Rags To Bitches
Ragbag Way was no place to be at night, but Sam wasn’t concerned. The shadowy alleys and shops that thrived where city limits met no man’s land expected desperate wolves struggling to live without a pack, and it had been years since he had been that.
He smelled addicts hiding rusted knives, prostitutes with their cheap perfume and bone-deep weariness, and a fresh body outside a nearby bar. There was also the familiar cocktail of human sweat, fear, and calculation from those who thought they were safely hidden in the shadows while he walked beneath the glow of streetlights. Those who couldn’t see his eyes thought he was a cop; those who could shrank further back in caution, sensing his confidence.
It wasn’t bluster. He still knew Ragbag well, and didn’t even need his nose to find the tattoo parlor that Dominic Tierney had used for his final, unfinished piece. The dead man’s bank account could only reveal the cost, not the place, but Sam had found other tattoo artists who’d recognized the work and told him where to go.
Now he was here, too familiar to feel afraid and too aware to feel comfortable. Unbidden, the thought of Cora Marshall in a place like this crossed his mind. She’d surely face the grimy streets and their uncertain threats with only a complaint about the state of her shoes. He’d never met anyone so undaunted while being out of their element. Hell, he’d never met anyone like her at all.
Just as he realized he was half-smiling, the air sharpened, burned wood and cold ash mingling with the faintest traces of ink, blood… and death. He swore beneath his breath even before rounding a corner and catching sight of a burned-out hole between a peep show place and a pawn shop.
Nobody stopped him from stepping into the remains of the tattoo parlor, but he doubted he’d find much anyway. The lingering cinders smelled and felt old, which meant anything left unburned would have been long scavenged. He circled around the scorched foundation, thinking. The poor bastard who had burned with his parlor wouldn’t have agreed, but this was a better lead than anything gleaned from an interview.
Ragbag Way witnessed murders every day, but not with fire. The buildings all leaned together like drunks, and there were too many people crammed inside them with no way out. To burn something, anything, was as good as setting yourself alight. A knife in the back or hands on the throat left a body, but what did that matter? No one who lived in Ragbag had to hide their deeds. Only an outsider would burn an entire shop to make sure nothing remained.
Sam glanced around, feeling eyes on him even as nearby windows remained dark or covered over with signs. He could try combing through the street to see if anyone would talk, but there was a better source of information waiting just two blocks away.
The moon glowed brightly in the sky when he reached the house, an old brick structure as worn and stately as an unearthed statue. It looked the same as ever, standing three stories high yet surprisingly narrow compared to the surrounding apartment complexes. When he saw light winking out from the pulled curtains of the ground floor windows, he continued to the front door and knocked quietly.
Within moments, it opened, revealing one of the few figures in Ragbag feared by all: Minnie Wilkes. She was an old woman now, white-haired, frail, and limping from arthritis, but that didn’t quell rumors about her being a strong enough mind reader to boil the brains of anyone she disliked. Whether it was true or not, her house was left alone, and so were any lodgers who were given the upper floors.
Sam gave her a smile—a real one. “Hello, Minnie. Did I wake anyone?”
“No, but we didn’t expect you until next week.” She pulled him in to kiss him on the cheek and then added, “Come in, you devil. I’ll make some coffee.”
As he followed her toward the kitchen, taking care not to set off the squeaky floorboards, the grief hit his nose hard enough to make each breath sting. He jerked toward the source out of instinct and realized it was coming from the second bedroom. A she-wolf, her scent still shocked and raw. Then he caught hints of the pup with her, its scent barely formed from being so young. A newborn still in its swaddling.
He knew who they had to be and what must have happened to them, and nearly snarled in frustration.
“Careful, you’ll wake them,” said Minnie, sensing where his attention had turned. “The girl has barely slept from looking after the child, and she doesn’t trust anyone yet. Sit and talk with me instead. You’re here on a case, aren’t you?”
He explained about the tattoo parlor while she filled the percolator and set it up on the stove, but his attention flickered all around the kitchen, taking in its clean yet worn state. Once she joined him at the table, he finished with, “The sink sounds like it’s leaking. Has anyone taken a look at it?”
