A random thing that wanted to be written. WARNING for mob wars, murders, and people using floods as a weapon. Altogether a nasty little thing.

Title: Cityside Fairytale
Rating: R
Universe: Fairytale Noir
Characters/Pairings: The Detective, Carla James, Bernie Symes, Lori Allan, the hitwoman
Summary: "Don't nobody mess with Carla James. And don't nobody forget that the river will have its due." The city and the river feed each other, but if somebody murders the wrong man, if somebody tips things the wrong way, then the river will have its due. Urban fantasy, an ugly little slice of fairytale noir.
Wordcount: 4220
Warnings/Notes: Urban fantasy, fairytale noir, river spirits, elemental magic, organised crime, mob wars, murders, weaponised floods, magical abilities, detectives, criminals, highly inadvisable attraction
Claimer: Mostly mine

Cityside Fairytale

Let me tell you a secret, about rivers and cities. They feed each other. From the moment they're brought together, they bind each other back and forth. The river feeds the city, feeds it water and routeways and trade, and then the city feeds the river right back, with sewage and wreckage and treasures and filth.

And with bodies. Always bodies. The river calls for them. It has an allure, an attraction, that perfect moment of dark, dank water slipping closed over lifeless limbs, covering them and hiding them, secreting them away. There's nothing in the world like watching a body sink. There's no one who's ever killed anyone in any city in the world who doesn't know how the river calls for the corpse, whispers to the killer that it will keep it safe, that it will keep all his secrets for him.

Of course, the river doesn't always tell the truth in that regard. Sometimes things come floating up. Sometimes things are found. The river doesn't keep secrets for free. It needs an offering first. It needs to keep itself fed.

They say that upstream, the river people are something different. They say they're beautiful, tricksome, winsome and pure. They say they'll buy your secrets with different lies, with gentler promises and sweeter lures. Most of all, they say they're beautiful. That's what everyone comes back to. Upstream, the river people are kind. Upstream, the river people are foolish. And upstream, the river people are beautiful.

They're not down here. In the city rivers, fed with filth and corpses. The river folk down here aren't beautiful at all.

Let me tell you about one of them. Let me tell you about Carla James. The mistress of the docks, the lady under the bridges, the queen of the river in Twilight City. She calls herself Carla. Nobody quite knows why. Guess she had a whim once. She's prone to those.

Carla James isn't beautiful. She's got hair like an oilslick, teeth like fish-hooks, and grey, jelly eyes that look like they belong on a string. Her skin's all the colours of her river, brown and grey and green and black, sliding into each other like the slime down by the shore. She's scarred from head to toe, marks of propellers or wires or the rusting wreckage that makes a jungle of the river bottom. Other marks, too, from guns or from knives, or from needle teeth that'd wanted answers once upon a time. I doubt she's ever offered any but the size of her own in response. She's the Queen of the River, Carla James. She knows where all the bodies come floating up.

Mostly because they don't, unless she lets them.

It's bodies that're her business, of course. Bodies and wreckage, salvage and smuggling. The fruits of the river, and the secrets too. The city's lifeblood, and the city's filth. Carla deals in them all. The rules are pretty basic. You pay her to bring them up, you pay her to keep them down. Whoever pays most gets their way. And nobody, but nobody, makes an issue of it either way. Nobody tries to push her or her people around. She don't take kindly to that. She knows where the bodies are, and turns out that's the least of what she knows. There's few in Twilight City will try and put the squeeze on Carla.

Not anymore, anyway, but I'm getting to that. That's coming, don't you worry.

Now, back in the day, I never had much to do with Carla. Different ends of the business. I tend to be looking for people who are still alive. Carla mostly happens on 'em when they're already dead. Oh, we crossed each other once or twice. Coupla bodies, they were mine one way or another. Saw her a time or two, asked her some questions, even got a couple of answers now and then. Mostly we just knew each other to see, nothing social like. Not until Micah Bright. Not until the night of the flood down Myrmidon Quay. I got to know her real well that night. So did a lot of Twilight City.

