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  1. Chapter Twenty-two Rise “Well,” Cameron exhaled slowly, stretching his arms above his head, “That explains a lot.” Legs taking up the entire length of the gondola bench on his side, Cameron leaned back against the glass window. He’d listened to both Madeline and Levi explain what they learned from Alesdair and was now processing the information while enjoying the gentle swing of the cabin as it slowly rounded the apex of the Ferris wheel. On the bench across from him, Levi sat properly, arms crossed, studying the wolf’s reaction. Considering how deeply involved the Orimura clan now was in all this, and with Cameron being a formidable descendant, it made perfect sense to recruit him as an ally. Levi had even dressed up for the occasion in a collared, long-sleeved, dress shirt and dark trousers; his way of showing his respect for the seriousness of the alliance he was proposing. Cameron, however, was in his usual jeans and t-shirt despite the chill in the February evening air. And then there was Madeline, bundled up nervously in her winter coat on the floor of the gondola, half-hidden in the shadows created by the colored lightbulbs dotting the Ferris wheel’s frame. The three had met up in a park Southeast of Tokyo, mainly because she felt guilty about the whole onsen fiasco. They visited the aquarium and walked the gardens for a bit before Levi and Cameron decided to take a ride on the monumental Ferris wheel. Madeline protested, but both her companions agreed it was the one place in the park they could talk freely. The ride wasn’t bad at first, but as the distance between the glass-walled cabin and the ground increased, so did her fear of heights. It didn’t take long before she moved to the floor to avoid the view, clean clothes be damned. “But why couldn’t she leave the Tetsugawa building?” Cameron asked. “She made a promise. Simple as that,” Levi replied. “Gideon tricked her into making one the moment he knew the necklace’s enchantment was failing. Fae can’t break their word.” “And he planned on having those flowers at the reception,” Madeline added, voice quieter than usual due to her current mental state. “He must have switched out my necklace before then.” “So he knew she’d be susceptible to being bound by promises because he more or less short-circuited the real opal. He just had to wait for the opportunity,” Cameron explained the situation to himself out loud. Levi nodded. Short-circuited. Madeline dwelled on the phrase for a few moments before coming to a realization. “Guys? I know when Gideon stole it,” she announced looking up at the both of them. “It must have been during the night before I was supposed to go to the onsen. Maybe that red shadowy stain I saw for a moment on the hotel chair was where he was sitting?” Analyzing the facts, Levi tapped his index finger against his lips before speaking once more. “He must have been able to translate the original Fae incantations to know what the necklace’s job was before he would have wasted his time adding his own magic to it in order to produce a copy. And considering how guarded their written languages are...” “Gideon sure does know a lot about the fae,” Cameron added, narrowing his eyes. “Suspicious, don’t you think?” Levi asked. “Definity,” the wolf agreed, “So what’s next?” “We’re going to head back to the states, meet up with Gwen so Madeline can get some guidance,” Levi replied. “I’d appreciate it if you and I could exchange contact information in case this gets bigger.” “Bigger how?” Cameron asked, arching a brow. “So far this involves the Fae, the Orimura clan, the Tetsugawa clan, and Gideon. Call me pessimistic, but I expect there to be more. And while I’m good at staying steps ahead of everyone, I’m not that good,” Levi smirked. “Sure, but I’m not doing it to help you. I’m doing it to protect Madeline,” Cameron stated. “Fair enough.” “I’ll let the pack know what’s going on,” Cameron added. “And I’m sure the Elder will want to be briefed.” As the gondola reached the loading dock with a gentle bump, Madeline rose to her feet immediately ready to leave. It was a relief to be back on the ground, even if the smell of asphalt was awful compared to her non-issue with it days before. “How do you both deal with scents?” she asked, wrinkling her nose. “The pavement is just… nauseating.” “Being born with a strong scent of smell is much different than having it suddenly sprung on you,” Cameron replied, “Although I’m betting certain things bother you more than it does us.” “True,” Levi added, “Man-made things at odds with nature probably smell worse.” As they walked toward Cameron’s motorcycle, Levi pulled out his cellphone to summon a cab back to the hotel. “Promise me you’ll call me when you’re back home safe?” Cameron asked Madeline, worry briefly clouding his eyes. “And if you promise, I know you will for sure, unlike when you forgot after leaving with your friend Gwen.” “I promise,” she responded confidently. “You don’t have to worry.” Glancing from Madeline to Levi, his expression darkened. “I still don’t trust him. So be extra careful, got it?” It saddened her that she couldn’t explain to Cameron why he was so wrong about Levi. History had painted a devious picture of him, and he kept up the charade for good reason. All she could offer Cameron now was a tight-lipped smile and a nod of her head hoping that would lead him to worry less. Seeing her nod in agreement, Cameron flashed a quick, toothy smile before mounting up and roaring off into the night. ------------------------------------------------------------- “How are you doing?” “I’m not sure,” Madeline responded as her blue eyes traced the pattern on the hotel bedspread before meeting Levi’s. “Is that a weird thing to say?” “Considering that up until yesterday you thought you were just human, no. That’s not a strange answer at all.” Sighing deeply, Madeline rose from the bed. It had been a very long day and tomorrow evening they’d board a plane back to Washington. She was feeling more exhausted just thinking about the long flight. “I’m going to take a shower,” she informed, making her way to the bathroom. With so much on her mind, she was oblivious to the clear glass walls, stripping down to nothing before stepping under the showerhead. Twisting the faucet, the warm water cascaded down over her body cleansing away the tension and anxiety of the day. Alesdair told her his line, their line, was water attuned, causing her to briefly wonder if that’s why the water always felt so unusually therapeutic. The more time she passed under the deluge of hot water, the more she felt renewed. Washing her long auburn curls felt like she was cleansing her spirit, ridding herself of negative energies. Lathering some soap in her hands, Madeline closed her eyes and began to gently wash her face, savoring the slow and methodical process. There was a sudden drop in the surrounding air temperature and humidity as the glass door quietly opened and closed. Holding perfectly still, she concentrated on the space behind her. She could sense the heat of a body, a chest rising and falling with relaxed breaths, and the placement of bare feet forcing the stream of water to redirect its path. Only one person could be standing at her back right now, and the single thought of his toned, nude body ignited her desire. “I’ll leave if you want me to,” Levi’s silken voice whispered in Japanese from over her right shoulder. Eyes still closed, she let the soothing sound of his voice resonate, picturing the intimate details of his lean frame only inches behind her. Pulse-pounding in her ears, it would be a lie to say she hadn’t been wanting him. From the first moment she laid eyes on him from her cage in that warehouse, even as he fought, he intrigued her. Bewitched her. She put up with years of his cruel teasing. Almost giving in to the way he toyed with her emotions only to retreat and finish out her fantasies of him all alone. Lips parting to speak, her voice cracked as she uttered only one word. “Stay.” [-NSFW-] ------------------------------------------------------------- Levi strode elegantly through the lobby of Taro’s building. His movements were undetectable even to the experienced security “wolves” who could not even pick up his scent. After making love to Madeline, he had slipped back into his white, collared shirt and black trousers but remained barefoot. Thinly pointed, velvety-black ears tipped in a silvery-teal majestically crowned his tousled black hair, and his slitted emerald eyes momentarily glowed turquoise, a consequence of the power he seethed. He could feel life in the building, from the bodies on each floor to the smallest desk plant. He could also feel the presence of death. It was far above him, which was likely Taro’s personal quarters, and far below, paired with magic. It was the draw of it below him that guided his path. He was looking specifically for where Gideon studied while under Taro’s roof and surmised it would be below-ground since the depths of the earth provided natural protections, especially for those who dealt in magic. It was a hunch, but knowing how Gideon’s copy worked, Levi guessed the original black opal would not have been kept too far from the copy, lest the spell connecting it to the fake be weakened. Heading purposely for the staircases and avoiding the elevators, Levi descended into the bowels of the building at remarkable speed. When he reached the targeted floor, he was met with an electronic lock, interfaced through a numerical keypad and a biometric scanner. Normally amused by such security precautions enough to manually deactivate them, tonight Levi simply placed his hand over the device and tripped the tumblers. He smirked. The door led to a darkened hallway which opened to a single room, void of cameras, which wasn’t surprising. One such as Gideon would not dare allow himself, or his experiments, to be recorded. There were, however, papers and instruments galore. Raking his long, sharp nails slowly along the meticulously scribed notes on Gideon’s writing desk, Levi left a fuse-like trail of thin blue flame which illuminated the dark room and quickly licked the papers to ash. He gave a husky chuckle imagining the look on the master vampire’s face after seeing what had become of his research. And just knowing the mischief he was causing was enough to make the tips of his ebony hair turn a fiery aqua, pricking with delight. Before he gave into the temptation of vaporizing all the books on the shelf as well, a familiar sight caught his attention reminding him of the reason he came. Hanging from a simple wooden stand under a glass dome rested Madeline’s original pendant and chain. The tips of his claws heated to a blueish-white. He circled them around the top of the dome producing an eerie whine akin to rubbing the edge of a glass. In moments, the glass melted, leaving a hole in the dome large enough to reach his hand into. Cautiously, he removed what belonged to Madeline and confidently sauntered out. ------------------------------------------------------------- After what felt like many hours later, Madeline stirred. Eyes still closed, she extended her arm to wrap around Levi’s body, only he wasn’t within reach. She had remembered falling asleep in his embrace, completely spent, but as she opened her heavy eyelids she discovered that not only was he not within reach, he was no longer in bed. And there was a strange light coming from the open-air bath. Sitting up, she grabbed the bathsheet that had been haphazardly strewn on the duvet hours ago and wrapped it around her body. As she approached, Madeline became aware that the light wasn’t coming from any fixture, and it was bobbing oddly in the air. Soaking in the bath was Levi, rolling a golfball-sized flame of blue light back and forth over his knuckles. As Madeline opened the glass door to join him, she noticed he was completely nude. A blush spread over her cheeks. “Still shy after all that?” He whispered teasingly, extinguishing the flame and cloaking himself in shadow. “How did you sleep?” “Great,” Madeline smiled back sheepishly as she sat on the edge of the bath, eagerly dipping her feet into the warm water. “You?” “I didn’t, actually,” he replied, reaching for something in the artificial grass that carpeted the ground around the tub. “But I did put all that energy you gave me to good use…” Extending his hand out to her, Madeline couldn’t believe what rested in his palm. It appeared to be her necklace. The real one. Splashing down into the water next to him, towel and all, Madeline clasped both hands around his. “How did you get this back?!” she asked excitedly. “Gideon had it, didn’t he? How did you know where he was?” “I went back to the Tetsugawa building and tracked it from there, betting that was the only place in Japan Gideon would have kept something that important.” Madeline had so many questions. How did he get past security to wherever Gideon was keeping the necklace? Did he have to suppress his scent again? Did he have to fight anyone? And why was he so eerily calm about it? A throaty chuckle interrupted her thoughts, followed by a sigh as Levi tossed his head back and looked up at the pre-dawn sky. “They’ll notice it’s missing, but they won’t suspect it was I who took it,” he revealed. “I didn’t go as Levi the Thief.” Eyes widening, Madeline was surprised by his abandonment of common sense. “I thought you told me it was imperative we kept you a secret,” she stated, voice dropping to a whisper as she removed the necklace from Levi’s hand and brought it to her chest, fastening it around her neck. “Why did you do that?” Looking at his now empty palm, Levi called forth another ball of flame, this one a bit larger than the previous one. It spun slowly, floating above his hand in a fully controlled rotation. “To be honest, I’m not really sure,” he confessed. “I wanted to? It belonged to you? It sounded like fun? A combination of the three I suppose.” Biting her lower lip, Madeline stared at the sphere as it rolled, flames licking the air. After all the talk about why he was masquerading as a felinae, he just decided to roll out on the town, in Japan no less, as his true self. It was no revelation that her desire was energy to him, but tonight he responded to it differently. It was almost as if he got high. “Are you sure you did the right thing?” She asked nervously. “Is this a momentary lapse of reason?” The cerulean ball of flame vanished into thin air, and shadows once again engulfed them. “I don’t think so. It was more along the lines that I’m out of practice being me,” Levi tried to explain. “Last night sort of... supercharged me. It grabbed Leviticus by the scruff and tossed him aside because he was not allowed there.” Madeline let out a laugh. “What?” Levi asked, arching a brow. “When you think about it, it makes sense, right?” she said as she scooted next to him in the bath, wet towel clinging to her upper body while the lower half floated on the surface. “You impersonated Leviticus. You became this persona that didn’t allow the real you to exist. And since you told me it was you that became attracted to me, not the impersonation, that part of you was being selfish last night.” “Ooo, aren’t we being haughty?” Levi smiled before leaning over and kissing Madeline on the cheek. “I’m being serious,” she pouted. “Your ears last night were not the same ears you showed me at the Halloween party. And I’ve never seen your eyes like that either.” Levi paused. “My eyes? What did they look like?” “Well, they glowed an electric blueish-green and the pupils were slits. Now before you say anything, I know cats pupils take that shape in bright light, but it was dark last night. In all these years, I’ve never seen your eyes do that.” “Those are my real eyes,” Levi whispered, sporting a weak smile, “So I guess you’re right. It seems when I’m under your enchantment there are things I lose control of.” “Well, they are beautiful,” Madeline replied blushing. “Thank you, but don’t expect to see them very often,” Levi warned. Madeline pouted once more. “News of your inheritance has no doubt circulated by now,” Levi began. “Which gives you protection from most of Leviticus’ enemies. However, I still have to keep up the charade of being Levi. And while what I did tonight was a bit impulsive…” The heartbroken expression on Madeline’s face at his words caused him to backpedal immediately. “I’m not referring to that. I’m talking about getting your necklace back,” he said as he flicked her forehead with his finger. “Baka. At the very worst, it made me a brief blip on my family’s radar. Which doesn’t really matter since I’ve planned to go see them soon anyway.” Madeline couldn’t speak. She was only able to stare dumbfounded into Levi’s emerald eyes. They sent someone to kill him and technically succeeded. There was no doubt he was going to be in danger all over again. And though she thought him to be invincible since the moment she first laid eyes on him, this was something that could truly get him killed. Seeing her rising panic, Levi drew Madeline into his arms. “You can’t,” she protested, eyes growing hot with tears as the world around her blurred. “You’ve been gone for so long and I finally get to see you, finally get to love you, and you’re going to leave, and….” “Shhhh,” Levi soothed, stroking her hair. The pain of her sadness wasn’t as bad this time. Perhaps it was the residual strength she’d given him earlier. “I will be fine, really I will. It’s a bit of a different situation now.” “How so?” Madeline sniffled. Levi took a moment to choose his words carefully. If he told her most of his brothers were mysteriously killed off and he was going to investigate, that wouldn’t help matters much. “I’m going to prove I didn’t kill my brother.”
  2. Long Gone Day - Part One “So much blood I’m starting to drown…” Decades ago... He sat on a wooden stool in an unfamiliar bar, spinning the thin red straw in his fourth, and likely last, Jack and Coke. Glancing across the square-shaped bar to his right, the grunge cover band had played through about a dozen songs and was likely near the end of their set. He had shown up early, not to see them but rather a lady he had met online. She was considerably late, but even if she stood him up, he didn’t regret paying the cover charge. The music was good. It seeped into his soul making him feel connected with everyone else in the room through the muddy beat of the bass and drums. The singer was a thin, unimposing Asian guy, with long, straight black hair that hung down to his waist. But his voice… damn. He belted out lyrics with such power that everyone in the place was enthralled. When they started their set, conversations stopped in mid-sentence. People set down their drinks. He was that good. Wearing faded blue-jeans and an unbuttoned red flannel, he firmly held the chords on his bass guitar, while his slender fingers stroked the thick strings with perfect rhythm. Beating the skins with a tribal approach that satisfied the most primal needs of the spirit, the drummer was quite the opposite of the vocalist. He was a tall man with chiseled arms and wide shoulders that whittled down to a toned waist. He wore black jeans and no shirt as he sat behind the drumset, his blood-red hair wet with sweat, sticking to the sides of his long face and as he tossed his head around. But it was the guitarist the intrigued Michael the most. She was a petite young woman, with beautiful golden-blond locks styled in perfect ringlets that bobbed and bounced against her thin shoulders as she played, never losing their curl. She wore a dress that was reminiscent of something a doll would wear, a knee-length red plaid dress with black lace trim and a black petticoat underneath. She played her guitar with effortless precision, and she had a dreamy look on her face as if she was in a trance. Despite her skills, she seemed to be a backdrop to the other members, coming to the forefront only when she needed to play a solo. And she kept that dazed look on her face for most of the performance, except the few times Michael thought she was staring at him. Which of course had to be his own wishful thinking. She was beautiful and talented, and there is no way she would be looking at a low-class joe like him, even in his brand new, buttoned-up black dress shirt and faded jeans. He’d spent his week’s paycheck on them for this date, but underneath, he was still his poor, futureless self. He had driven an hour in his beat-up truck just to get here from his side of town. He tried calling his date when he first took a seat at the bar, to let her know he’d arrived, and she responded she was almost there, but that was an hour ago, and other calls to her went unanswered. Did something happen? He’d only known her online for a month, so he couldn’t say he was really sure if this was even legit. He always told the truth about himself on the dating website, and sometimes that would lead to things like this. Perhaps a friend had talked her out of going after looking over his profile, but better for them to know he worked construction, never graduated, and doesn’t come from money, than to lie about it and have it come back to bite him later. He’d seen that happen with his friends, and it was always a mess. Baby blue eyes looking back down at his drink, he stirred the ice around a bit more. The band had finished up their set and were breaking down equipment as the sound system kicked in with a mix of similar music. Michael looked down at his phone again. Still nothing. When he looked up, he was suddenly staring into a pretty pair of green eyes. It startled him, how silently she appeared. “Who are you waiting for?” she asked curiously in a sing-song voice. “I was meeting someone for a first date,” Michael replied, running a hand nervously through his short, shaggy black hair. “But I think I’ve been stood up.” “Stood up?” she pondered, unfamiliar with the word. “It means she’s not going to show up,” Michael explained. He thought of himself as a pretty handsome guy, but women in this town wanted more than that. They wanted a way out of poverty. He felt embarrassed telling this amazing person about his failure. “Sounds like it’s her loss,” the guitarist replied. “You’re pretty, and you have an honest heart. What more could a girl want?” Michael was speechless. Did she just tell him he was pretty? And more importantly, did that mean he was someone that a person like her could want? A shy, warm smile spread across his lips. “And you have a joyous smile,” she added, exchanging his expression with a beautifully bright one of her own. “Thank you,” he said, accepting the compliment. “Hearing that from someone as lovely and talented as you really cheers me up, no matter how the rest of the night goes. I’m Michael by the way.” Just then, the red-headed drummer shouted what must have been her name from stage-side. “Gwen!” “Be right there,” she waved back with a little bounce in her step. Turning back to Michael, she took his hand and shook it. An odd gesture in a situation like this, but he shook it back. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Michael. Perhaps we’ll meet again if the fates allow.” And with that, she skipped away, leaving the warmth of her hand to fade against his skin. His bulky cell phone rang in his shirt pocket. It was his date. “Soooo sorry I’m late. I’m here now. Had to park in back because the place was packed.” “I’ll come out to meet you,” he replied. Sliding the bartender a tip across the counter, he hurried outside to meet up. He still planned on dinner, and there were a few late-night spots he researched just in case. Hands in his front jean pockets, Michael rounded the back of the bar into a group of men he hadn’t seen before. “And here he is!” one of the three said excitedly, draping his arm around Michael’s shoulder. Looking around, Michael didn’t see any sign of his date. “If you guys did anything to hurt her…” he threatened. He was good in a fight, had to be coming from his rough, poor neighborhood. There was a man on either side of him now, as well as one at his back, and they walked him across the back parking lot into the alleyway of a couple of businesses that were long closed. “How typical,” one of the men sneered, amused by the words. “Listen here,” the one behind him started, “There’s no girl. Never was. Just us.” “What do you mean?” Michael asked, not quite understanding what was happening. The man to his right grabbed Michael’s wallet from his pocket, taking his $200 in cash and dropping the rest to the damp, oily ground. Michael tried to grab his wrist to stop him, but the man was abnormally strong. “There is no girl,” he repeated, dragging out the words as if slowing. “But you’re too uneducated to pick up on that. What kind of girl would want to meet you anyway? You barely make enough money to take care of yourself, and you’re never going to be anything but a dirty human putting a strain on the planet.” Then in a split second, he cocked his arm back and punched Michael square in the jaw. Michael’s head snapped back, and the rest of his body followed suit, landing with a skid on the wet concrete. He’d never been punched so hard in his life and there was a weird vibration in his skull. Getting up slowly, he raised his fists. “Are you kidding me?” the man who had punched him laughed out loud, astonished at Michael’s lack of fear. “You really have no idea you’re going to die here, do you?” Michael didn’t flinch at the words, remaining at the ready with his fists up in a boxer’s stance. There were two seconds of pure stillness, and then the man who had punched him lunged forward with fangs exposed. Michael couldn’t react. He was knocked down instantly by the force of his attacker. Trying to scream, to give an outlet for the pain that ripped through him, he could only gasp with his open, dumbstruck mouth as the air was knocked out of his lungs. The weight of the man straddling him felt like solid stone, cold and immobile. No part of him felt of the warm, spongy sensation of flesh and bone. Fingers like steel gripped Michael’s arms, bruising both his skin and the muscle underneath. Another fist decimated his jaw, and the side of his face grew warm and sticky with blood. His kicking feet were quickly locked down by another set of iron-like hands. After a few shallow panicked gasps for air, he opened his mouth trying to scream, but it was forcefully engulfed by the depraved kiss of the monster that dominated him. He struggled with all his might, but could only feel the rupture of his muscles from his own frantic, mad convulsions as tears flooded his wide blue eyes. Then came the maddening agony. He felt sharp teeth sinking into his tongue, grinding the muscle apart little by little like a knife through a cheap piece of overcooked meat. He couldn’t call out, couldn’t trash in pain. He wanted to die, right this second, before having to feel any more of this. Hot blood started to fill his mouth, burning his throat as he tried to breathe. He was painfully drowning in his own blood. And in his mind, he pleaded for it to all end. Loading gear into their RV, Terrant froze. Maseo as well. “What is it?” Gwen asked, worried. The boys clearly sensed the physical attack. “Blood,” Maseo answered her, eyes narrowing. “I can hear the struggle,” she said after sharpening her attention in the direction they were both looking. Her eyes focused on something her companions couldn’t see, and then her expression turned to one of heartbreak. She bit her lower lip and took off running. “Gwen… wait!” Terrant shouted after her as he and Maseo left the gear and made chase. She moved faster than her bandmates, which was in itself no small feat, and found three vampires attacking the pretty man from the bar. He was in complete misery, moments from death, and there was blood everywhere. Without thinking twice, she dropped her hands to her sides and then opened her palms to the three vampires. Rays like bright, golden bullets streamed from fingertips, showering into their skin. It wasn’t real sunlight, but the sting was more than enough to get their undivided attention. In a panic, they sprung up from their prey and raced off down the alley. Gwen dropped down to her knees into the puddle of Michael’s blood, unphased as it splashed onto her dress and slicked her perfect skin. Cradling his head in her arms, her kind, green eyes fixated on his, trying to force a calming magic into him. He was so terrified and in shock. Tears streamed down his already wet face, mixing with the blood that was still pumping up from his mouth as he tried to breath through it. There was no way he was going to make it. “You have to save him,” Gwen spoke to Maseo who had just appeared behind her. When she turned her head and looked up at Terrant, her green eyes burned assertively. “Terrant. Get them.” Terrant glanced at Maseo, who nodded in approval and then charged off down the alley after the vampires. “Maseo, please,” Gwen’s eyes softened as she begged. “I will take care of him, I promise, just don’t let him die. He’s too pretty and rare.” Maseo knelt down and placed his hand on Michael’s chin, turning his head from the left to the right as he looked him over. The man was still sobbing uncontrollably, losing blood by the second. If Maseo hadn’t been a vampire of the old blood, he would have felt tempted to partake, but unlike most of his kind, he had control over his need. Opening Michael’s mouth, he quickly realized what they had done. They had bitten off most of his tongue. He would certainly bleed to death if nothing was done. Maseo hadn’t turned anyone before. He was against that sort of thing. His strong blood would allow this new vampire the perk of not needing to feed very often, and their lifestyle would definitely make the adjustment easy, increasing his chances of survival, but that would mean another companion, and they didn’t even know who this guy was. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, Gwen,” Maseo protested. “We know nothing about this guy. I refuse.” “Maseo,” Gwen narrowed her eyes commandingly, “I invoke my right of primogeniture. You will do it.” Maseo shuddered. She’d never invoked her birthright before. When he was entrusted to watch over the hypersensitive fae by her own people, he was specifically instructed to accommodate any requests long as they didn’t break any laws, human or otherwise. But this… this was unexpected and went against his principles. Although she was his friend, and he trusted her, she was still fae, which meant he needed to be careful with who would be responsible for this stray pup. “Give me your word that you will care for him throughout his days, Gwen,” Maseo demanded. “He will NOT be my burden. Ever.” “You have my word Maseo,” she responded. “I absolve you of all responsibility. Any judgment and all hardships of this decision will be mine alone to bear.” “Even when it comes to my clan?” Maseo narrowed his eyes, reminding her. “He will carry the blood of my clan and therefore will be of my clan, as well as your House.” Gwen nodded. “Fine then,” Maseo sighed, surrendering. “Let’s get this over with.” Maseo rolled up the sleeve on his red flannel shirt and used the thumbnail on his opposite hand to make a two-inch slice into his forearm. As the blood beaded upon his skin, he had Gwen turn Michael’s head to the side causing the blood Michael had collected in his mouth to spill out all over the fabric of Gwen’s skirt. Righting his head again, Maseo laid his forearm against Michael’s mouth and let his own blood drip in. Blood to blood was required for this to work. Normally it would be done via a transfusion and not in this crude, barbaric fashion, but Maseo was certain that the large wound on what remained of Michael’s tongue would suffice, and time was of the essence. Michael was still gasping for breath, swallowing the vampire’s blood without realizing it. The burning was stronger at first, and he thrashed his feet around from the fire in his throat, but then it started to sooth the torment. He felt his eyelids grow heavy from exhaustion as the pain faded slowly away from his entire body. He felt light. Was this death? He was sleepy. The last thing he remembered was seeing the face of an angel. “There,” Maseo said standing up. “He’ll be asleep for a while now while his body adapts.” “Thank you,” Gwen said looking up at him with tears in her eyes. “I will never forget this debt.” “You don’t even know this guy,” Maseo scolded, but his voice was softer than before. “I’m not sure why you even requested this. He’s a complete stranger.” “He’s rare, Maseo,” she said, trying to elaborate. “I am not sure how to explain it to someone like you, but I will try. His heart dances like a twinkling star. It pulses like the energy our music makes. He is like a sparkling gemstone that…” “Enough, I get it,” Maseo chuckled, raising his hand to make her stop. “You like him a lot. Although I don’t know how much he’s going to twinkle for you now that he’s died. “It doesn’t matter. He is mine. I made a promise.” Just then Terrant returned back to them. He stopped a few feet from where Gwen sat on the ground, Michael’s head still in her lap. Crossing his strong arms, he slowly approached. “Gwen, what did you do?” he asked as if catching a child who had just broken something expensive. “Me? Why do you assume it’s me?” “Because I’m sure Maseo didn’t suddenly want a new drinking buddy.” “What’s done is done,” Maseo interrupted. “Let’s take the koinu inside.” “Koinu?” Terrant asked. “It means puppy,” Maseo explained. Terrant lifted Michael easily, tossing him over his shoulder and they walked to the RV. “They were young ones,” Terrant revealed under his breath to Maseo and Gwen as they walked back to their transportation. “Confessed to doing this trick countless times to humans they considered trash that no one would miss. I got the names of their makers, then I killed them. Oh, and I also painted the Mark of Culling in their blood on the wall near their bodies. Let their sires clean up the mess. Assholes.” Maseo nodded approvingly as they unlocked the RV and stepped inside. Terrant carried Michael’s unconscious body to the very back and laid him down on the queen-size bed, while Maseo went to the fridge and removed a black beer bottle that disguised the blood inside. Twisting the cap off, he guzzled down the whole bottle within seconds as Gwen took the seat across from him. “Are you okay?” she asked sincerely, her voice merely a whisper while placing her small pale hand on the same arm where he’d cut himself. The wound was already mostly healed. Leaning his head back against the leather seat, he blindly set the bottle on the nearby table. “I’ll be fine,” he answered breathlessly. “It just took more out of me than I was expecting.” Walking past them, Terrant took his seat in front of the wheel and started the engine. After a few moments of letting the RV warm up a bit, it rolled out of the bar’s parking lot and headed for the highway. “You should get some sleep though,” Maseo recommended. “It’s a bit of a drive to the next gig and we’ve got about four hours until daylight.” “Okay,” Gwen replied, standing and making her way to the back where Michael slept. “Wake me when you need me to take over.” Saying nothing in response, Maseo just waved her off and closed his eyes. He was tired, and only had one question on his mind. What have I just done?
  3. Chapter Twenty-one Neverland “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. Sensing her apprehension, Levi interlaced his fingers with hers, giving a reassuring squeeze. Taking a deep breath, Madeline crossed the inconspicuous threshold into the shadowy hallway. Its walls, black paint now peeling, still held the pasted remnants of discolored posters announcing age-old events. It had the atmosphere of a place that hadn’t seen activity for a very long time, its heyday long gone. Wearing the powder-blue sweater-dress Levi had purchased for her, Madeline was careful to keep her black lita boots out of the grime. “This is a clever facade,” Levi revealed in a hushed tone as his green eyes peered out from beneath his black hood. His gaze combed the walls, nose failing to pick up any offending scents. “A long, dark hallway, unbarred from the street... Even in Tokyo it would be marred by unpleasant odors. This smells clean.” Stormy-blue eyes drifted from her surroundings to examine Levi. Looking as pristine as always in casual black trousers, a black hooded jacket, and a forest-green henley, his face was fixed in a calculating expression. Absent was his flirtatious, and often snarky, attitude. He was wary, carefully processing everything and expecting a challenge. The previous day was strenuous for him, having had to suppress his scent, leaving Madeline to wonder how low his energy reserves were especially now knowing that he was continually maintaining the charade of being felinae. Disengaging her fingers from his, she knew what she had to do. Reaching out with both hands, she gripped the soft fabric collar of his henley. The height of the heel on her boots only required her to tilt her head up a little bit to match his, and slowly, closing her eyes, she pulled him close for a kiss. His warm lips pressed against hers softly, rhythmically, before giving way to the sweetness of his tongue. Madeline’s hands slipped beneath his hood, tangling in Levi’s soft, black hair as Levi forcefully pushed her back against the wall in the darkness, his kisses driving deeper and more fervent. Pinned intimately against Levi’s upper body, the worries of what the day would bring were trivialized. “We’ll get out of here okay,” Levi promised, breaking away from the mouthwatering kiss. “How can you be sure?” Madeline questioned breathlessly. “Because I am going to have so much more of this later,” Levi grinned devilishly, removing his hands from her body, but not before lifting her chin up to his face again and placing one sweet kiss on her flushed cheek. It took Madeline a few seconds to regain her composure. “Getting a little cocky, are we?” she quipped playfully. “There’s nothing little about it,” Levi responded smoothly. Interlacing their fingers together once again, the couple continued to make their way cautiously down the hall, losing more and more daylight the deeper they went. At the end of the narrow hallway was a burly, older, Japanese man who glared at them with an unfriendly eye. Madeline assumed this was the bouncer. To his left was a door which likely led to whatever Neverland was. Handing the man the card Gwen had given her, Madeline watched him apprehensively, unsure what was going to happen next. The bouncer felt the card more than looked at it, flipping it over a few times in his hands. Suddenly his eyes widened, and he looked back at Madeline in surprise. Clearly, she did not look to be the person he was expecting. “Welcome to Neverland, m’lady,” he greeted as politely as his rough English would allow before handing the card back to her and giving his best attempt at a bow. “Oh, and that, m’lady,” he added, pointing to Levi, “Is your responsibility.” Madeline was shocked by the bouncer’s words at first, but then managed a sly smile. “Did you hear that Levi? You’re my responsibility. So be good.” Normally, Levi would have had a playful response, but he presented a question to the bouncer instead. “Good sir,” he asked in a very uncharacteristic voice, “What is the time ratio today?” “It is one-to-one in honor of m’lady’s visit,” the bouncer replied, treating Levi as if he were Madeline’s servant, yet still maintaining politeness. Levi frowned. One-to-one was a highly unusual accommodation. Almost unheard of. “Then we’re expected?” Madeline inquired, glancing once at Levi, then back to the bouncer. “Yes, m’lady.” Not being able to decide whether that was a good or bad thing, Madeline took a step toward the door. The sudden weight of the bouncer’s hand on her shoulder guided her past the mundane looking door and towards the absolute darkness behind him, as he mumbled somewhat of an apology that she was going the wrong way. Reaching out to brush the bouncer’s hand aside, Levi’s entire arm unexpectedly began to twist into the pitch-black void before rotating into an explosive swirl of color as if being sucked down a prismatic-colored drain. The sensation of his eyeballs riding the spiraling waves while the rest of his body felt utterly absent was not a completely foreign feeling. Levi had experienced this exasperating sort of travel before. This was a portal. A fae portal. For a brief moment, all the colors faded back to black, leaving Levi temporarily feeling that he’d nodded off. Then, as dramatically as it had started, he was hit with a wall of sound and found himself standing in a foyer overlooking a nightclub. Next to him, Madeline was doubled-over shaking, her legs half a moment from giving out beneath her. Releasing her hand that he’d managed to hang onto during the entire experience, he slipped his arm around her waist to support her. “Oh. My. God,” she uttered, gasping for breath between every few words spoken. “Never did drugs before... but I imagine… that’s what a bad acid trip… would feel like.” “Are you going to be okay?” Levi asked as he held her up, concern in his brilliant green eyes. “Yeah, just give me a few moments.” As Madeline caught her breath, Levi took a more careful look around. The foyer was located at the pinnacle of a grand staircase of mirror-like black steps that cascaded downward toward the main floor in one seamless piece of dizzying obsidian, reflecting every ray of the expansive rafter lighting circling overhead. Crystal-clear, as if being pumped directly into his tympanic membrane, was a mesmerizing remix of White Rabbit. The place was packed with gorgeous people wearing immaculate, expensive clothing and sporting perfect coifs. Regaining her composure, Madeline felt immediately underdressed. “We’ve crossed into The Veil,” Levi spoke quietly as he released his hold on her. “Be very careful with what you say, and don’t make small talk with anyone. We need to mingle though. We can’t linger up here or we’ll attract attention.” “Never expected the fae to have a discotheque,” Madeline observed with amusement. “Who do you think kicked off that whole movement?” Levi asked. “All that wild abandonment, the mind-altering experiences, the music… it all had a pretty big fae push. Lots of humans went missing during that period only to come back very messed up - if they came back at all.” Nodding in understanding, Madeline followed Levi down the staircase to the dance floor, weaving about ten people deep into the dancing crowd before coming to a stop. His green eyes raking through the dancers confirming his suspicions. All were fae. He did pick up the scents of a handful of other shapechangers beyond the dance floor, but they were definitely in the Veil. This was bad. Levi stared deeply into Madeline’s stormy-blue eyes, the two exchanging glances which conveyed the unspoken importance of fitting in and staying cautious. Completely in sync, the pair began dancing to the upbeat rhythm. Since the affirmation of their relationship, both Madeline and Levi were more free with the movements and proximity of their bodies, rolling against each other and pressing closer than they’d ever dared before. For a moment Levi considered how enticing this would all have been had the sense of impending death not hung so heavily in the air. He could feel eyes on him from every direction. Fae kept shapeshifters more or less as pets and Levi guessed the crowd was probably trying to figure out how a stray got inside. They likely considered Madeline, being human, inconsequential. Nothing more than a plaything. He hoped this predicament wouldn’t back him into a position where he’d have to take action. That would cause a stir which would circle the globe in a matter of minutes. Knowing Gwen sent them here to meet someone, Levi scanned for anyone showing a capacity for authority. To the far end of the dance floor, opposite from where they’d come in, was a clearing for tables and couches, and beyond that, some private rooms encased in smokey, tinted glass. He only took his eyes off Madeline for that brief moment, and somehow she was gone. Giving an audible growl, he spotted her dancing away with an incredibly handsome, even for fae standards, blond gentleman who appeared slightly older than her. The graceful fae held her left hand up, his other around her waist, moving effortlessly, almost waltz-like, with her through the crowd. Pushing through the masses, Levi was almost upon them as they stepped through one of the doors leading into a private room. Warm light bathed the room as the man slid himself and Madeline into a rust-colored, leather, horseshoe-shaped booth right about the time Levi caught up to them. And as Levi lunged into the booth next to Madeline, flashing a set of very long, and very sharp, claws, the door to the private room closed. “An extremely poor choice,” the blond fae frowned in disappointment. “You’re fortunate I blacked out the glass, or someone else might have seen that.” “Who the fuck are you?” Levi spat, retracting his threat and pulling Madeline practically onto his lap, as much as the space between the table and booth would allow. “I’m no enemy, I assure you. In fact, I am possibly the best ally you have.” “How so?” Levi was deadly protective of Madeline and was poised to do anything to get them out of here if need be. The fae that sat across from him was stunning and unnervingly powerful, so much so that Madeline was fighting her training to remain on guard. It wouldn’t take much for this man to ask Madeline to stay with him, and for her to agree, and then there would be no way in hell Levi could get her out, not even if he reverted to his true nature. The blond fae completely ignored Levi’s question, focusing solely on Madeline. “You’re so beautiful!” he praised happily, giving her a sunshine-filled smile from ear to ear. “Then again, I knew you would be. And I see you’ve caught yourself a feisty one.” He giggled profusely and then sighed. Madeline was clearly enchanted by this stranger, but then her eyes narrowed. She remembered him from somewhere. Where would she have seen him? She paid little attention to the continual stream of customers from her day jobs years ago, purposely keeping the endless faces from clogging up her memory. She backtracked through a handful of nightclub visits with friends but couldn’t place his wavy blond hair or piercing blue eyes anywhere, and with his looks, she should have. Due to a strict budget, there wasn’t really anywhere else she would have gone back in the day where a mass of people would have been gathered. Except for grandma’s funeral. “I am getting beyond pissed off,” Levi continued, still being ignored. “Such beautiful auburn hair,” the fae said, reaching out to stroke his fingers through Madeline’s locks as she sat frozen by his advance. Levi reached out so fast that the movement of his arm couldn’t be seen, and he wrapped his fingers around the fae’s wrist like a vice. “When my eyes first settled on your mother it was the most brilliant sunny day. The heavenly light glinted off her long locks, rivaling that of my kind. She sat between rows of flora, wearing nothing but a paisley sundress and a floppy straw hat. Toes dug happily in the dirt, never minding the insects around her. Humming delightfully to herself while her slender fingers pulled tirelessly at obnoxious weeds...” Levi eased his grip. “Wha… what did you say?” Madeline asked in a whisper. “The barrier here is impenetrable, so there's no need to whisper. I had to erect it to help keep your boyfriend here from being an ass and endangering himself. Which I must say, is very out of character for you, Leviticus. I know your secret. I met Leviticus before you became him, trickster, so mind your manners. That being said, you must really love her to be acting so irrational right now, and I can’t say I blame you. Her mother had me in a bother much the same way. Drove me to do unthinkable things. There just must be something about McCaffrey women… even Jason was entranced...” At that point, Levi released his grip completely, let go of Madeline, and slumped back into the comfort of the booth, mentally exhausted. That great big dot he was trying to connect years ago finally appeared. “You knew my mother?” Madeline asked hopefully, leaning in anxiously. “Of course he does,” Levi interrupted, rubbing his temples. “He’s your father.” “He’s what?! But he looks so… young.” “Hahahahaha!” the fae laughed aloud. “And of course you have my eyes. Perhaps introductions are needed. I am Archfae Alesdair Floradorei, but you can call me Alex. Or dad. That necklace was indeed your mother’s, but it’s not an ordinary necklace. It masks who you are. Helps keep you safe. It served your mother much the same way.” There was an intense sadness in his eyes for a brief moment as he thought of the past. And then it was gone. “By the by, would you care for a stiff drink? I can’t imagine anyone would like to take in all this sober.” Speechless, Madeline nodded, and next to her Levi signaled by lifting a finger that he would like one too. “Marvelous!” Alex pressed a slender index finger against a three-inch diameter malachite button in the center of the table. Within moments, a woman with skin as white as porcelain, edges of her cheekbones sparkling with glitter, seemed to flutter into the private room wearing a lavender, thigh-length, chiffon sleeveless dress. Carrying a drink tray, she leaned forward towards Alex with a smile, letting him whisper his order into her ear rather than shouting over the oddly clubbed-up version of "Light My Fire" that was playing outside. With a playful wink, she hurried away, long blonde waves trailing off behind her. “I’m assuming you are who we’re supposed to meet,” Levi ascertained out loud, raising his voice above the music until the door closed. “Most definitely,” Alex replied. “As much as Gwen’s disability hampers her life, she is invaluable to me as a trusted source of worldly information. Three colorful drinks appeared on the table out of thin air. Levi’s was a mystic blue that seemed to swirl with a glow all its own, while Madeline’s and Alex’s sparkled like diamond water. “Don’t worry, they are all perfectly safe to drink,” Alex said, seeing the apprehension on both his guests’ faces. “So, back to the beginning…. I’m really not sure how I happened upon your mother as she tended her garden that day, but I simply could not take my eyes off of her. Never had I come across such an enchanting human with such a sparkle to her. And the pureness of her spirit! The way she embraced the Earth completely with such a small gesture had my loins swelling with…” “Stop,” Levi interrupted. “We don't need to hear that part.” “Surely you have a similar tale of when you first laid eyes on Maddy?” Alex pouted, brokenhearted that his magnificent story had been pruned. Long ago images of Madeline’s bare breasts bobbing as she strangled a fae from within the bars of a cage flashed before Levi’s eyes. “Um... no,” Levi replied with a sigh and a chuckle, running a hand through his black hair. Disappointed, Alex went back to telling his story, omitting the details of intimate encounters even though he felt they would add an important element. “I made that gem for your beloved mother to make it easy for her to visit me whenever she wanted to. Certain precautions had to be taken, you see, because although our side isn’t bothered by complicated love, the other side doesn’t share the same open-mindedness. If they would have found out she was my human lover, they would have hurt her. Endlessly. Just for fun and spite. And it would have been much worse had they discovered her connection to the Orimura clan.” Alex took a sip of his drink, and Levi picked up on the glitter of what looked to be a solitary diamond set in the center of a rose gold flower suspended in a silver band on Alex’s finger. “As things happen, she became pregnant with you,” Alex continued, “Which left us in a dilemma. She couldn’t live in the Veil. Spending too many years here would drive her mad, and she didn’t want to leave you here to be raised without her. I couldn’t abandon my rank either. Not because of selfish reasons, but because of the safety of those under my care. A grandson of Oberon just doesn’t up and leave the Veil for a human and her child…” Levi was shocked. A grandson of Oberon?! “So your mother and I sat down and had a long talk. We decided she would leave and never return to the Veil. For her safety and yours. She gave birth to you in the Veil, with me protecting her in the process, and then she left with you when she was able to do so. Being away from the Veil for too long caused the years to catch up with her, so I manufactured pieces of family history to fill in the time that couldn’t be accounted for, and she took care of you for as long as her life allowed.” Madeline’s vision began to blur as tears struggled to spill over her lower lashes. All that time, she hadn’t been with her grandmother at all. How did mom maintain the facade so perfectly? Through all Madeline’s mourning and childhood sadness, her mom's act of being grandma was airtight. She couldn’t imagine that type of sacrifice. Levi pulled her close, wrapping his arms gently around her. Once again, she found comfort in the warmth of his embrace. He placed his hand lightly on her head and cradled it as he held her to his chest, tilting his own head down so his lips were against her ear. “Shhhh,” he whispered lovingly, trying to calm her heart. Her sadness was physically hurting him, but he wasn't about to move away. “I am sorry, Maddy. Had there been any other way, we would have found it. Believe me when I tell you that your mother was the greatest love of my life, and not a day goes by that I don’t miss her tremendously.” Alex reached out and touched the pendant on the chain around Madeline’s neck, noticing immediately that this was not the original. “My dear, can you remove your necklace for me please?” he asked politely. Seeing the concerned look on his face, Madeline nodded, slipping her hands behind her neck and disconnecting the clasp. Gently, she placed the black opal in the palm of her father’s hand. With a flourish of fingertip motion, Alex was able to zoom in on a thread of minute, arcane symbols, making them much easier to examine. Even Levi leaned forward to get a closer look. The thread was composed of linked characters that maintained a constant rotation around the pendant, a mix of Old Norse, alchemic, and binary code. With an expert eye for magical scripts and incantations, Alex quickly realized that the axis of the spell on the outer layer was off balance. “While I don’t understand the digital language, this seems to be a recently made living copy of your mother’s necklace,” Alex revealed. “This is bad.” “How bad is bad?” Levi asked. “Well, the necklace was primarily created as a two-part, interwoven incantation. The first spell made your mother appear to be fae instead of human, and the second spell allowed your mother to enter the Veil independently.” “Wait… how is that possible?” Levi asked suspiciously. The Veil only allowed fae to enter, and even then, only through specific reinforced checkpoints. If magic existed that would allow anyone to enter anywhere, it would be disastrous. It opened the Veil up to an invasion. “The less you know, the better,” Alex replied. “And I permanently destroyed all notes on the procedure afterward to prevent duplication. As I was saying, your mother and I decided it would be better to cast a reversal spell on the necklace, since any attempt to remove either spell already existing on it would result in its destruction. Because the necklace only reacts to the blood of the person it was designed for, we knew it would react for you.” “So when she wears it,” Levi added. “It masks her fae side and prevents her from entering the Veil on her own.” “Down to a molecular level,” Madeline added, words focused towards Levi. “That’s why Maseo said those things about my blood.” “Indeed, and I added the anti-theft spell on it afterward as a precautionary measure. But now, there really is no need for her to hide her identity. With Elizabeth passed, there is no danger to Madeline as she is recognized as a full member of fae court.” “She’s only half though,” Levi interjected. “She wouldn’t be recognized as fae unless she is more than half.” “An interesting fact that is overlooked by most,” Alex continued. “Is that the magic in the Orimura clan is fae magic, which makes Madeline fae by blood law because that makes her more than half.” “The Orimura clan has fae blood?” Madeline asked. “That explains their longevity,” Levi replied to Madeline, “And your percentage of fae blood explains your affinity for the sword.” “An unintended perfect storm of genetics,” Alex added. “She can wield, and likely has access to, any clan items those four are able to use.” Four. As Levi and Alex continued to converse, Madeline remembered the number of the clan, and the anomaly she wasn’t supposed to look into. Ever. “I am beginning to understand the issues then,” Levi said, still staring at Madeline. “If someone were to control her, they would have access to some powerful tools.” “Then you can appreciate why I requested you to rescue her long ago, and forced you to stay with her,” Alex said. “I needed someone capable of protecting her until I could get things on my end figured out. Unfortunately, it appears I’ve run out of time.” Alex’s eyes drifted down to his drink solemnly before he caught himself and met both their gazes once more with a bright smile. “What do you mean?” Madeline prodded, noticing the brief change in his demeanor. “Nothing that would change your current arrangements,” Alex responded. “Although I strongly suggest you prepare yourself to embrace your fae heritage. There really isn’t a need for the necklace to function any further, especially considering that the original is likely being tampered with as we speak.” “Gideon,” Madeline murmured, feeling ashamed and angry that she somehow allowed the real necklace to be stolen right out from under her nose. “Gideon?” Alex questioned in a raised voice, looking appalled. Madeline nodded. Squeezing the gemstone pendant in his hand, a fleeting expression of rage engulfed Alex. There was a faint red glow struggling to make it past the tight clench his fist had around the stone, and when he opened his hand, the opal was streaked with melted silver. If Gideon had the original, given enough time he would likely be able to peel back the layers of magic, then the physical properties. And although it might take him years, the probability of re-engineering another was high. If Gideon were able to mass-produce the desired effect, the Veil would be lost. Alex had just broken the copy, and without its link to the original's magic, the false pendant lay dormant and dull. Madeline bolted upright, startling Levi. The colors around her were suddenly vibrant. Crisp. Distant objects she couldn’t make out too well before were now hyper-focused. And the music… there were notes in it that chimed as if they were alive. And somewhere, in a forgotten corner of her conciseness, a presence stirred. Ah...there you are. “I apologize my dear, but with the original in his hands, I had to break the enchantment on this copy. You will begin to be accosted by your fae senses.” By the look on Madeline’s face, Levi knew it had already begun. “You will see things; indications of magic, nature’s true form, ghosts of the dead… Do not let them frighten you. They have always been around you, unseen by you until now. Our family’s house has an affinity for water and light, and since you are my daughter I would guess water would be your attunement. Certain noises might startle you, or irritate you, which hadn’t before. Certain things that hadn’t had much effect on you before will likely make you very uncomfortable, like iron, rot, and decay, carrion flowers, pollution… and for goodness sake don’t ever go back to Aokigahara again. It is one of the few places on the Earth that cripples our kind. It actually overpowered the necklaces’ own spells, which up to that point I would have considered an impossibility. Oh! And before I forget...” Alex reached into his pocket and removed a ring exactly like the one Gwen wore yesterday. Handing it to Madeline, his expression softened and his gaze glazed over he fought back tears. “This is your legacy,” he said, giving the proud smile of a father. “House Floradorei. Wear it with honor.” Slipping the ring onto her finger, the band magically adjusted to her size. For a few moments, Madeline could do nothing but watch it sparkle. “So Gwen was acting as your emissary?” Levi asked. “Oh dear me, no, Leviticus. Gwen is my niece. Madeline’s cousin. It is just my sister and I at the head of House Floradorei. Gwen is her daughter.” Madeline stopped admiring the ring. “What the fuck? Gwen and I are cousins??” “Language!” Alex scolded. “But yes, but she didn’t know until right before I asked her to retrieve you from the Tetsugawa building. I would highly recommend letting her introduce you to our ways. Due to her special circumstances, I couldn’t imagine a better teacher.” “What about the guy she brought with her? He seemed very familiar.” Alex chuckled, glancing at an elaborate painting that hung on the wall to his right for a few seconds before looking pointedly at Madeline with a shimmer of mischief in his eyes. “Ah, that gentleman… I confess that you’ve slept with him, but the details are not mine to tell. Now if you’ll excuse me…” “Wait,” Madeline interrupted, standing along with Alex. “I can count all the guys I’ve slept with on one hand, and he’s not one of them.” “That’s not necessarily what he means,” Levi interjected, suspicious of this gentleman. “Going by words alone, you slept with me last night. And that wasn’t the first time.” Smiling in acknowledgment, Alex tapped a slender finger to the side of his nose, pointed at Levi, and then left the room through a door at the back, leaving both Madeline and Levi alone in the private room. The door Alesdair passed through led directly to his private chambers within the Floradorei estate, deep within the Veil. Portalling from any random door into the estate was a neat little trick, only no one was around to be amazed by it. Well, almost no one. Sitting elegantly on a broad pedestal placed against what appeared to be a window, scaled tail coiled around his two front feet, rested a multi-colored dragon. A pair of small, golden horns accented with beads of silver curled slightly backward, and in the center of his forehead, grouped in a V-formation above his eyebrows, crystal blue scales glittered. Most of his cat-sized body was covered in various hues of emerald green scales that occasionally blended into gold, except for his chest, belly, forehead, snout, underwings, and the fronts of his legs. Those areas were clad in brushed-silver scales, almost armor-like. Staring through the glass that appeared as a painting to Madeline and Levi, its ruby-red eyes regarded Madeline longingly. “Can I go?” the dragon asked Alesdair hopefully. “I have missed her. And I don’t like him. At all.” “I’m afraid she’s had more than enough surprises for one day, Horace,” Alesdair replied. “Soon though. I promise.” “He’s not a cat. He pretends. He lies.” “I know, and so does she. Do I sense jealousy?” “Did you know he is in-between?” Horace questioned, eyes still fixed on the redhead in the other room. “My eyes see all truths.” This caught Alesdair off-guard. “What do you mean?” “He has not committed himself to benevolence. Not completely. There are still shadows lurking.” “True, friend, but there are shadows within us all.” Alesdair sighed solemnly. Horace’s words rang true, and not only concerning Levi. It had finally come to this, the moment Alesdair knew was unavoidable. It was time to pay for the indiscretions of House Floradorei.
  4. Chapter Twenty In the Dark Madeline stood in the elevator, staring uneasily at the panel of buttons before her. There was only one button she wanted to press, but her hand hung frozen, poised in mid-air as an unknown external force acted against her. Dressed in the only outfit she’d brought with her that could pass for a party, a classic little black dress, Madeline kept her makeup and hairstyle simple despite dropping her mascara brush into the bathroom sink and smearing a Sumi-e streak across the white porcelain. She’d cleaned it up and soldiered bravely on, but the unexplainable tremors and feeling out-of-sorts were not subsiding. 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. Not giving up, another attempt caused the foreboding discomfort to twist into a piercing, skull-splitting pain. Gritting her teeth and pushing through the agony, tears began to blur her vision. Madeline’s trembling fingertip inched closer, now fighting a sensation akin to magnetic repulsion. With all the strength she had left, her final, desperate push managed to activate the Lobby button moments before the elevator would have passed the floor by. But when the doors slid open, she could not bring herself to move forward. Not a single step. And she did try, but the sense of panic was debilitating. It constricted around her chest, and her skin grew cold and clammy. Pressing the Lobby button had been exhausting, leaving her powerless to fight against whatever force was imposing its will on her right now. Also, she couldn’t fathom why she had even considered staying here, thinking Gideon could protect her and make her well again. Something had influenced her mind, and now her body, as if the goal was to keep her in this building. She had to escape. Her eyes darted frantically around the lobby, urgently seeking Cameron in the hopes he was coming for her as he said he would be, but only the concierge and a couple of security guards stood by. No one else was in sight. As the doors slowly joined together and the elevator continued its descent, the horrible attack ceased. Madeline cursed under her breath. When next the elevator doors opened, Madeline was immediately inundated with the rich, bassy music of the nightclub. The lighting was annoyingly dim, especially over the dancefloor in the center, brightening only slightly at the seating areas that lined the perimeter. Thankfully the place was already packed, making it easy for her to blend in. Scanning the dessert table and what decorative displays she could see through the bodies of guests, the redhead concluded the strange and dangerous flowers had been removed. She spotted Gideon conversing cheerfully in a corner booth large enough to seat half a dozen people. Taro was there, as well as another man and woman she didn’t recognize. Madeline wanted to avoid joining them, waiting for a moment when Gideon appeared too busy to concern himself with her so she could briefly show him she was fine and excuse herself from the premises. “Good to see you are feeling better, Miss Madeline,” Takeshi greeted her from behind. “Gideon has been waiting for you. This way please.” Fuck my luck today. Faking a pleasant smile, Madeline let herself be guided to their table, unhappily taking a seat next to Gideon while feigning enjoyment. “You look spectacular, my dear,” Gideon beamed, bright blue eyes sweeping over her before turning his attention back to his guests and rejoining their conversation. There was something different about him tonight. His elegant composure was sprinkled with a dusting of innocent flirtation. It could have been the club atmosphere playing tricks on her mind, but Madeline swore she caught him stealing glances at her throughout the business discussion rotating around the table. She tried to follow the flow of the conversation, but quickly realized she had nothing to offer. “Good to see you are doing well,” Taro’s voice broke through the chatter around her, his lips curved into a pleasant smile. Mind flashing back to the night she almost kissed him, Madeline struggled to keep her urges from resurfacing. She was helped, unexpectedly, by another episode which prompted her to hyper-focus on the sensations rolling across her body. It was shorter in duration than the others, causing the music to seemingly decelerate for a few seconds, buying her a desperately needed moment of clarity. “Restrooms?” she asked hopefully. She needed to distance herself and find a place where she could think straight. “Of course, dear,” Gideon answered graciously. “Toward the entrance, to the left of the bar.” “Thank you,” she smiled as she scooted away from his side, straightening out the hem of her dress as she stood. “Be right back.” How the hell did I manage to get myself into this situation? Madeline complained under her breath as she weaved through the socializers. Halfway to the ladies room, Madeline felt another episode. The onset, so soon since the last one, caught her off guard, and the thought of getting to the point where she would be inundated continuously was truly frightening. Again, her skin tingled in waves, but when she looked down at her arms, she saw nothing. And each time the sensation surfaced, Madeline found it increasingly harder to move until the foreign phenomenon passed. Once it subsided, she slowly lowered her arms to her sides, briefly balling her hands into fists to steady her frustration. Letting out slow controlled breaths, Madeline relaxed and uncurled her fingers. At that moment, something brushed across her palm, tugging her hand up and forward as if urging her to resume her path towards the hallway. Madeline’s blue gaze jumped from figure to figure, looking for the culprit, and came to rest on the back of a man walking away from her. Shoulder-length, layered black hair. Lean physique. Hips swaying ever so seductively as he disappeared down the same hall she’d been heading for... The likeness was uncanny. Careful not to betray the possibility with hurried steps, Madeline followed the man, who was now about ten feet ahead of her, down the hallway. His long strides took him past both the Men's and Women's rooms to the end of the corridor where a door, painted the same crimson color as the walls, was almost undetectable in the low light. As the stranger opened it with his left hand, he reached back toward Madeline with his right, never once looking over his shoulder. Tentatively, she slipped her hand into his and stepped through, letting the door close behind her. "Why didn’t you answer my texts?" an all too familiar voice whispered questioningly in the darkness. Madeline couldn't bring herself to utter a word. It sounded like Levi, but the alluring sandalwood that captivated her whenever he was near was absent. And being this close to him, she should be able to detect it without a doubt. Her hands fumbled around the door frame from which she entered. There had to be a light switch. She had to be sure. Before Madeline’s fingertips could locate the switchplate, they were pulled away and held captive. The sudden electric glow of a cell phone screen bathed the supply closet in enough light to make his features clear. “Is it really you?” she asked quietly. Wearing a heather-gray shirt of thin, draped fabric paired with lightweight black trousers of the ripped-yet-expensive variety, Levi looked down at her through brown contact lenses. “We don’t have time for this,” he replied impatiently, running a hand through his black hair. “Look, you once went by the name Emily, you’re one of the few girls I know that hasn’t slept with Caslon, and you have a very peculiar taste in handheld video games.” “I never got any texts,” Madeline whispered, convinced. “I thought you deleted yourself from my phone.” “Why would I do that?” he asked, voice raw as if wounded. Taking a deep breath, Levi placed his palms lightly on Madeline’s shoulders, looking unwaveringly into her stormy blue eyes. “I came here to tell you to leave the building. Cameron tried to get to you earlier but failed. As it is, I have to suppress my scent to avoid unwanted attention. It’s not an easy thing to do, so you need to leave now.” Leaving now was an understatement. Levi wasn’t sure what Gideon was up to, but Cameron’s intel was right. Something was wrong with Madeline. She still had the same beautiful scent about her, but there was what appeared to be a thin film of magic encasing her body. Actual magic. He wasn’t sure what the underlying cause was but didn’t want her in the vicinity of Gideon right now. Thankfully, he didn’t believe there was anyone else in the building capable of seeing magic, but having her out in public while he figured this out was a huge risk. "I should never have let it get this far," he mumbled. Assessing the immediate area, Levi strained his senses while struggling to keep himself hidden. Filtering out the electronic dance music, the only footsteps he could hear where going in and out of the restrooms; no one heading in their direction. And although the whole place reeked of rot to his sensitive nose, there were no vampires in the immediate proximity. Much to Madeline's surprise, Levi suddenly pulled her intimately against his chest. Head resting partly on the softly draped chenille of his shirt, and partly on the warm bare skin of his collarbone, Madeline's heart began to race. Still, after all this time, he affected her exactly the same. "You need to leave Japan and get back to the states," he whispered tenderly. "This is one time I can't take you by force. Believe me; if I could, we wouldn't be having this conversation." Sensing something change in the pressure around her body, Levi released Madeline and took a step back, observing as the film he noticed early thickened and began to seep, forcing energy out of her pores before tapering off as if someone closed a faucet. And from the look on her face, the process was terrifying her. “I see it,” he comforted. “It looks like your body is filling up with magic from the inside, and when it can’t contain anymore, it spills out through your skin. That’s probably when you feel strange. Like just now.” Finally. Somebody finally understood what was going on, and that somebody was Levi. Embracing him tightly, Madeline began to sob. “You need to stop crying,” he warned as he gently stroked her long auburn hair, fingers losing themselves in her curls. “If my concentration falters, they’ll find us in a matter of seconds.” Establishing some remnant of strength, Madeline inhaled sharply to stop the flow of tears. "When we get somewhere safe we need to have a long talk," he added softly. Suddenly, Levi backed away from Madeline and placed his hand on the doorknob. “Someone’s coming,” he warned, sniffing the air. Confusion spread across Levi’s face. “Gwen?” Tucking his cell phone back into his front pocket, Levi opened the door cautiously. He wasn't sure what was going on, but it was indeed Gwen approaching, along with a very tall, hooded fae that was obviously only here for muscle. Were fae to blame for Madeline’s current state? "Good evening, Levi," Gwen greeted quietly as she came into view, while the intimidating fae at her side remained silent. "You can leave Madeline in our care. We’ll get her out of the building carefully and quickly; I give you my word." As Gwen gestured for Madeline to come forward out of the supply closet, Levi noticed her index finger was adorned with a pair of silvery-gold leaves twisting around a circular emerald. He knew this emblem, though he’d never seen it on Gwen's finger before. Perhaps it was like his gate key, in that she only wore it when she felt the need to either impress or threaten. "Can you bring her to the Granbell?" he asked hopefully. “Please?” Gwen smiled wildly, eyes sparkling, and nodded. It greatly amused her to see Levi so openly worried about Madeline’s safety. “Thank you,” Levi whispered before turning to Madeline. "Please wait for me there." Gazing at Madeline with uncharacteristic affection, Levi squeezed her hand once then let it go, disappearing down the corridor into the darkness. Gwen approached Madeline with a misplaced sense of excitement, sweet blond ringlets bouncing as she placed a light jacket over the redhead's shoulders. Madeline didn’t understand any of this. Why was Gwen, of all people, here? "I can tell by your quizzical look that you believe there has been a mistake in my presence here," Gwen beamed brightly as she linked her arm with Madeline’s and the pair walked back in the direction of the dancefloor, bodyguard in tow. Madeline nodded, dumbfounded. "Just you wait! It gets better!" The blond fae was grinning from ear to ear, frighteningly innocent, leaving Madeline to wonder if better meant safer, or crazier. Approaching the corner table where Gideon and his crew sat, Madeline felt nervous once again. Not because she was that afraid of them, but because she was now with Gwen and didn’t know what to expect. Guest parted in front of the trio, noticeably shocked and a bit frightened. "Greetings from House Floradorei!" Gwen bubbled happily at Taro, giving him a little wave. "Ah, Genevieve," Taro smiled. "It is good to see you. Still traipsing around with my little brother?" "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," she said, curtsying before clearing her throat to prepare her declaration. "I am here on official business." "Business is very unlike you," Taro frowned. "What is this business about?" Madeline could tell Gideon and Taro already knew what this was all about, and they weren’t too happy about it. "This child, sir," Genevieve began, indicating Madeline with a sweep of her hand. "I understand she was under your protection, and we thank you sir, but we have come to gather her now." "You've come to gather her? That almost makes it sound like she is kin." "Yes, sir. It does sound that way. Thank you, sir." “But she was enjoying herself so much,” Gideon interjected, and then directed his attention to Madeline. “Do promise us you’ll come back?” Just as Madeline inhaled to provide a reply, Gwen’s hand clamped down over the redhead’s mouth and prevented her from speaking. “Regrettably, she won’t be returning to the party,” Gwen replied in Madeline’s stead. Without giving the pleasure of a goodbye, Gwen curtsied and swung around, pulling Madeline with her, the bodyguard following behind them both. Passing through the crowd, no one made a move to stop them from getting into the elevator. They couldn't. It was yet another rule of the otherworld. If fae comes to call, you let them take who they want. To question validity would be an insult, and no one wants to piss off the fae. As the elevator ascended to the floor where Madeline’s guestroom was, the redhead could be silent no longer. “It is so good to see you,” she told Gwen, feeling the weight of her dilemma lifting away. “Where're the guys?” “I came here on my own,” Gwen mused, her voice light and melodic. “I needed to rescue you because the cat and the dog couldn’t. The vampires won’t try any more of their tricks on you because I’m here now, but even so, you need to be swift in getting your things because not only is Gideon dangerous, he’s also a very quick thinker.” As she waited for the elevator to make its floor, Madeline’s eyes turned from her bubbly friend to the gentleman beside her. Easily over six feet tall, the way his hooded jacket was pulled taut around his biceps and shoulders made clear the muscles he possessed underneath. There was something peculiar about him though. Although the fur trimming on the hood and the downward position of his head blocked a view of his face, this stranger felt familiar to her though she couldn’t figure out why. Looking down at their feet, Madeline realized she was standing much closer to him than she should have been comfortable with. In fact, she somehow felt safer next to him than Gwen. Narrowing her blue eyes, she spoke directly to the fae bodyguard. “Do I know you?” The bodyguard brought his head sharply down, chin to chest, and said not a word, just as the elevator floated to a halt. “Ah, here we are!” Gwen chimed in. “No time to waste.” Rushing out of the elevator, Madeline hurried into her room, grabbed her small suitcase by the handle and high-tailed it back to Gwen. As the elevator approached the lobby, Madeline realized she hadn't checked to see if she’d left anything behind, or even if her suitcase was still intact. At this point, there wasn’t much they could have taken that couldn’t be easily replaced. She’d know immediately if they took the strip of trackers out, and if so, she’d deactivate them, and she had kept her passport, credit cards, and phone with her in her purse. Before the doors opened, Gwen started humming a whimsical tune, child-like smile on her lips as she rocked back and forth on her heels. “I bet right now Gideon is trying to think of a way to stop us,” Gwen smirked, “But he won’t succeed. He simply doesn’t have enough time.” With a gentle ding, the doors opened to the lobby causing Madeline to cringe. She was expecting the same ominous feeling to assault her, but it was absent this time. “You better put that jacket on,” Gwen pointed to indicate the one still resting on Madeline’s shoulders. “It’s chilly outside.” Walking through the lobby under the watchful stares of the guards filled Madeline with such relief that she couldn’t stop her smile from spreading. A few seconds later, and she was safely outside. Madeline could remember only one other time where the cold night air felt as welcoming. As the tension began to drain from her muscles, Madeline noticed Cameron across the street, approaching them with considerable speed, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. As he marched up to the trio, heavy footsteps betraying his outwardly calm demeanor, it wasn’t the bodyguard, but Gwen that blocked his path to Madeline. She placed her small hand lightly on the side of Cameron’s cheek, bring him to a screeching halt. Who the hell is this girl?! Cameron thought, wide-eyed. Her touch forced him to an alert state of passiveness like the snap of a finger. And although he didn’t know her, he could not bring himself to have even the slightest ounce of animosity towards her. “My, my,” Gwen whispered, her voice suddenly dropping to an uncharacteristic iciness as her fingertips stroked Cameron's face, “What a majestic hound we have here.” Cameron struggled to put up any form of resistance, but could not. “So strong. So loyal. You must be Cameron McCaffery.” “What are you doing to him?” Madeline asked stepping forward, openly worried by the change in Gwen’s composure. She’d never seen Gwen act like this before, and the command she had over Cameron was both frightening and absolute. She was admiring him, yet dominating him with a mere stare. Is this why fae were so feared? Releasing her hand, she bounced back to her usual bubbly self. “I was just evaluating him,” she replied as if it were no big deal. “He is beautifully raw, not shiny like my Michael.” “Um, still standing here,” Cameron quipped, regaining the willpower to transform back into his usual curt self. “Not sure who you are, but thanks for getting her out of there. I’ll take it from here.” “Sorry, but she’s already been promised to someone that outranks you,” Gwen said taking Madeline’s free hand. “I’ll be sure to have her call you when she gets there.” Cameron was getting agitated, but one look from Gwen shut him down. “She will be safe. You have my word.” Cameron took a step back, nodded his head, then mouthed the words call me to Madeline before turning and leaving the trio. Hailing a taxi, Gwen slid into the backseat first, leaving Madeline to be sandwiched between her and the bodyguard. Speaking in perfect Japanese, Gwen directed the driver to the Granbell Hotel. As the car pulled up out front, only Gwen got out to walk Madeline to the entrance after the driver retrieved her suitcase from the trunk. “Don’t worry about what’s going on, little hu… I mean Madeline,” Gwen whispered before giving the redhead a hug and a kiss on each cheek. “Over the next few days, things will clear.” Reaching into her pocket, Gwen handed Madeline what appeared to be a business card printed on fancy parchment paper that felt warm to the touch. It contained the word Neverland and a street address. “You must go there as soon as you can,” Gwen said as she planted another sweet kiss on Madeline’s cheek. “You can bring Levi if you want, but understand that you will be responsible for him while you’re there. Bye-bye!” And with that, Madeline found herself standing alone in front of the Granbell Hotel in the middle of a cold, February night. She had so many unanswered questions. Of course, it was commonplace for her to have lots of questions, but in the whirlwind of the past thirty minutes she could have written down a few pages worth. Stepping through the hotel’s revolving glass door, Madeline entered the lobby. As she rolled her suitcase towards the white marble reservation desk, she felt footsteps approaching from behind that matched her pace. From years of training, she immediately knew who they belonged to, and felt her remaining stress dissipate. He’d changed clothes since she’d last seen him at Gideon’s party, and was now dressed in a comfortable pair of jeans and a brightly graphic shirt mostly hidden beneath an oversized black hoodie. “I’ve got a suite here,” Levi indicated, keeping his voice low and his hands in his pockets. “Come on.” Silently, she followed him into the elevator, both of them instinctively keeping their backs to the security cameras. As they ascended, neither said a word, which was a difficult task for her considering the circumstances. Coming to a smooth stop on the 14th floor, the doors opened with a pleasant ding. Stepping out ahead of her, Levi walked past a handful of rooms before removing a key card from his front pocket and swiping it through the magnetic lock on his door. With a green light and a click, he rotated the brushed nickel handle and pushed the door open. Flipping on a light switch, Levi illuminated the small foyer with subtle, warm light, allowing Madeline a glimpse of a narrow, wooden credenza at the far end next to the archway on the right which opened up to the rest of the suite. Stopping briefly to change into a pair of slippers, Levi waited for Madeline to do the same before entering into the main room. The whole west wall was nothing but plate glass windows, giving the most stunning floor-to-ceiling view of Shinjuku. Against the opposite wall, facing the landscape, was a king-sized bed, and at the far end of the room was a full bath separated from an outdoor spa and the rest of the suite by frameless glass walls. The extravagance left her speechless. “It’s safe for us to talk here,” Levi said, voice still a whisper as he took a seat at the small, round table, inviting Madeline to join him. To be honest, she was nervous he didn’t turn on any other lights in the room, leaving the glow of the city the only illumination. Cautiously, she rolled her small suitcase to the side of the bed before taking a seat at the table across from Levi all the while doing her best to ignore the dizzying height. Removing the business card from her pocket, Madeline slid it across the table, presenting it to him. “Gwen gave me this. Told me to go to this place as soon as possible. I really wanted to leave Taro’s building but I couldn’t. It was weird. Even the words coming out of my mouth any time I wanted to talk about leaving were different than what I wanted to say.” Levi picked the card up with his long fingers, flipping it over to read the address as he carefully listened to the flurry of information Madeline was recapping to him; from her frightening experience at Aokigahara, to the wealth of information in Taro’s library, and also her lunch with Gideon and the subsequent inability to follow her own will. He’d never heard of Neverland but suspected there was a reason for that, considering his growing suspicion that the fae were behind Madeline’s sudden ailment. “I’m not sure what could have prevented you from leaving, but we should go to this place tomorrow,” Levi advised. “I have a hunch we’ll get all the answers we need there, but first, we need to talk. In the past, I’ve made you play games for answers. But not today. I’m prepared to answer everything I can. No tricks. No half-truths.” Taking an audibly deep breath, Madeline could feel her nerves start to work their way into butterflies. She never imagined she’d get a chance like this, at such an unexpected moment. And as uncomfortable as it was going to be, this was the best opportunity, perhaps the only opportunity, to get the truth. If only she wasn’t so afraid of pushing him away with questions now that he was back in her life. No turning back now, she thought to herself, feeling as if she were about to jump into a body of water without knowing the temperature nor the depth. “Did you really kill all those people? The merchant’s family in Cairo? The bride? The scholar in front of her students?” Searching for an emotional response in his emerald eyes, Madeline could tell her questions dusted off painful memories. “No, I did not,” he answered softly. “Did you actually believe in your heart I could ever do any of those things?” He had every right to ask that of her, and she wrung her hands in guilt under the table for believing, even for a second, that he was capable of such atrocities. Still, she felt the need to defend her inquiry. “I was shocked to read all those stories,” Madeline admitted, “It didn’t make sense at first. But after I read about bastets, and remembered how the twins were terrified of you, and how Cameron considered you a monster, I began to see the possibility. Especially because I’m human and easy to trick.” Levi leaned his elbows on the table, resting his head in his hands as he looked down, defeated. “What if I told you I wasn’t a bastet,” he mumbled, still staring down at the smooth, wooden tabletop. “Or even felinae?” “Eh?” “It’s a long, complicated story, but I need your full trust back quickly,” he continued, “And we need to be able to move forward, so here it goes...” Raising his head, Levi lowered his arms, interlacing his fingers as his hands rested on the table. “I want you to understand that anything I omit is only because it’s too dangerous for you to know, not that I don’t trust you with the knowledge,” he began. Removing her hands from under the table, Madeline placed them over Levi’s, nodding. She’d grown accustomed to how need-to-know information worked. “I was found next to the body of my oldest brother, with his blood on my hands and no recollection of what had happened. Naturally, I was blamed, which led to my exile. I wandered for many years, ending up in Cairo around the 16th century. That’s where I met the real Leviticus, and yes, he was just as barbaric as you’ve read. I bore a striking resemblance to him, which he took advantage of immediately. In a short period, he taught me to be him, and since I needed a new identity in order to leave my past behind, I embraced his offer. What I didn’t realize was that someone wasn’t happy with me simply being exiled, so they sent assassins after me. During a job where Leviticus and I switched identities, he was killed in my stead. I made a decision that night. I would become Leviticus from that point forward, forever burying who I was so that whoever thought they had killed me would be satisfied and never go looking for me again. I perfected being felinae; having a felinae’s scent, shape-shifting into the varying degrees of a cat, even all the mannerisms and instincts. I’ve been Leviticus for so long that I’m not sure I remember what being me even feels like.” For a few seconds, Madeline forgot to breathe. “The number of enemies Leviticus made before I came across him was staggering, and they continue to be very deeply seeded into current day descendants. That doesn’t even account for the enemies I’ve made since I became him, so you can imagine why I never allowed myself to get involved with anyone who didn’t have the strength to hold their own against my enemies.” He paused for a moment, struggling to organize his next thoughts. He wasn’t sure why the near darkness helped ease his nerves. Perhaps he felt the shadows gave him somewhere to hide. Slipping his hands out from under hers, Levi caressed Madeline’s fingers and found the words to continue. “But you… you somehow reached a part of me I thought I’d killed off. I actually used my own ki, something I’d only used on one other occasion since I was exiled, to heal the broken ribs Scott gave you. And that morning, after I healed you just enough so your injuries wouldn’t be suspicious, I wanted to just hold you. When I realized why that was, I left. I didn’t want someone going after you because of me. Maseo… Caslon... all of them can take care of themselves, but not you. And because of my feelings, you would have been put in the most precarious position of them all.” For a long while, no more words were spoken. Madeline was processing Levi’s confession, feeling the warmth of his hands as they held hers, and listening to each breath he took. Levi, on the other hand, had turned his gaze to the window, his mind processing a thousand scenarios. If she reciprocated his feelings, which he believed she would, he would be bound to her over time, and once her short human life passed him by, that would be it. He would take no other mate. He had tried to fight these feelings, tried to convince himself over and over again that this was not a good match for either of them, but it was a useless battle. The only way he could be free of these feelings now would be if she rejected him. Madeline’s whisper interrupted his deep thoughts. “I missed you.” Looking back at her, he was caught unexpectedly by the shimmer of tears in her blue eyes, twinkling from the city lights. He rose from the table the moment she did, springing into each other’s arms. She was crying again, only tears which didn’t have the same effect as those born of misery. “I missed you too,” he whispered into her ear as they embraced. Burrowing into the crook of his neck, Madeline wrapped her arms around Levi’s waist and lost herself in the curves of his muscles and the familiar scent of his skin. She pressed herself firmly against him, something she never dared to do before. Being wrapped in his arms was just as heavenly as she imagined. Warm. Safe. After a few more minutes passed, Levi slowly released her. “I bought you some clothes,” he said, voice low and husky. “I wasn’t sure what you’d have with you. There’s also some sushi in the fridge in case you’re hungry.” “Thanks,” Madeline replied with a sniffle. Letting her arms regretfully slip from Levi’s body, Madeline turned around, spotting a couple of boutique bags on the floor next to the dresser. Rustling through the tissue paper, she found a thigh-length, powder blue sweater-dress, a pair of black leggings, and an incredibly soft set of pajamas. The trials of the day had been exhausting, and she was all set to settle in for the night. Ducking into the bathroom, Madeline quickly realized that except for the main foyer and the area around the toilet, all the walls were glass, providing zero privacy. Given as tired as she was, she only took that into consideration briefly before stripping down and out of her nightclub dress, and into the fresh comfort of the cotton-soft pajama shirt and shorts provided by Levi. Sure, she had nightclothes of her own packed away in the carry-on, but there was something magical about sleeping in a pair of pajamas given to you by the person you loved. Walking back out towards the bed, Levi had likewise changed into a pair of charcoal-colored, drawstring pajama pants and a white t-shirt. He’d been leaning over her suitcase, running his fingers over the surface to eliminate the possibility that Gideon or Taro placed a tracker on it. The frequency detector he was running hadn’t picked up anything since she rolled it into the room, but he wanted to be thorough to prevent any attempt at a delayed activation. Confident it was secure, he climbed into bed, nothing seductive about his mannerisms. Today had simply been too much. The words that had been spoken were so heavy on the mind that it completely smothered the libido. Pulling back the sheets, he invited Madeline into his arms. Madeline, finally feeling safe after days of being on edge and dealing with the exhausting focus of maintaining her guard, was anticipating the peaceful sleep Levi’s scent was inducing. Or at least she was until she felt the sensation of another episode. She found herself suddenly in an upright position staring out at the city, its sparkle captivating her like the glitter of moonlight across a flowing stream. Levi sensed the change and sat up next to her, pulling her close. “When did this start happening?” he asked from over her shoulder, hoping to gain some insight. “Was it all at once, or has it been a gradual thing?” “This morning,” she replied, forcing her eyes shut until the overwhelming feeling went away. “And it was sudden.” She painstakingly described the markings on the hotel chair and how they vanished. About the shower and the mist. And the flowers. The awful, awful flowers. She also went into more detail about how it felt like her will was being controlled at Taro’s. She’d wanted desperately to leave, to ask for help, but her body wouldn’t comply, and her words became twisted as she spoke them. “What’s happening to me?” she asked after feeling she’d given Levi every detail. “Some sort of fae magic would be my best guess,” Levi assured, getting comfortable as he continued to cradle Madeline from behind. “But try to clear your mind of worries. You are safe with me, and tonight we’re both going to rest. No alarms. We sleep in as long as we want.” Her body suddenly went rigid. “Oh shit, I forgot to call Cameron!” She sprung from the bed and began fumbling through her purse in the darkness, searching for her phone. No sooner did she bring it to her ear did Levi appear, in a silent blur of movement akin to materializing out of thin air. His long fingers were already wrapped around her hand, lowering it and the phone she held. “I got you a new phone,” he revealed, offering the sleek black device to her. “I suspect your old one’s been compromised, meaning they have been monitoring your calls. We’ll keep it around in case we need to draw them out somewhere, but don’t use it again for anything else, okay?” Nodding, Madeline took a seat back on the edge of the bed and copied Cameron’s number into her new phone’s directory. She also checked her text messages. Everything from Levi was intact since the last time she’d taken a look at them. All her other contacts were there as well, and, of course, her grandmother’s voicemails. If Levi was anything, it was meticulous. Dialing Cameron’s number, she pulled her new phone to her ear. “Cameron? Yeah, it’s me. I’m safe.” Levi could hear the mutt yelling on the other end. “Calm the fuck down for just a minute,” Madeline replied to the outburst, causing a satisfied grin to spread across Levi’s face. How he missed that potty mouth. “That was my friend Gwen. She’s fae. Well, she apparently knows how to shut you up.” More yelling exploded on Cameron’s end. “Look, I know you’re mad, and I don’t blame you, But I wasn’t able to leave, and I couldn’t say what was on my mind, but I am fine now. I’m with Levi.” Madeline had to pull her ear away at the volume of Cameron blowing up. “Hang up and come back to bed,” Levi purred loud enough for Cameron to hear. Lowering the phone down to her waist, Madeline shot Levi a look. “You’re not helping things,” she glared. Levi just smiled devilishly. Bringing the phone back up to her ear, she caught the tail-end of Cameron asking her if she was out of her mind spending the night with Levi. “I’m fine now, really I am,” Madeline responded. “There’s someplace I have to go tomorrow, but then we can meet up somewhere. I feel awful about missing the onsen. You too. Goodnight.” Immediately, Levi wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in close once more. She let herself drown in the warmth of his body and the rise and fall of his chest against her back. For a long time, Madeline blissfully relished in the warmth, the dark, and the quiet. She would be okay just spending forever like this. Twenty-four hours ago, had someone told her today would end like this, she would have thought they were crazy. Hell, if they would have told her Levi would be back in her life, she wouldn’t have believed that either. Yet here she was, wondering what loving a felinae was going to be like. No. Not felinae. “Hey, Levi?” “Mmm…?” “If you’re not bastet or felinae, what are you?” Madeline asked quietly. He didn’t answer right away, which made her immediately regret asking. She imagined it would be difficult to tell someone a secret you’ve spent centuries hiding. Something you dared not utter for fear of putting others in danger. After a minute or so, Madeline felt the tickle of his breath on her ear as he leaned his head in closer to her's, whispering a single word so quietly that Madeline had to strain to hear it. Her eyes widened. Everything made sense now, from his lack of shedding hair to his aversion to processed foods and body contaminates. She could not imagine, however, how difficult it was, and how much energy and concentration it took, to suppress being that. To keep it all bottled up in the framework of a felinae. And she couldn’t deny, although in the current situation it was entirely inappropriate, how arousing it was knowing the body that held her was so… “That’s… that’s pretty um… wow...,” she finally managed. After an amused sigh, Levi chuckled.
