“I’m not a cop. I’m a diplomat. Much worse.”
Our hero was released from prison to become a diplomat between humanity and the fay. Ten years later, he’s starting to wish he’d stayed in prison. He can’t, though, because now he has to stop a genocidal war of all against all between skinwalkers, deer women, trolls, humans, and everyone else in and around the Southern Nevada Fay Reserve. Can he do it without getting killed or arrested? Failing that, can he at least get a decent night’s sleep

Chapter 1

People are idiots. I hate idiots, which is funny, because I keep running into them, and in the middle of the Mohave, no less, which has many excellent and suitably painful ways to cull them from the herd.

Ah, but therein lies the irony, right? That I’ve pledged to keep the pizdy alive and the gene pool stupid with my life, my honor, and my continued freedom from incarceration.

Anyway, I was up on Mount Charleston making my rounds when the computer in my truck went off, the one linked to the fence sensors. Could have been a rabbit crossing the line, but the peach fuzz on my ears said no.

My damn fuzzy ears. If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t be a national asset, and I’d still be happily rotting in prison.

I flipped a bitch on Kyle Canyon Road and cut rooster tails down the mountain, hoping that I wasn’t too late. I mean, that’s just what the talking heads want—some “incident” to whip up their flocks and distract from how badly we’re screwing up in the four or five other wars that we’re already fighting.

I stopped just outside the old campgrounds—less than nine miles from the 95, two thousand or so feet up Mount Charleston and one or two worlds away from Las Vegas. It lay in one of the few places that hadn’t gotten defoliant dumped on it during the war—just a wide spot in the shoulder with a dry riverbed between it and the fence. Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir surrounded the road on all sides. The mercury hovered around eighty, and somewhere behind the folds of the earth’s dress, the Vegas valley lit up as the sun went down. It was exactly the kind of out-of-the-way place that morons go to get drunk.

I counted about ten of the little mudakiy with as many Styrofoam coolers. They sat around a merry and highly illegal campfire that pushed back the growing gloom. None of them could have been over twenty-five, and I smelled the booze on them as soon as I stepped out of my truck and slung my bag of tricks over my shoulder.

They’d parked their vehicle nearby, one of those monster RVs for people whose idea of roughing it is not putting up the satellite dish. I usually hate seeing those rolling ecological disasters anywhere near the reserve, but there are times, like when you’re about to enter into tense negotiations with the natives when they are the sweetest sight on earth.

My main concern wasn’t the ones around the campfire, though. My main concern was this brain donor in a Tapout muscle shirt, cargo shorts, and flip flops, his arms, and back covered in tribal tattoos and dragons. You know the type, thinks he’s a cage fighter, stinks of entitlement. He held the tiniest chainsaw I’d ever seen, with a wimpy little powerhead and no more than a 12-inch bar.

Need I even mention that he was inside the reserve—on the other side of the line, where the dark and the mist get thick—and that a pair of bolt cutters lay next to a hole in the fence that you could have driven the RV through?

A Chicana with camo tights and a muffin top waist pointed at me from the campfire and said, “Oh-oh! The po-po!” They laughed, a few right off their chairs, which wasn’t hard in their condition. I ignored them. My real problem was the brewing diplomatic incident on the other side of the fence.

The chainsaw revved. I glanced up in time to see its chewing teeth swinging toward a skinny laurel, a broadleaf tourist in a coniferous world, and the kid swinging it about to sign his own death warrant.

Stop!” I yelled. He jumped, stumbled, and unfortunately didn’t lop off something near and precious. “What the hell are you doing!” I said after my heart restarted. “Turn that damn thing off and get back on this side!”

He blinked soggy, unfocused eyes at me. I thought at first that maybe he’d been in the reserve for too long and that the delirium had sunk its teeth into him.

But no, he was just snockered.

“Oh, hey, Misser Ranger!” he slurred cheerfully as he switched off the saw.

Blessed silence fell on the forest for exactly one second. Then the Chicana got inspired and yelled, “Ranger Rick!” at me. The rest of our “hope for the future” fell off their chairs. Again.

