Midnight Shadows – Emerson Knight

The wooden floor of the aging neighborhood ale house creaked as I walked the length of the bar and slid into a secluded booth. “Scotch,” I told the waitress. Tim arrived at the same time as my drink. He was tall, with military-cut sandy blond hair and a chevron mustache. He was a pack member, a wolf who’d worked for the county police for twenty years and counting. Much of our ability to monitor supernatural activity in and around Chicago derived from a handful of pack members in law enforcement. At the moment, Tim was out of uniform, dressed inconspicuously in a tan jacket and pants. Among the blue-collar crowd the bar attracted, he fit right in. Because Tim’s responsibilities with the pack sometimes collided with his official duties, he limited his appearances at the retreat to avoid drawing attention to our relationship. He’d arranged our meeting by text, which wasn’t unusual. That he’d done so using an emergency phone that wasn’t connected to either of us meant he had something significant to say. He slid into the booth across from me and ordered a beer. “Tim,” I said, then sipped my Scotch. “Ethan,” he said, clasping his hands in front of him on the table. “How are Winter and Markos?” Three months ago, Ethos, the most powerful purveyor of dark magic known to us, had sent his creatures to attack the pack using poisoned claws.

Markos, Winter, and Joan had been among the most seriously injured. By the time I’d acquired the antidote, they’d been placed into medically induced comas in an effort to keep them alive. Once revived, the damage had been so pervasive that none of them had been able to participate in the final battle against Ethos. Winter had practically needed to be tied down to keep her out of the fight. It had been a difficult call, but the right one. It had taken two months for them to fully recover. “You know Markos,” I said. Tim nodded, fishing peanuts from the bowl in front of us. “Winter?” “Never going to let me live it down.” “I got a text from her yesterday informing me that our sparring session is scheduled for two o’clock this Saturday.

” He grinned. “Last time we sparred, she went full snake. I’d never been paralyzed before that. I don’t mind saying, it had an effect on me. Gave me night terrors for a week.” His beer arrived and he took a long drink, then wiped the foam from his mustache. His expression was sober as he said, “We got a problem with the guy.” “The guy” was Dennis McDuffy, a private investigator Sky had hired months ago to locate any possible living relatives. Two years ago, she’d been a lone wolf living with her adopted mother. We’d saved her from vampires, and now she was part of the pack.

Orphaned at birth, she’d never given up hope of finding blood relatives, even distant ones. He’d found them, and I’d paid him to keep his mouth shut. I’d also put him to work tracking Chris, my ex-lover, who’d been trying to broker a truce between the pack and the vampires, her employers. He’d proved his skills, deftly avoiding her detection, but he hadn’t been prepared to deal with Michaela, the Mistress of the Seethe and a notoriously sadistic killer even by vampire standards. I’d been careless with him, and it had cost Dennis his life when she’d caught him waiting for Chris outside the Seethe’s home. I took another sip of Scotch, washing down the distaste of my failure. The supernatural world was a dangerous place—were-animals rarely died of old age. It was a grim fact of life we’d become proficient at dealing with, but the death of a human like Dennis presented a number of complications. Over the decades, the pack had developed a number of contacts within the medical profession that helped us keep our tragedies away from prying human eyes. My brother, Josh, one of the most powerful witches in the region and blood ally to the pack, used his magic to get rid of bodies and scrub the evidence from crime scenes when necessary, but hiding a death involved more than just the physical evidence.

When a body disappeared, it left people behind. Were-animals generally kept outside relationships to a minimum, but humans left long trails of workmates, friends, and relatives who noticed their absence. To make matters worse, bodies also left financial trails. It was hard to explain that someone just decided to move away and start life over somewhere else when their bank accounts sat untouched, their mortgages and car loans unpaid. As the Elite—leader of all the packs in the country—Sebastian had directed each pack to have members infiltrate the banking system. After a few years, it had paid off, giving us a bank in Florida and a bank in Colorado that were willing to cater to our unique circumstances. Pack members were encouraged to use these resources. When a pack member died, the associated pack paid a hefty fee and our allies at the banks scrubbed the deceased’s financial trail. It was a highly efficient system, but entirely useless in dealing with human collateral damage. Fortunately, Dennis had been a loner.

