This story contains graphic violence, adult language/situations, and the graphic depiction of a romantic relationship between two mature, adult women. Reader discretion is advised. No reproduction or duplication, electronic or otherwise, is permitted without the express, written permission of the author.
They had come from all over Eire, converging at this one sacred spot - a clearing within the deepest forest, dominated by the Grandsire Oak - a tree of unimaginable age whose trunk was so thick that ten men could not span it hand-to-hand.
In the center of the glade crouched the Holystone, a large, irregularly shaped flat rock with a small depression about three-quarters of the way along its rough table surface. This depression was black, in stark contrast with the whiteness of the stone surrounding it; here for generations, Druids had made a blood sacrifice to Kernossus and the other Tuatha De Danaan. So much blood had the rock absorbed through time that the shallow bowl was always wet and slick.
Torches had been lit and thrust into the ground; a bonfire of the three sacred woods - rowan, oak and ash - cast brilliant sparks into the still night air. As the more than three hundred men and women gathered in the glade that night stood and waited, a figure stepped out from beneath the trees.
He was Cathbadh, Chief Druid of Eire, known as the mac Seinghesa, or 'son of wisdom.'
''Let the sacrifice come forward,'' he said in a deep, sonorous voice. Cathbadh was ancient, with a thin silver beard that fell in rippling waves beyond his waist, and white hair that curled down his back. He wore a simple deerskin loincloth wrapped around his scrawny hips, and every inch of his loose and wrinkly skin was decorated in abstract swirls of faded woad tattoos.
A pair of deer antlers reared up from his brow, held in place by a band tied around his forehead. His pale blue eyes, peering out from a nest of wrinkles, searched the crowd.
A young woman stepped away from the waiting Druids. Brilliant orange hair, bound into dozens of skinny braids, was held off her face by a twist of cloth; like the others, she was clad only in a homespun robe. ''I am here,'' Eiobhan Reille said simply. ''I am willing.''
At Cathbadh's nod, a pair of Druids stripped Eiobhan of her robe and the young woman stood proudly, naked skin burnished with a golden glow from the fires. She had many tattoos, as did most of the Celts; but on her back she bore the artwork of Fiachu Mar the Blind, chief woad artist in Eire; a man of sheer supernatural talent who had been born sightless in this world, but with vision firmly fixed in the Other.
A Druid himself, Fiachu was a banfaith or seer; it was said that with one look of his blind eyes, he could discern the shape of a man's soul and etch it upon his flesh. The snow-and-moon landscape on Eiobhan's back seemed to twist back on itself, changing into a wolf with wise eyes staring out at the world; the tattoo had been done in a ritual lasting a full thirty days and nights. Upon completing it, Fiachu had laid aside his inkbowl and bone needles, drawn a final, weary breath... and died, having poured the remainder of his life and talent into his greatest work.
Eiobhan shook back her braids and stepped up beside Cathbadh. She was young, just barely in her twenties, but already her skin bore the scars of battle. She was thickly muscled and powerfully built, though shorter than the average woman. Her smoke gray eyes were clear and bright as she waited for the ancient Druid to begin the ritual.
Cathbadh chaunted a blessing, answered by the flashing gleam of several hundred sickle knives raised in answer, held high to the moon. Without being told, Eiobhan got up on the Holystone and lay on her back, her head in the depression. The coppery reek of old blood made her nose twitch; but other than that, she remained calm and quiet. The night air's chill made her flesh rise up in gooseknots.
''I invoke the land of Eire,'' Cathbadh said, his words rolling over the crowd like water rushing over riverstones, growing louder and more powerful until by the end, his voice shook the very trees:
''Deepest in the hill-top well;
The Druids began forming a line, holding their curve bladed sickle knives, each one crowned with mistletoe. Off to one side, two anruth stood in the memory trance, tuigen mantles of bird's feathers drawn about the poets' shoulders as they recorded, with trained memory, the events that were taking place.
Cathbadh, sweat pouring off his lean frame, threw out his arms as if to embrace the world and began chanting the Ranns of Unframing and Grasping the Tide, simultaneously reaching with his trained will to harness the mighty forces of magic that were being concentrated in the glade.
Even the least sensitive of them could sense it; the old man's struggle with titanic forces that slowly and surely bent to his hand. To the Othersight, Cathbadh began to glow a brilliant blue-white, brighter and brighter, until he seemed like a captured star, fallen from the firmament to lie in blazing splendor upon the earth.
Through it all, Eiobhan remained still, eyes closed, preparing herself for what she knew was to come. One by one, the other Druids there would make a blood sacrifice while Cathbadh used magic to open the way for the impossible. Each man and woman there would, in the act of giving blood, be ''donating'' a certain number of the remaining years of their lives. These would be added to Eiobhan's own span of time, giving her in essence a virtual immortality.
