“And you’re sure it’s a Yaoguai?” Toci’s voice was crisp, but the look she gave John Henry and me, mouth pursed and brows furrowed, radiated concern.
John Henry nodded and gestured toward the large screen on which we could see a picture of the portal. In the searing light of his camera’s flash, the white symbols stood out starkly against the wood fence and the gaping black maw leading to the Otherworld. “As you can see,” John Henry continued, “someone made this gate by writing a bunch of Chinese characters around it in chalk and invoking some kind of magic. It looks just like those gates the Yaoguai left layin’ around last year, right? Like it could even be the same one.”
Yixin looked pale. “It can’t be.” It came out too loud in the quiet conference room. She swallowed and, seeing everyone looking at her, continued, “We took care of that spider Yaoguai last year; she’s definitely dead. Clementine and I both saw it.”
“Could this one be connected to the Spider somehow?” Clementine asked. “Maybe it learned magic from her or they both gained their powers from the same place.”
“That’s possible,” admitted Yixin.
“But bad,” added Toci, “because that would imply that whatever created the Spider is still out there and continuing to create monsters. Yixin, you told us last year that it was a fluke circumstance, but it looks like we’re going to need to reopen this case.”
Coyote stood up and ambled toward the laptop in the front of the room. He bent over it and the screen changed to show a photograph of a different gate. Although this one was smaller and appeared on the painted wall of an alley, it also had the characters, chalk lines, and swirling black void. When the two images were placed side by side, the similarities were unmistakable.
Coyote brought up a third picture. This one had been taken in daylight, and depicted a gate on the yellow wall of a house. Instead of a black void, a misty, marsh-like shore glinted through the hole. A distant figure in what looked like a blue uniform stood alone among the scattered brush. I leaned forward, fascinated.
“This is our worst case scenario,” Coyote explained. “When gates are left open like this in the daylight, it’s actually possible to see the Shadow Land from this world, which makes mortals much more likely to investigate. At night, the lights shining through from this world can also tempt Shadow Land creatures through the gate, but that is less common because it’s relatively sparsely populated.”
“The pixies at the shipyard said they would spread the word down to Bayshore and Candlestick and up the Embarcadero. They’ll alert us to any more gates left open,” John Henry added in his rumbling voice, “But with only one example, we can’t be sure if this Yaoguai is operating along the bay or if this gate was an anomaly.”
Toci sighed. “So, you are telling me that we will have to do a thorough search of the city. Then we will do that. We will double patrols. I want every patrol team to have at least one member who knows how to close these gates. That would be Yixin, Sigrid, Coyote, and me. Fergus, Clementine, and John Henry, you will have to partner up with one of us for the moment. I’ll go to San Bruno Mountain and talk to Naigu, and we’ll also alert the little folk in our respective areas. Clementine, will you inform the Telegraph Hill fairies?”
Clementine nodded vigorously, shaking her mass of orange curls.
“Excellent. Yixin will send out an email with the new patrol schedules. In the meantime, Feliz Navidad, everybody!”
As everyone began to move to the door, Fergus gave me a nudge and offered his flask. I grinned and took a sip as he asked “What are you planning to do on your first Christmas in the city, Sigrid Spearthrower?”
I shrugged. “I am pretty confused about this holiday, actually. People are saying it marks the birth of Jesus, but the celebrations are very similar to Jul, which is what we had back in Gotland in midwinter. But it also isn’t winter! In fact, I meant to ask you about that, too, because I have never seen such a long autumn as this.” Except in Valhalla, I added silently, and felt a shiver of fear. Had I brought the endless autumn with me?
Fergus laughed. “You’re not the only one to wonder about that! Let me assure you, first of all, that it is indeed winter. In this climate, winter and fall feel almost the same. In the winter we usually get more rain, but because of the drought there hasn’t been as much this year. And before you ask, spring and summer in San Francisco also feel like fall.”
I sighed, relieved but a little disturbed as well. In a land without winter, spring, or summer, how could people tell that time was passing?
“You’re also quite right about Christmas,” Fergus continued. “It’s actually a holiday that has combined many of your Norse traditions with doctrine from the Church. Some countries still call Christmas Yule-tide or Yule.”
I shook my head. “I can’t believe that a thousand years later, on the other side of the world, people are still decorating pine trees and waiting for Old Man Winter. It’s a part of my childhood I never thought I’d see again.” My thoughts drifted back to winter evenings with my mother and sisters, watching the Jul log crackle in the hearth.
