Going back to the door we came in from, Dex fished a key out of his pocket and put it in the lock. I watched, interested, as the keyhole morphed around the key to let it fit, and when he opened the door…
My eyes widened and I took a step back. “No, no, no! Dex, are you insane?”
Majestic’s corridor of doors stretched like an endless hallway in front of me, lined with every type of door imaginable. It was abandoned right then—or at least I hoped it was—and I reached to slam the door shut before anyone could wander by.
“Sugarsnout, relax!” Dex said, stopping me. “I’ve got this under control, all right?”
Biting my lip nervously, I backed down and let Dex step through the door. Reaching behind the door from the other side in a way that shouldn’t have been physically possible, he rummaged around for a few seconds before producing a white lab coat.
“Put this on,” he said, tossing it to me. “There’s a rubber band in there too. Tie your hair back with it.”
I did as he said. “So, you just happened to have a disguise ready for me back there?”
He shrugged as I buttoned up the coat. “I was hoping we could do this the easy way, but I came prepared.”
I did my hair up, and found one of those weird shower cap things nurses wear in the coat’s pocket. Slipping that over my head, I looked at the door nervously.
“Okay, but hear me out,” I said slowly. “Why would I walk straight into Majestic’s headquarters when I know they’re still looking for me?”
“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘hiding in plain sight’?” Dex asked. “Yeah, they’re looking for you, but I promise that this is the one place on Earth that they’re not looking.”
“Trust me,” he said, taking me by the shoulder and pulling me through the door. “You’ve got nothing to worry about because I brought my secret weapon!”
I raised an eyebrow. “Do I want to know?”
He dipped his hand into my chest pocket, almost making me slap him, but when he pulled it out he was holding a surgical mask. Tossing it to me, he grinned.
“There,” he laughed as I put it on. “I barely recognize you!”
“You are insane,” I muttered. Still, I did feel better once I had my face covered.
Dex led the way out of the corridor of doors, which didn’t take as long as it looked like it should have. Maybe it was magic, maybe it was an optical illusion. I didn’t care. My skin was crawling like I’d given birth to a nest of spiders, and I couldn’t stop looking around. We only saw one other person on our way to the elevator, but I kept my eyes on him and refused to blink until he chose a door and went through it.
“And where would ze young lady like to go zees morning?” Dex asked in a corny French accent, waving me into the elevator like some kind of chauffeur.
“Not now,” I mumbled, moving to stand with my back against the wall. “Let’s just get this over with.”
He snapped his fingers. “Aha, ze mademoiselle weeshes to visit ze Department of Magical Biology and Zoology? Oui oui, of course!”
“If you don’t cut that out, I’m going to ride this elevator right up your—”
“Okay, okay!” He sighed as he selected the floor he wanted from the incomprehensible mess of buttons that lined the wall. “Geez, you’re no fun at all, Amber.”
The elevator began to rise, and I crossed my arms, digging my nails into my skin. This was by far the stupidest thing I’d ever done. I had been to Majestic’s headquarters several times before, but never in secret like this. Especially when they were actively hunting me. My heart was pounding like it wanted to break out of my chest, and I jumped at every small noise—and there were a lot of those. Dex, on the other hand, looked completely relaxed. And why wouldn’t he be? He wasn’t the one they wanted to lock in a cage and pump full of acid.
Ten minutes later, the elevator was still going.
“So what are we here for?” I asked to break the tension.
“Even if I told you, you wouldn’t have any idea what I was talking about.”
I frowned beneath my mask, but didn’t argue. He was probably right. Whatever it was he wanted, I just hoped we could grab it and get out fast. The less time we spent here, the better.
I glanced at the floor counter, which was in some weird nonhuman language. “Are we almost—”
The doors slid open to reveal another long hallway.
Dex groaned. “Wrong floor.”
“Oh, come on!”
His face split into a grin, and he grabbed me by the arm. “I’m kidding! Get that murder out of your eyes and let’s go.”
Towing me behind him, we entered the Department of Whatever the Hell He’d Said Before. I glanced behind me, and my heart shivered when the elevator doors closed. That ominous SLAM had just been my imagination, right?
This part of the building must have been Mr. Wrogan’s department. I couldn’t remember what his title was, besides being on Majestic’s board of directors, but it had something to do with magic animals and monsters. The hallway was long and narrow, made of slate gray bricks. Every few feet, there was a thick iron door. Some of them had big tinted windows beside them, but when I tried to look through one, Dex grabbed my chin and made me face forward.
“Trust me,” he said, sounding uncharacteristically serious, “you do not want to see what’s in some of those habitats.”
That reminded me of something I’d heard the last time I’d been here. “Did you ever take care of that…withering thing?”
“Oh, geez!” He closed his eyes and shivered. “Thank you so much for reminding me about that. I really appreciate it.”
I smirked. “So, did you?”
“No, it took care of about half the staff. Mr. Wrogan had to teleport it into the sun.”
