The Ninth Circle – Episode 1: The Truth About Cats

I

Tala wasn’t sure what noise had woken her, but it swept every drop of drowsiness from her body. She lay still, trying to keep her breathing level. A scratching sound came from the front door, like someone was trying to pick the lock. Tala sat up, thinking for one blessed moment that Hartley had come home. Then she remembered that Hartley had a key.

Sliding out of bed, Tala drew the covers back up over her pillow, then retrieved her gun from the bedside drawer. The weapon was loaded with silver bullets, so she hoped that whatever had decided to enter her home had a werewolf-worthy aversion to the metal. Moving to the bedroom door, Tala leaned against the wall. The front door to the small apartment opened. Tala tugged on the drawstring next to her door, and a cloth – rolled into the frame – dropped down, dumping a line of salt onto the floor across the doorway.

Tala waited for the sound of her wards flaring up, trapping whatever bastard had decided to break into her home. She heard nothing but the creak of a floorboard as the intruder moved closer. Tala stepped into the doorway, gun raised. The figure was male, tall, with no horns, tail, or other obvious bodily protrusions. He walked right across her wards – which were painted to the underside of the floor rug – like they weren’t even there.

“Shit,” Tala cursed. Not a demon.

He had entered uninvited, so he wasn’t a vampire. No fae would have been able to pick the iron lock. It was a full moon, so a werewolf wouldn’t be walking around on two legs. Tala was running out of alternatives. Her gun would likely be useless, but if he was a spirit, at least the salt would stop him.

The man looked up when he heard her. His face was hidden behind a black ski mask – something else that didn’t add up – and when he saw her, he lunged forward, right across her salt line.  

He’s human?

Tala fired, but in her surprise the shot went wide, shattering a window. The man collided with her, grabbing her wrist and forcing the gun away from them both. Tala swung at him with her other hand, punching him in the throat. He reeled back, gasping for air. Tala kicked him in the stomach, then moved in for a roundhouse.

He caught her leg and threw her off. Tala fell backwards onto the bed, and the man pounced on top of her. Tala snarled. No son of a bitch was going to take her in her own home. Certainly not a human. The man grabbed at her throat, and Tala punched him again, then again. His head snapped back, and she managed to heave him off. His hand on her throat wrapped around the chain she wore, and tore it from her neck. Tala cried out as the silver chain bit into her skin before snapping.

The intruder stumbled back and fell against the wall, Tala’s pendant still in his hand. She jumped up and grabbed her gun. Human or not, the bastard was going down. The intruder scrambled to his feet and bolted for the door. Tala chased him into the hall but he disappeared into an elevator, which closed on her. She started towards the stairs, but knew there was no point. He would reach the ground floor long before her, and she would never find him once he hit the street.

The door to the apartment opposite opened and an elderly woman with her hair up in curlers leaned out.

“What’s all this racket? Tala? Who’s making that banging sound?”

“Sorry, Mrs McKenny. I dropped something.”

“I’ve told you girls before to keep it down. It’s the middle of the night.”

Tala turned back to her own apartment, a scowl on her face. “Won’t happen again.”

II

Aiva hopped off the tram and hurried down Liffey Street to the Central Library. It was a chilly morning, but the paved street was littered with pedestrians around the glass fronted shops. Aiva’s hands were deep in her pockets, and her right hand gripped the edges of her phone. The entire morning she had debated whether or not to call Hartley back. The voicemail left by her younger sister was over a week old, and Aiva had made up her mind to ignore it days ago. But after last night, she was second guessing that decision.

Aiva had had only minimal contact with either of her sisters over the last two years, but it had never stopped Hartley from calling her on a regular basis. The conversations were always innocent enough. “How’ve you been? What’s work like? Are you seeing anybody?” But they always ended the same way, with Hartley hinting, suggesting, or outright asking Aiva to come and work with her. Aiva always declined. Something that was getting harder and harder to do each time. And now, after the break-in the previous night, a small voice in the back of her mind kept asking her if was finally time to stop kidding herself, and accept her sister’s offer.

Aiva passed a cafe, the thick aroma of coffee billowing out the doors, enticing morning commuters inside with promises of warmth and caffeine. Aiva sidestepped to avoid colliding with a woman who made a sudden turn towards the cafe. They both startled and muttered hurried apologies. As she turned away, Aiva saw the woman’s eyes flicker orange, their pupils slitted like a snake’s. In a blink it was gone. The woman vanished inside, and Aiva was left on the street staring after her. She bit down on her lip and forced herself to keep walking. To forget what she had seen. But, the problem with being able to see what others couldn’t, was that she could never stop seeing it. Aiva tried to tell herself that the monsters of the world weren’t her problem, and for almost two years she had been nearly convinced of it.

Nearly.

Gritting her teeth, Aiva turned and marched back to the cafe. The woman with the orange eyes stood in the queue, waiting to order her morning beverage.

Aiva touched her left forearm, feeling the line of runes tattooed onto her skin activate under her sleeves. The woman dissolved instantly. The glamour that turned her into an ordinary person was gone, leaving in its place purple-skinned creature. Deep grooves marked her hide, twisting into scarred spirals. Curling horns protruded from her head, and from under her coat, the end of a tail flicked back and forth.

The demon was oblivious of Aiva’s presence, but as she drew closer, she lifted her muzzle-like face an inch and sniffed the air.

I should just go, Aiva told herself. I should go to work, and call Hartley back. Let her handle this. It’s what she does for Christssake.

Aiva didn’t leave. She waited at the rear of the cafe, pretending to scan the menu. When the demon woman collected her coffee and walked out, Aiva counted to ten and followed her.

