Time Bomb Ticking

1

They say you can’t run forever but the secret to disappearing isn’t running. It’s standing very, very still.

A town like this didn’t see many violent crimes. Nebraska was a quiet, demure state many people forgot existed and Lincoln, snug in the center of Lancaster County, was an eclectic soup of small-town metropolis, boasting trendy neighborhoods and historic downtown. Lincoln was friendly, even on high octane Saturdays between September and January when Husker football stole the attention of the general public and fans celebrated in the streets, regardless of the outcome of the game.

And so it was, when sirens rang out at 3:30 on Sunday morning, the investigation would conclude alcohol poisoning took the life of the boy in the alley, despite the wristbands declaring him a minor. (“It isn’t that hard to get your hands on a drink,” the police would say.)

Ashling suspected a more sinister cause of death but hadn’t been there to get a look. She’d been in her apartment, awake for the third night in a row, trying very, very hard to disappear.

The obituary in Wednesday’s paper read that Benjamin James Barre, 20, was survived by nearly everyone in his family and no cause of death was given. The coroner’s report she’d hacked into had been much more forthcoming. Mainly, the family of a boy who had perished under bizarre circumstances declined an autopsy.

Vehemently.

Although they claimed religious reasons, chances were better they didn’t want humans poking about.

Ashling wasn’t going to get involved. She wasn’t. It didn’t have anything to do with her. She didn’t know the boy’s family, she didn’t owe them anything.

But the voice inside her head wouldn’t leave it alone.

She recalled the few coroners’ photos that had been purged from her hard-drive, which now only survived in her memory. A bug (that would never be traced) had taken down the city’s servers, wiping everything from Ben Barre’s file. His face, soft in death, his sunken chest. The single blue-black lines that circled his skinny forearms only Eerie could see.

An Eerie, a Blessed, had died. In her neighborhood. While she had been in her apartment, pretending to be human. Pretending not to exist.

Lying, her conscience pointed out as she adjusted her ear buds. They were plugged in but no music pumped through them, giving her little chance of being interrupted while able to hear everything around her.

For example, the police sirens abruptly cutting off and the strange, clogged silence of a dozen men holding their breath.

The cruisers formed a blockade around the mouth of the alley, though no tape had been thrown up. Bursts of static from the radios reported an ambulance on its way. One of the officers was clutching a cross at his throat.

Ashling hadn’t realized she was optimistic this incident wasn’t anything like Benjamin’s until the feeling was stripped away, leaving her raw.

She ducked into an alcove, hoping this next step was unnecessary. As if a human life was less important somehow. The thought caused a rush of shame to wash through her so she had to retie the fourth knot in the yellow ribbon. She tucked a sprig of Love-Lies Bleeding in each knot then pulled the string into a circle, sealing the ends with a rope of twisted poppy stem. Not strictly required but better safe than visible in the middle of a crime scene.

Ashling pulled her sleeve up to make a small cut on the fleshy part of her palm, smudging the ribbon with blood. She settled the wreath over her head like a crown, the familiar tingle of invisibility creeping over her, prickly like cold rain.

Ashling crossed the index and middle finger of her left hand, an unconscious gesture that had nothing to do with magic.

Tape had been strung up by the time she entered the alley, threading carefully through the crowd of pushy onlookers. The police stepped back, leaving space for the investigators and medics to work.

It had to have been horrific to warrant such solemn, distraught looks from the officers.

She was just a little girl. Ten, maybe eleven. Her dark hair pinned back from her eyes with a clip shaped like a dearinth. There were no signs of trauma. Her backpack still rested on her slender shoulders.

A little Archfay with hair like tektite and olive skin. Her small ring of Blessed marks peeked from her cardigan sleeves.

Another Eerie death Ashling felt rested on her.

 

There were traces of magic all over the alley though the human police didn’t notice. If any Eerie were among the officers, they’d read the crime scene for what it was, giving her only a few minutes to poke around. Ashling dug an Eyebright leaf from her bag, chewing thoughtfully as she traced the residual memory of the attack.

The Archfay’s tiny footprints glowed emerald, appearing on the cement like dots in Pac-Man. She’d been chased, paces distant until she’d zipped into the alley.

The prints settled at the wall, where her body now rested. There was a bright flash, deep silver footprints, shifting black like an oil slick, appeared approaching the girl. A wave of magic rippled, the little girl had thrown a glamour, pretending to be a stray cat, but it was too late. With a sluggish, gray pulse, death settled in the air.

So she’d known she was in trouble, known she was being followed.

“That’s three in the last few months,” one of the policemen was saying. “Seven between here and the coast.”

“No wounds, no witnesses, broad daylight for God’s sake!” the other responded, looking for something to lash out at. He regained his composure after a settling breath, removing his cover long enough to swipe his sweaty forehead. His dark hair was shaved, more out of convenience, Ashling guessed, than any illusions of John McClane. The portly officer beside him shrugged. “Any contact information on her?”

“No phone. Got an address from the bag. Couple of boys are on their way.”

“Damn it,” the dark-skinned officer muttered, striding angrily toward his car. His gloved hands flexed in agitation.

“Garridon!” the portly officer followed after him.

Ashling spit the mush of Eyebright into her palm, wiping it on her jeans and causing the map of the crime scene to disperse. The weight didn’t. Someone was killing Eerie.

Ashling kneeled closer to the girl, brushing her fingers over the sun-warmed dearinth.

Dyed hair and a new walk went a long way when trying to blend in, but she couldn’t snuff out years of training and natural instinct. She’d caught someone’s attention at the crime scene.

With the plethora of people around, it wasn’t surprising Ashling would feel like someone was watching her, but when she locked eyes with a jet-haired kid across the street, his focus was so solid it took her a moment to remember he couldn’t see her. She touched the wreath on her head to confirm it hadn’t slipped but his eyes tracked the movement. Then he pointed to his own head.

But, she thought unreasonably, I’m invisible.

Yet she found herself waving curiously.

He waved back.

 

Ashling spent the next morning in the library. Whatever crimes Garridon had mentioned weren’t to be found here. Either the case was hushed up or the lack of evidence brought the investigation to a stand-still. A quick hack of the coroner’s server gave her a name at least: Montgomery Grace.

Big name for such a tiny thing, Ashling frowned, studying Montgomery’s school photo. The girl was wearing the dearinth, braided into her thick locks, and her smile was clearly forced. A common symptom of staged photos, even a ridiculously beautiful creature like an Archfay could fall victim to harsh lighting.

The Grace family declined an autopsy and no address was listed, but a snoop further into the school system coughed one up. Ashling purged her drives and headed back toward her place. She’d scope out the Grace’s home later in the evening.

