A Stroke of Midnight (Page 3)
I CALLED MAJOR WALTERS OF THE ST. LOUIS POLICE DEPARTMENT, who had been in charge of our security at the airport the day before. I called from the only land line phone in the Unseelie sithen. The phone was in the queen's office. Which always looked to me like a black and silver version of Louis the Fourteenth's office if he had liked going to Goth dance clubs for the dissipated rich. It was elegant, dark, expensive, and exciting in that chill-up-your-spine way; modern, but with a feel of the antique; nouveau riche done right. It was also a little claustrophobic to me. Too many shades of black and grey in too small a space, as if a Goth curtain salesman had persuaded them to cover every inch of the room with his wares.
The phone was white and always looked like bones on the secretary's black desk. Or maybe that's just me projecting. I did not understand the mood of the queen tonight. I'd asked Barinthus, as we walked to the office, if she'd given him any clues as to why she was behaving so oddly, and he'd said no. No clues.
Why was I calling the St. Louis police when the faerie lands are technically in Illinois? Because Major Walters was the current police liaison for the lands of faerie and the human police. Once upon a time, a few hundred years ago, there'd been an entire police unit assigned to us. Why? Because not everyone in America agreed with President Jefferson's decision to bring the fey to this country. The local people who were going to be close to us were especially upset. They didn't want monsters of the Unseelie Court coming to live in their state. At that time, St. Louis was the closest major city with a working police department. So even though we were technically located in Illinois, police problems had been sent to Missouri and St. Louis. They got the joyous duty of protecting us from the angry humans and also walking the perimeters of our lands so we couldn't sneak out and wreak havoc. If the courts of faerie hadn't come with a sizable bribe for several different branches of government, and certain powerful individuals, we might have never made it into this country. No one wanted to mess with either court after the last great human-fey war in Europe. We'd shown ourselves entirely too powerful for comfort.
What no one really understood about us – from Jefferson on down to the yelling mob – was that a line of human police wasn't really going to keep the fey, any fey, from leaving the area. What kept them inside and behaving themselves were threats and oaths to and from their respective kings and queens. But the police did keep the humans from harassing us.
Gradually, when nothing bad happened, the police presence was reduced, until they left altogether, and we only called on them when they were needed. As the local humans realized that we mostly wanted to be left alone, we had to call on our private police less and less. Soon, the police assigned to us had other jobs in other areas of the police force until they were needed for faerie duty, as it came to be called. Come up to present day and the unit had become a single detective or officer. The last time he'd been used was my father's death, but since that had been on government-owned farmland, the locals had been cut out twice. Once by the feds and once by us. All right, by the queen. I'd have taken a platoon of soldiers into the mounds if I thought they could have caught my father's killers.
After the liaison was so ineffective with my father's murder, I thought the post had been abandoned. But I'd been wrong.
Doyle had found out that Major Walters was still our liaison. The last remnants of a unit created by Thomas Jefferson himself. We'd also never had anyone as high a rank as major in the job. Major Walters had volunteered for the job, because the last person to have it had also done our security at press conferences, and that had landed Walter's predecessor a large salary as chief of a big corporation's security. Executives like to be guarded by someone who's guarded royalty. It adds a certain panache to the resume. Doyle had even learned that Walters had a very well paying job lined up. I wondered how the big corporation felt about Walters after yesterday. It looks great on your resume to guard royalty, but not so great to let them get injured on your watch. Nope, probably the executives would be a little nervous about being guarded by someone who let Princess Meredith get shot at by one of his own officers. Humans believed in magic, but not as an excuse for screwing up. No, they liked to blame someone, not something.
Walters would be needing to recoup. He'd need to redeem himself in the public eye. Though my guards and I knew that he'd had no chance to prevent what had happened, the humans wouldn't accept it. The major had been in charge. He'd take the fall. It was simply how they thought.
