I spent half the night worried that once I fell asleep I would be forced into another of Letuch’s memories. I hadn’t had any since the first two upon my arrival in Portland, but after learning that Letuch’s fiancée was here, in the same city as us, I was suddenly paranoid that he was too, and that proximity was the key to his dream-walking. After all, I hadn’t dreamed about him when I’d been at the preserve.
So when I woke up at seven on the dot with no memories of any dreams at all, I felt hugely relieved. Maybe Seb was wrong about Letuch’s location, if not his involvement.
I rationalized that I didn’t have to tell any of the others about the dreams since they’d more or less stopped, ignoring the possibility that I just didn’t want to deal with the potential consequences of that admission.
After a quick breakfast at the hotel, Muri drove us back to Quarterhorse Canyon, with Seb up front giving her directions to the coven’s…house, apparently. Both of them bickered the whole way there. Despite their constant quarrelling they seemed oddly intimate together. Like Marisol’s aunt and uncle, who had been married for fifty-some-odd years before their deaths but could never get through a meal without one of them throwing a glass at the other from across the dinner table.
I started to wonder if maybe they’d dated in the past. It would explain their falling out at least and the way they still seemed so in sync with each other in spite of that. Maybe I could convince Joel to ask Muri about it. She seemed to like him more than me, at any rate.
And speaking of which, Joel hadn’t said a word since we’d woken up. Even now with Muri and Seb’s shrill arguing resounding throughout the cramped space we were trapped in, he just stared passively out the car window as if he was deaf to it all.
Sure, we’d agreed to be civil to each other, and Joel was holding up his end of the bargain. But he was different now, damaged even, in a way he’d never been before. Throughout Marisol’s illness, and everything that had come after, he’d remained strong, stoic, the thread holding our lives together. But now there was a certain careless attitude with which he seemed to be just going through the motions.
And it was my fault, really. I knew how ambitious Joel was. I knew that he focused single-mindedly on far-off goals to distract himself from all the shit he’d had to deal with throughout the years. I’d taken all of that from him with one impulsive decision. But even knowing all that, the tinge of guilt I felt was…secondary almost. I still felt like I was doing the right thing.
It wasn’t too much longer that the scenery outside began to look familiar, the stucco two-story homes and xeriscaped front yards appearing even more alien in the light of day. The house we ended up at didn’t look exactly the same as the one from the night before but they were similar enough that it felt like looking through a funhouse mirror.
God help me if Joel and I ever became rich someday and decided to rot in one of these suburban graveyards.
“It doesn’t really look like somewhere witches would live,” I remarked as we stepped out of the car. I was sweating the second the sunlight touched my skin. “Bit of an upgrade from Ricky’s nest, at least.”
“That’s because NIMA actually gives a damn about humans,” Seb replied, and I didn’t miss the sharp look Muri gave him in response. What was that supposed to mean?
“Look,” she said, turning to me and Joel as we walked up to the front door, “while we’re in there, let Seb and I do the talking. Witches can be…nasty. We don’t want to offend them.”
If Lila’s mood swings were any benchmark, nasty was putting it kindly.
I nodded in agreement, and looked to Joel, who shrugged disinterestedly. “Are you okay?” I mouthed at him. He just stared back at me quizzically like he couldn’t fathom why I was even asking.
When we reached the front of the house, Seb knocked, and we waited. And waited.
I looked at him askance. “Maybe they’re not home?” he suggested. He knocked again, louder this time.
Before he’d even dropped his hand, the door opened to reveal a young girl, no older than fifteen if I had to guess. She was dressed plainly in a light blue cotton t-shirt and blue jeans, and she was barefoot. Despite the fact that she was no more than five-feet tall, she stared at each of us suspiciously, her dark hooded eyes looking decades older than she did in that moment.
“We’re not interested in whatever religious crap you’re trying to push on us this week,” she said in a hard tone.
“That’s not why we’re here,” Muri said, stepping forward with was very obviously a forced smile. Well, obvious to anyone who had spent more than five minutes with her and therefore knew that smiling wasn’t exactly something that came naturally. “We’re from the agency investigating an incident that occurred elsewhere in the neighborhood, and we’d like to ask your Matron if she or any of your sisters might have…any helpful information about our case. Based on the proximity of the coven house, that is.”
