Want to start at the beginning? Go here.
On Saturday morning, Susan put her cell phone in her pocket (in case Paul called, not that he had yet, the jerk) and went outside to search for clues that might lead her to the discovery of the murderer. Zoë didn’t believe in hiring someone else to do anything she could do herself, so instead of spending her free time renovating, she spent her evenings filling cardboard boxes with junk. Susan was still trying to pretend they weren’t moving, so she ignored the packing proceedings and sat down on the gravel path next to the spot where she’d found the body.
She pushed aside the lavender plant and the rosemary bush, finding pillbugs and releasing the lovely scents of crushed herbs, but except for that, she found nothing. No tiny footprints, no bloodstained garrotte, no incriminating letters. Plenty of fey hung around, as they always did, but they were the normal kind. Flamesprays (which looked like miniature hummingbird harpies) clustered around the lantana flowers, prying the flowers apart as though hunting for bugs. Bramblemaes chattered in the trees and groomed one another, occasionally dropping down a tuft of fur or a loose feather when their play turned to a fight. A graebnor sulked under the aloe vera, looking like a stone until it gaped toad-like at passing birds or thornwights and tried to snatch them to eat. Gnosti were usually cute, and occasionally icky, but they were almost always harmless and small. Once Zoë said she wished she could see them too, but Susan didn’t think she was missing much.
Not that they weren’t useful. Ruby said that the common garden fey were good in that they helped make earth energy useable, like the way beans fixed nitrogen in the soil. Most of the time Susan just drew her energy for spells directly from the earth, but there were less skilled mages that needed to use a shortcut. Also, hexelmoths could eat the remnants of curses and spells you didn’t want, which meant you could catch them and put them in a jar, keeping them going on nothing but the scraps of spells that didn’t turn out right.
Susan watched the garden fey for half an hour, (trying to ignore the pointed glances Zoë gave her when she walked past with yet another box to put in the storage shed), but she didn’t see any fey that looked anything like the dead one. It seemed logical that the way to find out about who murdered someone was to start talking to their nearest and dearest, looking for a motive. That’s what the detectives on TV always did. But what if the nearest and dearest didn’t talk? Not just wouldn’t, but couldn’t. Susan was stumped.
Darius hopped the fence into the backyard. Since the walls were as tall as him, and the gate unlocked, his climb was as athletic as it was pointless. He was a few inches shy of six feet, but he appeared much taller because he was still in that adolescent growth phase where only his hands and feet had reached their full size. He had medium-brown skin, wide African features, and frizzy white hair which he unsuccessfully tried to slick back against his head.
Susan had moved out of Maggie’s trailer when she was seventeen, and Zoë had offered to rent her a bedroom. Zoë, unlike Maggie, was stable and predictable, and let Susan do her own thing as long as she paid the rent on time. She’d also gently prodded Susan into staying in high school rather than quitting to get a full-time job, and she’d helped Susan polish up her résumé so she could find work that didn’t involve deep fat fryers and nametags. Susan had needed that environment like an aloe needs shade, and she’d never forget that Zoë had been there for her when she really needed someone.
Darius, who’d had difficulties with both his parents, had been kicked out that summer and needed a place to stay. Darius was like Susan in that he’d been asked to care for his mother for so long that he was losing the ability to care for himself. He, too, seemed to be thriving under Zoë’s laissez faire stability.
Darius walked, loose limbed, across the yard, leaping from one side of the flower bed to the other. Also athletic and pointless, since he could have gone around. Susan grinned at his energy.
“You could have gone through the gate,” Susan said.
“Nah, I don’t want Zoë to know I’m here. She’ll make me help pack.”
“You don’t want to move?”
Darius shrugged. “I’m cool with it.”
The head of Zoë’s black Siamese cat appeared out of thin air, followed by furry shoulders and body, then finally her kinked tail. It freaked Susan out to see the cat just step out of nowhere like that, even though she was the reason for it. When Susan had been practicing with small mirrors, trying to make a portal back to the non-magical universe she’d come from, she’d made one that functioned as a portal to a spot in the garden, halfway between the rosemary bush and the pecan trunk. Sphinx was unusual for a cat, in that she could both see the fey and was comfortable with magic. Typical for a cat, she wanted to go outside whenever she felt like it, so she had taken to using the mirror portal as a cat door.
“You seen the new place yet?” Darius asked.
“No.” Susan scratched Sphinx’s ears briefly, but didn’t pet her any more than that because she didn’t want Darius to think she liked cats.
