Dirty Little Misery – Chapter 1

Be careful what you wish for.

Ever since the day I first stepped foot on the marble floor of Gryphon Headquarters in Boston, I’d dreamed of strolling through the massive lobby with a purpose. And by purpose, I didn’t mean because I was visiting my father’s office, or as part of a school tour. I meant purpose. As in, I was there because I was supposed to be there. I was there because I was someone important.

I should have been more specific in my daydreams about what “supposed to be” and “important” entailed.

In the past week, I’d been in Gryphon Headquarters because I was supposed to be and because I was someone important an awful lot, and neither reason was good. In fact, as of today, I had a feeling those reasons would prove to be very bad indeed.

My stomach knotted as I joined the line of people waiting to get through security, and tension put an extra spring in my step. Such was the joy of being a misery junkie and getting high off my own suffering. Being nervous made me peppy.

I emptied my pockets and stepped through the metal detector, eyeing security round two—the magic detectors—that hung just ahead. Brand-new charms twinkled under the overhead lights, ready to turn from green to red if someone tried sneaking by them with something they shouldn’t. The display was almost pretty, and the charms showed no signs of imp damage.

Crazily enough, the memory of releasing a minor swarm of the nasty, magical insects in here brought a smile to my lips. My best friend Steph and I had unleashed the imps in order to take out the magic detectors, part of a hastily thought-out plan to hack into the Gryphons’ servers a couple weeks ago. At the time, it had been one of the scariest things I’d ever done. But hey, when you were framed for murder, you got desperate.

The guard handed me back my ID as I exited the metal detector. “You again? What are you here for this time?”

I stuck my ID in my wallet. “I have a meeting with Olivia Lee.”

“The Director, eh? You’re moving up in the ranks.” The guard looked me up and down, no doubt thinking I was underdressed for the occasion. Despite the heat, I wore a light jacket, my favorite jeans and my most badass pair of combat boots. I didn’t know how long it took to get arrested and arraigned, or whether I’d have to spend the night in a jail cell, and I wanted to be comfortable for the ordeal.

Did I mention that sometimes having a purpose for meeting law enforcement was bad? I suspected I’d have a lot of time to contemplate my poor life choices and even poorer wishful-thinking skills soon enough.

“Yeah, I’m moving up.” I slapped the guard with a fake smile and attached my visitor’s ID badge to my jacket. “Lucky me.”

I passed through the magic-screening station next with no issues and no more conversation, then checked the clock near the elevators. It was five minutes to four. I was going to be disgustingly punctual for my shakedown and arrest. Maybe my public defender could use that as a point in my favor.

“Well, yes, Your Honor, Jessica did run the first time the Gryphons tried to arrest her. And yes, she did mug people for their blood. And yes, she has used pred-like magic to bend humans to her will. But she was courteous enough to arrive on time for the second attempt to arrest her. We think that ought to count for something.”

Or maybe not.

Squaring my shoulders, I checked the office directory and pushed the elevator’s up button. To my right, a huge reproduction of Michelangelo’s Triumph dominated the lobby wall. It was a gorgeous but completely ridiculous painting of Gryphons slaying a bunch of preds, mostly furies and satyrs. I was all for killing furies, seeing as a couple of them were the culprits who’d framed me for murder, but part of me took offense at the ugly portrayal of the satyrs.

It wasn’t that satyrs were better in the way they treated humans. Like the furies and other pred races—goblins, harpies and sylphs—satyrs used their magic to enslave humans by “addicting” them to their power. But having recently discovered I was part satyr, the painting left me uneasy. Although I’d been using my satyr-like power for years without understanding where it came from, I didn’t want to identify with that piece of myself.

My only saving grace was that the Gryphons didn’t know I wasn’t entirely human. No one did except me and the goblins’ Dom who’d told me the bad news, and I didn’t think Gunthra intended to spread the word any more than I did, though for very different reasons.

As a hybrid, I could reverse a pred’s addictive magical bond and feed on the power of any pred clueless enough to screw with my soul. That made me a threat. Or in Gunthra’s words, an abomination.

I was about to jab the elevator button a second time when a familiar voice spoke my name. I turned, forcing another fake smile as Gryphon Agent Bridget Nelson strolled up to me.

