Four months ago, Millie left the Arcadia Project after losing her partner Teo to the lethal magic of an Unseelie fey countess. Now, in a final visit to the scene of the crime, Millie and her former boss Caryl encounter Teo’s tormented ghost. But there’s one problem: according to Caryl, ghosts don’t exist.
Millie has a new life, a stressful job, and no time to get pulled back into the Project, but she agrees to tell her side of the ghost story to the agents from the Project’s National Headquarters. During her visit though, tragedy strikes when one of the agents is gruesomely murdered in a way only Caryl could have achieved. Millie knows Caryl is innocent, but the only way to save her from the Project’s severe, off-the-books justice is to find the mysterious culprits that can only be seen when they want to be seen. Millie must solve the mystery not only to save Caryl, but also to foil an insidious, arcane terrorist plot that would leave two worlds in ruins.
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Phantom Pains 1
Here’s the thing about PTSD: it doesn’t understand the rules. When I was seven, for example, I stepped in a nest of fire ants and ran screaming for two blocks, so crazed with pain and panic I didn’t notice I’d run over a broken bottle until I saw the smears of red on my front steps. And still I spent every summer barefoot after that, at least until I got drunk at twenty-five and lost both feet in a seven-story fall.
Then there was that time I choked the life out of a bloodsucking mantis-woman who’d just killed two of my friends. I slept like a baby afterward. And yet somehow, four months later, when I picked up the office phone at Valiant Studios and heard the voice of a nineteen-year-old warlock, I turned into a sweating iceberg at my desk.
“Millie? Are you there?” Caryl Vallo said. That voice, that impossible middle-aged rasp that made you forget she couldn’t buy beer. She sounded calm, so she must have had her familiar out. He was probably perched on her shoulder, tail wrapped amiably around her neck as she cradled the phone to her ear with a gloved hand.
“I’m here,” I said.
“You seem to be settling in well at Valiant,” she said in a tone that implied she couldn’t have cared less, but four months ago I’d held her bloodstained hand on a nearby soundstage while she waited to die, so I knew differently.
“Well enough, I guess.” I pushed back from the massive U-shaped desk Araceli and I shared, glancing over my shoulder at Inaya’s closed office door. Araceli was out running an errand, but Inaya’s door wasn’t exactly soundproof, so honesty wasn’t wise here. “I wasn’t expecting to hear from you, Caryl. I’ve left how many messages now?”
“Twenty-eight, all told.”
“Well, here you are, so let’s not waste time on why you’ve been dodging my calls. Dare I hope you’re actually going to come down to the studio?”
“I should like to come tomorrow, if that’s agreeable.” She always had the strangest way of talking.
“Can I ask what brought on this sudden change of heart?”
“I’ve just been informed that the head of the United States Arcadia Project and one of his senior agents are flying out from New Orleans for a visit. It would be helpful if Inaya could give them a glowing review of my performance as regional manager.”
“Ah.” I noted my disappointment without judging myself for it, as my shrink had taught me. “Would you like me to put you through to Inaya, then?”
“I don’t need to disturb her,” she said. “Just let me know when you’d be free to open up the soundstage. I can give her my report directly afterward.”
I scooted my chair closer to my desk and lowered my voice. “I can go in there with you, if it will help.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the line, and I knew that even if she’d been in the room I would have had difficulty interpreting it.
“Yes,” she said then. “I think that would be best. I’ll have my familiar with me of course, so you don’t need to worry that I’ll—cause trouble.”
“Caryl, the only person your feelings are any trouble to is you.”
“Around two p.m. tomorrow would work,” I said when I got tired of waiting for her reply. I tried to remember what her face looked like and found I couldn’t. That was partly the fault of lingering brain damage, but mostly it was due to the extraordinary efforts she went to not to be memorable. “I’ve kind of missed you,” I said.
“I’ve missed you too, Millie,” she surprised me by saying. Then she ended the call, probably afraid she’d overload her familiar with all the feelings she was refusing to feel. That was the whole point of him: a miniature dragon-shaped carry-on bag for the traumatized mess that Dr. Davis would have called her Emotion Mind. I could have used a trick like that myself, but not being a warlock or a wizard, I had to deal with my mental health issues the old-fashioned way: by paying a lot of money to talk to people about them.
I put the phone back in its cradle and glanced at Inaya’s door again, then at the assortment of Post-it notes that littered the fringes of my monitor. I reached for the pad to tear off yet another, scrawled CARYL WED OCT 14 2P.M. on it, and found an open spot to stick it.
My computer, of course, was installed with all manner of productivity software, but digital information had a stubborn way of slithering out of my consciousness. Something about the physical placement of paper helped me to remember, or at the very least to remember that I’d forgotten something and check the paper to see what it was.
