Authors: Hailey Edwards
o tent meant
no private access to the body. I found the victim resting on a dull brown tarp spread over the parched ground. A second layer of plastic covered the girl from the chin down, preserving her modesty and giving her the illusion of a child napping. Two grim-faced marshals guarded the remains. One swept her piercing emerald gaze back and forth across the fissures spreading for hundreds of feet in all directions. The other had placed himself between the body and the eerily blue water.
I leapt a fissure the width of my hips to reach them. “I’m Camille Ellis.” I tucked flyaway hairs behind my ears. “I’m here to examine the body.”
The woman casting stink-eye at the cracks spared me a glance. “I’ve been expecting you.”
That didn’t sound ominous at all.
She ignored me after that, so I got to work and knelt beside the corpse. From a distance, I hadn’t noticed the dark hair covering the head was only a finger’s length or that an Adam’s apple disturbed the line of the throat. The usual routine of searching the deceased’s face for hints of Lori screeched to a halt. “This victim is male.”
He had died trapped in that androgynous state some boys transition through on their way to manhood.
“We noticed,” the woman said.
I lifted the plastic and choked before what I was seeing fully registered. Hand covering my mouth, I flung myself away from the corpse. I braced on my palms and knees with my head hung over a deep crevice and filled it with the turkey club I’d eaten for lunch. From the waist up, the boy resembled any of the other victims. Besides the obvious difference. From the hips down, his bones had been picked clean of meat.
No wonder the marshals were on high alert. A predator hunted those waters. Charybdis? I doubted it. He was too fastidious. The compressed timeline bothered me too. Not to mention the victim was the wrong sex, and mutilation on this scale wasn’t his style. He collected arms—one limb per victim, to be precise—not legs. And he drowned his girls first. This boy… Gods, I hoped he hadn’t been alive when the creature who killed him began eating.
“Here.” A bottle of water appeared in front of me. “Rinse out your mouth with this.”
I stuck out my hand, and the Good Samaritan slapped the drink across my palm. When I stopped tasting bile, I lifted my head high enough to see Flipper standing barefoot across the fissure from me. She had stripped out of her boots and cutoffs. The purple neoprene top was back on, but she wore a lime-green bikini bottom instead of the metallic tail from yesterday. I craned my neck but didn’t spot any fins or gills.
“What are you about to do?” I wiped my wrist across my mouth.
Her toes flexed in the loose sand, and her orange-and-blue toenails sparkled. “I need to interview the locals.”
A red mask hung from her fingertips, which answered my next question. “You’re going in the water.”
She raised a candy-colored eyebrow. “Unless you’re volunteering…?”
A shudder rippled through me hard enough to squeeze my empty gut again. “No.”
Flipper twirled the rubber strap around her pointer and started walking toward the waiting marshals. “In that case, I left your fob in my right boot in case I don’t make it back.”
“Hey,” I called after her. “Be careful.”
Her answering smile dazzled. “You too.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask why I had to be careful. Unless whatever living in Wink Sink No. 2 sprouted legs, I was safe here on the high ground. Right?
“You consulted on the other cases.” The marshal from earlier offered me a rune-covered hand, and I let her haul me to my feet.
“Yes.” Magic blasted through that contact, and I jerked from her grasp. “You’re a legacy.” I rubbed my palm. “A powerful one.”
She was also a half-blood, but I didn’t say so. Most didn’t appreciate the reminder they were half-human.
“A legacy?” She tugged her long black hair up into a ponytail. “I’ve been called a lot of things, but never that. What does it mean?”
“Your mother or father was born in Faerie.” That explained her strength. “The closer the tie to Faerie, the stronger the magic.” She rubbed the markings covering the fingertips of her left hand together. “I hope I didn’t say anything wrong.” The urge to explain myself to her surprised me. “My gift is like a stream of consciousness. Classifications pop into my head and then they fall out of my mouth.”
“That’s a cool talent.” For the first time since meeting her, the marshal locked gazes with me. Her eyes were bright and as sharp as a knife’s blade. “I’m Thierry Thackeray.”
The name rang a distant bell, but as with Shaw, my brutal travel schedule meant my brain was too stuffed with the names and faces of colleagues for me to skim any details off the top.
She indicated the tarp. “Are you finished with the body?”