“Hadda get some firewood!” the guy with the chainsaw said. “For the fire! You fergot to leave firewood! What’m I payin’ tazzes for, no firewood—”

“Of course, there’s no firewood!” I shouted back, eyes scanning the unnatural dark of the forest behind him. “This isn’t a campsite! Now get over here before something spots you!”

He blinked again, looked around, then waved the saw at me.

“So what?”

I actually didn’t know how to respond to that. I mean, so what? Where had this guy been the last ten years? How about the war? The Treaty of Bismarck? The creation of the reserves? How about what happens to humans when they wander onto the reserves and break just one of their many arcane and unwritten laws? How could he not know? Didn’t he know?

No. Of course not. Because he was drunk.

Hold on, though. It gets better.

“I mean, I ain’t afraid of no fairies!” he said. “I got a black belt in…black belt in…uh…well, anyway, I got a black belt! And anyone crawls outta their hole an’ tries to start something, I’ll…”

I stopped listening around “fairies.” The fuzz on my ears started to burn. Less than a second later, the wind shifted, and I caught this under-the-rocks smell: mushrooms and mold and something else that made the ape part of my brain want to leap out my skull to run and hide.

“Shut up, damn it,” I said. “Shut up, shut up! God damn it, shut up get back over here before—oh hell—”

One second it wasn’t there, and the next it was. Ten feet tall with mottled green skin like granite stretched tight over baseball bat ribs. Matted black hair. Gorilla arms. Tree trunk legs. Tree root feet. Silent as death.

In other words, your typical troll.

The little suka didn’t notice, of course. He didn’t notice the cicada chatter suddenly rise to a roar all around him, excited and expectant, as the reserve awoke for whatever the troll left behind. He was too busy OD’ing on his own testosterone to notice.

Luckily, he had friends.

“Oh my god!” the Chicana screamed. “Behind you!”

The next few moments almost made this job worth it.

The kid stopped dead with a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. The troll stood almost belly-to-bum with him, its tennis ball-sized midnight eyes staring down through the top of his skull.

It whuffed, just once.

The kid pissed his pants.

What can I say? I’m a man of simple pleasures.

The little mudak screamed and flailed out a no-look swipe behind him with the chainsaw. And what’s a chainsaw chain made of? That’s right, iron—carbide-tipped steel, to be exact—which also happens to be the only thing that’ll kill a troll.

I had my second bad moment of the night. I saw every step in my masochistic little mind: the guy gutting the troll, the entire rez rolling down the mountain in retribution, a living carpet on the desert floor, a tidal wave of lethal weirdness that Vegas just isn’t ready for…

He missed, though. The troll displayed an agility that something half its size shouldn’t have had. The chain barely missed its belly.

Then it snaked out a long arm and scooped the kid up by the ankle with a manhole cover-sized hand. The next thing I knew, his head dangled three feet off the ground and his right foot about nine, and he let everyone in earshot know how he felt about it. The troll lifted him even higher to get nose-to-pointy-nose with him.

It whuffed again. He screamed.

“Do something!” the Chicana yelled at me. I bit off my reply as I crossed the line into the rez.

The troll forgot about the human yelling up a fine storm in its grip the instant I stepped through the fence. It locked those big black eyes on me like a stalking wolf. I had a sudden urge to hightail it back to my truck and commend the kid’s fate to Saint Darwin, but that’s the last thing you do with a troll.

After all, only prey runs.

Instead, I ignored the visceral sense of my place in the food chain and threw its stink eye right back at it as I reached for my belt. My arsenal consisted of a stick of pepper spray, but I wasn’t quite ready for that. I cast a quick look back to the line and hoped that we were close enough to the land of the humans for my higher-tech toys to work. Then I pried one of those toys off my belt and, just as the troll reared back to strike, stuck that something in its face.

