Pepper Crimson glanced about the room she’d spent most of the day organizing. She was surprised at the dilapidated condition Irk and the Godmother let it fall into though Pepper suspected Miss Thornhart lacked the time and energy to battle the old Dwarf about it. Well, that was no longer necessary now that she was here. Hidden amongst the cobwebs and dust balls Pepper found whole teams of mice and birds, which was all well and good so long as they pulled their weight. The russet-haired maiden made it perfectly clear that any arrangement they had with her predecessor was now null and void so they could either help with the cleaning and maintenance of the place or clear out. Many left but enough stayed to get the job done in record time.
After a reward of tea and gooseberry crumble, the minute staff began settling in for the night. The sound of heavy footsteps clomping in from outside drew Pepper’s attention to the door, which creaked open and a large swarthy man stepped into the room. His dark shaggy mane fell down to broad shoulders draped in a long black cape. Thick eyebrows furrowed over deep chocolate eyes and a wide nose. A hand like a bear’s paw scratched his beard in an upward and backward motion as his wide lipped mouth set in an amused yet thoughtful grin.
“Well hello there, may I be of service?” He rumbled.
The question sent lurid thoughts dancing through Pepper’s mind before she shook herself. “Shouldn’t I be asking this of you?”
“I don’t know, should you?” He asked, removing his cloak with a flourish before hanging it on a peg on the wall.
Pepper tried again. “Miss Thornhart isn’t in right now.”
“I know, she will be shortly.” The dark stranger sauntered up to her. “Never fear, you and I have plenty of time to get acquainted.”
Pepper could feel the heat rising up her throat and behind her ears as she backed up against her desk. She opened her suddenly parched mouth to speak but words failed her.
“That shade of pink is most attractive, Miss Crimson.” His voice was a low growl, his chuckle rumbling through her in a pleasurable wave. “Miss Crimson, what an appropriate name.”
“H-how do you know my name? Have we met?”
“No, we haven’t but I sincerely hope by night’s end to hear mine sighed from your lips.”
Pepper trembled. Oh, the cheek! She knew she should be outraged and yet she had to steel herself against the desire that pooled in her belly.
“Prepare to be disappointed, Mr. uh-“
“Marlow, everyone calls me Tracker.”
“Well Mr. Marlow, I’ll have you know I am not so easily bedded.”
He leaned in, capturing her eyes with his sinfully promising gaze. His aroma of wood, sun-warmed grass, and leather made Pepper shiver again.
“Is that a fact?” He murmured.
Pepper nodded sharply, her voice hoarse as she replied, “It is.”
He leaned in further still, his nose just behind her ear, and sniffed deeply. A soft cry of pleasure escaped her throat and he pulled back with a lopsided grin. “Pity.”
The door banged open again making Pepper jump. In strolled a young olive-skinned Dwarf with tousled fawn-colored hair and a trim beard. His grey eyes sparkled as he said,
“Bedevilin’ the new bird already, Romulus? Don’t scare her off, I’m sick of starin’ at Irk’s mingin’ kite every day.”
“Romulus?” Pepper raised an eyebrow but Tracker was busy shooting daggers at the Dwarf to notice.
“I told you not to call me that, Woldfoot.”
“Save yer breath, he don’t listen to nobody no how.” Irk grumbled as he galumphed in.
“What’s happening, what are you doing here?” Pepper asked.
“Godmother called a meetin’ innit.” The young Dwarf said, then crossed to take her hand in his furry mitts and pumped her arm. “We’re the investigative team. I am Arbo Woldfoot, this randy git is Tracker Marlow, the best detective in the Constabulary and that old bag is Irk Underhill, retired Detective Chief Inspector and holdover from the last Godmother.”
“We’ve met,” Irk grunted and dropped into a chair, plonking his mud-encrusted boots on the coffee table.
Pepper opened her mouth to protest when Aryssa swept in and spun around to take off her cloak.
