Dead on the Delta One Losing your lunch sucks. It sucks even more when you’re not hungover.
My view on upchucking is that you should’ve earned your punishment. But I haven’t earned it, and neither had she. I don’t need those last three years of med school to know the body at my feet was a child not too long ago. Before the animals got to her face, before the bugs crawled inside to investigate the holes the animals made, before—
I barely make the one-eighty turn in time.
The guilty contents of my stomach—cherry Pop-Tarts, coffee, and a touch of last night’s burger and fries—spill out onto the damp earth, adding another layer to the stench of the bayou. I can barely smell the body over the stink. A few of the fairies have laid their eggs early this year. They don’t usually drop their sacs until September, but there’s no mistaking the smell of fairy babies baking in the noonday sun. Smells like a homeless man’s crotch.
Not that I’ve ever been up close and personal with a homeless man’s crotch, but …
“Annabelle? You okay?” It isn’t the first time Cane’s asked. His voice is pinched, strained, not the sexy rumble that made my ribs vibrate less than an hour ago. We could still be tangled up in each other, bitching about the heat in my poorly air-conditioned bedroom if I’d only said “yes” instead of “no” to his offer to play hooky.
As my stomach voids itself and I continue to gag, I wish I’d kept Cane in bed. I wish I’d let him call in sick and stay with me, his big hands warm on my skin. But he’s been scary lately. He wants to stick a pin in our relationship and label the specimen.
I fear labels. I fear dead bodies more.
In the three years I’ve worked for Fairy Containment and Control I’ve seen my share of dead things, but nothing like this. I force myself to turn around, take another look. She isn’t much more than a baby and her face is … gone, eaten away by the scavengers our toxic patch of the Mississippi River Delta hasn’t killed yet.
The chemical spills along the river did their part to make the marshland from southern Tennessee down to Mobile unfriendly to living things. The mutated fairies have done the rest. Fairies can live on animal blood, but the Louisiana Fey hunt humans with a terrifying single-mindedness. Still, most people have the sense to keep safe. Almost no one ventures outside the iron grid that runs throughout Donaldsonville.
As soon as it was confirmed that iron repels fairies, the D’Ville city council cut any program not necessary to keeping people alive, declared downtown refugee central, and sank a million dollars into nailing iron cables to every roof. A sturdy fifteen-foot iron fence completed the protective measures, enclosing the original Donaldsonville of the early 1800s in a metal cocoon, taking the town back to its roots.
As a result, Donaldsonville is one of the few southern Louisiana towns that still welcomes the Adventurous Tourist to its historic buildings, Cajun restaurants, Delta Fairy Museum, and refurbished town square. Despite the modern-day highwaymen that terrorize the roads, tourism is our top source of revenue, and everyone in town acts accordingly. We’re friendly, welcoming, and pride ourselves on being one of the safest places in the South. If you score a ticket on an armored shuttle and actually make it to Donaldsonville, you can breathe easy.
This girl shouldn’t have died.
“Annabelle? Annabelle, do you need me to come over there and—”
“No.” My voice doesn’t sound like me. I sound … small.
“Crawl on back, girl, I can get a suit and—”
“Come on, Lee-lee,” he says, using a pet name in public, a capital offense in the Annabelle Lee dating handbook. In a different context, I might have flipped him off. If he wasn’t thinking about risking his life to come hold my hand and there wasn’t a little girl behind me. A dead girl, but still …
“Get the suit.”
“No! Stay there.” Even with an iron suit, Cane won’t be totally safe. The August heat makes the fairies crazy. They’ve been known to bite through metal in their hurry to find a meal. Ingesting iron kills them, but the bite still does its dirty work on the person inside the suit.
For seventy-five percent of the human population, Fey venom leads to insanity, with a slow build to batshit crazy that makes syphilis look gentle by comparison. Another ten percent develop ulcers on the spine that twist healthy bodies into torturous shapes before causing death. And yet another ten percent die instantaneously, hearts stilled within seconds of infection. The convulsions of the severely allergic snap the spinal cord and break teeth, making sure the dying suffer on the way out.
I’ve seen that firsthand. It’s as horrible as it sounds.
