Forgotten Destiny Book One
“I don’t… I don’t understand. I can’t be a witch,” I said as I sat behind the chipped wooden table, my hands shivering in my lap.
The doctor stared across at me, an uncaring expression crumpling his old features. “Well, you are. If you are having trouble coping with this situation, there are various counseling services you can contact,” he said, his voice automatic, making it clear he was saying something he’d learned by-heart. Without bothering to get up from his chair, he leaned over, rummaged through the pamphlets lined up in the plastic holders behind him, and plucked out several. Never glancing at them, he slapped them down on the table and scooted them over to me.
One or two fell off onto the ground, and I automatically leaned down and picked them up. Then I caught sight of their titles – from the Work Regulations of Witches, to Housing Services for the Magical – and I hit my head on the underside of the table.
Cursing, I sat back up, rubbed my head, and carefully placed the pamphlets as far away from me as I could put them. Again I went back to shaking my head, the move more feverish this time. “There has to be a mistake. I have no family history of witches. I only bothered to get the test—”
“Because your latest bloods showed unusual markers. Look, Miss—” the guy searched through the file on his desk until he found my name, “Samson, this isn’t something to be scared of. It happens a lot.”
… This wasn’t something to be scared of? It took a lot of self-control not to tilt my head back and snort in this guy’s face.
I wasn’t a newbie to the world of magic. I lived relatively close to a magical housing unit. I also read the papers and watched the news, for God’s sake. I understood just how much a diagnosis of witchism could change your life forever. Though there wasn’t that much stigma against witches these days, they were highly regulated entities. They were valuable, after all. It meant the government got to dictate what line of work you could go in. They got to decide where you lived. Heck, they pretty much got to have a say in every aspect of your life from now until the day you finally died.
Sure, technically a diagnosis of witchism wasn’t the end of the world, but if you valued your freedom – like I did – it was close.
So this had to be wrong. I leaned in, clutching the edge of the table once more. My fingers easily slipped into a set of grooves that made me wonder if people just like me had done exactly this before, clutching on for dear life as they tried to make sense of their rapidly crumbling world.
Before I could demand another test – yet again – the doctor leaned back, crossed one arm in front of his body, locked his elbow on the table, and proceeded to massage his brow with two fingers. “Look, Miss Samson, I get it – this is going to be a big change for you. But like I said, there are plenty of counseling services that can help you through this transition period. It’s not the end of the world,” he emphasized that with his hard baritone that shook around the small office, practically bouncing off the multiple certificates on the wall – including the one that was pride of place and proved his government certification as a witch specialist. “I’m not giving you a diagnosis of cancer here. You don’t have an incurable illness. You have powers. Now, what’s wrong with that?”
I opened my mouth to automatically reel off everything I could think of – from lack of freedom to the fact I would now have to apply to the government for permission to leave the freaking city.
Then I saw the look in his eyes. I’ve always had the ability to read people’s emotions, and this guy was being pushed to the limit.
“You know what I used to be before I became a witch specialist? A trauma surgeon. You haven’t been shot, you haven’t been stabbed, and there’s nothing wrong with you. Witches, on average, lead much longer lives than non-magical humans. Yes, you’re going to have to work in a government-sanctioned job from now on, but you’re also going to have a job.” He emphasized the word have. “In this difficult economy, that isn’t exactly something to cry about. You will also be moved into permanent accommodation. So let me once more reiterate the situation.” He brought up his hands and started to count on his fingers. “You’re not sick, you’re not dying, you’re about to get a permanent job, and you’ll never have to worry about a roof over your head again. So what exactly is the issue?”
My fight quickly withered and died up as I tilted my head down and stared at my hands. “When you put it like that—”
“Thank God you’re finally being reasonable. I thought you’d be one of those witches who demands 10 more tests.” He gruffly pushed up from his chair, and it scraped along the floor behind him. Leaning back, he cracked his neck. “Now, take whatever pamphlets you need.” He indicated the pamphlets behind him with a tilt of his neck. “You aren’t my only patient today, and I really need to get to the rest of them.” He turned to walk off, leaving me in a totally fragile state, with nothing to hold onto but a bunch of poorly printed pamphlets that talked in cheery tones about the fact I was now never going to have another say in anything I ever did again.
He got half a meter away, reaching a hand out toward the door that would lead him to his back offices – which were a darn sight nicer than here. I’m usually relatively observant, and the first thing I noticed when I walked in was that this meeting room was barely decorated and the furniture was all old and easily replaceable. Though I was definitely taking the news about my witch diagnosis badly, I knew my reaction was mild compared to most. I caught a news report only last night of a soldier being told he was a warlock, only for the guy to use his newfound powers to absolutely trash the hospital reception room.
The doctor turned hard on his expensive shoes, shifted over to the chipped, old bureau behind him, opened one of the doors with a creak that echoed through the room, and rummaged around. Finally he found what he was looking for and pulled it out. “These are your registration papers.” He shifted over to the table, plucked a goldplated fountain pen from his front pocket, and quickly, if carelessly, signed the last two sheets of the form. Then he shoved it over to me. “You need to fill these in and take them to the Government Registration Board downtown. Due to your genetic subgroup, I want your powers tested sooner rather than later.”
I paled. “What does that mean?”
“Relax,” he said in that same compassionless voice that told me he’d been dealing with freakouts just like mine for way too long. “I don’t think your powers are dangerous. It is precisely because your powers haven’t manifested properly yet that I want them tested. You’re going to need to take these papers straight down to the registration office, got that?”
“But I had plans—”
He slowly arched an eyebrow at me. Then he let his gaze tick down my body – or as much of it as he could see, as I was still seated compliantly, my hands clasped hard in my lap until my knuckles had gone white.
“You don’t look like the kind to make trouble. I’m certain I shouldn’t need to remind you of this, but this is serious, Miss Samson. Witches are powerful, and for the good of them and everyone else, they must be regulated. But the government doesn’t want you to lose your every civil right. So for now,” he emphasized the words for now with a deep, guttural growl, “we trust you. If you become noncompliant—”
“I get it,” I cut him off short as I leaned in, grabbed up the papers, resisted the urge to tear them up, and instead neatly folded them and placed them in my bag. “I’ll comply.”
“Good. Now welcome to your new life. I assure you it won’t be as bad as you’re imagining.”
As bad as I was imagining? No, it would be worse.
Much, much worse.
I sat there at the testing station, my hands clamped so hard in my lap, I thought I’d pull my thumbs from my knuckles.
There were a bunch of other so-called witches sitting around on the little plastic chairs next to me. I called them so-called witches, because technically, despite proficient medical tests these days, you couldn’t be confirmed as a mage until and unless you went through proper testing. There was still a chance – a slim but hopeful chance – that you could get past the medical tests and get to this stage only to find out you didn’t have any powers. Then you could go back to a normal life, albeit one where you had to be dragged back into testing every couple of years in case your powers had suddenly blossomed.
As I glanced at the other patients around me, none of them looked as full of dread as I did.
The guy sitting next to me had leaned all the way back in his chair. His hands were clasped behind his head, and he was tapping his feet on the chipped linoleum. He was kind of handsome, in a rugged way. His features were unusual, but that just added to his mysterious charm.
There were five other patients lined up on the plastic chairs, and though the rest of them were definitely not as uncomfortable as I was, nobody was nearly as carefree as this guy.
My phone rang. The third time it had rung while I’d been waiting here for the last half hour. I knew who it was. My best friend, Susan. We worked in a café together. Hell, we’d only just managed to get the funds together to start our own. Then this.
I stared at my hands. I couldn’t answer the phone. I couldn’t tell Susan about this until it was finally confirmed and there was no way out of it.
Out of nowhere, Mr. Smooth and Calm beside me reached forward, plucked my bag up, despite the fact it was held tightly between my ankles, grabbed my phone out, and answered it, all in a smooth, quick move. I didn’t have a chance to stop him – I didn’t even have a chance to splutter.
“Hello, who is this?” the guy asked.
“What are you doing? That’s my phone,” I stammered.
“Ah, who the hell is this?” I could hear Susan on the other end of the line, her voice echoing angrily over the receiver.
“This is Joshua McIntosh. I guess you want to talk to the nervous dame beside me, ha? I hate to say this, but she’s been avoiding your calls, darling. If indeed that was you who’s called two times in the last 10 minutes.”
“What are you doing? Give me back my phone!” I leaned over and tried to grab my phone from the guy, but, acting exactly like a six-year-old in a playground, he just locked his hand on my shoulder and pushed me away, leaning in the opposite direction as he kept my phone clamped against his ear.
We were drawing attention from the other patients sitting around, but nobody got involved.
For some reason, they all stared at this guy warily as if they knew him and he wasn’t somebody you wanted to mess with. That, or everyone was too busy contemplating their new futures as witches to bother intervening in a light tussle in the waiting room.
“What the hell is going on here?” I heard Susan demand from the other end of the line. “I don’t care who you are – put me onto Beth.”
“Like I said, sweetie, she’s avoiding your calls while waiting for her witch tests. Either she doesn’t like you anymore, or she’s got other things on her mind. Just do us all a favor and stop calling—” He went to hang up.
I threw myself at him. This time I didn’t try to push past his longer arm – I went for his chair leg. Though he was a heck of a lot heavier than me, these chairs were old and rickety. What’s more, he was too much of a cool guy to sit straight – and he’d already pushed back onto two legs. All I had to do was kick at the back of the chair, and he fell forward. Then I practically dive rolled into him, grabbed the hand that held my phone, twisted his grip using the little self-defense I knew, and snatched my phone up.
Before he could make a go for it, I jumped up and darted several meters away. I faced him warily, pressing my phone to my ear as I turned this way and that, hoping to catch sight of someone in charge.
“Beth, is that you? What the hell is going on? You’re having the witch test?” Susan emphasized with a blast of a breath.
My lips wobbled. I’d been about to tell her that a jerk had grabbed my phone, but now—
The jerk in question had settled back in his seat, his arms crossed, his legs stretched out. He had a long, lithe form, but he was one of those tall guys who could seemingly bend himself in half so he didn’t stick out like a gladiator amongst a bunch of lambs. Now there was a sanctimonious smile spreading across his pretty face. “That’s right, Susan, Beth here is in line for the witch tests. Is that why she was avoiding your calls?”
The idiot spoke loudly enough that Susan picked up on it. There was a tense breath. I could hear it as Susan no doubt pushed it through clenched teeth.
My heart shook. Susan had always been my best friend. She’d always been there for me.
I squeezed my eyes shut – for like half a second. I wasn’t stupid enough to wrench my attention off that jerk, lest he make another play for my phone.
He didn’t look like he was going to – he’d settled down, crossed his arms further over his broad chest, and now had the kind of watchful attention of somebody about to enjoy a show.
“Look, Susan,” I began, bringing a hand up and trailing it across my suddenly sweaty brow. I attempted to push my dead-straight blond hair from my eyes, but it just flopped back down again.
Susan was a lot of things. And she could forgive a lot of things. But she’d always demanded total honesty. Now I’d lied to her. Or at least I hadn’t told her the full truth.
“… This isn’t a game, is it? God, Beth, why didn’t you tell me? When did you begin to notice? When did you have the medical tests? What on earth is going on?”
I tried to push the phone closer to my ear to ensure no one else could hear, but Mr. Jerk didn’t pull his attention off me, and with every new remonstration Susan spat through the phone, his lips curled harder.
If I ever got the chance, I would slam my fist into this guy’s face. Were it not for the fact that reversing grips was the only self-defense I knew and that hitting people was totally illegal and if I so much as put a finger on this guy, he would probably wrestle me into submission in a second flat.
Not the point, though. He’d ruined everything.
I went to walk away, to get some much-needed privacy, but that’s when the guy pushed out one of his folded legs and put it right in front of me as if he wanted to trip me up.
“Do you mind, you asshole?” I hissed, clamping a hand over the phone so Susan couldn’t hear and mistakenly think I was talking to her.
“Firstly, not an asshole,” he said as he patted his chest. “Secondly, you were given pretty clear instructions not to move from these chairs. All participants must stay seated until a registered training professional comes to get them.” He spoke with the kind of automatic efficiency of someone who’d said that multiple times. He gestured back to the chair as if he was an air hostess going through a safety protocol.
I bared my teeth at him. I was not the kind of woman who usually bared her teeth at anyone or anything. Heck, I didn’t even bare my teeth when I was brushing them at night. I wouldn’t exactly call me meek, just soft. I was the kind of person who didn’t like confrontation. And that wasn’t a bad thing. Sure, if you believed movies and books and the media in general, the world liked somebody who could stand up for themselves. People with enough balls never to allow themselves to be trod on. That culture was wrong. Arrogant, entitled jerks who ran around starting fights just because they felt their rights were being impinged led to problems, not solved them. You need diplomats – just like me – to keep the peace.
But this guy?
“Can you just leave me alone? Sit down and wait for your own goddamn test,” I spat back, clamping my hand firmly over the phone, ignoring the fact Susan kept demanding I answer her.
“All participants must remain seated until a registered training professional comes to get them,” he repeated, that same sanctimonious smile on his face as he gestured with a practiced hand to the seat beside him.
I made a quick mental calculation about how much trouble I’d get in if I a) threw my phone in this guy’s face, or b) just walked away.
Both options were equally as tempting, but… with a blast of reason, I pushed them away.
I remembered exactly what the doctor had told me after he’d given me my test results. Things would change if I was found to be noncompliant. Witches and warlocks who didn’t know how to get along with the system were forced to get along with the system.
I rounded my hand into a fist, turned around, and sat abruptly, hooking my bag with my leg as I pushed it under the seat, far away from Mr. Jerk’s prying grip. With a breath, I pulled my hand off the receiver. “Susan, look, I’m really sorry – but I’m waiting for my test now. I was going to tell you—”
“If the test was confirmed. There’s still a chance—”
Mr. Jerk leaned in, that smile pressing up even further over his pretty, perfect lips. “There’s no chance, Susan – is it? That’s just urban fiction. The medical tests are run at least three times on at least three different samples. They will confirm you’re a witch. These tests are simply here to find out what kind of powers you have. Beth’s a witch, sweetie, and there’s no going back.”
“Who is that?” Susan snapped.
“Just some jerk who won’t leave me alone.”
He snorted, brought a hand up, and patted his chest. “Before, I was an asshole. Now, I’m a jerk. Gee, you really think little of me, don’t you, Bethany Samson?”
I froze. The guy had figured out I was called Beth because Susan had called me Beth.
But how the hell did he know my last name?
He tilted his head to the side again. “They’re worried you’d be noncompliant. You do know there are consequences for those witches who bite the hand that feeds them, right?” Mr. Jerk stood up, cracked his shoulders, tilted his head this way and that, then pointed forward with the commanding hand of a general. “Come with me, Bethany Samson.”
“What are you talking about? Who are you?” My voice shook.
“Beth, what’s going on there? Who are you talking to? Why didn’t you tell me—” Susan demanded.
“Beth’s really sorry, Susan,” Mr. Jerk said loudly enough that not only Susan would be able to pick it up, but every single person in the goddamn building, “but she’s a liar. And a witch. And possibly a noncompliant witch. Now do yourself a favor, Miss Samson, and come with me,” he said, his words stiff and snapped, his lips pared all the way back until I caught glimpses of his perfectly straight white teeth.
I simply stared at him, my mouth half open as my ear rang was Susan’s demands.
When I didn’t act, Mr. Jerk took a step toward me, pointed at my phone, made a kill motion with a finger across his neck, then jammed his thumb down the corridor. “Last chance,” he mouthed.
You know that quick mental calculation I made before? About whether to cram my fist into his face or run away? I had to make it again. A race of nerves darted up my back and sank solidly into my stomach. This guy couldn’t possibly be in charge. He was just another witch like me, waiting for his test, and he’d obviously grown so bored that he’d decided to play with me like a cat with a mouse.
I swallowed. “I gotta go, Susan. I need to go find someone in charge.” I hung up without a word, clutched my phone protectively, and stood, tilting my head to the left and right, hoping to find anyone with an official uniform on.
“I am in charge, sweetie. God, you’re a bit slow, aren’t you?”
“You couldn’t possibly be in charge. Who would make you—”
“Beth, it really isn’t going to work out for you if you keep insulting me. Now, for the last time, grab your things and come with me.”
When I didn’t immediately react, Mr. Jerk rolled his eyes, made a snarling motion to suggest that he would rather be anywhere and doing anything than this, then shunted forward, grabbed my arm, and pulled me to the side.
Again nobody intervened. Their eyes were on us, of course – because this was turning out to be one hell of a distracting show. But nobody jumped to my aid, called for help, or stood up to this bully. They just watched like I was a regrettable sacrifice to a god.
“Hey, let me go. Somebody help me!” I called.
Mr. Jerk sighed. “You are really slow on the uptake, Miss Samson. There’s no point in screaming for help. Because the only person who can help you anymore is me.”
I stared at him as that ominous statement settled. He pulled me down the corridor, and there was nothing I could do to stop him.
Josh McIntosh dragged me into a room and sat me down on a flimsy plastic chair in front of an equally flimsy looking portable table. Without another word, he spun around, closed the door behind him, and left me alone.
The room was empty. It had the plastic chair and the table, and that was it. There wasn’t a two-way window, and there was only a single simple dangling light globe above.
My stomach kicked. It felt as if it twisted itself up, ready to either give me a killer case of diverticulitis, or you know, just kill me.
Before my nerves could run wild, I heard somebody clear their throat over an audio feed.
I twisted my head to the side and tilted it up, realizing there was a tiny set of embedded speakers in the corner of the ceiling. “Bethany Samson, your test is about to begin. Follow any directive given to you. Failure to do so will lead to noncompliance.”
If Josh had just told me that, I would’ve dismissed him, but this time I couldn’t. Because this was serious.
I brought my hands forward, clasped them hard in my lap, and nodded. Then, quickly realizing the testing officer probably couldn’t see me, I opened my mouth to reply—
“Good. Now, pick up the ball in front of you.”
“What—” I began. I jerked back as a ball appeared on the table. It wasn’t there one moment, then in the next, it crackled into existence in a hail of sparks.
I screamed and jerked back, banging my knee against the underside of the plastic table badly. Though the table looked pretty flimsy, it was solid enough to ding my patella and send a blast of tingling pain up my leg.
I leaned forward and rubbed my thigh. Then I did as I was told. I swallowed, settled my nerves, and finally plucked up the ball.
… Then I just waited. The seconds ticked on until a full minute and a half had passed. Though part of me wanted to clear my throat and question if I was meant to do something, the rest of me was terrified of being labeled noncompliant. So I just sat there. Finally, however, the PA crackled once more. “Place the ball back down. The test is over.”
“It is?” I muttered as I reached forward and did as I was told, putting the ball exactly back where I’d found it. There was another crackle of sparks, and the ball disappeared, leaving only the faint scent of sulfur in the air.
I didn’t make a move to wave a hand in front of my nose. Again, I waited.
“Tell us the contents of the letter in front of you without opening it from its envelope,” the strong male voice demanded over the PA.
This time I didn’t bother to ask what letter, I waited, and sure enough, within another crackling second, there was a burst of magic, and an envelope appeared in front of me.
I didn’t dare reach toward it until all of the magic had subsided. With another aching swallow that made me more aware than ever of my pounding nerves, I reached forward and plucked up the envelope.
“Do not touch it. Put it back down.”
I yelped, though softly thankfully, and placed the letter back where it had been.
“I… how can I tell you what’s inside the letter if I can’t open it?”
“Who is the letter addressed to?”
“I… have no idea.”
“What does the first line read?”
If there was ever a time to get frustrated, it was now. If there was also ever a time to hold onto my frustration and not show it, it was now. Still terrified of being labeled noncompliant, I opened my wobbling lips to answer, “I cannot read the letter through the envelope. I’m sorry.”
“Time for a new test.”
Time for a new test.
Time for a new test. That phrase was drilled into my head over the next hour.
Though I didn’t know that much about the testing process, I’d watched many a documentary on witches, and I was pretty sure most tests only took a handful of minutes.
Which gave me hope, right? Dim for now, but boy could it grow, and boy did it grow as I kept failing each test that was given to me. Maybe all of this had been a mistake, after all? Maybe I wasn’t a witch? Maybe the medical tests had been wrong? And maybe – and hopefully – that arrogant Mr. Jerkface had been mistaken when he’d said nobody ever failed the testing phase of magic.
Just as that hope started to sink through me, I heard a crackle over the PA. My testing officer cleared his throat, then paused. I could practically feel him coming to some decision. “Find me.”
By now, I was already weary from the tests, and I was slumped in my chair. I sat up at that curious request. My brow crumpled. “Sorry?”
“Testing subject Beth Samson, your testing officer requests that you find him.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure that I understand. Do you want me to—”
The door unclicked and opened itself.
I turned to stare at it, my brow still crumpled.
“I want you to leave this room, and I want you to find me. You have two minutes. You must come straight to my location. Now, go; the test is already in progress.”
I continued to sit there for a few alarming seconds until I finally pushed up. I’d undergone so many tests now that I realized this probably wasn’t a game. My testing officer honestly wanted me to find him.
I walked out of the door slowly only to find Josh leaning close to it, his arms crossed. “You heard the testing officer – now go find him. Stop being noncompliant,” he growled.
I jumped, not expecting the distraction. “I don’t know what I’m meant to be doing. How can I find him? I don’t know where he is.”
“So you’re not a finder. I told Stanley there was no way.” Josh snorted.
“Finders are the rarest witches out there. That being said, you still need to go through with the test. Now stop standing here and chatting with me – and go find him. Or at least try to and fail miserably. I don’t really care.”
I opened my mouth to tell Mr. Jerkface that he was genuinely the biggest jerk in existence, then I turned.
I started to walk forward. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to be labeled noncompliant and that I was fully aware I had to try a test even if I knew I was going to fail it. It was that….
I found myself walking to the left, down a long section of corridor, then abruptly, I came to a set of stairs.
Not knowing what else to do, I pushed up them.
There was every probability that I was doing something wrong, and I was wandering through a government facility without permission. But at the same time, I tried to tell myself that this was me trying.
I had no idea what the time was and how many seconds I’d wasted with Josh, but abruptly, I came to a room. I hesitated. “Oh God, what’s the point of this?” I muttered under my breath as I reached forward, grabbed the handle, and opened the door.
I walked in to find a man in a white lab coat sitting at a desk. In front of him was what looked like recording equipment.
“Sorry to interrupt – wrong room,” I muttered as I turned around to walk away.
The guy swiveled around in his chair, kept a hand on the desk, and tapped his fingers. “So you’re a finder, ha? No wonder it took me so long to figure that out – the rarest of the witches, you are. Anyhow, glad that’s over.” He stood up, arched his neck from side to side, and cracked his back.
I stood there blinking. “Umm… sorry? You mean… you’re the testing officer?”
“Slow on the uptake, but still, a finder, and that, if you’ll pardon the pun,” he snorted to himself, “is quite a find.”
The guy grabbed a clipboard off his desk and started writing on a form. I only caught a glimpse of it, but in one section, he clearly wrote the words protection order.
I hovered in the doorway, tired from my hour-long testing session but also jittery from the fact my hopes had been crushed. I was something called a finder, and I hadn’t even heard of that category of witches.
Before I could shrink away and hide, I heard footsteps behind me. Despite the fact I’d only just met the guy, I got the distinct impression of who it was.
As I turned around and he muscled into the room, actually pushing me to get out of his way, I realized I was right. It was Mr. Jerkface.
He didn’t look happy. He also looked suspicious. He peered from me back to the testing officer. “She just got lucky, right?”
“It wasn’t luck; she got here in well under a minute, and that’s including the time you wasted chatting with her. She’s a finder, all right.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Mr. Jerkface said as he brought a hand up, clamped it on his mouth, and let his fingers sink in. “You know what the government is going to demand – you’re going to have to run that test again. Just to be sure. She probably just got lucky,” Mr. Jerkface tried once more.
“Josh, I don’t tell you how to do your job, so please don’t tell me how to do mine. I watched every single step she took to get here, and she didn’t waste a single one. She found me, fair and square. Now, you get to do the rest.” The testing officer reached forward and pushed his clipboard at Josh.
Josh accepted it, turned back to me, and stared at me with suspicion-filled, narrowed eyes. “Doesn’t look like a finder to me, Stanley.”
“Considering you’re a generalized warlock, I wouldn’t count your opinion,” Stanley said as he started typing something on the computer in front of him. “Now, I’m just researching available contracts, but considering there are restrictions on who finders can work for, and the government mandated only last year that they can only be employed by government agencies or direct subsidiaries, that seriously narrows down the list.”
“Um, I’m sorry, but what are you talking about?” I gathered the courage to mutter from the doorway where I was still lurking like an unwanted shadow.
“A job, Missy. He’s looking up a contract for you. Considering you’re a goddamn finder, we have to fit you with a contract before you leave the building. Security precaution,” he explained without explaining anything at all.
“Oh,” I muttered. Then I opened my mouth to ask the stupidest question I could think of. “But are you sure there hasn’t been a mistake? I….”
“No mistake,” Stanley said in the kind of tone that told me he’d spent his entire career telling nervous witches about their test results. “Oh,” he suddenly added and snorted loudly.
“Oh, you’re gonna love this one, Josh,” Stanley said as a massive grin parted his lips and pretty much carved a line straight to his eyes.
“What are you talking about?” Josh demanded as he cut the distance between them with one long stride. He leaned in beside Stanley and glanced at the screen. He quickly paled.
I could only see the side of his face, but that was more than enough to see that Mr. Jerkface looked as if he was about to blanch. “No way. No way in hell. My books are filled.”
“You don’t have any books,” Stanley retorted immediately. “And there is a position open with you. Especially for a finder. As the city’s only government-sanctioned bounty hunter, you’re one of the few people she can work with. And considering the scum you’re often set to track down and how much social disturbance they can cause, it would be a suitable use of her skills. Plus, you’re also one of the few warlocks who will actually be able to go through with her PO.”
I had no idea what PO meant, and I was now too weak to question.
You see, my whole world was crumbling down around me. I felt like a polar bear standing on an iceberg that was slowly sinking under the sea.
Stanley made a quick, brief call to check with somebody about whether I should be contracted to Josh, and when they concurred, he hung up and turned to us. He flicked his gaze at me, then turned his full attention to Josh just as a smile lit up his lips. “Think of it more as an honor. I’ve never personally tested a finder – they are that rare. And the powers-that-be trust you enough to let you contract one. And hell, think about how much easier it will make your work. You’ll be able to get through bounties all the quicker,” Stanley said as he clicked his fingers and whistled.
“Which is just going to mean I’m going to attract more work,” Josh said through stiff teeth.
“And harder work,” Stanley added. “With a finder by your side, you’ll attract some of the biggest cases around. Look at it positively, Josh – this will do wonders for your career.”
Josh turned and looked at me.
And me? I’m pretty sure I sank all the way under at that stare.
I might not be completely following this conversation, but I’d understood enough to appreciate this – I now worked for Mr. Jerkface. He held my employment contract. And my life was officially over.
I walked in through the open, swaying door, catching it before the breeze could slam it shut.
Further into the house, I heard Josh bustling. This was where he should introduce me to his premises and describe the job I’d be performing for him. But this was Josh. I might’ve only just met Mr. Jerkface, but one thing was already abundantly clear. He genuinely didn’t care about my comfort. He was the adult embodiment of a playground bully. The kind of idiot who’d never grown up and would get just the same kick out of pushing you off the swing and giving you a wedgie as he did 20 years ago.
As soon as I walked in, I tried to control the sinking feeling spilling through my stomach. It was hard, and I had to bring up a hand and clamp it on my belly. Even then, I could feel my tummy grumbling beneath my weak grip.
Excuse me if I’d had a hell of a day.
Pivoting on my foot, I closed the door carefully, giving the street a watchful glance as I did.
When the testing official handed me over to work with Josh, the district bounty hunter, I’d expected his offices would be in one of two places – his mom’s garage, because he couldn’t afford any better, or out of some government building downtown.
This place was neither. This place?
“Expensive,” I commented under my breath as I leaned forward, ran a finger over the perfectly dusted and polished hallway table, and plucked up one of the intricate cloisonné vases sitting on top of it.
