remember your price.”

It was as if time had stopped. I was vaguely aware of the sounds of the city outside the window, but Binah broke the trance. She was meowing at the door and pawing at it, looking back at me with an expression of long-suffering impatience. Reading the faces of animals was always so much easier than trying to do the same with people.

“Well, thank you.” I took the coin and stood up, and this time, I didn’t let him stop me. “I have to get going.”

He smiled, amicable and relaxed, and rose in turn. “Not a problem. You know where to find me. I think we’d have a lot to talk about.”

Not long after, I exited out of the building with several booklets and a lingering feeling of disorientation. Part of it was the foggy feeling brought on by the shock of adrenaline, part of it was the cognitive dissonance of hearing yet another person wax lyrical on how wonderful Lily and Dru Ross had been, and how they couldn’t have been involved in anything except one of the greatest semi-secret tragedies of the decade. But the paperwork with the address was there… somewhere. Or was it? I doubted I’d ever see it again. Ayashe had it now, and the Vigiles would make what they would out of it.

I checked my watch to discover that nearly an hour had passed in Christopher’s office, and it was already eight-thirty in the morning. Agitated and thoughtful, I stalked off down the street into the wind, turning the coin around and around in my pocket.

Chapter 21

The next stop was Crown Heights. When I trod up out of the subway, the street felt taut with unspoken Cold War tension. Gangs of defiant young Hasidic Chabadnik huddled together on street corners, prickly and alert. On the other side of the road, equally defiant gaggles of Caribbean men clustered and talked beside cars and fences. It had been a month since the Crown Riots, but there was still a strong police presence, too – I spotted two blue cars nestled among the line up on the side of the road, and a pair of awkwardly Anglo-Irish officers walking around the block on foot. The weather was decaying into a storm, and the young oaks planted down the sides and center strip of Eastern Parkway fluttered in the cold north wind as it whipped through the buildings and made the fire escapes rattle and hum.

Dr. Yuzef Levental lived and worked in the same building: a white rowhouse block with a short spike fence, tall spiked window bars, and a short, immaculately groomed hedge. Two tiny juniper seedlings flanked the concrete pillars by the door. I buzzed his door, and waited.

“Hello, who is there?” Dr. Levental’s voice was distorted by the intercom, though he sounded as crisp as ever.

“It’s Alexi Grigoriovich,” I replied, and continued on in Russian. “I was wondering if you have time for an early-morning visit?”

There was a pause, and then the intercom shut off. After a few moments, the door buzzed, and I pushed my way into the chilly entrance hall.

Dr. Levental was waiting for me in the threshold of his office, one hand on the doorknob, the other on the frame. By appearances, he could have been my father in another life. Ascetic and sharp-featured, his eyes were black and steely, his face weathered with age. “My goodness, Alexi, it’s been months and months. You look terrible! What has happened to you?”

Before I’d left the clubhouse, I’d put on decent clothes and even brought a hat to cover my head out of respect for the doctor’s Orthodoxy, but there were some things clothes couldn’t hide. My suit was looser on my frame, face gaunt, eyes sunken. “It has been a difficult time, doctor. Alecheim Shalom. It is good to see you well.”

“And peace be unto you, Alexi. But I doubt you are visiting me for peace.” We kissed cheeks before he drew me inside, turning into the house. “Come, close the door. Oy, why do you have a cat?”

“Therapy animal.”

He teched. “Is it properly housetrained?”

“Of course. She’s a perfect gentlewoman.”

Dr. Levental – he was never ‘Yuzef’ – was as devout as he was opportunistic, and he balanced his faith, his extracurricular interests, and his otherwise legal profession exceedingly well. The interior of the office was somehow both ostentatious, in that old New York apartment way, and monastic because of its large expanses of empty space. Like me, he kept floor to ceiling shelves that were full of books. Medical, historical, mythological books. It was a sight that revived the deep-bodied, hollow longing I’d felt since losing my apartment.

The front desk was still unoccupied at this time of the morning. The practice officially opened at ten, and his sons were engrossed in their studies upstairs while their father set up for the day. The surgery was large, and smelled of old paper and the accumulated musk and smoke of a hundred years of life.

Dr. Levental waved me to an ornate wood and green crushed velvet chair. “What has happened to you, Alexi? I’ve heard nothing but bad news from Brighton Beach for years now.”

“This and that.” I set Binah on the floor and squatted on the edge of the seat, hands laced between my knees, back stiff. The conversation paused while the doctor watched Binah for a moment. She went under my chair and curled into a ball to sleep, which appeared to satisfy him.

“Mariya and Vassily Lovenko are both dead,” I said. “That is the worst of it.”

Dr. Levental’s features, typically still and patrician, creased with sudden grief. “Yes… I had heard that. I am so very sorry I couldn’t make it to the funeral, but I want nothing to do with Yaroshenko. Nothing I hear about him is good.”

“I understand well enough,” I said. “I left.”

“You left the Brotherhood?” Dr. Levental gave me a quizzical look. “I’m surprised I am not seeing you laid out in the morgue today instead of in my office.”

“I did, a little over a month ago. It’s a long story.”

“Indeed. We can talk, but let me take a look at you while I do. I don’t like this yellowish color in your skin.”

Dr. Levental went to go and get his tools. Stethoscope, depressor. He wouldn’t let me go without an actual exam. I resigned myself to being poked and prodded, and shucked my jacket off in anticipation of being asked. He returned to me, and clicked his tongue as he fit a blood pressure cuff and got to work.

“You know, it all started so innocently enough back in the day,” he said. “The unions, maybe some protection for the businesses, some jewelry and gemstones changing hands… but now, it seems to me like it’s horror after horror. Drugs, murder, organs. Ay yai-yai. That is nothing you want a part of, Alexi. The organs of children, even. Can you believe it?”

“Children?” Intuition tingled in the pit of my belly, and the parasite stirred warningly. “When did you hear about this? Recently?”

He made an affirmative sound, pumping the cuff as he scrutinized the dial. “I heard from someone I know at Lenox Hospital that this scoundrel, Moris Falkovich, was providing children’s organs and bodies. I don’t know if you ever knew him… he was shunned for grave robbing, of all things. And all that mess he did with plastic surgery in the 80s? Good grief. But I still talk to people who know him, as I do… I have heard that he has been getting a name for himself as a pediatric transplant surgeon in recent times. A miracle-worker, they call him.”

The cuff grew tight enough to be uncomfortable, and I could feel my pulse beating in the crook of my elbow before it depressurized with a squeal. “How so?”

“I don’t know, not exactly. My friend at Lenox says that his clinic has been booking the theaters out for a few years now, but suddenly, very rich people from Arabia, from Europe and even from Israel are bringing children here for their surgery.” Doctor Levental lifted his eyes to meet mine for a moment. “My friend says that these children walk out of the hospital as if the person was never sick!”

My stomach turned. My jaw worked, and I finally sat back, pushed by the gravity of what he’d just told me.

“I don’t know what happened to the community, but I’ve been hearing that even Rabbis are involved in this business of organs. They always say: ‘The person gave this willingly, the donor is related’. But people don’t donate organs that often, Alexi. And children? Not a chance. Is that that useful to you?”

“It might be.” I had to be careful with the doctor. If anything was too useful, the price went up – though it generally remained fair. Dr. Levental charged as much as the information was worth, no more and no less. “But I came to trade for a more specific request. I need information on Celso Manelli.”

“Manelli! Oy gevalt, Alexi. You don’t ask for much now, do you?” Dr. Levental laughed, and hung his stethoscope around his neck. “Why are you looking into the Manellis if you’ve left Yaroshenko?”

I leaned forward so that he could reach my back. “He killed Mariya and contributed to Vassily’s death. I need to settle the debt.”

The doctor’s steady hand paused for a moment, the head of the stethoscope pressed against just beneath my scapula, and then he continued to move it around. “Well, that’s a good reason. But I can already see where this is going, Alexi. You of all people should know that there is no point to taking revenge. The Highest has many agents through which He will act.”

“Maybe I am that agent. There were two murderers: one died from an unfortunate broken window accident. Celso is still alive.”

The doctor grumbled something under his breath, and moved to the front of my chest. “I can find people who know what you want to know, but you had better dig two graves. Celso is a powerful man. Young and stupid, but protected by men who are older and smarter. Sorcerers, even. Can you believe it?”

Not that I knew anything about that. “So I hear. But the fact remains. Mariya and Vassily didn’t deserve what happened to them.”

“And neither did you.” Dr. Levental smiled, and I couldn’t read his expression. His voice, though, was blue and bittersweet. “Would you still want Manelli dead if he had harmed a stranger’s sister?”

“He’s filth,” I said. “I wouldn’t think twice.”

“But in the past, you would have delayed if there was paying business to be had from him? If someone had ordered you?”

Grimacing, I looked down. The doctor caught my chin, and tipped my head up. He had a depressor: I opened my mouth, the small of my back aching, and let him work.

“Maybe,” I said, once he was finished. “I don’t know if I ever really thought like that, to be honest. I was never like Nicolai Chiernenko, or Vanya. All I know is that I want out.”

“If you are going after Celso Manelli, you are not ‘out’.”

“Just because I can’t change my nature doesn’t mean I’m not out.”

His sigh was long-suffering and deeply felt. “Any man can change, Alexi. Even if he does carry a burden of guilt and sin.”

Except that I didn’t carry a burden of guilt, and I never really had. The very first man I’d killed had been a bully. He tried to stab me for my watch; I punched him off a bridge and slept soundly after the fact. That guy, he was a young Carl Panzram in the making. The kind of kid who threw kittens to flocks of seagulls for fun.

There were a few things I thought I felt guilt for. My mother. Vassily. Mariya. Mostly, I was angry. I was angry that I was too rigid and too slow to change to anticipate Nicolai’s next scheme, and despite myself, I was angry that someone had taken the Wolf Grove children.

“I appreciate the insight, but my goal hasn’t changed,” I said. “I need to know places. Associates. Security. Hangouts, vices, addictions… anything you can learn about Celso Manelli and the guys protecting him. I’ll pay for any of it, but I need it soon.”

“Is next Sunday soon enough?” Dr. Levental went to his desk, took out a thick file, and set it on the desk. Fifteen years of my medical record. He took a fresh sheet of paper, and began to write. “I know someone who knows someone who can probably get all of those things, but it will take time.”

“Sunday week is fine. What will it cost?”

“Well, considering your talents, Alexi, I have a request in kind. Trade that will cover the cost of finding these things for you,” he said. “Nothing dangerous, nothing that will put you under Yaroshenko’s eye.”

“Go ahead.”

Dr. Levental looked up at me from his new record, and smiled. A shy, boyish smile, almost embarrassed. He sat up and back, lacing his fingers over his buttoned black coat. “Well, you see, I have been getting into sports in my old age.”

“Sports?” I moved to stand, but the doctor waved me down. Maybe it was some ingrained respect for my elders, but I promptly returned to my seat. “You never struck me as the kind of person to be found at a Mets game.”

His smile grew. “More exciting than that, Alexi. Fighting. There is a big mixed martial arts syndicate in this city now. I am sponsoring a young up-and-coming bull in the ring and playing his numbers with some very wealthy people. It’s a bit of fun, but besides that, there is a prize being offered by one man, Lior Ostmann, for one of the syndicate fights. Fifteen thousand dollars, quite a lot of money. The semi-final match is on this Saturday, and I have gotten word that the man my boy is fighting is very strong. Too strong, strong enough that he has to be cheating. We don’t know how, but he’s been crushing the roster since he joined up. It’s killing the business.”

My mouth twitched at the corner. “How unsportsmanlike.”

“Yes, indeed. I want you to go and have a talk with this man. Convince him that professional sports might not be a good career for someone like him. I’ve written you his name and address, and you can take it from there. Tell me if you need money to motivate him into losing on Saturday.” The doctor tucked the note he was writing into a plain white envelope and stood, every inch the Hasidic gentleman. “Now, so you know… your blood pressure is low, and I think you have poor liver function. You need to eat more, sleep more. Eat good food, vegetables and lots of meat and fat, and take milk thistle. You have a little bit of a chest infection. I want to run a blood test to make sure it’s nothing serious.”

“I will. And of course. If he has a price, are you fronting?” I took the envelope and stowed it in my jacket pocket while Dr. Levental went to go and get the strap and tray.

“Of course. But try to make it substantially less than the prize. The fighter only gets five grand anyway.”

It was a decent trade, and not one that was likely to set me back much. Dissuading people from pursing activities not in the best interests of paying parties was my bread and butter, and big-headed, testosterone and money-driven men weren’t usually difficult to convince. Strip away the tough-guy persona, and they had no plans or contingencies, only their fists and their fantasies of alpha-male domination. Their dreams of winning the big fight were generally short-sighted, and easily replaced by tax-free cash on the side. If that failed, inducing helpless terror was a sufficient substitute.

Once my blood was drawn and sealed, Dr. Levental saw me and Binah out into the waiting room. His son was there at reception, shy and darkly handsome in his skullcap, and he glanced up at us and smiled as we passed by. At the door, I turned to face the doctor and offer to shake, but he pressed a second envelope into my hand instead. The elder’s face was graven.

“There is one other thing,” he said. “This is the current address I know of for Moris Falkovich. You said my gossip on the subject might be useful.”

“Yes.” I took the second slip, and stowed it with the first. “But not for me. I know people who are searching for missing children. Children with organs capable of performing miracles.”

He frowned. “And you are helping them?”

The imagery of my dream returned: a crowd of children, bodies red with blood, their eyes missing. Their sightless stares had not felt like an accusation; they had felt like a plea. They were waiting for us. “Yes. If I can.”

The doctor nodded, his mouth a grim slash drawn under his beard. “I don’t like to speak badly of someone, Alexi, even if they have turned their back on my community. But Falkovich? If he is doing what I now believe he might be doing, he deserves whatever is coming to him.”

Chapter 22

Binah and I returned to Strange Kitty, and walked right into a raging hurricane of conflict.

Jenner, Mason, Zane and Duke had their backs to the pool table, facing down Spotted Elk, Michael the Pathrunner, and a rag-tag collection of other people, some of whom I recognized from the convocation. The rest of the Tigers lounged, loomed, and leaned around the room. There was a heavy silence from their side of the clubhouse: this was their territory, and their leaders, and they were not impressed. Aaron stood off to the side in plain-clothes, rubbing the back of his hand nervously. Talya was seated at the bar, looking sullen in a sundress and sneakers, but Ayashe was notably absent.

“You can’t just assume control of this investigation with a band of vigilantes and destroy potential crime scenes without keeping us in the loop!” Spotted Elk was holding a space of his own in front of the bar, voice raised. He was turning hoarse, like he’d been shouting for a while. “That’s not how it’s done, that’s never been how it’s done, and it shouldn’t be how it’s done!”

“Then stop being such a panty-waisted wimp, get off your hands, and fucking do something.” Jenner had her arms crossed, boots planted.

“The FBI has already arrested one suspect who might be involved, based on the forensic evidence–”

“And they’re going to be too late.” Jenner switched to hands on hips. “It’s two weeks as of today, and you know as well as I do that every day that passes is another day for some son-of-a-bitch to be making more skin-flicks with our kids.”

Michael saw me first, glancing up and across to meet my eyes.

Spotted Elk took a step towards her, face flushed with rage. “You destroyed a key piece of evidence when you went charging in like a pack of wild animals. And now you think that you have the right to trample the changing grounds of the Ross family without oversight – a location which is, I might add, probably a crime scene – in the hope of ‘discovering’ something no one else has found? If Aaron hadn’t come forward… what are we going to tell the FBI if we destroy more evidence? That film could have been used to make mass arrests, Jenner. They could have found and arrested the man—”

“We found the man. He’s permanently arrested,” Mason rumbled.

“Only one is dead. His friends are still at large, and we have not even found one child,” Michael said. His calm voice pierced the hot tension like a flush of cold water. “John has the right of it.”

“I can’t believe this.” Jenner threw her hands up. “So what are you going to do? Tell the FBI the location of a changing ground?”

“I won’t break the covenant if we don’t have to.”

“No, John. You DON’T break the covenant.” Zane said. It was the first time I’d heard him speak up in one of these arguments. “Changing grounds are secret for a reason.”

“This is true,” Michael said. “We cannot release details of anyone’s territory, even when they are dead.”

Jenner sneered. “So in other words, you’re not going to do anything. You throw a tantrum when we offer to go, and you throw the book down when I suggest you go to the FBI. So what are you going to do?”

“We are living in America under American law!” Spotted Elk snapped. “Roving bands of hunters worked when this world was undeveloped, Jenner. It doesn’t work anymore. We need to leverage our allies and resources, or they will pick us off one at a time.”

“Or they’ll take us out all at once because we’re sitting on our asses and not doing anything useful,” Jenner replied. “You really think that the FBI and the cops aren’t tied up with the mob? You think the Vigiles are our friends? What makes you think that their money isn’t what’s bankrolling this shit?”

“Now wait just a second there,” Aaron said. No one but me seemed to hear him.

“Because I’m not paranoid beyond reason,” Spotted Elk replied.

“Witchhunters spent three hundred years chasing our asses down. You really believe that the Government arm of the Venator Dei is just going to make friends and let live?” Jenner’s eyes blazed. “You’d think being born into a tribe this lifetime would have taught you something about the authorities in this country.”

Spotted Elk’s expression darkened. “That was a low blow, and you know it.”

“I know it’s the truth. Me and my family saw plenty of what the Government had to offer in Vietnam.”

“Stop this now.” Michael held his hands up, and moved from his place. “I’ve heard enough.”

An uneasy silence fell. Spotted Elk ground his teeth, stepped back, and finally noticed me. Jenner followed his line of sight, and then turned back to Michael.

“Both of you make important points. It is true we cannot break the covenant and reveal the territory of any person, living or dead.” The Pathrunner spoke intently, but with authority. “The accord with Federal law only goes so far. Changing grounds are sacrosanct, unless they constitute a crime scene. And this one may very well provide clues or evidence for the Federal and state police.”

“Pathrunner, with all due respect—” Mason started forward.

“Wait.” Michael turned dark eyes on him, and the larger man fell back. “What we can do is appraise the changing ground and then report anything we find to Ayashe, who will relay it to her organization. The three most senior representatives from the primary Waw-Ropor are here already. I suppose a compromise can be made, if I, John and Jenner go to the changing ground and make our assessment together. If we find anything unusual, we can report it to the authorities.”

“So basically, exactly what we were going to do anyway, but you’re going to babysit us the whole time,” Jenner said. “Fine, whatever, but I want to stay here to plan a contingency with the club. I’m nominating that Mason to go in my place.”

“Suits me,” Mason replied. “Ain’t like I never been bushwhacking before.”

Spotted Elk looked less than thrilled, unable to meet anyone’s eyes as his lips twitched and his hands pawed restlessly in his pockets. “Very well. I accept this suggestion, but I need to go back to my home to get ready first.”

“The changing ground is a three-hour drive from here,” Michael said. “Take whatever you feel you need to prepare yourself. Let us aim to spend an hour there, to return by ten or eleven p.m.”

“About frigging time.” Mason rolled his eyes and pushed off from the edge of the pool table, shambling off into the house.

As the circle broke, I stepped forward. “Might I suggest you line your trunk with plastic and take good gloves?”

The Elders turned as one to face me, momentarily stunned.

“If there is evidence, and you do end up taking from the changing ground, you don’t want any oil or fibers to get on it.” I shrugged. “Besides that, magical objects are often triggered by skin contact.”

“We won’t be touching anything,” Spotted Elk said. “There will be no magical objects.”

I sighed. “A Spook disappeared there. It suggests something happened.”

“Cut Rex some slack. He’s a professional.” Jenner grinned as she joined me by my side. “Wanna go with them?”

“I have to work on something else tonight,” I said, fighting the instinctive urge to glance at Spotted Elk. He was still fidgeting nervously, deep in quiet conversation with Aaron. “Something relevant to the investigation.”

“And what would that be?” Spotted Elk said.

Admitting my plan to visit Moris Falkovich was almost certain to cause another childish fight as pointless as it was ridiculous. I’d been twisting the wrists of freaks like Falkovich since I was in highschool. If he had the kind of security I couldn’t manage alone, I’d tell Jenner before I admitted anything to John Spotted Elk.

I attempted a smile as the pleasant, cool certainty of impending violence settled through my body. “Research. One of my contacts has given me information that could result in a lead. With luck, we will make two breakthroughs in one night.”

“Good.”  Jenner slapped me on the back. “About time someone took some initiative.  You look into that, while Michael and me go out back and discuss the location of the changing ground. Won’t we, Michael?”

“You presume much.” Michael’s still face had taken a cold, arrogant cast.

“I presume you’re going to help your Elder find twenty-one missing children, yeah.” Jenner gave him a stiff little grin.

The Pathrunner grimaced, looking to Spotted Elk. When he saw that John and the other Fires were already heading for the exit, he turned on his heel and headed for the red door, his back straight, shoulders tense. Jenner followed him. Her hands were fisted by her sides.

“I see.” I drew a deep breath, and looked back at the rest of the Tigers. The majority of them were dispersing. Duke, Zane, Big Ron and the mechanic-looking man had moved to the side and were now in a tight huddle of conversation. The only person still interested in me was Aaron, as he pushed through the milling bikers with a smile.

“How was your meeting with Christopher?” He asked. “More productive than this, I hope?”

“In theory.” I crossed my arms instinctively. Binah was still riding on my shoulder, silent, her purring having died against the wall of tension. “He was charming, and he was able to tell me a lot about the church, but very little about the couple. The children didn’t even really come up.”

“Well, the police have already been through all that with him,” Aaron said.

“Not you, I assume?” I arched an eyebrow.

“Not a chance,” Aaron said. He shook his head. “Conflict of interest.”

When I got to the bedroom to get ready for my night’s outing, I took the chance to read through the written information my doctor had passed to me. The one on Falkovich was just an address. The other one, my trade for Celso, went into a bit more detail. As I began to read through it, my heart sank.

“GOD damn it!” With the luxury of privacy, I swore out loud and threw the slip down onto the floor, exasperated. Doctor Levental’s fighter was a man named Viktor Bravic. His opponent for the Saturday semi-final was Zane Salter.

Chapter 23

When one went to accost a well-known, expensive ex-Jewish surgeon at his place of residence, one did not expect to end up in Hunts Point. A prestigious title like ‘Pediatric Transplant Specialist’ generally conveyed a love of comfortable living somewhere east of Brooklyn: Colonial architecture, a well-manicured lawn, small fluffy dogs. Doctors tended to keep houses that were clean and respectable, at least by appearances.

I forgot all about Zane and Celso when I pulled up in front of the house, checked the address, rubbed my eyes and read the number on the fence again to make sure. Moris Falkovich’s house was a dump. He lived in a two-story white clapboard squeezed between a warehouse and a wholesale bakery in what was otherwise an industrialized wasteland. The strip of buildings – including the house – backed out onto a large, empty dirt lot with a lot of trash and rows of jagged concrete stumps that could be seen from the end of the driveway. There was a huge scrapyard across the street. It was desolate, cramped, and dismal. It was the perfect place to hide a monster.

The place made my lip curl and my feet hesitate. The tiny yard and driveway had a short, white chain link fence that reminded me all too much of my family home in Brighton Beach. The yard was studded with old merry-go round horses impaled on poles. Their intricate details were blocked out by thick layers of cheap acrylic paint, each horse a different solid color. Their eyes were flat and lifeless, painted solid black.

The cold wind had turned to pelting rain. I ran from my car to the shelter of the porch, my hand on the butt of the pistol under my jacket. When the wind turned right, the gusting rain carried the smell of something unpleasant, wrong, a sick sweetness that stood out against the normal rusty undertone that pervaded all of these older parts of New York. It smelled like meat left out for too many days in the weak winter sun. I was glad that I’d left Binah behind, but the gun was looking like a bad decision. I drew the knife instead, turning it back along my arm.

The front door was loose, banging with each shift in the storm as it blew down the street in waves. I reached for the handle: from the back of the warehouse next door, something rattled and banged, loudly. I threw myself around the concrete retainer separating the porch from the yard, pulse hammering in my throat. A long, tense minute passed, but no one rounded the yard, no shoes sounded against the pavement. Warily, I rose, and sniffed. Nothing, no one was out there that I could see, but it had put me off wanting to try the front door.

I went back out into the wall of rain, jumped the flimsy chain link gate dividing the rear from the front, and dropped down to the mud on the other side. The empty lot was very dark, lit only by the low reddish clouds. Here and there, old children’s toys were scattered like rubbish. A sour feeling pressed at the back of my throat, and I turned the knife around on the way to the back door, blade facing out. It was locked, but the deadbolt was old and easy to slip. I bumped it carefully, pausing after the handle turned to see if anyone had heard the knock of the knife hilt against the bump key. No one responded. I opened the door and slid through in a wary crouch, only to back out half a second later as the stench of decaying meat, old piss and rotten food slapped me so hard that my eyes watered. “Jesus Christ.”

It was warm inside, and lightless. GOD help me, but I wanted the gun. The knife felt tiny, useless, as I pulled my cap off and pressed it over my mouth and nose. I slipped back inside, letting my eyes adjust before heading deeper into the house.

The kitchen was the source of the smell. The counters were piled with dirty dishes, many of which had slipped to the ground and shattered amongst empty mac and cheese boxes and crumpled cling film. There was a dog bowl half full of rotten food, and the room reeked of animal urine, acrid and suffocating. Microwave meal trays and empty plates had been thrown against one of the walls, the overflow from trash bags tied to the cupboard handles. My boots crunched on broken porcelain and glass from one end of the room to the other. There was a short hall leading to the den, where the fetid odor of death and feces gathered in a grim, stagnant cloud.

The den was where I found the fluffy dogs: two Pomeranians. One had its skull crushed along the floor in a long smear of dried gore, recognizable only by its fox-like fur and drumstick legs. The other dog hung over the back of the shabby sofa like an abandoned accordion. Something had not quite pulled it apart into a distended mess. Blood was smeared in double tracks across the ground, a ten-fingered trail from the sofa to the stairs and up. The bloody trail continued up to the loft landing and around the corner.

The door at the end was closed, smeared with black and red. There was no hiding my approach – the floor creaked under my weight as I stepped forward and tapped the door hilt with the handle of the knife. No static, no explosions, no trappings of a ward that I could see. I was beginning to regret not bringing any of the Weeders, but the dead weren’t dangerous in and of themselves – merely disturbing.

I took a moment to steel my stomach and my nerves, then turned the knob and kicked the door in, flashlight held up, the knife held low. The door swung in and crashed off the wall inside. A wave of putrefaction roiled out from the room into the hallway. Whoever, whatever was in there, it was extremely dead.

Moris Falkovich – I presumed it was Moris – hung motionless from the exposed rafters of his attic bedroom: a large space with a huge bed in the center, a door leading off to some smaller room on my right. His face was swollen, a livid, eyeless lumpy sack close to bursting with old blood. Empty orbital sockets stared straight at the entryway, boring into me. A thin whine was growing in my ears, a chorus of tiny drills that grew louder and more insistent over seconds of time. Then I saw her, smelled her. Another hanging, another death.

My mother.

No. No! I locked my teeth and focused on the real, the man. Moris was small and thin, with a deeply recessed chin and a hairy, bony pigeon chest. His mouth was open. It was full of black things, crawling. My vision cut, chopped, blurred: I saw my mother hanging in his place, her dress limp, her blue eyes bloodshot and bulging.

My teeth creaked. I stumbled back against the wall, hands burning inside my gloves. They itched like they were covered in dirt and slime, blood, fluids. Dirty dirty dirty.

“Why weren’t you there, Alexi?” The body’s stiff, slug-thick lips twisted. The tongue moved, rasping each word into the echoing darkness of the attic, and in the torch beam, I saw a convulsive ripple pass through its limbs.

“No.” I stepped back, behind the threshold, slapping at the wall to find the light switch. “This is a trap.”

“You weren’t there, Alexi.” It spoke in her voice now, breathy and fragile, ripping it from my memory. “Why did you leave me here with him?”

I strained against the illusion, popping my teeth. The taste of blood flooded my mouth. My fingers hit something small and hard. They were shaking so bad that I slipped across the light switch before I caught it and flipped it up. Light flooded the room – and a cloud of black motes, finer than flies but larger than dust – burst from the hanged man’s mouth and flew straight at my face as two shambling figures lurched from the unnaturally thick shadows and began to limp towards me.

