The walk back to school was silent except for the scuffing of shoes or rustling of clothing. We might as well have been alone, as contemplative as we were getting - yeah, sure, we could've talked about it, but what good would that have done? Neither of us had a clue what the fuck that could have been.
Besides, the sound of screaming coupled with the meaty crunch of snapping bones was drowning out any thoughts I could have hoped for.
Finally, right before we hopped the fence into the grounds, I spoke. "He had two different eyes, Wu."
"While uncommon, it's not really abnormal for people to have eyes of different colors," he said, voice tight.
"No man," I said, "I mean he had two different eyes. One was brown and normal. The other one was green and had a slit pupil. Like a cat."
He paused, hands locked on the chain link. "I see."
"Good, 'cause I sure as fuck don't." I jumped off the other side of the fence with more force than was strictly necessary, almost shaking him off.
Wufei waited patiently for the metallic clinking of the fence to stop before he began his climb. "Shape shifters," he said, "they have the eyes of their inner beast."
I dredged up memories of Tony the tiger and Une. Bright blue cat slits. Hungry wolf amber. "But they have matched sets."
"Yes. So something else is going on here."
"No shit, Sherlock."
His back went stiff as he began to climb down. "You asked, Duo."
That was me. Duo T. Schmuck. "Yeah, I know. I'm sorry, man. I shouldn't take out my frustration on you."
"Just another one of those nights," was all he said in answer.
"Same shit, different night." I agreed as we rounded the hedge that surrounded the dorm.
There was the barest hint of a rustle, and that was all the warning we had. A blur burst from the hedges right in front of us. No one was really prepared. Wufei and I reacted like the well-oiled machines we were. As one, we kicked it away and jumped back, drawing weapons.
The shape let out a shocked "Oof!" and fell over with a gratifying thud. I sighted down the barrel of my Browning, only about a pound or two off in pressure from opening up...and found myself confronted with a pair of way too familiar bright blue cat eyes. Human or tiger, I would recognize them anywhere; what can I say, you speak of the devil and he jumps out of the bushes at you, I guess.
"Tony?" I asked, my voice cracking with disbelief.
"Yeah," he said. Who would've thought that someone who spent half their time as a giant cat could sound so sheepish? "Sorry about that. Gonna stand, okay?"
I made a big show of letting off on the trigger and returning the gun to its holster. Behind me, I heard the metal whisper of a well-honed knife being returned to its sheathe. Tony stood gracefully, almost like he had no bones, then set about straightening his clothes and brushing away imaginary flecks of dirt from his tight black shirt and pants. I could almost imagine his tail flipping with annoyance at being caught at a graceless moment.
"So...it's been a while," I remarked. Tony was my favorite shape shifter, but that wasn't saying a whole lot. He'd saved my ass before, and I'd returned the favor and saved his. And wherever Tony was, Johannes, one of the causes of the rather shitty direction our lives had gone lately, was not far behind.
"Didn't figure you'd be wanting me over for tea and crumpets any time soon, you know?" Tony said. Was that a hint of irony I detected?
"So I'm guessing this is business."
"You could say that. The Boss asked me to bring you over."
I should have known; if Tony had just been dropping by to say hi, I would've been okay with that. But if it meant the vampires sticking their cold little noses into my business again, fuck it. I made a big show of looking at my watch, "Gee, that's a swell offer, but I'll have to pass. It's awful late and I'm a busy boy tomorrow. Thanks, but no." I turned to go.
"No, wait, please." Tony said in a rush.
I glanced back at him. This was the first time I'd ever seen a crack in his "me tough Italian bodyguard" act, and it kind of worried me. "What is it, Tony?"
"Please," he said, "you don't hear me say it ever, but please. I know you hate the Boss, and I don't blame you. I get it. But this isn't about him. And it ain't about the Master of Tokyo neither."
Curious, I faced him again, crossing my arms over my chest. "Then what is it about?" I asked.
Tony's shoulders drooped as much as they could without tearing the close fitting blue blazer he was wearing. "My brother," he said, his voice soft.
