Dash of Fiend – Chapters 13-15

Chapter Thirteen

 Greyson stayed in touch over the course of the next few days. He’d made some progress on the information given to him by Markson, the rich socialite who’d been buying Otherworld beings on the black market. Two more properties had been raided by Greyson’s team, both belonging to socialites with too much money and not enough morals. Over a dozen creatures at each had been rescued and set free, shepherded back to the Other by Olfred with no casualties at either site. There were few leads on the dealers though – word must have gotten back to them, as the abandoned factory Markson named as the meeting place burnt down the night he was taken into custody. The slimy little creep was now out on bail, thanks to his deep pockets, but Greyson had someone keeping tabs on him.

Sunday morning, I decided I needed a change of scenery and mind-set. I had to patch things up with Harrod, or at least give him the chance to set things right, so I sent him a message, asking if he and Martin would like to join me for lunch. He responded almost immediately, leaving me rifling through nearly empty cupboards and wondering what I was going to serve.  I picked up Lenny’s lead and gave it a jiggle, causing the giant canine to jump in excitement and nearly topple a chair over.
 

“Alright, alright. Settle down, we’ll go in a second. I suppose we can pick you up a treat while we’re out.” Lenny sat up properly and gave a happy whuff at the mention of a treat. We walked briskly – well, Lenny did and I trailed along as fast as I could manage. We wandered the market, picking up some cold meat, fresh bread, olives, cheese and other bits and pieces that took my fancy. Just as I was getting ready to leave for home, Lenny started whining and gave a gentle tug at his lead. I looked over to see a rope of enormous sausages hanging in the window of a nearby butchers. Laughing, I headed over.

“Can I have two pounds-” Lenny butted my leg. “Oh, fine, three pounds of the sausages please?” I asked the surly man.

He weighed them out and only just had enough to cover my request. Gruffly he asked for my money, then called out the back “Oi, Ronson, you got more snags coming or what? You said they’d be out half an hour ago.”  

“Oh ‘old up, they’re comin’.” A second man – Ronson, I assumed – backed through the swinging doors balancing a wide tray loaded with fat sausages. Lenny stood and I glanced down at him, surprised to see his hackles raised. He was growling, low enough that almost couldn’t hear it, but his chest vibrated on the side of my leg. Startled, I looked at the tray of meat, wondering what on earth could have upset Lenny. A muscled arm moved back and forth loading sausages into the refrigerated display case, as a koi fish tattoo rippled as he worked. A quick glance at his face made my heart stop.

“Get that mutt outta here. Dog’s ain’t welcome in this shop, ‘less you want ‘im ending up in the window if ya know wha’ I mean.” The tattooed man’s voice was high and mean, and sent shivers down my spine.

“Sorry,” I stammered. “He’s just hungry. C’mon Len, we have to go.”

Stumbling outside and around a corner I whipped out my phone to call Greyson. Words stumbling over each other, I told him what I’d seen.

“Emma, I want you to listen to me. Start walking, now. Don’t rush, and don’t look back. If they see you hanging around, they’ll get suspicious. Go home, make sure no one follows you. I’ll meet you there.”

“Greyson, I can’t just leave. He’s involved, I know he is. What if he isn’t here when you get back?”

“Safety first. Go, now. I’ll send a car over to watch the place as soon as I’m off the phone.”

Cursing at the thought of my target slipping away, I went to leave. Catching sight of a pastry shop across the road, a thought occurred. It wouldn’t look at all out of the ordinary if I were to stop there first. I dallied, browsing the window for some time while I watched the butcher’s in the reflective glass. Nothing. I went inside, ordered some croissants, and made light, distracted conversation with the girl at the counter, who fussed over Lenny. Every few moments, my eyes darted towards the doorway, towards the butchers. Still nothing. Finally, feeling awkward, I stepped outside, just as the butcher’s shop door opened. The tattooed man stood at the door. His eyes met mine, and narrowed. Losing my nerve at his glance, I looked away and strode down the street toward home.

I took a roundabout route, once doubling back on my path to see if anyone was behind me. Unable to settle my worry, despite the empty street, I finally got back to my shop and warded the door behind me, then shook my head at myself when a knock sent me running back down before Harrod set it off. Dammit, I’d forgotten all about lunch.  

Harrod and Martin came inside, Martin stopping to kiss me on the cheek on his way past. He handed me a bottle of wine.

“A token of appreciation for putting up with my idiot brother,” he said. Harrod raised an eyebrow at him. “And for lunch,” he added.

“Yes, well, I suppose I do owe you somewhat of an apology for-” Harrod’s cheeks were pink, making me wonder what Martin had said to him.

He was cut off by a honk as Greyson pulled up outside.

“I er… didn’t realise we’d have company.” Harrod looked displeased at the notion of Greyson joining us.

“Look, guys, I’m really sorry. Something happened while I was at the market, I saw – wait, I’ll explain when Charlie gets in.” Martin cocked an eyebrow at my use of the detective’s first name as I held the door open for Greyson to pass through, shaking off a smattering of rain that had caught him on his way inside.  “Have you eaten today?” I asked.

Greyson shook his head at my question, then looked at Harrod. “I’ll get something later. Don’t want to put out your plans.”

“They’re out already. Come up, I can throw all this onto plates while I talk. Upstairs?” Trumping upstairs behind them, I gave my wand a quick flick to re-ward the door. Today was not a day for taking chances.

 

#

Upstairs, Gibble was sitting on my couch with a book. He stood when we entered. As I stacked five plates on the table and opened the paper packages I’d bought for lunch, I explained what I’d seen at the butcher shop. Greyson helped himself to my kitchen, finding butter, knives and the last of a few beers I’d bought for him weeks ago when I’d asked him over for dinner He passed one to Martin, then held one out to Harrod, who shook his head. Before I sat, I passed a plate to Gibble, who had gone back to his book. He’d eat on the couch – my dining chairs were too small for him. As he took the food from me, he gave me a piercing glance. The look was clear. ‘Be careful’. My eyes dropped, aware that waiting after Greyson had told me to leave was a stupid move. As easy as it was to convince myself I was being clever at the time, my logic couldn’t hold up to those eyes.

“This visit from the Guardian,” Greyson said. “The one that showed you this guy. Not exactly the standard sort of Talent magic, that. Any chance there’s something else to go on?”

I looked at him confused. “What do you mean? I can’t prove what happened, not with physical evidence but I saw him. I saw his tattoos. I didn’t imagine it.”

“He means something admissible in court.” Harrod didn’t look up as he slathered butter on a roll. “It’s not that he doubts you. Neither do I – I’m sorry if I gave you the impression I did. He can’t get a warrant based on trust, though. The mortal courts have allowances for Talent based evidence but only if it fits specific criteria, and this… well, it’s out of the ordinary even for us.”

Greyson nodded, confirming what Harrod said. “We’ll have to get at them somehow.”

“I could go back,” I offered. “Ask questions, pretend I want to buy something they’d trade in.”

“Too dangerous. These people operate deep in the black market. A stranger off the street asking questions would ring too many alarm bells.”

Lenny woofed and tipped his head. Gibble grunted, then sighed.

“Lenny-dog does offer to be going to the smugglers,” he said. I froze. “He be the kind of thing they be wanting, with some help.”

“What do you mean?” I asked in a hoarse voice.

“They be wanting Otherfolk, yes? Lenny be not of the this-world now, not all of him. The dressing-fae, Bee, she be able to make him look more Other. If he be willing, they be taking him and you be following.”

Lenny whuffed again and wagged his tail.

“No.” Were they joking? There was no way I’d risk Lenny, especially after almost losing him once already.

“We could do it. He wouldn’t have to be in danger.” Greyson said in a careful tone.

No.”

“I’d help. Emma, I don’t think they’d hurt him, he’d be valuable to them.”

I turned on Harrod. “He’s a dog. He doesn’t understand any of this, I won’t put him in danger.”

“Lady, Lenny-dog… he not be the same now. He be understanding, it just be in a different way. He be knowing the danger and wanting to help the Other. He be knowing they did save him, and he be wanting to make things right. Lenny-dog does know we be keeping him safe.”

“You know this? You’re certain?”

“Lenny be speaking in the way of the Others. Gibble be hearing him and he be wanting to be brave. He be wanting to be like you, Lady.”

Be like me. Brave? No, stupid and headstrong and mad as hell at anyone who got in my way. Damn dog. He still sat there, wagging his tail at me with eagerness in his eyes. The promise I’d made to Olfred was because of Lenny, how could I risk his life to keep it? Because his reason for offering is exactly the same as mine, I thought. Ah, hell.

“How would it work?” I asked.

“Tracking device. We can wire him up so we know where he is at all times. We’d follow close behind. As soon as they take him, we’ve got grounds for an arrest, but ideally we’d wait to see if they lead us to their warehouse or a hand-off point. If we can let them – safely let them – give themselves enough rope, they’ll hang the whole damn organisation. We might be able to shut them down completely and recover any livestock they still have.”

“But you could pull him out early if you had to?” My stomach twisted at the thought of agreeing to this ridiculous idea, knowing the alternative meant leaving the barrow fiend, and countless other creatures, at the mercy of monsters.

“Of course. We wouldn’t risk him just on the off chance they lead us to something.”

I looked at Lenny, who stared up at me with the same hopeful eyes that usually just wanted me to share my sandwich. What Gibble said was true – he wasn’t a normal dog any more, I’d known that for a while. Barg was certainly able to speak to him, and he understood my words to an uncanny extent. Harrod reached across the table and put a hand on my arm.

