TWENTY-THREE STORIES UP AND ALL I COULD SEE OUT THE WINDOWS was grey smog. They could call it the City of Angels if they wanted to, but if there were angels out there, they had to be flying blind.
Los Angeles is a place where people, those with wings and without, come to hide. Hide from others, hide from themselves. I'd come to hide and I'd succeeded, but staring out at the thick, dirty air, I wanted to go home. Home where the air was blue most of the time and you didn't have to water the ground to get grass to grow. Home was Cahokia, Illinois, but I couldn't go back because they'd kill me if I did, my relatives and their allies. Everyone wants to grow up to be a faerie princess. Trust me. It's overrated.
There was a knock on the office door. It opened before I could say anything. My boss, Jeremy Grey, stood framed in the doorway. He was a short, grey man, four feet eleven inches, an inch shorter than me. He was grey from his dark Armani suit to his button-up shirt and silk tie. Only his shoes were black and shiny. Even his skin was a pale uniform grey. Not from illness or age. No, he was a trow in the prime of life, just a little over four hundred. There were some lines around his eyes, along the thin mouth, that made him appear mature, but he'd never be old. Without the aid of mortal blood and a pretty serious spell, Jeremy might live forever. Theoretically. Scientists say that in about five billion years the sun will expand and engulf the Earth. The fey won't survive that. They will die. Does five billion years count as forever? I don't think so. Though it's close enough to make the rest of us envious.
I leaned my back against the windows and the thick, hanging smog. The day was as grey as my boss, but his color was a cool, crisp grey, like clouds before a spring rain. What lay outside the window felt heavy and thick like something you would try to swallow, but you'd never get it down. It was a day to choke on, or maybe it was just my mood.
"You look gloomy, Merry," Jeremy said. "What's wrong?" He closed the door behind him, making sure it shut. Privacy, he was giving us privacy. Maybe it was for my benefit, but somehow I didn't think so. There was a tightness around his eyes, a set to his thin, well-tailored shoulders that said I wasn't the only one in a bad mood today. Maybe it was the weather or the lack of it. A good rain shower or even a good wind would have cleared out the smog and let the city breathe again.
"Homesick," I said. "What's wrong, Jeremy?"
He gave a small smile. "Can't fool you, can I, Merry?"
"No," I said.
"Nice outfit," he said.
I knew I looked hot when Jeremy complimented my clothes. He always looked impeccable even in jeans and T-shirt, which he only wore if he absolutely had to be undercover. I'd seen Jeremy do a three-minute mile in Gucci loafers once, chasing a suspect. Of course, it helped that his dexterity and speed were more than human. When I thought I might have to actually chase someone, a rare occasion, I got out the jogging shoes and left the high heels at home.
Jeremy put into his eyes that look a man gives you when he's appreciating the view. It wasn't personal, but among the fey it's an insult to ignore someone who's obviously trying to be attractive, a slap in the face telling them that they'd failed. Apparently, I hadn't failed. I'd woken up to the smog and dressed brighter than normal to try and cheer myself up. Royal blue suit jacket, double-breasted, silver buttons, a matching blue pleated skirt that was so short, it was only a fringe across my thighs underneath the jacket. The outfit was short enough that if I crossed my legs wrong, I'd flash the tops of my black thigh-highs. Two-inch patent leather high heels helped show off the legs. When you're as short as I am, you've got to do something to make your legs look long. Most days the heels were three inches.
My hair was a deep rich red in the reflections of the mirrors. A color more red than auburn, a color that had black highlights instead of the usual brown that most redheads had. It was as if someone had taken dark red rubies and spun them out into hair. It was a very popular color this year. Blood auburn it was called in the high court of the fey royalty. Faerie Red, Sidhe Scarlet, if you went to a good salon. It was actually my natural color. Until it became popular this year and they finally got the shade right, I'd had to hide my true color. I'd gone for black, because it looked more natural than human red with my skin tone. A lot of people getting the dye job made the mistake of thinking that Sidhe Scarlet complements a natural redhead's coloring. It doesn't. It's the only true red color I know of that matches a pale, pure white skin tone. It's the red hair for someone who looks great in black, true reds, royal blues.
The only things I still had to hide were the vibrant green and gold of my eyes and the luminosity of my skin. I used dark brown contacts for the eyes. My skin-that I had to tone down using glamour, magic. Just a steady concentration like music in the back of my head, to never let down my guard and start to glow. Humans don't actually glow, no matter how luminous they may be. No glowing, which was why the contacts covered my eyes. I also wove a spell around myself like a long familiar coat, an illusion that I was just a human with lesser fey blood in my background who had some psychic and mystical abilities that made me a really excellent detective, but nothing too special.
