The demon slipped out of the wall at nightfall, sliding slowly toward its obsession without much sound. There was the whispering though, it was always whispering sweet nothings in a low, raspy voice to its obsession as she slept.

”What a pleasant sight you are, ” it hovered over its obsession, gazing at her sleeping face, ”So beautifully designed. ” Clawed fingers reached to caress her skin but a silver Star of David flashed with light and the demons touch was repelled. It snarled its frustration and its obsession began to stir so the demon fled into the space beneath the bed, whispering, ”I love you, I love you, I love you, ” all the way. Its obsession heard the voice and woke, clutching her sheets tightly as the demon began scratching against the metal frame of the bed.

Its obsession clutched her necklace and prayed.

She needed help.

#

Former FBI Alienist Dr. Josefine Wolfe left her apartment that day expecting it to pass like every other day had since shed lost her job, but instead, she found herself a case to feed into her severe addiction to puzzles at her usual cafe.

Josefine arrived at the cafe—a little Jewish place called Zaftigs Deli located conveniently between her place and the local Bureau office—in time to beat the lunch rush, the collar of her long coat turned up against the wind and the rain and the rim of her hat pulled low over her eyes. In hindsight, Josefine supposed it didn matter how close Zaftigs was to the local Bureau office considering theyd politely requested she never come back and she was only there because it was habit by now.

The door closed behind her and Josefine paused to fold the collar of her long coat back down—it was well-worn army green wool but still kept her plenty warm even after years of use—and removed her hat now that she was out of the rain. There was music playing, smooth jazz from a record player somewhere behind the counter almost lost in the sound of rain hitting the windows and the low hum of chatter in the sparsely populated seating area—Josefine supposed the rain had either deterred or slowed all except the most adventurous patrons that day.

”Oh, Doc, my favorite customer, ” Dubicki waved excitedly from behind the counter before returning his large hands to change out the coffee, ”I have beans from Brazil today. ” Josefine inhaled quietly, the scent registering as fresh grounds before she returned his smile with a very convincing one of her own; Dubickis love of coffee meant Josefine had a good supplier for her addiction to the stuff. ”How are you today? It has been a while, yes? ”

”Good, good, ” she approached the counter in two long strides, ”better now I get to have your coffee, ” she spoke with the same charming lilt to her words she always used when she cared about appearing normal. Dubicki laughed, the sound coming from somewhere deep in his belly; it was almost enough to distract Josefine from the dark chuckle in the back of her mind.

”Your regular then? ” She nodded slightly, taking in his collection of coffee presses on the shelf behind him while she waited for him to finish up so that she could hand him the dime for her first cup of coffee and a refill later. His customer service smile never wavered and the coin quickly disappeared into the register. ”Ill send Maggie right over with it. ”

”Thank you, ” Josefine turned her attention toward the chairs and tables arranged almost haphazardly across the open space, resisting the impulse to straighten them with her hands deep in her coat pockets as she made her way to her usual table by the window in the corner.

People watching, shed always called it when her overactive sense of paranoia made her hypersensitive to the movements and voices of the people around.

Wolf—the Monster in her head—usually laughed when she got like that as if it found her amusing.

Josefine continued to ignore it as the dark thing chuckled in the back of her head while she surveyed the other patrons with an analytical eye. Then Margaret ”Maggie ” Bates approached with a steaming mug of Dubickis latest experimental blend black as night. Josefine took the mug and napkin with a quiet thanks and Bates hurried on, uncharacteristically quiet and rushed despite the lack of customers, as if working to keep her mind off something, but that suited Josefine just fine; she wasn exactly in the mood to listen to idle chatter when she was too busy itching for a complex puzzle or some other way to distract herself from Wolfs more violent inclinations.

To Wolf, normal humans were little more than fragile playthings.

Josefine started to set the mug down on the napkin after the first sip of too-hot coffee, but neat handwriting scrawled stark on the paper made her pause. Please help me, it read in familiar, normally bubbly handwriting full of fear now, so she turned it over, looking for more information and finding none before her brow furrowed and she looked again at Bates. Josefine watched her, tucking the napkin into an inside coat pocket with her notepad before taking another sip of the coffee and studying Bates in a way she usually didn bother with unless it was for a case.

