We should have listened.
But it was just so easy to ignore Seb’s instructions to stay in the hotel until he and Muri returned from their “official NIMA business” when the Las Vegas Strip was right outside, calling our name. I hadn’t put up much of a fight when Joel proposed we walk down to the Bellagio to watch the fountains.
“They turn them on every fifteen minutes,” he assured me, glancing down at the tourist guide he’d looked up on my phone. “We’ll be back before they even know we were gone.”
The wind whipped through my hair as I leaned back against the railing next to Joel, taking in the sights and sounds around us as we waited for the show to start. It was warm despite the wind, even now that it was already getting dark. The sun was little more than a dim glow emanating from behind the mountains to the west, turning the sky a bright cerulean blue on the horizon.
We’d arrived in Vegas that morning, after a long drive straight through the night from Lakeside. It turned out speed limits were nothing more than minor suggestions to Seb, who had closely tailed Muri on the highway even as she’d pushed one-twenty on her bike.
Still, it had been bright out by the time we’d pulled into the hotel, the vibrant colors of downtown that I’d seen in pictures washed out by the harsh sun. This was the first time I was really seeing the Strip the way it was meant to be experienced.
The tourists were in full force now that night was falling. Almost everyone who passed us by was sporting black-tie attire, leaving me feeling a little underdressed in my ratty cotton V-neck. I watched as a group of girls went by all in stiletto heels that put them somewhere around my height, their skin-tight cocktail dresses just barely covering all the important bits. One of them glanced over at me and I quickly averted my gaze.
When I looked up again there was another woman in her place. She stared directly back at me. I was paralyzed by her magnetic gaze and felt my face heat up with embarrassment. She didn’t react in the way most girls did when I was caught looking. Instead, she cocked her head to the side as her eyes narrowed in blatant interest.
I looked down, not daring to hope for anything to come of the interaction. The woman was clearly way out of my league. By lightyears. When I glanced up again, I saw that she hadn’t moved and that her attention had turned to her companions instead. My stomach dropped.
I jabbed at Joel’s side in a panic.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked.
“I think we should leave,” I said breathlessly.
“What? Why?” I tugged at his arm without answering but he didn’t budge. “Pem, what the hell?”
A tap on my shoulder stopped me in my tracks. I turned and came face to face with the woman. A chilling smirk had replaced the inquisitive expression she’d worn before. She was a head shorter than me and certainly not physically imposing, but I still felt tense and worried as she looked up at me.
“Haven’t seen you round here before,” she said in a melodic voice as she crossed her arms over her sequined dress, “chica.”
It wasn’t the first time someone had addressed me as such, but it was the first time the term of endearment sounded more like a threat.
The two men walking up beside her, both the size of grizzly bears, didn’t help matters. The man on the left in particular looked like he could easily squish Joel’s head between his biceps.
“Is there a problem here?” Joel asked aggressively.
“You tell me,” the woman replied in that saccharine voice. “We just wanna know what you’re doing here, that’s all.”
“Um,” I began, not really sure what the hell was going on anymore. “We’re just…tourists?”
One of the men scoffed like what I’d said was completely outrageous and the woman’s smile turned skeptical. “Yeah. Right. You work for NIMA? You smell like the hotel shampoo.”
I could feel Joel tensing up next to me.
Her eyes narrowed, my reaction clearly not what she’d expected. “You’re not with NIMA?”
“Uh, no?” I responded hesitantly.
I realized immediately that it was the wrong answer as the woman exchanged a brief glance with each of her companions. “I think you’d better come with us,” she said.
We probably could have made a run for it and stood a decent chance of escaping into the throngs of people all around us. I knew Joel was itching to do it, but wouldn’t move unless I did. Instead, I just stood there while the two hulking men approached the both of us. I flinched as the bearded one with slightly smaller arms placed a hand solidly on my shoulder.
“Hey!” Joel yelled, but he couldn’t do anything to help me. The other guy already had both of Joel’s wrists firmly grasped in one enormous hand. “Don’t fucking touch my sister, you creep!”
It was the wrong thing to say, as the woman rolled her eyes in response before punching Joel directly in the gut. He retched loudly and doubled over from the pain. I winced as I tried to keep my own gag reflex from responding in sympathy. It looked as though she’d hit him hard enough that he would have fallen to the ground if the other man hadn’t been holding onto him.
I looked around desperately at the passersby, hoping someone would notice what was happening and help us—but it was like we were invisible to even those just feet away, close enough to touch. The masses parted around us as we walked behind the woman, her presence effortlessly cutting a path through the dense crowd without having to say a word.
A few minutes later, the hotel we’d just left came into view and we were hauled through the courtyard by the two men as a few well-dressed people stared at us in undisguised interest. I was tempted to speak up then, demand to know what was going on, but one look at the man holding my brother was enough to keep me quiet.
Instead of going in through the front entrance and into the lobby, the way we had when Seb had booked us a room, we were led around the side of the building to an inconspicuous door in the back. There was a maintenance stairwell inside, and the woman led us up several flights of stairs until we finally exited into a much nicer hallway that matched the rest of the hotel’s décor.