I threw the knife up as the cloud swarmed me and staggered forwards, trying to break through the cloud and away. Pinhead-sized bugs landed on my exposed skin and began to drill and dig, shrieking like rusty machinery. I covered my face with my arms and tripped into the dresser beside the bed, spinning crazily, and burst through the door in the bedroom into an ensuite bathroom, clawing and scraping at my cheeks and scalp. The knife drew cold lines through my own flesh: it was all that kept the black screeching motes from boring in all the way.

The bugs fled from the touch of the blade with the deafening flicker of metallic wings, coming back to jab at my eyes, my nose, my lips. The things were gathering at my mouth, trying to prise it open. Clawing and fighting the urge to cry out, I hit something at knee-height, tumbled, and fell heavily into a bathtub. A flailing hand struck something. The faucet?

I fumbled for it again, blind, flesh burning as things began to wriggle under the skin of my scalp. A flood of water struck me in the face, washing away blood and a crowd of screaming, furious insects. The water turned hot, and the wail built to an ear-shattering pitch as they pulled themselves free from my head and withdrew like angry hornets.

The stench of a slaughterhouse broke through the rushing water: the reek of rotten meat and the clinging odor of chlorine mingled into a violet smell so powerful that my vision pulsed with the color, nauseating and unnatural and dead. Sputtering, I forced my eyes open and flushed them with hot water, turning blindly towards the door on instinct. Through the fog and mist, a pig’s head swam into view. It was slack-jawed and flopped weirdly to one side, the liquefying remains of its eyes streaked down its sagging, rotten jowls. The head was roughly stitched to the swollen, mutilated corpse of a child rendered sexless by a thick line of stitches from collarbone to crotch. A wave of toxic air blew into the bathroom in its wake.

Jesus fucking Christ. I retched, choking on bile and pressing back against the wall as lizard brain took the wheel. In one smooth motion, I pulled the pistol from my sopping jacket, aimed, and plugged three rounds into the nightmare before it reached the tub. It careened into the bathroom sink, scattering toiletries and chintzy statuettes to the floor. Bottles and cans rolled towards the bathtub, drowned out by the bark of the silenced rounds as I fired two more shots through the spray. Gelatinous, rotten blood blew backwards from the corpse, splattering the wall and a second ghoul crowding in behind it, this one with the head of a goat. The second dead child reached for me with skeletal hands turned to claws as it tripped over its brother and righted itself on the way forward.

The cloud of insects was still in here. They swarmed for the splattered mess on the mirror, congregating on it like wasps on honey as Goathead swiped at me through the water. The claws missed my groin by an inch as I scrambled to one side and emptied the clip point-blank into its skull. Six bullets were enough to blow it back and put it down, thrashing and jerking on the floor, but it they didn’t kill it. Tumorous masses bubbled up from the entry and exit wounds. They fleshed out and then erupted into more black bugs.

They were some kind of Morphorde. DOGs, demons. Shit. Shit shit shit, I’d used the gun!

Pighead was struggling to sit up as I dropped the pistol and got out of the bath, went to the window and smashed it with the end of my knife, shattering it and admitted a blast of cold, sweet air. The sound drew the attention of the DOG-bugs. They broke away from their meal with an angry screech, a dark arrow of spined bodies that flew at my face through the cooling water.

I swept off the counter beside me and threw whatever came to hand, cursing myself all the while. I’d forgotten that DOGs were vulnerable to eggs. EGGS. I’d forgotten to bring the one stupid thing that would save my life, and it was going to be my last and only mistake.

Chapter 24

The enlarged swarm passed around everything hurled and sprayed at it. Soap, shampoo, a can of hairspray. I picked up a featureless brown bottle and pulled the cork out, intending to throw it and whatever was inside of it. A sharp green odor cut through the putrefaction of the air, and the swarm turned away with a scream of fury, wings slicing at the skin of my guarding forearm as they curved around and then started back towards me.

It was peppermint oil. I swigged a mouthful of it and spat it as a mist as the spear of bodies closed in a second time. The DOGs screeched like a rusty drill burrowing through sheet metal. The flock symmetry of the swarm dissolved as tiny bodies tumbled against my face like gravel and bounced lifelessly to the floor. The stuff burned my nose and eyes, but I spat again, sputtering and coughing, and sure enough, they continued to fall. The bugs whirled in the air like sparrows and blew through the en suite door, fleeing to the fetid safety of the bedroom.

Pighead took me at waist height, charging like a bull. It slammed into me with heedless strength, bouncing me off the wall. Black peg teeth sunk into my belly and gripped skin, worrying at me while I stabbed down at its head. The knife punched its rot-softened skull like soggy cardboard. It didn’t slow in the slightest, squealing and thrashing until I poured the oil into the wounds. The teeth released as the dead thing reeled away. Its entire head collapsed into reeking black sludge.

I shoved it away and it toppled backwards, limbs jerking as nameless slime oozed across the floor. The smell burned the air and dulled the light and I threw up, right there on the spot. There was nothing in my stomach but acid and peppermint oil, and it burned my already-inflamed mouth like fire. Through a film of tears, I saw Goathead trying to get to its feet. The bullets had blown its head back, exposing the severed human neck underneath, but it hadn’t killed it.

Coughing, choking on fumes and struggling against the retching, I dumped the rest of the bottle onto it as it staggered at me. There wasn’t much peppermint oil left. It kept on coming for a few seconds, while I kicked it away and stomped, crushing it underfoot until the spastic limbs fell still.

GOD, what else could I use in here? I scanned the clutter on the counter for anything else I had to destroy the DOGs, the insects. My scalp was still crawling and stinging, and my brain couldn’t help but associate the sensation with larvae pulsing under my skin. I searched through bottles with my nose, keeping one eye on the bathroom door and my knife in hand. Yellow smells, sharp and muddy smells… I found a pump bottle of tea-tree oil in a small first aid kit. It had a similar sharp green smell as the peppermint, so I dumped the lot of it over my head, rubbing it over the burning wounds. I didn’t even feel the pain, too desperate to care. Nothing crawled out and plopped onto the counter. I leaned in to stare in the broken mirror, clawing at my face, my scalp and mouth until I was sure nothing had burrowed in or reproduced in my body. The wounds were angry and bleeding, but they didn’t bulge or wriggle.

I stumbled along the wall, holding my breath, and only gasped for air once I was out beyond the reach of the fetid stench from the bathroom. The bedroom stunk like an abandoned abattoir, but it was leagues better than the stench of those… things? Zombies? I had no fucking idea what they were. All I knew is that children had been murdered to create them. My stomach trembled, my throat hurt, and my breath wheezed as I fought for composure, for insight, for anything other than visions of dead children. Dripping water and tea-tree oil and blood, I stared around the room, and really saw it for the first time.

The body hung there, motionless and mottled, his head grotesquely swollen. Moris was dressed for bed. The corpse hummed like an angry hive, bristling with the small wet sounds of chewing mandibles. The dresser on the other side of the room had been smashed open, the drawer flung at the walk-in wardrobe on the other side of the room. The shattered wood was half embedded in the door. Whatever had come in here was too strong for my blood.

But what caught my eye and held it were the symbols eked out in blood – or red paint that looked like blood – over the headboard of the bed. The number 13, drawn above two interlocking rings with eight spokes each. Underneath them, was the signature from Lily and Dru’s house. ‘Soldier 557’.

I passed my hand back over my head, staring at it foggily. Circles were a figure of completion, each one representing one whole. Two of something. Eight plus eight was sixteen. Two-eight-eight? No… two-sixteen. The corpse twitched as the bugs continued to feed. I couldn’t stay here.

I slammed the door behind me and coated the knob and lock with oil, keeping the tiny bottle close to my nose. With the knife ready, I thundered down the stairs and back into the abandoned den. I’d come here to find evidence. I needed to take something away, anything at all.

Falkovich’s office was a large room offside the den. Compared to the rest of the house, it was spotless – or it had been before someone had trashed it. The plants inside were dead, shriveled to nothing. Filing cabinets were overturned. His answering machine was torn from the wall, the cassette missing from inside. Only one thing had been left intact on the desk: a personal computer with a built-in screen. The person – or people – who trashed the office had pushed it to the edge of the desk, but hadn’t smashed it up.

Gingerly, I approached. I’d never touched a computer in my life. I knew what they were, vaguely, because I’d seen them in use in offices and warehouses. As far as I understood, they were interactive machines that stored documents, documents which might incriminate Falkovich. So why had it been left here, undamaged?

The first rule of electronics was to find a way to turn it on. After a protracted search, I flipped a switch and then pushed in a power button. The interface lit up and began to rumble and mutter to itself. I hung back warily, checking over my shoulder for the swarm, and nearly jumped out of my skin when the entire computer honked loudly, then ground in the way that some munitions did just before they exploded. I was already out the door by the time it had finished. When nothing happened, I peered back inside in time to see a company logo flash up, a picture that transitioned to a blank black void with a flickering cursor. I jumped again as the machine beeped and spooled text out down the screen of its own accord, and then loaded another image with four distinct panels. They read: Information, Microsoft Works, Your Software, and IBM DOS.

The most complex piece of technology I’d ever owned was a radio. Cautiously, I slipped back into the room and touched the Information heading on the screen, but nothing happened. Crestfallen, I looked over the keyboard and lit on the click-and-pointer to the side of it. I tried touching that to see if could be used to look at the Information doubtlessly stored on the computer, but accidentally hit a button. I suddenly found myself in ‘Your Software’, which was nothing but a confusing jumble of lists and pictures of manilla folders. I was officially out of my depth.

There had to be someone who knew how to access the information on this machine, but it wasn’t me. The thing I could do was take it with me. I tore the cables from the wall and hefted up, then took it outside to the car. It was tempting to leave it at that and drive away, but I steeled myself and went back into the house to continue the search. My eyes watered as I walked back into the sensory assault of dog piss, dead bodies and rotten food. Underneath that, there was the faint skin-ruffling reek of human desperation.

It was only once I closed the back door that I noticed that the swing was within the arc of another door set flush with the wall. They were on acute angles to one another, and set so close together that I hadn’t noticed it when I’d first entered the house. The back door had to be shut for this one to be accessible. I tested the handle. It was locked, but nothing that I couldn’t open. After a few minutes and a few taps with the knife hilt against the bump key, I turned the lock and pushed the door in to reveal a flight of stairs leading down. An earthy, musty stench rolled out into the sourness of the kitchen: very human smells of sweat, feces, and rotting food.

I braced the entry open with a bag of trash, stomach turning, then stripped off my wet jacket and then my shirt. I tied the wet tee around my face, pushing the knot around the back, and kept the knife down low on the way down. I didn’t want to be caught in nothing but a wifebeater, but if I didn’t have something over my nose and mouth, I was going to puke again.

There was a light switch which snapped when flipped, lighting a dim yellow bulb at the bottom of the stairs. The staircase was narrow, damp and squeaky. Underlying the hollow clomping of my boots was a heavy silence that hung in the dead air, until my foot turned a particularly creaky board and I heard something gasp from much further down. The sound quickly cut.

“Who’s there?” I stepped off onto the floor. Even with the damp rag around my face, it was hard going. Medieval gibbets probably smelled like this. “Come out, and no one needs to get hurt!”

There was no reply. With the knife held ready, eyes fixed ahead on the darkness, I patted the wall beside me for more switches. When I found them, the whole room lit up with flickering fluorescent strips that clunked to life, every other one dim or dead. It was enough to see what was causing the smell.

Cells. Rows and rows of cells, like the kind they keep dogs in at the pound. There was a camp bed at one end of the room with a gym mat laid on top in place of a real mattress. The center of the basement was cleared to make room for an ornate magic circle drawn in permanent black marker. The focus of the circle was an autopsy tray on a plain steel frame, and that was all. No blood. No tools. Just stark, clean metal.

I looked up. The basement ceiling was heavily insulated with exposed fiberglass batts. There was a bracket for fitting a surgical lamp, but no lamp was in evidence. My bet was that they borrowed and returned the equipment for whatever they did down here. The circle was like nothing I’d ever seen before: a triple ring executed with the same precision as the designs left with the body upstairs. The ring around the outside was the containment layer. Just inside of that, smaller circles had been interspersed around the ring like stations, each one emblazoned with an unfamiliar sigil: a squiggle something like an insect’s leg. They in turn were linked by the inner ring. The central design under the table was not geometric – or more accurately, it was not symmetrically geometric. The lines were precisely ruled, but the vaguely-star shaped design was off-center, with uneven points. There was scrawled writing inside and around the whole thing, alien and unintelligible. I was staring at it, trying to make individual words out, when a small whimper punctured the thick silence.

Slowly, I turned in the direction of the sound. It had come from the pen closest to the bed. I drew up beside to the door, flexing my fingers around the hilt of the knife, and glanced around through the wire.

It was the girl from the video. The one with the waist-length mop of red curls.

Bozhe moi.” I uttered the oath before I could contain myself, coming around to stand before her. She shrank back until she was pressed to the far wall of her cell, legs drawn up, her cheek pressed against her hands. Her eyes were huge with animal terror. She was bound to a ring bolt by a heavy black collar and chain.

Over all the years I’d worked for Sergei, Rodion and Lev, I’d done and seen my share of horrors. I’d broken wards that sucked the life out of people, made a man spontaneously combust, and knocked my father’s brains out with a hammer. But when this girl looked up at me with nothing but feral, exhausted certainty, I knew that this was the limit. This was the line that I’d draw in stone, and anyone on the other side of that line was fair game for the rest of my life.

“Josie?” I dropped my hand and pulled the shirt away from my face, letting it hang around my neck. “You’re Josie, aren’t you?”

Her stare did not waver. She didn’t nod, or even blink, but a tremor passed through her thin limbs.

“It’s going to be okay.” I spoke to her the way I would a stray animal, checking behind me in case something had decided to use her as bait and set me up. “Just… hold on a couple more minutes.”

I sheathed the knife and ran my hands over the door, searching for a bolt, something to pull across or flip up. There was nothing that sophisticated. The gates were padlocked and chained shut. The keys weren’t downstairs, but after rummaging around near the bed, I found a cardboard box with tools, including a pair of rusty boltcutters – for emergencies, I guessed. It took every bit of remaining strength I had to snap the lock on the doors. Josie pressed in closer to the wall, clinging to it with her hands.

I crouched down at the entry to the cell, and held my shirt out to her. “My name’s Alexi,” I said, slowly. “Some people sent me to help you. Do you know the Twin Tigers? The people who ride the motorcycles?”

After a moment, Josie nodded, a single jerk of her head. Her breathing was quick, like a small bird.

“I will come in here, and I will cut that chain off. Here… cover yourself with this.” I motioned with the shirt again.

Slowly, she reached out and took it. She didn’t put it on: she hugged it to her chest as I went inside, rolling her eyes to track my position as I cut her free. The collar was fixed in place with a screw that was too tight to get out with my fingers. We’d have to deal with it at Strange Kitty.

“Josie, we have to go outside in the rain.” I slung my jacket back on over the holster. “I’m going to carry you upstairs, but if there are any bad guys up there, I’ll have to drop you. You just run outside, okay? Run for the car.”

She nodded mutely, sagging against the wall.

Josie looked up at me, the shirt wrapped around her body. “Where is everyone else? Did they cut them up?”

“I don’t know, zolotsye’. But we have to go now.” I offered her a hand. After a moment, she accepted. Her fingers trembled against my palm.

Before now, I’d thought of the Morphorde as something blunt and simple. Demons flying at your face, monsters under your bed. People like Jana, whose Neshamah was damaged and crazy, or Lev, who was merely power-hungry. Committed misanthropes like Sergei and Nicolai. What I hadn’t considered was that some Morphorde, maybe most Morphorde, wore masks. Maybe they didn’t know they were evil, or maybe they could live two lives, one wholesome, one tainted. A man could walk into a spotless hospital with a clean lab coat and a white smile, and come home to… this.

As I expected, Josie could barely stand, let alone walk. When we reached the stairs, I didn’t even pause to think, to resent the contact or the responsibility as I swung her up into my arms, bundled her under my coat, and carried her out of Hell.

Chapter 25

I reversed the car into the driveway besides Strange Kitty and all the way back to the garage entry, scattering bystanders loitering under umbrella stands and tarp marquees. The rain was still hammering down as I flung the doors open, collected Josie into my arms, and ran with her – limp and exhausted beyond consciousness – into the relative warmth and safety of the clubhouse.

Talya was in some kind of intense conversation with Zane on one of the sofas against the far wall, watching three of the Tigers shoot pool. When the door banged open, they were first up on their feet.

“Rex!” Talya cried out as I swept past the confused pack of Weeders and headed for the door leading into the house. “What is- oh my god.”

Both of them were right behind me on our way to the bunkroom. I lay Josie down on one of the spare beds, limp and unresponsive. She’d lapsed into a faint sometime on the way home.

I checked her pupils and her breathing, stripping my gloves to feel for her pulse. “She needs fluids and careful warming. Get me the first aid kit… I have a bag of saline in there.”

“Where is it?” Talya asked, her voice high and panicked.

“Here, Tally. I got it.” Zane was already pulling it across the floor from the end of my bed. The street surgery kit was far too large to fit underneath.

I worked quickly, vaguely aware that I still smelled like a charnel ground. I doused my hands in alcohol, pulled on gloves, and set up the needle. We hung the bag from the ladder leading up to the top bunk. I had swabbed Josie clean and was just sliding the needle into the crook of her arm when Jenner stalked into the room.

“Jesus Christ,” she said, out of breath. She smelled of liquor and cigarette smoke. “You found them? Where the living fuck did you—”

“Only one,” I said, concentrating on landing the needle in the vein.

“Oh God. Jesus fucking Christ.” Jenner crouched down by the head of the bed, one of her hands matted through her hair. Behind me, I heard the soft sounds of someone crying.

I tapped the needle, and a small amount of blood flushed back into the tube. I connected the line and opened the flow, and fluid began to wind its way down from the drip chamber. When I was sure it was working the way it was supposed to, I crouched back on my heels and let out a harsh, tense breath.

“’Research’, huh?” Jenner said. She was staring at me, her eyes hard and black.

“I told you. I hit up one of my contacts today.” My voice was cracked, breaking on every other word. “He pointed me to a dodgy transplant surgeon who recently started making a lot of money off children’s organs. I went there to pay him a visit, thinking I could get a lead. He was dead. There was… it… Lily and Dru’s murderer got to him first. Josie was in his basement. She was the only child in the place.”

“Those fucks. They knew we’d find him and they shut him up,” Jenner bounced to her feet, wire-strung. I could hear and smell a clamor of people gathering at the open bedroom door. “What about the others?”

“Two dead,” I said. I swallowed: my throat felt like it was full of sand. “The Blank boys. Moris Falkovich killed them.”

“What the fuck, Rex?” Jenner was pacing back and forth. “What the actual fuck is wrong with people?”

How could I tell her? That the men I knew – Nicolai, Petro, Sergei and Vanya – knew that car parts sell better than whole vehicles? That a healthy kidney was worth a hundred grand on the street? That at least one young mage’s organs, innocently charged with Phi, were being stripped and loaded into the sons and daughters of wealthy people, people who felt their children deserved life more than an anonymous stolen child?

I swallowed, trying to wet my mouth. “I took Falkovich’s computer. He had a computer in his office… it might have evidence on it. Whoever was in there took or destroyed all his paperwork. I don’t know how to search for information on the machine.”

“I do. I’ll find any files that are on there.” Talya sounded thick, her voice tearing like yellow paper in my mouth. “If anything was deleted, I can recover them.”

“Where on Earth did you learn that?” I knelt back, dry-mouthed and woozy.

“I manage I.T at the Museum,” she replied. “That’s my job there… I’m part of the I.T systems project team for the Smithsonian. Can we set up a table near an outlet?”

The question was directed at the room more than it was at any one person. I stood and swayed, catching myself before I stumbled and hit my head against the railing of the bunk. Everything turned black for a moment, and I suddenly found myself on the other side of the room, my arm resting over Zane’s shoulder as he sat us down.

“You need to rest,” he said. “You’re about to pass out.”

“The house was really very unpleasant,” I said. It made sense in my head to point that out. “The computer is in the car outside. You should probably take it somewhere else and leave it far away from here. The car, that is.”

“No worries. But you need to lie down.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” I replied. “I might have hit my head a few times.”

He and Talya ended up arranging pillows into a mound and resting me back against them. My head was pounding with slow, thunderous pain that gathered between my eyes and knocked in time with each heartbeat. When someone gave me pills and water, I didn’t bother to check what they were. I took them, and as soon as the light was turned out, I fell asleep.

It was still dark when I next roused. The moon was full and fat outside the window, and while it was still windy enough to make the panes rattle, the rain had stopped and the clouds had cleared. My headache had gone from an eight to a five, but I felt queasy and parched. Binah was curled in a tight ball between my ankles, while Josie slept on her bed on the other side of the room. Her saline bag was nearly empty.

Groggily, I threw back more painkillers and chased it down with an anti-nausea tablet, then rummaged through my medical supplies. I’d been doing more healing than killing since leaving the Organizatsiya, and I had fewer bags of sterile fluids than I had boxes of ammunition. The necessity of going to a pharmacist and restocking was on my mind as I stumbled out into the house, expecting it to be quiet. Instead, the lights were blazing and the common room was laid out like an armory.

Jenner, Zane, Duke and Talya were still awake. The Tigers were finishing getting ready for a bear-hunt: soft body armor, leather jackets, boots, helmets, crossbows and shotguns. They had assembled the computer on the bar counter. Talya was working at the keyboard, scanning lines of white text as it tumbled down a featureless black screen.

“Has something happened?” I moved forwards, relatively steady on my feet. Sokolsky men have always been notoriously resilient to head trauma.

“It’s five in the morning and Mason hasn’t come back,” Jenner said, her voice flat with forced calm. “Neither have John or Michael. Something’s wrong. We’re going there to search, now.”

“Let me get my things,” I said. “I’ll go with you.”

“You sure you’re up for this?” Zane shrugged on his heavy jacket

“Of course.” I cracked my neck and rolled my shoulders, then carefully turned around and wobbled off back the way I came. It was absolutely a lie, but I had no choice – when it starts raining shit, you never get a trickle. It’s always a flood.

Zane and I took the Buick, while Duke and Jenner rode behind and beside us on their hogs, visors down against the spitting rain and gusting wind. Zane chewed a toothpick, worrying it down to fibers while we cleared the city limit and hit the highway out of town. Binah was fixed to my shoulder, her flank pressed against the side of my head, meowing with excitement as she stared out the window. If pirates could have shoulder parrots, I guess I could have a cat.

The sun was just barely warming the horizon when Zane finally spoke. “What do you think we’ll find there?”

“Not a clue,” I replied. In the back of my mind, I was turning around the words I’d use to discuss his fight on Saturday, the one that I needed him to throw. I could be honest, and tell him what finding Celso meant to me, or I could lie and say it was about the children. For the sake of expediency, I was leaning towards the latter.

“I’m worried,” Zane said. “Someone taking out a couple of Christian counselors is one thing. Mason… man. Mason’s a machine.”

I opened my eyes from where I was dozing against the window. Binah was in my lap, now, sleeping in a tight, twitching ball on my knees. “I guess you must know him well.”

“Yeah.” The big man’s jaw worked. He’d lost the toothpick by now: we’d been driving for nearly an hour. “He went to Vietnam because he wanted to fight. Joined the Marines in 1964, went to war in ’65, and stayed until 1969. He was a true believer back then, he told me. But then he met Jenner.”

I’d been a child during the Vietnam War, far too preoccupied with the depredations of my father and my mother’s death to pay it more than cursory attention. The most significant Vietnam War-related event in my life was its end. “Is she… his wife?”

“No. He wishes, but Jenner isn’t really the marrying type.” Zane smiled, momentarily at ease. “She was Viet Cong, though. That’s the weird thing. They started out as enemies. Jenner was really young – only sixteen or so. She was already unit commander of a rural guerilla team, and she ambushed Mason’s unit and cleared them out. Killed them all. Mason shifted to survive, and she saw it and had to shift to fight him off and protect her men. She kicked his ass and saved their lives, but then her unit and their command basically went and lynched her.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “Humans make precious little sense.”

“It’s a pretty common outcome for Weeders. But anyway… somehow, ages after that, she and Mason ended up running into each other in this prison camp. She’d let herself get captured, because she was planning to change and massacre the place. Mason was touring through there with intelligence looking for this one guy they needed to talk to, and he recognized her. So he set up some time with her and they talked. He learned she was an Elder, and the War was lost by then anyway, so they put things aside. He helped her escape and they went to Thailand for a while.”

“I suppose that if you can remember multiple lives, any single war would seem foolish and transient,” I said.

“Yeah. Being an Elder gives you a new perspective on things, I think,” Zane said. “So they organized to split together. I don’t remember the full story of how they got here, but they started the club in 1980 and kept recruiting. I found them when I started fighting. Mason and me went to Thailand together… they’re like my mom and dad.”

I thought about the strong fraternal bond I’d shared with Vassily and was able to draw some kind of parallel. “Mm.”

“Something has to have happened to them.” Zane was shaking his head, mouth grim, brow furrowed. “But I don’t know how. Have you figured out anything about the murders? I mean… you found Josie.”

“I think it’s one person,” I rubbed the joint of thumb and forefinger and stared out at the dark rush of forest from the window. “An individual killer. Maybe hired, maybe on contract, maybe a summoned entity. I’m leaning towards the latter. I don’t think they’re human.”

“What? Why?”

“The computer,” I said. “Everything else had been trashed, including some of the older electronics. It was almost as if whoever was in there didn’t know what it was, to the point that they overlooked it completely. A demon or summoned fetch wouldn’t know what a computer did, even if they’d been instructed to break all of the telephony. It would look like a rock, or a storage hutch or something. Besides that, there’s evidence that the murderer is supernaturally strong and fast. No footprints, no fingerprints. The tendency to leave messages and codes, as well. In the age of forensic evidence, it’s… old-fashioned.”

Zane grunted, rumbling a little in his throat. “Were there messages left at this guy’s house?”

“Yes.” I closed my eyes, recalling the image. When I lay a hand on Binah’s back, it returned vividly. She went still under my fingers as I pet her. “The number thirteen. Two interlocked rings, each with eight marks. The last message was Biblical, so I’m inclined to say 2-16 rather than, say, ‘eighteen’. Thirteen… the thirteenth book of the Bible is 1 Chronicles. New Testament is 1 Thessalonians. Neither of those bring up any strong memories for me… nothing worth leaving a message about.”

“Thirteen’s a gang number. But… Bible content. Four, maybe?”

“Book four is Numbers. Again, nothing especially arresting or descriptive.”

Zane pursed his lips. “What about the letter M? Thirteenth letter of the alphabet.”

M, maybe. M for Mark, or M for Matthew? There were at least five Books that started with that letter. “It could be. I usually have a good memory for these sorts of things, but after tonight… I’ll have to hunt through it when we get back. I’m sure we can find a copy of the Bible somewhere.”

“Yeah.” Zane’s heavy brow furrowed. In the darkness, he looked like a statue at the wheel. “Man. I hope Mason’s okay. If he and the two oldest Elders of the city can’t take on whatever’s there, we sure as hell can’t.”

I sighed. “I’ve known many strong men – and several strong women – who simply ran out of luck.”

“Maybe. Or he’s hunkered down in the forest,” Zane said. “I mean, he’s a goddamned tiger.”

“Is that the gang motto?” I arched an eyebrow. “’We’re the goddamned Tigers?”

“No. As in, he’s literally a white tiger. Weighs like one and a half thousand pounds.” Zane shook his head, and slowed, scanning the trailheads. Jenner ripped past us, turning her head to look, and then waved Zane on as she took a right onto an off-road track.

I stiffened up in my seat as Binah yawned and then stood up with her paws on the dash, fixing ahead on nothing. “I thought it was a faux-pas to reveal someone’s… other form.”

“Secrecy is what got us all into this mess. I don’t think I really care about it anymore.” Zane pulled onto the track, lighting up the way ahead as Jenner slowed down on the slippery track. “Not when people’s lives are at stake. The Fires guys think the Ka is this big holy secret. The Crew are just private about changing, for the most part. But I mean, we call ourselves the Big Cat Crew and don’t worry about it too much.”

