She almost had the shape of it.
The world, she knew, was a cruel and inhospitable place. She had never known anyone to offer her a kindness unbidden, and even when the formalities were met, and the strict expectation of courtesy satisfied, you could just as easily expect a knife to the throat as you could a charm or some other such token.
Even the faeries kept their own counsel nowadays.
The body was still warm. Despite herself, Anna shivered. Up until now, the pattern had remained the same: Deceased, male; age, mid-thirties; cause, exsanguination.
The victims had been literally bled dry.
But not this one. This one, Anna noted, her field notebook recording the psychic residue, was not bloodless at all; he was, in fact, bloodied, violently so. If Anna still held her commission with the Seelie Court she would have referred the case to the atomies. They were better suited for this sort of thing.
But of course Anna no longer held a commission with the Seelie Court. She was no longer even welcome there, which in truth suited her just fine. These days she had her own shop, her own hours, and her own life. She would never answer to anyone, ever again.
Anna was certain the killer was male. She had even named him Bartleby, a small joke, one of the few of which she allowed herself. (Bartleby was her former captain.) But why the change in Bartleby’s behavior? And why now?
Of course, the answers to these questions were really the answer to that one question which had gripped Anna the moment she had learned a serial killer was set loose in the city.
Who was murdering the men in Anna’s life?
The answer, she knew, could only be found in one place. The trick of it, as always, was finding that place before circumstances, and in this case, the atomy guard, finally caught up with her.
Anna was never one for introspection, much less regret. Regret, she had learned, was a useless emotion, worse than useless even. She had learned early that strong emotions held a sort of power in Faerie, one that the land fed upon. For all its beauty and wonder, there were also weaving spiders and newts and blindworms. Faerie was not a place for the unprepared.
And although she would never admit this, to anyone, Anna did have cause for sadness. Single, her love life a fractal pattern, she sometimes wondered if she had, in a previous incarnation, offended the wrong bruja, or crossed the wrong door without making the appropriate gesture.
It was now two days after she discovered the body. Long enough, she knew, for the Court to question witnesses, and finally put the pieces together. She was taking a risk now, but had no other choice in the matter, really. And she hoped her instincts were right, and that old friendships still had meaning, even when the world told her otherwise.
Anna heard a soft knock on her apartment door. She answered it.
“Helena. I was hoping it would be you.”
“Anna.” Helena stood there, waiting for the proper invitation. Anna smiled, crossed her arms, and muttered a syllable under her breath. The entrance mat, a ratty, worn over bit of woven cloth, but a bit of cloth that still did its job, shimmered for a moment, and then went dark.
Helena entered. She paused then, hesitating.
“Oh, what the hell.” Anna smiled again. “You look like you need a hug.” And despite the awkwardness, she did exactly that.
They walked to her kitchen; the light from her window had scattered prisms across the cupboards and shelves. Before, Anna thought, she and Helena would sit at her table, and tell each other their secret plans and conspiracies. This time, Anna stood.
“Anna.” Helena spoke deliberately. “You know the risk I’m taking.”
“And the Court? You know they were bound to find out. Did you think this would go away? Or that they wouldn’t come after you?”
“I knew they would, Helena. I was just hoping that you would come first. How bad is it?”
“It’s bad. Really bad. They’re going to arrest you. They just need a bit more time.” Helena paused. “He still blames you, by the way. Bartleby.”
A smile now, from Anna. “Fuck Bartleby.”
Helena was quiet, just for a moment. “Yeah, fuck him.” And they laughed.
Anna spoke first. “Do they have any leads?”
“Besides you? No. Who would want to do this? Who else would want to do this?”
“Helena, you know I didn’t…”
“I know, Anna. But it doesn’t look good. Every former boyfriend, significant other, and past flame. Killed. It wasn’t a secret what you thought of them. Are you being framed?”
“Framed? By whom? Honestly, Helena, I have no idea who would do this to me. Why anyone would do this to me. What about the sprites? Have you talked to them?”