“Just … give me a second.” I motion toward the clutch of anxious policemen a few hundred feet away. They’re waiting for me to tell them what I’ve seen, to come back and pick up the dummy kit and collect the evidence they need for their investigation—dirt samples, tissue scrapings, bug larvae, etc.
Bile rises in my throat again.
I’ve only had to do this to a human once before. It was an adult male, dumped in the bayou outside the grid. Come to find out, a gunshot wound did him in long before he hit the Ascension Parish county line. The coroner in Baton Rouge discovered the truth easily enough. Amazing what they can do with forensics these days, even with hacks like me occasionally collecting the evidence.
Shit. I hate the thought of touching that girl. There are times—more than the non-immune would imagine—when I wish I wasn’t part of the lucky five percent. But I know I’m in the minority on that, as well. Most immune people think they’ve been blessed, that collecting fairy shit and egg sacs is a holy calling. They feel lucky when they’re called in to do non-immune people’s work for them.
Especially cop work. Everyone wants to be a crime fighter. I blame CSI. I’ve never watched it, but I’ve heard it’s like Breeze. Breeze—dried fairy crap mixed with bleach—is the new crack. Brown is also the new black and forty is the new thirty and up is the new down.
God, I’m dizzy. I take a deep breath and immediately wish I hadn’t. I can smell her now, a sickly sweetness beneath the rest of it.
There’s some murmuring from the assembled company. The parish sheriff wants me to hurry it up. He has places to go, people to see, graft to collect from businesses vying for liquor licenses. His brother’s the head of the Alcohol Beverage Commission and the pair of them make a tidy sum extorting the thirsty.
I wonder if he knows it’s a kid out here, probably the Beauchamp girl who’s been missing. I’m guessing not. If he did, there’d be less impatience. The Beauchamps are Important. Their classic (and gigantic) Greek Revival home lures visitors from all over the world. Camellia Grove Plantation is one of Donaldsonville’s biggest tourist draws, and we need it. Badly.
Most of the other rich folks moved north after the mutations, fleeing their Victorian houses, abandoning their restaurants, antique stores, and art galleries, leaving the rest of us to clean up their mess and reorganize the town. Only a few stubborn, hard-core wealthy stick around by choice. The rest of our citizens are here because they don’t have the resources to move somewhere else. The ratio of black and Hispanic to white in Donaldsonville has settled in at around ninety-eight percent to two, confirming that a pasty redhead like me is the true minority.
It’s statistics that I would be dating a black man; it’s good fortune that I’m dating a gorgeous black man who cares about me and makes the best jambalaya I’ve ever had. Cane developed a special recipe without the shellfish so I won’t puff up like a marshmallow the second shrimp protein touches my lips. He also brings me herbal insomnia remedies, fixes my leaky toilet, and calls to remind me to put out my trash on Friday morning. He takes good care of me.
I know his family thinks he’s too good for a girl who gets around on a bicycle, has no discernible urge to better herself, and isn’t grandchild-birthing material. No matter how sweet they are at Sunday dinner, I’m pretty sure they want Cane to dump me. I honestly don’t know what I want him to do.
“Lee-lee?” Right. I want him to quit calling me that in public. Immediately. “We’ve got to—”
“One second.” My finger shakes, and the sweat dripping down my forearm makes me shiver. It’s nearly a hundred degrees and humid enough that my hair still hasn’t dried from my shower. I shouldn’t be cold, but I am. “I’m going to take another look. Then I’ll come back for the evidence bags.”
I turn back around, trying to take in the body with as much detachment as possible. Blond hair in braids—one tied with a heart-shaped elastic, one starting to unravel. No eyes left to judge eye color, not much of her nose either, and the soft curve of her upper lip ends in a jagged tear.
I drop my gaze.
No shoes, bare legs, and a white nightgown with red bows sewn on by hand. A few of them are missing. So is her right index finger. There isn’t any dirt under the remaining nails or on her feet. She looks pretty clean considering she’s been out in the bayou for …
I crouch down and inch a finger under the curve of her back. The dirt beneath her is drier than the surrounding ground. She’s been here half the night, at least. Her body blocked the light rain that fell sometime between midnight and two.
