Case of the Missing Humandivider-2154993_960_720

Warning: Adult content may occur. No, wait. It definitely occurs.

Index:

Have you read the Introduction of a Horny Half-Dragon? Because everything makes more sense if you read the intro first!

The Case of the Missing Human – Episode One

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“Velvet, you in here?” Burgundy called from the office just as I came tumbling down the steps from my apartment upstairs.
“Yes! I’m here, I’m working! I didn’t oversleep!” I skipped into the office on one leg while pulling on my jeans.
Burgundy laughed and rolled her eyes, hanging up her dripping wet jacket on the coat rack next by the front door.
“Of course you didn’t,” she said. “You’re the very embodiment of professionalism.” She waved a bag of doughnuts in front of my face that I greedily snatched.
“Exactly! Unless for some reason you consider it unprofessional to stay out until the middle of the night and sleeping with clients.”
“Vel, you didn’t!” Burgundy exclaimed, though she didn’t look as surprised as you might expect. “Rita, the lady with the missing cat?” She dropped into her chair, propping her feet up on her desk.
The missing cat hadn’t been our most thrilling case so far, but it had taken minimal effort, paid well, and Rita – the cat lady – had very pretty eyes. “I thought you said she had cat-nip breath?”
“She did. Which is why I made us a pitcher of minty-fresh mojitos.” I winked and gobbled up the remains of my breakfast doughnut before starting in on the coffee Burg has also been considerate enough to bring.
She laughed and spun around in her chair. “You always have a solution for everything, don’t you?” She flicked the switch on her ancient computer. I never touched the thing myself. Not a lot of places in Hurst had things like a computer, but Burgundy decided we needed one to be more efficient. Probably would have worked if it wasn’t a hundred years old.
“So what’s on the agenda today?”
“We have a meeting at nine with some rich princess from Windport. Think she has a missing person’s case, which could bring in a tidy sum. We could use a good payday.”
“Fun.” Burgundy cocked her head and looked at me. “Windport’s a lake-town. You know what she is?”
“Nope. You know I don’t like to ask these things unless it’s relevant.” I leaned back in my own chair and looked at Burgundy as she struggled with her computer. I knew why she asked; there were a lot more sea creatures around the big water towns out west, like Windport and Corton. As a mermaid, Berg was always curious about other water creatures like her.
“There’s fresh water for you in the tub if you feel like soaking before she gets here,” I offered. Besides my own private bathroom upstairs, we had a big one down here in our office with a large hot tub. I made sure it was always filled with salty lake water so Burgundy had it available any time she needed a soak.
You never know when a mermaid gets that burning need to let their fin out, and they get very cranky if they don’t get to do it.
She tossed a grateful smile at me.”Thanks, doll, but I got up early for a swim in the tank.”
Burgundy lived with her sister (and sister’s husband), and they had a whole room at home that was basically a giant tank filled with salt water.
She flicked her green, rain-soaked hair over her shoulder and licked her lips, tasting the remaining salt water left on them.
Gawd, you don’t make this easy, I thought and I forced myself to turn away.
Burgundy was my best friend in the world, and she had been from the moment I met her. She was always been on my side, even when she thought I was dead wrong, and she seemed to be the only water creature alive who never had any qualms about being so close with a half-fire creature (to all you judgmental water creatures out there; you have a completely skewed view considering water puts out fire, not the other way around, you morons).
Burgundy and I had been inseparable for thirteen years. She would have been just like a sister to me.
You know, if I wasn’t so unbelievably, madly, heart-thuddingly, head-over-heels in love with her.
Even sleeping around with every willing woman and occasional man in Hurst hadn’t proved an effective way to make my feelings disappear.
And there she sat, all sexy in her jeans and loose, white shirt, dripping wet from the rain, completely unaware that she was driving me insane. I bit my lip extra hard to distract myself when she started combing her fingers slowly through her bright, green hair.
“Whatcha doing over there?” Burgundy asked without taking her eyes off the computer screen. I looked down at the papers that I didn’t actually remember taking out of my drawer. It was my notes from the Cat-Lady-case.
“Just putting the finishing touches on our last case,” I lied.
“Right; because it’s very important for our files to include the favorite sex-position of our clients,” she teased. I chuckled and write that down just for fun.
“There!” I grabbed the file and headed down the hall to our filing-cabinet/storage closet in the back, across the hall from our minuscule kitchen that we only used for making coffee or storing evidence in the fridge since I had a larger, cleaner and fully equipped kitchen in my apartment upstairs.
The closet was where we were supposed to keep our old client files – and we did – but it’s also where old clothes and knick-knacks that we never used anymore went to die. I shuddered to think of all the things that were hiding inside that bottomless pit. I think there was even a box of my old sex-toys in there somewhere.
Don’t ask me why.
Listen, I understand that I’m giving off an impression here, but it’s not like I’m a sex addict or anything. Dad’s genes have just left me with quite the hankering. I kind of have sex the way other people have chocolate, or alcohol. It’s not like I would die without it, but it would be hard to stop, or go without a long time.
Of course, I would give up chocolate, alcohol and sex any day for Burgundy…
I shook my head in an attempt to rid myself of my patheticness before returning to my desk. I halted in surprise just where the hallway opened into our office space, when the front door opened.
Apparently our client decided to be twenty minutes early. Naturally.
Out of the rain and into our humble headquarters walked a tall, blond and blue-eyed lady in a tight, blue dress and heels. She was gorgeous and didn’t seem to have taken any damage from the pouring rain.
Burgundy and I shared a knowing look. The woman had to be an undine – a water spirit, at one with the water; they could take human form, but the form was essentially all made up of water. When the raindrops hit her, she would just have absorbed them, which was how she managed to look all dry and fresh.
“Valentine & Maxwell investigations?” she asked in a high-pithced, elegant voice with a drawling accent one would expect find in certain parts of the human world. The heaviness of the accent generally indicated she’d spend a lot of time in that part of their world, or that her family originated there and kept the dialect even here in Hurst.
It had  to be the second option. I couldn’t imagine why an undine would spend any time at all in the human world, with their polluted waters. Undines preferred their water pure and clean.
“That’s us,” I confirmed and walk up to her, hand out. “Velvet Valentine, glad to meet you.”
She shook my hand with a surprisingly firm grip for someone who was technically made entirely out of water. “Lavender Lacada,” she introduced herself. I would have accused the name of being ridiculous, but someone named Velvet isn’t in any position to judge.
“Sorry I’m early,” Lavender added, “but this really can’t wait.”
Burgundy came to join us, and introduced herself to our guest. “Missing person, right?” she asked.
Lavender nodded, and we led her over to the two sofas in the corner. If Lavender had been on time, the table would have been set with a pot of tea and some muffins. Maybe wiped down to remove the fine layer of dust on the black wood surface.
Burgundy and I sat across from Lavender Lacada as she started talking. My pen and notepad were ready for me to scribble down details as she went along. I had learned the hard way that clients hated to repeat themselves.
“My fiancé is missin’,” she said. “He just vanished into thin air the night after his bachelor party.”
She paused, biting her lips like she was trying not to cry.  Dear heavens, do not let her cry, I thought. I was horrible with crying women.
“I know what that sounds like, but my Thomas wouldn’t run out on me. He loves me. That might sound naïve, but it’s true. He’s the one came after me in the first place! Finally won me over, got me all pathetic and heart sick for him and then he goes and disappears on me. You have to help me find him.” She looked from Burgundy to me, and continued to switch back, waiting for one of us to speak.
“Have you talked to anyone else about this?” I asked. I preferred not to have competition.
“There’s no one else I can go to,” Lavender said, and she bit her lower lip again while looking nervously around the room There was obviously something she didn’t want to tell us.
“Miss Lacada, if you’re not upfront with us, we can’t help you,” I prompted. That seemed to convince her to suck it up and spit it out.
“Thomas is human,” she admitted quietly, as if afraid the place was bugged or something.
I looked at Burgundy, and she had the same expression on her face as I did. Disbelief, surprise; the look of someone who had just been told insects have taken over the world and we all have to bow down to a cockroach named Sir Crawlsalot.
“I see,” I said, trying to keep any judgment out of my voice.
I clearly failed as Lavender Lacada glared at me, but come on! It’s not like human and Magical relationships were so unheard of, but to be fair, they weren’t usually about love and marriage, if you know what I mean.
“I ain’t dumb,” Lavender exclaimed. “I know what people think of me, and I don’t care. We met about two years ago, when he was hiking in Canada and I was out for a visit to my favorite little forest spring. I’ve lived with him in the human world for a year now, in a cute little town in Louisiana.”
A faint smile appeared on her face like she just couldn’t help it, and I knew she was probably recalling that first meeting or picturing their happy little house in Louisiana. Then she remembered why she was here, and the smile vanished.
“There wasn’t ever a problem until the one time he came to Hurst. My big brother insisted on throwing the bachelor party here to show Thomas where I came from, and, as he said, show him that even if he was human, that he was part of the family now.”
That is a shockingly loving gesture for any Magical to make when their sibling was about to marry a human. I didn’t even think any of Burgundy’s siblings would have done anything like that, and that was the closest family I’d ever met.
“But I didn’t believe him,” Lavender continued. “He never liked Thomas. I tried to talk Thomas out of going, told him I thought Leland wanted to scare him away. But my Thomas refused to listen; that boy always has to prove himself.” Her pride in her Thomas was was obvious as her annoyance that he hadn’t listen to her.
“After the party, he didn’t say much about it, but it sounded like things had gone well. Except, a week after, his human friends threw him a party, too, and he never showed up. That was four days ago and no one has seen or heard from him since.”
“Have the human police come up with anything?” Burgundy asked.
“Not a thing!” Lavender rubbed at her eyes in frustration. “But I just know this ain’t anything the police can deal with. I’m sure my brother got him mixed into something bad when he was here. Please, tell me you’ll help me get him back.” She looked at us with big, blue, teary eyes. ”I can’t bear the thought of anything happening to him because of me, because of what I am.” Some of the tears spilled over and ran down her cheek, only to get absorbed back through her skin before they reached her chin.
I bit the inside of my cheek. Snooping around Windport for a human could easily get us into trouble. When humans come to Hurst, it’s usually to seedier towns like Sagemill or one of the Underland cities. Certainly not respectable places like Windport.
And if we didn’t find anything there, this case might even drag us into the human world, which seemed particularly unappealing.
I glanced over at Burgundy, who was staring awkwardly at her clip-board, clearly also a but startled by the case that had fallen into our laps. She was waiting for me to make the decision, like she usually did.
It wasn’t that she was a pushover or anything, but she always let me take the wheel when it came to picking cases. She always joked that it was her way of giving me the illusion I was in charge.
I wondered, for a moment, what I would do if she went missing, in a place she knew nothing about, and no one was willing to look for her properly because it could be too complicated.
I’d panic, is what I would do. Search every nook and cranny of Norhill, then Haldil, then the rest of Hurst, and then every inch of the human world until I knew she was safe and sound.
“We’ll help you,” I finally said, tearing my gaze away from Burgundy.
“Oh, thank you!” Lavender jumped up and gave me an unexpected hug. I wasn’t a great hugger, but somehow managed to come out of it with some dignity intact.
“When do you want us in Windport?” Burgundy asked, getting to her feet, already ready for action.
“I can have horses ready for you by tonight,” Lavender offered, “unless you want a carriage?”
Cars aren’t very big in Hurst; we prefer the steady old horse and carriage approach to travel. Or possibly some kind of magical transportation.
Except for some ancient computers and the occasional doorbell or cash register and the likes, technology isn’t really big in Hurst. Why use technology when magic can do the trick?
“We don’t need a roof, we’ll take the horses,” I replied. “We’ll pack and meet outside your hotel at noon? We’ll be in Windport before it gets dark.”
Lavender Lacada agreed, and after giving us the name of her hotel and settling on hourly fees and details, she walked back out into the rain.
Burgundy and I sat on top of our respective desks and stared at each other. No one wanted to say it, but we were both thinking it. Burgundy, as per usual, was the one to cave.
“We’re gonna get in trouble.”
“We can’t just walk away,” I argued. “Did you not hear that sob-story? Can we really leave some poor defenseless human to fend for himself?”
If this Thomas had accidentally made some sort of deal or lost a bet during his bachelor party, some big scary Magical could have dragged him off to get his payment. That usually including the guys’ soul, or his eyes for a special snack, or a lifetime of indentured servitude. You really never know in Hurst, even in up-scale places like Windport.
Burgundy gave me that look; the one that said I’m smarter than you so stop talking like I don’t know what needs to be done, and I knew she was sold.
Defeated, she sighed, flipping her green hair over her shoulder. “We’re still gonna get in trouble,” she repeated sourly.
Well, it’s not like she was wrong.

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The Case of the Missing Human – Episode Two

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The road from Norhill to Windport is about a five hour ride on horseback, and it’s not a comfortable one. The road doesn’t even get smooth you get passed Sagemill, one hour away.
As our horses flew by the town entrance to Sagemill, I couldn’t help but throw a melancholic glance towards it. I could feel Burgundy looking towards me, probably worried I’d decide to go in and abandon this whole case.
She didn’t have anything to worry about.
I have very mixed feelings about Sagemill. On the one hand, it’s a haven of depravity, and houses the largest number of sex-demons of any town in Hurst, and worse. It’s full of succubi and incubi, and other demons or creatures who feed of off sex or sin of any kind. Gambling, sex, drugs; it’s all just a day’s work for Sagemill. If you can compare it to anything in the human world, I suppose it would be like a kind of Las Vegas, but a hell of a lot less clean and fancy, and with a lot less rules, laws and morals. It’s the capitol of depraved behavior with a splash of ‘everyone-here-is-going-to-hell’ vibes.
So that’s one side of the Sagemill coin.
On the other hand, it was where I grew up, and it wasn’t as if every single memory of the first fourteen years of my life were completely terrible. I wouldn’t still be on speaking terms with my father if that was the case. Still, Sagemill always gave me a chilling sense that time would rewind and I would get dragged back into the pit of doom and never be able to leave again. It was tough enough to get out the first time.
I turned my head away, not spearing it a second glance as our rental horses kept thundering down the road that was slightly less lumpy and uneven now that we had gotten out of the slum that was anything further east than Sagemill.
It had turned out Miss Lacada was in quite the hurry and had departed ahead of us in a wagon carrying all our bags. She gave us an address of where to meet up in Windport, and instructed us to hurry. Following her wishes, after riding two hours straight we cut a huge chunk off the estimated travel time. I made a note to tip the horse-rental-guy for giving us his best.
We slowed down at the city gate. We’d taken special care to dress in our most prudent clothing before we left home, though for me that consisted of a pair of black jeans that were so tight I might as well not be wearing them at all, and a white sweater that didn’t do much to dial down my sex appeal even though the neckline went higher up than anything else I owned.
Windport isn’t quite as open-minded and free spirited as Norhill and the rest of East Haldil. Actually, even compared to all of Haldil, Windport isn’t a exactly a merry town.
It’s generally the home of the quiet Magicals, like the ones’ with no special powers or those who just want to live in peace with their elements, like the undines with water. If you stirred up trouble in Windport, you wouldn’t get burned at the stake – you’d just get kicked out for “disturbing the peace”. It’s not that all of Windport is boring; it’s just that they’re not big on raves and one-night-stands.
Which is too bad, really. What else did they do for fun on weekends?
We rode slowly through the shiny streets of Windport, almost blinded by the buildings even at night-time.
“Can you believe how clean this place is?” Burgundy asked.
“Yeah, kind of makes Norhill seem… Well, like Norhill,” I commented, and Burg chuckled. We were both used to the non-glamour of our home town, but it was still nice to be breathing fresh, big city air. Windport was the third largest city in Haldil, making it a grand metropolis compared to home.
We found Lavender’s address easily enough. It was an apartment building with two doormen outside. The architectural style in big cities usually has a remarkably human touch to them. This building could blend right in wherever this human Thomas came from, I was sure of it.
“Come in,” Lavender’s voice said from the other side of the door on the ninth floor. It had taken a good ten minutes for Burgundy and I to finally argue our way past the doormen.
Evidently, no matter how well dressed we thought we were, the people of Windport weren’t fooled. My cleavage (which is difficult to hide even in modest clothing) probably didn’t help matters much.
This was confirmed when we entered the room and Lavender froze mid-gulp of whatever expensive beverage she was consuming, and stared at me. Down, then up, then down again. She wasn’t even pretending to be subtle about it.
Okay, so I’m not great at turning of my slut-button, okay? It’s in my blood! And I didn’t think Lavender should be so judgmental – if she uncrossed those long legs, I’m sure I would have spotted something tiny and lacy underneath that short blue dress.
To her credit, Miss Lacada gathered her wits quickly. “So glad you could make it in such good time,” she said, though she had probably only got here thirty minutes before us.
She placed her glass delicately on a coaster on an expensive-looking table. Burgundy was already busy looking around the fancy apartment we stood in. Mermaids love all kinds of pretty, luxurious and posh things. I had to agree; Miss Lavender had herself some nice digs.
“Where do we start?” Lavender asked, straight to business.
“First of all, we’re going to need a list of everyone who was at the bachelor party,” I said. “Also of anyone else they might have come into contact with that night, and just anyone in general you might think of that could have a reason to wish Thomas ill, human or otherwise.”
“I thought you might need that.” Lavender gestured towards a desk on the left wall. The way she carried herself on her home court made her look a lot less fragile than she had in our office. “I already prepared one, it’s over there. All of Leland’s friends, the driver I’m certain they used, and a few places they may have stopped by.”
I headed for the lavish desk that was so neatly organized I felt like a slob just looking at it. At the corner of the desk stood a crystal decanter with a brown liquid in it – the decanter itself was probably worth more than all of my belongings combined.
Perfectly placed in the very center was a list written in neatly curved longhand. Lavender was definitely thorough; not only had she written down at least ten names, but she had even included addresses of where to find most of them.
“Great,” I folded the paper and put it in my back pocket. “I’ll start talking to some of these people first thing in the morning.”
“And I would like it if you could take me to your home in Louisiana,” Burgundy added, She was a lot less uncomfortable with human-world-visits than I was. “I know you said the police didn’t find anything there, but it’s worth a look around.”
“That’s not a problem.” Lavender tried to keep her voice neutral, but there was a catch in it that revealed how hard she was truly working to appear so composed. She did a good job of hiding her pain. “I’ll accompany you to the Portal House tomorrow. Is eight too early?”
“It’s perfect,” Burgundy assured her. She used that special tone of voice she had that always seemed to calm everyone down, make them feel taken care of.
“Very well. And of course you should stay here with me, Miss Valentine,” Lavender said to me. “I do have two guest bedrooms, but since we’re so close to the water I assumed –”
“I’ll find somewhere below the surface,” Burg finished for her. Given the choice between wet and dry, Burg would choose wet every time. I guess we sort of had that in common. “I’ll be back here first thing in the morning so we can discuss our game-plan. How does that sound?”
“Be here at seven, I will arrange breakfast,” Lavender said before she disappeared down a hallway, presumably to prepare the guestroom for me.
Hands on hips, I looked accusingly at Burgundy. “Not only are you leaving me alone with this princess over night, but I have to be up at seven in the morning?”
Burg just smirked at me. “It’ll be good for you. Just try not to sleep with this one, okay? We are looking for her fiancé, after all.”
“Have you seen this place?” I gestured at the extravaganza around us. “Those are freaking real candles in her chandelier. She’s not exactly my type.”
“Vel, she’s a living, breathing creature who presumably has some kind of sex organ. That’s the definition of your type.”
I placed a hand over my heart and feigned shock. “Are you calling me a slut?”
“Just keep your hands and other things to yourself,” Burgundy smiled at me and hugged me before she left to find an underwater tavern. They always had them in water towns. She would probably have a great night.
Me, on the other hand, spent my night tossing and turning in the satin sheets. It was too slippery, too unfamiliar. And there were paintings on the walls of people who kept staring at me, completely freaking me out. And it was too quiet.
In Norhill, there’s always sounds. Ruckus from the streets, kids or gangs running around getting into all sorts of trouble, or lovers who couldn’t be bothered to find a room before getting their groove going. And of course the drunks tumbling out of taverns at all times, singing songs and laughing and puking.
Windport was too quiet. How people were able to live somewhere this clean and peaceful, I would never understand. Life was messy; I preferred my surroundings to reflect that.
I tossed the silky sheets to the side and got up. Maybe fresh air would help with my restlessness. I opened the large window that faced a side road and the building next door. I guessed the rooms with a good view were reserved for Lavender herself and her more high-brow visitors.
I leaned on the window frame and felt the cool lake breeze wash over my body. I always slept in the nude, and the wind caressed me in a way that was much too comfortable. I tried to do as little naughtiness as possible when we were on a job, keep the blood flowing to my brain rather than other parts of my anatomy… But it wasn’t easy.
Even now, just standing here, exposed in the open window and thinking about doing something to release the tension inside to help me sleep, I felt that familiar sweet tingling between my legs and the urge to do something about it. I probably would have been able to resist if I didn’t spot something right then that had me catch my breath and bite my lips.
A light was on in the building across the street, in a room where they had obviously forgotten to close the curtains. From here I had a perfect view of the brunette woman who was currently leaning against the window frame while a tall, studly man had his arms wrapped around her, kissing her neck, her shoulders.
And they were both naked. The woman was full-figured, her body plump and soft and her breasts… Dear goddesses above, her breasts were fantastic. Two massive orbs of pale, soft flesh that swayed with her every movement. Even from here I could see how puckered and hard her light brown nipples were. The man reached a hand up and massaged one of them gently. I felt warm liquid slowly trickle down the inside of my thigh.
Damn it..
Unable to stop myself, I took a seat on the wide windowsill, one foot dangling out into the open air, the other propped against the frame.
When the man’s other hand began to wander slowly down her stomach, my own hand did the same. From the widening of her eyes and the parting of her lips, he obviously reached her happy place at the same time I reached mine. I eased my fingers between the lips that were already open wide, not so much welcoming me as begging for my touch.
In the soaking wetness I found my clit and started playing with it, gently at first, and then harder as I watched the lovers across the street, watched the pleasure on the woman’s face as her man did the same to her. When he bit down on her neck and she let out a scream of pleasure so loud it could be heard through the class, I couldn’t fight it any longer and slipped two fingers inside myself, shuddering with pleasure and biting my lips to keep my moans from waking up my hostess.
I rubbed my fingers roughly against my favorite spot, moving around it, pressing it harder and harder each time I slid across it but rarely enough that the teasing was driving me mad, and my leg leaning against the window frame begun to shake with anticipation.
Finally my heavy breathing and shuddering was matching the woman as the man drove her to the same point of madness I found myself on. As she once again screamed in ecstasy, I let my fingers slide over my oh-so-sensitive spot and nearly bit my tongue of as the orgasm rippled through my body, nearly sending me falling out the ninth floor window.
I managed to keep myself seated and continued to fuck myself until I couldn’t take another second, and slowly I pulled my sticky, wet fingers out, groaning happily as I slid them up and across my sensitive clit.
I glanced down at the window and found the couple had moved over to their bed. I could see more of him now than I could of her, and figured it was time to give them their privacy.
With the warm and pleasurable feeling of satisfaction flowing through my veins, I wobbled back to bed on shaky legs.
I definitely didn’t have any problems falling asleep after that.
Of course, life decided to be a bitch as usual and I only got about two hours of blissful dreams before there was a knock on my door and Lavender cracked it open to tell me breakfast would be ready in ten minutes.
When I groaned and buried myself under the pillow, I heard a muffled “excuse me”, and two seconds later someone jumped into my bed, making me shriek in surprise and sit up, half expecting to find a guy with a knife and dirty tank-top about to murder me.
“Rise and shine, sleepyhead,” Burgundy chirped, trying not to topple over laughing at what I was sure was a hilarious expression on my face. I grabbed my pillow and hit her over the head with it.
“You are evil!” I accused her. “What if I’d melted you without thinking out of fear for my life? Ever think of that?”
“Oh, please – mermaid, remember? Water trumps fire.” She ruffled my probably already messy hair, and my heart did that thing where it forgot how to beat properly.
Burgundy was sitting in my bed, inches away from me, looking amazing in her loose jeans and bright green shirt that matched her hair. Why did she always have to look so gods damn beautiful? Her shirt wasn’t buttoned all the way up, and the pale, soft flesh of her cleavage was right there. It took all my self control not to look.
“Get dressed, we’ve got a case to solve.” And just as quickly as she had appeared, she bounced out of the room. I forced myself out of bed and into the bathroom, staring at myself in the mirror.
“You’re completely pathetic,” I told my reflection. “I just wanted you to know that.”

