Excerpt: Private Dicks
Temper by Siobhan Crosslin
Springtime, all clean smells and crisp air and green leaves. I stuff my hands in my pockets and walk down the sidewalk briskly, keeping my head down as I pass groups of people milling about the storefronts that line the street. My nose twitches constantly and my eyes water with every over-cologned human I brush by, despite how blunted my senses are in this form. God, there’s a reason I hate these jobs.
My four o’clock is standing in the tiny park in the middle of our slice of suburban heaven with long, curly brown hair, doe-like eyes, and a collar and leash clutched between her tiny hands. I make straight towards her, and she smiles brightly when she notices me.
“Ms. Cobalt?” I ask as I come within speaking distance. She nods enthusiastically as I step onto the grass. I smile and try to appear harmless. “I’m Reese Greymist.”
She nods some more, eyes wide. “You’re a lot younger than I thought you’d be,” she blurts. I can’t help the eyebrow that shoots up, and she blushes hard enough for me to smell it. “I mean, not that you sound old over the phone or anything, I just, uh …”
I take pity on her. “You wanted me to find your dog?”
“Yes!” She thrusts the collar and leash at me. “You said to bring something that smells like him?”
I take the items gingerly and lift them to my nose. “Mm.” I take a deep sniff, wrinkle my nose, sneeze loud enough to wake the dead, and sniff again. “Easier this way,” I murmur. Not that it isn’t already pathetically easy. I smelled this dog on the way here. “This way.” I head back the way I came, and after a moment, she follows.
I can feel her staring at me as we leave the park and cross the street. When she almost runs into someone for looking at me, I sigh. “Did you have a question?” I ask.
“Oh, um, it’s just …” She leans a little forward as she walks, her eyes still trained on my face. “Are you really a werewolf?”
“No,” I say, sharper than I’d intended. “Werewolves aren’t real,” I say, a little gentler. “The whole ‘changes during the full moon, you turn into one if you get bit, only killed by silver’ stuff is just Hollywood magick.” I pause thoughtfully. “Though silver does hurt us if it breaks the skin.” She nods, expression still rapt. “I’m a wolf-type shapeshifter. It’s a hereditary thing. Most people agree that we’re a separate species altogether—all shifters, not just wolves.”
“Ohhh. So you can actually turn into a wolf?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say, disguising a grin as another sneeze.
“That’s so cool!”
I shrug and round a corner into a long, narrow alley. I pause. “What’s your dog’s name?”
“Uh …” Again, I can smell her blush. “Wolfy.”
Oh god. I plaster a smile to my face, though, and walk into the alley. Wolfy? Seriously? I half-expect an angry god to strike me down as I start calling the damn dog’s name, but nothing so forgiving is forthcoming. Maybe it’s an homage to Terminator or something. The dog trots out, tongue lolling and looking a little dirty, but none the worse for wear. Ms. Cobalt, of course, shrieks with joy and drops down to hug the dog, which earns her a few points because, hey, the ground is filthy.
It’s all very cute and touching, and I can’t wait to get to my five o’clock. Again, to her credit, she turns back to me after only a few moments, and business is concluded. She hovers, body tilted forward just slightly like she wants to say something before crouching by the dog and smiling up at me instead.
Whatever. I smile at the last second when I remember it’s generally good practice to be nice to customers and walk away quickly, shrugging to get rid of that weird shivery feeling that always goes through me when I know I’m acting weird around a human, but I can’t figure out why. Dealing with humans is so much more trouble than it’s worth. If you’re a normal wolf, that is. Otherwise, it’s a necessity.
I bare my teeth before I squish the reaction back. I’m glum all the way across town to the place where I’m supposed to meet my five o’clock, my mind tracing over the same ifs and ands and buts, as always, with the same result. At least being around humans isn’t as hard as dealing with the pack. Most humans even like me, smile and coo and try to pet me if they catch me with my ears and tail out.
I look up when I catch a whiff of dragon. Faint, very faint, and masked. Actually, I’m probably on top of—
I whip around and snarl at the man standing within arm’s length behind me. He looks surprised before the expression melts away into an easy grin. I back away and shiver as I half-shift, just enough to give me my ears, tail, and claws. Shifting completely out in the open’s liable to get me smacked, but a dragon’s nothing to mess with.
“Relax, wolf,” the dragon says, and he slouches, makes his body language deliberately non-threatening and casual. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
“Then why are you here?” I snap and try to rein in my temper.
The dragon smirks, the expression evil on his delicately-defined face. “I believe I’m your five o’clock.”
I do some quick mental acrobatics and glance at the buildings around us: tall, all of them at least five stories, closed in, no alleys, and empty. A warehouse district, usually quiet until nightfall, when most businesses out here do their shipping and restocking to take advantage of the jobs so many packs in one place provides. Damn.