  5. Chapter Nineteen Unbreakable Promises 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. What the…? 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. “...Fuck.” 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. Excellent. 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. “I promise.” 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. “Disgusting.” “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.” “Noted.”
  6. Chapter Eighteen Corrosion After releasing the button on the hotel alarm clock, Madeline rolled onto her back and stared at the vast, white ceiling. Typically, she would have only trusted her own personal alarm, but there wasn’t anything pressing today, other than her trip to Taro’s Library this afternoon. Reflecting on her call to Caslon yesterday, it was comforting hearing his voice despite his never-ending advances. She’d grown so used to them by now that if there came a time where he wasn’t hitting on her, something would feel terribly wrong. He’d spoken openly about his relationship with Ms. Bassir. She’d been his prearranged mate, and he’d been more than anxious to fulfill his duties for two main reasons. The first being obvious - Caslon loved women and loved having sex with women. It was his hobby. The second only made sense to Madeline now that she knew of Tiff’s situation. Most pantherinae families participated in a practice that basically replaced themselves with future generations. In Caslon and Tiff’s case, they would have to produce two offspring, one for each of them. Because Caslon’s coupling bore twins, he covered both his own and his sister’s obligations. This took enormous pressure off of Tiff, seeing as a natural pregnancy for her would go against her sexual preferences. With that quota met, both were free to pursue life without further reproductive expectations. Madeline’s cell phone rang suddenly. Reaching lazily to the bedside table, Madeline lifted her phone and brought the screen within eyesight. It was Cameron. “Hello?” “Just calling to let you know I spoke with the Elder about that fourth folder,” Cameron began, sounding a lot more awake than Madeline was. “He doesn’t want you to look into it any further. He’s aware of what it likely contains and doesn’t want the knowledge to endanger you.” “Did he tell you who’s in the folder?” she questioned. “No,” Cameron replied, “But I need you to promise me you won’t read it.” “Alright, fine,” Madeline agreed with a drawn-out sigh. She hated leaving stones unturned. “I promise I won’t poke around in that folder.” “Thanks. So am I picking you up at the same time today?” “Sure,” she responded. “It worked out really well yesterday, but I might stay longer depending on if there are any other developments. This will be my last trip. I don’t want to overstay my welcome.” “Or give him time to follow through with whatever he’s up to.” “Exactly.” ------------------------------------------------------------- Levi had spent the last couple of days gathering information on Cameron McCaffrey. Along the way, he determined there was a branch of Madeline’s family tree that was purposely incorrect, and that once bridged, did, in fact, link her to Cameron’s, which was heavily canidae. There wasn’t even so much as a trace of canidae scent to her, indicating her side was ridiculously diluted with human DNA. His research also revealed that the McCaffreys dated back a very long time, intertwining with the famed Orimura clan at one point. It explained her link to the wakizashi, but not the affinity for it. The picture was looking more complete, but there were still some critical pieces missing. Rising from the round cafe table which overlooked the city streets through a ceiling-to-floor picture window, Levi headed to the kitchenette to make some coffee. He didn’t expect his phone to ring. Puzzled as to who would be calling him directly, he was quite surprised to find it was Maseo. “Moshi, moshi,” he answered, tone reflecting the unexpectedness of the call. “I’ve got some bad news,” Maseo replied, voice sounding a bit shaken, which was very unusual. “You’ll want to have a seat.” Instead of walking back to the table by the window, Levi sat on the edge of the bed. “Go on.” “I’ve heard from a reliable source that number four has passed,” Maseo said solemnly. Levi leaned back, phone still braced against his ear, and sunk into the mattress. For a few moments, nothing was said. Maseo dared not speak another word until Levi did. “How?” “Reports are indicating murder, with the suspect being number three.” “Of course,” Levi replied as he closed his eyes, voice a pained whisper crushed by a heavy heart. “Why would he do that though? He’s already next in line. The fourth was never a threat to him.” “Your guess is as good as mine,” Maseo admitted. “I don’t claim to understand the ways of that process.” Levi took a deep breath and placed his free hand over his eyes, picturing his brother’s face in the darkness. The mysterious death of mother’s eldest son, Masataro, had been blamed on Levi. And because Levi had missing memories that corresponded to the time of death, he was unable to present a defense. The first thing he remembered was brother's blood on his hands, so he wasn't even 100% sure of his own innocence. His punishment had been exile, putting his fraternal twin next in line for leadership. For obvious reasons, no one liked his brother Matajiro, who had been treated poorly behind their mother’s back since he was born, so Mata had many reasons to detest the courtesans and high-ranking officials. Levi wondered for a moment if popular opinion was attempting to force his mother’s fourth son into a position above Mata, triggering this assassination. Still, Levi couldn’t imagine Mata being a murderer or even ordering someone else to do the deed. “Any word on the twins?” Levi finally asked. “No mention of them, so I assume they are both fine,” Maseo informed. “Look, I don’t want to butt into your business, but if I were you, I would go back and put an end to this before… well... you know.” Maseo didn’t have to name names. The same thought was on Levi’s mind as well. If Matajiro was disposing of competition, there was only one brother left. The very youngest, and still very much a child, Keigorou. “I know.” “And unfortunately, that’s not all the bad news I’ve got.” “I can’t see how anything else can be worse,” Levi tempted, “But give it to me.” “Gideon is in Japan.” ------------------------------------------------------------- The rain had passed, but there was still an undeniable chill in the air, prompting Madeline to coddle the teacup that was poured for her by Taro’s assistant, Takeshi. She was able to acquire Cameron’s folder, disappointed that there wasn’t really much to it, and all of the entries were recent as if he’d flown under their radar until meeting up with her. To be honest, she felt incredibly guilty about that, having dragged him into Taro’s focus. Her own folder had been a little more interesting at least. They had painstakingly traced her back to the McCaffrey that produced a babe with the head of the Orimura clan, whom Madeline assumed was the Elder, only they called him Kage. They also knew Madeline was able to wield his weapons, but they weren’t sure how. The katana job was ordered through Taro as a “compatibility” test. Their notes mentioned the weapons repulsed anyone not of Orimura blood with an intense burning sensation, so Madeline should not be comfortable holding either weapon, but she was. As far as why she was, it was still being researched. Confident she had all she came to see, Madeline had since settled back down on the sofa with a second cup of tea and was browsing through a general informational book regard felinae and all the different types. Some of the facts were fascinating, such as the normality of twins and triplets, both identical and otherwise, leading her to the realization that Caslon and Tiff being twins was not that extraordinary. 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. She also missed the chance to pick up on the tail-end of their previous conversation before it was pointed in her direction. “Let me introduce you to Miss Madeline McCaffrey,” Taro invited, speaking English, as both men approached. “She’s visiting from the states and is using my family’s library to familiarize herself with the unsavory nature of some of our yokai.” As the gentleman approached her, impeccably dressed in a pale gray suit that made his blue eyes even more piercing, Taro handed an unassuming manila envelope to Takeshi and dismissed him. Madeline gently set her cup down on the table in front of the sofa and rose swiftly to greet them, though her eyes were fixed on the unfamiliar, yet captivating, one. “It is a great pleasure to meet you,” the blond smiled brightly as he reached out and took her hand. His deep voice was peppered with an accent that sounded slightly British, with hints of Northern European. “My name is Gideon.” His grip was pleasant and politely firm. “Pleased to meet you,” Madeline replied, silently wondering what brought this enchanting man to the library. As he slowly released her hand, Gideon asked her if he and Taro might have a seat, one at the chair adjacent to the sofa and the other next to Madeline. Nodding, she agreed. “So what brings you here, Mr. Gideon?” the redhead asked directly. Gideon flashed another magnetizing smile. “Oh, no… Not ‘Mr. Gideon’, just Gideon, if you please,” he requested eloquently. “And business brings me here. Quite often actually. My company frequently partners with the Tetsugawa conglomerate, and I simply delight in browsing this library. The wonders never cease.” Madeline couldn’t agree more in that regard. The amount of information Taro’s family had gathered here was extraordinary. The fact that Gideon was even allowed entry must mean he knew about the world that went on below the surface, unseen to humans. She couldn’t help but wonder how this glorious man obtained permission to such a place. “You are probably asking yourself what kind of man would be allowed access to this treasure?” Gideon smiled. This took Madeline off-guard, but she certainly appreciated his straightforward inquiry, and the look on her face was all the confirmation Gideon needed. “I’m sort of hybrid vampire mixed with old magic and a large dose of alchemy.” Another old vampire. She should have guessed. “Come now Miss, don’t give us that sour face,” Gideon chuckled pleasantly. “I’m sure you know a few good vampires, right?” Madeline nodded again, his sweet laughter catching her off-guard. “I can’t say I blame you though, most vampires say the same thing - 'I’m different,' 'I don’t kill for sport,' 'I have my hunger under control,' 'I will never hurt you,' 'You can trust me'... I could go on and on. The fact is that only a vampire that comes from old blood can ever claim any of those statements to be true. Anyone less is a liar, both to themselves and to you.” Memories of Scott thought to have been extinguished, swirled like ashes in the corners of her mind, stirred up by Gideon’s words. Scott had said those things and had lied, just as Gideon described. Seeing her gaze drift off, Gideon was instantly aware of the pain behind her stormy-blue eyes. With a gesture that caught Madeline off guard, he reached out and laid his hand comfortingly upon hers. “My dear, I am heartfully sorry,” Gideon apologized, voice softened to a soothing caress within Madeline’s ears. “I didn’t realize you’d already been wronged by one of our kind. Allow me to make things right.” “It’s in the past,” Madeline attempted to brush the entire exchange off. “There’s really no need for you to be responsible for his… actions.” “Would you at least allow me to tempt your appetite?” Gideon begged adorably. “Our initial reason for coming down here was for Taro and I to chat while he delivered some paperwork to Mr. Mito before heading off to a business meeting. After which, I was to be dining alone. I would be absolutely delighted if you were to join me in his stead.” Dining? Madeline thought, arching a brow. Gideon’s smile widened with innocent gratification. “I did mention I am somewhat of a hybrid, did I not?” he smiled, pleased to have gotten such a reaction. “And I hear the view from the restaurant here is outstanding. Please say you will join me?” It was with ease that Madeline decided to accept his invitation. Smiling, the three stood. “You make me feel extremely guilty,” Taro admitted, as he escorted Madeline and Gideon from the library. “But I will host you for dinner later, my old friend.” “Think nothing of it. I have a much better lunch companion now,” Gideon teased. As they walked cheerful towards the elevator, Gideon graciously offered Madeline his arm and the pair stepped in first, Taro entering behind them. Turning his back to the couple, he pressed two buttons on the console and then turned back around as to not come off as being rude to his guests. “Again, I sincerely apologize, Gideon, for not being able to join you for lunch.” “Business is business, Taro,” the angelic gentleman with the golden hair smiled softly. “I know very much how things can get from time to time, but I will see you later, my friend.” Taro gave a respectful bow, rising just as the elevator doors opened on his floor, then he stepped out, leaving Madeline and Gideon alone in the confinement of the elevator. She expected herself to feel nervous, given the situation, but she was not. Not even in the slightest. She felt safe standing next to him but wasn’t sure why. After several failed attempts at analyzing her comfort level, she surrendered and decided to just enjoy herself. “I have only been here a handful of times, and each time the food has been astounding,” Gideon revealed. “Do they know you’re… not human?” Madeline dared ask. “That’s the beauty of it,” Gideon glowed with excitement. “They have no idea.” Madeline was on the verge of inquiring deeper into the intriguing idea of a vampire actually eating, but the elevator doors opened, interrupting their candid moment. Stretching out before them, was a cozy lobby of Brazilian cherry floors and warm, earthen-colored walls. As they approached the dining room, the scents of meats and spices toyed with Madeline’s appetite. They passed the hostess, who bowed deeply and gestured them inside. The view from the top floor of Taro’s building was spectacular, with the city unfolding outward to the mountains far off in the distance. “May we have a window seat?” Madeline asked hopefully. “I don’t see why not?” Gideon shrugged and then made the request of their waiter. Without hesitation, they were seated right at the window, and Madeline’s attention was equally divided between views of the city below and Gideon’s pleasant, animated expressions. “Order whatever you wish,” he informed her with pride. “Don’t be shy.” Nodding, Madeline accepted a menu and leaned back to inspect it. Each dish sounded lovely, but she had promised herself she’d try Kobe beef while she was in Japan, and this was by far the best opportunity to do so. As they waited for their meal to be brought to the table, Madeline sipped a Red Bordeaux while watching, with great interest, Gideon indulge himself with tea. “Stop that,” Gideon smiled sheepishly. “You’re making me blush.” Feeling a heat rush to her own cheeks at his remark, Madeline convinced herself it was the wine on an empty stomach and looked away briefly. “I’m sorry, it’s just that I didn’t realize it was possible for you to have something like tea.” “For me, yes, but not for my kind in general. Although I must say, it’s truly a shame there is such a difference between myself and those of lesser bloodlines. I would dare say that the more common of my kind truly are monsters.” “You sound as if you don’t get along well with the less fortunate,” Madeline stated bluntly. “It’s not as if I don’t get along with them, but that I am ashamed of them the way a parent would be ashamed of a troublemaking child,” Gideon explained. “They must be punished, but at the same time, they are only reacting to their instincts. It is a sad dilemma, one I’ve dedicated my life to resolve.” “Resolve? How exactly?” At that moment, the first course of their meal arrived, and as the waiter set the bowls down, Madeline again watched Gideon intensely as he brought a spoon full of clear broth to the curves of his pink lips. “Again, my dear, you are making me blush.” “Sorry,” Madeline apologized, lowering her eyes to her own soup bowl. “As I was saying, in a perfect world none of us would have to hide, and I’m not just talking about my kind but all kinds. New laws and rules laid out worldwide protecting from persecution and setting up systems of blood donation and registration that my kind would be required to follow or suffer incarceration. Multiple systems would manage all races of earth and keep everyone safe. Could you imagine it? All races could live without fear of persecution or harm. There would finally be peace.” Eyes wide, Madeline sat stunned for a few moments. Peace? What a grand dream. And as unlikely as it would be for it to come to fruition, she couldn’t deny the allure of it. The big issue was practicality. How would this plan be able to keep those wanting to do harm from doing so? “As romantic as that idea is, evil will always exist alongside free-will. Who would stop the evils of mankind? Or any other race for that matter?” Madeline asked pointedly. “Races would police their own, and if needed, assist others to do the same,” Gideon explained. “But I would never expect felinae to police my kind, or humans to police canidae, but my kind could help the felinae police other felinae that might be too much of a handful. Does that sound fair? And there would be a world council overseeing everything. But enough about that. It is still just an embarrassing dream I have.” “It’s a good dream,” Madeline agreed, reassuring him. “It would be a beautiful world to live in.” “I thank you for your support,” Gideon smiled appreciatively, his clear-blue eyes joyful. They made small-talk through much of the meal, interrupted by Gideon repeatedly asking Madeline politely not to stare at his every bite of beef and sip of tea. But she couldn’t help it. She was captivated by the handsome soul in front of her doing something she had been told was impossible for him to do. And not only that, but he ate his meal with refined grace befitting someone schooled in the highest forms of etiquette. It was actually a pleasure to watch him enjoy his meal. Gideon gently set his silverware down and stared into Madeline’s eyes. “My dear, I have informed you repeatedly that your lingering gaze gives me cause to blush,” he stated, eyes still locked on hers. “Are you purposefully aiming to elicit an amorous response from me?” As much as Gideon referred to blushing, it was only Madeline’s face that bore such a mask. “N... n… no,” Madeline stuttered uncontrollably, and then rushed through the words that followed. “That wasn’t my intention at all.” Taking a mouthful of wine for courage, she was able to continue her thoughts, only this time more emotionally stable. “Please forgive me. Until now I had thought it was impossible for your kind to eat or drink anything other than the obvious. And you are so… exactly the opposite of what I think of in my head when I think of your kind, and very different from the few I have met so far. You are just extruding warmth and life… like… like an angel.” There. She said it. No take backs. Gideon picked up his silverware once more and smiled down at his plate, color finally coming to his cheeks as he continued his meal. “That is a gracious compliment,” he spoke in a deep voice barely above a whisper. “Thank you.” Suddenly his eyes went wide, and his face grew pale, prompting Madeline to stiffen in her chair convinced his food had suddenly not settled as it should. “What is it?!” she asked urgently. “My phone!” Gideon replied, his voice on the edge of panic. “I must have left it in the library box!” At that same moment, Madeline realized she too had made that same mistake. She hadn’t gotten her phone, hadn’t contacted Cameron. She could only imagine what state of mind he was in right now wondering what was taking her so long. “Unforgivable,” Gideon murmured. “I can’t be absent from my responsibilities. An entire corporation rests on my shoulders. If I’ve missed an important call…” A shadow suddenly loomed over their table. It was Takeshi Mito. He bowed politely, presenting each of their cell phones and placing them respectively on the table. “My apologies,” Takeshi said, bowing again. “These were left secured in the deposit box, and I received an alert communicating you had both left the library without retrieving your devices. Again, my sincere apologies.” Gideon scooped up his phone and breathed a sigh of relief. “Ah good, no urgent calls or emails,” he announced. “Luck has smiled upon me.” Laughing, Madeline picked up her own phone and likewise had no emails or texts. She did manage to tap off a quick message to Cameron letting him know she was almost done, just eating lunch. His response came almost immediately and boiled down to asking Madeline to be careful and wrap things up. Gideon’s bliss did not last too much longer, however, as within a few minutes of receiving his phone, a simple and to-the-point ringtone pinged from the speaker, muffled slightly by the polish wood of the table. Picking it up, he frowned. “Unfortunately, that’s it for me,” he sighed regretfully. “I’ve got to handle this immediately. Don’t let that interrupt the end of your meal though, my dear. I would be heartbroken if I caused you to miss out on finishing that delicious beef.” “I’ll finish it, I promise,” Madeline smiled pleasantly. “Don’t worry.” “It was such a pleasure. May we meet again soon.” With an elegant bow, Gideon gave a warm smile and turned to leave, bringing his cell phone up to his ear as he walked away from their table and out of the restaurant. Madeline finished her main course just as she planned, but the closer she was to the end of her cut of beef, the more anxious she was beginning to feel. Purposefully, she swallowed another large gulp of red wine hoping the alcohol would relax her nerves, but it wasn’t working at all. Her outward appearance indicated nothing was amiss, but internally she was struggling to find the reason for her increasing discomfort. Then suddenly she realized what it was. Looking to her right, she saw the wide expanse of the city far below her. Nothing but a plate of glass separated her from a height of twenty stories. Devouring the rest of her meal, she signaled the waiter who informed her, as she expected, that Gideon had covered the bill and she was encouraged to have a good evening and to please come again. Rising from her chair, she was confused as to how she sat there for so long and remembered even asking Gideon if they could have a window seat. Was his charm that distracting? Was it something more? Something to do with him being a vampire? Madeline dismissed the thought. He’d done nothing suspicious whatsoever. Didn’t ask for any favors, or even invite her out for another meeting. The whole affair was nothing but pleasant. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps she had just enjoyed his company that much. Gathering her things, she slipped her phone into her purse and exited the restaurant, heading to meet Cameron down below. ------------------------------------------------------------- “Things appear to have gone well?” Taro inquired as he and Gideon watched Madeline exit the building and head across the street. “Exceedingly,” Gideon replied, his crystal blue eyes scrutinizing the monitor. His charm, which he used to his advantage daily, was not lost on Madeline. “It is an honor to assist with Miss Madeline,” Taro said. “We have extended a guiding hand, offering her information as you suggested.” There was no lip-service in his comment. No insincere flattery. Gideon was at the forefront of modernizing the survival of vampires everywhere. It was his long-term goal to move his allies into planetary leadership roles. To indirectly rule over humankind, therefore ensuring that none of his kind would ever fall victim to humanity again. Already, there were many allies controlling world governments from behind the scenes, with laws already being set into motion to protect his kind by taking certain rights away from others. Gideon was known for his patience, his long game, but recent information pointed to a way to fast-track his plans, and he was not about to let that slip by. “Yes, guiding her is the key. Providing her with incentive. She is the type of woman that struggles tirelessly against a leash but doesn’t mind a delicate ankle chain as long as it flatters her. She loves the convenience of freedom, but deep down wants to be guarded by someone she knows has the power to protect her. I will pay her a visit this evening. See if I can get the ball rolling so-to-speak.” ------------------------------------------------------------- Listening in on half the conversation Cameron was having with the Elder over the phone was frustrating. As soon as she’d told Cam who she had lunch with, the canidae blew up, pacing her hotel room in disbelief and chastising her for not contacting him immediately, despite the fact that Madeline had no idea who Gideon was. She argued with him, quite heatedly, that she couldn’t have possibly been at fault and that she was never in any danger. It was at that point Cameron made the call to get orders from the Elder. “Yes, I will tell her,” Cameron confirmed respectfully. “Under no circumstances. Got it.” Ending the call, he ran his hand through his spiky amber hair and slipped his phone into his pocket. “Under no circumstances are you to go back to that building,” Cameron ordered. “Gideon is ridiculously dangerous.” “Are you sure we’re talking about the same person?” “I’m positive. Why do I get the feeling you don’t believe me?” Madeline gave a sarcastic shrug. Gideon was the utmost gentleman. Goodness just emulated from him. Clearly, Cameron and the Elder had this wrong. “Give me an example of something horrible he’s done,” Madeline asked. “How about we start with the biggest one then,” Cameron retorted, raising his voice. “He tested out some theories on how much humans would put up with the internment of other humans during World War II. He was able to push it really far, obviously, since people ended up getting gassed at the cumulation of it all.” “You’re saying Gideon is Hitler?” Madeline questioned in disbelief. “No, I am saying he influenced the Third Reich,” Cameron explained. “He is working toward a world where he and his allies are in charge, and the rest of can either enjoy the life they give us, be punished for refusing.” “He told me about his plan,” she revealed. “The way he explained it, it would bring peace to everyone. No race would have to suffer at the hands of another unless they didn’t follow the rules. It seemed like a small price to pay for peace.” “Are you crazy?” Cameron replied loudly. “I can’t believe you’re even considering his point of view! Would you believe what I am saying if it came out of Levi’s mouth instead?” Madeline froze. “That’s what I thought.” He pulled a chair to the edge of the bed were Madeline sat. “Listen, it’s okay if you’re suspicious of what I’m telling you. I just need you to promise me you won’t go back to Taro’s building anymore, and you won’t have any more contact with Gideon, okay? At least until I can get you more information on him. Something that will allow you to form your own opinion. Promise?” “Fine.” “Okay,” Cameron smiled. “And I need to head out to a pack meeting, so just hang out here and order room service or something if you’re hungry. I just think that after today you need to lay low.” “Sure.” Cameron’s smile faded. She was being sassy, but at least it appeared she would follow his instructions, she just didn’t like them. “Lock the door behind me?” Dragging herself out of bed and stomping her feet in protest, Madeline followed Cameron to the door, and after closing it, slid the bar lock into place. Retrieving her handheld game console from her locked suitcase, she climbed back into bed and played for a few hours until she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer. She was never aware that around 2 a.m. someone had unlocked her hotel room door with a spare key. Nor did she hear them use the Do Not Disturb hanger to expertly push the U bar away from the bar lock. The door quietly opened, and a man carrying a saddleback briefcase was momentarily silhouetted by the light from the outside hall before the door shut and the room was drowned in darkness once more. He approached the bed upon which Madeline slept, then carefully set his briefcase down on the small table in the corner. Slipping his hand into his coat pocket, he removed a tiny glass bottle capped with an eye-drop stopper and leaned over the sleeping redhead. With a satisfied smile, he twisted the cap off, bringing the dropper close to Madeline’s lips. With a cautious squeeze of the rubber, Gideon let fall a single drop of liquid onto her lower lip, watching with interest as it caused a glistening reflection. Sensing the moisture, the sleeping Madeline instinctively licked her lips, unknowingly letting herself be sedated. It took only a few minutes before she was in too deep of a sleep to be woken by conventional means. “There, there, my dear,” Gideon purred, stroking her cheek. “Such intriguing genetics you have. Time to unravel your story.” Slipping out of his coat, he folded it over the back of the chair near the table and rolled up the sleeves of his white dress shirt. Flipping on the nightstand light as well as the one at the table, he unlocked his briefcase and removed a notebook computer along with a gem-cutter’s eyeglass, some unidentified vials, and small picks. Stepping back to the nightstand where Madeline’s phone lay charging, he disconnected it from the cable. From observing her at the restaurant, he was aware she had both a fingerprint and a code security step implemented. He removed the SIM card from her phone and slid it into a card reader plugged into his laptop began to copy Madeline’s card. After the card was copied, Gideon briefly carried his laptop to the sleeping redhead and scanned her fingerprint into the reader. He now had all he needed to set her phone up for MiTM control of her communications. Satisfied, he returned the SIM card to Madeline’s phone. Leaning back over Madeline, he gently lifted her head and brushed her hair to the top of the pillow with his free hand. At long last, he would now be able to examine her necklace. He first verified that there was no clasp by running his slender fingers entirely around the chain. From Scott’s description, and the accounts of the fae sent to steal it, the fastener must only respond to Madeline, and disappear otherwise. Gideon deduced this was one of the protection measures embedded into the piece of jewelry. The other known protection was the visual camouflage it took on once skin contact with Madeline was completely broken. Gideon wasn’t sure if at that point the necklace was detectable by touch or not, and he wasn’t at liberty to test that particular characteristic, but it was unimportant. What was important was the characteristics of the opal. Reaching back into the briefcase, he carefully removed a white cloth. Unfolding it revealed it was painted with an arcane, alchemical pattern that Gideon had meticulously prepared weeks ago using an enormous amount of precious resources. Painstakingly created, it would allow him to detect any spells and layers in objects much like an MRI detect anomalies in the body. It was his first time using such a tool, and he didn’t come up with the technique entirely on his own. He lifted the opal pendant from Madeline’s skin and placed the cloth under it so that setting the opal back down caused it to rest in the center of the intricate pattern. Then carefully, anxiously, he took a delicate vial out of a foam-cushioned box and brought it to the cloth. The vial contained what was barely a drop of magic-infused fae blood. It had taken weeks of planning to procure this one perfect drop, and Gideon hoped it paid off. With precise control, Gideon let the single drop fall onto the face of the opal and then run slowly down through the pendant’s filigree setting and onto the cloth below, soaking into the pattern. Within moments, the pattern burned away from the linen like a lit fuse, its glowing red symbols and equations rising up through the pendant, stopping to hover a few inches from the opal. The pattern rotated on its many axes until it came to resemble a celestial star map. Grabbing his eyeglass, Gideon wasted no time analyzing the structure of the spells. As he surmised, there were multiple spells intertwined with the necklace and the chain, in such a way that to remove any one of them would cause the others to fail, collapsing the entire structure and rendering the piece useless. Grabbing his notebook, Gideon began to jot the four spells down. They were mostly in an ancient script that only fae aristocrats would use. He deciphered the top layer as the protective element, used to keep the necklace unusable to anyone but Madeline. The next layer was surprisingly a reversal spell, which Gideon wasn’t expecting, yet still found intriguing, because it meant the two spells beneath it were actually producing the opposite effect than what was originally intended when the necklace was initially enchanted. This led him to believe that Madeline wasn’t the intended wearer, but that the necklace had been so troublesome, and perhaps even taboo, to make, it was more practical to build upon it rather than disposing of it. It became apparent by examining the next level that the language used was not something he could easily translate. The language was too unfamiliar. Something about allowing entry. The final layer was even more ambiguous, with the only word he was able to make out was the ancient symbol for fae. Leaning back in the nearby chair, he went over his notes, making sure he had documented the language of the spells exactly so he could translate them later. Back to investigating the stone once more, Gideon took a careful look at the composition. There was one vital element he was looking for, one that would make this the necklace, and it was so well hidden that one would only see it if they were looking specifically for it. “Ah,” he sighed out loud, a wide grin indicating he was extremely pleased with his discovery. The presence of bone within the opal confirmed the story he was told about the necklace. He was intimate with the sister of its creator, who provided the information in exchange for an alliance. She told Gideon the story of how her brother enlisted her help with the removal of one of his ribs. Knowing body parts were only required for forgotten, forbidden spells, she warned her brother of this but was told to mind her own business. She helped him with the painful surgical procedure and had kept her mouth shut afterward, never quite sure what had become of it. Sometime later, her brother gave a necklace to a girl as a gift. The only reason she remembered the event was of how odd it was for a fae of the court to give commoner fae anything, let alone a beautiful jewel. What made it even more suspicious was how often the same fae girl came and went from the Veil. Gideon’s confidant had been searching for the necklace’s whereabouts for a very, very long time, finally coming across it a mere three years ago around the neck of a human girl. Double-checking that his transcripts were accurate, Gideon noticed something peculiar happening to one of the axes. The sister’s pure fae blood he’d dropped onto the opal had begun to shift the Northern axis of the protection spell. Never one to let a discovery go undocumented, Gideon patiently watched, taking notes as the thin red glow of the point fizzled just enough that there was now the most minuscule of gaps. A single spark then dropped down a level and brightening a few of the symbols in the reversal spell before fading out and doing no further harm. Gideon recorded that in his notebook too, describing the symbols that were affected. Then on a hunch, he traced the silver chain once more with his long fingers. And felt a clasp. The slip of the axis must have triggered a fault in the protection spell, but did it have any affect on the reversal spell? He studied Madeline intently, silently staring at the symbols mapped out above her sleeping body, and watching the rise and fall of her breasts with every breath. After about twenty minutes, it happened. There was an incredibly faint shimmer of fae magic that rolled like an ocean wave over her body before disappearing at the tips of her limbs. Gideon smiled widely and wickedly, and for the first time in a great while he was in a hurry to decipher this puzzle. Quietly gathering up his equipment and removing the now unmarked linen from her chest, he turned off the lights and exited the room with no one the wiser.
  7. Chapter Seventeen More Today was the day. Raindrops chaotically assaulted the windshield of Cameron’s car before being periodically wiped away by the rhythmic sweeps of the wiper blades. But even the blades’ orderly march lagged behind the beat of the pop music playing faintly from the radio. “For the record, this is a very shitty idea,” Cameron grimaced, as he and Madeline sat in his Mazda, parked in a metered space across the street from Taro’s building. “I doubt I could go in and get you even if I had to.” “What makes you think you couldn’t?” Madeline questioned, watching the heavy rain continue its onslaught against the passenger side window. “It’s a public building, for the most part anyway.” The swollen clouds had rolled in last night just as Cameron began escorting her around the city in a very well-thought-out plan to take her mind off Levi for good. After taking her out for an extravagant dinner, he effectively pointed out every good looking man who took more than a casual notice of her, hoping she’d realize that compared to what she might have thought in the past, she had a tremendous amount of options in front of her. He then insisted they visit a host club in Shinjuku, where a friend’s little brother worked. Even though the “little brother” was about Madeline’s age, he acted much younger, lavishing attention on the redhead as if he was a smitten schoolboy. She couldn’t deny he was cute, and he absolutely took her mind off her troubles for the few hours she spent in his company, but leaving the club spawned thoughts of Levi as if the incoming rainstorm itself carried them to her. Cameron glared out through the storm, eyeing the entrance of the Tetsugawa building. “Well, the doorman is one of those vampire-made lupine monstrosities. I can smell him,” Cameron elaborated. “Even in this rain?” “I’ll pretend I didn’t just hear you insult me,” Cameron grumbled. Obviously, Madeline hadn’t been around any canidae long enough to know how acute their sense of smell was. Of course, felinae senses were sharp too, but canidae like Cameron seemed to have olfactory systems second to none. He decided not to ride her too hard about it, however. He had more important matters to discuss with Madeline before she left the comfort and safety of his automobile for the danger and uncertainty of Taro’s property. “By the way,” he began, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible, ”When you went to Aokigahara, did anything bizarre happen? And I want the truth.” Madeline fell silent as she gathered up her thoughts, trying to figure out what would be the less damaging way to say what needed to be said. It was essential to choose her words very carefully, avoiding all possibility that her tongue might give Cameron cause to pull the plug on her independent investigation into Taro’s library. “Yes, but it was just a strong feeling of foreboding,” she began. “Anxiousness.” “Anything else? I need all the details.” “Why?” she asked, turning to look at Cameron directly. “To be perfectly honest, I’m nervous about telling you because I don’t want to pass up this chance to get inside that library. Will you give you your word that no matter what I say, you won’t let it affect me going inside?” “Is it something Taro did to you while you were there?” “No,” Madeline answered, shaking her head. “It would have been impossible even for him.” “Okay then, explain,” Cameron said removing his hand from the steering wheel and crossing his arms. “I felt really nauseous while I was in that forest,” she described. “Like I could feel all the pain and sorrow that people left there. I was finding it increasingly harder to breathe to the point it felt like a physical force on my body. It got worse the further away I got from the car. Then when I got close to the grave marker, a kubikajiri showed up.” Turning his gaze from Taro’s building, he focused on Madeline’s face. “You saw a kubikajiri?” Cameron asked bluntly. “N..not exactly,” Madeline stammered. “Something was talking directly into my mind, telling me I was unclear, and getting pretty mad about it. It was trying to draw me away from my task. That’s when Taro appeared. He grabbed my arm, stopping me from being tricked into following it. He was the one that told me it was a kubikajiri.” “Head eater of the living and the dead?” Cameron quizzed, making sure Madeline knew what a kubikajiri was. “Yes, that’s how Taro described it too,” Madeline confirmed. “That’s also why he invited me to the library to study up on local yokai. He said I should be aware of such things for my own safety. I’m sure that’s not his only motive, but I am also confident he couldn’t be behind the overwhelming sickness I felt in that forest. That was something else entirely. Do you know what it could have been?” “To be perfectly honest with you, no. I have no idea what could have caused that,” Cameron replied, both puzzled by the mystery and disturbed by the toll it had taken on Madeline. “But Taro did stop you from wandering off after the kubikajiri, which says something at least.” “I know he’s up to something, and I shouldn’t trust him, but this is a rare opportunity for information.” Seeing as Madeline was shifting in her seat, Cameron assumed she was going to get out of the car shortly and head across the street. Reaching out, he lightly gripped the sleeve of Madeline’s coat, causing her to pause. “How long are you going to be in there? We need at least a loose plan.” Looking down at her watch, Madeline mentally calculated how long it might take being escorted to the library, and any niceties she would have to act out with Taro if he was going to be present. “It’s a little after 11 a.m. now,” she stated, “So assuming I use the excuse that I have a late lunch date, how about I aim to be out around 2 p.m.?” Cameron pulled his hand back from her black coat. “That will be fine,” he agreed. “Just please be careful. I figure your asshole cat friend taught you at least how to handle yourself around vampires? Since that’s the biggest danger to you, being human and all.” Opening the car door, Madeline poked her umbrella out first and popped it open before stepping out. Looking over her shoulder, her blue eyes conveyed a look of courage to Cameron, hoping to put his mind at ease. “I’ll be around, okay?” he said to her. “I’ll call you if I’m able, and you can track me,” Madeline reassured. “I’ll be fine.” “You better be.” After giving Cameron a kind smile, Madeline closed the passenger side door and stepped away from his vehicle, briskly making her way to the crosswalk and then across the street to Taro’s building. Looking up through the rain that dotted her clear vinyl umbrella, she counted roughly twenty stories. From her research on the structure, it not only housed the corporation’s headquarters, but also three acclaimed restaurants, a day spa, meeting space, and even a nightclub right below the ground floor. The spa, nightclub, and restaurants were all public spaces requiring no security access, but everything else was reportedly locked down tight. The meeting rooms could be rented out, but required badges to access, and of course, the corporate offices were off limits to anyone unauthorized. As she approached the main entrance, she found herself under a generous awning, giving her the time to carefully collapse her umbrella, tapping its crown on the concrete to rid the vinyl of droplets. Satisfied she’d gotten as much of the rain off as possible, Madeline approached the doorman, who graciously held the door open for her and politely demanded her umbrella. This was actually expected in Japan, so she handed her umbrella over without much thought, giving an appreciative smile to the door-wolf. The lobby had pristine white tile floors, though large area rugs woven with spiral patterns of warm browns and reds were laid beneath the handful of seating areas and in front of the concierge desk. The walls were painted a neutral gray, but sections of it were visually broken up with black, white, and gray splashes of glass tile. The furniture was elegant and black, giving a professional look. Madeline worked the buttons on the front of her coat as she stepped confidently to the concierge who had acknowledged her with a pleasant smile the moment she walked through the glass doors, the epitome of customer service. His hair was styled in a very typical business pompadour, and he wore a dark gray, three-piece suit. Greeting Madeline as she approached, the concierge bowed his head politely. “How may I help you?” he asked in English. “Mr. Taro Tetsugawa has invited me to his library,” she answered with a matching smile. Madeline was hoping to see something flicker in this man’s eyes when she mentioned Taro’s name, some clue as to how his employees regarded him, but there wasn’t even the slightest change in the man’s expression. “Of course. One moment please, Miss,” he replied smiling cheerfully as he picked up the internal phone, pressing a single button. “Mr. Tetsugawa’s guest has arrived.” Still no ripple in his mask, the concierge hung up the phone. “A gentleman will meet you momentarily.” “Thank you.” Before she was even given the opportunity to take a seat, the elevator to the right of the concierge desk opened, and out stepped a familiar face. It wasn’t Taro, but the man that removed Scott’s body the night she was attacked in her apartment. He was also the same man at the club she and Levi scouted earlier that same evening. Dressed much like the concierge, only in an unmistakably more expensive suit, he gestured toward Madeline indicating she was to join him in the elevator. “Mr. Tetsugawa is pleased you have accepted his offer, and humbly apologizes for not being able to accompany you to the library personally. He hopes you will forgive him and accept me in his place,” the man spoke in English. “My name is Takeshi Mito, and it is an honor to meet you.” “Likewise,” Madeline replied. “Thanks for opening up your library to me. I’m sure Mr. Tetsugawa is an extremely busy man, and I truly appreciate this invitation.” As the elevator doors closed, Madeline took note of the panel of buttons. The floors were numbered, as expected, with labeled descriptions of the three restaurants. Two were on the lower floors, but the third was on the top floor, likely to offer a rooftop view of the city. The spa was on the twelfth floor, and the nightclub was below the lobby level, underground, but didn’t have a floor number. The button Takeshi pressed was actually below the nightclub, requiring a fingerprint scan as well as a magnetic key card. Waiting for the elevator to descend below ground, Madeline wondered if there were any accessible emergency exits from the library. By law there should be, but who knows how far Taro was able to twist building code to meet his own needs. The doors opened, revealing two security guards, one on each side of the elevator. Madeline couldn’t tell if they were armed, but it would be highly unlikely for them not to be. If she had to guess, they probably weren’t human either. “The library contains important information,” Takeshi said, feeling the need to explain the enforcement. “A great deal of this information is known to others, but there is no place in the world you will find it collectively presented.” “Thus the location,” Madeline reinstated. “Yes. Access is controlled solely by Mr. Tetsugawa, and protected by extensive security measures.” Leading her past the guards, Takeshi directed her down a short, sanitized hallway to a solid white door she assumed led to the library. To the right of the door, on the wall, was a security panel with a keyboard, optical scanner, and what appeared to be a shallow drawer. Takeshi stepped up to the monitor and spoke his full name in Japanese. A female-modeled computerized voice confirmed his voice print and then asked him to present his right eye to the scanner. He did so, and Madeline watched as his eye was scanned as a secondary confirmation step. He was then asked to place his hand through an opening inside the contraption, one that Madeline hadn’t noticed until now. After a moment, the screen displayed a confirmation of DNA and fingerprints then asked him to deposit his cell phone into the drawer, which he did before closing it much like a post office drop box. “Requesting guest access,” he said speaking clearly towards the security device. Guest is required to stand on the platform. Takeshi stepped back and gestured to the slightly discolored square on the floor. It was some sort of panel that Madeline assumed was to make a note of her weight. Stepping onto the plate, she found herself right in front of the intimidating machine. Guest, please state your first name. “Madeline.” Confirmed. Madeline, please look forward for optical mapping. Fuck. Mapped and fingerprinted? she thought, not expecting this. “Override code 583,” came Takeshi’s voice from over her shoulder. “Thank you,” Madeline whispered to Takeshi with genuine sincerity. Confirmed. Madeline, please place any electronic devices into the drop box. “I give you my word we will not attempt to access it,” Takeshi assured. “Your device will be stored right here until you leave the library.” Begrudgingly, Madeline took her cell phone out of her purse and placed it in the padded drawer of the drop box, closing it. Confirmed. Guest, please remain still for five seconds. 4… 3… 2… 1… Confirmed. Access to the library granted on condition of escort by Takeshi Mito. As the female electronic voice went silent, Madeline could hear an audible click as the mechanism securing the door to the library unlocked. Holding her breath, she followed Takeshi inside. Upon entering the room, which was about twenty feet wide with eight-foot ceilings, the first thing Madeline noted was that it was designed to accommodate both a leisurely reader and a scholar. There were a handful of rather cozy looking sofas and chairs, as well as work tables and desks. The floors were hardwood, and the walls a richly designed red and brown fabric adorned with what appeared to be very faint kanji. So faint, in fact, that even squinting Madeline strained to make anything out, and was convinced the kanji changed as she read it. Most peculiar. At the far side of the room were three long hallways. “The library is divided up into sections for ease of navigation,” Takeshi explained as he led his guest deeper into the chamber. “The left aisle contains general information about yokai and other creatures, in a reference format. The center aisle is where records of significant places and events are kept. The right aisle is where you will find files regarding specific individuals and entities. We have a card catalog in the file system to your left to make finding information easier, organized by kanji of course.” “Amazing,” Madeline responded in awesome. She was genuinely impressed that they had such a manual system in place for such important historical accounts. “I assume you have all of this digitally backed up somewhere as well? Just in case of a natural disaster or something?” “We have many safeguards other than what you see here,” Takeshi confirmed. “However, we appreciate the traditional way of doing things when it comes to information and study.” “Of course,” Madeline smiled. “Although there are some records that I must require you handle with gloves,” he continued. “If you come across any of those, they will be clearly marked. Now please, make yourself at home, and I will prepare some tea.” Madeline set her purse down on the nearest sofa and slipped out of her coat before walking over to the card catalog, while Takeshi headed in the opposite direction, rounding an immaculate counter area to prepare the hot tea. Familiar with how card catalogs worked from her public education, she noted right away that pursuing her information from this angle was going to be difficult, without assistance from Takeshi, so she decided to try her luck browsing the sections on yokai instead. Starting simple with her most recent discovery in mind, the kubikajiri, Madeline went down the far left aisle, gaze brushing over the many spines protectively displayed behind glass-paneled cabinets. The order of the books, for the most part, began with the common Japanese vowel sounds. Then, as expected, they went in the order of ka, ki, ku, ke, and ko sounds of hiragana. Surprisingly, some of these books were dedicated solely to a single type of yokai. Madeline withdrew a thick book on kappa, and as she carefully thumbed through the pages, she found the history and details staggering. The book was more of a journal listing, containing information on which of the water-head-filled kappa had dealings with whom in the Tetsugawa clan and other clans. And there were a significant number of blank pages to add more to the list. At the end of the k section, there was another hefty book which was more of an encyclopedia. Exactly what Madeline was looking for. Removing it from behind the glass door, she carried it back to the sofa and sat down next to her purse. Crossing her legs, she leaned back and cracked it open. Despite a bit of a struggle remembering some of the characters at first, she was pleased to find the majority was in hiragana, so she was able to make perfect sense of most of it. There were a lot of yokai just in this single volume. She’d heard about some through books, video games, and movies. Like the kappa and their love of cucumbers, the beautiful and mysterious kirin, and the tricky kitsune; so she began to read about them first to see how her expectations matched Tetsugawa accounts. For instance, the book revealed that kappa are not the goofy water spirits she had figured they were. Aside from their love of cucumbers, their second choice of food tended to be young children. Methods were mentioned on befriending kappa, who were highly knowledgeable in medicines and irrigation, which was of vital importance centuries ago. There was also information on how to successfully avoid them since apparently one of their hobbies were drowning people. Looking up from her book, Madeline reached for the teacup Takeshi had set down while she was browsing the aisles, inhaling the aroma with calculated scrutiny. One thing Levi had insisted on training her on was detecting oddities in food and drink, and although a majority would be nearly undetectable by human senses, she learned as much as she could. This tea was a simple green variety, nothing peculiar at first inspection. Taking barely a sip, she let the air mingle with the infused hot water unable to distinguish anything that would have made her suspicious. So between sips of tea and glances at Takeshi who had taken a seat at one of the desks and appeared to be making some file entries, Madeline flipped through the pages to get to the kirin. She expected to see drawings of what she was familiar with - a unicorn looking creature. What she found were drawings of many chimerical beasts. Their heads all seemed very dragonesque, but the horns weren’t uniform in any way. Some had a single large horn with multiple prongs coming up from the back of the head, while others had two horns, as would be traditionally seen in deer. Some had feathers, some fur, and some scales. All appeared to have hooves, however. The notations indicated that kirin were divine creatures, able to determine the good from the evil and to pass judgment. They appeared only for benevolent leaders, however large or small. She was just as surprised to read about kitsune. They were tricksters yes, and looked exactly as she expected, but also had the potential to be divine creatures. Intelligent, magical creatures, kitsune were capable of astounding benevolence, or unspeakable evils, with the number of tails signifying power or age, or both. The danger with them, the book pointed out, was that you couldn’t tell which were good, and which were evil. The evil ones, or nogitsune, were just that clever. In short, the book divulged that although the benevolent ones provide eternal loyalty once befriended, the risk of having a nogitsune in your midst instead was just too great of a danger. Then she read about some of the lesser-known yokai, and a few of them sounded so ridiculous that she would not have believed a word had it not been for the fact she was in Taro’s library. There were toilet peeping-tom spirits and umbrella yokai. There were even monsters that resembled paper scrolls, and a giant flaming cat who liked to steal the corpses of evil people. And of course, there was the kubikajiri. The book said it was a ghost-type yokai, and mentioned that to see one usually meant death. She never actually saw it on the mountain, didn’t even smell the scent of fresh blood that was supposed to accompany it. Perhaps it had something to do with the cryptic accusations the kubikajiri made? She wasn’t honestly sure, but she wasn’t about to share that information with anyone she didn’t trust. Reaching into her purse to instinctively check the time on her phone, she stopped abruptly remembering she had relinquished it at the door. The walls of the library were barren of clocks as well. However, there happened to be a springs-and-gears clock sitting on the desk where Takeshi was working. From a distance, it looked to be ten-minutes-to-one. Closing her book carefully, she rose from the sofa and walked past Takeshi to the aisle she’d borrowed it from. After placing it back on the shelf and order she retrieved it from, she headed down the far right aisle, where records tied to specific individuals were organized in file folders. She was aware Taro expected her to look up information on Levi, so she didn’t feel like she was giving too much away by doing so. However, she needed to be cautious with any other choices. She wasn’t about to grab anything with Orimura in the name but needed to confirm whether or not the Tetsugawa clan actually possessed that intel. Starting on her path down the row, she drifted her gaze casually over the shelf that would contain them. She counted four Orimura-labeled folders. Four. One of the only three was exactly how Cameron had described the Elder. There was no mistaking it. So why would there be four? Purposely moving on as to not draw attention to the perplexing number of folders, Madeline searched for her own last name next. Surprisingly, there were two folders. One was marked with only her last name, and as she slid it away from the folders that flanked it, Madeline assessed it was a general collection of McCaffrey's. The first names were unfamiliar to her and contained basic information about residences, careers, and the dates they were observed by the clan. The vast majority of those listed had records that ended with words like “irrelevant” and “insignificant.” But then she discovered an entry referring to Cameron. It referenced a separate folder that wasn't found on the shelf, which was both odd and unnerving. She struggled with the idea of looking into her own folder but convinced herself to wait until she could be sure that the information she’d already found was verifiable. Continuing on, she decided to look for another familiar last name and grabbed a folder labeled “Desjardins.” Opening it on the spot, Madeline read the names of assumed family members, as well as “Caslon” and “Tiffany.” There wasn’t too much information, but surprisingly Caslon’s record noted he fulfilled his mating duties with Karima Bassir of Morocco at the age of eighteen, producing twins. Madeline’s eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. Caslon’s a father?! You have GOT to be shitting me! Shaking the disbelief from her head, Madeline slipped the folder back into the same place she’d found it. Enough of that. She was here for one reason, and she only had an hour left. Searching for Fukushima, Madeline found a single folder inscribed with the characters. Upon opening it, she noticed one of the pictures matched the host who had been flirting with her last night, though the name was different. The fact he was apparently working under an alias didn’t surprise Madeline since he was employed at a host club after all. Aoi Fukushima was his older sister, which the clan’s research had noted was a “high-quality canidae specimen” from a “long-standing canidae line”. It went on to mention, in the description of her younger brother, that he was an “unfortunate exception” to the lineage, which likely led to his career as a host. That ought to do it for what Cameron wanted to confirm, Madeline thought, placing the Fukushima folder away. Proceeding a little further down the aisle, she found the folder labeled “Leviticus.” It had been so long since she’d spoken with or seen him. After spending a couple of years with him, his departure blindsided her, but as she considered what the history this folder might reveal, she realized she had no idea what to expect. He never talked about his past. Never talked about his family. She convinced herself it was okay to appease her curiosity when Taro first invited her here, but now that she was about to delve into Levi's story, she felt guilty for doing so. Still. Carefully sliding the folder away from the rest, she realized it was much thicker than Caslon and Tiff’s. Holding it in such a way as to be sure not to spill the contents onto the wood floor, she carried it back to the sofa where she had laid her purse and coat. “Would you care for more tea?” Takeshi asked with an empty smile, noting what was in her hand. “No, but I appreciate the offer,” she replied with an equally unreadable smile of her own. Sitting, Madeline lightly touched the upper edge of the cover with her fingertips and opened to the first sheet. This was it, no turning back now. The account began by first stating the fact that the earliest documentation was purchased from an outside source and not firsthand information provided by an official clan member. Following the disclaimer, it provided an actual storage location and box number for the original documentation which a clan member had scribed ages ago. After a detailed description of his appearance, the Tetsugawa clan explained how they assumed Leviticus was actually a bastet, a term Madeline wasn’t familiar with, rather than a felinae. They surmised that he adopted the name “Leviticus” sometime during the Roman rule of Egypt, which at the time would have made it part of the Byzantine Empire, ascertaining that his Asian looks could be easily attributed to the bastet’s cat-shaped eyes, apparent when they take human form. At least I’m in a library, so looking up what a “bastet” is should be easy, Madeline thought to herself as she moved on to the next page. The next sheet was titled “Local Lore,” with unverifiable stories passed down verbally. But whether they were accurate or not, the reputation they painted was grim. Extortion, kidnapping, burglary, and womanizing were among the list, with assassination leading the pack. The first clan verifiable account was in the 1300s. A European merchant looking to expand his unsavory business to Cairo hired Leviticus with the intention of scaring an Arabian competitor out of town. The merchant suggested killing one of the man’s many wives as a warning until the Arab agreed to the European’s terms. However, Leviticus choose the quickest path to his client’s goal - murdering all of the Arab’s wives and children in a single moonless night. All of them. Madeline blinked a few times as if refreshing her vision would paint a different set of hiragana on the paper. This can’t be true, she thought to herself, feeling suddenly light-headed and unable to draw breath. And what followed was no better. There was an entry where a client had refused to pay for Leviticus’ kidnapping services, so rather than return the victim to her fiance, Leviticus ended her life, sending a bloody hand wrapped in silk to the groom along with the client’s name and the location of the rest of the body. And there were dozens upon dozens of similar stories that carried well into the years the Black Death ravaged the city. But by the time the Ottoman Empire controlled Cairo, Leviticus’ cruelty declined significantly. There was still the occasional assassination, but nothing dramatic, and no innocents. His focus turned to extortion and theft, but again, no innocents. The Tetsugawa clan hypothesized that because European and Turkish officers controlled the city during this period, Leviticus wasn’t able to be so free with his binges, fearful of being caught and persecuted. 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? Her instincts and her logical mind both slammed back at her with a resounding “No.” Not at any point the entire time she’d been at his side had she ever felt unsafe or that he was being underhanded. And while she understood that hundreds of years had passed, and people change over time, she couldn’t imagine Levi in the shoes of such a demon. Madeline closed her eyes and inhaled slowly, letting the aroma of the cold tea in the bottom of her cup mix with the volumes of aged paper unfurrow her troubled brow, but all she could see in the darkness was his Levi’s face staring back at her. Was it possible she’d been wrong about him? She didn’t want to believe it, but signs existed. Like the terror in the eyes of the felinae twins at the Halloween party, and Scott’s remarks about Levi being a monster. Even Cameron’s hatred of him. Could his mischievous green eyes, the same eyes that looked upon her with such playfulness, be the same eyes that could look upon a pleading child and give no mercy? Did a bastet have the power to make ordinary humans believe the lies they were told? Could they charm suspicions away? Without reading through the rest of the sheets, Madeline closed the folder in front of her, managing to successfully hide how deeply the information disturbed her. She had to go. Rattled, she didn’t want to give Takeshi, or whoever was undoubtedly monitoring her via CCTV, the privilege of watching her fall apart. Extruding only a calm presence, she returned to the aisle, sliding Levi’s folder back into place. But before heading back to the sofa where her purse and coat rested, she once again stepped down the first aisle, looking for a book on bastet. It was a bit tricky to find because of the name being in katakana, and the fact Madeline was internally crumbling wasn’t helping. After a minute of looking, she found the volume that contained the information she was looking for. Bastet were supernals that derived their name from the goddess Bast, originating from the Egyptian continent long ago. There had only been a handful of them, having either already died off, or entrenched themselves so deep into humanity as to never be found. Skimming through the details, Madeline learned they were beautiful, charming, and fed mainly on idol-worship. There was nothing regarding being able to bewitch their followers into blind admiration, but there wasn’t anything that said they couldn’t either. The possibility was there. Closing the book carefully, Madeline placed it back on the shelf and walked back to the sofa to retrieve her purse and coat. Approaching Takeshi’s desk, she glanced over at the files he'd been updating. Directly underneath the one he currently had open was a folder labeled “McCaffrey, Cameron.” Madeline paused for a moment as Takeshi looked up from his work, not making the slightest effort to hide the name on the folder. What was he going to add to Cameron’s folder? Where they aware Cameron had been with her since she came to Japan? “Please express my sincere thanks to Mr. Tetsugawa for the use of his library,” she said clearly, not allowing her shock to affect her tone whatsoever. “But I have a lunch appointment soon, and I don’t want to be late.” Setting his pen down on the desk, Takeshi gave another empty, unreadable smile, leaving the documents open as he rose from his chair. Extending a hand in a gesture that indicated Madeline should step towards the door, he followed her. Exiting, he once again provided his security clearance and had her stand on the floor panel before allowing her to retrieve her cell phone. He then escorted her up the elevator and out into the lobby. “May I stop by again?” she asked, feeling the last vestige of her composure start to waver. “Of course,” Takeshi replied. “Mr. Tetsugawa indicated you are welcome to use the library at any time.” “Thank you. I will try to stop by around the same time tomorrow then,” Madeline said bowing deeply as a staff member approached with her umbrella. Coat still draped uselessly over her arm, Madeline exited the building, popping open her umbrella, but indifferent to the chill in the air. Cameron knew something was wrong as soon as he saw her step outside. She walked sluggishly, and although the heavy rain mercilessly assailed her with every empty step, he could smell certain emotions conflicting within her. A numbing shock was the best way to describe them, and it was agonizing for Cameron to wait for her to slide into the passenger seat of his car. After she tapped the end of the umbrella against the sidewalk, folded it up and set it at her feet on the rubber floormat, Madeline closed the car door. “What happened?!” Cameron asked anxiously, starting his car with the twist of his key in the ignition. Madeline raised her hand, directed him to wait as she retrieved her phone from her purse. Dialing her contact with a single screen press, she didn’t give herself time to overthink her question, knowing that the person she was calling was always brutally honest and straightforward. It rang only twice before Caslon picked up. “Cas? This is going to be a really awkward question, but I‘m trying to verify other information that I found out along with it, so here it goes… do you know a Karima Bassir?” Surprisingly unphased by her inquiry, Madeline listened to what Caslon had to say on the other end. “Nothing is wrong,” Madeline reassured him. “I promise I’ll call you back in a few hours and give you all the details. Will you be available? Thanks, Cas.” “What was all that about? And who’s Cas?” Cameron asked, pulling out of the parking spot. “He’s a trusted friend,” she responded, ending the call and slipping the cell phone back into her purse. “Taro’s family had information on him and his family, so I wanted to confirm whether it was true or not. The best way to do that is to go to the source. I also found the Fukushima information you wanted me to look for.” “Go on.” “The guy you introduced me to last night? He works under an alias, but I am sure you already know that. Has an older sister named Aoi who is considered a high-quality specimen by the Tetsugawa clan according to their notes. Goes so far as to say her brother is an unfortunate failure.” “Correct assumption, as cruel as it sounds,” Cameron confirmed as he made a turn at the stoplight. “Anything else interesting?” “Loads,” Madeline responded as she made herself comfortable in the seat. “They had four Orimura folders, though from what you told me, there should only be three.” “Four?” Cameron couldn’t hide his bewilderment. There should not be four. “Did you happen to catch the names?” “I didn’t want to bring attention to the fact I was looking at them, so no.” “There should only be three,” he reiterated, though mostly repeating the information to himself. “I’m going back tomorrow, so I’ll get the names then. I take it it’s crucial to know what they are?” “Yeah.” She was expecting some sort of resistance to her going to the library again, but he put up none, and was suddenly extremely quiet, deep in thought. After a couple of minutes of silence between the two, Madeline felt the need to tell him what other uneasy event occurred there. “I was escorted to the library by one of Taro’s V.I.P.’s, a man named Takeshi Mito,” she began. “He’s someone entrusted with updating records and information in the library. He was updating your folder.” “I have a folder?” Pulling onto one of the main arteries, Cameron drove in the direction of Madeline’s hotel. He needed to drop her off so he could head back home and make a call to the Elder. “Yes. Separate from the main McCaffrey folder. Only you and I have individual ones. I didn’t look through mine, or yours for obvious reasons, but I really want to know what he was writing in yours.” “Me too.” ------------------------------------------------------------- After seeing their guest off, Takeshi took the elevator up to the executive floor and made his way to Taro’s office. Opening the mahogany door, he stepped into the room quietly, so as not to disturb Mr. Tetsugawa, who was reading through some documents. “I take it things went well?” he asked Takeshi, only glancing up momentarily before etching his signature to paper with a flourish. “Yes, sir,” Takeshi responded. “And she did read through the Leviticus file as you predicted.” “Excellent. I assume she’ll be returning?” “Yes, sir. She indicated it would be around the same time tomorrow.” “After escorting Mr. Gideon from the airport early tomorrow morning, I plan on meeting her personally at the library when she arrives. I’m sure Mr. Gideon would be delighted to meet her as well.”
  8. Chapter Sixteen Our Lips are Sealed Madeline had the taxi driver drop her off a block away from her destination, and as she walked confidently down the sidewalk, bundled comfortably in a buttoned-up wool coat, she casually checked her appearance in the shop’s plate glass window. Having spent a good couple of hours getting herself model-worthy this morning, her makeup was impeccable. Her hair was styled into lovely, ribbon-like curls, and under her fashionable coat was a classy, sapphire-blue, sleeveless A-line dress. She was going to meet a world-class model, one who had won Levi over, so it was essential she looked her very best. Glancing down at her delicate silver wristwatch, Madeline noted with a certain amount of pride that she had arrived precisely on time. She had agreed to meet Cameron at a shop across the street from the multi-story office building that housed Aya’s talent agency. Earlier this morning, Cameron had called to give her Aya’s location, suggesting they meet at 11:00 a.m. So after meticulously preparing her outfit, hair, and makeup, Madeline sent Cameron the tracking app she’d promised and let him know she was activating it right before catching a taxi from her hotel, allowing him to test the accuracy for himself. This would be the only opportunity for Cameron to play around with the tracking technology because tomorrow was the day Madeline planned to visit Taro’s library. Walking into the quaint stationary shop, she was ambushed by the most unexpected vision. Browsing through the day-planners, Cameron was nearly unrecognizable. His spiky hair was toned down and softened into a classic quiff. Instead of his usual leather jacket and jeans, a crisp white collar and cuffs peeked out from beneath a navy blue, long-sleeved henley which silhouetted his muscular arms. Dark gray skinny jeans completed the look, along with a pair of carefully polished black dress shoes. He looked like he belonged in a boy-band, an impression that did not go unnoticed by the handful of schoolgirls pretending to peruse the notebooks nearby, only to rush off stifling their smitten giggles whenever Cameron glanced in their direction. “Wow,” Madeline gasped in disbelief, teasingly. “Had I not seen this with my own eyes I would’ve never believed it.” “You have no idea how much of a chore this is,” he replied with a husky sigh, giving a deceptively charming, and equally fake, smile. “I can imagine it’s not easy being in your position and looking so… pretty,” Madeline snickered. Madeline knew that a collection of specifically selected curse words were on the verge of tumbling off his tongue, but Cameron restrained himself. “I figured if I end up having to go in there to get you, it would be a lot easier getting in dressed like this,” he replied, indicating his attire. “I’ll behave myself. Promise.” The expression on Cameron’s face showed he didn’t have much confidence in her words. Nevertheless, he went over the building details with her. There were two possible service entrances that the agency's catering company could use. Because the building housed other businesses besides the talent agency, Madeline would have no issues waiting anywhere in the main floor lobby. Dressed to the nines, she planned on sitting closest to the entrance further back from the main street, while Cameron watched the one visible from the stationary shop. “I called the agency earlier,” Madeline informed, “Verifying that the order for Aya’s shoot was still being delivered today, so I guess all that’s left is to head over and get myself into her studio.” “I still don’t see why you’re so obsessed with talking to her,” Cameron commented, stopping Madeline in her tracks. “He’s not worth it.” Without responding, Madeline glanced down to the shop’s white floor tiles for a moment as if using the extra time to reign in a hopeless response, then simply looked up and gave Cameron a soft smile. Letting his shoulders drop, a sign he was giving up on talking her out of it, Cameron waved his hand at her in a gesture that told her to get going already. Checking her makeup with a compact mirror from her purse before she headed off to destiny, Madeline inhaled deeply. She had this. 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.” Hanging up, Madeline slipped her phone back into her purse and stood, smoothing out her skirt. By the time she leisurely made her way to the back delivery entrance, the catered lunch was being wheeled in on carts by both the agency staff and the caterers. Putting on her best professional smile, she positioned herself into the freight elevator and rode up with the group to the floor where Aya’s photo shoot was staged. As Madeline exited the elevator right behind the caterers, she struggled to keep her anxiety in check. This wasn’t like contract work, it was a personal matter, and as she passed through the doorway into the spacious studio, there was a brief moment in which she wanted to turn around and leave, abandoning her chance to discover the truth. The only thing that stopped her, that kept her moving forward, was the fact that she knew she could never let it go without a substantial reason, which meant that if she withdrew now, she’d only find herself back for answers at some point in the future. Inside the studio, a variety of lighting and diffusion screens encircled a slightly elevated stage. Different fabric backdrops hung in the wings, but the one chosen for this particular shoot was a sunny blue sky, fuzzy with white circles reminiscent of dandelions. A buzz of people, each entrusted with different tasks, darted to and fro. Even with all the bustle, and the agency professionals swarming, it wasn't difficult to get within sight of Aya, who was standing on the stage, dressed in a lavender bikini. Trimmed in a flashy silver, the combination of colors was flattering against the glow of her healthy skin and silky black hair. Knowing Aya would have to leave the stage at some point to eat lunch, all Madeline could do now was wait for an opportunity. There was, however, one unexpected obstacle. Tiff. The pantherinae’s golden-brown eyes widened dramatically, then narrowed in suspicious frustration. At that same moment, an agency representative realized Madeline didn’t possess any credentials and headed to confront her. Aware that Madeline would get thrown out if she didn’t intervene, Tift fooled the rep with a smile, sidestepping him to approached Madeline first. Wrapping her long fingers tightly around the redhead’s bicep, Tift squeezed to the point of being purposely unkind. “Thank you for coming,” she lied audibly, leading Madeline toward a doorway at the rear of the studio. “I’ll show you to Ms. Yume’s private dressing room so you can prepare for the interview.” Madeline maintained her composure despite the uncomfortable pressure of Tift’s manicured nails digging into her upper arm, soon finding herself yanked into a long hallway behind the studio. “What are you doing here?” the brunette demanded through gritted teeth. “I was hoping to have a word with Aya. I needed to clear something up,” Madeline responded honestly, finally able to wrench her arm out of Tiff’s iron grasp. “What are you doing here?” “I’m Aya’s stylist and personal assistant,” Tiff revealed, still obviously unhappy as she continued to lead Madeline down the hall and through a door that had Aya’s name inscribed on the nameplate. “Sit, and I’ll go get her. Lucky for you, she usually takes lunch in her dressing room, so this isn’t going to look too suspicious. STAY PUT.” Madeline snapped rigidly to attention at Tiff’s brutal demand. “I won’t leave this room,” Madeline assured her immediately, realizing that even though Caslon and Tift were twins, Tiff was obviously the dominant one. The woman’s command of her surroundings was quake-inducing. Tiff clicked her tongue and grimaced, leaving Madeline in the room by herself. In the sterile silence of the dressing room, Madeline’s blue eyes couldn’t help but wander. There were a couple of rectangular tables flanked by folding chairs in the center of the room, which Madeline figured would be as good a spot as any to sit and wait. Removing her coat and laying it neatly over the back of one of the chairs, she took the seat next to it. Glancing around, she was curious as to what constituted the dressing room of a Japanese idol. There was a long, mirrored counter along one wall, explicitly for hair and makeup. A few makeup cases dotted the countertop, surround by some hair products and accessories which made the area look quite like an upscale salon. Positioned on the opposite end of the room was a pair of rolling z-shaped clothing racks stocked with all sorts of apparel in many different colors and fabrics. Madeline was tempted to walk over to take a look at the sizes, curious as any woman would be, but didn’t want to deal with Tiff’s temper should she be caught rifling through Aya’s things. About to take her phone out of her purse to let Cameron know she was safely inside and behaving herself, Tiff reappeared, this time with Aya, who was now wearing a luxurious thigh-length robe which covered her swimsuit. Madeline left her phone in her purse and immediately perfected her posture. Getting a better look than the brief glance she was afforded such a long time ago, she realized how beautiful Aya really was. Her glossy black hair reached nearly down to her petite waist and looked as though it had never experienced a single split-end. Her skin was poreless, and although it was enhanced by Tiff’s professional talent, there was no denying that the canvas was a work of art to begin with. Behind them, the caterers followed with trays of vibrant sushi accompanied by leafy green salads and ripe, peeled fruits. Tiff directed them to place the trays down on the table where Madeline was sitting, and then ushered them out of the room. “By the look you are giving me, it’s perfectly clear why you are here,” Aya spoke, light brown eyes studying Madeline from beneath thick ebony lashes as she approached the table and took a seat in front of her lunch. Unlike Levi, she had a very thick Japanese accent. Her candid observation of took Madeline by surprise. “Whatever do you mean?” the redhead asked, trying to appear ignorant. “You are assessing me,” Aya explained, glossy pink lips curving into a playful smile as Tiff took a seat next to her and began consuming her own lunch. “Oh, I’m being rude. Have you eaten already? I can get you something if you…” “No, I’m good,” Madeline replied, raising her hand in interruption. “You were saying?” “You’re evaluating me to see how you measure up. You are here about Levi, correct?” Knowing Madeline was going to consider her words carefully before she answered, the model wasted no time cracking apart a pair of chopsticks and lifting a piece of sashimi to her mouth. “Um, yeah,” Madeline replied. “I’m just trying to…” “Sort out your feelings?” Aya said bluntly, glancing at Madeline in between bites. This was not at all the way Madeline pictured this conversation going. She suddenly remembered she still needed to let Cameron know she had made it inside. The last thing she needed is for him to get antsy and rush in. “Pardon me, but do you mind if I text my friend really quick to let them know I’m here?” “Sure, whatever,” Tiff responded in Aya’s place, seeing as her mouth was full of fish. As she took her cell phone out of her purse, Tiff and Aya continued to eat at a brisk pace. Lunches in this industry must not be very long. Made it in. Talking to Aya right now. Will let you know when I’m done. Putting her phone away as swiftly as possible, she made a distinct effort to regain her composure and turned her attention back to Aya and Tiff. Taking a deep breath, she decided she was going to proceed truthfully, as embarrassing as that was going to be since the only person she had confessed her feelings for Levi to was herself, and even that took some doing. “Yes, I am trying to sort out my feelings. I didn’t realize you were aware of me.” “Levi told me all about you. About how he didn’t think you’d amount to anything, and yet you stuck it out, surprised him even, and here you are. He’s proud of you.” “Pr...proud of me?” “Of course he is. Why wouldn’t he be?” Aya questioned, looking up from her sashimi with a kind, almost sisterly, expression. “I.. uh...” Madeline couldn’t put any words together. The flow of the conversation she had rehearsed in her mind depended on meeting specific parameters, none of which Aya had triggered. Next to Aya, Tiff gave a husky chuckle, as if she was having a ball watching this uncomfortable discussion unfold. Very different from Caslon. “Anyway, go on,” Aya continued. “Ask your questions. I have about thirty minutes left before I need to return.” Taking a deep breath, eyebrows still furrowed, Madeline silently went over the questions she had practiced in her head, realizing that they now all sounded out-of-place. “How long have you known Levi?” Madeline began. “I’ve known him since I was about three years old,” Aya answered in between bites of rice and fish. “He was a friend of my late uncle. Uncle told me that if I ever needed anything inconspicuous done, even things I didn’t want my own family to know about, Levi was the person to contact. The only condition being that I never admit to having hired him or gotten assistance from him in any way. That was also the condition which my uncle kept. Took to his grave actually.” “Didn’t you used to call him Ri-Ri?” Tiff mused. “Yes! Because I couldn’t pronounce his name when I was little,” Aya laughed. “I had almost forgotten about that. He used to hate that, but he put up with it.” She'd known Levi since she was a toddler? Wide-eyed, Madeline was not prepared for such a revelation, and it suddenly made their relationship very creepy, but no more delaying with niceties, it was time Madeline got to the point. She took a deep breath. “Are you and Levi dating?” Having finished with her lunch, Tiff leaned back and crossed her arms, an expression of relief mixed with annoyance shaped her features. “The illusion is perfectly convincing from the outside,” Tiff sighed, speaking to Aya and ignoring Madeline’s question, “But I didn’t think she’d be dumb enough to fall for it.” “Now, now,” Aya said, softly scolding the pantherinae at her side. “Stop being judgemental. You know that if you were in her shoes, you’d be just as confused.” “But I wouldn’t have wasted so much time guessing what was going on. I would have just asked you. Hell, I would have asked him before it even got to this point.” “What illusion are you talking about?” Madeline asked. “Levi isn’t dating Aya,” Tift said leaning forward towards Madeline across the table as she lowered her voice to a whisper. “I am.” Madeline slowly digested the words. Things that once made no sense suddenly started to become clear. Tiff’s apprehension tending to the bite Scott had inflicted. Levi’s sudden relationship with Aya after vehemently stating he was the type not to get into one. But why were Tiff and Aya going to such lengths to bury their relationship? Being gay was becoming more and more acceptable in society, and while they likely couldn’t flaunt it out in public given the chance that it might affect Aya’s career, they certainly didn’t need to employ Levi to utterly destroy the truth. “So the whole media fiasco is just a ruse?” Madeline asked. “Yes,” Aya replied quietly. “But what about his loft? I saw you two…” “We’re both felinae,” Aya answered, surprised that Madeline didn’t already know the answer to that question. “Unlike humans, physical contact doesn’t equate to sexual contact. I assume you’ve seen animals huddle together for warmth or safety?” “She must have never seen Cas sprawled out on Levi before,” Tiff laughed out loud. Apparently, Madeline missed out on that, and in a small corner of her otome-loving heart, she was disappointed. But guilty pleasures aside, that meant Levi was still unattached, and she found herself selfishly relieved. “But why go through the trouble?” Madeline asked. From her perspective, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. “I am the eldest child, so naturally I am expected to take my father’s place at the head of the corporation,” Aya began softly. “But I don’t want that. I have hopes of living a life of my own choosing, and in order to accomplish that, I must convince the board of directors that I am unfit to have the honor of leading the board into the future, so I am creating a particular reputation of being disgraceful. Besides, my little brother has a strong desire to be the one the board chooses. He has always been good with numbers and very much likes the corporate lifestyle. It would make him happy to have that position, and I would be happy to see him take it.” “So why not just come out?” Madeline suggested. “It sounds like that alone might be enough to ruffle some feathers.” “Maybe, maybe not,” Aya continued. “But I will not drag Tiff into this. I will not have the media make her a figurehead for any losses that might occur to the corporation should I come out. Gay and involved with a foreigner? The disdain would haunt us forever. But this way, I can take the responsibility on my shoulders alone. I alone can present myself as a loose woman. The board should find me unfit and unwelcome, they should turn to my brother who will do the company a great service, and then I will be able to fade away from the spotlight into obscurity, live with Tiff, and no one will care.” “And just so we’re clear, we’re telling you this in the utmost confidence,” Tiff warned sternly. “Until Aya’s family concedes the business to her younger brother, we will play this game. And now that you are aware, you’re going to play it too.” “Sure,” Madeline willing agreed, standing in full support of the pairing. “You can count on me.” “I barely know you,” Tiff responded, narrowing her brown eyes menacing. “Cas might think you’re adorable, and you may have earned Levi’s trust, but that doesn’t require me to accept your word at face value.” “Tiff, calm down,” Aya interjected, her expression showing disappointment in her partner’s actions. “I trust her too, and Levi doesn’t make mistakes with where he places his trust.” Turning her attention back to Madeline, Aya reached out her hand. “May I have your phone please?” she asked. After retrieving it from her purse, Madeline used her fingerprint to unlock it, then carefully typed in her security code and handed it to Aya. “I’m giving you my phone number,” she revealed. “If you need anything, or just feel like talking to someone, please call me. As much as I know about you, I can’t imagine anything in your life is easy anymore, and I am guessing you tend to bottle up everything. You need all the friends you can get.” “Ms. Yume, we’re ready for you,” came a woman’s voice through the door leading back toward the studio. “Thank you,” Tiff replied as she began to rise from her chair, taking her and Aya’s lunch containers to a tray the caterers had provided for recycling. “I’ve got to go now, Madeline,” Aya smiled as she nodded her head. “Be well.” “Thank you,” Madeline replied. “If there is anything I can do to help, call me okay?” With a glowing smile that left no doubt in Madeline’s mind why she was as successful as she was, Aya was escorted by Tiff out of the dressing room. Feeling much lighter than she had when she arrived, Madeline gathered her things and prepared to leave. ------------------------------------------------------------- About forty minutes earlier... Levi was quite surprised to receive notification on his cell phone that Madeline had activated a tracking chip on the same frequency they used for the blue diamond contract, and in Tokyo no less. His first thought was that the tech was malfunctioning, it was that much of a coincidence, but that was impossible. He always registered each chip he purchased, and this particular one was from a set he had gifted Madeline. It was pinging because she activated it. There could be no mistake. Sitting at the round, wooden table that butted up against his hotel room window, Levi pondered what course of action to take while overlooking the Shinjuku streets below. Slowly, he drummed his fingertips along the edge of his laptop. He’d been in the middle of composing an email to Maseo regarding a semi-permanent gig at a club other than the Golden Lotus, but that could wait. Although he’d been in Tokyo for about a month helping Aya stage a clever deception to get out of her inheritance, he had been with Maseo only a few days ago in England to celebrate the life of a friend on the anniversary of her passing. Levi had just arrived back in Tokyo yesterday, but in light of this recent development with the chip, he was regretting not coming back sooner. He’d been forcing himself to stay out of Madeline’s life, but it was difficult. Some nights it took a lot of whiskey to numb the urge to contact her, but he managed. But now she was here, practically in front of his face. Why? He focused his attention back on the tracker’s movement. It was clear she had gotten into a vehicle, and since her initial position coincided with a hotel, the vehicle was likely a taxi. It was when her destination became, with increasing probability, a particular location he was familiar with that he decided to intervene. Tossing a black parka over his white t-shirt, Levi slipped his cell phone, room key, and wallet into the front pockets. He wasn’t worried about Aya and Tiff. They could take care of themselves, and he was confident Madeline wouldn't do anything stupid. He was, however, extremely curious as to what event had led his former student there, if, in fact, that was indeed where she was heading. By the time he’d reached the ground floor and hailed a taxi outside of his Shinjuku hotel, Madeline had appeared to exit her taxi and was now walking across the street from the agency building. Judging by traffic, it was going to take Levi approximately ten more minutes before he reached the area. So while the taxi crawled through the city streets, Levi mapped out the businesses surrounding the agency, noting that Madeline had just stepped into a stationary store. Growing unexpectedly anxious, he watched on his app as she seemed to mill around inside for a bit before exiting and heading across the street. She was now inside the lobby of the agency building. As his taxi arrived across the street, in front of the shop she had been in moments ago, Levi ever so carefully pulled his faux-fur lined hood up, completely covering his face and hair before even considering stepping out of the vehicle. Inhaling the chilly winter air, he picked up her sweet scent immediately. It tugged at him, unearthing memories from more pleasant times, and dusting off moments of tranquility when he was simply being and not dwelling on past horrors or the uncertainties of the future. Closing his eyes for a second to refocus his attention on his surroundings, he could tell with certainty that Madeline was still in the agency building’s lobby. The last thing he wanted was to be spotted by her, so he decided to duck into the stationary store. As soon as the all-too-common retail door chime triggered, Cameron smelled a cat. Likewise, Levi picked up on the distinct aroma of a canidae. Refusing to show even the slightest hint of surprise, he lowered his hood and proceeded to leisurely make his way around the shop, browsing here and there. It was Cameron who approached first. “This is interesting,” he postured loftily. “Getting your panties in a bunch over your girlfriend?” Levi was taken aback by his remark. Which girlfriend was he actually referring to? Many women had passed through his life, so it was best not to assume he was talking about Aya, or Madeline for that matter, especially with a foreigner. Then he noticed the hair. This man had the same distinct hair color as the gun-toting stranger Madeline described the night she attempted to steal the pair of katana. “You assume to know me,” Levi retorted, “Yet I don’t believe we’ve met.” “We haven’t. I keep a low profile. Makes my life easier.” “Then why approach me? I don’t care to associate with dogs,” Levi toyed, purposely trying to get the man riled up. “Consider this me marking my territory then, pussy,” Cameron replied, lowering his voice to a growl. “Play your shitty little games elsewhere and leave Madeline alone, or I will make you regret ever laying eyes on her.” “Madeline?” Levi chuckled in disbelief. “So that is what this is about? Are you the new possessive boyfriend? Did she tell you about the last one? No matter. Rest assured, once I’m done with a meal, I don’t come back around to lick the plate.” Expecting his last remark to set this pup off, Levi was surprised to instead see this man loosen up and take a step back. With a satisfied smile, Cameron tilted his head to the side, regaining his boy-band cuteness once more. “That’s a relief to hear since I have a couple of gentlemen to introduce her to while she’s here. To make her forget all about an asshole like you.” Levi felt something within him begin to falter. He had convinced himself he left her for her own safety, certain that if he didn’t, someone would eventually harm her to get to him. It was common sense that if he wasn’t around, she wouldn’t get hurt. But buried deeper within was a fear of her fragility. Seeing her so wounded on that early morning months ago scared him. Staying away from her meant he never had to see her like that again. But the absence didn’t cause the worry to fade, it had quite the opposite effect. There were nights that he would never admit to in which he found himself alone in a dark place, drinking and ruminating over his decision. But that was the extent of it. He never once considered the possibility she could find happiness and forget him altogether. Real happiness, not the temporary, doomed-from-the-start fling she had with Scott. This canidae was a tough one, to know who Levi was and still stand unwaveringly against him. If the other men he spoke of were also canidae and just as confident, Madeline would be safe for sure, and given the loyalty canidae usually possessed, it was possible she could be blissfully happy for the rest of her life in a secure and loving relationship. She could even have a family. The reality of it started to make him ill. The sound of a vibrating cell phone interrupted their conversation “Ah, there’s the princess now,” Cameron smiled, retrieving his phone from his pocket. “Just one sec, I need to text her back. Don’t worry, I won’t tell her you’re here. She doesn’t need to know, right?” But Levi wanted her to know, even though he knew he shouldn’t. He never considered how keeping her at arm’s length would mean at some point she would be so far away that he could never touch her again. “And if it makes you feel any better, not that I really care, either way, I won’t be among one of the princes, although I will be permanently in her life seeing that she’s happy.” “What do you mean by that?” Levi asked. “Trying to take my place as her teacher?” “Nope. I’m much more important than that. I’m family.” Levi was not prepared for that. Not at all. “My name’s Cameron, by the way. You should already be very familiar with the last name.” Cameron McCaffrey. Levi committed it to memory, forcing himself to focus on getting back to his room and his laptop to verify it. He couldn’t lose face now. He wouldn’t allow Cameron the pleasure of seeing a very rare loss of composer. A sly expression spread back over his features, and he exuded an aura of relief. “Then her safety falls upon you,” Levi shot Cameron a deceptive smile and a warning. “I only hope that for her sake you are prepared, and can back up all your posturing with actual strength, because if you can’t meet every challenge as I have all these past years, she will die, and you will be to blame.” “Yeah, yeah… whatever you say,” Cameron replied, waving it off. Glancing at his own phone, Levi saw Madeline was still inside the building, but her position had changed, increasing the possibility she was with Aya and Tiff. So, ignoring Cameron, he pulled his fur-lined hood up and confidently sauntered out of the stationery shop, feeling the canidae’s eyes boring into the back of his head the entire way. Once back outside in the cold, Levi exhaled the tension that had built up in his body and began to walk briskly away from the scene. Madeline was here. He quickly began to deduce what on Earth could have possibly brought her. Taking his phone out of his pocket, he was surprised there wasn't a text from either Aya or Tift, so instead, he called Maseo. “Did you know Madeline was coming to Japan?” he asked, skipping the formality of a proper greeting. “Japan?” Maseo questioned, sounding shocked. “I knew she’d accepted a contract and was going to be out of town for a week. Left the wakizashi with us. But I didn’t know where she was going. She didn’t offer and I didn’t ask. Did something happen?” “Not yet,” Levi answered, “But my instincts are telling me it’s only a matter of time. I’ll tell you more about it when I get back to my hotel. Ja ne.” Dialing another number, Levi took careful, observant glances at his surroundings from beneath the edge of his hood, and then tucked his phone against his ear once again. “What’s Madeline doing in Japan?” he asked his broker bluntly. “A minor task I offered her. In fact, she’s already completed it and is enjoying the rest of the week off, paid for, as part of her compensation,” the electronically modified voice on the other end replied. Hearing all he needed to hear, Levi ended the call and continuing on back to his hotel on foot. ------------------------------------------------------------- Alesdair, or Alex as he was known informally, stepped fearlessly out of his fae gate and into a miniscule clearing surrounded by lush forest. The field was so narrow in fact that the branches of the mature pines circling it reached inward almost far enough to completely block out the sunlight. The air here was invigorating, scented strongly with the aroma of the earth, very similar to his home in the Veil. Fidgeting with his hands, an uncommon thing for him to do, he stepped toward the unopposing gassho-style house tucked under and between the trees about fifty feet away. Before he reached the door, a man had stepped out. Standing at least a few inches taller than Alesdair, making him rather tall indeed, the Elder approached with determined steps, moving in such a way as if it would be impossible for him to ever be unsure in his footing. His limbs were thick with muscle, but not in a way as to make him appear bulky. With the sides of his hair gathered in a topknot, the rest of it hung slightly past his shoulders. At one time it was a crown of jet-black, but the passage of centuries breathed a peppering of silver into it. His face was like granite, mostly smooth but also etched with the lines of wisdom, experience, and loss. Tan skin was covered in simple clothing; a pair of well-worn jeans, and a hunter-green t-shirt. Not so surprisingly, he was barefoot. Almond-shaped eyes, a testament to his Asian heritage, softened when he saw his old friend. “Sorry that my visit comes under dire circumstances,” Alesdair apologized, blue eyes flit with worry. The Elder gestured through the open door to his house, where a warm fire blazed, inviting Alesdair inside. “Come inside,” he offered, “I prepared some tea for you.” “Thank you.” Getting settled in the Elder’s home, Alesdair sank comfortably into one of the armchairs, tea in hand, and began to clarify his dilemma. “As I mentioned yesterday,” he started, “I think there is some unforeseen issue with the necklace.” He looked straight into the Elder’s eyes, all semblance of his usual lackadaisical and playful attitude gone. “This could be very, very bad.” The Elder nodded in sympathy, and then shared what he knew, even knowing it would make his friend even more distraught. “I spoke to Cameron yesterday, and she was in Aokigahara around the time you called me.” “Death mountain?” Alesdair inhaled sharply, his eyes wide with panic. “Yes.” Alesdair fell silent. She should be able to go anywhere, even places fae would not dare travel. Aokigahara was once such place. The aura of death was so thick in that forest that it literally suffocated life. Fae, with their unshakable link to the life and magic of the earth, found Aokigahara akin to a vacuum. Life magic did not exist there. Oh, things grew there; trees, moss, insects and the like, but it was void of earth energies. If a fae were to enter, it would be like drowning, not in water, but in tar. Alesdair unconsciously rubbed the side of his ribcage with his free hand. That small part of himself that he gave up for the necklace had felt the full effect of Aokigahara. As crippling as it was, he wondered what Madeline had endured, if anything. “Was she in pain?” “If she was, she didn’t mention it to Cameron,” the Elder replied. “I need for you to ask your pup to find out,” the fae replied. “He needs to collect every detail. It is imperative. If I’ve somehow made a mistake, and there is a flaw in the necklace, I will need to take action immediately.” “I understand why you are worried, Alex,” the Elder began, “But don’t you think she’s strong enough not to have to depend on its protection anymore? She’s built a formidable circle of friends, and we’ll certainly keep an eye on her too.” “Her kidnapping was not random,” Alesdair reminded. “But because I don’t know who was behind it, I don’t know if the friends you speak of are capable enough of acting as a deterrent against any future attempts.” The Elder grimaced, looking offended. “I know you are capable,” he reiterated, “But we both know you can’t just be hanging around her all day and night, can you?” Alesdair was right. The Elder had his fill of the world. He was tired of walking it, tired of participating in the game that never changed. History only repeated itself. Too many good people die, and too many bad people flourish. He'd had enough of it. “Let’s say for argument's sake you find a flaw. How are you going to fix it?” the Elder asked somewhat sarcastically. “Give up more body parts?” “If I must.” The Elder sighed. “I respect your decisions, Alex, but sometimes you just have to let things follow their own course to their own conclusion. You forget she has one of my swords in her possession. She fought with my daughter, so I too am wondering who knows enough about her to have purposely arranged to get my weapon into her hands and if it’s the same person involved in her kidnapping. But Alex, fixing an issue with the necklace isn’t going to erase the events that have already been set in motion. Whoever knows is still gonna know.” “Unless they got bored of the whole thing and moved to a different distraction. My kind does that all the time.” “I’m aware, but you are assuming that only fae have a hand in this whole thing. I’m not sure that’s true anymore. I must admit, I’m surprised you’ve stayed on top of this whole situation as seriously as you have.” “This is… important,” Alesdair said sadly. “Yes, I know,” the Elder sympathized, lowering his voice as well. “Let me give Cameron a call and see what he can get from her. Did you want to wait around? I was going to grill up some fish for dinner.” “I’m afraid I’ve been absent too long already,” Alesdair declined. “Perhaps when this is all over, we can have an evening of feasting and drinking, and finally get caught up?” “Yes. I would like that,” the Elder agreed, giving Alex a reassuring smile. “Well then,” Alesdair said as he rose from the comfort of the armchair, taking a deep and hopeful breath. “I shall await your call. I have been keeping that cellular phone on my person, by the way.” The Elder laughed weakly. “In that case, I will let you know the moment I get some information. Just don’t forget to keep it charged.” “I will, and thank you.” Giving a regal bow, Alesdair excused himself from the house and made his way back through the fae gate.
