Standard disclaimers apply. Takes place between White Knight and Small Favor.
To Eddie, who accidentally gave me this idea, and to Lady Nightspike, my long-suffering beta. You both rock.
Growing up in a big city like Los Angeles, you quickly learn a couple of ground rules. Actually, the 'big city' part isn't necessary; common sense is the same everywhere. One of the major ones is 'Don't pick fights with people bigger than you.' Pretty straightforward, right? Inside the 'bigger than you' category, I include people who are actually, physically bigger than you, people who are more ruthless than you, and people who could get away with detaining you on some trumped up charge just because you rubbed them the wrong way. Not arresting you, exactly, but doing a pretty damn good impression of it. For instance, cops.
Cops get no respect, and I can't for the life of me understand why. Maybe it's just that old stereotype of the fat old beat cop pigging out on doughnuts. Whatever it is, people seem to hang onto it with both hands. Anything rather than accepting the idea that the person ticketing you could actually be a smart, competent professional, I suppose. The truth is, particularly in a big city with a high crime rate, cops have to be good at their jobs if they're going to get anything done at all. The vast majority of them are dangerous combatants and capable investigators all wrapped up into neat little packages… and secured with pretty little bows made entirely out of red tape.
For all of these reasons and more, it's a smart idea to stay on good terms with officers of the law. They can make it incredibly difficult to operate at all, much less complete, say, a complex covert operation. And sure, that part with the red tape can be annoying as hell, but what are you gonna do?
Keeping all this in mind, I struggled to hold onto my patience as I repeated myself for what seemed like the billionth time, my voice tight through gritted teeth. "Look. Miss—"
"Officer," she interrupted in a bored tone, dark blond eyebrows going up over pretty, gray-blue eyes that were entirely too cold for such a gorgeous face. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, and was burnished to an interesting orange color by the overhead streetlight. She was young—younger than me—which made her 'authority figure' act even more annoying, and had the kind of figure that made it difficult to focus on what she was saying.
In Los Angeles, you tend to have two types of professionals: average-looking people (who are actually much more common than you would expect) and the beautiful people who come here expecting to make it big acting or singing or playing the harmonica. They crash and burn, or (more optimistically) realize that they were never cut out for showbiz to begin with, and hurriedly shift themselves into some other, more practical career path. This girl struck me forcibly as a member of the latter group; despite her cold demeanor, she looked more like a Playboy Playmate dressed up as a naughty police girl than an actual cop.
Normally, of course, I would have just used my natural good looks and buckets of charm to smooth things over, but…well lets just say that I'd already tried that, and she had proved, for some unfathomable reason, to be less than impressed. Hey, even buckets of charm are useless when the girl is insane. Or maybe she just didn't swing in my direction.
Which left me trying to explain that I did in fact have a valid concealed carry permit on the side of an empty LA street (an empty San Pedro street, if you want to get specific) at 10:30pm on an overcast, miserable Wednesday. It wasn't raining, at least—in LA the sky has to threaten you for at least two days before it'll actually do anything—but the air coming in from the ocean was distinctly wet and cold. The streetlight above us flickered dangerously as I struggled to hold onto my temper. "Officer," I agreed amiably…if 'amiably' had suddenly become an adjective for sounding like I was having sandpaper rubbed over my gums, "I'm kind of in a hurry, so—"
"I'm just clearing your permit," she told me sharply, her jaw tightening. I tried not to notice the rather interesting things this did to the strong, slender lines of her throat. Damn, even by LA standards, this girl was fine.
That didn't stop my voice from gaining an even more obvious edge. "For the third time?" I didn't have time for this crap. I really, literally, did not have the time. Or, rather, it was very possible that the informant I was supposed to be meeting didn't have the time. He or she could have been getting torn to bits while I stood there twiddling my thumbs, and it was all because some ridiculously hot girl-cop had decided I looked like trouble. "Give me a break, lady!"
