Authors: Hailey Edwards
Unlike the men in the tent, my patented glare didn’t faze her. Otherwise her tail would have seared like a pan-fried salmon fillet.
“Harlow is a commercial diver. She’s our inland waterways consultant,” Comeaux offered. “She’s on loan from St. Augustine.”
A mermaid living on a peninsula. Color me surprised.
Comeaux coughed into his fist. He might have been laughing. I wasn’t sure which one of us was the butt of his joke. Then I realized I had spoken out loud.
. So much for interdepartmental cooperation.
The girl scraped dirt from under her nails. “Where are you from?”
Laughter burst from her tiny bird’s chest. “Is that on a map or a life choice?”
“—Tennessee,” I ended flatly.
She sat there, gazing up at me, eyes sparkling. Maybe she expected me to bristle. But the Three Way jokes had gotten old thirty seconds after I signed the lease on my slot in the Three Ways from Sunday RV park. So, yes. Three Way, Tennessee. Home of people cursed to insta-judgment and pervy stares for sharing their home address with strangers.
“Can you email me scans of what you have so far?” I asked Comeaux, electing to ignore Flipper. “When you get the autopsy report, I’ll need a copy of that for my records too.”
“Already working on it.” The elf pulled a phone from his pocket. “All I need is the address where you want it sent.”
I passed Comeaux one of my business cards and tapped the fine print. “Use that one.”
The elf punched the address into his contacts with his thumbs faster than I could have with all ten fingers. “Done.” He pocketed the card. “The results will take a few days.”
“Not a problem.” Buzzing at my hip made my heart skip. I excused myself and turned my back to reinforce the illusion of privacy. “Ellis.”
“Check your email,” Magistrate Vause ordered in lieu of a greeting. “A marshal outpost in Wink, Texas has reported the discovery of an apparent drowning victim matching our killer’s M.O.”
“That’s not possible.” The scents of water and decomposition swamped me, and the back of my throat began to tickle. “It’s been less than twenty-four hours since his last victim was identified.”
victim, because the magic signature vibrated with distinctly male undertones. “Charybdis is precise. He’s not going to deviate now. There are also geographical considerations.”
The pattern of his attacks was moving in a clockwise motion through southern states. Texas was a stretch.
“That is your opinion, and it will remain speculation until you verify or invalidate this latest incident.”
I smoothed the curve of an eyebrow with my pointer finger, mentally bracing to see another waterlogged corpse so soon. “Give me ten minutes.”
“I’ll be expecting your report on the Villanow incident.” She ended the call with a decisive click.
Another state. Another body. Eight victims. Were we still talking about one killer? Some fae hunted in packs. That might explain the range. No. The magical signatures were identical. No two creatures gave me the same buzz. Not even relatives. Not even twins. I could always tell when Lori…
Delicate footprints erased by the slap of angry waves.
“Catch me if you can, Cam.”
Grief ricocheted through my chest, the razor edge of loss so sharp my heartstrings felt severed anew. The crushing weight of the memory bowed my shoulders and bent my knees. I began power walking toward my rental car before realizing I hadn’t said my goodbyes. I had left the sorry excuse for a pond behind without a second thought.
Shoving a hand in the pocket of my wilted slacks, I groped around and came up empty.
. I had given him the keys so that when—
—a panic attack struck, I couldn’t run from the scene before my job was done. Not without asking for the fob back and humiliating myself.
Pounding footsteps sent relief fluttering through me. I wouldn’t have to endure a walk of shame today after all. Comeaux reached me at the same time as I arrived at my ride.
“That’s it?” He mopped the sweat beading on his forehead with a fast food napkin from his pocket. “You’re leaving?”
“Another body has been found.” Another drowning victim, another small punishment to chip away at what remained of my sanity. Accepting Vause’s commission to work these cases had been a mistake, but sign up I had and soldier on I would. “You have my contact information if you think of anything else.”
“Was it worth it?” He crumpled the damp paper. “Did you get what you needed?”
Latent power buzzed in my fingertips at the thought of the corpse. “I got what I came for.”
Confirmation Charybdis had claimed another victim.
I held out my hand. “Key, please.”
He slapped the fob across my palm. A sweaty business card curled around it. His.
“I’ll be in touch.” He leaned against a nearby tree and took relief in its dense shade. “Safe travels.”
“Tell Flipper I said bye.” I slid behind the wheel of the sedan while Comeaux hooted. I dropped the chunky fob into a cup holder then pushed the start button and pulled onto the road.
