A hissing alarm clock radio, as if the dial was turned just a bit off-center of the radio frequency, was the first noise Madeline heard the next morning. The tempo of the song playing felt slower than she remembered it to be, but that could have been attributed to her awakening senses as she peeled off the heavy blanket of sleep. Reaching over to the clock, her hand came down too swiftly, slamming heavily against the plastic buttons.
Rolling onto her back, she laid still for a while trying to process her assault on the clock. Although still groggy, she had reacted to the alarm with lightning speed, definitely not the norm for her first waking moments of the day. And for that brief moment, her body felt incredibly light. But now, as she systematically concentrated on each muscle and joint from her toes on up, she felt no different than usual. Maybe the sound of the alarm startled her this morning causing muscle memory training kicked in?
Turning her head from the cradling warmth of the downy pillow, Madeline glanced at the clock hoping she didn’t damage it. It looked fine from a distance, but what really caught her eye was the blue glow of LED indicating it was much later than expected. Swinging her legs out of bed, she wriggled her toes against the plush carpet. Today was shaping up to be a lazy one. Since Taro’s place was now off limits, and she’d fulfilled her only contract, playing tourist was the only thing left on her schedule today. After stretching her arms high over her head in an attempt to invigorate herself, she grabbed the remote from the side table and turned to the morning news. The weather wasn’t going to be too bad today. Perfect, in fact, for exploring the city.
Reaching instinctively for her cell phone to check for any messages or emails, she saw there was a text from Cameron. Swiping her finger to unlock the screen, she entered her code and tapped on his message.
Wanna take a train to an onsen today? Relax before you fly home?
If it were anyone other than Cameron asking, a question like that would have come across as an opportunity for intimacy. An onsen was definitely on her list of things to do while she was in Japan, and given the events of the past few days, clearing her mind and relaxing her body in a hot spring sounded like the perfect indulgement. It was just a shame she’d be going with Cameron. It felt as if she were taking her brother, that is if she had a brother. She immediately typed her reply, asking what time she needed to be ready. While she waited for Cameron’s response, she decided to re-read the last message thread between herself and Levi.
Only it was gone.
The entire conversation was gone. In fact, all the text conversations she’d ever had with him were gone. Heart beating rapidly as panic took hold, Madeline called Cameron.
“You need to be at the train station by 1:15 p.m.,” he said after picking up, expecting her call to be about the impromptu trip.
“Levi’s been deleted from my phone,” Madeline said, clearly upset and completely ignoring Cameron’s words.
“What do you mean he’s been deleted?”
“All my text conversations with him are gone. All of them.”
Rising from the comfort of the mattress, she began to pace in the gap between the bed and the wall that divided the living space from the bathroom.
“Calm down, calm down,” Cameron’s voice soothed. “Check his number. Is it still in your contact list?”
Pulling the phone away from her ear, Madeline checked her contacts and found it to be missing as well.
“That’s gone too.”
“Does he have remote access to your phone?”
“Yes. As a backdoor safety net.”
“Maybe he removed himself?” Cameron suggested, shrugging on the other end of the line.
“Why would he do that?”
“If you didn’t do it, and he’s trying to disappear from your life, that seems to be a logical conclusion. Unless you let someone else mess with your phone.”
“I had to leave my phone in a secured deposit box when I visited Taro’s library. Everyone does. Hacking into my phone would be extremely difficult and time-consuming, but let’s say they did. Why would they only delete Levi?” Madeline stated before suddenly remembering the phone faux-pas yesterday. “I did forget to retrieve my phone yesterday, but it was brought to me at lunch. That still wouldn’t have given them enough time to get into it. Even if they cloned the SIM card, they would still need my fingerprint and access code.”
“In that case, Levi removing himself is much more probable, isn’t it?” Cameron remarked smugly.
Madeline didn’t want to accept it but, Cameron was right. It was more plausible for Levi to have accessed her data and delete anything related to him than for someone to have hacked into it. If only she could convince her heart to accept it.
“So are we going to the onsen or not?” Cameron asked, slightly irritated that she was still, after all this time, worrying about the asshole cat.
“Um, sure. What time did you say we had to meet up?”
