Holding my breath, I wondered who'd spilled the beans. But then again, it was hard to hide the deaths of a harpy, a Psycho Babbler, and a demon like Bad Ass Luke. Especially over here, Earthside. We were on the A-list of tabloids. The Fae were hot, and we fit the bill.
He seemed to take my silence for assent. "So, will you at least come have a look?"
I sighed. A gnawing pit in my gut told me this case ran deeper than a local hunter out to nab himself some mountain lions. For one thing, serial killers usually worked to an MO, and that sure seemed to be the case here. All the victims were found in one area, and all had been destroyed in a bizarre fashion. From the condition of the corpses, there had to be something at work beyond just a simple murderer gone over the edge. Perhaps a rogue Corpse Talker? The missing hearts would line up with that idea.
"All right. I'll come have a look, but I'm not promising results." Now came the hard part. I had trouble asking for money, especially when it came to other Supes. But Zachary stepped in before I could hem and haw my way toward settling a price.
"Will a five-hundred-dollar retainer do for a start? You come out and take a look. If you think you can do anything, then we negotiate the rest of the price. If not, then consider it a good-faith fee for your time today and for the visit." He swept his bangs back from his face, and I caught my breath as a wave of his scent washed over me. Aroused, I swallowed as he tossed five bills on the desk.
Managing to keep my cool, I said, "That works. Mind if I come out on Saturday? Say around sixish? I'm bringing my sisters, by the way." If I set the time late enough, both Camille and Menolly could come with me. I wasn't about to go without backup. This wasn't just some ticked-off little pissant. Whoever was stalking the Puma Pride was dangerous and all too deadly.
"No problem," he said. "I'll call with directions later. By the way," he said, his voice throaty, "You can call me Zach."
As I wrote out a receipt, I kept one eye on him. He wasn't wearing a ring, but that didn't mean anything. I wasn't sure how their clan handled relationships and marriages. Cats weren't monogamous, but these were Earthside Supes who had lived near humans most of their lives, so who knew how they ran their interpersonal lives?
As he reached for the receipt, he lingered, his index finger slowly stroking the top of my hand. Shaken, feeling sucked under in a whirlpool of emotions I hadn't planned for, I glanced up, my Fae glamour shining through before I could stop it. He caught his breath and leaned forward. As my lips parted, he paused, his face hovering an inch above my own.
"You have the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen, Delilah D'Artigo." And then, silent as snow falling on water, he slipped out of my office and was gone.
By the time I arrived home, Camille was curled on the living room sofa with Trillian, her main squeeze. By main, I mean overriding obsession, and by squeeze, I mean Svartan-the king of Tall, Dark, and Dangerous. With jet-black skin that shone with a faint glow, long silver hair, and eyes the color of an ice floe, Trillian was more gorgeous than any man had a right to be. And he knew it.
Camille belonged to him, bound by a lust oath. As she'd found out the hard way, there was no breaking away from sexual bondage with a Svartan. He gave her free reign on whoever else she might want to spend her nights with, but in the end, she belonged to him, chained by magic as old as time.
I didn't really like Trillian, but I was beginning to see that beneath that cold, aloof nature, he really did care about my sister.
"Is Menolly awake yet?" I asked, grabbing up a bowl of corn chips and stuffing a handful in my mouth. I loved junk food, I loved trash TV, and I was coming to love much of human culture, as homesick as I was.
Camille nodded toward the kitchen. "She's feeding Maggie. Iris made a huge pot of spaghetti, and there's plenty left if you're hungry. I already ate."
I coughed. By the look on Trillian's face, I could guess what she'd had for dessert.
"Back in a minute," I said, and dashed down the hall. Menolly, with her Bo Derek braids the color of burnished copper and her vamp-pale skin, was rocking Maggie by the stove as she fed her a bottle of gargoyle formula. She cooed to the little calico Crypto. Damn it, where was my camera? If I could catch the scene on film, it would give me something to hold over her head for years to come. Then I remembered;. Menolly wouldn't photograph. Some of the wives' tales about vampires were true.
Instead, I leaned against the cupboard and cleared my throat. "How's our baby girl today?"
