Home for the Holidays

Page 7

Case in point: my current mood. Either depression was catching, or it was getting harder to stop brooding about the last conversation I'd had with Bones. I'd covered up the real reason behind my absence with an excuse about my old job needing my assistance. Normally, when you quit a job, your former employer couldn't call you back, but my occupation had been hunting the undead for a covert brand of Homeland Security. It was feasible that I could've been reactivated for a mission. Plus, let's face it: I had a track record, so my abrupt departure wouldn't be that unheard of. Wraith might be suspicious, but he could only guess that I was really after him instead of helping my old team catch some rogue undeads.

But oh, Bones's voice when I called to say I wasn't coming back for a while. I didn't know if his coldness had been influenced by the spell or by a very real sense of betrayal. I'd sworn never to take off again like this, but how could I explain that I had to break that promise because he wasn't really Bones at the moment? I couldn't, so, feeling heartsick, I'd hung up as quickly as possible.

When the door opened, momentarily letting a blaze of sunshine into the darkened establishment, I almost didn't bother looking up. Seeing another face mirroring my own emotional mix of determination and despondency would only hammer home how much I wished circumstances were different. But I did look, and though there was nothing unusual about the young man's appearance, a wave of acrid air blew in with him.

Air that stank like sulfur.

My spirits lifted in a blink. Who'd have thought running into a demon would make someone's day, but I almost clapped in delight. I didn't wait for Ian, but bolted toward the newcomer, smiling broadly.

Maybe it was my smile that kept him from sensing danger. Maybe he hadn't yet noticed that I didn't have a heartbeat, or he felt secure because, compared to demons, vampires were easy to kill. Either way, he didn't fight when I grabbed him and hustled him back outside.

"We need to talk," I told him.

The demon laughed, staring me up and down. "I normally don't like room-temperature meat, but for you, I'll - "

His dubiously flattering statement was cut short when Ian appeared, wrenching the demon's arms behind his back.

"As the lady told you," Ian said pleasantly, "we need to have a word with you."

The demon's light brown eyes began to fill with red. "You don't know who you're f**king with, vampires."

I reached into my jacket and pulled out a long, thin knife, holding it near the demon's eye.

"As a matter of fact, we know exactly who we're f**king with."

Chapter Eleven

We flew him onto the roof of a taller building for more privacy. There, Ian and I forced the demon to sit and then tied him to a metal air-conditioning vent. Being in direct sunlight would weaken the demon. Plus, the ropes were entwined with rock salt, so if our new friend had the ability to dematerialize, this would mute it. It would also discourage struggling. The ropes were over his clothes now, but squirming would bring them in direct contact with the demon's exposed neck, and he wouldn't like the results.

"We have questions," Ian said once we'd finished. "Answer them without lying, and you'll walk away safe and sound."

The demon glanced at the knife again and whistled. "Bone of the brethren. Aren't you the naughty pair for having that? Still, the knife is only good for killing and I can't answer questions if I'm dead. You'd get me to talk faster by offering me cash."

He wanted us to bribe him? "I saw a church a few blocks up. Maybe I'll grab some holy water and then we'll chat," I snapped.

The demon laughed. "That stuff does nothing to my kind. You watch too many movies."

Not the first time I'd been accused of that, but it would be really helpful if the movies got things right for once. Of course, that didn't mean I was out of scare-tactic options.

I pulled out two salt shakers I'd packed into my jacket where my silver knives used to go. Different creatures required different weapons, after all.

"Now how about we get serious? Vampire by the name of Wraith made a deal with one of your kind. I want to know who."

The demon scoffed. "How should I know? It wasn't me, that's all I can say."

I threw a handful of salt onto his face. It bubbled his skin up like it was acid, but I knelt and clapped my hand over his mouth to silence his scream. "Don't toy with me, I am so not in the mood," I hissed in his ear.

Muffled grunts sounded against my hand. Cautiously, I lifted it, but he didn't scream again. He spit out some salt before glaring at me.

