Welcome to my dark fantasy story IN THE TWIST. Magic, murder, and fate collide in a world where the mundane isn’t terribly mundane at all. Follow David and Dallan as they pursue a horrible threat from the darkest realm of the Fae.
Hanging in the tree, the boy’s body looked unreal. A forgotten Halloween decoration, the gore so over-the-top there was something almost cartoonish about it. Yes, David Shaughnessy thought, except for the smell. He wrapped his inadequate suit coat tighter around his tall, lanky frame and stood in what he was already thinking of as ‘the viewing circle’–a ring of seemingly random detritus that formed a perfect vantage point from which to view the dead child.
His long-fingered, elegant hands were jammed unceremoniously into his pockets, twitching to make the gestures of faith that he was no longer entitled to perform. Dear God, if You have any love for the lost, take this child in Your arms. Forgive his petty, childish infractions and grant him Your most blessed peace.
That the boy was a runaway was obvious to him—David could see past the fetid, swollen ropes of intestines arranged in elaborate patterns in the branches, the odd way the tree itself seemed to have taken hold of slender arms in a wrap of branch and twist of vine that was not natural but couldn’t really be man-made. There were needle tracks on those delicate arms, and once-pretty golden hair was limp and dull and filthy beneath the blood. A sweet, thin face just barely introduced to shaving beneath the rictus of pain and fear.
“How long have you lived here again?” The woman’s voice came from behind him, to the right toward the parked line of emergency vehicles. “And yet here you are, at oh-dark-whatever-the-fuck in the rain without a proper coat and boots. Shaughnessy, you’re fucking hopeless.”
“Ellen,” he responded quietly, without rancor. The older woman was just trying to help him, take him under her wing. She had a son not much younger than David. How to tell this ruthless pragmatist of a crime scene supervisor the truth? That standing in the cold rain, feeling it chill down to bone and marrow, was the most insignificant of penances, his discomfort a tiny drop of what this child must have felt. It was not right, that he was standing here, having avoided the same fate as the boy in the tree. “I was in such a hurry, I forgot again. Oh, please be careful of this ring–I’ll need it carefully documented.”
“Right,” Ellen said, tossing him a glare as she picked through the clearing with her sensibly-attired team and their flashlights until they found places to set up the harsh spotlights.
David stepped out of the ring and blinked. The scene became palpably less clear to him, the light of his fished-out pocket flashlight swallowed into the rain and pre-dawn darkness. The light didn’t quite reach to the boy in the tree, and all the details that were so distinct became dim in the distance. A shiver raced down his spine and he knew it had little to do with the cold and damp. His hand went to the small, intricate silver crucifix beneath what had once been a nicely pressed and starched dress shirt.
In the absence of that clarity he was forced to move closer to the powerful stench, but he willed himself to put it away, to bear witness without blanching–it was the least he could do for this lost boy. The very, very least. An absent request brought a ladder over and he leaned it somewhat haphazardly against the tree and clambered up it to look more closely.
The boy was no more than thirteen, perhaps fourteen and excruciatingly small for his age. David shone his light to the boy’s face and almost fell off the ladder. Amidst the filth and rain, the small features were composed: eyes carefully closed, face washed clean, wet, dirty hair raked back and some attempt made to untangle it, probably with fingers. There were flowers woven into his hair, flowers that smelled sweet this close, beautiful and pure white in the middle of this late winter muck of rain.
Someone had tried to help.
David was still staring, processing what this could possibly mean, when a gruff, accented voice cut through the background noise of the crime scene team and coroners. He almost fell off the ladder but the owner of the voice steadied it with a foot braced against the bottom rung, driving it deeper into the soft earth. “Lad, you’re gonna end up on your arse if you’re not careful.”
“Um, thank you for that…astute…yes, thank you.” David peered down at the man but couldn’t make out much thanks to the damnable mist and the man’s very weather-appropriate hat. He summoned his few shreds of dignity and climbed down the ladder to face the newcomer. Probably old enough to be his father, or nearly, a weathered but kind face that was still somehow outrageously attractive. Not traditionally, not to many, even, but David found himself staring into warm, grey-green eyes, rapt, and the cold seemed to seep out of his bones.
“I’m Detective David Shaughnessy, Armata Police.” If the words fell automatically from his mouth without his brain’s awareness, it thankfully didn’t show. The instant attraction made him stand straighter, pull his feelings in tight, and throw up a wall so fast that it almost took his own nose off. “I don’t remember calling out for any assistance–the case is only two hours old.”
