sia ...” I tapped my finger to my chin. The vaguest of memories flickered at the edge of my mind. “Your name's familiar somehow. Have we met before?” I doubted it. She wasn't a Villain Vamp, as we called the girls who lowered their standards enough to date my kind. So how did I know her?
She blew out a long sigh. “My full name is Asia Elizabeth Maledetto.” At my blank look, she added, “My stepdad's King Maledetto.” She paused long enough to roll her eyes. “King of the land of Maledetto. You know, the kingdom that borders the northeastern part of New Never City?”
“Doesn't ring a bell.” I shrugged. What the fuck was with the geography lesson? If I wanted to learn, I would've stayed in Charming School.
“Fine.” Her hands lifted to her round hips and she glared at me. “My stepsister's Cinderella. Striking midnight now?”
Holy crap. I leapt from my seat on the table and paced around the room. Not that there was much room to pace. In fact, my whole apartment could fit into one of the three kittens' missing mittens. “You're the ugly stepsister!” I said with a frown. Yet this chick wasn't ugly, not by a long shot.
“I'm one of them.” She shrugged as if the nickname didn't bother her, but the look of hurt in her eyes spoke more than words could. The villainous, still hungry part of me took satisfaction in her pain. It served her and her princess-stuck-in-an-ivory-tower kind right.
“I'm sorry about,” I winced, “your sister's accident.” Smashed under a bus was a bad way to go. I should know. I'd run over quite a few jesters and even a prince or two in my time.
“Thanks,” she said. “But it wasn't an accident.”
I scratched my chin, not liking where this was going. “I have an alibi. I was at my mother's in Queens of Hearts.”
Asia arched a flame-colored eyebrow. “Why would you need an alibi?”
“No reason.” I tried to smile, but it came off more like a grimace. “You were saying?”
“My sister's death wasn't an accident.” Her eyes met mine. “She was murdered. And I need your help to prove it.”
Damn. There was that word again. I started to say fuck no, but instead, the following string of words flew from my stupid lips: “Of course. Whatever you need.”
God, I hated myself. In an act of revenge, I chomped down on my treacherous tongue until it bled. Served it right.
“Are you eating your tongue?” For a brief second Asia appeared terrified at the prospect. “I'm so sorry. I didn't realize you were that hungry.” She shoved her hand into the pocket of her leather pants and removed a lint-covered breath mint. “Here. Take this.”
Before I could stop her, she shoved the mint into my mouth. I wanted to yell “Are you fucking nuts,” but it came out more like, “Thanks.”
She smiled. “So you'll help me track down her killer?”
“Why the heck not?” I stared into her green eyes, losing myself in their beauty. If a woman's eyes were a window to her soul, I was in big trouble. Because the only image inside Asia Elizabeth Maledetto's eyes was my own evil reflection.
“I'll come back in the morning,” she said, “and we can begin our investigation.”
I nodded, watching her heart-shaped butt walk out my door and disappear down the hallway. Ugly stepsister, my ass. Hell, even the gayest of the rats surveyed her strut down the corridor.
“I'd do her,” said Tate, a pink felt hat-wearing rat with a lisp and a pronounced swish. The other, straighter rats rolled their beady eyes. To which Tate replied: “What?”
I closed the door before things got ugly and dropped into my favorite, now-empty chair. A cloud of dust exploded from the fabric and the sweet scent of pumpkin pie floated around me. I picked up the remnants of my dinner, surprised to see Asia had left a fortune cookie. I smiled at the plastic-wrapped goodie, picturing Asia's emerald eyes.
Peeling the cookie open, I licked my lips in anticipation of its sugary goodness and informative, if not valuable, summation of my future. The cookie read:
HE DELIVERY KID LICKED YOUR EGG ROLL
AVE A NICE DAY
Damn! Foiled again by a teen with more metal in his head than Snow White had sugar midgets.
Hi Ho, Hi Ho ...
Off to scrub delivery-kid spit out of my mouth I go.
woke the next morning to the taste of dead toad (don't ask) and turpentine, the only fluid strong enough to kill delivery-kid germs. My head ached, my eyes burned, and I coughed up something resembling Mary's little lamb.
Outside my window songbirds chirped in chorus, slightly out of tune, but with the gusto reserved for flat-chested strippers. I picked up my boot and threw it at the window. My boot, of course, missed and instead of shutting the damn birds up, it tore a hole in my centerfold poster of Pamela Hans Christian Andersen.
“Hello?” Asia pushed open my bedroom door.