"We're demons, not Amway. It's not like I can pick up a phone and find out who's got a deal out on your vamp."

"You're supposed to have the power to grant just about any request, yet you expect me to believe you can't find a name?"

I wagged the salt shakers threateningly as I spoke. The demon sighed. "Keep seasoning me all you want, but I still can't tell you who has the deal on that vamp. It's not like we update a worldwide Excel sheet every time we contract a soul."

"But you're demons!" I burst out. "Scary, powerful, soul-snatching scourges of the underworld! How can you not do something as simple as keep in touch about who you brand?"

A shrug. "We're independent contractors. Don't like it? Complain to management. Maybe dialing 666 will get you someone."

I wanted to fling the rest of the salt on him out of sheer frustration, but his words held the ring of truth. I guess it had been too much to hope that snagging one demon would mean we'd find out who'd branded Wraith. Over a week later, and we still had nothing to show for our efforts. Despair coursed through me until I felt like I was choking on it. The demon's head lolled back and he inhaled.

"Mmm, smells delicious. If you're determined to find the demon's name, there's a way to bypass all that pesky hunting."

I wrestled back my gloom enough to let out a bark of laughter. "Let me guess: it involves dealing away my soul?"

He lifted his head. "Again, I don't make the rules. I just play by them, and the rules say I can't tap into wish-granting without the right form of deposit."

Yeah, I felt desperate and tired and scared shitless about what might be happening to Bones, but that wasn't the answer. I'd find another way.

"No deal," I said coldly. "And since you're not able to tell us anything useful . . ."

I put down the salt to grab the bone knife again, but Ian shook his head. "We agreed to let him go if he told us the truth, and I believe he did."

"If we let him go, he's going to keep damning people," I pointed out, in case he'd somehow forgotten that.

Ian waved his hand. "Both of us act according to our natures. I drink blood. He collects souls. Just because we have different methodologies doesn't mean I'm going to dishonor our agreement."

Only Ian could so casually describe what a demon did as a methodology. The demon wagged his finger at me. "You were going to kill me despite your promise. Liar, liar, pants on fire! Heh, takes me back to my days in the pit. Everyone's pants were on fire there."

He laughed at his own joke. Unbelievably, Ian joined in. I stared at the two, wishing I could stab at least one of them and not being sure who I wanted it to be at the moment.

"Since there's nothing more to talk about, I'm leaving," I said with as much dignity as I could muster. They could keep chortling away if they wanted, but I had better things to do. Like figure out how we were going to find one demon amidst thousands.

Ian cut the bonds from the demon and he stood, cracking his back as though relieving a kink. Then, to my amazement, Ian pulled out a large wad of cash from his coat and peeled off several bills.

"This is for your silence about what we discussed," he said, holding out the money. The demon pocketed it in a blink.

Not only were we letting the demon go free, we were paying him for telling us absolutely nothing. I gave a last disgusted shake of my head and turned around, heading for the exit.

I was about to yank open the door to the roof when the demon said, "You know, there is one other way you might be able to narrow down your search."

I froze before slowly turning around. Ian's brow arched, but the demon said nothing else. Instead, he stared at the lump of folded bills Ian was about to put back in his coat.

Ian snorted and peeled off another few. "This is all you get on good faith. Impress me, and you'll get more."

The demon pocketed the money before glancing around, as if fearing other demons would ascend from the floor of the roof. Then he lowered his voice.

"I'm not supposed to consort with vampires, but I like your style - and your money - so bring me one of the spelled vamps, and I'll tell you the power required to conjure that sort of enchantment. You'll know then if the demon who branded your boy is medium-level, a higher up, or one of the original Fallen."

Ian pulled off a thick stack of bills. The demon's eyes bugged, but before he could snatch it, Ian held it out of reach.

"If you're truly able to determine the power level of Wraith's brander, and help us find him or her, I'll give you triple this. My word on it."

