A Stroke of Midnight

Chapter 13-14


Chapter 13
I DIDN'T SEE THE POLICE BUT I HEARD THEM, A RUMBLE OF DEEP male voices. Sound carried so much better on those still, bitterly cold nights. My cheeks were stinging, and my breath had fogged and frozen in the fur of the hood. Barinthus had kept me warm on the walk to the faerie mounds after the assassination attempt, but I walked on my own power now. The snow was knee high for me, and my boots didn't quite keep it from soaking into the knees of my jeans. I tried to call the feel of the summer sun to put inside my shield and help keep back the cold, but it was as if I couldn't remember what summer felt like. The moonless night was clear with a thousand stars flung across the darkness like bits of glittering ice, diamond glints across black velvet. I focused on the fight to lift one foot, then the next, and struggle through drifts that the taller sidhe walked through effortlessly. It was undignified for a princess to fall on her face, but it took effort to keep from doing it. I suppose that struggling through the snow wasn't exactly dignified either, but that I could do nothing about.
But it was Biddy who stumbled. Nicca caught her before she hit the snow. I heard her apologize, "I don't know what's wrong. I'm so cold."
"Stop, all of you, stop," I said. Everyone obeyed, some of them looking out at the snow, fingers near weapons.
It was Galen who asked, "What's wrong, Merry?"
"Are Biddy and I the only ones here with human blood?"
"I think so."
"I tried to conjure the feel of summer sun, and I couldn't remember what it was like."
Doyle had worked his way back to me. "What is wrong?"
"Check Biddy and me for a spell, a spell that attacks only human blood."
He pulled off one of his black gloves and put his hand just above my face, not touching skin, but searching my aura, my shielding, my magic.
He growled low and soft, but the sound raised the hair on the back of my neck. "I take it you found something."
He nodded. Then he turned to Biddy, who was half fainting in Nicca's arms. "I am sorry, Doyle. I am truly better than this."
"It is a spell," he told her, and lifted off her helmet to lay his hand above her face. He handed the helmet to Nicca and turned to me, unable to hide the spark of angry color in his eyes. He was fighting down his power, raised by anger. Anger at himself most likely for letting yet another spell slip under his nose. We had some truly subtle spells being worked on us. One of us would have noticed something big, but such small spells were harder to guard against.
"It is tied to mortal blood. It simply sucks at your energy, and fills you with cold."
"Why is Biddy more affected than Merry?" Nicca asked. He was covered completely in a thick cloak, except for his wings. They were held tight together as if they would stay warmer that way, and maybe they did. He was warm-blooded; moth wings did not change that.
I answered him. "She's half-human, I'm less than a fourth human. If it is seeking human blood, she's got more than I have."
"Are the human police affected?" Hawthorne asked.
Doyle put his hand back over me, and this time I felt a warm pulse of magic shiver over my shields. "It is like a contagion. It was put on either Biddy or the princess, then jumped from one to the other. If we do not remove it, it will spread to the police."
I looked up at him, speaking with the warmth of his magic against my skin, like breath. "What would it do to full-blooded humans?"
"It made a warrior of the sidhe stumble in the snow. She is disoriented, and would be useless in a fight."
Frost was staring off into the darkness. He and another fringe of guards were all staring out into the cold night. His voice carried to me. "Is this the beginning of a more overt attack?"
"Who would be so bold as to attack the human guards?" Amatheon wondered aloud. He'd been eager to come out into the cold, anything to be farther away from the queen, I think. But I remembered again that he had been Cel's creature for centuries. Did a few acts of honor and kindness erase centuries of allegiance? And as close to Cel as he had been, he had to have witnessed some of the horrors the female guards spoke of, didn't he? I made a mental note to ask him later, with Doyle and Frost at my back. Onilwyn was inside the faerie mound, because he had not recovered from the beating Maggie May and I had given him. Cold iron forces even the sidhe to heal human slow. Him I did not trust at all. Amatheon I was beginning to trust; was I wrong to trust him? Of course, the question itself meant I didn't trust him, not really.
"Who indeed," I said, and fought not to look at him, not to let him know with body language that I wondered if it was him.
Either I betrayed myself, or he felt insecure, because he said, "I will make any oath that I did not know of this."
"You said you were a man without honor," Adair said. "A man without honor has no oath."
"Enough," Doyle said, "we will not squabble amongst ourselves, not this close to the humans."
