Previous posts: Ryder.
I brought Tulip to a halt on the corner of Jonesboro and Gammon street, two blocks away from Pastor Haywood’s church. Around me black trees crowded the road, their sharp leaves unnaturally still despite a slight breeze. A small two-story building with boarded up windows perched on the corner to the right, its grimy brown bricks stained with grey mold. Back when I ran the streets, this building served as a rallying point for the North Warren kid gangs.
Street kids knew Pastor Haywood. He fed them, he healed them, and he probably had hidden them when the occasion required.
I reached into my pocket, pulled out a small silver slug, and held it up. Silver was the go-to metal for most magic-related work. It was easy to shape, took enchantment better than any other metal, even gold, and was poisonous to a wide variety of magical creatures, all of which made it hellishly expensive. It could be bought in several forms, shot, wire, and cut rod. A quarter-inch wide rod was standard, and a half-inch long chunk of it was called a slug and went for about $50.
I tossed the slug into the air and caught it in my fist. “Silver.”
No answer. As expected.
They knew all the cops in the area, so they realized I wasn’t one. I was a stranger, and therefore scary, but I also offered silver. Paper money could be ripped or burned. Some of the older pre-Shift notes contained plastic and sometimes fell apart in the magic waves. But silver always held value and it was easy to hide.
“Pastor Haywood.” I held up the slug. “Hurry up. I have things to do.”
The boarded-up window on the first floor quaked. The entire section swung out and a dirty figure squirmed out and landed on the grass. The child ran up to my horse and grinned at me, his teeth white against the backdrop of his dirty face. Ten, maybe twelve, skinny, filthy, smelly. A rat’s tail hung from a loop on his pants. When I left, the Rat Tails were a small gang on the east side of the Warren. They must have expanded.
“What do you want to know, pretty lady?”
I studied the slug in my hand. “Did anything strange happened with Pastor Haywood in the last couple of weeks?”
I sneered at him and tensed slightly. Tulip started walking.
“Wait, wait!” The kid jumped in front of the horse.
Tulip bared her teeth.
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” I told him. “She bites.”
He stepped to the side. “A guy came to see him. We know everybody who comes but we haven’t seen him before. We’d remember him.”
“Tell me about him.” I dropped the slug. He snatched it out of the air with a cat like quickness and let out a squeak.
Shutters banged, bushes rustled, and five kids closed in, all about seven to ten years old, all equally filthy. They kept their distance, gathered in a ragged semicircle.
I took another slug out. “Tell me about the stranger. Where were you when you saw him?”
The leader stared at a small child, maybe about seven or eight, with twigs and beads in her dark hair. “Tell her.”
“Pastor had cookies,” the girl said.
“What kind of cookies?”
“Oatmeal. If you got hurt, he would heal you and give you a cookie.”
Ah. So that’s where it was going. “You hurt yourself to get a cookie?”
“I ran and fell.”
“What happened when you went to see the pastor?”
“He magicked my leg and gave me milk and a cookie. It was this big.” She held fingers of her small hands far apart.
“Did you eat the cookie in the church?”
“Then what happened?”
“I was eating the cookie and a fatso came.”
Fatso meant someone well off, good clothes, expensive jewelry, well-fed. A good mark.
“Did anybody else see the fatso?” I asked.
The kids shook their heads.
That’s what I thought. It wasn’t “we hadn’t seen him before.” It was she hadn’t seen him before. The leader of the little group claimed credit to get the extra silver. Right. I needed to separate her from them. I’d get more information that way. “You know where Central Market is?”
I leaned down and offered the girl my hand. “Show me and you can tell me about the fatso on the way. I’ll give you this silver at the end.”
She thought about it and grabbed my arm. I lifted her into the saddle in front of me. She weighed nothing. We set off north, toward the old I-75.
“What did the fatso look like?”
“Tall or short?”
“What color hair?”
“Was his skin brown or pale?”
The little gang was trailing us, trying to be inconspicuous as they darted through the brush past the ruined houses.
“What did his face look like?”
She frowned. “He had fake eyes. Like he is nice when other people can see him, but not when he’s by himself.”
“Did he look like the kind of guy who would hit if you stole from him?”
“Do you remember what he said to the pastor?”
