Chelsea Tower looked duller that day, and Saeth doubted the clouds had anything to do with it. He strode into the lobby, hands deep in his pockets, head bowed. Rarely did he prefer to look at the squeaky, marble floor to the endless heights of the tower’s ceiling, dozens of storeys above. But without the sun dancing through the glass, and burdened with guilt, Saeth couldn’t imagine he would see the wonder in it today.
Solicitors and stock brokers, briefcases in hand, strode about the glass building with an air of importance. Occasionally, their gazes were drawn to the teenager, who stuck out amongst the suits in dark jeans, trainers and a black trench coat. They had seen him before, of course. Saeth had worked on the top floor of the Chelsea Tower for over a year, but their intrigue and scorn hadn’t yet wavered.
His worries followed him into the elevator, where he leaned against the wall, with a sigh. Not for the first time, his dad wanted to chat over breakfast about his career: where his job could take him in life. Problem was, Saeth had never told him what he really did for a living.
For over a year, Saeth’s dad believed he worked as a secretary at a law firm, but the truth was far more interesting. He didn’t dare tell his dad that he was a private investigator working for The Diamond Talisman PI Service, or as they called it – D.T. It didn’t matter that he was nineteen, and finally old enough to make his own choices, his dad wouldn’t stand for it.
Being a secretary was a safe job; he couldn’t get into trouble stuck behind a desk all day. He loved his job, even if it was a little risky sometimes. In fact, that was the best part.
Saeth sighed, tucking his chin onto his chest. He hated lying to his dad, but he wanted to keep his job too much to tell him the truth.
The elevator doors opened onto an open-plan office, the desks segmented by portable dividers which tended to block the spectacular view of the London skyline from Saeth’s desk. Leon was lucky, he had a window seat.
All the desks stood empty, still waiting for the clock to strike nine, when Leon, Callista and Toby would barrel through the elevator doors, ranting about traffic.
As he made his way to his desk, the boss’s office door flew open, and Mei paused when she caught sight of him. Saeth threw her a casual wave before throwing himself into his office chair, wheeling himself behind a divider, out of sight.
“Saeth.” Uh oh.
Saeth poked his head out into the gangway to see her marching towards him. Easily the tiniest person in the company, Mei-Yue had a domineering presence. Striding on pointed heels, Mei held herself as though she was six feet tall. Her purple spectacles were as square as her haircut, the tips of her ebony hair just tickling her chin. To his memory, he had never seen it any longer.
Mei came to a halt two feet from where he sat, hands on hips, and bearing down on him with a stern look.
“You’re not supposed to be in today,” she said.
“I’m fine, I can work.”
“You youngsters, you think you’re invincible. Sickle cell anaemia is no joke, Saeth. I told you to take the day off.”
“That’s easy for you to say when you’re not paying me for it,” he teased.
“Less of that cheek,” said Mei, trying to hide her amusement. “Have you told your dad what happened yesterday?”
Saeth’s smile vanished.
From time to time, his blood disorder caused a pain crisis that needed a little more kick than an ibuprofen. Yesterday was one such time. His limbs felt like they were splintering, breaking away from his body, and there was little he could do to hide the pain from his boss. Mei insisted on going to the hospital with him and badgered the doctors into giving him the sweet stuff: morphine.
His dad worried about him enough without Saeth telling him about the events of his previous work day.
“I’ll take that as a no,” she said. “Saeth-.”
“I have to deal with my own stuff, Mei. Maybe when I was a kid I needed his help with this, but I’m an adult now. He doesn’t need to know about every time I go to the hospital. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.”
Mei tilted her head, a softness taking over her petite features.
“I’m not going to tell on you, to your dad,” she said. “And if you really feel like you can work today, then fine, but you will tell me if you need help, won’t you?”
Mei sauntered over to Leon’s desk, just across the gangway from his own and picked up a brown file that lay there.
“I was going to give this to Leon,” she said. “But I think it’s best to put you on the gentler cases for now.”
“Aw, come on Mei!” he protested, as she shoved the file into his hands. “I’ve had enough boring cases this month, can’t you give me something more fun?”
