“Well, yeah,” I muttered. “We tried …”
“Try again,” Kai suggested. “Unless you’d like me to take you out instead. I’ll show Aaron how it’s done.”
My heart skipped a beat. Wide-eyed, I wondered if he was joking.
He picked up the three drinks. “Join us when you have a few minutes.”
He walked off and I shook my head. Joking. He’d been joking. I was pretty sure, anyway. Kai had no shortage of willing women to date, and in the two months I’d known him, he’d never so much as flirted with me. The only person I’d be more surprised to have ask me out was Ezra. I shot a flinty stare at Kai’s back. He enjoyed messing with his friends a bit too much.
My glare faded, replaced by a small smile. Humming to myself, I resumed wiping up the drips and spills along the bar.
An hour later when I exited the kitchen, Aaron, Kai, and Ezra had shifted back to their usual spot at the bar. I splashed champagne into a glass and topped it with orange juice, then slid the mimosa to Alyssa. Tucking my towel into my apron, I joined the guys, the bar between us.
“Finally,” Aaron complained good-naturedly. “Got a few minutes?”
I’d thought Kai had invited me over to visit with them—or, more likely, to distract Aaron so he and Ezra could get some work done—but apparently it was more than that. Curious, I pulled my spare stool over and sat across from them. “What’s up?”
The three mages exchanged a somber look as though deciding who should speak first, and my curiosity morphed into unease.
“Well.” Aaron cleared his throat. “There’s a job we want to take on, but … we need your help.”
My mouth fell open. “Me? My help?”
“Uh, in case you’ve forgotten, I’m a bartender, not a guild member. Also, I’m a human. Like, a ‘not one drop of magical blood and didn’t even know mythics existed until two months ago’ human.”
Kai smiled, the expression somehow chilling. “Exactly.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What’s the job?”
Propping his elbow on the bar, Aaron said, “We should have drinks first. Make yourself one, too.”
I poured them another round of rum and cokes—at least they were easy customers—then pondered what I wanted. After a moment’s thought, I scooped ice into a shaker, added light rum, lime juice, and my favorite sweet syrup, and gave it a vigorous shake. Pouring the mixture in a coupe glass, I popped on a lime for garnish and returned to my seat.
“A daiquiri? Good choice.” Aaron turned the laptop around to show me the screen. “Perfect drink for a chat about the dark arts.”
The laptop screen glowed with the image of a girl—mousy brown hair in a boyish cut, pale skin, sunken cheeks, and big blue eyes that stared hollowly at the camera.
My heart constricted. Though I’d only seen the photo once, I remembered her face. Four or five weeks ago, Aaron had shown me the MPD Archives—an online database of everything mythic-related, from the different guilds to job postings to bounties on criminal rogues. He’d clicked on a listing about a missing girl—this girl.
As I tore my eyes away from the screen, my brain caught up to what he’d said. “Wait, dark arts?”
“Oh, finally, something I understand. I’ve read all the Harry Potter books.”
Ezra snorted, his mismatched eyes—one warm brown, the other pale ice—sparking with humor. “As much as it disappoints me to say it, Defense Against the Dark Arts won’t be much help.”
“Real-life dark arts aren’t as cool as in Harry Potter,” Kai said. “Scarier, though.”
My gaze drifted back to the photo of the girl. “I’m afraid to ask what scary dark arts have to do with her. Is she still missing?”
His expression sobering, Aaron nodded. “When we looked at the posting before, she was recently listed as missing with suspected mythic involvement. Like I said then, we aren’t set up for missing human investigations and had to leave it for another guild.”
“No other guild took the job?”
“At that point, it wasn’t a job. It was a Wanted Ad—a listing of suspicious activity that anyone can investigate in hopes of getting a bonus afterward. In this case, some mythics looked into it, and the results aren’t good.”
