Authors: Hailey Edwards
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Dead in the Water
© 2016 by Hailey Edwards
All rights reserved.
Copy edited by
Gemini, Book One
Camille Ellis is the Earthen Conclave’s golden girl. Her peculiar talent solves cases with a single touch, and she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. But the brightest stars cast the deepest shadows, and her grim secrets lurk just beneath the skin.
A routine job goes sideways when the victim’s brother barges into the investigation demanding answers. Consumed with grief, the warg will go to any lengths to avenge his sister’s death. Even if it means ensuring Cam’s cooperation at the jaws of his wolf.
#1: Dead in the Water
#2: Head Above Water
-state crime scenes in seven months was seven too many. Every fourth Wednesday dread ballooned in my chest during the short drive from home to the local marshal’s office until I marveled that my ribs didn’t crack under the pressure. On those days I had fallen into the habit of perching on the edge of my task chair, fingers cramped from gripping the desk’s edge as I stared at the phone, willing it not to ring.
But it always did.
Each time I hung up with Magistrate Vause, every time I agreed to consult on a drowning case, I told myself
was the last one, that I had atoned, that Lori wouldn’t want me to keep punishing myself. Then I grabbed the go bag I kept packed by the door and drove to the airport.
Today’s call came as prompt as all the others, and so here I was, in a new state, at a fresh scene, decked out in my investigative best. Pressed slacks. Button-up blouse. Light jacket enchanted with a chill spell against the Deep South humidity that breathed steam down my neck the second I stepped from my frosty rental car onto the shade-dappled asphalt.
“You must be Agent Ellis.” A wiry man made thinner by his sweat-drenched dress shirt approached me with his arm extended. His sleeves were rolled up past his forearms, and mud stained the cuffs. “I’m Decker Comeaux, and this is my crime scene. I appreciate you flying out to consult.”
being Villanow, Georgia.
“No problem.” I clasped hands with him. The low hum of his magic made my fingertips tingle. “Elf?” His grip went limp. “You’re using a third-tier glamour.” A quality one at that. “Those ears must be hard to cover.”
The fingers of his opposite hand smoothed over the rounded top of one ear as if searching for a point. He dropped his hands and shoved them into his pockets to give them somewhere to go. Or maybe just to keep them away from me. “They warned me you had unusual talents.”
I massaged the base of my neck, fingers slipping down into my shirt collar like a warning label was a physical tag I could hide. “Unusual is one word for it.”
Plenty of fae were unique. I wasn’t special. Just different.
His smile conveyed the exact right amount of empathy. It made me wonder if he practiced the expression in a mirror before work each day. “The body is this way if you’d like to take a look.”
wasn’t the word I would have used. I wasn’t in Villanow because I wanted to be. I was here because the method of death called to me, a perverse obsession I had as much control over as taking my next breath.
Comeaux eyed me expectantly, and I realized I hadn’t answered him yet. “Sure.” I tossed him the key fob to my rental. “Do me a favor and hold on to that.”
After tucking the hunk of plastic into his pocket with an amused twitch of his lips, he led me past eight unmarked black SUVs overflowing the cramped parking area at the trailhead. We hiked for a while until a crater emerged from among the trees. It must have spanned three miles across. A more generous soul might have called it a dead lake, but that sounded morbid given the circumstances. Morbid or not, the empty bed was as dry as the grass crunching under my feet. Thanks to the summer draught, only the deepest portion of the bowl retained any water.
Sweat trickled down my nape despite the cool weight of my jacket. Water, no matter how fresh, always carried the underlying scents of decomposition. Rotting fish corpses. Molding leaves. Urine. Feces. Ponds were swimming pools for bacteria, and my sinuses burned when I caught that first whiff of decay, stinging my nasal passages like I had inhaled a gallon of saltwater.
Lori gurgled as her head vanished beneath the swell of white foam.
“Are you all right?” He squinted in the same direction as me. “That’s where she was found, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“Yeah.” Throat tight, I ripped my gaze from the water. “I figured.”
“We documented the scene then moved the remains to a tent.” He indicated a white geodesic affair sheltered by the limbs of forgiving pine trees. “There’s a fan hooked up to make the heat more bearable, but the smell…”
Nothing anyone could do about that.
Showing the pond my back made the skin covering my spine twitch. But now that my sights were locked on the dingy material pitched several yards away, I focused there and on what waited inside for me. No. Not what.