“Dallan Jaeger. I’m with Interpol.” The older man reached into his breast pocket for his credentials, and handed them over to David.
“This…would be California, Sir.” According to the very proper looking credentials, this man outranked him by orders of magnitude. “Forgive me, but I’m not sure why you would even be here in the general sense, much less here specifically. In the here and now, at this crime scene.” David, you sound like an idiot.
If he sounded like a fool, the other man did nothing to betray his own feelings on the matter. “Nothing to forgive. I was in California already–we’ve been working with federal law enforcement to catch a serial killer who does…this.” He nodded to the boy in the tree. “This is the twelfth victim.”
Twelve was one of those numbers, the kind that was never the end of the count. Thirteen disciples, a baker’s dozen. Twelve should always be the end but it never seemed to be. David managed to keep that much inside his mouth, and he handed back the credentials. “Twelve? Twelve dead children and this is the first we’re hearing about it?” Twelve more mangled bodies. Twelve more souls lost to cruelty and perversion.
“You don’t know because we want as few people as possible to know,” Jaeger said softly, turning his head to the side to study David’s austere features and the icy blue eyes that turned an already pale face to a somewhat damp and waterlogged alabaster. “May I?” He nodded toward the ladder, took out his own pocket flashlight. But it was not lost on David that the other man waited for his nodded permission before climbing up the ladder.
He held the base, because it seemed to be the thing to do, and because it provided the best vantage point to watch Jaeger’s examination. One thing he’d found about working in law enforcement–how an investigator approaches a victim speaks volumes about how he or she approaches the job. About the quality of the human, and the passion of the professional. Jaeger’s hands were as gentle as David’s had been, and he heard the older man speaking softly in a language he recognized only because of his overabundance of education and voracious appetite for any kind of knowledge. Old Norse.
Then the timbre of the syllables changed, took on a different tone and cadence. It was like hearing someone in the Church today use Latin, compared to how Latin had been pronounced in the ancient Roman world. Or maybe the difference between Italian and Roman Latin. Only, of course, this wasn’t Latin at all, and he was only sort of sure it was even Norse to begin with.
It was a coping mechanism, this endless go-round of analysis, this restless darting of his mind and making of connections that have nothing to do with the matter at hand. A failing, because he should only be focused on the boy in the tree.
“Shove over a bit, lad?” came the soft question from just above his head. While he’d been gathering wool, Jaeger had finished and was almost all the way down the ladder.
“Oh. Oh! Sorry.’ David got out of the man’s way and offered a hand off the last rung. Jaeger took it without needing it in the least. The man radiated vitality and he certainly did not need scrawny young whelps to help him off ladders. Those hands probably built barns or something in their time off. “Where did you learn to speak ancient Norse?”
“Where did you learn to recognize it?” came the immediate rejoinder, and Dallan gave him a look that penetrated just a bit too deeply.
“I read.” If that sounded a tad defensive, it was only because people were always and forever asking him how he knew things. The answer went far beyond reading, but it had become shorthand for the long, winding and exquisitely painful road that has led him to this city in Northern California, so far from home and the faith he’s tried to leave behind and failed. So. He read.
“I like a well-read man,” Dallan murmured, the words almost disappearing into the misting rain and the oppressive atmosphere of the surrounding woods.
David had to ignore that, because he was surely interpreting it incorrectly, and refocused on the gruesome matter at hand. “You should see this, Sir. It feels very formal, was definitely constructed, and it seems to have a ritualistic purpose.” He led the man to the viewing ring, pointed out the detritus of the woods laid out in a circle that somehow transcended randomness into some kind of pattern he couldn’t quite see. “If you step inside…”
Jaeger did, and sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Holy hells.” His jaw clenched and he narrowed his eyes, staring at the boy in the tree much as David had a few minutes ago. He squatted down and ran the very tips of his fingers across the edge of the circle, not quite touching it. David blinked several times–it glowed as Dallan’s hand passed over it. No matter how many times he blinked, the glow remained, a sickly green light barely visible but undeniable.
“Sir…” What little color there was in his face drained as Dallan stood, no creaking joints or popping noises with him, and pulled the sick light up with him, gathering it up into a ball in his hand to study more closely. “Sir…what…” A wave of nausea swept over David with vicious tidal pulls in every direction at once until he wanted to scream or shove or put his hands over his ears and sing ‘lalala’.
