Excerpt


CHAPTER 1
People do bizarre things to amuse themselves, but this illegal
cockatrice-fighting ring was one of the strangest pastimes I had
ever seen.
Rusty, the full-time werewolf who raised the hideous creatures
and threw them together in the ring for sport, had hired
me to be on the lookout for "suspicious behavior." So, there I
stood in an abandoned warehouse among crowds of unnaturals
who were placing bets and watching chicken-dragon-viper
monstrosities tear each other apart.
What could possibly be suspicious about that?
No case was too strange for Chambeaux & Deyer Investigations,
so I agreed to keep my eyes open. "You'll have a great
time, Mister Shamble," Rusty said in his usual growling voice.
"Tonight is family night."
"It's Chambeaux," I corrected him, though the mispronunciation
may have been the result of him talking through all
those teeth in his mouth, rather than not actually knowing my
name.
Rusty was a gruff, barrel-chested werewolf with a full
head—and I mean full head—of bristling reddish fur that stuck
out in all directions. He wore bib overalls and sported large tattoos
on the meat of his upper arms (although his thick fur hid
most of them). He raised cockatrices in run-down coops in his
backyard.
Cockatrice fighting had been denounced by many animal
rights groups. (Most of the activists, however, were unfamiliar
with the mythological bestiary. Despite having no idea what a
cockatrice was, they were sure "cockatrice fighting" must be a
bad thing from the sound of it.) I wasn't one to pass judgment;
when ranked among unsavory activities in the Unnatural Quarter,
this one didn't even make the junior varsity team.
Rusty insisted cockatrice fighting was big business, and he
had offered me an extra ticket so Sheyenne, my ghost girlfriend,
could join me. I declined on her behalf. She's not much
of a sports fan.
In the cavernous warehouse, the unsettling ambient noise
reflected back, making the crowd sound twice as large as it really
was. Spectators cheered, growled, howled, or made whatever
sound was appropriate to their particular unnatural species,
getting ready for the evening's show. Several furtive humans
also came to place bets and watch the violence, while hoping
that violence didn't get done to them in the dark underbelly of
the Quarter.
This crowd didn't come to see and be seen. I tried to blend
in with the other sports fans; nobody noticed an undead guy in
a bullet-riddled sport jacket. Thanks to an excellent embalming
job and good hygiene habits, I'm a well-preserved zombie, and
I work hard to maintain my physical condition so that I can
pass for mostly human. Mostly.
Previously, the warehouse had hosted illegal raves, and I
could imagine the thunderously monotonous booming beat accompanied
by migraine-inducing strobe lights. After the rave
craze ended, the warehouse manager had been happy to let the
space be used for the next best thing.
The center of attention was a high-walled enclosure that
might have been designed as a skateboard park for lawn gnomes.
The barricades were high enough that snarling, venomous cockatrices
could not leap over them and attack the audience—in
theory at least. Although, as Rusty explained it, a few bloodthirsty
attendees took out long-shot wagers that such a disaster
would indeed happen; those bettors generally kept to the back
rows.
While Rusty was in back wrangling the cockatrice cages to
prepare the creatures for the match, his bumbling nephew Furguson
went among the crowds with his notepad and tickets,
taking bets. Lycanthropy doesn't run in families, but the story I
heard was that Rusty had gone on a bender and collapsed half
on and half off his bed. While trying to make his uncle more
comfortable, Furguson had been so clumsy that he scratched
and infected himself on the claws. Watching the gangly young
werewolf go about his business now, I was inclined to accept
that as an operating theory.
The fight attendees held tickets, scraps of paper, and printed
programs listing the colorful names of the cockatrice combatants—
Sour Lemonade, Hissy Fit, Snarling Shirley, and so on.
The enthusiasts were a motley assortment of vampires, zombies,
mummies, trolls, and a big ogre with a squeaky voice who
took up three times as much space as any other audience member.
I saw werewolves of both types—full-time full-furred wolf-men
(affectionately, or deprecatingly, called "Hairballs" by the
other type), and the once-a-month werewolves who transformed
only under a full moon but looked human most of the
time (called "Monthlies" by the other side). They were all werewolves
to me, but there had been friction between the two
breeds for years, and it was only growing worse.
It's just human, or inhuman, nature: People will find a way
to make a big deal out of their differences—the smaller, the better.
It reminded me of the Montagues and the Capulets (if I
wanted to think highbrow), or the Hatfields and the McCoys
(if I wanted to go lowbrow) ... or the Jets and the Sharks (if I
happened to feel musical).
Rusty had asked me to pay particularly close attention to
two burly Monthlies, heavily tattooed "bad biker" types named
Scratch and Sniff. Even in their non-lycanthropic forms, and
even among the crowd of monsters, these two were intimidating.
They wore thick, dirty fur overcoats that they claimed were
made of Hairball pelts—no, nothing provocative there!—coated
with road dust and stained with blotches that looked like clotted
blood.
Untransformed, Scratch wore big, bristly Elvis sideburns
and a thick head of dark brown hair in an old-fashioned DA
hairstyle; apparently, he thought this made him look tough like
James Dean, but it actually succeeded only in mimicking
Arthur Fonzarelli in his later shark-jumping days. His friend
Sniff shaved his head for a Mr. Clean look, but he made up for
it once a month when his entire body exploded in thick fur. His
lower face, though, was covered with a heavy beard; he had a
habit of stroking it with his fingers, then sniffing them as if to
remind himself of what he had eaten last. Both had complex
tattoo designs on their arms, necks, and probably other places
that I did not want to imagine.
Known troublemakers, Scratch and Sniff liked to bash their
victims' heads just to see what might come out. They frequently
caused problems at the cockatrice fights, but since they
placed large bets, Rusty tolerated them.
In recent fights, however, a lot of the money had disappeared
from the betting pool, as much as 20 percent. Rusty was
sure that Scratch and Sniff were somehow robbing the pot, and
I was supposed to catch them. Now, these two struck me as
likely perpetrators of all manner of crimes, but they didn't look
to be the subtle types who would discreetly skim 20 percent of
anything. My guess, they would have taken the whole pot of
money and stormed away with as much ruckus as possible.
Furguson wandered among the crowd, recording the bets on
his notepad, then accepting wads of bills and stuffing them into
his pockets. As he collected money, he took care to write down
each wager and record the ticket number. For weeks, Rusty had
pored over his nephew's notations, trying to figure out why so
much money went missing. He counted and recounted the
bills, added and re-added the bets placed, and he simply could
not find what was happening to so much of the take.
Which is why he hired me.
Suddenly, the Rocky Balboa theme blared over the old rave
speakers that the warehouse owner had confiscated when the
ravers stopped paying their rent. Eager fans surrounded Furguson,
placing their last wagers in a flurry, shoving money at the
gangly werewol
(Continues...)