Captain Albert Dempsey couldn’t remember the last time he felt this relieved over a case wrapping up. The sun had been shining for over an hour and he was still in the ritual room of Freddy Davenport’s “mansion of madness,” as people were already calling it. He had seen too much to feel sick by what his men were turning up, but he was tired. Exhausted, in fact, but word had come in that the police commissioner himself was about to appear. Al knew he’d demand answers, especially the ones they didn’t yet have.
At least the bastard couldn’t protect any of his friends this time. The city was ready to boil over, and the commissioner was the type of man to save his neck over another’s. Davenport and his cultists would be hanged to convince the common people that the rich and powerful also faced consequences for breaking the law. Al hoped they savored it, because it wouldn’t happen again anytime soon.
Just as he lit a fresh cigarette, he heard the commissioner’s voice echoing from the stairway. Everyone else in the room immediately straightened his uniform and posture, trying to look as crisp as possible. Even the enchanters, normally so intent on their work that they wouldn’t respond to a question yelled in their faces, paused to make sure their bandoliers hadn’t slipped out of the proper position. Al remained as he was, aware that nothing would save him from looking like a wrinkled mess.
Lights had been brought in, exposing every inch of the room, and all eyes were on the commissioner by the time he reached the final step, already frowning at the crumpled white dress and shotgun shells near the tips of his polished shoes. “We haven’t started bagging evidence?”
Commissioner Keene had a politician’s voice, big and booming. He didn’t speak so much as punch holes in the air. In appearance, he was just as intimidating, short but thick in the neck and chest, and with a face built to scowl. His waxed mustache gleamed as brightly as the gold buttons of his uniform, and right then it bristled as he spoke against the resounding silence to his first question. “Well?”
Al kept quiet, knowing Master Enchanter Byrd would have to explain.
The enchanter rose from the dead cultist he had been examining. “Commissioner, we weren’t yet expecting you, and our analyses are still—”
“Shut up. I don’t need the details. Tell them to Johnson.” The commissioner gestured at the man who had arrived with him, a young, neatly dressed fella who looked nervously at the body near Byrd.
Al couldn’t blame him. The commissioner’s assistants always suffered bizarre and untimely deaths. One had died from fireworks that exploded too early during the city’s anniversary gala. Another from being kicked by a police horse during a parade. The latest had choked on his damn sandwich. City enchanters constantly tested for signs of a clever curse but never found anything. The only certain fact was that being Keene’s assistant was an unusually dangerous position.
When Johnson was drawn away by the enchanter, Commissioner Keene turned his frown on the nearest officer. At that, Al decided his men had already had a rough enough time and walked over to join them. “Morning, Keene. Breaking in a new one?”
“Don’t waste my time, Captain. What the hell is going on? Last night, I was told this was just another playboy taking things too far with his coked-out sex cult. Now the mayor is not only getting calls from every high-powered lawyer seething over his clients being put into cells like common criminals, but the Saxby Pack is demanding at least three people who were involved.”
Al glanced around the destroyed room and the many bodies it held, wondering if the commissioner was that oblivious to what he stood among. “The playboy was Frederick Davenport, and his cult worshipped an ancient god that could end this world if roused.”
“Freddy Davenport has long been known for his debauched ways, and there are ten other cults in this city with the same goal.”
“Yeah, well, he brought something through.” Then Al pointed at the broken archway. The sigils were clearly visible even through the dust and scorch marks. When the commissioner paled, he added, “Every elite name is attached in some way, including Cora Marshall’s.”
Keene’s expression changed yet again. “How was she involved?”
Just as Al was about to answer, movement flickered from the corner of his eye. Nothing more than a figure stepping around a fallen column, but still concerning. He knew every cop and enchanter in the room, right down to the way they walked. This was a stranger. If a damn reporter had somehow snuck in…
He breathed out a lungful of smoke to cover his slight glance over. Then he bit back another breath, this one a sigh. It was Jane Feral, cool and collected as if she had every right to be there. He let it go for the moment and refocused on Keene. “They were trying to have their god reborn into this world. She was chosen to carry it.”
The commissioner swore. “This is a nightmare. Was she implanted?”
“No. Our enchanters cleared her half an hour ago. They’ve mapped all the residue left in the room. That kind wasn’t present. She’s safe and out of this investigation.”
