Chapter 4: No Negotiation
I escorted Lucia home, or at least as close to her building as I dared. If her mother spotted her in my company, it would only make things worse and worse definitely wasn’t what she needed. Even then, I couldn’t stand to abandon her completely; I was too afraid of what might happen in those precarious moments after she slipped out of my sight, sure that danger could be lurking around every corner. So I took refuge in the same shadowy, trash-strewn alleyway where the rogue sorcerers had plotted their assault and watched her until she slid her key into the lock and disappeared safely through her front door.
Returning to the familiar environs of her neighbourhood had done little to dissipate her terror. Still, no amount of cajoling would convince her to tell me exactly what the mystery caller had threatened to do to her. She just implored me again and again that whatever I did, I needed to be careful. That was the important thing, she'd insisted. Not the rest of it. I assured her I would be, though “careful” was the last thing I wanted to be. I wanted to find whoever had burned this fear into her soul and make them sorry they ever tried to get to me through my best friend. I wanted to make them pay, and for it to be painful and ugly and messy.
It was one thing to come at me, but there was no way I was going to let anyone come at my friends.
It was a damned good thing that Bruce wasn’t home when I got to the apartment, because there was no way I would have been able to hide my seething fury from him. It felt as if it was clawing its way up out of my chest with each breath I took and sooner or later would explode forth, causing me to lash out and hurt whoever had the misfortune of being in my vicinity. It was a coiled, hissing rattlesnake – alive and incapable of placation.
You want a fight, assholes, I thought. Well, you are going to get one.
But first I needed to figure out who was screwing with us – who wanted me this time.
I sat down at my laptop and thumped my foot impatiently on the floor as I waited for it to wake up. Sure enough, the draft message had been updated again.
YOU ARE NOT ONE OF THEM; YOU NEVER WILL BE, it read.
I glared daggers at the screen, imagining them shooting through the network of cables and impaling whoever was on the other end.
Was it you who threatened Lucia? I typed, my fingers slamming down so hard on the keys that if Bruce were home he’d probably be able to hear my typing from the living room. I hit save and waited. If this was anything like last night, I’d be staring at the screen for hours before I got a reply. And dammit that wasn’t fast enough. But what else could I do?
I glanced sideways at my backpack, which I’d abandoned at the foot of my bed. No, there was no way in hell I had the patience to do homework. I’d probably just end up tearing my textbooks into tiny fluttering shreds. What I needed was some catharsis, an outlet for the anger that roiled within me like an ocean during a hurricane. I needed release, and in this apartment there was only one place to find it. I shed my hoodie, but didn’t even bother changing into my workout gear before heading into the gym.
Bruce’s boxing dummy was standing in the corner. I used all my strength to hoist it up onto the mats, then dragged it into the centre of the room. Feeling particularly pleased with myself, I retrieved a studded mace from the weapons rack and took a swing at the thick leather bag. It landed with a satisfying thud that ricocheted all the way up my arm. I raised the weapon again for another hearty swing. It felt just as good. Soon I was pummelling the bag over and over, barely pausing between attacks, as I let it absorb my rage into its pliant skin, barely noticing when the weapon began to shred the leather itself.
It was only later when I collapsed in a spent heap on the mats, mace still gripped firmly in hand, that I realized I’d all but destroyed Bruce’s dummy. Bits of its innards spilled out haphazardly from where the leather had been torn and shredded by the heavy steel weapon. Bruce would be impressed, but also likely a bit pissed. Whatever, I thought. Let him bill my father.
I reluctantly returned the mace to its spot on the wall, briefly pausing to pick the errant bits of fabric from its protruding teeth, then dragged my stiff, aching muscles into the bathroom for a much-needed shower. Sweat had soaked through my T-shirt and my jeans were sticking damply to my thighs. I let the water run cool instead of hot while I peeled off my clothes and stepped in, allowing the stream to wash over me like a refreshing spring rain. I stood beneath the jets until the skin on my hands and feet began to crinkle, thinking about what had transpired earlier and what I was going to do about it. Yet no matter how I came at the situation, it didn’t seem like I had much choice. If I copped to everything, Bruce and Ephraim would do their best to keep Lucia and I safe, but they wouldn’t be able to keep protecting us forever. The League of Sorcerers wouldn’t step in to offer any assistance either. Hell, one of them could even be behind it, like last time. And if it wasn’t someone from their ranks, they might still see this as a convenient way to get rid of me – especially if they believed whoever was after me was planning another attempt on my life. Mills dead. Threat exterminated, right?
And what would happen when Bruce and Ephraim eventually stopped protecting us? Then we’d be fair game again and whoever this person or persons was that wanted me would step in and take me or Lucia or perhaps, by that time, both of us, as some sort of demented payback for resisting in the first place. I certainly couldn’t rule that out. Not that giving myself up meant that Lucia would be safe. You couldn’t trust anyone acting this shadily to keep his or her word. But if I went willingly, and they took Lucia too, at least I could do something. I’d have some chance of freeing her and maybe even myself. But what chance did I have if they took her and not me? I thumped my forehead on the white tiles of the shower stall, frustrated that there was no clear way that I could save my best friend without sacrificing myself in the process.
But it made sense: it was never about her – it had always been about me. The half-breed sorcerer who’d gotten herself bonded to a vampire. The saviour or the Antichrist, depending on whose camp you were in. Someone had just figured out that Lucia could be used to get to me. Clever. So much for integrating into the human world; become too friendly with anyone and that person just becomes a target. I wondered if Bruce or Ephraim had thought of that when they’d come up with their grand re-integration plan. Now that too had turned into just another failed experiment.
