Noir comme le diable, chaud comme l'enfer, pur comme un ange, doux comme l'amour.
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord
1. Regular Guy
2. Bad News
3. Hallowed and Blessed
4. Damaged Goods
5. Piece of Work
6. Type, Bad Luck
7. No Worries
8. Little Softling
10. Psychological Vents
11. Hail Lumina
12. Definitely Not That
13. Unfamiliar Territory
14. Nothing to Say
15. Dead Letters
16. Indignity of Survival
17. A Lumina's Displeasure
18. Many and Many
19. Mortal Concerns
20. Flat-Out Unavoidable
21. Protect and Conserve
22. Near-Death Experience
23. Heady Privilege
24. You Get Nervous
25. Shadow in Sliptime
26. First Things First
27. Luck and Grace
28. Strictly Human
29. A True Defender
30. Kindness Does
31. Sent From Elsewhere
32. A Normal Reaction
33. Something Right
34. Hundred Other Considerations
35. Wouldn't Mind Winning
36. Big Fat Nothing
37. Life In Him Yet
38. Capper On Everything
39. Weighing Options
40. Not Diminished By Giving
41. A Pleasant Ache
42. A Lot More Sensitive
43. Uncertain of Affection
44. Torqued and Tortured
45. Fragile Mortal Frame
46. During the Breaking
47. Rather Be Stabbed
48. Changed My Mind
49. Very Naughty Indeed
50. High Definition
51. Rejoin the Principle
52. Good News
53. Wonder of Wonders
About the Author
Also by Lilith Saintcrow
Copyright © 2019 Lilith Saintcrow
Cover art copyright © 2019 by Skyla Dawn Cameron
All rights reserved.
Print edition ISBN: 978-1-950447-10-7
Ebook edition ISBN: 978-1-950447-11-4
For all the bad luck girls.
It was a joy to kill. To dive among the rebellious, flame following each wingtip and whipflick, the burning sword and the shield of faith singing as they were struck and striking in turn. Best of all was the knowledge of victory—they had won, they would always win, and with each skirmish the conquest only became more total, more assured. Those they protected were safer with each wingèd unclean dying on his blade, with each scream of the agents of destruction smashed into dissolution—
Michael Gabon woke, his pale cotton bedlinen thrashed out of recognition, prickling skin sweat-slicked. The warehouse groaned around him, electricity popping and sparking from outlets, bulbs flickering with a dull glow even though switches were safely off. The room with the heavy bag and weight-racks creaked and shivered, the bag swinging slightly, pushed by a feral current. Sheets gripped his hips like tentacles, and it took longer than he liked to work his way free.
Just a regular guy, on a regular night, bracing his elbows on his knees and dropping his blond head into his hands. Nothing much to see, especially in the dark.
Another dream. The entire echoing structure went back to its usual night-time dimness, and gradually his ribs stopped heaving. The two curved, vertical scars on his back hurt, a deep dissatisfied ache; the marks moved all over his body. Lines of dark not-ink, somewhere between black and blue, shifted as the shaking of adrenaline overdose faded, leaving only the thin metallic taste of battle filling his mouth.
The dreams, though infrequent, were getting worse. More violent. At least this one was a victory, and not the agony of defeat. Maybe he had suffered enough.
No. There are none left. That’s why you’re here.
It was a terrible thing to think. He pushed his fingers through sweat-stiffened blond hair, calluses rasping. The marks moved, tickling, and he discovered, almost as an afterthought, he had a hard-on. That was unusual, but maybe it was just a sign of grace leaving him.
Draining away, since the use for it was impossibly out of reach.
He wasn’t going to be able to sleep, so he might as well get up. Practice a little, wash all his dishes, maybe even iron his jeans. Clean the bathroom grout with a toothbrush, like he had last week.
Had it been last week? He couldn’t remember, only that he’d gone over the entire thing, gleaming white tile and bright nickel fittings, far too recently to be contemplating doing it again.
Maybe it was time to find another job? Something to keep him occupied, if he didn’t want to do the fights anymore. The money there was good and he could be sure he was hitting someone who either liked or deserved it—but still, having to keep all his punches at fractional strength got boring, too.
Immortality was a tedious bitch when the reason for enduring it was gone. Or, if not gone, simply…absent.
The tall, solidly built man left the bed behind and set out, slowly, for the kitchen. His marks refused to quit moving and every scar, not just the ones on his back, ached with a deadly dull piercing.
It was irrelevant, like everything else.
At least by now Michael knew better than to hope. He padded into the kitchen, flicked the light on, and sighed.
When Jenna Delacroix rolled over, peering at her clock, the only indication it was going to be a bad day was the fact that her phone had fallen off the nightstand and somehow unplugged itself. When she managed to fumble the charger doohickey back in, the screen lit and after a few seconds of soaking up electricity, the palm-sized brick that kept track of her entire life began to ding over and over again. Her weekend, spent at home with tea and a stack of library books, was irretrievably gone.
At least she hadn’t had any nightmares. Small mercies, right?