From there we were herded past several groups of people mingling in various doorways and near the vending machines. Most stared curiously at us when we passed but didn’t say anything about the fact that we were being roughly manhandled by our heavily-muscled escorts.
Further down were a series of closed doors on either side of the hall. The woman directed us to the second one on our right and waited as we were thrown into the room without ceremony.
“Have a seat,” the woman said from the doorway.
Joel and I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter as we were both summarily pushed down into two of the chairs. Then the men walked out of the room and the woman closed the door behind them. We were left alone without the slightest clue as to why we’d even been brought here in the first place.
“Great,” Joel muttered under his breath after the door clicked shut. “Yeah, this is just great.”
“Why are you acting like this is my fault?” I hissed. Through the thick glass panel in the door, I could see the silhouettes of our captors, and hear the faint murmur of voices.
“All of this is your fault!” he pointed out. “Can’t wait to find out what the hell these people want from us this time.”
I rolled my eyes and sighed loudly, too irritated to form a response. It wasn’t like I’d known any of this was going to happen. And Joel had been the one to suggest we leave the hotel anyway. If anything, this was his fault.
The shapes in front of the door finally moved, and I squinted at them as they walked away. I was just barely able to make out the features of the woman who’d brought us in as she turned her head to look at one of the people behind her. After they left, I watched forlornly as other figures passed by the door at a quick pace, clearly in a hurry to get from one place to the next.
But when I saw a familiar head of black hair emerge from the room opposite ours, I darted up out of my chair and ran toward the door, tapping on the glass frantically and jiggling the handle, hoping it would get her attention.
Muri turned, looked left and right, and then walked over to the door. It opened easily, leading me to conclude that it was somehow only locked from our side—an odd feature in a luxury hotel, if you asked me. Muri poked just her head inside, her expression morphing from bewildered to annoyed within a fraction of a second.
“What the hell are you two doing here?” she asked in a voice barely above a whisper as she slipped into the room.
“Ask Pem,” Joel grumbled, not even bothering to look surprised by Muri’s appearance.
“These weird people took us here,” I explained hesitantly. “I don’t even know who they were, they just asked me some questions about NIMA and I didn’t—”
“They asked you about NIMA?”
“Yeah,” I replied, feeling deflated now that the exhilaration I’d experienced after seeing Muri out in the hall had worn off. I’d kind of been hoping she’d magically get us out of this mess, not subject us to even more questions.
“Where is it?” she asked aggressively, stepping into my personal space before even giving me a chance to answer the question. The question stirred up an uneasy feeling in my gut that I couldn’t put a name to. “The necklace. Do you have it with you?”
“Yeah,” I said again, reaching into my pocket and pulling out the pendant I’d been carrying with me since we first left home.
Muri snatched it away and tucked it into her own pocket. “Do not tell them you had this. Do not answer any more questions, got it? I’ll be back soon.” She stalked out of the room, letting the door shut behind her and leaving us locked in once more.
I sighed and sat back down to my brother. He had his chin resting on his folded arms, and was peering up at me curiously.
“You tell me,” he replied. “What was that all about?”
“I don’t know,” I said tiredly. “This fucking necklace Lila had… I think it has something to do with all this…supernatural shit.”
“If it’s Lila’s, then why do you have it?”
I didn’t give him an answer.
To his credit, Joel didn’t push me for one. He simply sighed and stretched out his arms across the table, laying his face down in between them as he slumped over. We waited there in silence for another fifteen minutes at least, and when the door opened again, it wasn’t Muri standing there on the other side.
The woman who appeared instead was strikingly beautiful, with long silky hair and heavy-lidded brown eyes. Under other circumstances, I probably would have appreciated that instead of being terrified by the polite but sterile smile she wore as she sat down on the other side of the table.
“My name is Marina Chiba,” she said in a lukewarm tone that reminded me of my middle school guidance counselor. “And you are?”
Neither Joel nor I answered her, leaving the words hanging there in the silence between us. Chiba seemed unperturbed by the lack of response.
“Do you know why you’re here?” she pressed.
I wanted to answer her, to yell in her face and complain that we hadn’t done anything wrong, and of course we didn’t know why we were here! But per Muri’s advice, I didn’t say a word.
Chiba exhaled a breathy little sigh, verging on a chuckle, and settled back into her chair. “We’re not going to get anywhere if you aren’t willing to at least speak to me.”
I refused to meet her eyes. Her dark brown, almost black irises filled me with unease as she stared at me without blinking before turning her gaze instead to my brother, who met the look head on with a cold stare of his own.
Foolishly, I’d thought Joel would also follow Muri’s instruction to keep quiet. Though by now I should have known not to bank on his cooperation, or common sense.
“Do you people not have lawyers?” Joel demanded as he straightened up in his chair. “Or should I just assume we’ll be meeting a firing squad pretty soon?” He swiped a hand across his face and wrinkled his nose in distaste, like the gentle scent of Chiba’s perfume stank.