The whole spiel was uncharacteristically diplomatic for Muri, of all people. She practically wore a neon sign that said: ‘Shoot First, Ask Questions Never’.
The girl frowned and continued to assess us for a few more seconds before wrinkling her nose once and beckoning for us to follow her inside.
“Please don’t touch anything,” she said, staring very pointedly at Joel, who was craning his neck to examine the interior of the house and its vaulted ceilings from every angle. “And please don’t leave the foyer. The rest of the house is warded against intruders.”
“Is there an unwarded bathroom?” Joel asked gracelessly. The rest of us looked at him in disbelief. I couldn’t tell if he was serious or had picked the worst time ever to make a joke.
The girl didn’t even bother to dignify his question with a response and walked up the flight of stairs to our left. I watched as she crossed the balcony above us and then passed out of sight.
“Are all witches female?” I whispered to Muri once she was gone.
She glanced over at me, seemingly annoyed by the question. “Mostly,” she replied.
I turned and caught Joel eyeing a small crystal statue of a mountain lion on an end table near the front door, looking like he might try to test the girl’s warning. I gave him a minute shake of my head. He’d thank me later when he walked out here minus a tail, or whatever these witches were into.
“Lila didn’t live in a house like this,” I said quietly, after we had been waiting a few minutes.
“Her extended family probably has one somewhere,” Seb replied, taking me by surprise. It’s like sometimes he forgot he was trying to be unhelpful. “It’s not a requirement, but there’s strength in numbers so most witches stick to tradition.”
As if mentioning the word ‘witch’ had summoned her, a tall buxom girl wearing only a tank top and a pair of brightly-colored panties suddenly wandered over from the hallway to our right, yawning loudly as she passed us. She made it to the foot of the stairs before she stopped suddenly and did a double-take.
“I—um—you—” she stammered, and clutched at something around her neck.
“NIMA,” Muri said by way of explanation, and the girl’s whole body seemed to relax.
“Oh,” she said, dropping her hand to reveal a stone pendant resting in her cleavage. I stared, but not for the usual reasons. It wasn’t until I noticed that she was staring back at me that I averted my eyes. The stone was uncut and a rosy pink, but it felt strangely familiar—enough to spark a jolt of recognition. “I’ll just, uh,” she said nervously, looking at us like we were liable to attack her at any moment. “Yeah, I’ll just go, sorry.” She scampered up the stairs, and a few seconds later we heard a door slam.
“I don’t think we look that religious,” Seb pointed out.
“You guys should get badges,” Joel remarked snidely. “Ooh! Or uniforms.”
Muri just rolled her eyes, but Seb looked like he wanted to strangle Joel.
Just then a figure emerged at the top of the stairs, saving us from another possible fist-fight between the two of them. It was the girl who had answered the door, descending the stairs with an elderly woman in tow.
Or at least, I’d assumed she was elderly with her silver, almost white hair pulled up into an intricate knot, but as she approached us I could see that she actually looked both old and young simultaneously. It was making my brain hurt. And I was reminded of Lila yet again, how her mother had seemed to age at a rate much slower than Marisol, something I’d always attributed to plastic surgery but was apparently due to healthy doses of witchcraft instead.
Jesus. I’d really been involved in this whole closed-in supernatural sphere for practically my entire life and I’d had no idea. Which then begged the question: did Marisol ever know?
As the older witch drew closer, I felt suddenly grateful I’d had the common sense to leave Lila’s pendant wrapped safely in a pair of my socks back at the motel. Something about her eyes, a deep dark brown, gave me the feeling that she could see right through me. That she would have sensed the pendant in an instant and known it for whatever it really was.
I glanced over at the others and found that Muri and Joel seemed just as dazzled by her as I was. Seb appeared unbothered and unimpressed, scratching absently at one of his tattoos before looking back at the woman with a flat expression.
“Matron Vale?” he said.
She nodded, and dismissed the young girl with a wave of her hand. “I understand that you would like to ask me some questions on behalf of the agency. Though I don’t quite understand why I wasn’t given notice before your arrival this morning.”
