ABOUT three thirty a.m., in Hillcrest Hospital, which, true to its name, had been built on a bluff overlooking the rest of their coastal town, Ray stopped outside the door to their victim’s room and rubbed his nose. He hated hospitals, the attempt at sterility in the smells, the subtle layers of disinfectant and urine and sickness, the constant noises that meant no one got any rest.
Not that he was here for rest, or that he would have slept well even if he had been. He turned away from the nurse, though she was still talking, and glanced down at his partner, wanting a moment of exhausted sympathy and not getting it because her focus was already back on the case.
Penn seemed unperturbed, but then, she wouldn’t care about any lectures from stern, unpleasant nurses or notice the smells or the distant noises. There wasn’t much that could rattle her, not that he’d seen in the five years they’d worked together. She calmly took a sip of saltwater and then sealed the bottle and stuck it in her oversized purse. Only then did she look back up at him before knocking on the door.
She looked like she wished her water had been coffee. Or possibly ouzo, which was a favorite of hers on nights off. Personally, Ray thought it tasted like a particularly nasty type of licorice, but, with certain exceptions, he’d never cared much for sweets, so he was a bad judge.
Savory was really what he craved, or what he needed, and his stomach growled at the thought. If he’d known a place to get some carne asada at this time of night—morning—he would have gotten some and shoveled it down. He would possibly even take a fast food burger, though it wouldn’t exactly be meat.
But he was getting used to going without and decided he’d make do with something from a vending machine later, if there was anything in there more solid than candy. For now they had a job to do.
There was a uniform outside the door, a kid only a few months out of the Academy, who had nodded as they approached and then took off. Perhaps a little quicker than he might have for any other two detectives, but without comment. He smelled young and nervous, revealing his inexperience with one wary stare, and his pale face said he hadn’t recovered from finding their victim on the floor in her own blood—or from seeing her recover so quickly.
Fairies. They could be disconcerting. Delightful and surprising and beautiful, sure, but the amount of magic surrounding them made many uncomfortable. The kid’s training officer had mentioned that, fairy or not, the rookie had held her hand and stayed with her even after she’d been loaded into the ambulance. Which made it strange to find him outside the room and not still in there with her.
At least the kid had held it together long enough to ensure her safety and see that her wounds had been properly documented, and for that, Ray made a note of his name for his report.
Before he could finish the thought, the rookie was back, glancing between the two of them before flashing a cautious smile.
“She’s okay, just wanted her privacy, I forgot to tell you that. I didn’t know they wanted that. You know what they say about them. You know, fairies….” He trailed off at Ray’s expression and outright blanched at Penn’s, then quickly amended his statement. “But she was really nice once she, uh, woke up. Anyway, could you tell her Tim said goodnight?”
Tim was hopeful, but not quite brave enough to go in there himself. Ray didn’t agree to anything, but Penn mumbled something under her breath the rookie took for an affirmative. Ray had excellent hearing, which she knew, and so he was the only one who heard the snide comment about men wanting things they were afraid to ask for.
He also heard the hushed movements inside the room, so this time he knocked and ignored Penn’s not-very-subtle jab at him at the same time.
There wasn’t an answer from inside, and Penn frowned before opening the door and looking carefully in.
Their angry nurse had assured them the fairy inside was dressing to leave, but when Penn entered the room, Ray peered in over her head and saw that the fairy was already dressed. Fully dressed, surprisingly, considering she was Fairy, wearing a long skirt and a silky wraparound top that wouldn’t get in the way of her wings. It made Ray wonder if she was feeling vulnerable after her ordeal, and he looked her over more carefully.
She was sitting up on the bed, with one hand tight on the phone on the table at her bedside, as though she’d made a call or was thinking about making one. Her gaze swept over both of them, widening when they displayed their badges and closed the door behind them, but she didn’t flinch or jerk.
“Pari-Nasreen al-Nihar?” Penn asked politely, pausing at the bed. Ray stayed back, well aware that his size could be alarming, and fairies were sometimes easily startled. Ray didn’t blame them. It was their nature to run from unpleasantness, not face it. They weren’t fighters. This fairy should never have had to deal with such violence as she’d faced tonight.