“Yes, and before you ask, no. We found nothing. If they’re still angry with you, they’ve hidden it well. And we both know that sprites can’t hide shit. I’m running out of options here.”
“How much time do I have?”
“Three days, tops. I just came…Listen, Anna. Before I go. I need to tell you this: I’m sorry.”
Helena raised her hand, before Anna could interrupt.
“Please, let me finish. This is important. It shouldn’t have happened the way it did. We all know what went down. All of us. I know I should have spoken up sooner. But I couldn’t. I’m a terrible friend, and I understand if you hate me. I know this doesn’t make up for anything, but believe me when I tell you that none of your friends blame you. I know I don’t.”
Helena was close to tears now.
Anna spoke quietly. “Three days. That’s not much time.”
“Thank you for coming, Helena. You’ve helped me more than you know.”
Anna sat down. “I need some time alone, I think. If I don’t see you again, Helena, goodbye. And thank you.”
Anna waited until she heard the slight flutter of wings to air. Yes, Helena was atomy, but Anna never held it against her. To her mind, Helena was one of the good ones. But in Faerie? That only counted for so much.
“Now, let’s find out what’s really going on…”
Crouching, Anna retrieved the entrance mat and placed it, carefully, on the floor of her apartment. With a bit of chalk she then began to trace a thaumaturgic triangle, muttering a few phrases as she did.
Anna was always prepared, and in Faerie, that often meant the difference between living and dying. Whatever Helena knew, Anna would now know too.
“Talk to me, you bastard.”
And in her mind, that part of her brain that resisted rational thought, that spoke to her of mystery and wonder, Anna heard a voice. And as always, Anna listened.
May love to linger round this couch,
My own heart tells me, even I
Reluctant am to leave it now.
Anna sat down, stunned. She knew her killer now.
Helena knew it, too.
She could not, however, tell this to Anna directly. Nor, in fact, could she tell anyone else. There were rules for this sort of thing.
That was the reason Helena first decided to visit Anna. That was also the reason she allowed part of her spirit, her mana, to be trapped upon entering the apartment. Did Anna think she wouldn’t notice the charm placed in her doorway? Helena was atomy, after all. It was who she was. And it was something that Anna never understood, no matter the years of friendship they shared together.
In truth, Helena knew Anna better than anyone. And in knowing, she knew the darkness of which Anna was capable.
It was misshapen, and ugly. Its features, exaggerated. Although the creature was one of many, each was unique in appearance. This one, this ikiryō, belonged to Anna.
In a sense, the creature was Anna, or at least, what had become of her.
“You can ssseee me now, yes?” The voice was soft, sibilant.
“I can see you.”
“You knoooow me, yes?”
“I know you.”
The creature smiled.
Anna could do nothing. To do anything, to even move, would cause her to succumb to the unreality facing her. She felt herself fracturing.
And yet. She was still a detective. At one time, one of the best in Faerie. And the case wasn’t solved, not completely.
“You killed them, didn’t you?”
“Nooooo. We killed them.”
“But it was by your hand.”
“Yeessss. You know whyyyy.” It was not a question.
And Anna did know why. All of them, every boyfriend, every rendezvous, every past encounter, each of them, had deserved it. Although different, each were, in their own way, exactly the same person.
The ikiryō, this projection of herself, had bled those men dry, just as those men had bled her, with every lie spoken, and every liberty taken.
It was justice of a sort. But it was still a crime. And Anna would hang for it.
“But the last one. He was different.” Anna could not even bring herself to say the man’s name, so high was the wall she built for herself.
“I did that myself, didn’t I?”
And Anna remembered, everything: the screams and accusations, the lies, the same lies, told to her by every man she ever knew; and also the iron poker, heavy in her hand, and his orbital socket, crushed, blood pooling on the hardwood floor.
She had the shape of it now.
She would hang for it, but she remembered.
It was her. It was always her.