I woke up to frigid fingers wrapped around my arm. It was still dark in the bedroom I was sharing with Joel and it took me a minute to get my bearings.
“What time is it?” I asked through a yawn, blinking sleepily up at Muri, who looked like she hadn’t even gone to bed yet, her hair and makeup still neat and polished as ever.
She shushed me and gestured to Joel, who was still fast asleep in the bed opposite. Right.
“Hang on,” I whispered, followed by another yawn. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and reached down to pull out the box of tampons I’d stashed underneath. “Just need a second,” I told her, waving the tampon around meaningfully.
“You what—oh, okay. I’ll just wait in the living room.” Her normally ivory pale skin almost seemed to glow red in the darkness. She was…embarrassed? About what? I stared vacantly at her back as she walked out of the room before remembering that I was supposed to be getting ready to leave.
I somehow avoided waking Joel even while getting dressed in the dark—not an easy feat when you’re five-eight and mostly limbs. Muri was sitting by herself on the couch when I walked out into the living room a few minutes later, tapping away furiously at her phone.
“Ready?” I asked, hoping our plans hadn’t suddenly fallen through in the last five minutes.
She glanced up briefly and nodded, and then said nothing as she walked out of the apartment.
I already knew the hotel we were driving to was right by the airport, which meant it was probably fifteen minutes away from the safehouse. Twenty at the most. I started in on her the second we got in the car, not wanting to wait until Sara was in the room before saying my piece.
“Look, I just want to say that I appreciate you taking me seriously and setting this up,” I told Muri. “I mean, Seb was the one who suggested that I could work for NIMA in the first place, but it’s hard to tell when he actually means something or is just making—”
“If Seb was the one who gave you the idea, then it’s even stupider than I thought.”
It took me a second to register what she’d said. “Wait, what?”
The light turned yellow and Muri slammed on the gas to make it through the intersection before it changed to red. “I’m taking you with me because it’s not my job to convince you that you’re being a dumbass. You, of all people, shouldn’t be taking Seb’s advice.”
“’Of all people’? What is that supposed to mean?”
She wrinkled her nose and glanced over at me briefly before turning her attention back to the road. “Seb’s bad enough if you’re unlucky enough to actually be friends with him. You’ve known him for all of what—two and a half weeks? And you’re already following his handbook on how to ruin your own life?”
I felt my face start to heat up. Muri hadn’t said much of anything when I’d asked her early that afternoon about setting up a meeting with someone from NIMA. She’d agreed more readily than I’d expected, actually. Sara had already been on her way here after learning about the encounter between Seb and Zida, giving the three of us a perfect opportunity to meet. This lecture was coming straight out of left field and I wasn’t remotely prepared for it.
And in all honesty, it was a dose of reality I didn’t really want to face. I’d always gotten attached too easily.
“You know,” I said a minute or two later, when I’d gathered my thoughts enough to come up with an actual rebuttal, “for someone who doesn’t care enough to try to talk me out of this, it sure sounds like you think you know what’s best for me.”
“No, I know what’s best for me,” she replied, without missing a beat. “If I’d had other paths I could have chosen in my life, I would have. You don’t know what you’re getting into.”
“Okay, so then how’d you start?” I watched the needle on the speedometer climb steadily higher and carefully braced myself against the car door just in case.
“My life story isn’t going to change your mind,” she said evenly. “Nor is it any of your business. Now shut up. I need to think.”
It was a testament to spending the last few weeks in proximity to Seb that her callousness barely even fazed me. I didn’t bother replying, and kept my mouth closed for my own sake until we reached the hotel.
I’d remained relatively calm in the car but found myself suddenly assaulted by nerves the second we stepped foot into the lobby and found myself face to face with the woman who had punched my brother before kidnapping the both of us back in Las Vegas.
“Verena,” Muri said curtly.
“Gyllen,” she replied, tone all business. And then she turned to me and winked, a smile teasing at the corners of her lips. I wanted to shiver in response to the creeping feeling crawling down my spine but I also didn’t want to let her know that she’d gotten to me. “Follow me,” she said before leading us over to the elevators.
I pointedly kept my eyes about a foot over her head as we crammed into the tiny space, thankfully not too hard to do since she was probably half a foot shorter than Muri. We got out on the fourth floor and were guided down a long hallway before stopping near the corner, where it turned right into a new corridor. The woman slid a card into the door and held it open for Muri and me to pass through. She didn’t follow us inside, just remained standing there like a guard dog.
“Thank you, Verena, that’s all,” Sara called out to her, and she nodded in acknowledgment before closing the door on the three of us.
Sara was lounging casually in the only chair in the entire room, her mile-long legs extended out past the table next to the window. There was one queen bed and one small suitcase next to the radiator. I was practically sweating when Sara looked up and met my wide-eyed gaze with an unreadable expression of her own.
