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Cameron focused his senses, weeding out the noise from the tv and the local traffic, and heard the click of a lock. It was her sliding glass door. He knew it had been locked, as his sensitive ears always made out the click of the bolt when she came in from her back patio. Needing to know what he was dealing with, he inhaled the crisp night air in a few hurried shallow breaths. They weren’t shapeshifters. If they were, their scent would have been more apparent, and he would have been able to determine what type of shifter they were based off that. Also absent was the stench of the undead, which was a foul, sour smell of rot and decay. Unexpectedly, Cameron detected a somewhat mossy scent, similar to patchouli, which led him to the following conclusion.
“Fae,” he said. “They’re breaking in using magic.”
Through the strands of her unkempt, reddish-auburn hair, she could see he was not one of whatever they were. He had a completely different air about him. He moved with silent, determined, and sinuous steps - literally strutting into the warehouse. His jet-black hair brushed slightly past his shoulders, but in contrast to the stringy and oily hair of her captors, his was healthy and immaculate. Dressed in a black, sleeveless kevlar vest that zipped all the way up to his neck, and a matching pair of close-fitting tactical pants, Madeline wasn't quite sure what he was. He didn't seem to be a police officer, and at first, Madeline thought he might be allied with her kidnappers, but they didn't approach him as a comrade, or someone to be pushed around.
They all reacted as if a tiger had just padded into the warehouse.
With acute interest, Madeline sat up and watched as the man sauntered confidently up to the closest of her kidnappers, one who was already summoning inky black wisps in his hands, and launched a quick right hook which snapped the captor's head sharply to the side.
Then all hell broke loose.
A deep chuckle rumbled in his throat.
“Sorry, I’ve started this off all wrong, haven’t I?” He apologized with a disarming smile as he set his fork down on the counter and offered a simple bow. “My name is Leviticus, but you can call me Levi. I was generously hired to rescue you, Miss Madeline McCaffrey, from those fae.”
“Fae?” She asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. He couldn’t be serious. “As in fairies?”
“Exactly that,” he replied, measuring her reaction. “Surely you noticed they couldn’t have possibly been normal people?”
When they arrived at her old building, Levi parked right out front next to Madeline’s old Acura, and they approached her front door arm-in-arm. He removed something from his pocket and slipped it into the lock. Madeline didn’t see what it was, but the door opened right up as if with the actual key. They stepped through promptly and locked the door behind them.
“I realize seeing this is going to be difficult for you. Just remember that most of it is easily replaceable, and I can likely fix the rest, “ Levi said gently, releasing her arm.
Standing silently with eyes wide, Madeline took a deep breath to steady her emotions. Every drawer and lidded box in her living room was either pulled out or pulled apart, but nothing appeared broken. Papers from her plastic file box were tossed all over the ivory carpet. The kidnappers had been looking for something specific.
“Tonight, we’re going to go on a field trip,” he continued after a brief moment of silence. “I’ll introduce you to a contact of mine.”
She wasn’t going to lie; she was unquestionably nervous about stepping into this world so soon.
“Where will this field trip take place, exactly?” Madeline asked carefully.
“There’s a nightclub called The Golden Lotus,” Levi began. “The person we’ll be meeting works there, for the time being anyway.”
“The Golden Lotus!? I don’t have anything I could possibly wear!” she raised her voice in panic. Her wardrobe consisted mostly of jeans, t-shirts, sweaters, and tanktops. She had two skirts, and one floral-print sundress, none of which were nightclub material.
Levi mused for a few seconds, tapping his index finger to his lips while he thought. Suddenly his green eyes brightened, and he stood, grabbing Madeline’s wrist and forcing her to follow him into his bedroom.
“We’ll tailor your training around your speed, and indirectly, around dodging. And we’ll begin by defending against felinae. As I said yesterday, your goal is going to be to incapacitate them so you can get away. It isn’t likely you’ll be knocking them out, but more like slowing them down.”
Levi walked over to a steel steamer trunk sitting against one of the walls, knelt down, and pressed his index finger to the biometric reader. With a barely audible click, the lock detached and Levi flipped the lid open, revealing an assortment of small weapons and other gear, neatly organized and in pristine condition. As he took inventory of the equipment, he thought about what was going to be the easiest for her carry and conceal, and what would be the least dangerous should she be overtaken.
