The uglies don’t always slink in the shadows…
It was while working a missing for Old Hubbard that I ended up where the forest starts to hump the bones of the city down the Southend. I don’t like that part. I usually avoid it, but when a lead pulls you in that direction you listen. If you want to get paid that is.
The trees here are dark. They don’t call it the Shades for nothing. There’s fae everywhere. I can feel their eyes even if I can’t always see them. I get the iron chain out the trunk and lay it around the circumference of the car. It’s not ideal. Neighbourhood like this someone’s bound to be willing to risk a felony removal of warding iron for a few credits. There’s nothing I can do about it though.
I make a point of meeting the eyes of everyone I pass as I head deeper into the suburb. If they think I’m memorising their faces as I do then maybe I won’t get back to a nasty surprise. No fae renting out the backseat of my car by the hour. They’re pretty for a reason; too highly sexed not to be glamoured up for seducing anything that walks. Or a couple of extra changelings secreted away in the trunk, waiting for me to inadvertently smuggle them into the city centre.
Swapping kids for fakes is a felony. Never stopped the fae from trying though. It’s why I am here. Old Hubbard has the bounty on changeling activity. The pay is real good or I wouldn’t bother with the jobs. Fucking hate dealing with fae.
Deeper in the suburb goes from slender trunked trees growing through asphalt and stone like butter, to the massive dryad-inside monsters that swallow homes whole into their midnight dark barky surfaces. The shadows are deep here and the ghost lights are burning everywhere. A few ignes fatui lazily try to tempt me off the overgrown sidewalks but I ignore them. There’s a man chatting up the dryad from the doorway of his home. I wonder which one is considered the landlord, the way tree and home cohabit the same space it probably makes lawyers salivate at the chance to litigate.
I press on, feeling like I’m entering a timewarp as the forest deepens, darkens, and shrouds the neighbourhood around me. I can’t even hear the sounds of the city anymore. If there’s sirens screaming bloody murder out there, the Shades ain’t letting me know it.
Old Hubbard’s bounty offer is securing the fae, dead or alive, who took young Erick Hausseyer and left a changeling behind. It’s a particularly sombre case because the changeling ate Erick’s parents. An unusual event for sure. They don’t usually do that. The changeling itself promptly reverted back to a tree in the Hausseyer living room after it’s more than you can eat two course meal.
I had heard, just before heading out, that the local forensics team had released the tree to the relatives. Not a cremation I was itching to attend. At least it wouldn’t be open casket. I expected it would be more woodchipper than embalmer prep-work too. I hoped Mister and Missus Hausseyer had wanted a joint grave for their final resting place. It’s not something I figure either of them had discussed. After all, wedding vows promised freedom in death.
Not all fae live out in the Shades. It’s not where they all run to lay low either. I wouldn’t have started here, but Old Hubbard had a new snitch in the fae community and much as I hated the idea, I’d taken the information and run with it. It could shave a lot of footwork off my time and Old Hubbard didn’t do by the hour fees; it was all one flat lump sum. If I could do it quick, I’d take it, even if it meant getting in some up close time with someone I’d rather not.
His place was closer to the heart of the Shades than I felt comfortable with, but a hunter doesn’t accept his fears as boundaries. The house that the address took me to was bigger than I had expected. It was overgrown by three trees that reached so high up into the sky canopy I couldn’t guess if they’d been fitted with warning lights for the air traffic. There were at least five saplings too, anyone one of which could be the makings of a changeling.
Steeling myself for it. I knocked on the door, careful not to knock on wood. The last thing I wanted was a dryad sticking their noses into things; conversations got a whole lot longer in the Shades when they turned into a threesome or more. It took Old Hubbard’s snitch a while to let me in. Behind him the house was ablaze with light, giving him a golden kind of aura that had me blinking until my eyes adjusted.