Though I wasn’t the kind to carve the city up by class, I understood that only the well-to-do lived in this area. The streets were wide, lined with trees, and the houses were large and old. This one was no different. It was an old townhouse with a quaint facing. You know what I’m talking about – all that wrought iron and carved sandstone. Unlike a lot of the other old houses around this area, Josh obviously took pride in it, too – because the sandstone was buffed and clean, not drab and stained black in patches.
I took another step forward, swinging my head to the left and noting a half-open door. I tilted to the side to get a better look through it. It looked just as well-appointed and fancy as the rest of this place. Hell, I even caught sight of a sitting chair atop an intricate Chinese silk rug. And was there even a fireplace?
Out of nowhere, I felt Josh’s hand lock on my arm. “I told you to follow me – not snoop around my place.”
“Do you mind?” I trilled.
“Not particularly,” he snorted derisively, looking up at me from under that insufferable flop of his equally insufferable hair. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind long hair on men. And on any other man, I wouldn’t judge. But every single thing about Josh was insufferable, and the more time I spent with him, the more my stomach kicked with regret.
If there was some way to get out of this – if there was some way to be contracted to a different job – I would find it.
“This is my house, Missy. And you heard the testing officer. You are to be on your best behavior. Any report from me will be critical. So if you prance around my house and stuff up my things,” he said as he plucked the vase from my hand and put it down precisely where it had been, “I’m going to tell the government you’re not conforming.”
He still had his hand on me, so I took a solid step back, breaking his grip. Then I looked at him defiantly. As I’d already told you, I wasn’t exactly the kind of person who liked confrontation. I steered clear of it. I much preferred diplomacy.
But you know what? There was a time for diplomacy, and then there was a time for this.
I took another solid step back, brought my arms up, and crossed them tightly in front of my chest. “You have no right to handle me. And I wasn’t stuffing up your things. I was just looking.”
He brought a hand up and tapped the skin near his eyes. “You look with your eyes, sweetie. You touch,” he brought his hands up and made star fingers, “with your fingers. Are you that stupid?”
I stared at him – just as any reasonable human would – in complete dumbfounded shock.
Did people like him actually exist? Arrogant, truly insufferable weirdos who were almost as good looking as they were annoying? Sure, you got his kind in TV shows all the time. But it was one thing being depicted in fiction, and another to be functional in the real world. Surely Josh’s personality would have been beaten out of him by now?
But it hadn’t been. And he continued to make his star fingers. “You’re going to need to quickly learn the rules of this world, or you’re going to fail, Missy.”
I made a suitable face at being called Missy. But before I could say anything, he snorted.
He also leaned forward and adjusted the vase until it was sitting perfectly straight. Was this guy an anorak or something?
“More than anything, if you’re going to work with me – and you’ve got no option but to, considering your rare skill set – then you’re going to need to learn the rules of my house. We’ll be staying under the same roof, but that does not give you a right to anything,” he said abruptly. “You don’t get to touch my stuff. You don’t get to sit on my couch. You don’t get to look into my drawing room,” he added as he leaned forward, grabbed the door to the open drawing room, and slammed it shut before promptly patting the wood as if to check that it was okay. “All you have to do is follow my command. My every command. You got that?”
I stared at him. I used to be one of those people who believed in the government. I believed in the laws of the land and the regulations those in charge enforced. I had hope in society, in other terms. But that hope was rapidly diminishing. Because in a reasonable society, things like this simply wouldn’t be able to occur. “I thought I had a choice where I could stay?”
He snorted. It was his turn to cross his arms. He also took several seconds to roll his eyes. “You really are stupid, aren’t you? Which is a pity, because with your power, I’m sure the government is hoping for so much more.”
“Excuse me? I’m not stupid. And I know the rules. Though I have to stay in regulated accommodation, I do get a choice. And it was never part of the deal that I would stay here under your tyrannical rule.”
“I’m sorry, who are you calling a tyrant? This is my house.” He actually put his foot down, and he pointed a stiff, rigid finger at the floor.
It was my turn to snort. “I get that. A little overprotective and obsessive,” I gestured toward the vase, “aren’t we? That’s not the point. I’m not staying here. I don’t have to. And I don’t choose to. I may have been forced to work with you, but I’m sure if I apply, I’ll be able to work with someone else.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have let that last bit slip. Because Josh? Tipped his head back and laughed. He seemed to take stupid amounts of pleasure in the move. I swear his nostrils would split apart with all that rattling. “I’m sorry, but do you genuinely think that you’ll be able to,” he brought his fingers up and made air-quotes, “apply to be released from my contract?”
I stiffened as I looked at him. It was that or bring my foot up and kick him in the knee as hard as I could. “Yes, yes I do. I understand I have to be regulated now,” I said in the most professional tone I could manage, “but I still have rights. And one of those rights is not to stand here and be abused by you. I have no intention of staying here,” I added for effect, in case he’d forgotten that most important point.
“Would you stop calling me that? Who exactly taught you how to speak and act around women? You’re like some kind of caricature out of a seventies cop show.”
This one got to him. He allowed his arms to drop. It was a slow move, but I wouldn’t exactly call it menacing. Sure, he was trying to make it look menacing, but he looked too offended at the same time. “I think you’ll find I know exactly,” he emphasized that word with a puff of air from his stiff lips and equally stiff jaw, “how to act around women. It’s never been a particular problem of mine,” he stressed. “But you know what’s starting to be a problem?”
“Is it me, Josh?” I snapped back. “It’s me, isn’t it?
Josh was uncovering aspects of my personality I’d never known existed. Blame it on the stress of finding out I was a witch and that my life would now never be mine again. But somehow I was starting to find my pluck. I just hoped this wasn’t a transient thing, because right now it felt like my only defense against this jerk.
“That’s it – that’s a mark against your file. You haven’t got many more,” he added ominously.
“When you’re done threatening me, I’d like to know how it is I can apply to work with someone else.”
“You can’t work with someone else. And it’s time for you to get it through your thick head that you won’t be staying anywhere else, either.”
I opened my mouth to protest.
Josh got there first as he unwrapped one of his hands from around his middle, brought it up, and spread his stiff fingers wide. “You’re under a protection order, Bethany, so no, you don’t get to decide who you work for and where you stay. The State does.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone mention a protection order. I’d seen the testing officer scribble it on my sheet. At the time, I’d dismissed it, wondering if all new witches went under the same thing to ensure they didn’t go wayward.
Now? I went to open my mouth to snap at him but paused and let my lips drop open.
A mistake. Josh rounded on me in seconds like a lion sensing a gazelle’s weakness. He took a step forward and squared off in front of me. “Finally seeing reason? Took long enough. Now it’s time for the tour – though it will have to be short, as we’ve already got work to do. This,” he reached forward and opened the door of the sitting room, “will be where you will sleep.”
“But that’s a—” I began. I stopped. As soon as the door was opened, it was no longer a sitting room.
The door creaked open to reveal a beautiful fourposter bed in the middle of the sunlit room with several walnut chests of drawers arranged around it.
“What on earth?” My voice shook.
Josh snorted. “Magic. You live in a world of magic, remember?”
I shuffled forward and peered into the room, soaking in the elegance. Though I had a taste for the finer things in life, I didn’t have the wallet to match. For the very first time since I’d found out I was a witch and my life was going to Hell, I let the smallest of smiles spread my lips. This was actually going to be my room?
Suffice to say, the smile didn’t last. Josh wouldn’t let it. He shoved in and pointed to a bunch of suitcases and boxes. “That’s your stuff. It’s already been moved. I suggest you keep it in the boxes – by the sounds of your attitude, you will be shipped off to a facility soon enough for noncompliance.”
Though Josh’s irritating insults usually always got my goat, I managed to ignore them as I continued to stare at the room. My gaze ticked down to the boxes and bags. The bags really were mine, and one was half unzipped, my clothes spilling out of it. “Hold on – where did my stuff come from? How did it—”
“It was moved. Keep up, idiot. Your life is in the government’s hands now. Now come with me.”
Before I could take a step forward to investigate my things to check that everything was there, Josh closed the door with a bang. He turned to me and nodded forward. “Down there is the kitchen. Down there is also the bathroom. And those are the two rooms you are allowed to visit. Everything else is off-limits. You understand that?”
I looked at him askance. “How exactly am I to know which door will lead where? I mean… is it stable? If I go to open one door, will I end up somewhere else?” If you’d asked me, it was a good question.
Josh just chuckled stupidly. “You’re a finder, Beth. You’re not a general warlock. You don’t have the ability to alter space. You locate things and nothing more. You’re the lowest on the pecking order of the witches. Now get that into your stupid head and come with me.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “If I was the lowest on the pecking order of witches, why would I be under a protection order? And why would I have to put up with you?”
Josh actually snarled. But you know what he didn’t do? Point out that what I was saying was stupid. Instead, he turned on his foot and walked forward. We strode through an open doorway into the kitchen.
It was just as nice as the rest of the house. It was old, but it fit the building, and at least it was big enough that it looked as if it wouldn’t be a pain to cook in.
“Stop ogling my stuff,” Josh said as he walked over to a chair, pulled it out carefully and sat just as carefully. It was completely at odds with the way he’d behaved in the testing facility. There, he’d kicked chairs, pulled them out with his feet, and rocked back and forth on them. Now, when he was dealing with his own stuff, he was utterly respectful. It seemed completely at odds with his underlying personality.
He cleared his throat. “Come and sit down already,” he barked.
Though once upon a time I would’ve scurried over if someone had snapped at me in that tone, I took my time. I walked over and deliberately hooked my foot around the chair and pulled it out, just to see his reaction.
It was worth it. He cringed, and a cloud crossed over his face. “Do you mind? That chair is worth more than you will ever be able to afford. Respect it,” he snapped.
I sat down roughly. “Whose house is this?” I suddenly demanded. “It’s not yours, is it?” The statement came out of nowhere, and I honestly wasn’t sure why I was saying it, but I went with it.
And it paid off. Because the exact way Josh’s face stiffened told me I was onto something.
He opened his lips, pressed them down, and appeared to run his tongue over his teeth. “It’s my house—” he tried.
His tone was off.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been one of those people who can read others like an open book. But I’ve always been a good observer, and right now it was abundantly clear that Josh was lying. I crossed my arms and leaned back in the seat. “It’s not your house, is it?” I demanded in exactly the same tone. Was it just me, or was there… a little power behind my words? A little more power than I was used to?
Maybe it had an effect on Josh, or maybe he realized this was one game he would lose. He leaned back suddenly, the chair legs grating. Far be it from a rebellious move, he winced, and he locked his deadly gaze on me. “That would be my benefactor’s house, then. But it’s essentially mine. And I’m in charge between you and me, and I get to set the rules. And the rules are this,” he leaned forward and stabbed a finger onto the table, but it was a delicate move in case he actually thought his finger might mark the old wood, “you respect everything in this house, you stay only in your three rooms, and you don’t touch anything, got it?”
“Who’s your benefactor?”
“None of your damn business.” There was a real edge to his tone now.
So the bully had a weakness, ha? And that weakness was whoever had given him this house.
“Who exactly do you work for, anyway? I mean, I understand that you must have some affiliation with the government considering I was contracted to you, but at the same time, I’d like to understand the organizational structure—”
“I’m gonna tell you what you need to know, and you’re going to finally shut up and stop asking questions.”
“How will you know what I need to know?” I usually wasn’t this insufferable, but Josh was really pulling it out of me. And considering it was irritating him, I wasn’t going to stop.
“Jesus Christ,” he leaned back, clamped a hand on his head, and ran his fingers through his hair, “have you always been this irritating? Or is this just a symptom of your power?”
“I opened my mouth to point out that I’d always been this irritating – at least around jerks like him – but I stopped.
Could it be a symptom of my power? After all, I was being a heck of a lot ballsier than usual.
There was something I wasn’t quite prepared for. Something I hadn’t had the chance to think through yet. My mind had been locked on how much my life would change now I was a witch, but what about my mind? My personality? It wasn’t impossible for someone to completely change who they were when they found their powers. Heck, if you believed the TV, it happened all the time. Happy families would be broken apart when one spouse discovered they were a witch, veritable saints would turn into demons, and demons would transform into saints. The fact of finding out you were different from everyone else was, understandably, a monumental one. The question was, was I really prepared to change that much?
As I became lost in my thoughts, I stared off to the side, and I looked up to see Josh watching me. For the first time, there wasn’t a bullying edge to the move. But it didn’t last. He shifted forward, pressed one finger lightly onto the wood of the table, and started drawing something. He wasn’t practicing writing – he was casting a spell. I’d seen more than enough TV shows and documentaries to recognize that.
My stomach clenched as I watched him. This was the first magic I’d ever seen practiced in front of me, and my belly tickled with nerves as I felt something build in the room. There were no sparks, no leaping flame, no ethereal lights. Just the lightest cracking noise which I could only catch at the very edge of my hearing.
All of a sudden, a Manila folder appeared on the desk.
I was expecting it. Goddammit, I knew he was practicing magic – but that didn’t matter. I still jumped and yelped like a three-year-old.
Josh looked up, unmistakable satisfaction pressing his lips wide. “If you’re going to become that surprised at just a little display of magic, I’d hate to see what you’ll be like when you meet some of the big boys.”
I straightened up, trying to gather back my dignity. Before I could make a comment, Josh opened the file and started pulling out photos. “Listen up, Missy, because this is the only lecture on magic you’re ever going to receive from me. You already know about how witches are regulated. And presumably you understand what magic is and where it comes from. If you don’t, go back to primary school. What I’m going to talk to you about now is the dynamics of magical control in this city and exactly what we’re expected to do as bounty hunters.”
“Don’t we just work for the local courts?” I asked, my tone actually reasonable considering it was a genuine question.
“Yes and no. A lot of our work comes from them, but some of it comes from the three kingpins.”
I didn’t need to ask who the three kingpins were. You didn’t grow up in Madison City without hearing about them. The three kingpins were the most powerful warlocks in town.
“There’s Helena Hancock,” Josh said as he selected a picture of her and pushed it forward.
Helena was beautiful – statuesque and stunning. She was 6’1, had one of those elegant forms you only associate with old ‘50s starlet flicks, and had a perfectly manicured visage, from her perpetually ruby-red lips to her bouncing blond locks. When it came to stunning socialites in Madison, she was it.
But she was more than a pretty face. She was the head of the Hancock family. And they?
“The Hancock’s own pretty much every single construction company in town. If somebody builds something in Madison, the Hancock’s have a finger in that pie. But you probably already know that. What you care about is how she affects our work. Helena, just like the other two kingpins, is one of the primary contractors of witches. Being a witch family, they happily take witch contracts from the government for a hefty sum. They think of it as a public service. Witches who would otherwise,” he looked right at me now, his gaze pointed, “be unsuitable for work, can find themselves back on their feet and back in society with a contract with the Hancock’s. Plus, if you’re one of the more tactile witches with actual power, unlike you,” he took the opportunity to insult me, “you make a damn good construction worker. It’s cheaper than buying cranes all the time. But moving on.” He grabbed back the picture of Helena, patted it fondly, and placed it back in the file reverentially. The next photo he practically chucked at me.
I looked down to see Peter Mercure. He was the oldest of the kingpins, by far, and his gray beard and gray eyes set him apart. They didn’t, however, make him look any less powerful. Hell, if there was one of the kingpins that looked as if he could stop an avalanche in place just by staring at it, it was Peter.
“Peter is a pain in the goddamn butt,” Joshua managed, but his voice was quieter than usual, as if he was scared Peter would pop up from the drain in the sink or turn out to be hiding behind one of the old cupboard doors. “But he’s still one of the kingpins. He’s the head of Security Incorporated. While the Hancocks happily take almost any witch into the construction industry, Mercure only wants the fighters. You know who he is, right?”
I nodded. “He’s the largest operator of private security in the country, isn’t he?”
“Gosh, maybe you do have a brain, after all,” Josh said, making it clear he’d only asked that question to get back at me again. “You’re right. Mercure heads up the largest private security firm in the country. He doesn’t just offer bodyguards to the rich and famous. He helps train the cops, runs a training facility for Army witches, and is a consultant for the government. He’s also the largest contractor of stronger warlocks – those with more fighting power. Now, I assume you know the rough distinction between a warlock and a witch?”
“I did go to school. A warlock is a witch with strong physical power. It’s got nothing to do with their sex.”
Josh actually clapped. “Gosh, you really did get an education, ha? Anyhow.” He flopped a dismissive hand at me. “Now, last but not least, Ming Chan.” Josh selected a photo of Ming and handed it over.
I picked it up and looked at him. Ming was handsome, in his early thirties, with a strong build, and an appreciably chiseled jaw. His eyes also had a certain sparkle to them – one that promised you he could charm the hell out of you. Which was appropriate, because Ming owned the largest entertainment company in town.
“Now, Ming is the largest contractor of witches employed in the entertainment sector. And when I say entertainment sector, it’s much wider than you think. Not just actors, but everything from street performers to goddamn go-go dancers. Ming, just like Helena, is less picky than Peter, and if you can shake it or wriggle it, you can probably get a job with Ming.”
“Okay,” I said as I handed him back the photo.
This caused Josh to arch an eyebrow. “That wasn’t me actually suggesting that Ming would hire you. He would not be interested in anything you have to wriggle. Plus, you’ve already been contracted out to me.”
I looked over at Josh and stared at him pointedly as I tapped one finger on the table. “I meant okay, I understand. And do you really need to take every single opportunity to insult me? Aren’t you meant to be a professional? Plus,” I added before he could snap at me and drag me into another argument, “I thought you had something to do? Some case that was waiting? You wanted this to take only as much time as it had to.”
Out of everything, that reminder seemed to work. Josh didn’t look happy, but he didn’t snap at me again. He grabbed all of the photos and placed them back in the Manila folder. “That’s it. I’ve explained everything.”
I looked at him sideways. “I already knew everything about the kingpins of Madison City – I wasn’t born yesterday. Plus, haven’t you forgotten one? What’s his name?” I looked to the side as I tried to dive into the memory. “Max C. Knights or something? I don’t know what the C stands for,” I added thoughtfully.
I looked over to see Josh staring at me stiffly. This wasn’t his usual anger – this was something else. “It’s Maximus C. Knights,” he insisted with a sharp breath.
I could have easily snapped at him, but I chose not to. I’d clearly just struck a pain point.
So it was time to keep pushing said pain point.
I leaned in, my expression crumpled. “Why do you care? And why isn’t he on your list? He’s one of the most powerful witches in Madison City. At least that’s what the papers keep telling us. Hell, I thought he was meant to be one of the most powerful—”
“He is the most powerful,” Josh emphasized the word is with yet another biting breath, proving that this was obviously a point of contention for Mr. Jerkface. “But to answer your question, he’s not on my list because he is not one of the primary contractors.”
“And why should I care about contractors?”
“Because that’s who we work for. While we primarily work for the courts, tracking down defendants who have skipped their bail, 40 percent of our work comes from the three contractors.”
I looked at him, suitably confused. “I don’t understand – do we have to pick up a spade or a gun or a… set of maracas if one of the three kingpins needs some help or something?”
I thought the joke was quite funny – but Josh’s face was still just as hard from my Max C. Knights comment. “No, nobody is picking up any maracas. When a contracted witch skips out on their contract with their employer, we go find them. It’s just as important – if not more so – than working for the courts. And our most dangerous cases, by far,” he leaned over and settled both of his hands flat on the table, “are tracking down wayward warlocks.”
I sat there and blinked. “I thought,” I began, ready to tell him that I assumed wayward witches were tracked down by the government, but I paused and realized that was pretty much what we were.
“Yeah, Missy, that’s us.” He brought up a hand and tapped his chest twice. “Falls down to us to find anyone who skips out on their contract. And speaking of which, we’ve got one already.”
I blinked hard. “Um… I’m not necessarily certain I’m ready—”
“Certain?” He snorted derisively, the sound echoing through the kitchen. “You’re absolutely not ready. Your powers are only barely starting to show themselves. You’ll be nothing more than a liability for a while. But considering you’ve got a protection order on you, my hands are tied. So you’re coming along. It’ll be valuable experience. And maybe,” he stood up and clenched his teeth as he loomed over the table at me, “it will show you what happens when a witch becomes noncompliant.”
I looked right up at him. I swallowed.
And Josh? Noticed. He smiled, whirled on his foot, and pointed to the door.
Really? I’d only been tested this morning, and I was already being sent out on my first job.
The words this wasn’t fair wanted to burst from my lips, but I damped down on them immediately. There was no point in going over how goddamn unlucky this was. Because Josh was getting ahead of me, striding through the house like a bull on a rampage, and it was time to catch up.
“If you can’t even get out of the car, you’re more of a liability than I thought. If only a lack of dexterity was an act of noncompliance, you’d be out on your ass.”
Josh jumped lightly out of his massive truck, shut the door, and walked around, muttering to himself. All the while I tried to clamber down myself. I was a little on the short side, and Josh was right – I’d never had great dexterity.
Eventually, I managed it without a hand from Josh. Not that he offered a hand. You see, though I still didn’t know that much about what it was like to be a witch, I could appreciate one fact in its entirety – Josh was a total and utter jerk.
Once I was safely on the pavement, I slammed the door closed, giving it too much of a swing as I stumbled over my own feet.
It banged shut loudly, the sound echoing across the pavement. I expected Josh to march around, shake his fist in my face, and demand that I respect his possessions.
He didn’t, which made me wonder if this was actually his possession, unlike the house.
Before I could settle my mind on trying to figure out who Josh’s rich benefactor was, he growled.
I scurried forward and quickly stopped as I reached his side, choosing to retain my dignity as I straightened my back and strolled the last meter and a half. “You can use English, can’t you? If you want my attention, you can just ask for it.”
“Let me get something straight. I’m used to working alone. I’m used to running alone. I’m used to fighting alone. And I’m used to taking down bounties alone. More than anything, I’m used to not having liabilities wafting around by my side.”
I opened my mouth to tell him I didn’t waft. I didn’t get the chance.
We’d parked along a busy street, and Josh was far better at navigating crowds than I was.
“Come on, Beth,” Josh snapped as he shoved his hands into his pockets, looking for all the world like a disaffected youth.
I pushed past the crowd thronging down the street as best as I could. This was a busy area of downtown, cram packed with popular shops.
While Josh was an icebreaker with his massive form and don’t-mess-with-me expression, I wasn’t. He streamed ahead, and before I knew it, I pretty much lost sight of him.
I clenched my teeth, and I swore. Though not too loudly – I didn’t want anyone in the crowd thinking I was just as much of an irascible brute as Josh. I was a bit of a goody-two-shoes on the inside who didn’t like the idea of anyone thinking less of her. But still – this was insane. I’d only found out I was a finder this morning. Hell, I’d only had my med tests back a few days ago.
All of this was happening too fast, and Josh – unsurprisingly – wasn’t waiting around for me to keep up.
Just when I thought to hell with it, and wondered about getting back into Josh’s car and abandoning him to the case, someone pushed past my shoulder.
Thus far, I hadn’t shown my abilities, other than in the testing station. Even then, I couldn’t… I couldn’t really explain how or why I’d managed to find that guy. It wasn’t as if there’d been a handy voice in my head telling me which direction to go in. Nor had there been a sparkling, glittering path of magic pointing to where he was.
I’d just… found him. It had felt accidental and certainly not something I now had control of.
But as somebody bumped into my shoulder hard enough that I staggered to the side, something welled up within me. Something that felt like a rope connecting me with someone else – a path. A tether.
I’d never in my life experienced anything like it. For all the rest of reality seemed to narrow down….
I looked up to see the guy as he passed without even apologizing.
I caught sight of his face.
“Holy crap,” I muttered under my breath, this time apparently not caring that I was swearing in public. Still, my words were muted enough that they didn’t carry to the guy’s ears.
And who was the guy?
None other than Max C. Knights. Or should I say Maximus C. Knights.
He was in a three-piece suit, which looked – as it was probably worth – like a million bucks.
I could see a gold watch glinting on his wrist, then another pocket watch stuffed into the pocket of his vest – as if one timepiece simply wasn’t enough.
Though I’d seen Maximus enough in the papers, and plenty on the news and in the magazines, this was the first time I’d ever seen him in person.
Somebody suddenly grabbed my arm, and I yelped.
“Don’t scream in public,” Josh spat in my ear, promptly patting my arm and waving dismissively at a guy who’d stopped to observe the altercation. “It’s okay, sir – she is with me. I’m a registered bounty hunter—” Josh added as he shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out a massive badge that hadn’t been there seconds before. A few crackles of magic dissipated over it and sparked down Josh’s hand as he tapped the intricate logo of the Justice Department.
The guy looked mollified and without a word walked away.
Josh immediately turned on me. “Are you being—” he began.
“Before you accuse me of being noncompliant again, you walk too fast. I don’t know where we’re heading – because you haven’t told me. I don’t know what we’re about to do – because you haven’t told me. I lost you in the crowd. So I stopped until you came to find me. What exactly about that is noncompliant?”
Josh opened his mouth, no doubt to rebuke me once more, but maybe, somewhere buried deep within the idiotic bounty hunter was a single grain of reason. A grain he used now. He shrugged. “Just keep up. Do you need me to hold your hand?”
I snorted. “Absolutely not.”
He snarled at me, proving my theory that he was nothing more than a six-year-old bully, then he shrugged me forward.
This time he didn’t stride ahead as if he were going to war. He stayed exactly by my side until, a couple of shops later, we reached a bottle shop.
I glanced in, arched an eyebrow, and looked at him. “Is this a shopping trip? Did you pretend that you had an important case just because you want to go get sloshed?”
“Firstly, yes, they are doing a very good deal on whiskey,” he said as he pointed to a sign in the doorway, “and secondly, no. It’s time to catch our first contract breaker.”
He grabbed hold of my elbow and shoved me forward.
I staggered into the store, bumping a lady as she carried bags of wine. “Sorry,” I managed.
She grumbled and walked off.
I grabbed my jacket and straightened it, turned over my shoulder, clenched my teeth, and shot Josh exactly the kind of look he deserved.
He had his hands back in his pockets, and he was pushing up and down onto the toes of his feet. The guy was more than tall enough to see over the neat, lined up rows of alcohol. He peered from left to right, then the smallest smile spread across his lips. “This way, sidekick. Actually, who am I kidding? Stay there until I’ve got him.” Without another word of explanation, he walked off, slowly drawing one hand from his pocket. I caught a glimpse of magical crackles sparking along it.
My stomach bottomed out, sank through the earth, and landed somewhere near China.
What did he mean this was a risk?
Was I in any danger here?
I didn’t know anything about who we were tracking down, but he’d said the words contract breaker, and from the little he’d taught me, that suggested we were going after a witch who’d jumped their employment contract.
It was my turn to tilt up onto my tiptoes to try to see where he’d gone, but I certainly wasn’t tall enough to see over the shelves.
“Shit,” I muttered under my breath. If I spent any more time with the infuriating Josh, I’d start swearing like a sailor and spitting at little old ladies.
I… stood there. It wasn’t that I was keen to follow Josh’s command and stay put – it’s that I appreciated one fact. I knew enough about noncompliant witches off the news to—
Out of nowhere, I heard an angry growl. It was sharp and direct, and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
Then there were raised voices – and one of them was Josh.
“Dammit,” I said, curling my hands into fists and pushing up onto the tip of my toes as I tried to sight where Josh had gone.
This was a really long, deep, winding shop. There were rows upon rows of alcohol. It was the biggest shop in town.
I had no way of knowing where Josh was—
Suddenly the aisle several meters in front of me exploded. Sparks of magical blue flame erupted out of it as alcohol and glass spewed everywhere.
I shrieked at the top of my lungs as I pitched to the side, brought up an arm, and protected my face.
The next thing I knew, I saw a man rounding the aisle beside me, and he headed right for me.
He wasn’t an ordinary man. I didn’t need to ask for any medical tests to confirm that he wasn’t human. Nope. He was glowing green.
There was a rough distinction between the magical practices of witches. Those warlocks who were more suited for security, as Josh would’ve put it, usually had green-tinged magic. The stronger the physical spell, the more toward the green spectrum it would tip.
And this guy?
He looked like a forest. A forest that was bearing down on me.
Though there were other patrons in the shop, they’d all wisely run for the door.
I pivoted on my foot, but I could feel the break of his magic behind me just like a swimmer desperately trying to get out of the way of a tidal wave.