Christine, my aunt's secretary, was petite, well-endowed, and more plump than was the fashion. In her day she'd been perfect. Her blond hair curled over her shoulders, and her youthful face was eternally beautiful. One of our noblemen had lured her away centuries ago, but he'd grown tired of her. To stay in faerie she needed to be useful, so she learned shorthand and computer skills. She was probably one of the most technologically savvy people in either court.
She suggested that we call the Bureau of Human and Fey Affairs. Logical, I suppose, but they were more useful for social difficulties or diplomatic problems. If you want something done, don't call a politician or a bureaucrat. Call a cop.
I took a deep breath, said a little prayer to the Goddess, and dialed the number the secretary had given me.
He answered on the second ring. “Your Highness,” he said.
He must have had caller I.D. “Not exactly,” I said. “Princess Meredith, actually.”
His first words had been professional, his next held the hint of suspicion. “Princess, to what do I owe this honor.” In fact, he sounded positively hostile.
“You sound angry at me, Major Walters.”
“The newspapers say you don't trust my men to keep you safe. That human cops aren't good enough for your guard detail.”
I hadn't expected him to be so blunt. He was more cop than politician. “I can only say that I never even hinted to the media that I doubted your men.”
“Then why were we barred from the second press conference?”
Hmm, that was a sticky wicket. “You and I both know that it was a spell that made your officer shoot at me, correct?”
“Yeah, our unit psychic found the magical remnants on him.”
“I'm safer here in the sithen, but your officers won't be. Someone did a spell in a building of metal girders and beams, with technology all over the place. Put that same spell caster inside the sithen, inside faerie, with no damper of metal and technology on them, and your officers would be in even greater danger of being bespelled.”
“What about the human reporters; aren't they in danger of being bespelled?”
“They aren't armed,” I said. “They can't do that much damage.”
“So we just aren't up to your standards, is that it?” He was angry, and I wasn't sure why.
The queen's secretary must have caught enough of the conversation to give me a hint. She flashed the headline of the St. Louis Post Dispatch: POLICE FAIL TO PROTECT THE PRINCESS. Oh.
“Major Walters, I've just been shown a newspaper. My apologies for not understanding the effect this situation was having on your life. I was a little too preoccupied with my own being in danger.”
“I don't need your apologies, Princess. I need my men to be good enough to protect you at public events.”
“How much crap are you getting about what happened? Are they trying to scapegoat you?”
“That's not your business,” he said, which was almost as good as a yes.
“I think we can help each other, Major.”
“You sitting down?”
“Yeah,” and that one word was not happy.
I told him the briefest version I knew about the reporter and Beatrice, and that the queen had given it to me to clean up.
There was utter silence on the other end of the phone for so long that I finally said, “Major, you still there?”
“I'm here,” he said, in a hoarse voice.
“I'm sorry that being on faerie duty has just gotten so horribly complicated. I'm sorry that it is screwing with your plans.”
“What do you know about my plans?”
“I know you want to be chief of security at a certain place of business when you retire early next year. I know you took the job as liaison to us for your resume. I know that letting me get shot at probably didn't win you any points at your soon-to-be new job.”
“You know a damn lot for a princess.”
I let that go, not sure if it was compliment or insult. “But what if I show, plainly, that I have utter confidence in you, Major Walters?”
“What do you want from me?” The suspicion was thick enough to walk on.
“I want a Crime Scene Unit down here. I've got the crime scene itself isolated, but I need science, not magic, on this one.”
“Didn't you just lecture me about my men being in danger from enchantments if we came into your place?”
“Yes, that's why I want only you, the CSU, and maybe one or two others, tops. My guards can protect you individually from magic if you are a small enough group.”
“The entire department is being crucified in the press, especially the St. Louis press.”
“I know that now. Let's show them that Princess Meredith and her guards don't believe all that bad press. I do have confidence in you, Major Walters. You and a good forensic unit. How about it, Major? Do you want to play, or do I leave you out of this? I can pretend I didn't call, and just start with the chief of police.”
“Why didn't you start with him?” Walters asked.