*

The fancy breakfast was awkward, though I didn’t complain about the feast of pastries, eggs, meats and fruits that would have lasted us a full week at home. And we did get some useful information during the meal; apparently, for the few days Thomas had been home after the party, he had been acting very figity and nervous, Lavender told us; but he had also been overly affectionate with his bride-to-be. Wrapping his arms around her randomly, kissing her deeper than the occasion called for, and pulling her into the bathroom much more often than usual.
What she was describing sounded a lot like similar stories we’d heard about people who had made deals but were given a few days before payment was due.
I didn’t really like where this tail seemed to be leading us.
After breakfast, our trio split up. Burgundy and Lavender left for the Portal House that would take them to the human world, and I went in search of the first name on my list; Lavender’s brother, Leland Lacada. He had arranged the party in the first place and seemed like a good place to start. Even his sister had been suspicious of his intentions.
I’d been told he would be at work by now, and headed directly to the office. Apparently Leland ran the family business since their father was too old and frail to handle the reins anymore. It wasn’t a long walk from Lavenders’ building down to the pier where the Lacada’s main headquarters overlooked Fraylake.
From what I understood, they were the largest producers of underwater housing and travel, designing and building pretty much everything not naturally occurring in Freylake. And from the look of their office, they did a pretty decent job.
It was more like a mansion than an office building, with towers and archways and a fucking courtyard that faced the water. A huge, gorgeous boat was docked right on the opposite side of the building, with the words “The Lacada Warrior” painted in big golden letters across the stern. So I guess a taste for the extravagant ran in the family.
“I have an appointment,” I told the guy at the reception. I didn’t know what he was, but the antlers on his head didn’t stop the rest of him from being gorgeous. In fact, everyone who walked by seemed to be incredibly beautiful. Must be a job requirement – apparently at Lacada Water Realty, even the employees weren’t allowed to be unattractive. Couldn’t wait to meet the CEO. He was obviously overcompensating for something.
That something apparently turned out to me “not god-like enough”. My first thought upon entering his office was that if he had been human, they would have put him on the front cover of every magazine they had. Perfect, blonde hair, eyes the color of the Fraylake waters and a body that looked like it had been sculpted by someone who definitely knew what they were doing with their hands. Hotness ran in the family.
When he saw me, he dropped his papers down on the desk and ogled me without even pretending to be proper about it.
You’re the one my sister hired to find her human fellow?” he whistled under his breath. “Man, if the private investigators my ex-wives hired to spy on me looked anything like you, I’m sorry they were so good at hiding themselves. I could’ve given them something a lot more fun to report back to my women.”
Oh, good. A sleazebag. “Yeah, I’m already finding you gross so I’m just going to skip right to the part where I ask you what happened at that bachelor party.”
Leland chuckled, and even just with that little noise he sounded full of himself. “I’m not going to lie and say I was thrilled about my sister falling for a no-talent, run-of-the-mill human boy like Thomas. But I love my sister, so I was willing to show him a good time, just like I would have if she was marrying a Magical.”
Gee, how generous. “And I’m sure if you got to give him a hard time in the process, push his buttons a little bit, that wouldn’t hurt either, am I right?”
“What are future brother-in-law’s for if they can’t push a few buttons?” he smirked.
“So what happened?” I asked again. “Talk me through it. What the hell kind of trouble could you have gotten him into in a place like Windport that caused him to vanish mysteriously a week later?”
Leland laughed, not just a chuckle this time but a full out booming, mocking laugh, so much that he had to lean on his desk to catch his breath.
“You think we held the bachelor party here? In Windport?” he scoffed. “Don’t I look like I have higher standards for a good time than that?”
He certainly did. Leland looked like the kind of high-up, self-obsessed guy who would do anything for a thrill. A guy rich and powerful enough to break all the rules and get away clean.
Fuck. My stomach churned as I put it together. “You took him to Sagemill, didn’t you?”
The smug look in his eyes told me the answered before he even opened his mouth. “The whole point was to show him a good time before his wedding, right? Treat him like a part of the group, make him feel welcome?” There was that smug, gross chuckle again. “So we took him to the most exiting place we could think of. Show him what a really good time looks like.”
“Why didn’t Lavender mention any of this when she came to us?”
“She doesn’t know.” Leland looked at me like I was an idiot for even asking the question. “We made Thomas swear up and down that he wouldn’t tell. Lav despises Sagemill. She’s a good girl. If she knew I took her precious human boy to that snake-pit, she’d rip my head off with her bare hands.”
Sounded like fun. I hoped she would do just that when I told her. “I see,” I said. “I take it you’re a frequent visitor, are you? Of Sagemill? You look the type.”
“I enjoy a good time. Nothing wrong with that.”
“Not for you, maybe,” I agreed. “But even a silver-spooned asshole like you ought to know how most humans fare in Sagemill. Most of them are lucky if they even make it out alive. And you still brought your clean-cut in-law-to-be human into that mud-bath?”
Leland finally had the decency to look offended. He crossed his arms and glared at me, shoulders squared as he tried to show off how powerful and important he was.
“I admit, I wanted to see what the guy was made of, and he didn’t disappoint. I’m not going to apologize for giving him a hard time to some private investigator who looks like she belongs wrapped around a pole having gold coins thrown at her feet.”
Admittedly I had a lot more questions to ask Leland Lecada, but after I punched him in the nose I decided to storm out with grace and ask his friends those questions, instead.

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The Case of the Missing Human – Episode Three

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It turned out most of Leland Lacada’s friends were as large and wealthy creeps as he was. Shocking, I know. The answers to my questions varied from straight-up-asshole, to undercover-sexist, to cowardly and intimidated. I knew how to handle all these types without trouble, but it still wasn’t the best morning ever.

The first guy I went to see didn’t exactly raise my level of respect for Leland and his palls. When I showed up at his luxury apartment at eleven on a work-day, it took about fifteen minutes and a hundred rings of the doorbell for him to open up, naked except for his snazzy robe. His hair was still fuzzy from sleep, so I assumed the fifteen minutes had all been spent on getting his tiny little butt out of bed.

“Toshej?” I asked, half hoping I had the wrong place.

“I didn’t order any entertainment this morning,” he replied groggily, and I resisted the urge to punch this one, too. He had just woken up – I would give him a pass. Next time, there would be a ball-kick involved.

“Well, I didn’t order a lazy dick, either, but here we are. Can I come in? I called your assistant like two hours ago.” Using Lavender’s phone. I hated phones. That’s what we had the messaging system for.

“Oh… So that’s what her note was about. Guess I should have read the message.” He clearly hadn’t woken up yet.

“You really should. But since I’m here,” I shoved my way passed him and into a grand foyer. “I assume that’s the living room?”

Without waiting for a reply, I headed for the room with the open double doors where I could see a fluffy-looking couch on the other side. Ignoring the extreme extravagance of the room, I told the flustered man-child to sit down, which he did, probably too confused to argue.

“I’m here to talk about the bachelor party Leland Lacada threw for his sister’s human fiance. You’re going to tell me everything that happened that night.”

“Uhm… Okay.” Toshej scratched his head, confused and still half asleep. I did not have time for this.

I pulled at the fire that ran through my blood thanks to my mothers’ genes, and in a second my hands were glowing like molten glass. Toshej’s eyes widened in shock, and he actually scrambled on the couch like he could get further into it somehow.

“Toshej,” I said firmly, trying to get the guy to focus. “Wake up, pull yourself together and start talking, or your I’m going to grab something on your body and burn it off. And trust me, it’s going to be something you don’t want to have burned off.”

My methods might be crude, but hey – they work.

Toshej memory of the night seemed to open up after that, at least until the moment he passed out high out of his mind in a back room of a Sagemill gambling house. His memory wasn’t exactly the best – unsurprisingly there were a lot of gaps he couldn’t fill, but essentially this is what I managed to piece together.

Thomas had arrived through the Windport portal in the early afternoon, and they had all been there to greet him with a bottle of the finest alcoholic beverage money could buy and a long carriage drawn by no less than six horses like they were the fucking princes of Hurst.

Unsurprisingly, Thomas had been a little overwhelmed at the luxury, the magical world he found himself in and the variety of males greeting him (Toshej had orange skin and horns poking out of his hair, and he probably wasn’t the strangest-looking Magical there that night), and they all thought a great way to get him to relax would be to get him drunk on the road to Sagemill. I doubt his future wife would have approved of that plan.

The guys had apparently had a lot of fun at Thomas’ expense, pretending to be friendly while all along they planned to put him through the roughest parts of the roughest city in Hurst and see how he fared.

“Honestly,” Toshej said, “Leland hates the idea of their family name being sullied by a human that I think he subconsciously hoped Thomas would get himself killed that night.”

No kidding. And I didn’t think it was all that subconscious.

“We took him to the Jade Vine,” Toshej continued, and I nearly burned his balls off right then out of pure rage.

“You took a newbie human to the Jade Vine? What the hell is wrong with you people?” I snapped. “You couldn’t take him to Midnight or Aurora or the Glass Slipper or literally any other place? You just had to take him to the fucking Vine?”

Leland must really have wanted Thomas to get himself into trouble. The Jade Vine was one of the most hardcore clubs in Sagemill, and that was saying something.

It wasn’t just a brothel or a gambling house or a dance hall or a drinking establishment; it was all of the above, and it was filled to the brim with the darkest, cruelest and coldest bastards in Sagemill – all the baddest bad guys co-owned it, and most of them frequented it for the sole purpose of finding vulnerable, naïve Magicals or humans who were just dying to get themselves into some kind of trouble or other.

The Jade Vine was a bad place. I should know. My father owned their biggest competitor club, the Black Opal. The only people who got safely out of the Vine were rich, influential types like Leland and his friends, who knew how the game worked and spent enough to be considered more valuable as free men than indebted to one of the owners.

“Look, it’s Leland’s playground, okay?” Toshej said defensively. “He has a permanent room upstairs, he’s one of their favored customers. He didn’t want to dial down his ways just because we were dragging around a human.”

He spoke the word human like he was talking about being stuck with an unwanted, sick animal for the night. He didn’t have any more friendly feels towards humans than Leland did. Had none of these men given a damn about how bad that place would be for an inexperienced human?

I took a moment to reminded myself that people being scumbags wasn’t anything new, and I was here to do a job. “Okay. So, what happened at the Jade Vine?”

Sadly, after they walked through the front doors, Toshej’s memory got very foggy – apparently the first thing he had done was purchase himself a nice mixture of the best opiates in Hurst and proceed to taking all of them nearly at the same time. I couldn’t get any details out of him as to what actually happened next.

I had a bit more luck with the next friend on my list, though he was even more frustrating than Toshej. When I entered his fancy office, he was standing by the window, looking out on the water and playing on a fiddle. It was a beautiful, sad tune, though he looked quite cheerful while playing it, standing there in his perfect suit.

Tall, muscular, with pale skin, the only thing that didn’t fit with his looks was the wild, dark brown hair that looked like it had never met a comb. It was long, going far down his back. The hair, the fiddle, and the fact that he had an artificial waterfall along an entire wall of his office told me to beware. This guy was a fossegrim.

When I cleared by throat, he immediately stopped playing and turned to face me. For a moment he looked insulted at my interruption, and then a playful flicker appeared in his eyes for just a moment before he put on a friendly, welcoming and incredibly forced smile.

“Ah, you must be my twelve o’clock,” he said in a voice as clear and pretty as his fiddle tune. He rounded his desk and extended a hand. “Thedrick Brooks; it’s a pleasure.”

He looked down my body in that a way that was less than flattering, and I knew what he was thinking – he would do me right on his desk if I offered, but he wouldn’t be seen with someone like me on his arm in public. Oh, well. Fossegrims generally preferred men, anyway.

“Yeah, I’m sure. Velvet Valentine. I prefer to get straight down to business, if you don’t mind.” Which he obviously did. For just a second, anger flickered across his face before he managed to smooth it down again. Apparently someone had issues with a woman taking charge of the conversation. Fossegrims were old-fashioned in too many ways.

“Indeed,” he said, the picture of politeness. He gestured to a set of blue leather chairs by the waterfall, and I took my seat in one of them. I didn’t miss it when he glanced down between my legs as I crossed them, and he frowned as he caught a glimpse of my panties beneath the short skirt. Funny that he seemed to mind my impropriety when I knew that he willingly followed his friend to Sagemill.

“Tell me about the bachelor party.” I didn’t want to waste any time with this guy. “I know you took Thomas to the Jade Vine. What happened there? What kind of trouble did you and your rowdy, rich friends get him into?”

Thedrick dropped the facade of pleasantness then, and his distaste at both my behavior and accusations showed on his face.

“What kind of right do you think you have to come to my office and judge me?” he asked angrily. “We had fun with the boy – of course we did. A human wanting to marry a Magical, a Lacada no less?” He laughed mockingly. “A family of high standing? The whole situation was laughable. Naturally we wanted to teach the boy a lesson or two.”

“Oh, please tell me about these lessons. I’m sure there’s a great story in there somewhere.” I raised my eyebrows, quietly daring him to keep fighting me.

“Very well,” Thedrick spread his arms as if he were an open book. “I have nothing to hide. Telling you will cause me no harm. We brought him to the Jade Vine because Leland is a favorite there, and we knew we would be shown a good time. We also knew they love fresh humans. Somebody new walks in and they just have to get their hands on them.”

“Yeah, I remember. But they need to have a reason for putting their hands on them. So, what reason did you give them?”

Thedrick smirked. “The human was already good and tipsy from the ride. The minute we stepped foot inside the Vine, and we started handing him pipes and glasses, well… He didn’t much care to ask what was in any of them.”

He seemed too chipper about that. “So you got him drunk and high. Then what?”

“We started playing, of course. What else do you do at a gambling house? And the boy clearly knew at least a thing or two about cards, because he did pretty well for himself. At first. Wasn’t long before his laughter got louder, his speech got blurrier and he started losing. Big. Didn’t quite hit zero, but he got close.”

He folded his hands in his lap, tapping his thumbs together and grinning at the memory of Thomas making a fool himself in front of them and the rest of the perverts in the Jade Vine.

“Then, before long, a young lady – a background dancer for the band – caught the boy’s eye. He nearly started drooling, the pathetic creature. Muttering about how beautiful  she was, how he was just dying to have her.”

“And I’m sure Leland, like any kind future brother-in-law, wisely advised Thomas to not let the booze and drugs go to his head and instead remain faithful to his future bride?”

Thedrick laughed. “You are more than welcome to think that if you like, but it didn’t exactly go down like that.”

“How did it go down?” I asked, my impatience growing with every smug word that left this creep’s mouth.

“We encouraged him to go for it. He only had a short while of freedom left, after all. Why not enjoy it?” He grinned. “Soon as the band got a break, we told him to buy the lady a drink.”

“I’m sure you also warned him that anyone who goes below zero at the Vine and still tries his luck with one of the ladies of the house receives a not-so-friendly invitation to come meet the big men upstairs?”

He didn’t reply, simply kept that smug grin on his face and waited for me to move on. I swallowed my disgust and focused on doing my job. “What happened next? After you sent a defenseless, broke human over to buy a drink he couldn’t afford?”

