Captain Against Captain
Captain Albert Dempsey hated wearing his dress uniform. The black wool felt stifling in the conservatory’s humid atmosphere, and the gold braiding and white gloves highlighted his smallest movement. At least he didn’t have to carry a smallsword like the police commissioner.
Commissioner Keene looked irritated as well, tapping his fingers against the gold pommel of the aforementioned sword while the enchanters finished the last of the wards that would protect him—in theory. Al already had all of his in place. They made his skin prickle a little but were otherwise fine.
When the commissioner continued to glower, Al couldn’t resist asking, “No assistant today?”
Keene turned his glare on him. “Even I’m not above superstition on a day like this. Whenever an alpha-king wants to meet with city officials, it’s always a cover for something else. He’s been sending his lackeys to pester your division for weeks, so something must have changed for him to show up and demand an explanation. And to list us out by name! The sheer gall.”
Beside Al, Detective Nichols cleared his throat. Al recognized it as a nervous tic, as was the man’s dry recital of facts that they all already knew. His voice gathered them together like a handful of cards. “Myself, Master Enchanter Byrd, Captain Dempsey, and you. Everyone in a position of authority for the Isaac Marshall case.”
“And how would they know that?” demanded the commissioner, removing his peaked cap to wipe sweat from his forehead. “The mayor and the rest of the council are convinced someone is leaking information from your division, Captain. That’s treason.”
Al didn’t see the point in responding to a tantrum, but Nichols stiffened. “It’s just as possible that it’s someone in your office, Commissioner. Or yours, Byrd,” he added, causing the enchanter to wring his hands even harder.
When Keene grew red in the face, Al shot Nichols a look that said cut it out. Then he said, “I know the council is suspicious of how my division interacts with the two ex-Saxbys. Like I’ve explained many times before, it’s better to stay friendly with them. Lone wolves are an easy way to collect information on all packs.”
The other man waved away the comment. “Well, it ends today. Whatever these wolves want, they’re using tactics that might embolden the other packs. Out of concern for the safety of our city, we can’t allow this go on. The Saxby Pack is in for a rude realization.”
Then he glared at Al a final time, as if waiting for a protest. Al just shrugged. He knew what they had all been told to expect during the meeting, but he also knew that despite the commissioner’s indignation, they were all under suspicion of accepting bribes from the Saxby Pack in return for information. Which meant there was probably a lot that had been decided by the mayor and council that he didn’t know. Goddamn, he hated politics.
Just as he reached into his pocket for a cigarette, a new figure entered the room, silent and stark against the ostentatious orchids that surrounded the glass table where the meeting would take place. Al felt himself smile for the first time that day as Captain Inge Falk greeted them all.
They knew each other from the war, and he had fought hard to get her promoted to head of the tactics division when the commissioner had balked over a foreign woman taking such a vital position. She looked hard and intimidating in her uniform, and her broad face rarely showed emotion. Despite living in the city for over twenty years, she still had an accent that gave her words a cold precision. “Everything is ready.”
Keene didn’t look reassured. “Are you sure? Have all the buildings in the five-block radius been cleared of citizens?”
At Captain Falk’s crisp nod, Al asked, “What do you want us to do if they get aggressive?”
There was a brief gleam of amusement in the woman’s eyes, but she was much too proper to answer with a joke. “The wards will protect you from bullets and blades. If anyone touches you, they will receive a nasty shock. By then, my men will be taking action.”
“And you’re sure they won’t be sensed?” said Keene, glancing around the room. “Them or the magic used to hide their presence?”
“They’re already in place. Do you see them?”
Al was the only one who didn’t look around. The technology was based on the kind of camouflage tactics he and Falk were both familiar with, using the environment to hide a human body and their weapon. In this case, magic took it to the next level of masking scent as well.
“No,” said the commissioner, grudgingly. “What about their aim? The plants won’t obstruct their view?”
“We’re using heat to sight, and wolves have a different temperature than humans. Don’t engage them if they attack.”
“Easier said than done,” muttered Nichols, but the commissioner was already speaking.
“Just make sure you keep all hell from breaking loose.” Then Keene pulled out one of his gold cigarettes and returned to his seat, still sulking over the fact that he had to be there at all.
Al noticed how the commissioner kept sweating. Some of it could be blamed on the heat, but his gut told him there was more to it. The man should have been used to dealing with wolves, even alpha-kings or queens. It wasn’t unheard of for some to briefly visit human land, especially for ritzier events. They were royalty, after all, and expected to access all the luxuries of the city as such. Keene had surely rubbed elbows with one or two during an opera’s intermission.
So what the hell was it?
Even as he continued to eye the commissioner, Falk cleared her throat, drawing his attention. “There are a few more things we need to clear you of, Captain. If you would come with me?”
The arch of her eyebrow suggested this was more than mere formality. The feeling in Al’s gut deepened as he nodded, lighting his cigarette.
