Iain Hund, former supernatural homicide detective, now mere magical vandalism inspector, feels the staleness of his car's air like a strangling hand upon his thoughts.
He sends a last baleful glare at the wall he has pointlessly stalked for the past eight hours and starts his car to drive back to the station.
Stuffiness is a feature of long stake-outs, he's used to it. But somehow knowing you're sacrificing so many hours of your ever-shortening-life not to catch a murderer but a vandal whose only offence is to paint fine magical art on the city walls has a way of speeding the apparition of glumness.
Iain can't help but wonder how many murderers walked free while he stared at the Artist's work.
The question is a new torment for Iain, who's always stoutly believed that his career was a fair price to pay to put Jack Harris off the streets.
When he shared confidential case information with someone who had no clearance for supernatural cases (indeed, a woman in the judicial system who was not even aware of the supernatural community's existence), when he faced demotion for it, when he put down his things on his new cramped desk at magical vandalism; even after a year chasing Blues dealers, petty curse carvers, and weres doing their claws on public property, Iain Hund remained serene.
It was worth it. Against any doubt, he needed only to close his eyes, and stand in the blood soaked memory of the Harris case.
Regret burgeoned when the Artist's case was made his top priority.
Tom Dubois, whom he shares his desk with, is a cold shoulder to cry on.
"No chance with this new stake-out then?" Met only by moody silence, Tom pushes a box of donut across the desk. "They're from the Donut Plant. You look like you need some."
"You eat donuts like a normal's road cop."
"Well, those guys know what's up. Didn't you work with them, back in the day?"
"Yes," Iain sighs, dunking his hand in the proffered box, "and this case is the most pointless and disheartening task I've been given in my career, which includes these old patrols with the normal's police, writing tickets and shit."
"Come on, the Artist has been taunting us for years, but she can't be flawless. Guy with an ability like yours-what's that, magic and colour synaesthesia?-why go for old stake-outs and CCTV footage? Why not make some traps? You've got more magical ability than this whole floor put together!"
"Tom, I'd need so many warrants for one trap, it's not ever happening. I think I got given this task as extra punishment. Something to run after until I retire."
"What if they really think you can catch the vandal who's never been caught?"
"Why would they want that this bad anyway? Because some loony normal might scrap some paint off a wall and somehow figure out there's something off with it? What am I to say to her if I catch her? 'You're under arrest for artistry. Your fingers will be broken... No, sorry, I mean, I need your address so we can send you fines!' Don't you think we'd all be better off with more art like hers in NY, and less wendigos or murderous weres I could put behind bars?"
"Ever wonder how the world's gonna get along after you're gone Hund? Like, dead gone? Just fine, that's the answer. Moaning to me isn't getting you back into homicide, you know it. Artist is no murderer, maybe you've got to change your tactic, get original."
Iain, knowing good advice when it falls in his ear, thinks about the changes he can make. The police, sup or normal's, has no name, face or address to put on the Artist. Even her gender is as good as the street word, rumours from the guy who knows a guy who's seen her.
Dusting donut crumbs from his notebooks, Iain peruses through weeks of drawings. When seen by normals, or photographed, the Artist's work is static, graffiti art.
The drawings were to capture the details of what sups-anyone with a shred of magical ability-sees instead: myriads of images, sometimes a whole scene, with characters turning to the watcher, mouth opening in mute calls, sometimes the paint exploding out of the walls, pulling you in its own universe of coruscant particles.
In his book Iain has little boats on the calm waters of a lake, the face of a submerged god half hidden under lotuses, a pale man weeping liquid gold, a woman playing a sitar, each sound coming alive in the shape of a fantastical animal, the dramas of a dozen, exotically dressed men bartering in dunes of sand you could almost feel blowing into your eyes, a highway bridge pillar turned into an aquarium in which twirled a bigger-then-life mermaid.
His book is far thicker than the case file ever was.
In the last pages he finds the sketches made of a long mural of dancers. Their appearance changed depending on the angle you looked at it, a masquerade of shapeshifters. It is a message for the man the Artist knows is on her trail, for hidden behind the legs of a dancer stands a black wolfdog–for Hund–and though it has no collar, a golden tag gleams beneath its jaws, etched in the faintest strokes with the name Iain
.That's how she must see me: the law's dog on his invisible leash.
"Okay then, let's get original."
"Mmh? Where are you going?"
"Hudson Heights. I'm gonna get friendlier with our local alchemists."
He leaves Tom to choke on his donut.
Alchemists have no claws or tooth to rend through you, but they don't need them. The power they wield, and their tendency for single minded obsession, make them a prickly bunch, and the Sup-PD has a special unit for policing them.
Iain's badge feels like a flimsy shield in his hand as he steps down from the sunny, all-American street and into the subterranean entrance to the alchemy quarters.
The skills of the Artist and the finesse of her alchemical paints has already sent Iain deep inside those hidden galleries of shops and studios, where his questions revealed envy, admiration, and wholesalers of raw materials who do most business online and all proudly claim her as one of their customers, whilst unable to prove anything.
The man at the entrance door is sipping on a Starbucks coffee.
"You again, cop?"
"Well, today I am coming as a customer, though the purchase is work-related."
The doorman grins, his voluptuous black lips twisting from ear to ear in glee.
"A master getting cop dollars? Now that's precious! Which master will it be?"
"Toby Smith please."
The man, still smiling, reaches for the door's handle, flips its dials with dexterity, and opens it wide for Iain to pass. Iain nods his thanks and scuttles past, through the door and the chill of its magic, right into the organised chaos of Toby Smith's shop.
"What do you want now?" a disembodied voice asks from all corners.
Smith does business like this, never bothering to be present in the same room as his customers, his store guarded by an arsenal of curses carved in the ceiling, the likes of which would make a hardened criminal as docile as a puppy.
"You're still after the Artist?"
"Ah, yes sir."
"You planning on defacing her work?"
"No sir. I like her work a lot. However, she caters to her fans, and I thought, maybe, I can get to discuss with her somehow?"
Drawers open at invisible hands, glass jars and packets start drifting towards Iain.
"You're planning some sort of lethal courtship via painting? You're a real dog, Hund! I like it. Leave two hundred behind, follow the instructions on the packs, and work on your spells beforehand, unless you want to blow your moronic face off."
"Looking forward to see your work Hund."
Iain follows the instructions by the letter, spends several days practising, and more building the final spell-works and paints before going out. He's mapped the Artist's work through Manhattan, found places she was likely to walk by.
When he is ready, when he pulls a dark hoody above his black curls, and sits behind the wheel of his own car, about to go into the night to do what he's paid to stop, Iain feels shivers of anticipation and dread, a kinship to his prey, and a respect stronger than ever for the woman who inconspicuously prowls the nights.
He does her portrait, suggested, unfinished, broad strokes of paint revealing how little he knows of her. Sitting beside her stands a black hound with a golden tag, his muzzle resting in her lap, starring into her unpainted eyes, waiting to be filled.
Two days later, Iain finds that the mouth of the Artist has been repainted in a slight smile.