"He must have balls," I said.
"He did look male."
"That's it? That's all you got?"
"Very good shot."
I sighed. "Who did he shoot?"
Oh shit. "Is he okay?"
"He was shot four times in less than two seconds. He isn't very happy about it. A bit tender in places. But generally he'll be okay."
My brain put the pieces together. "After our mark went down, Jim got a call from the survey team. The crossbowman tailed Jim, jumped him, incapacitated the survey team, and stole the maps."
Derek's face radiated all the joy of a man biting into a lime.
One hell of a trick, tailing my former partner. "Just out of curiosity, how many people are in a survey team?"
Five with Jim. "And you let him get away?"
"He just disappeared."
"I guess the shapeshifters' sense of smell isn't what it used to be."
"No, Kate, you don't understand. He vanished. He was there one moment and then he was gone."
I couldn't resist. "Like a ninja. In a puff of smoke."
"So you want me to track down a supernaturally fast sniper who can disappear into thin air, retrieve your maps, and do it so nobody finds out what I'm doing or why?"
I sighed. "I'll get the paperwork."
WHEN YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO NEXT, GO back to the beginning. I had no name, no description, and no place to start looking for the mysterious sniper, so I figured the garage where Jeremy almost toasted us was my best bet. Since the magic was determined to fluctuate and I didn't fancy being stranded, I decided to take a horse from the Order's stables, located a block away.
Turned out I wasn't the only person who had noticed the magic craziness. The stables were nearly empty, and all my regular choices were out. I entered on foot and left atop a red molly. Her name was Ninny, she was fifteen hands tall, and as she braved the downtown traffic with nary a twitch, I began to see the wisdom of mule breeding.
The shortest route to the garage lay along Interstate 85 through the heart of the city. In happier times, the view from the highway must have been breathtaking. Now both Downtown and Midtown lay in ruins, battered to near rubble by the magic waves. Twisted steel skeletons of once mighty skyscrapers jutted like bleached fossil bones from the debris. Here and there a lone half-eaten survivor struggled to remain upright, all but its last few stories destroyed. Shattered glass from hundreds of windows glittered among chunks of concrete.
Unable or unwilling to clear the rubble, the city grew around it. Small stalls and stands had sprung up here and there along the twelve-lane highway, selling everything from fake monster eggs to state-of-the-art miniature palmtops and precision firearms. The palmtops rarely worked even when tech was in full swing, and the monsters sometimes hatched.
Horses, mules, camels, and bizarre vehicles all attempted to negotiate the crowded road, blending into a huge multicolored crocodile of travelers, and I rode within it, bathed in the animal smells, choking on automobile exhaust, and assaulted by gaggles of vendors each trying to scream themselves hoarse.
"Potions, potions, cure for arthritis..."
"...the best! First two are free..."
"...water purifier. Save hundreds of dollars a year..."
Beef. I bet.
Twenty minutes later we left the highway's noise behind by way of a wooden ramp and trudged down into a tangle of streets collectively known as the Warren.
Bordered by Lakewood Park on one side and South view Cemetery on the other, the Warren stretched all the way to McDonough Boulevard. A few decades ago, the area had been included in the South Urban Renewal project, its layout redesigned to accommodate several large, sturdy apartment complexes and new two-and three-story office buildings.
In the years since the Shift, when the first magic wave hit the world, the Warren had grown poorer, tougher, and more segregated. For reasons unknown, magic displayed a selective appetite. It chewed some buildings into rubble, while leaving others completely intact. Walking through the area now was like trying to make your way through a war zone postbombing, with some houses reduced to refuse, while their neighbors stood untouched.
The garage where Jeremy had lost his life sat sandwiched between a bank and an abandoned Catholic church. Three stories high and three stories deep, stained with soot and missing its roof, the garage jutted like a burned-out match of a building. I dismounted and tied Ninny to a metal beam protruding from the wall. Nobody in their right mind would try to steal a molly with the Order's crest branded on its butt. The Order had a nasty habit of magic-tagging their property and there was nothing the street life disliked more than finding a couple of knights full of righteous anger on their doorstep.
Inside the garage, the air smelled of chalky powder, the familiar dry scent of concrete turned into dust by the magic's ever-grinding wheels. I took the stairs down to the bottom floor. The spiraling levels of the garage had crumbled in places, letting enough light filter down to dilute the darkness to a weak gloom. The stench of sulfur nipped at my nostrils.
I found the big black stain on the wall and backtracked from there, until I came to Jeremy's headless body. The Gray Squad must have been overloaded with cadavers this morning - they should have taken his body to the morgue by now.
I walked the perimeter of the room until I found the fissure in the wall we had seen last night. I stuck my head into it: dark and narrow, smelling of damp clay. Most likely this was the way the bowman had escaped.
I pulled my saber out and ducked into the tunnel.
BEING UNDERGROUND WAS NEVER ON MY "THINGS to do for fun" list. Being underground in the dark for what seemed like an hour, with dirt crumbling onto my head, walls rubbing my shoulders, and a sniper possibly waiting on the other side ranked right up there with getting a face full of giant toad vomit. I had only gone up against a giant toad once, and the nightmares still made me gag.
The tunnel turned. I squeezed around the bend and saw light. Finally. I stood still, listening. No metallic click of a safety being released. No voices.
I approached the light and froze. A huge chasm carved the ground before me. At least a mile wide and close to a quarter mile deep, it started a couple of yards from my feet and stretched forth for a good two miles, veering left, its end lost behind the bend. Piles of metal refuse lay in heaps along its bottom, giving slope to sheer walls. Here and there clusters of thick metal spikes punctured the trash. Razor sharp and shiny, they curved upright like the claws of some enormous buried bear, rising to three times my height. Above this baby Grand Canyon, two tall storklike birds surfed the air currents, circling the gorge as if they rode an invisible aerial calliope.