“I honestly couldn’t tell you,” Thedrick said. “We saw him buying her a drink, and after that nobody spotted him for the rest of the night. I swear it on my fiddle,” he winked at me. “Next thing we heard was that Leland had gotten a message the following day from his very unhappy sister who was none too pleased with the state her man was in that morning when he stumbled through the front door.”

“And in between, you’ve got nothing?” I highly doubted that was the truth.

“Nothing at all.” He held my skeptical gaze, and it was clear that I had gotten everything out if him that I was going to get. I didn’t want to waste another moment in his company.

“Very well then. I’ll get out of your…” I looked at the knotted mess on top of his head. “Hair,” I finished, and hurried out of my chair and towards his door.

“Oh, one more thing, Miss Valentine.” I looked back to watch as Thedrick walked over to his desk and picked up the fiddle. “I hope you’re not getting Lavender’s hopes up. The state that human of hers was in, I doubt he made very good choices. She really shouldn’t expect to get him home in one piece.”

He turned his back to me and continued playing his fiddle before I could reply.

*

I got the same story from every slimy man-thing I interviewed throughout the day. They filled Thomas up with drugs and booze, got him to loose all his money, and sent him after the pretty background dancer. Not that a single one of them could tell me anything about her, not even what she looked like.

A real helpful crowd Leland ran with. I couldn’t imagine why his sister had been worried about letting her fiance party with them.

When I entered the office of the last man on my list, my expectations were at rock bottom. They were raised slightly though, when Mr. Jordan Wayland didn’t send his business partner out of the office the second I told him who I was. All the other creeps had insisted on being questioned in private.

Jordan was a dark, handsome man with kind, brown eyes, and judging from the pile of hair-covered blankets in the corner of the otherwise spotless office, I guessed him to be a shapeshifter of the canine variety. The first non-water creature I had encountered all day.

“Oh yes, Miss Valentine,” he greeted me. “You’re here about the bachelor party, I assume? Good, I’ve been expecting you. Poor Lavender, I hate to think what she’s going through right now.”

He was the first man I had spoken to that sounded sincere when he spoke, and I was more than a little surprised. “She’s holding it together respectably,” I replied. I glanced towards the business partner who was standing besides Jordan’s desk, arms crossed and curiously raised.

She was a gorgeous creature, that was for sure, and her strangeness enhanced her lovely features, her slight, tall stature, her subtle curves. Her yellow skin was dotted with spots of orange, and her shaved scalp was covered in short, fuzzy white hair that made me want to run my hands over it to see if it was really as soft as it looked.

She stared at me with curious, giant eyes, the color of the flaming orange sky just before the sun is about to set, and she licked her lips whenever I looked her way.

“Are you sure you don’t want to have this conversation in private?” I asked Jordan, who responded with a humorous chuckle.

“Please; if Rendra and I had any secrets from one another, our company would have gone under years ago.” He looked towards her fondly, like a brother, and I immediately understood that this one was ten times more trustworthy than any of the other scum I had spoke with.

“Forgive me for saying so, Mr. Wayland, but I’ve spoken to all the guests at that party, and you don’t really seem the type to hang out with their crowd. Why were you there?”

Another good-humored chuckle. “Leland and some of the others know me from various business dealings. It’s true I don’t tend to party the way they do, but they’re not all as bad as they seem. We get along well enough. And honestly, I was glad for the invitation.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Well, the party was for a human. I doubted many of the others would be very sympathetic to that. I felt someone needed to be around to look after the man. It shames me that I failed.”

Normally, I would have doubted anyone who spoke so kindly, who seemed so perfect, but something about Jordan Wayland left me with the feeling that he was incapable of lying. A truly genuine person. It wasn’t uncommon for shapeshifters to be more… human – for lack of a better phrase – than most Magicals.

“Could you tell me what happened that night, in your own words?”

He proceeded to tell me a story that for the most part matched the descriptions I had gotten from his friends, with slight alterations. Jordan described the things the others had glanced over; their mockery of Thomas, their continuous filling of his glass and persuasions of him to drink it. Jordan had tried to warn Thomas to slow down, and had done his best to look after him, but he was fiercely outnumbered by the others, and after a while, Thomas was too far gone to be interested in his help at all.

“When he was running out of money, I lost on purpose to help him stay above zero, but it didn’t help,” he said sadly. “The drugs had gone straight to his head. And by the time he saw the girl… there was nothing to be done for him.”

“None of the others seem to have gotten a good look at this mystery dancer girl. Perhaps you could give me a description?”

He thought for a moment. “She was tall and thin. Her hair was very long, all the way down her back, and golden blonde, like honey. Eyes the same color; quite extraordinary. She was beautiful, there was no denying that, but Thomas looked at her like she was one of the great goddesses. I can’t blame him, but it was as if he was spellbound.”

“Sounds like he must have been under the influence of something strong. Or maybe she was just that hot. Is it true that he was last seen buying her a drink?”

“That’s true. One minute he was by the bar, slurring his words as they spoke, and another… poof. Nowhere to be seen.”

“Great… That will make him easy to find. Thanks anyway. It’s been a treat talking to someone who didn’t act like a total pig.”

“My pleasure,” he grinned. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“I don’t think so, but…” I turned my attention to the woman, Rendra. “This place is a practical maze of hallways and stairs. Easy to get lost, especially with my sense of direction. I don’t suppose you could do a girl a favor and show me the way to the ladies room?” I flashed her my best seductive smile. “I promise I’ll make it worth your while.”

A point that was proven a short while later when I had her moaning against the cubicle door. My fingers deep inside of her and my tongue moving softly over her clit, touching it just enough to drive her a little bit crazy while my fingers moved fiercely around inside, making her grip my hair so tightly it hurt but I didn’t mind – the pain made me all the more eager to please.

She wasn’t able to keep her happy-sounds very quiet, and as I continued my quest to get her to that dreamy place where there is nothing but sweet pleasure, she was banging her free hand against the door behind her, whimpering under my touch.

Just as I was nearing the finish line, feeling her warm liquids run down her thigh as I moved my fingers in circles around a spot she seemed to find particularly enticing, someone started to knock on the door.

“Is everything okay in there?” some annoying busy-body asked, presumably thinking I was committing murder or something. I would have told her to fuck off, but my tongue was a little occupied.

Luckily, just as the woman knocked again and repeated her question, I pushed Rendra past the breaking point to where the mind shatters into pieces of bliss, and she banged against the wall, screaming out, “Yes, yes, oh gods, yes!

That certainly made the busy-body scamper away in a hurry.

*

I beat Burgundy and Lavender back to the apartment by an hour or so. I sat curled up on the sofa with a glass of something expensive in my hand when they walked in. Lavender barely glanced at me as she hurried down the hall, and I heard the bathroom door close behind her.

“What was that about?”

“She’s had a rough day,” Burgundy replied. “I had to ask her a lot of personal questions.”

“Well? What did you learn?” I asked before she had even hung her coat up. Burgundy paused, took one look at me and put her hands on her hips.

“Vel, you look way too cheerful. I thought we agreed you were going to try and keep it locked up when we work?”

I shrugged innocently. “Key word ‘trying’. Nobody’s perfect. So what did you find out?”

Burgundy just shook her head with a little smile that said I was already forgiven for my little indiscretion. She hung her coat and joined me on the sofa.

“This is definitely not a human thing.” She threw her legs up and into my lap, and I automatically started rubbing her feet. “Everything looked beyond normal, and the police certainly don’t know a thing. Their theory is that he ran off with some broad.” She moaned slightly as I pressed a good spot on her foot. The sound sent a shiver through my body.

“Thomas seems like a clean-living, almost boringly decent guy. There was nothing dark and dirty about his place. But I did find something suspicious.”

Burgundy pulled her little notepad out of her pocket and flipped it open. “He’s been doing some strange things since he came back from that party, things that leads me to think he got himself into trouble. It looks like he settled or pre-paid every bill they had, donated a lot of his clothes and personal belongings, and I found a fresh will in a locked drawer where he left everything he owns to Lavender and various charities.”

“Damn it. I was hoping you wouldn’t find any of those,” I admitted. Although I was surprised Thomas had anything left to leave anyone after his trip.

“How come?”

I told her everything I’d learned from Leland and his friends, from Sagemill to the Jade Vine to the mysterious dancer girl. “We both know how this story ends, Burg. At best, we’ll find this guy chained up in the basement of his new demonic owner. At worst…”

I let my voice trail off, and I saw in her eyes that there was no need for me to go on. At worst, Thomas was already stone cold dead.

“Well,” Burg said with determination, “as much as it sucks, it’s our job to find out which. In the meantime, who gets the short straw and tells our client what her fiance was up to during his bachelor party?”

That turned out to be me. Burgundy excused herself to run pick us up some food, and left me alone with Lavender. I tried to get her to sit down while I calmly explained her what I had heard (I internally pinched myself for my honesty policy of never lying to a client), but the second I was done she jumped up from her seat with clenched fists.

“Those bastards!” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe Leland would do this to me!” She ran a hand through her previously perfect hair. “No, never mind that, I can believe it. What I can’t believe is that Thomas would have fallen for it! The drugs, the girl?! How could he do this to me?” She sat down again, burying her face in her hands, proudly trying to hide her tears.

“You know how fragile humans can be,” I tried to reassure her. “One whiff of a magic opiate and they’re off to neverland; you can’t be sure he meant a thing he said or did after that poison got its claws into him.”

She remained down, taking deep breaths in and out, and I stayed silent until she came back up, her make-up a little smudged but otherwise her expression was composed.

“You’re right, you’re right. I know. I’m angry, but it doesn’t change anything.” She took another deep breath. “I love him, and I want him back. I can yell at him after I have him in my arms.” Damn. It might be time for me to think more of Lavender Lacada than I had before. She was a strong lady, this one.

“Good idea. Very big of you,” I complimented her.

“Yes, well… One more thing.” She looked up at me, her face dry as the tears had already been absorbed back through her skin. “If… When you find Thomas… Whatever trouble he has gotten himself into with the help of my brother, I want you to get him out of it. If it’s worse than I fear and requires a lot from you, I will triple your pay. Is that understood?”

I swallowed hard, trying to keep from whooping with joy. That might come across as inappropriate. “Understood.”

*

“Holy crap! Triple pay?” Burgundy exclaimed when I told her a few hours later. Lavender had gone to bed while Burgundy and I were sitting by the window talking about our game-plan. “That’ll come in handy.”

“Are you kidding? For that money, you could get the hell out of your sister’s place and I could get actual walls to cover up the freezing brick in our office.”

Burgundy chuckled. “You do know that will only happen if we actually solve the case, right?” I nodded. Of course I knew that. “And to solve the case, we have to follow the clues. Find this girl he fell so hard for.”

And just like that she dumped the mental bucket of cold water on me, forcing me to acknowledge the truth that I had steadfastly ignored all day long.

“Fuck.” I looked out the window, over the still water of Freylake. “We have to go to Sagemill, don’t we?” I’d known it would come to this, and still I wasn’t prepared for it.

“Yeah,” Burg replied, sounding as happy about it as I felt. “And you know what that means.”

“That my lady-parts will be on fire from the time we hit the city gates thanks to all the sexual energy that floats around in the city?”

“Yes, that. And, more importantly, if we don’t stay at your dad’s place, he’ll be pissed off and blame it on me.”

I turned away from the window and met Burgundy’s stunning eyes. “Right. Staying at Dad’s place.” I sighed and looked back out at the water. “Double fuck.

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The Case of the Missing Human – Episode Four

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It was raining buckets when we rode through the city gates of Sagemill. The familiar scent hit me like a wrecking ball; puke, alcohol, sex, sweat… Smelled like home. All the rain in the world couldn’t wash away that stench.

We followed the dirt road towards the actual city. The buildings stretched up high, all bricks and stone, grey, red and brown. There were no fancy carvings here; no pretty engravings like the marble buildings of Windport. No paved streets, either. This mucky road wasn’t going to get replaced by nice little smooth stones once we reached the city.

Sagemill wasn’t a place that pretended to me more than she was. Sagemill was dirty, rotten and perverse, and she looked like it.

“How do you feel?” Burgundy asked. She looked snug as a bug with the rain pelleting down on her. She wasn’t wearing a coat, and the water made her blue shirt cling to her body, making everything visible. Hair sticking to her face and neck made her look sexier than anyone had a right to.

“I’m fine,” I said, but she didn’t buy it for a second.

“Don’t lie to me, Vel. It’s been a long time since you were back here; it’s got to be hard.”

“Not hard, just… Weird.”

She wasn’t wrong; it had been at least two years since I’d been back in Sagemill – longer than I’d ever been away from it. The sexual aura of Sagemill can be intoxicating and sometimes maddening to sex demons; even half-sex demons. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing prim and proper about me and I sure as hell didn’t have any objections to kinky or frequently, but Sagemill made me feel utterly possessed by my urges, completely out of control.

And I liked control.

So two years ago I’d told Dad that if he wanted to see me anymore, he’d have to come visit his daughter in Norhill, because I was done with Sagemill.

Apparently not as done as I had hoped.

“Sure you can handle this?” Burg asked as we walked past our first buildings. I could see people in the distance. It was nothing but warehouses out here, but a few blocks in and things would start getting uglier.

“I’m a professional; I can handle anything.” I winked at her, and Burg laughed, knowing damn well that I was full of shit. I was already getting dizzy just from the movement of the horse beneath me; I worried things would get so slippery that I’d end up sliding right off and into the mud. Velvet Valentine; the picture of elegance

Second thing that hit us after the smell was the music. There was always music in Sagemill, like a soundtrack in the background of the drama and horror that went on. Saxophones and piano, the soft clinking of guitars and the occasional violin and lyre. Some of the music came from street performers or outside establishments, but the rest were snippets that floated out through the doors and windows of gambling houses or dance halls.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” I said before I could stop myself.

“Really?” Burgundy asked. “It sounds all disorganized and jumbled to me.”

“That’s because you’re fresh meat. I’m a seasoned, well cooked steak marinated in the juices of this place. I grew up to these sounds. If you hear past the discord and focus on the individual tracks, the music is spellbinding.”

Burgundy was quiet for a moment, looking at me with searching eyes, and then her expression softened into a smile. “I think you miss this place sometimes.”

“Not intentionally,” I assured her as I swung down from the horse. “We’ll walk from here,” I instructed. “Gets crowded just around the corner.”

“Your dad’s expecting us, right?” She got down and led her horse after me down the road, mud splashing all over her shiny black boots.

“No doubt he’ll have sent his lackey to stand outside in the rain, awaiting our arrival.”

“Shit, I had completely forgotten about the lackey! What’s his name again, Nicky, Nakki, something like that?”

“Niku, though I just call him Hairball. He’s never complained.”

“Maybe because he doesn’t talk?” Burg suggested.

“He grunts – he could have grunted in an unsatisfied manner at the name if he didn’t like it. Besides, the thing’s known me my whole life; he could have eaten me when I was little if he so chose.”

“And risk being skinned alive by your father? No one is that brave, or stupid.”

“Now that you mention it, that thick, coarse fur of his would probably make a pretty decent travel blanket. Think I should ask Dad about it?”

“Absolutely not! You are not planning the death of Niku just because you like his fur. Will you just lead the way?”

“I’m multitasking,” I quipped back, but did as ordered. We made our way through the smaller streets and back-alleys of the edge of town, but soon we rounded a corner and found ourselves in the heart of the beast.

The music got louder, the smells got stronger, and I got wetter – and I’m not talking about the rain. It was like being slapped in the face with sexual energy. Every inch of the place was seeped in it, it pulsated at you like a damn curse making its way beneath your skin, trying to take over your body.

If I hadn’t been holding on to the horse like it was a chain tying me down, I would have run off into one of the dancing establishments and probably never be heard from again. Instead I displayed and uncharacteristic amount of willpower as I led Burgundy straight through the city center, though the giant square that housed the biggest and baddest places Sagemill had to offer.

In the very middle of the square was a giant fountain where muddy brown water sprouted from the pornographic images of humans and demons going at it like bunnies. Drunkards and lovers alike lingered around it, or sat on the wide edge of it, or danced around it to the early evening music.

The sun hadn’t set yet, which meant you could still see too much – Sagemill was a place best observed under the cover of night. During the day, you had to look away. Too many things no one was supposed to see, like that male Merrow over there in the corner having a knife held to his throat as a group of three white-dressed women robbed him blind. Even took his hat.

But nobody saw, of course. Even the ones looking right at it. That’s how things were done in Sagemill. Nobody ever saw a thing they weren’t supposed to.

I looked up at the buildings surrounding the square, and there was the Jade Vine, dominating the skyline like a bejeweled queen, the only building taking up one whole side of the square. Her green and blue lights shone out through the windows like the eyes of demons, which was exactly what lurked inside.

On the next line of the square sat the Devil’s Flower, a tavern famous for serving multiple beverages that caused incredible hallucinations or dreams, among other things. Beside it was the crystalline façade of the Jewel Caterpillar – the most notorious smoke and drug house in town, with it’s tent-covered tables and very expensive guest rooms upstairs. Third on that side was the Amethyst, which was a hotel but also housed a gambling facility in the back of the restaurant and was very famous for their incredible dance performances.

Directly on the other side of the square from the Jade Vine lay two buildings – the Haladie, which housed the most beautiful and rare dancers and sex workers in all of Hurst, and next to it; the Black Opal. My father’s prized property.

The building was black as the soul of most people who passed through it’s doors, with a pattern of silver stones embedded on every level. The ground floor had red stained glass windows that looked so alluring that most people would stop by just to see what it was, and not leave until all of their goodness had been cut out of them.

The last side of the square was filled with three taverns and a smaller gambling house, and of course even more depraved establishments were hiding behind all these places, all just as bad and just as filled up with lost souls.

I aimed us towards the Black Opal, and down a side street next to it.

“Forgot how cozy this place is,” Burg muttered behind me.

“Don’t let my father hear you say something like that; he’ll think you’re insulting his pride and joy,” I warned.

“I thought you were his pride and joy.”

“I’m a close second to the Opal.”

We reached the end of the alley and stopped on the street behind the Black Opal, where there were more dance halls and taverns, but also apartments. Outside of the one directly across from the Opal’s back entrance stood a large, hairy beast with the body of a man and a face more closely resembling an ape. His hairy hands had long fingers that ended in claw-like nails, and he stared at us with a very disturbing intensity.

“Hello, Hairball,” I greeted him. “Long time no see.” Dad didn’t exactly bring him along on his trips to visit me.

“Rrrrrh,” Niku replied before taking our horses and bags from us and pointing towards the front door. “Rrrh grrrfha,” he added as he walked away with the horses, probably to put them in the stable.

“He’s just as charming as I remember him.” Burgundy stared after the hairy man-thing in wonder. “Did he try to say that we could just go upstairs?”

“Even if he didn’t, I have no intention of standing out here in the rain to wait for his return.” I heaved open the heavy doors and shooed Burg in ahead of me. She really needed to get herself dried up; if she kept looking like that, something very inappropriate was going to happen.

“Is that supposed to be an elevator?” she asked skeptically when I opened the iron bars in front of a tiny little room.

“Of course it is.” I stepped in and pulled eight times on the thread that hung from floor to ceiling in one corner.

“There are no buttons.”

I looked at her incredulously with hands on my hips as she closed the iron bars behind her. As soon as they clanked shut, we jerked into action and started moving upwards.

“What the hell!” Burgundy grabbed on to me as she looked frantically around, as if she would solve the mystery here in this little wooden box.

“Burg, there are people in the basement,” I said matter-of-factly. “Pulling on ropes. Don’t have a panic attack.”

“Excuse me if I’m not used to some sort of slave system running my elevators!”

“Oh please; it’s a job like any other. Don’t go all worker-union on me.”

She silently pouted as we moved further and further up, but her cute pout was replaced by anticipation and nerves when we stopped at the eighth floor. “You told him you were bringing me, right?” She was clearly anxious.

