Excerpt From Unleashed

A fresh breeze, carrying a saltwater tang, pushed inland from across the ocean. The sky had just turned that purplish hue of dusk, and the top of the Golden Gate Bridge was just visible over the tops of the trees. A fine San Francisco evening, perfect for sightseers, dog walkers, and lovers. And hunters.

Somewhere in the undergrowth and tangled brush, the creature waited for us. Victor was over to my left, carrying the sawed-off shotgun. Not much of a weapon if you need to aim, but for close-up work it’s unbeatable. Lou ranged ahead, light on his paws, using only his dog senses for once. His magical talents were useless in tracking this thing, but he still had those sharp ears and even sharper sense of smell.

He moved his head from side to side, nose twitching, constantly testing the air. Victor watched intently, and when Lou finally stopped and focused on a particular patch of thick brush, he moved up behind him. He motioned for me to hang back—the last thing he wanted was for me to be anywhere near the line of fire. A sawed-off shotgun sprays pellets like a garden hose, and even if you’re not directly in the line of fire you can be struck anyway. And since each double-ought pellet is roughly the size of a .32 bullet, even one of them can kill you.

I didn’t have a gun. My job was to take care of the magical side of things. The creature wasn’t much affected by any use of magical talent, but situations can still arise where a clever spell might come in handy.

The patch of brush was edged by tall leafy trees, a pocket of wildness on the edge of the urban landscape. Lou edged closer, but he looked puzzled, as if he’d picked up the scent, then lost it. Maybe the thing had slipped away once again. We’d been hunting it for months, off and on, without success. It was as smart as it was vicious.

Victor moved toward the underbrush, shotgun held easily at hip level, ready to swivel in any direction. He stopped well before he reached the tangle of bushes; shotgun or no, he wasn’t pushing his way into an overgrown space where anything lying in wait would have every advantage.

I don’t know if Victor heard something or if a sixth sense kicked in, but he suddenly glanced up and then dove sideways just as the thing dropped down from an overhead tree branch. It aimed for his shoulders, hoping to get its muzzle close to his throat. That would have been the end of that story. It missed, but even so it raked his arms on the way past and knocked the shotgun flying. It was up and at him again in an instant, a blur of claws and teeth and snarls. Lou charged forward and tried for a back leg, but Victor and the creature were rolling on the ground, momentarily inseparable. I ran toward the shotgun and scooped it up. The shot pattern wouldn’t spread if I could press the muzzle right into the creature. All I’d need was a moment’s separation between the two. It saw me coming with the shotgun and broke off the attack, darting into the cover of the bushes. Victor hauled himself up into a sitting position and gasped something I couldn’t catch. He shook his head as I approached him and reached out his hand.

“Mason. Give me the gun,” he finally got out. “It may come back.”

Clearly he thought he was better able to handle the threat, torn up as he was, than a healthy Mason would be. He might have been right.

“How bad is it?” I asked, squatting down and handing over the shotgun, wincing as I watched blood dripping onto the ground beside him.

“I’ve been better.” He’d managed to protect his vital parts, but his right leg was a mess of blood and torn tissue. The fabric of his black jeans hung in shredded strips. “Hiding in the tree,” he muttered, half talking to me, half to himself. “How could I have been so dumb? Rookie mistake. Look up, always look up.”

It took him ten minutes to be convinced the creature wasn’t returning. Lou sat next to him, keeping guard as well. Victor kept hold of the shotgun the whole time, but he was beginning to have trouble holding it. Blood loss was rapidly weakening him. Finally, he reluctantly handed it to me and tried to climb to his feet. His leg, not surprisingly, gave way and I had to catch him to keep him from falling over.

“Might be time to go home,” he said.

“Yeah, sure. A good night’s sleep is all you need.”

“I’ll survive.”

“Sorry,” I said. “We’ve got to make a quick stop first.” He looked at me suspiciously.

“Where?”

“It’s a special place, one you may have heard of. It’s called a hospital emergency room.”

CHAPTER TWO

You might suppose that all ER rooms are much the same, but they’re not. San Francisco General is like the ones you see on TV—gunshot victims, knife wounds, heart attack patients staggering in clutching their chests and gasping for air. Luckily, we were over at UCSF on Parnassus, a kinder and gentler place. Victor wasn’t the kind and gentle sort, however. He never is, but right now he was more pissed than usual since the lower half of his left leg was shredded, almost to the bone in places. His pants leg was now soaked through with blood, which was the only reason he’d finally agreed to an ER room visit.

“Pit bull attack,” I explained to the admitting nurse.

If only that had been true. Victor had been savaged by something far worse, and it was my fault, at least in part.

“Did you notify Animal Control?” the admitting nurse asked. He seemed genuinely concerned.

“Not yet,” I said. “It ran off and I was too busy getting my friend over here to even think about that.”

After months spent hunting the creature off and on, this time we had almost got it. We’d started taking an interest in tracking it when odd stories about mutilated pets had begun to surface in the newspapers. We were fairly sure we knew what was responsible for those attacks. But it didn’t become a priority for us until it started attacking Ifrits whenever it could. And now, it had apparently started targeting people as well. That’s when we had got serious about it.

