The air of the valley of the stone table smelled of fire and death. Hundreds of Fae lay dead or dying around me but I didn’t pay them much heed. My entire reality narrowed down to the young Faerie Queen in my arms.
I had done this. To an enemy, sure, and to someone who had been trying to kill me at the time, but also to a scared girl whose intentions weren’t truly evil. The worst part, though, was how helpless I was to do anything about it. There were wizards gifted with the power of healing but I’d never had a lick of talent in that venue. I couldn’t help her.
But there was someone who could. Generally speaking, I would’ve stuck to proprieties. No. That wasn’t true. Normally, I would never have spoken her name at all but desperate times call for potentially suicidal measures.
“Titania. Titania. Titania!”
A warm spring wind brushed my cheek and stirred my duster as it swept past me, forming a whirlwind that kicked up leaves and debris, coalescing into the shape of a woman.
Titania, the Queen of Light and Life, was beautiful beyond words. Enough so that even under the circumstances, I found myself staring at her in wonder for several seconds. Her deep green eyes were wide with horror and disbelief, as they swept from my bloody hands and clothes to her daughter’s crumpled, shivering form.
I knew in that instant that if Aurora didn’t make it, neither would I.
Titania swept past me like a warm wind and knelt by the fallen Summer Lady, brushing back sweat-matted hair from her forehead.
“Mother,” Aurora coughed, straining to draw enough breath to speak. “I’m… sorry.”
Titania hushed her daughter with a gentle finger to her lips. There were tears running down her cheeks, a display of emotions I’d never even thought possible for the Fae.
That scared me.
The fae are fundamentally alien creatures and that makes them damn unnerving. It’s when they’re like us though, that they are at their most dangerous. There’s probably a lesson to be had there.
“Do not apologize. It was not your fault. I see now what ails you.”
Sunlight poured out of Titania’s palms, so bright and searing that I had to avert my eyes. In my peripheral vision, I saw Titania’s light pass over Aurora’s wounds, searing them shut.
Aurora screamed and screamed until she ran out of breath and could do nothing but writhe against the Summer Queen’s unbreakable hold. I’m not sure how long it lasted but eventually, Titania eased her daughter back to the ground and walked up to me.
I stayed very, very still and kept my lips firmly shut before something stupid would spill out.
Titania watched me, approaching slowly, as though looking for… Something. Apparently, that was enough of a distraction for my self-control to slip and my mouth’s auto-pilot resume.
“Do I have something in my teeth? I had some salad earlier and you know how that is.”
Titania ignored my remark and a full minute of close, silent scrutiny passed, the tension in the air growing thicker and thicker, until she finally spoke.
“My daughter is alive thanks to you, Harry Dresden,” she said, her expression almost thoughtful. “Summer will not forget your service.”
And in a breath of of wind, she and Aurora were gone and I collapsed. I’m not sure how much time went by before a rough kick to the ribs woke me up. Some part of me must have been aware and remembering where I’d passed out because I came up fighting, rolling out of the path of a second blow and unleashing my will in a violent surge of kinetic energy.
The spell was already tearing through the air by the time I could see my target. Maeve stood in front of me, decked out in chain mail, sword in hand.
She raised one hand and clenched her fingers into a fist. My strike, one that damn near would’ve sent a car tumbling over sideways, shattered on her defense without ruffling a hair on her head.
The Winter Lady licked her lips and stalked forward, the naked hunger in her expression far more terrifying than any weapon she might bring to bear.
The voice rang out from everywhere, echoing off the hillside, not loud but pervasive all the same. I recognized that voice and even if I hadn’t, there was no mistaking the power behind the simple command.
I had stopped trying to move away from Maeve, who now stood rigid, arms and legs locked in place. The very air around us seemed to have stilled at the command of the Queen of Winter.
A feminine form drifted out of the mists surrounding the valley of the stone table. She was tall and slender, the greatest beauty I had ever laid my eyes upon.
“It would seem you did everything I asked of and more besides, my emissary.” Mab was still thirty feet away, yet her voice tickled my ear as if she stood by my side.
“Uh yeah. I’m a hard worker.”
Okay. Not my A-game but cut me some slack. It had been a long day.
“Tell me what happened.
“Something got to the Summer Lady. It twisted her. Titania got rid of it.”
Mab’s smile slipped and the weight of her focus pressed down on me like a yoke. When she spoke, her voice was deathly calm.
“I didn’t see,” I sputtered. “Titania said it was something that… Ailed her. That what had happened wasn’t her fault.”
Mab considered me for a long while, her eyes far away in thought.
“The adversary has made its first move,” she said quietly.
Maeve was circling back to stand by her mother’s side, sword still in hand, eyes wary. Something was going on. Something beyond my understanding and far, far beyond the conflict I’d just thought I’d resolved.
Mab’s eyes widened as she must have reached some sort of conclusion. In the same moment, Maeve’s sword whipped back and down in a smooth arc towards Mab’s unprotected throat. I shouted out a warning but it was too late.
Or rather, it should’ve been too late. Mab’s arm whipped out at the sword and the steel shattered upon her palm as it struck, the pieces freezing mid-air and scattering across the ground covered in rime.
Maeve recovered quickly and pushed both her hands out at Mab, power surging down her arms. The temperature plummeted. The grass under my boots crunched as I stepped back and it hurt to breathe the suddenly frigid air.
Mab didn’t raise a hand to defend herself. She simply waded through that torrent of horrible power as though it was a gentle autumn breeze and seized her daughter by the throat. Her fingers clenched and the cold slowly began to fade as the winter lady lost grasp of the magic.
Mab lifted Maeve off the ground until they were at eye level and stared into her eyes. When she spoke, her voice shook the valley we were standing it.
“What is your name?”
Maeve’s lips turned up into a too-wide smile and she laughed. I’d heard her laugh before. It was a mocking, cruel thing. Disturbing but still human. Mostly. This… This was something else entirely. Maeve was gone. As empty and as cold as the void of space, that laughter slithered past her lips.
“What…” Mab repeated firmly. “Is your name?”
Not-Maeve kicked and flailed at Mab but the Winter Queen stood as adamant and unmoving as a mountain.
“You have no power over me, Faerie,” Not-Maeve spat. “And you never shall.”
Mab’s eyes narrowed. “Thrice I ask and done, Outsider. You are in my realm and I bid thee tell me. What is your name?”
Maeve’s face twisted in pain and anger and the words sounded like they tore something in her throat and they left her mouth.
“I am Nemesis. Oathbreaker, Kinslayer. I am He-Who-Walks-Within. One day your walls will crumble, your fortress will be torn asunder and on that day you will kneel before me, Faerie!”
Mab sneered at him. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. Today, you lose.”
There was a blinding surge of light and power and when I could see again, an unconscious Maeve was being carried away by sidhe knights. Mab had settled next to me on the ground and was running her hand along my hair in a disconcertingly maternal gesture.
“You have done both Winter and Summer a great service on this day, Harry Dresden,” she said.
“Oh, you know me,” I croaked. “I’m a real do-gooder.”
I think she may have smiled at that. My mind was a bit fuzzy so who knows. What I do know is that I woke up in my apartment. The Alphas had all been given the best possible care I could have wanted for them. My hide was safe from the Council, too, as I found out when Morgan came and told me as much. The man looked like I’d just told him I’d pissed in his tea. I tried not to gloat. I may not have done a good job of it, but I really did try.
Apparently, thanks to me, Titania and Mab had spoken for the first time since the battle of Hastings. Now, you may be thinking ‘That can’t possibly be a good thing.’
To which I’ll reply ‘No fucking shit.’
Despite all that I’d thought I’d gotten away clean and gone back to my life. Up until the day eight months later when I walked into my apartment with a pizza under one arm and a six-pack of beer under the other and found The Winter Queen and Lady sitting next to one another on my couch.
Mab sat straight-backed, with her hands folded in her lap. Maeve, by contrast, sat slouched with her boots propped up on my coffee table.
“If this is a Jehovah’s Witness thing,” I said, settling the beer down as though my heart wasn’t about to beat out of my chest. “Then you can consider me converted.”
“Not today,” Mab said. “Today I have come to ask you a favor.”
“Super,” I said. “If it’s about making an honest woman out of your spawn, I’m going to have to decline.”
I headed over to the kitchen and fetched three sets of forks and knives, then put the two extras down again. Stainless steel. Bad idea. I got an opener instead, popped the caps off two of the beers, and handed one of the bottles each to the Fae.
Next, I opened the lid of the pizza box and cut my dinner into slices.
“I don’t have any silver cutlery so if you’re hungry you’ll have to eat with your hands.” I took a slice for myself and chewed slowly before adding: “So… What do you want me to do?”
Two pairs of nigh identical green eyes lingered on me as I swallowed, washed it down with my own beer, and took another bite.
Mab leaned back in my sofa and cross her legs. My eyes tracked the process without ever consulting my higher brain functions for a go-ahead. She took a slow pull of beer.
“I have received intelligence from a reliable source,” she said. “That a threat is rising in a little city in Britain called Innsmouth.”
I waited for her to follow that up with something. She didn’t.
“So let’s get this clear,” I said. “You want me to go someplace I’ve never been, to investigate a threat that you won’t or can’t specify.”
“Correct,” Mab said. “Worry not. You will not undertake this task alone.”
My eyes drifted over to Maeve. I’d been expecting a smirk but her face was perfectly neutral.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better about this?” I asked and pushed The Winter Lady’s boots off my table. “Because it doesn’t.”
“You will do this, Harry Dresden,” Mab said.
I stuck out my jaw belligerently.
“And if I don’t?” I asked. “What if I tell you to take that offer and shove it?”
Mab’s smile was blinding in its beauty and as she rose, candle flames dimmed, the fireplace died down to sullen embers and even the sunlight peering in through my low-set windows seemed to grow wan.
The Queen of Winter leaned down and whispered in my ear.
I swallowed as the temperature in my apartment, along with my pulse, slowly began to return to normal
“So…uh. When are we leaving?”
“This is the most demeaning experience of my life,” Maeve groused as she settled in the passenger’s seat of the old rented Volvo.
I cast her a dubious sideways glance, taking in her tight-fitting t-shirt and jeans that might literally be painted on. She’d dyed her hair pink and shaved it short at the sides, but left it long on top of her head and at the back, styling it into a subdued sort of mohawk.
“You know, I actually find that difficult to believe.”
Green Fae eyes narrowed at me. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what you think it means, princess.”
I sighed and made sure to enunciate each syllable of my explanation, as though she were both stupid and deaf. “I meant that people in late night cinemax movies wear classier outfits.“
“Am I supposed to find that insulting?”
I grinned. “If you don’t I’ll just have to try harder.”
Maeve clenched her hands into fists and stared out of the window, chin raised haughtily. All in all, the trip was off to a great start.
I smiled as I pulled out of the parking lot and set off along the English countryside. It was just as gorgeous as expected, lush vegetation sprawling ahead as far as the eye could see. The roads went up and down the rolling hills, with fields and cattle usually on either side, broken up by the occasional patch of trees.
All the while, Maeve sat with her seat reclined and her feet, in combat boots, propped on the dashboard. Minutes ticked into hours. We drove by the coastline and all the while I could feel Maeve’s annoyance grow at my outright dismissal of her existence. I had a feeling it was something she’d rarely had to deal with except, perhaps, from her mother.
It wasn’t until we were further inland, through an endless forest of pine and fir, that the youngest Queen of the Unseelie Court finally spoke again.
