I still see her sometimes. Lucia, my best friend. She was gone. The way she looked at me that night, the confusion, the pain, the anger, I could tell she was conflicted about what she was doing, choosing to go with people who wanted to hurt her over choosing to come with me. I never understood why she did it. Even now, almost a week later, I’m still plagued by the memory, I still wonder if there was something I could have said or done to get her to come with me, with us.
They had promised her things, things she needed, and wanted, and maybe she thought she would get them as long a she stayed. I think about her, and about all the people that had been there in that tunnel beneath the Mississippi river, and then I see It, the jester; the Death Jester, as Brishan had named it, and it’s as if the cold fingers of death itself are walking along my spine, inching closer to my neck, desperate to squeeze the life out of me as it had Lucia’s.
Fingers brushed up against my shoulder, and I jumped, could have yelped from the sudden shock, but it was only Logan. Sensing my reaction, he pulled his hand away. “Are you okay?” he asked.
I turned my head. He was sitting in the back seat with Damon while Eli drove us down Loyola Avenue. We stopped at a red light at an intersection, and a large construction site caught my eye. A building was being picked up and assembled by huge cranes. It was going to be another commercial block, I figured, one with a big garden and fountains in front of it.
“Sorry,” I said, “I guess I’m just still a little nervous.”
“Don’t be nervous,” Eli said. “What do you have to be nervous about?”
“Easy for you to say.”
“Look, nothing bad is happening today. It’s a good day. Just keep telling yourself that.”
“I don’t know if I can. All my life I’ve been the kind of person to get flustered around authority figures.”
“That’s fine and everything,” Eli continued, “But this place is pretty chill.”
“I don’t think chill is the word we should be using when describing the DPA, Eli,” Damon said. “Let’s not give her the wrong impression before she even sets foot in the building.”
“The DPA might be pretty serious up in Boston, but this is New Orleans, man. Everything’s just a little jazzier down here, a little more mellow.”
“Mellow is exactly what I need today,” I said. “I can’t remember the last time I had an appointment with a government official that wasn’t the DMV or the post office.”
“It’s gonna be fine. You just go in there, be your usual self, and it’ll all work out.”
I glanced at Damon and Logan in the rear-view. Damon returned my attention, watching me from the back with his clear blue, silvery eyes. I watched the hint of a smile form on the corner of his mouth, and warm tingles spread throughout my chest. I turned my eyes away from him, choosing instead to look at the building under construction; something tame, and not so… intense.
“Is this normal?” I asked.
“Normal?” Damon said.
“What’s happening to me. My… recruitment.”
“The department recruits agents like most others would—there’s an application process, training involved, and then usually a selection process from a handful of applicants. So, no, this isn’t normal.”
“Is anyone gonna… say anything?”
“What do you mean by that?” Logan asked.
“I just mean, like, is anyone gonna say that I’m being given special treatment? Gossip, and stuff. People do that.”
“You’re still being put through the training, you’re just skipping the application and selection parts. We went over this.”
“I know, I’m just, I guess I’m just psyching myself up for it.”
“There’s nothing to psyche yourself up for,” Eli said, “You’re already an agent. All you’re doing today is meeting the chief and getting your desk.”
“I still can’t believe I get a desk.”
“It’s a real job, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s just gonna be a huge change from working at the restaurant. I feel bad leaving them.”
“Why?” Damon asked.
I shrugged. “I’ve worked there for years. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
“Just be glad Damon was able to convince your boss not to ask for two weeks,” Eli said.
I took a deep breath in, held it in my lungs, and exhaled the tension. Then Eli pulled in to a multi-story car-park, a tall black building, and I knew we were close. That drew all the tension right back to me, stiffening my spine and sending nervous prickles crawling along my arms and the nape of my neck. I really didn’t think I was ready for this. I was about to become an agent of the Department of Paranormal Affairs—no, I already was an agent; I was about to meet my new boss.
