The Dogfather

When I started this one, I only had a simple theme – “Werewolf Mafia.” But then I got to thinking about what actual mobsters are like, particularly Salvatore “The Beast” Riina, whose personal motto was, “How do you cure a sort finger? Cut off the entire arm.” And yet, he looks like an ordinary, kind of dumpy old man, with the sweetest puppy dog eyes around. The rest of the story came together all at once.

This story takes place a few months after Blood Hound.

Lt. Ortiz was out of uniform when he gave me the assignment, which spoke volumes. It meant he wanted it off the record, and Tony never did things off the record.

Tony Ortiz and I had been friends for a long time. Since he was a toddler, in fact. Now, most of his hair was gone, and what was left was gray. He was just close enough to retirement to use the “I’m getting too old for this shit” line whenever he wanted. Not that he ever did, but he could have. He basically ran the local police station during the night shift, and had used me as an official consultant on more than a few cases. The strange ones, where mortal law enforcement was insufficient.

In case that wasn’t already clear, I was an immortal – a vampire. One of the nice ones, too. It’s relatively rare, but not unheard-of. There were a few humane sources of blood, and those of us who really liked beating ourselves up could live a clean life. I was Jewish, so I was used to guilt and self-loathing, anyway.

I worked as a private detective. It wasn’t just to salve my conscience, helping people was something I wanted to do. And San Francisco is full of enough supernatural horror that I pretty much never had a slow week. When Tony called me in on a case, it was because he knew that ordinary human police couldn’t handle it, but he still had me work with them, officially as a “consultant” even if I did all the work. Seeing him bypass the law entirely put a chill down my spine even before he told me why.

“The Sicilian Mafia is barely a shadow of what it used to be,” Tony said. “But they’re still active, nonetheless.”

“Are you asking me to go after the Mob, Tony?” I asked. “Because that’s kinda crazy, even for me.”

“No,” he said. “You’re right, that would be insane. But there’s been some confusion lately – evidence of a new, small organization intruding on the San Francisco Crime Family’s territory. Under normal circumstances, we would ignore it, or deal with it like any other crime. We don’t have much to go on – a few crime family suspects have vanished, and there are rumors in the underworld. It’s not even enough for us to launch an investigation. However…”

“Okay, here it comes,” I said. “The ‘however.’ Right. Gimme a second?”

I got up, and went into the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee, leaving Tony behind at the table. My apartment wasn’t that big, and he was like six feet from me, but there was symbolic distance. Okay, there was clearly something supernatural going on. I got that. That meant it couldn’t be the actual Mob. There was a chance that it could be connected to a supernatural governing governing body or bureaucracy, like the committee that oversaw vampires, but again that didn’t feel right. When we organized, it was to keep ourselves safe. Vampire government pretty much existed to regulate feeding so that we wouldn’t have to deal with armed mobs storming our coffins. Well, I didn’t have a coffin, I slept in a comfy bed, but the metaphor stood.

So that made it a gang, maybe. Monster gangs tended to go down pretty fast for the same reason why there were monster governments. But then, sometimes things seemed bigger than they actually were. A few months ago, I had taken down what looked like a kidnapping and human sacrifice ring, but turned out to be only two very misguided people with a demon they thought they could control.

It went badly. For them, and for me. Caacrinolaas still haunted my nightmares.

“How do you like your coffee?” I asked Tony, though I knew his preferences by heart. Heavy cream, and half a teaspoon of sugar to cut the bitterness.

“However,” he said again. “Some of the details point toward your line of work. The first is secondhand hearsay, and not admissible in anything resembling a court. There have been a few disappearances linked with this new upsurge in activity, and some sources are claiming human sacrifice.”

“Yeah, that’s usually just a scare tactic,” I said, pouring both our mugs and trying to ignore the fact that I had dealt with that very thing recently. “Remember when Dungeons & Dragons was supposed to cause devil worship, or something like that?”

“However, we have located the body of one missing person” he ignored me and continued. “Officially, we’ve reported it as an accidental death, pending investigation. The victim seems to have been killed by a wild animal.”

“Wild animal?” I asked. I had stopped doctoring the coffee.

“The bite marks match that of a large dog.”

No.

No, no, no.

Please, no.

Not him.

That was how it had started. Mangled bodies. Innocent people torn to shreds by that damned hellhound. I remembered one of the victims sprawled in the park like discarded garbage after he spent his last moments protecting his son.

The demon himself looked like a winged dog. Big, shaggy, not the scariest creature to look at. But that discounted his teeth, or the fire in his eyes, or the way he casually whispered in my ear about how easy it was to turn Cain into a murderer. Caacrinolaas, Author of Murder. And he hated my guts.

“Lucy?” Tony asked. “Are you listening?”

“Yeah. Sorry about that,” I said, focusing on the coffee. I picked up both cups, my hands shaking lightly. I had defeated Caacrinolaas handily, destroying the body he used to interact with the mortal realm. But that didn’t mean much. Demons were spirits, and there was no known way to destroy one. Wherever there were people stupid enough to call on a demon, Caacrinolaas would be only a breath away.

Tony took the cup from my hand, frowning lightly at me. “Something’s wrong, Lucy,” he said.

I sat, staring into my coffee. “You don’t think Caacrinolaas is back, do you?”

He shook his head. “I think things would be a lot more violent if that were the case,” he said. “But I won’t discount anything until we find out what it is.”

Tony had seen the demon up-close. Had nearly died, in fact. Caacrinolaas had rampaged through the station, tossing people aside and breaking them like toys. A lot of officers believed in the supernatural after that night.

“Okay,” I said. “So, this is delicate because organized crime might be involved and it looks a lot like Caacrinolaas’s murderers. That’s why you’re coming to me off the record?”

He nodded, and pulled out a photograph. The picture was of an average-looking middle-aged man with sandy blonde hair. Even though my entire life revolved around identifying people, I found this dude forgettable. I could be looking at his picture, and I’d still lose him in a crowd.

“That’s Joe Mellon,” Tony said. “Real name is Joshua Archer. He’s been working undercover with the San Francisco Crime Family for five years, and vanished without a trace three days ago.”

“They might have found him out,” I said.

Tony shook his head. “They filed the missing persons report,” he said. “Or rather, one of his mob contacts did – a ‘concerned coworker.’”

“So, you want me to find him,” I said.

Tony nodded, and produced another photo. “And more importantly, you need to identify this man. He was seen with Mellon jut before he disappeared, and apparently was there for at least two other missing persons.”

I took the picture, and looked at it. It was a candid, showing Mellon and the guy walking toward a car. A big man, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, with a slightly droopy round face that looked almost unremarkable, if not for the eyes. Even in this blurry picture, I saw and recognized those wide, deep puppy-dog eyes that looked innocent at first, until you were up close. And then…

…No.

No. There was no way. This was completely impossible.

“Lucy?” Tony asked. “Do you know who that is?”

“No,” I said, setting the photo down. “I’m just not seeing it right.”

“That look in your eyes was recognition,” he said.

“Yeah, but it’s impossible,” I said.

“Talk.” Tony was direct, I had to give him that.

Those eyes. I remembered those eyes. And that unremarkable face, stained with blood.

“He’s been dead for a hundred years,” I said.

“And you can confirm this,” Tony said.

“Salvatore Grimaldi was a werewolf,” I said. “And he’s gone. Long gone.”

Tony gave me that look, the one that said I was pinned down in my own house until I gave the entire story. But I didn’t wanna.

