New York City was only an hour away from her rented cabin, but it took nearly three to get there. Chelsea’s jaw grew tighter the longer she stayed in the car. New York might have been the dream destination for most of her class at the art conservatory, but the sheer amount of people were already a crushing weight by the time she found the haunt.
Like most haunts the outside was uninviting, bars over the darkened windows and a metal door with an obvious camera watching the speaker. She scratched at her dog’s head. “Stay here, Bent. I don’t think this place is pet-friendly.”
The giant mutt curled up on the front seat and closed his eyes. Chelsea laughed, but a worm of worry crawled in her chest. If anything happened, Bentley could and would break out of this car.
And what’s going to happen? You do trust Jackson, right?
She did, but she adjusted the angle of her knife and her ax on her belt, and sucked in a deep breath before grabbing her duffle bag of files and heading over to push the button under the camera. “Jackson Hawk sent me.”
The voice that answered was silky smooth and warmed like the sun. “Any friend of that salacious shrimp is welcome here.”
Chelsea couldn’t stop a laugh. “I see his reputation precedes him.”
“Precedes, provides, and produces problems. Not that you are a problem. But Jackson Hawk usually is.” The door buzzed and unlocked.
She knew not all haunts were bars. She had even been to the potlucks and surfer’s paradises out west. Still, some part of her expected the usual: dim lighting, mismatched furniture, and too much booze.
This was no dive bar full of surly hunters. While there was plenty of drinks and food around, and the people had the casual swagger and sturdy clothes that named them most definitely hunters, this was no gathering place for the masses.
Electronics dominated the room. Laptops, desktops, a police scanner, more things with blinking lights, and printers sat everywhere. Miles of wires were taped to the walls and floors. A variety of chairs, including a rubber ball in a plastic seat, littered the landscape.
She froze at the sheer scope of it, unsure where she was supposed to go. A young woman with a purple mohawk grinned and pointed her toward a doorway with wooden beads painted in a Tree of Life motif.
The silky voice from the speaker called out as she approached. “Come in! Yes, Jackson, she’s here.” It belonged to a long, lean man with skyward, tight curls and warm brown skin. He lounged, framed by a single overhead light, on a black leather couch that really deserved the title of divan.
Dressed in flowing, black silk pajamas and a matching robe, he was like no hunter she had ever seen before. “Hello, I’m Andy.” He set a cellphone on the table in front of him. “So, who’s the ginger?” He paused and put hands to his face in mock shock, accentuating his fabulous eyeliner. “Is this the nun?”
Irritation burned her face. “I was not a nun. I attended a religious art conservatory.”
“Wait?” A huge smile bloomed on Andy’s face. “There were actual nuns? I just thought my boy was having delusions of Julie d’Aubigny.”
Her irritation and unease vanished. She might never have met this man before, but she knew him. She had been friends with him, several times, while at school. And some part of that Chelsea, the artist who loved history and opera, resurrected in Andy’s presence. “He wishes.” She flopped on the black leather. “I’ll grant Casanova, but Mademoiselle d’Aubigny would have eaten him for brunch, skewered on her fencing foil.”
Andy roared with laughter as he sat up, making room for her. “It’s official, I adore your nun, Jackson.” He winked at Chelsea and put an arm around her. “And you are stuck with being a nun, you know that right? It’s just too delicious to pass up.”
Jack’s laugh filled the room through the cell phone. “Don’t you dare. That’s my nun. And I’m cashing in that favor.”
“Which one?” Andy sounded bored as leaned his head on her shoulder. Warm and smelling of sandalwood, she relaxed into him.
Jack snickered.“Pick one.”
“Then this is for killing that reaver for Tony.” “
Andy cut him off, leaning towards the phone on the table. “My pick, you lecherous leprechaun.”
“Leprechauns are actually supposed to be pretty tall, dick.” Jack sighed. “But I said to pick, so whatever. I have to head out, though. My ride will be here any minute. Take care of her.”
Chelsea snorted. “She’s still here and listening.”
Andy chuckled. “First blood to the ginger.”
Jack joined him. “Maybe I shouldn’t have introduced you two.”
She winked at Andy. “I’m pissed it took this long.”
“My ride’s here.” Jackson sounded hurried. “Fill me in on everything later, my little nun.”
“Will do. Take care, Jack.”
He laughed again, knowing full well she was avoiding saying she loved him. “I love you.”
Andy stood up. “Love you too, short-stuff.” He hung up, grabbed a laptop, and turned on some lights. A table with multiple computers emerged from the darkness, as well as a round mattress on the floor surrounded by lace curtains that hung from the ceiling. “So, what’s the deal?”
Chelsea stretched out on the divan. “Started with a missing hunter. She went after a “kipsey” but never showed up. When I looked into it, the client tried to sacrifice me to a monster that doesn’t exist. And there may or may not be a cult involved. At least there’s some weird stuff going on when they were in town.” Chelsea fished the binder full of her findings out of her bag. “Here’s the details. I’m gonna take Bentley for a walk.”
“Bentley?” Andy’s painted eyebrows rose. “Is that the dog?”
“Oh, you had better bring him in here for pets.”
“Can do.” She kept her word after walking Bentley around the parking lot. As soon as they stepped inside the hunters swarmed her dog, who preened and pranced at all the attention. With Bentley occupied, she settled on the divan.
Andy sat at the table, her papers spread out around him. “Well, I have good news and bad news.”
Chelsea took a deep breath. “Bad news.”
“Your ‘cult’ is not a cult. The Rainbow People are hippies. Drugs and VD are their major issues. They don’t sacrifice people for magic or monsters. And sometimes, yes, entire divisions in local sports teams get sick, get injured, and the bracket shifts. It’s all legit.”
Defeat settled over Chelsea. All her information was useless. “So what’s the good news?”
“Kipsey isn’t real.” Andy shot her a look. “As you learned. But the Hudson is home to nixes.”
Chelsea shook her head. “And that is?”
Andy grinned. “The Maori called them marakihau, and the Greeks knew them as sirens.”
Chelsea sat up straight. “Mermaids? Like a real one?”
Andy laughed. “As opposed to?”
“As opposed to an ocean fairy.” Chelsea shivered, remembering that terrible fight and the day Gene died.
Andy’s warm hand on her wrist dispelled some of the horror. “No fairies, but nixes mess with people’s heads too, just in a different way. Be very careful.” A huge smile spread across his face. “Wish I didn’t have a cropsey to deal with, I want to hunt something with a nun some day.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “It’s a date.”
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