If you need to find the overall story to date, it’s here.
The hotel bar, the White Hart, was much easier to find than the exercise room. In hotels of its kind, all the corridors seem to lead to the bar eventually. We’d agreed to shower and meet up.
Biggles had gone to bed already, it seemed. No light showed underneath his door. Probably the day that I’d found so energizing had worn him out.
The Shifter, who’d introduced himself as Mario, was already at the bar when I got there, damp-haired and chatting with the bartender, a bespectacled young man who looked too young to be ending bar. Clearly entranced, he barely gave me a look as I sat down, instead focusing on pouring Mario a tall glass striped with layers of emerald and amber and scarlet.
I didn’t launch into an explanation of why I’d wandered into the exercise room smelling of a fight. I studied Mario as the bartender set the glass down in front of him with a flourish and retreated, blushing as though he’d suddenly realized that flirting with customers might not be his main priority. The Shifter gave me a sidelong look through eyelashes most women would have killed for and smirked. He cleaned up nicely in tight black jeans and a shirt in some sort of slubby, silky orange-brown fabric.
“I know, I know,” he drawled. “You’re thinking what a waste, eh?”
“Actually, I was wondering what kind of Shifter you are,” I said.
His eyes widened a trifle and lost their amused, sleepy look. “And where are you coming from with that?”
“The way you sniff the air,” I said. “I’ve been around enough of them that I can tell when someone’s relying as much on smell and sound as sight.”
The bartender pretended not to be overhearing. In this hotel, he’d probably heard a lot weirder.
“Pinot Gris and start a tab for me,” I told him. He nodded and retreated to the other end of the bar after pouring it for me. This late, the small space was nearly empty. A couple sat chatting near the entrance, leaning together and whispering, hands so close on the tabletop that their fingertips were touching, but just barely.
“Who do you work for, that you deal with a lot of shifters?”
I shrugged. “Used to. Work for the Bureau of Supernatural Relations and Investigations.”
“The Holiday Consortium. I think.”
His eyes widened and he set down his drink. “You think? Girl, that’s the sort of outfit that you know whether or not you work for it because if you’re claiming an affiliation you shouldn’t, they will hear of it and smack you down before you even remember the words.”
Mario proved a surprisingly sympathetic ear. He whistled with admiration at the right places, gasped with surprise in others, and made sympathetic noises exactly at the point they were most called for. He himself was a traveling salesman, representing wheat-based cat litter (“Don’t even ASK how I got into that, chica!”), and yearning only to get back to New York and his boyfriend there, whose name was Bob and was an Older Gentleman. He proved surprisingly well versed in the whys and ways of the Holiday Consortium — apparently every Supernatural knew of its existence. By the time the story was done, the couple’s hands had inched together, clasping, until finally they paid their bill and left with intertwined hands.
“So they got you chasing ephemera, eh?” Mario said.
“Ephemera? What do you mean?”
“It’s what we call them. Temporary creatures made by belief.”
“Why didn’t anyone ever mention this in school?”
He laughed. “You think after just a few years, you humans will know everything about is? Or, for that matter, we’d know everything about you?”
“This is the sort of thing people write papers about and study,” I said. “The Efficacy of Human Belief in the Promulgation of Imagination-based Supernatural Lifeforms.”
He shook his head. “No one likes to talk about them.”
He sipped from his glass, draining a ring of green whose edges lingered in the next, cherry red layer.
“Think about it. Would you want to admit that your entire existence might be based on the brain cells of a primitive creature?” He gave me a wry smile. “Because, face it, that’s how most of them think of you humans. Little better than talking monkeys.” The liquid in the glass trembled as he set it down ago. He smiled at the bartender as he spoke, but there was something about his tone that set my spine on edge at the words. “Is that what you’d want to be? The dream of a talking monkey?”
I frowned. “You’re saying everything supernatural was created that way.”
“Theories… differ. Some people get very heated about them, one way or the other. But, yes, there are some who think that werewolves like myself are just someone’s fear of the shadows outside the firelight when a wolf howls.”
“Is that what you believe?”
He shook his head as though shaking off water or bad dreams. “I believe you and I should have another drink.”
