To say that the house at 926 Augur Lane was not yet back to normal would be to grossly misrepresent the nature of the house at 926 Augur Lane. At its best, the peculiar property was an abode of the abnormal and a sanctuary for the strange.
The notion of premeditation did not appear to have been of any concern to the building’s architects, the result of which was an eclectic edifice constructed using all manner of materials and styles. Its columns and cornices, balconies and balustrades all came at one another from unruly angles to form what ought to have been a hideous mess, but which was somehow beautiful instead. Still a mess, certainly, but a beautiful one.
From within, the house was more astonishing still. My employer, private investigator R. F. Jackaby, was no average detective, and the proof was packed in every corner of his property. Eldritch mementos from countless curious cases filled the shelves; strange smells swept from his kitchen laboratory, wove through the crooked hallway, spilled into his overstuffed office, and tickled the spines in his lavish library. As I slid past the spiral staircase, I could hear from above me the familiar splash of wings on water, the echoes bouncing down from the duck pond on the third floor, where Douglas, Jackaby’s prior assistant and current resident waterfowl, spent much of his time.
Strange as it all might seem, I had come to think of this place as my home. And then my home had been violated.
I stepped out the back door into the bright summer sunlight, past the pile of broken busts and shattered reliquaries Jackaby had pitched out of his office window as he had tidied up the wreckage during the past weeks. Our investigation had rattled a hornets’ nest, and the hornets had sent giant monsters to rattle ours. Their intrusion had done irreparable damage to our statuaries and plasterwork, but even more to our sense of safety. We had done what we could since the incident. We had swept up the pile of crimson splinters that had once been our cheery red front door, plastered over the worst of the battered masonry, and scooped up the sea of broken glassware in the ravaged laboratory. But the damage had been done.
The house at 926 Augur Lane was not back to normal. It was not back to abnormal. It was wrong and it felt wrong.
I came to a stop and fished a hefty iron key out of my pocket. My only consolation was that the culprit behind the destruction was now our captive, locked up securely in Jackaby’s supernaturally safeguarded cellar.
Morwen Finstern did not look very intimidating as I swung open the door and climbed down the steps into her makeshift prison. She was of average appearance, with strawberry blonde hair hanging in tangled waves around her slender face. Her eyes were wide and sad, and I might have felt sorry for her if I had not known she was a malicious nixie, a shape-shifting creature responsible for the brutal deaths of countless innocent victims over the centuries.
“Shepherd’s pie,” I said, dropping the plate on the dusty table. “It’s not very warm.”
“I smell onions,” Morwen said.
“I used extra.”
“I told you yesterday, I hate onions.”
“That’s why I used extra.”
Morwen’s fingers flexed as though she might like to take a swipe at me. The slender chain around her wrist clinked softly with the motion. Tibetan sky iron, Jackaby had called it, enchanted by some manner of sorcery. I did not fully understand the artifact, but I could not deny its effectiveness. So long as the binding held fast, the nixie could take no action against her captor’s will. This did nothing to improve her temperament, but it did render her more or less benign.
“I’m thirsty,” she grumbled.
“There are a couple of grapes on the side of the plate. You can suck on those.”
“Just a small glass of—”
“No.” I had seen what Morwen could do with a little water.
“What’s the matter? Afraid of little old me?” she jeered.
“Mortified,” I replied. “Imagine what the neighbors would think if they looked under our house and found you skittering about down here. It would be almost as shameful as finding mice in the walls or mold in the attic.”
“It’s not your neighbors you should worry about finding me here,” she spat as I turned to go. “The council is coming for me. My father is coming for me!”
“Well then.” I stepped back up into the daylight, hoping that I sounded as dauntless as I wasn’t. “I guess you had better finish up those onions before he arrives.” As I clicked shut the heavy iron padlock, I could hear her muffled curses through the door.
Of course I was afraid. Morwen’s unsettling intrusion into our home had been nothing compared to her father’s trespasses. The self-proclaimed king of the earth and the otherworld had been inside my head. He had controlled me. It made my skin crawl to think of it—and it was far from over. “The age of man has ended,” he had promised. His specific intentions were inscrutable—but not a week passed during which we did not receive word of another unnatural episode or creepy creature emerging from the alleyways of New Fiddleham, and all of the threads led back to the Dire Council and their cryptic king.
For all the signs and portents, the king and his council might as well have been whispers in the wind. I found myself obsessing fruitlessly, lying awake at night, staring at the cracking plaster of my ceiling until the morning light crept through my window.
I took a deep breath and straightened my skirts as I crossed the garden. The king had trespassed my mind, but I refused to let him take up permanent residence there. There was still work to be done.