Despite my face looking like a Picasso painting and against my better judgement, I volunteered to drive. If Sunny hadn't already set fire to it in a fit of crazy, Dez's jeep probably still looked like she had slaughtered an animal in her backseat and I wouldn't trust Stein on a tricycle much less behind the wheel of a vehicle.
So we all piled into my reliable '89 Dodge Caravan Turbo that Cedric had been kind enough to drop off sometime during the blissful period I had spent halfway between this world and the next. We had actually met when I bought the van from him and my shameless love for the beautiful beast of a machine was ninety-nine percent of the reason why Cedric put up with me.
Stein sat shotgun because Dez told him point blank that she didn't want him behind her where she couldn't keep an eye on him. The kobold seemed completely fine with the idea of a werewolf in the perfect position to casually rip his spine out through the back of his neck, hopping into my van like we were frat bros heading out to Tijuana for a blackout drunk weekend.
Sunny chose not to walk down with us although I caught a quick glimpse of her staring down menacingly from the apartment window. Having had extended practice handling Sunny's volatile personality, Dez had won the argument and convinced her to sit this one out. There was more bribery than compromise involved but, in her defense, Dez didn't have much of a choice. It was less about Sunny's ability to protect herself, as she clearly didn't know the meaning of the words 'non-violent' or 'mercy', and had more to do with Desiree's current mental state.
Now that she had healed and eaten, I wasn't really worried about her frolicking about town causing carnage and mayhem. But she hadn't had a decent amount of sleep in the past two days and an exhausted werewolf was an unpredictable werewolf. Making sure that Sunny didn't conveniently find an opportunity to flay Dominic's flesh from his body would be a full time job and Dez wasn't in any shape to take on that kind of stressful task without happily joining her or tearing into someone for sneezing around Sunny the wrong way.
Dez knew it. I knew it. Heck, I think even Stein knew it, despite it undoubtedly giving him a warm tingle of glee in that lump of charcoal he called a heart. Sunny, however, was probably sipping tea and looking up medieval torture techniques to pass the time until we returned.
The thought of Sunny crafting an iron maiden specifically for my testicles was just feasible enough to make my insides knot and twist like a balloon animal, so I focused on driving instead. The address that Stein gave me was about twenty minutes away on the south side of Charlotte. Although some parts of North Carolina could fit the stereotype of farmland and tobacco fields, the Queen City was a bustling, ever growing urban hub with a diverse melting pot of people and cultures. We may call our downtown 'uptown' but hicks, farmers, and inbred yokels we ain't.
The south part of Charlotte was where the wealthy new money millennials and old money fat cats lived, which is exactly the direction we were headed. In spite of the fact that a werewolf, a kobold, and an empath riding in a car together sounded like the set-up to a terrible joke, the car ride was mostly uneventful. There was one brief moment where Stein tried to kill us by opening his door while I was doing eighty on the highway but considering all the potentially disastrous antics he could have done to try to send us screaming to our deaths in an explosion of mangled metal and fire, it was actually rather tame.
As much as I could understand that most fae didn't like being cooped up in small spaces, it was hard to be sympathetic when Stein was so nonchalant about almost killing us all. Luckily, Desiree slammed the door shut before the kobold could open it more than a crack, nearly snapping the door handle off in the process. Better the door handle than Stein's neck… was the exact opposite of what I was thinking and it took every ounce of willpower in me not to say it out loud.
With a half-smirk that blatantly disagreed with the sincerity of his words, Stein attempted to explain himself, claiming that his half-open window wasn't letting in enough air for him and Dez's lack of response told me that she was about two seconds from tossing him out the car window. I kept the window lock on the rest of the way, just in case she convinced herself that the consequences to murdering our Monitor would be worth it.