"Officer!" She repeated the word in a low snarl.
I rolled my eyes and fell silent, as there didn't seem to be much that I could say to her without—
I turned back to look at her, my stance shifting subtly as my narrowing eyes played over her lovely face. "…What did you say your name was, Officer?" I asked, trying to keep my tone light.
"It's James," she said curtly, glaring at me suspiciously, "Brandi James." The way she said it, I could actually hear that stupid 'i' she'd put in the place of the 'y' at the end of her first name.
"Okay, Brandi," I acknowledged, my voice still bright. Actually, it was a little too bright. A sudden, colorful, completely unwanted image of Dora the Explorer flashed through my head, along with a cheerful, 'Can you say 'pendejo,' kids? Pendejo!' Seeing as I've never actually watched the show, this was even more disturbing than it would have been otherwise. "Can I run something by you real quick?"
"That's Officer J—"
"No," I cut in smoothly, treating her to my best, blindingly condescending smile. It was something of a switch from polite exasperation, admittedly, and it might have seemed like I was trying to piss her off…mostly because I was. "It's really not. I'm not an idiot, little girl, and your timing is entirely too convenient. Also, you are entirely too good looking." Her face and posture had been in the process of shifting from wary to legitimately angry, but one of her eyebrows went up.
I continued without pausing. "I know cops and there is no way that a real one would put up with having to wear an outfit like that, especially since female police officers have such a hard time gaining equal footing as is. I mean, the whole idea of putting cops in uniform is to allow for some measure of standardization; what's the point when it's… what? A size too small? Two sizes? You're supposed to look like an authority figure, and you don't. You look like the kind of distraction that someone would send to delay a guy who still considers buying alcohol legally something of a novelty." It had totally worked, too. Dammit. I paused for a beat (mostly for effect), then coolly added, "Oh, and your badge is fake. A good fake, but a fake." I actually wasn't sure about that last part, but it sounded really, really good.
She just stared at me with those gorgeous eyes of hers, her face an unreadable mask. It was enough to make my heartbeat speed up. I'd been trying to get on what had seemed like her last nerve, and now she was calmer than she'd been since the very beginning of our little confrontation.
Mostly to break that overwhelmingly tense silence, as well as to cover up my own buzzing nerves, I continued only a moment or two later. "So here's what I figure happened: somebody came up to you and offered you double your hourly rates if you'd put on a cop costume and bother me for about fifteen minutes or so." There were two other possibilities that I could think of right off the bat, but bringing up either of them would have been counterproductive to the extreme. She blinked, her eyes widening by a small but noticeable amount. "I'm not angry," I continued, my voice softening very slightly, "But I'm leaving now. If you really are a cop, you'll have to arrest me. Good night, Miss." With that, I turned on my heel and started walking away, stuffing both of my hands in the pockets of my light jacket. There was still time to meet the informant…if he or she wasn't already dead.
There wasn't much warning, just a low growl that shivered through the air at an almost sub-audible volume. It was enough, though. I threw myself forward into a badly executed forward roll, and something big swiped through the air where my chest had been a second before. As I moved, I pulled my hands out of my pockets. One of them was covered in a steel-plated glove and inscribed with exotic symbols. The other held a homemade flash bang, which happened to look absolutely nothing like a flash bang; that was the only reason Brandi had missed it during her pat down. I would have preferred my gun, but since she'd taken that, I had to work with what was available.
As I came out of the roll, I brought my gloved hand up, palm pointing directly toward the cloudy night sky. Focusing on the glove (and trying to ignore the fact that, in my hurry to get the damn thing on, I'd somehow stuffed both my middle and index fingers through one of the finger holes), I forced my will through the runes, muttered a soft and somewhat garbled word of command, and a transparent dome of what looked like glowing green goo swirled into existence over my hand, looking for all the world like something from one of those Alien VS Predator movies…which, for the record, I have never seen, and would not even if I was physically capable of doing so without breaking someone's fancy DVD player or plasma screen TV.