She merely smiled back at him. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s no cause for either of you to seek counsel. Yet.”
“Then why the locked room?” Joel demanded. “Why the muscle?”
“If Verena was overly aggressive it was only because she thought you might be a threat,” Chiba replied. She paused. “Are you?”
“A threat?” I piped up finally in an effort to keep Joel from digging us a deeper hole. “To who? We weren’t doing anything!”
“You were drawing attention to yourselves,” Chiba replied. “Which is cause enough, as you should well know.”
“Know what?” I couldn’t make sense of anything Chiba was saying to us. Joel and I had literally just been standing on the sidewalk. If anything, my only offense had been wandering eyes, but that didn’t warrant this kind of response.
I found myself wishing Seb was here so I could at least get an encyclopedia-esque explanation in decoding Chiba’s bullshit.
And then, as if my wish had been granted by a genie—were genies real too?—the door opened once more. Two older women I didn’t recognize filed into the room, followed by Seb and Muri both. Chiba’s jaw tightened as she turned to watch them enter, but she said nothing until the door had shut behind them, sealing all seven of us inside the tiny interrogation chamber.
“I don’t recall requesting Mr. Marschel’s assistance,” she said evenly, looking somewhere at the blank wall to my right instead of toward the people she was addressing. “I believe I’ve got things well in hand.”
“Seb’s not here to help you question them, Marina,” said the older of the two strangers, a distinguished-looking woman with a short black bob curling just under her ear. She could have easily passed for a politician in her wool blazer, hands folded neatly over her abdomen. “There’s been a misunderstanding.”
“I’m aware of that,” Chiba replied with an audible note of irritation as she turned in her chair to face the other woman. “That’s the reason I stepped in to do someone else’s job for them.” She shot a hostile look at Seb, who was pointedly looking down at his own feet.
“Well,” said the woman, “now Sara and I are here to take care of it. No need to trouble yourself any further.”
Even though dismissal was obvious to everyone in the room, there was a long pause before Marina finally stood up, smoothing down the fabric of her skirt with twitching fingers as she did so. She pushed past the group to get to the door and Seb swayed on his feet to avoid touching her as she passed, still gazing vacantly at the opposite wall.
Smiling now, but only in that strained, polite sort of way that was common with food stamp caseworkers and receptionists, the woman who had asked Marina to leave took a step forward. “I apologize for my niece’s attitude,” she said. “Marina’s driven, but she can be a bit abrasive.”
Seb let out a derisive noise that everyone but Joel and I completely ignored.
“So…can you tell us what’s going on?” I asked hesitantly. “Why are we being treated like this?”
The woman glanced uneasily at the abstract oil painting on the wall next to us. “Why don’t we take this somewhere a bit more comfortable first?” she suggested.
“Fine by me,” Joel replied with a grunt. He kicked his chair back and stood up, stretching to his full height and crossing his arms over his chest in a gesture of intimidation. The taller of the two women, Sara, stared down at him in amusement, having at least three inches on him in her long leather boots.
She gave him a pointed look and I watched as Joel deflated under her imposing gaze.
“Conference room?” Sara offered to the woman who had spoken before.
“At least we’ll have some privacy,” was the reply.
Joel and I followed like baby ducklings behind Seb and Muri as we navigated the maze of hallways in the hotel, practically clinging onto their shirttails. Neither said a word to us as we squeezed by even more people clogging up the corridors until we finally reached another room, this one much larger in size with a wide circular table in the middle surrounded by dozens of chairs.
The older woman held the door open, and smiled kindly at me as I passed by her.
Joel and I waited near the door until Seb flopped into one of the empty seats, then took the chairs opposite him. Muri sat down next to me, which made it feel less like a direct interrogation when the two women sat in the chairs on either side of Seb.
“Better?” the older one asked, folding her hands together primly atop the table. The resemblance between her and Marina was even more apparent now and I withdrew from the table slightly, even as I nodded in agreement.
“Yeah, it’s great,” Joel said with undisguised sarcasm. “But why are we even sitting here?”
“Because you need their help,” Seb replied just as venomously.
“Seb, please,” the older woman interrupted in a quiet voice. She smiled diplomatically at Joel and me, like she was trying to make up for the gloomy expressions on everyone else’s faces. “Like I said before, this is all just a misunderstanding. My name is Naomi Chiba. I’m the department head overseeing Seb and Muri’s divisions at NIMA, as well as a few others.” She then gestured to her companion. “This is Sara Park. She’s Seb’s direct supervisor. I’m sure this is all very confusing for you, but trust me when I tell you that we’re only trying to help.”
I looked to Joel, who was staring back at Naomi with undisguised skepticism. “Yeah, sorry lady, but we’re not really interested in being ‘helped’,” he told her.
Seb shook his head and sighed. “This is not how this conversation was supposed to go.”
“Well deal with it,” Sara snapped. “It’s not our fault your ‘guests’ can’t keep themselves out of trouble for two seconds.”
