Divine misdemeanors, p.1
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       Divine Misdemeanors, p.1

         Part #8 of Merry Gentry series by Laurell K. Hamilton
 
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Divine Misdemeanors
Chapter 1-3

  Acknowledgments

  To Jonathon - I could not have invented you, because I did not know I needed you by my side until you were there. No amount of poetry can explain both the surprise of you, and the warm familiarity of you in my arms.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  This one has to be for Carri, who saw O-dark-thirty with me on this book, and she still came in to work the next day. I also have to acknowledge all the bumps along the road to this book, because without all the bad, would I have come to all the good? But really, guys, can it be a little less bumpy next time, please?

  Chapter One

  The smell of eucalyptus always made me think of southern California, my home away from home; now it might forever be entwined with the scent of blood. I stood there with the strangely hot wind rustling through the high leaves. It blew my summer dress in a tangle around my legs, and spread my shoulder-length hair in a scarlet web across my face. I grabbed my hair in handfuls so I could see, though maybe not being able to see would have been better. The plastic gloves pulled at my hair. They were designed so I didn't contaminate evidence, not for comfort. We were surrounded by a nearly perfect circle of the tall, pale tree trunks. In the middle of that natural circle were the bodies.

  The spicy smell of the Eucalyptus could almost hide the scent of blood. If it had been this many adult human-sized bodies the Eucalyptus wouldn't have had a chance, but they weren't adult-sized. They were tiny by human standards, so tiny, the size of dolls; none of the corpses were even a foot tall, and some were less than five inches. They lay on the ground with their bright butterfly and moth wings frozen as if in mid-movement. Their dead hands were wrapped around wilted flowers like a cheerful game gone horribly wrong. They looked like so many broken Barbie dolls, except that Barbie dolls never lay so lifelike, or so perfectly poised. No matter how hard I'd tried as a little girl, their limbs remained stiff and unyielding. The bodies on the ground were stiff with rigor mortis, but they'd been laid out carefully, so they had stiffened in strangely graceful, almost dancing poses.

  Detective Lucy Tate came to stand beside me. She was wearing a pants suit complete with jacket and a white button-up shirt that strained a little across the front because Lucy, like me, had too much figure for most button-up shirts. But I wasn't a police detective so I didn't have to pretend I was a man to try to fit in. I worked at a private detective agency that used the fact that I was Princess Meredith, the only American-born fey royal, and back working for the Grey Detective Agency: Supernatural Problems; Magical Solutions. People loved paying money to see the princess, and have her hear their problems; I'd begun to feel a little like a freak show until today. Today I would have loved to be back in the office listening to some mundane matter that didn't really need my special brand of help, but was just a human rich enough to pay for my time. I'd have rather been doing a lot of things than standing here staring down at a dozen dead fey.

  "What do you think?" she asked.

  What I really thought was that I was glad the bodies were small so that the trees covered most of the smell, but that would be admitting weakness, and you didn't do that on the rare occasions you got to work with the police. You had to be professional and tough or they thought less of you, even the female cops, maybe especially them.

  "They're laid out like something from a children's storybook down to the dancing poses and the flowers in their hands. "

  Lucy nodded. "It's not just like, it is. "

  "Is what?" I asked, looking at her. Her dark brunette hair was cut shorter than mine, and held back by a thick band so that nothing obscured her vision, as I still fought with my own hair. She looked cool and professional.

  She used one plastic-gloved hand to hold out a plastic-wrapped page. She held it out to me, though I knew not to touch it even with the gloves. I was a civilian, and I had been very aware of that as I walked through all the police on the way to the center of all this activity. The police were never that fond of the private detective, no matter what you see on television, and I wasn't even human. Of course, if I'd been human they wouldn't have called me down to the murder scene in the first place. I was here because I was a trained detective and a faerie princess. One without the other wouldn't have gotten me under the police tape.

  I stared at the page. The wind tried to snatch it from her hand, and she used both hands to hold it steady for me. It was an illustration from a children's book. It was dancing faeries with flowers in their hands. I stared at it for a second more, then looked down at the bodies on the ground. I forced myself to study their dead forms, then looked at the illustration.

  "They're identical," I said.

  "I believe so, though we'll have to have some kind of flower expert tell us if the flowers match up bloom for bloom, but except for that our killer has duplicated the scene. "

  I stared from one to the other again, those laughing happy faces in the picture and the very still, very dead ones on the ground. Their skin had begun to change color already, turning that bluish-purple cast of the dead.