A couple weeks ago, Bridget had been the lone person from my days at the New England Academy for the Magically Gifted—AKA, the Gryphon pre-training school—whom I’d counted as a friend. These days, I wasn’t certain where we stood. She’d tried to arrest me. I’d resisted and beat up a couple of her coworkers in the process. I wasn’t sure if the fact that it had all been a giant misunderstanding could atone for my actions. Nor was I sure I wanted it to, seeing as I was still feeling kind of sore about the whole ordeal.

Bridget was dolled up in the Gryphons’ dress uniform, and I guessed she’d come from court. I knew she was working on the case against Victor Aubrey, a former fury addict and the guy who’d worked with his evil masters to frame me for his murders.

The elevator door opened as if on cue when Bridget stepped up to it. “How’s your wrist? You’re here to meet with the Director, aren’t you?”

I clasped my hands behind my back to hide my nerves, a move made more difficult by the cast on my sprained left wrist. “Wrist is healing, and yes. I don’t suppose you know why the Director herself wants to see me?”

Bridget pressed a button for the third floor, then helpfully pushed the fifth floor for me. “Not a clue, actually. If it had something to do with the Aubrey case, I’m sure I’d know.”

That was probably true. Although my quasi-crimes had only been exposed thanks to Victor Aubrey’s totally real and disgusting crimes, it was likely they would be handled separately from the Aubrey case.

“Whatever it is, let me know,” Bridget said as the elevator arrived on the third floor. “I’m working late tonight, but we could grab a coffee across the street after your meeting’s over.”

“Whatever it is, I’m sure you’ll find out. I have to go to work later, but we can get coffee soon.” Maybe she could bring me some in my jail cell. I had a feeling prison coffee would not be up to my standards.

On that thought, my insides squirmed like a salamander caught in the rain. It took me so long to move when the elevator doors opened on the fifth floor that they almost shut again with me still inside.

Courage, I told myself. How was it I’d had the guts to face down some of the nastiest preds in town, but walking down the industrial-carpeted floor of Gryphon Headquarters was a battle for each step?

Oh, right. Because I was reckless but not stupid. I could practically hear Lucen’s voice in my head. My satyr friend-with-benefits had been saying that a lot lately. He believed I usually knew exactly what I was doing but showed way too little regard for my health.

I couldn’t get over the idea that he cared. A satyr giving a damn for a human was unheard of, and since Lucen didn’t know my secret, that’s all I was in his eyes—a human with a freaky gift.

The sooner I get this over with, the sooner I can see him again. Lucen had promised he’d spring for my bail if he could. I looked forward to owing him for it.

The thought of what owing him might entail forced me to move unlike anything else. I needed to walk off the heat that came over me as my imagination ran wild.

Headquarter’s fifth floor housed offices for all the truly important Gryphons, and it wasn’t long before someone’s secretary or assistant intercepted me. I was led down a couple generically beige hallways and deposited in front of a desk containing yet another secretary.

“I’m Jessica Moore,” I said to the inquiring gaze behind the desk. “I have an appointment with Director Lee.”

“Yes, you do.” She pressed a button on her phone. “Director, Jessica Moore is here. Should I send her in?”

I couldn’t hear the response because I was too busy willing my stomach to stop its flailing. It must have been a yes, however, because the secretary smiled up at me. “You can go ahead.”

Awesome. Here went just about everything. Trying not to look as anxious as I felt, I opened the highly polished wood door.

Olivia Lee, Director of the Boston Regional Office of the Angelic Order of the Gryphon, the hallowed international magical law enforcement agency, stood as I entered. Since my unfortunate role in Victor Aubrey’s murders had made me one of the case’s most important witnesses, I’d seen the Director around on several occasions. On first impression, she didn’t scream badass, pred-killing, crime-buster. She was several inches shorter than me with a slight build, gray threaded through her tidy, black hair, and a face that had probably turned heads a couple decades ago.

But, as I knew better than most, looks could be deceiving. If you listened to Olivia Lee speak for long enough, you could tell that not only did this disarming woman pack a powerful magical punch, she wasn’t afraid to use it. I could respect her even though I assumed we weren’t going to be best buds.

Director Lee held out a hand. “Afternoon, Jessica. Our paths have crossed several times lately, but we haven’t actually been introduced. It’s nice to meet you. You’re an interesting person.”