“We didn’t actually do anything,” Joel reminded her.
She huffed out an incredulous chuckle. “Besides attract the attention of every inhuman within three blocks, sure.”
“What?” Seb asked, sitting up straighter. The annoyed expression he wore suddenly morphed into something more akin to alarm.
“Verena said Max could sense them a quarter-mile off,” Naomi explained.
Sara gave Seb a condescending look. “Not exactly normal for a pair of humans, now, is it?”
“He was obviously exaggerating,” Muri cut in. “There’s no way he could detect this level, right, Naomi?”
Naomi wrinkled her brow in concentration, looking first at me and then at Joel before turning back to Seb and Sara. “Muri’s right, they aren’t displaying anything beyond what Seb already told us. Nothing that couldn’t be explained by a close association with objects of a magical origin or other inhumans in close quarters.” She glanced back at me once more. “Your friend was a witch?”
“Uh, I mean, maybe?” I replied hesitantly. “She was into astrology and stuff, and her mom was pretty weird, but I didn’t ever think any of it was actually real.”
“Did she give you anything strange, before she died?”
I shot an annoyed glance at Seb, but he ignored me. Apparently he had no qualms about spilling all my secrets to complete strangers without so much as doing me the courtesy of asking first.
Muri’s eyes bored holes into my head as I answered. “Just some crystals and like incense, I guess.” I hoped my voice wouldn’t betray the fact that I was more or less lying through my teeth. “I usually chucked them in the garbage as soon as she gave them to me, but there might still be some in the apartment.”
“And were either of you…intimate with her at any point?” Naomi asked as tactfully as one could, considering.
“God no,” Joel replied with an exaggerated grimace, while I sat next to him quickly turning beet-red under the others’ scrutiny. It was another few seconds before he realized. “Oh seriously, Pem? Gross!”
He didn’t notice the glare Muri shot at him, but I did. I glanced at her questioningly, wondering what it was about Joel’s comment that had offended her so much, but she staunchly avoided my eyes. When I looked back up at the others across the table, I caught Seb’s inquisitive gaze and knew I wasn’t going to live this admission down anytime soon.
Naomi nodded. “Well, all of that would explain this,” she said, indicating the room at large, “but it doesn’t answer the question of why Verena felt the need to bring you in.”
“Someone else maybe?” Muri suggested. “In their vicinity? Max got his wires crossed?”
Her interjections seemed clumsy to me, too obvious, but hopefully that was only because I knew she was covering my ass. Seb and the others appeared none the wiser to her deception. I still wasn’t sure why any of this was even necessary, but when it came down to it, I was more inclined to trust Muri than Seb.
Naomi hummed pensively, looking dissatisfied with the answer Muri had provided, but she seemed unable to come up with a better explanation. She turned again to look at Sara, who responded with another shrug.
“Perhaps we can spare someone to look into this after things quiet down,” Naomi said finally. Seb’s face soured at that remark, but he didn’t protest. “Seb, would you care to escort them back to their room, please?”
Seb made a noise of disapproval and held up both hands. “Uh, no, I’d care to finish having the discussion we were having before Muri interrupted.”
“I don’t think now is really the time,” Naomi said.
Seb wasn’t having it. “Now’s the perfect time,” he argued. “They’re the reason we’ve been bickering for the last half hour, yeah? So why not figure all that shit out before we cart them off?”
Sara looked like she was trying not to laugh. Naomi frowned, but nodded after a brief pause.
“Okay then,” she said. “What should we do with you?” she asked, throwing the decision to me and Joel.
“Fun as this whole little vacation’s been,” Joel replied acerbically, before I had a chance to, “I’ve got a job, and a life, so I’d really like to go home, if you don’t mind.”
“And like I said before,” Seb said pointedly, “it’s not a good idea for either of them to go back to Oregon right now.” It was clear now that Seb had been hoping to use Joel and me to win the argument they’d been having before we entered the picture, but Joel hadn’t reacted quite the way he’d anticipated. “We can’t just send them back there with no protection.”
Sara stared at him impassively. “And where exactly are we supposed to come up with this ‘protection’, Seb? We can’t pull a security detail out of our asses. Things are tight enough as it is.”
“Well we have to do something,” he insisted.
“Are you volunteering?” Sara shot back.
“Do I get paid leave if I do?”
“Stop,” Naomi interjected, the pained look on her face reminiscent of the expression Marisol wore twenty-four-seven when Joel and I were little. “Muri, you don’t have any active assignments, correct?”
She nodded. “Trevor wanted me to take some time off after we deal with this mermaid thing. You want me on the detail?”
“I want you to be the detail,” Naomi clarified.
Muri frowned, the omnipresent wrinkle between her eyebrows deepening significantly. “I can’t watch both of them by myself.”
“It won’t be an issue.” Naomi looked to me. “Which of you is Letuch actively targeting?” I raised my hand. “But he’s had contact with your brother as well?” Joel nodded reluctantly. “Sara?”