Seb continued as if she hadn’t even spoken. “Do you or any of your, uh, daughters happen to know anything about the child abducted from 4233 Saddle Lane earlier this week?” His tone was brusque, his body language tense and closed-off.
“No,” Matron Vale replied simply.
Seb reared back in surprise and Muri looked desperately like she wanted to put a hand over his mouth to stop him from talking. “Really?” he replied, voice heavy with skepticism. “Because it was only three blocks away. You didn’t notice the police, anything? You expect me to believe you had no idea this happened?”
“Believe it or not, Mr. Marschel,” Matron Vale said, lips pressed together tightly even as she spoke, “my coven does not make a habit of involving ourselves in the affairs of the mundane. Beyond what is strictly necessary, of course. Like everyone else, we do our best to assimilate.” She smiled minutely.
I wondered how she knew Seb’s name, but I didn’t have the opportunity to ask. Nor did I really want to. The less attention on me from the witch standing in front of us, the better.
Seb clearly didn’t share my mindset. “So you don’t know anything about the missing vampire from the Luna nest, either?” he pushed. “Or Talya Washington’s involvement?”
“Of course not.”
Seb’s expression turned frigid. “Matron Vale, would you consent to official questioning under the—”
“Seb,” Muri hissed, placing one finger against his arm. “Stop.”
The Matron regarded them both with a bland expression. “I am familiar enough with your brand of interrogation and would prefer not to subject myself to such…indignity over something that clearly has nothing to do with the affairs of my coven. Unless I’m being formally detained?”
“No,” Muri replied sharply, before Seb had a chance to. “No, that’s not necessary.”
“Good. If that’s all?” The question was perfectly polite, but every word carried an unspoken threat. We were no longer welcome here.
Muri practically dragged Seb back to the car, whisper-yelling in his ear the whole way there. “We could have asked them for help finding the vamp, but no—you had to go and open your big damn mouth and alienate an entire coven of witches!”
“He has a name,” Seb said calmly, even as she was throwing him against the car door.
“The vamp. His name is Angel. And besides,” he said, climbing into the passenger seat as casual as could be, “they weren’t going to help us. The Matron was clearly lying about not knowing anything.”
Muri jammed the keys into the ignition, her hands shaking with suppressed fury. “You can’t just…spew your paranoia all over this case!” she spat. It was the angriest I think I’d ever seen her. Even Joel looked uncomfortable. “There are innocent human lives on the line, and yet you still can’t put away your personal hang-ups for one second to sit down and actually solve this damn thing.”
He ignored her. I waited a few minutes before breaking the silence, hoping the tense atmosphere would dissipate over time, but no such luck.
“Where are we going now?” I asked tentatively.
“Back to the hotel,” Muri replied tightly. “We need to look over the case files. See if we missed anything. We need new leads.”
“Well, you could have asked for my notes,” Seb said placidly.
Muri braked too hard, sending my forehead into the back of her headrest.
“What notes?” she asked, her calm tone belying the fact that Seb’s statement had nearly caused a car wreck.
“The ones I compiled after I talked to all the families,” Seb replied.
For a moment I thought Muri was going to stop the car again, but this time on purpose, and actually get out this time to punch Seb. She stared straight ahead, gradually applying pressure to the gas until we were driving at a steady pace again. “When we get back,” she said, “I want every document, every scrap of evidence you have that pertains to this case. No more games, got it?”
I glanced between her and Seb, trying to read their emotional states in their carefully schooled facial expressions. At first glance, you wouldn’t have known that they were both trying very hard not to murder each other.
I sat back heavily in my seat and looked over at Joel, who was already staring back at me. He held up his phone meaningfully and I pulled mine out to find a new text message. “What’s their problem?” he had typed .
I glanced up at him and shrugged. “Maybe they used to date?” I replied.
His response was unexpected. “Muri doesn’t ‘do’ dating.”
I looked up at him in surprise. What the hell had happened during that week Seb and I were in Alaska that Joel knew about Muri’s relationship history?
“Sucks for you,” I sent, hoping it would come across as cavalier.
His response was unexpected, and so was the sudden lurch in my gut when I read it: “We’ll see about that.”