A terrific, soundless flash of light momentarily banished the gloaming in the rez and lit up the encroaching fog. The troll grunted, dropped the little pizda, and stumbled backward, hands to its eyes. The Fearless Troll Killer regained his feet with admirable dispatch, then tried to make a break for the fence. I collared him and reeled him back in by the scruff of his neck. No way I was letting him just waltz away from this.

“Wh-what did you do?” the Fearless Troll Killer squealed.

“Got a picture,” I said, showing him the screen of my cell phone. “Priceless.”

“A picture?” Little ingrate had the nerve to sound offended. “Don’t you have a gun or—”

“No. I don’t. I’m trying to smooth over a diplomatic incident with the fay, not cause one.” Besides, ex-cons can’t carry guns, even if they’re with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Diplomacy Unit. I didn’t tell him that, of course. He had enough to think about.

“The fay?” That took a while to sink into his well-armored brain. “That’s a fairy?”

“One kind, yeah.” He obviously didn’t watch the Discovery Channel. I know, big surprise.

“Well, can we go now?” he whined. “Please?”

“That’s actually a very good question…”

The troll started to recover, blinking half-blind eyes and obviously wanting to end the earthly existence of something.

It spotted us.

“Oh my God,” moaned the Fearless Troll killer, sinking lower behind me. “What do we do now?”

“You?” I said, not taking my eyes off the troll. “You stay here. Don’t move, don’t make a sound, don’t breathe if you can manage it. I’m gonna try to talk our way out of this.”

“You—you can talk to that?”

“Why yes, you candidate for a retroactive abortion,” is what I wanted to say. “I’m a changeling. Mommy was a human, daddy was a monster. Hell, this troll might even be my lost long father, and we might be on the verge of a very special moment.”

I didn’t say that, of course, because that wouldn’t have been diplomatic.

I walked up to the troll real slow, hands open and level with my shoulders. It narrowed its eyes and whuffed at me, and I came damn near to pulling a Lovecraft—running until I fell into a swoon and knew no more. But I grabbed my brain by its stem and waited for the monkey panic to subside. Then I squared my shoulders and, with iron in my voice and steel in my heart, said:

“Hey, Thornapple.”

The troll got in my grill, head a beachball-sized wad of ugly. It curled its lip and favored me with a good look at its sharp black snaggleteeth. Hot, moist carrion breath stirred my hair. I had to marshal all my self-control to keep from gagging.

“Would you like to tell me what, by the gnashing teeth of Our Mother, is going on here, half-breed?” he said. “Why did you do that to me? I’m still having trouble seeing.”

I glanced behind me. “I hate to tell you this,” I said to our Fearless Troll Killer, “but he just told me that he has to tear out your heart and eat it to appease his gods.”

“No, I didn’t,” said Thornapple.

“Oh God, no…” the Fearless Troll Killer moaned, flight in his eyes.

Don’t move!” I ordered. “Only prey runs.”

“True,” said Thornapple.

“Wh-what?” the Fearless Troll Killer stammered.

“I mean, do you want him to think that you’re a meal on the hoof?” I said. “The answer is no, by the way.”

Thornapple had gotten down into a crouch during this exchange, long fingers curled into hooks, claws dark and shiny from a recent meal.

“You were telling me why you had to stick that thing in my face and blind me, half-breed,” he growled, voice silky with danger.

“Come on, Thornapple. I had to get a shot of you scaring the stupid out of that guy. That’s one of the best I’ve ever taken of you.” I thought a bit. “Not as good as that one of you treeing those Boy Scouts, but close.”

“What’s going on!” the Fearless Troll Killer shouted, a desperate, whining edge creeping into his voice.

“Well, you’ve angered him,” I said. “He says that you’ve tread on sacred ground. His ancestors cry out.” Dramatic pause, very important. “For vengeance.”

“What!” Thornapple said, coming half-up out of his crouch. “Where are you getting this! I never—”

“Shut up and play along,” I muttered out of the corner of my mouth. To the Fearless Troll Killer, I said, “I’m making progress, though. He says he’ll let you go, but only if he can keep your arms.”


