Magic Strikes Chapter 13

WE WERE IN A SMALL KITCHEN. DOOLITTLE TOOK a plastic ice tray from the freezer, twisted it with his dark hands, and sent the cubes clattering into a glass. He poured iced tea from a pitcher and set the glass in front of me.

"Tea will help," he said.

I drank out of respect for him. It was shockingly sweet, more syrup than drink. Ice crunched between my teeth.

"Why isn't he healing?" My voice came out flat, a one-note gathering of words with no inflection.

Doolittle sat opposite me. He had a genteel manner about him that instantly put one at ease.

Usually I found myself relaxing slowly in his company. Merely being in the presence of the Pack's physician proved soothing. Not today. I searched his eyes for reassurance of Derek's survival, but they offered me no comfort: dark and mournful, they contained none of the humor I was accustomed to seeing. Today he just seemed tired, an old black man bent over his glass of iced tea.

"Lyc-V can do many miraculous things," Doolittle said. "But it has its limits. The gray color on his body shows the places where the virus died in great numbers. There isn't enough Lyc-V left in his tissues to heal him. What little remains is keeping him alive, but for how long nobody can say." He looked into his cup. "They beat him very badly. The bones are shattered and crushed in so many places, I can't remember them all. And when they were done breaking him, they poured molten silver onto his body. Into his chest."

I clenched my hands.

"And on his face. And then they dumped him to die in the middle of the street from a moving cart, four blocks from our southern office."

Doolittle reached behind him and handed me a cotton kitchen towel.

I took it and looked at him.

He gave me a small, kind smile. "It helps to wipe them off," he said.

I touched my cheek and realized it was wet. I pressed the towel against my face.

"It's good to cry. No shame in it."

"Can he be helped?" My voice sounded normal. I just couldn't stop crying. The pain kept leaking out of my eyes.

Doolittle shook his head.

My brain started slowly, like an old clock after years of disrepair. The Reapers had discovered Derek at the Red Roof Inn, beaten him, and dumped him by the Pack's office. Jim's crew found him and tracked the scent back to the location where the beating had taken place.

"He hasn't turned," I said.

Doolittle's face voiced a silent question.

"There were no signs of a wolf at the scene. Pints of blood, too many for one person, so he had to have fought and injured them, but no fur. No claw scratches. He killed a vamp in a warrior form. He should've shifted forms the moment they jumped him, but he didn't. How is that possible?"

"We don't know," Jim said.

He leaned against the doorframe like a bleak shadow knitted from anger. I hadn't heard him approach.

"Regeneration and change of shape are irrevocably linked." Doolittle drank his tea. "There are things that can be done to induce a change in one of us. We've tried them all, trying to break him from the coma. Something is blocking him."

They were so calm about it. "Why aren't you surprised?"

Doolittle sighed.

"He isn't the first," Jim said.

THE FIRST PICTURE SHOWED A CORPSE OF A MAN. His face was crushed, the skull indented with such tremendous force, his head resembled a shovel. His chest bone had been cut out of his body. His ribs jutted from the wet mush, the pale cage of bone slick with dark blood.

The black-and-white photograph looked absurdly out of place on a red-and-white-plaid tablecloth. Like a hole into some horrific gray world.

Jim drank a bit of his tea. "Doc, this stuff is pure honey."

"A little sweet never hurt nobody." Doolittle looked offended and poured more syrup into my glass.

Jim shook his head. "The Midnight Games. Sixteen years ago a championship fight went all to shit. A big dumb sonovabitch of a bear lost his way and went wild. Killed a crowd of civilians."

I didn't interrupt. He was talking and I didn't want to do anything to make him stop.

"A lot of people should've stepped up to bring the bear down and didn't. Curran took ownership of it and got it done. That's what an alpha does. It was damn clear after that who was in charge."

Jim leaned forward, his arms on the table. "An alpha's first law must be solid. It shows what the alpha stands for. No matter what other shit happens, the alpha has got to uphold that law, because once he lets somebody question it, his whole rule comes into doubt. Curran's first law is 'Don't touch the Games.' "

"It's a good law," Jim continued. "We don't need to be messing around with a place that's interested in making us dead in a pretty way. Even the People stay the hell away from it since it's gone underground."

