Lee’s text, asking if I still wanted to go out, arrived as Agent Boone pulled back into the DPI parking garage. My exhaustion almost made me reschedule. I could have gone to sleep right in the car and slept soundly till morning. I thought about asking Lee to use his considerably more effective computer skills to track down more information on Donald Lowell and hated myself a little. He just wanted to go on a nice date, and I wanted to pull him into a murder investigation. Did an ulterior motive invalidate the attraction I felt for him, though? I hadn’t agreed to the date with this plan in mind. And I wouldn’t stop seeing him if he didn’t help me. I texted him that I was excited and would see him soon.
I walked home, showered, and put on a cuter outfit, all the while second-guessing my decision. I even picked up my phone to cancel a few times. In the end, I kept the date. He’d asked me to meet him at his booth in the Lyndale Market. It didn’t take long to get from my apartment to the market, but I called a taxi to keep from wearing myself out further. As I stepped onto the building’s stoop, I saw a woman waiting in a car parked across the street. She looked enough like Holly that I almost missed a step. I looked closer after correcting my footing and sighed with relief. The resemblance only held up for a passing glance.
The Bentons told me Holly wouldn’t come after me anymore, but I guess I still held onto some paranoia about her. I needed to find a new apartment. After they’d taken over my debts, I thought I could hold on to my place. But I didn’t want to feel this anxiety whenever I saw someone resembling Holly near my building. For now, I’d suck it up, but as soon as I’d found Peter’s killer, I’d move finding a new apartment to the top of my priority list.
The cacophony of the market blasted up at me as I descended the stairs. I’d forgotten their regular schedule. Tonight, the arena welcomed amateur fighters. I’d gotten my start on an amateur night once upon a time. The Bentons segregated the matches by species. That didn’t guarantee that the fights would be evenly matched, but it made accidents less likely. In theory, each contestant would be capable of the same strategies as their opponent. They’d all know what level of force they could use without taking things too far. This wouldn’t be the case if they pitted different supernatural species against each other. Along with a cash prize, the winners of each grouping would get the opportunity to train for and fight in professional matches.
Not many people wandered the shops. That made it easier for me to follow my senses to Lee’s booth. The vendors didn’t always end up in the same places every day. I didn’t know how the Bentons organized the rows of tents; maybe people could pay extra for a permanent spot. I couldn’t remember exactly where I’d found Lee’s technomancy stall the first time, so I wasn’t sure if it moved or not. I thought I found it in at least the same vicinity this time, though. As I approached the stall, a few people rushed past me on their way to the arena.
The person behind the merchandise tables could pass for Lee’s sibling. Roughly the same age, but they presented as more feminine. They smiled at me. “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for Lee,” I said.
“You must be Casper. Lee ran to the restroom. He’ll be back in a minute,” they said. “I’m Whitney.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “Do you help Lee run this shop?”
“Whenever he needs the extra help. He’s putting me through college with this booth, so it’s only fair,” they told me.
“Oh, wow.” I knew the vendors made good money here but hadn’t expected Lee to be the breadwinner for his family.
“Yeah, he’s basically the best brother ever. We look out for each other. So remember, if you break his heart, I’ll hit you with a lightning bolt so hard they won’t be able to identify what’s left,” they said with a smile.
“Please don’t threaten my date, Whit,” Lee said from behind me before I could come up with a response.
“It’s not a threat. It’s a disclaimer,” they said.
“Uh-huh, just watch the shop and do your homework,” he told them. “Ready to go?”
“Absolutely,” I agreed, more than ready to get away from Whitney’s smile.
“They’re all talk,” he said once we’d gotten far enough away from his booth.
“It’s sweet that they care that much. I don’t have any siblings,” I said.
“Yeah, Whit can be a brat, but they’ve always had my back.” His smile held a sweetness I hadn’t seen in the flirtatious smirk he gave me when we first met. As I looked at him, I saw a familiar ghostly figure in the next row of vendor stalls.
“Who?” he asked.
“He’s a ghost, I know,” I explained. Did that mean Cal was here, too? “I wasn’t expecting to see him here again. Would it be okay if we checked on him before we left?”
“Sure,” he said. I grabbed his hand and led him between two booths to the next aisle. I entwined our magic so he could see Cormac without going through the effort of recalibrating his mental shields. “Do you hang out with ghosts often?”
“Not really. Cormac is a long story,” I said, more concerned with catching up to the ghost than telling Lee the entire story.
We followed Cormac to the crowd around the arena. He walked right through the people to get closer to the ring. I lost track of him. If I tried to follow him, I’d end up pissing off a lot of fight fans. Instead, I headed to the left-hand bar, pulling Lee with me still. When we got to the stairs leading up to the bar, I scaled the handrail to see over the crowd. Lee didn’t follow me up, instead putting his hands on my torso to hold me steady. I spotted Cormac, and two other ghosts convened around one contestant, waiting for his turn to fight.
“Casper?” Cal asked, drawing my attention away from the ghosts. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to meet my date, but then I saw Cormac,” I said. “Lee, this is Cal. Cal, this is Lee.”
“Nice to meet you,” Lee said.
“Likewise,” Cal answered. They looked each other over. Cal clearly appreciated what he saw. Lee looked weary, trying to pick up any hints at what Cal and I were to each other.
“What are you and Cormac doing here?” I asked.
“I wanted to check it out before I said anything, but you’re here, so I guess that doesn’t matter. I detected a type of spirit binding I’ve never encountered before,” he answered.
“You think it’s Peter?” I asked.
“It’s possible,” he said hesitantly.
I looked back at the man that Cormac and the other ghosts surrounded. I couldn’t see any magic in his aura. The other contestants around him all glowed with their power. The organizers lumped him in with the witch contestants, but he didn’t have any magic of his own. Either he was in over his head, or he had something up his sleeve. I needed to see what he planned to do in the ring.