The Santanos building was deathly silent. Helene, her carrot red hair hastily drawn into a topknot, her smattering of freckles standing out against her paler than usual skin, stuck to the shadows. Her reflective eyes caught the light of the waning moon through the glass atrium. Getting in had been the easy part. Getting what she needed was the harder part. Her client had paid her more than she had asked for – which made her more than a touch curious about the object she was retrieving – and she wanted, more than anything else, to be able to pay her rent this month. Usually, she wouldn’t touch this kind of thing with a ten – hundred – foot pole. But she was the best in the retrieval business – she liked to think – and her nimble footed sureness ensured a high level of success.
It had taken a month of scoping out the building, learning the ins and outs of the Santanos security system with her intelligence contacts, and meeting with an inside informant. He called himself Monty and just wanted her to get him some wolfsbane in payment. She supposed that Santanos didn’t want its employees getting high, but it was a small price to pay for the information. She almost felt guilty that she was short-changing him. A wolf didn’t have to help a fox. But she reminded herself that she owed them nothing.
There was one man at the security desk, but she had already slipped the nightshade extract in his tea. That had taken some finagling – more bribery – and it was almost comical seeing his heavy body sprawled on the desk, the security footage playing in front of him. She’d put that on a loop too, but it would be a while before anyone noticed. Child’s play. She slid past, still in the shadows. The staircase was bathed in moonlight. This was a problem, but the lift was tucked to the left, in a dark hallway. She opted for the lift. At this time of night, past midnight, the only workers would be shut in their offices, and she had an excuse prepared. Monty had told her that they allowed outside help for construction, and there was a wing on the tenth floor undergoing such construction. She had forgotten her tools, naturally – they would believe that of a woman. She smiled to herself, white teeth in the darkness.
In the lift, she pressed the button for the tenth floor and the eleventh floor. Easy to explain if anyone got in. Her smile widened. Her breath hitched as the doors slid closed, and she expelled a breath. The floor numbers slid by – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – then stopped. She froze, and remembered herself, sliding backwards, leaning on the wall, and relaxing. A startled pair of grey-green eyes met hers, and a familiar scent of musk and wood assailed her nostrils. She tried not to sneeze. Wolves didn’t smell unpleasant, but their dominance demanded recognition, and she was damned if she was going to kowtow to this wolf in a suit. She smiled distantly.
‘Up or down?’ he asked.
‘Up. Tenth floor.’ She would get off and take the stairs. He frowned.
‘It’s closed for construction.’
‘I forgot my tools. Want to see ID?’
His eyes narrowed. ‘No.’ He pressed the button for the 11th floor. A prickle shivered up Helene’s spine. The doors slid close. The wolf had his back to her, but the scent of wood tickled her nostrils. The doors creaked open on the tenth floor, which was already a bad sign. She studied the scene that awaited her. A fine layer of white dust coated the plastic-sheeting on the floor. The sharp scent of fresh paint mingled with the overpowering fragrance of wolf and she fought harder not to sneeze.
‘Tenth floor,’ the man said, as if it wasn’t already obvious.
‘Thanks,’ she said, through gritted teeth. The man shot her an uncertain smile, which seemed laughable with the amount of authority he was throwing off.
‘Hope you find your tools.’ The doors slid shut.
She let out the breath she had been holding in and a dainty sneeze puffed up the dust on a shelf.
‘Ugh.’ She shook herself. Her skin was crawling with adrenaline. The windows were covered with plastic sheeting, but she could see the filtered lights of London twinkling through. She liked these hours – silent, dangerous, but full of possibility. Past the witching hour, when the sense of adventure deepened. She counted to ten and took the stairs up to the eleventh floor. The stairs were dark, and smelled strangely damp for such a new building. Pausing at the door, she peered through the narrow window into the corridor. It was dimly lit, but more like what she expected for the Santanos office building – utilitarian but richly furnished, with plush grey carpet, heavy doors, and, of course, a top notch security system with fingerprinting and keypads. Not a problem. She put on a pair of black gloves from her pack.