“Tell that to the Saxbys. They want her, Davenport, and a man named Harold Beaumont.”
“He’s a black market thaumaturgist.” Then Al spent the rest of his cigarette explaining how it all connected back to the Isaac Marshall case. He stayed put while speaking, aware of the enchanters’ need for concentration.
The commissioner, however, moved among the various bodies and shattered rock, expressionless and strangely silent. His assistant followed like a dog, once flinching when a broken statue further crumbled and pelted him with chips of marble. Enchanter Byrd fidgeted whenever the two men passed by dead cultists that were surrounded by glowing wards—a sign they hadn’t been checked and cleared of lingering magical effects—but didn’t dare stop them.
Al waited with growing suspicion. Occasionally, he spared a glance for Jane Feral. The she-wolf made no attempt to interfere with his men, hands behind her back as she studied the bodies that were uncovered. Up to something, no doubt, and he probably wouldn’t even get a hint of what her motives were. When her gaze briefly met his, he gave her a sardonic nod and received a close-lipped grin in return.
Just then, the commissioner spoke up, now by the crushed throne near the archway. “Has Isaac Marshall been found? No? What about Harold Beaumont?”
When Al shook his head again, Keene turned to his assistant. “Johnson, give me the shorthand on the Saxby Pack.”
The assistant cleared his throat. He still looked like a scared rabbit, but his words came out smooth and clear. “A long-lived dynasty that has fallen in recent years. Their king is in his twentieth year of rule, but the pack remains unstable from a broken treaty with the Sinclair Pack five years ago. Traditionally, their wealth came from gold mining, although there is some suspicion that these veins are now depleted. They are considered to be a small threat against individual humans. Desperation and weakening status among the other packs have left them with a higher than normal disregard for city policy.”
Al looked over at Jane Feral again, aware that her sharp hearing would have caught the man’s words. She seemed uninterested, instead speaking with one of the enchanters scraping samples from a gilded bowl that had smashed and splattered its contents.
“Did you hear him, Captain?”
Despite the impatient tone to Keene’s words, Al refused to jump to attention like a schoolboy that had been caught out. For the commissioner, these were facts. For him, they were a few cold words that couldn’t approach the slaughtered bodies he and his men had to bag up and take off the streets. “I’m not sure I agree about the ‘small threat’ part.”
“You’re missing the point. There are three parties demanding immediate answers: the public, the mayor, and this pack.”
Al walked over to the commissioner, knowing the man hated being towered over. Rumor had it that he wouldn’t even let his wife wear heels. A small part of his mind argued that it did no good to rile Keene up, but the rest of him realized the commissioner never came to a crime scene unless he was about to use it. Twenty-three years on the force and it still made him angry when political maneuvers nosed their way into an investigation.
He hid it from his voice as he said, “The newspapers will satisfy the public for now. We’re sending every piece of information to the mayor as we learn it. That leaves the Saxbys, and we’ve held them off for this long.”
The commissioner’s frown deepened as he was forced to look up at Al. “That’s no longer the goal, Captain.”
Al could already guess the answer but asked anyway. “What’s the new one?”
Keene pulled out a cigarette case and opened it in a silent offer. The filters had the gleam of true gold. When Al shook his head, the commissioner took one for himself. “Didn’t you hear Johnson? The Saxbys are desperate enough to tip over into sheer aggression. We need to satisfy them to keep the peace.”
“You’re talking about handing over the three they want.”
“Not all three. Just one. Davenport is out of the question. He’s committed too many crimes. Harold Beaumont isn’t a bad pick, but he hasn’t been found.”
“That leaves Cora Marshall, the only innocent person involved.”
Keene scoffed. “I doubt Miss Marshall was all that innocent. It’s common knowledge that she and Davenport were very close. And for God’s sake, who lets themselves be chained to an altar unless they’ve already agreed to be the sacrifice?”
“You’ve never interviewed her,” said Al, unable to keep the dryness from his voice. “She’s clueless as a rule.”
“The Saxbys don’t believe so.”