“I told him, and threatened that if he’s not nice to you, I’m going to knit him a sweater very year for his birthday. And make him wear it.”

“That’s no way to treat your father, Vel; no one should be forced to wear anything you’ve tried to knit.”

I poked her in the arm as revenge for her mean but true comment, and pushed open the iron bars that separated us from the gold-covered hallway. Gold wallpapers, golden carpet on the walls, golden vases filled with gilded flowers on top of gold and white tables.

I took a deep breath and knocked on the only working door in the hall. Dad had bought up the entire floor and converted it into one huge apartment. He still kept the hallway and all the doors, though; according to him, it slowed down thieves and murderers if they didn’t know which door to open.

We held our breaths as the second ticked by, and soon we heard steps approaching from inside. The door opened, and there in all his glory stood my father dressed in nothing but a golden robe with blood red lining and borders, and slippers. He didn’t look a day over forty with his smooth dark skin, black hair peppered with flecks of white and his muscular build, but he had the power of centuries behind him.

“Velvet, my precious diamond; welcome home at last!” He pulled me into an embrace that I found myself returning despite the embarrassment of Burgundy seeing my father in a robe.

“It’s good to see you, Dad.” He smelled exactly like I remembered; like exotic tobacco and expensive wine, and spices; he always smelled of spices. I hugged him tightly in return -despite our sometimes strange relationship, he was my father and I loved him.

“Dad, you remember by partner and friend, Burgundy Maxwell?” I let go of him and held out my arm towards Burg, who had already put on her brave face and smiled at my dad.

“Miss Maxwell,” my father grumbled and extended his hand. “My name is Markus Gawain Agreril Ulrick Valentine. But please, call me Gawain. Unless it’s in writing, then call me Markus. Apparently even centuries old creatures cannot manage to spell Gawain.”

I fought back an eye-roll, and luckily so did Burgundy, who simply shook his hand. They had met several times over the years, and he always introduced himself. And any time he introduced himself to someone, it was that same line; ‘Call me Gawain, unless it’s in writing.’ Dad liked to think he was funny.

“It’s very nice to see you again, Gawain,” Burg said as politely as possible.

“Well, let us not just stand here; come in, come in!” Dad disappeared into the apartment and we followed, exchanging amused glances when he couldn’t see.

“This place hasn’t changed one bit since the last time I was here,” I remarked as we entered the massive living room, filled with simple but elegant furniture so not to distract the eye from the impressive artworks that covered every wall.

“Why mess with perfection?” he countered, and I laughed. Yes, Dad would consider this place perfection, that was for sure. It was his little, modern castle on the top floor. He could have had bigger and taller if he wanted to, he certainly had the money and connections, but he was happy here. He always said that the only thing missing was me.

“I am beyond thrilled to have you back home, my dearest, although I must admit I am less than pleased that it was your meager little business that pulled you back here.”

“Really, Dad? You’re not going to let me get two seconds in the door before starting this conversation again?” I glared at him to make sure I was ready for the fight if he was.

My father had never made a secret of his disappointment at my leaving Sagemill, nor of his disapproval of my ‘silly little career choice’, which he considered below me. We never made it through a visit without having an argument about it.

He held his hands up in peace. “No, no, by all means, let us at the very least get a few drinks in us before attempting that battle.” He strolled over to the silver drink cart and filled up three glasses without asking what we wanted.

Burgundy threw me a displeased look, but I just shrugged. She knew resisting Dad’s version of hospitality was pointless. “Good idea,” I said just as Niku came slouching into the room with our bags slung over his back.

“Niku, my friend; put those in Velvet’s old room, will you? And then let the Amethyst know I’ll be by for my usual table in an hour, with guests,” Dad ordered.

“Hrrrrmf,”Niku replied and shuffled back down the hall.

“You know we can’t afford the Amethyst, right?” I pointed out.

“It is my treat and you know it.” He handed us both a drink and then threw himself down on a divan like he was posing for one of the colorful paintings on the walls. “We have much to discuss, and there is no place more private than the most popular restaurant in town.”

“Why aren’t we going to the Opal?” I plunked into my favorite old chair, curling my feet underneath me as if I never left.

“Vorviel’s people spot you in my company at my establishment, you’ll never even get through the front entrance of the Jade Vine. At the Amethyst, it’s much less conspicuous.”

“You told him about the Vine in your letter?” Burgundy asked me calmly, but her disapproval was evident underneath her words. My dad caught on to that, too.

“Well of course she did!” he huffed. “My daughter is aware that nobody knows this city better than I do, and I am a useful asset.”

“Of course, Mr. Valent—uhm, Gawaine,” Burg hurried apologetically, “I only meant that—“ Dad waived a hand, cutting her off.

“You meant that my daughter hadn’t told you and you don’t like me any more than I like you so it bothers you not to be informed; yes, I am aware, Miss Maxwell.”

“Call me Burgundy, and I’m fairly certain I never said I didn’t like you.”

“I might be old, Burgundy, but my faculties are very much intact. I don’t take any offence; like I said, I don’t like you, either. You’re a water creature. Much too clean and proper for our kind, and if it wasn’t for you, my daughter probably would not be in this lowly business the two of you have gotten into.”

“Dad! That’s my best friend you’re talking to!” Not to mention the woman I loved.

“It’s okay, Vel,” Burg smiled at me before meeting my father’s eyes. “I’m not afraid of a little criticism. And it’s true, I don’t like you, either, Gawaine. You’re corrupt, self-important and seem to think your daughter isn’t enough as she is but constantly want her to do and be more just to be a more valuable feather in your cap.”

Dad stared at Burgundy for a while, and she stared back while I downed my drink in two gulps. Show-down between my partner and my father. And we had only been in Sagemill for forty minutes. Great start.

After a minute or two, Dad started to chuckle, and then he started to full-out laugh. Burgundy joined in, and I just stared open-mouthed at the two of them.

“Ah, how refreshing to have some honesty thrown in my face in place of the constant pandering by my employees and customers. Bravo, Miss Maxwell. I suppose I can tolerate your stay in my home after all!”

He raised a toast to her, and she returned it, and then turned and smiled at me as she drank. The smugness in her face was poorly hidden. Oh, she was definitely going to brag about this as soon as we were alone.

After another round of drinks and time for us all to slip into something fancier than travel clothes and a robe, we all headed back out into the rain and down the street to the Amethyst. I was wearing a scandalous little green thing that shamelessly made my cleavage pop and barely hid my lace knickers beneath, and yet even with that, my high heels and fancy hairdo, in this city I stood out less than Burgundy in her pretty black dress that basically left everything besides her arms and legs to the imagination.

In Sagemill, fancy and proper stands out like a sore thumb. Dad asked Burg if she was on her way to a convent when he saw her attire.

We entered the grand reception hall of the Amethyst Hotel and Restaurant and were shown directly to Dad’s regular table – which naturally turned out to be directly in front of the stage where the dancers would start preforming in ten minutes.

Burgundy excused herself to the ladies room, leaving me alone with my father for the first time in a long while. Thank all gods we had champagne to accompany us.

“Still in love with the mermaid, I see,” he said, and I nearly choked on my drink.

“Dad!”

“What? I am your father, I notice things.”

“That is so none of your business!”

“It very much is my business,” he insisted. “Do you have any idea how much I paid for you to be born?”

Don’t you mean hatched? “No, Dad, I have no idea,” I said dryly. “If only you had reminded me all through my childhood. Oh, wait. You did that!

Every time I screwed up he kindly reminded me how much money he had to spend to get the spell that turned a dragon into a woman for the night so he could impregnate her. It had gotten old before even before I hit puberty.

“I did that because you were supposed to do incredible things, Velvet!” he exclaimed. “You were born for it, bred for it. You have the beauty and power to conquer the world, to be queen of this shameful city, to raise it to glory!” Here we go, I thought. Same argument we always had, with the exact same words.

“And what fun that sounds like!” I yelled back at him. “You might have had ambitions for me when you bought and made me, but I’ve never shared those ambitions, Dad!” I forced myself to take a deep breath. “What I do makes me happy. Ruling this little corner of hell wouldn’t. I decide my own destiny; which means who I am or am not secretly in love with really is none of your business!

My father stared at me in silence for a moment, sipping his drink as though we were having the most normal of conversations. Then he raised an eyebrow.

“I knew you were in love with her,” he said with a sly smile.

I sighed and took another very large sip from my glass. “So what? What do you care? It’s not like anything will ever come of it.”

“And why is that?”

“She’s my best friend, Dad; and my business partner. She has no feelings for me, and if she learned about mine, it would only complicate the relationship we have, make things awkward… I don’t want that.”

“You would rather stay miserably in love from a distance than risk losing what you have?” Dad asked in that annoyingly insightful way of his.

I slapped a hand against my forehead and groaned. “I’d really prefer if we never had this conversation, ever.

“You might not live under my roof anymore, but you are still my daughter. I believe that entitles me to make you feel uncomfortable on the few occasions we still see each other.”

“Saying you don’t get enough time with me?”

“There is no such thing as enough or too much time with you,” he said with a wink that made me chuckle, and just like that, our argument was forgotten. Burgundy came back to the two of us laughing together, and seemed relieved that the tension had dissipated.

Some of that tension came back, though, when the curtain on stage drew back and out stepped a curvaceous, dark-skinned beauty wearing nothing but fish-net stockings and a feather in her hair. Music started playing from the jazz band in the corner, and the beauty begun to dance.

Damn. In the usual drama from my father, I had been temporarily distracted from the sexual energy of Sagemill. Now that our argument was over and this busty dame was dancing so sensually in front of me, it all came rushing back.

Let’s say I was very grateful that I remembered to put on underwear. This woman was too smooth in her movements, too graceful and rhythmic, and I already found myself squeezing my thighs together in an effort to alleviate the lust. It didn’t work.

The naked woman moved so delicately in tune with the trilling sounds of the piano and the gentle lull of the saxophone. Her movements were like sex without a partner, with no physical action whatsoever – like purely emotional, fluid sex, so inciting were her movements. A witch casting a curse over us all, and we were all willingly submitting under it because how could we not? With such a magnificent creature luring us in.

Her golden eyes seemed to be far away. She was deep inside the music, as much a slave to her own passions as the rest of us, moving as though led by an invisible hand. She seemed so pure and vulnerable that I had to wonder if she was human. She wouldn’t be the first human to have been swallowed up by the monster that was Sagemill.

Was the music, the dance, her escape? When she was up there, could she pretend that she was somewhere else, preforming for a much less despicable audience? Perhaps she was waiting for a real someone to come whisk her away from this life in hell, to bring her back to wherever home was. Or perhaps she was one of those humans. The ones who loved the danger and monstrosity of this city and voluntarily surrendered to it.

Whatever her story was, it didn’t make her any less beautiful, or the fabric of my knickers any less soaking from the lust that made my body shiver at the sight of her.

“Now tell me about this… what do you call it?” Dad asked suddenly, very rudely tearing me out of my fantasies. “The case you are working on?” He did actually manage to hide his disapproval quite well, though I could still hear a hint of it.

“Uhm…Yeah, case.” I took a sip of my drink to clear my thoughts. “We’re looking for a missing human, Thomas Farland,” I said, though it was still hard to focus with the entertainment happening right in front of me. “He was at a bachelor party at the Jade Vine about a week ago, with a bunch of rich, rowdy boys from Windport. His fiance would very much like her human back, preferably in one piece.”

“You truly believe this boy is still alive?” Dad sounded skeptical.

“After a wild night at the Jade Vine, it’s hard to say, but we intend to find him either way,” Burgundy assured him.

“I don’t suppose this face is familiar to you?” I asked as I subtly slid a photo Lavender had given me of Thomas across the table. Dad peeked at it like a card he was trying to keep shielded; he knew how to keep a secret.

“He doesn’t look familiar, no. And if he owned me money, I would remember him.” He slid it back to me. “So, what is your plan to find this Thomas character? Your little lost human?”

“Ask questions at the Vine until someone tells us something useful, and then we dig even deeper until we learn the whole story,” I answered over a large sip of champagne. “We’ll start first thing tomorrow.”

“You do realize that no one at the Jade Vine is going to talk to a couple of private detectives. Even at the Vine they’re not that dumb.”

“Of course I realize that. Which is why I have a plan.”

“You do?” Burgundy asked. It clearly hadn’t occurred to her that we couldn’t just waltz in as ourselves and start asking questions.

“Of course I do,” I grinned mischievously at her. “We’re going in undercover.”

“Excuse me?” Burg looked at me with wide, horrified eyes.

“Undercover. The only way we’re gonna get these people to talk, is if they think they’re just gossiping with their own.”

“And how do you suggest we make them think that?”

My grin widened, and I glanced back towards the dark enchantress dancing on stage. “How are your table-dancing skills, partner?”

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The Case of the Missing Human – Episode Five

VM kiss

“No,” Burg stared at me when I came out of the bathroom. She was sitting on the bed, pulling on her silk pantyhose underneath the cinnamon-shade wrap dress, which covered most things up but fit so snugly that you hardly noticed.

“What do you mean, no?” I ran a cloth under my eyes to sweep up any charcoal that may have gone astray.

“You’re not wearing that dress on the tour. We’re supposed to establish trust!”

“How does this outfit not establish trust?” I posed in front of the wall mirror with hands on my hips and a sarcastically sexy pout. “I’m hardly leaving anything to the imagination!”

“If you come strolling in like that, the other girls will hate you before we’re even clocked in,” Burgundy pointed out. “You’ll already be more gorgeous than half of them. We need to befriend these women if we want to get our hands on their gossip, not alienate them.”

Ignoring how she’d just called me gorgeous and how it made my stomach do that fluttering thing, I focused on the pragmatic advise and studied myself more closely. The black dress barely covered my ass, and the front and back consisted primarily of laces running up and down, revealing far more than the skimpy fabric on the sides hid.

Her point was valid. Nothing with a pulse could resist me in this dress.

“Don’t we want the clientele to like me, too?” I countered, knowing it was already a losing battle. “And the bosses would be happy! We want that, right?”

But Burgundy was already handing over my silver slip-dress, the one that hung loosely around my curves but still revealed enough cleavage and thigh to make me look yummy, yet approachable.

“Change, so we can get this insanity over with.”

“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” I said as I shimmied out of one dress and into another. “You’re going in as a waitress, just like you wanted.”

“That doesn’t make this any less dangerous, and you know it.”

I didn’t reply to that, because she was right. My father had gone through a few of his back-door contacts to get a neutral party to submit a recommendation to the Jade Vine for two young girls from Valhurst, looking for work in the big, dangerous city.

The neutral party was connected enough that the Vine had responded within the hour, hiring one of the small-town girls as a waitress and the other as a dancer. We would report to the floor manager after the dinner rush to work the midnight shift.

“Are you ladies decent?” Dad asked from outside the bedroom door. “Dinner is served in the dining room, if you would honour me with your company.”

“We’ll be right there, Dad!” I yelled while pulling on my silver shoes to match the dress. “You can handle one more meal with my father, right?” I asked Burgundy. Once we were in at the Vine, we wouldn’t be able to stay with my father anymore, but would need to lodge in the staff quarters of the Vine.

“Gawain’s not so terrible, really,” Burg replied as she clasped shut her travel bag. “I simply have to remind myself that he really does love you more than anything; that’s enough to make me respect him, even when he’s being an ass.”

I smiled at the thought of Dad’s only redeeming quality being his love for me, when I was at least half as irredeemable as him. “He does have good taste in daughters, I’ll give him that.”

“Don’t you mean good taste in dragons?” Burg teased, and I grabbed a pillow off the bed and flung it at her head. Major giggling and pillow-flinging ensued, and soon there was a loud knock on the door.

“Will you two behave like grown women and get out here before the food gets cold?” Dad yelled, and we heard him mutter as he walked back down the hall. “Cannot believe I just had to say that…”

Burg and I stared at each other for one moment, then burst out laughing so much my stomach started to hurt, but we eventually managed to pull ourselves together and join my father in the dining room.

Burgundy froze in the doorway as she took in the exquisitely laid table, and I couldn’t blame her. Though I was used to it at one point, the years of barely getting by on scraps had rekindled an admiration for Dad’s dinner tables. He never did spare on anything – it was a table full of more food than you could ever possibly eat, or there was no food at all.

The blood-red cloth was covered with dishes piled in shining golden plates; roasted birds of all sizes; meats smoked, braised, roasted and grilled; potatoes mashed and boiled, every vegetable you can imagine, prepared in only the most delicious ways, and sauces; so many sauces it made my mouth water.

“This can’t all be for us!” Burgundy exclaimed as Dad escorted her to her seat.

“Of course it is,” he replied, holding out her chair. “If I see any part of the table I lose my appetite.”

“Don’t listen to him,” I rolled my eyes at Dad’s attempt to act wasteful. “Every bite we don’t eat goes down to the staff quarters of the Opal, and everything they don’t eat goes to the poor house.” My father didn’t like to receive credit for doing nice things. In his mind, only ruthless and heartless acts earned you respect. In this city, he might be right.

We feasted until our stomachs were fit to burst, knowing full well the staff meals at the Vine would likely be far less appealing than this. I savoured the last bite of my turkey as long as I could, letting the richness spread over my tongue, hoping it would seep into it so I could carry the taste with me for days.

The food was so delicious that none of us deigned to speak, lest we waste our tongues with words when we could instead soak up these enticing flavours.

“I really forgot what a good cook you are, Dad,” I practically moaned after the last bite.

“You cooked all of this?” Burg asked, astonished.

Dad took a sip of his spiced wine. “I am several hundreds of years old,” he shrugged. “One does pick up a few skills in that time. I don’t do it very often nowadays; there is so rarely anyone here to cook for.”

I cringed at the last comment, obviously aimed at me, and tried to gulp the guilt down with a sip of wine. “Don’t pretend you don’t still host as much as always. I’m sure there is no shortage of beautiful people regularly invited up here to examine that beautiful work of art hanging on your bedroom wall.”

“Indeed,” Dad agreed, “but of course cooking dinner implies a desire for my guests to linger, which is very rarely the case.”

Lucky Burgundy was so used to me speaking like that, she didn’t blush nor judge. My father was pure Incubus. Sex was how he survived, there was no other way around it.

“Are you ladies prepared for the Vine?” Dad asked me.

“Cover stories all memorized and ready.”

“And they are?” He knew full well what they were – he helped us come up with them – but I took pleasure in his question. It meant he was still concerned for my safety, even if he didn’t approve of the task.

“Bridget Talbot and Valery Aldridge from Valhurst,” I began, “grew up neighbors, always dreamed of leaving the small town and enjoying the naughtier aspects of life in Sagemill.”

“Both from neglectful households,” Burg continued, “and lucky enough that a wealthy man travelling through town learned of our dreams and agreed to sponsor two young, pretty and ambitious ladies, and help them get a job.”

“Very good,” Dad nodded in approval. “And who will you ask for when you arrive?”

“Madame Constance,” I replied. “She’s in charge of all the girls, their schedules, paychecks, lodging, and so on.”

“She should introduce us to Mr. Frances, who is in charge of assignments and security, and he’ll get us started,” Burgundy added.

“And if they ask who sent us we claim he never gave us his name, but he did wear a large, tall hat, thick mustache, and told us to send Voreviel best regards from his friend in green,” I finished with a final, deep gulp of wine.

“Yes,” Dad said, “my acquaintance would be more than eager to help two beautiful damsels, but he would never give them his name.”

“Who is this Voreviel again?” Burg asked.

“The chief owner of the Jade Vine,” Dad replied solemnly. “Daemenothil Laradomethboen Ybib Adwigokath Voreviel is is full name, but like me he uses only one of them for business. If he considers you his friend, he will allow you to call him Daemen, and he will be very good to his friends, but they are terribly few.”

“I gather he’s not so good to those he doesn’t consider friends?”

“Quite right,” Dad said. “He is as ruthless a bastard as you can find in this city, and he can afford to be; he owns half of the damn place.”

