Blair’s legs pumped like pistons, propelling her down the crowded sidewalk in pursuit of a huge gray wolf with one folded ear. Her side ached and her sweat streamed down her face, but Blair kept up the hectic pace.
The wolf flashed around a corner, knocking flat a delivery boy and spilling linguini all over the pavement. Blair leaped over his body, too breathless to apologize on Detective Chris Farrow’s behalf.
She continued the pursuit, running past an executive with his pants around his ankles.
He wasn’t the only one struggling to get his trousers back on. As Blair and the wolf continued their mad flight, they passed a dozen other people who inexplicably found themselves bereft of their lower garment.
Blair left the busy avenue behind and found herself on a side street. The lone pedestrian, an older man, kept shuffle-walking even when a shadowy shape zipped past him and tugged his pants down to his ankles.
“The Black Pantser strikes again!” came the disembodied voice of the culprit. His laughter echoed off the concrete canyons.
Blair and the wolf pursued the shape into a narrow alley with a large dumpster and the baroque skeleton of a fire escape. The wolf reared up on two legs and shifted into the familiar form of Chris. Even in human form, the handsome man had a folded ear.
“We’ve got him now, Blair,” Chris said with a grin. “That alley is a dead end.”
Blair frowned as she peered into the dark alley. “Does that matter to a ghost?”
“It does for this one. He had to manifest to semi-corporeal status to depants the innocent pedestrians.”
“How long until his manifestation fades?” Blair asked.
“Not sure,” Chris said, panting like the wolf he shifted into. “You’re the witch.”
Blair pursed her lips. The one ghost she’d had experience with—The Spirit of Disco—could manifest indefinitely under the right circumstances. Whether the Black Pantser’s abilities hewed the same way, she didn’t know.
What she did know was her main weapon against ghosts and apparitions was the banishment spell, which sent them fully over to the Other Side. Blair loathed doing so, however, considering she didn’t know what was on the Other Side.
It seemed cruel to banish someone to a Hell dimension just because they thought yanking down random people’s pants was hilarious.
“Cover me,” Chris said, drawing his gun. “I’m going in.”
“Is that really going to help against a ghost?” Blair asked.
“No, but it makes me look cool,” Chris replied with a wink.
Blair rolled her eyes and followed Chris into the alley. The black shadow billowed out from behind the dumpster and swarmed the detective.
“Now, suffer the wrath of the Black Pantser!” the ghost howled.
Chris’s belt buckle whipped off and his tan trousers flopped around his ankles. Blair threw up her hand to block the view of Chris’s heart-bedecked boxer shorts.
The Black Pantser surged toward her, but Blair remained calm. She began chanting the words for a barrier spell, but not to protect herself.
“Suffer my wrath!” the Black Pantser cried. It coalesced shadowy hands around her waist, but Blair remained fully garbed.
She finished the incantation and a shimmering blue field appeared at the mouth of the alley.
“What? You’re immune to my powers?” the Pantser said. “Impossible!”
“You weren’t expecting a jumpsuit, were you?” she asked with a grin. “My pants go all the way up to my neck. You’re finished, Pantser.”
“No! Not fair!” The shadowy shape fled to the mouth of the alley and smacked into the barrier. It rebounded onto the pavement and finally resolved in a young man in all black clothing and a pair of pantyhose on his head.
“Quick, while he’s still corporeal,” Chris shouted. “Stun him!”
Blair’s eyes flashed with azure sparks. She summoned her electromancy Talent and pointed forked fingers at the prone, temporarily solid entity. The Black Pantser gyrated all about the pavement like a landed fish, then lay still, groaning.
“I’ve got you now, Pantser,” Chris said, kneeling on the ghost’s back. He whipped out a pair of handcuffs which seemed to fade in and out of existence like a strobe light. Chris snapped the cuffs on the Pantser and dragged him to his feet. “You’ll terrorize this city no longer.”
Blair relaxed, dropping her arms to her sides. “What are you going to do with him?”
“Turn him over to the Cabal. They’ll see to it he doesn’t harass innocent New Yorkers with his perverse depantsing any longer.”
Chris smiled over at her. “Thanks to you, the city is safe.”
Blair leaned over and rested her hands on her knees. Her legs burned and her heart beat fast against her chest.
“When you said you wanted to see me tonight, this isn’t quite what I had in mind,” Blair said, “but I’m glad to be of service.”
Chris glanced sharply at her put-upon tone but didn’t offer comment. He shoved the Black Pantser to the ground and came over to her side.
“I’m sorry to lean on your magic again, but I’ve been on this guy’s trail for weeks. Him being able to discorporate made capture darn near impossible.”
Blair’s nose twitched. “It’s just that—we’ve barely spoken in weeks. I send you texts, and you don’t reply other than with the thumbs up emoji, and you never answer when I call.”
“I know, and I’m sorry,” Chris said. “I’ve just, you know, been really busy with this menace on the loose in the city.”
Blair put her hands on her hips. “No offense, Chris, but compared to the threats we usually face together, this guy barely registers as a menace. Besides, how can you be too busy to answer a text? It takes all of a minute.”
Chris’s face registered a pained expression. “I know, I’ve just—you know how it is.”
“No, I don’t,” Blair said, crossing her arms over her chest.
Chris stood there awkwardly for several moments before he turned back to the Pantser. “I have to get him into the Cabal’s custody, but we’ll talk soon, Blair. I promise.”
Blair sighed as he dragged the ghost away in the ectoplasmic cuffs.
“Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath,” she muttered.
Blair hiked up the steps to the apartment she shared with her sister, grumbling under her breath about Chris.
“How long’s it take to answer a stupid text? You can do it on the toilet. Everybody has time to text on the toilet.”
She noticed her reflection in the window set at the first landing. Blair stared at herself, dark hair bound back into a ponytail, hazel eyes shining with contempt.
“You’re apparently not worth so much as a toilet text,” she said to herself. “Unless, of course, Detective Christopher Farrow needs you for something.”
Blair continued on up the steps. “The Black Pantser. What a downgrade after saving the city from a demonic Harpy. I might as well have stayed in and had a cup of tea. Now I’m all sweaty and I have to shower, not to mention launder my yoga gear…”
Her muttering died away when she passed the spot where her ex-landlord Gary’s body had been found. There’d been no love lost between them, but she still felt mildly spooked passing where he died.
Thankfully, Gary hadn’t come back to haunt her as a ghost. Now that would have been a good time to use a banishment spell.
Blair reached her floor and walked down the narrow hallway. The Marlins had their television blaring at top volume again. Blair checked her phone.
“After midnight’s a little late to subject the entire floor to M*A*S*H reruns, isn’t it?” she muttered.
The laugh track seemed to mock her as she reached her door and fumbled out her keys. Their modest apartment was considered spacious by New York standards. They each had their own bedroom and shared a bathroom. The living space blended seamlessly into the open concept kitchen, leaving enough room for their L-shaped sofa and oval mahogany coffee table.
Blair looked at the bare tile and again thought to herself she should buy an area rug. As she removed her shoes, a sound came to her ears: a man’s voice, coming from Maeve’s room, followed by shared laughter.
Blair’s eyes narrowed. There was a boy. In Maeve’s room. Maeve was an adult and ostensibly could have any company she wanted, but she was also Blair’s younger adoptive sister.
Blair charged over to Maeve’s door and reached for the knob. Realizing it would be rude to barge in without knocking, but still worried about what possible shenanigans might occur behind the door, Blair compromised. She knocked as she turned the doorknob and pushed it open.
“Maeve?” she said, swinging the door wide as she rapped her knuckles.
Blair relaxed when she saw Maeve seated on her bed—fully clothed—across from a young man with green spiked hair and many rings in his ears and face. Colorful tattoos peeked out from under his sleeves as he shuffled a deck of cards.
“Hey there,” Maeve said with a smile.
Adam also grinned, though it seemed a bit strained. Blair’s glare clearly put him on edge.
“Hello,” Adam said. “You’re all sweaty. Were you out for a run?”
“You could say that,” Blair replied. “What’s going on? Why do we have company so late? Don’t you have class tomorrow?”
“I had a bad dream,” Maeve said, her brow furrowing with a frown. “I invited Adam over to keep me company because I was afraid to go back to sleep.”
“Oh.” Blair’s glare softened. Maeve’s dreams had grown increasingly vivid and disturbing since they’d moved to New York City. Blair had begun to suspect the dreams may have had an eldritch underpinning, but so far it was only that: a suspicion.
“Don’t worry, I’ve been playing chaperone,” said a fluffy white cat thrusting its head from under the bed. Blair understood her familiar perfectly, but to Maeve and Adam, it sounded like typical cat meows. “They haven’t even kissed.”
“Thanks, Felix,” Blair said wryly.
“I should get going anyway,” Adam said, stowing the cards into a cardboard box. “I’ve got work in the morning.”
Adam glanced up at Blair. “I haven’t stopped working on your case, Blair. If your grandmother is alive, I’ll find her. If she’s not, well, I’ll find out what happened to her.”
Blair nodded, her concern for Maeve overcoming her distrust of Adam—not that he’d earned such distrust. Adam had been both attentive and thoughtful to Maeve since they began dating, but Blair’s midwestern sensibilities insisted men who looked like Adam must be trouble. Even though she was aware of her prejudice, Blair found it hard to shake.
The fact he was dating her baby sister didn’t help in the least, of course.
“Thanks for coming over,” Maeve said, biting her lower lip.
Blair tried not to flinch when they kissed. It was just a quick peck on the lips, but to Blair, it seemed a major violation.
“No problem,” Adam said, flashing her a grin. On his way out he nodded to Blair. “It was good seeing you, too.”
Blair and Maeve escorted Adam to the door. Blair bit back a comment when Maeve and Adam kissed again, this time lingeringly.
“Don’t be so sour, Blair,” Felix said. “Don’t hate on your little sister just because the Dog Detective has been standing you up.”
“I’m not hating on her,” Blair hissed, “and Chris isn’t a dog. He’s a wolf shifter.”
“Potato, potatoe,” Felix said with an annoyed flick of his tail. “A wolf is close enough to a dog to count.”
Blair set a kettle on the stove and soon poured them each a steaming cup of tea. While the drinks cooled, she and Maeve sat on the sofa. Maeve explained her dream to Blair in detail.
“It was a pretty bad one,” Maeve said, repressing a shudder. Her hand trembled as she used a spoon to add sugar cubes to her tea. “There was this disgusting old woman with rotted flesh making a cage out of chicken bones. At least, I hope they were chicken bones.”
Blair put her hand on Maeve’s shoulder. “That’s awful. Do you want to try taking some melatonin?”
Maeve shook her head emphatically. “No, I’m going to stay up for a while. I might as well get some studying done.”
Blair nodded and squeezed Maeve’s shoulder.
She had to find a way to help Maeve with her dreams.