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Legend Has It
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PART THE FIRST
Four Vettings and a Funeral
Prologue Two: Electric Boogaloo
CLEANUP IN AISLE NINE
New York City
Seniority had its perks, and working aisle nine was one of them. Fred (Freda) Byrd was on the short side—five feet two—and most of the stuff in the baby-food aisle was light and easy to pack. The baby-food jars almost went together like Lego pieces, and the diapers were fluffy and big and acted like padding for the breakable goods when Fred had to put overstock back on the storage pallet. Win-win-win. Plus, Fred got to look at pictures of smiling babies all night long, which wasn't bad for her mood now that both of her chicks had left the nest. There were worse ways to get out of the house. Greg's back had finally forced him to quit driving his fuel truck, and Fred guessed she loved him, but having him around all the time after twenty-eight years getting used to having time to herself was seriously getting on her nerves.
As a general rule, Fred took her time facing up the aisle. Wayne Lehardy wasn't too bad as stock-crew bosses went—he and Fred had worked together at the old store on Oceanside ten years before—but Wayne would still make Fred's life miserable if he thought he could get more work out of her. But tonight, Fred was pushing it a little so that she could go help the new girl out over on the canned-vegetable aisle.
Robin Hanks was cute, and Randy Prutko had been finishing up on aisle five early so that he could go "help her out." It wasn't any of Fred's business, not really, but Robin wasn't some pretty little thing shaking her rear end to get the dumbass males to do her work for her—Fred had seen a few of those in her time. Robin was quiet and a hard worker. The girl was working a night job because it went along with her waitressing hours and her community college classes, and she didn't want any part of any Randy Prutko, but Robin didn't know how to handle him.
Fred didn't really know how to handle Randy Prutko either, but Fred wasn't a cute young girl, and she could at least put herself between them. There was something wrong about that shitheel. It wasn't just that Randy was big and knew it, wearing tight T-shirts that showed off his arms even if they made his stomach stick out like a basketball. It was something hiding in the back of those flat, shiny eyes. Something growling in the back of his throat when Randy talked about how nobody could make any money working for somebody else, or complained about stuck-up college bitches. Wayne made the stock crew take breaks together—he said it was to help them be a team, but they all knew it was so he could make sure nobody took too much time off—so Fred got to hear plenty of Randy Prutko's views on life.
Fred got to watch Randy sit too close to Robin, too. Got to watch him make little comments that were supposed to be funny, speculating on what a wild party girl Robin probably was off the clock, or asking the girl fake-friendly questions that any fool could see she didn't want to answer. Nothing too out of line, but enough to bring out Fred's maternal instincts.
"I don't mean you. You ain't one of them stuck-up college bitches, Robin," Randy had said two nights before, while Wayne was taking a bathroom break. His voice had been so sugary, it made Fred feel like her teeth were getting drilled at the dentist's office. All of the other men on the night crew had shifted in their chairs a little uncomfortably, but none of them wanted any trouble. They just wanted to do their jobs and get home.
"Yeah, she is." Fred had stepped in before Robin had to respond. "So take your sorry ass somewhere else."
The rest of the guys had laughed at that, and Randy'd had to pretend to laugh with them because he couldn't punch Fred, and any other reaction would have cost him his job or some serious respect. But he'd shot Fred a brooding look, and Robin had given her a grateful one, and now Fred was in some stupid race trying to straighten up the baby jars so she could get over to Robin's aisle before Randy could toss up those dog food bags.
Fred was almost ready to start wheeling her last pallet jack back to the storage area when the lights began flickering, and then the store went completely dark. "JUST WAIT FOR THE EMERGENCY LIGHTS," Wayne called out calmly from aisle ten. "THEY'LL BE ON IN A SECOND."
But that second went, and it took a few other seconds with it on the way out. August Vaughn said something over in the frozen-food section that made Fred hope there weren't any customers in the store. Fred was fifty-five years old, so she didn't already have her cell phone in her hand, but when it finally occurred to her to use the device as a light source, the screen wouldn't light up. Fred kept tapping it dumbly. Why would a blackout affect her phone's batter … oh, hell. Fred was from a generation that grew up half-expecting to die in a nuclear war at any minute, and she remembered something about how pulses from nuclear bombs would wipe out all the electricity.