It started with Micah, though. It started with a body. Well, doesn't it always? And this one, this corpse, it didn't come out of the river. Nobody paid Carla for it one way or the other. Not then anyway. The cost of Micah Bright was paid later. At the start, he was just some schmuck somebody pulled out of a building foundation up on North Hill. Shoulda had nothing to do with the river, and nothing to do with Carla, and to start with nobody knew that he did. He wasn't river folk. He wasn't anything. Nobody had any damn clue why the poor bastard had even been killed. Not then.

Being honest, he shouldn't have had anything to do with me either. I got lead into the thing sideways like, following up from something else. A kid, Lori Allan, had been missing her girlfriend for a coupla weeks, asked me to find her. Which I did, and then pretty much wished I hadn't. Turned out Lori Allan's girl was one of the top hitters for Bernie Symes' mob. Lori'd been, I'm not even sure, a kinda holiday for the woman? Took it easy for a few weeks or so, laid low from a bit of heat, and got herself a girlfriend for the duration. Once she'd gotten cleared again, she went back to work and more or less dropped Lori like a hot rock. Which, not the happiest thing to have a tell a client, you know?

It was worse than that, though. For me, I mean, though it took a chunk outta Lori as well. Obviously. But it was bad for me because it got me caught up in Micah Bright and Carla James. It was bad for me because I was following the hitter when she heard about Micah being pulled out of that foundation. It was bad for me because I realised she had something to do with it, and that therefore Bernie Symes had something to do with it as well. It was bad for me because I'm too damned curious for my own good, and so I started nosing around tryna figure out just who Micah Bright had been, and why Bernie Symes had had him killed.

That trail lead me to Carla James. That trail lead me to the biggest and most costly mob war Twilight City has ever seen.

Micah Bright was a sweet touch. Not in the metaphorical sense. It was his magic. Everything Micah touched turned sweet. Not the most useful bit of magic in the world, depending on what business you were in, and not the sort of magic you'd think a mob boss would find worth killing over. But see, Micah Bright had found himself a niche. He'd found somebody who wanted what he could do real, real badly.

You've already guessed that somebody was Carla. What you're trying to figure out is why, right? It comes back to the river. It always does. Everything, everything Carla ever does, it comes back to the river. To the river folk. To her people.

It comes back to the fact that upstream, in cleaner waters, they're beautiful.

Micah was a sweet touch. Everything he touched turned sweet and pure. Micah Bright was a one man purification system. And Carla James wanted that. She needed that. There was nothing he could do about the river itself, that's just the price rivers pay for cities, but he could give her people ... something else. A taste. An experience. A reminder, maybe. Or just the relief of a draught of something pure and not stinking of sewage and corpses every now and then. She'd had him working in her bath house down on Myrmidon Quay, giving her folks a clean place to swim, and he cleaned the stock for her lounges too.

It wasn't advertised, mind. There's a reason it took people a while to connect Micah to her. She'd tried to keep him secret, or at least as low key as possible. He was important to her. To this day, I'm not entirely sure how willingly on his part, but he'd made it good with her. She looked out for him. She kept other people out of his business. Or she tried to.

Thing I've discovered, working this business, somebody always knows something. Mostly it's stupid things that get you found out. It's that girlfriend you took while you were lying low, wondering why she hadn't seen you in a while. It's that one poor schmuck who was drunk under a dumpster in the alley while you were cleaning up. It's the night clerk at the motel who remembers that you hesitated a second over the name you put in the register. Little things. The ripples you make swimming through the world. Somebody always knows. Somebody always finds out.

Bernie Symes had found out about what Micah did for Carla James. And, after a bit of work, so did I. Took me a coupla weeks. Took me a bit of time. But I found it.