“Emma… whether you do this or not, you’ve got my full support. I’ll help in any way I can. I really do want to make it up to you.”

At Harrod’s words I closed my eyes. ”Is there another way?” There was silence. “Alright. Only if I’m there with you every step of the way. I want to know what you do, every second.”

Greyson nodded and Lenny trotted over to nuzzle his hand. Greyson smiled and gave him a rough pat, then slipped a bit of ham under the table for him.

“And none of that,” I said, throat tight. “You’ll teach him bad habits.”

Greyson left us to continue our lunch while we waited for his call. It came a few hours later. The sting was set up for the following afternoon. Lenny would hang around the butcher shop for a while before closing, hopefully catching the attention of the smuggler I’d unidentified. He would appear to be alone, and made up so that they wouldn’t pick him for the dog they’d seen the day before.

With luck, they would take the opportunity presented by a stray Otherworlder, and a quiet street at dusk, to snatch him up and take him to wherever they kept their unsold animals. So much depended on luck, and I shuddered, thinking of what could happened if it turned sour. 

#

 The next day Greyson, Trainor, Martin and Harrod all arrived at my place at lunch time. Trainor immediately remarked on the wonderful job Bee had done that morning to make Lenny look like an Otherworlder. She’d smoothed the hair along his back but roughed it up near his head, giving the appearance of a shaggy mane. Dark marks provided contours to give his already long body a supine appearance, and his normally brown eyes were now an unearthly shade of green. The changes weren’t extreme – they were subtle enough that he could run the streets without frightening people, but anyone who looked closely would be easily convinced he was Other. Trainor ran a finger along his coat then examined it.

“Bee said it won’t rub off. It’ll fade after a day or so though. Will that be long enough?” I asked, part of me wishing someone would say no, Bee’s work would entirely unsuitable and the whole plan would need to be cancelled.

“Sure, we won’t leave him in too long. He’ll be fine, Emma, we’ll make sure of it.” Trainor gave me a reassuring smile, and I tried to convince myself she was right.

After a quick bite – or on my part, a slow shuffling of some food on my plate that ended up going to Lenny – we started talking logistics. Trainor explained how the tracking device would work. It was a small box with an aerial protruding from it, attached to a bright red collar. It looked garish and obvious, but when I pointed that out, Trainor smiled and snapped the clasp shut. As soon as she did that, my eyes slid off the tracker. Even though I knew it was there, I couldn’t make myself look at it. Even touching it, my fingers ran over the woven nylon collar, but dodged over the box. To someone who didn’t know its little trick, they’d never notice it.

“Who traced the spell for you?” I asked, but Trainor just placed a finger on her nose, grinned, and shook her head. “Not even a hint?”

“If I told you I’d have to kill you,” she said in a serious voice. She explained that, though they could track it from a few miles away, the accuracy was far better over short distances. That, added to the need to be close enough to snatch Lenny back if something went wrong meant they’d have officers undercover watching as long as possible, and we would trail them from a few blocks away.

“Emma, maybe it would be best if you stayed behind. They know what you look like.” Greyson’s face didn’t hold much hope that I’d agree, and my raised eyebrows met with a defeated sigh. “Oh, fine. But you need to stay out of sight, and you have to do what I say. You’ll need to trust me, Emma. Can you do that?”

“Of course,” I said. “I know you’ve done this before. If I didn’t trust you, I wouldn’t have let Lenny help. I need to be there though; I need to know he’s safe. I promise I’ll keep out of the way.” As long as Lenny is safe, I silently added.

 

                                          #

We met the rest of the team an hour before the operation commenced, crowding into a coffee shop that looked so much smaller with a large boggart perched on a chair in the corner. Harrod and Martin were both already there, tucked into a tiny table and generally looking like they didn’t belong. Despite feeling like a goose, I took Lenny aside and had a chat with him.

“Are you absolutely sure you want this, Len?”

“Wuff.” He wagged his tail.

“I’ll be close by, ok? Anything goes wrong you get the hell out of there, I don’t care who you have to bite to do it.”

“Wuff.” A wet tongue made for my face and I ducked, laughing. Wrapping my arms around his lithe, wiry body, I prayed nothing would go wrong. I stood to go back to the others and nearly fell over when something cannonballed into the back of my legs.

“Apologies, Lady! Barg did not see you, Lady!” He rolled over to Lenny and jumped on his back.

“Barg, what are you doing here?”

“Barg is Lenny-dog’s protector, Lady! Barg will join the humans in their quest for most glorious victory! Barg understands the chief headquarters will be at this place of warm beverage consumption, Lady! Barg will be most pleased with offerings of chip-chocolates for his involvement in this proceeding.” Barg grinned at me, then added a belated, “Lady!” He saluted from Lenny’s back, then nudged his bony knees into Lenny’s sides. Lenny rolled his eyes back then trotted over to Greyson and his team to be fitted with his collar.

“I take it you weren’t expecting Barg?” Harrod asked, startling me. I hadn’t seen him come over.

“No. How did he even know we were here?”

Harrod grimaced. “I have no idea. Gibble didn’t-” he stopped when I shook my head. “Oh. Well, I just hope he had the sense not to tell anyone else.”

“I might have a chat with him, see if he’ll tell me how he found out we’d be here. Not good if news about a covert op is being passed around the Other.”

Greyson, finished with Lenny, ambled over. “Where are the undercover people?” I asked, cringing at the nervousness in my voice.

“They’re undercover. You won’t see them, but they’re there. I trust my team; they do good work. We won’t let anything happen to him, you hear?”

Nodding, I clasped my hands behind my back to stop from fidgeting.

“Right. Trainor, you’re my right hand. If I go in, you’re running things from here.” Trainor nodded, all trace of her earlier easy demeanour gone. Her shoulders were set and her eyes bright, eager for the responsibility she now had. “Steenson, I want you monitoring the GPS and radio, filtering the information from our plants and keeping me informed.”

Steenson, a wiry, grizzled man, nodded from where he sat by several coffee tables shoved together and laden with equipment and screens. Much to Barg’s delight, I dug in my bag for some coins and bought him a chocolate chip muffin. I set him up under Gibble’s watchful eye and hoped he could manage to stay out of trouble. Barg had the best of intentions, but I didn’t want him getting in the way of the experts.

Lenny turned his face up to me, waiting for permission to go. Giving him one last pat, I set him loose. He bounded out of the small shop and rounded the corner, out of my sight. A few minutes later, Greyson beckoned me over to where he and Steenson were sitting. Crowding in to look over his shoulder, I could see three small screens – one was the GPS tracker, one had a jumble of text information and the third showed a TV screen. On it was a jittery picture of the butcher’s. Greyson nodded to it.

“This camera’s on one of our plants. She’ll keep a visual as long as possible. It’s the only one we could get for the department, but it comes in handy.”

The image moved, swaying up then down as the officer with the hidden camera moved slightly. Then, I saw Lenny. He wandered down the street in a random fashion, sniffing at the ground and shying away from passers-by. His movements were smooth and graceful, almost feline. I wondered how he’d managed that. Perhaps Bee had given him some kind of enchantment without telling me. As he passed the butchers he sniffed at the meat hanging in the window. He lingered just long enough to catch their eye, then retreated. He strolled down the street, sniffing the air, then went back, repeating the move several times. Each pass looked entirely random and authentic, like a stray animal attracted by the smell of fresh meat but wary enough to stay away from the people around it.

We waited, and watched. Minutes crept on into hours, and the few officers left inside the cafe wandered about, restless. Martin stretched out across a bench seat, while Harrod frowned at his indecorum. On the small screen in front of me, Lenny eventually settled into a lazy ball by the door. Twice, he was disturbed by customers stepping over him to get into the shop. Once, a man in a dirty white apron came to shoo him away. Upon getting a closer look at Lenny, however, he paused. The man ducked inside, then came out with a bone and threw it to him. Lenny darted into the air to catch it, then sat chewing it by the front window of the shop. 

#

Finally, dusk started to creep over the city. Lenny had moved his position to across the road from the shop. He wasn’t visible on the small surveillance screen, but the camera had turned twice to give us a brief glimpse of him rolling on the pavement and snapping at flies. I hoped he didn’t ruin Bee’s work.

The butcher’s door opened. A low, female voice said, “Target moving.” Lenny strolled past, giving no sign of being rushed as he wandered into the middle of the street. He turned his head to look at the officer. The setting sun glinted off his eyes, making them glow a fiery green. His hackles were up, tail switching in a very lionesque sort of way.

A man appeared in the doorway of the butchers, standing very still. Lenny didn’t move any closer, but yawned and stretched. Then, padding over to the window again, he sat looking up at the last bit of meat still hanging there. I heard a whistle. The man stepped forward and turned his head to Lenny, showing the small tattoo on his cheek. Ronson. Lenny perked his head up at the man watching him and Ronson held a hand out, dangling a bit of steak.

Lenny twitched his head in interest. His eyes followed the meat that was swinging from Ronson’s hand. Lenny stood, edged closer, then shied back. He played at this for a few minutes. Then, he lunged to catch the piece of steak that was thrown at him. Ronson stood back and watched him eat.

“Why is he just watching? I thought he’d be trying to get closer.” I glanced over to Greyson when he didn’t answer. His brow was creased and the corners of his mouth downturned. A terrible thought occurred to me and my eyes darted back to the screen. I watched as Lenny, meat gone, took a few wobbly steps towards Ronson, then went sideways. He turned, dragging his feet and pulling himself away with an effort. Then, he fell to the ground.

