Flight from mayhem, p.17
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       Flight from Mayhem, p.17

           Yasmine Galenorn
 
I stared at it. “That’s no ordinary frog.”

  “Obviously not. Tonya, you seem versed on creatures. Any idea of what we have here?” Alex carried the box over to the nightstand. “It feels about the right weight for a frog.”

  She hesitantly approached it, cocking her head. After a moment, she shrugged. “I have no idea. It’s not like any frog I’ve ever seen. See the crest and spines on its back?”

  I leaned closer and sure enough, she was right. For one thing, the frog almost glowed—it was neon green with gold leopard spots, each surrounded by a nimbus of black. Along its back were a row of spines. Rather than porcupine quills, they looked more like a horse’s mane cut into a Mohawk and slathered with setting gel. The spines were mottled, green and red. The frog’s eyes were a deep black, glistening, and I sensed a very strong intelligence behind them.

  “Should we try talking to it?” Ralph scratched his head, looking puzzled.

  “Hey, frog. Do you by chance speak English?” Tonya spoke directly to it. The frog stared back, and—with the slightest shift of its eyes—I could have sworn it understood her. But no response.

  “Should we open the box? It doesn’t look locked.” I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but one of us had to ask it.

  “Are you insane? What if it’s dangerous? What if it’s . . . Well, now, what are we doing?” Alex spoke very softly and the rest of us looked back at the frog.

  The creature was puffing up, very much like a blowfish. In fact, another inch and it would fill the box, which meant either it would have a hell of a lot of pressure bearing down on it or—

  The or, it was.

  As the sides of its skin touched the plastic cover, the lid blew off—like it had been on a spring, and the frog hopped past us, into the middle of the room, where it stopped. But it was still growing, though now it looked nothing like a frog. No, it was mutating. And then, before we could say a word, a young girl stood there, with eyes so dark you could fall into them, and hair the color of spring grass. She was odd looking—very Elfin in some regards, with a pointed chin and very sharp ears. But this was no elf.

  “What . . . who are you?” I asked out of habit, unable to take my eyes off her. There was something transfixing about her—almost mesmerizing.

  “Oh good gods, I think she’s one of the Elder Fae.” Alex was backing away. “Be very careful. They’re a tricky lot, even for dragons, Shimmer.”

  “Thanks, you just outed me.” I shot him a quick glare. Sometimes, keeping the truth of my identity was a good idea, especially when facing what could potentially be a dangerous foe.

  The girl—though I quickly realized I needed to stop referring to her as a girl . . . chances were she was as old as or older than I was—was barely four feet high, and her arms were thin and insubstantial, while her legs looked muscled and ready to run. She was stocky, with ruddy skin.

  “Who are you?” Tonya stayed where she was, focusing on the girl.

  The frogshifter cocked her head to one side, as though she were deciding whether to answer. After a moment, in a throaty voice, she said, “Who I am is none of your concern, human. But I owe you a favor for freeing me from my prison.”

  The word prison worried me. Who had locked her up, and why?

  Alex must have been thinking along the same lines because he asked, “Why were you in the box?”

  “An enemy locked me in to prevent me from helping my friend.” She frowned, looking around. “He’s gone, isn’t he?”

  “Are you talking about Stone Weaver? We came out here to find out if he was all right. There are reports he’s missing.” I paused, a thought crossing my mind. What if this was the doppelgänger? But then, no, it wouldn’t have shut itself in a box, and surely doppelgängers couldn’t assume the air of the Elder Fae. Plus, Alex seemed so certain about her.

  “Stone Weaver is a friend of the Elder Fae—and yes, you are right, vampire, I am one of them.” Her eyes narrowed and a cunning look stole over her face. “I warned him not to trust the woman, but he was infatuated. I warned him that she wasn’t who she seemed to be, but his ego got the best of him and now he’s gone. The creature came in here, sniffing around for gold. I could see the greed in her eyes—but the Weaver only heard the flattery. He was hungry for praise, and his need blinded him.”

