Jozzie & Sugar BelleLilith Saintcrow
Jozzie & Sugar Belle
Copyright © 2018 by Lilith Saintcrow
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Print ISBN: 9781983190629
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All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
For Skyla Dawn Cameron, Dina James, Mel Hay, and Danielle Kendall.
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Because they got me into this.
About the Author
Jozzi Shale flew into LAX dry-eyed and itching, looking for a witch.
Even his smaller human form, blondish and broad-shouldered, didn’t fit comfortably in the bucket masquerading as an airline seat. Really, airplanes were designed for one thing only—shoving in as many meatsacks as possible, and charging an incredible amount of cash to do so. The flight was long, the landing bumpy, and the smell of so many meatsacks confined in a metal tube was about to drive him crazy.
And then he had to get through Customs.
“Anything to declare?” A wan, blinking agent in a trim blue jacket recited the ritual question, and Jozzie suppressed the urge to smile apologetically. For one mad moment, he thought of saying, yes, I do, me nuts are gone walkabout, but he decided at the last moment that even a trans-Pacific flight wouldn’t keep him from being flung in an American jail if he started shit less than a half-hour into the country.
Second thoughts used to be rare and wonderful things for Joz, but lately, he’d been inundated. “Uh.” He cleared his throat, scratching at the side of his neck. He generally wore a little stubble in his human form, but a flight longer than twelve hours made it tickle like blazes. “I, uh, got me patches. D’ya need to see them, then?”
“Patches?” The customs agent, his hair combed in thin strands over a dome high and white as a pile of architect’s barf masquerading as an opera house, blinked again. Looked like he had the dry eyes too, but he probably wasn’t feeling like his skin was going to come off in pinpricks.
The meatsack in the blue jacket also probably didn’t have a wad of leather giving his jeans a bit of shape, or a tail that refused to drop when he shifted because it was missing a very important counterweight.
“Oy-yeh, me testy patches.” Jozzie unzipped his carryon while the agent leaned back on the other side of the waist-high counter. Maybe the fellow was used to Aussies, because he simply took the flat white package with his fingertips and regarded it critically.
“Prescription…testosterone…oh.” The Customs agent shoved the box back across the counter, snatching his hand back as if he suspected some of the nut-juice would leak out and stain him. “I see. No, nothing…oh. Yes. Welcome to America, Mr Shale.”
At least he didn’t mispronounce it. “Too right, thanks.” Jozzi stuffed the testy patches back in his satchel and tipped the bastard a salute. You could never be sure what Americans would take offense at, though, so he turned the motion into a wave and strode down the fluorescent-lit corridor, through a sliding glass door and frigid air-conditioning onto puce nylon carpet.
And, wouldn’t you know it, he plunged straight into a crowd of meatsacks waiting for the arrival of Flight 1457 from Sydney. One or two held signs with last names printed in large letters, and there were even a few kids rousted from sleep to witness the arrival of a family member.
A little blonde sheila in blue footie pyjamas, full of the flushed recalcitrance of a bored child, was making a high-pitched drone while she spun in a circle. She didn’t halt as Jozzie edged past, the crowd refusing to part even in front of a almost-two-meters-tall bloodshot fellow with outback dust still on his boots. It was an amazing cluster of meatsacks for the hour, and he’d been awake and moving for a good thirty-six hours even before the flight.
It was hard to slow down when you woke up covered with blood, a ziptie stuck on a private part of your person, and you’d ripped the throats out of at least three poachers. It was even harder to slow down after you’d spent umpteen bloody hours on a bloody plane with meatsacks, peeling off and sticking on patches that Petey had sworn would work to keep his muscle mass if the search took longer than a few—
“AIRPLANE!” the little sheila yelled.
Her overdressed mother—why was she in a bouffant, heels, and spray tan at the airport, Jozzie wondered—reached down with a manicured, bracelet-clinking hand, grimacing slightly. “Shh, Britney.”
Little Britney evaded the grab with amazing agility and bolted—or tried to. Maybe the tyke was too young to know spinning made you as dizzy as drinking all night with Gary and the lads, getting a bad kebab, drinking more to wash the taste away, and shift-running back to your rose-colored ’75 Holden HJ Ute before passing out sprawled under the Southern Cross for poachers to come along and think you a diseased roo down for the count and consequently clip off the souvenir bit of you first.
Yeh. The little girl was definitely too young to know about that.
“Britney,” he spray-tanned mum shrieked. The little girl staggered to a halt, looking up—and up, she barely reached Jozzie’s knees.
“AIRPLANE!” she shouted again, in that high piping voice that drilled right through the noise of greetings, false happiness, hugs, back-smackings, canned air, and reminders not to be a dolt and leave your luggage unattended.
