Nothing wakes a guy up like walking straight through his receptionist. James didn’t even notice the ghost outside his apartment door until the bone-deep spectral chill hit him, and by that point he was already past her and turning around, belatedly registering the faint smell of spectral cigarette smoke.
“Don’t worry about it,” the ghost said, smiling. “It doesn’t hurt. You have a client—I think. I pointed her to the coffee machine and came up to get you.”
They had found out that Dolly could make coffee if the machine was pre-loaded with coffee and water, so all she had to do was press the switch in the morning. She couldn’t pour or serve it, however, at least not without great concentration and a lot of dropped crockery.
“You’re not sure if she’s a client?” James asked, hastily doing up the top buttons of his shirt.
“Well,” Dolly said with a frown, “she’s just a kid. But she said she was looking for the private detective office.”
James’s apartment was located on the top floor of a three-story converted warehouse. The conversion had never really proceeded all the way to the luxury view condos that the developer had no doubt envisioned, and James went past exposed drywall to a stairwell that was functional rather than attractive. The middle floor, still completely unrestored, was used for storage. The ground floor contained a mixed assortment of offices and business space. James headed past all of this, down to the basement.
The Keeley & Associate offices had been adapted from an old basement speakeasy. The basement ran the length of the warehouse, and the reception area took up one entire end, scaled to make it easier for Ozymandias to come and go. The stairs were sized for human steps, but wide enough for a dragon, creating the impression of a great ballroom staircase sweeping down to the floor below.
James had chosen to recreate as much of the original 1920s decor as possible. The reception desk was an old bar top, not actually original to the speakeasy but sourced instead from an architectural salvage company. The walls displayed vintage brickwork and Art Deco prints. For the furniture, he had gone for comfortable and cheap over antique. Oz had argued about this, but James stood firm. He felt that it gave off the wrong vibe if clients came downstairs to be confronted by velvet-upholstered, hundred-year-old Queen Anne chairs. Instead there was a mismatched assortment of fat, squashy couches and armchairs, along with a garage-sale coffee table with the top thoroughly scratched by Oz dragging his tail accidentally (so he claimed) across it.
The girl was sitting on a plaid-upholstered couch with her legs tucked up, a magazine in her lap and a cup of coffee in one hand. From the staircase, James took a moment to study her before she had a chance to see him. Dolly was right, she was incredibly young. James was no expert at guessing children’s ages, but he would say mid-teens at the oldest. She was huddled in an oversized purple hoodie, and the size of the office around her made her slight, curled shape look even smaller. She had long black braids with colorful red and blue ribbons threaded through them, and small, slim brown hands curled on the magazine pages.
James cleared his throat.
The girl jumped to her feet, unfolding skinny legs covered in red-and-black striped tights, and spilled coffee on herself.
“Sorry.” James retrieved a handful of napkins from the coffee machine corner and handed them to her. “First I walk through my receptionist, then I give you a scare. I’m off to a great start here.”
The girl took the napkins with a hand decorated with chipped black nail polish and dabbed at her tights above her chunky purple-laced ankle boots. “Are you the detective?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m James Keeley.” James pulled up a chair adjacent to the couch. “How old are you?”
She definitely wasn’t.
“Are you running away from somewhere?” James asked.
“No!” the girl said. “My brother’s missing. I’d like to hire you to find him.” She hesitated with an anxious expression that made her look even younger. “You do that, right? Find people?”
“Yes,” James said. He held out a hand for the soiled, crumpled ball of napkins and she deposited it into his palm. “I do that. What’s your name?”
“Genna Cardenas. With a G. Short for Genevieve.” Cautiously she sat down again. “My brother’s name is Peter.”
“Where are your parents?” James asked.
“Not here,” Genna said. She pulled a couch pillow into her lap and folded her arms over it. “They’re on a business trip. But I can pay you.”
Out of the corner of his eye, James saw Dolly on the stairs, listening. “I still feel like I’m missing a few big pieces of the story. How old is your brother, and how long has he been gone? Have you talked to the police?”
“He’s twenty-three,” Genna said.
“An adult?” James asked, surprised.
“You don’t look for adults?”
“No, I—that part’s not a problem. Sorry. I had a different impression.” He could tell there was something huge that she wasn’t telling him, but he had no idea where to even begin asking, whether it was to do with the missing brother or the absent parents or something else entirely. “Hold on, let me get a notebook to write all this down. I want you to tell me everything from the beginning.”