We parked on the third floor of the multi-story. Across from where we’d parked, I had a great view of Duncan Plaza, with its many trees, walkways, and statues. That was one thing I loved about downtown New Orleans; no matter how tightly packed downtown was, there was always room for a park, a plaza, or a little patch of greenery somewhere, just to make everything look a little prettier—a little less grey.
After parking, Eli led the rest of us quietly out of the multi-story and to the building adjacent to it. It was a high-rise, maybe five or six floors, brown and unassuming, with no distinguishing marks or lettering on the front—only an American flag swaying with the lazy breeze, and the American crest over the front door.
On the door itself were the letters DPA, and nothing else.
Eli pushed the door open, then stepped aside. “Ladies first,” he said.
I went through, immediately feeling the cool, air-conditioned air touch my neck. It was hot outside, too hot, but in here it was blissfully cool. The floors were grey, and carpeted. There was plenty of natural light in here, and I thought this place had the potential to be more than just an office space; it could be pretty, and colorful. But the walls were boring, and white, the reception desk was black, and square—not even curved—and in the corner of the room, between a set of grey couches, a sad little tree sat, trying desperately to catch the sun on its browning leaves.
Someone should water that.
The receptionist, a young man with neat hair, a clean, buttoned down shirt, and a set of tired eyes, looked up as we came through. Eli approached. “How’s it goin’, Mikey,” he said.
Mikey nodded. “Yeah, good. You’re here to see the chief, right?”
Eli pointed at me. “She is, we’re just here for moral support. I’m gonna take her into the back, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. Go right ahead. I’ll let the chief know you’re here.”
Eli tapped the reception desk and put a fist out. “My man.”
Mikey bumped the fist, then pressed a button on his desk. There was a buzz and a click coming from the only other door in the room. Damon was the first to walk to it and push it open, but Eli stepped through first. It was clear this was his domain. Damon and Logan weren’t from here, they’d just been assigned to New Orleans. Maybe if this office were in Boston, Damon would be the one calling the shots and making the introductions.
Eli held the door for me again, and again I stepped through after him, this time into what looked like a bull-pen… and a really empty bull pen at that. There had to be six desks here, and only two of them were manned. The others were, and looked like they had been, empty for some time; three of them didn’t even have computers.
We walked past the two workers in silence, heading for the other side of the room. I spotted the open door to what looked like a kitchen area. Next to it was a closed door which led to a bathroom. Next to that, an elevator. Along the other long wall there were plenty of windows, but the shades were mostly drawn shut, casting the room into relative dimness, if not darkness. I had a feeling this was how people liked it in here, though. Too much light, and all that.
Are both of those people Mages? Was Mikey?
I had questions, but I didn’t feel like I could ask them right now. Not yet. Wait until after. Part of me also thought they were stupid questions. I was a Mage, as were Damon, Logan, and Eli, so why wouldn’t Mikey be? Why wouldn’t the people working at the desks also be Mages? Even supernatural creatures needed to pay rent, and to do that they needed jobs, and Damon had said there was an application and selection process, which meant you didn’t become an agent by simply being a Mage.
Eli pressed the call button on the elevator, and we waited for it to arrive listening to the clack-tap-tap of fingers on keyboards and the whirr of the air-conditioning. When the elevator arrived and we got inside, it was Logan who finally spoke.
“I thought you said this place was mellow, not dead.”
“It’s understaffed, has been for a long time.”
“Do you ever get used to the quiet here?” I asked.
“I’m not here too much,” Eli said, “I mostly work from home. I only really have to come here if something breaks down.”
“So, you’re the IT guy?”
Eli laughed. “I’m an agent, but I’m also the IT guy.”
“Can’t the department pay for a dedicated technician?” Damon asked.
“They could, but I doubt they’d find anyone qualified enough to run the system I put in place. This precinct may not look like much, but it’s got the most sophisticated computer network in the country, courtesy of yours truly. That thing damn near runs itself.”
“Except for when it doesn’t, right?” Logan said, his voice full of sarcasm.
Eli shrugged. “I’d like to see you try and do that job, wolf boy.”
