the game is infiltration

We found Cara in a well-to-do, prissy, rich little town on the outskirts of a bigger, cooler city. The rabbit was by many miles the ugliest car in the parking lot, and the second we got out I was suddenly intensely Aware of how little we fit in with the crowd. Neal was literally wearing the denim he was in when Julian tried to kill him, because why would he graduate perfectly distressed denim just because he was almost died in them? The front left leg was mostly visible knee, and the pocket was half hanging off.

“Should I, um,” I said, catching a couple in cashmere give us a once over. “Like… change my clothes?”

Neal flashed me a grin. “You look great,” he said, which was patently untrue. I had a mustard stain on the thigh of my leggings, and a hole in the butt which I covered by wearing black underwear. I was wearing ugly sport sunglasses because my aviators fell into the crack between the seat and the door and I hadn’t bothered to dig them out yet. I won’t even mention the state of my poor shirt but it was disgusting.

We were inside this elegant little gallery for all of fifteen seconds before someone in boat shoes approached us.

“Hello can I help you find something?”

Clearly the thing he was hoping to help us find was the door, and Neal was opening his mouth, most likely to start something, when Cara, in the sleekest black dress, intervened.

“I’m sorry, sir, he’s French,” she said, as if this explained why we’d turned up to his fancy function looking like we were recently fermenting at the bottom of a dumpster. Before Neal had any opportunity to further sabotage her con, she said something to him in French and Neal rolled his eyes. Julian replied in kind and yeah, I get it, everyone here speaks like 18 languages except me.

“He’s just here to see the Gailord,” Cara said to Boat Shoes, and though he certainly didn’t look pleased to have us there, apparently being French really helped because he didn’t intervene.

Why do you look like you’ve been in a blender?” Cara hissed as we strode across the gallery. “I asked for art buyers, not whatever this look is. What would you call this aesthetic? Untalented base jumpers? And why is this poor girl still wearing your hand-me-downs? Honey is this —” she gestured at all of me “— on purpose? Are they abusing you? Is this a cry for help?”

Which seemed harsh, but like, okay, I was wearing a bucket hat with fishing tackle on it that we found at a truck stop, so maybe she had a point.

She didn’t wait for an answer, just clicked across the floor in those very high heels.

The painting was a handsome, if somewhat melodramatic landscape of a beach scene, with a spectacular, moody, sky, and a single, apparently faceless, figure.

This is just a study of what I was looking at, which I painted from memory, so you can get an idea of what it looked like — this is a close-up of the faceless figure, but the complete painting is bigger than this

“Looks haunted enough,” Neal said, and then when Cara threatened to step on his foot with her very sharp heel he switched to French, and there went the rest of the conversation as far as I could tell. They went off in French and I just stood there chewing gum, acutely aware of all the rich people Noticing the shit out of us. I mean, Neal’s t-shirt has a blood stain on the back from when his wounds were still oozing and he’s wearing sunglasses to cover what’s left of those black eyes.

We’re lookin rough, is what I’m telling you. And I’m just Very Aware of it.

We left maybe ten minutes later.

“There’s a gala tonight,” Neal explained to me as we slammed into the rabbit. Literally can’t express how ancient and decrepit the rabbit looked surrounded by all the beamers and Audi’s. Apparently wealth makes me uncomfortable. “We’ll come back then, and stick around after it’s over. Take care of the spooks once the crowds are gone.”

I did not like the sounds of a gala, and I must have grimaced because Julian said, “Don’t worry, Cara will make us play dress-up.”

“Can’t we just wait until everyone’s gone and Cara can let us in?” I said and Neal gave me a look like I was insane.

“Open bar,” he said, and that was that.

I’m gonna sneak this last update now before midnight.

We got rooms at the beautiful hotel Cara was staying in. Julian took one look at us and called to book the room before we pulled up because probably security would have pushed us out of there if we’d tried to walk in and book a room as we were hahaha. Am I suddenly pushing the state of us super hard? Well, we’re always like this, but usually we’re so insular and spend so much time in gross bars with sticky floors that no one notices or cares.

