“Pexie!” The shriek went up while I was halfway through one of my routines, and I fell off the pole. I knew those voices, but for the life of me, I could not figure out how they had found me.
I looked up from where I was sprawled out on the stage. Three of the bubbliest, most vivacious blondes ever were there, and I smiled at them before rolling over. I had taken an afternoon shift, and, thankfully, Aces was fairly quiet. “Mandy, Brandy, and Candy! What are you doing here?” I swung around, my legs dangling off the edge. Yes, those were their names, birth names. I had made them show me their birth certificates ages ago.
“You left Miami in such a rush, Pex, and didn’t say goodbye!” Mandy pouted. She was the shortest of the three. Candy was the tallest.
“We remembered what you told us about this place, so we figured, road trip!” Brandy squealed as I stepped back up onto the stage.
“I have missed you, but my shift just started. Can I meet you afterwards?” I asked softly. Some of the patrons’ faces were growing angry. I wrapped a leg around the pole, pulling myself upside down as the girls smiled.
“Of course, we’re staying at the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel. Come and visit when you’re done!” Candy blew a kiss at me, and the three of them sashayed out of the bar. I just rolled my eyes and continued my shift.
As I made my way into the French Quarter, I recalled some of my favourite memories with the girls. Gideon and my best friends from college had been there for me in my darkest days. When Brandy’s mom committed suicide after her brother died overseas in Iraq, we were there for her. The four of us bonded through love, loss, joy, and pain. Ours was an unbreakable bond. I had not realized how much I had missed them until I saw them again. I found them lounging by the pool in the early evening, drinking tequila and laughing merrily.
“There you are!” they said in unison, beaming at me. Most of the time, I saw them as one person because the four of us acted as one unit for years.
“As if I would miss you three in New Orleans!” I chuckled and sat down. “So, how long are you here?”
“Nope,” Brandy smiled, “show us.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
The look of pure mischief that crossed her face had me shaking in fear. Well, pretend fear. “We heard you are no longer on the market, per se.”
I blushed. “How could you possibly have heard—” I stopped and growled softly. “Gideon called you, did he not?” They just smiled, like cats with a cornered mouse. “Alright, you fiends. Yes, Valen proposed.”
The shriek that erupted from them was insane. I was sure that hotel security would be on its way. “Where is the ring?! You obviously don’t wear it while dancing.” All three of them said in unison.
I pulled the chain off my neck and passed it to them. “Honestly, it probably will not happen. He is a very in-demand sort of man.”
“But he makes time for you, right?” Mandy asked.
I just shrugged my shoulders as they passed the ring between them. “It has been a couple of months since I last saw him. He is back with his family, where we grew up. And I am here, tracking down Ce— Alaran. I am trying to find Alaran.”
“After all this time, Val? Do you really think you can find him?” I nodded slowly. “You’ve been searching for over a decade.”
“I know, but I caught his scent a short while ago, and someone very important to my family gave me a tip that he would be here. I have to try.”
Candy’s expression was gentle as she looked at me before giving me the ring back. I slid the chain over my neck and sighed happily once it was in place. “And how much of your life here is spent searching for Cecelia’s rapist?”
I spat my drink out. “Why… None!”
“Liar,” she hissed. “We lost her too, but you dwell on it.”
I stood up quickly, my back stiffening. “But none of you were here. You did not witness it. You were not here when she died. I…I have to find out why it was us. I need to find her killer.”
The three of them stood up and wrapped their arms around me. “We know, Valeria. We just wish you had come to us when it happened. We would have helped. Somehow,” Brandy stated softly.
I could feel the love of my friends, but I did not want to break down. Not that I had not done it in the past, but something was pushing me forward. My healing made it so I could talk about this without dying inside. I kissed each of their cheeks and smiled. “I know, thank you. So, I assume you do not wish to just stay at the hotel all night?” That mischievous look was back in their eyes, and I chuckled. “Pub crawl?”
“Pub crawl!” they shouted and guided me up to their room to change. We ordered food to the room so that we were not drinking on an empty stomach, and we began trying on outfits. It was like they knew this was coming, so the girls had brought something for me. I knew my smile was filled with sin when they produced the black shorts, a velvet black bustier with studs on the breasts, and a matching halo and wings. Candy, Brandy, and Mandy all had similar outfits. Anywhere else and it may be odd to wear something like this out unless it was Halloween or Mardi gras. But this was New Orleans, and it did not matter. We would not stick out…at all.
