A back alley in downtown Baltimore was a disgusting place to die.
Here, amongst the rotting food waste of the varied chain restaurants and the acrid stench of urine. Rainwater from the previous night’s downpour made everything dampen to a slime residue, glossy in the sterile glow from the streetlamps along the busy main road of the city centre. It sharpened the shadows, put the dumpsters and the slumped form of a young woman into sharp relief.
She couldn’t have been more than eighteen years of age, still a child in the eyes of society, and yet… and yet here she was, in such a place. She wore a tight dark blue sheath dress that did little to hide her protruding rib cage, the tiny spaghetti straps slipping off of her bony shoulders. The inelegant sprawl of her bare legs made the shortness of the dress seem obscene, one high heel sliding to reveal a bare foot. Dirty blonde hair spilled over her drawn face, dark red lipstick smeared across her cheek.
Her eyes were open and unseeing, what would have been blue eyes were now clouded over with a milky film that didn’t belong in the eyes of a fresh corpse. The skin was paper thin and deathly grey, sucked of all colour and any remaining traces of life . She looked like she was ageing right in front of their eyes.
Will Graham took it all in with a look of blank indifference. He’s seen it all before, there was nothing new to this picture of death. He’d seen it all since Jack Crawford of the FBI had walked into his classroom eight years ago and offered him a job as his team’s Empath for the more sinister of cases.
Will bent his knees and crouched by the body, taking a deep breath and breathing out slowly. The world around him began to fade to the background, Jack shooing the other agents away to give him some space. The blue flashing lights of the police cruiser blocking the alleyway entrance so the more bold onlookers couldn’t make a bid for the grisly scene and snap a picture. Will’s eyelids flickered for a moment before finally shutting, her life story playing out in his mind like the turning pages of a book.
Her mother had named her Emma before she had succumbed to complications during the pregnancy. Her father had felt fatherhood was a little like too much hard work and he let welfare take her without so much as a backward glance. Her childhood consisted of being bounced from one temporary home to another, a wild girl with fire in her eyes and bitterness in her soul. Her anger consumed everything she touched, bled out of her until she felt nothing but a gnawing emptiness. She could never forget the shame of wearing hand me down clothes from other unwanteds like her, could never forgive the other children with the parents and a home who laughed and called her names in the street. She became numb to the insincere apologies of would-be mothers who told Emma’s case workers that Emma “Wasn’t a right fit for their family”, while their husbands visited Emma’s bedroom and did things to her that no adult should ever do to a child. She grew up with a hate for the world and the clawing desperation to escape.
Emma’s escape was the unfortunate addiction to drugs of all kinds. The pills with the funny cartoons on them, the line of white dust on a silver tray, the liquid form of sweet oblivion. And the new drug of choice: Fae parties, or more specifically, Dark Fae parties. It was like courting violence, the thrill of brushing up against beings that seemed to be made out of sin. Thrill seekers frequented these parties, outcasts of society, the desperate, the dying, the broken.
Emma was no different, she followed that particular white rabbit to the glamoured decadence of the Dark court’s clubs, the haunting music that reverberated in her chest that didn’t make her feel quite so hollow, dancing with the supernaturally beautiful Fae that revelled in the attention of the Humans. It wasn’t only their attention that the Immortal revelled in. It was their desire, their excitement, their awe, even their deaths.
Will was instantly catapulted from Emma’s subconscious into something darker, something with malevolent intent. They watched Emma as she came out of the women’s toilets into the dimly lit back corridor of a club, hands shaking from the adrenaline and the drugs. They watched with an incredible hunger that gnawed at their very insides, the anticipation of the hunt as he followed his prey.
There was no thought in that rancid mind, no sign of any intelligence but the hunger and the devouring need for human life.
Wraiths worked like that, a flesh mechanisation for hunger.
Emma didn’t have a chance to scream, to struggle. He had her in his grip, opening his mouth wide and sucking the very life from her into his own body. It was like drinking from a cool spring after days without water in the Sahara. It took nothing more than a fleeting moment before the human’s hummingbird of a heart was silenced. Once he had his fill, he dumped her in the trash a few blocks away where she would easily be found.
Will pulled his mind free from the lingering memories of the murder, forehead drenched with sweat and he panted for breath. It left a nasty taste at the back of his throat and shadows behind his eyes. He felt unclean, in need of a long hot shower to wash the darkness away.
As if it were ever that easy.
He opened his eyes and focused again on Emma’s body and noted the change in her appearance. Her eyes were now glossed over in a milky white, her blonde hair was slowly turning grey and brittle and her skin was creasing and sagging. She was ageing in front of them.
“What,” Jack Crawford said, once again beside him and looking down at the body with narrowed eyes. “The hell is this?”