Even with Araceli to handle most of the complicated stuff, if Inaya hadn’t owed me a massive debt and needed someone on her team who knew about the Arcadia Project, I’d have been fired in the first week. I was pretty good at mobilizing people and getting answers from them, but the rest of my job was tailor-made to remind me hourly of my weaknesses: low stress tolerance, faulty memory, general misanthropy. I sometimes fantasized about quitting, but this job beat scrubbing deep fryers, and Dr. Davis said I needed to push myself, especially when it came to memory. Even a damaged brain has a remarkable ability to pave neurological detours around the rubble.
Still, getting a phone call from the woman who had fired me from far more interesting work wasn’t helping endear this job to me.
I was under no circumstances allowed to bother Inaya if her door was closed, so I rose carefully from my desk chair and came out from behind the semi-oval shared workspace to get the blood flowing back down what remained of my left thigh. My AK prosthesis was designed for walking, not sitting. Inaya had offered to convert my half of the workstation into a standing desk, but I’d refused; my mind balked at that gesture of commitment.
When I felt a long, slow buzz in my pocket, I cringed; the only person who used my cell for voice calls was Parisa Naderi, showrunner of Maneaters and human wrecking ball. I considered just letting it go to voice mail, but then I worried she’d call Inaya directly, and I’d have to mop up the carnage. So I answered.
“I need to see Inaya,” she said shortly. “Ten minutes should do it, as soon as you can get me in.”
“You’ll want to talk to Araceli about scheduling,” I said, glancing over at her empty chair out of habit.
“Araceli said Inaya wasn’t available today. So I’m calling you. Make it happen.”
I suppressed the first five responses that came to mind, breathing in deeply through my nose. “As Inaya doesn’t keep her own schedule, I’m afraid all I could do would be to call Araceli myself, and she would tell me the same thing. I do have some good news for you, though.”
“Tell me it’s about stage 13.”
“Ya Bahá’u’l-Abhá!” I had no idea what that meant, but it was unmistakably joyful, and it made me smile. I wasn’t used to joy from Naderi.
“We’ve got an inspector coming tomorrow,” I said. “She should be able to tell us what steps need to be taken to get the soundstage into usable condition.”
“What time is she coming?”
There was no way I was telling her that. “She didn’t say,” I extemporized, which was technically true, since I’d been the one to set the time.
“I need you to call me the minute she gets here,” Naderi said.
“If I do that, you’ll stop working on that script and come meet us there, and not only will that put you further behind, but we can’t afford the liability.”
“Okay, first, I don’t like this tone you’re taking. Second, if it’s safe enough for an inspector to go in, it’s safe enough for me to go in too. Need me to sign a waiver or something? Just send it over.”
Lady, there are no waivers that cover what you might find in there. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m under very specific instructions. I know how frustrating this must be for you, but it’s—”
“How old are you, twenty-five? Don’t talk to me like I’m a child. Telling me how I feel, when you’ve never had something like this under you. Who did you sleep with to get a job here, if you don’t understand this? Stage 8 is a closet. I’m making your biggest show in a closet. Valiant is a wobbly little fawn surrounded by lions, and right now I’m your only rifle. You really want to keep blowing me off when I ask for ammo?”
My skin was hot; my heart hammered in my chest. Inaya’s office door opened just as Naderi’s voice was reaching a crescendo. Inaya took one look at me and, from the expression on her face, must have guessed who was on the other end of my call. She ducked behind her door again as though Naderi might somehow sense her presence.
“I promise I will let you know the moment stage 13 is clear for you to enter,” I said. “That’s honestly all I can offer.”
“You have to know how insulting this is. What a personal insult this is.”
I really wasn’t cut out for this job. I was a suicide survivor with an emotional-regulation disorder; what the hell had I been thinking, that this place would be calming?
“The safety of your cast and crew comes first,” I said as evenly as I could, but my voice betrayed me by shaking. “I know stage 8 is slowing you down, but if something were to happen to one of your people in 13, it would set you back far worse. Please trust that Inaya isn’t making some sort of—”
She’d hung up already. Damn it! I resisted the urge to pelt my phone across the room.
Inaya slowly peeked her head around the edge of the door. She’d been wearing her shoulder-length hair in twists lately to hide the break between relaxed ends and new growth; the style made her look even younger than she was. She could easily have given A-list starlets competition for romantic leads for another half-dozen years. For Inaya West, of all people, to completely retire from acting at thirty-eight to run a studio bordered on absurd. Then again, it hadn’t exactly been Plan A.
“Is it safe?” she said. I couldn’t tell how much of her cowed demeanor was for comic effect.