“Did you see him die?” he asked.

“Well, no,” I said. “But it was a hundred years ago, Tony.”

“You’re eight hundred years old, Lucy.”

I shook my head. “Werewolves have an ordinary human lifespan, Tony. I doesn’t get any longer.”

“Says the eight-hundred year old woman,” he said, again.

“Some supernatural stuff can co-mingle,” I said. “But not everything. There are lots of kinds of werewolves, from skin-changers to lycanthropy, but the kind that someone like Grimaldi has is a curse that can’t mix with others. It’s just like how vampires can’t come back when they die for real. You can’t make a werewolf into a vampire, or immortal through any way that I know of.”

“That you know of,” Tony said.

“Dammit, Tony,” I said. “Look, it’s been a long time. It’s probably just a guy who looks like him.”

“Lucy,” Tony said, holding his mug of coffee in his hands. “Forget the case for a minute. This clearly troubles you.”

“Yes, it does,” I said. “What made you think that, Tony?”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” I said. “But I probably should, all the same.”

“I’ll get you a refill if you run out of coffee,” he said.

“Thanks,” I sighed. “Okay, you know how your dad pushed me into the whole private detective thing? And that’s what got me doing this for a living?”

Tony nodded.

“Well, that got me into this line of work, but I’ve been helping people for a while. Always have, you know? Just on and off, like, to help my conscience a little.”

“Is this what changed your motive?” he asked. “From feeling better about yourself to what you’re doing now?”

He had heard the speech before, apparently.

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, it was.”

“Then what happened?”

“Stuff happened,” I said.

His eyes. Those eyes, so wide, so soft. Even with his mouth covered in blood.

“That’s not an answer,” Tony said. “I understand if you don’t want to say anything.”

“He was an acquaintance,” I said. “Not really that close a friend. I was an immigrant, sure – I hadn’t even gotten rid of my accent yet – and since I was from England, it wasn’t like I had the usual immigrant’s disadvantage, but I still kind of kept an eye out for others like me, you know?”

He knew I was rambling, but still nodded and listened.

“And I don’t even remember her name,” I said. “That’s the thing. I really don’t. This lady was my friend, and I’m drawing a blank on her name. Like, I remember her very dearly, but I’ve lost her name.”

“I’m like that with people I know right now,” Tony said. “You’re fine.”

I chuckled, and then shook my head. “But yeah she was human, but she was an ally. Helped people like us – like me, even. Cyrus and I had divorced and I had been on my own for a while, but it was nice to meet a decent friend. This was before I met Meg, too. She looked out for supernatural people who weren’t used to American customs, and helped us out. She was good people.”

“What happened?” He asked in a way that I,plied he knew exactly what happened.

“She died,” I said. “She trusted the wrong man. I was visiting, and I was on the other end of the house, but I heard the scream – and the way it sounded, sometimes you just know that somebody died. I ran in, and…”

I stopped. Even though I had lost her name, I couldn’t forget her – an old lady, able to make even immortals feel like they had a kindly grandmother in her. And hearing that scream was the first thing that broke my heart. Rushing in to fin her, to find him crouched over her, an the moment we locked eyes…

“He murdered her,” I said. “I still don’t know why. Almost like a stupid, animal instinct. He was transformed, but I knew it was him. The eyes were the same.”

Those sad, watery eyes, giving the ultimate “Who, me?” look even while her blood dripped from his teeth.

“I ran,” I said. “I went to the police. I… I couldn’t confront him myself. I ran, and I told them about the murder, and I told them who did it, and they arrested him. The newspaper said he was hanged.”

“Does hanging work on werewolves?” Tony asked.

I shrugged. “Werewolves are pretty durable. But there’s always someone who knows on the police force, Tony. Right now it’s you, but there’s always somebody. And when an immortal is executed, it actually happened, because there’s someone ready to make sure it took. And besides, it’s been a century. As I said, werewolves don’t live forever.”

“But you recognized him,” he said.

I shrugged. “Maybe it’s just a guy who looks similar. It happens sometimes.” No, it really didn’t. Identical grandchildren were only a thing in the movies. That wasn’t a similar face, influenced by my nostalgia. It was him. Had to be.

“Well,” Tony said. “Regardless, we need you to find Mellon. If it’s connected to this ghost from your past, I suppose you’re the best-equipped person for the job. If not, you’re still the best.”

“Well, I guess it’s my business either way,” I said. “All right, Tony. I’ll do what I can.”

I spent the next three days searching every dive bar, nightclub, and low-life hangout I could find. I had never really interacted with organized crime, but I was sure that the San Francisco Crime Family had a file on me, somewhere. I didn’t hide that I was a private detective, but used it as a cover for asking about Mellon – his friends and family were worried, after all. I got a few more pictures from Tony, allowing me to slip the one with Grimaldi into the group and keep at least a modicum of subtlety.

Still, nothing. No leads on Joe Mellon. I almost thought about using his real name, but that just would have been stupid. After the first day, I called Tony to see if he knew any of Mellon’s hangouts, but even those were little help. Detective work was usually like this – fruitlessly spinning one’s wheels for a long, long time – but I was keenly aware of the urgency involved. Or, to be realistic, lack of urgency. I was half-convinced that the best place to look for Joe Mellon was in the Bay, encased in concrete.

I finally found something at the worst place in town. Qube. The club ad gone through many names and owners over the years, but the theme was always the same – mindless, nihilistic hedonism. And no, it wasn’t a vampire nightclub. Vampires were actually cool. We had taste. This place just gave me a headache.

I walked in, and tried to ignore the bass line that threatened to implode my eardrums. Or the strobe lights that made me want to tear out my eyes. Perhaps I was exaggerating a little bit. Or a lot, because in my heart I have always been a grouchy old lady. The world may never know.

“Have you seen this man?” I screamed over the music, trying to show those pictures to a guy who I thought knew things around town. I couldn’t remember his name, either. It was turning into a wonderful week for that.

“What?” the guy asked.

“I said,” I yelled louder. “Have you seen this man?”

“What?” he asked again, plugging one ear with his finger.

I waved the pictures at him. “Him! This guy!” I screamed. “Have you seen him?”

“What?”

And so, imagined punching this guy in his stupid face. His hair was long enough, I could probably hang onto it while pounding him, and… calm down, Lucy. You’re losing your mind again. Relax. It’s all good.

“Argh!” I said. Seriously, I even pronounced it. Ar-gh.

Whats-his-name squinted, leaning a little closer. “That guy?” He asked. It was the picture of Mellon and Grimaldi. Maybe-Grimaldi.

“That guy!” I nodded.

He nodded.

“Both guys?” I asked.

“What?” he asked again.

“Go outside! I yelled, pointing to the door. “Let’s go outside!”

“Can’t hear!” he said, but watched my pointing finger. A nod. “We should go outside!”

Oh, thank heavens.

I clutched my coat around myself a little tighter once we were outside, braced against the cool sea breeze that mixed so well with January’s chill.

“All right,” I said. “The pictures. This guy’s family is looking for him, they’re kinda worried. Do you have something?”

The man frowned, tucking some of his windswept hair away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. He took the pictures of Mellon, flipping through them. “I don’t know this guy.”

“Really?” I asked. “Because it seemed like you did in the club.”

“No, I didn’t,” he shook his head. I noticed his hand steal into his pocket, but said nothing about it. We were out behind the club, theoretically away from any witnesses – at least nobody was driving down the alley.