"Angelo?" Despite my own best intentions, I was alarmed. Angelo was another one that had saved my ass once. I hated his shitty attitude, he wasn't nearly as personable as his brother, and he was another of Johannes' little shape shifter lackeys to boot, but I owed the man. I owed them both. Even if the trouble at that time had been the fault of their master. Shinigami pays his debts. "What happened to Angelo?"
The words came out in a great shuddering sigh, a thick Italian accent coming out of nowhere to color them red. "He's dead."
My spine froze, for more reasons than I could count. "We'll go with you." I said.
Tony walked us down the familiar paths of the theatre district. I was too distracted to really care about gawking over the colorful crowd. Heero could have been dancing around wearing nothing but a set of 24 karat gold nipple rings and I probably wouldn't have noticed. Or maybe I would have, just so I could grab him and kick the shit out of him.
Ever notice how shit only comes down in blizzards? All I ever had time to do these days was repress, repress, repress, and hope I lived long enough to talk to a psychiatrist about it later. I never did believe in a healthy life style, either physical or mental.
I almost ran into Tony's back when he stopped, that's how distracted I was. We'd stopped in front of a neon-laced concrete building that pulsed red, blue, and bright green in time with visceral music that was thumping out from speakers hidden behind sensually flowing modern sculptures like blobs of mercury.
"This is it." Tony said. "One of the Boss's clubs."
I squinted up at the confusing tangle of neon tubing, but gave up on trying to read the rapidly changing kanji. It was starting to give me a headache. Tony didn't feel the need to name it; he just nodded to the no-neck bouncer in front of the black glass smooth doors, then flung them open.
It was like being plunged into an ocean comprised of nothing but swirling eddies of base beat and violent waves of white light. My eyes watered and blinked rapidly, trying to make out anything: writhing bodies, a stage, and the tallest, best looking woman I'd ever seen in my life shaking her ass in a way that distracted about half my blood supply. Wufei grabbed my wrist in an iron grip and dragged me along as I watched, unable to tear my eyes away.
Warm energy flowed from the woman in waves - holy shit, she was a shape shifter. Hallelujah for pheromones. Her outfit flashed and shimmered in the pulsing lights, cocoa brown arms and oh-my-god legs weaving sinuous patterns as she drew her skirt up higher and higher, until all was bare to the world.
Wufei dragged me into a room, and then a plain grey door slammed shut almost in my face, cutting off the noise and light like it had never existed. Blinking dumbly, I turned to face the calm neutrality of the grey room. Tony now stood next to Johannes, who was dressed in a deep red poet's shirt and tight black pants that left nothing to the imagination, his bright yellow hair flaring even in the subdued lighting.
"Drag queens, huh?" I asked.
He didn't answer me. With the eerie stillness the old ones all seemed to have, he stepped to the side and opened the door he'd been in front of. The choking scent of aging blood and the beginning of decay rolled over us in a wave, making me swallow convulsively.
"How long?" I asked.
Johannes felt so tightly wound to me that I was surprised he didn't break in half. "Nearly a week."
He cut me off with a chop of his hand. "Look now. We will talk later, away from this place."
Wufei and I stepped forward as one, into the doorway that now seemed to yawn like a mouth of Hell.
The room was coated with blood. It soaked the carpet, turning it black and stiff, and covered the walls in dense, cracked patches that leaked toward the carpet. There were even splashes on the ceiling, clogging the acoustic tiles. Taking a deep breath that was a mistake, I stepped toward the body. The carpet crunched under my feet and a metallic taste leaped into the back of my throat. Cold permeated the room, that particular psychic chill that only I could feel - the hand of the absolute, unending void. I was going to throw up, I could feel it.
All that saved me was Wufei's dispassionate remark, "Signs of a struggle."
I almost laughed, that was how ridiculous it was. Instead, I looked down at my feet. There was broken glass all around me, hidden in the dried blood. "You could say that."