“Dad’s the only one close to competition,” I added. I remembered Voreviel from when I was younger. They hated each other; as two of the most important people in the city, he and my father had to keep up appearances, having meals together, meetings to discuss trouble-makers, that kind of thing. He hadn’t seen me in at least ten years, though; even if by some small chance he saw me in his club, he wouldn’t recognize me as his competition’s daughter.

“The only reason he hasn’t put an end to me is because I stay out of his way.” Dad sounded more serious than he would on any other subject. “But mark my words, I am not so arrogant that I don’t know he could wrush me if I gave him a reason.”

“He won’t find out you helped us, Dad,” I assured him. He would never say it, but I knew he was concerned about more than just my safety in this. “I give you my word.”

“And mine,” Burg added, and I gave her a grateful smile over the edge of my glass now empty, but I still clutched it as though it would be magically refilled, that we could stay in this luxury for a while longer.

But no such luck. We had a job to do, and we were about to get a look at luxury from the other side of the curtain.

*

“And this is your room,” Madame Constance declared at the end of the tour.

We arrived at the Jade Vine an hour ago, blinded by the splendour of the sparkling marble floors, painted ceilings and tall columns in various shades of jade, and Madame Constance made us walk around with our bags for an hour as she showed us every part of the establishment before finally leading us to the staff quarters.

“You ladies will have to share, but you’re lucky there’s a double room available at all – usually we have the new girls sleep in the open dorm. Ten beds in one room, but my current batch of ladies happened to bump into a bit of trouble last week, and I won’t reward any of them by moving them here.”

Lucky indeed, I thought, though it wouldn’t help earn us any instant friends among the girls. We’d have to work for it.

“We’re so grateful, Madame Constance,” Burgundy said earnestly, really laying on the innocent small-town-girl act. “And thank you so much for the opportunity, it’s such an honour to get a chance to work in such a beautiful place!”

Madame Constance raised a perfect eyebrow at Burgundy, as if assessing whether or not she was being sincere, and seemed to decide that she was. “Don’t get all starstruck now, Miss Bridget,” she warned. “It’s a big city, with big customers. I need assurance that you girls won’t be gushing over the first handsome fellow that sits in your section.”

“Never mind her, Miss Constance,” I said more harshly. “She gets so flustered sometimes, but she’ll be good when we’re working.”

My hard-knocks demeanor seemed to satisfy Madame Constance. “Get yourselves settled,” she ordered, “and I’ll send Mr. Francis here to fill you in on your duties for the night.”

She disappeared without another word.

“Remind me why we decided I be the naïve country girl, and you be the tough bitch?”

Burg dumped all her clothes out on the bed. We’d been given a closet to share, and it would look suspicious if we didn’t unpack, even if it freaked me out that we wouldn’t be ready to bail at a moment’s notice.

“We’re playing to our strengths. You’re not naïve or innocent, but you’re a hell of a lot more of both than I am.”

“True, I can’t really imagine you doing the whole wide-eyed damsel-routine,” she agreed. “I’m still not happy about it.”

“How about Madame Constance?” I asked. “Think she’ll be of any use to us? She seems like the kind of broad who knows everything that goes on in her building, from the basement to the penthouse.”

“She also seems like the kind who learned to keep her mouth shut a long time ago,” Burg pointed out. “We’ll have more luck with the working girls.”

“Oh yes, we will,” I said, and even as I spoke, I heard the words come out far more amorously than intended. “Sorry!” I hurried before Burg could chastise me. “I know, I know! Here for work, not for play.”

Though that was going to be very hard. From the moment we set foot in this place, my skin had been on fire, the blood pumping so hard in my veins I was sure I would burst. My skin had actually begun to glow a few times as we were shown backstage, with the ladies getting ready for the night shift. It had been a nightmare trying to cover it with my bag.

It was one of the more embarrassing side-effects from dragon-mom’s genes. Occasionally, when I became extremely aroused and couldn’t do anything about it, my skin would glow like an ember of a fire that refused to die out.

I managed to hide it mostly, but Burgundy always noticed. At some point, I was so horny that even the older, strict-looking Madame Constance had begun to look ravaging in her grey, long dress buttoned all the way to her throat, that still enhanced her body in a very attractive way. She might be older, but there was no trace of grey in her dark hair yet.

“If you absolutely have to do something about it,” Burg said, trying to remain practical as always, “at least remember to stay in character. People find out what you are, we’re done; everyone knows the truth about Gawain’s daughter.”

“I know, I know,” I repeated. “I’m a simple Ordinary, with a little extra leftover horny-ness from her half-succubus mom.”

That was my cover story; Ordinaries were Magicals who didn’t have any powers or gifts whatsoever. They were practically humans, except they weren’t. Ordinaries were pitied, and the occasional snob would look down on them as lesser, but for the most part they were treated just like any other Magicals.

“And don’t you forget it.”

We’d just gotten all our clothes put away when a tall man with entirely white skin and eyes that glowed pink appeared at our door, wearing a white tuxedo that made him look frighteningly transparent. I fought the chill running down my spine.

Dad had neglected to mention that Mr. Francis was a virility demon. It was the pink eyes that gave him away; the shade of pink revealed the strength and prowess of a virility demon, and from the brightness of his eyes, Mr. Francis was not a man to be messed with.

Virility demons were essentially a broader version of incubus. They didn’t feed off sex, but they lavished on the admiration and attention brought by his strength and prowess. And they could usually spot sexual energy a mile away.

The look he was giving me revealed that I was a hot, red beacon on his radar. It seemed Burgundy noticed, too, because she took a hurried step forward and reached out her hand.

“You must be Mr. Francis!” she exclaimed. “I’m Bridget Talbot, and it’s such an honor! I can’t wait to work for you, I promise not to let you down, this is such a great opportunity!”

Laying it on a little thick, but it seemed to do the trick. Mr. Francis turned his focus towards business, though his gaze still lingered on me a moment too long.

“How lovely to hear,” he said in a rumbling, deep voice. “Are you the waitress or the…” he glanced at me again, “dancer?”

“Waitress,” Bridget replied. “My friend Valery here is the dancer. Her mom’s half-succubus, you know; taught her everything she knows! She’s really very good.”

Thank you, Burg! Hopefully that would be enough to stifle any suspicions Mr. Francis might have.

“I’m sure she is,” he said, and his deep voice seemed to reverberate into my bones. It made me uneasy. “Follow me, ladies.”

He led the way down the hall, past the other rooms that were currently either empty, or filled with women sleeping, exhausted after their day shifts. Most of the doors were open – best to remember that and keep ours open, as well. Modesty would really stand out in a place like this.

“Miss Bridget, you’ll be helping behind the bar for tonight,” Mr. Francis spoke as we walked. “Want to make sure you memorize all the drinks so if a bartender happens to get it wrong at some point, you’ll recognize it right away. I doubt you have much experience from home.”

Burgundy nodded along, though we both knew she could name and prepare pretty much any cocktail in existence. It was a long-standing hobby of hers.

“And Miss Valery,” Mr. Francis continued, “you’ll be starting off simple, walking the floor, giving attention to those that ask for it. Dance if they ask you to, or sit with them, but never single one table out for more than half an hour. We want everyone to want a taste of you, so they’ll come back when you’re put on the stage.”

“Yes, sir.” We were walking up the stairs towards backstage, where I would be put into a costume of some sort. I’d befriended enough working girls to know the routines of an establishment like this one.

We reached backstage, and Mr. Francis paused to let me through the door to the dressing rooms. “Wait in the hall,” he ordered. “I’ll escort Miss Bridget to the bar and return shortly.”

“Yes, sir,” I repeated – he seemed to like it when I said that.

The two kept walking, Burg throwing one last “good luck” look at me over her shoulder, and I headed through the door.

The hallway stretched far, and I didn’t want to get lost on my first day, but I did walk a bit down, glancing through the open doors. There were beautiful women getting dressed and undressed, putting on their make-up and arranging their hair while talk flowed freely.

None of them even glanced my way, so occupied were they with their own reflections. I walked a bit further down but paused after passing by another open door when I heard an all too familiar sound.

A soft, quiet moan.

I took a step back, peering into the room, and sure enough, there they were; two women in an otherwise empty dressing room, all lights off except the dim illumination from a make-up mirror in one corner.

One looked like she might have just finished a shift. She wore lacy, black underwear and something that looked like black decorative wings tied on her shoulders, but as far as I could see reflected in a mirror, her make-up was removed and her hair was a mess.

The black popped against her ghost-pale skin. Even her hair was white as an angel, making her blue eyes shine in her pretty, oval face.

The other woman seemed to be just getting ready for her shift. She wore a green silk robe, the kind that’s just long enough that it softly grazes the top of one’s thighs. Her brown hair was neatly put up in a bun, and her makeup seemed perfect – the result of hours of preparation. Her skin was like honey, and seemed to shine in the low light. I could see this one’s face better on account of her sitting on a dressing table, back pressed against the mirror.

The winged one was holding her hand, kissing her way up her arm so deeply and thoroughly that just that small action caused the honey one to moan. As the winged woman reached her neck, it seemed to be getting harder for Honey to catch her breath, and she ran her fingers through Wing’s messy, white hair.

Okay, Vel, I told myself. This is a private moment. Turn and walk away.

I’m sure I would have, too. If Wing didn’t start slowly sliding her hand up Honey’s thigh as her lips began to work their way down. The green silk robe slipped off one shoulder, giving Wings full access to a pair of small, perfectly round breasts.

As her pink little tongue begun to circle Honey’s nipple, I lost the battle; I was so not leaving. I mean… they’d left the door open, right? They clearly weren’t too concerned about being seen.

When Wings tugged at the nipple with her teeth and Honey whimpered in pleasure, I gripped the edge of my dress to keep my hands in check. I was standing in the middle of a hallway – all I could do was watch. But damn, as Wings dug into the soft flesh of Honey’s thighs with her nails and Honey gripped Wings’ hair so tightly it had to hurt, it was torture not to do anything about the urge rapidly building inside of me.

I’d been in Sagemill for over twenty-four hours, and I had been very well behaved due to the fact that I didn’t want this city to control my sex-life, but fuck! These women were making it so hard to resist.

Wings began to move her lips further down, teasing with her tongue down Honey’s stomach, hands roaming her thighs, sides and back, as if possessed by a craving she was in no control over. Gods, did I know that feeling well.

As her lips moved lower, I felt my insides starting to burn, desire welling up to fill every cell, my skin getting warmer with that skin-deep glow. I was so wet I felt it soaking through the skimpy fabric of my knickers, and my fingers itched to touch, to satisfy this need my body was subjecting me to.

Her head blocked my view, but I knew Wings found her target when Honey arched her head back, mouth gaping but only allowing low whimpers and moans to escape.

I watched her expression, pained and lost in pleasure at the same time, as Wings moved her tongue around all the good spots. I recognized the biting of the lip Honey did each time the tongue flickered across her clit, and without having to touch, my own was growing sensitive even to the simple touch of fabric. I wondered what Honey tasted like, I imagined being in Wings’ place, pleasuring her to the edge of insanity with every lick.

Honey bit down on her lip so hard I feared the skin might crack, and her sounds grew louder, more intense as she begun to loose control of her body, and I was starting to feel like I might die if I didn’t touch myself, if I didn’t release this tormenting urge for pleasure.

My grip loosed on the dress I was crumbling up in my attempt to stay in control, but I was so close to giving up on that now as one of my hands begun to trace careful lines on my thigh, making me shiver just as Honey let out another, louder moan, and Wings gripped her butt so hard that Honey groaned in pain, but I knew it wasn’t the bad kind.

Oh gods… I was going to go mad if I didn’t do something. Honey was beginning to shiver and writhe up against the mirror, thrusting herself against Wings, begging for that ultimate mindblowing orgasm, and I wanted to go there with her. I might collapse if I didn’t.

My fingers began to creep up, lifting the hem of my dress, just caressing the outside of my knickers, briefly moving across my clit, nearly blacking out with desire – my need growing so uncontrollable I might die if I didn’t –

A throat cleared, and I flinched noticeably, yanking my hands back and crossing them as if that made everything look casual, and I turned to find Mr. Francis looking at me with his glowing pink eyes, arms relaxed at his sides and face entirely neutral.

I blushed, to my embarrassment, but quickly straightened my shoulders and met his intimidating eyes. “You were longer than I thought.” To my relief, my voice didn’t shake despite the lustful heat that still roamed around inside of me.

Oh gods, there’s no turning it off now… My body was on fire with the need for sexual release, and now there was no way I would have time to get it. At least I wasn’t glowing right now.

“My apologies,” Mr. Francis said in his rumbling voice. “Please, allow me to show you to your dressing room.” He slowly raised one eyebrow, and his eyes ran down my body in an unmistakably suggestive way. “Unless you would like to finish first?”

I swallowed hard, glancing towards the dressing room, but somewhere in my distracted moment, someone had closed the door. That didn’t do anything to release the yearning, but… I swallowed again, trying to clear my head. I couldn’t afford to lose my cool anymore than I already had in front of Mr. Francis.

So I forced the fire deep down, ignored the throbbing that was begging for my touch, and cleared my throat. “There’s nothing to finish. Lead the way.”

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The Case of the Missing Human – Episode Six

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I was so horny, I felt like dying.

Mr. Francis was dragging this out – on purpose, I was sure – for his own amusement. No doubt he could see sexual yearnings pulsating off of me in waves, and he knew damn well I couldn’t do anything about it with him or anyone else around. Or potentially he wanted me to get desperate enough to take my frustrations out on him.
So not happening.

After he so rudely interrupted me in the hall, Mr. Francis had led me just a few doors down to a dressing room where seven other girls were getting ready for their night shifts. He then proceeded to stand in the doorway with me and explain every single rule, regulation and security precaution I did and did not need to know.

Touching only, no talking unless the customers initiate it; don’t distract from the stage performance, that’s what brings them to the private rooms; be tempting enough to wet their appetites but don’t go so far they’ll be frustrated when you leave – satisfying them is not your job yet! Always keep an eye out for the ones with deep pockets, prioritize them above everyone else; always warn the security guards of suspicious activities, yada yada yada.

You’d think his droning would be enough to silence my libido, but no such luck. I kept right on being a fire that couldn’t be put out, and by gods did I want to be put out! My hands were buzzing, so badly did they want to slip up the edge of my dress and slide into my knickers, but I kept my face neutral except for the occasional lip-bite to keep myself from screaming and to make sure my skin didn’t start glowing.

I wondered what satisfaction Mr. Francis gained by torturing me. Was it some kind of new-girl-hazing ritual, or was it just the succubus thing that made him want to see how far he could push before I cracked? If the second, he would have to settle in. I was not going to give him that satisfaction.

After an eternity of rules, he finally introduced me to the girls. Some nodded in greeting, but most simply glanced in my direction then simply ignored my presence.

I didn’t blame them – in a place like this, there was no point in befriending the new girl on her first shift. I’d seen it a hundred times at the Opal. Bonding with someone before seeing how she handled her first few nights was pointless – you waited for them to prove they had the backbone not to bail within a month.

Tonight was as much about proving myself to these women as to everyone else. These were the ladies who saw and heard everything. They had to like me if we wanted any chance of finding out what the hell happened to Thomas.

“You may use the station in the corner to get ready,” Mr. Francis pointed to the furthest table, where the mirror had a giant crack down the middle and two of the light bulbs were out. New-girl-table. If I proved valuable, I’d be given a proper dressing table.

“You do not get a costume simply for walking the floor, so your own attire will have to do. Without the dress, naturally. If your undergarments do not meet our standards, there are clean spares in that closet.”

There was dark amusement in his eyes they ran down my body. He knew damn well I’d have to change out of these soaking wet things. It was a shame, too – the turquoise lace really looked fabulous and made the perfect first-night-outfit.

“I’m sure I’ll manage,” I told Mr. Francis, and left him as quickly as possible for my rickety little preparation area.

“Be ready to hit the floor in fifteen minutes!” he shouted over the chattering before he vanished.

Great. Fifteen minutes in a room with scantily dressed, gorgeous women. It took some doing to focus in my current state, but I managed to get ready and looking pretty damn amazing with my hair loose, eyes darkened and wearing a jade-colored set of bra and panties that made my tanned skin look temptingly touchable.

Looking in the mirror, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my dad as a child, when I wondered why I looked so tanned when he was very pale.

The man with the answers to everything simply shrugged. “Well, your mother does live in the desert.”

I hung around by my mirror until the others finally started to filter out of the changing room, and I slunk silently after them. Once we came out of the side-entrance of the entertainment hall, everyone dispersed to their assigned spots, and I just stood there and stared like an idiot.

“You, new girl, you take the back of the room over there,” one woman said and pointed to the darkest corner furthest from the stage. Then she and the rest of the girls were off to their stations before I even had time to think yet again how much it sucked being the new girl.

Not that it bothered me, and honestly anything that would help me work off some of this energy was welcoming, even if the people I would be entertaining weren’t off-limits for anything but foreplay.

In my section there were a few women and mostly men, all dressed to the nines in whatever their kind of Magical considered formal dress – some suits, some golden toga-like cloths, some nearly-nude-with-fabric-on-the-naughty-bits. Some of my clientele bordered on attractive and impressive, but the majority of those were further to the front. This was mainly where they seated the visitors that wouldn’t look good in brochures.

Oh, well. Beggars can’t be choosers.

I didn’t hold back just because they stuck me in the darkest corner of the room. Every time someone looked at me for more than a few seconds, I sauntered over to them, hips swaying, smile mysterious, and planted myself on their laps and spent a solid few minutes making them feel like the center of the universe before directing their attention back on the stage for the main attractions. I obeyed the rules of not sucking up too much focus, but I certainly didn’t leave anyone in my section feeling ignored.

I had just gotten off of a very slippery lap (as in silky fur, nothing grosser), when someone called my name from a nearby table.

“Vel- uh, Valery?”

I turned and saw Burgundy, not really whispering but clearly trying over the loud swing music. She held an empty tray, so had probably just dropped off some drinks.

“Hey, how’s your first shift going, Bridget?” I asked casually, low enough not to disturb customers, but not so low that it looked suspicious.

“Pretty good!” She made an effort to sound particularly cheerful. “I think I even made a new friend! Another bartender, he’s really nice and talkative. He’s trying so hard to make me feel welcome.”

Interpretation; a bartender fancied her and he was a talker, likely a good source of information. That was a good start.

“That’s so nice!” I made sure to match her sugary-sweetness. “I haven’t had time to make friends but I think I’m doing well for my first day.”

“My new buddy told me there’s a girl named Jasmine who can be really nice. She knows everybody. Maybe you can try talking to her on your break, make some friends?”

Excellent! She’d found out who the biggest gossip was. “I would love that! Do you know where I can find her?”

Burg looked around for a second, then nodded towards the stage. “The one in the black over there.”

I looked in that direction, at the different girls sitting on laps and rubbing shoulders. All of them wore colors except for one in a black corset decorated with green thread.

“Holy crap,” I whispered, flummoxed. “Uhm…” I tried to gather myself. ”Thanks, Bridget.” She raised an eyebrow, catching my surprise, but didn’t press the matter since she had to rush back to the bar. I was sure she would ask about it later.

I’m also sure she would understand my pause upon learning that Jasmine had been nicknamed Honey in my head earlier this evening.

There she was, prancing about the front tables like she owned the room. Every eye not focused on the dancers flickered towards her every few seconds. And why the hell wouldn’t they, with curves like that? She had that kind of body envied by all because of the slim-waist-big-breasts-shapely-thighs combination everyone seemed to strive for, and she looked so relaxed and comfortable with herself as she made others feel appreciated.

And why wouldn’t she feel good about herself? She’d been able to get her itch well and truly scratched before her shift.

I didn’t know if I was jealous or just extra turned on – though if I turned any more on I would probably strain something.

I kept an eye on Jasmine while I entertained the tables in the back, being touched by eyes, hands, claws and tentacles, and getting the kind of compliments where a rich guy offers to take you away to a tropical island paradise for a weekend. At least I could be very entertaining when turning them down.

