I tripped hard that night. I don’t remember all of it. Supposedly, I freaked out at some point and told everyone death was stalking me, that it was coming, that I could feel it. I started hyperventilating and Shanna cleared the room and that was it. Party over, oops, out of time.
The next morning, I woke around noon to find a strange man standing over me. Considering the events of the night before, this didn’t immediately surprise—not until I saw how he was dressed.
I shrieked and fell backward to the floor between the couch and the wall, claws up, ready to scratch his eyes out. But he just stood there, hands at the sides of his black suit, while his companion, a tall, thin black man with narrow sideburns, checked my closet and the bathroom.
“Clean,” he said, knocking over a beer bottle with his foot.
The man in the suit had a bulbous metal object in his hand, like a vajra or two-sided scepter. He slipped it into a holster under his blazer—a holster for a spiritual object. He bent to pick up one of the empty boxes of cordials from the floor. He counted the others among the empty beer bottles and trash around the room. My place was a disaster.
“. . . three . . . four . . . five.” He looked at me.
“I got hungry,” I said.
He tossed the box in the trash. His cheeks were pockmarked and his hair was heavily pomaded. He looked like door security for a pay-by-the-bottle club in Midtown. He even had the requisite merino turtleneck in place of a shirt and tie.
“Put some clothes on,” he said flatly. “Mr. Rottheim would like to see you.”
I looked down. I was in nothing but a Care Bears T-shirt and a new pair of granny panties. “Who?”
I genuinely didn’t know, but bouncer-man didn’t care.
“Let’s go.” He snapped.
“And what happens if I tell this guy to go fuck himself?” I asked.
“Trust me.” He picked up my jeans from the floor and tossed them to me. “It’s in your best interest to come.”
“Is that a threat?”
I slipped them on and went to pee. I closed the door but the man in the turtleneck blocked it.
“You wanna watch?” I asked.
He stood in a wide stance with his arms crossed.
I peed and washed my hands and face and put my hair back.
“’Iss is ’idnappin,” I said, gargling. I spit. “You know that, right?”
“I’ll take you to the police after,” he drolled.
I swiped my mirrored aviators off the giant stuffed bunny in the living room and was ushered out the door. Sideburns stood guard on the sidewalk like I was a celebrity exiting a show. The stretched limo waiting at the curb took us uptown. There was a large touchscreen panel in the center that controlled the temperature and the music and the WiFi and the privacy window and everything, and all the seats in the back had their own foldout screens, like on an airplane. Sideburns drove. Bouncerman sat in the back across from me and watched me, expressionless, the entire way.
“You got any gum?” I asked. I still had a terrible taste in my mouth.
We stopped in front of an old stone-block mansion, not far from Maleficium. I looked up at it from the window. It was more tall than wide and wedged carefully between a pair of brick condo towers. Bouncer-man opened the door for me before walking to the front of the mansion. The limo pulled away, leaving me alone on the sidewalk with a bald pedestrian. He was watching the mansion like the roof was on fire. So I did the same.
The block stone of the building’s first three floors had dark runoff stains at the edges of the gutters that spoke to old age. A huge bay window rose from the second and third floors, suggesting there was a single tall space behind, like a ballroom or long dining hall. The very top floor was a later addition. The front of it was all windows, tinted and impenetrable.
“What are we looking at?” I asked.
The bald man turned to me then with a curious gaze, like he was utterly amazed I was even aware of his presence. That was when I noticed his coat.
A coat. In June.
Still, I can see why he was so fond of it. It was awesome. It was an old-style chuban, like they used to wear on the mainland centuries ago, only the buttons had been replaced. Each was different. One was stamped metal. Another was polished amber. Whatever had been printed on the fabric had long-since faded to wisps. Now it appeared as an early morning fog, or maybe smoke from a campfire. The man who wore it had skin of an odd color. It had a faint ocher hue.
“Dig the coat,” I said.
“Ms. Song,” Bouncerman urged me from the front door.
“Song,” the bald man said, as if both perplexed by my name and committing it to memory.
He didn’t move as I walked in the front, and I returned his gaze from the foyer until Bouncerman closed the door behind me.
“You know that guy?” I asked.
“Mr. Rottheim makes a lot of enemies,” he said, urging me toward an open elevator.
“An elevator in a house,” I said. “Huh. Will wonders never cease.”
It was narrow but elegant. By the buttons, the house had four floors and a basement. We rode to the very top, which had a mid-century, Frank-Lloyd-Wright-y feel. The stairs descending to my left were simple planks that jutted from the wall with open air between. The railing was solid glass. There was a waterfall in a nook and a library-office straight ahead, which is where I was directed.
I stepped into the room. I was alone.
“Wait here,” Bouncerman said.