“Yeah, I think you did,” I said, frowning. “Or did you mean the other guy? The older one?”

“Why should I know anybody?” he asked.

I caught the tell that he was about to run, so I quickly sidestepped, circling around him to put myself between him and the street. He took a step back from me, glancing to the door of the club and then to me again.

“Okay, I’ll level with you,” I said. “The man I’m looking for? He’s vanished, and the big, older guy probably had something to do with it. So if you’ve got info on him, you’d better believe I’d be interested.”

His hand darted into his pocket again, and I dove for it on instinct. There is no way to root through another person’s pocket without being awkward, and I think he knew it, but he still tried to fend me off. He turned and attempted to run for it, but I quickly shoved him up against the wall, using enough vampiric strength to startle the much larger man.

“What are you doing?” he asked, still struggling against me. I felt his hand clamp around something in his pocket, and tried to pry it free from his fingers.

I felt something hard and plastic, like a key fob, and my thumb brushed against a flat rubber button. It clicked under my touch.

“What did you just do?”he screamed like a little girl and shoved me, the sudden action taking me by surprise. I fell back on my ass. He pulled something that did look like a key chain out of his coat pocket, staggering back with it.

“You pressed the dog whistle!” he said.

“Well, okay,” I said, standing up. “What’s the dog whistle?”

“We’ve gotta get out of here!” he tried to run.

I reached out as he ran by, and casually grabbed him by the collar. He lost his balance and fell over like a dog hitting the end of its leash. I got lucky that time. He could have used his leverage to drag me along. Strength or not, size was size, and leverage had been my bane on more than one occasion.

“Why do we have to run?” I asked, leaning to snatch the “dog whistle” from his hand. It really did look like a car key remote.

“You don’t understand,” he said, still on the ground. “They’re coming. You’d better hope to hell that they weren’t already close by.”

“Who’s coming?” I asked.

“You really don’t get it, do you?” I could tell that he was about to scramble to his feet and make another break for it, so I casually moved around to block his street access again. “You’re waving his picture around, and you have no idea.”

I shrugged. “Enlighten me,” I said.

“These guys moved in about five years ago,” he said. He began to get up, but didn’t see to be making any move to run past me again. “They took a piece of everything. The SF Crime Family couldn’t even stop them.”

“So you’re saying that organized crime exists?” I asked.

“You don’t get it,” he said. “These guys, they weren’t out to take over or anything, but they’ve got a cut of everything. And I mean everything. All the old gangs are still here, but we have to pay these guys. I don’t know how many there are. Nobody knows how many there are. Maybe it’s as low as five, maybe it’s an army. But they’re a nightmare, man. A nightmare.”

He called me “man?” Well, okay, then.

“Back up a second,” I said. “Who? Got an organization name? Or maybe an individual or two?”

He shook his head. “People’ve given them nicknames, man. Like the Wolf Pack, or whatever. But it doesn’t matter.”

“Why wolves?” I asked. Dammit, this started to look less good.

“Because of the Dog Whistle,” he said. “And we have to run. Look, they don’t like it when people call, not unless it’s something they really want.”

“What do they want?”

“I don’t have it!” his tone was becoming panicky now, or at least more so.

“Okay, what do they want?” I asked. “Drugs? Gold bullion? People?”

He shook his head. “It varies,” he said. “Based on the job. There are bounties, too. Sometimes they want a squealer, or an undercover cop, and they’re always asking about this one woman.”

“Woman?” I folded my arms.

“Yeah, she’s really short,” he said. “Kind of annoying. Dresses in a really stupid old-fashioned trench coat.”

I adjusted the collar of my really stupid old-fashioned trench coat.

“So, has she got a name?” I asked.

He stopped, and looked at me for a moment. Probably at my height, too.

“I’m still not waiting here for them,” he said, and began another attempt to move past me. But it was moot, as headlights began to flood the alley before I could move to block him.

Cars pulled in. Five of them. Big cars. Expensive cars. Large cars, maybe a half-step below a limo in size.

“Oh, fuck,” the guy said. “Look what you’ve done.”

I turned toward the motorcade that quickly filled the alley, and slipped my hand inside my own coat pocket. I had brought my gun, of course. It even had silver bullets, just in case.

Well, game on.

That was figurative, of course. I didn’t really think “game on,” I was too busy trying to count how many people had joined us in the alley. You see, in the movies, people regularly fight off whole crowds of attackers at once. In real life, one person versus a mob usually ends with the mob winning and the person flattened.

Well, I could turn into a bat and fly off. But then that would leave my I-forgot-his-name friend behind. Dammit.

Car doors opened. The people who came out could have been extras in a ’90s cop movie, mismatched and uneven styles and builds, some naturally intimidating, others not. They all shared one thing a look in their eyes that I could see even at this distance. I counted one person per car, except for the last one.

I focused my attention on the lead car as two muscled, bald men got out. I immediately nicknamed them Mr. Clean and Mr. Clean, Sr., because I have always been mentally six years old. But then they opened the door for their boss.

It was him. A picture was one thing, but seeing him in person confirmed it. Salvatore Grimaldi, a century after he should have died. It was those eyes. Those watery, sad puppy eyes. I could buy him as a stereotypical mafioso, sure – he had that middle-aged heavyset look that popped up at least once in every mafia movie – but the coldness in that faux-innocent glance betrayed his nature. He was virtually identical to the last time I saw him, if a little better-dressed. That overcoat must have cost a couple grand, at least.

“Oh, Lucia, I’m amazed,” he held out his arms. Warm, magnanimous. “You didn’t even change your first name. It made it easier to find you.”

“Well, I didn’t expect to see you,” I said to him. I felt the gun in my coat pocket. There were eight of them that I could see, so I didn’t exactly think much of my chances.

“Nonsense,” he said. “I set everything up so you’d come looking for me. Which reminds me. Thank you, Mr. Gilette, for calling this in.”

Gilette. That was the name of the guy I had been screaming at. He shrank back at the sound of Grimaldi’s voice and stepped further behind me.

“Don’t worry, we’ll pay you,” Grimaldi chuckled, and then turned his watery eyes on me again. “You know you’re coming with us, don’t you?”

“I don’t know about that,” I said. “But you’re going to tell me what you did to Joe Mellon.”

“You mean Joshua Archer,” Grimaldi said, and made a subtle gesture to the men behind him. “You’re about to find out.”

It escalated before I could give my own witty retort. I’d like to say that I put up a tremendously good fight, but it was me versus eight werewolves. I saw movement in the corner of my eye and drew my gun, only for someone on my right to close the difference and grab my gun hand before I could fire. I twisted and attempted to judo-flip him, but he transformed, his body instantly shifting into something much larger, hairier, and not so easy to throw.

There were many kinds of werewolves. This one was bipedal. His jaws clamped into my shoulder before I could turn my gun on him, and he twisted his head, shaking me. I kicked at the werewolf’s ankle, turning it and forcing him to stumble. Those jaws loosened and I dropped, grabbing him around the waist and tossing him behind me onto the pavement. His claws scraped against the pavement, righting himself almost immediately. I rolled up on one knee and took aim.

Silver bullets were effective against any kind of werewolf – the ones not particularly vulnerable to the metal were still getting shot, after all. Two of my bullets struck this one in the chest, and he crumpled backwards. Then one of them opened fire on me, a bullet hitting my arm. I dropped my gun as an all-too-familiar burning agony began to spread from the gunshot.