The Telladay Conservatory glittered behind them as she led him across the street toward the stately opera house on the other side. It was odd to see empty sidewalks and dim windows in nearby buildings. Once inside, their feet sounded overloud against the marble floors and stairways.
It took three flights of stairs to reach the roof. Out in the open air and away from others, Captain Falk relaxed enough to laugh. “I thought you’d be puffing by now. All those years behind a desk with nothing but cigarettes to keep you company.”
“I like to think of myself as a hound at heart, not a lapdog. I’ll keep working until I’m dead.” Al scanned the statues, nooks, and stone flourishes that comprised the rooftop bannisters. “So. Why are we here?”
“I thought you would like to see the sniper ready in case of emergency. You might be fascinated by the advancements made in the rifles.” Then she led him over to where her man was situated. His clothing mimicked the color of the stone, and he didn’t look up when they approached.
Al sensed the kid’s growing unease as they both studied him. Maybe he knew what their positions in the war had been; maybe he was just nervous from two high-ranking officers watching him. Either way, Al decided to give the kid a break by turning to look out on the city instead. “They make them a lot fancier these days. I can almost hear all the magic buzzing from it.”
A grimace from Falk told him she agreed. She had always liked the sturdiness of an old-fashioned bolt action rifle. Her own in the war had been her grandfather’s. As they began following the perimeter of the roof, she said, “Times aren’t desperate now.”
“But just as dangerous?” He knew they would be talking with care from this point on, every sentence offering up a hidden meaning. Falk wouldn’t reveal things to him that she wasn’t supposed to—not openly, anyway. She had her own neck to look after.
The other captain fell silent for a moment. “Did you think you would survive the war?”
“I never tried to guess the future. Taking each day as it happened was always enough.”
She nodded. “It’s one way of thinking. Not the way I see things, perhaps, or how I carry out the decisions handed to me.”
Al didn’t respond, aware that she was about to hint at something very important. As she considered her next words, his gaze fell from her face.
Their uniforms were very similar, and he easily found a slight outline over her heart, imperceptible beneath the black wool except to those who knew exactly what it was: a copper pocket frame. He’d seen it once, some time after they had become friends. One drunken night, she had opened it up and showed him what was inside—a picture of her with her husband and children.
Despite sharing a bottle of the strongest hooch he’d ever had, the words had flowed out of her with perfect clarity. She had been away to see her sick mother when the war broke out, just a farm wife in a country village. She had returned to find everyone harvested by the mech-enchanters, her family included. Within a week, she had joined the military and was placed in one of the sniper divisions, determined to take as much revenge as possible.
Al had seen her unguarded rage that night, and hadn’t been surprised when she had accumulated over 300 confirmed kills to her name by the time the war ended. Many others thought he and Inge had been lovers, but their closeness had been that of friends. He’d never seen her show interest in anyone ever, and he had never seen her without that photo tucked against her heart.
Iron Inge, they’d called her, but he’d known it was fury that had driven her, not any sense of duty. It was what would give him a fighting chance now against any bullshit that the city was planning for him and others at the meeting.
Just then, she turned to him. “Do you remember the wartime question every soldier was asked?”
“Sure. ‘Are you prepared for a closed casket funeral?’” With the enemy forces harvesting brains to build more war mechs, it had been common practice to completely destroy the head when possible. “Why ask that?”
“It’s become relevant for you again.”
His voice sharpened. “My chances of surviving are that slim? If they are, I know it’s not because of the Saxbys.”
“It’s a fragile situation, and suspicions run sharp. No one likes your friendliness toward the wolves, Captain. No one trusts it. Your men uncovered the information that the Saxbys regularly betray others. A stab in the throat when a friendly handshake is offered. Yet some still wonder if you’ve risked that.”
Al sighed out a lungful of smoke. “The irony is that I’ve never played nice with others, wolves or human. Merely fair. So what are they expecting?”
The other captain shrugged. “Don’t let yourself be taken by the wolves. It’s one possibility I was told to prepare for—the Saxbys attempting to carry off a human for their own interrogation tactics. With the border to no man’s land so close… well, it’s not an unlikely scenario.”
“Especially if the human was willingly taken away? So the sniper isn’t going to protect us, merely make sure we can’t tell the wolves anything. No wonder Keene is sweating bullets.” Despite the lightness to his voice, irritation seeped through him. He didn’t like being thought of as someone who would take bribes at the first opportunity. God knew he had refused them often enough throughout his career. “Tell you what, if it comes to that, tell your boy to shoot me in the right side of the head. It’s less obstinate than the left.”
He could see Falk wanted to smile, but she resisted with a shake of her head. “You never change, Al. Be careful. Aside from your detective, no one in that room will trust you.”
They were walking back to the stairway now, taking in the last glimpses of the view of the city. “My reputation is that bad, huh?”
“Rumors are swirling with how friendly you are with the two exiled Saxbys.”
“More like they won’t stop poking their muzzles in my damn cases.”