  "He, or she, had to dress them," I pointed out. "No matter how many illustrations you see with these little blousy dresses and loincloth things, most demi-fey outside of faerie don't dress like this. I've seen them in three-piece suits and formal evening wear. "

  "You're sure they didn't wear the clothes here?" she asked.

  I shook my head. "They wouldn't have matched perfectly without planning it this way. "

  "We were thinking he lured them down here with a promise of an acting part, a short film," she said.

  I thought about it, then shrugged. "Maybe, but they'd have come to the circle anyway. "

  "Why?"

  "The demi-fey, the small winged fey, have a particular fondness for natural circles. "

  "Explain. "

  "The stories only tell humans not to step into a ring of toadstools, or a ring of actual dancing fey, but it can be any natural circle. Flowers, stones, hills, or trees, like this circle. They come to dance in the circle. "

  "So they came down here to dance and he brought the clothes?" She frowned at me.

  "You think that it works better if he lured them down here to film them," I said.

  "Yes. "

  "Either that or he watched them," I said, "so he knew they came down here on certain nights to dance. "

  "That would mean he or she was stalking them," Lucy said.

  "It would. "

  "If I go after the film angle, I can find the costume rental and the advertisement for actors for his short film. " She made little quote marks in the air for the word film.

  "If he's just a stalker and he made the costumes, then you have fewer leads to follow. "

  "Don't say he. You don't know that the killer is a he. "

  "You're right, I don't. Are you assuming that the killer isn't human?"

  "Should we be?" she asked, her voice neutral.

  "I don't know. I can't imagine a human strong enough or fast enough to grab six demi-fey and slit their throats before the others could escape or attack him. "

  "Are they as delicate as they look?" she asked.

  I almost smiled, and then didn't feel like finishing it. "No, Detective, they aren't. They're much stronger than they look, and incredibly fast. "

  "So we aren't looking for a human?"

  "I didn't say that. I said that physically humans couldn't do this, but there is some magic that might help them do it. "

  "What kind of magic?"

  "I don't have a spell in mind. I'm not human. I don't need spells to use against other fey, but I know there are stories of magic that can make us weak, catchable, and hurtable. "

  "Yeah, aren't these kind of fey supp
osed to be immortal?"

  I stared down at the tiny lifeless bodies. Once the answer would have simply been yes, but I'd learned from some of the lesser fey at the Unseelie Court that some of them had died falling down stairs, and other mundane causes. Their immortality wasn't what it used to be, but we had not publicized that to the humans. One of the things that kept us safe was that the humans thought they couldn't hurt us easily. Had some human learned the truth and exploited it? Was the mortality among the lesser fey getting worse? Or had they been immortal and magic had stolen it away?

  "Merry, you in there?"

  I nodded and looked at her, glad to look away from the bodies. "Sorry, I just never get used to seeing this kind of thing. "

  "Oh, you get used to it," she said, "but I hope you don't see enough dead bodies to be that jaded. " She sighed, as if she wished she wasn't that jaded either.

  "You asked me if the demi-fey are immortal, and the answer is yes. " It was all I could say to her until I found out if the mortality of the fey was spreading. So far it had only been a few cases inside faerie.

  "Then how did the killer do this?"

  I'd only seen one other demi-fey killed by a blade that wasn't cold iron. A noble of the Unseelie Court had wielded that one. A noble of faerie, and my blood kin. We'd killed the sidhe who did it, although he said that he hadn't meant to kill her. He had just meant to wound her through the heart as her desertion of him had wounded his heart - poetic and the kind of romantic drivel you get when you're used to being surrounded by beings who can have their heads chopped off and still live. That last bit hasn't worked in a long time even among the sidhe, but we haven't shared that either. No one likes to talk about the fact that their people are losing their magic and their power.

  Was the killer a sidhe? Somehow I didn't think so. They might kill a lesser fey out of arrogance or a sense of privilege, but this had the taste of something much more convoluted than that - a motive that only the killer would understand.

  I looked carefully at my own reasoning to make certain I wasn't talking myself out of the Unseelie Court, the Darkling Throng, being suspects. The court that I had been offered rulership of and given up for love. The tabloids were still talking about the fairy-tale ending, but people had died, some of them by my hand, and, like most fairy tales, it had been more about blood and being true to yourself than about love. Love had just been the emotion that had led me to what I truly wanted, and who I truly was. I guess there are worse emotions to follow.

  "What are you thinking, Merry?"

  "I'm thinking that I wonder what emotion led the killer to do this, to want to do this. "

  "What do you mean?"

  "It takes something like love to put this much attention into the details. Did the killer love this book or did he love the small fey? Did he hate this book as a child? Is it the clue to some horrible trauma that twisted him to do this?"

