Seb met us at the front doors of the hotel he’d been staying in, a bland franchise installment that stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the older western-style buildings surrounding it.
We’d missed check-in completely by the time we arrived. Muri tried to bribe the guy at the front desk to get the room next to Seb’s but it had already been booked. She glared at the back of Seb’s head the whole way up to the third floor after he ignored her attempt at chewing him out for not reserving two rooms himself before we’d gotten there.
When we reached Seb’s room (which had two double beds and an optional cot, at least) Joel had the bright idea of using rock-paper-scissors to decide who would have to sleep on the floor. He lost.
The door remained propped open while we settled in. Muri set up the cot next to the window, closest to the bed I would be using, while Joel made a pathetic attempt to construct a proper sleeping arrangement out of spare linens, grumbling the whole time.
I watched him lie there miserably for a minute before sighing and offering to let him sleep in my bed. “I’m not tired yet,” I lied. “We can just switch in a couple hours.”
He was out within minutes, snoring lightly as he sprawled out face-down in a starfish position, taking up every square inch of the bed. I was glad he hadn’t wanted to share.
“I’m calling Sara to report in,” Muri announced, already whipping out her phone to make the call.
Seb was halfway through unlacing his shoes, a pair of brown leather wingtip boots that came to his ankles. They looked like they cost more than the room we were currently staying in. “I was going to take a shower,” he protested with an exaggerated pout.
“You can’t wait ten minutes?”
Seb sighed and flopped down on his back. The bed bounced under the impact. “Hurry up.”
Muri gave him a dirty look and put her phone on speaker so we could all hear it connecting. After a few seconds Sara picked up.
“How was your flight?” she asked.
“Fine,” Muri replied.
“And your little helper?”
“Pemberly is right here,” she said pointedly. “She’s fine. But we’ve got issues already with the nest. We checked in with Ricky like you asked and the place was trashed when we got there.”
“Not sure yet. Definitely wasn’t their missing vamp though. They didn’t recognize the scent.”
“Were any of them able to determine the species, at least?”
Muri looked unhappy as she answered. “No, but it wasn’t human.”
“All right.” Sara’s tone was indecipherable. “Is that all?”
Muri hesitated before replying and for a moment I thought she might bring up Seb’s theory about Letuch’s involvement in this case as well as the others. From the hopeful expression on Seb’s face he appeared to be thinking along the same lines.
“Yes,” Muri said finally. Seb displayed no other visible reaction than a slight twitch around his mouth as she answered. “I’ll call again if we find out anything else.”
Muri hung up and Seb stared at her expectantly. “Do I have permission to shower now?” he asked, voice dripping with condescension.
She turned away, pointedly refusing to humor him. He hopped up off the bed anyway and headed into the bathroom. The door had barely shut behind him when my phone suddenly vibrated in my pocket. I practically turned my jeans inside out trying to get to it, hoping it was Grace texting me back. I was disappointed when I saw that it was just a notification that my battery was low.
I slid onto the bed next to my brother, shoving him over to make some room. He kicked half-heartedly at me in his sleep. I laid there uncomfortably for a second, staring at Seb’s unoccupied bed, before rolling off and lying down in that one instead. I’d move when he got out of the shower, but for now, I just wanted to relax.
Muri was sitting cross-legged on her cot, head buried in the case file Sara had given us.
“Can I help?” I asked her, now snuggled up with one of Seb’s pillows and not bothering to get up.
She didn’t even look at me. “No.”
I sighed and flipped over onto my back, content for now just to wait for something to happen.
Joel woke up less than an hour later. Muri was still poring over the case file and Seb had yet to re-emerge from the bathroom. “I’m starving,” Joel groaned as he sat up, stretching his arms over his head so that his shirt rode up past his navel. I didn’t think I’d imagined the lingering stare from Muri before she turned back to her reading.
“You wouldn’t be,” I pointed out, “if you’d actually eaten more than an appetizer at that sushi place.”
“It’s fine,” Muri said, suddenly closing the file and setting it down on the dresser. “I can go pick up something for dinner.”
“I’ll come with,” Joel chimed with, leaping off the bed to join her. Seriously, what was with them? It was like ever since that week together while I’d been at the preserve, they were practically…friends.
That shouldn’t have stung as much as it did.
I was about to volunteer to be their third wheel when the case file sitting on the dresser caught my eye. With her gone, I could freely play detective.
I leapt for it as soon as the two of them were out the door, but of course, I’d barely gotten my hands on the damn thing when the sounds from the shower abruptly stopped. The bathroom door opened a few seconds later revealing Seb clad in nothing but a towel.
