If you’re starting from the beginning, I suggest going here.
This is Chapter Ten. Next week, I’ll be releasing chapters on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, in order to try that schedule and see how well it works with my writing pace.
When the Supernatural World collided with our own in 2005, ours became a little bit more surreal. Well, maybe a lot more surreal.
But Las Vegas was already there. Already as surreal as it could be.
It wasn’t my first visit. Something about Vegas and the flux and eddy of luck there draws supernatural creatures like ants to spilled sugar. It’s always struck me as an odd place. The minute you step out of the car, you know none of this is supposed to be there, really. It’s all supported by imported supplies and piped in water and a constant stream of new people, new money. Take any of those away and the place would wither like a flower with a snapped stem.
We came in from the north on 15 and rolled down the Strip, past Treasure Island’s pirate ship, Caesar’s Palace, Bellagio’s dancing fountains, New York, New York and then the castle of the Excalibur. Between it and the enormous glass pyramid of the Luxor, lit with blue light and shining like an upraised sword, was our destination. The Hidden World. The only casino owned by supernaturals, the only casino in which they wouldn’t be regarded with suspicion and tested for luck charms and telekinetic powers.
I looked over at Biggles. “You think whoever sent the hound is going to strike at us here?”
“Did you tell your friend where we were going?”
I cast my mind back over the conversation. “No.”
“You tell your boyfriend?”
“That Were that was watching you leave. Didn’t you go drinking with him? Came in pretty late.” The sanctimonious little sniff that punctuated the sentence was worthy of a great-grandmother.
“Not my boyfriend and I didn’t tell him where we were going. No one’s tracking us that way.”
“Then we should be safe enough,” Biggles said, although his voice was unconvinced.
The light turned green and I pulled the car forward into the line for valet parking.
“Still,” I said.
He nodded. “Still. It’s Fairy.”
We left the last part of that sentence unspoken. Nobody likes to fuck with Fairy.
That’s something humans learned fast when Newt Gingrich turned out to be a Fairy changeling and the real Newt came back, thoroughly immersed in the Fairy mindset and ready to use all the glamours he’d learned in order to try to seize the White House. Hence the four years that the history books are starting to call “The Weird Administration,” responsible for the patchwork of laws and statutes and limitations we’ve placed on the supernaturals in our midst, because the unicorn was out of the barn and there would be no coaxing it back in.
One of the things humans had had to come to terms with were Fairies, although thank God (one presumed) there were faw fewer of them than one might thnk.
Fairies are crueler, more capricious than Fate could ever be. The legends didn’t even do them justice. They’re all sociopaths, living by social rules we can’t even begin to understand.
But at the same time, humans love them. We can’t help it. It must be something genetic, that attraction, wired into us when we were primitives and first saw those glowing perfect forms flitting through the dark woods.
“So this is where the pig is?” I said as valets and bellhops moved towards us.
Biggles shook his head. “Nope.”
“Then why are we here?”
“It’s how we get to where we’re going.”
One black and silver uniform had my bags and Biggles’ basket, another was hustling the car away. A third was at my elbow, steering me to check-out.
Biggles stayed by my side, but no one gave him a second look. He certainly wasn’t the oddest denizen of the lobby, which was mirrored so that it seemed to stretch out forever, a swirling mass of beings flowing through the aisles of slot machines and tables.
Supernaturals aren’t allowed in most of the human-run casinos, except as entertainers, as with Vlad’s Castle or the Golden Fleece. But the Hidden World is jointly-owned by a couple of their larger power groups, and was part of the Treaty of ‘07. And so there were plenty here, the usual things like vampires and shifters, goblin-folk, mers, a few Fey or one stripe or another. Dressed for a night on the town in sparkle and bling, black leather and velvets of a color I’d swear I’d never seen before, an almost ultramarine, shimmering with an inner, silvery light.
I must have been gawping like an idiot. I craned my neck around to see — had that strapping blonde woman really been a Valkyrie? — when I collided with someone and went sprawling on the golden coins woven into the midnight-blue carpet.
The body I’d encountered, though matching my own in size, had been much more solid somehow, as though I’d encountered a boulder carved into humanoid form. Still, she looked slight, as though a breeze might blow her away as she stood, arms akimbo, glaring down at me. I closed me eyes and swallowed. We’d been worried about Fairy and here its living embodiment stood in front of me, wearing a pink and purple jumpsuit and sequined kitten heeled slippers that should have looked gaudy but somehow managed to be refined.