It took her a moment to locate the demon. She had thrown the coffee onto the pavement and taken off at a sprint down Liffey Street. Aiva tore after her, cursing herself with every step she took. She was already late for work, and now she was chasing commuting demons down the sidewalk like some kind of crazed avenger.

The demon darted down a side street, and then another. Then she made a bad turn, coming to a stop in a dead-end alley.

“Won’t you cretins ever leave me alone?” she snarled.

“You’re a succubus,” Aiva said. “You live by feeding off people. We tend to frown on that here.”

The demon snarled again, then drew herself up to her full height. Even without her glamour to make her appear human, there was a certain strange beauty to her. In the same way that a scorpion is both impressive, and creepy as hell.

“What do you plan to do, girl? Glare me to death?” the succubus growled, masking her terror with bravado. Succubi weren’t strong. Their power came from their allure, something which stopped working the moment their victims knew what they were.

Aiva pressed her hand against her forehead. “I don’t have time to deal with this. I’m late for work.” She took a piece of chalk out her pocket — she never left the house without any — and began drawing a line of runes across the pavement, and a few on the alley walls. The succubus watched in disbelief.

“What are you—” she stepped forward, and an invisible field repelled her. Raising a fist, she hammered on the air, causing small ripples of distortion to spread out.

“Stay put. I’ll be back to deal with you later.”

“What? You can’t do this! Let me go.”

“You’d rather I killed you now?” Aiva called back over her shoulder, as she started back towards the alley mouth. The succubus watched her go, wide-eyed with indignation.

Aiva broke into a jog, heading back towards the main road. Leaving a succubus locked up in an alley was borderline insane, and Aiva wondered if her ordeal the previous night had messed with her head. She knew there was more to it than that though. Her sisters were the only ones capable of dealing with the demon. Now she had no choice other than to call Hartley. Decision made.

She took out her phone as she ran, calling her little sister. The phone rang and rang.

“Come on, Hart,” Aiva muttered, pausing to cross the street at a set of traffic lights. The call went to voicemail and Hartley’s familiar voice sounded.

“You’ve reached Morgenstern Investigations. This is Hartley. I can’t answer your call right now. Please leave a message and I’ll get back to you. If this is an emergency, call 08961–” Aiva disconnected with a huff. She didn’t dial the emergency call number. She knew it went straight to Tala. Telling her baby sister that she had left her the gift of a trussed up succubus was one thing. There was no way she was telling her big sister that. Aiva called Hartley again. Again it went to voicemail. This time she listened to the whole message.

“Hey, Hart. It’s me. Listen, I ran into something this morning.” She glanced around to make sure none of the passersby were close enough to eavesdrop on her conversation. No one paid her any attention. “A succubus. I trailed her to an alley off Fort Street, behind a Starbucks, and penned her in. But I don’t have any weapons with me to finish the job. Let me know as soon as you get this, okay?” She followed it up with a text message: Call me, then slipped the phone back into her pocket.

Finally reaching the library, Aiva hurried into the little back office, shrugged off her coat, and slumped into her usual seat, behind a derelict computer.

Kayleigh looked up from her desk as soon as Aiva entered.

“What happened to you?” Kayleigh asked in the thick Irish accent that Aiva still hadn’t managed to acquire, despite two years in the country. Kayleigh’s toddler pushed a toy car along the floor at her feet, making “brrrrmm, brrrrm” noises. “I thought you were going to be here at nine. It’s almost midday. Good night?” She wiggled her eyebrows, pushing back from her computer.

Aiva ran a hand through her dark hair, then smoothed her fringe down over her forehead. She still had chalk dust on her fingers, and quickly wiped it off on her stockings. “I was at the Garda station. Sorry, I forgot to call.”

“Garda station? What happened?”

Aiva waved her down. “Nothing major. Someone broke into my place last night.”

Kayleigh’s eyes got even wider. “While you were there? Oh my God, are you okay?”

“I’m fine. I just woke up and there was this figure in the room. Anyway, I think I startled him, because he bolted pretty quick.”

Aiva picked at her fingerless gloves. They covered the bruised knuckles from where she had punched the guy. There was a dent in her bedroom wall where his head hit.

“Did he take anything?”

“Just my necklace.” Her hand went to her throat instinctively, expecting to feel the silver cross pendant.

Kayleigh leaned back, offering a sad smile. “It was a gift from your mam, wasn’t it?”

She nodded. “Mom gave me and my sisters one each when we were kids, and told us to never take them off, so I didn’t.”

“I’m sorry, honey. I know you don’t have much left of your mam. Still, at least you’re not hurt, right? That must have been pretty terrifying.”

“Yeah.” Aiva touched her collarbone again. The senseless break-in didn’t scare her as much as the thought of never seeing that pendant again.

Aiva’s phone rang, startling them both. She fetched it out of her bag, half-expecting to see Hartley’s name flashing on the screen. Instead, it was a number she didn’t recognise. She hit answer.

“Aiva Morgenstern.”

“Aiva, this is Detective O’Brien. Listen, any chance I could see you tonight? 6pm, maybe, at Danny’s?”

“Uh, I guess so.”

“Great, I’ll see you tonight.”

“Okay, Detective.”

“Call me Martin.”

The call ended, and Aiva stared at her phone for a few seconds.

“Who was that?” Kayleigh asked, when it became apparent Aiva wasn’t going to offer the information.

“The detective from the Garda station.”

“Did they find the guy?”

“I don’t know. He wants me to meet him tonight at Danny’s. Maybe he’s got more questions.”

“Danny’s, the pub?” Kayleigh’s eyebrows rose and she grinned. “Honey, you just got asked on a date.”