“I wasn’t going to give him the assignment,” Sara replied with a frown. “There’s two greenies….” Seeing that Naomi wasn’t going to budge, she sighed. “Fine. There’s a problem at the Alaskan preserve. Seb, it’s yours.”
Seb popped up in his chair, his expression lighting up like it was suddenly Christmas. “Oh!” he said excitedly. “Field trip. Sweet.”
“Um,” I said timidly, hesitant to interrupt them. But I still didn’t understand what they’d seemingly decided on. “So are my brother and I going back home?”
“Your brother will be going back to Portland with Muri,” Naomi told me. “He’ll be staying in a safe house. Letuch should be able to at least figure out that he’s in the city, and that may tempt him out of hiding. Muri will stay with Joel to make sure nothing happens to him in the meantime.”
“So you’re going to use Joel as bait,” I said flatly. Turning to my brother, I asked, “You’re cool with this?”
“Pem’ll be safe?” he asked Naomi, ignoring me.
“Of course,” she replied. “It’d be too much of a risk to send her back until the situation with Letuch is resolved, security detail or not. And since Muri is all we can really spare at the moment….”
I stood up suddenly, sending my chair flying backwards with a loud clatter. No one else so much as flinched, but Joel gave me an annoyed glance before shaking his head in disapproval. Whatever. “If I’m in that much danger,” I pointed out, “why would I be okay with you putting Joel in the middle of it?”
“It’s not up to you,” Sara said calmly. “If you’re not satisfied with the measures we’ll be taking to ensure your safety, something we take very seriously, I assure you, you’re always welcome to go back to your apartment and wait for Letuch to show up again.”
The words stirred up the simmering pit of dread in my stomach that hadn’t fully dissipated since the first time I’d encountered Letuch in the alley outside Karma. Then there was a soft hand on my wrist, and I turned to find Muri looking up at me with what could have passed for a gentle expression on anyone else’s face.
“He’ll be safe with me,” she said. “I promise.”
I wasn’t totally reassured, but at the same time, I knew for the sake of Joel’s career—his chance at having a relatively normal life—that he’d be better off going home. He deserved that much at the very least, after all the shit I’d already put him through.
Joel scoffed next to me, but neither Muri nor I spared him a glance. “I can take care of myself,” he muttered.
“Because that went so well last time,” Seb remarked snidely. I remembered all too vividly the clash with Letuch we’d had at the motel thanks to Joel’s ignorance. “Still rocking that split eyebrow look. If you’re lucky you’ll end up with a scar and you can use it to impress all the ladies.”
Joel scowled. “Funny.”
“Yeah, I thought so.”
Naomi clapped her hands twice in rapid succession, causing me to jump. “In that case, Pemberly, you’ll join Seb at the nature preserve. You’ll be perfectly safe there. Muri, if you’d come with me and Sara? Seb, you can take them back to their room now.”
“Cheers,” Seb replied, jumping out of his chair and enthusiastically gesturing for Joel and me to follow him.
I looked over my shoulder as the door closed behind us, catching Muri’s gaze on the way out. I wondered where she’d stashed Lila’s necklace, since it was apparent now that the thing really was the source of the trouble we’d gotten into earlier. My stomach sank as I considered that it might have attracted the likes of Seb and Letuch as well. I promised myself I’d tell Muri to get rid of it as soon as I had the chance.
Joel and I trudged along sullenly behind Seb as he navigated the maze-like hallways of the hotel, waving hello to nearly every passerby, whether they were wearing a uniform or not.
It could have been his home, as far as I knew. I couldn’t imagine Seb sharing a rundown apartment with a bunch of grungy twenty-somethings barely scraping by with rent. This sort of glamorous pseudo-reality inherent in the hotel’s atmosphere was much more fitting.
When we reached the elevators the area was virtually deserted. Seb grinned buoyantly at me as he stepped inside the cabin and pressed the button for our floor.
“So,” he said as the cabin lurched underneath us, “you and the dead chick, huh?”
Joel made a noise that signified he was about two seconds from punching Seb’s lights out. Seb ignored it, still staring at me inquisitively even as the elevator doors opened and we filed out into the familiar hallway that led to our hotel room.
“We were just messing around,” I managed, “it wasn’t anything…serious.” Real had been the word I was going to say, but it felt painfully heavy on my tongue, and I couldn’t push it out.
“She the only girl you ever….” Seb made a gesture using only his eyebrows that somehow seemed lewder than if he’d just finished the question.
“No,” I replied with a sigh. “Not that it’s any of your business.” Truth be told, sleeping with the second girl hadn’t been any less toxic or humiliating than with Lila, but I wasn’t about to spill that kind of information in front of my brother, who looked like he was trying very hard to tune me out already.
“Huh,” Seb replied. He swiped the keycard for our room and held the door open for Joel and me to pass. “Interesting.”
Joel made a beeline for his bed. He collapsed onto it with a loud sigh and closed his eyes. I perched delicately at the foot of my own bed, and looked back over at Seb.
“So what now?” I asked. I expected him to give us some kind of advice for preparing to leave, but he just shrugged.