The door opened with a slight scratching sound on the carpet. Again, she counted the seconds, listening for any movement. She heard the sighs of an employee, a slurping that sounded like a drink through a straw, and the tapping of keys, but all at the other end of the hall. Satisfied, she checked the soles of her boots. Clean. Wedging the door open with a small piece of cardboard, she made her way down the hall with her back to the wall. Room 1145 was right in the middle of the corridor. Listening to any sign of occupation, her keen eyes studied the lock. She took out the container with the fingerprint impression. Nobody was in the room – no breathing, no murmur of conversation, no tapping keys. She tapped in the combination and pressed the fingerprint to the screen. For a moment, the light stuck on red. She held her breath. A beat or two, and it flashed to green. She exhaled. A latch sliding, a slight release of air, and the door opened. Light clicked on, and Helene froze, mid movement.
A book sat on a pedestal, bound in cracked, dark leather, illuminated by a soft light. A golden crest was embossed deeply into the middle of the cover, a bird with its wings splayed open, and flames underneath. The rest of the room was dark, with bundled objects and books lining the shelving. Helene relaxed. Just automatic light. The book was what her client wanted. She eyed it. It appeared inanimate, though a shivery energy faintly pulsed through the room, radiating out from the pedestal. Gently, she pulled the door shut. The temperature of the room appeared to drop, just by a degree, and a gust of air blew Helene’s hair back. Circling the pedestal, she considered her options. She was wearing gloves, but that rarely counted when dealing with dangerous magical objects. She would need something to neutralise, or at least mask, the magic whilst she was transporting it. Maybe there was something on the rest of the shelves she could use to transport it – she didn’t trust just the fabric of her pack between herself and the book. The longer she was in its presence, the more the hair stood up on the back of her neck. The room was electric with magic.
This was a time when she fervently wished she had erred on the side of caution and procured a dampening spell. She didn’t work well with magic – it had a tendency to do strange things around her, as if it was commenting on her brand of shifter magic. Foxes worked alone, unlike the prides and packs of cats and wolves. Her glinting eyes examined the shelves, binocular vision shifting in and out on oddly shaped packages. In the corner, there were a number of crates of differing sizes, all empty. Shuffling around, she found one that was roughly the size of the book. Pulling a discarded sheet from the floor, she took a couple of steps closer to the book. Whispering filled the room. Helene blinked. The whispering stopped.
A door at the other end of the hall creaked open, and Helene’s eyes widened. The shuffle of footsteps paused outside the room she was in. Melting behind the shelves, she held her breath. The door latch slid open, and the wolf from the lift came in the room. His eyes scanned the shelves, pausing where she was. He sniffed the air, and frowned. He took another step into the room, a pinpoint focus on where she was. She didn’t dare move or let out her breath. Clattering came from the hallway, and the wolf’s head snapped around. He strode into the hall, and she heard his sharp intake of breath. The door closed behind him, and the light went off. A moment later, she could hear him berating someone in the hallway, and two sets of feet moving off. Releasing her breath in a quiet exhale, she waited until the hammering of her heart stilled into a slow rhythm.
She couldn’t afford another interruption, so she worked quickly. In the darkness, the static magic of the book was stronger, but less focused. She draped the sheet over it, lifting it from the pedestal, and wrapped it gently, depositing it in the small crate. No alarm went off, no security guards burst in, but she was all too aware of her bad luck dealing with these kinds of object, so she pulled open her pack and put her jacket on top, along with a few building tools she had pilfered from Tess. She wouldn’t miss them – her basement was rarely used. At least not used for what basements were usually used for. The static had vanished, apart from a low hum that shivered over Helene whenever she moved. It wasn’t unpleasant, just unwelcome. She couldn’t wait to hand it over to the client and be done with it.