Once we got off the highway, Stein navigated us until we turned down a tree lined street and into a neighborhood. The houses were huge, magazine-perfect with immaculately landscaped lawns and beautiful brick exteriors. I didn't need the kobold to tell me which house we were looking for. I had to figure that the one with all the police cars, news vans, and people out front was probably it.
I parked almost a block away on the curb next to a mini-mansion with a shiny foreign car in the cobblestone driveway. I got the impression that if I so much as breathed my peasant breath on the grass, I'd somehow lower the property value of the entire neighborhood. There was no time for that, however, so I had to be satisfied with my old school soccer mom van being a temporary eyesore.
Dez jumped out the van first and I slid out immediately after her, leaning heavily on the hood as I tried to psyche myself up for the gruesome game of Clue waiting for me across the street. I started to ask Stein who were the Seneschals in charge at the scene but when I peeked through the windows, there was no sign of him. I hadn't heard him exit the van and he was nowhere in sight. The sneaky bastard had pulled a David Copperfield on himself when no one was looking. Typical.
"Well, our babysitter did his vanishing act again. Mom's gonna' be so pissed when she finds out," I told Dez, locking the doors because if I got into the van later and wound up sitting on Stein's lap in one of his stupid pranks, I didn't think I'd be able to stop myself from dragging him into the street and running him over repeatedly.
Dez sighed, rubbing her eyes as she shut the sliding door with a gentle tug.
"Good. It is much easier to pretend I do not want to kill him when I cannot see him."
Catching me leaning on the hood, she asked, "Hey. Need me to give you a friendly little kick in the ass to help you out, my friend?"
She was trying to be helpful. I think. But it was wasted effort since I just plain didn't want to be there. To be perfectly honest, I would have rather volunteered to go bungie jumping with my intestines pulled through my belly button. To top it off, I had accidently caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror and, needless to say, I didn't think I'd be winning any beauty pageants anytime soon. Tossing back a handful of Ibuprofen before we left had helped with the aches and headache but all I wanted to do was crawl into bed like the disfigured wretch I was and avoid being chased through town by a mob carrying torches and pitchforks.
"Thanks for the offer but I'll pass," I replied with exaggerated weariness. "I'm not used to being helpful and I forgot that doing things for others makes me physically ill. Even more so when I'm forced to do them."
Her eyes narrowed in on me, far too perceptive for her own good. However, despite seeing right through me, Dez's trademark smug half-grin crept across her face in that haphazardly charming way of hers.
"We should make a bet. If you can do this thing without puking or passing out, I'll buy you a drink. If not, you owe me a drink. Yeah?"
"As much as I love our high-stakes betting, why is it almost always dependent on whether or not I make a fool of myself?" I said, pushing myself off the van. "It's almost like you want to see me fail and then be rewarded for it."
Stepping around the vehicle, we began walking down the middle of the street.
"I'll take your bet but let's make the stakes a little fairer. How about if you manage not to have one of Dominic's werewolf mafia hitmen try to take you out, I'll buy you a drink. Just so you know, if I'm going to vomit and pass out today, it's going to be on my own terms."
Her grin grew wider and there was warm undertones of laughter in her voice.
"Bet accepted. And sorry that all that bacon you ate is not going to taste as good coming back up."
I made a dismissive noise and secretly hoped that her shit talking didn't turn out to be prophetic. Reluctantly, I switched my focus to the crime scene in front of us. The street was crowded with humans, from neighbors to authorities to news crews, which was to be expected. I disregarded them entirely, looking for someone with the telltale silver band around their neck. Dez spotted her first, nudging me with her elbow and nodding towards the curb near the house, just beyond the police tape.
Sure enough, there was a woman with a silver geas ring around her neck, standing off from the jam-packed multitude of people. Even though perhaps a million things were going on around us and in the space separating us, the instant I picked the Seneschal out of the crowd her head whipped in my direction like I had shouted her name.