“You’ll need to be at the train station a few blocks away by 1:15 p.m.,” Cameron repeated his earlier instructions. “That will give us plenty of time to buy your ticket and get situated. We should arrive at the onsen just in time for dinner. Oh, and you don’t have any tattoos do you?”
“No,” Madeline responded. “No tattoos.”
“Good. Call me if you need anything.”
Not feeling even half as excited as she was about the trip ten minutes ago, Madeline walked a few feet from the bed to the small round table and set her phone down.
As her fingertips released the phone, she felt a sensation of weightlessness akin to how one feels after setting down a heavy object that had been carried for an extended period.
But before she had time to analysis her mood, something unexpected stopped Madeline dead in her tracks.
A faint, dark crimson stain appeared on the upholstered seat of one of the two chairs in the hotel room as if it marked the spot of a previous occupant. As Madeline knelt closer to inspect the oddity, she realized the backrest was also slightly discolored. Running her fingertips over the fabric revealed that the strange markings were less of a stain and more a miasma. It wasn’t wet. It wasn’t cold. But in the moment it took for her to think about grabbing a white towel to have a rub at it, the abnormality vanished.
Squeezing her eyes shut, Madeline took a deep breath. She knew she couldn’t attribute something like this to being tired. No way. What had happened was real, and it had rattled her to a certain degree. Opening her eyes slowly, she looked at the chair once more. Nothing unusual. After giving it a few more seconds to see if the chair would change again, which of course it did not, Madeline gave up and decided to take a shower so she could begin packing for the onsen trip with Cameron. At least she could ask him about, see if he had any experience with anything like this. Either way, the trip would do her good.
Setting a change of clothes on the bathroom counter, she undressed and stepped into the shower to began washing up. There was no need to rush, so she enjoyed the steam as long as she could, despite a few odd changes in water pressure. The five-star hotel’s services and amenities had been flawless, with the pressure and the availability of hot water being a non-issue up until this point. Shrugging it off, Madeline let herself soak in one last hot rinse before turning off the faucet and grabbing a nearby towel.
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. After another out-of-sorts episode, she could feel the steam against her skin and eyes as if it were tangible. With a roll of her fingers, she was able to send the moisture spiraling like a corkscrew against the bathroom door.
Gasping, Madeline hurriedly wiped the steam off the mirror with a towel.
She checked her reflection. It didn't look any different.
And then, the sensation dissipated and she was back to feeling normal. She tried rolling her fingers once more, but this time nothing happened.
Wet, red curls cascaded down toward the sink as she let her head drop.
Walking naked to where her cell phone lay on the table, suspicious eyeing the chair as if daring it to change, Madeline called Cameron again.
“What’s up?” he answered.
“There’s something weird going on with me,” she revealed nervously.
“Weird like how?”
“With my body. With how I seem to be sensing things. At first, I thought I was just exhausted, but now, not so much.”
“You can tell me all about it on the train. It’ll be alright,” he comforted. “See you then.”
The once popular idea of taking her time getting ready to meet Cameron was abandoned completely as Madeline frantically stuffed clothing into the smallest of her suitcases. She was desperate to tell Cameron about her strange morning and see if he had any idea what was going on. Maybe take her to the Elder or someone else if he couldn’t help. Levi would have been her first choice, but with his number missing from her contacts there was literally no way to reach him now unless she called Maseo. Or maybe Caslon. No. Levi removed himself from her life on purpose, so she needed to depend on getting through things without his help now. Doing her best to reign in her adrenaline and stop her frantic outwardly appearance, she rolled her suitcase to the door, about to leave.
She stopped with her hand on the doorknob.
An idea sprung to mind. Since she wasn’t sure if these uncomfortable episodes would grow more frequent, or worse, become debilitating, she wanted to be certain Cameron would be able to know where she was at all times. It was merely a safe plan. Unlocking and unzipping her largest suitcase, she removed a strip of tracking chips and some medical tape. Activating one of the chips, she taped it to her upper, inner thigh near her bikini line and then re-secured her luggage and stepped briskly out of the hotel room.
He’d waited precisely where he knew she would pass. This was his chance, after consulting with his source, to isolate her for a while. To cross his T’s and dot his I’s. Finalizing his conclusion and cementing the next step of his process.
Purposefully heading in her direction, he pretended, most expertly, to be struggling with the packages he was carrying. He could tell by the look on her face, and the lack of spatial awareness, that Madeline was too self-absorbed to notice him from a distance. As he got closer, he made his move.