I took my eyes off of the manila folder to give Seb a good once-over instead. He had been shirtless the night before he’d left Portland but it’d been dark enough then that I hadn’t noticed the fine lines separating some of the tattoos on his torso, a physical reminder of the violence he’d survived at Letuch’s hands.
It was the only evidence left of his injuries. The newly-formed skin didn’t even look like it had scarred. I raised an eyebrow to match his own expression when he caught me staring. “Well, you must have a killer health plan,” I joked, hoping the tinge of bitterness wasn’t too apparent in my voice.
“Is that your incentive for joining NIMA then?” he asked as he bent down to go through his bag.
“No,” I replied. Though it certainly didn’t hurt if that really was the case.
Seb looked up at me expectantly, but when I didn’t elaborate, he just shook his head. “Fair enough, I guess.” He dropped the towel without so much as a warning. I quickly averted my eyes, but not before quickly confirming that, yes, he did have tattoos on his ass. “Trust me,” he muttered, the words just barely loud enough for me to hear, “if you think putting your faith in them will solve any of your problems, you’re dead wrong.”
He was quiet while he pulled on his clothes. I was almost about to grab my earphones and put on some music so I wouldn’t have to just sit there but curiosity got the better of me.
“You act like you hate them,” I said, and he jerked his head up in surprise as he pulled on a white v-neck. “Why’d you even start?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I mean, how’d you get involved with NIMA in the first place? What happened to you that you even found out all this—” I stopped myself from using the word ‘monster’, “—supernatural stuff was real?”
He stood there for a moment before finally responding. “I don’t owe you my life story.”
I gave him a scathing look. “I wasn’t asking because I think you have an obligation to tell me. Last time I checked, friends tell each other things.”
“Last time I checked, we weren’t friends.”
The statement didn’t exactly take me by surprise, especially not after my conversation with Muri back in Portland, or the way Seb had acted after we’d left Vegas. But it still hurt.
“Cool, great,” I said, unable to keep the frustration out of my voice. “You know, it’s not like I wanted to get mixed up with all of your shit.”
Seb snorted. “Maybe not at first.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know the answer.
He rolled his eyes and shrugged. “You and Dr. Jekyll are cut from the same cloth. Both of you just desperately cling to anything you can get your grubby little hands on that’ll make you feel like your lives actually matter. So don’t pretend like you aren’t sniffing at my heels hoping for scraps.”
I stared at him speechless for a moment, before opening my mouth to point out, “You were the one who said I could be your partner someday.”
Seb’s eyes were flat, lifeless, as he replied. “Yeah, well, clearly that was a mistake.”
I gritted my teeth and turned away from him. In my peripheral vision, I could see his stance relax. He thought the argument was over, that he’d won. But I wasn’t done. “You don’t know what’s it like,” I told him, taking him off-guard.
He blinked up at me in surprise, and straightened up again. “Oh, I don’t?”
“No,” I said more firmly. “You have everything you could ever want just handed to you. Sorry if I can’t relate to being a selfish entitled bitch with a bunch of fancy cars, designer clothes, and a fucking sword. Before all this shit happened, my biggest dream was to actually live in a house someday. Not even own a house, just live in one. So don’t you dare judge me for taking what I can get.”
Seb had an odd expression on his face, somewhere between a smile and a grimace. “Yeah. Like I said: if you think joining NIMA is going to fix your life, you’re in for a rude awakening somewhere down the line.”
I kept my eyes locked with Seb’s as I pulled out my earbuds and very pointedly jammed them into my ears, turning the volume up loud enough that we could both be sure the conversation was over.
He shook his head again and pulled out his phone, facing away from me as he put the device to his ear.
I wished now that I hadn’t made such a show of drowning him out with my music so that I could eavesdrop on his phone call but I was worried that it would be too noticeable if I turned the volume down enough to hear him. I watched him instead, trying to decipher his body language as he talked, the whole process made slightly more difficult due to the fact that he kept his back to me and I never had a chance to read his expression.
The tension in his shoulders and his stiff posture said enough. Whatever he was talking about, whoever he was talking to; he wasn’t happy about it.
The call didn’t last long, and as soon as he hung up, he whirled around to face me again. I pretended like I hadn’t been staring a hole through the back of his head. Seb motioned toward me, and I looked up to find him pointing to his ears. It took me longer than it should have to register that he was trying to get me to take the earbuds out.
“We’re leaving,” he said as soon as I’d done so.
He didn’t answer, just gave a quick jerk of his first two fingers toward the door. “Get up. Go. Now.”
I reared back, ready to argue, but something in his expression stopped me. And then I realized if I played along there might be something in it for me—whether that was more experience on the job or finding out that Sara and Muri’s suspicions about Seb were true.
“Fine,” I said, hopping out of his bed and cramming my feet into already laced-up tennis shoes before following him out of the motel room.
