My heart leapt into my throat when Cory pulled his car to a stop outside Nora Rowe’s house. Time unwound, and suddenly I was four weeks back fighting for my life against her ghost. I’d been so sure of myself back then, even though I’d barely escaped. Had it only been a month ago? I felt like an entirely unfamiliar person.
I jumped from my thoughts when Cory opened his door. “Are you coming?”
I slowly turned to look at him. “Yes.”
“Great. Let’s clean up your mess.”
I followed him from the car. “I hardly think it’s my mess.”
“You didn’t report a hostile ghost.”
“I what? Didn’t want anyone to know your precious little secret? It wasn’t much of a secret Lacy, Evelyn Patton isn’t as sly as she thinks she is. In fact, she’s a rather fine example of what can happen if you’re not careful with magic.”
“The accident that left her blind and paralysed below her waist. I found her medical records from that little alchemist hospital when I researched you.”
“You just happened to find her medical records?”
I stopped, and he turned to face me. We were halfway up the path in the middle of the day; the world absent from human activity. For a few seconds, it felt like we were the only people in the world. A thought snapped from my subconsciousness to my consciousness, ‘You’d know all about using the tools available.’ There was blood in the spit I’d used to draw that sigil. I’d used both Blood and Death Magic. The Fucker would have known. “You’re one of those Templar Fuckers who attacked Eli and me.”
He swallowed but said nothing; his attention fixed on me.
“Did you think I wouldn’t be able to figure it out? I know the Dunning–Kruger effect is real but at least give me some credit.”
“They warned us about you in the mission brief, and I wanted to see what you could do.” He let out a loud breath and looked down at the sidewalk. “When I saw what you could do, I realised they’d made a mistake when you were rejected for training. The test is necessary to limit the number of mages, but it causes some people to fall through the cracks. I went to my boss…our boss with a report recommending they hire you.”
“You decided that I’d make a good exorcist while you were bleeding out from burst eardrums?”
“It only took me a few seconds to heal myself. If you’re actually as innocent as you claim, you show great promise.”
“And if not?”
He smiled and met my eyes. “Every rose has its thorns, and they can be easily snipped.”
“Tell that White Suit Fucker that I’ll rip his throat out if he ever punches my husband again.”
He chuckled, another smile forming on his face. “That’s quite a threat.”
“No matter how long it takes me, I will become strong enough to kill him.”
“If he ever touches your husband again.” He chuckled, almost mockingly.
“You’ve got some balls, Dexter Lacy. I’ll give you that.”
“Give me that?” I placed a hand on my hip with a smirk. I’d never found it this easy to talk with someone I didn’t know.
“It’s something you can take advantage of. Honestly, you will never contend with the best Mages at the Agency. If you keep at it for as long as you’re physically able, you will be better than the vast amount of magic users.”
“I get that, but if your little boss comes after us again, I will make it my personal mission to end him. He’d be at least forty to have that position. I’ll just wait until he’s old or win over his trust.”
He gave me a forced smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’m not passing that on because I value my skin.”
It was the tone of his voice that made me realise he was taking the piss. He thought my threat was a joke; that smile was him trying not to laugh. “You can laugh all you want.”
“Enough chit chat it’s time for your first lesson.” He turned on his heel and faced the door. Stopping where I’d fallen on the concrete, he sunk to his knees, licked a small white piece of paper he pulled from his pocket and pressed it to the path. The side that touched the concrete came back red.
“I think that’s mine.”
“Yes. I saw.” He carefully placed the paper in a small zip lock evidence bag.
“What do you mean you saw?” I gave him a hard look. Had they been watching me longer than I thought?
“It’s twenty eighteen, Lacy. Household security cameras are common.” He slowly glanced over at the house across the street without turning his head. “They have a doorbell camera, but it wasn’t overly clear, but you signed out the keys to Nora Rowe’s house.”
I’d hid all evidence that I’d been in Rowe’s house. I knew they caught me, but I still wanted to know how they knew about the keys. “You know that? How?”