“It’s big.” He flopped down on the ground beside Susan. A moment later, he fished out a stick from underneath himself that he had accidentally sat on. “You’re gonna like it, Sue. Stop moping.”
“I’m not moping.”
“Yeah you are,” Darius said. Darius broke the twig into pieces and tossed it into the branches of the orange tree. Sparrows and bramblemaes chirped and fluttered in agitation with each piece of wood he threw. “I know you’re pissed off, but it’s gonna be cool.”
“I’m trying not to think about it.”
“Ignoring it won’t make it go away. Few months, this house ain’t gonna be Zoë’s anymore, and unless you can pony up the dough to buy it, you aren’t gonna be here either.”
Darius leaned forward to pick up a pecan shell from the ground next to Susan. He muttered something at it and wound a bit of energy around the hull, then tossed it into the leaves next to where Sphinx was lying down waiting for more attention. The pecan skittered like it had feet, causing the leaves to rustle and Sphinx to go predatory. Her ears perked up and she crouched down, tail thrashing. A moment later, she pounced in the leaves and tore through them, trying to find the moving shell.
“Your mom teach you that?”
“Yeah. She can turn a nut into a beetle, but all I can do is make it move.”
Darius’s mom was one of the rare human-sized gnosti. She looked almost perfectly human, like an albino West-African woman, actually, but Darius said she was actually a gnosti from the Elsewhere. She was a skilled mage, inhumanly beautiful, and quite the bitch.
“How’s your mom doing?” Susan asked, to get him to shut up about the move.
“Same old, same old,” Darius said, flopping to the ground. “Said she’s clean, but dad caught her with some Sudafed. They had a big fight, and he threatened to kick her out if she couldn’t stay off the meds, then they threw out all the cold medicine in the house. Won’t last though.”
“I’m sorry,” said Susan.
Maggie, Susan’s mom, did a lot of pot, and drank too much, but neither one of them messed her up as much as Nyquil and Sudafed did to Darius’s mom. It was worse than if Darius’ mom was a junkie, because she could get what she needed on every corner, legally. Susan hoped Darius would be less stressed about the situation now that he was moved out and didn’t have to see it every day, but no matter how screwed up his mom was, he still visited her.
Susan knew what that was like.
Zoë walked into the backyard again, carrying yet another cardboard box. “Are you two going to help pack?”
“Didn’t you say we had till Halloween?”
“There’s a lot to do,” Zoë said. “I’m almost out of boxes, and I’ve still barely touched the living room.”
Susan elbowed Darius. “We’ll uh, we’ll go get more boxes then, okay?”
“Yeah,” Darius agreed, following Susan to the back gate.
Zoë snorted and went back into the house.
Darius and Susan went out through the back gate into the alley. When she was a child, Susan used to walk in the alleys all the time, thinking of them as her ‘secret passage’. In reality, they were anything but secret. The alleys were thirty feet wide, lined with the back walls of the yards on either side, and improved with sand and gravel that had been condensed into packed earth by this point. Every third house had a giant black plastic dumpster, which got emptied every week. Anything too big to fit in the dumpster, like tree branches or furniture, got collected from the alleys once a month. A neighbor four houses down had piled junk next to their wall, so Susan walked toward it and began poking around. She did have another reason to go in the alleys.
“So how’s the job going?” Darius asked.
“My boss is nice, and the job is easy, but I’m not really learning that much about investigating,” Susan said. “How about you?”
“I got ninja burrito-making skills. Whooaaa!” Darius mimed a karate chop in the air. Then he shrugged. “The guys I work with are cool. They invited me to this house party next weekend. I talked you up and they want me to bring you, cause mages are phat.”
“You are such a liar. No one thinks mages are phat.”
“Yeah, I’m telling you. Magic is in right now.”
Darius grinned. “Okay, you’re right, you’re still the queen of geeks, but they’ll still dig you. Seriously, chica, you need to stop moping and start socializing.”
“I went out with Amber, and what are you, my mother? Even Ruby doesn’t harass me like this. I get plenty of socialization.” Susan didn’t find anything useful in the trash, but she saw the branch of what looked like a pomegranate tree, and she stood on a concrete block to reach it.
“Then go with me just to be with me. They told me I should bring a hottie.”
“I’m flattered, but I’m still not dating you.” The tree had only one pomegranate within reach, and it wasn’t ripe yet. She could tell without even opening it that the seeds inside would be pale with just a hint of pink. Good enough. She wasn’t going to eat it, she was going to use it for a spell.