“We will require a story to explain our presence.”
I slowed as we approached a narrow stone bridge, a nearby sign declaring the village of Innsmouth to be only another couple miles off.
“It’s your show,” I said, shrugging.
“Very well…we will masquerade as a couple, on the run from the judgement of our parents and peers.”
I stopped the car as a line of sheep were herded by a shepherd across the street.
“And have everybody think I’m running off with the babysitter? Hell no.”
Her voice gained an edge. “Then what do you propose, Dresden?”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “We could pretend you’re my younger sister or something and we’re on vacation”
I started up the car’s engine again as the shepherd and the last stragglers of his flock cleared the road.
“We look nothing alike,” Maeve said.
“No, we don’t…but you could use glamour to fix that.” I made sure to sound as condescending as I knew how. Stupid? Yepp. But oh so funny.
“And spend days looking like you? I think not.”
“Fine,” I grumbled. “How about we don’t lie, then. You’ll pretend to be a spoiled rich girl and I’ll be your bodyguard.”
Mulberry lips twisted up into a grudging smile. “People would still believe we were consorting,” Maeve said. “It would be an efficient decoy.”
I nodded. “They’ll be looking for signs that we’re secretly humping like rabbits instead of looking for something else.”
“It will do,” she conceded and then, after a while, added. “Can you not drive any faster?”
I smiled and slowed the car down another few miles per hour, handing over a leaflet about the lovely, picturesque town of Innsmouth, with all the recommended activities one might undertake there.
“We’ll get there when we get there,” I said, with all the wizardly wisdom I could manage. “In the meantime, we should come up with a plan.”
Maeve shrugged. “Burning the village to the ground would be the swiftest and safest option.”
I glared at her. “How about we try something a little less overt first. Just to spice things up.”
She looked at me over the brochure, which displayed two old men in a field with binoculars, birdwatching. “I cannot kill them,” Maeve said. “But you can. Why do you think mother sent you along?”
That sent a chill down my spine. Could that have been what Mab had in mind? She most likely knew a lot about me from my Godmother and many other sources but that didn’t mean she understood me. She knew I wouldn’t kill unless I absolutely had to. So did she expect I would?
I shook my head. “If she wanted us to murder everyone she would’ve gotten you another Lloyd Slate to play around with.”
Maeve smirked. “True. She does not want another Lloyd Slate. She wants you.”
She let me mull over that chilling tidbit as the sky darkened and the forests around us thickened until it what little light remained was finally blotted out entirely. The trees grew gnarly and wild, limbs stretching out as if to pluck the car off the road.
The roads narrowed, too, and the terrain got rockier until we drove through a passage, with the mountains stretching out at either side, and the forest opened up into a valley.
It was gorgeous. The sun was setting over the mountains in the west but it left enough light to show us a small village nestled along a little river. A sign by the side of the road read: ‘Welcome to Innsmouth.’
The road led down through fields where cows and sheep roamed, grazing merrily, with several larger houses and farms spread far apart.
The town itself lay nestled on the other side of a river running down from the mountains, with three bridges at regular intervals leading across. The houses were old-fashioned but all remarkably well maintained. Some even had ivy growing up along the walls.
Pavement segued into cobblestone as we entered the city proper and I stopped at the sidewalk to pull out the map. I hadn’t even unfolded it in my lap yet when something rapped against the driver’s side window.
I started at the noise and my hand went for my blasting rod before I noticed the man outside. He was in his early to mid fifties, squat and solid looking, with his head shaved bald. His pants held a toolbelt with the gear one might expect to be carried by a carpenter.
I rolled down the window, frowning.
“Good evening.” He grinned at us, bending down until he was level with the window. “Lost, are we?”
Peering down at the map again and feeling none the wiser, I looked back up.
“A bit,” I confessed. “I’m looking for the Midsomer Inn.”
His eyes lit up.
“Ah. Take a right and then another right. It’s dead ahead, you simply can’t miss it.”
“Any time. You tourists are part of our livelihood, after all. I’m really only being self-serving here.” Another easy grin. “Oh and I forgot to introduce myself. I’m Dann Reed.”
Maybe I’ve been living in the city for too long but it took me a moment to introduce myself in return.
I drove off, following Dann’s directions feeling somewhat off-balance and it took me a while to remember that it felt a lot like when I’d first arrived at Hog’s Hollow, Missouri, to live with Ebenezar. Looking around, I suppose there were similarities.
Maeve had been uncharacteristically quiet over in the passenger seat and it wasn’t until I looked over - something I’d forced myself not to do for the majority of the trip - that I realized she’d fallen asleep. And God help me, she almost looked cute when she was sleeping. I’d like to stress and underline the ‘almost’ part for emphasis.
I waited to nudge her shoulder until I’d pulled into the little parking lot outside the Midsomer Inn. Maeve’s eyes blinked open and she looked at me blearily.
“I take it we have arrived?” she slurred.
I popped the trunk and went to get our luggage. Joints popped and cracked as I stretched and I groaned. It felt obscenely good to stretch my legs after so long stuck in the car. Carrying both our bags, I led the way through the old dark wooden doors with glass window panels and into the Midsomer Inn.
The inside was all smoke-stained old wood, plush red carpeting and an honest to God fireplace over by a couple of comfy chairs in one corner. At the other side of the room, behind a heavy oak counter, sat an old lady working on some knitting.
Gray eyes blinked behind a pair of thick glasses and the old lady looked up. “Oh. Hello there. Did you want something more?”
I frowned. She was an old lady, probably in her late seventies, with her downy white hair mostly pulled into a bun behind her head, emphasizing a thin, narrow face.
“Uh. No. I - we - were hoping to check in. There should be a room booked in my name. Dresden.”
The old lady blinked owlishly at me and then peered down at a large leather-bound ledger, trailing a finger along its page until she found what she was looking for. “Ah. Yes. The double room. Mr…” She looked down at the spot on the ledger where she still had her finger. “Mr Dresden. I’m Jenny. Jenny Thatcher.” She rose slowly, hands on the desk to steady herself, and fetched two keys from hooks on the wall, placing each on the counter.
“I’ll show you to the room,” she said, her voice already a bit wheezy.
I started forward, worried she might keel over at any moment.
“That’s alright, ma’am,” I said quickly. “We’ll find our way.”
She smiled gratefully and settled back into her chair. “Thank you, young man. Up the stairs and straight on ahead - you can’t miss it. Breakfast’s between nine and eleven. Welcome to Innsmouth, dears.”
We headed up the narrow stairs, coming up to a hallway with rooms with four rooms at either side.
I held the door open for Maeve and she beelined for the large bed standing in the middle of the room, throwing herself down on it and stretching. The bed squeaked ferociously but looked comfortable.
“Don’t go for any sleeping beauty routine here,” I told Maeve. “We need to get some dinner and that’ll be as good a time as any to take a look around.“
Maeve took her time getting back up. “Very well. One moment.”
She disappeared into the bathroom and the lock clacked shut. I went outside and over to check my own room, which was all but identical to Maeve’s, with a door to the shared bathroom.
Closing and locking the door, I leaned up against the wall in the hallway outside.
Maeve arrived a couple of minutes later, droplets of water still clinging to her eyelashes.
“Shall we?” She asked, moving past me with her hips swaying. The jury was still out on the jeans.
“Yeah,” I muttered, as much to her as to myself. “I guess we shall.”
The local pub, The World Tree, was only a couple of blocks away down along the river and across the city square making up the hub of the city. The moment I stepped inside I felt Mac should be thankful distance meant I was forced to stick to his tavern because the place looked awesome.
The walls were brick, with wooden beams bare on both the inside and the outside. All the furniture was old and solid.
Despite it being Tuesday, the place was packed and there was a light indistinguishable buzz of voices blending together, which combined with the smell of beer, whisky, and grilled food created a pleasant atmosphere.
Hey. I’m not saying the beer would hold a candle to Mac’s masterpieces…I’m not being unfaithful on my favourite bar. I’m just observing. Investigating. It’s part of the job, honest.
I might have been lost in thought for a while because Maeve sighed and pushed past me, heading straight up to the counter to order. By the time I caught up, she’d already been handed a glass of white wine.
I settled on the barstool next to her and caught the bartender’s eye. She was a pleasantly plump woman in her late forties, with a flowing mane of grey-streaked red hair. She looked like she’d been quite beautiful, a decade or two ago, and still retained some of her good looks.
Her outfit was simple but elegant, a pair of blue jeans and a plaid shirt, open enough to reveal a bit of cleavage emphasized by a golden locket dangling in the cleft. “What’ll it be, love?” she asked.
I perused the selection of beers for a moment. “Newcastle Brown, please,” I said, forking over a ten pound note.
The bartender poured my pint and pushed it over along with my money. “As I told this lovely little lady here, the first one’s on the house,” she said, smiling. She had a light, vaguely Irish accent and a deep voice pleasant voice. I smiled back at her and then, grudgingly, at Maeve. The Winter Lady had already downed the entire glass of wine and ordered another.
“Swill,” Maeve said, the moment the bartender was out of earshot, serving an old man with a great walrus moustache another pint of ale. “But then, that was to be expected.”
“Nobody’s forcing you to drink it,” I said, enjoying my own beer at a more adult pace.
“It is expected of me,” she countered. “Spare me your scowling. She’s returning.”
I drowned a retort in a gulp of beer. “Fine.”
The bartender came over to us again, settling a bowl of peanuts on the counter.
“Are you staying or passing through?”
“Staying,” I said. “For…” I gave Maeve a sideways glance.
“Stayin’ a week or so,” she said in a slow, Texan drawl. “Depends how long I fancy it. We’ll see how long this one’ll stand it.” She gave my arm a light punch - Ouch - and finished off her second glass of wine. “Another glass, ma’am, if it ain’t too much trouble.”
“Not at all, love,” the woman said, though something in her tone suggested glass number four wouldn’t be served quite as readily. “What brings you to Innsmouth?”
I pointed over towards my companion. I tried to channel as Clint Eastwood as I could into my voice. “Babysitting her.”
“Accompanyin’ me,” Maeve corrected with an annoyed look that was not entirely faked.
I shrugged noncommittally and held my hand out. “Harry.”
We exchanged some of the basic pleasantries and she got me a second beer along with a menu before walking off. I put it it between myself and Maeve and flipped it open.
“Hungry?” I asked.
I really wished she’d been looking at her own menu when she said it.
We settled for burgers and another round. Maeve’s cheeks were getting rosy by the time the food arrived and she chomped into the hamburger with gusto. By the time we’d finished, Maeve was thoroughly drunk.
“This town such a…town,” she slurred at me, display perfect white teeth in a wide grin. “So cozy…”
She went for her glass of wine and tilted it too sharply, managing to slop half of it down her chin. Her fourth glass of wine had been red, to compliment the burgers, and she frowned down at her t-shirt as her drink soaked into the fabric.
Her eyebrows scrunched up in a pretty frown of dismay and she sighed dramatically. “Aww shoot. I can’t wear this now.”
And in a single smooth motion, she yanked the top up over her head. I stared because it took me by surprise, I really did. A few other gentlemen were equally surprised, by the looks of things.
She was wearing a dark blue bra underneath the sweater, its cups just small enough to give the impression that her breasts would spill out any moment. Her breasts weren’t particularly large, but with her lithe frame, they looked it, and jiggled pleasantly when she turned towards me.
I hate my life sometimes. I really do.