Then dear little underslept Britney, her stomach rebelling against both the hour and the spinning, projectile-vomited on Jozzie.
Who decided then and there that his first act on American soil would not be getting arrested or eating a human child, but instead the time-honored response of a man who has reached a new port and feels an unmerciful squeezing in his pants.
He headed straight for the airport bar.
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You can be really, really good at something and hate doing it at the same time. For example, I was the best pole dancer in three states—I took championships three years running, both official and unofficial, if you know what I mean—but I fucking hate competing.
I’m also the best witch the Virginia Belles ever produced, and I hate that too. Well, at least, I did growing up, but once I left my home state things got much, much better. I made it all the way across the continent and as soon as the curse was done, I was thinking of traveling further.
But then he happened.
The Santa Anas were blowing, and my fingers had been prickle-telling me all night something interesting was gonna come along, but wouldn’t you know it wasn’t until I was closing up the Rock after a goddamn dead night that it did.
I told Frank he was crazy to name his tattoo parlor after Alcatraz but he swore everyone would think of the pro wrestler instead, and I told him that was even worse. It was no use, of course. He had his mind made up, and when Franklin
Franke the Big Old Leather Biker Mountain sets the meat inside his bullet skull into a particular pattern, well, there’s no moving the motherfucker. Plus, I was his apprentice, mostly because he didn’t put a hand under my skirt before or after he hired me at the shop and only incidentally because he never called me fat.
Anyway, nobody else was coming in that Thursday night to get inked and even the goldfish in the tank along one screaming-orange wall full of client photos looked bored. Chewbie left early after finishing a killer sleeve too good for the wasted-ass white-power kid who paid him for it, and I watched him get to his car until I was sure the kid and his posse of stinking skinheads—literally stinking, they don’t seem to know what fucking deodorant or showering were—were long gone and Chewbie wasn’t likely to get mugged.
You’d think a six-foot guy with dreads would have more sense than to give skinheads tribal tattoos, but he just shrugged and said their money spent like everyone else’s.
Where was I? Oh yeah.
I was pulling the rattling metal shield over the front of the shop, swearing enough to cut the wind into dust-devils dancing down Preakness Street, when a Yellow Cab screeched to a halt and a long, lean, broad-shouldered bit of drunk splashed out. He gabbled something at the driver, who replied with a fuck you and barely waited until the door slammed before peeling away.
The scruffy, blondish man had a canvas coat, a messenger bag, dusty boots, and looked like the extra from a B-class Western. You get that type a lot in Hollywood, each one thinking they’re the next movie star. There’s something about the way they hold themselves and look all dust-dotted, and something about the muscle on them—they go for leanness over bulk, but they also wax their chests, and no real cowboy would ever go that far.
I should know, I dated a few on my way across the US.
This guy also smelled like a distillery and walked like he’d spent the day on a horse with shark teeth for a spine. And he glanced around, finished brushing himself off with the exquisite care of the completely slopped, and headed straight for the shop.
I would have hurried to yank the shield the rest of the way and lock it, or jabbed a couple fingers his direction and hissed a curse that would tangle his feet together, but my instincts tingled and the wind tugged at my hair and the bottom edge of my plaid skirt. It blew sandy grit right in my eyes, for fucksake, and I didn’t spend two good nights’ worth of tips on Lasik to have the fucking wind destroy my peepers. My grandmother would have beat my ass for not just mixing myself up a spell to fix astigmatism; there’s a reason I left home.
Anyway, I figured this was what I’d been waiting for all night and watched curiously as the big guy wandered across the sidewalk, almost running into two parking meters, a chained bench with tiny piss-watered succulents in boxes on either side in front of the Preakness Bistro, and dragging his shoulder along the window of the consignment place where prop specialists for one of the studios both shopped and unloaded some pretty awesome pieces to supplement their paychecks. He came to a halt and blinked at me, his mouth a little open, and rubbed at his eyes with both fists like a cartoon character.
“Well hello there, sailor,” I said, sticking out a hip for emphasis.
He gabbled something at me too fast and slurred for the words to make any sense, but I got the gist.
“I’m sorry, honey. I don’t speak British.” Always was a sucker for a man with an accent, though.
He goggled at me again, dropping his hands and frowning. “Ent no Pommie barstid, sheila. Barstid thought I’d spew in his cab, filthy wallaby.”
I nodded, as if I wasn’t mystified. “Yeah, I still don’t speak British, handsome. You looking for something?”
“I. Em. Nowt. British.” He enunciated each word clearly. Nice mouth, too, chiseled lips. He was a cutie. “Em Australian.”
“I don’t speak horse trailer either.” I pulled on the metal shield, rattling it for emphasis.
