The human current streaming up the street bent away from him. People didn't eye him; in fact, they concentrated so hard on ignoring his presence, one could have dropped a twenty dollar bill on the ground and it might have gone unnoticed.
The man's eyes tracked my movement. I stopped a few feet away and looked at him.
He reached into an inside pocket of his cloak and flicked what looked like a long yellow ribbon at me. I caught it in midflight. The smooth, cold body coiled about my wrist, and the serpentine head reared to strike at my face. I clamped its neck with fingers of my left hand and stopped it three inches from my cheek. The snake's tongue danced between the scaly lips. Blood red membranes tinged with brilliant purple flared on both sides of the head, spreading like the wings of an enormous butterfly. The baby winged snake shuddered, trying to take flight, but I held it in check.
"I'm sorry, Jim."
He held up his arms, indicating something about three feet wide. The cloak parted enough to show muscle roll across his chest under the fabric of his shirt. "The nest was this big, Kate." His voice had the smooth, almost melodious tone of a less dangerous, much prettier man. It clashed badly with his bulldog-ugly mug. "You owe me and you stood me up. I had to do the gig single-handed."
The snake twisted in a feeble attempt to sink its fangs into my arm. The long triangular teeth contained no poison but the bite hurt like hell.
"Greg's dead," I said.
There was a tiny pause before he asked, "When?"
"Two days ago. He was murdered."
"You on it?"
We stood for a while, caught in a painful silence. He peeled himself from my truck, moving with the liquid, animal grace that only a master shapechanger could achieve.
"You need anything, you know where to find me."
I nodded and watched him walk up the stairs to the morgue.
He scowled at me over his shoulder. "Yeah?"
"What are you doing at the morgue?"
"Pack business," he said and moved on.
Everyone had business in the morgue these days. Even Jim. I still owed him for this winter when he pulled me out of a mud pit full of melted snow and hydra. He was the closest thing to a partner I had. Once in a while we shared merc jobs from the Guild. This time I had stood him up. I'd have to make it up to him. But first, I'd have to find out who killed Greg. To do that I would have to figure out what Ghastek's vampire was doing at the murder scene.
I eased the pressure on the snake's neck and gently tossed it into the air. The serpent plummeted and suddenly took flight. It soared higher and higher, far above the rooftops into the sunshine, until it finally disappeared from sight.
WHEN IN DOUBT AND IN NEED OF INFORMATION, find a snitch and squeeze him. That was one of the very few investigative techniques I was aware of. As a matter of fact, that and the "annoy principals involved until the guilty party decides to kill you" pretty much summed it up for me. Move over, Sherlock.
I was definitely in doubt and in need of information concerning Ghastek's dead vampire, and I knew just the person to squeeze. He had spiky hair, wore black leather, and called himself Bono after some long-forgotten singer. He was also Ghastek's journeyman.
If you had a talent for necromancy or necronavigation, the care and piloting of the dead, you qualified as an apprentice. Once you added a bit of knowledge to that, you became a journeyman. To move higher required a genuine power and a drive to succeed. Most People never graduated from journeymanship. Bono was on his second year. His knowledge of the dead was almost encyclopedic. The last time we met, he gave me a cut-out article to put into my Almanac - something about some Slavic corpse-eater creature called an upir. But I had a feeling his expertise ended with theory. My guess was he would not grow into a Master of the Dead any time soon.
Bono was easy to find. He frequented Andriano's, a peaceful joint as bars went, unlike the newly redesigned establishments of Atlanta Underground, where bars leaned toward the rowdy and most clubs had the word "pain" in their name. Andriano's occupied a nice little spot on Euclid Avenue in Little Five Points and catered to an almost middle-class crowd.
Bono's pretty face, his hair, and his jacket made sure he was noticed. Women enjoyed his company. He enjoyed them too, but his focus was on quantity. I'd never seen him with the same woman twice. Once in a while someone tried to kick his ass and left a few smears of their blood on the floor and furniture. Anyone who spent his formative years tending to a stable of vampires proved a hard person to fight.
I could've gone straight to the source and just asked Ghastek about his vampire. Trouble was, confronting Ghastek meant I'd have to physically walk into the Casino, where the People had their HQ. Walking into the Casino meant I'd have to meet Nataraja, the People's grand poobah in the city and Ghastek's boss and supervisor. Nataraja was the worst kind of worm, but he had an uncanny sensitivity to magic. My guess was, he wasn't quite sure what he felt when I was around, but he wanted very much to find out. Every time we met our conversation degenerated into him trying to force me into a show of power. That I couldn't afford, especially not now with the four new words of power rattling in my head. I'd have to go to the Casino eventually, but for now squeezing Ghastek's journeyman would suffice.
It was almost 11:00 p.m. when I made it to Andriano's. Bono rarely showed up before dark and I had used the time to hop the leyline back to my place and bring back Betsi, my beat-up old Subaru. It looked like I would be stuck in the city for a while. Since the magic would fall, the way it always did, I'd eventually need a car that worked during tech.
It cost me fifty bucks to have Betsi towed to Greg's place. I was in the wrong business.
I entered Andriano's. The bar stretched the length of the room, guarded by a row of tall stools. A couple of patrons stared into their drinks on the far end. A blonde with her war paint on sipped something fruity from a margarita glass. Through the arched doorway I could see the second room, crowded with red privacy booths, which Andriano must have pilfered from some fast food joint.
The barkeep, long of limb and dark-haired, nodded at me. Lean and phlegmatic, with a narrow, intelligent face, he looked more like a campus intellectual than a bartender. His name was Sergio and he knew how big of a lime slice to put into a Corona, which made him a worthwhile man to know. I passed him two twenties. Sergio bent an eyebrow at me.
"In case anything gets broken. Bono and I are going to chat a bit. Is he here?"
Sergio nodded toward the room with booths and shrugged, palming the twenties. "Stay away from the windows," he said. "Too expensive for you."