My fingers didn’t shake when I lifted the tent flap. If they had, I was ready to blame all the chai I had tossed back during the long drive from the airport out to the middle of nowhere. Three other fae were congregated inside, and the tight-knit group had parked themselves in the far corner where a steady
click, click, click
made it obvious they were here for the cooler air and not for the body.
They were all men, so it must have taken balls to stand beside a dead girl and whine about a few sweat stains under your pits.
A ripple effect hit as each head turned until I held the group’s collective attention. What they saw on my face sent them bolting out the rear flap and left me alone in the oppressive heat with the victim. Drawing out the moment, I examined every sweltering inch of the interior except for what lay before me, until I caught myself reading the ingredients off a label of hand sanitizer and forced my gaze front and center.
A neon-blue tarp stretched across a commandeered picnic table. I got downwind of the oscillating fan, and it blasted me full-on with the stench of meat gone ripe from too much sun. A white and wrinkly maggot inched over the emaciated curve of the victim’s hip, and some primal response had me tasting what I ate for breakfast in the back of my throat. I kept down the cereal bar, but it was a near thing, and I didn’t think I would ever taste strawberries again without remembering this moment.
A young girl was curled on her side on top of the plastic. She was nude, and her pale skin held a blueish tint. Without touching her it was hard to tell if temperature was a factor or if the reflection of the tarp was playing tricks on me. Her fragile limbs had bloated from her time spent in the water, and the flesh had burst in places like overstuffed sausage casing. One arm stopped at the elbow and exposed bone protruded, white and gleaming. Chestnut hair clung like freshwater seaweed to her spine, dripping brown-tinted liquid that flowed in rivulets off the table to quench the thirsty earth below.
A quick check over my shoulder confirmed I was still alone. With the sun at his back, Comeaux’s silhouette was visible through the thin fabric separating us. He was half-turned, arguing with someone. One of the guys I had spooked away from the fan was probably tattling on me.
“Enough with the stalling,” I muttered. Skin crawling with grim resolve, I pressed a single finger to the girl’s spine through the filter of her damp hair. Residual power answered that barest touch with sickening force, and I had my answer.
Godsdamn it. I recognized the magical signature. She was one of ours all right. Another victim of a serial killer agents of the Earthen Conclave had nicknamed Charybdis, after a mythical sea monster.
The girl’s species eluded me. A hint of earthy magic convinced me her people were native to this realm and not a descendant of Faerie. Indigenous magic registered on my scale in an indeterminate way, making the brush of Charybdis’s power all the easier to identify for it.
The gallon jug of hand sanitizer I had been eyeballing sat on the ground near the exit flap. I walked over and pumped until clear goo dripped through my fingers then massaged out the worst of the echoes before resuming my visual examination.
Milky-blue eyes gazed at the stump of her missing arm. Her thin lips mashed together as though even in death she held back a scream. The roundness of her childish features churned a memory that frothed with kinship for the dead. I stared at her hard, willing a resemblance to another lost girl to surface, but there was none. Whoever she had been, she was no Lori.
The quality of light changed, and I assumed Comeaux had joined me. “Has her family been notified?”
A rusty growl vibrated on the air. “Her family found her.”
Startled, I lifted my head.
A tall man filled every inch of the entryway. Wiry muscle packed his lean frame. Dark hair was slicked to his scalp. Grungy stubble covered his face. Feral intelligence sharpened his hazel eyes as they pierced mine. Bands of black ink circled his wrists, and towering cypress trees grew from them to trace up his forearms. A small figure flashed on the inside of one wrist when he shoved aside the tent flap, but he lowered his arm before I could identify the marking. Mud covered his naked torso. His jeans were soaked through and held low on his hips by determination alone. His feet were bare and caked with dirt. Haggard and exhausted, he looked like a man primed to walk off a cliff’s edge just to get life the hell over with so he could finally get some sleep.
“Agent Ellis—” Comeaux shouldered into the tent, giving the man a wide berth, “—this is Cord Graeson. He’s the victim’s brother.”
Gravel churned in Graeson’s voice. “Her name was Marie.”
. One more name etched onto my private wall of remembrance. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Comeaux allowed a moment of silence to lapse before prompting me. “Well?”
My gaze skated from Comeaux back to Graeson. I had a hard time not looking at him while he was staring a hole through my left ear. “Should Mr. Graeson be present for this?”