“Silver works great on vampires, too,” Mr. Clean said, still aiming at me.

I could still move, which meant the bullet hadn’t lodged in my arm. I couldn’t grab my gun off the ground without getting shot, but I dashed to the left to throw his aim off, only for Clean Sr. to intercept me, clotheslining me with a meaty forearm.

The others fell upon me, kicking, punching, hitting wherever they could reach. I curled into a ball to protect myself and tried to summon the concentration to turn into a bat. But the silver wound still stung, keeping me from summoning up my curse to change. Someone else had transformed, and I felt sharp claws dig into my back, hauling me up off the ground. My vision cleared for just long enough to see Grimaldi’s face, inches from my own.

“That was easy,” he said, and punched me hard in the face. He wore a ring, too.

Even without using one of our weaknesses, it is quite possible to knock out a vampire. Sure, we heal from concussions better than anybody else, but hitting us hard enough to slosh our brains around will have the same effect as on anybody else. And by the third punch to the head, when my vision was already blurry with blood dripping from my scalp, I blacked out.

Pain woke me. Maybe seconds later, maybe minutes. I was face-down in the alley and they were shackling my hands behind my back. Based on how the handcuffs burned, I could guess what metal they were made of. I could hear Gilette over the ringing in my ears.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “None of this is real!”

A pair of hands grabbed me by the collar, hauling me to my feet. I wasn’t able to find my balance, but they dragged me easily. My head still swam, and wouldn’t let me put up a fight.

“Sorry, Bub,” Grimaldi’s voice. “But you saw too much.”

“What? No!” Gilette yelled, and then a gunshot rang out.

I was shoved into the back seat of one of the cars. I tried to struggle again, ramming my shoulder against Clean, Sr. only to see the barrel of a gun two inches from my face.

“You’re gonna wanna stay still,” he said, using one arm to shove me down in the middle seat. Clean Junior sat on my other side, and shoved a sack over my head.

“Hey!” I protested. My snark failed me the moment I felt the barrel of that gun press against my temple, even through the fabric.

“Is she secure?” Grimaldi asked from what I assumed was the front seat. Car doors closed.

“Yeah, Boss,” Clean Junior said. “If she so much as breathes funny, we’re gonna be picking her fuckin’ brains off the windshield.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. I’ve got more plans in store,” Grimaldi said.

“Why the hell are you still alive?” I asked, gun or no gun.

Grimaldi barked a short laugh. “You’ll find out.”

I tensed, hoping for something – for that gun to waver, maybe. But there was nothing. The silver handcuffs kept me in place, though I realized that I might still be able to turn into a bat in spite of them. They were just silver, and not specially designed to drain a vampire’s power the way that the shackles manufactured by our ruling Council were. Still, that was little comfort. A silver bullet could do a lot more damage to a tiny bat, and at this range there was no way he would miss.

Dammit.

“You shot one of us,” Grimaldi said. “I’m gonna make this a lot worse for you because of that.”

“Why should you care?” I asked. “You already killed the guy who handed you over to me.”

“He wasn’t one of us,” Grimaldi said. “My men? We’re a pack. We’re family. This gang isn’t very big, but we accomplish what nobody else can. We’re efficient. Untraceable.”

“As you drive around like a damn motorcade,” I said. The gun barrel pressed harder against my temple.

“It’s the image,” he said. “They see our cars, they know they’re dead. Just like you.”

I wanted to say something witty, but I was in a worse position than usual. I took a deep breath, and focused on those silver handcuffs. They felt flimsy. If push came to shove, I could break the chain. It might cost me the use of my hands for a while, but it was something. For now, their attention was focused too well on me. I began to hope for a car accident.

“What’s funny is how easy it would have been to find you at home and take you there,” Grimaldi said. “But this is more satisfying. You’ve got time to think about how you got yourself into this.”

“How are you still alive, Grimaldi?” I asked.

“You’ll find out,” he said. “All you need to know for now is, I’ve had a lot of time to think up what to do to you, but you wrote that script for me. This will be fun.”

The car pulled into a garage somewhere, and parked. I felt a hand grab me by the collar again, that gun still pressed against my temple as they hauled me out. I had maybe a half second when I could have retaliated, when their attention was off, but I missed my chance.

“You can take that thing off her,” Grimaldi said as they shoved me along. One of the Cleans removed the sack just as they pushed me onto an elevator. About half of his gang joined us.

An enclosed space. Potential confusion. I clenched my fists, and waited.

“See, here’s the genius of it,” Grimaldi said. “The thirteenth floor is a dead floor. Only accessible from this elevator, and only with a special code. Unlisted. You could call the cops into this building, and they wouldn’t find us.”

The gun shifted. Just for a moment, it shifted. I elbowed Clean Jr. hard, and he nearly dropped his gun. Before they could respond I slammed myself backward, shoving another man into the elevator wall.

The gunshot rang out as a silver bullet buried itself into my thigh. I crumpled from the immense pain, the silver draining and burning me from the contact alone.

Grimaldi backhanded me, and Clean Jr. grabbed my shoulders, holding me down. Junior shifted in front of me, transforming from human into a wolfish monster in the time it would have taken to blink. I tried to struggle before he braced his hand on my chest, pinning me, and tore his claws into the wound in my thigh.

Pain. Blinding pain. I had built up a tolerance over the centuries, but even this was too much. I bit down on my tongue to keep from screaming, to avoid giving them the satisfaction. They weren’t going to get it. I didn’t care if I was going to die, I wouldn’t show them any fear.

“Got it,” Clean Jr. growled, pulling his claws out of my leg. He dropped something small and metal on the elevator floor. “It was gonna burn her up.”

“We’re not letting you commit suicide before we’re done with you,” Grimaldi said. “And you guys. Don’t let her pull any shit like that again, you got it?”

I felt my left began to heal now that the silver bullet was taken out of it. Slowly, and the pain was still there, but at least I could open my eyes now. I laid in a pool of my own blood, surrounded by criminals.

“Got it, Boss,” Clean Jr. said, still holding the fun in his wolf form. He kept the barrel pointed between my eyes.

“Lower it to her gut,” Grimaldi said. “Don’t threaten her with a quick death. Threaten her with suffering.”

The elevator doors opened, and they shoved me outside, into a large darkened room. It looked like an office – cubicles, work stations, a printer – but even in my wounded state I noticed that most of the equipment was fake. Cardboard monitors. Not even the window-washers would be suspicious about the dead floor. I was really on my own in here. They had taken my phone, but it didn’t matter. We were more than off the grid, we were between its lines. I limped on the injured leg even as I felt the wound heal. More time to think.

I smelled blood. Old, dried blood, deeply ingrained under the surface. What was this, a slaughterhouse? At least vampires knew to clean up their carnage.

“Keep moving,” Grimaldi said as they led me along. “So, you wanted to know what kept me alive all these years, eh? Well, here’s a hint.”

Clean Jr. shoved me into a small room. I stumbled on my bad leg, and fell on my face. The stench of blood was stronger now, overwhelming my senses. I began to feel a familiar pang of hunger, which was a bad distraction when I had to focus on saving myself. The floor was slick with it, some of the rust-colored stains so old that I almost missed what they were. I noticed something else underneath them – silver lines arranged in a circle. And candles circling the border of the room, the smell of their burning wicks almost obscured behind the stench of blood.

The reason for the abattoir became clear.

No. No, no, please, no.

There was an urn in the middle of the room. A brass vessel.