“This is work, it’s not supposed to be fun. This is a new case, fresh in this morning. So fresh, the client is still in my office, so you might want to chat with him before he leaves.”
Nobody at D.T. could compare to Mei when clients needed interviewing. Her methods were slick; give them a glass of something strong and smile and nod while the client offloaded their grievances. All the while, she would pick out all the crucial information and whip up a succinct file to dish out to either him, Leon or Callista, as she saw fit.
Despite knowing the extent of her talent, Mei encouraged them to interview their own clients. In her mind, it wouldn’t do to investigate the life of someone asking for their help, without meeting them first.
Saeth grumbled as he flicked through the file.
“Another cheating wife?” he asked.
He must have had five of those that month alone.
“We shouldn’t jump to that conclusion without looking into it first. All we know right now is that she’s been acting strangely.”
“Can’t you give this one to Leon?” he asked, adopting his most pathetic, tear-jerking look.
Mei folded her arms and leaned into his face with the biggest grin on hers.
“Stop whining. Get your butt in that office, and give me your coat, you scruffy boy. I won’t have our new clients seeing you in that tatty thing. Why don’t you get a new one?”
“It’s my favourite!”
Once Mei had wrestled his coat off him, Saeth made his way to her office, glowering at her over his shoulder all the while.
Maybe he should tell his dad what he really did for a living. If he kept doing cases like these, the worst danger he could expect was a slap in the face with a handbag. Probably Mei’s.
“Mr. Winters?” he asked, once he closed the door to Mei’s office.
The room didn’t have much in the way of personal items, in fact it was painfully professional. Locked filing cabinets lined the beige walls, the keys of which could be heard jangling around in Mei’s pocket. Perhaps in an attempt to fit in with the decor of Chelsea Tower, the rest of the furniture was glass, with the exception of the well-stocked, mahogany liquor cabinet tucked away in a corner. Mei kept the keys to that, too.
The man who rose from Mei’s rigid, leather sofa was almost exactly as he pictured. White, blonde and dressed up in a pinstripe suit with an ugly, brown tie. Saeth’s gaze darted to his wrists. Sure enough, a Rolex was fastened to his left. From looking at him, Saeth guessed he was a Valkyrie.
Valkyries were usually the toughest customers. Often scrambling for the most high-powered jobs, as a species they considered themselves pretty important. Powerful spell casters, Valkyries tended to have more powerful personal powers, and some had the capacity to control the elements of water, or earth. But their powers weren’t all that made them so self-righteous.
Where the prejudice began, Saeth didn’t know. All he knew was that Valkyries prided themselves on being white, and ideally blonde. The more Aryan, the better, as far as they were concerned.
Saeth flipped open the file again to check. Yup, Valkyrie.
Yet, Mr. Winters didn’t look like the typical love-scorned Valkyrie. He lacked the fury of a spurned husband, instead he just looked sad. Saeth’s heart sank, but he learned not to feel sorry for clients before he had heard the whole story for himself.
“Call me Ted,” said the Valkyrie, his hands tapping his thighs, nervously.
“I’m Saeth, I’ll be dealing with your case.” Saeth held out a hand to greet him, which Ted shook, a little tentative and even more bemused.
“Saeth,” he said. “That’s an unusual name.”
“My dad’s an unusual guy. Take a seat, let’s talk about your case.”
As they each took their seats on either sofa, Saeth eyed the empty whiskey glass on the coffee table. Mei never offered them a second, but the poor man looked as though he could do with another.
“Can I get you a refill?” Saeth asked.
“Best not, I think.”
“OK. I can see from your file that you’d like us to follow your wife. Can you explain what it is you’d like us to look for?”
Under Mei’s excellent tutelage, Saeth had quickly learned the smooth methods of a sympathetic, yet professional private investigator. He hated to think back on his first few cases, clumsy and stuttering with nerves. Thank goodness that was all behind him.
“No,” said Ted. “Nothing like that. She’s been doing more work around the house, she’s more affectionate. She lets the dog on the furniture, I even come back from work to a home-cooked meal these days, and she’s always telling me she loves me.”
Saeth stared at him, trying not to let his mouth fall open. The man described a loving, functional marriage, and he had a problem with it?