When Jasmine finally took a break, I decided it was high time for me to do the same. Jasmine headed off into a quiet corner of the room, by the lobby where you could see everyone walking between the bar and the stage. Apparently we didn’t have to leave the area for breaks as long as we looked good, and Jasmine certainly looked good, bending over to straighten out her stockings and flatten out her corset as if there was even a wrinkle on it.

I took a deep breath, got into character, and walked up.

“Hi, are you Jasmine?” I asked, trying to sound shy yet confident at the same time. Guess which of those didn’t come naturally to me. Jasmine turned with a swish of the fringes of hair that framed her pretty face.

“I am.” She looked me up and down, slowly. “New girl, right?” When I nodded, she smirked. “The girls are gonna hate you,” she sniggered oh so reassuringly. “That body with those lips and those eyes? You’ll put most of them to shame! If you stick around long enough.”

I tried to overplay how much her flattery worked – not that it was hard. “I’m not sure I should be bothered or thrilled! Though it sounds like you don’t intend to hate me?”

Jasmine laughed, and struck a pose for me that presented all her best parts in the best ways. “Do I look like I need to hate anybody? I’m a walking work of art, girl.”

This time nothing in my smile was fake – I loved her confidence! “Then I guess it’s true that you’re the right girl to ask about the lay of the land?”

She crossed her arms and eyed me for a second. “Trying to say you heard I’m a gossip?”

“No, no!” I said quickly. Too quickly – her eyebrows shot up. “Okay, yes,” I admitted. “But I’ve found that people usually call the one with all the leverage a gossip because they’re intimidated by their power.” Her cold stare softened; I had her. “And I’d like to ally myself with the most powerful ladies around here right out of the gate, because despite what everyone seems to think, I do intend to stick around.”

Jasmine stared at me for another moment, presumably gauging my level of sincerity. Finally, her posture loosened and she smiled. “Wise choice, new girl. You came to the right place.”

She sat down on the love-seat by the wall and patted the spot next to her. I eagerly obliged, finding it easy to act the part of the newbie reveling in the approval of the Queen Bee. Though sitting on this little couch with her warm thigh just barely touching mine made it just about impossible not to get down on the floor and ravish her with my tongue until she screamed for more.

Fantastic; that was a mental image I needed right now. I bit the inside of my cheek to clear my head.

“What can do for you, new girl?” Jasmine asked, skipping straight to the purpose behind my introduction.

For you to slide your fingers inside of me and fuck me until I die happy. “Uhm… My name is, eh, Valery,” I managed to say, then shook myself for ruining my own interview. “There’s just something I’ve been wondering all night. I didn’t want to ask Mr. Francis because I didn’t want him to think I’m a coward or anything, but worrying about it is kind of put me off my game.”

“Which you don’t want on your first night,” Jasmine nodded in understanding. “What’s the wonder?”

“I know a lot of humans come to Sagemill,” I begun carefully, checking for suspicious flickers in her eye, but none came. “Do they ever come here? I mean, this is a high-end place, the best of its kind. Surely humans don’t dare to come by much?”

“The occasional one comes by, if they’re stupid or brave enough, or know the right people. They usually stick to the more easy-going spots, though. Why do you ask?”

“It’s just…” Okay, time to play up the shy card. “They kind of creep me out. We didn’t exactly get a lot of humans back home, I’m not used to them.”

Jasmine gave a condescending but friendly smile to the small-town girl afraid of humans that she thought I was. Believe me, they were a real breed – I would have looked at one like that, too, only with more pity. Jasmine was clearly a better person than me.

She placed her hand on my thigh in a manner I’m sure was intended to be reassuring, though in my head it was something more akin to torment. I stared at her fingers, felt her skin on mine and imagined how good it would feel if only she’d move that hand further up…

“Don’t worry, Valery,” she said kindly. “The humans don’t usually come here for the girls. They find us too intimidating. They drift to the tables pretty quick, and you shouldn’t be surprised to know that it’s rare that any ever drift back out.”

“Really?” I tried to display the expected amount of shock at this news. “I can’t believe the chances humans take when it’s so dangerous for them here. Has anyone survived lately?” Pleasepleaseplease let that question sound like an afterthought.

Apparently I was a better actress than I thought. It had been a while since I was last undercover.

“Well,” Jasmine thought for a second, “there was this one blond guy not too long ago. Cute as a button and getting totally messed with by his friends. They got him into the back and left him. I didn’t expect him to survive the night, but in the morning before my shift was over he came walking out – looking terrified, mind you, but very much alive.”

That has to be Thomas! Blond, cute, terrified… And those bastards had just left him here. I plastered on a look I hoped exuded a kind of reverence mixed with innocence. “What happens in the back that is so bad for humans?”

Jasmine gave me a sly smile. “Play your cards right, you might find out some day. It’s where we keep the most exclusive, hard-core services the Jade Vine has to offer. Games with the highest stakes, drugs with the highest mortality rates, and only the very top girls work back there, the elite. It’s so exclusive, they even have to sign confidentiality agreements so they can’t tell the rest of us what goes on.”

“Then what are you doing working the floor? Why aren’t you one of the elite girls?” I asked, as if horrified that this dreamboat wasn’t considered top-notch.

She ran her fingers across her hair and smiled, trying and failing to look humble. “They offered to bring me back there a long time ago, but I was so beloved on the floor that ultimately we decided it wasn’t for me. I’m better on full display than hidden in the back, anyway,” she winked and playfully bit her lip, knowing exactly how good she looked doing it.

Of course she probably had no idea how mad she was driving me when doing it, and it was becoming really fucking hard to focus on the questions I needed to ask when all I wanted was for Jasmine to make me come so hard I’d see stars.

I took a deep breath to clear my head. “I can’t imagine who would be better suited for something so exclusive,” I said with a far-off,dreamy expression, like I was imagining how great it would be to some day be included on that list.

“Well, there’s Tamina over there,” Jasmine nodded towards the bar where a woman in a sky blue dress was picking up a trey of drinks. “She’s one of the favorites because of her innocent flower-act. Some people just eat that stuff up.”

I was about to ask “what innocent flower-act” when Tamina turned around, and my mouth actually watered. As did other parts of me that were already lubricated.

It was obvious what Jasmine was talking about – there was something about her delicate but fragile curves, her pale skin, her heart-shaped face, that just made you want to take her in your arms and protect her… And then there were the parts that made you want to take her in your arms and do other things.

Her most pulling feature, though, was not her lovely body or delicate face, or the blond hair that fell in curls behind her back. It was her eyes.

They sparkled, in every color of the rainbow. You’d think it would come of psychedelic, maybe nauseating to look at, but it didn’t. It was spellbinding, and I had never seen anything like it. They made her look simultaneously powerful and vulnerable.

And she was my key to find out what happened in the back room.

I watched the heavily piled tray she carried, and got an idea. It was essential that I became friends with this woman, and I had to do it just right from the start. Give her a chance to show me what kind of person she was and what kind of friend she would be drawn to.

“Jasmine?” I asked, taking a chance that this woman would understand ambition. “Could you do me a small favor? When Tamina walks by, could you give me a little shove, just enough so I fall in front of her, but not enough that I topple her over?”

Jasmine raised both eyebrows at me. “And why would I do that?”

I flashed my best conspiratorial grin. “If she’s so beloved, I prefer to be on her good side. I just… need to figure out how to play my cards right.”

Jasmine’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I’m going to like you, aren’t I?”

She stood and offered her hands to help me up, and I tried not to imagine her leading me off to the coat room. Making sure Tamina was highly focused on her trey and the customers on the other side of us, I waited for just the right moment, and whispered now!

Jasmine shoved me hard, I stumbled a few steps and fell to the floor right in front of Tamina. She had to stop mid-stride, and some of the drinks spilled over at the sudden motion. I made a show of groaning and checking if I was uninjured, while Jasmine sauntered off back to her shift, looking quite pleased with herself.

“Oh!” Tamina exclaimed in a soft, ringing voice. “I’m so sorry!” She put her tray down at the nearest table and bent to help me up.

And just like that I had learned what I needed to know. She was sweet, kind, helpful – she apologized for something that wasn’t her fault and put her task aside to help. Kindness would be my best way in the door, and then it was all about bonding.

If you can get a little bondage in, too, that would be gr— Oh, shut up, horny brain!

“No, no, it was completely my fault,” I said as she took my hand and helped me up, adding a little frantic hitch of embarrassment to my voice. I leaned on one ankle and faltered a bit, like it hurt too much to stand. Tamina gently grabbed my arm.

“You’re hurt, let me help you.” She guided me back to the love seat.

“I’m so sorry I made you spill your drinks,” I said. “I’m so clumsy.” Looking quite convincingly forlorn and wrecked with guilt, Tamina leaned down and put a hand on my shoulder.

“It’s okay, really,” she said with a smile. “The drinks are fine. I haven’t seen you around. You’re new, aren’t you?”

“First night,” I admitted. “Is it that obvious?”

“We’ve all been there,” she assured me. “First night is always the hardest, you’ll get the hang of it.”

I smiled up at her, eyes bathed in gratitude and appreciation. “Thank you. You’re the first one to be nice to me all night.” Not remotely true, but she didn’t need to know that.

“They warm up eventually, I promise. But you can let me know if you need anything, okay? My name is Tamina, ask for me any time.” Her smile was so warm and caring, I had a hard time reconciling it with the fact that she worked in the most notorious club in Sagemill.

“Thank you,” I said again, the reverence bordering on real now. “My name’s Valery. I won’t keep you any longer.”

With a soft squeeze of my shoulder, Tamina went to get her tray of drinks and smiled at me as she drifted past, towards the mysterious “back room”.

I didn’t know what kind of Magical she was, but I don’t think I would have been surprised if someone told me she was an angel.

As I headed back towards the dark corner, I caught Burgundy’s eye. I smiled and gave her a thumbs-up. To the world it looked like I was cheering for her on her first night, but from her nod I knew she understood I’d found a lead.

The rest of the night passed quickly, though not nearly quickly enough. It happened more than once that I got distracted by the dancers on stage, and much more than once I had to excuse myself to the dressing room and change panties, my desires ever growing into frustration as there was never a moment to do anything about it.

By the time my shift ended, I was ready to die, I was so desperate. I didn’t even bother doing the traditional thorough make-up removal and hair brushing in the dressing room with the other girls – even if it would have been a golden bonding opportunity – and instead faked tiredness and practically sprinted to our bedroom, the feeling of my thighs rubbing together increasing my sense of urgency.

I actually groaned in relief when I saw Burgundy hadn’t made it back yet.

Wasting no time, I slammed the door shut and didn’t even bother heading for the bed. I leaned against the door and finally let my fingers slide into the wetness between my legs, moaning softly at the intensely delicious sensation.

I wasn’t about to torture myself further by making this slow and sensuous – I needed release and, damn it, I needed it now! My fingers played in circles around my clit, running lightly over it at every turn as I closed my eyes and pictured Jasmine arching her back as Wings kissed her way down her chest, her stomach… With my other hand I slipped two fingers easily inside my silky hot self, where they’d been yearning to go all night.

As I pictured Tamina’s tight blue dress as she walked away from me, I thrust my fingers hard inside of myself, straight at the most easily accessible sweet spot. I increased the pressure on my clit, feeling the torment and desperation vanish as the room blurred while I pressed harder and harder and stars began to dance in front of my eyes and my body erupted into jelly-like bliss.

I wasn’t content yet. I’d just spent hours squirming for this. I kept the movement going, pleasuring myself like a madwoman until the world frayed at the edges several times, and I slowly came back to sanity.

I had no idea how much noise I had made, but it was only then that I heard the knocking on the door.

“Wow, you must have had a really long night,” I heard Burgundy say from the other side, clearly about to choke on her own laughter. I reluctantly grabbed a towel from the cupboard and cleaned myself up before opening the door.

“You have no idea. It might have been the longest night of my life. I may never have been so horny.”

“Coming from you, that’s saying something.” Burg slipped out of her heels and sat on her bed. “Are you ready to share information?” So like Burg to casually shake off my naughtiness and get back to business. “Because you are not going to believe what I just learned about Thomas.”

“Oh?”

Burgundy paused for the proper dramatic effect to make sure she had my attention. “Not only was he seen leaving here in a state last week,” she said, confirming what I’d already heard, “but my new bartender friend swears he’s seen him in here many times before that.”

I concentrated on blinking a few times while I stared at her. “Excuse me?”

“Thomas, our innocent lost human, who was lured here by his mischievous future brother-in-law? Turns out he’s been a regular at the Jade Vine for years.”

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The Case of the Missing Human – Episode Seven

THIS ONE FOR WEDNESDAY

After a certain amount of “what the fuck”, I told Burg that Jasmine confirmed Thomas was here last week and he’d stumbled out of the mysterious back room, though she never mentioned anything about him being a regular.

“How is it possible Lavender didn’t know about this? Or her brother, for that matter? He comes here a lot, too!” It was hard to imagine the innocent-looking Thomas from the picture we had was given to rub elbows with the same crowd as Leland Lacada. Especially without anybody knowing about it. “Are you absolutely sure about this? Could your new friend be lying, trying to impress you somehow?”

“Oh, he’s definitely trying to impress me,” Burg shrugged. “Well, scare me so I’ll want to snuggle up to him for protection.” She rolled her eyes – as if a mermaid ever needed to turn to anyone else for protection. They could get vicious as all hell if they were so inclined. “I told him that humans freak us out, like we agreed, and tried to find out if I’d be expected to deal with them. He said most humans are either too chicken to come here, or so deep into it that they head straight for the back. Only reason he knows human regulars even exist is because he’s manned the bar in the back a few times. Something that’s apparently very exclusive, by the way. He was trying to brag.”

“How can we be sure it was Thomas he saw?”

“I asked for descriptions of the regulars so I’d know a human was okay if one talked to me. The guy has a talent with a pen – sketched some faces out for me on napkins. If he wasn’t so desperately trying to flirt with me, I might have been impressed.”

Burgundy pulled a few crumpled cocktail napkins put of her bra and handed them to me. They were warm from her skin, and I tried not to think about what they’d just been pressed against. I flipped through the images – the bartender really did know how to draw – and stopped when I came across the familiar face of Thomas, an almost uncanny likeness to his photograph.

I whistled. “That’s him, alright. Sneaky bastard. If he lied about being a regular – and played along as the innocent victim when Leland brought him here – I wonder what else he’s lied to his future wife about.”

“It raises some questions,” Burg nodded in thoughtful agreement. “Did Jasmine give you any details about that back room everyone seems so impressed with? Because the bartender wouldn’t give me so much as one detail, even when I leaned over and acted all frilly.”

“Apparently there’s a confidentiality-issue they take very seriously; she couldn’t give me a thing. But I did get the name of someone who works back there.” I explained about Tamina; the angel of the back room and my plan to get close.

“Wonder what would make a girl like that work in a place like this,” Burg mused.

“Asked myself the same thing.” I moved to the closet and started digging for something more comfortable to sleep in than my lacy uniform. “And I intend to ask her personally, once we become friends.”

“You do mean just friends, right?” Burg warned. “Because it’s one thing for you to take care of your own business, but it’s another to get involved with what might turn out to be our best chance of getting a lead. Business first, remember?”

“Relax, will you?” I pulled a grey, holey t-shirt over my head and twisted out of the bra-like torture device. Why couldn’t sexy be comfortable, just every once in a while? “I know how to prioritize, Burg. And contrary to popular belief, I do possess some amount of self-control.”

“Good to know. Just remember, she’ll never help us if you go breaking her heart. I imagine you’re a hard girl to get over.”

You’re one to talk,” I thought to myself – or at least that’s what I intended to do.

“What was that?”

Shit, you said it out loud, didn’t you? I chided myself. Idiot.

“Oh, nothing,” I said too loud and too quick. “Just, you know… Uhm, don’t you remember Aki, that dokkaebi you went out with twice? He kept coming around asking about you for like three weeks after you started ignoring his messages, leaving weird things at our doorstep… Totally obsessed.”

It wasn’t often that I slipped out of my suave, confident demeanor, so when my voice became shaky and my words jumbled, it was noticeable. I felt Burg staring at my back, though I kept my eyes firmly on the closet, fake-digging for pajama bottoms we both knew I didn’t own.

For a long moment, I thought she might call me on it, but to my intense relief, all she said was, “You know I only thought we were friends, and dokkaebi’s are mischievous creatures who love payback. He wasn’t being obsessed, he was being him.”

“Right. Well, anyway,” I said, abandoning my search of the closet and jumping back down on my bed. “How do you want to proceed here? Should we send a message to Lavender, let her know what we heard?” I was happy to hear any nervous ticks stayed out of my voice.

“Too soon,” Burg decided. “I don’t want us to upset her until we know more. For all we know, he had a good reason for lying to her.”

“Sure,” I said sarcastically. “Honey, I swear I was only hanging out at a sex and gambling club to gain wealth for our long, happy life together, I never even noticed the half-naked women! Something like that?”

“Something like that.” Burg, now in full planning mode, steadfastly ignored my tone. Besides, she liked believing the best in people until proven wrong, which I always thought was a backwards attitude for a private investigator.

Me, I was all about people’s filthy parts.

“You need to get to know some of these girls, especially that Tamina girl. And focus on getting attention from others, too – clients, Mr. Francis; anyone who can get you up on that stage.”

“So I can dazzle the drooling masses and show them I’m valuable enough for the back room.” I agreed. “It could take too long, though. If Thomas is still alive and in trouble, we’re not swimming in time.”

“I’ll try making friends behind the scenes, see if I can’t wiggle into the good graces of some semi-important people.”

“So when you tell them your friend is dying to reach for the stars, they’ll be inclined to do you a favor,” I finished. “I like it. But I’d still like to speed the process up further. I’ll talk to my dad, see if he can’t spare some of his in-pocket bigwigs and send them here to fawn all over me.”

“You think Gawaine will want to get involved? He hates your job.”

“With a passion,” I agreed. “But me, he loves. And he’ll want me the hell out of the Jade Vine as soon as possible. I think he’ll do anything to expedite the process, short of having Niku drag me out by my hair.”

“Fine, just be careful about contacting him. The other women might not care, but Mr. Francis and his boys watch new girls like hawks, according to my new friend. They’re not exactly a trusting bunch.”

“Good thing subtlety is my specialty.”

“I thought that was pleasure?”

“A girl can have more than one specialty.”

“Just be careful.” The playfulness vanished from Burg’s voice as she looked at me with that kind of genuine concern that made my heart contract and wish I could curl up in her bed with my arms around her and whisper that everything would be okay.

“We should get some sleep,” I said instead, too abruptly. “We have a lot of work to do tomorrow, and I need to look rested so Madame Constance doesn’t think the stress is going to make me less attractive.”

If Burg was stung by my dismissive tone, she didn’t say anything, but I thought I heard her sigh quietly as I curled up beneath the thin covers and faced the wall.

“Good night, Velvet,” she said, and listened to her move around as she got herself ready for bed. I didn’t respond until she’d turned the lights off and climbed into her own bed.

“Sweet dreams, Burgundy.”

*

“What are you girls doing still sleeping?” A shrill voice rudely awoke me the next morning, interrupting dreams of naked bodies and edible lotions. I was so startled that I scrambled out of bed as if ready to fend off an attack.

But it was only Madame Constance, standing in the doorway with hands on her hips while one practically-shoed foot impatiently tapped against the floor. Burgundy woke up, too, but remained more gracefully in bed. Madame Constance glanced down over my outfit of ratty t-shirt and nothing else, apparently neither surprised or impressed.

“Breakfast and morning-briefing in ten minutes,” she said unpleasantly. “Get ready and be in the meeting room, on time. Night-shift girls can go back to bed afterwards.”

And just like the night before, she spun on her heels and was out the door as if the world was hers to summon and dismiss as she pleased.