The lack of information, however annoying, did relax her mind in one way: the murders probably didn’t have anything to do with her.

Still off the grid. Still out of sight.

Anybody who may have any real interest in her, her family for example, wouldn’t use such dreadful means to do it. Not to mention—her gaze traveled to the doors, windows, and walls of her small underground dwelling, making sure the wards were undisturbed—they wouldn’t be able to find her.

That boy saw you, the obnoxious, truth-speaking voice in her head pointed out. She could usually ignore it, keeping its cement shoes tied tight at the bottom of her brain river. It flailed every once in a while with unhelpful comments like: “You need to go home!” and “You should really call your dad!”

 

2

Ashling had known the basement apartment of the Queen Anne was haunted. The three-story, slanted, yellowing monstrosity practically screamed ‘a triple homicide happened here!’ and that was before one noticed the smattering of boarded shut and tin-foiled windows. It had been stunning in its glory days. The door was nestled in the corner porch with the front façade of the house dominated by exposed brick surrounding one window before curving upward to join the chimney. With bay windows, multiple porches, the rounded tower with a witch’s hat turret, and fish-scale shingles, the whole look was rather picturesque; never mind the entire thing was on the brink of collapse.

She hadn’t been looking forward to punting out the ghost. For one thing, it’s aura of creepiness kept the rent way down and prospective tenants scarce. Even local college kids kept their distance, crossing the street so as not to pass directly in front of the murder house. But living with the specter of a possibly bloodthirsty maniac didn’t sound like something she was interested in being a part of either. So Ashling had looked for signs of the ghost while the landlord showed her the just-off-campus dump, assuring her the whole time that, “It’s just a little lead paint. Don’t go licking the walls and it shouldn’t be an issue in the least.”

The ghost wasn’t a psychopath though; she was a little old lady, hair in curlers, and still in her terrycloth bathrobe and slippers.

She shuffled across the cold cement floor of the basement apartment, muttering to herself the whole time. Ashling watched as she turned on the faucet to fill a kettle with water.

“Water buildup in the pipes,” the landlord explained hurriedly, shutting off the tap and completely ignorant of the ghost’s glare. “Happens in the…spring.”

Ashling agreed to take the apartment that day despite the asbestos and lead paint because the landlord gave her free reign of the detached garage. There wasn’t so much a lease as a handshake and a gentlemen’s agreement which suited her just fine. She didn’t need her name, or the fake one she’d given him, written down on any sort of official documents.

The ghost turned out to be Mrs. Widdershins, a kind, albeit meddlesome, widow who had gotten a bit scatter-brained in her old age and forgot to step out of the shower before drying her hair.

That had been Widdershins story, at any rate. Ashling suspected the old woman wasn’t being entirely forthcoming about her demise.

Still, there was no real reason to kick her to the great beyond. She kept to herself, happy as long as Ashling remembered to brew her a cup of tea every morning and set the TV to the soaps before she left. There was, however, the small trouble of the cat.

“Landlord McGoo said no pets,” Ashling had reminded Mrs. Widdershins.

Mrs. Widdershins ran her hand over the fluffy black cat who arched into it, mouth opening in a silent meow. It was a well-known fact cats could see dead people. It was a lesser-known fact Ashling could as well. “Bless that man’s heart,” she’d said in a way that meant the opposite. “Miss Mittens is simply a stray. I don’t know how she got into my little home, must have wanted to come in from the cold. I’m an old lady, Ashling. I could break my hip chasing a cat from the premises.”

Ashling scoffed. “I’ll keep your cat, but I’m not calling it Mittens. What am I supposed to tell him? He already thinks I’m nuts because you insist on listening to Sinatra at four in the afternoon and lights out at seven.”

“You’re a professional liar, Ashling, certainly you can come up with something.”

“Retired liar. Can you go haunt the attic for a bit, maybe? I do have things to do.”

Mrs. Widdershins had patted her silver (and transparent) hair back into place, pretending to be ruffled by Ashling’s abrupt brush off. She waltzed up the stairs and through the door that separated Ashling’s basement from the main floor.

So Ashling inherited a cat, who she renamed Marvin (who answered to it about as well as he answered to Mittens, which is to say, not at all) and a ghost who felt it her job to raise the already 21-year-old Ashling.

“Darling!” Mrs. Widdershins greeted Ashling, who dropped her bag on the floor and fell into the puke-green armchair she’d salvaged from a curb. “Be a love and turn on the water for me.”

Ashling heaved herself across the kitchen, doing everything to get the tea ready because that’s really what Mrs. Widdershins wanted in the first place.

“You look so tired,” she muttered, placing chilly hands on Ashling’s cheeks. “If you’d just use a little blush. I know you’re not interested in the gentlemen callers but we should always look our best. What if you were in an accident?”

“If I were in an accident my makeup would not be a major concern,” Ashling sat back down, blinking tiredly as Mrs. Widdershins cupped her ghostly hands around the mug, letting the heat sink into her.

“And stop trying to get involved in my dating life. Gentlemen callers. Honestly.”

Mrs. Widdershins pursed her lips. “Is it wrong to live vicariously through you? My well’s gone and dried up. I have to get my kicks somewhere.” Then she added, not at all under her breath, “You’d have to have a dating life for me to get involved.”

“I am not a kick,” Ashling groaned into the pillow of her arms, sick of this conversation and the eighty other times they’d had it. “And if hell freezes over and I do have someone over, I am banishing your ass upstairs so fast…”

“Speaking of upstairs, now that boy, he’s a regular Warren Beatty. New face every week and never the same one. And boys sometimes too,” she said raising a scandalized eyebrow. “Different times, I suppose. In my day it was kept behind closed doors.”

Ashling hadn’t met her upstairs neighbor, nor whomever lived above him. She knew he had an impressive music collection and good taste, she’d lived downstairs for months and had yet to hear the same album twice. There was a narrow staircase leading to the upper level, she could technically introduce herself (or let herself into his place) anytime. Normally it would have been boarded up when the house was split into apartments, but the landlord had deemed a slide-lock good enough. Ashling had reinforced the door with magic anyway, much more confident in that than a piece of two-dollar metal. “He is behind closed doors. He doesn’t know there’s some voyeuristic geriatric creeper chain-smoking Marlboros, watching from a rocking chair.”

“I am a lady,” Mrs. Widdershins said, haughty. “I smoke Virginia Slims.”

“My mistake. Leave the kid alone. Leave me alone. It’s nearly five, don’t you have your programs to watch and an early-bird dinner to get to?”

“Now you’re just being mean so you’ve obviously had a tough day,” she patted Ashling’s hand. “Tell me about it.”