“What? Oh no. I have to call him back and cancel.”

Kayleigh leaned over and snatched the phone from her hand. “You’ll do no such thing.”

“Kay.”

“Is he cute?”

“I don’t know. I guess so. But that doesn’t matter. I can’t go on a date with a cop.”

“Why not?”

Aiva was lost for an answer, and Kayleigh pounced on her silence. “Honey, you’re twenty-two. You need to do these things for those of us who can’t. You know I love my baby,” she reached down to pat her son’s head as he crawled past, “but cute Gardaí don’t ask me out anymore, you know what I’m saying?”

“Not really.”

“Put something pretty on. Go to Danny’s. Maybe you’ll even have a nice time. Wouldn’t that be a shocker?”

III

Tala combed her hair back, exhaling in a loud huff. Swinging her boots down off her desk she dragged the laptop towards her again. The useless thing was somehow managing to piss her off even more with every passing second. It should consider itself lucky it hadn’t been thrown at the wall yet.

There were no new reports online. No one had seen anything. No signals had been made. No distress calls. By all accounts, it had been a quiet week in Dublin. Tala hated quiet weeks. They made her edgy. But a quiet week when she was desperate for news, desperate for any kind of incident that might give her a lead… it was unbearable.

Her hand went to her throat, feeling for her pendant, and giving her a grim reminder that it was gone.

Tala’s phone rang, making her jump. She scrambled for the device, almost knocking it off her desk, and checked the screen. It wasn’t Hartley. It wasn’t even a burner phone. It was a bank. To be exact, it was Citibank, the third bank to call her in as many days, and no doubt wanting to inform her of suspicious activity on her account, and that they had  cancelled her credit cards.

Tala hadn’t even known she had so many credit cards.What was worse, was that she hadn’t been surprised to find out. She had politely thanked the banks for their service, and asked to be kept informed. She had not told them that the accounts weren’t actually hers, and had been illegally opened by her sister — whose credit rating was so bad she couldn’t get a loan from a used car salesman — nor did she tell them that said sister was now missing, with no sign of the money she had taken.

A terrible, nagging suspicion clawed at Tala as she dropped the unanswered phone back on the desk and rubbed her palms over her eyes.

“Come on, Hart,” she murmured into her hands. “Just tell me something.”

Staring at the laptop again, she refreshed the newsfeeds on the Highway, the online network for all things paranormal, while mentally crossing her fingers. The only report to come up was from a username she didn’t recognise.

Flameg0dde55 [1:05pm]:

Succubus seen off Fort St. Contained in chalk. Need response before next rain.

Tala glanced outside at the heavy, grey sky. What moron had tried to contain a demon with chalk lines, and then just left it there? She snarled in annoyance. Part of her wanted to ignore the post. After all, she had bigger things to worry about. The other half desperately wanted an excuse to punch something. Before even really making up her mind, she hit reply.

Ironbul1et [1:08pm]:

I’ll get it.

A knock sounded at the door. Tala picked up her gun in one hand. Her other hand checked that her knife was still on her hip.

“Who is it?” she barked, rounding her desk.

“Stephen O’Donnell,” a voice called back, sounding unsure. “I’m looking for Morgenstern Investigations.”

Tala wrenched the door open, facing a man in his mid thirties. He straightened when he saw her, then stiffened when he noticed the gun. His hands raised awkwardly.

“We’re closed.”

“Your sign downstairs says nine to five.”

“Well, we’re full on cases right now. I can’t help you.” Tala started to close the door.

“Wait, please,” the man put a hand out to stop the door. Tala tensed. “I’m looking for my girlfriend. The last anyone saw her, she was talking to her sister.”

“Talk to the Garda,” Tala cut him off. “Or, her sister.”

O’Donnell grimaced. “Her sister doesn’t really like me.”

“I don’t really care. I have my own missing people to deal with.” She regretted the snap almost instantly. The poor guy looked genuinely crestfallen at the rejection. Tala sighed. It wasn’t his fault she was tense and worried and angry at everything. And Tala couldn’t pretend that she didn’t know exactly what he was feeling. She continued in a gentler tone. “Look, people don’t just disappear off the streets, despite what the movies tell you. Statistically, if someone is missing, there’s a good chance that someone they know is involved. Go talk to the sister. If she cares, then she’ll help you.”

He buried his hands in his pockets and gave a small nod. “Thanks.”

“Good luck,” Tala said, as he turned back towards the lifts.

“You too,” he called back.

Tala closed the door on the hallway, huffing again. Her eyes drifted back to her phone, and she remembered all the times Hartley ducked out of the room to call Aiva. Maybe Aiva had heard from her, when Tala hadn’t. She hated it when she had to take her own advice.

IV

“No, it’s the elephant, see. Because he’s still in the refrigerator.”

The joke was bad, but Aiva laughed anyway, and hoped it sounded sincere. Detective Martin O’Brien was nice. Nice enough to sit in a pub that smelled of chips, where the floor was just a bit too sticky in places.

Aiva excused herself to visit the restroom, and used the opportunity to check her phone. The only message was from Kayleigh. She decided to give it another half hour before she answered. She had been hoping Hartley would have replied to her by now. Her sister’s phone had gone to voicemail, and when Aiva had gone back after work to look for the succubus, the demon was gone. Aiva really, really hoped that wasn’t a bad sign.

Checking herself quickly in the mirror, she smoothed the straight hair that hung down her back, and wiped a smudge of eyeliner from under a blue eye. She wasn’t used to wearing eyeliner. It had been Kayleigh’s idea.