I took her hand, which was as calloused as my own. Proof that working one’s way up the Gryphon ranks was hard. “I get that a lot.”

“I imagine you do from those who are aware of your gift.” From her tone, the implication was clear—she wanted to know why she hadn’t been made aware of it sooner. She motioned to the chair in front of me. “Have a seat. I’ve been reviewing the information you’ve given us with regards to the Aubrey case, but I wanted the chance to talk to you personally about your unique abilities.”

I shifted in the leather seat, searching her for signs of deception. How long until we got to the now-I’m-going-to-arrest-you part? Although I could sense something deceptive in her, it was faint. No doubt the good Director had several motives and schemes. No doubt someone like her had many she was hiding from someone like me.

I wet my lips. “I explained everything. It should be in the reports.” Everything, that was, except my freakish and previously unheard of biology. “I’m not sure what else you want to know.”

Olivia—if she was going to refer to me by my first name, I was taking the same liberty—picked up one of the papers on her desk. “I know, but I’d like to hear it from you myself. You’re quite something.”

There are ways of saying that phrase that make it sound like a compliment. This wasn’t one of them.

“So, the reason we found a vial of blood in your apartment,” Olivia continued, “is because you’d obtained the blood from someone in order to trade it to a pred? Did you do this a lot?”

“I did it when it came to my attention that someone needed help getting out of a pred contract.” I had no idea exactly how many people’s souls I’d traded over the ten years since I’d begun my hobby business. A lot was probably an understatement.

Olivia leaned back in her chair, scanning the paper. “Explain the process for me.”

I sighed, wondering if she was hoping to trip me up by making me repeat myself. “Someone would come to me with a sob story about how they traded their soul to a pred. I’d use my gift to find someone evil, take a bit of their blood, then trade their blood to the pred to get the first person’s soul back.”

To say I traded in actual souls was a bit of a misnomer. I traded in blood. The preds would use the blood to find the person it belonged to, then use it again to bind that person to them. Blood made it easier for preds to break a person’s soul and turn them into an addict.

Addicts, or blood contracts to turn people into addicts, were like currency to the preds who needed addicts to live. The older, more powerful ones could be discerning about whom they addicted, choosing humans who were valuable for reasons other than the emotional meal they provided. But younger and less powerful preds had to take what they could get.

Although preds claimed differently, there wasn’t much good in the bargain for the addict except whatever had been so necessary that they’d willingly agreed to become one for it in the first place. Usually what drove people to such desperate measures was an extremely powerful spell. Often it was an illegal one. Preds owned plenty of legitimate businesses and worked in totally mundane professions, but those who created charms for a living did most of it on the black market.

That bit aside, addict contracts were legal so long as they weren’t coerced. What I’d done was coerced—as were most pred contracts in reality—and it was most definitely of questionable legal status.

Olivia set the paper down and regarded me, her fingers pressed together beneath her chin. “So you admit you traded innocent people’s lives away to preds in exchange for money?”

“I went after violent criminals—murderers, rapists, child molesters. Not exactly upstanding citizens.”

“And that gave you the right to decide they should become addicts rather than the people who knowingly entered into a legal contract?”

I shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. But most of the people who came to me for help didn’t deserve their fate either. Anyway, I didn’t always do it for the money. Some people I helped on principle.”

“So very kind of you.”

Given the danger often involved in hunting those murderers and rapists, I thought the Director’s sarcasm was misplaced.

She answered my unimpressed stare with a sigh of her own. “So, according to your earlier statement, you chased these criminals down because you could sense the evil in them and knew they were about to act on it. This is because you have a pred-like ability to feed on negative emotions.”

“I prefer to think of myself as a misery junkie.”

Olivia’s smile was thin. “Can you sense what I’m feeling now?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Annoyed at me? But that’s kind of obvious. It really doesn’t take any special talent to notice.”

“Why didn’t you tell any of your instructors at the Academy about this?”

Speaking of things that ought to be obvious. But Olivia seemed genuinely perplexed. I could taste her butterscotch confusion. “First, this ability didn’t come around until I’d been kicked out of the program. Second, it’s not something I’m proud of or happy about. And it’s not like anyone could have done something about it. What was there to tell?”

“It would have been good for us to know. We could have helped you find a way to put those talents to better use. An ethical one.”