“When you cross something out make sure what you wrote doesn’t leave an impression on the page underneath it.”
I felt the ground drop from under me as I swallowed my pride. I’d been foiled by something a five-year-old could’ve discovered. “She’s dangerous. She tried to possess me.”
He walked back over to me and moved to stand behind me. He placed a single gloved finger on my temple. Close your eyes and focus on my voice.
I closed my eyes.
“You need to forget everything you think you know about magic.”
“Everything I think I know?”
“Ninety per cent of what you think you know is wrong.”
“Stop fucking with me.” I spun around and faced him. “Why should I listen to you? A guy who’s part of a militant cult?”
“If you want to leave that house alive, you must listen to everything I say while we are in there.” He placed his hands on my shoulders and started guiding me towards the house.
“I can’t do this.”
“You have no choice. If you can’t handle this task, then how are you fit to work for us?” He patted my shoulders before he let go. “They promised you protection. There are worse things than the ghost in this house or that demon that almost killed you. Some people would gladly hurt you to get revenge on your family. To have protection from them, you need to work for the Agency.”
“The reality isn’t that easy.”
“Does the next family member who walks in that house deserve to be possessed? Do they deserve to die because you’re scared?”
“It is our duty to protect people.”
“I know.” I looked at the ground for a minute before I looked back at him. “If you really value my safety, you tell me the truth about magic. Any question I ask. Everyone I’ve spoken to has given me their own version of bullshit that contradicts what everyone else has to say. I want real answers.”
“In exchange, you’ll do anything I ask.”
I met his eyes with a determined glance. “Anything.”
He sat down on the dead lawn and looked up at me. “Okay. Shoot.”
I looked down at him, and my mouth was agape. No one had ever given me their time like that. Paid their end of the bargain before mine. I guess this was a long-term bargain and it wouldn’t hurt him to give a little. I wondered just how far he’d go to get me into that house.
“You said you have questions.”
I realised I was staring at him. “Can anyone learn magic?”
“With the correct instruction. Should just anyone be able to learn magic is the ultimate question.”
“My grandparents seem fixated on the idea that magic ability is genetic.”
“Until genetic testing was widespread, that was the belief. Modern science states that there is no magic gene.” He gave me a thin smile. “A lot of the older folks like to cling to the idea that we’re special. That them learning magic wasn’t happenstance, and something destined them for it no matter what.”
“No one cared to notice that anyone could learn magic.”
“You’re rather attached to this idea. Think about how different reading is even now. To learn magic to it’s highest level, one would have to know how to read and write. They would also need to have access to a skilled instructor and a safe environment. The European witch hunts weren’t just political. They caught plenty of weaker magic users in the net.”
“Most of the accusations were about stealing possessions or getting rid of people who weren’t liked. Weak, careless magic users did nothing but confirm the mindset of the murderers and their accomplices. The average citizen needed to believe witches were the devil’s minions.”
“Are you saying I should just shut up and be grateful?”
“You’re lucky enough to have the ability to learn magic and ask these questions.”
“Grandfather kept a huge part of his and my brothers’ lives from me because he wanted me to be normal. They kept me from fully knowing them, and then he tried to justify it with waffle about magical inheritance. How is that supposed to make me feel?”
“You can never truly know another person, Lacy.”
“So I’ve been told. Call me Dexter, please. It still feels weird to hear Lacy.”
“It’s professional for me to use your surname.”
“You’re sitting cross-legged on the dead grass like a Kindergarten kid at lunchtime. How is anything about this professional?”
He laughed. “You are…” He shook his head with a smile.
“Don’t laugh at me.”
“You jump from empathic to judgemental with barely a breath between. It’s actually difficult to keep up.” He picked dead grass off his suit. “One minute you’re teary-eyed about the plight of orphans and the next you’re sneering at the poor for daring to exist.”