  "Don't start profiling on me, Merry; we've got people paid to do that. "

  "I'm just doing what you taught me, Lucy. Murder is like any skill; it doesn't fall out of the box perfect. This is perfect. "

  "The killer probably spent years fantasizing about this scene, Merry. They wanted, needed it to be perfect. "

  "But it never is. That's what serial killers say when the police interview them. Some of them try again and again for the real-life kill to match the fantasy, but it never does, so they kill again and again to try to make it perfect. "

  Lucy smiled at me. "You know, that's one of the things I always liked about you. "

  "What?" I asked.

  "You don't just rely on the magic; you actually try to be a good detective. "

  "Isn't that what I'm supposed to do?" I asked.

  "Yeah, but you'd be surprised how many psychics and wizards are great at the magic but suck at the actual detecting part. "

  "No, I wouldn't, but remember, I didn't have that much magic until a few months ago. "

  "That's right, you were a late bloomer. " And she smiled again. Once I'd thought it was strange that the police could smile over a body, but I'd learned that you either lighten up about it or you transfer out of homicide, or better yet, you get out of police work.

  "I've already checked, Merry. There are no other homicides even close to this one. No demi-fey killed in a group. No costumes. No book illustration left. This is one of a kind. "

  "Maybe it is, but you helped teach me that killers don't start out this good. Maybe they just planned it perfectly and got lucky that it was this perfect, or maybe they've had other kills that weren't this good, this thought-out, but it would be staged, and it would have this feel to it. "

  "What kind of feel?" she asked.

  "You thought film not just because it would give you more leads, but because there's something dramatic about it all. The setting, the choice of victims, the display, the book illustration; it's showy. "

  She nodded. "Exactly," she said.

  The wind played with my purple sundress until I had to hold it to keep it from flipping up and flashing the police line behind us.

  "I'm sorry to drag you out to something like this on a Saturday, Merry," she said. "I did try to call Jeremy. "

  "He's got a new girlfriend and keeps turning off his phone. " I didn't begrudge my boss, the first semi-serious lover he'd had in years. Not really.

  "You look like you had a picnic planned. "

  "Something like that," I said, "but this didn't do your Saturday any good either. "

  She smiled ruefully. "I didn't have any plans. " She stabbed a thumb in the direction of the other police. "Your boyfriends are mad at me for making you look at dead bodies while you're pregnant. "

  My hands automatically went to my stomach, which was still very flat. I wasn't showing yet, though with twins the doctor had warned me that it could go from nothing to a lot almost overnight.

  I glanced back to see Doyle and Frost, standing with the policemen. My two men were no taller than some of the police - six feet and some inches isn't that unusual - but the rest stood out painfully. Doyle had been called the Queen's Darkness for a thousand years, and he fit his name, black from skin to hair to the eyes behind their black wraparound sunglasses. His black hair was in a tight braid down his back. Only the silver earrings that climbed from lobe to the pointed tip of his ears relieved the black-on-black of his jeans, T-shirt, and leather jacket. The last was to hide the weapons he was carrying. He was the captain of my bodyguards, as well as one of the fathers to my unborn children, and one of my dearest loves. The other dearest love stood beside him like a pale negative, skin as white as my own, but Frost's hair was actually silver, like Christmas tree tinsel, shining in the sunlight. The wind played with his hair so that it floated outward in a shimmering wave, looking like some model with a wind machine, but even though his hair was near ankle-length and unbound, it did not tangle in the wind. I'd asked him about that, and he'd said simply, "The wind likes my hair. " I hadn't known what to say to that so I hadn't tried.

  His sunglasses were gunmetal gray with darker gray lenses to hide the paler gray of his eyes, the most unremarkable part of him, really. He favored designer suits, but he was actually in one of the few pairs of blue jeans he owned, with a silk T-shirt and a suit jacket to hide his own weapons, all in grays. We actually had been planning on an outing to the beach, or I'd have never gotten Frost out of slacks and into jeans. His face might have been the more traditionally handsome of the two, but it wasn't by much. They were as they had been for centuries, the light and dark of each other.

  The policemen in their uniforms, suits, and more casual clothes seemed like shadows not as bright, not as alive as my two men, but maybe everyone in love thought the same thing. Maybe it was not being immortal warriors of the sidhe but simply love that made them stand out to my eye.

  Lucy had gotten me through the police line because I'd worked with the police before, and I was actually a licensed private detective in this s
tate. Doyle and Frost weren't, and they had never worked with the police on a case, so they had to stay behind the line away from any would-be clues.

