Authors: Kalayna Price
Tags: #Urban Life, #Contemporary, #Epic, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General
Malik shrugged. “Like you said, it was a construct. But it is my belief that it intended to steal you away to somewhere.”
I stared at the gangly fae, not real y seeing him anymore.
My knees felt weak, rubbery, and I wanted to be alone to think about this information. That didn’t seem to be an option.
After the silence stretched several moments, Malik cleared his throat again. “Wil you hear me out, Miss Craft?”
I nodded absently and Malik fidgeted, rubbing his fingers and shuffling his feet so that the points of his knees pressed through the threadbare material of his pants.
“As I’m sure you’l recal ,” he said in his hauntingly musical voice, “two days ago you trekked through my territory in the floodplain and found a pile of feet. Afterward, we had a rather unfortunate encounter.”
“Al of that was rather memorable.”
“Yes, wel . . .” He paused and glanced back at Caleb, who nodded, and Malik let his hands fal to his sides. Then he rol ed his shoulders and straightened to his ful height again. “My life and livelihood are in danger. I need to hire you, Miss Craft.”
poured coffee into three mismatched mugs and carried them to my “guests.” Caleb sipped his politely, but Malik clasped his mug between both hands without seeming to be aware of it. His gaze flickered around my smal apartment, never staying in one place too long. Clearly I wasn’t the only uncomfortable one.
I owned only one chair, and I wasn’t about to invite Malik to plop down on my bed, so after handing off the mugs, I leaned against the wal . Then I stal ed, blowing on my coffee to gain an extra couple of seconds as I tried to decide how to handle the situation.
“I’m going to guess that you’re not interested in having a shade raised,” I said, watching Malik over the rim of my mug.
He shook his head.
“What is it you think I can do for you, Mr. Malik?”
“Actual y, it is what we can do for each other. Your actions two days ago brought Faerie’s attention down on the fae in the floodplain,” he said, and then paused, as if waiting for some response from me.
“I’m not going to justify helping the police in their search for a serial kil er.”
“I hid those feet for a reason!”
I glanced at Caleb, letting my uncertainty bleed into my expression. The good guys didn’t hide disembodied appendages.
He met my gaze, but there were no answers in his eyes.
They were the same blue he usual y wore while glamoured, They were the same blue he usual y wore while glamoured, but I’d never been more aware that the person behind that glamour was so
I swal owed a gulp of coffee without tasting it and let my hand fal casual y to my pocket. I could reach my phone, but my recent upgrade to a touch screen meant there would be no dialing numbers by feel. “Are you admitting to the murder of those people?” I asked Malik, my voice just above a whisper.
“Of course not. I hid the feet, but they were already severed when I found them. And before you ask, no, I don’t know how they came to be that way.”
“Then why hide them in the first place?”
His fingers clenched his mug. “To avoid the very scrutiny you have brought to my home!”
At Malik’s outburst, PC, who’d fal en asleep on his usual pil ow, jumped to his feet with a yelp. Then he dove off the bed and ducked behind the bedskirt.
Not exactly a guard
Malik set his mug on the counter and took a deep breath.
He released the breath slowly, and when he spoke again, his voice was calmer. “That scrutiny is unavoidable now.
But you’ve also drawn attention. The best thing for both of us would be if the murderer is caught as soon as possible.”
Wel , I couldn’t argue with that. There were seven left feet in the morgue—it would be best for everyone if the kil er was found before he or she kil ed again. But . . . “What is it you think I can do?”
Malik frowned. “You’re an investigator. Investigate.”
Searching for a serial kil er was way out of my job description. If enough of one of the bodies was recovered that a shade could be raised, I would gladly help the police question the victim, but the last time I’d gotten actively involved in a major investigation I’d nearly died. And then I’d been arrested.
I pushed myself off the wal . I’d heard enough. Malik had said he’d found—and hidden—the feet but didn’t know said he’d found—and hidden—the feet but didn’t know anything more about them. Fae couldn’t lie, so I had no choice but to believe him. John, and most likely the FIB, since they had taken over the case, would stil want to question Malik, but I wasn’t going to antagonize him by cal ing the police while he stood in my loft. I’d kick him out first.
“I don’t think I’l be able to help you,” I said, giving him a wide berth as I headed for the door.
“You’re the only one in the position to help us.”
