WHEN YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHERE TO START, GO back to basics. In my case, the basics involved gluing myself to the phone and calling the Biohazard units of major cities around Atlanta. Being with the Order had its disadvantages, but it did open some doors and anything concerning an epidemic had a high profile among Biohazard staff.
In two hours I had a better picture and it wasn’t pretty. So far the Steel Mary had left his skid marks in five cities: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Savannah—hit my home turf and I didn’t even know it—and finally Atlanta. He was moving north, working his way up the coast, which probably meant he came off the boat in Miami. Sea travel was a dicey affair; he would’ve stayed away from the ocean if he could help it. Several sea routes ran out of Miami. I had a sick feeling he came by the one curving down from West Africa. Africa churned with old magic, ancient, powerful, and primal.
In Miami a man in a cloak had been sighted in the marketplace. A herd of cattle waited to be slaughtered. He walked right into the enclosure, raised his arms, and the herd broke through the wooden corral and stampeded through the market. His magic hit the shoppers as well, and in seconds people fled the marketplace, trampling each other and causing a citywide panic. Then he unleashed smallpox, which proved to be too strong to cause trouble. It killed its carrier in seconds and burned itself out.
The citizens of Fort Lauderdale had no idea the guy in the cloak existed but their Biohazard unit did report an outbreak of extremely virulent influenza, which affected everyone who visited an underground bare knuckles tournament. Fancy that.
The PAD in Jacksonville got his number pretty fast, but he dumped a hellish strain of dysentery on them, and by the time they cleaned up the bodies, he was long gone. They did mention that he had four flunkies with him. They also called ahead to just about every city in Georgia with a warning, which Savannah and Atlanta’s Biohazard units promptly ignored.
Savannah paid for it with an outbreak of bubonic plague that started after a battle royale in one of their infamous Irish pubs on River Street. I knew the PAD detectives down there, and all three of them were very sore about the whole thing, so sore that they offered to box their case evidence and send it up to me. I jumped on the chance with both feet.
Every incident took place during a magic wave. Every incident involved a rough crowd and a brawl, and in every case the toughest fighter ended up pinned to the first available hard surface. Sometimes the Steel Mary used a spear. Sometimes a harpoon or a crowbar. Women seemed mostly unaffected. Either his magic didn’t work on them as well or he wasn’t interested in the more dangerous of the sexes.
Animals ran from him. Shapeshifters seemed to have issues as well. In Miami the three werewolves in the market went berserk. Of the berserkers, one was killed by the cow stampede, and the other two were apprehended and taken into police custody. The first survivor ripped out his own throat and bled to death in his cell. The other escaped and the upstanding members of the Miami PD blew the back of his head to pieces and collected the bounty. Some things even Lyc-V couldn’t fix. A shotgun blast to the head was one of them. The Miami PD had issued a formal apology to the Pack, but it was clear the Pack had no leg to stand on. In the cops’
place, I would’ve shot him down, too.
I tapped my notes with my fingernails. I had to warn Andrea about it. She was female, true, so she’d have some protection against the Steel Mary’s magic, but she was also beastkin. Lyc-V, the shapeshifting virus, infected people and animals alike. Sometimes, the result was an animal-were, a creature that had started life as a beast and gained the ability to turn into a human. Most animal-weres were violent, mute, sterile idiots, unable to cope with the rules of human society. Murder and rape had no meaning to them, which was why some shapeshifters killed them on sight, no questions asked. Very occasionally the animal-weres developed the ability to reason and learned to communicate. Even more occasionally they could procreate.
Andrea’s mother was a bouda, a werehyena, but her father was a hyenawere, which made her beastkin, the child of an animal. She hid this fact from everyone: from the Order, because they would jettison her from their ranks, and from the Pack, because some shapeshifters would kill her. Only a handful of people knew what she was and we all quietly decided to keep it to ourselves.
There was no telling what this guy’s power would do to her. If she panicked and ran or went berserk, we’d all be in deep shit.
The growing number of the Steel Mary’s flunkies worried me. According to Toby the bouncer, this guy told Joshua that he had an opening for two more gods. What did that mean? Was he gathering himself a posse and calling them gods?
I rubbed my face. His MO said he might move on to another city, but I had a feeling he would stick around. He was obviously building to some sort of goal, and if he got whatever it was he wanted from Joshua, that left the Steel Mary with only one would-be-god spot. Something big would happen when he filled his quota. Atlanta was the center of the South. The largest Pack was here, the largest Guild was here, the Southern MSDU was headquartered here. It made sense that Atlanta has been his goal all along. I didn’t know where he would hit next, but at least I could thrust some sticks into his wheels.
I pulled up the phone and grabbed the phone book. My tenure in the Mercenary Guild was about to pay off.
I dialed the first number. A gruff male voice answered. “Black Dog Tavern.”
“Hey, Keith, it’s Kate Daniels.”
“Hey, Order Kate, how are ya?”
I almost choked. Order Kate? Really? “I’m good. How about yourself?”
“Can’t complain, can’t complain. What’re you hunting for today?”
“I’ve got a troublemaker who recently moved to town, a really tall guy in a tattered cloak. He likes to come into bars when the magic’s up and throw around some heavy-duty spells to start fights.”
“Sounds like a fun fella.”
Depends on your definition of fun. “Do you still have that girl working for you, Emily?”
“Yep, she’s here every night.”
“Apparently, this guy’s power bounces from ladies. Would you do me a huge favor and make sure you have Emily working during the magic waves? Give her my number and tell her to call me right away if any crazy fights break out. He’s costing the bar owners an arm and a leg in broken furniture.”
“Just so you know, he comes in here, it won’t be my furniture that will get broken. I’ll snap his legs.”