Grumbling to myself under my breath, I grabbed my coat from the empty bar stool at my side, draping the heavy length of leather along Maeve’s pale, slender shoulders. She stumbled and fell against me and I steadied her by pure reflex, catching the satisfied glint in her eyes as I did. Sneaky, sneaky faeries.
“Sorry about this,” I said over my shoulder, grabbing enough bills out my wallet with my free hand, and putting it next to our meals by the corner.
Ruth waved me off, smiling knowingly.
I chugged the last half of my pint of beer, feeling I’d probably need it over the course of the evening, and led Maeve out through the door and into the dark streets. We’d made it around the corner when she spoke again. Her voice was once more smooth, cool and devoid of any accent. She still had her arm about my waist, though, and clung tightly. “All in all, I would say that was successful.”
In case I haven’t said it before, the fae are excellent actors and most have decades, if not centuries, of experience trying to pass for human. They’re often good at it, when they can be bothered to get over themselves and make the effort.
I’m not sure if they have a supernatural tolerance to alcohol or not, but it’s probable. Maeve’s balance did not waver, but she kept the act up and stayed pressed to my side all the way to our rooms.
We came to a halt in the hallway between the doors to each of the rooms and I eased her off me, putting a foot of space between us.
“Such a gentleman,” she said, her voice a low smoky drawl. “I appreciate that, every so often. Will you kiss me good night? Tuck me in?”
Her eyes were a swirl of gorgeous emerald green touched by just a smidge of cerulean and their soulless depth met mine without fear, drawing me in. Her lips parted on an excited breath and for a moment, I considered seeing where playing along for just a while longer would take me.
Then some sense seemed to return and I snorted. “Good night, Maeve.”
Irritation flickered across her features before she schooled them back into neutrality. “Very well. I shall see you on the morrow.”
I locked the door to my room once I was inside and slipped under the covers. It took a while for sleep to come for me, though, and I lay watching the ceiling for a long while. The old building sighed and creaked when the wind picked up and I could hear the rumble of a thunderstorm in the distance. The gentle tapping white-noise of raindrops on the windowsill facing the main street outside finally let me drift off.
The first thing I noticed the next morning was the silence. I’d lived in Chicago for a long time and my city’s many things, but quiet just isn’t one of them. Here there were no angry commuters in their cars, hammering the horn, no loud talking and no neighbours playing music. Just birdsong and the softs sounds of the building around me.
I yawned and stretched, crawling out of bed and into my clothes, heading towards the bathroom. I should have known by then that everything was too good to be true but it didn’t hit me until I’d already opened the door.
The room was fairly modern, with white clinker tiles along the floor and walls. The toilet and sink matched and gleamed in the morning light. The bathtub was old and solid-looking, made up of what looked like polished brass, and currently in use.
Maeve lay underneath the steaming water and bubbles. Her feet were propped up on one edge of the tub, her head on the other. Her crossed legs and the mass of frothy bubbles preserved her modesty, but only barely, and she held a loofa negligently in one hand.
“Good morning, Dresden,” she purred. Her eyes were half-closed and her hair tousled as if from- I cut that line of thought off before it went anywhere inappropriate.
“Morning,” I said, momentarily stunned. Bubbles or no, there was still a lot of lithe, naked, wet Fae on show.
Maeve’s smile made me consider that perhaps I should not have snubbed her quite so badly the previous evening, along the potential origin of the saying that revenge was best served cold. “How good of you to come. We need to outline our plans for the infiltrating the community of this hamlet.”
“Uh. Here? Now?” I cursed myself internally for floundering, but I’d been caught off guard. There really should be a rule about pre-coffee faerie ambushes.
“No time like the present,” she said. “Is that not how the saying goes?”
“I’ve always preferred the magical hypothetical land of tomorrow, myself. We can talk when you’re done.”
The water rippled as she slowly ran her loofa along her midriff. “Does my company make you uneasy, wizard?”
I maintained diligent eye contact and kept my voice as dry as I possibly could. “In so many ways.”
She snorted. “Once you are finished gawking we need to proceed.”
“Once you’re finished bathing we can proceed,” I countered, mimicking her voice.
Maeve drew one leg closer to her chest, raising it until it was at a ninety degree angle. Water slid down her smooth, pale flesh, as she drew the loofa slowly across her skin, tracing up from her ankle to her thigh and down below the surface of the bubbles. “I see no reason to postpone,” she said. “Let us begin.”
She repeated the process with the other leg, creating more ripples that pushed the bubbles to and fro, before settling back with her feet propped on the tub’s edge, wet feet glistening, legs once more primly crossed.
To hell with it. The longer I stayed, the worse. “Fine,” I said, fighting to keep my breathing steady. “We’ll need to do some recon. Maybe go for a jog around the city. Uh…get the lay of the land.”
Maeve tilted her head to the side in consideration, before nodding once. “It would be wise to locate Ways into my lands, should we need a safe haven to regroup. We can do both this morning.”
“Sure,” I said, hoping that would be the end of it. “Great plan.”
Maeve laughed, a gentle sound of equal parts amusement and pleasure. “So tightly wound,” Maeve said, eyes roaming. “It is a wonder you do not come apart at the seams.”
“When we’ve gone for our jog,” I continued, raising my voice just a fraction. “We should head back to town. See the sights. Buy icecream. Normal people stuff.”
Maeve shifted, uncrossing and crossing her legs ever so slowly. The water sloshed back and forth as she draw patterns on the surface of the water, parting bubbles and drawing the eye even as it blurred her form.
“Very well. Once that is done, we should resume contact with the locals. Last night’s introduction went well and now all we need is to ingratiate ourselves with them to gain more access.” She trailed the loofa up her between her breasts, tilting her head to one side as she held it languidly against her neck and squeezed. I watched the way the water trickled down her skin in unbreaking lines.
“You’d best let me do the talking then.”
She walked the loofa around the back of her neck, rolling her neck in rhythm to the movement, before looking up and catching my gaze once more. Her back arched and for just a moment, I got a brief glimpse of pink flesh and a glint of silver among the frothy bubbles.
My breath caught.
Maeve leaned back again, fingers trailing up the sides of the tub as her lips parted in a satisfied smirk. “Leaving the fate of our mission at the hands of your diplomatic skills seems ill advised,” Maeve noted.
“True,” I said, nodding. “But not as bad as leaving it in yours.”
Her pleasant smile didn’t flicker. Her face didn’t colour. The tone of her voice didn’t even change. But some of that languid sensual energy vanished from her movements for just a moment, taking away a fraction of her alluring, alien grace. I was walking the tightrope by goading her but I couldn’t afford to show weakness. I had to trust my finely tuned wise-assery skills.
“Your godmother understated just how much you love the sound of your own voice.”
I grinned at her and waited.
“Today, we will explore the town as you suggested. Tonight, we return to the tavern.”
I nodded and turned on my heel. “Fantastic. See you downstairs.”
I really needed to get into day drinking as a lifestyle.
After a light breakfast we headed out. We took a right outside of the hotel and set off down the cobblestone street. A few of the residents were already up, too. A man was flipping over the sign of Brown’s Butcher Shop from ‘closed’ to ‘open.’
The road led across the south-most bridge and out of town. It soon turned into gravel again as we walked through something of a suburban area. The houses were spaced widely apart and the forest grew wilder in between them. A little path took off in between the yards of a little cottage to one side and that of something almost resembling a manor on the other. We ducked under a couple of low-hanging branches and set off along it.
The trees drew back once we’d made it onto the path, which was just broad enough for two people to walk by side without brushing up against one another. Any takers of bets on Maeve doing so anyway? No? Okay.
I stretched as we walked, feeling my legs slowly waking up, and groaning in satisfaction as joints popped and cracked. I set off at a slow pace and after only a couple of strides, Maeve had caught up with me. She moved lightly on bare feet and kept up the pace easily, all but gliding down the path beside me, longs legs covering the ground with ease.
My eyes may have drifted and a moment later, something came at my face. I ducked abruptly and only barely dodged low-hanging branch. I cursed myself for looking. The Fae move with supernatural grace and it's the sort of thing that draws the eye. And that’s not even taking the sex appeal angle into consideration. All in all, it amounts to trouble. Why had I signed up for this gig again?
“It’s great to get out,” I said, glancing sideways at my - ugh - jogging partner. “I haven’t gotten around to exercising in ages.”
“You do this for entertainment?” Despite the pace we were keeping her tone of voice was one of casual conversation. Over a cup of coffee. Leaned back in a recliner. The bitch.
I’d actually gotten a semblance of order back into the mess that was my life post-Susan and part of that had been getting some structured exercise in. Despite all of that hard work three times a week at the beach, I was still breathing hard.
“Yes. Well, no, not really. I mostly do it to be able to run away if something bad wants to repurpose my skull as a goblet.”
“There are other, more enjoyable physical activities,” Maeve supplied.
“What, like golf?”
She sped up and I was stupid enough to actually try to keep pace with her. For a few hundred yards or so, at any rate, before the effort proved itself futile and I began to lose ground.
Maeve slowed down eventually and I thought it was to gloat until she cast me a serious look and moved just a little closer than I felt comfortable with.
“What?” I hissed under my breath.
Maeve positioned herself at my side and slightly behind me. A few moments later, I could hear heavy footfalls approaching, and a familiar man came running around the trees ahead.
I blinked in surprise and recognition, but still had to take a second look just to get my brain to register what was going on.
The old gentleman with the moustache from the other night at the pub came pelting out through the woods at a quick jog, two large German Shepherds running at his side.
He spotted us a moment after we’d spotted him and slowed down, coming to a halt half a dozen feet from us. The dogs stayed close by him, tails wagging, ears folded back.
“Lovely morning for a run, isn’t it?” The man’s voice had the deep booming one would normally associate with thunder or heavy artillery. He offered out his hand and I shook it, the strength of his grip crushing.
“It is,” I confirmed, trying not to wince. “I saw you at the pub the pub yesterday, right?”
“That you did. Saw you, too.” His eyes glided over Maeve’s form in a respectfully appreciative once-over. “The name’s Winston.”
“Dresden. This here’s Maeve.”
Maeve gave a little curtsy and smiled sweetly at the old man. Her fake smile even included dimples - Yoda save us all. One of his dogs barked and Winston laughed, patting its head fondly. “A pleasure. The boys would like to come up and say hello, too, if you don’t mind.”
I glanced down at the dogs. I’d always been more of a cat person, ever since Ebenezar’s farm, where he’d had plenty of them to take care of the rats…but the dogs seemed friendly enough.
“Ah love dogs,” Maeve said, patting her legs as she crouched. “C’mere!” The dogs bounded forward, running in excited circles around a laughing Maeve, barking and trying their best to slobber all over her face. While that unfolded, Winston was considering me closely. His gaze was flinty and observant.
“You work for her?”
I nodded, glancing over towards Maeve who was cooing at one of the dogs as she hugged it.
“For her mother, but yeah. Alas.”
There was a significant weight to the question. It meant something to him. I looked back at Winston, considering my answer. “I’m freelance,” I said, keeping my expression neutral.
He seemed to take that in for a moment, then barked out another laugh. “Fair enough, son. I hope you don’t mind me prying. I had a hunch. Professional curiosity, is all.”
“No problem,” I said.
He gave me a knowing look, bushy eyebrows raised. “Well,” he said, and with a single snap of his fingers, his dogs retreated from Maeve and returned to his side. “I must be going. I will be at the pub tonight. Come by and we’ll see if a few pints loosen your tongue enough that you’ll be sharing war stories with me.”
