A modern twist to the Prince Charming tale in this third urban fantasy in the Pax Arcana series.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE IDIOT
Once Upon a Time, Ted Cahill had changed. The only real question was whether Cahill had changed too much or not enough.
For example, when I first met Cahill, he had been a mouthy homicide detective in Clayburg, Virginia. Now he was the sheriff of Tatum, New York, which basically meant that he was better paid, had more administrative responsibilities, and was forced to be a lot more polite to a lot more people. But when someone in Cahill’s jurisdiction died in a suspicious manner, he was still a homicide detective at heart. And Tatum and Clayburg had a lot in common: Both towns are nestled in mountains, both towns are hosts to small private universities, and both towns call themselves cities, as if saying the word could make it true. So, how much of the change in Cahill’s status and environment was really all that significant?
Another thing about Cahill that was different—but not unrecognizably so—was his physical appearance. Cahill’s skin was a little paler than when I’d first met him, and I was willing to swear that his freckles were disappearing. His excess body fat had melted off like wax from a lit candle, and his cheekbones were still pronounced, but in an angular way rather than chubby. His brown eyes were still small but now burned with an intensity that might be compelling or disturbing depending on how you looked at them… or how those eyes looked at you. This quality is actually fairly common among supernatural beings struggling with predatory instincts.
And that, of course, was the biggest change, the catalyst for all of the cosmetic alterations in Cahill’s life. Ted Cahill had become a dhampir, a vampire who still retained some of his humanity. It was when trying to figure out how much humanity Cahill still retained (or what humanity meant exactly) that things got confusing.
“So, what about it, wolf boy? Do you smell it?” Cahill had been pushy and snappish ever since we arrived. He seemed to feel like he was doing us a huge favor by letting us help him, because asking for help had been so difficult.
“I smell it,” I confirmed. Sig Norresdotter, Cahill, and I were standing in the middle of a frosty and fenced in horseback riding ring next to Kincaid University’s stables. It was that kind of private school. Tatum in January was a lot colder than Virginia, and I was wearing a grey hoodie under a brown Flying Tiger fighter pilot jacket. I was also wearing black leather gloves, thermals under my dark blue jeans, two pairs of socks beneath my running shoes, and a slight frown.
The scent in question had been dissipating for twenty-four hours and was now too faint for normal human senses, but I could discern a weird, flat tang in the air. It was the slightly off, kind of wrong, almost burnt smell that writers of the old tales used to describe as brimstone. When someone or something from another plane suddenly materializes on this one, molecules from the visitor’s dimension get shoehorned into ours, and molecules from our plane get sucked into the visitor’s home to fill up the empty spaces left behind. It’s like the alternate-universe version of swapping spit. And the surrounding air has a neutral but not quite natural feel to it afterward.
Cahill gave me an impatient look. “And?”
“And why don’t you shove an orange cone up your ass and go direct traffic, you doorknob?” I said. “I’m trying to concentrate so I can do your job for you.”
Well, okay, I didn’t really say that. I might have a year earlier, but I’ve been working on my social skills. Instead, I confirmed Cahill’s suspicions. “Something supernatural manifested in this corral.”
“Was this thing summoned?” Sig spoke up, wearing some kind of cream-colored, soft-shelled female outdoor jacket unzipped. She wasn’t bothered by the cold any more than she was by the heat of the huge steaming cup of drive-through coffee that she was gulping instead of sipping.
By way of answering, I fished out my wallet and flashed the driver’s license I was currently using. “Does it say Gandalf on here or something?”
I really did say that one.
Sig gave me a look, and her glare is a formidable thing: icy-eyed, intense, full-lipped, and framed by long golden hair flowing over Scandinavian cheekbones. I stared back and saw how smart and strong and beautiful she was, and smiled.
Seeing that smile, her eyes softened, and the corners of her lips curved upward slightly. Being around Cahill again had us both a little on edge, so I relented. “Yeah, it was probably summoned deliberately. Things that break into our universe without an invitation are rare, and they usually kick up a shitstorm right away. They don’t go bump in the night; they go boom.”
Sig nodded and addressed Cahill without looking at him or using his name. “This missing college student… What was her name again?”
“Lindsey Williams,” Cahill supplied. “I was thinking maybe you’d see her ghost around here.”
