Though the air is still warm from the disappearing afternoon sun, my skin feels icy and gooseflesh creeps down my arms. I desperately want to look behind me, to know if something is following me, but I continue to stare straight ahead. I can’t help but quicken my pace, taking brisk strides on the cracked sidewalk.
The streets are variegated by long shadows trailing from tall, old houses and stately oaks, still full and mostly green. I am suddenly aware of the dark alleyways and nooks between the houses. Every car, parked or passing, is suspect. Aside from the occasional caw of a lone crow, it’s uncomfortably silent. Reigning in my paranoia, I focus on Caelen’s flitting silhouette and hope he isn’t as lost as I am. There has been no sign of a pursuer, and I’m beginning to wonder if I can trust him. I consider pulling out my cell phone and calling Grant, or even Hunter.
Nearly an hour passes and the sudden brightening of street lights draws my attention to the neighbourhood surrounding us. Many of the houses are dilapidated, with graffiti covering boarded up windows and filthy children’s toys strewn across unkempt lawns. On my right is a shabby park, filled with litter and broken bottles. Several teenagers sit on the swings or lean against the bars of the play structure. I can see the tiny orange glow of their cigarettes as I hurry by. I can feel their eyes on my back as I keep walking, trying to catch another glimpse of my elusive guide.
My hand shakes as I sift through my purse for my cell phone. I finally pull it out when a strange yowl echoes through the street. I freeze, seeking the source of the sound. Caelen sits on the balcony of a broken down low-rise apartment building surrounded by caution tape and a sign that reads:
Condemned – Structure Unsound
I slip under the tape and into the building. Caelen waits for me at the bottom of the stair case that winds up the centre of the structure. He whispers, “There are a few men downstairs. They shouldn’t bother us, but try not to make too much noise.”
I nod and follow him as stealthily as possible up two flights of near pitch-black stairs. He directs me past a broken door into one of the apartments. I hesitate, certain that this is a trap, but I’ve got nowhere left to go. I clutch my cell phone tightly in my hand, hoping I have time to use it if my suspicions prove correct.
The apartment is empty, not only of people but of all signs of inhabitants. The floors are bare and dusty, the closets and cupboards open and empty. Caelen sits in the middle of the musty living room carpet.
“What am I doing here?” I whisper, towering over the black feline shape in front of me.
“Mirena has convinced the Seimei family that you’re a threat to the secrecy of the families. She found out you skipped off work today and manipulated them into using one of their crow familiars to follow you. She’s really just looking for Hunter,” his tail flicks in annoyance as he speaks. I remember the crow when we first set out.
“I just came from Hunter’s…”
“It was close, but I think I found you first. It took a while for Mirena to convince Ghao – head of Seimei – that you were a problem. You’re going to want to stay away from Hunter for a while though.”
My chest tightens with disappointment, and I’m startled by the sensation. I hadn’t realized that I was looking forward to seeing him again until now. “But if they can have crows do their bidding, won’t they find him eventually? How has he stayed hidden so long?”
“Not that simple – magic is never as easy as people make it out to be. Using familiars is hard work, crows in particular. It takes all of a well-trained mage’s focus and energy to use a crow as a host. They see through their eyes, but they also have to maintain the crow’s consciousness, including flight. There aren’t many who can do it, and Ghao’s not going to be happy to give up one of his experts for long without results. I give it a month or so before they tell Mirena to go fuck herself,” he purrs a little at that. I feel a hint of relief, though the idea of being watched for a month isn’t exactly encouraging.
“How do you know all of this,” I ask, “Who are you?”
He stretches his body, tail high in the air, as if I’m boring him. “I’ve been spying on Mirena of course. She’s a piece of work, but she loves animals. Bit of an advantage there. She lets me hang around, feeds me. Thinks I’m some dumb stray. Sometimes she talks to me, tells me secrets. Or lets me close enough to overhear them.”
I hear laughter coming from downstairs, followed by a couple shouts and glass breaking. I look to Caelen. “A couple people having a bit of a scuffle over a bet. Good hearing helps too.”
“Hunter’s been worried about you,” I tell him.
“I’ve been busy. It’s not like I’m his pet, I’ll visit when I damned well please,” he growls and begins stalking around the room, sniffing around the corners, “Besides, if Mirena ties me to him we’re screwed.”
“Why are you helping him anyway? You never told me who you are. Are you a Cat Sidhe? Like a fairy or something?”
He squats his forelegs down and pisses against the far wall, turning around to inspect his work. The harsh smell of cat urine fills the room. I try not to cover or crinkle my nose to avoid offending him, you know, in case that’s a thing. “They’re wrapping up downstairs. We better get out of here.”
“Where are we anyway? I don’t even know how to get home,” I glance at the clock on my cell – it’s already after seven thirty. Wynn’s probably wondering where I am.
“Call your cop friend,” Caelen whispers as we sneak down the stairs. The men downstairs seem to have settled down again, but I can hear the occasionally burst of laughter.
“Yagher? I haven’t spoken to him in weeks, why should I call him?” Silently, I wonder if he’d even bother to pick me up after everything that has happened.
“Because you have to reconcile with him eventually if you want him to buy your story. Besides, it’ll confuse the hell out of Mirena if she thinks you came out to see Hunter and had the cop pick you up.”
I glance at him as he trots on ahead of me, his padded feet soundless against the pavement. I follow him for a few blocks before quietly asking where we’re going and reminding him that I don’t have an excuse for needing a ride.
“Just call him,” he snaps, burst running ahead. I have to sprint to ensure he doesn’t disappear from my line of sight.
I find myself blinking as I emerge from a poorly lit side street onto a grandly illuminated main one. There are people everywhere, milling in and out of the bars and restaurants surrounding me. I look around for Caelen, who has vanished, but something else catches my eye instead. A large sign hangs above the establishment on my left. On it is the image of a bare tree with a bright orange lantern hanging from its branch. In gilt writing is the name of the bar, Festival House.