Cara busted into the hotel room maybe an hour later without knocking, carrying sushi takeout in one hand and a bunch of dry cleaning bags in the other. She came in like she lived here, tossed her keys on the counter, took the brochures out of her mouth and said, “oh thank god you showered. I can’t even believe that’s a thing I have to be happy about. Disgusting, truly disgusting, you know that right? I’m literally embarrassed to know you.” And then with an air kiss at Julian’s cheek, “Not you baby, you look great as always, didn’t I buy you this sweater? Now what the fuck happened to Neal, he’s a mess.”

All of this at breakneck speed.

“Ah, Cara,” Neal said, coming out of the bathroom in a hotel robe, scrubbing at his hair with his towel. “You always know just the wrong thing to say, don’t you?”

She twisted to look back at him, curled her lip, and said, “you’re destroying your curls,” and that was all.

“Julian, I bought you clothes, but now that I look at you, I think I grabbed you a size up. Come here and try on this jacket. Why are you so skinny?” And then as she was unzipping one of her dry cleaning bags she apparently put it together because she froze and said, “Oh, shit.” She pointed from Julian to Neal and pricked an eyebrow.

Evidently she knows about Julian’s whole transformation thing.

“We’re fine,” Neal said.

“What the fuck happened?” Cara cried, aghast.

When neither of them answered, I offered, “We were tracking some Hailu puppies but some sport hunters got there first.”

At last she rounded on me. “Sport hunters?” And when no one elaborated she added, “what evil son of a bitch —”

“The Allens,” Neal said and Cara gasped.

“Those bastards,” she said. “The same Allens that wanted me rifted for lifting some harmless trinkets? Those Allens?”

“What’s rifted?” I asked, and Cara replied with venom:

“It’s Lana’s solution to capitol punishment.”

Which didn’t actually answer the question, so Julian clarified. Hunters have no formal leadership, so it’s not like there’s much anyone can do if someone does something really vile. They’re just… lawless.

The Scelerats do what they can to try to keep everyone on the straight and narrow by regulating where their money goes, but that’s not much. So if someone really fucks up, Lana and her team at Palefish will intervene. They arrest people and hold them until a rift opens, and they send those criminals through it.

“It never actually happens,” Julian added. “It’s an empty threat for the most part. Rifts don’t stay open long enough to be able to actually send anyone through. Mostly it just means that you live at Palefish on house arrest where Lana can keep an eye on you.”

“Have you told the Scelerats what they did?” Cara said. “They must have made a fortune.”

Neal and Julian exchanged a look.

“You haven’t told anyone?!”

“They saw Julian change,” Neal explained.

Cara sat down. “Oh shit.”

I was lost again. “Why does it matter —”

Julian interrupted me. “What do you think a person who uncontrollably transforms into an ravaging beast looks like to a bunch of monster hunters?”

Oh, yeah, okay, I see the problem now.

Finally Cara blew out a long breath and said, “this is why I gave up hunting. Too much drama.”

Neal rolled his eyes. “You gave up hunting because you got caught stealing from Beau Meinmarre.”

Cara smiled serenely. “That too. Now open the sushi, Shiloh and I have work to do.”

Work to do with Cara turned out to mean dress up in her suite upstairs.

Cara’s skin and haircare routine was more expensive than everything I own together, including my phone and iPad, and that was before we got into her makeup bag.

“You’re most comfortable in black, aren’t you,” Cara said, rummaging through her clothes. “Are you moisturized? Great, blow dry your hair.”

I have been traveling with boys for so many months. I went from having a mom, a girlfriend, and Georgia as my circle of best friends, to being just surrounded by boys 100% of the time.

“Oh, god, what are you doing, stop,” Cara said and took the blow dryer from me. My mom never let me blow dry my own hair either. I always make it fluffy. Admittedly, Cara cared a lot less if she pulled my hair than my mom does, but it was still nice to have someone else preening me.

Deep down, I am just monkey, waiting for other monkey to pick off my bugs.

