Maybe the corner store would have hair clippers.

I flopped behind my desk and spread my pink slips in a fan on its scarred surface. In a perfect world, Joshua’s vertically gifted murderer would’ve had himself a monologue before rampaging, during which he loudly and clearly would’ve announced his full name, occupation, religious preference, preferably with his god’s country and time period of origin, his goals, dreams, and aspirations, and the location of his lair. But nobody had ever accused post-Shift Atlanta of being perfect.

The killer was likely a devotee of some deity who enjoyed plagues as means to motivate and discipline his or her faithful. A very powerful devotee, able to overcome the regenerative powers of Lyc-V, which was pretty much impossible as far as common wisdom was concerned. Obviously common wisdom had once again proven itself wrong.

Of course, the killer could also be some psychopath who thought all disease was divine and just enjoyed infecting people in his spare time. I leaned toward the first theory. The man had specifically wanted Joshua, he killed him in a very odd way, and he strode off once the deed was accomplished. He didn’t stay to soak in the reaction. All this pointed to some sort of method to his madness, some definite purpose.

Why start a fight? If he had wanted Joshua, he could’ve ambushed him on some lonely street instead of starting a brawl in a bar full of tough guys. Why take the risk that he or Joshua would get injured? Was this some sort of a message? Or did he think he was just that much of a badass?

The only hint I had was the link between disease and the divine. I pulled a piece of paper from the drawer and took a stack of books off my shelf. I wanted some background before I started returning calls.

TWO HOURS LATER MY LIST OF DEADLY DISEASE-RELATED deities had grown to unwieldy proportions. In Greece both Apollo and his sister, Artemis, infected people with their arrows. Also from Greece hailed the nosoi, daimones of pestilence, disease, and heavy sickness, who escaped the confines of Pandora’s jar. In the myths, nosoi were mute, and my guy definitely spoke, but I’ve learned not to take myth as gospel.

The list kept going. Every time an ancient man stumbled, there was a god ready to punish him with an array of agonizing maladies. Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, was known as the goddess of disease; Japan was riddled with plague demons; the Mayans had Ak K’ak, who was the god of both disease and war and looked to be a good candidate, considering Joshua’s killer started a brawl; the Maori boasted a disease deity for each body part; the Winnebago Indians tried to secure blessings from some two-faced god they called Disease-Giver; the Irish had the plague-bringer Caillech; and in ancient Babylon, Nergal gave out diseases like they were candy. And that wasn’t even counting deities who, while not specializing in illnesses, used an odd plague here and there when the occasion called for it.

I needed more data to narrow this down. My butt hurt from sitting still for too long. I’d fed the dog four hush puppies so far and curiously he seemed no worse for wear. I half expected him to blow up or upchuck on the carpet. Attack poodle with the stomach of steel.

When my eyes glazed over, I took a break and called Biohazard.

“A shapeshifter?”

“Werecoyote,” Patrice said.

“How sure are you of this?”

“Without a shadow of a doubt. Several pissed-off Pack members showed up at my office demanding his remains.”

“How is that possible? Shapeshifters don’t get sick.”

“I don’t know.” A note of worry vibrated in Patrice’s voice. “Lyc-V is a jealous virus. It exterminates all other invaders with extreme prejudice.”

If the plague did that to a shapeshifter, what would it do to a regular human?

The rest of the conversation went in a similar vein. The guy in a cloak now had an official code name—the Steel Mary. The attack poodle was all dog, the Good Samaritan was gone forever, and we were all out of clues as to the Steel Mary’s identity. The statements of eyewitnesses proved useless. The medmages had crawled all over the scene and discovered diddly-squat. No names of forbidden gods written in blood on the wall. No accidentally discarded matchbooks from five-star hotels. No mud prints made with one-of-a-kind mud found only three feet to the left of some famous landmark. Nothing. I asked Patrice if she thought praying to Miss Marple would help. She told me to stuff it and hung up.

PAD was next in line. Williams mostly flexed his muscle and rattled his sabers, because PAD hadn’t been called to the scene and Biohazard got all the glory, but after my vivid description of Joshua’s nose falling off, the good detective decided that he had a very pressing and very full caseload, and while he would love to assist my investigation in any way possible, he was simply swamped. Regretful, that.

I checkmarked the three pink slips from Patrice and Williams and called Jim, because I had to. One had to take pains to be polite when dealing with the Pack’s security chief. Even if that chief was your buddy.

A male shapeshifter named Jack put me on hold. I flipped the pink slip over and doodled an ugly face on it.

Jim and I went way back. Before my job as a liaison between the Order and the Mercenary Guild and his job as the Pack’s head spook, we both earned our cash as mercs, contractors for the Mercenary Guild. The Guild assigned each merc a territory. Mine happened to be crap, and well-paying gigs came my way very rarely. Jim’s territory, on other hand, often generated good gigs, but they frequently required more than one body. Usually he cut me in on it, mostly because he couldn’t stomach working with anybody else. During that time I learned that, with Jim, the Pack always took precedence. He could have the guy we hunted by his throat, but one call from the Keep, and he’d walk away without a word.

He was probably going out of his mind. Shapeshifters spent all their life thinking they were free of disease. Last night had ripped their immunity away from them.

I colored the doodle’s nose black and added a spiky mane of wild hair.

“Kate?” Jim said into the phone. Jim looked like he broke bones for a living, but his voice was heavenly. “What the hell took you so long?”

“You say the sweetest things to me, honey bear,” I told him. “I was trying to track down the Mary who killed Joshua.”

Jim growled a little, but didn’t bite back. “He was only twenty-four years old. A werecoyote, good guy. He worked for me once in a while.”

I gave the doodle two sharp horns. “I’m very sorry.”

“Biohazard told me he was infected with syphilis and it ate him from inside out.”

Tags: Ilona Andrews Kate Daniels Vampires