Milo and Fairfax

Dire Watchword

Little Transylvania had survived the devastation better than most of Amsterdam Two. The serpents must have thought the undead weren’t worth killing, or maybe Tiamat had a soft spot for outcasts. There were gobbets of mostly fresh meat and a few untarnished shiny things on some of the barrows in the vampire markets, indicating that there were still bloodsuckers in residence. I wasn’t about to go looking in any of the ghoul bars after survivors; I’d learned to steer clear of them the hard way.

Dire Watchword’s tattoo parlor wasn’t in bad shape. The walls were still standing, and while the ceiling had fallen in in places, it looked habitable if you were a werewolf.

“Watchword lives in back with his mate and his cubs,” I said. “He’s scared of Fairfax, but the other werewolves don’t know her, and I don’t know how civilized they are. You and I are staying out here. If they cross the threshold, fire up that glyph. Try to keep it non-lethal.” I turned to the little dog. “Fairfax, let them know we’re here.” Fairfax yawned and trotted into the parlor.

“Does she speak lycanthrope?”

“No. She’s smart, but she’s a dog.”

“Then how’s she going to communicate with it?”

“Him.”

“That.”

“Don’t like werewolves?”

“It’s not that I don’t like them. They just scare holy hell out of me.”

“You going to be able to keep it together?”

She sighed. “Yep.”

“Look,” I said. “I grant you that they really have been known to eat people, but for the most part they’re just trying to get by. Why are you frightened, anyway? Your glyph just smoked a creature that makes a lycanthrope look like a miniature poodle.”

“Wasn’t that in a dream?”

“I’m not so sure it was. What’s the deal with you and werewolves?”

“Promise you’re not gonna laugh?”

I kept my face immobile. “Promise.”

“When I was a kid I used to have a book of horror stories from the twentieth century. There were werewolves that could turn you into one of them if they bit you. I avoided the fuckers for years—I always wanted a tattoo, but I couldn’t make myself go into a parlor.” She tilted her head to one side, then the other so that I could see her earlobes. “I don’t even have my ears pierced. I never met one for real until I was doing my residency and I had to treat them, because in the back of my mind that stupid little kid with her stupid book still thought she’d turn into a monster if she got bit.”

I failed to hide my grin. She glared at me. “You’re a dick. You promised you wouldn’t laugh.”

“Am I laughing?”

Fairfax ambled out. She nudged me with her nose and walked a short distance forward, then turned back and looked at me. “Come on,” I said. “Fairfax won’t let you get hurt.”

We followed the little dog into the remains of the parlor. There wasn’t any water damage—it doesn’t rain on Mars Prime unless you spray nanite foglets over a predetermined area to condense water vapor in the air—and the work area looked uncontaminated. Fairfax looked like she was in search and rescue mode, which was odd, considering how vigilant she usually was around Watchword.

The living area was silent. A worn-out couch and some low beds were the only furniture in the place. Some loose shirts and shorts hung from pegs by the door, the kind worn by the more modern wolves and their children. Dire Watchword was curled up on the floor by the stove, staring at nothing. I’d never imagined he could seem small and helpless. I looked around. The back wall of the parlor had collapsed, revealing a fenced yard. There were four small mounds of earth and one larger mound arranged in a neat line in the center.

Epiphany took a deep breath and knelt down next to him. “Sir?” she said. “Mr. Watchword? Are you okay? I’m a doctor—I’m here to help.”

Watchword stirred. Epiphany fell backward, her glyph’s defense systems coming online. I knelt down next to her and put my hand on her shoulder. “Easy. Let me talk to him.” I shook the werewolf’s shoulder gently. “Watchword?” I said. “It’s Milo Vitre. Tracer Vitre. What happened?”

Epiphany stood up and took a few steps back. “I don’t know how lucid he is,” she said, her voice trembling. “My medical opinion is that you should get the fuck away from him in case he lashes—”

Watchword was on his feet and advancing faster than either of us could react. He towered over us, snarling, his long, razor-clawed fingers flexing. I opened my mouth to vocalize the command word that activated my stunner, but Fairfax stepped in front of me. She threw her head back and let out a mournful, heartbreaking howl. Watchword looked down at her for a moment, puzzled. Then he sat back on his haunches and joined her, his voice a haunting, pleading wail. Soon, other voices rose in the distance, dogs and werewolves, all howling in a lament for the dead.

After a while, the noise dissipated. Fairfax came over and licked Watchword’s hand, then curled up on the couch. Watchword turned to me.

“Took you long enough,” he growled.

“How did you know I was coming?”

“Said you’d be coming by. Said to say hello.”

“Who said that?” I said, taken aback.

“Tall. Thin. Red coat.”

“When?”

“Three days ago. Wanted box of flatlanders. Wouldn’t give it to him.”

I looked back at the four little graves and the one big one. “Christ, Watchword, I—”

“Save it.”

Epiphany’s glyph glittered. “You’ve been drugged.”

“Shot me with a tranquilizer dart. Made me watch.”

“And the box?” I said, hoping against hope.