When he settled back in the chair with a small spiral-bound notebook and pen, Genna visibly relaxed. This was finally going more like how hiring a detective was supposed to work. James hadn’t figured out yet if he wanted to risk getting involved with whatever was going on here, but it couldn’t hurt to at least get the story out of her. Dolly perched on the edge of the reception desk.
Genna explained that her brother lived at home and worked as a bartender while attending the university. “He’s getting a degree in business management and working at night,” she explained. “He’s very smart.”
“When did you last see him?”
“Saturday.” She began picking bits of fluff off the pillow. “He works night shifts. He’s always gone when I go to bed on Saturday night, and then on Sunday morning, he makes pancakes. That morning, he wasn’t up when I got up, so I let him sleep in, I figured he was tired. But he just didn’t get up and didn’t get up, so I knocked on his door, and finally I went in and saw he wasn’t there.”
Today was Wednesday. “So you haven’t heard from him in four days,” James said, and she nodded. “Do you think he came back on Saturday night and left again, or didn’t come back at all?”
“Didn’t come back?” Genna said hesitantly. “I mean, I think I would have heard him leave. I just thought he was in his room without checking.
“What do your parents think?”
“They’re not here, so it doesn’t matter, does it?”
James frowned. “How long have they been gone?”
“Oh, uh—since last week. For business.”
“And when are they coming back?”
“It’s Peter that’s missing, not my parents,” Genna said. “What does it matter?”
“I’m a detective; I’m curious by nature. If your parents disappeared and then your brother—”
“My parents didn’t disappear. It’s Peter I’m worried about. He wouldn’t just go away, not like this.”
If Peter Cardenas was supposed to be looking out for his kid sister in his parents’ absence, that was certainly a long time to leave her home alone. “No messages or texts?”
She shook her head.
“Anything missing from his room? Did he pack an overnight bag?”
“He wouldn’t just leave me,” Genna said.
But there was an evasiveness to her, as if she wasn’t as sure as she wanted to be.
“He took his phone, wallet, all of that?”
“Of course. Well, I guess so.” She hesitated, biting her lip. “I didn’t really want to look through his stuff.”
“Did he say anything about where he might have gone?”
“No, but he didn’t really talk to me about what he was doing since . . .”
“Since he started hanging out with his new friends from work.”
Aha, James thought. Now we’re getting somewhere. “You don’t like his work friends?”
The story came out in fits and starts. Peter Cardenas had taken up with a new, rougher crowd a few months ago. He sometimes missed a night at home, staying with friends instead, and he’d stopped talking to his sister about his classes. She wasn’t even sure if he was still going to school. When James asked if she thought his new friends were criminals, she seemed uncertain. Was he breaking the law? She didn’t know.
“Where does he work?” James asked.
She paused before saying, “Morphos.” And suddenly at least some of her reluctance took on new overtones.
Morphos was a notorious shifter hotel/bar. Shifters weren’t secret exactly, but most of them lived under the radar, passing as human, so it was perfectly understandable that they craved places where they could be themselves without having to hide. But Morphos, from all James had heard, was a dive. He’d never been inside because humans were banned. Some of his jobs had taken him there—tailing a cheating spouse or doing a process-serving job—but if the trail led to Morphos, it stopped at the door. For Genna’s brother to work there, he must be a shifter too.
“Genna, what does your brother turn into?”
“A bat,” she mumbled.
Not as reassuring as it could be. Morphos catered to a big-predator crowd. James had been reassured that they didn’t eat prey animals there, but it was a hotel with the general vibe of a dark alley in a bad part of town.
James could think of a few things that a shifter gang might want with a bat shifter. If the rest of the gang were big predators, wolves and lions and the like, they might have a lot of use for someone who could fly and sneak into tight spaces.
“Genna, do you think your brother’s new friends were trying to recruit him for a crime?”
“I don’t think so,” Genna said uncertainly. “But he was excited about something. The last couple of weeks, he kept saying he was into something big, and things were going to change for us.”
“I don’t know. Just change. He wouldn’t tell me anything else.”
“Genna, if your brother wasn’t at home as often as he used to be, are you sure he didn’t decide to spend a few days with his friends?”
“No,” Genna said without hesitation. “He wouldn’t leave me alone for that long without saying something. He’s not answering his phone. And I called the bar asking for him. They said he wasn’t there.”
“Wasn’t there, or didn’t work there anymore?”