Wink, Texas, here I come
he Wink Sinks of Winkler County
were two sinkholes barely visible from the highway. I knew, because twenty-four hours after leaving Villanow, I sat in the teensy Chevy Spark I picked up at the Midland International Air and Space Port while squinting in what the GPS assured me was their general direction. Even though from this distance there appeared to be more fence posts spearing the cracked earth than water filling the basins.
Motion on the horizon snagged my attention, and what I thought at first was a heat mirage solidified into a feminine outline. She strode across the scrubland toward me with a bounce in her step, and I couldn’t peg her affiliation based on her attire. Short shorts. Cropped T-shirt. Cowgirl boots. Civilian or off-duty marshal?
I slid my palms over the leather-bound wheel and gave serious thought to turning around and driving right back to Midland. From there I could hop a plane to Memphis. Drive the couple hours’ home. Sleep in my own bed while the old guilt nibbled at my conscience one bite at the time.
Knuckles rapped on glass, and I jumped as a grinning face haloed by wavy pink hair peered in at me. Recognition sparked, and I jabbed the button until my window lowered. “What are you doing here?”
“You’re not the only consultant working overtime on Charybdis.” Flipper braided the ends of her hair, the gesture so automatic as to be a habit. “Nice toy car, by the way.”
Ignoring the jab at my subcompact ride, I leaned out the window and stared down at her legs bared by the teeny scrap of lavender denim masquerading as shorts.
. On a mermaid. Sure, there were ways for merfolk to walk among humans, but none of them were legal because each of them required ritual sacrifice.
I pointed at her scuffed teal cowboy boots. “Where did those come from?”
“An outlet mall off I-20.” She pivoted her heel, admiring her foot. “I can give you directions if you like.”
“Cute,” I said dryly.
She buffed her chipping nails on her shirt. “That’s what they tell me.” When I reached through the window to nudge her away from the door, she danced out of reach and pointed at my hand. “Hey. No touching.”
. Flipper had herself a secret. Two of them I bet. Both crammed into her outlet mall cowboy boots.
I tucked my hand back inside the vehicle. “Were you sent to fetch me?”
“Nope. I was walking to my car to grab a bottle of water. It’s hotter than a firecracker lit on both ends out here.” She scuffed her heels on the pavement, and her impish face screwed up into a mask of innocence. “I saw you sitting here and decided to come ask if you were waiting on an engraved invitation or what.”
I snorted. Hard. It was as close to a laugh as I had gotten in too long. The alien noise rang out in the confines of the car. Flipper peered through her lashes, sporting a pleased grin, like I was a nut she had finally cracked. Or like maybe she thought I was cracked period.
She had no idea.
“Here.” I passed her one of the two chilled bottles of water I had purchased at the gas station ten miles back. “It’s yours if you want it.” I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to drink them without a few squirts of a liquid flavor enhancer, and the store hadn’t carried any of the familiar tiny squeeze bottles.
She hesitated with her arm half-extended, and I remembered.
. Careful of the sloped metal, I balanced the bottle on the roof of the car. Flipper waited until my window whirred up and glass stood between us before she cranked up her swagger, sashayed over and accepted the offer.
“Much appreciated.” The interior muffled her voice.
It was as close to a thanks as I expected.
Never thank the fae. We see it as an admission of a debt owed, and most of us collect favors like teens collect selfie apps.
The seal cracked, and Flipper drank the water down until she sucked air. I tucked the remaining bottle into my jacket with the hope the same spell that kept me from sweating through the fabric would keep it cool too. Heat rippled over my skin, the sun promising to burn, when I joined her on the cracked blacktop. The car locked with a chirp, and I angled my chin toward the site. “Should we…?”
“Yes, you should.” She walked backward in the opposite direction. “I still have to grab a few things.”
“Hey. Do me a favor?” I didn’t wait for a nod before tossing my key fob to her. “Keep that safe for me.”
“Uh, sure.” The oblong chunk of plastic vanished into one of her micro pockets. “I can do that. I guess.”
“I appreciate it.”
The first responders, probably local marshals, had opened the gate surrounding Wink Sink No. 1 through magical means. I still smelled the burning metal. Faded signs posted in the surrounding area warned of “Unstable Ground”. Most were sun-bleached, and graffiti artists were treating them as blank canvases. One particularly artistic soul had used a permanent marker and drawn fanged mermaids copulating.
I wondered how Harlow felt about that, and then wondered if she had been the one who drew them.