This time, I shivered.
Dex led the way through the winding maze of hallways, seemingly by memory. He must have spent a lot of time here, because I knew I was lost as soon as I looked back and couldn’t see the elevator anymore.
Other people were there, too. People dressed in lab coats and silly hats just like mine, carrying crates or jotting down notes on clipboards. Not all of them were human, either. Some you could barely tell the difference unless you looked hard. One woman had long, pointed ears. Another had hooves coming out his pant legs. Others made it easy for me not to look into the habitats, because I was trying so hard not to stare at them instead.
“Hey,” Dex whispered as what looked like a three headed alligator ambled past, “you’re supposed to work here. You see stuff like this every day.”
“No, I do not.”
“Then at least pretend!”
I did my best, and before too much longer—did I mention just how freaking big this place was?—Dex stopped in front of a door that didn’t look any different than the others. This one didn’t have a window, but the sign beside the door said Oozlaquackis Delliomatheropiska.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
“What we need to find our thief,” he answered. “Stay out here. I’ll just be a minute.”
Dex pulled out his scepter and waved it in front of the door. It made a noise like he’d just scanned a badge or something, and unlocked itself. He was in and had shut the door behind him before I could say anything.
Great. Now I wasn’t just in Majestic’s headquarters, I was here alone. I thought about going in after Dex, but threw the idea away. I had no idea what was behind that door. Some kind of Lovecraftian horror, if I knew Majestic. So, I settled in to wait, trying not to flinch every time someone walked past me.
Having nothing to do but stand there, I finally had a minute to think.
Can I really do this? I wondered. Find the thief and get the gauntlet back without Hendricks figuring out I lost it?
Dex was confident that we could. Then again, Dex wasn’t the one who was going to get skinned if we didn’t find the stupid glove. Then again again, Dex always seemed confident, if for no other reason than because he didn’t give two pounds of goose crap how things turned out for him or anyone around him.
And if we did, then what? Would things just go back to normal? I’d still be Hendricks’ dog—literally—killing whoever got on his bad side and fetching him whatever he wanted. And I still didn’t see any way out of it. Maybe…
Maybe it would be better to just let him—
“There you are!”
Lost in thought, I jumped about a mile when someone grabbed me by the wrist.
“We’ve been looking for you everywhere, Nurse Rattichat,” he said, pulling me behind them.
I was too surprised to do anything but let myself be towed down the hallway, away from Dex. My new captor was a short, balding man, and what little hair he had stuck out at wild angles. He seemed to be human, from what I could tell. I could have overpowered him and gone back, but that would have blown my cover. A pit formed in my stomach. It looked like my only choice was to go with him.
I looked back, praying that Dex would come out and save me, but the door stayed firmly shut. Whatever was in there might have eaten him, for all I knew.
“Your patient has been waiting,” he paused to giggle, “very patiently for you, Miss Rattichat. Very unprofessional of you, very unprofessional indeeEEeed!”
Why was he calling me…I looked down at the lab coat Dex had given me, and choked back a groan when I saw Rattichat sewn into the collar in bright red yarn.
Dang crap it, Dex, I thought. If I die here, I’m going to kill you!
“...check the patient’s IV, clean his bedpan,” the man was mumbling. Something about him tickled the back of my mind. His voice was familiar. “Give him his sponge bath…”
A little too familiar.
Cautiously, I leaned forward to try and get a good look at his face. He turned to look at me, with his lazy eye and lopsided grin, and the pit in my stomach grew even heavier.
Dr. Lacken. I was being kidnapped by the head of the Silverblood project!
Panic threatened to make me black out. This couldn’t be a coincidence. No way in hell! Somehow he’d found me out. Had Dex turned me in? No, that didn’t make sense after everything he’d already done. Had someone recognized me? Facial feature…pattern…reading…magic stuff? Either way, it didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to let him turn me into his little pincushion. Balling my other fist, I prepared to—
“And here we are!”
He stopped in front a door that looked identical to the one Dex had gone into. Then, to my surprise, he patted me on the shoulder and walked off.
What in God’s green name? I thought.
What had just happened? Was it possible that, against literally all the odds in the universe, I hadn’t been recognized by the man heading the hunt for me? Did he really think I was one of Majestic’s nurses? I watched him go, waiting for him to spin around and yell “surprise!”, but he just kept walking until he rounded the corner and was gone.
I put a hand to my chest to calm my frantic heart. I had, apparently, just dodged a bullet. Still, I was lost in Majestic’s headquarters and separated from the only person who could get me out. What was I supposed to do now?
The answer was obvious: exactly what Dr. Lacken told me to. Do my best to fit in until Dex found me and got us both out of here. Apparently, I was supposed to be someone’s nurse. Why they would have nurses in the Department of Who Gives a Crap instead of the hospital wing, I had no idea, but…
I turned to face the room, and my heart nearly stopped when I saw the name on the sign.