One

 

I HATED running first thing in the morning. Even in a fog-drenched San Francisco when the temperatures were on the colder side, it was too early and too damned hot to be pounding through the narrow sidewalks of Chinatown as merchants set up for a packed farmer’s market. I wasn’t made for long hauls at full speed, which was funny considering my faerie half pretty much should have handed me every stamina advantage. But evolution happened, so there wasn’t any need for a faerie’s wings to carry their body over long distances anymore, and since I didn’t inherit actual wings, I probably hadn’t stood in the genetics line for a fae’s stamina either.

For one of the few times in my life, I wished I’d inherited more of my mother’s fae hollow-bone structure than my father’s build. I could have run faster if I wasn’t built so human. I wouldn’t have said no to a pair of dragonfly wings either, even if they didn’t work. I’d gotten some ancestor’s long legs, and they came in handy to leap over a pile of decaying durian left on the sidewalk. My boot toe brushed one of the fruits, and I briefly wondered if I’d ever get the smell out of the leather as it exploded under the pressure of its rotted meat.

High above me, the gōngyù bridges spanning the streets cast long, hard shadows onto the pavement, the network of tangled arches burdened with the poor’s makeshift villages, resting a disjointed minicity above San Francisco’s tall buildings. Someone in a gōngyù nearby was smoking ducks, the crisp, spicy smell of curing meat settling down to the street below. If my mouth wasn’t already thick with saliva from the overexertion, the smell of roasting fowl would have done me in. I hadn’t eaten anything since a stale donut nearly twelve hours ago, such a typical cop trope, and I’d lived on high-octane coffee ever since I’d swallowed its last crumb.

Thank the Gods for the coffee or I’d have been flat on my face after the first few steps. Although my rage probably would have taken care of me because right at that moment the adrenaline pumping through my blood could have fueled a fleet of ferries across the Bay. I was that angry.

Dodging a stall of dried fish, I rolled over the counter of the next booth, narrowly avoiding a line of bins filled with cuttlefish and rock cod on ice. The stream of Cantonese that followed me wasn’t as hot and angry as the skein of Korean-crested dragons flying in my wake. While the lizards were only the length of a dachshund, there were at least ten of them with mouths filled with long pointy teeth, and they were extremely angry. No matter how small something was, if it had teeth and it was angry, it was something to be reckoned with.

Luckily, I wasn’t the one who’d pissed them off.

The man I was chasing was fat, wearing a badly fitted suit, and smelling of bean burritos. I’d have given up chasing after him if it wasn’t for one thing—eight things: he’d stashed an entire clutch from the crested dragons’ nest in his jacket’s deep pockets.

Above me, the crimson-and-green crested dragons dove past my head. They rode the air in undulating waves, their heads weaving side to side as they gave chase. Most draconian beings, big or small, flew using their wings. But Asiatic lizards’ flight was powered by the pearls in their foreheads, so I didn’t have to worry about being slapped in the head as they flew. I wasn’t even sure if I registered in their tiny little brains.

The odds of the dragons getting to him first were good, but having them actually do something to him was slim. Crested dragons were scavengers down to the bone. I’d seen one run from a live rat one-third its size but then savage a plucked turkey to ribbons after it had been left out for only moments while the cook heated up oil in the deep fryer.

Of course, I’d also never seen them after someone plundered their nests, so I could have it all wrong. For all I knew, they were going to carve him up into tiny jellied slices once they caught up with the egg thief, and I was going to have to fight them off just to make an ID. Whatever happened, Arnett was going to get what was coming to him, and hopefully it wasn’t going to be me pounding his face in because he’d screwed me over.

The early-morning chill made it difficult for the crested dragons to gain speed and altitude. Steady afternoon heat from the city’s streets gave them thermals to ride, and if they’d been a more aggressive species, I’d be looking at Arnett’s picked-over carcass draped with full-bellied, contented frill-headed lizards. Still, they were motivated to get their eggs back, and they buzzed around me, diving up and down above the heads of the morning foot traffic.

After the last wave of Asian immigrants a few years ago, the Chinatown district grew, extending down to Davis. The closed-in sprawl of the historic district migrated. Buildings were packed with entire generations of single families, and the area was difficult to maneuver in, walls moving as more or less space was needed by the inhabitants. I grew up in its sprawl. Arnett had not, and now he was running blind.

