Hitting the Mark
Captain Albert Dempsey rubbed a crick from his neck and rose from his desk. He’d just finished for the day and was ready to go on a final circuit of the station. It was something he always did, even if it meant running into a problem that cost him a few more hours of sleep. Tonight, everything seemed quiet. All the other detectives and officers who worked in the day had long gone, desks cleared and phones quiet.
All except Enchanter Byrd’s office.
To Al’s surprise, it was not only lit but the main secretary, Grace Hoffman, had fallen asleep against her typewriter. Al scanned the room for any sign of Byrd and then knocked against the open door, jerking Miss Hoffman awake.
The girl quickly adjusted her spectacles and ran hands over her prim sweater to smooth out the wrinkles left by slouching. “Captain, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I’d dozed off.”
“Who does? Why’s Byrd got you up this late?”
“He’s still in the station.”
Al checked his watch. “At this hour? You’re kidding.”
“I would never spread misinformation, Captain,” said Miss Hoffman, tone severe. “Even as a joke. He’s in the Level 5 zone of the firing range.”
Now Al understood. Level 5 was the area for weapons unapproved by the city for official use. Lately, it had become the test zone for all entrants hoping to win the new submachine contract. In a rare show of smarts, the police commissioner had decided it was safest to offer up the station’s firing range for all testing, and to have a senior enchanter present each time.
And he could just guess which of those entrants was there this late in the night.
Miss Hoffman’s next words confirmed it. “The appointment was booked for Miss Jane Feral. The she-wolf. She’s been there for over two hours. Here’s the form she filled out.”
Al skimmed the sheet of paper, muffling a sigh. “All right. I’ll check it out. Go on home, Miss Hoffman.”
Relief fought with doubt on the girl’s face. She hadn’t yet figured out that this type of job would suck her dry if she let it. “But Master Enchanter Byrd might need a message sent or a report filled out.”
“The man knows how to write.” Then Al jerked his head toward the door. “Go on, get some sleep. Your bed’s going to be softer than a typewriter.”
After she left, he read the form more thoroughly. In the section reserved for Byrd’s notes, he saw that this was Jane’s first visit to the firing range. She probably wasn’t doing too well.
His suspicions were confirmed when he reached the right level and found her firing one of the standard-issue submachine guns while Enchanter Byrd and Raymond Lodato, the firearms instructor, looked on. Jane seemed focused but her aim was godawful, hitting the jelly barrier on the walls all around the target, which was easy enough to spot even at that distance: simple silhouettes of a gunman holding a hostage.
Al hid his concern as he took in how her arms shook from holding the gun as properly as she could manage. She clearly wasn’t used to the weight as much as the recoil, but kept trying, aiming with care before each shot as if aware of how Lodato watched her like a hawk.
She was so focused that Al was able to join the other men unnoticed, receiving greetings from both. He gave Byrd a nod before focusing on Lodato. The noise-dampening spells were in effect, so he pitched his voice low. “Christ, the bags under your eyes. When’s the last time you saw a full night’s rest?”
“Amelia started teething,” the other man admitted, still watching Jane. “And Gertie just learned how to open doors. My brother keeps telling me raising boys is more trouble, but right now I don’t believe him.”
“You’re not the only one who’s tired.” Then Al glanced over at Jane. From the fresh tension in her shoulders, she’d caught his scent over the gunsmoke. She hated him catching her at “imperfect moments,” as she called them. He wished she didn’t. He was always tickled to see her fight with a snarl in her hair, or to find writing ink smudged on her hand.
He kept his voice mild as he added, “She’s shaking. How long has she been at this?”
“Too long,” said Enchanter Byrd, glaring at the firearms instructor. “This is beyond farcical.”
When Al looked at Lodato for an explanation, the firearms instructor said, “I want her to hit the target before she tests her prototype weapon. She took instruction well, but she’s stubborn. I told her she’s unlikely to improve her aim well enough with only tonight under her belt. She didn’t like hearing that.”
“What’s the point of letting her try?” hissed Byrd. “She’s clearly not able to satisfy your requirements, so let her move on so we can all go home.”
“We know what to expect if she misfires with the standard weapon. We don’t with her experiment,” shot back Lodato. “The protective wards will stop a bullet from going in your face. Can you say the same about the unknown ammunition her prototype uses?”
Byrd turned to Al with an expression that pleaded with him to override the decision.
Al shrugged. “Lodato is our firearms instructor. He’s the one who needs to be comfortable with her accuracy.”
The enchanter sighed. “What about having her get the other wolf to test the gun in her place? He’s a good shot, isn’t he?”
It was Jane herself who answered that, still firing in between words. “Sam is not in the city. He’s in former Saxby territory and has been for almost two months. I can’t contact him. He can’t contact me. I don’t even know if he’s alive.”
With that last word, a bullet tore through the target. She stepped back, shaking her hands out before giving them a hopeful look. “There. I did it. Can I use my prototype now?”
Al rubbed his forehead. “You shot the hostage. He’d be bleeding out his guts right now.”