Only one thing did that to him.
David forced himself to lean in closer to Dallan. “Sir, what kind of demon is it?” The whisper was for the older man’s ears alone.
“Demon?” Jaeger pressed his lips together and then squeezed his hands tighter, and David watched the green slowly suffuse with a lambent gold/silver/amber undulating color that was warm and comforting, the light of hearth and home. When he opened his hands, it drifted away into the woods. “Not a demon, little one.”
“Don’t lie to me. You’re not from Interpol, you’re from Rome.” David’s hands formed fists and he shoved his arms around himself in an almost angry protective gesture. Did they have to intrude on this, too? Even this?
“No, lad, I’m from Interpol. I’m not even Christian, much less Catholic.” David knew how he must have looked, but no demons. Not here. Not again. And no more bullshit from Rome. And yet…if there were one thing he could say with certainty about Dallan Jaeger, it was that his words were true. “We need to talk, little one. I had to catch a ride out with Forensics, do you think you could take me somewhere we can speak freely?”
“Yes, Sir. And…” David’s lips pressed together, reluctantly parting for the words. “Please do not call me that. I am not…I do not like it.” ‘Little one’ conjured memories as if by witchcraft that, like so many others awoken this waiting-for-the-sun morning, were hard put by.
“My apologies, David.” Dallan meant it. Some people apologize just because it was the thing to do, but Dallan apologized like he genuinely regretted any harm he had caused. “You’re a professional, and this is your scene. But…we cannot do anything else here right now. Let’s get coffee, hm?”
Yes, being given a proper direction was very helpful when David felt lost, like he did right now. He nodded and turned from the other man, acutely aware of those eyes on his back as he wound his sodden way back up the slight embankment, then through the now-marked path to where they’d set up a mobile headquarters near the road. Armata may not be the size of San Francisco to the South or Seattle to the North, but they knew how to run things properly, efficiently, and generally quite effectively. One of the many reasons he and Saoirse, his sister, had chosen the place to settle.
“David.” Woolgathering again, and caught at it like the naughty schoolboy he’d never been. Dallan’s voice was kind, and its depth was a way to center himself in this maelstrom of ugliness, and things-best-left-in-the-past. “This is yours, then?”
Unerringly, Dallan had found the hybrid SUV and stood by the driver’s side door, holding it open for David to crawl in. Head pounding from that sick, unwholesome green glow and the nauseating taste of it, of the darkest of the dark, David took long moments to rub his eyes and his temples before starting the truck and pointing it toward town, where the first light was making a valiant sally forth in an attempt to penetrate the gloom.
Jaeger sat in silence, though the ride was long, his scarred and strong hands clasped patiently in his lap, his stillness a welcome relief to the rabbiting-around of David’s mind.
In the half an hour it took to reach a small cafe, just opening for the early commuter breakfast crowd, he’d managed to find something resembling a center, a still place that allowed him to go through the motions of opening the door for Jaeger, requesting a quiet table and a pot of tea with his usual, slightly-befuddled politeness.
David stripped off his soggy suit coat and draped it over the back of his chair, while Dallan had left his hat and overcoat in the truck. The other man was wearing a hand-knit, heavy woolen jumper and jeans, with heavy, big boots that looked more like something one would wear…to war. Or something equally violent.
“My eyes are up here,” Dallan teased softly, a tint of amusement coloring the deep timbre and rolling vowels.
“Oh! I just…your boots. Sensible for…the woods.” David bit his lip and curled his spidery fingers around the mug of tea that had been delivered in his mental absence as a frenetic blush crept over high cheekbones.
“The woods…not what you were going to say, was it, lad?” As if Dallan knew. “Why didn’t you at least put on a pair of wellies before going out to this mess?” Softly.
“I don’t think…” David was suddenly aware he must seem an idiot to this incredibly attractive man. “About myself, when I get call-outs. I ought to have, it would have been helpful.”
“No. But you do think, and you don’t miss much. I don’t think you miss anything, as long as it’s not related to your actual well-being.” Dallan’s voice was pitched low, just for them, and it must have been obvious the blush had achieved new heights right up to the tips of his ears.
And if this was most intimate conversation he’d had with anyone not Saoirse in years, surely Dallan can’t tell that, too. “No, that wasn’t what I was going to say. Those look like boots you’d wear to war.”