  9. Chapter Fifteen Remake Settling in lengthwise on her sofa, Madeline draped a snuggly-soft, charcoal-colored, wool throw over her legs and grabbed the novel she had cracked open a few days ago. She’d hoped to read undisturbed for the next couple of hours, but it was only mere minutes before the sound of an email alert interrupted her. She wasn’t expecting anything, and selfishly hoped it was Levi even though she knew better by now. It had been a couple of months since she last saw or heard from him, and although Caslon and Maseo both confirmed on multiple occasions that he was fine and she should move on with her life, she just wasn’t able to put him in her past. Tossing off the blanket, she begrudgingly got up to check her laptop. There was an unanticipated email from her broker. I would like to contract you personally for a travel and delivery job. A personal request? Madeline thought. How odd. Suspicious, Madeline inquired for more information. I need you to travel to Japan to deliver flowers to a grave in Aokigahara. My assistant is unavailable this year, so I am looking to outsource it. I usually arrange his flight, transportation, and lodging for a week so he can do some shopping and sightseeing after the delivery, and would extend that same offer to you. What do you say? Madeline quickly searched the internet to map the location. That’s a forest Northwest of Mount Fuji. She clicked back into her email, fingertips poised to respond until she noticed a particular set of search results flooding her browser. Aokigahara, Japan’s suicide forest. Well, I suppose bringing flowers to a grave in a forest known for suicides isn’t too unusual, Madeline thought to herself. The job was pretty straightforward, and there didn't seem to be anything remotely dangerous about it. Whatever the broker’s reasoning for not delivering the flowers personally was none of Madeline’s business. Not to mention, she’d never been to Japan, and outside of the delivery, it would be like a paid week off. She was comfortable with the language, and there was a decent amount of temples and historical places she wouldn’t mind visiting. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more reasons she had for going. I accept. Please forward all pertinent information. ------------------------------------------------------------- Looking out of the oval window, Madeline gave a thankful sigh as the jet’s wheels gently touched the tarmac, and the plane forcefully braked to a low roll with nothing more than a couple of bumps. It was a little after 2:45 p.m. local time, and although the business class seat her broker had booked for her was extremely comfortable and reclined into a bed, the redhead was much too excited to get a decent amount of sleep on the flight. She had been reading up on tourist destinations for weeks, planning where to go and what determined a must-see location. She was going to relax, go at her own pace, and thoroughly enjoy the cuisine. Stretching, she decided to let the majority of passengers pass by in the aisle, taking time to gather her belongings and pack them safely away. When she stepped out of the jet bridge into Haneda International Airport, the first thing Madeline noticed was the lack of carpeting. Compared to other airport terminals she had visited, it had a very sanitized and industrial feel to it. Rolling her carry-on down the white-speckled, black tiles, she checked the overhead arrival display to get her baggage carousel number. Just a bit longer, she told herself, Then I can get to the hotel and get dinner and some sleep. Her red hair managed to attract a fair amount of attention as she waited among the crowd for the luggage to emerge. Nothing rude, just curious glances. Smiling, she would offer a polite bow of her head and say good afternoon in Japanese, drawing friendly smiles. She only had to wait briefly for her two suitcases to make their way around the steel conveyor belt. As she pulled them off the baggage carousel and placed them onto a nearby luggage cart, unwinding at the hotel seemed finally within reach. All she had to do now was head downstairs and catch a taxi. 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. His baby blue eyes were locked on her purposefully as he waited to catch her full attention. She ran through multiple scenarios in her head. Was this a trap? Did the broker set her up? Doubtful. If this man meant her harm, he would have waited until she left the airport, avoiding security entirely. He certainly would not have gotten her attention first with a sign, showing travelers nearby her actual name. This stranger was trying to arrange a meeting, and consciously putting forth the effort not to spook her. But how did this person even know she was coming? Madeline realized she hadn't booked under an alias, so anyone knowing her name and having the ability to access passenger information would know when she was coming. So either the broker shared that information, or the “interested third party” this person represented was keeping tabs on her whereabouts. Either way, much like Taro Tetsugawa, this third party was another piece occupying the gameboard she’d been placed upon, but the odds were firmly in her favor that this gunman was not here to hurt her. Relaxing her posture a bit seemed to signal to this man that it was okay to approach. “Have a good flight?” he asked in a husky voice that carried a hint of tobacco, placing his hand on the handle of the larger of her two suitcases and removing it from the luggage cart. “And you would care because…?” “Because I’m trying to be fucking nice,” he responded blatantly, turning from her and heading in the direction that the international terminal parking sign indicated. “I’m Cameron.” Removing her other suitcase from the cart, she towed it beside her opposite her rolling carry-on and followed reluctantly after him. “So where are you planning on taking me, Cameron?” Madeline caught up with him, making a point to emphasize his name. “I’m here on business, so if I don’t check in when and where I’m expected, flags will be raised.” “Oh I’m well aware of your business,” Cameron replied with a throaty chuckle. “In fact, I’m going to be shadowing you. You can think of me as your bodyguard.” “No,” Madeline said defiantly as she stopped walking. “You are not. I don’t need a bodyguard.” “Just the fact that you are saying that tells me you have no fucking idea what’s going down,” he laughed, shaking his head in disbelief. “Aren’t you even the bit curious why I’m here? Why you’re my contract?” “Your contract?” Madeline repeated, surprised, but she didn't show it outwardly. “Are you fucking serious?” “I wouldn’t be here otherwise,” he confirmed. “So you can taxi your ass to your hotel by yourself and take your chances, or I can drive you to your hotel in my car, and you can find out more about your ancestors.” Turning his back to her once again, he walked out through a pair of automatic glass doors, and out over a skybridge, her large suitcase still in his grasp. Her ancestors? He had information about that? She already knew she was somehow related to the Orimura clan, but if he had more than that, it would definitely be in her best interest to hear him out. It wouldn’t be considered digging if someone flat out told her, right? Surely that wouldn’t incur anyone’s attention. “Wait the hell up,” she relinquished as she started after him. Madeline sensed no ill intentions from Cameron, not here at the airport, nor the night of the katana job. The fact that he specifically took the heaviest suitcase rather than the lightest off the cart was a subtle hint at his character. Not to mention he wasn’t mincing words or feigning politeness. He was straightforward with how he addressed her. He wasn’t threatening or lecherous, but was, in fact, dauntless and fiery. It took about ten minutes of walking in uncomfortable silence to arrive at Cameron's car. Madeline was not expecting what she saw. It was a gorgeous Mazda; sleek, black, and customized. “This is a surprise.” “Are you trying to be funny?” he asked as he popped the trunk and placed her bags inside. “This is for your convenience. I prefer to take my motorcycle.” “Nope. I just wasn’t expecting something this nice.” “No wonder you’re single,” Cameron mumbled under his breath, too low for Madeline to hear as she slipped into the passenger seat. After closing the trunk, Cameron got into the driver’s seat and started the engine. “Go ahead and put the name of your hotel in,” he instructed, pointing to the GPS navigator built into the dashboard. “That way you can watch where I’m taking you.” “I still don’t know what makes you think that I am just going to trust you,” Madeline remarked as she leaned forward in her seat and set the course. “Well, I have some things to tell you that will change your mind about that, but not until we get you checked in and fed. Then you’ll need a drink, or four. But in the meantime, open the glove box.” Following his instructions, Madeline couldn’t believe what she saw inside. “This is so illegal. How do you even manage to have one?” “Connections,” he smirked as he backed his car out of its parking space and headed to the exit and main roadway beyond. “It’s loaded, and the safety is on. I figured I’d have to give you a huge insurance policy on me, seeing as I am currently a stranger to you. This way, if you feel I’m a danger to you, you have the power to shoot me, plain and simple.” “Are you fucking crazy?” Madeline asked out loud, shocked. “Not any more than you are,” he replied, keeping his eyes on the road. Point taken. Closing the glove box, Madeline leaned back in the bucket seat and turned her head to look out the window. The unfamiliar scenery scrolled past whimsically as if she was watching a travel documentary and not actually here in Japan. Thankfully, Cameron said nothing more, he just turned on some Japanese rock music and let her sight-see through the glass. They arrived at her hotel in about thirty minutes. After Madeline checked in at the front desk, Cameron helped her secure her luggage in the room, then they both proceeded to go looking for something to eat. Madeline suggested something simple and convenient at the hotel restaurant, but Cameron forbid it, making her start to feel like a hostage rather than someone who supposedly needed a bodyguard. “Eating there would have been wise,” she furthered her argument, grumpy to be outside walking rather than inside eating. “You do realize I’ve been on an airplane for an unGodly number of hours, right? I thought bodyguards were supposed to respect the wishes of the person they are guarding?” “Are you kidding?” Cameron responded in disbelief as they walked down a sidewalk bustling with locals. “How many times have you been to Japan? Wait. Let me answer that for you. Never. And you want to eat hotel food? Un-fucking-believable.” “And you know better?” “Of course I do. I live here. And I’m hungry, so I’m taking you to one of my favorite izakaya. You need food and drink that will comfort your soul. A hotel restaurant isn’t going to give you that.” “Wait just a second,” Madeline said as she grabbed him by the arm and forced him to stop. “I don’t know where you’re dragging me off to, and you still haven’t given me any information like you promised. All you’ve been doing is barking at me.” “Funny you should say that,” Cameron grinned devilishly, raising Madeline’s suspicions. Turning, he pointed at one of the many trees planted between the sidewalk and the road. “See that? That’s me...” “You’re a tree,” Madeline interrupted flatly, crossing her arms unamused. “For fuck’s sake woman, let me finish.” Sighing, Cameron continued. “See that large, sturdy branch that comes out from the trunk of the tree directly? That’s me. And that scrawny twig poking out from that thin branch on the other side is you. Our family tree is the same; we just come from two different offshoots.” Madeline’s eyes widened. Was he joking? “So you’re an Orimura?” she asked lowering her voice and stepping closer to him for increased privacy. Cameron laughed loudly and ran a hand through his spiky hair. “No. I’m not one of them.” Seeing the look of confusion on her face as she tried to figure out if Maseo was misinformed, Cameron elaborated with a whisper. “I’m a McCaffrey.” Her dumbfounded expression was definitely worth all Cameron’s trouble. “See this here?” Cameron continued, tapping the base of the tree with his leather combat boot. “This is the Elder. He’s an Orimura. One of the only three. The trunk diverges here, where Lady McCaffrey entered the picture. She was one very badass canidae. The offspring she had with the Elder are our ancestors, except my side over here is thick and strong from breeding only canidae to canidae, and well yours… yours just bred with whomever. Mostly humans. So you don’t have a hell of a whole lot of Orimura blood in you. Nowhere near enough to produce even the faintest canidae scent.” Maseo was spot on about the small percentage; he just didn’t know all the details. “So we’re related?” Madeline asked, arching her brow. “Yes, we’re related,” Cameron confirmed, pulling out his wallet to show her his residence card. “You have to admit; there is a resemblance. And I’ve been watching over you longer than that dickhead cat friend of yours. Who do you think reported your kidnapping?” “You?!” “Yeah. The Elder had me watching you.” “Why?” “To be honest, I don’t know, but he does have us watching some of the non-canidae descendants from time to time. I don’t know why you were kidnapped. Not sure the Elder knows either, and if he does, he’s not sharing it with the rest of us.” “Rest of us?” “His pack,” Cameron elaborated. “The Elder has a hand-chosen pack of his descendants. I’m his beta.” Madeline looked down at the pavement as they resumed their journey, thinking careful over what Cameron had told her. Seeing her heavy contemplation, he chose to remain quiet and let her digest it all. She could see a slight resemblance if she looked close enough, especially in the hair color and the facial structure, though Cameron’s eyes were a very light blue, and hers were more of a dark, stormy blue. And there was the swearing, but she wasn’t sure if that would classify as hereditary. She had no reason to doubt he was watching over her, especially since he’d already saved her from an early demise once already. She did, for a moment, wonder why Levi wasn’t able to determine it was Cameron that night, especially given the last name, but then again she didn’t exactly provide him with a decent description. But apparently, Cameron knew about Levi. “So you think Levi’s a dickhead, huh?” Madeline asked, putting her hands in her pockets to keep them insulated from the biting winter air as they walked. “Of course I do. All he thinks about is himself, stealing, and women, in that order - for like hundreds of years. The guy never changes.” “You talk as if you’ve been around as long as he has.” “Me? Nope. There are no McCaffreys with enough Orimura blood in them to give them immortality. I’m just speaking from what I’ve read and what I’ve been told by the Elder.” “Well, I think you’ve misjudged Levi,” Madeline defended. “He’s not like that. He always tries to do good, and he’s never lied to me. I trust him with my life.” Cameron stopped in his tracks, annoyed by her last remark, but didn’t turn to face her. “So tell me, where is he now? And why am I here keeping an eye on you, and not him? Whether you realize it or not, you put yourself in danger by coming to Tokyo. He would know that. He should have stopped you. But he can’t do that if he’s abandoned you, can he? You say you trust him with your life, but have you ever asked yourself if your life has any value to him?” Madeline’s gaze faltered, dropping abruptly to the concrete once again. The truth was, Levi didn’t want his enemies going through Madeline to get to him. However, she couldn’t tell anyone that. Yet was Levi’s primary concern her safety? Or maintaining the reputation he wasn’t weak? Considering he left her in no one’s care, it was getting harder to justify the former. “Let me tell you then,” he continued, not waiting for the half-assed excuse she would come up with if he gave her enough time. “He’s been too busy carousing the city with a model named Aya Yume. The paparazzi have been having a field day with all the public displays of affection they’ve been able to photograph over the past month or so. Oldest Daughter of Business Mogul Behaving Improperly - it’s quite the scandal…” As Cameron finally turned around, the satisfied grin he had on his face from bad-mouthing Levi faded into a frown once he saw tears welling up in Madeline’s faraway look. Taking a few steps toward her, he wrapped an arm tightly around her shoulders, bringing her close in a rough, brawny hug. “Geezus,” he whispered, “I honestly didn’t think you were in love with that asshole. Not sure why McCaffrey women always seem to fall for guys that are nothing but trouble.” She didn’t fight him, just let him comfort her firmly as they walked through a doorway, ducking under the noren as they entered the izakaya. “Ah, Cameron-sama,” the gentleman behind the long counter that ran almost the full length of the space greeted, seeing his regular customer passing through the threshold. “A date?” “Family,” Cameron and Madeline replied in unison, both speaking Japanese. “Ah, I see,” the gentleman replied in kind, keeping the same friendly smile. The izakaya was long and narrow with a bar top taking up much of the available space, but the pronounced wood decor and the dim lighting allowed for a cozy atmosphere, one that Madeline easily melted into as Cameron led her to a seat. She stared blankly at the cookware, glasses, and bottles kept on shelves behind the bar, and the carefully written chalkboard menu, but saw none of it. Her mind was elsewhere. Was that really what Levi had been up to? She remembered the girl he had in his room that one afternoon. Her name was Aya. Was this the same person? Was she the reason he couldn’t be bothered with something as trivial as answering her texts? Was Madeline that inconsequential to him? Would it have killed him to send her a text, or reply to an email? Would it have killed him to wish her well on Christmas Eve? Cameron ordered himself a beer and then asked Madeline what she wanted. “Whatever is fine,” she replied unemotionally. She didn’t pay attention to what he ordered but was looking forward to drinking whatever it was, and in large quantities. As the drink was placed in front of her, she lifted it numbly to her lips and took a sip. It had a bit of a hard cider flavor about it, but a lot stronger. It was crisp and sweet and happily didn’t taste like umeshu, which she suddenly found herself repulsed by the thought of. “Shōchū with bit of seltzer and fresh apple juice,” Cameron enlightened her. “Thank you.” “So your job is tomorrow, eh?” Cameron asked, taking another swig of his beer as the bartender set a couple of plates of yakitori down in front of them. “How did you know that?” she asked, although the tone of her voice was so brooding that it didn’t sound like she cared what his response would be. “Just by the date,” Cameron replied honestly. “When we caught the fact you were flying in, we figured it had something to do with the date, especially since you didn’t know Levi was here. You’re not the type to make impulsive trips unless it's for business, so I’m to see that you’re safe while you’re here. The date is significant to a certain group of individuals, the Elder included, but not all of them are nice people. You’ve already met Taro Tetsugawa, and the fact that he took time out of his ridiculously busy schedule to bother himself with you back in the States is very suspicious. We don’t think it's a coincidence that you were offered a job to come here.” “Well, after tomorrow I’ll have the next six days off before my flight leaves.” “Cool. Then I can show you around. Maybe take you to a host club. That’ll take your mind off that fucker.” “You dislike him a lot, huh?” Madeline mumbled, taking another sip of her drink. “Do I need any more reason than he’s disrespected a McCaffrey?” Cameron asked. “You’re not intimidating, but you're still family.” “I may not be as powerful as you, but I am in no terms weak.” “Of course you’re not. None of us are. I did mention that Lady McCaffrey was a badass, right? Well, it’s a consistent ancestral trait. Anyways, enough about Levi. I’m going to show you around, and you’re going to have a great time.” As the two ate and drank, Cameron began to tell Madeline the story of Lady McCaffrey. About how she was so beautiful and tenacious, with her flowing red hair and brilliant blue eyes, that the Elder couldn’t keep his emotions in check. About how she was the alpha of her tribe, able to beat any man she came across until she met the Elder. It was a remarkable story, almost sounding too much like a twisted fairy tale than something that genuinely happened. When asked about what happened to such an amazing woman, Cameron simply replied that she never stayed too long in one place, her spirit was too wild, but she lived a long and adventurous life, passing away at a very old age. After filling up on skewered meats and edamame, Madeline let Cameron know she needed to head back to the hotel. She was beat from the long flight and planned on turning in earlier than normal, making sure she’d be rested enough to be at her peak for the delivery job the next day. Without the slightest complaint, Cameron paid their tab and escorted her safely back to the hotel. “Let’s exchange numbers,” he suggested as they entered the warmth of the lobby. “That way you can reach me if you need anything, and at least let me know when you get back from your job tomorrow. No pressure, but remember I am here to back you up if you get into anything dangerous.” “Sure,” Madeline agreed, not seeing any harm in it. She’d been looking all evening for a reason, any reason, to be suspicious of him but came up empty. There was simply nothing about him that made her feel even the slightest bit uneasy. “I’ll call you sometime tomorrow evening, that’s when I expect to be back.” Nodding, Cameron slipped his cell phone back into the pocket of his leather jacket and waved goodnight before heading out to the hotel’s parking garage to drive home. Finally alone, Madeline entered her room and began unpacking her suitcases. Knowing how exhausted she was, she made sure to set the alarm clock before taking a greatly anticipated hot shower. Then, crawling into bed, she fell into a deep sleep almost immediately. ------------------------------------------------------------- Late the next morning, Madeline prepared herself for her contract job. After setting the single-serving coffee maker brewing, she laid out a pair of comfortable jeans and a creamy-white sweater on the second bed. It was winter, and the temperature would be in the upper 30s near the mountain. By her calculations, it was going to take quite some time to hike to her destination, and being out in the elements meant making sure she was warm and protected. She didn’t realize she’d made a mistake by turning on the television to provide some background noise until she heard Aya Yume’s name. As soon as she glanced up at the screen, Madeline was accosted by a reporter's photograph of Aya locking lips with Levi. It was him. There was no mistaking it. The anchorwoman went on to comment on Aya’s lack of decorum and how her actions would “surely affect the reputation of her family's companies should she be appointed CEO.” The months of silence between herself and Levi had forced Madeline to realize that not only did she love him, but that she'd have to learn to live with the void he left in her heart. Not having him in her day-to-day life helped numb the pain. She hadn’t been prepared to be blindsided by such a visual. This hurt. Is this really why you left? Shaking her head violently, Madeline had to let this anguish roll off. The flowers would be arriving at any moment, and the car her broker arranged to drive Madeline to Aokigahara would be out front at 3 p.m. sharp. She calculated it would take less than an hour and a half to get there, and approximately the same to get back, but she wasn’t exactly sure how long it would take her to walk to the gravesite. She had the coordinates, but the terrain was uneven, so it was a wildcard. She had told Cameron to meet her for dinner at 8 p.m. just to play it safe. It was only about ten minutes later that two delicately wrapped floral bouquets, arranged explicitly for presentation at a grave, arrived via messenger. Setting them carefully on the smooth surface of the in-room workstation, Madeline slipped into her hiking boots then grabbed a backpack containing her phone, credit card, passport, incense sticks, and a compass. After putting on her hip-length, black coat, she slung the backpack over her shoulder and headed down to the awaiting vehicle outside of the hotel. The driver opened her door explaining that he had brought the customary ladle, as well as a small scrub brush and bottled shrine water. The drive out was a quiet and contemplative one. Madeline didn’t have much to occupy herself other than thinking about Cameron, about Levi, and her link to the Orimura clan. Letting the sound of classical music being played by the driver act as a soundtrack to her thoughts, she watched as the fog-blanketed hills roll by. She should have immediately addressed the fact that something wasn’t right the moment she stepped out of the car. There was a tension in her chest that hadn’t been there a moment ago. A foreboding feeling that stifled her breath. It wasn't quite the same sensation as being watched, but closer to feeling unwelcome, as if some larger and more imposing presence was applying pressure directly to her spirit. Giving a passing glance to the driver, the calm bow he gave coupled with how he unassumingly notified her he would wait until she returned, indicated he was oblivious to the atmosphere she found herself struggling with. After removing her cell phone and compass from the backpack, she slipped them both into the deep front pockets of her coat. Setting the jug of water, the ladle, and the scrub brush inside her backpack, she zipped it up and slid her arms through the straps, pulling the tethers snug. She paused for a few seconds trying to decode the unease weighing down on her. What was this feeling? The road behind her vibrated with the occasional car, but the forest ahead of her was quiet and still. Not even the chirping of birds could be heard. It was cloudy, and although she wasn’t a meteorologist, Madeline guessed the silence might be due to the threat of rain. Perhaps the animals were taking shelter because they sensed the coming downpour that Madeline could not. The air she took into her lungs as she slipped her hands into a pair of warm gloves was crisp and clean, typical of what she would expect with so much greenery around. Flowers in hand, she pressed past the No Entry sign chained to the trail head. Finding the grave was going to be a challenge, but she was confident in her capabilities. She only needed to get to the set of coordinates the broker had given her, with the promise that her cell phone service would hold out at least until then, at which point Madeline would head directly Southeast for a quarter of a mile. Cradling the two bouquets in her left arm, she retrieved her cell phone from her pocket so she could keep an eye on her GPS coordinates. After twenty minutes of walking down a well-worn trail, she reached a point where she would have to leave the path. Carefully setting down the flowers, Madeline retrieved a baby-blue scarf from her backpack. Not only did the deathly quiet maintain its presence over her, but there was also now a soul-chilling cold which permeated from the trees, seeping through her heavy coat. Madeline hoped the scarf would provide more warmth, but it did so minimally. Picking up the flowers once again, she placed her phone back into her pocket and stepped off the trail. Being aware of the general direction she needed to travel allowed her to concentrate on her footing. With every step, she felt as if she was walking on a brittle wicker basket. The ground off the main trail was worlds apart from the well-compressed footpath she’d been on. The unevenness was due to layers upon layers of snake-like vining roots, fallen branches, and hundreds of years of fallen leaves. It was spongy, slippery, and even though it was still early in the afternoon, it was hard to see the spaces in between the foliage which harbored the deepest holes. It would be easy to take a wrong step and end up knee-deep, caught in a nature-made trap with the risk of twisting an ankle, or worse. Aside from scanning the ground before her, and feeling how it distributed her weight as she advanced, she noticed a bright pink ribbon tied around one of the branches she passed. Ribbons, she had read, were like breadcrumbs used to find one’s way out of the forest. Those who came to this forest to take their own lives used ribbons to find their way back to civilization in case they had a change of heart. But did this particular ribbon mark a journey to death or a return to life? Madeline’s chest continued to constrict. She didn’t want to come across anything else in these woods. Not tents, or discarded umbrellas, or personal affects - nothing. Hands shaking, she removed her phone from her pocket to check her location. Almost there. Glancing back in the direction she had come, the well-worn trail was a distant memory, swallowed up by the curtain of trees surrounding her. At that moment, she could sense why people came here to die. This forest didn’t feel like it belonged in this world. It felt like an entity patiently watching from the shadow of every tree, and from beneath every moss blanketed root like a venomous creature which had already poisoned its victim and was now awaiting their last breath. Turning back toward her GPS destination, Madeline estimated she only had about two hundred feet more before she would need the compass. A quarter mile. I can do this. It’s just a forest. I’m letting rumors freak me out. Madeline knew it was critical she pay close attention to her direction and the compass. If she messed up… No. That was not an option. Shaking the thought away, she walked on. A quarter mile wasn’t a great distance, but uphill through tightly grouped trees and gnarled roots made it hard to stay in a straight line and still make good time. And her hands would not stop shaking. The altitude wasn’t that high, yet Madeline's breathing discomfort was increasing, and a horrible, horrible feeling churned in her gut. Disparity. Loneliness. Heartbreak. For a brief moment, she wondered if Levi felt like this when he had to deal with the misery of others. Before she could think about him any further, the sensation crushed more heavily on her spirit as if it was trying to punish her for her thoughts. She couldn’t wait to get this over with and go back to the car. “Why are you unclear?” The sudden whisper in her ear made her lose her footing. She stumbled towards one of the more massive tree trunks to catch herself, almost crushing the flowers she was holding in the process. The voice, if she could even call it that, was crystal clear and spoke in Japanese, yet there was no breath, or gender, to it. Holding her breath, she remained still, listening for footsteps. In this forest, it was impossible for anyone to approach on foot without being heard. Unless they weren’t earthbound. Recovering her footing she continued, albeit shaken, in the direction the compass was leading her in. There were no more voices as she approached the grave, but her nerves were now prickling as her stomach continued to churn. Then, at last, she reached her destination. The gravestone was not in a clearing as she’d pictured it in her mind, but at the base of a medium-sized tree. It's dark marble foundation rose out of the tangled roots to a height of about three feet, perfectly level into the verdant slope. There were two steel vases set into each front corner, filled with the withered remains of last year’s bouquets, and between the vases were two recessed cylinders in which she was to place the incense. Adjoined atop the marble foundation was a two-foot tall onyx obelisk, its surface void of any name, leaving it a mystery as to who was buried here and why. Slipping the compass back into her front pocket, she removed her gloves and began to retrieve the supplies from the backpack. She set the brush on the marble and poured some water from the jug into the ladle. Pausing for a second to clear her head, Madeline wanted to be in a state of reverence. Whomever this person was, they deserved the respect of a proper cleaning and flowers, not some unnerved girl that was in a rush to leave the forest. She tipped the ladle slowly over the top of the onyx, letting the purified water bathe the stone before she began to scrub with the brush. “You are distorted. Vibrating,” came the whisper again, right in Madeline’s head. “I can not see your face. Why?” Her paprika-red hair fanned out as she whipped her head around, but there was absolutely no one there. Could this be a ghost? She had yet to come face to face with one, so she couldn’t be sure, but so many people had taken their own lives in this forest that it would certainly increase the odds. If that was the case, she remembered from her training that she had nothing to fear. Common ghosts couldn’t do direct harm, and there was nothing in the vicinity that could be affected by psychokinesis resulting in injury to her person. Pouring more water, she continued to scrub until the stone was free of all the dirt and moss that had gathered since last year. She then placed each bouquet into their respective vases, filling each with the remaining water from the jug. Reaching into her bag, she removed the small box containing the incense. The broker gave her specific instructions - three sticks in each censer. After lighting them together, Madeline gently blew the flame out and separated them into two sets of three sticks. Placing them in the censers, she clapped her hands together in prayer, prepared to offer the deceased the best wishes of her broker. “WHAT ARE YOU HIDING??!!” The scream caused Madeline to topple over, covering her ears tightly. Unlike earlier, this frustrated screech pierced painfully into Madeline’s skull. It was so terrifying and nauseating that Madeline could feel her gag reflex triggering at the same time tears began to burn her eyes. Gasping for air, she pushed through the pain and the sickness forcing herself to maintain focus. Should she respond? Would it even make a difference? Was this the deceased? Fettered to this stone? “I am here to pay respects,” she managed, still covering her ears. “To whom? There is only a stone here.” Its words were just as clear whether Madeline was covering her ears or not. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a very, very bad one. “Someone nearby will be dead soon. Would you like to pay your respects to them instead?” Madeline could detect a touch of sarcasm in the words. This was definitely a very bad thing. “No. I have a task here to complete,” she replied to the nothingness, carefully choosing her words. “Once I am done, I must go and report that my task is finished.” There was no reply. Cautiously, Madeline waited a few minutes and then apprehensively uncovered her ears and looked around. There was still no sign of anyone nearby. To steady her mind, she focused on the burning incense, inhaling the gentle fragrance and silently passing along the message of sincerity that the broker had wanted her to convey. Thankfully, no more whispers came. However, the external pressure she had been feeling earlier was condensing, maintaining her illness and sapping her equilibrium as if the oxygen around her was being vacuumed away. Lightheaded and dizzy, she noted the incense was within half an inch of burning out. Then off in the distance, she heard it - the strange echoing whimper of a dog. This wasn’t like the whispers in her ear. This sound had the characteristic of distance. She attempted to ignore it, but it sounded like it was in such agony, giving way to a sharp inhaling cry as if it was being hit or kicked. Was this what the voice had meant? The death that would be coming? Seeing as the incense was just about finished, Madeline turned away from the grave, taking a step in the direction from which the noise was coming, prepared to investigate. Someone grabbed her wrist. Instinctively, she spun around, twisting her arm to force whoever was restraining her to lose their hold. About midway into her action, she realized the grip was akin to solid stone, and she found herself facing none other than Taro Tetsugawa. “Don’t,” he advised in English. “The kubikajiri is baiting you.” As he released control over her, Madeline realized he was dressed much more formal than she was, holding two thin bouquets of his own in his free hand. Whoever was buried here was not only important to her broker, but also to Mr. Tetsugawa. As Cameron believed, this could not be a coincidence. Levi’s parting words suddenly came to mind - Don’t trust Taro Tetsugawa. She knew she had to remain guarded. “Kubikajiri?” she asked, unfamiliar with the term. “A yokai that consumes heads, be they of the living or the dead,” Taro elaborated. “It attempted to speak to me as I assume it did you until it figured out what I was. You must pardon my surprise. Your arrival here has taken me completely unaware.” Madeline didn’t believe that for a second. “I take it you knew the deceased,” she asked, slipping her gloves back over her cold hands. She wasn’t sure how Taro approached without her knowing, but it wasn’t wise to mention that to him. “In a manner of speaking, yes,” Taro replied. “But she’s not actually buried here. This grave was erected to allow those of us who were not on good terms with her to pay our respects. We wouldn’t be permitted to do so otherwise.” So the kubikajiri wasn’t lying, Madeline thought to herself. There really is nothing here but the stone. “Funny thing, we were on different sides since before I was even born. Still, she was such a shrewd and cunning woman. Protected her loved ones so fiercely. She truly was a force to behold. Beautiful. Deadly.” Taro’s attention was someplace both continents and decades away. And for a few moments, a bemused smile curved his lips. He hadn’t been the only one bewitched by the raven-haired woman, but she allowed no one to tame her extraordinary spirit. “Ah now, enough daydreaming on my part,” he said sweeping away the past as a broom would under a rug. “What happened to the usual gent?” “I wasn’t privy to that information,” Madeline replied, watching as Taro stepped gracefully to the stone and arranged his flowers into each vase along-side Madeline’s. Bringing his slender hands together twice in a respectful clap, he bowed his head slightly and closed his eyes, lost in private communication. She didn’t notice until then that the incense she’d placed had burned down to ash. Feeling relief even as the strange sickness still gripped her, Madeline finished packing up all the gear she’d carried into the forest. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Taro was done with his prayer and was now approaching her. “If you are going to be staying in Japan, I cordially invite you to peruse my family’s library. There are many different yokai in Japan, and for your safety, I recommend you read up on at least the more common ones. I have first-hand accounts, in Japanese of course, and you will even find meticulously gathered information on the more infamous non-humans, including your preceptor.” “My what?” Madeline asked, feigning ignorance. “Leviticus,” Taro replied without hesitation. “I believe our records go back to about 1000 A.D.” Luckily, Madeline was still feeling well enough to easily mask her surprise at how far back Taro’s information appeared to reach, wondering if it was true. Was his library that extensive? “My card,” he said, presenting her with a crisp business card out of his chest pocket. “You’ll find the address easily reached within Tokyo. I’ll notify my staff to allow you access to the library should you decide to visit us, and assign you an interpreter. And, as I previously stated, I recommend that you do so.” “For my safety,” Madeline reiterated his words, swinging her backpack onto her shoulders. “If you like, I could escort you down to the road,” he offered. “I am familiar with this area.” “No, thank you,” Madeline gently rejected his offer. “I’ll be fine on my own, but I appreciate your kindness.” “As you wish.” Politely bowing her head in farewell, Madeline lined the compass up bearing Northwest and started walking, keeping her phone within sight for when it once again had a signal. The way back to the main trail was easier because of the trees and roots she remembered navigating previously. She passed the same pink ribbon as well, reinforcing her confidence in the path she was treading. Once she was back on the main trail, Madeline was able to put both the cell phone and compass back into her coat pocket. The suffocating pressure diminished to a bearable discomfort the closer she got to the trailhead. She honestly wasn’t sure if it was due to the distance she was putting between herself and what she could only describe as malevolence, or the relief spreading through her mind and body that she was done with the job. As she reached the car hired for her, she was greeted with a welcoming smile from the driver. He assisted in loading the provided supplies back into the trunk and opening the rear passenger’s door for her. Within minutes, the vehicle was traversing the roadways back to her hotel. Unzipping her coat now that she was perfectly warm inside the car, Madeline removed the business card from her pocket and entered the address into her phone to see just how far away it was from where she was staying. She was seriously considering Taro’s offer. Although it was possible Taro mentioned it only to entice her into coming to his property, Maseo had told her that Taro’s strength was in the resources he had at his disposal. They were his weapons. Knowing what was in his arsenal might help Madeline piece together the reasoning behind his sudden interest in her, and she’d be lying to herself if said she wasn’t curious about Levi’s history. Perhaps Taro had information on Cameron and the mysterious elder he was always talking about. Maybe he even had information on her. It was settled then. In a couple of days, she would pay Taro a visit. ------------------------------------------------------------- The pain was enough to wake Alesdair from his slumber. Pressing his right hand firmly against his lower rib cage, he stared up at the intricate vines of carved wood that weaved their way through the exposed beams of his bedroom ceiling. Silently counting the moonlight-painted leaves one by one, the pain began to subside slowly. As each second passed, his weighted breaths became quieter and calmer. He had dreamt of a dead forest, a disparaging place devoid of the pulse of the earth. He knew it was tied to her but didn’t realize such a sharing could be possible. In fact, it shouldn’t be possible. And yet... He was frightened. For both Madeline and himself. Had he made a mistake? Was there a flaw in his well-researched spellcasting? It was truly uncharted and forbidden territory, so the chance of a wrong stroke or a page with pertinent information left unturned, was undoubtedly a risk. Rising from his bed, he walked barefoot across the warm wood floor to the cherrywood desk gracing the far side of his room. Opening the top drawer, he removed the seldom-used cell phone and dialed a particular number he knew would give him the answers he sought, and hopefully calm his fears. ------------------------------------------------------------- “That’s a horrible plan,” Cameron assessed over dinner after listening to what Madeline proposed. “But it’s in a public building in the city,” Madeline defended. “You’re forgetting who you’re talking about here. It’s not like he’s some nobody. It wouldn’t take much to make a person go missing in that building.” Madeline leaned back in her chair rebelliously, wondering if Cameron had done his research on her at all. She had been trained to handle infiltrations like this. She would be fine. Mouth twisted into somewhat of a pout, she was happy she didn’t tell him about her experience at Aokigahara. Glancing around the hotel restaurant, she was drawn to a couple of Japanese girls wearing bright, lolita fashion, each devouring an ice cream sundae. The sight of their ruffled, feminine dresses reminded Madeline of the last time - the only time - she had worn one. That gave her an idea. Leaning forward, she placed her elbows on the table and stared at Cameron who was unenthusiastically eating what he had described to Madeline as “crap food.” “What if I was able to provide you with a way to track me to within a foot of accuracy?” she offered. “Guaranteed.” “I’m listening,” Cameron said, considering the offer. “You would know if I left the building, even if I was unconscious, which would be highly unlikely.” “Foolproof?” he asked, arching his brow. “Foolproof,” Madeline confirmed. “And I will even give you a definite time I will be leaving so you can wait for me across the street or something.” “When?” “I was thinking the day after tomorrow.” Cameron mused over her suggestion. He could hang out nearby and keep an eye on her with tech like that. And if she agreed to a schedule, any deviation would be his signal to intervene. She’d have her phone with her of course, but he wouldn’t know until she got to this so-called library what kind of surveillance she’d be under. It was possible she’d be able to call or text him at will, but it was also possible they’d confiscate her phone to prevent her from taking pictures. There was no telling. While she waited for Cameron’s answer, her attention began to wander once more. There was so much around her that was new and interesting that she couldn’t stop herself from taking it all in. Behind the hotel bar, hanging up on the wall, a television was broadcasting the local weather and news. As if she should have expected it, an image of Aya Yume popped up in the newscast, only thankfully without being in a compromising position with Levi. Madeline strained to hear that the model was in town for a few days before traveling to Taiwan to begin filming a drama. She commented to the press she was in town “only for a photoshoot and a good time.” She made it clear she had no intention of attending the board meeting her family had insisted on. “Sounds like she’s a spoiled little bitch,” Madeline commented, crossing her arms. “Who is?” Cameron wondered. He’d still been weighing the pros and cons of Madeline checking out Taro's library, completely railroaded by the comment the other McCaffrey had made. “Aya Yume,” Madeline said, spitting the name out. Cameron glanced over his shoulder at the television and then back at Madeline. “They’re two of a kind if you ask me,” he commented. “I wonder where her photoshoot is? You don’t have any kind of intelligence network perchance? Some way to get me in contact with her?” “Woah, wait a fucking minute. You’re not going to go cat-fighting on me, are you? I mean, as much as that would be expected of a McCaffrey, it isn’t your business. Leave them be.” “You seriously think that’s what I was planning to do?” Madeline shook her head in disbelief. “I just want to talk to her. You’re an asshole.” “In that case, I can likely get you the location of the shoot, but I’m not going to be able to put you on the staff list.” “That’s fine.” “But what do I get out of it?” he asked point-blank. And…. here it comes, Madeline thought. “What are you expecting?” she asked carefully, narrowing her eyes in suspicion. “I want full disclosure on anything you find in the library.” “You do realize I will be looking into Levi, right?” Madeline responded. “So don’t expect me to give you any info on him. I won’t do it.” “What if I asked you to look up mine then? And maybe a couple of others? Then we can compare and see just how accurate Taro’s information is. He could have volumes on Levi, but that doesn’t mean a thing if they’re all lies.” “You have a point.” “Of course I fucking do,” Cameron gave a deceptively boyish smile and quickly finished up his meal. He could tell Madeline was tired from her busy day, so he decided to wrap things up fairly quickly. “I should have something on Aya for you by morning,” he said. “But remember what I told you - no screwing around. I don’t want to see you on the news tomorrow, and if that happens, you can forget about Taro letting you into his place.” “Deal.”
  10. Chapter Fourteen Crystallized “Thanks for taking care of me on such short notice, Caslon. I really appreciate it a lot.” Glancing around at her new living room, Madeline was still gripping the handle of her rolling suitcase with gloved hands. Caslon thoughtfully turned the heat on in the unit before coming to pick her up, but there was still a definite chill in the air, and she certainly didn’t want her already aching muscles to seize up from the damp cold. Although she had yet to investigate the bedrooms or the kitchen, Madeline was already impressed at how much more superior this new apartment was compared to the one she had just vacated. It was a corner unit with hardwood floors, off-white walls, and furnished with a modern decor that was very much in the same style as the safe house. It had more windows in the living room than her previous place, but the thickness and quality of the curtains were a welcome improvement. On a day like today, where the dense, gray clouds brought steady rain and biting cold, there was nary a draft. Separating the living room by a long breakfast bar was a spacious kitchen. Clean colors matched the gray marble countertops and paired well with the stainless steel appliances, giving Madeline more than enough room for cooking and baking. “Short notice is my specialty,” Caslon purred with a smile, golden-brown eyes watching Madeline assess her new home. “But in all seriousness, I hope you’re not feeling like you’re a bother. Suddenly picking up and leaving is something my kind do quite often, so moving without much notice is normal.” About to step toward the hallway, Madeline paused. Certainly, Caslon had no idea what emotions troubled her right now, but his words struck too close to how she felt Levi had abandoned her. “You okay?” he asked, concerned by her abrupt change of expression. “Do you need to sit down? Some more pain medicine, perhaps?” She gave him a sad smile and shook her head. “No. I’m good,” she replied quietly, letting slip a white lie. “I just want to lay down for a bit. The pain meds have made me tired and a bit dizzy, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve got a lot of emotions I need to sort out.” Caslon was about to remind her that if she needed to get anything off her chest, he would listen, but he could tell from her expression and the way her eyes would cloud and then suddenly clear, that she was barely keeping her feelings in check right now. Any little thing he said that amounted to an offer to console her would cause her to break down, and because she was battling so hard to keep her fragile state a secret, he didn’t want to be the one to defeat her. “Well, the safe I spoke to you about is in the bedroom. It’s fairly large and set into the wall, ready for you to reset the locks. I put some frosted doughnuts in the breadbox for you too, and some frozen meals in the freezer for lunch or dinner so you don’t need to worry about cooking for a while. The movers will be bringing the rest of your stuff over tomorrow, and disposing of your old furniture. And if you need anything, and I do mean anything, give me a call, and I’ll be right over.” “Thank you,” Madeline replied with the best smile she could muster. She was truly grateful. And he had brought her doughnuts, which always cheered her up. “But right now, all I want to do is soak in the bath and take a nap.” “I can assist with the ba...” Madeline quickly, but gently, put her index finger against his lips to stop him from continuing. “I can manage,” she responded sternly. Shrugging, Caslon handed her the keycard and then left her by her lonesome in the apartment. Rolling her suitcase down the short hallway, she noticed there were two rooms. Assuming the larger one was the master, she set her suitcase on the bed, took off her gloves, and unpacked a few necessary toiletries into the adjoining bathroom. Next, she stood the wakizashi in the wall safe, setting the lock to her biometrics and fingerprint. Then, without changing her clothes, she spread out on the king-size bed and closed her eyes. Falling asleep was more difficult than she expected, but she did manage a blissful five-hour nap once she was able to drift off. After she woke up, she changed out of her t-shirt and sweats into a comfortable, long-sleeved, black maxi-dress which she was able to step into and pull up, sparing any strain on her ribs. Heading to the en-suite, she began the task of covering the hideous bruise under her eye and making herself as presentable as possible for her trip to The Golden Lotus. ------------------------------------------------------------- Madeline expected to have to explain her way into The Golden Lotus since this was the first time she tried to enter by herself, but the bouncer waved her in immediately, a pleasant smile on his face. Not one to question good fortune, she thanked him and stepped into the brightly lit venue. As a cheerful attendant took her long winter coat and handed her a claim ticket, Madeline noted that there were only a handful of clientele seated at the bar and nearby tables, and no one was on the dancefloor yet. However, the few that were here at this relatively early hour were socializing happily with smiles on their faces. Nothing at all like how pretentious and haughty the Endless had felt. Heading towards the V.I.P. booth next to the stage, she spotted Maseo, along with Gwen, Michael, and Terrant. For a moment, she almost turned around and headed to the bar, not wanting to impose on what looked to be some sort of band meeting, but she urgently needed to speak with Maseo and figured if they didn’t want to be interrupted, they would simply ask her to wait. Taking a moment to allow herself to watch them casually interact with each other from afar, she noticed Michael on the end seat, his left arm resting lovingly on Gwen’s shoulder, her head leaning against his in a mix of shaggy jet and golden ringlets. He was sleeveless today, which was a new look for him, and his muscles had taken her by surprise. His arms were very well defined, as much as Levi’s, and he sported two interesting tattoos on his right upper arm. The top one on his deltoid was a simplistic, single curved leaf, the stem curling out and around it in a perfect, vined circle. The one below it was familiar to her, matching Maseo’s own tattoo of triple circles within a circle. Maseo’s gate key. For a moment she assumed the band all had matching tattoos, but then remembered Terrant always played the drums shirtless. If he had any tattoos on his upper body, Madeline would have seen them. Spotting her from a distance, Maseo stood up immediately, and with an inviting expression, strutted over to her. “Do you have a moment?” Madeline asked politely, feeling guilty that she was about to dampen the mood. “For you? Of course,” he replied charmingly. Leading her back to the booth with the others, he let Madeline slide in next to Terrant, and then Maseo slid in after her, putting him opposite Michael. “So what brings you here?” “Um,” Madeline started out nervously, “I was wondering if you’ve ever heard of Taro Tetsugawa?” The mere mention of the name changed Maseo’s expression in a split second, from jovial and welcoming to dark and serious, and the rest of the band became uncharacteristically quiet. “Why?” he asked slowly in a cold and calculating voice. “He saved my life last night,” Madeline began. “You remember Scott, don’t you?” Maseo chuckled under his breath at her question, though there was still a darkness emanating from him. “How could I forget Scott,” he responded sarcastically. “Well, he broke into my apartment and attacked me last night. Almost killed me.” “Are you okay?” Maseo asked suddenly concerned, gently touching the bruise on her cheek despite the fact she thought she did a good job concealing it. His sudden gesture startled her. Oddly enough, his hands were warm and comforting. For a moment, she almost crumbled. Madeline had been successfully keeping a brave face about the entire incident so far, but her friends had a way of lowering her defenses to the point where she really had to struggle to retain composure. Lowering her head, she was able to remain strong. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, seeing her reaction and withdrawing his hand. “You were saying…?” “Taro saved my life last night and even paid for the damages to my apartment. I just wanted to know who I was dealing with.” Maseo leaned back lazily with a sigh, taking a few seconds to think about what he was going to say next. Gwen, Michael, and Terrant exchanged apprehensive glances, making it clear to Madeline that this was a touchy subject. “He is powerful and dangerous, and is never nice just to be nice,” Maseo finally replied. “There is always a motive. He won’t outright lie, but he doesn’t need to. If you don’t mind me asking, what happened exactly? I would like to hear every detail.” Madeline described how Scott got into her apartment, and how Taro appeared out of nowhere to apprehend him. All the while, Maseo analyzed her every word. When she was done, he tented his long fingers and stayed deep in thought for a few more minutes. His bandmates were silent as well, eyes fixed mostly down at the table. “It’s no coincidence he came to your place,” Maseo began. “He has the manpower to kill Scott at any time, so he picked your apartment as his stage. I don’t know why. My advice is not to trust him, because whatever he is up to, he’s decided to include you in it, and that can never be a good thing.” “How much danger am I in?” Madeline asked, her stormy-blue eyes meeting his. “He’s not looking to kill you if that is what you’re asking. He would have done that already.” It was now Madeline’s turn to sink back into the cozy booth, deep in thought. “So what is he?” she said, thinking out loud. “At first I thought he might be a vampire, but his hands were so warm and gentle…” “You mean like mine?” Maseo reminded her in a matter-of-fact tone. “In case Levi neglected to tell you, for a while immediately after a vampire feeds, their skin is warm and looks alive with color. The stronger the blood that made the vampire, the less often that vampire will need to consume blood to survive, and the more they appear to be human.” The troubled expression his words caused on Madeline’s face made Maseo chuckle. “Don’t worry. I’m not like Scott. I need very little blood to sustain myself, and all my donors are extremely willing,” he grinned mischievously, giving Madeline a wink. “They leave completely satisfied and very much alive. If you are ever curious, come and see me. I promise you’ll have every desire satisfied.” Madeline was put off by the thought of being used as food. She didn’t like it when Levi did it and was positive she wouldn’t like it if someone else did it either. But something he said at the end triggered a thought. “I am not saying I’m interested, but how does that trick with the pheromones work?” Maseo sighed, pouting teasingly. “If you’re not interested, why should I tell you?” “Because I think Taro used it on me. I just want to know if there’s a way to tell.” Arching a thin brow, Maseo looked agitated, as if what Taro'd done had struck a nerve. “It’s really embarrassing, ok,” Madeline confessed, looking down at the table to escape his gaze. “It was like I couldn’t stop myself.” Another sigh escaped Maseo’s lips, only this one was real. “Remember how I sedated you when you were injured? That’s not the only way that ability can be used. What I am about to do… it doesn’t mean anything. If you were mine, it would mean something, but you’re not mine, so it means nothing. I will try to be gentle, but the pull will be much stronger than Taro’s. Still, it means absolutely nothing. Remember that afterward.” What a weird thing to say, Madeline thought right before she nodded apprehensively. A split second later, she felt parts of her body grow extremely sensitive, acutely aware of the fabric teasing against her skin. Eyes locked on Maseo, she tried to shift seating positions to calm her need, but even that just compounded the sensation. His lips, she wanted to taste his lips so badly. Wanted to run her fingers through his long black hair. She scooted along the booth until she was right up against him, sliding her hand up his pant leg getting dangerously close to his personal space. Madeline leaned forward, wetting her lips to prepare to taste his… Then the whole scene changed like someone had snapped a finger. She was about an inch from his lips, and deathly still. She could feel the heat of her body slowly cooling as her mind regained control once more, her own heavy breathing echoing in her ears. Feeling flushed and embarrassed, especially with Gwen, Michael, and Terrant sitting right there, she backed off and stared down once again at the table. Maseo observed her, trying to gauge her reaction, while the rest of the friends around the table seemed unphased by what had just transpired. “It… it was like that,” she finally managed to speak, still catching her breath, “But nowhere near… that. I mean it was the same, only weaker. Much weaker. Are you... related?” She tried to choose her words carefully because she had already guessed that they were but didn’t want to insult Maseo had she been wrong in her logic. “He’s my older brother,” Maseo admitted. He slid over to her and took her hand, knowing the artificial desire he created in her had passed, and it was safe to touch her again. “Remember what I did here just now, and keep in mind that was not at my normal level. I was trained to be a seducer from the moment I first blushed,” Maseo explained quietly. “It was my sole purpose in my clan and becoming a vampire only intensified it. No vampire can come close to how I have mastered it. Now think about this… Taro was trained since before he could speak to lead by any means possible. Image the power of what I did to you except apply that to knowledge, cunning, influence, and material resources… that is what Taro possesses.” He gave his words some time to sink in. “That is why he is dangerous.” “Why didn’t Levi tell me who he was? I assume he knew?” “Likely to protect you,” Maseo answered. “Protect me from what? Right at the beginning of my whole misadventure he sat down with me and told me so much about the most common things in this world. Said the knowledge would help me survive. So keeping things from me doesn’t make any sense.” “He tells you as much as he feels is safe for you to know.” “I still don’t understand. Let’s say I decided to trust Taro because I didn’t know better. Because nobody told me otherwise. How would not telling me protect me?” From across the table, Michael pulled out his cell phone and began texting. After a moment or two, he held the phone up towards Madeline so she could read what was on the screen. The more you know about things, the deeper in shit you get, and this world has a lot of deep, sticky shit you can’t get out of once you’re in it. Trust me on this. “Ah, now that makes sense,” Madeline nodded appreciatively. It was nice to have someone around that was as relatively new to this world as she was, even if they were a few decades apart. “Thanks, Michael.” Next to him, Gwen grabbed the phone to read what he had typed. Her eyes widened. “Michael! Language!” she scolded, unhappy with his curse words. Smiling sheepishly, Michael gave Gwen an apologetic look. “Well then, keeping along those lines, Levi didn’t tell me anything useful about my wakizashi either,” Madeline continued. “Only that I should lock it away.” “Wakizashi?” Maseo questioned. He hadn’t heard anything about this. “Before you go any further, let us go someplace more private. I have a feeling it’s best if only I have this knowledge for now.” Nodding in agreement, Madeline carefully took Maseo’s hand and let herself be escorted to a back hallway where an elevator to the residence quarters awaited. Anyone outside of their circle of five would think he was taking her upstairs for a tryst since it was commonly considered what Maseo did. Conscience of her condition, he did his pheromone trick again. He’d be damned to let a woman be in any sort of discomfort in his presence. Madeline noticed this and thanked him as she followed him into his personal room, sitting down on a loveseat near an electric fireplace which he activated with a flick of a switch. The crackling fire and the warmth it provided soothed her body and mind. Sitting next to her, Maseo pulled in close lowering his voice to a whisper. “Please continue.” “I received the wakizashi as compensation for a contract I did about nine months ago. I was supposed to get two swords, but I botched the job and only got one. The contractor was satisfied with that for some reason, saying the whole point of the job was basically to piss off the family I stole it from.” “Do you remember the family name?” “Orimura.” Maseo’s eyes grew as large as saucers. “And Levi didn’t tell you anything about them?” Maseo remarked, stunned, although he already knew the answer. “Only that they were a very old canini clan, and could kill me if I crossed paths with them.” “Kuso,” Maseo swore under his breath in Japanese, running a hand through his hair. “What was he thinking? You don't happen to have a rapport with the blade, do you?” “Yes, and I actually fought a girl in the house with it. She wasn't happy.” “I can only imagine,” Maseo leaned back, exasperated. “Orimura is an old werewolf clan that has actual magic in their bloodline. If that sword is part of the set I suspect it is, and you can wield it comfortably, that means you have some Orimura blood in you.” “Werewolf blood? In me?” Madeline choked. “Are you kidding?!” “I wish I was, though it should be too diluted to be effective. You haven’t even the slightest scent of shapeshifter about you, which means there is something more to you, something tied to your platelet mystery I’m sure, but I honestly don’t have a clue as to what it might be. That aside, there’s a more pressing issue now. If you have a rapport with the blade, that means you can use its primary ability; opening gates.” “Gates? Gates to where?” “Wherever the original wielder synced it to. I suggest not using it. No telling what's involved opening a gate, but I imagine you don’t want to end up there accidentally.” “Not particularly, no. I am surprised Levi didn’t at least tell me this. Seems a lot more important than knowing who Taro was.” “For one, as Michael so eloquently stated earlier, it puts you in danger just knowing about such things,” Maseo guessed. “And Levi probably thought that since he couldn’t detect anything about you that made you out to be canidae, no one else would be able to either, so you would be just some human girl in possession of a weapon.” “But what if someone else could detect me as a canidae?” “If Levi couldn’t, no one else would be able to. Where is the wakizashi now?” “Locked in a safe at my apartment.” “Good. I would leave it in there if I were you.” Madeline nodded. That was it then. But why didn’t Levi tell her any of this? Even though Maseo’s reasoning made sense, she still felt betrayed that her very own teacher would keep information like that hidden. After over three years of trying to figure out why she had been kidnapped initially, she finally discovered something about herself that might have attributed to it. It gave her a sudden urge to do some researching of her own. “Thank you so much, Maseo,” Madeline said enthusiastically, offering the vampire a big smile. “Things are clearer now, and at least I know not to screw around with that sword.” As she rose, Maseo was no fool as to what she had just been thinking, warning her about doing any digging into the subject. If it raised any flags, the Orimura clan would come after her. He also reminded her that as soon as she got more than a few feet from him, she would feel discomfort again. Promising him she would be careful, Maseo took no chances and requested she be escorted back to her new apartment in the club’s personal car. “Thank you again for seeing me,” she said bowing as much as her injury would allow before leaving his room. “Anytime,” Maseo replied. “Be careful.” After she was out of view, Maseo took his cell phone from out of his front pocket. The number he dialed barely rang once before it was picked up on the other end. “She showed up here at the club,” Maseo informed. “Asked a bunch of questions. Yeah. I told her what I thought she needed to know, but I don’t think that’s going to deter her any. She’s unshakable. Yeah. Sure. Ja ne.” ------------------------------------------------------------- It was about 11 p.m. by the time she got back home, having The Lotus’ personal driver drop her off a block away so she could pick up some Chinese take-out and walk a bit to clear her head. It hadn’t even been 24 hours, but she felt the strong urge to text Levi. She wanted to know why he didn’t tell her about the link between the wakizashi and the Orimura clan. Something as important as that should have been made clear to her right away. As much as she understood the need to keep dangerous information from her, it was only excusable to a certain degree. Something as vital as this should have been communicated to her. It was her right to know. Entering her apartment, she hung up her coat and then took her phone out of her purse and sent Levi a short text that she hoped would let her lead into a conversation about the wakizashi. Moved into one of your properties safe and sound. Rest of my stuff should be here tomorrow, but I brought the sword with me, as a precaution. Taking a seat at the island counter, she flipped open her laptop while she began eating her take-out right out of the container. There were no emails from her broker, and nothing from Levi, making dinner feel even more lonely than usual. It didn’t help that her whole apartment was barren of any personal items. Those would all be arriving in boxes tomorrow, but for tonight, she had to deal with feeling like a stranger in her own home. In an attempt to cheer herself up, she thought about Christmas. There were only a few weeks until the holiday, giving her plenty of time to unbox the lights and ornaments, bringing cheer to the place with Grandma’s decorations. This brought a smile to Madeline’s lips. This year, she was going to invite everyone. The first Christmas after her kidnapping went uncelebrated, at least not in the traditional sense. She had a small, 12-inch plastic Christmas tree in her bedroom at the safe house, and that was about it. She didn’t want to impose on Levi by canvassing the loft with her grandma’s decorations, so she just let it be. The following Christmas was nearly a repeat of the year before, except she made Christmas dinner for Caslon and Levi. This year she was going to all out. She was going to get an average-sized, real tree, put up grandma’s ornaments, and invite everyone over for a late supper. She even was considering the challenge of getting small gifts for everyone. Yes, this year would be excellent! Finishing her dinner, she cleaned up after herself and then headed into the main bedroom where the en-suite held a large, soaking tub. Stripping off her clothes, she tossed them on her bed and walked barefoot into the marble-floored master bathroom. The tiles felt cold under her feet, and she looked forward to soaking in the steamy waters of the roman tub. After she got the water to a pleasantly hot temperature, she stepped in and sat down. Instinctively, she thrust both of her hands under the current, loving the sensation of the water flowing powerfully through her hands and fingers. Leaning back against the warm, smooth surface, the hot water began to soothe away her muscle tension, and with it, some of the mental stress she’d been dealing with. She was so tired, but when she tried closing her eyes, she began to think about Taro, and what Maseo said about him. What could he possibly want with her? Unconsciously, Madeline rubbed her opal between her index finger and thumb, thinking back to her kidnapping. It seemed so long ago now, and no one had bothered her since, so she figured she’d been doing a decent job of laying low and not making a blip on the supernatural radar. Could the entire thing have been about the wakizashi and not her necklace? It sounded like a big deal, and Levi had mentioned it specifically, but if that was the case, why didn’t Taro just take it? Madeline remembered the vampire glancing over at the sword the night Scott attacked her but made no effort to take it with him. He had to have known she’d been in no condition to even attempt to stop him. It would have been easy. She took a very slow, deep breath, testing the strain of it against her ribs after the comfortable water relaxed her muscles. They still ached, but between the painkillers and the steamy water, it was manageable right now. Stretching her legs out, she flexed her feet, first heel then toes. Clearly, this was the best thing about this apartment. Her old place didn’t have nearly as big of a tub. Leave it to a felinae to insist on such luxury in his properties. After spending a decadent amount of time in the tub, Madeline started the water draining and slowly climbed out to dry herself out. Her pajamas were warmed by the steam gathered in the bathroom, and the rest of the apartment was now nicely heated to a heavenly temperature. Taking her last painkiller of the day, she tucked herself in and waited for sleep to claim her. ------------------------------------------------------------- It had been over a week since she’d heard anything from Levi. Her texts and emails went unanswered. Voicemails were unreturned. She hadn’t brought it up with any of their mutual friends, thinking she would sound childish to be so worried about someone who could obviously take care of themselves. So she kept falling back on something Levi had told her from the very beginning - that he didn’t actually live in this city. It was simply where he had a safe-house. Deciding to take matters into her own hands, she rode the elevator to the seventh floor, back to the safe house she used to live at with him. At most, she’d confront him face-to-face and see what’s been going on, and at the very least, she hoped to run into Caslon. The nostalgia haunted her like a ghost. Exiting the elevator, Madeline approached the loft and began to enter the security code. Error Immediately, she tried again, slower this time in case she fudged an entry. Error The third time she deliberately keyed each number precisely on the keypad. Error He changed the lock? Standing confused, she only half-noticed the sound of Caslon’s door opening. “I thought I heard you out here,” he grinned, one hand holding a toothbrush and the other resting on his hip. His appearance took her a moment to digest. Wearing nothing, she assumed, but a white bath towel low around his waist, he invited her in, gesturing for her to give him a moment to finish brushing his brilliantly white teeth. Following him into his apartment, she was surprised how spotless it was, and how lovely the scent of expensive cologne hung in the air. Hearing him gargle down the hall, she stepped to his bathroom just as he spit some minty mouthwash into the sink. “What brings you here? Everything okay with the new place?” he asked, dabbing his square jaw dry with a hand towel. “The place is great, thank you,” Madeline replied, trying to keep her eyes locked on his, and not letting them wander down and around the rest of his body. Like Levi, Caslon had very lithe and defined muscles, only his chest had a delicate amount of chestnut brown hair on it. And as much as she never thought of him that way, she was female after all, and she’d heard enough stories about the pantherinae’s endowment to make anyone somewhat curious. “I was just stopping by to invite you and Levi over for Christmas,” Madeline explained. “It breaks my heart to tell you this, but unfortunately I am flying out this afternoon. Spending Christmas abroad with family,” Caslon frowned. “Otherwise I would accept.” “Oh,” Madeline said, downtrodden, eyes lowering in disappointment. Surprisingly, they drifted over the toiletries Caslon had on the bathroom counter, about to pack up. Spotting his hairbrush, she noticed it had what one would expect to be a reasonable amount of hair tangled up in the bristles. “Do all felidae shed hair?” she asked, suddenly reminded of Levi’s brush. “Of course,” he responded with a laugh. “We’re all mammals, why wouldn’t we?” Madeline was puzzled. That was certainly curious. “Speaking of which, have you seen Levi around? He hasn’t been responding to my texts or emails.” “Not recently,” Caslon revealed. “He headed out a week ago saying he was going to be gone for a while. Relocating to a different safe house from what I could tell.” Seeing the worried look on her face, he patted her on the top of the head and stepped past her out of the bathroom on the way to his bedroom. “This is the first time he’s moved since you’ve known him, huh? I bet you feel like a pet that’s been dropped off at a boarding kennel. This isn’t anything to be concerned about. You just need to accept it.” Madeline almost followed Caslon to his bedroom but stopped as soon as she realized where her path was leading. “You can come in, you know,” he purred from within the room, “But you wouldn’t leave for a couple of hours.” “Has anyone ever told you that you’re very pushy?” Madeline asked. “I like to think of myself as aggressively optimistic.” Madeline didn’t reply, just lowered her head in disbelief and turned around, letting herself out of his apartment in the process. Being locked out of the safe house, the news of Levi switching locations and Caslon’s decline of her invitation was more than enough to send her home without the desire, or the energy, to further chase her Christmas dream. ------------------------------------------------------------- It had been twenty-three days since Levi had vanished from her life. Oddly enough, nothing had changed between the contact he kept with their mutual friends. Only her. She couldn’t remember doing anything that would have wronged him in any way, nor had she been overly dependent on him. In fact, since the day he took her in, she put forth a herculean effort not to burden him with her human weakness. It had been difficult at times, but she felt like she had successfully risen above being a stereotypical, vulnerable human being. She had thought she’d become someone he could be proud of. Yet here she sat, curled up on her sofa all alone on Christmas Eve, with not so much as a word from him. 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. Setting her glass down on the table in front of the sofa, Madeline walked curiously to the peephole and peeked through. It was Gwen. Fumbling to unlock the pair of deadbolts, she was quite surprised to see the bubbly blond fae bounce into the living room, arms full of small, glittering gifts. The rest of the band was behind her, looking cheerful albeit a bit cold from traveling in the freezing weather. “Merry Christmas Eve, little human,” Gwen beamed softly before heading straight to the coffee table to set down her stack of foil-wrapped packages. “It’s not good for the soul to be alone tonight.” Coming in directly behind her, wearing a velvety red Santa hat in stark contrast to his black hair, was Michael, rolling in a portable sound system. He smiled brightly at Madeline, pure joy in his heart, and at that moment Madeline could see without a doubt why Gwen was smitten with him. Although he came across somewhat shy and at times awkward, when he smiled with all of his being it was akin to a sunbeam. Carrying a cooler that chimed with the clinking of glass bottles, Terrant headed to the same table were Gwen had set down the gifts, placing the cooler on the floor beside it. “I hope we’re not too late?” Terrant inquired with a smile. “It was a bit difficult to find a place to get food.” “Food?” Madeline questioned, arching a brow. “Surely you didn’t…” “Way to poorly word your thoughts, Terrant,” Maseo chuckled, as he shut the door behind them, a paper bag cradled in his right arm. “We brought drinks, and something for you and Gwen to eat.” Handing her the bag, Madeline instinctively looked inside. Chicken wings, spring rolls, pot stickers, and a couple of other appetizers. She could feel the drool gathering in the corners of her mouth. “Thanks so much guys,” Madeline stood grateful, tears readily pooling against her lower lashes as Michael plugged a USB drive into his sound system and started piping lively mix of both classic and contemporary Christmas songs into the air. As the music warmed the room, Gwen began to hang streams of magical firefly lights onto the garland Madeline had already crowned the living room with, adding an extra glitter of luminosity. The sparkle instilled in her the same joy she remembered from childhood. The scent of the pine, and the lights and tinsel decorating it brought her the same enchantment from those days so long ago. Everything around her overflowed with an unexplainable mix of sanctity, light, and love. She thought back to the night of the Halloween party when Gwen had created the confetti at The Golden Lotus which granted the imbiber the flavor of their choice. Perhaps this was the same trick? “Merry Christmas, Madeline,” Maseo whispered with a smile, greeting her with a kiss on the cheek before moving to the sofa where she had been sitting. His smile was infectious, and Madeline couldn’t stop herself as she took the appetizers to the kitchen so she could quickly get them out on some plates and bring them back to the living room table along with some glasses for her and Gwen. As soon as Madeline took a seat in one of the armchairs across from the sofa, Gwen came by and placed a glittering ring of green garland around her shoulders. Madeline inhaled deeply and let the particular scent of the garland fill her with a comforting warmth. As her mind wandered back to a past Christmas, Terrant began pouring some wine for her and Gwen, while Michael and Maseo both grabbed a bottle of their own and leaned back in their own seats. Gwen wasted no time digging into the food, and although she was clearly eating a lot, she had the most gracious way of doing so. “So how many Christmases have you all spent together?” Madeline asked, taking a sip of wine. “Well, I didn’t even celebrate Christmas until I met Terrant,” Maseo admitted. “Yeah, although the holiday is celebrated heavily in Europe, it definitely wasn’t a big thing in Japan,” Terrant added, then turned his attention to his Japanese friend. “Does your brother celebrate it today?” “As far as I know, no,” Maseo answered. “And I would be astonished if he chose to anytime in the future.” “Fae celebrate it,” Gwen chimed in between bites, “It started with us after all. We call it by many names, but we’re not picky about any of them. A celebration is a celebration. Fun is fun. Sparkle and joy are sparkle and joy.” “And Michael is modern compared to us,” Maseo continued. “So it would be really weird for him not to celebrate Christmas.” Michael nodded in agreement. “So, if you don’t mind me asking because it’s been on my mind for a long time,” Madeline began. “How did you all become friends? And sorry if I’m being too forward. If you don’t want to answer, that’s okay.” “I met Maseo before he was a vampire,” Terrant revealed. “Really?!” Madeline’s eyes widened, clearly intrigued. “Yeah,” Terrant continued, “After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I was part of the Allied Forces sent to oversee the signing of the treaty, although that wasn’t the real reason we were there.” “Terrant’s squadron was there to verify my father had died in the bomb blast,” Maseo added. “There were a lot of groups poking around there at the time, for that same reason. I also met Levi back then.” “To make a long story short, it was after being stationed there for some time, that I found Maseo in a brothel, drunk out of his mind. When I found out whose son he was, I decided to keep an eye on him, which apparently meant having to listen to him rant like a mad fool about how he hated his brother and his clan, and most importantly, how he wanted revenge.” “I wanted to get back at my brother, and Terrant had a trusted contact who was with the Mori clan,” Maseo said. “So after Maseo begged me for weeks,” Terrant sighed, “I arranged a meeting for him. Not surprisingly, they jumped at the chance to sink their teeth into Maseo, both figuratively and literally.” “Why, though?” Madeline inquired. “The Mori clan and the Tetsugawa clan have never gotten along. Let’s just leave it at that,” Maseo replied. “Ah, right,” Madeline smiled politely. She definitely wasn’t going to press any further. “Little human, Michael would like to know if he can play your video game thingie,” Gwen stated, reading what her boyfriend had typed out on his cell phone, but not being able to pronounce what the console was actually called. “Sure,” Madeline quickly replied, directing her attention towards Michael. “Let me grab the second controller too, and you can play with Gwen or Terrant. After the video game console was all set up, Michael grabbed a player-vs-player fighting game right away and challenged Terrant to a duel, which the tall red-head accepted readily. As they started their battle, the conversation moved between Gwen, Maseo, and Madeline. She discovered that Gwen had been entrusted to Maseo’s for protection by her great-grandfather. She had been born much too sensitive to fae magic, a condition that would overwhelm her to the point where she’d be entranced for days on end, lost in the Veil’s bewitching spell and unable to break out on her own. Rather than having her live out her life in such a state, her great-grandfather requested Maseo become her guardian in the mundane world. Because of real-world politics, Maseo was the best choice. The Tetsugawa clan he was born into took the side that believed humanity should be ruled over, while the Mori clan he pledged his life to believed in coexistence between all logical beings. Not to mention, his lifestyle was a political threat to neither side, so staying out of conflicts was yet but another layer of protection to him and his close friends. As Madeline stood and began to gather up some of the plates and empty food containers so she could dispose of them in the kitchen, she decided she’d ask Maseo how he met Levi next. Surprisingly, Maseo followed her into the kitchen, carrying what she could not. “Thanks,” she said, giving him a smile that was both genuine and melancholy. She could not express how grateful she was that they showed up, brightening a holiday that would have gone down as being one of the most depressing in recent memory. Hearing the shouting and laughing from the living room, her heart became a lot lighter. Having friends around - no, having family around - was a blessing. “How are you doing?” Maseo asked her, hoping to have a moment alone to see how she was holding up. He knew she was pining for Levi, and although he didn’t approve of how the thief had handled things, he did understand the reasons behind it. “For the most part I’m okay,” she admitted as she tossed some of the empty take-out containers in the trash. “But can you answer a couple of questions for me?” “I’ll try.” “Is he okay?” The question caught Maseo off guard. He wasn’t expecting her to ask about Levi’s well-being right off the bat. He was honestly expecting a question that was more along the lines of “why is he ignoring me”. “He’s fine,” Maseo answered with a smile. “I spoke with him just the other day, so you don’t have to worry.” “Did I do something wrong? Is that why he left?” “No, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s in his nature to wander like this, only it’s new to you, so it feels out of character.” “Caslon told me about that, and I can accept the whole tom-cat thing, but why isn’t he talking to me? He’s talking to everyone but me, and to be honest, it really hurts.” This was the point where Maseo wanted to tell her what he knew, all of it, but it wasn’t his choice to make or his secret to tell. At the same time, he didn’t like to see his friend in so much pain. Being ignored as she was… he could only imagine how cruel it felt. He remembered a time when he had been shunned by the girl he loved, and how it drove him into a rage. But there was no mystery at the time as to why he was not allowed to be with her, so there was closure in that, but what Madeline was going through now was different, and more painful. “Do you remember when Michael said that the more you know about things, the deeper the danger of involvement gets?” Maseo began. “Yeah, I remember.” “This is one of those things,” Maseo explained. “Levi has helped a lot of people, usually people who aren’t well off enough to take care of things on their own. That means he has a lot of capable enemies. Up until now, all of his close friends could take care of themselves, so he never had to worry about his past catching up to him. But you, you don’t have that advantage. Don’t get me wrong, you are one of most adept humans I know, but if any of his enemies decided to pick him apart, they would start with you. I suspect he’s cut ties with you because by distancing himself, he’s putting out the message that you’re not friends anymore, that he won’t protect you anymore, and by doing that, Levi thinks he’s indirectly keeping you safe.” Madeline closed her eyes for a moment and lowered her head. The night they went to the Endless must have triggered it. All the attention at the club for looking like a couple, and nearly getting killed by Scott, probably reminded Levi how fragile she was despite all he’d taught her. “Well, his plan is very convincing, especially to me,” she spoke softly, sadly. “So that’s it then?” “Likely, yes,” Maseo regretfully replied. Madeline’s heart sank like a rock tossed into the black depths of an ocean, and like that rock, she wanted to withdraw into darkness, putting a sea of nothingness between herself and the rest of the world. However, the wine and the umeshu had wrapped their numbing magic around her like a diving suit, keeping her unable to feel the expanse around her but allowing her to know it was there nonetheless. Affected by her silence, Maseo felt the need to reassure her. “But you still have all of us,” Maseo spoke, indicating himself and the others in the apartment by placing a hand on her shoulder. “There are no reasons to prevent any of us from being in your life.” His words were comforting to her. They gave her something tangible that she could trust in, besides depending solely on herself. “Will you at least be able to let me know what he’s up to? That he’s okay?” Madeline asked hopefully. Maseo took a moment to think about his reply. Although she never admitted it to him, he knew without a doubt that Madeline had been attracted to Levi for a very long time. It was obvious. He watched as his friend toyed with her emotions mercilessly, because Levi knew it as well. Maseo had been asked to help Madeline move on and detach from her mentor, for her own safety, but at the same time, Maseo knew how painful being separated from the person you loved could be. Especially by force and by reasons that you had no control over. It was a gut-wrenching, devastatingly frustrating and maddening journey. His experience had caused him to turn his back on his family and embrace the unfamiliarity of another clan. It had rebranded and re-molded him into a completely different person with a different outlook on the world. But even after all that, the girl he loved was still untouchable, and although his move to the Mori clan kept his mind busy for a long time, it never erased the feeling in his heart, and he doubted it ever would. “Yes,” the Asian vampire said finally, “I will give you updates, but that is all I can give you because I made him a promise.” Her eyes clouded with approaching tears for a second or two, almost spilling to her cheeks. “Thank you,” Madeline sniffled in appreciation. “Just knowing I didn’t cause him harm or make him mad at me is such a relief.” “Trust me,” Maseo whispered, “You are not at fault. Now, I am going to head back to the living room and watch Michael beat everyone with that video game, and give you some time to center yourself again before coming to join us, okay?” Bringing her lips together in a tight smile, Madeline nodded her head briskly a few times before turning around to find something to dry her eyes with. The rest of the evening was filled with smiles, laughter, and good-natured video game thrashings. The presents Gwen had brought were actually gem-strung bracelets she had made for each of her friends. She’d put a great deal of thought into each one of them, picking colors and stones to match each person’s style and personality. Maseo’s was made of snowflake obsidian, which stood for persistence and overcoming difficulties. There were amber beads in between them for warmth and wellbeing. Terrant’s was strung with chrysocolla, for wisdom, and quartz, which amplifies other stones. Rhodonite and jasper made up Michael’s, to give him a feeling of purpose, grounding, and a connection to nature. The one given to Madeline also had a precise meaning. The chrysoprase was for love, healing, and joy, while the fluorite was for clarity, focus, and order. It was clear the fae was hoping the little human would overcome any sadness and find her place in the world. Slipping the bracelet around her wrist, Madeline couldn’t thank Gwen enough. It was beautiful, and the beads were polished so smoothly that they reflected the lights off the decorations nearby. Gwen let her know she needed no thanks but was hoping they could all crash at Madeline’s place tonight. Without realizing it, it had become nearly 5 a.m. “I have a guest bedroom you and Michael can use,” Madeline smiled happily, “Although Terrant and Maseo will have to decide between the couch and the recliner. And I also want to say you can all stay as long as you like. I really enjoy the company.” After a brief argument, it was decided that Terrant would take the couch because of his long legs, and Maseo would take the recliner. After they got settled in, Madeline brought them a couple of blankets. This is what it must feel like to have big brothers, she mused with a smile. “I’ve made sure the curtains are closed really tight, so it should stay pretty dark in here,” she informed. “And I won’t wake you. You won’t even know that I’m here.” “Madeline, don’t feel like you have to tip-toe around us,” Terrant said, laying the blanket out flat and pulling the edge up to his chest. “We’ll be fine. Honest.” “Don’t be silly,” she replied with a laugh. “I’ve got a lot to keep me busy in my bedroom, and you have no idea how late I sleep in normally. Goodnight you two.” Seeing they both looked as comfortable as they could be on a sofa and recliner, Madeline grabbed her cell phone from the table and walked down the hall, knocking gently on the door to the second bedroom. “Do you have everything you need?” she asked politely. “Yep. We are good, little human,” Gwen replied. “Now go to bed. This is an order.” “And Gwen,” Madeline whispered, “Thank you for the Christmas magic. It felt good to feel that child-like wonder again.” “Human,” Gwen replied from behind the door, “The only magic I created were the lights on the garland. Anything else you felt was all you.” Puzzled, but smiling, Madeline walked down the hall to her our room and closed the door behind her. The perfect silence reminded her to check her phone. Still no response from Levi. Her chest tightened a bit, but remembering Maseo’s words gave her hope. Maybe someday she’d talk to Levi again. See him again. But for now, she had to be satisfied with the knowledge that he wasn’t punishing her for any particular reason. Besides, it had brought Maseo, Gwen, Terrant, and Michael to her place for Christmas Eve; something that she didn’t think would have happened otherwise. Changing into a pair of warm pajamas, Madeline turned off her light but left the curtains to her bedroom window open, so that she could faintly see the twinkle of Christmas lights from nearby buildings and homes. Hugging her pillow, she realized the evening ended much differently than she had expected it, starting out. All things considered, it was a very merry Christmas Eve.