I shoulda left it. What I should have done was left the whole damned mess well alone. Nobody was paying me for it. Lori'd taken up with someone else by then, a nice waitress she was almost positive wasn't a hitwoman on the side. Bernie Symes didn't even know I existed, or no more than he ever knew people in my business existed. He'd no reason to focus on me. There was nothing tying me to this thing at all.

It was just ... that I was curious, I guess. I was curious and I was mad. I get odd about bodies sometimes. I get possessive of 'em. I like to see 'em back where they belong.

Even the ones belonging to Carla James. Hell, maybe especially those.

I went to see her. Down on Myrmidon Quay. I stopped by her favourite lounge, The Riverboat Bar, and asked if I could talk to her for a coupla seconds about Micah Bright.

You know, I keep saying she isn't beautiful. And she isn't, she really isn't. She's a city river through and through, she looks like it, she sounds like it, she smells like it. They always smell like the water too. I met her that day, two o'clock in the afternoon, in a gently swaying bar-room that smelled like riverwater, and she wasn't beautiful at all.

What she was, was powerful, and graceful, and mad as all hell. What she was was terrifying. And I guess it says something about me, huh, that there's nothing surer to get my interest in all the world.

Not that I said anything, of course. There's times to be hitting on a mob boss with the power of Carla James, and they're mostly few and far between, and they are almost always not when you're trying to ask questions about one of her guys who just got killed. Especially not one like Micah. Especially not for what Micah meant.

Bernie Symes was trying to put Carla in her place. Micah wasn't a big deal, as such. He wasn't integral to her operations, he wasn't even one of her people. He wasn't river folk, he just belonged to them. In the normal run of things, his death wouldn't have been that big of a deal. But he did something for her. He gave her something, gave her people something. Gave them a taste of something pure, something beautiful, something that was theirs by right and wasn't ever gonna happen to them again, not on its own. Something the city'd taken from them, changing them in the process, making them uglier, making them harder, making them meaner. Micah'd given Carla James a dream, one she could share with her people, and then Bernie Symes had gone and taken that away. Just to show her. Just to knock her back, to show her what he thought of her. To remind her of what the city could take.

Mostly he wanted her to stop letting people find his bodies. I mean, that was it, that was all it was. On a practical level, he mostly wanted to stop having to pay her so much to keep his secrets. He wanted a better deal, same as everyone does. But he did it that way. He did it to Micah Bright. He took that away from her.

And Carla James did not take kindly to that at all.

And you know, I'm nearly positive it wasn't meant to go the way it did. I'm nearly positive it wasn't ever meant to be open like that. Micah'd been buried up on North Hill, not dropped on Carla's doorstep to make a point. It was meant to be subtle. It was meant to be implied. It was meant to be careful insinuations, I heard you lost something, Ms James, I do hope you find it again. Suggestions how to go about that. Bernie'd meant to have options about it. Hell, I'm not even sure Micah was meant to be dead. Maybe he'd just wanted to hold the man a while. As much as Bernie Symes wanted to put her in her place, even he had the sense to realise that slapping Carla's face up in public like that wasn't the smart way to go about it. Vicious old son of a bitch that he was, he'd been playing the game a long time. He'd been king of North Hill for over fifteen years by that point. He generally wasn't a stupid man.

But somebody'd killed Micah, and then somebody'd dug Micah up. Lori's girl had gotten trigger happy at the wrong moment, and somebody'd found a body, and now all Bernie's careful insinuations were a smoking gun, and all his gentle threats were barefaced lies. Micah wasn't leverage anymore. Micah was blood in the water, and there were teeth come climbing onto shore.

I shouldn't have gone near Carla that day. Of all the stupid damn things a body coulda done. I'm lucky she didn't cut my face off for getting into hers. Things had been building for a couple of weeks by that point. She'd been making sure she knew who'd done what and why. And right in the middle of that, I walked in. I came in to talk to her, and to make sure I knew what was what, and to offer my condolences.

