Fantasy Mystery urban fantasy cosa nostradamus implied sexual elements (not explicit)

Dusted

By Laura Anne Gilman · Apr 13, 2019
6,949 words · 26-minute reading time


From the author: A teenaged girl. An underground fairyland. And a not-quite-human PI who specializes in missing children....


“Sylvan Investigations. Daniel Hendrickson speaking.”

People tend to be surprised when they hear the name of my agency. I guess it’s not what they expect from a big city PI. They don’t expect the investigator to pick up the phone, either. In all the movies the PI has a cute secretary/gal Friday answering his phones and trying to block the bad guys from rushing into his office.

I handle the cute myself, and I answer my own damn phone. Overhead’s bad enough without having to pay someone else’s salary, too, and I prefer to work alone.

The caller didn’t care about my dimple or my boyish grin. He wanted to sell me a subscription to the Post.

“Not if you paid me,” I told him, and hung up. Some day they’d invent call discarding. Like call forwarding, only it would hang up preemptively on telemarketers.

I really needed a job. Not for the money -- my pension from the NYPD took care of the basics, and I lived a pretty simple life. But I was bored. Bored was bad. Bored was boring.

“Mr. Hendrickson?”

I looked up to see a man standing in my doorway. Fifty-ish, solidly build, with graying brown hair and worried eyes.

“I was told you… you find missing people?”

I pushed back my chair and considered him. “That I do.”

Parent, I pegged him. Runway. Boy?  Maybe. Maybe girl. And where’s…ah.

Behind him, the mother. Petite without being tiny, with brown curls and doe eyes that were red-rimmed, now. Daughter. Definitely daughter.

“Come in, please.”  I stood up and gestured to them, indicating the chairs by my desk. They came in, looking around. I let them take time to size up the place. Whatever brought them here, it wasn’t easy, and they needed to be reassured. It also gave me the chance to size them up.

I had the basic two-room suite set-up, but I kept all the action up front. The furniture was basic brown wood, the chairs comfortable but not elegant, and the sofa was leather, but scruffed just enough that people felt comfortable sitting on it. The wall behind my desk was covered with photos and citations from my PD career and a few since then, for show. The letters from clients went on the wall to my right, so I could see them, on bad days. I’m not much for modesty – if you’re selling your skills, put ‘em front and center.

His name was Jack, and she was Ellen, and their absent daughter, age fourteen, was Susan. All-American family: mom and pop and loving daughter, like a picture book, except someone had ripped Miss Susan out of the picture.

Or she had cut herself out, neatly and quietly, leaving behind two very worried, self-blaming parents.

I actually preferred it when they blamed themselves. It was easier to get information out of them.

The first thing I knew was that they were Null. Talent – the humans who can use magic – always enter my office like they’re about to apologize. At least until they see that I don’t have any electronics in sight for them to fry, either accidentally or on purpose. Talent feed off current, the hip term for magic, and current, like its name, runs cheek and jowl with electricity. Imagine the fun when they tangle. Yeah. There’s a reason I keep the computer in the back room.

No, this couple were Null, and they didn’t know about the Cosa Nostradamus, either. You can always tell if they do. For one thing, they notice things about me.

Like the fact that I‘m not entirely human.

#

A missing kid could go anywhere. It all depended on who she was, and what she wanted. I started with her last sighting: the lobby of her high school, up on East 74th. She’d been there on Tuesday afternoon, hanging with her homegirls, or whatever the slang was around the 14-year-old set these days, and then, an hour later… she wasn’t. The police had already questioned her friends and boyfriend, and I had – through my ex-partner – gotten copies of those reports. They were all unsurprisingly unhelpful. Normal day, normal traumas, normal schedule. The kids broke to go their separate ways, and nobody knew anything until Susan’s parents started calling and texting her peer group that night, looking for their wayward daughter.

Talking to the friends didn’t get me much further, either. They seemed like good kids, all worried about Miss Susan. Nothing they said sounded suspicious or questionable, and none of them were suspects. Just…normal kids, as much as that sort of thing was possible.