“I see.” Captain Falk’s voice turned sly. “Then you won’t mind if the she-wolf of the two is killed in any crossfire?”
It took Al a moment to understand the implication. “Are you saying she’s in that damn conservatory?” he snapped, glaring out at the shimmering building. From that distance, its spherical shape was apparent.
“Yes. She’s trying to hide herself through magic, but my men are using heat-sensitive scopes. She’s watching from the spiral staircase that leads to the upper walkway.”
“Damn it. Hold back on telling anyone else. I’ll get her out.”
From the way Captain Falk chuckled, he knew she’d enjoy watching.
When he returned to the conservatory, he ignored his seat at the table for one of the trees near the first metal steps up to the walkway. The conservatory was all one massive room, but the various plant species segmented it as thoroughly as a formal garden, giving him privacy from the others. He pretended to study the orchids nestled against the smooth bark while blowing a lungful of smoke upward.
The action was rewarded with a cough above him. He looked up at the steps spiraling above his head, finding where the smoke curled around what looked like empty space, tracing the silhouette of a crouched body.
“Goddamn it, Feral.”
When the figure made no movement, he stepped closer to the stairway. “Are you going to make me smoke you out?”
There was a moment of hesitation before she flickered into view. She didn’t look repentant at all, instead glaring as she coughed again.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
She shrugged. “I want to hear what they’ll say.”
“Too bad. This meeting is confidential. You’re not supposed to know it’s even happening.”
“For once, it’s not your department’s failing. We gathered the information on the Saxbys’ side.”
“We? Are you telling me Hayes is here, too?”
“No. He’s busy with something else.”
In his mind, that made things even worse. He could trust Sam Hayes to handle himself in a tough situation. He’d seen and worked with the wolf enough to know he had good self-control under pressure, remained tactical, and read people well enough to stay alive. He couldn’t say the same about her. So far, his only experiences with Jane Feral was that she believed she could handle anything by being the smartest one in the room.
He jerked his head toward the doors. “Scram. I’m not playing around today.”
“Neither am I.”
“If you don’t get out, I’ll arrest you.”
Some of the humor faded from her eyes when she realized he wasn’t about to let her stay. “No one will notice. I’m not about to try anything.”
“What is it with you two? It’s like you’re so used to living in danger that you forgot how to play things safe. You’re an ex-member of the pack. Neither side is going to allow you to listen in on this.”
“I’m telling you, stay out.” At her obvious frustration, he added, “Look, maybe I can get you in with the enchanters. But you’ll be stripped of your gear and can’t leave their sight until this is over.”
“I won’t interfere,” she insisted. “You know me well enough to trust me. All I want is to—”
“No one cares what you want. You’re a loose end.”
He saw hurt flash through her expression, but she only gave him a stiff nod.
Something told him not to trust his eyes at the sight of her leaving out through the back entrance while being escorted by two officers. The feeling continued to itch at him while the Saxbys arrived.
Alpha-king Saxby wasn’t the first royal wolf he’d ever seen and looked typical for wolves of his status. Stone-faced and grey-haired. Ruthless eyes. In good shape for being in his late forties. Not a fancy dresser, but his suit screamed understated wealth. Al hadn’t been able to find out anything personal about the alpha-king, but his history as a ruler suggested he held onto grudges and didn’t care about the cost of an action as long as it fell on someone else’s head.
Al’s takeaway was that he faced a wolf used to having the world spin however he wanted. A delusion that could maybe be used against him once they all started talking. Then he glanced over the royal guards surrounding their king. Twenty of them, all in their own version of a dress uniform. The amount of gold on them was staggering. Even their daggers looked gilded.
“No weapons,” said Captain Falk, her tone flat and unshakeable.
“This wasn’t told to us,” said one of the guards.
She gestured toward one of her men, who was already opening a sheaf of papers to a precise place. When he offered it over, she said, “It was part of the agreement drawn up and signed by all members of this meeting, including your king. Now. No weapons.”
As the wolves reluctantly handed over their daggers and revolvers, Al shared a glance with her. He knew they were thinking the same thing. A lot of wolves were trained in hand-to-hand combat since they couldn’t carry weapons while shifting form. From what the city’s sources had gleaned, the captain of the royal guard was particularly good at it.
He could believe it. She was young and unscarred but had a hardness to her eyes he’d seen in many people sitting across from him in interrogation rooms. She didn’t view the people around her as anything beside objects to use or destroy.
Just before Al joined the other city officials at the table, he muttered to Falk, “Is that pain in the neck we talked about still with your men?”
She understood that he meant Jane Feral. “Yes. The enchanters, specifically. Good luck, Captain.”
As they were seated at the table, orchids surrounding them as bursts of color and many of their faces already shiny with sweat from the humidity, the commissioner thanked Captain Falk as she left and began his usual introduction.