“Lenny?” My voice was panicked. I stood, but Greyson grabbed my wrist.

“Wait. They won’t hurt him, he’s worth more alive. Just wait.”

Ronson called out, words too indistinct to make out. A second, unfamiliar man emerged from the shop carrying a large sack. Together, he and Ronson laid it flat on the ground, rolled Lenny onto it, then lifted it like a stretcher. They disappeared back inside. A minute later the second man came outside and looked directly into the TV screen. I shuddered and my breathing quickened. He walked over to the undercover officer with quick strides.

Dropping bag in front of the lens he said, “Ya didn’t see nuthin’, roight?” He leaned forward as he spoke, the side of his face moving close, obscuring our vision. It took me a minute to figure out what he was doing and when I did, I nearly retched.

“Nuthin’ ter see. Oi, what am I s’posed ter do with a bag o’ sausages?” The woman’s voice was hoarse and a little slurred.

“Take ‘em ta the shelter off Church. They’ll let ya cook ‘em there.”

“Right-o.”

The man disappeared back inside.

“I swear to God, Greyson, you fucking owe me for that,” a muffled voice said quietly through the speakers next to me. It made me jump, for it sounded nothing like the voice from a moment ago.

“You good, Sallaway?” Greyson said, after clicking a button on the mic in front of him.

“I’ll live. You still owe me.” She sounded unimpressed.

“If we take him down, I’ll kick him in the balls for you.”

“If you bring him into custody I’ll do it myself.”

Greyson barked a laugh. “You’re a lady, remember.”

“Fuck you, Greyson.”

The last was said with a quiet chuckle. Greyson glanced over as if remembering I was there, and blushed.

“Oh. Ah, Sorry ‘bout the language. Comes with the job.”

One corner of my mouth lifted in response and he smiled back, then ducked his head back to the video screen. It wobbled sickeningly, turning to one side then righting itself. Sallaway was lurching down the street. Then, she stopped.

“What is it?” I asked, as Steenson made the same query over the radio. Harrod glanced up from across the room at the alarm in my voice, but didn’t intrude.

“They’re going by car.” Sallaway explained, just as the camera turned to show an old Volvo chugging down the street away from the shop. I closed my eyes and took a steadying breath. Greyson twisted his head up to look at me.

“It’ll be fine. We accounted for this. They won’t be moving too far, operations like this tend to keep things close. We’ve got people stationed in each direction, they can move in quicker than Sallaway can catch up. If they see her again they’ll think it’s strange, so someone else will take point now. Steenson, where’re they headed?”

“Toward the river, Boss.”

“Myles?”

“No, Beefcake’s closer.”

Hurried words passed over the radios, passing directions to several officers including Beefcake. Then, Steenson said, “Looks like they’ve stopped. Hang on, let me check the location. Trainor, you ready?” He rattled off an address as Trainor clicked at a small computer in front of her.

“It’s a warehouse, Captain. Belongs to a C. M. Smith. Er… dog food, it says here.”

Well that was reassuring. Backing away from the monitors, I took a seat, clasping my hands in my lap and reminding myself to stay out of their way. My instincts screamed at me to run for the warehouse, ploughing through anyone who stood in my way. Instead, I sat quietly, body as tense as a violin string.

“Ok, they’re stationary now. No eyes on the target, Captain.”

The next fifteen minutes were fraught with tension. The tracker was stationary, and the officers watching outside saw no movement in or out of the building. As the weight in my stomach grew, I turned to Gibble.

“Gib, if something happened to Lenny… would you know?”

He shook his head worriedly, then turned to Barg.

“Little friend, you do be knowing the Lenny-dog. You be telling the truth, for this be of great import.”

Barg shuffled his feet, looked at the floor and twisted his hands. Gibble made a low rumbling sound and Barg winced, bony arms covering his head defensively.

“Barg be so sorry, Lady! Barg be taking the Lenny-dog to the racing and we did be winning so many, but then we did be put against another and his rider, they did be joined and there were so many chips against us, Lady! Barg has never been seeing so many chips! None did expect us to be joining, and… we did make so many chips!”

Dismayed at the angst in his voice and completely lost by his explanation, I turned back to Gibble for an explanation. Barg wouldn’t lie but I’d found he was very good at dodging the truth. Gibble sighed.

“The racing do be a thing of the Others, Lady. A rider and his steed be set against another pair, and who wins does be getting a cut of the winnings. Barg do be bad at the wagering – when he did stop coming to ask Gibble to be saving his wrinkly skin, Gibble did be wondering.”

“What did he mean by joined?” My words were tight, angry. Barg whimpered and edged under a table.

“It be a thing of the racing. A rider may join his steed, or it may be the steed who joins the rider if it be choosing so. It do be making them run faster, but it be a thing that, once done, be done for all-time.”

I turned to Barg and he cowered. “All time? You did something, to Lenny, and you can’t undo it for all time?” My voice made the hobgoblin squeal in fright.

“Lady,” Gibble’s voice held a tone of moderation in it. “The thing Barg has done, does not be harming Lenny-dog and could not be done without his consenting. Perhaps, Lady, it do be a boon in this-time. The bonding be joining their souls, a tiny part of each be put in the other one. They be knowing if their bond-mate be hurting, or be in danger. It be a good this this day.”

“Harrod? Do you know about this… joining?”

Harrod, who’d been watching the exchange while Martin snoozed beside him, shook his head. “Sorry. I know of the process, but hardly anything about it. It seems to be fairly common though, I don’t imagine it would be if it was harmful.”

“Lenny-dog is safe, Lady,” Barg was quick to say. He’d manoeuvred himself so he was standing a little behind Gibble. “Lenny-dog, he did want the bonding, he did tell me himself before Barg even did suggest it Lady! Barg swears! Lenny-dog is Barg’s mostest of friendships and Barg would never be doing hurt to him!”

Being Other, he couldn’t lie. I believed him… Mostly. “Is he safe? What can you tell me?”

“Lenny-dog is safe, Lady!” Barg saluted. “Barg would know if Lenny-dog hurts, or fears, or finds a life-mate.”

I pulled a face at that. “But you don’t know anything else? If he’s unconscious he might be in danger, but not afraid.”

Barg cowered. “Lady, Barg is sure Barg would be knowing if Lenny-friend would be in the danger, even if Lenny-friend did not know himself. Barg would never let Lenny-friend be hurt, Lady.” His pointed ears drooped and he looked at me with big, mournful eyes.

Letting out a growl of frustration, I turned back to Greyson.

“So what do we do now?”

#

The cafe door banged open, making me jump. A shabby figure with a small, overloaded shopping cart pushed through, grumbling obscenities under her breath. No one else in the room reacted. Parking the trolley in a corner, she proceeded to remove the large encrusted coat and pull off her oversized trousers to reveal a pair of black tights and a singlet top underneath. Both were, thankfully, clean. Greyson tossed her a small duffel and she opened it, pulling out a woollen dress, hairbrush and some other toiletries.

“Next time you want someone to dress like a hobo, you might consider doing it yourself Captain. I think I’ve got fleas. You gonna foot the bill for the spa treatment I’ll need to get this shit out of my hair?”

“Oh come on Sallaway, you know you love a chance to get dirty.”

“I’m a lady. Ladies don’t like dirt. Asshole.”

Sallaway walked over to the table and slapped something down. She looked at me.

“Smart pooch you got there, and one hell of an actor. I found these after they left.” On the table before her sat two slimy pink pills, one with a tendon of meat hanging off it.

“That’s what they spiked the meat with?”

“Pretty sure.” She used a wipe to scrub at her face and ears. “I saw him flick them away when our perp turned away for a moment, so I checked on my way past. He’s not out – smart ass dog winked at me as they carried him inside.” She stopped talking for a moment, as she pulled the dress over her head. “Since when do dogs wink? Anyway, thought you’d feel better knowing.”

“I do. Thanks.” I let out a small, relieved breath. Knowing of Barg’s bond with Lenny – something that had offered some reassurance despite making me entirely furious – and finding out he’d duped the dog-napper made me feel a lot safer.

Now that Sallaway was dressed and clean, she looked… wow. Neat hair in a bun over a sedate grey dress, stockings, small heels and what looked like a string of pearls she was clasping around her neck. The woman oozed class and elegance in a way that was completely at odds with her language.

“Cap, they’re still not moving. You think we should make a move?” Trainor piped up from across the room.

“Too risky without eyes in the building, tell Miles to hurry up with that. They might be waiting for another contact to move him somewhere else. Did we get any more on the premises?”

“HQ sent through blueprints, but they’re at least thirty years old. They could have refitted the interior, there’s room in there for sure. Latest we have is three levels inside, mostly open areas. Used to be a textile workshop, owner went bust a decade ago.  Now owned by…” She checked the notepad in front of her. “Extension Applications Incorporated. The dog food company is one of their smaller arms. Can’t find a scrap of useful info on any of them.”

“We need a visual, dammit. How many do we have in the vicinity now?”

“Nine, sir.” Trainor said. “Straud and Banksy on the way now. Will I send them in?”

“No.” Greyson shook his head. “We need to keep a few men out in case they move again. What’s the holdup?”

“Beefcake said there’s a ward up.”

Harrod perked up. “Who’s Beefcake?”

“One of our half-bloods,” Trainor explained. “Hardly any actual power, but he can sense the presence of a ward from about twenty feet. Can’t tell what they do, but it’s saved our skin more than once.”