She probably sensed Desiree's approach but it didn't make her sudden intense awareness of us any less unsettling. Dez started forward again and I followed closely behind her as I self-consciously fidgeted with my sunglasses. They hid some of the scrapes and bruises on my face while also functioning as a weak defense against the blindingly bright concentration of strong emotions assaulting me from all sides.
The woman headed for us in long, distance-devouring strides, deciding to meet us halfway. She was Amazonian-tall, towering over more than a few of the men she passed by. Her limbs seemed to go on for miles and a complicated braid of shimmering blonde hair swung side-to-side in rhythm with her footsteps. Although she looked human enough, her walk was enough to give her away.
Her body moved like a tiger's, gracefully lithe and rippling with a distinctive predatory conservation of motion. The Seneschal stopped just short of us and forced Dez and I to approach her to close the distance. During those five seconds, she basically gave us a complete physical examination with her gaze, scrutinizing Dez and I with a piercing head-to-toe scan.
She was frowning with every muscle in her face, not surprising considering who we were and what she was. Although her glamour made it impossible for me to place her age, while she appeared deceivingly youthful, I saw far too much of the world reflecting back in those raw, jade green eyes.
"So you're Max Shaw?" the fae remarked, her greeting sounding more like a statement made in disappointment than a question.
Not the first time I hadn't lived up to my reputation. Good thing I had replaced my pride with pathetic self-loathing a long time ago or I might have actually felt that potshot to my ego.
"In the flesh. Maybe a little bit less of it than usual but yeah, that's me."
Assuming from her behavior that we were forgoing any sense of business formality or politeness which was just dandy with me, I added, "Our Monitor is MIA and my invitation to this exciting Conclave sponsored event was basically an informal threat so I thought I should mention that Desiree here is my plus one."
The Seneschal didn't bat an eye, folding her arms across her chest as a not-so-subtle warning that she didn't put up with bullshit. Considering that every aspect of my life was so screwed up that I existed in a constant state of bullshit, she was in for a real treat.
"Show me your geases."
I lifted my eyebrow a few notches as the woman seemed to inexplicably gain another two inches in height, looming over Dez and I and looking between us expectantly.
Personally, I didn't think that there was need to worry that anyone in their right mind might be impersonating me to gain full access to a murder scene but I suppose this Seneschal didn't want to take any chances. Humoring her, I tilted my head to the side so that she could get a better view of my geas and the beautiful red finger-hickeys from Cassidy's not-so-gentle grip. I don't know what she was expecting but after an assessing glance, she dismissed me with a curt nod. Then, she turned her attention to Desiree.
Her gaze hooded and honed in on the Seneschal's face, in the most juvenile fashion, Dez turned her head approximately two centimeters to reveal the geas on her neck. Perhaps it wasn't the best idea to bring the grouchy werewolf who was cranky because she hadn't had a nap. Unimpressed, the woman lifted her chin, sunlight reflecting off her flinty eyes in a way that reminded me of a cat's eyes gleaming in the dark.
"And the others?"
When Desiree's lips pulled back into a grin, it was more sneer than smile. Great. Now I was going to have to witness two crime scenes today.
"Show me yours and I will show you mine," she purred, her voice all saccharine and threats.
It wasn't every day you met someone with more than one geas. Dez had five and from her response to the Seneschal, I was guessing that Dez had sensed that she had more than one as well. According to the Conclave approved explanation, geases were designed to ensure that they had some degree of control over their subordinates so that they weren't off abusing their powers, although that resulted in varying degrees of success, and also to suppress the supernatural abilities of the more dangerous troublemakers.
Dez was one of said dangerous troublemakers. After surviving our five year stint in fairy hell aka Alfheim, one of the conditions of our release was that Dez and I had to get geases to "keep us out of trouble". Mine was more for decoration and, most likely, humiliation. Dez hadn't been too keen on the idea of being required to wear a geas and, one enraged werewolf and several mauled fae later, the Conclave found that they weren't able to subdue her inner beast with one geas, so they slapped five on her and forced the task of making sure she didn't lose control mainly on me.
