Everything felt like a weird dream. Four hours after midnight, I walked down the street next to Vivian. I wore my best black shoes, matching jeans, dark blue shirt, a black tie, and my leather jacket, which was still sprinkled in blood. She wore ankle-high leather boots on killer heels and a tight, black dress that looked like something one would wear to a luxurious ball. Her sapphire eyes shone on her perfectly clean face with milky white skin, and her hair flowed straight, darker than night.
On her neck glistened a golden necklace embedded with sapphires that matched her earrings, rings, and bracelets. Each piece of her jewelry looked ridiculously expensive.
But it wasn’t the clothes or jewelry that made her surreal. No being in the world had the right to be this beautiful. She carried herself with a natural grace, gliding over the ground as if the entire world lay beneath her.
I sneaked a few peeks with my aether-imbued vision, but I couldn’t see her in the color-inverted world. Despite clearly using magic on me earlier, she leaked no aether and remained invisible to my eyes. Magic was not supposed to work like that. What the hell was she?
Human? No. Heaven’s drizzle turned to steam when the water touched her skin. People didn’t have such a high body temperature. Demon? Those emitted aether and never looked human. I thought of the legends of vampires and werewolves, but those were myths. Even among the Secret Societies, the organizations that unified and governed the supernatural world, these races were considered extinct, if they ever existed at all.
We caught a cab, which took us to a bank building on Wall Street. She waved her hand by the detector attached by the glass door, and the wings slid open.
The building was lifeless save for us. We entered the elevator and rode to the top floor. Thick carpet covered the ground, and marble statues decorated the hallways. The bank’s senior leadership resided here during the day. Yet now, the labyrinth of glass and steel lay empty.
When staring at the blatant luxury around me, I felt utterly out of place. As we approached the matte glass door at the end of a long hallway, a high-pitched, female voice pierced the air.
“Do I sound like I care it’s four in the morning?” the voice shouted. “Get. It. Done.”
I gulped, hoping this was not the Lady Lucielle I was about to meet. Though she did sound like someone who would call herself Lady.
The plaque by the door read Timothy Collins, CEO. We entered. Across the spacious office stood a woman dressed in a white business suit with matching pants and heels, clearly not Timothy. Her snow-white hair lay straight, falling all the way to her waist. Bright, emerald eyes dominated her smooth, diamond-shaped face. Her lips and nails were colored black. Nothing aside from her clean skin betrayed her age so she could be anywhere between eighteen and forty.
She dug her gaze into me, but her phone rang. A scowl passed her face, and she picked up.
Vivian walked away from me to a small table by the window. By the same table sat a tall woman, one I completely missed at first.
She wore sneakers, loose black jeans, and a pullover. Her hair was messy, blonde, and in her hand, she held a paperback novel with a half-naked angel on the cover, titled Wings of Temptation. Her eyes were dim blue, face young and fresh, and her mouth was a thin line with barely any color.
I pushed aether into my eyes. The book-reading girl oozed erratic, white aether. It resembled the aether of shifters but felt different. I still couldn’t see Vivian and woman on phone leaked no aether. From every angle, she was a regular human with no powers.
These people were weird at best.
“No, that’s not what I meant,” the woman in white shouted into the phone. “I was literal when I said I couldn’t care less about your institute’s opinions.” She hung up while the other voice was trying to respond. She turned to the reading girl. “Mina, check him.”
Excuse me? The woman put down the book, sprung to her feet, and stepped to me. She was a bit over six feet tall, almost as tall as I was. With a few swift moves, she ran her hands by my body and took my phone, wallet, and keys. The idea of fighting back felt ridiculous since Vivian made the differences in strength exceedingly clear. And so I stood in place, hoping I didn’t look like an idiot. Who was I kidding? I almost surely did.
“Anyway. I’m Lucielle, Lady Lucielle,” the white-haired woman said, her voice every bit as sharp as when she spoke into the phone. “So, you want to work for me?”
“What do you mean by guess?” Lucielle turned toward Vivian. “Why did you bring this kid?”
