SOME DAYS MY JOB WAS HARDER THAN OTHERS.
I tapped the ladder with my hand. "See? It's very sturdy, Mrs. McSweeney. You can come down now."
Mrs. McSweeney looked at me from the top of the telephone pole, having obvious doubts about the ladder's and my reliability. Thin, bird-boned, she had to be past seventy. The wind stirred the nimbus of fine white hair around her head and blew open her nightgown, presenting me with sights better left unseen.
"Mrs. McSweeney, I wish you would come down."
She arched her back and sucked in a deep breath. Not again. I sat on the ground and clamped my hands over my ears.
The wail cut through the stillness of the night, sharp like a knife. It hammered the windows of the apartment buildings, wringing a high-pitched hum from the glass. Down the street, dogs yowled as one, matching the cry with unnatural harmony. The lament built, swelling like an avalanche, until I could hear nothing but its complex, layered chorus: the lonely howl of a wolf, the forlorn shriek of a bird, the heart-wrenching cry of a child. She wailed and wailed, as if her heart were being torn out of her chest, filling me with despair.
The magic wave ended. One moment it saturated the world, giving potency to Mrs.
McSweeney's cry, and the next it vanished without warning, gone like a line drawn in the sand just before the surf licked it. The technology reasserted itself. The blue feylantern hanging from the top of the pole went dark, as the magic-charged air lost its potency. Electric lights came on in the apartment building.
It was called post-Shift resonance: magic drowned the world in a wave, snuffing out anything complex and technological, smothering car engines, jamming automatic weapons, and eroding tall buildings. Mages fired ice bolts, skyscrapers fell, and wards flared into life, keeping undesirables from my house. And then, just like that, the magic would vanish, leaving monsters in its wake. Nobody could predict when it would reappear and nobody could prevent it. All we could do was cope with an insane tarantella of magic and technology. That was why I carried a sword. It always worked.
The last echoes of the cry bounced from the brick walls and died.
Mrs. McSweeney stared at me with sad eyes. I picked myself off the ground and waved at her.
"I'll be right back."
I trotted into the dark entrance to the apartment, where five members of the McSweeney family crouched in the gloom. "Tell me again why you can't come out and help me?"
Robert McSweeney, a middle-aged, dark-eyed man with thinning brown hair, shook his head.
"Mom thinks we don't know she's a banshee. Look, Ms. Daniels, can you get her down or not? You're the knight of the Order, for Christ's sake."
First, I wasn't a knight; I just worked for the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid. Second, negotiation wasn't my forte. I killed things. Quickly and with much bloodshed. Getting elderly banshees in denial off telephone poles wasn't something I did often.
"Can you think of anything that might help me?"
Robert's wife, Melinda, sighed. "I don't . . . I mean, she always kept it so under wraps. We've heard her wail before but she was so discreet about it. This isn't normal for her."
An elderly black woman in a mumu descended the staircase. "Has that girl gotten Margie down yet?"
"I'm working on it," I told her.
"You tell her, she better not miss our bingo tomorrow night."
I headed to the pole. Part of me sympathized with Mrs. McSweeney. The three law enforcement agencies that regulated life in the United States post-Shift - the Military Supernatural Defense Unit, or MSDU; the Paranormal Activity Division, or PAD; and my illustrious employer, the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid - all certified banshees as harmless. Nobody had yet been able to link their wails to any deaths or natural disasters. But folklore blamed banshees for all sorts of nefarious things. They were rumored to drive people mad with their screams and kill children with a mere look. Plenty of people would be nervous about living next to a banshee, and I could understand why Mrs. McSweeney went to great lengths to hide who she was. She didn't want her friends to shun her or her family.
Unfortunately, no matter how well you hide, sooner or later your big secret will bite you in the behind, and you might find yourself standing on a telephone pole, not sure why or how you got there, while the neighborhood pretends not to hear your piercing screeches.
Yeah. I was one to talk. When it came to hiding one's identity, I was an expert. I burned my bloody bandages, so nobody could identify me by the magic in my blood. I hid my power. I tried very hard not to make friends and mostly succeeded. Because when my secret came to life, I wouldn't end up on top of a telephone pole. I would be dead and all my friends would be dead with me.
I approached the pole and looked at Mrs. McSweeney. "Alright. I'm going to count to three and then you have to come down."
She shook her head.
"Mrs. McSweeney! You're making a spectacle out of yourself. Your family is worried about you and you have bingo tomorrow night. You don't want to miss it, do you?"
She bit her lip.
"We will do it together." I climbed three steps up the ladder. "On three. One, two, three, step!"
I took a step down and watched her do the same. Thank you, whoever you are upstairs.
"One more. One, two, three, step."
We took another step, and then she took one by herself. I jumped to the ground. "That's it."
Mrs. McSweeney paused. Oh no.
She looked at me with her sad eyes and asked, "You won't tell anyone, will you?"
I glanced at the windows of the apartment building. She had wailed loudly enough to wake the dead and make them call the cops. But in this day and age, people banded together. One couldn't rely on tech or on magic, only on family and neighbors. They were willing to keep her secret, no matter how absurd it seemed, and so was I.
"I won't tell anyone," I promised.
Two minutes later, she was heading to her apartment, and I was wrestling with the ladder, trying to make it fit back into the space under the stairs, where the super had gotten it from for me.
My day had started at five with a frantic man running through the hallway of the Atlanta Chapter of the Order and screaming that a dragon with a cat head had gotten into New Hope School and was about to devour the children. The dragon turned out to be a small tatzelwyrm, which I unfortunately was unable to subdue without cutting its head off. That was the first time I had gotten sprayed with blood today.
Then I had to help Mauro get a two-headed freshwater serpent out of an artificial pond at the ruins of One Atlantic Center in Buckhead. The day went downhill from there. It was past midnight now. I was dirty, tired, hungry, smeared with four different types of blood, and I wanted to go home. Also my boots stank because the serpent had vomited a half-eaten cat corpse on my feet.