And with the speed of much, much younger man, he set off down the path, dogs obediently trailing along.
I watched him over my shoulder as I offered out my hand to Maeve. She accepted it with an odd expression and I pulled her back to her feet.
We kept on running. Every so often the forest would open up as the path took us near one of the farms where they kept open meadows for livestock to graze. A pair of cows watched us run past, patiently chewing on their grass, without a worry in the world. They weren’t aware that predators ruled their world and that they only lived so long as it was permitted, but I suppose ignorance was bliss on that one. Maybe there was a lesson to be learned there? They seemed happy enough.
After another kilometer I came to a halt and it wasn’t until a few moments later realized why. Through the brush, I could see the outline of a building. A squat structure a little larger than the average house made out of stone.
“Are you weary already?” Maeve asked, looking skeptical. She did not look particularly pleased with my assumed lack of stamina. She looked even less pleased when I raised my hand for silence.
I took a few steps off the path and peered through the trees. It was a church. Or rather, the blackened ruins of what had once been a church. The building was in ruin, with its little bell tower and most of its roof having come crashing down.
“Ominous,” I remarked. “Should we check it out?”
“We may as well.”
She took the lead, moving silently up the slope and I followed. I wasn’t as graceful, but I was almost as sneaky. I’ve done a lot of skulking about over the course of my career in Chicago.
Maeve walked a lap around the place and, having arrived a little bit after her, I stayed by the door to catch my breath. I say the door, but what I really mean is the place where the doors must have been at some point. The rusting steel hinges were still there, hammered into the stone, but it looked like a fire had taken the rest.
The entrance had been blocked when the clock tower had fallen down and I could barely see past the rubble. I could probably move it with magic, but that might just bring down more of the structure. Not to mention someone might notice.
Maeve popped her head around the corner, eyeing me impatiently. “Dresden. Come.”
I followed her to where one of the walls had collapsed in on itself, leaving a gap large enough that even a tall, gangly wizard could squeeze through.
“I’m warning you ahead of time, just to make sure we're a hundred percent clear. If there are any upside-down crucifixes in there, I’m running for the hills.”
I peered inside and could pretty quickly deduce that there weren’t any crucifixes, upside-down or otherwise. The place was barren: A single rectangular room with ash and debris covering the floors. The floor was raised where I assumed the priest must have stood, with a smooth, soot-blacked slab of stone at its center. An altar of some sort.
Well… If the mundane methods failed, I’d do the wizardly thing and cheat. I reached out with my wizard’s senses, and almost immediately brushed up against something. A presence lingered, her etched into the stone as solidly as the smoke stains. Death. People had perished in whatever fire had ravaged the building.
Maeve drew a long, slow breath, as if the scent of grilled meat was on the air, a smile touching her lips. She’d felt it, too.
Curiously I reached out for her presence, too. It was there, carefully veiled and human-seeming, but if you truly knew what to look for you could see the cracks. Beyond that shell lay power, a cold and vast ocean of it, still and waiting. For now.
“Onwards?” Maeve asked.
I took one last look around the place. If it had been evening, we may have been able to see shades lingering here. For the time being, we’d done all we could.
We kept on running north until we eventually ended up on the road we’d driven in along. Following that, we found our way back into the village, crossing the northmost bridge and following the main street to the right.
“So what now?” I asked.
Maeve gave me a look that somehow combined regal indifference.
“You were the one to outline this plan,” she reminded me.
“Yeah. The thing is I don’t even want to be here so I’m asking you where you want to start. If you want to write down ‘Lack of initiative’ in your mission report to mommy, be my guest.”
“Many men would kill to have the opportunity you’ve been given.”
“Being the Winter Knight or this mess?”
Maeve shrugged. “Either. Both.”
“I’m not those men,” I told her. “I don’t like being toyed with.”
“You will. Everyone does, eventually.”
I laughed. Technically. It might have come out sounding hollow. “Save the sale’s pitch. I’m not buying.” A little bookshop came up and I stopped in my tracks. “Hang on.”
A handmade little wooden sign on the door declared it ‘open’ so I went inside, holding the door open for Maeve, who trailed behind.
A young man sat behind the counter, dressed in a sweater vest over a shirt. He was reasonably good looking, in a Hugh Grant sort of way. His sweater vest was rumpled, his tie off-center, and though I doubted he was even thirty, there were bags under his bloodshot eyes.
“Morning!” he said with a weak smile. “Can I help you?”
I remembered making an expression just like it when Susan had left and a pang of sympathetic pain shot through my. When I spoke, my words came out a touch softer than they ordinarily would. “Hey. Just looking. Do you have a local newspaper?”
He made to answer but stopped himself. I glanced sideways and realized that Maeve had already found what we were looking for.
“Two pounds,” the man said when Maeve handed the paper over to me. “Anything else?”
I looked around. “A book. Do you recommend anything?”
His expression brightened momentarily. “Oh. Of course. Let’s see here.”
The young man bustled past us and disappeared into the stacks. I could hear him muttering to himself. “Where is it…? Where - Aha! There you are.”
He returned with a paperback in hand, handing it to me.
Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian. I flipped it over and read the summary. Not my usual fare of fantasy, sci-fi and pulp fiction but we were here to make friends, so I figured why not?
“This is my favourite book,” he said, smile slowly slipping from his face. Favourite or no, it seemed to remind him of something less than cheerful.
I felt distinctly ill at ease and I wasn’t even sure why. We paid and left but it must have shown on my face that I wasn’t in the present because Maeve hip-checked as we walked down the street. There was a gentle, teasing smile on her lips but her eyes were calculating and just a touch curious.
“What?” I asked
“You appear concerned.”
I kept on walking and didn’t reply for well over a minute.
“He was upset about something,” I said.
“Something pertinent to our mission?”
I shrugged. “Doubt it.”
“Then why does it concern you?”
“It can’t not concern me, Maeve. It’s a human thing. Empathy. You wouldn’t understand.”
“On the contrary, I understand perfectly. To defeat your enemy you must first know your enemy, hence sympathy.”
I cast her a sideways glance. “Did Mab read you Sun Tzu as a bedtime story when you were a kid or something?” I shook my head. ”That’s not what I meant at all. He’s not our enemy.”
Maeve’s placid green eyes lingered on mine. “Until we know otherwise, they are all our enemies.”
And the day continued on that hopeful note.
We arrived at the pub around dinner time and the place was already getting crowded. Again, there was that sense of almost eerie calm sweeping over me and I caught our fellow jogger Winston’s eye only a few steps through the door.
He sat at a corner table accompanied a stern-looking gray-haired woman, I hadn’t met but who I dubbed Professor McGonagall until further information presented itself.
“Evening, son!” Winston boomed. “Gen, these are the young folk I told you about.”
McGonagall turned her sharp blue eyes to each of us in turn and I suddenly felt like I should apologize for being late to class or something.
“A pleasure,” she said, nodding to each of us in turn. “I’m Genevieve.”
By the way she enunciated her name, I had a feeling Gen wouldn’t be appreciated from either of us.
“What’ll you have to drink?” Winston asked once the introductions were handled.
“Another glass of red if it’s not too much trouble,” Genevieve said.
“Just beer, but I can-”
“Nonsense!” Winston said. “You’ve only just arrived. The first pint’s on me!”
Well, I wasn’t going to say no to free beer if he insisted. There’s laws against it. Look it up.
“Next round’s on me,” I promised.
Winston nodded. “And what about you, missy? What will you be drinking with moderation tonight?” He winked and his moustache twitched as he smiled.
“Ah wouldn’t mind a beer,” Maeve said with a demure smile.
“Coming right up.” The old man pushed off the table and headed to the bar. His hands were large and there were scars on his knuckles and fingers. A fourth of an inch of his pinkie finger was missing altogether.
“How are you enjoying Innsmouth so far?” Genevieve asked.
“A’most as much as Texas,” Maeve replied with some enthusiasm. “Mama insisted Ah simply had to go.”
“Very quaint,” I filled in.
On cue, Winston returned with our drinks. Pints of guinness for the both of us and wine for the ladies. I raised my glass and drank deep, enjoying the silky texture of the beer.
“We try to keep things in order around here,” Winston said, apparently having heard our exchange.
Genevieve smiled at him and they clinked glasses. “Have you seen the sights yet?” she asked. “It’s lovely down by the lake this time of year.”
“We walked around a bit,” I said. “Did some shopping. Talked with some of the locals. Everyone’s been very friendly.”
Winston nodded in approval.
“Good to hear. I’d have to give them a stern talking to, otherwise.”
He laughed merrily and drank down the second half of his pint in several long gulps. I sensed a challenge and decided I might need to rise to it. I’ve never been a big drinker but I can hold my own. I chugged my own beer in an almost equally manly fashion and rose.
“Another of the same?” I asked.
“I don’t see why not!” he said, leaning back in his chair.
I sidled up to the bar counter and caught Ruth the Bartender’s eye. She was talking to the young man from the bookshop, one hand on his shoulder in a consoling gesture as she refilled his glass of whisky.
I settled down on one of the chairs and waited until she came over.
“Lovely to see you back,” she said, smiling at me. “Was your - friend - doing alright this morning?”
I pretended not to notice the hesitation on how she was to aptly describe Meave and dug out my wallet.
“Just fine. You know how kids are. They can get wasted and get up the next morning as if nothing’s happened. Damn kids.”
She chuckled and inclined her head.
“So…what’ll you be regretting tomorrow morning?”
I smiled at her. “Two pints of Guinness, please.”
I returned to the table with the drinks to find both Maeve and Genevieve laughing uproariously at a story Winston was telling them.
“And then Joe said ‘Hell, son. If that's what you want, go talk to the cook.’"
I pushed his glass of beer across the table and sipped at my own, watching Maeve wipe tears of mirth from the corners of her eyes.
“Where were we?” I asked.
“You were about to tell us about yourselves, I believe,” Genevieve said.
The key was to drop a little bit more information, as if warming up to them. I’d denied Winston earlier in the day and I’d need to open up as the night continued. I had a bit more to drink, though, before it’d be time for that part of the plan.
“Harry Dresden,” I said, inclining my head to them both. “I’ve been working private security for six years. Three of them with this one.”
I cast a sideways glance at Maeve and she picked up on the cue smoothly.
“Ah’ve a feelin’ you’ll be with for us for a while longer,” Maeve said and though her voice was warm and sweet, it sent a cold shiver down my back. “As for me…guess Ah’m learnin’ the ropes to take over for Mama.” She shifted in her seat, her thigh brushing up against mine under the table.
“What does your mother do, if you don’t mind me asking?” Genevieve said.
“It’s no bother,” Maeve said. “She runs an international company dealin’ in human resources. Most of it’s kinda borin’, really.”
“That it is,” I cut in before any follow-up questions could be asked. “What do you do, Genevieve?”
“I teach at the local school.”
“She’s the headmistress,” Winston said. “You shouldn’t be so modest, Gen.”
“I have learned by your stellar example.” Genevieve rolled her eyes at him before turning to Maeve. “How about you, young lady? What are your aspirations in life?”
Maeve hesitated, probably because she thought that was what a young girl would do, then said. “Ah’m expected to follow in Mama’s footsteps when she steps down.”
The older woman seemed to smell the misdirection. “And is that what you aspire towards?”
Maeve took another moment to consider her words, then shrugged. “It beats ev’thang else..”
Winston cleared his throat just as Genevieve was about to ask another question. “Now you’ve gone and made the young lady uncomfortable, Gen,” he said in a teasingly chiding tone.