So Miss Susan became an official Missing Person. My former compadres in the NYPD did their usual sweep of the obvious places; the bus station creepers and ladies’ room Lotharios who like to sweet-talk young girls into unsavory arrangements. No luck. They were still looking, but if you knew how many kids go missing every year, you’d know why they weren’t busting their humps over a girl who might or might not have gone under her own power.

But now I was on the job. The fact that I’d been a cop wasn’t in my favor among the dirtirati, but the fact that I was part of the Cosa Nostradamus won some of those points back. One outcast recognized another. If there had been gossip around about Miss Susan, I would have gotten wind of it.

No such luck. Human or fatae, nobody was talking. To all intents and purposes. Susan had walked out of her high school, and disappeared.

To a human, that might mean anything. To me, it suggested something entirely different.

I walked out into the street, blinking a little at the sunlight, since the baseball cap I’d jammed over my curls didn’t do quite enough to shield my eyes. My father’s species wasn’t much for sunlight, except maybe to nap in while recovering from their hangovers, and I’m willing to admit I’d inherited significant night-owl tendencies. That, and the pair of thumb-sized horns that my thick curls didn’t quite cover, were about all I’d gotten from him, thankfully.

All right, that and a way with the ladies. The fact that my father had been a charmer was supported by the fact that my human mother, on discovering that her weekend of passion with a faun during Fleet Week had resulted in a pregnancy, decided to keep the result of said pregnancy: me.

I wondered sometimes if she’d made the right decision.

“Hey.”

The piercing whisper was all too familiar. I looked up, squinting and cursing again at the sunlight, to see a small creature perched in the overhang of the building to my left, like some kind of furry gargoyle. A piskie. I stepped back, leaning against the wall as though contemplating the midday traffic passing by on Broadway.

“Hey Boo. You got something I should listen to?”

“Your skidoodle.”

“I’m listening.”  Boo had brought me scoops before. If there was something useful, I’d reward the little pisher, and he knew it. If it was useless I’d kick his ass to Pretoria for wasting my time. He knew that, too.

“She got dusted” Boo told me.

  I dragged the toe of my boot against the cement. “Aw, fuck.”

I’d been afraid of that. Dusted, from a fatae, doesn’t mean what it does in human slang. It’s worse. It’s what happens when a Null teenager – usually a girl, but not always – discovers that the fatae are real. They want nothing more than to traipse off with their newfound discovery, to go play with the fairies. Unfortunately, most of my fatae cousins are just as tricky and unreliable, if pretty, as human fairy takes suggest, and the playing…rarely ends well.

If my Miss Susan had taken up with Manhattan’s answer to Trooping Fairies, I might as well hand her parents back their check and call it a night. The fatae rarely give back what they take, especially not if they thought someone else wanted it.

“Who with?” I asked my informant, who shrugged his furry shoulders, and scampered off.

Great. Well, that was why there was an “I” in “Investigator – I was the one who actually had to work.

o0o

The thing about the Cosa Nostradamus is that it’s pretty polarized. You have the human Talent on one side, and the non-human fatae on the other, and they don’t often mingle. Not socially, anyway. Lucky for me, horns and hooves made me fatae enough to be able to ask the questions that would get a human hurt. That didn’t mean I could go in like an Appalachian cave dragon on a bender, though. You had to know the players. That was what had made me useful on the force, and was a lot of what made me successful now: I could work both sides of that street. And I knew that there was one fatae breed that not only gossiped like a knitting circle, but was amenable to some gentle bribery.

#

“For me?”

The salamander looked longingly at the glowstick, but didn’t take it out of my hand. We were on the West side of the Park, just below the Rambles, at dawn. I’d hauled my ass out here to make sure I caught one of the firebrands before they were really up and moving. Sure enough, one of them had been having breakfast along the stone wall, catching the early morning rays and hotfooting the occasional jogger for laughs.

  “A gift for you,” I agreed, placing it on the top of the stone wall. The salamander considered it without touching it, then looked up at me, its lidless eyes surprisingly expressive. It wanted it, oh so very badly, but it wasn’t sure why I was just handing it over. It assumed I wanted something.

It was right.

“I’m looking for someone who has gone missing. A young girl. Her parents miss her.”