He clenched his jaw at the idea of anyone destroying the happiness of a fairy and concentrated on the woman in front of him. The victim… he grimaced. He’d been a cop for over a decade, and he still hated that word. The fairy’s healing abilities were the reason she’d been rushed to the hospital for pictures and scans for evidence. She’d been struck twice in the head, with force. A human would have been killed, but enough time had passed that there wasn’t a mark on her anymore. The only sign that she was even upset was the lack of sparkle in the air around her, and her scent, wary.
“Nasreen,” she corrected, frowning imperiously for a moment before sweeping back the hair that was blue and black and indigo. It just reached the base of her long amber-colored wings. Her eyes were coal black. As was the way of fairies, she was almost unnaturally beautiful and alluring.
Ray inhaled. Aside from the lingering fear, she smelled like a good day in that hard-to-define way that fairies always did, like rain on the pavement or a fresh bouquet of flowers. In her case, her scent was like a high mountain spring. He rubbed his nose again. Sometimes the wolf made him sound like some kind of wannabe poet, but there was honestly no other way to describe it.
“I’m Detective Del Mar. This is Detective Branigan. Los Cerros PD. We’re investigating the break-in in which you were attacked.”
“Obviously. And that human boy outside told me that there would be questions, but I don’t really remember anything, you know.” Nasreen waved it, them, off. “Is Audrey okay? Her shop, I mean. He was robbing the place, right? Her shop is everything to her.”
“He?” Penn didn’t take out her notebook because they had learned that it tended to distract people when someone was writing down their words, but she did lean forward. “Why did you assume it was a robbery?”
“Oh, you know….” Fairies really weren’t good at deception. Most didn’t try. Ray almost thought Nasreen might be making the attempt, and then he realized she was just trying to focus.
She paused for half a second, then hopped over to stare out the window. Fairies didn’t lie, but as Ray had learned from dealing with a certain half-fairy, they could omit whatever they felt like, even as the truth stayed all over their faces.
Obvious, shining truth. A gift, or a curse, depending on whatever it might be. Truth, according to Cal, was the business of fairies. Ray had never contested that.
“I know you don’t trust the police, but we’re here to help,” he spoke up suddenly, mostly to move his thoughts back to the case, but also because she was being skittish. When he’d said police, he’d meant the human police, and they all knew it.
Nasreen jumped and stared at him. It could have been for speaking at all, but it was probably for acknowledging that some of those in law enforcement could be less understanding to Beings, though Ray liked to think that if he had been human, he would have been one of the good ones.
Nasreen blinked rapidly before squinting at the two of them, and Ray realized that she hadn’t known he and Penn weren’t human. The attack had seriously distracted her. Fairies were flighty but not stupid. Seeing through disguises was something most of them excelled at.
In fact, it was reputed that they saw through anything, straight down to the heart of the matter, but since Ray had seen them get just as confused as anyone else, he took that as yet another legend of Beings that had been disproven by experience. But he would admit that they did see things differently.
He and Penn weren’t disguised, exactly, but they weren’t in their natural forms either, and, according to Cal, that did things to a fairy’s vision.
A fairy’s vision. Ray almost snorted. That was something safer not to try to imagine.
“Pari-Nasreen.” He didn’t quite growl, but he used the honorific to soften his words in case it seemed that way. “We will catch this person.”
“Let’s start over, shall we?” Penn was gentle. “You work at Zucchero, where you make candy. According to Audrey Conti, the owner, when you’re creating something new, you usually work at night, alone in the kitchen in the back of the shop.”
Nasreen gave a careless shrug but then came over to be closer to Penn. She just looked intrigued now. Fairies. At least they were easily distracted. Ray would have smiled, if the thought wasn’t like an arrow to his heart.
“You park in the back. You have a key and the alarm code. Tonight, someone broke in and surprised you. Something happened, we’re not quite sure what yet, but they attacked you and smashed the place up.”
“The place?” Nasreen was suddenly all fluttering wings, sharp alarm/worry floating from her. “Audrey….”
Ray had to respond to that scent, the mix of fear and devotion. He cleared his throat.
“She’s fine. Please trust us. We really are here to help.”
“We need to know what you remember,” Penn added.