He fell silent. Like Curran, Jim mostly hid his emotions, but his eyes betrayed him this time.

Dark and troubled, they brimmed with anxiety. He was keeping it in check, but I could sense it. Jim was uneasy. Haunted.

"So what made you mess with the Games, Jim?" I prompted.

"They're importing shapeshifters. Some are on the level. They brought a mountain cat out from Missouri a few months ago. A decent female. But some are scum. They come in to scope our territory. They're a threat. That's a security issue, and that makes it mine."

Pieces clicked together in my head. "You put a mole into the Games. And you didn't tell Curran because you didn't think he would be reasonable about it." Jim took it upon himself to make a decision only the Beast Lord could've made. It wasn't just a Bad Idea. It was a Sure to Get You Killed in a Hurry Idea.

Jim pushed the photograph toward me. "Garabed. Good, strong cat. Armenian. Found him like this a block from the Northern Office."

Now I saw it. Jim had a dead shapeshifter and he couldn't tell Curran about it. Knowing Curran, he would shut down the whole operation at the root. The Beast Lord had to uphold his laws. But now that one of his people was lost, Jim couldn't let it go. He had to find and punish the guilty. First, to avenge the death, and second, because his crew would abandon him if he didn't. The first duty of an alpha was to protect his clan, and Jim's crew was his clan for the time being.

"Garabed showed no signs of shifting shape?" I asked.


If I were Jim, I'd put somebody back into the Games. Somebody vicious, smart, and skilled.

Somebody hard to take down . . .

"You brought Derek in."

Jim nodded. "He's the best covert agent I have. He looks" - words caught in his throat - "

looked like a brainless pretty boy. Nobody pays him any mind. But he misses nothing."

"What happened?"

Jim grimaced. "He went there for a month and came back with this weird-ass story about the Reapers. It's the name of a team. They came out of nowhere a few weeks ago and landed with a lot of noise. Half of them m-scanned as human, but Derek said they weren't. Didn't smell right. He thought they had some sort of beef with us. Not just with the Pack but with our whole kind. Something about us being a meld of humans and animals, and those guys hate both. He told me there was a human girl in the Reaper crew and spun this long story about how she wanted to switch sides and would tell us all about the Reapers and Gar's murder if we got her out."

"And you told him no."

Jim drained a third of his glass. "I told him it was too risky. The Reapers travel together, fifteen, twenty, sometimes thirty per group, always armed."

"As if they know they're going in and out of enemy territory."

Jim nodded.

"And they can't be tracked by scent? They have to have a base of some sort."

Jim looked like he'd just bitten a lime. "The problem isn't tracking. The problem is the location of their base."

"Where is it?" Why did I have a feeling this wouldn't be good? With my luck, the next thing to come out of his mouth would be something crazy, like Unicorn Lane . . .

"In Unicorn - "

I held my hand out. "Got it."

Unicorn Lane gave no quarter. Savage magic roiled there, streaming through the gutted corpses of skyscrapers, too powerful to harness, too dangerous to fight. Ordinary objects became suffused with lethal power. Horrible things that shunned the light hid in Unicorn, feeding on lesser monsters and spinning foul magics of their own. Lunatic cultists with secret power, deranged loups, cast-out Masters of the Dead, when they had nowhere to go, when every friend and every family member turned them away, when the apprehension directive on their profiles became "Shoot on sight" and desperation muddled their minds, only then did they try to enter Unicorn Lane. Most became nourishment for abominations. The rare few who survived went mad, if they weren't already.

There was a reason why Andorf the Bear who had rampaged at the last legal Games chose Unicorn Lane as his refuge. There was a reason why Curran had set our first meeting on the outskirts of Unicorn, just deep enough to weed out the scared and kill the stupid.

To follow thirty monsters in human skin into Unicorn Lane in the middle of the night was a cruel and unusual way to commit suicide.

"Scouting their base is right out," Jim said. "But suppose we did somehow spring the girl before they hit Unicorn Lane. We just kidnapped one of their own. Guilty or not, human or not, they would go to war with us after that. We can't afford another damn war."

"Not without cause," Doolittle put in.

