I really preferred lying to telepaths over the phone. Easier on everyone. I could pretend I was fine; they could pretend to believe me. Win-win.
I stood in the doorway at Featherweight's and resigned myself to getting this over with.
It was too early to be busy. The bar was nearly empty except for Jackson Herring, and he'd clearly come straight from work—he was wearing a dark gray tie and a gray-and-white striped dress shirt. The tie was a little loose. On the bar in front of him rested a collection of cardboard coasters he'd bent and stacked to form some sort of building, a too-bright, tilting San Francisco high-rise twice as tall as his beer. He was totally absorbed, head down and one hand fisted on his forehead, and I remembered the first time I'd met him, how I'd taken one look and assumed he was the type to vacuum his carpet so the lines matched up. He looked up, and the furrow between his brows relaxed as he smiled.
I didn't wonder so much about his housekeeping habits when he smiled.
I made myself think about streetcar schedules as I walked over. Telepaths. Couldn't be too careful. Jackson stood as I approached, and his coaster-house collapsed. He didn't seem to notice.
I'd forgotten his voice. There was no gravel to it, just a pure, unpretentious baritone that hit me right in the center of the chest. He pulled me into a friendly hug, and I felt the unexpected hardness of his arms and chest through his dress shirt. I had to scramble, again, to think about something else. Anything else. I stared hard at the bar menu and thought about nachos.
"Hungry?" he asked. "I haven't eaten yet."
I looked sharply at him, but if he'd been snooping in my head, he was hiding it well.
"Oh. Well, how about a drink?"
"I really can't stay long."
"Come on, one drink." That smile again. It took up his whole face, bringing out his cheekbones and crinkling his eyes. I looked away. The bartender—Caleb, I remembered, actually the manager—watched us while he cut a curl of lemon.
"Okay, all right, one drink, whatever you're having." Just to get this over with.
"Great." Jackson sounded almost relieved. He nodded at Caleb, who pulled a pint for me, cleared off all but one of Jackson's coasters and set my beer on the one that remained. I didn't have much choice but to sit down too. I settled my fiddle case by my feet, and Jackson raised an eyebrow but didn't comment.
"So," he said. "How've things been?"
There it was. The check-in. I thought, for half a second, about telling him the truth: I'm losing my job and my apartment and my most coherent future plans involve crashing on someone's couch and picking up loose change on the street.
Probably not a good idea.
I decided to cut through the small talk and get to the point.
"Cass sent you to check on me. Didn't she." My brother and his girlfriend were two thousand miles away in Louisiana, but they were still acting like a pair of overprotective parents.
He didn't try to deny it. "I'm sure they're worried about you."
"They're always worried."
"I was worried too."
I stared at him. "Why?" He was Cass's friend, not mine. And it was no secret he'd been half in love with her back when she'd lived out here. Hadn't worked out so well for him, since she was back in Louisiana with my brother and he was stuck babysitting a ruined shadowmind. Don't think about it—just don't think about it.
Jackson opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, a tall redhead in a flouncy green dress came up behind him. "Jackson!"
"Bridget, hey." He got up and gave her a hug. She squeezed him back as if she were trying to wring him out. "You're here early," he said. "I thought we weren't meeting until eight."
I felt a little surge of annoyance and fought it back down. What did I care if he had a date?
"Oh, I was going to look for Seb. I thought maybe he could help." She chewed on her bottom lip and looked down.
"Seb's not in tonight," Caleb said. "Sorry, Bridge."
She blinked long-lashed eyes. "That's okay. Anyway, what are you doing up here?"
Jackson stepped back from her and turned to me. "Bridget, this is my friend, Mina Tanner."
Bridget stepped forward and held out her hand, smiling. She had blue, blue eyes and pale skin and expensive dental work. Her hair was a frizzy mess, sticking out around her head in a red-gold halo. I took her hand and she gave me a firm shake.
"Nice to meet you," she said.
This was the point where, once, I would have reached out with my mind to make polite mental contact. It was common courtesy with other shadowminds, letting the other person know if you were telepathic. Even though my powers were gone, the habit was still strong. For a moment, I thought I felt something—a sensation like a static shock in my palm—but it was nothing, just the memory of contact, a phantom limb. The only things in my head were my own circling thoughts. Bridget released me and turned back to Jackson, no doubt concluding I was just a normal.
"Why don't you guys go ahead." I leaned down to get my purse and my fiddle. This was the perfect opportunity to cut this whole awkward meeting short.
Jackson put his hand on my arm and stopped me. "You haven't touched your beer. I can talk to Bridget later."
My skin felt hot where he touched me, and I shifted away from the contact, momentarily caught off guard.