How the hell did I do it? Simple. I'm a wizard. Carlos Ramirez, Regional Commander for the Wardens and full wizard of the White Council, to be specific. Basically, I'm like the magical equivalent of…what? A detective? A sergeant? I've never been really hot on that whole ranking system, much to the annoyance of my acquaintances in the LAPD. Anyway, I fight supernatural crime, kick supernatural butt, and ride zombie dinosaurs. Encantado.
The next instant, a thick black arm tipped with nightmarish claws and covered in pounds of rubbery muscle came down on my shield like a mallet…but with claws. Um… a claw hammer? …But a really big one. It connected with my shield, which flared an even brighter green at the site of impact, sending out dizzying concentric rings along the gooey surface…and then continued right on through.
… Sort of.
It came through the other side, all right, but as a pulped mess of blood and bone fragments no bigger than grains of sand. The entire lovely concoction splattered messily against my (formerly) white T-shirt, and I groaned. "Dios. I have got to get a better shield spell."
At that exact moment, the street light above us, which was the only one for a good hundred or two hundred feet, let out a funny whining sound and let out a few feeble sparks. Then it flickered, and then it died, leaving the whole scene drenched in shadows. I swallowed a small choking sound and pressed my lips together in a tight line to keep anything else from getting out., trying to draw some comfort from the dim, eerie light of my shield. I don't like being in the dark, especially not with… things, and especially not since the summer before. The urge to call up real, useful light was almost a physical force, rising up in my chest to wrap around my throat, threatening to choke me with fluttering, mindless panic.
Ghouls. Ghouls everwhere. Monsters everywhere. I can't see them! Suffocating in blood…eating children and…pressing in…monsters… Some small part of my mind started silently chittering something else, something even more irrational, the words rhythmic and heavy with ritual. Padre nuestro que estás en los cielos. Santificado sea tu Nombre. Venga tu reino, hágase tu voluntad, en la tierra como en el cielo…
Naturally, my attacker chose that exact moment to let out a yowling, thoroughly inhuman scream of surprise and pain. I heard it stumble back a step, and then everything went very quiet… save for hungry, mewling sounds every few seconds, sounds that came from that same, inhuman throat.
Which made it even more unnerving when Brandi spoke the next moment. It was raw with pain, and so full of rage that it hit me like a physical blow to the gut, but still clearly human. Clearly female, and lovely, and pitched so that the breathless pain and smokey anger almost sounded…um… Anyway, it was definitely her. "It is over, Warden," she snarled. Another one of those funny little sounds escaped her—almost a whimper, but there wasn't anything vulnerable about it. It was a feral, eager sound. "You shield will fall soon, and then I will have you." Ah. My attacker and Brandi were one and the same; that meant that she was either a ghoul or a vampire. Ghouls didn't sound even remotely human once they had resumed their true form, so…
"Why, Brandi!" I replied, sounding aghast. There was no way to tell from my voice that goosebumps had just broken out all over my skin. Threats, even empty ones, were scary as hell in a setting like that. Still, actually hearing her voice had gotten my mental gibbering completely under control; it wasn't like I was afraid of her. "For shame! It's too soon! What will Mother think? Madre de Dios, we're both so young!"
There was a long pause. "… You think you're funny, don't you?" Brandi asked, her voice flat.
"Well…" I hedged, overdone modesty dripping from the word.
She didn't let me finish. "Funny will not save you, Warden," she hissed at me. The source of her voice shifted slightly, and my adjusting eyes detected movement to the left of where she'd been. "Your informant is already dead, you know. She probably died crying. Screaming. My friends didn't feed on her; they just ripped her apart." Teeth gleamed in the darkness, savagely pointed and too big for a human mouth. "Now that's funny."