Maeve smiled a placating smile. “Oh, it ain’t no bother tuh me.”
Winston nodded in approval. “Excellent. I’m afraid Gen here was born without much in the way of tact and dementia must have taken what was left.”
“Rather a lack of tact than a lack of sense, I say,” Genevieve shot back, smirking over her glass of red before draining it. “I do believe it is my turn to get a refill.”
She rose smoothly and walked off to the bar. Maeve, meanwhile, nudged me and smiled sweetly.
“Ah will head over and socialize,” she informed me primly, indicating a group of college-age kids around a table on the other side of the room. “Ah trust you will manage on your own?”
I gave her my best unamused look. “I trust you’ll take care of yourself?”
She wrinkled her nose. It must’ve taken her quite a lot of practise in front of the mirror to make it look quite that petulant, annoyed and cute all at the same time. “Uh huh.”
She walked off and I watched her go to the table, pick the best looking of the young men. She whispered something in his ear and then settled into his lap, grabbing his mostly full pint of beer and downing its contents in a single long pull. The young man looked suitably… distracted, I suppose.
I turned to see Winston chuckling.
“A beautiful young woman,” he said.
“That she is,” I agreed.
“Makes you wish you were young again, doesn’t it?” he mused.
“Considering my judgement as a young man, not really.”
He raised a brow. “Has your judgement improved?”
I kept my facial expression neutral. He was definitely latching onto the hook we’d thrown out. I had to deny it without actually convincing him to make sure it stuck. It’s probably good I’ve never had an interest in getting into politics. “Barely.”
“Bah! Had I been a young man I would have given that lady a private showing of the British artillery, let me tell you.” He shook his head and eyed me with a wry smile. “Youth is wasted on the young.”
Maybe he was right. I raised my glass, clinking it to his, and we were both chuckling when Genevieve returned.
“I see the young lady has grown bored of us,” she noted wryly.
I tracked her gaze to Maeve, who was laughing at the joke of a frat boy, and snorted.
“Yeah. I think that was inevitable.”
“You’re both rather stuffy,” Winston said. “A shame. I had hoped to get updated on how that internet thing worked.” He sighed dramatically and gave Genevieve a reproachful look, undermined by the quiver of his moustache. She seemed entirely unaffected.
It brought a question to mind. “How long have you known each other?”
They exchanged a fond look. It didn’t look like it, at first glance, but it was there under the surface.. Trust me, I’m a pro. I know these things.
“Half an eternity, unfortunately,” Genevieve said.
“I drop by the school every so often and teach the children a bit of history,” Winston added.
I made a noise of polite inquiry. The man struck me as someone who wouldn’t mind talking while others listened and under the circumstances that was perfect.
“It’s important that the young ones learn about all the foolish things people like myself did so that they don’t do them.”
“As you imagine, that keeps him plenty busy,” Genevieve said.
Winston touched a hand to his heart. “You wound me.”
“Still drinking?” A man asked from behind us. I barely managed not to twitch and turned around slowly “If you’re hungover tomorrow, I won’t be listening to your whinging.”
The man that came over with a chair was familiar but I couldn’t immediately place him. He was a rather unremarkable looking middle-aged man with a portly built.
“It’s barely ten,” Winston protested. He fished out a gold pocket watch and was squinting at it. “Don’t be a spoilsport.”
The new arrival shook his head and held out his hand to me. “Dann Reed,” he said. “I believe we met yesterday.”
My brain caught up. “You pointed us to the hotel earlier.”
He nodded. “I suppose you found your way?” He plucked up Genevieve’s glass of wine without asking or even looking at her, and sipped.
“No need. It was my pleasure.” He waved me off and rose, fixing Genevieve and Winston with a firm look. ”I’ll see you two in church tomorrow.” There was a tone of playful admonition to his voice. He took a few steps away from the table, stopped, and then turned back to us. “You’re also welcome. If you’re interested,” he told me.
I frowned. “Really?”
His smile was a warm thing. “Of course.”
I nodded, as if considering it, though I already knew I’d be going. As much as I disliked going to church, this was an excellent opportunity to become a part of the community. I couldn’t pass it up.
The night went on and more drinks were poured. Enough of them that I lost count. By the time I decided to get up and call it a night, my head swam for a few moments. That last beer, whatever number it had been, had definitely been a mistake.
I said my goodbyes to Winston and Genevieve and collected Maeve, who’d found herself a chair of her own, but still sat pressed up to the same guy as before, speaking closely to his ear. No doubt whispering all kinds of temptation. Poor kid. I pitied him. If I had come up against Maeve as a younger man I doubted I’d have come out of the encounter unscathed.
He didn’t notice me as I walked up, lost as he was in the green swirl of Maeve’s eyes. That, and the hand on his thigh.
“Hey, kid,” I said. “It’s getting late.”
Maeve leaned back in her chair with a dramatic sigh. “Do we gotta?”
She pouted but got to her feet. “Fine. Spoilsport.”
It felt good getting out and I stopped just outside the pub taking several slow lungfuls of cool, crisp evening air.
“Was it necessary to torture the poor guy?”
“Necessary and fun are rarely the same thing.”
I snorted and began to walk. “I’m sure he’d tell you just about anything if you asked.”
Maeve’s teeth glinted in the dark. “Men usually do.”
“I look forward to disappointing you.”
“Again, men usually do.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. The alcohol was probably to blame.
“Did you actually learn anything?”
“A great many things.”
I waited for her to elaborate as we walked down the cobblestone streets. The motel was in sight now, lanterns lit on either side of the door beckoning us toward it.
“Planning on sharing any of them?”
“In due time.”
I frowned, thinking back to my many interactions with my Godmother, the Leanansidhe.
“How about an even trade of information?”
That made Maeve smile. “Ah. You are learning. I suspected I may never see the day.”
I held out the door for her and refrained from returning fire, turning the other cheek with dignity, and not because I didn’t have a comeback. Maeve inclined her head in thanks. The gesture may have been out of touch with the customs of modern times, but then again, so was Maeve.
“An even trade,” she concluded. “But not tonight.”
She lead the way up the stairs and paused, just for a moment, with her door open. Just to keep me wondering, to put the thought of her inviting me to come with her into my mind. I ignored the gesture as best I could.
“Good night, Maeve.”
I didn’t go to sleep right away. I had too many questions and thoughts buzzing around my head. So instead, I picked up the novel I’d been recommended, and started reading. I don’t even remember putting it down.
There comes a certain time in everyone’s life when you realize you’re getting old. Maybe you were trying to play a game of football for fun. Or maybe you decide to stay up late drinking, and then get up early the following day. That is generally when life smacks you in the face with a little reminder of the fact that you are not nineteen anymore. Sometimes that reminder comes in the form of a pulled muscle. Sometimes it’s a hangover.
So when I woke to the solid, rhythmic pounding sensation in my skull and the ringing of my alarm-clock, I wasn’t feeling great about my impromptu vacation. In fact, I contemplated hexing the clock, rolling over, and going back to sleep. Then my bladder reminded me that it would be great if I got up sometime soon, and I decided to man up and get going.
A leak and a shower later, I felt almost human. The only missing ingredient was coffee, and lots of it. Dressed, with my hair still wet, I knocked on Maeve’s door. She answered after only a few seconds.
Maeve’s hair was tousled, as though she’d just gotten out of bed, though instinct told me it was an intentional look. Camouflage, probably. Trying to fit in and appear human. Or she wanted me to imagine what she’d look like in the morning after a night of…activities. Either or. Probably both.
She wore a fluffy white bathrobe, loosely belted at the waist, leaving a swath of pale skin showing. I was too caffeine-deprived to be particularly tempted. It was a slim silver lining but I’d take it.
“Breakfast time,” I said with a look.
“So it is,” Maeve said, leaning one hip against the frame of the door and watching me.
I’m sure she was about to add something clever and suggestive. Something along the lines of ‘Why don’t we make that breakfast in bed?’ I didn’t give her the opportunity.
“I’ll wait downstairs.”
I turned my back on her - probably a bad idea as a rule, but oh so satisfying in that moment - and headed downstairs.
Old Jenny Thatcher sat behind the counter when I came down, peering through thick glasses at a paperback thriller held in her hands, one long finger trailing along the words. As I came closer, she frowned and her eyes snapped up to me. “Yes? How can I help you, young man?”
“I’m Harry Dresden, ma’am,” I said, trying my best for a friendly smile. “I checked in yesterday.”
The frown deepened and turned her face into a mass of wrinkles. She set the novel aside and opened up the large leather-bound ledger beside it, rheumy blue eyes following the list of names there until she found one.
“Dresden. Dresden...two joined rooms…ah yes, of course. Good morning and welcome to Innsmouth!” She smiled. Her teeth were still intact, and quite white.
I nodded. “Thank you.”
“Oh, not at all. I expect you’ll be wanting breakfast?”
I did. Quite a lot, in fact. “If it’s not too much trouble.”
She smiled more broadly, an animated light giving her an almost youthful energy for the first time. “Oh, not at all. Not at all. Don’t you worry. What would you like?”
“Some porridge, I think. Bacon and eggs. Some toast, perhaps? Oh - and I have some lovely tomatoes in the garden that are ripe and nice. I’ll get some of those, too. Would you like anything else?”
I stared. “No, that’s… that sounds lovely, ma’am.”
“Maybe some coffee too y’all?” Maeve said from behind me. She sauntered up to stand beside me, her arm brushing mine, and I tried my very best not to look like she had scared me half to death.
“Coffee would be great,” I agreed. My head twinged just a little and the promise of coffee along with a stout breakfast had my mouth watering.
“I’ll be right out,” Jenny said, slowly moving out of her chair and slipping through a door at the back of the room.
I exchanged a look with Maeve and we headed over to a small grouping of chairs and tables across the room.
“You look unwell,” Maeve noted.
“Funny coincidence,” I said. “I don’t feel that great either.”
She shrugged. “You are dehydrated. Drink water and you should recover.”
I was too tired to respond so I made a sound of vague agreement, idly stretching my toes out in the plushy shag carpet, closing my eyes and trying to will the headache away.
By the time our breakfast arrived, precariously carried on a large tray by Jenny Thatcher, the pain had mostly faded. Our host was surprisingly strong for an old lady and settled it down onto our table, plates heavily laden with a full English breakfast. My stomach made an angry growling sound as the scent hit my nose.
“There you go, darlings,” Jenny said. “Enjoy.”
We thanked her and for a while the food occupied my attention fully. Once I’d more or less demolished the meal, I looked up to see Maeve having done mostly the same. Considering the generous size of the portions and the fact that I probably weighed twice of what she did, that was actually rather impressive.
“I wouldn’t have thought this would be good enough for your refined tastes,” I said.
She gave me a curious look and bit down on a slice of bacon she’d plucked up off the plate. I arched a brow at her and she shrugged. “It’s crude… but not unpleasant.”
I snorted and was about to reply with something snarky when Jenny returned, steps dragging lightly across the floorboards in the reception area before she moved to our carpeted section. “Was everything alright, dears?”
I spoke up quickly, before Maeve could. “Everything was great, ma’am.”
She smiled warmly at us both and the empty plates we’d left behind. “I’m glad to hear that. I haven’t got anyone left to spoil here, ever since my grandchildren left town. It’s a grandmother's right, you know.”
“That it is,” I said.
I’d never met my own grandmother and I had a sneaky feeling that Mother Winter wasn’t overly sentimental, even with Maeve, so I guess we were all getting something out of it.