The very bitchiest of a phalanx of bitchy Fairy princesses, Titania herself.
“This is not good,” I heard Biggles whisper.
I opened my eyes and looked up at her, trying to instill awe into my eyes. “Your majesty!” I scrambled to my feet, trying to look adulatory. Fairies live for adulation. “I’m so sorry, your Exaltedness!” It occurred to me to wonder why I was pitching my voice an octave higher, but I figured it was all part of the persona. I fluttered my hands nervously, imploring her to forgive me, thinking small and harmless thoughts, trying to make it clear how unworthy of attention I was.
She stood there, staring at me with an ice blue stare for at least a minute before turning on her heel and leaving. The smell of raspberries and musk lingered in the air after her.
The breath I had been holding escaped me. I sagged back.
“Not bad,” Biggles said, somewhat grudgingly.
The bellhop who’d been steering me originally had been standing there in frozen terror. He grabbed me and steered me towards the front desk even faster.
Once there, I found I had reservations already, and in the suite itself, realized they were some of the best in the place. Biggles seemed less appreciative.
“Sure, it’s nice,” he said. “But what floor do you think Titania will be staying on? this one. Better change floors. She definitely noticed you. Give her time to forget your face.”
The new rooms, three floors down, weren’t as nice but I had to admit that Biggles had the right of it. I was willing to give up an en-suite hot tub if the only way it came was with the risk of being turned into whatever it was that Titania was fond of turning people into nowadays. Last year it had been pink lamps. Before that, pastries. Weird are the ways of Fairy, particularly when they think they’re catering to humans.
“All right,” I said once I’d tipped the bellhop and we were alone. “This isn’t where the pig will be, but it’s where we’re staying?”
“Have you ever heard of the Shadow Casino?” Biggles said.
He nodded as though this answer surprised him not in the least “Of course. And that’s because it’s for supernaturals and their guests only. It’s adjacent to this place.”
“What do you mean, adjacent? Do you mean it’s inside the Luxor?”
“No. The entrance to it is only through this place.”
“Through it how.”
“We go to its shadow. That’s how we get in. Its location varies, according to the time of the day.”
“What if it’s night?”
“The sun’s not the only thing that casts shadows.”
Biggles wouldn’t say much beyond that. Instead he insisted on going for a bath and pointedly suggesting that I do the same after the day of travel.
“Dress up and we’ll go scope out where the pig is performing.”
“He’s performing at the Shadow Casino. You’ll see.”
Post shower, I came out in jeans and a clean shirt. Biggles shook his head. “Dress up more. You’re already going to stand out as one of the few humans.”
No one had warned me that I needed an outfit worthy of a night at a Vegas show and it wasn’t really standard issue for a Bureau agent. But I managed to make do with what I’d taken from the Goodwill box and a hurried trip through the hotel gift shop (armed with the credit card, of which I was becoming increasingly fond), ending up with something presentable if not totally wow. I debated what to do with it, but finally folded the invisibility scarf as small as possible and stuffed it in the bottom of the tiny black velvet purse I’d bought in the gift shop which was, as advertised, much bigger on the inside than the outside (and priced accordingly, I might add).
Biggles inspected me and snorted. “I guess you’ll do. It’s better at least.”
Strong words, given that he’d changed his little green vest for a paisley one and was wearing a pair of spectacles I hadn’t seen on him before. They made him look more than ever like a stuffed toy.
“You think you’re going to get laid or something?” I asked, and regretted it immediately. Biggles’ love life, or any lack thereof, wasn’t any of my business.
“Yeah, right,” he said. “The Holiday Consortium sent us to Vegas because they were worried I wasn’t getting any trim. No, the glasses are standard gear, let you see through minor illusions. That’s something these creatures specialize in, being half glamour themselves.”
“Then why don’t I have a pair too?”
“Hey!” he protested, swiping at me with a paw as I snagged them off his face. “Those are calibrated to me! I’m here to tell you if I spot any illusions.”
I reluctantly handed them back. “How do you know if you’re seeing an illusion? Won’t it just look normal to you?”
“I’ll see both of them at once,” he huffed, resettling them on his nose. “It’s unmistakable if you’re trained to spot it.” He extended a paw. “Ready, Boss?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I suspect.” I said. “But – wait. What can I expect from the Shadow Casino?”
