"Can you think of anything that might help me?
Robert's wife Melinda sighed. "I don't… I mean she always kept it so under wraps. We've heard her wail before but she was so discreet about it. This isn't normal for her."
An elderly black woman in a mumu descended the staircase. "Has that girl gotten Margie down yet?"
"I'm working on it," I told her.
"You tell her, she better not miss our bingo tomorrow night."
I headed to the pole. Part of me sympathized with Mrs. McSweeney. The three law enforcement agencies that regulated life in US post-Shift, the Military Supernatural Defense Unit or MSDU, the Paranormal Activity Division, PAD, and my illustrious employer, the Order of Merciful Aid, all certified banshees as harmless. Nobody has yet been able to link their wails to any deaths or natural disasters. But folklore blamed banshees for all sorts of nefarious things. They were rumored to drive people mad with their scream and kill children with a mere look. Plenty of people would be nervous about living next to a banshee and I could understand why Mrs. McSweeney went to great length to hide who she was. She didn't want her friends to shun her or her family.
Unfortunately, no matter how well you hide, sooner or later your big secret will bite you in the behind, and you might find yourself standing on a telephone pole, not sure why or how you had gotten there, while the neighborhood pretends not to hear your piercing screeches.
Yeah. I was the one to talk. When it came to hiding one's identity, I was an expert. I burned my bloody bandages, so nobody could identify me by magic in my blood. I hid my power. I tried very hard not to make friends and mostly succeeded. Because when my secret came to life, I wouldn't end up on top of the pole. I would be dead and all my friends would be dead with me.
I approached the pole and looked at Mrs. McSweeney. "Alright. I'm going to count to three and then you have to come down."
She shook her head.
"Mrs. McSweeney! You're making a spectacle out of yourself. Your family is worried about you and you have bingo tomorrow night. You don't want to miss it, do you?"
She bit her lip.
"We will do it together." I climbed three steps up the ladder. "On three. One, two, three, step!"
I took a step down and watched her do the same. Thank you, whoever you are upstairs.
"One more. One, two, three, step."
We took another step, and then she took one by herself. I jumped to the ground. "That's it."
Mrs. McSweeney paused. Oh no.
She looked at me with her sad eyes and asked, "You won't tell anyone, will you?"
I glanced at the windows of the apartment building. She had wailed loud enough to wake the dead and make them call the cops. But in this day and age, people banded together. One couldn't rely on tech or on magic, only on your family and neighbors. They were willing to keep her secret, no matter how absurd it seemed, and so was I.
"I won't tell anyone," I promised.
Two minutes later she was heading to her apartment, and I was wrestling with the ladder, trying to make it fit into the space under the stairs, from which the super had gotten it for me.
My day had started at five with a frantic man running through the hallway of the Atlanta Chapter of the Order of Merciful Aid and screaming that a dragon with a cat head had gotten into New Hope School and would devour the children. The dragon turned out to be a small tatzelwyrm, which I unfortunately, was unable to subdue without cutting its head off. That was the first time I got sprayed with blood today.
Then I had to help Mauro get a two-headed fresh water serpent out of an artificial pond at the ruins of One Atlantic Center in Buckhead. It took me and the huge Samoan knight almost an hour, and by the end of the ordeal we were both swearing like a couple of sailors on shore leave, who got kicked out of the bar midway through the ladies night.
The day went downhill from there. It was past midnight now. I was dirty, tired, hungry, smeared with four different types of blood, and I wanted to go home. Also my boots stank because the serpent had vomited a half-eaten cat corpse on my feet.
I finally managed to stuff the ladder in its place and left the apartment building for the parking lot, where my female mule Marigold was tied to a metal rack set up there for precisely that purpose. I had gotten within ten feet of her when I saw a half-finished swastika drawn on her rump in green paint. The paint stick lay broken on the ground. There was also some blood and what looked like a tooth. I looked closer. Yep, definitely a tooth.
"Had an adventure, did we?"
Marigold didn't say anything, but I knew from experience that approaching her from behind was Not a Good Idea. She kicked like a mule, probably because she was one.
If not for the Order's brand on her other butt cheek, Marigold might have been stolen tonight. Fortunately, the knights of the Order had a nasty habit of magically tracking the thieves and coming down on them like a ton of bricks.
I untied her, mounted and we braved the night.
Typically technology and magic switched at least once every couple of days, usually more often than that. But two months ago we had been hit with a flare, a wave so potent, it drowned the city like a magic tsunami, making impossible things a reality. For three days demons and gods had walked the streets and human monsters had great difficulty controlling themselves. I had spent the flare on the battlefield, helping a handful of shapeshifters butcher a demonic horde.
It had been an epic occurrence all around. I still had vivid dreams about it, not exactly nightmares, but intoxicating, surreal visions of blood and gleaming blades and death.
The flare had burned out, leaving technology firmly in control of the world. For two months cars started without fail, electricity held the darkness at bay, and air conditioning made Georgia August blissful. We even had TV. On Monday night they had shown a movie, Terminator 2, hammering home the point: it could always be worse.
Then, on Wednesday right around noon, the magic hit. And Atlanta went to hell.
I wasn't sure if people had deluded themselves into thinking the magic wouldn't come back or if they had been caught unprepared, but we've never had so many calls for help since I had started with the Order. Unlike the Mercenary Guild, for which I also worked, the knights of the Order of Merciful Aid helped anyone and everyone regardless of their ability to pay. They charged only what you could afford and a lot of times nothing at all. We had been flooded with pleas. I managed to catch four hours of sleep on Wednesday night and then it was up and running again. Technically it was Friday now, I was plagued by persistent fantasies of hot shower, food, and soft sheets. I had made an apple pie a couple of days ago and I still had a slice left for tonight.
"Kate?" Maxine's stern voice echoed through my head, distant but clear.
I didn't jump. After the marathon of the last forty eight hours hearing the Order's telepathic secretary in my head seemed perfectly normal. Sad but true.
"I'm sorry, dear, but the pie might have to wait."
What else is new? Maxine didn't read thoughts on purpose but if I concentrated on something hard enough, she couldn't help but catch a hint of it.
"I have a green seven, called in by a civilian."
Dead shapeshifter. Anything shapeshifter-related was mine. The shapeshifters distrusted the outsiders, and I was the only employee of the Atlanta chapter of the Order who enjoyed Friend of the Pack status. Enjoyed being a relative term. Mostly my status meant that the shapeshifters might let me say a couple of words before deciding to fillet me. They took paranoid to a new level.
"Where is it?"
"Corner of Ponce de Leon and Dead Cat."
Twenty minutes by mule. Chances were, the Pack knew the death took place already. Ugh. I turned Marigold and headed north. "I'm on it."