"All he had were some funny smells and a girl with a big mouth. I told the kid to stop chasing tail and bring me some proof. He went there one more time, but I could tell the girl made an impression."

"I've seen her," I told him. "I can't blame him."

Jim started. "How?"

"You finish first, then I'll tell you my side."

Jim shrugged. "Derek clammed up. I saw reason wasn't getting through - he would try to rescue her one way or another, and I pulled him out of it. The tickets to the Games are hard to get and go for three grand apiece. I knew he didn't have three grand lying around, and even if he managed, the type of ticket he could get wouldn't let him into the lower level. I put a tail on him, told him to chill, and thought that was the end of it."

Ahh, but Derek had seen Saiman at the Games and recognized him by scent. He knew Saiman in his Durand persona owned part of the House and had "go anywhere" tickets.

"While Derek was cooling off, I put Linna into the Games in his place." Jim placed a second photograph in front of me. A corpse of a woman lay on the surgical table. The outline of her body was distorted, uneven. I studied the photo and realized she was in pieces. The body had been severed into sections and reassembled bit by bit.

"They carved her into twelve pieces," Doolittle said. "Each piece exactly six inches long. She was probably alive while they did it. And no, she didn't change shapes either. Her clothes were still on her."

"I was picking her off the pavement when you came by." Jim clenched his teeth. "Then my tail returned. The kid lost him. And then we found Derek."

I didn't need further explanation. Jim's crew had chased the scent, retracing the trail of Derek's assailants, and found me dipping my fingertips into his blood.

"What do you have?" Jim asked.

I told him. When I came to the part where I led Curran to Linna's dump site, Jim closed his eyes and looked as if he wanted to strangle me. I kept going until the whole story was out on the table. Jim decided he needed more tea. He probably needed something a lot stronger, but he'd have to fight Doolittle for it. The Pack doctor took a dim view of alcohol consumption.

"Did you tell Curran?"


"Does he know about this office?" Please say yes.

"No. This is one of my private places."

"So as far as he knows, you and your crew went AWOL?"

He nodded.

"Rogue," Doolittle said. "The correct term is 'rogue.' What the cat isn't telling you is that right now Curran thinks a good chunk of his security force split from the Pack. He's turning the city upside down looking for Jim. There is an order out for Jim to contact Curran."

"I'll call him in the morning," Jim said.

"Which will only make things worse, because the Beast Lord will give the order to return to the Keep, and, you see, this young man here will decline."

Jim growled low in his throat. It bounced from Doolittle like dry peas from a hard wall.

"Now why would you do that?" I stared at Jim.

"I have my reasons," he said.

"To refuse a direct order is a breach of Pack Law," Doolittle said. "By tradition, Jim will have three days to change his mind. And if he doesn't, Curran will have to do what the alpha does when he is defied." Doolittle shook his head. "It's a hard thing to contemplate, killing your friend. Bound to make a man crazy."

Crazy Curran ranked right up there with monsoons, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.

I turned to Doolittle. "And you? How did he get you into this mess?"

"We kidnapped him," Jim said. "In broad daylight with much noise. He's safe from Curran."

"And right after I got Derek into the tank, I had to treat my kidnappers for injuries." Doolittle shook his head. "I didn't take kindly to being shoved into a cart and sat upon."

Since Jim had gone through all this trouble to set Doolittle up as an innocent victim, Jim must've expected a shit storm of hurricane proportions when Curran found them.

"I was kidnapped." Doolittle smiled. "I have little to worry about. But someone who helps Jim hide from his alpha of her own free will, well, that is a completely different story."

"Don't you have someplace to be?" Jim's eyes flashed green.

Doolittle got up and rested a heavy hand on my shoulder. "Think before you sign your death warrant."

He left the room. It was me and Jim.

In a fight, Curran was death. He'd never liked me. He'd warned me to stay away from the Pack's power struggles. I'd get no leeway this time.


He looked at me and I saw it, right there, shining clear through all his mental shields: fear. Jim was terrified. Not for himself - I'd known him for a long time and threats to his personal well-being didn't inspire terror in him. He was off balance, as if he'd been knocked down in the dark and had sprung to his feet, not sure where the next blow would come from.

He had "his reasons," and I needed to know them. "Tell me why I shouldn't call Curran right now and blow this whole thing out of the water."