“Arnett!” I yelled at his retreating back. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t slow down.

Assholes never slowed down when they were running from the cops. Even if they knew they weren’t going to get away, they still had to try… and Arnett knew better. There wasn’t going to be any end to this scenario that didn’t include him being caught. One way or another, I wasn’t going to let this go. I’d run him into the ground.

The stream of people closed in behind him, moving uphill toward the business centers past Washington. One of the district’s newer gates loomed over me, the large golden dragon on its crossbeam watching the skein carefully as it zipped by. It paid no attention to me. The draconian sentry sat purely for its own reasons, a bargain struck with the Triad Consortium long before the Golden Gate Bridge was built. Its tail swung and wrapped around the thick stone column supporting its perch. The rippling membrane at its end flowered, snapping out, nearly knocking me over. Despite, or perhaps because of, its criminal activity, the Triad knew what it was doing to keep its territories protected. The dragon was massive, a fierce reptilian watchdog mostly satisfied to remain on its post in exchange for a substantial amount of food every week.

So I couldn’t count on its help with Arnett.

For a big man, Arnett could run—which was amazing, because for as long as I’d known him, he barely stirred himself to refill his coffee cup. He’d wait for a uniform, preferably one with round hips and pert breasts, and he’d beg her for a new pour. It hardly ever worked, but he tried.

“Too damned early for this shit,” I grumbled. “God, I hope they get him first. I hope those fuckers burrow under his skin and suck out all his nerves like spaghetti. One by one. That’s what I want.”

Leaping to the side, I avoided running into a bicycle rack. The lizards moved faster, their legs tucked in tight against their undulating bodies until they were brilliant streamers with bared white teeth. Closer to the pier, the air was cooler. Downhill, the streets opened up, and the wind off the Bay whipped quickly through the tall buildings. The chill was nearly arctic, and the dragons hit the cold front, slowing their flight.

Arnett was heading down to the pier, probably hoping to get lost in the crowds of tourists. The dragons jogged to the right, and I skidded after them. They were following instinct, driven to protect their young, while I was chasing Myron because he’d pissed on our assignment. Once I caught up with him, I was going to kick his ass.

I spotted Arnett crossing over the BART tracks. His pockets swayed back and forth, heavy with eggs, and he kept his pace up, looking back every once in a while. He saw the skein before they honed in on him, and he bolted, crossing against traffic. Horns blared, and a truck’s tires smoked as the driver slammed on his brakes. The burning rubber cloud filling the street dissipated as the dragons punched holes through it in their pursuit. I followed, a little bit warier of the traffic than Myron but no less determined than my serpentine rivals.

Morning commuters heading into the financial district were climbing out of the railcars, their minds on the day and not on the sweaty-faced man stumbling toward them. Lines of office workers and suits were forming around the scattered bao carts on the main causeway, vendors doing brisk business in char siu or lotus paste steamed in white bread balls.

Arnett stumbled through the commuters, jostling them from their orderly queues. Shoving began, and it threatened to escalate when the dragons dove into the mix, their frilled manes puffed up around their triangular heads. Arnett nearly fell, and fear closed my throat. The eggs weren’t fragile—they had to survive the jostle of their clutch mates and the skein—but the shells wouldn’t hold up to Myron’s weight. Grabbing the handle of a turnip cake cart, he kept to his feet, but the lizards were honed in on him, turning in as a tight swarm. I closed the distance between us, crossing the pavement with a few strides. Turning the cart, Arnett shoved it at me, knocking over customers. Hot oil splashed from the frying element, scalding people nearby.

“Arnett, think about this.” I bounced out of the way and put my hands up, still hoping to de-escalate the situation. “You can still walk from this. Gaines would section you—”

“Fuck you, MacCormick. Goddamned faerie,” he spat and tossed the vendor’s kitchen utensils at my face. One of the smaller knives hit my cheek, the tip digging into my skin, nearly hitting my eye. Blinking, my vision refused to clear, and rubbing only seemed to blur things more.

One of the smaller dragons wove in, its talons bared and spread. Apparently no one told it that it was supposed to be fearful and docile, so it attacked, its mane spread about its face. Arnett screamed and jerked away, his face scored with deep grooves. His foot hit the steaming oil, and he went down. The rest were on him, and Arnett rolled onto his knees, a black steel service revolver in his hand. They scattered when he turned, frightened by the sudden movement.