“Esteemed Captain! Barg can go, Barg is very good at sneaking!”

Greyson shot me a glance over his head. He looked dubious.

“Barg, do you have hiding powder?”

“Pah! Barg can’t afford that, hiding powder is forty-seven chips for a squinch! Barg can be careful though, jumping on roof with quiet feet and peeksing in a window from up high. Humans, they don’t look up high. They do forget about us sneaking ones.”

Greyson looked at me, and I shrugged. Barg was fast – really fast. I’d seen him dodge the grasp of many a creature faster than humans. He seemed to attract that sort of attention a lot, and over the years had become adept at avoiding it too. I told Greyson what I knew of Barg’s ability and added that though he ran riot on his own, he was good at following instructions.

“You’re on point, Trainor. What do you say?”

“Well, we’re still on sketchy ground for a warrant. If we wire him up with a mic and camera, that could get us enough to go in clean.” She looked at me. “You’re sure he can get out in a hurry if he needs to? If something goes wrong, we’re responsible.”

“I’m sure. And look, if we’re honest? Your higher ups aren’t going to give a damn if something happens to him, or to me.”

Trainor looked at me. “Just so happens my superior does give a damn. I don’t give a toss what the rest of the department thinks – I work for Greyson, not them, and I care as much as he does. I won’t send him in unless you tell me it’s safe.”

I met her eyes. They shone with honesty and I nodded, satisfied Barg would be taken care of. Within a few minutes he was wired up and looking as though he’d just won an award. I hoped he could reign in his excitement enough to get the job done safely. One of the screens flickered to life and we could see through his eyes, or at least through the pin on his shoulder.  A mic was attached as well, though Steenson didn’t manage to get the earpiece to stay on. Barg instead draped the cord around his neck and promised to hold it to his ear every few minutes to check for instructions.

Off he went. The camera sped through the street, bounding off walls and scurrying around corners. Once in sight of the building, he stopped. A shadow passed at a window, then he shot up the side, an occasional hand coming into view, digging gnarled fingers into impossible handholds.

Trainor looked worried.

“Captain? Looks like we’ve got a mic problem, I’m not getting audio.”

“It was working when he left. He didn’t turn it off?” Greyson frowned.

“Says it’s transmitting.”

“Maybe there’s just nothing to hear,” I suggested.

“It’s highly sensitive. We should be hearing his steps, movement, breathing.  I’ve got the sound at max and there’s nothing.”

“I think you’re underestimating him. He can be pretty damn quiet,” Harrod said. He’d joined me, peering over my shoulder at the video feed.

Trainor looked unconvinced until a deafening voice boomed through the speaker. She and Steenson both lunged forwards and fumbled the volume down to a bearable level.

“…the back. You know, the blue thing? Give it a poke and see if it’s still kicking.”

The voice was muffled then trailed off as Barg climbed to the roof. Once secure, he stopped and a hand fumbled around in front of the camera.

“Officer Lady, Capitan, are you hearing Barg? Over?”

His voice was a raspy whisper.

“We hear you Barg. We can see you’re on the roof. What’s your plan?” Trainor asked.

“Officer Lady, Barg is feeling the Lenny-dog most closely at the bottom-most of the building. Barg is very near to being on top of him. Over.”

“Barg, see if you can get a look inside. All we need is proof they’re holding Others in the warehouse and we can go in. And Barg? You don’t have to say over.”

“Yes, Lady! Over and quiet!”

The video screen waved around as Barg plucked it off his shirt and held it out so we could see him salute. I shook my head in exasperation while Trainor snorted softly.

Another wobble of the camera and he was off across the rooftop. There was barely a scrape as he shimmied down a pipe, jumped to a windowsill, dropped to the ground and peered inside.

“Psst. Lenny-dog? Barg has come for rescuing you!”

“Barg, you’re only there to look. Don’t go off half cocked, you’ll jeopardise the operation. Just show us what we need and come back, ok?” Greyson had a note of worry in his voice.

“Yes Capitan! Barg will follow the illustrious leader and all his demands!” Barg’s voice was a loud whisper and I cringed, wondering if he’d be heard. “Lenny-dog, Barg has a serious mission to be completing, yes? You be waiting for his triumphant returns.”

Creeping back from the window, Barg scuttled along a ledge to the next window. It was dark inside and nothing moved when he softly called.

“Ah, Officer Lady? Barg is feeling something in this room. When the cavalry does descend, please bring ones who can help this one, it does not heed Barg’s calls.”

Trainor glanced back at Greyson, eyes worried. Gibble signalled me, then quietly left the cafe. Greyson looked at me, surprised.

“He’s gone to get Olfred,” I said quietly. That the old god was needed again was a sad, sad thing. Harrod put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed.

The image on the screen was suddenly filled with light. Barg looked to be peering through a window, bars crossing in front of the camera lens and obscuring the visual for a moment. It was a small room, bare and dirty with a tree branch propped against one wall. Sitting on that branch, tail wrapped around to hold it steady, was a miniature albino dragon. Its wings were held tightly against its body, making it sit awkwardly. Black eyes swung to the window, directly at the screen as a serpentine mouth opened, tongue flicking out to taste the air.

“Gods,” said Harrod, face white.

“Got it,” said Greyson, smiling in satisfaction. “Right boys. We ready to go take these bastards down?”

We waited by the radio with Trainor as the task force entered the warehouse grounds.  Barg, perched atop the roof again, watched black-clad officers run silently around the corner in single file, then peel off to surround the building. Our eyes were up front, where Greyson would take the main entrance with four of the team. Trainor explained that each officer held a small, warded stone designed to disrupt any nearby wards. They would be kept safe from any traps laid, but if a warded alarm was set the person who created it would know is was down.

We watched the small screen as they stopped as one, waiting for the signal to move in. We watched, as Greyson held up a hand, let it drop. We watched a dozen armed officers advanced toward a building full of dangerous smugglers. Together we watched as, in a single motion, every one of those officers dropped to the ground, unconscious.

Chapter Fourteen

 “Oh, God.” Trainor’s eyes were wide, her face white. “Greyson? Captain? Miles, Beefcake, anyone?”


           Harrod and I glanced at each other for a heartbeat, then moved as one for the door. I grabbed the last transmitter off the table and dropped it in my pocket as I passed.

“Wait, you can’t – You don’t know what happened to them.”

“The wardstones failed, they’re in danger. Get backup, we’ll let you know when to send them.” Harrod’s voice rose as we fled into the street outside. Martin, woken by the noise, bolted upright and looked around, bewildered.

We arrived at the warehouse in moments. Stopping abruptly, we crouched behind the small brick wall and peeked around the corner to see four men, moving about in the shadows cast by the stark street lights. They approached the fallen officers one by one, crouching down to tie their hands and feet.

“Can you see anything?” If it was a ward, Harrod should be able to see it affecting the fallen officers.

“They’ve got guns; I think they’re tying them up.”

“I mean the ward, Harrod.”

“Oh, right. It’s… different. It’s not a trace I’ve seen before. I… don’t think I can disable it from here.”  His voice lowered in shock as he spoke. With a power as strong as his, it would be rare to come across something he couldn’t fight.

“Then what do we do?”

“We wait for backup.” Harrod sat back panting, eyes wide.

“Harrod, we are the backup. No one else is coming; I’ll have to go in myself.”

“What? How are you going to get past the ward?”

“I can block it. Whatever this is I’m sure I’ve fended off worse. Where’s the ward? If I can get to it, I can take it out. They’ll wake up, won’t they?”

“Emma, you can’t even use your block!” He grabbed my arm, hard.

“That’s Lenny in there,” I spat. “And Greyson lying on the ground outside. You think I’m not terrified? Pissed off at the monsters who did this? Harrod I’ve got a firmer grip on my power now than I’ve ever had before.”

He looked at me for a long moment, lips pressed together. I expected him to tell me to stay, half expected him to try to force me. Instead, he let out a frustrated breath and said, “Barg.”

“What?”

“Barg. Tell him you’re coming; he might be able to help.”

I put the ear piece in and clipped the tiny mic to my shirt. I turned it on and immediately heard a voice.

“…answer me, dammit. Harrod? Emma?”

“Yeah, it’s me, Trainor. There’s a ward, it took everyone out. Harrod can’t dispel it but I think I can get past. I’m going in to see if I can shut it off.”

“Is that safe?”

“If I don’t, you’ve got an entire team of officers lying helpless on the ground for god knows how long. It’s the safest option we’ve got.”

“Right. What do you need from me? Barg’s still up top, scene looks about the same as when you’ve left. No movement.”

“Tell Barg I’m going in.”

A light click sounded in my ear, then, “Barg I’ve got you patched into Emma. She’s coming in.”

“Ah, Lady is very brave! Very sensible Lady, little-man is staying behind?”

“Yes.” Trainor snorted and I had to stifle a nervous giggled. I had no idea why the Others in my life insisted on referring to Harrod as ‘little-man,’ but the name had stuck. I was glad he couldn’t hear my conversation.

“Ah, that is most sensible of him. Lady may pass the sleeping ward but little-man would be like a snoring snootle if he did try.”

“A snoo-? Never mind. Barg, can you scoot down and see if that window on the ground floor… the smaller building, the side facing us. I think I can get through there. Can you check it out without being seen?” I could get to that with little effort, and the window looked easy enough to climb through if it was unlocked. A smaller window on a higher level was directly above. I’d have to be quick, and hope for the best.

