They called Midland the Tall City because of the downtown, where brick-and-steel stalagmites poked at the sky. The office buildings Nathan was headed toward weren't skyscrapers by any means, but in the middle of the flattest, most featureless land on the continent, they did stick out. To Nathan's mind the skyline looked like it was giving heaven the finger.
He kept that observation to himself. Religion turned some folks belligerent.
He was headed back to the sheriff's office, the hum in his blood clearer to him than the hum of his car's engine. His trip to the service station that morning had led to another lead, then another. Eventually he'd learned where Jimmy Shaw had spent his last night on Earth.
He'd been able to pursue those leads because Sheriff Browning had released him from desk duty for the duration of the investigation. That sort of pragmatic flexibility was one reason Nathan had lingered here longer than was probably wise. But only one.
Since his stranding, Nathan had been many things – mercenary, guard, rag man, monk, tinker, riverboat pilot, and more. So many more. In his last persona he'd been a private investigator, specializing in finding lost children.
He'd found them, of course. It was impossible to shift a hellhound from a trail he'd been set to – even, Nathan had discovered, when he'd been set to the trail by no one but himself. It had taken him a long time to learn how to put himself to the hunt when there was no true prey, but it had been worth the effort. Finding the children had been good. Satisfying. Even when they'd been brutalized, he'd been able to return them to people who loved them.
Sometimes there had been no living child to find, only a body – killed by exposure, by mischance, or by malice. All too often, by malice. When that happened, he'd hunted their killers.
Those had been true hunts.
Humans were peculiar. They were by turns squeamish and appallingly violent. Eventually Nathan had concluded it was their very bloodthirstiness that made them erect so many legal and social barriers against culling the vicious from their midst. They didn't trust themselves to stop with the obviously evil.
So he'd hunted the child killers in secret. Eventually he'd been caught – or as good as, since he'd had to abandon that persona. Eighteen years later, Colorado still had an outstanding warrant for Samuel Jager. The legal system might be ineffective, but it was tenacious.
It had taken time to build a new identity. The current age had much to recommend it – indoor plumbing, cell phones, various advances in medicine. He considered cars and television mixed blessings, and had grown to like computers, though airplanes were an obvious mistake. Humans were inexplicably fond of them, but Nathan had no intention of meeting death while strapped in a giant metal coffin hurtling through the air at the behest of some stranger.
But technology was seriously inconvenient when it came time to reconstruct himself. That was another reason he'd put off leaving Midland – the sheer nuisance of creating a new identity. But again, it was not the whole story.
He liked police work. It was a restful job, at least in Midland. He seldom dealt with real ugliness, and he worked mostly in the open. He liked being part of a team, able to contribute to the common good. If he ached sometimes for a real hunt, if his particular skills were seldom needed, he had a place here. Even those who noticed that he was different didn't always shun him for it.
And there, of course, was the rest of the story. He'd been ready to leave eighteen months ago, needing a true hunt. Needing to return to his purpose. He'd met Kai and decided to stay awhile longer.
His heartbeat picked up. He'd told her. He could scarcely believe he'd done it, yet it felt right. She'd been shocked, yes, but not repelled. He could swear she hadn't been repelled. Even if she no longer wanted to be lovers, she would remain his friend.
But the timing... ah, Lord of Luck, why now? After all the aching years, would his exile end when he'd found a reason to stay?
There was little he could do about that. He'd never known the day or hour when his time here would be over. He still didn't, so he set that thought aside and focused on his hunt. But the tangle of hope and fear remained, along with both yearnings – one old, one new. And opposed to each other.
He would, he thought as his car bumped over the train tracks, probably be rewarded for his candor with a host of questions. His lips quirked. Kai obviously had no idea what a hellhound was. Or much notion of what the sidhe were, much less the wild sidhe.
Questions would be all right. He pulled into his slot in front of the cream-colored building that housed the sheriff's department. Questions would be fine, as long as she remained his friend. He believed... hoped... she would.
He climbed out and set off on foot for one of Midland's institutions – a watering hole called The Bar. It was only half a mile away, on the other side of the railroad tracks. Jimmy Shaw had spent his last night on Earth there.
This was one of the peculiarities others noticed about him – his penchant for walking whenever possible. Pedestrians were regarded with some suspicion in Midland, but walking was a habit he'd been unwilling to give up. He couldn't see the point in shutting himself up in a vehicle any more often than he had to, doing damage to the earth and the air in order to avoid using his body.
People did just that all the time, though. Most claimed they needed to save time. It was true they had little enough of that – their lives were so soon ended. But Nathan didn't see them treating time as precious otherwise. They'd sit in their cars at a fast-food place for fifteen minutes when it would be quicker to park and go inside.
No, he blamed the modern culture of urgency. Only the most urgent sensations, emotions, and situations were considered important. They called it living life to the fullest. Not surprisingly, many sought numbness in alcohol or the pervasive voyeurism of reality TV, while others tried to live a perpetual peak experience through drugs, sex, or celebrity. Ordinary lives, ordinary living, had little value.
Nathan thought people needed to wash dishes by hand sometimes. Prepare their own meals more often. And take walks.
The Bar was a flat, fading structure with little to recommend it from the outside. Inside it was dim and smelled of grilled hamburgers and beer. The five-o'clockers hadn't hit yet, so there weren't many customers. It still took the manager several minutes to find time for him.