“I can’t,” I said. “Got to hit the road early in the morning.”
“Where did you say you were headed?”
And that question, even though I liked Mario, liked his impish expression and his sly gossip, blared out as wrong. He wasn’t asking just because he was curious where I might find myself the next day. No, he wanted that information, for himself or someone else.
“I didn’t,” I said, and let him see what was in my eyes.
To do him justice, he didn’t waste time trying to deny it. “Sorry, that went too far. But listen, Emma. You may find there’s more beings on the side of the Ephemerals than you think.”
“Beings who think they share an origin.”
“Exactly.” He shrugged and drained the last of his glass. The bartender was watching. I don’t think he realized how naked the expression was on his face. Mario stretched and looked at him that said he knew exactly how naked it was, and how much more naked the bartender would be willing to get.
“Good hunting, hermana,” Mario said, his eyes still on the young man. “But think about it, when you’re up against your first target. Does it really have less right to live than you or I?”
I didn’t say anything, and he turned back to me.
“Just think about it,” he said. “I’ll ask you, when I see you next.”
“Don’t you mean if?”
But he only shook his head.
In the night’s smallest hours, I woke. I lay awake in the darkness, wondering what had roused me. Some danger? Some unseen menace? But then I heard Biggles snoring in the other room, a raucous, full blown snore worthy of a much larger creature.
Tomorrow we had another day of driving in front of us. The car’s GPS indicated we’d get there before nightfall if we got an early start. And then I’d face the first target the Holiday Consortium has assigned me to.
It was different, this job, than what I’d done for the Bureau. There I’d taken out targets that had already done harm, that were prepared to do more. Rogue vampires or insane were-lions. Demons. Ghosts.
No cartoon pigs. No cartoon pigs at all.
Maybe this wasn’t right, what I’d be doing for the Consortium. On the other hand, come on, I’d been sent on this mission not by God himself but by someone who surely had to rank pretty high up there: Santa Claus.
When I got back, I resolved, I was going to get answers to all of the questions plaguing me. If the Consortium really wanted me working for them, then they could pony up some information, privileged or not. It was ridiculous to expect me to work without knowing everything, in fact, like working with an unnecessary handicap.
No, they’d give me answers. And by the time all of this was over, I’d know a lot about the Supernatural World, more than any of my college professors had, apparently. With that ort of knowledge, that sort of experience, I could write my own ticket anyway.
No, this was all a good thing.
Had to be a good thing.
I shoved my doubts away and went back to sleep.
Biggles was far too cheerful, downright bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in a way that gave new meaning to the term, in the morning, but I managed to avoid him until I got my coffee and had a chance to wake up. I settled behind the wheel, wishing once again that he were legally capable of taking some of the driving, and off we set.
I glanced in the rear-view mirror as we pulled away. Mario stood in the hotel entranceway, watching us.
When I see you again, he’d said. Not if.
Biggles was quieter than he’d been the first day. After thirty miles, I finally said, “Something bothering you?”
“Sure,” he said. “Fairy. You don’t want to get mixed up with Fairy. They’re all ball shit crazy. Hey, where’s the invisibility cloak?”
“In my luggage,” I said. “I’m keeping it safe until I can get it back to Harriet.”
“Because it’s hers!”
“Probably not,” he said. “That’s a magical artifact. A thing of power. You said she’s an ordinary human woman.”
I opened my mouth to reply, then closed it. It was true. There was no reason for Harriet to have a cloak of invisibility. She had to have gotten it from somewhere and something like that wasn’t come by easily.
A thought occurred to me. “Do you think that’s what the Hound was after?”
He gave me a bright-eyed look and stroked his whiskers with a paw. “You know, it could be.”
“How did it know that I was there?”
His eyes narrowed. “Think about it. How did you remember you had it?”
“Harriet asked about it.”
“You don’t think…”
“That your friend is involved in something over her head and tipped off the Fairies as to your location so they could send something to get the scarf?”
“No,” I said firmly. “Harriet was my friend. Is my friend. No matter what, she wouldn’t do a thing like that.”
He shrugged. “You know best, Boss.” The sarcasm in his voice let me know exactly how stupid I was being.
We didn’t exchange another word till we hit Vegas.
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