I finally managed to stuff the ladder in its place and left the apartment building for the parking lot, where my female mule, Marigold, was tied to a metal rack set up there for precisely that purpose. I had gotten within ten feet of her when I saw a half-finished swastika drawn on her rump in green paint. The paint stick lay broken on the ground. There was also some blood and what looked like a tooth. I looked closer. Yep, definitely a tooth.
"Had an adventure, did we?"
Marigold didn't say anything, but I knew from experience that approaching her from behind was Not a Good Idea. She kicked like a mule, probably because she was one.
If not for the Order's brand on her other butt cheek, Marigold might have been stolen tonight.
Fortunately, the knights of the Order had a nasty habit of magically tracking thieves and coming down on them like a ton of bricks.
I untied her, mounted, and we braved the night.
Typically technology and magic switched at least once every couple of days, usually more often than that. But two months ago we had been hit with a flare, a wave so potent, it drowned the city like a magic tsunami, making impossible things a reality. For three days demons and gods had walked the streets and human monsters had great difficulty controlling themselves. I had spent the flare on the battlefield, helping a handful of shapeshifters butcher a demonic horde.
It had been an epic occurrence all around. I still had vivid dreams about it, not exactly nightmares, but intoxicating, surreal visions of blood and gleaming blades and death.
The flare had burned out, leaving technology firmly in control of the world. For two months, cars started without fail, electricity held the darkness at bay, and air-conditioning made August blissful. We even had TV. On Monday night they had shown a movie, Terminator 2 , hammering home the point: it could always be worse.
Then, on Wednesday right around noon, the magic hit and Atlanta went to hell.
I wasn't sure if people had deluded themselves into thinking the magic wouldn't come back or if they had been caught unprepared, but we'd never had so many calls for help since I had started with the Order. Unlike the Mercenary Guild, for which I also worked, the knights of the Order of Knights of Merciful Aid helped anyone and everyone regardless of their ability to pay. They charged only what you could afford and a lot of times nothing at all. We had been flooded with pleas. I managed to catch four hours of sleep on Wednesday night and then it was up and running again. Technically it was Friday now, and I was plagued by persistent fantasies of hot showers, food, and soft sheets. I had made an apple pie a couple of days ago, and I still had a slice left for tonight.
"Kate?" Maxine's stern voice echoed through my head, distant but clear.
I didn't jump. After the marathon of the last forty-eight hours, hearing the Order's telepathic secretary in my head seemed perfectly normal. Sad but true.
"I'm sorry, dear, but the pie might have to wait."
What else was new? Maxine didn't read thoughts on purpose, but if I concentrated on something hard enough, she couldn't help but catch a hint of it.
"I have a green seven, called in by a civilian."
Dead shapeshifter. Anything shapeshifter-related was mine. The shapeshifters distrusted outsiders, and I was the only employee of the Atlanta Chapter of the Order who enjoyed Friend of the Pack status. "Enjoyed" being a relative term. Mostly my status meant that the shapeshifters might let me say a couple of words before deciding to fillet me. They took paranoid to a new level.
"Where is it?"
"Corner of Ponce de Leon and Dead Cat."
Twenty minutes by mule. Chances were, the Pack already knew the death had taken place.
They would be all over the scene, snarling and claiming jurisdiction. Ugh. I turned Marigold and headed north. "I'm on it."
MARIGOLD CHUGGED UP THE STREETS, SLOW BUT steady, and seemingly tireless.
The jagged skyline crawled past me, once-proud buildings reduced to crumbling husks. It was as if magic had set a match to Atlanta but extinguished the flames before the scorched city had a chance to burn to the ground.
Here and there random pinpoint dots of electric lights punctured the darkness. A scent of charcoal smoke spiced with the aroma of seared meat drifted from the Alexander on Ponce apartments. Someone was cooking a midnight dinner. The streets lay deserted. Most people with a crumb of sense knew better than to stay out at night.
A high-pitched howl of a wolf rolled through the city, sending shivers down my spine. I could almost picture her standing upon a concrete rib of a fallen skyscraper, pale fur enameled silver by moonlight, her head raised to expose her shaggy throat as she sung a flawless song, tinted with melancholy longing and the promise of a bloody hunt.
A lean shadow skittered from the alley, followed by another. Emaciated, hairless, loping on all fours in a jerky, uncoordinated gait, they crossed the street before me and paused. They had been human at some point but both had been dead for more than a decade. No fat or softness remained on their bodies. No flesh - only steel-wire muscle beneath thick hide. Two vampires on the prowl. And they were out of their territory.
"ID," I said. Most navigators knew me by sight just like they knew every member of the Order in Atlanta.
The forefront bloodsucker unhinged his jaw and the navigator's voice issued forth, distorted slightly. "Journeyman Rodriguez, Journeyman Salvo."
Of all the Masters of the Dead, I detested Rowena the least. "You're a long way from the Casino."
"We . . ."
The second bloodsucker opened his mouth, revealing light fangs against his black maw. "He screwed up and got us lost in the Warren."
"I followed the map."
The second bloodsucker stabbed a clawed finger at the sky. "The map's useless if you can't orient for shit. The moon doesn't rise in the north, you moron."
Two idiots. It would be comical if I didn't feel the blood hunger rising from the vamps. If these two knuckleheads lost control for a moment, the bloodsuckers would rip into me.
"Carry on," I said and nudged Marigold.
The vamps took off, the journeymen riding their minds probably bickering somewhere deep within the Casino. The Immortuus pathogen robbed its victims of their egos. Insentient , the vampires obeyed only their hunger for blood, butchering anything with a pulse. The emptiness of a vampiric mind made it a perfect vehicle for necromancers, Masters of the Dead. Most of the Masters served the People. Part cult, part research institute, part corporation, all vomit inducing, the People devoted themselves to the study and care of the undead. They had chapters in most major cities, just like the Order. Here, in Atlanta, they made their den in the Casino.