“They were putting the rope around my neck,” Grimaldi said. “Laced with silver strands. Designed to choke the life out of me – of me! And why? Because you got upset when I killed a human. She was old. Useless. Humans are already weak, defenseless, gone in an instant. They’re not even worthy prey, this woman less than any of them. I bet you don’t even remember her name.”

“I remembered your name pretty well,” I said, my hands clenching into fists behind my back. I knew what those symbols meant all around me. I knew what was coming next.

“So I prayed,” he said. “Not to anybody in particular, I called out in a blind panic. For anybody. Anywhere. Anyone or anything who knew how unfair it was, what a crime it would be for me to be snuffed out because of something as pitiful as an old human.”

I lunged. I sprang from the ground throwing myself at Grimaldi. Another member of his gang, a steely-eyed man with a gray mustache intercepted me, catching me by the handcuff chain. I was yanked back, the silvery metal burning into my wrists as the force nearly dislocated my shoulders. A heavy boot stomped down on my chest, pinning me to the ground.

“You should stop trying now,” Grimaldi said. “Before we start removing your limbs. Marco, please keep a handle on her until we finish.”

Marco hauled me to my feet and shoved me across the room. I stumbled, but landed on my knees rather than my ass. Marco pointed his own gun at my head, and I glared up at Grimaldi with all the defiance I could still muster.

“So, they had that news around my neck,” Grimaldi said, and sneered. “And I was desperate. I didn’t expect the Mother of Mercy to show me any, no. But there could be somebody out there. Who knew? And then I dropped.”

He cut his hand across his throat.

“The noose was tight, let me tell you that. I heard the snap, felt it in my bones. And I was no longer there. Do you want to know where I was?”

My eyes stole down to the symbols painted on the floor, arranged in a circle. “Not particularly,” I said.

Grimaldi looked me in the eyes. “I was heard. His name is Orobas. He’s a demon prince. Looks like a horse, as funny as that is. And do you know what he offered me?”

“Let me guess, your life if you served him?” I asked. “Or maybe your soul?”

Grimaldi chuckled. “No,” he said. “No price. He just offered to save my life. He didn’t ask anything in return. Didn’t you just fight a demon? I thought you’d know better.”

I tensed, but the reality of Marco’s gun as well as the riveted attention that both Mr. Cleans were directing toward me kept me from trying anything.

“Orobas saved my life,” Grimaldi said. “And preserved it. He made me immortal. He’s given me whatever I wanted – the knowledge to find you, the skill to bring my gang together, the reputation to make us succeed, everything. You don’t know what you’re missing, honestly.”

“Yeah, you’ve just been sacrificing humans for him,” I said.

Grimaldi shook his head. “Oh, these weren’t for him,” he said. “Orobas doesn’t require sacrifice. He’ll even protect you from other spirits if you want. And he doesn’t tempt – he’s never even made a suggestion. For the last century, old Horseface has done nothing but help me.”

“Yeah, why would he temp you?” I asked. “You’re evil enough on your own. You’re slime, Grimaldi. And any demon would know that.”

“Shut up,” he said softly looking intensely at me with those big, innocent-seeming eyes. “I’m going to shut that mouth of yours forever. I’ve been waiting a hundred years to do this.”

He turned to the Cleans, and nodded. Clean Sr. left the room.

“So, you killed a demon, didn’t you?” Grimaldi asked. “Big guy, looked like a dog? What was his name, again?”

Yes. Caacrinolaas, the Author of Murder. Thinking about him still made my heart stop for a moment. So many lives lost.

“Well?” Grimaldi asked. “What was his name?”

I kept my mouth shut.

“Hit her,” he said.

Marco’s pistol struck me in the temple, and I almost blacked out again. Fresh blood dripped down the side of my face. I slumped, my dark hair hanging over my eyes in a curtain.

“What was the demon’s name?” he asked. Marco pistol-whipped me again, this time on the upper back. He grabbed me by the hair before I could fall, yanking my head up.

“I’m not telling you,” I spat. This earned me another blow to the face, shattering my cheekbone.

“It doesn’t matter,” Grimaldi said. “You’ll be screaming it in a minute. Caacrinolaas, the hellhound. Orobas told me all about him. I bet you feel pretty proud of yourself, don’t you?”

“Go to Hell,” I said. My cheekbone ground against itself as it began to heal.

“How witty,” Grimaldi approached, and knelt at eye level with me. “Let’s see how witty you can be when Caacrinolaas is ripping your throat out.”

Clean Sr. returned, dragging in another prisoner. Joshua Archer, undercover agent. Shackled, bloody, and in the same shape I’d have been in if not for my magical healing ability. He was barely able to stumble in even with the bald thug holding him up.

“Archer,” I said.

He looked up, and saw me. “Ortiz sent you?” he asked, his voice barely a croak.

I nodded.

“Well, shit,” Archer said. Clean Sr. flung him to the ground, and he landed in the middle of the circle.

“I have to give it to Agent Archer,” Grimaldi said, stepping closer. “He did a great job being your bait.”

“I’m sorry,” he whimpered, face-down on the floor. “You shouldn’t have come. You’re all that these guys have been talking about for days.”

“Don’t be sorry,” I said, and glanced Grimaldi’s way before looking at Archer again. “I’m getting you out of here.”

“No, you’re not,” Archer said. “There’s no way out with these people. I’ve been trying for days.”

My fists clenched again. Maybe I could focus enough to turn into a bat, if only Marco would take his gun off me. I had the perfect opportunity a few moments earlier I realized, but had been too distracted by the summoning circle on the floor.

“It’s not over yet,” I said. “Keep faith, okay?”

Grimaldi chuckled. “I admit, he put up a good fight,” he said. “But we tamed him, like any dog.”

The handcuffs dropped with a jingle, and Archer leapt into action. His pessimism had been a cover while he freed himself, and I was honestly surprised when he punched Grimaldi with an uppercut. I took advantage of the distraction by ramming my shoulder into Marco, knocking his gun off-balance. I jumped to my feet and tried to concentrate, to will myself to turn into a bat.

The werewolf gangsters were more distracted by me than Archer, and he had his chance to run. He could have made it, too, out of Clean Sr.’s reach and out the door.

Marco grabbed me by the throat and shifted, his hand turning into claws as I was in his grip. His new talons pierced my neck, and all thoughts of transforming into a bat went away in pain and blood loss.

And then Archer turned to run to me – no! Stupid! Don’t save me! I’ll find a way out!

Please, no.

They were on him in a moment. Clean Jr., still in the form of a wolf, intercepted Archer and threw him to the ground with ease, pinning him to the ground with one arm. The three completely uninvolved gangsters moved to the door, blocking it. Clean Sr. ran to Grimaldi, steadying him.

Grimaldi threw his arm off. “I’m fine,” he said. “Hold those two down!”

Marco’s pressure on my throat stopped just short of carving into the artery. But it left me in worse shape now – I couldn’t even dare move now, or he’d scythe through my jugular and leave me bleeding out. And a bleeding vampire is as good as a dead one.

Clean Jr. hauled Archer to his feet, restraining both hands with one of his own. The werewolf looked at me, and grinned. Archer hadn’t even knocked over a single candle.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Archer.

“Don’t be,” he said to me. “I had to at least try.”

“Force him in the circle,” Grimaldi said. “And give me my knife.”

Clean Jr. shoved Archer on his face again in the summoning circle, just as Clean Sr. Handed Grimaldi a ritual dagger.