“Another Eerie died downtown,” Ashling sighed. “A little girl.”

“Same as the boy?”

“Yeah. A few others too, by the sounds of things.”

“Blessed?”

Ashling rubbed at her forearms where her own Blessed marks, just below those of the Guard, were hidden under her sweater. “Yeah. Archfay.”

“Then you’ve got a Burdened terrorizing downtown Lincoln,” Mrs. Widdershins surmised.

“It’s that kind of conclusion jumping that starts wars, you know. Burdened aren’t necessarily evil and Blessed aren’t strictly good. They’re all just people.”

“They’re all just Eerie,” Mrs. Widdershins said.

“Super people,” Ashling corrected.

Mrs. Widdershins hummed thoughtfully. “You’re quite interested for someone who wasn’t getting involved.”

“I’m not getting involved,” Ashling said. “I just like to be aware. I mean, I’m not seeking anything out but if a crazy murderer falls into my lap, I’ll take him out. Whatever. If I can do something, I will. I just want to be left alone with my books and my step-cat and my freeloading ghost and do nothing. Forever.”

“Until you curl up and die of old age?” Mrs. Widdershins asked.

“You did it,” Ashling pouted. “Why can’t I?”

“You’re depressed,” the ghost said.

“Just because I want to punch walls sometimes doesn’t mean I’m depressed.”

“You don’t sleep.”

“I’ll hibernate in the winter.”

“I think you miss the life,” Mrs. Widdershins said slowly, carefully. “Maybe it’s time to get in touch with your father. Let him know there’s a beastie prowling about. I’m sure the Guard would be here in a–”

“Not an option,” Ashling cracked her neck, getting up from the table. “I’m going to grab some food and you’re going to have been asleep for ten hours by the time I get back,” Ashling snatched a book from her bed before turning around. The line of orris she’d put in a circle had been disturbed. “Widdershins! Stop moving the bucket! Every time, why?”

“I needed it,” she replied flippantly. “You should really report the leak to the landlord.”

“If he comes in here, he’s going to see all this weird shit and decide I’m either a Satan-worshipper or some kind of New Age-y weirdo. I don’t need that. And stop taking the bucket because if the leak moves the orris then things can just walk in the door upstairs and then we’re really in trouble.”

“Things?”

“You know, monsters.”

“Monsters you fight.”

“Monsters I used to fight. Not the point. Stop moving the bucket. Stop ringing the bells. Stop trying to put makeup on me while I sleep.”

“I will apologize for the bucket and the makeup. We’ve got fairies living in the lilac bushes, they make a game of the bells. I just care about you, dear, I want people to see you at your best,” Mrs. Widdershins frowned somewhat condescendingly. “Besides, between the two of us, I don’t know there’s much that could be any trouble.”

 

3

Growlers was a typical dive bar where the drinks were cold, the burgers to die for and the music decidedly not shitty (in Ashling’s expert opinion). Weeknights were relatively quiet, students preferring the deals at Iggy’s and Sandy’s to the regular priced ones at Growlers.

Ashling chose one of the single tables in the back corner, strategically located next to the kitchen. She could survey the wide expanse of the bar and had two exits if necessary. Indoor smoking had been banned but the worn birch floor belched the musty odor of decade-old cigarettes when the bar warmed up and the fans did nothing more than shove the air around.

She pulled out a dog-eared copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and set up her laptop, looking every bit the college student she was pretending to be. One earbud was in, the other dangling at her collar. She kept the music at a low level. There wasn’t any particular peril to be expected at Growlers but Ashling never dropped her watch completely.

It was exhausting.

Dive bars and crappy diners were second only to airports for people watching and Growlers was a decent mix of both. She’d stumbled upon it just the week before while meandering downtown at one in the morning. It shared an entryway with a cigar shop so unless you knew where to look, it was easy to walk right by. Ashling had been staring blearily at the ornate tobacco pipes in the window display, thinking Brawley would appreciate something like that for his birthday, when the steady background thrum decrypted itself into “Vampira” and she’d had to go in.

It was quiet enough to pretend to study but the steady stream of customers meant distractions too. She liked that. People around. Humans. It meant the world was still turning, meant there were still things worth fighting for, even if she wasn’t fighting. The hustle of lives being lived around her almost brought her peace.

Which, lately, was saying something.

A friendly girl with dreadlocks and a bee tattooed on her neck took Ashling’s order and asked what class she was studying for.

“English 367, science fiction.”

“Oh, with Price?”

“Yeah, he’s a riot.” Ashling had done her research, memorizing schedules and eavesdropping on enough classes to have an idea about a professor’s personality. She’d found herself outside of Price’s entire second lecture and ended up doing the reading for no real reason. And if she showed up every Tuesday and Thursday morning from 9:45 to 11:20, well, the school had really good Wi-Fi and nearly unlimited IP addresses to hack into. Ashling had too many wards up on the house, getting a decent signal was nearly impossible. The girl agreed and hurried off and Ashling could relax again.

She grabbed her phone, opening a self-made app that pinpointed Eerie in the vicinity. Two popped up in Growlers and five in a three-block radius. Faking a stretch, her gaze went from the two red blobs on her phone to their counterparts in the room. The two women sat at the bar together between pulsing green human dots.

Nothing gave them away as Eerie, and Ashling doubted they noticed her. With a little more tweaking she was hoping to get a read on what exactly they were, but she’d burnt herself out on hardcore computer programming for the time being. The app did its job well enough.

If pressed to guess, and Fallon would have pressed, she’d say they were Kitsune. There was something distinctly fox-like about their features, dark hair with a peculiar reddish sheen, and she didn’t miss the sly grins they shot at the three young men at the end of the bar. They were probably college students, not looking to lure the men to their doom. Probably.

There was no way to be sure of course.

Ashling clicked to the next song (“I’m goin’ back to 505–”) just as a bacon cheeseburger was placed in front of her. With a grateful smile she looked up to thank the waitress but instead found herself gawking at the coffee-colored eyes of the jet-haired kid. Who had recently spotted her at a crime scene.

“Thanks,” she said, stiffly.

The kid stole a chair from another table, the extra chair Ashling had deliberately moved away, and sat down across from her.

His nametag said REiLLY.

“Nice to see you again,” his voice was pleasant, deep and growly.

“Sorry?” Ashling asked. Lesson 7: Ignorance. Obliviousness. Inexperience.

Let them underestimate you.

“Police cars? Guns? Officers of the law?” he said. “You undercover or something?”

Guy, you have no idea.

“Nothing so fancy,” Ashling told him. “I’m just a secretary basically. I take notes for one of the detectives.”

