seawasp (seawasp) wrote,

PSTPWD: Jason Wood in "Trial Run"

Herewith I perform my Wretched Work! "Trial Run" is the sequel to my prior contribution for the first Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch day. So... Let us see Jason Wood's next adventure!



Trial Run
A Jason Wood Story
By Ryk E. Spoor

i.


There are days that everything goes right. The shower's the perfect temperature, breakfast's cooked perfect, you hit all the green lights when you drive to the city, every client's problem has a blindingly obvious solution that makes you look like a genius, and then when you get home your wife's decided to arrange a romantic dinner that's just what you were in the mood for.

This was not one of those days.

I won't even go into the fiasco that was my morning, except to say that the expression "got up on the wrong side of the bed" would apply if you assume that I had a stone wall on the wrong side of the bed and kept trying to get up on that side anyway. But that might have been the high point of the day. Unlike my bachelor days, I now had to drive to work, since Wood's Information Service was in Morgantown and our home was several miles out. The flat tire happened in the most inconvenient location – a stretch of road with no real shoulder. During the heaviest rain of the day. At that point I discovered my cell phone battery was dead, cut my hand getting the so-called jack out of the back of the car…

As one might imagine, I was not in a chipper mood when I finally arrived at WIS about an hour and a half late. I spent the next several hours dealing with what seemed an endless parade of lunatics and flakes; my association with the Morgantown Incident made me a focal point for anyone who thought they had a paranormal problem. Unfortunately, even with the apparent increase in real "weird stuff", 99% of my callers and visitors were still just lunatic fringe whackos. By lunchtime I was approaching homicidal; I ushered the last person out of the office, locked the door, and switched on my "closed" sign. "Jeeeeeesus." I sighed. "I have to get myself some more helpers… and ones with good BS filters, too."

Syl helped when she could, of course, but she hadn't given up on running the Silver Stake when she married me – and, truth be told, with her being one of the few with real magic potential and being taught the real deal by Verne Domingo, it'd probably be a bad idea for her to stop dealing in the occult directly. More than once she'd found something useful and interesting through her connections, and I suspected that would be more common, not less, if things continued as they were.

I was looking for help that could be trusted. That was of course even harder than it sounds, since anyone who worked with me was going to at least touch on the fringes, and possibly get sucked right into the middle, of Things Man May Be Killed If He Knows. James Achernar of Pantheon was helping me look for candidates, and if we found likely ones they'd have to get past me, Syl, and eventually Verne. This seriously limited my potential pool of applicants.

I pulled out my pack… to find that my lunch was not in it. Now, of course, I remembered putting it on the counter just before I left because I had to put something else in first. And I didn't have much in the office fridge.

"Fine." I growled. "I'll order out."

I went back to my desk and office phone. As I was looking up the number of the local Chinese takeout, the phone rang. I found myself reflexively picking it up – years of customer service training taking over. I cursed at myself even as I said in my best Professional Courtesy voice, "Wood's Information Service, Jason Wood speaking."

"Mr. Wood! Thank goodness I got through!" The voice was soft and light, giving me the impression of a woman Syl's size and younger, maybe barely out of high school. "Um, my name's Angela McIntyre."

I took a deep breath. If you're going to answer the phone, suck it up and do the job right. "Thanks for calling, Angela. What can I do for you? I have to warn you, I'm extremely busy, as you might guess. Technically this is my lunch break." I heard faint sounds of other phones and talking in the background. She was calling from some kind of public area… airport? Conference?

"Oh, dear. I'm sorry. But I really need your help and there's absolutely no one else I can trust, not with something like this." The voice quivered slightly. She sounded serious.

Unfortunately, most of the nuts sounded serious too, and without Syl I didn't have built-in bullshit detector. Still… I caught a faint fragment of dialogue in the background that sounded like it mentioned "…the Lieutenant…" A police station? "Go on, please."

"Well, I've been arrested, you see…"

I blinked. "I'm sorry to hear it, miss, but I hope you aren't wasting your one phone call on me. I'm an information specialist, not a lawyer, no matter how odd your case is."

"This is my one phone call, Mr. Wood, and I know you're not a lawyer, but you're a better choice for me."

This was, at least, a different approach. No one else had tried this method. "What have you been arrested for?"

"Murder. But he was going to rape me! It was self-defense!"

I winced. "That sounds terrible, Angela, but I'm sorry, I don't understand why me."

"Oh, damn, I'm going about this all wrong. It's because of how I killed him that no one else would possibly be able to understand."

Now it began to make some sense, although I really didn't like where it was going. She'd probably used magic or psionics on the guy. "And how was that?"

"Chopped him in half, basically." She said.

"Chopped – with what?"

"Why, with my claws, of course. I'm a werewolf."

ii.


Staring at a phone does no one any good, but that's what I did for some number of minutes, trying to grasp the entirety of the situation. Finally her repeated "Mr. Wood? Mr. Wood? Are you there?" got through.

"Yes… yes, I'm here. A werewolf?" I said, incredulously. "Are you serious?"

"I am and these policemen are. They're holding guns loaded with silver bullets on me as we speak, and I think they're discussing silver handcuffs."

I thought for a moment. The situation was so bizarre that it really took some effort to force my brain into its normal analytical channels. First, I'd better confirm that things are as they seem. "Angela, no offense, but how do I know that you, well, really are a Great Wolf?"

She gave a light, pleasant chuckle. "Hard to prove it by phone, yes. But… Hastrikas told me about having to work with you."