“Don’t do this,” I said.

“I don’t think you understand the position that you’re in,” Grimaldi said as he approached Archer. He paused, and righted the brass urn, placing it just in front of Archer’s face.

He struggled underneath the werewolf’s grip, but Clean Sr. held him like iron.

“No!” I shouted.

“Yes,” Grimaldi said, reaching to grasp Archer by the hair. “Any last words?”

Archer spat at him.

“If you cut him, you’re signing your death warrant,” I said. Marco’s claws tightened a little more around my throat.

“Somehow I doubt that,” Grimaldi said, and drew his knife across Archer’s throat in a single clean cut.

“No!” I screamed again.

“Caacrinolaas!” Grimaldi called out. “Author of Murder! Hound of Hell! We have brought you a gift! With this offering of blood we summon you, and we call you by your names. Caacrinolaas! Cassimolar! Glasya-Labolas! We call you thrice. We bid you to come, and feast on the life of your enemy! We command you to our presence, as our servant! We call you forth now, fiend of Hell! Come! Come!”

The candles dimmed, and the silvery paint of the summoning circle lit itself with a pale light. Archer’s blood sizzled on the floor, and the brass urn began to glow.

“You’re an idiot!” I screamed. “Don’t do this! You can’t control him!”

“Come forth, servant of the Pit!” Grimaldi said. “Do our bidding, and receive your reward!”

Golden light seeped from the circle into the spilled blood, illuminating it on the ground, the reflection shimmering over the walls and ceiling.

“Don’t you get it? He doesn’t pretend to be obedient like Orobas! Stop! Stop!”

Marco’s claws tightened around my throat, cutting off my air supply. He pressed the barrel of his gun into my temple again. The others began to shift, turning into wolf-man hybrids one by one until the only man remaining in human form was Grimaldi himself. The six werewolves howled in unison as he spoke.

“For the third time I bid you,” Grimaldi said. “Come forth, accept this sacrifice, and serve us!”

A shaft of light erupted in the center of the room, so bright that I would have turned away if I could. A shape manifested, silhouetted against the golden glow. Tall, proud, the glory of a fallen angel among us, coalescing into the familiar shape of Caacrinolaas. The werewolves howled again.

Caacrinolaas manifested himself in the form of a massive, golden-furred dog with the wings of a gryphon. His form was almost completely solid, only ethereal in the barest sense, with a tiny trail of golden mist connecting him to the brass urn in the summoning circle. He would have looked regal, perhaps even noble, if not for the overwhelming hatred brimming in those eyes.

“Lord Caacrinolaas,” Grimaldi said, standing back a bit. He was flanked by the Cleans, though both of them were wolves now. “In exchange for your service, we’ve offered you a gift. This woman humiliated her, and now she sits bound and broken at your feet. Do with her as you wish.”

The demon turned his head, surveying the entire room. His eyes locked with mine for a moment, and then he faced Grimaldi. Caacrinolaas spoke.

“I am not your servant.”

He lashed out at the nearest werewolf, jaws clamping onto its neck. Caacrinolaas twisted his head, whipping the surprised wolf to the floor like a rag doll. He ripped out the wolf’s throat in a spray of blood, the flesh still between his teeth as two others tried to intervene and flank him. Caacrinolaas batted the nearest wolf to the floor, effortlessly pinning him on his stomach as he turned his head and opened his jaws, a ball of sulfuric flame engulfing the other and blasting him like a small bomb. While the werewolf burned like tissue paper, Caacrinolaas turned his jaws on the pinned one’s spine, sinking his teeth in deep. The wolf’s scream of pain went beyond a yelp, and was almost loud enough to mask the sounds of his spinal cord snapping.

Marco pulled his gun off me, and fired at Caacrinolaas. I elbowed him hard and shoved away, rolling just as Caacrinolaas pounced past. I closed my eyes and tried to focus, to gather the strength from my curse necessary to turn into a bat despite the silver shackles around my wrists.

More gunshots.

Ignore it. Focus on the change. Feel it come. Harness it.

A wolf yelping in agony.

I shifted, my body shrinking into a familiar batty shape. The shackled dropped, jingling as they hit the floor, and I wobbled a moment in the air, trying to keep myself steady. The effects of my blood loss and the constant exposure to silver hit all at once, jarring all my senses. I couldn’t keep this up.

The sound of tearing flesh and cracking bone.

I hit the floor on my feet, human again. My head swam, and I almost fell over.

No. Can’t slow down. Not now. When I had fought Caacrinolaas, I had been armed with guns and holy objects and an even more powerful transformation. Right now, I was unarmed, half-bled, and dizzy.

Caacrinolaas looked up from Marco’s corpse, and stared into my eyes. Blood dripped from his matted muzzle, the front of his his coat streaked with gore.

“You humiliated me,” he said. “I will kill you where you stand.”

Everything came in slow motion. Caacrinolaas tensing his muscles and spreading his wings to pounce. My own movement as I turned and tried to run. Every detail in the room stood out as clear as a photo. Every bloodstain, every candle, all four werewolf corpses strew around the room…

…And the brass vessel.

I ran for the urn just as I felt Caacrinolaas’s paws slam against my back, knocking the breath out of my lungs and slamming me to the ground. I skidded a precious few inches as he effortlessly flipped me onto my back. I blindly groped for the urn, desperately hoping it was within reach.

“Pathetic,” Caacrinolaas said. “Where was the woman who fought me so hard before?”

My fingers closed around the handle of the urn, and I swung it as hard as I could at Caacrinolaas’s head. It did absolutely no damage. He barely even flinched.

“Look, I’ve had a bad day,” I said. “Can I have a do-over?”

Caacrinolaas bared his teeth, and growled. As he lunged to tear my face off, I swung the urn up again. Caacrinolaas caught it in his teeth and bit down, the metal crumpling easily in his jaws.

For the second time, I had convinced him to bite down on something he shouldn’t have. The brass urn hissed, golden smoke pouring from the cracks in the vessel. Caacrinolaas’s form began to flicker, becoming indistinct as his link to the physical world began to deteriorate.

He pushed down harder, his claws digging into my shoulders, his muzzle nearly up against my face. Those blood-red eyes glared into mine so strongly that it nearly burned. I felt his breath, the tremors as he growled. A droplet of werewolf blood dripped from his muzzle onto my chin.

“You will die,” he said, his voice echoing inside my mind. He stretched his wings as they began to melt into smoke. “And your friends will die cursing your name. This is not over. It will never be over.”

I had nothing to say while the author of all murder breathed threats at me. The weight began to lift as his body turned misty and dissipated, the threads that held his summoning unraveling by the second. He had been on borrowed time since the moment he turned on his summoners. Destroying the urn had only accelerated it. But still, I had only lived because he decided to talk. I was well aware of that.

The last thing to disappear were his eyes, glaring at me with a hatred purer than any mortal could hold.

And then I was free. I sat up, my head swimming, and immediately began counting bodies.

One wolf with his throat ripped out.

One with the ends of his severed spine sticking up from his body.

One burned down to a charred skeleton.

And Marco with a gaping cavity where his chest had been, as if someone had just scooped his ribs out.

All of that had happened in about seven seconds. And Caacrinolaas had promised to do the same to me next time. Shit.

There was no time to think about that. With any luck, Grimaldi and his two henchmen had fled, leaving me alone on the floor. But with my kind of luck, they’d be waiting just outside the door, ready for me. I had to think fast if I wanted to get out of here.

