Crimes of Fire
Morning dew from grass dampened the knees of my jeans while fresh air fought to expand my lungs. Instead of breathing, I ended up coughing. My mouth tasted of ash and smoke. Shouts echoed, followed by an explosion of chaos. Where was I?
“How did she get here?” A familiar female voice drifted through the bedlam. Was she a neighbor? “She wasn’t there a minute ago.”
“That girl just appeared out of nowhere!” Panic surrounded the words of a nearby man. “She’s not even human.”
My head lifted to find pandemonium unfolding in my neighborhood. I was hunched over in the yard across the street from the Beltons. “W-What’s going on?” I took in the black soot covering my hands as another bout of painful coughs ripped my chest apart.
The memories suddenly came flooding back. I whipped around to find flames engulfing my foster house, thick eddies of smoke pouring into the vivid blue sky.
On a day like this, the sun had no business shining.
Oh, my God. Frank. He was no doubt dead, burned alive. And Leanne? Had she gone out to the liquor store?
How the hell did I get out here! One minute I stood in the center of the inferno, and the next I was choking on fresh air in my neighbor’s lawn.
I leaned over and retched until not a damn thing remained in my stomach. Not much had been there to begin with.
“She’s a freak!” someone screamed. “She used black magic to get out of that house.”
“She’s an alien.”
“She’s a demon.”
I didn’t give a rat’s ass what I was. I needed to find my sister. “Jilly?” I wheezed. “Where’s my sister?” My limbs shook as I stood, and the street tilted sickeningly. A crowd had gathered, bitter fear seeping like massive waves from them. I took a shaky step toward one of the neighbors.
She shrieked and stumbled backward, making a cross with her fingers. “Stay away, demon.”
“I’m not a demon,” I muttered. Or was I? I had no idea what this thing inside of me was. I started that fire, I killed Frank, and then I ended up out here.
“Everyone, get back.” A woman dressed in a black police uniform parted the crowd, her raven hair twisted into a tight, no-nonsense bun at the base of her neck. “Miss, I’m going to need you to come with me.” Her stern voice held a faint tremble, and the gun she had pointed in my direction—right at my chest—shook slightly. Like the neighbors, she feared me.
“That won’t be necessary.” A hush fell over the crowd when the silken timbre permeated the atmosphere. A tall, lithe woman in a tailored suit and shoes that didn’t belong in this neighborhood appeared. Her violet eyes landed on me, and I sucked in a ragged breath.
I’d never seen anyone with eyes that color before—like mine. Almost like mine. Did a dark emerald ring outline hers too?
The stunning woman had a porcelain complexion and hair the color of gold. Plenty of people in the crowd were probably wondering if they could sell it on the street as jewelry.
“We’ll take it from here.” I jumped as a man materialized beside me and slipped a dainty silver cuff on my wrist before I could make a move.
Instantly, the fiery beast inside shrank, disappearing into a puff of smoke. “W-What is that? What did you do?”
His face remained impassive, but those violet eyes stared at me in wonder. Something like excitement and giddy eagerness lurked just under his surface. “Don’t worry, Ms. Warren. We’ll explain everything.”
The female police officer didn’t budge. “And just who are you—”
The tall beauty flashed a badge. “She’s one of ours. We’ll be taking her.”
Blood drained from the cop’s face, and she quietly nodded.
One of ours? One of what?
The guy lifted my hands and slapped a thick pair of handcuffs on me. Just by looking at them I could tell they weren’t your average restraints, but when they closed around my wrists, my blood boiled and my knees gave out.
The man—just as beautiful and impeccably dressed as his partner—caught my elbows. “It will pass. Give it a moment.”
The neighborhood spun like I was on a merry-go-round, then my stomach heaved. The bubbling sensation dissipated, leaving me weak and shaky. “Where are you taking me?” I mumbled as he gently pushed me into the back of a sleek black S.U.V.
Was I an alien? Were these men in black?
He buckled my seatbelt and patted my shoulder. “Just sit tight.”
“Is she secure, Revnick?” The woman asked as she slid into the driver’s seat.
I must have passed out for a few minutes because the next thing I knew, we were speeding down the highway. Panic tore at my heart and I jolted up. “Where’s my sister?”
Revnick glanced at his partner, his brow furrowed. “She has a sister, Jocelyn?”
Jocelyn made a clucking sound. “A foster sister. Human.”
Human? If Jilly was human, then what the hell was I?