Vivian smiled in a way so sweet it would soften a rock. “He can see aether.”
Lucielle measured me with a long stare, appraising me as if I was a vase she wanted to buy at an auction. “Do you have a name?”
Apparently, Vivian has already verified my ability to see aether by me not seeing her in my apartment. When I searched for her with the gun, she stood right in front of me, didn’t she? Cold covered my back, and I did my best not to stutter. “I’m Lucas Johnson.”
“Lucas, I will pay you two hundred thousand dollars to find me a girl. For the money, you are mine until the case is solved. You do what I tell you, when I tell you, how I tell you and with whom I tell you. You will also not betray me or anyone connected to me in any meaning or context. Clear?”
In a moment of awkward silence, I stared at her. This was insane. But she offered enough money for my sister to start her treatment as soon as I got paid. “What all would I do in this job?”
I gulped. “I—”
“Want a no-collateral damage clause and get my pay in installments with the first one prepaid immediately,” Vivian said, finishing the sentence for me.
I pursed my lips and waited for how this played out. What Vivian said sounded like something I wanted, especially the get-paid-immediately part.
Lucielle’s brows furrowed and eyes turned into tight slits as she glowered at Vivian. “You’re supposed to be on my side.”
Vivian swayed to me, placing a hand in my shoulder. The heat of her touch pierced my clothes and reached all the way into my bones. My muscles unconsciously unclenched. Vivian spoke softly, keeping the same low tone as always. “Oh, come on, Luci, give the boy a chance.”
Lucielle’s phone rang. She glanced at it, picked up the call, instantly shouted, “I don’t care!” and hung up. Lucielle turned her gaze back toward Vivian and me, apparently wondering what the argument with Vivian was about. She dismissed the thought with a wave of her hand. “Whatever. Vivian, get him the basic equipment.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but shouldn’t we sign a contract or something?”
Lucielle gave me the you are an idiot look. “Do you have the feeling this is legal? If you catch the person I want, I will pay you the promised money. If you piss me off, you will end up as an unwilling organ donor. Understand?”
Oh. Well, I had no better prospect of earning the money my sister needed. I clenched my fists and made a slight bow. “What can I do for you, Lady Lucielle?”
A satisfied grin took over her face. Her voice turned to a lower, much more pleasant octave. “You’ll need to work on the bowing, especially the depth. But this wasn’t a bad start. What I need from you is to help my people catch Evelyn, alive, and bring her to me. By my intel, you met her earlier today, so you should know where to start.”
Evelyn? What the hell? I studied her with narrowed eyes. They didn’t pick me at random, but because they knew I met Evelyn, and thus I had a head start into the case. An urge to interrogate her rose within my mind, but I didn’t like the organ donor part, so I left inquisitive questions for a time when she would be in a better mood.
Lucielle turned to Mina. “Is he clean?”
The tall girl sitting by the table shook her head. “He’s got the Church’s tracker in the phone. The USB stick on the key ring is their spying one, old model. And he had a tracking coin in his wallet.”
Would she let my stuff be? Then again, I got both the stick and the lucky coin from Katherine, both as rewards for previous cases. This also meant Lucielle and her people were not friendly with the Church. Okay, that shouldn’t have surprised me given the unwilling organ donor threat.
But they offered me enough money to have my sister treated. The line between good and evil became blurrier than ever.
“Here,” Mina added and stretched out her hand toward Lucielle, holding a photograph. Yes, I carried the picture of my parents in my wallet. Sue me.
Lucielle grabbed the photograph, and her gaze turned murderous. Her tone matched the glare, making goosebumps cover my back. “Have you seen your father lately?”
“No,” I whispered. “He left us eleven years ago.” My chest tightened, and throat got stuck. I still managed to ask, “Do you know him?”
“No,” she snapped and threw the picture at Mina. Lucielle stepped to the table and raised a plastic card with a yellow M printed on the top. The look she gave me screamed violence. “And what is this?”
A McDonald’s loyalty card, what about it? But that didn’t sound like a smart answer. She clearly knew my father, and her glare suddenly carried a hint of warmth.
