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«Skin Deep», Mark Del Franco

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For Jack, who made this one possible

CHAPTER 1

AS SHE LEANED back in her seat, the van’s motion vibrated against the base of Laura Blackstone’s skull. She rocked her head, hoping it would soothe her tense muscles. It didn’t. Odors tickled her nose-the scents of hot electronics, clean gun oil, and leather uniforms. If someone blindfolded her and spun her around, she’d still know immediately that she was inside a SWAT-team van.

She couldn’t see outside the van, but she didn’t need to sightsee in Anacostia. With years of law enforcement under her belt, she knew all of Washington, D.C.’s neighborhoods well. The historic Anacostia had its share of crime and urban blight mixed in with bland strip malls and expensive homes.

This time, the neighborhood had a drug lab that the local SWAT team wanted taken down. Nothing unusual about that-it was what SWAT teams did. And since Captain Aaron Foyle needed specialized backup, he called someone he could rely on: Laura Blackstone. Actually, he called “Janice Crawford.” That was the persona Laura used when she worked with the local D.C. SWAT team.

Laura looked at the men in the van and, not for the first time, wondered what humans thought of her, really thought of her. Did they see the person behind the ability? Or was she always perceived as this fey being who manipulated essence, some inhuman thing with the power to perform what they believed was magic?

After over a century of coexistence with humans, the fey were still feared and misunderstood. Unlike most fey, Laura wasn’t technically from Faerie-she had been born and raised in the United States, an American citizen. That helped smooth the way in most social situations since she didn’t have the same cultural baggage as the Old Ones-the fey originally from Faerie. Laura and the other here-born fey fit into the modern world, and what’s more, they wanted to fit in. They could pass.

And Laura passed as human better than most fey. Druids didn’t look different. They didn’t have long, pointed ears like Teutonic elves or strange-colored skin like the solitary fey. They didn’t fly like the Celtic fairy clans. They didn’t have wings at all. The difference between druids and humans-between Laura and humans-was that she manipulated essence, and they didn’t. Couldn’t.

Tapping into the inherent energy around them, the fey used essence to fly or to fight or simply to turn on the lights. What was as natural to Laura as breathing, humans called magic. She couldn’t understand their fear.

As they neared their target, the tension built in the van. Laura pulled at her flak jacket, trying to adjust it so it fit more comfortably. Again. They weren’t made for women. Conversations muted or faded away as the other team members readied for the assault. Everyone dealt with those last few minutes differently. Laura was glad no one in the group was a talker. The less small talk she made, the fewer details she had to commit to memory for the Janice Crawford persona. Instead, she spent her time mentally reviewing her agenda for the next day’s meeting at the Guildhouse.

When the public saw Laura Blackstone-the actual Laura Blackstone-it only ever saw a public-relations director for the Fey Guild. Her role was to put a good face on fey activities. Some people thought that meant making excuses for whatever trouble the fairies and elves and other fey got into. Laura liked to think it was a matter of perspective.

Sometime in the early part of the twentieth century, the realm of Faerie merged with modern reality. No one knew what had happened to cause what came to be known as Convergence, although it was clear it was something that had occurred in Faerie. Over the next hundred years, the fey moved out into the greater world and became part of the social and political landscape. In order to gain human allies and assure people that the fey meant no harm, the Seelie Court established the Guild to respond to concerns raised by both humans and the fey.

The Guild played many different roles. It served as the diplomatic embassy for High Queen Maeve of the Seelie Court at Tara, the fairy queen who rarely ventured outside her mist-shrouded home in Ireland. The Guild also worked as a policing force on the local level for magic-related crimes committed by the fey.

But for criminal activity on the international level, the Seelie Court, along with the governments of other nations, provided law-enforcement staff to the International Global Security Agency-InterSec-to investigate and resolve criminal activities wherever needed. And Laura Blackstone was one of InterSec’s best operatives.

By day, Laura sent out press releases. But by night, she had another life as an agent with InterSec, which no one at the Guild knew about. Only a few outside InterSec knew Laura Blackstone worked undercover. She had spent years keeping it that way.

The SWAT team’s intelligence had uncovered information that the drug lab had two brownies as security. Brownies were low-powered Celtic fey. From an essence point of view, they had enormous stamina, great organizational skills, and other rudimentary essence abilities. They were useful as security guards dealing with humans, but for someone with druidic training, brownies weren’t much to worry about.


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