“Great,” Thornapple said, shaking his head. “Now he thinks I’m some sort of savage. Just great.”

“Hate to break it to you, Thornapple, but he already does.”

Thornapple reared back at that. There was the clear implication that I’d just cast aspersions upon his heritage. All the better.

“Me? I’m the savage! Did you see that human just did!” He pointed a scythe-like claw. I heard a moan of terror behind me. “He cut down the little sister! He killed—”

“Calm down, Thornapple. He didn’t kill anyone. Look.” I did some pointing of my own, but at the still-standing laurel. The fog wrapped protective tendrils around its trunk. “She’s fine.”

Thornapple’s eyes followed my finger. “Oh.” He hesitated. “He was about to! I saw him!” Some welcome uncertainty had crept into his voice.

“I stopped him. So why don’t we just let this one go, okay?”

“Let him go?” The confusion left his voice to run and hide. “He invaded our territory! He crossed the line! There’s only one punishment for that, and that’s death!”

Well, it was worth a try, but now his blood was up. Logic wouldn’t work.

Maybe fear would.

“The humans won’t think so.”

“Blast the humans! Hang them!” Thornapple shouted in a hand-waving fury. The Fearless Troll Killer whimpered.

“Okay, okay,” I said, bringing my hands up again. “But while you’re blasting and hanging humans, consider this. They’re looking for any excuse to start the war again. You killing this chucklehead might just become that excuse.” Sweat suddenly stung my eyes. I didn’t dare wipe it away. “You want that, Thornapple? You want another war with the humans? Only this time with nuclear weapons, napalm, and genetically engineered diseases?”

That got him, and in mid-handfling, too. Nobody wants the war again, or at least nobody sane. Thornapple wasn’t insane.

Murderously pissed off, maybe, but not insane.

His hands dropped to his sides. He ground his shovel-like jaw. Then he slammed a fist into the ground and howled with impotent fury. No sound from the Fearless Troll Killer. I smiled, then snuck a peek, half-hoping that Thornapple’s performance had given the little mudak a heart attack.

It hadn’t, but his color had changed to that of a good Gouda, nice and pallid. His blank eyes and gibbering mouth told me that he’d decided to hunker down in his happy place until this all blew over.

I turned back to Thornapple, who was doing the troll version of a slow burn. Two more fist-shaped craters had appeared at his feet, and he had thrown his head back in a long bay of despair.

Always leave the other guy an out. I cleared my throat, crossed my fingers, and made my play.

“Look, what can I do to make this good?” I thrust a thumb behind me. “Or rather, what can Sunshine here do to make this good?”

I took exactly one step to the right, to give Thornapple an unobstructed view of the RV when he looked back down. This he did. I saw the gears grind in his head.

Then he pointed at the RV.

“That,” he said, with disgust. “That…machine they travel in. Big. Noisy. Vomits smoke and foul liquids. If you won’t let me kill the human, half-breed, give me that.”

Inside, I sighed with relief. Normally, I share Thornapple’s opinion of RVs, but there are times when I love them. They’re the best substitute victims you can get. The motor home dealers in the valley love me.

“Let me see what he thinks,” I said sweetly, as I turned to the Fearless Troll Killer. “Hey, Leatherface. Yeah, you. He’ll let you go, but he wants the RV.”

That woke him up. “No way! That’s my dad’s!” Little ingrate even had the nerve to sound offended.

“May I remind you of the alternative?”

“You’re my negotiator! Negotiate!”

More afraid of Daddy than disembowelment, figures. I sucked my teeth, turned to Thornapple, and said, “I need you to roar at me.”

“Excuse me?” Thornapple said, rearing up again.

“Thornapple, listen very closely,” I said, through a smile of clenched teeth. “If that human had managed to cut down that laurel, I’d give you the damn machine, and with that little suka nailed to the grill to boot. He didn’t, though, so we have to, well, convince him. So if you want the machine, if you want to avoid another war, you will roar at me like I just insulted your mama.” I got as close to nose-to-nose with him as I could. “I will if I have to.”