It picked up the glowstick in its front leg, the tiny claws snapping it so that the chemicals started to glow. “Pretty,” it said. They could burn without scorching, but the concept of a cool light fascinated them. I guess you always want what you can’t have – or do.

It cocked its slender head at me, the foot-long body still stretched out along the wall, managing to be both relaxed, and ready to scamper at the slightest threat. “How young the girl?”

“Fifteen. Rumor says she’s been dusted.”

“Blond or redhead?”

“Blondish.”

That’s where the ‘smart one’ myth comes from, by the way. Brunettes?  Less likely to get dusted. Other trouble, yeah, but not by following the pretty little man into the greenways. Don’t ask me why, it just is.

“How long?”

“Five days.”  Five. Four days too long for a girl to be dusted. Once it takes, it’s tough to ever get out of your system. Seven days, seven years    seven is the magical number. I had a very real deadline.

The salamander nodded. “Maybe. Maybe. We hear talk. You need to go low down to talk to someone. Down into the metal caves.”

Gnomes. Wonderful. This case just kept getting better and better.

Fortunately, I knew where to go for help.

o0o

The door was opened by one of the least attractive women I’ve ever met.

“Heya doll,” I said, swooping in to steal a kiss. She let me, rolling her eyes and taking my hat.

“What trouble are you bringing this time, Danny-boy?” 

Unlike her face, her voice was lovely, a gentle alto that would have put any of my full-blooded cousins into unstoppable heat. I admitted to myself that I wasn’t totally immune. 

“No trouble, doll, I swear. Not for you, anyway.” 

“And for my husband, who doesn’t know how to say no?”

“I just want to ask his advice. He won’t even leave his studio.”  I hoped.

Lee was a Talent who had an unbelievable gift that wasn’t magical at all, at least not as Talent went. He was a sculptor, working with metal to create figures that totally baffled me, but sold for large amounts of money. His studio, on the top floor of their narrow townhouse, had huge windows, and a floor half-covered in an electrostatic carpet.

Lee used current to meld his metal, not fire. One bad day, if he forgot to discharge after working, he could take out his entire grid. The fact that he never had told you a lot about the man.

He was working on something when I came in, so I took one of the cushioned chairs at the far end of the room and waited. About ten minutes later the sparks stopped flying, and he stepped over to a thick black mat to ground himself.

“What’s up, Danny?”

“I need your advice on how to approach gnomes.”

Lee stopped short, clearly not sure if I was joking or not.

“They’re metal. You work metal. I figured you’d know something that could help me out, some spell or something that would make them, I don’t know, malleable?”

Lee shook his head sorrowfully. “Your ignorance of magic is terrifying.”

Tough to argue with that, especially since I do it intentionally. My kind - fatae in general -- don’t use magic, as such; we are magic. As a human, I’m basic Null -- can see magic, sort of, but can’t use it at all. Some Nulls can’t even see it, can’t even see the fatae strap-hanging beside ‘em on the subway. It’s a sliding scale.

“Seriously, Lee. I have go down and deal with the gnomes. They have something I need back.”

“And you think that I have an answer. Man, they‘re fatae -- you should have a better grasp of them than I ever could.”

I shrugged, craning my neck to look up at him. I’m not short, but Lee was one damn long drink of water. “They don’t much like the flesh-folk.”

He winced. “They’re not really made of metal. You know that, right?”

“We know that. I’m not sure they do.”

“Yeah.”  He leaned against the wall and thought. I let him.

“All right. There’s one tribe, I’ve done some trading with them.”

“Hah!” I crowed, making a subtle fist-pump gesture. “I knew it.”

“Shut up. I’ve done some trading with them, I said. Not enough to figure out how their brains work and I’d sure as hell never use current on them; it would be bad manners, and I’d never get supplies from them again, anyway.”

“So you can tell me who to talk to?”

“No. But I can talk to them for you.”

Oh hell. “Your wife is going to kill me.”

Lee just laughed. I think he’s used to that reaction.

#

The metal tunnels were actually long, large metal pipes that had been fitted in shafts decades ago, for some MTA project or another, and then abandoned. No wonder we always ran a deficit, the way they lost materials. You went in through the waterways, everyone knew that, if they knew about gnomes at all, but that’s where things got hazy. For me, anyway. Lee sloshed along in his galoshes like he was going to market. I guess for him, he was.