"Or, why don't you come down to Simon's with us?" As soon as the words left Bridget's mouth, she covered it. "I mean—I mean—we were going to go to a different bar—downtown—and—I just—" She looked back and forth from me to Jackson. I could almost hear her mentally freaking out.
"It's okay," I told her. "I know about Simon's." It was the shadowmind speakeasy in the basement of Featherweight's, and I was pretty sure it was supposed to be kept secret from normals. Which I wasn't. Not exactly.
Her expression cleared. "Oh. Oh, thank God." She gave a nervous little laugh and glanced sideways at Jackson, then her brow furrowed. "Then what are you guys doing up here?"
Jackson opened and closed his mouth. "Uh, well—" He was probably scrambling to make up an excuse for me. Poor Mina. Too fragile to handle a crowd of shadowminds. Bridget's expression clouded.
Great. If I went with them, I'd be a mind-deaf third wheel in a shadowmind speakeasy. And if I begged off, Jackson would think I was depressed and damaged, and I'd have a flurry of concerned calls from Cass and Shane to deal with.
Jackson was still sputtering like a teenager on a first date. "Uh—I would've—but—"
"Sure." I interrupted him. "I'd love to come."
"Perfect!" Bridget looked genuinely pleased. Jackson frowned, but he nodded and stepped back from his seat, taking our beers with him.
I followed the two of them to the back of the bar, to a door marked Employee Only. It was right next to the bathrooms, and there was a faded spot on the wood where the s in Employees used to be. Jackson opened it and motioned us inside.
It was a broom closet.
A small broom closet. I'd been inside it before, but never with two other people. I was sandwiched between Jackson and Bridget, and my cheek ended up pressed to Jackson's chest. Something fell over with a crash. A mop, I thought.
"You'll have to get the lock," Bridget said above my head, and I realized she must not be a converter. The entrance to the speakeasy was a dead-bolted door with no keyed lock—you had to pick it telekinetically. She must be one of the less common shadowminds—a dowser, or maybe an empath. I wondered if she was telepathic, if she was reading my mind right now.
That was the trouble with being around shadowminds. I could never tell who was in my head.
"Right," Jackson said. "Got it." Both of them were at least six inches taller than me, and I was glad I wasn't smashed against her chest. It was awkward enough being this close to Jackson. I could feel his breath moving in and out, the warmth of his body and the hard curve of his arm...Shit. I concentrated quickly and completely on the football game that had been playing in the bar.
Jackson took a moment to work the door open, and we all tumbled gratefully into the concrete stairwell. It led to a narrow tunnel, also concrete, lit by two wire-caged bulbs. I suspected someone washed down the walls with bleach to keep them from growing mold. It had that smell. Army-green pipes protruded from the walls every few feet.
"You'd never know it," Bridget said, "but Simon's is beautiful."
"I know. I've been." I hadn't meant to sound snappy, but my words came out clipped and hard. Jackson gave me a concerned look, but Bridget didn't seem to notice.
Definitely not a telepath.
"Uh," Jackson said.
"I used to be a converter." I was tired of sidestepping it.
"Oh," she said. "I see." But I knew there was no way she could know what had happened to me. It wasn't as if shadowminds lost their powers every day.
We came to the second door. Jackson picked the lock as though there were a novel written on the red-painted steel. When it swung open, I was the first one through.
I'd forgotten how much I liked Simon's. It really was beautiful. I'd only been here a handful of times, back when I'd first arrived and Jackson convinced me being around other shadowminds might help reawaken my powers. It hadn't worked, and I hadn't been back since, but the speakeasy wasn't easy to forget.
Simon's had been built in an old concrete fallout bunker from the fifties, but now it looked more like a cross between a subway station and a brothel. The concrete walls and ceilings were covered with graffiti and lit by dozens of candle sconces, and the floor was polished hardwood. A wrought-iron chandelier hung from the ceiling in the center of the main room. It had real candles, and the floor below it was marred with wax drippings. Above the bar, someone had drawn a gorgeous black-and-red sketch of an angel, one wing partially obscured by years of candle smoke. The whole place smelled of beeswax and wood polish.
The speakeasy had a modest crowd—two men seated at the far end of the bar, a few couples scattered among the tables, and a group of guys sharing a pitcher in the back. From the looks of things, it wasn't their first. One of them held up a shot glass full of something clear and lit it on fire with pyrokinesis, then they collapsed into snorting howls. As the three of us sat down, the bartender, Malik, rolled his eyes at them.
"Gonna have to cut those assholes off," he said in an undertone. He leaned across the bar to kiss me on the cheek. "Hey there, beautiful. Been a long time."
"Yeah," I said, managing a smile. I'd met Malik here before, and I'd liked him instantly. He alone never seemed to think my lost powers were worth any pity, just treated me like he did everyone else. I felt that weird tingling again, right where his lips had touched my skin, and I shook my head and looked down at the reddish-brown surface of the oxidized steel bar. I settled my fiddle by my feet, but not before Malik saw it.