The restroom door swung open, and another woman entered. Aiva caught a glimpse of her in the mirror and did a double take. The woman was a few inches shorter than Aiva, the height made up by the killer heels on her boots. She wore a tight tank top under a leather jacket, and even tighter jeans. Brown hair a few shades darker than Aiva’s fell in thick curls over her shoulders, highlighted with red streaks. She looked Aiva up and down and gave her a smirk.

“Tala?” Aiva said, dropping her phone back into her bag.

“Hey, Ivy.”

“Don’t call me Ivy. What are you doing here? You got my message?”

Tala snorted. “‘Hi, sis, how are you?’ ‘Fine, thanks’. Didn’t Mom teach you any manners?” Then her eyes narrowed. “What message?”

“The voicemail I left for Hart. The succubus. Please tell me you got rid of the succubus.”

“That was you? Dammit, Ivy, you can’t just leave demons lying around where people might trip over them. Yeah, I got rid of it. A report came in over the Highway network just after lunch.” She brushed the topic aside with one hand, then crossed her arms and leaned a hip against the basin. “Anyway, that’s not why I’m here. We need to talk.”

Despite this being essentially what she had wanted, Aiva felt suddenly reluctant. Dealing with her baby sister had always been easier than with her older one. She folded her arms also, matching Tala’s pose.

“I’m not coming to work for you. I sent Hartley the tip about the succubus. Let’s just leave it at that, okay.”

“Ivy.”

“No. And it’s Ai-vah. I have to go, someone’s waiting for me.”

“Who, that guy at the bar? Come on, Aiva, he’s not your type. He’s a jerk.”

“He is not. He’s nice. And I could use a little nice in my life. I think I’ve earned that.”

She left Tala in the restroom, and went back to her table. Martin looked up with a smile as she approached. She tried to return the gesture. No sooner had she sat down, then Tala appeared at her side. She sauntered around the table and placed an arm across the back of Martin’s chair, leaning down towards him.

“Hey there,” she said, in the breathy voice she reserved for men.

“Uh, hi,” Martin replied, his eyes on her breasts, which were only inches from his face.

“You and I both know you’re wasting your time here.” She pulled back, grabbing the front of Martin’s shirt and dragging him to his feet.

He almost jumped to get out of his chair. Once he was standing, Tala put a hand on his neck and kissed him. He grabbed her waist, hands travelling down to her butt.

When Tala pulled back his face held a momentary grin before being flushed with embarrassment. He looked quickly to Aiva.

“Uh…this wasn’t…I don’t know her.”

Tala smirked. “You wanna get out of here?”

Martin turned to her, fumbling for a response. “Uh…wha-? Really?”

Aiva glared at him until he took a sheepish step back, obviously evaluating whether or not his date could be saved. Upon seeing Aiva’s scowl, he seemed to decide that it couldn’t, and then opted for the alternative.

Giving Tala the same charming smile he’d given Aiva earlier that evening, he said, “Yeah.”

“Good,” Tala said, the sultry smile vanishing from her face and her tone. “Then get out.” Pushing him back, she dropped down into his chair, grabbed his drink, and downed what was left of it in one go.

Martin looked at her, stunned, as though he couldn’t quite process what had just happened.

“Did you really need to do that?” Aiva said, scowling at her.

Tala grinned. “Just proving a point.” She looked up to see Martin still standing over them both. “Weren’t you leaving?”

“I…uh…”

“Go.” Tala pointed to the door. A moment later, Martin sloped out.

“What was so damn important that you couldn’t have called? Why did you have to come here and ruin my date?”

Tala leaned back in her chair. “Don’t pretend I ruined anything. You were never going to see that guy again.”

“Well I’m not now, am I?”

“You said so yourself, he was nice. Nice, and completely average. Admit it, you were bored after ten minutes.”

“I was not.”

“Five.”

Aiva growled. She had forgotten how pointless an argument with her big sister could be. “He’s a Garda.”

Tala’s eyes narrowed. “You’re dating a cop?”

“Not anymore, apparently.”

“Just as well I got here when I did,” Tala muttered, finishing the rest of Aiva’s drink, too.

Aiva looked at her sister’s bare neckline. “Where’s your pendant from Mom?”

Tala hitched an eyebrow. “Yours too, huh?”

“Someone stole it?”

Tala nodded. “Last night. Son of a bitch ripped it right off my neck. Should’ve capped him when I had the chance.”

“Well, you didn’t come here for the necklace, so tell me what you want, Tala, or I’m leaving.”

“If you hadn’t been in such a rush to get back to Inspector Jerkwad, I would have told you that I came here because of Hartley.” That was the first time that Aiva noticed Tala had arrived alone. Whilst they talked often enough on the phone, Aiva never actually saw her little sister, because Hartley was never more than a few paces from Tala’s side. The pair had become inseparable ever since their mother’s death.

“Where is she?”

“That’s kind of the point. I have no idea. When did you last talk to her?”

Aiva pulled out her phone and checked the call history. “She rang me on Wednesday. I missed the call.”

Tala huffed with fatigue. “I figured. Wednesday was the last time I saw her. What’d she say?”

“Just the usual stuff. She was working on a case. A big one. She wanted me to come by your office.” Aiva’s brow pinched as a mixture of guilt, worry, and old suspicions all warred for position in her mind. “What were you two working on?”

Tala crossed one leg over the other and ran a hand through her hair. “Nothing. We’ve been dry for weeks. But, the last couple months, Hart’s had this obsession with finding her father.” Tala shrugged. “I figured she’d give up. I mean, it’s not as if Mom told us anything about our dads.”

