A hiss and creak sounded from down the street as the orange text scrolled across the front of their bus. Once the doors clacked open, Alanna hopped on board, her skin prickling at the damp air-conditioning that swept through the place. This time of night, apart from a couple guys crowding the back and shooting them nasty glares, the seats had emptied. The bus driver didn’t give them a second glance as they sank into the stained seats, and Alanna let out a sigh of relief at the chance to sit.
“You sure you don’t want out on this?” she offered. “It’s late, and I’m sure you’re tired.”
He leaned back in the seat, watching the opposite windows as the lit up city of Philadelphia passed them by. Streetlamps flickered like strobe lights under the quick pace the bus driver set.
“No more tired than you.” His gaze switched to her, those dark eyes so intense she couldn’t help the flush rising to her cheeks. Regardless, she refused to acquiesce to the heat that swelled inside her at his focus. “Besides, the sooner we’ve eradicated any remainder of the Order of the Serpent, the sooner I get my lamp back, right? Consider me an interested party.”
“The second the Order is eradicated, then it’s on the table,” she started, the same tired argument rising up as the yoke of responsibility sank around her throat again.
“But until then I can’t be trusted with the safety of your city when the Order can use me as their pawn.” His voice held the corroded bitterness she’d gotten used to from him. They’d run the gauntlet of this argument countless times, and as much as he acknowledged her words, she could see in his resentful stare he hadn’t accepted her reasoning. Not like she could blame him—if someone else held an integral part of her in their clutches, her glass wall of composure would shatter to shards.
“Well, if this is the Order, maybe we’ll get the lead we’ve been looking for.” Alanna cast a careful glance to the men hunched in the back of the bus. Not like she couldn’t take on a couple of thugs in a heartbeat, but paranoid observance of her surroundings had saved her life more than a couple times. “It’s been months without a murmur on the streets. I’d be an idiot to believe they’ve abandoned Philly, but we can’t get our fingers on a pulse anywhere in this city.”
The Coven building lit up in the distance, and Alanna reached up to tug the cord for their stop.
“All I’ve got is a gut impulse right now, but I can’t shake the feeling they’re involved in this development,” Sam said, standing from his seat to track the linoleum to the front. The bus shuddered as it screeched to a halt, and the doors opened with a hiss
. He hopped out onto the pavement, and she followed at once, the defined arch of the Coven building drawing her eye. For as long as she remembered, the Coven building had been a star on her horizon, a beacon of safety for her when family life got too overbearing.
Bar lights twinkled along the streets in either direction of the Coven building, and as she approached her second home, the familiar scent of coffee drifted her way from the late-night café, neons still blazing. She’d spent many nights drowning herself in cup after cup of coffee to stay awake when she’d tried getting a breather by taking her work elsewhere.
“While I’ll be searching for definitive proof, don’t dismiss your gut impulses,” she said. “We might not be able to act on them, but both you and Liam have experience with the Order and a subconscious understanding of their patterns the rest of us don’t have access to.” She strode up to the building so monolithic most would find it daunting. For her, this was a safer place than her own apartment.
The veined marble tiles stretched out before them the second she opened the door, and the subtle coolness of the place brushed across her skin. On a normal day she maintained the same appearance as the polished floors, the immaculate desks, and the vacuumed upholstery. However, now she arrived after fieldwork, which showed in the stains on her knees, the film of dirt that clung to her, and the way a couple strands of her ponytail refused to conform.
“Where are you taking the sample?” Sam asked, his hands in his pockets as he walked along by her side. Though she could tell he wasn’t butterflies and roses about this whole mess, one thing she valued about Sam was the calm he always emanated, regardless of the circumstance. She led them straight for the elevators, the gold sconces casting a softer light in that direction.
“We’ll be heading to the labs underneath. Mags is still on duty tonight.” The doors opened with a ding
echoing through the empty place. During the day, witches of every age filled the desks, and a fair number bustled through the foyer; however, at night a skeleton crew owned this building, and she reigned as their queen. The second she pressed the button, the elevator glided down with a liquid smoothness that made her stomach lurch. She began picking at the crusted gunk on the sleeve of her rolled-to-the-elbow button-down.
“Driving you nuts?” Sam asked, noticing all the details she hid from most.
“Guilty as charged,” she admitted with a sigh. “I may be a teensy bit germophobic. Not like you’d think it with the amount of fights we get involved in.”
“Not much of a well-kept secret, Carrington.” He grinned. “Between the way you’re fidgeting to adjust your hair, collar, skirt, anything, and the immaculate condition of the headquarters, it was an easy reach.”
The elevator let out a ding
as it settled into place, the doors opening onto one of the lower-level floors, part of the complex network that descended far beneath the building.
“If you’re trying to exploit my weaknesses, Karim, you’ll have to try harder,” she commented as she stepped from the elevator into the bright lighting of their laboratory floor. Gunmetal tiles spanned out ahead of them, a juxtaposition to the bright white of the walls and closed doors.
