Today had officially gone to shit. No partner, no wallet until that damn restaurant opened at noon, and—if my suspicions about Aestros turned out to be right—no case. Oh, and I had a date with death at ten-thirty.
By the time I reached Imemba’s High Temple, rage and worry had gnawed a solid chunk out of my nerves. Amelia commented on it when she came to meet me in the temple’s funereal, lily-scented lobby: “You’ve seen the news, then.”
“Don’t remind me,” I said. “You haven’t . . . ?”
“We’re good. Press didn’t start sniffing around until this morning, and I’ve managed to hold them off so far. Let’s go.”
I followed Amelia’s bobbing, hot-pink ponytail down to the Basement—the lower, private floor of Imemba’s temple where the magic really happened. So to speak. Mortixes, or death-priests, were a weird bunch, and a lot less formal when crying family members weren’t around. The walls of the Basement were papered in horror movie posters and morbid comic strips and flyers from long-ago thrash metal concerts.
Before taking me to the autopsy chamber, she ducked into her office to grab a pair of textbooks on avian anatomy. “Sorry—I had to do some out-of-the-box research for this case. Even called a few veterinarians for advice. I’m not the world’s greatest expert on birds.”
Amelia’s office mate, Jeremy, rolled his eyes at us. “Can you have your loud conversations outside my private worship space?”
I glanced at his side of the office. The wall behind his desk was covered in missing-persons posters and Crime Stop bulletins. He was just taping up a poster of an old lady who’d wandered away from her facility, below a Crime Stop request for info on a hit-and-run that had killed a ten-year-old, and a dog-eared poster from last year asking for information on an Outlander girl found dead in Lydia Park. That last one caught my eye. The smiling girl in the picture had Pippa’s coloring. Blond hair, blue eyes. A gold swallow charm dangled from her throat. Another Outlander girl who never got to grow up.
Amelia grabbed my hand and dragged me behind her. “Don’t ask him about his latest obsession or we’ll be here all day.”
“His obsession with dead people seems a bit much. Even for this place.”
Amelia barked out a laugh as we entered the autopsy chamber, sterile and spotless. “He’s always harping on about the ‘ones that get away.’ The deaths we can’t explain.”
“Weren’t you that naive once?” I teased.
“On my first day, maybe,” she said. “But then I learned to embrace mystery when truth can’t be found. That’s the nature of death.” For good luck, she rubbed the head of the chest-high statue of Imemba dominating the far corner of the room. It was carved from dark wood and depicted the death goddess wearing Her traditional shawl of stars, as well as the turban that hid Her severed ears. The Earthmother had reportedly cut them off millennia ago to prevent Imemba from overhearing and sharing the secrets of the dead. The Pantheon could be touchy about gossip.
Amelia disappeared and returned once more, this time with Pippa on a wheeled cart. Her kestrel body was so small. I’d spent so much time combing through the details of Pippa’s human life that it was still a shock to be reminded she’d died like this.
“What can you tell me about what happened to her?” I asked.
“Well, whoever did this knew exactly what they were doing. See this?” She pointed to the deep incision on Pippa’s feathered chest. “The victim’s lungs were removed while she was still alive. I found burnt residue in the nostrils that’s consistent with mulgrave flower. It’s a paralytic when inhaled.”
“Themia protect me,” I swore. “So she might have been awake when it happened?”
“That’s kind of the idea. This is textbook stuff.”
“Textbook for what?”
“For Aestros’ style of sacrifice. I double checked with a colleague who went through an Aestrian phase before she settled down here. On holy days, the high priest honors the wind god by removing the lungs of a sacred bird while it’s still drawing breath.”
Worse and worse. “Only birds?”
Amelia grimaced. “As far as I know, but before the Threemothers banned the blood price? That’s anyone’s guess.”
These days, the gods...