“That’s what everyone thought,” Ezra said. “It’s what Nadine thinks. But we did some digging and it looks like Nadine is adopted. If the Ghost took her, chances are she has mythic blood and doesn’t know it.”
“The Ghost has a thing for young, down-on-their-luck mythics with nowhere to go.” Aaron took a swig of his drink. “The bastard is careful, though. He has contacts on the streets who watch for likely victims. We could target his contacts—MagiPol has picked up almost a dozen over the years—but they never have any useful information. And the Ghost won’t so much as look at a runaway with any kind of guild association. Too risky.”
“That’s where you come in,” Kai said.
“You’re invisible to the system,” Aaron explained. “You aren’t registered, you aren’t guilded, and as far as MPD records are concerned, you don’t exist. On paper, you have no ties to guilds or mythics.”
“Yeah, that’s because I’m not a mythic.”
“That we can fake long enough to lure the Ghost out.” Kai tapped his laptop. “We’ve identified the last person Nadine talked to—a worker at the youth shelter she stayed at—and we think he’s one of the Ghost’s contacts. If me, Aaron, or Ezra approach him, he could bolt or tip off the Ghost. Even if we tag him, we doubt the Ghost is dumb enough to reveal his whereabouts to anyone.”
“Let me guess.” I propped my chin on my palm. “You want me to pretend to be a vulnerable, destitute mythic and wander around the shelter until this guy points me toward the Ghost. Or points the Ghost toward me.”
“Exactly.” Aaron gave me a winning smile. “So, are you in?”
“Am I allowed to? I work for the guild, but I’m not a member. And people will notice me helping you guys—so don’t tell me we’re just following the ‘second rule.’” I added air quotes for the last two words.
“Not the second rule.” Aaron smirked. “The third.”
The third rule? I’d never heard of a third one before. I only knew two guild rules: One, don’t hit first, but always hit back, and two, don’t get caught. All things considered, their rules didn’t inspire much confidence.
Before I could ask about the third, Ezra said, “If the contact sends you to meet the Ghost, you’ll need to follow through so the Ghost shows himself. But that’s all you have to do. We’ll take over from that point.”
“Is that it?” I pulled a disbelieving face. “I get a cut of the bounty just for that?”
“Think of it as hazard pay,” Kai advised, surprisingly somber. “We’ll do everything we can to ensure your safety, but the Ghost is unpredictable and no one in the Crow and Hammer has ever gone up against him before. It’ll be dangerous.”
“Not that dangerous,” Aaron countered hastily. “We’ll be right there.”
Frowning, I pulled Kai’s laptop closer and clicked through the tabs until I found the Ghost’s listing. He was associated with a chilling number of crimes, from selling illicit substances to murder.
I switched to Nadine’s page and studied her photo, her empty expression, her vacant eyes. I knew those eyes—hollow, hopeless, unhappy. I’d seen them a hundred times before, staring back at me from the mirror when I was her age. I’d waited and waited and waited for someone to save me. Eventually, my brother had rescued me from my alcoholic piece-of-shit father, but for so long, I’d been convinced I was trapped.
Was Nadine trapped? Had she given up hope that anyone would save her? Did she believe, like I had, that no one cared and no one ever would?
I looked from her photo to the three mages sitting across from me. “I’ll do it. When do we start?”
Aaron grinned, unsurprised by my agreement. “Whenever you’re ready.”
The very next morning, I was standing in the middle of a thrift store, my nose wrinkled as I tried to block out the musty odor of old clothes. We were here to pick out my disguise, and it was serious business. Nadine’s life depended on our efforts, and the first step was making sure I could pass for a teenager.
“This! It’s perfect!”
With a cackling laugh, Aaron held up a t-shirt, the front emblazoned with an ostrich head shooting laser beams from its eyes.
I sighed. It was supposed to be serious.
“No, no,” Ezra exclaimed, popping out from another aisle. “This is better!”
He triumphantly displayed a fluffy, adult-sized onesie with dalmatian spots and floppy dog ears on the hood.
