laura anne gilman
For James: Even now
The IM Brigade: Arwen Rosenberg Tom Powers Sarah (Bear) Wishnevsky Kathy Kimbriel Nea Dodds Jules Lee
“A safe place for all the pieces that scattered/learn to pretend there’s more than love that
—“Love will come to you”Indigo Girls
January 23rd 6:25pm
Fresh snow could make even the dingiest, most urban part of Manhattan into a magical place. Thecolors and noises all faded away, the city’s usual frenetic pace slowing to a more studiedwaltz of snow falling, white against the bare black limbs of trees and outlines of buildings.Drifts pushed up against maildrop boxes, covered fire hydrants, and shut down traffic exceptfor the unstoppable city buses and madman-driven taxi cabs zipping through the night.
It might have been lovely, but Wren Valere wasn’t paying attention to the scenery. She was aprofessional working her craft. Or trying to, anyway. Two new high-end locks had hit themarket, supposedly proof against the “bump-and-enter” method, and she wanted to make sure sheunderstood how they worked before she actually encountered one in the field, when time might beagainst her. In her particular profession, you didn’t get many second chances, and Wren waspretty sure the past twelve months had used up all the ones she was going to get in a lifetime.
Sometimes, honestly, she didn’t know what got into her. For a mind-her-own-business Retriever,she’d spent a hell of a lot of time muddling around in things she should have left alone.Curses and politics and meetings, for God’s sake.
Never mind that she’d done it to save her own skin, after the Mage Council tried to use herand her partner, Sergei; never mind that she’d done it to help out her friends among the
. All of that might have made what happenedfatae, the nonhuman members of the Cosa Nostradamus
inevitable, but none of it made it smart.
“Hey, Valere.” The voice came from the other side of the room, about three feet to the rightand a foot down. And speaking of fatae….
Wren Valere didn’t sigh, but she wanted to.
Retrieval wasn’t easy. She had studied her craft, learned from masters, and kept up-to-date onall the most recent developments, not only in her own field, but anything that might come inhandy. In addition to mastering the current-magic that flowed from within her, she had trainedher body, as well; toning and strengthening her muscles, increasing her lung capacity,maintaining her flexibility. She had forced mind and body into partnership, more than oncespending hours waiting in a cramped, close situation, anticipating the perfect moment to moveon a job. She knew all about patience. About focus. About dedication.
And that focus and dedication was being destroyed, not by a stubborn client, or impossiblemark, or even the weight of the snow outside and what was happening in the city beyond, but byher companion.
She didn’t bother looking in the direction of the voice, not wanting to encourage him.
“Valere,” the voice said again. “What does this do?”
She looked, then, briefly. “Opens locks.”
The room’s other occupant—and the subject of her irritation—put the tool back down on thesmall table next to him and picked up another. “And this?”
She reached for patience, found it. “Opens a different kind of lock.”
“And this one?”
Patience threw up its hands in disgust and fled the room. “It gets the gunk out from betweenmy teeth. Damn it, P.B., will you please leave my kit alone? Those extremely delicate toolsyou’re paw-handling cost me a fortune, and half of them are custom-made.” She reached up fromher cross-legged position on the floor, and snagged the instrument in question out of P.B.’spaws. A thin ceramic shape with a non-reflective black coating, it actually did look likesomething that might be found in a very trendy Goth’s toothbrush holder, except that thefiberglass pick at the end was attuned to more delicate vibrations than enamel generally gaveoff.
“Sheesh. Someone’s snappy.” The short, white-furred demon settled on the padded bench underthe room’s single window and stared at her with his dark, dried-bloodred eyes. He wanderedover to the corkboard that hung above her desk and tapped one curved black claw on a colorpencil sketch tacked there. “This the bansidhe-horsie you been chasing? How long you beenworking that case?”
“Five years.” She refused to look up from her notes, hoping against hope he would finallytake the hint and go elsewhere.
P.B. snorted, a wet, vaguely disgusting noise his flattened snout of a nose seemed designed tomake. “That’s dedication. You get paid for any of that time?”
“Five years ago, yeah,” It wasn’t always about money. A lot of the time, it was aboutreputation. The Wren never gave up. Never left a job unfinished. No matter what.
Okay, maybe some of it was about money. Her mother had spent most of her life worrying aboutmoney: how much, never enough. Having money-savvy Sergei Didier become her manager when she wasa teenager had given Wren the opportunity—and the education—she needed to change that. Overthe years, her reputation—and her fees—had grown. If she was careful, and kept working, hersavings would be enough to buy her apartment when it finally—inevitably—went co-op. More,Wren was now in the position of being able to have ego spur her to do things, rather than need.
Financial need, anyway.
The demon and the human were occupying the spare bedroom/library of Wren’s East Villageapartment, surrounded by three stacks of books, a scattering of papers, and the remains of twopizzas. The air was heavy with the scent of pepperoni, cheese, and a dry heat coming up throughthe building’s ancient radiators, making her sinuses itch.
