Susan crouched under the pecan tree, holding a small limp body in her hands. She felt like some investigator on television, except that the investigators on television always had full makeup and push-up demi bras under tailored suit jackets instead of jean shorts and suede sandals which were getting ruined from the mud. Susan would describe herself as about fifteen pounds too heavy, currently unemployed and with a hobby she didn’t like to discuss. That’s how she thought of mage-craft: her hobby. If someone had informed her that she was the second most powerful mage in the Phoenix area, she would have scoffed and rolled her eyes. If she knew that at that moment she was being watched, that what she did with the body would make dangerous people take note of her, she’d be inside making wards, rather than turning the body over and searching it for cause of death.
This wasn’t the first body she had found in the garden, though Susan had blamed the first murder on the cat. Plausible, seeing as how Sphinx was able to see gnosti, and the first dead body had been one of the common garden fey, resembling a softer and cuddlier version of a hedgehog.
But not this one. He was too human looking. The dead gnosti had black hair and skin the color of dry soil, and was short enough that even a Barbie doll would have wanted to wear flats on a date with him. Unlike Ken, this dead gnosti came with complete tackle between his legs, which Susan was trying not to look at out of a vague sense of decency. He was about the same size as a garden fey, but she didn’t know if he even was a garden fey.
She’d never seen one that looked this human. Gnosti, then, until she had a better term.
Gnosti was the catch-all term for any magical creature: fey, djinn, seca. Even Ruby Gardener was technically a gnosti, though Susan preferred the terms ‘Goddess’ and ‘ancestor spirit’. Gnosti was about as useful a term as ‘animal’. Junebugs and pandas were both animals.
Sometimes it frustrated the hell out of Susan that even an experienced mage like herself had about as much knowledge of the gnosti as a seventeenth century European had about American wildlife. Even the best mages were just muddling through, making it up as they went along.
Once, Susan had found an online site with photos and descriptions of common garden fey and other gnosti. The only one she recognized was a bramblemae, and half the “facts” about them weren’t true. She’d seen one that looked something like the little Ken doll here, except that online the photo clearly showed him with wings, and it said they only lived in cold, damp climates. A suburb of Phoenix did not count as a cold, damp climate.
It was the humanness that made her decide to bury him, and it was his humanness that made her decide to get involved. Normally the fey affected human lives about as much as animals did. Sometimes they could come into your life, briefly, but mostly they lived their lives independent of and ignored by mankind. A dead gnosti had as much to do with Susan’s life as a dead pigeon would. Even two dead gnosti wouldn’t affect her at all.
Except that when he had fingers and toes and human features, he was no longer a body, but a murder victim.
She searched in the shed for a plastic trowel, still holding the limp body of the faerie in her hand. Susan never liked touching dead things, and even when their previous cat had killed birds, she would usually wrap the feathered corpse in a paper towel shroud before picking it up, but it seemed disrespectful to treat it like one of the cat’s victims. She couldn’t dig easily in the soil with one hand, so she had to set the body on the ground. A fly settled on the gnosti’s hand briefly, then flew off. Most insects, like most people and most animals, didn’t even notice garden fey, as they existed halfway between this world and the Elsewhere. Once they were dead, they fell into one or the other, and either got eaten or decayed, or did whatever they did in the Elsewhere.
Until a few months ago, Susan had been living in a non-magical alternate reality, where everyone knew that gnosti didn’t exist and the only people who talked about magic were crazy homeless people and Sedona tourists. Sometimes she wondered if magic and gnosti had existed in that other world too, and she just hadn’t noticed it.
Susan had to abandon her first hole when she saw nasturtium seedlings covering the ground under the pecan tree’s trunk. Zoë, her roommate, landlady, and longest friend, was an avid gardener, and she wouldn’t appreciate any more destruction, especially in November when all the beds had been weeded and planted with seedlings in anticipation of six months of decent weather. Most of the garden had been destroyed earlier that summer by an evil djinn, which was kind of Susan’s fault. She buried the fey on top of the grave of Zoë’s cat. Zoë’s cat had also been killed by the djinn. Their friendship had withstood that, but barely, and Susan didn’t want to antagonize Zoë any more than she had to.
While Susan was washing the mud off her hands, Zoë opened the glass door leading from the master bedroom to the backyard. She plucked a vine of catsclaw off the screen of the window vents, and frowned at it. Even though they had hacked the catsclaw vines down the previous year, it was creeping up the wall again, as though trying to lasso the roof and drag the house to the ground.