  "If I find out anything for certain that seems pertinent about this kind of magic, I will let you know. " It wasn't a lie, not the way I worded it. The fey, and especially the sidhe, are known for never lying, but we'll deceive you until you'll think the sky is green and the grass is blue. We won't tell you the sky is green and the grass is blue, but we will leave you with that definite impression.

  "You think there'll be an earlier murder," she said.

  "If not, this guy, or girl, got very lucky. "

  Lucy motioned at the bodies. "I'm not sure I'd call this lucky. "

  "No murderer is this good the first time, or did you get a new flavor of killer while I was away in faerie?"

  "Nope. Most murders are pretty standard. Violence level and victim differs but you're about eighty to ninety percent more likely to be killed by your nearest and dearest than by a stranger, and most killing is depressingly ordinary. "

  "This one's depressing," I said, "but it's not ordinary. "

  "No, it's not ordinary. I'm hoping this one perfect scene kind of got it out of the killer's system. "

  "You think it will?" I asked.

  "No," she said. "No, I don't. "

  "Can I alert the local demi-fey to be careful, or are you trying to withhold the victim profile from the media?"

  "Warn them, because if we don't and it happens again, we'll get accused of being racists, or is that speciesist?" She shook her head, walking back toward the police line. I followed her, glad to be leaving the bodies behind.

  "Humans can interbreed with the demi-fey, so I don't think speciesist applies. "

  "I couldn't breed with something the size of a doll. That's just wrong. "

  "Some of them have two forms, one small and one not much shorter than me. "

  "Five feet? Really, from eight inches tall to five feet?"

  "Yes, really. It's a rare ability, but it happens, and the babies are fertile, so I don't think it's quite a different species. "

  "I didn't mean any offense," she said.

  "None taken, I'm just explaining. "

  We were almost to the police line and my visibly anxious boyfriends. "Enjoy your Saturday," she said.

  "I'd say you too, but I know you'll be here for hours. "

  "Yeah, I think your Saturday will be a lot more fun than mine. " She looked at Doyle and Frost as the police finally let them move forward. Lucy was giving them an admiring look behind her sunglasses. I didn't blame her.

  I slipped the gloves off even though I hadn't touched a thing. I dropped them onto the mass of other discarded gloves that was on this side of the tape. Lucy held the tape up for me and I didn't even have to stoop. Sometimes short is good.

  "Oh, check out the flowers, florists," I said.

  "Already on it," she said.

  "Sorry, sometimes I get carried away with you letting me help. "

  "No, all ideas are welcome, Merry, you know that. It's why I called you down here. " She waved at me and went back to her murder scene. We couldn't shake because she was still wearing gloves and carrying evidence.

  Doyle and Frost were almost to me, but we weren't going to get to the beach right away either. I had to warn the local demi-fey, and try to figure out a way to see if the mortality had spread to them, or if there was magic here in Los Angeles that could steal their immortality. There were things that would kill us eventually, but there wasn't much that would allow you to slit the throat of the winged-kin. They were the essence of faerie, more so even than the high court nobles. If I found out anything certain I'd tell Lucy, but until I had something that was useful I'd keep my secrets. I was only part human; most of me was pure fey, and we know how to keep a secret. The trick was how to warn the local demi-fey without causing a panic. Then I realized that there wasn't a way. The fey are just like humans - they understand fear. Some magic, a little near-immortality, doesn't make you unafraid; it just gives you a different list of fears.

  Chapter Two

  Frost tried to hug me, but I put a hand on his stomach, too short to really touch his chest. Doyle said, "She's trying to appear strong in front of the policemen. "

  "We shouldn't have let you come see this now," Frost said.

  "Jeremy could have given a fey's opinion. "

  "Jeremy is the boss and he's allowed to turn his phone off on a Saturday," I said.

  "Then Jordan or Julian Kane. They are psychics and practicing wizards. "

  "They're only human, Frost. Lucy wanted a fey to see this crime scene. "

  "You shouldn't have to see this in your condition. "

  I leaned in and spoke low. "I am a detective. It's my job, and it's our people up there dead on the hillside. I may never be queen, but I'm the closest they have here in L. A. Where else should a ruler be when her people are threatened?"

  Frost started to say something else, but Doyle touched his arm. "Let it go, my friend. Let us just get her back to the vehicle and be-gone. "

  I put my arm through Doyle's leather-clad arm, though I thought it was too hot for the leather. Frost trailed us, and a glance showed that he was doing his job of searching the area for threats. Unlike a human bodyguard, Frost looked from sky to ground, because when faerie is your potential enemy, danger can come from nearly anywhere.