  As she was speaking, I focused on her emotions but couldn’t sense a thing. She must have powerful protection and warding up. Either that, or I just couldn’t read the Elder Fae. But jealousy and anger rang clear in her voice. For a brief moment the thought she might have killed him in a jealous rage ran through my mind, but I pushed it aside. And right then, a flash of understanding hit me.

  “You saw her kill him, didn’t you? She trapped you because she thought you were a danger and there was nothing you could do to stop it?” As I spoke, the girl turned to me and the cunning look vanished as pale gold tears streamed down her face and fell to the floor, solidifying into coins.

  As the coins clattered to the floor, she hung her head. “I tried to stop her, but she caught me in the box. Even though he didn’t love me, I would have protected him with my life.”

  CHAPTER 11

  Alex and Ralph stared at the coins. Tonya was focused on the girl’s face.

  “You want them, don’t you?” the Elder Fae asked. “You see my coins and you’re like all the others. You want them.” She sounded angry and defeated.

  Alex shook his head. “I don’t need treasure. Neither does Ralph. But I’ve never seen . . . What are you, if I may ask? I know you’re one of the Elder Fae.”

  Quick as a cat, she moved past him and sat on the bed, crossing her legs. “I’m known as Gerta, the Golden Frog. Mortals have chased me for my tears since I can first remember.”

  “Stone Weaver . . .”

  “He kept me around for my tears. I didn’t want to stay, but there was always the hope he might return my feelings. That he might want me for more than my wealth.” Her voice was wistful and I realized she was very young, as far as the Elder Fae went. I found myself tearing up, empathizing with the loneliness in her voice.

  “You don’t have many friends, do you?” Before I could stop myself, I was by her side kneeling down. I reached out to touch her arm, but she jerked out of my reach.

  “Don’t touch me or you’ll hurt yourself.” The words were hoarse, and she gave me a wide-eyed look that told me she had been hurt one too many times.

  I stayed my hand. “How so?”

  “My skin . . . it oozes a poison that can paralyze and stop the heart.”

  “I’m a dragon. I’m immune to most poisons.”

  “I’m one of the Elder Fae. I wouldn’t count yourself clear of my dangers so easily.” She held up her arm. “Look closely.”

  I leaned in for a better look. Sure enough, there were pale drops—tiny, the size of pinheads, welling up on her skin. The opaque liquid was murky, and I caught the faint hint of something acrid. “Do you always have that sheen on you?”

  She nodded. “Always. There are some who can touch me, who are immune to the poison. Stone Weaver was. He was one of the few who could take my hand.”

  “Will you tell us what you know? We’re trying to catch the . . .” I paused. She hadn’t mentioned the word doppelgänger yet and I wasn’t sure if we should tell her. “Killer. She’s killed more than once and we’re trying to stop her before she finds another victim.”

  Alex pulled up a chair. “We don’t want your tears, we don’t want to hurt you. All we want is to find the . . .” He glanced at me and seemed to come to the same conclusion I had. “We are looking for Stone’s murderer. You can help us find her.” He glanced at Ralph and Tonya. “Make certain the front door is locked. We don’t want anybody surprising us while we’re in here.”

  They headed out of the room. I pulled a second chair over next to Alex. “Please help us, Gerta.”

  The Elder Fae
thought for a moment, then said, “All right. I will tell you what I know. Stone Weaver and I have been friends for years. I know he mostly wanted my tears, but he was kind to me, and he made me feel less alone. About three weeks ago, he came home from a meeting of the Supe Community Action Council, and he seemed . . . off. Not his usual self.”

  “How so?”

  “He was humming—and Stone never hums. I asked him what was up and he said that he had met someone, that he thought maybe he finally had met someone who could be his match.” She let out a long breath. “I wasn’t happy for him. How could I be? But I tried to accept it, and I tried to support him. Then, she came to visit.”

  “Would a description do us any good?” I asked, mostly to Alex.

  He shook his head. “I doubt it.”