I’d heard it on the roof when I got up to chug one final beer before finally falling asleep. I ran out of my sleeping pills a few days ago and have been forced to rely on booze to knock me unconscious until I make it to the field office in Baton Rouge to pick up another bottle of Restalin … or two or three. Getting to sleep and staying asleep has been a battle since I was sixteen, since the night I saw my first dead body and toted it home in the backseat of my car.
No. Not going to think about that. Now isn’t a good time. Never is a good time.
I take one last look, searching for anything else that might help Cane identify the body as Grace. Her fingernails are painted a pale pink with sparkles, but there’s no jewelry, no defining marks that I can—
Scratch that, there’s something peeking out from under her sleeve. I lean over, snagging the elastic with two fingers.
It’s a tattoo, one of the temporary variety. Even the douchebags down at The Rusty Pin—who’d been all too happy to ink me when I was sixteen and so drunk I’d passed out on the table—won’t work on babies. I pull her sleeve higher, revealing a unicorn with glitter flowing down the tail. It looks like it’s shitting pink sparkles. Who knows? Maybe unicorns are real, too, and they crap cotton candy. After the fairies, we’re all a lot more willing to believe in imaginary things.
Hmm … fairies.
They will feed on a human corpse, as long as it hasn’t been dead for too long. If the girl was killed somewhere else and carried here, there should still be bites on her skin. But aside from whatever critter’s been at her face—weasel maybe, or possum—there isn’t a mark on her. Not even a mosquito bite.
Of course, mosquitoes have been hunted to the brink of extinction. Fairies don’t mind getting their human blood secondhand. I watched a couple of Fey feed on a mosquito swarm in a containment unit during my first year of FCC training. Intense doesn’t begin to describe it. With their precious faces and delicate wings, it’s easy to forget that fairy mouths are full of fangs coated with deadly venom. For millions of years, those mouths were too small to close around human flesh. But after the mutations, that isn’t a problem.
I can see a clutch of the little sharks circling in the shade of the cypress trees down near the water. The pink and gold glow of their skin gives them away, an insect-luring adaptation that serves as an early warning to humans.
If you see the glow, it’s time to go. Marcy teaches the rhyme to her kids right along with Stop, drop, and roll.
There isn’t much need for concern at the moment, however, even if I weren’t immune. Fairies aren’t fans of direct sunlight. They won’t come out of the shade unless there’s a tempting meal—two or three food-friendly humans, maybe more. It would probably be safe for Cane to come down and collect the evidence himself.
Probably. And if not, you’ve got more blood on your hands.
Blood. Another one of my least favorite things.
I stand and climb up the rise to claim the dummy kit. Cane holds it out as I slip inside the gate, but doesn’t look me in the eye. He knows better than to make eye contact when I’m upset. He’s smart. And prepared. And probably going to make captain after his brother retires if I don’t mess up his life first. I don’t want to mess up his life. He’s a good man and he’s already been through hell with his first wife. I should leave him.
Instead, I let him put an arm around my shoulders, and pull me close.
“Is it her?” he whispers, voice pained.
I nod. “I’m pretty sure. White nightgown with red bows, pink nail polish, and a temporary tattoo of a unicorn on her right arm.”
“Shit.” He runs a hand up his forehead and back over his shaved head.
There’s a shushing sound as the rough skin on his palms brushes the hint of stubble, the same sound my fingers made a few hours ago. It makes me want to get even closer, to wrap my arms around his neck and pull his scratchy head down for a kiss.
But I don’t. I can’t. Now that the kit is in hand, real panic is beginning to set in. The world spins again, and my brain screams in protest. I take a breath and turn it off, promising it a nice, strong toddy when we’ve finished the dirty work. I pull away from Cane and turn back toward the thing in the field, to the thing I will poke and prod and eventually drag within the iron gate for the coroner to collect.
I can’t think of Grace as Grace or I won’t be able to finish this. At least not while I’m sober.
Stacey Jay has published in the genres of erotica, paranormal romance, middle grade, and YA, using a variety of pseudonyms. She’s been a full-time mom/writer since 2005 and can't think of anything she'd rather be doing. Her former careers include theater performer, professional dancer, poorly paid C-movie actress, bartender, waiter, math tutor, and yoga instructor. She lives in California with her husband and children.