That sealed it. Hastrikas was the real name, the Wolf name, of Sheriff Baker in the little Florida city of Venice, whom circumstances had forced to become a sort of client of mine. The number of non-Wolves who knew that name could probably be counted on one hand. "Okay, Angela." The irony of her chosen name was, no doubt, intentional. "Then I'll give you the same basic answer I gave a certain Mr. Carruthers when that deal was made. Why the hell should I care? I know what your people are like, I've killed a whole bunch of you, and I know you'd all kill me in a flash if your King hadn't marked me down as his particular bag of munchies."

"Because, Mr. Wood, you're interested in justice and the truth, and because if you think about the implications, you'll know it's a good idea."

I wondered how old she really was, because it was that little speech that set the hook. The thought of a Great Wolf saying they needed to be defended in the name of truth and justice… and that I was the one to be their defender… "I won't promise anything yet. But I think I need to see this for myself. Where are you?"

"Los Angeles."

It was definitely going to be a long day. "Tell one of the officers I need to talk to them."

"Lieutenant Ferrin here. Is this Jason Wood?"

"It is. This is one of the strangest calls I've gotten, and I've had a lot of strange calls, let me tell you."

"You damn near didn't get any call. If she'd stayed in Wolf form she'd have been gunned down, but we barely saw a flicker of the monster, and as soon as we pulled in –"

"Wait, wait, Lieutenant. I do need to hear everything from everyone's point of view – if I'm going to get involved in this case – but this is probably not the good way to do it. What I do need to do is see the site, get the information from your ME and CSI teams, all that kind of thing. And I can't do that all by remote."

"You're seriously considering helping this… thing?"

I felt my skin trying to crawl. "I'm thinking about it. I don't like it any more than you do. But I may have to." A part of me was already starting to understand what she meant by it being a good idea. "I'll need all the information on precinct or whatever you call it down there – where exactly you're holding her, and so on." I gave him my contact information, while swapping in a new, fully-charged battery to my cell. No point in risking it failing again, I'd just keep the old one in case. "I'll be getting airline tickets as fast as I can. Now put, um, Angela back on."

"Mr. Wood?"

"I'm going to be on my way pretty soon. I'm still not promising anything. But if you want me to do this, you have to cooperate with the police until I get there and make my decision. That means you're going to sit in jail for a while."

"I understand. If I want humans to help me, I have to play by your rules." She said calmly. "I will cooperate fully, as long as they do not try to hurt me."

"Good enough for now."

I hung up and started to look for tickets online. At least money wasn't a problem; if I had to, I'd charter a flight. However, a much more difficult problem lay immediately ahead.

I was going to have to explain to Syl just why I wasn't going to be home for dinner.

iii.


"Are you sure about this?" Lieutenant Ferrin said. "I've seen the videos from that Wolf they caught in Vancouver last year. If she decides to take you out, there isn't anything on earth we can do to save you if there's no one with you."

"Lieutenant, believe me: there isn't anyone on Earth who knows that better than me. But I'm sure. She won't try anything on me even if I take a gun out and try to shoot her." I went on through the doorway, which locked behind me.

Angela McIntyre, in her human form, was a dangerously cute young woman – no more than five feet tall with straight bobbed blonde hair and bright blue eyes, a Nordic pixie designed by a fantasy artist. She stood up as I entered, a warm smile flashing out as she recognized me. "Mr. Wood! Oh, thank you so very much for coming!"

I shook her hand without much of a qualm. Somewhat to my astonishment I was starting to get used to this business. I made a mental note not to let that go too far. I had to remember that no matter how friendly this girl acted, from everything we actually knew about the Great Wolves she was nothing but a highly intelligent predator with humans like myself being the preferred prey. "You're welcome, at least tentatively. I've retained the services of Rosenfeld, Opal, and O'Brien to help me with the actual legal maneuverings, since I am not a lawyer myself."

"A very good defense partnership. I know the firm. I will of course pay all your expenses and a reasonable fee."

I shook my head. "No, this is pro bono. You blindsided me with the original call, but by the time I finished my connection in Chicago, I'd figured out why you'd implied I'd better take the case."

"Of course you did, Mr. Wood. Were you too stupid to figure that one out you'd hardly be alive now."

"Thanks, I think. I'll note that I'm treating this as though I were a lawyer, and Rosenfeld et. al. have found enough precedents to allow me the same privileges – that is, what we say here stays between us. The only recording of this conversation, or others we may have in the future, is being done by me. That took some arguing, let me tell you." I looked her over. "Now, just to be on the record, the reason I'm taking the case is that I know other, shall we say, nonhuman residents of this world who are not necessarily directly inimical to our existence, and it would be very inadvisable for me to permit a precedent to be established that allows human beings to deny these residents rights similar to their own, which allowing you to be railroaded and shot like a dog would indeed establish."

"Exactly right, Jason!"

"Don't get too excited yet. There's a flipside to this, and you're not going to like it. But it's … my fee, so to speak." I looked squarely into her deceptively human eyes. "You want the legal rights established because your people will then have some leverage to slow down and stop the current all-out war of extermination that's going on. Fine. But TANSTAAFL, my friend. I'll do my best to defend you in this case, but you will accept the decision of the court… even if it means you lose."

The friendliness, alas, seemed to evaporate like dry ice on a hot griddle. There might even have been a flicker of inhuman light in the depths of the sky-blue eyes. "WHAT?"