Menolly jumped, her eyes shifting to bloodred, then back to their usual pale frost. "Damn it, Kitten, will you make some noise when you enter the room? Both Camille and I've warned you about sneaking up on me! I could hurt you. Or Maggie."
Oh hell, I'd done it again. I was one of the few people who could actually surprise Menolly, but I risked my health doing so. Camille had the scars on her arm to prove what happened when our sister was startled. But I hadn't thought about her hurting Maggie.
I scowled and stared at the floor. "Sorry."
She tucked Maggie back into her playpen. "Camille and I've scolded you about that before-"
That did it. I yanked off my jacket and tossed it on the table. "And I'm so sick of you two scolding me! I screwed up-I'm sorry. I'll be more careful, but you have to quit acting like I'm your stupid little sister. Damn it, Menolly, I'm older than you. I may not be a badass like you, or able to throw lightning like Camille, but that doesn't mean that I'm naive. I thought I made enough noise when I came in the kitchen. Stop. Apparently I'm quieter than I thought. Stop. I'll make sure it doesn't happen again. Stop. So quit treating me like I'm an idiot. End of Message."
"You're in a mood, aren't you?"
I let out an exasperated sigh, and Menolly shrugged.
"All right, all right," she said. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize we hurt your feelings, Kitten."
She didn't get it, and she probably never would. Sometimes sisters were a pain in the butt. "Never mind." I frowned and popped another corn chip in my mouth. "Listen, I have some interesting news for you and Camille. Come into the living room, would you?"
It was Menolly's turn to grimace. "Trillian's in there," she said, as if she had a bad taste in her mouth. I shot her a warning look, and she backed down. "Oh, all right. Let's go."
Before following her into the other room, I dished up a plate of spaghetti and grabbed a fork and napkin. Menolly sat atop the upright piano in the corner, shooting nasty looks in Trillian's direction. She made no bones about her feelings-or dearth thereof-about him, though neither Trillian nor Camille paid any attention to her.
As I slid into a chair, ready to tell them about Zachary, the doorbell chimed. Menolly went to answer it and in a moment came back, a guarded look on her face. Behind her walked a cloaked figure, so silent that even my acute hearing couldn't pick up the sound of his footsteps
"May we help you?" I asked, setting my dish on the coffee table as I stood. This was no FBH-full-blooded human. Nor any regular Fae. We could all feel the strong and tangible presence of earth magic in the room.
"On the contrary, it is I who can help you," a soft voice said from within the robes. The figure pushed back the hood of his cloak, and we found ourselves staring at an elf. He was fair and reed thin, with pale hair the color of early sunlight. He wore a headband bearing a crest that we recognized as being a symbol of Elqaneve, Queen Asteria's court. It was Trenyth, the Queen's assistant. We hadn't heard from him in a while.
I caught my breath. Had something happened to the spirit seal? Or Tom Lane?
"Please, sit down," I said, motioning to the nearest chair.
Trenyth inclined his head but remained on his feet. "Thank you, but I'll stand." He kept his gaze on Menolly as he spoke. "I can stay but a few moments, for Her Majesty has need for my services at home. But I bring you a gift from the court-from our wizards. Queen Asteria commissioned this to be made for you." He pulled a small forest-green pouch out of his pocket and handed it to me.
I stared at the bag. The material was as soft as anything I'd ever felt and radiated magic-heavy magic bom of the soil and rock and bone and crystal. The Queen's seal had been embroidered onto the cloth. I silently passed the bag to Camille.
She opened it, and a brilliant spike of polished crystal rolled out onto her hand. Inclusions radiated from the center outward,, like a sunburst caught in ice. "What is this?" she asked.
"A fire-and-ice charm." Trenyth pointed to the sun caught within the quartz. "This crystal will detect the work of spies: traps, guards, wards, and listening devices, both technological and magical. If the sunburst within the center glows brilliant red, you'll know that you're near such a device. The Queen set our mages to work on this shortly after you left her audience two moons ago, and this is what they came up with."
Camille let out a relieved sigh. "Oh thank you, and please thank her. We haven't much to report at this moment, but we're keeping watch."
