“That’s not what I meant,” he cut in hastily. “I’m worried he’ll go after Varvara for payback and we’ll get caught in the crossfire.”
“Oh.” I tugged on a lock of my hair. “I don’t think that will be an issue.”
“Are you sure?” Kai’s brow furrowed. “Why wouldn’t he retaliate?”
“Varvara has a … frightening reputation.”
“Are you saying the Ghost is afraid of her?” Aaron let out a low whistle. “We definitely need a solid game plan before we make a move. We don’t want to mess around with someone the Ghost thinks is scary.”
“How long will that take?” I demanded, pushing away from Aaron so I could face him. “Varvara might be scary, but that’s all the more reason we need to act fast. Why doesn’t anyone care about Nadine?”
“We care about her,” he protested. “But—”
“But what? Why am I the only one who gets the urgency here?” I flung my arms into the air. “That idiot druid is all, ‘Knock yourself out, Tori, but I won’t raise a finger to help even though I’m so powerful I can—’”
I choked on the words, slapping my hands over my mouth. My whole body went ice-cold. Oh god. What had I said? Sitting rigidly on the sofa, I waited for the oath spell to strike me dead.
“Whoa, Tori,” Aaron exclaimed. “Did the Ghost let you go so you could help Nadine?”
“I didn’t say that! I didn’t say anything.” I waved my hands wildly. “You didn’t hear anything. Forget I said that!”
His blue eyes gleamed with intensity as he latched onto my blurted suggestion. “But—”
Ezra’s hand closed around Aaron’s knee. Breaking off, Aaron glanced at his friend and a silent understanding seemed to pass between them.
“The fake parents,” I prompted, changing the subject as my gaze flicked between him and Ezra. “Nadine gave me the impression they weren’t nice people, but they cared enough to search for help. Varvara is their neighbor. They might know more about her, and we can find out how they came to be Nadine’s adoptive parents.”
“We can check Varvara’s home as well.” Kai pulled out his phone. “See if there are any clues about her other hideaways. Let me call them.”
We waited silently as he brought the phone to his ear. “Hello, Mrs. River? This is Kai Yamada … I’m doing well, thank you. Would you and your husband be available this evening to meet with me and my associates? We have a potential new lead to discuss. Yes … Yes, that works. We’ll see you then.”
He disconnected the call. “Eight o’clock. It’s the earliest the husband will be available. He’s working late.”
“Are you sure this is okay?” I asked hesitantly. “Investigating Varvara? Girard and Felix don’t want to do anything about Nadine until I—”
“We’ll worry about them,” Aaron interrupted with a wink. He stifled a yawn. “Not that I don’t want to kick sorceress ass, but I’d been hoping to get some sleep.”
“I’m good to go,” Ezra said lightly. “You can stay home if you want.”
“Yeah, right. Like I’d miss this.”
As they bantered, I leaned back against Aaron’s warm side. Eight o’clock. A few more hours and maybe we would finally have answers. I hated to wait when Nadine had been Varvara’s prisoner for twenty-four hours already, but we didn’t have a choice. She would have to hold on a little longer.
The River family lived in a tidy split-level duplex on a heavily treed street full of cute cottage-style houses. By the time we pulled up in Aaron’s car, the sun hung low in the west, on the verge of slipping below the horizon. Throwing my door open, I climbed out and took a deep breath of cool evening air.
It was so quiet. We were well outside the downtown core and the absence of traffic, honking, shouting, wheezing buses, and the clattering roar of transit trains was just bizarre. Half a block away, a young couple was walking their fancy Schnoodle-doodle-doo designer dog, and hopscotches were drawn on the sidewalk in pink chalk, but other than that, the neighborhood was deserted. Were the suburbs always like this?
The guys piled out of the old sports car, completing our foursome. Weren’t we a strange bunch? Aaron, in jeans with knees torn out, a slightly wrinkled blue t-shirt, and his copper-red hair in a tousle. Kai, in a V-neck shirt, slim-fit jeans, and his dark hair neatly combed back, looking suave and professional. And Ezra, who’d pulled a ball cap over his mess of loose curls, using the brim to hide his mismatched eyes.
