A Long, Hard Night
Freddy’s mansion looked very different in the harsh light of police lamps. Cora watched as officers roped off the property to keep reporters from sneaking in and party guests from sneaking out. There were more inside, their flashlights sweeping through the rooms.
No one had been allowed to leave, and she could hear quite a few people who were unhappy about that, arguing with any officers they could find while trying to hide their faces from the reporters’ cameras. Cora couldn’t understand why they bothered; information always had a way of leaking out, and she felt sure printing presses were already stamping out shocking headlines and unsavory details for the rest of the city to read in the morning.
That fact no longer bothered her. Frankly, she had other things on her mind, and it was quite nice to be sitting there in the back gardens, tucked away from all the others. An officer had given her a blanket against the crisp night air, but after that, she’d been left alone. The sweet smell of roses and the gentle light of the moon cleared her senses, and she knew there was no reason to delay things. “All right. I’m ready.”
Beside her, Hayes glanced up from examining a shallow gash on his forearm. He wore only his undershirt, trousers, and shoes but didn’t seem to care about his shocking state of undress. “To give a statement?”
“Oh, not that,” she said, already distracted by him. He’d always appeared sleek and powerful in his suit, but now he was downright virile. The breadth of his shoulders and the strong muscles in his arms and chest were apparent with the slightest movement.
With effort, she returned to her original intention. “I’m ready to eat humble pie for breaking my promise and investigating Freddy on my own. I knew better but did it anyway, just because I felt left out of things earlier today. I’m sorry.”
To her surprise, he smiled a little. Despite the lingering wildness in his eyes, he didn’t seem nearly as remote as he had in his office. “And I knew better than to pick a fight with a bunch of wolves itching to kill us both, or to get blackout drunk right after. Seems like I’m ahead in the mistakes department.”
Relief rushed through her. “I could try to make it even.”
When he just shook his head, she added, “I really thought you were going to lay into me.”
“Can’t say I see the point. You’ve already told me why and apologized.” His focus returned to his injury, and he licked it clean before adding, “I’m not saying I’ll keep quiet if you do it again, but… Jane knows how to provoke people. She prides herself on it.”
Then he began bandaging the wound without any sign of pain. The muscles in his arms flexed while he worked.
Cora decided there was no way she could pretend disinterest. “When did that happen?”
“I broke through a window to get in.”
She moved closer, noticing a faint line near it—a similar cut long healed. “For such a smooth-talking fella, you sure have a lot of scars.”
As he tied off the bandage, she saw a much nastier one beneath his collar bone, its shape suggesting a knife blade that had gone in deep. The teasing left her voice. “That one could have killed you.”
Unthinkingly, she reached out. He didn’t move away when her fingers gently brushed the scar, or when she said, “Hayes, what happened?”
For a moment, she thought he wouldn’t answer. He looked at the officers milling around the heavy bulk of Freddy’s mansion, at the distant chaos of headlights in the front driveway, and finally at the stars glimmering beyond as if debating with himself. When he spoke, though, there was no hesitation to the words. “After I left the pack, I worked as a pit fighter.”
“You… you what?” she stammered, aghast. “But that’s awful.”
His careful expression warmed into amusement. “So you’ve seen pit fights, then.”
“Not willingly. George DeHart dragged me to one.”
“George DeHart? As in, the famous actor?”
Cora huffed. “Believe me, he only shines onstage. He’s a hopeless gambler, and the one night we spent together was nothing but him indulging in every bad habit he could think of. Our last stop was some seedy club that had its own underground arena for fights, and he bet on one. Both men survived, but I’ve heard that some of those fights won’t end until there’s a death.”
Then she shivered, trying not to imagine Hayes’ lifeless body against a grimy floor.
Her hands picked at a frayed edge of the blanket until he caught them with one of his own. “Don’t worry about it, Bunny. I went in knowing what to expect. It’s dangerous, but it makes better money than a factory and is one of the few jobs in the city where wolves are in high demand. We heal fast and we’ll fight anything.”
The words soothed her as much as the heat of his fingers. “No wonder you knew what to do with that tentacle creature. But why didn’t you tell the police you’d seen things like it before?”
She received an answer, but not from Hayes.