I could have ducked through one of the holes snipped through the chain link—probably by local teens using the sinks as a make-out spot—and saved myself a dozen footsteps. But the severe woman guarding the entrance was watching me through the nictitating membranes covering her vivid jade eyes, so I stuck to the beaten path.
“Can I help you?” A purr rumbled through her words.
“I’m Agent Ellis. Magistrate Vause sent me to examine the body.”
Her chest continued to pump with throaty noises. “Got any ID on you?”
“Sure.” A six-pointed star pinned to an ID wallet bearing the Earthen Conclave’s seal weighted down the breast pocket of my jacket. I flashed it for her. “I won’t take up much of your time.”
One touch, and I would have all the confirmation I needed to file my report and go home, see my family and refill the well before plunging back into the depraved underbelly of faekind. Leaving Aunt Dot to her own devices for long stretches of time was almost as bad of an idea as being here was in the first place.
“Okay.” Her rough pink tongue swiped over her chapped bottom lip. “I still can’t grant you access until I clear it with my supervisor.”
“She’s with me,” a familiar voice boasted from a safe distance away.
The rasp of the woman’s mocking laughter made me wish Flipper hadn’t vouched for me. I don’t think it did either of us any favors. When Flipper angled to walk past and the marshal blocked her, I knew that it hadn’t.
Red slashed Flipper’s cheekbones. “Find another mouse to play with.”
“Go filet yourself.” She bared needlelike teeth and hissed. “I don’t take orders from sushi.”
Water splashed onto the ground. The fresh plastic bottle in Flipper’s hand crinkled in protest as liquid flowed over her knuckles. The promise of violence flavored the air, and the fingernail on my right hand’s middle finger loosened with a dull throb. The keratin spur hidden in a sheath of skin in my nailbed was itching to extend, prick the kitty’s paw and absorb a dollop of magic through her blood. I pressed my thumb over the tip of my middle finger to hold the nail in place.
“Tell me we don’t have a problem here,” a whiskey-rich voice drawled. “Tell me I’m wrong and that a cat fight wasn’t about to break out at my crime scene.” The newcomer glanced back at the sink, and his gaze went distant. “There’s a dead child a half dozen yards away.” His focus shifted back to us. “Show some respect, or get your asses back in your cars and leave.”
The cat woman’s throat fluttered in response, but she didn’t speak a word. He accepted her brand of apology then studied me with a critical eye. I returned the favor, absorbing his copper eyes and the mahogany curls flattened by sweat.
“I’m Camille Ellis.” I didn’t offer him my hand, didn’t want to draw concern for my wobbly nail. “Magistrate Vause sent me.”
“Vause, huh?” His full lips slanted down at the corners. “Somehow I doubt picking fights with my team is what she had in mind.” He touched the woman’s arm, and her purr ramped up a few decibels. “Go relieve Rebec. Tell him he’s got the gate.”
As she sashayed away, she aimed a final smirk over her shoulder at Flipper.
To my surprise, I found the bipedal mermaid positioned at my side, standing an arm’s length away with her feet braced apart. “Your marshal is the one with an attitude problem. Not Agent Ellis.”
My jaw scraped the ground. Flipper was standing up for me?
“I’m aware of the issue.” He pointed to me and then to her. “Don’t put me in the position of having to choose consultants over a fellow marshal again, or you’re both gone.”
Ultimatum issued, he returned to the sink.
We were left behind, dismissed. All the better for me to get in and get out faster. The fewer questions asked of me, the better. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Bullies can only retain their power through our silence.” The lilting way spoke made me think she was quoting someone or that she said it often.
I stared after the curly-haired marshal. I couldn’t help it. The man was gorgeous, and the way he moved had to be illegal in some states. His predatory gait reminded me of Graeson before I banished all thoughts of the snarly warg. “Is he the man in charge?”
“Yes, indeed. Jackson Shaw.” Flipper wrinkled her pert nose. “Be careful around him.”
The name sounded familiar. I must have heard it recently. Or maybe I’d read it on the briefing.
“He’s an incubus,” she informed me. “Mermaids have immunity thanks to our cousins, the sirens, but you need to stay on your toes. I’ll thump you in the ear if you start stripping or ask him to sign your boobs instead of your report.”
I glanced down at my creased black dress pants and rumpled polka dot blouse. With my ash-blonde hair twisted out of my face and my storm-cloud-gray eyes bruised from lack of sleep, I wasn’t in any danger of being crowned Miss Texas. But my pride stung nonetheless. The guy was an incubus, and the cat woman had given me a more thorough going-over than he had.
“Thanks.” Even after I said it, I was pretty sure I didn’t mean it.