"I didn't know you played." He craned his head over the bar to look at it.
"What's that, then? A really inconvenient purse?"
I glared at him. "I'm selling it." I tried not to think about the secondhand shop I'd visited before coming to Featherweight's. I'd had every intention of leaving it there and walking away with a fistful of much-needed cash, but the price they'd quoted me was a third of what it was worth. I couldn't do it.
"How come?" Malik asked.
I mumbled something into my beer about not having a lot of free time. Malik and Jackson exchanged a look I couldn't read, and I would've bet next month's rent they were mindspeaking. I looked away.
"Hey, Red." Malik turned to Bridget. "You hear from Conner yet?"
Bridget's face fell. "He's still missing. Jackson was going to help me ask around."
Malik gave a small frown. "You tried searching?"
"I can't get anything. It's like he's..." She trailed off, blinking hard. I realized she must be a dowser, and I softened toward her a little. If she was a dowser and she couldn't find this guy, whoever he was, there was a good chance he'd left the state. Maybe worse. Ex-boyfriend?
"Don't worry, Bridge," Jackson said. "We'll find him."
Bridget nodded, but she looked as though she was about to break down and sob on Jackson's shoulder, and I doubted she wanted to do it in front of someone she'd just met.
"Excuse me," I said, standing up. "Bathroom." I'd give her a few minutes to pull it together, then make my excuses and get out of here.
The ladies' room was locked, and there was a sixty-something woman waiting for it. She was clearly a converter, playing with a pair of oversized blue marbles, making them chase each other in a tight circle an inch above her palm. I gave her a small smile and turned to the bulletin board screwed to the wall outside. It was covered with flyers. One of them advertised the services of a team of dowsers—From missing men to missing socks, let us help you find what you need! Others gave phone numbers for telekinetic movers, a telepathic private investigator, a call for volunteers to test out some new, power-enhancing herbal concoction. No side effects!
Finally, a tall girl with long hair came out, and the marble-spinning woman went in. I considered heading for the men's room while no one was looking, but Bridget came to stand in line behind me. She looked more pulled-together now. Behind her, the drunk guys nudged each other and checked her out, but she didn't seem to notice.
"So, how do you know Jackson?" she asked me.
"We're just friends," I assured her.
"Sure, but how did you meet?"
Oh, Jesus. "It's kind of a long story. He's kind of a friend of a friend."
"Hey!" said one of the drunk guys—white guy, blond dreadlocks. "Aren't you Conner's sister?"
Bridget whipped around like a deer after a gunshot. "Have you seen him? Do you know where he is?"
So the missing guy was her brother. My heart broke a little for her. I knew what it meant to be cut off from your family.
"Been looking for him." Dreadlocks came over to stand next to us. "Barbara, right?"
"Yeah. Conner told me about you." He grinned.
Usually I suck at reading people's expressions, but Dreadlocks was a piece of cake. He gave Bridget a once-over and leaned in close.
"Look, I really need to find him."
I'm sure he felt he was whispering. I could smell his breath from three feet away.
Bridget took a step back. "I don't know where he is. I've been looking for him for days."
"Aww, come on, you don't gotta lie." He put a hand on her upper arm. "I just wanna talk to him."
She flinched and tried to jerk away. Dreadlocks's face went dark.
"Whassa matter with you?" He moved even closer, backing Bridget up to the bulletin board. She winced and turned her head.
"You're hurting me," Bridget said. She sounded surprised by it. She probably was. I was willing to bet this was the first time in her life someone this drunk had gotten close enough to touch her.
I should have called Malik or Jackson over. This guy had five inches, fifty pounds and telekinetic power on me. But I wasn't thinking. I was looking at Bridget's face.
"Hey!" I said. "Lay off!" I grabbed his arm and yanked him away from her.
Dreadlocks grabbed hold of my arms and grinned.
Shit. Big mistake.
"Whass wrong, sweetheart? You jealous?" He pulled me toward him, and I put my hands up defensively. He grabbed my wrists. I felt pressure along the sides of my body, his mental hands starting in on me. He was in my head. He had to be. Panic flared hot in my belly.
"Let me go," I said, struggling, but he only pulled me closer, knocking me against a table littered with half-full glasses. I thought about screaming, about kneeing him in the balls or slamming the heel of my boot onto his foot. All I could see was his teeth; all I could smell was the cheap vodka on his breath. Fear made my vision waver and my skin prickle. The panic flared, out of my control, and the shots of vodka still sitting on the table exploded into flame. I stared at them in shock, but no one was more surprised than me when Dreadlocks flew across the room and hit the opposite wall with a crash.
© A.J. Larrieu
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