With a contact called the Storyteller I was expecting fibs. Reputation be damned. He looked younger than he should. Typical fae catfishing. Probably wasn’t even his own face. Probably. Too fucking handsome, I told myself. His reputation should come with a warning label; dangerous to look at, seriously tempting to touch. I know I’ll pass the message along next time his name comes up.
Sighing, I told myself it was best to get it over with.
“Are you the Storyteller?”
He looks me over with a lecherous look in his eye that no fae I’ve ever met has been able to shake from their character. People say it’s natural instinct and that they can’t change their natures any more than a unicorn can pull off wearing zebra stripes. It’s not what I think. It will never be what I think.
His voice is all ‘what time do you knock off’ invitation but I don’t let it coil right the way down to my balls. Instead I flash him my hunter’s licence and it puts a damper on things. I know it won’t last long, but the fire dims a little in his wide forest green eyes.
“Shit,” he says, “I thought you hunters only came in thug. You look too tasty to be one.”
“Looks aren’t everything,” I say, hoping he’ll get the barb I’m tossing his way. “I can still beat answers out of you like the best of them.”
I know it’s not the clearest way to get across my point the moment I say it. The fire quickens again in his gaze. He’s smart enough though not to try and capitalise on the opening. Instead he invites me inside. I wish I could decline but contacts don’t spill secrets out in the open. As I walk by him, he makes a point of brushing up against me. There’s no doubt he smells good and feels hot; the way only a fae can, like intense smoldering sex. Reminding my lust that I’m on the clock doesn’t do much to sink my battleship.
The Storyteller’s home is pretty mundane. It’s not traditional fae. He’s got a taste for acquiring things like any of his brethren, but it’s not down to shiny in his case. Books clutter the space up like object d’art. They’re all bright covers and glancing over a few I see they’re all romance novels. He’s not collecting them for the lore. They all show a lot of skin and pretty faces. There’s no lack of sexual variety either. Fae, like I said, go for anything.
“Make yourself at home,” the Storyteller says from behind me. “Can I offer you vodka shots? I know a dryad who favours Spruce as a flavouring. It goes down real easy.”
“No,” I say.
He’s only offering because he hopes I’ll get drunk and he can take advantage of it. I survey the immediate area. There’s only one couch in the room. Sitting down is the last thing I plan on doing. The handsome fae would only sit down next to me. There is also little doubt in my mind that his couch has seen more action than the backseat of my car. It might even still be warm from the last time he used it that way.
“Suit yourself,” he says.
He’s read me easily, I figure, when he points to a small desk in the corner and the stool half hidden under the folds of a colourful throw. With body temperatures higher than human the fae get cold pretty easily. There’s a laptop on the desk. It’s closed but I wonder if his nom de guerre is more than just a fanciful one. If I had the time I’d stalk his book collection and see if any of them had a picture of his handsome mug on the back of them.
Feeling a little rude, I don’t take the offer of sitting on his stool. Instead I turn to him and remind myself that it’s all business. His roving eyes don’t say professional though, not unless we’re talking horizontal profession.
“I’m told you’re the one to ask about changelings, so I’m asking. Do you know anything about the Hausseyer changeling?” I keep my eyes on his eyes, ignoring the temptation to mimic him and take more in.
“I told Old Hubbard I wasn’t going to make a habit of telling tales,” he said, after a brief hesitation. His eyes finally coming back up to mine. I often feel naked around the fae. It’s true they can guess your underwear size in one glance. “I’m not exactly in the game myself.”
There was no doubt that he knew more about the Hausseyer case than he was saying. I could tell by the way he didn’t even look below my eyes. Despite my earlier comment, there was no way I wanted to lay a finger on the Storyteller, so getting answers out of him that way was off the table. Anything that led to kinkiness was similarly shot down. I don’t mind kissing and more for my intel, but not with fae. Too easy to pine yourself to death after.
“Tell me about the Hausseyers and I’ll tell Old Hubbard you’re tapped out.”
It wasn’t the best offer. There were no guarantees that hunters wouldn’t keep knocking on the Storyteller’s door, but it might give him enough time to find a new home if he really wanted to put an end to the arrangement. Only if he was willing to pack lighter than his library collection, I thought.