“Fine,” I say and straighten, allowing my posture to relax, though I don’t return to a fully human form. Lets the dragon know I’m still wary. I won’t be full human around a dragon unless that dragon’s dead or dying. I tilt my head to the building closest to us, one of Ryan’s. “Shall we?”
The dragon smiles hugely, showing off canines sharper than my own, and precedes me in. I sketch my eyes over his body as I follow him in and note at least two knives and a gun in a shoulder holster. The gun’s on the right side, but dragons are well-known for being ambidextrous, so that means nothing.
The warehouse is dark, full of boxes and tables and whatnot. I ignore it all and head straight to the office sitting in the nearest corner. There’s a fingerprint scanner on the door, all high-tech and secure and such. I press my middle finger to the scanner and pray that this warehouse is one of the ones that just got re-kitted. Just in case I need to take down an angry dragon. God, I hate dragons.
The door opens, and I step in, turn on the lights and all that, and my eyes flick briefly over the just-slightly-ajar bottom drawer of one of the filing cabinets. Thank God.
I claim that corner of the room and turn to give the dragon my best bored and uninterested stare, even though we can both smell the faint stink of fear and adrenaline. It would be embarrassing if he wasn’t a dragon. Then again, if he wasn’t a dragon, I wouldn’t be afraid.
The dragon gives me a long, measured look. It’s nothing special, except for the very faint green cast over his black eyes, the way his pupils aren’t quite the right shape. He’s got vaguely Asian features and super short black hair, a row of silver hoops through the cartilage of his right ear, and a piercing through his lower lip. If he were human, I’d say he was trying too hard. On the dragon, though, it’s all very appropriately badass.
He pulls something out of his jacket in a quick flick of motion, and I flinch at the smack of something hitting the table between us. “Perhaps this will assuage your fears, wolf.”
I eye him for a moment before snatching up the fold of leather and retreating to my corner again. I frown down at the badge and jump through some more mental hoops.
The Syndicate is like a mix of the FBI and the federal government to the unremarkable community. They handle all the weird inter-species issues, solve disputes, and they pass the general laws that everyone has to follow—stuff like ‘don’t attack humans’ or ‘don’t murder faerie gentry’. They were a little late on that second one, though. It was because of the highly public and televised assassinations of the kings and queens of three faerie courts in Britain and the subsequent war that pulled in all of the unremarkable that the humans had had to sit up and face reality. Once the dust settled, the humans decided that, since we already had our own police force, they weren’t getting in on that. We manage ourselves.
Some of the exceptions to the rule, though, are shifters, dragons, and demons. We police our own, and the Syndicate doesn’t get involved and doesn’t tell us what to do. We’re strict, especially the shifters, and there’s nothing the Syndicate can do that we can’t—though they occasionally drop by and tell us to cooperate before disappearing back into the ether since packs and clans have a tendency to withhold information from each other.
If this dragon’s badge is real, and he really is Teinen Kiari of the Emerald Clan, then things are worse than I thought
The Royal Inquisitor by Megan Derr
It was raining when he arrived, a cold autumn rain that felt as though it were a moment away from turning into ice. Esmour ignored it as best he was able, guiding his horse carefully through the dark streets toward the dull torchlight of the castle at the top of the hill. His breath misted in the air, barely visible in the moonlight that was all he had to guide his way.
Stifling a sigh as he reached the dark stone castle, he lifted a hand in greeting to the guards walking the battlements. As he approached the outer curtain, the portcullis was raised to let him pass.
Esmour tugged on the hood of his cloak, drawing it further down over his face. Torchlight glinted off the thick, wide, silver cuffs on his wrists. He let his hands fall back into the folds of his cloak, gripping the reins as he crossed the ward. Dismounting smoothly, feet splashing in the muddy water covering the stones of the ward, he gave the reins to a page that came running out to take his horse off to the stables.
Inside the keep, the great hall was filled with grunts and snores and snuffles of all the servants and soldiers sleeping there. It already smelled of too many people and too few baths, a prelude to the stench that would set in when winter arrived and it was too cold to do much of anything past bare necessities.
Though grateful he would not be stuck there serving the king’s whim, Esmour dreaded to think where he was being sent that he was being called to duty in the dead of night. His spurs jangled through the keep, startling several people awake, but they fell immediately back to sleep as they registered the sound as that of a knight. When he reached the king’s solar, the guard at the door reached for his sword, but then the dim torchlight revealed the cuffs on Esmour’s wrists and the guard relaxed. Curiosity overtook caution as he eyed Esmour, but he remained silent, for which Esmour was grateful.
