It was a miserable day. The temperature had reached one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, there was no wind, and Anthony Morales had been trying to sell his Jeep to random assholes from Craigslist all afternoon.
“What the hell have you done to this thing?” asked potential buyer number three, who claimed his name was “Buddy,” and was as thick in the waist as a baby elephant.
They stood in the shade of a high-rise apartment building, which funneled heat directly toward them over rippling asphalt. Anthony hoped that parking his Jeep in an alley stained with oil, covered in trash, and overlooked by barred windows might make his car look a little less offensive in comparison. Instead, the Jeep looked like it belonged in one of the big green dumpsters.
Anthony rubbed a hand down his face and left behind a greasy smear. “There were pictures in the ad.”
“Is that what I asked? No. I asked what you did to it.”
“I told you. I’m a mechanic. This was my hobby vehicle.”
Buddy snorted. “Is your hobby beating it with a goddamn crowbar?”
Anthony tried not to feel wounded. The Jeep was his first car, and it had been through a lot with him in the ensuing years. Sure, the bumper was missing, the upholstery was ripped, and the body was thoroughly dented. That was what happened when you drove through a cemetery full of zombies. But the engine was great and the tires were new. He had put a lot of love into it.
“Do you want it or not?” he asked in a dull voice.
The buyer walked around the Jeep again, his considerable girth swaying with every step. “I’ll give you three hundred for it.”
“I’ll only take twelve hundred.”
“You kidding? Three hundred is a good deal for this piece of shit.”
Anthony’s patience was gone. “Okay. Fine. Sorry to waste your time.”
He climbed into the Jeep, but Buddy leaned on the hood to prevent him from moving to a shadier spot. “Five hundred.”
“Now you’re wasting my time.”
“Come on. You can’t seriously think it’s worth twelve,” Buddy said.
Anthony’s girlfriend came around the end of the alley at that moment, sparing him from having to think of a response that didn’t use words like “insulted” and “asshole.” Elise’s curls were pulled out of her face in a thick braid, and she wore faded shorts, a tank top, and sneakers, yet still managed to look like a Greek Fury as she stalked down the alley.
She was followed by a teenage boy and his mother—potential buyer number four.
Elise glanced at Anthony. “Is he buying it?” she asked, jerking a thumb at the fat man, who smoothed a hand over his sweaty pate as he took a long look at Elise’s legs.
“He’s trying to get it for five hundred.”
“Get out of here,” she told Buddy. “We’re done with you.” He opened his mouth, and she didn’t seem interested in discovering if it was to argue or make a counter offer. She turned the full force of her stare on him and said again, “Get out.”
Buddy waddled his elephantine mass toward the street with a flip of the bird.
Why didn’t Anthony have that kind of gravitas? Someone was always screwing with him, whether it was over the sale of his Jeep, the cost of labor at the shop, or the grades he got on his college papers. Nobody screwed with Elise.
Of course, she also wasn’t much of a salesman.
“This is it,” she said to potential buyer number four, who was watching the alley like she expected muggers to jump out at any second.
Anthony jumped down to join them. The mother had contacted him by email that morning to see if he thought the Jeep would be good as her teenage son’s first car. “Hi,” he said, wiping his palms dry on his jeans and holding out a hand. “Thanks for coming all the way downtown. I’m—”
“Twelve hundred,” Elise interrupted. “Firm.”
The mother looked doubtful. “I don’t know…”
“What happened to that thing?” the boy asked. He had braces and a Grateful Dead t-shirt.
Anthony’s heart sank. That question again. He prepared to give his response about it being a project car, but Elise spoke first. “We drove it through a cemetery of zombies. There used to be a cowcatcher on front, but it crumpled after hitting the first dozen bodies.”
The mother shot Elise a long-suffering look. “Does it run?” she asked, sounding exhausted.
“Perfectly. And insurance is cheap,” Anthony said.
“Great. I’m sold.”
She pulled out her wallet as her son pumped his fist in the air. He jumped in the driver’s seat and ran his fingers reverently over the wheel, like he had just gotten his first Porsche. Anthony resisted the wild impulse to push the boy away from his car. Twelve hundred dollars was more money than he and Elise had possessed for weeks.
“You can bring it to my shop if anything goes bad in the next month or two, but it shouldn’t be a problem,” he said, exchanging a business card for a small stack of twenties. “I just replaced the tires and transmission. Everything is in perfect condition.”
“I don’t really care,” said the mother. He spread the paperwork out on the hot metal of the hood, and they each signed it. “Anything to get him to leave the house for once. Maybe he’ll even get a few friends.”
“This sound system is totally sick!” her son enthused.
“We installed it for use in a mass exorcism,” Elise told him, leaning her elbows on the door. Anthony groaned. It was the truth, but nobody would ever believe her. The miniature zombie apocalypse in May had been treated like a natural disaster in the mainstream media. But Elise didn’t seem to care. She smiled a little as the kid swung the wheel around.
