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Five Dead Herrings by E.J. Russell

Read Online Five Dead Herrings by E.J. Russell Romance Book

Overview: Something’s definitely fishy about this case…
On my last stakeout for Quest Investigations, I nearly got clotheslined by a grove of angry dryads. I expected my bosses to reprimand me, but instead they handed me my first solo assignment. Me! Matt Steinitz, the only human on the Quest roster!
Okay, so the mission isn’t exactly demanding. Obviously, the bosses wanted to give me something they think I can’t screw up. I’m determined to show them what I can do, however, so I dive right in with no complaints.
At first glance, it looks as simple as baiting a hook: A selkie’s almost-ex-husband is vandalizing his boat with unwanted deliveries of deceased sea life. All I have to do is document the scene, tell the ex to cease and desist, and present the bill for property damages. Boom. Mission accomplished, another Quest success, and as a bonus, I get to keep my job.
But then things get…complicated. Suspicious undercurrents muddy up my oh-so-easy case. Nothing is as clear as it should be. And the biggest complication? My inappropriate attraction to the client, who may not be as blameless as he claims.
Turns out those dead herrings aren’t the only things that stink about this situation.


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Five Dead Herrings by E.J. Russell

Read Online Five Dead Herrings by E.J. Russell Book Chapter One

I’ve been parked behind a scraggly thimbleberry bush the last six hours with my camera pointed at a tree.

And when I say “parked,” I’m not talking about the marginal comfort of my beater Honda. No, I’m talking about my butt planted on a clump of grass that looked soft(ish) when I showed up for this stakeout at dawn, but that now feels more like a pile of rocks.

You having a hard time putting that information together? I mean, camera plus stakeout might give you the idea that I’m a private investigator, right? Or a paparazzo. Or maybe a peeping tom. And you’d be sorta right for two out of three (okay, maybe three out of three, but I wasn’t intentionally peeping), depending on where in my personal timeline you landed.

Because I wasn’t a paparazzo, per se. I didn’t stalk celebutantes or pop stars or actors with personal restraint issues. No fewer than three tabloids had me on their starred contributor list because I was Matt Steinitz, the most successful cryptid photographer in the world. Okay, in America. Well…in the Pacific Northwest.

Fine. In Oregon, okay? West of the Cascades, anyway.

But it wasn’t my modest success in cryptid photography that got me my current gig with Quest Investigations. No, it was being mistaken for a guy who was a real success—not to mention a real douchebag—and the only thing that saved me from some kind of arcane punishment was the fact his photographs were crap.

Did you catch that part about Quest Investigations? So, yeah, I’m working for private investigators, but I’m not an investigator myself. I’m their surveillance guy. Which makes me…a professional peeping tom.

It’d be sleazy if it wasn’t so goddamn boring.

Like now. Because I was staking out a tree. And not even an interesting tree. I mean, a pink flowering dogwood in the spring? I could happily stare at one of those all day long. A Doug fir in winter, with the wind tossing its branches and maybe a little snow spangling its needles? Sign me up. But my target today—in mid-September, when everything is tired, hot, and dusty—was a specimen of Ailanthus altissima, aka the tree of heaven, and that was about as big an oxymoron as jumbo shrimp or business intelligence.

Yet here I am, on the one hand wishing my coffee thermos wasn’t empty and on the other hand—or maybe the same one—wishing I hadn’t drunk all of it because now I needed to offload some of that, if you catch my drift, and I didn’t want to, well, piss where I sat. But if I ducked behind the nearest interesting tree for a little relief, who’d keep the camera pointed at the lousy tree of heaven?

“Next time,” I muttered as I shifted uncomfortably, “I’m bringing a tripod.”

You’d be forgiven for asking why I’m putting myself through this, other than, you know, a paycheck, which is a completely fair question. Here’s the deal.

Apparently some dryad outraged her clan by cheating. And we’re not talking about a clandestine hookup at a cheap motel near the airport, or even a high class liaison at an upscale B&B out on the coast. Nope. According to her clan chief—a guy who, since he’s a dryad, probably has a literal stick up his ass—she’s allegedly cheating on her tree.