“Where is she?” I struggled in the backseat, but the strange metal handcuffs left me feeling awful—that and the smoke inhalation. “I need to find her.”
“Relax, Ms. Warren.” The woman’s smooth voice was beginning to irritate me. “Jillian Forrester is safe and in good hands. She’s with our people.”
The tightness in my chest didn’t loosen. Instead, the back of my neck prickled. Something about this woman rubbed me the wrong way. “Your people? Who are you?”
Her fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “Don’t worry. You’ll have an update on your sister soon. We would not leave the small child in danger.”
Her words said one thing, but the thick layers of politeness masked something nefarious.
“Stop this car right now and—”
“Ms. Warren, I really hate to do this.” Revnick turned around with his hand cupped in front of his mouth. He blew, sprinkling some kind of shimmering powder in my face.
I coughed and the inside of the car blurred out of focus. “What was that?” I slurred. My tongue moved around my mouth like a fat slug.
“Pixie dust.” He winced. “Sorry.”
“Pixie what?” Was that the street name for some new drug? My head crashed into the back of the seat, my lids drooping. This was some powerful crap.
“She’s out.” Revnick sighed. “I still can’t believe we found one. I mean, what are the odds?”
Found one what?
“I know.” Jocelyn’s cold voice held a sharp streak of excitement. “I’ve already sent word. She’s coming.”
Who was coming? And why the hell were they so interested in me, some discarded foster kid?
A hard, icy pillow rested beneath my cheek. I shifted and a dull ache spread down my neck from sleeping at such an odd angle. Where was I? This wasn’t my bed.
Where is Jilly?
My bleary eyes reluctantly opened to a long stretch of silver. I shot up, wincing from the sharp pains rebounding in my body. The left side of my face throbbed as did my lungs. Images of Frank’s fist coming at me sped through my mind. And then the fire. And then the strange man and woman…
Sharp claws of panic sliced my insides. I’d killed Frank and maybe Leanne. I had no idea where my sister was. The officers took me captive. Revnick had drugged me with some kind of dust.
I tried to stand but something yanked me back down. Those thick cuffs still encircled my wrists, and they were now locked into a hook on the table. My body felt drained, as if I hadn’t slept in days. The other bracelet rested beneath the heavy manacles. I leaned forward to examine the delicate metal and found foreign symbols etched into the surface.
All the blood suddenly leached from my face as I examined my hands. The soot had been wiped away. The grime was also gone from my clothes and the rest of my body. How was that possible? My gaze lifted to a mirror stretching the entire length of one wall.
My wavy, fire-red hair dangled messily around my shoulders, but not one ounce of dirt remained. My face was clean too, except for the purple and blue bruise marring my cheek.
I was in serious trouble. And I recognized a two-way mirror when I saw one.
I’d been in my fair share of interrogation rooms the many times I was accused of stealing at foster homes—I’d never take from those jerks—or some other crap. I had the pleasure of getting caught pilfering from stores on occasion. Theft was a necessary evil for a lot of foster kids. Sometimes Jilly and I needed food or clothes.
The holes in my current jeans were from wear and not some fancy designer attempting a cool, trendy vibe. I needed a new pair, but that didn’t seem likely to happen since I was sitting in some weird interrogation room.
The navy-tiled walls gleamed under bright lights, and gunmetal gray floors held murky reflections of the entire room. Hard surfaces and angles crowded me. A sign on the wall over my shoulder read Fae Investigation and Corrections.
My head tilted as I reread the letters. Fae?
The door opened and Revnick and Jocelyn marched in, folding down in the metal seats across from me. Their expressions gave nothing away.
“Where am I?” I shifted uneasily in the hard, unforgiving chair. “Where is my sister? You can’t keep me here without telling me anything. I’m a minor.”
Jocelyn lifted her palm, halting my panicked voice. “You may be a minor, but you’ve committed several crimes, including two counts of murder.”
Invisible hands squeezed my heart so hard it threatened to pop. Murder. Two murders. Leanne and Frank both went up in flames inside the house. I was a murderer.
I leaned over and retched. My gut had already been emptied earlier in my neighbor’s yard so nothing came out except dry heaving and gagging. Too bad. I would have liked to ruin the pristine floor.
Jocelyn cursed and jumped to her feet. “Ms. Warren cannot be in this state when she arrives. It’s unacceptable.”
For shit’s sakes. Who was coming to interrogate me? The president?