Al barely listened, having long heard enough of the man’s oily voice and oilier placations. Instead, he studied all the wolves before him, trying to figure out their possible soft spots. In a way, he looked forward to this. It had been a while since he’d interviewed someone who hadn’t already been questioned. He enjoyed the game of getting people to talk, especially the ones who hated or feared him on sight. It wasn’t just hunting for clues but also finding the right tactic to get them to open up. Sometimes it was sympathy, sometimes it was anger. Something told him these wolves would be easy to rile.
As Master Enchanter Byrd took his turn in babbling to the wolves, Al’s attention switched between the alpha-king and the captain of the royal guard. He had a hunch there was something between them. His division had done a lot of investigation into the Saxbys, scraping up information that many wolves thought humans could never find, but he always paid attention to his gut, too. What he noticed now was how only the Saxby captain had no fear in her eyes. Sure, she came off as a cold bitch, but every living thing held an instinct for survival. She wasn’t afraid to be there and she wasn’t afraid to be near her alpha-king. She didn’t feel she was in danger at all.
Then the alpha-king himself spoke up, catching Al’s attention. “All we want to know is what’s going on. The city has stonewalled us from the very beginning. You wouldn’t send over the body of the creature that invaded my land and killed my guards, each human you blame as the ultimate culprit ends up dead and unable to be questioned, and now you claim you can’t find the thaumaturgist responsible for this strange magic.”
“It’s a complicated case,” said Al, wanting to protect Nichols from the wolf’s wrath. “But we’ve sent copies of everything in our files over to you.”
“Then your division isn’t well-organized, because we’ve never received them.”
Al kept his voice affable. “I sent them myself. Try again.”
The alpha-king’s eyes glittered. He didn’t like being challenged at all. “Try again at what?”
“At giving a reason for why you wanted this meeting. We’ve shared everything with you. What do you expect to get out of this?” He really was interested in the answer. Truth or lie, he’d be able to use it for more insight.
After a moment, the alpha-king grudgingly said, “It’s recently come out that Miss Cora Marshall is nowhere to be found, and the city isn’t distressed about that. We’re very curious as to why.”
Al didn’t quite nod toward Nichols, but his men knew him well enough to pick up his slightest movements during interviews. Nichols sounded calm as he said, “Every other major name in this case has ended up dead. We didn’t want the same to happen to her. We’re also close to finding Harold Beaumont.”
“Assurances aren’t good enough. The city’s actions can’t be seen in a positive light.”
Nichols’ voice sharpened. “What are you suggesting?”
“Incompetence or a cover up.”
When the alpha-king’s gaze fell on Al, he mildly said, “A cover up for what?”
At that, the Saxby captain scoffed. “It’s known that your department in particular is very friendly with the exiled wolf calling himself Sam Hayes.”
Al didn’t miss the extra dose of venom lacing the name. Goddamn, Sam could be stupid. “We’re friendly with most of the private dicks in this city. It’s normal procedure if they stay by the book and don’t interfere with our cases. More than that, he was hired by a private citizen to look into Isaac Marshall’s disappearance independently. You want to tell me how to avoid someone investigating the same suspects, scenes, and witnesses?”
The commissioner cleared his throat. “Let’s avoid getting into arguments. We came here ready to share all the information we know about the transformation of Dominic Tierney and its cause. The police enchanters have concluded their findings on the magic behind this situation. It’s a bio-thaumaturgic serum created by the freelance enchanter Harold Beaumont. The serum was given to Mr. Tierney at a tattoo parlor. The artist had been bribed by Frederick Davenport, who wanted to assassinate Isaac Marshall out of a need to use his daughter for an illegal arcane ritual.”
The alpha-king sighed, frustration clear on his face. “So you’ve said. Yet you’ve never offered evidence for any of the links in this chain.”
Al raised his eyebrows. “Have your boys come to a different conclusion?”
“We find it odd how Marshall’s daughter is connected to this case at every level and yet has been dropped as a suspect.”
“Why do you think she’s in on it?”
“For one thing, having the sense to hire Sam Hayes. He’s highly antagonistic toward his former pack and king. He’ll never come to a conclusion that favors us… even if it’s the truth.”
All shrugged. “I don’t know anything about his view of the case. We’re here to talk about the city’s, and we found out interesting things about Beaumont’s serum and its origin.”
At his glance, Enchanter Byrd cleared his throat. “Elements of the serum draw from ancient magic. We’ve been able to track it to a strain of curses that survive through generations. The legends of berserker wolves aren’t entirely false. It’s documented that several packs have a heritage involving these wolves. Sometimes, there are even throwbacks.”
The alpha-king scoffed. “Those are myths to scare pups into behaving for their nanny.”
Al decided to poke at the wolf. “Even myths can have a basis in reality. Your old enemies, the Sinclairs, were rumored to have trouble with it. I’m surprised you didn’t recognize the look of the creature tearing your guards apart. Historical accounts point out the throwback problem affected the royal family every few generations.”
Al watched the wolves all fall very still. When the alpha-king said nothing, Al looked at the captain of the royal guard. “You used to be Princess Liana’s personal bodyguard, didn’t you? How did the Sinclair prince she was supposed to marry end up killing her?”