  Doyle was keeping an eye out too, but his attention was divided by trying to keep me from twisting an ankle in the sandals that looked great with the dress but sucked for uneven ground. They didn't have too tall a heel, they were just very open and not supportive. I wondered what I'd wear when I got really pregnant. Did I have any practical shoes except for jogging ones?

  The major danger had passed when I'd killed my main rival for the throne and given up the crown. I'd done everything I could to make myself both too dangerous to tempt anyone and harmless to the nobles and their way of life. I was in voluntary exile, and I'd made it clear that it was a permanent move. I didn't want the throne; I just wanted to be left alone. But since some of the nobles had spent the last thousand years plotting to get closer to the throne, they found my decision a little hard to believe.

  So far no one had tried to kill me, or anyone close to me, but Doyle was the Queen's Darkness, and Frost was the Killing Frost. They had earned their names, and now that we were all in love and I was carrying their children, it would be a shame to let something go wrong. This was the end of our fairy tale, and maybe we had no enemies left, but old habits aren't always a bad thing. I felt safe with them, except that while I loved them more than life itself, if they died trying to protect me I'd never recover from it. There are all sorts of ways to die without dying.

  When we were out of hearing of the human police, I told them all my fears about the killings.

  "How do we find out if the lesser fey here are easier to kill?" Frost asked.

  Doyle said, "In other days it would have been easy enough. "

  I stopped walking, which forced him to stop. "You'd just pick a few and see if you could slit their throats?"

  "If my queen had asked it, yes," he said.

  I started to pull away from him, but he held my arm in his. "You knew what I was before you took me to your bed, Meredith. It is a little late for shock and innocence. "

  "The queen would say, 'Where is my Darkness? Someone bring me my Darkness. ' You would appear, or simply step closer to her, and then someone would bleed or die," I said.

  "I was her weapon and her general. I did what I was bid. "

  I studied his face, and I knew it wasn't just the black wraparound sunglasses that kept me from reading him. He could hide everything behind his face. He had spent too many years beside a mad queen, where the wrong look at the wrong moment could get you sent to the Hallway of Mortality, the torture chamber. Torture could last a long time for the immortal, especially if you healed well.

/>   "I was lesser fey once, Meredith," Frost said. He'd been Jack Frost, and, literally, human belief plus needing to be stronger to protect the woman he loved had turned him into the Killing Frost. But once he had been simply little Jackie Frost, just one minor being in the entourage of Winter's power. The woman he had changed himself completely for was centuries in her human grave, and now he loved me: the only non-aging, non-immortal sidhe royal ever. Poor Frost - he couldn't seem to love people who would outlive him.

  "I know you were not always sidhe. "

  "But I remember when he was the Darkness to me, and I feared him as much as any. Now he is my truest friend and my captain, because that other Doyle was centuries before you were born. "

  I studied his face, and even around his sunglasses I saw the gentleness - a piece of softness that he'd only let me see in the last few weeks. I realized that just as he would have had Doyle's back in battle, he did the same now. He had distracted me from my anger, and put himself in the way of it, as if I were a blade to be avoided.

  I held out a hand to him, and he took it. I stopped pulling against Doyle's arm, and just held them both. "You are right. You are both right. I knew Doyle's history before he came to my side. Let me try this again. " I looked up at Doyle, still with Frost's hand in mine. "You aren't suggesting that we test our theory on random fey?"

  "No, but in honesty I do not have another way to test. "

  I thought about it, and then shook my head. "Neither do I. "

  "Then what are we to do?" Frost asked.

  "We warn the demi-fey, and then we go to the beach. "

  "I thought this would end our day out," Doyle said.

  "When you can't do anything else, you go about your day. Besides, everyone is meeting us at the beach. We can talk about this problem there as well as at the house. Why not let some of us enjoy the sand and water while the rest of us debate immortality and murder?"

  "Very practical," Doyle said.

  I nodded. "We'll stop off at the Fael Tea Shop on the way to the beach. "

  "The Fael is not on the way to the beach," Doyle said.

  "No, but if we leave word there about the demi-fey, the news will spread. "

  "We could leave word with Gilda, the Fairy Godmother," Frost said.

  "No, she might keep the knowledge to herself so she can say later that I didn't warn the demi-fey because I thought I was too good to care. "

  "Do you truly think she hates you more than she loves her people?" Frost asked.

  "She was the ruling power among the fey exiles in Los Angeles. The lesser fey went to her to settle disputes. Now they come to me. "

  "Not all of them," Frost said.

