Autumn Whispers (Page 14)

The morning gloom was thick and the rain heavy, and the streets were slick. Camille flipped off the music, just before an SUV swerved into our lane.

“Fucking idiots are out in droves.” She slammed on the brakes as the SUV cut her off, nosing in where there wasn’t room. The Lexus skidded to the right, and we almost crashed into a Mercedes parked in front of a coffee shop, but Camille managed to straighten out and avoid the collision. After that, she focused on the road, and Shade and I kept quiet.

A couple more near misses—both times a big hunking gas guzzler trying to shove into too tight of a space—and we were onto the street where the Wayfarer stood. Or what was left of it. We pulled in, parking in front of the smoking remains, and Camille turned off the ignition. We stared, none of us saying a word.

The fire hadn’t spread to the neighboring buildings, luckily, but the bar was obviously gutted. I slowly unfastened my seat belt and opened the car door. The smell of smoke hung thick in the air, and the scents of charred wood and wet ash filled my nostrils. I sneezed, and Camille echoed me. She came around to stand by my left, while Shade flanked my right.

The yellow caution tape still surrounded the entrance, blocking off half the sidewalk. Derrick Means was standing there, staring up at the bar with his hands jammed in his pockets. His hair, usually in a ponytail, hung straight—as black as Camille’s but with a shock of white streaking through it. He had eyes the color of my own—emerald green. He was damned good at his job. A werebadger, Derrick had quickly become Menolly’s righthand man at the Wayfarer, acting as both bartender and, at times, bouncer. Now and then he played the part of a sounding board.

He turned as we approached. “Fucking mess, if you ask me.”

I nodded. “Yeah. It’s worse than we feared. Menolly doesn’t know yet, just how bad the damage is. We can’t tell her till she rises tonight.”

Derrick coughed, then spit on the ground. He wiped his mouth. “Going to break her heart. Does she know about Chrysandra?”

Camille let out a sigh. “Yes. All three of us were with her when she died. She didn’t go easy, I’ll tell you that. And Menolly knows that six others died—she hasn’t heard about the eighth victim yet.”

“The fire marshal says a candle ignited curtains in one of the rooms. I tell you though, it couldn’t have. Nobody was in that room. The damned door was locked. They had to break it down. And I know for a fact we didn’t register anybody into it—it hadn’t been cleaned yet after the last guest left.” Derrick scowled, kicking the wall with the toe of his heavy boot. “Did she tell you about the calls?”

We stared at him. So he’d had the same thought we had.

“You know about them?” I cocked my head to the side, squinting up at the second floor. Even from out here, it was obvious how heavy the damage had been.

“Oh, hell yes. But Menolly wouldn’t let me report the first one, and the second—I was there when you were. I heard her trying to get info out of the freak. I’m convinced this was somebody’s idea of payback. Who? I dunno. But somebody wanted to destroy the Wayfarer and they found a way to do it.” The bartender shook his head. “And you just wait—two humans were among the dead. Their families aren’t going to wait long before they lawyer up and sue Menolly’s ass off.”

That thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. I didn’t think it had crossed Camille’s either, by the look on her face.

“What the hell . . . you think somebody might actually do that? What if it’s found to be arson? Would she still be liable?” I hopped over the tape and cautiously approached the building. As I peered in the window, which was now an opening with a pile of jagged glass surrounding it, the inside of the bar was a surreal sight.

In the dim light, I could still see broken timbers from the ceiling that had come crashing down to the floor. The rows of booths were now piles of rubble, the tables and chairs were so much charcoal, and the bar—the beautiful hand carved bar—was a charred, ruined mess. The Wayfarer was a total loss.

I turned around. “Did the cops say when we can pick through the ashes to see what we can salvage?”

Derrick shrugged. “They told me that we can go back in, but we better have a demolition company come here first and remove some of the hanging beams. It’s dangerous. Over eighty percent destroyed. But that means there may be a few things worth saving, and they said that the foundation of the structure is still viable. Menolly can rebuild, if she wants to.”