Al had already smoked his cigarette to a stub but couldn’t resist taking a final drag. It was better than telling the commissioner that this idea was the worst one he’d heard all week. Saying so wouldn’t do any good; the mayor and several other city officials wanted the Saxby situation resolved before it riled up the other packs. If that meant giving over Miss Marshall, well… in the end, Crescent City always ate its own.
Unbidden, his gaze jumped over to Jane Feral, who had casually moved out of Keene’s sight. She glared right back and then gave him a tight shake of her head.
Before Al could react, the commissioner’s tone hardened. “Where’s Miss Marshall now?”
“With Sam Hayes, and he’s not about to hand anyone over to his former pack.”
“Perhaps he can be convinced, Captain.”
In other words, get a few men from the force to rough him up until he gave in—and kill him if he didn’t. Al sighed, as much from sticking his neck out as for doing it for those two. “Frankly, Commissioner, even I’m not convinced. She’s the only survivor of the ritual who hasn’t gone insane or hidden behind a lawyer. We’ll probably need to question her again. Our enchanters still aren’t sure how the creature might have affected this room and the people present when it appeared.”
Keene reddened, but when Al remained unflinching, the other man turned away, glaring at the nearest dead cultist. The sheet didn’t quite cover the body, with a cloven hoof and a tattooed hand sticking out from the white fabric. Anger filled both the commissioner’s voice and steps as he circled the glowing wards around it. “Byrd. Why isn’t this room decontaminated? It should be easy enough to tell what’s normal magic and what’s residue from something out of a different damned dimension.”
At that, Byrd hurried over, looking nearly as nervous as the commissioner’s assistant as all three gathered close to converse. Al took the opportunity to walk over to Jane Feral.
She didn’t even give him a chance to speak. “Don’t be an idiot. It’s a terrible idea and you know it.”
“Morning to you as well.”
“Captain,” she hissed. “They’ll kill her. Anyone can see she had nothing to do with this. The Saxbys only want her to soothe their pride over what happened at their meeting with the Frosthounds.”
“Maybe, but it’s not my idea, so yelling at me won’t work.”
“You’re the only city official who bothers talking to lone wolves,” she replied, the flash of her eyes revealing just how infuriating she found that. “Which is ridiculous, seeing as Sam and I can and have done much more for the city than any of the packs.”
Al just shrugged and started to flick his cigarette away.
She stopped him. “Maybe you truly are brainless. Don’t contaminate a room of unknown residue. I’m surprised they’re letting you smoke in here at all.”
“They said it was safe as long as I stayed away from the wards.” He crushed the butt beneath his shoe instead and added, “Listen, I don’t disagree with what you’ve said. God knows you’re both pests when you’re helping out. I can’t imagine what you’d be like as enemies.”
“Don’t patronize me. Just convince the commissioner to hold off the Saxbys.”
“Miss Feral, it’s not like I can change his mind with a snap of my fingers.”
She grimaced and glanced past him. He didn’t like the way her eyes suddenly widened, or how her expression relaxed into a nasty grin. “Perhaps it’s a moot point. He’s about to kill himself anyway.”
Al turned in time to catch the commissioner finishing his cigarette and letting the butt drop. It rolled through the wards unnoticed by Enchanter Byrd, who still stammered through an explanation. The moment it reached the body, it sparked unnaturally.
“Keene!” yelled Al, already reaching for his revolver.
Just as the commissioner looked over, the sheet twitched. Then it bulged.
“What the hell—” began Keene.
Tentacles exploded from the fabric, dripping slime and blood as they groped in the air. The sheet shredded, revealing flesh swelling up and out, absorbing the original body and spreading over the protective wards like pulsing tumors. Enchanter Byrd turned ashen and fumbled at his bandolier. Keene’s assistant screamed.
Al called at the officers closest to the frozen commissioner, who could only stare as the tentacles loomed over him. “Pettis! Mitchell!”
His men were well-trained, reacting despite their horror to grab Keene and haul him out of reach as the first of the appendages whipped out. The air around them flared when they tried wrapping around Byrd, setting off his defensive enchantments. The smell of scorched flesh grew suffocating as the tentacles burned and writhed, lashing out in all directions. An uninjured one caught the next closest figure—Keene’s assistant. He screamed as it hauled him up into the air.