Minnie laughed. “Aren’t you busy enough without fixing an old house for an old woman? Now, let’s see. I didn’t know Stickler, the tattooist, too well. He had a petty little mind. Not a planner by any means. But you’d see all sorts show up as his clients, and sometimes he bragged about his connections through them.”
“When did the parlor burn down?”
She thought about it while reaching for her basket of knitting. “It must have been a month ago. And before you ask, yes, I felt him die. It was quick as a flash, and happened at least half an hour before people noticed the fire. Ah, that’s just what you wanted to hear. Are you close to solving everything?”
“No, but I might be putting some of the pieces together. I have Jane testing samples from Dominic Tierney’s unfinished tattoo. If she can pinpoint it as the source of infection for whatever this strange magic is, then the tattoo artist being killed and burned proves that the people behind this hoped to cover their tracks from the beginning.” Which meant they were used to underhanded dealings.
Minnie must have caught his unspoken thought, for she gave him a sly smile and said, “It’s happened again just tonight, you know. A fire. Someone’s shack over on Flash Alley. The police responded this time, even the police captain himself. They’ve been there for nearly two hours.”
It was a strange sort of excitement, hoping to find fresh clues from the newly dead. Sam had met many detectives on and off the city force who grappled with the feeling, believing it turned their hearts to stone. Humans always worried about becoming inhuman, one of the many puzzling things about them. He was far more concerned about what he could do, not what he was. Looking too deep within would drive a fella crazy, especially if what he saw around him was bad enough.
When he did nothing more than get up to pour them both some coffee, Minnie looked surprised. “I thought that would send you up and running.”
“The cops move slow when it comes to arson. It’ll be another hour before their enchanters let anyone investigate the site. You’re much sweeter company than Captain Dempsey.”
“You and your charm.”
For a few minutes, he drank his coffee and watched her knit. Her needles flashed in the warm lamplight, their movements as steady as a metronome. “What are you making?”
“Booties for the baby.”
“How are they?” He kept the words as neutral as possible—pure habit, since she would undoubtedly catch his flare of anger.
At that, Minnie studied him, the faded blue of her eyes growing further unfocused. Most mind readers caused a headache when sinking into someone else’s thoughts, but not her. It was why she was so feared—she was powerful and unnoticeable, even when diving deep for nuances. Humans hated how she could find their secrets in the blink of an eye, but any wolf used to the power of scent and all it revealed took her talents with much better grace, and Sam just finished the last of his coffee while her gaze sharpened again.
“So, you already knew. I wasn’t sure since someone else set things up. But then I heard you punched Warren at that meeting, hard enough to knock out his teeth.”
“What I knew was that two wolves fled the Saxby Pack and came to you. Two, when there should have been three. Even with the Saxbys refusing to admit anything, it’s easy to guess what happened.”
She sighed, casting a glance toward the kitchen doorway as if making sure they were alone. “It was bad luck, not a betrayal from Brom. As far as we know, no one found out his part in this, and he’s still safe. Some Saxby guards happened to be patrolling when the girls tried crossing into city limits. Edith was still weak from having the baby, but managed to pass him to her sister, who had already gone over.”
And then the guards found her and killed her.
Leaving the words unsaid didn’t make them any easier to take. Sam dimly realized he was squeezing the mug hard enough to crack it, and relaxed his fingers in one slow, deliberate movement.
“Did you know her?” said Minnie, her voice gentle. She had too much tact to search for the answer to such a question.
His jaw ached from teeth that had nothing to maul. “No, but I knew her mate, Theo. We trained as guards together. He was executed last week for treason.”
When he said nothing else, she sighed. “You’re doing the best you can, Sam. Nearly thirty wolves have been rescued this year alone, and from packs all over the city. Not only that, but they had places to sleep and safe jobs to start rebuilding their lives. You did that.”
“You know, yet you’re as angry as ever. Don’t shake your head at me. You lived under my roof for two years. I can read your mind like a book, and it’s the most driven one I’ve ever encountered. You’re always intent on doing more no matter what the cost.”
“I have to, Minnie. It’ll get even worse,” he said, and watched her eyes widen as she caught the first hints of why. “Wolves are only peaceful when a few powerful packs cow the rest. It’s been eight years since the Orphos and the Lamonts fell, and no one’s managed to reach their level of dominance. The violence spilling over to human land adds even more pressure. Every pack is paranoid and running out of money and resources. Desperate to win out against the others and finally end this.”