Once again, she listened for movement in the hall. Two voices could be heard arguing at the end, nearer the exit to the lifts. It would have to be the stairway again. At least it would mean she could cover herself in dust as part of her alibi. She pushed the door open, and after scanning the hall, crept slowly towards the stairwell. The voices paused in their arguing. If she had been in fox form, she would have been able to make out what they were saying, but she understood that this silence meant haste, and she almost leapt down the hall, pulled the door open one-handed, kicked the sliver of cardboard down the stairs and didn’t look back.
The tenth floor was plunged into darkness, and it took a few moments for her eyes to adjust. Her heart jumped as the staircase rattled, and pinpricks of alarm shivered down her arms. She backed herself into the small space underneath the staircase and covered herself with a sheet. A thud, and footsteps padded over the dusty sheets. The tickling scent of pine assaulted her nostrils, and once again, she held her breath. The wolf. She thought fast. It would be suspicious if she was hiding, better to continue with her deception. Pulling the sheet off slowly, she waited a moment, and stepped out.
‘Oh, excuse me, I was just about to leave,’ she said, balancing the box on her hips. He turned to face her, eyes narrowed.
‘Ah, it’s you. Find your tools, did you?’ He indicated the box.
‘Yes. Sorry to be so much trouble,’ she said. He stood right between her and the lift. She leaned back slightly, trying to look relaxed.
‘You haven’t seen anyone else around here?’
‘Someone else? No. I did hear a strange noise – over there,’ she said, pointing towards the exit down the corridor.
‘Interesting. Well, I mustn’t keep you.’ He scanned her again, with calculating eyes. A shiver threatened to make its way down her spine. Finally, he nodded, and made way for her. As she passed, he seemed to lean in a little closer, as if he was trying to place her scent. ‘Wait,’ he said.
She froze. ‘Yes?’
‘May I check your box before you leave? Just a precaution.’
Her grip on the box tightened. ‘Oh, it’s just tools. But sure.’ She released her grip and passed the box over. He put it on a small trestle table and checked the top layer, underneath the sheet. He picked up a wrench, balancing it in his hand. Swallowing, she watched as he put it back in the box and picked up another tool. Frowning, he held it up.
‘What is this?’
‘Uh, a multifunctional plier cutter. I modified it myself.’ She wasn’t lying. It had saved her many a time she needed to cut windows for some of her great escapes.
‘Interesting.’ As he was just about to pull the rest of the pile up, she gasped. His head snapped round.
‘Oh! I just – I just saw a shadow. Over there.’ She pointed to the other end of the corridor again. ‘It looked like – a – you’ll laugh.’
‘Like a what?’
‘A fox or something. I hope you don’t have an infestation,’ she said. ‘They can be vicious. I once had to work on a site overrun by them. We had such trouble, but it turned out that we’d been building over a nest. It’s unfair to label them as pests when we’re building over their homes. But, yes, so vicious when cornered.’ She sighed. ‘You better call pest removal. Just to be on the safe side.’
The wolf’s nose was wrinkled, as if he smelled something bad. ‘Yes, you’re right. Foxes are a menace,’ he said. He took a cursory glance at the box. ‘Well, all seems to be in order. You can go,’ he said. He handed it back to her, and rubbed his hands on a handkerchief. The static of his gaze followed her all the way down to where the lift stood open.
It wasn’t until the doors closed that she exhaled in one long gust. As the numbers rolled down, she couldn’t get the sense of being marked out of her mind. It was only her acting skills and her cunning that got her out of these situations. Her mother had drilled into her the importance of keeping a sharp mind and a keen eye. Survival depended on it, in a world of wolf packs and cat prides.
The security guard was still out. The screens had gone black, but maybe he would put it down to a power cut. Better that than have him awake to a looped image. Out on the street, she pulled up her hood, and strolled down the silver-lit street towards Bloomsbury, and The Green Fairy café. Her client was waiting. She broke into a smile, and fled towards her quarry.