"Oh yes indeed." My grin had all the savagery I'd saved up from the prior Day of Hell. "If they decide to convict you for murder, you'll meekly and obediently let them lock you up for 50 years, if necessary. And you'll be a model prisoner. And if they establish premeditation and go for the death penalty, you'll take that last walk quietly."

The perfect white teeth sharpened and glittered for a moment, and I saw an accompanying snarl on her face. "And just why would I do that instead of do my best to escape?"

"I told you. You don't get something for nothing, and that means that if you want legal leverage you'd damn well better be ready to accept the decisions of the law. There's no guarantee I can get you off. As of yet, I only have your word that it was self-defense, and even if it was, proving that to what's guaranteed to be a pretty hostile jury isn't going to be a picnic. I'm going to be at the least subject to a lot of public outcry for defending you at all; are you willing to take the risk for the gain?"

She glared at me for a few moments, then took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and when she opened them again she was back to being the blonde pixie. "All right, Mr. Wood. I promise that I'll go along with the court's decision."

I laughed. "Nice try. I don't trust you people as far as I could throw one of you in your REAL form. I want you to swear – on the name and honor of Virigar – that from this moment forth you will comply with all human law and custom as regards criminal prosecution, exoneration, conviction, prison time or other penalties assessed against convicted criminals, up to and including execution for premeditated murder."

The name of the Wolf King had made her wince; I knew from experience that it was the only thing that meant a damn to the Wolves; they feared Virigar more than silver. "I will not!"

I turned for the door. "Then we have nothing to discuss."

"You human worm!" The last word dropped two octaves and I whirled to see her half-changed and already starting for me.

"Virigar." I reminded her.

She froze, monstrously half-human face working with rage and fear, glowing eyes now on a level with mine. Finally she snarled something in a language no human ever used and collapsed back into her human form. "You win."

"Then promise – and don't try any fancy word tricks on me. I promise – on my own honor, which you people know damn well is good – that I'll do my best to get you off on this charge, just as if I were a real defense lawyer, but only if you play this dead straight with me."

Finally she nodded slowly. "Very well. I begin to see the silver beneath your humanity, Mr. Wood. It is somewhat… disconcerting to encounter it in person, even though I knew how formidable you are from prior events." She took another deep breath. "I swear, in the name and on the word and law of our King, Virigar, and in my own name of Tanmorrai, that I shall comply with human laws as you have specified, even … even unto accepting penalties in the case of conviction, up to and including… including my own execution."

"Satisfactory." I said, sitting back down at the table. "Then let's get to it, shall we?"


iv.

The facts of the case didn't take too long to establish. Angela McIntyre had worked for the deceased, Frederic Delacroix, for the past year and a half. Delacroix ran an extremely high-priced escort service – one of those whose "escorts" might be actually top-end call girls but which was circumspect enough – and had customers with leverage enough – to avoid much investigation or prosecution.

"So was it?" I asked. "Not that this has to come out in the trial, but I'd better know."

"Oh, certainly." Angela said easily. "Not quite official, you understand, and we were given the latitude to decide some particular, um, client just didn't meet our standards, but sexual interaction was definitely part of our job description."

I looked at her. I could certainly see that she could play such a role, but… "And what the hell do you get out of it? Or did you kill the real Angela and take her place?"

"Oh, no, this isn't anyone else's form, Mr. Wood." She said. "We can choose our own forms if we like. Most of us have at least one human shape that's ours, and ours alone. I live in this one most of the time. It's comfortable."

"Still… I can't imagine you find us attractive, except for dinner purposes. So why this job? For that matter, why a job at all?"

She sighed. "Let's get into that later, shall we? First let me finish the story."

I nodded.

While that kind of contact was part of the work, Angela insisted on keeping relations between her and Frederic strictly business. This had appeared to annoy him, but Angela was a very, very large draw with his clientele and he wasn't about to shoot himself in the foot by firing his most lucrative asset. "I'm guessing your nature gave you an advantage in pleasing the clients."

"How perceptive of you, Jason." She gave another devastating smile. "While of course I couldn't do the trick of becoming the Girl of Your Dreams without giving things away, at close range any Wolf can read a lot from your soul. I could always tell the proper approach to take, the right moves to make, that would leave them utterly infatuated. Or not, if I didn't want them around me long."

I nodded. That fit with what Verne had told me about the Wolves way back when Virigar had first shown up. They couldn't influence minds the way Verne could, at least not as blatantly, but they had some talents in that direction. "Go on. There's going to be a lot of questions, but let's finish the basic story."

Angela had thought the matter settled – Frederic would be annoyed, but had a vested interest in swallowing his pride and leaving Angela alone. Which had seemed to be the way it was, until that night. The business had been doing very well, and there had been a party at Delacroix' headquarters for some of his top clients. Frederic had socialized, of course, and probably drank a lot more than was good for him. When he came across Angela in one of the hallways, he'd tried to corner her. A large man in the prime of health, Frederic wasn't someone easily brushed off when he was intent on getting what he wanted, but Angela of course had some inherent advantages. She was able to get away with minimal mussing, but she realized now that Frederic wasn't going to give up. If it was just purely sexual attraction she might have been able to figure out some way to "turn him off", but it was clearly a matter of pride and possession, too. If these clients could have her, so could he. He owned her, after all.

"That went beyond anything I wanted to put up with." She said, "so I left. I figured I could get another job or even start up my own service – my clients would be glad to work with me on that, of course. But it was when I was leaving that I made my mistake. Most of us girls stick together reasonably well, but there's always some of them with knives out for your back. I think Trisha must have seen me leave and let Frederic know; the others would probably have just mentioned they saw me leave with one of the clients, and that would've been okay."