Since I didn’t speak, Lucielle’s eyes wandered to Vivian. “How is he physically?”
“His arms are in okay shape,” Vivian said with an innocent smile. “And the rest is rather skinny because he doesn’t have enough money for proper food.”
Okay shape? What the hell did she mean by that? I mean, sure, I wasn’t a professional athlete, but I wasn’t too far from that either.
“Is it?” Lucielle stepped to me. Despite being taller, I felt tiny before her. She raised a finger and dug her black nail into my chest. “From now on, Mina will live with you and get you into shape. There will be no discussion about this, young man.”
What was with the young man thing? Arguing seemed ill-advised, so I nodded.
Satisfied with my lack of resistance, Lucielle spun on her heel. “The jetlag’s killing me, so I will go get some sleep. Mina will get you through the onboarding.” She left, her steps silent on the thick carpet despite her tall heels.
Vivian ran her hand through my hair and by my face. The blazing touch relaxed my mind and soothed my soul, so I bit my tongue to stay alert. She offered me an incredibly charming smile. “Don’t worry. You will do great.” I watched her hips sway as she left.
I looked around but didn’t see Mina anywhere. When the hell did she disappear? With a shrug, I collected my things. The phone, the USB stick, the lucky coin, all my loyalty cards, and all my credit cards were missing. I was too tired to get upset over this.
Though that was probably a result of a spell Vivian cast on me, I didn’t mind the feeling. For the first time since I came into New York, I saw hope ahead of me. A mirage that would disappear once the magic would fade, but I decided to savor the feeling for as long as I could.
Mina returned with a large backpack on her back. “We can go.”
Oh, Lucielle was serious when she said Mina would move in with me. Wait, was she also serious about making me an organ donor if I failed? Nah, that was surely just a test. I didn’t bother with asking what happened to my credit cards. Expecting to wake up in my bed with a headache, I led Mina to my apartment.
Mina left no space for doubt about what she thought about my apartment. Her face twisted into a frown the moment she entered. With gingerly care, she placed her backpack down by the wall. “I’ll be right back.” She turned and dashed down the stairs.
I used her momentary disappearance to clean, at least a little. Living alone with no space for guests did not motivate me to keep the place tidy. Half an hour later, I managed to make the main room look more like a place where a human lived rather than a den of an unsavory caveman.
Mina returned a few minutes afterward, carrying a new, full backpack.
Where did she get it? Nothing was open at this hour.
Undisturbed by my inquisitive staring, she put down the second backpack and pulled out two large sprays. Forest Fresh read on the cans. My eyes shot wide. “What’re you doing?”
Without an answer, Mina started spraying the fragrance into the room. The intense chemical smell drowned my protests since I had to cover my nose and mouth not to vomit. Mina emptied the cans, used two more for the bathroom and an extra couple solely for the bed area.
I resigned at the insanity and waited for her to finish. Once done, Mina unpacked a bundle of duvets and pillows from the backpack and tossed them at the bed. She grabbed a knife from the cupboard and scratched out a cross into the plaster above the bed’s wall.
Wait, she planned to sleep in my bed? I pondered my options for stopping her. I could shoot her, sure, but that wouldn’t be smart. As I wondered what to do, Mina went for a shower.
I quickly changed into my pajamas and slid into the bed. It was mine, and I would not give it up. She was welcome to join me though. The ever-present wooden scent stopped making me want to retch and became rather pleasant. I sprawled over the bed, making myself comfortable.
The sound of claws clapping on the floor echoed from the bathroom. A wolf walked out of the door. Perfect, white fur covered the beast, and misty eyes rested within its skull.
What the hell? This was Mina shifted into a wolf. The mages who did shifting were humans who drew strength from an animal spirit to change into a hybrid form, at most. An average shifter could do nothing more than to sharpen his senses. But this wolf was a hundred percent animal.
The beast leapt onto the bed and dug into the duvets around me.
I curled my lips into a wide grin. “This would be a lot more fun in your other form.”