"Doyle's right. We will discuss this later." I raised my face up to him, and said, "Can you remove it so that Biddy and I do not infect the police?"
"I can."
"Then do it, and let us get this done."
"You sound angry," Galen said.
"I am tired of whoever is doing all this. Tired of these games."
"It is a good sign, in a way," Doyle said.
I looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"It means our murderer fears the human police, fears they may find him where our magic has failed." He stuffed his gloves in the pocket of his coat and slid my hood off, so that the cold air spilled around my face. I shivered.
"I am afraid I will have to make you colder before I am done."
I nodded. "Get this off of me, and I will warm myself."
He pushed my cloak back. The cold rushed in, stealing the shell of warmth that the cloak had made. I fought not to shiver as he spread his hands over me, not touching even so much as my clothing, but caressing just above my body. His power shivered over my aura, and it felt as if he scooped something off of me, almost like flicking an insect off my skin.
He raised his hands upward, cupped as if he truly held something. He called that sickly green fire to his hands. It was the painful flame that I'd seen eat along a body. It could cause death if you were mortal, or excruciating pain and madness in the immortal. Now he used it to burn away the spell that had clung to me.
Rhys's voice came from behind us. "What's wrong?" He had a gun naked in his hand, but held along his body so the police probably wouldn't see it from a distance. He saw the green light, and said, "What is it?" with a new urgency in his voice. "What am I not sensing?"
Galen answered him. "Someone put a spell on Merry."
"On both the human bloods," Frost said.
"It would have been contagious to the human police," Doyle said. The green flame vanished, leaving the night a little darker. He turned to Biddy, where she half sagged in Nicca's arms. "Let her go, Nicca."
"She will fall."
"Only to her knees in the snow. It won't hurt her." Doyle's voice was surprisingly gentle.
Nicca still held her against him. His wings flared out once, then clamped tight again.
"It's all right, Nicca," Biddy said in a soft voice, a little breathy. "Doyle will help me."
It was Hawthorne who came to him, and began to gently draw him away from her. "Let the captain help your lady."
Nicca allowed himself to be drawn away, but when Biddy collapsed into the snow, he moved to catch her, and only Hawthorne and Adair on each side kept him from grabbing her before her knees hit the snow.
Rhys gave a soft whistle. "That would have done bad things to our nice policemen."
"Yes," Doyle said, as he knelt in the snow, his greatcoat spreading out like a pool of darkness against the white. He passed his hands above Biddy, much as he'd done me, but he hesitated close to her belly. "That someone could lay such a thing on her while she wore this much metal..." He shook his head. "It speaks of great power."
"Or mixed blood," I said. "Those of us with a little human or brownie or a few other things can handle metal and magic better than a pure-blooded sidhe."
His mouth twitched. "Thank you for reminding me, because you are exactly right."
"Can you trail it back to its owner?" I asked.
Doyle cocked his head to the side, the way a dog does when it is puzzled by something. "Yes." His hands tensed above Biddy's body. "I can remove it, but I can also add magic of my own, and force it to fly back to its owner."
"You mean not just track it, but make it run back home?" Rhys asked.
"You have not been able to do that in a very long time," Frost said.
"But I can do it now," Doyle said. "I can feel it in my hands, my stomach. All I have to do is remove it, and add my power at the moment of its release. It will be a chase to keep up with it, but it will work."
"Who will go with you?" Frost asked. "I must stay with the princess."
"I will go," Usna said. "No dog can outrun a cat."
Doyle gave him one of those fierce smiles. "Done."
"I, too, will go." It was Cathbodua, once a goddess of battle, now a refugee from Cel's guard. Her cloak was formed of black feathers, so that it sometimes seemed as if her fine black hair was part of the cloak, and if you looked at her from the edges of your eyes, her hair looked as if it were made of feathers. She was Cathbodua, battle scald crow, and though diminished in power, she was still one of the few in the courts who had kept her original name. Rumor had it that she had not been as abused by Cel, for he feared her. Dogmaela, who stood in armor next to her, had been nicknamed Cel's dog because she was given every awful task he could find. She had publicly denied him sex, and he'd never forgiven her. Cathbodua had done the same thing, and not suffered overly much for it. There was something about her, standing there in the snow, all black and feathered, with some air of... power that would give a braver man than Cel pause.
"You think you can keep up, birdie?" Usna said.