A huge formal desk presided over the space, which included a full-sized boardroom table, complete with teleconferencing kid. The screen saver, a Finnish flag, bounced slowly across the TV. Between them, a couch faced matching upholstered chairs. Behind the desk hung a five-foot-tall portrait of a young man with brown curls standing before a bleak wall of chiseled rock. He rested an arm on it the way you might lean against a fireplace mantle. Everything smelled like new carpet—nice new carpet.
But it was the wall of glass that got you. The view was killer. I looked down to the sidewalk, but the bald man was gone.
The other three walls were paneled in well-oiled oak. Spaced evenly along the panels were ornately framed pages from old manuscripts. I browsed as I waited, leaning over the antique occasional furniture to squint at the once-dark scratch, which was so old it had faded to pale brown. I was studying a very large parchment, the size of a small poster, when Mr. Rottheim rolled in. Or at least I assumed it was him. It was the same man as in the painting, only thinner and sicklier and riding a wheelchair. He wore a loose padded house vest over a collared shirt. His feet were in leather house slippers.
“What do you think?” he asked.
He was considerably younger than I expected, which made me angry—that someone so young could have that much money.
“What do I think?” I replied. “I think you’re looking at five to ten for kidnapping.”
He nodded to the framed parchment, which was different than the others. Most of the pages had little hand-drawn diagrams, but the sheet in front of me contained a large illustration. A naked man, crudely drawn and out of proportion, stood under a gallows. The rope that had held him had snapped and part of it dangled from the wood. He held a flaming staff and there were symbols all over his body that matched those in the circle on the ground around him. Three long knives, each different than the other, poked up from the foreground.
“It’s from the eleventh century,” he explained with a little bluster. “Nearly a thousand years old.”
He had some kind of European accent, faint enough that he had probably been speaking English since he was a kid.
“Is that when the eleventh century was?”
My host pointed to the symbols. “Remind you of anything?”
I squinted. The UV-protective glass preserved the document inside but made it a little difficult to see with the glare from the big windows.
“Sort of looks like a circuit diagram.”
There were zigzags and T-junctions, all of which ended in a small circle, just like you’d see on an electrical schematic.
“People forget that modern science grew directly out of alchemy,” he explained. “Properly understood, they are the same. I’m Lykke Rottheim.”
“Louka,” I said, trying to pronounce it.
“Everyone calls me Luke.” He motioned to the pair of chairs in front of the desk. “Please have a seat.”
I hesitated. I had planned to take a stand, literally, but my host wasn’t at all what I expected. Given his condition, standing seemed rude. I sat on the couch. It was soft and I sank in comfortably.
Rottheim rolled closer and handed me a card. I recognized it. It was my plastic Duane Reade club card.
“It was in the pocket of your jeans,” he explained. Then he nodded to a wrapped parcel on a side table. “Everything has been cleaned and pressed.”
“Pressed?” I scoffed. I couldn’t help myself. Who presses jeans?
“You’re not an easy person to find,” he said with a smirk.
“Seems like your guys did alright.”
“But you’re not where the government thinks you are, are you? Do you even have a lease agreement with the Arab or is it all under the table?”
“The Arab? His name’s Abdul, thank you. And since you seem to know everything, you tell me.”
He took out his phone and read the screen. “Ce-Lei-Zi Song. Hong Kong native. Granddaughter of Wai-Ling Lau, a local restaurateur of some renown, it seems. Merit scholarship to Parsons School of Design.” He glanced to me like he was impressed.
“Dropped out your second year, shortly after being arrested for assault?”
He glanced over me again. I think the idea was that I’m hardly big enough to assault anyone.
“Charges were dropped. Second arrest for vandalism last year. Apparently you put a mural on the wall of a shopping center.”
“Trust me. It was an improvement.”
“Charges still pending,” he finished. He put the phone back in his vest pocket. “And of course, now breaking and entering. If one didn’t know better, one would think you were trying to get deported.”
“One does one’s best.”
“You’re here on student visa. Does ICE know you’re no longer enrolled?”
“If not, I’m sure they’ll figure it out.”
There was a moment of silence where both of us examined the other.
“I’m sure you’re wondering why you’re here,” he said finally. He took a sudden deep breath, as if it was a struggle to talk for very long. “I’m on the board of the private club you broke into the other night.”
I rolled my eyes and leaned forward to get up. “Jeez, what is it with you pe—”
“I’m dying, Ms. Song.”
It was calm and candid and I settled back down.
“Rare genetic disorder,” he explained, “which is poetic, really, considering the effort my parents put into ensuring my lineage.” He snorted softly. “I’ll see to it that the charges against you are dropped. All of them.”
“I’m not gonna dress up like a little girl or whatever Make-A-Wish fantasy—”
“It’s nothing like that!” he barked. Then he caught himself. “But as it happens, you’re not far off the mark.” He rolled to the wall of windows. “I have been living a kind of fantasy these last few months. Recently, it came to an end.”
He turned around again.