“I am. You need to decide who you are.” He looked me in the eyes again. “Are you an honourable person who can afford to be empathetic, or are you a judgemental snob?”
“I don’t know. God.” I looked away from him, red-faced. I could feel tears of embarrassment building behind my eyes, as I tried to taper my anger. I’d never felt so exposed in my entire life.
“The best armour against possession is a sense of self. The confidence of a strong personality.” He stood and turned towards the house. “If you want to be alive in a year, it’s a skill you need to learn. Everyone who works here has gone through shit. Let’s do our job and prevent other people from going through shit.”
“You see yourself as some kind of hero?”
“I see myself as corrupted. Who better to prevent others from going through similar tragedies?”
“I have one more question before we head in there.”
He pulled his hand back from the door handle. “Okay.”
“Was our first meeting a setup?”
“Why have you been asked to babysit me? There’s no way I believe this experiment is eccentric, goofball curiosity. I think you’re more calculating than that.”
“I was the only person with the ability to teach you the basics of Death Magic, who’d agree to watch you.”
“What exactly is it I’m accused of? Why doesn’t anyone want anything to do with me?”
“That’s two extra questions.”
“Just tell me.” My stomach dropped when I saw him stiffen at the tone of my voice. He turned to face me, right hand in his pant pocket, a hard look on his face. “There’s an illegal Death Mage named Nox. He’s caught up in some proper dark shit. He recently got an Agency Board member’s kid killed. They describe him as very similar to you both magic and appearance-wise.”
“Why the fuck would people think that?”
“Many of the sceptics started to believe it when you married Elijah Lacy. They assume you rekindled your relationship with him through his side work.”
“There’s no way Eli would be involved in that kind of shit. Take it back.”
“You heard me. Take it the fuck back.” I pointed the finger at him. “God, people are stupid. Fucking, fucks. I’ve known Eli since before I could even walk or talk. What was I supposed to say when a handsome man asked me out? Me! No? Get stuffed. Eli was my last chance. My only chance. Take what you said back. Murdered kids? He’d never do that kind of shit. Why is it so hard to believe that a guy like Eli might like a guy like me? I’m not a total fucking potat-”
Cory clicked his fingers, and I started coughing. He waited until the coughing fit had subsided to speak. “Do you do that often? Is it something I should plan around?”
“Mother fucking cun-”
He did it again, sending me into another coughing fit that almost had me on my hands and knees. “The foul language isn’t cute, Lacy. Neither are the angry rants. You’re a man in your early twenties, not a teenager. If I hear one more crazed rant or another f this or c that, out of you while you’re working with me, I’ll dump your sorry arse. Understand?”
“Cute? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“You want people to think you’re attractive? Consider your words before opening your mouth.”
“You heard me. No one likes that kind of language. I’m sick of hearing it. You’re attractive until you open your mouth.”
“With the right spell and knowledge of the human body, you can sense the signs that someone’s attracted to you.”
“You use magic to make people attracted to you?”
“No. If I want something from someone, I use magic to sense what actions arouse the person I’m talking to. If you’re even reasonably attractive, you can use it to your advantage when working with people. It’s a subtle manipulation.” He crossed his arms. “It’s no secret that attractive people have an advantage in life. You can make yourself the most attractive person in the room to whoever you need to manipulate to get what you want.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing to me?”
“I saw an opening and took advantage of your natural attraction to me. When I first saw you, I thought it’d be easy to play the weird pushover blinded by his cock. Then you had to open your mouth.”
I bit my tongue to stop the word Cunt from leaving my mouth.
“If you’re really who you claim to be, then you’ll let me help you learn this job. Do you understand?”
I let out a long, tired breath. “Yes.”
“Have a drink out of that fancy bottle of yours. We’re exorcising this ghost now. I’d like to get to the Oak Breeze bakery before they run out of chicken curry pies.”
I nodded and walked back to the car to have a minute to relax while I drank some water. Working with this arsehole would be a lot harder than I first thought.