I could feel a furious, anxious, and (most of all) stupid retort bubbling up in my throat like a swallowed breath of air (probably something about her mother, knowing what my brain tends to come up with in situations like that), and my concentration wavered. For just an instant, my shield fickered, and in that instant Brandi surged forward, coming to within grabbing distance in the space of a breath. The dome of green light actually cut off the tips of her undamaged hand as it hummed back into existence, spraying my face with dark, hot blood. I couldn't slip up like that again; if one stupid vampire (named Brandi) actually managed to kill me, I'd never hear the end of it.
The creature jerked back again, letting out a sharp hiss of pain. My eyes had adjusted enough that I could make out most of her true, monstrous form by that point, and I fought down the welling disgust that assaulted me whenever I saw a Red Court vampire.
She was batlike in shape, but huge, with glistening, oily black skin and thick slabs of muscle, covered in odd spots by shreds of matte fabric that could only be the remains of her uniform. Flabby black breasts hung down over her chest, and her legs were bent backwards at the knees, like a big cat's. One of her arms ended a few inches up from where her wrist should have been, but if it was hurting her at all, I couldn't tell from her posture. Her face was wholly alien, with huge black eyes and a mouthful of teeth that would've made a shark jealous.
That horrible mouth opened, and Brandi's voice came out once again, musical and sweet despite the venom in it. "Looks like you're having trouble concentrating…" Her enormous eyes were fixed intently on my face; even though I couldn't see it (pupil-less eyes are really difficult to read), I could feel the weight of her gaze. She was circling the dome of my shield slowly—all languid, completely alien grace. I suddenly felt like a wounded water buffalo on one of those nature programs. You know: the one that inevitably gets eaten by lions.
Fighting to keep my tone level, I asked, "So you're going to wait for my shield to run down, and then you're going to kill me." My voice was bored, but my mind was racing at a million miles a minute. This couldn't be it. It couldn't be. Just one vampire for the regional commander of the Wardens? They had to know that I was going to wipe the floor with her, right? The Red Court is many things, but stupid generally isn't one of them.
That meant that there had to be others, waiting for me to drop my shield to deal with her. It was even possible that there had never been an informant to start with, and that this whole thing had been a set up from beginning to end. Assuming that, I could technically drop the shield, throw the flashbang, and run like hell, but that was what we in the business like to call 'a last resort'. That, or 'really freaking stupid.' "Points for originality, querida." Hey, sarcasm is a time honored tradition in my line of work; why fix what isn't broken?
She laughed then, a dry, slithering sound filled with humor so dark that the night itself seemed to grow a shade closer to pitch black. "Why, Warden Ramirez," she purred gently, "Who ever said anything about killing you?"
And suddenly, the warm LA night went as cold as a Chicago winter, forcing me to suppress a shiver. I thought I knew what she was talking about, and it scared the hell out of me. See, there are three types of vampires… more or less. The Black Court has the quintessential, Dracula-type vamps, the White Court is literally filled with sexual predators, predators who are so beautiful that they could make Edward Cullen want to wear a paper bag over his head (actually, a friend of mine has a theory that the White Court has been behind the Twilight phenomenon from start to finish. It does kind of seem like the kind of sick joke that they would find hilarious). And then there's the Red Court.
Cop-Girl Brandi was a member of this third court, a demon-like creature who could create for herself a flesh mask in order to appear human. They're strong as hell, faster than a human could ever hope to be, and they have this nasty little trick of addicting you to their saliva. She was either talking about doing that to me, or…or she was talking about…turning me. Either way, she'd have a fairly formidable magical combatant at her beck and call, and the White Council would lose another Warden in the war with the Reds. Frankly, they couldn't afford that—never mind what I personally could afford.
And the second she—or any one of her hypothetical, hidden friends—figured out that my shield would do exactly nothing to stop her from spitting at me, I was completely screwed.