“Perhaps you shouldn’t frighten her by callously spewing the charges.” Revnick shot his partner a wry smile. “Leave me to explain the details to Ms. Warren. I have a little more tact than you.”
The woman huffed and whirled around, storming out of the room in a flurry of gold locks and designer threads.
I slumped in the chair, breathing heavily. Cold sweat formed on my forehead, but I couldn’t wipe it away with my hands chained to the table. “Am I going to prison?” Images of steel bars, power-abusing guards, and gruff women came to mind. I was seventeen and had committed murder. Juvi wasn’t in my future. I’d be punished as an adult.
Revnick slid over a bottle of water. “We’ll get to that, but first there are a few things you need to know.”
I glanced at the water. Did he expect me to use magic to take a sip? My hands couldn’t exactly reach my face. When he noticed my lack of movement, realization dawned on him.
“My apologies.” He leaned forward and released one of my wrists from the cuff. The scent of honey clung to him, and up close I noted tiny strands of gold winking through his short, perfectly styled chocolate brown hair. Did he use some expensive gel that cost more than everything I owned?
I opened the water and guzzled it down, the cool liquid soothing my raw throat. “Where am I?” I jerked my head toward the wall behind me. “What does Fae mean?”
Revnick clasped his hands in front of him. “Fae are a type of people—fair folk, as some say.”
“Are you talking about fairies, like from fairytales and crap?” The fairies from Sleeping Beauty came to mind, Jilly’s favorite story. I’d read it to her a million times.
He grimaced. “Fae are not the creatures of human bedtimes stories. Some are nice, but most are quite dangerous. We are dangerous.”
“We?” My head cocked to the side, and I had to fight back a smirk. “Are you telling me you’re a fairy?”
“You misunderstand, Ms. Warren.” He cleared his throat, his heavy violet stare gluing me to the metal seat. “When I say we, I’m including you.”
A dry, humorless laugh tumbled out of my mouth, bouncing against the cold walls. “You’re not serious.”
“Quite, actually.” He motioned his finger toward me. “You can’t deny you used magic to set your house on fire.”
I looked at my slightly haggard reflection in the mirror. Something foreign had invaded my body this morning. I used it to hurt Frank, but magic?
I shook my head. No. Impossible. Things like Fae creatures and magic didn’t exist. I’d rather believe I was a science experiment gone wrong.
“You think I’m lying?” His soft, somber voice caught me off guard. “Even after you used magic to shadowmeld out of the burning house?”
My gaze snapped back to his. “Shadowmeld? What is that?”
“Blending into shadows to move instantaneously from one place to another.”
Was that what I’d done? Is that how I had been seconds away from burning alive to kneeling safely on my neighbor’s lawn?
Revnick leaned forward, the lights glinting on the golden strands in his hair. He couldn’t be more than twenty-four, but something in his eyes seemed much older. “Can I call you Sloane?” He didn’t wait for my response. “You know you’re different, Sloane. Things will go a lot easier if you accept that, like Jocelyn and me, you are Fae.”
Oh, God. I wanted to hurl again. Acid oozed up my throat and I clamped my lids shut, taking shallow breaths through my nose.
Deep in my bones, I knew Revnick spoke the truth. I’d done things I couldn’t explain. Not only had I used magic to start a fire and then shadowmeld, I broke down the basement door. No one my size should have been capable of shattering the doorjamb.
But I’d done it—because I wasn’t human.
I rested my free hand over my face, groaning. A sudden gentle wind stirred the hair around my face. My lids popped open to find Revnick swirling his fingers through the air. The wind came from him.
“I am a seelie, and I have elemental magic. I can manipulate the air.” His hand rested back on the table, and the wind dissipated.
“Am I a seelie?”
He shifted in his chair and adjusted his tie. “You’re different. There are many types of Fae creatures.”
Something about the way his gaze darted from mine had my hackles raised. “What am I?”
The door opened and Jocelyn strode in again, her expression tight. She placed a folder on the table and took her seat again. “Ms. Warren, you understand that you are not human? That you are Fae?”
“Good because we still have matters of your crimes to discuss.” She flipped open the folder, my school picture paper-clipped to one of the pages.
“Where did you get that?” When I tried to reach for the folder, she snatched it out of my grasp.
“As an officer of F.I.C., I am privy to information concerning those Fae under investigation.”