Thornapple sighed a long-suffering sigh, then took a deep breath and let loose with the most feral, bloodthirsty roar I’d heard in, oh, maybe three days. It echoed through the forest, thundered off the mountains, and brought him down in a half-crouch, arms splayed, claws crooked, and ropes of hot spittle flying from his teeth. He always was a bit of a ham.

“Well, I negotiated with him,” I said brightly after Thornapple ran out of steam. I glanced behind me to catch my audience’s reaction. It was better than I’d expected.

The Fearless Troll Killer had fainted.

Thornapple straightened and wiped his mouth. “There. I’ve completely demeaned myself. Happy?”

“Very,” I replied. The guy’s friends hadn’t fainted, but they looked like they wanted to. “You guys can cross the line and collect your buddy. I think he’s had his fun for the night.”

Then to Thornapple, with a grand gesture like a game show host showing off a brand-new car: “The machine, she is yours.”

You should have seen it. Thornapple’s head was almost level with the roof of the RV, big honkin’ pile of metal, probably got five gallons to the mile, Daddy’s pride and joy, right? Well, Thornapple raised those big fists of his, and suddenly the roof was below his head, or part of it, anyway.

The Fearless Troll Killer’s buddies didn’t even try to wake him up. They just dragged him back down Kyle Canyon Road with them, a sight that would lift even the weariest heart.

Thornapple needed a while to get it out of his system. He reduced the mobile home to a rough cube of distressed metal in the process, the steel frame folded and refolded over itself under a thick shell of aluminum and plastic. I fetched the chainsaw and wire cutters, and he folded the pot metal of the RV around them.

Then he turned and walked back into the woods. He emitted exactly one sound: a grunt of pain as he ducked down through the hole in the fence. I blinked, and he was gone like a train. The reserve’s hungry cicada chatter disappeared with him, sounding a little disappointed.

“Thank you,” a woman’s voice whispered to me on the wind. It floated on a light Greek lilt from the general vicinity of the laurel.

Then I was alone on the mountain.

That’s the life of a changeling in these trying times. The pay sucks, the hours are terrible, and you run a pretty good chance of dying every single day. Your only rewards are the sound of the wind in the trees and the knowledge that you’ve postponed the war for another day.

Better than sex, really. I even lit a cigarette and blew some smoke to the emerging stars to celebrate.

My high lasted exactly ten seconds. My leash—I mean, my radio killed it. The Bureau of Fay Affairs wanted to know what was going on, so I lied like a four-star general before Congress. Then I plugged the hole in the fence with one of the lucky horseshoes in my bag, hooked through the fence where the hole’s keystone might have been. It was the best I could do until a crew got up there to fix it.

I left behind the mountain cool for the valley, still suffocating in the desert heat, then knocked off for the night after filing my report. Doña Maria down on Cheyenne and Tenaya has some good tamales in red sauce, and the lighting’s low enough for me to take off my hat and give my fuzzy ears some air.

Then I picked up my water ration. The bachelor set’s down to a gallon of potable a day here in Las Vegas. That’s about enough if you sit on your ass all day and do nothing. Needless to say, I don’t.

Speaking of which, did you hear why the Air Force dumped all that poison in Lake Mead during the war? Mermaids. No, really. The Review-Journal’s Freedom of Information Act request finally got through. Someone thought they saw mermaids in Lake Mead, which is prima facie absurd. Nothing but quagga mussels and beggar carp up there—well, before the war, at least.

Besides, everyone knows that the mermaids are up in Lake Tahoe. Or they do now.

I wish I could show you my precious memories of Thornapple, but the rez must’ve gotten to my phone while I was convincing him not to kill me. Wiped it clean. The reserves tend to do that to anything more sophisticated than a two-stroke engine or gas-operated gun action, I’ve found.

So that was that. I headed home, where I caught up on the latest disaster out of Operation: Iranian Freedom and tried not to think about the rez tearing itself apart while the only changeling on the federal payroll in southern Nevada isn’t there.