I heard no response, but peeking out from behind the wall I saw a small dark figure slipping down the side of the building. A moment later, he waved, and I headed forwards, ducking down and staying in the shadows so I wouldn’t be seen. Power coursed through me, my gift in easy grasp while my adrenaline was peaked.

A few metres closer to the building and a prickling sensation washed over me, like wiggling ants being held against my skin. Shuddering but relieved I’d successfully blocked the ward, I continued forward. One of Greyson’s men lay sprawled on the ground. Putting my hand to his cheek, I funnelled enough power into him that the blocking ward faltered. He stirred, and I moved away quickly, leaving him to drop back into slumber before he made a noise.

“He’s alive,” I whispered into the mic. “They should wake up once the ward is down.”

“Thank God,” Trainor replied, her voice thick.

A shadow passed on the ground where a patch of light shone down from the window. Heart beating so loud I was sure they’d hear, I froze, flattening myself to the ground and staying as still as I could. It passed and I waited five breaths before scuttling over to the wall. Safety. I let out the breath I didn’t realise I’d been holding.

#

Barg was waiting for me at the now open window. He waved at it with a flourish then hopped through. I climbed in behind, tripping as I landed with a light thud. Wincing, I looked around. Small noises came from a distance, but no cries of alarm. That was a good sign. We were in what looked like an office reception, though it smelled like a poorly kept zoo. A quick shuffle of paper and a peek in some drawers revealed nothing of interest, and I was anxious to move on.

“Which way?” I whispered. Barg pointed at a door leading to the rear of the building. Muffled noises came from that direction, sounds of banging and mumbled talking. Pressing an ear to the door, I figured the noises weren’t coming from the adjacent room. Holding a trace in my mind and my wand at the ready, I gently pushed the door open.

It led to a short hallway, narrow and dim, lit by a single naked bulb hanging loosely from the ceiling. There was a door at the end, and one leading off to each side.

Letting out a breath, I crept forward, Barg darting around my legs to point to the door on the right. A quick listen revealed silence. The door was locked, but I shook my head when Barg pulled a small pouch from his belt. I traced it open without much difficulty, cracked the door open, and slipped into the room. The door snicked shut behind me and I jumped. Reaching a hand out to try the knob, a cold fear settled in my stomach as the handle didn’t turn – it had locked again. Breathe I thought to myself, knowing I could unlock it with the same spell I’d used to get in.

Using my wand to trace a small globe ball of light, I looked around the room. There was a door across from me, a table in the centre, and something hanging on the wall next to me. Bile rose in the back of my throat. It was a rack, with muzzles and restraints hanging from it. There were barbed choke chains, and an assortment of leather harnesses. The noises I’d started to become accustomed to were clearer here, and I could make out scraping and banging, and the low rumble of a parked truck.

“Come on, they won’t stay down forever. Serraceuse would have a fit if we gotta leave any behind. Nah, nah, load the dog crate first, it’ll fit better.”

My chest constricted in fright. The voices were right on the other side of the door and from what they’d said, I only had a short time. Something clinked behind me and I spun around, ready to unleash a force spell. Barg was at the rack, holding one of the harnesses.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” he whispered. “That would be fitting across a winged nulkin, Lady. Ooooh, Barg would like very much to use it on one of these humans.” His voice vibrated with emotion and his eyes flashed. For a bare moment he was not the funny looking little person that rode my dog like a jockey. No, he was a vicious demon, ready to unleash his fury on those who had hunted these innocent creatures.

He twisted the harness in his hands, snarling as if ready to strangle someone with it. Far from being disturbed, I felt the same urge. Anyone who’d treat a living being like this deserved to be strung up the same way.

“Barg, the ward?” That was my first priority. If we were caught before I could disable it, we were done for. Barg looked at me quizzically.

“Barg does sense it, Lady, so close.”

I searched, looking at the floor, the table, the walls. It was while I was on the floor, looking to see if it had been drawn under the table, that I saw it. There it was, etched in the wooden floorboards of the upper level. Magic wouldn’t interrupt it; my gift worked on me and anything I touched, but I couldn’t use it from a distance. Hell, even full contact with it would probably only disable it until I took my hand off of it.

Cursing, I wished I’d thought to bring something with me to disable the ward, not relishing the thought of using one of the torturous devices on the wall. Barg, sensing my need, emptied his pockets, turning out a small stone knife. Thanking whatever power was granting me luck tonight, I nudged the table so it was directly under the ward and stood on it. I could just reach – all I had to do was change the ward enough to shift its meaning and the spell would be broken. I stood on the chair and reached up, steadying myself with one hand on the ceiling above.

The second door to the room slammed open.

“Where’s the- HEY! It’s the bitch with the dog!” Light from the open doorway flooded the dim room and blinded me. I threw my wand out and traced a spell, slamming the door closed. Instead of a lock, I made the handle seize. Maybe that would confuse them, just for the smallest moment. As he banged on the door and screamed at the others in the warehouse to get inside the room, I gouged at the hardened wood with the knife.

Barg jumped off the table and jammed a chair under the handle of the door we’d come through. I hadn’t thought of that. Working furiously, I scratched as hard as I could. The crawling sensation on my skin vanished. Now, I just had to find Lenny, stop the smugglers, and get out alive. Easy, right?

 

#

 So far, there’d been no tell-tale noises at the first door. As I jumped down, Barg kicked at the chair he’d used to jam the door to dislodge it. We dashed out into the hallway, turning right to go deeper into the complex. A door ahead slammed open and I reeled around to flee the other way. We fled back into the first room and through a side door. That led to another dark, empty room. A staircase ran off it, and I sprinted up the stairs, Barg scampering ahead. 

I raced across the wooden floor then stumbled to a halt. It ended in a platform, surrounded by a rail, that looked out over the warehouse. If I’d kept going, I’d have ploughed straight through the flimsy railing and plummeted two stories onto solid concrete. A clattering on the stairs heralded my followers and I pushed a trace of power, aiming for the forehead of the first one up the stairs. My aim was good.

He tipped backwards, arms flailing, then fell back on his companion. Another judiciously aimed trace sent him tumbling a second time, though I staggered with the effort. He dodged the third spell, whipping his gun towards me and firing off a round as he ducked back into the stairwell.

Trainor’s voice sounded in my ear but I ignored it. I backed up to the edge of the platform as the two started to close in, guns out. Barg darted towards him and he let off a shot as the hobgoblin slipped past and shot down the stairs. My head pounded and my stomach wanted to empty – my spells were getting wobbly and wouldn’t have much power left in them.

“I think she’s spent, mate,” one of the men leered, then spat through the gap in his teeth.

I cast a shield, but it slipped away. Desperate, I tried again, shaking my head to clear the mind fog that was closing in. Gap-tooth feinted towards me and I let out a shriek, skittering backwards into the rail. The second man gave a nasal laughed and walked forward, pointing his gun directly at my face as I stood trembling. “Be a shame to mess up this pretty thing. Wonder if we got a collar downstairs that’ll fit her?”

A high-pitched war cry pierced the air as a large, dark object flew through over the railing. A ferocious beast with a very angry rider hit him in the chest, pinning him to the ground, jaws snapping at his face. The creature, with its supine body and ferocious mane of bristled hair, looked up at Gap-tooth and bunched its muscles, preparing to lunge.

Terrified, the smuggler backed up, tripped, and fell down the stairs. The one under the slavering dog had been knocked out by the fall. Lenny turned to me and I threw myself at him as Barg flipped off his back and gave a bow.

“Lenny! I was so worried about you.” My words were muffled in his thick fur, my face buried in his shoulder as I heaved, trying to catch my breath. A wet nose snorted in my ear, then a growl rumbled from his chest. I looked up as he stood, then stated wagging his tail. Harrod burst through the doorway onto the platform, wand out and ready. Panting, he looked around.

“Oh. Everything ok? I heard you scream, I thought you’d been shot.”

“Yeah. Lenny got here just in time.” Harrod helped me to my feet and I sagged against him. He looked down at me in concern.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Just overdid it. What’s happening?”

“They’re all awake – a bit confused, but they recovered quickly. Greyson’s downstairs leading the raid.” The sound of yelling corroborated that. It sounded like it was under control, but I waited until I heard his voice over the radio.

“Emma? Are you there?”

“I’m fine. Is it safe to come down?”

“It’s safe. You’re going to want to see this.”

#

Harrod held my arm as I went down the stairs, Lenny close behind. Barg simply vaulted over the side of the platform into the room below. Greyson met us at the bottom and led us back through the warded room and out the other side. It opened into a large area, the space filled with two removal vans and piles of crates, leashes and cages. An oversized side door was being opened by Greyson’s men. Greyson himself beckoned me over to a cage that had been busted, iron bars twisted and bent. “What do you think did this?”

Lenny yipped, wagged his tail and sat on his haunches looking inordinately proud of himself. Greyson and I looked at each other. I said nothing. It couldn’t have been… could it?

One of the officers called Greyson over to another door.

“Boss? You need to take a look at this.” The young officer’s brows were pulled together pensively.

The door led to a hallway lined with padlocked doors, small grated openings in each one. I peered through the first to see the tiny dragon curled up in the corner, wings tied back with a leather strap and pearlescent scales dulled by its confinement. Seeing the creature this close made my heart ache.