“Because, Miss Marshall, pit fighting is illegal.” Captain Dempsey waited a few feet away, having slipped up unnoticed. Even with the brim of his hat tilted over one eye, he looked exhausted, and his trench coat was smudged with ash. “I’m sure he had no idea until well after he’d left for a better job.”
“None at all,” said Hayes, unfazed by the man’s appearance. He gave Cora’s hands a gentle squeeze before resuming checking his own for injuries. “Especially since I’d seen some of the police commissioner’s closest friends in the audience.”
Dempsey cracked a grin. “Don’t say that too loudly. He might show up tonight. This one’s big.”
“Mm-hm. Lots of people have done bad things tonight.”
Cora gasped. “You can’t put any blame on Hayes. He was rescuing me. And Freddy’s lying if he’s saying Hayes attacked him. I was the one who knocked him out.”
“Oh yeah? Did you also break his jaw in two different places?” Then the police captain shook his head. “Don’t start fussing. I didn’t mean you two, although it’s true Davenport is already talking. I have to say, Sam, it would be nice if we could understand him a little better.”
“He can still write.” Hayes sounded amazingly calm, but when a stray flashlight beam passed over him, his eyes glowed just like a wolf’s. He flexed his fingers, still studying his knuckles, and then bit at one to pull out something embedded in the skin. He turned and spat it out.
“Was that a tooth?” said Cora, watching him.
The police captain’s sigh was answer enough. “Just tell me what happened.”
Cora tried her best to keep things short and to the point. Dempsey wrote it all down without comment, but once she finished, he said, “You got lucky. You not only survived but broke your case wide open. Davenport’s confessing to everything.”
“What?” she said. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Hayes look up, fully alert.
“He wanted Isaac Marshall out of the way to make sure he could use you for this ritual. He’s already fingering people connected to the cult, including the black market thaumaturgist he used.”
“Harold Beaumont?” said Hayes.
Dempsey nodded. “He admitted to burning down Beaumont’s place to cover things up, and another place in Ragbag Way before that. It was a—”
“I don’t understand any of this,” said Cora, glancing between them. “You’re talking like it’s all wrapped up, but I hardly even know what happened.”
Hayes glanced at her, but it was the police captain who answered. “Davenport’s followers are humans who modified their appearance with bio-thaumaturgy. It’s a common activity with cultists who want to look more like their gods. Harold Beaumont is the thaumaturgist Davenport hired for all the cult work… and for transforming Tierney.”
The answer only further confused her. “Those people looked nothing like the drawings of Tierney. And he changed back afterward. They didn’t. I saw the bodies as we left the room.”
Dempsey shrugged. “It was mere cosmetic work for the cultists. Your father’s driver had to be an assassin without realizing it. They infected him by bribing a tattoo artist who was working on him.”
Cora looked back at Hayes, wanting to see his reaction to these revelations. “You’re not surprised at all. Did you already know about this?”
His voice remained low and even. “I knew the pieces and saw a way they could fit, but that’s not the same as a confession.”
“Well… what did he do to my father? The body wasn’t found.”
“Might be some time before it is. You mentioned he had your uncle squirreled away.”
“Yes.” She shuddered to think of it, relaxing only when Hayes ran a comforting hand along her shoulder.
Dempsey noticed her shiver as well. “Don’t worry about it, Miss Marshall. He’s not getting free. Even if your father remains missing, there are plenty of other murders to charge him with, and all the evidence is overwhelming.”
“Then he did this quite often?”
“You were in just one of his secret rooms.” The police captain turned slightly and pointed at a clump of bushes near the side of the mansion. There was an officer hunched there, sweaty-faced and shaking. “See Robinson there? He was the first one to find the underground levels and what was in them. He’s been puking his guts out since. We’ve found years’ worth of missing people.”
“My God.” Cora covered her mouth with a shaking hand. “I mean, he seemed raving mad just now, but I never thought…”
“Obviously not, since you walked right in there with him,” said Dempsey, voice dry.
Her mind couldn’t stop spinning, but at last she said, “But it’s all over, isn’t it? Surely, I’m free to go home.”
Dempsey scoffed. “Over? Things are just beginning.”
Just then, the sound of an argument grew clear. Two figures approached. One was Jane Feral, eyes glowing in the dark like Hayes’ while she carried a heavy leather bag. As she walked, she paid attention to everything except the man beside her, a thin, sour-looking police enchanter.