“Found it. Tried to open it. Did it wrong. Box self-destructed. Who is he?”

“His name’s Lucien Murdock. He used to be a troubleshooter. He did—” I gestured vaguely at the general devastation outside “—this.”

“Brought the serpents?”

“He had help.”

“Don’t care about help. Where is he?”

“If I had to guess, he’s with the help, waiting for me.”

The werewolf padded over to the door that led into the parlor. “Got a cherub for you. Heard yours burn out. Keep spares, off the books, just in case.”

I exhaled. “Thank you, Watchword.”

“Don’t thank me.”

Epiphany and I followed him into the parlor. I stripped off my bomber jacket and tee shirt and lay down on the table. Watchword put on an anti-microbial mask, swabbed my arm with alcohol and got to work. I felt a surge of feeling for the giant lycanthrope—he did the job properly, even under the circumstances. I respected that.

When he was finished working, Watchword reached under the counter. He tapped out a complicated code and a small sheet of watercolor fell into his hand. He gently placed it on the fresh ink and went over it again with the gun. My stomach did the familiar flip-flop as the tiny flatlander bonded with my karmic field.

I stood up. “We need to go.”

“Murdock?”

“We’ll kill him for you.”

“Hah.”

Epiphany put her hand on my arm. “Can I have one?” she asked the werewolf.

“Can’t give you regulated ink.”

“I just want a regular one.”

Watchword jabbed a thumb at the binders of flash. “Pick.”

“Don’t need to. I know what I want.”

“What?”

“Um…a werewolf. I’m not being weird—it’s not about you. I just always wanted one, and—”

“Blue binder. Sixth, seventh, eighth pages. Pick.”

Epiphany reached over and thumbed through the binder, her face beet red. “This one.”

“Where?”

“On my back.”

“Up on the table. Shirt off.”

I scratched Fairfax behind her ears. “You stay here. I’m going to stretch my legs.” I took a walk around the neighborhood. It was a bombed-out mess, with no landmarks left to speak of, and certainly none of its former furtive charm. I stopped at what was left of Midnight City Square and climbed over the railing to Lucifer’s Basin, a holy spring that fountained up from the aquifer under the city center of Amsterdam Two. I splashed some drops of water on my face and washed my hands for luck. I got some curious stares from the shadows, but no outright hostility.

Watchword was finishing up when I strolled back in two hours later. “Keep dressing on for an hour,” he said. “Baseline human?”

“Yeah,” Epiphany said, buttoning up her shirt.

“Keep tattoo out of direct sunlight for at least two more hours. Heal by then. Go to another parlor if you need a touch-up.”

She nodded. “Thank you.”

“Welcome.”

“You good?” I said to Epiphany. She nodded.

The werewolf looked at me levelly. “Goodbye, Milo.”

“Goodbye, Watchword.”

He nodded politely at Epiphany, turned and padded into the back of the shop. I heard a door close.

“That wasn’t like what I thought it would be,” said Epiphany. She ran her hand over her new ink. “It didn’t hurt at all.”

“He’s good at his job.”

“He wasn’t like I thought he would be, either.”

“He’s just trying to get by.”

“What do you think he’s going to do?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say he’ll be dead by dawn.”

“Grief?”

“Maybe.”

“Where are we going?” she said.

“We’re going to get some lunch. When we’ve done that, we’re going to find Murdock and kill him. Then we’re going to kill Tiamat. Then we’ll see.”

“Ambitious,” Epiphany said, some of her joie de vivre returning. “How are we gonna do that?”

“I’d be shocked if Murdock wasn’t at her penthouse. It’s a hundred fifty floors up. I’m going to see if he can fly without that greatcoat. You’re going to heat that glyph up on Tiamat.”

She stopped dead. “You’re shitting me. Dude, I’m a physician, not a troubleshooter. I’m not trained for this.”

“You did a pretty good job this morning.”

“This morning was a dream. You can’t die in a dream.”

“Actually, I’m almost positive we would’ve died in that one if you hadn’t done whatever you did to Tiamat. Doc, the whole world’s your patient right now. Every planet, every plane. If Tiamat gets loose she’ll drown all of them. It took all of us to stop her last time, and she still managed to drown Earth Prime, remember? She’s spent the last two years sending out those constructs she made from Murdock’s blood, killing every troubleshooter she could find. Here and now, you and I are the only two people who can do anything about this.”

“What about your boy the Dean?”

“If Frank leaves Miskatonic, it’ll collapse, and at that point we won’t even have anything to start over with—no more focal point of magic for humans. Best he could do would be to send in Fafnir, and two dragons fighting to the death would end up destroying as much real estate as Tia would by herself—the cure would be as bad as the disease. There aren’t any other options, Epiphany. She’s cancer, and you’re the only scalpel in the world.”

“Oof. No pressure, right?”

“Nope.”

She relaxed. “Fuck it. Died once, didn’t hurt too bad.”

“There’s worse ways to go out than saving the world,” I said. “Ur Angelus lux.”

 

Steven Smiley is the author of Milo & Fairfax.