  11. Chapter Thirteen Mighty Long Fall An alarm was going off. That is if you could call the metallic clang of two pieces of cheap cookware being smashed together an alarm. 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. So why was she suddenly straddling the still-warm Spanish roof tiles? What had gone wrong? It wasn't until she felt the gentle pressure of two small paws on the back of her left calf that she realized the cruel joke that was being played on her. Nothing had actually gone wrong, and she didn't need to turn her head around to know that the ball of warmth now curling up against her thigh was, in fact, a large, black cat. And a mischievous one at that. You asshole. You did this didn't you? she thought to herself as a handful of local men raced around below her, investigating the area surrounding the house she was blending into. All she could do was remain motionless and wait for the commotion to settle, hoping she didn’t get spotted. That was no small feat, considering how uncomfortable the tiles were against her ribcage and pelvis. As the minutes crawled by, she could feel the cat shift his weight and start grooming its paws. Laying her ear lightly against the deep crimson braid of her hair, Madeline tried to push images of strangling the cat out of her mind and replaced them with the mother and daughter whom this contract was for. She had accepted the job of helping a young mother and her three-year-old daughter recover a ring that was assumed stolen. After some investigating, Madeline deduced that the father of the child had taken what few valuables the mother had and fled to Mexico. One of the valuables happened to be a sapphire ring. It had been passed down through the mother's family for over four generations, but it was further believed that the stone itself had been in her family for much, much longer. It was hinted that the gem was special and that lone fact was the reason Madeline was hired. An ordinary ring would not have attracted the attention of Madeline’s broker, nor would it have secured Madeline's talents, especially since the mother and daughter were not the ones actually paying her expenses nor were they supplying the reward. It was one of those jobs where the client wished to remain anonymous. The cat suddenly got up and began carefully padding its way around her sprawled-out body, working it's way to her head. Madeline shot a glare full of thunderclouds at the feline as it sat right in front of her face, his emerald-green eyes twinkling with mischief, a bemused smirk curled upon its moist, little black lips. With a flick of his tail, which felt very much to Madeline like an insult, the black cat leaped down from the roof and vanished into the darkness. "Gato negro," came a shout out of the darkness below, followed by a gruff chuckle and a few other mumbled words that Madeline couldn't make out. Then after a few more minutes, there was silence. The men had gone, and the area outside of the house had grown dark and lifeless once more. Patiently, Madeline gave herself ten more minutes of uncomfortable roof-hugging before moving on to the room below. An alarm was going off. What the hell…? Again? Suddenly, the curves and protrusions of the red roof tiles melted into soft, cotton quilting, and the cover of the night brightened into a fresh, new morning. Madeline dwelled on the thought that she might have actually slept through her alarm, a feat she hadn't accomplished in a very long time. Then again, she had just returned from her first solo trip out of the country, and the jet lag had worn her out. So much so that it had affected her dreams, making her relive her recent mission with a few twists. For one, Levi hadn’t been there at all, so why she was dreaming about him being roguish in his cat form? And two, she didn’t set off any alarms on that job. Taking a slow, deep breath, she rolled over. Something was out of sorts. A warmth. A shadow… She quickly opened her eyes and found herself staring into the same pair of emerald eyes from her dream. "What are you doing here?" she gasped, gathering her bed sheets tightly to her body in one quick movement. Stretched out the length of her king-sized bed, her mentor laid leisurely. His shaggy, black mane brushed past his shoulders lightly, and spiked here and there around his face, framing his eyes flirtatiously. He was fully clothed in dark-gray jeans and a rich red sweater flecked with black, his whole body emitting the familiar scent of sandalwood. Madeline wondered suddenly if the scent was what had triggered his intrusion into her dream. "Just dropped by to see how your trip went," his velvety voice purred, face propped up elegantly with his hand. All the while he was smiling, obviously proud of himself for sneaking in and surprising her so. "It's not appreciated," the redhead replied, irritated at how he always showed up as he pleased. It was no use getting angry with him. It wasn’t like she could stop him from coming and going even if she wanted to, not that she really did. His sudden appearances never made her feel unsafe. Never frightened her. That, and over time she learned she could always trust him with things that truly mattered. Little things that didn’t however… "I made coffee..." he tempted, still refusing to leave the bed, "and pancakes." Madeline recognized the scent of the freshly brewed coffee hovering deliciously in the air. "You can't make pancakes," she grumbled, eyes narrowing suspiciously. "You’re right. I lied," Levi admitted, still smiling and remaining motionless on the bed. There was a silence that hung awkwardly for Madeline, but no doubt felt like a victory to Levi. "A little privacy, please," She finally piped up, pulling the sheets even higher as if shielding herself against his presence. Gracefully, Levi sat up, draped his long legs over the side of the bed and strutted out of the room, knowing Madeline's eyes were on him the whole time. After he was well down the hall, Madeline let out a long sigh and threw off the covers. She always slept in shorts and a tank top, but even wearing that around him seemed dangerous. It wasn't that she was worried he would try to take advantage of her, but that her own willpower would someday falter. Even without being in a relationship with him, his teasing and indiscretions tore at her heart. As strong and stubborn she was, Madeline knew she wasn't strong enough to deal with that if exposed to it for too long. And thus, her wall stayed up, and she repeatedly convinced herself that pursuing the relationship would end in disaster. Still... She cursed herself for even thinking about it and stormed off into her walk-in closet to find something to wear. After slipping on some jeans and a black camisole, she made her way to the kitchen where Levi was pouring coffee. There was also a neatly arranged plate of cranberry muffins that wasn't there last night. "So how did the trip go?" Levi inquired again, glancing up at her while he poured the creamer. All manner of teasing was now gone, much to Madeline's disappointment. "It was much easier than I was thinking it was going to be," she replied, taking a seat on one of the island’s three bar stools. "Turns out, the thief pawned the ring. All I had to do was buy it back from the shop. " "Relish that," he replied stirring the coffee for her, "That's not going to happen very often." Madeline nodded as she reached anxiously for the mug he had just prepared for her. "By the way, new job for you tonight," Levi continued as he began to pour his own cup. "Local." "Local? That's going to be two unusual jobs back to back. What's this one about?" "Our broker wants you to investigate that club near the docks that just opened a month ago." "Endless? Investigate it for what?" she questioned as she wrapped her right hand around the mug’s large handle, her left hand cupping the warm ceramic. Slowly, she brought it to her lips, taking an indulgent sip. Levi always gave it a perfect balance of sweet and bitter. "Just a recon mission, nothing more." Recon mission? Madeline didn't do recon missions unless there was something to be recovered at a later date. Not to mention all the recons she had done up to this point involved a target of some sort. "Wear something expensive and sexy," Leviticus suggested with a devilish grin, derailing her train of thought. "And I'll pick you up at 10 p.m." ------------------------------------------------------------- It was 9 p.m., and Madeline was still looking through her closet for something suitable to wear. Her contracts paid very well, so the selection of dresses was not limiting. Clubwear wasn't even the issue. The issue was her date. And although she told herself a million times that she didn't care about him, she wanted Levi’s eyes on her alone. She slid hangers left and right, frantically assessing her collection, before settling on a classic little black dress with long, sheer sleeves. The hem had about 2 inches of the softest black lace sewn into the bottom, giving the naughtiness of the short length a whisper of feminine dignity. She matched it with her favorite strappy black heels, a pair of sparkling diamond earrings, and her ever-present family heirloom - the harlequin black opal - around her neck. She gathered most of her long red curls up, leaving a few teasing strands to brush her bare skin. She usually wouldn't dare to put her hair up when she knew there might be the possibility of vampires, but being with Levi gave her courage, and above all else, he made her feel safe. Grabbing her black leather clutch and a faux fur wrap, she locked up her apartment and took the elevator down seven floors to the lobby. It was 10 p.m. on the dot, and as expected, a car was waiting. The driver opened the door for her, and she slid gracefully across the leather seat to Levi's side. She could feel his eyes undressing her, making her both elated and defensive at the same time. "You look lovely," he responded to her attire with enthusiasm, and a provocative smile. Trying to hide her reddening cheeks, she glanced at him to see what he was wearing, and her heart started to flutter. His shoulder-length, jet black hair was highlighted with streaks of crimson. And his dress shirt, which was only buttoned up halfway, had a wet-look to it which shimmered like liquid beneath his open, thigh-length tailored black jacket. An intricate silver pendant, his gatekey, hung on a thin black cord from around his neck. She only saw him wear it when he needed to put on airs - to prove he was a lot higher on the food chain than anyone local would probably have ever seen. She couldn’t think of a reason why he would be wearing it now, unless he knew something about the job that she didn’t, or was suspecting there might be trouble. "Why are you wearing that?" she flat-out asked him, pointing to his pendant. "We've never been to this place," he began, "But it's likely not a place for you, so I figured it would be an added measure to keep you safe." To keep her safe? It didn’t seem like anything dangerous in particular would happen in a public place, and she had knowingly gone into much worse situations without him showing so much as an ounce of concern. So why the sudden protectiveness? As she was drifting off in thought, the leg of his black trousers brushed against her bare skin as he shifted closer to her. Madeline gasped at the sensation. She didn't want to be so tempted by him. Didn't want to feed him her emotions right now. Her body wanted to increase contact, but her mind was getting angry once again over the thought of being used for food. "I suppose you would need to be well fed before we head inside," Madeline managed to stab the words out, wanting to make it clear she wasn't a fool, and was aware of the games he played with her to entertain himself. He let out a small sigh at her accusation. "Just making sure we play the part tonight. That's all," Levi replied despondently. "And I do have an image to uphold." "Of course," she said crossing her arms. That image was of a very free-spirited, devil-may-care, someone important in the shapeshifter world - which Madeline never cared to inquire about. She knew people disliked him because he was uncontrollable... and maybe that was her issue as well. As the town car pulled up to the front of the club, Levi patted Madeline on the bare knee. "Showtime." The driver opened the door for Levi first, who stepped out with feline grace. Rounding to the passenger side, Levi opened the door for Madeline and politely extended his hand for her to take, guiding her out of the vehicle in one fluid movement. Offering his arm to her, the pair stepped toward the entrance in perfect sync. As they approached, the doorman recognized Levi's pendant and waved them through. The cold air within the club shocked Madeline immediately. It was far colder than the outside December air, and she regretted not bringing more than a wrap for her shoulders. Being prepared was part of the job, and she had failed in that regard this evening. And in the presence of her teacher. Embarrassing to say the least. Before her sight even adjusted to the drastic drop in lighting, she could feel many sets of eyes her and Levi. It wasn't normal. Was it because she was human? Was this place that exclusive? There was a sudden weight and warmth on her shoulders as Levi rested his arm on her. “I know a good way to warm you up,” he purred, leading her to the dance floor. Without any resistance, she followed his lead. She’d always loved to dance at the clubs, and Levi was pretty much the perfect dance partner with his fluid movements and sense of rhythm. The music pulsed with a heavy bass as she and Levi kept perfect time with each other. He placed his arms on her shoulders at the same time she set her hands on either side of his waist, their hips swaying left and right as they felt the music and responded to one another’s movements. Madeline looked into Levi’s eyes for a brief moment, in between casually scanning the room and other dancers. He was staring at her strangely as if he was really enjoying himself rather than playing a role. He slowly brought her body closer to his until their hips were almost touching. Madeline’s temperature rose. This was going a bit too far. She looked back into his eyes, and his expression was serious. It broke her rhythm for an instant, and she found her body reacting to him. This wasn’t one of his tricks, at least not one she knew of first hand. She tried to distract herself from his gaze by studying the crowd again. People around them were whispering. Judging. But why? Assessing the clientele, there appeared to be all manner of beings here, but the atmosphere was not as casual and friendly as at the Lotus. There were those that had the characteristics of vampires, some of the more common type of shapeshifters, and possibly fae, but very few actual humans. Suddenly, a few of those who’d been observing Madeline and Levi started to snap photos with their cell phones. Levi noticed it too. "Well that is certainly interesting," Levi whispered into Madeline’s ear over the grind of the music. "Apparently we’re news to someone." “Well, you are wearing your pendant. That has to trigger some gossip I would assume, especially among those that don’t know who you are. Could that be what this mission is about?" Madeline asked, “To see who has an interest in you?” "Or rather who has an interest in you..." Levi said, suddenly unamused, staring off toward the far end of the room. Madeline followed his gaze to a group of men who were possibly vampires, one of which she recognized immediately, but hadn’t seen for at least six months. "What’s he doing here?" she whispered harshly under her breath so only Levi could hear her uneasy tone. It was Scott. And here she was, dancing with Leviticus. To make matters worse, her shapeshifting date’s serious expression had turned, and he was now playing off of Scott's festering jealousy, throwing devilish smiles at the vampire as if they were challenges. Scott's companions were clearly trying to get him to confront Levi, prompting the silver-haired vampire to make a slicing motion along his throat directed at the couple. Her mind flashed back to the morning Scott had bitten her, and Madeline froze, eyes locked on her ex. She saw the satisfied grin that began to spread across his face as he realized he could still affect her. Suddenly there were two warm and gentle hands on either side of her face, turning her gaze away from the vampires and toward a familiar pair of green eyes. Levi's eyes closed as he brought her face to his, the warm softness of his lips and the comfort of his scent making Madeline forget everything around her. Instinctively, she reached up and placed her palms lightly on his chest, but not to push him away. Years ago, he kissed her during the blue diamond job to show they were a genuine couple and more recently with the unexpected forcefulness of the umeshu, but that had been nothing so honest as this. This kiss was so sincere and tender that it broke her heart when their lips parted. She opened her eyes gradually, and for an instant, his expression was devout. Was her hope blinding her again? No, the look Levi gave her was the real thing. A few flashes of blinding white light cause her to flinch as the same few people that were on their cell phones earlier continued taking pictures. She glanced back at Levi, finding her attention fixed on his soft, beautifully curved lips, but his eyes were already transfixed back on Scott. The sly, devilish smile crept back in as he shot the vampire a wicked glare. Scott’s rage was at the breaking point, as his ego could only bottle up so much, but Levi knew Scott wouldn’t erupt here. There were laws of the shrouded world that prevented things like that in public. Knowing he was mere moments away from breaking those laws, Scott and his small entourage of friends ducked out of the club. It was a big piece of pride to swallow, but he frankly had no choice in the matter. Any older or stronger vampires in the club would have ripped him apart later had he transgressed. "Well, that went well," Levi chuckled under his breath. Madeline semi-punched him in the chest out of annoyance more than anything. Whatever feelings she had felt coming off of him during their kiss must have been fabricated by Levi to anger Scott. She'd been tricked yet again. "What was that for?" Levi responding, trying to make it look like his feelings were hurt. "You know he's an ass, can't be trusted, and he's stupid on top of that. I warned you about him from the get-go. You should be grateful you were able to get him back." Another flash from a cell phone wiped the playfulness out of Levi completely. His gaze sliced out into the crowd like a blade, cutting through bodies as he searched for the culprit. Madeline knew that look, and began trying to nonchalantly read the crowd in her own way, but knew she couldn't come close to analyzing as thoroughly as Levi could. He was listening. Sensing emotions. Sensing intentions. Behind his eyes, he was also calculating something or another. Madeline could never tell what he was really up to. But just as his expression was suddenly all business, it quickly returned back to playful charm. His eyes were still fixed away from her, now on a pair of young females seated on a sofa in the nearby lounge. Madeline could feel her face flush with jealousy as she saw Levi lick his lips, gifting the ladies a sinful grin. "If you'll excuse me," he said, giving Madeline a sideways glance as he slipped out of his jacket and placed it on her shoulders over her wrap. "I have some socializing to do. Have the doorman summon a cab for you anytime you want to leave. I'll pick up the tab of course." And that was it. He hurried away from her without another word. He actually hurried. Madeline felt another camera flash slap her in the face. She was beyond hiding her feelings right now and didn't really care who saw her anger and pain. Her eyes followed Levi for a few more seconds, long enough to see him take a seat between the two young ladies who wasted no time cuddling up to him. Walking alone back to the bar, she figured she would try to make the most of the night by taking her mind off of Levi. The problem was, no one would talk to her. There were plenty of attractive men at the club, but whenever she tried to chat up any of them, they politely excused themselves from her presence as if she had the plague. Her frustration was only building the longer she stayed, so it was quite easy to convince herself it was time to go. After the doorman called her a cab, she peeled Levi’s jacket off her shoulders almost repulsively and handed it to him as she exited. "Make sure the asshole gets this back," she said under her breath. Stepping out of the club and into the night, Madeline gave one last backward glance at Endless. In the dark warehouse district, it’s white neon sign stood out like a full moon on a clear night. The only thing she was able to deduce about it was how pretentious it felt on the inside. And cold. Vampires wouldn’t care about the cold, but common shapeshifters would have found the temperature refreshing. Without Levi at her side, it had been impossible to make small talk with anyone, and she got to feeling the only humans there were possessions. Hopefully, that would be enough information to report back with, unless Levi was able to extract any more. Madeline sighed. Levi. He wasn’t going to be reliable in any way tonight. At least not to her. Quietly getting into the taxi that was summoned for her, she gave the driver the usual directions to the block near hers, and then was silent for the rest of the drive. Upon arrival, she took a look around, noting the street was well lit and quiet. Seeing nothing suspicious, she strolled casually toward her building and keyed her way into the downstairs lobby. Riding the elevator up to her floor, Madeline leaned weakly against the back wall, not realizing until now that the evening had taken such an emotional toll on her. Raising her fingertips to her cheek, she wiped away the wet trail of a tear, chastising herself for feeling this way yet again. Why did she love him? Why couldn’t she get over him? The anger and jealousy that had her in such a tizzy earlier in the evening had now dissipated, leaving only frustration and sadness behind. Exiting the elevator, Madeline stepped leisurely down the quiet hallway to her apartment door and lazily placed her fingertips on the security keypad. As she began entering the first few digits, she realized the electronic beeps that chimed in response to each key-press were not echoing the same way they ordinarily did when the hallway was empty. There was a solid object somewhere behind her. Madeline’s fingers momentarily froze on the keypad. No one should be on this floor but her. With a sudden flurry, she pressed the last digits. As the door gave way in front of her, the force of a blow from behind impaled the doorknob into the wall and sent Madeline sailing into the blackness of her living room. She slammed hard, chest first, into her coffee table, which cracked until her weight. "I asked for ONE NIGHT to make it up to you," Scott bellowed as Madeline attempted to scramble away. In one fluid motion, he was at her again, grabbing her by the back of her dress and smashing her down hard onto the broken coffee table once more. She raised her arms up to block her face from hitting the fractured surface, leaving her torso unprotected. Upon impact, Madeline’s ribcage electrified with sharp, crippling pain. Picking up a vase that had rolled onto the floor, Scott shattered it against the living room wall. "That was all I wanted, now look what you've made me do...." "How did you...?" she gasped in agony before she could finish her sentence. Every breath felt like it was tearing her apart from within. "Find you?" he answered spitefully and then huffed in disbelief. "You're actually concerned with that?” Wearing the same clothes from the club, but now stained with someone else’s blood, and his short, silver hair disheveled, Scott grabbed her by the wrist and started to twist her body to the hardwood floor. Although he foiled her attempt at making for the far corner of her apartment, it was only temporary, as Madeline still managed to swing her legs around and kick Scott’s legs out from under him. Wrestling out of his grasp as he fell, she bolted to her safe in the corner and pressed her thumb to the fingerprint reader, tears of agony streaming down her face. It opened with an electronic hiss just as Scott came at her again, but by that time she had her hand wrapped around what she was looking for. The wakizashi. Despite the debilitating pain in her ribs, her adrenaline allowed her enough coherency to stand and kick off her heels. Unsheathing the blade, she pointed it towards Scott. The pain was nearly blinding, but she knew if she doubled-over from it she was going to die. Biting down on her own lip until it was bloody, Madeline took a few well-aimed swings at the vampire, who even in the near darkness managed to dodge every attempt. While Madeline's blade missed its intended mark, it sliced effortlessly into her sofa and anything else in its way. It wasn't long before the living room was littered with bits of upholstery. "You can't hit me," Scott mocked, "Between my natural agility and the darkness, the outcome won't fall in your favor." Scott grabbed a floor lamp, ripping its cord from the wall, and swung it back at her mockingly. Snickering, he took one perfect and lightning-quick swing at her arm causing her already weak grip to fail, and the wakizashi spun across the floor. Momentarily paralyzed by the additional pain from her arm, Scott took advantage of her inaction and swung the lamp at her head, connecting on the right side of her face and knocking her to the floor. Straddling her, he held her wrists down and locked his long legs around hers. "I'm going down... and I'm taking you with me." He exposed his fangs and lunged at her throat. For a moment, time stopped for Madeline. She was convinced this was it. This was how she was going to die. She could not move. Had no strength left to fight. And with all the pain she was in, death was actually feeling preferable. Closing her eyes to accept her fate, she wondered if Levi would avenge her. Scott suddenly inhaled sharply, and Madeline felt the weight of his body lift away, followed by a loud thud which she assumed was his body slamming against the wall. She remained perfectly still, not really sure what the hell was going on and uncertain if she could even make an effort to escape. An unfamiliar, commanding voice from above startled her. "How dishonorable of you, Scott," the voice, male and peppered with an accent, spoke. "Shamefully stalking an ex-lover." Madeline turned her head slowly, acutely aware of how her cheek throbbed where the lamp had made contact. Her eyes were adjusted enough to the darkness to see what appeared to be the silhouette of Scott doubled-over against the wall where he landed. She turned her head back to see a bare hand extended out to her. Nervously bracing for the pain she knew would increase tenfold if she tried to sit up, she reached out. As she was gently helped up, the debilitating pain erupted. Then, suddenly, it was gone. As she breathed easier, confusion set it. Pain suppression? Who was this man? She couldn't see many details in the darkness, but this man was slender and tall, likely with dark hair, and from his accent, he was Japanese. Reaching down, he took hold of a pillar candle that had toppled over in the commotion, and placing it on a shelf, lit it with a traditional match from his suit pocket. As the candlelight flickered its golden light in the corner of the room, his familiar features were made clear. With silky-straight, shoulder-length black hair and curvy, tempting lips, he glanced around the room. His clothes were expertly tailored and pressed, and expensive, and yet he dispatched Scott without causing them so much as a wrinkle. His skin was healthy looking, and his hand was warm when she took it, but he was strong, much stronger than an average human would be. His face was strikingly handsome in an ethereal sort of way, and his dark-brown eyes seemed to pierce everything around him. Intelligent eyes. Disarming eyes. Eyes that could see into souls. And he bore an uncanny resemblance to Maseo. "I apologize for not taking action sooner, but we had a bit of trouble landing on your roof," he said suddenly in a deep, throaty voice that warmed Madeline's cheeks. "I am Taro Tetsugawa. It is a pleasure to meet you, despite the circumstances." He bowed formally, the faint amber light reflecting in the soft silken luster of his ebony hair. As his gaze passed over the room again, it prompted Madeline to do the same. It was a disaster. Even in the low light, she could see destruction. Table lamps knock over. The sofa and chair were ruined. Bits and pieces of broken vase were everywhere. Shaking off the thought of how much work it was going to take to clean up the mess, her gaze once again landed on Taro, catching him inspecting her with his brilliant brown eyes. The knowledge and intensity she had seen in them earlier now burned with something akin to amusement. Out of nowhere, his lips curled into a promiscuous grin. Her pulse began to race as her body grew warm from the flash of wicked images which played uncontrollably in her mind. This wasn't of her own doing. It was like they were being projected into her, and she recalled the time she spent on the edge of the bathtub with Maseo. "Forgive me," he said in a husky voice barely above a lover's whisper, his eyes showing no signs of letting hers go. Suddenly, Scott bolted from the corner and dashed towards the door with all the strength he could muster. In a blur of motion that was barely a blink, Taro beat him to the doorway and locked his hand tightly around the vampire's throat. Displeasure burned in his eyes now, and his expression was grim. Scott’s eyes, in contrast, were wide with terror. "Do you not know when you are beaten, boy?" he snarled threateningly, tightening his grip slowly until the struggling vampire’s body went limp. Scott fell to the floor with the release of Taro's hold. "Get him out of my sight..." Taro spat out as he pulled a tightly wrapped handkerchief from his breast pocket and tossed it onto Scott’s unconscious body. From seemingly out of nowhere, another man appeared to drag the unconscious vampire out the door. Madeline recalled seeing this second man at the club earlier. He had been on his cell phone, but not taking pictures. Now alone with her new savior in the moonlight, Madeline's lips parted to say "thank you," but Taro spoke first. "I will have a check delivered to you in the morning, covering the damage," he said politely, letting the harsh expression from dealing with Scott fade from his features. "Oh that," Madeline said, trying to smile, an expression made easier by the numbing of her injuries. "It's ok. I have it covered. Thank you though." Finding herself at a loss for words, Madeline felt oddly vulnerable at the moment. The crackle and hiss of an electronic voice sparked into the air around Taro. "En route." Tilting his head slightly to the left, Taro replied into a mic that was pinned to his lapel and then turned his full attention back to the lovely redhead before him. "That would be for me," Taro said softly to Madeline. He bowed deeply to her, black hair falling softly forward and back. "Sayonara." As he turned to leave, Madeline felt an unexplained panic swell up. It compelled her to reach out and grab the cloth of his sleeve as she took a step forward, prompting Taro to turn back around. The touch and close proximity of their bodies brought about another emotion in Taro's eyes, something of a grand temptation that beckoned to be met. He didn't lean any closer to her. However, Madeline desperately wished him to do so. She brought herself to him until she felt the tease of his breath and the brush of his lips against hers. With a jolt, she backed away. What the hell am I doing? She shook her head roughly in an effort to clear her mind. This wasn't like her at all. Watching her distress, Taro gave the most subtle smile and repeated himself once again. "Sayonara." With a whisper, he was gone, and the air around Madeline grew still and cold. Half a second later, the pain returned, brutal and unrelenting. Feeling nausea start to brew in the pit of her stomach, she took a few shaky steps backward before her knees lost all strength and she collapsed unconscious onto her tattered sofa. ------------------------------------------------------------- Amidst the gusts of the propeller, Taro slipped into his awaiting helicopter. Taking a plush leather seat next to Takeshi, the man who had dragged Scott’s body away, another subordinate slid the craft’s door tightly closed. The conversation that ensued was entirely spoken in a centuries-old dialect of Japanese. "I've gathered more information on her, sir," Takeshi said as he handed Taro a tablet. "Her clothing and shoe sizes, interesting items in her bedroom, contents of her medicine cabinet, books in her collection, and so forth. Her computer was tightly encrypted so I couldn't get into it in the amount of time allowed." Taro scrolled through the information carefully, nodding in satisfaction. "The contents of her computer aren't too important to us at this time. We've confirmed she has been trained by that prodigal felinae Leviticus, and the pendant she wears matches Gideon's description. And she has that wakizashi." Taro remembered precisely what Gideon had said about the night she stole the wakizashi. He reminded himself that affinity Madeline had for it wasn't necessary to their cause, but did confirm their suspicions. It would be an added bonus, however, if they were to win over supporters of that particular clan, and that made the idea of possessing her for the long term too tempting to pass up. The fact that she had Leviticus' scent on her amused him. From every detail gathered thus far, her relationship with Levi was nothing more than that of a master and apprentice. Levi's aimless and lecherous behavior was well-known, and his actions tonight at Endless reflected that, as expected. Speaking of which… "Is the traitor secure?" "Of course," Takeshi responded. "I've restrained Scott in the rear of the craft." "Excellent. Forward this to Yukihiro and have him compile it into Miss Madeline’s file," Taro instructed. "Let us be off." As the helicopter ascended, Taro dwelled a bit more on the situation. Cat shapeshifters of both sexes toyed with humans like mice, grooming their prey to feed off their emotions and then feasting on the strong rage and heartbreak that followed at the breakup. Some were more notorious at it than others. They certainly didn't care about their victims any more than a vampire would. So why was Levi scent marking? Taro's eyes narrowed a bit, considering the possibility. Did the cat know about the necklace and the blade? Was he trying to make a weak, pathetic attempt at a power grab? A chuckle escaped Taro’s lips, drawing the curiosity of Takeshi. We'll just see about that. ------------------------------------------------------------- Levi wasn't sure if it was his conscience or his instinct, but something had been nagging at him all night. The feeling of unease led him to Madeline’s apartment where he currently found himself pensively riding the elevator up to her floor just as the sky was starting to lighten. As the elevator doors opened and he stepped out into the hall, her open door caused him to briefly pause. Madeline had the entire floor to herself now, but she wouldn’t in her right mind leave her door wide open like that. He taught her better. Then again he was against her moving into this place to begin with. With uncharacteristic urgency, Levi rushed to her doorway and cautiously stepped through. A potent emotion, one that he’d denied himself for months now, twisted his stomach. He was unable to mask his shock upon looking at the complete disaster that was her living room. Furniture was cut to pieces, and there were shards of porcelain littering the ground. Touching nothing, Leviticus took a few more hurried steps into the room, his highly polished black shoes keeping carefully out of the debris as he nervously approached her. Unaware his mouth was agape, he was relieved to hear her heart still beating rhythmically as she lay unconscious on the torn-up sofa, her dress from the night before ripped and dirty. Leviticus knelt silently next to Madeline, gently brushing strands of wild hair from her face. With a look of concern, he softly stroked the developing bruise on her cheek with the back of his hand before noticing additional bruises developing on her wrists and arms. Surprisingly, he caught himself caressing her bloody, lower lip lightly with his thumb, and again his heart ached with that same undeniable feeling. He forced his eyes shut as if attempting to seal his body against what he was feeling. Deep down, he knew what it had to be, but he couldn’t allow it. He could never allow it. On the other side of the sofa, the wakizashi rested carelessly on the floor. He remembered clearly the near-fatal run-in she had obtaining that sword, and there were a few rumors floating around as to who was behind the contract she accepted that night long ago. He was worried about her then too, but nowhere near as worried as he found himself right now. It had taken him completely by surprise. After a deep breath, he reached out with his senses as far as he could, trying to detect anyone within a block of the building that wasn’t human. Thankfully, there was no one. He then took another deep breath and laid his hands on either side of Madeline’s torso. The knotting and rupture of energies indicated there was severe bruising to her ribs on her left side, with two of them actually being cracked. The rest of her injuries were typical of surface bruising, with the worse one being a deeper bruise on her sword arm. Biting the corner of his lower lip, his hands warmed unnaturally as he used some of his own ki to repair the broken ribs by knitting and cleansing the flesh and bone. It had been a very, very long time since he’d healed anyone, but it wasn’t a skill he could actually forget how to use. He would fix her ribs, and to an extent, the bruising, but he needed to be careful not to do too much. After a third deep breath, he removed his hands from her body and focused his attention on the mess around him. Knowing Madeline was now out of physical danger, his emerald eyes began to cloud over with rage. From the strong scent of decay in the room, he knew what had done this, but now he wanted to know who. Closing his eyes, he began to cycle through the layers of scents in the room. He immediately disregarded Madeline’s scent and was left with the stench of the undead, as well as a faint trace of blood that was not Madeline’s. Vampires. Concentrating on that, he was surprised to be able to separate out the scents of two different vampires. One he didn’t recognize at all, but the other… that one was familiar. He followed the stench to the far wall of the living room, to where one of the vampires apparently hit the wall hard enough to leave a strong olfactory imprint. As Levi got closer to the wall, he picked up the undertone of a common, cheap cologne. There was no doubt who this was. Next time I see you, Scott, you’re going to burn. Hands clenched tightly into fists, Levi’s nails began to sharpen to the point they were nearly cutting into his own flesh, and for a single, brief moment, he almost lost it. Almost. He tensed up his entire body, locking up each individual nerve and muscle as he suppressed the burning ferocity that was trying to escape. After a few minutes of silent struggle, Levi was able to slow his breathing and place a mask of disappointment on his face. Clearing his throat loudly, he raised his voice hoping to wake Madeline up. “My, my… quite a lovely mess you have going on here.” His familiar voice dragged her out of her sleep as if it was mud. Groggy, Madeline opened her heavy eyes. As her sight came into focus, she recognized her intruder. Exotic facial features with stunning green eyes. Soft and sleek, shoulder-length black hair. Perfectly pressed dark-gray trousers. Snug-fitting, blood-red colored silk shirt. At least he had changed clothes from the night before. Impulsively, Madeline went to sit up but ended up gasping instead. The tenderness caused her to take a few breaths before continuing more slowly into an upright position. She had no idea she had been beaten so severely since her adrenaline had been pumping so hard last night. Levi’s arm was around her immediately, helping her gently into a sitting position. “Last night was… a nightmare. After I left the club..." she paused for a moment, catching her breath, "Scott paid me a visit. He was going to kill me, but apparently, he is in trouble with someone named Taro Tetsugawa. He stopped Scott.” Madeline didn't miss Levi's brief expression of alarm. "I won't go into Scott," Leviticus said firmly, successfully fighting back something akin to hatred. "But Tetsugawa... Taro Tetsugawa is a dangerous person with a lot of political influence." Leviticus arched a thin brow in contemplation as he stared at the floor, thoughts analyzing a million things and his mood began to visibly darken. After a momentary silence, he continued. "I'm surprised he came here himself after Scott. Any of his underlings would have been able to handle it, even the better trained human ones. There has to be a bigger reason he came here personally." "Dangerous, eh?" Madeline said, wincing a bit as she forced herself to stand while Levi continued to support her. "Dangerous to whom? Because having dangerous allies can be a good thing." She saw Leviticus' lips part, about to say something, when the sound of Madeline’s intercom buzzer interrupted. It was the concierge from the downstairs lobby. "Yes?" Madeline queried, discomfort evident in her voice. "A courier has arrived for you ma'am," the voice crackling over the speaker replied. "This early? From who?" "A Mr. Tetsugawa." Madeline paused for a moment in consideration while Levi just stood by silently. "Send him up please." "Yes, ma'am." She waited for Levi to make a crack about the security, but he said nothing, still carefully supporting Madeline’s body with his own. Debating whether or not to primp, she figured if it was from Taro Tetsugawa he already knew what condition she was in. It took only a few moments before the elevator door opened with a deceptively pleasant ding. The courier was a young Japanese man (apparently Taro only trusts his own people with even menial tasks) in his early 20s, who looked briefly shocked at the lack of front door and the mess within. With a quick shift to a mask of professionalism, he stepped into the living room carrying a dozen red roses and an envelope. The roses brought red to Madeline's cheeks as she carefully stepped away from Levi to accept them into her arms, and with a graceful bow, the young man placed the card into her awaiting fingertips. He only took one glance at Levi with emotionless eyes, and then after a final bow, excused himself and disappeared back into the elevator. The florist's paper rustled as she made quick work of the envelope, the lovely scent filling her senses. "My dearest Madeline, A true gentleman would always right a wrong, despite being told not to do so. Please accept this with my humble apologies. If you ever find yourself in Japan, I would be honored to be your personal escort. Yours, Taro Tetsugawa" A check for $10,000 was included. "Well this is a bit unexpected," Madeline whispered, still a bit shocked by the amount of money that was sent to her. She would be lying if she said she didn't feel charmed by the gesture, despite being in pain. Between letting the rose petals brush against her lips, and the honey-sweet words echoing in her thoughts, Madeline didn't notice Levi had taken the card from her fingertips to read it himself. "So just how dangerous is this man again?" she asked him. "He’s a snake," Levi responded sharply, having read the card and now touching the edge of the paper to his lips as he began processing the entire situation. "Something isn't right. The mission last night. The fiasco here. I don’t like it." "You aren't the only one," Madeline added in a whisper, knowing full well Levi could hear her clearly. Ignoring her, he continued to muse over his thoughts out loud. "It wasn't much of a recon mission. Was more like... entrapment." "Entrapment?" Madeline questioned. "What do you mean?" Leviticus didn't reply to her, didn't even acknowledge he had heard her question. The look on his face revealed that his thoughts were brewing up a storm, then suddenly his expression turned dark and feral. A low, vicious growl rattled in his throat, something that Madeline had never heard come out of him before. Suddenly, he grabbed the roses out of her arms, tossing them to the floor. He took both of her hands firmly in his, being careful not to injure her wrists any further. He was in the worse mood she had ever seen. It caused whatever thoughts Madeline had concerned herself with to be cast aside trivially, and her full attention was focused clearly and nervously on Levi. Her breathing had quickened, bringing pain to her ribs, and she was genuinely frightened. He’d never scared her like this before. She searched his eyes, which seemed to be almost glowing, for something that would clue her in on his intentions. They burned a flickering green, but as he started speaking to her, they extinguished and became gentle, almost tender. "That wakizashi," he said in low, even voice, “Keep it locked up somewhere safe. It is connected to you in a permanent way that could put you in danger if more people find out you have it. Your ribs are heavily bruised, so make sure you manage the pain and rest. And you have to find another place to live. Immediately. You’re not safe here anymore. No matter what you may think you see or hear, trust your instincts and stay strong. Second and triple guess everything. If there’s an emergency, contact Caslon. And don't trust Tetsugawa." Levi’s mouth parted as if to continue, but instead, he looked away for a moment. When he finally looked back, his expression was tortured, his brilliant green eyes glistening with tears. This frightened Madeline more than anything. To see the person who was her rock looking as if he was about to break down. “I want you to know that I… All of this was...” He paused for what seemed like forever, opened his mouth to say something else, but decided against it the very next second. She saw a look of torment in his eyes, and then the air around her was suddenly whipped into a frenzy, infused with his usual scent of sandalwood. It was so strong this time that it completely overpowered everything else in the room to the point she felt as if she was being smothered by it. “...I’m sorry…” His sweet whisper echoed in the room as he released her hands. And then he, and the scent of sandalwood, was completely gone. Vanished. For a few minutes, she stood alone in her living room, staring at the open door as if Levi was going to pop back in at any moment. But he didn’t. This was the first time since she had met him that his scent was entirely absent. Day to day, she was always able to catch his fragrance somehow. Most of the time she assumed it was her imagination being hopeful, but she never noticed how much it truly lingered until it was gone completely. Now all she could smell were the roses that lay scattered at her feet. And the look on his face when he said he was sorry… There was something in his eyes, and the way he spoke those words, that made her feel that at that moment he really did care for her. She’d been tricked by her own emotions so many times before, but this had caught her completely off guard. She hadn’t been looking to read anything into him this time. And now she stood, unsure what to do next. Her stomach uneasy, she dared to wonder if this was actually a good-bye. No. Levi wouldn’t do that. Would he? After all he’d helped her with and his ongoing concern for her safety? It didn’t make sense for him to leave her. She stopped herself from going further because that was her heart talking again and she didn’t want to admit it. The logical side of her processed all the events, his parting words and emotions, and came to the conclusion that Levi had left her. There was no way of telling for how long, but likely for a very long time, if not for good. Still, she couldn’t allow herself to believe it. To satisfy the logical side of her, Madeline quickly started making a mental list of things she needed to do, as she stepped to her front door and pulled the knob out of the wall so she could close and lock it. The force of Scott’s entry left a gaping hole in the wall where the doorknob had embedded. Rather than have a contractor come in and repair it, she deduced it would be more efficient to have the property manager take care of it. She had paid a hefty deposit to move in with the promise to lease the entire floor once the other tenants moved out. He could easily deduct from that and then bill her for the difference. The second most pressing issue would be locating a new place to call home. On such short notice, the best plan was to move into one of the buildings Levi owned in town. She could contact Caslon immediately to get her set up, and then it would be a simple matter of selecting a moving day. That would keep her busy today. Despondent, she took careful steps toward the wakizashi and held her breath as she squatted to pick up the blade and its scabbard. Joining the two, she also retrieved her clutch purse from the floor where it had landed when Scott had hit her from behind. Carrying both to her bedroom, she set them on the bed and then dug into the purse for her cell phone. Luckily it was still in one piece. She debated sitting on her mattress while she called Caslon, wondering if it would be painful and if she would be able to comfortably get up again. She compromised and decided to sit on the edge near the headboard to use that to help herself back up if need be. Slowly inching her rear onto the mattress, she grimaced a couple of times and reminded herself that after she got off the phone, she should take some codeine. Dialing Caslon’s number, she waited for him to pick up. “Good morning Madeline,” his cheerful voice warmed her mood. “It’s rather early, and you never call me, so can I hope you are requesting a rendezvous?” “Nope, that is not what this is about at all,” Madeline responded with a sigh, somewhat used to his constant advances. “I need a new place to live. Immediately.” “What happened?” he asked, sounding very concerned. Normally Levi would have called him about this in advance, so this was extremely out of the ordinary. “To make a long story short, Scott nearly killed me last night. In my apartment. Levi thought it would be best if I moved out today, and I agree.” “Are you okay?” he continued, making her feel better that her network of friends, even the one that wanted very badly to sleep with her, was still intact. “I have some bruised ribs and bruised other places,” she replied, taking a moment to breathe. “But I’ll be fine.” “I have two buildings I can move you to,” Caslon offered. “This one, or one South of you on Boren.” She thought for a moment. As tempting as it was to move back into the same building as the safe house, she had to decline. She just couldn’t bring herself to do it. “Boren will be fine.” “As disappointed as I am with your choice, I can come get you in a few hours to escort you to the new apartment., just make sure you have an overnight bag and any sensitive materials. This apartment has a freight elevator for your bike, a large safe, electronic and biometric security, and 24 hour monitored cameras. Oh and it’s fully furnished, so I hope you didn’t plan on bringing any large pieces of furniture.” “Nope,” she replied quietly. “You know me. I’m not attached to anything more than what I can fit in a suitcase.” She heard Caslon sigh as if he was just as depressed hearing her words as she was speaking them. “Okay then, be ready in a few hours. I’ll call before I head over. Oh and Madeline? I’m sorry you got hurt. If you want me to go after him, I will.” Her eyes started to blur. She had to get off the phone soon or Caslon would figure out she was about to cry and then he would come over, and before long she’d be crying in his arms. Struggling to keep her voice from choking-up, she managed to respond in a normal tone before she hung up. “Thanks. See you in a few.” Sniffling the sadness back into check, she rose slowly off her bed. Madeline then attempted to wiggle out of the black dress from last night but found it both challenging and painful to do so. Fuck it. I’m not ever wearing this again. From her bathroom, she grabbed a pair of utility scissors and cut the front of the dress allowing her to slip out of it like a jacket. It was ruined anyway, so it made no sense to make its removal any harder than it needed to be. In its place, she pulled on a roomy t-shirt and a pair of black sweatpants. In the bathroom mirror, her hair was a frazzled mess. Straying wildly from her neatly styled up-do from the night before, Madeline took her dark red hair down and ran a brush through it. As she brushed her hair as best she could without pulling the muscles between her ribs, she glanced over at the wakizashi. What was so important about it? She wasn’t a professional appraiser but knew enough about weapons to tell this was well-crafted and probably priceless. But connected to her? Permanently? What did that even mean? And why didn’t he mention this to her before this morning? Brushing her red hair up into a high ponytail, she began to wash the tired-looking makeup off of her face, being careful of the tender bruise developing on her cheek. Speaking of contracts, she needed to sit down and email her broker about what happened last night at Endless. Surprisingly, there was already an email on her laptop inquiring about the recon mission. Madeline took a seat and stared at the screen for a bit, not quite sure what to enter in her report. After about ten minutes of mental deliberation, she started typing a response. Didn’t notice any unusual fixtures or architecture. Mostly non-human guests, no VIPs outside of Leviticus who accompanied me. There were a few pictures taken of us together as we appeared to draw interest. I normally know better than to ask questions, but who purchased this recon? She wasn’t expecting an answer, but the job wasn’t sitting well with her, and she couldn’t help but ask. Levi had it right. It felt like it was a setup to bring them unnecessary attention, and she had a strong hunch that’s what set off the avalanche that led to Levi’s departure. But why didn’t he share what was going through his mind with me? Getting up from her desk chair in the bedroom, she went into the kitchen and began to make herself fresh coffee, adding cream and sugar. It smelled divine, but it never tasted good enough. Before she could start feeling sorry for herself again, an email notification alarm chimed on her laptop. Shockingly, it was already a response from the broker. You know I can’t reveal the source, but I understand your concern and agree it seems suspicious. Payment has been deposited. And that was it. Madeline didn’t even bother mentioning Levi’s departure. Even though she was extremely unsettled by it, her broker would have considered her worry ridiculous. Still staring at the words on the screen, she drummed her fingertips tentatively on the desk. Ordinarily, she would have heeded Levi’s warning and wouldn’t even consider digging into such a dangerous man, but her life was nearly snuffed out. If Taro Tetsugawa was a key figure in underworld politics, she needed more information than what Levi elected to share. And considering the strong resemblance, Madeline guessed Maseo was bound to know something. Knowing full well she couldn’t speak with Maseo until nightfall, she took some codeine and began to load her laptop and other valuables into a large suitcase, along with a few days worth of clothes, her toiletries, and makeup. Once that single task was accomplished, she rolled the suitcase to the living room and got settled in on the battered sofa. She had a couple of hours before Caslon would call, and decided to spend them with her eyes closed, napping on her couch.
  12. Chapter Twelve The Man Behind the Curtain 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. Dressed in a very unassuming and unflatteringly pair of old, baggy sweatpants and a light sweater the color of cornsilk, she weaved her way around the groupings of chairs and tables looking for Scott. She was in a lot of discomfort, and found herself taking extremely small steps as she walked, fearful of the shooting pain that would manifest should there be any gap in her stride. He spotted her first, rising up from a chocolate-brown recliner to meet her. She let him take her hand and guide her to the area where he had previously been sitting, only further back to a pair of high barstools at a tall cafe table. Carefully, she scooted her rump onto one of the seats, hoping not to damage anything in the process. “I am so sorry,” he whispered trying to take her hand. “Please don’t do this. Give me one more chance, one more night, and I’ll make it up to you. We can’t let it end like this.” “I can’t. I just can’t,” Madeline replied, pulling her hand out of his reach before he could grasp it. “Every time we get close, I am going to be thinking back to what happened. Don’t you see I’m not going to be able to relax again around you? It’s not going to work.” “How do you know that?” Scott said, beginning to raise his voice, but then catching himself and calming down. “You won’t know until you can at least give me one more chance. Then if what you say about your feelings are true, I’ll let you go. We can end it.” Madeline’s brows began to furrow in frustration. She knew her own feelings. She knew that what he was proposing was a waste of time. “No. I’m sorry but no,” she stopped him, lowering her voice so no one around them could hear. “I’ve decided I am not going to date anyone that’s not human. You’ve made me realize that as a human I am fragile. You or any other non-human can easily break me. I can’t build a relationship tip-toeing around danger and chances. If you care about me, you’ll understand. This may be about us, but it’s also about how unconventional your kind dating my kind is.” “Just one night?” Scott repeated. “Please don’t make this any more difficul…” “Any more difficult?!” Scott cut her off, again raising his voice. “I’m sorry if this inconveniences you.” Nearby, other patrons were stealing curious glances at the pair. In the calm and serene setting of the coffee house, their rising voices were easy to distinguish. “Are you even thinking about my feelings?” Scott continued. “Any idea what this is going to do to me? What this is going to do to my life?” His life? Madeline thought. What the hell is he talking about? “This is going to ruin me. Think about that when you start going on again about being inconvenienced!” “Scott, please calm down,” Madeline asked, realizing even more people were starting to take notice of his loud voice. “I don’t want people to notice you, for your own sake.” “So you care about what people think about me, but you don’t care about what you’re doing to me?” Bolting upright from his chair, Scott clenched his fists to his sides and grimaced menacingly to no one in particular. His chestnut eyes were ablaze with a mix of anger and frustration as his breathing became more and more labored. He was about to do something impulsive, Madeline could read it in his body language, but then he suddenly stopped himself, bring his volatile emotions under control. Without saying another word to her, he stomped out of the coffee shop, confrontationally bumping into patrons along the way. Seeing his silhouette all but bust out of the cafe door on his way out, Madeline exhaled and relaxed her entire body. The whole meeting was substantially more taxing than she’d expected. “At least he kept himself in check,” a voice from behind her stated, startling her. “How long have you been here?” she asked Levi quietly as he took a seat at the stool previously occupied by Scott. “Oh I’ve been here for the past hour,” he confessed. “Got here about thirty minutes before lover-boy did. You okay?” “As to be expected,” she replied honestly. “Why are you here exactly?” “Insurance,” Levi admitted. “I didn’t expect him to do anything stupid, but I wasn’t going to take any chances.” Madeline glared sharply. Was he trying to say he didn’t expect her to be able to handle things? “Don’t give me that look,” Levi replied with a smile. “I wasn’t going to step in at all unless he started a physical fight.” “Well thank you for having my back then,” she managed. “But if you really want to be helpful, you can take me to The Golden Lotus for drinks. I think I could do with some self-medicating.” ----------------------------------------------------------------------- Back at the hotel, Scott was throwing a horrendous tantrum. With a malicious snarl, he plunged both hands at the king-sized bed, gripping handfuls of linen and tearing away the sheets and duvet, tossing them to the floor. He had kicked the chairs over and flipped both the work desk and table across the room. The house phone was yanked off the nightstand; its cord ripped out of the wall. Nests of wires now hung where wall sconces used to be. The entire suite was in shambles. For a moment Scott stood in the center of the room, breathing heavily and making dark, animalistic sounds. He wanted to kill, with so much rage in his mind, but it was still too early in the day. Eyeing a floor lamp in the corner to the left of the large picture window, he took a few steps toward it, planning to send it crashing through the glass and onto the street below, when his cell phone rang. It was Cole. He knew he had to answer it, and there was no way he was going to talk himself around this one. Scott had no choice but to fess up to the situation. “Hello,” he answered, still breathing arduously. “You sound out of breath, young man. What’s going on?” Cole asked. “Madeline broke up with me,” Scott confessed with a snarl. “I really tried to do it in a private place so I could just knock her out until I could convince her to go with me to London.” “Knock her out? Scott, that is not the job you were given. No harm is to come to her. Why did she break up with you to begin with? Last time we spoke I was under the impression things were going swimmingly.” “Well you see, I sort of accidentally bit her in bed…” There was a long, uncomfortable silence. “I see,” Cole said slowly. This was a possibility they had accounted for, but it was still disappointing. “New orders then. You are to fly back to London as soon as possible.” “But what about Madeline?” Scott asked in a voice that was both frustrated and desperate. “What about her? Since you were unable to perform the task assigned to you, she is now none of your concern. Master Gideon will decide what to do next. In the meantime, you are to travel back home, is that understood?” “Yeah,” Scott replied grudgingly. “Good. Provide me with your flight information as soon as it’s available, and I’ll be sure to have a driver pick you up at Heathrow.” “Fine.” Setting the traditional phone back down on its receiver, Cole sat back in his leather chair and tented his fingers. Not one who enjoyed being the bearer of bad news, he hesitated for a few moments before divulging the information to the man who sat across from him. It was roughly 3:00 a.m. in London, the perfect time of the morning for a spot of tea and intelligent conversation. Although it was out of the ordinary for two vampires to be drinking tea, the beverage was a unique concoction of Gideon’s creation. He had perfected it long ago; hell-bent on recreating the drink that was all the rage in the 17th century. He had found the fragrance of tea to be absolutely divine, and it drove him into an immediate obsession. It didn’t take him more than a week and a dozen or so blood donors to develop a formula that allowed a mix of fresh blood, tea leaf infusion, and alchemy to create a very near perfect cup of imitation tea. And as with most all of his creations, he kept it a closely guarded secret shared with only a few, and although Cole was allowed the pleasure of drinking it, he hadn’t a clue how it was actually made. As Gideon’s graceful, long fingers wrapped around the handle of the delicate china cup, his other hand carefully held the saucer, lifting them both in mannered unison. He paid no mind to Cole, his lesser, as the older man, in appearance only, sat in silence thinking. Gideon was already aware of the situation. It was the suspected outcome actually, but allowing the lost neophyte named Scott to stumble recklessly through the relationship with Miss Madeline gave them a lot of foresight into her personality and morals. As physically trained as she'd become to survive in the world she'd now chosen to call home, Madeline was inadequately aware of her place in it, or of which path she would follow as the future approached her. She was at a point now where she could be shaped. She would follow whichever path was the first to be illuminated for her. In contrast to Cole’s pillar-like stature, Gideon appeared delicate, girlish even. His long, light blond hair was gathered up over his ears on both sides, pulled back with a simple steel clip. His pleasant blue eyes gave the impression of youthful vigor and brightness, a contrast to his actual age and the dark depths of his soul. His face was flawless, a credit to his Nordic heritage, and despite the elegance and decorum he exuded, one could argue he was the most terrifying vampire in all of Europe. His physical strength rivaled that of the fae, and despite all that was known of his past was that he emerged from the undocumented history of the brutal Nordic clans of the North, no one challenged his superiority. “It seems Scott has failed,” Cole said finally. “Miss Madeline has broken off their relationship after being bitten.” With a smooth gesture that didn’t so much as tilt the level of the tea in his cup, Gideon set both cup and saucer down on the table in front of him before leaning back in his chair. “He is very lucky that’s all that happened,” Gideon replied, his voice edged with steel. “Once a rat, always a rat. Still, he provided information we would not have been able to get so easily otherwise. You say he likes to kill?” “Yes, sir,” Cole answered. “It provides a rush comparative to the drug use of his human years, and he likes the control aspect.” “Don’t we all,” Gideon mused. “However, how we exert that control divides those who conquer from those that grovel. When he returns, assign him to the guard and have him start training as a soldier. If he wants to act like a rabid dog, then we shall make use of him as one.” Gideon’s attention was suddenly elsewhere, fixed on a stoic-faced butler that entered the grand library from the door behind Cole. “M’lady has arrived,” he announced with a deep, unemotional bow as he remained in place, waiting for Gideon to pass him and therefore release him of his proper posture. “Excellent,” Gideon smile brightly as he rose from the armchair with the grace of an aristocrat. “We’ll discuss this matter further tomorrow, Cole.” “Of course, sir.” As he exited the grand library, Gideon ascertained that his clothing was immaculate and his thoughts were in check. Next to himself, his honored guest was the most influential person in the manor at the moment, and although their partnership was solidified in blood, there were still airs that needed to be put on. After a short walk to the solarium, a room custom made using artificial sunlight and regulated humidity, the servants standing guard opened the large double doors for Gideon’s grand entrance. It is always a pleasure, my dear,” Gideon beamed, approaching an unoccupied white garden chair that was designed to look as if it was made out of vines. “Sorry to bid you here at such an off hour.” “Nonsense, Gideon,” the woman already seated across from him replied. “Any and all news of our progress excites me. It was no inconvenience at all.” “Can I get you any refreshment?” “That won’t be necessary,” she smiled warmly, raising her hand in refusal. “But I thank you for the offer. Now, what news do you have?” “Straight to the point,” Gideon sighed wistfully. “A woman after my own heart.” “You are too kind. “She has enough of the blood to be useful. The sword was a match.” “This is fantastic news!” the woman across from him replied joyously, clasping her hands together. “I am confident that with my knowledge and your skills we will be able to deconstruct that necklace and use it to our advantage. All that is left is her grooming.” “Unfortunately, the mongrel we allowed to play with her has outlived his usefulness in that regard.” “An expected outcome.” “Quite,” Gideon agreed. “But we know enough of her nature to move to phase two now.” “I take it plans are already underway?” the lady asked anxiously, twirling a strand of long, brilliantly-golden hair between two youthful, slender fingers. “Of course, my dear. Of course.” “Then I will begin preparations on my end,” she said rising gracefully from her garden chair. “I regret I cannot spend the night this evening, but this news demands events to be put in motion tonight that must simmer and multiply slowly so that they will be ripe for feasting upon when the time comes.” “Understandable,” Gideon replied, promptly standing in the presence of a risen lady as etiquette dictated. “I will contact you again once she is in our care.” He bowed like a true gentleman, taking the lady’s outstretched hand and bringing it to his lips gently. With a kiss that was both cordial and intimate, he bid her farewell and eyed her departure from the solarium. ----------------------------------------------------------------------- She’d come a long way from the club-shy girl she was when she first stepped foot in The Golden Lotus. Comfortable enough in her own skin and clothing to be sitting in a booth near the bar with Levi and actually feel relaxed about it. Well, as relaxed as she could be, given what she’d gone through over the past few days. The responsible side of her warned that she should have probably stayed at the loft and relaxed, but she needed this. She needed to feel the attention of those she considered friends, and to be in a place she felt comforted by. It was a relatively slow night at The Golden Lotus, so she knew Maseo and company were floating around somewhere. Adding to her well-being, the modest heather-gray skirt and matching sweater Madeline wore felt unencumbering and cozy. She sat staring at the milky ice in her White Russian until Levi snatched it away. “You really need to find something better to drink,” he said disapprovingly. “Or at least something different.” “But I like those,” Madeline whined. “With all the cream that’s in it, I figured you would too.” “Ha. Ha. That’s so not funny. And just for that…” Levi signaled a waitress. As one of the handful of pretty girls that worked the club approached, she placed her hand on Levi’s shoulder with too much familiarity, much to Madeline’s annoyance. “Take this away and bring a couple of glasses of umeshu,” Levi ordered, placing Madeline’s half-finished drink on the waitress' tray. Nodding, the attractive brunette waltzed away, stopping at another table to pick up a second order on her way back to the bar. “What on earth are you ordering for me?” Madeline asked leaning back, careful of her injury, and crossing her arms. “Something I know you’ll like,” Levi replied. “I don’t normally pick out drinks for people, but given your taste in things, I am fairly confident you will love this. It’s simple. It’s sweet. And it has a nice burn going down. Less alcohol content than your White Russian, so you can drink more with less damage to your reputation.” “Hey, that was a one-time thing,” Madeline reminded him. “Let me put it to you this way then,” Levi said with a sly smile. “Cloudy drinks are dangerous.” He made a good point. Under normal circumstances, it would not matter, but during contract work, it was probably best to go with something else. As they talked, Levi caught a whiff of something coppery in the direction of the entrance. Blood. Keeping his expression playful and cocky, Levi’s gaze drifted around the club nonchalantly before settling on the cause of what was offending his nose. As the waitress returned with their drinks, Levi’s eyes caught sight of Maseo walking with purpose, one of the bouncers at his side, toward the podium where none other than Scott stood waiting to gain entrance. Luckily, this was all happening behind Madeline. Levi didn’t want her to have to see his face ever again, especially so soon after what had recently befallen her. He could see Scott frantically glancing around tables, likely trying to spot Madeline. Levi could only imagine how many other places he’d gone with the hopes of finding her. Unfortunately, the vampire’s eyes locked on the back of Madeline’s red curls and he became suddenly more agitated with the gentleman at the podium for not letting him pass. Oblivious to what was going on behind her, Madeline simply stared at the drink placed in front of her. Its color was akin to ginger ale, and it had a strong, fruity scent. She also took note that it wasn’t served on the rocks, but with something green and prune-like resting at the bottom of the glass. “What say we make your first taste a memorable one?” Levi grinned devilishly, not giving her time to respond before he took a mouthful of his drink and scooted toward her, eyes briefly locking with Scott’s to make sure the young vampire was watching. Before Madeline realized what was happening, Levi leaned in for a kiss, placing his lips over her slightly parted mouth. As she raised her hands to his chest in protest, the sweet, chilled alcohol flowed from his mouth into hers, a pleasant elixir that she couldn’t resist swallowing. The taste of the umeshu, Levi’s scent of sandalwood, the warmth of his inviting lips, and the proximity of his body mixed to create an atmosphere that left her docile for a few moments, unable to refuse his advances as she closed her eyes. Pulling slowly away, Levi took the opportunity of her eyes being shut to check on the situation at the podium. Scott was livid. He had tried to force his way in, which was a terrible idea. The bouncer had grabbed him by the arm and Maseo stood immovable in front of him with one palm centered sternly against Scott’s chest. With Levi’s impeccable hearing, he picked up on the conversation from afar. “You want to do this? I’ll make you regret it,” Maseo warned with a voice infused with threat and maliciousness. “Go home, boy.” Shrugging the bouncer off, Scott adjusted the sleeves of his jacket and turned to walk out. As upset and determined as he was, he knew there was no way he was going to overpower Maseo. He had no other choice but to leave. “Why did you do that?” Madeline asked breathlessly, drawing Levi’s attention back to their table. Looking back at her, he saw her blue eyes were wide in shock, her right hand raised, fingertips touching her lips at the memory of his being there. It was an expression he found tempting. “You know me. Can’t help but to tease. It’s in my nature,” Levi responded slyly. Of course, Madeline thought sarcastically. Why would it be anything other than that? She was surprised at herself. That even after being on her own for so long, and being with Scott, her heart was so quick to tremble before him. Her feelings hadn’t changed one bit; they had only been invigorated by the distance she had purposely placed between him. And those feelings… she still needed to fight them. It was easier to do in the past, primarily because she didn’t want to be played for a fool. Didn't want to be the naive human who fell in love with her rescuer. Then, as she learned more about him and his appetite for women, Madeline realized she didn't want to be another one. And neither could she be a friend-with-benefits. That wasn’t how her heart worked. To bad my fucking heart won’t listen to my fucking mind, she cursed herself. These feelings are so pointless. Taking a deep breath, she focused on the flavor of the wine that had been in her mouth moments ago. He was correct in assuming she would like it. It had a sweetness that burned and went down smooth and easy. And as much as she wanted to drink more, she couldn’t. She had to leave. He'd rattled her too much. If ever she'd been on the brink of surrendering herself to him, it was now. She needed distance. “Sorry for having you bring me out here,” Madeline apologized as she began to gather her things and carefully slid out of the booth. “It doesn’t seem like this was a good idea after all, given my condition and everything that’s happened recently. I don’t know what I was thinking.” “Sure, we can head back,” Levi nodded sympathetically. “It’s best for you to be resting up anyway.” “No,” Madeline cut him off. “I mean me heading back to my own apartment. I need to be alone. I’ll come get my things in a few days.” As she rose and turned towards the entrance, Levi grabbed her wrist. “That’s not wise,” he warned, voice serious. “If Scott is still in town, you can’t be traveling alone. I’ll get Maseo to get a taxi around the rear entrance; then security can monitor you leaving and make sure no one follows you.” “Do you seriously think that's necessary?” she asked, arching a brow. The cloak and dagger of the situation just seemed over the top. It was just Scott after all, and she was trained to know when she was being followed. “I do,” Levi replied. “Fine,” Madeline caved in, lowering herself slowly back down on the edge of the booth. Levi sent a brief text message to Maseo, and within minutes one of the bouncers approached their table. “Miss Madeline, if you would please?” The stocky, well-dressed gentleman spoke eloquently, his right hand gesturing toward the back of the establishment, where the rear entrance that serviced the club’s living quarters was located. The residential suites were not publicly known, which allowed Maseo and company, and even The Golden Lotus’ elusive owner, the utmost privacy. Rising carefully again, Madeline bid Levi farewell before following her escort to the rear exit where an unmarked car awaited her. The alleyway behind the club was shaped in such a way that exiting put one with the extension of the building’s brick wall to the left, and a view of the main street that the alley emptied out into on the right. As Madeline exited the doorway with the bouncer on her right side, he produced a large, black umbrella which shielded her upper body from the main street in that direction. The open car door shielded her lower body. And with the exterior brick wall blocking the left side, she was completely hidden from any prying eyes. Once safely inside the car, the darkly tinted windows protected her identity even more so, and inconspicuous security cameras blanketed all angles around the perimeter of the establishment. As she made herself comfortable in the backseat of the town car, the driver radioed in and was given clearance to leave. Madeline directed him to drop her off on the opposite side of her block, where a different and more modern apartment building was located. After thanking the driver, she exited the car and carefully walked around the block to her building, slowly making her way home.