Dez was practically a legend so this was common knowledge. Obviously, this Seneschal wasn't some kind of fae that dwelled under a giant rock because she knew about Dez's geases, although she didn't seem to know how many she had. There were several different tales and rumors so I could see why the woman might want to count them herself. I had a strong feeling that she wanted to compare numbers. It wasn't exactly something I would brag about but I was just the bum with one geas so what did I know?
"Well?" Dez asked the Seneschal, eyebrow quirked in question.
To my surprise, the fae woman didn't vow to sunder us from existence with every last hellish drop of her unholy wrath like I had been expecting. Amusement hid amongst the creases on her face and in the pinched corners of her mouth. My feelers were picking up faint tingles of begrudged respect from the woman and not one bit of it was directed towards me. Today was just not a good day for my ego. It could probably file assault charges at this point and not have any problems winning its case.
"I don't know if you two forgot but we're at a murder scene," I said in that syrupy-sweet voice that parents only used when scolding their misbehaving children in public. "This probably isn't the right time or place to be whipping out geases and comparing them. Show some respect. Now if you don't mind, I'd like to Sherlock the hell out of this case so I can go home and worry about my own non-murder related problems."
I peered around the tall woman to get a better look at the house. My blood instantly froze colder than a snowman's balls when my line of sight was blocked by a familiar face.
"My, my, what a pleasant surprise. Who would have thought we'd be seeing each other again so soon?"
Finley had stepped out from around a small group of police, sauntering over to stand at the female Seneschal's left side. I had thought he was tall the first time I'd met him but the woman he stood beside dwarfed him by a few inches. Maybe it was simply an aesthetic choice or maybe they really were that height behind their glamour but honestly, I had a hunch that fae just got a kick out of other beings getting a sore neck from looking up at them. After flashing one of his sharp-edged smiles at me and Dez, Finley shifted his gaze to his colleague.
"Inga, I see you've met Mr. Shaw. And also Miss..."
He paused to blink innocently at Dez.
"I'm sorry, do you still go by The Devil's Fang or…?"
I interjected before something very unpleasant happened to that weasely face of his.
"Desiree. Max and Desiree. Can we see the house now? This murder isn't getting any more solved the longer we stand here."
Finley nodded vigorously, spinning on his heels and leading us all in the direction of the house like a very enthused tour guide.
"Of course, of course! I know all about why you're here. I'll share this little secret with you. I'm the one who suggested having you come out and taking a little look at our problem."
I couldn't see him past Inga but I could hear the grimy smile in his voice. Just one more reason for me to wish this guy would drink a steaming mug of hot mercury and die. I bit the insides of my cheeks to prevent myself from saying anything, not quite irked enough to give him the satisfaction of a reply or a flying kick to the back of his head.
"Inga and I have been here since last night," Finley continued, peeking over his shoulder at me. "It's been like a circus!"
I frowned, although the full effect of it was partially obscured by my sunglasses.
"A circus… with dead bodies as the main attraction?"
With a smile stretched across his face unnaturally wide, he exclaimed, "Yes! Exactly! Isn't it exciting?"
I couldn't say that I was a fan of his macabre giddiness and from the looks on the faces of the people that heard him in passing, I didn't think they were either.
"Shut up, Finley," Inga said, her tone sharp enough to decapitate.
I could have hugged her for saying the thing that I've been dying to say to the creepy, bloodthirsty fae ever since I met him. Well, maybe not hug. The fae weren't exactly the touchy-feely types unless the touchy-feely involved disembowelment. Perhaps just a solid high five then.
Finley's weird comment did cause me to take a closer look at the sea of people around us though. It was only then that I realized that it wasn't just gawking neighbors and story-hungry news crews swarming the crime scene. When we first arrived, I had failed to notice the large cluster of people holding up protest signs, crowding the edges of the police tape.