I blinked, stunned by her beauty in the early morning light. Today she wore a red leather miniskirt and a black sweatshirt. Her hair was pulled away from her face in one of those girly buns held together by some magic combination of dulled #2 pencils and fairy dust.
“Oh.” Asia covered her mouth. “I'm sorry. I didn't know you weren't,” her other hand waved in my direction, “dressed.”
I glanced down at my nakedness and shrugged. Like her not-so-ugly highness had never seen a nude villain before. Hell, naked villains were a dime a baker's dozen in Easter Village.
“Rough night,” I said. “Too much turpentine.”
“I see.” Asia paused, patting her flat stomach. “I'm starving. Do you have anything to eat?”
I shook my head and pointed to the kitchen and its nearly empty cupboards. Not a bone in sight. Old Mother Hubbard I wasn't. “Help yourself.”
I didn't have to say it twice. Asia disappeared down the hallway, leaving me staring after her. While my morning improved upon her arrival, I still felt the niggling fear that she wasn't what she appeared. Not that I minded her appearance in the least. Literally. Spending time with a not-so-ugly stepsister in red leather beat the hell out of languishing away in my apartment.
Stumbling from my bed, I headed for the shower. The cold water did wonders for my chemically induced hangover, as well as my overheated libido.
Once I was squeaky clean, I tossed on a black “Your Lair or Mine?” T-shirt and a pair of faded Levi's. I even took a moment to run a comb through my shaggy black hair. It paid to impress the client. Halfway presentable, I headed toward the distinctive scent of beautiful woman and coffee grounds.
Asia stood in my bare kitchen with my World's Greatest V (the dishwasher had erased the rest of the word “villain”) coffee mug in her hand and a skillet of scrambled eggs cooking on the stovetop.
“My refrigerator had eggs in it?” I frowned, trying to remember the last time I went to the corner Fey grocer. A month at least, and that trip, I only bought a pack of Trojans. Fairy-dusted for her comfort.
Asia shook her head. A few stray ends of hair danced across her cheek. A hundred fantasies, all involving her royal ugliness, flickered through my head. Each one dirtier than the next. Most illegal in the Southern Fairy States.
“No eggs,” she said.
“What?” My eyes narrowed. None of my fantasies involved eggs, well, not the edible kind, to be sure.
“You didn't have any eggs,” she repeated.
“So what's that?” I pointed to the yellowish scrambled substance bubbling inside the pan. It smelled like eggs. Looked like eggs. Therefore, given my talents of deduction, it was in fact eggs. Yet I'd been fooled before. Mostly by my bitch of an ex-wife. The very woman responsible for my current cursed state.
Asia grinned, crooking her finger in my direction. I leaned in close enough to hear her whisper, “Do you really want to know what's in the pan?”
“Smart man.” She winked, filled a plate with an egglike substance, and handed it to me. I grabbed a fork from the drawer and dug in. It tasted like eggs tooâbuttery, light and fluffy. I couldn't remember the last time a woman cooked for me. Hell, even my mum had ordered take-out.
I took a second bite. Warm. Tasty. Needed a little salt. “Ow!” I pulled a piece of concrete from my mouth. “What the hell's that?”
Asia wrapped her fingers around mine, eyed the offending bit of gravel, and smirked. “Looks like a piece of brick.” She shrugged and tossed the debris into my sink. It smacked the stainless steel with a ping.
Before she could answer, sirens echoed from the street below. I gazed out the kitchen window. A crowd had gathered. Fairy godmothers, rats in hats, and a little boy dressed in blue stood on the sidewalk, eyes wide as they took in the scene in front of them.
A man in a rumpled suit stood behind a string of yellow crime scene tape. He stooped down and picked up a goo-covered brick that lay next to an egg-shaped chalk outline. The cop's eyes darted from the front porch of my walk-up to the brick in his hand. Another cop nodded to my window. I jumped back and glared at Asia.
Her lips trembled and tears rolled down her pale cheeks. After a few seconds, her tears dried and she crossed her arms across her chest. She mumbled, “I was hungry.”
“While you were getting dressed,” her drawn-out sigh reverberated around the room, “I noticed this egg just sitting on the brick wall outside. He looked so sad.”
“And I was so very hungry.”
“So when I saw him fall, I immediately ran to help him up, but I was too late.” She shook her head, glancing up from lowered lashes. “All the king's horses and the king's men couldn't have saved him.”
“Poor little egg.” A tear glistened in the corner of her eye. “I'm sure it was suicide. He had nothing left to live for.”