Delacroix had caught up with her at the parking garage. He'd threatened her, then chased her when she tried to get away. "Unfortunately," she said with a wry grin, "this body's legs just aren't very good for outrunning former football players." Delacroix ran her down, hit her, and was clearly preparing to rape her. Angela, while not viewing the rape with the same traumatic horror that many ordinary women would, wasn't going to allow that to happen. "I might allow humans to touch me when it was part of my job, but for him to dare force himself on me was never to be borne." So she'd shifted, struck, and shifted back just as the police car arrived. "Ironic, of course. He might not have managed to finish his business before the cops arrived, but I didn't know that. Besides, he'd already struck me, which was enough."

I looked askance at her. "You might want to try a different tone when you're on the witness stand. No matter what the law says, a lot of whether you get convicted or not will depend on what impression the jury has of you, and you'll be fighting an uphill battle as it is."

"Oh, I'm quite aware of that, Jason. I'm just being totally honest with you here because you would need to know the truth in order to know how we should 'spin' it. Right?"

I nodded. "One thing that occurs to me is that we need some way of establishing that you really are this Angela. I mean, you say you didn't kill and replace her, but how do we know that? And how can we trace you back to certain locations? You can change shape and anything else about you. I don't even know if you remain constant in your structure. I do know that Virigar, as a Wolf, could even change his anatomy while he was moving."

She smiled. Damn but she looked pretty. This girl would be dangerous even if she wasn't a Wolf. "Scientifically, you can link me by using DNA tests on the relevant locations – my apartment, the crime scene, so on. Certainly we can duplicate other people on a genetic level – it's necessary for what we do – but in this case, it's my DNA footprint. Only another Wolf could fake it."

"Or a Maelkodan, I suppose."

She shuddered. "Y…yes, they could. But I can prove I'm not a Maelkodan."

I raised an eyebrow. "How?"

"They aren't vulnerable to silver."

I nodded in understanding. Pulling a silver knife from its sheath on my leg, I laid the flat of it on her hand. She held still stoically; I withdrew the blade to see a red welt and blister on her hand, as though the knife had been as hot as a stove. "Okay, you're a Wolf all right." I agreed. "Still, what about proving that Angela is in fact you, and you haven't just substituted for her?"

"There's some decent evidence available. I suppose I can't totally prove it – although I swear in the name of Virigar that I have told you the truth. If you'll have your best professionals examine Angela's background, they will eventually find that it ends as thoroughly as any faked identity does. I obviously didn't spend years growing up from childhood. I started being Angela about eight years ago. The investigation will also show that I had a nondescript but rather decent job as a programmer-analyst up until I changed careers, a change that would be hard to explain for most people, but which makes perfect sense for a Wolf."

The timing fit fairly closely with my throwdown with Virigar. I began to understand. "You were doing a completely different job for your own people, using Delacroix' service as cover."

"Oh, excellent!" She clapped her hands enthusiastically. "You really do have the talent for this kind of thing. Yes, and it was all your fault."

"I drove your people into hiding. With the CryWolf units being installed in more and more places, there were fewer and fewer safe locations for you – especially since you couldn't count on any given place not having a CryWolf installed in the next week or two. That's why one group of you had to practically take over Venice, Florida; only if you controlled the major events through the entire community could you have a chance of making sure that any CryWolf units installed would actually be useless for their stated purpose." I frowned. "But you couldn't do something like that for Los Angeles, New York, or any large city. There simply aren't enough of you."

"Well, you know that many of the CryWolf installations were made as supplements or additions to already-existing monitoring units, don't you?"

I nodded. "Of course. I designed the retrofit kits for most of those approaches myself. Why?"

"Many of our 'clients' are married." She watched me for a reaction.

Of course. It made complete, if terrifying, sense. Wealthy, powerful men who were married were not, in general, going to want a record of them having female visitors who didn't show up in normal business proceedings. So they could easily arrange for the cameras to be shut off for a few seconds, especially if a proper hint was given.

And with the camera shut off, the CryWolf device was quite useless.

"But… obviously you didn't kill off these guys. Would've cut way into your friend Frederic's profit margins, and caused a lot of talk, at the least. So what did that get you?"

"Tsk, tsk, Mr. Wood. The ability to get past the defenses of the building once allows me the opportunity to ensure that they will never operate again. It takes some considerable skill to perform the modifications such that self-checking will appear to work, and so on, but I have that skill."

Now I understood. "You basically were working on infiltrating as many business and residential areas as possible and subtly disabling the CryWolf units. Allowing your people to return to the major cities."

"Exactly, Jason. There are, of course, a number of other tactics I had to use – not everyone would turn off their cameras, so I would have to engineer failures from a sufficient distance – but the point was that someone in my position simply wasn't suspected. The advantages of a still-sexist society, you know; it's easy to play dumb when you're a cute little blonde."

I had to agree with that, and the whole situation was giving me the creeps again. At least Virigar had appeared to be a reasonably tall man with some credible threat potential. Angela – or to use her Wolf name, Tanmorrai – looked less threatening than Syl. And she was calmly admitting that her real purpose behind playing a high-priced call girl was to help render the major defense we had against her people useless.

"Of course," she continued, "we probably won't want to go into that in the trial. Probably better for me to just say that as long as we are stuck trying to live in your society, a girl has to do something to eat, and we don't have your people's hangups on sexual interaction. Not that we find your people attractive in general, you understand, but as a job it's no worse than many others. I'd rather do that than be a sewer maintenance worker, for instance."