“You guys haven’t eaten yet?” he asked, hanging onto the still-open door like it was keeping him from sinking straight through the plush cream carpet.
I shook my head. Joel just grunted into his pillow.
“Hang tight, I’ll go grab you something,” Seb said, and then dashed out again.
“Great,” I muttered. I waited for Joel to say anything at all, but he just lay there, silent. “It’ll be good to get back to work,” I ventured.
“Yup,” he replied, making it sound like there wasn’t a single thing about this scenario that could be classified as “good” in any way.
“Well, I mean—”
“I know what you meant.”
“I’m just trying to stay positive,” I grumbled, smoothing my hands down over the wrinkles in the bedspread.
Joel didn’t reply, and the mood only darkened after that.
“Look,” I said finally, unable to cope with the uneasy silence any longer, “if you’re mad about me and Lila—”
He propped himself up on his elbows and gave me a quizzical look. “Why would I be upset about that?”
“She wasn’t a very good person,” I admitted. “Especially to you.”
“I’m not mad,” he grumbled. “I just don’t want to even think about her. Did you know she—did you know she tried?”
“Tried what?” I asked, confused by the direction the conversation had suddenly taken.
Joel’s face turned a deep scarlet and he was very diligently avoiding looking at me. He grabbed the remote instead and turned on the TV, starting to flip through the channels.
“Tried what, Joel?” I insisted.
He tossed the remote down with a sigh. “I thought you knew she tried to kiss me when you guys were still in high school. I thought when they asked about us, and...and her…. I thought you’d said something to Seb about it.”
I stared at my brother in open-mouthed shock. Lila had hated Joel. Despised him, actually. Why the fuck would she try to kiss him?
Seeing the shock on my face, he quickly clarified, “I’m pretty sure she was drunk when it happened.”
“No,” I said, and then amended, “I mean, no I didn’t know about it. And even if I did I wouldn’t have told anyone, let alone Seb.”
Joel nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Sorry.”
I wanted to ask him more about what had happened, but he was staring intently at the TV. I got the sense he was done talking about it. I sank back onto the bed and casually watched along with him as we waited for Seb to return. An episode and a half of some shitty syndicated sitcom later, a knock finally sounded at the door to our room.
“Room service!” Seb’s familiar voice reverberated through the door and I rolled my eyes as I hopped off the bed to let him in.
“Cool,” Joel muttered from behind me. “I bet that’s what they call the meals in solitary too.”
“Well if anyone out of the three of us would know,” Seb replied, “it’d be you.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Joel demanded, jumping to his feet. I had to leap off the bed to put a hand up between them.
“Hey, come on, chill,” I said, waiting for Joel’s fists to unclench before I turned to Seb. “And you, behave.”
“It’s not my fault Dr. Jekyll can’t appreciate it when someone does him a favor,” Seb replied unnecessarily. He carried in a towering stack of Styrofoam boxes and strutted past Joel to set them on the table in the corner of the room. “The food’s great here, man. And it’s free.”
Joel eyed the food Seb had laid out like a sulking toddler who didn’t get ice cream with his chicken nuggets.
“It’s still bullshit,” he complained. “That we can’t go anywhere or do anything. It’s not like we’re ever going to have a chance to come here again.”
And wasn’t that the most pessimistic way of looking at it. Unfortunately, for Joel and me, our pessimistic expectations too often coincided with realistic outcomes. He was probably right.
Seb’s eyes lit up as he chomped on an enormous fried mushroom, and he hurriedly gulped it down, licking the grease and dressing off his fingers in a way that made me feel like I was being mentally groped. “I’ve got somewhere we can go if you’re dead set on soaking in the experience,” he said, a mischievous smile playing at the edges of his mouth. “A real once in a lifetime kind of thing. Something most people never get to see.”
I could tell Joel was having a hard time reigning in his curiosity, and I had to admit, my own interest was piqued as well.
“Okay,” I said, knowing Joel’s pride wouldn’t allow him to accept Seb’s offer unless I intervened. “Then what are we waiting for? The food will still be here when we get back, right?”
Seb seemed pleased by my acquiescence. “Follow me.”
We trailed closely behind Seb, who was practically bouncing off the walls as he led us down an unfamiliar route.
“Service elevator,” he explained when we reached an isolated pair of metal doors with a keyhole where the button should have been. I watched with interest as he pulled a small set of keys from his front pocket and inserted one of them into the slot.
“You have keys to the service elevator?” I asked.
“Of course. Special privileges.”
The elevator opened and the three of us squeezed in, Joel looking as moody as ever while Seb lounged lazily against the handrail next to him. I held onto the bar with a death grip as the elevator shot upward with unexpected velocity, sending my stomach flying straight into my throat.
The numbers at the top ticked by almost too quickly to read and we hit double digits in under a minute. We reached what I could only assume was the top and the doors opened again. Only the small emergency lights along the walls were lit, giving the hallway an eerie glow as we walked past.