  "No, but enough that she thinks I'm trying to take over her business. "

  "We want no part of her businesses, legal or illegal," Doyle said.

  "She was human once, Doyle. It makes her insecure. "

  "Her power does not feel human," Frost said, and he shivered.

  I studied his face. "You don't like her. "

  "Do you?"

  I shook my head. "No. "

  "There is always something twisted inside the minds and bodies of humans who are given access to the wild magic of faerie," Doyle said.

  "She got a wish granted," I said, "and she wished to be a fairy godmother, because she didn't understand that there is no such thing among us. "

  "She's made herself into a power to be reckoned with in this city," Doyle said.

  "You've scouted her, haven't you?"

  "She all but threatened you outright if you kept trying to steal her people away. I investigated a potential enemy's stronghold. "

  "And?" I asked.

  "She should be frightened of us," he said, and his voice was that voice of before, when he'd been only a weapon and not a person to me.

  "We stop by the Fael, and then we'll talk about what to do with the other godmother. If we tell her and she tells no one, then it is we who can say that she cares more about her jealousy of me than about her own people. "

  "Clever," Doyle said.

  "Ruthless," Frost said.

  "It would only be ruthless if I didn't warn the demi-fey some other way. I won't risk another life for some stupid power play. "

  "It is not stupid to her, Meredith," Doyle said. "It is all the power she has ever had, or will ever have. People will do very bad things to keep their perceived power intact. "

  "Is she dangerous to us?"

  "In a full frontal assault, no, but if it is trickery and deceit, then she has fey who are loyal to her and hate the sidhe. "

  "Then we keep an eye on them. "

  "We are," he said.

  "Are you spying on people without telling me?" I asked.

  "Of course I am," he said.

  "Shouldn't you run things like that by me first?"

  "Why?"

  I looked at Frost. "Can you explain to him why I should know these things?"

  "I think he is treating you like most royals want to be treated," said Frost.

  "What does that mean?" I asked.

  "Plausible deniability is very important among monarchs," he said.

  "You see Gilda as a fellow monarch?" I asked.

  "She sees herself as such," Doyle said. "It is always better to let petty kings keep their crowns until we want the crown and the head it sits upon. "

  "This is the twenty-first century, Doyle. You can't run our life like it's the tenth century. "

  "I have been watching your news programs and reading books on governments that are present-day, Merry. Things have not changed so very much. It is just more secret now. "

  I wanted to ask him how he knew that. I wanted to ask him if he knew government secrets that would make me doubt my government, and my country. But in the end, I didn't ask. For one thing, I wasn't certain he'd tell me the truth if he thought it would upset me. And for another, one mass murder seemed like enough for one day. I had Frost call home and warn our own demi-fey to stay close to the house and to be wary of strangers, because the only thing I was sure of was that it wasn't one of us. Beyond that I had no ideas. I'd worry about spies and governments on another day, when the image of the winged dead weren't still dancing behind my eyes.

  Chapter Three

  I drove to the Fael tea shop, and Doyle was right. It wasn't close to the beach, where everyone would be waiting. It was blocks away in a part of town that had once been a bad area but had been gentrified, which used to simply mean claimed by the yuppies, but had come to mean a place that the faeries had moved into and made more magical. It would then become a tourist stronghold, and a place for teens and college students to hang out. The young have always been drawn to the fey. It's why for centuries you put charms on your children to keep us from taking the best and brightest and the most creative. We like artists.

  Doyle had his usual death grip on the door and the dashboard. He always rode that way in the front seat. Frost was less afraid of the car and L. A. traffic, but Doyle insisted that as captain he should be beside me. The fact that it was an act of bravery to him just made it cute, though I kept the cute comment to myself. I wasn't certain how he would take it.

  He managed to say, "I do like this car better than the other one you drive. It's higher from the ground. "

  "It's an SUV," I said, "more a truck than a car. " I was looking for a parking spot, and not having much luck. This was a section of town where people came to stroll on a lovely Saturday, and there were lots of people, which meant lots of cars. It was L. A. Everyone drove everywhere.

  The SUV actually belonged to Maeve Reed, like so much of our stuff. Her chauffeur had offered to drive us around, but the moment the police called, the limo stayed at home. I had enough problems with the police not taking me seriously without showing up in a limo. I'd never live that down, and Lucy wouldn't live it down either, and that mattered more. It was her job. In a sense, the other police were right; I wa
s just sightseeing.