“OK…so, this is unusual?” he asked.
Saeth pondered the thought. It wasn’t impossible that Mrs. Winters was happier because she had a boyfriend on the side, but it didn’t explain her new-found affection for her husband. Perhaps her behaviour was all an effort to save their marriage. That wasn’t suspicious, that was endearing.
He closed the file. Something told him Ted Winters wasn’t going to accept that explanation. In any case, Mei wouldn’t be happy with him if he actively tried to talk their newest client out of a case.
“Well, we can look into that for you if you think there is something we can investigate,” said Saeth.
“Please.” Ted leaned forwards, resting his arms on his knees. “How exactly does this work? Mei told me this is a supernatural service, but how do you go about investigating with magic?”
“We all have our own ways of conducting an investigation. I’m a shape-shifter, so I will be able to follow your wife’s activities without her detecting me.”
“A shape-shifter?” The Valkyrie sniffed. “Isn’t that a bit limiting? What if you needed a spell casting?”
Saeth ignored the bite of irritation, his expression maintaining a practiced serenity. Shape-shifters weren’t the only supernatural species that couldn’t cast spells, or rituals. The Naturalis were also incapable, but it didn’t stop him or Mei doing their jobs. It came as no surprise that a Valkyrie would see his lack of spell-casting as some sort of disadvantage.
“I manage,” said Saeth, his tone as warm as he could muster. “Anyway, if I’m going to investigate your wife, there are a few things I’m going to need to know.”
Ted nodded, a trace of bemusement still peppering his features.
* * *
Saeth rested his head on his paws, his eyelids threatening to droop. All shape-shifters had their favourite forms, and Saeth could think of nothing better in the world than to be a cat. Nobody bothered him when he took a nap. Hell, they thought it was cute. Better yet, he could slip and jump his way past obstacles that would be near impossible in his human form. The benefits were many, and he would admit to no-one that his favourite was the fluffy coat. It helped with the morning chill.
Jasper, Woody and Dafydd, his dad’s familiars, were the inspiration for most of his transformations. Today, he imitated Jasper, his dad’s Russian blue who had a penchant for mischief and adventure.
Saeth yawned, stretching along the wall opposite the Winters’ home; a three storey, terraced Kensington house. When he had first padded up the street and glimpsed it for the first time, his amber eyes had widened to the size of saucers. Wealth often ran in Valkyrie families, but the Winters had some serious cash to afford such a big property in one of London’s priciest districts.
His ears twitched, just able to hear the humming of Mrs. Winters as she began her morning. Through the kitchen window, he watched her prepare breakfast with all the gusto of Pollyanna on anti-depressants. Patricia Winters behaved exactly as her husband had relayed to him; suspiciously happy and enthusiastic to meet his every whim.
Saeth had followed her for the past three days, watching her do perfectly ordinary things like get her nails done, go to the gym and go shopping. So much shopping. Except the groceries. She did that online, answering the delivery man in a fluffy, purple dressing gown. No secret rendezvous with her Brazilian yoga instructor, or meeting handsome men for coffee. She was just an ordinary woman going about her ordinary day.
Today was the last day, he promised himself. He couldn’t find anything incriminating about Patricia Winters’ bouncy demeanour from what he had seen so far, and he doubted there was anything to find. There was only one thing left to do: investigate the Winters’ home, and then call Ted to let him know he was simply up to his neck in married bliss.
Speak of the devil.
Ted Winters appeared in the window, suited, with briefcase in hand, and sat at the kitchen table. His breakfast was placed in front of him with a high-pitched greeting and a kiss on the cheek. All she needed was a starched dress and a perm, and her 1950s persona would be complete.
Once he finished breakfast, she waved him off at the door.
“Have a great day at work, I love you!”
“Love you too.”
The moment his BMW turned the street corner, Saeth clambered to his paws and leapt down from the wall. Time to investigate.
From his few days of outside observation, the downstairs bathroom always had a window open, for one reason or another. He padded up the steps, leapt onto the windowsill, and slid into the bathtub. He froze, crouching low as footsteps sounded in the hallway…and passed. Saeth breathed a sigh of relief, clambered out of the tub and tiptoed to the door.
