C. B. Channell has previously published short fantasy, horror, and mystery fiction with Daw Books, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Flame Tree Publishing, Five Star Press, Scare Street, and Twilight Tales Presents.
On This Date
by C. B. Channell
I sighed. I’d just walked into the precinct room, hadn’t even taken off my hat or headed toward the coffee pot or my desk.
“Yes, Captain?” I said less respectfully than I could have. I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful, but I’d already worked three double shifts in the past week. As a fae sorceress, I didn’t need as much sleep as humans, but still, a morning jolt before being summoned would have been nice.
He tossed his head over his shoulder, toward his office. I followed, noting out of my peripheral vision the sour look on Lietuenant Morris’s face. Ordinarily, as a sergeant, I would answer to him and he would liase between Captain Jorgenson and me. But my division, the Supernatural, was just too strange, and frankly, too interesting for the captain to wait for Morris’s biased reports.
Inside his office I stood, my hands folded behind my back. It wasn’t just a posture of respect; I have six fingers on each hand and they’re unusually long. Mostly my appearance doesn’t attract much attention, but the tips of my ears and my fingers disconcert some humans. Including the captain, despite his insistence otherwise.
“What do you make of this?” he asked, not bothering to ask me to sit. He slid a photo across the desk.
I leaned over it. It depicted a stand of birch trees, papery bark peeling, leaving eye- and mouth- like shapes. I couldn’t see anything particularly special about it. I placed my right hand on the bottom corner to adjust it as I peered closer.
As soon as my finger made contact the photo flashed a brilliant white light, temporarily blinding my captain, but not me. The light “burned” away some weak spell that covered it, revealing a vertical line of figures.
“Look at this,” I said when the captain had had his few seconds to gain his sight back, tracing the characters down.
He peered at it. “It looks like… 8, u, l, l, o n. Or maybe that’s a B. And those might be capital I’s, not lower case l’s. Or maybe… ,” he drifted off, his eyes blinking rapidly.
“Okay,” I said quickly, covering the photo and letting him get himself together again. “Those are runes, and they affect your eyesight so you can’t really read them. The more you look at them, the more confused you get.”
“But you can read them,” he said. His tone indicated he was more wary than impressed. I suppressed a frustrated sigh.
“I will,” I replied. “I can’t translate it immediately, but at least it doesn’t fog my mind.”
He shot me a nasty look, but hey. What was I supposed to do? Lie? Let him stare at them until he was a babbling idiot? I pulled my evidence handling gloves from my pocket. Unlike the humans’ gloves, these were spelled to keep magical objects from interfering with my and my team’s skills. I brought the photo to our resident warlock who was particularly good at old and weird languages.
“What do you think, Hank?” I asked when I laid it before him. His third eye flashed when he looked at it and he quickly put his gloves and sunglasses on. After a few minutes, he sat back and pulled the glasses off.
“Well, Sarge, it looks like there’s more than one language here, and it shifts.” I knew that the glasses allowed him to watch it shift. It would have allowed me to see the shift, too, except I likely still wouldn’t have been able to read it.
“Do they both show the same message?” I asked.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he replied. “I’ll let you know.”
I nodded. “If you can do it safely, get a non-magical copy of that made for me.”
I walked away without waiting for his response, knowing he heard me. Hank was cantankerous, but he was the best at the things he did, and we needed him. I didn’t want to start him off on one of his ego-trips. They got too loud and the Lieutenant would immediately have something to say. I’d refereed more than one altercation between the two, and inevitably the Captain got involved, though almost never through my request. Still, it reflected badly on me if my department didn’t get along with their superiors (a term they passionately disagreed with), and we struggled enough with the chain of command as it was. Not that the Captain would ever take responsibility for that.
I managed to get a cup of so-called coffee from the antiquated machine in the hallway. They had a coffee maker in the break room, but I was still tired and not in the mood to deal with the snide remarks from the human officers. Not only were they suspicious of us, they totally resented that an outsider female got this job. At least they only suspected me of casting a spell to get the job, not of sleeping my way into it.
Truth was, I wasn’t the most powerful sorceress out there, but I was half fae, which meant I had connections with that otherworld. That was enough to scare anyone who understood what it meant, and it was why the magical officers treated me with respect regardless of their true feelings.
One advantage of my fae blood was that I could see through human mendacity. Hank especially resented my position, seeing it as “legacy” favoritism. I understood; as a human who had worked hard to master his magical abilities he was inclined toward merit-based rewards, a very human instinct. But facts were facts, and my fae heritage gave me skills that no human could ever achieve no matter how gifted or hardworking. It was no different, really, than a family of exceptional musicians or athletes, but there was no explaining that.