“Who is that?”  The voice came out of the gloom without warning, cranky and suspicious

“Who the hell do you think it is?”  Lee held up a hand, and sparks flickered at his fingertips, illuminating the small circle in front of him. A gnome sat on a metal shelf that had been grafted into the tunnel, blinking in the current-light. “Who else has to bend over double in these damn tunnels, and sounds like a fucking moose slogging through this damned sewage?”

It took a minute and then my brain kicked back in. Lee, calm-tempered, soft-spoken Lee, was in trading mode. Was that how gnomes spoke to each other, or how they expected humans to speak, overall?

“Ah. You. Wasn’t expecting you.”  The gnome was about knee-high to me, which meant that Lee could have stepped on him and barely noticed.

“Well, I’m here. You have any redweight?”

“You want redweight, you gotta call ahead. Not grow on trees down here.” The gnome giggled like it had said something unbearably witty. My eyes had adjusted enough to take in details: I’d known that gnomes were small, but I hadn’t realized how much they looked like Beaux Arts fairies. Pretty little bastards. No wonder they were able to enrapt stupid Null children into following them underground into the sewers.

“How about black ash?”  Lee asked.

“Maaaaaaaaybe. What you got in trade?”

Lee reached into his pocket and pulled something out. I craned my neck to see what gnomes considered fair trade for their handiwork, but his hand was tilted so I couldn’t see into his palm. Secret of the trade, I guess. Talent were just as secretive in their way as the fatae.

“Too much,” the gnome said in alarm. “Too much for black ash.”

“Hrm. So it is.”  Lee started to put whatever it was back in his pocket, and then stopped. “But maybe we could deal, anyway. You answer a question, a small question, and I call it fair trade.”

“Hrmmmm. Small question?   And black ash?”

“I call it fair.”

“Then not small question.” 

“Small question, important answer. If not truth, then all deals end.”

Oh, the gnome did not like that, not at all. It hopped from one foot to the other, tilting its head as though it was listening to something far away. Maybe it was: I bet these tunnels carried sound unspeakably well, and I doubted there was only one guard along this stretch of sewer.

“Ask,” the gnome said, finally.

“Did you dust a young human girl, near-grown, blonde, in the past sevenday?  Is she here?”

“That two question.”  But it considered again, and this time I was damn sure I heard the high-pitched echo of other voices, up and down the metal tunnel.

“Blond girl come freely,” it said finally, and with finality. “Honored guest.”

I snorted at that. For honored guest read ‘slave.’  The fatae liked to have someone else to do the housework. I didn’t think they’d hurt her, but there were other things living in the underground city, and gnomes were notoriously careless of their guests. Metals, they protected. Humans -- disposable.

“Give. We bring you black ash. Now go.”

Lee made the exchange, and they shook hands on it, the gnome’s hand absurdly lost in his.

“Come on. Let’s go.” Lee said to me.

Waitaminute. “I need to--”

“We need to go. Now. “  Lee looked over his shoulder, clearly worried.

I’d asked him for help because he knew the underground kingdom. We went.

o0o

“You can’t go back there.”

“I have to.”

“Danny. Daniel.”

Nobody calls me Daniel, not even my Mom. Only my old lieutenant ever called me that, and only when he was about to ream me out something spectacular, so I’d know to loosen up my sphincter.

“I have to go back,” I told him, against his disapproving look. “The girl is down there.”

Lee sighed. “Of her own free will. Mostly.” 

Yeah. The “mostly” was the kicker. She had chosen to leave home and go live in the underground kingdom; gnomes didn’t have glamour, not really, just a lot of exotic allure and pretty skin. On the “however” side, she was a legal minor, and no human should spend any length of time down there, not unless they were fixing to come down with asthma and Vitamin D deficiency. And her parents had paid me to get her back.

Humans didn’t belong down there.

Lee paced back and forth in his studio, five paces in either direction, turn-and-glare. “You’re going back down there no matter what I say, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. But you’re not going back with me,” I told him. “It could get ugly and that’s not your thing.”