“Remember?” Nasreen pursed her lips and then waved her hands. “I was working. I just melted down a pot of su—oh no! The pans! I’ll have to….” Penn must have raised her eyebrows, because Nasreen hurried on. “Right. Anyway, I came out into the main room because I heard a sound. A bell. The… the register is this clunky thing, like they used when I was young. Old-fashioned.” She looked up, smiling with sudden brightness at the thought of a cash register. “Audrey’s like that….”
Or not. The love Ray was picking up wasn’t for the register at all. “It requires so much care, but she cares for it the way Audrey cares for everything in her store….” It was in the way she said the name, even if it hadn’t been glowing in her expression or wafting over to Ray in clouds of warm want.
“It seemed like a nice place.” It still amazed Ray how soft Penn could be. “A little out of our price range—and neighborhood.” She gave a rueful laugh that made Nasreen’s wings flicker then settle against her back. But she sat back down and glanced at Ray, who understood, and made an effort to smile.
“I know someone who would love it there,” he offered. It was true. Lots of expensive shops had lined the decorative, cobblestoned boulevard where Zucchero was located, but this one had been all glass and dark, oak-paneled cases filled with lollipops and a rainbow of classic candies. Not to mention the varieties of fudge and chocolates or the specialty items.
Of course, when he and Penn had seen the store earlier that night, most of the glass in the cases had been shattered and on the floor, along with fallen stacks of boxes and some of Nasreen’s blood. There had also been a marzipan and spun sugar likeness of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence in the display window that could not have been made by human hands. It had been destroyed, stepped on and smashed, leaving just imprints of a man’s shoes. Clear enough for the forensics team at least, and the more forensics the better. Ray could never have enough evidence.
Audrey Conti, with tears in her eyes, had showed them pictures of what the sugary marvel had been.
“I’ve been there just over three years. I like to create recipes, some for specific customers but also for the store in general. I have an, uh, natural taste for all things sweet.”
“I bet,” Ray remarked, dryly but not unkindly. Nasreen gave him a perplexed look, then moved on.
“But the big creations, like for the window, they were for Audrey.” Nasreen was gulping and streaming words at the same time. “It’s all for Audrey.”
“Like Florence,” Ray whispered, but Nasreen actually beamed up at him, then blinked and self-consciously bit her lip. It was the oddest gesture he had ever seen from a fairy. They didn’t do shy, and they definitely didn’t do self-conscious, not that he’d ever seen. He wondered if she was getting tired and briefly wished he’d stopped by that vending machine and brought some candy with him. She worked with it all day, but he’d never seen a fairy turn down sweets.
“So you heard the register?” Penn prodded after a moment. Nasreen’s wings stirred up a significant breeze.
“I saw his shape in—well there were streetlights and lights from the kitchen—and I thought he was robbing Audrey, so I yelled. ‘Hey, Asshole!’” Nasreen abruptly stopped. “Hey, Asshole,” she repeated, twitching and clearly stunned at her own behavior. “I yelled at him! And then he ran over and hit me with something. It didn’t hurt. Everything just went black.” She seemed surprised. “It hurt later when I woke up. But it doesn’t now… so I should go check on her. I tried calling, but—”
“Hey, asshole?” Ray echoed in disbelief. “You confronted him?” From anyone, that was remarkable. From a fairy, it was startling. Fairies sought out pleasure—they didn’t charge into danger. She probably hadn’t even grabbed a weapon or called the police first. “What did he hit you with?”
They’d found a bloodied doorstop at the scene, blue and black and indigo hair on one side, bits of skin, but they had to know if she remembered.
Nasreen angled her head to consider, then shook her head. “I don’t know, but he grabbed it in the dark and came toward me so fast…. Then I could hear him doing things in the display window, and when I tried to move, you know, get up off the floor, he came back and he said….” She scrunched her nose, “He said, ‘I saw that’, and ‘You’re not supposed to be here!’, and then he hit me again.”
“Because you—” Ray cut himself off. He wasn’t supposed to be scolding her. Penn was going to have something to say about that.
“He’d seen me.” Nasreen shrugged, apparently no longer concerned with her near death experience. Of course not. She could have died, winked out like a candle, but she had other things to think about now. Fairies. Nothing affected them for long. “And he was robbing her. I couldn’t let him do that.” Despite her tone, her wings slowly flapped, open and then closed. Ray imagined her on that floor, imagined the blood, and for a moment, saw another set of wings, iridescent, colored like peacock feathers.