He squinted at me unhelpfully. “That’s the problem,” he said. “I’d suggest going in without any expectations.”
“Because I’ll be disappointed when they’re not met?”
He shook his head, ears flopping in emphasis.
“That’s not when to worry,” he said. “The problem will be when your expectations are met.”
Remember all the furor in 2005, how for a period of three months, everything was supernatural sitcoms, news, reality shows, Burger King souvenir glasses, all of that? And then it all died down (mostly) and it was as though everyone had agreed they just shouldn’t pay much attention to the supernaturals. Maybe, we thought, if we just ignore it, everything will go back to normal.
That hasn’t been the case, of course. They’re still there, and some things will never be the same.
But for most people, things haven’t changed all that much. Sure there are some folks who got driven a little nuts by it all, like the members of the Anti-Supernatural League. And the fantasy writers all turned to nonfiction or military thrillers, it seemed, because elves aren’t as much fun to write about once you’ve had one bagging your purchase in a shop. We didn’t grumble too much about changes because we owed them something. It was Fairy dollars (not gold, everyone knows better than that, of course) that helped revitalize the US and world economy during the economic slump.
Some people love the supernaturals, an equal-sized group hates it, but for the most part people don’t care. It seems short-sighted to me, since so much of the supernatural world is downright dangerous for humans, but there you have it.
So not everyone would have appreciated our approach to the Shadow Casino. It stretched out behind the building that held the Hidden World. A sweep of darkness so black that it seemed to swallow all the light, drink it down until not even a photon was left.
We stepped into that blackness. Shadows slithered over my skin like cold and living things.
“Biggles,” I said, and tried not to sound panicked.
“Trust me, Boss. You’re in good paws.”
What could I do? I’d been told he’d be my helper. I’d let him help me. So I kept walking forward, Biggles’ paw gripped in my hand, feeling soft and hairy and hot.
Gradually the blackness cleared and I began to make out shadows within the shadows.
The structure we were in was a casino, sure. But wherever a regular casino would have been light, it was dark, a cold blackness as decorative as any neon, in its own way, although much more somber. Where lights would have chased themselves along the edges of gambling machines, clots of blackness roiled and the machines showed odd symbols instead of fruit: ankhs and spirals and lidless, glowing red eyes.
As my eyes adjusted, I realized that the Shadow Casino was as packed with supernatural creatures as the Hidden World had been. But here many of them were kinds I’d only read about in class, and others I didn’t recognize at all: a white-haired gentleman with a unicorn’s horn in the middle of his forehead, and a moth-winged woman who I first thought was wearing a green and gold cape. A bat-eared creature riding some sort of clockwork ostrich.
I followed Biggles’ white fur through the throng and down a corridor. Navigating here felt odd, as though I was half in this world and half out of it, as though I might run into obstacles that I couldn’t perceive, as though half my senses were muffled. We were in an auditorium, I could tell, but I wasn’t entirely clear on what it looked like.
“Is there any way to make it clearer?” I whispered to Biggles as we groped our way along an aisle, finding a place to sit. Luckily the place was nearly deserted, but I still managed to step solidly on the feet of a squid-headed creature, whose tentacles flapped in clammy indignation at me.
“Sorry,” I muttered, and let Biggles tug me down into a padded seat.
If my vision didn’t clear soon,this would all be useless. But it did seem to be getting better, just so slowly, so imperceptibly that I was looking at the stage long before I realized that a silhouette stood in the spot of darkness.
A cartoon pig. I’d wondered what the Ephemerals would look like. My m other after all, who was one if them (if Santa could be trusted to tell the truth), seemed as human as anyone. But this creature was clearly not human and, just as clearly, you could tell he wasn’t someone in a costume. It was an anthropomorphic pig, complete with bulbous snout and tiny black eyes that should have looked cheerful just somehow looked dead.
“Why are we here?” I whispered to Biggles. “What’s he going to do?”
“Try to make us laugh.”
“What?” Odd scenarios flashed through my head. Fairies and supernaturals had all sorts of odd customs and traditions. Say thanks to a brownie and it was a mortal insult, for example. So who’s to say?
But the explanation was simple. “He’s a stand-up comedian,” he said. “Now shush.”
“Great to be here, f-f-folks!” the pig said. He mopped at the sweat rolling down his pink skin with a handkerchief improbably grasped in a fore trotter.
He looked out over the crowd and met my eyes. The mike swayed as he pushed away from it.
The pig ran.