The demon pulled out a piece of paper and pen, then scribbled on it. I came close enough to see that it was a series of symbols followed by the word "Balchezek."

"My true name," he said, holding it out to Ian. "Draw this in unsoiled blood, say my name three times, and I'll appear."

"Don't you just have a cell phone number you can give us?" Demons and their love of bloody rituals.

He slid a jaded glance my way. "I'm guessing when you call, you'll be pressed for time, so I'm giving you the no-waiting-required method. Besides, you never need to worry about coverage bars or dropped calls with this."

Good point, but I had one more question. "By unsoiled blood, do you mean freshly shed instead of bagged plasma?"

Balchezek exchanged a glance with Ian, who rolled his eyes. "Times like this I feel old," Ian muttered, to a grunt of agreement from the demon. "He means virgin's blood."

I bristled. "Are you trying to say that if a chick gives it up, she's considered soiled? What kind of sexist bullshit is - "

"It can be male blood, too," Balchezek said, winking at me. "Whatever turns you on."

Chapter Twelve

Ian and I had just made it back to our hotel room when Fabian appeared without so much as a chill in the air to warn of his presence.

"Where have you been? I've been waiting for hours!"

"Sorry I'm late for curfew, Mom," I mocked, then stilled at his expression. "What happened?"

The ghost looked so stricken I thought my knees might buckle. Was it Bones? Oh God, if something happened to him. . .

"Cat, you have been disowned," Fabian said.

I waited a beat, but he didn't follow that up with anything else. Amidst my overwhelming relief that no one was dead, I was confused. Especially when Ian muttered, "Bugger," the same way someone else would say "fuck."

"Um, I haven't talked to my mother in two weeks, but we left things on good terms, and though my uncle and I aren't speaking at the moment, I don't think - "

"He means Crispin cut you off from his line," Ian interrupted, shooting me a look filled with grimness and pity.

That jelly-kneed feeling returned with a vengeance. I sat down, trying to absorb the information without doing anything ridiculous, like crying.

It wasn't fear that made my emotions reel with this news, though Bones cutting me off from his line was considered a worse punishment than execution, in the vampire world. It left me on the lowest level of undead society, fair game for anyone who wanted to mete out cruelty without chance of repercussions. No, that's not what upset me the most. It was the knowledge that this was the closest Bones could come to divorcing me. Under vampire law, we would be married until one of us was all the way dead, but this was his public statement that I meant less than nothing to him. Hell, Mencheres hadn't even cut off his former wife, Patra, before she died, and she'd been trying to kill him.

"You know this isn't Crispin," Ian said. He sat next to me and patted my leg in a kindly fashion. "Wraith should hope we find the demon who branded him. He'd die easier under that bloke's hand than under Crispin's when he's back to himself and hears of this."

"I know." My voice was thick, because I did know that, but the knowledge that Wraith's spell could force Bones to do this meant it truly had taken over every part of him. What if we couldn't reverse the spell to get him back? That question was more terrifying than any danger this proclamation put me in.

Fabian fluttered over, doing his own version of a sympathetic pat by brushing his hands through my shoulders.

"I'm afraid there's more. After he declared you to be cut off, he designated Wraith to assume Mastership of his line should anything befall him."

I bolted up so fast that my upper body was briefly sheathed inside the ghost. "Sonofabitch! We've been wondering why Wraith would go through all this trouble to bewitch everyone, but the f**ker must be doing it for power! If Bones dies, then Wraith slides into his place, ruling not only Bones's line, but co-ruling one of the largest and strongest lines in the vampire nation with Mencheres."

Oh, the slippery bastard! Wraith could never get in a position of such power through force. Bones would crush him in a fight, not to mention if he didn't, Mencheres would. But put the demonic whammy on both men's minds, plus on the closest members of their inner circle, and Wraith would be sitting pretty just as soon as Bones had a lethal accident.

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