Werewolf hate groups weren't uncommon, especially in the South, and there was a fairly prominent one based in Charlotte. Their whole stance was that werewolves were a dangerous threat to humanity and basically violent, inhuman monsters that should be eradicated. Personally, I thought the Fae were far more dangerous but their glamour made it easier for them to slip under the radar.
Werewolves got a bad rap mainly because of the actions of those pack-less wolves who considered humanity their all-you-can-eat buffet. That and their horrifying appearance didn't help much either. Even worse, a lot of humans still treated werewolves like lepers because of the overwhelming fear of getting turned into one. Disregarding the special circumstances of Desiree's birth, the only way a human could become a werewolf was by being bit by one but it was a little more complicated than that.
A human had to be very near death and then bitten in order for the virus to overpower their immune system's natural defenses against it. Then, and only then, would the Change occur. We learned this all in school. Everyone knew it, even little kids. But sometimes knowledge simply wasn't enough to abolish fear.
I wasn't sure how the anti-werewolf group knew about this incident or how they managed to organize so fast but it could only have something to do with the gruesome murder scene inside the house and Dominic's implicated Pack. Seneschals and politics and werewolves, oh my. Throw in some scary, children-eating clowns and we really would have us a circus.
I picked up a prickle of lukewarm displeasure filtering down from Dez and for a second I thought she had noticed the protesters. But when I glanced over at her, she had her gaze fixed straight ahead. With great reluctance, I followed her line of sight, none too surprised to discover that it ended on Dominic standing menacingly on the grass like the world's most pissed off lawn gnome.
He was dressed in a stylish, tailored suit that looked like it probably had hundred dollar bills hand stitched on the inside, his hair slicked back and styled within an inch of its life. I wasn't buying his suddenly civilized appearance. It was a nice facade but it really only made him look more like a 1920s mobster than usual. But, considering the circumstances, it might have been his plan all along to play up the gangster look as opposed to the wild animal on the brink of a carnage spree look.
With all those anti-werewolf protesters around, I suppose it made more sense to tap into people's fear of the mafia rather than their fear of werewolves. Dominic saw us approaching and he didn't look any more thrilled to see me and Dez as we were to see him. His face instantly pinched inward, all of his anger concentrated in the center of his face.
There was a young man with the wide brown eyes of a pet store rabbit and a chestnut colored nest of boyish curls standing beside Dominic and, spotting us as well, he excitedly whispered something to the Alpha. Dominic gave the faintest of nods but kept his focus divided between me, Dez, and the two fae.
I began to veer away from our strange little group as discreetly as possible, heading directly for the house. I wasn't ashamed to admit that I'd rather hang out with corpses than be forced to exchange awkward small talk with Dominic.
"So you're telling me that Max freakin' Shaw, a no-good lousy criminal, gets to go inside but I can't?"
My steps faltered at the sound of my name and I paused to watch the werewolf square up against the pair of Seneschals. He was slandering my no-good lousy criminal name out loud which was pretty hilarious coming from the person who had only just kidnapped and assaulted me a day and a half ago. However, I was slightly insulted. How dare he call me lousy? No-good, maybe. But lousy? Thems were passive-aggressive fightin' words.
"Former," I said, strolling a little closer towards the house and getting a kick out of feeling his ire crank up a notch.
"Former no-good lousy criminal. Don't know if you heard but I'm retired."
He curled his lip at me in a silent snarl and I fought the urge to blow him a kiss, about ninety-eight percent sure that Dominic would crush the bones in my hand like a tube of toothpaste before I even finished the mocking gesture. The man beside him patted his shoulder in a way that reminded me of a grandma with an infinite amount of patience and, much to my surprise, the Alpha actually calmed down a bit, taking a deep breath before addressing Inga and Finley again.
"This doesn't concern him. It isn't his ass on the line here. It's mine."