“And how will running yourself ragged help with any of that? You built this rescue network. Now trust us to bear some of the load.”
Despite the grim conversation, he smiled a little. “I thought you’d stop scolding me once I moved out.”
“If anything, you need more of it now. Your mind has buried itself in work. When’s the last time you had a decent meal?”
“This morning,” he said, aware it was useless to resist thinking about Cora. He wasn’t able to do it even without a mind reader snooping around. Then he got up to wash out his coffee cup, ignoring the flicker of surprise on Minnie’s face. The sink was leaking. “Is the tool bag still in the front closet?”
“Stubborn boy,” said Minnie, shaking her head.
“It won’t take long to fix.”
And it didn’t. It wasn’t even ten when he left, making his way through streets that gleamed like oil beneath the harsh light of the moon until he picked up the smells of smoke and electricity. And irritation.
Police had set up barricades and lights around a sagging apartment complex where one of the windows looked burned out. Scorch marks licked all the way up to the roof. A ghostly, blue glow suggested the police enchanters were busy at work inside. The rest of the force waited outside by the barriers, milling about with obvious impatience.
When Sam picked out the familiar silhouette of Captain Dempsey, he veered in that direction.
The moment Dempsey saw him, he gave a growl that would have made a wolf proud. “No. Not tonight. I haven’t had a smoke for three hours, and I’m not taking any of your bullshit, Hayes.”
“Hello to you as well.” Sam paid enough attention to the captain’s scent to make sure he wasn’t about to snap and then stopped beside him. “Let me guess, the enchanters don’t want to risk contamination from any other sources of fire. Including cigarettes.”
When Dempsey just growled again, he added, “How much longer will it take?”
“Who the hell knows.” The police captain rolled an unlit cigarette between his fingers before tucking it behind his ear. “Why are you here? I’d have thought you’d be busy enough babysitting the Marshall girl.”
“She’s smarter than you think.”
“No. She’s clever, not smart. Clever people race into deadly situations because they’re sure they can get back out. Smart people know better and stay cautious.”
Just then, one of the enchanters came over—a senior enchanter, Sam realized with some surprise. “Captain? It’s all clear. We’ve finished our spells and located the fire’s starting point. There isn’t a body. It’s arson, not murder.”
The entire area flickered with matches as nearly every man there lit a cigarette in response, Dempsey fastest of all.
Sam waited until the man sighed out a lungful of smoke and then said, “Why are you here? It’s not often that the big guns come into Ragbag.”
“The burned apartment belongs to someone we’ve had our eye on for awhile. Harold Beaumont, caught a few times in his youth for illegal experiments with magic. We’re sure he belongs to a ring of black market thaumaturgy.”
Sam fell still, recognizing the name from the list Jane had given him. “Do you know anything else about him?”
“He has connections with a lot of the city’s elite. They trust him more because he came from a prestigious family, whether he does better work than a back-alley enchanter or not. His birth name was Granbury. Harold Granbury.” Dempsey took another drag from his cigarette and added, “If you’re going to pester me with questions, just come on up with us.”
Yet when he turned toward Sam, he found the wolf had already disappeared into the night, silent as a shadow.
The parlor maid at Granbury Manor was used to turning away visitors when Miss Violet was in one of her moods. She wasn’t used to doing it with a wolf, especially one that could tell her with one glance of those strange-colored eyes that he knew she was lying to him. She tried again, trying to keep her composure. “I’m very sorry, sir, but Miss Granbury is in bed for the night. You’ll have to try again in the morning.”
Sam nodded and then stepped past the maid anyway, ignoring her gasp of shock.
“Sir! I’ll call the police.”
“That’s fine.” His instincts told him they’d be needed.
He didn’t wait around to find out if the maid was bluffing, instead finding Miss Granbury’s bedroom. He knocked in silence, feeling tight and trapped in his suit.
“Go away!” shouted a female voice on the other side. Liquor, tears, and anger filled the air.
Then he caught traces of Cora’s scent and opened the door without a second thought, ready for anything. The room was dim, lit only by the fire in the hearth, but he quickly caught sight of Violet Granbury standing by the bedside table, a cocktail in one hand. Her other held something much more dangerous.