There had once been mirrors in the room. A lot of mirrors; whole walls of them in fact. It took a moment for the twisted and broken shapes to make sense in my mind. This had once been a practice room for the...dancers. The twisted shapes were splintered wood and impossible bent metal that had once been poles and bars. Angelo's body was propped up against the wall, his lips pulled back in the rictus of a snarl, exposing his sharpened canines. His hands were twisted into claws and covered with blood, his clothing torn to shreds. One eye looked toward the ceiling, glaring even through the mist of death. The other eye was gone; only a crusted socket was left.
"Angelo fought the good fight. It's more than Dorothy managed," I said.
"This is too similar to be a coincidence." Wufei said, his voice grim like death. "I can't imagine the removal of an eye is a normal occurrence."
The snap of latex made me look at Wufei. He'd just finished pulling a pair of gloves on; at least one of us had them. I hadn't yet replaced the pair I kept stashed. I nodded, "Let's follow the similarity, then. Check his neck, and look for puncture wounds."
We had to peel poor Angelo's head from the wall, in the end. It was amazing what an effective glue dried blood could make. I almost winced at the amount of hair we ended up ripping out of his head - not that he could care any more. At least that was what I kept telling myself. The back of his neck was still there, but when I bent closer, I could see the precise lines of cuts, and a lose flap of skin where an unknown hand had begun to peel away.
"Someone interrupted it," I said.
Wufei nodded. "Look on his shoulder." There, just peeping out of his skin, was a silver line. Carefully, Wu drew it out; a long, thin needle had been snapped off in his muscle.
"So whoever it was tried to drug him, like they did with Dorothy. It didn't work fast enough, or maybe not at all. They had to subdue him." The enormity of what I had just said made me shiver. "Who the fuck can subdue a were-tiger, Wu?"
He shook his head. "I don't know."
"This is making less sense the more I see. There's no kind of connection between Dorothy and Angelo. There couldn't have been. She was just a schoolgirl," I said, "or at least she sure looked like one. She wasn't a shape shifter, couldn't have been a vampire..."
"Maybe she was something else that we haven't met yet."
"I guess that's as good of an explanation as any. I don't know if we'll ever be able to find out." A faint blue shimmer in the black coating Angelo's pants caught my eye, and I reached for it. My hand encountered the now-familiar barrier of absolute cold that left me gasping. I should have known it was coming - everything else had been too similar. "Wu, see down on his leg? Can you try to pick it up for me? I can't touch it."
I don't know why he didn't tell me to fuck off - I sure would have, at that point. Instead, he reached down for it. As his fingertips brushed the blood soaked feather, it burst into sickly green flame that cast such a putrid smell, we both stumbled back a step. In an instant, it was nothing but ash.
I stared for a moment, trying to convince my brain that yes, that had actually happened. "Wow. I guess it liked you even less than it liked me." That got me a dirty look. "What did it feel like?" I asked.
"Nothing," he said, "it didn't feel like anything."
I nodded, not really understanding. I just wanted out of the room, which smelled worse now if it was possible. I'd been putting it off long enough - as my last bit of investigating, I looked into Angelo with my power. Empty, like the void of space. Nothing to talk to or remember. I was shivering badly when I became aware of my own body again. Wufei had moved away and was carefully examining the glass shards on the floor.
"Well, whatever Angelo could have told us died in truth with him," I said. "I can't touch him now."
Wufei nodded. "Not surprising, considering the other similarities. It is an evil, terrible thing." He bent to pick a shard of glass out of the carpet. "This bothers me."
I snorted. "A particular part, or the whole enchilada? I'd be pretty worried if you weren't bothered."
"The glass. The way it's broken is wrong." Wufei said, dropping the shard in disgust and brushing imaginary dirt from his still gloved hands. The latex squeaked in a way that set my teeth on edge. "The mirrors should have been broken during the struggle, but the evidence points away from that. The glass is all under the blood, instead of some being on top of it."
"So it was broken before anyone started bleeding."
He nodded. "Also, the pattern on the floor is wrong. The shards should be at the base of the mirrors. These are sprayed out across the floor, like a window would be when broken from within."
"We'll check with Johannes. Maybe the walls aren't solid."
He nodded, pulling his gloves off neatly inside out and dropping them on the floor. "Any explanation would make me happy at this point. There are too many unlikely factors for my comfort."