“Yes, but….” Ray swallowed, shook it off. “Did you see him? His face?”
“I… sort of… yes.” Her hands slid over her arms. The scent of fear was very real now and made Ray straighten.
“We’ll catch him,” he assured her, only to get a coal-black eye roll.
“If I don’t first, that jerk. How could he? Who would see that thing of beauty and want to destroy it?”
Ray agreed, though jerk was putting it mildly. But that she’d want revenge at all kept Ray still for another moment. She was gesturing, petite and delicate stabbing motions that would have been disturbingly eager coming from anyone but were alarming coming from someone who had likely never considered violence in her entire life, until that moment. “I know how to carve things. You should see me in the kitchen….”
“Miss al-Nihar.” Penn glanced up at Ray, her eyebrows ever so slightly raised over her aquamarine eyes, but then the door opened. They all turned, and Ray had to shut his eyes at the burst of light, like the fluorescent lights were shorting out above them, except brighter, as Nasreen’s fairy cloud of glitter abruptly returned to shimmer around her.
She glowed as she leapt to her feet and moved toward the cause, pinning Audrey Conti to the wall and hugging her tightly. The big, frothy waves of joy/relief/love actually made Ray’s face heat, and he fought the urge to politely look away.
Miss Conti was blushing too, not touching Nasreen in return but trying to look her over without dislodging her. Nasreen was mumbling apologies, of all things, her face to the other woman’s shoulder, but stopped when Miss Conti finally put a hand on her back.
“Don’t be silly. I’m just glad you’re okay. I was so worried when I got the call.” There was need in her voice. Ray didn’t have to smell it. But it made his throat tighten when Miss Conti got Nasreen to stand on her own to look her over again. She had to push her away to do it.
Nasreen’s hands opened, then closed, but she didn’t protest being removed, only continued to stare with open adoration that Miss Conti pretended not to see as she fussed over Nasreen’s wings, her hair, and then finally her scalp, which was all healed. Penn looked significantly at Ray again. He ignored her.
Fairies, everyone knew, were naturally open, free with their bodies and affections and sometimes forgetful that humans were not the same, and even if they were, almost never in public. But Miss Conti gave a shiver, then seemed to force herself to address Ray, yanking her hands away and turning to look at him.
She was older, late thirties, with dark brown hair with a few grays in it, and a little plump, as you would be if a fairy kept creating treats just for you. Doubtless Nasreen even fed them to her, popping tidbits into her mouth, and letting her fingertips linger on her lips. Ray had experienced that particular fairy trick more than once: hot, curious fingertips against his mouth, the taste mingling with his food, his senses in overdrive….
He coughed, refocused. Overall, there was nothing overtly special about Miss Conti, nothing obvious that would attract a fairy’s attention, which made Ray glance back at Nasreen for a moment to try and figure it out. Of course, he never figured out much when it came to their kind, and he turned back to see Miss Conti look up into his eyes and address him directly.
“Detective, I came to check on her, take her home, if that’s all right.” Her tone said she was taking Nasreen home whether Ray liked it or not, but she said it politely.
Behind her, glitter flared again, like hope, or so much soft desire.
“It’s fine.” Penn’s tone was a mix of annoyance and impatience. But then, it was late—early—and unlike Ray, Penn didn’t enjoy being out all night. Or ignored, for that matter. Leads were best followed when they were fresh, though there wasn’t going to be much they could do this late anyway. “We’ll come by tomorrow.”
With a final nod, she stepped out, Ray moving after her. Nasreen plopped back onto the bed, suddenly no longer uncertain about what had happened and talking a mile a minute while staring with wide eyes into Miss Conti’s quietly amused face.
Miss Conti kept her distance, despite how Nasreen’s body language was screaming for someone to hold her. But Miss Conti’s hands, which were actually quite lovely, graceful, and shaped by hard work, were clutched tightly to her chest.
Ray nodded, almost to himself.
The human’s expression was fond, among other things, and Ray closed the door as he left, turning to find he’d scared a Brownie who somehow hadn’t seen Ray coming despite his size. He must have been part of the hospital’s night cleaning crew. Ray ignored him too, moving to the elevator with Penn at his side.