“Ah, you’re all here, excellent. Pepper, what a wonderful job you’ve done here! Irk, get those feet off the table, please.”
“Is that what I think it is?” Arbo asked, hopping from one foot to the other like a child while pointing to the white box in Aryssa’s hands.
“It is!” She proclaimed and dropped the parcel into his hands.
Pepper got her boss a cup of tea while the guys concerned themselves with getting the box open.
“Now then,” Aryssa said once everything settled down again, “I’ve called you here to discuss the Dark Fairy Ravenshade’s case.”
The men stopped eating and gaped at her.
“Yer nay doin’ it, yer nay takin’ the case?” Irk was incredulous.
“I’m afraid I will be taking the case, Irk.” She raised her hands as the objections started. “Now hear me out. My preliminary investigation tells me this - two days ago, shortly after the Jubilee, Princess Primrose disappears. This morning a hunter finds her body in Howling Woods stabbed to death by a golden spindle found at the scene. At the princess’ naming ceremony 16 years ago, Ravenshade cursed the baby to die by pricking her finger on a spindle in revenge for not receiving an invitation. This morning Ravenshade was arrested at her home for the murder. It’s an open and shut case, right?”
“Right,” Irk said.
“Wrong.” Tracker shook his head. “When is it ever an open and shut case? I read the docket this afternoon. Beryl Fairy Merrypuff led Captain Slender to Ravenshade’s laboratory chamber to make the arrest. What she has to do with any of this is beyond me, especially with a room full of dressmakers any of whom could have shown him the way.”
“But if the Dark Fairy killed the princess, why did she not flee?” Arbo asked.
“To throw people off the scent,” Pepper responded without thinking. She realized everyone was looking at her and willed herself not to blush from embarrassment as she shrugged meekly. “In detective stories, if the killer is well known and might be missed, he never flees. His disappearance would almost certainly be a sign of guilt.”
“Ravenshade told me she’s been working on a new dye in her lab for the last few days.”
“A likely story.” Irk scoffed.
“That’s right, the queen requested the Constabulary assist the king’s guard on security detail the night of the Jubilee. Everyone was expecting a major fiasco but Ravenshade never appeared.” Tracker said.
“That’s something else she told me. In the days leading up to the Jubilee, Honeypetal learned from one of the assistants that Ravenshade would be working and made a crack about how revelers wouldn’t be treated to a repeat performance of the naming ceremony.”
“Then we know she’s lying. Honeypetal would never say such a thing.” Pepper gasped.
The maiden never had the pleasure of meeting the Rose Fairy, famous for her line of perfume and powders, in person but everyone knew how sweet and selfless the dainty beauty was supposed to be.
“I dunna believe anythin’ that witch has to say.” Irk snorted.
“Something else of note. I was summoned to the palace and found Honeypetal with a Beryl Fairy waiting for Hazelbite.” Aryssa said.
“The Royal Mystic?” Arbo laughed. “What’s she doin’ congregatin’ with the unwashed masses?”
“I don’t know but the whole thing smacks of conspiracy. Whoever killed the princess, they seem adamant Ravenshade goes down for it.” Aryssa frowned.
“Maybe her own curse came back to bite her?” Arbo suggested.
“Except the curse was that the princess pricks her finger on a spindle, not be stabbed repeatedly with one. It seems like overkill to me.” Pepper interjected, blushing upon the realization everyone was staring at her again. “If you’ll pardon the pun.”
Aryssa gave her a sharp look. How did she know the Princess had been stabbed multiple times? The information was not public knowledge and the Godmother had yet to visit the morgue to examine the body herself.
She nodded slowly. “A bit crass, Pepper, but on the nose nonetheless. Irk, at first light I want you and Tracker to take a look at the crime scene in Howling Wood. See what you can find and if the constabulary missed anything. Arbo and I will head to Ravenshade’s shop and speak with the staff. Pepper, you did a good job today. Lock up and head home.”