“You have the perfect amount of grow out right now,” Cara said, squaring my head so she could better see the top of it. “I love a dark root.”

It turned out Cara had gone shopping not just for the boys, but for me, too. The suite was full of bags, and she kept grabbing things out of them and throwing them at me to try on. Which is how I ended up in my first lacy garters and stockings.

“Are we sure this is necessary?” I asked when Cara threw me a new, lacy little bra and panty set.

She held up an undeniably cool little shift dress. “Were you going to wear the sports bra under this?”

It felt a little bit like prom. I never went to prom (which I made the terrible error of telling her). Cara did my hair. She painted my finger nails. She did my makeup. She did it with the brisk tenderness I always imagined you’d get from an older sister.

When she said, “So you saw Julian transform, huh?” And I said I did, she said, “scary, but like, sort of sick, right?”

And YES. That’s EXACTLY how I feel about it.

“When we were kids Bev and I used to try and get it him to turn,” Cara said. “It drove Louie insane.” She laughed. “Horrifying in retrospect of course. Thank goodness it never worked — we’d have deserved it if he mauled us. Luckily, he’s damn near uncrackable.” And then, “it must have been a few bad weeks, if Julian lost control.”

And just like that I was telling her about everything, about how horrible Julian has felt, and how hard Neal’s trying to fix it, and the awful memories the gigantic lemniscate brought back, all while Cara peered into my face and dabbed eyeshadow into my creases and perfected my contour.

“The thing you have to remember about the Hawthornes,” Cara said as she smoothed on my lip color. “Is that they’d rather save everyone than play it safe. And when that works for them, it’s great. They’re the best in the business. But when it doesn’t work, things don’t just go a little wrong, they go all the way wrong. You have to be careful. And if you ever need anything, you can always call me, Bev, or Jasper. Okay?”

I nodded, and she smiled.

“You’re done. Those boys aren’t even gonna recognize you.”

I reached for my sunglasses, for my usual spooky-black-eye disguise and Cara swatted my hand.

“I built your entire makeup look around your cool eye, and you’re not allowed to cover it up,” she snapped. “Look at yourself.”

And then she went back out into the main room to get changed and I had a minute alone with all the mirrors and LISTEN. Forget the Hawthornes not recognizing me. I barely recognized me. I looked so expensive????? Plus Cara did different makeup on each of my eyes to accentuate how dark the fucked-up one looks, and usually I’d be super uncomfortable with that because people just STARE at me ALL THE TIME but damn. She really did something and it looked cool as shit.

When we went back downstairs to meet the boys Cara insisted on getting off the elevator a floor early so that she could humiliate me by making me walking down the hotel’s big staircase to the lobby where the boys were waiting. Which would have been terrible even if I had been able to walk in my heels.

“Stop whining,” Cara said. “I worked very hard and I’m showing you off. You’re going to have your prom princess stair moment if I have to drag you down by the ear.”

But like, I really couldn’t walk in the heels, so she had to slow down and show me how to do it. Which meant that the Hawthornes had a nice long time to notice, which was the OPPOSITE of what I was after.

They turned, saw us, and it was like… I mean it was the fucking prom princess stair moment, just like Cara said. I obviously panicked, so instead of having my moment I stopped and pointed at me feet and said, “I can’t do it,” so Neal came to the bottom of the stairs and gave me a piggyback out to the car, while Cara squawked that he was going to wrinkle my dress.

The “gala” turned out to just be a bunch of rich people getting together to buy stuff and drink champagne in expensive clothes. But that was fine, I was wearing expensive clothes, I love looking at art, and I’m always here to drink champagne. It was a little bit awkward, sure. But listen, Julian can fit into any environment seamlessly, it’s so funny.

“Watch this,” Neal said. He nudged Julian and pointed at a cluster of people gathered around a painting. “You have five minutes.”

Julian made a face. “Five minutes? Child’s play.”

He downed the last of champagne and crossed the room.

“The game,” Neal explained, “is infiltration. You approach a random group of people, and have to convince them to include you in their circle.”