“Where are we going?” I asked quietly, feeling like it would be wrong somehow to speak at normal volume despite all evidence pointing toward the three of us being the only living beings on the entire floor.
“You’ll see,” Seb replied. He walked ahead of us with a swing in his step.
“How is this damn hotel part of the sightseeing experience?” Joel griped, not willing to reserve judgment until Seb revealed whatever it is he had planned for us.
“You’ll see,” Seb repeated. “Trust me, you won’t feel like you’re missing a single thing. Well, except for the walking and the crowds maybe.” He turned left at the end of the hall, leading us down another, even darker corridor, otherwise identical to the one connected to the service elevator.
Unlike the lower floors, these hallways didn’t appear to have any rooms attached to them. Instead, there was just a single door at the far end of the hallway. Seb pulled out his keyring again as we approached, but instead of the door opening when he slid the key into the lock, a keypad next to the door lit up with a bright blue glow. He punched in a code too fast for me to make out any individual number, and the door popped open with a mechanical hiss.
I exchanged a questioning look with Joel, who still seemed skeptical, but I dismissed him with a shrug and followed Seb inside. It was pitch black as the door swung shut behind us, and when the lights flickered on, I had to blink a few times until my eyes finally adjusted.
Illuminated by the softly glowing recessed lights in the ceiling was a large open suite, the kitchen decorated with stainless steel appliances that looked so advanced it was like they’d been transported from a future era or some distant alien civilization. The counters were smooth agate, lit from within so that they provided even more light within the large space than the dimmed bulbs above.
Separated from the kitchen by a long ornate breakfast bar was the living room, complete with a majestic stone fireplace and a grand piano, but those weren’t the most breathtaking things about it. Beyond the delicately upholstered white suede couches and the widescreen TV mounted on the wall above the mantle, there was a floor-to-ceiling glass window reflecting the same scene back at me, the lights from inside obscuring our view out. When Seb walked over to the panel next to the door and turned the lights down low enough, you could finally see the lights of the city all around us.
“It’s cool, right?” Seb said as he wandered over to the glass wall and pulled open a sliding panel to reveal an unobscured view of the balcony.
“Cool” was one word for it. After stepping out into the wind, and getting a glimpse of the infinity pool that looked out over the Strip, I would have described it as something more like “awesome” or “mind-blowing”. But it was definitely cool.
Joel looked even more gobsmacked than I felt, taking a cautious step past me, his head on a swivel as he took in the view.
The pool gave the illusion that if you got too close to the edge, you’d float right off, down into the lights and glamour of the street below. From this height, we could see for miles, the city limits extending south and westward into the mountains until the faintly twinkling suburban lights faded into the blackness of the surrounding desert landscape. All around us were the blinding colors of the Las Vegas Boulevard scenery, some of the buildings still towering far above us, while others were only visible if we walked right up to very edge of the balcony to peer down below.
“This is amazing,” Joel said finally, and the sincerity was evident in his voice.
When I turned to look at Seb again, he was practically glowing, obviously pleased with our reactions. “I do my best,” he said, and then gracefully pulled his shirt over his head, revealing the dark patterns of the tattoos obscuring half his torso. “Fancy a swim?”
Before either Joel or I could respond he stripped down to just his briefs and dove headfirst into the pool with a splash.
As if activated by his presence, the pool suddenly lit up in multicolor as lights along the sides pulsed in and out to create a shifting rainbow underneath the water.
“We didn’t bring swimsuits,” I told Seb once he surfaced.
He paddled over to the edge closest to where we were standing braced his elbows on the deck. His hair was slicked back, and he was wide-eyed behind his glasses—which had miraculously managed to stay securely on his face despite his dive into the water.
“You don’t see me wearing one,” he pointed out, and then pushed back from the wall with a splash that drenched me with a wave of water while Joel laughed.
“Come on, Pem,” Joel said, showing an uncharacteristic lack of modesty as he peeled off his button-up and jeans before hopping into the water feet-first alongside Seb. “It’s warm,” he said, looking surprised.
Frowning slightly, I weighed my options. Every instinct told me to stand my ground, be the typical stick in the mud who refused to join the fun. But I knew I’d regret it in the long run. Just like I regretted turning down every invitation to accompany Lila to whatever high school party she was attending, like I regretted not even trying to get a scholarship at the community college, and everything else I’d missed out on because I was too damn scared I might make a fool out of myself.
So I went for it.
Jumping into the pool with a splash, I didn’t even think to take off my shoes or jeans until they became deadweight beneath the water. Seb laughed as I paddled over to the steps to sit down and try to peel off the excess clothing. I tossed both pants and shoes onto the deck with a wet slap, and now freed, pushed back off into the deeper water to rejoin Seb and Joel.
“Not gonna ditch the shirt?” Seb asked, treading water with ease.
“I’m not exactly wearing anything under it,” I admitted.
Seb didn’t seem bothered by that answer and dove back under the water to tug playfully at my feet before zooming over to the very edge of the pool to come up for air.
“You should come look,” he told Joel and me as he lounged on the precipice against the nearly invisible glass wall that bordered the sheer drop.
