What I needed was a big fat clue. A mysterious note laying it all out. A deity popping out of thin air and explaining it to me. Hell, I'd settle for an annoying old lady with a knack for solving mysteries.
I actually stopped and waited for a second to see if a clue would fall out of the sky and land at my feet. The Universe declined to oblige.
Trailer twenty-three stood twenty yards to the left of the tower, the first story in a cluster of three trailers. Kindly described by the woman as "yellow," the trailer's color matched that of cloudy overnight urine. It smelled like urine too, although I couldn't pinpoint whether the stink came from the trailer itself or from the heaps of trash surrounding the cluster.
A series of runes in black and brown ran along the side of the trailer. On closer look, the brown was uneven and flaking off. Blood. I wondered what poor stray had to die for Esmeralda's lovely decorative display.
A rusted metal porch that looked like it must've been a sewer grate in its previous life led to the front door. It buckled under my weight, but held, and I made it to the door.
"Wait, what about those?" Julie pointed at the runes.
"What about them?"
"Aren't they magic? Mom told me Esmeralda said she had a spell on her trailer that would cut your fingers like glass."
I sighed. "It's a chunk of a ballad from the last page of the Codex Runicus, an ancient Nordic law document. Very famous. It says 'I dreamt a dream last night of silk and fine fur.' Trust me, if there was a ward on this trailer, the Honeycomb would've gobbled it up by now."
I examined the lock. Nothing fancy, but I was never good at lock picking.
Footsteps. Coming toward us, three pairs. And something else. Something sending ripples through the volatile fabric of the Honeycomb's magic. Julie felt them too and ran up the porch to me.
The footsteps drew closer. I turned slowly. Three men were approaching the trailer, the first stocky and thick across the shoulders, the other two leaner. The taller of the leaner guys carried a long chain wrapped around his arm. The other end of the chain disappeared between two trailers. All three looked suitably menacing. The chain carrier hung back, sidestepped an eddy of magic, and jerked the metal links.
A local shakedown team. Out in force, three on one, plus whatever it was on the other end of the chain. They knew where I was headed, they knew I had money, and they knew who I worked for, otherwise there was no need for the three of them to intimidate one woman.
Thank you, Custer. I'll remember this.
"Larry, Moe, and Curly?" I guessed.
"Shut your mouth, bitch," the thinner man said.
"Now, now." The thicker bravo smiled. "Let's be polite. I'm Bryce. That over there is Mory and my buddy with the chain over there is Jeremiah. We're just here to make sure you pay your way. Or the thing will get ugly. And nobody wants that."
"Move on," I said. "I already paid for the information."
"From where I'm standin', you didn't pay enough. Make it two fifty: another hundred for the entrance fee and some to us for the trouble of walking here." Bryce put his hand on the cop baton thrust into his belt. "Don't make this hard. You got a little girl with you. You wouldn't want anything to happen to her."
Julie hid behind me.
Bryce smiled like a pit bull before a fight. "The more we work, the higher the bill will run. Time to be smart about this."
The chain trembled. An eerie metallic rustle came from behind the trailers. Jeremiah leaned back and tugged the chain. A hoarse growl answered him. The chain snapped taut and his feet slid a little.
Judging by Bryce's eyes, they wouldn't leave until someone bled. I still had to try. "You think you're tough guys," I said, moving off the porch to the ground. "I can respect that. But I do this shit for a living. I've had a lot of practice. You won't get more money out of me."
"This here" - the beefier bravo stomped his foot in case I failed to get his point - "is our fucking turf. Keep running your bitch mouth, and I'll put something in there to shut you up."
The chain slacked, and metal links rattled on the ground, as something large moved toward us. A clawed paw bigger than my head appeared from behind the trailer, followed by a grotesquely muscled shoulder. Another paw emerged, and a dog trotted into view. He had to be over thirty inches at the shoulder. Muscle bulged on his forequarters and barrel-wide chest, so broad that his hips seemed disproportionately narrow by comparison. His square head sat low on his shoulders as if he had no neck at all.
The dog jogged forward with a faint metallic jingling, like loose change shaking in a pocket. Long blue-gray spikes protruded from his chin. Another row of spikes ran along his spine to the long tail, forming a crest.
The dog halted and stared at me with intense aquamarine eyes. Rage shivered in the wrinkles of his flat muzzle. His maw gaped open and the beast showed me his teeth, long, jagged, and gleaming. He tensed, legs thrust wide, chest open. His spikes snapped upright with an iron click. All over his body metal needles stiffened, like raised hackles.
Nothing kills a party like an oversized metal hedgehog.
Bryce and Mory shuffled to the flanks, giving Jeremiah and his puppy room to work. Mory was out of my reach, but Bryce ended up only eight feet away. They'd done this before. One small flaw in their reasoning: there was thirty-five feet between me and the dog, and the chain would slow him down.
The puppy jerked his head and roared.
"The money, skank," Jeremiah said.
Jeremiah shrugged the chain loop from his arm. The links hit the dirt with a thud.
The dog charged.
I moved, pulling Slayer from its sheath. I slammed its pommel into Bryce's throat, while hooking his left leg with my right. He toppled. Before he hit the ground, I spun, clamping the metal feather with my fingers and jerking it from the knife sheath. It cost me a fraction of a second - I couldn't afford to cut myself, not with the Honeycomb's magic swirling around us - and I caught the dog in midleap. I stabbed the feather shaft into his vicious beryl eye, twisted past him, and hammered a kick into Jeremiah's gut. He tried to pitch forward, but I swept behind him and caught his throat against Slayer's blade.
The dog let out a long surprised whine and went down with the jangle of carelessly tossed coins. Bryce squirmed on the ground, clawing the dirt, trying to breathe. Mory stared at me, his mouth open. Jeremiah gulped, Slayer's blade sliding a little on his Adam'a apple. On the trailer's porch Julie stood petrified, face slack like a melted rubber mask.
"What the fuck?" Mory said, bewildered. "What the fuck happened?"