She gave him a smile cold enough to freeze the smile from his face. "Don't worry for me, kitty-cat, I won't be the tail end of this race."
Usna made a cat-like growl. "Remember who the predator is here, birdie."
Her smiled widened, and filled her eyes with a fierce joy. "Me," she said.
"Us," Doyle said. "Keep her safe, Frost."
"I will."
"Oh, don't mind me," Rhys said. "I'm not fast enough to keep up, and apparently I can't be trusted with the safety of the princess."
"Help her with the humans, Rhys." Doyle glanced at Cathbodua and Usna. "Are you prepared?"
Cathbodua said, "I am ready."
Usna said, "Always."
Doyle turned back to Biddy. "This may hurt."
"Do it." She braced herself, hands in the snow.
Doyle flexed his hands, so that they looked like black claws against the silver of her armor. Biddy let out a sharp breath. His magic flared even through the shields that I held in place to keep me from being overwhelmed by the magic of faerie. Her aura, her metaphysical armor, flared like a flash of light that covered her body. Doyle plunged his hands into that flare of light and came out with a round ball of light, but the light wasn't the clean yellow-white light of Biddy's aura, it was a dark sickly yellow with an edge of orange flame to it. Doyle cupped his hands more closely around it until the flickering of the orange flames spilled out from between his fingers.
He stood carefully, as if he held a very full bowl of very hot soup. He stepped around Biddy, and the other guards spilled away so that there was nothing between him and the mounds but empty snow.
Usna and Cathbodua moved up on either side of him. Usna undid his long cloak and stood dressed mostly in leather, his breath fogging in the cold, his face eager, eyes shining with anticipation. Cathboda's face was like pale marble, perfect, beautiful, and cold. Far from flinging her cloak off, she gathered it more tightly around her. I realized that her breath did not fog in the cold. I had a moment to wonder why, then Doyle flung his hands skyward, and the flame was now a bird, a falcon made of red and orange flame. It flashed shining wings once, twice, to gain altitude. Doyle undid his long black cloak and let it fall to the snow. He undid his weapons and flung them all to the snow. The falcon beat its wings twice more and stared down at us all with eyes made of fire, an arrogant look, as if to say, "You will never catch me." Then it was gone, streaking like some hand-sized comet, flaming into the night.
Doyle was simply gone. I know he ran, but it was like trying to watch darkness fall. You never really saw it happen. He was a tall dark shape, loping over the snow. Cathbodua was with him, though she didn't seem to be running. It was almost as if the long feathered cloak floated above the snow, and she with it. Usna trailed them both, but not by much. His multicolored hair shone in the starlight, sparkling like colored snow, as he ran graceful and full out behind them.
"He has his work cut out for him," Rhys said.
"Yes," Frost said, "you cannot outrun the Darkness."
"And anger travels on the very wind," Dogmaela said.
"Anger?" I made it a question.
"She is the scald crow. She is the dissatisfaction that drives men to quarrel."
"She starts the fight, then feeds on it," Biddy said, as Nicca helped her to her feet.
"She did once," Frost said, "but that is no more."
"You think not," Dogmaela said. "Cathbodua still enjoys a good quarrel, make no mistake about it, Killing Frost. She grows bored with so much peace."
"This is not peace," Frost said.
"Perhaps," she said, "but it is not battle either."
"Let's hope not," Rhys said. "And now, children, let's go talk to the nice policemen before they freeze their badges off."
"Badges?" Dogmaela said. "Is that some new slang for balls?"
Rhys grinned at her. "And when we walk over there they will all get their badges out and flash them at the princess."
Frost and I both said "Rhys" at the same time.
Dogmaela said, "What an odd custom."
She was a literalist with almost no sense of humor. Rhys was going to hurt himself with this one. I explained the truth to her as we all walked over to the parking lot. She gave him a dirty look. He smiled at her like a lascivious angel.
"Behave yourself," I told him under my breath.
"I have behaved myself," he said softly. "When you've talked to the head fed, you'll think I was a saint."
"Because he's not bleeding."
I looked at him and tried to decide if he was teasing me, too. His face said no. How bad could one FBI agent be? As the old saying goes, we were about to find out.
Chapter 14
THE POLICE, ALL FLAVORS, STOOD IN THE DECEMBER COLD. Maybe some of them had been in their vehicles trying to stay warm and only got out when they saw us coming, but somehow they had the feel of people who'd been standing around in the cold for a while. If it wasn't for us, then why weren't they in their cars, in vans with the heaters on? Because their chiefs were standing out in the cold. You didn't sit in a nice warm car while your officers stood ankle deep in snow. We'd had the parking area cleared off, but apparently snow had blown back across the surface.