I cautiously swam over with Joel in tow. Once we were at the very edge next to Seb, we could see that there was actually a ledge beneath, and beyond that, an unencumbered view of the entire Strip. Seb had been right. It was the kind of thing that you knew most people would never get to experience, but here we were: two poor city kids from the Pacific Northwest, swimming in a balcony pool in a Vegas penthouse.
“Seb?” Muri’s voice was muffled from within the suite, but I still turned in response anyway. The door slid open, and she walked forward, illuminated by the light reflecting off of the water. “You really asked me to come all the way up here so I could join your impromptu pool party?” she asked, unimpressed, hands still on her hips as she stood over us at the edge of the pool.
Seb kicked over to her and gave her a puppy-dog look. “Come on, Muri,” Seb pleaded. “Live a little.” And with one lightning-fast movement, he reached up and grabbed hold of her ankle, yanking her straight into the water.
She resurfaced with all the grace of a mermaid—well, the ones from the movies, anyway—nothing but a shake of her long, dark hair to signify that she’d been caught off guard. “Real mature,” she said, but her tone had softened somewhat. Then she pulled off her shirt and tossed it to the side and for a moment, my mind went blank.
A splash to the face brought me back to my sense, and I blinked away the moisture to find Seb parked right in front of me.
“Tag,” he said, tapping me delicately on the shoulder with his right hand. “You’re it.” And then he darted away with a childlike laugh, leaving me to dive toward the nearest person, who just happened to be Muri.
She flinched away instinctively, and then sighed when I touched her arm.
“Don’t be a spoilsport, Muriel,” Seb taunted.
She was off like a shot before he could even finish the sentence, practically leaping onto his shoulders to force him under the water. I watched amused, as the two of them struggled for a moment before Muri finally relented and let Seb up for air. He came back up coughing and spluttering, and shoved her away with a glare.
“Asshole,” she said with a satisfied smile as she drifted away.
“Angel,” he corrected, splashing her for good measure.
When Seb rolled onto his back again and floated over to me, I could see the angry red lines on his chest from where Letuch had carved him up not too long ago. I was surprised to see how much it had healed in such a short amount of time, and couldn’t help but point it out to him as he swam by.
“What can I say,” he replied, letting his feet drop down so that he was treading water once more, “I eat my Brussels sprouts.”
Muri frowned and opened her mouth to speak, but instead got a mouthful of water as Seb splashed her again, leaving her coughing as she wiped the water from her eyes. “What the hell, Seb?”
“You were starting to look like you hated fun again,” he replied easily.
“Getting harassed by you isn’t fun.”
“It’s fun for me,” he said with a smirk, and then dove under the water to yank at her legs, pulling her down with him.
The four of us continued on like that for at least another hour, and by the end of it, Joel almost looked like he wouldn’t take the first opportunity to throttle Seb, which I thought was an improvement at least. In fact, he seemed like he was actually enjoying himself, a rare sight when it came to my perpetually grumpy older brother.
Joel even looked as bummed out as I did when Seb pulled himself up onto the deck and announced that it was time for us to leave. “Muri has an early start tomorrow,” he explained. “And I don’t think Sara will be too happy if she catches us up here.”
We waited out by the pool while he went back inside to get towels, and I gave Muri a pointed nudge when he disappeared from view.
She glared up at me. “What?”
“The necklace,” I whispered. “I want you to get rid of it.”
Muri pursed her lips and shook her head emphatically. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why not?” I could see Joel out of the corner of my eye trying to look like he was minding his own business instead of eavesdropping.
“It’s safer if I hold onto it,” she said. “Besides…I think this is what Letuch was really after. It might be useful in trying to draw him out.”
“So you don’t need to use Joel as bait then,” I pointed out.
Muri shrugged. “It depends. If Letuch already has a connection with your brother, he might try looking for you or Joel first.”
“Connection?” I asked, alarmed by the prospect that either Joel or I had any sort of “connection” to the monstrous creature that had attacked us on multiple occasions.
The glass door slid back open before Muri could answer, and Seb sidled through the gap with a pile of fluffy white towels in hand. I accepted mine gratefully and immediately started the process of making myself into a warm dry human burrito for the walk back to our room.
My shoes and pants were unsalvageable without a dryer on hand, so Seb grabbed a garbage bag from the kitchen and tossed them inside, simplifying the process of getting them back to our room without leaving a trail of chlorinated water throughout the halls of the hotel.
Now that the excitement of splashing around in the pool was over, I could feel the exhaustion starting to settle back in. “Doing okay there, Peaches?” Seb asked after the third yawn.
I nodded sleepily. “I’ll be fine after a good night’s sleep.”
He made a pinched face in response, but I was too tired to worry about what it meant. I felt myself lean into Joel, who reflexively threw an arm around my shoulders to keep me upright. I was barely conscious by the time we made it back to the room, and spared just a few seconds to strip out of my wet clothes and into a warm shirt before climbing into bed and falling asleep.