The wolf growled, baring dagger-sharp fangs.
I got the point and made space next to me. I was about to share a bed with a wolf, wasn’t I? Luckily, I was so tired I fell asleep in the next few seconds.
The ringing of the doorbell woke me up. I froze as I glanced into the kitchen. Mina stood by the gas stove, cooking something in a pan. She wore loose, black jeans and a matching pullover. Oh, yesterday actually happened. My heartbeat sped up. I half-thought it to be a dream, expecting to wake up sleeping on my chair.
But this was real.
My laptop, fridge, microwave, kettle, and washing machine were gone, torn from their spots. My head pounded, and eyes felt heavy. The doorbell rang again.
Wait… Katherine was downstairs, wasn’t she? If yesterday happened, then Katherine had two trackers on me, both of which went missing last night. But first… “What happened to my appliances?”
Mina focused on the pan. “I threw them out.”
Say, what? I paid for that stuff. I glanced at my guns but decided I could take things slower. “Because?”
“They ran on electricity. They could contain trackers or microphones.”
Right, criminals, not ordinary people.
The doorbell rang again.
“A guest stands at your door. Go open,” Mina said.
I wanted to argue that she didn’t get to boss me around, but I wasn’t too sure about that anymore. At least not enough to contest her. I dragged myself from the bed and almost fell back as the blood drained from my head. For how long had I slept? I had nothing to check the time since my phone was taken and I couldn’t see my laptop anywhere.
The first set of clothes I stumbled on had to suffice, black jeans stained with what was probably blood and an almost-clean, blue shirt. The forest-like fragrance from Mina’s sprays covered the stench of old sweat the clothes must have emanated. I had to hold myself by the wall to make it to the answering machine.
I pressed the red button to open the connection to the speaker by the door. “Yes?”
“Hey, Lucas, ‘r you all right?” Katherine said, her tone carried urgency, and a hint of worry.
“Sure, why wouldn’t I be?”
“Can I come in?”
No. But I couldn’t say that, could I? She was still essentially a cop, and thus she would investigate anything suspicious. I glanced at Mina, releasing my finger from the button so Katherine wouldn’t overhear anything. “I suppose a high-ranked paladin shouldn’t see you.”
She shrugged. “Well, depends. If she’s reasonable, there’d be no problem. But if she’s righteous, better not. I don’t want to have to hurt her.” She frowned, but also cracked her knuckles, making me realize how large her hands were, featuring long, strong fingers, broad palms, and muscular forearms. Leaving aside her utterly unnatural proportions, I would bet she could snap my neck with one hand.
My eyes rested on the pan, which contained smashed eggs and ham. There was more than for one person, so she was cooking breakfast for us. I couldn’t help myself but smile. Nobody made me breakfast ever since I was seven.
I blinked to snap back to the reality of Katherine waiting for me to answer. She was smart and everything but the reasonable type. “I’ve had a little accident up here. I’ll go down,” I said and hung up.
I slipped on my shoes, ran my fingers through my hay-like hair to arrange them, at least a little, and stomped down to the door. Katherine awaited at the other side with her arms crossed over her chest. A scowl marred her freckled face, her eyes narrowed, scanning me. She wore her dark-green trench coat, high boots, shirt, and leather pants. “What happened?”
The question carried an implicit accusation, one that was spot on.
I scratched the top of my head and tried to conjure the most innocent tone I could. “Ehh… I wanted to watch YouTube videos from the bath, but then slipped when getting out and drowned both my phone and laptop.”
“You’ve got no bath.”
“Shower, I meant, shower,” I snapped, my cheeks catching red. Lying to Katherine was, for some reason, nearly impossible.
“Let me check. Maybe I can help.” Katherine brushed past me before I had the chance to close the door. She rushed up the stairs faster than I could keep up.
My heart beat like crazy, my breath raced, and my legs did their best. But I still haven’t fully overcome Evelyn’s snake’s venom, plus I just woke up. And no, I wasn’t out of shape.