Jeremy didn't know what I was. No one at the agency knew. I was one of the weakest members of the royal court, but being sidhe means something even on the weak end of the scale. It meant that I had successfully hidden my true self, my true abilities, from a handful of the best magicians and psychics in the city. Maybe in the country. No small feat, but the kind of glamour I was best at wouldn't keep a knife from finding my back or a spell from crushing my heart. For that I needed skills that I didn't have, and that was one of the reasons I was in hiding. I couldn't fight the sidhe, not and live. The best I could do was hide. I trusted Jeremy and the others. They were my friends. What I didn't trust was what the sidhe might do to them if I were discovered, and my relatives found out my friends had known my secret. If they were truly ignorant, then the sidhe would leave them alone and only hurt me. Ignorance was bliss on this one. Though I thought that some of my very good friends would see it as a type of betrayal. But if the choices were them alive, with all their body parts intact, but angry at me, or dead by torture but not angry at me, I'd take angry. I could live with their anger. I wasn't sure I could live with their deaths.
I know, I know. Why not go to the Bureau of Human and Fey Affairs and get asylum? My relatives would probably kill me when they found me, but if I went public and aired our dirty laundry for the world media, they would most definitely kill me. And they'd kill me slower. So no police, no ambassadors, just the ultimate game of hide-and-seek.
I smiled at Jeremy and gave him what I knew he wanted: the look that said that I appreciated the slender potential of his body under his perfect suit. To humans it would have looked like flirting, but for the fey, any fey, it wasn't even close to flirting. "Thanks, Jeremy, but you didn't come in here to compliment my clothes."
He walked farther into the room, running manicured fingers along my desk edge. "I've got two women in my office. They want to be clients," he said.
"Want to be? "I said.
He turned, leaning against the desk, arms crossed over his chest. Mirroring my stance at the windows, either unconsciously, or purposefully, though I didn't know why. "We don't usually do divorce work," Jeremy said.
I gave him wide eyes, pushing away from the windows. "Day one lecture, Jeremy: The Grey Detective Agency never, ever, does divorce work."
"I know, I know," he said. He pushed away from the desk and came to stand beside me, staring out into the fog. He didn't look any happier than I felt.
I leaned back against the glass so I could see his face better. "Why are you breaking your cardinal rule, Jeremy?"
He shook his head without looking at me. "Come meet them, Merry. I trust your judgment. If you say we stay out of it, we'll stay out of it. But I think you'll feel the same way I do."
I touched his shoulder. "And how are you feeling, boss, other than worried?" I ran my hand down his arm, and it made him look at me.
His eyes had gone dark charcoal grey with anger. "Come meet them, Merry. If you're as angry afterward as I am, then we'll nail this bastard."
I gripped his arm. "Jeremy, relax. It's just a divorce case."
"What if I told you it was attempted murder?" His voice was calm. Matter of fact, it didn't match the intensity in his eyes, the vibrating tension in his arm.
I moved back from him. "Attempted murder? What are you talking about?"
"The nastiest death spell that's ever walked into my office."
"The husband is trying to kill her?" I made it a question.
"Someone is, and the wife says it's the husband. The mistress agrees with the wife."
I blinked at him. "Are you saying that the wife and the mistress are in your office?"
He nodded, and even through all the outrage, he smiled.
I smiled back. "Well, that's got to be a first."
He took my hand. "It might be a first even if we did do divorce work," he said. His thumb rubbed back and forth over my knuckles. He was nervous, or he wouldn't be touching me this much. A way to reassure himself, like a touchstone. He raised my hand to his lips and planted a quick kiss on my knuckles. I think he'd noticed what he was doing, that his nerves were showing. He flashed me a white smile, the best caps money could buy, and turned toward the door.
"Answer one question first, Jeremy."
He adjusted his suit, minute movements to tug it back into place as if it needed it. "Ask away."
"Why are you scared of this?"
The smile faded until his face was solemn. "I've got a bad feeling about this one, Merry. Prophecy isn't one of my gifts, but this one has a bad smell to it."
"Then pass it by. We aren't the cops. We do this for a very nice pay-check, not because we've sworn to serve and protect, Jeremy."
"If after you meet them, you can honestly walk away from it, then we will."
"Why is my vote suddenly a presidential veto? The name on the door is Grey, not Gentry."
"Because Teresa's so empathic she couldn't turn anyone away. Roane is too much the bleeding heart to turn tearful women away." He adjusted his dove grey tie, fingers smoothing over the diamond stickpin. "The others are good for grunt work, but they aren't decision makers. That leaves you."
I met his eyes, trying to read past the anger, the worry, to what was really going on inside his head. "You're not an empath, and you're not a bleeding heart, and you make dandy decisions, so why can't you make this one?"
"Because if we turn them away, they won't have anywhere else to go. If they leave this office without our help, they're both dead."
I stared at him, and finally understood. "You know we should walk away from this one, but you can't bring yourself to pass judgment on them. You can't bring yourself to condemn them to death."
He nodded. "Yes."
"What makes you think that I can do it, if you can't?"
"I'm hoping one of us is sane enough not to be this stupid."
"I won't get you all killed for the sake of strangers, Jeremy, so be prepared to walk away from this one." Even to me, my voice sounded hard, cold.
He smiled again. "That's my little cold-hearted bitch."
I shook my head and walked toward the door. "It's one of the reasons you love me, Jeremy. You count on me not to flinch."
I walked out into the hallway that led between offices, sure that I would turn these women away. Certain that I would be the wall that kept us all safe from Jeremy's good intentions. Goddess knows, I'd been wrong before, but seldom as wrong as I was about to be.