“It’s ok buddy. You’ll be out of here soon.” I pressed my hand against the grate but Greyson snatched it away as the creature darted for me. Shaking him off, I put my hand back for the serpent to sniff. A forked tongue tested my scent, then tickled my palm. Through the touch, I could feel its thanks like a warm trickle alongside a searing desire for vengeance. I tried to open the padlock, but my tracing slipped off and sent zinging pain through my head. Harrod would have to deal with these if good old bolt cutters didn’t work.

The next cage was standing open, as was the third. The fourth contained a feline, a large tiger-like creature with golden eyes that shone in the dim light. It regarded me seriously and flicked its tail as I passed.

The rest of the cages were empty. Two had straw and feeding bowls – Lenny growled at one of these – and two were pristine. Not being used? Harrod popped his head in down the end to tell us Gibble had returned with Olfred.  

“Hey, can you open this for me?” I asked Harrod, gesturing to one of the padlocks.

“Yeah, sure I-” He stepped back in shock. “Er, there’s a dragon in there.”

I raised an eyebrow at him and he winced.

“If it burns the place down?”

“It won’t. It’s seen me.”

“What do you mean, seen you? Is this thing dangerous?” Greyson asked, looking between us.

“’Seeing’ is a term specific to the dragon species. If they see you, it means they’ve… well, they’ve sort of seen into your soul, and judged it. If you pass, they’ll communicate with you, in a manner of speaking.” Harrod interrupted his own explanation and looked at me. “You’re sure?” I nodded, and he opened the cage, standing well back.

 It didn’t move. I approached the cage gently, holding my hand out again. The dragon dipped its head and I carefully reached back to undo the leather strap holding her wings down. I guessed it was female – the striking colour was rare in males.

“May I call you Pearl?” I asked as I removed the harness. She dipped her head again in acquiescence. Stretching her wings, she gave them a solid flap but stayed on the ground. Even for a miniature, she was small, but I couldn’t tell if that was her age or malnourishment. A high-pitched growl emanated from her throat. She sounded like a disgruntled kitten.

Darting her head forward, she latched onto my shirt with her teeth, tearing the fabric. Once attached, she used her grip to climb her way up my arm, the claws on her two feet digging in painfully until she was settled on my shoulder like an oversized bird. Right then.

Greyson looked on in awe as she turned to examine him, leaned her little head in and cocking it to one side. A moment later, I heard a sudden intake of breath. For a moment, it looked like a tear was glistening in the corner of the detective’s eye. He took a sudden breath, blinked, then shook his head as the dragon turned to nibble a strand of my hair. Hiding a small smile, I asked, “You ok there, Detective?”

“Fine, fine. That was…” Charlie shook his head again and laughed self-consciously. I didn’t press him.

“I suppose you want me to free the giant predator beast down the end, too?” Harrod asked, peering down the short corridor.

“Please.”

Lenny was already sitting by the cage door, waiting. He’d probably been playing chess with the thing, or doing calculus. Damned dog kept pulling out new tricks by the day lately.

Harrod sighed and went to the cage. Once unlocked, he pulled the door back and let the beast leave. It padded gently past us, giving Greyson a stare on the way through.

“Mind the cat, boys!” Greyson called out the doorway as one of his men started at the sight of a giant animal calmly padding through the warehouse. I moved to the doorway in time to see it walk directly over to Olfred, gently head-butt him, then walk outside. A leap and he was gone, hopefully to find his way back to the Other without running into any humans.

Catching sight of me, Olfred beckoned me over. 

 

 

#

“Aye, it’s good ter see ye, ye beautiful thing!” He reached forwards to scratch Pearl under the chin. She crooned in delight. “Ach, the bastards dinna take care of ye at all! No matter, we’ll ‘ave ye right in no time. Och no, ye canna sit wi’ me, I’ve got work te do, ye silly creature.”

He shooed her away as she tried to climb onto him and overbalanced, piercing my shoulder with her claws. Wincing, I tried not to move lest I make it worse, and she quickly settled back. Olfred dug around in his magic bag and pulled out a length of cloth.

“Stop that, ye’ll make her bleed,” he chided the reptile. “Come on now – or ye can feed yerself next time ye shedding.” She obediently climbed off. Olfred beckoned me down to his level and I kneeled. He bound the cloth over my shoulder and across my chest to pad my shoulder and make a secure perch for the dragonette. As he worked, he told me she was one of his regular visitors, swooping in every few months for oiling and a meal. He’d noted her absence but had assumed she’d just not needed his tending. Once done, he lifted her back up to her perch. She wriggled, kneading the cloth with her claws.

“So what’s the verdict?” I asked Olfred.

He shook his head sadly. “They’ve no’ been treated awfully, but they should’na be away from th Other like tha’. They’re no’ well, and they need to return. I can take them, and I can tend them, bu’ if this dinna stop…”

Olfred heaved a sigh. Uneasy at the prospect of this continuing, I looked up to find Greyson and Harrod watching our exchange. Seeing my glance, he headed over to us.

“We lost a couple of the smugglers. One was the guy from the butchers, he grabbed a bundle and bolted. Two of my guys tried to chase him down but they lost him. The others aren’t talking much, but it seems they’re working for someone else, someone not very nice. They’re scared, but we’ll see what we can get out of them.”

My blood ran cold. Harrod looked at me, concerned. “What is it?”

“He saw me.” I didn’t speak loudly, but both men reacted with worried looks. Setting his face, Greyson shrugged.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “We take care of our own. You’ll have a full detail on you until we get this wrapped up. We will get them, Emma, I promise.”

Harrod just put an arm around me and hugged, tight. “Look, you’ve got the gala tomorrow night. We can talk to Abnett if you want, see if he can offer any protection. Mergime wouldn’t let anything happen to you either – she’s desperate to show you off as her student, and couldn’t take the blow to her reputation if she let something happen to you.” He spoke lightly, but his voice was tight and there was worry in his eyes. Taking a deep breath, I tried to shrug it off.

“I’ve got Lenny to look after me, and Gibble during the day. Do you really think anyone could get close with those two around?” I asked. Gibble grunted behind me and I jumped. He must have come through the back way without me seeing.

“Gibble be staying for the all-time, Lady. Gibble not be leaving for Other at moon-rise. Lady be right, Gibble and Lenny-dog will be keeping her safe.” His mouth twisted into a comforting smile and I left Harrod’s side to wrap my arms around the boggart.

Gibble had gone away at night for as long as I could remember. He’d never spoken about where he went or why, but I was sure it had something to do with whatever forces bound him to my family. They were present during the day, meaning he had to stay in our world and close to someone he was bonded to or to their home, but at night he was free to do as he wished. He took full advantage of that, usually disappearing into the Other as soon as dusk fell. The thought of making him give that up sat sourly with me.

It took some time for the operation to wrap up. Those who had been caught were charged and hauled off to the station. They would be transported to a special precinct that had been warded by the Talent Lords long ago, to make sure there were no attempts to break them out. While I waited for Greyson to give us leave to go, I sat curled in a corner with Gibble, Lenny, and the tiny dragon, who’d snuggled into my lap and gone to sleep as soon as we sat.

 There had been more Otherworld creatures in the truck. It seemed that once the ward had been activated, the smugglers had tried to jump ship, taking as many of the animals as they could. Olfred explained that the cages of the dragon and the cat had been warded, strongly. Both animals had Talent of their own and would have been able to escape a normal cage. Whoever ran this operation had Talent themselves, but the men left behind had been left with no means of getting them out.

There was no indication of where the truck was headed, but Greyson was optimistic that at least one of the men they’d arrested wold give up enough information to bring down the organisation.

“I’ll have to get more help on this one,” he said. “There’s a few units I can pull in, ones I trust. They don’t have the experience with Otherworlders that we do, but they know how to deal with organised crime. They’ll help,” he promised. I wondered if he was saying it for my benefit, or his own.

Eventually, Greyson gave us the all clear. By that time, I was so exhausted I could barely stand and the effects of the Talent I’d overused was really taking its toll. Gibble helped me out to the car Greyson had organised to take us home. He settled me inside, waited until Lenny, Harrod and Barg had joined me, then said he’d meet us back home. Too tired to argue, I rested my head against the cold window and dozed, rousing briefly as we stopped to collect from the cafe Martin.

Gibble beat us home. Forcing myself to at least shower before bed – the dragon had drawn enough blood from my shoulder to ruin my shirt – I emerged to find Harrod fast asleep in my living room, stretched out on the couch.

“Little-man be keeping Lady safe,” Gibble said, looking down on him fondly. “Gibble be staying, but am being glad he be watching when Gibble cannot.” Then, he retired to the next room, small leather book in hand. I brought a blanket out for Harrod and draped it over him. Though I’d cursed the man often enough in recent weeks, tonight, I was simply glad of his friendship.

 

Chapter Fifteen

Nervously I ran my hands down the front of my gown, smoothing the fabric for the umpteenth time since I’d put it on. Bee tsked at me and fluttered around, readjusting the delicate belt chain I’d messed up yet again.

“Emmeline, calm your nerves, you’ve done this before. I swear, anyone would think it’s your first time.”

“My first what?” Distracted by my own thoughts, I barely paid heed to what she said.

“Your first Gala! Come, child, this isn’t like you. What is it?”

Bringing myself back to the present, I heaved a sigh. “Sorry Bee. Just got a lot on my mind right now.”

“You must focus, Emma. Abnett wants to show you off as his poster child for the success of the new relationship between mortal and Talent. He’s looking at some kind of official recognition, but for now it’s vital that he make it known you work for him, for the Council. The Fae and the Guardians have yet to decide whether the taking of the child is the work of individuals, or a symptom of a greater problem. They will have watchers at the gala, to gauge the sentiment of the people. You will need to be on your toes.”