I recognized Major Walters by the broad-shouldered square of him and his height. The man he was standing almost toe to toe with was shorter by at least five inches, and no one I knew. But I'd have bet good money he was FBI. And the way he was yelling at Walters, probably the head fed.
When I'd told Special Agent Raymond Gillett not to come, I hadn't specified that he not send the feds. I would remember to be more specific if I ever spoke to him again.
Rhys tried to get their attention, but it was Frost's voice that cut across the squabbling. "Princess Meredith NicEssus," he announced, the words echoing over the cold, still air.
They stopped in midargument, and turned to us in surprise, almost as if they'd forgotten I was coming. Then they both started trying to talk to me at the same time.
I held up my hands, letting them slip out of the cloak. "Gentlemen, gentlemen, please, one at a time."
They both tried to be the one at a time. I settled it for them. "Major Walters, why are you still here at the parking lot? Why haven't you come to the door?" I smiled as I said it, even with my eyes.
He jerked a thumb at the smaller man. "He won't let us step a foot off the parking lot. Says it's federal land, and that makes this case his."
I turned still smiling to the fed in question. "And you are?"
"Special Agent John Marquez." And he actually bowed. "It's an honor to meet you, Princess Meredith."
I tried not to laugh. The bow was overdoing it. "I wish I could say the same, Special Agent Marquez."
He looked up, puzzlement on his darkly handsome face. "Have we done something to offend you, Your Majesty?"
I shook my head. "Majesty is only for the ruler, and I'm not it, yet. I called Major Walters and asked him to bring down his people, but I did not call the FBI, so I'm a little puzzled why you are here."
"Faerie land is federal land, Princess. That makes these crimes our jurisdiction, as I've pointed out to the major here."
"Ah, but technically it's faerie land, and neither of you has any jurisdiction here."
Marquez smiled condescendingly. "But you called for police help, and since the mounds are on federal land, that means us."
I shook my head. "Only if we ask for your help; until that moment it's our business."
He shook his head. "You did ask us, Princess. Special Agent Gillett got your call, and he referred it to our local office."
I'd figured as much, but it was still disappointing to know it for certain. "I made the call to Gillett out of courtesy and for old times' sake. I realize now I was wrong to have called him at all."
"But we are here now, and we have forensic facilities that the local St. Louis police can't match."
A woman broke away from the knot of locals. She had blond hair that was a little too perfectly yellow to be real and human. Dark glasses cut a pretty face so that it took you a moment to notice her eyes were large and long-lashed. "I'm Dr. Caroline Polaski, head medical examiner for St. Louis County, and I take exception to that."
"You can't compare your lab with ours," Marquez said.
"I did my internship with you, so yes, actually, I can."
"Internship, then you weren't good enough to make the grade."
She gave him a very unfriendly look. "Check your own records. I left because my husband got a better job here, and I got offered the run of the place. At your shop I'd have been someone's flunkie."
"Because you weren't good enough to be head of our shop," Marquez said.
This was getting us nowhere. "Stop it," I said.
They looked at me. "You want to know who is in charge here, that's what all the arguing is about, correct?"
Polaski and Marquez nodded. Walters just looked at me.
I smiled. "That's an easy question, ladies and gentlemen. I am."
Marquez gave me a look that, even in the dim light, said plainly that I was a little girl and shouldn't try to play with the big boys. "Now, Princess, your call for help indicates that you don't think you and your people are capable of handling a double homicide."
"I am in charge of this investigation, Agent Marquez. I am glad for your offer of assistance, and I will gladly accept, but let there be no confusion among any of us." I let my gaze take in Walters and the medical examiner. "I am in charge, and anyone who has a problem with that doesn't step one foot onto our land."
Marquez argued, as I'd expected him to. "You are not an officer of any kind, Princess. No offense, but this investigation needs more than just a private detective in charge of it."
"My private detective license isn't valid outside of California, Agent Marquez."
"Then you have no legal standing to take control."
I stepped into him so fast and unexpectedly, that he actually took a step back before he caught himself. I looked up at him, inches taller, and let him look into the delicate oval of my face framed by all that soft fur. "No legal standing, Marquez? I am Princess Meredith NicEssus. The only person who outranks me here on this land is the Queen of Air and Darkness herself. You and your people are here on my sufferance, and I think I've suffered enough."
