I forced myself to grope for reason in the fog of my rage. I worked for the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid, which together with the Paranormal Activity Division, or PAD, and the Military Supernatural Defense Unit, or MSDU, formed the law enforcement defense against magical hazmat of all kinds. I wasn’t a knight, but I was a representative of the Order. Worse, I was the only representative of the Order with Friend of the Pack status, meaning that when I attempted to muscle my way into Pack-related problems, the shapeshifters didn’t tear me apart right away. Any issues the Pack had with the law usually found their way to me.
The shapeshifters came in two flavors: Free People of the Code, who maintained strict control over Lyc-V, the virus raging in their bodies; and loups, who surrendered to it. Loups murdered indiscriminately, bouncing from atrocity to atrocity until someone did the world a favor and murdered their cannibalistic asses. The Atlanta PAD
viewed each shapeshifter as a loup-in-waiting, and the Pack responded by ratcheting up their paranoia and mistrust of outsiders to new and dizzying heights. Their position with the authorities was precarious at best, saved from open hostility by their record of cooperation with the Order. If Curran and I got into it, our fight wouldn’t be seen as a conflict between two individuals, but as the Beast Lord’s assault on an Order representative. Nobody would believe that I was dumb enough to start it.
The shapeshifters’ standing would plummet. I had only a few friends, but most of them grew fur and claws. I’d make their lives hell to soothe my hurt.
For once in my life, I had to do the responsible thing.
I pulled the boot off and threw it across the room. It thudded into the wood panel in the hallway.
For years, first my father and then my guardian, Greg, had warned me to stay away from human relationships. Friends and lovers only brought you trouble. My existence had a purpose, and that purpose—and my blood—
left no room for anything else. I had ignored the warnings of the two dead men and dropped my shields. It was time to suck it up and pay for it.
I’d believed him. He was supposed to be different, to be more. He’d made me hope for things I didn’t think I’d ever get. When hope broke, it hurt. Mine was a very big, very desperate hope, and it hurt like a sonovabitch.
Magic flooded the world in a silent wave. The electric lamps blinked and died a quiet death, giving way to the blue radiance of the feylanterns on my walls. The enchanted air in the twisted glass tubes luminesced brighter and brighter until an eerie blue light filled the entire house. It was called post-Shift resonance: magic came in waves, negating technology, and then vanished as abruptly and unpredictably as it had appeared. Somewhere, gasoline engines failed and guns choked midbullet. The defensive spells around my house surged up, forming a dome over my roof and hammering home the point: I’d needed protection. I’d dropped my shields and let the lion in. It was time to pay the piper.
I got up off the floor. Sooner or later my job would bring me into contact with the Beast Lord. It was inevitable. I needed to get the hurt out of my system now, so when we met again, all he would get from me would be cold courtesy.
I marched into the kitchen, trashed the dinner, and strode out. I had a date with a heavy punching bag, and I had no trouble imagining Curran’s face on it.
An hour later, when I left for my apartment in Atlanta, I was so tired I fell asleep in my car moments after I steered my vehicle into the ley line and the magic current dragged it off toward the city.
I RODE THROUGH THE STREETS OF ATLANTA, ROCKING with the hoofbeats of my favorite mule, Marigold, who didn’t care for the birdcage attached to her saddle and really didn’t care for the globs of lizard spit dripping from my jeans. The birdcage contained a fist-sized clump of gray fuzz, which I’d had a devil of a time catching and which might or might not have been a living dust bunny. The jeans contained about a halfgallon of saliva deposited on me by a pair of Trimble County lizards, which I’d managed to chase back into their enclosure at the Atlanta Center for Mythological Research. I was eleven hours and thirteen minutes into my shift, I hadn’t eaten since that morning, and I wanted a doughnut.
Three weeks had passed since Curran had stood me up. For the first week, I was so angry I couldn’t see straight. The anger had subsided now, but the dense heavy stone remained in my chest, weighing me down. Strangely, doughnuts helped. Especially ones drizzled with chocolate. As expensive as chocolate was in our day and age, I couldn’t afford a whole chocolate bar, but the drizzle of chocolate syrup on the doughnuts did the job just well enough.
After almost a year of working for the Order, hearing Maxine’s voice in my head no longer made me jump.
The Order’s telepathic secretary called everyone “dear,” including Richter, a new addition to the Atlanta chapter who was as psychotic as a knight of the Order could get without being stripped of his knighthood. Her
“dears” fooled no one. I’d rather run ten miles with a rucksack full of rocks than face a chewing-out from Maxine. Perhaps it was the way she looked: tall, thin, ramrod straight, with a halo of tightly curled silver hair and the mannerisms of a veteran middle school teacher who had seen it all before and would not suffer fools gladly . . .
“Richter is quite sane, dear. And is there any particular reason you keep picturing a dragon with my hair on its head and a chocolate doughnut in its mouth?”
Maxine never read thoughts on purpose, but if you concentrated hard enough while “on call,” she couldn’t help picking up simple mental images.
I cleared my throat. “Sorry.”
“No problem. I always thought of myself as a Chinese dragon, actually. We’re out of doughnuts, but I have cookies.”
Mmm, cookies. “What do I have to do for a cookie?”
“I know your shift is over, but I have an emergency petition and nobody to handle it.”
Argh. “What’s the petition?”
“Someone attacked the Steel Horse.”
“The Steel Horse? The border bar?”
Post-Shift Atlanta was ruled by factions, each with its own territory. Of all the factions in Atlanta, the People and the Pack were the largest and the two I most wanted to avoid. The Steel Horse sat right on the invisible border between their territories. A neutral spot, it catered to both the People and the shapeshifters, as long as they could keep it civil. For the most part, they did.