"Speaking of eating," I said, "how many people have you eaten in your last couple of years – aside from the not-too-lamented Frederic, that is?"

She froze for a moment, then smiled again. "You know I don't have to kill to survive, Jason. We might prefer it, but your little shaking-up of the power structure has made it rather inadvisable for any of us to be doing any killing. Especially after you made your point so clearly in Venice, where poor little Hastrikas has had to make sure everyone keeps themselves on the straight and narrow, just eating what we can get without killing the subject or giving them the suspicion that something isn't right."

"That's right, you can do that drain-the-energy trick from a distance." I said. Now that I thought of it, that was probably what she meant by "engineering failure" of the cameras; if you drained the energy from the camera fast enough, it would shut down, then start back up again when you stopped the drain. According to Verne, they could eat essentially any form of energy, but the energy of life – souls – was so vastly superior that they didn't use that power on other energy sources unless they absolutely had to.

"Exactly. So you might choose some tourist who'd been running themselves ragged, drain them from the adjoining hotel room if you had the range, and leave them just feeling like they overdid it and got some kind of the flu. In a day or so they're recovering and none the wiser." She grinned. "For other purposes, of course, you can reverse the process."

I felt a momentary flood of energy and almost ecstatic well-being, and knew it was due to this gorgeous girl smiling fondly at me. I shook my head, focusing on what I knew was the truth. The energy and alertness stayed, but I managed to force the attraction out. Well, mostly out. I'm not superhuman, and the cute pixieish types have always appealed to me – I married one, after all – and she was very, very cute. "Do not do that again."

"Of course, if that's the way you feel. Still, consider the energy a gift; you're still jet-lagged, but now that shouldn't be a problem." She smiled again, but this time with a very nasty edge to the smile. "Freddie's soul had to be good for something."

I stared at her in revulsion. "That was…"

"Well, yes, I had to get the extra energy from somewhere. Don't worry, it really didn't have much of him left in it."

I picked up the digital recorder and my laptop. "I think we're done for today."

She was laughing quietly as they took her back to her cell.

v.


"So she's cooperating, Jason?"

Just hearing Syl's voice was settling me down. "Overall, yeah. Not without playing games, though. She's a nasty one."

"You like her, don't you?"

I spluttered incoherently for a moment before I found my words again. "I like the way she looks, Syl. But she's a monster, and she's happy with that. She put a piece of a dead man's essence into me as a demonstration – of what she could do for me, and what she'd already done to someone else, and I think just to entertain her with my reactions."

"But you do like her."

It's impossible to lie to your wife when she's a psychic. "In some ways, yeah. She's … well, she's kinda like Virigar, straightforward, no attempt to pretend she's anything other than what she is, honest with her intent and I think she has some honest respect for me. But she's also a monster in every sense of the word, and I hate the idea that I'm going to be trying to get her out of jail." I paused. "You're not jealous or something, are you?"

She laughed, the sound bringing back memories of the time she'd confronted me with my own jealousy over her and Verne. "Jasie, I know you too well. I'm just making sure you know yourself."

"I'm not stupid. It's obvious what she was doing." I chewed my lower lip. "But that approach – without the knowledge of the target – boy, that would really work. She probably used that on some of the clients she had, subtly. They'd attribute their, um, increased energy and stamina to her, but not in the way it was really happening. That'd definitely keep her popular." Something was nagging me about that, but it was the sort of thing that I'd have to wait on; it'd come clear, sooner or later.

"So what now?"

"The cops – CSIs, other agencies – are going to go over the evidence, trace her back, show that she's been working there as she claims, try to dig up the proof of her faked background – so that we know there isn't a real Angela who's gone missing – and so on. Mr. Achernar agreed to do extra digging to confirm it's not a double trick, where they made a real person disappear and then eradicate the proof she existed. I have to cover all the bases." There was a knock at the door. "What the… Syl, I gotta go. Call you later. Love you."

"I love you, Jason. Be careful."

"Always am. Bye."

I glanced through the peephole, then stepped back, unlatching the door. "Come in, slowly."

Once the man in the doorway was fully in view, and my own CryWolf glasses showing nothing but human, I relaxed and put the gun back into its holster. "Sorry, but I think you understand that in this case I'd better be double-paranoid. What can I do for you, Lieutenant?"

Lieutenant Kevin Ferrin was one of the most… appropriately coppy-looking cops I'd ever seen. He could have stepped out of any good movie featuring the boys in blue – regular features, trim but tall, short brown hair and sharp brown eyes, a uniform that seemed to have been just pressed, and aware of all his surroundings without seeming to search them. He shook my hand and took the indicated seat as I closed the door. "Sorry for bothering you, I know you're busy."

"Busy, but not off-duty. You don't have anything new for me in the case right now, do you?" Ferrin had already sent over the actual arrest reports and preliminary CSI workup of the area.

"No, nothing like that." He looked slightly embarrassed. "It's actually a different subject. I mean, it's another investigation, but it's kind of strange and I thought – well, since you were already in the area…"

"No problem. The strange has become my profession, and if you've got something you've been butting your head against without results, I can take a look at it. I don't make any guarantees, but it can't hurt."

He relaxed a bit. "Okay. Here goes."

The problem didn’t take long to lay out. In a city the size of Los Angeles, murder is hardly unusual from the point of view of any policeman. It is, however, unusual to have a murder that remains unsolved. Not unheard of, of course, and most police have at least one or two that they've still never gotten a satisfactory answer on, but unusual.