Tim had looked up Dennis’s records and found he’d been divorced for twenty-three years. He’d remained estranged from his ex-wife. No children on record. Parents deceased. No siblings. A neighbor had reported him missing, but the curiosity stopped there. The vamps had ensured that his body never turned up, and the police hadn’t shown much interest in looking for a down-on-his-luck private investigator who’d most likely skipped town because he was almost as behind on his office rent as he was on his mortgage. They’d let the case languish—until Dennis’s daughter showed up at the precinct. That’d been a surprise. It turned out Dennis’s marriage had ended before he’d found out he was going to be a father.

According to Caroline, the daughter, he hadn’t known about her until she’d shown up at his office six months ago. They’d just begun to reconcile when he’d disappeared. So far, her pleas for an investigation of possible foul play had gone unanswered. “It turns out,” Tim said, “the daughter has a case of persistency. When the detectives brushed her off, she went straight to the chief. At his home. She mentioned the press once or twice and he folded for her like a wet noodle. Now he’s holding a fire to the detectives’ butts. They’ll be launching a full investigation under the assumption that foul play might’ve been involved. Probably tomorrow.

” “How bad?” I asked. He gestured to my tumbler. “You might want to finish that Scotch so you can order another.” I scowled, then downed the rest of it in one gulp. The glass clunked against the table as I set it down. Tim continued, “It’s safe to assume that he kept records of his cases. Unless those records manage to disappear, you should probably be prepared to give an interview. And that can be problematic.” I caught the waitress’s eye and raised my empty tumbler to her, then shrugged to Tim, who was watching me closely. “I hired him to find out if my girlfriend was cheating on me,” I suggested.

“Then he took off with my retainer.” Tim shook his head as he fished his fingers in the bowl of peanuts. “They’d want to talk to your girlfriend.” I considered for a moment. “I hired him to try and locate a deadbeat client.” It was a simple cover story, easy to maintain. Even in corporate law, which I practiced, there were clients who preferred not to pay their bills. “Might work,” Tim acknowledged. “Depends on what he recorded in his notes. If his story contradicts yours …” He let the thought trail off while he drank his beer.

“I’m not going to be able to give you more on that situation, not for a while. I’ve already fished around too much.” “Okay. Is that it?” I asked, sensing it wasn’t. “Not quite.” He took a folded manila envelope from the inside pocket of his jacket and slid it toward me on the table. Inside, I felt the shape of a USB drive. “Some documents there, but you won’t find much. The dashcam footage is the interesting part,” he explained. “I stopped a biker—real badass-looking fella—with Indiana plates.

I was just going to give him a shakedown, let him know he’d been noticed and that his welcome in the county was limited, but there was something about him. I could smell the darkness. He had that kind of magic that puts your hair on end, just by proximity.” A purveyor of dark magic, like Ethos. “He goes by the name Lucas Reed. Maybe he’s a guest of Marcia’s, but I doubt it. He didn’t have that I-play-well-with-others kind of vibe. I gave him the usual warning about pack territory, letting him know his life would be much less complicated if he didn’t waste any time moving on, but I can’t say he took me seriously. If it wasn’t for the magic, I’d have bundled him into a jail cell for a few days, just to tenderize him. I figured I’d check with you before I pursued the matter.

” “I’ll look into it.” My Scotch arrived. I downed it in one gulp, left some cash on the table for the combined tab and then some, then left. Once home, I opened the manila envelope, which contained two pieces of paper along with the USB drive. The pages were printouts from a law enforcement database search on Lucas Reed. A copy of the driver’s license showed a long, lean face with a crooked nose, hazel eyes, and dense red curls that flowed down to drape over his shoulders. His record was almost nonexistent. In fact, it seemed as if Mr. Reed had materialized out of thin air just a few years ago, when he’d purchased a commercial franchise selling motorcycles. Before that, there was nothing: no school, no traffic violations, no marriage license, no known addresses.