As soon as Fred had that thought, a dozen more crowded through her head, too many to fit through the door all at once. What would she do if this was for real? Should she try to get home to her basement? Should she load up her car with canned goods and water? Would her car work? Was this some kind of Korean or Russian attack? A terrorist thing? Why wasn't she freaking out more? Where were Tyler and Savannah right now? How was she going to get in touch with her kids if the phones weren't working?
An animal sound derailed that last train of thought, a scream that echoed loudly off the walls and ceiling as if the dark grocery store were the size of a private bathroom. Fred had never heard any noise like it before. The growl had a human's messed-upness rumbling around in something that didn't sound like a human's chest. Too full of itself and hating it to be an animal. Too loud to be anything else. Maybe it was only because Fred had just been thinking about him, but an image of Randy Prutko's creepy eyes flashed through her head, followed by a thought that shook her so hard that it seemed like knowledge from some distant memory. A memory Fred hadn't known she'd had until that very second. That sound was Randy Prutko. That sound was Randy's creepy insides turned inside out.
Even though that was crazy.
There was another loud sound, a huge crash followed by another and then another, glass shattering and metal clattering and people yelling, and then packages of diapers were cascading all around Fred, cushioning her as the heavy weight of a store shelf pushed her farther down to the ground. Fred wasn't sure how long it went on. She grabbed a huge pack of diapers and curled herself around it on the floor like she was hugging a teddy bear, closing her eyes even though it was dark. She stayed still long after the floor stopped shaking and scattered voices started yelling.
Pretty soon, there was a faint orange light. Fred forced her head up through a bunch of diaper packs and hit her head against something metal. She didn't have a very clear view, but she could see Wayne Lehardy's legs and the glow from one of those yard torches that were supposed to keep insects away. The long line of shelves on Fred's aisle had been knocked over, the ones on her left catching on her pallet jack and tilting it over before halting. It left a slanting tunnel about three feet high, mostly filled with spilled baby goods.
"Wayne!" Fred yelled, and it was as if her voice was a signal. The store was filled with another scream that was loud and human and also not human in a way that just wasn't natural. Like a human scream but bigger. There was the sound of metal clanking, and then Fred saw a black-armored leg come down into her field of view. Something lashed out and cut Wayne Lehardy almost in half; he folded in a spray of blood and exposed bone and … and Fred threw up. No gagging, just spewing. Fred was a spray can, and someone had pushed down on the top of her head. At the end of the aisle, a big black armored hand reached down and grabbed the torch that was still lit, lying in the middle of a small spreading pool of igniting citronella oil.
It was crazy. Crazy, crazy, crazy. Fred's mind shut off while that thought kept coming back and getting stuck. But when the thing picked up the torch and lumbered off, Fred knew where it was going. To the canned-vegetable aisle. Robin's aisle.
NO STALKING IN THE LIBRARY
Once Upon a Time, I was being stalked. It wasn't a mercilessly hot afternoon in the twisty stinking backstreets of Calcutta, and I wasn't hurriedly making my way through the dimly lit compartments of a rollicking train headed for Istanbul—it was actually a quite pleasant summer evening in Clayburg, Virginia, on the campus of Stillwater University. The grass was freshly cut, the warm air was cooling, and the sun was a soft lingering glance … and I was being stalked anyhow. It seemed a little unfair. I didn't see or smell whoever (or whatever) was trailing me, but you know that feeling you get when you feel someone's eyes on you, and when you turn around, you catch someone staring at you? I didn't turn around, but it wasn't because I dismissed the feeling—it was because I trusted it completely.
Casually reaching into my pocket, I took out that week's burner phone and stared at it for a while as if I were getting a message instead of making one. Then I texted Molly Newman that I wasn't going to be meeting her in forty minutes after all. Molly was the holy person in my Monster-Hunters-R-Us club, and a while back, she had gotten badly burned while performing an impromptu exorcism. She was off her pain meds, but Molly still wasn't driving a lot because it made her tense, and having to lift her shoulders and keep them in the same position while steering hurt. I was spending a lot of time in libraries, trying to find out what kind of fingerprints an occult society called the School of Night had left on the pages of history, so I didn't mind chauffeuring Molly around.