“Fair enough.” I dropped my plate of Humpty Dumpty into the sink and grabbed her arm. “But, sweetheart, in Easter Village eggicide gets you twenty to life.”
“Oh.” She eyed the evidence in her hand. “Maybe we should go.”
She sighed, grabbed a fork from the counter, and gobbled down the rest of Humpty as if it was her last meal. When she finished, we left my apartment through the back door, arm in arm, partners in a deviled deed.
ice ride,” I said, motioning around Asia's Ford half-pumpkin, half-chariot hybrid. While the interior smelled like Thanksgiving Day throw-up, the vehicle handled like a dream and was surprisingly roomy. Asia shifted gears like a NASCAR driver, twisting in and out of the early-morning traffic.
“Thanks,” Asia said. “Cindi wanted me to have it.”
Cindi, as in the famed Cinderella, I deduced. Already I played the part of a PI, or rather a dick. Give me a couple more days and I'd unmask Cinderella's killer.
But anyone who knew my villainous past would ask: Why?
The answer was surprisingly simple and seated next to meâone egg-murdering princess. I wasn't planning our fairytale wedding yet, but I wouldn't mind finding out if not-so-ugly girls really did work that much harder in bed. If I solved her sister's killing, Asia would reward me, hopefully until I was limp and putty in her hands.
And if not, I'd kidnap her, lock her in a tower, and force her to weave knock-off Gucci handbags for the rest of her days. Because that's what villains did, and I, current mental health leave aside, was one hell of a villain. I'd crushed princes, made my share of maidens cry, and even stolen a golden goose or two.
I smiled, eased my seat back, and closed my eyes as Asia drove us through a snarl of commuter traffic to the heart of New Never City. Next to me, she hummed a familiar song.
But I couldn't place it.
Oh well, it will come to me, I thought as I closed my eyes.
A few minutes later Asia shook me awake. “Get up.”
I opened one eye and snarled. The afternoon sun blinded me, searing my innocent eyeball. During my brief cat-and-a-fiddle nap, my legs had cramped up under the dashboard, twisting me into a villainous pretzel without the salty parts. No rest for the recently-cursed-used-to-be-wicked.
Yawning, I peeled open my other eye and glanced around at the city in front of me. It was a beautiful sight. Skyscrapers and exhaust filled the sky. Pigeons dressed in pink dive-bombed passing tourists waiting in line at the falafel stand. Buses and cars sped past, as did the Pied Piper and a string of felt hat-wearing rats, coffee cups and the early edition of the
New Never News,
New Never City's number one source of news, gripped tightly in their tiny, manicured paws. Shiny windows reflected the scene like a warped version of reality TV.
“We're here.” Asia exited the Ford Pumpkin.
Here was Fairy-Second Street, the place where another chalk outline lay on the exhaust-stained blacktop. This one, however, told the story of Cinderella's final moments.
I followed Asia from the compact and scanned the crime scene. In death Cinderella appeared much smaller, her chalk outline merely a speck on a busy city street. For some unexplainable reason wetness gathered at the corners of my eyes. I wiped a tear away.
“Spice.” A guy in a dark rumpled suit joined us on the sidewalk. He looked as worn as his clothes and just as outdated. Like a member of an eighties hair band once male-pattern baldness settled in.
“Spice?” I tilted my head, noting every detail about the man from his sagging jowls to his overly big nose. No wonder Asia needed me, if this was the best the New Never City PD had to offer. I mean, really, we stood in the middle of a crime scene discussing recipes, for fuck sakes.
“The reason your eyes are tearing up.” The cop nodded to my salt-smeared cheeks. “Sugar, spice, and everything nice. Half a city block got coated in the stuff when the bus ... well, you know.” He waved a tobacco-discolored hand in the direction of the chalk outline.
I must've continued to look confused because Asia came up to stand next to me, her hand on my arm. “Sugar, spice, and everything nice. That's what little girls are made of.” She shrugged. “And it tastes pretty good on toast too.”
“I see,” I said but really didn't. The chicks I knew weren't crafted from anything nice, let alone sugary sweet. I glanced at Asia. “What was Cinderella doing in New Never City? I thought she and Charming were to be married in two weeks.”
“She was here to see me,” Asia said. “I left home a month ago, for a ... job ... in the city.” I noted her pause, but decided not to press her. Not yet. Asia continued, “On Monday, Cindi called me. She said she had something important to tell me. Something she couldn't tell me over the phone. We agreed to meet for lunch. But Cindi never showed. I waited and waited at the Quite Contrary Buffet ...” Her lips dipped into a frown. “Until the owners tossed me out. All you can eat, my ass.”
