Steele-Faced (Daggers & Steele Book 6)

STEELE-FACED

 

A Daggers & Steele Mystery

ALEX P. BERG

Copyright © 2015 by Alex P. Berg

All rights reserved. Published by Batdog Press.

ISBN 978-1-942274-16-2

 

No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, except by an authorized retailer or with written permission from the author. For permission requests, please visit:
www.alexpberg.com

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents portrayed in this novel are a product of the author’s imagination.

 

Cover Art by: Damon Za (
www.damonza.com
)

Book Layout:
www.bookdesigntemplates.com

 

If you’d like to be notified when the next Daggers & Steele novel is released, please sign up for the author’s mailing list at:
www.alexpberg.com/mailing-list/
.

 

 

 

Table Of Contents:

 

Chapters:

 

1
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2
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3
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4
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5
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6
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7
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8
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9
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10
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11
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12
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13
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14
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15
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16
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17
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18
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19
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20
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21
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22
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23
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24
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25
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26
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27
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28
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29
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30
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31
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32
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33
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34
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35
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36
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37
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38
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39
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40
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41

 

About the Author

 

1

I stood at the foot of a castle, five stories tall with sides of solid granite, worn and smoothed from age but capable of brushing off an ogre attack or catapult barrage with little more than a shrug. The high walls blotted out the sun and cast me into chill darkness, made worse by the snickering whistle of an evil breeze. Wrought iron gates, black as night and cool to the touch, barred entrance into the castle’s depths, and I stood, rooted in place by the enormity of the task of breaking in.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t a castle. Maybe it was just a five story apartment building with unusually thick walls and a bit of a pedigree. Maybe the looming shadow it cast over me had more to do with the angle of the morning sun than its gargantuan size. Maybe the gates were nothing more than doors and they’d open at the touch of my fingers, and maybe,
just maybe,
it wasn’t the difficulty of entering that rooted me in place but my own indecision.

Either way, I was fairly sure a princess lurked behind those walls—although if history was any indication, she was in no need of saving.

The breeze blew again, a bitter gust that proved winter had well and truly arrived, providing me with the impetus I needed to pry my feet from the ground. I pulled on the wrought iron doors, cast my gaze around the lobby within, and found the stairwell.

Without even so much as a grimace, I launched myself up the steps. I fairly flew up to the fourth floor landing, or at least it felt that way to me. I’d recently broken the two hundred pound threshold, down twenty-five from my heaviest, and should a roving female hand find itself over my biceps or abdomen, it would find a bulge of muscle and no bulge at all, respectively. Through sheer force of will, as well as diet and exercise, I’d turned back the hands of time, although unfortunately no one had informed my hair about the temporal anomaly. It was all still there, thankfully, but the internal regulation system responsible for the slow loss of pigmentation from my crop of umber seemed oblivious to my new physical prowess. This morning, I’d counted a whopping twenty-seven grey hairs in the mirror. Twenty-seven!

In unrelated news, despite my exercise regimen, I still had way too much free time on my hands.

I crossed to apartment four fifteen. There, I adjusted the ratty piece of cowhide on my back, combed my hair a bit with my fingers, took a deep breath, and knocked.

I must’ve waited about a minute, though it felt longer. I fought the temptation to knock again. Once was enough.

The door cracked open.

“Well. Hello there, stranger.”

A beautiful half-elf stood on the other side of the frame, tall and slender with piercing azure eyes, arched eyebrows, and a slim nose. Her long chocolate brown hair had been drawn into a loose braid at the front and swept over to the side, where it disappeared among the loose locks that tumbled over her shoulders. A cream-colored cowl neck sweater caressed her neck and hugged her torso, and a pair of dark brown trousers, single-pleated, pressed tight against her thighs before flaring out over her calves.

I spent five or six days a week in Steele’s presence, from the crack of nine-thirty in the morning to sundown. It wasn’t nearly enough.

She leaned against the door frame. “So what brings you to these parts?”

I cleared my throat and snapped the hem of my coat. “Hi. My name’s Jake Daggers, and I’m selling these fine leather jackets…”

“Fine
leather?” said Steele.

“Oh yes,” I said. “Sturdy. Dependable. Warm, safe, and comforting. Capable of a tender, gentle caress.”

Shay gave me a demure smile. “We
are
talking about jackets, aren’t we?”

“Of course,” I said. “What else would we be talking about?”

“What else, indeed?” Shay sniffed and turned the corner of her lip down. “Well, I don’t know. The jacket looks pretty ratty to me.”

“Don’t be fooled,” I said, running my hand across the exterior. “This is the display model. The real thing is much better.”

“Is it, now?” said Steele. “So it’s cleaner and fresher? The leather firmer and more supple? Stronger, perhaps lighter weight, and a little more fashion forward? Not something I’d be embarrassed to be seen around town with?”

I narrowed an eye. “We
are
still talking about jackets, aren’t we?”

Shay smiled. “Of course. What else would we be talking about?”

“I can think of a few things, but I’ve been told I have an overactive imagination.”

Shay stepped back from the frame and waved me in. “Come on in, Daggers. I’ll be ready to go in a few minutes.”

She didn’t have to ask me twice. I’d been waiting for months for her to ask me into her apartment. Of course, I hadn’t envisioned the first time to be as I waited for her to finish getting ready for work in the morning, but I’d accomplish the feat any way I could.

Steele hooked a right into the kitchen as I closed the door behind me. Instead of following her, I headed straight into what I assumed would be her living room.

A jungle had overtaken it.

Greenery sprouted from a hundred different pots, some on shelves, others on tables, and more still on the floor. Bushes and saplings, flowers and shrubs, bonsais, cactuses, and succulents. Annuals and perennials of all shapes and sizes. Enough bark, fronds, and petals to brew a thousand pots of tea.