At the moment, I was supposed to be picking Molly up from some kind of philosophy class whose title was a full sentence and contained a lot of suffixes. I had once snuck into the last bit of the class out of curiosity, and after a few minutes had leaned over and whispered to Molly that this was no time to stop taking pain medication. She had just shushed me and kept taking notes.
Somebody's watching me, I texted. Have Choo pick you up and tell Sig I'm heading for the library.
Molly couldn't have been too into the class because she responded immediately. By the texting of your thumb, something wicked this way comes?
I smiled in spite of the situation, but I couldn't think of an appropriate Macbeth quote to mangle in response, so I tapped out Unsure and put my cell away. Molly would text me if she couldn't get in touch with Sig or Choo, so, in a way, I had just killed two birds with one phone.
There weren't a lot of students on Stillwater's campus in July, and the commons had a lot of wide-open space for Frisbee-throwing and outdoor graduation ceremonies and such, so I didn't pull any of that overt pretending-to-tie-my-shoe-so-I-can-look-behind-me nonsense. The likelihood that my stalker didn't know I was onto them was the only advantage I had. I just kept heading for the university library.
The library's lobby had metal detectors that had been installed after the Virginia Tech shooting not too many miles or years before, and I had a silver steel knife in my knapsack. Well, it was more like I had a knapsack around my silver steel knife, but either way, it could be a problem. There were small wooden cubicles against the wall where students could put their possessions before passing into the library proper, but I decided to just put my knapsack on the small wooden table next to the metal detectors, then put my keys and phone in the small wicker basket set on it.
As soon as I passed through the metal detectors, I reached around and grabbed the knapsack again. There was no campus security guard around to call me on it—I'm guessing the university cut the funding for that about three months after the devices were installed. The bored student on some kind of work program behind the front desk hadn't looked up from his texting when I came in, and the only other two people in the lobby smelled like adjunct faculty (coffee, beer, pizza, and desperation).
The two were sitting in the plush comfy chairs in the west corner having an animated discussion about the upcoming parking issues that would arrive with the fall semester. From what I could tell, the specific topic was that the university should become a walking campus for everyone except faculty. The general theme was that Americans needed more exercise and that the university administration was greedy, shortsighted, and incompetent. I thought the walking campus was a good idea myself, but somehow I suspected the two were including themselves in with the tenured faculty that would still have car privileges in their vision of a parking Utopia.
I decided to hang out in the front lobby for a little while. If I was being followed by a single competent individual, he, she, or it would come in after me quickly to make sure I wasn't threading through the library to find another exit. A team would send someone after me too, but they could afford to give me a little more lead time while they spread out around the building, and whoever they sent would have to remove any earbuds or concealed weapons before going through the metal detector. That was a show that I wanted to see. Either way, staying still for a few moments would tell me something, so I grabbed some book called The Devil's Grin by an A. Wendeberg and sat down at a wooden table facing the entrance. When I set my backpack down by my chair, I unzipped the top.
The first few pages of the book seemed pretty interesting.
My stalker walked in before too long. The library took a deep breath when she opened the door, and I caught a whiff of dhampir. That just meant that whatever ceremony had tried to turn her into a vampire had been bungled somehow, and she still retained some humanity, at the very least enough to walk around in faint daylight. Her face wasn't classically beautiful—her cheekbones were a little too pronounced, her eyes a little too big, her nose a tad small—but she carried herself with an absolute confidence that made her quirks seem like a distinct brand of attractiveness. Her build was slim and feminine and athletic, and I could tell from the way she moved that she had martial arts training. A lot of it. It was the way she kept her weight centered and feet balanced so automatically that it seemed natural. Her skin was pale but not waxy, and her red hair so dark that it was almost brown. She wore both her hair and her dress short. The latter was black and high on her upper thighs, tight but comfortable-looking as it hung around almost a foot above knee-high boots. A purse on very long straps was slung casually by her right hip at about the same place that a gun would be holstered, and her hand was resting against it. If she'd had outlandishly sized breasts, she would have looked like she was auditioning for a video game.