The elevator dinged, then the door opened to another empty floor. Well, it wasn’t empty—it looked like there were places for people to sit, desks for people to work at, but there was only one person present—a heavyset man wearing a fedora. He was on the phone, leaning back on a chair that didn’t look like it could take more punishment. He glanced up at Eli as we walked past, but didn’t wave or say hi, instead he just gave a distant, and disinterested uh-huh- to whoever was on the other end of the line.
Speaking of lines.
Eli, Damon, and Logan stopped a couple of feet from a semi-translucent, closed door with the word Chief marked across it. On the other side I could see the impression of someone sitting at a desk, maybe hunched over it, writing something down, but it was hard to tell exactly who the person was. Randomly I noticed how the section of carpet I was standing on was darker than the section of carpet directly in front of the door, as if that part was newer than this part, creating an actual line between me, and the chief.
“This is where we leave you,” Damon said.
I turned to look at him and nodded. “Is it too late to ask you guys to come in with me?”
Damon frowned and cocked an eyebrow.
“Sorry…” I said, blood flushing to my cheeks. I hated how he could do that with a look. “I know. Be confident. Got it.”
“You’re gonna be fine,” Eli said for the hundredth time, though his incredibly bright smile made me forget—or not care—that he’d been repeating the phrase like a mantra all day.
“I know,” I said, “I’m just nervous.”
Eli grinned. “I couldn’t tell. Just, remember… take it easy with the jester thing. The chief isn’t convinced.”
“I can’t understand why. We were all there, we know what happened.”
“We do, but we can’t go into things without knowing all of the facts, and none of us actually saw what happened. Let’s not jump the gun.”
Logan placed a hand on my shoulder, then leaned close to my cheek. My heart started to race at his proximity, the heat of his touch, his body. Holy hell. Then he kissed my cheek, and I thought my heart was going to leap out of my chest. “Go get ‘em,” he whispered, and tingles invaded every one of my nerves. Very few men had ever been able to do that to me at the drop of a hat, but Logan was one of them.
Smiling, blushing, I shook my head to take the excitement away. “Okay,” I said, “I’m gonna go. Wish me luck.”
“Good luck,” Eli said, “Not that you need it.”
I turned away from the guys and crossed the Rubicon, the dividing line between old and new carpeting. A couple of paces was all it took before I was in front of the door marked Chief. I knocked on the glass, waited, then knocked again. I was about to turn around, puzzled, when a woman called out from inside.
“Come,” she said.
A woman… the chief is a woman. Why’d I assume it would be a man?
I opened the door and stepped into the moderately sized office behind it. A set of filing cabinets occupied one of the long walls, each door marked with a letter from A to Z, others marked with symbols I couldn’t even begin to identify. On the other wall was a rack of shelves on which sat a number of plaques, pictures in frames, and even a few small plant pots. From the door I spotted one plaque in particular with the word Commendation written on it, though I couldn’t see what the commendation was for. Now that I’d seen one, I saw more of them—five in total. Five commendations, all handed to her as plaques.
In the center of the room was a small brown desk covered in papers and stationary, tons of it, but most of it arranged in a way that would allow the person sitting at the desk plenty of access to her things. These files and papers were either important, or she’d gotten used to living with them nearby, but she didn’t want them all over the place. I noticed a picture frame on her desk, but the picture was pointing to her, not me, so I couldn’t see what was on it.
Somewhere between the picture frame, one stack of files, and the back of her computer screen, was a plaque with her name on it: Chief Evelyn Baker, MD.
Evelyn finished writing on the document in front of her, clicked her pen shut, and looked up at me. From where I stood, with the natural sunlight hitting the back of her head from behind, it looked like her hair was fire; red, vibrant, full. She had clearly put it up into a bun before the day began, but a lot of her hair had come loose and gotten frazzled throughout the day, and she had just never tried to correct it.
Her eyes, I noticed—because I couldn’t not notice them—, were clear green, the color of a Hawaiian beach, though she had bags under them that she’d either never bothered to hide or couldn’t hide. She was a vision of Celtic beauty, though one that had come on hard times, and was probably on her fifth coffee of the day. The jacket of her grey suit lay thrown over the back of one of the chairs. I stood behind the other one.