“This party is invitation only, and it’s going to have prominent members of our community in attendance. If you see other medallions with different crests on them, they mean the same thing yours does - they’re being sponsored to be there. They will be on their best behavior, just like I expect you to be. You’ll likely be the only human there, so be prepared for some curious and disapproving stares, but that doesn’t give you the excuse to be rude in return. There are going to be lots of visual distractions, so be prepared for that, and just so we get this out of the way now...”
The hair on the top of his head began to distort and rise in only two areas as if affected by static electricity. As the change became more pronounced, Madeline’s eyes grew wide and star-struck, causing Levi to give his typical amused smirk. In a matter of seconds, a pair of pointed animal ears covered in short black fur rose up out of the silky black hair at the top of this head.
“You up for it?” Levi asked Madeline, still leaning back casually in his executive chair. “If you’re out, I need to know right now so I can find a replacement.”
“You can count on me,” Madeline confirmed, trying to hide her excitement. She’d been doing nothing but training, studying, and insignificant jobs. It would be a relief to actually begin to be an asset, to start paying Levi back for taking her in, and now was the time to show him that he had made a good choice. And her first real job in the field revolved around a necklace; the coincidence was not lost on her.
Shaking the haze from her head, she became aware of red ringlets bouncing against her cheeks. Shiny and curly against the side of her face, they had been pristinely styled and almost looked too glossy to be real. And she was no longer wearing her comfortable sundress, but rather a baby-blue and white lolita dress. The short sleeves were large and puffy, with uncomfortable elastic clinging to her upper arms. Quaint white satin bows circled the hem of the bell-shaped skirt, which rested atop a pair of matching thigh-high cotton stockings, and a snowy ribbon laced delicately up from her waist to her neckline. She felt like a red-headed Alice who had been kidnapped from Wonderland and was now the prisoner of a monster that existed in the real world.
She was not expecting the warm smile that greeted her when she looked at the client again. His brown eyes appreciated her mischievously as he lowered his hood, revealing that his silvery-white hair had grown a bit longer since the last time she’d seen him. His face was still the same as she remembered, only now he had a tiny diamond nose piercing that complimented his features.
“Scott?” Madeline questioned, returning his smile.
With an outstretched hand, he invited her to take a seat in the empty chair next to him.
“Long time, no see,” he grinned, voice frosted with a slight English accent Madeline didn’t remember him having at last year’s Halloween party. “You’re looking as beautiful as ever. How’ve you been?”
Levi had confirmed with her that there were no security devices in the museum itself, but she was going to take things slow nonetheless. She slipped her body through the skylight opening and strained against connection before putting her bodyweight entirely in the hands of the rope, rod, and camming device. The last thing Madeline needed was a gear malfunction leaving her stranded inside. After she was satisfied with its security and tension, she began to lower herself down into the room stopping just short of the floor. Glancing at her ELFLX again, she picked up no electric fields whatsoever on the ground.
With a short hop, she stood in the center of the museum and observed her surroundings.
The moonlight from the skylight provided little illumination, so Madeline took out a small flashlight for a better look into shadows. There were Asian collectibles everywhere, but what astonished her the most was the number of sword displays.
They were everywhere.
Madeline said nothing, struggling to stand and grab her clothes. She remembered her pain training and how Levi taught her how to push through it. She wasn’t sure how she managed to get dressed, but she left her jeans and panties behind. It was too painful to put anything near the wound. Walking alternated between a sting and a lightning of pain, and her long, button-up sweater covered down to her knees. Her eyes were open, but her concentration was on an intangible point somewhere about five feet in front of her. A pin-point she pushed forward to with every step. And when she mentally reached it, she would start again. Another point, and another step, until she was nearly out the door.
Walking gingerly into the same coffee shop she delivered Cole's package to, Madeline felt like she was re-winding her life. The same soothing scent of roasted coffee beans. The same cozy atmosphere of bookshelves and easy chairs. For a moment she wondered that if she could go back in time, would she have made the same choices?
Yes. Yes, she would.