"You just about done?"
Wufei glanced around. "I think so. There isn't a great deal that we can do; we're not professional investigators."
"And somehow, I get the feeling that we're the best that Angelo's ever going to get. I feel sorry for the guy."
"Insult to injury, I suppose."
I coughed. "Yep. Hey, let's get out of here. I'm going to be smelling this for a week." I felt bad the minute the words passed my lips.
Johannes and Tony were waiting for us when we came out of the room. They whisked us through a series of back hallways without so much as a word. Soon, we were installed in a small office, sipping cups of lemon tea that the master vampire had poured for us from a pewter service. It said a lot about our mental state that we'd accepted the offering with nary a protest.
I was starting on my second cup of tea when I finally felt fortified enough to talk. "Okay, Johannes, now will you answer my questions?"
He frowned, a strange glitter in his eyes. "To the best of my ability."
"Why?" I asked. "There are so many damn whys here. Why did you leave him there so long? Why did you want us to look at him? Why haven't you brought real investigators in?"
Johannes breathed out a soft sigh, leaning back in his chair and setting his own blue china cup on the desk with the softest of clinks. "One at a time, Mr. Maxwell. One at a time. In answer, I have had investigators after a fashion in. They have been of...our ilk. They found no fingerprints or bits of hair; nothing beyond what one can discern with the eyes alone, I'm afraid to say. The body has been there for such a long time because the...murder," he said the word with the greatest distaste, "occurred in the middle of the week. No one found him until a few days ago. As for why you have been brought in to this particular incident," he looked blandly at Tony, who shrank in his seat like a little boy expecting his teacher to smack him with a ruler, "Angelo's brother insisted. You have apparently made quite an impression on him, Mr. Maxwell. He was certain that you could shed light on this subject even when my own resources failed. And now that you have seen, the body can at last be given a proper burial, I think."
"Wow. No pressure here, huh?" I said. "Right now, about the best I can do for you is say that it's fucked up. Something placed Angelo's spirit beyond my reach, and that right now smacks of some serious next-level shit."
Johannes' eyebrows rose marginally. "Please continue," he said.
"This morning, I also saw a body. One of those days I guess. The MO was the same. Oh yeah, and we were wondering...any of the walls in that room false?"
"Not that I know of."
"Okay, then we have another pointer to something hinkey. I don't know what else to say. This isn't my area of expertise."
Johannes leaned forward, his body posture deceptively relaxed. I could feel his mind, coiled like a predator about to spring. "Do you intend to pursue this matter?"
I raked a distracted hand through my bangs. "Do I have a choice?"
"There is always a choice, Mr. Maxwell."
"Not in this case. So far, this thing has killed a friend of a friend, and a decent acquaintance. I'd hate to think that it's going to start hitting closer to home than that."
"In that case," Johannes said, "every resource that is mine is at your disposal."
It took me a long moment of staring at him to realize what he was saying. And then it smacked me between the eyes. "What, no qualifications?"
"Without exception, without reservation. I want what did this found, and I want to have a personal hand in its demise." With each word, Johannes rose a bit more from his chair until he was standing. His eyes seemed to spit sharp blue fire that burned with cold. My chair scraped across the floor as I backed away. Wufei was already on his feet. "Angelo was mine. Mine to raise, use, protect, punish, praise, and should I have deemed it fitting, kill. NO ONE will touch what is mine." He spun on his heel and stalked to a corner of the room, where he took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, then stood with the absolute stillness of death. "I apologize, Mr. Maxwell, for my lapse in control. This has been a rather trying time for us all."
"It's okay. I know what it's like to lose someone that you..." I hesitated, the word 'care' dying on my lips, "are responsible for," I ended diplomatically.
Johannes nodded and looked at us both, the death of ages in his eyes. "We discovered the body the evening after we'd been raided by one of Treize's wolf packs. They have moved deeply into my territory. I do not believe in coincidence, Mr. Maxwell."
Cold, grim anger settled into my gut. I wasn't sure if it was mine, or Johannes'. I wasn't sure it even mattered. "Neither do I," I said.