A Does of Aconite
Crouched over his laptop in a dank SleepRite motel somewhere southwest of Cleveland, Mannix Tippet waited for the werewolf to call.
The beast was not expecting Mannix to answer. The room three doors down was the temporary residence of water-witch Tala Blight, who had offered sanctuary and a cure-as if that could absolve the beast of the blood he had shed. It had been simplicity to tap the hotel phone system. When the beast called Tala's room to confirm where they would meet tonight, he would not reach her.
Mannix shifted on the bed, starting a minor fugue in the springs, and pulled up his file on Blight. There before him, all the electronic details of her life: her saving habits to her tastes in fiction to how many times she had purchased lavish presents for friends who never reciprocated. Something more precise and useful than magic. Witches relied on it too much; she didn't even own a cellphone.
He knew, without asking questions, that he would kill her. His malice was not for her personally, but it was also immutable. Officially, the Borderwatch was in a state of truce with the water-witches: the supernatural threats both organizations had to face were more important than any difference in methods. The word "truce" was hollow when a good man like his cousin drowned on a mission-and the unidentified witch who guided him emerged without a mark on her.
Mannix had read the official report, which claimed it had been an accident. That meant nothing when a few bytes could erase any truth.
"Take the beast," were his official orders. "Use her to find him if you have to, but make sure you can deny it."
There was more than one way to accomplish that. He had already decided if he could not find the real culprit behind his cousin's death, then he would destroy the next witch he encountered. Pity Tala that it was her.
The phone sputtered, then managed an anemic buzz. Mannix let his hand hover before swooping the phone up on the second ring.
"Tala?" The voice was tenor, quavery. Mannix had a mental image of acne and braces, though he knew the werewolf was thirty and worked construction. "It's Raul."
"Hi, Raul," he said. "I'm a friend of Tala's. She had to step out. Is everything all right?"
"Two nights before the moon is full, and you have to ask?" Nervous, almost manic. "We're still set to meet in Phelan Park? Nine o'clock?"
"Can you make it an hour earlier?"
"Won't it still be light out?"
They were in the boondocks, a place too primitive for reliable wireless. Who was going to interrupt them, he wondered: a vigilante cow? "It should be dark enough. No one is looking for you, Raul."
"Tala is sure she lost the Borderwatch agent?"
He smiled. "Positive."
"I'll see her at eight." Raul hung up.
There was little to do to bide his time. Mannix picked at the remnants of a continental breakfast-the danish was hard as a landmass, so that was accurate-and triple-checked his gun. Silver bullet. A backup shot. Four regular bullets for the witch.
He expected surprise on his side. Even if she was ready for trouble, he didn't seem like it: a small man, almost on the verge of undersized, prone to movement that looked sloppy unless you watched carefully. Then there were the unfortunate Irish curls, redder than a streetlight. He had always meant to have words with his mother about her contribution to his genetics.
It was finally time, and the last thing he put on-after a battered fleece jacket-was a fire agate pendant. The claim it hindered water-witch powers was only a myth, but will had a power of its own . . . and Mannix believed.
He went out to finish things.
Phelan Park was less a defined stretch of land and more a gate with landscaping that fringed the vast open. Somewhere to the east, it ended on an Amish fence. Mannix parked on the gravel and started towards the economy playground.
A wiry man sat on the swings, pushing off with a foot. He looked up, one eye focusing. The other eye was a socket. "Are you Tala's friend?"
Mannix lifted the gun in sync with his stride and fired. The shot slammed into Raul's stomach. The man's fingers spasmed on the swing chain and slipped. He tipped backwards like a child's toy.
"Who . . . why . . . "
Mannix stood over him, watching without interest. "You know why."
Raul wrenched his head up. "Then finish it. It hurts . . ." He whined like a dog.
"No." Mannix turned away. "You almost killed five people. Bleed out."
"I tried." Raul's voice was a desperate rasp. "I put out my eye trying not to answer the call . . ."
"Then it should have been both of them." He had to stop talking to the beast. They would claim, all of them, that nature had overridden them, forced them to hunt like animals. He could not credit it. Human will was stronger than instinct.
Raul pushed himself upright. The labored pant of his breath became a wheezing shout-for help, in accusation, it didn't matter. He was making too much noise, and while the chance that anyone was near enough to hear was small ...