What Lieutenannt Ferrin had was something very different. Twenty deaths in eleven separate incidents over the past year or so, and three of them completely unsolved.

"But you're putting them in the same category as the solved ones?" I said. He nodded. "That can't be the official position."

"It's not." He said bluntly. "If this was a completely official investigation, I'd have asked you to come down to the station and look at the stuff first. Technically only the three unsolved ones are still being worked on. But…"

"There's a similarity? The others were done in a similar way?"

He shook his head. "Everything from kitchen-knife stabbings to apparent heart attacks or poison." He looked uncomfortable as he said it.

"Common factors, then?"

He wobbled a hand like a seesaw. "The only clearcut one I could say would be age. None of the victims are under the age of 18 or over the age of about 25."

I studied him. "Look, instead of making me poke at you, why not just tell me what's bothering you about these cases?"

He hesitated, then gave an explosive, frustrated curse. "That's the problem. I just don't know. Except… in our run of work, you get a general sense of things, you know? You see crime day in, day out, and most of the things you see, they make sense. Even when they're confusing at the start, once you get the answers you say 'oh, right, that's how it was', and everything's clear.

"Well, not with these. Take this one, Jessie and James Roquette." He pointed to a picture of two bodies – one a very pretty girl lying in a pool of blood the color of her very long hair, the other a slender young man whose good looks were marred by the black hole in his forehead just below his hairline. "Newlyweds, known each other for years before that, no serious trouble – couple speeding tickets, liked partying, maybe into the swinging lifestyle, but still devoted to each other. No one heard a thing about a problem between the two – all the family friends called them an inseparable team – nothing even rumored, they throw a big party, next day they're found in the kitchen by a neighbor, Jessie with a knife in her gut and James with a bullet in his head. Prints all over the place, of course, but forensics doesn't come up with any alternative answers; Jessie's even got some of James' skin under her fingers, and it matches pretty close with scratches on James' hands and arms. The gun was theirs, and it was in the drawer right next to where Jessie ended up, so it seemed clear. He attacked her, they fought, she got knifed, went down, but got the gun and blew him away before she died. But…"

"But?"

"Just… doesn't quite work for me. James was a little farther away, and a little off from where I'd have expected him in that scenario. And you don't do much moving after a .38 slug ricochets around your brainpan. Time of death seemed a little off, almost as though Jessie had kicked off a little bit before James, which would make it kind of hard for her to have done any shooting. The TOD estimates are always wide plus-or-minus, of course, so there was overlap." He shook his head.

"So then we look at this guy, Joe Buckley; 22 years old, perfect health, dating a few girls – who all knew each other and didn't seem to be particularly worried about it – on the rise in one of the movie studios' development groups, goes to a big bash, comes home, found dead the next day without a mark on him." The accompanying photo showed a brown-haired young man lying peacefully on his back, just a slight unnatural paleness indicating that there was anything wrong. "There was a little evidence he might have had some company that night, but nothing conclusive, and tox screen came back with a big fat zip – along with the rest of the ME's workup. His quote was 'The only problem with this guy is that he ought to be walking around alive and he's dead.' So after a few weeks it was put down to natural causes, some kind of subtle heart condition."

"Okay, so you've got those and some others which are supposed to be solved, but your gut says otherwise." I didn't sneer at gut feelings, they were what saved my ass more than once, and for a cop they were critical. "Why do you associate them all as a group?"

"To start with, they're all in the same general area." He pulled out a map, indicated a pretty high-rent area of the city. "I don't have proof there aren't any outside this area, of course. I mean, there's only so much of the city my cases are going to cover – even the werewolf's case is around there. But it's just… of all these cases, only one of them really convinced me that there was a motive for murder, and I don't like the way it ended up. I don't believe it. So I've got at least ten different cases, three unsolved, and all of them without a single believable motive except something like 'crime of passion'. And none of them – not one – with any witness at all. The most we got is someone hearing the gunshot in one case. But no one hearing arguments, plans for violence, and the forensics are always… well, they support the verdict, where there is one, but there's always something funny about them to me, even if no one else really sees it. Oh, and never any living perp. If we've got a clear case of murder involved, then both the victim and the killer are dead, mutual assured destruction."

I got the picture now. "That's not common, is it?"

"Not common at all. One out of ten? Twenty? More? Usually the killer might get hurt, but he or she walks away. Most people don't expect murder, especially not in the higher levels of society, and so when the time comes, they're not ready to defend themselves. And the murderer's got the advantage, unless he's going to stop and talk and threaten like some cheap TV villain. So… most murderers don't end up as corpses, at least not before they're convicted." Kevin Ferrin looked relieved; I suspected that this was the first time he'd been able to articulate some of his problems with these cases, and he was glad to find that I was taking him seriously.

"Well, Lieutenant, I don't know if there's anything I can do; if this is mundane work, just something unusual, I'm not necessarily going to be able to find out any more than your regular people. But give me what you can and I'll see what I can do. It's an interesting problem, anyway."

The Lieutenant gave me a quick, grateful smile. "Thanks, Mr. Wood. I'd really appreciate it. Even if all that you can do is just tell me that I'm worrying about nothing, I'd feel better just knowing someone else looked the problem over. I'll get the files out and you can look 'em over at the station."