She smiled a tired smile. “It’s Andi, right?” she asked, reaching for my hand from across the desk.
I took it and shook. “That’s right,” I said, “Andrea Daniels, but my friends call me Andi.”
I sat down on the chair I had been standing behind and rested my hands on my lap while Evelyn scanned me, maybe trying to size me up, see if she could figure me out without even saying a word. Was she a Mage? Was she a Warlock? Did she have the same powers of perception as what Damon had, or was she something I hadn’t yet encountered?
“Andi, I’m going to get right to the point here if you don’t mind,” she said, “As you’ve probably been able to tell, the department is understaffed and we all have a ton of work to do.”
“That’s okay,” I said, “Go right ahead.”
Evelyn nodded. “Do you know why you’ve been fast-tracked into the department?”
“I… not really. I mean, the guys—”
“Oh, um, the agents that picked me up.”
She checked her notes. “Elijah Lawson, Damon Sanders, and Logan Porter, right?”
My cheeks burned red. I’d been living at Eli’s place for almost a week, and it only occurred to me now, this was the first time I was hearing their last names. “Yes, that’s… that’s right. So, ever since the night where we—in the tunnel, I mean. They haven’t exactly… that is to say, they haven’t told me—”
“—take a breath,” Evelyn said, her expression softening. Though she was easily in her early forties, and her frazzled, tired visage wasn’t doing her any favors, the smile she gave me then was one of a much, much younger woman. It made her look more youthful, and really, more relatable to me.
I shut up and let my lungs take in as much air as they could, holding the air in for a few seconds before releasing the breath.
“There’s no wrong answer here,” Evelyn said, “You can take your time explaining things.”
I nodded, swallowed, and tried again. “Okay,” I said, “So, I’ve been living with Eli for about a week. He, they, all agreed it wasn’t safe for me to go back home, and after what happened that night, I believed them. All week I’d known they’d been in contact with you guys, been talking about me, but they haven’t told me anything about that. They said they couldn’t tell me anything until… well, until I came here.”
“I’m sorry about all the secrecy, but it was necessary. We couldn’t tell you more than you needed to know until we were sure.”
“Sure about what?”
“This precinct isn’t in the business of jumping the gun. There are plenty of others that are, but I wanted to do some investigating of my own before I made the call to have you brought into the department. If I hadn’t made that call, you wouldn’t have been told anything at all.”
“But, I mean, I was there. Why the secrecy?”
“Because we have procedures and protocols in place to protect ourselves and the world at large. If we started talking to you, gave you all the information we had, and then you took off and started telling people… well, first of all, you’d be hard-pressed to find any regular, functioning member of society to believe what you were saying. We are, after all, a secret organization; the world at large doesn’t know we exist. Secondly, the odds are you would eventually tell the wrong person, and you could suddenly find yourself in a lot of trouble. As it happens, you’re a member of the team now, so we can talk.”
“That all… I mean, that happened really quickly.”
“And you said you made the call?”
“I did. Eli and I spoke about what had happened that night, he told me a lot about you, told me how it was because of you, because of your dreams, that you were able to intercept those people that night and stop what they were doing. I made the decision to bring you into the department, made a call to the right people, and got you fast-tracked. I don’t remember the last time we had a Harlequin on the payroll.”
I wasn’t sure I had stopped anything at all; made it worse was more likely, but I wasn’t about to say that. “I still don’t know much about what happened that night, or why it happened, or who those people were… or even what the hell I’m doing here. Everything’s still pretty jumbled up.”
“Okay, so, how about we start from the top?”
I narrowed my eyes. “Do you want me to ask you things, or are you going to ask me things?”
“Neither. I’m going to talk, and you’re going to listen. Remember, we don’t have a lot of time.”
“The people you ran into in the tunnels under the city are a radical cell of Mages known as The Circus, a group we had been tracking for over a decade. About two years ago, they dropped off of our radar. The last time we’d heard of them, they were in New York, then they just vanished one day and resurfaced here, only we couldn’t confirm it was them until that night.”