I knew I wouldn’t have a chance—
Just before the guy could collect an arm around my middle and use me as a hostage – I felt somebody push in beside me. They caught my shoulder, shoving me out of the way just before the crim could make a grab for me.
I struck the floor hard on my hip and looked up to see none other than Max Knights. He reached forward, and he weighed a hand on the crim’s shoulder.
And the crim? He didn’t try to blast through Max as if he were nothing more than a wall made of paper.
Nope. He stopped. Dead.
It wasn’t that Max used magic to force the guy to stop – it was that the guy suddenly froze, his eyes bursting open as wide as two large moons.
Rapidly, the warlock’s magic diminished until it was nothing more than a slight green tinge covering the crim’s skin.
There was the sound of rubber-soled shoes squeaking on polished concrete, and half a second later, Josh threw himself around the aisle. He too was charged with magic – though his had a more yellow tinge. He came to the same abrupt stop that the crim had upon seeing Max.
I was still on the floor, and I didn’t bother to move, thank you very much – because I had no idea what was going on.
Josh’s face went through a gamut of emotions. I’d never seen someone show so much in so little time. It was like every damn thing Josh had ever felt all sped up into the space of a second and a half. Everything from joy to grief to anger to pain to emotions I couldn’t even begin to recognize.
He relaxed, and just like the rampaging warlock, he allowed his magic to dissipate. Josh brought a hand up and wiped it over his mouth as if his lips were sweaty. He flicked his gaze over to me, and if there was a flicker of compassion in his eyes, I sure as heck didn’t see it – because immediately Josh shifted his full awareness over to Max.
Max still had a hand on the rampaging warlock’s shoulder. He wasn’t using a deathly grip or anything. This wasn’t some Vulcan nerve pinch. All it was was a hand rested on the guy’s arm.
Though Max had an appreciable build – and he was more than strong enough to have shoved me out of the way twice now – the crim was much larger. He was from the same kind of brawny stock you associate with thick-necked goons and Rambo-like soldiers.
Josh took a breath and went to push his hands into his pockets but stopped. He drummed his fingers on his thigh instead. “Thank you,” he said.
Max ticked his gaze from Josh to the crim then down to me. His gaze lingered on me. It wasn’t for long – just a second – but it was long enough that….
I swore I felt it again. This rope connecting me with Max. Before I could explore that thought, Max took his hand off the crim’s shoulder. He took a step back. “There’s no need to thank me; I was simply doing what any concerned citizen would.”
What the hell was going on here?
There was enough emotional subtext to make this into a daytime TV soap opera. And hell, that was quite appropriate, because it would make me the stupid-assed damsel who always flitted from situation to situation without ever having a clue.
But fuck that – sorry, stuff that. I wasn’t going to let Josh and his idiotic troubles ruin my morals.
I finally pushed up, patting my pants. My leg hurt, and I winced a little as I pressed it.
This appeared to get Max’s attention. “Are you alright, ma’am?”
… Was there something off about his tone?
I’d heard Max speak plenty of times on TV, and he was always as smooth as melted butter. But there was something unsure about his voice now, wasn’t there? The look in his eyes—
Josh cleared his throat and took a step forward. “I can take it from here,” he said as he shoved his hands into his pockets and pulled out a fancy set of handcuffs.
They were magical. I’d seen enough cop dramas to know that these were not the kind of handcuffs you could simply saw through. They were meant to stop a warlock from producing magic.
I expected the crim to buck, turn around, and run for his life. He looked like the kind. There was a seriously desperate look in his eyes, too.
But then I realized the desperate look in his eyes wasn’t directed at the handcuffs – it was directed entirely at Max.
Max pushed a hand into the pockets of his vest, the tails of his suit jacket somehow sitting neatly behind him and not scrunching, almost as if the fabric was scared to rumple. “He’ll be no trouble,” Max said confidently.
“Do you know him?” I asked.
I’d done nothing and said nothing until now, but the question was out of my lips before I could stop it.
Max turned all his attention to me again. He smiled. “Do I know you?” he asked, a searching quality to his tone.
“She’s no one,” Josh spluttered.
“I’m his new partner,” I answered at the same time.
Josh shot me a death glare, but it was one that didn’t last as Max arched an eyebrow at him pointedly. “You have a new partner, Mr. McIntosh? That’s unusual. You wouldn’t have been given a new contract without careful consideration; you can only contract a select few witches as the principal bounty hunter of Madison City. Which makes…” he trailed off. Then he smiled.
And that smile… God, it seemed to remind me of something.
Yeah, I get it – I knew this guy. From the TV. From magazines. From the news. I didn’t know him in-person. And yet…. “I’m a finder,” I announced out of nowhere, surprising myself just as much as I surprised Josh.
Josh looked as if he either wanted to kill me, or wanted to bundle me up in a sack and never let me out again.
The rampaging warlock scrunched his nose up. “What the hell is a finder?”
“A very rare breed of witch,” Max said smoothly as he brought his hands out of his pockets, clasped them behind his back, and looked at Josh.
Something passed between the men’s gazes. Whatever it was, it had a fair amount of energy behind it. I swore I could practically feel the air crackling with it.
I cleared my throat. I tried to make it strong – it was as meek as hell. What exactly had I just done? Josh had all but directly warned me that Max was a criminal, and I’d just gone and announced my powers to him. Sure, sooner rather than later, news that I was working for Josh would spread, but that didn’t mean I had to go and announce it right in the guy’s ear.
“Rare? She doesn’t look special to me.”
“All right, time to lock you down,” Josh snapped as he brought his handcuffs around, grabbed the guy roughly, and locked his hands in a smooth, practiced move.
As soon as the handcuffs were in place, there was an echoing click, and the last faint green tinge of magic disappeared from the warlock’s body. His shoulders drooped, and his head dropped. I could tell from the look in his eyes that he wanted to start swearing, but I could also tell from that very same look that he wouldn’t dare do it in front of Max.
Who the hell was Max that he could come in, weigh a hand on a rampaging criminal’s shoulder, and stop the guy just as effectively as a tank stopping a rabbit?
Josh kept his eyes on Max as he started to fumble with something on the handcuffs. No, that wasn’t quite right – Josh didn’t keep his eyes on Max. Josh kept his eyes on where Max was looking. Every time Max’s eyes darted too close to me, I swore I saw the tension rising up Josh’s throat like a hangman preparing a noose.
Once Josh was finished, he took a step back, brought two fingers up, and made a specific motion in the air.
A magical circle appeared at the warlock’s feet. It was bright and packed with glowing symbols that shifted chaotically over the polished concrete floor.
Josh took a step away from the guy, made one final swiping motion with his fingers, and then… the criminal sank through the floor.
I’ve seen a lot of cop shows – and I knew what was going on here, but again, this was the first time I’d seen it in real life.
I managed to stifle a gasp as a tingle ran through my body at the sight of so much magic.
The guy sank right through the floor until he disappeared completely. The glowing circle remained for several seconds, then disappeared with a crackle.
Then… it was just the three of us. Or should I say just the two of us? Because I wasn’t a real, live, functioning human being for the purposes of this conversation. I was just something that was being looked at warily.
I don’t think I’d ever felt more uncomfortable in my life. I brought up a hand, latched it on my neck, and started to scratch my skin. But when that didn’t distract me sufficiently, I twiddled my thumbs, quickly realized that was idiotic, and started patting my hands on my legs instead.
It took a while for Josh and Max to break their edgy silence.
Max was the first one. He shifted on his foot and reached a hand out to me.
I was so surprised, I took a jerked step back and promptly slipped in a puddle of alcohol and glass. I jolted backward, but before I could nut my head on the wine-covered floor, Max shifted in. In the lightest, quickest move I’d ever experienced, he grabbed my elbow, pulled me up, twisted me to the side until I was standing close by him, then let go.
His hand technically didn’t linger, but his touch?
I think I went as bright pink as a rose.
Josh obviously saw it, because his death stare grew all the harder. “Beth, could you please just remain standing? Is that too much to ask?”
“Be fair, Mr. McIntosh – she simply slipped.”
I fully expected Josh to snap back at Max and continue the argument – just like he would with me – but he didn’t. He remained perfectly still and quiet for several seconds. “Thanks again for your help there. Now, we really need to be leaving.” Josh pushed toward me and hooked an arm through mine.
Max? He reached over and clamped a hand on Josh’s shoulder.
We were like a triangle – or at least a line of people holding onto each other. Except for me, of course – I was holding onto diddly squat, and I sure would like to be let go. But judging by the exact way Josh’s fingers tightened around my elbow at Max’s grip, Josh wouldn’t be letting me go until Hell froze over.
Josh didn’t breathe. I felt the tension well in his chest, and I certainly saw it blazing in his eyes. “Can I help you, Maximus?”
“I simply want to be properly introduced. As the only official government-sponsored bounty hunter in this town, you offer an invaluable service to the witch contract holders in Madison City. And now,” Max let his gaze slip toward me, “you have an assistant. It’s only proper that you introduce us.”
Excuse me, assistant? That sounded like I answered Josh’s phones and cleaned the take away off his desk. I didn’t point that out, though. I was finally starting to appreciate that the only way to get out of this increasingly awkward situation was to shut the hell up.
A fact I’m sure Josh appreciated.
“Her name’s Beth Samson. Started working for me today. That’s it, really.”
I didn’t honestly expect Josh to answer. Or at least I expected him to lie. He told the plain truth, unembellished with insults.
Max pulled his hand off Josh’s shoulder, pivoted, grabbed my palm, and shook my hand. In doing so, he pulled me easily out of Josh’s grip.
Suffice to say, Max did all the shaking.
As he did so, I got pulled further down that path. Whatever strange strings that connected me to this man grew stronger and stronger.
Josh looked like he wanted to march over, grab my hand, and pull me away. He appeared to hold onto himself, though – at the cost of his face stiffening like concrete.
“You mentioned you were a finder,” Max said as he eventually let my hand fall. His fingers slipped past mine, his short nails tickling along my palm.
The sensation sent deep tingles racing into my belly, and they were more than a little pleasant.
Was I still blushing? Of course I was still blushing.
“Um, yes, I’m a finder,” I said after an extremely awkward pause where I had to remind myself what he’d just said.
He nodded. “Rare,” he said, really emphasizing that word with wide movements of his lips.
My stomach tightened as it reminded me in a timely manner of the fact Maximus Knights was a criminal. Or if not an outright criminal somebody who’d spent a lifetime living just on the line between what was good and bad.
“Now that introduction is over, we really have to go. Beth here is going to have to learn the ropes sooner rather than later,” Josh said through the stiffest jaw possible. Hell, it sounded like it had locked up and I’d have to take him to the hospital.
Max turned to face Josh. “When will you begin hiring her out? I take it you could use the money.”
Excuse me? That comment felt like a slap in the face. Hire me out? I sounded like I was a car Maximus wanted to borrow.
Josh stiffened. For the very first time, he actually looked angry, and he allowed that anger to linger long enough that Max would be able to see it. “She can’t be subcontracted,” he said with a firm voice that no one would be able to question. “You should know that, Max.”
“My mistake – it’s been a while since we had another finder in the city. But those are the rules, aren’t they?” You would be an idiot not to pick up the subtext of this conversation. Without saying it, Max was asking Josh to break the law.
So this was what Josh had been talking about.
I promptly pushed away the lingering sensation of Max’s touch on my hand. Hell, I even brought my hands behind my back and patted them on my coat to wipe that feeling away on the premise of straightening the fabric.
“Yep, that’s the law. Plus, she’s under a protection order,” Josh added, his grumble reaching deep into his belly and echoing through the room.
He turned back to me.
Before he could say anything else, Josh walked in, grabbed me by the arm, and led me away. “Thanks again for your help, Mr. Knights. It was greatly appreciated. Now you have a good day, you hear?” Josh walked away.
Though I could easily break his grip, I didn’t.
I did, however, turn over my shoulder and catch one last glimpse of Max. And Max? He smiled.
By the time Josh got me to his car, he was steaming. This time he didn’t wait for me to clamber up into his enormous vehicle. He grabbed my door open, yanked it to the side until the hinges protested with an almighty creak, and actually shoved me up into the passenger seat, bundling me like I was a mere piece of luggage and not an actual person.
“Hey, do you mind! Get your hands off me.”
“Just shut up, turn around, put your seatbelt on, and never, ever do that again.”
I caught a glimpse of his face as he stalked around the side of the car. He reached the driver’s side, yanked the door open with just the same unnecessary force, and jumped in. He slammed the door, the sound echoing through the car and probably punching down the street like an explosion.
He turned the ignition on and pulled out from the curb before he put his seatbelt on. Something I would’ve pointed out was it not for the fact that Josh looked as if he wanted to stab me.
He didn’t stab me, and he didn’t say a word until we were several blocks away. Then, only keeping half an eye on the traffic, he turned toward me, and I had never seen him look angrier. Even though I’d only technically met Josh this morning, I’d already seen the full gamut of his dangerous looks.
I actually swallowed. “I don’t get it – what did I do?”
“You shouldn’t have introduced yourself,” he snapped.
“… That’s it? I shouldn’t have introduced myself? The way you’re acting, you would think I punched the guy. And why shouldn’t I have introduced myself? I imagine it’s no secret I’m working for you – or at least, it won’t be soon. So what’s the difference with Max Knights?”
“Firstly,” Josh brought a hand off the wheel so fast I was sure he was going to yank it from the steering stack, “it’s Maximus Knights. Use his full name. Never shorten it. He hates that,” Josh said with the kind of ardent vehemence that told me he knew this for a fact.
My brows crumpled in. Though I’d previously told myself I wasn’t good with confrontation – and Josh was being more than confrontational – for some reason, I didn’t actually feel under any threat. My heart wasn’t pounding, and my breathing wasn’t ragged. I was more than calm enough to pick up that something strange was going on here. “Hold on, you know Max Knights, don’t you? I mean, as more than a casual acquaintance—”
“It’s Maximus Knights,” he spat, allowing the word Maximus to draw out as if it was a sword he was unsheathing.
“… Okay. I get it. He doesn’t like nicknames. Whatever. Answer the question.”
Josh returned his hands to the steering wheel, but with the deathly, white-knuckled grip he was using to hold it, it seemed as if he wanted to snap the damn thing in two. “You don’t get to control the conversation. This is me rebuking you. And if you want to—”
“If you threaten me with noncompliance once more, so help me. I am not being noncompliant. I brushed up on the rules on my phone,” I said as I slapped my pocket with a whack, “and they’re pretty clear. Noncompliance is essentially running away or acting in a dangerous manner that can—”
“Threaten bystanders, the general public, or your contracted employer,” Josh finished the sentence. His teeth were so clenched, I swear that each word was like a bullet blasting from them. “Which is precisely my point.”
“I didn’t threaten—” I began. I stopped abruptly. I brought up a hand and pulled my hair from my face, tucking it behind my ears as curiosity sparked in my gut. “Are you in some kind of trouble with Maximus?”
Josh reacted weirdly. He twitched, then almost immediately, he let out a short, sharp chuckle. “I’m in no trouble with Max.”
“You just called him Max,” I announced as I pointed at Josh, reacting exactly like a school prefect who’d just heard another kid swearing.
Josh looked at me, rolled his eyes, and ground his teeth. “Not to his face. And before you point it out – while I get to call him Max when he’s not around, you don’t. You’re too stupid. If I let you call him anything other than Maximus, you’ll slip up invariably when you meet him next – not that that’s gonna happen – and you’ll get me into even more trouble.”
So many things had just been said that I shook my head. “What is all of this about? Isn’t he essentially one of the kingpins of the city? I get it, he doesn’t have that many contracted employees, but won’t we have to work for him—”
“You will never have to work for Max,” Josh said with some passion. Heck, it was the most passion I’d ever seen him show, and just for a second, it gave me a glimpse of a completely different man.
That completely different man didn’t last. He started swearing like a sailor. “I can’t believe you did that. Max would’ve learned in time, but now he’s seen you—”
My stomach kicked. I tightened my hand on my seatbelt. “What are you talking about? Is he some kind of threat? Am I in trouble?”
Josh turned to look at me, and he snorted. For a second, I swore I could see through his eyes into his twisted little mind as he tried to make a decision – either to comfort me, or to use my fear against me. Though I wanted to believe that though Josh was rough, maybe on the inside he was a good man, obviously he didn’t give a hoot about my anxiety. He shrugged. Actually shrugged. At the question of whether Max was a threat, Josh gave me about as much reassurance as a, “meh, maybe. I don’t really care.”
I tightened my hand even harder around the seatbelt. The image of Max walking into the bottle shop and placing a hand heavily on the culprit’s shoulder, stopping him in place, midflight, snapped back into my mind. Max had been so damn calm and in control. And the expression on the culprit’s face?
I shuddered. Just what kind of trouble was I in?
At that move, maybe the good side of Josh rose to the surface. “Fine – I’ll put you out of your misery. Max isn’t going to do anything against you. He can’t. You’re under a protection order.”
“But it’s just you who’s upholding that protection order, right? Isn’t Max stronger than you?”
“Firstly, it’s not just me.” Josh started to calm down from his red-bellied anger long enough to give another derisive snort. “I think you’ll find that I am the most competent warlock bounty hunter in the city. That’s why I’m the only one who’s affiliated directly with the government. I’m powerful, Missy, and you need to respect that.”
“And secondly?” I got there first, leaning in a little, despite the fact Josh was driving like a rally car driver. I needed to know this. There was a quick, uneasy feeling gathering in my gut, kind of like a few scant clouds blocking out the horizon and signaling an oncoming storm.
“Max what? I mean Maximus what,” I corrected myself. I wasn’t trying to be a good girl here – I’d just taken Josh’s warning to heart. Something about Max unsettled me….
“He wouldn’t ever break the law – at least directly.” Josh wouldn’t look at me anymore. He decidedly wouldn’t look at me. It wasn’t just that he’d returned his attention to the road in the hopes we wouldn’t crash – he seemed more than competent enough to be able to navigate the traffic while screaming in my face. Nope. He was withdrawing, trying to hide his emotion from me.
But I was too damn observant not to pick it up as it crumpled his brow, tightened his fingers, and stiffened his back. “He’s meant to be some kind of banker, isn’t he? Or does he have stocks or something?” I wanted to draw Josh as far into this conversation as I could. And even though I knew exactly what Max Knights did for a living – as he was easily one of the most recognizable people in the city – I realized the only way to hook Josh into telling me more was by acting the idiot.
Sure enough, it worked. Josh let out one hell of a snort. I was surprised his nostrils didn’t rattle off his face. “Venture capitalist. He is a venture capitalist – everyone knows that, right? Apart from you, because I forgot – you’re an idiot.”
I didn’t bite back. I kept watching Josh’s reaction. “How did he make his money, though? You need to have funds in order to be a venture capitalist in the first place,” I pointed out. At least this was a genuine question. Though I knew on paper who Max Knights was, I’d never bothered to look that far into his history. Now? I was feeling inclined to dig up every single fact I could about the man. Because something about him…. God, I couldn’t put my finger on it, and yet at the same time something told me I needed to. Sooner rather than later.
“The Knights family have always been… wealthy.”
“You mean he came from money? Isn’t he meant to be one of the wealthiest men in the country? Heck, I thought he was one of the 100 wealthiest men in the world,” I pointed out, proving I actually did know more than I was letting on.
It didn’t matter – Josh was so lost in this conversation that he didn’t even notice. He took his hand off the wheel, scratched his chin, and sighed until his shoulders dropped a full inch. “Yeah. He made most of his money. He didn’t start off with that much.”
“He must be a very good venture capitalist, then. I thought there was a great deal of uncertainty in that game. A lot of risk,” I added needlessly.
“Max has always had the ability to find a good deal,” Josh said.
There was a pause as he let those words settle.
I opened my mouth to speak. I stopped. My brow scrunched up just as Josh turned all the way around from the wheel and looked right at me. “That’s right, Missy, and I guess it’s better for you to find out from me than from him.”
“… Is he a finder?” I said warily, putting two and two together as I realized there was only one reason Josh would be acting like this.
Josh sighed even louder until I was sure he was going to pop a lung. He kept scratching his chin, really digging his fingers in now as if he were attempting to pierce through to the other side of his jaw. “Yes, Max is a finder. That makes two of you in the entire city.”
“Oh,” I managed. As far as reactions went, it was underwhelming. It also didn’t match the sensations rushing through my belly, darting up my back, and ultimately sinking into my chest.
I hadn’t even known what finders were until this morning. Worse – I still didn’t fully appreciate what our full powers were. But now I had an example of another finder – and that example happened to be one of the most powerful men in the country.
A whole host of questions hit me at once, breaking my silence like a battering ram to a door. “I don’t get it. He’s a finder – why would he have any interest in me? And why isn’t he contracted? And how come there are so few finders? And isn’t… I don’t know, isn’t it illegal to use your finding powers to make money? Surely it’s an unfair advantage?” I could hear my own voice, and I sounded just as pathetic as I felt.
Josh shook his head. “Please try not to freak out. I can’t even remember all of your questions anymore – you said them too fast. But here’s the summary – no, it’s not illegal. It’s venture capital – not stock tips. Plus, Max Knights has always had a very developed ability to walk the fine line between what is illegal and what is not,” Josh said stiffly, once again intimating that his experiences with Max weren’t as simple as they seemed. “Now, where was I? Oh yes. The only question that really matters.” He looked at me, and I swore that even if a semitrailer came hurtling across our lane and tried to squish us flat, he wouldn’t glance away. “He would be… interested in you,” he measured his words, actually dropping his tone as if he gave a crap about my feelings, “because two finders are always more powerful than one. Plus, Max’s abilities are more based on finding opportunities. Though you haven’t come into even a fraction of your abilities yet, based on the test Stanley gave you, it seems you’re more of a locator.”
I was about to ask if there was any difference between the two, then I realized promptly that of course there was. It sounded as if Max had the ability to find opportunities, almost as if he was perpetually being smiled on by Lady Luck. Whereas, if Stanley’s test was anything to go by, I seemed to have the skill of locating existing objects.
I sat there and scratched my neck. “What about my original question?” I finally managed.
“What do you want to know?”
“Am I in some kind of danger from him?”
Josh looked at me. He looked away.
And that was enough of an answer.
My stomach went into overdrive, dropping and twisting like an acrobat. I was now holding onto my seatbelt with such a tight-knuckled grip, even the Hulk wouldn’t be able to rip it free from my grasp.
“Don’t worry, Beth.” For the first time, Josh actually used my name as he slowed down and started driving like a normal person. “Like I said – Max doesn’t break the law.”
“You said he just treads a very fine path between right and wrong. I’m not sure if that puts my mind at ease. Plus, he must be a hell of a threat to have had such an immediate effect on that guy back in the bottle shop. Did you see that crim’s face? He looked as if he was going to swallow his own tongue.”
Josh snorted. There was a playful edge to it this time. “I’m sorry, how long have you been working for me that you’ve started to call our targets crims? You’re now the one who sounds like she’s out of a ‘70s cop drama. A bad one,” he added, because when it came to Josh McIntosh, he could never pass up an opportunity to get back at me.
“Just answer the damn question.”
“Max isn’t going to breach the protection order, Beth, and that’s all you need to know for now. Let’s go home. You can order me pizza and get a shower – because you stink. I hope it’s just the stress of the day and not your natural body odor.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m not your secretary.”
“Why do you equate body odor with secretaries? You’ve got a weird mind.”
“I’m not going to order you pizza. Presumably you have a phone and a thumb, and you can do that yourself.”
“Where exactly do you get off talking back to me with so much lip? You are my employee – you get that, don’t you?”
“If you’re about to threaten me with noncompliance, so help me.”
Josh rolled his eyes and continued to drive.
I slid my gaze out of the window. We’d joined a freeway, and it was high enough up that it gave a good vantage over the city. I found my gaze darting over the various buildings and spires of downtown. It took me a while to realize what I was looking for until my eyes snapped to one of the newest, tallest office blocks.
I didn’t know that building was where he worked. Nope. I felt it. Because, for the second time today, I found something I wasn’t looking for.
Max had gone home to his tower. But something told me he wouldn’t stay home.
“Just get in the damn car,” Josh grumbled as he jammed a thumb toward his monstrosity of a vehicle. Why he thought he needed such a big car to drive around the damn city in, I didn’t know. But before I could label it as a complete waste of fossil fuel and demand he pay for it by planting at least a million trees, I realized he couldn’t exactly have a small, two-door zippy thing in his line of work.
It was a new day, and thankfully, I’d gotten a little more practice hauling myself into his truck. It wasn’t pretty, and I sure did grunt a lot, but I managed it.
Josh waited, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as I put my seatbelt on. “Dignified,” he quipped.
I arched an eyebrow. “You going to tell me where we’re going this time? Or are you just going to throw me in the deep end and wait for me to swim?”
“Sorry?” He reached forward and gunned the ignition, swiftly pulling out from the curb before he put his seatbelt on. “Swim? Pretty sure you didn’t swim last time. I’m pretty sure you sank like a frigging stone. Now, we’ve had this conversation so many times already, but—”
“I get it,” I said softly, bringing up a hand and tucking my fringe behind my ears. To do so, I kind of had to shake my head to unstick my fringe in the first place – but that wasn’t the point. The point was hiding from Josh.
You see, it’d been two days since the incident with Max, and it was still playing on my mind. A lot of other stuff was playing on my mind, too – like the fact my life had been turned completely upside down and I now had to get my head around being a magical bounty hunter. But Max?
God, I’d been dreaming about him. And no, before you get excited – they weren’t those kinds of dreams. Just snippets, here and there, like my mind was locating him even when I was asleep. Seriously. He was walking, he was talking, he was in a meeting, he was driving, he was sleeping – an endless plethora of ordinary activities as if I was glimpsing his actual routine.
It was stupid and seriously obsessive, but no matter how many times I told myself to stop thinking about the guy, thoughts of him just arose in my head like bubbles in boiling water.
“You’ve gone all quiet – I don’t like it when you go quiet. I may have only known you for two days now, Miss Samson, but I know quiet means you’re planning something. So what are you plotting?”
If anyone could distract me from my swirling thoughts about Max, it was Josh and his ridiculous statements. I shot him the kind of look that told him he was an A-Class idiot. “Sorry, plotting? Have you confused me for an idiotic mad scientist out of a bad superhero film or something?”
He snorted with laughter. He brought a hand off the steering wheel and clicked his fingers. “Kind of like that. I like the idea of you as stupid.” He let his lips tick up around the word stupid until he was grinning like a maniac.
I rolled my eyes. “Stop insulting me already and tell me where we’re going.”
“Ah, so you’re not distracted anymore, ha?” The comment was pointed.
Before my cheeks could redden, I straightened in my seat, locked a hand on my seatbelt, and turned my head toward the window. “Just realistic. You never tell me anything – so what’s the point in asking?”
“Don’t worry; I learned my lesson from last time,” his voice dropped momentarily before he cleared his throat. “To answer your question, we’re off to see—”
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?” I couldn’t help myself.
He looked at me sideways and shook his head in that long-suffering way people do when they’re trying to tell you that you’re hopeless and you will never change. “No. Though she is wonderful,” he said, and with every word, his lips spread all the wider until his grin became as hyper as a man chugging down half a kilo of cocaine.
I frowned, my brow contracting with consternation.
He brought his hands off the wheel and clapped. I would’ve snapped at him not to drive dangerously, but this was Josh. In between being a powerful warlock and an idiot, he simply couldn’t have an accident somehow. Perhaps the other drivers of Madison City were now so wary of him, they knew when they saw his oversized, overpowered monster truck to get the heck out of the way.
“I’m sorry, Miss Samson, but are you jealous? I thought you never wanted me to hold your hand—”
“Just get to your point, already. You were about to say that we’re going to meet Helena, right? Why?”
“Because we’re bounty hunters, and she’s got a bounty for us.”
“So this is a nongovernment job, then?”
“Yep. Gosh, you really are learning fast. Soon you’ll be able to say the whole alphabet.”
“Very funny. Are you gonna tell me why we’re going to see her? You know, what bounty she wants us to pick up? Or do you just want me to stupidly blurt that I’m a finder again?”
This comment got to him. Even though I’d just admitted that what I’d done was stupid, he didn’t catch hold of that comment and insult me further. He shrugged, ran a tongue over his teeth, and shrugged again. “One of her managers has gone a-wandering.”