“F.I.C? Fae Investigation and Corrections?” I jerked my head to the wall behind me.
She gave a curt nod. “We are the organization that handles crimes committed by Fae against other Fae and against humans.”
“So, you’re the police.” I tugged on my restraints as my pulse quickened. I’d rather be arrested by the human police.
“Sloane is catching on quickly,” Revnick said, earning a scowl from his partner. She didn’t seem to appreciate his use of my first name.
“Including two counts of murder, you’re also facing charges of using magic in front of humans.” Her finger ran down the sheet of paper and flipped to another page. “You used elemental magic in front of your foster father, Frank Belton, and shadowmelded in front of a whole crowd of humans.”
The air in the room suddenly depleted of oxygen. I could hardly catch my breath. “I—those were accidents. I don’t know how I did any of that.” A trickle of sweat leaked down my nape, soaking into my shirt. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I was just trying to protect my sister.” I swallowed back the bile oozing up as I thought of what could have happened to Jilly had I not interrupted. “Frank was going to… He had my sister… He threatened to sell me and hurt her.”
Jocelyn lifted her hand without removing her eyes from my file. “I’ve studied Mr. and Mrs. Belton. They were both unsavory humans. We know of Frank’s criminal tendencies. That has been taken into consideration while determining your sentence.”
My heart galloped like a thoroughbred in a race. “Sentence? Shouldn’t I have a lawyer? And what about a trial?”
“We are not the human authorities,” Jocelyn said, breaking my eye contact with her partner. “We handle things very differently.”
As in, I had no rights whatsoever.
I pulled at the handcuffs again. “What’s going to happen to my sister? She can’t be left to social services. They don’t care. They’ll stick her with anybody, and if I’m not there…” I clutched my chest as my heart violently rammed against my ribs. Was I having a heart attack? Would I drop dead right here in this chair never knowing if my sister would be okay?
“Sloane, please remain calm.” Revnick’s voice sounded far away, faint and distant like I floated deep underwater. Maybe I was drowning, and this was all a hallucination. “Your sister is safe.”
“For now,” Jocelyn added. “Jillian Forrester’s future will be discussed further when—”
A knock thundered on the heavy steel door. Jocelyn and Revnick traded glances, their bodies stiffening. Before either could move, the door opened and another Fae joined the party.
The two F.I.C. officers scrambled to their feet so fast I almost missed their movements. They bowed as a waifish woman glided into the room. Ice blue tipped the ends of a platinum braid draped over her slender shoulder. She paid the two officers no attention, her gaze zeroing in on me.
If the air had been depleted of oxygen before, then by now that life-sustaining molecule had vanished entirely. A pair of frosty cerulean eyes traced my features, sharpening with every passing second. A flash of excitement gleamed in them, like a wolf finding prey among the undergrowth.
The woman appeared young, in her twenties, with a radiant complexion that shone under the overhead lights. Her leather pants and ivory blouse looked like they had been tailored especially for her, fitting her tall frame like a second skin.
It could have been minutes or hours before she finally removed her hungry stare—I couldn’t say. Her gaze then shifted to the officers, still bowing, and I sucked in a ragged breath of relief.
“Thank you, Jocelyn and Revnick.” Her soft voice didn’t match the hard, cold air around her. “You may stand.”
The two officers waited a beat before returning to upright positions, still silently worshiping her.
“Queen Isadora, it is a pleasure.” Revnick gave another bow.
She graced him with a smile that was as fake as Leanne’s collection of gaudy costume jewelry. “I’m sure.”
Queen? Fae didn’t have presidents then.
I swallowed hard and stiffened in my seat. What had I done to warrant a queen’s visit? After all, crimes were likely committed among the Fae every single day. No way did she show up for everyone.
The queen flicked her hand toward the door. “I will speak with you both afterward. I’d like a few moments alone with Ms. Warren.”
Jocelyn faltered. “Are you sure, my queen? Perhaps you’d like me to—”
The officer’s words cut off with one sharp glare from the icy Fae. She gave the White Witch from The Chronicles of Narnia a run for her money. “Are you questioning me?”
“N-No, your highness.” Jocelyn shook her head, fear yanking the color from her face. “My apologies. We will wait for you outside.” She scurried to the door.
Revnick followed but managed a last glance over his shoulder. The corners of his lips dipped as he scrutinized the queen and then me. He looked like he’d just dropped a puppy into a viper pit. Obviously, I was the poor puppy.