It was still warm outside even though it was already going on late evening, and I was grateful when the air conditioning came on full blast the second we got into the car.
“Where are we going?” I tried again, watching as Seb adjusted the mirrors before backing out. It seemed oddly conscientious for someone like him.
“Uptown,” he replied curtly, as if that meant anything at all to me.
I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the rest of the trip.
We ended up in another residential area. This one was nicer than the last; nicer even than the suburban cookie-cutter neighborhood Lila had lived in. There were towering cacti and trees with green bark planted sporadically along the parkway median, and all the streets were named things like ‘Bronco’ and ‘Rodeo’. It was like being on an alien planet.
We eventually pulled up in front of a two-story house with all its exterior lights on. Through the passenger-side window I could see that the front door was wide open. Or at least, that the inner door was open, and the light from inside the house was shining through one of those metal screen security doors that rich people who already lived in nice crime-free neighborhoods spent too much money on just to make themselves feel better.
Through it I could see a few dark silhouettes standing there but it wasn’t until Seb had gotten out of the car and I was following him up the driveway that I could make them out: a man, a woman, and a young boy and girl.
Everything about the scene suggested that they had been expecting our arrival, but as we drew closer, the woman took a step back from the door, shielding the kids from Seb and me as we approached. The man crossed his arms over his chest but stood his ground.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“You spoke to Detective Robards on the phone,” Seb said instead of answering the question. “He told me what happened. If you’d open the door?”
For a moment, I thought the man was going to turn us away, tell us to get the hell off of his property. It’s what I would have done. But after an uncomfortable amount of prolonged eye contact between him and Seb, he slowly turned the handle and pushed the door open to expose himself and his family.
“You’re a detective?” the woman asked, her eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot.
“Private investigator,” Seb replied confidently, though we looked far too young for that career path in my opinion, and he had made no effort to even hide his tattoos. He didn’t try to explain my presence. “I’m here to help.” He took the man’s hand in both of his in a kind of handshake I associated with elderly women, or priests. He held on for what felt longer than was appropriate, and then took the woman’s hand and did the same. They both nodded like his answer made perfect sense. “This woman you saw,” Seb began. “What did she look like?”
The woman opened her mouth to answer and then hesitated, looking over to her husband first for approval before answering. “Well,” she started in a shaky voice, barely above a whisper, “she didn’t seem like she was…from here, you know. She was young, twenties maybe, and African American. And she looked…unkempt.”
“How so?” Seb pushed.
“Her jeans were ripped, and she was wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up,” the woman replied. “And she had long hair, down past her waist.”
“Anything else?” Seb was clearly fishing for something specific, but I had no idea what.
“She was trying to talk to my children when I came home from the store,” the woman added, her voice taking on a more defensive tone, as if the perceived threat was still present. “I don’t know how long she was here but she only talked to me for a minute or so before she left. She got into a white truck, but I don’t really know what kind. She got into the passenger seat, if that’s important.”
Both adults stared at Seb blankly. “What time what?” the man asked him.
“What time did she leave?”
“Oh.” The woman looked confused. “I don’t know, maybe…just after six?”
“Yes, I suppose so.” The woman crowded her two children closer as she spoke. As they moved forward I could finally see past them into the foyer, where a large family portrait was hanging behind them. But there were three children in the picture, not two.
“What kind of questions did she ask you?” Seb asked eagerly. There was something in his face now, like he’d gotten whatever information he’d been hoping for, and was only further questioning them to confirm what he already knew.
“The same questions the police asked us. When the last time we saw Caleb was, if we’d seen anything strange before he disappeared. But Detective Robards told us he didn’t know who she was when we called him.”
“Okay,” Seb said. “Well, thank you for your time.” He extended his hand again for each of the parents to shake. One of the kids waved shyly at him, and he smiled and waved back. “I promise I’m going to do everything I can to find your son.”
The woman nodded, her lips pressed together tightly. Her husband slowly closed the screen door as we walked away. I wanted to ask Seb what the deal was with this mystery woman he’d been so keen on learning about but he hadn’t exactly been forthcoming lately.
All I knew is that whoever this chick was, she wasn’t Angel Alvarez, the vampire from Ricky’s nest who had gone missing right before these kids started to disappear.
“We’re going back to the hotel, right?” I asked Seb instead.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Of course.” As if I could count on anything where he was involved.
Muri and Joel were already back when we returned. Muri scowled openly as we walked in. “You couldn’t even text me to let me know you were leaving?”
“Sorry,” Seb and I both said in unison. Seb gave me an odd look, and I realized he had assumed she was talking to him.
“I got a tip from Jean Robards,” he told her, jumping up onto his bed and landing on his elbows, facing toward the foot of the bed.
Muri didn’t seem reassured by his statement. “From homicide?”