“He slit her throat,” she said, voice cold.
Al glanced at the commissioner to see if he was done with the charade. When he got the silent answer, he sighed and braced himself for a potentially nasty response. “All right. Now let’s hear the honest answer.”
The she-wolf’s flat tone turned murderous. “Do you think I would lie to my king about his daughter’s death?”
“No. No, I think you both knew exactly what would happen. Lovers often share a lot.”
Al expected a reaction. He just didn’t expect it to happen so damn fast. All the guards lunged for him. The alpha-king disappeared behind a wall of uniformed bodies, giving Al a final glimpse of the wolf’s furious expression. Then there was a fist heading for his face.
He ducked and used the wolf overextending his reach to shove him away. The commissioner’s voice rose in frantic tones. Al’s hand twitched toward the jacket of his uniform, but by then Falk’s men were already at work.
No bullets in such an enclosed space. The conservatory’s board members had also insisted that their precious plants couldn’t be put at risk in any way. Instead, darts were used, silver-tipped to drop the wolves. If any of the humans were caught, it would hurt less than a bee sting and be harmless. It worked… until it didn’t.
For Al, it happened in a silent explosion of smoke. The protective wards on him flared hot enough to give his skin the uncomfortable itch of sunburn. They disappeared just as quickly, reduced to smudges of ash against the black wool. Even as thick, scentless smoke washed over him and all the others in the glass room, he swore under his breath, recognizing what had happened.
One of the wolves must have activated a spell scrambler. Everything magic-related had been nullified, including the invisibility spells on Falk’s men as well as any wards the city enchanters had cast. He and every other human inside the conservatory were on their own. And from the sudden screams and splattering sounds, it wasn’t going well.
Just as he realized the wolves would be able to scent and track every human in the conservatory, a gunshot rang out. Then the commissioner screamed. Al felt the old calm come back to him as he unbuttoned his uniform’s jacket enough to pull out the gun that had been holstered snugly against his ribs. He could probably find the way out without tripping over too many bodies, but that wasn’t where the man’s voice had come from. It was from deeper into the conservatory, like he was either lost or being dragged to the back entrance.
Falk’s men would be watching that area, too, but if the smoke was this thick everywhere, then he wasn’t feeling good about their chances of spotting the commissioner. He also didn’t feel good about the silence around him—it meant the fighting was over and the human officers inside were all dead. Were all the wolves? Maybe not, since they didn’t have to speak to communicate or hunt.
The thought kept him light and cautious with each step through the blinding atmosphere. He listened as carefully as possible even after finding a trail of blood to follow. The commissioner’s voice continued as a series of groans and whimpers. He had been through similar situations in the war, with smoke or fog so thick he couldn’t see his damn hand in front of his face, much less the enemy trying to kill him. The trick was not to panic and to be ready to shoot in any direction.
Plants brushed him like ghosts as he eased his way to the other side. The orchids had been replaced by thick-fleshed carnivorous plants and a stream feeding trees covered in vines. The smoke was thinning enough for him to catch sight of the commissioner being dragged by the Saxby she-wolf while he clutched at his bleeding leg.
Al’s first shot got her in the back. She went down with a snarl, barely more than a shadow writhing on the ground. He stayed cautious while moving for them, reaching the commissioner just as Detective Nichols appeared out of the thick smoke, gun also drawn.
“Cuff her,” said Al, kneeling down beside Keene. Then he realized Nichols was aiming at him.
“Ah, hell,” he sighed. “So the informant was from my division.”
“Sorry, Captain.” The other man looked as steady as ever. “I was hoping to keep you out of it. Now put down your gun and slide it over.”
No time to feel things like betrayal or anger. Al did as he said, keeping his movements slow. By then, the she-wolf was jabbing herself in the neck with a syringe, breathing easier within moments. When she rolled to her feet, the air was clear enough for Al to see the hatred in her eyes as she glared at him, but she only turned Nichols and said, “We’ll take them both.”
Nichols nodded and then gestured at Al again. “You’re not a coward, so you won’t run off like the commissioner here. Help him so we can move faster.”
Arguing wouldn’t do anything, so Al ignored the commissioner’s attempt at words as he hauled him upright and steadied him, taking the weight off his injured leg. He didn’t expect any leniency from Nichols or the she-wolf as they began moving, Nichols behind them and the she-wolf ahead. The blood running from the commissioner’s leg splattered with each painful step. Their progress was cripplingly slow, and the smoke was thinning by the moment. The doorway was yards away, a square of bright light surrounded by blossom-filled vines.
“It’s looking clearer out there,” muttered Nichols. “You said the smoke would last long enough to make it over the border.”
“It should,” came the terse reply. “Unless there’s someone trying to…”
Al watched as the she-wolf stiffened and looked toward her left. “Keep going,” she said, voice tight. “I’ll catch up.”
