Chaos crept up on me like someone had tossed a stone into a pond. I was sitting in a window booth at the Devere Diner, shoving a double bacon cheeseburger into my mouth, while across the expanse of red formica table Detective David Bryson did the same with a grilled chicken club.
“Cholesterol,” he explained around a mouthful of lettuce and dead bird. “Doc said I’m going to keel over if I don’t cut back on the carbs or calories or what have you. Put me on one of that whatchacallit—Long Beach Diet.”
“South Beach,” I corrected him, taking a pull at my diet soda. Just because I have a werewolf metabolism doesn’t mean I need to abuse it.
“However you call it,” Bryson said. “All I know is that in a week, I get to maybe eat a burger once in a while.” He regarded his sandwich the way most people regarded a dead pigeon on the sidewalk.
“My sympathies,” I said, and signaled the waitress for a slice of pie. Bryson glared at me. The waitress finished writing an order for two uniformed cops at the counter and sashayed over. Bryson checked her out. She checked him out.
I cleared my throat. “I’d like a slice of key lime, when you two are done.”
“Krystal,” said Bryson, reading the name tag. “You ever get down to my part of the city, cutie?”
“Depends what part we’re talking about, honey,” she said, batting her heavy fake eyelashes at him.
I kicked Bryson on the ankle. “Pie. Key lime. Essential to my continued good health and temperament.”
A fire engine roared down Devere, sirens going full blast, and drowned me out. The waitress cupped her ear. “Huh?”
A pair of patrol cars followed, their lights revolving heartbeat quick, tires laying black rubber streaks as they took the turn onto Hillside Avenue at top speed.
“Say that one more time, honey.” The waitress was still smiling at Bryson. She was brassy-skinned from a spray-on tan and had a red bouffant piled on top of her head. She and Bryson, who was a bull-necked man with powerful arms, a greasy pompadour, and small bright blue eyes, would make a cute couple. You know, if you were into that sort of thing.
“Key lime,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck. I could still hear the sirens, even though they were long gone into the crisp October air. Were hearing is sensitive. I could hear Bryson’s heartbeat, too, how it quickened when Krystal looked at him.
It was five days before Halloween. The leaves were falling and paper pumpkins and ghosts were everywhere. Halloween made everything seem benign. You could almost forget that the real monsters might be sharing a subway car or a cubicle with you.
The patrolmen at the counter jumped as their radios crackled. The dispatcher burbled their call numbers and then squawked out, “Eleven-seventy-one in progress at One-oh-seven Hillside Avenue. Fire and rescue en route. All units respond.”
To give the cops credit, they were a well-oiled machine. One dug out a twenty and threw it on the counter while the other grabbed his car keys off the counter and ran out the door to start their prowl car. “Dispatch, Ten-ninety-seven is en route,” the second cop bit off into his clip mic, before he followed his partner.
The ripples spread out from the stone fall, and a beat after the door slammed shut after the two uniformed cops, my BlackBerry went off. Bryson’s pager followed it a moment later.
I tore it off my belt and looked at the text message. 107 Hillside. ASAP. That had to be Annemarie. Only she would dare ASAP the boss. Bryson looked at me, blinked once. “One-oh-seven Hillside?” he asked. I nodded.
Bryson snapped his fingers at the waitress. “Krystal, doll? We’re gonna need that pie to go.”
I smelled the smoke before I saw it—my nose is my best feature, and I’m not just talking about it complementing my pretty face. Weres can smell a lot, which normally is a mixed blessing. Do you have any idea how a hobo smells to a werewolf? You’re better off not knowing.
A black cloud stained the faded-denim blue of the sky, boiling up from the crest of the hill. I pushed my foot down on the accelerator of the Ford LTD that I’d gotten from the motor pool a few months previously, and was rewarded with a groan from the transmission and no discernable increase in speed.
I hit the steering wheel. “Piece of crap car.” My previous ride, a 1969 Ford Fairlane, had blown up when I drove it into an open chasm with a pissed-off Wendigo spirit clinging to the hood. Both the spirit and the car were crispy now, and I was back to driving the Cop Standard model, stale upholstery, dubious brakes, and all.
“Jesus Christ, that’s a big fire,” said Bryson. “Somebody’s McMansion is McToasted, for sure.”
We were in the exclusive section of the Cedar Hill neighborhood now, Victorian stately homes sitting shoulder to shoulder with large modern monstrosities shoved wherever the developers could find a spare greenbelt. They were uniformly hideous. “How much you wanna bet me it’s the fucking ELF or PETA or one of those fucking hippie groups that set their armpit hair on fire to save the whales?” Bryson said.
“I think we wouldn’t have gotten paged,” I murmured as I rolled up on the scene. Three ladder trucks were hosing down a blaze that was giving off enough heat to break a sweat down my spine and curl my hair, even from twenty yards away. A token ambulance and a phalanx of patrol cars had the street blocked off, and neighbors were staring.
We crossed the street to the cordon and I found the fire chief on scene, a barrel-chested man named Charlie Egan. “I’m Lieutenant Wilder,” I said, flashing my badge. It was still new enough that the shine hadn’t come off the bronze crescent-moon seal.