Lee looked mulish, but didn’t argue. He was much more of a ‘make art not war’ sort, and he was okay with that. No heroics in that boy.

“If caught, I’ll swear I tortured you to hand over the map.”

He scowled at me. “Very funny. They won’t torture you, anyway, they’ll just eat you. Goat’s a rarity down there, and you’ve put on a nice layer of fat since you left the force.”

“The hell I have.”  I’d noted the surprisingly sharp teeth on that gnome, but not thought to wonder about it. “And they don’t eat people.”  I’d never heard that they did, anyway…

Lee gave up trying to scare me. “If they did, they’d have been burned out of there by now. No. Just rats and stray pets. Look…  if you insist on this, there’s not a damn thing I can do against them. My magic doesn’t work that way. But I might be able to help you find the girl, once you‘re down there…..”

#

Twenty-four hours later I was back in the tunnel, carrying a small metal sphere in the cup of my left hand and a rubber-tipped metal wand in the other. I felt like a proper idiot, and was prepared at any second to drop the damn wand in order to grab for my gun. Some kinds of cold steel made me feel more secure than others.

The wand carried a current-charge that would stun anything that came out at me, although I wasn‘t sure if it would be a fatal shock or a jump-back-Jack. Lee’d handed it to me without comment, and I‘d taken it instinctively, the cool metal fitting perfectly into my grip. “I thought you said you didn’t have anything that would work against gnomes?”

“This isn’t for gnomes. It’s for the ROUS.”

It took me a minute, then I got the joke. “Very funny.”

“Danny, I’ve been down there more than you have. I’m not kidding. Bullets won’t do the job. If you see anything with a tail, shock it and apologize later.”

Comforting. So I was moving through the tunnel, my gun holstered and my wand at the ready, keeping one eye on the shadows shifting against the walls and the other on the globe in my palm. That was the important bit of magic: it would lead me in the direction of my girl. Or a girl, anyway. A human. Lee had spelled it to seek out an upright bipedal without the metallic-gritty blood of a gnome. So, assuming they didn’t have half a dozen captive or pet humans down here….

Something moved, off to my left. I stopped, my heart racing a little more than I enjoyed, and waited. A skittering noise, and the swish of what might have been a long tail attached to a giant rat-ass. Or it could have been my over-pumped imagination. I took a better hold on the wand, and started forward again.

The quality of light was starting to increase, which means I was entering the gnomes’ domain. Joy. On the plus side, whatever had been skittering in my shadow decided to stay back. I guess the gnomes had rat-proofed or something. Or it didn’t like the taste of their flesh. Either way, it was a good thing. But I kept the wand out, anyway. I really didn’t want to have to shoot anyone. Even down here, there would be paperwork.

“You. Lost?”

I swear, the gnome hadn‘t been there half a second ago. But it was now, a foot high and all of it filled with the finest street corner ‘tude you could muster. Dress it in colors and it’d pass for a gangbanger.

“Nope. Visiting. Here to see a shut-in friend”

I can’t blame my genetic donor for my smart mouth -- that came down straight from the maternal line.

The gnome didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor. But he didn’t call for backup, either. Just stared at me with those oversized eyes, the ones that you just know can find you in the middle of the night in a pitch-black room, and nodded, then let me pass by.

That creeped me out, way more than anything else had. Why wasn’t he worried?  What where the little metal-skins planning?

“Huuuuman.”  A taunting whisper, a mocking call, the tingle of fairy-dust on my skin, like a shiver in the middle of the night, coming from ahead of me.

“Huuuuuman”

That one came from somewhere off to my left. The shiver became an itch, the urge to follow, to find the treasure such a creature undoubtedly hid here, below ground, in its mines.

“I don’t think so, boys.”   I was a little old and jaded to be dusted that easily. I had no desire to be found, seven years from now, starved to death in a metal hole.

“And don’t bother with the rats, either,” I said, more loudly. “I’ll just turn them into stew.”

Bravado – if they actually did have rodents of unusual size down here, there’s no way I’d be able to hold off more than one, two max. But the whispering faded away, and they let me continue on unmolested.