“What were you exorcising?” he asked.
“Demons. Really nasty ones.”
“That is so cool.”
“Don’t encourage him. He already plays too many video games,” the mother said. “And move over, Travis. I’m driving it home.”
She climbed in, and Elise stepped back beside Anthony.
A few seconds later, the tail lights disappeared around the corner. His heart twisted painfully.
It only lasted for a second. He had lost everything in the last few months: his Millennium Scholarship (because fighting demons did zero favors for his grades), his cousin Betty, and now his beloved Jeep. It was getting to the point where the pain was a constant stabbing in his chest. He couldn’t work up additional grief over his car for longer than a few seconds.
“Let me see that,” Elise said, holding out a hand. He gave her the cash. She counted it out. “Great. This is rent for two months, at least.” She pocketed a few bills and returned the rest.
“Hey,” Anthony complained.
“Do you want groceries or not?”
He didn’t really care. The Jeep didn’t belong to Elise, and she had no right to the money. But what was the point in arguing? They had gotten an apartment together downtown—a furnished one bedroom for five hundred a month, which smelled like tobacco even though neither of them smoked—and all their money was getting poured into bills and debt and Top Ramen anyway.
“What now?” he asked dully.
“Now I’m going to run errands.” Elise stretched up to kiss his chin. “I’ll be home late. Don’t wait for me.”
She left before he could try to kiss her properly.
Anthony thought about going back to their apartment, which was just around the corner, but he found himself staring at the spot his Jeep had stood only minutes earlier.
That twinge was back.
He sank to a crouch, covered his face with his hands, and didn’t move for a long time.
Eloquent Blood was dark, and the sign on the alley door said CLOSED, but Elise walked in anyway. Its usual patrons weren’t bothered by heat, so they didn’t bother air conditioning the bar, but being positioned in the cavernous basement kept it temperate. The sweat on Elise’s skin cooled and made her shiver.
“Neuma?” she called, pausing by the railing to peer at the bottom several levels down. The DJ booth was empty. Three walls of a cage stood where the dance floor should have been, but it would be hours until the fights started. A demon with three eyes mopped the stage. “Hey! Is Neuma in yet?”
It nodded without looking up.
The fluorescent blue lights behind the bar were turned off. The stripper pole hadn’t been cleaned yet, so it was covered in fingerprints, sweat, and flecks of brimstone. But there was no sign of the bartender.
Elise hopped over the bar, snagging a bottle of tequila on the way. She was more than just a frequent patron of Eloquent Blood—she used to be the accountant, before getting in a fight with the owner. She had since killed David Nicholas and any chance of being gainfully employed with them again, but she still made frequent visits to enjoy Neuma’s generosity with the liquor.
She headed down the back hall. “Neuma, it’s me. Where are you?” Something bumped against the wall. Elise jiggled the handle to the dressing room. Locked. “Hey. Open up. I can hear you in there.”
“Go away,” Neuma said from the other side.
Elise’s senses sharpened. “Are you okay?”
“Bullshit. Open the door or I’ll kick it in.” She had done it once before, and she had no qualms about breaking the handle again.
“No, don’t do that,” Neuma said. “Hang on.”
A pause, and the lock clicked. Elise pushed inside.
The dressing room was even more of a mess than usual. Costumes were spread across the floor like a rug of latex and silver chains. One of the vanity mirrors was shattered, leaving shards of glass sprinkled over the strippers’ outfits, and half of the bottles on the shelves had been broken. It reeked of sulfur and booze.
Neuma was slumped in a chair by the door. Her skin and white bathrobe glowed in the black light, but her ink-dark hair was a shadow puddled on her shoulders. She had a hand over the left side of her face.
“What happened in here?” Elise asked.
“Nothing. Just haven’t cleaned in a long time.” Neuma’s voice was about an octave too high.
Elise sniffed the air. As if the wreckage wasn’t evidence enough, every sense told her that a powerful demon had been on the premises—from the uncomfortable pressure at the back of her skull, to the sour bite of brimstone in her nose. It was too strong to belong to Neuma, who was only a half-succubus Gray. She was mostly harmless. Her greatest threat was being a little too sexy.
The sight of the destruction was enough to trigger Elise’s protective instinct. Setting the tequila on the counter, she picked up a costume, shook out the glass, and threw it in the closet. “Your parties are getting too wild,” she said, working quickly to unclutter the floor and sweep the glass into a corner.
Neuma smiled weakly.
When Elise finished, she turned on the overhead lights without waiting for permission. The bartender flinched. She pulled her hand away from her face for an instant, but it was enough for Elise to see a massive gash running down the side of her face. Thin, watery blood poured into the collar of her robe.