Okay, so maybe he’d seen her. That was disconcerting but not cause for alarm. He could be an unaware psychic, able to cut through low-level magic without understanding what he was really seeing. Perhaps a human descendant, bloodline too diluted to ever be noticeable but susceptible to magic nonetheless. His forearms weren’t marked like hers, so he wasn’t a Blessed.

But he could still be a Burdened.

“So was it another like Ben?” he asked.

Ashling was immediately on alert. That was quite a name to pick out of thin air especially since Ashling had given him no information about yesterday’s crime. She asked calmly, “You knew Benjamin Barre?”

“Is this off the record?”

She held up her empty hands.

“I had a couple classes with him. Nice enough. A little quiet, I guess, liked to be left alone. We had to do a group project on Paradise Lost freshmen year.”

Then why mention him? Ashling wondered.

“So was it like that? And Kay Holiday?”

“Who?” Who?

“The girl who died in…March? It was kind of like Ben. Weekend after St. Patrick’s Day, right. About the same location. We don’t get many suspicious deaths here so they tend to stick out.”

Just after Fallon was killed, her brain pointed out unhelpfully.

Now she had a new name at least, even if it pulled up the same non-answers as Ben and Montgomery.

“Did you know Kay?”

“In passing, never talked to her. So which officer do you work for?”

“Why?” Ashling asked, feeling like she was on the wrong side of the interrogation.

Then, of course, she had to remember this wasn’t an interrogation. As far as this REiLLY knew, they were just talking. She never wished there was an off switch on her training but sometimes it was really, really annoying.

“Well, six of ’em just walked in and I figured you were waiting.”

A group of officers had entered, taking a table at the front corner where they too could eagle-eye the entire bar. Though dressed as civilians, there was an air of force around them. And their shirts were all one size too large, meaning they were carrying service pistols.

“None of them,” Ashling admitted. “Good eye though.”

“They come in a lot,” he was still looking at them, drawing the officer’s attention their way, which was the last thing Ashling needed. Well, not the last. But still.

“You’re a student?” Ashling queried abruptly, getting his focus on her.

“Senior,” he said. “Sorry. Reilly. My name is Reilly and I do have manners.”

He held his hand out and she shook it. “Ashling.”

“Ashling,” he repeated. “Good shake. So note taking for cops, that’s got to be kind of cool. Criminal justice major?”

“English,” Ashling told him and then added with a bit of warning, “makes me incredibly meticulous.”

Reilly excused himself for a moment, hopping up at a look from the busy dreadlocked girl to take the officer’s orders. He chatted casually, nodding along before pointing his pen at her like a goddamn spotlight.

Twelve eyes trained on her only to find Ashling flipping diligently through her book, searching down a specific, non-existent passage while clutching her cheeseburger.

What exactly was Reilly telling them? She couldn’t bail now, they’d already gotten a look at her. And she hadn’t even finished her burger. Or interrogating Reilly.

He sat back down. “They didn’t seem to know you,” he said with a hint of accusation.

Ashling shrugged. “Kind of a fly on the wall. I’m not really a person down there.”

Reilly appeared to accept her answer but the crease in his brow said not quite. “That would explain why none of them were talking to you yesterday.”

That’s because I was invisible, she didn’t say.

“It was kind of a tough scene.”

“Anything I should worry about?” he asked but didn’t give her time to answer, already up and moving toward the now ticked, dreadlock girl. They exchanged quick words, Dreadlock’s anger abating when Reilly winked at her.

“Not if you’re human,” Ashling muttered under her breath.

Ashling opened the Eerie app. The same two red dots pulsed at the bar. Ashling herself registered as black, glowing faintly in the corner, and moving down the bar top, a blinding white blob.

What the…had that been there before?

Reilly was across the room when she looked up but she tracked him, and the white dot, moving gracefully through the increasing crowd. He dropped a few pitchers and frosty glasses at the policemen’s table.

“White isn’t in your coding,” she told the app. She shut it down and reopened it. There it was again, across from her now.

Red…Eerie.

Green…Human

White…

And now, Reilly was infinitely more interesting than her burger.

 

His Growlers employee shirt was short-sleeved and his forearms were blank of Blessed marks, although a few human tattoos decorated his skin. Ashling commented on them, earning a delighted laugh when she finished the lyric scrawled down his inner bicep. “Does it hurt to hear them lying? Was this the only world you had?

Short of accosting him, she wasn’t likely to find out whether the marks of the Burdened were on his shoulders. Besides they, just like Blessed, showed up in red, not white. He didn’t seem particularly dangerous.

Then again, neither did she.

Could he have been the one in the alley who had taken the life of Montgomery Grace? But then why would he talk to her about it? Unless he just wanted to find out what she (and the police) knew, if they were onto him. Her answers had given nothing away, she was certain, and he had actually supplied her with information.

Probably false information.

She wouldn’t know until she got a look at Kay Holiday. If he was the killer and bragging, he’d eventually tell her everything, confident in his ability to silence her. Unlike the young Archfay, Ashling was prepared to defend herself with more than a glamour.

Espionage settled on her like an old coat, familiar and fitted. Normal girls probably got flirty and excited when cute boys sat across from them (albeit maybe not while discussing local murders). Yet here she was, contemplating the likelihood of Reilly being a serial killer.

He didn’t feel threatening though, not deep in her bones. He felt like a song she hadn’t heard in years that suddenly popped up, reminding her how much she loved it.

“So Kay, Ben, and a little girl.”

“Little girl?” Reilly’s voice caught. Fake, Ashling accused silently.

“Sorry,” she winced. “Any others?”

“You don’t know?” he asked.

“I’m pretty new at the station,” she said. “I haven’t had a chance to go through all the files. Glorified secretary, remember? Not a detective.”

Ashling glanced at Reilly’s hands. He had a habit of gesturing wildly but now his palms were flat on the tabletop, fingertips idly tapping out a rhythm that sounded like “Lola” by the Kinks. His nails were kept short but not bitten. Veins as blue as angelite stood out against his skin, making the fresh cuts on his left knuckles all the more apparent. His right knuckles were unscathed telling her he was left handed and had recently been in a fight.

“Sure, sure,” Reilly replied. “I only started paying attention after Kay. Connor took her death really hard.”

“Connor?”

“My buddy Connor.”

“They were close?”

“I didn’t think so but he took off the week after she died. Had to go home for a bit. He was real torn up.”

A boy who was friends with this glowing white blob had to “take off’ after the murder.

Not suspicious at all.

“I gotta get back to work,” Reilly said when Dreadlocks passed by and knocked Reilly’s head with her elbow. “You should stop in again.”