“You don’t dig on the black guys?” Darius asked from behind her. “Or does the half-faerie shit weird you out?”
“No, it’s cause you’re still jailbait.” She slipped as she grabbed the fruit, and accidentally broke off a piece of branch as she fell, but Darius grabbed her and helped her down so she didn’t hurt herself. She’d forgotten a bag, so she tucked the pomegranate into the bottom of her t-shirt and made a little knot to keep it there. “You look like a man, but the law says you aren’t, so you and I are doing nothing that resembles dating.”
“Yeah, I’m all man, baby.” Darius grinned again.
He really was cute, and Susan liked hanging out with him more than most of the other friends, but she couldn’t help thinking of him as a kid brother. A sixteen-year-old girl could seem like a woman, but a sixteen-year-old boy was a child in a man’s body.
“It doesn’t have to be a date. Just come out with me.”
Susan cleared her throat. “I kind of met someone last weekend.”
“You said you went out with Amber.”
“I did,” Susan said. “I met this really cool guy. Sounded like he wanted a second date, so I’d kind of like to keep my weekend open.”
“He call you yet?” Darius asked. “No, I can tell he didn’t. You call him?”
“I don’t have his phone number.” They walked past a house with a wooden gate that shook from the force of dogs jumping up against it from the other side. The dogs barked furiously, and Susan wondered if the gate would hold. “He said he just moved into town and didn’t have one yet.”
“Uh huh,” Darius said. “Just moved into town, doesn’t have a phone yet. Right.”
Susan kept walking past the dogs, around the corner to another house that had cleaned out their garage. Darius was right. It sounded like a lie as soon as she said it out loud. What a dimwit she was, falling for something like that. She lifted up the edge of a discarded mattress to see the appliances underneath. But why would he lie? “He seemed nice.”
“Susan, not that you’re not a fine piece of…not that you’re not a pretty girl, but if something’s not on the level with this dude, don’t see him again. What if he’s working for the MIB? You know they still got a file open on you.”
“I don’t think he works for the Magical Investigation Bureau,” Susan said. She tried to sound confident, but Darius had a good point.
“And what if he’s a gnosti?”
“That’s ridiculous.” She scoffed, but now she was really suspicious. There was something weird about him.
“Just look him up, is all I’m saying. I mean, Ruby’s got your back, right? She could have gotten you any job at all, and she got you one with a private investigator.”
“She didn’t get me the job, I applied for it.” Susan had carpet-bombed the Internet with résumés.
“She got you the job,” Darius insisted. “And even though I’m always giving you shit about ‘your demon’ we both know that she’s looking out for you. Look into this guy. Better yet, blow him off and go to this party with me next weekend. And borrow one of Zoë’s leather miniskirts.”
“Zoë’s miniskirt? Yeah, right. And what would I wear on the other leg? I’ll think about it,” she said, though she had already decided she didn’t want to go to a house party with a bunch of drunk high school kids, especially if she was the only white girl there. Darius was cool, because he was her friend, but except for him she couldn’t stand teenagers. Even when she’d been one, she couldn’t stand them.
“So, what are you really doing in the alley, besides picking fruit?”
“Looking for spell components.”
“More stuff for your demon?”
“Goddess,” she corrected, knowing it would make him grin because he just said “demon” to piss her off. “And yeah, but there’s something else I want to know too.” She told Darius about the dead faerie and about her plan to investigate. “Ruby said I shouldn’t get involved in others’ troubles, but it doesn’t seem right to just let this be.”
“Yeah, I’m with you there,” Darius said. “We gotta take care of our own. Poor people don’t got no one to look after them.”
“Darius, your dad owns a half million dollar house, and your mom is a member of a royal family. Why are you talking like your people are poor?”
Darius grinned and shrugged. “So how are you going to investigate? Look for clues? Talk to the other garden fey?”
“I couldn’t find any clues, and in case you haven’t noticed, garden fey don’t talk. So, I’m stumped.”
She needed some magnets too, and when she saw a computer, she used her fingernail as a screwdriver and began unscrewing the back panel in hopes that there was some kind of magnet inside. It took her longer than she would have liked, as they were Phillips head screws and her fingernails were kind of short, but eventually she got it open and pulled out the hard drive to get the magnets off. Darius amused himself by breaking up a cracked window pane into smaller pieces.