“Wait,” Aiva leaned forward. “You think she found her father?” Their youngest sister had long been enamoured with the idea of knowing her father’s identity. Something Aiva and Tala had given up on long ago. Suddenly the excitement in Hartley’s voice during her last voice message seemed more relevant. But surely if she had uncovered something that important she wouldn’t have hidden it behind vague comments. Hartley had never been one for subtlety — she was too much like Tala.

Tala shrugged again. “I don’t know. She found something. She told me she was going after a lead. That was over a week ago. I’ve tried her phone. Our usual contacts. I’ve checked local motels for registrations under any of the names we use. I’ve been through the papers for listings with any of our signal phrases. All the ways we use to contact each other if something happens.” Her jaw clenched and Aiva saw a hint of nervousness that had no place on her sister’s face. “I can’t find her, Ivy.”

Aiva let out a low breath. She was almost afraid to ask the next question. “Credit cards?”

Tala’s mouth tightened. “Gone. Maxed. Cancelled.”

Aiva leaned her elbows on the table and put her forehead in her hands. Hartley’s gambling problem had been a source of grief to the family even when their mother was alive. How a teenager managed to even get into the gambling dens was another matter. Aiva hated to admit it — because it made her feel like the most selfish sister on the planet — but one of her reasons for declining Hartley’s persistent job offers was that Aiva knew any funds Hartley had access to would be dug out for card games.

A young server came over to collect their glasses and offer them more drinks. A dorky grin sat on his face, and his eyes never left Tala. She waved him away without looking at him once. Aiva asked for water.

“I thought you said she was getting better.”

“Just better at hiding it, apparently,” Tala said with a snort.

The server returned with Aiva’s water and asked Tala again if he could get her anything. She tipped him a euro and shooed him back to the bar.

Aiva asked, “Do you think she ever really had a lead about her dad, or was that a lie?”

“I think it was real. I found a list of her contacts: everyone she’s been talking to about him. I think I know who she went to see.”

“And?”

“Recruiter. First Circle.”

Aiva, who had started to take a sip from her glass, inhaled too quickly, and coughed. “What?” she spluttered. “You let her get involved with the Circles?”

Tala’s eyes narrowed. “Hey, I didn’t let her do anything. Hartley’s got a mind of her own, you know?”

Aiva laughed. “She follows you everywhere. Tell me, how long after you got those red streaks did Hartley get her hair done the same way?”

Tala flicked her hair back over her shoulder. “I can’t help it if Hartley likes my style more than yours.”

“I don’t want her to dress like me, Tala. I want her to be herself. God, you are such an enabler.”

“Look, just forget about that,” Tala said, waving a hand. “Hartley’s gone looking for a recruiter, which means that she’s probably looking for info about a higher Circle.”

“So Hartley’s father is involved with the Circles. Why am I not even surprised? At least now we know why Mom never introduced him.”

The Circles were the city’s criminal network. Divided into nine divisions, each one was responsible for a different activity. Recruiters from the First Circle were the lowest rank. But what they lacked in status, they made up for in knowledge. It was said that the First Circle knew everything, which made them prime targets for the Garda. It also meant that anyone involved with them was a target too.

To the majority of citizens, the Circles were an urban myth. To the Garda Síochána, it was nothing more than street gangs and organised crime. To Aiva, her sisters, and the few others like them, the myths about the Circles were real, and so were the demons that ran them.

“Okay,” Aiva said, after a moment of drawn out silence. “Okay, I’ll help you.”

V

“My car’s outside,” Tala said, jumping to her feet and heading for the door.

“Wait, you want to go now?” Aiva dropped a few euros on the table and ran after her.

“Of course now, when else would we go? Over here.” Tala approached a red convertible BMW and unlocked it.

Aiva stopped in front of the car. “What the hell is this? What happened to Mom’s old car?”

“The Liffey happened to it. Or, it happened to the Liffey, whichever.” Tala climbed into the car and turned on the ignition. After a moment, Aiva joined her.

“You drowned Mom’s car in the river?”

“I drowned two demons in Mom’s car in the river. And hey, I got the idea off you. Here, you navigate.” Tala tossed a mobile phone with an address already loaded into the GPS at Aiva, and reversed out of the parking lot. Street lights lit up the roads, which were still busy with evening traffic.

“Why did you get a convertible? We live in Ireland. Have you ever even put the top down?”

“It gets sunny here,” Tala countered, unconvincingly. Aiva didn’t bother arguing the point.

“Go right at the lights.”

Aiva didn’t speak, other than to give directions. Tala wondered if she was still pissed about the cop at the pub. If anything, Aiva should be thanking her. The guy had been checking Tala and every other girl in the place out the moment Aiva left for the restroom. Real class act.

They arrived outside an unassuming office block in Inchicore. It was made of red brick, like most of the houses on the street. They both peered at the sign mounted on the low brick wall out front.

“Dr Dylan Cassidy, Psychiatrist.” Aiva looked over to her. “This isn’t some trick to get me to a shrink, is it? Because I thought you hated that counselling bullshit.”

“This is the recruiter. Makes perfect sense when you think about it. Target people who are already desperate, then push them over the edge. Then, make them the offer of a lifetime: anything you want, just sign here. It’ll only cost you your soul.”

“You’re sure Hartley came here?”

“See for yourself.” Tala reached back to grab a leather bound journal off the back seat and dropped it on Aiva’s lap. The pages inside were scrawled in Hartley’s handwriting. Near the end, circled repeatedly, was the name and address of the psychiatrist whose office they were staking out.

Tala jumped out of the car and popped the trunk. After a moment, Aiva joined her. The back of the car was lined with weapons. Everything from iron rods, to silver runed knives, to guns. Tala strapped her favourite runed bowie to her thigh, then grabbed a shotgun. She handed a pistol to Aiva, who ignored it and took a compact crossbow instead. The bolts were iron and tipped with silver, with Enochian runes etched along their length. Everything needed to kill a low level demon. Tala grinned.