Intent eyes narrowed in on me immediately, then took in the metal detector. Her slender and very red lips quirked, but she walked over to the wooden storage rack and somehow managed to crouch elegantly in that short dress. I'm pretty sure she transferred something that wouldn't fit in her purse from her right boot to the back of one of the small cubicles, using her body as a screen.
She didn't waste any time coming over to my table, moving her purse around the metal detector the same way I'd negotiated my knapsack. This time, everyone in the library was watching, but no one protested. When she got closer, she greeted me in a low voice that sounded like she had smoked a lot before her body stopped getting damaged by such things. "You are not as stupid as you dress."
I was wearing running shoes, faded jeans, and a dark green T-shirt. "This isn't a big city university," I said. "I look like I belong here. You fit in about as well as a porcupine in a petting zoo. What do you want?"
Somehow, she didn't flash anything but a tight smile as she drew a chair and sat across from me in one smooth motion. She was sex on legs. Long legs, though I studied them dispassionately. "I am just satisfying my curiosity. I heard Stanislav Dvornik was dead. I wanted to see who finally killed the old bastard."
So, that's what the lack of contractions and the flat place where an accent should be was all about. She was probably Eastern European. Stanislav Dvornik had been a kresnik—a member of an Eastern European society of vampire hunters—and kresniks aren't as uptight about working with werewolves and dhampirs and cunning folk as knights traditionally are. Stanislav Dvornik had also been a homicidal shitheel, and I was in a relationship with his former girlfriend. "Are you disappointed that I beat you to it, or looking for revenge?" I asked.
Her eyes were hazel and sharp and had seen a lot of people die. "I do not know."
"I've had relationships like that," I admitted. "Are you going to let me know when you figure it out?"
That slender mouth made another slash of a grin. "Now, where would the fun in that be?"
"Ah," I said. "You're one of those."
"One of what?" She didn't sound like she cared too much.
"I'm not sure there's a word for it," I said. "But it's like ennui with sharp teeth. In my experience, very few things are as dangerous as predators who have long life-spans and get bored easily."
She laughed softly, but the laughter had a dark undercurrent. "Do you get bored easily?"
"I'm pretty sure I don't," I said. "I've tried really hard to find out, but people like you keep showing up and ruining the experiment."
"Ah," she mocked. "You are one of those."
I played along. "One of what?"
"In my experience, very few things are as sad as killers who do not want to admit they are killers."
"Oh, I'm a killer, all right." There was no point denying it; I've killed more things than I can count or pronounce. "But I make a distinction between killing and murder, if that's what you mean."
"That is part of it," she agreed. "The hypocrisy."
"Everybody's a hypocrite sometimes," I said. "It's the reasons we need to be a hypocrite that define us."
"Maybe you should be the one taking a philosophy class instead of your friend," she observed.
At the mention of Molly, my body released some pheromone with fear and rage and more than a hint of homicide seasoning it. My stalker inhaled slightly through her nose as if smelling the bouquet of a delicate wine and smiled faintly. "Did I just make an enemy?"
"I haven't decided yet," I echoed her. "But if I remove your head from your shoulders now, I won't consider it murder."
"Good," she told me. "You should keep that kind of thing clear-cut."
"It will be," I promised. "So, how did you know good old Stan?"
Maybe she kept her smiles so tight because of sharp incisors. Whatever the reason, the next grin she flicked my way was almost gone before I saw it, and she ignored my question. "He must have really hated you."
"It was loathe at first sight," I confirmed before trying again. "How did he react when he met you?"
"He wanted me." She said it without a trace of self-consciousness. "Stanislav was a hypocrite too. He was terrified of getting old, so any woman who represented immortality threatened and attracted him at the same time. Any male who did not age just pissed him off."
"That made him a d-bag," I said. "It didn't make him a hypocrite."
