I knew a philosophical drunk once who offered nuggets of what he called wisdom after tossing back his fourth cocktail, oblivious to the nuances of relevance or reception. Occasionally, that meant bastardizing dead celebrities like John Lennon or Oscar Wilde—insisting life was what happened when you were busy making plans, or that real friends stab you in the front. Usually it was more like listening to a grown man slur his way through a small batch of Hallmark cards. During one of his less inspired rants, he told me that home was a place you grew up wanting to leave and grew old wanting to get back to. It was a tidy, trite platitude that had stuck in my craw for years, if only because it lacked perspective. After all, shouldn’t that depend on what you were leaving behind—not to mention what you’d be going home to?
Take me, for instance: the last two times I’d left Boston, I’d done so of my own free will—first trading in a grey winter’s morning for a balmy Scottish coast, then again for a cottage made of candy in a storybook realm where gravity was negotiable, colors had a smell, and children were considered edible until proven otherwise. And yet, in neither instance had I thought to be gone for particularly long, or at least no longer than I had to be. Despite everything, Boston had always been my refuge, my sanctuary from a mad and callous world.
Indeed, I knew Boston so well it was like it belonged to me and me alone—as if the entire city was my sandbox and everyone else played in it at my leisure. Of course, a large part of that could be attributed to the hubris that comes with living anywhere long enough to call it home. But the rest was bloody well earned—a bevy of hard-won insights that I’d accumulated over decades. When I was younger, that meant knowing which venues had the laxest security, or which highways to avoid during rush hour, or which happy hours to take advantage of. In time, it meant knowing which logos to wear and when, which neighborhoods were heavily patrolled and why, and even which lowlifes to contact and how. For years now, I felt I knew Boston better than the back of my hand because the term “skin deep” simply didn’t apply; I could trace the city’s bones. Hell, I could map its very veins.
Or at least I used to be able to.
Unfortunately, without a watch to account for hopping between such obscenely different time zones over a span that I’d barely been able to track, it seemed my late arrival had bypassed fashionable and gone straight to dickish. Metaphorically speaking, I wasn’t the girl showing up as the appetizers hit the table so much as the girl banging on the door of a dark, empty restaurant begging to be let in. Actually, it was worse than that; I was the shellshocked girl gaping at the newly erected bowling alley where the restaurant used to be.
Because that’s what happens when you’re gone for eighteen freaking months.
A year and a half, that’s how long I’d been away—a fact I’d discovered perhaps an hour after Charon, the boatman of the river Styx, dropped me off along an abandoned stretch of dock outside Boston Harbor just after sunrise. Of course, the hoary bastard was long gone by then; he’d zipped away in the fancy, magical ship I’d procured for him in exchange for the ride and my contraband goods, saluting me with a beer as though he knew precisely what fresh hell awaited me. But then, I supposed he was the expert.
Still, I’d have to pick a bone with him later.
On that note, do you have any idea what all gets taken away from you when you’ve been essentially missing for a year and six months—especially if you have no immediate family to speak of? Spoiler alert: it’s shit you’ll want back. Like your apartment, for example, or all your worldly possessions, or your freaking life. I had to admit, though, none of that bothered me as much as the fact that the Tobin Bridge had finally been fixed, or that they’d added two new metro stops to the orange line, or that we’d lost several dynastic football players to bullshit free agency. Basically, the fact that my city had somehow survived my absence.
Of course, you know what they say about reality.
She can be a real bitch, sometimes.
Take my choice of accessories, for example. In the afterlife, toting around a spear with enough juice to redefine a landscape would have earned me some respect. In Boston, it was far more likely to earn me a deadly weapons charge. Mercifully, I’d had enough wherewithal to shove Areadbhar into the collapsible guitar gig bag I’d stolen from under the nose of a leering store clerk not long after arriving. Not my proudest moment, obviously, but I could handle a little shame. Getting stopped by Boston PD for walking around with a glorified javelin in hand and not a single form of identification on me? Not so much.
In hindsight, of course, I should have known better than to pop back into the mortal realm without an ID, not to mention at least one working credit card. But then, after surviving the combined perils of the Otherworld, the Fae realm, the Eighth Sea, and the godsdamned afterlife, it hadn't occurred to me to worry about anything as insignificant as money or credentials. After all, I was Quinn MacKenna, part-time goddess, full-time badass—rightful wearer of Brynhildr’s legendary Valkyrie armor, wielder of the mighty and terrible Areadbhar, and defender of the not so innocent.