Even as Al’s brain wanted to quit in shock, his instincts kicked in. He aimed and shot, severing the tentacle. A throbbing noise, less a howl than a sheer sound wave, filled the room as Johnson dropped back to the ground, his head and back taking the force of the fall. Before Al could even breathe out in relief, three more tentacles emerged from the wounded one and grabbed Johnson once more. This time, they immediately pulled him in among the masses of flesh.
“Cease fire!” said Keene, all smoothness gone from his voice as his assistant disappeared except for muffled screams. “Hold your fire or you’ll hit him. Byrd, get your men in there.”
More appendages slammed into nearby enchanters, flinging them at those farther away. Al felt a bead of sweat run down his neck. Goddamnit, the thing somehow knew who could threaten it. It was sentient.
Then the pile of flesh convulsed. The screaming stopped. With all the enchanters down, there was no way of saving Johnson, and bullets were all they had left.
“Take it down,” he said, sure his men would follow his order over the commissioner’s. Then he took the first shot to erase any final hesitation. Within moments, gunsmoke joined the chaos.
Their bullets peppered the creature, spraying dark slime and shooting off tentacles. It shuddered from the loss of its limbs, and for a moment Al hoped they were weakening it. Then the tumor-like masses constricted, and a new bubble of flesh emerged into the open, bringing Johnson out with it.
Or at least, parts of Johnson. Mostly his upper face, although Al could see what looked like the poor bastard’s spine pushing through the glistening surface of the shapeless mass. There was no way he could be alive, but when his eyes rolled toward the nearest officer, Al realized the damn thing wore him like a mask.
The officer screamed in response. Al knew the sound of a man ready to lose his mind, and swore under his breath when the officer stumbled backwards, dropping his gun.
The air rippled with sudden heat. Then red light shot past Al’s right side, spearing the creature. Lightning crackled over every inch as it seizured. He risked glancing back and saw Jane Feral on the floor, grimacing as if she’d been thrown there. There was a weapon he’d never seen before near her, some kind of bulked-up submachine gun.
“What is that thing?” he yelled, while his men continued shooting.
“One more shot will stop it for good,” she managed. “Use it.”
No time for other questions. He holstered his gun and grabbed it, quickly finding the scope and trigger. He aimed just as two more officers in the creature’s view dropped to their knees, both clutching at their heads.
“Not my men, you son of a bitch,” he muttered, and then fired.
This time, the creature actually boiled, sizzling as if the light evaporated the very water from its blood. Flesh collapsed, twitching erratically. Al roared at his officers to cease fire with a voice he hadn’t used since his military days. Silence fell, broken only by the drip of slime.
As the smoke thinned, Jane moved up beside him, gingerly rubbing her shoulder. “It’s down. If any of your enchanters have regained consciousness, they can finish it off properly.”
“You’re explaining everything later,” he snapped, handing the weapon back. Then he moved for the three officers that had been affected by the creature’s attention.
Two already stood again, unsteady but clear-eyed. The last man, who had also been the first affected, still rocked and trembled on the floor. The enchanters who hadn’t been knocked unconscious all crowded around the commissioner to make sure he was unharmed, and Al didn’t bother hiding the rage from his voice. “Is Byrd still unconscious? Then I’ll give the orders. Contain those goddamn remains and wipe out whatever magic is left.”
Then he crouched before the officer, dismissing the commissioner’s stutter of rage over being ignored. “Pettis. Pettis, look at me.”
The man—kid, really, since he was barely twenty—stared at him without seeing. “I saw it. It went right into my mind and started showing me things. It’s… it’s…”
When the officer’s voice grew hysterical, Al interrupted him, keeping his own calm and steady. “It’s dead meat, so relax. Everything’s all right.”
“No, you don’t understand. It knows me. It knows.”
Al sensed what the kid was about to do and grabbed his hand before it could reach his holster. Pettis didn’t fight back, instead just sweating and shaking. Probably in shock.
“Take his gun away and get him a blanket,” he said to the nearest officer and then refocused on Pettis. “Listen to me. Who’s talking to you right now?”
“Y-you. Captain Dempsey.”
Al nodded. “That thing is gone. There’s nothing else it can do. And if it tries coming back, we’ll turn it into another splatter on the floor. Even gods die in this city, and anything out there is nothing compared to the shit we face every day as its sworn officers. Understand?”