“Madeline?” he said, feigning surprise. “That is you. What luck!”
Snapping to reality, Madeline rolled her suitcase to a stop.
“Good afternoon, Gideon,” she smiled, an easy expression to slip into when he was around. “You look a bit overwhelmed.”
“I definitely am,” he admitted. “I fear I’ve bought too many cakes for my party, and I’m not sure where my car is to pick me up.”
Madeline couldn’t help but giggle.
“Could you possibly help me?”
Madeline checked the time on her phone. It was only 11:30 a.m.
“How far away is your party?” she asked.
“Remember that phone call I had to take yesterday? My company has acquired some very lucrative assets and, to celebrate, I’m holding a party at Taro’s nightclub tonight. Please tell me you’ll attend?”
Madeline frowned internally. She wasn’t supposed to go to Taro’s, wasn’t supposed to associate with Gideon, and she needed to get herself to the train station to meet Cameron. She broke the news gently.
“I’m afraid I can’t. I’m headed to catch a train this afternoon.”
“This afternoon?” Gideon asked, just as a car pulled up to the curb. “Could you at least accompany me to the nightclub so you can indulge yourself in one of these amazing pastries? I’ll drop you back off at the station so you won’t be late.”
She thought about it for a few seconds and agreed. As long as she made it to the train on time, there shouldn’t be a problem.
The car ride to the event took just a few minutes, and only about five minutes longer to help carry the sweets down to the nightclub where a very festive atmosphere had been created. Gideon directed Taro’s staff on the placement of the desserts on the table trays and then turned his full attention to Madeline.
“As a reward, you may pick whichever one you like,” he smiled, indicating the cakes. “You have the honor of being the first to try them.”
Returning Gideon’s smile, Madeline approached the table, leaving her luggage beside a cocktail table well within sight.
The dessert table was spectacular. Multiple-tiers of cakes, tarts, and parfaits in a rainbow of colors greeted her with the most tempting of scents. Highlighting the color of each sweet was a plethora of boutiques strategically placed to frame the trays. There were roses, violets, irises, lilies, cherry blossoms, and some flowers Madeline couldn’t identify.
Another episode overcame her, causing her blue eyes to hyper-focus. A group of flowers on the dessert table suddenly took on a fleshy, and somewhat veiny, appearance. Her stomach lurched and she began to stumble, finding each breath more and more laborious than the one before it. What was happening to her?
“Whoa, I’ve got you,” Gideon reassured as he wrapped his arms around her waist, supporting her weight. “Are you alright?”
“I.. don’t think so,” Madeline confessed, bringing her hands to her face and rubbing her eyes. Looking once more at the table, the grotesque flowers were still there, only now they possessed an overpowering, rancid smell.
“What… are those?”
Gideon’s blue eyes followed Madeline’s pointing fingertip to the dessert table.
“The exotic flowers? I’m not sure, but I think they are preserved in some way. Why?”
“They’re just… just…”
Struggling to keep her lungs working became a losing battle as the sensation of suffocating kicked in. Keeping her eyes open for only a moment more, Madeline was unable to finish her sentence before she collapsed in Gideon’s arms.
None of the staff moved so much as an inch to help her. They were all awaiting Gideon’s orders with blank expressions of indifference on their faces.
“Remove the Stapelia,” Gideon instructed as he listened to Madeline’s heartbeat slow with a calculated calm. “And let the doctors in.”
Cameron looked down at his watch. It was 1:17 p.m. and Madeline was nowhere in sight. As distraught as she was this morning about Levi’s contact info and feeling out of sorts, He figured she would have shown up early for this trip. Reaching into his coat pocket, he removed his phone and tried to call her. There was no answer, just her voicemail message. A strong sense of unease crept in, and he tapped on the tracking app just for the hell of it. There would be no reason for her to be wearing a chip today unless…
“Son of a bitch,” Cameron growled under his breath.
She was at the Taro building.
Swinging his duffle bag tight against his shoulder, he hailed a taxi and gave the driver the address.
What the HELL is she thinking? he thought to himself. She promised me she wouldn’t go back.
Tapping his foot uncontrollably in a fit of anxiousness, Cameron counted the seconds before he arrived at his destination.