“Excellent.” Mandy smiled as we finished our pre-drinks, exited the room, and made our way out into the night.
The night was progressing smoothly, at least it was for me. My metabolism processed alcohol much slower than my companions. So while they got white-girl wasted, I was pleasantly buzzed. Something began nagging me as we wandered the streets between pubs. There was this little occult shop I knew about down an alley. It catered to some of the darker clientele of the city, so I had never been inside. Tonight, however, a voice resonated in my mind, one disconcerting yet somehow familiar.
“Slave, you are to bring me the amulet. It’s made with rubies of deepest blood. You will know when and where to find it. Do not fail me.”
I felt transfixed as the voice seemed to float up out of the bowels of my memory like something whispered to me in a dream. I veered off course and caught the girls by surprise. “Val, where are you going?” One of them giggled as they followed drunkenly.
“I do not know,” I replied softly, my voice sounding like it did not want to travel on the wind. “I need to go in here.” My eyes glazed over, and I recalled feeling this before, but I could not place when or where. I entered the store quietly and began looking through the items in the shop. I could feel the shopkeeper’s eyes on us, but she said nothing. I was barely aware of my friends or that there was anyone else in there besides me. It was just me and the items. I suspected that these were no trinkets, but artifacts of magical significance. I walked to the display cabinet, which held amulets and talismans of all sorts, and smiled softly. This is what I was looking for, but which one?
“Val, we’re going to wait outside,” Candy said. At least I think it was her. I waved her off, and the three of them left. Now it was just me.
“You have your eye on something, dearie?” the keeper asked, her voice gravelly with age.
However, I did not look up at her, just kept searching for whatever was calling to me. “I…I do not know. I think…” My voice trailed off as my eyes fell on a stunning cameo amulet. Deep, blood-red rubies framed the side-figure bust of a woman. The part of me that loved beautiful things was crying at the stunning artistry, but most of me just felt relieved. I had achieved the task set out for me. Now I just need to get it.
“Oh, you have a keen eye, dear. That one is a relic. It has been in my family’s store for over 100 years. I am not sure I wish to sell it,” she said as I pointed out the amulet.
“Please, I need it. I will pay anything.” My voice sounded unfamiliar, almost begging, and I was not a fan of that.
“I don’t think you could afford it, little one.” There was no condescension in her voice, and it soothed the irrational fear that I may not leave with it.
“Please,” I said once more, “anything I have to give.”
She eyed me slowly, dressed as I was. I guessed she was sizing me up for my worth. Then her eyes lingered on my chain, my gift of security from Valen. “That,” she replied, pointing to it.
I pulled it off quickly and dumped it on the counter without batting an eye. “Done until I can return and pay for it.”
I finally looked up at her as she pulled the treasure out of the case. The woman was old, but I could tell she had been handsome in her youth. There was a youthful light in her eyes that sparkled like mine did when I saw shiny things. But a sad smile curved her lips, as though she knew why I was there. “I can agree with that. You will find the shop when you have the funds to pay for the amulet and collect your collateral.”
I nodded as I carefully took the amulet from her outstretched hands and felt the weight of it settle into my palm. I was dying to put it on, and for a moment, I had it around my neck but never clasped it. It just rested against my breasts, and I closed my eyes, imagining wearing it to a formal function. Then I put it into my clutch, slid out the door, and looked at three pairs of eyes staring at me. My mind snapped back to the present.
“What are you three staring at?” I asked, baffled by their confusion.
“What were you doing in that shop?” Mandy asked.
I raised an eyebrow. “What shop? I have been with you all night.”
“No, you haven’t. You practically dragged us off our pub route and into the creepiest magic shop ever and then didn’t pay any attention to what we were saying to you,” Brandy added.
My mouth dropped. “None of that happened. I would know if I did any of that.”
“But you did do that, Valeria.” Candy never used my proper name. That was how I knew they were being serious.
“I do not remember any of that, though,” I replied, dumbfounded.
We began walking away from the alley and back onto the main thoroughfare to our next pub. “Seriously though, Val, you remember nothing?” Mandy asked softly.
I shook my head gently, the weight of the amulet not even registering in my clutch. “No, not a thing since we left the last pub, and I know that I have had little to drink.” I caught a glimpse of a smirk on their faces and chuckled. “Alright, I will drink twice as much so that I can be on your level!”
My friends cheered, and we danced our way to the next pub. An eerie and hauntingly familiar laugh rang through my head, barely noticed in the carousing.