Binah looked up at me meaningfully. I could see her in the headlamp shining in through our rear window, though it was pitch dark outside. When our eyes met, I felt something… synapse. A brief connection, a kind of primitive understanding. She had sensed something, transferring her sense of the world to me, even though I had no magical sense of smell of my own. “There’s something out there.”

“What?” Zane carefully steered us around a sharp turn. It felt like we were going downhill.

“I don’t know.” I pulled my flashlight and ritual knife, the engraved one. Using magical objects without being able to do magic was probably not effective, but the grooves held the tea tree oil better than my other knife. “She feels it.”

“Binah?” Zane rubbed the back of his head. “All-Seeing Eye Cat, right?”

“It’s true.” I wound down the window, shining the light out, and sniffed deeply of the cold, damp air.

Ahead of us, Jenner tapped her brake light. She pulled over to the side of the road, leaving her bike running and the headlight on, and waved us down.

We were coming up on a clearing, with a small, sparse meadow in an area of fallen logs. I saw something with an odd shape looming in the shadows of the trees, and my hand tensed on the knife hilt as we pulled up behind her. Zane turned his headlights up, and they lit on the half-hidden form of a white Jeep parked just outside the treeline.

Jenner broke into a run as she pulled her helmet off and threw it heedlessly behind her on her way to the half-seen car. Now that we were stationary, I could make out shapes that were closer by. There was a square block of concrete, strangely enough, and a narrow trail through the grass and fallen logs that led down a small ridge into the forest below.

“Wait! Jenner!” Zane called out, jogging off after her.

But she didn’t wait for us. She fled into the darkness, boots scuffing on the ground, and cried out when she reached the bottom of the trail.

Our flashlight beams swung crazily as we ran to catch up, until light caught the gleam of chrome on the ground. It was Mason’s bike. The huge machine was toppled on its side in the mud, a helmet resting on its crown some distance away. Things had tumbled out of the leather satchels on the sides. Gloves, a wallet, plastic bags.

“Something’s wrong. Something’s really wrong.” Jenner went to her knees beside the bike, hands hovering over the engine, the exhaust pipes, the leather of the seat. “Mason would never leave his bike like this. Never.”

“Okay, it’s okay, Jen… look, we’ll go find him.” Duke came up beside her, rubbing her armored shoulder. She brushed him off and got to her feet. Her eyes were hard, her face taut with feral anger.

Binah arched against my head, regarding the fallen hulk warily. I was with her. The air smelled cold, but the usual comforting, earthy aroma of forest loam seemed faded and dreary. With the smattering of rain, this place should have smelled like petrichor and pine, but it simply didn’t smell of much at all.

While the three shifters picked over the bike, I set Binah on the ground and moved apart from them to search the area nearby. She ran ahead of me with a chirrup, bold as brass. There were boot prints, clear patches slushed out of the dewy grass, which lead down a narrow rut into the gully beyond the clearing. My cat trotted off to the left; I followed her with the flashlight beam, briefly losing her until she meowed, and I lit on her rubbing herself against the roots of a tree bulging out from the side of a dug-out hill. A round concrete frame was mounted into the scalloped side, a huge pipe-shaped entryway with an open door. The fetid smell of death blew out on a warm breeze.

“Hey.” I called back up to them. “You should come and see this.”

“What?” Duke called back.

“There’s a bunker.” I took a little tube of Vicks from my jacket pocket, squeezed some out onto my fingers, and rubbed it under my nose. “And it smells like something died in there.”

That got their attention. I had only just put the menthol rub away by the time the three of them came skittering down the path.

“Jesus Christ,” Duke said. “That stinks.”

I took the lead, knife held at the ready. The stench that hung thick in the air beyond the threshold was not as bad as the smell at Falkovich’s house. It was the characteristic latrine-and-stale-ground-beef smell of a relatively fresh corpse. The entry tunnel led in and down, and the air became exponentially less pleasant the further we went. I heard someone choke behind me, and turned to see Duke dash out the door to vomit noisily into the grass.

“Get out of the way, Rex!” Jenner shoved up behind me. “That’s my old man in there!”

“Please… hold on.” I was scanning the walls and ceiling, moving forward with cautious attention. “It could be trapped.”

“Fuck traps!” Jenner snarled and seized the back of my jacket, jerking me off-balance. I was so tired that she’d pushed me aside by the time I got my guard up, and could do nothing but watch her stalk off into the bunker ahead of me. The entry wasn’t wide enough for the two of us to move side by side, so I followed up with my flashlight pointed at her back like a weapon.

The tunnel ended in a small, domed room with two doors on the same wall. One was open, the other locked. Inside the open door was a room where the stench was thickest. Jenner barged ahead, while I searched the wall for a light switch. There was none, and so I turned my flashlight back to look over things as Zane stepped in beside me, his hand over his mouth.

The bunker looked like a Cold War survivalist relic. Besides the lack of light, the interior was surprisingly modern, though Spartan. It was also quite large for a building of its type. The walls were smooth but unfinished, nothing but stained concrete. There was a shabby lounge suite interspersed with dining chairs set in a ring around a rug, a kitchenette with no visible food, and closed doors along the walls. A stack of bibles on a coffee table came into sharp relief as I swept the beam of light across. When I turned the light down to the floor, I saw something that made me pause in consternation. Bloody paw-prints that were larger than my head, the distinctive pinched triangle and jelly-beans pattern of a feline foot.

I was headed from the first when a piercing cry of rage echoed from the open door at the other end of the underground longhouse.

“God dammit, Rex.” Zane muttered. “GOD help us, she had to find Mason like this, of all people…”

We drew up to the doorway to see Jenner crouched beside the bed, her mouth twisted in a pained expression of grief.

“I… I…” Jenner was in tears, eyes huge in the beams of the flashlights. “I don’t understand.”

Chapter 26

The corpse of what could only be John Spotted Elk was torn open like a sacrifice, his body trapped in a hideous state between human and deer. His eyes were gone. His chest and belly were torn open, ribs cracked apart, and everything above his diaphragm was simply missing. The rest of his internal organs were scattered on the bed and floor around him. His hoof-like hands were still up by his face in a posture of defense, the dark flesh ripped open by claws.

The mattress he lay on was gouged, the springs crazed. The mingled smell of rotting meat, urine and feces was so powerful that it made my eyes sting. As difficult as it was to think, the defensive posture of his hands, the expression on his face, his spilled abdomen and the deep puncture wounds on the side of his neck all spoke of the same thing. He’d been mauled by an animal far larger and far stronger than he was. It had happened quickly, and death had taken him by surprise.

Numbly, I turned the torch up to check the ceiling and the wall. Above the bed was a sigil, far more crudely rendered than the one discovered over Lily and Dru’s: An eye with a blank iris drawn through with a cross. The flashlight dipped as I stared at it in dawning recognition.

The day that Vassily had gone to prison, I’d had a dream with Zarya and this very same mark: the cross and eye. Jana, the psychotic sorceress who had tried to enslave me for an unknown Master, had displayed this symbol in her downstairs basement oratory over a blank black altar.

“Mason… Mason wouldn’t do this,” Jenner said. She got to her feet, nearly tripping over the upended dresser behind her. “He wouldn’t do this!”

“Jenner…” Zane called to her from the doorway.

“He wouldn’t. He never killed anyone without good reason. Ever. He wouldn’t kill him. Neither would Michael.”

“I know that symbol.” I also took a step back. The reek was making my face hurt. “I have spare gloves if you want to search the room… but don’t touch the body. If someone reports it, we need to make sure we can’t be traced.”

“If we tell Ayashe we found this… Oh fuck.” Jenner moved back, her hands clenched in her hair. “Mason, Michael. What the fuck?”

“What do you mean, ‘if’?” I turned to find Zane clenching the edge of the doorframe. He was pale and sweaty. “We have to report this, Jenner. He’s the oldest fucking Elder in the city.”

“If the Vigiles get wind of this, they’ll kill him!” Jenner said. “They’ll kill both of them. We won’t know… we won’t have any way to find out why, or… or how.”

“We need to leave now,” Zane snapped. “This isn’t a job for us, Prez.”

“We have to find something. This is no way for an Elder to die. Rex. Give me the gloves.” Jenner held her hand out.

“Jenner, come on.”

“ZANE.” Jenner flashed him a hard look over my shoulder. “Shut the fuck up and see if you can find anything in the rest of this place. Both of you. I need time to think.”

Without a word, I passed one of my pairs of latex gloves to her, squared my shoulders, and headed for the main room.

“This is so wrong. Fuck… I can’t believe this.” Zane scruffed his hair and pulled away from the door, coughing.

There was no sign of the missing Spook. While Jenner sorted through the remains of the bedroom, I padded back out and did my amateurish best to put everything together. The paw prints were everywhere, meandering around the floor. There were human footprints, too. A few cupboards were smashed, a few bookshelves fallen. There were murals on the walls that I hadn’t seen on entering the bunker: Apocalyptic murals depicting nuclear war and the Rapture. The sky was gray and orange and dull red, with a formation of stars that had a crimson star glowing at the center.

Beware the Red Star in the Morning… beware the time when the sky screams…

They have begun the Third War, a War as old the ManLands which bore you.

You will see the Star, HuMan Hound… He comes for you again.

My stomach jerked. Rubbing it, I moved away to search for other clues.

There was a gun safe near the prayer circle – I assumed that was what the furniture arrangement was – but it had a two-ring combination lock and there just wasn’t time to puzzle it out. The first door I opened was a bathroom. The second was a bedroom lined with bunks. Six bunk beds, enough to sleep twelve people. It was set up like a military dorm, with trunks at the end of each bunk. I looked inside: they were full of children’s clothing, most of it soiled. I rifled through it, but there was nothing of interest.

After half an hour of fruitless searching in the dank underground, I took a single Bible from the table while we gathered outside. Zane separated from us to stare out into the forest, lost in his own thoughts. Duke had finished puking and was chain-smoking mixed tobacco and marijuana joints to settle his nerves and stomach, Binah on his lap. The regular scent of tobacco was very green to me; these cigarettes smelled dark green and bright blue, a weird combination of abrasive and sweet-sharp color-tastes.

“You know, I always had my doubts about the Four Fires.” Standing off to the side, Jenner held none of her usual energy. Her shoulders were hunched, her voice quiet and firm with the kind of steadiness that only someone who had faced atrocity could muster. “They were always so up themselves, you know? They’d go on about a ‘shapeshifting community’. John came up with all this inclusive language bullshit. Sat on the panels and lobbied for inclusion in the Vigiles and everything. Now he’s fucking dead, and I don’t know what to think about him, about the Pathfinders… I don’t where anyone’s gone.”

“Guess we know what his Ka is, anyway.” Duke said.

“He didn’t even have time to shift,” Zane said. “I can’t even… I can’t believe it. Maybe that Spook is still around here. I mean, what kind of power does it take to catch someone in the middle of the change? And where the hell is Michael?”

Duke’s dark eyes slid to the side, glancing at Jenner. “Sorry to say it, boss, but… I dunno. Maybe Mason took him somewhere. Maybe Michael took Mason somewhere. There’s no way to know.”

I sighed, and moved to keep myself upwind from the pot smoke. “I know the symbol that was left in the bedroom. Maybe it’s older than Mason’s being here, maybe it’s not. In either case, the symbol belongs to a cult or underground dark magic fraternity. They have the capacity to summon and deploy primordial, deeply evil entities. I only know them by acronym: the TVS.”

“Tsch. Call them DOGs, already. We know what Morphorde is.” Jenner reached out for the joint. “What does TVS stand for?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “Before I left the Organizatsiya, I dealt with one of their members: A female serial killer working on behalf of someone she only signed with ‘L’. She had that eye-and-cross symbol over her altar. Jana was a mage, like me. When her soul awakened, she went mad. There was something wrong with it at the metaphysical level. Contact with her soul changed her, and she went insane. Could something like this happen to Weeders?”

“If it can, I’ve never heard of it. I’ve been incarnating, round and round, for close to five hundred years that I can remember.” Jenner took a deep drag on the joint. It had gone out. “Fought in France, fought in Russia – got killed there, that was nasty. Now Vietnam, on both sides. I knew some Weeders who got really sick or died when they were fighting the Deep Black, DOGs and shit. Most of them were the smaller guys… the rodent shifters, rabbits, weasels and possums.”

I frowned. “Isn’t that the general group of people that the Pathrunners recruit from?”

“Little critters awaken faster,” Duke grunted. “They get killed more often, so they live more lives than us. They’re super-social, you know… So they became lawkeepers.”

Lily and Dru. Moris Falkovich. Ivanko, and Vanya, by extension. Now, Michael and Mason? John’s murder hadn’t been signed by ‘Soldier 557’, like the others had. They were connected, somehow. I crouched down and stroked Binah while I thought, trying to fit the pieces together.

“Was Michael a member of any organizations beyond the Pathrunners? The senior pastor at the Church of the Voice mentioned that he was working with the church for the childrens’ program.”

Duke was watching us with an expression of puzzled ignorance. When Jenner looked to him, he shrugged. “Fucked if I know, boss.”

“Same here.” Jenner nodded. “What? You think they’re hiding something?”

“I know that Lily and Dru have to have been hiding a lot of things,” I said. “But I remember you saying that Pathrunner Elders have to go through a lot of tests and trials to attain their status. Is it the same as the initiation ritual John told me about?”

As one, all three Tigers looked towards the bunker.

“No,” Jenner replied. “It’s different for every gang. I don’t know what their rites are, but I know the Pathrunners have some hardcore vetting.”

I sighed. “Then something must have happened to change them between the time they were vetted, and the time they were murdered. Otherwise, I’m honestly at a loss.”

“Fuck this. I sent Mason out here with these idiots.” The woman growled, and began to angrily strip her leathers. She threw them to the soft forest floor, and before I could so much as avert my eyes, she pulled her t-shirt off as well. She was so small-breasted that she didn’t need a bra. “We’re going to look for him. Zane! Get your kit off. It’s a full moon, and I need your eyes.”

Zane’s shoulders tensed, and his hands fisted. “Prez, I still don’t—”

“Stop being such a fucking prude and get your fucking clothes off.” She pulled her belt out. Duke was also beginning to undress. I began to feel more than slightly awkward.

“I assume that one of you will be taking Mason’s motorcycle back to the city,” I said, glancing at Zane, who was still noticeably reluctant as he began to shuck his leather to the ground. “I’ll drive the car and meet you there.”

“You should do your mojo here while you’re gone,” Jenner said. She dropped her jeans, and I turned reflexively, clearing my throat. “Scan the place, or whatever it is you do.”

“It would be better for me to return,” I said. Quite suddenly, I felt the way that Zane had looked. “I need to finish decoding some gematria for Ayashe. That might give us some leads into who is responsible… we won’t find answers without a culprit, or culprits. If this TVS organization is involved—”

“Okay, whatever.” Jenner spoke from behind me. “I don’t need details, Rex. Just results. Ready, guys?”

“I was born ready,” Duke said. “And furry.”

Zane did not reply, except to throw me the keys. Summarily dismissed, I collected my familiar and began to mount the hill back up to the parking lot as wet tearing sounds ricocheted from below. I turned at the crest and looked back, hoping to see them, but only saw piles of discarded clothes and the flick of a huge shadow disappearing from the pool of moonlight in the clearing.

Secrets on secrets. I had effectively lied to them, again, but I was so good at it and becoming so accustomed to it that the sting of indignation barely registered. Part of that was because lying – or hiding the truth, at least – was becoming habitual. Part of it was because I knew, without a doubt, that someone had to be lying to me, too.

When I reached the Buick, I turned on the cabin light and looked through the Bible I’d taken. Revelations was heavily marked. Individual numbers and letters were circled with pencil throughout the text – Bible code notations. Grimacing, I started with the first New Testament ‘M’ chapter, Matthew. In the second chapter, I found a heading: ‘The Slaughter of the Infants.”

Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.” I recited the words gutturally. My voice was a deep whiskey-hoarse croak. “Matthew 2:16.”

The Bible verse made me think of Christopher and the Church, but I hadn’t intended to visit Falkovich before this afternoon. Even if Christopher was some kind of telepathic adept, he couldn’t have known where I was intending to go, because I hadn’t known about him before or during out meeting. In fact… I hadn’t told anyone about Moris Falkovich, or the rumors I’d gotten from my doctor. I’d gone off by myself like a fool, thinking I’d break a couple of fingers and get him talking, and walked straight into a trap.

A trap just like this forest bunker. I exhaled thinly, and sat back. Just like Falkovich’s house, it had been set up before we arrived… but who had set it up, and what were they trying to catch?

Chapter 27

I arrived back just after dawn, breath sour with hunger and head hurting for want of caffeine. The clubhouse was empty save for Talya: She was still at the bar, her head resting on her folded arms. When the door closed, she startled up and squinted. “Rex? Where’s everyone else?”

“Jenner, Zane and Duke have stayed back to search for Michael and Mason,” I said. “Spotted Elk is dead.”

The proclamation hung between us for some time. Talya rubbed her face, and looked down at the keyboard she’d been slaving over. Her eyes were reddened with fatigue, but she did not cry.

“You warned us,” she said. “In the reading. You warned us this would happen. That people were going to die.”

I looked down at her feet, unsure of how to react. “I suppose. Though Jenner has already made her opinion on tarot known to us all. I will continue to do my best, but we are running out of time.”

“I know. I have an awful feeling that someone is trying to destroy us.” Talya pushed back and got to her feet. “That there’s some… master manipulator at work. You know for sure that John’s dead?”

“We found his body.” It was hard to associate the mutated, agonized corpse we had found in the bunker with the dignified man I’d spoken to in the Museum only the day before. After he’d pitched in with his pet Agent, I hadn’t been his biggest fan… but I hadn’t wanted to kill him. “It was… difficult to recognize him, but there were cervine features that were unmistakable. Jenner was sure.”

Talya closed her eyes for a moment, her brow furrowing. When she opened her eyes, they were dark and glistening. “He was a good man, Rex. I learned so much about history from him, not just Native history. He told me all about ancient Korea, he told me about all of these places he lived… but you know why I decided to join Jenner and Mason instead of the Fires?”

I said nothing, and waited for her to continue.

“It was the film,” she said. “The film that you and Zane found. After the argument at work, I realized that John and Michael were just talking about the law and themselves and our position within society that whole time. They weren’t talking about the fact that you and the Tigers had found a film of an adult man raping a child. And I know why they weren’t talking about it. Because it was Josie in the film.”

“Josie? What do you mean?”

Her cheeks flushed red with anger. “Because she’s not a Weeder. She’s just a normal human kid.”

I recoiled inwardly. She was right. At the time, I hadn’t noticed, but now that she mentioned it…

“That’s all they care about. Bringing new blood into their gangs, building their little army,” Talya continued. Her eyes were hot now, the intense gray and gold of uranium ore. “That’s why John was so nice to me all this time. He wanted me, because I’m a young Weeder. He wants the shifter kids. Ayashe cares about all of them, but she’s so tied up in her job that she ends up not doing anything for anyone. Jenner is the only one who doesn’t see Josie as being worth less than the others, and will do what’s right no matter what.”

“You could be right,” I said, motioning her forward and starting to walk. “But for now, we should eat. And while we do that, you should tell me what you found on the computer.”

“I haven’t gotten into the filelist yet. I was able to restore the deleted files, but everything on that computer is password locked. I’m going to go and get a password cracker from work today when I’m safe to drive.” Talya pushed her hair out of her face, and sat heavily on one of the kitchen chairs. “I’ll call in sick. This is more important.”

“A cracker? What on earth is that?” I had vague images of her inserting Goldfish crackers into the computer as some sort of bribe.

“It’s a software program you use to break passwords. It basically keeps trying combinations at high speed until one of them works,” she replied. “At the office, some people… well, they lock themselves out of their terminals, or they change the password on a group document and don’t know how to change it back. I got Crack so that I could just solve the problem on-site instead of bothering my manager.”

“Oh. They have something like that for safes, too.” I poured us both coffee, and put together sandwiches. “An auto-dialer. You attach it to the door, and it turns the dial back and forth until the safe opens.”

“That sounds kind of old-fashioned,” she said. She still looked wan, but some of the color had returned to her face. “Kind of KGB-ish.”

We ate in companionable silence. It was relaxing to spend time with another Russian-speaking person, even though we were descended from opposite ends of Eastern Europe: me from Ukraine, her from the far Western hinterlands of the Aleutian Islands. Neither of us felt compelled to arbitrarily smile or do anything except share food, tea and coffee while we each ruminated on the events of the night, which suited me just fine.

Talya left after the meal, and went to check on Josie before leaving the club. I did the same, looking in on the little girl as she slept on, semi-comatose. There were signs of her having been awake. She was clean, for one thing, and there was a makeshift bedpan by the bed. The drip was disconnected. There was a Band-Aid over the bruise in her elbow.

I wanted to sleep, but pride and duty kept me from bed. Instead, me, my cat and my books and went to work out whatever it was that ‘Soldier 557’ was trying to say with their name.

Translating a number into text was far more difficult than turning a word or phrase into a number. The difficulty came about from two things: firstly, an entire phrase could be condensed into a string like ‘557’. The coded numbers could be added together and the resulting numbers used instead of a whole string of numerals. In addition to that, a two or three-word phrase, like ‘Glory to Satan’ could be distilled to, say, the number 939, but 939 had multiple possible translations. You could use it to say ‘Glory to Satan’, but 939 was also the number which could be disassembled to read ‘The Holy Spirit’. The translation relied on context.

After an hour or so of spirited decoding, I had a shortlist of words and phrases. The standout was a single word, which had prickled at my intuition from the moment I’d worked out and etched the letters into the page with a pencil. ‘Glory’. In a stroke of what seemed like some kind of intentional, precognitive cruel humor, the number also translated to ‘Russian mafia’. But ‘Soldier Glory’ didn’t make much sense.

I exhaled thinly, tapping my pencil against my bottom lip as my chest twinged and cramped. Concentrating on magical matters was not helped by the presence of the parasite. In any case, I didn’t think it was going to be much help in finding our murderer… not unless the ‘Russian Mafia’ translation was more than a case of my own amused bias. For one thing, we didn’t call it that, not unless we were talking to someone outside of the Organizatsiya – and when did that ever happen?

But as I packed up, the doubt lingered, as did the instinctive resonance of the name Glory. Not a word… a name. I had a hunch, and even with my magic cut off at the root, I trusted my intuition. Whoever was signing off, they were signing off as Glory. Unfortunately, that meant I was out of things to show Jenner when they returned. The name didn’t belong to anybody we knew.

At a loss, I went to tend to more mundane things. Dressing my wounds, then treating Binah’s burns. She’d had a couple days of antibiotics to take down her infections, so I spent a fruitful hour lancing, flushing and balming my familiar’s abscesses. She shivered in my lap, but she didn’t fight me, or even squirm. As I worked carefully, precisely, the jumble of details, names, incidences, deaths and clues turned around and around until, quite unconsciously, my brain fit the pieces together so smoothly and so perfectly that I stood up in alarm and sent Binah and my tray of surgical equipment to the floor.

Lev. Sergei. Jana. The TVS symbol… all of it came together in a flash. We didn’t call our Organization the Russian Mafia… but outsiders did.

Was it a sly joke? Or did they know that someone from the Bratva with esoteric knowledge and skill would eventually figure it out? As I stalked back and forth in the bedroom, fitfully rubbing my mouth and hair and wrist, months of conversation and clues aligned like the faces of a Rubik’s Cube.

The leaders of the Tigers returned in the evening, tired and disheveled. The pall over the three of them was obvious. They had only found traces of Mason’s passing as a tiger: scents and disturbed brush. There was precious little else. They went to bed with no time or energy to talk. Jenner was blaring punk music out of one of the smaller rooms, but when I passed close her door, I could hear the sound of her cursing and crying underneath the mask of sound. She wasn’t the sort of person to accept an offer of counseling, and I wasn’t the kind of person who could offer it. The only thing that would console her was the return of her old man.

Talya was back in the common room when I came out: same spot, different clothing. She was reading a book, waiting while the computer ground and ticked. I drew up to look over her shoulder, and was confronted by a maintenance screen which was scrolling through what appeared to be hundreds of words and numbers at rapid speed. “Good grief. What is that thing doing?”

“That’s the cracker.” She cleared her throat with a prim little ‘hem-hem’, and then jiggled the pointer around. “It’s been running for a couple of hours now, which means your doctor friend really knew how to make a secure password.”

“He wasn’t my friend. Will it work?” I stepped back from it, suitably intimidated.

She guffawed. “Of course it’ll work. It’s a program.”

I squinted at it, watching the lights flicker. “The first time I turned it on, it made a horrible honking sound. I thought it was about to explode.”

Talya covered her hand with her mouth for a moment, and then waved it as she struggled not to laugh.


“That’s the floppy disk drive booting up,” she said, choking a little. “It’s meant to do that.”

I sniffed. “I nearly put nine rounds into it. Pure reflex.”

“You’ve never used a computer before?” She had swallowed down on her laughter, but her eyes were still overbright with mirth. Mirth at my expense.

“No,” I replied. “I have a vague notion that you type on it like a typewriter and point at things with the pointer, but that’s about all.”

“Pointer?” Her brow furrowed. “You mean the mouse?”

“I mean the pointer.” I gestured at it. “Though I could be persuaded that the inside of it is run by mice running on wheels, given the noise it makes.”

“No, that is the mouse.” She put a hand over it and jiggled it around on the pad, then picked it up and showed me the underside. There was a ball set in the middle of the casing. “See? It looks kind of like a mouse, with the wire as the tail.”

I scowled. “Mice generally have their balls further to the rear.”

Talya laughed, and the machine beeped loudly and suddenly. I jumped inside my skin, while she turned, suddenly sober and inquisitive. “Ooh, it’s a hit!”

I leaned in while she navigated back to the colored navigation screen and began to click through assorted screens until she had access to a collection of folder icons. Talya chewed her lip as she began to open them into lists of what I assumed were filed documents, expanding the taxonomy in and out at dizzying speed.

“Oh, here we are… wow, he had a modem and email and everything.” Talya used the clicker – the mouse – to scroll through a list of files. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”

She clicked an icon, and then recoiled off the barstool with a scream, hands thrown up and over her eyes.

Peter Kaminski was laid out like a gutted lamb in a slaughterhouse, head thrown back so that his face was partly out of frame, his blond hair matted with blood. His coltish frame and the hardness of his jaw were easily recognizable. All of the transplantable organs had been removed and were set aside in Styrofoam coolers around the body. They were all tagged, ready for transit.

My nostrils shuddered as I took Talya’s place, gingerly using the mouse to close the file and open the next, and the next. Each one was uniquely horrific. There were only two more bodies – one of which showed the creation of Pig-Head in progress, one of which was vaguely identifiable as the limbs and torso of Goat-Head. My stomach lurched. The rest was pornography. Adult men and women, the missing children and others I didn’t recognize… and then men I did recognize by their tattoos. Ivanko. Kir. A huge man with rich brown skin and faded prison tattoos that I knew, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my gut, was my old friend Ovar. Then I was back to the photos of Peter Kaminski while he was still alive. In one picture, he was clearly drugged and being forced into compliance by a flabby masked man I knew without a doubt was Vanya. Some of these photographs dated from the beginning of the year, involving different children than the ones at Wolf Grove.

Words from the past returned in a wave of remember smell and sensation. Yuri’s grating, poisonous words. “I know what Sergei sees in you. Same thing he sees in all the rest of us poor motherfuckers. Machine parts. Tiny, fragile, cheap machine parts.”

Jana hadn’t been lying to me, and this was what I had never seen while I was stranded on my own conveyor belt in Sergei’s system. Now, I understood why he wanted to set up shop in Thailand. Now, I understood why the other men had always despised me for my chaste demeanor and regarded my chivalric relationship with Crina as second-rate. They were into what they thought of as ‘the good stuff’. They hadn’t asked me or told me because they’d known what my reaction would have been: two shots to the groin and one in the head for each of them.