“Because you're my police liaison. I respect that title. You're who I'm supposed to call. Besides, you're almost more motivated than I am to solve this case.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Don't be naïve, Major Walters. The department is taking heat. They'll hang someone for it, and it will most likely be you. Let me show the department that you still have my trust and they'll back off. They'll be desperate to solve this second violent episode and have someone to punish. They'll fall all over themselves to give you anything I ask for.”
“You seem to know how it works.”
“Politics is politics, Major, and I was raised in the thick of it.” I sat on the edge of the desk and tried to get my shoulder to loosen up. The injured muscles had tightened sometime during the interview with the queen. Funny that, but now my arm ached, and that wasn't funny, at all. Of all the things I missed with being part human, not healing instantly was one of the biggest envies I had. “I need a cop, Major Walters, not a politician. I need someone who understands that my crime scene is aging even as we speak. That valuable evidence may be getting contaminated right this minute. I need someone who will worry more about solving this mess than the political ramifications of it. I think you're that man, and now that your political star runs beside mine, you are doubly motivated.”
“What makes you so sure of that? What makes you think I won't cut my losses and run for the hills?”
I thought about that, and said, “The look in your eyes yesterday at the airport when you were angry with having to share leadership with Barinthus. The fact that you showed anger to me now on the phone rather than trying to toadie to me. I wasn't sure with a rank as high as major, but you're more cop than politician, Walters. And if you knew how little I like politics, you'd know what a compliment that is.”
“You seem pretty good at politicking for someone who doesn't like the game.”
“I'm good at a lot of things that I don't enjoy, Major Walters. As I'm sure you are.”
Silence again. “If we don't solve this, my ass is grass, and no amount of confidence shown in me, by you or anyone else, will save it.”
“And if we solve it…” I said.
He laughed, a deep chuckle. “Then I'll be the department's shining star, and the executives will be climbing over themselves to give me an even bigger salary. Yeah.”
“Are you my man, or do I pretend that I didn't make this call?”
“I'm your man.”
I smiled. “Good. You start making calls, and get me some CSU out here as soon as possible.”
“What do I tell the Chief about why you're letting us into your precious faerie land?” he asked. Oh, yeah, he was definitely a better cop than politician.
“Explain that whoever did this has diplomatic immunity, but we are allowing this investigation to happen out of our mutual desire for cooperation and justice.”
“You want the bastard who did it, don't you?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You probably don't remember me – I was just another uniform keeping the crowd back – but I saw you the day your father died. They gave you his sword.”
If I'd had any doubts that I'd called the right person, that one sentence took them away. Out loud I said, “Yes, yes, they did.”
“Catching this bad guy won't catch your father's killer.”
“That is a very insightful remark for a man I've only met twice.”
“Well, I've been the uniform on faerie duty off and on.”
“My mistake, but it was still insightful, uncomfortably so.”
“Sorry. Sometime after we've caught this guy, and if faerie princesses have drinks with lowly police majors, I'll tell you why I became a cop.”
It was my turn to be insightful. “You lost someone, and they didn't catch the bastard who did it.”
“You knew that already.” He sounded accusatory.
“No, I swear I didn't.”
“Then that was a hell of a guess.”
“Let's just say that those of us who bear a particular wound recognize it in others.”
He made a humph sound, then sort of growled, “Yeah, I guess we do. What will you be doing while I make phone calls and get everyone out there?”
“I'll be questioning witnesses.”
“You know, it'd be nice if I were there for the questioning.”
“Most of the fey who may have witnessed anything are ones who almost never travel outside of faerie. They're a little shy around humans, especially humans in uniforms. They all remember the last great human-fey war.”
“That was almost four hundred years ago,” he said.
“I'm aware of that.”
“I'll never get used to it.”
“How you guys look so young, but you remember this country before my great – great – great-grandfather took a boat here.”
“Not me, Major. I'm just a poor mortal girl.”
“Poor my ass,” he said.
“I'll let you know if we learn anything that's useful from the witnesses.”
“I'd like to decide what's useful and what's not.”