Jim looked into his glass. Muscles clenched on his arms. A brutal internal battle was taking place inside him, and I wasn't sure which side was winning.

"Seven years ago, a string of loup infestations hit the Appalachians," he said. "I had just started with the Pack. They brought me along as an enforcer. Tennessee let us in right away, but it took North Carolina two years to decide they couldn't handle that shit on their own. We went in. It's all mountains. Old Scotch-Irish families, separatists, religious nuts, they all run there and squat on their own personal mountaintops and then they breed, and their kids set up trailers and cabins right there, a spit away. People come there to be by themselves. Everybody minds their own business. Nobody talked to us. Families had gone loup, entire clans, and nobody knew. And sometimes they knew and didn't do anything about it. You've been to the Buchanan compound. You know what we found."

Death. They found death and kiddie pools full of blood and half-eaten children. Women and men, raped, torn to pieces, and raped again, after they were dead. People flayed alive. They found loups.

"We were combing through Jackson County when the local cops called us. A house had caught on fire on Caney Fork Road, but none of them wanted to go up there. Claimed Seth Hayes owned the house and he shot trespassers on sight. Since we were close and would get there faster, could we please swing by."

Bullshit. The cops knew Hayes had gone loup. Probably known it for a while. Otherwise why call shapeshifters about a house fire?

"The place sat on the edge of a damn cliff. Took us an hour to come up on the house. The building was a ruin by that point. Nothing but charred coal and greasy smoke and that stink.

The loup stink."

I knew that smell. Thick, musky, sour, it overlaid your tongue with a harsh, bitter patina and made you choke. The scent of a human body gone spiraling out of control into the depths of Lyc-V's delirium. I had smelled it before. Once it stained you, you never forgot it.

Jim kept on, his voice flat. "The kid sat in the ash. He'd dragged two bodies out, what was left of his sisters, and just sat there, waiting for us to finish him off. Filthy, skinny, starved kid covered in his dad's blood. He stank like a loup. I thought we should kill him. I looked at him and thought 'loup kid' and said so. Curran said no. Said we'll take the kid with us. I thought the man was crazy. The shit that kid had been through, he wasn't even human anymore. I looked at him and saw nothing left. But Curran went and sat with the kid, and talked him into following us. The kid didn't speak. I didn't think he knew how."

Jim drew his hand over his hair. "We didn't even know his name, for fuck's sake. He just followed Curran everywhere like a tail: to the gym, to the Keep, to the fights. He'd sit by the door while the council meetings ran, like a dog. Curran would read books to him. He'd sit and read to the kid and then ask his opinion. He did this for a month until one day the kid answered."

Jim's eyes blazed. "Now the kid has a half-form better than mine. Taught himself to speak in it. Might be the wolf-alpha one day. I can't do it to him."

"Do what?"

"I have to fix it, Kate. Give me a chance to fix it."

"Jim, you're not making sense."

Doolittle walked back inside, a platter of hush puppies in his hand. "She doesn't have your frame of reference, James. Let me take over." He sat and pushed the hush puppies my way.

"When a shapeshifter suffers a great deal of stress, be it physical or psychological, it stimulates the production of Lyc-V. The virus saturates our bodies in great numbers. The higher the virus swells and the faster it spikes, the greater are the chances of the shapeshifter going loup."

"That's why the greatest risk of loupism coincides with the onset of puberty." I nodded.

"Indeed. Derek is under a great deal of stress. Something is blocking him, and if we manage to successfully remove the block, the virus will bloom inside him in huge numbers very quickly. It will be a biological explosion."

His words sank in. "Derek might go loup."

Doolittle nodded. "It is a definite possibility."

"How definite?"

"I'd estimate a seventy-five percent chance of loupism."

I rested my elbow on the table and put my forehead on my fist.

"If Curran becomes aware of the situation, and if Derek becomes a loup, Curran will have to kill him," Doolittle said. "It will be his duty as the Beast Lord. The rules of the Pack dictate that when a member of the Pack becomes a loup, it's the duty of the highest alpha present to destroy them."