“Managers?” My brow crumpled again. “I got the impression that she pretty much only hired construction workers – you know, the guys on the ground.”
“Surprisingly, I actually do know what a construction worker is. And you’re wrong. Like I told you before – which you would remember if you had a brain larger than a pee – the Hancocks are the largest contractor of witches. Not everyone is suited to construction, Missy. Some of us,” he patted a hand on his chest, “are much better at managing others.”
“Still, is it usual for managers to go missing?” I tried to wrestle Josh back to the main point. With the rate at which he was driving, even if we had to head to the other side of the country, we would be there in less than five minutes.
And I really, really couldn’t afford a repeat of last time. Because just thinking about it….
I clutched the seatbelt harder as I tried to stifle a shiver.
“Contracted witches will run for all sorts of reasons. It’s not necessarily their level of pay or responsibility. If the guy’s pushed, then anything can happen.”
I tilted my head to the side. As I’ve already told you so many times before, I’m good at observing people, and two very important things had just occurred. Josh had stopped making eye contact, and he’d gotten a far-off look in his eyes as he’d concentrated for the first time on driving.
… My gut reaction wanted to tell me that Josh actually had some sympathy for this guy – but then my brain reminded me that he was the frigging state-sponsored bounty hunter who was sent to track wayward witches down.
So what exactly was going on here?
“The guy’s name is Howard Rush. Middle management. On 100,000 k+ a year. Good bonuses. From his work history, it looks like he knew what he was doing and he was well suited for his job. He’d been given multiple out-of-town permits – and, occasionally, he’d even been allowed to leave the country. Not every witch gets that – you have to prove yourself,” he said pointedly.
I ignored his point. I was too interested in what he was saying.
No, I didn’t want to be a bounty hunter. Yes, I wanted to go back to being a waitress and a soon-to-be café owner – but no, that wasn’t going to happen. Plus, I was interested in this. Something in my gut was tickling, and it was telling me I wanted to find this guy.
Back when I was a kid, I’d been one of those irritating toddlers who wouldn’t stop looking for Easter eggs until she’d found every single one. I would stop my exasperated parents from telling me where they were – and I’d chuck a tantrum if they’d tried.
That was the point of the game, after all. The point was to find what had remained hidden.
Now I unclenched my hand from my seatbelt and leaned forward.
Josh narrowed his eyes at me. “Why do you suddenly look as if you’re competent and interested in the case? Stop messing with me. Go back to being pathetic and idiotic.”
“Maybe it’s my nascent powers finally waking up. Maybe I’ll find this guy before you have a chance to say boo.”
Josh looked at me askance. “Or maybe you’ll fall down on your ass multiple times and get lost in a crowd. I think I’m going to go with experience on this one.”
“Just tell me everything I need to know already.”
“I am. This is it. Howard’s done a runner, and as of yet, we don’t know why. Then again, we don’t really care. We’ve just got to catch him.”
“If we already know these facts, why exactly are we going to Helena?” I asked, even though I was pretty sure I already knew the answer. And maybe my tone gave away my cynicism, because Josh shot me a disgruntled look.
“Business. This is what we do. You may not understand that yet, owing to the fact you’re a complete newbie with absolutely zero sense, but we have to establish a few facts before we accept the case.”
I looked him up and down. “Bullshit. You’re going to see Helena. Just be man enough to admit to it. I’ve seen that Manila file on the kitchen table – it’s always filled with new information of your latest targets. You have everything you need – you just don’t have everything you want.”
Josh snarled and went back to driving. “When exactly did you get so much lip?”
“How do you know that I didn’t always have this much lip?”
He let out a rattling hoot of a laugh that echoed around the monster truck. “Because I saw you in that testing center, Beth – and you were as meek as a little kitten. I also got a report on you. And it said you were as prim as a Sunday school teacher. No crimes, not even a parking fine.”
“Two things,” I said as I brought my fingers up and started counting down. “I don’t think you necessarily understand what the word prim means. And secondly, if my file suggested I was so meek, why do you keep threatening me with noncompliance?”
Josh didn’t like that point, so he cleared his throat and scratched his chin. “Look, here we are. Now, before we get in to see Helena, there are some things you really need to remember,” he said as he turned his car hard to the side.
Before I could fear that he was about to smash into a parked car, somehow his truck righted itself, and he pulled into a perfect parallel park. Well, technically perfect were it not for the fact he’d done it all wrong and that physics dictated he should have plowed headfirst into a taxi.
Josh yanked the keys out of the ignition, chucked them up, caught them, and shoved them into his pocket as he opened the door and jumped out.
I did the same – okay, I didn’t jump out. I practically fell out. But the point was, a few seconds later, I was standing next to him on the pavement. He shoved his hands into his pockets in his go-to move of I’m-such-a-cool-casual-guy. “Don’t speak,” he said with a growl. “Leave all of the actual work up to me. And don’t speak,” he repeated as he leaned forward and actually looked at me from over the top of his sunglasses.
I stared at him, hoping he appreciated just how unimpressed I was. “What are you, a bully out of an ‘80s flick? Why are you looking at me from over the top of your glasses with your hands stuffed in your pockets? Do you want me to ruffle your floppy hair?” I said threateningly as I brought a hand up.
Josh darted back. He was the picture of a snarling disaffected youth. “Just say you accept the terms of this mission.”
I opened my mouth to point out how pathetic it was to refer to this as a mission. If this was anything, it was a perv. An observational outing where Josh intended to ogle the city’s hottest witch. Before I got the chance to point that out, he slammed a hand down on my shoulder and pushed me forward.
For some reason, it reminded me of the moment Max grabbed my hand and shook it – just without all of the warmth and the tingles and that, you know, allure.
When I didn’t stagger over into the streetlamp beside me at his move, Josh looked a little disappointed, then pointed forward. “Remember, zip it,” he said as he pressed his finger to his thumb and pulled it over his lips.
This guy was like a caricature out of a kid’s flick.
I didn’t bother to point that out. He walked straight toward a glistening new office block to our side.
I didn’t need to ask where we were going – it was written over the doors in big bold brass letters. Hancock Industries.
Josh strode in through the revolving doors, and immediately he started patting down his pants, rumpling his hair, and changing his appearance.
I walked in behind him, my death glare locked on the back of his neck.
He walked straight toward the large reception desk on the opposite side of the room. This building was so huge and had so much foot traffic that there were at least 10 receptionists behind the counter. They all wore impeccable black uniforms with polished name badges on their chests.
Immediately the woman who looked like she was in charge spied Josh and walked out through the small bar door behind the counter.
She strode over, bringing up a hand and neatening her hair until it was coiffed perfectly over her shoulders. “Helena is waiting for you, Mr. McIntosh.”
“Always a pleasure to see you, Maddie.”
Maddie darted her gaze toward me, a question forming on her lips.
Josh jabbed a thumb my way. “New assistant.”
Why did people keep referring to me as an assistant? I was a finder, for God’s sake. And if everyone was to be believed, that was rare enough and powerful enough to put me on a protection order – not that I fully understood what a protection order was. None of that was the point. I wasn’t his damn assistant.
I didn’t have the chance to point that out – Maddie showed her secretarial efficiency by navigating us across the packed atrium in under a minute. We reached one of the shiny lifts on the opposite side of the room, and she called it immediately. We strode in.
Josh gave her a lingering look and smiled. “Those are lovely heels, Maddie.”
Maddie had looked professional. Until now. I lost respect for her when she popped her heel and gave Josh the kind of girly grin he very much did not deserve. “Thank you. You’re always complimenting what I wear.”
“I’m an observant man. Or at least I am around things that matter.”
Yuck. I felt like throwing up all over the elevator. Or better yet – all over Josh.
Before I could shove my fingers down my throat and try, we arrived at the penthouse floor. These lifts were new, fast, and our ride was uninterrupted.
We emptied out into a corridor.
It was easily one of the most opulent places I’d ever seen. The floors were marble – actual marble. And they’d been polished to within an inch of their life. The rest of the long hallway was styled with Art Deco furnishings, right from the intricate presumably very expensive light fittings down to the carved wood paneling.
There was art everywhere, too. Though it looked at first like a hodgepodge, there was one thing uniting all of the various paintings and vases and statues – their worth.
I don’t think I’d ever been somewhere that looked more expensive.
“Have you been keeping well, Josh?” Maddie asked, dropping his last name and making things more personal.
“Lonely,” he answered.
I almost stopped. Really? Lonely? Had Josh dragged me along to this so-called meeting to listen to his pathetic pickup attempts?
I started to lag – you would too. But as soon as I got too far behind, Josh turned over his shoulder and looked at me pointedly. “Hurry up,” he mouthed, bringing a hand down and pointing beside him as if I was a dog he was expecting to heel.
I shot him a death glare. It was one he returned with interest.
After a few twists in the corridors, we finally reached a room. Maddie stopped in front of it. “Helena is waiting for you in there. Call me if you need anything,” she said, her tone very specific on the word anything, making it clear her offer was generous indeed.
Josh brought a hand up, patted the back of his head, and shot her a boyish grin. It almost worked on me. After all, his lips curled in just the right way, and his face lit up with enigmatic energy.
Its effect on Maddie was instant. She almost blushed. I lost any remaining respect for her. Anyone who could fall for Josh’s crappy charms was someone who needed a head check.
She whirled on her foot, her hips swaying as she walked out of sight.
When the clip-clop of her heels was out of earshot, Josh turned on me. The move was hard. But not as hard as his lips as they curled around his teeth. “You won’t say a word, got that? Not a single damn word.”
I stared back.
“Say it, Missy – say that you won’t say a word.”
“If I did, that would be violating your stupid rule, idiot.”
He tilted his head to the side. “Touché. Now zip it,” he added as he did it again – brought up his hand and pretended to zip his lips like he was a cartoon character.
I rolled my eyes.
He opened the door and walked in.
I have a real thing for Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture. I just like the glamour, the color, the forms.
This office – if it could count as an office considering its enormous size – fit my tastes down to a T. Or at least what my tastes would be if I had an unlimited budget.
The windows were arched, there were liberty pattern wall panels, and every inch of space was pretty much taken up by some piece of artwork.
A lot of people would think it was too much. For me it was just right.
But while my attention was completely taken up by the room, Josh had tunnel vision that locked on the stunning blonde sitting behind her desk.
Helena Hancock was wearing a slim, perfectly fitting white shift dress. Though a lot of women can’t pull off white dresses, Helena could. It hugged her every curve and made her eyes sparkle all the more. “Mr. McIntosh, it’s been a while.” She walked over and held her hand out to Josh.
He ticked his head to the side, that boyish look back. Times by a thousand. Josh’s attitude had completely changed. He looked like a different man. Smooth, suave, and oh-so-charming.
The change could have given me whiplash. As soon as they’d finished shaking hands, Helena switched her attention to me. Her brow didn’t crumple. She didn’t look confused, either. Nope. She looked at me as if she knew exactly who I was. She brought an arm up, placed it around her middle, and tapped her elbow. “So this is the new finder, ha? It’s been a long time.”
I blinked. “Ah.” I had no idea what she meant. I’d never met her – so it hadn’t been a long time since we’d seen each other or anything.
Josh cleared his throat pointedly. “Helena means it’s been a long time since there was a new finder in Madison City. Well, here she is.” Josh made an awkward gesturing movement toward me, as if I was a prize on a game show. It was clear he was wanting to shift the conversation back to Helena and him.
She shifted forward, dropped her arms, and held a hand out to me.
I looked at Josh before I accepted it.
She did all the shaking. When she was done, she took a step back, and she didn’t even bother to look at Josh. “How are you settling in? How…” she drummed her fingers on her leg, “are you going with developing your powers?”
It was the first time someone had asked me that question. I shifted around uncomfortably and looked at Josh. He’d been so adamant that I shouldn’t say a word.
When I stared at him mutely for several seconds, he clenched his teeth into the world’s least happy smile. “There’s no need to be mute, Bethany – Helena’s asked you a question.”
I arched an eyebrow, then turned to her and smoothed a smile over my face. “I don’t have that many powers at the moment, to be honest. I only really found out I was a finder two days ago.”
“I see,” Helena said, as if she genuinely did see. That is to say, her comment seemed to suggest she knew more about my situation than I did.
An uncomfortable itch started to develop between my shoulders, and I shifted them around awkwardly. I cleared my throat. “We’re here to—” I began, wanting to shift the conversation from me and onto Howard.
“Forgive me for being a little prying,” Helena said as she picked up a strand of her blond locks and played with it between two fingers, “but you’re the only other finder in town.”
My brow condensed. “I didn’t realize you were a finder. I thought Max was the only other finder.”
A very strange kind of smile spread across her lips. “You’ve met him, have you?” There was something about her tone that suggested it was a question that she already knew the answer to. “He is so very specific about those who can use his nickname. But no – I wasn’t referring to myself. I was referring to Max. Rare to have two finders in the same city at the same point in history.”
I was floundering here – I honestly didn’t understand a thing she was saying. No – I could comprehend her words. It was that I was lost on this topic. All I knew about finders is that we were rare. No one had ever bothered to tell me how rare.
I tried to hold onto my emotions as a stab of alarm shifted through my gut. “Surely it’s not that unusual. I mean as the city gets bigger—”
“It’s quite unusual,” she spoke over the top of me, that smile still spreading her lips.
I wasn’t sure whether to be awkward, embarrassed, or just plain anxious. I’m not making this up – the way she was looking at me was unsettling.
For the first time ever, I was thankful for Josh as he cleared his throat and came to my aid. “She’s still settling in. A lot to learn. Anyhow, I guess you know why we’re here. It’s a shame to hear Howard ran.”
“Hmmm,” Helena said. She was either still too distracted by the fact I was in the room, or she didn’t give a single hoot about the fact Howard had run. Finally, however, she pulled her attention away from me and gestured toward two lavish chairs sitting in front of her desk. “I apologize for being a poor host. Please sit down. Can I get you any drinks?”
Josh looked torn. He clearly, clearly wanted a drink, because if he had a drink, he would be able to stay here until he finished it. But at the same time, I got the impression that he was regretting taking me here. Either it was because I was too much of a distraction and Helena no longer had eyes for him, or – just as had happened with Max – he wasn’t particularly happy with the attention one of the kingpins was showing me.
“We’re fine,” Josh said, every inch of him making it obvious just how much he hated having to say that. “We’ve got a busy day ahead of us. Plus, Howard’s got a two-day start. Why exactly,” he began, but he shook his head.
“If you were about to ask why exactly we didn’t call this in for two days, it was because we didn’t know. He was on holidays. It was only when he failed to check in the second night that we realized something was wrong. We called the police as soon as we confirmed he’d left.”
I was following this conversation, which was a start. At the same time, it was making it apparent how much I didn’t know about how the bounty hunting world worked.
How exactly had Helena and her other employees figured out that Howard had run? Why were they so certain he’d broken his employment contract and hadn’t gotten blind drunk and fallen down somewhere? Or had an accident, or been kidnapped, or any other excuse for a person going missing.
I went to ask that question, but then quickly realized there was no point. It would only bring Helena’s attention back to me.
Instead I sat perfectly still and quiet like a mouse hiding from a cat.
“I’m assuming it was a sanctioned holiday, or did he request leave?”
“He requested leave,” Helena answered.
“Do you know why?”
“To attend the soccer match. The Western Chargers are coming to town. He’s a fan.”
“That game is tonight if I’m not much mistaken. Why did you give him three days off?” Josh asked.
I got the impression that Josh was never usually like this with Helena. It wasn’t just the wincing way he delivered his questions. It was the look of almost total mortification when he did. And the only reason I could come up with as to why Josh was asking Helena this and not one of her other staff members, was that he wanted to keep Helena’s attention locked on him and not me.
“He’s an extreme fan, Josh. And those are his own words. He got a pass to help out at the stadium. He is one of the volunteers from the Western Chargers’ fan club – or something like that. I’m not entirely sure of those details. The point is, Howard was a great employee,” she said, emphasizing the word was, “and he had an exemplary record up until now. He was given leave, because he had earned it.”
“I see.” It was clear Josh didn’t see and he would prefer to press Helena for more details, but he started to flag.
When Helena looked back at me and opened her mouth, Josh cleared his throat and straightened up.
“I’m taking it he had no problems at work?”
“As I said before, he was a high-paid employee who always did as he was told.”
I didn’t like that answer. Did as he was told? Howard sounded more like an obedient animal and less like a person. More than anything, I didn’t like the dismissive way Helena was talking about him. Was Howard just an object to her? Hell, it sounded as if she’d known him personally. And yet she couldn’t muster a scrap of compassion for the fact the man ran, broke the law, and gave up his life.
The only person who’d showed any compassion thus far was Josh. And if Josh was the only guy doing the right thing, you knew you were screwed.
“I see,” Josh said. Maybe it was just me, but his tone was stiffer than usual. It made me wonder whether he’d picked up on what I had – that Helena seemingly couldn’t give a stuff that Howard had run away.
“Just how much of a diehard fan was he again?” Josh tried.
“If you’re thinking that he’ll show up at the game tonight, I guess it’s a possibility. He seemed to live and breathe the Western Chargers. A couple of my staff members heard him say a few times that he lived for them. So yes – I guess there’s a possibility. Would you like some VIP tickets? I can arrange some. I’m a patron of the stadium, not that I particularly like sports.”
What she’d just said had settled in my body. That Howard lived for the Western Chargers.
I get it – even though I’m not that into sports – I appreciate that some people revolve around them. Sports are what gives them their greatest entertainment.
But that’s not what Helena meant. Or at least, that’s what my intuition was telling me.
The Western Chargers were the only thing that mattered in Howard Rush’s life.
They were literally the only thing he had to live for.
That notion came out of nowhere, but I couldn’t let it drop once it settled in my hands.
I found myself curling my fingers in until my nails dug into my palms. “He wasn’t happy, was he? He didn’t like his job,” I blurted.
Josh ticked his gaze over to me, that warning look in his narrowed eyes growing clearer.
Helena just smiled. Not at what I’d said, but at me. Heck, I could’ve suddenly jumped up and pretended to be a monkey, and she would have fixed me with the exact same attention. It didn’t matter to her what I said and did – it mattered what I was.
I swallowed. Though I could easily have ignored my intuition, stared at my hands, and not engaged again, screw that. “He had troubles at work.… Bullying?” I said out of nowhere.
“You’re gonna have to forgive her, Helena – this is her first real case. She doesn’t understand the difference between evidence and supposition,” Josh said through clenched teeth.
“I understand,” Helena said smoothly, and she nodded at me. “Howard was a valued member of staff.”
She hadn’t answered my question. She’d darted away from the real substance of what I was asking like a politician dancing around budget estimates. I cleared my throat to make my point again.
I didn’t get the chance. Josh stood up suddenly, yanking his arm up and staring at his watch. Unlike Max Knights’ watch, Josh’s was utilitarian. It also had a crack along the glass. It looked, in other words, as if it was there to tell the time and not to tell other people how rich he was. “Look at that – we have to go. We’ve got another case today. Thank you so much for your time, Helena.”
“So, will you come tonight or not?” she asked as she rose from behind her chair, her hair tumbling around her shoulders and framing her smile.
It caught Josh off guard. Or maybe the comment did. He’d clearly lost track of the conversation. He cleared his throat. Despite the fact he gave you the impression he was a player, he looked like a boy right now and not a lot like a man. “Sorry?”
“She’s talking about the soccer game. The offer for tickets,” I clarified.
Again Helena focused on me. Every damn time I shifted or said a word, she was like a targeting sensor homing in on me. “Your assistant,” she said, “here is correct. Perhaps she is coming into her powers quicker than she thought.”
This had nothing to do with my powers and everything to do with the fact I could follow a conversation for more than a phrase or two. I didn’t point that out. I watched Josh. He darted his gaze from left to right, clearly trying to calculate something.
“Maybe we shouldn’t—” he began, his shoulders dropping a full inch, making him look like a kid who’d just had to give up his favorite toy for a bully.
“Which stadium are we talking about? Is it the one on Eastside?” I asked.
“Then we’ll go. Can you please organize our VIP tickets?” I asked flatly with no permission from Josh.
“Beth,” Josh spluttered.
I was doing my job. Okay, I’d only had this job for two days, but that wasn’t the point. I, unlike Josh, was not distracted here. And I, unlike Josh, wanted to find Howard. I mean I really wanted to find him. The more I heard about him, the more… something expanded inside of me and told me I had to track this guy down. It wasn’t a sense of impending doom or anything like that. But it was insistent, and the more I tried to ignore it, the more it screamed at me.
So this was my magic, ha? Or at least the first flicker of it.
“The game starts at 7:30.” Helena smiled.
“We’ll be going now, actually,” I said point-blank. “I just thought we’d need tickets to get in. We will, won’t we? Or can we call ahead?” I suddenly realized that technically both Josh and I worked for the government. I didn’t exactly understand how far his powers as a bounty hunter ran, but I could appreciate that he had a certain power to track culprits down. If that meant he could go onto private property like a policeman or not, I didn’t know. But surely there was another way to get into the stadium than relying on Helena.
Before I could tell her to go hang her tickets, she looked at me curiously. “Why would you like to go now?”
“Just to check the place out. To look for clues,” I stated. “To figure out what we’re dealing with here. And, heck, it’s probably okay – I imagine we won’t need the tickets.” It was my turn to stand. I brushed my top down. Though Helena looked as if she shopped from the high-end boutiques downtown, I very much looked like I shopped from the rejects bin at the thrift store. I didn’t care. I patted my top down until it was neat. Then I smiled. “Thank you so much for your time.” I turned to walk away.
Josh had two options. Pull me into line – thus giving Helena the opportunity to focus on me again – or follow me. He actually chose the latter. He mumbled his goodbyes, turned, and walked out.
The entire time Helena kept her eyes on me until I closed the door behind Josh.
He didn’t whirl on me. Which was a surprise. I was relatively certain that once the door was closed he would jump on me like a wolf trying to restate its position in the pack.
Nope. He didn’t say a word. Not a single damn word until we were out of the Hancock building and back in his car.
He turned on me. Move over rabid wolf – it was time to meet the warlock.
I don’t think I’d ever seen Josh as angry. Which was saying something as pretty much the only emotion he’d ever shown me since we’d met was anger.
“Do you know what you did back there? Do you have any idea—”
“I took hold of the conversation while we still could. Why didn’t you tell me she would be like that? She was looking at me like I was some kind of ornament she wanted to hang on her wall.”
This comment derailed Josh’s fury. For about half a second. “That’s not the point. You should’ve left that to me.”
“So you agree with me, then? Helena was looking at me like I was a piece she wanted to acquire in a game.”
“I’m not—” he began weakly but trailed off. “Whatever. Look, there’s something you’re going to need to wrap your head around. Finders are extremely rare. You need to be very careful.”
“Do I?” A real blast of emotion ricocheted through my voice, and my cheeks and lips tingled with adrenaline. The fear and anguish and just plain malcontent I’d been holding back for the past two days bubbled to the surface as I strained against my seatbelt to get to him. “That would have been real handy to know before you paraded me around Madison City’s rich and infamous.”
I didn’t think it could happen, but it did. Just for a few seconds, that comment shut Josh up. He brought up a hand, patted the back of his head, and leaned back. “Okay, okay – you have a point.”
I was so stunned, I blinked several times, my mouth gaping open.
This drew a derisive snort, albeit a soft one. “Look, if you want another crash course, here it is – you’re valuable. That’s why you’ve got a protection order on you. I thought you would have figured that out by now.” He brought a hand off the steering wheel and tapped a finger on his head. “You can locate virtually anything. Stop for a second and think about that.”
I opened my mouth to tell him I’d had the last several days to think about that. I stopped. My brow scrunched. “There are natural limitations on all magic,” I said, sounding as if I’d learned that fact in school. Which I had. Everyone knew that. Yeah, okay, on the face of it, magical powers were incredible. But we weren’t talking Harry Potter here. People couldn’t wave a wand and kill someone. Okay, wait, that was the wrong example. You could kill people – quite easily – with magic. The point was, it was costly. And short of powerful practitioners kitted out with powerful gear, there were general limitations on witches and warlocks. In other words, people would run out of gas. That crim Maximus had caught in the bottle shop could have kept up his attack maybe for about half an hour before he’d run dry of juice. Some of the better-trained security professionals – especially those in the Army – could go for longer. But that wasn’t the point. There were limitations. And if there were limitations on others, that meant there were limitations on me.
The more defiantly I stared back at Josh only to see him shake his head, the more my lips crumpled in until I bit them hard. “There are limitations on my power, right?” My voice was more fragile now.
“Yes and no. You can only find things you’re aware of.”
I scrunched my nose up at that confusing statement. “That’s a little existential. Of course I can only find things I’m aware of. If I found something I couldn’t experience – I wouldn’t be finding it, would I?”
“I don’t need a lesson in philosophical semantics from you, thank you, Missy,” he dropped back into being a jerk – which was oh-so-easy for him. “What I’m trying to explain is you can only find things that you’ve either seen, touched, tasted, smelled, or heard. You have to experience them directly before they can pique your powers.”
“And how exactly am I meant to find Howard? I’ve never seen him.”
Josh snorted. “The photo will do. Which you’ve already seen. If you actually see someone, however, it’s easier. That’s not the point.”
“It isn’t? And what is the point?”
“You’re powerful. Extremely powerful. And people who are powerful,” he brought a hand up and pointed at me, now paying absolutely no attention whatsoever to the road, “are targets.”
Josh had said a lot of terrifying things to me over our short career together, but this one really got to me. I stiffened until I couldn’t sit any straighter, until it felt as if I’d pull my spine out of the top of my head, and my legs and arms would snap. It took an age to blink, because it took an age to remember that I could. “And that’s why I’m under a protection order, ha?” I asked, voice faint as if somebody had started to erase me. Because yeah – someone had started to erase me. It was one thing being a witch and losing control of the rest of my life. It was quite another to be a target for all the unscrupulous people out there.
“Yes, that’s why you’re under a protection order. And before you ask,” he stared at me challengingly, obviously knowing what was on my mind, “I am one of the best-placed people in the city to carry that protection order out.”
“Really?” My voice couldn’t shoot up any higher.
“Yes, really. Before I became a bounty hunter, I did a stint in the warlock division in the Army. I’ve seen active duty, Missy. And most importantly, I know how to deal with danger.”
“Knowing how to deal with danger and stopping it before it can happen are two very different things. Do I need to remind you what happened in the bottle shop?” I stopped short of saying that if Max hadn’t been there, I would’ve been a hostage.
I didn’t need to point that out. One look at Josh’s suddenly hardened expression told me he appreciated that fact more than any other. “It was an accident. The report on that guy was wrong. I didn’t realize he’d be aggressive. Stupid,” he added.
I didn’t know if Josh meant it was stupid for the guy to try to take me as a hostage, or stupid for him to run from Josh in the first place. Because you know what? Neither was stupid. I was rapidly appreciating two facts. Josh thought he was better than he was. And me? I was much more valuable than I appreciated.
“That was a mistake – but I’m not going to make mistakes like that again.”
“Good – so you are going to tell me about all of the creeps in Madison City before you take me to their offices, shove me down in their pretty little chairs, and wait for them to ogle me like diamond rings?”
“Helena Hancock is an upstanding citizen,” he said with the kind of fervor one only got when they were discussing sensitive political topics.
I arched an eyebrow at him. “You actually like her that much?”
“Trust me, of the kingpins, she is by far the easiest to deal with, and the most scrupulous. Plus, she wasn’t staring at you like you were a diamond ring.” He snorted dismissively. “She was simply… intrigued. As anyone would be. You’re the only other finder in town.”
“About that – how many finders are there around the world? I mean, how rare am I? And you said before when you were talking about Max that there were different kinds of finders. I’m a locator, right? Is that one of the most common subgroups?”
“Don’t know, don’t know, and don’t know,” he snapped.
Could I punch him now? Honestly, had I endured enough of this idiot’s brutish behavior to just lash out once? The law would understand, right?
“Don’t look at me like that.” He narrowed his gaze. “It’s the truth. And before you go googling it, I wouldn’t bother. It won’t work. Finders aren’t exactly announced by their governments. They’re too valuable. So as for figuring out how many of you there are, there’s going to be no way to do that.”
I stared at him through narrowed eyes. “What about the subgroup of locators? How rare are we?”
Josh looked away. And that? Wasn’t a good sign.