“It was with a young woman from the club. I know, I know,” he said, looking down wryly. “One ought to know better, et cetera, et cetera. But one does silly things when one is dying. One has to, to balance out all the seriousness: doctor’s visit and blood tests and long sobbing reunions with childhood friends who, not twelve months ago, couldn’t care less about you, as if they’ve only come to gloat.” He stopped. He smiled at his own bitterness. “The young woman’s name is Lily Ann Sobriecki, although she went by ‘Laïs’ at the club.” He glanced sheepishly to me. “I suppose you can guess what happened.”
“Recently, after discovering her . . . condition, she disappeared. Left the club. No phone call. No email. I understand she’s distraught. Let’s just say we did not part on good terms. Unfortunately, while I wouldn’t quite call her a junkie, Ms. Sobrieki has a”—he paused—“vigorous recreational drug habit, which I was of course happy to fund. I would very much like to find her before she does irreparable harm to the child. I didn’t think I would ever have offspring, Ms. Song. I thought my family would die with me. Now that I do . . . Well, I can think of little else.” He paused. “Are you a religious person?”
“No. Of course not. Me neither. You’ll understand the significance, then, when I say I’ve been praying at night, literally begging God to let me make it to the birth of my child.” He laughed once. “So far, He hasn’t answered. Nor do I expect Him to. But I’m honest when I tell Him there’s nothing I wouldn’t give. Nothing.”
“Look,” I said, “I’m very sorry you’re sick. And I don’t wanna be rude, at least not any more than I have to. But I’m struggling to see where any of this justifies breaking into my apartment.”
“Yes. I do apologize for that. But time is of the essence. I have nightmares of the police finding Lily in an alley somewhere, needle in her arm. That’s not a figure of speech. I awoke just this morning—” He stopped when he saw me getting restless. “But of course. The point. I will pay you one million dollars to find her.”
I sat up. “What?”
“I will deduct ten thousand dollars from that million every hour she is not found.”
“Wait. Did you say a million dollars?”
He nodded solemnly. “Technically, I think we’re down to $960,000 as of this morning, but close enough.”
“Down?” I squinted. “Who’s down?”
“I’ve already made the same offer to several private detectives. The police, of course, are none too interested since no crime has been committed.”
“Okay, I think maybe there’s been a misunderstanding. I’m not a private detective. You just said it: I’m an art school dropout squatting above a halal market.”
“The men I hired are all very good at their jobs, Ms. Song. You know the type—ex-police, ex-military. Very experienced. Very efficient. Very professional. I feel I’ve motivated them as well as I can. They have lists of probable locations and are working them in priority order. Some of them give me hourly reports. Still, one feels they lack a little . . . originality. Whereas you . . .”
“Don’t mind breaking the law,” I finished.
“You tracked Mr. Hardaway to his father’s exclusive club, only rumored to exist, and got past our security on your first try with absolutely no planning.” He paused. “That’s a helluva résumé.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence or whatever, but I’m not whatever it is you think I am. I don’t have a business or an investigator’s license or any of that.”
“I’m confident my lawyers can draft an agreement that protects us both.”
“No. You don’t understand. Even if I was interested in helping you, and even if I thought I could keep up with those other guys, I don’t have a career or reputation to worry about.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding. “You mean you don’t want to spend the next several days looking for someone only to lose out and be left with nothing.”
That wasn’t quite it, but as I struggled for a better way to explain it, he rolled to the side table with a parcel and opened a drawer. He rolled back and tossed a thick stack of bills on the coffee table in front of me. It was heavy enough to shake the glass. It was brand new, by the looks of it. Even the little paper band around the middle was crisp. The label had a bank logo and said $10,000.
I sat up. I’d never seen that much money. I took it cautiously and flipped through the bills. They were stiff and had the pleasant feel of fine stationery. The smell of fresh cash hit my nostrils.
“Damn,” I said with a snort. “Now I know why rappers are always making it rain.” I sniffed again. “Someone should bottle this.”
“I believe they’ve tried.” He sat back, smirking. “Agree to my terms, and you can walk out of here with that. Call it a non-refundable retainer to cover expenses. I won’t even report it to the IRS.”
I returned the cash to the coffee table and stared at it.
Cerise, what are you doing?
“There is an ex-boyfriend,” he said. “Or perhaps they’re still seeing each other. I was none too particular, you understand.” He motioned to the door, where Bouncerman was waiting in his turtleneck, hands clasped in front of him. “William will give you everything we know so far. But understand, the clock is ticking.”
I swiped the cash and flipped through it again. The stack was so much denser than I expected. Like it could stop a bullet.
I waved it. “You’re gonna give me a million dollars to find your ex?”
“No,” he corrected. “I will give you $960,000, minus $10,000 an hour, to find the child she’s carrying in her womb. My understanding is they’re attached.” He held out his hand. “Do we have a deal?”