Kai pulled out his phone, tapped the screen, then held it out to me. On it was another photo of the girl. This time, a beaming old couple was hugging her from either side. The man, thin on top and thick in the middle, had one arm around his wife, a skinny lady with crow’s-feet around her eyes. A loving family photo. Maybe I was imagining it, but the girl’s smile seemed empty, her blue eyes as hollow as in the other photo.
“Her name is Nadine River,” Kai said. “These are her parents. Last week, they contacted the guild.”
“But … aren’t they human?” I asked in confusion. Aside from my fluke arrival, humans and guilds didn’t mix.
He slipped his phone back into his pocket. “They are, but they asked enough questions and pestered enough people about their missing daughter that someone eventually put them in contact with us. As far as they know, we’re private investigators.”
“That got us looking at the girl’s listing again,” Aaron said, pushing the laptop toward me. “Check out the notes.”
Beneath the brief listing with Nadine’s photo and the details of her disappearance were dated notes. A mythic had shared a copy of the missing person report from the police. A few days later someone else posted that they’d checked out her home for evidence of mythic involvement. A psychic did a reading and suggested personal tragedy as a factor to consider. Another mythic shared an update about the girl’s school, no suspicious activity detected.
The updates continued, a new one every few days, as different mythics took up a piece of the investigation and shared it with the others who wanted to bring this girl, a total stranger, home safely. I swallowed hard, scrolling down as the mythics determined that Nadine had run away from home, turned up at a homeless shelter, then … vanished. The last update was dated three weeks ago.
“‘Confirmed,’” I read aloud. “‘Nadine’s last known interaction was with the Ghost. Ceasing investigation.’ Who is the Ghost?”
Aaron reached across the laptop and switched to a different tab. A new webpage in MPD’s hideously outdated white layout appeared. The photo square was blank, but the page was full of text: crime after criminal charge after suspected illegal activity after crime. In place of a name, it said, “The Hungry Ghost.”
Kai stared broodily at the screen. “He’s named after a Chinese myth about dead souls guilty of the sin of greed, condemned to suffer eternal hunger and tirelessly devour other lost souls. All anyone knows is he’s a rogue who ‘collects’ stranded and vulnerable mythics. Anyone who disappears around him is never seen again.”
Gooseflesh rose over my arms. I took a half-hearted sip of my daiquiri, and as the sweetness coated my tongue, it chased away the shivery shadow the rogue’s description had awakened. “This Ghost person took Nadine? If we know who has her, why did everyone stop investigating?”
“No one can catch the Ghost,” Ezra murmured. “We don’t know what class he is, what he looks like, how he operates … nothing. No one has seen his face. No one knows his name.”
“It’s a dead end.” Kai stirred his rum and coke with his straw. “The mythics searching for Nadine ceased the investigation because, even if they could find the Ghost, they’re afraid to cross him.”
“So … that’s it?” I looked between them incredulously. “Everyone is giving up? Just abandoning Nadine to the Ghost?”
“Everyone else,” Aaron corrected. “You didn’t think we were showing you this just to be depressing, did you?”
“But you said it’s a dead end. No one’s ever caught the Ghost.”
“No one has ever caught him … yet. The bounty on this guy is insane. Even splitting it across a team, it should be enough to cover your rent for, oh … how much is your rent?”
“Uh.” I squinted at Aaron. “My rent?”
“You don’t have to use it for rent. You can spend the money however you’d like.” When I stared at him blankly, he added, “Assuming you want to help.”
Right. That’s how we’d started this conversation, wasn’t it? “How can I possibly help?”
“The Ghost shows up for a few reasons,” Kai said. “Mainly, dealing in illegal potions and artifacts, obliterating anyone who crosses him, and abducting mythics. Short of immersing ourselves in the local black market, we can’t catch him at the first one. We don’t want to tempt him to kill us with the second one. So that leaves the third option.”
Ezra nodded. “He targets vulnerable, exposed mythics—runaways like Nadine, homeless rogues, children of mythics who—”
“Wait,” I interrupted. “Nadine is human.”