The man was still shivering, but awareness had returned to his eyes. “Yes, Captain.”
“Good. Now get up so the enchanters can check you over.”
Al rose to his feet with the officer and let them guide him away. The kid would probably be all right. He hoped so.
At the sound of the commissioner’s voice, Al turned and found Keene right in his face. Despite everything, it was hard not to smirk at how slime stained his fine suit, or how fury strangled his next words. “Find out everything you can. Everything. I want Harold Beaumont and anyone else involved in this cult to be swinging by the end of the month. We’re nailing every bastard to the fullest extent.”
“What about the Saxbys?”
A loud squelch interrupted them, and they looked over in time to witness the mound of flesh shrink and collapse under the work of the enchanters. The mass holding what was left of Johnson popped with a final spray of slime. His face slid to the ground, staring in their direction.
The commissioner growled. “They can chew on bones for all I care. They aren’t taking a single thing from us.”
Watching the man stalk off almost helped against his growing headache. Almost. Al rubbed his forehead and then reached in his pocket for a fresh cigarette. Instead, his fingers found a note.
If you still want to talk (and believe me, we need to), I’ll be at the Red Rose Cafe. Don’t keep me waiting.
Al was tempted to send a few officers to get her and take her to the station; the coffee was much better there. Then he sighed and found the police detective who had been assigned to the case. “Nichols. Take over. I’ll be back in an hour.”
The cafe was like countless others he’d been to, where the waitresses were tired and even the coffee tasted greasy. A few other patrons had the yellow eyes of wolves, but it wasn’t hard to pick out Jane Feral with her red hair and thaumaturgist’s leathers. She sat at a corner table by the window, ignoring the cup by her elbow in favor of reading the morning paper’s headlines.
He took the opposite seat without greeting her. “It’s illegal to carry weapons modified with experimental magic. I’ll have to pull a few strings to keep you from being arrested, and I’m not sure I want to.”
“That’s gratitude for you,” she said, absently. “If I hadn’t been there, the commissioner’s stupidity would have left at least half your men dead. Blood, gold, and fire—that’s what that particular god demands as tribute, and his cigarette satisfied all three. Funny how things work out, hmm?”
Al rubbed at his eyes. They were starting to grow bleary. “Miss Feral, right now I’m a bad target for being taunted. I’m too exhausted to react to anything besides the cold, hard truth.”
“What makes that the exception?”
He pointed at the coffee. “Are you going to drink that?”
When she shook her head, he took it and drained it halfway with one swallow. It was terrible enough to jolt him back into full alertness. “Because people lie so much that it always surprises me when they’re honest.”
At that, she met his gaze. Wild eyes scrutinized his face with the ruthlessness of a born predator, but he suddenly had the feeling that she was unsure. Maybe even nervous. “What that assistant told you about the Saxbys… does the city know anything more than that?”
“My branch doesn’t. Why?”
The she-wolf grimaced and leaned back in her seat. “Sam trusts you. I used to think he was being stupidly optimistic like always. Now, I’m not so sure.”
“Do you ever give compliments, Miss Feral?”
“Have you ever met someone who really deserved one?” she shot back. As quickly as she bristled, she settled down again. “All I meant is that your loyalty obviously lies with the city. Or at least, that’s what I believed. But I could smell your contempt for the commissioner, and your fear for your men. You really think they’re more than just living bodies to command.”
“Don’t get too soft toward me. I’m still a corrupt official willing to pull strings as needed.”
“Yes, but not always for yourself. I’m willing to gamble on that.” She stared at her folded hands for a moment. He didn’t miss how her knuckles had gone white with tension, but her voice sounded as crisp as ever as she added, “Wolves know loyalty and all it can hide. Humans aren’t the only ones who can keep secrets… or find themselves in a position to reveal some.
“What the late, lamented Johnson said about the Saxbys was true enough, but there are details you should know about that broken treaty. The youngest Saxby princess was supposed to be married to one of the Sinclair princes. It came out too late that the prince was deranged, violently so. He killed her. Both packs went to war, but the Saxby king also blamed his advisors for not finding out the prince’s true nature beforehand. He ordered them to be executed.”
Al raised his eyebrows. “Is this why both you and Sam ended up living among humans?”
“Sam’s reason, anyway. I was just a tag-along.”