All emotion drained from my body and mind in an instant, leaving me clear and hard and cold. The cynic in me searched for Pastor Christopher and Aaron, but they were both absent from these pictures. Lily and Dru, however, were present in quite a number of them. The photos of them were far back in the file-list. The dates went well back for several years, and some of the pictures were worse than graphic. I didn’t have to guess at the fates of some of the children who had been ‘homed’.

“Lily was a hyena shifter, wasn’t she?” My voice was stiff.

“Yes. She—” Talya peered at the image I had on the screen, and turned away with a choking sob. “Oh my god. Why… why didn’t any of them ever say anything to us? We would have helped if we’d known!”

How could I explain such a thing? Children were under the power of these adults. The structure of their laws and the degree of secrecy among shapeshifters, as I understood them, had Elders holding absolute authority over kids like these. Clarified behind a veil of practiced dissociation, I leaned and squinted at the photo of the hyena and the child she was mauling. Here and there, her body was stuck with what looked like spines of glass.

Puzzled, I moved the pointer-mouse to the magnifying glass icon, and clicked it. As I’d hoped, the picture zoomed in, but it decreased the quality and I couldn’t really make out the shards anymore. “How would Falkovich get these pictures onto the computer?”

“It’s… oh god… I’m sorry.” Talya gulped back tears, and came up beside me. Her hands were shaking as she navigated out of the folder and back through the hierarchy. “Th-These are p-pictures that this man was sent over Usenet and Telnet. It’s… like a newsletter where you can send letters to a computer over the phone.”

“So other people were sending him these pictures?” Vanya had computers, I knew that much.

“Or he was sending them to other people. They must have scanned them in and shared them. He has logs. I don’t know if I can bear to read them, Rex. I really don’t.”

“Call Ayashe and tell Jenner.” I stood up and back, mind already on the job. “Tell them I have to go pay someone a visit.”

“What? Where?” Talya dashed at her eyes and took a heavy seat.

“Red Hook,” I said. “An office warehouse at the waterfront. Don’t worry about me – I just have to go and have a talk to someone who might know more about this.”

“You really do know some bad people, don’t you?”

I was already halfway to the door. “Not for much longer.”

This time, I was not going to risk being unprepared. I bought eggs from the nearest bodega – a full dozen fertilized eggs – and on a leap of associative intuition, a carton of full-cream milk. Not including Falkovich’s house, the last time I’d been in a major firefight there’d been two Spooks and a demon so toxic that it made the scars on my arm ache to think of it. I could confirm now that DOGs were immune to bullets. Worse than that… they were nourished by them. And it had been hiding in a gun, seeping out like oil when Lev had pointed the weapon at me and fired.

Much as I still didn’t want to rely on guns, lest a DOG emerge from them and kick my ass, this was a job that called for firearms. I had the Wardbreaker, my faithful old Commander, and my larger backup piece, a matte-black Glock 21. The Wardbreaker had never really been intended to be a frequent-fire workhorse: it carried nine .45 full-metal jackets and was meant to work in silence with its fixed magic. The Glock carried fifteen fragmentation rounds. It was noisy, short-range, and it left blow-out wounds that could fit a man’s fist. It was good for stopping people when they tried to run away.

I wrapped the eggs individually in washcloths borrowed from the vanity, and loaded into a backpack and under my suit jacket. It was near midnight by the time I’d fixed myself up with loaded magazines, rope, wire, knives, styptic and bandages.

I filled Binah’s food dish up like a little kibble mountain, and looked down at her with my hands on my hips. “Be good, girl. Don’t eat anything you shouldn’t. And don’t claw the curtains.”

“Mrra-oww.” Binah looked back up at me, tail flicking.

I turned and left her there. As I shut the door, she slipped out behind me, arching against my ankle.

“No. In you go.” I tried to push her in with my shoe. By way of reply, Binah latched onto my leg, clawed her way up my body, and clung to my shoulder with claws. Decision made, I left Talya on the phone and reused the car I’d taken to Moris’s place. The likelihood of being pulled up in this particular old piece of junk was low, and the drive wasn’t really that far.

There were a few places where I could reliably find Vanya, and I decided to go to the one where he spent the most time: the AEROMOR shipping yard. I’d never spent a huge amount of time with him before. Vanya ran his own Cell out of Red Hook and the bulk of my work was based in and around Brighton Beach and Queens. I knew he’d been brought into the Organizatsiya from Russia when I was a young boy. Back then, he’d been a stocky man with a beak nose and thinning brown hair. As an older man, he had morphed into a pasty, obese Jabba the Hutt clone who smacked his lips a lot, smoked imported East German cigarettes, had a thing for Orientalist decor and laughed whenever he spoke. He was a coward and a shrewd recruiter whose best skill was almost certainly his ability to manage people braver and more capable than himself. He’d hooked Vassily on coke and either masterminded or assisted in his physical and mental ruin. And he was a pedophile.

The main entry to the shipping yards was an archway off Van Brunt Street, the run-down road closest to the waterfront. It was also the most obvious, and the most heavily guarded. Van Brunt turned a sharp corner into Degraw Street, an old docklane lined with crumbling Italian, Chinese and Russian sweatshop warehouses. It smelled like old seafood, and it was backed up with cars and small trucks along one side. I parked my little car down near the end of the street, and put Binah down on the passenger side seat. In the dim glare of the streetlights, she looked up at me expectantly.

“We are so not doing this, Binah,” I said. “You’re a cat. I don’t care if you’re a familiar or not.”

The Siamese yawned, stretched, and hopped over my lap to paw at the door.

“No. I have limits.” I set her back on the seat. “You are staying here.

Binah crouched down, growling with her ears pinned back to her skull, backing away from my hand.

“That’s better.” I went to open the door, and stopped as I saw what she had sensed. Lights, a car turning the corner. My gut twisted as a wave of cold washed over me, and the parasite in my gut stirred. Cutting through the stale air of the docks was the whiff of something unpleasantly familiar: a smell like rotting flesh and burnt sugar. A Violet smell. The smell of DOG.

Chapter 28

Binah growled again. I let go of the door and drew my pistol, submerging in the shadows of the dash as headlights bloomed down along the street and glazed the dusty windows. Seconds later, a car rumbled by, pulling in several spaces behind.

Doors opened, then slammed above the buzz of male voices talking. There was a ‘choonk’ sound, the sound of a trunk being popped.

The gnawing in my chest built slowly, creeping up a little more with every sound outside. I rubbed my gloved finger against the grip of the Glock in my hand… and tensed as a metal door banged open, only a few cars up from my position.

“Come on, man. What’s the deal?” A brusque voice with a pronounced Long Island accent could be heard through the door. “You got it?”

“What does it fuckin’ look like?” Someone snapped back, his English heavily accented. “Stop jacking off and come and help me.”

A high, feral, garbling scream of rage burst out into the air. It was the kind of noise I’d always imagined an angry mongoose makes, and it cut suddenly and with a strange finality with the slam of a head against a hard surface.

“What’s the matter? You want some more dick, is that it?” Long Island raised his voice. I heard scuffles, thumps, and then silence. “Slanty-eyed faggot.”

I startled at the use of the slur. An Asian man? Was that Angkor?

“Get it him in trunk already. The Deacon’s waiting.” The Russian-accented man sounded anxious.

“The Deacon will get his,” the other man grouched. “Like I give fuck.”

“You’ll give fuck if we end up under knife, instead of this spooky little cocksucker.”

There is a saying in Ukrainian: Meni tse treba yak zuby v dupi. Roughly translated, it means: “I need this like I need teeth in my ass.”

I risked a periscope peek over the back of the driver’s side chair, forming a rough plan of assault. If I got out there in a duck and roll, I could probably shoot out the tires and then the men inside and pull their victim out. Even as I was thinking it, the front doors slammed and the engine of the getaway car thrummed to life.

“Shit.” Plan B it was, then – and not a bad plan, anyway, because they were about to lead me to deeper waters. Whoever ‘The Deacon’ was, I was pretty sure I needed to meet them.

The car pulled ahead of me, trundling without haste, and rounded the corner. I started up and followed after, just a little faster than I’d seen them leave. The headlights stayed off as I rumbled along behind, watching as they picked up speed down Van Brunt Street and turned down Hamilton Avenue.

“Where are you boys headed…?” I mused aloud as we drove parallel to the expressway, heading towards the entry ramp. “Back to Brighton Beach?”

But they didn’t get onto the highway. Instead, they turned right onto Columbia Street, a long road that led down to the Red Hook waterfront. I tailed them at the furthest distance I could stand, watching as they followed the street around, all the way past the Red Hook park, and then turned a sharp left into a dirt and gravel lot just before the wharf. I knew that road. It led to the Red Hook Grain Terminal.

“Well then.” I accelerated the short way to the gate and came to a sharp stop, wincing as the tires shrieked for a moment on the road. I backed it up and turned so that the car pointed in the direction of escape instead of towards Gowanus Bay, cut the engine, and checked my weapons before getting out, cat in tow.

The air near the waterfront reeked like shit and dead seagulls, an awful, headache-inducing cocktail of rot and chemicals that made it the ideal location for a NO-inspired cult sacrifice. The Grain Terminal loomed like a concrete sarcophagus in the distance, illuminated by the full moon that was now heading for the horizon. For a moment, I wondered if I had done another stupid thing by not waiting for the Big Cat Crew. The Grain Terminal was enormous, and by the time I got there, Angkor was going to be long gone. If they were executing him, they’d do whatever they were going to do and dump his body in the canal before I even reached the outhouse.

The moon cast crazy shadows over the scrap that had piled up to the left of the cracked road, which was half old concrete, half wet gravel. There were huge piles of rusted metal everywhere: the hulks of buses, small boats, even a horse float. Binah followed me at full lope, a ghost on my heels as I ran. There was no keeping her in the car, especially if she was able to warn me of dangers I couldn’t see.

At the end of the road, I saw the car I’d been following parked near the waterside entrance to the ruined grain terminal. Up close, the enormous structure looked even more like a coffin: a grimy, rectangular hulk sandwiched between the Henry Street Basin on one side, the Gowanus Canal on the other, and the continuation of this shitty strip of gravel to the left. Ahead and to the left was the shell of a smaller building – still two stories high – to my right was nothing but polluted water and a flimsy dock anchoring three or four derelict ships. I didn’t have high hopes for Angkor. Gowanus Canal was a dump site for every Mob in the city. One famous detective had wryly noted that Gowanus was the only body of water in the world that was ninety percent guns. He could be assured that the other ten percent was dead bodies.

Three men – the two from the warehouse and a tall, broad-shouldered, hulking figure I couldn’t make out – were smoking, talking and laughing around what looked like a barrel fire in front of a faded white watchtower. I drew my pistol and dipped down into a cross-step jog, heartbeat tapping against my teeth. Binah and I crossed from the scrap pile to the outhouse, where I slid along the wall and looked around the corner, right at the back of someone’s head. The static guard was sitting on a fold-out plastic chair away from the other men, rubbing his gloved hands and huffing on them.

As I was planning my trajectory, Binah darted out of the shadows, streaking across the yard at a run. I had to bite my tongue to stop from calling her as she pelted between the guard’s boots and bolted at a full gallop for the building.

“Hey, what the fuck?” The guard stood up in alarm, bringing his machinegun to bear. With a finger on the trigger, he stepped back reflexively, scraping his chair a foot and a half or so closer to me and vanishing out of sight of his comrades on the other side of the building. Then, he relaxed a little. “Fuckin’ raccoo—”

I pistol-whipped him as hard as I could across the back of his skull. He crumpled like a heap of stones. I grasped him by the ankles and dragged him back behind the timber, took a minute with the knife to make sure he wasn’t going to get up again, and relieved him of his weapon, a set of keys, and a packet of gum. He was toting a PP-90M1, a cheap Russian military surplus machinegun. It packed a 64-round 9mm magazine, which I unloaded, checked and reloaded. Not a bad start to the night’s scavenging.

Binah was waiting for me in the shadow of the building, smugly washing her face in at the base of an open window. I slung the gun over my shoulder and holstered the pistol, drawing the knife in its place. Smartass cat.

Around the corner, the three guys were still squatting around the fire. Their attention was on the road. I’d taken out the one watching the building, and I’d be ass deep in the building before they realized a thing.

As quickly and quietly as I could, I crossed the open space and pushed myself in through the broken window frame. It let me into a single long concrete chamber that had to be nearly five hundred feet long. Twin rows of concrete pylons marched off into utter darkness; the canal gurgled to our left through gaping, broken windows. The entire floor was empty, but the stench was incredible. It was the smell of meat left to rot in the sun, the cheap perfume and vomit reek of un-life.

I had a full pint of milk and a dozen eggs – the weirdest shit I’d ever taken on a hit, but after the Animal-Heads and DOG wasps, I doubted I’d ever be without eggs again. I pulled one out of my pack and palmed it in my throwing hand as I started out cautiously towards the end of the building nearest the water, following my nose and watching as Binah dashed from shadow to shadow. The guys outside were laughing at something: I heard them as I passed on the way to the stairwell. I was just about to break away from the pillars when a scuffle echoed through the huge room. The sound bounced off the walls like a rifle shot, and I froze mid-breath, scanning the darkness ahead for life – or not.

After a few seconds of waiting, another sentry swaggered out of the entry to the stairs, looming in the stark light. My chest twinged. I recognized him. Ovar was six and a half feet of Georgian muscle, impossible to miss. He was dressed in a puffy jacket and hunter’s cap, cigarette pinched between thumb and forefinger of one hand, the other resting on top of his machine gun. He was smiling as he swept the room and turned away from me, heading back in towards the stairs. It was all I could do to control my gorge. I thought he’d been one of the better men in this place. He was funny, he was friendly, and he’d always been polite and affable to me… and he’d raped a girl on camera, because he was all-in on the Organizatsiya and everything it did.

And then, something pushed through the air around me. Even Ovar stopped, his back to me as he shivered in the wave of sudden cold that rippled through the still air of the grain elevator. Another mage was coasting through the waters like a shark filtering blood through its sinuses, turning this way and that. He had Mass, a real heavy presence… a presence that I instinctively recognized. It was the Spook that Nic had bought to take me down. He was here, upstairs, and Ovar was in the way.

I wanted to kill him, but I’m five foot five in shoes and he was far too big for me to stab. Gunning him down would alert every person inside and outside the building. I clamped my jaws together until my teeth creaked, then turned and threw the egg down the aisle. It sailed out, and broke against something with a wet ‘splotch’.

“Eh?” Ovar turned, eyes scanning the room. “Bors? That you?”

For several long moments, I said nothing. Every sound in here was amplified, and any motion I made would crack out into the air. As Ovar waited, looking for anything out of the ordinary, another push of magic rippled over us. I was running out of time.

“Fuck, this place is creepy.” He muttered, and turned back.

I hissed. And tried to throw my voice. Ovar whipped around again, advancing to the door this time.

“Hey,” he said. His voice echoed, the word ringing out multiple times against the walls. “Cut it the fuck out!”

As quietly as I could, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the first thing I found: a quarter and the dime that Christopher had given me. The coin didn’t mean that much to me, so I flung them both, close to the ground. They rolled and skittered, and Ovar started forward. Sweat was rolling down his face now. He had his finger on the trigger, gun braced against his shoulder as he advanced into the room in the direction of the noise. If he heard or saw me, I was deader than the canal outside.

As he left, I half-scrambled, half-crawled into the stairwell, waiting a moment until Binah caught up. What remaining fur she had was standing on end. The magic was only getting stronger, whipping down the channel of the stairs. I ran up them, trying to be quiet on the rusted steel treads. At the top of the stairwell was a door.

My eyes were still adjusting as I got to the landing. I reached for the handle, and stopped at the last moment as a hot buzz, like static electricity, crawled up my arm from my fingertips. In the gloom, a figure loomed out at me from the wood. It was an eye. The iris was blank, and struck through with a cross.

Swallowing, I lowered my hand and stepped back. I couldn’t break this sigil, not if it was really charged. There was a bated darkness about it, and the eeriness I felt from it – and the room beyond – made me wonder if someone had already spotted me. If it had alerted someone on the other side, I had a machine gun capable of putting a few rounds into their skull… assuming that’s not what they wanted me to do.

From downstairs, I heard Ovar call out to the other guards that he’d heard something in the building, followed by quick, heavy footsteps that grew closer every second. He was heading for his post, and he was going to see and hear me.

Anxiously, I reached out towards the handle. As I did, a creeping, prickling chill passed through the leather of my gloves, through my fingertips. I jerked my hand back, frowning. Lips pursed, I slung my bag around and pulled the carton of milk. It was a long shot, but I had gotten the milk on a hunch. Close to fifteen years of sorcerous wet work had taught me that the symbolic properties of things were as important as the materials. Eggs were symbols of fertility, birth, nourishment, perhaps femininity – and the effect on DOGs probably also extended to other egg-like materials. Seeds were at the top of my list, though the only seeds at the bodega had been toasted sunflower seeds and I doubted they would have any effect. Milk was something I decided to try on a whim: the full-cream, unhomogenized stuff that was as close to the substance used to feed calves as was possible.

Feeling somewhat awkward, I opened the carton and splashed it over the door. The sigil sizzled. Sizzled. I watched a complex tracery of violet light rush through the crude black paint and then fade. When I doused it the second time, there was no response, though the ‘paint’ was sloughing off in a very un-paintlike fashion. I depressed the handle and waited for a few breathless seconds before entering, carton in one hand, my other hand bracing the machine gun against my less-injured ribs. As quietly as I could, I slunk out into the top floor: another huge single room with bottomless, circular black holes spaced across the floor. At the other end of the room, at the far western corner of the building, a human sacrifice was in full swing.

Chapter 29

The assembled TVS members were clustered around a makeshift altar that had been mounted in front of the gaping remains of the corner window. The priest’s back was to me. The others in the room – six or seven people – were standing in a rough circle, staring up towards a ring of black lights hung from the old trolley rails on the ceiling. Those were running off a small kerosene generator which made enough noise that my footfall was unlikely to be heard.

I left the door ajar, searching for cover in the semi-darkness. There were old machines left here, and short stairwells that led up to the next floor of the grain elevator, but nothing that was going to offer real protection. I took what I could on my way across until I was crouched behind a narrow steel pillar and able to see and hear what was going on.

The black lights distorted all color that might have been present, but I recognized at least two faces. Vanya was staring up at the light overhead, his jowly face smeared with black from eyes to sagging jawline in a parody of tears – or blood. At the far end of the altar was Mason.

Jenner’s partner stood with his back to the shattered window. He was not robed like the others. He was stripped down to a bloodied wifebeater and jeans, his clothes torn, his skin striped with gore. If not for that, he looked like he’d been in a bar room brawl and come out barely on his feet. There was a huge, spreading dark stain across his shirt, radiating from his heart on the left. Mason was the only one looking down at something. He was staring at the featureless, motionless black bodybag that was lain on the table, feet pointing at the setting moon.

“—to celebrate a new brother entering the fold,” the priest intoned, mid-sentence. The speaker was masked and hooded, and I couldn’t make out any details from my position. “The price of your admission to the Anointed is to cleanse the world of an affront to the Father, Ivan Kazopov. Will you purify this abomination with your body and strength, and swear your fealty to the Eternal Light?”

“I will,” Vanya replied.

I frowned, utterly at a loss. There was something not right about Mason. He swayed in place, and as far as I could tell, he wasn’t blinking.

“The windows of Heaven are opening for you, Vanya.” The priest turned to face me, hands lifted. The mask was white, flat and featureless, save for three thin, grim slashes where the eyes and mouth should have been. Despite that, I know that it was the Spook, the one I had glimpsed on Ribbon Street through the distortion of his weird magic. His power was over the cold, inexorable twin pressures of time and gravity. “Praise the Father, blessed be his many names…”

As the praying and affirmations continued, echoed by the others in the room, I shifted the PP-90 around to hold it at the ready and tried to cobble together a plan of action. There was no obvious warding around the circle, but I couldn’t discount it. The magic on the door had been very real, and the effect of the milk very noticeable. If I was lucky, the gun would be safe to use on the humans. If I wasn’t, I was probably going to get gunned down while I tried to stop something infernal from eating me and my cat.

“Are you ready to be baptized in blood, to become a true follower of the All Father, to speak with fire and serve Him for all your days?”

Vanya nodded. “I am.”

As I watched, The Deacon – he was really the only one who could claim a title like that – took up a featureless silver box at the end of the altar and opened it. The inside was lined in black velvet. It held a knife like no other I had ever seen. The blade was glass, or crystal. As he lifted it, I saw it catch and gleam in the blacklights. The UV lighting revealed a matrix of flaws in the glass. It was hazed, like it had been broken and the pieces glued together.

“You all know me, brothers in the spirit. You know me, your brother.” The masked priest held the knife to Vanya. “You have seen his miracles wrought through me. You know that I can see past, future and present, because though the Father in his wisdom caused me to be blind, I can see. I am wise because I am following him, and following his voice.”

The proclamation was echoed by muttered ‘amens’ from around the circle, and as he spoke, Binah flattened her body against the floor. I glanced at her. My familiar was a barometer of magic, and whatever that thing was, she didn’t like it.

While the blind priest continued his dark sermon, Vanya moved around the table, holding the knife like it was going to bite him. He began to undo his belt and his fly, while the rest of the men joined hands. I was watching some bizarre mockery of a prayer circle, where the faithful touched, swayed, exclaimed and threw themselves into the holy spirit… or in this case, the unholy demiurge that apparently demanded rape and sacrifice, not necessarily in that order. If I was guessing right, it was Angkor in that bag.

As the others moved to give Vanya room, I noticed something. What I hadn’t seen, and that I could see now, was that Mason had no eyes. His sockets leaked a black, viscous fluid down his hollowed cheeks. The man on Vanya’s other side also had no eyes. His face was deeply scarred – one could even say mutilated. Even under black lights, the scars looked fresh. He was a big guy, too… six feet of lean compact muscle. He was currently singing in gibberish, and if his lack of eyes bothered him at all, I couldn’t tell.

Mason looked like a wolfish parody of the man I’d seen laughing and talking with Jenner in the clubhouse. He stood in paralyzed silence as Vanya dragged the body-bag closer and zipped it open from the feet up. The cultist next to him took the knife and held it in a ritual posture while the Kommandant heaved his bulk up onto the table and got into position over the prone man on the altar. The crazed glass blade glowed black and purple under the black lights.

My eyes narrowed. Time to end this.

With the lips of the carton clenched in my teeth, I came up around the pillar and unloaded the clip in three short bursts from right to left and back to center before ducking, rolling, and coming up behind the grain shuttle hanging from the ceiling. There were screams, piercing through the haze of propellant and smoke. I slammed the spare clip into the gun and came around again, glanced a flash of purple light reflecting off a muzzle, and ducked down as three deafening shots sucked my eardrums in and blew the chute off the shuttle. Head pounding, I dropped to my belly on the floor, braced, and fired off a second spray at knee-height.

Three men went down. Two cowered behind the altar, but the blind priest stood tall amidst the chaos. He had his hand raised, the bullets trapped in ageless suspension in front of him, and I had an awful feeling as to what was coming after that.

The bullets vaporized, bursting into inky liquid that splashed and hissed across the floor. As the fluid whipped up from the floor in ropey strands, called by the mage’s conducting hands, Mason fixed on me and snarled. His teeth glowed in the black lights. Vanya was down and scrabbling away from the gunfire behind the altar. The big blind guy was getting back up at a run. I threw the empty PP-90 at him as he barreled towards me, and ran for new cover as the black tendrils suddenly focused on me like hydra’s heads and lashed out from across the room, tearing the grain shuttle apart on their way across. I dove and rolled: a piece of metal caught me across the calf on the way down, slashing open my pants leg and the flesh beneath. Then something cold caught around my ankle and took me to the floor. The bottom of the milk carton hit the concrete and splashed up into my nose.

“Get him! Get him!” Someone was screaming from the back of the room as I was dragged kicking and struggling from behind a metal pillar and into the open. A wild glance showed me that G.I No-Eyes could still somehow ‘see’ well enough to train me with his pistol. Fighting not to cough from my milk bath, I fumbled for my knife and threw myself forward, rolling underneath the shots. The first went over me; the second was so close to my head that powder burned my face as I rolled to my feet and charged.

I was not afraid. I was angry and sick after what we’d found on the computer. And I still had half a carton of milk.

The Deacon slashed with a hand, and I let the black mass of tendrils rush around me in a slithering wave… a wave that screeched and fled as I dumped the rest of the milk on it and myself and pushed to close in, the knife in hand. The priest dodged away from the blade as I swiped for him, better than anyone wearing a mask like that had a right to, put his guard up, and slammed me in the side of the head. Wonderful. A fellow boxer.

Years of training kept me on my feet as I bit my tongue and came right back at him, knife in hand. The blade unzippered his guarding arm from wrist to elbow and sent him stumbling away with a shout, clutching at the wound. I stumbled back, briefly disorientated, and put my foot right into one of the empty black pits that peppered the floor. I tripped to one knee, and got a ringside view of Mason’s festering heart wound as he rushed me. It was all I could do to pull my leg free and scoot back on my ass as the tackle connected.

Mason’s dead weight carried us in a slide against the cold concrete, enough of a ride that I was able to get a hand between him and me and ram the knife straight into his ribs. The blade went in like I’d punched it through a side of beef. He snarled in agony, then roared. Roared, like a lion or a tiger might. His body pinned me from the hips down, hands on my neck even as I stabbed and struggled, driving the blade into his shoulder, lung and neck. Mason faltered on the sixth stab, collapsing onto me as his boots kicked out between my legs in a position far too intimate for sanity.

Still clutching onto my throat, his eyeless face only inches from mine, he threw up. He threw up blood and shards of broken glass onto my face with a garbling howl of agony, and then, he transformed.

Chapter 30

When I’d witnessed Duke and Jenner change from human to animal and back, it had been a fluid process, a smooth and untraumatic transformation from two legs to four. Features distending, hands turning into paws, that sort of thing.

Mason exploded. His body ruptured with spines of shattered glass flung in all directions, shards that punctured my flesh with such ease that I barely felt anything at first, just the deep pressure of penetration in belly, thigh, neck and hand. It was the impalement through the hand I felt first, because my vision cut in a white torrent of sensory noise. Then the pain hit.

A filthy white tiger the size of a pony staggered off my chest to its feet, leaving its payload of broken glass behind. I tried to scramble back, hiccoughing with shock and agony, and accidentally put my hand on the ground. The glass pushed deeper and my arm collapsed out from under me, and GOD help me, I screamed.

“It’s over!” The priest shouted.

The tiger advanced low to the ground, its face a twisted mask of rage. But it was wrong. The body of it was misshapen and distorted, the spine arched too high, the chest too deep and narrow. Mason’s hindquarters and the left side of his upper breast bristled with jagged, bloody, crazed glass. Every stalking step was accompanied by the weirdly mechanical sounds of glass breaking, reforming, and tinkling to the hard floor.

“It’s not over until I say it is, pizdets.” I limped back on ass and elbow, drawing the Wardbreaker with my left hand.

The tiger roared, drooling blood and foam onto the floor, and was on me faster than I could move. I almost saw the paw that slapped the gun from my hand, but not the one that took me across the face and knocked me into the floor. It was just a pat, really, no claws. As my skull bounced off concrete, I remembered all too vividly how Duke had nearly decapitated Kir.

Mason put one dinner plate-sized foot against my chest, pushed, and flexed his claws. They pierced my ruined shirt and the skin of my pectoral, right over my heart. The hint finally got through. Yes… I was done.

“Now hold on a minute… I remember you.” The priest spoke in unaccented English. His voice sounded artificially deep, thick and lazy from the endorphin rush of the fight. Just like Mr. Patroclus, he had a Texas accent, though it was nearly nowhere as thick. “Well, what do you know? I thought Nicolai would’ve made a lampshade out of your skin by now.”

While I seethed in silence, the priest turned to look over his shoulder. “Ivan. You know this little mage, don’t you?”

I rolled my eyes to glare across the charred and bloody ground. Vanya was downed near the altar, panting with excitement and terror. He’d taken bullets to the leg – I could see the exit wounds. He was still clutching his loose pants in one hand, but as the Blind Priest spoke, he began to nod. “Yes, Deacon. His name—”

“I know his name. Don’t speak it: Names have power.” He pointed at me with a long hand. “The Father has presented us with a unique opportunity. A double conversion. It is a sign of his blessing and power that you live, mageling, while the others do not. He wants you, and he will have you. Ivan. Take the knife and come here.”