While she disappeared deeper into the conservatory, Al calculated the angle of the doorway. The air outside was also smoke-filled, but they probably all looked like dim shadows by now, and he knew Falk and her paranoia. She was just the type to insist on magic-free weapons as backup. If the city had okayed her request, then there was just a chance… a better one than expecting to survive being tortured by wolves. He kept compliant until they were barely a foot away from the entrance. Then he kicked the commissioner’s bad leg out from underneath him, trusting the smoke to hide the act.
Keene went down with a scream, sliding out of Al’s grip. When Al knelt beside him, Nichols drew closer, ready with his gun and obviously frustrated.
“His leg is bad off,” said Al, looking up at Nichols. “He’ll bleed out in a few minutes unless I put a tourniquet on him.”
Nichols sighed, but from the blood streaming out on the tile was impossible to deny. “All right, hurry up.”
“You son of a bitch,” managed the commissioner, as Al began looping a belt above his knee.
Al ignored the comment, keeping his movements short and efficient to hide the fact that he was shifting position in a way that forced Nichols to move in response to keep a good bead on him. A shot rang out from somewhere inside the conservatory. Then a yelp, too animalistic to come from anything besides a wolf. Al watched Nichols, who was looking more nervous by the moment. When a snarl echoed from among the dim silhouettes of the plants, Nichols took an unconscious step toward it, sensing trouble.
As soon as the man stepped within the full light of the doorway, his head snapped on his neck sickeningly in an explosion of blood. He crumpled to the ground with a gaping hole in his skull.
Al moved faster than he had in years to grab the gun from the body, keeping low in case there was another sniper bullet coming. Then he wedged the commissioner against the nearest tree trunk and crouched beside him as Falk’s men began shouting warnings that they were coming in. Just as Al was about to yell back about the she-wolf, glass shattered somewhere in the direction of where she’d disappeared. It didn’t take a genius to know that she was fleeing. Now that it was almost over, his heart was beating fast and hard. He always hated these in-between moments the most—not in danger and not yet safe.
He didn’t relax until they were escorted out of the conservatory and into the safety of the tea shop Falk was using as the base of operations for the city enchanters. As the commissioner was swarmed by them, Al stayed out of the way and smoked, waiting for Falk to come over. The smoke had already been cleared, and fresh wards were glowing brightly. When he checked his watch, some part of him was surprised that only ten minutes had passed since the debacle had started.
When the other captain walked over, he blew out some smoke and smiled a little. “You saved my neck.”
“You’re very sure it was me.”
“I recognize an Iron Inge shot when I see it.”
Despite his even words, her voice grew sympathetic. “I’m sorry, Al. I know you care for all of your detectives.”
“Yeah, well, life’s full of disappointment.” Then he straightened up in his seat. “How about yours? How many made it?”
“The four who found Enchanter Byrd and escorted him out. As for the wolves, the alpha-king escaped with two guards. They are now over the border. No civilian casualties from them, thankfully. The other guards are dead except for one—their captain. She’s gone missing.” Then Falk frowned. “A few spots of blood indicate she’s wounded. Did you fight her?”
“No, but someone else tried to,” said Al, remembering the look on the she-wolf’s face right before she had lunged into the smoke. Then he studied all the enchanters in view and felt his stomach sink. “And I don’t think the Saxby captain is the only she-wolf missing. Where’s Jane Feral?”
It took five minutes for Falk’s men to find a blood trail leading to an abandoned factory just inside no man’s land. It was a bad location for escaping; it was surrounded by junk on all sides and then flat land with nothing to hide behind. the Saxby captain must have gone to it out of desperation. From the tracks left behind, the body she had been dragging had still been struggling. That meant Feral was probably still alive.
Al turned toward the nearest enchanter. “Whose blood is it?”
“It’s not from the Saxby she-wolf,” said one of the enchanters, his fingers still glowing with the remnants of his detection spells. “But it is a wolf’s. Do you think Jane Feral is working with her former pack?”
Al pulled off those stupid white gloves and then his cap. “Just the opposite. Feral is in a world of trouble. If the Saxbys see Sam Hayes as a good buddy of ours, they’ll think the same about her.”
“The commissioner was clear,” warned Captain Falk. “No one is to step out of the city.”
“A step is all it would be,” muttered Al, staring at the yellow paint running over the stoop into the factory door. It was the border itself. Then he sighed. “What the hell. The commissioner isn’t too happy with me right now, so I’m probably fired already.”
“Shoo the Saxby captain back onto city land, and you might not be,” said Falk. “But only if she’s alive. I’ve just had a discussion with the mayor about his disappointment that the guards are all dead. The city officials badly want a living wolf to interview.”
“Want me to bring back lunch while I’m at it?” Al was already shrugging off the stiff jacket of his uniform.
Falk just smiled while exchanging the silver bullets in his gun for regular lead. “You have five minutes before the mayor will come looking for you. He’s nearly finished with the commissioner.”