Did you know anyone could cheat on a tree? Yeah, me neither. Especially since dryads aren’t exactly…is there a word for cleaving solely to one particular tree? Treemogamous? Arboreallegiant? Dryads can merge with any tree whose trunk circumference is bigger than their waist, but Stick-Up-His-Ass was in a major state about this one: “It’s an invasive species!”

To tell you the truth, I expected my bosses to turn the case down. You might have heard of these two guys—Niall O’Tierney and Mal Kendrick. That’s Prince Niall and Lord Maldwyn, because Niall’s brother is the freaking King of Faerie, and Mal’s a high-up fae too—he was the Queen’s Enforcer for two hundred years.

So this is my life now. I work for fae royalty.

Not only that but Zeke Oz, our office manager? Demon. Yep, you heard that right, although the only scary thing about him is his efficiency. He’s the sweetest guy you’d ever want to meet.

Well, okay, not the sweetest. That would be the grizzly shifter I was crushing on for years before he got married.

I know what you’re thinking and stop, okay? Just stop.

Because you’re right. I’m still crushing on him. I know nothing’ll ever come of it. But if you knew Ted, you’d be in love with him too. I don’t know how everybody on the planet isn’t in love with him. His incubus husband is one lucky devil.

Did you catch that? Incubus. Husband.

That’s right. They’re all real. Dryads. Shifters. Fae. Incubi. Demons. Angels—although I don’t recommend them; the only one I’ve met was a total douchecanoe. Druids. Vampires, for Pete’s sake.

And me, you ask? Garden variety, dirt common, 100% ordinary human.

I should count myself lucky, right? I dreamed of this stuff from the time I was a kid. That’s why I spent so much time tracking down cryptid sightings when I still worked for the tabloids. I just wanted it to be real, you know? Now that I’ve discovered it is, and that I’m literally the only human allowed to regularly interact with the wider supernatural community—supes, they call themselves—I should be happy.

And I am. Mostly. I’m amazed daily at how cool it all is, but at the same time, I’m reminded that I’ll never be anything more than an outsider. An observer. Quest Investigations’ pet human.

In fact, when I told you I was Matt Steinitz—past tense? According to my passport and driver’s license and credit card bills, I still am. But at Quest, everybody knows me as Hugh. Hugh Mann.

It began as a slur. When I first started with Quest, clients would often look down their noses at me and say, “What is that human doing here?” Mal, who can never resist a joke, started calling me Hugh. I thought it was his way of—as he’d put it—taking the mickey out of them. But Zeke told me it was also to protect me: Supes have very long memories and some of them might resent me if they found out about my tabloid work. Mal didn’t want me to be a target.

To be honest, I kind of like the extra name. For one thing, it keeps me honest: I’m not one of them, and I never will be. For another, it means that Ted—my grizzly shifter crush—is the only one who still calls me Matt. Pathetic, I know. But it means he sees me, at least a little, and since that’s all I can ever expect from him, I’ll take whatever crumbs I can catch.

I sighed, shifting to my right butt cheek to give the left one a break. I still wasn’t sure why Quest took this job. Maybe it was because Stick-Up-His-Ass was bugging Mal’s husband, who’s not only a druid but also an environmental science professor. That seemed unlikely though, since Dr. MacLeod never had trouble telling people to piss right off if he thought they were being jerks.

I have a sneaking suspicion this whole case is nothing but busy work. They took it to give me something to do because they got tired of me moping around the office.

“Hey, Hugh!”

I nearly fell over sideways at the cheerful greeting, fumbling my camera and barely saving it from falling onto a rock.

“Jordan?” I stared up at the fresh-faced kid in the Wonderful Mug coffee shop T-shirt. He had a takeout bag from the Mediterranean restaurant next to the Quest offices in his hand. “What are you doing here? And for god’s sake, get down!”

The young werewolf—yeah, werewolf—immediately hunkered down next to me, the bag crinkling loudly in the quiet woods. He gazed around, his brown eyes wide. “Sorry!” His whisper probably carried all the way to the coast. He held up the bag like a trophy. “I brought you lunch.”

My stomach rumbled in response to the delicious aroma of perfectly cooked falafel. “Thanks, but why?” Usually Zeke handles our meals in the field. Jordan isn’t a Quest employee. He’s just a college kid—okay, college werewolf—who works part time at a coffee shop. “And for that matter, how?”