Mannix sighed, adjusted the gun, and put the second bullet through Raul's heart.
He pulled a vial out of his pocket and walked the playground in three concentric circles, sprinkling the contents with methodical precision. Dried moly, crushed and diffused with salt-not enough to stop a spell, but enough for disruption. Knowing how Tala probably intended to cure Raul, he suspected an element in her arrival, and he did not mean to be caught off-guard.
He rolled the body into the dip under the monkey-bars, then leaned against the slide to wait. His mission for the Borderwatch was complete. His personal mission, now.
Tala arrived a little late-water-witches seemed to be incapable of punctuality. He knew she had walked because no vehicle heralded her approach ... only a subtle ripple in the air as she crossed the first line of moly.
He was instantly on the alert. "I know you're there, witch."
A hesitation; her hand appeared first, light umber fingers unfolding around a piece of iguana skin. The rest of her flicked into existence as she released the charm.
"How did you find me?"
Mannix had seen her picture, but license photos never did a person justice. Reading she was 5'10" hadn't properly illustrated the long, lean lines of her frame, the legs that seemed to have no break but slid like rain into the ground. Her hair was cropped close, boyish-a rogue curl of ebon-blue around her left ear was the only sign of softness, but it demanded to be touched. The eyes in the picture had been flat, blending into her skin tone-here they were incandescent, cast from within like a piece of amber. There was green there, and violet, accents on fertile ground.
He felt a strange dizziness in his head, warm and bubbling, brought to a halt when he remembered he had already resolved to kill her.
"You left traces," he said. "I followed them."
She tensed, a wave that ebbed to her toes. "Raul?"
"Already handled." He moved towards her, slowly so as not to offer a threat, but hoping to reach her before she turned hostile. "Had to be."
"You can't keep him chained in silver forever," she said. "I can cure him. I have the herbs here ..." Her hand went to a pouch at her side.
Mannix lifted the gun, twitching once. "Hands where I can see them, please. Aconite?"
"Yes. Wolfsbane." Tala's chin jutted. Her face had the profile of a goddess-not one of the Greek aristocrats, but a native goddess whose body was made of the elements. "It has power in curing lycanthropy."
"I know that," he said. "It's too late."
"There's no such thing ..." she trailed off. "You didn't ..." She advanced on him, eyes burst into furious life. "There were other ways."
"There weren't." Subdue her while he could, take the next step after that was done. "He had to pay for his crimes."
"Do you blame a cat when it eats your parakeet?" Tala asked. She moved like the element from which she drew her powers, swift and effortless. Any second, she would turn into a tidal wave.
"I don't," he said, "but I don't keep the cat, either."
"You don't kill it. How can you apply justice to instinct?"
"Someone has to," he replied, "or we collapse into anarchy."
"Nature is anarchy." She shifted past him, drawn as if outside her will towards the body. "We can tame it, but gentle rains absorb into the ground more readily than harsh ones."
"You witches and your metaphors," he said. "Don't you know they mean nothing?"
Too much banter. He lunged. She jerked backwards, her hands gliding through air like a swimmer's. He couldn't make sense of the symbols, but he could feel the result. The cold gnawed into his hands and rushed upwards. It would have been past his elbows and numbing his arms, but the amulet slowed the process.
He grabbed her wrists and twisted them together, gripping hard-even though he couldn't feel her skin under his. She made an incoherent sound of fury and spun, slippery as a fish, but without freedom of motion, she couldn't pursue the spell . . . and he was both stronger than she and better trained in physical conflict.
They stumbled about as if in some dance gone wrong-he took her feet out from under her. They went down.
"Let go of me, watchman," she said.
"Not on your life, witch," he replied. He had landed on top of her, the weight of his body holding her pinned, and in other circumstances it would have been enough to send all reason flying out of his head. She smelled like cinnamon and sea-salt, a bizarre and intoxicating combination.
Tala looked up, meeting his gaze. Her eyes widened and sparked; she had seen the reaction, however disguised. "You've won this round. There's nothing to fight about."
Mannix couldn't explain to her, not so coldly, not like this. He rolled until he could grab the gun and used it to club her over the back of the head. She stiffened, then went still.
He dropped free, heart hammering in his chest. He had meant it to end it there, but found himself gathering her up and heading for his car.