No idea how much longer I walked, waiting any moment for giant teeth to dig into my arm or leg, getting more and more unnerved each moment, when I came to a four-pronged branch in the tunnels. One way was the correct choice, the others would leave me stranded somewhere I didn’t want to be. Maybe with rats. That’s why the little bastard wasn’t worried; it knew odds were good I’d end up lost.

“All right, Lee, now’d be a good time for your toy to work.”

As though it were listening, the globe in my hand flashed red when I moved it past the leftmost option, so I turned that way.

In the distance now I could hear noises, the rumble of machinery and voices blending into grey noise. A while in, and doorways broke the smooth walls, the sheet-steel doors boasting tiny latches just perfect for gnome hands. There weren’t any markings on the doors that I could see, but remembering the bush-baby peepers on that gnome, I didn’t assume that meant there wasn’t huge signs everywhere my crap day-timer sight was missing.

Another multi-pronged split in the hallway, and I waved the globe back and forth slowly, letting it tell me where to go. If I hadn’t had the globe, I’d have been lost ten ways from Monday. Hopefully it would work on the way out, too,  or  my bones would wash out into the East river’s low tide seven days from now, gnawed bare.

“Stop freaking yourself out, Hendrickson.”

This time the globe suggested the right side, and about five doors down that hallway, it flared so bright I almost dropped it.

“Here, then?”
The sphere declined to answer. Either it was worn out, or it didn’t feel my stupid-ass question deserved an answer.

I tried the door handle but, as expected, couldn’t quite get my hand to work the latch properly. Thinking quick, I took the wand and bent the non-grounded end slightly. The metal was soft enough to do it without much effort, although I hated to ruin the thing. Not just because I didn’t know what effect it might have on it as a weapon but because it was a beautiful piece. Lee couldn’t make anything simply utilitarian. It wasn’t his nature.

The bend slid under the handle, and I could apply the right pressure to make the lock click open. Go me!  I pushed gently, and the door swung open. Alert to anything from screams to gunshots to a vase coming down on my head, I stepped inside.

The room was about as far from the bleak exterior hallway as you could get. The walls were gray rock, framed at ceiling and floor with a dark, patina’d metal, and the floor was mostly covered in a thick fleecy rug, white and soft to the touch. There wasn’t any art on the walls, but the bed had a bright blue coverlet, and there were pillows that looked comfortable. A white wood vanity with a mirror above it, and enough geegaws scattered around to make any 14-year-old girl happy, I guessed.

No photos of her loving parents, I noted. No photos at all. No artwork, nothing representational. The fatae loved beauty, but mostly their own. Not so much about looking at pretties someone else made. That seemed to be a human thing… something Miss Susan was already losing.

“Who are you?”

I had been so busy looking around, I hadn’t secured all the entrances. I turned slowly to face the girl who’d come in through a side door, cursing myself upside and down. Thankfully, she was carrying a towel, not something that could be thrown or otherwise used as a weapon, and seemed disinclined to scream.

“Hello, Susan. I’m Danny. Your folks asked me to stop by and check on you. They’ve been worried, you know.”

Susan didn’t even blink, although she did shrug. Draping the towel across her neck, she walked into the room and sat down at the vanity, peering into the mirror as though checking for wrinkles. Her posture and pose was that of a mature woman, but her body was still skinny-gawky teenager, and her pose was just that -- a pose.

“You should at least have left them a note, told them that you were all right.”

“They’ll forget about me, get a new kid,” she said, oh so casually. “That’s how it works, right?”

Oh we were going to play that game, were we? 

“Sometimes. But mostly, no. Mostly the parents worry and stress and hire people to go looking, and sometimes they even risk their own lives -- their souls -- to bring back their loved one.”

I wasn’t getting through, I’d known I wouldn’t the moment I saw her. She was completely dusted. To her, this wasn’t a dreary hole in a dreary tunnel: it was fairyland, and she was the shiny new queen. Why did nobody read Thomas the Rhymer any more?

“You’re here to try and talk me back into going Above. I’m not interested. Tell my parents I’m fine.”

“You really think they’re going to believe that?  Come tell them yourself.”