“You’re welcome to sit on the bed,” she said, seeing as how we were both still just standing there next to the door.
I sat immediately. Muri did not.
“Did you have any luck with Zida?” Muri asked, clearly eager to get right down to business.
“No,” Sara replied. “I have yet to visit myself, but I’ve been told most of Karma’s non-human employees and patrons, including Seb’s contacts, are all in the wind now as well. It seems like Letuch may have been using the club as a meeting place, or possibly for recruitment.” She looked over at me with stern eyes. “You were with Seb when Zida showed, correct?”
“Yeah,” I replied hesitantly. “We were grocery shopping.” I wasn’t sure if that information was relevant but Sara didn’t even bother to acknowledge it.
“And the nature of their interaction, Seb and Zida, I mean—would you consider it congenial?”
“Um.” I paused, confused by the question. “Well, Zida acted pretty friendly, I guess? Seb didn’t really react at all, honestly.”
Sara nodded and turned slightly to type something on her computer before closing it and spinning back around to face me and Muri. “So,” she said, her eyes boring into mine. “Muri tells me you’ve begun to consider taking a position at NIMA.”
The lump in my throat suddenly grew five times bigger. “Yeah. If that’s an option, I mean.”
“I assume Seb was the catalyst for this decision?”
“Well, sort of,” I explained. “I didn’t start seriously thinking about it until after Eva told me how she got started.”
Sara nodded again, pursing her lips. I couldn’t tell from her expression what she thought about any of this. “Right. The hiring process is fairly flexible, mostly to accommodate cases like hers—and yours—but still, I’m hesitant about moving so quickly with a new hire, especially considering your present circumstances.”
“Oh.” I could barely get the word out around the blockage in my throat. I dug the nails of my right hand into my palm, willing myself not to spill any tears over the rejection.
Sara smiled reassuringly. “I think you misunderstand me, Pemberly. I’m not telling you no.”
“Okay?” I replied uncertainly. “What do you mean, then?”
“I spoke to Naomi shortly after Muri contacted me,” Sara explained. “And Naomi thinks it’s a good idea.” I tried not to let the sudden flare of hope at Sara’s words show too plainly on my face. “More than anything, we’re low on manpower at the moment. It’s an all hands on deck situation, and we need more hands.”
“So your solution,” Muri interrupted, “is to train a complete novice to take Seb’s place? That’s just fantastic.”
“Take Seb’s place?” I glanced between the two of them in confusion, trying to read the answer in their tense expressions. “What are you talking about?”
“As per protocol,” Sara answered, “Seb is being internally investigated. Not terminated,” she added emphatically, giving Muri a pointed look.
“It’s just a matter of time and we all know it,” Muri replied. “You don’t trust him anymore.”
“Is that…true?” I asked, unsure of whether I should even be present for this discussion let alone asking questions about it.
Sara pressed her fingers together in her lap and took a deep breath. “Muri, I would appreciate it if you would refrain from making this into a bigger deal than it has to be. You of all people know that we have no other choice but to consider the possibility that Seb may have some degree of involvement in Letuch’s…activities. The encounter with Zida, and the fact that Seb has been involved in two different cases that appear to link back to Letuch; we can’t assume any of this is a coincidence. Understood?”
Sara hadn’t been replying to me, but when Muri said nothing in response I decided to chime in. “Okay, but how would he even swing that if he just takes whatever cases you guys give him? I mean, it’s not like he just picks and chooses what jobs he gets, right?” I didn’t trust Seb as far as I could throw him, but suspecting him of collaborating with Letuch seemed extreme, especially coming from someone Seb had referred to as a surrogate mother.
Muri scoffed. “Yeah, because Seb is a shining example of how the chain of command is supposed to work.”
That earned her an icy glare from Sara. “Enough,” she said. “I didn’t come all this way to argue with either of you.” She reached for the briefcase leaning up against the chair and pulled out a bulging manila folder. “Seb’s next case,” she said as she handed the file to Muri. “He’ll have three days on his own to investigate.”
“And by that you mean you have three days to spy on him,” Muri surmised as she opened the folder to take a look.
I wanted to peek at what was in the file but I thought that it would seem weird if I suddenly stood up now when I’d spent the entirety of the meeting sitting perched at the foot of the bed.
“If that’s what you want to call it,” Sara replied. “And after his three days are up, you’ll be sent in to assist him in closing the case.” She turned her attention to me again and added, “Both of you. Pemberly, you’ll be shadowing Muri throughout the remainder of the investigation, and when we’ve wrapped things up, I expect we can all come to a unified decision about to how to proceed with an official hire.”
“You’re kidding,” said Muri, dropping the file to her waist to stare in shock at Sara. “You’re saddling me with a trainee? She should be at the Institute, if anything!”