“For all I know she could be on her way over here,” I said, heart still racing. “But probably not, since she hasn’t turned in a script yet. I think she just needed to let off some steam.”
Inaya’s face softened a little. “I hate that you’re stuck in the middle of this,” she said. “I’ve tried to put her onto Araceli as much as I can, because of your . . .” She trailed off politely.
My borderline personality disorder. My brain damage. My amputated legs. Pick a card, any card. I was a controversial candidate to work a drive-thru, let alone provide meaningful assistance to one of the most powerful women in Hollywood. But I was the only one at Valiant besides Inaya who knew about her Echo: her muse, the source of her inspiration. I was also the only one who knew what was really wrong with stage 13. My job was a facade, but I needed to make it look real, and I was on the verge of failing even at that.
“Naderi would never bother with Araceli,” I said. “She can’t make Araceli cry.”
“Oh, honey.” Inaya shifted in the doorway. “You’re seeing your—doctor tonight?”
“Yes.” I had individual therapy on Tuesday nights, group on Thursdays; I’d been in formal dialectical behavior therapy more or less consistently for nine months, barring that crazy week in June I’d spent helping the Arcadia Project hunt down a fey viscount. “It’s helping. It is. It’s just going to take time. Anyway, the good news is that Caryl finally called me back.”
“Caryl?” Inaya’s tone was shocked. She came all the way out of the office and perched on the edge of my desk. “Caryl Vallo, from the fairyland people?”
“The Arcadia Project. Yes.”
“Praise Jesus. I was starting to worry she was dead or something.”
A flash: Caryl lying cold and gray on the floor, blood drying around her mouth, silver-haired David doing chest compressions. Oh wonderful. So that memory I could hold on to just fine.
“Nope, Caryl’s very much alive. Just understandably reluctant to go back to that place.”
“But I need to talk to her too,” she said. “When are they going to let my angel come back?”
She meant her Echo, Baroness Foxfeather of the Seelie Court. I sighed and raked my hands through my hair, messing up the cute layered cut Inaya had paid for. She frowned and rose to ruffle it back into place as though she were straightening a stack of papers.
“Stop that,” she said. “Every time I come out here you look like you just rolled out of bed.”
“Sorry. Look, I got an e-mail two months ago that said there was some trouble processing her for reentry, something about hazardous conditions on their side? It’s not like I have influence with them. I don’t even work there anymore.”
Inaya sighed and threw up her hands. “It would just make things a hell of a lot easier if I had an angel to come home to at the end of the day. Naderi knows exactly how to eat away at my sanity.”
For sixteen years, it had been understood that Inaya was Naderi’s subordinate, as one might expect when a starlet forms a friendship with a film auteur seven years her senior. When Inaya had become a studio head overnight and told her old pal over too many cocktails that “our lives would make a great HBO drama,” what could she say when Naderi pitched an expanded, polished version of that idea right back to her a week later?
Inaya had figured Maneaters would be a brave failure. And although Naderi hadn’t been shocked when the pilot eventually got a late pickup, even she hadn’t expected it to carry every single demographic in its time slot. The two women had created a beautiful monster together, and now it was rampaging all over their friendship.
“Caryl will handle this,” I said. “Once Naderi gets stage 13, you’ll be best pals again. I promise.”
“But Caryl hasn’t been handling it,” said Inaya. “I’ve been counting on you to answer all my Arcadia questions, and you’re not exactly an expert. You were with them how long?”
“Technically they never officially hired me.”
“And yet you’re all I have. They’ve thrown me to the wolves.”
“Be patient,” I said, aware of the irony of this advice coming from me. “Caryl will be here tomorrow; she’ll make sure there’s no bad juju lingering on the stage, and if there is, she’ll walk me through getting rid of it. We’ll fill in the hole in the floor and voilà.”
“I hope you’re right,” she said. “I’m about to lose it. I did not expect to be doing this on my own.”
I winced; that part was my fault. She’d originally had two partners; I’d killed one of them and driven the other into retirement. Inaya West was one of the strongest people I’d ever met, but I was pretty sure no one was strong enough for this mess.
“You’re not on your own,” I said. “Remember, even when your Echo isn’t here, she’s still watching out for you.”
She smiled, the tension on her face easing a little.
I had an Echo too, technically. Somewhere on the other side of that invisible barrier that separated our worlds was my fey soul mate, a faun named Claybriar that I’d rescued from the between-worlds void that still yawned darkly at the heart of stage 13. But all the steel hardware holding my shattered ribs and skull and limbs together acted as an arcane signal scrambler; his magic couldn’t get to me no matter how close we were. Unlike Inaya, I really was on my own.
“Just hang in there,” I said. “Things are about to get a lot easier for everyone.”
It’s pretty hilarious how wrong I can be sometimes.