When I reached the third floor, the door was open, and Katherine stood within, staring into the room.
I caught up and followed her gaze. Hypnotized, she watched a white puppy cowering across the room. Mina was devilishly proficient at acting cute in the wolf form, which was now a third of the original size. As far as I understood magic, the total mass was impossible to change. The only explanation of her shifting power was that her mass was shared between the reality and the Void, from where aether came. To do that had to require an excessive amount of aether, confirming Mina was beyond dangerous.
“Awww, come here you cute little thing,” Katherine said in a voice too sweet to fit her and ducked.
Mina acted out the scared puppy with perfection, and seconds later, Katherine was rubbing the wolf’s belly. I slid in, closed the door, and let them be.
With a sheepish smile, Katherine played with the wolf. “You should’ve told me you got a husky, y’know.”
I walked to the stove and grabbed the pan to act as if I was cooking. “I was afraid she would be too scared since she’s so young,” I said, doing my best to sound calm. My drumming heart did not help my effort, but hopefully, Katherine was too absorbed in petting Mina to notice.
This presented an excellent opportunity. I turned off the stove so as not to burn the eggs and glanced at Katherine. “By the way, did we find anything connected to the nightmares or the last night’s perpetrator?”
Her eyes remained glued to the wolf. “Not much. The place itself also had nothing, and we found no trace of Evelyn.”
Why was I not surprised? I narrowed my eyes, watching for every twitch of a muscle as I asked the next question. “I heard the name Lucielle. Is that someone famous?”
Katherine froze. For almost a full second, she didn’t move. The wolf, Mina, leapt onto her and licked her face. That woke Katherine up and she answered, her voice shaking. “Not really. She’s a corporate overlord from somewhere in Europe.”
She lied to me. I had to know why. “Is she? I heard she bought a bank building on Wall Street.”
“Heard as much as well,” Katherine said, her voice steady, controlled and fake-friendly. “A few weeks ago, they said.”
Lucielle mentioned jetlag, so she likely came in the past two days. Then again, she could had sent someone, like Vivian, to get her the building before her arrival. I had to dig into that later. Was Evelyn connected to the nightmares and was Lucielle hunting her for it?
That would have made sense—Evelyn may have stolen some of Lucielle’s artifacts that could have been causing the killer nightmares—, but it wasn’t like I had any proof for anything.
For now, Katherine seemed ready to feed me with all the information I needed. But why wouldn’t she answer me straight? I put the ham and eggs onto two plates, added a slice of bread to each and turned around. “Fancy a breakfast?”
“Breakfast?” Katherine glanced over her shoulder, puzzled. “It’s five in the evening.” She rose, measuring me with the I’m a cop gaze.
I formed an awkward smile, not knowing what another expression to go for. The chance to get information out of her disappeared faster than I used it. “Guess I overslept. It’s hard to tell time without my phone.”
Her eyes traveled over the room, stopping where the dishwasher used to stand. “What happened to your appliances?”
Mina rubbed herself on Katherine’s legs, but the distraction attempt failed.
I didn’t have a good answer, not even an average one. “I sold them to get money for the new phone and laptop.”
Her stern expression made it exceedingly clear she didn’t believe a single word I said. “When?”
“An hour ago. This older lady moved in today, and I stumbled into her sons, who were helping her move in. They were about to go buy new appliances, so I sold them mine.” The lie was so ridiculous nobody could ever believe it, but my mind failed to produce anything better.
Katherine sighed and stepped to me. Her features softened, and her tone became gentle, almost pleading. “Lucas, I know it’s hard with your sister being sick now.” She placed her hands onto my shoulders. “But it will work out, trust me, the Lord tests us, but He never lets us down. Do not fail your trials. So, don’t go doing anything stupid, okay?”
What if I already did? I forced my lips to curl upward and whispered. “I’ll try, thanks.”
She slid her hand by my face, her touch soothing my soul. “I will help you get a new phone and laptop. We will solve the nightmares together, okay?”
“Right. How about we go out for a beer?”