The interior looked even more decadent; thick, pastel coloured rugs covered the floorboards, the walls adorned with modern art. Antique lamps stood on brand new end tables, and house plants burst with life in every corner. The smell of cleaning fluids hung in the air, and judging by the overwhelming scent, Saeth suspected it was permanent.
He sniffed again, and wrinkled his nose. He’d almost forgotten about the dog. A golden retriever by the smell of it. Either that or a Labrador. The scent had his fur prickling, and his claws extending. He had nothing against dogs in his human form, in fact, he liked them. But as a cat, he was too much temptation for them; they always gave chase. He had to keep his eyes open.
Patricia Winters thundered up the stairs, with more clout than her slender frame suggested. Saeth used the noise to cloak his own steps, as he followed her up to the next floor. He reached the landing just in time to watch her heels disappear into the bedroom.
He yawned, and rubbed his ear with his paw. Mei hadn’t joked when she promised him more boring cases. Well, maybe it wouldn’t kill him to take it easy for a while.
Sounds of rustles and bumps drifted into the hallway, and Saeth edged closer, crouching just shy of the door frame. Forget getting caught, the last thing he wanted to do was to catch Patricia Winters prancing around in her unmentionables.
Saeth froze, as another set of footsteps began to pad across the bedroom floor, towards him.
He began to back towards the stairs, but not quickly enough. A long, greying snout poked around the doorframe, followed by a pair of large, brown eyes that widened at the sight of him.
Called it… Labrador.
Saeth scrambled for the stairs, and the dog thundered after him, barking. The clumsy mutt skidded on a rug, colliding with a pot plant. The vase smashed, spilling earth all over the floor.
At the foot of the stairs, Saeth darted through an archway to his left, and slid in amongst the legs of the dining table and chairs. The plucky Labrador tried to dive in after him. The dog squeaked a little as he got himself wedged between two chair legs, his paws scrabbling on the hardwood, scraping welts into the floor.
Should’ve laid off the bones, buddy.
Saeth jumped onto one of the chairs, and curled up, watching the dog struggle to free himself. He could wait this out. The poor mutt would get tired, eventually.
“What is wrong with you?”
Relief coursed through him, a little more potent than he would willingly admit, as Patricia Winters dashed in and dragged the dog from under the table.
“You evil creature! Get outside, right now!”
Saeth’s tail curled. Odd. Ted had expressed his amazement that his wife had treated the dog like a member of the family for the first time. Was that an act she put on for him? He could see why Ted was so concerned. Her whole demeanour seemed like one, big facade, yet he couldn’t put his finger on why.
Cautious in every step, Saeth jumped down and trotted after her, careful to keep her in his sight as she dragged the dog into the living room and out through the patio doors. He barked as the doors closed on him, clearly disgruntled. But Patricia Winters ignored him, and closed the curtains, breathing an exasperated sigh.
Crouching behind the Napoleon chaise next to the door, Saeth settled down under the curve of the chair. His took a moment to slow the pounding of his heart. Panic was no good for his blood condition. Still, he felt OK.
He watched Patricia Winters as she took a few deep breaths, as though suppressing her temper.
“This job is more hassle than it’s worth, sometimes,” he heard her mutter.
Then, before his eyes, the woman began to change. Morphing, just like he did, from a blonde, Aryan Valkyrie into a petite, gothic young woman. Jet black hair, pale skin, piercings wherever you looked, and a long, black coat that dwarfed her entirely.
Saeth’s mouth fell open. Another shape-shifter.
The girl threw herself onto the sofa, put her clunky, black boots up on the arm and whipped out her phone, scrolling.
Saeth’s mind raced. Patricia Winters wasn’t a shape-shifter, that much he knew for certain. She came from a long line of purebred Valkyries. So, why was this woman pretending to be her, and more importantly, where was the real Patricia Winters?
He mulled over his options. He had to consider the possibility that this woman may have kidnapped Patricia. Ted Winters acted and dressed the important businessman, but as a supermarket manager, he didn’t have much influence in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t as though the man dealt international secrets. Unless he’d lied, and he really was a spy.