“What do you mean, Bee, and what does it have to do with me?”

“You saved the child,” she said casually, fiddling with my hair. “Did you do it for political gain, or because it was right?”

Whipping my head around to argue with her, I stopped when I saw her face. She knew why I’d done it. Trouble was, my self-imposed exile from the Talented community meant not many people knew my feelings on any of this. Some saw me as Abnett’s pawn, others as a manipulative political player, trying to get my own people a foothold in the agreements that defined the rank and responsibilities between Talented, mortal and Fae.

“So, is Lord Harrod the cause of our distraction tonight?” Bee asked, her tone dropping.

“What? No, Bee. It’s this damned smuggling case. It’s getting dangerous.”

“If you move your head like that again, you’ll be wearing this gemstone up your nose. You knew it would be when you agreed to help. What’s changed?”

“I didn’t expect to run up against anyone this… it’s bigger than I thought, Bee. They had a ward that even Harrod couldn’t break.”

“Yet you got past it with barely a thought.”

“Yes, with a gift that’s unreliable, uncontrollable and really not much use against big, scary men with guns.”

“You’ve got a mortal dog charged with Otherworld magic and an overprotective boggart for housemates. A feisty little hobgoblin too, if I heard the story correctly?”

How had she heard the story? I wondered. “Bee, I appreciate what you’re doing. I just think this is too much for me. Harrod was right, I’m not equipped to deal with something this dangerous. I don’t have the Talent or the experience.”

“And now we get to the crux of it. Emma, you are more than capable of taking this on, despite what your darling egotist thinks. I know he hasn’t a bit of faith in anyone but himself, but that doesn’t mean he’s right.”

I sighed. I had to open my big mouth, didn’t I?

“Bee, he thinks I’m useless.”

“Rubbish. He thinks his birth makes him better than those around him and he’s taken aback when he’s shown to be wrong. Stupid human. Shall I talk to him for you?”

“Don’t you dare!” I chided. The last thing I needed was someone else sticking their nose into an already complicated situation.

“I was only offering.” Bee pulled away, then nodded. “There. It’s as perfect as it will be with you fidgeting like that.”

I turned to look in the mirror. Rather than the charcoal gown she’d shown me earlier, this dress was a deep red. Plates of hammered silver formed the bodice, and the skirt was slit past the knees at either side to show glimpses of soft leather leggings as I moved.  My hair was braided at the side like a Norse goddess, hanging loose at the back in long curls, dotted with tiny glittering gems. The stones ran onto my face, set on my skin to form a mask. It made my features look almost serpent-like. In all, it felt more like I was heading into battle than into a civilised gathering of nobles.

“He hasn’t been too bad lately,” I offered.

“That’s exactly the problem. When he’s saying silly things, you fight back, defend yourself. As soon as he starts to realise he’s being ridiculous, you soften up and start thinking he was right all along.” She turned me to face her. “You’re stronger than you think. And smarter. You don’t need Talent to be powerful Emmeline, you’ve always known that. Don’t start forgetting it just because he’s in the room with you.”

After a moment deep in thought, I nodded. She was right – it was much easier to disagree with Harrod when I was mad at him, which to be fair, was a lot of the time.

Once she finished, she led me downstairs.  Martin was attending the Gala tonight, courtesy of an invitation from one of the Fae. They really had been passing him around like a delicious treat, but he seemed none the worse for it. Once his date arrived – Lavender, a Fae who, like most of them, dressed to her chosen name in cool amethyst – we drove to the Inner City and the Gala.

Taking a deep breath and gripping Harrod’s arm tightly, I stepped through the ornate doors of the residence We followed the uniformed faske through to the ballroom and, once introduced, entered. Lord Stuckley had put on an incredible showing. Iridescent hummingbirds flitting through the dancers and ribbons of light twisted forth out of the instruments played by the orchestra. Dipping in a low curtsy to my partner, I began to dance.

                                                                    #

“Your dancing has improved since our first gala,” Harrod murmured in my ear.

“I aim to impress,” I said lightly, trying to hide how hard I was concentrating.  

Without warning, Harrod dipped me almost to the floor and I gasped. I slapped his shoulder as we came back up, almost losing my balance as he smoothly continued across the dance floor.  He chuckled. 

“Give yourself more credit.  You’re doing wonderfully.”

We continued, and I allowed myself to enjoy the music. This part of the gala was always my favourite. Free from the politics that usually came with the later part of the evening, the dancing was all about the spectacle. Music, beautiful dresses, and the opulent surroundings dissolved my anxiety and brought a smile to my lips. Here I was another person, in another world. Losing myself in the enchanted music, I let myself pretend I was only here to dance. That fantasy was rudely interrupted by someone tapping me on the shoulder and clearing his throat. At the same time, a loud crack! rang through the ballroom. Bee stood facing a Talent Lord, who was now sporting a bright red handprint across his face. She spat in his face then stormed off, raising a flat hand at the faske who tried to offer her a glass on her way past him. Harrod and I watched as she disappeared, leaving her stunned target looking around for support. When he found none, his eyes dropped to the floor and he shuffled off through a side door.

“Oh dear,” Abnett murmured from behind me, breaking the silence.

 I started, then turned to him, stammering. “I’m sorry, High Seat, I didn’t-”

“Oh, quite alright my dear. Didn’t mean to startle you, I just came for a dance.” He held out his hand for mine. Harrod resisted for the barest of moments, then gave a small formal bow and stepped back, letting Abnett take his place.

“Who was that man?” I asked, then blushed at my rudeness. Abnett didn’t seem to mind the informal address.

“The Lord is a tailor, quite a good one, in fact. He doesn’t quite have our Lady Bee’s flair, but the two seem to have struck up a bit of a rivalry.” He looked down on me, making the loose skin of his neck form an extra chin. “Ah, dear girl, I’d hoped to have seen you before now. I trust everything you are working on is under control?”

Though Abnett danced well, he didn’t have Harrod’s skill at leading an inexperienced partner. Stepping quickly to keep from kicking his ankles, I dropped my eyes to concentrate.

“For the most part, my lord. We’ve shut down a portion of the smuggling operation, but the barrow fiend’s mother died. We haven’t found the baby.” Abnett’s steps were growing faster, out of time to the music.

“You’re still looking? That case should be closed. The animal that was terrorising your people is gone, is it not?”

“It wasn’t her fault; they took her baby. She was only trying to protect her young.”

Abnett took a sharp breath at my words, pressing his lips together. “Still, that would make the case complete, yes? Your task was to stop the monster, not to faddle around with these so-called smugglers.” His feet tripped over mine and I gripped his shoulder to keep from falling. He frowned at me as though it were my fault.

“With all respect, High Seat, these men are using unsanctioned portals into the Other, kidnapping the creatures there and selling them on the black market. I’m pretty sure that qualifies them as smugglers.”

“Still, not our business – or yours. Your official involvement in the investigation is over, I need you for more important things now.”

“More impor-”

“Please, Emmeline.” He spoke hoarsely and I looked up, seeing him properly for the first time that evening. He was exhausted, worn down to the point of breaking. Unease settled in my bones. “Please, for your sake and mine.”

“No.” My heart leapt at my audacity, but I couldn’t back down. Abnett looked around frantically for a moment, then firmly took my arm and led me away from the ballroom. He took me through a side entrance and into a small room, the sound of the music now muffled and the light dim.

“Lord Abnett, I don’t think you know what’s at risk. The Fae—”

Abnett shook my arm and cut me off. “Risk? Child, you have no understanding of the word. Emmeline, they know who you are. You’re in terrible danger, you simply must stop at once. Please…”

His face shone with a layer of perspiration and his eyes were too wide. Backing away, I glanced at the door. Abnett drew his wand. He traced a spell and a shimmering, transparent box appeared between us. Alarmed, I looked at him but he just nodded towards it. As I watched, a disembodied hand reached towards the box and lifted the lid.

Inside lay a pixie. She was dead. A scrap of paper fluttered out and the spell focused on it, swooping in until I could read the words.

There was a young girl and a boggart

Who thought they could step on my feet

They tried and they missed

They’re next on the list

Along with the Lord on his Seat

I was saved from replying by the cessation of the music, and a small bell to signal the next phase of the evening. Sick to my stomach, I looked up at the noise just as Harrod appeared at the door, looking concerned. Upon seeing me with Abnett, his expression faded to relief, then worry as he saw my face. As I opened my mouth to speak, Abnett put a finger to his mouth. Snapping my jaw shut, I set my shoulders and walked out of the room, taking Harrod by the arm.

                                                                 #

 It took some time for everyone to finish mingling and find their seats. Dismayed to find dinner would be served in a formal dining room, everyone seated at the same long table, I said nothing to Harrod about what Abnett had shown me. Martin and Lavender joined us at the last moment, just before another bell chimed to signal the beginning of the first course. The food was already set on the table, covered by large silver covers that were whisked away by piskes, replaced by others who flew around serving the diners. The idea was good in concept but didn’t work so well at a gathering this large. The piskes were rushed, trying to keep up with the demands of the guests and avoiding each other mid-flight.

“Wow. Stuckley clearly didn’t think this one through,” Martin muttered to me under his breath. I shot him an admonishing look, then sighed. Regardless of what I’d just seen, life would continue as it had, for now.