Katherine grinned, happiness sparkling in her eyes. “My treat.” She paused, and the radiant shine instantly disappeared from her gaze. “I need to handle some stuff first though. But tomorrow at five should be fine. I’ll text you later.”
“Sure.” I watched Katherine leave and closed the door. She went to report on me and likely to arrange something I wasn’t supposed to know about.
Aether swirled through the air, and Mina turned back from the wolf puppy form into her human one. A mischievous smile played on her lips, but her tone was compassionate. “That had space for improvement.”
I exhaled and sunk my face into my palms. You don’t say. Right now, Katherine was likely calling the Church to have people keep an eye on me. And so was Lucielle, since that was what Mina was here for in the first place. Cute, but effectively a leash Lucielle put on me. “Could you give me a quick intro to who you people are so I can handle things with Katherine? That’d help me.”
Mina arched an eyebrow, apparently wondering how much to say. “Ever heard of the Hand of God?”
I did. Since the supernatural world caused two world wars in a row, a body uniting the magic users and other aether-connected beings was formed. This institution was named the Hand of God. The world’s five most powerful aether wielders formed the council, and together, they wove to keep the existence of aether and magic away from the public. The Hand of God formulated a principle called the Veil, which has so far succeeded in keeping the existence of magic secret from the general public.
Beneath the Hand of God, the Secret Societies formed, uniting the aether wielders into factions. The duty to enforce the Veil fell on all Secret Societies, including the non-public part of the Church. “I have.”
“Good.” Mina smiled, happy she didn’t have to do the whole explanation. “Luci’s a founding member of the Hand of God.”
My eyes shot wide. “Why is someone that powerful hiring a private investigator?”
“Her territory’s Europe. She’s not allowed to operate in the US.”
Therefore, everything I was about to do for her would be illegal even from Secret Societies’ standpoint. What the hell was Lucielle’s business with Evelyn? To move here was an extreme act bound to stir the supernatural world, possibly starting another world war. She wouldn’t be doing this out of the goodness of her heart, so she had to have a personal reason.
One more thing bugged my mind. “Why don’t they simply arrest Lucielle for not playing by the rules? I mean, if she isn’t allowed to be here, the rest of the Secret Societies should round her up.”
“Officially, she’s expanding her business empire. Nothing supernatural, which is allowed, technically. Also, no one knows she’s here.” Mina’s face twisted into a devilish grin that screamed how happy she was to say this. “And Luci doesn’t get pushed around.”
My knees wobbled. I caught myself by the sink not to fall. “Lucielle’s threat about making me an organ donor was serious, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, yes. If Luci decides you owe her a debt you cannot pay, she’ll send Vivi to collect her due. Then, Vivi would come at night, paralyze you with magic, wake you up, and make you watch as she cuts your organs out of you.”
As I stared at her pale, Mina stepped to me and pointed at my abdomen. “For lower debts, a kidney is enough.” She moved her finger up, pointing at every organ as she named it. “But when you owe more or if Luci’s angry, there’s also bone marrow, lung, pancreas, liver, eyes, and heart. Vivi always harvests them in this order, without painkillers, and takes her time. Do your job, or you shall face hell’s wrath.”
As she spoke, my brain instantly provided me with clear images of Vivian standing above me and cutting the said organs out of my body. I gulped, blinked a few times and forced my mind away.
My stomach grumbled, but I had lost all my appetite. “By the way, I need a phone and a laptop to work.”
She motioned toward a brown, carton box I haven’t noticed at all. “The Lord is our shepherd. We lack nothing.”
Mina was eerily good at hiding things. With a quick glance, I confirmed the box indeed lay in the position where I wouldn’t see it from any other angle than when standing in the kitchen.
I unpacked the goods and ate breakfast as my appetite returned. The food had zero seasonings, making it bland, but Mina looked like she would tear off my arm if I reached for the salt.
Lucielle didn’t strike me as the patient type, so I had to get moving on the case. I buttoned up my shirt, put on a tie, slipped into my leather duster, donned my cowboy hat, and headed to the Dewin Institute.