“No.” A bitter taste lingered in my mouth. “I need to—” I swallowed. “The condition surprised me. The others were…not like that.”
“I won’t tell you it gets easier.” She patted my shoulder, and raw power zinged down my arm. “It doesn’t, but you do find better ways of coping. My favorite is finding the person responsible and—” as though poised to say one thing, she instead said another, “—I make them pay.”
Despite the heat, a biting chill crept over my skin. I believed her.
Someone called her name, and Thierry excused herself. I breathed easier with her out of touching distance. Suddenly I sympathized with Flipper and her hands-off policy.
I was returning to the body when the ground trembled. I caught myself before turning my ankle in one of the smaller cracks, and pressed a hand to my stomach. Everyone on site had gone still. “You felt that too, right?” I asked the remaining marshal.
He held a finger to his lips. “Shh.”
The quaking began again, harder this time. Splashing broke the silence. I turned my head slowly and spotted Flipper struggling against a thick blackish-purple band encircling her waist. She leaned back in the water, arms slicing in a backstroke that got her nowhere. She kicked her legs—where was her tail?—but she didn’t budge.
“She’s in trouble,” I realized. Then louder, I said, “
She’s in trouble
The marshal finally pried his gaze from the sink to glare at me. “In about thirty seconds, if she doesn’t get her shit together, we’re all going to be in trouble.”
“What are you talking about?” I flung my arm toward Flipper. “She can’t help us if she can’t help herself.”
A high-pitched shriek gurgled, churning bubbles that frothed the water and obscured Flipper’s torso. No one budged to offer her a hand. Good thing I had two spare ones.
I jumped across a craggy fissure and landed in a wobbly crouch three feet from the water. My ankles quivered, knees locked. Flipper was close, but the edge of the water was closer. The rippling surface mocked me as though the sink were laughing at my cowardice.
Salt burned my eyes, turned my skin sticky. I ran faster than the gulls flew. “Momma,” I screamed over and over until my lips moved in a silent plea for help come too late.
I banished the memories cramping my muscles. I had no time for the paralyzing grief. I should wade into the sink. Hell, I should use one of the ruptured pipes sticking out of the dirt at its edges as a springboard and dive in after her. I should, but I
. I squatted there, useless and shivering while the earth rumbled and Flipper’s pink crown vanished.
“Ellis,” Thierry shouted. “Get out of there.”
I held my ground. Easy to do with terror seizing my limbs. “Not without her.”
The marshal landed in a tense crouch beside me. “She’s a mermaid. You know how sturdy those are, right?”
Except Flipper was different. Mermaids didn’t exchange tails for legs when it suited them. Mermaids didn’t tuck their hands under their armpits to avoid touching a person who could classify them. There was more to her than bright hair and skimpy clothes. The kid had a secret, a big one if she was willing to take it to her grave, and it was going to get her killed in front of a live audience unless I rallied help.
Each gasp rang across the baked earth, every frantic splash echoed through the silence. Without gills or an oxygen tank, she would drown. I once stood paralyzed on a white-sand beach as a life snuffed out instead of wading in and braving the unknown. Fear be damned, I would never stand by again.
“She’s just a kid.” No one with so much life ahead of them should be robbed of living every moment of it.
As a mermaid, Flipper was in her element as far as the others were concerned. But at this rate her element was going to snap her spine like a twig, assuming it didn’t drown her first.
“I don’t know if I have enough juice for this.” Thierry stood and shook out her arms, and the left one lit up with green light that shone from her runes. “Go stand with the others. I need room to work.”
“I can help.” I fanned the fingers of my right hand, and this time I let the rush of adrenaline nudge my fingernail until it flaked off and the hollow spur curved over my fingertip. I extended my hand toward her. “I’ll need a drop of blood.”
Fingers curling into her palm, she stared at her runes, and their light reflected in her eyes. Blood was a powerful weapon that could fuel harmful spells that targeted the donor. All those grim possibilities washed over her face, but her composure broke when Flipper screamed, and she set her jaw. “Don’t make me regret this.”
Thierry gripped my hand and hauled me onto my feet. “Little pinch,” I warned her as the spur pierced the back of her hand. A drop of blood welled before she healed the wound. Her magic crushed me under a wave that sent me crashing to my knees. Searing pain marked my left hand, and phantom runes danced over my skin.