I took in a deep breath, and focused on changing into a bat again. The transformation was hard, like pulling my own teeth, but without the silver shackles burning into my wrists, it as possible. I strained, managing to shift for what had to be the last time until I could rest and feed again. But the batty form held. I was stable.

I flew out of the lit ceremonial room and into the dark faux-office. I had room to hide now, to wait and see if Grimaldi and his men were really gone. I could turn this around. I could get out of here alive. I flew into the cubicles, looking for a place to hide. I found a spot in the far end, tucked under one of the desks.

“Fuck, that was a bad idea,” I heard Grimaldi’s voice. “She’s still got to be in here somewhere. I should have just shot her – find her and kill her. I don’t care how anymore.”

The windows stood across from me, and I looked out over the city, its skyline peaceful in the night. I could see the Transamerica pyramid, giving me an idea of where I was. We were in the middle of downtown. All I’d have to do is break the window, and fly away. I’d be free. I could take some time to regroup, and go after Grimaldi and his gang better-prepared.

No. That would give him the chance to go back into hiding, to assemble another gang, and more people would die. I thought about my friend from a hundred years ago. About Joshua Archer, lying dead in the next room.

“You’d better still be in here!” he called out. “You’d better not have run. ‘Cause if you took the coward’s way, I’m gonna make you wish you let that demon rip your throat out! I’ve got plenty of ways to get at you.”

I heard something, barely audible under Grimaldi’s voice. A sniffing sound. Close. Getting closer.

“Next time, I’ll go for someone you know,” Grimaldi said. “Like the old cop. Or that pretty little secretary of yours. Or maybe the librarian. Or what about that redhead? She’s cute. I bet she screams real loud.”

I tensed, almost changing back into my human form. He was distracting me while his men sniffed me out. I couldn’t let him do this.

“Hey, maybe all at once,” Grimaldi said. “It’s not like I’d spare any of them, anyway. I’m not leaving anybody to avenge you. You know the best way to deal with a sore finger, right?”

That sniffing was getting closer. Just around the corner. Any second now.

“You cut off the entire arm,” Grimaldi said.

Mr. Clean Jr. came around the corner of the cubicle. Already large as a human, his transformation left him massive, gray-furred, and with jaws almost as big as the set on the demon they had summoned. In one clawed hand, he held a gun.

Screw it. He had me cornered, and I didn’t want to see what a silver bullet would do to a vampire bat.

I launched myself at him as hard as I could, shifting into human form in mid-air. Clean Jr. looked up just in time for me to nail him in the face with a drop-kick. He dropped his gun and staggered back, hitting the glass. I scrambled to my feet and launched a flying elbow into his chest, throwing my full weight into it. The window shattered, and the werewolf fell out. Silver was nice and all, but I doubted even he could survive a thirteen-storey drop

I grabbed his gun off the floor, and heard footsteps approaching. I turned in time to see Clean Sr. lunging for me, his fangs and claws bared. In the movies, bullets are magical instant death machines, and the hero only needs to fire once for his opponent to peacefully slump down and die. In the real world, there is a reason why police officers are instructed to empty their clip into a target.

I pulled the trigger again and again as the werewolf slammed into me, firing shot after shot into his chest even as he snapped at my throat. I twisted and blocked his jaws with my shoulder, taking the bite as the gun finally clicked dry. Clean Sr.’s teeth sank in, but his grip began to tremble, the bite not as iron-hard as it could have been. I felt some of the werewolf’s blood splash on my shoulder as he coughed it up.

I shoved Clean Sr. off, and he stumbled back. He slumped weakly against one of the cubicles, beginning to slide down to the floor. The werewolf’s breathing was ragged, half-choked on his own blood as the silver bullets did their work. He looked up at me, and I turned away. I had more important things to deal with than a dying thug.

I got a quick glimpse of Grimaldi as he slipped away into the shadows of the room, dropping his expensive overcoat behind him. I pointed the empty gun and pulled the trigger on instinct, the empty click echoing through the room.

 

 

“You’re out of ammo,” Grimaldi called out. I tried to track his voice, but he was moving too quickly. “Good! Maybe you’ll face me like a man.”

“I’m a woman, you dumbass,” I said as I began to move, trying to track his voice but also getting away from the windows, where he could conceivably corner me. I could see fairly well in the dark, but it was still somewhat difficult to navigate through the fake office.

“I admit, I made a mistake,” his voice dropped in pitch, growing deeper. Growlier. “But I’m going to make up for it now.”

Dammit, I couldn’t tell where he was. Maybe he found the time to learn to throw his voice at some point in the last century .I began to move toward the light cast by the ritual room, weaving my way through the cubicles as I did. Marco’s gun was in there. If I could reach it before Grimaldi tore me to pieces, I’d have a chance.

“No, the mistake was mine,” I said. “I called the cops on you and ran. I didn’t stick around to finish the job. You’re like a mad dog, Grimmy. You have to be put down. Just because it was botched the first time doesn’t mean we can’t do it now.”

Movement. I heard it, just to my left. My hands closed on the back of an office chair.

“You’re a pathetic little bloodsucking bitch,” Grimaldi said. “All you ever do is deny what you are and advocate for humans. Humans! They’re weak. Worthless. You aren’t even a decent vampire. Ripping you apart will be a mercy.”

“Yeah, it’s funny,” I said. “I’ve spent the last hundred years saving lives. Just what have you been doing? Training up your little gang? I hate to break it to you, but you just lost them all. How much time have you spent obsessing over me only to ruin it in one wild evening? If you wanna talk pathetic, let’s look at the guy who’s only alive because a horse felt sorry for him.”

Silence. He didn’t have a retort. I almost felt that I could hear him breathe, but I didn’t want to fool myself. I was near the edge of the fake office, and if I wanted to aim for the ritual room, I only had a short sprint across open terrain. But Grimaldi was likely in his wolf form, and he was stalking me. If he hadn’t attacked yet, it was because he was trying to herd me, or bait me into a mistake.

So it was time to make him mess up.

“Speaking of Orobas, let’s talk about your demon friend,” I said, taking a half-step toward the door, but still maintaining that hold on the chair. “He didn’t really help all that much against Caacrinolaas, did he? I guess you messed up too badly even for him.”

Okay, that was definitely movement. Almost inaudible, but I could pinpoint him, finally. Just on the other side of that cubicle, or a little further away.

“Yeah, you fell for the oldest trick in the book,” I said. “Thinking that he just helped you out of the kindness of his heart. Of course there was a price! He made you freaking immortal, Grimmy. You were supposed to use it. Father a new tribe of super-wolves, or take over the world, or something. Anything. But what did you do? You hid out for a century, put a small gang together, and then wasted it all on a petty little grudge? Man, you and your men looked so intimidating, strutting around like you’re hot stuff, but now they’re dead, and you’re hiding from me. Your men got killed by the same demon whose furry ass I kicked a couple of months ago. So, who’s the pathetic one now? Mr. Grimmy?”

He burst through the cubicle wall. Grimaldi’s human flab was gone, replaced by thick muscle under a steely coat of coarse fur. He was bigger than I had remembered. But then, it wasn’t me he had been attacking back then.

I swung the chair at him, nailing him in the muzzle. The cheap piece of metal and plastic furniture shattered against him, but it did turn his head, and force him to stumble, crashing into the other wall of the cubicle and bringing it down on him. I put my head down and broke into a mad dash for the ritual room, acutely aware of how little time it would take for Grimaldi to recover.