He knew the drill; as soon as he was back in city limits, they’d swarm to help him. Out in no man’s land, he was on his own. He mentally bitched out Jane Feral the entire time it took to reach the warehouse safely. Adrenaline once more honed his senses as he got inside through a broken window. He was ready with his gun while following droplets of blood and then footsteps in the dust. The factory’s interior was in bad decay, giving him plenty of cover in the form of rusted machinery and stacks of weatherbeaten chairs.
Two voices grew clear: a thick snarl he barely recognized as Jane Feral and the cold tones of the Saxby captain. That explained why he’d been able to get inside without being seen; she was already trying to get information out of Feral.
Al inched closer until he was able to see them, angling himself behind a support beam. He’d have to duck out for a clear shot, but for the moment he could take in the situation unnoticed.
Jane Feral was already bloody-faced and struggling to breathe, limp on the floor in a way that suggested she couldn’t move. Her bulky enchanter’s leathers hid the extent of her injuries, but the agony on her face was all he needed to see. The Saxby captain was kneeling against the smaller she-wolf, one knee pressing into the tender part of the sternum and one hand holding a dagger against her cheek. Her voice was hardly more than a murmur, but Al could still glean the words.
“Since you’ve never been in a fight, I should make something clear. Being cut by silver isn’t the same as other metal. Even if you survive the poisoning, whatever is sliced away doesn’t grow back.”
Then the knife tip moved to Jane’s earlobe. “The ears… the nose… the eyes. I’ll start taking them all if you don’t answer my questions. After all, all you need to use is your tongue.”
Al fired. It was a clean neck shot. He knew normal bullets didn’t kill wolves but wasn’t sure if one could still scramble their brains.
The she-wolf was back up as soon as she’d fallen, throwing the dagger in his direction. Damn, she was fast. The beam he was behind kept him safe and he shot again, this time aiming for a knee. Not as clean, because she was already moving, scrabbling behind the nearest machine for cover.
Jane Feral was still breathing, left out there in the open. Al risked moving to her, throwing a steel table on its side to give them cover and give him time to assess whether she would survive the fight. There was too much blood on her to guess by sight. As he quickly began checking her neck and chest for obvious wounds, she seemed to grow aware of him.
“Why, Captain,” she muttered, eyes unfocused. “I didn’t know you were hiding such passion.”
“Shut up. I’m trying to see what’s fractured.” He moved down to her hips. The mere weight of his hand drew out a shriek in reply. “A few ribs and one of your pelvic bones. I can’t move you.”
Just then came the sound of bullets dropping to the floor. The Saxby captain had already healed. Al swore to himself and then told Feral, “Don’t try anything. Just stay there.”
If the bullets weren’t going to work, then he’d have to subdue the wolf with something else. He left the safety of the table to grab a nearby chair and threw it at the she-wolf as soon as she slipped around the machine, flexing her bare hands. She obviously wasn’t afraid of fighting him, but the sight of a chair flying her way still made her duck back, eyes flashing with fury.
Another couple of chairs sent her scuttling this way and that. She didn’t seem to know what to do against things being thrown at her, and Al almost laughed at the idea of never being in a street fight. The fourth chair finally caught her before she could hide behind another machine, and she fell with it, snarling. When Al approached with another chair, she struggled against the wooden legs long enough for her hand to flash to her boot and then back out. Whatever she had winked in the bright light shining through the row of windows behind her.
Shit, he thought, knowing he was in trouble. Expecting a knife to fly through the air at him.
Instead, it was a derringer so small it looked like a toy. It fired, catching him in the left side of the head. He heard a howl from Jane Feral as he staggered from the force. When he straightened up again with a sigh, the Saxby she-wolf’s eyes widened in shock just before he smashed the chair into her. She shrieked as the gun fell from her hand. Before she could recover, he caught her by the collar and threw her through the nearest window.
Glass exploded through the air while the Saxby captain tumbled over the yellow line and into the reach of Falk’s men. Al watched long enough to make sure they were able to control and handcuff the she-wolf before returning to Jane Feral.
She was still conscious, even pushing herself up on her elbows. “I focused on my pelvis and spine. They’re stable now, so just drag me out.”
He scoffed. “You’re tiny. I’ll carry you.”
She rolled her eyes but said nothing as he easily scooped her up. She didn’t look good, sweating and shivering, but her eyes seemed to focus on his face once he started walking. “You’re bleeding from the head. She did hit you. How are you talking with a bullet in your brain?”
Of all the things she’d focused on to keep herself awake. “Call it being lucky enough to have a war souvenir. Now shut up and save your breath.”
She nodded, still breathing too fast for his liking. “Albert Dempsey. Served in the Cognitus-Argellan War, more commonly referred to as the Tin War. Sniper with over 200 confirmed kills. Received two medals of honor for his service.”
“Why are you so interested in my past?”
“Why not? You’re interested in everyone else’s.”
“It’s my job.”
