I sat in a small, drab office, one of many in the Atlanta chapter of the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, and pretended to be Kate Daniels. Kate’s phone didn’t ring very often, so I didn’t have to pretend very hard.
Unfortunately, when it did ring, like right now, the person on the other end was rarely interested in a facsimile. They wanted the real thing.
“Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, Andrea Nash speaking.”
A female voice on the other end murmured hesitantly. “You’re not Kate.”
“No, I’m not. She’s on medical leave. But I’m filling in for her.”
“I’ll just wait until she comes back.”
I said good-bye to the disconnect signal, hung up, and petted my SIG-Sauer P226s lying on Kate’s desk. At least my guns still liked me.
The real Kate Daniels, my best friend and partner in butt-kicking, was on medical leave. And I intended to do my best to let her stay on medical leave, at least until her wounds stopped bleeding.
The magic wave fell. The mysterious orange and yellow glyphs on the floor of Kate’s office faded. On the wall, the charged air inside twisted glass tubes of a feylantern turned dark, while the ugly warts of electric lights in the hallway ceiling ignited with soft light. Inside my skin, the secret me stretched, yawned, and curled up for a nap, with her claws securely tucked away.
We lived in an uncertain world: magic flooded us in waves, screwed things up, and vanished. Nobody could predict when it came and went. One always had to be prepared. Sometimes though, no matter how prepared you were, the magic left something behind that you simply couldn’t handle, and then you called the police, and if they couldn’t help, you called the Order. The Order would send a knight, someone like me, who would help you with your magic problems. At least, that’s how it was supposed to work.
Very few people could have expertise in both tech and magic. Kate chose magic. I chose tech. Give me a firearm and silver bullets over swords and sorcery any day.
The phone rang again. “Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, Andrea—”
“Can I speak to Kate?” An older male voice tinted with country accent.
“I’m filling in for her. What do you need?”
“Can you take a message for her? Tell ’er this is Teddy Jo callin’ down from Joshua Junkyards. She knows me. Tell her I was drivin’ on through Buzzard, and I saw one of them fellers she hangs out with, the shapeshifters, run like hell through the Scratches. Right below me. There was a big dog chasin’ him.”
“How big was the dog?”
Teddy Jo mulled it over. “I’d say as big as a house. A one-story. Maybe a bit bigger. Not as big as one of them colonials, you understand. A regular-person house.”
“Would you say the shapeshifter was in distress?”
“Hell yeah, he was in distress. His tail was on fire.”
“He ran like his tail was on fire?”
“No, his tail was on fire. Like a big, furry candle on his ass.”
Bingo. Green five, shapeshifter in dire distress. “Got it.”
“Well, you tell Kate I said hello and not to be a stranger and all that.”
He hung up.
I grabbed my gun belt and sent a focused thought in the direction of Maxine, the Order’s secretary. I had no telepathic abilities whatsoever, but she was strong enough to pick up a thought if I concentrated hard enough. “Maxine, I have a green five in progress. I’m responding.”
“You have fun, dear. I hope you get to kill something,” Maxine’s voice said in my head. “By the way, do you recall that nice young man whose calls you aren’t taking?”
Raphael. He wasn’t exactly the type of man a woman would forget. “What about him?”
“He usually calls for you twice a day, at ten and at two. He hasn’t phoned today. At all.”
I killed a twinge of disappointment. “Perhaps he got the message.”
“Could be. Just thought you would like to be aware.”
“Thanks.” Raphael was trouble. And I had enough trouble as it was.
I picked up my favorite pair of P226s and ducked into the armory, where I kept my assortment of guns. As big as a house, huh? I took my Weatherby Mark V rifle off the rack, petting the hand-laminated fiberglass-and-Kevlar stock. A classic. When you absolutely have to have a job done correctly, use the best tool for it. There was only one weapon with more stopping power in the armory. Referred to as Big Unit by male knights, and Boom Baby by me, it sat in a glass case all by itself. Boom Baby ate Silver Hawks: .50 armor-piercing, incendiary, explosive, silver-load cartridges. To get Boom Baby out of its case, I’d have to show a lot of probable cause. That was fine with me. The Weatherby would more than do the job.
I grabbed .416 Remington Magnum cartridges and headed out the door, before somebody decided to stop me.
In our age, a woman could have a gasoline car, which worked only during tech, or a vehicle that ran on charged water, which worked only during magic. My Jeep was Order issue and equipped with an electric engine and a magic one, so it functioned during both tech and magic. Unfortunately, it didn’t function very well.
The engine started on the fourth try. I hopped in and steered out of the parking lot, joining a steady stream of riders and carts heading west. Mine was the only hoof-free transport on the street. The rest consisted of horses, mules, donkeys, and oxen.