“No. If I leave, I’ll never find my way back. Ageo told me so.  I’m not going to risk all this just to reassure them.”

Well, she had the Snow Queen cold down already. I very much did not like Miss Susan at all.

“Look.”  She stopped and looked at me. She had her father’s eyes, and her mother’s mouth. Nowhere near as pretty as she wanted to be, but not bad, overall. Give her another ten years and she might even break a few hearts. But not if she stayed down here.

“You have no right to tell me what to do.”

“True. I don’t.”  And telling her anything would be useless, even if she hadn’t been dusted -- she was a teenager. Short of dragging her out of here by her hair, there wasn’t much I could do.

The hair thing was tempting. But I had one card I hadn’t played. I hadn’t even thought to, honest, but seeing her sitting there trying so desperately to be what she thought was adult and sophisticated and … fatae-acceptable…. .

She had been missing for six days now. One day left, before she was lost to the above world forever.

I made my decision before I let myself think about it. If I thought about it, we’d lose her.

Miss Susan thought I was human. Most people do. I think human, I live human, I pass for human even among people who are looking for non-human; at least until the NYPD decided to change unofficial policy and I had to get out or be asked some uncomfortable questions at my next physical.

But I’m not human. Not entirely.

I ran my hands through my hair, intentionally flattening the brown curls so that my horns showed through, impossible even for a Null to overlook. They’re not elegant or impressive or even any use as a weapon, but they’re there, if I choose to shown them: short, curved nubs rising out of my scalp like … okay, like a baby goat’s, yeah. I could have taken my boots off to show the hoof-like growth that protects my toes, but it was too damn much effort to pull off cowboy boots, and I didn’t need it anyway. The horns would catch her attention, and then my genetics -- and her brain chemistry -- would handle the rest

“Susan.”

She had gone back to the mirror, painting up her eyes to look wider, more helpless…more gnome-like. What a waste. Although I suppose she should be thankful the angeli didn’t catch her eye. Those sadistic bastards would encourage her to do body mods, just for their own entertainment.

“Susan.”

I moved across the room and stood behind her. My reflection in her mirror was from hip to shoulder, and I paused a moment to consider how that would look to her. I’m in damn good shape, in the prime of my life, and if you don’t mind some pelt I’m told I’m pretty damn cute. Didn’t matter. This wasn’t about sex or even physical attraction, but seduction.  The gnomes lured her down; I had to lure her back.

My dusting had to be stronger than theirs.

I placed a hand on her shoulder, lightly enough to be a caress, firmly enough to be thrilling to a young girl who didn’t know the first thing about men but was old enough to be intrigued. Carefully, carefully. I relaxed the tight hold I normally kept on my instincts, leaned forward so that my face came into view in the mirror, close to her ear, and whispered again, “Susan.”

Susan’s gaze flicked up, instinctively, against her will, and met my gaze in the mirror. My narrow face seemed leaner, my cheekbones more prominent, my eyes more gold than brown, and the horns almost shimmered white in the silvered mirror.

There was no way I could have passed for human, not in any crowd.

Susan’s pink-painted mouth fell open a little, showing teeth that had been a gift from the orthodontist, and her gaze lifted and zeroed right in on my horns. Typical.

“You think that you know what’s fantastic in this world?” I asked her, still keeping my voice low, my touch gentle. “You think it’s down here, in these caves and stone and steel?”

She swallowed hard, but didn’t move, the eye pencil still in her hand.

“Up above, my sweet. Up above, in the green grass and the flowering trees. The sun warms our bones and we dance until we are exhausted and then we sprawl in the shade and feast until we sleep, and then we rise and do it again.”

Her breathing sped up, just a bit, and I moved my hand down from her shoulder to her upper arm. “We eat fresh fruit and cheese, and wash it down with wine, and shout into the winds…. We are free. None of this enclosed space, this lack of fresh air or blue sky. Gnomes look down, they see only the dirt. Nothing grows here.  Come with me, sweet Susan. Come see the world in all its glory. See the magic that surrounds us, every day.”

Everything I was telling her was true. Full-blooded fauns were hedonistic, careless, loving sorts. Useless in any practical manner, but a lot of fun to hang out with, and they simply adored every tingle of magic they could get their hooves on.