“I’m not happy. Why should he be? Besides, he’s still part of the target. It should count.” Then she noticed Lodato’s expression and added, “Can we please move past this useless part of the protocol?”
“It’s all useless!” burst out Enchanter Byrd. “The new gun has already been decided on. Next week is just a formality.”
Everyone else there stared at him, including Al. He had known Byrd would be on the judging panel, but this was news to him. “Who got the contract without officially testing it?”
Byrd had gone pale over his slip but knew better than to avoid answering. “McCoy, of course. An established company headed by the mayor’s godson. Besides, his design isn’t inelegant and will drop the city’s silver imports by 83%.”
Al and Lodato shared a glance. A decision made out of nepotism and by men who would never handle the actual weapons. He wasn’t surprised, but he was irritated. The feeling surged into anger when he looked at Jane and found her stiff with shock.
“Shut it down for the night,” he said, using a tone that killed any further attempts to speak. “I’ll escort Miss Feral out.”
By the time he had her out of the station, her silence had become charged. The night air was thick with fog, and he couldn’t study her until they stepped within reach of the harsh streetlights. “I haven’t seen you shoot anything besides the creature in Davenport’s ritual room, and that thing was the size of a whale. Is your aim always bad, or did you hear something about Sam?”
Her response was glacial. “Did you miss what I told Byrd earlier? It’s impossible to contact anyone inside the former Saxby territory. No information in, and no information out.”
“Not even when one of the city’s best enchanters wants to find something out?”
“You’re off-duty, Captain. I don’t have to answer any of your questions.” When he gestured at her to hand over the heavy case containing her prototype, she ignored him.
“In this kinda mood, huh?” Now he was even more convinced that she’d heard something before coming to the station. Ever since Sam had left the city, she’d been a bundle of nerves, but when she bristled like this, it meant she was flat-out scared and trying to hide it.
“Mood?” she repeated, glaring at him.
“Mm-hm. I don’t need to be a detective to know you’re upset.”
“I’m not upset,” she snarled.
He raised his eyebrows.
She noticed and stopped dead, still a few feet from his car. “Al, I enjoy our nights together, but I can’t tolerate your scrutiny right now. I want to be alone.”
When she began walking off, he remained by his car. “If that’s how you feel, I won’t chase after you. And if you’re just saying that so I’ll coax you back and stop asking questions, then I still won’t chase after you. I want to help, Jane, but I won’t cuddle away your problems when I don’t know what they are.”
She glanced back, eyes glowing in the fog. “How hard-edged of you.”
He shrugged. “It’s better than misunderstanding each other.”
After she scoffed and disappeared into the fog, he lit a cigarette, deciding to hang around a while longer. He wasn’t even a quarter of the way through it when she reappeared, not quite looking in his direction.
Gaze on her feet, she stopped beside him. “Fine. I’m upset. I’m furious. And it is about Sam. He’s fine so far, but there’s something I learned this morning, and I don’t know what to do about it. There’s nothing I can do about it. There’s also nothing I can legally kill around here, so I’m sulking instead. It feels miserable, and being alone would only increase that, so I… I don’t want to be alone tonight. And that’s truly how I feel.”
Al nodded and kept his next words gentle. “All right. That’s all I wanted to know. Any other talk we have is up to you.”
She relaxed enough to regain that sharp tongue he enjoyed so much. “I thought men disdained emotional conversations.”
“Depends. Look, you’re already shivering out here. How about we head back to my place?”
Her response was one of those uncertain side-glances that told him more than she ever suspected. It was the kind of look that revealed volumes about the nastier behaviors from her old pack and how badly she’d been marked by it.
“I know you’re not in the mood. I’m just thinking about getting out of this fog. We can go to your office instead.”
“No. No, your apartment is much nicer. And warmer.”
Nothing much was said during the drive, but once they were inside, she prowled around while he shrugged off his coat and hat. She eyed the cream walls and sparse furniture of the small living room and said, “It always looks like you recently moved in.”
“What are you talking about? There’s not a cardboard box in sight.”
The comment got her to smile a little. “I’ll concede to that. There are still some at my office that are my closet and bookshelf. I don’t mind. I never had a life outside of work so why pretend otherwise? But now I’ve noticed how empty it feels.”
Al nodded, now removing his holsters. When he pointed at the nearby whiskey bottle and glasses, she shook her head. He didn’t feel like any either, and settled on the couch while loosening his tie.
She paced near him for a few more seconds before sitting beside him. Her body remained tense, as if she was ready to spring back up at any moment. “You’re right… as usual. I put secondary instructions on the enchantments I made for the breakaway Saxbys. Whenever one is activated, it collects all conversations and transcribes them back to me as letters.”
“Does Sam know about this?”
“No. He would have objected. He trusts the breakaways. I don’t.” Finally, she looked at him. “Tonight is the final push to reach the alpha-king and kill him. The breakaways will succeed easily, especially with Sam involved. It’s expected that the king’s surviving daughter will be crowned in the morning and become queen. It’s also expected that she will choose Sam as her king.”