But we hadn’t been able to track it down. It was fast and it was smart. Being smart was a given, seeing it was an Ifrit of sorts. Not a real Ifrit, like Lou, but the product of an incautious incantation by some very peculiar individuals. I had been instrumental in bringing them what they needed to accomplish it, and so I felt it was partly my responsibility.

True Ifrits are small—seldom over ten pounds or so, although Lou, my Ifrit, was twelve and would have been twenty if I’d let him eat every time he felt like it. They are companions to practitioners—the lucky ones at least. Not everyone has one, although all practitioners wish they did. The reasons why Ifrits are relatively rare are still not clear, although we’d come up with some interesting theories lately.

Most Ifrits take the form of cats or other small animals; a few, like Lou, are small dogs. Lou looks just like a shrunken-down Doberman with uncropped ears and tail, black with a tan chest patch and muzzle and eyebrow markings. But he’s not a dog, not really.

The creature we were hunting was more like forty pounds. That may not sound very impressive, but your average wolverine weighs no more than forty pounds, either, and they can tear through the roof of a mountain cabin and have been known to drive an adult bear away from a tasty carcass. And I had no doubt this thing could have taken a wolverine in a fight.

If it had been only an animal, even a smart one, there would have been no problem. Animals just want to be left alone; they don’t plot revenge or possess agendas. But it was more than that, and psychotic as well. It killed just to kill, and it had an unquenchable hatred for true Ifrits.

An orderly helped Victor onto a gurney and rolled him into a side room. Sometimes it pays to be compact—Victor fit on the gurney quite nicely. My feet would have been hanging over the end. Victor was looking drawn and wan, a far cry from his usual dapper self. His face was ashen and his close-cut beard showed dark against his pale skin. That skin was drawn tight across his face, so tight that the cheekbones looked as if they were about to burst right through. Below his left eye, a muscle twitched. The only other time I’d seen a twitch like that on his face was when he’d been trying to restrain himself from killing someone. But he was still Victor, in complete control of his emotions even with a mangled leg. An ER doc stopped by for a quick look.

“Let’s see what we’ve got here,” he said, lifting the sheet.

He spoke with that practiced, casual air of competence good doctors have, meant to reassure the patient that however bad it is, it can be fixed. You know it’s an act, but it’s reassuring nonetheless. But his involuntary intake of breath when he saw the leg dispelled that illusion. He took only a brief look before shaking his head.

“I’m afraid you’re going to need a plastic surgeon,” he said. “That’s a little beyond me.” He looked at the leg more carefully. “You say a dog did that? Hard to believe. Looks more like that mountain lion that’s been making news.”

Victor didn’t argue. He’s a master at saying just the right thing to avoid problems with civilians. “I know,” he said. “Jim Schenkman is a personal friend of mine, and I’ll be seeing him first thing tomorrow. All I need is some basic suturing until then.”

I had no idea who Jim Schenkman was, but the ER doctor clearly did.

“That’s a break,” the doc said. “That’s who I’d want working on me. But I’m afraid suturing won’t be enough. You need to be admitted to the hospital. If we don’t get you into surgery fairly quickly, you’re going to lose that leg.”

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Victor said.

The doc stared at him as if he were insane. He tried to explain why going home wasn’t an option, and another doc came by to back him up. Victor didn’t argue, but he wasn’t about to spend the night in the hospital. He just nodded agreeably and waited for them to run down.

Victor might or might not actually know this Schenkman guy, but that wasn’t who he was going to be seeing anyway. I’d already called Campbell, my ex, and she was on her way down from Soda Springs. She’s the best healer around, and once Victor’s leg was stabilized, she’d be able to do more for him than any plastic surgeon. Without her, he might well lose his leg, even with the best of surgeons available. She wouldn’t be able to heal it overnight; the leg was too damaged even for her, but she could make it whole and cut his recovery time from months to a week or so. In theory. After I got a good look at the leg I wondered if the damage might not be too much even for her.

It was three hours before the staff was satisfied they’d done all they could for the present. They weren’t happy when Victor insisted on leaving, and the ER doc actually swore at him, but there wasn’t anything they could do keep him there. Despite what they like you to think, if you’re determined to leave, there’s not a thing they can do to stop you, even if it means you’ll die soon after.

While they worked on Victor, I picked up a tattered newspaper from the lounge and spent some of that time rereading what I’d already seen that morning.

THIRD MOUNTAIN LION VICTIM DIES

Cathy Brougham, 22, is the latest victim to die from a vicious mountain lion attack. While hiking Tuesday in the East Bay near Mount Diablo State Park she vanished, failing to return home that night. Her body, mauled almost beyond recognition, was discovered early Wednesday morning by another hiker.

Two other hikers believe they may have seen her on a hiking trail at dusk on Tuesday.

Farther down on the page, an interview with a park ranger explained what to do if you meet a lion—wave your arms, yell, try to appear large, never turn your back—all useful bits of advice. But only if it’s really a mountain lion. I knew better.