Joel glanced over at me for some sort of clarification but I didn’t understand much more than he did. I just shrugged.
“Yeah,” Seb replied, “well, he’s been keeping an eye on the case for me.”
“Did they find a body?” Muri asked, grimacing.
“No. But he went out yesterday to talk to a family in Quarterhorse Canyon, another missing kid.”
Now Muri just seemed dumbfounded. “What the hell are you talking about? What does that have to do with the case?”
Seb looked like he was barely containing his excitement as he explained. “It’s the first kid abducted after a long dry streak, and Talya was there, Muri. They saw her.”
“Okay,” she said, throwing up her hands to stop him. She shut her eyes briefly and then shook her head, as if to collect herself.
“Who’s Talya?” I asked, unable to help myself.
“Be quiet,” Muri replied without even looking at me. “Quarterhorse Canyon is where exactly?”
“North,” Seb replied vaguely.
“And?” she continued with an expectant stare.
“So the opposite side of town from the nest,” Muri concluded. “Miles and miles away from every other abduction site.”
“All right, I don’t think you’re hearing me here, Muriel,” Seb snarked. “I just told you that Talya is in town. Here. Shadowing our case.”
“Who’s Talya?” I asked again, insistent this time on getting an answer.
Muri whipped her head around to glare at me. “Not the time,” she said exasperatedly.
But Seb didn’t share her opinion. “She’s Letuch’s girlfriend,” he told me, before turning back to Muri to give her a pointed look. “Which is why I’m right about this,” he added.
Letuch’s girlfriend. No, his would-be-fiancée. The girl from his memories. Talya.
I didn’t have time to process any of this, as Seb and Muri’s argument continued. “How come Sara didn’t mention anything about Robards riding shotgun on this case?” she demanded. “Why are you chasing after irrelevant leads instead of doing your damn job?”
“This is my job!” Seb roared, suddenly leaping to his feet and getting right up in Muri’s personal space. Like with Ricky, she didn’t back down an inch, when even Joel and I both jumped in response to Seb’s outburst. “That family fit the profile of every other child abducted near the nest. I don’t give a fuck if a lead is two light-years away from the source; if I think it’s worth investigating, then I’m going to take the time to look into it.”
He took a step back from her, but there was still fire in his eyes. “And forgive me if I don’t feel the need to report my every move to Sara as I go. I respect her, I do, but I think we all know that misplaced loyalty does more harm than good. So if the two of you are so interested in where I’ve been and who I’ve spoken to, you can read all about it after the fact in my fucking report.”
Muri stared at him and the silence seemed to stretch out endlessly.
“What the hell are you two even talking about?” Joel demanded.
Muri turned and walked over to the little table tucked away in the corner. “Just shut up and eat.” She grabbed a bag of fast food as she sat down and threw it to me. I caught it—barely. “I’m calling Sara again,” she announced as she pulled out her phone and set it out on the table.
Seb’s face was unnervingly blank as the phone rang.
Sara’s voice was hurried, tense when she answered. “Muri, go ahead. I’m short on time.”
“Seb thinks there was another abduction,” Muri told her.
“Quarterhorse Canyon. It’s up north—”
“I know where it is,” Sara said. “The Vale Coven has a house in the same neighborhood.”
“Coven? Like witches?” I whispered.
Seb and Muri both shushed me. Seb stepped closer to the phone. “We can go there tomorrow,” he said. “They might have noticed something out of the ordinary.”
There was a pause from Sara. “Fine,” she said finally. “I’ll send Muri the address. But Seb—”
“Please remember that the coven is still in good graces with the agency. They’re to be treated as informants, not suspects.”
“Got it,” Seb replied, his expression soured. “But I want a favor.”
“I don’t believe you’re in any position to ask me for favors, but fine. What is it?”
“Don’t tell them we’re coming.”
“Why?” Sara asked immediately. Muri gave Seb a look that clearly conveyed the level to which he was trying her patience.
“Just trust me on this one, Sara, please.” I wasn’t sure he’d have much luck on the whole trust front, knowing what I did about NIMA’s internal investigation. “I’ll play nice, I promise.”
I could hear a loud sigh from Sara as she replied. “Okay, if you say so. I have to go.”
The line abruptly went dead, and Muri spun around to direct the full force of her exasperation at Seb. “Can’t do anything by the book, can you?”
He flipped her off and reached past Joel to pluck a small fry carton from the mess of greasy food littering the table.
Joel looked over at me and raised his eyebrows, clearly looking for solidarity in his confusion. I gave him the facial approximation of a shrug and continued eating. He was probably wishing now that he’d taken that offer to sit this one out at that cozy hotel in Vegas. If things continued the way they were, it probably wouldn’t be long before I felt the same way.