She didn’t bother to hide her yawn behind her hand, but her thoughts were sharp.
“There was no money in the till. Miss Conti, aka, Nasreen’s beloved Audrey…” Penn smiled, just a bit, to sweeten that, but went on, “…told us earlier that the register was always left empty at closing, with the drawer open, so that anyone looking in at night would see there was nothing worth taking, but that she hid a hundred-dollar bill under that old clunker as a charm to attract more money.”
Old world magic. Ray snorted.
“She also said that hundred was gone.”
“So.” He considered. “The alarm wasn’t on, because Nasreen was there. But the front entrance has a different lock than the back door, a different key. Unless the attacker used a teleportation spell, but honestly, the amount of work involved in that for a take of a hundred dollars….” It was damn unlikely. Even a skilled wizard knew the risks of that spell, namely parts of you ending up in separate places and you ending up very dead. And Ray had smelled booze in the shop. Not the brandies and liquor used in some of the candies, but wine, and not expensive wine despite the neighborhood. If the attacker had been drunk, there was no way he’d used a spell, especially a complex one.
“From her description, it was a man, a human man. And he didn’t smash the place until after he saw her,” Penn added as they reached the elevator.
Ray ran a hand down his tie as he thought about the vicious nature of the attack on a creature as lighthearted as a fairy.
Penn frowned, more for the case than at him. “And ‘You’re not supposed to be here!’?”
He knew what she was thinking. A comment like that could mean any sort of prejudice at work here. Or just simple surprise. Either way it was troubling.
At the thought, his stomach rumbled. He wasn’t in the mood to raid the vending machine anymore, but something sweet still lingered in his nose, on his tongue. Nasreen probably.
Penn yawned again, yanking him back to the moment.
“We need to find out who has keys to that front door and the last time the lock was changed. Ex-employees might not know that Nasreen sometimes works there at night, now.”
Ray hid a sigh at the thought of someone looking for a quick hundred suddenly confronted with a witness and overreacting. Just like that, burglary becomes attempted murder. Of course, that only explained hitting Nasreen once. Coming back to hit her again instead of fleeing…. Twice like that would have been murder for a human. Could have been murder for Nasreen too, if the elves who worked overnight in the shoe shop across the street hadn’t noticed all the broken glass and called 911.
“I don’t like it.”
“When do you ever? Especially when a fairy is involved, and we both know why that is, Ray.” Penn was more direct when tired and generally in a bad mood without a full night’s sleep. When the doors opened, they stepped inside the elevator, crowding a young doctor into a corner. He checked Penn out anyway, obviously, peering around Ray.
“You should hear her singing voice,” Ray informed the man helpfully, taking her direct comments and aiming them right back at her. Penn socked him in the arm. The doctor stared harder at Penn, into those eyes, and then tried to unobtrusively push himself further back into the corner. Usually she just flashed her gun to get rid of guys who didn’t interest her.
Ray sighed again. He and Penn weren’t threats, but of course, people always believed the worst parts of the stories about Beings and never looked at the truth right in front of them. It had been decades since the Beings had come out into the open. People should have been over this by now. His shoulders fell.
“You should get some sleep, Ray,” Penn offered when they were on the ground floor. “You don’t seem rested.” She paused. “You never do, anymore.”
Ray nearly growled at her. She knew why that was, but a tired Penn was a pushy Penn to the people she cared about.
“I’ll see you tomorrow. We’ll re-canvass and see if that jeweler on the other side of the street had security cameras.”
“Yes, Ray.” Penn made a face at him and then pulled him back with a sleepy grin. “But about Zucchero, don’t you think Cal would—”
“No. I don’t. Goodnight, Penelope.”
Though of course he did. Cal would love that shop, and they both knew it. Any fairy would, even a half-fairy would have been walking on clouds in a store like that. The thought had occurred to Ray the moment he’d gotten a good look around the place. Cal had probably already been there, but when Ray had lifted his head to inhale, the candy scents had only been from the store’s supply and those had been tainted with blood and a hint of red wine.
It had been two weeks since the last time he’d smelled—seen—Cal, two weeks since the last full moon, and it was taking its toll on him despite his best efforts.
As though that thought was on his face, Penn patted his arm and then steered him toward the parking lot, to the car, so they could both go home and try to snatch a few hours rest.