He made a short, frustrated sound. Then he pulled out a wad of funny-colored cash, waved it in my general direction, and said the magic words.
“Kin you help me, sheila?”
Well, fuck it all, there went my night. I didn’t know who Sheila was, but her problem had officially become mine now. Those four fucking little words caused all sorts of trouble, and the worst part was, it was entirely my own damn fault each time.
“I’d call you a cab,” I said, “but it looks like that didn’t work out. Come on in.”
It wasn’t the first time a drunk man had insisted on a tattoo, but it was the first time I shrugged and actually went along with it.
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Getting drunk had started the whole damn thing, and maybe Jozzie had some dim idea that doing it again would put the world back on its proper track.
Alas, that was not what occurred.
It went all right when he showed the cab driver the slip of paper with the address Petey had laboriously written—laborious not because Petey had bad handwriting, but because Jozz had threatened to break the rest of his remaining fingers if he didn’t produce the name of the witch the goddamn greasy-ass echidna swore could help him once he landed in LA. Or, to be more specific, there wasn’t so much of a problem as the cab’s lurching, rollicking speed—and the fact that it was driving on the wrong bloody side of the road.
He did not spew in the back of the bloody thing, but the evil-smelling meatsack of a driver obviously thought it was only a matter of time, which was…probably right. In any case, he pulled over, Jozzie exited the conveyance believing he was at his destination, and staggered down the sidewalk in the general direction of a lighted storefront.
Things got rather hazy, and he remembered only two things about the ensuing few hours. First, he kept loudly insisting he wasn’t from the UK.
Second, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen kept telling him to hold still while something prodded and poked awfully at his lower back, and he kept craning his neck to get a glimpse of her. Creamy skin, dead-black hair cut in a fringe across her forehead, and curves that went on for miles stuffed inside a sort of American schoolgirl outfit, which was faintly troubling because he liked women instead of girls. She had blue eyes, a Yank accent, a cute little button nose, and his nostrils kept twitching because she smelled like strawberry TimTams and the exotic spice of witchery.
Petey hadn’t mentioned the witch was a looker, but maybe Jozz was up for some luck.
Or so he thought until he woke up pantsless, head-throbbing, and facedown on a ratty, skunk-smelling couch, his lower back aching like the dickens and the wonderful smell of frying rashers threatening to turn his stomach inside out as the hangover went through his metabolism on quicktime.
You had to have a huge bellyful of piss to get a roo off his rails, but once you did, the hangover compressed itself into a box about two hours long and fucking-awful high, just waiting for consciousness to strike before it got rolling.
Jozzie groaned into a beaded pillow that was trying to chew at the right side of his face off. His trousers were wrinkled as if he’d rinsed them but not wet with urine, thank goodness, and the pressure in his bladder made every other consideration secondary.
At least the fuckin’ poachers hadn’t taken his twig as well as his berries. If they’d been sent in opposite directions, which one would he go after first? It was an unanswerable question, like why a bad snog was worse than none at all or why franks came in eight-packs and buns in ten.
Buying eighty just to make it turn out even could drive a man mad.
This small, cluttered living room was dim, though fierce sunlight scorched the blonds on patio door and threatened to scour the inside of his skull. His mouth tasted like a carcass in a bush cave, and he barked both shins on a low glass coffee table scattered with brightly colored magazines. The carpet only missed being paisley because bald spots were rubbed in it, and on the other side of a breakfast bar was a kitchen full of venomous yellow light and a moving shadow. Someone
was humming, a low sweet voice, but Joz spotted a hallway probably leading to a loo and took off at a sloshing hobble.
The humming stopped. Beaded strings hung in all the doorways, click-clacking as he blundered through them. Rock posters covered the walls, several with drawn-on additions in Sharpie, and underneath the rashers it smelled of strawberries, nag champa incense, and a faint thin glorious thread of coffee.
It might’ve been nice if his stomach hadn’t been vying with his goddamn kidneys to expel all sorts of liquids in every direction, with his head joining the fun by sending stabbing pains down his entire spine. Where the fuck was he? Was this the witch’s house? He’d have to have his manners on; they had notoriously short tempers, especially the high-powered ones.
Joz had to duck through the doorway, staggering into a pink-walled loo with a pink bathtub and a deeply pink sink, the lino and countertop holding little gold flecks and the harsh light spearing his skull. Still, he tried to take some care with his aim—Mum had always been on him and Gary to bloody well use their brains when they were pointing their snag since she didn’t want a pouch to swell up before she was damn well good and ready to be called Nan.
Mum was probably worried. Dad, well, he probably wouldn’t miss his least-favorite son and heir for a while. Gary was probably overjoyed.