A truck came down the alley from the other end, and it stopped by a pile of branches. A guy got out and started rooting through the branches, loading up some of them into the back of his truck.
“Looks like someone else is doing the Mexican yard sale thing,” Darius said.
“Wonder what he’s after?” Susan asked.
They didn’t get to ask him. By the time she finished getting the magnets off the hard drive, he’d loaded up all the branches he wanted and took off.
Susan brushed dirt off her jeans and put the magnets into her pocket, then headed down the alley in search of … in search of something. Thing was, she didn’t quite know what she was looking for. She had four spells to do, three for her cousin Hadley and another one to get her information about the fey. She knew she needed magnets for one of the compulsion spells, and she needed the pomegranate for the spell to give her third cousin some self confidence, but she needed other things too, and she wasn’t quite sure what they were. She thought she needed some kind of nut. Something about nuts and wisdom? Pecans, maybe? She wasn’t quite sure how to begin, which was a crappy trait in an investigator. It was easier at work. At work, you just started with the phone book. Gnosti didn’t have phone books, did they? Was there a spell she could do to find the missing information?
She should know this. Technically, she was a mage who’d been doing this her whole life. At least, she was in the body of someone who had been doing this her whole life. That counted for a lot. In some ways, she felt more and more like Susie every day. Susie’s memories overcame her own memories. Susie’s interests appealed to her more too. But sometimes things didn’t mesh quite right.
Sometimes she tried to do something that Susie had done as easily as playing a scale in C, and found that she didn’t have the first clue how to go about it. In those cases, it was best to just let her thinking brain shut off and do things completely on intuition. It was like when you were trying to remember how a tune went. If you pushed at it, it never came. You had to think about how the tune made you feel, and where you were when you heard it, and sooner or later you’d find yourself humming it and tapping out the notes.
Susan picked up a cloudy piece of glass with a flower etched on it. Intuition said she needed it. She also got a metal spring from a mattress, some moss that had been growing on a utility box, and eight sprigs of pine, plucked from a branch that was pushing through a leaning wooden fence.
When she got back to the house and read Susie’s spellbooks, she found that intuition had gotten her everything she needed for Hadley’s spells except beeswax, linen, and hair from the target (target being Hadley).
She still didn’t have any idea how to investigate the murder of the dead fey, so she did two things she’d never done in her entire life.
She exhumed a corpse, and she went to work on her day off.
When Susan wanted to see gnosti, all she had to do was concentrate on her third eye, as though someone were lightly touching her between the brows. It would start to tingle, and a moment later, any garden fey or other magical creatures around would appear. She wondered if Brian would be able to see this little fey now that he was dead. Was their invisibility something intrinsic, based on the fact that they weren’t entirely of this world, or was it a power they had to exert to keep themselves safe? She’d asked Maggie once, but Maggie didn’t have a clue. Susan went to work, carrying the body in a shoebox filled with ice. It smelled like the dead sparrow that got stuck between the bedframe and the wall for a few days when it flew back there trying to escape Zoë’s cat and couldn’t get out again.
“Son of a bitch, what’s that smell?” someone said, as Susan walked down the hall of the office complex.
Well, that’s one metaphysical question answered. They were in this world enough that the non-mage types could sense them. Susan pushed open the door to the office and looked around until she found her boss.
Brian was tall, blond, ruddy complexioned, and perpetually cheerful. Susan had never seen him not smile. Even when he called in from the field, he sounded like he was smiling on the phone. It kind of worried her at first, and she waited for the other shoe to drop, but after a few days of working for him, she realized she was dealing with the rarest of rarities: a genuinely nice guy.
Brian was scanning a database when she came in, feet resting on the edge of his L shaped desk. He was flipping a pen around his thumb absentmindedly, and occasionally stopped long enough to check a name off a list. He looked amused, as though he were doing something fun instead of gruntwork on a Saturday, and when he saw her come in, he dropped his feet off the desk and stood up as though he’d been waiting for her to arrive.
“Hey, Susan! What brings you here? Come to keep me company?” He wrinkled his nose at the smell, but didn’t lose his cheerful expression. “Or do you need some help with something?”
“Hi, Brian, yeah, um, so remember how you said if I needed investigation advice you’d be happy to help? Well, I need it now, if that was a serious offer.” She set the box on the edge of his desk. “I want to know how to investigate a murder.”
“Leave it to the cops,” he suggested. For the first time, he looked less happy. “What are you involved in, Susan?”