Before I could press, he cleared his throat, the vocal equivalent of him changing gears. “Enough of that, anyway. We need to talk about you trying to take hold of conversations that you shouldn’t. Now, I had that conversation in hand.”
It was my turn to snort, and boy did I do it as loudly as I possibly could. “At first you told me not to speak, then you admonished me for not speaking. I wouldn’t exactly call that having the conversation in hand. Plus, you were letting her get away with lying.”
“Excuse me?” Once again Josh looked impassioned, as if the mere suggestion that Helena could lie was like saying chocolate tasted like mud.
It was my turn to bring up a hand and stop him. “She didn’t give a stuff that Howard had run away. What’s more, she knows more than she’s letting on.”
Josh shook his head, his exasperation clear. “And how exactly, Ms. Detective, do you know that? You see, the rest of us detectives have to wait around to find this thing called evidence.” He brought his hands off the wheel in order to make air quotes around the word evidence.
I stared at him nonplussed. “It’s a hunch. I don’t need evidence; I know for a fact Howard was bullied. You saw her reaction. Plus, she never directly answered my question – which was a great sign.”
Josh opened his mouth, but he paused before he dismissed me. “You don’t know anything for sure.”
“You suspect it too, don’t you? Howard was bullied. The question is, why? At first I thought it would be because he was a witch. But as you’ve already said, Hancock Industries is full of witches. So why bully him?”
“You are going way out on a limb. Please leave the real work to me. All we have to do is find him.”
“But to find him, don’t we need to understand him?” I asked.
“No – we just need to locate him. And you need to leave that—”
“Before you say up to you, don’t forget what I am.” It was the very first time I’d used the card that I was a finder. And you know what? It felt good.
Josh maintained steady eye contact before he turned away. He didn’t look happy, but he didn’t snap at me. “Fine, whatever. Maybe he was bullied. Maybe it is important to the case. But right now, I’m hungry,” he announced out of the blue.
“Then we’ll pick something up at the stadium. We need to get there and investigate. Do you need to… I don’t know, pick up a warrant from the magistrate in order to get into the establishment and search around?” This time I was vaguely aware of the fact that what I was saying was stupid. Warrants were for police officers and that was that.
“You are overestimating our powers. We have the power to track down a culprit when we have reasonable suspicion they are on a premises. That’s about it. We’re not like the police. We can’t just walk onto private property and start asking questions.”
“The stadium is not private, though. It’s public land.”
“With private sponsorship. Plus, we need to tread carefully.”
“Will you stop with the questions already? I’ll tell you what, we’ll discuss them over lunch. Here’s a cafe.” Abruptly, Josh pulled in to park.
Again he cut off another car – this time a little old lady in a hatchback. She wound down the window, stuck her finger up, and drove off.
Josh snorted. “The people of this city have no manners.”
I stared at him disdainfully as I jumped out of the car. Every time I had to clamber in or out of this monstrosity of a vehicle, I was getting better at it. I was hardly dismounting perfectly like a gymnast spinning off the bar, but at least I didn’t fall face down on the pavement.
“I’ve always meant to check this little place out. Looks cute,” Josh said as he walked down a small laneway beside us and stopped in front of the store.
It was my shop. The place where I’d been working for years with Sarah. We’d just gathered together the funds to buy the license for the place off the current owners.
Suffice to say, I stood in front of the door, and I stared. Was this a joke? Was Josh trying to get on my nerves?
I’d sent Sarah a couple of emails and texts, but I hadn’t had the balls to call her yet. She was still mightily pissed. Not pissed that I was a witch – she’d already told me multiple times that that didn’t matter. She was only angry that I’d kept it from her for so long. At the first blood test that had suggested I had witch genes, I should’ve told her.
Sarah would forgive me, in time. But first? We’d have to have an argument.
I brought my arms up and clutched them around my middle, digging my fingers into my elbows. Josh had already walked in, and there was no way I was going to dart in to grab him back. Sarah was just as observant as me, and she’d see me darting in and through the door, even if she had her back to me.
So I hung around in front of the café, chewing on my lip nervously.
From somewhere inside the store, I heard a growl. “Don’t be noncompliant,” Josh snapped. The door was open, so fortunately he didn’t have to scream that for the rest of the street to hear.
“Dammit,” I spat. I finally gathered together the gumption to walk in.
Nothing had changed. The store was exactly the same as usual. It was a Tuesday, and all our usual Tuesday customers were lined up on the comfy couches and chairs. A few of them even turned around and said hello.
I shuffled forward uncomfortably, never unhooking my arms from around my middle. When it came time to waving to the friendly patrons, I barely managed to raise a couple of fingers from my deathly grip.
Josh was at the counter. Just before I could sigh in relief, hoping that Susan wasn’t shifted at the moment, Josh straightened up, turning around to see me. And Susan? Was right behind him.
“Get over here already,” Josh snapped, clicking his fingers and patting his thighs as if he were calling me in to heel.
Susan’s face stiffened. She went from smiling at Josh, to looking as if she wanted to pull me apart with her eyes.
I paled. And then I paled some more. And then I think my cheeks went and fell off as I lost all blood flow through my body. I brought my hands up and clamped them tightly. “Hi,” I managed.
“Hello,” Josh said as he waved at me irritatingly. “I’m right here. I know you, remember? Now get over here. Stop wasting our time. You’re the one who wants to push on with this case. Even though it’s foolhardy. You should really learn to pull your head in—”
I completely ignored him. I bit my lip and mustered the courage to walk up to the counter.
Susan looked from me back to Josh, then over to me. “You mean this is the idiot who was harassing you at the testing station? The loser you’ve been contracted to?”
Josh straightened. He was no longer leaning against the bar. His expression soured. “Sorry, who’s the loser?”
“Yeah, this is Josh McIntosh. And yes, he’s the guy I’ve been contracted to. Susan—”
“He doesn’t seem that bad,” Susan said as she leaned back from the bar, patted her hands on her apron, and gave him a decisive glance up and down.
Josh looked as if he’d just won the lottery. A smile cracked across his lips as he leaned in and rested an elbow on the tall counter. “Thank you.”
“But if he keeps treating you like that, you give me his number, and I’ll give him what for.” Susan had the ability to go from charming to absolutely eviscerating someone in under half a second. A lot of people didn’t get her. I think it just added to her charm. Plus, if you ever wanted a friend who could come out to bat for you, Susan was it.
That satisfied smile stilled on Josh’s lips, locking in place as if someone had clamped it to his mouth. He straightened and patted down his jacket. “You really don’t need to worry—”
“Good,” Susan said directly with stiff movements of her lips. “Because I know where you live now,” she snapped.
Josh looked thrown. I wanted to grab my phone and take a picture of it. I wanted to remember just how he blinked back in surprise, took a stiff breath, and tried to smile.
The smile, of course, was wasted on Susan. She might’ve thought Josh was cute before, but now – and forever more – she would be on my side. “I’m going to cancel the order for the two sandwiches,” Susan said directly as she crossed her arms.
“You are refusing me service?” Josh’s voice went up.
“No. I’m giving Beth the ability to order for herself. You know the one male trait I find the most annoying? Okay, one of the many male traits I find annoying.” Susan tightened her arms further as she jutted her chin out. “The arrogant belief that you know how to order for women. Beth has all the intelligence and taste required to order her own food. You understand that?”
I’d been wrong. I’d thought in coming here it would cause the argument of the century. It was giving me exactly what I needed, instead.
Josh was being thoroughly and completely put in his place.
“What do you want, sweetie?” Susan asked.
Josh went to open his mouth, then obviously realized Susan wasn’t talking to him.
“Chef’s special pasta.”
“Good choice. It’s on the house. Her food is on the house,” Susan confirmed before Josh could get too excited.
Josh brought his hands up in surrender and nodded. “I understand. Ah, can you make those two to go?”
“No. You’re sitting down. I need to talk to Beth.” With that, Susan pointed toward a spare table for Josh, walked around the counter, grabbed my wrist, and pulled me out through the back door.
Josh was technically my protector, but he didn’t get involved. He’d obviously met his match in Susan, and he was smart enough to know not to push.
As soon as the door swung closed behind us, Susan let go of my hand, took a step back, and let it all spill. “Beth, why haven’t you called?”
“Because my life has been going to hell. And every single day it’s been getting worse,” I answered honestly.
Maybe my answer had a fair amount of truth behind it, and the emotion cracking over my face reflected that, because Susan stopped. She didn’t continue the argument. She flagged, her shoulders sagging. “You should’ve told me, Beth. From the get-go. I would’ve been there for you. I could have stopped jerks like that from walking all over you.” She jammed a thumb toward the door behind us.
I brought up a hand, tried to neaten my hair, gave up, and nodded. Though my blond hair was usually criminally straight, for the past few days, it had looked as if rats were nesting on my head. Maybe Susan noticed this, because she took a step back and flicked her gaze up and down me. “You look awful.”
“It’s really not a compliment. I’m worried about you, Beth. Especially if you have to put up with idiots like that.”
For the craziest moment, I opened my mouth to say that Josh wasn’t all that bad.
I was actually about to defend the guy. I stopped myself in time. I shrugged. “I can’t get out of the contract.”
“Why not? I’ve done as much research as I could in the past several days. You still have rights, Beth. And we can totally get you the best witch rights lawyer in town.”
“They cost a bomb, Susan.”
“We can pool the money we were going to use for the deposit on the café.”
I looked up at her. She was being serious. Owning her own café had always been Susan’s dream. Now she was ready to hand it all away, just for me.
We shared a moment – one that washed away all the animosity that had been boiling up since that call in the testing office.
I managed a smile. “Thanks, but it won’t work.”
“Don’t be a defeatist – we have to try.”
“I’m not exactly an ordinary witch.” It was out before I could pull it back. Then again, why hold onto this secret? Two out of the four kingpins in town already knew. And I was pretty sure from the way Helena reacted that Max had been the one to tell her.
“What exactly does that mean?” Susan asked slowly, picking over her words carefully as her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
I brought up a hand, locked it on my brow, and dragged my fingers across the skin. I closed my eyes, but when my life didn’t magically change, I forced them to open. “It means I’m something called a finder.”
“I’ve never heard of that.”
“Neither had I.”
“Beth, what’s going on?” There was now no hint of anger in Susan’s voice. It had been thoroughly replaced with concern.
“Look, I have rare powers. And because I have rare powers, I’m under a protection order. No lawyer – no matter how expensive – is going to be able to pull me away from Josh. He’s one of the only people in town I can be contracted to.”
Susan opened her mouth, possibly to reel off every other fact she’d learned about witches over the past several days. She stopped. She could obviously see the defeat in my eyes. She brought up a hand, clutched her chin, and tapped her fingers on her jaw. “There’s gotta be something we can do. I mean if he acts like that, there’s got to be someone who can pull him into line.”
I snorted, and a friendly, warm smile played across my lips. “There is. You. Thanks for earlier.”
She smiled back. Abruptly, she pulled me into a hug. “I’m so sorry this has happened to you, Beth. And I forgive you for not telling me.”
We pulled away. I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
“If that asshole is rude to you like that again – I’m not kidding, give me his number. Text me, and I will call him personally.”
I kept smiling. “I’d like to see that.”
“Can you stay long?”
“I guess we can stay for lunch,” I reluctantly agreed.
It wasn’t reluctant because I didn’t want to see Beth. It was reluctant because… I wanted to find Howard sooner rather than later. He was like one of those Easter eggs my parents used to hide when I was a toddler. I had to find every single last one, or I would go insane. And though there was only one Howard, I instinctively knew that to understand exactly what was going on here, I had to find every piece of this puzzle and figure out why he’d run before it was too late.
I hung out with Susan for a bit, filling her in on every detail I could remember. Though, of course, I didn’t share the actual details of the case I was working on. Everything about Josh being a tyrant, relegating me to my room, and insulting me at every opportunity, however – I told her every detail I could remember.
By the end, she was sitting back in her chair in the break room, her arms so tightly clenched, she looked like she was attempting to squeeze her torso in two. “This guy is a Class A jerk. The kind of twisted fool who never learned to get along with other people. I bet you he’s hiding some scars,” she suddenly blurted.
I shook my head, grabbing another mouthful of the pasta. Susan had already announced to Josh that I would be eating with her. I would have to take tips from Susan, because Josh was like putty in her hands.
“I doubt he’s got scars. I think he’s just a jerk.”
Susan shook her head knowingly. “No way. He’s definitely got something lurking in his past. Like you said, you suspect he doesn’t own the house he’s living in.”
“I know he doesn’t own the house we’re living in,” I corrected. “And he is so incredibly overprotective of it.”
“I think that’s a clue. I think we need to find out who the house belongs to.”
I snorted. “Who exactly is the finder here?”
“I hate to remind you this, but I’m usually the one who can find your purse when it’s missing.”
“Good point,” I chuckled. “I guess I won’t need to worry about my purse going walkabouts anymore. Still, to return to the original point, I don’t think Josh is a complicated guy. I think he is exactly the opposite of a complicated guy.”
“You’re wrong. Definitely a scar there. What else do you know about him?”
“I think I’ve told you everything. As for his back history, all I know is that he did a stint in the Army.”
Susan’s eyes lit up, and she leaned forward as if she actually wanted to pounce on that fact. “That’s it.” She pointed at me and waved her finger over the table. “I bet you he’s got scars from his days in the Army.”
“There hasn’t been a war for a while. I really doubt he saw any real action. He was in the warlock corps, so I imagine he just did magical target practice or something.”
“All of those are assumptions. Plus, I’ve got a feeling,” Susan said as she leaned back and slapped a hand on her stomach. “He’s definitely got some scars. And I imagine if you pry into his history as an Army warlock, you’ll start to find them.”
I stared at her blankly. “Why would I even want to find them?”
“Because they’ll be the key to unraveling Josh and finding out what he’s really about.”
I looked at her askance. “You’re assuming I even want to do that. It won’t help me, anyway. Josh is always going to be… Josh.”
“Gosh, that’s a lot more polite than I’m used to,” Josh suddenly said from the doorway as he marched in.
I jumped and actually squeaked like a surprised mouse.
Susan? She rounded on him, blasting up from her chair as if she had a jetpack strapped to her back. “What the hell are you doing in here? Only staff members are allowed to go behind the counter. Do you want me to call the cops on you or something?”
Josh quickly brought up his hands and leaned back as if he were trying to hold off a tiger. “I don’t want any trouble. And calling the cops wouldn’t help. I have every right to track my PO down. Speaking of which,” Josh clicked his fingers, and I knew what he was about to do – slap his thigh and tell me to come over. He shot a wary glance Susan’s way and cleared his throat instead. “Bethany,” he said in a stilted voice, for the first time using my full name, “we need to get out of here, now. I’ve already paid for my sandwich,” Josh added as he kept his hands wide and spread.
“There’s something up?” I abandoned my fork full of pasta and stood, my brow crumpling and my heart quickening.
“I just want to get out of here and get some work done.” He clapped his hands together. You could have only just met the man, but anyone would be able to realize he was lying. “Now, where’s the back door?”
“We don’t have a backdoor,” Susan announced as she stared at him warily, as if she suspected he was about to run around, stealing everything.
Josh snorted. “What kind of functioning café doesn’t have a backdoor? All kitchens have backdoors,” he stated defiantly. “So tell me where yours is.”
“Even if we had a backdoor, I wouldn’t let you use it.”
“So you do have a backdoor?”
Susan looked at me. “I think you’re right – he’s just too simple.”
“Excuse me?” Josh began, and I could hear from the specific tone of his voice that he was just getting started. Then he obviously thought better of it, shook his head, and smoothed as much of a grin over his face as he could manage. “Like I said, I don’t want any trouble. We need to get out of here, now.”
“… Are you avoiding somebody?” I asked.
“He’s definitely avoiding somebody,” Susan leaned toward me and whispered.
“Fine, okay, I’m avoiding somebody. But we still have to go. So is there a window around here or something?” He looked around the small enclosed breakroom. It was nothing more than a glorified storeroom. There was a table, but behind it was nothing more than stacked boxes. So no, there wasn’t a window.
“There are some windows in the kitchen. But they’re just vents. And you’d need a ladder to get to them.”
“Then where is your ladder?” Josh actually asked.
I took a step toward him. “Who are you trying to avoid? I mean, you’re the only government sanctioned bounty hunter in town. There shouldn’t be anyone—” I stopped abruptly.
The answer I was looking for, I found.
I’d only ever seen Josh look this flustered once. “Max,” I muttered quietly.
Josh stiffened as if someone had injected his muscles with starch.
“Jesus, who is Max?” Susan muttered to me. “Mr. Cool and Calm over here looks like he’s just about to pop.”
Josh brought up a stiff finger. “Firstly, thank you for calling me Mr. Cool and Calm. Those are my greatest traits. Secondly, I’m not about to pop. I just want to avoid him. Considering what happened last time,” Josh let his lips move around each word hard as he looked at me.
I shivered and swallowed. “I don’t think there’s any way around it, though. Susan’s right – we’d need a ladder. Even then, the windows are pretty small. And it’s a pretty long drop to the street outside.”
“I’m nimble. I’m willing to give it a go. Now where’s that ladder?”
“You can’t be serious. Who is this guy you’re trying to avoid?” Susan looked right at me.
I looked at Josh. It was like we were in some kind of Mexican standoff.
But I was by far the weakest player in this standoff. All Susan had to do was growl, and I gave up, considering my recent history of lying to her. “Maximus C. Knights,” I managed, my stomach shaking with every word.
Susan made a suitable face. It was somewhere between surprise and plain amazement. “Are you telling me that Maximus C. Knights is in this store?” She brought her hands up and pointed at the floor. Excitement was starting to flare in her eyes. “God, do you think he would pose for a photo? We’ve only ever had minor celebrities in here.”
“To answer your question, Susan, Max would pose for a photo if it benefited him. For he only ever does things that benefit him. But to answer the question that you really should ask – don’t go there,” he growled, the first time he’d showed any pluck in front of Susan.
I was surprised when Susan didn’t go to her default reaction of snapping back at him. She looked at me strangely. “What have you had to do with Max Knights? And more to the point, why haven’t you told me?”
I looked at my hands. Why hadn’t I told Susan? Because I couldn’t get my head around what exactly had happened. Max was….
I’d dreamed of him last night again. Just stupid damn dreams. No real content – it was just like I was tracking his whereabouts at all times. I hadn’t told Josh about them – of course I hadn’t told Josh about them, but it was starting to become clear that it had something to do with my powers….
“Beth?” Susan snapped down low.
“Don’t push her,” Josh snapped back. “But if you do want to be a good friend,” he emphasized the term good friend, “then help us both get out of here without him seeing.”
I still wasn’t facing anyone. I was just staring at my hands.
The last time I’d seen Max, he’d left me with more questions than answers. I found myself turning around. “Don’t bother. I want to face him,” I said as I walked to the door.
“Oh, hell no,” Josh snapped as he got in my way, grabbed my shoulders, and held me to the spot. He looked right into my eyes. “Nothing good will come of this.” There was something different about his tone. The look in his eyes? It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Josh looked like he knew what he was speaking about. And no, that wasn’t what I was finding surprising – or maybe it should be, considering Josh never knew what he was talking about. The point was, there was real import and experience behind Josh’s tone, making me wonder once more just what the history between Max and him was.
“We can’t keep hiding from him,” I said, not even looking at Josh as I stared to the side, locking my gaze on a box of drinks.
My words bubbled up from somewhere deep within me. You know when you’re scared or something? People always say you should face your fears. But sometimes, those fears are justified. With Max I just didn’t know—
“We can, and we will. Now let’s go find a ladder.”
“He’s going to find us, Josh – he’s a finder—”
“Knock, knock,” a deep male voice reverberated from behind Josh.
He still had his hands on my shoulders. I was looking up into his eyes, and his expression ran the gamut from terror to pain.
He winced. He dropped his hands from my shoulders, he thumbed his nose, he turned around, and he straightened up.
I shifted to the side just in time to see none other than Maximus Knights walking down the small hallway, his hands in the pockets of his three-piece suit.
Susan looked alarmed. “Um, what’s going on here? This is the back of the premises. Customers—”
Max came to a stop just behind Josh. Josh was in the doorway, and I was just behind him, and it might’ve been my imagination, but Josh looked as if he was trying to make himself 10 times as big in the hopes he could hide me.
But Max had already seen me.
My stomach kicked. At a thousand miles an hour. I swore I felt great paroxysms of the strangest sensation shifting through me. Because it wasn’t a sensation. It was… knowledge of some description. Like I knew something about Max, but I couldn’t quite remember it.
“I apologize. I had made a time to meet. I waited for five minutes. However, when you didn’t show, Jennifer on the counter suggested I come through.”
Susan blinked once, then twice, then her cheeks practically dropped from her face. “You’re the new owner?” she asked, and for the first time in her life, Susan’s voice shook.
“New owner?” I squeaked as if somebody had their hands around my throat.
Susan swallowed. “I didn’t have a chance to tell you. This complex of buildings has been bought. George, the guy who owns this café, called me about it this morning. George promised he’d signed a three-year lease, ensuring the café can still run.”
“And it will. I’m simply here to inspect the building,” Max said. Though he wasn’t looking at me, I got the impression his every other sense was locked on me.
“You bought this café?” I asked. I didn’t know what was wrong with my voice. Okay, I knew exactly what was wrong with my voice. I’d only just met Max, and now he had, apparently by chance, bought the café I used to work at. And something told me this was no coincidence. “I didn’t know these buildings were for sale.”
“They weren’t. An opportunity came up that I could not ignore,” he said by way of explanation. He tried to flick his gaze to me, but it was hard, because Josh was squarely in the doorway, mostly hiding me from view.
“Do you mind if I come in, Mr. McIntosh? Or do you have some reason to be protecting this doorway?”
Susan cleaned her hands on her apron, straightened up, flicked her hair over her shoulder, and shot Josh a look. “We have an office down the back if you want to talk,” she said to Max with a smile.
“I was hoping simply to get a feel for the building, actually. Do you mind if I tour around?”
“Not at all,” Susan was still stuttering. I’d never seen her looking more thrown.
Josh took a step away from the door to allow Susan through. That step brought him solidly back into me, and if I hadn’t shuffled out of the way in time, he would’ve pushed me into a box of noodles.
“What are you two doing here anyway? Is this an informal secondary dining area?” Max glanced at the chipped plastic table.
“Not at all. This is the break room. I was simply catching up… with a friend,” Susan said, reluctantly referring to me as a friend. Though I could see she was a little starstruck at the fact the richest, most famous guy in town had shown up in her break room, she clearly hadn’t forgotten what I’d said.
She looked like a wary mother hen protecting me from a circling hawk.
“Just this way,” Susan said politely but with the kind of efficient tone that would tell Max the tour of the break room was done.
Max didn’t move. He looked at Josh. “I heard you’d be attending the game this evening. I’m sure I’ll see you there.”
I caught a glimpse of Josh’s throat as he swallowed hard. “I thought you didn’t like sports?”
“This will prove to be an interesting game, though.”
Josh stared back.
I knew I should shut up. I knew I should stand behind Josh and pretend I was nothing more than a statue. But I couldn’t ignore Max’s words, even if Josh could. So my lips opened with a wobble. “Why will the game be interesting?”
Josh took a stiff breath.
Max tilted his head slowly to the side, making it clear he couldn’t see me properly. “At the risk of drawing attention to your abilities in public, I’m sure you’ll find out for yourself,” he emphasized the word find. Then Max turned around and followed Susan.
Josh didn’t move from in front of me until Max was well and truly out of earshot. Then he pivoted on his foot. I’d never seen him look stiffer. “You shouldn’t have said a word,” he spat.
“How the hell did he know I worked here? I thought you told me my file would be locked down by the police? I’m meant to be on a protection order, right? Right?” My voice kept arcing up as more stress battered me like a vessel limping through a storm.
My apparent fear must’ve tugged at the one or two heartstrings Josh had left. He sighed and let his stiff arms drop loosely by his sides. “He’s a finder, Beth. That’s what he does.”
“But you told me he couldn’t locate.”
My stomach pitched. I was close to throwing up my chef’s special. My mouth was so dry, I wanted to reach for the box of drinks behind Josh and down every single one. I managed to crack my lips open, though. “… What do you mean?”
“Think about it, Beth.” Yet again, he used my real name, a testament to the fact that Josh had a heart somewhere underneath that insufferable façade. “He finds opportunities.”
“… So I’m meant to be an opportunity?” I couldn’t keep my voice even.
Josh looked at me with genuine compassion. That was no lie. The way his eyebrows darted down, the way his mouth fell open, and the way his shoulders dropped – none of those were faked. “To him, I guess you are. But you don’t have to worry.”
“Why? Because of that dumb PO? It didn’t stop him from buying this place. What exactly do you think he wants to do with this café, anyway?”
“Look, Beth, you don’t need to freak out.”
“Why don’t I need to freak out?” My voice was getting steadily louder, whirring up like an air raid siren at the approach of an enemy plane.
“Because Max is….” He shook his head. “Max is a complicated guy.”
“What does that mean?”
“He may neither be good nor bad, but when things…. He…. Look, he’s not going to do anything directly illegal.”
I threw my hands up. “There are plenty of things that aren’t directly illegal,” I emphasized those two words, “but are still terrifying. And buying the establishment where my friends work is one of them. And what do you mean he’s a complicated guy? Just how do you know him, anyway?”
Every last flicker of compassion in Josh’s eyes burnt up as he turned from me. “We’ve just got to get out of here, okay?”
“Josh – answer me.”
“You don’t want to know the answer,” he snapped. “Now come on.” He waved me forward.
I felt so defeated, weak, and stupid. I wanted some goddamn answers. And more than anything, I wanted someone to assure me that Max wasn’t going to do anything dangerous.
But there was no one to assure me.
… Except that feeling. That tether that I swore connected me to Max. The same tether that told me where he was while I was sleeping.
That seemed to promise that Josh was right. This was worrying, but it wasn’t dangerous. It was just complicated.
That word reverberated around my mind as Josh walked me out through the café.
Max was seated with Susan at a table close to the counter.
As soon as I locked eyes on him, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. And yet, at the same time, I think I felt tingles rush through my skin.
Before I could lock eyes on his back, Josh shifted beside me, breaking my view. Without another word, he frog-marched me out of the establishment.
Max? Didn’t look at me once.
At least not with his eyes.
With the rest of him? He couldn’t look away.
The promise that he would see us tonight played in my mind as Josh took me to his car and drove away.
“Why don’t you just try to get some rest?”
“Because I want to go to the stadium before the show. It’s important. I don’t really know why, but I just.” I let out an exasperated groan. “I just know it’s important.”
Josh was leaning with his back to the wall, his arms crossed, and a bored look on his face. Behind him, his burnt toast was smoking softly on the counter.
I’d only been living with this guy for the past several days, but that was more than long enough to realize that Josh was one of those people who couldn’t cook a thing. Not even toast.
I would have cooked it for him, but you know what – no. He could ruin his own life – I didn’t need to get involved.
Now I sat at the kitchen table and turned around in my chair, my arm looped around the back. “Call them again. There has to be some way to get inside.”
“Apparently there’s been a request from the sponsor,” he explained to me for the fifth time, and for some reason, his voice was patient – or at least patient for Josh. He wasn’t threatening noncompliance, and he wasn’t calling me an idiot. Which were both signs that the rational side of his mind was currently in control. “Because this game is a crucial one for the season, there will be people messing around and setting things up before tonight.”
“But we’re bounty hunters. You said yourself that if we have reasonable expectations that one of our targets is on the premises, we are legally allowed to go inside.”
“You just said it yourself – reasonable expectations. We’ve got nothing.”
“I’m a finder.” I tapped a hand on my chest.
He didn’t snort, though I could tell he wanted to. For some reason, he was being sensible. Hell, he’d been sensible ever since we left the café. Though I could conclude it was because of Susan’s threat, I knew it was because of Max.
I would give anything to know the history between these two men. Though when Susan had suggested tracking down Josh’s scars to understand him I’d pooh-poohed her, now I had my heart set on that very fact.
So far I’d only found one testing officer, but perhaps it was time to set my mind to finding out what made Josh McIntosh tick.
“You haven’t come into your full powers. At all. Even then, you’re going to need to go through several more testing scenarios before you are given a special warrant.”