“If it is legally deemed arson, we can collect the insurance. But if it’s labeled an accident, then who knows what’s going to happen. And if, like you said, the families of the victims sue . . . it could wipe out everything.” I rubbed my head. “What are we going to do?”

Camille maneuvered over the caution tape and wrapped her arm around my waist, peering in. “You know as well as I do that the worst part of this for Menolly is going to be the eight victims. Money is only money. You can always make more. But lives have been lost and that’s never easy.”

“Yeah. I know.” I knew she was thinking of Henry Jeffries, a regular at the Indigo Crescent—Camille’s bookshop. He’d volunteered to work for her part time and the thanks he got for his trouble was a violent death come too early, meted out by our enemies. He had left a good share of his money to Camille, though, and she’d expanded the shop and rebuilt after it had been partially destroyed in an explosion, adding on a coffee shop next door.

But as far as keeping our Earthside livelihoods intact, we were batting a thousand, it seemed.

We stared at the entrance. I was tempted to go in, to find something to salvage in order to give Menolly a little comfort but Camille was right. The building, the bar . . . all of that would hurt, of course. But the people . . . their deaths would haunt Menolly for years unless we could prove to her that it hadn’t been somehow her fault.

I glanced over at Derrick. “What are you going to do?”

“I’ll wait here. The others will be here soon. We’re going to dive in and start making some sense of this so that by the time Menolly gets here tomorrow night, it’s not so horrifying. She’s a great boss and we want to help out however we can.” He gave us a two-fingered salute as we slowly returned to the car.

Shade was the first to speak once we were buckled in and back on the road. “If there’s a question of money, not to worry. Between Smoky and me, we can make this happen. We talked about it this morning before the two of you woke up.”

I glanced over my shoulder. “Love, you are so wonderful. And Smoky. But what we really need is for the fire marshal to find the evidence pointing to arson. We need the physical proof for Menolly’s sake.”

Camille frowned. “That’s going to be difficult, especially if the fire marshal is on the fence about it. But . . . all right. If the fire started in a locked room, I guess our first question to ask is: Who had a key to that room? Who could have gotten in there? Could the lock have been picked? Was it an easy target? Considering it’s a hotel room, essentially, I hope the answer to the latter two questions is no. Because having unsecured guest rooms? Not so good for business and you know the rumor mill would fly.”

“I guess we ask Menolly who had the keys. Then, we ask whoever had a copy if they still have it. Maybe somebody stole one and it wasn’t noticed.” I pulled out my notepad and jotted stuff down. I loved my laptop but didn’t trust my phone to capture the notes I was making. Camille, on the other hand, now used her phone for everything. I think she even slept with it near the bed, though I wouldn’t put it past one of her husbands to turn the damned thing off when she wasn’t looking.

“What next?” Shade looked around. “I don’t think there’s much more we can do here, at least not right now.”

Slowly, I agreed. “You’re right.” Part of me was loath to leave the bar. It seemed callous to turn our backs and walk away, but what would we accomplish by staying? I tucked my notepad away and let out a long sigh. “Okay, it’s off to the FH-CSI.”

With a wave to Derrick, we turned, and left the burned out shell behind us.

• • •

The bustle was loud and noisy at the FH-CSI. Chase gave us a wave as we passed his office; he looked like he was in a meeting with some bigwig in a suit. He peeked around his office door.

“See you tonight, guys. I promised Nerissa that I’ll gather all the information I can about the Wayfarer then, but right now but this meeting’s one I have to take.”

We waved him back into his office and headed for the medic unit. There, Sharah was bandaging up one of the officers, who looked like he’d been bitten by a dog. Blonde and timidly pretty, the elfin medic was ready to pop any day, like Iris, and looked harried and tired. She was also the niece to Queen Asteria, back in Elqaneve. She brushed away a stray lock of hair and flashed us a genuine smile as we entered the room, then slapped the officer on the knee.

“You’re good to go. Just watch it next time, Dan. Dog bites can be dangerous, and it’s worse when a hellhound is involved.”