When she opened her eyes, Madeline’s first view was of a stranger in a white lab coat leaning over her. With a groggy swipe, she attempted to bat the oxygen mask off her nose and mouth but the elastic held tight. The slight tug in the crook of her elbow indicated she had an IV running as well.
“Thank goodness!” came Gideon’s energetic English voice from out of her peripheral sight. “We almost lost you.”
Within half a second, the stranger’s image backed away and Gideon, with his lovely blue eyes, golden hair loosely brushing past his shoulders, filled Madeline’s field of vision as his powerful arms gently helped her sit up and adjusted her bed for back support. Careful lifting the mask off her face, he brushed back her red curls and examined her eyes and the pallor of her skin.
“The doctors said you suffered an anaphylaxis reaction to the succulents on display by the sweets,” Gideon explained before Madeline could strain to ask. “You’ll be fine now that the condition has been reversed.”
Turning toward the pair of medical professionals in the room, Gideon dismissed them with a nod of his head, leaving only himself, Madeline, and Mr. Mito.
“Those flowers are only troublesome to certain creatures, and none of them were invited to my party,” Gideon whispered in a serious tone. “I’ve noticed you seem different today compared to yesterday. Did something happen?”
She would never have considered revealing such information, but she was never quite in her right mind around Gideon for some reason.
“This morning some strange things began happening to me,” Madeline replied in a voice mildly hoarse from the oxygen mask. “I thought I was seeing things at first, but now I’m not so sure. It comes and goes.”
“Well, I would be a liar if I told you I hadn’t read your folder,” Gideon admitted. “There seems to be some mystery about you and why you can do certain things.”
“Like use the Orimura sword?” she asked, knowing that information was in her folder.
“Yes, child. Like use that sword,” Gideon confirmed. “You know, I do specialize in research such as this. I could take a look and see what there is to see. It will be painless, and who knows, I might be able to find answers, or at the very least help you feel like you used to.”
She knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to let Gideon poke around, but no one she trusted had the ability to break the mystery. Levi had tried. Maseo had tried. Cameron gave her the majority of the information she already knew, but nothing more.
Oh, shit! Cameron is going to kill me!
Trying to get out of bed, Madeline asked where her belongings where.
“I had them moved to the corner of the room,” Gideon casually thumbed at her suitcase and purse, “But you aren’t well enough to get out of bed yet.”
“I need to call my friend,” Madeline said, continuing to rise, but suddenly finding Gideon’s arms restraining her upward movements. “Stop.”
“I will not. Not until you are well enough.”
“Let go of me,” Madeline warned, heart beating faster as her frustration mounted. The pumping blood also started to make her head spin.
“How about this? I will bring you your phone, but you have to promise not to worry your friend when you call him,” Gideon proposed.
Propping herself back into bed caused the dizziness to disburse, letting her think clearly on what Gideon had asked of her. It seemed like a good trade-off, so she promised with a nod of her head.
“Perfect,” Gideon smiled warmly and left her beside to get her phone out of her purse.
Handing it to her, he watched with great interest as she swiped her fingerprint and tapped on her contacts to call Cameron.
“What the FUCK are you doing?” Cameron shouted as soon as he answered her call. “I thought we made a deal you wouldn’t go back?”
“I’m fine, really,” Madeline replied.
Only she wasn’t. She felt captive at the moment, laid out by some plant, and wanted nothing more than to leave. She had intended to tell Cameron to meet her out front.
“You need to come outside NOW!” Cameron ordered, continuing his tirade.
“There’s no need,” Madeline replied. What the fuck am I saying? “You don’t need to worry about me, okay?”
Out of Madeline's field of vision, Gideon’s grin grew wider.
“That’s it! I’m coming in to get you.”
“It’s okay. I said you don’t have to worry. I’m just helping out with the party setup for tonight, and I'll catch up with you later.
The words coming out of her mouth betrayed her mind pleading for Cameron to hurry. Instinctively clutching her opal pendant with one hand, a gesture reserved for moments of helplessness, Madeline ended the call letting the hand holding her phone drop down to her lap.
“There, now you can rest for a little bit more, and when you’re feeling up to it, I’d like you to join the party downstairs, but only if you’re feeling well enough. Oh, and I completely disposed of those horrible plants and had the staff scrub and sanitize the area.”