“I don’t,” Sig said shortly. She doesn’t particularly like the I-see-dead-people part of being descended from Valkyries, but she doesn’t deny it either. “So, a security camera caught this Lindsey Williams heading this way at three thirty in the morning, right? What was she doing here that early?”
“Normally, I’d say she was meeting someone she shouldn’t,” Cahill said. “Some married professor, maybe, or her BFF’s boyfriend, or her drug dealer. But after a little nudging, her roommate admitted that Lindsey used to sneak out here at night pretty regularly. She said that Lindsey was horse crazy and that the upperclassmen in the equestrian studies program get to choose all the best horses for themselves. So Lindsey liked to come out and take some of her favorites for a night ride.”
“You say it took a little nudging?” Sig’s voice was tight as she repeated the words. Cahill had carried a major torch for Sig back in Clayburg. I couldn’t really blame him for that, but vampires are low-grade telepaths, and as a dhampir, Cahill had some of those abilities. When he’d partially turned, he’d started broadcasting his feelings for Sig and made her experience them too. From what I understand, they flirted around for a few days before going out on a date. Then they had dinner, and at some point while talking about how strange it was that they’d known each other so long and now this new thing was happening, Sig had a distant idea in the back of her mind. Sig is nothing if not strong willed, and the suspicion kept drifting back to the surface of her thoughts despite the tide of hormones trying to bear it away. After dinner, while Sig and Cahill were kissing in the parking lot behind the restaurant, Sig wrapped her arms over Cahill’s shoulders and pulled him close… and broke his neck. Lo and behold, the sudden rush of new feelings that had come into Sig’s life completely disappeared.
Cahill’s neck improved. Relations between him and Sig did not.
Cahill claimed the whole thing had been an accident, a result of having new powers that he didn’t fully understand and was still learning to control, and that was entirely possible. On the other hand, Cahill had used Sig’s unavailability as justification for using other women like Kleenex to wipe off excess sperm while his marriage fell apart. So it was kind of hard to say whether Cahill’s feelings for Sig were real or whether they were just his excuse for being a player, and that was a difficult uncertainty to deal with. If Cahill’s telepathic seduction of a woman he truly cared about had been unintentional, it was tragic, and he was kind of a victim. If it weren’t an accident, Cahill had mentally raped Sig as a means toward physically raping her. People are complex, so there was the whole question of what Cahill had done consciously or subconsciously too, or how much of the event he had reinvented or lied to himself about.
Which was why Sig had compromised. She left Cahill breathing but told him to get his dick out of Dodge if he wanted to stay that way. And Cahill, whatever his other faults, knew Sig well enough to take her seriously. Hence Cahill’s new job running a small police force in a town in upstate New York. I don’t know if Cahill had called Sig reluctantly or if he’d been looking for an excuse, but when he came across something he didn’t know how to handle, he’d called her just the same.
And she had answered. Sig is like that. She tends to have an “it takes a village” attitude toward monster hunting. I have mostly hunted supernatural predators alone, partly because I had no choice and partly because I’m an idiot. But Sig is worth going outside my comfort zone for.
“I gave the roommate a mental push,” Cahill’s voice resonated with a complex mixture of defiance and anger and shame. “If I don’t practice using my powers, I’ll never get better control of them. And this was for a good cause.”
Sig considered that while taking a big slurp of her coffee coco mucho mocco whatever (I’m a coffee purist), then turned her focus on me again. “So, what are we dealing with here, John? I saw your lips do that I-smelled-a-fart twitch they do when you connect some nasty dots. Spill it.”
Being attracted to a smart woman has a lot of rewards. It also comes with a few challenges.
“Yeah, I’ve put some pieces together,” I grumbled. I would have liked another minute to think about them, but I went ahead and squatted down closer to the ground so that I could outline a wide area with a sweeping index finger. “Did you notice how this part of the corral has the outline of hoofprints frozen in the mud much clearer and deeper than the rest of the riding ring?”
They had not.
“This patch of ground got moister than the rest and then froze. I figure the creature that manifested a physical body here used water as its elemental base.”
Cahill made a “time-out” sign and gave Sig an exasperated look. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! I asked you to bring Professor Peabody here because I don’t know a lot about this stuff, remember? What do you mean, element base?”
Professor Peabody was a cartoon character on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show who had a lot of doctoral degrees. He was also a talking dog.