"He was a hypocrite because he slept with the things he hated," she explained. "And killed the things he wanted to be."
That sounded about right. "You're Kasia," I guessed. I had only heard the name on two occasions, once while Sig and Stanislav were arguing in the back of Choo's van, and once in a truck stop, but I have a good memory for such things. For most things, actually.
She smiled that smile again, so small that it almost wasn't, but she wasn't faking it. "Sigourney mentioned me?"
Sig hates being called Sigourney, and I suspected Kasia knew it. "Briefly," I said. "I don't think Sig likes talking about you."
"Guilty consciences will do that."
"Are you sure you're here about Stanislav?" I asked.
She made an amused sound and ignored my question again. "How did he die?"
"The same way he lived," I said. "A complete asshat."
"He tried to kill me," I elaborated. "I won't say it was unprovoked, but it was definitely an overreaction. A betrayal, too. We were supposed to be on the same side."
"So, it was over Sigourney." She didn't sound like she was guessing.
"It was never about Sig," I said. "He just made her his excuse for a lot of things. That's what self-destructive shitheads do. They have this idea of what they need, and they try to force other people to fit into that idea like it's a cookie-cutter mold. And when a person doesn't or can't, the asshats blame them for it."
She nodded. It was a small motion, and I don't think she realized that she was doing it. "You are not what I expected."
"That's the other way Stanislav died," I said.
"I believe it." She switched topics abruptly. "You smell like you are attracted to me. Do you want to have sex?"
"Sure," I said. "I'm into bondage, though. I like to tie up my partners and put them in a shark cage first. Is that okay?"
Kasia laughed. "I could be up for it, but somehow you do not seem like the type." She rose up from her chair then, scooping her purse off the floor by the top of its straps so that I wouldn't be alarmed, and smoothly shifting it onto her shoulder.
"Leaving so soon?" I asked.
"I am guessing Sigourney will be here shortly," she explained. "I do not think it would be a good idea to be around both of you at the same time yet."
"It probably wouldn't be," I agreed. I didn't like the sound of that yet. "Speaking of bad ideas, something needs to be said."
"I'm a wolf," I told her. "This is my territory."
"That was much better," she said approvingly.
"You sound like a coach or an ice-skating judge."
"All existence is a competition." Kasia mimed holding a scorecard over her head. "I give that a seven point five."
"After all that training and hard work," I said. "It comes down to politics."
"I think you might almost be funny." She studied me for a moment, then announced: "I have decided to tell you something."
"Okay," I said.
"The Knights Templar are going to be contacting you soon."
"Because of something you've done?" I asked carefully.
She dismissed that suggestion with a small puff of breath. I caught a waft of nicotine so faint that it was almost a rumor. "That is possible. I brought your friend Simon a message from the kresniks recently."
I wouldn't call Simon Travers my friend. I respect his competence, and we're roughly on the same side, but at best he and I kind of cordially hate each other. I say kind of because sometimes it's not so cordially. Sometimes it's not so hate each other. As part of the Grandmaster's ongoing efforts to gracefully transition Simon into an administrative role, Simon had recently become a turcopolier, which meant that he dealt with outsiders. That could mean coordinating between different chapters of knights or communicating with other secret societies or recruiting non-geas-born to the cause or hiring mercenaries for special tasks. The position is a tradition that goes all the way back to the Crusades, and it's become one of the stepping-stones to Grandmaster.
But all I said was: "What kind of message?"
"A message from the kresniks."
Right. "So, why tell me anything if it's none of my business?"
She gave me that look that a certain type of teacher reserves for particularly slow students. "We might wind up working together. I wanted to meet you before that happened."
"So you could kill me if you didn't like the idea."
"Perhaps I wanted the opportunity to kill you before that happened. I am a strong believer in snap judgments." She mimed breaking something in two, and for some reason, I pictured a spine.
"I'm a strong believer in trying to figure out what the hell is going on."
"Put your ear to the ground," she said, "and you will hear the tremors."
"Tremors," I repeated. "So, it's really big. Whatever it is."
"Somewhere between the Titanic and the apocalypse," she agreed.
"Which one of the four horsemen would that make you?" I wondered.