I watched as, within five minutes, Julian infiltrated their group. Almost exactly at the five minute mark, they all went outside for a cigarette. He flashed us a peace sign behind his back.

“A master,” Neal sighed.

“Neal’s awful at it,” Cara said, leaning to talk around him. “He always has to resort to flirting.”

Neal sighed heavily. “I know,” he said, falsely sorrowful. “And it always works for some reason.”

“What do you think, Shiloh, you ready to play?” Cara said, already scanning the room despite my frantically telling her no.

“That’s the mark,” Neal said, ignoring me, and pointing at a round woman with short silver hair and dangly, brightly-colored earrings. “Tell me five things about her.”

“I don’t know,” I said, frantic, horrified.

“Look,” Neal said, laughing.

But I was too horrified at the prospect of having to approach a stranger with everyone watching, to be any good at, so they walked me through it, and as they spoke, I saw it, too. There was a smudge of blue paint on the back of her arm where she couldn’t see it. Expensive but comfortable shoes. Loose, neutral-toned clothes, but clunky, colorful statement jewelry and glasses. Not speaking to anyone, but looking very closely at the art.

“She’s an artist,” Cara said. “Alone, but not lonely. She has kids.”

“Kids?” Neal asked.

“Hair-pin is femo,” Cara said.

“Oof,” Neal said, appreciative. “Good eye.”

“You have ten minutes,” Neal said.

AND GUESS WHAT, FOLKS. HER NAME WAS HELEN, SHE’S AN ARTIST WITH THREE GRANDKIDS AND SHE WAS THERE LOOKING FOR A PIECE TO GO OVER HER DINING ROOM TABLE.

I was a little drunk by the time the night was winding down and it was time to hide in the basement.

“Okay, security’s gonna come down this aisle,” Cara whispered, “he won’t see us as long as we hide here until he reaches the end, and then cross when —” but of course that’s when the guard came downstairs and we all just ducked down behind all the hanging sheets, smothering our drunken laughter.

It’s lucky the guy closing the place down was tired and potentially listening to headphones because we were not particularly subtle down there. Julian bumped a bust that rocked and almost fell of it’s pedestal.

We waited half an hour, just to be sure that the place was really shut down before finally sneaking back upstairs.

“Okay,” Cara said. “You all just hold still and don’t break anything, will you? I’m just gonna go make sure that all the security is off.”

The painting just hung there innocently.

“What do you think?” Julian asked.

Neal shrugged. “We’ll just have to start trying stuff.”

When Cara came back, we got busy. We drew up a circle for Neal, just in case, since last time with the exorcism went so poorly. Julian and I rang bells and blew through the thurible so the incense smoke blew onto the painting.

Nothing happened.

We got the salt out. We lit more candles.

Nothing happened.

So we got the bells out, and made a nice old ruckus, trying to draw this thing out.

Nothing, absolutely nothing.

“There’s definitely something in there,” Neal said, beginning to be frustrated. “Blow the smoke on directly, ring loud, let’s see if we can convince this thing to come on out.”

So we did, which was fun. Cara started just yelling at the thing, brandishing her bell pell-mell, so I copied her, and I sorta forgot why we were there tbh.

And then behind us three paintings crashed off the wall onto the floor.

All three of us jumped. There was quiet and stillness in the room, but even so, we started packing up. We didn’t even discuss it, we just started blowing out our candles.

We didn’t speak at all until we were all back out in Cara’s insane car.

“Whatever that thing is, I’ve never felt anything quite like it,” Neal said. “I think it has a purpose. I’m gonna have to channel it.”

“Neal —” Julian began.

“I’ll be fine,” Neal said. “I promise, I’ll be okay. I really don’t think whatever this is means any harm.”

I would argue that just because it doesn’t mean any harm, doesn’t mean it’s not going to cause harm, but whatever Neal seems pretty confident and it is not my job to convince that idiot that he’s mortal.

I spent the night in Cara’s suite. She tucked an arm through mine and said “girl’s night,” and I was so drunk and just happy to be included, that I didn’t think until now that probably she was just fucking with Neal hahahaha.

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