Embarrassed about my internal reaction to the notion that Joel might be interested in Muri, I ended up unintentionally giving him the cold shoulder throughout the rest of the drive back. So I was surprised when he seemed like he was in a better mood upon reaching the hotel room than he’d been back at the coven house, and even more surprised when Seb laid out a mountain of reading material and Joel asked to help.
Seb seemed equally shocked by the request but just said, “Sure,” before handing him a large sheaf of paper. “Police reports,” Seb told him. “If you can find anything useful in there then be my guest.”
Muri was already neck-deep in her own stack of paperwork, having not said much to any of us, but especially Seb, from the moment we’d entered the room. Her laptop was sitting open next to her displaying a map of each of the abductions. There was a cluster in the southeast corner, and one lone blip at the northwest edge: the home of the family Seb and I had visited last night.
I ended up taking the only thing that was left, a thin purple binder full of page protectors with drawings inside.
“What are these?” I asked, flipping through the disturbing sketches done in crayon and marker of a shadowy skeletal silhouette.
“I asked the other children to draw what they saw,” Seb replied, straddling one of the chairs and propping his feet up on the adjacent mattress. “They all drew…that.”
‘That’ happened to be a tall skinny black figure, with no discernible facial features of any kind. The only other thing that connected the drawings, which were all crafted in various styles and with differing levels of skill, was the presence of a singular green orb, drawn somewhere on the torso of the figure in each depiction.
“The other kids?” Joel asked at the same time as Muri said, “They saw the vampire?”
Seb tipped his chair forward and leaned precariously over the edge of it to take the binder from me. My stomach sank as he stood and pulled out each page, displaying them side by side on the table for Joel and Muri to see.
“Each family had three to five children,” he explained, “and with the exception of the Greenes and the Montoyas, at least one of the kids in each family saw their sibling get snatched. The parents all thought they were just having nightmares, but we know better.”
Joel craned his head to examine the drawings from a different angle. “What is that?” he asked, pointing to the green circle in one of the drawings that had been scribbled in so violently that the colored pencil had torn a hole through the paper.
“Not sure,” Seb replied. “That’s what I’ve been trying to find out.”
I stared down at my feet, counting to ten before I looked back up again. When I did, Muri was staring directly at me, and I hurriedly looked away.
It was a leap. It had to be. A coincidence that the green glow these children had drawn was so eerily reminiscent of Lila’s pendant. A pendant that clearly had properties I didn’t fully understand and had belonged to a witch—like those at the coven that Seb believed was hiding something.
“Hand me some of those,” I said, swallowing heavily. I beckoned to Joel, who looked confused but obliged anyway and halved his stack of police reports to share with me.
I had hoped that the monotonous prose and legal jargon would at least be a distraction from my racing thoughts, but the page on top only made me feel worse.
It was a missing person’s report for Angel Alvarez. I skipped past it hastily, not wanting to let myself humanize a vampire that had abducted multiple children over the last month. I did, however, find it odd that Ricky had contacted the police at all. I knew NIMA was affiliated with the government in some way, but it didn’t seem like local law enforcement would be in the know. That was something I’d have to ask Sara about the next time I saw her.
I steeled myself for the remainder of the reports, realizing quickly that distraction was unattainable under these circumstances. The 911 transcripts were the hardest to get through, but I felt too guilty to abandon my task. I was relieved when Joel had finally had enough and tossed his stack of paper back onto the table with a loud thud.
“Can’t we take a break or something?” he whined. “This is awful. And I’m starving.”
“No,” Muri replied without missing a beat.
“Well, actually,” Seb started to say.
Muri finally looked up from her reading to glare at him. “No,” she repeated.
“Look, sitting here and stewing in our own juices isn’t going to solve anything,” Seb pointed out. “I’ve been over all of this a hundred times, and trust me, you’re not going to find some miracle solution in a stack of police reports.”
“So what are you suggesting?” she asked warily.
“Go grab an early dinner, hang out for a couple hours, come back to this with fresh eyes?”
His proposal sounded great to my stomach, which had begun to grumble furiously shortly after lunchtime came and went. For a moment, I was afraid Muri would stand her ground and compel us to stay and keep reading until our eyes bled, but finally she gave in with a sigh and closed her laptop.
