“I can’t believe you put that on your head.” I wrinkled my nose. “Who knows where it’s been?”
He pulled it off. “Maybe we should call ourselves crows instead of hammers.”
“Did you find any backpacks?” I asked.
“Umm. I didn’t see any.”
Ezra wandered out from between two tall shelves, a faded orange backpack in one hand. “How’s this?”
“Perfect. Thanks, Ezra.” I added it to my pile. “This should do it. Let’s go pay.”
We headed to the front of the store and got in line. While the cashier slowly sorted through a customer’s giant stack of disintegrating romance novels, I checked that no one was close enough to eavesdrop, then turned to Kai. “You mentioned ‘di-mythic.’ What’s that?”
“A mythic who’s gifted in—and trained in—two classes,” he explained. “A mage with psychic abilities, a sorcerer with a demon contract, and so on. It’s rare. We’re hypothesizing that the Ghost is an Arcana di-mythic with abilities in another class.”
“We just don’t know which other class,” Aaron added. “Based on power alone, I’d say Elementaria.”
“A mage-sorcerer sounds terrifying,” I said with a shudder. The two most powerful magics combined in one super-evil bad guy.
“Yeah. The sooner we take him down, the better.”
Something about Aaron’s tone gave me pause. I looked across the three mages and lowered my voice to a whisper. “What’s the plan, exactly? Capture him?”
Aaron twisted his mouth. “His bounty is DOA.”
I went still. DOA. Dead or alive.
“We want to take him alive,” Kai murmured. “But we can’t be too cautious or he’ll use that to his advantage. He won’t hold back.”
Did I want to participate in this plan, knowing a man might die? I thought for a moment. If the man was a teen-kidnapping, murdering sleazebag, then yeah, I was cool with it. But I wasn’t so keen on Aaron, Kai, and Ezra going up against him.
“If no one has ever gotten a decent shot at catching the Ghost,” I said, “what if he’s too much for you three?”
Ezra smiled, his contagious calm seeping through me. “We aren’t taking chances. If we can lure out the Ghost, we’ll have the best backup from our guild waiting to jump in.”
“Oh.” That was smart. Probably Kai’s idea. “I guess we can share the bounty with them.”
Aaron slid his arm around my waist, steering me to the front counter as the book buyer carted her bags off. “You don’t have to split your cut with anyone. We’ll divvy up the payout based on each person’s role.”
I frowned but he gave me a squeeze.
“You’re earning your share, don’t worry. Playing the bait isn’t the safest job.”
“But we’ll have your back,” Ezra added reassuringly.
I nodded, distracted by Aaron’s warm arm around my waist. This was probably a bad idea. I was just a human. Why was I getting tangled up in a scheme to capture the baddest rogue in the city?
Nadine’s photo formed in my mind’s eye. Right. That’s why.
As far as she knew, she was just a human like me. Whatever magic she had, she didn’t know how to use it. Nor did she have three powerful mages ready to defend her. If I could help get her home safely, I would take on the risks of playing bait—and a lot more.
As I piled my “new” clothes on the counter, I noticed a dark shape tucked under Aaron’s other arm. “You forgot to put the crow mask back.”
The corner of his mouth quirked up. “I’m buying it. I think it’ll look great above Tabitha’s desk, watching her while she works.”
“Umm, yeah, I don’t think she’ll like that.”
His smile widened, a wicked gleam in his blue eyes. “Maybe not, but Sin has a recipe for an adhesive that makes superglue look like sticky tack.”
Grinning, I took the crow head and added it to the pile.
Once Aaron, Ezra, and Kai got an idea in their heads, they moved damn fast. We finished at the thrift shop, then stopped for lunch where four old ladies giggled and winked at me, presumably for having such attractive tablemates—not weird at all, thanks grannies. After that, we headed back to the guild where Sabrina gave me a crash course in diviner magic and tarot card reading.
Now here I was, a few hours later, set up in the drop-in center at a youth shelter, dressed in a new thrift-store outfit and trying my best to look lost and helpless.
Sitting crossed-legged on a stiff sofa, I fanned out five cards and thoroughly examined each one. How did a drawing of a naked couple predict the future? Who used tarot cards to decide if they should bang someone?