“Just wasn’t there. Is that good?” she asked hopefully.
“I hope so. Do you have someone you can stay with until your parents or your brother get back?”
“I’ll be fine at home,” she said firmly.
“When are your parents due back?”
Genna looked like she had to think about this. “Monday. But they travel a lot. I’m used to it. Really. You don’t have to worry about that.”
“Could I talk to your parents? Call them, maybe?”
“They’re at a—a retreat,” she said, a little desperately.
“Connecticut?” Genna sounded like she was pulling it out of the air.
“Seriously, kid, I need to talk to a parent before I can take your case.”
“Because you’re obviously not eighteen,” James said, looking her in the eyes. “And I could get in real legal trouble because of it. What aren’t you telling me about your parents?”
Genna tried to stare him down, but broke almost immediately.
“They’re dead, okay?” She threw the pillow at the end of the couch. It missed and rebounded onto the floor. “Peter’s my legal guardian. There you go, you figured it out, so I guess you really are a good detective. If anyone finds out Peter’s gone, they won’t let me stay alone. They’ll put me in a foster home. That’s why I can’t talk to the police.”
“How old are you really?”
She looked like she was going to cry. Dolly wafted over and held out a tissue, which was light enough for her to pick up.
James doubted the wheels of bureaucracy would turn that swiftly. What he really ought to do was gently decant her into the arms of Social Services and have her explain the situation to them. But he already knew he wasn’t going to. At least not yet. He felt for the poor kid. Anyway, it was possible that her brother was just hanging around with his new best friends and would hightail it home as soon as someone told him his sister was worried enough to hire a detective.
“Let’s put a time limit on this,” he told her. “If Peter is really in serious trouble, the police can do more to find him than I can. Let’s call Monday our deadline. If I’m not making progress by then, or if I see signs that he’s mixed up in something dangerous, we’ll put him out as an official missing person. All right?”
Genna nodded vigorously. She sniffled a little.
“To find your brother I’m going to need a few things. Do you have a recent picture of him?”
“On my phone.” She paged through and held it up.
Peter and his sister shared the same light brown complexion, black hair, and serious gray-green eyes. In the photo, he wore metal-framed glasses and a light blue polo shirt. The impression was of a studious, sober young man, not someone who was going to run off and leave his teenage sister alone for the better part of a week without at least saying something.
“Go ahead and email that to me.” James scribbled the office address at the top of a blank sheet of note paper. “It would also help if you have any numbers you have for people he knows, like his advisor at school or close friends.”
“Does this mean you’re taking my case?” She fairly glowed with happiness until deflating slightly. “How much is it going to cost?”
“It won’t cost anything if I don’t find him, so let’s not worry about that up front.” Like he was going to charge a teenage kid for helping her find the one person in the world who could keep her out of foster care. He handed her the notebook and pen. “I want you to write down everything you know about your brother’s usual routine. When his bar shifts are, the name of his supervisor if you know it, any friends whose names you know, whatever you remember about his class schedule, all of that.”
As Genna bent busily to writing, Dolly drifted closer and whispered, “School?”
“Me?” James said.
“Her. Should she be in school? I know it’s been a long time for me and I don’t remember exactly what age . . .”
“No, you’re right. Aren’t you supposed to be in school, Genna?”
“It’s only homeroom,” Genna said dismissively. “I can skip.”
“Nope. Back to school with you. I’m making that a condition of taking your case.” And how had he ended up in loco parentis, anyway? “Do you need any help getting there?”
“My bike’s outside.” Genna raised her head and looked curiously at Dolly. Admitting the truth about her parents seemed to have relaxed her a little; she was no longer so guarded. “Are you a ghost?” she asked.
“I am,” Dolly said.
“When did you die? Or is it rude to ask?”
“1924.” Dolly smiled. “It’s not rude to ask. I don’t mind.”
“I never met a real live ghost before. Or should that be a real dead ghost? Do you haunt people?”
“I haunt this building,” Dolly said. She pointed at the closed double doors leading to the river tunnel. “I died right over there.”
James cleared his throat. “School,” he reminded her. “After you get out, I’ll come over and have a look at your brother’s things, if that’s all right with you. Oh, and I need an item of his clothing. Preferably something he’s worn recently or frequently. A jacket or a hat would be perfect.”
“What for?” Genna asked.
“Because,” James said, “I have a colleague with a sharp nose.”
Shamus & Shifter releases this Friday.