  “Stone Weaver was enthralled—he seemed intoxicated by her. I swear she was feeding him some sort of drug because every time I mentioned even the littlest thing that seemed off, he would fly into a rage, defending her. But then she saw me crying once, and the light in her eyes told me that she coveted my tears. She was after money.” Gerta stared harshly at the bed. “She did everything he wanted, and he followed her around like a slave.”

  “When did you first begin to think it was a doppelgänger and not just some gold digger?” Tonya appeared in the doorway again. “Everything is tight as a drum.”

  I groaned. Tonya had just given away our theory.

  Gerta jerked slightly, then frowned. “Doppelgänger? You think she was a . . . that would make sense, though. Because I do remember walking into the bedroom after Stone went outside to check on the wind machine, and I found him standing in front of the mirror. I thought he just doubled back really quickly but maybe I was wrong. That was a few days back. Then, a day or so later, I found her rummaging through his desk. I managed to back out of the room without being seen—or at least I thought she . . . it didn’t see me. I turned into my frog shape in order to spy on her, but I guess she was on to me. Before Stone got home from town, she slapped a pan over me. The next thing I knew, she had me in that box. I couldn’t change form in there. She shoved me under the bed and I figured she was going to steal me to force my tears to come.”

  “What happened next?” Alex was taking notes.

  “Well, an hour or so later, Stone and she had an argument in the bedroom. She told him that I stomped off in a huff. He started yelling at her and the next thing, I heard crashes and a loud thump. After that, I never heard his voice again. I expected her to come back for me, but so far—no go.”

  Alex leaned back in his chair. “So there might still be a chance she—it—will return. The doppelgänger knows you have golden tears, right?”

  Gerta nodded. “Yes, Stone made me cry to show her. He was proud of being able to show me off like a trained seal.” She sounded so glum that I wanted to hug her.

  “Why didn’t you leave? He treated you so badly.”

  She looked up at me and shook her head, a pained look on her face. “I loved him. I always thought he would finally realize that and love me back.”

  I wanted to say something but kept my mouth shut. Abuse was rampant in all realms, and Gerta was still in the phase where she was making excuses for her abuser. She wouldn’t be able to see clearly until she was ready to really look at herself. For all her golden tears, she probably thought she was worthless.

  Alex flashed me a question with his eyes and I shook my head. With an imperceptible nod, he smiled at the frogshifter. “The creature is out for money, so it may return. It locked you away so you couldn’t warn Stone Weaver, but it knows that you are a source of wealth. Unless it’s convinced the danger is too great, I doubt it will be able to resist the lure of easy money.”

  He hesitated for a moment, then cautiously added, “I don’t want to intrude, Gerta, but if I were you, I’d keep your ability to yourself until you truly know you can trust someone. Stone Weaver made you cry for money—and that’s a rotten thing to do. But there are plenty of people who would hurt you far more and enjoy it, to capitalize on your assets. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

  Wide-eyed, she nodded. “I’ve met a few in my life. They hurt me badly and laughed while I cried for them.”

  “Where do you live? Where’s your home?” I wanted to get her back to her family, to find a safe place for her because it was rapidly becoming clear that Gerta made the perfect victim. And with her low self-esteem and such a great desire to be loved, she was headed for a disaster far greater than losing an unrequited love.

  She shrugged. “The realm of the Elder Fae, but I like it over here.” Sadly, she said, “I like humans. I like their laughter and the fun they seem to have. I don’t like my own kind much.”

  Ralph cocked his head, a look of understanding crossing his face. “You’re still quite young, aren’t you?”

  Again, she shrugged. “Yes, I suppose so, among the Elder Fae I’m practically a newborn.”

  That was it. A newborn. Gerta wasn’t looking for a lover, she was looking for a parent—for someone to watch over her. I turned to Alex. “We can’t leave her here on her own.”

  “I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me!” Gerta was quick to protest.

  Alex motioned for me to follow him out of the room, while Ralph kept watch over her. “What do we do with her? She could probably take us both on. She’s Elder Fae, but she’s also a sprout. There’s no Department of Social Services for the lot of them. Who do we talk to about her?”

