“Hello. Would you be Victoria?”
My eyes snapped open. A man sat on the sofa and smiled welcomingly, my tarot cards between us. Gregory Stern. He’d aged since his MagiPol photo, but he was unmistakably the same guy. White hair, big bald spot, portly build, and surprisingly warm brown eyes almost lost in deep wrinkles.
The old, impotent rage of my worst years burned through me, and I sucked in air through my nose. I needed to get a hold of myself before I blew this.
“I don’t think we’ve met,” he continued. “I’m Greg, a counselor here.”
He offered his hand and I reluctantly shook it. I wanted to grab him by the shirtfront and demand to know where he’d sent Nadine—and how many other helpless kids he’d callously thrown into the mythic underworld.
“Jennifer mentioned that she spoke to you earlier,” he said. “How are you feeling? Did you have any questions?”
Teeth gritted, I searched his eyes for signs of deception. He sounded genuinely caring, like he really wanted to know how I was coping.
When I took too long to respond, his expression softened. “I won’t say I know how you’re feeling, Victoria. The challenges you’re facing are uniquely your own, but you aren’t alone. That I do know. You don’t have to fight through this by yourself, and if you want to talk, we’re always here. Anything you share with us is private, which I’m sure Jennifer explained.”
My practiced cover story evaporated from my head. I gave a short nod, unable to find a trap in his words, but his earnest compassion was a trap in itself. Even knowing he was a scumbag, part of me wanted to believe he was here to help. A scared teen would be even more susceptible.
And he was a patient hunter, too. Instead of forcing me to communicate, he stood up. He was leaving. Shit.
With a sharp twitch of my hand, I knocked my tarot deck across the sofa. A single card tumbled off and landed face up on the floor. Gregory paused in surprise, then retrieved it from between his feet. The dark specter of a grim reaper filled the card. Huh. Creepy.
He gazed at the card for a long moment, then held it out to me.
I took it from him, unsmiling, and said without thinking, “Death is hungry.”
His lined forehead wrinkled. “Sorry?”
Uh, what? Where had that come from? It wasn’t part of my script, that was for sure. I quickly gathered the nearest cards. “Death appears in every spread I deal,” I muttered darkly, doing my best spooky diviner impression. “I don’t understand yet.”
“The wisdom of the cards can take time to process,” he replied encouragingly. “Do you do tarot readings often?”
“Every day.” I straightened the deck, hoping he assumed my clumsiness stemmed from nerves and not a lack of practice. “My grandmother taught me all the arts.”
I nodded. “The tarot cards … she said they speak to me.”
“Is that so?” He sank onto the sofa again. “Your grandmother sounds like a remarkable woman. Did she practice divination every day as well?”
“She and my mom. But they …” I looked down at the cards, stroking my fingers across the top one. Taken with a sudden urge, I flipped it over to reveal the reaper a second time. Hadn’t I put the Death card at the bottom of the deck? “They’re gone.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” he murmured, eyeing the reaper warily.
I slipped the card into the middle of the deck and gave a distant shrug. “My dad kicked me out. He doesn’t … understand. People think I’m creepy.”
“With a unique gift like yours, you might …” He trailed off as, following another inexplicable urge, I drew the top card off the deck and flipped it over. The reaper, three times in a row.
Gooseflesh rose on my arms and I fanned out the deck, half expecting to find it full of Death cards. But no, just one—one card that had somehow ended up on top again.
Gregory’s throat moved as he swallowed.
I placed the reaper back on the deck and mumbled, “Death is hungry.”
“Victoria, is there anyone else in your life you can turn to? Anyone who can help?”
“No,” I whispered, gripping the tarot cards so tightly my fingers went white. Those questions hit too close to home. Five years ago, my real answer would’ve been the same as my fake one—though no one had ever bothered to ask me.
Gregory thought for a moment. “We offer many generalized services you might find helpful, but we also have unique resources available for … special individuals. For those with extraordinary gifts like yourself. If you’d like, I could arrange for you to meet with someone.”