“I tried to figure this out on my own, but I don’t know where to begin.” She lifted the lid.
Brian pressed the back of his hand against his nose. She’d filled the box with most of the dirt the fey had been buried in (it was a very shallow grave) in part to keep the smell down, and in part so she didn’t have to look at it very closely. She’d set the whole lump on top of an ice pack that she was fairly sure she’d never use again. The bottom of the shoe box was getting a little soggy from the condensation, so she slipped the lid underneath it to keep it from ripping open.
Brian pulled open a desk drawer and pulled out a pair of latex gloves. He slipped them on and began to pull lumps of dirt out of the box, setting them on top of the scrap lettuce and parchment paper from his sandwich. A moment later he gasped, and brushed dirt away from the corpse’s face. “Is that what I think it is?”
Did he see the same thing she saw? “What do you think it is?”
“A gnosti. A magical creature.”
“Yeah,” Susan said. “I found it in my backyard. I’m concerned, and I want to find out who killed him and why. They don’t usually kill each other unless it’s one garden fey eating another.”
“Usually? You see them all the time then?” Brian gently lifted the corpse from the box. It was totally bloated now, and the rigor mortis had worn off. The abdomen writhed as though something were crawling around inside. “Did you take photos of the place where the body was found?”
“No, I didn’t think of that. I looked for clues, but I didn’t find any.”
Brian inspected the decaying body, moving it back and forth, bending the legs and arms and brushing off the skin as though looking for marks. She had to think of the fey as an ‘it’ or she didn’t think she’d be able to hold her lunch. It, the corpse, seemed like a ghastly fleshy doll. Except for the size, it looked like a dead human. The eyes were gone, and the side it had been laying on was kind of purplish and flat, imbedded with bits of dirt from where the flesh had pressed into the earth. The smell was horribly strong, considering how small it was.
Brian didn’t seem terribly disturbed by it, but then, he used to be a cop. He fetched a pair of tweezers in his drawer, and calmly pulled a maggot out from the corpse’s mouth. He pulled a small jar out of the same drawer and dropped the maggot in, then sealed it and handed the jar to her. “This will be great practice for you to learn firsthand about investigations. Did you say there was another one?”
“Well, if this was a one-off, you might never find out who did it, on account of how you messed up the murder scene.”
“Oh, sorry,” she mumbled.
He waved off her apology. “You didn’t know. If it happens again, take photos, lots of photos, ten times as many photos as you think you need. Take notes as to any smells, sights, anything unusual. If you think you sense something, write it down and figure out later on why you thought you sensed it. Call me, and if I have a chance, I’ll come and investigate the body with you, show you how to estimate time and cause of death, things like that.”
“Thanks, Brian, that’s really nice of you. I appreciate it.”
“My pleasure,” he said. “I used to love this sort of thing when I was on the force, except when it was kids. I mean, not the death, but the puzzle, you know? It’s good to keep the skills up.”
“So you said you could estimate cause of death, how about this one?”
He winked. “That’s what the maggot’s for.”
Susan looked at the jar and wrinkled her lip. The maggot writhed around inside, looking for more garden fey to eat. She found it even more disgusting than the corpse. She’d never realized that investigating a murder would be so disgusting. “Any idea what killed … him?”
Brian shook his head. “Broken neck, it looks like. I don’t know if it’s pre- or post-mortem. A lab could find out. I gotta warn you though, that costs a lot of money.”
Susan pulled her lips in. “Well, thanks anyway.” If only there were a way of using magic to find things out.
“It’s not hopeless, Susan. You can still gather some facts.”
“Like what?” She put the lid back on the box. It made it smell a little bit better.
“You can find out about their habits, basic facts. What kind of gnosti is this?”
She shrugged. “I’m not sure. Some kind of garden fey, I guess, by his size. I’ve never seen one like this before.”
“That should tell you something, right? It’s unusual. You’ve never seen one like this before. Could it be from out of town?”
Susan shook her head. “Garden fey are very local, from everything I’ve heard. Major ley lines are a barrier for them, so they evolve into subspecies.”
“Who might know something about gnosti? Who can see them, besides mages?”
“Anyone born with the sight, or anyone who takes the time to learn.”
“Try ASU. There’s bound to be some grad student who’s making garden fey his dissertation or something. Offer to buy a grad student dinner and he’ll tell you everything.”
“See you Monday.” He waved her out. “And give that thing a decent burial, will you?”