The woman was over fifty and over six feet, with poufy hair and lips greased to an immaculate shine. "Jackie Montoya," she said, holding out a hand. "I'm night manager. Is there a problem?"
"No, ma'am." She had a good handshake, firm without trying to prove anything, and she didn't hold on too long. "I'm Sergeant Hunter. I've got some questions about one of your customers last night. Jimmie Shaw."
Her glossy lips tightened. "Look, I want to help and all that, but I already told that other officer all I knew."
Nathan let that sink in a beat. "Other officer?"
"The detective. Cox, Fox – something like that. Little guy with a shiny face."
"That's him. He's already got his witness, so I don't see what more I can do for you."
The flush of anger took a second to dissipate enough for Nathan to speak calmly. "I apologize for the inconvenience, ma'am. I know you're busy, but I do have to ask some questions. Is there someplace quiet we could talk?"
She heaved a sigh, looked around, and grimaced. "Might as well make it my office. Your uniform puts some of my customers off. Come on."
She set a quick pace in spite of the heels that must kill her feet by the end of the night. Nathan followed.
Her office was a tiny, cluttered cubby just past the rest-rooms. It stank of ashes and cigarette smoke. She shifted a pile of computer printouts off the wooden chair and told him to have a seat. He did.
Immediately she lit a cigarette. "Okay. Like I told the other guy, Jimmy's a regular. He doesn't – didn't – come in every day, like some. Doesn't work downtown, does he? But he has – had – a taste for the panty hose crowd, if you get what I mean. Women in heels with office jobs. Did pretty well with them, too."
"How did he do last night?"
Her smile was quick and cocky. "Just fine." The smile died. "Or not so fine, maybe, if she's the one who killed him. He left with her about midnight."
"Well, I didn't know her – don't think I've ever seen her in here before. But Ed Bates did. He's a real regular, in here every night, and he knew her, see? That's why that detective took Ed with him, so he could make a statement. Lord, but Ed'll be full of himself." She inhaled hard enough to sink her cheeks in, then blew the smoke out her nose. "If she turns out to be your killer, he's going to be dining out on his story for months."
"Did you learn the name of this woman?"
"I heard Ed telling the detective about her. We all did. She's the one who did his therapy after he totaled his pickup a few months ago." She paused, puffing. "Some kind of weird-ass name. I can't quite call it to mind, but it sounded foreign."
"Kai?" he asked, his hear pounding. "Was the name Kai Michalski?"
"That's her." Satisfied, she mashed out the stub of her cigarette. "That's the name of the bitch who did that poor boy in."
Between patients, Kai surfed the Internet.
Hellhounds, it turned out, did not have a great rep. Not here, anyway. Maybe in other realms they were considered upright or cuddly or commonplace. Here they showed up in role-playing games as monsters. They were popular in comic books, too, generally as minions of the devil. Of course, those weren't reliable sources – a search on her own name would suggest she was Japanese, Hawaiian, or a character in a violent video game. But they indicated the general outlook.
Her dictionary, consulted on the run, hadn't been much help. It described a hellhound as "a mythical watchdog of hell." Obviously Nathan was no myth, but she couldn't hold it against the dictionary for getting that part wrong. When it was printed, lots of things were considered myth that turned out to be true, like dragons. But they were just as wrong with the "of hell" part.
At least, she hoped they were. Hell. Hellhound. The connection was obvious, but had to be a mistake, a misnaming. Nothing good came from hell.
Hell itself was misnamed, of course, if by that you meant the demon realm, not a final resting place for sinners. Anglos had long since muddied the two, but Dine tradition held that demons came from another world. Nor was it the same realm elves lived in. Kai was sure of that.
Almost sure. It had been years since Grandfather taught her the stories, and few of them involved the far people, the Navajo term for elves.
She liked Wikipedia's entry better. It mentioned the mythical guardian of the gates of hell, too, but it also spoke of spectral hounds who haunted spots in Great Britain. That didn't seem to apply to Nathan, who was hardly spectral. But it went on to say that hellhounds were part of the Wild Hunt.
The Hunt was connected to Faerie, not hell. She was seriously fuzzy on what the connection was, but she knew that much. And Nathan's surname was Hunter.
But she wasn't going to know, dammit. Not until she saw him again and could ask. At the time, she'd barely been able to stammer, "What? You're what?"
Nathan had just looked at her with that sad smile and said they would talk later, when she'd had a chance to think things over. He had duties he needed to tend to. And he'd gotten in his car and driven off.
What was she supposed to think over? She wasn't even sure what a hellhound was! Some sort of supernatural dog, yes, and she had to admit that was a breath stealer, but he wasn't a dog now.
Or maybe he was a part-time dog. Did he Change when he wanted to, like lupi? Or according to some involuntary, arcane schedule? Full moons, eclipses, leap years, alternate Wednesdays...
Part of the sidhe, he'd said. The wild sidhe.
Kai was in her cubby at the clinic looking up "sidhe" on her laptop when Ginger stuck her head in the door. "Good grief, are you still working? It's nearly five. Shake a leg or we'll be late."
Late? Oh, yeah. "The rally. I'd forgotten. I'm not sure – "
"You're going," her friend told her sternly. "Come on."