“I forgot you loved that thing.”

Aiva’s eyes narrowed. “I wouldn’t say I loved any of it.” She slammed the trunk closed and turned towards the house. “We’re going in there? Just the two of us?”

“Yeah, of course. I mean, usually I have Hartley for back up, but you’ll do. You do remember how to use that crossbow, right?”

“Thanks, sis. And yes, I do remember. That doesn’t make this any less idiotic.”

“It’s better than leaving a pissed off succubus trapped in an alley with runes written in chalk in a city where — as you mentioned earlier — it rains a lot.” She shot Aiva a hard look. “Besides, Hart and I do this all the time. It’ll be fine.”

“Brilliant, all my worries are allayed.”

“You know what, let’s just leave the attitude outside for now, okay?”

“Whatever you say, boss.”

Yes, Aiva was definitely still pissed about the cop. Tala swallowed her retort and marched towards the office block. The lights were still on inside one of the offices. Tala wasn’t surprised; demons tended to keep odd hours. The front door was unlocked, and Tala and Aiva entered silently. A sign in the foyer directed them upstairs to Dr Cassidy’s office. The door was closed, with only a small plaque on it bearing the doctor’s name. Tala stood still at the side of the door. Aiva took up position on the other side, and both women listened for any sound of movement within. Tala heard only the occasional tap of keys on a computer, and the creaking of a chair being moved.

Tala nodded to her sister, who reached for the door handle. With a swift thrust, Aiva pushed the door open, and Tala charged in, gun raised. The person sitting behind the desk, a plump man in his forties, jumped and yelped as they appeared before him. His hands flew into the air, knocking over an empty coffee mug. The mug shattered on the floor, startling a cat that had been curled up in the corner. The tabby yowled and bolted for the open door.

“Flynn,” Cassidy called as the cat disappeared. Tala took a step closer and he sunk lower into his chair. “Who are you? What do you want? Please, I don’t keep any money here.”

“Shut it. We know what you are,” Tala barked. Cassidy’s mouth pressed shut. “Hartley Morgenstern, where is she?”

“I–I, uh…I don’t.”

“Don’t give me your demon bullshit runaround,” Tala said, her voice lowering as she aimed at Cassidy’s inflated chest. “Where did you send her?”

“Please, she’s not one of my patients, if that’s what you mean.”

Tala held the sawn-off snub nose of the shotgun in front of his eyes. “Tell me what I want to know, or I swear to God, I will send you right back to hell.”

“Tala,” Aiva said, cautioning her.

Cassidy’s hand lowered slowly, reaching for something under the desk.

“Stop,” Tala barked, swinging her arm back to club him over the head.

“Tala!” Aiva grabbed her arm and pulled her back.

The gun went off, the bang shaking the room. The buckshot blasted into the drywall, punching through it. Cassidy yelped again, his hands flying to his head. Grasped in his right hand was a rosary. He held the beaded cross high and began to pray in a hurried whisper.

Aiva let go of Tala’s arm. “He’s not our guy.”

“But this is the address.”

“Well, it was wrong.” Aiva strode past her and back into the hall. Tala followed, leaving Cassidy behind.

They drove back across town in silence, stopping outside the townhouse where Aiva lived. They both sat in silence for a minute before Tala spoke.

“We shouldn’t have left. You should have let me shoot him.”

“Tala, he was an innocent man.”

“He was lying. He works for the First Circle.”

“He was human. Last I remember, we don’t kill humans. Or did Mom’s rules end up in the Liffey along with her car?”

Tala turned in her seat to face her. “What the hell is your problem? You used to do this job too, dammit. You know how it goes. We don’t show mercy. God knows they don’t.”

“I used to do this Tala. Used to. Not anymore. I got out, and you had to drag me back into it.”

“I didn’t drag you anywhere. Don’t pretend like that succubus was the first demon you’ve chased down since we got to Dublin. I know you like to think you’re a normal person, but the fact that you put on a nametag, and go to a nine-to-five job, doesn’t change that you’re as much part of this Hartley and I. Admit it, Ivy, you’ve always wanted a reason to get back into it.”

Aiva’s jaw was tight. “Not like this.” She sighed, some internal battle going on behind her eyes, which Tala couldn’t hope to fathom. “Are you even sure she’s missing?”

“Yes.” Tala answered without hesitation.

“Why? You said so yourself, she hasn’t sent you a single distress signal, and she maxed out your credit cards. If we want to find her, maybe we should try Monaco.”

Now it was Tala’s turn to be annoyed. “She wouldn’t have done all this just to go and place a few bets.”

“Why not? She’s done it before.”

“She—” Tala stopped. “You’re wrong. Other people get to worry about their loved ones eloping, or stealing their credit cards. But you and I know what’s out there in the dark. We don’t just get to close our eyes and wait for morning.”

VI

Aiva unlocked the door and went straight upstairs to her flat on the first floor. She could hear her phone buzzing inside her bag. She pulled it out, expecting to see Tala’s number on the screen, even though she had just dropped her off moments ago. It was Kayleigh.

“Hi, Kay.”

“Oh, you’re home. Or are you? I’m not interrupting or anything, am I? Sorry, I fully expected this to go to voicemail.”

“No, it’s fine. I’m home.”

“So, how’d things go with the Garda?”

“Before or after we were gatecrashed by my sister?” Aiva dropped her bag on the couch and sunk down next to it.

“Your sister? Wait, I thought your family was in Canada or something.”

“We used to live in Canada. I just haven’t really seen them since we came back to Ireland.”