Zoë held her hands under her armpits and tongued her lip piercings as though she had something difficult to say. Zoë was small and thin, with short hair that was black at the tips and platinum blonde at the roots. Her ears were pierced many times, her tongue was pierced, and her eyebrows had two rings apiece. She was wearing a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. The wing of each of the two full-length dragon tattoos on her back peeked out under the edge of the sleeve, and the tails of the dragons snaked out from under her denim shorts to curl around and tuck into her boots.
Susan turned off the water and dried her hands off on her shirt. She stood and shaded her eyes against the sun. “Something up?”
“You’re what?” Susan asked.
“I’m selling the house,” Zoë said, as though it were nothing at all to get rid of the home she had slaved and worked to perfect. Her most recent renovation, putting in gravel paths in the backyard, had taken several months to complete, and cost almost a thousand dollars. Zoë would never leave this house. Zoë loved this house. Even now she couldn’t help tearing vines away from the window.
“You can’t be serious!” Susan’s protest came out whiny and panicked. “You just fixed this place up!”
Zoë shrugged and snipped vines with a pair of scissors she took out of her pocket. “A friend of the family is selling his house. It’s bigger than this one, and on a quieter street. He’s giving it to me for a good price. I can’t let this opportunity pass by.”
“But what about me?” Susan asked. What she meant was, how could Zoë do something so horrible? This place wasn’t just a room that Susan rented, it was home. Why would Zoë disrupt something that was working just fine?
“You can rent a room in the new house,” Zoë said. “Unless you want to buy this house from me.”
“I can’t buy this house.” She didn’t have enough money or credit, for one thing. Also, she wanted Zoë to forget this crazy idea that sounded like a cruel joke.
“Good,” Zoë said, nodding. “Because Darius is okay with renting a room in the new house, so that will mean only one more tenant to find.”
“I don’t want to move. Why do you want a bigger house? This house is fine.”
“So get rid of some stuff.”
Zoë shook her head. “We need more space. Besides, I just fixed this place up, there’s nothing left to do.”
“Four years is an awfully long flip.” Susan folded her arms. She was aware that she sounded petulant, but she couldn’t help herself.
“Susan, we’re moving only a mile away,” Zoë said. “You can keep the same friends, shop at the same stores, and even use the same exit on the freeway. I know you don’t like change, but it will be for the best.”
“I’m fine with change,” Susan said.
“Good. We have some boxes, if you want to start packing early,” Zoë said. She went back into the house and shut the door.
“I don’t wanna move,” Susan said, after the door shut.
Susan knew she was whining. She also knew, deep down, that she didn’t like change at all. She’d had more than her fair share in the past year. Zoë’s news unsettled her. The dead gnosti upset her too. She needed comfort, even if she had promised herself that she wasn’t going to indulge anymore.
Six months earlier she’d spent every week doing the same thing, hanging out with her brother and sister and trying to get them and their mom out of the various straits (mostly financial) they found themselves in. Now she was here, without any family except her estranged sister and her mom Maggie, who was still holding a grudge about something stupid. Except Zoë, all her friends here were new. And if that weren’t bad enough, in this reality Susan was a mage who could see the fey. Susan was coming to terms with it, for the most part, but there were days when she relapsed.
Whenever she felt like life handed her too much to deal with, Susan liked to peer into the life she left behind. She had a huge mirror stuffed into the back of her closet, which she had tried to make into a portal home again. It didn’t work as a portal, but it showed her alternate counterpart. She clicked the light on. Did it count as voyeurism if the person you were spying on was wearing your old body?
Susan pulled off the old coat she had used to shield the front of the mirror from view. The mirror showed the reflection of the room, or what the reflection would have looked like, had it been hanging on the wall in the room behind her. It disconcerted her, especially how the image didn’t alter when you moved the frame. Her brain saw it as a mirror, but she’d been trying to remind herself it was just an unusual monitor with a camera feed to the other reality. There wasn’t any sound, but since you couldn’t string cable across the planes of reality, it was the best she could do to relieve homesickness.
The other Susan sat at her computer desk, listening to music and surfing the web. The door obscured the view briefly, then closed again, and a figure crossed the room. She hoped it was Jess or Christopher; viewing her dead siblings alive again was the main reason she kept the mirror. A brief rectangle of light showed that someone had opened the closet door in the other reality. A split second later, Susan heard her own closet door shut. And then she felt a hand on her shoulder.
Susan screamed and jerked away, tangling herself in the coats and dresses. A moment later, she laughed at herself. It was just the spirit of her dead grandmothers, taken corporeal form.
“You spying on her again?” Ruby tsked.