As still as the crescent moon that hung in the night sky, Madeline paused to wait out the unplanned audio interruption. Ever cautious, she replayed the past ten minutes in her mind as if she was rewinding an old movie. She'd stuck to the shadows and hadn't been seen. She'd watched her footing around the poorly laid tripwire. The nearby cicadas hadn't ceased their chirping until now, which meant she hadn't been heard either, and she had studied the compound for months before taking on this mission. In fact, she had been so careful that she was expecting to catch a flight out of Guadalajara before the sun began saturating the horizon with its life-giving color and warmth.
Her apartment was dim, lit only by the multi-colored lights decorating the tree and her cell phone screen. In one hand she held a glass of umeshu, the ice cubes clinking gently together over the sound of Christmas music playing faintly in the background. She glanced at her phone for the thousandth time. She had texted “Merry Christmas” to Levi hours ago, receiving nothing in reply. Staring at the tree, the alcohol had weakened her spirit instead of lifting it. Perhaps the umeshu wasn’t the best choice, but it reminded her of him. And if he couldn’t, wouldn’t, be here, this was the next closest thing. Staring at the lights on the tree, they began to twinkle more than usual as tears started to blur her vision.
Suddenly there was a heavy knocking at her front door.
But as soon as she entered the arrival lobby, she could feel a set of eyes on her.
Casually holding a dry erase board with the words M. McCaffrey written on it, was a familiar, yet nameless, man. She remembered his spiky, amber-colored hair, and in the bright light of the airport, it was now clear that his dark roots matched her own. His features were much more angelic than she would have guessed, making him out to be more innocent than she knew him to be. Wearing the same leather jacket he had on outside the Orimura house the night of the katana job, there was no doubt in Madeline’s mind that this was that gunman.
The lobby was spacious and busy, making it all the more easy for her to blend in. After she unbuttoned her coat and confidently settled into a plush, leather chair within close proximity to the back service entrance, Madeline removed her cell phone from her handbag, giving the impression she was engrossed in texting. Judging by the time, the truck could arrive anytime within the next hour, so Madeline began a casual routine of looking preoccupied with her phone alternating with taking out her compact to check her makeup and touch up her lipstick.
Her phone rang. It was Cameron.
“Truck is pulling into your entrance,” he said, keeping the call short and sweet.
“Thank you, I’ll call you when I’m done,” Madeline replied pleasantly, keeping in her role.
“Don't make me regret this.”
Taking her eyes off the text, Madeline reflected on the words but couldn’t imagine him so bloodthirsty. How could the same soft hands that bandaged her be responsible for slicing the throats of children? How could the person that freed her, not once but twice, needlessly murder innocent women for money? And his inspirational talk to her about returning things to needy people, was that all bullshit? Was she nothing but a toy to practice his convincing lies on?
After taking another sip of tea, her ears picked up on the subtle hiss-click of an electronic lock coming from the entry door.
Stepping into the library was none other than Mr. Taro Tetsugawa himself, only he wasn’t alone.
At his side was an elegant man, with chiseled Nordic facial features, golden-blond hair gathered at the nape of his neck, and the clearest blue eyes she’d ever seen. He smiled cheerfully as he spoke with Taro, radiating with genuine warmth. He had all the characteristics of a classic blue-eyed, blond-haired angel, and Madeline found it difficult to take her eyes off this ray of sunshine as the two men strolled in her direction. She also missed the chance to pick up on the tail-end of their previous conversation before it was pointed in her direction.
It wasn’t until she stepped out of the shower and went to wipe the foggy mirror that she became aware it wasn’t the water pressure, it was something wrong with her.
Pressing the Club Level button, which would bring her into the bowels of Taro’s building, Madeline felt its cool surface sink beneath the weight of her index finger. It wasn’t the floor she wanted, she wanted the Lobby, but every time she reached for it, a sense of doom rained down upon her so heavily that it nearly buckled her knees. And the more she struggled to gain control of her motor skills, the more dreadful the feeling became.
“I guess this is it?” Madeline deduced, looking up at the barely-there Neverland marquis. The vertical-hanging, garden-themed sign was faded by sunlight, the lettering precariously curling at the edges like dried flower petals. Unexpectedly more nervous than she imagined she’d be, Madeline gripped the address card in her trembling hand.
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