"Okay, Brandi," I replied after a long silence that hopefully came across as scornful rather than slightly nauseous, "What's the word I'm looking for? … oh, right! Bullshit!"
There was a beat of stunned silence on her end, and I could almost see her blinking those enormous, dark eyes in the gloom. Her slow, ominous tour of my shield came to an abrupt halt. "Excuse me?"
"You're pretty new at this whole vampire thing, aren't you?" I'm not really sure what my ass-kicking face looks like; it's not like I practice in the mirror. The mental side of it is all about shutting things away—compartmentalizing. Pushing back nonessential thoughts and feelings until the only thing that's left is what I have to get done. My voice took on a cold, clinical quality. "Let me explain. You are what my friends and I like to call 'cannon fodder.' I'm supposed to lower my shield to blast you, and when I do, your buddies (usually on the roof) get me. Of course, you still end up with an enormous hole in your chest." She took an uncertain, shuffling step back from me, still staring. Her fanged mouth was open, and I could hear her soft, panting breaths hissing from between all those awful teeth. Either my shield had hurt her more than she'd originally let on, or she hadn't thought of that.
I shrugged one shoulder, casually setting my magical flash bang down on the sidewalk, as though I simply couldn't be bothered to hold onto it any more. Then I pressed that hand to the cool, porous surface and started feeding my will into it, reaching out toward her through the stone. I kind of suck at earth magic , so it was pretty slow going. On the upside, unlike some other wizards I've known, I've never had to shout silly words in order to get the job done; thinking them usually works just fine. I could even keep talking, as long as I was careful to maintain my focus.
"I've been at this for years," I told her, my voice still matter-of-fact, but also somewhat distant, like I was simultaneously thinking about the items on a long grocery list. Hopefully she wouldn't notice. "War, I mean. Killing things. My entire adult life. And I know that I'm good at it. I can't throw fire or conjure lighting, but I am very, very good at killing things." My right eyebrow twitched up by just a hair. "Did they tell you that?"
A small sound came from her, like she'd started to form a word, only to forget what that word was only a fraction of a second in. "I…" she began shakily, and then seemed to choke on whatever was coming next. "What… What do you mean?" The words were soft and uncertain—words from the very young girl that she had been (probably a month ago, at most, judging from how badly she was taking this), rather than the monster that she was. I was terrifying that girl right then. Consciously. Deliberately. Part of me twisted with guilt.
I kicked that part of me back behind its door. Feeling guilty was a luxury; I could indulge later. "This makes you feel powerful, right? Going up against a freaking wizard as a creature of the night, when just a few weeks ago you were a normal girl with a boring job and a crappy apartment. You're not powerful to them, though; you're a fucking statistic. " The idea here was to get her so freaked out that she would either try to retreat or throw herself at me in a blind rage… or to stall for another few seconds, until my spell hit her. At that point, if there were other Reds waiting, I would know about it; they don't handle incompetence within the ranks very well, or with any particular delicacy. "And they're the ones on 'your side'," I added, "Want to guess how I feel about you?"
A small sound escaped her, similar to the eager, animalistic sounds from before, except that now there was a vulnerability to it. The hunger was still there, but it was whining, plaintive, and buried under growing apprehension. "You're lying, Warden. They… They told me…" Another little noise escaped her, followed by a bubbling snarl. She took a sudden, long, weirdly fluid step to the side, apparently continuing along her path around the glowing dome of my shield. Surprised by the unexpected movement, I almost lost my hold on the spell that had been inches away from her enormous, clawed feet. Dammit; now I would have to wait until she came back around. "I am going to drink from you. That bitch can take what I leave; you're mine."
"Brandi," I began chidingly, "Ladies don't use that kind of language. So… actually, I guess you're all set." My brain was puzzling furiously over who the hell this 'bitch' was. That description alone wasn't a whole hell of a lot to go on, as you might be able to imagine; most of the nasty things I deal with on a regular basis could easily be described as bitchy, and at least half of them are actually female.
