I swiped my phone screen and checked the address. This was the place alright, a middle class apartment block shrouded in trees with a view of the river. What struck me more than the mundanity of it was that my sister would have anything to do with anyone from a place as distinctly human as this. The barrage of questions that I had for Esyllt the next time we spoke ran again through my mind. I’d decided to check out her missing friend’s flat before confronting her with them, though – I knew this place would leave me with even more puzzles needing solving, and I’d broach them all with dear sis in one fell swoop.
The brick path leading up to the building was slick with drizzle that reflected streaks of orange lamplight. I ducked into shelter of the doorway, poked the four-digit pin Esyllt had given me into the keypad and heard the lock click open.
“Oi mate, hold the door for me will ya?”
A gaunt figure skipped towards me from inside and then paused as he drew near, catching sight of me, his expression turning to concern. I stood aside as he hurried past, carrying with him the distinctive smell of fairy dust, and something else, some exotic smell that I didn’t recognise but that was definitely not a creation of the mortal realm.
“Hey,” I called after him. He paused outside the shelter of the building, uncaring of the rain, and fixed me with wide eyes.
“I don’t want any t-trouble, right?” The man stammered, taking a step back. “Just leave me alone.”
I sighed. “I’m not going to hurt you. There’s a girl lives in 4B, Sarah. She’s friends with my sister. You know her?”
“N-no,” His eyes flicked up the building and then back to mine. “No, don’t know her, sorry mate.”
“I’m not going to hurt her, either. Look,” I held out my business card but he backed away even further, tripping over his own feet and bumping into the wall that ran the length of the path. I took a breath. “I’m a PI. Sarah might be missing, I’m just looking to find her, check she’s alright or find out what happened.”
“So you lot can make sure you get your rent, that it? You’re all scum, even you half breeds,” He spat at my feet, and then fear overcame him and he turned tail, sprinting down the street ant into the darkness.
I fingered the corner of the card in my hand as I watched him flee. Matt finish oyster white textured heavy card with bevelled black lettering, “Drake Reaper, Private Investigator”. The woman at the print shop counter had assured me that “a good looking business card is essential for conveying professionalism to your clients”. I don’t know why I bothered.
That little interaction had drawn me back out into the rain, which now fell heavier and dripped from my hair to run in cold rivulets down my neck. Had he caught sight of the slits of my pupils as he’d passed me? Maybe the horns nuzzling from my back-green hair, or the sharpness to my teeth when I’d smiled politely? It was always something, some little thing that betrayed my nature and brought fear from the humans, repugnance from the dragons, or plain pity from the fairies when they weren’t too busy laughing at me.
I pulled my hood up and returned to the apartment building’s doorway, punched in the key-code again and shoved the door open into the foyer.
There was no answer at Sarah’s apartment, and the door was locked. That could have meant any number of things, but ruled out a hurried abduction by perps who cared about covering their tracks. I twisted the knob in my grip until the lock gave and slipped inside. The lights were off, but my eyes found solace in the darkness.
The place was a mess, but not the kind of mess a violent struggle leaves behind. Sarah didn’t much care for picking up after herself. The floor was strewn with crisp packets, biscuit wrappers, drink cans, pizza boxes. Crumbs stuck to the carpet, fused with indiscriminate stains. The furniture, though mid-range, was ill looked after. The heavy curtains were drawn. A variety of pencils and scraps of paper with hasty scribbles adorned the minimalist white IKEA coffee table with its steel legs and improbably narrow shelf space, with more discarded papers crumpled on the floor nearby.
I picked one up, straightened it out. A circle had been drawn in black pen, repeating over and over until it formed a dark tunnel, and at the centre, a lone tree. I picked up another piece of paper, and another. Every piece of paper had the same image on it. A dream, maybe? A drug-fuelled vision? That smell, the same unearthly smell from the man that had passed me in the foyer, hung about the room. That, coupled with the state of the place – I wouldn’t have been surprised if Sarah was firmly in the clawed clutches of some fae concoction or other.
The bedroom yielded no further clues, just a mess of strewn clothes and unmade sheets. The toilet tank though, ever an age old hiding place of secrets, proffered a tiny plastic pouch of silvery white powder with a shimmering iridescence. Definitely fae in creation; I slipped it into an inner pocket and made a mental note to pay the Fairy King a visit.
A quiet click drew my attention – someone was trying the door. I’d broken the lock to get in and hadn’t counted on someone visiting the apartment the exact same time as me. I looked around the tiny bathroom; no dark corners in which to press myself, no cabinets into which to crawl. I quietly opened the shower door and stepped inside, nuzzling my back into the corner and focusing my breath. I hadn’t done this in a while, hadn’t had a need to, but innate abilities once learned aren’t quickly forgotten. My skin, my clothing, everything that I carried on my person shifted to the pale blue colour of the tiles behind me.
The apartment door clicked closed. Soft footsteps over the carpet, a pause, a rustling of paper. A boot kicking at the table leg. Into the bedroom, wardrobe doors opening, drawers sliding. Heavy footfalls approaching the bathroom now. I drew a deep breath.
The door creaked open and a tall, thick-set human stepped into view. He scanned the room, casually opened the wall cabinet and turned a few bottles to read the labels. He closed the cabinet, ran a hand over his shaved head as he pondered. He traced his chubby fingers along the rim of the sink, across the top of the cabinet, and then lifted the top of the toilet tank and turned it over.
“Shit,” he mumbled on finding it empty, and replaced the lid, turning his attention to the shower and my hiding place. He pulled open the shower door, half-stepped into the little square cubicle. His breath smelled of alcohol and cigarettes, his skin and clothes still carried the stale pub air of an evening spent, and a very faint floral note. Not just any pub, then. Where was the nearest Aes Sídhe? Nowhere in this canton, according to the clan elders and their infallible wisdom, but I knew better.
My unsavoury cubicle companion’s eyes passed over the wall where I stood, and he fair made eye contact with me – but he didn’t see me, was oblivious to the notion that our eyes were inches apart. He swung the cubicle door closed with a frustrated grunt, and stomped out of the apartment.