I meant them. I really, honestly did. Once I'd figured out who Micah was, what he'd done for her. I'd started out wanting to do right by Micah himself, just for stumbling onto him, just for knowing who'd killed him. I'd wanted to find a way to make that woman pay, for Lori, for Micah, and I'd wanted to find a way to make Bernie pay too. I never liked the man. North Hill isn't good for my kind. He tended to take us personally. Micah wasn't the first person to wind up under a foundation in North Hill, or floating in Carla's river with Bernie's money keeping 'em safely below the surface. I never liked the son of a bitch. I would have been just fine seeing him brought low.

Just ... not like that, maybe. Just the way it went down. Because Bernie'd made a mistake. Not just letting Micah's body float up, not even just killing him in the first place. It was what he'd tried to take. It was why he'd gone for Micah, what he'd been saying by it. It was about the river. It was about the city and the river, and what the city thought it could take, and why the river would only allow it up to a point.

And the thing of it was, I got that. I understood it. That afternoon in the Riverboat Bar, looking at Carla James, with her hair like an oilslick and her skin like slime and riverwater. I knew what he'd taken, and I knew why she was mad about it.

You gotta understand, it's not pity. You don't pity Carla James. It ain't all one way. The city and the river feed each other. They pay the prices, but they do feed each other. Carla paid in pain and beauty, like all her people, but she got power in return. There's nobody will mess with Carla James. There's nobody will show teeth to the queen of the river without knowing they're gonna get teeth back, and sharper ones at that. She may smell like a city river, but she walks like a queen, and people bow to her. Carla lets the boats into the city, Carla gives it back its trade and its salvage and its treasures, Carla keeps its secrets. Maybe the city costs her, but it owes her too, and she takes that debt for all it's worth. Micah wasn't part of that. Micah was just an extra, just a dream.

And sometimes for the strongest of people, the worst thing you can take is their dreams.

I have to figure she saw that. That I knew that, that I felt it. That it was sympathy, not pity, that I knew exactly what had been taken from her, that I wasn't there to mock her for it. Like I said, we'd seen each other around here or there. She knew me. She knew I wasn't Bernie's. She knew the way I was about bodies. I have to figure that's why she didn't kill me.

That, and the fact that I gave her Lori's girl. I told her what I'd seen, why I'd been tracing Micah in the first place. I told her about the body dug up on North Hill, and the woman's face when she'd heard about it. Maybe I shouldn't have. Wasn't like I had any right to vengeance there. Lori wouldn't have wanted it. Lori was happy enough being well out of everything.

But Micah might have, though. And I've always been odd about bodies. A time or two, I've seen them slip down under dark water myself.

"I'd like to thank you for your help," Carla said to me, that afternoon in her bar, while three of her people slowly and lazily gathered around me. "I'd like to thank you for bringing this to me. It is appreciated. So, I hope you don't take this amiss, but I think you ought to stay here tonight. I'd like to be sure you're safe."

She said it slow, in that voice of hers broad and flat as the river. She said it while she climbed slowly to her feet, uncoiling, all power and teeth and flat, careful anger. I felt her, right then. I felt ... I don't know how to say it. It wasn't magic. It wasn't power exactly. I felt something waking. I felt something welling up beneath my feet, with Carla James at the centre of it, that small, grey-brown figure with all her scars and all her teeth. I'd like to be sure you're safe, she said. I don't know what was in my voice when I asked her why.

She didn't tell me. She only smiled, reaching out to gently touch my cheek, fingers rough from digging through the city's filth. She patted me gently on the cheek, and made sure I was safe before she went out to show Bernie Symes what kind of mistake he'd made, and Twilight City just how far the river could be pushed.

It really was only a small, localised flood. Hit the riverside districts, mostly the warehouses and the quays. Officially, it was freak tide up from the sea combined with a coupla flood defences giving way upstream. It was autumn by then, season of storms, and the river was high anyway. There's some people like to pretend that's all it was. Sometimes most of the city, it seems. But not me. Not anybody who knew about Micah Bright. We know better, and me most of all.