Walking past the guard, Esmour entered the king’s solar when the guard opened the door. The guard closed it sharply behind him, and the finality of it seemed to punctuate Esmour’s own feelings about being there. He approached the fire, spurs cutting the silence with a steady, even jangle, but stopped abruptly when he realized it was not the king sitting before the fire. It was Prince Teigh, youngest son of the king and Chief Royal Inquisitor.
Esmour felt suddenly sick. Teigh, sitting before the fire, looked up. The light of the flickering flames caught his hair and made it glow like dying embers. His eyes appeared black, but Esmour knew they were a brilliant green. You have such beautiful eyes, like emeralds. He swallowed his dismay and forced his steps to resume, fighting the urge to turn and run with every fiber of his being.
He knelt before Teigh and bowed his head low. “Highness.”
“Inquisitor,” Prince Teigh greeted. “I have come with a new mission for you. We will be leaving at dawn.”
Esmour’s gut twisted at the word ‘we,’ but he only said, “My honor and my duty to serve, Highness.” He was proud he got the words out evenly, without the slightest hint of tremble. On his wrists, the penance bracelets felt too hot, too tight. He wished he were anywhere else in the world.
“Castle Ashby, do you know it?” Teigh asked.
“I know of it, Highness, but only vaguely.” Esmour raised his head and, at Teigh’s gesture, continued, “Ashby is a holding to the north, close to the border with Resmore….” He trailed off, suddenly realizing where the conversation was headed—where he was headed—and what he would be doing, more or less.
Teigh smiled in a way that made it hurt to look at him. Esmour remembered when he had been given those smiles often, usually right before Teigh kissed him. Of course, back then, he had thought Teigh was merely Master Amabel, a spice monger new to the city of Batlory. He had thought Amabel had cared.
He had been a fool.
At present, and for the foreseeable future, he was a shackled fool pressed into service as an Inquisitor to stealthily investigate matters that required a delicate touch. Problems that required deception. Problems like he had once been.
“As you have clearly surmised, the mission is slave traders. Someone in Castle Ashby is kidnapping men and women from around the country and selling them off to Resmore. Our investigation into Ashby is twofold. You will take up a position in the castle and determine how they are getting people across the border.”
Esmour bowed his head again. “Yes, Highness. Might I be permitted to know the second half of the investigation?”
“Finding out how they are getting their victims to Ashby. That part of the mission falls to me. Originally it was the only element of this mission, but an unexpected opportunity arose and I intend to take full advantage.”
Esmour tensed at that, but he said nothing. It was not his place to speak unbidden to a prince, no matter what he had once whispered to Amabel in the dark of their bedroom. Instead, he only asked, “Has a suitable position within the household already been arranged for me, then, Highness?”
Teigh shifted slightly in his seat and stared at the fireplace, and Esmour fought against the urge to stand and go to him, smooth the lines from his forehead and ease that troubled frown. Those days were past, and they had been a lie, and he only wished that he would get that through his head so his heart could stop wishing for something that never had been.
But the longing would not die. He had been happy in those days, when a handsome merchant had given him a glance, when that man, who had loved him despite everything—
Who had not loved him at all, who had only seduced him to get what the Crown wanted, who had ordered him put in penance bracelets and made him a Royal Inquisitor. That he was good at it, so good he was called the King’s Lymer for his ability to find and follow any trail, was no consolation. He would rather be a criminal again, working toward being an honest citizen for his merchant lover, than the king’s favorite scent hound.
He was drawn from his thoughts when Teigh replied, “A clerk in the employ of the Ashby Seneschal died of illness recently. They need to replace him, but the qualifications are more expansive than usual because Ashby deals with a great many foreign merchants. He requires a clerk well versed in multiple languages, reading and writing as well as speaking, who is also comfortable with foreign currencies, customs, and legal documents. I can think of no other Inquisitor so perfectly suited.”
“As you say, Highness,” Esmour replied.
“He does not retain the clerks on the premises; they are expected to obtain their own lodgings in the city. That works out well for us, since we will be working from very different directions on this assignment. You will be spending most of your time in the castle, obviously. I am will be in the city, learning what I can from that direction.”
Esmour knew he was going to hate the answer, but he asked the question anyway, simply to have done with it. “Might I know our cover, Highness, that we will so easily be able to speak throughout the course of the investigation?”
“I think you have already guessed that I am resuming my spice mongering ways. This time around Master Amabel will be arriving to peddle his wares with a spouse at his side—a spouse who is highly qualified to take up the position of clerk in the Lord’s household.”
“No,” Esmour said flatly.
Teigh turned away from the fire to look at him, brows shooting up in surprise. “What did you say?”
“I will do the job, I have no say in that, but I will not pretend to be married to you. I will go to gaol before I crawl back into your bed for any reason, Amabel. Even on pretense—even if pretense was the only reason we ever fucked.”