Then there was me. Since we were supposed to be private investigators, I’d worn my lone pair of black jeans, a deep purple blouse, and a pair of “just in case I need to flee for my life” runners. My hair was twisted into a bun, and I’d even done my makeup—first time in two weeks. Go me.
Ezra scrutinized the house, then strolled away down the sidewalk, leaving me with Aaron and Kai.
“Where’s he going?” I asked.
“Scouting around,” Kai answered. “He leaves this stuff to us. People tend to stare at him and forget to talk.”
I snorted. “So he has a scar. Big deal. People need to grow up.”
Aaron passed me, heading for the front walk. “The fact you don’t care is one of the reasons he likes you.”
We piled onto the front stoop and Kai knocked. The door opened almost immediately, and a portly older fellow smiled wanly.
“Mr. Yamada,” the man droned. “Thank you for coming.”
I worked to keep my expression neutral. Hearing Kai called Mr. Yamada was just weird.
We filed after Mr. River into a neat living room with faded floral-pattern sofas from the same design era as floral wallpaper trim and curlicued oak end tables with white doilies under the frilly lampshades. The room featured all three.
As we crammed onto the sofa in front of the doily-laden coffee table, Mrs. River inched into the room, carrying a silver tray stacked with a teapot, cups and saucers, and a plate of biscuits.
“Oh,” she murmured, setting the tray down. “Let me fetch another teacup.”
Based on the tea set, her strong English accent shouldn’t have surprised me, though her husband sounded local. She disappeared through a doorway and returned with another cup and saucer. Adding it to the tray, she sat down beside her husband as Kai reintroduced Aaron. He then introduced me with a fake name, explaining how I was an expert on teen runaways. It sounded damn official and I straightened my spine, practicing my “professional consultant” face.
“Have you found anything?” Mr. River asked anxiously, twisting his hands in his lap. “You said you had a new lead?”
“First, I’d like to review some information for Miss Erickson”—Kai gestured to me—“so she can hear it in your own words. How long have you lived at this house?”
“We moved in about fourteen years ago. Nadine was two years old.”
“As we discussed before, seventy-six percent of child abductions are committed by family members or acquaintances. Let’s go over the people in the neighborhood that Nadine knew and interacted with.”
Obediently, Mr. River described the various neighbors who lived on the street, including Varvara. But though Nadine had claimed she was close with the old woman, Mr. River mentioned her only in passing.
As he talked, my gaze passed over Mrs. River. She sat stiffly, her narrow shoulders bent forward, her neat brown hair hanging around her face. Seeing me looking at her, she made an obvious effort to relax.
“Would you like some tea?” Not waiting for my response, she poured steaming liquid into the cups. “Sugar?”
“Uh … sure, thanks.”
She passed a teacup to everyone then took one for herself, grasping the tiny handle with her pinky sticking out.
“Nadine loves tea and biscuits,” she mumbled.
Uh-huh. Morgan and Nekhii had made tea every night I’d been at the farm, but Nadine had never partaken. How well did these people even know their supposed daughter? I hadn’t forgotten what Nadine had told me about her fake parents—the low-level verbal and emotional abuse I was so familiar with from my father.
“Where were you the night Nadine disappeared?” I asked, cutting right through Mr. River’s long description of the neighborhood boy who shoveled their walks in the winter. We were here to get information from the couple, and that meant winning their cooperation—but I couldn’t tolerate their bullshit for another minute more.
The question seemed to startle him. “I was working late, and my wife had an appointment. We told Mr. Yamada that, last time we—”
“An appointment where?” I pressed, ignoring Kai’s warning look.
“At the spa,” Mrs. River answered miserably. “If I’d known what would happen, I never would have—”
“But you knew it was her birthday.” I sat forward, almost spilling hot tea on my lap. “She was turning sixteen. Why weren’t you home at all?”
“I don’t see how this relates to Nadine’s disappearance,” Mr. River said stiffly. “I thought you had a new lead?”