He sniffed the air. The scent of burnt bones and under it—blood. A lot of it. And the outhouse smell of violent death.
He walked the utility area carefully, reconstructing the deadly dance from a lifetime lived among its devotees. The spatters of brown flecks. The dust-free smears where a body had been dragged, struggling. A broken fingernail caught in the chain-link. The cloying smell of burning hair and garbage, and just a hint of cucumber. Acetone. At least they had destroyed the body, but it meant the attackers were not human. A human gang might have doused the body with gasoline to throw off the authorities, but they wouldn’t have brought their victim all the way out here, and it wouldn’t have been acetone. They’d brought it with them to make sure the body was gone. He sighed heavily. Perfect. He didn’t have time to pity the dead. This was just one of the sites he had been sent to check.
He opened the dumpster, holding his black sleeve over his sensitive nose, wishing the leather were doing a better job of masking the stench. The inside was charred black, the sides a little warped from the heat, but the accelerant had done its job. Nothing remained to mark this victim as different. Just a lumpy sort of ash. Shattered bone fragments and the occasional tooth. He could have his team sanitize the area, but they couldn’t remove the smell. If the authorities didn’t find the body they could smell, there would be more questions than a few teeth, they would never find a match for, would pose.
This city was a mess. Its preternaturals were out of control. Just short of all-out warfare between too many factions. It was getting worse, and more importantly, it was getting sloppy. That was something his masters couldn’t allow. The humans could never know who lived among them. They were a panicky breed and the only thing they liked more than killing each other was killing anything else. It would be open season on them all, and as superior as many preternaturals liked to feel with their extra strength or speed or longevity, there were billions of humans in this world. No matter his people’s advantages, they would lose any concerted war.
He heard a car approach, its tires crunching the gravel. He lowered the dumpster lid soundlessly and scaled the fence behind it, dropping to a crouch on the other side. He heard the ding of the car as the occupants left the engine running and the lights pointed in his direction. He sprinted for the tree line, trusting the dumpster to block him from view. He hurtled past the first line of trees and hauled himself, hand over hand with the ease of practice, into a tall one a few feet into the stand, coming to rest about fifteen feet up. Any higher and his weight was going to be an issue.
He watched from his temporary blind as a man and a woman crossed through the beam from their headlights. The woman wore a long dress and carried a large, floppy bag, from which she was pulling a flashlight and a few small bottles. The man beside her had his hand across his stomach, fingers under his jacket. He would bet most of his not-insubstantial resources that the jacket held a gun. The man’s eyes never stopped moving, searching outside their pool of light—muscle then, which made her the boss.
“I don’t like this. It’s too exposed out here. Let’s come back in the morning.”
“Etienne, it has to be tonight. Do you smell that? Tomorrow this place will be full of families and someone is going to notice the smell.”
The man frowned, and he stopped his scanning to look at her for a moment. “I smell it. Why don’t you go wait in the car? I’ll take care of it.”
She sighed and seemed to be counting to ten. “I know that you think you’re protecting me. You seem to think I’m much more fragile than I am. This is not my first burned body, Etienne. Not my first murdered friend. This isn’t even my hundredth. I appreciate you coming with me, but this thinking that I’m the damsel you have to save has got to stop. This is my city. I’m the Mulcahy now. You have to let me do my job or I can’t have you come with me again. Tell me you understand.”
The man’s body was tense, his face a mix of frustration, anger, and a touch of fear. “Winter, you can’t seriously expect me to—”
“Tell me you understand or go sit in the car. This is my job, Etienne. This is what I do. None of that has changed. I am responsible for keeping as much peace as can be had in this city, and barring that, for keeping things under wraps enough to not have us all killed by the Eldest to keep the Veil of Secrecy intact. Sometimes that means stopping fights before they start. Tonight, it means making sure that a missing lion’s body has been destroyed enough not to raise questions. A fifteen-year-old lion.” Her teeth and fists were both clenched as she spoke. “Who belongs to a very good friend. Tonight, my job is to make sure his body is unrecognizable. Tomorrow, it’s to talk to his Queen and tell her that my need that she maintain the peace is more important than her need for vengeance. So, tell me you understand. Back me up and help me do this impossible job or stay home.”
The man searched her face, and sighed heavily. “I don’t understand.”
The woman raised her hand to point at the car. “Then g—”
He caught her hand gently. “I don’t understand, Winter, but I’m trying to. Do your job. I’ll back you up.”
The woman struggled to control her face, but nodded, and turned toward the chain-link fence.
Winter… this was Winter Mulcahy. Seahaven’s wizard. The man in the trees had heard of her, but never met her. She was out of her depth, but it looked like maybe she was recruiting some help. He hoped it would be enough. Seahaven was winding up on his masters’ radar too often. The Eldest were neither patient nor forgiving. They couldn’t be.
He slipped silently out of the tree and into the darkness beyond. Lions. He couldn’t help Miss Mulcahy comfort her friend, but he could make sure that whoever was attacking the lions was too scared to do it again. His smile was feral as he ran toward where his car was hidden.