“Freaking monkeys,” she muttered. “Shaw? Little help here.”
The skin covering my arm stung and tightened. I wasn’t strong enough to act as a conduit for so much power. It was cooking me from the inside. I had to force it out again before it burnt me to a crisp. Instinct guided me to extend my arm toward Flipper. Energy burst from my palm, shimmering across the choppy expanse and leaving steam in its wake. It pierced the surface of the water with a hiss. Flipper cried out as the pulse swept through her. Limbs twitching, her head fell limp on her shoulders.
The thing holding her gargled a furious roar.
Thierry grasped my wrist and slammed my palm into the dirt. “Do that again, and you’ll kill her.”
I nodded to show I understood since my mouth wasn’t working yet, and let the remaining power leach into the soil.
Another shriek made me wince as an eggplant-colored appendage burst from the water. Hundreds of feet long, it whipped through the air and slammed against the cracked earth. The ground buckled under my knees. Fist-sized suction cups speckled the underside of its slimy flesh, but there was nothing for them to grip but loose dirt. The thing couldn’t haul itself out to escape the magically electrified water. Seeming to realize that a heartbeat later, it dove, yanking Flipper under with it.
My nails raked over the crumbling soil.
“We should have nipped this in the bud years ago,” I heard Thierry say to someone.
“Thierry, no.” The rumble of Shaw’s voice was unmistakable.
“We can’t leave it here,” she argued. “More people will die, and I don’t want those deaths on my conscience.”
“It’s too dangerous,” he growled. “We need to regroup and call for backup.”
“There’s no time.” Her tone rang with finality.
He sighed the words “Be careful” and didn’t try to change her mind again.
Thierry breezed past me and dove into the water. Butterfly strokes carried her toward the center of the sink where she vanished beneath the frothing waves.
A fierce growl poured over my shoulder. A glance back at the incubus dried the spit in my mouth. His skin had gone pale. His fingers elongated into claws that curved with killing edges. The warmth in his copper eyes had faded to a desolate white, and the soulless weight of his gaze made me believe if my actions had just gotten Thierry killed, I had signed my own death warrant.
A full minute lapsed. Shaw exhaled the seconds under his breath.
Eight tentacles as thick around as my torso exploded from the water. The one cinched around Flipper’s midsection was the dark band I’d noticed earlier, and she hung limp in its grip. Thierry dangled from another, spluttering for air. The others hammered the ground, creating new fissures. Limbs swept out, knocking marshals onto their asses and pounding the dried earth to dust.
I ducked as one of the foul-smelling arms whistled over my head. I whirled to check on Shaw and found him sawing through the flesh with his razor-sharp claws. Ichor wept from the wound, but the creature didn’t give up, and neither did the pissed-off incubus.
The threat to their own roused the other marshals into action. The uninjured ones rallied around Shaw. He abandoned the severed tentacle and took a running leap that ended in a splash. He swam for Thierry and began climbing the arm shaking her like dice in a dealer’s cup, as if whatever was down there wanted to get its Yahtzee on.
I remained crouched in a rigid pose while the team sprang into motion, cutting at tentacles or restraining them while someone else slashed at them. The need to help them beat in my chest, pinched at my temples, but the old fear hit me harder. My eyelids dropped shut, and a cold sweat bathed me.
Warm sand squished between my toes. A sharp pain radiated up my leg, and I plopped down to pick a thin piece of shell from my heel. Fat tears welled as I stared at my crimson-stained fingers. A taunting voice rang over the dunes. I shoved to my feet and limped after a darting shadow. The full moon was our only light. Daddy said it was made of cheese, that the dark spots were holes chewed by space mice. Momma said space mice had eaten his brain.
“Crybaby. Crybaby,” the breathless shadow sing-songed as she barreled into the surf. “Cam is a crybaby.”
Teasing laughter once muted by the crashing waves dissolved into screams.
A stampeding hippo slammed into me and knocked me flying. When I remembered how to breathe again, I sucked down hungry gulps of air. Dirt coated the back of my throat, making me cough as I rolled onto my side. Okay, so maybe it hadn’t been a hippo, but those tentacles were all muscle, and I might as well have been a fly and it the swatter.