Who needed your freaking driver’s license when you could take out a city block on a whim?
The short answer? My bank. My mortgage lender. My cell phone provider. The storage facility holding all my shit hostage, the new owner of my beloved apartment, and the unfamiliar building manager who threatened to call the cops on me for losing my shit on said owner. In essence, the list included anyone who’d never actually met or talked to me before...and even that was beginning to feel generous.
In the end, without a phone and with increasingly limited options, I’d begun a pilgrimage from one local haunt to another in search of familiar faces. First, I’d thought to visit Christoff, my longtime friend and bartender, at his popular pop-up bar. Once there, I figured I could at least beg for a drink to take the edge off and maybe even enough money to see me through the next few days. Unfortunately, I found the bar closed indefinitely for renovations. I’d briefly considered going by his house, but—assuming he was even home—the Russian werebear lived out in the suburbs and was therefore too far to reach on foot before dusk. Besides, he had two cubs at home; unsupervised, my nocturnal neighbor was a liability I was loath to force on anyone, much less a single father and his children.
Indeed, with that contingency in mind, I’d tried a trendy boutique next; the witches who owned it were survivors by nature and owed me a favor. Plus, they’d been in the process of refurbishing their magical supply shop when I’d disappeared, including an upstairs living space I could potentially take advantage of. Unfortunately, when I arrived the storefront remained only half-finished, the murky glass of its unpainted basement door dominated by a single sheet of pink paper I didn’t need to read to know what it heralded.
For a long moment, I’d lingered outside, fretting over the fate of Camila and her brother, Max—the brujo I’d helped rescue from the clutches of a mad scientist back in Helheim—before rebuking myself for wasting precious time. Even if the Velez siblings were in some kind of financial trouble, it wasn’t like I could do anything about it. If I wanted to help them, my best bet was to get up to speed and back on my feet as quickly as inhumanly possible.
Which, of course, was what had brought me here—to quite possibly the last place on Earth anyone would want to approach like a beggar with their hand out. Why? Because some hosts are better than others, for one thing, and because some favors cost a hell of a lot more depending on to whom they are owed. And so I lingered on a familiar stoop, shifting from one foot to the other as I studied the nameplate which represented my last hope in the world of finding a legitimate place to sleep that wasn’t a park bench or one of the shelters downtown—assuming my inner goddess would even let that happen, or that the volunteers at the shelter would sign off on a homeless redhead in designer threads carrying a bejeweled spear that occasionally followed me about like a poltergeist.
After parsing through every alternative option—and with a very heavy sigh—I knocked on the door of the law office of Hansel, Hansel, and Gretel. I held my breath, wary of any Faeling shenanigans that might ensue. As a front for the Faerie Chancery, this quaint, unassuming townhome tended to ward off even the most ardent of evangelists and savviest of sales folk.
Of course, there was being cautious, and then there was being prepared.
Before I could knock a second time, the door swung open and a hand the size of a baseball mitt latched onto my sleeve, yanking me into the office’s gloomy interior hard enough to pull my damned arm nearly out of its socket. Frustratingly, the Valkyrie armor I’d retrieved from Charon—locked in its current, far more casual state until I said otherwise—did nothing to ease the painful sensation. Sadly, I’d had to forego the armor’s substantial fringe benefits in order to avoid walking around Boston looking like I’d robbed the Renaissance Faire.
“Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Irishman. No, wait, that’s not right...” The voice was deep and inhuman, so gravelly it might as well have come from a talking rock. It was also achingly familiar. Three gurgling sniffs sounded before I could say as much, however, each inhale like the crank of a diesel engine. “A woman. An Irish woman. Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of—”
“Paul?” I interrupted, squinting to make out my old friend’s hulking shape in the dim, windowless room. “Paul, is that ye?”
“Who asks my name?”
“It’s me, Quinn!”
“Quinn?” Paul fumbled about in the dark, sending at least two urns crashing to the floor, followed by what sounded eerily like a brass gong being struck so hard it shattered in two. The noise was both deafening and cringeworthy. By the time Paul finally found a candle and lit it, my eyes had already adjusted enough to see the bridge troll in all his hairy, hulking glory.