“Well, what did she want?”

Aiva spotted a dark brown leather spine sticking out the top of her bag, and pulled out Hartley’s journal. She had left it in the car. Tala must have shoved it in her bag.

“It doesn’t matter,” Aiva said, turning the journal over. “Listen, Kay, I have to go. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

Aiva hung up the call and moved over to the little four-seater dining table, stuck in the corner of her studio flat. She left the book on the table, then went to her bookcase. It was filled with books from every genre. Everything except paranormal and the occult. Grabbing a stack of ten books in one go, Aiva heaved them off the shelf and onto the floor. Then she cleared the rest of the shelf too. Behind that layer of books was a second row. These books were cloth and leather bound hardbacks, with fraying spines and weathered covers. Many didn’t have names on their spines, and of those that did, few were in English. Aiva ran her finger along the books, stopping on one that was newer than the rest, a journal covered in dark blue leather.

She pulled the journal out. It was the same size and shape as Hartley’s, with no name or marking on its cover. Aiva flicked through the book, scanning the pages of her own notes, gathered over years of training. Theresa Morgenstern had taught her daughters everything she knew about demons and every other paranormal creature that walked the Earth. Passing down knowledge learnt from her mother.

Aiva looked over the text: spells and incantations, exorcisms and summonings. She flicked through until she found a spell for scrying. She hadn’t attempted any such thing since her mother died.

All she needed to do was prove that Hartley had skipped town for a few days. Then, she could go back to Tala and tell her all their worrying had been for nothing. Because, despite what she had said in the car, Aiva was worried. Tala was right, their world was much darker, and much more dangerous than normal people’s. And, as much as Aiva wanted to believe her little sister was just getting up to old habits, she wasn’t willing to risk Hartley’s life on it.

Moving to the table, Aiva spread out a map of the wider Dublin area, then retrieved a crystal pendant from her drawer. On the back of the map, Aiva drew a pentacle, with symbols copied from her notebook in each of the five points. Holding the crystal above the map by the end of its chain, Aiva placed her other hand on Hartley’s journal.

It took her a few minutes to slip into the trance necessary for scrying. It was something that had once come easily to her, but two years out of practice had taken its toll. At last, Aiva felt the trance come over her. As well as the dizzying sense that the floor had dissolved beneath her feet, and that the air in the room was slowly turning solid, Aiva felt a tight pain behind her eyes, making them water. She closed her eyes and clenched her jaw against the sensation of having the air pulled from her lungs.

The chain in her fingers began to quiver and the book under her hand became hot. The crystal started to move in a circle, swinging out over the map in wider and wider spiral loops.

Air rushed back into the room and the chain went slack. The crystal dropped and bounced on its line without purpose or direction. The journal under Aiva’s hand lost all heat. She opened her eyes and looked down at the map and the crystal, both were completely mundane. She dropped the crystal and it rolled across the table, then off the edge, with no force whatsoever pulling it back.

Aiva’s mouth tightened and she took a step back. Scrying had never failed her before. Even a dead man could be found. If Hartley was outside of Dublin, the crystal would have simply dragged her off the map. For it to not work at all meant that Hartley was hidden behind a scry shield.

Shoving the map aside, Aiva flipped open Hartley’s journal and began to page through it. Hartley had kept fewer notes on spells and rituals than Aiva had. Most of her records were to do with types of demons and various weapons – no doubt the same notes Tala kept. Nothing in the book described how to produce a scry shield. That kind of magic was beyond even Aiva’s knowledge.

She reached the last page of notes, and saw again the address in Inchicore, with a thick black circle around it. Under it was a tiny footnote: a 1 inside a ring, and next to it a name: Flynn.

Aiva snatched her phone back off the couch and dialled Tala’s number.

“Forget your fluffy pink pen in the car?” Tala’s scathing voice came from the phone.

“Get back over here, now. I know who the recruiter is.”

VII

Tala followed Aiva up the stairs to her flat. The studio room was less than half the size of the apartment she and Hartley shared. A stack of paperbacks had been pulled off the bookshelf and dumped on the floor. Behind them, Tala could see the battered spines of several older books. On the dining table were strewn a number of large tomes that Tala instantly recognised.

“Yes,” she said triumphantly, picking up the copy of Le Dragon Rouge. “I knew you kept this stuff.”

Aiva shrugged. “You never came back for them.”

Tala placed the grimoire back with the others. “Mom left them to you. I got her knife.” She pulled the bowie from its sheath and tossed it into the air. The light picked out the runes engraved into the metal, and the rough-cut gem that adorned the pommel, before she caught it and put it back on her hip. “So, where’s the recruiter?”

“He was at the office.” Aiva leant over the table, paging through one of the books as she spoke. “We thought the demon was the doctor, it wasn’t. It was the cat.” She spun the book around to show Tala an inked drawing of a creature that looked half man, half feline.

“The tabby cat? Seriously?”

Aiva nodded. “It’s a kasha. They usually steal the corpses of the sinful, but it makes sense that one could wind up in the First, recruiting live people into the Circles. The demon probably killed the cat months ago and took its form.”

“Yeah, or it was just evil to begin with. How do you know all cats aren’t demons?”

Aiva looked up from the book. “They’re not.”

Tala crossed her arms. “Mom thought it was a valid theory.”

“Mom was humouring you.”

“All right, well, do you know how to kill this thing?”

“The usual treatment should do it.”

“Then let’s go.”

For the second time that night, the red BMW stopped outside the office building in Inchicore. Tala eyed up the offices again. They were all dark. She guessed Dr Cassidy had gone home, or to the Garda station. She hoped his cat had stayed behind.

“How long do you think until he gets back with the cops?” Tala asked.