“Then hurry up, Major, but I do not promise that any fey will talk to you. I can't even promise that you'll be in the room when I question everyone. Some of them will simply not talk to the human police.”
“Then why am I coming?”
“So that when the press follow us around we can stand shoulder to shoulder and show that you are helping solve this case. And bring the officer who shot at me with you.”
“Why in the name of God?”
“Because his career is ruined unless he gets a chance at this, too.”
“Won't he be a danger to you?”
“We'll give him a charm to help bolster his psychic shields. If I think he's too fragile for the duty, I'll let you know and we'll escort him out.”
“Why do you care what happens to one young uniformed cop?”
“Because he could have gone his whole career and not ever had anything like this happen to him, if he'd only stayed away from the faeries. The least we can try and do is minimize the damage.”
“I'll make calls now, but you puzzle me, Princess Meredith. You're almost too nice to be true.” He hung up.
I put the phone back in its cradle. Too nice to be true. My father had taught me to be nice first, because you can always be mean later, but once you've been mean to someone, they won't believe the nice anymore. So be nice, be nice, until it's time to stop being nice, then destroy them. I wondered if he'd taken his own advice that summer's day, or if he'd hesitated because someone facing him had been his friend. I would have given a great deal to find the person in question, and ask him.
THERE WAS ANOTHER PHONE CALL I WANTED TO MAKE. I LOOKED at Christine's smiling, pleasant face, and said, “Can you wait outside for a moment, Christine?”
She blinked big blue eyes at me, but took a deep breath, stood up, rustled out her full skirts, and left without a word. I couldn't tell if I'd offended her, but then she was always hard to read. That she could smile and smile through everything the queen did in front of her always made me wonder about her. Did she enjoy the queen's little shows, or did she not know what else to do?
With Christine gone I was left with Doyle, Barinthus, and Usna. Frost, Galen, Hawthorne, and Adair were at the door to make sure we weren't interrupted. Besides, the office just wasn't large enough for all of us. Not comfortably anyway. I trusted everyone but Usna. I didn't know him well enough to trust him.
“Usna, wait out in the hall,” I said.
He gave me a little smile, but he didn't argue. He just hesitated by the door. “Do you want me to send someone else to take my place?”
I thought about it, and said, “Galen.”
He gave a little bow, then opened the door and told Galen to come in. Galen looked a question at me as he closed the door behind him.
“I'm going to call Gillett.”
Galen was shaking his head. “I'm not sure that's a good idea.”
“Who is Gillett?” Barinthus asked.
“He was one of the federal agents who investigated Prince Essus's murder,” Doyle said.
“I don't know why I'm surprised that you remember that, but I am,” I said.
Doyle looked at me, and his face was unreadable, dark and closed to me. “Gillett was the most persistent of all the human investigators.”
I nodded. “Yes, he was.”
“You've been in touch with him?” Doyle asked.
“More like he kept in touch with me, Doyle. I was seventeen, and he seemed to be the only one who wanted to solve my father's murder more than he wanted to obey the queen or his superiors.”
Doyle took in a lot of air, and let it out slow. “And Galen knew of this?”
“Yes,” Galen said.
“And it never occurred to you to tell your captain that the princess was keeping in touch with a federal officer?”
“It made Merry feel better, and just after Essus died, I'd have done anything to help her feel better.”
“And after that?” Doyle asked.
“They exchanged cards twice a year, that was all.”
Doyle turned his dark gaze to me. I shrugged, then wished I hadn't because it hurt. “He sent me a card every year around the anniversary of my father's death. I sent him a Yule card.”
“How did no one notice this?” Doyle asked.
“The queen didn't care enough about me to pay attention, and you paid attention where the queen told you to. You all did.”
He rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger. “How badly does your arm hurt?”
He took in air again, then let it out slow. “You need to rest, Princess.”
“You're not mad at me or Galen,” I said. “You're angry with yourself for not knowing this.”
“Yes,” he said with the tiniest edge of anger.
“When my father died, what other guard could I have trusted but Galen?”
“Did you not trust me?” Barinthus said.