He was up and off again before I could get a bead on him.

Front Street was closed to vehicle traffic in preparation for the Moon Festival that weekend. Workers stood on spackling stilts, hanging banners and stringing fae lights along temporary canopies. Arnett twisted as he ran, shooting at me. His arm hit a support leg, pulling a man down onto the pavement. Something in the worker’s body snapped when he hit the cobblestones, and my teeth ached in sympathy pain. A string of paper lanterns fell, rolling around underfoot as people scattered away from the concourse.

Wary, the lizards hovered above the heads of the fleeing crowd, their fierce draconian cries lost in the chaos and screams. Arnett took off, tucking his gun against his body and holding the flaps of his jacket down. Shaking my head, I ran after him with the dragons floating behind me.

“Sure, now you hide behind me, you damned scaly chickens.” I panted, rounding the corner and almost falling into the heavy morning traffic near the Embarcadero. Arnett was only a few yards away but still too far for me to tackle him to the ground. A transport ferry from the other side of the Bay was pulling up, announcing its arrival with a blare of its horn. “Son of a bitch. Don’t get on the ferry. Please. Shit.”

A pod of uisge bobbed up and down in the water, their merman handlers herding a smaller transport boat into its moorings. The ocean fae nudged their mounts around, smacking at the uisges’ flanks with their tails to keep the creatures from approaching the pier. One of the larger water horses pulled up sharp, its attention drawn by the commotion on the pier. Its rider wrapped his hand in its seaweed-entangled mane, forcing it to move into the rolling tide. The growing panic on the dock made each uisge nervous, and they rankled, drawing their front legs out of the Bay and slapping their algae-encrusted hooves against the water.

A crested caught up with me, snagging a warm current from an exhaust vent in the sidewalk. From its aggressive crooning, I guessed it was the deranged mutant who’d attacked Arnett. Buoyed by the hot air, it shot forward and snatched a mouthful of Arnett’s balding scalp.

Startled, Arnett let a shot off, but the lizard refused to scatter. He grabbed at the lizard, reaching behind him with his free hand, but the creature’s sleek body was too slippery for him to get a stranglehold on, and it slipped out between his fingers. Riding behind its prey’s wake, the dragon plunged in again, snapping at anything it could grab before Arnett was out of reach. It hounded him, leaving bites and raw pockmarks where its teeth hit.

“Get out of my way.” He fired into the air, sending the crested to flight, and the crowd panicked, becoming a tidal wave of rushing bodies. “Move!”

The ferry’s horn sounded again, followed by the high shriek of its warning klaxon, sounding its imminent departure. Angling across the wooden planks, he ran straight for the boarding deck, the back of his suit dark with sweat and a thin streak of glistening scales chasing him. Arnett was using everything he learned being a cop to drive the crowd into a stampede, but there was nothing I could do to stop him short of shooting him, and I did not want to shoot my partner.

I ran through the sea of frightened people, confusion reigning as they stumbled out of Arnett’s path. Many were workers heading to their buildings, but a few were tourists, up early for a tour of the fog-drenched Bay. The skein mostly kept pace with me, only falling behind when they hit a cold pocket, but they were the least of my worries. If Arnett made the gate, he’d be on the ferry when it pulled out, and there was no way I could make it on. I’d lose him, and with what he had in his pockets, he could make himself disappear for good….

From out of the corner of my eye, I saw a pair of fae women walking by Arnett, their nearly human faces sparkling with compound, pupilless irises, mascara-blackened eyelashes, and gloss-painted lips. The one on the right was a set of curves in a red suit and pretty features, while the other wore a velvet jacket cut to accommodate her slender wings. Red suit’s waifish body and pert triangular face were typical of an Emerald Isle fae, but her bicolored white and purple hair, cut into a messy bob, was rare. She was the type of woman most men would stop to talk to if there was time. As it was, I momentarily glanced into her widened eyes right before Arnett blew a hole through her head.

Oh Gods, her beautiful, ruined head.

Arnett’s shot left a gaping black hole where her nose and mouth had been, and her chin crumbled as her skull collapsed. Her blood splattered my face, and I tasted her death on my tongue. Her slender butterfly-patterned wings fluttered, catching the wind coming up from the water. Their connective spines lost their rigidity as she died, and they framed her delicate body, blowing out as she fell forward.