Egan grunted. “So?”
“With the Supernatural Crimes Squad,” I elaborated, and waited for the inevitable wisecrack, sigh, or meltdown that followed with most city personnel.
The big fire chief just grunted again. “We don’t need you.”
That tone carried so much more than the words would imply. We don’t need the freak squad reminding the plain humans that there are things in Nocturne City that will bite their faces off with a smile.
“Someone paged us,” I said. “You mind filling me in, since I left a perfectly good lunch for you?”
“No,” Egan said. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we got a situation here.”
A month or two ago I probably would have grabbed him by his polyester tie and made him do what I wanted, but instead I shielded my eyes from the smoke and stepped back. Letting Egan know he was in control, that his manly manliness was secure. “When you’ve got the fire under control, Chief, you and I will talk again.” And when we do, it will be for a royal dressing-down on your part, mister.
He didn’t pick up on my nuances. Men are like that.
I recrossed the street to find Bryson scooping the last of my key lime pie out of the box with his fingers. “Dammit, David!” I yelled. “What happened to your diet?”
“Hey, I got job stress.” He shrugged. “My therapist said I’m a emotional eater.”
I turned my back on him and leaned on the hood of the car, watching the blaze. The house wasn’t a McMansion—it was one of the old ones, a timber-frame place with too much scrollwork, now a nightmare of gingerbread and burning shingles that made me cough.
Egan strode around looking important until he realized he wasn’t doing any more good than Bryson and me, and stomped over to us. “Guy that lives here is named Howard Corley,” he snapped, like he was giving me an order. “Deals in antiques. Works from home.”
He paused to let that sink it. I winced as I looked at the smoke and the flames, which had started to recede, barely. “You think he was in there.”
“Car’s in the garage,” said Egan. “Gas tank blew, almost took the scalps off a couple of my men. No reason to think he’s not.”
I wasn’t any closer to understanding why Annemarie had paged me, but I smiled at Egan anyway. “I appreciate it, Chief.”
“Yeah, well. Keep your spook squad out of the way if it comes to that.”
Then again . . . I sighed and kicked at the concrete, forgetting for a moment I was wearing classy Prada flats instead of my usual combat boots. “Shit,” I sighed. The wardrobe that went with being lieutenant of the most-hated task force in the Nocturne PD was massively expensive, the headaches even larger.
“I have better things to do than stand around a crime scene that isn’t even ours. Or a crime scene, yet,” I complained loudly to Bryson, hoping Egan heard me.
“Well, here comes Hotlanta. Why don’t you ask her?”
Hotlanta was Bryson’s personal nickname for Annemarie Marceaux, a firecracker-redhead who hailed from Louisiana . . . one of the northern parts, with some tongue-twister French name. She was tiny and slender and efficient, a near-constant bless her heart smile in place. A new hire in the department, she’d been shunted to the SCS and taken the news pretty well, at least outwardly.
“Sorry I’m late, ma’am,” she hollered at me. “Damn traffic cops wouldn’t let me through!”
She was also profane, funny, and a hell of a lot nicer than an ex-special victims detective had a right to be. I liked Annemarie. Bryson snorted, low. “Here she is, Scarlett O’Hara.”
“Hello there, David,” she said brightly. “You’re looking slender today.”
Bryson turned about eight shades of red, and wiped the sweat away from his forehead. “Hiya, Annie.”
“Lieutenant,” she said breathlessly. “I’m sorry for the cryptic message, but I was in the area and I saw the blaze start. There’s something here for us, believe me.”
“Okay,” I said. “Spill it.” The firefighters had finally gotten the flames under control, and new smells were creeping in: char. Cooked electrical circuits. Burnt meat.
Egan had been right about someone being at home.
“I saw the fire start, ma’am,” Annemarie said.
I focused on her, and tried to block out the smell. “You don’t say.”
“Yes,” said Annemarie, stepping out into the street and gesturing at the traffic cameras, a few at the intersection. “I think those picked it up, too. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen, Lieutenant. It caught all at once, from all points. An inferno.”
“And you just happened to be driving by?” I cocked my hip and glared at Annemarie. Her cheeks were flushed from the fire and she seemed almost happy. I don’t know too many people who get happy about fire and death, except weirdos, and I had enough of those in my life already.
“Oh, I was visiting a friend who lives on the other side of the hill,” she said. “Going to clock in when I saw the fire. I called it in and paged you, ma’am.”
“Detective Marceaux, if you don’t stop calling me ma’am I’m going to slap you right in the head, got it?”
She nodded, going even redder. “Sorry, ma’—Lieutenant.”
“ ‘Luna’ would be just fine, Annemarie. Go find out when we can walk the scene, and call the rest of the squad.”
After she walked back to her own car, Bryson snorted. “Time was, I only had to put up with you. Now there’s another one running around, like some kind of tiny, evil doppelgänger.”
“David, did you actually just use the word ‘doppelgänger’?”
He spread his hands. “I watch a lot of horror movies. So what?”
I shook my head, hiding a smile. “Never mind.”