I looked at him, my father's closest friend. “You were almost as distraught over his death as I was, Barinthus. I needed someone who was touched by grief but not consumed by it. Galen was that person for me.” I reached out to Galen, and he took my hand, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“If you could marry where your heart lies,” Doyle said, “I fear what it would do to the court.”
I looked at him, trying to see behind his careful face. I squeezed Galen's hand and drew him in against me. Once, Doyle would have been correct. Once it was Galen in my heart and no other, but that was before I grew up enough to understand what it would mean to be at my side. It was a dangerous place to be, a treacherous place to be.
I hugged him not because he was the only name written across my heart now, but because he no longer was. A part of me was saddened by that, and another part of me was almost relieved. I understood what my father had known decades ago: for Galen the title of king would be a death sentence. I needed someone hard and dangerous by my side, not gentle and placating.
I looked into Doyle's face as I held Galen to me. Did Doyle not know that my heart's list had grown larger, and that his name was on that list? The way he was acting, he seemed jealous, or envious, or angry. He was hiding his emotions so well that I couldn't decide what emotion he was hiding, just that it was something strong that he didn't want to share. Even being able to see that much meant the Darkness's legendary control was slipping.
“I'm going to call Gillett.” I turned back to the phone, and since I had only one good hand, I had to let go of Galen. He kept himself touching the back of my body, his body insinuated against me. He fit against me as he always had, as if he'd been born to be there. If all I'd ever wanted in my bed was gentle lovemaking, then Galen would have been wonderful, but we'd had months in bed to discover that his idea of passion and mine did not match. He did not understand my desire for roughness, or pain, or just simply being a little more forceful. Galen gave me pale, uncomprehending eyes when I asked certain things.
I dialed Gillett's number by heart, though his number had changed over the years. I'd always had to memorize it for fear of someone caring enough to look through any address book I might have. I could have saved my worry; Doyle's reaction had shown plainly that no one had been paying me that close attention. It was a little sad, and a little frustrating. So much wasted effort in hiding from people who weren't even looking.
I waited for Gillette's cell phone to ring. I'd promised him that if anyone else ever died in circumstances similar to my father's, I'd let him know. These weren't really that similar, but a promise is a promise. I felt half silly and half excited, as if somehow just being able to make this one call would change things. I was over thirty, but part of me was still seventeen and wanted justice. I should have known better by now.
He answered, “Gillett.”
“Hey,” I said.
“Are you all right?”
Over the years he'd become protective of me. As if he felt some debt to my dead father to keep me well. If he only knew, but I hadn't shared all the attempts on my life. The endless duels that made me flee faerie for years and let everyone think I was gone for good.
This was the first time I had spoken to him since I'd resurfaced. “A little worse for wear, but I'm fine.”
“I thought they'd killed you, too, three years ago. Why didn't you call?”
“Because if you'd spoken my real name near a darkened window the Queen of Air and Darkness would have known. The sound of our conversation would have traveled back to her. It would have endangered you. It would have endangered anyone.”
He sighed over the phone. “And now you're 'princess' again, and looking for a husband. But you didn't call up just to chat, did you?”
“Have you heard something?”
“A rumor that the reporters left the faerie mound, but are now all gathered in the parking lot. The press conference is over, so why are that many national and international media types hanging around in the middle of a cornfield in Illinois?”
I told him the broad outline of the problem.
“I can be there with a team in less than…”
“No, no team. I've already got a few police coming with a forensic unit. You can come, but you can't bring dozens of agents with you. This happened inside the sithen, not on federal land this time.”
“We could help you.”
“Maybe, or maybe there would just be more humans to get injured. We've got a dead reporter, that's bad enough. We can't afford to have an FBI agent get killed by one of us.”
“We've talked about this for years, Merry. Don't cut me out now.”
“My father's murder is sixteen years old; it is secondary here, Raymond. The priority is the new deaths. Hearing your voice now, I'm not sure that would be the case for you.”
“You don't trust me.” He sounded hurt.