Ruby took the form of a rawboned woman in a calico dress. Her hands were rough and chapped, and her hair looked as though she’d never purchased any salon products. Her eyes were sharp. She wasn’t any specific grandmother, or great aunt, but the amalgamation of the deceased members of the Stillwater family.
Ruby folded her arms and nodded at the portal mirror. In the other universe, Zoë’s cat jumped onto the desk and ate the rest of a tuna sandwich the other Susan had left there. “You said you weren’t gonna do that. That’s not your world anymore.”
“I’m upset. I need some comfort.”
“Cause of Zoë selling the house?” Ruby asked. “She’s doing that in the other universe too. Susie threw a hissy fit over there.”
“So, I’m not the only one who’s spying.”
Ruby smacked her upside the head. “Don’t talk back to your elders.”
“Sorry,” Susan mumbled. “And it’s not just that. I found a murder victim today. A gnosti. Dead in the garden.” She briefly explained.
“Garden fey aren’t your concern. You could let his kinfolk deal with it.”
Susan frowned, and hung some of the coats back up. “But what if they don’t? I know it’s not my business, but I can’t help caring. A person died.”
“Didn’t you just say it wasn’t a human?”
“He looks like a person, and he died, in our backyard, and I already know the police won’t touch it. What if whatever type of gnosti he is don’t have police?
Ruby sighed. “I don’t want you to get wrapped up in someone else’s problems when you have problems of your own.”
“I don’t have problems this bad. There’s already one dead, what if there are more? What if I can do something about it? I can’t turn away when doing so might let another gnosti get murdered.” She sank down on the floor and made a seat on the shoe rack.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Ruby folded her arms and glared at Susan, but she didn’t say no, not that Susan would have obeyed her anyway.
“Thanks for your support, Ruby.”
Ruby tousled Susan’s hair. “Your heart’s in the right place, and you got a lot of common sense. I think you might be shaping up to be the wisest Stillwater woman since your Great Aunt Mabel. You oughta think about having babies though. I’m gonna get diluted by stupid when your mom dies, and the Stillwater line needs some good stock to toughen us up.”
“I need a man for that, and besides, I’m only twenty-three. There’s plenty of time.”
“Huh. Most of us were mothers three times over by your age.”
“Or dead from childbirth,” Susan pointed out.
“The sass from you!” Ruby swiped again at Susan, but didn’t connect. She wasn’t really mad. A corner of her mouth was turned up, which for Ruby was a huge grin. “Now, listen here, got a cousin of yours praying awful hard. Big guy upstairs ain’t got time, so I offered to field it. You wanna subcontract?”
“Sure. What is it?”
“She really wants to make the school’s swing choir so she can be friends with the popular girls. You know her, third cousin, the one you found the missing diary for.”
“Hadley, right.” Susan adjusted the shoe out from under her bottom to get more comfortable. “Wants to get into the swing choir? Hmm … Practice compulsion, anti-clumsiness charm, and a little self confidence so she’ll realize she doesn’t have to hang with the clique to have self worth. I could use some pointers on how to make the practice compulsion singing-specific, but the rest of it is stuff I’ve handled before.”
“Meditate before you go to bed tonight and I’ll send you some ideas in your sleep. Ain’t much in it for you, since all of it’s spells you’ve done before. Hope it’s no trouble.”
“It’s no trouble helping you. Besides, it’s good for my karma. Maybe it will help with that ‘finding a good job’ spell I cast work a little faster, because temping sucks.”
“I already helped you out there,” Ruby said.
“Susan?” Zoë opened the door to the bedroom by tapping on it. “Your phone was ringing.”
Susan opened the closet door and peeked her head out. “I’ll take it here.”
Zoë handed her the phone with an odd look, but didn’t say anything about why Susan would be sitting on the floor of her closet. Susan had never figured out if Zoë could see Ruby or not, and couldn’t come up with a way of asking that didn’t sound off the wall.
“Hello,” Susan said, trying to sound like the wisest Stillwater since Great Aunt Mabel. “This is Susan Stillwater.”
“Hi, Susan, this is Brian from Sun Valley Investigations. How you doing today?”
“Fine,” Susan replied, warily. Her heart started a frantic staccato. Was the Magical Investigation Bureau subcontracting? Did they find out about that illegal summoning her counterpart was involved in, or worse, the guy she had sort of murdered?
“Listen, we got your résumé forwarded to us from the temp agency, and we want you to come in for an interview.”
“Assisting, until you finish your training and background check, but yeah. It’s a permanent full-time position, starting next week, and I think we can offer the salary the temp agency said you were looking for, if you’re the right person for the job.”
“Great, what time?” Susan said. She looked over her shoulder to give Ruby the thumbs up, but Ruby had disappeared.