"You can't mean that you're going to send us all away because I hurt your feelings." Goddess, he had an attitude.
"Not at all. I'm going to take Major Walters and his people with us, and let them do their jobs."
"And when they can't handle it, and you need our help, you may not get it, Princess."
And we might need their help. I hoped not, but we might. I had an idea. I turned to Walters. "Do you have a cell phone?"
He looked a little uncertain, but he held it out to me.
"Can I make a long-distance call on it?"
"Who are you going to call?"
"Washington, D.C."
Walters took in a deep breath. "Be my guest."
I dialed a number that I'd had the queen's secretary get for me before we came out here. I'd hoped not to use it, but I'd seen enough territorial disputes in L.A. to know that the feds and the locals could do more harm to an investigation than good, if they got into a serious pissing contest. Marquez was making this one serious.
After hearing my initial greeting and request, Marquez said, "You are not calling the president of the United States."
"No." I was on hold. "I'm not."
Marquez frowned harder at me.
A woman's voice came on the phone, and I said, "Mrs. President, how good to talk to you again."
Marquez's eyebrows went up.
I'd first met Joanne Billings when her husband was a senator. They'd come to my father's funeral, and their regrets had seemed the most sincere of the political people there that day. After that Senator Billings and his wife had made several visits to faerie, and I realized that Joanne Billings was a faeriephile. My father had not raised me to ignore a political advantage, and besides, I liked Joanne. She was open-minded about the Unseelie Court's unfavorable press, and made a point of talking us up in a positive light when she could. We exchanged holiday cards, and I made certain she was invited to my official engagement party, the one for public consumption. She had actually visited me at college once, without her husband, just to see how I was getting along, and by that time she and her husband were trying to get the young vote. Pictures of her with America's faerie princess didn't hurt. I understood that, and didn't think badly of her for it. I had even invited her to my graduation, and they had both come. We'd gotten photo ops together. One of the last things I'd done before vanishing from faerie and the public eye was to appear onstage with them at a couple of rallies.
We exchanged small talk, then she said, "I assume you didn't call at this hour for a social reason."
"No." I gave her the briefest sketch of the situation.
She was silent for a second or two. "What do you need from me?"
I explained some of what Marquez had said, and added, "And he threatened that if I didn't let him in now, he would make certain the FBI didn't help us later, if we needed their expertise to solve the crime. Could you talk to him for me?"
She laughed. "You could have called the diplomatic service, talked to your ambassador. You could have called a dozen people, but you called me first. You did call me first, didn't you?"
"Yes," I said.
She laughed again, and I knew she liked that I had called her first. I also knew she liked that I hadn't asked her to talk to her husband. "Put him on the line," she said, and her voice had already taken on that cultured, almost purring edge that it had on radio or television.
I handed the phone to Marquez. He looked a little pale around the edges. His end of the conversation was mostly "Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am. Of course not, ma'am." He handed the phone back to me, managing to look angry and sick at the same time.
"I think he'll behave himself now," she said.
"Thank you, very much, Joanne."
"When you've finally picked a husband, you better invite me to the engagement party." She was quiet for a second, then said, "I am sorry about what happened with Griffin. I saw the tabloid photos he gave to the reporters. I have no words to say how sorry I am that he turned out to be a such a bastard."
"I'm okay about it."
"Good for you."
"And you will get an invitation to the engagement party, and to the wedding."
She laughed again with honest delight. "All of faerie decked out for a wedding, I can hardly wait."
"Thank you, Joanne." We hung up, and I turned to Marquez. "Is there anything else you wanted to know, Special Agent Marquez?"
"No, I've had about all I can stand tonight, thank you very much, Princess Meredith," he said, and gave me a look that said I'd made an enemy. Gee, an enemy that wouldn't try to kill me. It was almost refreshing.
"You and your lab will be available if we need your expertise?" I asked, keeping my voice neutral.
"I promised Mrs. Billings we would be."
"Great," I said, then turned to Major Walters. He was trying not to look pleased and failing. He practically beamed at me. Local police spend a lot of time getting their hats handed to them by the feds; for once the shoe was on the other foot, and Walters was enjoying it. He waited until we'd walked out into the snow with a circle of my guards hiding us from the feds before he burst out laughing. A man of iron self-control.