"Don't thank me yet. I also bear a warning," he said. "Our Earthside informants notified us that a Degath Squad passed through one of the Elemental portals a few days back. The guardian of the portal was mortally wounded. She lived long enough to tell Pentangle, the Mother of Magic, about the attack. Pentangle tried to track the assailants but lost them. However, she has reason to think that they're heading in the direction of Seattle. So keep your eyes open."
"Oh Great Mother, another Degath Squad? And they've already made kills? Do you happen to know what kind of demons we're talking about?" A knot formed in my stomach. We were on the edge of another battle.
Trenyth shook his head. "There's a problem. We're not even sure all of them were demons, but they all bore Shadow Wing's sigil on their shields, and they carried the mark of the Hell Scouts. We know that at least one was a Jansshi demon, but the guardians of the portal had a hard time scanning the other two."
I racked my thoughts but couldn't find any reference hiding back in the corners of my brain. "I don't think I know anything about the Jansshi."
Camille cleared her throat. "They're similar to the Jiangshi, but I don't think they've ever taken human form. The Jiangshi are known as hopping corpses," she said. "They originate in China."
The elf nodded. "The Jansshi are worse, though. Rather than zombie, they're full demon, but they're stupid and vicious. They demand the hearts of their victims as an offering, which they eat. Consider them the thugs and pawns of the Subterranean Realms. Shadow Wing must have sent this one out to be the muscle behind the group. The Jansshi look human, but with grossly distorted bellies and sunken chests."
"Hearts?" Zachary's friends had been missing their hearts. Maybe it wasn't a rogue Corpse Talker after all. But what would the Degath Squad be doing out on the Puma Pride's land?
"Yes, and the guardians of the portal who were killed were missing theirs," Trenyth said.
My stomach lurched, and I held up my hand. "Tell me one thing, were the bodies dried out? As if all their internal… as if they were mummified?" There was such a thing as being too graphic.
Trenyth shook his head. "No. Why?"
"I don't know… it may be nothing," I said, feeling queasy. As I looked at my plate of spaghetti, my stomach threatened a revolt, and I ran into the kitchen, where I splashed cold water on my face. As I watched the water swirl in the sink, any remote hopes that Bad Ass Luke and his cronies had been a fluke vanished with the last drops. Down the drain, into the sewer.
Camille was right. We were on the brink of a war, trying to forestall wholesale destruction. We could probably do it if Shadow Wing sent one team at a time, but what would we do when he elevated the stakes?
By the time I returned to the living room, Trenyth was ready to leave. "Keep the crystal safe, and Queen Asteria will contact you again soon." He paused by the door. "You won't receive much help from Y'Elestrial, I can tell you that," he added but would not elaborate. Within seconds he had passed into the night like a ghost.
The four of us stared at one another, unsure of what to say.
Finally, Camille spoke. "Okay, so we have another batch of demons to mop the floor with. At least we know ahead of time. I'll strengthen the wards tonight before I go to bed. Menolly, report anything unusual at the Wayfarer to the rest of us immediately. Everybody keep your cell phones handy."
"I think I might have already found a connection, but I don't know how it ties in," I said, crossing my legs as I settled into one of our huge, overstuffed chairs. "Today, I met our Were from out near the woods and found out why he's been watching us. He's my new client."
Camille frowned. "Really? What's his name? What did he want?"
I told them about the conversation I'd had with Zach. "Whatever killed the five victims ripped out their hearts."
"But I thought the demons came through the portal only a few days ago. This sounds like it's been going on for several weeks," Menolly said. "We can't let our paranoia drive us to jumping at shadows."
With a frown, I shrugged. "True. It also crossed my thoughts that we might be dealing with a rogue Corpse Talker, because of the missing hearts. As for the mummification angle, I have no idea what's going on with that."
Camille frowned. "That's an interesting possibility. Corpse Talkers always take the heart."
"Yeah," I said, shuddering. We'd witnessed the creatures in action. Each time, I was left feeling vaguely nauseated and afraid. "One thing's for sure. Somebody's brutally killing the Weres in his clan. I'd like both of you to go out there with me Saturday evening."