She gave me one more of those enigmatic smiles for the road. "I think you already know the answer to that."
"You are awful pale."
The smile disappeared. "Careful."
"It's a little late for that," I told her.
"Hmmn," she said thoughtfully. "Maybe even an eight." I didn't respond, and she turned to leave then. "By the way, I am driving a red Audi, but it is not mine. I can give you the license plate if you do not want to bother following me to the parking lot."
I waved that off. "It's no bother."
YOU'D BETTER SMILE WHEN YOU DON'T HAVE A FACE
New York City
Shalaya Copeland had a definite strategy for moving through the city. She set the volume on her music low so she could hear something if she really had to, but when some fool yelled out, "Damn, girl, you got a walk," she just kept moving like she didn't hear it. The kind of music Shalaya listened to kept her moving fast too. Not running and not shuffling, because running made you a target, and slowing down was an invitation for people to pitch something or grab something or beg for something. Some tourist might even try to be friendly.
So, it took a while for Shalaya to notice the man without a face. New York City was full of faceless people after all; they just usually had noses and ears and mouths. But Shalaya was a dental hygienist and spent enough time looking at mouths and noses anyway, especially during allergy seasons. It was why Shalaya liked to walk outside during her lunch break. She had grown up in a house full of yelling and got tired standing around in one place getting fat and old and talking about TV shows just to be saying something. The white boy from UPS who was always trying to get her to talk to him called her an introvert.
"Better than being a pervert," Shalaya had shot back.
"You sure about that?" he'd asked with a slow smile that wasn't too bad, but Shalaya just kept walking. He made those tight brown shorts look good, but Shalaya knew a dog when she saw one. And that dog got a lot of bones. She'd rather go home and snuggle up to her circulating fan and some Japanese cartoons until she met somebody real.
What was all that noise up ahead? It took a while to get through because Shalaya was listening to some Colonel Loud song about California and mostly feeling it. But the noise was loud and growing louder.
- "An urban fantasy that features an irreverent, smart-mouthed hero and adventures that are entertaining."—Kirkus
- "With each new chapter in his outstanding Pax Arcana series, James ups his game in both excellent character development and world expansion. If you love wisecracks in the face of ultimate danger, then John Charming is definitely your man!"—RT Book Reviews on In Shining Armor (Top Pick! 4.5 stars)
- "The Pax Arcana books are seriously good reads. Action, humor, and heart with unexpected twists and turns. If you are (like me) waiting for the next Butcher or Hearne -- pick up Elliott James. Then you can bite your nails waiting for the next James, too."—Patricia Briggs, New York Times #1 bestselling author of the Mercy Thompson series
- "Loved it! Charming is a giant gift basket of mythology and lore delivered by a brilliant new voice in urban fantasy. Elliott James tells stories that are action-packed, often amusing, and always entertaining."—Kevin Hearne, New York Times bestselling author of Hounded on Charming
- "I loved this book from start to finish. Exciting and innovative, Charming is a great introduction to a world I look forward to spending a lot more time in."—Seanan McGuire, New York Times bestselling author on Charming
- "James's world is rich and complex and well worth diving into."—Richard Kadrey, New York Times bestselling author on Charming
- "In a saturated literary realm, James's tale stands out for the gritty, believable world he builds...This is masculine urban fantasy in the vein of Jim Butcher and Mark del Franco."—Booklist on Charming
- "This debut introduces a self-deprecating, wisecracking, and honorable-to-a-fault hero who can stand up to such established protagonists as Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden and Seanan McGuire's October Daye. Combining action and romance -- with an emphasis on action -- this is a top-notch new series opener for lovers of urban fantasy."—Library Journal (Starred review) on Charming
- "Grab some snacks and settle back as splendid debut author James serves up a Prince Charming tale yanked sideways...James's reluctant hero faces threats and danger with a smart-ass attitude that keeps the narrative fast-paced, edgy and amusing. Mark this name down -- you will undoubtedly be seeing more from James!"—RT Book Reviews on Charming
- On Sale
- Apr 18, 2017
- Page Count
- 448 pages