“I'm in line to the throne now, Raymond. The good of the court outweighs personal vengeance.”
“And what would your father say to hear that from you, his daughter?”
“He'd say that I had grown wise. He'd agree with me.” I was wishing I hadn't called him. I realized that Special Agent Raymond Gillett was part of a child's wish. I couldn't afford that kind of wishing, not anymore.
I was suddenly tired, and my arm ached from shoulder to wrist. I turned and leaned against the desk, half sitting on it. It forced Galen farther away from me, and that was fine. He kept his hand playing lightly on the edge of my thigh, moving the skirt back and forth as he petted me. It was comforting, and I needed the comfort.
Doyle was looking at me, and something in his eyes softened his face. I had to look away from the kindness I saw there. I wasn't sure why such a look from him made my throat grow tight.
“Don't come, Gillett. I'm sorry I called.”
“Merry, don't do this, not after almost twenty years.”
“When we've solved this one, if I'm still alive and still have the carte blanche in this area, I'll call you, and we can talk about you coming down. But only if it's about my father's death.”
“You don't think the FBI might be helpful on a double homicide?”
“I don't know what we've got here, Gillett. If we need something fancier than the local lab can handle, I'll let you know.”
“And maybe I'll answer the phone, and maybe I won't.”
“As you like,” I said, and I struggled not to let my voice show how tight my throat felt, how hot my eyes were. “But think on this, Gillett. Did you start all this with a seventeen-year-old child because you felt sorry for me, or because you were angry that the queen cut you out of the investigation? Was it pity that moved you, a desire for justice, or simply anger? You'd show her. You'd solve the case without the queen's help. You'd use Essus's daughter to help you.”
“It wasn't like that.”
“Then why are you angry with me now? I shouldn't have called you, but I gave you a promise. A child's promise to call you if ever a similar murder happened. It isn't similar in detail, but whoever did it has similar magic at their call. If we solve this, it may get us closer to finding my father's murderer. I thought you'd like to know.”
“Merry, I'm sorry, it's…”
“That the murder has been eating at you all these years?” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“I'll call you if anything pertinent comes up.”
“Call me if you need better forensics than the locals can give you. I can get you DNA results that they can only dream of.”
I had to smile. “I'll be sure to let Major Walters know that the FBI has such confidence in the locals.”
He gave a dry little laugh. “I'm sorry if I made this harder for you. I tend to get a little obsessed.”
I hung up and leaned heavier on the desk. Galen held me against him, careful of my hurt arm. “Why didn't you let Gillett come down?”
I raised my face and looked at him. I searched that open face for some hint that he understood what had just happened. His eyes were green and wide and innocent.
I wanted to cry, needed to cry. I'd called Gillett because the murders had raised ghosts for me. Not real ones, but those emotional pains that you think are gone for good until they just rise again to haunt you, no matter how deep you bury them.
Doyle came to me. “I watch you grow more worthy of being queen every day, Meredith, every minute.” He touched my good arm lightly, as if not sure I wanted to be touched at that moment.
My breath came out in a sharp cry, and I threw myself against his body. He held me, his arms fierce and almost painful. He held me while I cried because he understood some of what it had cost me to let go of childish things.
Barinthus came up to us and put his arms around us both, hugging us to him. I glanced up, and found tears running down his face. “You are more your father's daughter in this moment than you have ever been.”
Galen hugged us from the other side, so that we were warm and close. But I realized in that moment that Galen, like Gillett, was a child's wish. They held me, and I wept. Crying didn't cover it. I wept the last of my childhood away. I was thirty-three years old; it seemed a little late to be letting go of childish things, but some wounds cut us so deep that they stop us. Stop us from letting go, from growing up, from seeing the truth.
I let them all hold me while I cried, through Barinthus cried, too. I let them hold me, but part of me knew that Galen, and only Galen, didn't understand what was happening. He'd been my closest confidant among the guards. My friend, my first crush, but he'd asked, why didn't I let Gillett come?
I cried and let them hold me, but it wasn't just my father's loss I was mourning.