I sighed into the brown water and white powder mix that pretended to be coffee. I stared at the copy of the photo, tried to let the place speak to me without the magical interference. While I could see the interference clearly enough, I couldn’t see through it, which told me that either another fae had spelled it or an unusually powerful human dabbling in dark magic. There weren’t many of them out there, but there were a few, like Hank. Personally, I suspected they (and Hank) had fae blood from generations back, but not enough for it to show.
Without the magic the runes looked just like peeling paper bark. I blinked, rubbed my eyes, blinked again, but it was nothing. I was aggravated; there weren’t many types of fae magic I couldn’t identify.
I started. It was Hank. I scowled at his familiarity when I noticed Lieutenant Morris glaring at me.
“Sergeant Flin,” I corrected. “And what?”
Hank’s eyes narrowed and he nodded but he didn’t correct his insubordination. I let it go, though I could feel Morris’s hateful stare burning.
Hank laid the magical photograph over my copy. I sucked in a breath too quickly, unable to hide my startlement.
“Does that mean anything to you?” he asked.
I stared, a sick feeling in my gut, numbness crawling from my digits up my limbs. Something else had emerged, and it could not be mistaken for vague shapes formed by peeling bark.
“Yes,” I managed to croak at Hank. I could feel him looking askance at me but I dared not meet his eyes. I already sounded weak. I couldn’t look it as well. “I’ll take it from here,” I added, my voice, if not stronger, was at least sharper. He stepped back and I shot a glance at him. He had the good manners to be looking down when I did. I hurried to the captain’s office, ignoring Morris.
“Well?” Jorgenson asked before I had the door closed. I showed him.
He frowned and and turned to his computer.
“It’s not a date of a crime,” I said quickly. He glanced up, his eyebrows knit into one long caterpillar. “Or, if it is, it’s not the message,” I added lamely.
The silence stretched. I didn’t want to tell him, but what else was there? “It’s a message for me. That’s the date I left Faerie to work… well, here.”
He sucked in a deep breath through his nose. “Okay. So what’s the message?”
“The runes. They’re an address. I have to go to this birch grove.”
He sat back and steepled his fingers under his chin. “I can’t let you go alone. You’ll need backup.”
I squirmed. “The thing is, it’s half in Faerie. Humans won’t be able to go through, and any uninvited fae… well, let’s just say bad things can happen.” I was being as vague as I dared. Captain Jorgenson preferred straight talk, which I normally gave him. But this was something altogether different, and I wasn’t sure it was a police matter. It came to me because it was directed to me; had I been employed as a hair stylist it would have come to the salon. But there was no easy way to explain to a career man that something that came to the police station, directed at an officer, was not a police matter.
He remained silent while I did deep breathing to calm myself. At last he said, “Why not take Hank? He’s not fae, so bad things won’t happen, he just won’t be able to get in, according to you…”
“According to the Rules,” I interrupted, stressing the last word.
“The rules,” he amended. “Hank has resources other humans don’t, but he won’t be a target. Am I understanding you correctly.”
That last wasn’t a question. It was an order. I nodded.
Hank and I left at the end of his shift, which would get us to our destination just about twilight, a liminal time. The captain had briefed him at my request. I was present, of course, but I didn’t trust myself not to have my voice crack again.
Truth was, I couldn’t think of a single reason any of the fae I knew would summon me, let alone in such a cryptic manner. And why would the message be garbled to me and not to a human magician? I didn’t like unknowns or tricks, another reason I was such a good cop. Also one of the reasons I’d decided to live amongst my human brethren. Sure, they could be dishonest, even criminal. But they didn’t play with the fabric of reality itself. My stomach twisted again.
We stopped at a pull-off beside the woods, just at the edge of town. It was a nondescript stretch, one I’d driven by many times before without taking note of anything. Standing at the edge of the wood I still felt nothing, which meant we had to be far from the actual site. I glanced at Hank. He stood beside the driver’s side of the car and watched me, unblinking.
“C’mon,” I said. “Show me.” At least my voice sounded commanding.
I followed him into the stand of trees. It got dense pretty quickly, turning the dim evening light to faded darkness. Thankfully, birches preferred the edges to the deep wood, so the groves of them were nearer the road. Which also begged the question: why would any fae choose a birch grove as their portal? Oaks and pines were more conducive to the discreet habits of the fae. Still, if they were looking for me, perhaps they thought I’d be unlikely to come closer to “home” turf than this.
I shook my head. Something still wasn’t sitting right. Hank led me a winding path, never very far from the car. He stopped and flipped on his flashlight. I thought we would start again, but he pointed. Following his finger, I realized we were there. At the tree.
I approached slowly, letting my senses run freely. I sensed no magic that wasn’t mine or Hank’s, and I felt no fae presence, familiar or otherwise. As I neared the tree with the pertinent message I realized it had been sliced with a knife and peeled. A very human activity. I glanced over my shoulder, saw that Hank was no longer close to me.