“Fine,” she said. “Where are we going?”
She wasn’t impressed by the answer.
“A bar?” she said skeptically, squinting up at the neon sign over the door as the car crawled through the gravel parking lot. “And not even a nice one.”
“Ricky recommended it,” Seb told her as he turned off the engine. “Food’s supposed to be good, and apparently Angel was a regular. Might be able to find a few people who knew him.”
It was only mid-afternoon, but inside the place was already packed. Seb led us all to the far corner where there were still a couple of unoccupied seats at the counter, and practically pushed Joel and I into them.
“I’ll get us some drinks,” he said, one hand still on each of our shoulders. Joel shivered a little as he pulled away.
I grabbed the hem of Seb’s shirt as he turned, stopping him before he could make any headway through the crowd. “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” I asked him.
“It’s not like I’m gonna load you guys up with shots. I’ll be right back.”
I looked to Joel, and he shrugged, bringing his elbows down on the counter. It was a dark wood, and the whole décor of the place was very rustic Western. That was Arizona, apparently. Nothing but cowboys and cactus, as far as the eye could see.
“I’m not going to refuse any kind of social lubrication,” Joel remarked, voice just barely audible over the sound of all the other patrons chatting energetically around us. “My brain hurts.”
Mine did too.
Seb soon made good on his promise, parting the crowd again a few minutes later with four pint glasses on a tray. I grabbed one and sniffed hesitantly at the amber liquid.
“What is this, beer?” It looked like beer, but the smell was different than I remembered. A bit more palatable if anything.
“Apricot hefeweizen,” Seb answered proudly. “I figured you’d like it.” It was oddly considerate of him, but Seb was nothing if not inconsistent.
I took a cautious sip and was surprised at the taste. “It’s actually not that bad.”
“Well, enjoy,” he said, handing a glass to Joel, who began gulping his down immediately, and then one to Muri, who was standing behind me with her arms crossed and hadn’t moved since she’d planted herself there after we’d walked in.
She set hers down next to me without even tasting it. “I’m going to talk to some of the employees,” she said. “See if anyone’s seen the—seen Angel since his disappearance.”
“All work and no play,” Seb muttered as he watched her vanish into the crowd, her drink still sitting untouched on the counter.
Joel appraised it for a moment before grabbing it and chugging the whole thing. Catching the look I gave him in response, he asked, “What? It’s not like I’m supposed to be working.”
Muri didn’t come back, and it wasn’t long before a flock of suntanned coeds descended on Joel and Seb, both of whom seemed inordinately pleased by the attention.
But there was one girl who stayed off to the side, instead staring at me with wide, honey-brown eyes. I smiled back at her, hardly daring to hope she would get the hint.
I was surprised when she squeezed past the other girls and sidled up to me. “Hi,” she said breathily. “I’m Hazel.” The name suited her, with her warm brown eyes and braided chestnut hair falling over one shoulder. She was cute; short with long eyelashes and a small mouth. It didn’t look like she was wearing any makeup, and nothing about her really stood out, but I still felt myself grow warm in response to her presence.
“Pemberly,” I squeaked out.
“Can I buy you a drink?” she asked, all fluttering eyelashes but still managing to look almost shy about it. “Your friends too, of course. I don’t mind.”
“Oh. Yeah,” I replied uncertainly. “Sure, of course.” I’d never in the history of my life been hit on by a girl at a bar and I had no idea what kind of flirtation etiquette I was supposed to be adhering to.
She flagged down a bartender and had four cocktails mixed and served in mere minutes, an impressive feat for this timid-looking plain jane in her cotton t-shirt and blue jeans.
“Aren’t you going to drink yours?” I asked her as I nursed my own. It was delicious: fruity and with barely a tinge of alcohol souring the aftertaste.
“Oh,” she said with a slight laugh. “No, I don’t drink, actually.” It was an odd statement coming from someone who was standing in a bar but I was already starting to feel a bit tipsy and didn’t question it. “This is for your other friend,” Hazel added, “when she comes back.”
I wondered vaguely how Hazel had known Muri was with the three of us, since she hadn’t been around since we’d first walked into the bar, but that’s when things started to go fuzzy around the edges. And then it was dark. And there was nothing.