I saw it. From the deck of her riverboat, kept safe by her people. She let me see. Maybe she felt I was owed that. Maybe she just wanted me to know. But I saw it. I saw it all.

She met with Bernie Symes on Myrmidon Quay. She drew him out, drew him down. Maybe she told him she had some bodies he might be interested in. I don't know. I've no idea why he came. I always figured he'd be smarter than that. But there he was. There she was too. Lori's girl. That had to be just luck. Before I'd come down that afternoon, Carla hadn't even known it'd been her. She couldn't have arranged it. But there she was. Bernie's mob, or a nice chunk of it, lined up like shooting gallery. Or an offering.

They have teeth, the river people. Even the beautiful ones, even the nice and gentle ones upstream. Even those are tricky, and even those know what it's like to pull the odd body down beneath the surface. You do hear about that. Carla's people were no different there. They had all the teeth in the world.

And the river called for bodies. The river called for blood. So she gave it some.

She left Bernie for last. Not Lori's girl. I'd half wondered, but it did make sense. That woman had only pulled the trigger. Bernie was the one who'd had it done. Bernie was the one who'd wanted to teach Carla James a lesson, and show the river just what the city could take. So Carla left him for last. Carla let him see what the river could take right back before he died.

"You made a mistake, Mr Symes," she told him softly. I shouldn't have heard her, but that's my magic too. There's a reason I am what I am. I was listening that night. I heard every word. "You took something from me. Something you had no right to. Nothing important, maybe. Just some light, just some dreams. But they were mine. They were the river's. We're not just here to keep your secrets and take your filth. The city needs the river too. You can take all the dreams in the world, but you can't change that. You shoulda remembered that. You shoulda kept it in mind."

She leaned down, almost like she was gonna kiss him, but instead it was just her teeth next to his ear, so he could know exactly where the next words were coming from.

"You gotta remember, Mr Symes. The city might own the river, but the city only lives by the river's sufferance. And in the end? The river will have its due."

He saw the water come over the edge of the quay. He lived that long. Bernie Symes, the King of North Hill, lived just exactly long enough to know just what he'd done, before Carla James put her teeth in his throat, and watched dark, writhing water close over his lifeless head.

I'm not sure how many died that night. Surprisingly few, I think, but then Carla owned the docks, owned the riverside. She cleared 'em first, before she called the river, at least of those of 'em she liked. I'm sure there were a few, people who'd gotten on the wrong side of Carla James, who unfortunately didn't get their warnings in time. There weren't that many dead, was the point. The flood came and went and took only a few along with it, most of 'em belonging to Bernie Symes. That was the point. Carla James had given the river an offering. It rose that night just to make a point, to leave river stink and ruin where that one man had walked, and to remind people. To remind Twilight City.

Don't nobody mess with Carla James. And don't nobody forget that the river will have its due.

They're not beautiful down here, the river people. They're tough and mean and full of teeth. They've got scars from head to toe, and not many dreams between them. Doesn't matter though. They've got power. The river calls for bodies, and the river people can be persuaded to give it some. When they're pushed. When they're stolen from. When somebody tries to leave them with nothing but the city's filth. When somebody tries to mess with Carla James.

I see a bit more of her, these days. It ain't exactly willing on my part, but it ain't exactly not, either. I have this thing. About bodies, and about people who scare me. I have this thing about Carla James. Some days, when she smiles at me with fish-hook teeth, I think she has a thing about me too. Sometimes it scares me. Sometimes it really doesn't.

It's just the way of things, is all. It's just the thing about cities and rivers. We feed each other. We keep each other's secrets. We put our bodies in each other's care. We kill each other, and keep each other safe.

And, you know, sometimes the safest place in all the world is when the water's already closed over your head.
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