His gaze flicked to the square of enchanted silver.
“Put your thumb over it and say, ‘ID.’ ”
Vik hesitated, glanced at his boss, and touched the square. “ID.”
A burst of light punched his thumb, and the square turned black.
“The card knows you’re not its owner. No matter how many of you mess with it, it will stay black until I touch it.” I placed my finger over the silver. “ID.”
The black vanished, revealing the pale surface.
“That’s how you tell a real Order agent from a fake one.” I dismounted and tied Marigold to the rail. “Now, where is the corpse?”
The bar owner introduced himself as Cash. Cash didn’t strike me as the trusting kind, but at least he kept his crossbow pointed at the ground as he led me behind the building and to the left. Since his choice of Order representatives was limited to me and Marigold, he decided to take his chances with me. Always nice to be judged more competent than a mule.
The crowd of onlookers tagged along as we circled the building. I could’ve done without an audience, but I didn’t feel like arguing. I’d wasted enough time playing magic tricks with my ID.
“We run a tight ship here,” Cash said. “Quiet. Our regulars don’t want trouble.”
The night wind flung the sour stench of decomposing vomit in my face, and a touch of an entirely different scent, syrupy thick, harsh, and cloying. Not good. There was no reason for the body to smell yet. “Tell me what happened.”
“A man started trouble with Joshua. Joshua lost,” Cash said.
He’d missed his calling. He should’ve been a saga poet.
We reached the back of the building and stopped. A huge, ragged hole gaped in the side of the bar where someone had busted out through the wall. Bricks lay scattered across the asphalt. Whoever the creature was, he could punch through solid walls like a wrecking ball. Too heavy-duty for a shapeshifter, but you never know.
“Did one of your shapeshifter regulars do that?”
“No. They all cleared off once the fight started.”
“What about the People’s journeymen?”
“Didn’t have any tonight.” Cash shook his head. “They usually come on Thursdays. We’re here.”
Cash pointed to the left, where the ground sloped down to a parking lot punctuated by a utility pole in its center. On the pole, pinned by a crowbar thrust through his open mouth, hung Joshua.
Parts of him were covered by shreds of tanned leather and jeans. Everything uncovered no longer looked human. Hard bumps clustered on every inch of his exposed skin, dark red and interrupted by lesions and wet, gaping ulcers, as if the man had become a human barnacle. The crust of sores was so thick on his face I couldn’t even distinguish his features, except for the milky eyes, opened wide and staring at the sky.
My stomach sank. All traces of fatigue fled, burned in a flood of adrenaline.
“Did he look like that before the fight started?” Please say yes.
“No,” Cash said. “It happened after.”
A cluster of bumps over what might have been Joshua’s nose shifted, bulged outward, and fell, giving space to a new ulcer. The fallen piece of Joshua rolled on the asphalt and stopped. The pavement around it sprouted a narrow ring of flesh-colored fuzz. The same fuzz coated the pole below and slightly above the body. I concentrated on the lower edge of the fuzz line and saw it creep very slowly down the wood.
I kept my voice low. “Did anybody touch the body?”
Cash shook his head. “No.”
“Anybody go near it?”
I looked into his eyes. “I need you to get everyone back into the bar and keep them there. Nobody leaves.”
“Why?” he asked.
I had to level with him. “Joshua’s diseased.”
“His body’s dead, but the disease is alive and magic. It’s growing. It’s possible that everyone’s infected.”
Cash swallowed. His eyes widened and he glanced through the hole and into the bar. A dark-haired woman, slight and bird-boned, wiped up the spills on the counter, sliding broken glass into a wastebasket with her rag. I looked back at Cash and saw fear.
If he panicked, the crowd would scatter and infect half the city.
I kept my voice quiet. “If you want her to live, you have to herd everyone back into the bar and keep them from leaving. Tie them up if you have to, because if they take off, we’ll have an epidemic. Once the people are secure, call Biohazard. Tell them Kate Daniels says we have a Mary. Give them the address. I know it’s hard, but you have to be calm. Don’t panic.”
“What will you do?”
“I’ll try to contain it. I’ll need salt, as much as you’ve got. Wood, kerosene, alcohol, whatever you have that might burn. I have to build a flame barrier. You’ve got pool tables?”
He stared at me, uncomprehending.
“Do you have pool tables?”
I dropped my cloak on the slope. “Please bring me your pool chalk. All of it.”
Cash walked away from me and spoke to the bouncers. “Alright,” the bigger bouncer bellowed. “Everybody back into the bar. One round on the house.”
The crowd headed into the bar through the hole in the wall. One man hesitated. The bouncers moved in on him.
“Into the bar,” Vik said.
The guy thrust his chin into the air. “Fuck off.”
Vik sank a quick, hard punch into his gut. The man folded in half, and the bigger bouncer slung him over his shoulder and headed back into the Steel Horse.
Two minutes later one of the bouncers trotted out with a large sack of salt and fled back into the bar. I cut the corner of the bag and began drawing a three-inch-wide circle around the pole. Cash emerged from the hole in the tavern carrying some broken crates, followed by the dark-haired woman with a large box. The woman set the box down by the lumber. Filled with blue squares of pool chalk. Good. “Thank you.”
She caught a glimpse of Joshua on the pole. The blood drained from her face.
“Did you call Biohazard?” I asked.
“Phone’s out,” Cash said softly.
Can something go right for me today?
“Does that change things?” Cash asked.
It changed a short-term fix into a long-term defense. “I’ll just have to work harder to keep it put.”
I finished the salt circle, dumped the bag, and began laying the wood into another circle around the pole. The fire wouldn’t hold it indefinitely, but it would buy me some time.