Merry Gentry series
THE SMELL OF EUCALYPTUS ALWAYS MADE ME THINK OF SOUTHERN California, my home away from home; now it might forever be entwined with the scent of blood. I stood there with the strangely hot wind rustling through the high leaves. It blew my summer dress in a tangle around my legs, and spread my shoulder-length hair in a scarlet web across my face. I grabbed my hair in handfuls so I could see, though maybe not being able to see would have been better. The plastic gloves pulled at my hair. They were designed so I didn’t contaminate evidence, not for comfort. We were surrounded by a nearly perfect circle of the tall, pale tree trunks. In the middle of that natural circle were the bodies.
The spicy smell of the Eucalyptus could almost hide the scent of blood. If it had been this many adult human-sized bodies the Eucalyptus wouldn’t have had a chance, but they weren’t adult-sized. They were tiny by human standards, so tiny, the size of dolls; none of the corpses were even a foot tall, and some were less than five inches. They lay on the ground with their bright butterfly and moth wings frozen as if in mid-movement. Their dead hands were wrapped around wilted flowers like a cheerful game gone horribly wrong. They looked like so many broken Barbie dolls, except that Barbie dolls never lay so lifelike, or so perfectly poised. No matter how hard I’d tried as a little girl, their limbs remained stiff and unyielding. The bodies on the ground were stiff with rigor mortis, but they’d been laid out carefully, so they had stiffened in strangely graceful, almost dancing poses.
Detective Lucy Tate came to stand beside me. She was wearing a pants suit complete with jacket and a white button-up shirt that strained a little across the front because Lucy, like me, had too much figure for most button-up shirts. But I wasn’t a police detective so I didn’t have to pretend I was a man to try to fit in. I worked at a private detective agency that used the fact that I was Princess Meredith, the only American-born fey royal, and back working for the Grey Detective Agency: Supernatural Problems; Magical Solutions. People loved paying money to see the princess, and have her hear their problems; I’d begun to feel a little like a freak show until today. Today I would have loved to be back in the office listening to some mundane matter that didn’t really need my special brand of help, but was just a human rich enough to pay for my time. I’d have rather been doing a lot of things than standing here staring down at a dozen dead fey.
“What do you think?” she asked.
What I really thought was that I was glad the bodies were small so that the trees covered most of the smell, but that would be admitting weakness, and you didn’t do that on the rare occasions you got to work with the police. You had to be professional and tough or they thought less of you, even the female cops, maybe especially them.
“They’re laid out like something from a children’s storybook down to the dancing poses and the flowers in their hands.”
Lucy nodded. “It’s not just like, it is.”
“Is what?” I asked, looking at her. Her dark brunette hair was cut shorter than mine, and held back by a thick band so that nothing obscured her vision, as I still fought with my own hair. She looked cool and professional.
She used one plastic-gloved hand to hold out a plastic-wrapped page. She held it out to me, though I knew not to touch it even with the gloves. I was a civilian, and I had been very aware of that as I walked through all the police on the way to the center of all this activity. The police were never that fond of the private detective, no matter what you see on television, and I wasn’t even human. Of course, if I’d been human they wouldn’t have called me down to the murder scene in the first place. I was here because I was a trained detective and a faerie princess. One without the other wouldn’t have gotten me under the police tape.
I stared at the page. The wind tried to snatch it from her hand, and she used both hands to hold it steady for me. It was an illustration from a children’s book. It was dancing faeries with flowers in their hands. I stared at it for a second more, then looked down at the bodies on the ground. I forced myself to study their dead forms, then looked at the illustration.
“They’re identical,” I said.
“I believe so, though we’ll have to have some kind of flower expert tell us if the flowers match up bloom for bloom, but except for that our killer has duplicated the scene.”
I stared from one to the other again, those laughing happy faces in the picture and the very still, very dead ones on the ground. Their skin had begun to change color already, turning that bluish-purple cast of the dead.
“He, or she, had to dress them,” I pointed out. “No matter how many illustrations you see with these little blousy dresses and loincloth things, most demi-fey outside of faerie don’t dress like this. I’ve seen them in three-piece suits and formal evening wear.”
“You’re sure they didn’t wear the clothes here?” she asked.
I shook my head. “They wouldn’t have matched perfectly without planning it this way.”
“We were thinking he lured them down here with a promise of an acting part, a short film,” she said.
I thought about it, then shrugged. “Maybe, but they’d have come to the circle anyway.”
“The demi-fey, the small winged fey, have a particular fondness for natural circles.”
“The stories only tell humans not to step into a ring of toadstools, or a ring of actual dancing fey, but it can be any natural circle. Flowers, stones, hills, or trees, like this circle. They come to dance in the circle.”
“So they came down here to dance and he brought the clothes?” She frowned at me.
“You think that it works better if he lured them down here to film them,” I said.
“Either that or he watched them,” I said, “so he knew they came down here on certain nights to dance.”
“That would mean he or she was stalking them,” Lucy said.
“If I go after the film angle, I can find the costume rental and the advertisement for actors for his short film.” She made little quote marks in the air for the word film.
“If he’s just a stalker and he made the costumes, then you have fewer leads to follow.”