The ranger also said he’d never seen a lion do anything like that before. The injuries were more consistent with a bear attack, he said, but noted there hadn’t been a fatal bear attack in California in more than a century. Two of the attacks had been in the East Bay Hills, and one had been in Marin. Nothing in the city so far—maybe the creature was smart enough to know that would bring more heat than it could handle. Usually Lou could have tracked it down for us—he can find almost anything. But this creature was a distorted version of an Ifrit, with some of the same qualities. It was resistant to magical energy, and that messed with Lou’s tracking radar. The only reason we’d been able to find it at all was a brief story in the paper about a man who swore he’d seen a wolverine near the Presidio. He’d been ignored, most people chalking up his story to mountain lion hysteria.

When we were ready to leave, my old battered van came in useful for once. A hospital orderly helped me load Victor into the back of the van where he could lie flat without having to bend his leg. The ER doc had given Victor a scrip for Demerol, which showed how serious he though the pain was going to be. Victor wouldn’t fill it though. He thought using drugs to deal with a problem of any sort was a sign of moral weakness, although he wasn’t above using talent to dull his pain. I didn’t see the difference, except that while talent isn’t available to ordinary citizens are. But that’s Victor.

A half hour later we were back at his Victorian house out by Ocean Beach. It’s a beautiful place, a mansion really, but it seems a bit out of place for the neighborhood. I didn’t find out the truth about it until I’d known him quite a while. In reality, it had been built not that many years ago from plans Victor had brought back from England when he’d lived there. So it really was a faux Victorian, complete with gables, windows overlooking the Pacific, and authentic period furniture. It must have cost a fortune to build, but Victor has never had any money concerns.

I helped him up the stairs, moving one step at a time. He stretched out onto the couch in his study, extending the damaged leg and sighing with relief. For once neither one of us was sniping at each other—I was shaken by the viciousness of the attack on him and even the usually unflappable Victor was subdued by the extent of the damage to his leg.

Maggie, Victor’s Ifrit, stalked over and looked at me as if somehow I was responsible for the situation. Being a cat—well, sort of—she believed the proper assignation of blame is always the most important thing. Lou quietly backed out of the way. She and Lou don’t get along particularly well, though they tend to set up an informal truce whenever there’s real trouble.

The three hours we’d spent in the ER had given Campbell just enough time to make it down from her cabin in Soda Springs, up by Donner Summit. She breezed in ten minutes later, gave me an abstracted wave, and immediately went to Victor’s side. His leg was wrapped in bandages from the ER, which had to be removed before she could assess the damage. She looked at the leg and drew in her breath exactly like the ER doc had done.

“Wow,” she said, slipping off the backpack that carried the tools of her trade. “I’m surprised they let you leave.”

“They can’t actually keep you there against your will,” I said. “And even if they could, well, it is Victor after all. Can you fix this?”

She threw me an annoyed glance. Campbell hates it when I referred to healing abilities as “fixing” things. She doesn’t consider herself a practitioner as such, not the way Victor and Eli and I do. She’s a healer more in the Wiccan tradition, although she’d fallen away from that lately. She couldn’t create illusions or aversion shields. She couldn’t animate the inanimate or perform magical forensics, or do any of the things Victor and I could. But what she could do was heal, using plants and a great deal of personal energy, and she was far better at it than I could ever dream of being.

But this time she was too shaken to even comment on how I’d phrased it. She kept shaking her head, looking doubtful. Campbell is confident in her own abilities, and rightfully so. And if she was worried . . . “Well?” I said, suddenly a lot more worried than I had been. Maybe Victor really would lose the leg.

“Piece of cake,” she said, almost bitterly, which was very unlike her. “That is, if we’re talking about a five-tiered wedding cake that takes two days to create. I had no idea it was going to be this bad.” Only Victor seemed unaffected.

“Do what you can,” he said.

Campbell pressed her lips tightly together. Then she nodded slightly as if having an internal dialogue with herself, and the worry lines on her face smoothed out.

“I’m going to need some special materials I don’t have with me.”

“I’m guessing it’s not anything that will be available at the local Safeway,” I said.

“No, not exactly. But I do know where to get what I’ll need.” She turned to Victor. “Are you going to be all right alone for a while?”

“Of course,” he said. “Timothy should be home soon, anyway.”

Timothy, somewhat to my surprise, was still hanging in there—in fact, it was taking on all the aspects of a real relationship. After years of clueless twinks, Victor finally had met a real person. Now, Timothy wasn’t exactly in love, as far as I could tell, but he did really like Victor. He refused to take any of his crap, though. Maybe that’s the kind of person Victor had been waiting for.

I wasn’t much of one to judge. My own relationships haven’t turned out so well, Campbell being one notable example. But at least we were still friends, and there was clearly still something between us. We’d both been through some changes, and although we never talked about it, there was that someday possibility hanging around. And surely if Victor could find someone, there was hope yet even for me. At least I’m easier to get along with than he is. I think.

“Okay, then,” Campbell said. “We’ll be back in a while...”