“I’m heading out anyway. It was,” interesting, curious, semi-annoying. “Nice to meet you.”

“You too, Ashling.”

 

The Grace family lived on Sheridan Boulevard, a ritzy street lined with the kind of artsy and well-manicured houses that made people wonder what the homeowners did for a living. Their mansion was ivy-swamped brick with a wrought-iron fence and a wrap-around porch. The grounds were in full bloom despite the late season. Archfays, any of the Fayfolk for that matter, were meticulous about their plants.

Ashling knew what would happen when she wrapped her hand around the gate, so she wasn’t surprised when her skin sizzled and burned. She flexed her fingers a few times to ease the sting, waiting.

The fence hissed. If she could speak Fay, which she was always meaning to learn, it sounded like, “What the hell do you want?”

The pressure around her increased as she dug through her things. The property, and the people who owned it, were on edge. If Ashling pulled something dangerous out of her bag, she’d be eviscerated before she had a chance to act.

Fays were proactive like that.

She decided on Loosestrife for peace, resting a branch before the gate like an offering.

The plant vanished and the gate squeaked open.

Ashling took a seat on the porch swing since she wouldn’t be allowed inside the house. On this side of the fence the glamour wasn’t dampened so the malachite green of the grounds was blatantly supernatural compared to the Graces’ autumnal neighbors. The Archfays missed Ireland, so they kept pieces of it with them.

And yet, the grass closest to the house was beginning to yellow. Sickness was spreading. Grief.

“Mr. Grace,” Ashling bowed her head at the man who joined her on the porch. “I have a few questions about your daughter.”

“As do I.”

He was above average height, over six feet, with willowy limbs. Montgomery took after her father’s dusky skin. His suit was wrinkled and unkempt, sleeves shoved up to his elbows. Ashling found the slender circlets on his forearms.

“I did not realize the Guard was concerned in our affairs.”

She didn’t ask how he knew, just kept her features schooled. “I won’t trivialize your daughter’s murder as an affair,” Ashling made her voice light but there was steel beneath it. “And I’m not here as a Guard.”

“Then what can you do?”

Ah, so now he knew she didn’t have any real authority. Which was kind of her point.

“I don’t have to answer to anyone, for one thing. Except Montgomery. Also a boy named Ben.”

“If you are not investigating under orders, what kind of justice can you grant my only child?”

Ashling sided with honesty for a change. “I guess that depends on what kind of justice you want. Guy locked up…that’s not really my specialty.”

“No, I suppose not.”

“Has anyone else been here?”

“Other than the human police, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

Mr. Grace shook his head, shoulders drooping. The Archfay were a proud people and Ashling had never seen one in less than pristine form. Perfect, refined in every way. But just as capable of breaking as anyone else. He was showing her that weakness now.

“King Titan didn’t send anyone?”

“I doubt his highness knows.”

Probably not, Ashling agreed, shame churning in her gut. Because I’m hiding from my family so the Guard doesn’t know and if the Guard doesn’t know then the king surely won’t.

“Mr. Grace, this is going to sound cruel, but why was Montgomery alone?”

He gave a dry laugh. “Because this is a safe place. Because she is protected. Because she knows how to defend herself. Because she has made that walk a hundred times. Any number of reasons that do not matter now because you are right. My daughter was alone.”

“Enemies?” Ashling asked.

Rather than answer, Mr. Grace drew something from his pocket, holding it close to his eye for inspection.

“Montgomery was wearing that in her hair.”

“It belonged to her late mother. I meant it to protect her,” he traced the swoops and lines of the dearinth with one long finger.

“She tried a glamour but it was too late, they’d already found her,” Ashling hoped the knowledge helped, that the dearinth had done its best. “And it was quick.”

Mr. Grace didn’t so much nod as lose strength in his neck. “I’ve told you what I know, Guard. Do you wish me to keep this between us?”

“If you could leave me out of it that would be super helpful,” Ashling admitted.

“And what of the Grimalkin?” Mr. Grace asked.

Unease dripped down Ashling’s spine.

The Grimalkin had been on her tail after Georgia but she’d given them the slip within a week. She hadn’t seen any signs of them in a few months but it was kind of their M.O. By the time you saw them, if you saw them, it was already too late.

“If King Titan sends them, Angus and the others, tell them what you need to. They might be looking for me anyway. Don’t, uh, don’t try to hide anything from them,” Ashling warned, dusting herself off as she stood. “May I have something of hers?”

Mr. Grace made to stand as well, then stopped himself. He tossed her the dearinth barrette.

“No, sir. I meant…”

“If you are attempting what I believe, it will aid you. Return it to me at your convenience.”

She couldn’t tell him what she really wanted. She couldn’t say that she understood his loss, knew what he was feeling. How life had tilted, imploded, leaving you standing in a world that expected you to keep moving, to move on, without knowing how to take the first steps.

Fallon was always better at the emotional stuff. If he was on her left, where he was meant to be and not six feet under, he’d say something thoughtful and profound and Mr. Grace would nod and smile a watery smile.

But Fallon was dead. Ashling was on her own.

Still, she couldn’t shake her factory setting that Fallon was waiting for her to catch up, keep on, just like any other mission. She expected that was natural. He had always been there, it had never crossed her mind that, one day, he wouldn’t be.

“Thank you.”

She watched him from the gate until, with the weariness of someone much older, he returned to his empty house.

 

Ashling took the bus from Sheridan back toward campus. She got out three stops from her place hoping the walk would wear her out (unlikely). And maybe hoping a little bit that the bastard who had killed Montgomery and Ben would try his luck with her (also unlikely but she could use the fight).

She paused at the fountain in front of the student union. The sunny day had gone cold so Ashling retrieved her gloves from her bag and tightened her scarf. The chill of the concrete seeped through her jeans as she opened the Eerie app on her phone. Nothing. The closest red pings were in the dorms, more like her pretending to be normal.

But even the abnormal know you’re different. The Archfay knew you’re a Guard, Phantom-Fallon pointed out from beside her.

“Was,” Ashling muttered, forcing the familiar illusion away. She shut down her phone and scanned the area.

A few acres of open grass stretched behind her to the Kaufman Center, the Smarty-Pants dorms. During the day, and in warmer months, the grass would be covered with Frisbee players and sun bathers. And in the cold months, armies of grotesque snowman held battle on the space. It was empty now. Students lingered in the Union, studying or chatting with friends. An image of Reilly sprang to her mind.

Broad shoulders, slim frame, shabby boots. Black hair, dimples, unmarked forearms. White light.