“You know,” I said, “I understand if you’re nervous. The fae can be…”
“I’m not nervous,” he interrupted sharply, and glared at me. I started at the anger in his face.
“It wasn’t an insult,” I said quickly.
“Just shut up, Flin,” he said.
I gaped. Before I could correct him, another voice spoke.
The voice was behind me but I knew it instantly. Hank’s eyes narrowed and I realized I had been brought into a trap. Just not a fae trap.
“Lieutenant Morris,” I said icily, not turning away from Hank. I could hold my own with mortal Morris, but I didn’t trust Hank; his magic couldn’t kill me, but it could hurt me. Badly.
“You made the photo. You spelled it,” I said.
“I should have been sergeant of the Supernatural Department. I had the experience and the magic. But you had connections. Didn’t you?” He was sneering now.
I opened my mouth though I had no idea what I was going to say, but then I heard a telltale click behind me. There was no question in my mind he had iron bullets, and faster than any mortal could follow I spun and ducked as he pulled the trigger. I saw the iron on fire fly past me, though its passage left me shivering. It took a moment before I could hear the scream and the shouting.
Hank lay on the ground, a hole in his shoulder where Morris’s bullet had penetrated. I stepped toward him instinctively, only to hear a yell and another click behind me. I spun, again too fast for Morris’s mortal eyes to see and flung my power at him. My talent was akin to electricity, and the jolt lifted him off his feet and landed him flat on his back. Quick as a flash I was on him and had him fully disarmed, from iron gun down to his ankle holster and everything in between. I yanked the cuffs off my belt and was about to scream his rights at him when something icy pressed against the back of my head.
“Don’t do it, Flin,” said Hank. “You’re asking for a world of trouble.”
“As opposed to what we have here?” I replied, snapping the cuffs shut. A heartbeat. Then another. I was still alive. I yanked Morris’s cuffed hands and dropped him harshly again on the broken branches. He grunted.
I stood, the cold gun still at my head.
“Shoot her, already! For god’s sake, man, she’s not human!” screamed Morris, wriggling on the ground. I’d left his head below his feet so he couldn’t get his balance easily to lever himself up.
I turned slowly, my arms up. It was risky to turn my back on Morris, but I knew Hank was proud of his police career and not inclined to commit a felony. I had to work with that.
But what I saw stopped me cold. Literally. The hole in his shoulder was frosting over, a regular patch of rime sitting over his blood.
“Hank…” I began.
“What’s happening?” he asked. His voice was weak, but not as weak as mine would have been.
“Hank,” I said more firmly, taking advantage of his fear. “You have fae blood. Somewhere in your family background. It’s why you’re so powerful.”
He stared at me unblinking, uncomprehending.
“You’re allergic to the iron. It probably won’t kill you, but we have to get you to…” I stopped. To where? A hospital couldn’t help. “To a fae healer,” I finished.
His eyes widened at that. He looked down at Morris, and I followed his gaze.
Morris was bright red and spitting mad. “You too? You’re one of… of them! Jesus H.! What’s next? Talking animals?”
Spite took over and I flashed him again, this time shutting him up good. He still glared, but he didn’t want to keep getting electrified.
I radioed the station and gave them the quick report. “Okay. Backup’s on the way, and when they get here, I’m taking you into faery to get that shoulder fixed and the iron out of your system.”
Hank’s jaw dropped. For a second, I saw wonder.
“But… but… I’m mortal. I mean, mostly human. Won’t it be dangerous?”
I smiled. “More dangerous than being a cop? Come on, officer. I know you better than that. And after all, who’s to say the runes aren’t real? Maybe they just didn’t say what you thought. Maybe the message was real enough, that you actually are one of us.”
A pained grimace broke across his face. “All right. Sergeant.”
Sirens wailed in the distance.
A month later Hank was healed, though it cost me a favor to one of my half-brothers. It was a steep price and I made sure Hank knew it. Although my first instinct was to have him prosecuted as a conspirator, I gradually backed away from that and went along with the story that Morris had threatened him and pressured him into his scheme. Hank was afraid of offending me now that he understood that not only was he fae, he was inferior to me.
Morris was suspended without pay while the investigation went on, but it was pretty clear to everyone he would be permanently relieved of duty. Whether he did jail time remained to be seen, though I sincerely doubted it.
But it did leave a hole in the chain of command. So when the captain promoted me to Lieutenant to replace Morris, my first recommendation was to promote Hank to Sergeant.
I settled into my new role and began to think about how I could expand the Supernatural Department.
I sighed. “Yes?”
Hank leaned into my office. “We’ve got another magic message.”
I smiled slightly and went to work.
Copyright 2023 by C. B. Channell