“So very close. David, why did you think I was from Rome? And while we’re at it, you aren’t pissing about with how much you hate them, are you?” Considering that David almost flew into a rage, it was not as deep as some of Jaeger’s other observations.
“I think you must know why.” David’s eyes darted around briefly. “That was a demon, did that to the boy.” When he didn’t pay attention, David’s accent slipped back to the poor house on the wrong side of the city he’d been born in. “Nothing else in this world like that feeling. When I…worked for Rome, they sent me out to deal with such things.”
“Gods below. Sending you out there with…. It wasn’t a demon. Or maybe if it helps you to think of it as a demon, it serves well enough.” Dallan drank his tea for a moment, clearly trying to figure out how to parse it in language this boy could frame.
“Serves well enough…no. Accuracy matters. Well enough is not good enough.” Spoken like an academic through and through. “Tell me.”
“A faerie called a Sluagh–or so I think, gone mad.”
“I know how it feels.” Because faeries?
“David, I can’t bloody corner the damned thing, and it’s about to reach its trooping ground and then I’ll have to wait another year to give chase. How many more will be taken into the other realm and killed just like those other boys?” Only with time the way it was in Faerie, each of those deaths would feel as though it took weeks. Months. “This is my last chance. And yes, I am actually with Interpol, just not a branch that deals with the mundane.”
Already anticipating David’s questions? “A…A Sluagh. A faerie.” His tongue darted out to touch his dry lips, and he shook his head, short hair growing ever more fair as it dried in the warm cafe. “Jaeger…I don’t know how to deal with a faerie. I’m fairly sure those are just stories.”
“But you believe in demons because you believe in your god and your devil and your church and your own eyes.” At the words, David nodded. Empirical evidence was hard to refute. “Well, I hate to tell you this, lad, but the Sluagh was here first, and it answers to no devils, no gods.”
“Then how can you possibly capture it? How can we make one iota of difference here? How can I bring a bloody faerie to trial and put it in jail? Death row?” David laughed mirthlessly. “Did you know about me, what I used to do, before you came here?”
“There was a note in the file, David. ‘Detective in command of investigation former priest, former exorcist. Treat with care. Keep out of the way.’” Jaeger was watching David’s face, doubtless seeing the way the pupils blew and the younger man’s eyes went somewhere else, somewhere deep and dark.
“Treat with care. So that I don’t get in your way.” David was fairly certain that having to cut an infant out of a pregnant woman possessed and beyond saving to allow that child some chance at life could not translate into ‘handle with care.’ “If you are right, I will find it, and I will put it down.” Sluagh, demon. Faith moved mountains and that he still had aplenty.
“I never said I agreed with the notes, lad.” Their little corner of the cafe grew even warmer, a small perimeter of amber light springing up from the very socially-responsible reclaimed wood floorboards. “Exorcism is not for the weak.” Even if it took such a terrible toll on a soul already strained to breaking.
“Can anyone hear us right now?” David’s eyes flicked to the light, certain that the two of them are the only ones in the cafe who could perceive it. At Dallan’s head-shake, he nodded slowly. “Tell me what I can do, besides running interference at the station.”
“The first thing you can do is look me square in the eyes.” Dallan reached out to patiently untangle David’s fingers from the tea mug, taking one hand in both of his and rubbing his thumb gently across the thin skin of the boy’s wrist inside the shirt cuff.
David froze at the physical contact, found he could scarcely breathe around the raging confusion of need that coalesced where the calloused pad of Dallan’s thumb stroked his wrist. That he didn’t yank his hand back was already a minor miracle–anyone save Saoirse or the kids touching him generally caused an immediate and brutal reaction as fight or flight instincts kicked in. Typically more fight than flight. Not this time, not now.
“Your eyes, beautiful,” Dallan murmured, and David complied, realizing too late that the maddening thumb was gently tracing up the path of an ugly, poorly-healed vertical slash. Jaeger locked their gazes, and looked deep, deep, oh far too deep.
David wasn’t sure whether to scream or cry or drop down on his knees between the man’s thighs the way he’d been taught. It was worse than seeing him naked, seeing ALL his scars, all his marks, to have him touching David there.
“No. Not any of that. Not ever.” Jaeger held the moment, held David in place as if pinned, until a surge of raw will, directed through a faith so deep it was like its own suicide scar on the boy’s soul, almost knocked the older man on his ass, and certainly made him let the hell go.