Ego had its own need in it, too. The bansidhe—Old Sally—was the one job Wren hadn’t beenable to close. Yet. Her clients—descendants of the original owner—had, she suspected, longsince written off their initial deposit, but she couldn’t let go.
No, the whereabouts of one taxidermied warhorse, no matter that it was a portent of doom,didn’t really matter a damn to her. But professional pride was involved. With her last dyingbreath, if need be, she was going to bring that damn sawdust-stuffed equine doomsayer back in.Someday. When everything else got settled.
The thought made her laugh, bitterly. The Cosa was in the middle of a battle for survival
against enemies it hadn’t been able to identify, who were determined to wipe them out of thecity. Her partner’s former employers had screwed them over and left them to hang. The MageCouncil was playing their usual we-know-nothing, did-nothing game with the rest of the Cosa.
All in all, “settled” wasn’t something Wren expected to see anytime soon.
Although these past few weeks of the new year had been oddly if pleasantly calm: nobody had seta psi-bomb off anywhere near her; nobody had tried to bribe, threaten, hijack or otherwiseannoy her or any of her friends; Sergei was off on a legitimate business trip for his gallery;and she was actually catching up on her filing, bill-paying, and her exercise routine. Theentire city seemed to have come to a pause.
Hell, the entire city had come to a pause, thanks to the weather.
“It’s still snowing.” P.B. had given up staring at her, now looking out the window, onewhite-furred, black-clawed paw pushing aside the dark green drape. His short muzzle,which—along with the plush white fur and rounded bear-like ears—had been the cause of hisnickname of “Polar Bear,” pressed up against the glass, his breath causing the window to fogover.
“It’s been snowing for the past seven hours,” Wren said as patiently as she could manage.“This isn’t a news flash.” After two months of winter, snow of any sort wasn’t news.
The constant curtain of white was making her stir-crazy, too, but she could live with it.Without the snow, Wren had no confidence that the agreement she helped broker—that the EasternMage Council and tristate lonejacks would sit down and shut up and play nice together, at least
while they had murdering bigots out for their blood—would have held together longer than aweek, much less the month-and-counting.
It helped that attacks by those bigots who had been trying to “cleanse” Manhattan of anythingsupernatural had all but stopped. She didn’t think they were gone, though. The threat of the
finally working together, in however limited a fashion, wasn’t enough to work thatCosa
miracle, no matter what some of her fellow members might want to believe. No, it was far morelikely that frostbite was a hell of a deterrent—as was the fact that their prospective victimswere wisely staying inside, where it was warm.
No matter. She’d take whatever reason, if it gave them a breather.
P.B. turned away from the window and hopped down off the bench, kicking the pizza box with oneclawed foot as he moved. “Hey. There’s still a slice left.”
“I’m full,” he said, by his voice, borderline perturbed by that admission.
“You’re full?” That got her to look up. She stood, creaking unpleasantly in the knees, andwent over to look out the window, as well. “The Stomach that Digested Manhattan is full? Damn.There’s the fourth horseman, riding past.”
“Oh, shut up,” he snarled, uncharacteristically. “I wanted kung pao chicken, remember? Butyou didn’t want to order Chinese. For the first time ever, speaking of the end of the world.”
Wren didn’t snarl back at him, but only because she could feel current coil in her core, thepower looking for an excuse to get funky. Control. She needed to maintain control. P.B. knewwhy she didn’t want Chinese food. Or he should know, anyway. With Chinese food came Chinesefortune cookies. Fortune cookies, in this city, had an unpleasant tendency to be written byactual Seers. Sometimes, not knowing what was about to fall on your head was a blessing.
Wren counted backward from ten in English, then up again in Russian, the only thing she knew inthat language except for a few useful swear words. Stay calm, Valere. He was cranky. She wascranky. Stir-crazy didn’t look good on either one of them.
This was the third day of snow this week, snowing hard since dawn the day before, and P.B. hadbeen bunking with her for two days of it. She would have told him to go home, but Sergei hadbeen caught out of town when the airports shut down, and she had been glad enough for thecompany at that point to tell the demon that he could stay as long as he liked.
Apparently, he liked overnight.
Besides. She had no idea what P.B’s home was actually like, much less if it was currentlylivable. The law said landlords had to provide heat when it dropped below a certaintemperature, but the demon was unlikely to call the tenant complaint hotline, much less appealto a disciplinary board.
“We need to get out,” she said. “Do something.” Something other than eat and prod unrulypaperwork, anyway. She wasn’t able to focus properly on the lock schematics, so long as P.B.was restless.
“As you just pointed out, it’s been snowing all day. There’s, like, a foot of snow outthere. This, in case you missed it, is a problem for me.”
Wren turned and looked at the demon, all four feet of him standing upright and reaching. Thevision of him lost in a snowbank, only the black tips of his claws and the black tip of hisnose visible, made her laugh for the first time in days. She didn’t think he would appreciateher sharing the image, though.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said again. “Come on.”
It only took a few minutes for Wren to lace up her boots, pull on a sweater, and grab herheaviest coat out of the closet. The cold air was like a slap against her face, after the dryheat of her apartment, and she stuck out her tongue to catch a snowflake, just because shecould.