  13. Chapter Eleven Trip Like I Do “Hey, just letting you know I’m about to board the westbound water taxi with Scott,” Madeline said, calling Levi to give him a head’s up. “Just riding it there and back. I should be at home after that, but I’ll call or text if plans change.” “Okay, thanks,” Levi responded appreciatively. “Have a good time.” “Thanks.” Slipping her cell phone back into her purse, she strolled down the wide sidewalk toward the ferry terminal, bundled in a cozy, hooded, long gray sweater. It was practically spring, but Seattle nights were still chilly, and being near the water tended to make things even colder. It had been over a month since the failed katana job, and Levi had been cautiously screening all of her contract offers. Out of the five she’d been presented, Levi instructed to her decline only one - a proposal that required her traveling back East again. The others were typical transportations of sensitive materials, which she accepted. Other than that, her days had been thankfully uneventful. Except for Scott. The past month he had become increasingly edgy; more tattoos, piercings, and rebellious clothing. He also seemed more wired and twitchy than usual, as if he was impatiently waiting for something to happen. He had also made it very clear that he disliked Levi, Caslon, and the rest of Madeline’s friends. He hadn’t gotten to the point of saying he didn’t want her associating with them anymore, but his increasing agitation at the mere mention of any of their names made it apparent that it was only a matter of time before that demand was made. After a few minutes spent lazily walking toward the terminal, she could see Scott approaching from a distance, an anxious smile on his lips. As they met, she withdrew her hand from the warmth of her pocket and placed it in Scott’s as they ascended the ramp to the terminal. They flashed their ride passes at the ticket counter and proceeded to board, heading for their usual bench. As Madeline fastened the top button on her sweater and pulled the drawstring of her hood snug against her hair, Scott wrapped a loving arm around her so she could snuggle into his comforting embrace. “I got a new barbell for my tongue the other day,” he revealed happily, exposing the silver and giving it a flick. “It vibrates. I heard it’ll make you go wild.” Images of what he was implying dirtied up her mind for a few seconds before it reminded her of a recent murder she had seen on the local nightly news. “Did you hear about that guy who got killed in the entertainment district a few weeks ago?” she asked. “A shop manager at a tattoo parlor. It’s just crazy how something like that can happen so close. Used to be you’d never hear about anything like that around here. How scary.” “Yeah, it was pretty grisly wasn’t it?” Scott shivered dramatically and then smiled. “But I’m sure the guy had it coming. Probably pissed off the wrong person. I wouldn’t worry about it.” Madeline was taken aback by his reaction. His lack of compassion and the words he chose to use made her uncomfortable. She was able to deal with the antsy change in his personality to a degree, but not an attitude like this. “Speaking of which,” Scott continued, oblivious to the discomfort he was causing her. “I brought you something. Close your eyes…” She was apprehensive to close her eyes. The way he used the news of the murder to tie into a gift made zero sense. Before she obliged him, she focused her senses on sound and motion around her. She felt the sudden need to remain alert given his odd behavior. She could hear other passengers nearby, and the splash of water lapping endlessly against the ferry as it carved toward its destination. She remembered her training and how important it was to go for a spot that would bleed to send a vampire fleeing. All of that came flooding back into her mind now, and she discovered she was oddly calm considering the next steps she might have to make. Scott took her hand, and she felt the cold touch of metal as a ring was slipped onto her finger. There was a grumble of frustration on his part as he realized it was too big for her ring finger, so he moved it to her index finger. “There,” he said proudly, prompting Madeline to open her eyes. She looked down at the stainless steel ring now adorning her finger and the black tribal pattern that wrapped all the way around it. It was not something she would have worn, it just wasn’t her style, but she smiled graciously, thanking him nonetheless. “I figured it was time for a promise ring,” Scott said. “Sort of like a pre-pre-engagement ring.” “A what?” Madeline asked, horrified. She could not believe what had just come out of his mouth. “I don’t want you to get upset, but I am in no way looking for that kind of commitment in my life right now. Not to anyone.” Madeline's words prompted a noticeable twitched in his smile as he fought to stifle his anger. How dare she. “Then consider it a gift,” Scott offered, biting back his temper. “Okay then,” Madeline accepted. “Thank you.” He pulled her tightly to him, feeling a few tiny raindrops land on his head. “By the way…” he began. “How about you and I take a weekend trip to London? You’ve been so hospitable showing me around Seattle that you’ve inspired me to show you my city. There’s even a couple of good bands we could catch.” “This weekend?” Madeline asked. The conversation was undoubtedly strange today. “Yeah,” Scott confirmed. “Or the next. It will be fun.” “I can’t,” Madeline replied. “I’ve got a lot to do locally, and I just can pick up and run away for the weekend.” “Is it because Levi won’t let you?” Scott asked, his voice beginning to show signs of the agitation he’d been trying to suppress. “What? No,” Madeline replied, feeling increasingly put-off by his questioning. “It’s not like that at all. It has never been. I have responsibilities, and I have to put my wellness first. I’m taking care of me, and I can’t jeopardize that.” “But I told you I would take care of you,” Scott continued. “You don’t have to worry about that anymore. If you let me, I’ll take care of you for the rest of your days.” For a second she thought about it, about how it would feel to not have a care in the world for the rest of her life. Then she thought about how obligated to him it would make her feel. She hadn’t known him long enough to want to be at his side for the rest of her life. And would he try to pressure her to become like him? A vampire? That was NOT going to happen. Not to mention the red flags that went up in her mind just a few moments ago. “I appreciate your offer, I really do,” Madeline began, “But I’ve always been one to depend on myself. To make my own way. It wouldn’t feel right if I couldn’t support myself.” “But you aren’t doing that now!” Scott accused, clearly aggravated. “You are nothing more than a pet to him. Don’t you see that? Are you sleeping with him?” Madeline’s eyes widened. What the fuck triggered this? Not appreciating what he was insinuating in the least, her blue eyes narrowed. “No. I am not,” the redhead responded with an icy glare. “And though you might not see it, I do have freedom. I do what I want and go where I want.” Scott was breathing heavy now, right hand clutching his chest as he stared at the deck of the ferry, his brown eyes darting all over the diamond plating. “I’m sorry,” he gasped, still not making eye contact with her, “I’m not sure what came over me. I wasn’t feeling very well today for some reason. I should probably call Cole and make sure nothing is wrong. Will you be okay getting home by yourself?” “Yeah, sure,” Madeline said, voice showing concern. They were about to dock at the West Seattle terminal. “I think I am going to take a cab back to the hotel. It’ll be quicker.” “Hope you feel better,” she said sincerely, watching him descend the stairs, disappearing to the deck below. There was a gentle bump as the ferry docked at the pier, and the wind grew almost still as the vessel came to a halt. The handful of passengers disembarked, leaving Madeline mostly alone on the cruise back. Choosing a seat by herself in the lower, sheltered level of the ship, she dialed Levi’s number. “I didn’t wake you, did I?” she asked when he answered in a tired voice. “Nope, just tired from a long flight. What’s up?” “Can people like Scott get sick?” she asked. “You mean like catching a cold, or the flu?” Levi questioned in return. “Yeah, like that.” “No,” Levi answered. “Vampire blood treats everything that comes into contact with it like an infection and is very efficient at destroying it. So no colds, flu, chicken pox, measles, cancer… none of that affects them. Why? Something up?” “Yeah, he got upset over something I said, then started breathing heavy and holding his chest like he was having a heart attack. He said he hadn’t been feeling well.” “That’s weird.” “Why do you think I called you?” Madeline gave a small laugh. “Did he look pale?” “Not at all. He was his usual warm, healthy self.” “His usual?” “Yes,” Madeline revealed. “The way he looked at the Halloween party was the worst I’ve seen him.” “That’s got to take a lot of blood,” Levi said, yawning. “I’ll ask Maseo about it, but he’s not sick. If anything, he ate something that didn’t agree with him.” “That sounds gross, Levi.” “It’s supposed to,” he chuckled. “You heading home now?” “Yeah. Scott is taking a taxi from West Seattle back to his hotel, and I am still on the ferry about to head back.” “Wow, he even left you on the boat?” “I’m a big girl.” “I know that, but he doesn’t. Be careful heading back.” As Madeline ended her call with Levi and tucked her cell phone back into her purse, she leaned back in the thinly padded seat and listened to the sound of the ferry engine as it engaged again, aiming the ship back towards downtown. ------------------------------------------------------ As he entered the business suite, Scott was relieved to let his false mask of cocky self-assuredness slip. Exhaling slowly, a panicked expression took its place. Did he screw this all up? Had he pushed too much too soon? Just the thought that he’d done something he couldn’t take back caused his undead heart to race uncontrollably. Getting her overseas was important, more important than anything else in his life had ever been. He couldn’t disappoint Cole or Gideon. Couldn’t let them think so little of him that he couldn’t even get a simple girl on a plane to England. He had to think about what to do next and think about it carefully. She liked the ring, but it didn’t have the meaning behind it for her that he had hoped it would. He had over-estimated the pace of the relationship and under-estimated her independence. No more mentions of long-term commitments. Check. He could do that. In the end, it didn’t even matter because once he could get her to London, he could make her his by force. Hands shaking, he raked his long fingertips through his silver hair. He just needed to calm down. Madeline was so concerned with her responsibilities that Scott suddenly got an idea. Perhaps he could trick her into going. Maybe he could hire her for a job to deliver something to London. But what? Just then, his cell phone vibrated in his front jacket pocket. Reaching inside, he saw it was Cole. “Hello?” On the other end of the line, he heard Cole take a deep breath, or perhaps it was a yawn. Scott couldn’t tell. “Everything okay?” Scott managed to inquire. “You sound beat.” “Fine, fine,” Cole replied tiredly. “I just spent the past six hours trying to encourage a representative from a rather large media conglomerate to support our ideals. How was your date?” “Went great actually,” Scott lied. “I think she’s going to jump at the chance to come visit.” “That is very good news indeed,” Cole replied, suddenly cheerful on the other end. “Master Gideon is looking forward to meeting her within the next couple of weeks. Do keep us informed.” “Of course,” Scott affirmed. “I will likely give you a call in the next few days to see how things are shaping up,” Cole said. “Until then.” And then the call ended. Biting his thumb hard enough to draw blood, Scott felt himself once again falling into a panic. He looked at his watch. If he was quick, he could make it back to the ferry terminal and catch Madeline getting off the boat, apologize, and invite her to stay overnight. He could start re-bonding with her. Taking the cute-and-cuddly approach. Maybe that would work. Racing out the door, Scott made his way down the stairwell rather than waiting for the elevator. Jumping the flights too quick for the stairwell cameras to take notice, he was down in a matter of seconds. Hailing one of the waiting cabs out front of the lobby, he managed to beat the ferry by a couple of minutes and took the spare time to smooth out his appearance and regain his composure. He watched the passengers disembark, easily spotting Madeline’s beautiful red waves peeking out from around her gray knitted hood. She was a bit surprised to see him waiting. “Everything okay?” she asked suspiciously. “Not really,” Scott replied, offering her his hand to hold. He looked sad and ashamed. “I shouldn’t have left you. I was feeling so erratic that it made me bolt. I called Cole, and he helped me through it, but still, I should have never left you alone for the ride back. I’m so sorry.” “I’m glad you came back,” Madeline admitted, taking his hand. “I was worried about you. You were acting really weird this evening, and I wasn’t sure why. I didn’t like it.” “Cole said it might have been something from one of the donors,” Scott embellished. “If one of them took a drug or something, it could affect what happens when my body absorbs it. He said it should pass. I’m feeling better already. Just stupid.” “Well, I forgive you,” Madeline smiled. “Want to crash at my place tonight? Nothing physical, because I’m just not feeling up to it, but maybe watch a movie in bed?” “Okay, that sounds nice,” Madeline replied as they walked toward the cabs lined up for customers. “Oooh, can I order up some ice cream?” “Of course, whatever you wish.” ------------------------------------------------------ Madeline awoke to a tingling between her thighs. She remembered watching a pretty good action movie wrapped in Scott's arms last night, and falling asleep after having some strawberry ice cream. She slept well, cocooned in the luxurious hotel linens, with Scott hugging her most of the night, but now she was on her back with her legs spread. Looking down, she could make out the shape of his head under the white sheet as she felt his tongue making her quiver with every stroke. Leaning her head back, she began to lose herself in his care, moans of pleasure echoing in the suite. And then it happened. SCREAMING… she bolted upright, kicking Scott brutally in the head as a defensive reflex. He bit her. He fucking bit her. It wasn’t a nip or a tug with his teeth. He bit down hard into her flesh as if he was taking a bite out of her. In a flurry of movement, Madeline tore off the covers on the way to the edge of the bed. “Don’t go,” Scott pleaded. “I am so sorry. I don’t know what happened…” 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. “Let me call someone,” Scott said, just now getting out of bed. “Please.” “No,” Madeline replied, holding her breath to speak. “I’ll take care of this myself.” Grabbing her purse which rested on a table near the door, she managed her way out of the room and into the elevator, thankful Scott didn’t attempt to follow her. His aggressiveness should have been her warning. His excuse had been that he hadn’t been himself lately, but it was just that - an excuse. This accident had given her clarity. She was done. She dug her phone out of her purse and began to dial Levi’s number. And stopped. No. This was her mess and she was strong enough to take care of herself. She just needed to get home. Outside the Sheraton, she called a cab and slid carefully into the back seat. Her phone started to blow up with texts and missed calls from Scott. She turned it off. Breathing as calmly as she could, she gave the outward impression that she was completely fine. The driver never suspected a thing, but it seemed like it took an eternity to get to her apartment. When she finally was home, Madeline tossed her purse on the couch before kicking off her shoes in the hallway on the way to the bathroom. Apprehensively, she looked down between her thighs. It was still bleeding. The skin between her thighs was smudged with crimson, some of it staining the weave of her long sweater. Glancing around her vanity, she searched for something she could apply pressure with. She didn’t use sanitary pads, so that wasn’t an option. The very thought of using a towel or paper tissue made her cringe thinking about how it would stick or tug. Gingerly, she bent down and opened the cabinet under the bathroom sink. The first aid kit was there, with gauze pads and medical tape. With a thankful sigh, she tenderly pressed one of the large, sterile pads against the bite. Luckily, they were designed not to stick, so there was a lot of relief in that fact alone. Working herself into a sitting position on the bathroom floor, she leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes for a bit, unexpectedly drifting off. She awoke a few hours later, pad soaked with blood. Shit. Tossing the gauze pad into the small bathroom trash can, she grabbed three more, unwrapping and stacking them together. Pressing them against the wound, she managed to slowly make it out to the couch where she tossed her purse. Retrieving her phone with her free hand, she didn’t hesitate to call Levi. “I messed up,” she confessed as soon as he answered, making her way weakly back to the bathroom floor. “You were right.” “What’s wrong?” Levi asked, voice etched with a touch of panic. “Scott bit me,” she said, feeling her voice shake as she fought off frightful tears. “The bleeding won’t stop.” As she spoke, she began to get notification after notification from Scott’s texts as turning her phone back on triggered a flood. “Where are you? I’ll send someone over to bring you back to my loft.” “My apartment. It’s not a lot of blood, but it just won’t stop. Levi…” And then came the beeping in her ear, alerting her to an incoming call. She didn’t have to pull the phone away to know who it was. “Who’s trying to call you?” Levi asked. “Scott. He’s been trying to get a hold of me since I left. I don’t want to talk to him right now. Things have felt… I didn't think he’d do this…” “Calm down,” Levi comforted, and then she heard another line ringing as Levi conferenced someone else into their call. “Hello?” “Cas, I need you to go get Madeline from her apartment. 2022 6th Street, number 706. Vampire bite not coagulating. Contact Maseo on the way there and have him meet you back at the loft.” “Understood.” Caslon hung up immediately. “Keep pressure on it. I’ll stay on the phone with you until Caslon gets there.” “Thank you,” Madeline said, voice reflecting her obvious exhaustion. “I’m sorry.” “Baka,” Levi scolded softly. “None of this is your fault. All you need to do now is stay focused and calm. Everything else going on can wait. Did you have any deliveries today?” Madeline knew he wasn’t being superficial, but was, in fact, distracting her from her injury. “I have one. To The Golden Lotus actually,” she replied, pressing gauze against her inner thigh as she spoke. “To the club owner.” “Good, good,” Levi praised. “Any more lined up?” “Um…,” Madeline took a bit more effort to think about it. “I don’t tomorrow, but I do Friday.” “My flight lands tomorrow around 6:00 p.m., so I’ll cover Friday.” “You’re not in town?” Levi could hear the disappointment in her voice. Unexpectedly, her tone made him ache in an unfamiliar way as if the front of his chest was made of rubber and an unseen force was slowly pulling it away from the rest of his body. When next he spoke, his voice was even softer than before. “No, I’m wrapping up a job tonight in Quebec. But don’t worry, you’ll be in good hands. You’ll be safe. I promise you.” Down the hall, she heard someone unlock her front door, and heavy footsteps hurried to where she sat on the bathroom floor. It was Caslon, and surprisingly behind him was his sister Tiff. Neither of them wore their usual expressions, as both were assessing the situation seriously. Caslon took the phone politely from her hand. “I’m here with Tiff,” he spoke to Levi. Caslon listened to Levi give instructions, something Madeline was unable to make out. “Sec, let me check…” Tiff had already moved to Madeline’s side, her brown eyes following Madeline’s hand to where it held a gauze pad to her inner thigh. Unexpectedly, Tiff stiffened up as if she didn’t want to look there. Madeline didn’t understand. They were both women after all. “He bit her up there,” Tiff declared maintaining her distance. “What do you mean, up there?” Caslon questioned his sister, cradling the phone to his ear with his wide shoulder. “Oh THERE... Um, Levi? Tiff and I aren’t really comfortable looking between her legs.” Caslon jumped, immediately pulling the phone away as Levi’s sudden outburst pierced his sensitive eardrums. “Okay, okay. You don’t have to yell.” Turning to Tiff, the twins suddenly did an impromptu rock-paper-scissors. Tiff lost. Slowly removing the hand Madeline was using to hold the gauze, Tiff force a comforting smile and then took a look. “Tell Levi he bit into one of her labia,” Tiff said as she pressed the gauze back in place. “And it’s good and bloody. I have no idea if something like that needs stitches, how deep it is, or if he bit all the way through.” “Please tell me you heard that and I don’t have to repeat it,” Caslon cringed, asking Levi. “Okay, we’re moving her right now. I’ll call you when we get there.” Hanging up, Caslon handed the phone back to Madeline, who held it close to her chest. He then wrapped her modestly in her long sweater and helped her down to the cab that would take them the few blocks to the safe house. Madeline was surprised how powerful Caslon was. He effortlessly carried her out of her apartment, to the elevator, and then out to the cab, explaining to the driver that she had twisted her ankle. Then when they got back to Levi’s place, he carried her all the way back to the guest room with as little effort as toting around a stuffed animal. It felt odd to be back in Levi’s safe house. Caslon and Tiff helped her into the guest room that used to be her room and set her purse on the dresser. Caslon called Levi to let him know they got her home. The pair set her up with some more gauze, and within a few moments, there was activity in the kitchen. Someone had come up the freight elevator and was making a commotion on the way down the hall. Within moments, Gwen and Maseo appeared in Madeline’s room carrying a cooler and a large backpack containing some medical equipment. “Okay kitty-cats, out!” Gwen ordered Caslon and Tiff, who wasted no time in leaving the bedroom. Without the siblings in the room, Maseo began to set up some tubing and open the cooler, setting a few pints of B- on her bedside table. “Before Maseo gets you plugged in, we need to get you clean and comfy,” Gwen told Madeline. “We need to get you into the tub so we can wash you up.” Madeline’s eyes widened. That was going to hurt like hell. “I know what you’re thinking, but we’ll make it so it’s not that bad. Promise,” Gwen assured, offering Madeline a pinky-promise before shouting off towards the living room. “Tiff! I need you to bring me something of Aya’s she can use as a nightshirt.” Maseo, black hair pulled back in a long, glossy ponytail, went into the connecting bathroom and started the bath water running. He kicked off his pair of black combat boots and slipped off his socks. Rolling up the pant legs on his jeans, he stepped his left leg into the warm water and then sat, straddling the rim of the tub. After the pressure was decent, he grabbed the handheld showerhead and popped the faucet so the water started to pour through it. When he felt the temperature was close to that of Madeline’s skin, he gestured for Gwen to help her up and bring her in. “Upsy-daisy!” Gwen sang, helping Madeline stand and walk towards the tub. Once in at the side of the tub, Gwen helped Madeline strip off all her clothes while Maseo politely turned his head, then she handed the redhead a bath towel to wrap around her chest to provide a little bit of modesty. “Now we’re not going to have you soak, that would just be too painful and would make you bleed more. Go ahead and have a seat on the side and I’ll leave you in Maseo’s hands while I get the bed ready. Be right back!” Gwen smiled cheerfully and bounced towards the bed where she started to lay down some protective large gauze pads and arrange the sheets and pillows so that Madeline would be slightly propped up when she returned. Also, Tiff returned with a simple cotton nightshirt from Aya’s section of the closet in Levi’s room. “How are you holding up?” Maseo asked sincerely, looking unwaveringly into her eyes. “Tired, scared, nervous to have me touch you?” “All of the above,” Madeline admitted, her uncertainty evident on her face. “Take my hand as you step in,” he instructed in the most soothing voice as he lifted his hand and offered it to Madeline. She guessed he was using his pheromones on her. “And then have a seat on the edge here in front of me on this towel.” Madeline stepped cautiously into the tub one foot at a time, feeling the lukewarm water splashing against her feet. She carefully took a seat in front of where Maseo straddled the side of the tub. “I’m sure Levi told you about the pheromones vampires can use to calm victims while they drink?” Madeline nodded. She had guessed correctly. “Well, I am highly skilled in that regard, so I am going to use it while we get you cleaned up,” Maseo further explained in his hypnotic voice. “The reason I am doing this, and Gwen is not going to use her mind tricks on you, is because I can judge your discomfort and treat you accordingly. I’m not going to assault you. I am not going to seduce you. I am not going to abuse you. You will feel warm and likely as you did when I let you get drunk at The Golden Lotus. Do you understand?” Madeline nodded again, feeling herself being calmed by his voice alone. “I am your friend. I am going to take care of you. I have no ulterior motives.” Still straddling the wide rim of the tub, Maseo positioned himself against Madeline’s left side, and she began to feel just as he said she would - warm and languid. As he felt her muscles relax, she leaned against him, prompting him to direct the flow of water coming from the hand-held showerhead to her inner thigh, stopping about an inch short of where the bite was. He felt her tense up again, so he pushed his ability up a fraction, once again feeling her relax against him. He kept his position for a few seconds, and then let the water spray closer to the wound, increasing the release of his pheromones another couple of fractions to counter the pain. Looking down at the bottom of the tub, he saw the water run red as expected. Other than knowing he was in the right spot, there was no other reaction from him. That was the reason only he came with Gwen. The likelihood of him lusting for blood was as likely as a human going berserk at a buffet and devouring everything in a mad rage. “Feeling okay?” he asked Madeline kindly, her body still leaning sluggishly against him. “Yep,” Madeline replied slowly as if in a daze. “I want you to do your best to move your skin around down there so the water can do its job, and then we’re going to wash around the wound. Don’t worry about the wound itself. We’ll get some antibacterial ointment on it once Gwen has a look and we get you back into bed.” Madeline nodded and did what she was told, all the while letting herself be supported by Maseo’s sturdy chest. After a bit more rinsing, Maseo reached around her with his left hand and turned the water off. Within moments, Gwen came back to help Madeline put on the nightshirt and get into bed. After slipping a bright blue glove over one hand, Gwen gently examined the wound, getting a good look at the details. “Four deep punctures and bruising,” she began, giving Maseo the details he needed, “Two on the outside of her right labia, and two on the inside. The two on the inside look like they probably went all the way through. No coagulation present.” “Well, we could liquid bandage her,” Maseo said crossing his arms, “But then his saliva would be trapped in her bloodstream for about eight hours, and considering I know nothing about where this barbarian came from, I don't like that idea.” “So we let it bleed out?” Gwen asked. “We let it bleed out,” Maseo confirmed. “Did you get all that?” Gwen asked Madeline, who was feeling only half awake after Maseo’s treatment. “I don’t understand,” Madeline said, weakly shaking her head. “I’m going to provide you with clean blood, as we let your heart push out the blood tainted with Scott’s saliva,” Maseo explained, giving Madeline a reassuring smile. “It will be painless and simple, and all you have to do is lay there and sleep. Gwen and I will take care of things. Okay?” Madeline nodded. Gwen applied some anti-bacterial cream, and then folded a thick square of gauze around Madeline's labia covering the wound on all sides before securing it with some medical tape to keep it in place. At the same time, Maseo leaned very close to Madeline, his cheek nearly touching hers, and exhaled softly. Madeline felt once again as she did on the edge of the tub. She didn’t even notice Maseo put the needle in her arm, or that she was now hooked up to an IV. “There you go, little human,” Gwen whispered. “Now just relax and take a nap. We’ll take care of the rest.” As she began to doze off, she could hear Maseo on the phone talking with who she assumed to be Levi, giving him all the details and almost sounding as if he was reassuring him things were going to be okay. “I have to get back to Aya,” Tiff apologized to Maseo. “I left during her photo shoot with a wardrobe excuse.” “Not to worry, I need to head back myself and deliver this package to The Golden Lotus for Madeline,” Maseo replied. “I take it Gwen and Caslon can watch over things here until Levi gets back?” “Don’t worry, kitty,” Gwen addressed Caslon, “All you have to do is be our bodyguard. I’ll take care of the rest.” The pantherinae was visibly relieved he wasn’t going to have to anything involving changing pads. He could if he really needed to, but wasn’t good at that type of stuff in general and was more afraid of hurting Madeline that anything else. He watched as she slept for a while and then turned to Maseo, lowering his voice to ask a question. “How is he doing?” “As expected,” Maseo replied. “He’s worried and very pissed.” “Are we going after Scott?” Caslon hoped, excited by the thought. “It depends,” Maseo replied. “But don’t even consider it until Madeline is better and Levi returns. In the meantime, I’m going to do a little digging on our friend when I get back to The Golden Lotus.” ------------------------------------------------------ It was around 7:30 p.m. the next evening when Levi returned. Making a quick stop to roll his luggage into his room, he then hurried through the open guest room door to find Gwen laying on the bed next to a sleeping Madeline, watching the wall mounted TV. Seeing his approach, the fae with the bouncy blond ringlets smiled and rose from the bed. “She had a fever most of yesterday,” Gwen revealed, reassuring Levi. “Maseo wasn’t sure why because the blood types match, but he’s guessing it might have something to do with the issue you two talked about when he first met your human. After that passed, she slept through the night and was awake most of today, had some oatmeal, and then went back to sleep. Caslon is asleep on the couch. We’ve been taking shifts.” “Has the bite started to clot yet?” “Did you want to take a look?” Gwen asked honestly, about to lift the bed sheets and show Levi outright. “No!” Levi said quickly. “That’s okay. Just give me an update.” “For being a pervert, you get worked up over the most unexpected things,” Gwen teased. “Her wound finally started to clot last night, so I removed the IV. The punctures should heal on their own with time. She’s just going to be in some discomfort for a while.” “Thank you, Gwen,” Levi said appreciatively. “And let Maseo know I said thanks. I’ve got things here now; you can head home.” “I hope the little human gets better soon!” With that, Gwen bounced off down the hallway, locking the front door behind her as she left. The place was almost quiet, aside from Caslon snoring on the living room sofa. “Hey,” Levi half whispered, nudging his friend with his knee. “I’m back now. You can head home.” Caslon sat up slowly, rubbing his eyes and letting out a noise that was halfway between a yawn and a growl. “Did Gwen leave already?” he asked rubbing his eyes. “Yeah. She said Madeline would be fine, just needs a lot of rest,” Levi whispered. “Thanks for responding so quickly.” “That’s what I am here for,” Caslon said, yawning again as he stretched and then rose to head back to his own apartment. Now that the place was empty of visitors, Levi went quietly back into the guest room and sat himself down on the bed next to Madeline, who was clutching her cell phone even in her sleep. He propped up the extra pillows against the headboard, so he could lean back comfortably and watch TV. For a few minutes, he debated taking his cat form but decided this was probably best. After about ten minutes of watching an old action movie, Levi noticed Madeline begin to stir. “Thank goodness you’re home,” she said weakly, comforted by his unique scent. Unexpectedly, she wrapped her arms around him and started to cry. Emerald eyes wide with shock, Levi didn’t know how to respond. Her tears weren’t so much sadness as they were relief, so although his stomach felt a tiny bit uneasy, it was only a mild discomfort. Nothing like the out-right misery he experienced that night long ago when she was sobbing in the bathtub. Beyond that, he was surprisingly aware of the curves of her body and the press of her breasts against his chest. Hesitantly, he wrapped his arms around her and slowly pulled her close. “I am so sorry,” she sniffled, realizing being this close in this state of distress couldn’t be easy for him. She started to pull away, but he wouldn’t let her. “It’s okay,” he asserted. “I can take it.” For a few minutes, neither of them said anything. It was the closest they had ever been to each other, but only Levi was conscious of that fact. “Gwen said you’re okay now, just need to take it easy the next few weeks. Everything will heal up on its own.” Madeline wanted to say something, but couldn’t. She didn’t want to talk about what had happened and how. As it was, her friends had seen a lot more of her then she would have liked. How was she going to face them after this? How was she managing to even hold onto Levi right now? “It’s okay,” he said suddenly in a low whisper, reactive to her nervous silence. “Whatever you’re worried about, it’s all going to be okay. No one cares about the how or why. We only care that you’re okay. That’s what friends do.” Looking down past her body, he saw that she had released the cell phone, and it was now laying behind her face-up on the sheets. “Is he still calling you?” Levi asked. “He hasn’t tried to contact me for a while now,” Madeline replied. “I set his notification on silent, but only his. I didn’t want to miss a call from you, or anyone else. He’s left so many voice messages… but I just don’t want to deal with him right now.” “May I take a look?” Levi asked. “Sure,” Madeline allowed. In truth, she didn’t want to read anything from him right now either, and although it seemed cowardly, she would much rather Levi filter through Scott’s communications than to have to do it herself. Levi removed his right arm from around her and rolled them both toward the cell phone so he could reach it. Swiping her password in with his thumb, he saw that Scott had left fifty-three texts, and a dozen voice messages. Taking a deep breath to steady the anger he felt beginning to boil just thinking about Scott, Levi steeled himself and started reading. The first twenty or so texts focused on apologizing and pleading for Madeline to come back so he could take care of her. There were about equal as many texts asking her where she was. It was the last handful or so that really pushed Levi’s buttons. At that point, the one-sided conversation moved from concern over Madeline to blaming her for not trusting him. Things like “After all I’ve done for you, you won’t come back?” and “You’re going to leave me because of one mistake? I thought I knew you better than that.” “Do I want to know?” Madeline asked, voice muffled as she spoke into Levi’s chest. “He was worried at first, but now it seems he’s trying to turn this back on you somehow,” Levi confessed before his voice and mannerisms took an all too familiar mischievous turn. “Should I take a selfie of us right now? Text it back to him? I'm assuming you’re done with him.” “I appreciate your concern,” Madeline said sarcastically, as she pushed away from him. Laughing, Levi was about to add something more to the conversation, when the vibrating of his own phone, tucked neatly in his shirt pocket, interrupted. It was Maseo. “Moshi, moshi,” Levi answered. “Yeah, I’ve got a minute. Just got in about an hour ago. What’s up?” For a long time, Levi said nothing. He listened to the information Maseo had dug up about Scott. Using the name that was on the party guest list from a few years back, the vampire explained he came with nothing locally, so he contacted his clan as a last resort. Using Rupert Cole’s name as a basis to start the search, they were able to backtrack to Scott, finding a complete name that didn’t match what Madeline, or the owner of The Golden Lotus, was given. That was enough for Maseo to find everything he cared to know about the young vampire. His full name was Scott Donovan Pierce, and he had a sinister criminal record. He was indeed the son of an affluent family from California, and did end up involved with “the wrong people,” but had been arrested on numerous charges of assault, sexual assault, drug possession, and robbery. Each time, likely due to his connections, he was never formally convicted. There was also a rumor floating around of attempted murder, but charges were never officially filed. When Maseo was all done, Levi was still silent for a while. “What are you going to do?” Maseo asked over the phone. “I’m going to tell her what you told me, and leave it up to her,” Levi replied. “Ja ne.” “Tell me what?” Madeline asked, eyes narrowed suspiciously after Levi ended his call. “That Scott isn’t who he led on to be,” Levi clarified. Madeline backed away and sat up on the bed. Clutching a pillow to her chest, she prepared to hear the news. She wasn’t expecting to be too devastated since she was certain at this point her relationship with Scott was over. Anything Levi was about to tell her would only add to weight to her looming decision, tilting the scale against Scott. “First off,” Levi began after he saw Madeline was comfortable with him continuing, “He’s not Scott Pearson, but Scott Donovan Pierce. Secondly, although he told you he got in with a bad bunch in California, what he didn’t tell you is the depth he had sunk to. Maseo is pretty much convinced he was more than someone being bullied into doing bad, and found an arrest record to back it up. We’re talking drug possession and robbery all the way up to sexual assault and accusations of attempted murder. He was never jailed because of his family’s money. They basically bought the silence of his victims.” Wow. She never expected Scott was telling her all the details, no one would spill their most unflattering secrets voluntarily, but didn’t expect the truth to be this bad. What made matters worse was that his sire knew this. He would have had to, otherwise, there would be no need to falsify the name for a seemingly trivial Halloween party. Someone with that sort of past would probably make a pretty good vampire if they were careful about what they did. But given what she knew now, she was convinced Scott wasn't careful at all. And his temper. It took a while for it to surface, but he did have a bad temper. Even after all this time, the smallest mention of Levi or Caslon set him off. And when she turned down his offer to fly to England, she’d never seen him lose it like that. And the comments about the murder of the tattoo shop manager. And the consistent warm flush to his skin… It made much more sense now. “Well then,” she said, taking a deep breath. “That certainly settles things. I’ll call him and see what he has to say, and then break it off.” “Did you want some privacy or…” “Please,” Madeline requested. Getting off the bed gracefully, Levi exited her bedroom closing the door behind him. Propping up all the pillows into one stack, Madeline pushed them against the headboard and leaned back, making herself comfortable under the soft, warm sheets. She took a couple of deep breaths and went over in her head what she was going to say. She didn’t want to bring up his past, because it wasn’t the sole reason for her decision. She was doing this because she didn’t feel safe in his company anymore. The more she thought about it, it was probably a bad idea to date anyone that wasn’t human. As if relationships weren’t complicated enough, she certainly didn’t need obstacles that being with a non-human partner would create. Picking up her cell phone, Madeline thumbed through her contacts and selected Scott. As the line rang, she half hoped he wouldn’t answer. But he did. “Where have you been?! Are you okay?!” he shouted, exasperated. “Do you have any idea what’s been going through my mind trying to get a hold of you?!” “I’m fine now, well for the most part,” Madeline replied. “Spent a pretty long time under medical care.” “Where are you? I’ll come pick you up.” “No. That won’t be necessary,” Madeline said. “I need to rest up for a couple of weeks, so I am not going to be accepting visitors. Look. I’m not going to drag this out any longer. Us dating? It’s just not a good idea. We gave it a good try, but it’s not going to…” “Wait, what?! Don’t be saying that. I’m sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am that I screwed up. It won’t happen again. I promise. You can’t make this big of a decision on one mistake. Please, Madeline.” “It just won’t work.” There was a long pause on Scott’s end. “Can I at least meet you one last time? Can we talk about this all face-to-face? I don’t want to do this over the phone like this. Doesn’t our relationship deserve that much?” Madeline thought about it for a few seconds. As long as it was a public place, and during the day, it should be fine. “Tomorrow at the coffee shop where I ran into you the first time. In the afternoon.” “I see,” Scott replied solemnly, understand what calling him out in the daytime meant. “Sure. Tomorrow it is then.”
  14. Chapter Ten The Katana Madeline’s stormy-blue eyes fixed on the last few lines of a newspaper article before carefully laying it down on her kitchen island. Grabbing the pot of freshly pressed coffee, she poured it into a cup laced with chocolate syrup and added some steamed milk until it was full. It had been a month since she’d moved out of Levi’s loft and into a place of her own. The building ended up not being one Levi had recommended, or even approved of, but she liked the layout and style much better than all the others she’d looked at. During the whole adventure of finding a new place, Levi had divulged that the building she’d been staying at with him was one he actually owned. And Caslon, whom she thought was being supported by his sister, was actually the building’s manager. It turned out that Levi held deeds on many buildings around the world, purchased over the course of decades and sometimes centuries. He employed a property management company to oversee them all, only needing to be involved in more important matters, like approving new vendors and whatnot. It allowed him to move between locations undetected when required and provided safe havens as well. Needless to say, he was disappointed Madeline wasn’t staying in his building, but he didn’t try to stop her. One of the things Levi hated about the apartment she had settled on was that there was a fire escape right outside her kitchen window. They were a required feature for most older, multi-story buildings that weren’t retrofitted with adequate interior staircases, but he warned about picking an apartment on the same side. The danger of intrusion was just too great. He also warned that the ground floor had an over-abundance of access points, and even with the 24-hour concierge downstairs, it increased the possibility of strangers getting into the building. But despite all that, he helped her move in and set up her alarm system, recommending that she snag as many of the other five adjacent units as soon as possible to give herself somewhat total control of the floor. On a personal note, things had been going well with Scott. He somehow convinced Cole to allow him to remain in Seattle for an extended period of time, and since business frequently kept him downtown, Cole had reserved a semi-permanent suite at the hotel. Madeline had to admit it was a rush dating someone who lived in a chic suite. It was always clean, they could get room service whenever, and the location made it easy to get to trendy spots downtown. Despite their blossoming relationship, Madeline never invited Scott to her apartment, and Scott never pressed the issue. He was easy going, a characteristic Madeline found attractive. Returning to the newspaper that waited, she read a brief article regarding a public library break-in last night in Mid-Manhattan. She couldn’t help but wonder if Levi was out of town. He never revealed his jobs to her, which was expected, but she secretly hoped it was him. She read through the rest of the paper casually, finishing her coffee and snuggling deeper into her soft, white robe. The color of it made her hair stand out dramatically. A coppery color by nature, she preferred of late to dye it a deeper red, and as it was early in the morning, she had yet to style it, leaving the curls wilder than usual. I should probably shower, Madeline thought to herself with a stretch and a yawn. Walking across the polished hardwood floor, she passed by the large picture window that lined one wall of her living room. Sprawling buildings. The skyline of a busy city. Below, the traffic crawled. It only took her about thirty minutes to get showered and dressed, but it was enough to miss a call from Syriem. Curious, Madeline listened to the voicemail and Syriem’s always digitized voice. There is something I need you to acquire for me. You'll find the details in your email, I've sent the information already. Watch your back though, it's not going to be easy, but it will definitely be worth it. Madeline listened to the message again, with notably more interest. Were her ears deceiving her, or did this sound like a potentially dangerous job? Picking up her tablet, she plopped down on the sofa and propped her slender legs up on the coffee table. She quickly scanned through her emails and found the details of the job Syriem had spoken of. An ancient Japanese sword had been stolen from one family by another. The surname of the family currently in possession of the heirloom weapon sounded familiar, while the family claiming rightful ownership did not. The target family owned a number of estates, and the katana, as well as a matching wakizashi, were on display at one such home in upstate New York. Madeline was to obtain the katana and return it to Syriem, while the matching wakizashi was hers to keep as a show of gratitude on top of her payment. And the client asked for Madeline specifically. Madeline was rather excited about the prospect of being able to keep one of the swords. Other than payment, she'd never been gifted anything from a job before. Syriem gave her 24 hours to decide. Reaching out toward the coffee table where her cell phone had been charging, Madeline dialed Levi’s number., Madeline dialed Levi’s number. “Moshi moshi,” he answered on the other line, voice as smooth and sexy as she remembered. “Hey, I have a quick question for you,” Madeline began. “I got a contract offer to steal a couple of Japanese swords in upstate New York, and the owners of the estate sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I heard the name from.” “Go on,” Levi invited. “Orimura.” There was a moment of silence on Levi’s side of the line. “You shouldn’t take this one,” Levi responded, his voice now flat and low, absent of all playfulness. “The Orimura family is an ancient canini clan. If you were to come across any of them, they would easily kill you.” “The client asked for me specifically,” Madeline added. “It’s one of many residencies they own, so if I plan to strike when they aren’t there, I’ll be fine.” “It’s not a good idea,” Levi warned. “I think I can do this, Levi,” Madeline replied, adding strength to her voice. “I had the best teacher.” She could hear him let out a long, exhausted sigh, clearing deciding whether to encourage her or not. “If you take it, let me at least help you gather blueprints and photos,” he finally said. “Okay!” Madeline grinned. “I’ll sleep on it and then give Syriem my answer in the morning. “Thanks, Levi.” “Don’t thank me yet.” Still smiling, she ended the call and then speed-dialed Scott. “Hey beautiful,” he answered, bringing a wider smile to Madeline’s lips. “We still on for dinner?” “Wouldn’t miss it,” she replied. “The usual spot?” “Of course. The salty air is wonderful.” ------------------------------------------------------ Later that night, Madeline and Scott were holding hands, strolling on the deck of a passenger ferry under a partially star-lit sky. Taking a seat on a bench, she leaned against him as he wrapped his arm around her lovingly, careful not to bump her hand as she ate a bowl of chowder. “Have you ever heard of the Orimura family?” she asked Scott before taking a bite. “Yeah, some big shot wolves from Asia,” Scott replied, his free hand moving to keep Madeline’s long red hair out of her face and her soup. The winds were a bit annoying to someone trying to eat. “Why?” Madeline opened her mouth to respond, but an unfamiliar ringtone interrupted her. Been around the world, don’t speak the language… Again she began to answer Scott, but the song continued. But your booty don’t need explaining... Looking around, she realized she and Scott were the only ones nearby, and Scott was staring annoyingly at her purse. The song was coming from her phone. Thrusting the chowder bowl at Scott, she began fumbling through her purse frantically, the ringtone growing louder as she retrieved it. All I really need to understand is… Glancing at the number in a hurry to answer and stop the song, she noticed it was Caslon calling. When. You. Talk dirty... “Caslon you little shit. When did you…?” “You didn’t call anyone,” Caslon replied in a sing-song voice, clearly pleased with the reaction he’d gotten. A month of planning had finally paid off. “You’re supposed to call somebody. Remember?” “Yes, mom,” Madeline replied sarcastically. “I’m on the ferry. “ “Now was that so hard?” “Asshole.” Madeline ended the call and silenced her phone, making a mental note to change his ringtone the first chance she got. “Who was that?” Scott questioned, definitely unamused by what the song suggested. “A friend of mine making sure I’m okay,” Madeline answered. “You met him at the Halloween party. Tall, tan, model-like body… and I’ll stop there because that is obviously not the right way to describe him to you.” “I really wish your friends would stop being such controlling dicks,” Scott said. “I’m not going to hurt you. You would think they would get that through their damn heads by now.” Desperate to change the subject, Madeline once again brought up the family. “So are the Orimura really dangerous?” she continued as she took the chowder back from Scott and went back to eating. “If I, you know, ended up on their bad side.” “Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Scott answered. “I wouldn’t worry about it, love.” Leaning over, he kissed her gently on the cheek. Madeline was always surprised how consistently warm his body was. Even now in the chill of the March salty air, his lips were warm and his skin soft and comforting. He’d only ever been vampire-like at the Halloween Party. Maybe he and Cole had a rotation of donors like Maseo did. “Besides, they would have to go through me to hurt you, and I would never let that happen,” Scott added softly. Madeline beamed at his reassuring words and finished her soup. It was decided then. She would take the job. ------------------------------------------------------ A month’s worth of photographs were spread out before Madeline on the burgundy carpet. Weeks ago, she'd taken up temporary residence in one of the buildings Levi owned in upstate New York, giving herself plenty of time to familiarize herself with the job. The modest one-bedroom apartment was in an ideal location and had everything she needed to make herself comfortable. Each time-stamped picture laid out before her was of the same estate at different angles and different times of day. A month’s worth of guard shifts allowed her to plan a route from the street to the main building. Levi had helped as well, arriving a few weeks before she did, casing out the details of the interior courtyard and helping her map out the security system. His core information confirmed the guards were human, which was of utmost importance. In fact, she highly doubted she would even make an attempt at this job without his assistance. Had he left for Seattle over a week ago, to allow her to maintain complete control over the contract. This was going to be without a doubt, her biggest challenge yet. Levi himself had told her the job neared his level of expertise, and even though he supported her, it was clear he was nervous about it. ------------------------------------------------------ Some distance away in upstate NY... The sky was nearly jet now. The sun and all its blazing glory had ducked beneath the horizon hours ago. From a quiet coffee shop about a mile away, Madeline sat sipping a latte. She had a book open to no page in particular and was playing a beautiful and calming song called Getsumei Fuuei through the earbuds she wore. It had become a tradition to listen to that song in particular as she prepped for a job. It helped her center and calmed her spirit, making her feel more connected to her environment and blend into the aura of the situation. It was a song she didn’t find on her own, but one that Syriem of all people had introduced her too, and it just felt right. After the third time it played through her headphones, Madeline rose from the table, set some coin as a tip, and left the cafe. She walked toward her motorcycle parked off a side-street and unlatched the saddle bag, placing her long, dark green sweater-coat inside. The street the coffee shop was on was lightly trafficked by those on foot, and with inches of fresh snow on the ground, there were even fewer people around. She continued walking, passing streetlamp after streetlamp, listening to the crunch of every footstep before turning the corner heading into an upper-class residential neighborhood. Before long, the sidewalks thinned to emptiness, and soon, tapered off into the snow. Streetlamps were no more, and although the night air carried a biting chill, Madeline's anxiousness insulated her. Houses became farther and farther apart, and wooded areas became thicker. As she walked on, she slipped a small cloth backpack off her shoulders, removing a thin black belt with a number of small pouches attached to it. Fastening the belt around her slender waist, the redhead put the backpack back onto her shoulders and pulled it snug. Up ahead in the distance, she could see the focus of tonight’s mission come into view. A high hedge wall, lightly dusted in white, surrounded the perimeter of the estate. From research, she knew the hedge was actually vines covering an inner brick wall foundation. Beyond the barrier, she could see the barren branches of cherry and plum trees, their leaves stolen by the passing of seasons. She envisioned in her mind the courtyard garden from the photos. One guard was always circling the winding pebble path past those same trees, over two decorative garden bridges, and then back to the side of the main building. The garden was kept extremely traditional, with only dim lantern light illuminating the pathway. Of course, there were floodlights on the rooftop corners, but those only triggered if any other securities were tripped. Madeline removed her winter gloves and ran her bare hand across the foliage, feeling the red bricks underneath and eyeing for the one slender ornamental tree that peeked over the top of the brick wall by a few inches. That would be her starting point. Taking four steps past the branch landmark, she reached into one of the pouches on her belt and removed a pair of thin black gloves with rubber-tipped fingers. Slipping her hands inside, she then strapped a small device resembling a rounded tablet to her forearm. Tapping it with a gloved fingertip, she watched as it ran through a system check. Slipping off her black boots revealed that she was actually wearing a one-piece catsuit with built-in shoes. The soles of the built-ins were thin but durable, allowing her to feel the ground with an improved grip. Madeline took a deep breath. Her PDA screen was showing a clear picture of the garden courtyard now, thanks to a minuscule camera she had placed in that very same ornamental tree, and she could watch the guard’s progression around the grounds. Noting the time on the digital pad, she began to track actions being taken on the other side of the wall chronologically. There was one point where the guard went around the corner for a few seconds - twelve to be exact - which was Madeline’s window to get from the high brick wall to the first-floor roof of the main building. That roof had an awning which protruded about three feet from the side of the building. The walkway underneath had railing running alongside it, which Madeline planned on using for her jump. That particular part of the roof would be safe to pause on. Even though it had its own security, all the cameras were pointed downward. She was positive some parts of the roof were fixed with either motion sensors, weight sensors, or both, but there were spots where birds had evidently hung out for long periods of time, leaving unmistakable white droppings, and she’d bet that those areas were free from alarms. The awning was one of those areas. Silently braiding her hair, she waited through three cycles of the guard’s path, a few times it was eleven seconds, so she planned on giving herself ten seconds to be safe. Her blue eyes watched the monitor on her forearm flicker as the guard turned his back on her. It took him eight seconds to get to the corner of the building from this point. Gently she dug the tips of her shoes through the vines and into the rough brick. The toes were slightly studded, so the grip was solid, and she placed her fingertips into the cracks much like a rock climber would. 4… 3… 2... 1… 10… Madeline scurried up the brick wall and lifted herself up and over the top. 9... 8… 7… She looked to make sure the guard was out of sight before she dropped down silently into the soft ground, taking care to work her way around the backs of the tree and bushes and away from the lantern light. 6... 5... 4… At the railing… 3… Up and reaching to the awning… 2… Pushing hard with her feet, she projected up, pulling herself onto the awning with her arms. 1… She rolled flat onto the first-floor roof awning just as she heard the guard come around, early again, and listened to his footsteps track around the garden as she planned the rest of her path. Madeline slipped her fingers into her thigh pocket silently, retrieving an electric field detector. She quickly passed it over the roof where it began to curve upwards and paused for a moment as her expression puzzled. With another sweep of her ELFLX, she confirmed the unexpected - the roof-top sensors had been deactivated. She was certain her equipment was working properly, and laid there for a few moments weighing her options. Without having to work around the roof-top security, her job had become significantly easier, not to mention quicker. Not one to look a gift-horse in the mouth, Madeline glanced once again at her screen and the path of the security guard on foot. When he rounded the corner out of sight, she rose into a low crouch and silently padded her way across the shingles. There was an area at the back corner of the estate that had a second-floor balcony. With a three-foot jump, she was able to make it from the lower roof to the balcony, and then from the balcony to the second-story roof. The rooftop in this area of the complex crowned the outer corridors which framed an open-air garden in the center. It was a perfect square, and Madeline quickly trekked across the right side of it making her way to a rectangular building on the west side of the complex. She had chosen to keep her ELFLX out in case the sensors suddenly came back on. She would then have a split second to jump from the roof to avoid being detected. It wasn’t an ample amount of time, but there was a possibility to succeed. Her glance alternated between her video screen, which was now scrolling between the first camera she planted, the second one at the entrance to the targeted room, and the ELFLX readings. Using the roof kept her clear of pretty much everything, and she arrived at the western wing in no time. This building was actually a large hall, stocked with multiple artifacts gathered from Asia. From what Madeline knew of the floorplan and contents, it was akin to a small museum. There was a large skylight in the center roof, and the owners depended on their outside guards and building security rather than elaborate measures for each treasure inside it, so getting in and out was problematic, but the object would be reasonably easy to obtain once inside. She had to plan for weeks how to go about not using the roof to get in, yet here she was. It nagged at her that the sensors had been turned off or disconnected. It didn’t make sense and was extremely suspicious. Removing a spring-loaded camming device from another cleverly hidden pocket in her catsuit, she reached around the framing of the skylight until she found a nice wedge to place it in. Working quickly and silently, she began to go to work on the skylight itself. After making another check with her ELFLX, she started to force the skylight open. Once she was able to get the vent opened wide enough to slip in, she attached an eight-foot climber's rope to her camming device, then wrapped it around a rod she had telescoped out to a length of three feet. She laid the rod flush against the opening in the skylight, then ever so slowly lowered the rope through the gap down to the private museum below. 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. In glass cases. Lining racks on the walls. On stands in various display counters. She was here to retrieve two out of the dozens, which created a slight problem. Tapping her video screen a few times, she brought up a picture of the two swords she was looking for. Starting with the glass display cases, she began to examine each of them in the partial darkness. There must be at least 40 swords in here, she thought. Knowing time was precious in any job, Madeline tried to make quick work of finding the right pair of Japanese swords, but her efforts were fruitless. Without carefully examining each hilt, one out of every two swords could have been the one she was looking for, writing off the ones that weren't in sets. She left the ones in the cases for last, hoping the pair she was hunting for wasn’t locked up. Besides, she didn't have the time to be cutting through all the glass cases in the room. Damn it, Levi, she thought to herself. You could have mentioned this. She worked quickly through one side of the room, scanning the wall racks and coming to the conclusion that her target wasn't among them. Staying in the shadows, Madeline began examining the open shelves next, using her flashlight to illuminate any details on the blades. Passing over the glass cases on the west side, she moved to the east shelves next. Her eyes were beginning to play tricks on her, as each weapon started to look more and more like one before. Cursing to herself quietly, Madeline's eyes rested on a blade in a glass case directly behind the oak shelf she'd been searching. It was a grand blade, highly polished, as was its shorter twin resting in the same confines. The handled was braided tightly in black and bore a script of characters along each sheath. The poor photograph Syriem had given her had the same details, as did many of the blades here, but this pair was more protected than the others of it's kind. These have got to be the ones I'm here for. Retrieving a glass cutter from her pocket, Madeline laid one hand on the side of the case, reaching with her other to press the diamond blade into the smooth surface. Then something caught her attention. Looking up, there was nothing there. Holding her breath, she remained motionless for a few seconds, waiting, but the room was still. As she was about to continue cutting, once again there was a faint movement out of the corner of her eye. Her hands froze as she followed the direction of the interruption, eyes laying to rest on a pair of swords resting alone on a shelf against the east wall. They too had a woven black handle and script along the sheath, but there was something different about them. Beneath the stand they rested on was a simple swatch of red silk embroidered with white blossoms. No other display had adornments, and the shadows bathed the blades so effectively that they would have gone unnoticed if it hadn't been for whatever flicker had caught Madeline's attention. Lowering her hands from the glass case, she stepped silently to the pair and grabbed the wakizashi. Madeline expected to feel a coolness as she wrapped her slender fingers around the tsuka, but the rayskin and silk braiding were oddly warm as if someone else had just been holding it for an extended period of time. Her eyes quickly darted around the room, searching suspiciously for movement of any kind. Could the brief blurs she swore she saw been someone in the room? And if so, how were they hiding so cleverly? Could this assignment have been given out to duplicate parties? The wakizashi felt comfortable in her hands, balanced and firm in her grip. She couldn’t quite explain it, but in a way, it felt as though the sword was holding onto her as well. Reaching over her shoulder, Madeline slipped the thin black carrying bag off her arm and laid it down on the table where the daisho had rested, and prepared to pack them up. "Take your filthy hands off that blade..." Madeline whipped her body around, bringing the wakizashi up to a straight and firm outward thrust. She found herself pointing the blade at a young Japanese girl who appeared to be in her late teens. Deep blue silk covered her olive skin in the form of a loose fitting tank top and shorts. Madeline assumed she was previously sleeping, given the slight disarray of her long black hair. This girl was holding a blade as well, poised to strike, and even in the darkness of the room, Madeline could see the fury that burned in her eyes. "How dare you desecrate my ancestors!" The girl lunged forward expertly, but being quicker, Madeline rolled out of the way and grabbed at anything she could from the table behind her, ending up with the sheath and not the other blade. Fuck. Spinning back around, she once again pointed the blade at the young girl, this time using its smooth wooden sheath as a guard. The girl came at her, forcing her to block the deadly sweeps of tempered steel with all her strength. Madeline was faster, which allowed her to live, but this girl was much more skilled. And even though the wakizashi felt light and seemed to help her technique, she knew the girl would surely kill her if this swordplay dragged on. Think, think, think… She cursed in her mind as she tried to scan the room between dodges and parries. She didn't hear any other commotions or alarms from where she was. Hopefully, there weren't any outside either, though she doubted it was going to be anything but easy getting out of here alive. With a few graceful and deadly strokes, the girl had maneuvered herself toward the table, grabbing the katana which Madeline failed to acquire seconds ago, and was now sporting a wicked smile on her pretty face as if she had won simply by picking up the other sword. She came at Madeline with much more precision now, and as the clashing of steel echoed in the large room, the girl’s face became increasingly troubled. Madeline could tell that she was trying for a disarm, but the blade wasn’t leaving the redhead's fingers. Her hand felt almost fused to the wakizashi, and the girl realized it too as her attacks became driven by frustration instead of skill. Realizing this, Madeline began to maneuver to the center of the room where her rope was hanging. She needed to get out of here fast, or she wouldn’t be getting out of here at all. Out of nowhere came a gunshot. It was masked by a silencer but it was still a gunshot, there was no mistaking it. Madeline sheathed the wakizashi, slipping the strap over her head, and jumped for her rope, scurrying up as quickly as she could. Looking down, she saw the young woman staring at her hand, the katana she had held was now spinning across the floor behind her filling the air with a metal hum. Stunned, the girl just stood there for the few seconds it took for Madeline to climb up and out of the skylight. As much as she really wanted to grab the katana and finish her job, she knew when it was time to retreat. Checking her video monitor, she confirmed the sensors were all still out and as soon as the guard outside rounded the corner she climbed down and hauled ass to the outside wall. With the highest jump she could muster, Madeline scaled the outer wall and landed precisely next to where she left her boots. It was silent on this side of the high stone wall, which she leaned against to steady her breathing. At her back, the wakizashi hung. She failed in her mission. She could probably still recover the other blade, but it would take months, perhaps years before the heat of the previous attempt would cool. Slipping into her boots, Madeline crossed her arms for warmth and walked briskly back to where her motorcycle was still parked near the coffee shop. As she was about to cross the street, she heard a man’s voice. “Don’t go back.” Turning, she saw a man standing about fifteen feet away from her. He was tall, dressed in a black leather jacket and worn jeans. His amber colored hair was styled in thick, spiky layers, with dark roots that betrayed a dye job. Lighting up a cigarette, she saw his face clearly for a moment. Piercing, bright blue eyes studied her. Angelic looking features. Then the lighter went dark. “What did you say?” Madeline asked, but remained where she was, ready to move if need be and reaching slowly toward the throwing blades that were affixed to her suit. “Don’t,” he warned again, taking a drag off his cigarette with a nonchalant demeanor. “You’re done with this one. Don’t come back. If you do, I can make things... complicated.” His voice was threatening as he casually opened the left side of his jacket, revealing a gun resting in a holster under his arm. Madeline’s eyes narrowed. He had to have been the person that shot the blade out of the girl’s hand. How did he get out here so soon? She also wondered if he was the shadow she saw from the corner of her eye which led her to the swords in the first place. “Who are you?” She asked, the look of annoyance showing clearly on her face. “I represent a third party in this matter,” he replied, taking another drag off his cigarette before dropping it to the damp ground and crushing it underfoot. “You should go home before you get hurt.” Without another word, the man turned and walked away until he could no longer be seen. Cursing under her breath, Madeline walked back to her motorcycle and headed to the apartment. ------------------------------------------------------ By the time she took a taxi from the airport and arrived back at her apartment in Seattle, it was a little after 10 p.m. the next day. Madeline wasn’t expecting guests, but the scent of freshly brewed coffee filling her living room indicated she had no choice in the matter. “How’d it go?” The words came urgently from Levi, who had let himself in and had been waiting anxiously for her return. He approached her from the kitchen, assessing her present state in such a calculating manner that it made her nervous. “I only got one,” Madeline replied, downtrodden. His eyes narrowed. “How did you only get one? What happened?” As the questioning began, he placed his hand on her lower back and began to guide her to the kitchen to make her his unique coffee concoction. “Can this wait for just a bit?” Madeline pleaded. “I really want to get out of these clothes. Then I’ll answer anything you want me to.” “Well in that case, did you want me to order anything?” he offered. “Mexican? Greek? Pizza?” Madeline set the sword bag on the table before walking down the hallway to her bedroom. “Pizza.” As she rounded the door into her room, she could hear Levi ordering a large Margherita pizza. Just the thought was making her drool. They liked a lot of the same foods, but she couldn’t remember if it was because of all the training they had done together, or if it was just always like that from the beginning. Thinking back, he had been acting strange lately. Like being here in the middle of the night, for instance, waiting for her to come home. This was unusual. She slipped out of her clothes, tossing them into the laundry basket, and lazily wandered into her bathroom shower. The hot water washed away the sweat and relaxed her mind and body. Usually, she'd take a long, hot soak in the tub after a job, but she’d have to pass on that this time. Having Levi here was very unexpected. Worrying was definitely out of character. After a quick dry-off and change into her pajama top and shorts, she went back into the kitchen and took a seat at the island counter. Levi was already making her coffee drink. “Well…?” “The roof sensors were off,” Madeline started off matter-of-factly. Levi stopped mid-pour. “They were off?” “Yep,” she responded, “So I chanced the roof run instead of the balcony.” He continued to pour the coffee, stopping to stir in the cream. “I got in through the skylight pretty uneventfully. They had a lot of swords in there, and when I was looking for a match, I thought I got a glimpse of something. Whatever it was led me to the right pair of swords.” “So what happened? Why do you only have one?” “Some girl who lives there drew a sword on me, and I had to fight her.” “Wait, WHAT?! Levi reacted boisterously. “You got into a swordfight at the estate?!” “Oh, it gets better,” Madeline added. “While we were fighting, someone shot the blade out of the girl's hand so I could get away. He said he was an 'interested third party'… I’ve never seen him before.” Their conversation was interrupted by the front door buzzer. Levi pressed a finger to her lips softly to silence her before walking off to get the door. After a few minutes, he was back, pizza box in hand, and starting to dish out piping hot slices onto a plate for her. She noticed that his expression had changed from before. It was darker. And as she took a bite of pizza she could tell he was impatiently waiting for the rest of the story. “So this guy with a silencer takes a shot from within the house, and I had time to get up and out. Otherwise, I am sure she would have killed me with the katana I was supposed to steal. I escaped the grounds, and that guy was waiting a few feet from where my start point was. Tells me don’t go back for the katana, and that he’s with a third party.” Levi was not enjoying the story. “And I’m not so sure we are returning this to the right people. Before the girl attacked me, she said I was desecrating her ancestors. She was trying to disarm me, but it was like the blade wouldn't let go of me. That frustrated the girl even more than…” Levi growled under his breath, and pressed a finger to Madeline’s lips once more, silencing her. His emerald eyes were blazing. He had told Madeline and Syriem from the start that, in his professional opinion, she shouldn't take this mission. She was breaking into one of many estates owned by a widely known, powerful werewolf clan. He trained her well but wasn’t sure if she would be able to handle it. And if she ran into any trouble, it would have been fatal. If the stranger she described hadn’t been there… And now this news about the blade itself. He knew who it was she had fought with, which enlightened him to the importance of the blade. But what he feared most was why Madeline had an affinity for the blade. That could only mean one thing, but couldn’t connect enough dots to make sense of it. Something was missing. Some great, big, important dot. Did Syriem give her this mission knowingly? Was it even a mission at all? All it succeeded to do was to create a new pawn in the politics of the shrouded world. It made his student a pawn. Someone knew more about her than he did, and now they placed her in danger. He could feel his blood boiling. He knew full well what being a pawn felt like. “Levi?” With a look of genuine concern in her eyes, Madeline gently placed her hand on his and moved it away from her lips. “What’s wrong?” “The girl you fought with is one of the Orimura clan. Not a guard, or one of the house staff, she was of the clan. And I have no idea how you managed to dodge her or get out of there alive.” He rubbed his temples, wondering if this is what a human headache feels like. He was furious inside, and his head ached trying to suppress it. “No more missions for a while, ok?” he said, trying to reign in his anger and be gentle with her. “We need to make sure this blows over first.” “I’m sorry,” she apologized sadly, looking down at the pizza on her plate. Madeline could feel the gravity of the situation weighing down on her. Levi was right. She shouldn’t have taken this. She should have listened. She wasn’t sure how this would affect her relationship with Syriem, or the client, but knew it wouldn’t be good. With a graceful sweep of his hand, Levi lifted her chin, so she was forced to look at him directly. Her sadness was fully apparent in her glistening eyes as she fought back tears. Sorrow was a hard aura to deal with, and although Levi felt the pain of her emotion throughout his body just by being so close to her, he persevered. Trying to remain strong, she attempted to divert her eyes from his, but he wouldn’t let her. She didn’t cry though. Her stubbornness overcame her sadness, and she managed to suppress the tears. She’d come so far with his training and support, farther than Levi had ever figured she could. And here she was, taking on a job that no average human should have even considered. Even after a confrontation, she came out unscathed. But she shouldn’t have. She should be... “It’s not your fault,” he reassured her, feeling grateful that she returned unharmed. “Something tells me you weren't supposed to succeed in the first place. I’m just glad you’re back in one piece. If anything were to happen to...” Levi inhaled sharply, catching himself in the midst of something foreign. He closed his mouth though his eyes were still wide. No, he told himself sternly. I. Will. Not. “You need to eat,” he continued suddenly, expression melting into a sly grin as he released her chin. “And while you’re at it, I want the best description you can give me of the stranger with the gun.” Madeline went into as much detail as she could remember, from height to clothing to a physical description, and although Levi didn’t know this person, he committed it to memory. He needed to find out who it was, because without his interference, Madeline would have been dead. After they finished their late dinner, Madeline took a seat on the couch with her laptop while Levi cleaned up in the kitchen. She sat staring at the screen for a few minutes, tossing around ideas on how to approach the fact that she had failed her contract. There wasn’t any easy way to say it, so she just started typing an update to Syriem with all the facts. The contract was not completed in full, she began typing. There was a last minute change in the security measures which prompted a secondary approach of the property. The set was located, but I was attacked by one of the Orimura clan who secured the katana before I could claim it. Madeline stopped typing for a moment, considering whether to add the part about the stranger who saved her life. Since she was explicitly requested by someone for this contract, it’s possible, as Levi suggested, it was a setup, and she wasn't supposed to have succeeded. Passing on the information to this unknown client about the stranger with the gun would alert them to the fact that she had help. At this point, that sounded like a bad decision no matter how it was worded. Fingers moving once again on the keyboard, she finished the email. I managed to make it out with the wakizashi only. Please advise. After she sent her report, Madeline let Levi know. The only thing left to do now was wait. “Mind if I stick around to see how this plays out?” Levi asked, drying his hands in a kitchen towel after washing the plates they had used. “Sure, let me get you a blanket for the couch,” Madeline answered as she went off down the hall returning with an oversized throw. “I’m going to go lay down. If you hear anything, let me know. I’ve got my email notifications up pretty loud on my laptop.” Nodding, Levi took the throw from her hands and got comfy on her sofa while Madeline headed off to her room and closed the bedroom door. He wasn’t sleepy in the least, and within moments found himself texting Maseo, who he knew would be awake at this hour. Levi asked him about the stranger with the gun, but Maseo didn’t know of anyone who matched the description. Then he told him about Madeline’s failed contract. Out of all the friends Levi had, Maseo was the only one that knew all his secrets. The only one he trusted with his very life. Maseo was positively shocked that Levi had even let Madeline accept such a deal, to which Levi responded that he wasn’t really sure why he did either, but it wasn’t easy to forbid someone from doing something. Sometimes, he told Maseo, it was easier to help them than to hinder them. So how are you feeling about all this? Maseo texted. What do you mean? You know what I mean. About her almost getting killed. I’m mad. I should have been there. Don’t take this the wrong way, but once we vampires teach a fledgling what they need to survive, we let them make their own way. That should be easy for you to do as well, but you’re not letting go. You need to recognize what’s going on here. Levi typed something, hesitated long enough that it got saved as a draft message, and then deleted it all, staring at his phone until Maseo sent him another text. Or have you already? It’s not what you’re thinking} Levi finally replied. {I’m a perfectionist and can’t leave well enough alone. Her failure is mine for not teaching her enough. If my apprentice screws up, it tarnishes my reputation. Well, if you’re going to play it that way fine. If I come across anything to do with your mystery man, I’ll let you know Maseo messaged. In the meantime, I would be pretty cautious with contracts for a while. Yours and hers. There was a loud notification ping as an email landed in Madeline’s inbox. Gotta go. Duty calls Levi texted. Ja ne. Flipping the screen open on her laptop, Levi clicked to open the email response from Syriem. It was not what he was expecting. Madeline - Nevertheless, the client is pleased with your effort. In their own words, the fact that you “stirred things up a bit in there” was enough to satisfy the objective they were hoping for, katana obtained or not. Full payment has been deposited, and as was initially stated in the details of the contract, the wakizashi is yours to keep. Thank you for your service. It made absolutely no sense at all. Levi woke Madeline in a hurry to have her come read it. “What the actual fuck?” Madeline thought out loud. “I failed the mission. Failed it! If they wanted the Orimura estate to get their panties in a bunch, I could think of a lot better ways to do it.” She looked up at Levi, hoping he would have some hidden insight or explanation, but he was just as bewildered as she was. “Do me a favor,” he spoke after thinking about things for a while. “Don’t accept any future contracts unless you run them by me, okay?” Madeline nodded. “But for now, get some rest,” he continued. “I’m going to head back to my place and do some digging. I’ll contact you if I find anything.” “Thank you for being here,” Madeline said as Levi made his way toward her front door. Levi stopped for a moment, but instead of turning around, he simply waved his hand in farewell and left without looking back. -------------------------------------------------- “I have a message from master Gideon,” Cole said right after Scott answered his phone. “What is all that noise in the background?” “I’m at a nightclub,” Scott replied, a finger in his open ear to make hearing Cole’s call easier. “Give me a second to move somewhere a bit less rowdy.” The background music grew fainter as Scott moved in a hurry out into the alley behind the club. Cole was in England, and the call was long distance. Dealing with Cole when he’s angry was a drag, and Scott would do anything to prevent that, including lying. “Okay, I can hear you better now.” “Your girlfriend survived the test master Gideon presented to her,” Cole continued. “Confirming his suspicions of her lineage. Chances are this test has left Leviticus suspicious, and you need to focus on convincing her to come with you on a trip home as soon as possible. Say whatever it takes to get her willing to fly here. Once she is home, we’ll take care of the rest.” “What do you mean, take care of the rest?” Scott asked. This part was new to him. He’d always been told if he got her to see their point of view, that he would be able to keep her as a reward. Cole made it sound like he and master Gideon were going to assume control of her once she was in England. “There are things we will need from her first,” Cole explained. “Namely analysis of her necklace and how it connects to her bloodline. Once we unlocked her secrets, you may have her back to do what you please. Make her your child, make her a mindless follower, use her as a blood resource, master Gideon does not care what you do at that point. Just get her to London happy and unharmed.” Scott didn’t like what he was being told. How was he supposed to maintain being her knight, the man she trusted, the man she adored, if he was to hand her over to them? Cole was no charmer of ladies, but Gideon… Gideon wasn’t called ‘master’ for nothing. He was the most charming and terrifying being Scott had ever met. Madeline was beautiful, and if Gideon decided he wanted her, Scott didn’t stand a chance. Just the thought sent him into a rage. Only he would have her. She belonged to him. No one else. Ever. Stomping down the dark alley with the heavy beats of the club fading away behind him, Scott took a left turn which put him on the next main street. Grumbling to himself, he walked for a block and then entered a tattoo parlor that was still open. The windows were covered in black paper to provide privacy from onlookers, and the small shop had a tiny waiting area of four small folding chairs. A short counter ran the width of the shop, with a gap at the left wall to allow passage into the back area where all the work was done. The counter also served as a glass display case where the shop sold its jewelry and a few other items like lighters and water pipes. Behind the counter was a heavyset man in his thirties, with a buzzcut and a short brown beard. The whole shop was immaculate, and even the guy behind the counter was wearing a spotless apron. “I’d like my tongue pierced,” Scott asked the artist behind the counter. After giving Scott a once-over glance, the artist directed him to one of four open chairs behind the counter, right next to where another tattoo artist was packing up. “I got this one,” the guy behind the counter told the other artist. “Just pack up and go home. This shouldn’t take long.” Nodding, the other man packed up his things and left out the front door, leaving Scott and the piercer alone. “You from England?” the slightly heavyset man asked Scott as he prepared his equipment. Making small talk was part of the job, but to be honest, he really just wanted to get through this quick and head home. It had been a grueling day. “Yeah,” Scott replied, settling into the seat. “I see you have a nose piercing,” the man continued, slipping latex gloves on over his large hands. “This one is going to hurt a lot more than that one did.” “Yeah, yeah. Just hurry up,” Scott snapped back. “Listen man, you don’t have to be a prick,” the artist said. “I was just trying to give you fair warning.” Scott said nothing. Just waited for the guy to clamp the forceps on. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the needle get prepped for insertion. “Going in from the bottom in 3… 2… 1…” There was a sharp pain for only a moment, and then the artist fixed the steel barbell in place. Scott could already feel the wound healing around the metal. “Now ice water and ibuprofen will help with the swelling you’re going have the first couple of… What the hell?” The piercer quickly noticed something was not right. The tongue he’d just pierced was healed, looking as if the barbell had been there for months. Scott was in no pain, and there was no more blood. Before he could wrap his mind around what was happening, Scott rose from the chair, grabbed the man by the throat and charged, slamming his whole body into the drywall. His neck was snapped instantly. Lunging at his throat, the silver-haired vampire drank in a violent rage until there was no more left. He then proceeded to toss and tear into the body, leaving bits and pieces of flesh and clothing all over the shop, and toppling equipment and furniture in the process. “Fuck you,” Scott cursed at no one in particular. “Nothing better than food, the lot of you. I’d kill you all if I could. Gonna LORD OVER YOU ALL!” Picking up a chair, he hurled it at the front counter, smashing the glass top to bits. With violent steps he marched to the front, thrusting his hands into the case and grabbing a fist full of jewelry before stuffing his hands in his front pant pockets. He then proceeded to unbutton his shirt, leaving it in a bloody pile on the floor. At the very back of the shop was a break room with lockers and a coat rack. Scott grabbed his victim’s coat, which was twice his size, and threw it on before exiting the shop through the back door. He didn’t bother to call for clean up. Why should he? Let the cows come and try to catch him. All they would find is death.
  15. Chapter Nine All the Things That I Need The bell hanging from the inside doorknob chimed softly as Madeline entered the coffee shop, a brown paper parcel under her arm. Since the blue diamond job nine months ago, Madeline had taken on a handful of her own regional contracts that mainly involved running local deliveries via her motorcycle, though a few included burglary. Although it didn’t sound glamorous, she was operating on her own and slowly building a name for herself. All her clients had been pleased with her punctuality and tact, and a few were impressed enough that they specifically requested her by name. Inhaling the rich, roasted aroma of the freshly made concoctions, she walked briskly past the coffee counter and entered a lounge area walled with bookcases and magazine racks. Sofas and easy chairs were organized smartly around low tables where about a dozen or so customers relaxed, drank, and read. She was to make her delivery to a man in his mid-twenties, and he would be wearing a powder-blue hoodie with a sleeveless black vest over it. He wasn’t hard to find. Nestled into one of the plush armchairs, his face was buried in a fashion magazine as Madeline approached, setting the shoebox-sized package down on the coffee table in front of him. She unzipped her black jacket just enough to reach inside the inner pocket and retrieve the documentation that served as proof of delivery. “If you could just sign this please,” she requested politely, reaching a bit deeper into the same pocket to pull out a pen. 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?” Madeline was at a loss for words. After a couple of stammering attempts, she took a seat, setting the documentation and pen on the table. “Sorry, I wasn’t expecting to see you. I’m a bit surprised.” “Likewise,” Scott admitted. “I was told to hang out here and pick up a package for my boss. I had no idea it would be you delivering it.” Madeline glanced casually at the shipping documents. It was for a Rupert Cole. He must be Scott’s sire. “Yep, that’s me,” Madeline laughed softly. “Courier to the important people. What are you two doing in town anyway? I thought you said you lived somewhere in England?” “Cole is in town for an annual business symposium. I asked to come along for a change of scenery and the hopes of running into you again. Must be my lucky day.” Madeline blushed openly. “We’re here for a few more days. You and I should do dinner or something,” Scott suggested. “No strings attached, I promise. Cole is going to be busy with panels and charity dinners and other extremely boring things I would rather not attend with him. Please, Madeline, be my alibi?” His pitiful expression was too sweet to refuse. “I would love to,” Madeline confessed with a smile. “Would tonight be too soon?” Scott asked. “If so, perhaps…” “No, tonight would be fine,” Madeline interrupted. “After this delivery, I’m pretty much done for the day.” “Well, since I’m from out of town and don’t really know my way around yet, why don’t we do this…” Taking the pen, Scott signed the delivery papers to confirm he received the package and then wrote his cell phone number on the very bottom of Madeline’s copy. “Give me a call when you’re ready, and we can meet here, or at the Sheraton across the street. That’s where we’re staying. Then we can figure out where I can take you.” “Sounds good,” Madeline said, tucking the pen and folded paperwork back into her jacket pocket as she stood, glancing at the watch tucked up under her sleeve. “It’s a little after 8:00 p.m. now, so will 10:00 p.m. be okay?” “Perfect,” Scott winked flirtatiously. “See you in a couple of hours.” Madeline gave a little wave before she turned around and made her way out of the coffee shop and into the night. It had been a long time since she’d gone on a real date, and she was feeling like a giddy high school girl. Scott was attractive and appreciative of her, and after getting to know Maseo and his crew, she knew it was possible for vampires to be good people. Her contract completed, she rode her motorcycle back to the loft apartment to email a copy of the receipt to Syriem. Once she was done with business, she stopped off at her bedroom briefly to slip out of her jacket and then headed off to find Levi. He wasn’t in the kitchen, nor was he working out, but his motorcycle was parked in the loft, so she assumed he was in his office. Maybe he got a job offer and was verifying information. A few feet from his open bedroom door she heard voices; his and someone else's. “I don’t know how much more I can take,” a delicate female voice said in Japanese. “I dislike all this hiding and not being able to make my feelings public...” “Shhh,” Levi responded in a comforting tone Madeline had never heard him use before. “It won’t be forever. You’ll see.” “I know, but…” Madeline’s footsteps slowed as she listened to their conversation, but she couldn’t stop herself from what felt like walking in slow-motion through Levi’s doorway. Before her he stood, with only a towel wrapped low around his waist, embracing a petite woman in a short white bathrobe. Her long black hair was wet from a shower, and her thin arms were wrapped around Levi’s bare waist, face buried in the tanned skin of his defined chest. Chin down, he repeatedly kissed the crown of her head, arms cocooning her body lovingly. He noticed Madeline in the doorway. “What is it?” he asked, no hint of alarm or embarrassment in his tone as he continued to hold the woman close. “Um, I’m finished for the day,” she managed to get out. “And.. and I was going to go out in a few hours.” Without waiting for a response, Madeline turned and headed to her bedroom, her strides growing more hurried the closer she got. She could feel her jaw hanging open in response to what she’d just witnessed, and wondered to herself why the pain in her heart was so knotted. She expected as much from him. She knew how he was. She’d taken messages for him from various women. She’d lied to hook-ups that had become too clingy to get rid of them for him. But to see him like this… Her chest and stomach twisted awkwardly as if she’d caught him cheating. Was it because he was being nice, and not lecherous, to this woman? That had to be it. Up until this point, he’d been nice to, and only taken care of, her. Only her. But now there was this other woman, and the atmosphere was sobering. She knew she had no claim to him, so why was she feeling so devastated? Was she this much in love with him without realizing it? Behind the locked door in her bedroom, Madeline took a couple of deep breaths in an attempt to settle her fluttering heart and steady her thoughts. I have a date, she told herself. Someone who has expressed interest in me, and remembered me enough to come back to the city hoping to run into me. I need to calm the fuck down and focus on that. Clearing her throat, she opened her closet and began to select something to wear while she thought about where she and Scott should go. -------------------------------------------------- “Was that Madeline?” the woman asked Levi back in his room, as the red-headed girl came in quietly but left in a whirlwind. “She’s not as unshakable as you described.” “I think she was shocked by the scenery.” Levi chuckled. “Well, that would put her in an awkward predicament,” the woman acknowledged. “Are you going to go after her?” “Why?” Levi asked. With a disappointed sigh, the woman slugged Levi in the bicep. “Always the asshole, aren’t you?” she whispered under her breath. “One of these days I hope you will not always be an embarrassment to me.” -------------------------------------------------- “Guess who has a date tonight?” Scott sang as he approached Cole, who was seated at the well-appointed desk in their business suite going over some paperwork. “Excellent,” the older gentleman responded, still reading through a schedule of events outlined in the business conference program. “Did you get the package?” “Of course,” Scott replied, setting the parcel on his sire’s desk. Taking a letter opener from the desk drawer, Cole began to slice away at the brown paper. “I want you to be well fed for your date. This meeting with her is critical. You must provide what she needs you to be. To get her away from that demon. Master Gideon’s instructions are perfectly clear. Become whatever she desires. Be her perfect boyfriend. Get her completely away from that monster by earning her trust.” “So where do I go to feed here?” Scott asked. He was unfamiliar with this city and where the dregs would be located. Normally, he was given prepackaged sustenance from Cole, and although he had been trained on how to feast on actual humans, he had little practical application of the skills and nuances. Cole picked up his phone, typing a few addresses into an email and then forwarding it off to Scott. “Any of these locations should be sufficient,” Cole responded in his aristocratic British accent. “Dress the part, and do clean up your mess. Let me know where you were so I can have someone attend to any details you might have missed.” Scott nodded and left Cole to get changed. Feeding on vagrants meant looking like one so passers-by wouldn't look twice. Humans, for the most part, despised beggars and homeless. They avoided eye contact, even if there was a scuffle going on, which made them perfect for meals when prior arrangements for blood couldn't be made. Tossing on a pair of dirty-looking, worn jeans, and a blood-red hoodie, Scott exited the hotel into the cold February night and headed to the first address on the list Cole had sent him. The address took Scott to the corner of an old two-story brick building which housed a locally-owned convenience store, a florist shop, and a coffee shop that wasn’t part of a large chain. There were a couple of men with scraggly faces and soiled clothes sitting on the curb out front, bagged booze in their hands, indicating Scott was in the right place. Hands in his pockets, Scott walked around the building noticing an inconspicuous, unlit alley. Inhaling, the familiar smell of human piss was overwhelming, bringing back memories he’d thought were long buried. Although he hated to admit it because he was above all that now, he was no stranger to dark alleyways, junkies, and drunks. Pulling his hood up to cover his unique silver dye-job, Scott slinked into the alley like a predator. About twenty feet in he came across a man sleeping on a box next to a large black bag of trash. Scott wrinkled his nose at the urine and whiskey that permeated the narrow space between the buildings. On the other side of the man, a woman leaned against the bricks, her eyes rolled back as she relished in some high or another. She didn’t even notice Scott approach. He laid his hand on her throat lightly, startling her. “Imma gonna scream,” she managed to gurgle out, “Don’t touch me.” “But you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Scott purred. “For someone like me to touch you? I imagine I’m the best looking man who’s touched you in a long time, aren’t I?” As he spoke, Scott exhaled, focusing on the pheromones his kind were able to produce during the feeding process to calm the prey. This too was something he had little practice with, but his skills were enough to get this wretch of a rail-thin woman to give him a dirty little smile. “Let’s make a deal then,” he continued. “I’ll let you touch me if you let me touch you.” The woman nodded with a yellowed grin, placing one of her hands right on Scott’s crotch. Maintaining a smile, Scott leaned forward and rested his lips on the woman’s neck, tasting the salt of sweat on her damp skin. He kissed gently, licking the flesh clean as her hand worked up and down his pants in the false hope that she was turning him on. As he was taught, when her breathing became heavy with lust, he bit down hard into her throat, holding her head back against the bricks with his right hand. Between whatever drug she was on, and the influence of his natural endorphin, she didn’t make a peep as he gnawed into her throat, gulping down the life her heart was pumping into him one swallow after another. Her hand slipped away from his body just as the strength left her legs. Letting her down gently onto the urine-soaked concrete, he rushed to the slumbering man faster than the human eye could make sense of. Sharp teeth sank into the man’s throat, piercing through the skin so violently that Scott’s teeth rested deeply against his trachea. He had decided as soon as he entered the alley that this one was going to be violent, and violent it was. Crunching down, he destroyed the windpipe before the vagrant could even make a sound. He drank his fill, but couldn’t finish it all. Two full bodies were just too much, but he wanted to be gorged for his date so that he looked and felt as human as possible. And he had succeeded. Scott sighed in ecstasy. This was so much better than drinking blood from glasses and out of bags. The control. He had control over life. Whether it departed slowly and with pleasure, or in a nightmare of pain and agony, it was his choice to make. He was half tempted to hit another address just to feel the rush again, but it was getting close to when Madeline would call and he needed to get back to the hotel to get cleaned up. Pulling his hood up tight over his head, he left the alley and waited until he was a few blocks away before he called Cole. “Two at the first address,” he informed. “Wasn’t clear enough to relocate them.” “Understood,” Cole responded. “I have cleanup in route.” “Heading back, I’ll be home in a few.” As Scott ended the call, he looked down at his hand. It was warm and supple and had a healthy color to it. Smiling, he tucked his phone back into his pocket and made his way back. -------------------------------------------------- Madeline had arrived at the Sheraton by cab before calling Scott on her cell phone, for the simple reason that she didn’t want to give him even an inkling of what direction Levi’s safe house was in. Taking a comfortable seat in the luxurious lobby, she dialed his number and waited. “Hello love,” he answered, again with the slight accent that made his voice charming, and without so much as a pause to confirm it was her. Madeline giggled. “I’m downstairs in the lobby,” she said, biting her lower lip to suppress her grin. “I’ll be right down.” He checked himself in the mirror before leaving the main bedroom of the hotel suite. He chose to wear black skinny-jeans with silver and black converse shoes. A navy blue, long-sleeved, button-up shirt fit loosely around his upper body, fashionably untucked. His silvery-white hair was wavy and full of body. Whistling happily to himself, he grabbed his keycard, slipped it into his wallet, and exited the suite, taking the elevator to the lobby below. As the doors opened to the ground floor, he was still pleasantly whistling, brown eyes scanning the room for his red-headed date. The first thing his eyes locked onto were her long legs as they uncrossed and she rose from her chair, sauntering over to him in strappy heels. She was wearing a short black skirt which hugged her hips, and a loosely knit beige sweater which offered a peek at the tight black crop top underneath. Her long, beautiful red hair was loosely braided over her left shoulder, a single silver clip pinned as decoration, sparkling against the auburn backdrop. Draped over her arm was a long, green, knit coat to shield her from the cold outside. “Well, damn,” Scott grinned, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking illicit thoughts right now. You look stunning.” “Thank you,” Madeline blushed. She noticed his skin was warm, and his hands were soft, compared to the last time she had touched him. For all intents and purposes, he looked and felt perfectly human. “I like the look,” she complimented. She’d seen him in a Vegas-style suit that was over-the-top, a casual hoodie and jeans, and now this. It fit him well, and the tight jeans were… She caught herself blushing again. “Let’s blow this place,” Scott said, holding her hand in his. “I’m excited to see what you have in store for me.” “Are you now?” Madeline teased, leading the way. They settled on a small bar a few miles away by cab. It had a warm and darkly romantic interior, served food and drinks, and had its own cozy dance floor for those so inclined. Madeline and Scott took a couple of lounge chairs at a square table near the red-bricked corner of the bar. After ordering a couple of drinks and some appetizers for Madeline, Scott noticed Madeline was occasionally staring off into space, distracted by something or other. “You look a bit upset,” he said after their drinks arrived, noticing her faraway look as she took a sip of her white russian. “Something happen?” “No,” she lied, smiling sheepishly while looking down at the ice cubes in her glass. “Sorry. I was just zoned out. Enjoying the relaxing atmosphere. So how have you been?” “Good, good,” he replied. “Rather happy I am not hanging out with Cole’s boring business partners. Thanks for saving me.” “Saving you?” Madeline joked. “You seem pretty much in control of your own destiny.” “You could say that. Speaking of which, are you still indebted to that shapeshifter?” “Yep. I don’t see myself getting out of that agreement any time soon.” “My offer still stands,” Scott said, pretending to drink out of the cocktail he ordered. “That is if you can handle the intense excitement that is international business consultation.” Madeline laughed at his comment and then felt her phone vibrate. “Excuse me,” she said as she removed it from her clutch purse and took a look at who was texting her. It was Levi asking her where she was, so she quickly messaged him back. On a date. Go away. Ignoring the next vibration, she put the phone back into her purse. “Who was that?” “Just my mentor checking in with me,” she replied, faking a smile. “Checking in with you, or checking up on you?” Scott questioned, purposely drawing an example of the action. “Checking up on me, actually,” Madeline revealed. “I didn’t tell him where I was going, so he’s kind of concerned.” “Pardon me, but he sounds like he has control issues.” Madeline was about to snap back but realized that from Scott’s point of view it would definitely appear that way. Best to let him keep that observation. It was better than him knowing that she needed protecting. She could feel her phone vibrate again, and ignored it. As they talked, Madeline was careful to only have one drink. She didn’t want anything clouding her judgment, and she didn’t want to look like a fool in front of Scott. As they passed the hours talking, she learned that he was actually somewhat of a spoiled rich kid growing up in California, which allowed him to get into all sorts of trouble. He partied a bit too much, which led him to get in deep with the wrong people. So deep, in fact, that he was basically on the verge of being pimped out to old rich women. “And I was being pressured so much, I was actually going to do it,” Scott admitted, sinking back into the chair. “Me and my big shit ego. I was gonna bang every bird they set me up with until they couldn’t walk anymore more. Then I ran into Cole at a party thrown by one of my dad’s business associates.” Scott reached into his front shirt pocket and retrieved a black and silver e-cig. Taking a drag, the vapor he exhaled smelled strongly of caramel. Madeline was a bit surprised that he smoked. “It’s mostly water vapor,” Scott elaborated. “Keeps my insides from drying too quickly. And tobacco was a habit of mine before my new life, so it’s a bit comforting as well. But that’s my story. If it wasn’t for this life, I’m fairly certain I’d have been dead by now.” “Wow, that’s quite the story,” Madeline went back to the conversation beforehand, nibbling on queso. “My younger days were nowhere near as exciting as that. The most trouble I ever got into, besides running off at the mouth, was getting caught having sex in the kitchen by my boyfriend’s roommate.” “The kitchen, eh?” Scott grinned with interest. “On the island. It’s not as comfortable as they make it look in the movies.” “The movies?” Scott said nearly choking on his vapor. “What sort of movies do you normally watch?” “I’m pretty sure I don’t have to spell that out for you,” Madeline responded with a hint of attitude. “Still, you must have looked fantastic…” Madeline felt her pulse quicken by the hungry look Scott was giving her. It had been a long time since she’d slept with anyone, and even though she allowed herself many dirty thoughts revolving around Levi, that relationship was never going to happen. She wouldn’t be anything more than a toy to him. Scott, on the other hand, was obviously interested, and attractive. And she was an adult. She didn’t need permission from anyone if she decided to pursue this. “I’m sure you’d like to know,” she continued to tease. “You got that right,” Scott chuckled seductively. Leaning forward, he brushed his fingertips through a lock of her hair and tucked it behind her ear. Close enough to kiss her neck, he whispered softly. “I have a very big tub at the hotel. Care to get it wet with me? Unless you prefer the kitchen.” They spent the ten-minute taxi ride back to the Sheraton in sexually charged silence, both fully aware of what was going to happen once they got there. As they exited the backseat of the cab, Scott took his cell phone out of his shirt pocket and messaged Cole. “Letting Cole know not to come back too early,” Scott said as he pecked away with both his thumbs. This gave Madeline the chance to glance down at the messages Levi had left. One read - Don’t care. Just let me know where you are. And the other - I need to know where you are! “Don’t care.” The words stung. But before she could dwell about it any longer, Scott had grabbed her hand and led her through the lobby and up to the business suite. As he locked the door behind them, they kissed passionately all the way to the master bedroom, removing articles of clothing along the way. Fumbling for the faucet, he started to run some hot water into the large tub. “You weren’t kidding,” Madeline commented on its size. “That can fit at least four people!” “And in a business suite, right?” Scott laughed. “Who would have thought?” Wiggling out of her skirt and panties, Madeline began to step into the tub under Scott’s eager gaze. Taking his eyes off her alluring body, he commented purposefully on the only thing left gracing her skin. Her necklace. “Don’t you want to take that off too?” he inquired. “It’s bound to get wet.” Curling her fingers around the pendant thoughtfully, Madeline hesitated. “I don’t normally take it off,” she said in a melancholy voice that was out of place with the lusty atmosphere of the spacious bathroom. “When I wear it, I feel close to my mom.” “I don’t think you want your mom to see what we’re gonna do, love,” Scott said, voice deep and full of impending naughtiness. “Besides, it will be safe on the counter there. You can see it from the tub.” Hesitantly, Madeline reached up with both hands and unlatched the chain at the back of her neck. Taking a few steps away from the tub, she heard Scott slip into the water behind her as she carefully laid the necklace down on the marble countertop. Scott watched with the utmost interest as her fingers pulled away from the silver chain. And the necklace disappeared. His eyes widened in shock just as she turned around, so he was able to mask his expression as if it was arousal from taking in the full view of her naked body, which would have been no lie. He casually checked her neck again to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him. The necklace wasn’t around her neck, and he didn’t see it on the counter. It was simply gone, or hidden from sight. As Madeline stepped into the clear water, he tested her. “See, it’s not very far. You can see it from here,” he said, glancing over and pretending to see it. “Yep,” Madeline replied as she looked over at the necklace, resting safely on the marble counter. “Sorry about that. It’s just very precious to me.” “No worries, love,” Scott said, tugging gently at her legs so that she straddled him in the water before locking lips passionately. “Now let's make a mess,” Scott whispered as their kisses grew more and more desperate. ------------------------------------------------------ Late the next morning, Madeline arrived back at the safe house. She lazily pressed her index finger against the door lock, tapped in the code, and the lock clicked open. She did nothing to hide or downplay her arrival but was surprised to see Caslon sitting on the sofa looking scruffy and unshaven in his real pajamas, while Levi stood cross-armed in the center of the living room, fully dressed and clearly unhappy. “Guys?” Madeline acknowledged suspiciously, looking from Levi, then to Caslon, then back to Levi again. “Why is Caslon here?” “I have the best sense of smell in case you needed to be tracked,” Caslon grumbled helplessly. “Sit,” Levi ordered. Quietly, she took a seat next to Caslon. “Can I go back to bed now?” Caslon begged, rubbing his eyes, his face betraying the fact he’d been up most of the night against his will. “No.” Caslon exhaled in frustration collapsing sideways, head coming to rest in Madeline's lap. Levi inhaled sharply in Madeline’s direction. He picked up the scent of a cheap cologne which jogged a memory from the last Halloween party, as well as sexual fluids and the disgusting aroma of rot. Scott. “First off,” Levi began, “I can’t protect you if I don’t know where you are. Do you not want me to keep an eye on you? What were you thinking? It was like you were purposely ignoring me as if I’d wronged you in some way.” Feeling guilty, Madeline looked away. “Secondly, and I am only going to say this once, sleeping with a vampire is a horrible idea. Given Scott’s age and inexperience, it’s not going to turn out well. I really don’t care who you go out with, it’s none of my business, but there are some species that you, as a human, should not get involved with for your own safety. You do remember what I told you about their ability to excrete pheromones that stimulate your endorphins, right? You can’t trust your attraction because it could simply be a trick. Are you in love with him or something?” Madeline paused to think. “I guess not,” Levi continued. “A wise woman once told me a long time ago that if you can’t answer that question with a resounding ‘yes’, then you aren’t. I would have preferred you slept with Caslon because I can guarantee he wouldn’t lose his mind and kill you in the middle of sex.” “I'm still here you know,” Caslon responded, eyes closed. “Scott won't kill me,” Madeline whispered in his defense. Levi let his arms drop to his sides. “How do you know?” He questioned, voice not angry now, but sincere. “I guarantee even he doesn’t know that. How did you end up running into him anyway?” “My last package delivery today was for his sire, Rupert Cole,” Madeline replied. “Scott was there to pick it up.” “And you don’t find that just a little suspicious?” “They are here for a business conference. I confirmed that and Mr. Cole is even on the list of speakers. And I want you to know I took three separate taxis to get back here. That’s why it took so long. I was being careful.” “Good work. At least you verified facts, and took precautions as you’ve been trained to do,” Levi said in a half-hearted compliment, “But that doesn’t change the fact that you might have been baited.” He paused, letting the situation and facts sink in for a moment. “Listen,” he said, letting his voice soften, “I’m not going to forbid you, or anything like that. As I said, it’s not my business, but be extremely careful. Always let someone know where you are. Give me your phone…” Madeline reached into her purse and handed Levi her cell phone. Kneeing the pantherinae gently in the ribs to wake him, Levi tossed Madeline's phone onto Caslon's stomach. “Put your number in there. And Tiff’s,” he instructed. “You don’t have to call me,” Levi continued, now speaking to Madeline once again, “But call somebody. Always be prepared with an escape plan. Hopefully, for your sake, it will never be needed. If you don’t follow my advice, I’m not going to waste my time tracking you down to keep tabs on you. If you don’t care, and plan on ignoring my advice, then I guess I am done here. I’ll keep being your teacher, but as far as being your guardian, that will come to an end. I’m not going to have your back if you don’t follow my instructions.” Levi kept glancing at Caslon, who was taking far too long to tap in a couple of phone numbers. Not to mention he was suddenly grinning devilishly. “What is taking you so long?” Levi rushed him. “I know you’re tired, but c’mon.” “All done,” Caslon smiled innocently, handing the phone back to Madeline. “Thank you,” she replied to Caslon, slipping her phone back into her purse. “Now go get washed up. We have work to do today,” Levi said to Madeline. ------------------------------------------------------ “I swear to you when she let it go it disappeared, but she still saw it,” Scott reported to Cole. “It was the strangest fucking thing I have ever seen in my life.” Cole sat comfortably on the sofa in the suite’s living room, analyzing Scott’s every word. Tall and regal, he was dressed in a black business suit, one leg crossed casually over the other as he thought about what the necklace disappearing meant. Reaching up, he scratched his well-groomed gray beard, which matched his short, professional haircut. “Did you try to touch it while it was on the counter?” Cole asked. The elder gentleman vampire was deep in thought, brown eyes never resting on Scott while he gathered information to pass onto Gideon. “How the fuck could I? I couldn’t even see the bloody thing. Not to mention my hands were sort of busy,” he grinned proudly. “But this morning before she left she was wearing it again. She did mention it was precious to her. It reminds her of her mom.” “I will report this to Gideon, but I need you to arrange another sleepover with her.” “So soon? That’s going to make it seem like I’m only after one thing,” Scott commented. “Understood. Let me consult with Gideon and see what he thinks. In the meantime, I suppose you could back off on the physical contact, let her know you are someone she can trust. Build that part of the relationship. The original part of the plan was to be her prince. Her knight. Continue establishing that.” “Of course.” ------------------------------------------------------ It took Madeline a few hours to get herself cleaned up and have a healthy breakfast before she met up with Levi in his office. Caslon had been dismissed, and even though she didn’t know him that well, she felt sorry that Levi had forced him to wait up on her account. Perhaps she should have replied after all and not been so stubborn. As expected, Levi was sitting at his desk when she came upstairs, checking emails. “You’re coming with me on my job tonight,” he said, not looking up at her at first. “It involves some breaking-and-entering, and I want to see you work.” “I take it it’s local?” Madeline asked. “Yep, which makes it the perfect opportunity. Like an on-the-job evaluation.” “I can’t wait,” she replied, the happiness clear in her voice. “I’ll start getting my gear in order. What time will we be leaving?” “Midnight should be good. It’s going to take us about forty-five minutes to get there on my bike.” On his bike. Both of them. It made sense that Madeline wasn’t going to travel on her own. Less conspicuous that way. But after all that happened yesterday, that arrangement felt more than awkward to her the more she thought about it. Taking a deep breath, she built the courage to ask an important question. “Did your friend leave?” “If you mean Aya and not Caslon, yes. She left last night,” Levi responded truthfully. “She never hangs around here for too long.” “I’m guessing all those clothes in your closet...:” “They belong to her.” “I see.” A slow, mischievous smile spread from one corner of Levi’s lips to the other. He knew what this was about now. Madeline was jealous. “As cute as getting all worked up over Aya makes you look, you need to focus on this job tonight,” he smiled. “I’ve already cased the place. You can check out my findings here…” He slid a file folder across the desk towards her containing external pictures and a floorplan of the building. Madeline picked it up and took a seat in the chair across from his desk. The description was relatively straightforward. “A blackmail bait and switch?” she questioned, taking a look at the building blueprints. “Yep, the client has been blackmailed into giving up a piece of Egyptian pottery that’s been in their family for over a millennium. They actually supplied a fake to use as the replacement. We just need to break in and switch them. You’ll be on locks.” “Okay,” Madeline smiled, setting the file back down on his desk as she rose. Levi could tell by her scent that she was longing for midnight to arrive so she could get to the job site and start working. Smiling behind her back as she left his office, he was pleased that although she was pretty much cornered into it, she was a good fit for his line of work. Back in her bedroom, she proceeded to remove some gear from the biometric-locked trunk in her bedroom closet. As she carried a couple of small soft-sided cases to her bed, she could hear her phone going off from within her purse. Suspicious as to who could be calling her, she let it go to her voicemail rather than answering it outright. When she checked it, she was surprised to see it was Scott. Sitting on her bed, she called him back. “Hey, I was just wondering if you wanted to go hit some tourist traps on the waterfront this evening,” he asked, sounding as cheerful as ever. “Normally I would, but I have to work tonight,” Madeline replied apologetically. “Well, I could meet up with you after,” Scott pressed. “Just dinner, nothing physical. I don’t want to come across as a pushy pervert.” Madeline laughed out loud. “You aren’t,” she said smiling. “But this is going to be a late night thing, so I’ll have to take a raincheck.” “I take it something with your mentor? I understand. You have to do what he asks of you.” Madeline’s smile faded as his words sunk in. No, it wasn’t because she had to. She could say ‘no’ if she wanted to. But if she did, how would she better herself? How would she make herself valuable? “It’s not like that,” she corrected gently. “It’s my job. I have responsibilities.” “Okay, well then if you can give me a call tomorrow, maybe we can go hang out somewhere?” “That sounds like a plan,” she responded, voice pleasant again. “I’ll give you a call tomorrow.” Madeline spent the rest of the afternoon picking locks and hacking mock security systems in the loft next to the climbing wall. She really didn’t need to, but it was comforting to repeat the processes so much that she barely had to think about it. With that down, she could concentrate more on surroundings and being cautious of any changing conditions. After making Levi and herself a light dinner of roasted chicken and steamed vegetables, the pair suited up and took Levi’s motorcycle down the freight elevator and out to the street below. Donning her helmet, she stepped her foot onto the peg and swung her opposite leg over, resting comfortably on the passenger seat. Wrapping her arms around Levi, he confirmed the wireless comms in the motorcycle helmets were paired, and then the two rolled out into the night. About five minutes into the drive, Madeline decided to ask a question that first popped into her mind yesterday. “So let’s assume I was thinking about moving out,” she started, “How would that work?” “My first response would be why?” Levi questioned calmly, voice coming in clearly through her earpiece. “I’m sure I don’t make it easy for you to have women over, and if I want to have someone over, I certainly wouldn’t bring them to your place because it defeats the purpose of having a safe house’“ “You could do what Caslon does. Stay in the building, but do your own thing,” Levi suggested. “But even if you did that, you never want to bring anyone into your place. You could rent an apartment nearby too, but the risk of something happening to you goes up the farther away you get. Having normal friends over wouldn’t be an issue, because I am confident you could take care of yourself in those cases, but it’s people like Scott I would worry about if you had them over.” “Don’t take it the wrong way,” Madeline continued. “You have no idea how grateful I am for all you’ve done for me, and I will be in your debt forever, but I think I want to try to be a bit more independent. I think I want to see how living along again feels.” “Sure,” Levi replied as if it was nothing. “There’s a couple of buildings around town that are secure enough for what you’ll need. We can start calling about vacancies tomorrow if you want.” “O...Okay,” Madeline said, feeling that weird discomfort in the pit of her stomach again. She wasn’t prepared to take action so soon. Was her company so easily dismissed? “You okay?” Levi asked concerned, his voice ringing through the earpiece again. “Yeah, I’m fine. Why?” Madeline lied. “Nothing really. You just sounded upset.” “Nah, I’m good. How much further?” “We’re about thirty minutes out.” “Cool.” As much as she was pained to admit, this was going to be for the best. If she worked up the courage to admit to herself she really liked Levi, the next natural step was to admit that it would be unrequited. Outside of the teasing he did to sate his own hunger, he’d shown no real interest in her. Given his dating patterns, if he was interested in her that way, he would have approached her about it by now. Being this close to him all the time was just going to make her miserable in the end. Seeing him with Aya… that just made her realize how much she cared about him. They made small talk until they reached their destination, which Levi parked the bike in the shadow of an alleyway about two blocks away. Stepping away from the cycle, Madeline removed her helmet, letting her long red braid fall midway to her back. Storing her helmet in the compartment under her seat, she straightened out her gear and gave Levi a nod indicating she was ready to proceed. Carefully slinging the padded bag containing the duplicate artifact over his back, the pair made their way to the target, their dark clothing allowing them to remain cloaked in the night. As they approached the back of the warehouse, instead of moving towards the roll-up dock door, Levi silently pointed out a single metal door under an industrial light at the far corner of the building. Unlike the dock door which had a pair of state-of-the-art cameras monitoring it, the single metal door at the corner had only one, and it was an outdated model. When they were close enough, he handed Madeline a dime-sized pebble and pointed to the light bulb. She judged the distance. She had this. Feeling the weight of the rock in her palm, she bounced it a few times to see how well it rolled. Satisfied she could do this, she felt Levi shift next to her crossing his arms as he waited patiently. Bring her arm back much the same way she learned how to do with the throwing stars, she whipped her hand and fingers in unison and released the stone, letting it bullet toward the light. The impact was precise, and the bulb shattered and went dark. Quietly, they approached the door from the shadows. Levi removed a thin, six-inch square of rubber from a zippered pocket on his pant leg, and used it to carefully remove the broken bulb from its fixture. He then reached into the small shoulder bag he was carrying and brought out another bulb of the same kind. Screwing it in, it stayed dark and would give the building owners the impression that it simply burned out. While Madeline scattered all signs of the broken bulb glass, Levi took out a small datapad and accessed the warehouse’s online security monitoring site. He’d gotten into it a few days ago, covering his tracks by cloning a preexisting admin account. With a few taps, the alarm keypad on the other side of the door was deactivated. He signaled to Madeline with a pointing gesture at the door handle, and she removed her electric lockpick and got to work. Within five seconds, and under the assessing gaze of her mentor, Madeline had the door unlocked despite the darkness. Placing a black-gloved hand on the knob, she gave it a twist and pulled it open about two inches. Inside was dark and quiet. Levi led the way in, having a keener sense of where they were headed. Without so much as the shuffle of a sole on the concrete, she followed him silently past aisles of metal shelves until he made a right turn down one of them. There was minimal light from a couple of industrial skylights two stories above them, but not enough for Madeline to even begin to clearly read the shelf markings. Levi had no such issues. He navigated down the aisle until he found the tag number matching the artifact they were going to switch out. Giving the area around the small locked chest a casual sniff, he confirmed that the tag number he was given was correct by the scent of the pottery inside. Handing the bag to Madeline to hold, he expertly removed the lock on the chest, switched the original with the copy, and then locked the chest back up leaving the lock at the exact same angle he had found it. They exited the warehouse just as quietly as they entered, securing the door on the way out. After they were a safe distance away, Levi reactivated the digital door alarm with his tablet. After carefully securing the artifact in the compartment of his motorcycle, the pair donned their helmets, mounted up and drove off. “My little girl is all grown up!” Levi beamed cheerfully through Madeline’s headset, humorously mimicking a proud parent. “I’m impressed.” “Thanks,” she replied, feeling the warmth of pride. “Are you hungry?” he asked. “A bit.” “I’m guessing you’re not tired either.” “Nope. I always get a rush from working.” Levi smiled. “I can order a pizza when we get back, then we can go over some of the apartment buildings nearby that would be a good fit for you. That is if you feel like it. We don’t have anything scheduled for tomorrow, so I plan on sleeping in.” “That sounds good,” Madeline agreed. Her quick response to him actually felt like it tripped up her heart. Her mind knew it was the right thing to do. Otherwise, she’d be torturing herself by living with him, but her heart was quietly posing the question of are you really going through with this? Yes. She was. She had too.