God. For Curran, killing Derek would be like killing a son or a brother. He'd worked so hard to bring him out after Derek had teetered on the edge of loupism. To have him fall into insanity now would . . . He'd have to kill him. He'd do it himself too, because it was his duty.

It would be like me having to kill Julie.

Doolittle cleared his throat. "Curran has no family. He's a survivor of a massacre. Mahon raised him, saving him in much the same way he saved Derek. Killing Derek will inflict severe psychological damage," Doolittle said. "He will do it. He has never shunned his responsibilities and he wouldn't want anyone else to bear the weight. He has been under a lot of pressure in this last year. He's a Beast Lord, but in the end he's only a man."

In my head, I pictured Curran standing by Derek's body. It was in my power to spare him that. Not for Jim's sake, but for his own. You should never have to kill children you saved.

He would be furious. He'd rip Jim to pieces.

"He gave us three days," I said. "If we don't resolve this by the end of those three days, I'll go to him. I'll tell him. If Derek goes loup before that, I will kill him." Please, God, whoever you are, please don't make me do this.

"That's my responsibility," Jim said.

"No. Curran accepted an offer of assistance from the Order. That means that in the matters of this investigation, I outrank you. It's my responsibility and I'll take care of it." I had three days. I could do a lot in three days.

Jim's eyes flashed.

"Deal with it," I told him and looked at Doolittle. "What would keep a shapeshifter from shifting?"

"Magic," he said. "Very powerful magic."

"Feeding comes first, mating second, and shape-changing is third. Hard to override it," Jim ground out.

"But the Reapers did override it. They held the key to it. And they damn near obliterated Derek." I clenched my teeth.

"Your sword's smoking," Doolittle murmured.

Thin tendrils of smoke snaked from Slayer in my sheath, the saber feeding on my anger.

"Nothing to worry about." I drummed my fingertips on the table. "I could possibly manage to take the Reapers into custody. But I have no reason to hold them. First, we have no proof they took out Derek."

"They would smell of his blood," Jim said.

"So do I. There was enough of his blood in that plaza to stain anyone who came into contact with it. That's not enough. Did you m-scan the scene?"

"Blue and green across the board." Jim shrugged in disgust.

The m-scan recorded the colors of residual magic. Blue stood for human and green stood for shapeshifter. It told us absolutely nothing. Maybe if I prayed to Miss Marple, she'd hook me up with a clue . . .

"Another problem with bringing them in," I said, "is the Games themselves. Let's say I bring them in. I'll have to ask questions like 'What were you doing in that plaza?' If they admitted to being a team in the Games, I'd have to follow up on it. I can't just ignore the existence of an underground gladiatorial tournament. The cops, Order, and MSDU have to know the Games are going on. The fact that they take place at all means a lot of money and influence are backing them up."

Jim nodded. "You'd get shut down before the investigation ever hits the ground."

And that was why I liked working with Jim. He didn't waste any time on calling me a coward, on baiting me, and suggesting I was afraid of the pressure. He understood that if the powers that be came to bear on me, the investigation would become difficult and my progress would be slower than molasses in January. He simply acknowledged it and moved on to the next possible avenue. No angst, no bullshit, no drama.

"So officially, we both can do nothing," I said.


Doolittle just shook his head and ate his hush puppies.

"I take it we'll have to fight in the Games to get to the Reapers."


"How come you never invite me to the easy jobs?" I asked him.

"I like to challenge you," he said. "Keeps you on your toes."

I leaned forward and drew a line across the tablecloth with my finger. "Unicorn Lane. Thirty-two blocks long and ten blocks wide. Long and narrow." It used to be thirty blocks long and eight blocks wide, but the flare boosted it and Unicorn grew, swallowing more of the city. "As I understand it, the Reapers go in there and vanish. And your guys can't track them down."

"Your point?"

"You remember the firebird capture from the summer two years ago? Half of Chatham County was burning and the bird smelled like smoke. You couldn't track it and it burned through every trap we had." And he had been pissed off as hell about it, too.

Jim frowned. "I remember. We baited it with a dead possum that had a tracker in it."

"Can you get your hands on a tracker like the one we stuck into the possum?"

"It can be done."

"What's the maximum range of the tracker?"

"Twenty-five miles, if the tech is strong."

I smiled. More than enough to cover Unicorn Lane.

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