I couldn’t catch her. I had to let her fall. Her body kept moving, kept breathing, but her eyes were already dimming—then she was gone.

A scream pierced the air. The woman walking with her broke down and keened, a haunting sound that ended in tears. Her sobs were heart-wrenching, and her hands trembled as they covered her mouth. The round puff of a half-eaten bao tumbled from one of her hands, the bright char siu filling dull against the sharp red of the dead woman’s blood.

People scrambled to get away from Arnett, but in the confusion the crowd thickened, then thinned, making it nearly impossible for him to push through. I saw him turn, his eyes wild, and he reached for the screaming fae. He grabbed a handful of her long blue hair, jerked the woman against him, and placed the gun’s muzzle on her temple.

“Back off, MacCormick. I’ll kill this bitch too.”

Pulling out my gun, I came to a stop, panting hard. A cloud of fury and scales flew past me; then the skein retreated, hovering in the air. They dodged in and out, assessing the situation. At a standstill, Myron’s heft and size finally triggered their danger sense, but the drive to rescue their eggs would soon push them on, and I’d be stuck fighting off one of the largest skeins of crested dragons in the California Upper Regions.

“Let her go, Myron.” I didn’t have a lot of hope that he’d listen. Arnett never gave off the impression of being stable, and now as I stared him down, he appeared to have cracked open. “There’s nowhere to go. Come on. Make this easier on yourself. You’ve already killed one person. Let her go.”

“That insect? These aren’t people! They’re goddamned faerie,” he shouted. “Figured you’d take their side. Fucking splice! You’re a disgrace to the badge. We fucking bled to protect this damned city, and things like you walk on in and take rank. Makes me fucking sick.”

“Killing fae holds the same sentence as it does a human, Arnett,” I said, trying for calm, but my voice sounded unsteady even to my ringing ears. Between the hum of the dragons and the shot going off near me, it was hard to hear myself think. “No matter what happens here, you’ll be nailed for that. Don’t make things worse.”

“Shit, I should do SF Metro and the Asylum a favor and cap you. Damn cross-breed! I couldn’t believe the Captain when he told me I had to work with a splice—”

“I’m not a splice, Myron,” I refuted. It was more a distraction than anything else. Something to keep him off-kilter. “I’m natural born. It does happen. My parents didn’t manipulate genetics to get me. I just happened. You know that.”

It didn’t matter what I was or wasn’t. Arnett wasn’t having any of it. I’d seen the same kind of wild in his eyes during the Riots and when I’d been working a beat in cop blues. Reasoning with him wasn’t an option now. Maybe it’d never been. If I had any doubts left, he put them to bed with a wad of spittle flung into my face.

“Bullshit. Your kind doesn’t happen unless someone fucks with things. It’s a damned conspiracy to pollute the human race. Is that what you’re planning on doing, huh? Lay your fucking insect eggs in our bodies?” Arnett’s lips were speckled with foam. “We should have gassed the lot of you a long time ago but now it’s too late and you bastards are everywhere, like damned roaches.”

The woman’s dark eyes were wide, and she trembled in Arnett’s grip. I didn’t blame her for whimpering. With a gun pressed against her temple and seeing her friend killed in front of her, she had every right to go into shock. What I needed from her was a shred of common sense, and I hoped she understood me when I flexed my shoulders forward as I stared hard into her frightened face.

Hitching her breath, she groaned when Arnett pulled her farther back. He held her tightly, wrenching her to the side. With her fae-fragile body, she was no match for his strength, but nature had a way of equalizing things between predators. Biting her lip, the woman squared her body and lifted her shoulders, unfurling her thick-framed wings.

Most humans assumed a fae’s wings were fragile, but their veins are rigid and as hard as steel. Her span unfolded swiftly, wings slamming into Arnett’s face and knocking him back when their radius struck him hard. Stumbling, he tried to maintain his balance, and the skein hummed behind me, weaving up and down in arcs, hungry to latch onto his exposed skin. Tucking her wings fully back, she hit him again, and the pterostigma on her membranes flashed before she hit the ground and rolled away.

For luck, I thumbed the three black stars inked on the inside of my left wrist, sent a plea to Pele, then took aim and squeezed off a shot, then another. The Glock jerked in my hand, pulling up slightly as each round went off.