Pity they were also callous bastards.

“I am promised here…” she managed. Her eyes were very wide now, like she’d ingested a full dose of belladona, and she hadn’t blinked once while I was talking, then her lids fluttered three, four, six times in a row, trying to recover.

“Promises are made to be broken,” I told her. “Otherwise there wouldn‘t be half as much art or music in the world.”

That went over her head a bit -- ah, the teen years, when you think everything’s forever, and their hearts will never be broken.

I was about to educate her.

I knelt down and rested my chin lightly on her shoulder, still keeping my touch gentle. Spooking her now would be catastrophic. “You’ve only seen one side of fairyland,” I told her. My voice was brown sugar and warm breezes, soft grass and the smell of apple blossoms and honey. “Come see more of it. Griffins and dryads are in Central Park, my sweet, and dragons live in the hills of Pennsylvania. Piskies flitter in the Botanical Gardens, and kelpies swim off the Seaport‘s piers….” 

All true. Of course, the dryads didn’t mingle much, and the dragons didn’t mingle at all, kelpies were nasty-tempered, smelly beasts… and the less said about piskies the better.

“So much to see…so many creatures to dance with. How can you let yourself waste away here, living in this single room like a drudge when you should be a princess….”

Her eyes sparkled at that, and I almost had her. My hand rose up her arm again, stroking her hair. “Sunlight suits you, my sweet,” I said, leaning in for the kill. “Come with me, and I will show you the true wonders of the fairy world.”

I sounded like a B-grade Hollywood movie extra, but it was working. Her eyes started to glaze over, and her mouth curved up in a dreamy smile, even as I threaded my fingers in her hair, and tugged her head back just a little, as though to deliver a first kiss.

Her head lolled to the side, her body utterly relaxed as my dusting took effect, and I scooped her into my arms without hesitation.

It was a crap way to rescue a princess, but I wasn’t exactly prince charming.

#

By the time Miss Susan recovered from the hormonal overload enough to protest, she was back in her parents’ care, and I was on my way back to the office. They had been all sorts of overjoyed not only to see her, but to have assurances that she was unmolested. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that she wasn’t entirely untouched. All I did was remove her from the scene -- and I’d dusted her myself to do it

Yeah, I had good intentions and good results, but she had the taste now, the rush magic could bring, and odds were pretty damn good that she’d disappear again, chasing after another hit. They’d lost her already; they just didn’t know it yet.

All I could hope was that the images I’d used in my dusting would keep her aboveground this time. There were other humans who associated with those breeds… they’d be able to keep an eye out for her, teach her the ropes. Keep her out of too much trouble. And maybe by then, she’d have grown up enough to handle it.

The fatae weren’t bad company, as it went. It was just better to accept what you were, before you went chasing something else.

That thought kept me company as I walked up the steps to my office, and let myself in the door, looking around the space with a sense of relief. Home. Wood furniture, plants, light…  they were all a steady, solid reminder. I was human.

But my little stunt reminded me that I was also faun. My father’s son, the product of my magical genes. A real charming sonofabitch when it came to women.

I didn’t like it, I didn’t let it out very often…but it was me, as much as current -- and art -- was Lee. Me, who I am. What I am.

I sat down in my chair, and reached for the bottle in my desk. Not to forget; I never drank to forget. I drank to remember. I drank so that the pleasant warmth of the booze, the heady shot of inebriation, would remind me that I wasn’t entirely fatae. My human half was stronger. I wasn’t my father.

Some days, I needed the reminder.

This story originally appeared in THOSE WHO FIGHTS MONSTERS (Edge Publishing), edited by Justin Gustainis.


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Miles to Go: A Sylvan Investigation

Danny Hendrickson: Human mother, faun father, 100% Attitude. For the most part, he’s made his own way, first as a member of the NYPD and then – when they started looking too closely at non-humans in the force – as a private investigator, straddling the line between human and fatae (supernatural) in his job the way he does in his life...

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Laura Anne Gilman

Speculative fiction. Sometimes dark, occasionally slipstream. 100 words to 100,000.