I stopped, my hand hovering over the doorknob. That whole not-being-able-to-lie thing meant that when Malik said I was the only one who could help, he honestly believed that was true, and considering everything Caleb had done to make this conversation happen, I assumed he agreed. I turned back around.
“Why me, and who is included in ‘us’?”
“‘Us’ would be the fae in the floodplain in particular, but also extending to al the independent fae in Nekros.” Malik paced across my smal apartment. “Yesterday
ordered the floodplain cleared. Al fae inside were to be taken to Faerie for questioning, but the brutes she sent came with iron chains, and none of the fae they captured have returned. There’s war brewing in Faerie and she’s bolstering her court with our numbers.”
“That is only speculation,” Caleb said, but he didn’t sound sure. In fact, I thought I caught an edge of fear in his voice.
“She?” I asked because they obviously both knew what woman they were talking about, but I surely didn’t.
Caleb pushed away from the counter. “The Winter Queen. Nekros City is part of her territory.”
“The winter court? Seriously?” I frowned at Caleb.
“Nekros City hardly has a proper winter. I can count on one hand how many times it’s snowed here and the snow stuck to the ground more than an hour. Hel , half the trees don’t have the decency to lose their leaves. Shouldn’t the winter court hold territory somewhere, I don’t know,
winter court hold territory somewhere, I don’t know,
Caleb shrugged. “Faerie is the ultimate contradiction. It is unchanging and yet ever in flux. Doors in Faerie are . . .
inconsistent. For the past few years the door from Nekros into Faerie has opened to the winter court so Nekros City is part of the queen’s territory. The door wil change soon enough, and al the fae with ties to the winter court wil move on, making room for the next court. Only the independent fae, those who have tied themselves to the mortal realm instead of Faerie, wil remain.”
That was more information than I’d ever gotten out of Caleb at one sitting before. And it was clearer than any of the lessons the one and only fae teacher the academy had hired to teach students fae history had ever been—our teacher definitely had never taught us anything about the doors to Faerie moving. I sipped my coffee, giving myself a second to absorb this information and let it infiltrate my limited understanding of Faerie. Then I put the mug aside.
“If the queen is il egal y gathering the independent fae, shouldn’t you go to the FIB?” After al , if the local court was kidnapping fae, someone with a lot more authority than I had needed to know.
Malik huffed under his breath. “Who do you think is doing t he
?” He shook his head. “The FIB are al court-loyal—not an independent in the bunch.”
“Then go to the police.” I knew for sure the NCPD wasn’t answering to a queen.
Malik’s dark eyes widened like I’d said something unbelievable, and Caleb shook his head.
“Al, there are certain . . . restrictions to being independent,” Caleb said, stepping forward. “As we don’t answer to any regent, we had to take vows before leaving Faerie. Involving mortals in affairs best settled among the fae is strictly forbidden. That’s why Malik came to you.”
“That’s why?” The blood drained from my face. If the fae couldn’t involve anyone mortal... “You know.”
So much for my heritage being a secret.
“You didn’t say anything.”
“Neither did you.”
“I only suspected in the beginning,” he said. “Even with you living in my house, under my wards, I wasn’t sure. Until a month ago. Now I can hardly believe I missed it.
Something about you changed.”
Don’t I know it.
Discovering I had fae blood was only the tip of my problems, but Caleb wasn’t done yet.
“You are in a unique position, Al,” he said, stepping closer. “We can go to you. We can talk to you. But you’ve taken no vows. Yet. You can work as an intermediary with the police, and they already know you, already trust you.”
I swal owed and glanced over Caleb’s shoulder to where Malik had stopped pacing to watch me; his large, unblinking eyes fixed on me, waiting. I didn’t like the “yet”
that Caleb had worked into that little statement, but I didn’t doubt he was right. It wasn’t like I hadn’t noticed the changes in myself since the Blood Moon: the sensitivity to metals, the inability to maintain my shields, and my increased ability to sense fae magic—and that was al on top of the whole seeing multiple planes of existence. Faerie would eventual y notice me.
I grabbed my mug again because I had to do something with my hands or I’d start pacing and fidgeting like Malik. I swirled the dark contents, staring at the liquid instead of at Caleb.
I could use something stronger than coffee right
Stil , coffee was what I had. I drained the mug in two swal ows, barely tasting its lukewarm contents.