Would they have? It had never occurred to me that the Gryphons would think my gift was anything other than evil. At best, I figured they’d turn me into a lab rat. At worst, they’d label me a danger to humanity and lock me up. Unlike a full-blooded pred, I had no Dom to watch out for me.

I frowned at the large seal hanging behind the Director’s desk. The lion-tailed, eagle-winged gryphon in the center clutched a sword in each talon. Encircling it was the Gryphons’ motto: For the Gifted Have a Duty to Protect Mankind.

Ignoring the old-fashioned, sexist language, the message was clear. The Gryphons had always been a humans-only and humans-first organization. They often allied themselves with the magi, a race of bird shapeshifters, but there were no magi in the Gryphon organization itself.

So despite what Olivia Lee said, it had never been obvious to me that a human with a non-human power should turn to them for help, and I said as much.

“That’s unfortunate, because I think this organization could have benefitted from your talents.” Olivia absently moved some of the files around on her desk. From beneath one of them, she produced a new paper and slid it toward me. “However, now that we know what you can do, I’d like to rectify the situation. I want you to come work for us.”

I froze, certain I’d heard incorrectly. “You what?”

“Given your past activities, we’d have to consider this on a trial basis, and you’d only have limited clearance, but I’d like to bring you in as a special consultant on cases where you’d be useful.”

I gaped at her. All my life, I’d longed to be a Gryphon like my father had been. The pain of my gift turning rogue, the bitterness of getting kicked out of the Academy and watching my friends graduate—those things had haunted me like a curse for the past ten years.

Until two weeks ago. Until I’d been framed for a series of gruesome murders and the Gryphons had become obstacles to clearing my name. And until I’d learned the truth about my biology and the Gryphons had become, by their very ideals, potential enemies.

I glanced down at the paper, which appeared to be some sort of hiring agreement, but I didn’t take it. “You want to give me a job?”

Olivia’s dark eyes bore into me. “Let me be frank. I’m not sure ‘want’ is the most apt word, but I think you could be useful. I’ve been over your records from your time at the Academy, and I have to admit I was surprised to discover how highly your teachers regarded you. You had a very powerful gift, and you were at the top of your class academically. It’s impressive.”

Now that I was sure I’d heard right. “You’re surprised I wasn’t failing out?”

“Considering what you’ve done.”

“You mean help people?”

Olivia pursed her lips. “I mean trading away innocent people’s souls.”

“I explained that. I think we have a very different definition of innocent. Those people were evil. I would know.”

Olivia’s face filled with disdain. “That’s the problem precisely. Did you never think? The only thing worse than a truly innocent person being enslaved to a pred is a pred enslaving a violent criminal—the sort of person who might enjoy carrying out whatever horrible demands they’re ordered to do. Who might go above and beyond for the sheer joy of it, or to please their master.”

My rebuttal died on my tongue, recognizing it had lost the argument before it could begin. Well, damn. Actually, I hadn’t thought about it that way. I wasn’t certain most preds engaged in illegal activities any more than most humans, but they definitely didn’t hold much regard for the human laws they ostensibly obeyed.

This realization must have shown on my face, judging by Olivia’s triumphant expression. “Without your former academic record to go by, I’d have thought you were very stupid. Instead, it appears you’re just reckless, mercenary and shortsighted.”

Scowling, I flung her hiring agreement farther away. “I concede the point, but you’re not exactly doing a good job of convincing me to come work for you.”

“That’s unfortunate, because my good will and willingness to give you a second chance are all that stand between you and a prison cell. Endangering humans is only the beginning of what I could charge you with if I chose.”

My heartbeat stuttered.

Was it? I always assumed I was keeping a toe on the line that separated the questionably ethical from the flat-out illegal. As a result, I’d gone in to this appointment figuring there were a dozen minor laws I could be accused of breaking, but any decent lawyer could get me a livable deal. Probably the sort that involved mandatory community service.

But endangering humans? That was a felony, and way more than a couple toes over the line. More like an entire foot.

Damn. Though I hated being a gracious loser, and hated even more that she’d gotten the upper hand on me so easily, Olivia Lee was right about two things. I wasn’t stupid. And I didn’t want to go to jail.

“Well, then, you should have said so,” I said, adopting my sweetest voice as I picked up the agreement. “That’s so much more persuasive.”

In the future, I was going to have to be way more careful about what I wished for.