  16. Chapter Eight Sugar and Spice Waking from a foggy sleep, Madeline sensed a dark silhouette looming over her, strange hands fidgeting around her neck. Instinctively, she attempted to jerk her arms upward to break the uninvited contact, but the pull of thick straps around her wrists restrained her from doing so. Forcing her eyes into focus, she saw Geon Woo hovering over her, his fingers on the silver chain of her mother’s opal necklace as he tried frantically to remove it. His breathing was labored, desperate, and left an uncomfortable, sour heat on the top of her head as he looked down at her. “Your… your necklace must have a hidden clasp,” he stammered, looking feverish as he took a step back. “But no matter. I wonder what it will add to your color?” My color? Madeline thought, puzzled and still feeling disconnected from her surroundings. She had no idea where she was or how far away from the cruise ship she'd been taken. 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. Once again, she struggled against the leather straps securing her wrists to an elegant turn-of-the-century armchair, but they wouldn’t budge. Madeline wasn’t able to see her ankles but guessed they were fastened to the front legs of the chair in much the same fashion, judging by the restraints she felt through the stockings. Her feet felt like they were in shoes, but nothing she was familiar wearing. She wiggled her toes and flexed her arches trying to get an idea of what they were. They felt like loafers of some sort, definitely flats. Shifting her weight in the armchair, she tried to feel whether or not the band-aid with the tracking chip still adhered to her skin. It bothered her that she couldn’t tell, because it was the only thing tying her to a possible rescue. She hoped Geon Woo had dressed her here and not somewhere along the way, that way the tracker would be somewhere close. She trusted Levi would find her if he could, but that was conditional on whether or not the tracker had made it this far. Glancing around, Madeline hoped to see some sign of her belongings nearby but was quickly distracted by her surroundings. The room around her looked literally like a doll house. Behind Geon Woo, who stood only a few feet away, was a fuschia-colored, Victorian loveseat flanked by matching chairs. She guessed the one she’d been tied to was also part of that set. The walls were lemony-yellow with creamy white daisies painted on them, and there was a large window veiled by vintage lace curtains on which the daisy motif continued. The window glass was frosted, so she couldn’t determine what time of day it was. But there was something off about the lighting coming through the window. It was not coming from above but from a horizontal angle. And it was oddly dark; not nighttime or daytime, but possibly a very cloudy day. Various knickknacks occupied the small shelves that lined the walls; such as teapots, saucers and small clocks - all items you would find in a to-scale dollhouse, but, as with the window lighting, something about them was suspect. Suddenly, Madeline realized the dimensions of the room itself were wrong. The ceiling was too low. So low in fact, that the frame of the room’s only door was flush against it. She directed her attention once again at Geon Woo, who looked nothing like the suave, put-together gentleman she had interacted with on the cruise. He was still wearing the same clothing he’d picked her up in for their impromptu date, only it was now wrinkled and disheveled, a perfect match to his current state of mind. Instead of the warm and reserved expression she’d come to expect from him, his lower lip now spasmed in one corner and his eyes darted all over her like a swarm of gnats. “What are you doing?” she asked, successfully keeping her voice calm as she continued to strain against the straps. “I don’t understand, is everything alright?” She knew she had to keep control of the situation. Levi had drilled into her head how important it was for her to dictate the flow of the game in any situation. Geon Woo had lost his calm and polite exterior and now wore the guise of a twitchy and sweaty madman. It was imperative she maintain control. “This room is really cute,” Madeline managed with a smile, “But I don’t see why you need to keep me tied up like this. I would never hurt you. Why don’t we have tea instead, or I could try on another dress for you. You have other dresses don’t you?” He seemed confused by her attitude for a moment, then sat down on the pink loveseat across from her armchair, his body tense. “We could do that,” he said, staring down at the floor in between them. “But I can’t wait to play. I just can’t.” “Play what, Geon Woo?” Madeline asked, trying to keep him talking. When he looked up at her, his gaze now felt like hundreds of spiders crawling over her skin. “Play with my doll,” he answered. “I like dress-up and tea, but I just can’t wait to touch. Soo-jin was so much fun. We played for a really long time, but then she broke. I would never throw away a beautiful doll, so I made her into something even more beautiful.” “Soo-jin… was she your doll before me?” Madeline asked, remembering the daughter’s name from the mission docket, and keeping an even voice devoid of the fear that was growing inside. “I bet she was very pretty. What color dress was her favorite?” “Soo-jin’s favorite color was pink,” Geon-Woo answered, though his eyes would not stop their nervous, abrasive journey over Madeline’s dress. “I had her the longest. She’s more beautiful than the others now.” Madeline didn’t like what the word ‘broke’ implicated. She didn’t want to ask about that, trying not to trigger whatever thin thread of sanity he was still clinging to. If she could just get out of her restraints, she was sure she could take him out and get away. “Did Soo-jin ever touch you?” Madeline asked, trying a different route. “Holding a doll can be comforting. Dolls are full of so much love, but I can’t show you love when these ugly straps are touching me. Don’t you think they’re ugly? Everything in this room is so lovely, except for them.” Geon Woo stood abruptly, but Madeline refused to react to the surprise and kept up the act. “I didn’t touch Soo-jin until she was broken,” he admitted. “You don’t touch a doll that way. It would make them impure. But when they are broken, it doesn’t matter. You can touch them all you want. And do things.” Walking over to one of the shelves nearby, he turned his back to Madeline and reached for something. “But I want to touch you that way,” he continued, slowly turning back around, staring at something shiny in his right hand. “I can’t wait. You have to be broken, so I can touch you like I want to.” Madeline noticed a pair of steel scissors in his hand. The wallpaper reflected on the blades making the daisies look like a watercolor nightmare of melting yellows and whites. “But didn’t you touch me when you dressed me in this pretty dress?” Madeline asked, still managing to suppress her nerves. “I wasn’t broken then. I can pretend to be asleep again if you want to touch me.” “I didn’t dress you,” he said quietly, moving closer to Madeline’s armchair. “Who dressed me then?” Madeline asked. “Can I see them so I can thank them for the lovely dress?” “Eomma and appa did.” Eomma and appa. Eomma and appa… Madeline repeated the words in her head trying to remember the minor amount of Korean she had studied. Mother and father?! “So beautiful,” he continued. “I’m going to look at you now. Before you break. And then I will make you more beautiful.” Kneeling at the foot of the armchair, Geon Woo took the scissors and began to cut away at the ruffled hem that rested right above Madeline’s knees near the top of the stockings. While holding the fabric with one hand, he started on her right side, making the first cut right above her knee and moving straight up to her waist. Beneath the dress, Madeline saw an unsoiled petticoat. He was being meticulous. He had a pattern. “Why are you doing this?” “Because I want to keep you forever to myself,” Geon Woo replied. “Once dolls are mine, they are always mine. I love them until they break, and still, I keep them. Forever.” He continued cutting more of the dress off, trimming it higher and higher in the front until the only thing covering Madeline from the waist down was the petticoat. With a quick and precise motion that startled her, he cut the blue dress from her navel to her neckline, shearing the white ribbon in the process and exposing a camisole underneath. It was apparent there was nothing else beneath the camisole, so any more cutting would have her skin bared and likely near the end of his process. She was running out of time. “H.. how many dolls do you have in your collection?” She asked, voice now quivering. She had to stay calm. Levi would get here. She knew he would. “Will I get to see them?” “You’ve already seen Soo-Jin,” Geon Woo continued with his head down, beginning to cut away at the petticoat now. Teasing himself, he cut slowly from the left side to the center of her waist, fully exposing her pubic area. Madeline’s fear was realized at that time. The band-aid which held the tracker was gone. She heard Geon Woo groan as he took some time staring at the pink of her womanhood, his heavy breathing making her ill. “She turned into such a pretty shade of blue. I wonder what shade of blue you’ll become?” he mumbled, eyes not leaving the curl of auburn between her thighs. “How soon will it be until you make me a shade of blue?” Madeline asked nervously, swallowing the lump that caught in her throat. “I’ll do things first. For a while.” That was the only response she got before he placed the point of one of the scissor blades against her abdomen, letting the cold steel trace a path straight up toward her camisole. There was a sudden pounding against one of the walls that shook the entire room. It caused the daisy wallpaper to ripple as if it was nothing more than tissue. The commotion startled both Madeline and Geon Woo, and seconds later the whole wall to her right crashed outward, slamming down loudly in a billow of dirt and debris. With one flimsy wall down, the other three no longer had the needed support and collapsed as well, sounding like gunshots as their wooden beams slammed down to the concrete. A handful of police officers shouting commands in a foreign language rushed in, their weapons drawn and pointed at Geon Woo. Panicking, he dropped the scissors, leaving them to clatter loudly on the floor as he raised his hands in the air. Someone was speaking to the officers, and although she couldn’t recognize the language, it was Levi’s voice. There was no mistaking it. Relief washed over her, and she allowed herself to slump in the armchair. “And I’m sure if you examine this workshop and the adjoining property,” Levi continued in Croatian, “And look into his personal records over the past 12 months, you’ll be able to tie him to at least one murder.” Stepping past the officers who were in the midst of handcuffing Geon Woo while radioing their superiors, Leviticus carried a police blanket in his arms. He was dressed as a classic spy, wearing thin, tight black pants and a matching short-sleeved shirt. He approached her with an analytical expression, unfolding the blanket and covering the front of her body from curious eyes as he systematically gave her a quick once-over to make sure she was in no immediate danger. Kneeling down, he began to unfasten her restraints. As the officers continued to secure Geon Woo for transportation, Levi purposely positioned himself so that the man would never be able to lay eyes on Madeline ever again. “Are you okay? Did he hurt you?” Levi asked as he unstrapped her right wrist and moved on to the left one. “I had to make sure there would be enough evidence to prosecute him without needing any testimony from us, and that I reported it to the right jurisdiction. I lost your signal when you got here, but by that time I was pretty sure where you were. He ended up taking you all the way to Croatia.” “Croatia?!” Madeline choked. She honestly thought she was still on Malta somewhere. The distance she was taken while unconscious was staggering. If Levi hadn’t shown up when he did… “How are you holding up?” he asked, gently opening her eyes wide with his fingertips, checking her pupils for any lingering effect of whatever drug Geon Woo had used on her. Satisfied she was no longer in any danger, he accessed the rest of her visible body for any bruises or cuts. “I’ll need to check you more thoroughly after we’re out of here.” “I’m a little shaken, but I’ll be okay,” she whispered, thankfully. “Were we successful?” “In a manner of speaking,” Levi answered vaguely, though there was a hint of anger in his voice. After unstrapping her left wrist, he made quick work of removing the straps that bound her ankles. “I’ll debrief you in the car.” Despite finding her before anything unsavory happened, Levi was beyond irritated with the undisclosed facts of the mission. He was confident Syriem knew the details surrounding the blue diamond but left it out of the docket because Levi would not have considered the job had he known what this was really all about. And the fact that it put Madeline in real danger... He forced back a grimace and then spoke. “We need to bow out of this quietly.” Nodding, Madeline rose, turning her head to take in her surroundings. The dollhouse had turned out to be nothing more than four framed panels of drywall propped up by wooden beams. The small makeshift room, the epitome of dainty cuteness, was in the middle of a nightmare of a workshop. The walls were brown and peeling, the concrete floor cracked and dirty, and there was a metal chair bolted to the floor which had thicker leather restraints similar to the ones used to hold her to the armchair, only these were stained with what appeared to be blood. Seeing her startled expression, Levi wrapped the blanket tighter around her and placing a hand on her back, guided her away from the increasing commotion of the area. As they snuck out behind the men securing the scene, one of the officers raised a hand as if trying to get Levi’s attention, but he ignored it and continued walking briskly onward. Outside of the large stucco and red-tiled villa, he led Madeline to where his rental car was parked. Thankful to feel the fresh air and a warm breeze, Madeline guessed by the color of the sky and the position of the sun that it was late in the afternoon. Levi rounded to the passenger’s side of the Audi A4 with Madeline, helping her into the front bucket seat. Once she was buckled in, Levi wasted no time taking the driver’s seat, starting the engine, and driving off. “I brought one of the carry-ons with me. The other suitcases will be shipped back home,” Levi revealed, eyes on the road. “There’s a change of clothes in there for you, and your passport. It’s going to be about an hour drive to the airport.” Taking a moment to carefully construct his words, Levi wanted to praise her for taking such initiative but also scold her for letting herself get into such a precarious position. That was pretty ballsy leaving the ship with him. I’m impressed. But what did you have planned if I didn’t show up?” “You would have shown,” Madeline said bluntly. Looking in the backseat, she noticed the purse she’d brought to shore in Malta was sitting on the backseat next to the carry-on luggage, as well as the sandals she had worn. “How did you get my stuff?” she asked, surprised to see what she figured was forever lost. “It was in a plastic garbage bag against the backside of the house near a burn barrel. My best guess is that he was going to destroy it at some point.” “And the necklace? Were you able to get it?” Levi was quiet for a few moments, although the air around him was so thick with rage it was nearly palatable. “I had to leave it with the police as evidence,” he finally said. “As evidence? I don’t understand.” Madeline reclined the seat back as far as it would go, then unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned over the back so she could reach the small suitcase behind her. Unzipping it, she pulled out a simple black and peach polka-dotted sundress. Sitting back down in the seat, Madeline raised the seatback to its normal position and slipped the dress up over her head. Modestly wiggling out of what was left of the petticoat and camisole Geon Woo’s parents had dressed her in, she tossed them both in the back with the police blanket and buckled her seatbelt. “The blue stone,” Levi began again, paying little attention to her slipping out of the white cotton stockings next to him, “It classified as a diamond, but it wasn’t a mined diamond, it was created from human ashes. The girls Geon Woo killed.” “Wait… what?” Madeline was dumbstruck. The diamond was made from dead girls? “There’s a process that turns ashes to diamonds. The chemicals in the human body normally cause the diamonds to come out in various shades of blue. That diamond, and the others I found with it...” He had to pause for a moment, controlling his anger, so it didn’t reflect in his voice before he allowed himself to speak again. “He was killing girls and turning their dead bodies into memorial diamonds.” That explained why Geon Woo kept going on about what color I was going to be, Madeline thought in silence. He was talking about her diamond. It makes sense now. Only it wasn’t just him. “There’s more than just Geon Woo involved. He told me his parents dressed me,” Madeline revealed, pointing her thumb to what was left of the dress in the backseat. “At least I think they did. He said eomma and appa.” Levi let out a growl and floored the rental car as he shifted gears, the engine roaring in response. Madeline’s head began to spin. She understood why Levi was so angry. It meant the family they were working for knew what was going on. They wanted the necklace back out of greed because if they gave a damn about their daughter, this mission would have had a completely different objective. “Why weren’t we told?” was all she could muster in frustration. “I’m not sure,” Levi said switching gears as they got on the D8, “But I decided to do what I thought was right, despite the job. If we had gone through with it, that bastard would continue to murder. I’m not okay with that.” Madeline could tell Levi was boiling inside. It was obvious he didn’t take a liking to the lack of full disclosure, and in this case, it was a major piece of information that would have affected his decision to accept the job. “Change of plans. We’re going to stay the night nearby,” he finally said after a few more moments of only the roar of the engine. “I need to take care of this.” “What do you plan on doing?” “What would you do?” he posed a question right back at her. Looking out the window at the Mediterranean coastline, Madeline considered all the facts. Geon Woo was a murderer, and his parents were accomplices. The local authorities were investigating Geon Woo for kidnapping based on what they witnessed today. Levi gave them the necklace and they should be able to find some DNA from Soo-Jin at the scene. She wasn’t sure how much hard evidence would be needed to lock him up, but there was nothing on the parents, who were just as guilty for enabling their son. “I would make sure they were all found guilty, and jailed indefinitely. Or worse.” Levi said nothing, continuing to speed down the D8. He stopped at the very next hotel, which consisted of a pair of bright white, eight-story-tall, concrete buildings standing against the darkening blue sky. Weaving down the tree-lined drive, Levi parked and then grabbed the carry-on from the backseat. After alarming the rental, he headed to the lobby with a tired Madeline on his arm. Speaking the native language, he charmingly requested a room, causing the female employee at the front desk to swoon over his every word. After the blatant flirting, they were accommodated on the sixth floor with a sparkling view of the sun setting in the Adriatic Ocean. The room itself felt dated but had two comfortable double beds and all the furnishings usually found, including a small fridge. Setting the small suitcase down on the luggage valet, Levi walked over to the balcony doors and opened them wide, letting the ocean breeze and departing sunlight into the room. Madeline sat on the bed closest to him, going over the contents of her purse to make sure nothing was missing. It was all intact. Sighing, she stretched her arms over her head and let herself fall flat on her back on the bed. The warm air was heavenly against her skin. Levi stepped out onto the balcony and leisurely stripped his black t-shirt up and over his head, tossing it on the bed next to Madeline. Tilting his head back, he ran both his hands slowly through his silky black hair before turning around to face her. She could not take her eyes off his body. The cut of his muscles, his perfectly tanned skin, the way his hips swayed seductively as he slowly approached the bed she laid on. “What are you doing?” she stammered, feeling her pulse quicken as his fingers worked at the button of his pants, then lowering the zipper down enough to reveal the waistband of his boxer-briefs. He didn’t say a word as he teasingly crawled onto the bed on all fours. “I need to make sure you’re not hurt,” he purred. “Do you remember anything right before you passed out?” Moving into a sitting position right next to her, Levi leaned forward and began to lift her eyelids again, checking her pupils. All she could focus on were his perfectly shaped, slightly-parted, full lips as he studied her, remembering how he tasted when they kissed. She cursed herself. She was tired, but she needed to keep her defenses up and stop acting foolish. Think, think, think.... “He didn’t poke me with anything, and I didn’t eat or drink anything,” Madeline replied, rattling out everything that came to mind. “He said we were going to a restaurant that a friend owned in Malta. We were getting into a taxi.” “What kind of taxi? Marked? Did it have a partition? Were the windows rolled up or down?” “Um, unmarked,” Madeline continued, struggling with the temptation of Levi being so close. “Driver seemed pleasant… and yes, there was a partition. I remember I couldn’t get a good look at him because of the partition. And the windows were rolled up. Wait, that’s not true. The front windows were rolled down, but the rear windows were up.” “Who entered the taxi first? You or him?” “I did. He took a while getting in. Had a few words with the driver. I thought he was giving him directions.” “Ah,” Levi concluded, his fingertips slipping from her skin as he sat straight up on the bed. “Sounds like they might have had pumped some sort of gas into the backseat, then waited until you were in there inhaling it for a while before he entered. The driver was in on it. I’m guessing it’s not the first time they’ve pulled this stunt either.” “You make it sound so elementary,” Madeline mumbled, “Like I should have known better.” “That wasn’t my intention. I was just trying to determine how you let some human take you so easily, but it wasn’t easy. They had a very complicated setup. So, it wasn’t your fault.” Leaning back over her as she laid on the bed, Levi brought his face in slowly, purposefully parting his lips once again. He could feel her emotions rush like they had when he first took off his shirt. He licked his lips subtly, making sure she picked up on his gesture. There was the reaction he was looking for. Drawing on her palatable desire, he kept his face inches away, making her stir uncomfortably beneath him while fed on her yearning. “I need a little rush,” he whispered in a low, husky voice. “I have to improvise my plans tonight, and since I’ve been hunting you down since you left the ship, I haven’t rested or eaten. I need you to accommodate me.” He paused for a moment, emerald green eyes capturing Madeline’s as his black hair cascaded down around his face. “I don’t go into anything half-cocked.” Her heart racing, Madeline wasn’t sure if she would have been able to resist him if he would have forced himself on her now. Common sense told her he would never do anything of the sort, but there was always that guilty longing that someday he would. Levi took a few deep breaths and then chuckled softly in her ear in such a way that made her yearn for him to make skin-to-skin contact. Satisfied, he branded a platonic kiss on her forehead. “Ah, perfect,” he moaned, barely above a whisper. “So delicious. Arigato.” Then in a flash he got up, re-zipped, buttoned, and put his t-shirt back on. “I’m going to head back out to the crime scene,” he stated as if nothing had happened. Noticing the expression on Madeline’s face as she attempted to catch her breath, he continued with a playful grin. “Why the look of surprise? You should be used to this by now.” “Would you prefer that I was?” Madeline breathlessly responded as she rested her arm across her forehead, closing her eyes in an attempt to calm down. “Then I wouldn’t be nearly as tasty, would I?” “Point taken,” Levi responded, still smiling. Going to the small suitcase, he began to retrieve a small hard-shell case that looked a lot like a gentleman’s shaving kit, only inside were sharp metal utensils, some powder, a couple of tiny glass bottles with eyedropper caps, and a roll of tape. As he laid it all out on the dresser top, he went back into the suitcase and removed a pair of black pants and a matching black shirt, both sewn of extremely thin fabric. “I’m going to take a quick shower and then head out. I’ll be taking the car,” he revealed. “I plan to be back before it gets too late. Did you want to wait for me, or should I get some food sent up to you now?” “I’ll wait for you,” Madeline said, still not looking up at him while trying to block everything that had just happened out of her mind. “Looks like they actually have a pizza parlor downstairs.” “Pizza sounds really good,” Madeline said. Nodding, Levi ducked into the bathroom and showered to freshen up before heading out to the Hyun villa. A few minutes after he left, Madeline dragged herself out of bed and opened the door into the bathroom. Standing in front of the mirror, she felt like she was staring at a stranger. The makeup she was wearing was drastic and bright, a clown-like contrast to her normal, natural look. Bright red lipstick. Glistening blue shadow. The foundation was very pale compared to the tone of her skin, and it was glossy like everything else they had applied. It made her face look like it was porcelain. She detested it. And the curls. Tight red ringlets looked like a doll’s wig on her head. Stripping off her sundress, she conscientiously folded it and set it on the countertop. As she slid the shower curtain away from the white tiles, Madeline turned on the faucet and adjusted the temperature, looking forward to washing everything away and getting back to feeling, and looking, like her old self. After stepping into the relaxing heat of the water, she grabbed Levi’s shampoo and began to lather out the repulsive spirals. As she massaged the suds against her scalp, she inhaled deeply. The entire shower smelled of the musky sweetness of Levi’s hair. It was only missing the familiarity of sandalwood that she’d grown accustomed to, but this was enough to help her regain some sense of cheerfulness. As she rinsed, she grabbed the bar of soap and started to vigorously wash the makeup off her face. After the first scrubbing, she dragged her fingernail gently against her lower lash. There was still some of the black eyeliner there. Did they fucking use a sharpie? She cursed in her mind. I mean seriously, what the fuck? Again Madeline lathered and lathered, concentrating around her eyes. There was a brief sting of soap as some got under her lids, but she didn’t care. She was okay with it as long as it burned the shit out of the pancake makeup. Another test with her fingernail and there was no more makeup around her eyes that she could detect. Sighing, she worked her body with the bar of soap until it was all frothy and clean, and then began rinsing off. Her hair, her face, her body… everything felt normal again. Madeline turned the water off and opened the shower curtain to reach for a towel. Her reflection in the mirror was comforting, back to the girl she was used to staring at for the past twenty-six years. After drying off, she slipped back into her sundress and opened the bathroom door. Checking the suitcase once more, she realized Levi had packed very light. No makeup, just her deodorant and toothbrush. Her hairbrush wasn’t even in there. Oh well, she shouldn't expect much considering the sudden departure from the ship. She took the toothbrush back into the bathroom where she'd seen a tube of toothpaste and began to brush her teeth, setting her toothbrush next to Levi’s when she was done with it. His hairbrush was there too, so she figured it would be okay to use it, but as she brought it up to her head, she noticed something odd. There wasn’t a single strand of his hair on it. Not one piece. She checked the bathroom trash can. It was empty. Impossible, she told herself. He’d been using the same one since the beginning of the trip, and there wasn’t any hair in it? That made no sense. Running the brush through her wet hair, she detangled it slowly and carefully. When she was done, she set the hairbrush down on the counter, proud of the three or so hairs she left in the bristles. Winding her hair into a rope, Madeline wrapped it in a towel and twisted it to compress out as much of the water as she could. Draping the damp towel over the shower rod, she grabbed a fresh one and wrapped her hair up so it would dry. Leaving the bathroom, she went back to the bed closest to the open balcony and laid down once again. Closing her eyes, she allowed herself a short nap while she waited for Levi’s return. ------------------------------------------------------ Just outside the main road that led to the Hyun estate, Levi rolled the rental car to a quiet stop and got out. There wasn’t a lot of cover in the area, but there were enough tall bushes to keep the majority of the car hidden from sight. He took the police blanket out of the backseat and laid it down on the dirt next to the driver’s side of the car. Crouching down, he took a deep breath and began to pull his consciousness inward. The first sensation, as always, was the feeling of retreating into the central part of his body as if his physical form was nothing more than a shell, and he was condensing his very being to a single point at the back of his skull. Starting from the tips of his toes and fingers, Levi felt the tingle of numbness. It began as a slight vibration, and then turned into an acute pins-and-needles discomfort as it moved upwards to his wrist and ankles, and then on to his knees and elbows until he could no longer feel his long human limbs. His point of view lowered, centering closer to the ground, and his vision and hearing sharpened. He felt the brush of thin fabric as his pants and shirt tugged back against his body as they slipped off. Fur emerged around his body, causing his thin trousers to quickly slip down to the blanket in a heap, as he wiggled out backward from the neck of the short-sleeved shirt. Taking another deep breath, he felt the refreshing coastal wind against his silky black fur. Stretching his back first, he then flexed his left leg all the way back, shaking his rear paw, then repeated the same for his right leg. Doing a feline wiggle from the tip of his moist nose to the end of his soft black tail, Levi then padded his way through the underbrush just as the sun was setting over the sparkling Adriatic Sea. He could hear a couple of field mice underground, scurrying away from his presence, and even a snake of some kind, but ignored all that. His goal was to reach the scene of Madeline's kidnapping, assess the security, and then try to make it into the main house. As the detached workshop came into view, he saw there were still a couple of officers and a forensics agent working methodically in the area of what was the makeshift dollhouse. Good. As he trotted silently into the warehouse, keeping to the shadows, his sensitive nose revealed that the authorities were working from the entrance to the farthest wall. He detected their scent all over the direction of the fake walls of the dollhouse and that far corner of the building, but they had yet to finish the opposite corner. Ambling out of the building, he spotted crime-scene tape extending to the main house, but only one of the officers’ scents was present, and not very prominent past the front door, which meant they hadn’t worked that part of the area yet. Perfect. Levi quietly slinked past the front door and through the foyer to the living room. His sensitive nose immediately picked up Geon Woo and his parents’ thick scent over the furnishings, but no sign of Madeline or anyone else. The kitchen also turned up empty containing nothing out of place or surprising. He scurried upstairs, methodically proceeding through all four bedrooms. He identified Geon Woo’s room first, but there was no scent of Madeline present in it, or anyone else’s. He next discovered the room that Soo-Jin must have occupied, but there were only fleeting scents of Geon Woo and his parents in there. He had hoped to find signs of abuse, or even sexual activity, but found nothing incriminating. In the parent’s master bedroom he picked up Madeline’s perfume and her unique fruit-blossom scent. They changed her on the bed, but there was no trace of anything but her scent. No strands of hair or any physical evidence. They were careful. In the walk-in closet, Levi found a handful of lolita dresses carefully placed on padded hangers, enclosed in clear plastic dry cleaning bags. They smelled like clean clothes, no scents of victims to be found. They would take the dresses, for sure, but find nothing on those either. The fourth bedroom was a study, with an outdated desktop computer set on an antique desk. Levi lept to the top of the desk effortlessly, pressing the power button down with the knuckles of his right paw. As the computer booted up, he lifted his left paw and proceeded to lick it, grooming behind his ears as he contemplated the current situation. He had smelled enough dried blood in the workshop to know the local authorities could easily tie Geon Woo to murder, but he needed to also tie the parents in as well. After a couple of minutes spent waiting, the computer booted up to the desktop screen. Not even a log-in screen? Levi thought. Maybe they aren’t as careful as I thought. Silky-soft cat paws nudged the mouse cursor to the browser icon, and the irony was not lost to him. Holding the mouse still with his right paw, he tapped at it with his left, opening the browser and then expertly maneuvered to the history and cache. Of course, he could have switched back to human form and done it a lot quicker, but the chance of being caught naked in a murderer’s home was much too risky. The history was boring, the emails were boring, although he did find a delivery notice for the blue diamond confirming it was from a company that turned ashes into gemstones. But that still didn’t tie the parents to the murders. The whole family had their stink all over the computer desk, but not recently. There had to be something here. Geon Woo was all about collecting girls dressed as dolls, and they had to be pristine and unmolested. Well, until he killed them anyway. He kept the diamond necklaces as a memento of what they became, so there had to be something he kept from before the girls were murdered - to preserve his dolls in their mint condition state. It wasn’t the dresses. Those were likely incinerated outside in the burn barrel. Levi combed through the hard drive. There was nothing incriminating. Was it on Geon Woo’s phone perhaps? He had no way of knowing. Levi ignored the computer and began sniffing around the desk. He could smell the perfume the mother had on her wrists, smeared on the edge of the desk as she typed. And the keys smelled like a combination of the three of them. But there was something else… something faint to the left of the keyboard. Touching his whiskers cautiously to the surface, his wet black nose detected leather and a chemical fixative of some sort. A photo album? Sniffing the perimeter of the leather scent, Levi was able to make a mental picture of what size the book was likely to be. Then, he checked the air to find a wisp of matching leather. Following the trail led him to one of the bookcases that lined the walls. Deftly jumping upon the fourth shelf, Levi gently sniffed around until he found the musky scent that matched the one at the desk. The album was a less dusty than the books around it, and unlike the sweet smell of words on paper, the distinct photo fixative was strong. Pawing the spine, Levi pulled the photo album down letting it fall to the floor. Landing softly on his feet next to the opened photo album, the page it happened to open to wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Pictures of what he assumed was a young Geon Woo, taken at various moments of accomplishment in his life. Levi flipped to the next page. There were primary school awards accepted with teachers, then sports awards taken with his peers. Page after page of moments that would make parents proud. And then... There were pages of them. Unconscious girls, all dressed up like china dolls. More than he had originally suspected taking into account the handful of necklaces he found on the ship. A few pages in, each girl’s picture was accompanied by a photo of their blue diamond necklace. On the very last page of pictures was Madeline’s photo. The sight of her being propped up in the antique chair knotted his stomach. He had been on site well before the police arrived at his call, but the fact that she was at the whims of this maniac both sickened and infuriated him. And all the other girls… the ones that didn’t get saved… He took a closer look at Madeline’s picture and realized all the photos of the dolled-up girls were in the same chair - the one in the mock dollhouse. And in just about every case, the victims were propped up by hands. Levi scanned the pictures. He was able to identify the unique wedding bands of Geon Woo’s parents. They were never in the same photo together, but it was the evidence he was looking for, and their scent was strong on the album, so their prints should be all over it too. Carefully, he pushed it to the center of the room and left it wide open to the page Madeline and the three previous girls were on, certain the authorities would find it when they searched the house. Seeing as his job was done, he swiftly exited the main house and sprinted back to the rental car just as the last bit of light was swallowed up by the night. He sat a few moments in silence; listening to the sounds of tiny night creatures foraging and hunting, inhaling the salty air and detecting the scents of the seabirds gliding through it, and feeling the comfort of the breeze against his bare skin. To be perfectly honest, he had grown to hate clothing since ever since he experienced the freedom of being a cat. Nothing felt as comfortable as being naked. Sighing, he knew it was time to go back. Shifting back into human form felt a lot like stretching. Only at the apex of the stretch, his limbs continued expanding on their own. As his feline body elongated, the black fur was seemingly pulled back into the smooth almond of flawless skin. Within a few seconds, the cat was gone, and Levi sat casually, naked on the blanket he had laid out on the ground. Wiggling his toes a little bit, he sat back and stared at the sky for a few minutes before getting dressed. It really didn’t matter what form he was in, naked just felt better. Slipping his long, lean legs back into his pants, he caught the echo of what sounded like a metal barrel being dragged around in the workshop. Confident that other than a handful of small nocturnal creatures, there was no one within sight or earshot of him, he stood, pulling his trousers up to his waist and carefully zipping the front. Grabbing his shirt from the blanket, he slipped his arms through and shook out his shoulder-length black hair. It didn’t take him long to gather up the blanket, car keys, his other belongings, and get comfortable in the front seat of the rental. Tossing his shoes in the passenger's side, he slipped the key into the ignition and the vehicle roared to life. Looking back at the house, he watched in the distance as a large utility light sparked to life near the house. They were likely starting their investigation in the main house soon. It wouldn’t be long now. He rolled out of the dirt road slowly, not bothering with headlights until he was close to the highway. ------------------------------------------------------ “Hey.” Madeline could feel the bed shaking annoyingly. Dismissing the thought that it could be an earthquake, she squeezed her eyes tightly, hoping Levi would stop so she could go back to her nap. “You can sleep through damn near anything, can’t you?” Levi asked, pulling the covers off of her since she wasn’t budging. She flailed her arms, trying to grab the comforter back from him, but quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen in this lifetime. “Get up, I need to debrief you, and we need to get something to eat,” he said. “Unless you feel like waiting until I come around to the other side of the bed and pick you up. “I’m getting up,” she mumbled, burying her face temporarily in the pillow. “You know it’s like eleven o’clock, right?” he said with a teasing smile, emerald eyes playfully twinkling. In a panic, Madeline’s eyes darted to the clock radio. It was only 9:15 p.m. She felt the air get knocked out of her temper as the unpleasant sensation of hunger became the sudden focus. Sitting up slowly, she unwrapped the towel from her hair, letting down a cascade of unruly curls. “So tell me what happened.” Levi went over the details of what he found and how he staged it in the villa. He also went over with her what the police were likely to confiscate, and the process of the charges. “I hope they get life,” Madeline said sadly, thinking of the multiple pictures of all the poor girls they had killed. So many more than she had expected. “They should,” Levi reassured. “I have sources to check so I will be keeping an eye on how all this turns out.” “So what happens to our contract?” “Situations like this don’t happen very often, but we’re protected from repercussions. There were significant details withheld from us, and the client misrepresented themselves and their cause. When we get back home, I’ll contact Syriem and find out what the hell they were thinking, and we’ll see where it goes from there. They wouldn’t dare take action against us, so don’t worry about that at all.” Madeline nodded, accepting his reasoning and rose from the bed to go sort herself out in the bathroom mirror. She didn’t bother straightening out her hair but just wanted to freshen up her look so it wouldn’t be obvious that she’d just woken up. Slipping her sandals on, she went with Levi down the elevator to the modestly-sized pizzeria that was adjacent to the hotel’s traditional restaurant. As they sat and ate, they discussed the plan for getting back home. They weren’t due to fly out of Spain for another three days, but Levi should be able to bump the flight up as long there was room for them, one of the perks of traveling international business class. He’d arrange for two tickets out of Resnik heading to Barcelona tomorrow and then arrange the flight back to the U.S. They both slept comfortably that night in separate beds, and despite the pace of the previous days, were refreshed the next morning. Checking out from the coastal Croatian hotel was easy, with Levi putting in his brown contact lenses in the car before driving out to the airport and booking their flight. Once in Spain, Levi was able to rebook them on an earlier flight without any issues. After a relaxing lunch at a lounge in the concourse, they boarded the long flight back to Seattle. More than ten hours later, they were finally back at Levi’s apartment, and Madeline was more thankful to see her own bed than she realized she would be. The first thing she did was take a nice, long hot bath and change into an oversized t-shirt and her comfy sleep shorts. After drying her hair and brushing her teeth, she unloaded the suitcase that had made it to the loft ahead of them and then journeyed out of her room to find Levi. He was sitting at his desk in the room above his bedroom, likewise changed into a pair of black baggy pajama pants and a short-sleeved white henley-style t-shirt. He motioned for her to come in. “I’m going to give Syriem a call,” he began as she took a seat on the opposite side of the desk. “And you’ll get to see how this will get sorted out.” As he dialed his broker’s number, his slender index finger pressed the ‘speaker’ button on his cell phone, so Madeline could now hear the ringing. “Levi,” the electronically altered voice acknowledged. “I’m sure you’re aware of the Hyun situation,” Levi said, reigning in his irritation. “I don’t take kindly to information being withheld. Do you remember how anxious you were about Madeline taking up my line of work? Well, the misrepresentation almost got her killed.” “That was an unforeseen circumstance,” Syriem stated blankly. “The bottom line was that the property did not belong to the Hyuns. It was obtained illegally, and they wanted it back.” “Your bottom line is nothing but stripped down facts. You can’t operate your business without providing accurate details. Details make or break jobs,” Levi stated, holding steadfast. “A broker is only as good as the contractors they can provide, and any more of this type of shit and I’ll be looking for another broker.” “Understood. Would you care to hear the outcome of the contract?” Syriem asked, void of any emotional reaction to Levi’s threat. “Amuse me.” “I have been in contact with the client who has informed me that Geon Woo and his parents have been formally charged and that the necklace will be returned to the client upon conclusion of the case. The authorities have also seized the other diamonds and are in the process of tracking down the next of kin for the other victims based on photographic evidence. The client is pleased with the outcome and has received additional financial support from the community. Due compensation has been applied to your account in the amount stated in the contract.” The results were favorable, despite the methods taken to get there. “If that will be all, I bid you good-day,” Syriem added. “Fine, but remember what I said. You know I don’t make empty threats.” “Understood.” And then Syriem ended the call. “At least they all got arrested, and there will be no more victims,” Madeline said, though she was still as frustrated as Levi about being misguided by the details they were given. “While that is true, this is an example of why I said Syriem is not my friend. And although you may do business with someone for an extended period of time, it doesn’t mean you can trust them. Trust is something only earned by actions, not words, and there are different levels of trust. For instance, I trust Syriem to know I will always be paid for a completed contract, but not enough to believe everything I’m told is true. And on this job, I trusted you to do what was necessary, and you did.” “And I trusted you to come find me, and you did,” Madeline interrupted. “Which expands our trust in each other, but doesn’t mean I trust you completely, and I don’t expect you’d be foolish enough to trust me completely either. It was a building block, and if fate decides, there will be more.” Nodding in agreement, Madeline rolled back the office chair and rose to her feet. As Levi focused on his laptop, reading something or another, she excused herself and took the stairs down from his office and ended up back in her room. Levi had installed a flat screen TV on her bedroom wall, and she grabbed its remote from the nightstand as she crawled into bed. As frightening as it had turned out in the end, the mission was still exciting. She hoped she’d made a good impression and would be asked to accompany Levi again if the situation presented itself. Switching on the television, Madeline curled up and started to watch a sci-fi movie she had seen before her world caved in. Watching the heroes with alien-like powers felt different to her since she’d become aware of the real world around her. After struggling to stay awake a half an hour into the film, Madeline switched it off and propped her head comfortably against the soft pillow, clutching her black opal as she drifted off into a blissful sleep.
  17. Chapter Seven A Trick of the Light “Madeline!” “Be right there,” she responded, looking up briefly from her computer. Closing the screen, Madeline rose from the couch, setting her laptop on the cocktail table as she headed toward the staircase in Levi’s room. It had been over six months since she’d started living with him, and as she passed through his open doorway, she remembered the first time she’d been in his bedroom: it was to pick out a dress to wear to the Golden Lotus. At the time, she had speculated what was at the top of that mysterious staircase. Was it a panic room? A secure safe where he kept his valuables? A portal to another dimension? Nope. It turned out to be his office. A boring, typical-looking office. She still wasn’t sure why he decided to keep his workspace up there, but now that it wasn’t some cool mystery, she hadn’t bothered to ask. For over six months she’d been training to survive in his world. She was in the best shape of her life after working out and sparing almost daily. The shuriken was second nature to her now, and she was getting the hang of bladed weapons rather quickly. She learned enough Japanese to be conversational and was currently working on mastering Kanji. Levi had taught her everything she needed to know about riding a motorcycle, and a few months ago she earned enough from running package deliveries and brokering information to purchase a bike of her own. He’d trained her on his tech and even procured her a set of her own tactical gear. Hacking was her latest challenge, but it was a struggle to learn; she just couldn’t get the hang of it for some reason. As she walked across his hardwood floor and ascended to the top of the stairs, Levi motioned for her to take a seat in front of his desk. His office was a direct reflection of the bedroom below, with wood flooring and warm earth tones. On the floor beneath his desk, which was nothing more than a long bamboo table, stretched a tightly woven black rug to protect the legs from scratching the wood. Behind him were a few rows of bookcases and floor chest; and on his desk sat a laser printer, his laptop, a cell phone, and a few electronic gadgets he was working on. “Listen up,” Levi instructed, leaning back in his plush chair as he propped his long legs up on the desk. “Syriem, please start from the top.” His broker, Syriem, was on speaker, voice electronically altered to protect their identity. "As I was saying, this assignment is an acquisition. The client is a human family formerly residing in North Korea. They gave their daughter to a wealthy South Korean family, the Hyuns, in exchange for safe transportation out of North Korea and the promise that their daughter would be well taken care of. The daughter has since passed away, and the Hyuns are refusing to part with the daughter’s necklace, which the client wants back. Apparently, the son, Geon Woo Hyun, has been wearing the necklace since their daughter died." “And….?” Levi prompted Syriem to continue. “I have been able to get you on board a two-week cruise the Hyuns will be taking from Monaco to Greece. You will be attending under the guise of a successful Asian businessman and his wife. There will be about four hundred and fifty or so guests, so you’ll need to work fast to locate the marks. your aliases will be forwarded to you, as well as your itinerary and a photograph of the necklace.” The phone call then abruptly ended. “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. Levi lowered his feet from his desk to read an email that had just hit his inbox. Madeline waited patiently for him to finish. “Looks like we leave in two weeks,” he said, rubbing his chin. “That’s not a lot of time, but the compensation makes up for it.” He pulled up the cruise line's website and navigated to the deck plans for the particular ship they would be sailing on. After a few seconds, his printer whirred to life and sheets of deck plans fed out as Levi worked quickly to assemble them. Syriem had managed to get them on Deck 7, which was reportedly the same deck the Hyuns were assigned. He motioned for Madeline to take a look at the Deck 7 plans. “We’ll be in suite 717,” he said, tapping the location on the paper. “The target is supposed to be in the signature suite here, number 7002. I’ve also printed out the layout of their room. One thing to note, our room is right by the elevator, so we’ll be able to hear it whenever it’s in use. We need to memorize every area of this ship before we go. And from the time we catch the taxi to the airport, we assume our identities.” The latter instructions were something Madeline already had ingrained in her mind. When a mission like this starts, it goes 100%, and she doesn’t return to being Madeline until they are back at a safe house. “So who are we?” she asked. “Shotaro and Emily Sudo,” Levi replied. “At least I can call you M and you’ll likely respond to it.” Madeline smiled. That made things a bit easier at least, but she had to remember to call him Shotaro, or rather Sho. Best to start practicing that from this point going forward. “And pack as you would normally for a cruise,” Levi continued. “Get me a list of anything you need: swimsuits, warm-weather clothing, toiletries, whatever. I’ll be picking stuff up over the next couple of days. Don’t worry about tech, I’ll pack anything we’re likely to need.” “So I have to ask,” Madeline began, biting her lip apprehensively. “These people are all human, so why did you accept this job?” “An acquaintance of Syriem’s made a personal request on behalf of the family,” he replied. “That does not mean I go in any less prepared. I was not given information on this friend of Syriem’s, but it’s a doable job, and it pays nicely.” “Ah, I see. So it’s because it was a request from Syriem, basically.” “No,” Levi corrected, looking up from his desk and directing his full attention on Madeline. There was no playfulness in his voice, and his eyes were serious. “Syriem is not my friend. Make no mistake about that. They are a broker. Nothing more. Nothing less. So far, you’ve been privy to decent job offers, but there have been lots of questionable and downright malicious jobs I’ve been offered as well. Syriem isn’t fighting for justice, or even the opposite. They are in it from a business perspective. NEVER forget that.” The next two weeks passed at a brisk pace. Madeline knew she was there only to be an accessory to Levi, to corroborate his cover while he obtained the necklace, but she was still nervously excited. As she carefully did her hair and makeup to prepare for the ride to the airport, she went over her packing list in her mind one last time to make sure there wasn’t anything she’d missed. “The taxi will be here in about 10 minutes,” Levi announced, rapping on her bathroom door with his knuckles. “I already rolled your luggage to the door.” “Thank you,” she replied. “I’m just finishing up.” Snapping her makeup compact closed, she set it back into her bathroom drawer. She had packed a duplicate set in her suitcase as well as lipsticks and all her other makeup accessories. Taking a deep breath, she checked her hair once more. Her long red curls were pulled up and away from her face with a pair of glossy black barrettes so that she could look classy, but yet still remain comfortable on the flight. Satisfied, she turned off the light and left her room. Levi was dressed handsomely in chic, casual clothing which looked like it would be right at home for traveling to Monaco. He also had his brown contacts in place. “Ready?” he asked, offering her his free hand while the other one rested on the handle of his rolling suitcase. “Ready.” She slipped her purse over her shoulder and took his hand, grabbing her suitcase with the other. Mentally, she said goodbye to Madeline and hello to Emily. This was it. As the pair walked past Caslon’s apartment, Levi made a quick but coded, rhythm of knocks on his door. Madeline assumed this was to let Caslon know they were going to be out, but she wasn’t exactly sure what was communicated. The taxi ride and subsequent passage through airport security were uneventful, as expected. Madeline only let go of Levi’s hand when it was absolutely necessary, even on the flight. Every once and awhile, Levi would lean over to her on the plane, give her a kiss on the cheek, and squeeze her hand. His actions were reassuring, contrary to what she would have thought a few days ago had he said something like ‘Hey, I’m going to kiss you on the flight to calm your nerves’. And it was a dreadfully long flight to Frankfurt. In fact, it was the longest flight she had ever been on. There were only so many movies she could watch. At one point, Levi bought her a strong drink which caused her to doze off. When she woke, her seat had been adjusted to a bed, she had been ‘tucked in’, and there was only an hour left before they landed in Germany. After briefly touching down, they were off again on a much shorter flight to France. Levi reserved a room for them in Monte Carlo so they could have some time to adjust before the cruise set sail the next day. He knew Madeline would need a day of rest to shake off some of the jet-lag, and he wanted to scout around to see if he could pick up traces of the family before they even boarded the ship. It took them about an hour to get from the airport to their hotel by taxi. After checking in, Madeline tried to put up a strong front in the hotel room by sitting gracefully on the king-sized bed and looking over the hotel’s leather-bound directory. “I know you’re exhausted,” Levi said with a sly smile, entertained by the act she was putting on. He had to admit, he was proud of her so far. “You can crash if you like, and I’ll order room service. You need to rest up for tomorrow, and tonight was booked just for that anyway.” Letting her composure slip, she kicked off her shoes and walked to where Levi had laid her suitcase down on a luggage rack, reorganizing a few things to get to her pajamas inside. She didn’t care if it was the middle of the day, she was craving a hot shower. As she zipped her suitcase back up, she watched as Levi meticulously place his shoes side-by-side in front of the dresser, then pick up the in-room phone. Menu in hand, he began placing a room service order in French. Without listening for the details, but amazed by all the languages he knew nonetheless, Madeline stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. Stripping off her one-piece, black tank dress, she adjusted the faucet, making sure the water was steamy-hot, then stood under the flow like a zombie for a good five minutes. The hot water felt so good as it ran down her skin that she didn’t really want to get out, but she also didn’t want Levi coming in to ask her why she was taking so long. Begrudgingly, she washed her hair, then lathered up, rinsed off, and got out. Drying off with one of the softest cotton hotel towels she’d ever experienced, Madeline slipped into her pajamas and wrapped her long auburn hair up turban-style. Leaving the foggy bathroom, she noticed Levi was flipping through news channels on the TV while lounging on the bed. “So how was your first overseas travel experience?” He asked sincerely, eyes still locked on the television. “It feels like it took forever to get here,” she replied as she approached the bed. She stopped suddenly, realizing there was just one bed. And two of them. “Would it make you feel any better if I gave you my word that I won’t do anything inappropriate?” he responded to her noticeable apprehension, glancing up at her momentarily before directing his brown eyes back on the TV. “Every mission is important, and I need you to be focused and not worrying about something as trivial as sharing a bed. If you knew how strong my resolve was, you would know how impossible your thoughts of me forcing you into a compromising situation are.” Reluctantly, she pulled back the duvet and sheets, getting into bed next to Levi. It was unnerving to be so close to him like this, but she would be lying to herself if she didn’t admit it was exciting too. The bed was very comfortable, and the pillows were soft and plush, not to mention it was nice to lay down and stretch out after being on a plane for over eleven hours. “I ordered us some seafood and a bottle of sake,” he said, finally looking over at her. “They should be bringing it up soon. Afterward, I want you to try to get some sleep. The ship departs at 4 p.m. local time tomorrow, but I am going to go out tonight and do some recon. I’ll be back before dawn, but I want you to remain here while I’m out.” Madeline nodded just as there was a knock on the door. Levi rose from the bed and opened the door to allow room service to roll a cart into the room. It did not escape him that Madeline pulled the covers up to her neck as the gentleman with their lunch arranged the plates atop their table, setting the sake and appropriate glasses down. Levi then tipped the attendant, and the two were alone in the room again. There was an assortment of non-traditional sushi rolls, some soft-shell crab, prawn salad and a few other seafood dishes. It wasn’t an overabundance, but a modest variety of small samplings. As Madeline made her way from the bed to the table, Levi poured them both a glass of sake. “You nervous?” He asked her bluntly, taking the seat across from her. “About the cruise? No. About not finishing my study of conversational Korean? Yes,” she answered. Levi grinned. “You’ll be fine, I’ll be there. Not to mention they will find you more charming as you stumble through their language.” “I hope so,” Madeline sighed. “It will be kind of difficult to direct the flow of the game without being able to speak properly.” “Again, it will be fine. Resources revealed they know enough English to get by. And if worse comes to worst, I’m sure you’ll think of something.” “That’s not very reassuring.” Levi just continued to smile and eat. The food was delicious, and the sake added a comforting warmth to the meal. When they were all finished, Levi placed the empty dishes onto the cart and rolled it into the hall while Madeline burrowed her legs back under the covers. Grabbing the TV remote once again, he laid down next to her above the sheets, purposely finding some tedious French film. Not long after, Madeline drifted off to sleep. She woke up briefly at about 2 a.m., alone in the hotel suite, the towel that was around her hair now unraveled and laying next to her pillow. Like on the plane, Levi had tucked her in, pulling the covers up to her ear and even adding the extra blanket from the closet to keep her warm and cozy. Did he really care about her? Sure, in the six or so months she’d known him, she caught on to the fact that he was very popular with the ladies, but he wasn’t in a serious relationship with anyone. In fact, the person that was the most common fixture in his life was actually her. Did that mean something? Maybe after this mission, she would test the waters a bit and see where she stood. The next time she awoke, it was 8 a.m. The first sensation to grace her senses was a European pop song hissing through the static of the alarm clock’s single speaker. The next thing that hit her was the scent of sandalwood. Levi’s scent. In the months she'd been with him, she tried to figure out what made him smell so enchanting, but came up empty. The only thing she'd gotten out of the endeavor was that he exuded a sandalwood fragrance. She began to roll over instinctively to reach for the alarm clock, but there was a solid body of warmth blocking the way. Sleepily, she found herself staring at Levi’s bare back. Her heart began to race as she backed away, the alarm still going off on the other side of him. Noticing the racket was not ceasing, he started to stir as well, one long naked arm reaching over and shutting off the alarm. Rolling over, he simpered teasingly at Madeline. “Why so surprised?” he asked, head propped up in his palm, elbow pressing into the mattress. “After all, you were the one that scooted over to me.” Scurrying out of bed, Madeline took a look. He was right. Levi was actually sleeping at the very edge of the left side of the bed, so Madeline had to have rolled over to him in her sleep, not the other way around. “I am so sorry,” she apologized quickly, “It wasn’t on purpose.” “I know,” he said gracefully rising out of bed, wearing only a pair of boxer briefs. “No biggie. We should head over as soon as we’re ready so we can get started sizing up the layout of the ship. I’ll get breakfast sent up so we don’t waste time in the restaurant downstairs.” Unable to stop herself from staring at his body, Madeline only half heard what he was saying, but she caught the gist of it. This was more of him than she had ever seen. Long and lean, flexible and powerful. A dancer’s body type. Amused by her reaction, Levi gave a throaty chuckle. “Hey, be grateful. I put these on for your benefit. Normally I sleep in the nude.” “Um, I’ll go get ready then....” Madeline stuttered as she quickly retrieved a sundress, among other things, from her suitcase. He watched her go quietly into the bathroom and close the door behind her, locking it. Levi could feel the aura of her excitement as it trailed invisibly behind her, and with a satisfied smile, he absorbed it into himself, feeling it perk him up a bit much like a jolt of caffeine would do. He still wasn’t sure what made her have a more potent than normal effect on him, but it helped him squander extra energy away for when he needed it. As he heard the shower burst to life, Levi phoned down to the restaurant for some breakfast and then began to repack his carry-on for the cruise. No detectors meant he could move his cleverly disguised equipment from the suitcase to his shoulder bag. He definitely didn’t need most of his tools for this job, but it always helped to have a few of them on hand, such as the tracking chips. After about twenty-five minutes, Madeline emerged from the bathroom in a beautiful blue, flower-patterned sundress, hair up in a bright white towel. “It’s all yours, I’ll finish up out here,” she said walking over to the vanity countertop and mirror. “I’ll get in after breakfast,” Levi replied, finishing up with his repacking as a knock on the door signaled breakfast. It was a typical American breakfast this morning, with eggs, bacon, orange juice, and French press coffee. They both stopped what they were doing and sat down to eat and discuss the strategy once more, while Madeline struggled to relax while Levi, still shirtless, dined across from her. They knew they had to time things properly. Although the cruise would last two weeks, only two of those days would be out at sea. There were stops in various countries if they needed to make a quick getaway. However the ship was only docked between 8 a.m. and various p.m. times based on the itinerary, so they had to keep track of where they were. There would also be a lot of improvisation because it wasn’t going to be a simple matter of stealing a necklace. There were a lot of unknowns. They would have to follow each other’s lead during the day and regroup at night to go over any information. After breakfast, Levi rolled the cart out and then took his shower while Madeline did her hair and makeup. Within another hour, they had their carry-ons and suitcases packed, double-checked the room for anything that might have been left, and were ready to vacate the suite. “It’s showtime,” Levi whispered as he held the door for Madeline. Checkout went smoothly, and it was a short drive via local taxi to the port where a line of travelers awaited boarding. As they exited the car, their suitcases were tagged and placed on carts among all the other passenger luggage. Levi took Madeline’s hand lovingly and led her to the queue. Both of them nonchalantly looked around at the fellow passengers, hoping to catch a glimpse of Geon Woo Hyun and the necklace, but to no avail. Thankfully, the line moved quickly, and they were soon escorted to suite 717 on Deck 7. Madeline couldn’t hide her excitement and wasn’t expected to. It fit in nicely with the roles they were playing. She never let go of Levi’s hand either, not until after they entered their suite. “This is amazing!” Madeline smiled gleefully as she walked through the room and out onto the veranda. It was a perfect little wooden deck with a pair of comfortable lounge chairs and a small table. “I’ve never been on a cruise before, but this is certainly more than I expected.” Levi couldn’t help but smile. “I’m glad a ship like this will be your first,” he replied. “It’s a lot more upscale than what you’d normally find. But enough gushing at the furnishings, we need to head to the restaurant for the muster drill, and hopefully get lucky. The sooner we find them, the better.” Levi loitered in the hall with his life vest in hand, leaving their door wide open, while Madeline purposely delayed leaving their suite. In about thirty minutes, a crew member began at the far end of the deck going door to door making sure there were no stragglers. Levi eyed the signature suite as the crew member knocked and then opened the door. It was empty. He shot a glance at Madeline, who nodded as she grabbed her life vest and exited their room. She took his outstretched hand and together they walked to the restaurant to join the rest of the passengers. Once in the restaurant, was easy for Levi to spot them. With only about 450 people onboard, finding a Korean family on a Mediterranean cruise was elementary. He had details of how large the family was, but only saw the middle-aged son, Geon Woo, and his parents. With a squeeze of Madeline’s hand, Levi led her over to their side of the restaurant, looking as if he was trying to find a seat near the windows. Casually picking a table about fifteen feet away from the family, Levi politely pulled the chair back for Madeline, inviting her to sit. She maintained her unbridled excitement about the cruise. “Sho, this is so exciting!” she beamed, “I can’t believe we're here!” Levi grinned warmly and brought the back of her hand to his lips. “I hope you like it.” It was at that time he noticed Geon Woo had turned to watch them, a pleasant smile on his face. Levi thought this was rather odd, but nodded his head politely and smiled back. Soon, one of the crew members began to give evacuation information, which took about fifteen minutes. Then all guests were directed to head to their stations and put on the life vests. As Levi and Madeline rose from their seats and headed out of the restaurant, they noticed Geon Woo’s eyes still on them. Madeline purposefully avoided eye contact, continuing the role of a delighted bride. His gaze felt uncomfortable, like cobwebs, but she refused to let it show. After a brief explanation about the lifeboats, all guests were dismissed. Most returned to their rooms to put the life jackets away, and Madeline and Levi were no exception. Once back in their cabin, they sat on the sofa to discuss their next move. Levi flipped on the TV to help cover up their voices. “Well that wasn’t creepy at all,“ Madeline began sarcastically, hugging her arms together. “Agreed,” Levi responded. “They are all human though if that makes you feel any better. He was rather fixated on us, and he was wearing the necklace, which is good.” Madeline nodded. “Somehow, I don’t think this is going to be as difficult as I thought. He seems to find us interesting.” “Which means it can be harder than we imagined,” Levi warned. “Even when things appear simple, never consider them as such until the job is all wrapped up.” Madeline took the words to heart and nodded again. “We should check out the rest of the ship,” Levi continued, “And get something to eat.” Turning off the TV, they left the suite and began to explore the ship, mentally mapping the deck plans with actual landmarks. They had a filling dinner in the restaurant, and then went to the Salon for some dancing, hoping to find Geon Woo again. They were in luck. As they danced, Geon Woo’s eyes were on them the whole time, an adoring smile on his face. Levi slowly rotated himself and Madeline around while they danced so that his back now faced Geon Woo. In this position, there was no possibility of lip-reading as Levi whispered into Madeline’s ear. Being even more cautious, he spoke in Japanese. “It’s you he’s watching,” Levi spoke in a low voice. “It could be the color of your hair matched with your beauty. I think he finds you exotic.” Madeline could feel her cheeks warming to his words. Did he just admit she was beautiful? “We need to play that up,” he added before she could dwell on the idea any longer. They danced for a few more songs, and then Levi led Madeline by the hand off the dance floor, right past the table where Geon Woo sat, giving her the opportunity to make eye contact with him and smile warmly. Then slowly, they made their way back to their suite for their first night on board. Back in the room, Madeline went for a bottle of water immediately, extremely thirsty. She felt like they had gotten a lot accomplished in the half day they had been aboard. After some brief conversation, they both decided it would be best to move at a casual speed so as not to frighten Geon Woo away. After taking separate showers, they both changed into sleepwear and crawled into bed. Madeline was especially careful not to lean on, or touch, Levi this time. Over the next couple of days, the pair played a careful game of staying close to Geon Woo without looking like they were staying close to Geon Woo. But on the fifth day of the cruise, something odd happened. While Levi and Madeline were having breakfast in the restaurant, they noticed the Hyuns asking to be seated at the closest available table. And Geon Woo was no longer wearing the dazzling blue gemstone. On top of that, he was intentionally staring at Madeline as if trying to get her attention. Madeline gave Geon Woo a friendly smile, which melted into a frown as she turned back around to face Levi. His brown eyes met hers, and reading her expression, changed the pleasant look on his face to one of pleading. “Emily...” he began loudly enough for the Hyuns to hear, trying to take her hand at the table, “I said I was sorry. I just wanted us to be happy. I figured if I took the job and moved us to France, I could spoil you like this all the time.” Levi’s puppy eyes were purely adorable, but Madeline completely suppressed the giggle she wanted to make and kept her body language bitter. Theatrically, she pulled her hand away. “Did you ever think I might not want to move to France?” She responded through clenched teeth. “How could you do this without asking me? I thought being married meant we made decisions together? Or is there some other reason? Is it because Chantel got transferred there?” Levi’s eyes widened almost comically. “I can’t believe this, Sho,” Madeline dropped her fork on the plate and lowered her head in heartbreak. “I’m going back to the room.” She stood, tossing her napkin dramatically down onto her plate. As she walked past Geon Woo’s table, she gave the entire family an apologetic smile for making a scene, then left the restaurant. Levi immediately set his flatware down and rushed off after her, and they kept up that act all the way into the suite. Then closing the door behind them, Madeline exhaled. “Bummer,” Madeline said, “That breakfast was really good too.” “I’ll order us some more,” Levi chuckled, somewhat entertained that food was the first thing she thought of. “I think we made quite the impression, but I wonder where the necklace is. He wasn’t wearing it, and neither were either of his parents. We need to find out if it’s in the room. As long as it’s in the room, and you can keep them out of it, I can get it.” “You can count on me,” Madeline replied with confidence. She had an idea and quickly went over it with Levi. If it didn’t work, there were still more nights of the cruise left. After laying out the plan, Levi ordered another breakfast for them to eat leisurely in the cabin. Madeline was going to leave the room a little before lunchtime and head to the pool, hoping to attract some company. “Keep your phone with you,” Levi insisted. “Any change in status, I’ll want you to update me immediately.” Madeline nodded as she exited the cabin, a small, netted beach bag slung over her shoulder. She chose a modest sky-blue one-piece with a white terrycloth cover-up. Taking into consideration the job at hand, Madeline figured keeping a cute appearance would serve the best purpose. She walked up to Deck 8 and claimed a lounge chair that was facing the pool, setting her bag and sunglasses on the small wooden table next to it. After slipping out of her sandals and cover-up, she adjusted the chair back to a comfortable angle and propped up her perfectly pedicured feet. The side table was within arms reach, so she was able to nonchalantly grab her phone out of her bag and text Levi to let him know she was there and settled in before she started to apply some sunscreen. For nearly an hour she relaxed blissfully, closing her eyes and listening to the call of the gulls overhead. Her days of captivity seemed worlds away, and the importance of there being other beings that shared planet earth seem minuscule. Honestly, she was hoping no one showed up, and she could just spend the day like this, peacefully playing ignorant to reality. “Is this seat taken?” Madeline opened her grayish-blue eyes to see Geon Woo standing next to her. She made a mental note that he didn’t stand where he would cast a shadow on her, but she wasn’t sure if he was doing that to be polite, or sneaky, or if it was just coincidence. “No,” she answered gesturing to the lounge chair next to her. “Go right ahead.” He was wearing swim trunks, but with a t-shirt, clearly not planning to go for a swim just yet, and he was still not wearing the necklace. “Your husband, is he not meeting you?” “No, he had a video conference call today or something,” Madeline lied, adding a hint of frustration to her voice for realism. “I am sorry to hear that.” “Yeah, well… it is what it is, I suppose.” “My parents are likewise preoccupied today,” Geon Woo revealed. “They have chosen this day to spend at the spa. And while this ship is lovely, there isn’t a lot to do if you’re alone.” “Except sit by the pool,” Madeline finished. Geon Woo laughed lightly. “Yes, except this.” “Well it seems we’re both in the same boat, pardon the pun,” she smiled. “We might as well enjoy each other’s company.” “Have you had lunch yet?” he asked sincerely. “Yes I have, but if you want to get something, I’ll be here, so you don’t have to eat alone.” Smiling, Geon Woo let her know he would be right back. This gave Madeline the opportunity to message Levi once more. W/him poolside. Parents spa day Hopefully, that would give him some time to check the room. They didn’t have room safes on the ship, so finding where they were keeping the necklace would probably be a bit time-consuming. But then again, she’d never seen Levi steal something so she wasn’t sure how long it would take him compared to how long she thought it would take her. After a few minutes, Geon Woo returned with a plate of grilled shrimp and asparagus, and a cocktail, and began to make small talk. Where was she from? How long had she and Sho been married? Was this her first cruise? Had she ever been to Europe before? The questions went on and on. Madeline noticed that when she tried to ask him some of the same sorts of questions, he tended to turn them back around on her. They talked for about an hour before he got a text message from his parents, letting him know they were done and to meet him back at the room. “See you later?” he asked awkwardly. “Sure.” He smiled, then gave a polite bow before heading back to his room. Madeline quickly texted Levi that the parents and Geon Woo were heading back to their room and that she was heading back to the cabin. It took her mere moments to return, and after she closed the door behind her, Madeline discussed in detail the conversion she had with Geon Woo, careful not to leave anything out. “I was able to check the suite and his parents’ luggage but didn’t find the necklace. I also checked the ship concierge, and they didn't check anything into the vault,” Levi revealed. “Which means it’s somewhere in the connecting room he’s using, and I didn’t have time to safely search that.” “He’s hoping to see me again,” Madeline said. “So I’m sure I can pin him down somewhere to give you more time. I’m not sure about the parents though.” “Don’t worry about them. I just need access to his room now.” “So what now?” “Take a shower and get changed for dinner,” Levi replied. “But take your time, I don’t want it to appear we’re rushing. And I would like to try a few games in the casino before then.” The puzzled look on Madeline’s face prompted Levi to explain himself. “Only because I want to play a bit, and it’s good for the cover. No other reason than that.” Satisfied with his answer, Madeline grabbed what she needed from her suitcase and locked herself in the bathroom to get ready. She let out a small sigh as she stepped into the shower, already missing the calming peace of lounging at the pool alone. She was pleased with herself and how she was handling Geon Woo, and also proud that Levi was impressed with her. She just needed to keep doing a good job, keep distracting Geon Woo, and this mission would be a success. They would be able to get the necklace back to that poor family who lost their daughter. Her enthusiasm caused her to rush through the rest of the shower, and subsequently through dressing, hair, and makeup. She emerged from the bathroom eager to please Levi with how she imagined she would handle the rest of the mission. He was already dressed for the evening, and together they left the cabin for a bit of fun before continuing on with the task at hand. At the ship’s casino on Deck 5, Levi took a seat at one of the few poker tables while Madeline stood behind him and watched. He cautiously let his winnings accumulate and then drop, and then accumulate again, all while making small talk with the dealer. At one point, Levi bet the last of his chips, and the dealer prompted Madeline, or rather Emily, to give her husband a good-luck kiss. This caught Madeline completely by surprise, and she hoped the emotion wasn’t apparent on her face at that point. As if robotic, she leaned over to plant a kiss on Levi’s cheek, not expecting him to have turned his head. Instead of the light, non-committal peck she had planned, his lips met hers in a soft kiss, to which the dealer and the other card players cheered on. Her cheeks warmed, her knees weakened, and it literally took everything she had not to feel as if her “Emily” mask had shattered. She looked at Levi trying to figure out why he thought that would be a good idea when a simple peck would have sufficed. For an instant, she swore his expression softened or was she imagining that? She was still focused on the lingering sensation when she realized he had hit a four-of-a-kind. “Well I think that’s an indication I best bow out while I’m still lucky,” Levi winked to the other gentlemen at the gaming table. There was rousing laughter as he took his chips to cash them in with Madeline on his arm. She was surprised when they amounted to an even thousand dollars, but remained silent. “You okay?” he asked, concerned that she had all but locked up. “Yeah,” she mumbled. “I just wasn’t expecting that.” She couldn’t even bring herself to say the word. She needed to get herself together. She needed to change the subject. “So did you play a fair game of poker back there?” she asked. “Maybe.” “From past experiences, I’ll take that as a ‘no,’” Madeline said forcing a smile. “Don’t judge me,” Levi pouted. “Games of chance are so easy. If I lose, it’s on purpose.” He paused a moment as they headed to the restaurant. “But we need to stop this,” he said. “Stop what?” “Looking so… happy,” he answered. “We’re supposed to be going through a rough time, remember? I didn’t see our buddy Geon Woo on this deck, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t on the next one.” “Gotcha,” Madeline nodded. They ate dinner without seeing either Geon Woo or his parents. They even strolled around the decks just to see if they could find them but came up empty. On the way back to their cabin, they spotted valets taking a luggage cart through the door of the suite the family was staying at. Levi mentally inventoried the suitcases leaving the suite. They were the ones belonging to the parents that he’d searched through this morning. Madeline ushered Levi to their cabin door. He understood what she was up to and quickly went inside. With a concerned look, Madeline made her way to the Hyun’s suite hoping to see Geon Woo. She was in luck. “Did Something happen?” She asked, looking worried. “My parents' business requires their attention, so they had to cut their vacation short,” Geon Woo responded. “I will stay behind and enjoy the rest of the cruise.” “What a relief. I was worried something terrible had happened. Well then, good night." "Goodnight, Emily." She managed a smile, but there was something that troubled her about the tone of his voice. It was the same uneasy feeling she always got from him, only this time it seemed more condensed. Madeline was more than happy to leave his presence and return to the room where Levi waited for her. Once again, they discussed the day’s events and began planning for tomorrow. Levi’s instincts told him tomorrow would be the day to get the necklace. They would be docked in Malta so it would be relatively simple to make a quick getaway afterward. He encouraged Madeline to try to go out to dinner with Geon Woo so that the room was vacant, then he could go in and retrieve the item without worry. Unfortunately, the next day didn’t go as planned. Madeline wasn’t able to make contact with Geon Woo at any of the usual places she’d run into him before. She spent a few hours out by the pool, but to no avail. Even took lunch in the restaurant by herself for a couple of hours, but he never showed up. Keeping up the appearance of a bored wife trying to kill time, she roamed the shops and the decks until the sun started to go down, then she headed back to her room. “I haven’t seen him at all,” she said, sitting on the bed, puzzled. “I wonder if he left the ship?” “I checked with the steward, and Geon Woo is still on board,” Levi revealed. “I’m guessing he’s been in his cabin all day, but I’m not sure why. It’s suspicious, and we’re going to play this more cautiously going forward. Something just seems off.” Sighing, Madeline smoothed out the blue and white striped sundress she had been wearing all day, then stretched out on the bed. Glancing over out the balcony, the sun was setting, and the sky was darkening quickly. “I’m going to the restaurant to see if he’s ordered anything all day. That will at least confirm what the steward has logged.” “Okay.” As Levi left the room, he went over the facts in his mind. Geon Woo’s parents left yesterday, and there was quite a commotion for them to get off the ship early. He was human, so there weren’t any unconventional ways for him to leave the ship. He had to still be onboard. But why he was in his cabin the whole day rather than out looking for Madeline? That was the odd part. Then again, maybe he had a bigger part in his parent’s business venture than he led on. Just like Levi’s fake story, the fact that there was trouble in the family business might just mean Geon Woo had been on conference calls all day long. Settling on this theory for now, Levi headed toward the wait staff at the restaurant. “Excuse me, but I would like to order something for my wife and I to take to the cabin,” He said politely. “But of course, sir,” the host answered, handing him a menu. “Also, I wanted to check on my friend in 7002. I know he’s been busy, so if he hasn’t ordered any food today, I’d like to get something for him too.” The host checked through the log on his tablet. “Looks like your friend has ordered breakfast, lunch, and an early dinner to his cabin today, so you don’t have to worry. Now, what can I get ordered for you and your wife?” ------------------------------------------------- Madeline remained on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Did she mess up? Was there something she said or did that compromised the job? Nothing came to mind, but she still found herself going over every little detail repeatedly. Maybe he was just in his room all day. It was odd, but that’s what they’d staged for Levi at times. There was a knock at the door. With a quizzical look on her face, Madeline rose from the bed and went to answer it. On the other side, stood Geon Woo. He was dressed very casually, smiling from ear to ear. “I know this is very forward, Madeline,” he began, “But would you mind going out to dinner with me? Your husband, he treats you poorly, and I would like to treat you like a princess for one evening. May I?” As creepy as it all had turned into, this was their only chance. Levi would have the whole evening to search the cabin. She had to take the risk. “Is what I am wearing okay?” She asked innocently. “It is perfect.” “Okay, let me grab my sandals and my purse. I’ll be right back.” She closed the door and then hurried to Levi’s suitcase. Remembering her training, she took out the minuscule tracking chips, removed one from the sheet that kept them all in place, and then grabbed two small band-aids from the first-aid kit, one round and the other a traditional rectangular shape. Thinking quickly, she arranged the tracking chip against the gauze part of the small round band-aid and then placed the other band-aid over it, so the chip was secure between the gauze of both. Then hiking up her sundress, she attached the rectangular band-aid high up within her panty line. Slipping on her sandals, she grabbed her phone from its charger and quickly texted Levi. Out with Geon Woo Slipping her phone into her purse, she went to the door once again and opened it. “Sorry that took so long, I just needed to make sure I looked presentable.” Geon Woo just smiled and offered her his arm. ------------------------------------------------- In his pocket, Levi felt his phone vibrate. Looking at the message, he summoned the host back to the podium. “Seems my wife needs me for something. Can you have our order delivered to our room instead?” He lied. “Yes, sir.” “Thank you.” Heading to the staircase, Levi purposely went down a deck to avoid possibly running into them on the way to Geon Woo’s room. On Deck 7, Levi put his ear to the door of suite 7002. It was empty. Swiftly unlocking the door, he entered Geon Woo’s attached cabin and began the search. ------------------------------------------------- Madeline was surprised that they were heading toward the gangplank. The ship was docked tonight in Malta, but she didn’t expect Geon Woo’s invitation to extend there. “We’re going ashore?” she asked, a bit apprehensive. “Yes, there is a great local restaurant here run by a family friend I would like you to try,” Geon Woo replied. “Is that okay?” “Sure, as long as we’re back before the ship departs.” Geon Woo smiled politely as they walked down the gangplank. There was a local taxi waiting for them at the dock, and Geon Woo held the door open for Madeline to step inside. The bad feelings she’d been having about him suddenly spiked, and though she knew something wasn’t right about all this, she went anyway. They needed to complete the mission and trusted Levi could find her. She was confident in her training, certain she could kick Geon Woo’s ass if it came down to it, she just didn’t want to be lost in Malta. As the taxi door closed, Geon Woo took a bit of time walking around to the driver’s side, making small talk with the gentleman behind the wheel. Madeline tried to eavesdrop on the conversation, but the clear divider that separated the front seat from the back made it impossible to hear, and the ridges on the sliding window made it difficult to get an unobstructed view of the two men. After a few moments, Geon Woo opened the rear driver’s side door and slide inside next to Madeline. As the driver began to pull away, Madeline suddenly felt dizzy. She tried to concentrate on the street ahead but was soon even losing focus of that. She placed her hand on the door, attempting to open it, but her arms felt too heavy to lift. Unable to fight it any longer, Madeline passed out. ------------------------------------------------- After a few minutes of searching, Levi found a carved wooden box inside one of Geon Woo’s locked suitcases, but when he opened it, he was not prepared for what he saw. The necklace they were looking for was indeed in the box, however, so were three other necklaces. All of them were on different styles of settings and chains, and all of them appeared to be blue diamonds, which was improbable from Levi’s experience. Since he was dealing with jewelry, he’d brought along a chemical screener often used to determine the quality of gems. From his expert eyes, they had all the qualities of real diamonds, but it didn’t make sense how a poor family from North Korea would have such heirlooms. Furthermore, not only did Geon Woo have one of the rarest colors of diamonds, but to have three more? And to not have them more secured than this? It wasn’t adding up. Setting the diamond analyzer on the nearby side table, he placed the necklace pendant inside to get a reading. According to the device, it was a diamond by the conventional sense, meaning it was created using high pressure and temperature, but it was lacking nitrogen atoms and had a considerable amount of boron and a minute amount of other impurities that shouldn’t have been there. There was something about the combination that made him uneasy, but at the moment he couldn’t remember why. Removing the diamond necklace from the device and pocketing it, he left the other three pieces inside the box. Closing the case and carefully repacking everything exactly the way it was, Levi moved to the door. He listened for any activity out in the hall, and then opened the door and casually walked back to the cabin he and Madeline shared, still ruminating over the significance of the diamond’s reading. As he opened the door to their cabin, he rolled the facts in his mind over and over again: the lack of nitrogen, the boron and other impurities, a dead girl, the Hyuns not wanting to part with the necklace… Suddenly it hit him, the blue diamond was the dead girl. Then that meant the other blue diamonds were… Levi hurried and locked the door behind him. On the table in plain view was the small sheet of tracking chips he brought, only now one was missing. Smart girl. He took out his cell phone and texted Madeline. All done with work. Head back for dinner? He waited a few minutes, but there was no response from Madeline, so he decided to open the tracker on his cell phone to get a bearing on her location. She was no longer on the ship. He quickly shoved all Madeline’s belongings that were in the bathroom back into her suitcase, then zipped it up and locked it. Condensing their necessities into one carry-on bag, Levi placed the other one into his suitcase, locking it up as well. All their luggage tags were addressed properly, so Levi was going to abandon them knowing they would get returned eventually. Changing quickly into black pants and a snug black t-shirt, Levi grabbed his gear and the remaining carry-on he'd just packed and headed off the ship. Knowing the truth about the diamond made finding Madeline much more urgent. Sometimes the scariest monsters are actually human.