“That was harsh,” Burg yawned, rubbing sleep out of her eyes. “You think this happens every morning? Meetings even the night-workers need to be up for?”

“Probably. I’m thinking that woman doesn’t care if our REM sleep gets interrupted.” Since the threat had passed, I crumbled back down on the bed. It was suddenly the most comfortable piece of furniture in the world, and I never wanted to leave it. Burg recognized my expression before it was too late.

“Oh no no no, you don’t.” She hauled herself out of bed and grabbed my wrist, dragging me up to sitting position. “If I have to be up, you have to be up, and you’re not getting us into trouble in our first twelve hours on the job for being late.”

She scurried across the cold wood floor to the closet, and a minute later threw some clothes in my direction. The bra strap hitting my face woke me up a bit.

“Get dressed, I’ll head to the bathroom,” Burg declared and left with her clothes and toiletries before I could reply.

I sat for a moment staring at the once-upon-a-time white walls, now faded and grey, considering if getting a few extra minutes’ sleep would be worth it. Then I pictured the wrath of Burgundy if she came back and found me still undressed.

I was fully clothed about thirty seconds later, in a simple, black tank top over a short skirt of a dark green fabric that would seriously constrict my ability to walk but would make my ass look fantastic while doing it.

I was almost surprised Burg had picked this outfit – it was the perfect amount of sexy and understated for this time of the morning. Not bad.

I gathered up my toiletry pouch (a knitted brown bag, hand-embroidered with a red dragon in flight – a ninth birthday gift from my father) and was just about to head out when Burg returned, dressed in a simple white dress that made her green hair pop and gave her a sweet look that -when combined with a hint of cleavage and her soft shapes – indicated that something far from innocence might be lurking behind her façade.

For a moment I froze, head still too cloudy from sleep to keep my eyes from wandering over her, marveling at her simple, understated beauty. Then, before I had time to tell if she noticed my slip or not, I scampered past her to the communal ladies room down the hall.

The bathroom, we learned during yesterday’s tour, was one of two in the sleeping quarters shared between all the girls who worked here. The room was sliced in half by a low wall, with sinks and stalls on one side and showers on the other.

Being dressed already, I couldn’t be bothered showering. I had cleaned up before leaving Dad’s place, and would do it again before my shift tonight, so I instead headed straight for a free sink and started the ritual brushing hair and teeth, applying make-up, and taking in my surroundings.

The place was full of women milling about: some dressed and getting ready like me, while others were just stepping out of the shower, toweling themselves of by the wall, which was very distracting. I supposed getting a ten-minute warning from Madame Constance couldn’t be that rare or horrible, if most girls were only half-way ready so close to the meeting.

“Hey, New-Girl,” called a familiar voice. “Still here, I see.”

I lowered my charcoal eye-liner and turned to find Jasmine leaning against the wall nearby, wearing white jeans and pink tube top and looking incredibly well rested considering she’d slept as little as I had. She looked fantastic, but judging from her expression, she already knew that – and seemed to take great pleasure in my eyes roving uncontrollably over her curves.

“Did you ever doubt me?” I asked with a raised eyebrow and my best crooked smile.

“Not really,” she responded with a sly grin and sauntered closer, leaning against the sink next to mine. “Though I’m impressed you managed to wake up for the breakfast meeting. Constance never warns the new girls about it, but if you miss it, you’re gone.”

Good thing I’d thought she was attacking me, then, I thought. “Seems cruel to interrupt our beauty sleep with a job like ours,” I said out loud. “Is the meeting a big thing?”

“Boring as hell and entirely pointless,” Jasmine shrugged, then that sly smile crept back across her full lips. “I kept my eye on you last night, you know. You’ve got some moves.”

“I know. Thanks for noticing.”

Damn it, I was flirting with her, wasn’t I? I mean, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that except she was a lead, my best way to get in with the other girls. Burgundy’s words echoed in my ears. I imagine you’re a hard girl to get over.

Though, I argued silently, Jasmine hardly looked the type of girl to get her heart broken over some light flirting… and maybe a few other things.

“You were sizing up Tamina,” she said, surprising me with her straightforwardness, though there was no judgement in her voice – only amused curiosity. “With that little oops, I fell stunt. I’ve been trying to figure out why.”

I crossed my arms and curved my back slightly, leaning forward just enough to accentuate my cleavage but not enough for it to seem completely intentional. Jasmine’s eyes flickered downwards, though, noticing.

“Can you keep a secret?” I asked in a low, slightly husky voice. Jasmine grinned, nibbling at her lower lip, seeing straight through my moves but seeming very much okay with them, and nodded.

I took one slow step closer to her, and lowered my voice conspiratorially. “I want to be where she is,” I said, watching the light in Jasmine’s eyes as I confirmed her suspicion. “I want to get close to her and learn how I can get into that back room.”

Jasmine considered me with her large, golden eyes, seeming more intrigued than anything else. “Why?” We were standing close enough together that her breath skimmed across my skin with the word, causing me to shiver. I’d already forgotten about the other women milling around us.

“Because I am too good to be working the dark corner in the back of the room.” I allowed my eyes to dance across her body before meeting her eyes again, making sure she knew exactly where I’d been looking. “And too ambitious to wait months for the right people to notice.”

Jasmine chuckled, a deep, throaty laugh that made me shiver once again. “I like a girl who isn’t hindered by false modesty. Or ashamed of what she wants.”

“Yeah, I had a feeling you might.” Fuck, Velvet, dial it down! I wanted her to be interested so it would be easier to get information, but damn… I was enjoying this too much. Her body, her curves, her dark, honeyed skin, all those things were tempting enough. But combined with her thick lips, her large eyes that glinted with attitude and confidence… She was just too sexy for her own good. Or mine.

Where Tamina had been all innocence and opalescence, inviting you to protect her bright, fragile heart, Jasmine was the edge darkness luring you into the shadows for all your secrets desires to be fulfilled.

“Excuse me?” The voice coming rudely from behind me wasn’t one I’d heard before, but Jasmine closed her eyes for a second as if it was the last voice she wanted to hear. “Who’s your new friend, Jasmine darling?”

Oh, gods. I knew that tone – I’d certainly heard it enough times. I had inadvertently stepped into the middle of a relationship drama – a feeling I was much more familiar with than I probably should be. Automatically, I leaned back out of Jasmine’s personal space as if it was a complete accident that I ended up there in the first place.

Jasmine looked at whoever was behind me, forcing her expression into a loving, adoring mask of innocence. I loathed that look of false devotion – I was all about the loving and leaving, but I preferred being honest about it. Obviously the woman behind me was unaware of how limited Jasmine’s interest was.

Though I imagined it was harder to love and leave when you were loving your colleagues and they slept down the hall from you.

“Angel,” Jasmine greeted in a sugary voice, “this is the new girl who started last night. I’ve been showing her the ropes.”

I turned slowly, unenthusiastically, to smile politely down at Angel, who turned out to be more than a head shorter than me.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Angel turned out to be Wings; the woman who’d had her hands and other things full of Jasmine in the changing room the night before.

Her icy blue eyes stared daggers at me, contrasting with the angelic combination of long, platinum hair and pale skin that I assumed had earned her the name. The petite figure further added to the angelic imagery.

I held my hand out and put a little touch of ‘why am I talking to you’ vibes into my polite smile – I was, after all, still passing myself off as a highly ambitious woman for Jasmine.

“Angel, hi. I’m Valery.” And then, because I’d found myself in Jasmine’s position before and knew how messy it was to get out of, I added, “Jasmine told me all about you; it’s such a pleasure to meet you in person.”

Her jealous glare softened slightly as her eyes flickered from Jasmine and back to me, and she shook my hand carefully. “Nice to meet you, too,” she said politely enough, but there was a suspicion behind her blue eyes that I couldn’t help but think were about more than the fact that I was talking to her girlfriend.

She looked me up and down, not bothering to be inconspicuous about it, but apparently didn’t seem to find anything that caused her any concern. She quickly aimed her attention towards Jasmine.

“We should get going,” she said briskly, stepping around me to take Jasmine’s hand. “Madame Constance despises tardiness.”

Angel started towards the door without a goodbye, dragging Jasmine behind her. The latter threw me a look over her shoulder, simultaneously thanking me for covering and also undressing me where I stood.

Once they disappeared, I shook my head at my self. I was attracted to Jasmine, and she was a good source of info, but no way could I afford to end up in the middle of a love-triangle-type situation.

I quickly finished in the bathroom and ran back to dump my toiletries in our room. Burg was pacing the floor impatiently, waiting for me.

“Finally!” was all she said before grabbing my wrist and pulling me into the hall, where we followed the flow of the crowd, trusting them to lead us to the meeting room.

“I didn’t take that long,” I huffed, but Burg was all on-task now, not bothering with small-talk. She kept pulling me down the hall, and honestly, I didn’t mind, because her fingers that were always the temperature of the cool Wintersea, and where they touched my wrist I felt currents of electricity zapping through my body. Having them twined around my wrist allowed me to imagine them wrapped around my neck, my waist…

Honestly, I blacked out for a moment following that trail of thought, and didn’t realize we’d reached the meeting room until Burg let go of me and I found myself seated in a circular row of chairs.

There was a plate in my lap with a croissant and a slap of butter, and I had no clue how it got there.

We were seated in the back row of a large, round room lined with back granite walls that reached up into a domed ceiling, the white marble floor shining below against the lights dangling from above. Several rows worth of chairs lined the room, and in the middle was a raised podium where Madame Constance stood, quietly waiting for each girl to take her seat.

Once everyone fell silent, she cleared her throat.

“Ladies, welcome to this morning’s meeting,” she began, and it didn’t take long for me to realize Jasmine hadn’t been exaggerating. Boring as hell and entirely pointless. Constance was listing off a load of very dull things, including how much money we had all earned the club last night, how much has been based on stage performances and how much on the floor-walkers. She named the women with the highest percentage of tips – not surprisingly, Jasmine was among them – as well as the lowest ranked girls.

“You ladies are the draw of our establishment,” Madame Constance declared somberly. “Without you, no one would come. There are plenty of other places in Sagemill where they could get drunk, high and rich. Only one place has girls like ours.”

I fought the desire to huff, thinking the Black Opal had plenty of girls who both met and outshone the standards of the Jade Vine – though I doubted that opinion was wildly shared around here.

“Stay on your toes,” Constance continued, “stay perfect, and our lives will go on as usual. And as always, a general reminder to please avoid falling for clients; we are not here to provide love, we are here to provide pleasure.”

A few girls snickered at this, and a few blushed. I caught sight of Tamina across the room, wearing a light blue, fluffy turtle-neck sweater and looking like she wasn’t listening to a single word, but was lost in some daydream.

I leaned towards Burg to whisper in her ear, pointing out Tamina through the crowd “I’ll make sure to run into her on the way out,” I said, and Burg nodded.

“I’ll be going to the local pool when we wrap up, but after I want us to discuss how you intend to get that message to your dad.”

In every city in Hurst, there was always a place where visiting water-Magicals could go to soak, which is where Burg meant she’d be heading. I wished I could come along – Burg was gorgeous in her human shape, but as a mermaid, in her true form… She was splendid.

The scales of her tail ranged in colors between bronze, gold, rusty red, brown and burgundy like her name, and the way they climbed delicately up her waist and gave way to her smooth, pale skin always made me shudder.

She had been in her mermaid form the first time I realized I was in love with her, I remembered. I had been so angry with both of us at the time; with me for being stupid enough to fall for my best friend, and with her for making it impossible for me not to.

I spent weeks after that wondering if she would see the difference in my eyes, in the way I looked at her – if she would call me on it, ask me about it, anything, but it never came. Life went on as it always had, except to me it would never be the same. And I hated it.

It didn’t matter how many tempting Jasmines came along to distract me. The heart of a sex-demon isn’t easily claimed, and I’d given mine away. There was no getting it back. I could seek pleasure from whoever I wanted, but romantic love for anyone else seemed an impossibility. And I wasn’t even sure minded.

“One final message from higher up before you’re dismissed,” Constance said, reclaiming my attention. “I have been told that small amounts have been stolen from various cash sources around our establishment, and a thorough investigation is currently underway. Do not be surprised if someone wants to talk to you about this; make yourselves available. And if you are responsible, please turn yourself in immediately.”

She said it as if it was the most normal thing in the world – of course someone was skimming petty cash from the Vine. I imagined if the culprit was caught, the punishment wouldn’t be nearly as casual.

“That’s not good,” Burgundy whispered. “Their security is going to be even tighter than usual.”

“We’re not here to rob them blind, Burg,” I reminded her. “We’re here for information. As long as we don’t go digging for it in cash registers, we’ll be fine.”

Her grunt told me she did not share my optimism. “You know how paranoid your father is? And everyone who works for him? How suspicious? You think they’re less so at the Vine?”

I didn’t bother answering, instead taking a bite out of my croissant, the crumbly dough melting on my tongue, sending crumbling flakes down my top. I looked at Tamina again.

She didn’t appear to be listening to Madame Constance, either – though she had probably been at one of these meeting before and didn’t need to listen – but was playing absentmindedly with a lock of her silky hair, staring intensely at the nothing in front of her.

I can work with absentminded, I thought. I’d already planned the best way to befriend her, and now I had my approach. Glancing around the room again, I spotted Jasmine and Angel sitting as far away as they possibly could from me, and wondered if Jasmine and Tamina ever talked together, or ran in the same social circles.

The woman I needed to be to get information out of one was wildly different from who I had to be with the other. With Tamina, I had to be innocence, vulnerability, kindness… With Jasmine, I needed to be strong, powerful, intimidated. I was sure those traits all existed together in someone, but they certainly didn’t in me.

I looked towards the couple again and was surprised to find Angel staring at me with mild interest – not the fun kind of interest, but something I couldn’t quite put my finger on… I definitely didn’t like it.

“Did you hear that?” Burg whispered, and when I jumped in surprise I could practically feel her eye-roll. “That’s a no,” she muttered. “Constance said there’s a schedule for off-duty tasks on the board by the buffet table.”

“Off duty tasks?” I asked in surprise. “As in work that doesn’t involve dancing?”

“That’s what she said, and I am not about to ask for her to elaborate. Will you check on the way out? I really need a soak.” Mermaids got cranky when they were out of the water for too long.

“Sure.” I was already planning on bumping into Tamina on the way out. I could ask her to explain the board to me. “Wait, buffet table?”

Burgundy stared at me like I had gone completely mental. “We passed it in the hall on our way in. You smacked my hand away so you could get the last croissant, remember?”

No, I was too distracted by the feel of your hand on my skin didn’t seem like the healthiest reply, so I just shrugged, and Burg’s mild annoyance turned into an amused smile.

“You definitely keep things interesting, Vel, I’ll give you that.” With a companionable pat of my thigh, she got up and headed for the exit, and only then did I realize we had all actually been dismissed. Hardly anyone was seated anymore.

I stood up quickly, skimming the room for Tamina, but I couldn’t see her in the crowd. She had been further away from the door than me, so hopefully she hadn’t left the room yet. I was just about to go search for her when a throat cleared behind me.

I turned and was surprised to find Angel staring up at me with crossed arms and that curios look. The way she squared her shoulders told me she didn’t  like it very much, having to look up at me.

“Can I help you?” I asked, still glancing around the room for Tamina.

“Does your father know you’re here?”

A cold lump formed in my stomach as all my attention focused on Angel, a chill creeping down my spine at her haughty look.

“What?”

“Your dad,” she repeated, though thankfully not at a volume everyone could hear. “Gawaine Valentine of the Black Opal? I was just wondering if he was aware that his precious little princess is currently working for his greatest competitor.”

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The Case of the Missing Human – Episode Eight

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“What are you…” I was fumbling for words. I wasn’t used to fumbling. “How –“

“How did I know?” Smugness oozed from her blue eyes. “Your daddy is an important man. He’s got a foot in every door and the Jade Vine is very big, very significant door.”

“Making you what? One of his feet?” I knew I was right the moment the words left my mouth. Look at her – blonde, blue-eyed, and as angelic in appearance as her name suggested. Knowing what I did about people, she was probably as duplicitous on the inside as she appeared innocent on the outside.

“He got me out of a bad situation,” she said defensively, squaring her shoulders as if that somehow made her taller. “He has my loyalty. Which I guess is more than can be said for his daughter.”

“Quit that, will you? Dad knows exactly what I’m doing here.” It bothered me to no end to think that anyone could suspect me of betraying my father. Our relationship might not always be on the best of terms, but that didn’t make us love each other any less.

Angel still looked skeptical, though.

“He helped us get through the freaking door!” It was hard to be insistent while keeping my voice low. “I’m here on a case.” If she truly was one of his eyes and ears and recognized me on sight, I hoped she also knew what I did for a living. If she was lying, I was already screwed anyway. “Missing person, last seen here. Dad lent us some connections so we could get in.”

Her eyes narrowed, interest clearly peaked. “Your father loathes what you do.”

Ah, fuck. It wasn’t as if Dad proudly announced my profession to everyone he knew, but anyone under orders to keep an eye out and offer me assistance if they ran into me would know how I spent my days.

The fact that he despised it, however, was one of those things he only disclosed in… private moments. One of things I wished I didn’t know about my father, but I did.

You’re screwing my father?!” I exclaimed, possibly a little too loud. Her eyes widened and she looked around to make sure no one heard. My guess was she was more afraid of Jasmine overhearing than any of her big, scary bosses. Not that I imagined Jasmine would care.

“I am not!” she hissed indignantly, but her expression turned sheepishly as down at her pink-painted nails and added, “Well, not anymore, anyway.”

“I knew it! Of course he would want to sample someone before sending them to work at the Jade Vine. If his spy was caught and she wasn’t good at every part of her job, his precious reputation would be damaged.”

It seemed my very accurate assessment of Dad was enough to convince her of my loyalties – no one in their right mind would ever insult Gawaine Valentine in front of one of his agents if he was on their enemies-list.

At least Angel had the dignity not to look offended at my suggestion. We both knew how this world worked. Now on board, she seamlessly fell into secret-agent-mode. It was actually impressive how quickly her stance changed from confrontational to cooperative.

“Who’s this missing person you’re after?”

I started to tell her, but hesitated. I didn’t doubt she worked for my father, but I had no way of knowing who else she might be working for. Sensing my unease, Angel huffed and bent over, starting to pull down one of her stockings.

“What are you doing?” My turn to check for onlookers, but most people had filtered out of the room by now. The few remaining didn’t even spare us a glance.

“Relax, I’m just showing you…” she reached her ankle. “This.” There, just above her Achilles, was a small, barely discernible white-ink tattoo.

An oval with a line cutting horizontally through the middle. I managed to keep my face composed as I urged her to cover it back up.

That was Dad’s loyalty-mark; one he put on members of his most trusted inner circle. It demonstrated that the person could be trusted beyond a doubt.

I had definitely been underestimating Angel.

“His name is Thomas Farland. Tall, blonde and human. Went missing after he was brought here for a bachelor party, but we just found out he’s apparently been a regular here for years, and the woman who hired us had no idea.”

I pulled out the sketch from where I’d stuffed it down my bra. Angel looked at it for a few seconds and handed it back.

“Yeah, he’s a regular. One of those rare humans who could stomach the madness. Or used to, anyway. Haven’t seen him around here for a few months. Last time security had to drag him out of the back room. He was hysterical, a basket-case. Bloodied up like there’d been a hell of a fight. They banned him after that.”

Wow. That was news. Angel clearly hadn’t seen him the night of the bachelor party. Why would he risk coming here after being banned? Best case scenario they would just kill him for that. How had he even gotten in with the party in the first place?

“When was this exactly?”

“Maybe three months ago. Why do you want him? Who’d report a missing human to a couple of Norhill private eyes?”

It wasn’t a surprise she knew our base of operation. “His fiance’s Magical. Though she had no idea about his past here. And… did you say three months ago? They’d already been together for a while before then.”

