The Lonely and the Lost
by K.B. Elijah
My boots squelch as I descend the worn steps, the ubiquitous dirty rain of the city haunting me even in this dark little hole in Djinntown. It’s impossible to avoid stepping in the puddles when the rains haven’t let up for weeks, particularly in this part of Prythire City where the roads submerge into quagmires of fetid mud, and the footpaths are closer to rancid rivers of ooze than solid concrete. And after 19 straight hours on this case, I’m not even trying anymore.
With sodden feet as black as my mood, I nudge open the door at the bottom of the stairs. It’s unmarked; on any other day, I may have dismissed it as a disused cellar but I have it on good authority from one of my chattier informants that its local name is the Drowned Marlin.
Even with my ears full of muddy rain, I don’t fail to notice the abrupt hush that settles over the taproom as I push my way inside. Wiping my sodden hair from my eyes, I offer a short nod, watching the inhabitants shift guiltily before my eyes. Tails slink back under coats, horns retract into hair, and the giant octopus-looking creature near the bar reverts into a flustered-looking young woman who gives her frizzy hair a hasty pat.
“Human,” someone whispers, and it echoes around me, an unseen accusation that flits venomously from mouth to mouth.
I know I’m not welcome here. If there was peace as the politicians like to claim, this cluster of Djinn would not have hidden their true forms when a human walked into their bar. They wouldn’t be staring at me now with such suspicion and mistrust in their eyes that it takes all of my self-control not to lay my hand on my gun.
Swallowing, I approach the bar, and pull out my badge.
“Detective Ayers,” I say, catching the eye of the dark-haired bartender whose claws curl back into his fingertips as I draw near. “Prythire City Police Department.”
He stares back sullenly. “Haven’t done nothing wrong.”
“I didn’t say you had,” I offer smoothly, ignoring the double negative in his words, and taking them at face value. “I’m here because you might be able to help me.”
The bartender spits at his feet, not brave enough to assault me directly but the threat is there all the same.
“Get out of here,” the formerly octopus-shaped Djinn hisses, her dark eyes narrowing. “You have this whole city. Can’t you leave us be in the small corner we have left?”
Voices rise over the top of each other, spurred on by those pioneer aggressors, and the dark underground bar quickly descends into a cacophony of anger and accusations, of shuffled feet and tightened fists. I feel the air compressing around me as the denizens close in around me.
The bartender stiffens as I shove my hand into my coat, and his claws begin to bulge back through the ends of his fingers.
But I’m not reaching for a gun. My own fingers curl around a soggy photograph, and I tug it from my pocket.
“I’m looking for a child,” I snarl, cutting through the bullshit. Slamming the photo of five-year old Miley Evans down onto the rough-cut wood of the bar, I jab my finger at her toothy grin. “She’s been missing for 25 hours, and was last seen six kilometres from here. I’m doing my best to find her, and I’m asking if any of you know anything.”
“What? Just because we’re Djinn, we’re capable of abducting a kid? Screw you.”
“That isn’t what I—”
“Funny how a human child gets so much attention but when two Djinn were shot in the street last week, there wasn’t a cop in sight.”
There are jeers at that, a crowd egging each other on.
“I can’t change the world,” I protest, “but I can help save—”
“The Treaty meant nothing to your lot, did it?” A thickset guy looms over me. “A signature on a screen, a few fake smiles and pretty speeches, and we’re worse off than ever. Forced into the darkest, dingiest spaces of the city so that you humans don’t have to look at us.”
“Sir,” I say, almost bending backwards to avoid the finger he jabs at my face. “This isn’t helping that little girl.”
“And nothing is helping us Djinn,” he snaps. “Oh, you police swarm all over the city when it’s human problems to fix but when it’s our kind? When our horns are sawn off and our tails taken as trophies, what then? We’re accused of provoking our attackers by shifting into our true forms. The guilty victims! When our kids are pelted with stones when they dare to venture past the outskirts of Djinntown, what do your kind do? Lecture us parents about not looking after them. We have nothing, Detective, but the fear that keeps us hiding down here!”
This time, his finger touches my coat and he yanks me by the collar towards him so my face is unsettlingly close to his.
“So, don’t you think for one second that we will help you find some human kid who’s probably sulking at grandma’s because mummy wouldn’t let her have second helpings of dessert.”
My hand reaches my holster but it’s empty. Cold hands that feel unpleasantly like snakeskin circle my wrists, pinning them in place.
I cry out as the crowd pins me in place, an astringent ferociousness of fear and discontent, that bitter tendril that has been growing, unseen, in the darkest parts of the city where the unwanted citizens skulk in the shadows.
“Wipe her,” orders the bartender, his face pinched into a scowl, and the woman who is once again octopus-shaped reaches forward with two of her tentacles.
“I’m a member of the PCPD! Get off me!”
The large suckers on the ends of her tentacles latch over my eyes, pain instantly shooting through my eyelids.
“Wipe all memories of the Drowned Marlin,” I hear the bartender say, his voice muted and pale. “And the last day or so, just in case. We don’t know when she learned of this place, and I don’t want her or any of her human friends coming back here.”
I thrash against my captors but they hold me firm. “No!” I scream, as the blackness consumes me. “I’m trying to help! I’m the only one looking because Miley is—”
I open my eyes to a bleary grey sky, blinking rainwater from my lashes. I’m curled up awkwardly on a park bench, shivering from the cold, and I have no recollection of where I am or how I got here.
Patting my jacket down for my phone, I frown as I feel paper crinkle under my fingers.
It’s a photo of a child with messy hair and a toothy grin. But I don’t recognise her, and I don’t know what her picture is doing in my pocket. Squinting, I can just make out a fluffy tail curving up over her shoulder from the base of her spine.
A Djinn child.
Shrugging, I shove the photo back into my coat. Whoever the girl is, she’s not my problem.
K.B. Elijah is a fantasy author living in Brisbane, Australia with her husband and three cockatiels. A lawyer by day, and a writer by … also day, because she needs her solid nine hours of sleep per night (not that the cockatiels let her sleep past 6am).
K.B. writes for various international anthologies, and her work features in dozens of collections about the mysterious, the magical, and the macabre. Her own books of short fantasy novellas with twists, The Empty Sky and Out of the Nowhere, are available on paperback and Kindle now.