Will forcefully bit back the sarcastic retort he wanted to reply with and focused on the girl- now looking like a sixty year old - in front of them. “A Wraith attack.” He finally said, voice roughened. “One of the Dark Fae court. It sucks the life out of its victims from the mouth. Takes a person’s essence from their very cellular level so that they can stay young and alive.”
Jack looked like he wanted to pound somebody’s face in. “The Dark Court, of course it is.”
“The victim’s name is Emma, a ward of the state. You won’t be finding a grieving family left behind. A Fae junkie, she was here as a glamour reveller.”
“Was she killed here?” Jack asked with a painfully hopeful tone in his voice.
Will rubbed at his forehead, feeling the distant throb of a headache starting around his eyes. “I don’t think so,”
Jack raised his eyebrows. “You don’t think so?”
Will shrugged. “I- i didn’t get much of an impression of her surroundings. She was in a corridor, a back corridor, with music muffled. A Fae club of some kind.”
Jack bent down and, with gloved hands, carefully lifted her arm and turned it to show the inside of her wrist to the poor lighting. With a soft blue incandescent glow, there was a stamp on her skin with the symbol of stag antlers. The antlers were the symbol for Phantasia , the most prominent Dark Fae clubs in Baltimore. “Well, I think we can start the search at Phantasia, at the very least.”
Jack cursed and Will was inclined to agree. Phantasia’s proprietor was notoriously guarded when it came to both the local police force and FBI. Getting in to see if Emma was killed at his club was going to be frustrating and time consuming. Impressions left at crime scenes faded over time.
Jack grunted and put her arm back down and stared at her face. “I’ve never seen a Wraith take this much life force from someone before. Were they in a frenzy?”
“Not exactly,” Will Said.
Jack’s eyes cut sharply to Will. “Not exactly?” The impatient tone was unmistakable, he hated when Will was being cryptic with his answers.
“It wasn’t an energy frenzy, Jack. I didn’t feel that type of hunger. Lingering memories of that kind is like seeing through a red mist.”
“And this wasn’t the case?”
“It was controlled. A wraith is nothing more than its hunger, its power to kill. There isn’t intelligence there, not like we know it. The only way it can function in Fae life is by having a Master to control it.”
Jack looked down at Emma with new eyes. “Was the Wraith off its leash?”
Will let his breath out in a whoosh before answering. “There’s no way i can answer that with any certainty. It didn’t feel like the Wraith was conscious of doing anything wrong, of disobeying its Master. Emma could have been targeted by the Master, or we have a Wraith who no longer answers its Master’s call.”
“I don’t know which is worse,” Beverley Katz said as she stepped up beside them, staring down at the body with a disgusted frown. “A powerful Fae Master that would have it out for a human or a Wraith wreaking havoc in downtown Baltimore.”
“When you talk about Masters, what exactly are we talking about here?” Jack asked, finally standing.
“There is a hierarchy to the Dark Court in terms of its members.” Will turned away from the body, locked down the alley to the small crowd they had attracted. “You have the lowest level of the hierarchy, the foot soldiers that act as the eyes and ears of the Court. They can pass off as human the best. Middle level are those with more strength, have survived longer and are supporting Lords and Ladies who offer both protection and spoils. Then you have the highest level, the aristocracy. They are usually prestigious Fae families called Houses. The most powerful and bloodthirsty of their kind, not to be messed with on pain of death.”
“You do not want to mess with the Houses, boss. These guys have lived for thousands of years killing each other for the top spots at Court. There the only ones strong enough to control a Wraith.” Katz said, writing notes down on her clipboard. The ensuing silence made her glance up and pull a face at them. “What?”
“How the hell do you know that?” Jack demanded.
Katz rolled her eyes. “Not everyone is married to the FBI, boss. I have hobbies, like read the Tattler for funsies.”
“You mean you read it for gossip sensationalism garnished by bad policing and unethical journalism.” Will pointed out with a small smile.
Katz shrugged, hip checking Will playfully. “Sounds about right. Makes it more interesting to read, you should try it sometime.”
Will made a face back at her. “I think I’ll pass, thank you.”
“If it's not a rogue wraith then the Master, a member of the Dark Fae aristocracy, is to blame.” Jack cut in. “Why would they have a grudge against a teenage girl?”
Katz sobered. “It could be anything. Fae have a strange sense of manners. She could have offended them and lost her life for it.”
Will considered the possibility. “Or it had nothing to do with her at all. The killing could be impersonal but the message…”
Jack looked troubled. “What message?”
Will shook his head, feeling the throb of his headache ring with the movement. “To humans for being so fragile. Some Fae are bitter about having to live alongside us when we should be prostrate at their feet. Or a message to another Fae, perhaps she was special to someone. Owned by someone as glamour revellers often are. I don't know for certain. I need to see where she died to get a better picture of it.”