She offered us a warm smile. “Are you enjoying town so far?”
“Oh, it’s been somethin’! A real purtee town!” Maeve said, smoothly slipping back into her accent and smiling wide.
“Lovely,” Jenny said. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“That’d be great,” Maeve answered. She gave me a look. “We’ve lots’a time.”
Jenny smiled and walked off with our trays and plates. I eyed Maeve, then my watch. She shrugged.
“I thought you said we needed to make friends,” she said with an innocent smile.
“That’s what we’re doing in... “ I raised my arm with my wristwatch, tapping a finger to the glass, “twenty five minutes. We can’t be late to that.”
If anything, the smile widened. “That would indeed be a shame.”
I was going to tell her something less than polite when Jenny returned, carrying a new tray with biscuits, tea, milk, honey and honestly, if you could think it, she had it crammed onto that tray.
She poured us both a cup from a kettle and left it sitting between us on the table. I quickly added some milk to my tea, mindful of the clock ticking by.
“How long have you two been…oh, what’s the word these days?” She frowned in thought. “A pair?”
Maeve looked down at her hands as colour rose up her neck and cheeks. It was quite the act and disturbingly adorable. Jenny picked up the hook left dangling in the water, a conspiratorial smile on her lips. “Oh dear. I’m sorry.”
I cleared my throat in what I hoped could pass for embarrassment, sipping at the tea. It was one of those English breakfast teas. Earl Gray, maybe. I’m not really a tea guy.
“We ain’t - uhm - datin’,” Maeve mumbled, still not making eye contact.
“Of course.” Jenny leaned in and gave her cheek a little pinch. “You two are just the sweetest things. I could eat you both up.”
She gave me a look of mild, rueful reprimand, presumably for my supposed illicit affair, and walked back to her post behind the counter, humming on the way.
I swigged the last of my tea and rose, leaving money on the table to pay for the meal.
“Come on. We’ll be late.”
I glared and walked off, heading up the stairs. A couple of minutes later, I had changed into a suit, with tie, suspenders and everything, and stood outside Maeve’s door. I’m really not a suit kind of a guy, but church meant dressing up. Or at least I assumed it did.
I knocked, hoping that my partner in crime had gotten her ass up there.
The door turned out to be open - of course - and I stepped inside, coming to an abrupt halt at the sight before me.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I am being perfectly serious,” said Maeve, smirking from her bed, hands outstretched and fingers spread to show off newly painted teal fingernails. Pantyhose the colour of her milky white skin lay pooled between her feet. The clock on the wall told me we had fifteen minutes to be at the church.
“We’re going to be late,” I said.
Maeve cross her legs and looked up at me.
“Not if you aid me in getting dressed,” she said.
I glowered at her, then down at the pantyhose and the modest amount of her shapely calves bared by her form-fitting, deep blue pencil-skirt.
She was playing me. I knew she was, and she knew that I knew. My hand clenched into a fist
“I could just use fire magic. It’d be faster.”
“And alert any sensitive practitioner or being in the immediate area of our presence? Are you truly so foolish?” She shook her head. “That is if you do not char my fingers to the bone with your clumsy invocations.”
“You just want me on my knees in front of you, don’t you?”
Maeve’s lips turned up in a lazy, sensual smile and she slowly spread her legs, forcing the fabric of her skirt several inches up above her knees. “That would certainly be a good start,” she purred.
I glanced sideways at the clock again. 8:47. Time was running out. I’d been set up and I couldn’t let the mission suffer because I was prideful and couldn’t take being outplayed. I’d just have to be smarter next time.
So I sighed and knelt, floorboards creaking under my knees, and picked up the pantyhose between my fingers. Susan had been a fan of skirts and she had, on occasion, worn pantyhose under them. My job had been limited to tearing them off, though, but how hard could it possibly be to simply reverse the process?
Maeve placed her foot daintily on my knee and I got to work, sliding the fabric onto her foot and up her calves. Her skin was every bit as cool and soft as I had thought it would be.
All the while, Maeve watched me like a hawk with that sultry, suggestive smile firmly in place. The farther up I got, the wider her smile grew, up until the point that I was just above Maeve’s kneecaps, with some left to go, and the skirt got in my way.
The Winter Lady quirked an eyebrow at me. “I thought we were pressed for time,” she said.
Yes. Because she’d made sure we were. Just like she’d picked her ground. Seated on the edge of the bed, there was just no way that I couldn’t be struck with the idea of how easy it would be to push her back against the mattress, pin her there and-
I shook my head but not before a second thought had wormed its way into my head. Was Maeve even wearing anything under that skirt? Only one way to find out…
On some level, I had to respect, if not admire, the creature before me. She definitely knew how to play the game. If I’d voluntarily sat down at the table, I might have appreciated it more. As it was, it was dangerous. Very dangerous. Because there had to be some kind of endgame for her…but what was it? Seduction was part and parcel of what she was, her very nature. I needed to figure it out before her design could unfold and swallow me whole.
I inched her skirt up slowly, focusing on the task at hand. It was almost done.
Maeve shifted where she sat, squirming beneath my fingertips, toes curling and digging into the fabric of my pants.
“I do love a man with rough fingers,” she murmured, back arching ever so slightly, legs spreading wider yet.
Fucking fairies. I focused on breathing calmly and kept pushing the pantyhose up along her thighs. Her eyes were daring me to do more. To explore her, to feel the smoothness of her thighs, push her skirt up and-
No. I kept moving. Never hurrying but never stopping, either. Maeve was staring down at me, bottom lip between her teeth, leaned back and resting her weight on the palms of her hands a few inches behind her, back arching to throw sharp emphasis on the curves of her breasts.
I could feel my control start to slip and encountered resistance a moment later, as the pantyhose were finally in place. I quickly pulled my hands back, stood, turned, and took a couple of paces away from her before looking up at the clock hanging above the door.
“Five minutes,” I said. “Are you ready?”
Maeve rose, stretching sinuously in place. “Quite,” she said, slinking forward, into my personal space. “How do I look?”
I didn’t hesitate. “Almost like a person.”
It had been years since I’d last set foot in a church. I’d been on the run from something at the time and hadn’t repeated the experience since, despite Michael’s earnest invitations. I wondered when Maeve had last visited a church, or if she ever had. It wasn’t St Mary’s but it was still impressive for such a small city, with a single tall tower above its entrance, and two large wooden doors splayed open. A large bell tolled above it and we’d followed the sound of it since we’d left the hotel. The interior was all warm, polished wooden furniture and red cloth, the floors rough stone. Benches were placed on either side, with an aisle leading between them up to a raised stage with a podium at its center.
“I’m amazed you didn’t burst into flames,” I muttered as we walked past the doorway with two whole minutes to spare.
Maeve gave me an unamused look. “I was told you were not a follower of the White God.”
I caught Winston’s eye and gave him a nod, settling in the back row.
“You know of his existence, you even wield a sliver of his power, and yet you deny him. You humans are paradoxical creatures.”
I snorted. “If you tell me you’re a Christian I might just faint.”
“How thrilling.” Not even the Sahara desert - which means the Desert desert, by the way - was as dry as Maeve’s voice.
I smiled ruefully. “But you’re right. We are a paradoxical lot. That’s part of being human.”
“It was not intended as a compliment, Dresden.”
I smiled a little, mostly because I was pretty sure it would annoy her. “I know.”
A man walked out from a little side door at the back of the building and I immediately recognized him as Dann Reed. He walked up to a podium set at the center of the raised stage and his gaze tracked across the crowd, a gentle smile on his face. Slowly, the talking settled down, and he cleared his throat.
“Good morning, everyone,” he said, his voice warm, smooth and just a touch somber. “We will begin today’s service with a moment of silent prayer for little Jim.”
Being tall has its advantages. A few rows ahead, I could see the tired-looking man I’d met the previous day at the bookshop, his arm laid around a woman’s shoulder. Absolute silence settled and I could clearly hear the soft, muted sounds of a woman crying. Dann walked down from his podium and down the aisle until he was at their side.
I didn’t join in and pray. It’s not that I don’t believe. I just don’t think God wants to hear from me, especially on a Sunday morning. So I just sat there, watching and joining the respectful silence. Seconds ticked by as the priest spoke quietly to the grieving couple and our mission be damned, I didn’t listen in. It just wouldn’t be right and I had a feeling Maeve would be, in any case. Finally, the priest straightened and moved back to the podium.
“Thank you. Let us begin with John 14:4.” He opened up a bible set on the podium, cleared his throat, and continued. “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; The water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up unto eternal life.”
He smiled a little sadly, and closed the bible again, stepping down from the podium and walking to the end of the aisle.
“This life we have here is brief. It is beautiful and it is painful but at its end, we will meet our loved ones again and be with them forever more.”
He continued but the service was mercifully brief. Afterwards, people congregated in little groups. Winston, Genevieve and a few others had gathered and I could see the old man waving us over.
“He has grown fond of you rather quickly,” Maeve noted.
“Of course he has. I’m very cool.”
Maeve made a sound somewhere in between distaste and pain. Everyone’s a critic.
Winston was talking to a well-dressed man in his late fifties, with black hair that was greying and thinning but immaculately neat, and an equally well-kept moustache. I slowed my steps, listening in on their conversation as we approached.
“Are you sure you won’t come by, John?” Winston was saying, giving the man’s shoulder a squeeze.
The other man, presumably John, shook his head. “Not today, Winston. Have a pleasant afternoon. I really must be going.”
He gave Winston’s hand a pat and then turned and walked off. My finely tuned investigative senses told me there was a lot of stuff bubbling under the surface between the two.
“Ah! Dresden. We thought you’d be too done in to show up. You lost me five pounds.”
I could see Genevieve talking to Dann Reed, but her mouth twitched up in a smirk at the words. I touched a hand to my heart as if my pride had been wounded.
“I’m an American. Overdoing things comes naturally to us. I’ve had practice.”
He chuckled as Maeve sidled up next to me. “And the young miss. It’s good to know that you young folk still go to church.”
She inclined her head and smiled at him without offering an actual reply. The priest came up to us.
“We’re glad you could join us today, despite the doubts of some of my parishioners.” His eyes twinkled merrily for a moment before his solemn expression returned. “Even if today may not have been the happiest of occasions.”
“All the more reason for a pick-me-up,” Winston boomed. “We usually meet up on Sundays for a cup of tea. You’re both welcome if you’d like.”
“Leave them alone, Winston,” Genevieve said, walking up beside him. “We’ve taken up enough of their time already.”
“I was merely offering,” Winston said. His moustache twitched as he smiled at us.
I looked sideways at Maeve, as though waiting for her say-so. Maeve considered the request, eyes distant in thought. “It’d be mighty rude ‘o us to refuse such a generous offer,” Maeve said. “We’ll be along right quick.”
“Excellent,” Winston said. He rustled through his pockets for a moment, eventually pulling out pen and paper, which he used to sloppily jot down an address. “If you continue down along the street toward the lake you’ll get to a cottage with the poppies planted in the garden. You can’t miss it.”
“We’ll be right there.”
I accepted the note, pocketed it, and Maeve and I headed out. It was a lovely day. The sun was shining bright on a cloudless sky, with a light breeze to balance it out pleasantly.
“So... “ I said, squinting at the light, “Who do you think is evil?”
Maeve made a face, keeping pace with me as we walked down the cobblestone street. “All of them. None of them. Good and evil are mortal words for mortal concepts. They are points of view. Nothing more.”