Mannix carried Tala into the hotel room with her arm draped over his shoulder-it made her look drunk, not unconscious. He wanted to earn no second glances, though he had paid in cash, hacked his car rental records along with hers, and left tracks that contradicted themselves.
He bound her hands in front of her, cold iron bonds - not as painful as they would be for one of the fairy, but it would still the flows. He arranged her on the chair, placed so her head was cushioned and she wouldn't slip to the floor when she awakened.
The aconite seed rested on the desk with the iguana skin it had been wrapped in. The skittering in the room stopped after he set it down-maybe there was some truth to the folklore about the scent killing rats and mice. Either that, or he smelled like werewolf. More likely.
Mannix watched his captive, disgruntled. She was beautiful and exuded sweetness. Why would such a woman waste her time on a creature like Raul?
Eyes still closed, Tla tensed. Her fingers twitched, a subtle test of the restraints. He wouldn't have noticed it had she not held his attention. He kept still and let her pretend. He couldn't halt the smile on his lips.
Her head swiveled. "You're not even winded." Her eyes opened, a flick of lashes that went on forever.
"I try," he said. "It took a lot of effort to track you. You led a good chase."
"Not good enough." Her tone was weary, the expression-not a smile, though reminiscent of one-rueful. She stretched out her wrists. "You might as well remove these."
"No. I don't think so."
Tala sucked in a breath. For the first time, she looked anxious. "Why am I here?"
"You're going to pay a debt on behalf of the water-witches." Mannix wondered why he bothered, but something in him refused to finish her without explanation.
"Whatever you need," she said, "as long as it doesn't go against my principles."
He was taken aback by the readiness of her words. "But I just ..."
"You killed a man who did not deserve to die." Her voice lay deep beneath ice, quiet, firm. "But we have the same goals at heart, and aiding that cannot be a bad thing. Also," she continued with a note of dark humor, "you have me at a disadvantage. I can be as practical as the next woman."
He chuckled, though he hadn't intended to. "No. A debt of blood."
She tensed; she reminded him of a deer, poised, flighty. Her eyes caught his face, and she gasped.
Tala launched off the chair, faster than he would have thought possible. He grabbed for her. She slid sideways and tumble-rolled over the bed. He mis-stepped and jammed his shin against it. She sprinted to the door.
Mannix slammed into her from behind. There was no finesse: they hit the door hard, her cheek pressed against the lost luggage legalese.
She turned under him, fighting for the door handle. He blocked her, thrusting his hip against it. "Stop," he said, "I don't want to knock you around."
"You want to kill me, but you don't want to hurt me?" She tilted her head up. This close, she was dazzling. Again, he knew she felt it. He saw the flicker of decision in her eyes. She reached for his face, hands brushing his cheeks . . . an imploring touch. "Don't do this. There must be other ways to solve your grievance."
"Not everything can be solved by compromise," he replied.
She leaned in, though there was already little distance between them. "I did nothing against you." Her words were a whisper.
"It could have been you just as easily," he said.
"Do you believe that?" Pleading again, wide-eyed and genuine-and in a voice that curled at the base of his spine. Those hands rested on his shoulders; they were too gentle, fingers moving in soft circles. She was trying to seduce him, to buy herself time, and until she knew where he had put the keys to the cuffs, it was the smartest move she could make.
"We wouldn't be here if I didn't."
"Please." It was spoken to his ear. Her head turned, her lips close to his by designed accident. It would be far too easy to kiss her without the pretense of intent.
Secure in the knowledge she couldn't breach his guard, he did.
She seemed to surround him, a summer ocean. He crushed her close and cut himself free-no taste of the reality where he knew this was calculated, where he had already made up his mind. They tumbled away from the door and slid to the bed.
Tala had managed to thoroughly search his pockets without making it obvious that she was doing so. Mannix was impressed.
She pretended to sleep now, curled up on the bed with her eyelids still and slack. He could tell by the quality of her breathing-subtle, but it was there. It would have been very pleasant to join her, without the pretense, but he knew he couldn't afford to drift off.
He watched her out of the corner of his eye. It was a strange game: he didn't want to be seen studying her, but didn't want her to realize he knew she was awake. Perfection ebbed and flowed in the hollows of her body. It wasn't just physical: something of her soul shone through her skin, a weird back-light no mortal should have possessed.