The drop-in center was open and bright, stretching across the front of the building with a wall of windows facing me. Frosted glass obscured the street outside, and utilitarian sofas, plastic chairs, and tables filled the space, with a half-dozen computer desks lining the back wall. The white paint was covered with bright posters—descriptions of services offered by the center, art and music programs, tutoring and lessons, work and housing assistance, medical office hours, and more.
I imagined Nadine sitting in this same spot. She’d just run away from home, and for the first time in her life, she was facing the cold, wide-open adult world. This was a good place for her to end up—private, protected, and run by people dedicated to helping at-risk youth. If things had gone differently, she would have gotten all the help she needed.
Instead, a corrupt shitbag had sent her straight into the clutches of the city’s most terrifying rogue mythic.
Gregory Stern, according to Kai’s research, was a sorcerer who’d never completed his apprenticeship. After slipping into heavy alcoholism and getting booted from multiple guilds, he’d joined a sleeper guild—a type of guild where mythics paid a basic membership fee and otherwise lived their lives as regular humans, zero magical involvement in anything. From what we’d learned, Gregory had cleaned up his act, moved through several rehabs and support type jobs, then settled at the youth shelter, where he was a respected counselor known for his easygoing approach and ability to connect with difficult teens.
He wasn’t so well known for trading vulnerable magic-gifted kids to the Ghost on the side.
With my backpack tucked close, I laid out seven tarot cards on the seat beside me. Just in case Gregory wanted proof of my supposed mythic abilities, we’d chosen an easily fudged talent. Good thing, too, because my acting skills had already been thoroughly tested. I’d gone through an involved check-in process, then met with two different counselors who’d walked me through all the shelter’s services, gently probed me about my situation, and filled my backpack with pamphlets and printouts for everything I could possibly need.
It made my heart ache. This place should have been Nadine’s salvation. It wasn’t a shelter so much as a resource center offering everything a teenager could need, whether they were struggling, homeless, or anywhere in between.
Idly flipping the tarot cards, I scanned the nearest people. A young woman managed the desk at the front, and almost twenty kids were scattered around the room, quietly doing their own thing. No sign of Gregory.
Resigning myself to a long wait, I slipped my phone out and texted Aaron. The guys were nearby but keeping out of sight, ready to leap to my defense, but they wanted me to check in every ten minutes.
An hour crawled by, then another. I alternated between fiddling with my borrowed tarot cards and texting Aaron, but my thoughts dwelled on Nadine.
What had driven her to run away from home? In the family photo Kai had shown me, her parents were embracing her like they couldn’t have loved her more, but there was a familiar vacancy to her face that made me wonder how happy her home life had been.
Drawing my knees up to my chest, I wrapped my arms around them, staring at the meaningless tarot cards. I knew all about broken families and deceptive parents. My father was a master at appearing not only functional, but charming and sympathetic. In the eyes of other adults, I’d been the rebel child, the troublemaker, the liar.
In grade school, when I’d told a lunch supervisor that I never ate anything because there was no food in my house, she scolded me for being a picky eater. When I told my junior high science teacher that I didn’t finish my homework because I spent the weekend sleeping in a park to avoid my father, he rolled his eyes at my melodramatic excuses. When I told my aunt I was afraid to go home because my father’s drinking buddies were there, she scoffed and called me ungrateful for the roof over my head.
No one had believed anything—not that my father spent most nights in a drunken rage that settled into a drunken stupor, not that his private nickname for me was “stupid cow,” and not that I spent every moment at home terrified of triggering his temper. No, I was a drama queen child and he was a loving father who enjoyed a relaxing beer or two in the evening. Even if he had a few too many on occasion—no biggie, right?
The hopeless rage of those years was easy to recall, and the longer I sat on the sofa, surrounded by quiet teens with nowhere else to go, the feeling crept through me until I was vibrating, jaw clenched and hands shaking. Squeezing my eyes shut, I tried to pull myself together. I was an adult now. I’d moved across the country to start a new life away from my father, and I was surviving just fine on my own. He had no power over me. I was in control of my future.