Sara glanced from me to Muri and raised an eyebrow. “What, you don’t think she has what it takes to be an exterminator? She’s killed before, hasn’t she?”
I squirmed in my seat, feeling even more uncomfortable with this meeting now that it had progressed to a discussion about my ability to execute monsters.
“That’s besides the point,” Muri replied heatedly. “You can’t just throw her on a case without certifying her first.”
“She’s tagged along on two cases already,” Sara reminded her. “And I’m sure you’re perfectly capable of doing your job with Pemberly along for the ride. Now—”
“Wait,” I said, interrupting Sara before she could make any other proclamations that would completely reshape my future. “What about Joel? Where does he fit into this?”
Sara pursed her lips, mulling it over for a minute before responding. “If Muri’s amenable,” she said, tapping her neatly trimmed nails against the table, “I’ll put him on the plane with the two of you. Otherwise, he’s welcome to enjoy a cozy vacation free of charge at headquarters.”
“Right.” I winced inwardly at the thought of having to inform Joel after our last discussion that no matter which option he chose, his life would be completely uprooted—again. And if Muri’s stormy expression was any indication, only one of those would even be in the realm of possibility. “So what’s the job, then?” I asked. I jumped when Muri dropped down onto the bed next to me without warning and flicked the folder into my lap.
“Missing vampire, missing kids,” Sara explained as I looked through a bunch of documentation on official stationery that I could barely decipher. I caught a few repeated phrases here and there, like ‘registered nest’, but most of it was NIMA gobbledygook I hadn’t had the opportunity to familiarize myself with yet. “An inhuman drawing human attention is something we prioritize highly,” she added. “Oh, and you might want to bring sunscreen.”
I glanced up to find Sara assessing my fair and freckled face with some concern.
“I will make sure to do that,” I told her, and continued reading, my eyes latching onto the word ‘Arizona’ with some dismay. I might have to bathe in the stuff.
With my head down, I was unable to see the expressions of either Muri or Sara, who both remained silent as I thumbed through each page. I hoped it wasn’t obvious that I barely understood a word of what was typed out in the case file.
‘Missing: Presumed Dead’ was pretty transparent though. My stomach churned at the thought of a dozen or so abducted children, all probably dead. And there was no telling how many more would fall victim to this thing before we even got there.
“Do we really have to play this waiting game with Seb?” I asked, giving Sara a beseeching look. “I mean, wouldn’t it make more sense for all of us to go now and take care of it?”
Her mouth twitched like she wanted to smile and couldn’t quite manage it. “There are bigger things at stake if Seb is really working against the agency, so yes, the ‘waiting game’ is unfortunately essential. Muri will act as Seb’s handler for the time being—” She ignored the furious noise of protest that erupted from Muri’s lips and continued, saying, “—until Naomi and I no longer have our hands full. Besides.” She paused and gave Muri a meaningful look. “If there’s one person Seb trusts more than the two of us, it’s you.”
I glanced over at Muri in surprise but she didn’t so much as blink. “Fine,” she said coldly, taking the file folder back from me and tucking it under her arm as she stood. “Are we done here?”
Sara nodded. “That’s all for now. Verena will escort you back to your car.”
I wanted to ask if that was really necessary since Verena scared the shit out of me but I didn’t want to seem like a baby in front of Muri, who already seemed angry enough about having to become my babysitter.
I followed the two women out of the hotel room and back down to the loop at the front of the hotel where a valet was waiting outside the lobby with the car. The constant supervision made me uneasy, like they didn’t trust Muri either, even though Seb was the one being investigated. I wondered if the car was bugged and began to worry about how many of my secrets were really secret at all.
I thought of Lila’s pendant, tucked into my pillowcase for safekeeping. The camera feeds I knew about were only for the public spaces throughout the safehouse but now I was paranoid that there might be others hidden in the bathrooms and bedrooms. If they really suspected that Seb was trying to double-cross them, who knew how closely the four of us were being monitored?
Despite all that, I let my curiosity get the best of me once we began the drive back. “So you and Seb,” I began gracelessly.
“What about me and Seb?” she replied, pulling out of the parking lot and back onto the main road.
“Well, what Sara said about you,” I continued. “You guys aren’t even civil to each other, so why would Seb trust you more than her?”
“Why do you even care?” It was dark inside the car but Muri’s eyes seemed to flash when she glanced over to look at me as we drove through an intersection.
“I’m just wondering,” I confessed.
The silence that followed my statement was agonizing. I wasn’t sure why Muri avoided playing music when she drove but I hated it. Even just the hum of something in the background would have been a welcome distraction from the tense atmosphere between us.
“We were friends when we were teenagers,” Muri said suddenly, the sound of her voice startling me out of the reverie I had fallen into while watching the streetlights pass by. “He came to live at headquarters when he was fifteen. I spent almost all of my childhood there and it’s not like there were a lot of other kids that came through, so we just kind of stuck together, I guess. Then we joined NIMA once we were old enough, and then Seb became the certified asshole you know today. End of story.”