“Old Hubbard usually listen to you?”
There was a spark of humour in his eyes and for once it didn’t look like he was too distracted by my body to really see me. I would have preferred it had it all stayed lewd and stripping me naked inside his mind.
“I can be persuasive,” I shrugged, “maybe you’ll get a breather between me and the next hunter sent your way. I’ll honour the bargain.”
Fae are into that hard. Honouring bargains is almost as hardcore fucking as sex for them. It gives the Storyteller a bit of a post coital glow as I say it, but he doesn’t moan like some of them do, or look like he’s cum in his pants. It does way too much for his sex appeal though and I have to look away.
“Throw in a favour and I’ll tell you what I know,” he says with a little throatiness that sounds like he’s been yelling my name all night and making the bed shake.
There’s no shame in being aroused by it, I tell myself, but I don’t look him in the eye as I say, “Nothing kinky or illegal and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
“Define kinky,” he counters.
I look up and he’s definitely thinking bedroom in kinky ways, but you do have to be explicit when you make any deals with the fae. Not only did Fae vs Duncan Scott Lang set precedent that an agreement with any fae was legally binding, but it established that fae word for word recollection of said deal was wholly and completely accepted as accurate. They don’t lie, but they do evade and they do make use of loopholes via omission.
“Anything directly or indirectly sexual,” I say. It’s not my first time over a fae bargaining table. There’s no way it will be my last either, though I wish it was. “No kinky in your favour, no nudity either.”
“You think you’re taking all the fun out of it,” he said. “You’re only making it more interesting for me.”
“That’s what all the boys say.”
He gives me another once over with his deep green ‘get into bed with me’ eyes. “You have a bargain then, but I don’t think you’re going to be sleeping with yourself tonight.” There’s something about the statement that makes me think, for once, it’s not a sexy line out of a fae’s mouth. “The Hausseyer changeling is a nasty bit of business, but someone had to do it.”
It’s not the way I imagined the day going. Not with a changeling spelled to parricide by teeth. The thought of bringing my bounty in dead had even been sort of appealing for once.
“Tell me the story,” I said, rolling my eyes a little at the irony given my contact’s code name.
Like he knew why, he smiled at me. A sexy smile that really has no right being on fae lips, promising things he could never fully deliver on. Oh, one goddamned amazing fuck for sure, but don’t spread your legs thinking it’ll get you any happily ever after. The fae ain’t no fairytale lovers. They don’t fuck in the same hole twice.
“It’s Vol you’ll be wanting, but before you go here’s the story,” he said and told me about a boy who cried himself to sleep, about parents brutal enough to break bones, but careful enough not to do it too often or without a solid background story. About the whispers filled with pain and longing that are just the right kind of sound to carry far away and reach fae ears. By the end of the story I didn’t want to collect my bounty any more, or bring the fae he’d called Vol in. I knew what he meant about sleeping well tonight. I won’t. “So you’ll be wanting to talk to Volomon Ulant.”
He gave me the address. It wasn’t in the Shades, but it was nearby. I nodded, letting him know I had memorised it. The fae might have perfect memory, but they expect ours to be complete shit. They probably had a point.
He grabbed my arm before I left. The heat and strength of his grip was an aphrodisiac I had to school my body to resist.
“Vol knew the consequences, he didn’t expect to evade them. He’s waiting for you and he’ll go without any fight or need for bargains,” he said. “If it’s any consolation for your bed and dreams tonight, we’ll all be glad it was someone like you bringing him in.”
It wasn’t. There was so much temptation to have the Storyteller warming me tonight, but I didn’t give in. I gave him my card with my contact details on it, even though he could have tracked me down anywhere in the world from the strength of our unsatisfied bargain and the unchangeable scent buried in every cell of my body. It helps to give them a number to call or a door to knock on if you want to get that deal off the books sooner rather than later.
“I’m in most nights,” were his parting words.