The term special warrant was about the only thing that could derail me. My eyebrows clunked down. “What does that mean?”
“It means that one day, one day,” he emphasized those words, “when you have proven that you have full control of your powers, then yes, you will be given special leave from the government.”
“Hold on, you mean I’ll be able to go anywhere?”
“When you’re registered. And I said virtually anywhere. And don’t get ahead of yourself, Missy. It takes a long time to pass that test.”
He looked at me seriously, as if he was sizing me up. “For you? Oh, I don’t know, probably 20 years.”
I balked. “What? 20 years. That doesn’t make any sense. I used to know a kid in primary school who became a witch. It took her a couple of classes before she could keep her powers in check.”
“Listen to yourself. It took a couple of classes until she could keep her powers in check. That did not mean she had a full hold of them. And before the State is going to let you walk willy-nilly wherever you want to, you’re going to need to know what you’re doing.”
“But 20 years? That seems ridiculous. What if I found someone who could teach me—” I began. I stopped. For a very good reason.
Josh looked at me, his expression unquestionably challenging. “I don’t think you need an answer for that one.” He pushed past me, grabbed up his burnt toast, yanked the plate out of the dish rack, slammed the toast on top, walked over, and sat. Though there were plenty of other seats around the table, he chose to sit right next to me. “Okay, there’s something we’re going to need to get straight.”
“What are you talking about?” I frowned.
“Tonight,” his voice went right down low.
I opened my mouth to demand what he meant once more, but then reality struck me. Reality struck me, specifically, with an undeniable image of Max. The way he’d looked over his shoulder at me as he walked away. He’d promised we’d see each other tonight….
“That right there,” Josh suddenly said as he leaned in and stabbed a hand at me.
I had to virtually jump out of the chair lest he stabbed me in the nose.
“Hey,” I grumbled in a high-pitched tone. “What are you doing? Get your finger out of my face.”
“Gladly, if you promise to get your mind off him.”
I didn’t need to ask for any clarification. I blanched.
“That is precisely what I’m talking about. Look I… I get it. He’s the only other finder in town, and you’re intrigued by him,” Josh seemed to select the word intrigued after a great deal of thought. “But for now, it’s gonna be much safer if we keep you two apart.”
“But you keep telling me that he’s not a threat. Then in another breath, you tell me he is a threat. Just who exactly is Maximus Knights?”
“A complicated guy,” Josh defaulted to saying.
Before I could snap at him, he shoved his toast toward me.
I looked at it suspiciously. “What exactly is this?”
“I forgot you are an idiot. It’s toast. T-o-a-s-t. It is a miraculous invention. Comes from sliced bread.”
My lip ticked up in a snarl. “Are you ever going to grow up?”
“Not with you around, that’s for sure.”
“Very mature. But why are you offering me toast?”
“Because you are going to eat here.”
“I thought we were going to the pre-party—”
He snorted. “Are you not following this conversation at all? Why would we not be going to the pre-party?”
I opened my mouth to say I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about. I paused. I looked down at my hands. “Because Max will presumably be going to the pre-party.”
Josh clicked his fingers. “That’s it. Gosh, you’re a quick learner.”
Rather than snarl at him for that childish joke, I crossed my arms and stared at his toast offering, unimpressed. “Who burns toast?”
“The toaster. Blame the toaster. Now don’t shift the topic. You seem dead set that Howard is going to be there tonight. And though it’s against my better judgment, I’m gonna go out on a limb for you. Because this is a valuable contract, and the courts want Howard tracked down sooner rather than later.”
“Why?” I questioned automatically, interested again.
Josh narrowed his eyes. “I thought you were a bounty hunter?”
“Just shut up and answer. Have you heard anything from the courts? What exactly have they told you? Have you looked at his file?”
“You realize I’ve been doing this for a lot longer than you, and though you may be a glorified finder, you’ve never actually found anything yet apart from one irritating testing officer called Stanley. This will be completely different. You’ll be finding someone who doesn’t want to be found. And though you have seen a photo of this guy, it won’t count for much. Even the most developed of finders can only get a vague sense if they aren’t given enough information.”
I opened my mouth to ask whether that was the case with Max. I thought better of it. Plus, unlike me, Max obviously knew how to control his full powers.
Maybe I gave something away, because Josh settled back and crossed his arms. “It’s the same with Max. He’s stronger than you, granted, but he still can’t sniff out a deal at a thousand paces. Unless it’ll be very important to him. Just like everyone else, strong emotions or direct physical experience that holds some special significance will allow his powers to blossom.” As soon as the words were out of Josh’s mouth, I could tell he regretted them. “Look, that doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
“I barely know the guy. I just met him. How can I be—”
“Can we please not have another freakout?” Josh said as he slammed a hand on his head. “Look, let’s just agree not to talk about Max for now. Let’s agree to, instead, talk about what we’re going to do at the stadium and what our plan of action is.”
I pressed my lips together, hoping he realized I wasn’t happy, but at the same time, I wasn’t ready to push him again.
Josh had a limit, and it was clear I was rapidly heading toward it.
“I’m going to head to the pre-party,” Josh said, then he shook his head. “No, I’m not. I can’t leave you alone. Fine. No pre-party. We’ll go to the stands,” he corrected himself. “And then you’re going to use your finder magic, and I’ll use my far superior detective skills, and we’ll find Howard.” Josh slapped a hand on the table and rose. “This has been a valuable meeting. Now, here is your toast.”
I didn’t accept it.
Josh tutted. “You’re not getting any other food.”
I arched an eyebrow and looked at him seriously. “The crap you just blurted was not a plan. It was a series of hopeful wishes. Why would Howard be in the stands?”
He looked at me like I was an idiot. “Because Howard is a massive fan of the Western Chargers. He’s there to see the game. Those were your words, remember?”
“I remember what I said. And I’m pretty sure that’s not it. All I’m certain of is that he will be there.”
“Why would he go to the game if it wasn’t to watch the game?”
“… I don’t really know. But I think… I don’t know, my gut reaction is to think it has something to do with the fact he was bullied. What if he wants to get back at people? I mean, he needs a solid reason to have not left town, right? There are serious consequences for witches who leave their employers. He’s going to prison, isn’t he?” I didn’t need to wait around for Josh to answer that. I was pretty certain about the bylaws regarding a witch fleeing their employer. Unless there were serious mitigating circumstances, Howard was headed to remand before a court date. “From the little I’ve managed to learn about Howard, it sounds like he was smart. He was good at his job. So he would understand that if he wanted to run, he would need to run now. I really doubt he’s going to blow his freedom just to watch a final game by his favorite team.”
Josh didn’t look happy, but at the same time, he didn’t bite back. “You might have a point there. But I’m still not entirely sure what it is. Are you telling me you think Howard is planning an attack of some sort? I looked at his bio. He has no history of violent crimes. Any witch who has committed violent crimes is never given a position like his.”
“Men can do many things when they are pushed off the edge.”
“That’s very poetic, but if you have any credible evidence to suggest that he is planning an attack, then we need to alert the authorities. We’re bounty hunters – not the police. And we will get into some serious trouble if we don’t reveal evidence of potential threats.”
I sighed, my shoulders dropping. “I don’t have any evidence of a credible threat. All I’m saying is I don’t think Howard is going to the stadium to watch the game. I think something else is going on.”
Josh sighed. He brought up a hand, shoved it against his brow, hooked his elbow onto the table, then sighed once more. “I really don’t need this right now. The woman of my dreams has essentially invited me to the game tonight, and now I have to put up with you.”
“Firstly, she’s not the woman of your dreams,” I spoke as if I had some kind of authority on the matter. “Unless your dreams involve corporate takeovers and tax avoidance. And secondly, buck up. Let’s just head there and see what happens. You’re right – I don’t know how my powers manifest yet. I don’t honestly know if I’m onto something. But… I trust my intuition enough to follow. Let’s head to the game.”
Though it was essentially burnt sawdust, I took a bite of my toast.
Something told me I was going to find more than Howard at the game. And that something was right. So it was time to refuel before the fight.
“Why am I wearing this again?” I asked as I stared down at my Western Chargers jersey, plucking it up and frowning at the enormous picture of a bull on the front.
“To blend in. You remember how you work for me, and I’m the expert? Well follow my advice. If we don’t wear one of these, we’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”
Josh slammed the door to his truck closed, straightened his jersey, and pointed forward.
I jumped out of the truck, landed perfectly, and rolled my eyes.
We were early, but the place was already filling up. I’d told Josh that we should get here even earlier, but he had pooh-poohed my plans. Now we had to line up in a massive queue as we waited for our tickets to be read.
Josh held onto our tickets as if he was a kid who’d been given a free pass to Disneyland. The reason he was holding onto them was they were in an envelope with our names written on it from Helena. Josh acted like a total boy around her. He’d gotten the stupidest grin on his face after the tickets had arrived at the house.
Now he was distracted by them, continually turning the envelope over and staring at what he erroneously assumed was Helena’s handwriting. I very much doubted she’d personally write anything for Josh, save for the words go away and never come back.
Josh was so distracted by his tickets, he wasn’t looking around. I was. It wasn’t just that I was searching the crowd for Howard. It was that we stuck out like a sore thumb.
I crossed my arms. “Your plan socks,” I announced. “We should not have worn these jerseys.”
That was enough to get Josh to look up. “I told you to leave the planning to me. We need to look like we belong if we have a chance of catching him.” He darted his head down to continue to pathetically drool over Helena’s handwriting.
I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the crowd in front of us. “I don’t know where you got these jerseys, but either they are from another season, or they’re for a completely different team.”
Josh looked up. He clenched his teeth. “Right,” he managed.
The couple next to me leaned in. “You do know this isn’t a basketball game, right? You’ve got the wrong team’s jerseys on there.”
I turned my mad attention to Josh. “Yes, of course we know this isn’t a basketball game. But our other jerseys,” I said that with a great deal of emphasis, “are in the wash.”
“Yeah, we love soccer, don’t you?” Josh said, sounding like a total idiot.
The guy behind us quickly pulled Josh into a conversation about the highest-ranking teams that season and their chances of reaching the finals.
Josh stumbled through it, sounding exactly like a guy who’d never kicked a ball, let alone seen someone else do the same.
I crossed my arms in front of me, trying my hardest to hide my jersey.
All the while, however, I kept my senses peeled.
My gaze kicked this way and that through the crowd, and I was sure not to miss a thing.
… Howard wasn’t here. Or if he was here, I’d missed him.
Hell, maybe he wasn’t even coming. Maybe I was an idiot for thinking he would.
Before I could become too much of a defeatist, Josh reached forward and settled a hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t a strong move. But it had a lot of import behind it. “Maybe you’re right after all, Missy,” he said in a quiet tone.
My back itched with nerves. “You’ve seen him? Where?” I managed to ensure my enthusiasm didn’t make my voice bark out and draw the crowd’s attention.
“No. Not him. Someone very interesting, though. You see the alternative entrance for VIPs, which we would totally have used if we weren’t trying to rough it?”
I craned my head to the side, glancing at where he was pointing. While the queue for ordinary tickets looked like it was heading around the block, there was a much quicker line about 100 meters off. And the people heading through that door were the hoi polloi of Madison City.
I caught sight of a short stout man who looked as if he was in his early fifties. He had designer glasses on and a blue and white pinstripe suit. It was way over-the-top. People were only ever that ostentatious when they had a point to prove. Primarily, that they were rich.
I frowned. “Am I meant to know that guy. Who is he?”
“No, you don’t know that guy, unless, of course, you’re a witch who’s trying to get out of the city.”
“You mean he helps witches get free? Hold on, if you know him—”
“Why don’t I do something about him? He has friends in high places. Very high places,” Josh said.
I opened my mouth.
“I really don’t have the time to explain that comment to you. Just trust me. Carson Black over there is a man who can get whatever you want to be done done, regardless of how illegal it is.”
I frowned as I glanced at Carson once more.
He walked straight through the VIP line without the ticket checkers even glancing his way. Which of course meant they knew him by sight.
Josh still had a hand on my shoulder, and I wasn’t sure if it was because he was holding me in place, or he was getting ready to hide me behind his back again. Because hello, I was starting to appreciate that Josh was protective of me. Fair enough, I had a protection order. But the stiffness in his fingers told me to watch out.
Carson didn’t even look back as he strode easily through the VIP line, his hands in his pockets.
Josh didn’t relax for a good minute.
He turned to me sharply as the whole crowd shuffled forward another few steps. “I’m starting to regret this.”
“What? Coming along?”
“No. I think you’re onto something. I’m regretting bringing you along.”
“I’m meant to work for you, right?”
“Yeah, but this protection order of yours sure does complicate things. My ass is on the line if I let you get hurt.”
I controlled myself, ensuring a stab of fear didn’t blast through my belly.
“Well then, I guess our only option is not to attract any danger. Now, tell me more about this Carson Black. Who exactly is protecting him?”
“You really don’t need to know that.”
My back stiffened. “It’s not Max, is it?” Dammit, but my voice shook.
Josh looked at me, dropping his whole act and no longer staring methodically through the crowd for any sign of threat.
He arched an eyebrow. “Max is a lot of things, but he wouldn’t protect a rat like Carson.”
“So who is protecting him?”
“Like I said, you don’t want to know. Now, what do you want to do? I understand if you want to go home – it’s probably for the best.”
The old me from several days ago would have demanded to be taken home. Clearly this situation was a lot more dangerous than we’d expected, so it was time to regroup.
But the me from several days ago no longer existed. “We were going to face a situation like this sooner rather than later. I’m meant to work for you – and you’re not meant to just protect me. The government wants to use me,” I said with a straight tone, as if I was actually over the fact I was now a witch without any say in her life. “And this is the line of work I was given. So let’s do it.”
Josh looked at me slowly.
Was that a very impressed glint in his gaze? Or was it the kind of look that promised I had no idea what I was getting into?
It didn’t take that much longer until we got into the stadium. Okay, that was a lie. It took half an hour. And during that half an hour, Josh wouldn’t talk to me. He snapped at me to play on my phone so I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb as I watched the crowd obviously.
I wasn’t the one sticking out like a sore thumb, trust me. It was Josh. He was standing to attention, looking like a meerkat surveying their prairie for an attack. He was clearly looking for any more of Madison City’s criminal underbelly.
Me? I did as I was told; I surfed the net.
I didn’t waste my time using social media, though – I did what I should’ve done a while back. I started to look at all the intricacies and bylaws of being a bounty hunter in Madison City. I found a great resource out of the Justice Department website, and I read it thoroughly. By the time we were in the stadium, I knew a heck of a lot more about my job – from which paperwork needed to be signed when you found a culprit, to which contacts you could call for assistance. Josh should have sat me down and told me all of this, but you know – Josh was Josh.
We quickly found our way to our seats. The rest of the stadium was too packed to hang out in, and the main foyer was like a can of sardines.
As soon as we were seated, we drew a fair number of glances for our incorrect jerseys, and one or two insightful comments.
Josh brushed them off.
I shoved my phone back in my pocket, crossed my arms in front of my incorrect jersey, and turned my head to face Josh. I opened my mouth.
“If you’re about to say what now, don’t. You’re the finder, remember?” He dropped his voice down low as he said the word finder so no one else could hear, “so find him already. You wanted to come here.” Josh had his hands in his pockets, his legs over the back of the empty seat in front of him, and his shoulders pressed right into the flimsy plastic seat behind him.
I curled my lip to snarl at him, but then Josh got his comeuppance. A beefy man walked past to get a seat behind him, and clocked him on the head with his elbow.
“Hey,” Josh said as he brought a hand up and rubbed his head. “Do you mind?”
“Which one of you assholes stole my VIP ticket?” the guy snapped.
He was huge. From his thick neck down to his massive legs, he looked like a rugby player.
No, wait – he was a rugby player. I recognized his face. And his broken nose, of course. He was from one of the best warlock divisions in town.
Josh obviously appreciated this fact, too, because his expression mollified as quickly as a match extinguishing when it’s thrown into a pool. “I guess you didn’t see me there. No matter. And what is that about your VIP tickets? We haven’t seen them.”
“They were on the seat. I went to the bathroom. Who stole them?”
I receded at the guy’s angry tone. Josh didn’t whimper and rather kept a completely professional tone as he shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out his badge. “I work for the Justice Department as a bounty hunter. I assure you, sir, that we did not steal your tickets. Nor did we see who did. We only just sat down. If your possessions have been stolen, the first thing to do is to head to one of the on-duty officers in the foyer. You should’ve seen them when you walked in. They will then help you to check with lost-and-found. They can also put in a call to stadium security.”
Though the guy looked as if he could continue a fight with a rabies-infected bear, at Josh’s professional tone, he looked mollified. “Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome. Do you have any other possessions here? I suggest you take them with you.”
“That was all. It was my fault for leaving the tickets here. Still, if I find the bastard who stole them, there’ll be hell to pay.”
Josh didn’t point out that the guy didn’t have the right to enforce justice. That was obviously a fight Josh knew there was no point in getting into. “Good luck,” he said with a brief wave.
The rugby player walked off.
I crossed my arms a little tighter and frowned at Josh. It took him a few seconds to realize I was looking his way.
He shoved his hands back in his pockets, clicked his jaw from side to side, then slowly turned to face me. “What exactly is your problem? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Who was that guy back there?”
He snorted. “Figures that you wouldn’t recognize one of the best rugby forward in Madison City.”
“Firstly, don’t pretend that you’re into sports. He’s not a forward. And secondly, I wasn’t asking who he was. I was asking who you were. I’m talking about that professional, direct, helpful guy you turned into for a few seconds back there. Can I meet him again someday?”
Josh rolled his eyes. “You’re a class act buffoon, you realize that?”
“And you’re a coin with many sides.”
“Coins only have two sides. I told you you were an idiot. Now, do your thing.”
My stomach clenched, all thought of banter gone. Now it was time to do my thing – I just had no idea how to get started.
Finding that testing officer had been different. Maybe it was because the echo of his voice had been fresh in my ears. Maybe it was because he’d been close at hand. Or maybe it was because I’d been primed so much with magic while undergoing the other tests, that it had been easier somehow. The point was, I didn’t know how to just turn my ability on. I’d been focusing on Howard since we left the house. And I still had no idea where he was – just a vague impression that he would be here.
Josh let out a beleaguered sigh. “You’ve got no idea, do you?”
“No,” I said defensively. “I’m just learning how to wrangle my powers. It’s like… I’m missing an important part of the puzzle,” I chanced upon those words, and as soon as I said them, I realized I was right. I clicked my fingers. “That’s it. I don’t think I know enough about this case to track him down.”
“You don’t need to know about the case to track him down. It’s not how your powers work.”
“How would you know?” I snapped back. “You yourself professed that you have no idea how my magic works. So let me figure it out on my own. I think I need to sink myself into the details of this case and find out why he ran.”
“You don’t need a motive. You just need to catch him.”
“Would you just shut up and help me?” I snapped as loudly as I could.
A couple of people turned around. Josh offered them polite smiles, tilted his head toward me, and bared his teeth. “Fine. If it will shut you up, then fine. What do you need to know?”
“What does Howard’s file say exactly?”
“That he was a middle manager at Hancock Industries. That two days ago he stopped checking in.”
“What kind of middle manager was he? What department was he in?”
Josh opened his mouth to say it didn’t matter, but I shot him a death glare, opening my lips as if to threaten him that I was about to scream again.
“Fine,” he said through clenched teeth, “fine. Howard worked in the HR department.”
I nodded, darting my gaze to the left and up.
“It’s not important,” he added.
“Of course it’s important. HR departments see the most complaints. They deal with them, and they get them.”
“We can’t forget that Howard was being bullied.”
“No, you assume that Howard was being bullied. We still have no evidence of that.”
I didn’t care how much Josh kept emphasizing the word evidence. He was wrong. I knew Howard had been bullied, and I knew that was key to this case.
“Does the Justice Department have anything on him?” I asked. The question was out of my lips before I was aware of it. And it didn’t… seem to come from me. It came from something within me, if that made any sense.
“Get it straight in your head – this contract came from Hancock Industries. The Justice Department—” Josh stopped as his phone buzzed.
It was almost as if I was expecting the buzz. I looked down at him and waited as he plucked the phone out.
The vibration had been different. A specific ringtone that was distinct from the noises Josh’s phone usually made.
Josh’s eyebrows crumpled as he stared down at the message. Then slowly he ticked his gaze up to me. He had an expression that said he couldn’t quite believe what had just happened. Then he narrowed his eyes and ticked his head to the side. “Perhaps you are coming into your powers sooner rather than later.”
“What does that mean?”
“That this here is a message from the Justice Department.”
My stomach clenched and a race of nerves ignited through my belly, climbed up my chest, and sank into my mouth as I opened it with a snap. “It’s like I almost knew they were going to call,” I said excitedly.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. It was likely a coincidence.”
“Then why did you say I was coming into my powers early?”
He chose not to answer. He cleared his throat. “It sounds like the Justice Department are interested in this case – just as much as Helena is, if not more so.”
“Is that usual?”
“Sometimes. If they suspect Howard’s done something extremely nefarious, then they’re probably building a case against him. So they want to see him in custody sooner rather than later.”
“We still have no evidence to suggest that Howard’s done something nefarious – other than running.”
“I thought you said there was every possibility he was planning an attack?” Josh said, now whispering, ensuring his voice could not travel.
I shook my head. “I don’t think he’s dangerous,” I reiterated for what felt like the hundredth time. “He’s planning something here, sure – but not to hurt anyone.”
Josh looked at me, his expression serious, and I could tell he was gazing at me with the same acuity he would use to assess the guilt of one of his targets. I must have passed the test, because a few seconds later, he shrugged. “I just hope you’re right on that.”
“So you don’t know exactly why the Justice Department wants him?”
Josh shrugged, brought a hand up, and scratched his shoulder. “Like I said, they must want Howard for something.”
“What?” I said excitedly, knowing that we were on the cusp of something.
Josh shrugged. “He could be an informant. He could have witnessed a crime. He could be a suspect in a major case. He could be any number of things.”
I stopped. It felt as if someone had frozen me in place. I felt it again – that sensation deep inside me that told me I’d just found something. God, I felt exactly like I had back when I was a kid when I’d finally, triumphantly found every single last Easter egg. “That’s it,” I clicked my fingers at Josh. “He’s an informant,” I whispered.
Josh looked like he wanted to fight me on that one, but at the same time, he was staring at me through narrowed eyes, obviously trying to assess if – again – I was using my powers. He pressed his lips together, leaned back, pocketed his phone, and crumpled his lips in. “Say I believe you. How exactly does that change anything?”
“It’s helping me.” I brought my hands up and wafted them around my face as if I was gathering air like a chemist sniffing a preparation to figure out what it was. “I can… I guess I can feel my powers – or something.”
“Or something,” he emphasized, obviously concluding that that was what I was experiencing. “Beth –”
“Just go with me here. I know what you’re about to say.”
“You’re about to say that we can’t forget that Carson is here, right?”
Josh arched an eyebrow. “You’re actually correct. There’s only one good reason for Carson to be here. That guy is renowned for helping witches skip town.”
“What if Howard is scared that the Justice Department can’t protect him anymore? What if that’s forced him to make plans to skip town?”
Josh shrugged. It was only a half move, though. His shoulders dropped an inch down, then stiffened up. “Though you could be right – I doubt that’s the full story.”
“Of course it’s not the full story. But it’s close.”
“The Justice Department can make any problem go away and they can keep their informants safe.”
“We don’t know what he’s informing on. And as you keep pointing out,” I looked at Josh directly, “this is a complicated town.”
Josh didn’t bite back at that. He brought up a hand, tapped his chin, and promptly let his hand fall into his lap. “Okay, say I believe you. Is it enough?” He looked at me directly, making it obvious what he was asking.
Was this enough for me to finally find Howard?
I paused to think.
Josh ticked his gaze back to the pregame.
Then he stiffened. “Well hullabaloo. Looks like I didn’t need you after all.”
I darted my gaze up quickly. “What?”
We both looked over at one of the megalithic screens on the opposite side of the stadium. The camera crew was alternating between the pregame show and random spectators.
And right now?
They were looking at a happy couple cheering. And behind that happy couple?
“Howard damn Rush. You were right – he was here. But it looks like I’m the one who found him. So all the kudos goes to me.” Josh jumped to his feet.
I pushed up to follow.
He appeared to think about it, then shook his head. “You stay here. We still don’t know if this guy’s planning something or not. You should be safe. This is a public area, and it’s packed with people. I will call you as soon as I’ve got him. It will be five minutes, no more.”
I didn’t have the time to complain. Josh was out of sight, blending in with the crowd in an instant.
I sat back down in my seat.
Immediately, nerves started to pluck up my back. Sharp and hard, they felt a heck of a lot like tiny little knives.
I tried to get comfortable, but I just couldn’t. Something didn’t feel right.
I kept alternating my gaze to the aisle beside me in the hopes Josh would hurry back, then over to the TV screen in case the camera crew had caught another glimpse of that couple again.
Josh didn’t return. Three minutes became four minutes. Four minutes became five minutes. And then five minutes became 20 minutes.
I kept looking at my phone. Josh had my number. Heck, one of the first things he’d done was grab my phone and use it to call himself.
So why wasn’t he calling?
An ominous feeling kept pushing through me, unraveling my sense of calm until I was a nervous wreck. I had my thumb in my mouth, and I was chewing on my nail industriously. Josh still didn’t come back. Another few minutes ticked by.
“This isn’t right,” I muttered to myself.
Josh had told me to stay put. And I understood the importance of that. I was on a protection order. But at the same time, Josh was the one who was meant to go through with that protection order. If something happened to him—
“Screw this,” I muttered to myself as I pushed up. The game was about to start, but that didn’t matter. After all, I wasn’t here for the spectacle. I was here to solve this case. Now, it looked like I was here to find my partner, too.
I pushed through the crowds, always searching for him, not just with my eyes, but with my skills.
It didn’t matter.
I had no idea where he was.
And somewhere out there was Carson Black. Goddammit. I shouldn’t have come here, should I?
I backed away from the crowd, heading further up through the stands.
People were coming and going, some of them were heading to the toilets, some of them going to grab more food.
So there were a bunch of people behind me.
I walked faster, trying to put some distance between them and me.
“Come on, come on,” I muttered under my breath, pushing up onto my tiptoes to see if I could sight him. I couldn’t.
I reached the main foyer area, and it was a mess of people.
I kept pushing up and down on my tiptoes, trying to catch a glimpse of Josh, but there was nothing.
That’s when I heard someone take a breath behind me. “Looking for someone?”
Nerves shot through me as I turned.
He looked at me through his designer glasses, a certain kind of smile spreading his lips. He shoved his tongue through them and pressed it against one of his canines. “You’re quite a find, if you don’t mind the pun.”
“Carson Black,” he said as he shoved a hand in front of me.
When I didn’t accept his hand, he grabbed mine and did all the shaking. He had a cold and clammy grip. Though I usually didn’t judge people based on their grips, this guy gave me the willies.
“You’ve made quite a stir around Madison City. Now we have two finders.”
“Yes,” I defaulted to saying. “I guess that’s true. If you’ll excuse me, though—”
“Are you looking for somebody? But you can’t find him? That’s unusual. I mean, that’s your power, right?”
It was a threat. There was no way it wasn’t.
Fear started to tumble through me. Before it could get a full hold of my limbs and freeze me in place, I saw someone out of the corner of my eye. It was the warlock rugby player from before.
Carson didn’t let up. “I’ve got something for you, Bethany Samson. So why don’t you come with me?” It wasn’t a question. It was a demand.
With my heart beating hard in my chest, I came to a quick and relatively easy decision. Go with Carson, and he would either kidnap me or do something much worse.
Then I saw an opportunity.
“Excuse me, Mr. Stevenson? Mr. Stevenson?”
You know that rugby player from before? Yeah, he was just a couple of meters away, his tall form looming easily above the crowd.
I was lucky that I remembered not just his face, but his name.
The guy looked around.
I darted toward him. “Sir, I’m not sure if this guy’s the one who stole your ticket – but I certainly saw him hanging around your seat. And he’s got a VIP ticket on him.”
“What are you—” Carson began.
Stevenson walked over, his hands in the pockets of his massive bomber jacket. “Show me that VIP ticket,” he growled.
“What the hell is going on here?” Carson demanded.
“I said show me the ticket—” Stevenson snapped.