It had to be a glitch, Ashling figured as she carried on, taking the long way toward the house. But even a mix of green and red wouldn’t make white and everyone else was reading just fine. It looked like another night of programming was in front of her. And the fact that that was actually somewhat exciting was a little sad.

Although it was code or watch television with Widdershins.

“–any trouble.”

She should have kept going rather than moonwalk her steps back to peek around the building. But it was two against one, in a dingy alley, and the poor kid in worn out Chucks didn’t look like he had a fiver, let alone anything worth mugging.

Human problems.

From the corner of her eye, Montgomery Grace shook her head in disappointment.

“–pockets,” the taller thug was saying.

“Just this once,” Ashling told the figment of her imagination before stepping into the alley and clearing her throat. She already held pretend conversations with her dead brother, adding a teeny bopper to the mix only asked for trouble. “Everything okay here, gents?”

Two faces stared at her in alarm before writing her off altogether while the muggee tried to shoo her away.

“We’re good,” he said, surreptitiously waving his hand like he was petting an invisible dog.

“No,” Mugger One’s eyes crinkled. He was grinning under the scarf pulled just below his eyes. “C’mere, baby.”

Pet names. Now Ashling wanted to break his teeth on principle.

She tripped to the muggee’s side looking, for all intents and purposes, confused and concerned and just a little naive.

Mugger Two was starting to panic, his stare flitting between his boss and the new arrival. This whole thing was beginning to feel like a setup. The boy had been walking slowly, distractedly through downtown before veering off suddenly into the alley. Plus he’d had his headphones in, making him an easy mark. And rather than keep his eyes down and hand his wallet over, he’d been talking to them. Then the girl showed up…something about her made him nervous.

Like the way she was balanced easily on the balls of her feet. Or that her hands were in loose fists at her side. Or, rather than go get help, she waltzed into a mugging.

“Bro,” he tried to warn the other man.

“What you got in the bag?”

Enough steel and magic to turn you inside out.

“What?” she said instead with wide-eyed innocence that had Mugger Two backing away.

Mugger One seemed to be catching on, raising his pistol.

That was all Ashling needed to see. She took hold of his wrist, ducked his arm to spin behind him. Cranking down, she forced him to release the weapon, then ran his forehead into the cement wall.

Mugger Two was already halfway down the street when she turned her attention on him.

“Oh, rad,” she picked up the weapon, noticing instantly its lack of heft. And the fact it was plastic. “Pellet gun,” she muttered, angry now.

She may have saved the kid a few bruises and five bucks, but she’d drawn attention to herself over a freaking pellet gun.

“You good?” she asked the muggee, who was staring at her like she’d asked, “If Train A is going 45 miles per hour and Train B is going 82 miles per hour, how long before they meet on Jupiter?”

“Are you in shock?” she asked. Then, “Do you speak English?”

He glared at her. “Yes. I didn’t need your help.”

“Yeah, I know,” she indicated the plastic gun. “I’m embarrassed for everyone involved.”

“Mostly him,” the boy kicked at the mugger’s shoe.

Light broke out over them as a nearby door opened. Ashling threw up a palm to shield her eyes, instinctively reaching into her jacket for a blade.

Reilly sidled out, not looking up from the wad of bills he was smoothing. “Hey, man. Reese grabbed me on the way–” His voice was muffled behind the iPod held between his teeth but trailed off as he finally noticed the boy, Ashling, and the groaning mugger at their feet. He gave a long suffering sigh. “What kind of trouble are you in now?”

“I didn’t do this,” he indicated the mugger.

“Connor.”

“I didn’t!” He held up his hands, showing both sides. Reilly noted his blemish-free knuckles.

“And you,” he tucked the iPod and cash in his pockets.

Ashling found herself holding up her palms pointlessly. The fingerless gloves she wore would have protected her hands if she’d hit him. That was kind of the point. “I smashed his face in the wall,” she said.

“Did he deserve it?”

Ashling had never been chastised. If she’d disappointed her father, he was forthright in explaining what exactly she’d done wrong. She preferred his method to Reilly’s as her brain scrambled to decide what did I do and how much does he already know?

“He called me ‘baby’,” Ashling said.

Reilly held open the door. “Let’s get Carol Danvers here a drink.”

Ashling hesitated but the weight of the dearinth in her pocket dragged her forward.

Connor knew Kay Holiday. She wasn’t likely to get another chance to question him.

She followed both boys inside.

 

Growlers was busier now but Reilly managed to snag them two barstools. Ashling didn’t like it. Even turned toward the boys beside her it felt as if her back was to the crowd and while the mirrors eased her mind it was a pain checking them.

Reilly stood, squished between Connor and Ashling on the stools.

He’d tugged off his lumpy knit stocking cap, dirty blond hair sticking up akimbo. The removal of his coat revealed a stacked frame. Likely he’d been able to muscle his way out of the mugging, but the pistol, while admittedly fake, must have given him pause.

“Run your mouth again, hothead?” Reilly asked.

“Attempted robbery, Reilly. I’m the victim.”

“Would-be victim,” Ashling muttered.

“Speaking of,” Connor pulled out his wallet and Ashling caught a glimpse of a neat stack of bills. Not as broke as he makes himself seem, she noted.

Lesson 11: Live below your means. 

He slid a ten toward the bartender and asked Ashling what she wanted.

“Jack and Coke.”

“Girl after my own heart,” Reilly grinned at her, dimples obvious in his scruffy cheeks.

“To…”

“Ashling,” Reilly supplied.

“Ashley.”

“Ling,” Reilly and Ashling corrected as one.

“Ashling. May we never call her ‘baby’ lest our foreheads be busted in.”

“Bruised, at worst,” Ashling insisted after taking a sip. “Maybe a slight concussion.”

“Remind me not to attack you,” Reilly said and then grimaced. “Sorry.”

“Another like Ben and Kay,” Connor muttered, somber now. “Montgomery Grace.”

Reilly showed no sign of recognition.

“Did you know her? Reilly said you knew Kay.”

Connor gave Reilly a sharp glare.

“She was just a kid,” Connor didn’t actually answer the question.

“You know,” Reilly began sagely. “Hanging out in alleys isn’t going to solve any crimes. Nor is picking fights with everyone you see.”

The cold had just dispersed from his face in time to show Connor’s irritated blush.

I make little lies and then I pull them apart,” Reilly said to Ashling, shoving Connor good-naturedly with his elbow.

She narrowed her eyes at him over her drink. “Think something dark’s living down in my heart.

“Three points for the new girl,” Reilly winked at her then rested his hand on Connor’s shoulder, shaking him slightly. “I’m by your side, you know that. But I have to actually be with you to defend your honor and pick up your teeth.”