It was his voice that really carried. “You can’t come any closer, I tell you. The girl may be contaminated.”
“Then why is the police captain and my office partner already here? And I wouldn’t try to hold me back. These leathers are designed to nullify all magic. I’ll spark out your tools.”
The enchanter sighed and turned his attention to Dempsey. “Captain, I tried.”
“It’s all right, Byrd. I know how persuasive she can be. Miss Feral, delighted to see you again. What the hell do you want?”
“Nothing to do with you. I had a brief, confusing call from my office partner to get here as fast as possible with my tools.” Then Jane’s gaze jumped to Hayes, and she arched her eyebrows. “What’d you do, you idiot?”
“Jane.” His tone was deathly serious. He said nothing else but cast a significant glance at Cora, who was already bristling for his sake.
The she-wolf’s gaze followed his, settling on Cora’s forehead. All the humor drained from her expression.
Something wordless passed between her and Hayes before he rose to his feet and stepped toward Dempsey and the enchanter. “Captain. A word?”
Cora craned her neck, wanting to catch their conversation, but just then Jane moved in front of her and opened her leather bag. “Finding it difficult to take your eyes off him?”
“Don’t bother struggling for an answer. I already know it. The symbol on your head is the truly interesting thing.” The she-wolf sketched it in a small notebook and then pulled on some gloves. “Did it smell like blood when he painted it on?”
“Yes. How did you…?”
“Humans pretend they’re experts in everything, including the arcane. In truth, wolves first discovered the occult, and we remember a lot more than they’ve ever discovered. May I?” Then Jane touched the remains of the symbol and drew back to rub the ash between her fingers, studying it intently. “The rest can be washed off whenever you have the chance, but this one needs to be erased immediately. It’s a guiding mark that any of the outer chaos gods would recognize.”
“Is that what that… thing was? A god?”
“Not quite.” The she-wolf pulled out a vial of clear liquid. “Now don’t move.”
Cora had never been good at sitting still, and fidgeted with the folds of her blanket while Jane dampened a cloth and carefully rubbed at her forehead. It felt like alcohol but without the burn.
She didn’t expect Jane to talk while working, but to her surprise, the she-wolf spoke after a few moments of silence. “So, how many people did you shoot this time?”
Cora took the question at face value in an attempt to remain polite. “I don’t remember. Much of it already seems like a blur. We used most of the shells on the creature.”
“I’m surprised Sam hit it at all. These days, he takes most of his shots on a billiards table.”
At that, Cora flushed. “He didn’t miss once. He also tore it to pieces all by himself, even though it was larger than a car.”
Jane’s only response was to grin and say, “All finished. Use soap and hot water to take off the rest.”
When she pulled the cloth away, Cora saw that the ash had bubbled into something dark and sticky, reforming the symbol on the fabric. Just as she winced in disgust, the enchanter’s voice rose. “What are you doing?”
Jane didn’t react beyond sealing the cloth in a glass jar, and she remained beside Cora as the other three rejoined them. “Getting a few answers from Miss Marshall.”
“That was evidence of an illegal summoning,” said the enchanter, glaring. “Tampering with it is cause for arrest.”
Cora had seen plenty of men throw tantrums and had no interest in watching another one. Instead, she tried to catch Hayes’ attention, hoping for a hint of what he’d spoken about with the police captain.
Just as he winked at her, Jane held up the glass jar. “Let’s not be petty. I haven’t destroyed anything. I merely transferred it from her skin to keep her safe.”
The enchanter took it with a sullen mutter.
Dempsey had watched in silence, occasionally flicking ash from his cigarette, but now he studied the symbol on the cloth and said, “Is that what drew the god through the portal?”
The enchanter sniffed. “It wasn’t a god. It was an avatar of a god. It’s a notable difference. In this dimension, it’s only flesh, yet it can affect others. Frederick Davenport was lucky to be unconscious when the portal opened to let it through. The other cultists weren’t and went irreversibly insane. What I’m concerned about is how this girl had the same experience and yet remained rational.”
When Cora realized he meant her, she smiled vaguely, distracted by the awareness of Hayes replacing Jane’s spot next to her. “I’ve always been lucky.”
“Lucky? To witness another dimension?” The man stared at her. “There are people who have studied the possibilities their entire lives in the hopes of catching even one glimpse.”