"My pleasure." I let him out and reflected on the fact that it was, in fact, a pleasure. The problem with Angela wasn't going to have a very good outcome. Either I'd succeed – and let a Wolf go free – or I'd fail, which would be depressing and possibly set a dangerous precedent. This, at least, was a problem which might offer a better chance of ending in a way I could feel good about.

I ordered dinner, and then picked up the phone to talk to Syl. There was going to be even more to talk about than I'd thought.

vi.

"Ya sure this is a secure line, Wood?"

"Absolutely."

Sheriff Baker sighed. "All right, what is it?"

"I'm sure you know what I'm doing right now."

He laughed. "Yeah, I guess I do. Defendin' Miz Tanmorrai in court. That's gotta stick in your craw."

"I've got my reasons for doing it. I need some information from you, though."

"If it's to help the lady, sure. What do you need?"

"I know that there used to be a real Sheriff Baker, and you took his place, just like a lot of Wolves did in Venice. But the Maelkodan had her own human shape, besides the ones she could steal from you." I was deliberately not mentioning what Angela/Tanmorrai had told me. "What about you Wolves? Do you have your own unique shapes? Or not?"

"Well, now, of course we all do. The big furry one. But you mean a human shape. Yeah, we do. When we're young we practice shapeshifting into human form and everyone chooses one that's theirs."

"Is this a surface shift or a full shift?"

"Oh, it's a complete shift when you've mastered it. No way you humans can tell us from yourselves, except with your little toys."

"And do you trade off these forms? I mean, would she use yours, or you hers, at some point?"

"Never." He said immediately. "It'd be like shifting to imitate the actual Wolf. We get to choose our appearance, and so the selected ones belong to us and it's… very rude to take someone else's shape without permission."

"Sort of like copyright or trademark, then?"

He chuckled. "Yeah, you might put it that way, but let's say that the penalties are a lot steeper. Like it's generally an insult worthy of at least two cuts, and if you do it in a way that might affect something they're doing at the time, it's a killing offense, maybe even referrable to the King."

"So any traces we find to prove her background really do have to be hers."

"Shit, yeah. Especially her. No one would mess with her."

"I did notice she called you 'little Hastrikas' like, um, Virigan did. Is she an Elder like him?"

His voice was deadly serious. "Not like him, no. Ain't any like him, well, maybe two left, but nobody knows for sure. But still, she's old enough, she goes back almost as far as your friend Verne, I think. No one knows for sure, 'cept of course the King and the…" he stopped abruptly. "Anyway, you got what you need?"

I really wished I knew what he'd been about to say, but no point in pushing it. "I think so. We have to prove she's the person she says she is, and prove her career as described, and this helps us do it."

"You already got most of this from her, didn't you?"

Point to the Sheriff. "Some of it. But I had to get some confirmation. From another Wolf. And you played it straight before."

His voice was not friendly. "Because you have us in a silver trap, Wood. And because the King has required us to maintain a cold, rather than hot, war. For now. But when he decides it's time to kill you, I will be very happy to watch."

"I don't doubt it. But don't hold your breath. Thanks anyway."

He hung up without saying I was welcome, which was rather rude of him. But I'd gotten what I needed from that call, assuming Baker was telling the truth. I thought he probably was – not only was it consistent with what Angela had told me, but the additional details made sense. I was, very slowly, starting to get an idea of how the Wolves' society worked. It was ugly, cold, and vicious, but that really wasn't much of a surprise. And at least the information would be useful.

Project Pantheon, through one of Achernar's associates, had come through beautifully. Angela's background was indeed faked, up to 8 years ago. She was clearly a fictional person whose existence was created specifically for the little Wolf currently residing in the local lockup. This made the case at least possible to win, overall.

It was, however, still going to be a bitch and a half. I looked down at the little set of dossiers on the table. This was the summary of the important people at the trial – namely the judge and the selected jury. Had this been an ordinary crime, it would probably have been weeks or months before we got to this stage, but the high profile, bizarre nature of the case had ensured that everything was going to move quickly. There were already protesters on both sides of the issue, and the security we were going to need in this was insane. I'd already received death threats for daring to defend a Wolf, plus heartfelt compliments at my open mindedness, and… well, it was a circus, no doubt about it. But one with a deadly serious central theme.

The jury was going to be the hard part. The prosecution would no doubt paint this as a deliberate premeditated murder, manipulated by Angela for her own macabre gain. Trying to fight that was going to require walking a serious tightrope, because there certainly was truth in the proposition that she was indeed manipulating the situation for the Wolves' gain, and the last thing I needed was to have that come out in the testimony. Rosenfeld, Opal, and O'Brien had handled the jury selection, something completely out of my depth, and we thought we'd managed to eliminate the worst possible choices, but there really weren't going to be good juror choices for her, aside from a couple of "furries" which of course had been weeded out by the prosecution.

One thing we'd done was to get a list of the more important "clients" that Angela had served. She'd balked at first, but came around once I pointed out that these people were the ones most likely to try to affect the outcome of the trial, and I had to get a handle on who they were and just how they might try to influence it. On the one hand, they wouldn't want word of their involvement to get out, for a number of reasons, and so they'd have a reason to want Angela put out of the way. On the other hand, if they couldn't be sure she'd be executed – and fast – she had the potential of striking back against them by naming names, dates, and times, and who knew what else she might have learned? So in that sense, they had every reason to see her set free (and maybe arrange an accident for her afterward). The result of that list was that a lot of our challenges to jury selection were based on knowing they were connected to one of Angela's "clients".