Fergus must have seen something in my face. He clasped my shoulder gently. “Hey now, don’t get all maudlin on me, doll. Wait until tomorrow. You’re joining me on my annual Christmas Eve bar crawl, aren’t you? I want to know definitively if you can out-drink me.”
“If you’d bothered to ask, you’d know I can out-drink Odin himself,” I boasted. Fergus cackled.
The next evening, I met Fergus on the corner of O’Farrell and Jones streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, where he knocked on an unmarked door. A young, good-looking man with a clipboard opened it partway and looked us over suspiciously. “Password?”
“Elf,” Fergus announced.
“Right this way.” He handed us off to a tall, slim woman with skin a few shades lighter than John Henry’s and perfectly wine-colored lips. When she caught sight of Fergus, her face lit up.
“Fergus! I was hoping you would come by again this year.” She bent down to give him a hug, and he hugged her back, beaming.
“Sienna, this is Sigrid. She’s visiting from out of town and I want to give her the full Bourbon and Branch experience.”
I held out my hand, and the smile Sienna trained on me was no less sincere than the one she’d given Fergus. A moment later she had led us through the red-tinted corridor along the bar and seated us at a narrow booth. I looked around, fascinated at the bulbous icicle-lamps hanging from a ceiling carved by giants into leaves and roses.
Fergus started leafing through the menu, which appeared to have at least twenty pages. “Moment of truth,” he said, “We’re starting with a cocktail. Then we’ll have some of their top-shelf whiskey, then perhaps another cocktail.”
“What’s the point of a cocktail?” I asked, dubious. “Isn’t that just watering down good alcohol?”
“Oh, darling, not this time! These cocktails mix different alcohols together; they’re stronger than your mead and tastier than my grandmother’s apple cake.”
“You have a grandmother?”
“Only metaphorically.” He grinned and turned to Sienna, who had appeared at our table with a small notepad. “What would you recommend for a true Viking warrior like my friend here?”
Sienna smiled. “Something to prepare you for battle? How about the Heavy Artillery? It’s a rye-based drink with rum, green chartreuse, vermouth, and bitters.”
“See?” He winked at me. “No watering down here. Sigrid will have that and I’ll have the Club Cocktail.”
When our drinks arrived, Fergus raised his short-stemmed glass to my tall one. “Here’s to a true celebration,” he said. “Cheers and Merry Christmas!”
“Skål and God Jul!” We sipped in blissful silence, and I felt so invigorated I wished I were actually preparing for battle. Feet tapping, I gazed around at the clusters of drinkers out in their pearls and button-down blouses. Weeks of hiding my identity had put me in the habit of comparing my appearance with my surroundings, and I suddenly felt self-conscious in my leather pants and torn sweater.
Fergus stood up, interrupting my thoughts. “Ready for the tour?”
I grabbed my drink and followed, stopping in surprise when he pulled a lever, parting a bookshelf to reveal a staircase. As the shelf closed behind us, we followed the stair into a spacious, dimly lit basement lined with shelves. Fergus extended his arms and spun in a slow circle, causing his red coattails to flap. “This, my dear, is why I wanted to give you a proper Christmas.” I gazed open-mouthed on the hundreds of bottles lining the shelves, each dustier and more golden than the last. Even without Fergus’s prompting, I could tell I was in the presence of master craftsmanship.
“Hand me that bottle behind you, will you love?” Fergus was beaming, his red nose practically its own joyous beacon.
I chuckled. “There are about twenty.”
“Up…up…a little to the left…yes, that one, with the black label. The Bruichladdich Black Art.” He cradled the bottle as if it were a child. “Ah, what a beauty. This stuff goes for $100 a glass upstairs.”
“And you don’t think they’ll notice if we just take it? I thought SFAIS frowned on theft from mortal establishments.”
“I think you’ll find that SFAIS is a little less strict than we claim. Anyway, I’ll still pay for it. I wouldn’t want the lovely Sienna or one of her colleagues to get in trouble for my crimes. In the meantime, finish your drink. We have a visit to make.”
I followed him past the bar as he told me the place’s history. “This used to be a speakeasy during the old days of Prohibition. Those two doors open to escape tunnels that still work today – they lead to two different hotels in the neighborhood.” He led us up another staircase and through a trapdoor, opening into a dusty, empty room with a counter toward the back. “This is Russell’s. It used to be a cigar shop as the front for downstairs. Ah, that was a tough and beautiful time. The password for the speakeasy was ordering a particular cigar.. I never liked smoking, but I collected so many of those things. I was giving them to John Henry and Clementine every Christmas for years.”
He led us to a bookshelf to the left of the trapdoor and pulled another lever. This time, when we stepped through the door, we stepped into the Otherworld.