Only half listening to his words since she was trying to sort out what the hell was happening around her, Madeline nodded.
“I couldn’t forgive myself if I let you leave without taking a closer look at what is causing you this trauma,” Gideon said as he rose from her bedside. “Please promise you will stay overnight so I can monitor you. Whatever is causing you this harm, no one is more capable of protecting you than I. In my care, you are safe from things not even Leviticus could protect you from.”
His words caused Madeline to pause. Cameron had called Gideon dangerous, but he had also called Levi a monster. Gideon was feared by so many, that perhaps she would be safe, at least until she found out what was wrong with her.
Gideon walked toward the doorway but waited for her response before he completely exited.
Smiling wickedly, Gideon continued on his way.
“That’s a good girl.”
Paying the taxi driver extra to drive around the block and wait for him to return, Cameron marched up to the entrance of Taro’s building. Surprisingly, the two non-human doormen allowed him into the building without so much as a glance, but his good luck ended in the lobby.
Two more security officers, both werewolves like the doormen, blocked his path with their massive frames. Cameron was 6’0 himself, estimating that these men were both around 6’2.
“Sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” said the stockier of the two, face stern.
“That’s a shame,” Cameron replied standing his ground. “Because I’m here to pick someone up and I’m not leaving unless she’s leaving with me, so I would say we have a bit of a problem.”
“We can’t allow you to remain in the lobby, sir.”
“Fine, then I’ll wait downstairs in the club.”
“I’m afraid we can’t allow that either, sir.”
Cameron could feel his anger starting to peak, and that was never a good thing for anyone on the receiving end.
“You can’t refuse entrance to a public place without just cause,” he retorted. “I’m not stepping foot in any private areas, just going to pay for drinks and wait in the club.”
“There is a private party being held at the club this evening, sir,” came the response. “Only invited guests, of which you are not.”
“Then I’ll go take a seat at the bar in the restaurant upstairs.”
“No, you will not, sir,” said the guard as he began to push Cameron toward the front entrance with his wide body.
Being handled by anyone his least favorite thing, Cameron gave a powerful pushback with both palms on the guard’s chest. The man staggered backward a few feet, looked very pissed off, then reached for his radio for backup. Who did this trespassing dog think he was? Anywhere else and he would have given this guy a beating.
“I suggest you leave now, sir,” he warned. “Before things get ugly for you.”
After being strong-armed out of the lobby, Cameron made his way across the street and stopped just short of entering a clothing store. Leaning against the brick of the building, he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and grabbed his lighter. Withdrawing one, he lit up and took a long drag, eyes fiercely watching the doormen across the street.
A familiar scent grated against Cameron’s senses as a figure came into view, approaching the canidae from just out of sight. Fanning his slender hand in front of his face to banish Cameron’s nicotine habit, Levi had only one word to say.
“What are you doing here, pussy?” Cameron spat. “Come here to gloat?”
Rolling his eyes at Cameron’s abrasive attitude, Levi responded with an equal lack of pleasantries.
“Hardly. What’s the situation?”
“Madeline was supposed to be leaving on a train with me right now, but instead she’s going to a party. And there just happens to be a private party at the nightclub tonight, so I am guessing they are one and the same. I have a feeling she’s not there by choice.”
“Of course she’s not,” Levi replied, appalled that Cameron didn’t know her well enough to recognize something so out of character. “I’ll head over, but I’ll need a small distraction.”
“I can go back into the lobby and cause another scene, but the minute the cops show, I’m gone,” Cameron offered.
“That will work.”
Cameron took a look at Levi and noticed his eyes were brown now, and he was dressed very stylishly, obviously already decided on going into the building before even realizing Cameron was across the street.
“They’re gonna scent you,” the canidae warned as he indicated the doormen.
“I’ve got that covered.”
No sooner did the words leave his lips, then Levi’s scent was gone, a feat which should have been utterly impossible.
Cameron’s jaw dropped.
“That’s a nice trick,” he gaped in disbelief.
“It’s not easy.”
“Oh, and a word of warning. Madeline told me something was wrong with her earlier. She sounded pretty upset about it over the phone. I told her we’d talk about it on the train, but that obviously didn’t happen, so be careful.”