Aaron snorted so loudly a nearby shopper looked around in alarm. “I would pay money to see Tori wear that.”
“Sure thing,” I said. “Bidding starts at a hundred grand.”
“You do realize I can afford that, right?”
“Then why is your car so lame?”
He gasped. “What do you mean, lame? My car is awesome!”
“Can we focus?” Kai snapped. He hovered behind me, hands in his pockets like he intended to touch absolutely nothing. “We don’t have all day.”
Technically, we did. I’d finished my summer term classes last week and swapped today’s shift with Cooper, who normally covered Sundays and Mondays. But seeing as I wanted to get this over with too, I kept quiet.
With a fond look at the dog onesie, Ezra vanished down an aisle to replace it.
Aaron dropped the atrocious ostrich shirt onto a rack. “What are we here for again?”
“Clothes that will make me look several years younger.”
He scanned the nearest items and selected one at random—a pair of cut-off jean shorts with a waist so high I’d be belting them around my ears. “What about these?”
“Do I look like an XXL to you?”
He returned them to the rack. “I’ve gotta be honest here. I have no clue what teen girls wear.”
Kai, positioned behind me like we were locked in orbit, muttered his agreement, and I wondered if my choice of store was throwing them off as much as their lack of teen fashion sense. Considering Aaron’s parents were super-rich, renowned mage instructors, and Kai’s family—not that he’d ever mentioned his family—had paid to put him through said extra-exclusive academy, I doubted either guy had set foot in a thrift store before, never mind shopped at one.
Ezra, on the other hand … with him, I could never be sure. He was browsing a rack of women’s shirts, as relaxed as always.
“We need casual clothes that don’t look brand new. I’m supposed to be a teenager who’s recently run away from home, right? I need something like …” I ran my hand along the rack and pulled out a pair of skinny jeans with artfully ripped thighs. “These might work. And these ones here too.”
As I flipped the two pairs over my shoulder, Aaron rifled through more hangers. Choking on a laugh, he pulled out something that vaguely resembled paisley drapes in the shape of parachute pants. “Wow. I think MC Hammer just rolled over in his grave.”
“MC Hammer isn’t dead,” Kai told him.
“He would be if he ever laid eyes on these pants.”
I pushed my bangs out of my face. “Aaron, why don’t you go check for backpacks? I’ll need one.”
Grinning at my obvious attempt to get rid of him, he replaced the eyeball-assaulting pants and sauntered off. Normally I’d be cracking jokes right along with him, but I didn’t enjoy thrift shops. They reminded me of my childhood—not just the hours spent in search of clothes the kids at school wouldn’t laugh at, but also the ugly reasons I’d been shopping by myself with scrounged pocket change.
Kai followed me down the aisle, and as I perused the garments for anything my tasteless teen self would’ve loved to wear, I asked, “What do we know about this Ghost guy besides him being a murdering psycho who abducts teenage girls?”
“He first came to MPD’s attention eight years ago.” Kai kept his voice low as a heavyset woman with an armload of shirts passed us in the next aisle. “He’s grown more active over the years. He’s especially involved in the black market—buying and selling anything that could be considered dark arts. Potions, poisons, artifacts, weapons. The items he buys are usually much nastier than what he sells.”
“So he’s probably built up a nice stockpile.” I added a black denim jacket with silver buttons to my collection. “Fantastic.”
Kai paused to squint at a sunhat with a giant yellow bow. “Based on that, most people assume he’s an Arcana mythic, but others insist he’s a mage.”
“Anyone can collect and use Arcana artifacts though, right?” Prime example: me with my Queen of Spades card.
“That’s why there’s so much uncertainty. Our working theory is he’s a di-mythic.”
“A di-mythic is—”
Aaron bounded out from between shelves—or I assumed it was Aaron. A giant rubber crow head covered his face, and I recoiled so violently I stumbled into Kai.
“What the hell is—”
“Isn’t it awesome?” Aaron demanded, the mask thing muffling his voice. The crow’s blank plastic eyes stared in opposite directions.