I slid a shallow baking pan under the platter and poured an inch of glycerin into it. The attack poodle watched me with a very focused expression. “Watch out,” I told him. “It’s about to get ugly.”
I nicked my thumb with the point of a throwing knife and let a drop of my blood fall onto the herbs. Magic surged through the dried grasses, like fire along a detonation cord, and exploded into the head. The undead flesh shivered, revived by the burst of power. I touched my thumb to the undead forehead, driving a spike of magic into the brain. “Wake.”
The head’s eyes snapped open, focusing on me. Its mouth gaped, contorting. Foul magic flared about it in a swirling storm of malice, furious and hungry.
The poodle bolted like the road runner from an ancient cartoon. I waited for a second to see if the carpet would catch on fire in his wake. Fortunately, no ACME fire extinguishing equipment needed to be used.
I leaned to the head. “Show me your master.”
The words weren’t necessary. The old Arabic woman who taught me the ritual when I was eleven said they helped one concentrate, so I said them all the same.
The magic convulsed. A foul stench rose from the herbs. The head shuddered. Thick burgundy blood slid from the tear ducts, dripping down the cheeks into the herbs, then into the pan, spreading on the glycerin in a thick dark stain.
“Show me your master.”
The stain swirled. Faint glimpses of a face appeared in its depths.
The magic raged and boiled. The image flared, fuzzy but clear enough to recognize. My own face stared back at me from the stain.
What in the world . . .
I scrutinized the ghostly image. It was distorted, but I saw the matching skin tone, long dark hair, and dark eyes. Me.
I let go. The magic collapsed on itself.
I leaned my elbow on the table, rested my chin on my fist, and looked at the head. I’d done the ritual six times in my life. Always with vampires. It never failed.
Why did it show me?
The head stared at me with unseeing eyes. The surge of magic during the ritual cooked the Vampirus immortuus pathogen, and once it vanished, the vampire heads decomposed in minutes. This one looked no worse for wear. I needed someone with more expertise. I got up and tried the phone. No dial tone. Argh.
Enthusiastic barking echoed from under my bed. A moment later someone knocked.
“Who is it?”
“Kate?” Andrea’s voice called. “You’re home?”
“Nope.” I opened the door.
Andrea grinned at me while tapping a manila envelope against her palm. “I suppose I walked into that. What is that stench?”
“Something I have in the kitchen.” I stepped aside, motioning her in. “Don’t land in the dog vomit.” Which I now had no excuse not to clean up.
She stepped over the attack poodle’s offering to the digestive gods and saw the head and the herbs sitting on the platter in the kitchen. Her face stretched. “That’s just not right. What is that stuff it’s lying on?”
“Herbs. Rosemary, coriander—”
Andrea’s blue eyes went wide as saucers. “If you’re going to cook it, I’ll barf next to the dog.”
“Why would I cook it?”
“Well, it’s lying like a turkey on a roaster and you have herbs under it.”
I marched into the kitchen, grabbed the head, and stuffed it back into the plastic bag. The bag went into the fridge, the rest went into the garbage. “Better?”
I went to clean up puke, while she set the water for tea on the kerosene stove. Magic robbed us of electricity, but kerosene still burned and I kept a camper burner in my apartment for small jobs. It once saved my life and Julie’s.
As soon as the offending evidence of his disgrace had been removed, the attack poodle deemed the area safe. He emerged from under the bed and licked Andrea’s hand.
“He looks good with his hair off,” she said.
“He thinks so.”
The poodle licked her hand again. Andrea smiled. “You don’t mind my scent, do you, dogface? Maybe he was raised around shapeshifters.”
“You’re not a regular shapeshifter.”
She shrugged. “I still smell like my father.”
Given that Andrea’s father was a hyena, the poodle was showing remarkable restraint.
We went into the kitchen, where I poured us some tea. “Before we do anything else, let me tell you about my guy in a cloak.”
Fifteen minutes later she frowned at me. “So male shapeshifters go berserk.”
“What about the female shapeshifters?”
“I don’t know.”
She tapped the edge of the table with the envelope. “So there is a good chance that the other me will make an appearance. Clearly my life hasn’t been complicated enough.”
“My sentiments exactly.”
Don’t let Ted put you on this, if I fail. Her eyes told me that if I said that, she’d suggest I stick my opinion where the sun didn’t shine.
Andrea suppressed the part of her that was beastkin. She’d made it through the Academy, earned knighthood, served with distinction for five years. She carried a handful of medals and the Iron Gauntlet, the fourth highest decoration the Order could award to its knights. A year ago she was well on her way to take the step up from knight-defender to master-at-arms, firearm. To earn the designation of a master in a weapon or magic use was a great achievement.
All of it came crashing down one night when Andrea and another knight had gone out to check the report of a loup sighting. The trip left several loups dead, including Andrea’s partner, who caught Lyc-V and tried to turn Andrea’s stomach into an “all you can eat” buffet. Standard procedure after an encounter with loups mandated comprehensive tests to confirm your humanity. Andrea passed the m-scan and tests. She did it by means of an amulet embedded in her skull and a silver ring under the skin of her shoulder, which had almost cost her her arm. She was pronounced free of the shapeshifter virus and fit for active duty, and then her Chapter shipped her off to Atlanta to ease the trauma.
In Atlanta, she ran into a brick wall called Ted Moynohan. Ted knew there was something wrong with her. He felt it in his gut but he lacked proof, so he assigned her to “support.” She had no office, no active cases, and the only time she saw action was when nobody else could get there in time.
Despite it all, she was determined to serve. Pointing out that if the Steel Mary showed up, she should abandon her knighthood and run the other way would only get my head bitten off. So I clamped my mouth shut and said nothing.