Sunlight streamed in through a large east-facing window, bringing with it warmth and the fuel of life. A rich, earthy scent filled my nose, that of damp soil and the perspiration of leaves, kissed with a touch of sweetness from the half-dozen plants who’d flowered despite the season.

I ran a finger across the thick, ridged leaf of a four foot-tall shrub and called out to Shay. “If you’d have warned me, I would’ve brought my machete.”

Her voice trailed over from the kitchen. “And risk having you cited for possession? Better to leave you unawares.”

It was a felony offense in New Welwic to carry around a weapon with a blade longer than six inches, even for police officers. For keeping the peace, I made do with my nightstick, Daisy, which I continued to refer to by name despite Shay’s protests. Her steel-weighted efforts were better served against skulls than trunks and branches, though.

A small, leafy plant with bright purple flowers caught my eye. I found a path through the underbrush and crossed over to it.

“You like that one?”

I’d just knelt when Steele’s voice brought me back to my feet. She stood at the edge of the plants, resting her elbows on the edge of one of her sofa chairs.

“This is the plant you brought with you on the first day of work,” I said. “What is it? A tulip of some sort?”

Shay smiled and snorted, as if she were on the edge of a chuckle.

“What?” I said. “You’re surprised I remember? You’re not the only one with superior observational skills. Or am I totally wrong about this thing’s genus?”

Steele picked her elbows off the chair and joined me by the flower. “No, you’re right. It’s a dwarf tulip. Pulchella variant. And you were right about the pit, too.”

I’d warned her at the time there wasn’t near enough natural light by our desks to support life. I’m not even sure how
we
survived, to be honest. Copious amounts of coffee, probably.

“Well, it sure perked up, didn’t it?” I said.

“It just needed light and love.” Steele stroked one of the petals with a perfect fingernail.

“And here I thought you weren’t into horticulture.”

“What gave you that idea?”

“On one of our cases,” I said. “I mentioned something about you being close to the trees because of your elven heritage, and you countered by saying you grew up in an apartment downtown.”

“Midtown. And that doesn’t mean I don’t like plants. Obviously.” She waved her hand around the room. “New Welwic is sorely lacking in greenery. At least here, I can keep the chill out, and every once in a while, if I’m lucky, I get a flower. Even in winter.”

“Do you have a favorite nursery?” I asked.

“Honestly? I got most of these from my aunt. She’s a botanist. She tells me how much water they need and when to prune them. If it were up to me, half of these would probably be dead.”

“So your aunt’s a botanist. Dad’s a chemist,” I said. “Science runs in your blood, doesn’t it?”

“It’s better than high cholesterol.” Shay smiled. “Be right back.”

She stepped around the foliage and disappeared into the kitchen.

I inspected another plant, one with thick, fleshy leaves. “Speaking of your folks, how are they?”

“Good,” she called back. “As much as I hate being forced away from work, it was nice spending a few days with them. I got to see both of my brothers.”

I’d warned Steele after our last case, in which she’d been kidnapped and imprisoned, that likelier than not the Captain would force her to take time off to rest and recuperate. Never mind she’d been imprisoned for a grand total of four hours. It was about avoiding ‘mental fatigue,’ something the Captain was keen on—in other people. I’d never seen the bulldog take a day off in his life.

Perhaps that’s why I’d been so nervous standing outside Shay’s apartment building. The Captain had banished her from the precinct mere hours after the resolution of our last case, and rather than sit around, mope, and read dopey mystery novels like I would’ve—and in fact
did
during my own administrative leave—she immediately departed to see her folks, all of which meant I hadn’t had a chance to spend time with her since the arrest of our killer. Or since our passionate kiss.

I remembered it well. Sitting there in the dark, our sight nullified but other senses heightened from danger and anticipation. The press of her body against mine. The faint hint of her lilac perfume. The sweet taste of her lips and the brush of her hair against my face. I’d frozen the moment in my mind. Names, I might forget. Birthdays, too. Childhood friend’s faces? You bet. But that? Never. The hint of honeysuckle on her breath, and the scent of—

“Coffee?”

I blinked and looked up from the succulent. Steele had returned, and in her outstretched arms she offered me a thermos.

I accepted it and took a sniff. “Where’d you get this?” Steele wasn’t a coffee person, except for the occasional cappuccino.

“I had it on hand.”

“But why?”

“Because I figured you’d be over here sooner or later, and I know you enjoy it.”

I took a sip. Warm, bold flavors exploded across my tongue, containing hints of nuttiness and smokiness and a smooth chocolate aftertaste. Steele hadn’t just made me coffee. She’d made me
the best
coffee.

I moaned a little. “That’s it. I’m in love.”

Shay’s eyes widened.
“Pardon?”

“What?
No. I mean with the coffee.
The coffee.
That is… I, uh…like it? A lot. So…thanks.” I cleared my throat and inspected the ceiling.

The smile returned to Shay’s face. “Well, I’m glad you enjoy it. I can share where I bought it, if you like, but it’s a bit of a hike. Let me grab my coat and we’ll head out.”

Steele turned, and I wiped my free hand across my forehead. I’d avoided that crisis with my usual deft flair, but my slip of the tongue brought to mind bigger questions. How
did
I feel about Shay? I couldn’t be in love. We weren’t even dating. Well, perhaps we were, even if we hadn’t gone on a date since the conclusion of our last murder. And then there was the coffee situation. I tended to drink throughout the day, but I absolutely
needed
the rich brew in the mornings after waking up. Shay knew that. Which could only mean…

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