  I knew that part of the problem was the car itself, all that technology and metal. Except that I knew several lesser fey who owned cars and drove. Most of the sidhe had no trouble in the big modern skyscrapers, and they had plenty of metal and technology. Doyle was also afraid of airplanes. It was one of his few weaknesses.

  Frost called out, "Parking spot. " He pointed and I maneuvered the huge SUV toward it. I had to speed up and almost hit a smaller car that was trying to outmuscle me for the spot. It made Doyle swallow hard and let out a shaky breath. I wanted to ask him why riding in the back of the limo didn't bother him to this degree, but refrained. I wasn't sure if pointing out that he was only this afraid in the front seat of a car would make him more afraid in the limo. That we did not need.

  I got the parking spot, though parallel parking the Escalade wasn't my favorite thing to do. Parking the Escalade was never easy, and parallel parking was like getting a master's degree in parking. Would that make parking a semi the doctoral test? I really never wanted to drive anything bulkier than this SUV, so I'd probably never find out.

  I could see Fael's sign from the car, just a few storefronts down. We hadn't even had to go around the block once; perfect.

  I waited for Doyle to make his shaky way out of the car, and for Frost to unbuckle and come around to my door. I knew better than to simply get out without one of them beside me. They had all made very certain that I understood that part of being a good bodyguard was to train your guardee how to be guarded. Their tall bodies blocked me at almost every turn when we were on the street. If there had been a credible threat I'd have had more guards. Two was minimum and precautionary. I liked precautionary - it meant no one was trying to kill me. The fact that it was a novelty that no one was trying said a lot about the last few years of my life. Maybe it wasn't the happily ever after the tabloids were painting, but it was definitely happier.

  Frost helped me down from the SUV, which I needed. I always had a moment of feeling childlike when I had to climb in or out of the Escalade. It was like sitting in a chair where your feet swing. It made me feel like I was six again, but Frost's arm under mine, the height and solidness of him, reminded me that I was no longer a child, and decades from six.

  Doyle's voice came. "Fear Dearg, what are you doing here?"

  Frost stopped in mid-motion and put his body more solidly in front of me, shielding me, because Fear Dearg was not a name. The Fear Dearg were very old, the remnants of a faerie kingdom that had predated the Seelie and the Unseelie courts. That made the Fear Dearg more than three thousand years old, at minimum. Since they did not breed, for they had no females, they were all simply that old. They were somewhere between a brownie, a hobgoblin, and a nightmare - a nightmare that could make a man think that a stone was his wife, or that a cliff into the sea a path of safety. And some delighted in the kind of torture that would have pleased my aunt. I'd once seen her skin a sidhe noble until he was unrecognizable and then she made him follow her on a leash like a dog.

  The Fear Dearg could be taller than an average human or they could be shorter than me by a foot, and almost any size in between. The only sameness from one to the other was that they were not humanly handsome and they wore red.

  The voice that answered Doyle's question was high pitched though definitely male, but it was querulous with that tone that usually means great age in a human. I'd never heard that tone in the voice of a fey. "Why, I saved a parking spot for you, cousin. "

  "We are not kin, and how did you know to save a parking place for us?" Doyle asked, and there was now no hint of his weakness in the car in his deep voice.

  He ignored the question. "Oh, come. I'm a shape-shifting, illusion-using goblin, and so was your father. Phouka is not so far from Fear Dearg. "

  "I am the Queen's Darkness, not some nameless Fear Dearg. "

  "Ah, and there's the rub," he said in his thin voice. "It's a name I'm wanting. "

  "What does that mean, Fear Dearg?" Doyle asked.

  "It means I ha' a story to tell, and it would best be told inside the Fael, where your host and my boss awaits ye. Or would ye deny the hospitality of our establishment?"

  "You work at the Fael?" Doyle asked.

  "I do. "

  "What is your job there?"

  "I am security. "

  "I didn't know the Fael needed extra security. "

  "Me boss felt the need. Now I will ask once more, will you refuse our hospitality? And think long on this one, cousin, for the old rules still apply to my kind. I have no choice. "

  That was a tricky question, because one of the things that some Fear Deargs were known for was appearing on a dark, wet night and asking to warm before the fire. Or the Fear Dearg could be the only shelter on a stormy night, and a human might wander in, attracted by their fire. If the Fear Dearg were refused or treated discourteously, they would use their glamour for ill. If treated well, they left you unharmed, and sometimes did chores around the house as a thank-you, or left the human with a gift of luck for a time, but usually the best you could hope for was to be left in peace.