I looked down the list and sighed. There wasn't much point in looking them over again. About all we'd managed to achieve was to make sure that the jury was as reasonably well educated as possible; this trial would probably be better served, for my purposes, by people more subject to intellectual rather than emotional argument.

I sat up suddenly. "But I'd better not neglect that emotional side!". I had a few calls to make.

vii.


"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury," Prosecutor David Hume began, "we are all aware of the unique nature of this trial. In my time as an attorney, I have prosecuted and, on occasion, defended, people who might be described as monsters. In this case, we are dealing with a monster in literal fact. The defendant, Angela McIntyre, is not human, despite the innocent appearance she displays for the court. She is a Werewolf, a creature capable of taking on any shape for her own purposes, a monster that feeds upon human flesh and perhaps more. They are known to have killed many hundreds of people, perhaps many times that many, and even with all the technology at our command it is difficult to either capture or kill these things. Many people believe that we should be exterminating them, wiping them out as we would destroy some disease. The honorable court has however decided that there is sufficient precedent, given the Werewolves' obvious status as thinking beings, to in this case justify a trial. We recognize the reasons for this decision, and the State is confident that it will make no difference in the ultimate outcome.

"In this trial, we will demonstrate to you that the killing of Frederic Delacroix was the ending of a cold-blooded hunt, and possibly part of something even more sinister. Angela McIntyre never intended to allow Frederic Delacroix to live once he had served his purpose; his actions, provoked deliberately by the defendant, were meant to allow her to kill him with impunity. She was never in actual danger from Delacroix, and therefore any contention of self-defense is ludicrous. It is our position that it is in fact dangerous for us to come to any other conclusion, that permitting a trial and defense for such a creature is directly counter to the proper welfare and defense of the state and its people – its human people – by providing a means for creatures who have an admitted and stated view of our people as prey to escape the consequences for so doing." Hume gazed at the jury, almost certainly trying to make eye contact with all of them to show his clear and forthright nature. "This is undoubtedly one of the most important trials any of us has ever seen, or will ever see. Remember that during all of your deliberations." He paused a moment longer, and then turned and nodded to me.

I stood up slowly, then walked to the front of the packed courtroom. Flashes popped; despite some argument against it on both sides, there really hadn't been any chance to make this a closed courtroom. Whatever happened here would be recorded for all posterity. So I'd better at least look good.

"You all know who I am." I said quietly. "I'm Jason Wood. These monsters, as the prosecutor calls them, are the reason you know me. I lost one of my best friends to their King. He nearly killed me in a hospital, where my wife was in critical condition due to another of his people. I am not their friend. I think it's important you understand that."

The faces of the jurors were intent. I'd memorized all of them: Lucy Aluquerre, Jim Sherry, Darrin Brown, Maria Mendoza, Tony Sestin, Frank Kovalsky, Alfred Flint, Petra Hamilton, Alle Schumacher, Gladia Baley, Steven Jackson, and Verna Stout. I met each of their gazes squarely. "I didn't take this job to side with monsters. I took it because there's something even more important at stake here. This is a matter of justice. Whatever she is, Angela McIntyre was not planning to kill Frederic Delacroix that day, or any other. She was, hard as we may find it to believe, simply living her life, doing her job, and Frederic Delacroix decided that this wasn't enough, and tried to force himself on her. She defended herself – as the law allows her to do – with whatever weapons she had to hand. The fact that those weapons were far more effective than Mr. Delacroix would have expected simply means that she was able to escape with minimal injury."

I glanced at Judge Freeman, then turned towards the courtroom, still speaking to the jury, continuing to turn so that I once more ended facing them. "The prosecutor has emphasized that Angela is not human, and implied that this means she is not entitled to proper justice. Those words have been used before, in settings that many of us understand all too well." I saw a flicker of understanding in the dark eyes of Kovalsky, a slight sad smile on the seamed, kindly face of old Alle. "We, the defense, will show that Angela McIntyre did not plan Delacroix' death, that she killed in pure self-defense to prevent a violent and repulsive assault, and that whatever she may have been born, that she is here, in this courtroom, a defendant like any other, entitled to fair judgement and justice, not just for herself but for many others."

Angela looked at them out of wide eyes. She had chosen her look carefully today; there was nothing sexy about her outfit. Instead, she'd chosen a blouse and skirt of very subdued and modest design, making her look even younger, a frightened, innocent schoolgirl caught in something far beyond her depth. I had to admire the effect, though it made me wince inwardly at the cognitive dissonance. I kept on. "Angela and I are trusting in you to make the right decision. She has chosen to trust me – one of her people's greatest enemies, the man responsible more than anyone else for the deaths of hundreds of her people – because she believes I understand why she must be defended. And she has accepted our law; she knows that if you convict her, that she will be imprisoned, perhaps even executed, and that for the sake of the justice she seeks she cannot use the abilities of her people to fight or escape. Here, today, she is as vulnerable as any of you would be in her place. Her life – and perhaps much more – are in your hands. I am putting my trust in all of you."

I bowed to the jury – it seemed the right thing to do, at least for me – and returned to my seat. It was time for the trial to begin.

"A good speech, Mr. Wood." Angela whispered. "I hope we have enough material to back it all up."

"So do I. Your more in-depth description of your fight – if we can call it that – with Frederic – might give us a little additional chance, if the evidence bears you out. But even with the best work and evidence, you know this is anything but a sure thing."

She nodded, her eyes momentarily mirroring a real awareness of the danger she was in. "Yes, Mr. Wood. I know."





Continued in next post...
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