“Why do you want me to know this? You heard the commissioner’s change of heart as well as I did. Cora Marshall is now safe. Nothing’s going over to the Saxbys.”
She cocked her head at him. “Because of Harold Beaumont. I examined that room very carefully, and the way he built his enchantments is entirely different from the samples I took from Isaac Marshall’s driver. And the materials I supplied show the same bizarre schism. It’s like—”
“You’re the one who shipped him the materials?” interrupted Al, sharply.
“Through completely legal means, and I didn’t realize it was him. Technically, they were purchased through an assumed name that turned out to be Freddy Davenport. I had no idea until I walked into that room this morning and analyzed the magical residue.”
“Lady, it’s like you’re trying to get arrested.”
“No, what I’m trying to do is get it through your thick head that Harold Beaumont spent most of his career working for humans and then somehow discovered the kind of knowledge that only wolves have had.” She stared at him as if gauging whether he understood her yet, and then added, “The creature that Dominic Tierney turned into resembles a badly made version of the myths some packs have about berserker wolves of old.”
Al had seen the witness sketches of Tierney in his transformed shape. The lupine features were impossible to deny. “Are the Saxbys among the packs who believe in these myths?”
He knew the answer by the frustration that seeped into her expression. “No.”
“Then what makes you think they’re behind Harold Beaumont’s familiarity with it? He could have learned about this through some old book, or from a lone wolf he knew. His type gets their hands on every form of magic possible because they live from commission to commission.”
Her mouth had tightened into a thin line, but she didn’t disagree with him. He kept his next question gentle to avoid turning it into a dig. “Do you have any evidence that the Saxbys are involved beyond Tierney running through their territory and killing some of them?”
“No.” The word was both grudging and defeated. “All I can say is that there’s always more happening than they let on.”
Al shrugged and finished the dregs in his cup. “That goes for everyone. But you’ve caught my interest. If you find out more, tell me. That is, if you’re not too busy looking after Cora Marshall. I heard you packed her suitcases earlier this morning.”
The she-wolf seemed slightly mollified by the fact that he was taking her seriously, but still rolled her eyes. “It was a favor for Sam. Until I can break out in my own field, I have to make do with helping him.”
As he pulled out enough change to pay for the coffee, he nodded at the newspaper in front of her. “You might be interested in the third page. The city is holding an open contract for a new submachine gun that will be issued to the entire police force. They want something that will drop a wolf as easily as a human without the expense of silver bullets. Yours was accurate, and electricity is an interesting idea. The recoil needs work, though. I’m not surprised it sent you flying back.”
When she turned to the right page with obvious interest, he almost laughed. “Not afraid of betraying your own, huh?”
“Captain, I was hardly loyal even when I belonged to a pack,” she murmured.
Just before Al turned to leave, she glanced at the opposite page and then grinned. “Oh, this is fantastic.”
“You’re looking at the wrong page.”
“No, I’m not.” Still smiling, she folded the paper open and then offered it to him. He scanned the biggest headline.
SOCIALITE TELLS ALL IN SUICIDE NOTE
“Your boys aren’t very good at keeping evidence out of the reporters’ hands,” said Jane, her glee obvious. “Violet Granbury’s note has been printed in full, and it seems she didn’t hold back on anything… especially for our Miss Cora Marshall.”
Al sighed, but the she-wolf wasn’t waiting for a reaction. Instead, she quoted the note aloud even as he read it in silence.
“I want to make it very clear that Cora Marshall had nothing to do with any of this. The idea of her taking credit for what I spent years to achieve makes me sick. The little fool doesn’t have the brains, the determination, or the daring to bring an end to this miserable world, and it was on Freddy’s insistence alone that she was chosen as the vessel for his beloved god, even after she started seducing subhumans. I guess that’s the reward for spreading your legs for every man in town—you end up good for nothing else.
Al handed the paper back, aware that the department would probably receive a letter from Miss Marshall’s lawyer before the day was out. “If we’re lucky, she didn’t see it.”
Jane grinned again. “This was the same edition in the bundle of papers I gave her this morning. If she’s like every other human and insists on reading the paper over breakfast, then she’ll find it halfway through her first cup of coffee. I just hope Sam is in the same room when she finds out.”