Camille winced. She’d been wounded by a hellhound before, and the acid in its bite had left quite a tidy scar on her. The cop merely nodded his thanks, pulled down his pants leg, and headed out without even glancing our way.

“You want me to check that hand?” Sharah asked.

I nodded. “Yeah, if you’ve got the time. You hear what happened last night?”

“Chase said that you were bitten by some sort of Fae, and then of course, all the commotion with the Wayfarer.” Sobering, she motioned for me to take a seat. “I’m sorry about Chrysandra. She was a good person. Real class act.”

“Yeah, she was. Menolly took it hard. Chrysandra was there from the start—from when Menolly first went to work at the Wayfarer.” As I sat down, Camille and Shade headed out to the waiting room, giving us space.

Sharah and Chase made a good couple, and I had let go of any lingering sense of regret. They fit together. Shade and I fit together. Chase and I had not done so well and we made far better friends than lovers.

For a while, Sharah had been leery of my continued friendship with the detective, but it had been her pregnancy hormones talking, and she’d managed to get them under control. We’d had dinner out a few times—both couples together—and things felt like they were back to normal. Or rather, we were at a new normal—a comfortable one.

She unwrapped my dressings and winced. “Oh Delilah, this is a nasty bite. Must hurt like hell.” Probing gently around the edges, she finally rose to fetch a jar of salve off the shelf. She motioned me over to the sink, where she used a cleaning solution and antibacterial soap to irrigate the wound.

“Well, it isn’t spreading. It is necrotic in origin, but you caught it soon enough and the salve is doing its job. We seem to have neutralized the venom and all we have to do now is to keep the wound clean and bandaged and it will heal over. You will have a scar and there’s going to be an indentation right here where the flesh is gone. I imagine it will fill in a little as it heals, but there’s nothing that can really put that chunk of missing flesh back. Somehow, your attacker missed major arteries. The nerve endings might be a little dulled, but I don’t think it will impede the use of your hand.”

I winced as she dried it. “I feel like a jerk for even saying this, after seeing what Chrysandra was going through last night. But truth is? Great gods, this hurts.”

“Don’t even compare the two. Pain is pain. Yes, she was in agony but that doesn’t mean this wound doesn’t hurt, either. People make that mistake all the time—negating their own problems because somebody else has it worse. Now, if you said that directly to her? Yes, then it would be crass.”

She sighed, pressing her hands against her back as she gently stretched. “We all have our trials. I’m afraid this will hurt for a long time—not as bad as it does now, but it’s going to ache. While we can negate the toxin, we can’t do anything for the pain without doping you up and I don’t think you want that.” She finished bandaging it and stood back with a sigh.

I gingerly rubbed my wrist, above the wound. “No, that’s the last thing I need right now.” Flashing her a rueful grin, I added, “Are you ready for tonight? You haven’t been home in a while, have you?”

Sharah’s expression crumbled and she sank into a chair, looking both uncomfortable and frightened. “No, I haven’t. Thing is . . . I haven’t told my aunt about the baby.”

Okay, so I hadn’t expected to hear that, but I understood her reasoning. If anybody knew how bad things were for half-breeds, especially among Otherworld nobility, it was my sisters and me. We had been teased unmercifully by a number of children in the Court back in Y’Elestrial, constantly called Windwalkers—a derogatory term for those of half blood among the Fae. I wasn’t sure what the equivalent term was for elves, but it was probably just as mean.

“How will the trip through the portal affect you? Are you sure it’s safe for you to travel right now? You say Queen Asteria doesn’t know you’re pregnant. If she knew, would she insist that you return home right now?” It occurred to me that if Queen Asteria knew the truth of the matter, she might give Sharah some leeway. I knew the portal probably would be safe enough, but if there was any doubt . . .

Sharah shrugged. “The portals shouldn’t bother me. Honestly, while they feel like they rip you apart and stick you back together again, they don’t. It may not be comfortable, but it’s not like Star Trek. You know that.” She grinned at me then. “But thanks for trying to give me an out.”