Standing several feet taller than me and as broad through the shoulders as I was long, Paul was one of the very few Faeling friends I had here in Boston who made me feel tiny. Of course, at six feet without so much as a kitten heel to prop me up, being dwarfed by anyone was a rather rare occurrence. Once, I’d have given anything to be smaller. More petite. The sort of girl who could scan a room full of men without having to clock the ones whose heads cleared the fray. The sort of girl who could tolerate sitting in the backseat of a cramped car or could fly coach without wanting to stab everyone in sight. These days, however, I appreciated the perks more than I despised the drawbacks. There were merits in having a longer reach, after all—not to mention being able to intimidate people without speaking.
In that respect, Paul was a master.
The bridge troll stared down at me with his filmy, jaundiced eyes, his protruding tusks gyrating as though he were chewing bubblegum, looming like a terrifying statue made of sinew and green skin. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to read his expression; most trolls were notoriously dim-witted, mercantile creatures who had trouble expressing themselves outside the context of tax collection, and Paul was hardly an exception. His understanding of the world was frustratingly childlike. When he lost, he got angry. When he won, he became insufferable. And, when you refused to pay his toll, he had a habit of bashing away at whatever happened to be nearby.
Like a brand-new car, for example.
That was how we’d met. Since then, he’d become the sort of companion every girl can appreciate: a bestial shadow capable of unimaginable violence if provoked. In fact, back when I was first starting out on my own as an antiquities dealer and working out of some of Boston’s less gentrified neighborhoods, I used to have him follow me around at night as a precaution. I could still recall how his musk saturated the air in those days; I called it the world’s most effective rape repellant. In time, we became something like friends. It was Paul who first told me of the Chancery, long before I could coax the truth out of Ryan—my only other Faeling acquaintance at the time. The bridge troll had confided a great deal to me over the years, going so far as to describe an alien world. A world I’d ached to know more about.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, breaking the silence. “Kelpie got your tongue?”
A gasp of surprise sounded over my shoulder before Paul could answer, and I turned to find the infamous Gretel of storybook fame ogling me from across the room. The German woman was dressed in a flimsy nightie that made her look impossibly waifish and more than a little frail; with her long grey hair and puckered skin, I’d have put the fairytale heroine north of seventy if I didn’t already know she had to be hundreds of years older than that.
“Surprised to see me?” I asked, grinning like a madwoman to be greeted by yet another familiar face, even if that face did belong to the Chancery’s chief litigator.
“Well, yes, I—” she began, her face pale in the lamplight.
“Oy! Guess what?” I interjected, cheerily. “I stayed in that old gingerbread house of yours not too long ago. Well, not yours, obviously. The one where ye murdered that witch. The creepy place with all the candy and chains.” I shook my head at the memory. “Hated every minute of it. Smelled like roasted marshmallows and barbecue.”
“You stayed in the...but that isn’t...I mean...”
“What’s wrong?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow. “Look, I know I’ve been gone for a while...hell, a long while. But ye look like you’ve seen a freakin’ ghost.”
“You are a ghost,” Paul interjected.
“Do I look like a ghost?”
Paul squinted at me, then turned to Gretel for support.
“My experience with ghosts is limited,” Gretel admitted. “But I believe she is a living creature. A doppelganger, perhaps. Or a changeling. One can never be certain.”
“What the hell are ye two on about?” I asked, more amused by their take than anything. “It’s me, Quinn MacKenna! Paul, you’re seriously tellin’ me ye don’t recognize me?”
This time my name was whispered, not barked. The bridge troll reached out a hand big enough to squeeze around my entire waist and brushed his fingers against my hair, my fiery tresses flowing over his knuckles. I let him, marveling at how long my hair had gotten since I’d last thought to cut it; I’d been too busy to notice until now. Paul hunkered down and shoved his massive face in close, sniffing at me like a dog. He drew back, flashed me a toothy grin that would have scared the shit out of me had I never seen it before, and roared.
“Quinn is alive!”
The bridge troll picked me up by the waist and crushed me to his chest, squeezing with enough force to make a chiropractor wince. I wheezed out a command to put me down, but he ignored it and began swinging me about the room as though we were dancing. Eventually, he slowed and loosened his grip enough so that I could pat him on his bulky shoulder.
“Glad to see ye, too, big fella. Now, what’s this about me bein’ alive?”
“Ah, well...” Gretel coughed into her fist, her face tight with concern and perhaps a small measure of fear. “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, Ms. MacKenna, but you are supposed to be dead.”
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