“Are you lecturing me because I didn’t wait?” Connor asked and the jet-haired boy laughed.

“Hold up,” Ashling drew their attention. “You’re seeking people out?”

“How do you two even know each other?” Connor asked instead.

“Ashling and I go all the way back to yesterday afternoon when I met her starry-eyed gaze across the crime scene tape and then whisked her away for a romantic dinner.”

Connor’s eyebrows were drawn when he studied her.

“That story is both true and completely false at the same time.”

“I think I can see through the embellishments. Crime tape?”

“True,” Ashling said. “I take notes for a cop.”

False.

Ashling shrugged out of her canvas coat (an incredible find at the local military surplus) mindful of the weapons squirreled within, the heat was picking up in the packed bar. She didn’t miss the way both boys checked her out.

Time to go.

Not so fast, said the barrette.

“So you knew Kay?” she pried again.

“Yes,” Connor’s voice was strained.

Ashling’s phone was in her hand a moment later. Not wanting to appear blatantly rude, she offered sympathy. “That must have been tough.”

“I just want answers.”

She typed in her password.

“Getting yourself into stupid situations is not the way to do that.”

Ashling disagreed, she often found herself in stupid situations, but was grateful for Reilly’s comment. It distracted Connor. She opened the Eerie app. It took decades to load.

“No one else is helping. And now Grace…”

“The police–”

Connor cut him off with a humorless laugh. “The police.

The human police, is what he meant.

Reilly’s stupid white blip was pulsing obnoxiously bright, reminding Ashling she had non-bar things to do. Her own dot was there as well. And between them, in a sea of green humans, was a singular red dot.

Connor was an Eerie.

Ashling reigned in her abrupt internal screaming.

 

Ashling had always had a knack for coming up with a multitude of contingency plans in a matter of moments. Her father had called her dangerously clever while Fallon had dubbed her a kiss-ass.

She rallied. Taking a moment to really look at him. Not a Kitsune. Too thick to be a Fay. Too blond to be a troll. Too land-locked to be a Selkie. That only left about ten million things he could be.

Take what you know and go from there, imaginary Fallon advised as usual, staring longingly at her drink. Lesson two.

Connor was an Eerie and Reilly was a white blip.

Connor didn’t know who Ashling was or he’d be laughing and swan diving into his newly acquired wealth. Someone was bound to have a warrant out for her.

Connor was aware someone was gunning for Blessed and he was going to get himself killed.

Her contingency plans ran the gamut from running away and forgetting the whole debacle to kidnapping and torture for information.

Or try making friends with them, she could picture Montgomery suggesting.

Ashling wasn’t allowed friends.

“Where’d you learn to fight like that?” Connor asked her. “ROTC?”

“Girl needs a hobby,” Ashling responded casually, taking another sip of her drink, which was becoming more melted ice than Jack and Coke. She eased away, unwilling to blow her cover for whatever knowledge Connor might have. She could tail him, maybe. Keep trouble away without getting involved. Conversation flowed between the two boys with Ashling answering only direct questions with half-truths until Connor pushed off the counter.

He drained the last of his beverage. “I’m out.”

Reilly’s expression slipped into concern but it was masked with agreement by the time Connor had gotten his jacket on. “Yeah, ‘m busted. Rising Sun?”

“I’m going home, Reilly,” Connor’s gaze shot to her, giving Ashling a look she didn’t completely understand. A look that said he definitely didn’t like her.

Connor threaded through the crowd to the door and Reilly caught Ashling’s wrist, tugging her along. Strangers grabbing at her usually resulted in a harsh glare and threat of bodily harm, but she allowed Reilly’s warm hand slip into her palm.

“Connor!” Reilly shouted, pushing through a group of smokers surrounding the front of Growlers to chase after his friend.

“I don’t need a guard,” Connor said over his shoulder.

That word, falling so casually from his mouth had Ashling tripping over her feet. Reilly’s grip intensified as he steadied her. “Alright?”

She nodded, glaring at the sidewalk as if it had risen up against her personally and avoided looking at Connor. Why that word? And did he seem to be speaking louder than was strictly necessary or was that her imagination? Well, he was definitely eyeing the darkened door across the street.

Ashling reached into her jacket pocket.

“You’re not walking by yourself,” Reilly said with finality. “I’ve played along well enough, stitching you up, but you’re going to get in over your head.”

“You can’t be around all the time.”

“Watch me,” Reilly sneered back, stepping closer.

“C’mon,” Connor didn’t look angry anymore, he looked nervous. Worried eyes snapping between the boy getting in his face and the alcove. “Okay, man. Alright. Walk me home, geez. But don’t think I’m gonna kiss you goodnight.”

Reilly gasped, scandalized. “Better not. You didn’t even buy me dinner.”

“I buy you dinner all the time!” They were walking away and Ashling only had a moment before they called her along. She wrestled the minute chunk of moldavite from her pocket, growling when her glove got caught, and brought the stone to her eye.

The man’s shoulders filled the doorway, a behemoth in the small space. Whatever invisibility charm he’d cast was powerful, much more so than the puny one she’d done yesterday. His face was indistinct, hidden behind a halfmask, but there were only a few people she knew who were so intimidating while doing nothing more than standing there. Five of them were related to her.

Four others wouldn’t have hesitated to kill her.

So it had to be Angus.

She’d bailed on the Guard and they sent the Grimalkin to clean up the mess.

The man gave her a nod and kicked up his spell, disappearing completely, even from the moldavite. So much for standing still.

Angus had found her.

 

“That doesn’t count as dinner at all,” Reilly was saying when Ashling caught up. “We got kicked out before intermission. It was barely a meeting, let alone a date.”

Connor reared back, hand to his chest, feigning hurt. “There was a cocktail hour.”

“Which, you’ll remember, is when we downed all those drinks.”

“They really didn’t appreciate us yelling that Hamlet’s dad was right behind them.”

Reilly pulled Ashling’s elbow through his, putting her firmly between the two boys as they walked. “And then we were asked never to return to the Lincoln Community Playhouse.”

Ashling had been concerned that Reilly knew of the Eerie but she was beginning to doubt it. Though no hard and fast rule in regards to telling humans existed, Eerie rarely did. Things got complicated. Humans got freaked. If Reilly knew, he wouldn’t be walking through the chilly Lincoln streets with such little care. He was too human, stupid white blob, to be so casual. Connor though, while speaking with as much ease, kept watch as much as Ashling.

“This is me,” Connor told her, shaking his keys and pointing toward a squat building that reminded her more of a maximum security prison than a dorm complex. “And now you two morons have to walk all the way back. Ashling will keep you safe, I’m sure.”