It would be easy, he realized, to let her think her ploy had worked-to fall asleep for real and let her find the keys in the third drawer. If he told himself it had been unavoidable, he would eventually believe it. There were other witches.
Her jacket hung on the desk chair. His eyes went to a rectangular bulge in the pocket. He leaned forward-heard her shift, wanting to intervene but not willing to alert him-and pulled it towards him. The bulge turned out to be a notebook.
He snorted. Pen and paper. The water-witches seemed to breed primitive.
Mannix thumbed through, entertained by her spiral handwriting and sweeping curliques. The longer words shrank as they reached the edge of the page. He wasn't paying attention until the circled abbreviation "UL" caught his eye. Urban Legend-a type of fairy descended from the Lutins, shapeshifters. They were known for having little identity of their own, choosing their types from popular consciousness.
UL working as recurring char. in sitcom, Tala's notes read. Rare to see one with stable persona. Notified other witches to let it be.
Let it be? A fairy in an acting position, taking the role away from a human? And with an unfair advantage. If you could look any part ...
There was more. An arrangement with a Rusalka for the protection of Lake Huron. A fairy protecting natural lands? A half-blood boy who had caused several injuries when his nascent powers had gotten out of control at the school prom. Too much mercy, too much compassion, for beings who did not understand it in return.
His fingers tightened on the notebook. Only his second thought was practical. He could take the notebook and have the Borderwatch clean up the messes the water-witches had left behind. His first thought was pure rage, at Tala's blithe disregard for the consequences ... and it was personal, as if the betrayal were meant for him alone. She might have spat in his face.
He slapped the notebook onto the desk and yanked out the drawer. She swung upright behind him. He grabbed the gun from its resting place and whirled on her. She stood unveiled and wild. She grabbed for the seed, knocking the notebook to the floor.
A half second before she vanished, he remembered he had left the iguana skin next to the seed.
Mannix sprung to his feet and positioned himself between the bed and the door. There was no way she could get past him-not without a betraying bounce of springs.
"Tala," he said, "give up."
"No. I won't stop fighting." He oriented on her voice, though he knew better-she would have ducked aside. Even through the haze of anger, he realized he could use the fact.
"Wrong." His voice cut. "You bend and you wash away, until there's no trace left of what you stand for."
"Water can wear down mountains where all the blunt force in the world can't," she answered. "And you. I can wear you down--"
There was only one place she could have moved after the last sentence. He snapped the gun up and fired. The skin dropped out of her hand. She tumbled into view and to the floor in the same motion. The carpet flooded with blood-he had nicked the side of her neck.
"No," he said. "You can't."
Her hands, blood-soaked, pushing futilely at the cold iron bands--and she was still beautiful, some maiden sacrifice from a myth. Her lips moved, froze as she seemed to realize she had never found out his name.
"Mannix," he supplied, and fired again.
There was no silence in the aftermath-her shocked last breath sounded like a banshee, his heart ran more wildly than it had any right to, and someone pounded down the corridor. He spun to the window, but there was no time to escape that way.
He hesitated, then picked up the skin. It had rolled into a puddle of her blood; he plucked it out and jammed it into his palm. The hand he was staring at vanished-everything did-just as the door opened.
The lobby clerk stood slack-jawed in the doorway. Mannix resisted the urge to tap his foot. Couldn't he get on with it? Finally, the man screamed-shrieked-and fled for the lobby. Mannix grabbed his laptop and the notebook and slipped out after, calmly. He walked the other way.
He ditched the car. As he walked down the road, headed for the bus station, he let his fingers uncurl from around the lizard skin. Undoubtably, magic made things simpler ... but relying on it had been Tala's undoing. He inspected the notebook-words blotched out by her blood.
Now that he was away, he freed himself to feel triumph in taking his revenge . . . and felt nothing. The seed crumbled in his fingers, her blood under his nails. It was done, and he could relax, but there was no satisfaction. Well-earned rest? It was uncomfortably like the repose of the grave.
The wind had her voice. There was no escape from the remembered blaze of bright brown eyes, now gone barren. He increased his pace, trying to pound the ephemeral scent of her from his mind. He had done what he needed to do.