He was a ghost, recently risen from the dead. I loaded the USB drive into my laptop. The dashcam video began just after Reed had been pulled over on his Harley Davidson Sport Glide. Beneath the leather riding chaps and a cut jacket, he was wearing faded jeans and a t-shirt. He removed his helmet as Tim walked into view, approaching from his car. Reed seemed amiable enough, handing over his documents. While Tim examined them, Reed glanced back at the police cruiser. His eyes flashed briefly and the image became static. I fast forwarded through the footage, but the static didn’t clear until he drove off and Tim returned to his cruiser. I called Josh.

When I got his voice mail, I called the pack’s nightclub, but he wasn’t there. Most likely he was home. Up until a few months ago, home had been my condo near the club. He’d had a habit of practicing magic there—dangerous magic—but the physical damage hadn’t started until he’d begun training Sky. After a few visits from the police and dozens of complaints from the other residents, the homeowner’s association had kicked him out, which was fine by me. By the time my brother had left, he’d cost me thousands of dollars in property damage. My insurance rates had tripled. His Art Moderne ranch was a few miles outside the city. It was a good investment. More importantly, he could recklessly destroy it with magic as much as he liked.

And he would pay for the consequences. I picked up the keys to my tanzanite metallic blue BMW M6 and drove toward my brother’s ranch. The Creed, the governing witch council in Chicago, kept a close eye on visiting witches. Lucas Reed was obviously powerful, and Marcia, the Creed’s leader, didn’t trust anyone she perceived could threaten her dominance. While Josh couldn’t ask her directly —she considered him a rival, and she didn’t appreciate his relationship with the pack—he wasn’t without his connections. Just outside the city, I became apprehensive as a subtle, chilly wave of dark magic blew through the cabin of my BMW. Glancing around for a source, I spotted a dark sedan approaching from behind and driving significantly faster than the speed of traffic. I tensed, quickly assessing my options. On my right was a narrow shoulder, followed by a deep trench. If the sedan was looking to knock me off the road, it certainly had a great opportunity.

My best evasive option, if needed, was to take the middle lane and push the sedan into the ditch. Traffic around me was light and spread out, but I didn’t want to put anyone at risk. The only other option was to take advantage of the BMW’s four-pointfour-liter V-8 engine and leave the sedan in my wake, which might not be enough to escape a magical attack. I slowly eased my foot from the accelerator, putting some extra distance between myself and the neighboring vehicles, while keeping my eye on the oncoming sedan, which showed no interest in slowing down as it came within half a car’s length of my bumper. Inside, I saw a young woman glowering behind the wheel while her young male companion seemed to be vociferously complaining about something. I didn’t appreciate having the sedan on my ass, but the young couple wasn’t the source of magic. After a moment, the sedan changed to the middle lane and sped past me. The feeling of darkness within my cabin remained, a steady, disturbing flow of power that had a familiar feel to it. Like a fingerprint, every witch’s magic had a distinct nature. The longer I felt the darkness around me, the more it felt like Ethos’s magic, but that wasn’t possible.

Unable to determine more, I continued toward Josh’s ranch. The closer I got, the stronger the flow of dark magic became. By the time the ranch came into sight, I knew the source of power was there. Was my brother under attack? I tensed, prepared to race inside, but then I noticed Sky’s Honda Civic in the driveway and realized she was the source. I cursed under my breath. In the final battle with Ethos, Sky had been trapped with him inside a nearly impregnable protective field. Despite the entire pack, supported by Josh’s magic, throwing our full force against it, I was the only one able to break through, and Ethos had easily cast me back out. He’d been in complete control of Sky, able to do whatever he’d desired, yet he’d inexplicably transferred his magic to her until there was nothing left of him. I suspected the magic had been intended for Maya, the spirit shade that inhabited Sky’s body. I didn’t know what the relationship was between Maya and Ethos.