“Oh, God,” she moaned, with feeling, then flinched. Froze, listening, her long dark hair webbed over her face. She’d slept rough, but deeply. If she’d accidentally kicked him in the middle of the night, there might be—
Then Jenna realized, as she did every morning now, that there was no need to worry. Eddie had never lived in this apartment, never slept in this bed, and definitely had never dirtied the bathroom here either.
And why? Because he was in prison, and she was safe. Her phone was blowing up for some reason, but she had to scramble if she was going to make it to work on time.
Jenna slid her legs out of bed and ran for the shower, hoping she could at least get some coffee on the way.
It was a sleet-gray, traffic-rattling day, and all the puddles were rimmed with ice. Tiny pellets at the heart of every raindrop made soft pockpock sounds lost under the bustling roar of passing vehicles, and she shivered at the bus stop for a good ten minutes before losing patience. The bus was late, the subway on time but packed, and the texts were mostly from Rachel, requests for Jenna to call as soon as possible. A ping from Bob, too, asking if she could come in early, but that ship had sailed.
Finally, when the uncaffeinated fog she was moving in lifted a little, she texted Rachel before plunging down the Ganter Street stairs. I just got up. Heading into work.
Rach must have been sitting on her damn phone, because Jenna’s lit up almost immediately when she surfaced at T Street Station, Rach’s message finally landing with an electronic thump.
Ohmygod are you okay
Just fine, she typed back. What the fuck was wrong now? If Rach had broken up with Sam again, Jenna was going to have to listen to her moan and sob for a week before they got back together. On again, off again, the whole carousel running in circles until the engine busted, that was the Rach and Sam Show.
At least it was familiar. Neither of them dated anyone else, probably because they were both Leos.
Jenna hitched her mother’s old, tawny leather purse higher on her shoulder, cut right to cross T Street, and begin working up. Three blocks was long enough to brace herself for whatever explosion Bob was having. They were down a cook since Greg had decided he didn’t like their boss’s bluff attitude. And if Sarah was having one of her episodes, that would mean a waitress down too. Went to bed, turned my phone off, she added.
The old familiar urge to over-explain. As if anyone cared, as if anyone who did care would accept such a faint excuse. Eddie certainly wouldn’t.
Don’t think about him, Jenna told herself sternly. A tinkling rendition of I Believe in Miracles was her reward, and she hit the “accept” button, plugging her other ear with a fingertip. “Jeez, Rach, calm down. What’s going on?”
“Oh, Jenna.” Long-limbed, black-haired Rachel sounded breathless even through the tiny speaker. “Sam was there, he saw it all. He saw him.”
“What?” Jenna lengthened her stride. The crowd wasn’t bad at this hour, everyone moving with their head down and shoulders up under a fine cold mist that promised yet more icy rain. The sleet was probably moving from the north. “Saw what?” Her heart began to hammer, and everything around her shrank through the roaring in her ears.
He’d seemed so sweet in the beginning. So contrite, too, when his temper occasionally snapped. It’s because I love you so much, he used to say, and wasn’t that a sign she was an idiot, lapping that bullshit up?
“Jenna, are you sitting down?” Now that she had her friend’s attention, Rach wanted to draw it out. “You should sit down.”
No thank you. If I stop moving I’ll drown. “Hang on.” Jenna glanced both ways and bolted across the street, her phone still clamped to the side of her face. If it skittered out of her hand and fell into the road, she might even be relieved. “How did he get out?” It wasn’t really a surprise, not at this point.
“Something about appeal.” If Rach was upset at Jenna guessing correctly, she kept it to herself. “Sam didn’t catch much, it was loud and he was talking to Greg.”
“Greg?” It was a good thing she had to keep going or be hit from behind by pedestrians. Jenna plugged her free ear again and lengthened her stride. “Which Greg?”
“The one with blue hair.” Rachel, uncharacteristically somber, coughed slightly. It sounded like she was outside too, someone’s horn was going off with an insistent, tinny bray. “Jenna, are you sure he doesn’t know where you live?”
“Pretty sure.” So it wasn’t Greg-the-cook they were talking about, but Greg-the-petty-drug-dealer. Good news, even if Jenna’s heart was pounding. “Unless someone told him. Rach, listen. Did he see Sam?” If Eddie had hassled Rachel’s boyfriend, she might be pissed at Jenna for dating a guy who got them all in trouble.
Friends were great until you inconvenienced them. If Jenna had learned nothing else from the last eight months, she’d at least got that through her thick skull.
“Not sure.” Now Rach sounded aggrieved at there being something she didn’t know. At least there wasn’t the telltale nasal burr of annoyance wending through her tone. “He got out of there, came straight home.”
Shit. “I’m sorry,” Jenna said, dully. Up ahead, a chrome-and-blue glow was the SunnyTime Diner, bobbing closer with every step. Maybe she should move again? She couldn’t afford it, she could barely afford to stay still. Why on earth had they let Eddie out? It was a pretty open-and-shut case, for God’s sake.
Now was a fine time to wish she’d watched more crime dramas.