“Do. Not.” David shook his head, picked his cup back up like a shield and clutched it in a death grip. He was old enough, now, to make them stop.
“Gods-damn, you have juice, you have balls, and you have brains. Fuck the notes, you’re in this with me. I’m not putting you on the bench.” Jaeger shook the pins and needles from his hand. “And for the record, I was not doing what you think I was doing.”
Oh, no. Not…not a come-on. A test? Somehow he managed to pass even if he thought the questions were written in Latin instead of Greek. Or Norse. “Sorry.” Sorry that he’d misinterpreted, or sorry that it wasn’t a pass? Oh, David, you idiot. There is not even remotely comfort to be had in either option.
“Don’t be. I should have known better than to touch you unless you give me permission. But now I know.”
“You know I’m not some lost child you need to keep out of the way? Well, that’s reassuring.” It was not unusual for expending magical energy to make David jittery and often inappropriately aroused. The latter usually just exacerbated the former and ended up at downright cranky.
“I know you’re an ally.” Dallan’s lips twitched the tiniest fraction as his nostrils flared for a moment, as if scenting things that David would really rather keep secret.
Or, if secrecy wasn’t an option, distracting would work, too. “In an hour or so they’ll have the boy laid out in the morgue, and we can examine him. Do the Sluagh leave traces when they kill? Anything we will need to…obfuscate?”
“Not to mundane senses, no. but you’ll know. You’ll smell it.” Granted there was a lot to smell when it came to this particular corpse, but nonetheless. “I’ll show you.” The tone was so intimate, that David’s heart skittered around alarmingly in his chest at the things Dallan could show him.
“Swear to me that if I bring you into this, if I back you, we will put this creature down.” David had let the mug go free in favor of clutching his hands painfully hard together, knuckles white with it. He had never had to compromise his police work with his other talents, and the thought of missing something concrete because he was off chasing bloody faeries made him feel sick.
“I swear to you, lad. By every old god, I swear.” Dallan’s voice was different, again, and this time it sounded like he put a seal on something. A working, a magic. No…an Oath. In the old sense, in the sense that breaking it was unthinkable to man of honour.
“I accept,” softly. He’d known this man two bare hours and that was a strange fact-but-not-fact. Of course it had been only two hours. Of course it had been forever. He could even swear that he’d heard that voice saying those words in his ear before, a swimmy mess of time and life and long, miserable years bereft.
There was a long beat, another, and then Dallan nodded slowly. No mind that David was still a raw nerve quivering across the table, he let the circle fade back into the floorboards and flashed the waitress a charming smile after beckoning her over. “The sign on your door promises the best pancakes in town. I think I’ll have to find that out for myself. More tea, too, please. David?”
“No, thank you. Just the tea, please.” David couldn’t even look at her, which he knew was horribly impolite. He’ll leave her a huge tip.
After she’d gone, Dallan tutted at him. “You need to eat.”
“And you sound like my sister. You can ask her, I’m a lost cause.” He paused. “I eat at home in the evening with her and the children.”
“You have children? Or she does?”
“We do. We’ve adopted children, and we take occasional high-risk fosters.” The abused and neglected and abandoned.
“David.” Dallan shook his head slowly. “I would make a joke about going for canonisation, but I think you might deservedly smack me for it.”
“We’re no saints, Saoirse and I.” Restless fingers unclenched and the younger man tapped rhythmically but quietly against the table. “Come to dinner tonight and see.”
“You don’t make that offer easily, do you?”
“No one else has ever had the invitation, so I would have to say no.” That meant no one he works with. And probably that neither he nor his sister had any real friends here.
“I would be honoured, David.” And there was the return of David’s blush, right on cue.
Thankfully, the food arrived and David could watch the other man attack it with the kind of enjoyment that had always frankly mystified him. It was hard to tell under the bulky jumper, but the older man looked solid as an oak tree, and that was not something David had any business considering.
However, since the other man was wholly preoccupied with the carbs and meat and ignoring the fruit cup, David did feel somewhat justified in reaching in and plucking out a piece of melon, then another, missing the small smile that Dallan offered as permission. And then the smell and taste of it went wrong in his mouth, growing to rotten flesh and the smell of demon and gutted little boy. Stick to your tea. And again, there were the other man’s eyes, not judging, just…noticing. Just paying attention.
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