The werewolf threw off the wrecked wall and bounded after me, catching me just as I ran into the ritual room. I took the hit and rolled with it, tumbling out of his grasp. I got a glimpse of Marco’s gun lying next to his corpse, but it was out of reach. Might as well have been a hundred miles away at this point. I managed to roll away from Grimaldi’s followup attack, and kick him back with both feet to give myself a chance to get up again.

He attacked again as I stood, his claws slicing over my scalp. Blood flooded my vision, and the bleeding gave me a moment of shakiness – enough for the werewolf to follow it up with another blow to my jaw, missing my throat by inches. I swung put a kick to his ribs, hard enough to make him flinch, and charged in myself, crashing into his gut with my shoulder. Grimaldi fell, and I rolled off before making another lunge for the gun on the opposite end of the room.

Grimaldi recovered and hit me in the back with another claw swipe, bringing me down. I twisted as I fell, catching myself with a hand on the floor and lashing out at his face with another kick. The toe of my shoe struck him in the eye, and he yelped before flinching back, covering it with one hand.

I reached over Marco’s body to grab his gun, my hand closing around the cold steel of its grip. Grimaldi hit me again in the back, driving his elbow into the wound he had just made. He slammed me down onto Marco’s body, my face landing in the ragged, shredded cavity that used to be his chest. I closed my eyes as viscera covered my face, turning my stomach. I felt one of Grimaldi’s claws hook into my back and begin to lift me up. The pain almost made me black out again.

I brought the gun around, but Grimaldi batted it away with his other hand. I lost my grip and, as I heard it clatter across the floor, Grimaldi slammed me back down onto the ground. Thankfully, I didn’t land in the dead werewolf again, but the impact knocked the strength out of me for a moment.

He was on me, then, clawed hands pinning my limbs while he prepared to bite out my throat. I spat in Grimaldi’s eye as he began to lunge, and then headbutted him in the snout when he flinched. I rolled him off me before he could recover, and kicked him as hard as I could in the midsection to force some distance between us.

As I scrambled back to my feet, no idea where the gun went, my fingers brushed against silver chain. I barely had time to register this before Grimaldi charged me again, crashing into me with his overwhelming size. I quickly wrapped my arms around his midsection, tucked my head under his arm, and flipped backwards in a Northern Lights suplex. He hit the ground headfirst with a vicious crack, and his body tensed severely in my arms before seemingly going limp. I decided not to fool myself into thinking that it was over, and threw him off me, rolling away immediately.

Grimaldi was already starting to move again when I grabbed the silver handcuffs from the floor. I turned just as Grimaldi pounced at me again, almost as fast and strong as when he had been fresh in the fight. He slammed into me, his full weight bearing down on my tiny frame, and I wrapped the handcuff chain around his throat, squeezing. The werewolf’s eyes widened in shock, and I took advantage pf his hesitation to flip him even as he was still falling, using his own momentum to pin him to the ground, myself.

I started choking Grimaldi with the silver chain, using all of my vampiric strength to press it down over his throat, cutting off his air supply. The cuffs stung my hands as I held them, but his skin touching the chain began to blacken, and he let out an agonized, choking rasp as he started to thrash underneath me. I held on even as Grimaldi first punched me in the temple, and then brought his claws down across my cheek.

He hit me again and again and again, and my own vision started to blur as I desperately pressed tighter, strangling the werewolf pinned underneath me. He thrashed and foamed at the mouth, his drool taking on a pinkish hue after he bit into his tongue.

“Choke on your blood!” I screamed, the sound of my own voice giving me just a little more strength. Finally, one of his blows missed, more like a limp flailing than a claw swipe. The sound from his throat was more ragged, a long, dragging strangling wheeze. His hand hit the floor with a thud, and he stopped struggling.

I gasped for my own breath, feeling the strain as my body’s healing had slowed to a crawl. One of my eyes was closed, the side of my face swollen with bruising, but I wasn’t in any danger of passing out again. Still, I almost fell over if just to rest for a moment and recover. The strain of choking him had pretty much done me in. I let go of the silver handcuffs and stepped off from Grimaldi’s body, staggering on my feet for a moment. I looked over at Archer’s body, which was likely the least-mangled in the room. Dammit. I had let him die. A terrible thought, but I hoped that he didn’t have a family who was missing him.

I took a few limping steps, and then looked back at Grimaldi’s fallen form. His chest rose and fell in shallow breaths.

He’s unconscious, not dead. Hurry.

I snapped back into reality and looked around the room again, seeing where Marco’s gun had fallen. I ran for it just as I heard Grimaldi start to get up behind me, already recovering. Unless he’d been faking it in the first place.

I stooped and grabbed the gun just as he pounced on me, the force of impact driving me into the opposite wall. I turned as I crashed into the drywall, nearly breaking through it, and fired.

Grimaldi staggered back from the third shot that hit his chest. By the fourth, fifth, and sixth, he was stumbling, barely able to keep his footing. The seventh took him down, and he fell into a seated position, propped up by his arms. I stood up, pointing the barrel of the gun at his head.

Grimaldi transformed in front of me, his wolf form shrinking, evaporating until it was just the man in front of me. Bleeding. Bloody. His eyes wide, innocent – terrified. Sympathy, the last ploy of a dying man.

“Help me,” he whimpered.

Those words. Those two words. I hated myself for hesitating when I heard those words. But then he spoke again.

“Help me, Orobas,” he said, and my sympathy drained.

I had a vision. Or rather, I think I shared in the one he saw. I saw a figure far off in the distance, silhouetted against dying reddish light. The shape of a man, only with the face of a horse. The shadow shook its head.

No.

Grimaldi’s mouth opened in fear, but I shot him in the face before he could say anything else.

And now, I was left alone on the floor.

Cleanup during the aftermath was remarkably smooth. Most of the cops on the night shift were familiar with the supernatural, many of those thanks to me. All the information about werewolves and demons evaporated before it could reach the news, although there was definitely some press about the brutal gangland-style massacre of a small mob faction right in the middle of downtown San Francisco. The cops got the credit, which I was fine with, and Tony made sure that Archer had the lion’s share. His family at least had that much comfort, as slim as it was.

I had made sure that Tony knew to instruct that Grimaldi’s gang be cremated. He had already come back from an execution once, and I supposed that if the demons really wanted to use him again, they would still find a way. But for now, as far as I could tell, Salvatore Grimaldi was gone for real.

But still. Archer had died. The man in the alley, too. The only person I had been able to save was myself. And Caacrinolaas’s final words still echoed in my head.

This wasn’t over.

It would never be over.

I took some time off work. Even after I healed, I needed to be alone for a little while.

Eventually, Tony came to see me again. There had been enough of a break in the red tape to allow him to check in on me off-duty. I poured us some coffee and we sat in companionable silence for a long time in the way that only old friends can manage. For me, I kept reliving everything again. Not just the demon, or my fight with Grimaldi’s men, but everything. Especially that moment long ago, when I had first learned his true nature.

“Grace,”I said.

“Hm?” Tony looked at me.

“Her name was Grace,” I said. “Lady Grace. I remember now.”

Tony took my hand, then. And the warmth of his gesture strengthened me. Salvatore Grimaldi had called humans weak and worthless, and me pathetic for caring about them so much. But the weakness was his. He never knew what he was missing.

I held my old friend’s hand, and the world felt a little better now.