“Frankly, it wasn’t all that grand. That pulpy, tentacle creature was awful and I’ve never seen anything like it, but the portal itself was just a lot of blackness. And flutes. I remember hearing flautists. They weren’t very good. They couldn’t keep a tune at all.”
“Couldn’t keep a—” Now the enchanter sputtered. “Do you even know what you were part of?”
The police captain cut him off. “Let’s get to the point. Does she need any diagnostic spells performed on her?”
Cora didn’t like the sound of that, and liked the enchanter’s answer even less. “Of course. She could be contaminated.”
The back of her head started throbbing, and she realized the sigil might be discovered if she agreed to it. More than that, it still had enough control to keep her from doing so. She breathed deeply, trying to keep calm despite the sharp pain that wouldn’t fade until the sigil was safe. “I don’t see how that’s necessary. The creature never even touched me. It ate a statue by mistake. I still can’t believe Freddy was going to feed me to that thing.”
“That wasn’t what it was doing,” said the enchanter, darkly.
“It swallowed the statue whole. I saw it.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t feeding. It was an avatar of a very particular type, and its purpose wasn’t to commit carnage.”
Cora frowned, hurting too much to make out the implications, but a flicker in the police captain’s eyes suggested he’d understood just fine. Then he cleared his throat. “Believe me, Miss Marshall, it’d be better for you this way.”
The pain in her head sharpened into something blinding, and she knew her voice sounded higher than normal as she said, “I’d really rather not do this.”
“No one can force you to.” The sound of Hayes’ voice cut through some of the agony, and so did the warmth of his hand lightly catching her arm. She looked up at him in a silent plea, hoping he would see the struggle in her eyes.
His own brightened in response before he glanced over at Dempsey. “What are the other options?”
The police captain sighed and turned to the enchanter.
“There aren’t any.”
“That’s a lie,” said Jane. “Unless a master enchanter somehow doesn’t know that extradimensional contamination quickly presents itself. Usually within the day.”
“Yet also up to three weeks,” snapped the enchanter. “She’d have to remain isolated from others for that long. Freelance thaumaturgists can take risks, but registered enchanters have to follow the rules.”
Jane smiled, showing all her teeth. “It’s not a risk, it’s a formality. Sam and I would smell the change in her scent if she’d been implanted with something. She’s clean.”
Cora was beginning to feel nauseous from the pain. “If there’s going to be this much fuss, then I’ll simply lock myself in my bedroom. The servants can leave me food at the door.”
“No good,” said Dempsey. “We’ll have to search every inch of that house.”
Her voice rose. “Again?”
He shrugged. “You were part of this rite. Hell, you were its star. No one’s saying you wanted to be, but there might be important evidence of Davenport or one of the others setting you up.”
It was getting harder to think, as if the sigil sensed she was losing the argument. “All right, then I’ll stay at Vi’s house. Violet Granbury. She’s my best friend.”
There was a sudden silence.
Then Hayes moved closer to her and murmured, “Miss Marshall…”
With that return to formality, she knew his next words would hurt no matter how gently he spoke them. Her breath hitched as she stared into his eyes, their gold heavy with a terrible sympathy.
“Miss Granbury was in on this. She was part of the cult and knew what would happen.”
“No.” Cora almost laughed. “No, that’s ridiculous.” Then she looked at each of their faces, and her voice thinned to nothing.
“She left a note confessing her involvement,” said Dempsey. When Cora flinched, he almost looked sorry for it, and his usual sarcasm was absent. “I’m sorry, Miss Marshall. She set you up and then took her life.”
Cora released a trembling breath, sure she was about to shatter into pieces. “How could she?”
Dimly, she was aware of Hayes moving close enough to hold her, and of tears burning hot against her cheeks. The whole world had blurred over. His voice rumbled against her ear, hard in a way that warned off any further arguments. “I’m taking her back to my place. You know where it is, Captain. Any questions?”
“No.” The police captain still sounded grim. “Get her out of here.”
The sigil’s agony eased by the second as he guided her away, but the hurt in her heart remained. “Thank you,” she managed, unable to say anything else.
He pulled her a little closer, chasing away the chill of the night. “It’ll be all right.”
All she could think of was Violet’s bright, sharp smile. “Right now, it doesn’t feel like it.”
“I know, Bunny. But it will.”