“Why are you sorry?” Rach sounded honestly, instead of merely dramatically, baffled. “I’m just glad you’re okay. Sam told me about it, and we both thought, well…”
“You thought what?” Jenna’s neck began to ache. Well, she’d had a pleasant weekend, this was just the payment for it. If it was busy at work, she could ignore the incipient headache.
“We thought you should know as soon as possible.” Rach was probably hunching over her own phone, cupping her mouth to whisper. Maybe she’d even dyed her hair some new fantastical shade; three weeks was long enough for her to get bored with cerulean. It was a wonder she had any curls left instead of just chemically processed straw. “Because of what he…did. To you.”
“Yeah.” Jenna winced, wishing she’d covered it up better. The scrapes, the bruises, the flinching, the embarrassment—if she’d been better at hiding, maybe she could have avoided some of this bullshit. The cold rainy breeze ruffled her hair. “I’m just glad I’ve moved, and I wasn’t the one to put him away.” No, Eddie had managed that little trick on his own, getting drunk and pulling a gun he wasn’t supposed to have in a bar he wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near, and to top it off, he’d shot a cop.
It was parole violation and assault with a deadly, there were a dozen witnesses, why, in God’s name, would anyone let him out?
“I’ll bet. Look, if you need anything—”
There it was again, the goddamn cloying pity. “I’m okay, it’s just kind of a shock. I’ve gotta go into work now. Thanks.” It was rude to hang up but Jenna did it anyway, flicking her phone to silent and swallowing a hot, slick wad of something too metal-tasting to be relief.
Or was it? Everything was out of her hands. He’d gotten himself into trouble, and she couldn’t have bailed him out. It wasn’t like talking the cops out of arresting him when the neighbors called 911 about the noise, or refusing to press charges. There was absolutely nothing Jenna could have done. She’d changed her phone number, moved out of the old place, and Eddie was firmly in her rearview mirror.
How much of a coward was she for being actually grateful it wasn’t up to her? For once, a problem had been solved without her personal intervention; she should have known it wouldn’t last.
The bell over the SunnyTime’s door tinkled merrily; she glanced at the tables, gauging the damage. Not overwhelming, but not good, either. Three-quarters full, and it looked like Amy was the only one in. The kitchen hissed and clattered, but potbellied Bob was at the counter with the ancient, cranky cash register and his seamed, beaky face lit up when he saw her. “Jenna!” the squat, balding man bellowed across the diner. “Thank God!”
It was the most excited he’d ever been to see her, and she cautiously decided that was good. Jenna braced herself and threaded between tables, smiling apologetically at people waiting for their food. Who was in the kitchen, if Bob was at the register? Roberto? He was on vacation, Greg-the-cook was fired.
God, if Roberto’d been called in, everyone would be pissed at her for being late.
“So glad.” Bob waved both hands as soon as Jenna got in range. His white T-shirt, radiantly bleached, clung to a physique best described as doughy, but he always had a sharp-ironed crease in his chinos, and changed his snowy aprons twice a day. “So glad to see you! Sarah, she called in sick. We got a new cook.”
“That was fast.” Jenna peered at the kitchen, saw nothing but the heat-lamp glow keeping plates for pickup warm and a haze of warmth from the grill. “Bob…we have to talk.”
“What?” Her boss sobered, the smile dropping from his face so fast she all but flinched. “Oh. Let me guess. It’s him.”
What would it be like, to have a life where nobody could guess exactly what she was going to say? “One of my friends says he’s out of prison.” Her throat was dry. “I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know where I live anymore, but…”
“Listen.” Bob left the ancient cash register and edged around the counter. When he got close enough, he put a warm, broad hand on Jenna’s arm. The chapping from constant hand-washing with harsh
soap rasped against her coat sleeve. “It’s gonna be all right, Jen. Promise.”
Oh, yeah. Sure. How much trouble can he make here before you fire me to keep everyone else happy? “I don’t know. I don’t even know why they let him out, I just—”
“Hey.” His fingers tightened, and she looked up into Bob’s grizzled, familiar, florid face. Some people blushed every once in a while; Bob Stringman was perpetually flushed. “He shows up here, I’ll throw him in the fryer. Nobody messes with my girls.”
Well, wasn’t that a kind thing to say. The wonder would be if he actually meant it. Still, Jenna suppressed a flinch at the proximity of a male—any male—and dredged up a smile all at once. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. So hustle up, cause we got hungry people, all right?” Bob winked one watery brown eye. His cheek twitched slightly, a sure sign of stress. “And I’m serious. Right into the deep-fryer.”
“I might even help you,” Jenna said, and summoned another weary smile as she hurried for the break room to lay down her purse and clock in.
Hallowed and Blessed
The marks would not stop. A crescendo of prickling had driven Michael up and down the streets two days ago, and the only thing that made them abate was this tinfoil excuse for a diner set spitting distance from one of the city’s busier corners, its neon sign blinking into life just as he rounded the corner at Ninth Avenue and R Street. He’d never seen the place before despite the bright, faux-chrome coating, but the prickling from the marks intensified to just short of pain when he attempted to turn away.