  18. Chapter Six Lotus Blossom As Madeline got ready for the Halloween party, she had no delusions of a relaxing and enjoyable evening ahead. The uncharted atmosphere would make for her biggest challenge yet. To begin with, she’d be mesmerized by Levi again, but she wasn’t going to let that affect her the same way it did last time. As she applied her lipstick, she remembered when she had embarrassingly told him that someday he’d be begging to be with her. That hastily made claim was going to act as her armor tonight, reinforcing her stubbornness enough to resist his wiles. But the more daunting aspect of the evening was that she was going to be surrounded by unusual guests. With no idea what to expect, she created in her the most outlandish creatures she could dream up and assumed they would be there. Next to her mythical concoctions, animal ears and Hollywood-style vampires would pale in comparison. Looking at her glamorous reflection in the bathroom mirror, her self-pride surged. She knew she was going to turn heads tonight. The dress was hers, not borrowed, and the well thought out image she created tonight was her own as well. She was going to show Levi she was worth all his time and trouble, and that she was a good fit for this world. After slipping into her peep-toe black platform pumps, Madeline checked herself in the bathroom mirror once more. Shimmering bronze eyeshadow with cats-eye liner brought out the gray-blue of her eyes dramatically. The slight gloss of her mauve lipstick complemented her complexion, and her hair, up in curls with a few well-placed loose strands, framed the canvas. She smiled at her reflection, genuinely pleased with her appearance. She had taken time with the makeup; studying pictures of models, watching videos, and researching color palettes, unlike before when she had stopped at good enough. She put in the maximum effort tonight. Madeline looked at her bedroom clock. It was just about time to go. In the distance, she could hear Levi closing the door to his room. Clutching her black opal necklace momentarily for luck, she grabbed her velvet wrap and left her room. As expected, Levi looked absolutely striking in a tailored three-piece suit. Instead of what would traditionally match a black jacket, his vest was pewter gray and added just the right amount of contrast to his white dress shirt and black tie. His jet hair was done in a sort of shag style, drastically different to the sleek look he had worn to the club a week or so ago. “So I have to ask,” Madeline began curiously, appreciating his perfect coiffure, “Do you style your own hair, or does someone else do it?” “I do, I wouldn’t trust anyone else with it.” “Of course,” Madeline smiled in satisfaction, expectant of his answer. “Now turn around please,” Levi requested politely. “I need to put this on you.” It was the silver medallion Maseo had given him, only now it had a symbol drawn on it. It was a black, brush-stroked circle that didn’t meet all the way around, with the end tapering off to a thin point in contrast to the much thicker beginning. In the center of the partial circle, at a slight angle, were four lines that looked like claw marks. Madeline noticed it matched the gate key charm Levi wore around his neck. She turned around so he could fasten the ebony ribbon that held the medal around her neck, feeling the weight of the cool metal lay against her skin. For a moment, Madeline detected the intriguing smell of the peculiar cologne he wore. Inhaling deeply, she made a distinct effort to enjoy it before he stepped away. Seeing that the medallion rested comfortably right below her mother’s opal, Levi began to give instructions as she turned back around to face him. “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. Madeline clasped her hands together tightly, biting her lower lip to stifle her sheer joy. “May I please, please touch them?” her inner otaku begged. “As long as it calms you down,” Levi disciplined. “You can’t act like this at the party. At all.” Muffling a giddy squeal, she tentatively reached up with both hands and brushed her fingertips lightly along his velvety ears. They were so soft and warm that she could have happily kept stroking them for hours. After a few moments of revealing in the heavenly sensation, she regretfully pulled her hands away. “Thank you,” she whispered gratefully, albeit a bit wistful. “You’re welcome. I didn’t know you’d get that excited. Maybe after this is all over, I’ll take you to my room, and you can play with them all you want,” Levi chuckled, giving her a flirtatious wink. “N… no thank you,” Madeline responded, banishing the thought from her mind. She didn’t want to play his game, and she needed him to see her as something other than a plaything he had around the house. As it was, she was pretty sure he’d stopped taking her seriously shortly after she started living here. She wanted to change that and tonight gave her an excellent opportunity. “Suit yourself,” he shrugged as his once prominently displayed pointy ears dispersed. “I take it no tail?” Madeline asked as she looked around to his backside, not being able to stop herself. Levi snickered, her words instantly triggering his dirty mind. “You know what I mean!” “I would’ve had to cut holes in my expensive clothes for that to even begin to be comfortable, so no,” Levi responded. A sudden thought occurred to Madeline as she tried to visualize what a complete “Levi cat” would look like. “Wait a minute,” she said, eyes narrowing suspiciously. “When I first woke up here… that black cat in my bed, that was you?” “Yes, that was me. And before you start getting twisted in a knot about it, I thought it would be better for you to wake up next to a cuddly animal than a strange man. Don’t you agree?” he said as he opened the door for her, and the two headed downstairs to the taxi that awaited below. He had a point. It still didn’t make sense how she heard the shower running. He couldn’t have been in two places at once. Unless he ran into the shower after passing her by in the kitchen. Tricky. Despite all her mental preparation, Madeline was still terribly nervous on the drive to the club, mainly because she was actually aware of what she would be facing this time. She was going to do her best to prevent herself from staring, but at the same time looking like you’re not trying to stare is often worse than just flat-out staring. Levi suddenly squeezed her hand. “Remember what you’ve learned so far, mind your manners, and remember our little question and answer game,” he advised. “Think of this as just another test, except you get free food and drinks.” Taking his words seriously, she nodded her head while continuing to psych herself up as the taxi pulled up behind a few others in front of the club. Patiently they waited their turn, and as the doorman opened the back door, Levi slid out fluidly, adjusted his tie, and held his hand out for Madeline like a complete gentleman. The same bouncer from last time greeted them and waved them through, and after passing the podium at the end of the long hall, Madeline was astonished by how enchanting The Golden Lotus had been decorated for the party. Each of the black clam-shell style booths sported large green bows on the backsides, matching the jade of the wall tiles. There were gorgeous, white pillar candles in the center of every table, and down from the high ceiling hung hundreds of sparkling crystal lights making it look like a swirl of bright stars. “Wow,” Madeline expressed in an awed whisper. “It’s breathtaking.” “Yeah,” Levi agreed, taking a look around appreciatively. “Better than last year.” A section of the booths on the right side had been removed, and in their place was a couple of low, rectangular coffee tables which matched the smaller ones found all over the rest of the club. There were about a dozen or so lounge chairs casually surrounding them, already half occupied with guests. Levi politely led Madeline by the arm in their direction. “This area is reserved for those sponsored,” he said, leaning in to whisper into her ear. “What that basically means is that this is where you go if we happen to get separated.” “Got it.” “And feel free to mingle with the other sponsors,” he added. “In most cases, they will be just as nervous and new to this as you.” “Perfect,” Madeline replied, actually a bit excited at that prospect. “Mind if I have a seat with them now?” As she turned to await Levi’s answer, she noticed his adorable ears were back. Swallowing her glee, she only allowed herself a bright smile instead. “Sure, if you want,” he said, taking notice of her reaction and grinning back, “I’ll go see who else is here, and get us some drinks. Impress me.” Slipping her arm out of his, she walked with confidence toward the small group that was already seated, taking the closest available chair which happened to be next to a slightly pale gentleman about the same age as herself. He wore a silvery-gray suit that was tailored in such a way that it was more fitting for a Vegas nightclub than a formal ball. Only certain personality types would wear something like that, so Madeline noted him as being extremely self-confident. Around his neck hung a medallion similar to hers, except with a different mark, one that looked like a triangle with what appeared to be a plus sign in the middle of it. “Well, hello there,” he said, turning to welcome her with a wide smile and offering his hand in a casual greeting. “I’m Scott. Scott Pearson” As she took his hand, she noticed it was tepid and the skin felt a bit stiff. Keeping a friendly expression, she studied him. His silvery-white hair was cut short and undoubtedly dyed, controlled with product that made it wavy and accentuated his squared-off jawline. His waxen lips were full, turned up at one end in a self-assured smile. From the way he sat leisurely cross-legged to the way his arm hung lazily off the edge of the armrest, Madeline could tell he was either very arrogant or had mastered coming across that way. “Madeline,” she said, introducing herself as she watched his brown eyes sparkle. “Can you believe this place?” he continued to grin as he momentarily glanced around the club. “I was just talking to Kane and Keith over here about how crazy this is. Who would have thought, huh?” Madeline nodded politely to the twins named Kane and Keith who were seated on the opposite side of Scott. They appeared to be high school age, wore dark brown suits that resembled school uniforms, and sat close together quietly. Cute caramel colored ears poked up out of their short hair and their golden eyes were cat-like, so it was pretty obvious what they were. However, Madeline was making no final assumptions just yet. Surprisingly, they wore no medallions. If they weren’t sponsored, perhaps they had family here, and being underage, this is where they were told to hang out. “Yep, it’s amazing,” Madeline agreed before turning her attention to the twins. “Is this your first time here? It’s only my second, but the atmosphere is so different from before that it might as well be my first time.” The twins nodded in unison, eyes darting from Madeline to various distractions around the club’s large ballroom. “Are you here with family or friends?” she continued, asking both the twins and Scott. “Family,” the twins answered. “Our mom and dad are around here somewhere.” “And I am here with my sire,” Scott interjected, clearly not wanting to be upstaged by the young twins. “What about you? It’s rare to see a human at one of these events.” “Oh, I’m here with my mentor,” Madeline answered quickly. It was the only word she could come up with that made sense. Scott and the twins looked at her oddly. Of course they did. She was human, and that was a strange association. “I’m paying off a life debt,” she elaborated, thinking quickly. “Oh, I see,” the twins said in unison, their body language indicating something like that was commonplace. “A life debt?” Scott asked. “Is that a nice way of saying you’re a slave?” “Pretty much,” one of the twins answered for Madeline. “That’s harsh,” Scott said, surprised. “What put you in that position?” Madeline knew she had to turn this around fast. It wasn’t her plan to be the center of attention here. “You make it sound a lot worse than it is,” she replied. “But I’d be dead otherwise.” “He’s a well-known felinae,” the other twin told Scott, speaking of her mentor. “I can tell by her medallion. Most of us felinae treat our pets nicely, so she’s fine as long as she does what she’s told and doesn’t try to run away.” Madeline smiled in agreement. A pet? Sure. Why the fuck not, it sounded legit. “I still don’t think keeping someone like that against their will is nice, but then again, I’m still new to all this. Still learning,” Scott admitted. Staring past Madeline, he watched someone on the other end of the ballroom, closer to the dancefloor. “Your sire?” Madeline asked. That word again. She’d bet money he was a vampire. “Yeah, just watching him dance with the grown-ups,” he replied. “Oh shit. I just realized this area is the equivalent of the kids’ table at Thanksgiving dinner.” Madeline laughed out loud. The twins didn’t get it. “Is that Madeline?” questioned a cheerfully familiar voice from behind her. Madeline turned around to find a rather dashing looking Caslon accompanied by a beautiful woman who shared many of his modelesque features. Tall and carrying herself proudly, her long brown hair curled softly at the ends, and her skin was tanned and flawless. Her eyes, the same color as her brother’s, were wary and wise, and her make-up appeared to have been professionally done. However, Madeline was a bit surprised by their matching ears. Unlike the twins, whose ears were of a single color, Caslon and his sister’s ears were multi-colored. The hair inside the front of the ears was dark ivory, but the backs were black with a thick, horizontal ivory stripe. So much for her horny rabbit theory. The twins suddenly sat up straight. They knew Caslon and his sibling. “I’m so glad you came!” he beamed, clearly elated Madeline was attending. “Let me introduce my lovely sister, Tiff.” Madeline stood immediately and offered Tiff her hand. For a moment, Tiff assessed her with disdain, to the point where Madeline assumed her greeting was going to be refused. “Tiff...” Caslon scolded, looking down at her disapprovingly. Reluctantly, Tiff shook Madeline’s hand. “You’ll have to forgive her. She doesn’t trust you. She thinks you aren’t worth Levi’s time,” Caslon explained regretfully. Tiff glared as she released her hand, leaving Madeline to wonder why. Caslon mentioned weeks ago that Tiff wouldn’t like her. Was she an ex-girlfriend of Levi’s? Even if that were true, Madeline was not involved with Levi. And she was human, which in her own mind would have made her even less of a threat. She knew little of Tiff, but she didn’t seem the type who’d feel challenged by someone like Madeline. “But she just doesn’t know you yet,” Caslon continued, trying to patch up the uncomfortable atmosphere. “Oh! What do you think of my ears!” Caslon grinned widely and lowered his head down for Madeline to see. He was so excited to show them to her. “Go ahead, you know you want to,” he whispered temptingly as he wiggled them at her. Madeline stopped herself. As much as she would love to touch them, she didn’t even move her hand an inch. It felt like it would be extremely ill-manner to do that in public. “Maybe some other time,” she forced a smile. “Ooo,” Caslon purred suggestively. “That sounds like something I can take you up on later.” Tiff smacked her brother bluntly on the head and then dragged him away toward the dance floor. “You seem to know a lot more people than the rest of us,” Scott said as Caslon and Tiff walked away. The twins nodded in agreement. “A few,” Madeline smiled innocently as she sat back down. “Can I get you a drink?” Scott offered. “Yes, thank you.” At the bar that stretched along the right side of the room, Maseo and Levi stood observing. “Looks like she’s enjoying herself,” Maseo said to Levi while sipping a martini glass half full of a thick crimson liquid. “A proper lady.” “She hasn’t started drinking yet,” Levi gave a throaty chuckle, recalling her past misbehavior as the bartender set down two napkins behind him, placing a white russian on one, and a glass of sake on the other. As Levi turned around to grab the drinks, his friend’s words stopped him. “You might as well leave that white russian right here,” Maseo snickered, pointing out Levi’s bad timing. “Looks like her friend has beat you to it.” From a distance, Levi watched Madeline’s delightful expression as she spoke with the trying-too-hard-to-be-fashionable young vampire. The smug guest had ordered her favorite drink and was flirting up. He could tell Scott was attracted to her because even vampires put out desire, as unappetizing as it was. “Who is that kid?” Levi asked Maseo. “Not really sure,” Maseo answered with a shrug. “His sire is a European business mogul but isn’t allied or at odds with my clan. I can find out more if you’re interested.” “Don’t bother,” Levi said firmly. “All I needed to know was that he’s not important.” Taking his drink from the bar but leaving the white russian, Levi headed toward the sponsor area. Sitting in the open seat on the other side of Madeline, he propped his polished black dress shoes up on the cocktail table and took a sip of his sake. Madeline took note of the twins’ response. They had shown proper respect to Caslon and his sister but were clearly terrified of Levi. It was evident they weren’t expecting him to slum it with the sponsors. “Good evening Mr. Leviticus, sir,” Kane greeted, his voice shaking. “It is an honor to meet you,” Keith added equally startled. Levi raised his glass as if to toast them. “Boys,” he acknowledged. “Scott, this is Leviticus,” Madeline introduced, still taken aback by the reactions of the twins. “My mentor.” “I sort of gathered that,” Scott replied to her while studying Levi, unimpressed. “Nice to meet you.” “Having fun?” Levi asked Madeline. “Yes, thank you,” she replied politely. “Did you see Caslon? He’s here with his sister.” “Yep, although I haven’t talked to him yet. I’ve been hanging out with Maseo at the bar.” Madeline remembered her disastrous night. She definitely owed Maseo an apology. One of her goals this evening was also to show Maseo she was more mature and in control than she had previously led on. “You know Maseo?” Scott asked, his interest suddenly peaked. “Yeah, why?” Levi asked casually, taking another sip of sake. He was interested in how Scott knew about Maseo when Maseo himself had no idea who Scott was. “No reason, just that I’ve been told he’s a model example of what my kind should strive to be. Having a good rotation of donors, knowing when to blend in and when to move on. Stuff like that.” “The most important thing you could learn from him, I would think, would be control,” Levi corrected. “Sure,” Scott agreed as if he was just appeasing Levi, much how a cocky adolescent would agree with an adult just to get them to stop talking. “Hey, Madeline? Do you want to leave the kiddie table with me and go dance? I promise you’ll have a good time.” “Okay,” Madeline smiled enthusiastically as she set her glass down on the table and stood up. “Be back in a bit, Levi.” As they walked away hand in hand, Levi’s left ear twitched. He glanced towards the bar, locking eyes with Maseo who was now approaching. The Asian vampire grinned as he joined Levi, sitting in the seat once occupied by Madeline. The way Levi’s eyes were tracking the couple, no doubt listening in on every word with his excellent hearing, Maseo could tell he was fuming underneath his perfect exterior. “Either that kid has some gigantic balls,” Maseo commented, observing the couple as they got into position on the dance floor. “Or he has no idea who you are.” “For Madeline’s sake, I’m assuming the latter,” Levi deadpanned. “Because if I assume the former, he's going to find the rest of his night very uncomfortable for him.” On the dance floor, the atmosphere was poppy and upbeat with bright and colorful lighting, a sharp contrast to the last time she was here. Madeline was also surprised to see everyone on the dance floor actually smiling too, no seductive or haughty looks. If she ignored the various ears and occasional tails she saw every once and a while, it had all the makings of what she would consider a fantastic night out. As Madeline danced, she stole glances at the other guests partaking of the music. Tiff and Caslon danced across from each other as they talked, clearing catching up. She wasn’t sure how long Tiff had been away, but Caslon treated her like he hadn’t seen her in a while, meaning her primary residence wasn’t here. Off to their left, a girl with the most beautiful golden-blond, glitter-covered curls caught Madeline’s eye. Her perfect ringlets dazzled with every bounce of movement she made, painted in shimmering pastels by the lights swirling overhead. Enchantingly beautiful, her ruby red lips smiled incurably at her dance partner, which Madeline recognized as the DJ she saw the last time she was here. Ditching the street clothes, he looked just as perfectly comfortable in a classic tuxedo, which complemented the girl’s long sleeved, body-hugging, red velvet dress. They reminded her of an iconic prom couple, all glow and joy, with eyes only for each other. Their affection for one another was permeable, and Madeline couldn’t help but smile as she watched them enjoy themselves. “So are you from here?” Scott asked above the music, trying to draw Madeline’s blue eyes back on him. “In a roundabout way, yes,” Madeline answered. “I’m from the Northwest. And you? You don’t look like you’re a local.” “How can you tell?” Scott smile inquisitively. “Well for one, that suit is pretty flashy for around here,” she began, her comment coming across kindly, rather than degradingly. “And your hair is too trendy. You don’t have an East coast accent, so I am guessing you are from somewhere down South. California perhaps?” “What a little detective you are,” Scott complimented. “You are correct. Rolling Hills, to be exact.” “Is that where your sire is from as well?” “Oh no, no, no,” Scott laughed, shaking his head as if the very idea was preposterous. “He is from overseas. Europe to be more specific. You’re probably wondering how that happened. Well, we first met at a party much like this...” Suddenly, an arm slipped gently around her waist, pulling her swiftly away from her dancing partner. She spun quickly, fists clenched tightly at her sides and ready to give whoever touched her an earful. It was Levi. “Pardon me,” he blushed dramatically, “But I need to introduce you to a few people. Do you mind?” Her anger now completely defused, Madeline took a deep breath and smiled. “Sure,” she agreed, but not without first excusing herself from Scott. “Save me a dance for later?” He crossed his arms and nodded, openly displeased with what just happened. Levi offered his arm and pulled her in close, making sure Scott noticed the lack of personal space between them. “Nice reflexes, by the way,” he praised in a whisper. “Much better than letting yourself be taken advantage of when someone invades your space like that.” “Thanks?” He led her back over to the bar, where Maseo stood chatting with a tall gentleman who was dressed more like a bartender than a guest. His long red hair was a bit lighter than her own, gathered at the nape of his neck in a black satin bow. Both men turned to greet Madeline and Levi as they approached. “Ah, my dear Madeline,” Maseo smiled warmly, putting her at ease despite the fact she had been tense all evening about apologizing to him regarding her past foolishness. “You look absolutely stunning.” “Thank you,” she smiled shyly. There was something in his tone that made her feel that he really meant what he said and that it wasn’t an empty compliment. “About the other night, I really…” “Shhh, don’t be silly. It’s not the first time, nor I hope the last, that a lovely young woman was tipsy in my presence. Think nothing of it.” He then extended his hand out to introduce the man on his right. “This, my dear, is my venerable and trusted friend, Terrant Delacroix.” The pillar of a man placed one hand on his chest as if making a pledge, extending the other one out to Madeline in a greeting. As she set her hand in his, he brought it up to his tepid lips, bowing politely. Considering how he was introduced by Maseo, the firmness and lukewarm temperature of his skin, Madeline concluded he was probably another vampire. He looked much older than Maseo, likely in his mid-thirties, and his bronze eyes exemplified tenacious wisdom. “It is a pleasure,” he smiled earnestly as he released her hand and straightened his posture. “Are you enjoying the party?” “It’s definitely different than most I’ve been to,” Madeline replied honestly. “A wise choice of words. Most here are good people, so do feel safe enough to enjoy yourself. There are eyes on you, yes, curious because you are human. But there are also protective eyes on you,” Terrant winked, implicating himself and the others around him. “Except for those eyes,” Levi pointed out the approaching couple that Madeline was admiring earlier. “They only watch out for each other.” “What did I tell you about your half-truths, Levi?” the young girl with the doll-like complexion and perfect blond curls scolded. “That they make me sexy?” The girl’s date was obviously not amused by Levi’s toying words. “No, I said that they can sometimes be confusing to people.” “But isn’t that the whole point?” The girl and her date glared at Levi in unison. “And this is Gwen and Michael,” Terrant interjected, introducing them. “I saw you DJing last time I was here,” Madeline said to Michael taking his outstretched hand and shaking it. “I liked your selections.” Michael pressed his lips together firmly, beamed a smile of gratitude, but said not a word. “We are the current house band,” Gwen enlightened. “Maseo, Terrant, Michael, and myself. Maybe later when things loosen up, we’ll perform.” Michael’s eyes brightened, and he looked at Maseo and Terrant expectantly. Maseo tilted his head to the side and scanned the crowd as if taking a head count. “There are a few guests that would need to leave first,” he answered Michael’s unvoiced plea, “But after that, I’m up for some mischief.” “Yes!” Gwen smiled, clapping her hands together in excitement, her sparkling curls bouncing with joy. Madeline turned to look at Levi, lost in the event unfolding before her, and watched as a slow and devilish grin spread from one corner of his mouth to the other. Even his eyes twinkled with wicked delight. He was undoubtedly excited about the promise of mischief. “Well then, you know the drill,” Terrant said, shooing both Gwen and Michael back in the direction of the dance floor. He noticed Madeline was still confused and nodded for Levi to take her away. Laying his arm on her shoulder, Levi directed her away from the bar and over to where the food was being served. “So what just happened there?” she asked in a low voice as Levi handed her a plate. “I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t get any of that last bit.” “You weren’t supposed to,” Levi responded as he sniffed at the hors-d'oeuvres table, looking for something to eat that satisfied his disconcerting palette. “As fun as this party is, it is stuffy. In a couple of hours, that will change.” “As in spiking-the-punch?” Madeline asked, slowing starting to realize what they were talking about. “Spiking the what?” Levi asked. “It’s a human term. At boring social functions, someone would pour alcohol in a communal…” “Haha, I was only joking” Levi interrupted. “I know what that means.” “Anything I need to worry about?” she questioned him seriously. “Any sly vampires or shapeshifters going to get too drunk and attack me?” “Only if you want them to,” Levi flirted, piling an over-abundance of sashimi on his plate. “But in all honesty, no, there is nothing that is going to hurt you. Turn you on maybe, but not hurt you.” Silently, she began to place a few carefully chosen hors-d'oeuvres on her plate as she followed Levi around the long tables. She had Michael pegged as another vampire, but not Gwen. Madeline didn’t know what Gwen was. She just looked like a super cute human. “I can tell you have questions, so let’s save them for home, okay?” Levi suddenly whispered in her ear. He was so close for that instance that she could smell his unique cologne again. She was really growing fond of it. “Okay,” she agreed. Out of the corner of his eye, Levi could see Scott approaching them. “So do you plan on monopolizing this beauty all evening?” he asked Levi, a brash expression on his face. Levi stilled for a few seconds, then turned to Scott, still holding his plate in his hand. “Oh, did it look that way to you? She just feels more comfortable in my company than with anyone else here. It’s nothing personal.” And with that, Levi popped a piece of sashimi in his mouth and directed a smart-ass smile at the silver-haired young vampire standing before him. Scott opened his mouth to speak, likely something rude, but then thought better of it. Instead, he glared at Levi and then turned and walked away. Levi just kept smiling in response, eating another piece of sashimi. “He seems to like you, or he’s trying to lord over you because you’re the only human here. Vampires tend to do that,” Levi said, confirming Madeline’s suspicion that Scott was a vampire. “Gotcha,” she responded. “Sooo after some food, do you want to dance?” “Are you hitting on me?” Levi gasped, simulating complete surprise. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Madeline grimaced purposefully. “I just like to dance, and you are easy to dance with.” “Now you’re calling me easy? Wow, you are so mean.” Although she struggled against it, she couldn’t help but laugh at Levi’s theatrics. He chuckled with her, glad to see her smile for real for the first time tonight. “But yes,” he spoke seriously, “I would love to dance later.” Madeline’s heart starting to beat a bit faster. Swallowing, she concentrated on calming down. That was just a bit too real right there. Suddenly Levi’s ears twitched in the direction of the bar. Madeline glanced over and saw Terrant standing, his left arm up in the air with his index finger up as if signaling ‘number one.’ His eyes were fixed on the dance floor. “Ah, the sign,” Levi announced in a low voice. “That was Terrant letting us all know we’re down to the last obstacle. You see, some of the guests are here to make an appearance for a few hours and then leave, and those guests are the ones notorious for upholding the formal part of this formal event.” Checking out the dance floor, it had thinned out by about half since they’d first arrived. She located Caslon and his sister, only now they were dancing with other guests and not each other. Gwen and Michael were nowhere to be seen, and neither was Maseo. “They are probably getting their equipment set up,” Levi answered her unasked question. “Then they are going to perform?” “Yes, only it won’t be their normal set. They usually entertain a mixed audience, so they mute their natural talents. Tonight will be different, you could even say magical.” It seemed like forever before the last obstruction left The Golden Lotus. While waiting, Madeline and Levi ate their fill of hors-d'oeuvres and had a couple of drinks. Terrant, a bottle in his hand that was much too dark to be beer, approached them with a smile on his face and guided them to the edge of the stage that was still dark. “Not playing?” Levi asked quizzically. “Nah,” Terrant replied. “I’m letting Michael take care of percussion tonight. I could tell he was itching to be up there.” “Well that ought to be interesting,” Levi admitted. “You haven’t seen us play anything but rock, have you?” Terrant asked, taking a sip from his bottle. “Nope. I didn’t even know you guys played anything but rock,” Levi replied. “Well with Michael being a natural at electronic music, we decided to branch out a bit so we can expand into venues we wouldn’t normally be a good fit for. It’s been working out rather well actually. Nice to have more choices, not to mention I get some nights off.” As Levi and Terrant talked, Madeline leaned her elbows on the stage and watched three pairs of feet shuffle around behind a dark curtain. Oddly, she couldn’t make out anything that looked like a drum set, just a podium of some sort they had moved into place. Then they set what appeared to be two microphone stands in the front. The house pop music was still going when the curtains were drawn back. Michael was behind the podium, a set of large black headphones around his neck. He had ditched the jacket and vest and was wearing only a half-unbuttoned white dress shirt now. Raising the left headphone to his ear, he adjusted the knobs on his soundboard. Slowly, the piped in overhead music faded while the beats Michael was layering grew louder. Gwen was on stage as well, watching her lover dive into his sounds with a bright smile on her crimson lips as her petite and beautiful hand rested on one of the microphone stands. Michael’s electronic beats grew more and more intense until they started to settle into Eurodance patterns. Gwen nodded her head to the rhythm as if she picked up on exactly the mood Michael was creating as if it was a secret between them. To her left, Maseo finally came into view. His dress shirt was completely unbuttoned, and his long black hair was loose. He glanced over at Gwen, waiting for her cue. Raising her hand at the crescendo of Michael’s mix, she looked out into the crowd that had now gathered at the foot of the stage and gave a whimsical smile. Fanning her fingers out slowly, lights appeared on the ceiling above the guests. They were spheres in shades of blue, green, and purple, hovering far above their heads streaming beams of color throughout the ballroom. Madeline tilted her head all the way back to watch how they rotated to the speed of the music. They were beautiful. As they pulsed brightly with the beat, the crowd of guests let out a cheer. Looking briefly around, she found Caslon standing directly behind her looking expectantly at the trio on the stage. With one hand on the railing which marked the edge of the performance area, Caslon was nearly right up against her, but not is a lecherous manner. It almost felt as if he was being protective of her. As if sensing her gaze, he glanced down at her and gave a playful wink. Madeline looked back up to the stage, right about the time Gwen began to sing. It was the kind of voice you would expect an angel to possess, clear as a bell and perfectly annunciating every word. And her range was incredible. She was also able to hold a note much longer than she should have been able to. There was no way it was even possible without taking a breath, yet Gwen was doing it. What was she? After the first couple of lines, Maseo joined in. His voice was rich and warm, dropping into seductive, throaty accents and then slipping back to a pure and powerful resonance effortlessly. Both voices complimented each other so well it was as if they were liquid, engulfing and supporting each other, and the song was dreamy and electric with a heavy bass that had everyone moving. At the song’s climax, guests gave another wild cheer as confetti began to drift down in an even and moderate pattern. It seemed a bit too perfect to be coming from a machine, so Madeline looked back up at the lights. Were they releasing the shimmering paper too? Lips slightly parted as she looked up in wonder, a piece of metallic confetti managed to land on her lower lip. Instinctively, she licked at it to rid herself of the intrusion and was suddenly tasting what strongly resembled sour watermelon. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” she gasped, fascinated. Tossing her head back, she opened her mouth wide to catch some more. Yep, sour watermelon. Quickly, she turned to Levi who'd been standing next to her, already smiling in her direction as if waiting for her to make another comment. “The confetti is fucking amazing!” “What does it taste like to you?” he asked her, shouting above the music. “Sour watermelon,” she replied. “Interesting, it tastes like konpeito to me,” Levi revealed. “Konpeito?” “Um, sugar stars? Rock candy?” Levi said, trying to describe to Madeline what konpeito candy tasted like. “You mean it tastes different to everybody?” she realized, eyes wide. “Yeah, and if you concentrate, you can change its flavor,” he added. Closing her eyes, she imagined the grape pixie sticks she used to love as a child, and then opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue. “Oh my God!” she shouted to Levi, amazed. “What IS this??!!” “I’ll tell you later. For now, just enjoy it.” All around her, people were catching the glittering paper on their tongues like a group of kids catching snowflakes. The sea of bodies around her moved to the live dance music with much more passion than before. She’d never been to a rave, but it was the only atmosphere she could compare to what was happening. Bodies were close together, some dancing with others, some facing the stage and dancing alone. Levi reached out and took her hand, pulling her close so their bodies were right up against each other. For once, he wasn’t trying to be sexual. With all the dancing and jumping going on around them, he didn’t want her getting lost. Pulling her close, their bodies rocked along together to the tempo of the music. Levi smiled down at her genuinely, which caught her off guard just as Gwen and Maseo’s voice transitioned into lyrics familiar to her. It was a ramped-up version, but definitely a song she recognized and was able to sing along to. As she sang along, Levi chuckled. Suddenly someone placed their hand on her shoulder gently. It was Scott. He didn’t say anything, just matched his tempo to hers and began to dance next to her. She looked up at Levi as if to silently ask if it was okay for her to dance with him. In response, Levi backed up a bit, and Madeline’s place was immediately taken by another girl. Turning, she saw Caslon now to her left in a passionate lip lock with the felinae he was dancing with. His partner was much smaller in stature, with dainty white ears and a fluffy cat tail curled up from beneath her skirt. They kissed and moved their bodies, resembling a lion ravaging a kitten. For a brief moment, Madeline lost herself thinking about their passion, and felt her cheeks getting warm. Her eyes flashed to Scott’s, who picked up on her voyeurism and took it as an invitation to move in closer. Forcing her gaze away, her eyes landed on Levi who was grinding with his new partner so lustfully that Madeline couldn’t pull her eyes away. The way his fingertips pulled through the girl’s long blond hair, and how he licked his lower lip hungrily before leaning his head back to partake of more confetti mesmerized her. She wanted to be that girl right now. Maybe she would be the one who ended up begging after all… No. She closed her eyes and told herself no. Scott could tell she was being bothered by something and took her hand, leading her away. She followed without resistance, thinking it was probably for the best, they were kids at this party after all. Not too far from the dance floor, they slipped into a high-backed booth and were approached immediately by a waitress. After ordering a drink for himself and water for Madeline, Scott leaned back against the plush seating. “Exhausting,” he said, exhaling and looking out at the dancing crowd before gulping down his sticky concoction. “Most of them are shapechangers, so they are very intuned with their primal sides. Damn, I just can’t keep up.” “It is very intense out there,” Madeline agreed, watching Levi. “So, do you have a thing going on with him, or what?” “Me?!” Madeline’s voice rose as she quickly turned her attention to Scott. “No! Nothing of the sort.” “Because you seem really distracted by him.” “In a way, he owns me,” Madeline explained, quickly excusing her behavior, “And disciplines me. It’s like the twins said earlier. If I displease him, I’ll have to answer for it later, and if you haven’t already guessed, he’s not easy to read. He has a lot of whims, so I’ve gotten used to watching him to pick up on clues to what he’s thinking so I can be a step ahead of what he wants.” “Well, if you ever want out, come see me. We could take you in and protect you,” Scott offered. “I could rescue you from this situation, and he’d never be able to find you. You are his pet, and he’s just going to control you and victimize you until he doesn’t need you anymore, and then he’ll toss you aside. Felinae do that, it’s their way, and your mentor is one of the most dangerous and manipulative felinae in history. You saw how those other two were so afraid of him. That should be all the proof you need. I’m not offering you sanctuary because I’m a vampire. My offer doesn’t have anything to do with blood, I just think you deserve better than to live this way.” His words took her by surprise. One of the most dangerous in history? Manipulative? How so? She wanted to ask but reminded herself she knew Scott less than she knew Levi. If what he said was true, she needed to be more guarded, but at the same time, the perception of what was dangerous could have been a reflection of how vampires see him. Against his enemies, he would be very dangerous. But the way the twins reacted to his presence… There was definitely fear in their eyes. “Let me give you my number,” Scott continued. “I’m not saying you need to call it, but if you ever need anything…” He flagged down a waitress to borrow a pen and scribbled his number down on a cocktail napkin. Folding it, he slid it across the table to Madeline. “It’s long-distance to London, but I can be here as quick as a plane can get me.” “You do realize you’ve only just met me, right?” Madeline clarified, surprised. “You don’t even know me, so why the invite?” “I was a victim before I was this,” Scott revealed. “I was a slave. I let myself be a victim because I didn’t know there was any other life. I felt trapped. Then someone gave me a number, told me I could control my own life and live without fear. And they were right. I moved forward and never looked back. I just wanted to give you the same chance. Consider it my way of paying it forward.” Placing her fingertips on the napkin, she slid it closer and folded it up in her palm. Just what was this guy thinking? “Well, that’s it for me, I have to head out,” Scott said, standing. “I do hope to see you again sometime. And remember, I was human not too long ago. Your mentor never was.” Madeline watched curiously as Scott walked away, meeting up with an older gentleman that she assumed was his sire. Without looking back, the pair walked calmly past the podium at the far end of the ballroom and then turned to exit down the long hallway. Rolling the linen-like paper in her loose fist, she thought about the meaning behind his words. He was right, to a degree. She wasn’t free by any means, but she was safe. Or at least she felt she was safe. The more she contemplated it, the more she realized being safe was a relative state of mind. She’d gone from being more-or-less a typical girl to being kidnapped by monsters, to living with a guy who fed off her less than pure thoughts. Comparing where she started from to her current state made her realize that safe wasn’t really safe. “Hey, everything okay?” Levi asked as he approached the table looking concerned. “You look troubled.” “I’m fine, just getting a bit tired I suppose,” she said as she clutched the cocktail napkin tighter. “Putting on airs under this environment is a bit much.” “Well, I was just coming over to collect you so we could leave,” he said looking her over. “Not to mention I am sure there are a lot of questions bouncing around in that head of yours.” “Are you sure?” she asked. “I know how much of a big deal this event is for you, and I wouldn’t want to make you cut it short.” “I normally don’t close it out,” he admitted. “Fashionably late, and exiting fashionably early makes it look like I have somewhere else to go.” Madeline nodded at his perfectly logical explanation. Extending his hand, Levi helped her slip out of the booth and up to her feet. Offering her his arm, the two exited The Golden Lotus leaving the rhythmic rumble fading behind them. She wrapped her warm shawl tightly around her shoulders as they stepped outside into the cold, late October air. Sliding into the back of an awaiting taxi, Madeline leaned against Levi for warmth, which he was happy to provide. “I am not doing this for any sort of gratification, okay,” she said, making her intentions perfectly clear. “I am chilly. You are warm. End of story.” Levi was amused by her declaration. “Whatever helps you sleep at night.” He could hear her grumble at him. -------------------------------------------------------- In another taxi on the other side of town, Scott rode with his sire, Cole. “So how did I do?” Scott asked, trying to judge the evening. “You’ve accomplished your task well,” Cole responded. “Master Gideon wanted you to make contact with Ms. Madeline, express your concern over her well being, and give her your number. You’ve also sown the seeds of mistrust in her mind, which is probably the most important objective. She needs to realize how deadly that felinae is so she will come to us. Right now, as with most of his victims, she’s so attracted to him she can’t help but stumble on her path.” “So what now?” “Stay in town. Watch her. Be there for her,” Cole instructed. “When he breaks her heart, be her knight in shining armor and spirit her away.” -------------------------------------------------------- It was challenging for Madeline to hold all her questions until they arrived home. She fidgeted in the taxi, through the lobby, and all the way up the elevator. When they finally entered the foyer and Levi locked the door behind them, it was like a verbal damn broke. “Caslon and Tiff, felinae. Keith and Kane, felinae. Maseo, Terrant, and Michael, vampires. And Scott is a vampire because he straight up told me, even though I guessed it already. So how many did I get right?” “All correct, except for Caslon and Tiff,” Levi confirmed. “Wait, what?” Madeline placed her hands on her hips in disbelief. “They had cat-like ears just like the others.” “Cat-like, yes. Felinae, no,” Levi corrected. Kicking off her heels, Madeline thought carefully back on their ears, and how they were a different color pattern than the others she’d seen tonight, and she remembered one more important thing she had overlooked. Unlike domestic cat ears, theirs were not as pointy. “Ah, so they are pantherinae then, not felinae,” she concluded as she reached to pick her shoes off the floor. “Correct.” “Gwen is the only one I can’t figure out,” she admitted. “I didn’t get the feeling that she was a shapeshifter or a vampire.” “You are correct on both counts.” “She had to have created those lights because I swear I would have noticed them before. And that confetti. That was amazing,” Madeline thought out loud. She paused for a moment as a thought occurred to her. “Was she fae?” she asked Levi hesitantly. “Yes, she is fae,” Levi confirmed. “I’m proud of you. You did really well.” “So tell me about the glitter!” “That’s a fae trick,” Levi revealed. “Remember how I told you fae can affect people’s minds? Their sanity?” Madeline nodded. “The confetti is an illusion. It tastes like whatever the person experiencing it wants it to taste like. That’s why if you concentrate, you can change the flavor.” “So then it was just plain paper?” Madeline asked, trying to understand. “No, there was no confetti at all. It was just Gwen messing with everyone’s senses.” “Then what about the lights? The ones I didn’t notice until they took the stage?” “She created those too. They were fairy lights, not anything mechanical. From what I know of the fae, fairy lights are pretty easy to create, Gwen just dressed them up a bit and spun them in sync with Michael’s music,” Levi explained. “It was so amazing,” Madeline smiled, remembering. “So do all non-humans tend to mingle together in groups like that?” “What do you mean?” Levi asked, confused by her wording. “Well, Gwen’s not a vampire, but she appeared to be in a relationship with one, and is in a band with them too. Is that normal? To have different ‘groups’ hanging out together?” Levi fell silent for a moment, trying to come up with the best way to word his answer. “In a word, no, it’s not normal,” Levi confessed. “Certain circumstances placed Gwen in Maseo’s care. And it’s definitely not customary for shapeshifters to befriend undead, or vice-versa. As harsh as this may sound, especially coming from me, it’s best to assume the different factions hate each other because that’s usually the case.” “I see,” Madeline acknowledged solemnly, staring down at her feet. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence before Madeline found herself unable to stifle a yawn. “Well, I’m going to get some sleep,” she stretched, turning towards her bedroom. “What are you going to do with his number?” “Excuse me?” she paused, turning back around. “His phone number. What are you going to do with it?” Madeline froze. How did he know? She’d thought she was clever, hiding it in her palm and acting casual about it, but he knew the whole time. The idea was a bit frightening. “I… I don’t know,” she stuttered. “He seemed nice and all, but I am not sure if I ever plan on calling him if that’s what you’re worried about.” “Worried?” Levi repeated, almost as if he was slightly insulted. “I’m not worried. If anything it should be you that’s worried. It’s not a wise idea to get into a relationship with a vampire. You never know when they’ll get the urge to kill you in the middle of the night.” “I’ll keep that in mind,” she replied, feeling rather awkward. She was about to once again head to her room but felt an apology was in order. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to… I wasn’t trying to deceive you. I just didn’t want to seem rude to Scott, and I wasn’t sure if his number would come in handy later.” “You don’t have to explain yourself. I’m not going to tell you who you can and can’t see, but I am going to tell you who’s dangerous. Now go get some sleep. You did well tonight.” “Thank you,” Madeline said sincerely before she finally went to her room and closed the door behind her. Setting the crumpled cocktail napkin on top of the dresser, she unzipped her black dress and hung it carefully on a hook fastened to the back of her door. It took her only a few minutes to wash up, slip into her pajamas and crawl into bed. Before she fell asleep, she thought back to what Scott had said about Levi being dangerous and manipulative. He definitely had it in him, but something deep down inside told her that wasn’t true. Growing up, she had many instances where her intuition protected her from potentially dangerous situations by throwing up red flags in her head. Neither Levi nor any of his friends raised any of those red flags. Not even Tiff, who she was positive hated her. Out of nowhere, her grandma’s words echoed in her mind. Let your instinct be your guide. She wasn’t sure what had triggered that memory, but they were wise words to follow, especially at a time like this. Wrapping her fingertips around her opal, she decided she would continue to give Levi her trust and ignore Scott’s accusations unless some solid proof demanded otherwise.
  19. Chapter Five Somehow I’m Neither Here Nor There Madeline woke with a horrible stomach ache. Her head was fuzzy, dizzy, but not aching. In fact, she wondered if having a headache would be preferable to the feeling of possibly puking at any given moment. Just getting out of bed felt like a risk, but she had no choice. Recalling the events from last night, she realized she failed. She drank too much. The heavy cream churning in her tummy was a testament to that. She embarrassed herself in front of the contact. What the hell had she been thinking? All the promises she made to herself that she was going to succeed, that she was going to impress Levi, were broken to pieces. She could do better than this, she knew she could. Her only recourse was to somehow prove it. Nothing she could say to Levi could right the wrong. If she were him, she would have lost all confidence in this weak, human girl. Up to this point, the only thing she had proven was that she was typical: all words and no substance. Getting out of her bed slowly, she went into the adjoining bathroom and splashed some cold water on her face to wake herself up. Then, turning the water to warm, she began to wash off the makeup from last night that had smeared as she slept, making her look like a gutter tart. After blotting her skin dry with a soft cotton towel, she ran a brush through her long auburn waves. With the faucet off, she could once again hear the muffled music coming from the loft. She was really going to regret this day but decided it was better to rip the band-aid off and go confront him, rather than staying in her room hiding. Not being picky about what she wore, she pulled on some sweatpants and a comfortable t-shirt. Picking up the black dress she’d dropped onto the carpet the night before, she headed for the kitchen looking for something to settle her stomach. After folding the dress carefully and setting it on the clean marble countertop, she remembered there was still some fruit and bread left over from the previous morning. She began to slice the remaining fruit up with a clean knife out of the drawer, and although it wasn’t as perfect as Levi had made it the day before, it was still cut rather nicely. As happy as she was with the outcome, it still wasn’t much of a peace offering. Momentarily, she leaned against the counter waiting for a spell of nausea to pass. Tearing off a small bit of bread, she popped it into her mouth and waited. Was it going to stay down or come back up? Closing her eyes, she stood still for a few minutes until she was confident it would be okay to move again. So far, so good. Beyond calming her tummy, she needed to psych herself up to approach Levi. She couldn’t face him cowering like a child. Cowering wasn’t her thing. In her mind, she decided to scrub everything that had happened up to this point. Screw her bad behavior, and falling over herself whenever Levi flirted with her. She’d been stupid. Plain and simple. She needed to start seriously thinking about her well being and her future. She needed to prove she wasn’t a ball of clay that was shaped by whatever impressed itself upon her. She was strong and needed to start showing it. After plating breakfast for Levi as colorful and close to the way he had made it yesterday morning, she opened the door to the loft. Across the open space, Levi was shadow boxing shirtless near the punching bag. Steeling herself against the loud music and the definition of his upper body, she made sure her words were clear and determined, showing no hint of her discomfort. “I fixed you some fruit.” He stopped mid punch and sauntered to his cell phone, shutting off the app that was pumping his music through the Bluetooth speakers around the loft. Grabbing a towel, Levi dabbed the sweat off his face and then draped it over his shoulders as he approached Madeline and oddly patted her on the head. “We need to talk,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone, and then passed her on his way to the kitchen. Expecting the worst, Madeline turned to follow him take the plate and some chopsticks to the living room. As he sat, he repeated the same Japanese phrase of thankfulness somberly as he did days ago. “You’re not eating?” he arched a brow before taking his first bite. “There wasn’t enough,” she replied, not mentioning the fact that just the thought of eating the fruit was turning her stomach. “I’ll get something later.” “No,” Levi replied sternly. “We’ll go out and get you something in a little bit.” “So what did you want to talk to me about?” she began, even though she knew the answer. “I know my behavior last night was unacceptable.” “Exactly,” Levi agreed. “You didn’t act like you were trying to maintain a cover and get information from Maseo. You acted like some club crawler asking a wingman for details on his best friend. The only redeeming quality you had last night was your charm, but that’s not going to get you very far.” Madeline tried to hide her embarrassment, but couldn’t. He was right. Looking back on it, she spent most of the evening attempting to getting information on Levi, not Maseo. And it was so obvious. She had nothing to say. He was spot on. “Next week is the holiday party, and I want to see a different performance from you,” Levi continued, eating the fruit she prepared for him. “If you don’t think you can do this…” “I can,” Madeline interrupted, eyes burning with determination. “I will show you that I can.” Lifting his chopsticks, he brought a piece of cantaloupe to Madeline’s lips. Without hesitation, she bit it off the chopsticks. There was no sexual innuendo in the gesture; it was more like an order given, and an order accepted. She braced herself as she felt the melon make its way down. “Go get cleaned up. We’re going out,” Levi snickered, knowing full well how hard she was fighting to keep it down. Nodding, she rose and hurried off to her room leaving Levi alone to finish the remaining fruit. To be honest, she had been doing really well last night until Maseo started piling on the drinks, but Levi needed her to learn a lesson from this. He needed her to fail, so she was aware of mission hazards. If she had just nursed the second drink and stopped there, she would have been able to keep her focus. Distractions and potential pitfalls like that were always mission risks, and he hoped last night made her painfully aware of them. He had to admit, he was impressed with her initiative to make him breakfast. He had expected her to stay in her room a lot longer today. Finishing the fruit, he put the plate into the kitchen sink and then headed to his own shower to wash away his workout funk, making a mental note to introduce her to a drink that wasn’t the perfect storm for a horrible morning after. About a half hour later, he took Madeline to the nearby bakery that specialized in breakfast sandwiches. He ordered them both egg, avocado, and cheddar on freshly baked rolls, which was surprising settling for Madeline. As they walked around the city in the brisk fall air, enjoying their warm food, Levi discussed what lay ahead for the week. Groceries were getting delivered this afternoon so his condo would be stocked with everything she’d ordered, meaning she could start cooking meals as per their agreement. Her physical training would begin today as well. “And we still need to get you a dress for the party,” he explained. “Can I pick my costume?” Madeline asked, misunderstanding his statement. Tossing her an amused smile, Levi shook his head. “We don’t celebrate Halloween the same way. It’s equivalent to New Year’s Eve: fancy dress, expensive food and drink, very formal. So no costumes. And the guest list is exclusive, which means you will see things.” Madeline’s eyes twinkled with intrigue. “Like what things?” she said, lowering her voice. “Ears, tails, glamour…” Levi elaborated, keeping his voice low, even though there wasn’t anyone within earshot who would have heard their whispered conversation. “Ears?” Madeline’s eyes widened. She was very excited at the mere mention of the idea but somehow managed to keep her voice quiet. “Possibly your ears?” “Yes.” Not able to control her inner fangirl, she let out a muffled squeal. “Well, aren’t you easy to please,” Levi chuckled seductively under his breath. “So all I have to do is sport some ears, and you’re putty in my hands?” “You wish it were that easy,” Madeline corrected him smugly. They walked a bit further until Levi stopped in front of an upscale clothing boutique, ushering Madeline inside to pick out an ensemble. Keeping the idea of New Year’s Eve on her mind, she pictured in her head what the perfect classy, yet sexy, dress would be. It had to be black, and it had to be shimmery. Flipping through the clothing racks, she found a satin, strapless bubble dress which had layers of elegant ruffles from the waistline to the hem. It gave the illusion that the ruffled tiers were gathered up on the left hip by a sparkling diamond-like clip and then cascaded down the length of the skirt. After the attendant at the shop zipped her up, she stood staring at herself in the mirror, a bright smile beaming on her face. The black dress pushed her breasts up just enough to be seductive without being tacky, and the length of the skirt ended mid-thigh, so it revealed enough leg without the worry of flashing anyone when she sat down. It was so flattering and comfortable that she wanted to jump up and down with joy, but for fear of looking like an idiot, she kept her elation to herself. Full of confidence, she exited the dressing room to get Levi’s approval. Her heart raced as his gaze poured slowly over the curves of her body. Wetting his lips, he gave a mischievous grin. “Excellent,” he said approvingly. “That will be perfect.” Suggesting she remain in the dress to match it to accessories, Levi had Madeline pick out some shoes and a wrap to keep her shoulders warm. She chose an open-toed, black platform pump, and a velvety silk-lined wrap, also black. Once everything was decided on, Madeline changed back into her street clothes so the attendant could wrap everything up in quaint paper bags brimming with delicate tissue. Then, with shopping done, they headed back home. To kill time waiting for the grocers to deliver, Levi took the dress Madeline had borrowed the night before and showed her how to prepare it for dry cleaning and who to contact to get it picked up. He had a washer and dryer in an alcove in the hallway but specifically emphasized that only a small amount of his clothes ever went into it. Undergarments, socks and t-shirts exclusively, he said. The others went to the dry-cleaners, with the exception of his jeans, which were spot cleaned as needed. He expected her to do the same. Within an hour, the grocers showed up, and Levi let Madeline direct them on where to put everything that was non-perishable. It was her kitchen now. She’d be cooking meals for Levi and herself, so organizing it was up to her. It was a bit daunting, having all those fresh ingredients to work with. He was extremely picky, so she had to order a lot of pantry staples like flour, baking soda, brown sugar, and other things if she was going to make everything from scratch. Luckily she had a container of well-worn recipe cards from grandma packed away in one of the boxes in the loft. That would be enough to get her started. As a matter of fact, she decided on kicking tonight off with a classic shepherd's pie, something grandma used to make often on their tight budget. After the kitchen was organized and everything put away, Levi instructed her to go get changed into something she’d be able to work out in, and then meet him in the loft. “Before we do anything,” he said, after she returned wearing a pair of black cotton shorts and an old white t-shirt, “We need to stretch.” “To prevent injury,” Madeline added, taking a seat on the hardwood floor across from him. “I’ve taken karate.” “Then start stretching, smart ass,” he responded with a smirk. “Today we’re going to identify your physical strengths and see what we have to work with.” After about thirty minutes of stretching, mainly because Levi didn’t know how long humans took to warm up, he had Madeline assume a fighting stance. He was still aware of her lingering stomach ache but didn’t care. This was part of her lesson as well. Pushing through pain and discomfort. “Try to hit me,” Levi instructed, standing in front of her, arms slightly raised. Madeline nodded. Shifting her weight, she let loose with a combination of punches. Levi dodged them but was noticeably surprised at how quick she was for a human. “So when you took these karate classes of yours,” he began, “How badly did you rattle the rest of the students?’ “Pretty badly,” Madeline smiled proudly. Running a hand through his black hair, her speed puzzled him, and he was convinced it was somehow connected to her reason for being kidnapped. Yet another dot he couldn’t connect to anything. “Your speed isn’t normal,” he continued. “It’s obtainable for your species for sure, but usually after a lot of training. With as little as you’ve had, it shouldn’t be possible for you to be as fast as you are. And you’re sure there isn’t anything you’re not telling me about yourself?” “No,” she said, shaking her head vehemently. “I swear I’ve told you everything. I’m not hiding anything.” He stared at her for a little while, determined she was truthful, and then stroked his smooth chin in thought. “Well then,” he sighed, “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. “Ah, this should be a good place to start,” Levi exclaimed with a lightness to his voice as he removed a couple of pouches from the trunk, leaving the lid open. Standing, he was already walking toward Madeline as she was to him. “We’ll start you out with some throwing weapons,” he began. “Darts and shuriken. I’m sure you’ve seen these before?” As Levi held up a throwing star, Madeline nodded. Anyone who’d ever seen a ninja movie knew what they were. “And these bo shuriken are a throwing dart. Either one should make it easy for you to slow down any attacker so you can escape, after some practice anyway.” He led her over to the rock climbing wall and started to unbolt some of the handholds. After he cleared a considerable space, he retrieved a large, thick rubber mat from a second, unlocked trunk. Taking it back over to the rock climbing wall, he bolted it through the pre-drilled holes so that it now resembled a human-sized target. “Your main goal will be hitting the thighs and lower legs to incapacitate, which will be difficult because your target will most likely be moving,” Levi advised. “Of course you’ll want to be good at hitting the torso too, in case you need to try to kill, but a shuriken won’t do that job. A well-placed dart with enough force behind it, however, will pierce deep enough to cause internal injuries.” “Why don’t we just go with guns?” Madeline asked. “A permit would be easy, and legal.” “Guns are not a choice,” Levi said gravely. “There’re a number of reasons I don’t use them. The main one being that a gun’s only purpose is to kill, and that’s not the business I’m in. A mistake made with a gun can’t be taken back. Also, there are a lot of us out there that consider using a gun in a fight to be dishonorable.” Backing away from the wall, Levi prompted Madeline to come and stand behind one of the floorboards that was slightly darker than the others. He had her distribute her body weight in a throwing stance. “Now, there are two basic ways to throw a shuriken,” Levi began, placing one of the stars in her hand. “And how you grip it depends on how you’re going to throw it. We’ll focus on a vertical throw first, using a pinch grip.” With a spare shuriken in his own hand, he gripped one of its points between his thumb and index finger. “Now when you throw, you’re going to bend your arm at the elbow and bring your throwing hand back to about to your ear,” he instructed, stepping behind her so he could lift her arm and bend it into the proper position. “You want to point at the target with your elbow, and when you release it, you should be extending your hand and lower arm straight out, so it’s pointed at the target as well. Your lower arm should be the only thing really moving, up and back to aim, forward and down to throw, using your elbow as the hinge.” Madeline nodded as Levi released his guiding hands and stepped away. “Shuriken literally means the sword hidden in the user’s hand, so think of being quick and accurate, and please try not to hit my wall.” Madeline took a deep breath and then snapped her forearm in line with her upper arm, letting go of the star. It stuck into the rubber mat a couple of inches from the edge. It wasn’t exactly where she’d been aiming, but she didn’t hit the climbing wall, which was a small triumph. “Good,” Levi praised. “And just remember not to be discouraged if they don’t bury in too deep, or they hit but don’t stick. The current goal is to be accurate with your aim and be able to do some damage that will slow down an attacker. After you master that, there are other things you can be taught to use shuriken for.” “Other things?” Madeline asked as Levi handed her another throwing star. To be honest, she had been pretty sure stabbing people with them was all they were good for. “Oh you will be amazed at all you can do with these things,” Levi chuckled. “You can trip someone with a strategically placed shuriken in front of the toe, use them as caltrops, take out cameras, redirect lasers, cause noise distractions, smoke screens… and they are cheap, so you don’t have to worry if you can’t retrieve them.” Madeline threw the next one and got a bit closer to her visualized target, though not by much. “I want you to practice for a few hours each day getting it to stick in the center of the mat,” Levi said, handing her a third star. “The height really doesn’t matter, just try to get it equidistant from the left and right edge. After you have that mastered, I’ll mark specific spots on the mat that I want you to hit.” “Can I ask you a few questions about weapons?” Madeline questioned as she took aim and launched another shuriken. “Sure,” he answered, handing her another. “What do you prefer? Do you have a specific weapon you think is critical to what you do, something you never leave home without?” “I prefer throwing weapons, and usually take a few different kinds with me. Kunai, which are knives; bo shuriken, which are throwing spikes; and shuriken. The vast majority of my jobs don’t bring me into physical conflict.” “But when they do?” Madeline inquired a bit deeper, still throwing the stars he was feeding her. “I do pretty well using what’s around me, but if I know a fight is going to be unavoidable, I bring my twin wakizashi,” he answered, checking the grouping of her hits. “They conveniently fit into one sheath I carry on my back out of the way until I need them.” “Waka-what?” Madeline questioned. “Wah - kee - zah - shee,” he clarified. “The name classifies the length of the sword, more or less. Wakizashi blades are roughly between one and two feet long.” “But you didn’t bring those when you came to get me.” “Because I knew I wasn’t going to need them,” Levi answered, walking over to the mat and retrieving the throwing stars. “I researched the location beforehand, so I knew who I was dealing with. Maiming fae isn’t an attack you can bet on, so I left the blades at home. Not to mention when you are fighting fae you want to go with what you know and what you can trust. Which, in that case, were my fists.” Strutting back to where Madeline stood, Levi handed her the first shuriken on the stack he retrieved from the mat, and she began another round of practice. “So what do you do with the weapons when you have to travel?” she asked. “That depends on a lot of things,” Levi responded. “Like the distance I’m traveling and what kind of job it is. All of my gear can be packed in a checked bag for air travel, and I can modify some of it to be acceptable in a carry-on if I really need to. But like I said, I don’t normally bring recognizable weapons with me. Technology is a more important tool on the job; in fact, it’s essential.” Madeline finished up another round of throws, pleased that she didn't miss the mat at all. Her groupings were all over the place, but they all landed somewhere in the target area which was about fifteen feet away. She managed to get some praise out of Levi before he started to walk her around the rest of the equipment she’d be training with. As they approached the targeting mat, she thought he was going to go over some tips to throw more accurately, but instead let her know that after practicing throws daily, she would work on ascending the rock wall. He explained she didn’t need to focus so much on climbing high right now, but on maintaining a tenacious grip and balance. She’d find herself in a lot of situations that required scaling walls and fences and whatnot, and on occasion, she might have to hang around longer than she’d planned. “None of this is going to be exciting, but I can make it that way if you start to get bored,” Levi said, giving her a roguish grin. Lifting his well-worn, gray t-shirt over his head, Levi shook out his black mane and headed to the climbing wall. With as much effort as it took for him to stride over to it, he climbed about ten feet off the ground, clinging to a single hand hold, toes resting leisurely on outcroppings below. He made it look as natural as sitting in a chair. “Well, are you coming up?” he asked seductively, running his free hand through his hair. Gripping the nearest handhold, Madeline started to slowly scale the wall toward him but found that she quickly ran out of holds. “Planning is part of the journey,” he teased. “Start over.” Madeline released herself and dropped a couple of feet to the floor. “This time, check your path first. In the real world, nothing lines up most of the time, so you need to be creative. Use all your resources.” Starting out a bit more to the left, she got about two grips higher and then couldn’t reach anymore. “Don’t be discouraged,” Levi coached. “Look around at all your resources. What else is within your reach that you can grab that will get you to the next grip?” Her toes were actually starting to shake a bit, precariously balanced on the grips below. She told herself it wasn’t because she was out of shape, but rather because she wasn’t used to standing like this. She had never done this before, and the muscles required to do so just weren’t up to the task yet. Looking up and around, she didn’t see any other place to put her left hand that was within reach. There was a grip above and to the right, but she would never reach it without making another push up to the left. “There’s nothing there,” she grimaced, frustrated. “Are you sure?” Levi purred. “Nothing at all that you can grab that’s within reach?” She glanced at the wall again. There was simply no handhold, only Levi looking down, bare-chested and clearly entertained by her struggle. Then it dawned on her. She could reach his leg pretty easily. “Well there is your leg,” she said. “Is there now? How interesting,” he mused playfully. She reached for his leg, tentatively at first, then wrapped her fingers around his ankle and pulled herself up to the left. “This doesn’t hurt does it?” she asked. It couldn’t have been comfortable having her grip him this way. “You’re fine,” Levi answered, amusement still brightening his smile. “Continue.” She was able to grab the right hand hold that was previously out of reach, but then found herself in the same predicament once again with nothing to the left. Just Levi’s body. “You planned this,” she stated, releasing her grip on the wall and landing in a controlled fall to the thick mat below. She wasn’t about to start body climbing him. “Perhaps,” he said, keeping his sly grin. “So what’s next,” Madeline asked, looking around the loft and trying to take her mind off the cramping of her toes. “Dinner I suppose.” Levi let go of the wall and landed softly, and silently, on the mat. “Just remember that your daily regimen so far consists of accuracy training, and hugging that wall. We’ll get into some sparring tomorrow, and I’ll teach you how to start some beginner exercises on the wooden practice dummy over there.” Picking his t-shirt up from the wood floor, he exited the loft with Madeline behind him, then both of them went their separate ways to get cleaned up. She didn’t do a lot of sweating, and neither did he, but there was just something about being clean after a workout, no matter how slight it was, that they both shared. Madeline was out first, heading to the kitchen to start browning the ground beef for the shepherd’s pie she was making tonight, as part of her agreement. She managed to get the entire meal prepped and into the oven before Levi came out of his room, which she thought was odd. “Everything okay?” she asked as she rinsed the mixing spoons and measuring cups off in the sink. “Yeah, fine,” Levi answered her, coming in from the living room. “Just another job offer. I’ve decided to take it, so I’ll be gone for the next few days. I’ll go over it with you, to show you how things are handled.” He sniffed the air with a pleasant look on his face. “That smells really good,” he complimented. “Cottage pie?” “Well, I call it shepherd’s pie, but yeah,” Madeline replied. “I made it with extra vegetables. Oh, and before I forget, Caslon said his sister was staying at his place for Halloween. He wanted me to come over and meet her, but you’ll be gone. Would it be okay if I paid a short visit while you’re out?” “Definitely not,” Levi replied without giving the idea any thought as he uncorked a bottle of red wine. “May I ask why?” “To protect them. To protect you. Pick one.” Deciding she wasn’t going to press the issue any further, she watched him pour two glasses of wine and carry them out to the coffee table where he had set out a small stack of printed papers. Levi reclined on the plush sofa lazily and patted the cushion next to him, inviting Madeline to join. As she sat, he handed her a glass and fanned the papers out in front of them. “So, job offers come in via email off a private server from my broker, unless they are from someone significant, then I might get a call instead. That’s this sheet here,” he began, separating one of the papers from the rest. “As you can see, it is very brief and to the point. It’s a retrieval job, and in this case, the object in question is at a specific known location. If it wasn’t, it would be listed as unknown, and I would have to figure out where it was myself if I decided to take the job. The initial email will only give the basics, in case I turn it down. If I did, it could be offered to someone else, and keeping it brief without a lot of details means the client keeps their sensitive information from being exposed to multiple sets of eyes. Also on this email will be any delicate issues, like how much non-human presence is involved, and the payment.” Taking a sip of wine, Levi handed the sheet to Madeline to look over. From what she could deduce, it sounded like a piece of art of some sort. The canidae client was requesting retrieval from a felinae. And the fee was five figures plus expenses. “And then once I confirm acceptance,” Levi continued. “I get the next email with any attached files from the client. Those are these sheets here. I get an address, so I map out the location and see it’s a small gallery in suburban retail space. I also get a picture of the object, which is a large fang. The attachment also indicates it’s a family heirloom, and that the gallery is owned by the felinae in question.” “Seriously?” Madeline laughed. “So basically the cat is peacocking the wolf’s tooth in a display case out in public.” “More or less,” Levi grinned. “And it’s crucial to get the names of the client and the person he’s in disagreement with, so you can research them before you accept any job. There have been times where a seemingly simple job turned out to be ridiculously dangerous because the target was related to a crime family or a prominent clan.” “What do you do in those cases?” Madeline asked, feeling like she was finally starting to learn meaningful skills. “Ask for a higher fee,” he laughed as he sipped more wine. “But seriously, you can always renegotiate if you feel the client hasn’t been fully forthcoming with information. Normally the client will already feel guilty about what they are hiding from you, and once they are caught, they will cough up a respectable fee. I haven’t gotten that treatment in a very long time because of my reputation, but once you start taking jobs, you will most likely come across it early on. My broker tries to be fair, but don’t expect to be coddled. Researching is a way to protect yourself against that. And after you have all your information, it’s time to come up with a plan.” They were interrupted by the oven timer. Excusing herself, Madeline set her wine glass down on the table and went into the kitchen to remove the cottage pie from the oven. Setting each of the four individual mini casserole dishes on the counter, she brought out the rest of the bottle of wine and a couple of trivets to protect the coffee table from the heat of the ovenware. After leaving two of the baking dishes out to cool, she carefully placed spoons into the other two and brought them out to the coffee table. Levi finished pouring more wine into their glasses and then clasped his hands together in his usual thankful gesture. After taking a spoonful of his cottage pie, he smiled in satisfaction. “Very good,” he complimented, still smiling, after swallowing his bite. “I didn’t think I would like it with the extra vegetables, but I do. It’s delicious, thank you.” “You’re welcome,” Madeline blushed a bit. “It was my grandma’s recipe actually. A way to sneak more vegetables into me when I was young.” “Getting back to this job,” Levi continued. “In most cases, the type of job will dictate how much prep work needs to be done. For ones like this, it’s best to visit the gallery during the day to see what their security consists of, and then observe how they open and close the store, checking for anything out of the ordinary. Most retail locations have the same kind of theft prevention, so I am not expecting anything odd. But let me make something perfectly clear, you never go into any job with the expectation that it’s going to be the same as a similar job. It might, and it might not. Even the simplest job requires the same cautionary measures as more difficult ones. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I have known of a lot of people in the same line of work who have died because they got too complacent. You don’t ever want that to be you. Ever. Treat every job like there is going to be some nasty surprise. Then, when you’re back safe in a warm bed, you can thank your meticulous nature.” Eating a few more bites of the savory meal, Levi briefly studied the expression on Madeline’s face. She was lost in thought, absorbing his words. Good. That was possibly the most important lesson he could teach her. Not to assume anything and to second guess everything. He was born with the instinct to look at everything from two perspectives - how to improve circumstances and how to take advantage of them - so staying out of sticky situations was second nature to him. But that wasn’t something you could teach someone. “I’ll be renting a car and driving up there tomorrow, so I want you to be a good girl and stay in the house,” he said, giving her a playful grin. “Don’t let Caslon in, and don’t go visiting him either. I’ll talk to him on my way out so he knows not to be a pain in the ass.” “How will I know when you’re coming back?” Madeline asked, feeling a twinge of panic set in. This was going to be the first time she’d be truly alone since she was kidnapped. She’d been okay with it in the past, but with all she knew now, she felt like without Levi around she could be kidnapped again at any time. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll call when I first check into my hotel,” Levi answered, understanding of her paranoia. “Would that be okay?” “Yes, thanks. It’s just that…” “Sshhh,” Levi said raising a finger. “I understand. There was a time when all I did was look over my shoulder. After I check in, I’ll be taking a few days to scout the place and complete the job, and then I’ll be driving back. I’ll call on my way back too.” “What if something happens? Like an emergency?” “Caslon will still be next door, and although he’s not allowed in, he’ll still keep an eye on you in case there are any emergencies. Tiff should be there too, and she’s a hell of a lot more dependable in situations like that. You’ll be fine.” ----------------------------------------------------------- The next morning, Madeline could hear Levi packing up a small suitcase through his open bedroom door. She didn’t approach him, not wanting to show just how nervous she was about him leaving. Damn. She honestly didn’t consider that she would be scared of being alone now. It never bothered before, but the obduction scarred her. Pouring coffee out of the fresh pot Levi had made, she grabbed her laptop and took a seat on the couch. Logging into her Japanese language program, she tried to distract herself. “Well, I’m all set. The car should be here soon,” he said rolling his suitcase into the living room and setting it by the front door. He was wearing a very sophisticated pair of gray trousers matched with a crisp, white, button-down shirt. His black tie was loose, hanging a bit below the unfastened top two buttons of his shirt, and again his brown contact lenses were in place. “You’ve got phone numbers for anything that might arise, and a list of things you need to practice.” As he unlocked the door, he reached into his breast pocket and retrieved a pair of dark sunglasses. He'd be lying if he wasn't feeling awkward right now. Normally, he’d just lock up and leave. Having to make small talk was a bit alien. “Stay inside,” he warned, as he slipped the shades over his eyes. And then he was out the door. The first couple of hours went okay. Madeline worked on her Japanese and then went to practice throwing shuriken in the loft until her arm ached. It felt too rubbery to climb the wall, so she decided to go take a shower. It was then that her phone rang. In a panic, she quickly turned off the water and dried her hands on the towel so she could grab it before he hung up. “Hello?” she answered breathlessly, standing naked just outside the shower. “Haha, you sound like you honestly wouldn’t know who this would be,” Levi laughed on the other end. “You’re out of breath. Why?” “I was taking a shower,” Madeline replied. “I was trying to hurry and get the phone so I wouldn’t miss your call.” “Ah, what lovely imagery you’ve given me,” Levi fantasized. “Are you dripping wet?” “Just stop,” Madeline grimaced, cheeks warming a bit. “You’d have to let me get started first.” She could almost feel him smiling wickedly all the way from Vancouver. “Anyway I just checked in, so it will be at least a couple of days before you hear from me again. How are you holding up?” “Pretty good,” she said, although she was starting to get chilly. “Well, keep busy and follow the rules.” “Okay,” Madeline answered. She was about to tell him to be careful, she wanted to say it, but there was something about uttering those words to him that seemed too personal, so she didn’t. “Talk to you then.” “Ja ne.” Pressing the end call button on her phone, she set it back down on the counter and stepped back into the shower, turning the water back on. The next couple of days went by slowly, with language practice in the morning while she had breakfast, and then the throwing and climbing exercises in the afternoon. Then she showered and watched tv while eating the leftover cottage pie. Each night she played some of her otome game before she went to bed, which made her feel a lot less lonely. Oddly, she wondered if this is how pets felt when their owners went off to work for the day. The night before the Halloween party, Levi called to let her know he was about an hour out. She was so happy he was coming home that she decided to order pizza from his favorite place to surprise him. When he arrived, he disappeared into his room for a bit, closing the door behind him. When he finally came out, he had changed into some comfortable lounge clothes. “Margarita pizza in the oven?” he smiled. “I didn’t make it,” Madeline quickly responded, not wanting him to think she was up to that level of cooking just yet. “I ordered it for you. It’s just in there keeping warm.” “I appreciate it nonetheless,” he thanked. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d gotten any sort of a ‘welcome home’ treatment. Madeline took the pizza out and divided it onto two plates she carried out to the living room. As they ate, Levi confided in her that the job was pretty straightforward with no surprises and that he would probably get further information on what to do with the piece after the holiday was over. Until then, he said, they needed to finish eating and get some sleep. Tomorrow’s Halloween party was going to make for a very busy day.