Vanya’s piggish eyes fixed on me. His expression was hungry, greedy. He reached for the edge of the altar and hauled himself up to his good leg.

“That’s it. Come here, son.” The priest’s voice was kindly. By the divine right of Kings, give what belongs to the Father, back to the Father.”

The Deacon held out the glass knife, and Vanya collected it on his way past. He limped towards me; I struggled for a moment, testing the alertness and intelligence of the tiger standing on my chest. As soon as I twitched, the claws returned, and the pressure increased. My weakened rib popped with a low ‘crunch’ that I heard in my back teeth and felt as a wave of fresh spasming pain through my chest and gut.

“You,” Vanya rasped. “I always hated you, you prissy little fuckup. Grisha was the only real man in your whole family. He should never have gotten with that Jewish whore… he should have stuck with us. His brothers.

I couldn’t speak. My breath rattled through my teeth, frothy with blood and pleurisy.

“You’re a freak!” He advanced on me, dragging his leg, and dropped into a clumsy kneel beside us. “A fucking… freak! You and Vassily! Faggots! Freaks!”

My face flushed hot with rage, and I tried to struggle up, flailing out for the gun just beyond reach of my fingers. “Don’t you ever speak of Vassily like that again.”

“He was fucking guys in prison, loser.” Vanya reached out with a callused hand, pushing me down by the neck as he shoved my shirt up as far as the spears of glass allowed for. “Wanna know why I took him out? He got that gay disease in there, is why.”

By way of reply, I lunged up and sunk my teeth into his forearm until I tasted blood. He shrieked and raised the knife above my stomach with his other hand, warring with the need to stab me and pull his arm away as I dug my blunt teeth through gristle, muscle and skin. My last gift to the Organization.

There was a sharp bang. All heads turned as the door exploded inwards, showering the four of us in debris. Mason twisted his head, letting off me as three big cats charged in from the stairwell: a tiger as big as a horse, a leopard half her size, and a mountain lion who screamed like banshee as they fell on the room in a tornado of fur and claws. The glass-eaten tiger started up from me with a roar, fangs bared, and charged to meet them.

The Deacon got out of the way, nimble and well trained. He lifted a hand, barking words of power. Vanya tore his arm free from my mouth with a scream, and promptly collapsed as his leg gave out from under him. He pitched to the ground beside me, dropping the knife. Without a second thought, I caught it up, heaved myself on top of him, and put it to his throat.

Jenner hit her mutated partner with a flying four-footed leap, met by the opened arms and claws of her opponent. They were equal in size, and tumbled to the ground in a blur of snarling, flashing teeth, raking claws, and striped muscle. The leopard went for the priest, who finished his spell with a shout and a gesture.

Time slowed in a cone of effect that froze me, Vanya, and both tigers in slow motion, winding down my heartbeat to painful slowness. But even as The Deacon tucked his chin down, arm outstretched in concentration, the animals fought the tide of inertia and then broke through. They flew back into the fray at normal speed, while the dust around them bloomed in slow motion.

But I suffered. And as my body fought the temporal flux and Vanya wobbled in his efforts to escape, he pushed my injured arm aside and I dropped the sacrificial knife. It fell slower than a feather to the floor beside his head.

Before we could adjust, the priest took a full-grown, fully-temporal leopard to the face. The spell snapped, and I collapsed onto Vanya’s flabby bulk with a sharp exhalation and the taste of blood. He was on me in a flash: rolling us over, pinning me down as he shouted, raining spittle down at my face. We flailed for the knife, neither of us able to get a grip on it. My groping fingers found the end of the hilt, but it flew away at speed before I could grasp it. It flew up, turning end over end to smack solidly into the priest’s hand. Duke had taken him down, and it was trying to maul him as he somehow held it at arm’s length. I shouted a warning, but too late – the masked man slammed the unholy glass weapon deep into the leopard’s flank.

“Duke!” I roared his name, struggling with Vanya.

The cry caught the attention of the mountain lion, who was mauling the blind cultist on the ground. When he saw what was happening, his ears flattened, and he lunged for The Deacon with a cry of rage. The priest staggered to his feet, clutching his face to keep the mask over it. He hissed a harsh word, and then bolted for the opposite side of the building, the wall of empty window frames overlooking the canal. Zane was almost on him, front paws lifting to slash, when The Deacon vanished into the shadows and dematerialized.

The ruined white tiger kicked Jenner across the floor with a bellow, sending her careening into the remains of the grain shuttle, and limped up to his feet. He was panting, his empty sockets leaking fresh blood. The wounds Jenner had raked across his belly and flank were rapidly filling with spines of glass, shards that ejected from its flesh to bristle like spearheads as he turned tail and ran in the same direction as the escaping Deacon. Jenner started after him, but put a foot into one of the holes that had caught my foot. She tripped forward, her jaw hitting the ground with an alarming crunch. Mason didn’t vanish – he leapt from the window, eight stories off the ground, and plunged out of sight as Zane bellowed and skidded to a halt before he fell from the precipice. A few seconds later, there was a distant splash from the canal below.

Duke made a low, mewling sound as he tried to get to his feet, the knife still buried deep in his ribs. Sensing distraction, Vanya tried to scramble up on the slippery floor. I punched him in the side of the face with my left fist, pitching him to the ground, and lay myself on top of him to stop him from fleeing.

“The knife!” I shouted. I couldn’t hear myself properly after all the gunfire, but my throat was vibrating enough to let me know that I could still make noise. “Get that knife out of him! It’s cursed!”

“You fucks!” Vanya shrieked. “You cowardly fucks! They fuckin’ ran! They ran!”

The screaming beside my ear blinded me. My ears were ringing, mouth and nose full of the smell of old pennies. I struck Vanya across the face. “Shut the fuck UP!”

The orange tiger had picked itself up. Jenner shook herself with a deep-bodied grunt, and then slouched across to me, eyes burning gold-green even under the black lights. She paused for a moment, surveying me with all the arrogance of a born ruler before she loped past us towards the leopard.

While I scuffled with Vanya, I heard the distant sound of tearing meat. When I looked up, the mountain lion was gone, and Zane stood in its place. He was nude from the back, the glass knife in his hand. The leopard was folded around the injury on his side, panting and moaning, his paws kicking along the floor. Even as I watched, he managed to get his forelegs under him and sit up, tongue lolling from his open jaws.

Zane looked over his shoulder at me. His eyes were a paler jade green than Jenner’s, but just as unnaturally bright and piercing. He didn’t look pleased to see me.

Jenner put her paws on the altar, nearly upending it, and shifted back: a smooth, fluid transition from animal to human. Fur poured back under human skin in a wave; bones popped and resized, organs moved, and all that was left was a wave of iridescent liquid that poured down her body and spattered to the floor, disappearing as soon as it touched the dirty concrete.

“You fuck,” Jenner said, by way of greeting. “That was Mason. Mason’s fucked up, you knew where he was, and you didn’t tell me?!”

“I came to find this fat piece of shit.” I kept the knife in against Vanya’s neck, but not too close. He was a secret fanatic; I wasn’t going to let him martyr himself. “This wasn’t in the plan—”

“I saw the fucking photos, Rex.” Jenner stalked towards me, her small human form just as predatory, just as deadly as the tiger who had fought only a moment ago. “The video was in YOUR apartment. YOU brought that computer in. Mason was here, with YOU. What the actual fuck? Talya was freaking in the clubhouse when I got up… something about you and the Russian Mafia being involved. You—”

Something in me snapped. Bristling with broken glass, one hand impaled through the palm, being blamed – once again – for other people’s problems, I couldn’t stop it.

“You WILL fucking listen to me!” I pushed myself off Vanya, leaving him to flail on the ground at my feet, and swaying on my feet. “You want someone to blame for this? For your boyfriend? Blame yourselves. All of you, you fucking useless, undisciplined, conniving, back-biting HACKS! YOU let this take place under your noses! Your shapeshifter ‘Elders’ are not ‘very good people’ – they were cultists and perverts and pedophiles. I came here because I figured something out, like I was supposed to, and you want to scapegoat me too?”

“Shut the—”

“No! You shut the fuck up!” I felt the parasite strain in my chest and belly as a wave of aborted power surged and was immediately cut off. “Vanya was about to rape this man on the table. He was going to rape and murder him after he swore his vows to this crazy fucking cult – which, I might add, Lily and Dru were almost certainly part of. I just saved Angkor’s life after Mason turned into some kind of fucked up mutant beast and tried to kill me, and you. And if you can’t handle the truth, then that is not. My. Problem.”

“Let me get a word in, will you?” Jenner’s entire face trembled with tics, and she opened her mouth to say something just as Duke transformed from leopard to nude human male. I was so furious that I didn’t even care that all three of them were naked.

“No. Fuck you all. I don’t care.” I caught sight of Vanya just as he tried to get up and limp away, and I kicked him right in the exit wound just for the spite of it. He pitched back down with a squeal. “I’m sick of him and I’m sick of all of you. So take your Spook and apologize to him for whatever fucked up shit they’ve done to him, and fuck back off to Screw-Up Town while I go and live my GOD-damn life somewhere else!”

“Hey. Alexi.” Zane called from up the back of the room.

“He killed Vassily!” I screamed back at him. “And you think I had something to do with this?! They killed the only people who ever mattered to me!”

As my voice bounced off the walls like gunfire and faded into stunned silence, a clicking sound began to echo through the room. I looked down. Vanya was laughing underneath me. A horrible fake, forced, repetitive laugh.

“Laugh it up, fatty.” Jenner said. “You’re gonna wish we killed you before tonight’s through.”

I had never wanted to do anything more than what I was about to do. I didn’t look at her. “No. Take Angkor and leave.”

“I’m not gonna do that,” Jenner replied. “Mason—”

“I don’t want anything to do with you anymore. This is between my people and me,” I replied, as crisply as I could with twelve pieces of glass stuck through my torso and limbs. As the battle fury began to lift, I was stiffening up, beginning to feel the pain. The one in my forearm had gone all the way through. “And if you don’t fucking leave, now, I’m going to kill every fucking person in this room.”

“Jenner…” Zane spoke up again, moving closer to us. “Just leave him.”

“No. I’m not leaving.” She lowered her head, eyes narrowed. “You’re coming with us, Alexi. We’re doing this together.”

“I don’t take orders from you.” I bared my teeth at her, warring with the dual urge to make good on the promise to wipe the room, and rope them in to help me with Vanya. I wasn’t going to be able to carry him in my current state.

She rolled her eyes. “Look. Just forget it, okay? I lashed out. My old man’s dead and your friend’s dead, and I lost my shit and you’re right, you don’t take orders from me. Alright?”

In the pregnant pause after her almost-apology, Binah jumped onto the altar and began to nose the bodybag and its concealed occupant, meowing plaintively.

“You ain’t getting nothing from me,” Vanya slurred in English. “Stupid cunts. You’re dead. Every fuckin’ soldier in this city is gonna come for you. Deacon’s gonna come for you. You’re fuckin’ dead!”

“Your new friends ran, Vanya.” As much as I could with one shaking hand and a body full of broken glass, I straightened my shirt and tie. “And now, you will tell us about Lily and Dru Ross and their children.”

“I ain’t telling you shit,” he said. “The fuck you gonna do? Sergei told me he cut you off. You ain’t no fuckin’ wizard no more.”

The three Weeders in the room shifted restlessly, but I forced myself to stay fixated on Vanya. “I don’t need magic to make your life a living hell for the next year, Vanya. All I need is a quiet room, a battery, and some copper wire. Just you and me and some electrified exploration of your intimate places. Do you think you’ll cry, Kommandant?”

He spat at me. Jenner stalked across, and slapped him so hard that his neck cracked. He fell to the ground, coughing, while the tiny woman shook her hand out and hauled him up to his knees with unnatural strength. The wiry muscles of her torso stood in sharp relief. “You can count me in on this fat fuck.”

“Nice tits.” Vanya leered.

Jenner kicked him in the bullet wounds on his leg. Vanya howled in agony.

“Fucking prick.” Jenner dragged him off by the front of his shirt as if he weighed thirty pounds instead of three hundred, kicking broken glass out of her way. Duke stumbled on past, and I whistled to him. He turned, and I threw him the Glock. He caught it, gave me the thumbs-up, and joined his President as she maneuvered Vanya out the door and threw him down the first flight of stairs.

“Hey, Alexi.” Zane regarded me somberly as I limped to the altar. “That uh… that looks like it hurts.”

“I don’t want to know.” I zipped up the bottom of the body bag, struggling one-handed to put the unconscious man’s feet back inside. “We need to milk Vanya for everything he’s got. I put a lot of information together tonight… but I can’t explain most of it.”

He stared at me suspiciously, soulfully, and then jerked his shoulders in a restless shrug. “Fine. But we want to know what the fuck we burst in on.”

“I was hoping for something less arcane.” I hobbled to the head of the bodybag and fumbled the zipper it with my better hand. I was shaking so hard that it took more than one try, an attempt which was not aided by Binah, who batted at the zipper as if she didn’t have a care in the world. “We should… ah…”

“What?” Zane frowned.

Tongue-tied, suddenly hot with mingled wonder and confusion, I couldn’t reply. The body bag was opened to chest height, and I’d pushed the plastic back to reveal the most beautiful man I had ever seen.

Chapter 31

Angkor was still deeply unconscious, and in remarkably good condition for someone who had been struck in the head hard enough to knock him out for this length of time. His features were strong, fox-like, the lines of his skull spare, his face somehow both utterly masculine and utterly feminine at the same time. His skin was the color of rich amber; his lips were full, his upturned throat long and gracile. And that was where I got stuck, not because of his beauty, but because of the collar. He had a narrow, seamless glass band welded around his neck. It superficially resembled the hazed glass of the knife the priest had passed to Mason, but it wasn’t as brittle-looking as the dagger. I touched it, and an unpleasant sensation vibrated up through the tips of my fingers. It was magically active.

The only sign of injury was the powdery residue of dried blood – a lot of it. But Angkor had few cuts or bruises, and instead of the smell of filth, all I could smell was flowers. With the smell came a memory. Zarya. Zarya had smelled like this… a scent like mingled jasmine and temple incense, a scent that transfigured to a tactile sensation in the mouth. A deep, bright, vibrant blue scent, holy and inhuman.

“My GOD,” I whispered, still staring down at him. “Is this Angkor? Your mage?”

“Yeah.” Zane was looking between him and me with an odd expression that I couldn’t read. His gaze swept over me, lingering on the bristling shards sticking out from the front of my body, and then down. “Why?”

“I was just wondering.” I flushed as I pushed back some of Angkor’s hair, thick and silky even through gloves, and found the site of a skull fracture. “He’s badly injured… or he was. I was sure I heard one of the byki crack his head against the car.”

Angkor did not stir at our talk of him, though the lump on his head was continuing to shrink slowly as we watched. It was so gradual that you couldn’t see it, but for a man with hands as sensitive as mine, I could feel the tissues shifting slightly when I took the glove off and pressed my bare fingers in around it. He still had a pulse, which I also felt. Slow and steady.

“I can’t carry him,” I said. The admission was embarrassing, the kind of shame that sucked a little more strength out of my already weakened body.

“I’m surprised you can carry yourself. I’ll take him,” Zane said. He made a shooing motion as he advanced, and rolled Angkor’s prone form into his arms with a grunt. This other Phitometrist couldn’t have weighed that much… a hundred and sixty, at most. What I had seen of his body was perfect: lean and long, muscular, broad-shouldered. As Zane slung him up, one of his hands fell from the side of the open body bag. I could only see the highlights and shadows of his fingers in the fading moonlight, but my mouth turned dry. I had to look away, pulse hammering, as Zane swept past and I trailed him with my cat and a deepening sense of confusion and baseless discomfort.

“You… uhh… you have glass sticking out of your chest,” Zane said.

“Please. Really. I don’t want to know.” I was struggling not to stare at my throbbing hand, my throbbing arm, my thigh and abdomen and chest. There was no point looking. “Get me home. I’ll fix it.”

“No, hell no. You need to get to the ER. Can you walk?”

It took a few syrupy moments before I could process what he said, form a reply, and then speak. In light of the argument, I was still curt. “Why would I pay someone ten-thousand dollars for something I could do myself?”

He blanched. “You don’t have insurance?”

“What? You mean like ‘injuries gained during violent criminal acts’ coverage on the Illegal Wizard Plan?” I made a sound of disgust. “Give me your arm and get me to the GOD-damned car.”

Ovar and the men outside were gone: Sent packing, no doubt, by the arrival of three bullet-proof big cats. There were no bodies outside. They hadn’t been killed: they’d fled.

The long road back to the street was agonizing, and by the time I eased into the back seat of Duke’s Buick, every joint and muscle in my body was shrieking and stiff. Duke was half-dressed, pale and shivering as he recovered in the passenger’s side. His arm was pressed in against his ribs. Talya was in the driver’s seat, her hands white-knuckled on the wheel, a sawn-off shotgun lying across her lap.

“You told me not to worry, Rex.” Her voice was high and thin with fear. “But I worried. I worried a lot.”

“Given the circumstances, I’m not complaining.” I was breathing heavily, but as long as the shards didn’t move too much, I wasn’t going to bleed to death. Carefully, I eased into the back seat. “I figured out that the senior management of my old Organization were all tied up in this TVS cult.”

“The cops are going to be all over this tomorrow,” Duke wheezed.

“I doubt it. The cult leader will tell Nicolai what happened, and Nicolai will clean it up.” I was parched, aching for want of water, but there was no way to hurry things. Jenner was stuffing Vanya into the trunk by herself, his cursing punctuated by the smack of her fist into his flesh and the resulting yelps of pain. I heard her close the lid down on him, and then she peeled around the end of the car to get her clothes. She dressed, then took Angkor while Zane did the same. They then carefully got inside, laying the bodybag across their laps.

Now that the battle was over, I was in terrible pain. Wracking, awful pain. With gritted teeth, I eyed the shard buried in the palm of my right hand. The leather had stopped it partway, but there was still half an inch of improvised skewer trapped between the tendons of my index and middle fingers. I couldn’t move them. The glass had to stay until I had antibiotics, painkillers, and the tools to safely stop the bleeding.

“You still alive, Rex?” Jenner glanced over me, then arched an eyebrow.

“Yes.” I tried to sit back, but no matter what I tried, something was inevitably driven deeper into my body.

She licked her lips, suddenly downcast. “You… see any reason that Mason was there with those freaks? Did they have him tied up, or anything?”

“I wish I could say that he’d been captured,” I said. “He was unfettered. The ritual was some kind of initiation for Vanya. He was just standing there, watching it.”

Jenner said nothing for some time. Talya reversed all the way down the drive and turned onto the street, an arm over the back of the driver’s seat and one hand on the wheel. She was gentle enough that I only winced a little.

“That ain’t my old man,” Jenner said, once we were on the street. “That thing I fought. It was wearing his skin, but that ain’t Mason.”

“Can’t disagree, Prez.” Zane was leaning against the window looking out. “What the hell can turn a Weeder into something… someone who looks and acts like that?”

“Morphorde,” Jenner said. “I don’t know what kind. John or Michael would have known.”

Zane grunted, and looked back at me over Jenner’s shoulders. “Why are we taking this guy? And what’s his name?”

“Vanya,” I replied, trying to breathe through the pain. The air in the car was close with the smell of blood and bodies in need of food, and I was momentarily aware that I was bleeding in the presence of three hungry big cats and… whatever Talya was. “He was in photos we found on computer. Vanya Kostyovych Kazopov… he is the Kommandant of Red Hook operation.”

“Wait. He’s the boss of the fucking Russian Mafia?” Jenner turned on me, her eyes wide and white.

“Not top boss. He is… middle management.” My English was failing me. I had to be hurt quite badly for my English to go. “Still important. Still pedirasti.”

“Jesus fucking Christ.” Jenner scrunched her hands into her face, and made a sound of frustration. “You know if any if that super-Spook can track him to the clubhouse?”

“I have no earthly idea,” I replied. My voice sounded strained, even to me. The punctures were oozing, leaking blood under my clothes. “Depends… on what type of mage The Deacon is.”

“The Deacon?” Zane echoed.

“That is what Vanya called him. He’s a… Temporalist, I think. Time mage.” I thought back to Kutkha’s instruction on the basic categories of Phitometry. “And evil magic, Pravamancy. Maybe Inotropy, magic with gravity. He’s surely an archmage.”

Jenner rubbed her hands. “Well, we’re going to have to go to Strange Kitty to pick up your medical supplies, and then you’re going to a safehouse. You, Duke, and Talya can babysit Lord Lardass and Sleeping Beauty while we meet with Ayashe about those photos. We can release your chubby friend into her custody after an interview or two.”

“Me?” Talya squeaked.

“What? It’s a safehouse. It’s a house that’s safe. I’ll send a couple guys with you to watch the place while you soften this guy up.”

“I have work tomorrow!”

Jenner sighed and rolled her eyes. “Come on, kid. You chose to sign on to the Tigers. This your job now, until we approve your petition.”

Talya stiffened in her seat. “Petition?”

“Yeah. You think you can just stroll into the club because you’re John’s Kid Wonder? You’re a petitioner right now. I ain’t even taught you how to ride a bike yet.”

“I grew up in the country. I know how to ride a motorcycle,” Talya replied, huffing her cheeks.

Jenner laughed, but compared to her usual shameless, raucous laugh, it was muted and stiff. “I mean a real bike, not one of those shitty little Russian putt-putts. We’ll build you a chopper that’s better than any vibrator you’ll ever own. It’ll hum so hard it’ll send you straight to Heaven.”

“Oh my god, Jenner.” Talya’s accent finally bled through to her otherwise-perfect English. “Shut up.”

“What? You haven’t ever gone and polished the pearl in public?”

“Polish the- No! Jenner, no!”

It bought a chuckling wheeze out of Duke, folded up beside her, and even a rueful smile from Zane.

We dropped Jenner off at Strange Kitty, got our things, and headed east and north. The safehouse was a tattoo parlor close to Strange Kitty, a small store on an unquiet street in Williamsburg. ‘Hand of Glory’ was written in looping font on the glass. The place was a bit nicer than the Bronx, in that most of the buildings hadn’t been set on fire at some point in the previous decade, but every window had bars and every storefront here had roller shutters with large, effective padlocks.

We pulled up at the curb: us in the big powder-blue Buick, Zane in another, darker blue car, and two other Tigers on their bikes, neither of whom wore the Big Cat Crew patch that identified the shapeshifters of the gang. With more room in the back, we’d brought my surgery kit with us. Talya carried it one-handed, the shotgun clutched in the other. She opened the path ahead for us all, as Duke took Angkor, I took myself and my cat, and the other three Tigers quickly and discreetly dragged Vanya – gagged and bound – from the trunk and inside the parlor.

“He goes downstairs, we go upstairs,” Zane said. “Go treat Rex and Angkor. We’ll take this guy down and chain him up.”

Vanya mumbled something dark and unintelligible, struggling as he was hauled off towards the back of the parlor and out of sight. Talya let us into a stairwell leading up to the next floor, a door that had once been green, but that was now a leprous mix of flaking colors and exposed wood. We entered a narrow L-shaped hall that smelled like old cigarettes and unwashed laundry. All of the rooms were to the left of the entry: a tiny open den with a kitchen connected by an arched doorway, two dingy bedrooms with fold-out beds, and an equally close and sweaty bathroom. That was where I directed Talya to place my tools.

“Home sweet home,” She trilled. She set the surgery kit down with a thump. “Do you need anything?”

“Maybe,” I replied. “But I can’t undress while you’re here. Send Duke to check in a couple minutes. If I’m dead, you know I cut something important.”

Her lips pursed for a moment, before she silently ‘Oh’d and then turned and left without another word.

Once the door was closed, I limped to the sink and fumbled for the tap, trying to push through the brainfog. When I looked at myself in the mirror on the back of the door, I saw why it was so difficult. All up, I was stuck with probably two feet of broken glass, plus or minus the smaller shards that bristled from my arms, chest and face like porcupine quills. My clothing was ripped to hell. The white shirt I’d worn under the jacket was now variegated pink and red: red where I was bleeding, pink where my sweat had tracked blood through the weave.

Gingerly, I began to take off what clothing I could, hanging the ruined jacket and torn shirt, cutting around the slacks and freeing them from around the punctures. When I was done, I grasped the piece of glass in my hand and pulled it free with a low, breathless snarl. The pain peaked, and then ebbed as blood pulsed sluggishly from the wound. I tugged the damp glove off to find my hand crusted dried blood that was liquefying as the new stuff flowed across my palm and ran down to patter on the floor. I wouldn’t be fighting anything for some time, not with this hand. I gingerly flexed my stiff fingers, and got a small spasm of motion from them. The nerve wasn’t severed, at least.

There was a knock on the door, and it opened to reveal Zane’s burly tattooed arm as he held the Wardbreaker out to me, grip-first, and waved it back and forth. “Hey, man. You forgot this.”

“Come in.” I was picking glass out of my face, dropping the pieces of it into the sink. They were stained, dirty-looking things, and not just because of the blood. The glass itself was grimy, with little particles of matter trapped inside. “How is Duke?”

“Fine. He’s a Weeder. They heal fast.”

“They?” The question was an absent one, thought out loud as I opened the kit and got the materials I needed to patch up my hand. Painkillers, first of all, and anti-inflammatories. Saline, antibiotics, dressings.

Zane sighed, a testy little sound. “We, whatever. How long do you think you’ll be?”

I glanced at him, and then returned to working on my palm. “Until I’m done.”

He looked like he was about to snap at me as he fought for his next words, but was apparently struck mute as he watched me pick a four-inch piece of glass out of my arm with forceps.

“Jenner’s called a meeting,” he said, thickly. “She’s mad, Alexi. Really mad. I think she’s going to do something stupid.”

“Gang politics.” What more was there to be said? It was the same in every gang, clique, mob and company. “Those with power always want more.”

Zane frowned, and looked down. “I know. Jenner’s good people, Alexi, but this has wrecked her. Seeing Mason like that… She blames Michael and John for all of this.”

“John’s dead,” I said. “I’m not certain why she blames him when he was murdered and her partner is still alive, however demented he may be.”

“Yeah. Zane watched me in the mirror while I dabbed styptic on the wounds in my face. It stung terribly, but the powder stopped the bleeding.

I supposed this was as good a time as any to bring up the fight. “So I needed to ask you som—”

He awkwardly and accidentally spoke at the same time as I did. “I’m sorry to hear about your friend.”

My hand froze, poised to dab the stinging powder onto the oozing cut just below my cheekbone.

“I uh… I lost people, too. I mean, have lost them.” Zane shuffled uncomfortably, massaging the flesh between thumb and index finger with the other hand. “Maybe not in the same way. But no one can talk about their deaths, you know, and no one ever does. Not without being fuckheads about it.”

I resumed my delicate work, eye ticcing as the styptic set the nerves in my face alight. “People here love to call for war, but they ignore the soldiers who die unless it’s politically useful.”

“Not Vets,” he said. “Gay men.”

I froze again, this time in confusion.

“You just struck a chord in me back there, I guess,” Zane shrugged, nervous and jerky. It was odd to see a man of his size in that kind of posture of defense. “You said you were angry that people were lying to you all the time. I… lied over breakfast that one time, after getting off the phone with Caleb.”

“I know,” I replied. “But I didn’t think to remark on it.”

He laughed uncomfortably. “Well, you have to admit that mafia guys generally aren’t real tolerant of anything outside of their zone. I know a few guys that got killed coming out of clubs and bars. People beat on them.”

I was unsure what to make of that information. I fell back on the default that I’d learned from growing up with Mariya and Vassily: Thank people for their time and at least pretend to be grateful. “Thank you. If I seem unresponsive, it’s because I am in a lot of pain.”

“No worries. I just figured I’d show you some honesty. Might be the last time I have the chance. No matter what Jenner decides, I have to back her.”

“You don’t have to back Jenner.” I stopped for a moment, turning my head to regard him with what I hoped was a steady eye. “It doesn’t matter if she’s an Elder or not. Power only exists when people comply without question.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” With a final uncertain smile, as brief as it was forced, Zane left me to the plink, plink of falling broken glass, and the frustrated recollection that I still had to talk to him before Saturday.