He rolled his eyes. “I got here the same as you. The FTA.”

Niall’s brother, the new King of Faerie, started a highly lucrative business for his subjects—the Fae Transportation Association. You can get pretty much anywhere that’s not excessively public by taking a shortcut through Faerie. Jordan’s right—that’s how I got here myself. But a lot of the FTA “drivers” were really, really big and obviously not human. In other words, not exactly unobtrusive.

“Jordan,” I murmured, “you realize this is a stakeout, right? It won’t do much good if the target figures out she’s being watched, and hearing a trow or a duergar crashing around in the underbrush is a dead giveaway.”

He frowned. “I’m not stupid, Hugh. I had him drop me off a ways away. Besides, I requested a subcompact ride.”

I blink at him. “Subcompact?” What the heck? “You can’t request a specific kind of driver on a random pickup.”

He beamed at me. “You can now! Hector upgraded the FTA app.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Does Dr. MacLeod know you’re still using that app? Does he know Hector is still messing with the magic grid even after he was specifically told to lay off?”

Jordan bit his lip. “Not exactly.”

Which meant not at all. Honestly, kids. Although I suppose they’re not technically kids. Jordan was almost twenty-one, and his friend Hector—another werewolf—probably a year or so older. But young werewolves—juniors, they were called—had such a…puppyish way about them that it was hard to remember sometimes.

I’m only thirty-six, but I always feel about ninety whenever I’m around Jordan. Any minute now, I’d start growling at him to get off my lawn. Or maybe not. Because this patch of grass? He could have it with my blessing.

He handed me the bag. “I stopped by your office to pick up the pastry trays from that big meeting yesterday. Zeke was busy, so I offered to do the delivery.” His brown eyes sparkled. “Your job must be so exciting. Who are we spying on?” He bounced a little on his haunches. “Oooh! Oooh! Is it Sasquatch?”

“Not this time.” I smiled wryly. Ted used to imitate Sasquatch by partially shifting and lurking in the woods near his place. He was lonely back then and trying to attract someone to talk to. It certainly worked on me. He hooked me like a lovesick trout. “A tree.”

Jordan’s face fell. “A tree?”

“Yup.” I pointed to the tree of my-own-personal-purgatory. “That one right there.”

He wrinkled his nose. “Ugh. Those are so stinky.”

“You can smell it?”

“Can’t you?”

Ah. Right. Werewolves had a heightened sense of smell. “No.” I shifted uncomfortably, my bladder reminding me of my earlier coffee intake. I eyed Jordan, who was frowning at the tree. Since he was here, I might as well take advantage of it. “Say, Jordan, can you do me a favor?”

Immediately, he brightened. “Sure! Just name it.”

I handed him the camera. “Keep this focused on the tree and if the dryad emerges”—I pointed to the shutter release button—”press this and hold it.”

“Wow.” His expression was almost reverent as he took the camera. “I’ve never been an assistant spy before.”

I buried a snort. Jordan was even less unobtrusive than trows and duergar. “I won’t be a minute. Just gotta duck behind a bush for a bit, if you know what I mean.”

He nodded sagely, but I’m not sure he really got it. “Sure thing, Hugh.”

Nevertheless, I checked to make sure his fingers weren’t blocking the lens before I crept away, keeping low and moving as silently as possible in the underbrush.

I took care of business, which lasted a little longer than I anticipated—hey, I drank a lot of coffee, okay?—and slunk back toward my stakeout blind, keeping my head down. But when I got to the thimbleberry, Jordan wasn’t there. I would have thought that I’d mistaken the spot, except the falafel bag was there, as was my lens cap.

But not Jordan. And not my camera.

I peered through the screen of leaves. The tree of heaven looked just as boring and just as dryad-free as it had all day.

“Jordan,” I muttered, “where the heck are you and where’s my camera?”

I spotted a flash of white about thirty yards to my right, completely out of sight of the target, and controlled my urge to roll my eyes. “Seriously, Jordan?” I murmured. The white wasn’t his Wonderful Mug T-shirt. No, that would be his bare chest. I couldn’t see below his waist, thank goodness, but I expected his pants were gone too.

“Get back here!” I hissed, but he was either too far away to hear or he was deliberately ignoring me. He brandished the camera and then beckoned and pointed in some kind of weird and totally unintelligible sign language.