  20. Chapter Four Smoke and Mirrors The next morning started off lazy and slow. There were no alarms set, so Madeline just woke up when nature prompted her, which was a little before 10 a.m. Typically, as with most people living alone, she would have dragged her groggy body, messy hair and all, into the kitchen and pour herself a bowl of cereal. But being a guest in someone else’s home dictated she look presentable first. Straight out of a long shower, she towel-dried her curly, auburn hair and put on some light makeup after brushing her teeth and slipping into a t-shirt and jeans. As she made her way to the kitchen, she quickly realized there was no cereal and no milk. She also realized Levi was gone. There was a note on the fridge, in elegant cursive, that he was at the local farmer’s market, hopefully picking up something for breakfast. Suddenly, there was a knock at the front door. Apprehensively, she tip-toed through the living room and peeked through the peephole. On the other side, she could see Caslon’s golden-brown eyes peering back at her. Should she open the door? She knew he was a friend of Levi’s, but she didn’t know how much of a friend he essentially was to her yet. “Miss Madeline?” he called from the other side of the door, voice slightly muffled. “I know you’re there. I can feel you looking at me.” Shit. At the risk of being rude, she unlocked and opened the door, forcing a smile. “I was just looking to see who it was. Sorry it took so long.” “You don’t have to lie, ma mie,” he responded, waving one hand dismissively. “You hardly know me. I understand. But I do come bearing gifts.” In Caslon’s other hand was a small box of six doughnuts. Six beautiful fried doughnuts, iced with chocolate. They even had rainbow sprinkles. “I figured you’d be hungry, and Levi has no experience with keeping a pet… er, roommate. He is either is out buying wheat germ for you or has completely forgotten that you need to eat. Tsk tsk,” Caslon said rolling his eyes. “A pet?” Madeline raised a brow suspiciously, but it didn’t stop her from reaching for a doughnut. “A slip of the tongue,” Caslon admitted, looking wounded. “Something my kind would say. I apologize.” Awkwardly, Caslon glanced at the doorframe with hurt in his eyes, prompting Madeline to finally invite him in, and the two headed to the sofa to sit and eat. It was then Madeline noticed he was still wearing flannel pajama bottoms. Caslon acknowledged her assessment of his attire. “Oops, sorry,” he blushed. “I normally just sort of wander over here. I honestly didn’t think twice about what I was wearing, but the doughnuts are good, yes?” “Yes, thank you,” Madeline replied sincerely. His was as good an excuse as any, she supposed, although she was still wary of him. “So I take it you are still staying in the guest room?” Caslon pried as he began to eat a doughnut. “Yeah, why?” Madeline answered in between bites of decadent pastry. “I don’t smell him on you,” Caslon continued frankly, sniffing the air. “This isn’t normal for him.” For some reason, his words stung. “I can only imagine,” Madeline replied, rolling her eyes. “In that regard, if you are ever in need of straightforward companionship, I am currently unattached,” Caslon offered. “I don’t play any games, and I keep exclusive for the duration.” Madeline couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She knew Caslon was forward, but really? At least he was damn honest. She had suspected he was also a shapeshifter, but what kind? A horny rabbit? Not looking amused, she popped the final piece of the doughnut into her mouth and spoke. “I’ll keep that in mind. So how was your sister’s flight?” she said, changing the subject. “Fine, I suppose. You should meet her sometime, not sure if you would get along, but that’s beside the point.” Madeline raised an eyebrow, perplexed by the meaning of his words. Why would it be important to meet someone she wouldn’t like? “She’ll be here through the holiday; then she’ll be flying back to Japan.” “The holiday?” Madeline asked. She was a bit fuzzy on dates but was pretty sure it was still just October. Was he talking about Veterans Day? “Halloween,” Caslon replied joyously, with a smile as bright as a child talking about Christmas. “It’s the biggest holiday of the year! You should stop by my apartment sometime and say hello before then. It will be a great time!” Just then, she heard a key in the door, and Levi stepped inside, a large paper bag in his arm. “What are you doing here?” he questioned Caslon, locking the front door before heading into the kitchen to set the bag down. “You hadn’t fed her,” Caslon explained in his defense, rising from the couch. “How neglectful of you.” “I was getting food,” Levi said returning to the living room. “And didn’t I tell you to leave her alone? Nothing past friendly conversation. In the hallway.” “I was being friendly.” “You’re going commando in your pajamas, cleanly shaven, and you managed to put on cologne,” Levi accused. “And you brought processed sweets.” “Going commando…?” Caslon said, looking confused as he ran his fingers through his chestnut waves of hair. It took him a few seconds to realize what Levi was pointing out. Caslon gave a weak laugh trying to make it seem like his lack of underwear was an accident. “Out” Levi ordered, pointing to the door. Not even bothering to try to argue, Caslon slouched his shoulders and left, but not without reminding Madeline to visit him, or rather his sister, before Halloween. “Are you done eating that crap?” Levi questioned Madeline as he grabbed the box that contained the remaining doughnuts. “I suppose so since you’re going to toss them,” Madeline pouted. “Good. Follow me.” Taking the box into the kitchen, Levi dumped it into the trash and then washed his hands in the sink. He then proceeded to remove about a half a dozen ripe fruits from the brown bag, along with some whole grain bread. “And just so you know, I would never forget about you,” Levi said with a princely charm as he removed a sharp knife from one of the drawers. With mesmerizing precision, his hand seemed to dance with the knife as he peeled and sliced the fruit into bite-sized pieces. His movements were so quick and fluid that the fruit ended up with perfect, clearly defined edges. Grabbing a couple of plates from the cabinet, he carefully stacked the pieces together, being cautious not to bruise anything. Satisfied with the placement, he set thick slices of fresh bread on the side. Next, he poured some filtered water from his fridge into two glasses and Madeline helped him carry everything to the coffee table in the living room. As they sat to eat, Levi offered up the same sincere gesture for his food as he did the night they had Chinese delivery, and then asked Madeline if she was ready to start learning. She excitedly insisted that she was. “So, first off,” Levi began, “Try to put aside all your preconceived understandings of legends and urban myths. Some of them are true, and some of them have been fabricated by the same beings they are about. This isn’t going to be an encyclopedia-style explanation; it’s going to be an identify-and-live-to-fight-another-day version. I will do my best to be as non-judgemental as possible, but this is the first time I am trying to teach someone this stuff, so...” Madeline nodded. She was ready to absorb all she could. “I like to think that there are roughly five categories of non-humans,” Levi continued, counting off each one by raising a finger on his hand, “Shapeshifters, the Dead, the Undead, the Magical, and the Supernal. I’ll go over what you’re more likely to encounter first, and then over the next few weeks, I’ll go into much more detail. And there will be no notes. None. If you have questions, you should ask them as we go, but absolutely nothing gets written down or recorded. As a non-human, I identify things differently than you will, but I’ll do my best to provide information that will be relevant to you.“ “No notes?” she asked, “Is it even all right to tell me?” “If you decided to run off, hypothetically, and go poking your nose around in places it shouldn’t be, someone will permanently cut it off,” Levi responded. “And if you run off and decide to use info on me as leverage with a third party, I’ll kill you myself.” “Hypothetically,” Madeline reminded him. She didn’t like the conversation’s sudden change in direction. “Of course,” Levi smiled sweetly, before taking a bite of cantaloupe and continuing. “The most common non-humans are shapeshifters, mainly because most of them, myself included, can hold human form indefinitely. And the term is a vast one, but means the same thing - they can change from human form to either a partial animal-like form or a full animal form. Some, like me, don’t have to harm humans to survive. Those are the kinds you’ll come across most often because they blend into humanity the easiest, and their lifespans are comparable to humans as well. Out of all shapeshifters, it’s the cat types, called felidae that are the most common.” “That makes sense,” Madeline accepted. “Cats are pretty elusive creatures. They come and go from people’s lives all the time.” “I’m sure you’ve heard of ‘werewolves’?” Madeline nodded again. There’d been a lot of movies and tv shows about them, both good and bad. “That would be the second most common.” “Is it true that if you’re bitten by a werewolf you’ll become one? Or that they eat human flesh?” Madeline asked, because although it was common monster movie knowledge, whether or not it was true was another thing. “Natural werewolves are born, not made,” Levi explained, “As are most shapeshifters. So being bitten or scratched by them, or any shifter isn’t going to make you one any more than being bitten by a dog is going to make you a dog. However, there is a type of werewolf whose lycanthropy is transmitted like a disease. They were the result of vampires screwing with magic and natural werewolves. You’re not likely to run across those, but they love human flesh. So besides being bodyguards, they are also genetically designed to clean up victims.” “What about dogs?” “Dogs are an interesting case,” Levi continued. “They are out there, but very, very rare. The whole story about them being man’s best friend is so true that it’s heartbreaking. Some have decided to remain in human form forever, and have been fully genetically blended into the human race. The rest decided to remain as dogs forever and lost the desire to be anything else. The latter have usually done so out of sheer selfless love for a human or family of humans, and have even gone as far as to breed with true dogs.” “That's amazingly sad,” Madeline said, looking down at her plate after swallowing a bite of bread. “The most important thing to remember is that there are literally thousands upon thousands of different kinds of shapeshifters, making it impossible for me to cover them all. Even the same animal types have different names and slight variations depending on what part of the world they come from. I can tell most of them apart by scent, but that’s not going to work for you. The best giveaway is going to be mannerisms and body heat. It’s nearly impossible for shapeshifters to completely let go of what makes them who they are. The way they carry themselves might be rough and wolf-like, or slinky and cat-like, or shrewd and raven-like. When they are very upset, they might snarl, hiss, click, or whatever sound they would normally make. They will usually have the same heightened senses that match whatever their true nature is. Another thing to look for is that most will be born in litters, so be cautious of twins. Also, the most common ones will normally run an average of three to four degrees hotter than your own body temperature.” Levi rested his exposed forearm on top of Madeline’s. His skin felt warm like he was running a fever, and yet comforting to her at the same time. It explained why his body was so pleasantly inviting on the chilly night he rescued her. “I feel what you mean,” she replied, committing the fact to memory while selfishly enjoying the physical contact. “For the most part, they are going to be quicker than you,” Levi continued, pulling his arm away. “So fighting them is going to be mostly about dodging and then luring them somewhere that will put them at a disadvantage. That disadvantage is going to depend on what they are. Since small cat types, which are officially called felinae, are the most common ones you’re going to come across, we’ll be training on them first. The main thing is that though they are fast and agile, they aren’t that strong. So your goal would be getting them tangled up or restrained in some way so that you can get away.” “So are they felidae or felinae?” Madeline asked, remembering the name to be different when he said it earlier. “The entire category of cat-type shapeshifters is called felidae. Shapeshifters that would be considered big cats, like lions and tigers, are called pantherinae, and all the rest are considered felinae.” “Okay, thank you.” “Next we have the Dead, things like ghosts, poltergeists, and some with full-blown consciousness, like spirits. Ghosts are probably pretty similar to what you are familiar with; they are only partial beings that need to be disbursed. Poltergeists are energies that get attached to certain people, places, and things. The dead don’t mask anything about themselves. You’ll know a ghost when you see it. The thing that might be difficult for you will be telling if it’s a real ghost or a fae trick. Under normal circumstances, there’s no real danger.” “Then we have the Undead,” Levi grimaced, obviously not one of his favorites. “And number one on that list are vampires. They are few and far between only because it’s increasingly hazardous for them to blend in. You can consider vampirism a kind of blood disease spread through a considerable amount of blood mingling, like a transfusion. The older clans even have ridiculously complicated rituals for turning. It’s possible to infect someone without going through the complexity of a full-blown transfusion, but it requires a large amount of blood loss on the part of the victim. That type of infection is also a slow one, as the lesser than adequate amount of vampire blood would have to work at multiplying and replacing the victim’s existing blood cells. No one is born a vampire because they lose the ability to procreate once their body changes. And before you ask, if a pregnant woman is made a vampire, the baby doesn’t become one too. The mother’s body almost immediately devours the living tissue of the unborn baby for nourishment before it has even the slightest chance to be affected by the blood.” “Not sure if I needed to know that. That’s absolutely gross,” Madeline wrinkled up her nose in an expression of disgust. “Hey, I’m just setting facts straight,” Levi defended, yet smiled mischievously. “New ones don’t have good survival rates unless they are coddled by older, more experienced ones. That means the ones you are likely to run into are the older, stronger, and more dangerous ones. Make no mistake; they feed on human blood. They have to in order to survive. The nonsense about them being able to survive off animal blood is a lie meant to deceive humans. Ones that have been around for a long time tend to have a rotation of donors, but the new ones that don’t, tend to lose it and kill, and are then killed by their own kind to cull the weak. I identify vampires by sense of smell. Those that haven’t recently consumed blood tend to reek to me. I guess a good observation for you would be whether or not they eat or drink real food. Only vampires with strong self-control, so we’re talking older ones again, can make eating look normal. Younger ones either avoid real food like the plague, or they gag when they try to eat even the blandest of foods. And even an elder, more powerful vampire, will vomit it up within an hour. They also are usually quite pale. The more recently they’ve fed, the healthier they look and the warmer their skin will feel, but it will never be warmer than yours. The ones with ‘old blood’ don’t have to feed often, and they maintain their healthy glow much longer. There are other things out there too, like zombies, but they don’t have any sort of staying power, nothing to keep them from decomposing. Those you can just wait out if you ever come across them.” “Do vampires burst into flames in the sunlight? Like the stories say?” Madeline asked. “No,” Levi answered. “But the exposure will make them dry up. The only thing that keeps them moist and supple is consuming human blood. Without it, they go through something similar to dehydration. Expose that to some nice dry heat and well… it doesn’t help matters any. And while we’re on the topic, holy water doesn’t work at all. Most holy water isn't holy, and even when it is, it doesn’t do any harm. Neither do crosses. Vampires are not demons or devils. They are going to be pretty tricky for you to deal with. For starters, they have this thing they release, sort of like a pheromone, that can either calm or arouse their victims, so they don’t struggle. Some like the violence of the process, so they don’t use it, but it’s mostly the young that think like that. As desperate at is sounds, your goal would be not get killed. If it’s an older vampire, an option for survival would be to let them drink and leave you. But if you have to fight, go for sharp weapons with some length, so your reach is greater than theirs. Blunt objects are useless. You need to get them bleeding, so they are more concerned about that, and then you run.” “I see,” Madeline understood. “The Magical are some of the most dangerous of all the non-humans. They include the kind that kidnapped you, the fae. In general, the fae have their own yin and yang thing going on. They strive to balance each other out. They have a court system, and although they don’t have a lot of rules, the ones they do have are upheld pretty ruthlessly. Of course, they have to get caught to be punished, so there are a lot of politics involved - more than any other group of non-humans. Most of the other groups fear them.” “Why is that?” Madeline asked curiously as she finished up her breakfast. “For starters, most of the myths you’ve heard about them are true,” Levi continued. “They are tricky, love to tell half-truths, and they love mischief. If you can get them to make a promise, they won’t ever break it, but on the other hand, they are experts at making those around them do their bidding. For instance, they are forbidden by their own laws to kidnap other beings, so they get around that by tricking the victims to come with them.” “But that’s not what happened to me,” Madeline stated rather pointedly. “I know, that’s what makes your case so interesting, and why, in a way, you have an advantage because kidnapping is harshly punished. Getting back to the point though, the magic they use can distort reality and perception. They can flood human minds with pleasant or dark thoughts that can cause insanity. They can even do it to a lot of non-humans too. They have been on this planet a lot longer than most of the others, so there are things about magic that only they know, and they aren’t going to share that with the rest of us. Not to mention they have their own handy pocket dimension called the Veil. Only fae can go in and out of it unless you have an invitation, or you have a resonance charm from a noble family, but even then those charms get you in no further than the lobby unless you are fae. I suppose the best way to identify the fae is their charisma, both light and dark have it, and their language. They love to trick and talk in riddles, and most of the time they will not be able to carry on a long conversation without slipping into some of their old-world phrases and round-about answers to questions. With all that’s happened to you, we’ll train on counteracting them second to the felinae. And I use the word counteract on purpose. Fae are nasty to fight. The lesser ones are pretty much all about dodging and hitting, which you need a lot of speed and strength for. They are easy for me to deal with, as you’ve seen, but you don’t have that kind of agility or power. And we won’t go into the greater fae. You just won’t win in a straight-up fight with them. Your only weapons are going to be your words and your wits.” Madeline nodded. "And lastly, the rarest of the groups are the Supernal," Levi continued. "It’s highly unlikely that you will ever come across any. The powers these beings display caused them to be worshipped by humans at some point, and in some cases they still are. They are found in every culture. Demon, angels, gods, demigods, and they go by many different titles. Unfortunately, I don't have any advice to give you about them, only that they do exist, and don’t piss them off." “Have you ever come across an actual angel? Or demon for that matter?” “I came across a demon once, a very long time ago. It massacred a camp of about fifty nomads in Mongolia. Didn’t eat them or anything just killed them all and left their bodies in the dirt.” “What did you do?” Madeline asked, blue eyes wide. “I ran,” Levi answered, taking the last few bites of his fruit and bread and letting the information sink in. “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. She’d never been in his room, and was surprised that it was at least twice the size of hers. The floor was a warm and comforting oak hardwood, surrounded by paneled walls reminiscent of shoji screens. In the center of the room was a low king-sized bed which appeared to be a futon resting on a wooden platform, and at the far end of the room next to his closet was a staircase that ascended to a mysterious second floor. Leading her to his walk-in closet, they stepped past dozens of trendy, neatly hanging shirts and trousers. The closest was huge, so large in fact that it felt like a small men’s boutique instead of a personal closet. Before she could digest it all, he stopped in front of a section of women’s clothing. “I’m not even going to ask,” Madeline said dismissively. Who was she to judge? Levi ignored her smart-ass remark, flipping through a number of wooden hangers until he found a suitable dress he knew would fit. “Try this on,” he ordered. He handed her a sleeveless black dress that had lace collar running to a low sweetheart neckline of silk right above the breasts. Starting at the hip, it slowly blended down into a deep red, with the hem ending about mid-thigh. "You expect me to try it on here? Now?" Madeline questioned. "It's not as if I haven't seen you naked before," Levi responded with a smirk. Madeline was having none of it and stood with the dress draped across her crossed arms. "Fine. I'll wait in my room. Let me know when you have it on." Sighing dramatically, Levi walked out of the large closet and waited. Madeline slipped out of her jeans and t-shirt, and unzipped the back of the dress. Stepping into the soft silk, she briefly wondered whose idea it was to make clothes that required assistance. She managed to get zipped up as much as possible, then called out to Levi for help with the rest. Flipping her long red hair over her shoulder, she felt him zip her up with expert ease. "So whose dress is this anyway?" She asked, assessing herself in the floor length mirror at the end of the closet. "Doesn't matter. She has so many dresses she won't notice one gone." The answer didn't leave Madeline feeling very comfortable. She continued to glance at herself in the mirror, noting that the black straps of her bra were well camouflaged by the lace of the dress. The dress itself was a snug fit, but not too tight, and it showed off her curves in a flattering way. “You’ll wear that,” Levi decided without consulting Madeline any further. She opened her mouth to protest, but he continued speaking almost immediately, so she wasn’t able to get a word in. “We have about ten hours until it’s fashionable to arrive, so do what you need to do.” “So, is there anything I’m supposed to do tonight? Specifically?” she asked. “Not make a fool out of yourself?” Levi replied. “I’m fucking serious.” “So am I.” ------------------------------------------------------- Madeline never remembered ever taking this long to get ready for anything in her life. She’d done a few other things during the day, like ordering groceries online, and doing a few intro lessons on the Japanese language program Levi installed on her laptop, but it was mainly focused on getting ready for the evening’s activities. After showering for the second time that day, and getting carefully dressed, she applied, and then reapplied her makeup probably half a dozen times before she was satisfied. Settling on a dark, smokey shadow matched with winged black eyeliner, she also chose a deep crimson lipstick. Seeing herself, all made up in the mirror, made Madeline feel way overdone and overdressed. She rarely went to nightclubs, mainly because she didn’t have the money to buy the clothes or to get in. And getting time off from work cost her money too, so the whole fashion thing didn’t come easy. After first putting her hair up, she decided she didn’t like the look, so she had worked her red curls into sexy waves which rested against her back and over her shoulders. She also borrowed a pair of strappy kitten heels from the mystery woman and hoped her feet would forgive her. There was a rapping at her door as Levi knocked with the back of his hand. “Time to go,” he called from the other side. Taking one last look in the mirror, she was about as pleased with her work as she was going to get. Opening the door, she nearly choked as she laid eyes on Levi. He was wearing tight black leather pants with black combat boots. A blood-red, silk shirt hung on his body loosely, unbuttoned halfway down. Around his neck was a couple of long silver and black chains, along with a choker displaying a single intricate silver charm. His black hair was styled perfectly straight and parted off-center so that the sweep of his bangs almost covered his right eye, and not a strand was out of place. “I take it you like?” he said, tilting his head to the side and licking his lips subtly before giving her a cocky smile. “S...sure,” she replied, trying to not act like an idiot. He was hot. She got that. He was also somewhat of a dick. She got that too. “Our cab is waiting downstairs.” Madeline went over in her head anything she might have forgotten to do and realized she didn’t have a small purse to bring. Reaching for her normal purse, Levi stopped her immediately. “What are you doing?” he asked, grabbing her wrist. “You’re absolutely not bringing that thing.” “Well, what do you propose I do then? Put my ID in my bra, or my panties?” Madeline fired back. “I am proposing you don’t bring a purse at all,” Levi responded. “You don’t need one. No one is going to card you, and you’re not going to have to pay for your own drinks. So just leave it.” Taking her hand, Levi led her out of the room and to the front door where he locked it behind them. Entering the elevator, he let go of her hand. “Just remember not to embarrass me,” he said under his breath. “I didn’t pick the colors of my clothes on a whim. I’m matching yours as a precaution, and I do have a reputation to uphold.” “I’ll remember that,” she answered, crossing her arms sharply. “No one will go out of their way to harm you there,” he continued as the elevator was about to arrive at the ground floor. “I want to see how you get a feel for people. That’s also a big part of what I do.” Silent, Madeline nodded. “You look lovely by the way,” he added. Ignoring him, she strutted out of the elevator ahead of him and towards the taxi. Not waiting, she let the driver open the door for her so she could slide into the backseat. After Levi joined her, they rode to the club in silence. She was irritated, but she was going to do her best not to show it when they got to the club. From what she knew of the Golden Lotus, it was a newer, upscale nightclub. Their security was impeccable. You never saw anything on the news about any disturbances or altercations of any sort. The cover-charge was insane, and there were very few pictures on the internet of what the inside looked like, other than what was on the club’s official website. As the car pulled up to the front of the club, a doorman opened the door, allowing Levi to step out. Graciously, he offered his hand to Madeline, helping her out of the backseat. She took his arm as they approached the front of the line where a relatively underwhelming bouncer stood guard. She could feel Levi’s taunt arm muscles from beneath the thin fabric of his crimson shirt, and the sensation thrilled her. Sensing this, Levi chuckled. Madeline wondered what was he laughing at. She glanced up and down the line of guests waiting to get in, and didn’t see anything funny. Shrugging it off, she approached the bouncer at Levi’s side. The rather thin bouncer took one look at the silver charm on the choker around Levi’s neck and waved them both through. Madeline took notice. “Is that a V.I.P. badge or something?” she asked, referring to his charm. “Something like that,” Levi replied without disclosing anything further. As they passed through the entryway, they entered a small, dimly lit hall with bronze covered walls and amber-colored running lights along the baseboards. A heavy bass beat grew louder the further in they walked. As the hall veered sharply to the left, they arrived at a podium attended by the twin of the bouncer outside. Without even glancing at Levi’s necklace, this man waved the pair through immediately. The end of the hallway opened up to the large main room where the bronze theme continued; only there was now the addition of jade tiles running waist high as well. To the right, partitioned off with golden pillars, were rows of black booths with high, clam-shell like backs and golden cocktail tables. Along the far right wall of the club stretched a bar of polished bronze under-lit with golden lighting. To their left was a large dance floor flanked with groups of low-back chairs, surrounding even more golden cocktail tables. And in front of them, at the far end of the room, was a stage with the curtain drawn. To the left of the stage was a DJ booth, where a fashionably street-clothed young man with a short, shaggy black haircut bobbed his head along with the beats he was rolling out. And it was packed. Levi looked past the crowd to a private booth to the immediate right of the stage. Seeing it was unoccupied, he started to guide Madeline to the dance floor. “We’re going to dance?” She asked coyly. “Maseo isn’t here yet, so we might as well kill some time,” Levi replied. “Why, can’t you dance?” “I can dance just fine, thank you,” Madeline responded coldly. “Can you?” Levi snickered in response. She wasn’t sure what to expect. She loved to dance, however past dates either refused completely, or they thought they could dance and ended up moving like a drunken bear on its hind legs. Begrudgingly, she followed Levi to the dance floor and weaved through the other dancers moving with the heavy beats. Her first clue that things were going to be different was that Levi leisurely rested his left forearm on her right shoulder, and placed his right hand on her hip. In this position, he could guide the sway of her hips to match his, and the weight of his forearm kept her captive. Madeline didn’t know where to put her hands at first. She couldn’t put them around his neck because his left arm was in the way, so she resorted to mirroring him, which meant she had to touch his waist with her right hand. As in touch touch him, and feel his body move under her palm and fingertips. His pants rested lower on his hips than she’d expected, and raising his arm to her shoulder shortened the length of his shirt. So while most of her hand was touching the leather of his pants, her thumb and index finger were resting on bare skin right above his belt. And his rhythm was lecherous. The snake-like way he swayed under her touch was bringing heat to her face as her imagination dropped to the gutter. She could feel eyes on them, or rather eyes on Levi, as most of the females within sight were stealing hungry glances. Oh hell no… She did mention to him she knew how to dance. She would not be dismissed as some random dance partner. Closing her eyes, she focused on the pumping rhythm that was shaking the floor. She let every note into her blood, letting the melody move her upper body while the back-beat flowed through her lower body. When she opened her eyes again, she was rolling her body perfectly in sync with Levi’s. And she could feel eyes on her now. Even Levi’s. The multicolored lights spinning overhead played tricks with the shimmer of his eyes as his gaze pierced her, analyzed her, but she didn’t stop. She wanted to prove to him she could be just as sexy. Levi immediately noticed the increased potency of her delicious emotion. If it was a game of who could be better, he was going to show her the full ability of who she was playing with. Flashing her a wicked grin, he licked his upper lip, hungrily accepting the challenge. Madeline felt his eyes now undressing her in such a way that parts of her body were tingling with anticipation. To make matters worse, he removed the hand that was resting on her hip and used it to unfasten the remaining buttons on his shirt so that his chest was now mostly exposed. Placing his hand back on her hip, he moved her just close enough that the movements of their dancing caused their bodies to brush against each other ever so slightly. She was acutely aware that the only thing separating his bare chest from hers was a thin layer of silk and lace, and it took every ounce of stubbornness Madeline had to keep the uncomfortable distance. Fighting to distract herself, she forced her eyes to wander around the crowd behind him. She didn't dare look him in the eyes right now. Over Levi’s shoulder, Madeline could see the crowd parting as if to let someone important through. Still moving her body without missing a beat, she continued to gaze in that direction, curiously wondering who was coming. It was a man about her height, with the most beautiful black hair. Slick, long, ebony hair that hung down to his waist. He wore a sleeveless, persimmon-orange, maple leaf-patterned, kimono-like shirt that wrapped around his slim torso, falling mid-thigh to his black pants. Despite his thin frame and slight build, he had an aura of power around him that was almost tangible. The closer he came, the more Madeline realized the kimono style wasn’t just for show, his flawless Asian features were perfect and poreless. Approaching Levi from behind, he tapped the shapeshifter on the shoulder. If Levi had been startled, he didn’t show it. Stepping off to the side, Levi made it clear this person was going to be her new dance partner. Unsure how to carry herself now, she let this stranger guide her. In contrast to Levi’s method of placing his hands a bit inappropriately, this man placed his right hand more traditionally on the middle of her upper back, while his free hand took her right hand gently. Although he brought her in close, their bodies did not touch, and compared to Levi’s pelvic gyrating, this man held himself properly, nothing obscene in his movements at all. In fact, even thinking about dancing dirty with this man made Madeline feel quite embarrassed. She stole a quick look at Levi out of the corner of her eye to see what he was doing. He was dancing with another girl who had promptly dumped her partner for him, but his eyes were still on Madeline. It wasn’t a look of playful inhibition anymore, just unreadable observation. At that point, the gentleman dancing with her leaned his head forward and began to whisper into her ear. It was a throaty whisper in another language, and although she didn’t understand a word of it, the way they vibrated in her head made her blush. Before the song blended into the next, the man was leading Madeline off the dance floor and towards the high-backed booth to the right of the stage in the reserved area. Levi followed silently behind them. Sliding into the booth first, he released Madeline’s hand so she could scoot into the seat, and Levi slid in behind her. “Madeline, this is Maseo,” Levi introduced, fingers moving to button his shirt back up. “Levi, you need to stop being so salacious,” Maseo scolded with a bright smile. “This is a public place.” “You’ll have to forgive him,” Maseo now turned to Madeline, watching as Levi finished primping. “Some shapeshifters are predatory, and they can’t help their own triggers sometimes.” “Predatory?” Madeline questioned. “Just what is he after?” “He feeds on the emotion of Desire,” Maseo elaborated, causing a light to go off in Madeline’s head. It all made sense to her now. The teasing. The atmosphere at the condo being so sexually charged. She understood now how their arrangement was, as he put it last night, a “mutually beneficial situation”. “Really, Maseo?” Levi glared in disbelief. “Telling her that was not your decision to make.” “She does deserve to know, though,” Maseo said in his defense. “Being upfront is a good way to see if you can trust her, and if not, it’s not like you can’t dispose of her. Not to mention, it’s not as if it isn’t common knowledge.” Levi sneered and then turned his attention to Madeline. “And just so we’re clear,” he said to her, “Desire is not to be confused with Gratification, and it doesn’t even have to be Desire directed towards me. Maseo makes it sound like I’m an incubus.” Madeline didn’t even bother to ask why he didn’t tell her. It was obvious that even though he rescued her, and was now stuck with her for the time being, he was under no obligation to confide in her. Especially with that sort of information. But it did make sense. He offered her a safe haven, and she fed him, as weird as it sounded. “I get it,” Madeline said understandingly with a wave of her hand, trying the dismiss the topic from the rest of the conversation. “ ‘No such thing as a free lunch,’ and all that crap. You don’t have to go into it any further.” “Soooo, not performing tonight?” Levi asked Maseo, changing the subject. “Not tonight,” Maseo answered. “Although Michael couldn’t stop himself from playing DJ, which means Gwen is floating around here somewhere too. I thought it would be nice to hang out without interruptions. Can I get either of you anything to drink?” “Sure,” Levi answered. Maseo signaled for a waitress and ordered sake for Levi. “And what would you like, my dear?” “A white russian would be fine, thank you,” Madeline replied. Maseo added that to the order and also some finger foods. “So this is Madeline….” Maseo mused, looking her over with inquisitive bronze eyes. “I heard about your little adventure. How odd.” “We’re still trying to figure out the ‘why’ part. Anything you can glean off her?” Levi asked. Madeline sat up straight, proper and hopeful. “Well, I don’t see anything unusual about that gem,” he replied as he stared at it from a distance. “As you suspected already, it’s not a gate key.” “A gate key?” Madeline asked. “You haven’t explained anything to her yet, have you?” Maseo asked Levi, surprised. “Haven’t gotten that far yet. Not sure if I wanted to.” “Considering her situation, you should,” Maseo urged. “And like I said, if she’s not what she appears to be, you can always get rid of her.” Maseo then turned to face Madeline apologetically. “No offense dear.” “No worries, I wouldn’t trust me either given the circumstances.” “A gate key is usually a charm that allows members of important families to use their family’s gate,” Maseo elaborated. “I have one, and so does Levi. I suppose you could consider a gate as somewhat of a special portal.” Maseo grabbed onto a circular charm which hung around his neck. Framed within a silver circle were three smaller circles of equal size. Two at the bottom supported the one at the top in somewhat of a triangular shape, all three joined to the larger outer circle frame, but barely touched each other. He lifted it to show Madeline, prompting Levi to lift his as well, although not as enthusiastically. “Getting back on track, anything else you can tell about her?” Levi continued the conversation, wanting to change the subject. “Not without tasting her,” Maseo replied playfully. Was Maseo a werewolf? Madeline could feel her wonder begin to reflect on her face and repressed it as quickly as she could. She went over in her mind what Levi had told her earlier and compared it to what she knew. Maseo certainly didn’t seem like a shapeshifter. He didn’t appear to have any animal characteristics, but she had met him a whole fifteen minutes ago, so it was hard to tell. His skin was a warm, healthy color too, so he couldn’t be undead. Maybe he was a fae? But fae didn’t consume people. As if he was reading her mind, he smiled at her and let her stare all she wished. After a considerable amount of time had passed, and seeing that she was still stumped, he leaned over and whispered into her ear. “I’m a vampire.” Just then, their drinks arrived, along with a variety of small dishes. Madeline immediately went for her white russian and took a few deep gulps, but she didn’t allow the shock of Maseo’s words show on her face. What she didn’t understand was how he managed to look so healthy. Was he a really old vampire? That was the only logical explanation. Ha ha, she laughed to herself. Logical. “So yes, I could taste you and see if there is anything unusual.” She weighed the risk. In such a public place, she was fairly certain nothing scary was going to happen to her. Surely nothing that would put her in danger. She didn’t fully trust Levi yet but didn’t think he would let her get drained by a vampire. At least she hoped he wouldn't. After a few more seconds of contemplation, she made up her mind. “Why the hell not,” Madeline replied. “Nothing weird has happened yet today. I was beginning to feel like something was wrong.” Maseo smiled, amused by her words. Levi rolled his eyes. “I’ll just need your hand then,” Maseo said, holding out his own hand for her to rest her's in. Madeline took another gulp of her drink and laid her hand palm up on top of Maseo’s, surprised it was so warm. Reaching into a pocket hidden within his shirt, he retrieved a small, silver lancet. “LEVI!!!” The shrill voice caused Madeline to jump in her seat, and Levi to squint his eyes, cringing as a strange woman draped her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly. “Angelica,” Levi replied with a smile that Madeline could tell was slightly forced. “Perfect timing. What say we dance for a bit?” “Aw, just dancing?” The well-dressed brunette responded disappointedly. “I have plans later that I can’t break,” Levi answered, sounding just as downtrodden as she was. “Unless you don’t want to dance?” “I never said that!” she panicked, causing Levi to smirk. Standing, he grabbed her hand and led her to the dance floor, their bodies disappearing into the sea of dancers. “Does that happen a lot?” Madeline asked Maseo as he brought the lancet to the side of her index finger. “You mean Levi with women? Yes, although I think this time it was more because of this...” With a sharp prick, a drop of Madeline’s blood swelled in the spot Maseo lanced. He squeezed her finger twice to get a beautiful, deep red collection. Gently, he brought her finger to his mouth and kissed the crimson so that her blood stained his lips. Partially closing his mouth, he drew air through his lips to get the full effect of the blood, much like a sommelier would do with wine. He then licked his lips to taste it. “Well, you’re B-,” he surmised. "Although there is something that bothers me…” “What?” Madeline asked, impatiently. She had to admit it was pretty amazing he could tell her blood type by taste, but she was anxious to know what the more critical revelation was. “You seem to have the right amount of platelets, but I can’t taste some of them,” he answered. “I’m not sure if that means anything or not, but I’ve never come across it before, and I would dare say I am quite the epicurean. But you should eat some of those lettuce wraps before they get cold. I hear they are amazing.” It was Madeline’s turn to laugh now. The way he casually slipped from one topic to another was strangely comforting. She grabbed one of the lettuce wraps and devoured it. “Yep, they are good,” she replied. “Levi told me you can’t eat or drink regular food.” “I haven’t been able to for a very long time. I can remember what sake tastes like though, and rice. Not much else though. And I have no idea what fast food tastes like. It was before my time.” “Levi would say you’re not missing out on anything there,” Madeline laughed as she finished off her drink. “Ah, so you’re already aware of his particular dietary choices,” Maseo chuckled, flagging down a waitress to order Madeline another drink. “So how did you and Levi meet?” she asked, taking another bite. “I prefer not to answer that,” Maseo replied with a kind smile, much to her disappointment. “How old are you?” “I also prefer not to answer that.” “You aren’t easy to interview,” Madeline said sternly but continued to ask away. She also continued to drink, and Maseo continued to order her more. After four white russians, she wasn’t holding back on any questions. “What’s Levi, exactly,” she asked slurring her words. “He’s a shapeshifter, dear,” Maseo replied. “Yeah, but what kind?” “That is something that can only be deduced by you, or revealed by him, so I can’t tell you that,” Maseo replied, amused by how cute Madeline was when she was tipsy and surprised Levi hadn’t come to collect her yet. He didn’t see his friend on the dance floor anymore either, and only assumed he had escaped somewhere with Angelica for something nefarious. “I will give you a hint though,” he leaned in closer to her. “Please!” “His hips.” “Hips?” Madeline asked, confused. “What the fuck is that suppose to mean?” “Doesn’t he seem to move his hips a lot?” Maseo continued playing the game. “Fuck yeah!” Madeline continued rambling, “Sometimes he walks like a fucking girl… He’s not gay, is he? Because that would suck!” Maseo had to cover his mouth with his hand to hide the fact he was laughing so hard. It was a dated Japanese reaction to hide an open laughing mouth to prevent coming across as a western barbarian. The last time he’d had to do that, he’d covered his mouth with a fan. “You have quite the filthy mouth, my dear.” “I’ve been told that.” “I bet you have,” Maseo continued, still covering his mouth. “But to answer your question, no, he isn’t gay.” “Thank God,” Madeline exclaimed dramatically as she tossed both her hands up in a sign of relief. “I take it you’ve fallen for him?” Maseo asked, his expression serious for a moment, but Madeline didn’t catch it. “Hell no. He’ll be begging me. Begging I tell ya!” Madeline pounded a clumsy fist on the table for emphasis, causing Maseo to break out into a fit of laughter just as Levi came back to the table, thankfully without Angelica. “SHHHHHhhhh… there he is…” she mumbled in Maseo’s direction. Taking one look at Madeline and then at Maseo, Levi literally plopped down into the booth and face-palmed. “Maseo… why did you let her drink so much?” he asked, exasperated. “She was thirsty?” “Yeah,” Madeline added enthusiastically. “She’s quite entertaining,” Maseo chuckled. “Yeah… wait… what the fuck is that suppose to m …” Levi put his hand over Madeline’s mouth, cutting short her developing tirade towards Maseo. “She’s going to be quite a handful, Levi,” Maseo warned. “My instincts tell me she’s a good person, but there’s something dangerous about this whole situation. You sure about what you’re doing?” “It’ll be fine,” Levi replied. “Find anything?” “Her platelets are… odd,” Maseo revealed. “Count seems normal, but most of them have no taste. None. I’ve never come across that.” “I should take her home,” Levi sighed as he looked at Madeline’s elegantly wasted state, releasing his palm from her mouth. “She’s a mess. Thanks, Maseo.” “Anytime” Maseo smiled innocently as if nothing has happened. “I assume you’re coming to the holiday party?” “Yeah, I’ll be here. You might as well give me a sponsor pass for Madeline. I’m guessing nothing is going to resolve itself before then.” “I figured as much,” Maseo said, reaching into the same inner pocket he pulled the lancet from earlier. He retrieved a silver medallion and tossed it to Levi. “Just write your crest on it and see that she wears it. Oh, and have a good night.” “Whatever,” Levi muttered under his breath as he stuffed the medallion in his front pant pocket before offering Madeline his hand to help her out of the booth. She slid out okay but was a bit wobbly on her feet once she stood. Nothing that would have caused a scene, but Levi held out his arm for her to take, which was a gentleman’s way of saying 'let me help you so you don’t fall’. She accepted it but was trying to stare at his waist for some reason, which made walking next to her a bit difficult. About halfway to the exit, Levi had to yank her arm to get her to focus her gaze ahead toward where they were walking, instead of on his hips, oblivious to Maseo chuckling behind him. The cold night air helped clear her head a little bit, but she still had some trouble getting into the taxi with Levi. She stayed silent for the duration of the drive back to the condo and also in the half minute ride up the elevator. When she stepped into the living room, she turned to face Levi, eyes glazed over and sleepy. “Sorry I drank so much,” she attempted to apologize as she walked backward toward her room, still unsteady on her feet. “It’s not entirely your fault. Maseo is an enabler of sorts. He used to work at a host club in Japan years ago, so keeping the drinks coming is second nature to him. Or at least that will be the excuse he’ll use when I yell at him tomorrow.” “And about you feeding on desire…” “What about it?” Levi asked suspiciously. From personal experience, this was usually followed by ‘why do you need to feed on other girls when you have me,’ or ‘I consider that cheating, so you have to stop.’ A couple of times it was even ‘you’re a pervert!’ with a slap to the face. That was why he didn’t date. “It’s no biggie,” she said with half closed eyes. “It’s not like you hurt anybody.” Spinning around, she almost fell as she stepped into her room and closed the door. To be honest, there was a part of her that was jealous, though she had no right to be. Imagining him enticing desire in girls like Angelica caused a twist of uneasiness in her stomach. Or was that the white russians? She wasn’t sure at this point. Clumsily unstrapping her heals, she fumbled with the zipper on the dress and managed to get it off on her own. Wiggling out of it, she let it slip to the carpet and stepped out of it moments before collapsing into bed.
  21. It's taken many months to get situated after the whole drupal fiasco, but chapter content has finally been uploaded. And since I was going through each chapter anyway, I ran them all through an editor and re-wrote a few details. I've still got to get part one of the band's side story added, Caslon's art, and a few other things, but I am motivated! The home front has been busy as usual with work and commuting, but nothing too exciting (knocks on wood!). The best thing is that our furbaby is still with us, getting into trouble, being silly, and just doing what dogs do. We've been blessed to have all this extra time with her, and if fate allows, will have even more. I hope everyone's having a great summer so far. Don't forget to take some time out to pamper yourselves. You deserve it!
  22. Chapter Two The Perfect Answer Warmth. She didn’t want to open her eyes and extinguish it. It took Madeline only moments to realize she wasn’t in her own bed. The king-sized plush pillow-top cradled her body, allowing her to sprawl out endlessly compared to the small twin bed she was used to at home. Soft sheets draped between her and the thick, but lightweight, duvet. Truth be told, she felt like a child who’d been tucked into bed, back in the days when everything was right with the world. But that wasn’t reality. Body bolting upright, her eyes adjusted to the light and she began to take in her surroundings. At first, she couldn’t tell if it was a bedroom or a hotel room, everything was all so clean, and the decor was perfectly coordinated in a warm palette of wood browns and wine reds. She glanced at the door. It was a simple, white wooden door with a conventional brushed nickel interior knob. Definitely a bedroom door. The soft light filtering in through the gauzy beige curtain announced it was daytime, perhaps midday. Meooooow… Startled by the sudden noise, Madeline yanked the covers up to her neck with both hands. It was at that point she realized she was naked under the sheets. Gone was the dirt and grease from the floor of the shipping container, and her whole body smelled of floral soap. Her long, paprika-red hair had been carefully brushed, and there were even a few meticulously placed band-aids on her sore feet. Did he do this? She began to feel very violated, and very angry. Cheeks burning red, she wondered how she’d managed to remain unconscious throughout the whole thing, blaming it on her exhaustion. What kind of a man does something like that? Instinctively, she reached up and wrapped her fingers around the oval pendant that hung from a silver chain around her neck. Given to her by her late grandmother, it used to belong to her mother. Madeline didn’t remember too much about her mother, who passed away when she was only four years old, but the pendant was her only memento. It was a harlequin black opal, and she only took it off to shower. She let out a sigh of relief. She would have been devastated had it gone missing. After a few moments of silent reflection, Madeline drew the courage to find out if she was alone or not. “Hello..?” Madeline called out timidly. The only response was the purring of the cat curled up next to her, and the sound of a shower running in the distance. “Hello…?!” She repeated, this time a bit louder and more confident. The cat stood, its paws sinking into the duvet, and leaned its body against her waist, eyes closed as it pushed its head demandingly against her to be stroked. “You’re a friendly one,” she responded, raking her fingertips through the soft, black fur. Suddenly, Madeline’s stomach growled. So hungry. She glanced around the room again and noticed a simple, yet pretty, floral-patterned sundress draped over a clothes valet in the corner near the window. Her sundress. From her apartment. Apprehensively at first, she slipped off the king-size bed and then rushed towards the dress. Folded neatly underneath it were a bra and panties. Also taken from her apartment. She wasn’t sure whether or not she should be grateful or furious at this point. Getting dressed as quickly as possible, she walked to the bedroom door and placed her ear against it. The carpet was fluffy and thick, but even that didn’t ease the tenderness of her feet as she stood silently. Listening, she could still only hear the sound of running water. Hand lightly on the doorknob, she looked down at the cat who was now seated on the floor to her left, flicking its tail and looking up at her as if she was crazy. Holding her breath, she cautiously turned the knob and opened the door toward her. Outside the bedroom, as to be expected, was a hallway. With every mindful step she took forward, she could feel the dull pain on the bottoms of her feet. Between the floor of the shipping container, and running over who knows what on the asphalt last night, she couldn’t say she was surprised. The black cat darted past her down the hallway, taking a sharp right. Following it, Madeline ended up in the kitchen. It was modern and spotless, with lavish oak cabinets and stainless steel appliances. The hardwood floor further reminded Madeline of her aching feet, but she bared with it and pressed on. It felt a bit intrusive opening the refrigerator to look for something to eat, but she was starving. Besides, whoever lived here must realize she would be famished. To her surprise, she found the refrigerator just about barren. There was a half a dozen eggs, a carton of orange juice, some ham, and a quart of half-and-half. Going through the cabinets and drawers, she found those pretty much empty as well. Luckily, she found some white dinnerware, a trio of glasses, a skillet, and some flatware. She managed to crack a few eggs into the skillet and cooked them along with some of ham she diced up. She was so focused on frying, stirring, and the delicious aroma rising from the pan, that she didn’t notice the figure that had sat himself down casually atop the onyx countertop at the other end of the kitchen. “You cook? Nice.” She nearly knocked the pan off the stovetop with her startled convulsion. The man who had rescued her last night sat with one leg propped up on the counter as he leaned against the backsplash, sipping from a nearly empty bottled water. He was wearing grey sweatpants and a white sleeveless t-shirt, and his black hair was still wet from being freshly shampooed. Madeline was surprised that his eyes were still the same shade of green as the night before. As odd as it seemed, perhaps they weren’t contact lenses after all. He appeared to be in his late 20’s, although sitting on the counter made him seem less mature. “I’m sorry,” she managed to form the words after gathering her composure, “I'm famished. I didn’t mean to…” “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure you weren't fed well,” he said taking a final gulp from the plastic bottle. “And you’ve been out for almost two days.” Two days? She thought it was just last night. Which meant that over the past week or so she’d been given maybe a dozen cold cheeseburgers? And some of those had been partially eaten. “Th...thank you.” She looked down at the pan once more, making a few final stirs before guiding it out onto the plate she had set on the counter next to the stove. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see him hop off the countertop, toss the empty bottle into a recycling bin in the corner, and then slink over to the drawer right next to her. He had this very fluid way of moving that was both agile and a touch feminine. Her heart began pounding as he pulled the drawer open and took out a couple of forks. Handing one to her, he helped himself to a few bites of what she had just prepared. “You’re pretty good at whipping up stuff up, huh?” He asked after savoring the warm flavor of the eggs. “You don’t cook?” Madeline responded, trying to make conversation to steady her nerves. “Not at all.” “But you have food in the fridge. Things that can spoil.” “Sometimes I have guests over,” he said, lowering his voice seductively, “They cook.” She began to tremble and found herself suddenly backing away. She knew she was still emotionally fragile from her captivity, and this was... 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?” She nodded slowly. So that confirmed it. It wasn’t hallucinogens or anything of that nature. What she saw was real. He took a step forward, putting himself back into her immediate proximity, and brushed his fingertips through her long red hair as if assessing it. “Normally I don’t retrieve living things, but in this case, I’ve made an exception.” He could feel her pulse quicken at his unwanted contact, but it was not wholly driven by fear. There was a considerable amount of desire interwoven with it, and he was quite surprised at its richness, despite the fact she was fighting to hold it back. It was like a dense, nectarous syrup, and he could only imagine how satisfying it would be at full fruition. Madeline backed away even further this time, feeling her hair tug from his grasp. He was too close. Who was this person and why was he so forward? She took another small step backward, stuttering through her next sentence. “Did you..? When I was asleep, did you…?” “Do anything inappropriate?” He responded calmly, finishing her sentence and letting his hand fall to rest casually on his hip. “No. I sponged the dirt off of you, took care of your cuts, and brushed out the knots in your hair. Couldn’t have you getting my guest bed all filthy. I also managed to bring over some of your things from your apartment, so you’d feel more at home.” She exhaled softly, relieved. “It takes a lot more than handling an unconscious, nude human body to get me excited.” The last remark did not go over well. He watched Madeline’s expression sour, returning it with the same amused smirk he had given her at the warehouse. Before responding to him with a smart-ass comment of her own, she reminded herself once again that she was still mentally and physically exhausted. She had just been told fairies were real, and there was still psychological damage undoubtedly making her vulnerable right now, as well as keeping her from thinking clearly. “So you… you retrieve things?” she said, desperately trying to change the subject. He walked over to one of the sleek, stainless steel canisters which sat on the counter and popped it open. The aroma of roasted coffee beans drifted through the kitchen. “Yes, and there are some things I need to explain to you, so do you mind if I make us some coffee? I know it’s the middle of the day and all, but I can’t seem to have scrambled eggs without having coffee.” “Sure,” Madeline replied. To be honest, coffee sounded perfect at the moment. He scooped the roasted beans directly into the grinder on the coffee maker, pressed a few buttons, and the small appliance whirred into action. Taking her lightly by the elbow, he guided her out of the kitchen in the direction opposite from which she entered, past the living room and out a sliding glass door to a balcony. It was a high-rise residential building in the city, and from her best guess, they were about six floors up. “Seven.” “Huh?” “We’re seven floors up,” Levi replied. “I could see you mentally counting them.” Fearlessly, he leaned back against the railing and noticed her apprehension. “Are you afraid of heights?” he asked her curiously, tilting his head a bit to the side. “Nope, just gravity” she replied. Her response brought a bright, gorgeous smile to his face. “Well, have a seat,” he grinned, motioning with a sweep of his hand to a small teakwood cafe table and matching chairs. “I’ll go get us that coffee.” He went back inside through the open glass door leaving Madeline alone on the balcony. As she took a seat at the table, she gazed out at the city below and wondered just how many people out there were not what they appeared to be. And of those, how many have hurt people? How many had killed? How much of it was hidden, and for how long? Within a few minutes, Leviticus returned with two cups of hot coffee and the rest of the plated breakfast she had made. Cupping the warm mug in both hands, she took one sip. It was delicious. She could tell it had something to do with the chocolate. It didn’t taste like the typical chocolate syrup used at all the corner coffee shops. It was smoother and more decadent. “This is really good.” Did she actually see a blush there for a moment on his cheeks? He raised a hand to the back of his head and ruffled his hair. “Thanks.” Taking a deep breath, he weighed in his mind just how much to divulge. He had specific instructions on what to tell her but knew that if she was the curious type, she wouldn't be satisfied with just that. “As I was saying earlier,” he began, “I was hired to get you to safety. But before you ask, I can’t tell you by whom. It was part of the agreement, and I don’t break contracts. I retrieve property and return it to its rightful owner, working through a broker. If whoever hires me wants me to know who they are, I’m told through the broker. If not, I get the details of the job and make my own choice whether to accept it or not. I take on other types of jobs as well, as long as they don’t conflict with my personal interests, and I rarely, RARELY, work for humans.” “I take it you’re not human then?” “No. I’m not.” She suspected as much. A typical guy off the street wouldn't have been able to give modern-day fae such an ass-kicking. She was tempted to ask him what he was but figured that might be an insulting question to ask, especially of someone she hardly knew. “So if you can’t tell me who hired you, can you tell me why I was taken in the first place? I keep going over it in my head, and I can’t think of one single thing that would make me important enough to kidnap.” “Well, you’re definitely important enough to somebody that was affluent enough to hire me,” Leviticus responded casually. “I was told to get you to safety and make sure you had that necklace on you. I can tell you that if they went to the trouble of hiring me, this is probably just the beginning of your problems.” “Great” she grumbled, removing one of her hands from the mug of coffee and absentmindedly reaching up to touch her pendant. Rolling it in her fingers, it glittered like a kaleidoscope in the afternoon sunlight. “Those were my explicit instructions. Anything I should know about the necklace?” “It was my mom’s,” her voice became solemn, “She passed away when I was four.” “I’m sorry.” “It’s okay,” she replied, looking down at the mug of coffee. She thought back to her mother. She remembered her long red hair and her bright smile, but little else. At times she wondered if those were actually her own memories or those from a photograph she had. She did remember bits and pieces of the afternoon grandma came to pick her up from daycare instead of mom. This lady she had never met before drove her to a small house that seemed so far away at the time. All her toys were already there, and she was told something awful - mom wasn’t coming home again. Something bad had happened. All Madeline had left were family pictures of mom and a necklace. Grandma had told her that her mother would have wanted her to have it and that it would bring her close to mom’s spirit when she wore it. It was a gorgeous, sparkling opal, and Madeline would stare at it for hours as a child, watching the light dance off the rainbow of colors set in the black stone. She had hardly removed it since. Growing up with grandma had been wonderful. She was kind, helped Madeline through school, taught her to cook and to appreciate music. She also taught Madeline how to be independent and the importance of being strong, both in mind and body. She was a bit eccentric, talking to herself from time to time, or acting like she was talking to a grandpa Madeline never knew, but never anything that made Madeline feel uncomfortable. Then about five years ago, grandma passed away too. Madeline was able to sell her house for enough to pay off the rest of the mortgage and had enough money left over to get herself into an apartment. Levi had done his own research into her family background before accepting the job to rescue her. He didn’t ask Madeline about her dad because there wasn’t a father listed on the birth certificate. Her mom, Elizabeth McCaffery, had been a single mother. The rest of the story pretty much went as Madeline told it. After her mother’s death, her grandmother, Dorothy McCaffery, was granted full custody and raised her granddaughter on her modest pension. Her grandfather, Albert McCaffery, had passed on some twenty years earlier. Levi had searched even deeper into Madeline’s family background hoping to find something that would directly, or indirectly, tie her to the fae, but came up empty. For all intents and purposes, she was a normal, lower-class human girl. However, it was very possible someone had covered up her or her family’s tracks. There had to be something, he just hadn’t found it yet, and that intrigued him. No simple, lower-class human was worth that much money. “I guess you can say the necklace is important to me, but I can’t imagine why it would be important to anyone else unless they wanted to sell it.” Reflecting back on the night she was kidnapped, she remembered how they shoved her down on her bed when she tried to run out of the room. When they grabbed at her necklace, she thought they were going to rape her. A paralyzing chill ran down her spine as she dwelled on that single moment. “They only tried to take it off me once, now that I think about it,” she said, her voice a bit shaky from memory, “When they first broke into my apartment. Then they started to go through my jewelry box. Maybe it’s not this necklace they were looking for. Do you think they will try again?” “Probably. Without knowing why they were so interested in the first place, I can’t even guess if it will be the fae that comes back looking or others.” “Others?” “Vampires, shapeshifters, phantoms... basically if you’ve heard of some sort of monster, they exist in one form or another. Myths always have a basis in truth.” He could tell she was considering all the possible fiction vs. reality situations deeply now, as her gaze was a dozen fables away, and rightfully shaken. His voice softened, hoping to cushion the blow of the reality she was going to have to deal with from this point forward. “Think of it this way - most of the world is dead to what’s going on, draped in blindness, like there's a shroud of gossamer keeping them from seeing what's really there. Everyday things reinforce that blindness. Take the news for example. Or social media. All the trending stories are just distractions. They keep the public fighting and arguing differences of opinions, and redirect any focus from things that are actually important. And the few people who rip away the gossamer, be it by chance or by choice, realize that to survive they have to support the deceit and the distractions. If they don't... well, you know what happens to people spouting nonsense about monsters and conspiracies...” He leaned forward, green eyes locked curiously on the pendant. “May I?” he asked politely. Madeline nodded and set her coffee mug down on the polished, wooden table. He took a seat, dragging it right up to Madeline. He was so close she could once again smell the exotic, woodsy scent she first encountered the night she clung to his back on the motorcycle. Carefully, with his index finger and thumb, he lifted the pendant so expertly off her skin that she didn’t even feel his touch. He stared at it intensely and rubbed it between his fingers to catch the light at different angles, completely ignoring the increased rate of Madeline’s heartbeat. It warmed to the friction of his touch, which he expected, but he couldn’t detect anything unusual about it from this rudimentary inspection. It appeared to be a genuine black opal, with a multi-colored, diamond pattern blazing with depth and clarity. It had none of the characteristics he was specifically looking for, which would have flagged it as something more than just a precious stone. He could mess with it further, but that would require her to remove it and give it to him for a bit of undisturbed study, which he wasn’t in much of a mood to do. “Sorry, but I don’t see anything other than a fine quality black opal.” He let it slip from his fingers and fall back against her skin a few inches under the base of her throat. It felt very warm when it landed, but it soon cooled back down to her own body temperature to the point that she could no longer feel its presence. “Do you remember anything else while they had you?” Levi continued. “Anything they might have said, or anyone that came to see them?” Levi already knew they were petty thugs as far as fae went, so it was obvious they were working for someone higher up on the food chain. Madeline thought earnestly, trying to remember their conversations. They talked about beer, and they argued over their card game and if someone had been cheating. And then there was that one phone call. “They did take a few phone calls while I was there. That one guy did. The one I strangled,” she said, smiling briefly in between bites of egg. “I think it was the second day I was there. He made a call to someone and then told the other guys that there was going to be a delay because something happened in court. Maybe someone got arrested or something?” Levi knew what that meant. Whoever arranged her kidnapping couldn’t move her because of some unexpected activities in the fae court, which confirmed the person behind this was probably an actual courtier. Beneficial to them was the fact that it was against court policy to kidnap humans, so whoever was behind this was going to lay low for a while. Picking up the coffee cup once again, Madeline took a couple more sips, trying to appear calm on the outside even though she felt she was shaking to pieces on the inside. There was a gentle, late afternoon breeze reminding her how good it felt to be free from her captives, but was her future going to be spent running? And how long could she run? Realistically? If Leviticus hadn’t been there to save her, it’s possible she could be dead right now. She was positively no match for fighting off something like the fae if they wanted to outright kill her. Sensing her troubled mind, Levi rose from his chair and walked around to where she sat. Placing his hands lightly on her shoulders from behind, he tried to reassure her. “Not all the monsters are bad,” he said calmly. “For instance, not all fae are like the ones that kidnapped you. Just like with humans, there are the good and the evil. And someone cared enough to hire me to rescue you. That in itself is a sign that you are not as alone, or defenseless, as you feel right now.” His hands felt warm and relaxing, and despite the path that lay before her now, she felt a little better about it. Then again, she didn’t know if she was trusting of him because she was still in a fragile state of mind, or if he really was a kind person. “What do I do now? I am afraid of going back to my apartment. They know I live there, so it would be stupid of me to go back. I have to disappear, don’t I?” She sounded so sad, and yet so resolved in her decision that Levi wasn’t sure how to respond. She definitely couldn’t go back. It would be too dangerous for her. “Normally, I would have been sent a drop-off location for the objective,” Levi began, “Which is you, in this case. The odd thing is, I haven’t heard a peep from my broker in nearly two days, and that’s unusual.” The last communication with his broker, Syriem, was the night he brought Madeline to his condo. He figured once she was safe, he would get instructions on what to do with her, who to take her to, etc. But there had been no response. That made things troublesome. He couldn’t just kick her out. Stepping away from her, he slowly walked over to the balcony railing and looked out over the city. The caliber of her desire, which was well above her species’ average grade, would be an asset to keep close by. It would be like having his own rechargeable battery if he played his cards right. Not knowing why her emotions were so potent both bothered and fascinated him, and he’d never had a live-in pet before. It might work out, and it might not. Either way, it would only be for as long as it took for the client to claim her. “We can head over to your apartment tomorrow and start the process of getting you off the grid. You can store your stuff here for now,” he said still overlooking the city, with his back to her. “I don’t have my keys though,” she replied, “But I can call the leasing office and have them let us in.” “That’s not going to be necessary,” Levi replied, turning around to face her. “We need the whole process to appear so normal that it’s boring, so we don’t even want your leasing office to know anything other than you’re moving out. Getting into your locked apartment is going to be the easiest part.” Madeline’s blue eyes widened as she put two and two together. “So that’s what you meant by retrieving stuff,” she realized. “You’re a thief.” Levi frowned. “Don’t make it sound so degrading,” he responded, put off by what the word implied. “There are a lot of precious things that get stolen from good people. And more often than not, those good people don’t have any way to get things back on their own without risking their lives. I steal from the greedy and manipulative and return the items to their rightful owners. I don’t steal to fence stuff. Unless someone pisses me off.” Guilt spread across Madeline’s face. “I’m sorry, that was rude of me,” she apologized, looking away. “I didn’t realize.” She paused a moment in thought as she took another long sip of the rich coffee he had made. “That does sound like a rewarding way to live though,” she continued rather quietly. “To be able to give people back what they had stolen from them. To give them back hope. I bet you make a lot of people extremely happy.” “The people I steal from aren’t too happy about it.” “But you can take care of yourself. The way you fought was amazing.” “It’s rarely that heroic.” Madeline gnawed her lower lip, apprehensive about what she was about to ask next. “Could you teach me how to fight? I’m not expecting to be able to be anywhere near as good as you, but I have taken some karate classes, so I know some basics at least, and I’ve been told I’m very good at it. It will increase my chances of survival.” Madeline began to raise her voice nervously. “And in return, I’ll owe you a bunch of favors… I don’t know… maybe help with trivial jobs or be a lookout or something? Please… at least it will give me a better chance to live through this.” There was a very long pause as Levi considered it. In fact, he was surprised at himself for actually even thinking about it at all. He’d never taught anything to anyone before, let alone a human. Still, she was impressive in the warehouse. She didn’t hesitate for a second when it came time to try to get herself out of that cage, even though it meant exposing herself. And she handled the fae pretty fearlessly given the fact she had just found out that whole world even existed. She definitely wasn’t timid, and it might be amusing. To see how far he could push her. To see at what point she would break. He was quite sure she would get discouraged after a few weeks or so and that would be that. Not to mention she was a pretty little thing he would get to play with. “Sure. Why not,” he replied. “It isn’t going to be easy though. And you will owe me many favors.” She brightened up. At least she had something to focus on besides the possible dangers she faced. “You can continue to stay here for now in the guest bedroom,” he began. “Not sure if you noticed, but it has its own full bath. And for the time being, I don’t want you going out on your own. The reason I mention that is because there will be times I'm gone, often for weeks at a time, so I wouldn’t be around to keep an eye on you. Let’s go back inside.” As Madeline stood with her coffee cup in hand, Levi grabbed her plate and stepped through the opened sliding glass door. Motioning for her to have a seat on the couch, he walked into the kitchen to put the tableware in the sink before walking back out to the living room to close the sliding door to the balcony. As he took a seat in the adjacent armchair and propped his bare feet up on the oak coffee table, she couldn’t help but feel his proximity within the walls of the apartment. She internally scolded herself for checking him out at a time like this. Before meeting her gaze, he smiled as if he knew what she was thinking. “I will try to focus my work around this location, so I will be here more often than usual. I’ll leave you some numbers you can call if you need groceries delivered, or something needs to be fixed in the condo while I am out. I’ll cover all costs upfront, so you don’t need to worry about money, but I do expect you to cook for me when I am here.” Madeline nodded. “When I’m here, we’ll be training. When I’m not here, you’ll be studying languages and cultures. The first language you are going to learn is Japanese because it’s my native language. I’ll make some calls to prepare us for tomorrow, and we’ll need to go over the details and develop a scenario.” Suddenly, the cell phone that had been sitting on the coffee table began to ring. Levi could feel Madeline's gaze on his body as he looked down at it and even allowed himself a bite of her desire. “Moshi moshi,” Levi said as he picked up the phone. “Well for the moment, I have her staying here since I don’t have any further instructions. Uh huh. Is that so? It would have been nice to know that going into this one. I guess that all works out in the end since I agreed to take her in…” There was some scolding from the other end of the call, along with something that sounded like a stern warning. Levi just chuckled. “You don’t like the idea of me having an assistant? Don’t get all worked up about it. I think she’ll probably give up early into the process. Or she’ll sleep with me and get her heart broken…” Madeline’s eyes flared. There was a very threatening tone on the other end of the line this time. One that cut Levi out of his joking spirit immediately. All pleasantries left his face, and his voice was now cold and sharp. “And why not?” He listened patiently to the poor lack-of-a-good-excuse but was clearly not a fan of being told what he could and couldn’t do. “If she’s that important to the client, then they need to take responsibility for her. As long as she’s with me, I’m doing things my way. I am not making any promises about anything. Do I make myself clear?” Intimidated, the voice on the other end was quieter. “Yeah, you tell them that.” With a tap to his screen, Levi ended the call and slid his phone back across the table, obviously irritated by the conversation. Madeline sat in shocked silence. Did he just say he expected her to either sleep with him or just give up? Unbelievable! Feeling the sting of anger, she clenched her fists and blurted out a much-censored version of what she was really thinking. “You ASSHOLE!!” She picked up the nearest thing she could get her hands on, which thankfully was not the coffee mug, and hurled a throw pillow as hard as she could towards Levi’s head. He could have easily caught it but instead chose to let it hit him square in the face so she could feel satisfied. She then stormed off into the room he gave her, not seeing the way he smiled at her from behind. That fire, he thought, You need to hold onto that. He got up slowly, realizing he was going to have to make an attempt at apologizing now. He ruffled the hair on the back of his head as he thought about what he was going to say. Walking towards the guest room, he was surprised that she hadn’t slammed the door shut, so he stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame. “Sorry,” he smiled arrogantly, “I had to say those things. My broker was getting on my ass.” Madeline sat on her bed, arms crossed, looking unimpressed at his excuse. “It seems that whoever hired me decided I'm supposed to keep tabs on you now. They have indicated that they won’t be making any contact with you at this time. Which is bullshit in my opinion.” “Why would they send someone to rescue me and then not even let me know why?!” Madeline rose from the bed, throwing her hands up in the air, frustrated. “That IS bullshit!” Levi felt relieved that the other part of the conversation might have blown over quicker than he expected. “But I am still mad about what you said,” she said as she walked up to him, glaring. Okay, maybe not, he thought. “I am NOT going to give up. I PROMISE you that.” “So you’ll sleep with me then?” he asked with a playful grin. It was too easy. Levi couldn’t help himself. She stopped right in front of him so that she was inches from his body. Looking up into his green eyes, she spoke clearly and confidently. “You’ll be begging me.” For a moment Levi was speechless. He definitely wasn’t prepared for that kind of a response. And Madeline found that her actions had deflated her anger, and with it, her resolution. Sometimes she hated her fiery, strong will. This was one of those times. For a few seconds, the two of them stood in uncomfortable silence. Then the door buzzer rang. Neither of them budged or broke eye contact. It rang a second time. “I need to get that,” Levi said matter-of-factly. “I made a dinner order earlier in the day.” Madeline nodded in acceptance, and they both stepped apart at the same time. As she watched him walk down the hall, she couldn’t bring herself to follow him right away. Feeling embarrassed and awkward, she wanted to go hide somewhere. In the distance, she could hear a door opening and a muffled conversation. After the door closed, there was a rustling of paper and the scent of Chinese food drifted toward her room. “You want to eat now, or can I show you the rest of the place first?” Levi yelled from the kitchen. Madeline stepped out from her room, thankful their conversation was traveling in an entirely different direction now. “I guess I could put off eating for a bit,” she responded entering the kitchen just as Levi set the paper bag on the counter. “I didn’t realize there was more to see, but is that food going to be safe out on the counter with your cat around?” “My cat?” Levi responded a bit puzzled. Madeline nodded. “Oh, you mean the cat that was in here earlier,” Levi continued. “It went out the door when the food came.” Shouldn’t they go looking for it? Seeing her reaction, Levi laughed. “It’s fine. The cat lives on this floor and knows his way around.” As he spoke, Levi headed towards a door that Madeline thought might be a pantry. She was not prepared for what was on the other side. Instead of a simple two bedroom apartment, Levi’s place was a loft apartment. Behind the door from the kitchen was a large open space with hardwood floors and minimal natural window lighting. There was a multi-station gym, some balance beams, a punching bag, rock climbing wall, and a Wing Chun wooden practice dummy. At the end of the room was a freight elevator, and parked next to that was the motorcycle they had ridden in on the other night. “This is where we’ll be training,” Levi stated. “You’ll need to raise your stamina, dexterity, and bring your self-defense skills up a lot. I’m not going to be training you in a traditional program, because there are specific ways you need to fight specific attackers. The whole situation boils down to this… the more of my teaching you can absorb, the more your chances of survival increase.” Madeline nodded, still trying to take it all in. “And there will be other types of training as well,” he continued. “I’ll have to teach you to ride, for one. But don’t concern yourself with that right now. First things first, and you’ve already been hit with enough today. How about we eat?” “Sounds good,” she replied as she followed him out and back into the kitchen. They took the bags out to the coffee table, and Madeline took a seat on the floor. Levi indicated he was going to make them some tea and disappeared back into the kitchen for a while. Trying to quell her internal thoughts, she began to remove the take-out cartons from the paper bags as casually as if she had been visiting a friend on a Saturday night. Sitting cross-legged, she rested her elbows on the table and cracked a pair of chopsticks apart. She wasn’t sure what he had ordered but could identify one of the cartons as broccoli and beef. The second one was some kind of chicken, and it had a bit of a citrus smell to it. “Help yourself to whichever,” Levi shouted from the kitchen. “Or if you want, we can eat half and then switch. I don’t really care.” She decided to play it safe and go with what she was familiar with, the broccoli and beef. After taking a couple of bites in the silence of the living room, she heard Levi coming out of the kitchen with a couple of cups of tea. It was green tea served in two beautiful white and blue traditional teacups, each one covered in kanji. He took a seat across from her, also sitting down cross-legged. It became pretty obvious that he took all his meals here at the coffee table. Clasping his hands together, he bowed his head slightly and gave a low whisper. “Itadakimasu.” From the manner of his gestures, it was clear to Madeline this was something private, and not meant for her to respond to or try to involve herself with. She’d seen Japanese people say the same thing before eating, happily, but had no idea what it meant. However, his expression of it seemed very sad. “So about tomorrow…,” Levi said raising the chopsticks to his lips and taking a bite of the lemon chicken, “I want you to think of this as your first job. You will be playing a role. How much is left on your lease?” “About two months,” Madeline replied. “Here is the plan - We’ll head over in the morning and tidy the place up so it doesn’t look like someone broke in, and get your ID, assuming it’s still there.” Madeline nodded. “Keep in mind we’ll need to contact anyone you have an account with. Utility companies, cell phone provider, whatever… so if you need to get account numbers and customer service numbers on that stuff, get it before the movers get there. Then we’ll head to the office to pay off the rest of your lease and arrange for them to do a final walk-through after the movers are done. The story goes, you and I were dating and have gotten serious, so you’re going to move in with me. Your forwarding address will be one of my P.O. boxes. I’ll have the movers scheduled for 10 a.m. We’ll supervise them as they pack and load your stuff onto their truck. After the walk-through is done and signed off on, we’ll follow the movers back here and have them load your stuff onto the service elevator. Then we’ll take it from there.” He calmly went back to eating, as if he does stuff like this every day, leaving Madeline to go over the plan in her head. Was he able to get movers scheduled on such short notice? That wasn’t normal. After a moment of silence, he looked up at her. “Don’t worry. I’ll be there with you. You don’t have to remember any of that on your own. I am, however, expecting you to remember the details of our relationship. We’ve been dating for five months and two weeks, your age, only backward. We met in a coffee shop. Barista got our orders mixed up. You’re moving ‘downtown’. And the bonus answer is ‘the rooftop patio at the Hard Rock last night’.” She was about to ask him how he knew her age, but the bonus thing threw her off. “The bonus what?” Madeline asked. That made no sense. “Just remember all that, and play your part,” he said and then paused to take a few more bites. “I assume you’ve dated before?” Madeline glared in response to Levi's snarky question. “I guess so,” he grinned. “I just want to make it perfectly clear that you are going to have to act like we’re a couple for this. If you can’t pull that off, you might as well give up now. It doesn’t get any easier than this.” He was right. They were going to her place, a location she was extremely familiar with, to move her out. And moving in with a new boyfriend was completely believable. And he was easy on the eyes, so it wasn’t like she had to try hard to pretend they were dating. Not to mention she had something to prove to him. That she was serious about the decision she made. That she wasn’t going to give up, or back down, or give in. She was going to handle this, and handle it well. Suddenly, the doorbell rang. “Excuse me,” Levi said as he stood and went down the hall, out of sight, to the front door. She could hear some friendly banter, so being curious, she stood and went to the door as well. Standing just inside the now closed front door was a very tall, elegant man with wavy, short brown hair and a very chiseled jawline. His golden-brown eyes sparkled inquisitively as Madeline approached, and he removed one hand away from the short-haired calico cat he was holding to offer it to her in a greeting. His clothes were nicely tailored and expensive, which was on par with anyone who could afford to live in the same nice building downtown, but he gave off the impression of being a bit too friendly. “Madeline, this is my neighbor, Caslon,” Levi introduced. “He’s the one with the cat.” “Oh,” Madeline replied, shaking Caslon’s hand politely. Looking down, she noticed the cat he was holding wasn’t the same one as earlier. “How many cats do you have?” she asked, letting out a small laugh. “More than I would like to,” Caslon replied with a French accent and a regretful sort of smile. “Would you like one?” “Um, no,” she said, taking back her hand, “I’m okay without any pets right now.” “So, what’s up?” Levi asked, offering him a seat on the couch. Caslon declined. “Oh, nothing. I heard some noise over here and was just making sure it was you, that’s all.” Caslon assessed Madeline with his eyes, all the while scratching the cat behind the ears. “So, new roommate?” “Something like that,” Levi responded, eyes suddenly narrowing. “She’ll be here for a while and has the run of the place. We are moving her in tomorrow.” “Wow!” Caslon smiled wide-eyed, a bit surprised by the situation. “Wow, what?” Levi asked. Caslon was always sniffing around whenever there was a girl over at Levi’s place, hoping for leftovers, but he was even more annoying this time. probably because this girl was moving in, rather than just staying the night. “So, is this a serious thing then?” He smiled as he prodded. “No,” Levi responded flatly. “Ah.” Caslon then began to undress Madeline with his eyes, with an even bigger grin on his lips this time. “So, um, Madeline,” Caslon continued, “If you need anything, just come over. I’m right next door.” “Elle n’est pas une souris,” Levi interjected before Caslon could pursue with further amorous invitations. “Seriously?” Caslon pouted. “Okay, whatever. You’re no fun.” Madeline was pretty sure that was French, but before she could commit it to memory so that she could look it up later on the internet, Caslon took her hand again. “Well, it was a pleasure meeting you,” he said politely as his thumb lightly caressed her fingers. “I’m sure we’ll see each other around.” “Just go already,” Levi ordered, crossing his arms. Caslon smiled once more at Madeline and then left Levi’s apartment gracefully. “He seems nice, a little too forward though,” Madeline observed out loud. “Is he… ?” Levi purposely ignored her question and just swaggered back to the coffee table. She thought about apologizing, but then figured it would just bring more attention to the awkwardness of the situation. But she got the point, it was rude to ask what someone was when she barely knew them, and that included Levi. The rest of the evening went by uneventfully. They made small-talk while finishing up the Chinese delivery, and then Levi made Madeline another cup of green tea before he went off somewhere to make a few private phone calls. When he came back into the living room, he briefly went over the schedule for tomorrow, and when they would wake up and head out. When she was just about done with her second cup, Levi told her he wanted her to go to her room for the rest of the evening so that she could decompress. He explained that he could tell she was bottling up all the emotions from the past week and it was only going to get worse if she didn’t release them. “Just lock the door, pretend I’m not here, and do what you need to do. I can guarantee you I won’t be eavesdropping. I may sound like I don’t know what I am talking about, and you may think you’re fine, but you’re not. I can smell it all over you.” Madeline was taken aback by his words, a look of shock on her face. She thought she had been doing pretty good and was honestly feeling a bit better until he said that. And he could smell it? Smell what exactly? What was he, a dog? “Fine,” she responded sharply. She stood up and walked to the guest room somewhat defiantly. After locking the door behind her, she leaned her back against it. It would be nice to take a hot bath and get back to a normal sleeping schedule, and she would show him she was just fine. He hadn’t a clue. She set the radio alarm clock to wake her up with plenty of time to get ready for tomorrow, and left her favorite station on loud enough to be heard in the adjoining bathroom. After brushing her hair, she sat on the edge of the tub and turned the faucet on to get the water running. Carefully peeling the bandages off the bottoms of her feet, she began slipping out of her clothes, leaving them in a pile on the white ceramic floor tiles. The cuts on the soles and heels of her feet stung when she first stepped into the hot water, and she quickly sank the rest of her tired body in to relieve the pressure on them. As she stretched out, she noticed two sets of shampoos and conditioners in the recessed shelf within arm’s reach. One was her own cheap brand that Levi must have brought over from her apartment, but the other set? It was in stunning, candy apple red pump bottles, with instructions and ingredients all listed in Japanese on the back. Curious, she unscrewed the top and took a sniff. It didn’t have the same earthy scent that lingered around Levi. In fact, it had a very floral scent, and it was less than half full. Frustrated, she twisted the top back on and set the shampoo bottle down with a thud, sinking a bit deeper into the steamy water. What was she expecting? That someone like him was some sort of white knight? Someone like him. She didn’t even know what he was. So many things she didn’t know, and for being self-sufficient, she now depended on a stranger for a roof over her head, clothes on her back, and her next meal. She wasn’t even certain how long that was going to last. From his phone conversation earlier, the whole arrangement seemed to be temporary. And then what? Was it going to boil down to her bending to his whims to keep from being kicked out on the street, and figuratively to her death? She had basically moved from one prison to another; only this was one she couldn’t escape from. It was going to be hers forever. And she had nothing anymore. Sure, she couldn’t afford much to begin with, but now she truly had nothing but a few toiletries and a couple of changes of clothes that could literally fit in a large shoebox. Grabbing onto her necklace, she slid backward, putting her head underwater. She stayed under for as long as she could hold her breath hoping it would stop the tears she could feel coming. Without his distraction, her mind became busy with an overwhelming amount of doom. Her thoughts suddenly felt like a derailing bullet-train. Screw him for being right. Screw him. Coming up for air, she started sobbing. She splashed the warm water on her face, but it wouldn’t stop the crying. She didn’t want to think about everything she lost, but she couldn't stop. She didn’t even have a reason she could assign the blame to, nothing to look back on and point “there’s what screwed me over”. She’d been on her own for years, but right now she felt the need to be held. She missed grandma. She knew she had to suck it up, but it was easier said than done right now. She would get through this. She would get stronger. She would survive. At the far end of the condo, in the area that was still an open loft, Levi was blasting some rock music while he did chin-ups on a steel bar. The music was so loud he could feel it reverberate in his chest as he repeated his sets over and over again. Even from this far away, her hopelessness was thick in the air. He had a feeling that since the desire she emanated earlier was strong, her raging misery would be unbearably heavy. And he was right. It was salty and sour, and he didn’t want to be anywhere near her right now. He figured he’d do a hard workout to force his focus on getting through double his reps, burning the atmosphere out of his mind. It also cleared his head, allowing him to concentrate on some questions he had been dwelling on in her presence. For a human, the strength of her emotions were well above par. Most of his kind could gain some sustenance on the emotions of others, absorbing them like taking a drag off a cigarette. They could pick which one they wanted, unaffected by the other less desirable ones, with the only drawback being that they couldn't survive off that alone. But not Levi. He absorbed emotion much more efficiently, could heal severe wounds from it, but he couldn’t tune out undesirable ones. His specific kind had emotions they strongly preferred, and therefore had emotions which they strongly detested. They were born that way, and it wasn't something they could develop a taste for later on. The preferences were permanent. After working out for a few more hours, long after hearing the water drain from the guest bathtub, he felt Madeline’s negative emotions finally dissipate. He took a long shower, letting the day’s events sink in and be filed away in the back of his mind. It was this way that he lived with no regrets and nothing shackling him to the past. Afterward, he headed to Madeline’s room with a blanket from the linen closet draped over his arm. Unlocking her door, he silently stepped over to the bed and laid the blanket out over her sleeping body, knowing its extra weight would calm and relax her while she slept. He knew first hand how it felt to lose everything in an instant, but he also knew it was possible to survive and become stronger because of it. From her will and drive, he knew she’d survive it too.
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