“I think I need a witch,” she whispered. Half-demons were fragile creatures. They couldn’t heal on their own—given a few hours, they could bleed to death from a paper cut. “Treeny, up in Craven’s—cocktail waitress for the sport’s bar—she can do a little hocus pocus.”
Elise pulled Neuma’s arm over her shoulder and supported her as they limped into the hallway. The facial injury wasn’t the worst of it. The robe gapped to show a missing chunk of flesh in her thigh.
They took the stairs to the manager’s office, slowly and carefully.
“Tell me who attacked you,” Elise said.
“Name’s Zohak. This thing, this demon—he took all our money, and I couldn’t do shit about it. He bit my leg and fuckinglaughed at me.”
“You couldn’t have fought?”
“I did,” Neuma said. “But half the bouncers left when David Nicholas died. There’s nobody left to help during the day anymore.”
They reached the office, and Elise helped her sit on the executive chair. The room was empty aside from a single filing cabinet and paperwork scattered on the desk. Neuma had been trying to keep up on bills and taxes, but she didn’t have the organizational skills.
“Wait here,” Elise said. “I’ll find Treeny.”
It wasn’t hard to locate the cocktail waitress. Most of the employees had worked for Craven’s when Elise and Death’s Hand destroyed half of the casino, and they were properly intimidated by her. She ordered the first demon she spotted to send Treeny to the office, and they scurried off to make it happen.
The waitress met them upstairs a few minutes later. She wore a tiny dress that barely covered her butt, hugged an empty drink tray to her chest, and trembled under Elise’s scrutiny.
“What’s up?” Treeny asked. To her credit, her voice didn’t shake nearly as much as her knees. A pentacle ring sparkled on her thumb. It danced with silver light in the corner of Elise’s vision, which meant it was enchanted.
“I’m told you can heal,” she said, wiping her hands off with a tissue. She had patched up the wound on Neuma’s thigh to slow the bleeding, but the bartender’s skin was ashen, and she could barely lift her head.
Treeny’s face lit up. “Oh. Yeah. A little, if I have time for a ritual. But I’ll need supplies.”
“You’ve got fifteen minutes to get them. Go fast.” The witch ran off, and Elise helped Neuma to the bathroom attached to the office, and the bartender washed the blood off her bruised face. “I don’t think you’re stripping tonight.”
“No kidding. That’s not sexy at all, huh?” Neuma tilted her head to study the damage in the mirror. “Forget it. I’ll have to call someone in, if I don’t die first.” She heaved a sigh. “Thanks for helping, doll. Is there a reason you came to see me? Are you covering my shift tonight?”
In the aftermath of the attack, Elise had completely forgotten that she visited Craven’s for a reason. “I got some cash, so I wanted to pay my bar tab. What am I up to this week—eighty bucks?”
“Nothing. It’s on the house.” Neuma tried to smile, and failed. Her skin had completely lost its usual glow. “It could be on the house forever if you would help me.”
Elise’s mouth twisted. Neuma had been trying to talk her into taking over Eloquent Blood and Craven’s casino—which continued to operate only by habit and the force of Neuma’s will since the overlord died—for the last several weeks. Every time she showed up for a drink, it was the same thing again. Help me, and, I need you.
It was getting on her nerves. Elise couldn’t help them—she couldn’t help anyone.
But the half-succubus’s eyes were wide and pathetic. It was getting harder to resist her pleas. “I just can’t handle this alone anymore,” Neuma whispered when Elise didn’t respond. “I thought it would be better if we could get rid of David Nicholas. I thought I could keep up on it myself. But I can’t, and everything’s falling apart. With the Night Hag gone…”
“How many times do I have to tell you no?”
“Please. You could protect us, at least. This isn’t the first time someone’s rolled in to screw with us. If we could stop getting attacked for a few weeks, maybe we could find someone good to take charge. Maybe—”
Elise slapped two fifty dollar bills on the desk. It only left twenty for groceries, but she had been living off dried beans and rice for weeks anyway. “That’s for my tab.”
“Don’t go! Zohak will be back—he said he would.”
“I have stuff to do. Try not to die. I’ll see you later.”
She left the office without looking back, and bumped into Treeny on the stairs. Elise didn’t need to see Neuma—that pathetic stare was stamped permanently on the inside of her skull.
It was hard being asked for help. It was even harder to deny it.
The walk to her new apartment was short—just two blocks from Craven’s. But even that distance was miserable in the afternoon sun. It was the kind of heat that melted the rubber on shoes and turned metal into a searing brand. Elise bumped the crosswalk button with her hip.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket as she crossed the street. She ducked under an awning’s shade to check the screen.
When she saw the number, her heart stopped. It took her two tries to speak. “Hello?”
“Hey, Kavanagh,” responded a masculine voice. “It’s McIntyre.”
Elise knew immediately that he was calling for help—and this time, she wouldn’t be able to say no.