The city lay in ruins. Heaps of dusty rubble and small mountains of broken glass marked the locations of once stately office buildings, ground to dust by magic’s relentless jaws. Atlanta grew around them. New apartment buildings, built by hand rather than machine, sprouted atop the carcasses of the old ones. Stone and wood bridges spanned the gaping drops of crumbled overpasses. Small stalls and open markets replaced Wal-Mart and Kroger. The old Atlanta might have fallen like the trunk of a great tree struck by lightning, but its roots were too strong to die.
I liked the city. I wasn’t born here, nor did I come to Atlanta by choice, but now the city was my territory. I had walked its streets, sampled its scents, and listened to it breathe. Atlanta wasn’t sure about me. It tried to kill me every now and then, but I was confident we’d come to an understanding eventually.
Forty minutes later I turned off the main road on James Jackson Parkway and followed it around the bend to Buzzard’s Highway. When magic was up, it flooded deep in this part of the city. Tall trees flanked the road, huge pines and dogwoods, still green despite the impending October. A twisted metal sign slid by: the white letters spelling out SOUTH COBB DRIVE, all but covered by BUZZARD scrawled in black paint. Pale wind chimes, made of turkey vulture skulls and string, hung from the tree limbs overshadowing the road. A cheerful welcome. Not quite sure what they were trying to tell me. My goodness, could it be some sort of a warning?
My Jeep slid onto an old bridge over the Chattahoochee River. The old maps claimed that heading north would bring me into Smyrna and turning southwest would deliver me to Mableton, but neither any longer existed.
I crossed the bridge and pulled over to the side of the road. A vast network of ravines lay before me. Narrow, twisted, some a hundred yards deep, although most were shallow, they tangled together and veered apart, like tunnels of a giant dirt-eating termite. Here and there remnants of the old buildings perched, halfway down the slopes, flanked by sickly brush. A highway cut through the ravines, running atop the cliff tops, interrupted with wooden patches of bridges. Above it all, black-winged vultures glided on the aerial currents.
The locals called it the Scratches, because from above the place looked like a giant buzzard had scratched in the dirt. The Scratches came into being after the very first flare, when the magic returned to the world in a three-day wave of disasters and death. With every magic wave, the ravines grew a little deeper.
Far to the south, the Scratches united into a gorge that eventually became Honeycomb Gap, another hellish magic spot. The highway itself served as the favorite drag-racing spot for idiot juvenile delinquents. Somewhere in this mess of soil and air was my green five, the shapeshifter in distress. Hopefully still alive and nursing a singed tail.
Atlanta housed one of the largest shapeshifter societies in the country. The Pack, as it was known, counted over fifteen hundred members, subdivided into seven clans according to their animal forms. An alpha couple ruled each clan. The fourteen alphas made Pack Council, presided over by Curran, the Beast Lord of Atlanta. Curran wielded unbelievable power and ultimate authority. He was the Alpha.
To understand the Pack, one had to understand the shapeshifters. Caught on the crossroads between animal and human, they could give in to either one. Those who surrendered to the animal side began the catastrophic descent into delirium. They reveled in perversion and cruelty and gorged themselves on human flesh, raping and murdering until people like me put them down like rabid dogs. They were called loups, and they were killed as soon as they were discovered.
To remain human, a shapeshifter had to live his life according to a very strict mental regimen detailed in the Code, a book of rules, which praised discipline, loyalty, obedience, and restraint. A shapeshifter knew no higher calling than to serve the Pack, and Curran and his Council took the idea of service a step further. All shapeshifters underwent martial arts training, both as individuals and in squads. All learned to channel their aggression, to handle being shot with silver bullets, to use weapons and firearms. Coupled with their numbers, their strict discipline, and their high degree of organization, having the Pack in the city was like living next to a thousand and a half highly skilled professional killers with enhanced senses, preternatural strength, and power of regeneration.
The Order found the Pack’s presence very troubling. The shapeshifters didn’t trust the Order, and rightfully so—the knights viewed each shapeshifter as a monster waiting to happen. So far Kate was the only agent of the Order who had managed to earn their trust, and they preferred to deal exclusively through her. Getting a shapeshifter out of a bind would go a long way toward improving my standing with both organizations. At least on paper.
I put the parking brake on and walked upwind from the Jeep. Hard to smell anything with the exhaust fumes searing the inside of my nose. Teddy Jo had probably exaggerated the dog’s size—eyewitnesses usually did—but even if it was as large as a “regular-person house,” finding it in the labyrinth of the ravines would prove tricky. The highway didn’t just run straight. It veered and split into smaller roads, half of which led nowhere; the other half ended up rejoining Buzzard.