Al lit a cigarette to hide his sigh. He knew he had to tread lightly; Sam was like a brother to her, and if she wasn’t fiercely criticizing him, she was just as ferociously defending him. “Can he refuse?”
“Yes. If he wants.” Then she was back up and pacing, and he knew her hidden fears were coming out even before she added, “If his damned sense of duty allows him to. He ruined his chance at happiness two months ago, so who’s to say he won’t crush the remnants tomorrow?”
Al could guess what she meant, but just blew out some smoke while she paused to flip through the newspapers left on the kitchen counter. She needed to talk through all this or it would stay bottled up in her heart and start poisoning her. Her eyes were bright and furious as she opened one up to the gossip columns and began reading out loud.
“Heiress Cora Marshall continues to be seen out and about with her former fiancé, Mr. Roland Archer, while her father remains hidden in his home from the public eye amid fresh scrutiny. A source close to the police confirms that new charges may be pressed against Isaac Marshall, unrelated to the binding sigil he had allegedly placed on his daughter. Miss Marshall has refused to speak out since her initial statement about her father, but she shows all signs of recovering from the hardship and repairing her relationship with Mr. Archer. Rumors have abounded that their original, secret engagement was the reason behind her father’s despicable act, and one can’t help but wonder whether Miss Marshall’s ordeal will have a fairytale ending complete with wedding bells.”
Al listened without comment. The article didn’t interest him, but Jane’s reaction did. She slapped the newspaper back on the counter with a growl. “The idiot.”
“Her or Sam?” said Al, voice wry. After Jane had found out Sam had told Miss Marshall about Archer, he’d had to listen to her rant for hours.
She looked ready to rant some more. “Both. They love each other. I’m sure of it. He didn’t want to give her up, and she couldn’t possibly hold any feelings for the human. They were all burned away.”
“You want my honest opinion? It would’ve said worse about Sam if he’d hidden the fiancé from her. That kind of move would have helped him, not her, and he knew it.”
“That doesn’t mean he had to give up on being with her.”
Al laughed. “You think it’s easy for a fella to hang around romantic competition without immediately punching him in the face? Maybe Sam didn’t say enough to Miss Marshall before he left. Maybe he said too much. All I know is he’s the type to do what he thinks is right, and this time he didn’t realize how miserable the right thing would be for the girl as much as him.”
Jane returned to the couch, eyes lighting up. “Then you agree that Miss Marshall being with Archer is a stupid idea.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Fine, that she isn’t happy.”
“Sure. I’ve seen the newspaper pictures. She’s lost the shine in her smile. Why are you talking to me about all this instead of her?”
“Believe me, I want to. But then I remember how stupid Sam can be as well, and how much he feels he owes Alpha-queen Lorelei and the rest of the pack for being unable to stop the king and save his daughter.”
Then Jane sighed before sitting beside him once more, now hunched over. Hopeless. Her voice fell to a murmur. “Sam and Cora were so happy together. I can’t believe this is better for them. I refuse to.”
When her shoulders slumped, Al began to rub her back, keeping his hand slow and gentle. She still wasn’t used to being touched by a human, but within a breath, she relaxed into his fingers, and her next words came out as a sigh. “But there’s nothing I can do, and I hate it. Tonight feels like hell. It’s why I went to the station’s firing range, because I wanted to take my mind off waiting for any news about Sam and the alpha-queen.”
Al shifted closer, easing her into settling against him. He wished he could do more for her, but right now all he had was an apology. “I’m sorry about the gun contract. I didn’t know the city would pull that move. If I had, I wouldn’t have encouraged you to enter.”
It had taken her a while to show any affection beyond bites and scratches in bed, so it surprised him to feel her body turning into his, her face pressing into the collar of his shirt to nuzzle at his neck. “I know. You’re always honest and much less stupid about it than Sam.”
He let some teasing come back into his voice. “Well, thanks.”
“And I also know the city would never choose a wolf to make their guns. I still intend to show up next week and embarrass them all with the superiority of my prototype. That is, if I don’t first embarrass myself by shooting someone on the judging panel.”
Al smiled despite himself, realizing how he could help her through the night. “Not if you listen to me and put in more practice. Want to start tonight? Something tells me you’re going to stay up, anyway.”
She shifted enough to look at him, surprise brightening her eyes. “Where? The station’s range is now closed.”
“The boardwalk stays open all night. They have plenty of shooting games.” He rubbed her back a final time and then tightened his tie again. “Come on. I’ll have you winning a prize before the night is over. Maybe not a good prize, but something worth keeping.”
“And after that? If it turns out Sam isn’t coming back?” She searched his face and added, “I won’t rejoin the Saxbys if that happens. He would never ask me to, but even if he did, I’d refuse. I can’t live with other wolves again. I can’t return to pack life.”
There it was again—that deep-rooted fear he’d glimpsed a few times. It would hurt her like hell to lose Sam, and she knew it. Al tipped her chin up and kissed her, driving her worry away for now. “I’ll help with that, too.”