“He said he had holy relics.”
Jackpot. “What kind of holy relics?”
She shook her head. “I don’t remember. I wasn’t listening good. Pastor and he talked, and then Pastor said he would think about it, and the fatso left.”
“Then what happened?”
“The next day a car came, and Pastor got into it. He never gets into cars. He came back later.”
“Did he seem okay when he came back?”
She nodded. “The next morning, he got killed.” Her voice got really quiet. “He was nice.”
He was and now he was gone. No more milk and cookies. No more healing when you got hurt. “There was a blue building on the corner of Harpy Street. Is it still there?”
I dropped a slug of silver into her grimy hand. “They’ll take it away from you as soon as I’m gone. Let them have it. Come to the blue building tomorrow. Inside turn left, count eight steps. There is a loose board in the floor. I’ll leave something there for you. Keep low for a while. If something else weird happens or if anybody else comes asking about this, go to the Order and ask for Aurelia. They’ll keep you safe until I get there.”
I let her off the horse. She ran back, skinny legs flying, the slug clutched in a small fist. I looked at her over my shoulder until she vanished around the corner.
She was me. Except I was thirteen when Kate took me off the street.
Suddenly I wanted to go home. It scraped at me like claws, ripping through my resolve to the vulnerable soft place I’d been trying to armor. I could picture it in my head, the sunlit kitchen; Dad gliding through the house, quiet like a ghost; Conlan leaping over the fence after running in the woods next door, the massive smelly poodle trailing him; and Mom standing in the kitchen, cooking something, her sword within reach. I wanted to go home and hug the three of them. I’d been gone for eight years. I was so homesick, if I were a wolf, I would’ve howled. I needed to see my family and make sure they were okay.
And if I did, Mom would die.
I exhaled slowly, reasserting control. I was a princess of Shinar. More, I was my mother’s daughter. People in our family didn’t get the luxury of feeling sorry for ourselves. We made a choice to not go home until we killed the monster blocking the front door.
I urged Tulip on, and she started down the street, light on her feet. According to Nick’s file, Pastor Haywood had very few assets, so it was unlikely someone approached him to sell holy relics. Most likely, they wanted to know if the relics had power. As a man of his God, Pastor Haywood would be able to recognize a relic of his deity and determine what it was capable of. I was looking for someone who had or thought he had Christian relics. The first step would be to call to Pastor Haywood’s church of record and see if they referred anyone to him.
I didn’t hold out much hope. Pastor Haywood was famous enough that someone might have found him even without a referral. But it was still worth a try.
Unfortunately, all of that had to wait. The magic signatures at the scene told me that I had to go home to put up wards and I had to do it now. When I mentioned shapeshifters to Fleming, he didn’t contradict me, and he didn’t ask questions. A law enforcement officer, who had no idea shapeshifters had been allowed to tour the scene he’d been guarding, would’ve asked how I knew and would want to know details. Why did I think shapeshifters were there? How many shapeshifters? When did they visit? Fleming just let it drop. Either he owed the Pack a favor or he took their money. All of that meant that he would contact them the first chance he got. A team would be dispatched to the scene and they would track me. A confrontation with the Pack’s people was imminent and I wanted to have it on my home turf, safe behind my wards.
I’d been in Atlanta for less than a day. It was entirely too early to start killing people.
In the plays and novels written post-Shift, when the intrepid heroine was being tracked by a shapeshifter, she usually ambushed him and stuffed a handful of wolfsbane into his face. Wolfsbane had the same effect on shapeshifters as sticking your head into a bucket of pine pollen had on regular humans, except the effect was even more pronounced. It turned its victim’s nose-blind and if you sprinkled it on your tracks, they lost the scent. I’d done it a few times with great result. But I wouldn’t be tracked by a single shapeshifter. I would be tracked by a team, so sanding my trail with wolfsbane was futile. I might get the leading tracker, but the rest would just go around the wolfsbane, spread out, and pick up my scent again.
My best bet was to cut through a crowded space. There were few places less jam-packed than Central Market. With luck, by the time the Pack team followed me there, hundreds of people and animals would have stomped on my scent and shed their skin cells and sweat in the air. Sorting through it all would be hell. It would buy me some time.