“I have a VIP ticket on me – it’s because I’m a VIP,” Carson began.
I sidled to the left and quickly got lost in the crowd.
When I looked over my shoulder, it was to the sight of Stevenson grabbing Carson by his lapels and lifting him up.
I wasn’t a fan of bullies, but I’m sure Carson could look after himself.
Once I’d slipped sufficiently far into the crowd and out of sight, I realized I was in more trouble than I ever had been in my life. So there was only one thing to do. Go find help. Of the justice kind.
I remembered seeing the uniformed police officers Josh had spoken about when we’d walked through the foyer.
I headed toward them now.
Something suddenly told me they weren’t in the foyer anymore. They were outside dealing with a dispute.
I didn’t need to second-guess that assumption. Because it wasn’t an assumption. I knew it. I wouldn’t find the officers in here.
So I turned around.
That’s when I caught sight of Carson pushing through the crowd toward me.
Not knowing what to do, I spun on my foot and headed forward. Before too long, I found myself walking toward the VIP lounge.
Two burly-looking warlocks stopped me at the door. “This is the VIP—” they began.
Josh hadn’t given me my own ticket. So I made a calculated guess. After all, Helena had promised she’d meet us in the VIP lounge. “I’m sorry, I don’t have my VIP ticket on me. I was invited by Helena Hancock. Do you have a list? Is there someone you can check with?”
The guys obviously got this excuse all the time. They didn’t even let me finish. One of them jammed a thumb back in the direction I’d come. “Beat it.”
“That’s no way to treat an honored guest,” someone said from behind me. I instantly recognized their smooth voice.
I turned to see Helena walk past in a stunning blue embroidered dress.
She brought up a hand, patted the shoulder of the closest bouncer, and smiled at him. It was a specific smile. One that showed her teeth. “Perhaps you should check the list next time?”
The guy solidly didn’t make eye contact as he stared at his hands. “Will do, ma’am.”
“Good. Peter promised that you were one of his best bouncers.” With that, Helena gestured forward.
I had no option but to follow her in.
I didn’t know what to do, but I knew enough about this twisted, complicated world to appreciate telling Helena my troubles wasn’t going to help me. I needed to find a policeman, and I needed to find one now.
Helena clutched her purse in her hand as she turned to glance my way. Sorry, I mean stare my way. She looked as if she’d come from far and wide to visit an exhibit at a zoo. “Are you enjoying the game? Where’s Josh, anyway?”
I swallowed. Was this where I should admit that I had no idea where Josh was? Or should I keep it to myself? Yeah, so Josh thought that Helena was ultimately a good person, but Josh was also obviously bamboozled by her good looks. For all I knew, the second I revealed that Josh wasn’t close at hand, she’d snatch me up just as tightly as she was holding her purse.
I swallowed. “He has just gone to track something down. He’ll be back. He told me… to meet him here.” Once the lies were out, I couldn’t pull them back.
“Oh,” she managed.
Helena didn’t grow bored of me as we walked into the VIP lounge – which was, true to its name, exactly like the place you would keep your very important people. It was huge, practically took up one wall of the stadium, and was dressed to impress. There were large tables along one side, and they were packed with a scrumptious looking buffet. There were also white and black-clad waiters shifting through the guests with crystal cut glasses of champagne.
I recognized a heck of a lot of people from the news and magazines. The rest looked like, to put it frankly, money. Or at least like what money would look like if it became embodied, grew two legs, and started walking around. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many diamonds and gold watches in one place. It was also very clear that no one was here to watch the game.
Helena stayed steadfastly by my side. She walked me forward with the presence of somebody parading a new pet.
And heads turned. While maybe roughly 40 percent of the guests looked on at me in confusion, the rest seemed to know exactly who I was.
God, had news of me spread that quickly and that thoroughly?
Helena had the kind of expression that told me she was loving this. The next thing I knew she locked a hand on my shoulder. “What would you like to drink?” Without actually waiting for my reply, she grabbed up a tall glass of champagne and pressed it into my hand. “Now I’ve been dying to ask – have you done it? Have you found Howard?” Her voice stiffened.
If I hadn’t been paying so much attention to her, I wouldn’t have noticed it. But it definitely tightened with stress.
I looked up at her as I accepted the champagne. “We might be close.”
“Might be? I thought you were a finder?”
Her voice didn’t exactly carry, but the people standing closest to us all stiffened.
God, I felt like a lamb who’d been brought around to a lion pride to enjoy afternoon tea but had figured out too late that she would be the tea.
“It’s still early days. I haven’t quite figured out how to use my powers effectively yet. But hopefully we’ll get lucky,” I said defensively. I had no intention whatsoever of telling Helena that we didn’t need to get lucky and that we’d already seen Howard. It didn’t matter that she was the person who’d contracted us. All that mattered is I didn’t think I’d ever been as freaked out as this in my life. There was every chance that Josh had been kidnapped, and even though I was sure I was safe here with the bouncers outside and Helena pressed over my shoulder, I didn’t know where Carson was.
“You seem a little tense,” Helena pointed out. Is Mr. McIntosh giving you a hard time? Tricky personality, that one. I find it best to smile until he gives up.”
I couldn’t help it, and I actually snorted at that.
“So he is giving you a hard time, ha?” She emphasized the word is. “I’m sure if you petition, you could find work elsewhere. And I would be more than happy to help you find another contract.” She couldn’t contain her enthusiasm.
I understood perfectly. She’d be totally freaking delighted to find me a new contract – especially one with her.
“He’s gruff, but I’m getting used to him,” I managed. “Do you know where the bathrooms are?” I asked as I shrugged out of her grip.
“They’re just over there.”
“Thank you.” I ducked my head down, trying not to blanch at all the attention I was getting.
As I shifted across to the toilets, I shoved a hand into my pocket and clutched hold of my phone. It was time to call the police. I didn’t know if that was protocol when tracking down a bounty, but at the end of the day, I was pretty certain they were the only people who could help me now.
… Then again, had there actually been a crime committed? Sure, Carson Black had threatened me, and sure, Josh was missing, but—
To hell with it. When in doubt, call the authorities. That’s what every goody two shoes knows.
I made it through the door that led to both the female and male stalls.
I walked into the female stalls. There were only two bathrooms, and they were both empty.
I leaned against the closed door, hoping it would give me a warning if someone tried to push in. And then I did it – I called the cops. Or at least, I called the Justice Department, told them who I was, and explained the situation. I didn’t need to repeat my name – they, like the rest of this town, had obviously heard of me.
When I explained the situation, they told me to stay put and that they would send uniformed officers immediately.
… And that was that.
Apparently being a goody two shoes worked out, after all.
With a sigh, I ended the call, shoved my phone into my pocket, and walked out of the door. I expected I would just have to endure the rest of this VIP function until the cops came to get me. That, or Josh appeared and he gave me one hell of an ear bashing.
But as soon as I walked through the door, it was to see a certain Max C. Knights standing there with his hands in his pockets. He looked directly at me.
Several things happened. My heart skipped a beat, but then it made up for it by pounding in fear. Was Max in on this? What if he was so complicated that he’d kidnapped Josh? What if—
“I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation through the door. You need to come with me.” He turned over his shoulder, indicating the door back into the VIP room.
I didn’t move a muscle. I stayed exactly where I was, one hand hovering near the pocket that carried my phone. “If you overheard the conversation, then you know that the police are on their way,” I said in a stilted voice. I was trying to hide my fear, but there was no way I could do it.
Max looked at me, a confused expression crumpling his handsome features. “There’s no need to be scared of me. Believe you me, I hold you no ill.”
I didn’t know anyone who spoke like Max. Then again, I didn’t know anyone like Max full stop.
His stuffy way of speaking didn’t make him seem aloof. Quite the contrary, it made him seem all the more real, somehow. I didn’t understand why. But I did understand one thing – being here in his presence, and especially being alone – I couldn’t deny the tether that seemed to connect us. I sighed again. “I need to stay still. They said uniformed officers would be on their way.”
“Josh may not have that much time.”
I shivered. “What have you—”
“Nothing.” He took his hands out of his pockets and brought them up in a surrendering motion. “I don’t know who exactly you think I am, but I’m not a criminal, Miss Samson. And you need to come with me.”
“I’m under a protection order—” I began, voice rising high.
He shot me a very specific look. “I know. And that’s why you need to come with me. So stay close by my side and act as if nothing’s wrong.”
“Why should I—”
He rounded on me, coming a step closer, his polished shoes echoing out as they slapped on the marble floor. “While I’m not a danger to you, there are people at this party who are. Especially if they found out that your protector isn’t with you right now. This city is a complicated place.”
“Everyone keeps telling me that,” I said through clenched teeth. “But I’m still not going anywhere until you explain what’s going on.”
Max tilted his head back and sighed. “Exactly what has Josh been telling you about me? There’s no reason for you to be that suspicious.”
I hid my expression. “Josh hasn’t said anything about you. The magazines say plenty. And now I know you’re a finder, I’m not nearly as impressed by your ability to pick good ventures. The law may have nothing to say about you finding good deals,” I brought my fingers up and made star fingers, “but it’s still barely legal.”
Max blinked back his surprise. It was the move of somebody who was good at dealing with insults but was nonetheless put off. “I assure you it’s not barely legal. It is legal. And if that’s the only reason you’re not going to trust me now, then I’ll put your mind at ease. I haven’t built my empire based solely on my skills. A lot of it comes down to simple hard work. I research those who I invest in first. Yes, occasionally I use my magic, but not nearly as often as you obviously think. I don’t need to rely on my skills to appreciate that a badly managed startup with no business plan will likely fail. I could go into a full discussion with you over this right now, but it really isn’t the time. Your partner is on the line.”
I shivered. “We don’t know that…” I trailed off.
Max looked at me seriously. “What do you feel?” he asked directly, all his disdain at the fact I’d insulted him completely gone.
I frowned. “What does it matter—”
“Josh is many things, but he’s not a finder, and I imagine he’s useless at helping you,” Max smiled briefly, “find your powers. We may not be the same types of finder, but we are still technically the same classification of witch. So from one witch to another, what do you feel?” He brought up a hand and patted it on his chest using a softly clenched fist.
I frowned. I went to fob him off, but at the last moment, I answered honestly, “Terrified. I feel like I’m standing on a cliff and someone is about to push me off. I feel like Carson Black has done something to Josh. I feel like he set me up. Like he wants me to go find Josh. Like I’m running out of time. I feel like, at the end of the day, this all has to do with what Howard Rush was informing the Justice Department about.” I surprised myself with my honesty, but once my words were out, I couldn’t pull them back.
Max snorted softly. “So you think that Howard’s an informant, then?”
I frowned suddenly. “How do you know?”
“Because Howard Rush came to me first.”
It was a bombshell. My shoulders dropped. “What? Why would he come to you first?”
“Because he hoped that I’d be able to keep him safe. I handed him to the Justice Department. If you don’t believe me, you can call them. I’m here, so if you put me on the line, I’m sure they will confirm what I’m saying.”
I could just believe Max at face value, but I had a phone, and I intended to use it. I did exactly as he said. When I mentioned to the same woman I’d been talking to previously that I was with Max, she didn’t scream at me to run the hell away. She asked me to put him on. They exchanged a few brief words wherein Max confirmed I was under his protection, and then he gave the phone back to me.
My contact at the Justice Department confirmed everything he was saying and told me to stay by his side until the police arrived.
Suffice to say, by the time I hung up and put my phone back in my pocket, I no longer stared at Max defiantly.
I was confused instead. Josh had told me over and over again to be careful of Max.
But now here was the Justice Department telling me to trust him.
“You don’t need to look so surprised,” Max said with a quiet chuckle. “Just because you don’t agree with the ethics of the way I make money, doesn’t mean I don’t know when to do the right thing,” he emphasized those words.
I swallowed. “Fine. Where do you want to take me, exactly?”
“Out of this party. Sooner rather than later. I imagine Carson will be on his way.”
I stiffened visibly. “Why?”
“Because I imagine you are right, and he’s interested in your skills. He’s going to push you to find Josh, and then,” Max didn’t finish his sentence and instead grabbed his chin hard.
I couldn’t stiffen anymore – I already felt as if every single muscle was as tight as a spring. I let out a measured breath. “What do we do about Josh? I… I still feel like he’s running out of time. Will the police be able to find him? Josh warned me that Carson Black has friends in high places.”
Max looked away, then back to me. “He does have friends in high places. And I imagine that unless we can get some credible incriminating evidence, he will walk away from this scot-free.”
“But he threatened me—”
“This is a complicated world. But for now, let’s go before he arrives.” Max held a hand out to me.
I didn’t accept it, but at least I accepted his offer to help. Because now I had no one else.
But the question of whether I had Max or whether he had me would be one I would soon find the answer to.
We walked into the VIP room. And there was Carson Black.
Max had pushed out of the bathroom in front of me, and I was several steps behind, making it look as if we weren’t together.
Which was obviously precisely what Carson thought as his lips ticked swiftly up and he took a step toward me.
Max? Took a step in front of me. “Carson? Long time no see. What exactly are you here for?”
“Max… Maximus,” Carson corrected himself smoothly. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m one of the elites of Madison City. I would assume it was clear. And how about you? I wouldn’t have thought this function required your… particular skill set.”
I got the impression that men like Max weren’t meant to draw attention to men like Carson’s line of work.
Carson pressed his tongue against his closed lips and managed a small smile. “I’m here to play, Max. How about you?” Carson slid his gaze off Max and onto me.
Which is precisely what Max did too. He looked at me directly. “I’m catching up with an acquaintance. Now, please excuse us. We have something more important to do.”
Carson’s expression stiffened. “… I see.”
“I’m sure you do,” Max said as he walked passed.
I scurried along after Max, even though I’d already pointed out that I wasn’t the kind of woman who liked to play the damsel. I just wanted to get the hell away from Carson right now.
All eyes were on Max and me as we walked out of the room.
I glanced over at Helena, and she had the oddest expression on her face. I expected her to walk over and ask why I was leaving. She didn’t. Nobody questioned us. I felt a lot like the school dropout who’d just been accepted by the coolest gang in town. As long as I stayed by Max’s side, nobody would trouble me.
We made it out of the VIP lounge and then to the hallway beyond.
As soon as both the bouncers saw Max, they actually half bowed as if he was a king.
I didn’t say a word, and neither did Max. Rather than head back to the foyer and take our chances with the crowds, he took me through a door that led to the back halls of the stadium.
He stopped abruptly.
I lingered behind him. “Are we going to wait here? I thought you were going to take me someplace safe?”
Max ticked his head to the side.
I opened my mouth. I paused. I got the sudden distinct impression that he was using his powers. He wasn’t charging with magic, and neither was he making a specific movement of his fingers in the air like Josh did when he was casting a spell.
But that tethered connection between Max and me confirmed what he was doing.
“… You’ve just found something, haven’t you?”
It took a few seconds for Max to react. He turned toward me. “You picked that up? No one else knows when I’m using my powers. Then again, I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve met a fellow finder. Yes – I was using my powers,” he confirmed directly.
“What have you found?”
“An opportunity,” he said carefully.
“I think you’re right,” he said out of the blue.
“That Josh may be… standing on a precipice. Possibly literally.”
Genuine alarm spiked through me. It was the kind of alarm you would feel for a close friend if they were in danger – not just an idiotic bounty hunter. But I couldn’t deny my sensations as I took a rushed step toward Max.
We were alone in this hallway, and there were no windows back into the rooms beyond or the stadium outside. The walls were concrete and they were more than thick enough that the roar of the fans was little more than a muttering from beyond.
So there was nothing to distract from what Max said next. “I think we have an opportunity to find Josh.”
“And if we don’t take that opportunity? I thought we were going to wait for the police—”
“I think we have an opportunity to find Josh before it’s too late,” Max expanded. He looked at me directly. I swore that even if the stadium crumbled down around us, he wouldn’t yank his gaze off me.
The blood drained from my cheeks and lips, probably making me look as if I’d just kissed ice. “Oh my God.”
“You’re not going to question me?” Max asked abruptly.
“… No.” I shook my head. “I think you’re telling the truth. No….”
“You feel I’m telling the truth,” he took the words right out of my mouth.
I looked at him. He looked at me. And I swear that chain linking us together became all the tighter.
I took a breath, not knowing what I was about to say. But I didn’t get the chance to say it. Max ticked his head to the side. “That opportunity is rapidly closing. You need to find him,” he said flatly.
I blinked. “I don’t—”
“Before you say you don’t know how to find anyone, you clearly do. Follow your emotions. Your feelings.” He brought that same hand up, wrapped it into that same soft fist, and tapped his chest twice. “Finder magic is some of the most unusual out there. It is also the hardest to learn. We don’t get to rely on channeling force like everyone else does. Instead, we must follow our sensations and trust what they teach us. Now follow yours. Unlike Howard, you have met Josh directly. And I imagine the last several days of enjoying his particular brand of company has left a solid Mark in your mind. Focus on Josh. On your first experience. On the way he sounds. On the way he acts. Draw up a perfect image of him in your mind. And then follow.”
I let my gaze linger on Max. Then I did it. I closed my eyes and withdrew within.
Did I trust Max yet? I didn’t know anymore. Josh’s warning was ringing in my mind at the same time as what I’d learned from the Justice Department. I doubted Max had his own personal plant at the Justice Department. Which left only one other possibility – he hadn’t lied, and he’d handed Howard Rush over to them. Making him a good guy, right? Or at least it further complicated an already exceedingly complex man.
The point was, when I was close to him, I couldn’t help but trust him. Because I couldn’t help but follow what he was suggesting.
Josh McIntosh…. It wasn’t hard to draw up the memory of when we’d first met – I was still sore over the way he’d treated me. Nor was it hard to draw up the sound of his voice. It was just as annoying and infuriatingly enduring as a mosquito buzzing around your head all night.
But I didn’t focus on how much Josh irritated me. I focused on him – his essence. The next thing I knew, I took a step forward, then another. I still had my eyes closed. Apparently that didn’t matter. There was various paraphernalia lining this hallway, but I didn’t walk into it.
The only thing I was aware of was the image of Josh in my mind and the dull sound of Max’s footfall as he followed me several steps behind.
I didn’t know the back halls of the stadium. Hell, before today, I’d never been here. None of that mattered. We navigated through the various interconnecting hallways and doors. Whenever we came to a door that was locked, Max would show his less than reputable skills, and unpick it using a paperclip he’d found in his pocket.
It didn’t take long until we wound our way through the back of one of the massive stands. Max never rushed me. Nor did he ever second-guess where we were going. Unlike Josh, it seemed Max had absolutely no question of my abilities.
“We’re close,” I suddenly said. “He’s… he’s just through that door.” My eyes were still closed, but I pointed confidently in front of me, knowing there was a door there.
I could feel Max pressed close beside me. “Unless I’m very much mistaken, that’s where they keep the grounds equipment.”
“Okay,” I said as I opened my eyes and reached forward.
Before I could grab the handle, Max latched a hand on my wrist.
“What are you doing?” I demanded.
“I need to remind you of something very important. Both you and I are only witches not warlocks.”
I stared at him. God, he was right. It wasn’t to say that we weren’t powerful. Obviously I had considerable magical skills if I had, in fact, found Josh without knowing where he was to begin with. And obviously – considering he was the most powerful man in the city, if not the country – Max had skills too.
The point was, our power was nothing compared to warlocks.
“What do we do? Do you… still sense that opportunity?”
“Indeed I do. But the window for it is closing. Whatever happens, follow my lead. There is every possibility that whoever Carson has got guarding Josh, they don’t know who you are. They will recognize me, though.” With that, Max closed a hand around mine and made me open the door. Tingles erupted up my flesh and darted into my elbow.
Then the door swung open.
And I found Josh.
I didn’t celebrate the fact that this was the second time I’d used my powers to find somebody other than a testing officer.
I crammed a hand over my mouth to stop myself from screaming.
Josh was balancing on a tiny box over a pit. The pit wasn’t a feature of the grounds room. It was magical. It was this dancing black void of flames.
I’d never seen a pit like this – heck, I’d never seen anything like it full stop – but just one look was enough to tell me that if Josh touched any of those black flames, he was a goner.
As for leaping off the box and beyond the edges of the pit, the pit was huge, and Josh didn’t have a chance.
He looked up as the door opened. So did two burly warlocks who were sitting in some of the massive ride-on mowers housed on the far side of the room. They’d obviously been biding their time guarding Josh while having some fun on the equipment. Boys do love mowers, after all – especially big ones.
At the sight of us bursting into the room, they jumped down, the heavy sound of their footfall echoing through the room.
I shrunk behind Max. He’d told me to do exactly as he said. Plus, now my powers were useless. I’d found Josh, and that was about as useful as I would be.
I just hoped Max knew what he was doing.
He took a step into the room. He didn’t start screaming and demand that Josh should be let go. He cast his gaze over to Josh, controlled his expression, and shrugged. “You must be Carson’s men, then? He sent me down here,” Max said smoothly. There wasn’t a hint of anything in his tone other than cool command.
Both of the thick-necked warlocks looked at each other, then over at Max. “Who—” one of them asked.
“It’s Max Knights,” the other guy whispered hard under his breath.
“Actually,” Max’s lips spread wide, revealing his glinting teeth, “it’s Maximus Knights. I’m very specific about that,” he emphasized the word specific. “Now, where’s my man?”
Both warlocks looked at each other again. “Over there,” one of them pointed out in the kind of careful tone you would use on someone who obviously couldn’t see something that was literally dangling in front of their nose.
Max cast an uncaring glance Josh’s way.
He had a gag on, and I could tell why. After a few seconds of listening to his complaints, no doubt the warlocks would have grown tired of him.
But he didn’t have a blindfold on, so I could see his eyes in full. They were locked on me. I didn’t know if he looked happy to see me or very, very angry.
“I’m not interested in him. I want the informant,” Max said, his lips moving harshly around the word.
“That wasn’t the deal.” One of the warlocks scratched his neck. “The informant’s already been sold. He’s bundled and ready to go.”
“Perhaps you don’t understand how this town works. I paid more for him. Now he’s mine. Where is he?”
You wouldn’t be able to tell that Max was lying. He was acting so smoothly and in-control that it seemed as if he did this all the time. As if negotiating for kidnapped informants was a weekly activity right alongside balancing his books and going for a run.
“We’re going to need to ask Carson,” the smartest of the two warlocks said. “Anyhow, who’s she?” He shrugged at me.
I’d been doing a remarkably good job of hiding behind Max. He’d also been doing a good job of keeping his shoulders pressed as wide as he could.
I didn’t step out from behind his shadow and announce myself with a friendly wave. I shrugged even further back into the protection of the doorway.
“She’s an emotion reader. I only recently contracted her. She’s very good.”
One of the warlocks whistled. The other one – the smarter one – swallowed.
I knew what an emotion reader was. It was in the name. Someone who could read the emotions of others, even if their target was trying to hide them. They were, understandably, invaluable in business deals. They could help their employer understand when someone was lying, holding back, or contemplating screwing them over.
“We have to wait for Carson,” the smarter of the two repeated, casting a wary glance my way.
“I’m on a deadline. Melissa,” Max half turned to me, making it obvious that Melissa was my new name, “are these men lying? Are they stalling?” he added, as if stalling was worse than lying.
I didn’t know exactly how Max wanted me to play this, but I could guess what I had to do next. “They’re stalling. Carson isn’t on his way. Perhaps he’s screwed you over and is making a deal with somebody else?”
“I would hope that he wasn’t that stupid. Because that would mean,” Max took a step forward, plucked the pocket watch from his vest pocket, glanced at it for several long seconds, then placed it back carefully, “that I would have to take everything that belongs to him, including every contract,” he said as he let his gaze slice toward the two guards.
Now even the smart one looked as if he wanted to run. “Hold on,” he brought his hands up in a placating motion, “nobody is stalling.”
“Then why haven’t you told me where Howard is? I’m running out of time. And if I’m running out of time – you’re running out of time,” Max’s voice dropped as low as it could.
Both guards looked at each other, and it was obvious they came to a decision. The smart one cleared his throat and opened his mouth.
God, it was working. Obviously Max had enough experience dealing with criminals and knew exactly how to handle them. Or he was doing it – using his ability – sensing opportunities and taking them.
Just when I thought I could relax, the last thing I wanted to see appeared in the middle of the room. The specific crackle of magic that preceded a portal spell cut through the air with a sizzle.
My back had the time to arch as a race of nerves dashed through my stomach, then I saw him. Though technically I saw his designer glasses first.
I didn’t have the time to latch my hand on Max’s arm and pull him back. Obviously, Carson Black was worth his money, because this portal spell was quick. He didn’t have to appear through the floor, rising up through it as if he were on an invisible elevator. In a little under two seconds, he was standing there a few meters away from Max, his hands in his pockets.
Immediately Carson tilted his head to the side. He took one look at Max, shifted his position, saw me, and smiled.
Max shifted an arm toward me. It was a jerked, quick move. Then I heard his deep baritone. “Run.”
I wasn’t a brave girl. Or at least, before I’d become a bounty hunter, I certainly hadn’t been a particularly courageous person. But now I had standards. And I knew I couldn’t just leave Max alone. But at the same time, I had no choice but to follow his words. Something welled up from within me, and it didn’t take that much effort to realize what it was. It was the same tether that had been haunting my dreams and every interaction I’d had with Max so far. It forced me to twist on my foot and thrust toward the door. Before I could reach it, the door closed with an almighty thwack that echoed through the large room.
A few faint charges of magic escaped over the wood and metal, sizzling like hot coals thrown into water.
Max didn’t say a word. His entire body tensed up until it looked as if his shoulders were about to support the world.
Carson brought his hands out of his pockets, clapped once, then twice, then a third time. “Well, isn’t this one for the books? We’ve got none other than Max Knights,” Carson said, really emphasizing the word Max, making it obvious that Carson wasn’t going to afford Max the dignity of using his full name anymore. “And now I’ve got myself my very own finder,” Carson added.
Max straightened even more. I wouldn’t have thought that would be possible. From the exact line of his back and the look of his tensed shoulder muscles, it looked as if he was already as rigid as he could be. And yet, either he was being stretched by an invisible rack, or he wanted Carson to be intimidated by just how tall and broad-shouldered Max was. “All I can do is warn you about this,” Max said with no preamble. “I don’t see much opportunity for you in the future.”
As insults went, it wasn’t up there. In fact, it barely meant a thing. Until you realized who Max was. And it wasn’t just that he was a finder capable of sensing opportunities. More than anything, it was that he was the major kingpin of Madison City.
Carson didn’t look rattled, though. He put his tongue into his cheek and pressed hard until it looked as if he’d swallowed a golf ball. “I can’t say I am that convinced by your argument, Max,” he repeated, again not bothering to say Max’s full name. “You see, though you are a power in this city at the moment, do you think it will last?” There was a clear threat in his words. It was in his body language as he took a rigid step forward, the last few sparks of residual power from the transport spell crackling off his expensive leather shoes and dancing over the concrete floor. “You know, Max, you might have had the advantage until now. But what are you going to do? I work for the Cruze Gang. Do you know who they are? Do you know what they’re into?”
Max’s expression was perfectly even as if he was simply discussing the weather. “Yes, I have heard of them. And yes,” his voice dropped, though it was still even, “I know precisely what they’re into. D 20.”
You should have seen the crazed look in Carson’s eyes as Max said that. It looked as if he’d just taken a hit. He brought his hands up and started clapping them wildly, the sound echoing through the large concrete expanse. “Good boy – good boy. You really do do your research, don’t you? I wonder how many secrets of this city you know? Anyhow, now that’s off my chest, thank you so much for bringing me a locator finder. Do you have any idea how useful one of those will be to the Cruze Gang? I’m sure you do. You were always a man who could see opportunities,” Carson chucked his head back and laughed. “Now that’s been explained, I’m just going to take a wild guess here,” Carson looked down at his feet, then scrunched his eyebrows up and looked at us from underneath them as if he was trying to be genuine, “but I don’t think you can find yourself much opportunity in this situation. You may be a lot of things, but the Cruze Gang are more powerful than you. In fact, if I was a betting man,” he patted a hand on his chest, the sound echoing out, “I’d say you’re fresh out of luck. Maybe you sensed some slim opportunity coming in here. But it’s gone. Now,” Carson switched his attention to me, and the specific look he shot me was like a man sizing up some investment. He even brought a hand up, latched it on his chin, and shifted his fingers in. “The money I can get for her from the gang will far exceed anything you can offer. You might have made your fortune on the stock exchange by figuring out what will succeed and what will fail, but Max,” he gestured to me again, “why go to all the effort of doing that, when you can just steal? God, how long has it been since there was a locator in this city? Hell, how long has it been since there was a locator in the country? I spent the last half hour jotting down ways to test her skills for the gang. Everything from lost treasure to police evidence to helping us hide stockpiles. It’s gonna be a whirlwind.”