  But I could not hide behind Frost's broad body forever, and I was beginning to feel a little silly. I knew the reputation of the Fear Dearg, and I also knew that for some reason the other fey, especially the old ones, didn't care for them. I touched Frost's chest, but he wouldn't move until Doyle told him to, or I made a fuss. I didn't want to make a fuss in front of strangers. The fact that my guards sometimes listened more to each other than to me was still something we were working out.

  "Doyle, he has done nothing but be courteous to us. "

  "I have seen what his kind does to mortals. "

  "Is it worse than what I've seen our kind do to each other?"

  Frost actually looked down at me then, being alert for whatever threat might, or might not, be coming. The look even through his glasses said that I was oversharing in front of someone who was not a member of our court.

  "We heard what the gold king did to you, Queen Meredith. "

  I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The gold king was my maternal uncle Taranis, more a great-uncle, and king of the Seelie Court, the golden throng. He'd used magic as a date-rape drug, and I had evidence in a forensic storage unit somewhere that he had raped me. We were trying to get him tried among the humans for that rape. It was some of the worst publicity the Seelie court had ever had.

  I tried to peer around Frost's body and see who I was talking to, but Doyle's body blocked me, too, so I talked to the empty air. "I am not queen. "

  "You are not queen of the Unseelie Court, but you are queen of the sluagh, and if I belong to any court left outside the Summerlands, it is King Sholto's sluagh. "

  Faerie, or the Goddess, or both, had crowned me twice that last night. The first crown had been with Sholto inside his faerie mound. I had been crowned with him as King and Queen of the Sluagh, the dark host, the nightmares of faerie so dark that even the Unseelie would not let them skulk about their own mound, but in a fight they were always the first called. The crown had vanished from me when the second crown, which would have made me high queen of all the Unseelie lands, had appeared on my head. Doyle would have been king to my queen there, and it was once traditional that all the kings of Ireland had married the same woman, the Goddess, who had once been a real queen whom each king "married," at least for a night. We had not always played by the traditional human rules of monogamy.

  Sholto was one of the fathers of the children I carried, so the Goddess had shown all of us. So technically I was still his queen. Sholto had not pressed that idea in this month back home; he seemed to understand that I was struggling to find my footing in this new, more-permanent exile.

  All I could think to say aloud was, "I didn't think the Fear Dearg owed allegiance to any court. "

  "Some of us fought with the sluagh in the last wars. It allowed us to bring death and pain without the rest of you good folk" - and
he made sure the last phrase held bitterness and contempt in it - "hunting us down and passing sentence on us for doing what is in our nature. The sidhe of either court have no lawful call on the Fear Dearg, do they, kinsman?"

  "I will not acknowledge kinship with you, Fear Dearg, but Meredith is right. You have acted with courtesy. I can do no less. " It was interesting that Doyle had dropped the "Princess" he normally used in front of all lesser fey, but he had not used queen either, so he was interested in the Fear Dearg acknowledging me as queen, and that was very interesting to me.

  "Good," the Fear Dearg said. "Then I will take you to Dobbin, ah, Robert, he now calls himself. Such richness to be able to name yerself twice. It's a waste when there are others nameless and left wanting. "

  "We will listen to your tale, Fear Dearg, but first we must talk to any demi-fey who are at the Fael," I said.

  "Why?" he asked, and there was far too much curiosity in that one word. I remembered then that some Fear Dearg demand a story from their human hosts, and if the story isn't good enough, they torture and kill them, but if the story is good enough they leave them with a blessing. What would make a being thousands of years old care that much for stray stories, and what was his obsession with names?

  "That is not your business, Fear Dearg," Doyle said.

  "It's all right, Doyle. Everyone will know soon enough. "

  "No, Meredith, not here, not on the street. " There was something in the way he said it that made me pause. But it was Frost's hand squeezing my arm, making me look at him, that made me realize that a Fear Dearg might be able to kill the demi-fey. He might be our killer, for the Fear Dearg walked outside many of the normal rules of our kind, for all this one's talk of belonging to the kingdom of the sluagh.

  Was our mass murderer standing on the other side of my boyfriends? Wouldn't that have been convenient? I felt a flash of hope flare inside me, but let it die as quickly as it had risen. I'd worked murder cases before, and it was never that easy. Murderers did not meet you on the street just after you'd left the scene of their crime. But it would be nifty if just this once it really was that easy. Then I realized that Doyle had realized the possibility that the Fear Dearg might be our murderer the moment he saw him; that was why the extreme caution.

  I felt suddenly slow, and not up to the job. I was supposed to be the detective, and Lucy had called me in because of my expertise on faeries. Some expert I turned out to be.

 
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