Healing was uncomfortable work, made more uncomfortable by the sudden emotional intimacy I’d neither wanted or expected from a man who was not yet my friend. My knowledge of homosexuality was limited to assertions by adamantly heterosexual muzhiki that gay men were cross-dressing, confused people who were dangerous to children and/or ‘turned’ in prison. Given what I now knew, their hatred of gays was as shallow and suspect as everything else the Organization accepted as being ‘right’. Anyone who could fuck and torture children didn’t have any right judging someone like Zane.

Grinding my teeth, I grasped the largest piece of glass in my leg and pulled it free, holding it up to the light to get a better look at it. I could see the same crackled texture within the material that I’d seen in the knife. Now that it was under normal lights, the pattern was far subtler… but as I studied it, looking for some reason why it was still strong enough to stab with when it looked like it should have crumbled, I noticed something.

The crackle was formed by tubules: tunnels, like a tiny ant colony. I waited, breathing through my teeth as I fixed my gaze. There were things crawling inside the tubes, tiny translucent mites so small that they were invisible unless you got within nose distance of the surface.

The vivid image of Mason vomiting broken glass flashed through my mind, and I stared down at the pile of discarded, bloody shards in the sink as realization dawned. Mason’s chest wound. The knife. Duke.

Meni tse treba yak zuby v dupi!” I threw it down with a clatter, and stumbled off at a limping run, Wardbreaker in hand.

Chapter 32

My punctured leg quivered and nearly gave out as I stumbled into the bedrooms, searching each one. Angkor was laid out on one of the beds, piled with blankets. Someone had cut his collar off, and it lay broken on the dresser beside him. Binah was curled up in a slumbering ball on his knees. I went to the den: the TV was on, and the smell of tea was on the air. When I staggered over to look into the kitchen, Talya turned to me and smiled for a moment before her expression turned to one of obvious concern.

“Rex, you look terrible,” she said. “You need—”

“Where’s Duke?” I said. I hadn’t bled to death, but I had bled enough to feel weak and parched.

Talya’s eyes widened. “He went to go get pizza… we decided we were too tired to cook. Why? What’s wrong?”

“The glass is a vector.” I let go of the doorway and moved back. It felt like I was laboring for every breath, but I could still speak. “It carries something, a virus or a parasite that mutates your Ka and corrupts it. Lily and Dru had it: they had it for a long time. Mason has it. Duke was stabbed with it. We can’t let him back in the house. Does he have keys?”

Talya was frozen with shock and indecision. “I… Uh…”

“Does he have keys to the apartment?”

“No. Zane took them and gave them to Stitch and Marcus,” Talya said. “They’re downstairs in the shop, to make sure that the fat guy doesn’t escape or anything like that. I… how long before…?”

“It might only have been a few minutes or hours for Mason. Onset of the symptoms might vary from person to person,” I said. “We can’t let Duke inside. We need to call Jenner. Can you talk to the others? Stitch and Marcus?”

The girl swallowed, chewed on her lip, then straightened. “I’ll try and explain it to them. And I’ll call Jenner. Will he be okay if we get to him quickly, I mean… and what about you?”

“I don’t know. I’m not a Weeder. Maybe it won’t infect me at all.” Haltingly, I reached out and patted her shoulder with my better hand. It was not something I’d ever done before, not with a person as unfamiliar to me as Talya, but I couldn’t deny that something about her made me feel protective. Fraternal, maybe. “I’m going to go and talk to Vanya while there’s time. Before I go do that, I want to go check something on Angkor.”

“No worries. If we get him now, we should be able to do something.” She smiled, wanly this time, and returned the pat on my forearm before we broke for the front door.

The two Tigers were smoking and watching TV in the back office of the parlor. Talya split from me and went to talk while I headed for the door leading down and tried to summon energy I simply didn’t have. Usually, I could mine myself for momentum, but it was all I could do to shuffle down each step. My chest was tight, my body was wracked with sharp pain, and I was burned out. Tired… very, very tired.

The Tigers had stripped Vanya and chained him on his feet, arms raised overhead. His wrists already swollen and bloody from the handcuffs keeping him fixed to one of the overhead beams. He was precariously balanced on a short plastic footstool, wobbling as he continually tried to find leverage against his bondage and a comfortable position for his injured leg. Neither were possible. He could barely fit one foot on the stool, let alone two. It was an agonizing way to position someone, and my regard for Zane rose a notch.

“I hoped to never have to see you in your underwear, Uncle Vitas,” I said, using the nickname he’d earned so long ago. We were both Ukrainian by blood, and we both spoke Surzhyk, the hybrid dialect common to the part of the continent where we drew our blood and history. “It’s an unfortunate sight. You look… itchy.”

Vanya spat at me, but even that motion threw him off balance. The mucus landed on floor to my right.

I watched him for a few moments, tapping the Wardbreaker’s silencer against the palm of my other hand. Exhausted as I was, seeing Vanya like this – sweaty, his remaining hair plastered to his face, bloody and stripped of his dignity – was gratifying. He was used to being on the other end of the stick. “As much as I hate you, I have to admit. You’re smarter than I ever believed. What do you think of chess, Vanya?”

“I think you’re fucking dead! Sergei’s coming after me. The Deacon’s comin’ after me. You’re dead!”

“No,” I replied, watching him steadily. “I’m not. Not for lack of trying. Because you’re smart… but your plans were based on a flawed premise. You believe all men are like you.”

Vanya continued to curse and writhe, but the struggle was wearing him out beyond endurance. I walked up to him, circling around behind him slowly. His skin tensed. I saw it in his tattoos, the way his scars and flab changed shape.

“So… you have been part of the TVS for long enough to go through an initiation,” I said, from behind him. “And Lev was almost certainly involved. Did Jana bring you in, or was it the other way around?”

“Fuck off,” Vanya replied.

“Sergei must know, but it’s not our Pakhun’s way to serve anyone, not even the NO,” I continued, keeping my voice down. “So he sanctioned you and Lev as long as he got his due.”

“Fuck off!” Vanya roared, rattling his cuffs. He nearly lost his balance on the footstool, unable to find purchase with his gun-shot leg. From the back, the flesh of that leg was purpling… not something that put me at ease.

“He sanctioned you because Jana knew that the Gift Horse Mare was here.” I drew around beside him, and began to pry and poke at him with the point of the knife, digging it in without drawing blood on his waist and groin, which made his flesh flinch and further destabilized him. Pain was a terrible way to get information, and beyond sadistic vindication, I had no desire to beat him. “And that’s what Sergei wants. The Mare. As long as he gets her, he didn’t care if you wore a purple dress and let Lev fuck your ass under the full moon.”

Already furious and getting angrier, Vanya spat like an angry camel as he twisted and thrashed. “I’ll fuck YOU in the ass, you stupid piece of shit!”

I came around enough that he could see my face again. I never liked looking at other people’s faces for too long, but I was a master at using my own for effect. My eyes are nearly white, and one of the advantages of being short is that I can put them in shadow under my brow and wield them like flashlights, a predatory focus that never fail to make bound men jump. When I angled my head and flicked my eyes from floor to face, Vanya flinched.

“Lev knew where to find me after that first meeting with Sergei, Vanya. He knew I’d rescue Vassily and choose him over the Organizatsiya and the Fruit. He knew I’d do anything for Vassily, whatever it took to save him, because he and Sergei had raised me to do that exact thing.” Almost idly, I pressed the muzzle of the pistol against the swell of Vanya’s tiny, flaccid cock. He flinched again, trying to put his bad foot up onto the stool, and his gathering confusion and fear were enough to steady my tongue for the next words. “You arranged to have Vassily raped and infected in prison, didn’t you?”

He didn’t say anything until the trigger clicked into position.

“Little fuck deserved everything he got,” Vanya hissed. It wasn’t hot in the room, but sweat trickled down his body.

“It was easy to hook him after that,” I said. And I couldn’t keep the bitter sorrow from my voice. “But it couldn’t have been you who thought it up. You’re not creative enough. It must have been Nicolai.”

“It was Lev, you dumbfuck. Same with Rodion. Same with everything.” Vanya said. His voice radiated a perverse smugness, his pride in justifying the intelligence of the little man in the course of the grand game. It was exactly what I’d hoped he’d do. The Reid Technique depended on pride. “The Deacon bought Jana in, she bought Lev in, and he bought me in. Neither of you little faggots ever saw it coming, haha.”

“And Carmine nearly ruined everything, didn’t he?” The insults rolled off me like beaded water. Everything he said was a loan, a mark on the tally. I’d be able to claim soon enough. “Jana tried to get him to join, but she couldn’t control him. Not like how she controlled you.”

“Bitch didn’t control me,” he sneered. “Women don’t have no place in the Organization, and—”

“So it was Lev who dealt with Wolf Grove?” I cut him off, withdrawing the pistol. Now that he was talking, I didn’t want him thinking about his body. “Lily and Dru Ross? Was it spur of the moment, killing them and taking the kids? Or did he plan it out?”

“Lev couldn’t fucking organize shit,” Vanya said, bitterly. “Soft-handed little fuckup was too busy sucking Sergei’s cock. He forgot his duty to the All-Father, and so did they.”

“They got soft-hearted after their initiation, didn’t they?” I locked my feelings down behind the mask. “They got rid of their infection, somehow. Who tried to bring them back into the fold, Vanya?”

“None of your fucking business.”

“It had to be someone from your kiddy porn ring who they still had regard for. Who was it? Michael? Aaron? Ayashe? You’re not the kind of man who could pull that off yourself.”

Vanya looked down his beaky nose at me. He was sweating so much that it dripped from his chin, and turned my stomach more than any words he could have expressed. “You fucking implying something, faggot?”

“That you’re too stupid to murder two shapeshifters and leave cute coded messages on the walls?” I had to restrain myself from putting the gun to his crotch and blowing it off like a crushed snail, and the effort made the parasite churn and twist deep in my guts. “Absolutely.”

“You don’t fuckin’ know nothin’, Alexi, and you ain’t never gonna find those little fucks. Even if I told you, Sergei’s coming for you. All-Father’s coming for you, and you’re never gonna even see it.”

Vanya’s eyes flicked up for a moment, glancing up over my head in a flash so brief I almost didn’t see it. I heard a single heartbeat thump against my eardrums as I spun and twisted back into his bulk, away from the hatchet coming down at my head.

Chapter 33

Vanya snapped at me like a dog as I fell to the side, orientating on my attacker. It was Duke. He was purple in the face, eyes wild, a fireman’s ax in both hands.

“Duke!” I barked out, dodging as he brought the ax around and lunged for me a second time. Vanya began laughing hysterically, a sound cut off into a squeal of pain as I dove around him and Duke slammed him aside, knocking him off his stool in his eagerness to get to me.

The man who’d fought alongside Jenner and Zane and taken a blade for them was no longer there. He charged me heedlessly, driving me back into the basement. I barely dodged the swipes in the darkness, trying to get the gun between us. I stumbled, and Duke swung the ax, as fast and strong as only a Weeder could be. There was just enough time to roll my head out of the way, and then kick him squarely in the balls. It sent him staggering back, but it didn’t put him to the floor. I, on the other hand, put too much weight on my injured leg and went down as my thigh shuddered and buckled.

“My hands!” Vanya was screaming. “My fucking hands! Cut me down!”

Duke eyed me like a furious bull: the whites of his eyes showing, erection raging, body pouring sweat. He turned back and sprinted to Vanya’s side, too fast to be human, and swung the ax into the chain of the cuffs. Vanya dropped to the floor like a plate of blancmange. I was only just getting to my feet, too dizzy to run, by the time that Duke was chasing ahead of Vanya and out the door.

I swore and fired after them. One bullet caught Duke in the shoulder, but it didn’t even slow him. Vanya was pumped with adrenalin and Duke was… whatever he was. He’d caught the same infection as Mason, Lily and Dru. It hadn’t even been five hours since he was stabbed.

I floundered up the stairs as quickly as I could, but not in time. There was a high-pitched scream from inside the parlor. It was too high to be Jenner’s smoke-and-whiskey voice. Talya was still here.

The raw cry of pain spurred me on to greater speed. I staggered up the stairs, jamming the pistol into my belt and pulling the knife. If Duke was infected with Morphorde, the last thing I wanted to do was shoot him somewhere vital. I turned the blade as I rounded the corner to see…. Blood. A lot of blood, spattered and oozing across the floor from the two dead bikers and Talya. The men had been hacked to death. Tayla was sprawled against the cash counter in her sundress and cardigan, panting with an awful wet rasp. Her fingers hovered and twitched around the ax handle buried in her chest.

“Talya.” I limped towards her as a whine grew in my ears, drowning out the sound of the street. Duke had buried the weapon so far into her body that I could only see a hint of metal. “Hang on… just… we’re going to count through this. We will count together and relax your chest.”

The girl shuddered. Her warm brown skin was milk white with shock, her lips bubbling with dark red blood. Her eyes met mine from across the room, startlingly gold through the wet mess of her silverish hair.

“G-go,” she rattled. She warded me back with a trembling, bloody hand. “Get… out… run… RUN!”

Confused, I backed up towards the entry to the parlor. I ran for the door and flung it open, just as the Buick tore past and gunned for the main road. Duke was white-knuckled on the wheel, his face an expressionless bloody mask, and Vanya was laughing. Even at high speed, I heard it in passing: the same horrible, forced, ‘HAH HAH HAH’ he’d made in the warehouse.

There was no stopping them now. I couldn’t run. I pushed my hands back over the stubble on my head, bleakly watching on as the car turned the nearest corner and vanished.

And then, from right behind me, came the impossibly deep-throated snarl of a huge, angry animal in pain.

For the first time in many years, I froze. Truly froze. I froze because I realized, in that moment, that I needed to run. Leave. Leave Angkor, who I didn’t even know, and Talya, and the Tigers, and the faceless horde of idiots gathering in the sidewalk across from the store, their voices burbling static. I could jump ship and never be seen again.

A shadow fell over me from behind, and I turned and looked up to see a cat the size of a small bus looming over the parlor.

Talya’s Ka was strange, primitive looking lion with a short, stiff, bristly mane. She staggered up to her feet with damp fur, but no excess Phitonic jelly rolled down her flanks. She was gray and white, with a taller, leaner build than any African Lion in the world, but the square face and heavy jaw were unmistakable, as was the blindingly loud roar she made as her flesh rejected the ax still buried in her chest. There was no humanity in her blazing yellow eyes. No control.

“Talya… Talya, it’s Rex…” I circled slowly towards the entry to the apartment stairwell, the knife held up, hand outstretched. Against a DOG, a knife worked just fine. Against this? This lion was at least two thousand pounds of muscle and claws. “Kitten, remember Rex? Zane?”

She dropped her head between her shoulders, and began to pad towards me in a slow stalking crouch. Just before she leapt, I threw the knife at her, end over end. It hit her in the shoulder, point-first, bounced, and clattered to the concrete floor. Fixated on my movements, she didn’t even seem to notice.

“Very well then.” I said aloud. And then I ran for my life.

Talya charged me in perfect silence, and however fast it was she was moving, thirteen feet to a second seemed fairly apt. I made it to the door of the stairwell just as she smashed it in behind me with a paw the size of a dustbin lid. Dodging claws, I charged up the stairs, driven by primordial fear so deep and so innate that pain became meaningless. Talya’s size was advantageous outdoors, but a liability in closed spaces. As I careened off the wall and ran, hopped and crawled to the landing, Talya clawed and swiped the spot I’d been seconds before, roaring in frustration as her head and shoulders got jammed between wall and door. She lunged up at my heels, only barely able to fit in the narrow stairwell.

I twisted the handle on the front door and shot inside, slamming it behind me. It wasn’t going to do anything to help me, but I felt slightly safer as I limped and ran down the hall, around the corner, and began to throw things in the desperate search for the Glock and a fresh clip. There was no way the 9mms in the Wardbreaker would bring Talya down, but the frag rounds stood a chance.

I could hear Talya ploughing through plaster and mortar on her way up the stairs, and emerged back into the hallway just as she tore the door off its hinges and lunged through half-way, bellowing in rage. She pushed forward with a snarl of frustrated hunger and struck the ceiling overhead, sending a rain of plaster into her own eyes. The bedroom door was open. I caught the jamb, spun around, and slammed the door closed with my back against the wood, until I thought better of it and stumbled away, as far from the entry as I could get.

Ikun mohya?”

I jumped so hard that I gave myself whiplash, gun pointed at the ready. Angkor was sitting upright, bare-chested, his blanket pooled in his lap. His face was a pale mask of shock.

“What the Hell?” he said.

“LION,” I blurted.

Talya’s bulk struck the door and nearly rattled it from its frame. I scrambled up, and with a flush of manic strength, seized the legs of the nearest bed and dragged it across. Then the dresser, then the wardrobe. The door banged in a second time, the hinges straining. Angkor staggered out of bed, barefoot and in shorts, and crossed the distance to help me pull anything and everything across to block the door.

“Lion? Who?” Angkor’s voice was thick with fatigue. He looked like death warmed over. “What?”

“Talya. It’s Talya.” I retreated to the back of the room and slammed the new clip into the Glock as Talya began to strop the door with her claws. Wood splintered, and the junk pile swayed. “Can you use a gun?”

“Yes… NO! We can’t kill her!” Angkor withdrew from me and flopped to the bed with his face in his hands. “Wait wait wait, let me think of something…”

“Think quickly!” While he wracked his brains, I racked a bullet into the chamber and set a second clip just beside me. “We have about five seconds.”

“Okay! I’ve got an idea!” Angkor flapped his hand, leaning against the leg of the bunk bed as it jolted and shuddered behind him. “Can you piss?”

“What is… the hell kind of question is that?” My accent was bleeding through with stress.

“We need urine. Scent-marking. If he smells a lion bigger than he is—”

“She. Female lion.”

“—No, freaking listen to me. Talya’s Ka is a male lion, trust me. I know lion spunk when I smell it. If we create a territorial scent, he will cut and run. So can you piss or not?”

The man was insane, too screwed up from concussion to think clearly. “No, I can’t fucking piss on command. Get out of way.”

“GODunderfoot.” Angkor groaned, backpedaling, and sniffed. Then he sniffed again. “Hey, I smell cat shit. Is there a cat in here?”

“Yes, there is cat in here, and there is cat out there,” I snapped. “Now get fucking gun and shoot fucking lion before we die, please.”

“Hang on.” Angkor scrambled out of sight, just as the bunk bed toppled over and a gray paw shot through the gap in the door, patting around, then flexing in and tearing the wood like paper.

Angkor whooped behind me. I glanced back to see him lift his hands, poised like a dancer or a stage magician, and then refocused on the lion’s groping paw, sighting down. Breath in, breath out, breath in…

Gravity in the room sucked backwards for a moment, a gathering rush of power, and then one of the worst smells I had ever experienced in my life flooded the room.

I’d smelled a lot of awful things over the years. I’d smelled bodies when they dumped their bowels and bladder after death. I’d smelled the unnatural reek of DOGs and places of corruption. This wasn’t a DOG-stench: it was cat feces concentrated a hundred times more than whatever the human nose was made to stand. It was the Platonic Ideal of cat shit, the distillation of rotten venison, putrid and tarry, mixed with bile, musk, and ammonia.

Retching, eyes streaming, I locked my jaws and sighted down again, this time on the huge face pressed against the hole in the door. The nose was flaring as Talya sniffed, and sniffed, and as I tried to shunt myself into the killing trance.

“Hold off,” Angkor said breathlessly. He lay a hand on the pistol and pushed it down. “Look.”

Talya moaned, a short, almost solemn sound, and pulled her muzzle back in a shower of shattered woodchips and paint. She began to paw at the threshold to the room, stropping her claws on it, but gave up after a few seconds with a snarl. The spotted gray flank swished by the hole in the door again, and I recupped the grip and re-aimed. But she passed by, chuffing with agitation.

“Oh wowww. That’s a North American lion,” Angkor said. He had turned an interesting shade of bronze-green. His eyes were watering, his voice thick with mucus. “A real life Panthera atrox. There hasn’t been one of those for at least eleven thousand years. Holy shit. Isn’t that amazing?”

“Sure, wonderful. But Super Govno isn’t going to hold her off forever,” I said. “He, she… IT can still hear us.”

“Hey, don’t be rude. She’s a woman when she’s human, male when she’s not.” Angkor nearly collapsed to his knees beside me. Up close, he was pouring sweat. Sweet, floral sweat that chased the stench of what I assumed was prehistoric lion shit out of my nostrils. “My GOD, that is amazing.”

“Cover ears.” I put the Glock down and pulled the Wardbreaker instead.


I tucked my ear against my shoulder, pressed my hand to the other, and fired. The Wardbreaker was usually quiet – part of its enchantment made it nearly silent when activated with a suppressor – but I couldn’t activate it, and so the shot still rang out like a cannon, loud enough that my ears popped. Angkor winced, covering too late. Binah, terrified, shot out from her hiding place and began to flail uselessly at the walls and window in her efforts to find a way out.

The lion outside bolted in alarm, squeezing herself back towards the front door as the bullet zinged. I let out a tense breath, and lowered the pistol.

“Ow, shit…” Angkor let go of his ears, slumping into a wilted kneel on the floor. “You could have warned me.”

“I did.” I turned to glower at him, still tense. Talya had retreated, but it wasn’t over. “You were busy admiring the wildlife.”

“Okay, fine. You got me there.” Angkor rubbed his face. His eyelids were heavy, skin ashen and damp with sweat. “GOD, I feel awful. I was… uhh…”

He was staring at me: First in consternation, and then, with recognition and what even might have been awe.

“What?” My eyes snagged on twin crescent-shaped scars on his chest, cuts about an inch across just below the areola on both sides. They had thick keloids, as if someone had cut around his nipples or tried to take them off. Angkor didn’t say anything. Instead, he licked his lips, nose working like a dog’s.

“What?” I was louder this time, more peevish.

“I’m sure I’ve met you before.” Angkor slid in closer to me, far too close for comfort.

I blinked twice, glanced to the door to see if we were still likely to be eaten within the next thirty seconds, and then turned back. I extended him a gloved hand. “Well, now that we’ve established that our relationship is likely to be both brief and awkward before Talya eats us, perhaps we should start with our names. My name is Alexi. I believe you are Angkor.”

Angkor was in no way put off. He grasped my hand in his and shook, his grip surprisingly firm and steady. I held his hand a moment. He was not shaking. He had the air of someone who was used to working under stress.

“Seung Min-Joon,” he replied, eyes alight with inner fire. “But yes, call me Angkor. And no, it’s not a Korean name.”

“The more you know.” I let go, and used the wall to pull myself to my feet, wincing. My head spun, and for several long moments, every sound was muffled by the cotton-thick pounding of my heart in my ears. Blood had seeped to the surface of my dressings. Woozily, I staggered across to one of the beds and chirruped, seeing if I could coax my terrified familiar from her hiding place.

“You’re really badly hurt, Alexi. Can you lie down for a minute?” I heard him get up behind me. Weak as he was, he was still moving easier than me.

“Why?” Lying down was the last thing on my mind. All I had to do was get Binah, but I had to crawl onto the mattress to do that. Get the cat. As soon as I tried to look down between bed and wall, my vision and temples throbbed alarmingly.

“Trust me, okay? I’m a doctor.”

I turned on hands and knees, glowering at him. “I have to get my cat.”

“Look. You need to lie down.” he said. The affable smile had left his face, and he did indeed look like a doctor: the kind of cynical, care-worn kind you found lurking in the ER. “Your blood volume is way under, you’re in full ketosis, your micro-nutrient profile has gone to shit, and if I don’t help you now, your blood pressure is so low that you’re going to faint the next time your head is higher than your knees.”

“How ridiculous. I just need my cat.” I knelt up, and then immediately fell back down.

At first, I thought I’d blinked and woken up somewhere else. I was flat on my back, stretched out on top of the covers. Binah was licking my face with a sandpaper tongue. My shirt was open, and Angkor was pressing around the now-visible sigil figure on my chest. My body felt as light as air, cavernous and free. I could draw deep breaths, but my hands, nose and feet tingled with pins and needles.

“You know, I don’t recall much about that one time I’m pretty sure we met,” he said, with a sigh. “But I do remember that the other you was way better at taking orders.”

“What did you do to me?” I made a valiant attempt to speak, but the words came out as a slurred word salad.

Angkor made a sympathetic sound, apparently understanding anyway. “Don’t worry about it. Who did this to you?”

My brain had to whir around for a while before I could reply. “Sergei. Old upir’.”

“A Feeder,” Angkor murmured. “Of course. Look, wait here and don’t move. I need to go and see if our kitty-cat has calmed down.”

Wait here? A fresh wave of fear stabbed through me. I was partly undressed and prone, and the lion was out there somewhere. I struggled to rise as Angkor left the bedside, flailing out to the side for my gun. Neither action was particularly successful. I knocked the pistol to the floor and ended up leaning on my face, tangled in my open shirt. Straining with effort, I could only watch as Angkor let himself out into the hall. Binah resumed her impromptu bath, grooming the frizz of stubble beside my ear.

For several breathless, spinning minutes, there was no sound outside. Then Angkor returned. He saw me trying to reclaim my dignity and scowled. “Seriously. Stay down, or you’re going to pass out again.”

“I don’t like to be undressed.” As he closed in on me, I fought his hands out of principle. Angkor efficiently pushed me down, and to my confusion and consternation, spooned honey into my mouth before I could do anything about it. The sweetness burned my tongue and I coughed, swallowing reflexively.

“Just eat the damn honey,” Angkor said. “Life is way too short for bad patients, okay? I’m going to heal you, and you’re going to let me.”

He put one hand on my head and held the other out behind him to the door, and for a moment, nothing happened. And then I felt an intangible wave of energy pass through my body. The honey abruptly dissolved into a thin liquid that ran down my throat and into my gut, burning with the warm fire of liquor. The stomach parasite stirred warningly, and I winced.

But I was healing. It wasn’t the horrific, invasive, cell-crawling healing that I’d gotten from Sergei’s blood: The lacerations from the glass almost seemed to sigh as they pushed out pus and other refuse, then perfectly clear plasma as they knitted and repaired. My hands tingled as the cut in my palm half-sealed to something manageable. The energy lingered in the nerves of that hand, which twitched and danced on the bed as Angkor, frowning with concentration, somehow repaired the damage the glass had done. It didn’t feel bad. It was the opposite of bad. It made my breath hitch and my skin stir. My gloves were still on, but no one had ever touched my hands like that.

“Stop,” I said. My throat was clotting with nebulous fear, and as my anxiety peaked, I felt the healing accelerate. As the cut sealed, a silver ripple of… pleasure?… passed up my arm, through my chest, and down. Parts I preferred not to think about stiffened under the covers, which hurt. The pain startled and refocused me.

“I’m nearly done. Nerve damage.” Angkor’s delicate face was pouring with sweat as the focus of his magic shifted from my hand to my thigh.

The mingled pleasure and discomfort did not abate. I tried not to look at him, my face burning hot. The taste of honey and Angkor’s clear floral scent cut through the lingering lion musk and chased it from the room. He really smelled like Zarya. Like a Gift Horse.

“Nearly done,” he murmured. “Hang in there.”

The thigh puncture didn’t close, but the cut was now shallow – perhaps half an inch deep. The smaller ones had disappeared without a trace, and when I lifted my arms and looked over them, they were free of scars. Angkor sat back, and a huge, lazy smile of satisfaction spread over his mouth. His pupils were huge, dilated like a junkie’s.

“Have a look at your hand,” he said. His voice was thick, a rich golden brown that thrummed in my ears and did nothing to ease my discomfort.

Glowering, I slowly eased upright and removed my damaged, dirty glove. It revealed soft white skin, as pale as magnolias and nearly lineless. The hand that had been pinned with the shard was now seamlessly repaired, and to my surprise, no longer covered in blood. I flexed my fingers experimentally. There was a deep twinge in my palm, but I could form a fist and bend my fingers back and not scream.

“Not bad,” he said. “Not my best work, but I was fighting that HookWyrm the entire time. That, and I literally feel like something a dog threw up on the sidewalk.”

“You smell quite a bit nicer than that.” I only realized what I’d said after I said it. “I mean… you smell like a mage. Magic. Thank you.”