Max hadn’t said a word for a while now. I caught sight of the side of his face. It was rigid, but not so much with anger. More with concentration. I wanted to tell myself that he was using his powers. That this was him trying to figure out the best way to help me.
“Now, as I see it, you only have one option. Give her up freely, and maybe we’ll cut you a slice of this. You’ve always been too high and mighty to outright join the bad side of town, but I doubt you’ll have that opportunity anymore,” Carson seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in saying the word opportunity, almost as if it’d been a word that had been banned from his vocabulary until now. “So what do you say? Step aside. It’s not like you have any other option.” Carson gestured to his two warlocks with two clicks of his extended fingers. “You may be a lot of things, Max, but at the end of the day, you’re just a witch and not a warlock. So what do you say?” Carson asked again, this time through clenched teeth.
I knew what Max would do. Or at least, I thought I knew what Max would do.
I expected he would do just as he’d promised – keep me safe.
He didn’t. He pressed a hand into his pocket and stepped aside.
I watched as Josh’s eyes bulged with unmistakable anger. It appeared as if his whole face would crack with it.
Then Carson Black took a step toward me, that smile spreading even further across his face until it looked like a virus. One that would soon spread from him and destroy everything around.
So this was it, ha? Only a couple of frigging days after learning I was a witch, I was about to be sold to the highest bidder in town. I wanted to say it wasn’t fair. But who was I kidding? Absolutely nothing about this situation had ever been fair. If I had my wish, I’d still be back in the café, working with Susan.
But there was no use concentrating on spilt milk. If there was one thing this new world had taught me, it was that witches were nothing without action.
Everyone kept telling me I was the most powerful witch in Madison City. And in many ways, I was. But I was also the weakest. Somebody with a heck of a lot of utility, but with absolutely no ability to defend themselves. I was like a walking gold statue just waiting for someone to pluck me up. And from the look in Carson Black’s eyes to that sick smile still pressed across his lips, he was about to do just that.
Josh looked and sounded as if he was trying to scream under his gag, but one look at it and the faint sparks of magic flickering across the fabric, and it was obvious it was more than just a little bandage.
As for Max? He wouldn’t look my way.
You would think my heart would’ve just been crushed. You would think that I would’ve thrown away all of the trust I’d gained for him since the conversation with the Justice Department. And you’d think, more than anything, I would finally reach into my heart and unravel the tether that apparently connected him to me. But if anything, it was growing stronger. Almost as if it was begging me for one final time to trust him.
Carson Black walked all the way up to me and then started peering at me as if I was livestock he was thinking of buying from a farm. I was surprised he stopped short of checking my teeth.
“By the looks of it, your powers are still pretty new, but they’ll grow. Especially if we make them. Obviously,” he jerked a thumb toward Josh, “when you’ve got an incentive, you shine.”
Thus far I’d stayed virtually mute. It wasn’t simply that Max had told me to trust him – it was that I’d had nothing to say.
Now? I looked right at Carson. “You’re a monster.”
Carson shrugged. “One man’s monster is another man’s liberator. I did things for this city that no other warlock had the balls to do. And you’re now going to help me.” He pointed at me again. “So who exactly is the monster?”
“Where is Howard – at least you can give me that?” The question was out of my lips before I had thought about it. Despite everything that was going on, the part of me that was the finder still needed to know where he was.
Carson snorted. “Come on, you tell me – where is Howard?”
I was about to snap at him that I had no idea, but I paused.
Carson looked suddenly interested, his eyes widening beneath his thick frames. “Have you figured it out yet?”
Had I figured what out yet?
Howard had been a respected employee of Hancock Industries. Someone who’d obviously risen through the ranks and showed enough skill to secure a middle management job. And yet someone, at the same time, who’d been bullied. He’d found out information worthy of becoming a Justice Department informant. Information that had ultimately seen him run.
Though I knew a lot, I couldn’t form a full picture out of those disparate facts.
Carson started to walk around me. “How about I help you out. Howard is still here in the stadium. In fact, he’s close.”
I looked up at him sharply. “I’m sorry, I have no idea.”
He pressed his lips into a thin smile. “If this is you trying to pretend that you have no ability to track down something on command, there really isn’t any point. Because if you’re not motivated now, you will be soon. I’ll find whatever pain point hurts the most, and I’ll push. Speaking of which.” He clicked his fingers.
The box that Josh was standing on – the box suspending him above the crackling pit of black magic – suddenly became tiny. It became little more than a wire, in fact.
I gasped in terror as I expected Josh to drop. He didn’t. He showed some otherworldly balance as he managed to twist himself like a professional tightrope walker until he was just balanced. He looked at me with wide-eyed desperation.
“Josh!” I screamed. I went to throw myself forward, but Carson got in the way, shoving in close as he pressed his face near mine. “You want to get Josh down from there – without pushing him into a pit of lifeless flame and seeing him turned into a corpse – go find Howard for me. You have a minute. I think Josh is man enough to balance for that long.” Carson straightened up and laughed.
I turned to the one person I thought could still help me. Max.
But Max? Didn’t look at me.
I stood there for several seconds.
“You’re wasting time. If you would rather see Josh dead, I’ll just find someone else in matters to you. Now chip chop. I need to assess your skills for the Cruze Gang before I demand a high price for you. Wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of them.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d mentioned this gang. He’d also mentioned the drug D 20. It wasn’t something you would hear about on the news, but I had seen a couple of messages posted about it on social media. I’d even overheard several customers from the police department talking about it once. It was a magical drug. One specifically honed for warlocks. Take it, and you were meant to increase your powers. But if you weren’t a warlock and you were just an ordinary person, it was meant to push you into an eight-hour long trip of utter bliss. Sure, there was every chance that after that eight-hour period you could face significant organ damage, but to some junkies, that didn’t matter. The risk was worth it.
In other words, D 20 was horrible stuff. I may not have heard about the Cruze Gang specifically, but if they controlled the importation of D 20 into Madison City, then they had to be one of the most powerful gangs in the country.
So why would Carson be here?
I finally had my ah-ha moment. Carson wasn’t here to protect Howard – he was here to find Howard for the Cruze Gang. Howard must’ve seen something going on in Hancock Industries, informed the Justice Department, and stuck his neck out. Maybe he’d stupidly contacted Carson to help him escape, and maybe Carson had gone straight to the gang to fetch a higher price.
“You aren’t rushing around to find Howard,” Carson spat beside me, his voice like the crack of a whip.
“I don’t get it – do you work for the Cruze Gang, or did you contact them when Howard went to you for help getting out of the city?”
Carson clicked his fingers and clapped. “Finally figured that out, did you? It’s the former. I contacted them when I sensed the opportunity. And what an opportunity it will prove to be.” He momentarily flicked his gaze toward Max.
Max hadn’t said or done anything since Carson had put him in his place. More to the point, whenever I tried to make eye contact with Max, he would look away.
Before I could rue the day I ever met the bastard, Carson got up in my face once more. “You’ve only got 20 seconds left. You won’t like it when Josh falls into the pit. The smell is horrendous. You’ll never get it out of your clothing.”
“19 seconds,” Carson trilled.
I stared around the room.
“18 seconds,” he added.
I could find Howard, but that wouldn’t change this situation. I very much doubted Carson was going to let Josh go. He would just use him as bait to force me to use more of my powers.
“17 seconds. I do hope you don’t prove to be useless. The gang is exacting,” he said. And the way he spoke suggested it was from experience.
I didn’t push myself to try to find Howard anymore.
I turned my head and I stared at Carson.
I’d been thinking about this all wrong. Ever since finding my powers, if you’d pardon the pun, I hadn’t really thought about how to use them. I’d only assumed I could find people or objects. But what about more abstract things? What about, specifically, a person’s weakness? It was still locating something, so couldn’t it still be within the purview of my power?
There was only one way to find out. You see, every time Carson talked about the gang, I got a sense he was scared of them. It was in the quick twitches of his arms, in the specific look in his eyes.
I smiled. “You’re scared of them, aren’t you? They’re your weakness,” I said, letting my lips shift hard around that word. It rang through the room. Maybe it had a power unto itself, because both guards paled and straightened up.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Carson spat.
“Who says I can only find people and objects?”
Carson snarled again, but it was a noncommittal move. His top lip twitched. Then it jerked down hard. “You’ve only got 10 seconds now—”
“And how much time do you have? How much time will the gang,” I used exactly the same tone he did, “give you when they realize you’ve been lying to them?”
I had no idea if Carson had been lying to the gang, and my question was nothing more than an attempt to find out how he would react.
Sure enough, he paled until it looked as if he would pass out. “I have not been lying to them,” he stuttered.
“You have,” I said with an air of certainty – one that surprised me. It seemed to come from somewhere greater than me – someone greater, too. Someone with all the power and assuredness of a fully-fledged finder. “And you know what they’ll do to you when they find out.”
“They’ll never find out,” Carson hissed. Then he paled even further as he obviously realized what he’d just admitted to.
I smiled. Carson had stopped counting down. That wasn’t the only thing I was grinning about. I’d definitely found Carson’s weakness, and now it was time to dig deeper. “You know you’re in a bind now, don’t you?”
“Shut up—” he began.
“But if I do that, you’ll make the worst mistake of your life,” I said, emphasizing the word life. “Presumably you’ve already told the gang that you acquired me and that you’re going to let them buy me off you. But what are you going to do when I tell them that you’re a liar?”
It looked as if Carson’s face would fall off. All evidence of the arrogant, brutish man who’d been threatening me moments before was gone. He swallowed, the sound grating as if his throat had contracted to the size of a pin.
“You two won’t be safe either,” I pointed at the guards. “I’m not entirely sure how this gang operates, but I think I’m finding,” I spat, “out more about them every second. And I’ll hold you no quarter. Helping Carson,” I pressed my lips and whistled, “who knows what they’ll do to you.”
Both guards looked at each other, and all sign of bravado was gone.
Carson latched a hand over his mouth, pressing his desperate fingers in as his eyes bulged wide underneath his glasses.
“Boss, what do we do?” The smarter of the two warlocks asked.
The other warlock? Shot Carson the kind of calculating look that would tell anyone he was assessing whether to stay on a sinking ship.
Carson wrenched his hand from his mouth. “Shut up and let me think. Let me think,” he screamed.
I didn’t look at Josh directly. I wouldn’t dare allow myself to. I kept shooting glances his way out of my peripheral vision, and somehow he was still managing to balance. But I could equally tell that his muscles were becoming overtaxed as his body shook back and forth. I had to do something. I’d controlled the situation up till now, but I had to—
“Wait. It will come,” Max whispered. His voice was so quiet, I almost didn’t pick it up. It was the only thing that stopped me before I could throw myself forward.
Somehow Josh kept his balance as Carson continued to break down.
“Boss, what do we do?” the smarter bodyguard asked again. But this time, there was more demand in his tone.
“I told you two to shut up. I’ve got this under control.”
“You don’t look as if you have this under control. She’s right – you’ve already made a deal with the gang. And it’s not like you can muzzle her. And if you don’t deliver her—” the smart bodyguard said, not even bothering to finish his sentence.
“Just leave this to me – I’ve got it sorted,” Carson bellowed. He was shaking all over. Either from fear or something else. He shoved a hand into his pocket and withdrew a pillbox. It certainly hadn’t been there seconds before – as the fabric of his pocket had sat straight. Now the pills within the bottle rattled around as he managed to unscrew the lid and tip a single blue pill onto his palm. The pill was crackling with magic.
He went to shove it in his mouth.
“Now,” was all Max said.
Something happened to me. I threw myself forward. Whatever rope had been holding me back from action before broke, and it was like I was being jettisoned from a cannon.
I rounded my shoulder and struck Carson just at the right moment. He was overbalanced from his desperation, and it was easy to knock him onto his butt. As for his bottle of pills – it went flying.
I caught it.
“Throw it to Josh. He can use his magic to absorb it,” Max blurted, his voice arcing up with tension and yet power.
I didn’t question. Perhaps I should have. Perhaps this was all yet more of his game. Perhaps Max had always been working for Carson. Perhaps I would never truly be able to trust Max, a man who had spent his life finding opportunity in others. But perhaps that didn’t matter right now.
Just before Carson could throw himself to his feet and stop me, I turned and through the pillbox straight at Josh.
Though it looked as if Josh couldn’t practice magic while suspended over that pit, maybe it only made his powers weaker until there was no way he could escape. Because as soon as Max had screamed that command, the faintest charge of yellow-green magic had erupted over Josh’s skin. It was just in time as the pillbox hurtled through the air and struck him on the shoulder.
It didn’t bounce off, even though that was what it should have done. Instead, it was almost as if Josh’s residual magic made it sticky. It adhered to his shoulder. Then, the next thing I knew, the plastic cracked and melted.
There was one pill left in the box. As Josh’s magic spilled around it, it somehow digested the pill, or at least accessed its power.
“Stop him,” Carson’s screamed. It was too late.
The faint glow of Josh’s magic suddenly surged until it looked as if he were a flare.
Though he was still only just managing to balance above the pit, as his magic charged around him, the black flames below were pushed back. The strangest sizzling sound crackled through the air, and the smell of burnt fingernails filled the room.
And Josh? Jumped out of the pit. He’d never been tied up – just his mouth. He didn’t bother to un-gag himself as both of the guards threw themselves at him. He pivoted on his hip, brought his magic engorged foot up, and kicked them both back with enough force to see them tumbling halfway across the cavernous room.
Carson Black turned on his expensive shoe. He threw himself toward the blue pill several meters away from him. He didn’t manage to get to it. Max, showing speed that was usually reserved for an Army warlock, dashed over and crushed the pill under his shoe.
Carson screamed. Then Josh reached him. And the rest? History. Josh managed to contain both Carson and his two guards, and Max found the police. And as for Howard? When all was said and done, I found him gagged and tied up in a utility cupboard on the opposite side of the room. He was unconscious but alive, and that was all that mattered.
Wait, was that all that mattered?
I turned in time to see Max walking toward me, his hands in his pockets. It took him a long time to look my way, and as he did, a slow smile spread his lips. “You did well.”
It was the first time I’d managed to talk to him since the police had arrived. I took a breath.
He watched me.
I didn’t know what to say to him – whether to ask if he’d always planned on helping me back there, or if he’d switched his allegiances once it had become clear that Carson wasn’t in control, after all. That would’ve been the smart question to ask. But, at the same time, something told me there was no point. My heart, specifically, told me this was just how Max worked. I crossed my arms. “Did you know that opportunity was going to come back there? That I would find Carson’s weakness, use it against him, managed to secure one of his pills, and throw it at Josh?”
“My powers don’t work like that,” he admitted softly. “I only recognize opportunities when I find them. But I don’t think that’s the question you want to ask.”
I arched my eyebrow, suddenly feeling uncomfortable at his direct attention. I let my gaze swivel over to Josh. He was sitting on an upturned box being treated by a medic. He’d been absolutely glowing ever since he’d taken that pill, and the medic was giving him some medication to cool down. I hoped it would work, because Josh very much didn’t need drugs. He was over the top enough as it was. “Is Josh going to be all right?” I asked as an afterthought as I realized Max expected an answer.
“Yes. But that’s not the question you want to ask, either. You want to know if I had your back back there. And the answer is yes. It’s very hard for people to trust a finder,” he said out of the blue, the pitch of his voice changing. It was a tone I’d never heard him use. For it was a fragile tone that seemed to hide some pain. “Especially an opportunity finder,” he added. “There will always be the question of whether I befriended someone because I liked them, or because I think they will lead to a gain. I can’t answer that question for you. Only you can. The only advice I can offer you is to follow your feelings.”
I looked at him. It was uncomfortable, because he was close and I wasn’t blinking. But that didn’t matter. Because I came to a decision. “Thank you,” I said, “for saving Josh and saving the day.”
He smiled softly. “The thanks is all down to you, Miss Samson.”
I stared at him, and he stared at me. I swallowed, and I smiled. Maybe, on paper, I didn’t have that much to smile about. My life had gone to hell, and I’d almost been kidnapped and given to one of the most dangerous drug gangs in town. I smiled because I followed my feelings. And maybe Max was right – maybe that would be all that would matter in the end.
“I can’t believe it’s actually over,” Josh said as he marched in through the front door and dumped his phone onto the hall table. He bumped the cloisonné vase but apparently didn’t care at the moment, as he promptly took his muddy shoes off. He abandoned them in the hallway, leaned against the door, tilted his head down, covered his face with his hand, and breathed.
I walked in behind him, the door still ajar. “I thought you said this would be a routine case?” I took the opportunity to goad him, even though it looked as if he was tired enough to conk out on the floor. He was obviously suffering the come down from the D 20, even though he’d been given an antidote. But if the tables had been turned, Josh would’ve taken the opportunity to goad me in a heartbeat. Plus… I was kind of happy to see that he was fine. Which was demonstrated as he dropped his hand and snarled. “Do you want to just leave me alone?”
I brought my hands up. “I was going to offer to do the paperwork. But if you want to be left alone—”
He narrowed his gaze at me. “You don’t even know how to do paperwork. Can you even write?”
“Surprisingly, yes I can. Now, did you want to go and take a shower? I’ll fix up the paperwork, sign off that the case is complete, and potentially, if you are nice to me, I’ll cook you some burnt toast.” I smiled.
“Wow, you’re a pleasure to live with. Burnt toast? Is that the best you can do?”
“If you ask me to fix you a sandwich or a pie, I’m gonna punch you. Plus, burnt toast is the best you can do for me. Now, where’s your office? I need to fax a signature over to the Justice Department confirming the case is complete, right? As if a fax machine is still a thing,” I added under my breath.
“No way, no how. You’re not going to my office. Have you forgotten the golden rule of this house? You only get to go into three rooms.”
I crossed my arms in front of my chest, arched my eyebrow, and stared at him as hard and directly as I could. “No, I haven’t forgotten your stupid rules. Even though this isn’t actually your house. I just thought you would relax them considering I saved your life back there, and potentially your career, too.”
“You just did your job. Do you need me to give you a gold star for it?”
I crossed my arms even tighter until I threatened to squeeze my head off. “You should be a hell of a lot more thankful that I was there to help you out back there.”
“I’d be more thankful if you just left me alone and got out of my house. But hey, protection order.” Josh brought his hands up wide and gestured, his expression peeved.
He was in a hell of a mood. And though I could pretend it was just his personality shining through brighter than ever, I knew two things. He was tired and coming down from his high. And most importantly? He felt guilty for not being able to protect me. This was apparently what Josh looked like when he was feeling sorry for himself.
I now fully appreciated what Susan had pointed out. Josh had scars, and those scars dictated the majority of his reactions.
“Now go to your room, Missy, and don’t touch my stuff. Just because I’m about to conk out on the couch doesn’t mean I’m going to relax the rules. If you go outside of your three rooms – you’re in trouble.”
“Whose house is this?” someone said from behind me.
I jolted hard, not expecting the interruption. I was still standing on the doorstep, and I shifted back, my shoes skidding. Just as I tipped backward, about to tumble down the stairs and conk my head on the pavement, I felt a soft but firm hand on my shoulder.
As soon as said hand’s warmth spread through my skin, I knew exactly who it was.
Sure enough, Max pushed me up until I was standing, grabbed the door, opened it wider, and gestured for me to walk in.
I blinked at him in utter surprise. “Ah… why are you here?” I couldn’t control my tone.
“This is my house,” Max said as he gestured again for me to walk inside.
I was too damn surprised to move. Why did it seem that every time I was about to fall over – literally or metaphorically – Max was there?
I got my answer. I felt that tether connecting us once more. I pushed it away as I straightened up, surreptitiously wiped my sweaty hands on my top, and tried for a smile that didn’t look like I was trying to sell toothpaste. “I… this is Josh’s house,” I answered. It was the stupidest thing I could say. I really doubted Max had gotten confused and now thought he owned every single abode in Madison City.
Plus, Josh wasn’t saying a word to correct him.
“I own this house. I allow Josh to live here and to use it rent-free as his office and residence,” Max explained.
It was like being hit by a bombshell.
Max was the guy who owned this place? Max? The same Max Josh had such a complicated relationship with that it looked as if Josh would pop every time Max was mentioned?
My mouth was hanging open, and I made no attempt whatsoever to close it.
Josh looked down at his feet. “Is this a house inspection?”
“No. I’m returning lost property.” Max shoved a hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out a ticket. He handed it to me.
I frowned down at it then up at him. “What’s this?”
“It’s your ticket from the match. I think it fell out of Josh’s pocket after his fight.”
Before I could tell him it was just a ticket, and it had been used, and it was hardly something I would’ve missed, that smile of his spread. There was such a… God, such an alluring quality to it, but at the same time one that was bathed in mystery.
The kind of smile, to be exact, that confirmed that I still knew absolutely nothing about this guy.
“I thought it would be a handy memento. After all, it was your first proper case.”
I could see Josh staring at Max out of the corner of his eye. I didn’t need to be a mind reader to know what Josh was thinking. Max had thought up some flimsy assed excuse to come here. But Josh didn’t say a word.
I looked down at the ticket. I considered it.
I guess it was a memento, wasn’t it?
My first proper case. What’s more, a symbol of the good I’d done today. I’d saved a man’s life, for heaven’s sake. I’d also saved my partner.
I shrugged and smiled, this time genuinely. “Thank you,” I said as I carefully placed the ticket in my pocket. Then I looked over at Josh. “Should we invite the owner of the house in, then?” I emphasized the word owner.
Max brought his hands up. “This isn’t a house inspection. That being said, I’m sure,” he stared down at the cloisonné vase that had been bumped onto its side on the hall table, “that all my possessions are precisely where I left them.”
Josh blanched. He sidled over to the table, grabbed up his phone as if he were checking his messages, then straightened the vase at the same time. “No trouble here. I’m having to teach Beth the ropes, though. She is a terrible housemate.”
“Perhaps she would be better if she were allowed to actually use the house. It seems… a little unfair for her only to be able to use three rooms. After all, you’re both my tenants,” Max said, emphasizing the word tenants.
Josh looked rumbled. In fact, his expression looked the same as when Susan had threatened him to be polite it to me.
Josh smiled awkwardly. “That was just a little bit of banter.”
“You mean you’re not serious anymore? I can go into your office and do your paperwork? I can even go into that sitting room you’re so protective over?” It was meant as a light joke.
But on the mention of the sitting room, both Josh and Max stiffened a little.
“Well, I’m sure there are certain rooms that Josh can keep off limits if they are private to him, but I don’t see any problem with you using the rest of the house. Do you?” Max asked Josh directly.
Josh had lost. He shrugged. “Of course not. Like I said, just a little light banter. I’m trying to keep things real for Bethany here. She had a bit of a shock today, so I thought I’d distract her.”
Weak. That was a damn weak excuse, and everybody knew it.
“I’m not sure that’s a viable plan,” Max said politely. “Plus,” he slipped his gaze toward me, “she doesn’t look shocked to me. She handled that perfectly.”
On the term perfectly, my stomach tingled with nerves. I wanted to bring up a hand and pat my belly, but I settled for biting my lip instead. “Thank you,” I said.
“Okay then,” Josh said through a lightly clenched jaw. “We’ve both got things to do. So if this isn’t a house inspection—” Josh gestured down the hallway.
“Like I said, I didn’t mean to interrupt. I’m simply returning lost property. Plus, there’s something I have to discuss with Beth.” Max looked at Josh pointedly.
For a flicker of a second, Josh looked back defiantly. But the defiance didn’t last.
He shrugged, turned, and walked toward the kitchen. “I’ll leave you two alone.” His tone was stiff.
Max didn’t say anything as he took a step back until he was standing just below me. He looked up, his hands in his vest pockets. “It was quite a day.”
“… Yeah,” I managed. As insightful comments went, it was pretty much entirely pathetic.
He looked at his feet, then back to me. And once he met my gaze once more, his expression changed.
“I have one last favor to ask, Bethany,” Max said, his hands still in his pockets. He always looked like the perfect gentleman. Or at least he did now I knew he wasn’t a bad guy.
“What is it?” I asked easily.
“I want you to find somebody for me.”
I brought up a hand and patted my hair. I bit my lip nervously, too. “I’m not allowed to be subcontracted to you, right? I haven’t brushed up that much on the bylaws—”
“Correct, you cannot be subcontracted to me. But if you choose to do this… for free, then that wouldn’t be a violation of the laws.”
I pressed my lips together. Was this Max changing his colors, just as Josh had always foreshadowed would happen? Perhaps Max hadn’t helped me save the day for free, after all. Perhaps he’d always been angling toward this.
Maybe he could see the sudden suspicion in my eyes, because he brought up a hand and pressed his fingers wide in a stopping motion. “This is not a demand. It’s a simple request. And I don’t ask for it because I helped you. Only choose to do this… if you wish to.”
He mollified me. There was sincerity in his tone, and his gaze, as always, was perfectly direct. My shoulders dropped. “What is it?”
“Miss Bethany Samson,” he said, and for the first time since I’d met Maximus C. Knights, his voice had lost its gusto. Its directness. Its confidence. It wavered, and even though it was slight, it was still noticeable.
I frowned. My stomach kicked in anticipation – though I had no idea what it was in anticipation of.
“I need you to find your husband,” he finally pushed his words out.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting. Something big. Something to justify the way he was looking at me.
My brow scrunched down. I brought a hand up, tried to neaten my hair, and plain gave up. “I don’t have a husband. You could’ve just asked—” I began.
He cleared his throat. “Not yet. But you will. And I need to find out who that man is sooner rather than later.”
I looked at him. My mouth was agape. I was completely and utterly surprised. “What?” My voice shook. “Look, I think there’s been some kind of mistake. I don’t even have a boyfriend.”
Max smiled. It was the kind of smile that was little more than two lips curling. The kind of smile that it would take a crack team of psychologists to figure out what it meant. “I’m a finder too, Bethany. And my powers are… a little more developed than yours.”
“So what are you saying?” My tone went up and down, sounding like a kazoo. Yours would too. I’d never been that lucky in love – okay, that was an understatement. I’d always been exceedingly unlucky in love. My relationships were lucky to last more than several months. And I hadn’t dated anyone for about two years. Marriage was the very last thing on my mind.
But here was a finder standing on my doorstep – okay, his doorstep – and telling me that soon enough I would be married.
I didn’t know what to say. So my mouth just hung open as if I was a fish that had been pulled onto the pier.
“This may be a little too much for you to take in. But I’ll repeat my request once more. I need you to find your husband, Bethany. Sooner rather than later. Because he’s a man I’m going to have to meet.” Max did it again – he shoved a hand into his breast pocket, pulled out his pocket watch, checked it methodically, and placed it back in his pocket. Then? He nodded at me. “Good day.” He turned and walked away.
I stared at him. I didn’t shift until he was out of sight.
I turned around, closed the door, leaned against it, and wondered what the hell had just happened. More to the point – what the hell was going to happen next. Me? Marriage material? I doubted it. Max must be wrong.
But what if he wasn’t wrong?
“Would you hurry up? You can’t still be talking to Max. He’s a busy man. We’ve got another case already,” Josh snapped from the kitchen.
“I thought you were meant to be nice to me from now on?” I snapped back at Josh, the only thing that could tear my mind from what Max had just promised. “You must already know that Max’s left the house, otherwise you wouldn’t dare talk to me like that.”
There was a significant pause. “Yes, I’m well aware that Max has left the house. Now come the hell along – like I said, we’ve got work to do.”
“I could rush out onto the street and beg him to come back if you don’t behave.” I walked into the kitchen.
Josh was sitting at the table, and he turned around in his chair to snarl at me. “You wouldn’t do that. You’re more terrified of him than I am. Now get to work.”
I pressed my lips together, and I thought. Was I more terrified of Max than Josh was?
Yes and no.
I didn’t know anymore. But soon, I imagined, I would find out.
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