She didn’t have time to answer, because then they were back on city land and being surrounded by enchanters and officers.
Falk, bless her, had one of the ambulances ready to go. “It took you seven minutes.”
“Yeah, well, I’m getting old.” When he turned back toward the warehouse, he heard her intake of breath. Then he remembered about the headshot. “Don’t worry about it. Feral is much worse off. How’s the commissioner?”
The answer didn’t come from Falk but instead Commissioner Keene himself. “Alive, thanks to you.”
He was already standing again, and the mayor was there beside him. The mayor’s florid face was beaming while he watched the Saxby captain being escorted to a police car. “Your bravery in saving us from the traitor and capturing one of those responsible for this terrible attack won’t go unnoticed, Captain. With a little cooperation from her, the case should finally be solved.”
Al decided it was better to say nothing. Unfortunately, Enchanter Byrd did. “Your head is bleeding.”
“Nothing?” interjected the mayor. “It looks like she shot you.”
Al sighed and knocked his knuckles against the metal plate in his head, watching the expressions around him change. “Metal against metal. I’m fine.”
“Fine?” Byrd’s voice rose several notches. “The impact might have caused internal bleeding. And why do you still have a metal plate in your head? Such a surgical technique was considered barbaric even when it was used.”
He pulled out a cigarette, already sick of talking about it. “It’s worked fine for the past twenty-five years.”
“And bone regeneration has been perfected for the past ten. Captain, it’s only a four-day stay in the hospital.”
“Four days too long for me.”
The mayor shook his head. “No, I insist on the best medical treatment. And when you get out, we’ll throw a city gala for your bravery.”
“A gala?” He hated parties, especially ones that required his dress uniform.
“You’ll be the guest of honor,” added the commissioner, his expression suggesting that he knew this would be perfect revenge for Al kicking his injured leg. The two men both looked as pleased as cats.
Before Al could argue any further, a howl of rage came out from one of the cars. The Saxby captain had managed to lock her feet around the officer’s neck and bring him down with a twist of her hips. He looked confused more than stunned as she rolled free.
Just as Al reached for his gun, someone roared the she-wolf’s name. “Isabelle!”
Al had never seen Sam Hayes look so mad as he pushed through the officers until they faced each other. He wasn’t armed, but the tension in his body told Al that the wolf was within inches of tearing into her with his bare teeth. Then he remembered that Hayes would be able to smell Jane Feral’s blood on her.
“What the hell did you do?” snarled Hayes. There was blood on him, and Al saw another wolf with stained clothes close behind.
At the sight of Hayes, the she-wolf had stopped fighting the officers. And as they put her into the back of the car, her shoulders slumped, as if she realized it was all over. “Don’t look at me like that. It wasn’t my decision. I was—”
“Following orders.” The hatred in those words seemed to stun even the Saxby captain, and she said nothing else before an officer shut the door.
Al didn’t like the look in Hayes’ eyes, and called out to him. “Don’t do something stupid. She’s under police custody. And Feral’s fine.”
Sam Hayes glared over, but then Jane called out to him from the ambulance. She was still bloody-faced but also sitting up gingerly, something that would have been impossible if her pelvis was still broken.
Al lit his cigarette, aware it would be his last one for four days while he was in the hospital. His mood was dark enough to blot out the sun. When Hayes came over, he scowled at the wolf and said, “You had terrible taste in women. I’m glad it’s improved. Who’s your new pal and why are you both covered in blood?”
The rage was clearing from Hayes’ voice. “We caught the Saxby alpha-king and his guards while they were trying to reach pack land. The king escaped. His guards didn’t.”
Al suspected there had been a lot more to it than that. “I’m guessing you knew Miss Feral was going to be here.”
“Yes.” Then Hayes stepped closer. “Thank you. You saved her.” The look on his face suggested he knew how brutal her death would have been.
Al shrugged and flicked away ash. “She’ll be fine. That’s the most positive thing to say about this goddamn mess.”
Hayes nodded, but his eyes still looked wild. “I heard you’re being called a hero of the city.”
“I know. What the hell else could go wrong?”
Just then, they both heard a male voice call out Hayes’ name. The panic in it was clear. A male wolf in street clothes was trying to push his way through, snarling back at the officers who were edgy about so many sudden appearances of wolves.
When he saw he had their attention, he simply raised his voice instead. “Sam, she’s gone! The girl’s gone. No one went into her room, but an officer stopped by and spoke to her guards. Then she gave them the slip. I tried following her, but she stole a car, and… I lost her.”
Al had enough experience with binding magic to guess that the goddamn sigil on her must have activated. From the look on Hayes’ face, he was thinking the same thing as he turned back to Al, new tension filling his movements. “Where were your boys searching for Harold Beaumont?”
“Mallow Manor. Before I left for the meeting, I had gotten word that things were looking promising. The cellars had been turned into an obvious laboratory.” Then Al sighed. “If Beaumont is still alive in there, try to keep him that way. I’ve had a bad enough day already.”