For a moment, they only stared at each other—the wolf hiding behind the manners of a man and the woman smiling behind a shiny, snub-nosed revolver. She raised an eyebrow, riveting even as the contents of her glass slopped over her silk nightgown. “I could have shot you.”
“You could have tried.” He kept his voice even while watching her set the gun back on the table.
Her response was to walk over to the nearest window. The curtains hadn’t been drawn, revealing the luminous moon, and she looked at it instead of him while collapsing onto the window seat. “Whatever you want, I probably can’t give it. At this time of night, all I want to do is fight or fuck.”
Deceit was thick in her scent, but not the kind that meant she’d try going for the gun again. He began exploring the room, searching for where Cora’s scent was strongest. “I apologize for being this rude, Miss Granbury, but you’ve been dodging my calls for days.”
“Of course. How could I possibly have anything of interest to say? Go pester Cora. She’d certainly love it more than me.”
“I like exploring every angle.”
“Is that what you call it?”
At that, he glanced at her again. “Riling me up won’t work.”
She dropped her chin into her hand, her smile no less sharp despite the unfocused look in her eyes. “Oh, I don’t think so. You’re bristling with every word that comes out of my mouth. I never knew male wolves were as sensitive as men when it came to being teased. Or as clueless when it came to girls in love. Oh, don’t look at me like that. I’m not breaking her promise not to tell or anything horrible like that. I simply know her and have since we were children. She’s clueless about everything, including her heart.”
Then Violet looked back out the window, the moonlight draining the color from her hair and eyes. “We both lost our mothers early on, you see. It gave us a sort of bond even as we grew up and began to feel jealousy. She was always such a silly little thing but really quite innocent in her own way.”
Sam moved in close enough to run his thumb over the nearest curtain’s tassels. Cora’s indecision lingered over parts that had been neatly braided. “You’re talking about her as if she were dead. But you saw her earlier, didn’t you?”
The eerie beauty faded from the girl’s face as she got up again, stepping out of the moonlight to reach for a pack of cigarettes. When she held one up in a clear signal, Sam withdrew his lighter and lit it for her, keeping his expression blank.
“What a gentleman,” she said, smiling again. It wasn’t a pleasant one, but there was a certain curve to her lips that most men would recognize. Then she shrugged her shoulders enough to send her nightgown slipping lower. The nuances of her scent changed.
In silence, Sam pocketed the lighter. When he reached out again, her grin widened.
His fingers caught the gold heart dangling from her thin necklace and popped it open, revealing a cache of white powder inside. “Nasty stuff. Anyone on it is hopelessly hooked. Tell me where she went, or I’ll make your life a living hell by cutting off your supply.”
She slapped his hand away, red spots appearing on her cheeks. “You flea-bitten bastard. There’s no way you could—”
He finally stopped smothering the growl that had burned in his throat from the moment he’d recognized Cora’s scent. “Enough of the smart talk. Where is she?”
But Violet didn’t seem to hear him, instead flinging herself away to pace around the room, ripping the necklace from her throat and then throwing her cocktail glass after it. “How? How does the little bitch end up captivating each and every man who so much as looks at her? I hate her. I hate what she’s given for being her.”
“Does that include Freddy Davenport?”
She panted while looking at him through her disheveled hair, fingers still curled into claws against her arms. “I don’t know why you bother asking questions when it seems you already know the answers.”
Then she straightened up, a sneer transforming her expression into something demonic. “Yes. She’s with Freddy Davenport right now, becoming the precious key to a ritual he’s tried to unlock for years. Even though she doesn’t know anything. I’m the one who’s been there with him from the beginning, who became the brains behind it all. Hiding his ceremonies beneath naughty, private parties—do you think he could have come up with that? Do you think he could ever build something so magnificent? He doesn’t even have the money to pay off the right people. Yet now that we’re down to the final rite, he’s turned to her.”
“The final rite for what?” When she didn’t answer, his voice thickened into a snarl. “For what, Miss Granbury?”
She stared at him, all life gone from her face. “For ascension. A god from another dimension will be summoned tonight, and beautiful, precious, perfect Cora Marshall is Freddy’s offering to it.”