#

An extra 15¢ of coffee later and it was midafternoon as Batess shift came to an end. At that point, Josefine had come to the conclusion Bates was incredibly sleep-deprived—forgetting orders shed just written down, stifling yawns, occasionally stumbling around chairs and the like—and terrified of something—someone dropped a plate in the kitchen earlier in the day and Bates had looked about to go through the roof. She said her goodbyes to Dubicki and the rest of the staff but lingered as if she wasn keen on going home. Then she saw Josefine still at her table and approached slowly.

”You
e still here? ” Bates sounded legitimately surprised as if shed expected her plea for help to be ignored.

”Of course I am, ” Josefine schooled her mask into her best impression of concern as Bates took the seat across from her, ”you asked me for help. ” She set the napkin on the table between them, tapping a finger on the writing while Wolf chuckled at the display.

”You just want to know what the puzzle is. ” She took another sip of her coffee and ignored the Monster as she watched Bates swallow hard on whatever was bothering her. Bates wrung her hands a moment before she met Josefines gaze; it was an admirable attempt, Josefine tapped out two whole seconds before Bates had to look away again.

It didn matter much to her, Josefine was used to no one holding her gaze by now as if some subconscious, instinctual part of them could see Wolf there in the grey fog.

”There… ” Bates took a deep breath as Josefine returned the note to her inside coat pocket again, waiting to see whether Bates would win her struggle to speak the problem aloud, ”There is something under my bed every night. ” Shed already had her curiosity, but those words and the way shed phrased them had Josefine sitting up straighter in her chair and leaning forward with rapt interest. ”I went to the police, but the coppers just accused me of hysterics and that it was just in my head. ”

Josefine swallowed hard on the rather vivid memory of nearly drowning while sealed into a tub of ice water and the involuntary chill that settled into her bones.

”But its real, I swear. ” Batess oath sounded rather a lot like her own, one shed screamed until her voice was raw so many times shed rather not count, so she shook out of the memories in favor of analyzing Batess sincerity, reading her while she weighed the possibilities.

Josefine knew far more about hallucinations than she usually cared to consider.

There were dark circles beneath Batess blue eyes; the light makeup where shed no doubt tried to hide them, and wringing her hands together didn hide the evidence shed been picking at her nails so Josefine swallowed down her skepticism and leaned forward to rest her arms on the table because, at the very least, Bates was convinced there was something and itd cost Josefine nothing but the time of which shed recently found herself with a surplus to at least look into it.

Wolf scoffed at the excuse.

”How do you know? ” Bates flinched, her expression twisting into frustration and disappointment for a moment so Josefine considered how to soften the question; shed never been good about abandoning puzzles once she knew about them and her curiosity had been piqued, she wanted answers now maybe as much as Bates did.

Thatd been one of her other problems at the Bureau.

”Details, I mean, things you can write off as coincidence, ” Josefine clarified.

”Som—Sometimes I get home and… ” Bates squeezed her hands tight as if to stop the tremors as she swallowed; her blue eyes were a little wet and red-tinged and briefly, Josefine hoped she wouldn start crying, ”And things are missing, private things, like jewelry, brushes, makeup, or… ” she leaned close enough to whisper, short curled blonde hair falling forward in an uncharacteristically disheveled look, ”or undergarments. ” She sat back in her chair again, taking a moment to look out the window and watch the rain run down the glass. ”At night I hear it whispering to me, ” a dry, humorless laugh escaped her lips, ”it is a mercy I can never quite make out the words, I think. ” Josefine tented her fingers together, gaze slipping out of focus as she internally reviewed what Bates had told her and compared it to cases shed handled or at least studied in the past, looking for similarities and statistics, patterns of habit that might help her determine how to proceed. Her fingers drummed for a moment before she decided she wanted a better idea of what the scene looked like.

”Would you mind if I came home with you to take a look? ” Relief flooded her face at the question and, finally, Bates seemed to relax even if it was only a little.

”Would you really? ” A bright smile broke over her face so Josefine finished off her coffee, ”Oh, that would be just berries. ” They rose from their seats and Josefine gestured for her to lead the way as she pulled her long coat back on and returned her hat to her head.

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