“I’m counting on it.”

Connor thanked Ashling again, half-heartedly, and told Reilly he’d see him later.

Believing them dismissed and anxious to go, Ashling turned on her heel but Reilly’s hand once again held her in place.

What was she doing, letting him put his hands on her? Connor had clearly caught onto her No Touching vibe, not linking up with them the way Reilly expected him to. Reilly seemed to have no such radar or really any boundaries for that matter.

“Hold up,” Reilly indicated the uppermost window to the left.

A light flipped on a few minutes later and Connor appeared, waving before tapping the glass twice.

“Now we can go.”

“You’re very protective of him,” Ashling said as they headed back toward campus. The walk to Connor’s had taken nearly thirty minutes, being a good stretch from Growlers. Ashling didn’t mind the distance or the cold, but being so on edge all the time was draining.

“He’s my best friend.”

“Is that all?” she tried for casual. Non-judgmental in the way that always sounded more judgmental, so a comment like “It’s cool if you’re gay” suddenly turned into a five-minute tirade about just how cool with this you are.

“I’d know if I were dating my best friend.”

“Would you?” she asked again, genuinely this time. Dating was not something she’d had experience with. Between four brothers and her occupation, threats like “I’ll kill you if you hurt her” weren’t exactly idle.

And that was discounting Ashling’s own capabilities.

“I think he was into Kay,” Reilly still hadn’t unlinked their arms. They hit the street, ignoring the red flashing hand that told them not to cross. “It was new and he never said anything but…well, you don’t just freak out for no reason right?”

No, you certainly don’t, Fallon hummed, a gut punch reminding her she only had three brothers now. Three brothers she hadn’t seen in months.

“So how did you and Connor meet?”

Reilly smirked, dimples deepening, and he side-eyed her. “Still not together. Connor grew up kind of sheltered. Moving to the dorms was his first taste of freedom and while most kids would get a tattoo or party with their super-awesome roommate Reilly, Connor…it was like he was trying really hard to be normal. He went to class, he did his homework. I managed to get him plastered once on Halloween, dude can hold his alcohol. He bought all the assigned textbooks, crazy stuff, okay?”

Connor’s behavior sounded familiar. He was trying to be human.

“And that was strange to you?”

“Yes but no. That was just…Connor. The strange was all the stuff he didn’t know how to do. Laundry, dishes, cleaning his freaking room. I guess all that stuff had been done for him at home. It was about three weeks into school when he asked me how to ring for laundry service. Once I stopped laughing and realized he was serious, I taught him about dishes and laundry and picking up your own stuff.”

“And that was that?”

Reilly blushed. “Not really. I mean, I’d die for the kid now, that’s important. But he was so odd! I was ninety percent sure my roommate was an alien, like for real. I still do think it a little. It was a few days after that, we still weren’t hanging out, right? I feel like I’m not being clear on how locked-on he was, no matter how much I pestered him.”

“Gotcha.”

“I’m just getting out of class when Connor calls. Unusual because we didn’t have anything to talk about. He’s panicking about something, begging me to get back to the dorms, so I bust ass over there thinking he’s been shot. Which, considering what I found, may have been a better alternative,” Reilly scrubbed a hand down his face. “Bubbles.”

“Bubbles?”

“Bubbles, goddamned bubbles everywhere. All over the kitchen.”

Ashling grimaced in retroactive embarrassment. “The dishwasher.”

“The dishwasher. Apparently I’d said ‘soap’ meaning ‘detergent’ and he heard ‘soap’ as in ‘whatever is soap and nearby.’ Lemony-scented Dawn soap being vomited out of our dishwasher. Like the Blob except not funny. We cleaned up and he offered to take me to dinner and that’s that.”

“Your first date,” Ashling grinned at him as they passed the Rococo Theater.

“Our first date,” Reilly agreed. “Then, of course, he got overly obsessed with being all domestic. Took a bunch of cooking classes, learned how to knit. I mean, he’s not very good but he tries. Oh, if he ever offers to make you grilled cheese, let him, it’s amazing. I mean, the kid is a great, big ball of weird but it’s kind of adorable.  And he had loosened up until recently, even skipped class once or twice. Senioritis probably but…maybe something else.”

“He’s a good guy, then?”

“Oh totally,” Reilly thought better of it. “Okay, maybe not. He’s kind of brash and he doesn’t get along with a lot of people, even before he started seeking out fights. Not particularly even-tempered. So where did you grow up?”

Sounded like a Burdened to her. That didn’t bode well.

Ashling had a set of prepared answers for small talk like this. All made up, naturally. But for some reason, stupidly, she wanted to tell Reilly the truth. Or as much of the truth as was safe. She’d already broken her top rule and dropped her real name.

“Here and there, we moved around. I came here from Georgia. What about you?” Always much smarter to be the one asking questions.

“I left New York the minute I could. I’d finished up my GED about six months before but…you know. I worked in a couple shops and bars while I waited.”

Bad home life went unsaid. Bailed and never looked back.

“How’d you settle on Lincoln?”

“Drove around until money started getting low. I was sleeping in my car at a truck stop, quick, hide the pity in your eyes,” Reilly snickered. “Dude was having trouble with his car, I helped him out. He said he knew a guy who needed a mechanic at Red’s, that’s Big Red Auto, down on 9th. Giles ended up being a lifesaver. Told me to get my ass enrolled in school, helped me find a place to live after freshman year. He’s a professor and helped me to get some scholarships and a good deal on tuition.”

Their pace slowed until they came to a halt on the sidewalk outside of Ashling’s place.

“Well, this is me,” she said, indicating the darkened path that trailed to the back of the house and the spider-infested staircase leading to her door. She liked the spiders. Sometimes they left her notes in the morning, reminding her to take out the garbage or letting her know it would rain.

“Here?” he asked, pointing a thumb toward the house.

“Thanks for walking me, I’m–”

Reilly scoffed. “It’s gonna be tough to give me the brush off, little lady. I live here too. Main floor.”

“You live here?”

“House of the Rising Sun, I call it, because of the detail,” he pointed to the tallest peak of the house where the shingles had, at one time, portrayed a vibrant sunburst panel. Now the wood was faded and cracked, bleached from harsh Nebraska summers. “The sin and misery speaks for itself.”

Ashling went tight-lipped. Reilly was her upstairs neighbor.

She considered briefly both running away and pretending to stay outside to smoke. Most likely, Reilly would just try to bum a cigarette she didn’t actually have or keep watch until she returned anyway.

Reilly shook his keys at her, delighted. “Well look at that,” he said. “We’re neighbors.”

Look at that.

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