I cranked the knob to “off” and squeezed the excess water out of my hair before reaching out of the stall for a bath sheet. After wrapping it snugly around my torso, I padded back to my bedroom, where I retrieved my pyjamas from beneath my pillow and slid them on. I probably wasn’t going to be able to get any shut eye given everything that was going on, but at some point I’d have to try. As I walked past my desk to the window, I checked my laptop. Still no response. Figures.
I carefully slid open the curtains, hoping the slight motion of the fabric would be imperceptible to anyone below, and peered out at the street. The sidewalks were empty; a single car rolled by. I tried to get a good look at the vehicles parked along the roadside, but the angle was crappy, making it impossible to determine if anyone was lying within them in wait. Someone could be staking out the apartment, waiting to corner me, but that also seemed unlikely. If whoever was behind this plot knew all about me and my life and my friends, I doubted that person would be stupid enough to come to the apartment and risk tangling with Bruce, and maybe even Ephraim. No: whatever was going to happen would go down another way. I would know, that’d been the message. But until then, what was I supposed to do? Just wait and worry and then worry some more? I released the curtains and turned to face my room.
Even after six months here I hadn’t done much with the space. There were just a few stray photos and cheesy mementos tacked to the wall near my desk – nothing that couldn’t be yanked down and shoved into my bags in a moment’s notice. Roots seemed to be something I just didn’t put down anymore. Probably for the best, all things considered.
Where would I be going next? I wondered. Another room? Another cell? Dumped in some unmarked grave? An anonymous burial for the girl who could’ve changed the world. That thought made my soul ache. But not as much as the thought of disappearing again did. Even though I’d become estranged from my adoptive family and kid brother Mikey in recent months, it still bruised my heart to think of them going through all that a second time. Yet it seemed inevitable now. I had to play the game or force Lucia to play it in my stead. Poor human, psychic Lucia who had no chance in hell of defending herself against a supe of any kind. Fuck.
As I strode toward my bed, I heard a faint buzzing sound. I tracked it to my backpack. Someone was texting me. Perhaps it was Bruce telling me he wouldn’t be home tonight – unusual, but it did happen from time to time. If that was the case, at least I wouldn’t have to explain the boxing bag until tomorrow. I bent down and dug around in my bag’s front pocket until my fingers found my phone. The text was from a blocked number. Its contents made my blood run cold: SO SHE GAVE YOU THE MESSAGE?
There was no mistaking who “she” was in that sentence, nor the striking similarity between this all-caps message and the online ones.
How dare you threaten my friends, I typed back, my fingers shaking so hard that autocorrect barely managed to decipher what I was trying to say.
THERE’S NO THREAT, UNLESS YOU DON’T FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS.
I don’t think you understand what “threat” means.
I UNDERSTAND QUITE WELL. DO YOU?
I glared at the screen, half wanting to drop the phone on the floor and stomp it into a million little pieces with the heel of my foot. What do you want from me? I demanded.
NOTHING THAT ISN’T YOURS TO GIVE.
Stop speaking in riddles, asshole. Even without the bond rage, I couldn’t remember a time I’d been more livid.
TOMORROW. PACK ANYTHING YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT. GO TO THE BASE OF PIER 11 FOR 8 P.M. THEN WAIT.
And if I can’t?
THEN I CAN’T GUARANTEE YOUR FRIEND’S SAFETY.
What about mine? It seemed as prudent a question as any, even if whoever was texting me had zero reason to tell the truth.
I THINK THE BIG, BAD SORCERESS CAN TAKE CARE OF HERSELF.
I balked. There could be no more denying that this wasn’t some sort of supernatural plot. How do you know what I am?
ENOUGH TALK. YOU KNOW WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO.
Can’t we come to some other arrangement? I pleaded. Maybe if I could buy some time, some further negotiation…
NO. AND DON’T TRY ANYTHING STUPID OR MORE PEOPLE WILL DIE. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?
I did, but I refused to acknowledge it. Let whoever was jerking me around stew in the fact that between now and then I might figure out a double-cross. I turned my phone to silent and dropped it back into my bag. Sure, I’d catch shit if Bruce tried to reach me later, but I needed to think and I didn’t need any more creepy-as-hell interruptions.
A quick Google search informed me that Pier 11 was a ferry dock, so it presumably it wouldn’t be abandoned at 8 p.m. That meant that whatever this person or people had in store for me, it probably wouldn’t happen there. Then again, it didn’t exactly sound like they planned on killing me; if that was the end game, why tell me to pack a bag? Maybe they wanted to lull me into feeling safe – but then why threaten Lucia? The contradictions were impossible to navigate.
All I could conclude was that this likely wasn’t another band of rogue sorcerers bent on hastening my demise, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t some sick attempt to use me as a pawn in another kind of twisted power play. I could see now that it had all been a manipulation from the beginning: the cleaning of my web page to garner my attention, to draw me into the game, and now the hook and the noose. Your life or the lives of those you love.
I clicked back to my profile, only to discover it no longer existed. It’d been deleted while I was Googling the rendezvous point. Foreshadowing? I wondered. Tomorrow night, would I simply cease to exist too? Or would things just be orchestrated to appear that way?
I fell into bed knowing I wouldn’t get a single second of sleep.
The countdown was ticking in earnest, and life as I had known it was once again on the verge of evaporating.
I reached out with my mind and plucked at the bond magic, it responded immediately, thrumming inside me like a revving engine awaiting further instruction. It was so much stronger now than it had been when Garstatt had first shown me how to tap into it. At least I have that, I thought. If everything goes truly sideways, I can always reach out and call Keel. I shuddered. Who was to say my fate with him would be any better than whatever my anonymous texter had in mine? It seemed a huge gamble either way. And it was one I wasn’t prepared to make until all the cards were on the table, whatever they were.