I held up my hands, palms up, in a helpless shrug. He scrunched up his face and then made an exaggerated point of setting my camera down carefully.

“Don’t do it. Don’t do it!” I muttered.

But we were talking about Jordan so of course he did it. He shifted, and suddenly there was a lean gray wolf with a white blaze on his flank slinking through the underbrush.

“Goddamnit.” I took off in a low crouch toward my camera and reached it just as Jordan paused by the tree of heaven. And lifted his leg.

“Are you kidding me?”

But after a morning of no action whatsoever, I couldn’t risk missing an opportunity. If I were a dryad and a werewolf peed on my shoes…roots…whatever, it would probably provoke a reaction. I raised my camera to catch the fallout.

But nothing happened.

Jordan cast a glance over his shoulder, and even though he was a wolf, that expression was nothing short of cheeky. He continued past the now-watered tree of heaven toward a massive Pacific madrone about a dozen yards further on. He sniffed around the base, then raised his head and caught my gaze, holding it long enough that I got the message.

I pointed the camera at the same time he lifted his leg and—

“Holy crap!”

A dryad burst out of the madrone, knocking Jordan head over tail. Jordan’s yip and sharp whine almost made me miss the shot. But then another dryad charged out, and another, and another.

“It’s like some freaking woodland clown car,” I muttered as I rushed toward where Jordan had landed against the base of a maple.

By this time, there were about a dozen dryads dressed in Robin Hood grunge, milling around, shouting, and waving their arms like trees in a windstorm. Then they all spotted me and froze.

“Human,” one of them choked out.

Uh oh.

“Jordan,” I called, “run!”

He didn’t hesitate, and neither did I. I looped my camera strap around my neck and high tailed it toward the spot where my FTA driver had dropped me off before dawn. Jordan was streaking along beside me, still in wolf form, and I noticed he was favoring one paw. But with a dozen really angry and freaked out dryads behind us, I couldn’t take the time to check on him. Jordan’s clothes, my camera bag, my abandoned lunch—all of those would have to wait until we’d shaken the posse off our tails.

See, there’s this thing. It’s called the Secrecy Pact. Humans aren’t allowed to know about the supernatural community, and any supe who violates it is subject to Spanish Inquisition-level punishment. If the dryads caught me—if they caught Jordan—I doubted they’d wait long enough for me to pull out my Quest credentials, assuming they’d believe them, and assuming that didn’t piss them off even more.

I shoved my hand in my jacket pocket—not an easy thing to do when running hell for leather—and pulled out an oak leaf with a Celtic rune embossed on it in gold. “Cl-cludo,” I panted.

Nothing happened. Crap. I needed to stop and catch my breath enough to invoke the spell with the correct pronunciation. Magic was totally cool, but it was really, really specific, and stricter than my eighth grade math teacher.

Behind us, the dryads weren’t just plowing haphazardly through the underbrush like Jordan and me. Their progress sounded more like the Columbus Day wind storm, and the trees around us were starting to lash too, even though there was no actual wind. I pulled to a stop in the middle of a clearing, although I was still way too close to the surrounding trees for my peace of mind. I felt a little like Dorothy about to get smacked by the apple tree, although I had an uneasy suspicion that these trees—Doug fir and red alder and western hemlock—wouldn’t stop at a mere hand slap.

In fact, one massive branch swung at us. “Get back!” I twisted, pushing Jordan behind me. The branch whooshed past, barely missing me—although it didn’t miss my camera. I heard the crack and winced, but with a gang—herd? grove?—of warlike dryads bearing down on us, I didn’t have time to assess the damage.

“Cludo!” I shouted, and began to count one one thousand. The first dryad burst into the clearing. Two one thousand. She bared her extremely pointed teeth as her fingers sprouted bark and thorns like blackberry brambles. Three one thou—

“Where to?” A massive trow appeared between me and the ravening dryads.

“Quest Investigations. Fourth floor. And hurry.” I grabbed Jordan’s ruff.

The driver glanced at the approaching dryads. “Them too? That’ll cost extra.”

“No! Just me and the were. Now please!”

He shrugged. “It’s your gold.” He gestured with one massive hand, and when the portal opened, Jordan and I tumbled through into Faerie.

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