Unique resources. Did he have mythic counselors on call or was he referring to the Ghost? Either way, he was too smooth. No wonder Nadine had fallen for his act.
I smiled hopefully. “Really?”
He nodded. “For now, can I set you up at the safe house?”
“I have somewhere I can stay for the night, but if I come back tomorrow, would you …?”
“I’ll look into it right away.” His eyebrows drew down. “Will you be safe tonight?”
Again, his concern seemed sincere. Was he worried his payday might not make it back? “Yes.”
“All right, I’ll see you tomorrow, then. Take care of yourself, Victoria.”
Standing, he moved to speak to another teen. I slumped into the sofa and grabbed my phone, texting Aaron that I’d spoken to Gregory and would leave in another half hour. Didn’t want to rush out the door and give myself away.
While I waited, I watched Gregory out of the corner of my eye, my fury building again as he made his way from teen to teen, comforting their fears and winning their trust. He was very good at his job, and if he weren’t secretly a scumbag, he would be exactly what these kids needed. Quiet, soft-spoken, respectful. If I hadn’t known the truth beforehand, I never would have doubted him and I was grudgingly impressed by his ability to come across as legit.
I hoped I’d done as good a job fooling him.
“No offense, Sabrina,” I said, “but your tarot cards are seriously creepy.”
We were sitting at a table in the guild, and I’d just finished explaining how the Death card had made a real show of itself during my chat with Gregory. The pretty blond diviner studied her spare deck, lying on the worn wooden tabletop between us.
She absently brushed her bottle-blond hair away from her eyes. “Older decks like this one can become so attuned to astral forces that they take on a life of their own. Were you handling the cards a lot before that?”
“Yeah, I was shuffling them for … a couple hours, I guess.”
She nodded slowly. “I think the deck is trying to send you a message.”
A shiver ran down my spine. Ugh. “But why the Death card—again?”
When Sabrina did a reading for me weeks ago, the “outcome” had been, guess who, the skull-head-in-black himself. She’d assured me the card meant transition, not literal death, but it was still unnerving.
Tapping a finger against her glossy pink lips, she eyed the deck, then gestured. “Shuffle them again.”
“Do I have to?” Picking up the deck, I unenthusiastically shuffled it. Despite their behavior yesterday, the cards felt totally mundane. Finished, I set them on the table between us.
I expected her to do another reading, but instead she pointed. “What’s the first card?”
Stomach sinking, I pulled the card and flipped it over. Yep, Death. Again. Cold unease pooled in my gut.
“Now flip the next card,” Sabrina instructed.
I slipped it off the pile and turned it over.
“Seven of Swords,” she murmured. “That’s another card from your reading.”
Right, I remembered it. “It means deception.”
She leaned back in her seat, frowning. “Maybe the path from your original reading hasn’t concluded yet.”
“But … I thought all that stuff where, you know, Aaron and I were betrayed and almost killed was what the reading was all about.”
“That’s what I thought too, but maybe not. Deception … secrets …”
“Dangerous secrets,” I muttered, a memory springing to life. “If I seek the truth, it won’t be my fate alone bared to the reaper’s blade.”
Sabrina’s frown deepened. “I don’t remember saying that.”
“You didn’t. Rose did.” The eldest diviner of the guild had nosed into Sabrina’s reading and given a different interpretation of the cards—one that, until now, I’d completely disregarded.
Sabrina huffed. “She can’t read my cards properly. She shouldn’t have interfered.”
“I get that, and I haven’t thought about her reading since then, but … she talked about secrets and seeking the truth, and isn’t that what I’m doing? Seeking the truth about Nadine? And her fate is tied to mine, since I’m trying to save her.”
“I suppose …” Sabrina bit her lower lip. “Maybe I should do another reading. These cards want to speak of your future.”
Apprehension dove through my center. “I—”