Finley opened his mouth, no doubt just because he enjoyed hearing himself speak, but Inga cut him off.
"And that's exactly why you of all people are not allowed inside. We've already explained this to you earlier. Are you getting hard of hearing in your old age, warg, or is it just your head that's hard?"
Taking note that Inga slipped into a quaint Viking accent when she was threatening people, I thought that Dominic would go right for her jugular, expensive suit be damned.
"You ready, Sherlock?" Dez broke in with the worst possible timing. From the grin she was doing her best to keep tucked into the corners of her mouth, I could tell that it was entirely on purpose.
"Could I maybe go inside in my Alpha's place?" the yet-to-be-introduced man asked Inga, looking nervously at Dominic who was glaring at Inga and Desiree with an expression that could melt steel beams. "I know that I'm a pack member but that might prove handy. If there's evidence of our Pack being involved, I could identify who it is immediately."
Inga's nostrils flared in his direction, as if she was only just now noticing him.
"Who are you again?"
"He's my Omega," Dominic snapped back, still nursing his wounded pride. "Oliver."
The way Dominic said 'my Omega' sounded aggressively possessive, almost like a two year old claiming 'mine'. Werewolves, Alphas especially, were extremely protective of their Pack, their family, and anyone they perceived as too weak to take care of themselves. It was an instinct thing. Most werewolves acted like overly protective mother hens than vicious beasts, so long as you didn't get on their bad side like I had a bad habit of doing.
As far as I knew, werewolf pack hierarchy was of less importance beyond the Alpha and the Beta but most large packs also had an Omega. Omega wolves were technically at the bottom of the pack in terms of rank only because they were the least aggressive and natural mediators.
There wasn't much conclusive science on what made an Omega an Omega, if it was something in their DNA or something that crossed the line into supernatural territory but whatever it was they had inside of them worked wonders at keeping the wolves' more basic instincts suppressed.
Dez once told me that they were like the little brothers and sisters of the Pack. Some of the other pack members might tease them a bit but ultimately they were loved by all and fiercely protected. Inga looked over at Finley who started to speak but wisely clamped his mouth shut until she nodded her permission for him to speak.
"I agree with whatever you decide, my lovely elvish warrior-maiden," Finley chirped, his words much too embarrassing to be a joke.
Against my better judgement, I lifted my sunglasses just enough to really look at Finley. Well color me hella shocked. The violence-loving, piranha-mouthed fae actually had a thing for Inga. I didn't know whether to pity him or politely vomit into my cupped hands instead of all over the lawn. With an expression that was a perfect blend of disgust and irritation, Inga turned back to Oliver and said, "Fine. You may enter the house after the empath does his job and says you can come inside. The same goes for she who calls herself Desiree."
So Dez gets a little nod of recognition yet I'm somehow downgraded to just "the empath". I guess I should have just been happy that I wasn't "the human", which would have been even more degrading. Flipping my shades back down, I started across the lawn with a confident, swaggering man-strut. It was time I showed these high and mighty supernatural punks exactly what I could do. And maybe, just maybe, I wouldn't pass out in the process.
"Come along, Watson," I called out to Dez, not waiting to see if she was behind me or not. "Let's make this mystery our bitch."
"I thought he said her name was Desiree?" I heard Finley mumble in confusion. I really hoped that someone would explain the reference to him but the chances were slim to none if left up to Inga and Dominic.
Silently cursing him for ruining my cool departure, I dragged my feet up the fancy brick steps that led up to the front door. I reached for the doorknob and almost immediately snatched my hand back as if I had been bit. Even from the doorstep I was bombarded with a wrecking ball-like blow of emotions from the house.
Strong, dark emotions that scraped across my skin like dull razors, leaving me raw and painfully exposed. With the tiniest tremble in my hands, I removed my sunglasses and hung them on the collar of my shirt. Then, bracing myself, I turned the knob and greeted Death at the door as I invited myself into his house.