“What do you mean?”
Evelyn sighed. “People go missing all the time in our country. Hundreds of people every single day. In New Orleans, it happens more than it does in most places. But when the Circus is in town, some of the disappearances start showing a pattern. The Circus, it turns out, have a type. When the pattern emerged down here a few months ago, we called for assistance from the Department—they sent Damon and Logan to investigate. As the weeks went by, the suspicion was that the Circus was responsible, but they’re slippery, hard to track and pin down.”
“That’s because they have a Shade.”
A smile spread across her delicate, pink lips. “You catch on quickly.” Evelyn picked up a file and handed it over to me. Inside was a picture of the girl I had seen for no more than a few minutes in that tunnel. I had watched her dash across the cavern, throw herself next to the Hexer, the man who had cursed a fat worm into my throat, and then disappear. I tapped on the page.
“We don’t know much about her, only that the Circus picked her up in New York. That picture was taken at Grand Central Station about two years ago. We think she’s the reason they’ve been able to hide so well.”
“I saw her that night. I thought she was pretty powerful. I mean, she must be if she can hide her entire group from you guys.”
“Right, but it looks like she couldn’t hide them from you, which is why I wanted you brought into the department as quickly as possible, and without the need for a training or application process. The Circus has gone to ground again, and we need your help if we’re going to find them.”
I nodded. “I’ll do whatever I can.”
“Good, then we’re on the same page.” She reached for the file in my hand and I offered it to her.
“So, what do you need me to do?”
“There are two things I need you to do. First, I need you to go through the same training program all trainees go through; I want you to learn the procedures, learn how to defend yourself, and grow further into your powers. Usually this is done before an agent is given their first case, but since this is an exception…”
I was handed another file, this one with the word CLASSIFIED written on it. “What is this?” I asked.
“Your first case.”
I looked up at her. “Wait, so I’m not going after the Circus?”
“You are, but we’re under-staffed here and everyone has to pull their weight. You’re part of the team, so you get a case to look into.”
“What is it?”
“Take the file with you to your desk, read it, understand it. Whatever you don’t understand, ask Eli.”
“Wait… you’re not briefing me?”
Evelyn solemnly shook her head. “Unfortunately, no.” She pointed at the stack of files and papers on one side of her desk. “These are my files, and there’s no one else around who could possibly brief you, so you’re going to have to work on this with Eli, Damon, and Logan. But everything you need to get you started is in there.”
My eyes went to the file again, then I looked at her. “Look, I appreciate that you’ve taken me under your wing and everything, but my experience as an investigator begins and ends with way too many episodes of CSI. I’m not qualified for this kind of work.”
“No, but you’re a Harlequin, which means much of what you’re going to be doing is relying on your instincts; instincts which are probably far stronger than those the rest of us have. Procedures you can learn, you can also learn how to defend yourself. The abilities you have… those are unique to you. Use them on this case.”
“What about the Circus?”
“That group spooks too easily. The likelihood is they’ve gone to whatever safehouse they have and they’re going to hole up there until this all blows over. The last time we tried to engage them at their safehouse… people died. Even if you could tell us where they were, I wouldn’t feel comfortable making a move on them until they feel safe enough to come up for air again.”
I nodded. “Okay… so, I’ll just… go out there?”
“Yes. Ask Eli to set you up with a desk, a computer, and to hook you into the network. Take a lunch break whenever you like, we go home at five.”
I stood, walked toward the door to the office, and just as I went to leave the room, I craned my neck around. “Evelyn…” I said.
She turned her eyes up at me again. “Yes?” she asked.
“About the… Death Jester.”
“You know it’s real, right?”
Evelyn hesitated before answering. “I know you heard something. I know you dreamt about something. But the Death Jester is little more than a myth, a boogeyman young Harlequins are told about to stop them abusing dream magic, and we have other things we need to be focusing on right now.”
I swallowed. “Fear of the boogeyman is the reason people still check their closets and under their beds sometimes.”
She watched me but said nothing. I took that as my cue to leave.