Brandi just let out a low hiss and took another sinuous, predatory step around the edge of my shield. Those weirdly jointed legs of hers were long enough that my power was pooled only one or two paces away. Keeping that much energy coiled and ready to detonate was starting to wear on me; I could feel little droplets of cold sweat standing out on my forehead and on the back of my neck. A model of self control, as ever, I resisted the urge to verbally hurry her along.
Which was not to say that I did not continue to shamelessly goad her in the hopes that she would lose it and force her superiors to step in. "Wow. Nice one! Color me terrified."
"You," she spat. No, really—she spat. Tiny flecks of saliva sailed through my shield, landing on my shirt… mostly. A freckle-sized dot of skin on my bare elbow went suddenly—and pleasantly—numb. My hold on the coiled energy underneath the concrete wavered dangerously again, but I tried to look unfazed. If I failed, she didn't seem to notice. "You have no idea what you're dealing with, do you? Idiot."
I raised my eyebrows, going for 'extreme disinterest'. "Gee. Maybe I'm dealing with the 'Red Court?' Just a thought." One more step. One more step! She only had to take one more…
She laughed. It was a brittle, bitter sound. "And you think I'm clueless? I honestly almost feel bad for you." That made me blink, but she continued without waiting for me to respond. "Do you realize what you've done?" She fairly glided forward by another step, all weirdly shifting, fundamentally wrong muscle groups and slick black skin. "They've—"
And the power I'd been holding exploded upward through the concrete beneath her, resolving into a plume of sickly green, glowing liquid, looking for all the world like a particularly noxious volcano. Wherever drops of the stuff landed, it melted flesh and seared bone, flaring magnesium bright where it struck and briefly illuminating the little street to green-tinged, eerie daylight. Vampire Brandi physically could not scream as she dissolved like the Wicked Witch of the West, but she sure as hell tried.
While she was consumed in that singularly eye-catching display of magic, I quickly grabbed my flash bang, dropped my shield, and veiled.
I'm good at veils. Not perfect by any means, but good. And when I say 'veils,' I'm not just talking about becoming invisible; I've got scent and sound mostly covered, too, which matters if you usually end up fighting things like Red Court vampires… or ghouls, for that matter.
Anyway, I veiled and got out of the way, completely prepared for all hell to break loose around me.
… And…nothing happened.
Brandi–or, really, the goop and acidic material that was left of Brandi—hissed and popped quietly on the remains of the concrete, sounding disturbingly like frying bacon. My confiscated gun was nowhere to be seen in the muck, which was probably just par for the course at that point. The wind hummed quietly, muffled a little by the silky confines of my veiling spell. The fairly small, brick buildings around me looked sad and empty, with dark windows and securely locked doors. The whole street seemed to be holding its breath.
Which was the weird thing. There wasn't anyone there, but at the same time there was a feeling of anticipation—like a faithful spectator watching a game. I might have been imagining it, but I thought I heard a low, very feminine purr of a laugh…
And then the feeling vanished.
I let out a slow breath, my brow furrowed as I looked back over to the puddle of vampire. I hadn't imagined it. No way. Someone had been there. "What the hell was that?" I all but whispered to myself, then clamped my mouth shut over the last word, briefly but totally convinced that I had given away my position with the soft sound, and that I was probably about to take a bullet to the back of the head.
The quiet, creepily calm night wasn't interested in trying anything that overt, though, and I just stood there for a few beats feeling increasingly ridiculous while a nearby cat noisily rooted through a trashcan. It was funny, but I almost would have preferred a huge, bloody fight. Actually, screw that; there was no almost about it. Finally, as the orange tomcat calmly began chowing down on some old Chinese takeout, I started down the street again, trying to move as quickly as I could while still maintaining relative quiet.
And, for the record, I kept my veil up all the way back to my apartment because it was protocol, and not because I was completely freaked out.