True, theirs had been a whirlwind romance, but not of the meet-today-marry-tomorrow variety. According to Lavender, they’d dated for a few months before he popped the question and they moved in together.

Angel was stunned. “Didn’t see that one coming. I know he was a back-room regular, which for a human obviously means he’s reckless and likely insane, but still…”

“Do you know anything more about him? What he did in the back room, for one?”

“Only three things to do in the back,” Angel shrugged. “Get high, fuck and win big. Or loose, but then you’re probably not a regular anymore, you know?”

“I can’t imagine a human being popular back there.”

“Definitely not. But if they let him keep coming back, the fat cats running this place would know about him. I’m sure they had their reasons for not kicking him to the curb sooner.”

Of course they did. And there was no chance of me getting a face-to-face with anyone that high up. I considered asking Angel if that was a possibility, but she was already giving me a look saying she knew what I was thinking and it was never gonna happen.

“Would you ask around maybe?” I tried instead. “Let me know if you hear anything?”

“I know how Valentine loves his little darling,” she said, voice seeped in resentment. “I’m sure he’d rip my liver out if I didn’t help get you out of here ASAP.”

“Thanks.” Figured she deserved that even if she obviously wasn’t helping me because she wanted to.

She held her chin high and stared daggers at me. “In return, I want you to stay the fuck away from my girlfriend.”

I nearly laughed out loud, but didn’t think that would go over very well.

“She’s a great contact and a source for information. I’ll stay as near her as I need to. Besides, don’t pretend her knowledge about this place wasn’t the reason you got close to her in the first place.”

She had the decency to look embarrassed by that little tidbit. “Hasn’t been that way for a while. Fine, but if you touch her, you’re dead. I don’t care who your father is.”

I knew an empty threat when I heard one. That mark on her foot meant she would never betray my father. And he’d consider any action against me the greatest betrayal of all. Sometimes having an over-protective father wasn’t the worst thing.

Still, I’d throw her a bone, humor her. “Fine. Right now I have a gorgeous back-room lady to befriend anyway, so if you’ll excuse me.”

I left Angel to her own bitterness, feeling a little better knowing we had some back-up in this place. Not that I was going to let her know that.

*

Tamina was long gone by the time I made it out of the meeting room. There was indeed a buffet table right outside the door, with a list hanging above it. I located by fake name.

Valery Aldridge was scheduled for mirror-cleaning in one of the changing rooms. Bridget Talbot was doing dishes. At least she’d be around water… Apparently they counted on a good eight hours of sleep for night-shift girls after the morning meeting, because we didn’t start until five thirty.

I looked for Tamina’s name but it was nowhere to be found. Figured. The one of the rewards for being good enough for the A-list would include no longer having to do the dirty work like the rest of us. I wondered how high on the ladder you had to be for that freedom. Jasmine’s name was on the list.

So was Angel’s, which I noted with satisfaction. Just because Dad trusted her, didn’t mean I had to like her. Although it was slightly horrifying knowing how much I enjoyed watching her fuck Jasmine now that I knew she’d done similar things with my father.

There was a mental image I could have happily lived without.

I considered turning around and ask Angel where Tamina spent her off-hours, but honestly the lack of sleep was starting to get to me. I didn’t know how Burg managed to stave it off long enough to get a swim in before bed. Mermaid stamina, I guessed.

On my way to our room, I took note of every room and person I passed, automatically soaking up as much info as possible. Most doors in this part of the place were locked, and according to signage it was all bedrooms and storage spaces anyway.

But the people were more interesting.

The Jade Vine didn’t only hire humanoid Magicals to work for them. Magicals of all kinds had a chance in Sagemill. Nowhere was it written that customers only got turned on by two arms, two legs and plain skin.

There were Magicals with antlers or other types of horns; Magicals with fur other places then their heads; Magicals with scales; several had body parts not even remotely humanoid. Like the woman who had a slick, shiny black pod beneath her waist from which eight elegant spider legs stretched. Freaky if you didn’t like spiders, but unarguably intriguing.

I passed a group of men whose faces were more bull than human, though their features were a solid mix of both. Not my cup of tea, but I’m sure they appealed to plenty others. Their massively muscular chests probably helped.

There were many male Magicals working at the Jade Vine, but their living quarters were separate, and apparently so were their meetings. I didn’t know what brought this group around, but it wasn’t every day you passed by a group of Minotaurs, so I wouldn’t complain.

I had nearly reached our room when I spotted her blonde hair and her curves in that fuzzy blue sweater that would look ridiculous on anyone else working in this place. She stood with her back towards me down the hall, talking to Mr. Francis.

Fabulous.

I hadn’t stopped hating him for torturing me last night. Just thinking about how he was responsible for making me wait so long got me a horny again. Sagemill was always like this – the slightest thought in that direction would set me off. I counted my blessings that everyone I passed this morning wore what by Sagemill standards qualified as prudent clothing. Even the Minotaurs had only been shirtless.

I pretended to admire a piece of abstract art on the wall while I waited for Tamina to be released. Not that anyone would buy me getting caught by these two lovely lines of yellow and blue on a canvas. Regularly glancing towards them, I realized Mr. Francis didn’t look happy – not that he ever did, but now he looked particularly annoyed. Even with his voice low I could see he was telling her off for something. Tamina looked so fragile and soft in her plush sweater, I had an urge to protect her from the big, bad boss.

I quickly dismissed that thought, though. She hadn’t lasted here this long without a thick skin. She was surely tougher than she looked. She would admire that trait in others, I thought, adding it to my list of things I could use for her to like me. Quiet bravery.

Finally Mr. Francis left. Tamina slumped against the nearest wall – or whatever the graceful version of slumping was – and closed her eyes as if trying to force away all her worries.

There was my opening.

“Are you okay?” I put just enough shy and timid into my voice for her to know this was a big deal for me – talking to the princess of the Jade Vine.

She opened her eyes and her marvelous rainbow eyes looked at me in surprises . When she recognized me, she smiled. It was genuine even if it didn’t quite seem to reach her eyes. Now that I was so close, she looked exhausted.

“Just Mr. Francis getting on my nerves.” She was clearly forcing more lightness into her voice than she truly felt. “You’ll get to experience that yourself soon enough. Nothing I can’t handle.”

I made sure it was obvious fro my concerned expression that I didn’t quite believe her. “It seemed intense. Not that I was listening or anything, I promise,” I added quickly.

I studied her closer. Her skin was perfect, smooth as porcelain or cream. Her bright hair didn’t look like it knew how to have a bad day, like it just cascaded in perfect waves every morning with no effort. But despite the perfection, there was something else. Shadows under her eyes, a slight sag to her shoulders.

“Are you sure you’re okay? You look… I don’t know. Distracted.”

Tamina snorted a laugh, and even that harsh sound was lovely coming from her. “You are a lot kinder than Mr. Francis. He used the word haggard. Which is apparently not how a top girl ought to look.”

“He’s mad at you for being tired?” I feigned shock. I happened to know perfectly well how important it was for anyone in this business to stay fresh and relaxed.

“He’s mad at me for showing it.” She ran a manicured hand through her hair and sighed. I spent a moment wishing that was my hand running through those waves. Silky strands between my fingers. Cupping the back of her head and sliding down gently until I reached her neck and could pull her closer…

Okay, I needed a cold shower or something. Shaking myself back into focus, I played nervously with the hemline of my tank top and cleared my throat.

“I don’t think the tiredness effects your looks one bit.” That got me a real, full grin that was so dazzling I almost shielded my eyes.

“You’re sweet,” Tamina said kindly. “You must be pretty tired yourself. Shouldn’t you get back to bed?”

“Shouldn’t you?” I countered, letting a little bit of playfulness leak into my smile.

“I plan to try. Though I don’t seem very good at relaxing these days.” Her expression darkened a bit. “The guests are noticing it, too. Mr. Francis says my endurance and stamina is getting weak, that I’m not managing to keep myself to full strength for a whole shift. It’s effecting my performance. He might even be right.”

I was shocked by the amount of self-directed anger in her voice. It wasn’t Mr. Francis she was upset with. She agreed with him, and she didn’t like being less than perfect.

“It sounds like you need to relax now more than ever,” I said, deciding Tamina wouldn’t find a little forwardness too off-putting. “Maybe let your hair down, just do nothing for an afternoon?”

Tamina perked up slightly. “It almost sounds like you’re offering to help me with that.”

“I have a lot of experience in doing nothing and relaxing. There isn’t much else to do in Valhurst,” I grinned. “I’d be happy to give you some pointers if you’d return the favor?”

“Ah,” Tamina laughed, “the truth comes out. You want job advice.” Since there was no accusation in her tone, I knew she didn’t doubt my sincerity.

“I’m not gonna lie, it would be great to pick the brain of one of the stars. And I promise, I can help you get rid of some of the tension that’s making you so tired.”

I worked very hard not to imagine the ways I would prefer to relieve her tension and instead focused on keeping my smile gentle and sweet. Innocent wasn’t a color I wore often, but I knew I could pull it off.

“Alright,” Tamina said finally. “It’s a date. You can come to my suite before your work duty tomorrow, when you’re done sleeping?”

I’d really been hoping to spend some time with her today, but I was too tired to argue and didn’t want to push my luck.

“You’re so nice, thank you!” I exclaimed and surprised her with a quick hug. Just long enough for a simple small-town girl to show her gratitude. And for me to feel her hair. It was softer than silk, softer than velvet, softer than anything.

After that, when I came back to my room, it was a damn shame I was too tired to do anything other than sleep. But that hair, those eyes… It all followed me into my dreams.

*

A loud noise – a bang this time – woke me up for the second time that day.

I sat up with a start, something along the lines of “touch my knickers and die” coming drowsily out of my mouth as I looked around for an intruder.

Burg was digging through the closet closet and paused to give me a sheepish look. “Sorry, I knocked your hairbrush over.”

“What time is it?” I rubbed at my eyes.

“Our work-things begin in an hour.”

“Tell me you haven’t been awake this whole time. You weren’t out being practical while I was getting my beauty sleep, were you?”

“Of course not.” She hesitated. “Okay, I was being a tiny bit practical, but after that I was here, sleeping, until about ten minutes ago.”

“A tiny bit practical?” That couldn’t be good. I yawned and the cobwebs cleared a bit. I looked closer at her. “Why do you look so…” Stunning? Ravishing? “Enthusiastic?”

Her green hair was a sexy, purposefully arranged mess around her pale face, and she was wearing a light pink, lacy top that made the green in her hair pop like mad. When she straightened up I saw what she’d been digging around in the closet for – a short, brown skirt.

“And why are you working your cute yet stupefyingly sexy look?”

She pulled the skirt on and came to sit on my bed. I was fully aware that the only thing separating her from my mostly naked body was a thin sheet. A mermaid’s skin is always a little cool, but it still felt great through the fabric, like lightning. The light in the room was hitting her just right, too.

Seriously, why did she have to look like that? And sit there so casually as if it wasn’t having any effect on me. How could she not see the effect it had on me?

“I heard something when I got back from my swim – something that could be really good for us!” She had that I love what I do for a living passionate look in her eyes. I loved that look. “One of the waitresses who usually works the back room got sick. Like, really sick. Which is not great news for her, but they need a replacement!”

“Oh.” I realized it wasn’t the reaction she was going for. I should be dancing around at this point. “Do you think there’s a chance you’ll get it?”

“If I look like this and show off my bar-tending skills, I don’t see why not. Why aren’t you excited about this? It could shave days of our investigation!”

She was right, it could. Burg could snoop around and find out what really happened the night Thomas got kicked out (I knew she knew about that already because I had scribbled a note left it on her pillow before I passed out) and what happened when he came back for the party.

All of that sounded great from a private investigator standpoint.

It also sounded potentially dangerous.

Don’t get me wrong, I was all for taking risks in the line of duty. But something about Burgundy putting herself in a situation where she was so close to the big bad people who ran this place… It made me nervous, not matter how well she could handle herself.

“Oh gods,” Burg said as she took in my expression. “You’re going all over-protective best friend, aren’t you? You’re going to say it’s too dangerous even though you would jump on it in a heartbeat if you were in my position!”

“You know what? Yes I am!” I sat up straighter in my bed, trying to look somewhat authoritative regardless of my lack of legs to stand on. “Sagemill is my backyard. We’re just as badass as each other, but here I have home court advantage and I don’t like the thought of you wading in neck-deep into the core of our mystery. Especially since I won’t be able to be there backing you up.”

“Do you have any other fantastic leads?” Burg countered. “Anything at all that we have to work with?”

“I might! I’m hanging out with Tamina tomorrow afternoon. She’s the star of the back room, who knows what kind of juice I can get out of her?”

“Somehow, coming from you, that just sounds wrong.” Burg shook her head, but finally sighed and did the arms-crossed-hard-glare she did when she’d made up her mind on something. “I’ll compromise with you. Either of us come up with anything remotely useful by tomorrow night, I won’t go after the position. But if we don’t have anything else to go on and nobody have gotten the free spot yet –“

“You may throw yourself into the den of wolves as you see fit. Fine, it’s a deal.” This certainly upped my motivation to get something good out of Tamina. I had no plans of loosing track of Burgundy because she was busy surrounding herself with the worst Sagemill had to offer. That statement alone was saying something.

Our spat settled, we fell in easily to a few minutes of chatting as if this was really our life. We talked about Norhill, gossiped about people back home who would have a fit if they knew where we were. Burg complained for the umpteenth time that I needed to get the leak in our office fixed.

I always enjoyed these moments. Those few we got in the middle of all our cases were we could just… be best friends. Enjoy each other’s company. Sure, for one of us that included a whole lot of suppressed feelings and sexual tension, but that was manageable. Our friendship came first, always.

When I couldn’t put it off any longer, I dressed and headed for work duty. Burg had to go, too, of course, but she was a lot more stoic about the idea. Though honestly, it was only leaving bed I had a problem with, not the concept of a work duty.

While I wanted to hate the stupid idea of using your workers as a cleaning crew, the fact was that working together boosted morale and even working on tasks alone helped enforce the idea that the people who worked here were a part of this place. Like they all had stakes in it.

I had of course been assigned to clean mirrors in the biggest and messiest dressing room in the place. It was the only one that was shared by both male and female performers, and it looked like clowns regularly went to war in it.

The mirrors were covered in makeup-traces, glitter and various forms of grease that came from different Magicals leaning up against the mirror. Some of those spots I didn’t really want to think about.

I looked around to see if I knew any of the others working here, and while I recognized a few faces they were all firmly sticking to the no bonding with the new girl policy. That was fine by me, I didn’t need to talk – I just needed them to.

And boy, did they comply.

I had been holding out hope that I might pick up something useful, but it was mainly gossiping, back-stabbing and flirting. Occasionally a conversation popped up about life and death or the meaning of everything that went way deeper than what I considered locker-room conversation, but I was used to that from my days of living here.

Magicals who worked places like this – especially this place – were beautiful and intriguing, but there was more to it beneath the surface. When you lived in a place as dark and morally bankrupt as Sagemill, you learned to see life differently. Their worlds were devoted to pleasure; sometimes the pleasure of arguably terrible people, and it was easy for your thoughts on life and morality to become clouded and confusing or just… deep.

I always thought random philosophical outbursts should be listed on the Sagemill city sign with a long list of other possible side-effects of entering.

It was all fascinating to listen to, and despite working up a sore elbow and shoulder, I was enjoying myself. That might not be all about the conversations, though. The room was filled with women (and men, but the women were more distracting by far) in various degrees of revealing outfits, leaned over and scrubbing at mirrors, counters and floors.

The amount of sexual energy in the room effected me so strongly that I had to constantly hide parts of my skin that started to glow whenever something particularly sexy happened. When the woman on the mirror next to mine dropped her sponge and had to lean off the desk to get it, I nearly exploded into a pile of molten lava as her bulbous breasts almost came tumbling out of her top.

She noticed, too. As she straightened back up she gave me such a pointed I know you want me and I like it look that I nearly dragged her off to my bedroom right then and there. I bet her dark skin was just as soft as it looked… It would feel so good digging my fingers into it as I explored her body… The sounds she would make when I made her come could rock this whole place to the core.

Fuck! I shook myself and focused on cleaning and listening until, blissfully, we were done and ordered to grab dinner before getting ready for our shifts.

I was actually relieved to be back with Burg during dinner because at least she – no matter how tempting – never looked at me with eyes that said take me now. It was easier to resit temptation when it didn’t want you back.

After an uneventful evening of dinner (vegetables and nothing else, which was disappointing but not shocking considering how fit everyone in here was) and relaxation, we started our second night shift.

I got stuck with the shadowy again, but I made the most of it. I had men, women and unidentifiable Magicals drooling over me as I moved between their tables, leaning and teasing just enough for some, gyrating and back-rubbing just enough for others.

I was enjoying myself, which only horrified me because if Dad knew he would re-start his campaign to move me back home. He knew exactly how good I was at this kind of thing – he’d had his best workers train me, for dragon’s sake – and while it was undeniable I had a natural flare for it, it wasn’t something I wanted to do for a living.

It was just a hell of a lot of fun every now and then.

I noticed both Jasmine and Angel during the night. Jasmine was working the front of the room and knowing exactly how good she looked doing it. She wore a blood red corset and little devils horn on her head, which added so much evil to the nasty thoughts I was already having whenever I glanced in her direction.

Angel, as it turned out, wasn’t just a floor girl; she was one of the stage acts. I was surprised when the curtain opened and I saw her standing there in a white, completely see-through flowey dress under the spotlight. It was just her on stage beneath the dangling microphone, looking like a high-class figurine one kept on the top shelf so it wouldn’t break.

When she started to sing a smooth, cheerful song about love and flirtations, I nearly tripped over the shoes of the guy I danced for. Her voice was as angelic as the rest of her, but it had a darker edge to it that I didn’t expect.

She stood perfectly still during the first verse, but then she started to move. Subtly, just swaying and performing subtle dance moves along with her song, but it was a sight to see. A person behind me shooed to get out of the way so he could see better, and I couldn’t blame him.

Until now I had thought of Angel as pretty, angry, an annoying girlfriend and a cool undercover agent. This was the first time I saw why she was so popular both here and with Dad. That woman was hot when she wanted to be!

I had to tear my eyes away to stay focused on work, and even then her voice in the background held my attention. She was a good singer, and occasionally her zest made me smile. I happened to glance in Jasmine’s direction once, and found the honeyed beauty looking back at me over the shoulder of the woman whose lap she was sitting on, and I could tell.

She knew I was finding her girlfriend hot. And she liked that.

Her lips widened into a smile that could eat me up and I really wanted it to. Her eyes were challenging, flirtatious. Fuck, she was intriguing…

How was a private investigator supposed to get any work done with all these beautiful women everywhere? I was half incubus! It’s not like I had the option of just pushing it to the back of my head! In fact, these feelings they were all stirring up were no where near my head.

I could feel it again, that tingling, the yearning, the desire starting low and crawling through my whole body. The only thing that kept me from escaping to an empty bathroom somewhere was remembering that if I didn’t focus on my job, Burg would put herself in even more danger than we were already in.

So by some miracle, I survived the night without any embarrassing spontaneous orgasms, though how I managed to keep my entire body from glowing, I would never know.

Survived the next morning, too, when we had to once again drag ourselves to the breakfast meeting. The only thing I managed to register was that the position of the sick back-room bartender was yet to be filled, and they were still interviewing people about the missing cash. Other than that, I was too busy staying awake and not staring at Burgundy, Jasmine, Tamina or Angel the entire meeting. It was not an easy task.

I was so relieved when we were finally allowed back to our rooms. I could spend a few hours sleeping and then get to work pulling information from Tamina. I had to stay focused on the mission. There were no room for distractions.

And then I checked today’s assignments on the board by the buffet table. Today I wasn’t cleaning mirrors. I was organizing a costume supply closet. I would be spending a few hours inside a closed, darkened room filled with sexy outfits. Alone with the one other person assigned to that task.

Jasmine.

What was that about no distractions?

To be continued…

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