His expression curled into slyness with incredible mobility. He pinched his tongue between his teeth as he smiled, a weirdly sensual gesture I’d never seen a person make before.

I cleared my throat, glancing down. He was still mostly undressed, and averting my eyes from his face didn’t help. “Where is Talya?”

“She’s busy eating one of the dead guys outside.” Angkor shrugged and reached for the jar of honey. “She’ll be fine once she’s had enough calories. We’ll know she’s shifted back when we hear hysterical screaming.”

While Angkor spooned honey out of the jar and ate it like yogurt, I picked myself up off the bed. My muscles were stiff with fatigue, but it was not the screaming hot pain of deep wounds and burgeoning infection. The deepest punctures still hurt, and they still felt like lacerations, but they were no longer three inches deep. Manageable. I pulled my ruined glove back on and offered Angkor a hand.

“Thanks.” He got to his feet, the teaspoon still in his mouth. He’d eaten about half the jar, but his dark skin was still greenish with exertion and he swayed to balance. His face and hair were damp with sweet floral sweat that clung like perfume to his body. It was mouthwatering and infuriating at the same time.

“You shouldn’t have exerted yourself,” I said. “You’re not going to be good for anything now.”

“I just need something to eat,” he said. “No chance of that for a long time, though.”

“We have food,” I replied. “Can you take your own weight? I need both hands to properly use a pistol.”

He replied by gently freeing himself from my support. His expression was one of focused will. Sick as he was, he had the air of someone used to pushing his body to limit. “Not the kind of food I can eat. I’m a Hound. I hunt Gift Horses.”

I felt the parasite throb with a dull echo as my mind instinctively tried to synapse with Kutkha and failed. I caught up the Wardbreaker, fighting the urge to level it at Angkor’s face. “You… hunt them? For food?”

“Hunt. Capital H. I’m a keeper of the Pact.” He turned to me, and quirked his lips with a lazy feline smile. “Though if you let me suck you off, that would do.”

My mouth opened, then closed. My teeth clacked together. “Wh-?”

“You possess the raw essence of life.” He gestured with his head towards my crotch. “You know, that whole Crowley ‘fire within the reed’ thing? HuMan pleasure is hard tack rations for a Hound, but it does the job.”

I’d never wanted to backpeddle away in mortified horror and lunge forward to snap someone’s neck at the same time. Immovable object and irresistible force combined to leave me burning scarlet, furious and confused. After a moment of fraught, painful tension, I took a single step away from him. “Uhh… no. Thank you.”

“Okay, that’s fine. I just noticed that you had a bit of a ‘reaction’ before, and I was like ‘Hi there! Maybe he’d be interested.’” He held up his hands in surrender, and I had the momentary image of pinning his slender wrists back against the wall and digging my fingers in until he gasped in pain and threw his head back, bearing the long line of his throat.

As my pulse throbbed and my head pounded and my body did things I wasn’t sure I wanted it to do for a man, ever, I did the only sane thing. I bought my gun up and retreated as fast as I could, jaws clenched, breath coming hard and fast through flared nostrils.

“Hey, Alexi, we can’t do this.” Angkor held up his hands “Do you want DOGs? Because this is how we get DOGs.”

“The fuck is wrong with you?” This wasn’t the kind of thinking and feeling a professional wetworker could never allow to clutter his mind.

“Seriously. Don’t ever point a gun at a Hound.” The sensual promise drained from his face, leaving it sharp and hard and focused. “When I look down the Black, the NO looks back. It sends demons through the gun, Alexi. Big bad ones. You should know that for a fact.”

It took me a moment to digest his words over the humiliating, painful rush of blood to my various organs, and the furious sense of threat that overwhelmed sense, overwhelmed rational thought.

Sense and reason. I was a mage, even if I was a crippled one. My Will asserted itself, and I lowered the muzzle of the pistol, grinding my teeth until they creaked. “I know what DOGs are, you patronizing… you…”

The memory of Zane’s earnest confession stopped me from using the slur, and it died on my lips. In years past, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about saying something like that, but Angkor and Zane had both saved my life. I could learn.

Angkor sighed, though from relief or exasperation, it was hard to say. I knew one thing: he wasn’t scared of me, except perhaps for the awareness that he was in danger of being shot or DOG-bit. You could pretend calm in a situation, but there were just some things you couldn’t fake. His pupils were normal. He wasn’t shaking. His hands were steady, and no sweat beaded on his upper lip. I might as well have been pointing a remote control at him.

“Look, I’m sorry. I’ve had a rough few weeks. My mouth is working faster than my brain.” He lowered his hands, voice thick with contrition. “And I’m not used to Hounds being so… euun… chaste?”

“If they’re not chaste, then I’m not a Hound.” My eyes narrowed.

“Well… technically…” Angkor shuffled in place, biting his lip for a moment. “If you’ve ever eaten the flesh of a Gift Horse, you’re a Hound. It marks you for life. You maybe didn’t know it at the time, but when you ate that heart or drank that blood, your whole body dumped all of its old cells and regrew them on a slightly different genetic code. An improved code, in case you’re worried.”

“Are you serious?”

“There are all these ancient viruses written into our DNA. Gift Horse blood kind of… cleans them up a bit.” Angkor shifted his hips in a way that drew my eye and sent a fresh injection of imagery and confusion straight to the brainstem. “So, when I was healing you, I could see all the signatures of Horseflesh. I wasn’t like, trying to pry or anything. I had to make sure everything I did was in line with your body’s code, or ‘fast healing’ turns into ‘catastrophic cell die-off’ pretty quickly.”

“Noted.” Rescuing this man from The Deacon and his merry band of eyeless freaks was beginning to look like yet another poor decision on my part, but I couldn’t deny that he’d hooked me with something I’d been craving for weeks, maybe months. Knowledge. Deep, powerful knowledge of a subject that I’d only begun to skim.

I was reaching for the bedroom doorknob when a high-pitched female shriek of horror ripped through the air. I winced as dark blue and white flashed behind my eyes.

“Ah, there we go.” Angkor sighed, and held the pistol cupped as he drew up beside me and peered around the edge of the door. “The Lion King has left the building. And now the crying starts.”

Chapter 34

We sidled out into the hall like a fire team, careful to look up as well as around on our way out. Talya’s sobbing racked the tattoo parlor, louder and louder as we reached the entry to the tiled room. She was nude, slumped on her knees, alternately flapping her hands and trying to bury her face in them. The floor looked like someone had been fingerpainting in blood. Her hands were covered in it, and she’d managed to smear it over her belly, thighs and hair in her desperation to get clean.

“Talya, Talya, come on, it’s going to be okay.” Angkor passed me the pistol and went to her empty-handed, crouching down in front of her and catching her wrists as she tried to claw at herself again. “It’s going to be okay, alright.”

Ya… s’yel… ya s’yeh-s’yeh—” She was hiccoughing so hard that she couldn’t get the words out. It was clear she was beyond English. I kept the guns at my sides and down low as I joined Angkor to the side of her.

“You did nothing wrong,” I said to her in Russian. “Talya, listen to me.”

“I ate them!” She shrieked at me in the same language. “This stupid thing… this… other me… it… I…!”

Her words cut as she retched, clasping at her stomach, and then vomited a bloody mess of torn fabric and metal onto the ground. I stepped back as she went to hands and knees, throwing up what looked like sections of zippers and D-ring buckles, pieces of half-digested nylon and plastic. Anything she’d eaten that was inorganic came up again. Angkor winced, and patted Talya on the back as she choked and hacked.

“Oh my god.” She caught the three words out in a strangled grunt before it kept on going.

“Listen to me.” I went to one knee on her other side, trying to avoid the blood and gristle on the floor. “Listen. These men were dead. They were already gone, Talya. You did what you needed to do to live.”

“No, no no no no.” Talya heaved and wept, her face a red mess of tears, blood and snot. She looked no older than twelve like this, her tenuous maturity stripped away by trauma. The violent retching was already beginning to subside. Weeder bodies were as efficient as they were alien.

“It’s alright,” I said. “You didn’t hurt anyone. Your Chiah, your Ka, it knew they were gone. It wanted you to live.”

She peered at me through swollen eyes, and then at Angkor. Wordlessly, she knelt back, and then folded against his chest and curled her fingers in against his skin, shoulders hunched, head bowed. He held her close, one hand around her back, the other over her hair, and murmured wordlessly as he rocked her. I stayed down, unsure of what to do, but suspecting that it required staying in place to provide support or comfort, or at least a translation.

Angkor seemed to know what he was doing, at least, and Talya gradually sagged into his arms. The hiccoughing and gulping slowed.

“I’m sorry,” she rasped. “I can’t control it. I don’t even remember wh-what happened.”

“You were hurt very badly,” I replied. “Duke freed Vanya and fought his way out to help him escape. He went the same way as Mason. It’s that knife he was stabbed with, I’m sure of it.”

“I can guarantee it is,” Angkor said grimly. “The Temple have StainedGlass weapons.”

“Somehow, I doubt you’re talking about artful church windows. Tell me everything in the car,” I said. “We need to get back to the clubhouse, and soon. Vanya has an army at his command. He’s the Organizatsiya’s recruitment specialist. If he’s got mental sway over Duke and Duke talks, he’ll lead them straight to the clubhouse.”

“Josie’s in there. Clubhouse. Clothes.” Talya croaked. She pushed herself back gently from Angkor, and I looked away as she stood and stumbled away into the house.

“Man… she’s so young,” Angkor said, once she had left.

“She’s not that young. Even someone hardened in the street would have a fit if they inadvertently committed cannibalism.” I picked myself up and started for the bedroom. I needed my holsters, my familiar, and the other small things I had left over from my trip to the warehouse.

“I don’t mean her HuMan self. I mean her entire Axon. Her soul, you know.” Angkor shook his head. “She’s a freshly minted shocktrooper. The latest in Anti-Morphorde technology.”

“But the American Lion is extinct,” I called back.

“Exactly,” he said. “When prehistoric super-predators start getting incarnated back on a world like this, it’s a really bad sign.”

The trip to the clubhouse was tense. I drove with Binah riding on my shoulder, her face to the wind as she meowed excitedly out of the car window. Talya was huddled in the front seat, a sheathed machete in her lap. Angkor took up the backseat. He had claimed Talya’s shotgun and the axe that Duke had tried to murder me with. Now that we were on the road, he was all business. When I checked in the rear-view mirror, he had his eyes closed, his face still and composed with the quiet concentration of a magus. He was surely communing with his Neshamah. It made me sick with envy to see it.

“You said something about stained glass weapons before, Angkor.” I called back to him, pushing the car as fast as I dared. We really, really did not need to be pulled over tonight.

“StainedGlass. Say it like a German noun. Like you’re capitalizing words together.” He didn’t open his eyes. “You seem pretty smart. How much do you know about the history of the Wars?”

“Some of it. Please feel free to rehash.”

Angkor sighed. “Short version of the history of Everything is that our reality is basically a huge beastie floating in a sea of hostile nothingness, right? It used to have a shell. That shell was Eden, also called the Ah-Za-Naur, or the Glass Land. The shell got broken when the NO-thing figured out how to mimic the behavior of living things. It broke the shell and the whole thing collapsed like a cell wall.”

“Something about him becoming thirty thousand miles tall. But the first virus, in essence,” I said.

“Right. So the pieces of Eden got scattered all around the Theosphere. Most of those shards were absorbed by GOD’s body as it began to stir up from the sudden pain and exposure. A lot of them embedded, still healthy and vital, but small. Some of them, especially the powder fragments, got infected and turned bad, and they’re in evidence in the world around us today. You know how viruses have those thirty-sided crystalline heads? In biology, we call those things nucleocapsids: they’re this bizarre crystal structure that carries the payload of RNA that a virus uses to change a cell.”


“That nucleocapsid head of a virus is like nothing else in nature, and that’s basically because they’re tiny fragments of a ruined Eden. The common name for this is StainedGlass, because, you know.”

Talya shuddered on the seat beside me, her hands tightening around the machete.

“StainedGlass is a kind of monster in its own right, once it gains enough mass. It carries a kind of Morphorde called a Yen.” Angkor’s eyes flickered open. “Yen is a virus that attacks your soul. It goes straight for your Phitonic mass, which is like… the energy that powers you to exist in concept and in reality. It corrupts you and turns you into a vector. It’s one of the few Morphorde that can infect Weeders. With enough Phi, it can replicate itself into shards big enough to be shaped into weapons.”

“Like the sacrificial knife The Deacon was using.” Fear lanced through my chest, and I gripped the steering wheel more tightly. “I was stabbed with glass like you describe. Mason vomited it on me.”

“Yeah,” Angkor said. “You were.”

I pressed my lips together. “Will I have this Yen?”

“HuMans have more resistance to Yen than Weeders do,” he said. “Because we’ve got a barrier between us and our soul. What the virus does is tempt you to break the wall down. They call it a Yen because it causes hungers of various kinds. Physical, sexual. You start wanting more and more stimulation, and depraved behavior scratches the itch. You rape, you wallow in filth, you crave money, power, fame. It eats at you until you break down and it can get into your soul. It’s like rabies in that way, but instead of needing to bite people to feel relief, you do nasty shit to yourself and other people.”

“Or children,” I said.

“Yeah.” Angkor shifted uncomfortably. “Or children. But I think you’re going to be okay until we get the HookWyrm out. If you have it, you’ll know once you’re back in contact with your Axon.”

Turn signals, change lanes, take the exit. The air was becoming hazy, and it smelled unpleasant. I focused on the moment, moving through the familiar activity of driving to clamp down on the nausea curdling in my gut. “Is there a cure for it?”

“Yeah. Gift Horse blood.”

Well, we were all out of that. I’d killed the only Gift Horse I knew of. I turned onto Marcy Street, and slowed as the haziness thickened to fog and smoke that pressed through the gaps in the windows and doors. It stank, sweet and rotten and pungent. It obliterated the sky in a brownish-violet miasma, but further down the road, we could see red and orange light struggling violently against the cloak of filthy magic.

Strange Kitty was burning.

Chapter 35

Small figures passed in and out of the fray on the road ahead, and then a large one as an insectoid creature stumbled down the gravel pathway. It was a skeletal black scorpion the size of a minivan, screeching through three severed heads that had been melded into one tri-lobed horror. Its back was on fire, and it was hacking at small figures swarming around its feet.

“Brace!” I gunned the engine and aimed the car.

Wide-eyed, Talya fumbled the machete out of its sheathe as we thundered down the road. The rats and possums that were attacking the scorpion scattered when they saw us thundering towards them, but the Morphorde only spun around, front legs raised like a tarantula’s. The car was big enough and the hood sturdy enough that we hit the DOG like a snowplough. It screamed with a high, tortured whistling sound as its legs crumpled and it collapsed. I backed up, tires screeching on the wet road, and drove at it again as it stumbled up to its knees and coughed a gout of slime onto the hood. The stuff melted the windscreen where it spattered, but it rolled off the paint and we hit it with a satisfying crunch. The Morphorde went under the wheels, limbs flailing.

“Whatever you do, don’t shoot them! Stab them! Put honey on your weapons!” Angkor cried out as he threw the back door open and rolled out. A spidery limb shot out from around the side of the car on my side, stabbing at anything within reach. Talya screamed, fumbling for the door, and I followed her with Binah tucked under one arm as it banged on the window and then broke it in with a shower of broken glass.

“You have to shift!” I yelled at her, pulling my knife. It felt too small for this fight.

“I can’t!” She yelled back. “I can’t, I’ll lose control again!”

The scorpion creature was bumping the car up and down as it struggled to free itself. Down the gravel driveway, a Morphorde like a giant bacteriophage – a virus that looked like a bizarre crystal moon lander – was being savaged by five raccoons. A dying fox was impaled on its stamping needle legs, but the DOG was stumbling with the jerkiness of the walking dead. Bursts of automatic gun fire rang out from behind the back of the club. Whoever was back there had assault rifles.

“Josie is in there,” I said. “They’ll take her back and they’ll kill her. Do what you were born to do.”

Talya’s eyes hardened, and she held the machete out to me without a word. I took it, and she undressed carelessly, throwing her clothing to the ground. Her skin was still bloody as she stepped out of her borrowed jeans, her eyes on the car as the huge Morphorde finally heaved it up and flipped it off. Her eyes focused, intent and predatory, and she took off at a run towards it with a high-pitched shout, tearing and distending into her Ka on her way across.

“Come on!” Angkor grabbed my arm, and pulled me off as the prehistoric lion and unnatural demon collided with a roar. I glimpsed Talya hanging from its back, raking bones and chitin from its belly as it thrashed and collapsed onto the road.

We ran across the street, past the smoking club, and emerged into the chaos of battle. Dead animals and people were scattered across the yard, some of them mutated beyond hope or sanity. Motorcycles and cars were trashed. The clubhouse was whole, but the entire yard was given over to combat. There were a dozen mutated Weeders and ten men with rifles battling six of the Tigers. A bear was grappling on the ground with a DOG all too like the one that had killed Vassily, an amorphous mass of giggling mouths and snapping jaws. Jenner’s tiger was taking cover from the heavy fire; Zane’s cougar and three wolves were cornering another one of the scorpions, snapping at its legs as it reared and stabbed at them with scythe-like claws. Of the child, there was no sign.

Angkor and I drew our pistols and split without speaking. I rolled behind one of the upended Lincolns, sighted down, and popped a round that took one of the advancing gunmen in the back of the head. He spiraled to the ground, and the others around him scattered, drawing fire from the windows. Three of them fell, mowed down, and their corpses began to bubble and twitch on the soil.

“Shit.” That was where the DOGs were coming from. Every single one of them were DOG-bitten carriers.

The other gunmen carried on as if they didn’t notice their fallen comrades, even as Doberman sized cockroaches peeled themselves out of the remains of the corpses and began to tear at them, shoving unnaturally rotted flesh into their maws. I almost reflexively shot one of them, and only remembered just in time. Instead, I holstered Wardbreaker, poured honey over the machete blade, and charged into the fray.

The nearest bug pivoted towards me as I ran at it, throwing its legs up like an angry spider as I closed in and chopped down, breaking it apart like a coconut. The honey clung, and the creature screamed as its carapace cracked and its innards burned. The others whirled and ran at me, their exoskeletons grinding as they scuttled forwards. I backpedaled, keeping an eye on the ground. If I fell and they swarmed me, I was dead.

The tiger broke out of her cover during a lull in the gunfire, barreling out with a roar that vibrated through the blade in my hand. Jenner smashed into one of the men as he reloaded, seizing him in a paw and hurling him to the ground to crush his face. And then she threw him at me.

I stumbled back around the car as the body landed in the cluster of bugs, who scattered, and then reformed around the new corpse. One of them wormed its way under the chassis and struck at my leg before I realized what was happening. Jenner fell on the rest, tearing them apart with teeth and claw, while I kicked and chopped down at the gnashing mandibles that had shredded my pantsleg and the skin beneath. I drove the machete down through its carapace and twisted, and it squealed, purple-black ichor bubbling up and frothing around the sticky blade. I glanced over to see Angkor fighting three of the things with the ax, his face a mask of grim focus as he smacked one back, cleaved the head of the next, and then got hit square in the leg by a glob of acidic slime that set his clothes to smoking.

Angkor limped back, reaching down into his pocket to clutch at his injury as I ran forward to help him, dodging under the lines of fire as bullets spanged and zinged across the increasingly decrepit cars we were using for cover.

Na Vazeal!” He cried the words out like a command, and slashed his hand out towards the pair of bugs as they gathered around him and lifted their hooked claws to pull him down. I was almost there when both of them burst into green flames, wailing in agony, and fell back to thrash on the ground as huge growths erupted from their carapaces, sending insectoid limbs and pieces of chitin tumbling to the ground. Angkor stumbled back, exhausted.

His yelling had caught the attention of two men with guns. We were close enough to the house that I could see them properly for the first time. They weren’t battle-hardened Mafioso: they were neatly dressed, slacks-and-collar shirt guys with Mormon hair, and they were fumbling on their safeties and reloads. There was something not right about their expressions. The impression I had was of people trapped inside human-shaped prisons, banging on the walls while their bodies locked, loaded, and advanced on our position.

I caught Angkor’s wrist on the way past and dragged him down behind a stack of tires as a burst punctured the air. They made dull sounds as they hit the tires well above our heads. The gunman was shooting high: further evidence for lack of training.

“These guys don’t know what they’re doing,” I said, gulping air between words. Men with my build aren’t made for running. “They’re expendables. They don’t know how to use those guns properly.”

“Someone wants them to get shot.” Angkor grimaced, pulling his melted clothing away from his leg. “The Deacon. Fucking hell… get the honey out and pour it over this. I’ll cover us.”

I complied without question, unscrewing the lid while Angkor bent around the stack and fired three precise shots. He ducked back just before I poured. The honey hissed on contact, and Angkor gnashed his teeth, his face turning purple with the effort not to scream.

A flicker of movement caught my eye, and I looked back to see more of the bacteriophages skittering down the gravel pathway. They were dividing as they ran, feeding off the dead animals – Weeders, I realized. The dead were small animals, some of them bristling with StainedGlass, some of them merely dead. Each one of bacteriophage’s legs was a feeding tube: They liquefied the corpses and sucked their innards into their weird crystalline bodies on their way into the lot. Each time they fed, every bullet that hit them, they split into more creatures.

My heart froze in my chest at the sight of them. The dead animals were the souls of those Weeders. Every one that the Morphorde consumed was gone. They would never incarnate again. My fear reached a brief crescendo at the realization of what I was seeing, and then abruptly faded as my ears filled with a blurry whine. The haze of battlefield dissociation fell over my senses like a shroud. There was a point where the cocktail of hormones and overstimulation made sound and fear irrelevant. All I had to do was survive before those things got us, got me, and ate my body and soul.

The remaining Twin Tigers shapeshifters roared and snarled as they fought on. From the street, I heard a woman’s high-pitched scream, louder than any HuMan throat could produce. It raised the skin on the back of my neck.

“Talya,” I said. “She’s being overrun.”

“Fucking Morphorde. They just keep coming.” Angkor rapidly dropped his empty clip, slammed a new one into the pistol, and looked alongside at me. “We need to get out of here. I agreed to help them out: I didn’t agree to have my fucking Axon turned into a Slimfast smoothie by Phitophages.”

“There is a child who is going to die if they get into that house,” I said.

Angkor paled. “You got the Weeder kids back?”

“One of them. Come on.” I risked a look, and then gathered myself into a crouch. “We’ll go around!”

There was another long, blood-curdling scream, closer this time. It echoed like a claxon off the walls. I broke cover, scrabbling on hands and feet from the stack of tires to the car, just before the entire contents of Noah’s Ark charged down the driveway. An elk, bugling the ear-splitting war cry I’d heard from the street. Horses, wolves, wolverines, with a full-grown black rhinoceros in the lead.

The rhino bellowed like a train as he charged the scuttling horde of phitophages with a double horn longer than my arm. Macrofauna streamed in behind him, snarling, barking and shrieking their rage and fury. Weasels tore into the nearest cockroach, shredding it with teeth and claws; the horse thundered past the car to smash into the phitophages, while a mixed pack of barking dogs, howling wolves, coyotes and hyenas dodged around the yard and set on the remaining gunmen. Talya’s lion brought up the rear, bleeding from half a dozen wounds, one cheek grotesquely swollen with venom. If she noticed, it didn’t show: the instinct to hunt Morphorde overrode everything else, and she fell on the crowd of phitophages with a deep-bellied roar, slapping them away from her chest as they tried to swarm her and the horse.

Some of the phages staggered around the ends of the car. I charged the nearest with a shout, hacking at it with the machete. The blade bounced off its surface like I’d hit a block of diamond, and I had to dive as it began to buck and kick, spinning crazily on its path towards me.

Angkor sprung past me as I tried to run backwards, burying the ax into the glittering body of the giant virus as it reared to stab down with its legs. He pulled it free, and the head and haft dripped honey as he ducked down underneath as it let out a shrill whistle and staggered to one side. I jammed the machete into the open, smoking wound. Chittering, it collapsed to the ground and shattered.

“Get away from it!” Angkor yelled. “Don’t get any of it in your eyes!”

I shielded my face as the crystalline pieces of the phitophage exploded. Without looking to see what was going on, I did the only sensible thing. I covered my eyes, nose and mouth, and ran like hell.

Chapter 36

The Weeders had the advantage now. Morphorde fell beneath hooves and talons. The gray and violet fog was lifting from the street and the parking lot, revealing a mess of blood and bodies among the melee. I didn’t realize I was staring until Angkor pulled me by the shirtsleeve, and I joined him to scramble around the edge of the fight, holding my breath as animals tore Phitophages and giant insects into pieces. We reached the entry to the clubhouse, where the bear was defending the entryway. It bellowed at us as we approached, but didn’t stop us as we ducked inside and into a makeshift infirmary. People moaned and writhed, or simply lay still. They were burned, disemboweled, unconscious. Normal HuMans, people who had been in the bar when it was hit by the first wave.

“I have to help them.” Angkor rubbed a hand back through his hair, damp and sticky with sweat and dirt. His hands were shaking from the cocktail of adrenaline and exertion. “But my Phi is REALLY low. I don’t think I can do much good.”

“We have more important things to do. If Vanya still has the children, he’s going to be moving them from their current location to somewhere else.” I sheathed the machete and started for the bedrooms. “We have to talk to Josie.”

“Hey. Before you go hassling Josie, you need to talk to me.”

Angkor and I turned as one to face Ayashe. She was still nude, tall and Amazonian. She wore her skin like a suit of armor, as if her lack of clothing meant nothing to her.

“Was that you who led the charge? The one with the horns?” I averted my eyes anyway.

“Might well have been,” she drawled. “Jenner SOS’d me when the first wave rolled in. A bunch of guys went in and shot up the club to start with, and then this. I tried to contact the Pathrunners and only found five or six of them still sane. They filled me in with the rest. I had to round up the combatants in the Fires.”

“Well, thank you,” I replied. “You probably saved our lives.”

“It’s my basic duty to kin and kine. Besides that, you saved Josie from the worst sort of people,” Ayashe said, rolling her shoulders back. “Jenner told me you fought DOGs for her, that you were badly injured fighting to protect Angkor from your old gang and from this ‘Deacon’. You got us that computer, and the wave of arrests starts tomorrow. I don’t like your methods, but I owe you an apology for doubting your motives.”

“Accepted,” I said. “I understand you occupy a difficult position.”

“Yeah.” Ayashe rubbed the back of her neck. “I’m gonna have a hell of a time explaining this one to my supervisor tomorrow, believe me. They’re going to arrest everyone here on principle, but I doubt it’ll go anywhere. The Vigiles just ain’t ready to handle a Morphorde attack of this size. Their first solution is just to shoot everything. That only makes it worse.”

“Look, I’m sorry to rush this, but if we don’t start moving, then Vanya will,” I said. “Lily and Dru were using the home as a cover for trade in drugs and children. I think that Vanya was providing transport and protection for the goods, as well as participating in the production of the pornography. They weren’t killed with glass: they ejected it from their bodies when they died. They had some kind of virus, some kind of disease that made them sick in the head. Mason has it. Duke got it when he was stabbed with a payload in a StainedGlass shard.”

“Yen,” Angkor said. “That’s what it’s called.”

Ayashe sighed, and turned her head to the side as she sucked a tooth in thought.

“Just before I left the Organizatsiya, my Avtoritet said something strange,” I continued. “He wanted me on a last minute cleanup job. One of the couriers was killed when he went to go and pick up a ‘regular delivery’. He said something about him being torn apart, something about symbols being left on the ground at the murder site. I think that Lily and Dru must have killed him, and then they were killed and the kids taken by force when whoever is controlling this realized that they were getting out of hand.”

“When was this?”

“Late August,” I replied.

“Spotted Elk initiated them as honorary Elders into the Four Fires around that time,” Ayashe said. She exhaled thinly through tight nostrils, frowning. “He has a bottle of some potion he’d gotten in a lifetime ages ago, and it’s supposed to clear out disease. You have to take it to be an elder in the Fires. He told me that’s how he can weed out anyone with ill intent.”

“Did you drink it?” I asked.

“Me? I couldn’t. I was already with the Bureau and they have a total ban on any Vidge consuming potions or unknown substances, magical or not.” She shook her head.