Myron spun about, his mouth open wide in shock. The third bullet hit him square in the upper arm, burrowing into his torso. He spat, choking on a mouthful of blood, and the dragons fell on him, rage packaged in tight serpentine bodies. The smallest one dug through Myron’s jacket and shrieked loud enough to be heard over the ferry’s departing bellow. I lost sight of it for a second. Then it surfaced, a faceted golden orb clutched tightly in its teeth. Another emerged with an egg, spiraling upward so another could forage through Myron’s pockets. The others worked at his torn flesh, digging down to the bone and tearing out long strips of meat and muscle.

“Drop it!” the voice behind me barked, edged with authority, but it didn’t give me much warning to anything beyond taking my next breath.

The rush of footsteps behind me grew louder, and I staggered when the first uniform hit me, then went down under the next. My arms were pulled up behind me, and a foot pinned my gun hand to my back. Handcuffs bit my wrists, and my elbow was twisted sharply, pulling my shoulder blades together. Someone’s fingers grabbed a handful of my hair and pulled it back. The sidewalk came up fast and painful when someone plowed me into the boards. I twisted around, spitting out the salty dirt carried over from the Bay’s shore. The cut on my face reopened, and my blood dripped onto the pier. The wood was too damp to soak it in, and it pooled, smearing on my chin as one of the cops dragged me across the plank, then up to my knees.

“Hey!” I flicked out the debris on my lip. “Check my belt. SF Metro, Chinatown Arcane Crimes Division. Senior Inspector MacCormick, Roku. I’m under Captain Gaines.”

A plainclothes cop fumbled around near my waist, the credentials on his lanyard hitting my face. He pulled my badge from its hook on my belt and stepped back, then called in the number for confirmation. I heard the squawk of a radio and then a string of Cantonese from the officer’s dispatch. He approached me carefully, eyeing Arnett as the medical techs attempted to separate the dragons from their buffet.

One of the smaller dragons was digging through his suit pocket, rolling the eggs out for the larger ones to retrieve. Their chittering and enthusiasm would have been adorably cute if it weren’t for the shreds of meat hanging from their muzzles and the thick layer of drying blood coating their rainbow-prism scales.

“Let him up. He’s C-Town’s,” the inspector grumbled, holding my badge out to me as a uniform released my wrists. They hurt from being bound too tight, but I wasn’t going to argue. If I’d arrived on the scene late as they had, I’d have taken down any shooter I saw too.

The wind grabbed my hair and whipped the black strands around my face, stinging my eyes. I’d left it long around my jaw to piss off the Captain, but at times like these, I wondered if it wouldn’t be easier to cut it off. My long leather coat kept most of the chill out, but the knees of my jeans now had holes in them, and the cold gnawed on my legs. I thought longingly of the department vehicle I’d left parked on Kearny. It was too wide to drive hard through Chinatown after a fleeing thief, but at least the interior had been warm and out of the wind.

The cop tilted his head up to look me in the eye. “You okay? Who’s the gunman?”

“My partner,” I said, bending over to catch my breath. My lungs felt like I’d inhaled splinters, and my ribs ached where I’d been slammed into the pier. “Inspector Myron Arnett. Raided a dragons’ nest of eggs worth about eleven million yen. He’s responsible for the civilian loss.”

“Dirty? Damn,” the officer said flatly, staring over my shoulder at Myron’s twitching body. “What’s this world coming to?”

“Yeah,” I said shakily, taking my gun back from the uniform when he handed it over. Internal Affairs would want it, but they were giving me the courtesy of handing it over myself. That went a long way in my book. “Thanks.”

“Guess we should help the EMTs get those lizards off of him.” He didn’t look inclined to move. The force was spread too thin, and catching one of our own with dirty hands didn’t sit well among us.

No one moved. There was some throat clearing, and I heard one of the uniforms warn someone out of the crime scene perimeter, but that was about it.

“We could. We should,” I replied, watching the lizards getting their breakfast in. “Better yet, how about if you take her statement? I’ll see about notifying the deceased’s next of kin. The least I can do is let them know it was quick.”

Unclipping his notebook, the cop said, “I’m sorry about your partner, Inspector, but I’d have shot him too.”

“Thanks.” I nodded. “Hopefully the dragons will leave something behind. I’d like my Captain to have something other than my ass to chew on.”