“So when will the esteemed Lord Umbers host his own gala?” I asked, desperate for something safe to talk about. “You’re well and truly back in society now, people will start to wonder if you don’t host your own every now and then.”

“Oh, I hardly think so.” Harrod reddened. “Besides, it’s a lot of bother, not to mention the expense.”

“Oh?” Martin said. “This coming from the man who claimed he could out-do any other High Lord’s attempt this year. You can’t say something like that and not back it up my dear brother. Besides, I’d love the chance to plan one these shindigs and I certainly can’t host my own.”

“Oh Lord Umbers, what a truly wonderful idea,” Lavender gushed. “Of course Bee will insist on dressing the ballroom, and the dining hall of course. You’ll have it at the golden manor, won’t you? It’s just the place for a party.” Her purple eyes lit up and she sat back, lost in her imaginary party.

“Er, no. No, I really couldn’t. Don’t you try and meddle in this Martin, you know I don’t like this sort of thing. I don’t even like attending the damn things. If I’m hosting it, I can’t even leave early!” He seemed positively flustered at the idea he may have to host his own gala, but I had a feeling Abnett would be pushing him into it before long. The thought of Lord Abnett made my stomach clench immediately. Harrod touched my hand briefly, and shot me a questioning look. There was nothing I could do except reply with a tight smile to indicate all was well.

Abnett gave a short, customary thanks to the attendees, and raised his glass after absentmindedly patting the perspiration from his face. We all returned the toast, and he sat, the guests immediately tucking into the delicacies provided.

“Abnett looks nervous tonight,” Martin commented.

“Mm. He smells it too.” We all looked at Lavender, who shrugged and took another bite of her dinner, a vegan dish provided for the Fae attendees and those humans who preferred it.

“I saw you dancing with him Emma; did he say anything?” Martin asked to my dismay.

“No.” My voice shook just the smallest bit. “I’m sure he’s fine. He has a demanding position, it’s sure to affect him to a degree.”

Martin gave me an odd look, but didn’t say anymore. Lavender whispered something in his ear and he frowned. The rest of the meal passed with little conversation and no one remarked on my untouched plates.

                                                                    #

After we ate, we retired back to the ballroom. In our absence, the room had been completely changed, set with soft furnishings and decoratively stacked books. I appreciated the low key end to the night – some gala hosts preferred to end with a show, or with more dancing and wine. The length of the events was enough that by the end, anything that required effort became exhausting and tedious.

We chose a spot by a large window and sat, talking lightly and watching the other guests. I drank my wine, wishing it were coffee to get me through the final hours, while I kept my eyes on Abnett. He was heading towards me but had been waylaid twice now, by people wanting to speak to him. He disengaged and made a beeline for our little group. Setting my shoulders and ignoring the gnawing in my gut, I stood to greet him.

“Lord Umbers, I’m afraid I’m here to steal Emmeline away from you yet again. Martin, Lavender, I trust you’re enjoying yourselves.”

He leaned in to kiss my cheek. “The choice is yours, my dear,” he whispered as his face grazed mine. My thoughts hadn’t been far from the words left on the note since he’d showed me, but for a brief moment, the image of the dead pixie flashed into my mind. Her bloodless face and head that twisted in just the wrong way. Somewhere, deep within my fear, a spark of anger flared.

My mouth set and nerves steadied. It was as though having finally acknowledged and accepted the very real chance I’d have to give my life for this, my fear became irrelevant. It was still there; it just didn’t matter. Abnett took my arm, then looked at me with sad eyes.

“I see. Then, lest I do not have the chance later, I’d like to thank you for your service to the Council, my dear. I think we made a good team.”

He gave me a small smile, as together, we marched off to meet the masses. What followed was an evening of talking, of tedious politics interspersed by moments of fear, pride and anger. We travelled the room, telling each group of guests the story of the raids, the smugglers, and announcing our vows to end them by whatever means necessary. Our words stirred hearts, and many glasses were raised in our names, many voices clamoured to join our cause. Harrod had been right about Abnett – he had a charm, a way of speaking that roused people’s hearts and made them want to be the centre of his world.

After speaking to the fourth group of nobles, I turned away to stifle a yawn. Lavender appeared beside me, and took my arm, drawing me away from Abnett.

“Your High Seat made it known that he’d received a nasty little message about all this,” she said in a gentle voice. “He did tell you, didn’t he?”

When I nodded, she hugged me. “You are very brave, Emmeline Beaumarchais. Your father would be proud.” She flitted off without a backwards glance, leaving me behind blushing to the roots of my hair. My father, the man who I’d looked up to more than anyone in the whole world, would be proud.

I watched Lavender greet Martin, who waited by a door. He tipped his head at me and smiled as she took his arm. They wandered off into the gardens, heads close together.

“Shall we continue?” Abnett asked and I sighed.

“I suppose. I know these people are all supportive of us, High Seat, I just wish they’d offer something more than platitudes. Could you imagine how quickly we could take out the whole operation with an army of Talents hunting them down?”

“Small steps, Emmeline, small steps. One day, perhaps, we might even make a difference. If we live through this of course.”

The older man gave me a brave smile, then took my arm again. Off we went, trying to change the world one word at a time.

                                                                   #

Finally, the night ended. Once Harrod, Martin and I had piled into the car, Martin’s date conspicuously absent, Harrod turned to me.

“What did Abnett say to you in there? You’ve spent the whole evening looking like you just found a monster under your bed.”

Leaning my head back on the seat and closing my eyes, I told Harrod and Martin what I’d seen. Harrod dropped his head into his hands, while Martin turned a little pale. His eyes flashed with approval when I added what Lavender had said.

“Where is she now, Martin?” I asked.

“She left earlier,” came his cautious reply. “Said she had some business to attend to, something important. Do you think she’s off telling the Fae about tonight’s events?”

“Most likely.” Harrod lifted his head, eyes red rimmed and creased with fatigue. “Emma… I know you don’t like being told what to do, and I’m not… just, if you’d feel safer staying with us, you’re more than welcome.”

A smile touched my lips, the first real one in what seemed like hours. My heart went out to him, knowing he was trying so, so hard to be a good friend, rather than an overbearing Lord.

“Thank you, Harrod. For offering, and for not flipping out. I think we’ll be fine. Gibble is staying with me nights and Lenny is… well, I think he’s probably a bit tougher than I realised.” The memory of his two-story leap up to the platform in the warehouse crossed my mind and I wondered what else the dog was now capable of.

“Alright.” Harrod seemed unconvinced. “Either way, you’ll need to let Detective Greyson know we may lose the support of the Council.”

“You don’t think Abnett will continue to help?”

He sighed. “No, he’s not that brave. You know I’ll do anything I can to help. I won’t let you go it alone, but you really do have to take care. If they’ve gotten to Abnett, it means they can get to anyone; things are unsteady at the moment, so we’ve made sure he’s under secure guard. If Serraceuse or Ronson got past that, who knows what else they’re capable of.”

“I didn’t see anyone watching him.” I frowned, sure that I would have noticed.

“Some of the guests are also bodyguards, you wouldn’t notice them. They’re circulating, taking turns at being close to him, it’s the only way we could pull it off for an event this exclusive.”

The politics of the Inner City baffled me at times. “I don’t understand, what was special about tonight?”

“Tonight was all about being seen.” Harrod sat back as the car purred along, explaining Abnett’s latest strategy. “Tonight’s gala was the first of several elite events – if you were lucky enough to get an invitation, you’re one of special few, not just one of the rest. Did you notice everyone there was a supporter? Abnett’s using the galas, and even the Fae merchants to cement the idea that supporting him isn’t just right, it’s fashionable and sought after. The Fae want him to succeed, so they’ve agreed to show favour to his people. Nothing too blatant, just shorter wait times, advance notice of new products, that sort of thing.”

“The merchants – you mean Bee? That’s how she keeps dropping information she shouldn’t know.”

“Perhaps. I’m not privy to all the mechanics, but I know he’s working with some excellent advisers on that front.”

I settled back into my seat and for the rest of the drive, mulled over the evening’s events.

Harrod insisted on taking me home first. The car idled outside while I unlocked. I waved farewell, shut the door, and only then did I hear the car pull away. Aching with tiredness, I put my hand on the door to the tiny stairwell, then froze at the sound of scraping over my head. There was someone upstairs, in my locked house. Where was Lenny? He should have greeted me at the door. That thought sent my heart into my throat. If someone had broken in he’d have attacked them, no question. As carefully and quietly as I could, I crept up the stairs, wincing when one of the treads creaked underfoot. I reached the top and cracked the door open to hear a low voice on the other side.

“Lenny-dog, it be most difficult to be reading while you be sitting there.”

A rush of relief washed over me and I opened the door, bones weak with relief.

“Lady, please be telling the Lenny-dog he be sitting not in a seat, but on the lap of an angry boggart?”

I shooed Lenny off Gibble’s lap and collapsed into the sofa. “Dammit, Gibble, I’m not used to you being here at night. I thought you were an assassin.”

“Lady knows Gibble will not be leaving until it is safe.”

“Lady forgot. Lenny seems to have adjusted to you being here though.” The dog was trying to scramble into Gibble’s lap again, much to the ‘angry boggart’s’ amusement.

Gibble declined my offer of blankets and pillows, instead leaning back on the sofa with his book while Lenny, finally giving up on finding a comfortable place to settle, bounded off into my bedroom. Great, now I’d have to fight him for the bed. Shaking my head with another small smile, I kissed Gibble on the forehead and went off to battle for the space to lie down.

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