Their shoes created a gentle click-clack reverberating around the quiet of these rooms, many of them sealed off due to the testing of different magic and species. Part of her wished she’d pursued the path of a research scientist instead of going into upper management. She could spend hours down here poring over the advancements they made and the tests they ran. Alanna looked forward to the chances she got to escape to the scientist lair. As they walked by, she peered into the windows of every door, though most of them were dark and empty.
The brightly lit door at the end of the hall spilled rays onto the floor. In there, Mags still worked hard, since they competed for the workaholic crown on a regular basis. She stepped to the door and turned the knob, not bothering to knock. The bright blue walls in the lab had been a personal choice, because they hadn’t wanted the typical bleach-white lair. The people who worked down here were a fun lot, and whenever she had an excuse to pay a visit, she did.
“Allie, shouldn’t you be locked away in the prison you call your office?” Mags’s voice greeted her before she took the first step into the room.
Alanna crossed her arms even though she didn’t hide the smirk rising to her lips. “Had to put some time in at the yard. Work off my sentence.”
Mags swiveled around on her stool. The rings under her dark brown eyes were made more prominent by her alabaster skin and the chestnut curls framing her face. The woman wore her lab coat inside out, but that didn’t surprise Alanna in the slightest. Mags channeled all of her attention into her work, so keeping up appearances got chucked by the wayside.
The black-paneled countertops were mostly empty, the place kept perilously clean. Mags had a set of test tubes out in their holders, each a different color with a smudge of what looked like seaweed in them. Mags caught her looking and explained. “Merfolk have been complaining something fierce about magic-related pollution in the water outside, so I’m trying to disseminate who the hell might be dumping their spell waste.”
“I’ve got more bushels of fun for you.” Alanna dug into her purse and pulled out the bag of wight flesh. Mags didn’t bat an eye—this ranged on the tamer side of what Alanna brought her—and reached to pluck the bag from her hands. “I need you to put a trace spell on this. Once you get the information, I’ll head out in the morning to pay a visit to whatever idiot’s been raising wights. In the meanwhile, could you take past wight analyses and compare them against this one? We need to identify what’s different.”
Mags crooked a brow. “What’s prompting this?”
“The wight wielded magic,” Sam interjected. He’d been standing there so calm and quiet she’d almost forgotten he joined along. She straightened up a little taller, realizing she’d lapsed into the relaxed back and forth Mags elicited from her.
Mags’s eyes widened, and she let out a low whistle. “Always an adventure with you. I’ll text you the results in the morning, Allie. Now go the hell home.”
Sam’s brows rose at the way Mags addressed her, but out of anyone, she could get away with it. They’d started working at the Coven around the same time and had become instant friends. Alanna didn’t have many of those, so she valued her few all the more.
“Yes, ma’am,” Alanna replied with a smile, giving Mags a salute. The small woman returned with a sharp grin as she hopped from her stool and walked over to the obsidian drawers containing all the supplies she’d need to attack this problem. “Get this figured out fast enough and Chinese is on me next.”
“Nice try, boss. It’s your turn anyway.” Mags turned away as she set to work.
Alanna headed to the door. “See you in the morning,” she called before exiting, waiting to hear the grunt of a response from Mags, who’d already begun to get engrossed in her next project.
Sam strolled beside her down the corridor, his gaze skating her way.
“What?” she asked, breaking the silence before they made it to the elevator.
A smirk rolled onto his lips. “I thought the ice queen didn’t have spare time or hobbies.”
She fixed him with a look. “I’d hardly call Chinese food a hobby. Mags earned her space in my life. Most others haven’t.” Alanna pressed the button for the elevator, making it light up.
“And you just sit there eating Chinese food in silence?” he goaded, a stupid smile still on his face.
Alanna crossed her arms over her chest. “Yes, because I’m a trash conversationalist.” The door to the elevator opened, and she stepped in. She glanced his way, snaring his gaze as he stepped in to join her. “You really want to know? We’re both horror movie junkies, so we meet up once a month.”
Sam’s brows furrowed as he tried to wrap his brain around that one. She held back her snicker in the process, not giving a damn. Right now she wanted a shower and whatever sleep she could scrape together. The elevator doors opened to the foyer with a ding
, and together they strode across the marble floor to the exit.
As she stepped outside, the chill of autumn greeted her, and the decay in the breeze tickled her nose.
“Tomorrow morning, report to my office,” Alanna said, settling into work mode. Between seeing Mags and Sam’s personal questions, she’d gotten a brief, delicious taste of normalcy, but it never lasted. Because she was the Coven leader, which meant the real Alanna Carrington had to take a backseat, like always.
“The sooner we can tackle this the better,” he replied, foreboding in his voice. She didn’t respond, but the cold breezes wrapping around her, the sinking in her stomach, and the charged element in the air provided all the clues she needed.
Trouble was on its way.