“‘But thinking makes it so?’” I shook my head. “You know what I mean.”
I fought to keep my voice level. If I let on that she was annoying me, I’d be letting her know she was winning. To hell with that.
“We’re here to find someone. A missing kid seems like a good start to me.” I decided to lay on just a little bit of flattery. The Fae are nothing if not vain. “And you’re the expert. What do you think?”
“It is a possibility,” she allowed.
We reached an intersection where the address Winston had given to us continued up along the road to our left. I steered my steps right instead, following the road as it trailed down along the river cutting through Innsmouth.
“The only one we’ve found so far,” I said. “If you’ve got any better leads for us to work on, do tell.”
Maeve walked up to the bridge leading across the river, resting her elbows on its solid stone ledge and leaning over it to stare at the water flowing merrily below. She didn’t speak and for a while we just stood there.
“Is it always like this?” I asked.
“To what are you referring?”
“You’ve been at this a couple of centuries, right? This job, whatever it is. Is it always this… quiet? Or are we about to be hip-deep in monsters?”
Maeve sighed. “Our task will, ordinarily, be more readily apparent.”
“Of course. Mother always has her way, in the end. Sooner or later, you will serve Winter. I suggest you accept the inevitable.”
I eyed her and a surge of anger lent heat to my words. “Mab doesn’t control me.”
“And yet here you are. She controls circumstances. Circumstances control you.” She sidled up closer until her hip was brushing up against mine.
“Let’s have it,” I said. “The point you’re getting to. Get it over and done with so we can get back to work.”
Maeve licked her lips, got up on the tips of her colorful sneakers - the very tips, like a ballerina - and whispered in my ear. “Some day, I shall be the one to rule, and then you may find things changing and favours owed being repaid.”
I snorted derisively. “I’m sure you’ll get me all the hookers, cocaine and money I could ever dream of.”
“Nay, Dresden,” she said. “You care not for riches or material gains. I know what it is that you truly desire and I would give it to you..”
I finally turned to face her fully and found her looking up at me, bottom lip between her pearly white teeth. Her hands were behind her back, her spine arched slightly to thrust her chest forward. A damn fetching sight.
“And what do I want?” I asked wearily.
“A great many things, I suspect. Most of all you want Susan Rodriguez cured of her curse. You wish to see those responsible dealt with. You want your city protect and the power make it so. Would it not be a fair trade? Service to Winter in exchange for vengeance and salvation?”
I won’t pretend my heart didn’t skip a beat at the mention of Susan’s name. I won’t pretend her words didn’t stir me and inspire a brief flash of hope. I’m not even going to pretend I wasn’t briefly tempted by her promise of power. It was far too easy to imagine what that future may look like. Susan at my side again, The Red Court a smouldering ruin beneath my boot. My city safe. A bright, shiny future… In shackles of Faerie steel.
“And the catch?” I asked.
“Why would there be a catch?”
I just looked at her, watching her smile slowly widen. “There’s always a catch with fae, Maeve.”
She inclined her head. “None that I did not present to you in good faith, Dresden. You would serve Winter, serve my mother or I. You would destroy our enemies, wherever and whomever they may be, as well as serve us in other capacities I think you would find quite agreeable.”
She ran a finger down along from my shoulder, down my chest. I caught her hand at my sternum and pushed it aside.
“I have a feeling we’ve got a very different idea about who needs to die and who doesn’t.”
Maeve’s smile finally bloomed into a full grin. “And I expect, once we are done here, that you will see that is not so.”
I had no real answer for that, so copied her earlier tactic and stared down at the water, watching the river’s winding path through the city and down to the lake. It would make perfect sense, I suppose, for Mab to send me out here to get on board. Seeing is believing, and all that, and nothing unites like a common enemy.
“I guess we’ll see,” I said.
“Doubtless. Shall we return?”
“Yeah. I guess it’s time to face the music.”
By the time we arrived at our destination, the party already seemed to be well underway. I could smell scones in the oven - actual home baked scones - and people were spread throughout the cottage. Dann Reed has shed his frock and stood near the kitchen, conversing with Genevieve and the young couple with the missing child. The mood seemed, if not exactly cheerful, to at least be improving. I gave them a polite nod of greeting and walked on by.
“Dresden!” Winston’s loud bark of my name echoed through the little living room as I stepped inside and I could see him standing over by the liquor cabinet, sipping a cup of coffee. Nobody seemed startled by his exclamation and I made my way over, Maeve trailing behind by a few steps.
“We thought you might have gotten lost!” He said, moustache twitching as he smiled.
I grinned back at him and didn’t really need to fake it. “Just went for a stroll.”
Right on cue, Maeve stepped up by my side, just close enough to be inside my personal space bubble.
“Good day, ya’ll,” she said. “This here’s a lovely place.”
“I’m sure our host will be delighted to hear that,” Winston said. He took a gulp of his coffee and added. “I believe it’s time for a refill. Would you like a cup?”
For just a second, I hesitated. Years of work as a private investigator, not to mention a couple of days spent alongside Maeve, just may have left me just a touch paranoid. Winston’s eyebrows rose.
“Old habits die hard, don’t they?” He said. “You’re among friends here, son.”
He patted my shoulder gently and then turned to Maeve.
“And you, miss? Something to drink?”
“I’ll pass. For now. Thanks.”
She smiled at him to soften the words and Winston disappeared into the crowd.
“Not thirsty?” I asked.
“Perhaps I’m waiting to see whether or not you perish from drinking poison,” she said, her voice pitched low.
I snorted. “Did you just make a joke? Can you even make a joke?”
Maeve rolled her eyes. “You’d be surprised.”
I opened my mouth to say something and thought better of it. A good thing, too, because a moment later, Winston returned with a cup of coffee. I accepted it with a thanks and sipped. There was a sharp, sweet taste underneath the coffee.
“You looked like you could use a pick-me-up,” Winston said in a conspiratorial whisper. “So I made your coffee Irish.”
I sipped again and hell, it wasn’t all that bad. It probably wasn’t good for my physical health, but for my mental well-being, it was just what the doctor had ordered. Speaking of which: the reason of my upcoming psychosis tapped my arm, calling for my attention.
“If ya’ll will excuse me, I’m goin’ to mingle,” Maeve said.
She curtsied - I swear to God, she did - and vanished into the crowd. I sighed.
“This is our first extended trip anywhere.”
The old man eyed me. “You don’t say? Well, as far as trips go, you could do worse. The worst thing she’ll need to worry about here is snakes.”
I chuckled. “That’s good to know. How long have you been here?”
He looked like he was about to answer, but the words got caught in a smile--like he had suddenly remembered something good, almost fleeting. “A damn long time,” he said, after it had passed.
I looked around us and listened to the sound of people talking. Laughter. Birds outside singing. It appealed to my nostalgia, of days back at Ebenezar’s farm, when things had been a lot less complicated.
“To some peace and quiet,” I said, raising my cup for a toast. “At least until my charge returns.”
The old man chortled, raised his own cup, and I finished off the rest of my coffee.
“We can but hope,” Winston said.
I took a moment to watch the rest of the party-goers. Folk from the church, mostly. Most of them older. It was the kind of place where young people would probably move away to nearby larger cities.The young couple with the missing kid were there, moving through the crowd and towards the door leading out into the garden. I felt uncomfortable as hell, but we had a job to do. Dealing with the families - the ones left behind - that part was always the worst.
I sized them up.
They were in their mid-twenties, both good-looking, though the ordeal had clearly taken its toll on them. The young woman had frizzy light brown hair pulled into a tight bun and a thin, almost frail build. Their smiles were there, but strained.
“It’s terrible - what happened to them,” I said. “I can’t even imagine.”
Winston nodded grimly. “They’re handling it… About as well as can be expect.”
“How long has it been?”
“Two weeks tomorrow.”
Two weeks. Hell’s bells. What do you really say about something like that? I had no idea so I shut my mouth and waited.
“Well, it does us no good to dwell and worry. They’ll be doing enough of that for all of us, I say.”
Winston finished off the sentence with decisive a bite of his scone. I considered him for a moment. It was time to get to work.
“True,” I said. “I just don’t know if I should talk to them.”
“Nonsense! I suspect it would do them good to have some people their own age to talk to.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I said. “I think I need another pick-me-up, anyways.”
Winston winked. “I daresay we’ll meet again soon enough.”
I went for a refill of coffee, sans the whisky, and made my way over to the kitchen. It looked like something out of a cooking show. Herbs hung suspended from the ceiling, a bowl of fruit sat in one corner, and everything was polished to a sheen. Most glorious of all, a full pot of coffee awaited me. I snagged a scone - still warm - and bit into it as I slipped past Jenny Thatcher and an elderly gentleman. I moved into the living room, walked past Maeve, who was conversing with a middle-aged man and pretending to be interested in fox hunting, and out through the open door into the garden. The view was lovely. Green lawns, lovingly tended trees, and sturdy furniture under a roof that extended a few yards out onto a stone patio. The couple sat there in the wicker chairs, staring out across the garden. Beyond the wooden fence, the trees were narrowly placed and the ground sloped enough to give a glimpse of a sandy beach, followed by sparkling blue lakewater. For a while nobody spoke. They hadn’t been talking when I’d arrived and I decided to wait, taking in the view.
“Are you enjoying the book?” The young man asked.
I turned to face them for the first time. “Yeah. I’ve only just gotten started. Tim, was it?”
He chuckled and made a face. “Timothy, please. Nobody’s called me Tim since school.”
“And I’m guessing Timmy’s out of the question?”
“Unless you’re his mother wearing a very clever disguise, I would say, yes.”
“This is Penelope,” Timothy said, with a sweeping gesture of his hand in her direction. “My soon to be ex-wife if she keeps that up.”
Penelope rolled her eyes and caught his hand, kissing the back of it. “I rather doubt that.”
I’m not great with British accents, but Penelope’s sounded like it was from the upper class, crisp and articulate, whereas her husband’s sounded more along the lines of middle class. If you want a second opinion, I wouldn’t blame you.
“I’m Harry Dresden,” I said.
I was just about to launch into a speech so brilliant, so smooth, so seductive that it would’ve made Emperor Palpatine convert from the dark side… And then the music started. It made everything stop. Everything. I stopped talking, and even if I hadn’t, it was clear that the others weren’t paying attention to me anymore. Inside, the party had come to a complete stand-still. I’m not a classic music kind of a guy, really. Classic rock like Stones and Kiss, yeah, but I’ve honestly never had more than a passing familiarity with the classics. So I couldn’t tell you what it was being played from inside. What I could say that it was, by far, the most exquisite piece of music I’d ever heard. Beautiful, mournful, and seductive. It drew me in, too, like a siren’s song and I followed Timothy and Penelope back into the cottage’s living room.
Maeve sat by the piano, fingers flying over the keys while the rest of the room sat watching with expression of varying degrees of awe and surprise. I joined in, starring, and kept at it for several minutes.
Maeve finished off with a flourish and shakily got to her feet. Her cheeks were flushed prettily and the tentative smile, where her teeth worried at her bottom lip, was both adorable and sexy at the same time.
Someone started clapping, slowly at first, as if still in a daze. It grew, and it wasn’t long until it had bloomed into full-blown applauds. Hell, I found myself joining in. Credit where credit’s due. Someone wolf-whistled - Winston, of course.
“Ya’ll are too kind.” She looked around, spotted me poking my head in through the patio door, and made her way over.
Outside, she closed her eyes and drew a couple of slow breaths, settling with her back leaned against the wall. In the cottage, the conversations began afresh.