“When we get her back to the lab i can scan her for traces of glamour, see if anything comes up.” Katz put forward, eyes growing distant as she began to prioritise all tests in her head.
“Do it,” Jack said.
She didn’t need to be told twice. Katz and two EMT’s carefully took the body and laid her out on a hospital gurney and took her away to the waiting ambulance.
Will watched it drive away before speaking again. “The Dark Court aren’t going to like the idea of human FBI working on this to catch one of their own, especially one so high up the pecking order. They could potentially freeze us out, close ranks and we’ll never get to the bottom of it.”
Hunger, so much hunger, need to feed-
Will shut his eyes at the uninvited intrusion into his thoughts.
“A murder of a human makes it our business and well within our jurisdiction to investigate,” Jack growled. “They are not shutting us out. We’ll get a Fae liaison if we have to, but I’ll make it clear to them that they will follow our lead.”
Will nodded absentmindedly, his mind unable to concentrate with the full force of a migraine now in full effect. Jack took notice of Will’s drawn face and clapped him gently on the back, softening.
“Go home, Will. Get some rest. I’ll see you in the morning with your report.”
Will let a federal cop drive him back to his home and after downing a cocktail of painkillers with a glass of water, he pulled his black out curtains across the windows and fell into bed. Pure darkness surrounded him, comforted him, as he sank into sleep.
He dreamt of animal reflective eyes in the shadows and a slash of a feral grin.
“I don’t work with the Fae,” Will said for what felt like the hundredth time that morning. “I don’t work well with people at the best of times, how can you expect me to work with a damn Fae?”
They were in Jack’s office, Will pacing the floor in his agitated state. Jack watched him from his seat behind his desk like someone would a zoo animal. It put Will’s teeth on edge and he forced himself to stop his jerky movements, his hands fisting at his sides. “Don’t ask this of me.”
“What are you so afraid of?” Jack asked, his own hands spread wide on the table in front of him.
“They don’t think like us,” Will answered, already resuming his pacing. “It’s like their minds have no boundaries, it sucks me in and i-”
I’m afraid i’ll be sucked right in and i can never get out, he thought without having the will to voice it out loud.
Jack seemed to understand what Will wasn’t saying anyway. “It’s the only way, Will. Hannibal Lecter won’t allow us on the premises without his direct involvement. Without working with him, the FBI won’t get a look in.”
Will shook his head with a sound of disgust. “He can’t do that.”
“The Dark Court can. We are hunting one of theirs, Will. They have the right to shut us out and deal with it on their own. There is no Victim’s family to compensate, they can do what they like. But Lecter is willing to make a concession for us, with stipulations.”
“Stipulations,” Will intoned. “Like having direct knowledge of the investigation so that the Court has its own little spy.”
Jack shrugged, the tense muscles in his shoulders belying the careless gesture. “I don’t like it anymore than you do, Will. Hannibal Lecter has given his word that he won’t harm you or get in the way of the investigation. That goes for no glamour and no Fae tricks. You will be safe with him, i promise you.”
“Safe with a Fae?” Will said, pouring all of his derision into the words.
Jack sighed. “Do you trust me?”
Will gave a sharp nod.
“Then put your trust in my judgement. Hannibal is our way into the Fae world and its dealings. Our only way.”
Will was at war with himself. He did trust Crawford, to an extent. He was loyal to his team, stood with strong morals and a dogged determination to bring justice to those who thought themselves above the law. But that determination could often mean pushing past the breaking point for results.
Will couldn’t help but wonder if there would come a time that Jack would step over that line of no return.
“Come on, Will,” Jack coaxed. “You want to put Emma’s killer behind bars, don’t you?”
Will’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a dirty move, Jack, and you know it. Katz would be better at this, she knows more about the fae than i do, is more personable than i am-”
“Not possible,” Jack interrupted. “I need her in the lab. And besides, Hannibal Lecter asked for you personally.”
That drew Will up short and he stared at Jack in confusion. “He asked for me?”
Jack shrugged. “He asked to to have the Empath profiler working the case with him, which i agreed to. He seemed quite taken with the idea of an Empath, asked endless questions about your process of recalling memories.”
That didn’t sound good at all. “And this didn’t raise any red flags with you?”
“It’s not illegal to have a fascination with Empaths, Will.”
“It is if he’s the killer and is thinking i may have ID’d him,” Will returned.
“I get the feeling that he wouldn’t have let the FBI in if it wasn’t for you, so now we get to find out. Whatever the reason, keep him interested for as long as possible, answer all of his questions about empathy without compromising the FBI’s stand.”
Will shook his head in disbelief. “Are you pimping me out to a Dark Fae?”
Jack grinned. “On behalf of the FBI, thank you for your services.”