  “Maybe Chai has some advice. Or Bette. Please, let’s take her back to headquarters with us? We can’t leave her here. If that freak returns, it will enslave her and probably torture the coins out of her eyes.” I wanted to say I was sorry, that I didn’t like arguing and that I just wanted things to be calm between us. Instead, I focused on Gerta. But Alex surprised me.

  “I’m sorry, love. I didn’t mean to slam out like I did this morning. We’ll have to figure something out about Glenda, but I don’t want to hurt you.” He held out his arms and I slipped into them, enjoying the feel of my head against his shoulder. “We’ll take her back,” he whispered in my ear. “We’ll figure out something to help her.”

  And then we returned to the bedroom.

  “So, if she killed Stone Weaver, where did she put the body?” Ralph asked.

  Gerta let out a little sob but managed not to break into tears again. “I don’t think she cared about hiding him, not any more than it would take to loot his accounts. If she . . . it . . . thought that nobody knew Stone was missing, I imagine that his . . . that he . . . is out there in the woods somewhere.”

  Ralph cleared his throat. “I can probably find him. If I shift into my wolf shape, I’m going to be able to track down the scent of decay—” As Gerta made a strangled sound, he stopped. “Crap. I’m sorry. But I think I could pick up on his scent since it’s probably been a couple days since Stone’s been seen.”

  Alex frowned. “All right, but it’s dangerous out there. We’re going out with you, and we’ll wait near the edge of the trees.” He motioned to me. “Bring Gerta. Tonya, you help Shimmer.”

  Still protesting she would be fine on her own, Gerta finally consented to go with us.

  As we headed out toward the edge of the yard, the trees loomed tall against a dark sky. Ralph moved to one side and transformed into a beautiful white wolf. He shimmered, his clothes becoming a bandana around his neck. I always wondered about Weres and their clothing until I came to work at the agency. When Dragonkin shifted, our clothes shifted, too, and I could never figure out how it worked.

  Tonya and I flanked Gerta’s side cautiously, to avoid touching her, while Alex followed Ralph to the edge of the trees. Ralph padded off into the woods, his white fur waving in the breeze. The rain had stopped, but it was chilly, and I noticed Tonya starting to shiver.

  “Take Gerta and get into the car. Lock the doors.” I moved over to Al
ex. “Unlock the door for them, would you? Tonya can’t take the cold like we can.”

  He glanced over his shoulder. “Right,” he said, and beeped the key fob. As Tonya and Gerta settled themselves in the backseat, he locked it from where we were standing. “Do you think Ralph will find anything?”

  “If there’s a body to find, my guess is that yes, Ralph will be able to hunt it down.” I let out a long sigh. “What do you think about Ralph’s ultimatum? That he marry his sister-in-law? He said he’s going to do it and you know he’ll follow through. He won’t go against his parents. He respects them too much.”

  “He may respect them, but he’s making a mistake if he accepts the responsibility. You don’t get married if you don’t love someone. It might have worked in the old days when love was a luxury, but now? There are too many other options. He could set them up in an apartment, pay for their rent and keep. He’s rich and has plenty of money. He doesn’t have to marry the woman.” Alex frowned. “I’m not against marriage, but you have to admit, this has too many shades of disaster painted on it.”

  “Yeah, I know. Though, in the Dragon Reaches, matches are made politically more than anything else. It matters who you marry, there.” I stared into the dark thicket of trees. “But honestly? This is Ralph’s affair. It’s his choice and he has to do what he feels is right. And we aren’t very good friends if we don’t support his choice.”

  That probably wasn’t what Alex wanted to hear, but he kept quiet, scanning the yard. After a moment, he said, “So you think I should keep my mouth shut about how I feel?”

  “I think that our opinion doesn’t matter. Or it shouldn’t. I don’t want to put him in the position of feeling like . . .”

  “Like we expect him to follow what we say or we’ll ditch him?” Alex relaxed then, his shoulders losing that “at attention” look that he had been sporting. “I don’t want that either. All right, I’ll drop the subject and if we end up pressed into attending a wedding, we’ll go and smile. But you know, as well as I do, that it will be a shotgun wedding.”

 
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