This particular piece of Otherworld had been curated. It felt a lot like stepping into my own bar, but the air was stamped with a strange presence, and I found myself looking around at the black and white velvet wallpaper, the counter that seemed less like a bar and more like a desk, the way the streetlights shone through the blinds and left striped shadows on the floor, and hardly registering any of it as I tried to locate what felt off. Were the shadows deeper than they should have been? The mist, thin as it was, smelled like smoke, and smoke rose from behind the desk as my gaze rested on the shadowy figure of a man who I was certain hadn’t been there moments ago. In fact, he seemed more shadow than man until, as I watched, he exhaled a vast plume of smoke that wreathed him in corporeality.
“Fergus Laughland. I wondered if I would see you tonight.” His voice was gravelly, with an accent I couldn’t place: sharp and slightly long in the vowels. “Who’s this fine-looking dame you’ve brought? That’s a hefty-looking spear she’s got, too.”
Fergus looked startled. “Sigrid! What are you doing, letting your wings out like that?”
“We’re in the Otherworld, Fergus. What do you want me to do, move them into reality to float around in front of humans?”
Fergus chuckled. “I forgot. Sam, your transitions have become so gradual I didn’t even realize I’d passed between worlds.”
Sam nodded at the compliment and offered me his hand, which I shook warily. “Sam Spade. What can I do for you, ma’am?”
“Sigrid Spearthrower.” Almost despite myself I realized I was imitating his brusque form of speech. “You can offer me one of those cigarettes.”
“A lady of taste.” He took his time shaking out the tobacco and lining it up on the thin brown paper.
I moved back to the door and tried stepping back to Russell’s Cigar Shop. Immediately, my wings disappeared and the noise of the bar settled around me. When I returned, however, I could feel myself fade more slowly even than when a warrior takes several minutes to die. I tried it again and was unable to rush the process.
Sam kept his eyes on the cigarette as he rolled with a gentle, practiced motion. “Having fun, sweetheart? Never seen a gate like that, have you?” He handed the cigarette over, and I leaned forward to let him light it for me. The motion gave me a sudden, intense memory of Octavia on the roof.
Fergus raised the bottle of Bruichladdich. “Got any glasses?”
Half an hour later, the three of us had finished the bottle and meandered our way back into Bourbon and Branch, where Sam and I debated a final round of cocktails while Fergus handed Sienna the empty bottle and somehow added it to our tab. “I’ll try the imperial eagle,” I told Sam. “Look, it has peach bitters and whiskey and it’s called the imperial eagle.”
“Sure thing, darling,” Sam pulled on his ubiquitous cigarette. He was the only person smoking in the bar, and thus far, no one had noticed. “An eagle drink for an eagle of a woman.” He nodded to the space where my wings had been. “You take those off a sea eagle?”
“Yes, an osprey. Good eye!” I glanced over at Fergus, who was still talking with Sienna. “So, has your office always been in the Otherworld?”
“You mean what the Association calls the Shadow Land? Yeah, doll, since I opened for business back in ‘29. People don’t notice when they walk in because I anchor it to the living world. You noticed, though.” He looked at me, his eyes shrewd. “You became larger the minute you walked in there. I ain’t just talking ‘bout the wings. It was like you got more substantial. You belong in that place, huh?”
I nodded. “I think it has to do with my being what Coyote calls a psychopomp. I like the in-between places. You seem like you understand that.”
Sam winked, but didn’t say any more until we had ordered and Fergus had sat back down with another bottle. “You have the look of a man who wants to talk business,” he said.
Fergus filled our empty tumblers and raised a glass. We followed suit. “Cheers.”
“Cheers.” We sipped.
Fergus continued. “Toci asked me to hire you on. You remember that Yaoguai last year?”
“You mean that Chinese sonofabitch that kept leaving portals all over the place? Sure.”
“Well, it’s back. Or something like it is. Sigrid and John Henry stumbled across another door the other day.” He passed his phone across the table and showed him the picture.
Sam inspected it as he sipped. “You sure it ain’t left open from last year? This looks like a damned hidden spot.”
“The pixies told JH it had only been there a few days. Make of that what you will.”
“I can talk to ‘em again. Might as well. Is the association going to pay me what I’m worth this time? I want three thousand dollars a day plus expenses.”
“What expenses? Beef for the pixies? We’ll give you a thousand.”
“You shitting me?”
Fergus sighed. “Fifteen hundred and a boon from Toci.”
“To collect whenever?” Sam pondered this. “All right. Fine. I’ll start tomorrow.” They shook hands and the three of us drained our cups. The night was only beginning.