Don’t be stupid, he thought. If Ted Winters really was a spy, he wouldn’t need to hire a private investigator. No, there was something more to this that he was missing, and without it, he couldn’t be sure if he needed to alert the Nexus – the supernatural police force.
There was only one thing to do.
Saeth crept out from under the coffee table and leapt onto the opposite sofa. The girl jumped, dropping her phone on her face.
“Ow.” She rounded on Saeth, breathing a sigh of relief when she realised he was just a cat. “You scared me kitty. I guess I know what Pluto was chasing now. What’re you doing in here, hmm?”
Pluto? No wonder that dog’s so pissed.
Saeth grounded himself, and began to transform. The girl’s eyes widened, and she grabbed her phone as though it were her only weapon. Fully human once more, Saeth leaned back on the sofa, getting comfortable.
“Who the hell are you?” she demanded.
“I’m the private investigator Ted Winters hired to figure out why his “wife” – he mimicked the quotation marks in the air with his fingers – “has been acting so strangely lately.”
Realisation dawned on her face, and she threw her hands into the air, groaning.
“Damn it,” she muttered. “I guess I tried too hard.”
“You have some serious questions to answer. Where is Mrs. Winters?”
“Why should I tell you? I don’t know who you are.”
“You can tell me or you can tell the Nexus when they take up this new missing person’s case,” said Saeth.
He spread his arms out across the back of the sofa, watching her mull over the proposal. The worry began to seep into her features, twisting the corner of her mouth.
“I’m no cop,” he said. “But seeing as I’ve got permission to be here and you don’t, you’ll probably be at the top of the suspect list.”
“Ugh.” The girl rolled her eyes. “She’s not missing, she’s fine, and she did give me permission to be here.”
“Wait.” Saeth paused and leaned forward to analyse her expression. No ticks, no darting eyes, no nervous fiddling. Either she was telling the truth or she was a really good liar. “She told you to do this?”
“Well, duh! Do I really come off so creepy that you think I’d morph into someone’s wife and take their place just ’cause? A housewife is the last thing I wanna be.”
“Then where is she?”
“She wouldn’t tell me exactly where. Like I care.” She shrugged, fiddling with a spike-studded bracelet. “She’s in the Bahamas somewhere with her personal trainer. She said she didn’t want the whole messy break-up chat so she paid me to fill in for her until she felt like serving him divorce papers.”
“Wow.” Saeth figured he would have to break a heart in this case, but not like this. “I’m going to have to tell him, you know that, right?”
She shrugged and picked up her phone, continuing to scroll.
“Doesn’t bother me,” she said. “I got paid upfront.”
* * *
Ted Winters didn’t come in for another meeting. Mei did her best to convince him, but even her powers of persuasion weren’t enough. His heartbreak and embarrassment were too strong to reason with.
Saeth twirled his pen, staring at his computer screen with unseeing eyes. In many ways, Patricia Winters had dealt him a greater cruelty than if she had just handed him the papers. At least he had expected that. All credit to her, she was an inventive woman, but heartless.
“He paid in full,” Mei said, perching herself on the edge of his desk, arms folded. “Wanted me to let you know he appreciates your help.” She chuckled. “He was surprised you’d found anything at all, actually. Said something about you being quite impressive for a shape-shifter.”
Saeth raised an eyebrow, clicking his pen a little faster. He supposed a backhanded compliment was the best he could have hoped for.
“Don’t let this one get you down,” said Mei, patting his shoulder. “I don’t need to tell you that you’ll have rougher cases than this.”
“I know. Just wait til lunch, I’ll be fine.”
“That’s the spirit.”
Mei got up as the elevator dinged.
“Next please,” she muttered, and strode to meet their potential new client. “Oh, by the way,” she added, over her shoulder. “Mr. Winters asked that if he needs any more investigations done that you turn into something other than a cat. He hasn’t stopped sneezing since yesterday.”
“I’ve told you a million times, Mei. Cat allergies aren’t a real thing, people are just prejudiced.”
“I’ll be sure to let him know.”
Saeth laughed, warming himself with the sound. Soon, this case would be long forgotten, just like the others. Maybe one day Ted Winters would be able to forget, too.