“Are you sure about this?” I asked.
Iris walked ahead of me and unlocked the door to her apartment. “Do you have anywhere else to stay?”
I was already on the outs with my landlord, and I’m pretty sure skipping out on the rent in order to balance a beach ball on my nose hadn’t earned me any favors.
I could rustle something up. You know me. I always find something. Even thinking of my regular excuses added to my exhaustion. “No.”
“Well then.” She pushed the door open. Her phone chirped, and she gestured me inside as she read her incoming text.
Iris’ place was small, but tidy and unmistakably hers. Blackout curtains on all the windows. A comfy couch, dotted with pillows. A creaking bookcase overstuffed with books, DVDs, and CDs all lumped in together. A yoga mat and a UV lamp in one corner, a ceiling-high wooden shrine to Themia in the other. Most renters I knew bought the collapsible kind, but not Iris. She was a woman who valued commitment—to her goddess, to justice, to this case.
“The couch should be comfortable enough, but it doesn’t fold out. There’s a sleeping bag in the cupboard next to the front door,” she said, pulling the Marwols’ photograph out of her pocket.
She was still staring at it when I finished setting up my impromptu sleeping arrangement. “Find anything?”
She didn’t take her eyes off the picture. “Andy, if someone you cared about died, wouldn’t you want to know why?”
“Sure,” I blurted, taken a bit off guard. The people I cared about would fill out a pretty small list, if I was being painfully honest. But I knew who would be at the top.
“I would, too,” Iris said. “That’s what bugs me. Cleo’s death was unusual, at the very least. But her family insisted they didn’t need the rites. They didn’t ask any questions, and they didn’t want the death-priests asking any either.”
“What are you thinking?”
“What was your experience with the Marwol family?”
I sat down on the couch, the sleeping bag crinkling around me. “They were desperate. Like they’d tried everything else to get Pippa back and I was their last resort.”
Iris moved closer. “And they didn’t believe her relationship with Aestros was consensual?”
“Mr. Marwol insisted his daughter wouldn’t have abandoned her siblings. Said she ‘knew her duty.’”
“That’s how he put it? Were those his words, exactly?”
Something cold and sharp prickled at the back of my neck. “What are you getting at?”
She sat down next to me, holding out the Marwols’ photo. “I want you to think about this, and think hard. What do you see in this picture?”
“I’ve already seen it.”
“I’m asking you to look at it like an investigator. It’s not about you. It’s about them.”
I took the photo from her, even though I already knew what I’d see. A portrait of the people I’d failed. Mr. and Mrs. Marwol, all cozy with their younger daughter—what was her name? Phoebe. That’s right, I remembered it from that first, frantic conversation when they’d hired me. One big loving family. Pippa, Theodore, Phoebe, Cameron, Lloyd . . .
“What do you see?” Iris asked.
“The Marwols have four other kids. But only Pippa’s sister’s in the picture.” I brought the picture closer. I’d barely glanced at it when I was first hired, and that was when I’d been in full hero mode, ready to rescue the damsel. “Maybe Pippa and Phoebe were especially close.”
But with the benefit of hindsight, I noticed other details. The father, one hand on the girl’s shoulder and the other wrapped around her wrist. The odd angle of the mother’s arm as it draped around her daughter’s throat. The frozen look on Phoebe’s face.
My mouth went dry. “I don’t know what I’m looking at.”
“I got a text from Amelia,” Iris said quietly. “She found the files of two more deceased girls whose families refused the rites. One girl was eighteen. The other, twenty. Both Outlanders.”
I noticed another detail—neither parent wore accessories, but the daughter wore a chunky bracelet of amethyst and coral. It almost looked like a cuff. Come back, Pippa. Do it for your sister.
“‘Asphyxia suspected’ was logged on one of the files, but the death-priest wasn’t able to confirm. But they were the same age group. Same background. Same tax...