Fortunately, Josh had been able to draw Ethos’s magic out of Sky before we could find out. At least, he’d drawn most of it out. Before the last of Ethos’s magic had been removed, Sky had stopped the ritual; she’d held on to a piece of the magic. Josh knew it, and so did I. I didn’t know why. Unlike other were-animals, she had the power to borrow magic and use it, but the magic always dissipated with use, like a battery. Knowing my brother’s interest in dark magic, it was inevitable that he’d take advantage of her. I’d assumed the magic would be used up after one or two experiments. Judging by the power emanating from inside the ranch, I was mistaken. My jaw clenched as I parked on the side of the road in view of the house.

As much as I wanted to charge through the front door, I knew a direct confrontation would only make Sky more determined. To my annoyance, I knew she’d listen to Josh. First, I had to convince him, alone. As the dark magic continued to pass through me, the wait only made me angrier. I was angry at myself for allowing them to maintain their secret, and I was angry at them for their reckless use of it. Didn’t he realize they were broadcasting Ethos’s magic for miles? Josh should’ve known better, but he was blinded by his evergrowing desire for power. Sky was no better at considering the consequences of her actions. Together, they were a powder keg with a lit fuse. After a short while, the magic dissipated. Sky emerged from the ranch and drove off without noticing me.

Once she was gone, I parked in Josh’s driveway and walked inside without knocking. He was in the living room, straightening the furniture. Much the way he’d decorated my condo, his place appeared more like the living room of a frat house than the home of an adult. Nothing matched, in style or color. Odd accent chairs were haphazardly placed around the living room, none of them matching the dark blue sofa with the sunken cushions and more stains than I could count. The coffee table was scarred from boot heels resting on it, and there were water stains where he should’ve used coasters. The area rug beneath it all was worn in places to the point of being threadbare. “By all means,” Josh declared, “feel free to just walk in without knocking.” I shut the door behind me. “I think my next lecture isn’t scheduled for”—he frowned at his watch—“some other time.

” I unclenched my jaw to speak. “What were you doing with Sky?” He rolled his eyes dismissively, then went back to positioning his leopard-patterned chair as if there was some organization behind his chaos. “You know I’m training Sky to use magic. Honestly, Ethan, we’ve gone over this a dozen times. This conversation is getting rather old.” “What magic?” I demanded. He paused to look at me, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. “I loaned her mine. We didn’t break anything—other than a few drinking glasses. Come to think of it, those were from the set you gave me for Christmas.

” I clenched my fists as I glowered at him, then slowly released them. “You were using dark magic—Ethos’s magic. I could feel it. For miles.” He gave me a suspicious look. If anyone could fool me with a lie, it was Josh, but he didn’t take the risk. Instead, he simply remained silent, watching me. I said through gritted teeth, “I know that you let her keep some of his magic.” He dropped into the leopard-patterned chair and crossed one knee over the other. “It’s powerful magic,” he conceded, “but I’ve kept her practice confined to here.

” “You just can’t stop taking chances, can you?” “What chances?” he snapped. “Why did you let her keep it?” He rolled his eyes at me. “It’s a trace amount.” “It’s dangerous, Josh. It’s reckless.” He shifted onto the edge of the chair, his eyes bright with excitement. “She can create a field more powerful than anything I can make, Ethan. The pack values what I can do for them. Imagine having even a thimbleful of Ethos’s power at our disposal. No one would even dare challenge us.

” I saw it there in his eyes, the lust for power that drove my brother from one problem to another. He couldn’t help himself. Forcibly relaxing, I strode to his couch, knocked some crumbs off the cushions, and sat. I let out a slow, steady breath before I spoke. “How long until she completely expends the magic?” “I’m not sure that she will,” he said, surprised. “Every time we test her abilities, the magic remains as powerful as it was from the beginning.” “How is that possible?” He shrugged. “Probably because Ethos is dead. I’m not sure.” I tried to rub the stress from my forehead as I considered the dilemma Sky represented.

I didn’t care for magic. At times, it was useful, but it was unpredictable and notoriously unforgiving. Sky didn’t have the experience to handle that kind of power, and Josh was too willing to take risks to be trusted with her. “Can it be removed from her?” I asked.

.

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