“Weird. The only thing I know of that’s anything like what you describe is called ‘whimsy wine’,” Angkor said. “It’s a really old draft that preserves Gift Horse blood in a suspension of elderflower cordial and honey. Literally lasts forever, if the Gift Horse who donated the blood is still alive.”

Ayashe blinked rapidly. “That sounds like it’d be sweet. The stuff he had wasn’t. I didn’t drink it, but I got a whiff of it once. It was like red wine, but really bitter. There were herbs in it.”

“Well… euun…” Angkor rubbed his chin, struggling to come up with words. “I don’t know many herbs that are capable of cleaning out a Yen infection. None of them are bitter. Morphorde are killed with honey, peppermint, sweet lemon oil, things like that. You know, I was supposed to tell people something about him or something he said. It about was a talk we had, but I can’t remember any of the last month.”

She guffawed. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“No, seriously.” Angkor frowned. “The last thing I really remember before I was captured was… we were talking with about Korea and agreeing that I needed to look into the Templum Voctus Sol angle…”

“Templum Voctus Sol? The TVS?” Well, that was one mystery explained. “What happened at the bunker?”

“I got hit from behind by a really powerful Phitometrist,” he replied. Then he glanced at Ayashe. “The Deacon. He’s a Temporalist, a mage who can affect time.”

“Can he see the future?” I asked.

“Probably.” Angkor nodded.

She nodded. “Do we have any idea who this guy is?”

Angkor shook his head. “I was locked into a magic-suppressing collar and blinded for however long I was out, but I know for sure that he’s male.”

“I think that this Yen disease must have originated in the Pathrunners,” I said. “Michael must have been the vector. He gave it to his flock, then Lily and Dru, then Mason. He must have killed John Spotted Elk when they went to Lily and Dru’s changing ground.”

Ayashe pinched the bridge of her nose. “I know. The ghoul squad went to the changing ground yesterday to pick him up. I have to go I.D his body tomorrow… that’s going to be rough. Why do you think they killed him?”

“No idea,” I replied. “Maybe they thought he was too close to learning about their goals. Maybe he said something on the way up.”

Ayashe suddenly seemed very tired. When Jenner walked up and offered her a coat – Vassily’s old trench – she took it and slung it on, belting it at the waist like a robe.

“You get a good look at him?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Jenner replied. “They caught him mid-shift, too. He was all fucked up. Half man, half deer.”

Ayashe’s face fell. “Hang on. What?!”

“Yeah, I know.” Jenner rubbed her mouth, grimacing. “It was really—”

“No, Jenner. You don’t get it. It’s not John,” Ayashe said, nearly tripping over her words. “That’s Michael. Michael changes into a white-tail deer.”

Chapter 37

“Holy freaking shit,” Angkor said.

All of us were frozen as the terrible gravity of betrayal settled over us like a leaden shroud. Zane blanched, his warm brown skin turned the color of weak coffee. Jenner didn’t seem to absorb it for a long moment, before her eyes widened and she coughed, putting a hand over her mouth.

“Jesus fuck,” she said. “I… I just assumed…”

“We all did,” Zane said. “I figured, that… you know…”

“No. Michael’s the deer,” Ayashe said. “I’ve seen him shift. Us herbivores hang out together in the good grazing spots sometimes.”

“What is John’s Ka?” I asked.

“I…” Ayashe looked aside at Jenner and Zane, then back to Angkor and I. “I don’t know. He never shifted in front of me. He had his own changing ground… he went there alone.”

“Fucking hell.” Jenner muttered something in Vietnamese.

“The kids are probably at Vanya’s dock complex,” I said. “But they could be at John’s house, or his changing ground. Can Weeders use magic?”

“I’ve heard that some of the oldest Elders can use magic of a kind,” Jenner said. “But… Michael was the one who would have known. Fuck. Oh fuck, none of us even ever thought to ask him.”

“John could have been The Deacon all this time,” Angkor laced his fingers through his hair and pulled it with a sound of frustration. “He knew I was going to the Ross changing ground.”

I didn’t think John Spotted Elk was The Deacon. The dark priest had a sensual, smug gravity that John lacked. The mage was patrician, confident, one of those magi who considered their ability to be a manifestation of their own greatness, their own chosenness.

“He hadn’t known I was going to Moris Falkovich’s house, but if he knew The Deacon and he could use time magic, someone could have foreseen it. Or he could have just arranged it as soon as I began to make any inroads on the case,” I said. “Even though Falkovich was badly decayed, you can’t tell how old a body really is with DOG killings. The kids had been moved from that house recently, I know it… the smell was still in the air. There were jail cells. Plenty of them. They’ve been moved at least once since that time.”

Zane drew a deep, steadying breath. “But where?”

“Vanya has the facilities to imprison multiple people,” I replied. “There is a company called AEROMOR that uses Docks Four and Five at the Red Hook shipyard. He owns all the warehouses and runs the union.”

“They could have just as easily been taken to John’s house,” Ayashe said, drawing herself tall. “He has a huge property up in Ossining. The Vigiles doesn’t have the resources to raid more than one site.”

“Then we do it.” Jenner lifted her chin, hands planted on her narrow hips. “Vigiles go to one site, we go and do the other.”

Ayashe ground her teeth until I thought her face would crack.

“Regular police can’t take on Morphorde,” Angkor said. “You know they can’t. They’d die by the score, Ayashe. All they have is munitions.”

“It’s true. Ain’t no one teaching the NYPD how to use a sword these days.” Ayashe regarded us all with a grim eye, hard and determined. “Jenner, if you lead a team to John’s, I’ll call in the cavalry and go down to Red Hook. It’s likely to be messier there. Besides that, we’ve got enough on that computer to make arrests, especially if Rex willing to testify in exchange for protection.”

“I’m not,” I said. “I am willing to provide an anonymous statement and help you match tattoos. You should be careful at Red Hook… Vanya has a lot of extremely dangerous men working for him. Be prepared for anything.”

“The more of them I can throw in the wagon, the happier I’ll be.” Ayashe jerked her chin forward and tossed her head. “You watch yourselves. I don’t think we ever knew the real John Spotted Elk, and we have exactly no idea what he’s capable of.”

* * *

Zane, Jenner and Talya went to confer with the rest of the Tigers. Exhausted, battle-weary, and starved from rapid-fire shapeshifting, they ordered more pizza than I’d ever seen in my life and gorged on at least four thousand calories apiece. It ended up with everyone clustered around the pool table with a map and a route drawn out on copy paper, laid out in front of us like a table-top roleplaying game. The property was outside the New York City limit, occupying a huge plot of forest land at the end of a cul-de-sac.

“We’ve got twenty-three miles between the site and the Tappan-Zee Bridge,” Jenner said. “We’re going to face one of three possible scenarios. Number one, they’re still there and we have to lay into the house. Number two, we get there in time to find them driving off. Number three, they’ve already left and we have to report to Ayashe so that the highway patrol can get on it. Assuming one or two, if they get the kids to the tollgates in cars or trucks we’re going to find it hard to keep on chasing them. There are cops all up that stretch of highway, and we’ll get pulled up if they’re not in the loop.”

“We should send an advance car.” I pointed at the map. The streets formed a rough circle. “There’s two possible exits to Saw Mill River Road. If we station parties at each exit, we can close on them in the event of a flush.”

“We’ve got shortwave radios on the bikes and in the Lincoln,” Zane said. “Suits me.”

Jenner nodded, leaning on her hands. “Right. Call an Alpha if you see them loading, Bravo if they’re taking off, Charlie if you can’t see any activity. Echo for emergency.”

“If I’m in the advance car, I can probably feel out for signs of life in the house without needing to get too close,” Angkor said, pizza still in hand.

“I’m going,” I said. “I’d rather be in a car.”

“And me,” Talya added.

“Y’git a taste for blood now, kitten?” Big Ron grinned at her with a mouth full of gray teeth. She replied by thumbing her forehead at him.

“I’ll drive.” Zane folded his arms across his chest. “If I could drive a Jeep in Iraq without getting anyone killed, I can do it here.”

“Good,” Jenner said. “Now, you lot listen up. These fuckers ruined my old man, killed Duke, killed a bunch of children and made funny-films with the rest. You wanna kill ‘em? Then kill ‘em. Don’t play around. If any of us end up in the can for this, we’ll be the fucking heroes of the joint once the people inside know what we’re in for. The Big Cat Crew takes on the critters, and the rest of you take on the HuMans. We’re going full Mad Max on anyone we find, you hear?”

The room erupted with noise loud enough to make me wince, and I took that as my cue to leave. Talya and Zane remained, while Angkor and I went to the bunkroom.

Josie was no longer there, spirited away by Ayashe now that the coast was clear. We lay out tools and sundry, and took opposite ends of the same lower bunk to clean our weapons in the humid stillness of the room. Angkor had borrowed jeans and a leather jacket from Jenner, and he was disassembling, cleaning and loading a rifle with the kind of expertise that spoke of protracted military training. The bedroom still smelled faintly of corruption, the rotten flesh smell I’d dragged in here from Moris’s house. While noticeable, Angkor’s floral scent was not as intense as it had been when we’d first found him. He’d been burning the magical wick at both ends since he woke up.

Watching him, I tried to imagine leaving New York and going to Berlin, hanging up the knives and the pistols, living a life without violence. It was easy enough to visualize – the trappings, at least. The lean European buildings, the university office. Myself, ascetic and professional in a turtleneck and suit jacket. A doctor, preparing lessons, writing thesis after thesis, or a surgeon. But I couldn’t imagine it as a reality. Vassily and me had been bred to this life. He and I were picked and reared as carefully as dogs for the blind.

I could take my degree to Germany, turn it into a Masters, then a PhD. And then what? Pretend I’d never killed anyone as I listened to men complain about their overbearing father or bossy wife? Pretend to empathize with women’s relationship problems? Sure thing: me, the angry virgin from America who felt crippling pain with every unintended erection. What could I advise them? To find closure by swinging a sledgehammer into the back of their abusive father’s head?

Pride had gotten me here. I was proud to have contacted my Neshamah and attained power, and proud enough to ignore his advice. I’d been proud enough to resort to homelessness instead of finding someone to ask for help. I fought pride as I struggled with my words, trying to frame the question I wanted to ask of Angkor.

“What?” He spoke first. “You look like you’re about to choke on something.”

“You… mentioned something before,” I said, finally. “Something about a HookWyrm.”

Angkor didn’t look up from his rifle. “Yeah.”

“I don’t know anything about it except that it chokes my magic.” I had to force each word out. This was not how I wanted anyone to find out about my magical emasculation. “I haven’t been able to work the Art since the start of September.”

“I know what they are, but I only know one way to get rid of them without killing you. You need Gift Horse blood.” Angkor grimaced, shaking his head. He didn’t look up at me, focusing on the gun. “You said it was put into your body by an old vampire?”

I paused in my work as nausea panged deep in my belly. “Yes.”

“Okay. There’s a kind of creature that is commonly known as a Wrath’ree.” Angkor rubbed his face, leaning back against the wall. “They’re basically GOD’s white blood cells, okay? Their purpose is to eat Morphorde, and they’re really good at it. They seek out and consume corruption. Evil magic or anything that’s made of dirty Phi.”


Angkor gestured with a hand. “Feeders have a special relationship with Wrath’ree. That’s way too much to try and describe right now, but the short version is that some really old, really powerful vampires can enslave a Wrath’ree and turn them into things they use to fuck up your day with. That’s what this little guy is. He’s an enslaved Wrath’ree, and his native Phi-eating ability has been turned into a kind of magical trap that blocks you from the rest of GOD.”

“So that’s it? We can’t get rid of it without a Gift Horse?” I had no earthly idea where to find one. The only one I’d met was dead, and I couldn’t even remember her face properly.

Angkor sighed, and tipped his head back against the wall. It was a gesture that bared the long brown line of his throat and the depression at the base of his sternum. “Pulling it out will kill you both. The Wrath’ree doesn’t want to die, and they don’t really know how to… de-escalate a conflict or listen to reason under the best of circumstances. I’m sorry.”

I turned my face, So, that was it. Three tries, and the best I’d been able to do was unwrap the lousy thing from my organs. Until we had the resources, I wasn’t a mage. I wasn’t anything.

No. That was sissy-talk. Even without magic, I was still something. I had beaten my way through a GOD-damned wall. I’d survived the Tigers’ Den. I’d pulled Angkor out of the fire. Zane and Talya were out there, waiting for me.

I drew a deep breath, clapped my hands to my knees, and stood. “Then that is how it is. You did your best. If we can find a Gift Horse, we can remove it?”

His head snapped up, eyes dark and fierce. “If we can find my Horse, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. But the Feeder who did this – Sergei? – must be extremely old to be able to create one of these. If it’s anything, I know for a fact that this Wrath’ree isn’t any happier about this than you are.”

“I find it hard to have sympathy for something that’s cutting me off from my soul.” I tested my limbs, rolled my shoulders, cracked my neck. Everything worked, though I was still achy. My body was probably at about seventy-five percent. It would have to be enough.

“The HookWyrm is cut off from its hive mind, which is basically the soul of its kind.” Angkor shrugged. “Neither of you are in a great place right now.”

“My heart bleeds,” I said. “How do you know all this, anyway? I never found it in grimoires, and not for lack of trying.”

“That’s because it can’t be written down. It gets taught orally, person to person,” Angkor replied. “How do you feel?”

“A bit better,” I grunted. “I still hurt, but I hurt less now.”

“Healing is never comfortable.” Angkor leaned in towards me, his eyes hooding to dark crescent-shaped slits. He had very thick lashes. Before I knew it, he was close enough to kiss. “Anyone who pretends healing doesn’t hurt has never had to heal anything, right?”

The skin of my chest prickled with gooseflesh. “For a pretty-boy, you certainly do talk like an old man.”

“Funny you say that. I’m older than I look.” He licked his top lip with a short, sultry laugh, and sat back with a smile. I cleared my throat and stood.

“Well, let’s go and get Jenner and the others. We have to make our plan of action.” I caught up my shoulder holster and slung it on, settling it in place while I went to the closet. I pulled a clip on tie, hooked it over my collar, and straightened it until it looked tied and not clipped on. Angkor got to his feet, slung the rifle strap over his shoulder, and turned to his own preparations.

“Thank you, by the way,” I said. “For helping me.”

“My pleasure.” He winked at me sidelong, arched his eyebrows, and wound sinuously out of the room. “Come on, grasshopper. Let’s go kill some monsters.”

I snorted, shook my head, and followed him out. Pretty as he was, Angkor’s posture, his confidence and steady hands and gaze all spoke of the same thing. He was a ruthless killer with a side of chutzpah. As Jenner had said of me, I could say of him – I liked him despite myself, but I couldn’t trust him.

Chapter 38

We tore up the nearly-empty highway from Brooklyn to Ossining, chewing up forty miles in under an hour. We quickly passed the city, leaving Manhattan far behind as we entered the wealthy forest suburbs north of Yonkers. The cabin of the car was tense and mostly silent, everyone preparing in their own way for what we might find at John Spotted Elk’s country home. Angkor was meditating over his rifle-and-ax combination in the front passenger seat; Zane was intent on the road, mouth grim whenever he looked into the rearview mirror and I glanced his face. Talya chewed her nails, popping the already short ends of them under her teeth.

I studied the map for half that time. The aging Tappan-Zee Bridge was the starting point for one of the major trucking routes from New York to Illinois. The house was at the end of a private lane off a narrow, winding forest road. We got onto the Taconic State Parkway, the road I normally took to get to Bozya Akra, and gunned north along the abandoned highway at twenty miles over the limit until we merged onto Saw Mill River Road.

“It’s the next left, Zane.” Talya’s voice was high and nervous. She had the radio, thumbing the trigger nervously. “Then take the second right, then follow the road to Marian Place. The house is the one right at the end of the cul-de-sac.”

“Roger that,” Zane replied, barely slowing as he took the hard corner and rumbled over the uneven asphalt. “Everyone ready to go?”

“As ready as I can be.” Angkor unwrapped his rifle and loaded a round, then wound his window down. We all did the same thing. Behind us, the motorcycle escort slowed at the entry to Inningwood Road, one of the two ‘mouths’ that opened up onto the highway. Looking back, I saw Jenner give us the thumbs-up.

From my position behind Zane, I could get the best view of the road outside. As we took the road deeper into the woods, flying at sixty in a thirty zone, I leaned out to get a look at what was coming up around the curve.

Three cars roared out of Marian Place just was we were coming up on it. They screeched as they swung around on the turn and rushed us headlong in both lanes.

Zane wrenched the handbrake and threw the wheel to drift us as the first car clipped our bumper and flew by, followed by the zip-zip of the other two as they passed at high speed. I was flung back into my seat by centrifuge as the Lincoln about-faced, coming to a smoking standstill as a semi-trailer clawed up the shallow hill like a dinosaur and thundered off down the road. There was a shipping container on the back of the truck.

“Bravo! Echo!” Talya shouted into the radio.

“Damn this fucking- HOLD ON!” Zane slammed the accelerator, starting off in a cloud of burned rubber and swinging us in right behind the truck.

Angkor chambered a round into his rifle. “Get in closer! I can shoot out the tires.”

“You get in closer, asshole!” Zane snapped back.

We gained on the semi when it had to turn. I leaned out again, further this time, and aimed the Glock at the rear wheels of the truck just ahead of us. I exhaled, focused, and then nearly flew out of the car and onto the road as an unseen vehicle slammed into us from behind.

Zane held on as the car wobbled and threatened to twist and spin, but the suspension and his strength kept us moving forward. The car that had rammed us pulled up alongside, a black Jeep with Duke at the wheel. His formerly handsome face was barely recognizable as human: his cheekbones had been shattered, his face slashed from side to side. His skull was deformed, dented and shot through with razor shards of glass from every wound. He had a pistol leveled at Talya’s head.

“Down!” I was already headed for the floor.

Talya dropped, arms over her head, as one bullet zinged overhead and the second hit with an explosion that took a huge chunk out of the edge of the doorframe. I smelled phosphorus. Incendiary rounds.

Zane steered us away as the side of the car took several more bullets, and then ran our low-slung car into the taller Jeep broadside, trying to destabilize it and knock it off the road. Angkor braced against the passenger-side door and set the rifle against his shoulder, holding steady through the shoving match.

“Cover your ears!” He called out, and fired.

His first bullet took the driver’s side door, denting the Jeep and forcing it away; the second shot took out Duke’s front tire. His car lurched towards us as he fought for control, and he slammed into the Lincoln broadside, his front window level with Talya’s. He snarled, his face a bestial mask, his teeth stained black, and lunged through the pair of open windows.

“Duke, come on! Look what they’ve done to you!” Talya slashed at him with the machete as he groped and clawed for her. She hit his face with her machete, lashing the back of the driver’s seat with dark blood. Duke howled, the sound choking off as the cut sealed over with Yen and his eyeballs burst. Needles of glass forced themselves out of his sockets, crowding them.

Talya screamed and dropped the knife. I pushed her back against the seat and shot him twice in the neck and chest, point-blank. I’d hoped the force of it would knock him back, but the impacts didn’t even slow him. Zane hauled the wheel to pull us away, Duke lunged through the window, clawing at Talya with hands that were already half leopard.

“Miss me, babe?” He snarled, voice too deep and thick to be human, and then ruptured into animal form.

I shouted, Angkor shouted. Talya was shrieking high, panicked screams as Duke wrapped her in his forelegs and pulled her through the broken window, kicking and cursing and crying. The Jeep was out of control, and veered to the side away from us. Duke was scrabbling to remain in the cabin; Talya slammed into the outside of the door, Duke’s fangs buried in her throat, his paw wrapped around her chest.

The girl gnashed her teeth and shouted with rage and pain as she tore herself away from him, ripping open her own neck in the process. Talya tumbled messily to the ground and out of sight on the dark road behind us.

“Talya!” Zane cried out.

Angkor and I both opened on Duke. He took the bullets, roaring, and then tore the door off the Jeep and leapt out onto the road at breakneck speed as the car swayed to the side, flipped the barrier at the edge of the road, and careened into the trees.

“God fucking dammit!” Zane snarled, steering us in towards the truck. “Is she going to get that glass disease from this, or what?”

“Weeders can’t transmit Yen to other Weeders through bites. Sex, StainedGlass weapons or the insertion of an infectious payload… that’s it,” Angkor said, reloading his rifle. “Proper StainedGlass is the only reliable vector. Besides that, Talya’s the Weeder equivalent of The Hulk.”

Even Talya’s slight weight had slowed the Lincoln, and we gained on the truck as the entire caravan rounded the sharp corner onto Inningwood. Jenner was waiting for us on the highway. We just had to keep on them until they reached the straight and we could open up.

“We need to drop the back tires!” Angkor threw his rifle into the back of the car, rolled over the seat, and took the other rear position. “If the truck rolls, the kids are going to be mashed inside that thing.”

“Someone has to get in the cab,” Zane said.

Angkor turned to me, eyes flashing in the orange gloom. “I can’t drive, and I’m too weak to hold on up there at high speed. Can you do it?”

“I’ve taken twelve hits in as many hours,” I replied, loading a new magazine into the Glock and holstering it. “I’ll try, but I can’t promise I’m any stronger than you right now.”

“I’ve got enough in me to help you overclock.” Angkor reached out and clapped my face between his hands before I could protest. I jumped, startled, and then relaxed as his eyes bore into mine. They were normally a dark, iron gray, but in the darkness of the cabin, I saw them shine with a subtle, luminous green. Deep inside them was a glimpse of his Neshamah, an elusive ghostly thing as visceral and unnerving as he was. For a shocked moment, I thought he was going to kiss me.

My body flushed with a wave of sudden energy. I felt my muscles swell and warm. My heartrate picked up, and my senses sharpened to a finely honed edge. Colors were brighter. I began to sweat in the cold wind.

“Go!” He said, pushing me. “You’ve got five to ten minutes before you wind down!”

“Five or ten?” I holstered my pistols, checked the knife, and knelt up ready. There was now so much tensile strength in my legs that I nearly hit my head on the ceiling.

“Expect five. Hope for ten.”

“Okay! Get ready!” Zane swung in to close the gap between us and the truck. We were almost at the final curve of the road, a thousand feet from the highway. He pulled up even with the rear of the cab. I flung the door open, easily able to hold my weight against the onrushing wind, and kicked off into a rushing void of empty space.

There was a moment where I was sure that momentum was just going to pull me back, that I was going to miss a handhold, slip, and tumble away like Talya had. I caught the corner of the shipping crate, slid down, and hung on the bottom of the cargo tray. My legs were swinging close to the churning tires below. I got a heel onto the tray and then half-pulled, half-pushed myself up, plastering myself against the side of the shipping container like a bat.

The Lincoln surged forward – I was second-heaviest after Zane – just as the truck swerved to the left and rammed into the side of the car, bouncing me off my feet. I clutched the bolt rail of the container through the piercing metallic screech; Zane managed the fishtail, but the car fell back.

The truck swung around the right turn hard enough that the shipping container jounced and leaned, pitching my back to the road for a breathless moment before it thumped back into place. Faint screams echoed from inside of it. The kids.

I inched around the edge of it, putting myself between the container and the back of the cab as Angkor’s rifle barked. The truck wheeled and screeched as he dropped one tire, and then braked, hard. Zane shot past us onto the parkway, and then the truck floored it, charging him down as he was forced to wheel and catch the turn. The Lincoln was already just up off the ground when the truck took it in the side like a charging rhino. The car went flying and bounced, barrel-rolling to a smoking stop on the other side of the parkway. I couldn’t see the men inside.

“Fucking… blyat, suka!” I lunged forward and grabbed the ladder leading to the top of the cab. I pulled myself up, hand over hand. At the top of the semi, I saw the three-car escort ahead of us. They were headed straight for an armada of motorcycles.

Harleys roared up and out from their ambush positions on the side of the road, flinging mud and gravel as they charged. The first line of them held steady, firing on the escort cars. Shotguns went off like cannons; the truck braked again, squealing to a halt. It knocked my feet out from under me. I hit the top of the cab with my chin, biting my tongue, and fumbled to find a grip on the edge of the windshield.

Normally, I would have slid and then been thrown. Fueled on magic, I clawed my way to the front of the cab, swung down, and emptied half the clip into the driver’s side window. Blood exploded against the inside of the windshield, and the truck veered to the side, but it didn’t stop. I scrambled back up as someone returned fire from inside, and held on as they took the wheel, slammed the accelerator, and threw the cab to the side to shake me off.

The cars ahead tried to ram into the oncoming motorcycles, but they were too fast: they split around the vehicles trying to hit them, firing into the windows and at tires. The occupants had the same H&Ks they’d used at Strange Kitty, and even as I watched, one rider and gunner pair went down, jerking spasmodically and tumbling off the out of control bike. The Harley fell and skidded to the edge of the road in a tangle of flesh and metal.

The nearest car erupted with a forest of insectoid legs, and a peal of screams that quickly cut. Spiders the size of dogs crawled out, followed by three small shapes that ran up onto the trunk and onto the semi’s hood, just as it rammed up into the back of the vehicle ahead with a metallic crunch.

Panting, I let go and slid back to the edge of the roof until I caught the ladder. I held on until I had a steady moment, then leaped for the top of the shipping container. The metabolic boost made me stronger, but no more graceful. I hit the edge of it as the semi wobbled from side to side, winding myself, and had to scramble inelegantly to the top with the Glock in hand. We’d slowed down – sixty miles per hour instead of eighty – but we were all still running a fighting battle down the road. I had to take out the tires.

Weaving, stumbling, I tried to walk and ended up crawling along the roof of the container. If I could get to the bottom edge of the cargo tray, then I could take out the other back tire and force it to drag its ass along the road. My heart was pumping hard enough that light flashed in my mouth with every heartbeat. I staggered up during a steady moment and ran for the end.

Something hit me just below the shoulder and began to thrash back and forth, levering a thin blade between my ribs. With a roar of pain, I groped back for it, pulled it out, and crushed it in my hand. It was a shrike, a bird, its skull stripped down to bone and shards of crystal. Its beak had become a razor glass weapon. I wrung its neck and threw it off the truck, coughing, and staggered to one knee as something else hit me low and then swarmed up my body like a tree. A squirrel the size of a terrier screeched and lunged for my throat, Yen spines bristling like porcupine quills. The missing Pathfinders.

I jammed the gun between it and me and emptied the clip into its chest and head. The bullets did nothing except drive it back. It rolled to its feet, tail flicking as more spines ejected from the new holes, and charged at me with mouth agape. I threw the empty gun and pulled the knife, slashing as it jumped. The former Pathfinder was more agile than physics should have allowed for: it twisted in midair and landed on my chest, claws ripping at my shirt. I stabbed it through the back multiple times before it began to weaken, and tore it free by the neck. I was still stabbing it when a second squirrel bit a large chunk out of my calf and collapsed me to the ground.

“Fucking squirrels!” The one on the knife was gasping in its death throes, black blood frothing from its mouth. I used it to backhand the other one still worrying my leg like a dog. I stabbed it two more times and flung it away, reaching down to grab the other one by the tail and haul it away from my leg.

And then, the spell cut. The small animal was suddenly a lot stronger, a lot faster, and it was on me in an instant. This one was missing its eyes and most of its fur, an animal made of broken crystal, huge teeth, and bubbling, tortured flesh. I rolled onto it, pinning it with my forearm and frantically stabbing it as it continued to kick, bite and claw.

The truck swayed and then spun to a stop, nearly tipping the container full of children off the tray and onto the road. The squirrel and I were flung off the side. I had two seconds of dizzy inertia before the crunch.

Years of combat training saved my life, but not my shoulder. I hit the ground rolling and tumbled ass over head before halting, the squirrel still impaled on my knife. I slammed its head on the ground until it stopped moving and picked myself up, trying to orientate on what was happening. There was a blockade of black cars ahead of us down the road, but no flashing lights or sirens. Confused, ears ringing, I staggered to my feet and found I couldn’t put any weight on one of them.

I saw a motorcycle pull up along the door: Jenner and Ron. She was perched on the back of the Harley like an acrobat, a bottle of something in her hand. I thought it was a Molotov until she threw it, unlit. A thin arc of liquid flew out behind it before it splashed. There w