“So you never saw her?” I frowned, not sure if I believed her. Instead of Asia taking offense at my tone, the cop did.
He stuck out his chest and tucked his fat arms under his armpits. “This here's an official accidental death investigation,” he said. “Just who the heck do you think you are, asking these questions?”
I grinned, ready and willing to go mano-a-villain with the good detective. In fact, I wanted nothing more. Cops rubbed me the wrong way, sort of like a brand-new shirt made by Geppetto himself. “Why don't you guess?” I waggled my eyebrows. “Come on, I dare you. Guess my name.”
The detective stepped closer, invading my personal space. I exhaled deeply, wanting to hurt him, to punch him in his bulbous nose and spit on his scuffed shoes, but thanks to the union, my Humpty breath would have to do. I blew another burst of fetid egg breath in his direction.
His nose scrunched up, but he didn't drop dead as I had hoped. Instead, he jabbed me in the chest. “Let's see some ID.”
“Stop it.” Asia pushed herself between the cop and me. She grabbed his arm and held on. “Please. I requested his help to investigate my sister's death.”
“Stepsister,” the cop said.
Asia rolled her eyes. “Yes, stepsister.”
The detective frowned and pulled Asia to the side. In a stage whisper, he said, “Who the hell is he? He looks like a bum.”
I tried to look offended. It worked for a half of a second, but then my gaze fell on the chalk outline on the cement and I forgot everything else. Something about the outline bothered me. I peered closer.
“He's not a bum,” Asia said in a near whisper of her own. “He's the most famous inspector in all the land.”
For a second the detective looked as if he didn't believe her, his eyes narrowed and he frowned. Not unimaginable, since I wasn't buying it either.
Asia stomped her foot. “Inspector Holmes of Fairy Yard is responsible for catching some of the most dangerous criminals of our time. He busted that trespassing bitch Goldilocks, and Little Pigs #1 and #2 for shoddy home construction. He's caught every villain he's ever been after.”
Damn! Asia wasn't looking for me, RJ, master villain, when she magically appeared in my apartment yesterday, but rather, the famed Inspector Holmes. The same inspector who had resided in my apartment before me. The very same famed inspector currently stuffed into my chimney.
I shook my head. He wasn't that great a detective. After all, I'd managed to cram him in the fireplace, and it took me less than five minutes. Three minutes of that I spent playing inspector origami, a fold here, a tuck there, and voilÃ , a crane-shaped detective. Oh well, if Asia wanted a Fairy Yard Inspector, that's what I'd damn well be.
“He doesn't look like an inspector,” the detective was saying. “In fact,” he squinted in my direction, “he looks like a villain to me.”
“He's undercover,” Asia said.
The cop raised an eyebrow. “Is that true?”
“If Asia says so.” I grinned. “So tell me what happened. How'd a pretty princess wind up smashed under the crosstown bus?”
The detective grimaced, but did as I asked. “An eyewitness swears Cinderella just stepped in front of the bus. The driver tried to stop, but ...” He waved to the chalked street. “It was too late. We see it all the time around here. A small-town hick princess comes to the big, bad city. She takes one wrong step, and kablam, she's roadkill.” Asia winced, and the detective added, “No offense, ma'am.”
“And the bird?” I asked.
“Yeah.” I pointed to the ground and the tiny bird droppings on the sidewalk. “A bluebird, by the look of it.”
The detective frowned, but stooped down to examine the birdy-doo. Asia peered over my shoulder and down at the fecal matter. “How do you know it's a bluebird?”
“How do you know it wasn't?” I winked at her and waited for the detective to rise from his crouched position. When he did, the look on his face suggested my deduction was dead-on. Hell, this investigation stuff wasn't so hard. Maybe when I retired from a life of villainy I'd take it up. That and knitting. I loved a good cross-stitch.
“What do you think the bluebird means?” Asia gazed at me expectantly. Her lips were parted, her eyes alight. How I wanted to snatch her up and carry her to the nearest tower. She was so beautiful standing in the middle of midtown, the sun reflecting off her auburn hair. “Ummm ...” She snapped her fingers in front of my face. “The bluebird?”
“Right. Two things.” I held up my index finger and paused for dramatic emphasis. A pause that neither Asia nor the detective seemed to appreciate. “I'm a damn good detective.” I held up a second finger. “And Asia's right, Cinderella was murdered.”