“The guy has a demon for a pet, whether he knows it or not. I doubt they picked him for being such an upstanding citizen. My guess is he won’t report it. I doubt he wants the Garda snooping around. And the rest of the offices look empty, so with any luck, no one heard us shoot the place up.”

This time, Aiva was the first one to the back of the car, grabbing her crossbow out of the trunk.

“What made you change your mind?” Tala asked, joining her.

Aiva turned away from the car. “I tried scrying for her.”

“And?”

“And I couldn’t find her.” She turned to face Tala. “But you already knew that, didn’t you? You gave me the journal. You knew what I’d do with it.”

Tala’s lips pulled into an involuntary smile. “Just needed to make sure the old Ivy was still in there. You had me worried for a while.”

“And are you satisfied now?”

Tala grinned and snatched up her shotgun. “Let’s go bag ourselves a kitty cat.”

Tala picked the lock on the front door and they went upstairs. The was no immediate sign of the kasha demon, but Tala noticed one of the windows propped open with a security latch, just wide enough to allow a cat through. Aiva pulled out a piece of chalk and inspected the window as well, before moving back to the door. Tala continued to scan the room, but saw no other signs of life.

“Should we have brought some treats? Ball of yarn, maybe?”

“Tala, you know it’s not a real cat, right?’

Tala shrugged. “Yeah, I know.” She glanced at her sister. “So, how do we get it here?”

Aiva gave her a smirk. “I thought you were the paranormal investigator.”

“Yeah, well, most of the demons I go after are bigger.”

Aiva shook her head with a roll of her eyes, and pulled a slim silver knife from her belt. She pricked the tip of her finger and shook three drops of blood onto the floor.

A voice came from the window behind them. “You know, I prefer bodies that aren’t breathing. But I could get used to this whole living flesh thing.”

Both girls spun around at the sound of the thin and raspy voice. They faced a man, at least a head shorter than they were, with pointed ears and slitted pupils for eyes. He wore a tailored suit, and stood with his arms folded, leaning against the window frame. There was a single ring tattooed around his left wrist.

“You came,” Tala said with a smirk. “I should warn you, that was an incredibly stupid thing to do.”

The kasha inspected his fingernails. “Hardly. I know who you girls are. I know who everyone is.”

“Good. That means I can skip the scary voice and the threats, and get straight to the good part.” Tala crossed the room and pointed her shotgun at him. “Tell me where Hartley Morgenstern is.”

The kasha laughed. “And why would I do that?” He pushed off from the window sill. “Your sister did come here. She summoned me, just as you did.” He nodded at Aiva. “Threatened me, like you did.” He turned his gaze to Tala. “And finally, she paid me.” He clasped his hands together. “So tell me, girls, what have you got to offer?”

“Your life,” Aiva said. “You walked into this room, but if you ever want to leave it, you’ll tell us what you know.”

The kasha laughed again, a high pitched hissing sound. “If you’ve nothing to trade, I’ve no business here.” He turned back towards the window. Tala moved to stop him, but a look from Aiva held her back.

The kasha reached for the window, but his hand stopped in front of the glass. Tala looked down and saw two symbols scrawled in chalk on the window sill.

“What have you done?” The kasha spun back towards them with a snarl.

“Just a little demon ward,” Aiva said. “You won’t be going back the way you came. We made you an offer. Maybe you want to reconsider.”

His eyes became thin slits. “You two whores will pay for this. I won’t tell you anything.”

Tala clubbed him on the side of the head with her shotgun. “My sister gave you a choice. Now we do it my way.” She grabbed the kasha by the front of his collar and pulled him up until his toes just grazed the floorboards. “What did you tell Hartley?”

“To go screw herself.”

Tala smacked him in the jaw with the gun. “Let’s try this again.”

“Listen, bitch, you’re going to have to hit a lot harder than that if you think you’re gonna get anything out of me.”

“We’ll see.” Tala took another swing. This time he caught her wrist in his hand and twisted it hard.

Tala cried out. The kasha fell from her grip and dropped to the floor in a crouch. He was about to make a lunge for her when Aiva grabbed the phone off the desk and wrapped its cord around the demon’s neck, yanking him backwards. He gagged as the cord pulled tight, and Tala kicked him in the gut, causing him to double over.

She grabbed him by the collar again, then punched him. “Last chance, asshole.”

The kasha spat out a mouthful of blood. “Your sister’s gone. Soon, she’s going to die in the pit, choking on her own blood and vomit.”

Tala snarled. “You’re going to hell.”

He smiled. “Good. And when I see Hartley there, I’ll be sure to stick around and watch them flay her.”

Tala pulled her bowie from its sheath and sliced the runed blade across the kasha’s throat. Dark orange sparks flew from where the metal met the demon’s skin. His body spasmed, blood spurted from his throat, and spilled out of his mouth. Aiva released the phone cable and stepped back, letting the kasha fall to the floor.

Tala stared at the body for several seconds, before wiping her knife off and sheathing it again. “Son of a bitch didn’t tell us anything.”

“You think he was lying about the pit?”

Tala nodded. “If it was true he’d have been crowing it from the moment he came in here.”

“We know one thing at least. Hartley’s alive, or he’d have been crowing that, too.”

“Yeah, alive for now.”

“Then we just have to find her.” Aiva started towards the door.

“You’re going to help me?”

Aiva looked back over her shoulder, then down at the dead kasha. “She’s my sister, too.”

Folding away her crossbow, she headed back downstairs. Tala waited a moment before following her, feeling the first vestiges of hope that that had touched her in over a week.

One thought on “The Ninth Circle – Episode 1: The Truth About Cats

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