The grizzled man stalked toward me. Hostility wafted from his skin like pungent cologne. “
. Graeson will be part of this investigation until the sick bastard responsible for Marie’s death is brought to justice.”
The primal region of my brain quaked in its boots, but I kept my voice steady. “She’s one of mine,” I confirmed. “Her injuries mirror those of the previous victims.”
The marshal scratched his chin. “Can you tell what type of fae did this?”
“No,” I lied as cold sweat popped down my spine. “I’m sorry.”
Graeson’s nostrils flared—scenting my fib?—and my hands became of sudden interest to him. Damn it. He must smell the hand sanitizer. Our gazes locked, and his irises gleamed with a golden sheen. He knew I had touched her even if he hadn’t figured out why.
“It was worth a shot.” Comeaux rocked back on his heels. “Do you want to visit the site?”
About as much as I wanted Graeson to punch me in the face with those cinder blocks he called hands. The knuckles bending his weathered fingers were scarred and thick like a pro boxer’s would be.
“Sure.” I sidestepped Graeson’s intensity, exited the tent and waited for Comeaux to join me. “Lead the way.”
The banks surrounding Pilcher’s Pond sloped in a gentle downward curve past the edge of the trail Comeaux and I had taken to reach the tent. The ground was bare and cracked, the weeds dead and brittle underfoot. He veered to the left and began sidling down the incline toward the basin. I stepped where he did and focused on keeping my feet under me. After a few minutes, curiosity forced the question on my mind past my lips. “What’s the deal with Graeson?”
“He’s beta to the Georgia alpha, a guy named Bessemer.” Comeaux kept his voice pitched low. “If Graeson wants to investigate his sister’s death, it’s within his rights under the Native Species of Magical Origins Act. We aren’t required to share our information with him, but we can’t refuse to answer his questions either.” At my incredulous look, he shrugged. “To them, this is pack business. The murder took place on Chandler pack lands. They take care of their own.”
Beta. Pack. Alpha. One plus one plus one equaled a potentially serious four-legged problem.
Cord Graeson was a warg, a dominant one to hold the position of second-in-command to a man like Bessemer. And he knew I had lied to him. That decision would bite me on the ass sooner or later, maybe even in the literal sense.
Mindful of the debris one would expect to find in sediment—Christmas trees, license plates, beer cans, fishing line—we picked our way toward the mile-wide stretch of gray-green water cupped in the remaining depression.
As I studied what remained of the pond, faint ripples arrowed from its center outward. Something was down there, and it was headed our way. Fast. A sharp twist in my gut had me tasting strawberries for the second time that morning, but Comeaux swatted a fly, and I forced my jaw to unclench.
The cloudy depths parted over a young woman’s cotton-candy-pink head, and my lips opened with surprise. Shocking indigo eyes framed by black lashes beaded with moisture studied me. A purple neoprene suit hugged her body and accentuated her slight curves. The outfit belonged on a diver, but I didn’t spot a scrap of equipment on her. No mask, no regulator, no tank. Nothing to indicate what the hell she was doing bobbing like a cork in the middle of a crime scene when she looked like she ought to be planning a homecoming dance or rallying votes for class president.
“Find anything?” Comeaux called to her.
“A barrette.” She held a blue plastic bar molded with bows aloft for our inspection. “Hardly worth getting my hair wet.”
Forget her hair. The girl had been swimming bare-faced in the same stagnant water as the corpse. I wanted to shower and scrub my skin pink just thinking about it. “How can you tell it belonged to the victim?”
“She was wearing the matching clip when her body was fished out of the pond this morning.” She snapped the closure shut. “I assisted.”
Well okay then.
The girl sliced her willowy arms through the water. As she swam closer, I noticed robin’s-egg-blue nail polish flashed on her fingertips. When only a swath of muck separated us, she spun around, winked at me over her shoulder and began hauling herself out of the water backward by walking on her palms.
“Do you need…?” I strangled on the word
Gradient scales in sunset hues covered her from the pronounced dimples bracketing her spine down as far as I could see. Sunlight glinted off each scalloped disc, and I squinched my eyes but couldn’t look away. “You’re a mermaid.”
“Are you a detective? If not, then you should be.” She settled three feet in front of me and twisted so her tail bent where knees would be on a human. Pink fins the same shade as her hair curled around her. “Your powers of observation