“So you’re saying NIMA caused that.”
Muri sighed. “No, I’m saying that things change, and people don’t. And sometimes you find out one day that you can’t count on someone to be there when you really need it.” Her voice was loaded with bitterness and I suddenly felt intrusive just listening to her talk. “But I’m sure you’ll find that out for yourself once you join up. And speaking of which,” she said, abruptly changing the subject before I could respond. “If you don’t want to get killed before your first paycheck, you should just stay out of the way. I’m not going to hold your hand on this case.”
“Right,” I replied curtly. Apparently Seb’s modus operandi of treating me like a toddler was just standard procedure for NIMA operatives. Muri hadn’t been around to witness my conflict with Seb at the preserve, but I was starting to realize that he’d adopted Muri’s methods in a misguided effort to keep me safe, and now I was getting a taste of the real thing.
I still wasn’t a fan.
Not another word passed between the two of us for the remainder of the drive back. We walked up the steps side by side, and I waited a foot or so behind Muri while she put keys in each of the three locks on the door. When she flicked on the lights to reveal Seb lounging shirtless on the couch wearing just a pair of joggers, I sighed loudly and geared myself up for a fight.
“What do you want?” Muri demanded, taking the words right out of my mouth.
“Late night tryst, eh?” He cocked an eyebrow and bestowed us with a trademark smirk. His arms were folded over his chest and his ankles were crossed and resting on the arm of the couch, but it didn’t read as natural. He must have heard us coming up. “Didn’t know you’d stooped so low, Peaches.”
“Ha,” Muri replied flatly. She lobbed her keys at him with the force of a major league pitcher. Seb caught them easily with his left hand.
“Really though, what’s this about?” he questioned.
“Your new case,” she said, slapping the file folder against his chest as she stalked past him. “Better get packing, your flight leaves in the morning.” Muri walked into her room and slammed the door shut behind her, giving no further explanation.
Seb gave me a flabbergasted look. I just shrugged.
“Muri!” he yelled over his shoulder. “Muriel!”
The door opened again and Muri poked her head out. She was already down to just a salmon balconette bra; I tried not to stare. “What?” she grumbled.
Seb flipped over onto his hands and knees to face her. I walked into the kitchen to get myself a glass of water, hoping their altercation would end soon so I could go back to bed.
“No one told me about a case,” Seb said skeptically, waving the file at her. “Where did you get this?”
“Sara,” Muri replied. “She flew in to check out the Zida thing, and your little protégé over there decided she wants to join the monster-hunting club, so the two of us went to her hotel to have a chat. You probably have an email by now.” She gestured at me while giving him the run-down and I resisted the urge to duck down and hide behind the bar.
Seb paid me no attention and pulled out his phone instead. He squinted at the screen almost suspiciously and then barked out Muri’s name again.
“What?” she snarled, as she leaned out into the hall, still half-naked.
“They’re sending me on my own?”
“Just for a few days,” Muri pointed out. “Besides, you worked alone before you picked up Thing One and Thing Two anyway. I don’t see the problem.”
“The fact that no one at NIMA seems concerned about Letuch’s connection to my last two cases is a pretty big problem,” Seb replied matter-of-factly.
I choked on my water and could feel Muri’s glare superheating my face as I tried to keep my composure. “Sorry,” I said, ignoring Seb’s quizzical look. “Wrong pipe.”
“Look,” Muri said, pulling Seb’s attention back to her, “if you have an issue with your assignment, you can always take it up with Marina.”
I couldn’t see Seb’s face from where I was standing, but I could see every muscle in his neck and shoulders tense up at the mention of Marina’s name. Without a word, he got up from the couch and stormed past Muri into their shared master bedroom, which seemed like an unfortunate way to end their conflict. I heard the bathroom door slam shut a few seconds later, and the sound was even louder than when Muri had slammed the bedroom door earlier.
That was the final straw for Joel apparently, who poked out his own disheveled head to assess the situation. “What the hell is going on?” he asked, voice gruff with sleep.
“Go to bed,” Muri told him before reaching over to hit the light switch, suddenly plunging the living room back into darkness.
I heard another door close and slowly made my way out of the kitchen, trying not to walk into the couch as I stumbled over to what I was pretty sure was the room I was supposed to be sleeping in. I fumbled with the door handle for a second before Joel opened it to let me in.
“Thanks,” I whispered.
“Where were you?” he asked through a yawn. I heard the bed creak as he laid back down.
I settled into my own bed, waiting a moment before answering. “You really don’t want to know.”
I wasn’t sure if he had fallen asleep before hearing me but there was no answer from the other side of the room, and pretty soon I was out cold myself.