Yes, eventual y someone important in Faerie would notice me, but that hadn’t happened yet. The fae couldn’t talk to the mortal police, and the FIB, which functioned as the fae police in the mortal realm, belonged to the courts, but Malik was right that they could talk to me.
“The queen is gathering the independents because I
“The queen is gathering the independents because I revealed those feet?”
Malik nodded. “That was likely only an excuse, but yes.
As long as a fae is suspected of the crime, she has the authority to search for the criminal.”
I sank onto my bed, my mind reeling. Did I real y want to get involved—or actual y,
involved—in this case? I raised shades, got some answers, and then cashed the check. That was the kind of investigator I was. I didn’t hit the street and search for suspects in murder cases.
But the independent fae couldn’t turn to anyone else, and the Winter Queen had free rein to gather the independents as long as the murderer was free. On top of that, since the fae couldn’t talk to the police, there might be information out there that the police desperately needed that I could access and they couldn’t.
I focused on Malik again. “So, what do you know about the feet?”
“Does that mean you’re taking the case?”
“I’m considering it. Do you have some fact I can take to the police that would prove without a shadow of a doubt that the floodplain fae were not involved? Or do you know where the remainder of the bodies are located?”
Malik shook his head. “There were no bodies. Just the feet. They floated down the river al at once, like a fleet of toy boats—”
“—I thought I’d gathered al of them, but obviously I missed a few in the flooding. I should have made the nixies help. They are sil y, frivolous little things, but they know every disturbance in the water. They could tel if a fly hit the water in their territory.”
I’d taken a course on fae races during academy and I vaguely remembered reading about nixies being some sort of water nymph. “Would you be able to arrange for me to question the nixies? If they are that attuned to the water, they might be able to point me to where the feet were they might be able to point me to where the feet were dumped. The police are stil searching for a primary crime scene and the dump site might shed some clues.”
Malik’s shoulders sagged, his head dipping. “There wil be no questioning them unless you want to sneak into the queen’s dungeons. My poor dears. The FIB brutes went after the nixies first. Everyone knows they’re harmless, but that Agent Nori chained them in iron and dragged them away.”
“What about the kelpie?” Caleb asked.
Malik cocked his head to the side. “Maybe,” he said, running one long finger down the length of his nose. “If those brutes haven’t grabbed her as wel .”
I glanced from one to the other of them. “A kelpie? As in a carnivorous water horse?”
Malik nodded. “She has a . . . hungry disposition, but she claims the track of the Sionan River from north of the city down to the edge of the floodplain. She might not be as attuned to the river as my poor nixies, but if you can bargain with her, she might be able to point you toward a general area.”
“That’s miles of river. How do I find her?”
“She frequents the banks below the city. You know the old stone bridge?” Caleb asked, and I nodded.
The bridge, a forty-minute drive past the warehouse district south of the city, was a thing of mystery and rumor.
After the Magical Awakening, when the spaces between began to unfold and the perceivable world grew, Nekros had unfolded between Georgia and Alabama. The first settlers in what would quickly grow into Nekros City noted that the stone bridge was already there, and that it was already old.
“Wel ,” he said, “if you head out toward the bridge, the riverbanks in that area are your best bet. She’s often spotted there.”
Okay, questioning the kelpie would be a good starting Okay, questioning the kelpie would be a good starting point. Hopeful y she’d know something. I could ask a few questions, poke around a bit, and hand off what I learned to John. This was legwork, the equivalent of knocking on doors.
Except I’m going to be searching the banks for a
I sighed and pushed myself off my bed.
“If I go looking for the kelpie, what kind of precautions should I take? I mean, according to folklore, kelpies drown their victims, then tear them to pieces to eat them. Is that accurate?”
“I definitely wouldn’t suggest taking up equestrianism,”
Caleb said with a grin. “But as long as you don’t climb on her back, you should be safe.”
“If you have any trouble, you can use this.” Malik pul ed a leather harness from under his coat.
No, not a harness. A bridle. I cocked an eyebrow. My father had sent my sister and me to camp one summer and we’d learned to ride and care for horses. Cleaning hooves had convinced Casey she didn’t want a pony after al , but it was the bridling and saddling that had gotten to me—the mare I picked wasn’t cooperative. I imagined struggling with a fae would be incalculably worse.