“That…” Timothy said. “That - Uh - That was-”
“That was quite brilliant,” Penelope said. “Where did you learn to play like that?”
Sadness touched Maeve’s bashful smile. “Mah daddy taught me.”
“That’s nice,” Penelope said. “My mum taught me to play a little, when I was a child. Nothing like that, though. Dear Lord.”
Maeve’s blush deepened. It was frightening, really, how much she could look like a human girl when she wished to.
“Ain’t no big thing,” she mumbled.
“Hardly! You could-”
Timothy put a hand on his wife’s shoulder and she blinked and stopped herself, looking back at him. “Oh. I was doing it again, wasn’t I?”
He smiled at her. “Just a little.”
She sighed. “I apologize. I get a little intense, sometimes, and I don’t know when to stop… Or so people tell me. It’s just that I’ve never heard anyone play the way you do outside of professionals.”
“That’s mighty kind of ya,” Maeve said. “But I just like playin’.”
“Of course,” Penelope said.
“So... “ Timothy said. “Are you guys moving here or are you just here on vacation?”
“Vacation,” I said. “Well, she’s vacationing, I’m working.”
They both frowned, so I elaborated. “I’m her bodyguard.”
“Ah.” Penelope exchanged a look with her husband. “Has anyone shown you around yet?”
“We’ve mostly been explorin’ on our own,” Maeve said.
Another exchanged look and a nod from Timothy.
“If you’d like, we could show you around,” he said.
Jackpot. In poker terms, we were sitting on a winning hand. This was a situation where a schmuck might be eager to cash in and bet high, by simply saying yes right away. A pro, though? A pro would have the patience to wait, to let the other player come to them.
“We wouldn’t want to impose,” I said.
“Oh, it’s no bother,” Timothy said. “Honestly, we could use getting out a bit.”
For a moment, I could see how weary they both were, and it made me a feel a little guilty about slamming down my metaphorical flush and cashing in the entire pot.
“So long as it ain’t too much of a bother,” Maeve said.
“Not at all,” Penelope said.
“Alright,” I said. “Give us the tour.”
I’m not going to bore you with the details. We headed back to the inn for a change of clothes and then spent the rest of the afternoon together, exploring town and seeing the sights. There were some old shops selling old baubles and knickknacks, a quaint little cafe along the riverside where we had a late lunch, and the landscape surrounding the city was lush and lovely. As the evening drew closer we stopped by the city’s liquor shop and got a bottle of wine and a bottle of whisky, then headed by the butcher, a Mr Brown, for a couple of steaks.
We eventually found ourselves down by the lakeside, sitting on a couple of logs by a fire we’d made for ourselves in a little ring of stones. Darkness had fallen and half the bottle of whisky was gone. The girls sat on one side of the fire, while Timothy and I sat on the other to pass the bottle between us. Ever since the college kids from the pub the other night had returned from a boating expedition, an hour or so ago, we’d had the place for ourselves.
“Tell us how you met!” Maeve said, her voice light and bubbly as she gently nudged Penelope with her elbow.
“Do you want to tell the story or should I?” Timothy asked, his gaze focused on his wife. For a moment, it was as though she were the only one around. The look she gave him wasn’t much better.
I hadn’t seen a display that sappy since the months before and after Billy and Georgia’s honeymoon. Hell’s bells.
“I’ll do it,” Penelope said. “We were studying at University, you see. He was doing literature and I was studying economics. We met at a party. He was sitting in a corner with a book-”
“I had a test the next day,” Timothy interjected with a fond smile. “But my friends had dragged me along.”
“And I persuaded him that an early night might be in order.” She giggled - something I never would’ve imagined her doing just a couple of hours ago, and continued. “A couple of months later, I got pregnant and my family did not approve of that at all.”
“Her family’s kind of shit,” Timothy stage-whispered.
“Quite,” Penelope said. “A lot of money and very little tact. In any case, with the baby on the way, we needed someplace to live. That’s when we heard of Innsmouth.”
I made a polite noise of inquiry.
“Most of the people here are old, you see,” she explained. “Their children have left for the city and sometimes people pass without having anyone to pass their things on to. So they invite people to move in - for free - to make sure the village doesn’t die out.”
That sounded good. Way, way too good.
“We owe the people here everything,” Timothy said, smiling wanly. “They have been fantastic. Especially with -”
He stopped himself and took the bottle of whisky out of my hands, and two long pulls later finished by saying. “They’ve been great.”
Penelope wilted visibly where she sat. I bit back a sigh and Maeve cleared her throat, - “Penelope, darlin’.”
She leaned in closer, wrapping an arm around the woman’s shoulder and whispered something into her ear. Penelope’s eyes widened and her smile returned, hesitant at first, but eventually reaching her eyes to leave them sparkling with something close to mischief.
“Why not?” She said, getting to her feet and looking surprisingly steady for someone who’d drank most of the wine and helped out with the whisky, too.
“If ya’ll will excuse us,” Maeve said. “We’re gonna go for a dip.”
Maeve and linked her arm up with Penelope’s and walked off into the darkness until they were at the water’s edge. She looked back at me over her shoulder, eyes sparkling with mischief, as she kicked out of her shoes, and I suddenly knew what she was about to do. That being said, I didn’t look away. I really, really should’ve. Maeve smiled, winked, and shrugged out of her jacket. She wore a dress shirt underneath and soon it fell off her shoulders and down into the sand, followed by her bra. Her skin was pale - almost luminous, in the moonlight, and I had to resist the urge to get up and walk over to her. She shimmied out of her jeans, and… Well. I’m not going to lie. Her ass was fantastic. Out of this world. If I’d finished high school I might’ve had the vocabulary to properly describe it, but you all know how that went. If I had to settle for a word, it’d probably be “tight”. Not a SAT word, but that’s as good as it’ll get.
Maeve knew I was watching and added a little extra sway to her hips as she sauntered over to Penelope… Who was also getting undressed. I looked back to Timothy and took a healthy pull of scotch. The young man was smiling as he listened to Maeve and Penelope splashing about merrily.
“She hasn’t really had any fun in two weeks. Not since…” He winced. “Our son is missing.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks… And thank you. I think it’s the first time she’s had a moment of peace.”
I thumped his back and handed him back the bottle. It looked like he could use it more than me. “No problem.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and took a couple of deep breaths. “I don’t know. It just keeps spinning around in your head, you know? What ifs. What if I’d been home with them in the garden and I’d been there watching when Penelope looked away for a few seconds?”
He breathed in deeply and glanced over to the water, slowly getting in control of his emotions once more.
“How old is he?” I asked.
“Two.” Timothy dug in his pocket for a moment and came out with his wallet, which he flipped open to show a picture of a boy with a wild curl of brown hair, blue eyes, and a wide smile that showcased several teeth that had yet to grow in.
“I... “ For a second, I almost offered to help him, but then I thought better of it. “I don’t know what to say.”
Timothy chortled, though there wasn’t much joy in it. “What can you say? It is what it is. We just have to figure out a way to live with it, now. I manage, which is what scares me, I guess. Penelope… I don’t know.”
“You can do it,” I told him. “Because that’s the only way forward.”
He nodded along and his spine straightened slightly. He took another swig of liquid courage. “You’re right.”
We sat there in silence, watching the fire crackle and within a few minutes, the girls returned, dressed and dripping. A shivering penelope bee-lined for Timothy and settled beside him, pressing in close to his side.
Maeve lingered by the fire for a moment, watching, and then did the same. She wasn’t cold, of course. She couldn’t be. But she still huddled in on herself as though she were, so what was I supposed to do? I sighed and made some room for her. If I caught a cold I’d made sure she never heard the end of it.
“Today’s been nice,” Penelope said, snuggling up happily against her husband. “We should do this again sometime.”
“Ready and rarin’ to go,” Maeve said, eyes glinting as she looked up at me.
“Just tell us when,” I said. “We’ll be here a while longer.”
Timothy glanced down at his wife, half-asleep in his arms, and cleared his throat.
“I think it’s about time we call it a night,” he said. “But we’ll keep in touch.
“It’s probably a good idea. I’d better get this one back to the motel before she catches a cold.”
Timothy nodded and slowly got to his feet. Penelope stirred and rose with him, and with a wave, they walked off into the darkness. Leaving me alone with Maeve in the dark.
“Well?” She asked.
I glanced around just to be sure. Unless someone far better than I was around under a veil, we were alone.
“The kid got taken out of their back yard. Two weeks ago. Penelope looked away for a few seconds… And he was gone.”
“Is that all?”
“For now,” I said. “It’s a start.”
“Very well… Penelope told me she received a call on her phone. She went into the house to pick it up and returned to the garden within thirty seconds. The caller never spoke. A distraction, in all likelihood, to provide a window of opportunity for whoever grabbed the child.”
“Probably,” I said. “If he’d run off, they would’ve found him by now.”
“Indeed. There is also-”
“The fence, I know. Too high for a two-year-old to get over.”
“There is nothing that would suggest this is what we seek, however. The abduction could just as easily have been executed by skillful mortals. Such as one might obtain with great wealth.”
“Someone her parents hired?” I thought about it. “They’d have to be awfully sneaky to get in here without arousing any suspicion… And if there’s a police investigation going that’d be the first place they’d look.”
“Unless they were persuaded to look elsewhere.”
“We can’t do anything about that, though.”
“No. There is another explanation for what may have befallen the child. The parents may be the ones behind his disappearance.”
My stomach twisted around in nausea. “No,” I said firmly.
Maeve seemed to find my answer as distasteful as the idea of parents murdering their child.
“This is no time to be squeamish,” she said. “We must remain detached.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered. “Fine.”
Maeve moved away from me and for a while, stared out into the darkness. “We should maintain contact as we broaden our search.”
“Great,” I said. “Sounds like fun. Shall we?”
I waved a hand back towards the dim lights of the city.
“Unless you wish to go for a swim…”
I gave her a look. “I’d rather go swimming with the shark from Jaws.”
Maeve shrugged, seemingly unruffled. “Very well.”
All in all, a lovely end to a lovely evening.
Once I was back in my room, alone, I almost wished I’d taken Maeve up on her offer. The distraction would’ve been nice. Without it, I had to think about the child who had gone missing, whose parents may have hidden him away, or worse yet, murdered him. It happens. Not often, but it does happen. Not wanting the world to be the kind of place where such things were a reality didn’t change a damn thing and as much as I hated admitting it to myself, Maeve was right on that count. Things were what they were. All we could do now was try our best to do something about it. All in all, we’d done well today. We’d accomplished what we’d set out to do, and more besides. So why was I feeling absolutely rotten?
A soft, muffled sound from outside of my window caught my attention and I squinted, then frowned when I spotted Maeve on the street outside. She sat crouched in the shadows of the motel room, apparently having jumped out of the second floor window, and after a quick look around, she vanished completely into the darkness.
That brought up another, suddenly more relevant question. What the hell was I doing here and what on earth was Little Miss Psycho? Mab could not lie, so when she’d said that there was something going on here that needed stopping, she meant just that. But what? Was the darling old lady running this motel secretly worshipping Satan and sacrificing goats in her little kitchen? Or was there still something wrong with Maeve? Something Mab expected me to deal with once I realized that? While Maeve thought she had gotten away with it as long as she kept playing along? It was possible. As far as I knew, Mab was the kind of mother who would name her son Sue.
I stared into the darkness for a while longer. Nothing’s ever simple. Fucking Faeries.