It was a mighty sacrifice, as no man knew how many years the gods had granted him; and many would die that night, particularly the older ones who, having passed their wisdom down to many, had chosen to give up their lives entirely to this most sacred cause. For it was the intention of every Druid there to create a haven for the Celtic gods, who would be driven out of Ireland by the coming of the Christus - the Sacrificed One. And Eiobhan was to be that vessel.
When Cathbadh, blazing like a comet, laid a hand
on Eiobhan's brow, and when the first Druid sliced across his wrist, his
warm blood splattering on the young woman's face... she arched her back
Evan woke up, eyes popping open to stare wildly into the dark, her heart hammering in her chest.
The light clicked on and she blinked rapidly, struggling to pull her mind away from those images of another time and place, away from the agony and ecstasy and soul-wrenching madness of that night so long ago.
Beside her, a voice murmured sleepily, ''Hey, baby... you okay?'' When Evan didn't answer, Jo sat up, sheets sliding away from her torso. ''Ev... you okay? What's the matter?''
Evan rolled over, pulling the sheets with her, and mumbled, ''He died...''
''Who? Who died? Jeez, Ev, you having that damned dream again?'' Jo scrubbed a hand through her short platinum blonde hair and waited, looking down at Evan's back, blue eyes filled with concern.
Silence stretched... then Evan replied, ''Aye.'' Although her tone was normal, her shoulders were wire taut with tension..
With a sigh, Jo lay back down, fitting herself against the other woman's body, sliding an arm under Evan's neck and putting her other arm over Evan's waist. ''Shit. You wanna talk about it?''
''No.'' Evan ignored the soft breasts she could feel pressed against her, the strength of Jo's arms and the whispered breath that tickled the side of her throat. ''I'll live, colleen. T'was but a dream.''
Jo kissed Evan's ear. ''You been having that nightmare for... what? Two months now? Regular as friggin' clockwork. Baby... maybe you oughta talk to somebody about it. You know... a professional or something.''
Evan gave a short bark of laughter that had no merriment in it at all. ''Aye, I suppose I could just go to a therapist and say, 'Excuse me, but I'm havin' dreams of when I lived two thousand years ago...' No, Jo. I can't. I just need... I need some time to think things through.''
''Mmph.'' Jo buried her face in Evan's thick, flamboyantly orange hair. ''I'll listen, if you want to tell me.''
''Maybe another time.'' Evan stiffened when the phone rang; Jo muttered a curse and answered it, rolling away to reach for the cordless with a long arm. ''Yeah? Another one? Shit! Yeah, I'm on my way. No, goddammit! I'll get there! Uh-huh... right. Thanks, McTierney. I owe ya one.''
Jo sat up again, rubbing her eye with one knuckle. ''Ev... we gotta go, baby. The cops just found number two.''
Evan slid out of bed and began twisting up her hair. ''Same as the other one?,'' she asked as she padded to the bathroom.
''Yep. Same mutilations to chest, face and groin. They found him in damn near the same place, too - the warehouse district in the Chinese quarter, close by an illegal mah-jongg parlor and fancy girl house owned by Momma Fat.'' Jo began pulling on a pair of worn out jeans. ''McTierney's gonna meet us at the police line and let us through.''
Evan emerged from the bathroom and swiftly pulled on a T-shirt and a pair of black denim leggings. Her hair was secured in a loose French twist at the back of her head, and wisps had already come down, framing her face. ''Should I bring anythin' besides the usual?''
Jo leaned down and kissed Evan lightly on the lips. ''Just your sweet little self, Ev.'' They'd been living together for six months now; every day, Jo became more and more convinced that the smaller woman - despite her years, magical talents and wolfish alter ego - was her true soulmate. It was the first time Jo had been in love, real love; and she relished every moment of it.
Evan hugged Jo. ''Just let me grab my bag and we'll go,'' she said softly. She was aware how Jo felt but her own feelings were mixed at best. Oh, I love her all right, Evan thought. But, is it fair to her? Can I truly, bein' what I am, give her enough?
She shook her head, pushing those thoughts aside for the moment as Jo pulled on her worn leather jacket and jingled the keys in the pocket impatiently. ''C'mon, Ev, whatcha waiting for? An engraved invitation? Haul ass, woman! We got us a hot body that ain't gonna hang out forever.''
Even smiled to herself as she hastily snatched up an old, battered doctor's bag she used to store magical supplies - her travel kit, she called it - then joined her lover. ''Let's go,'' she said. ''Are we takin' the Lincoln?''
''Naw. Today we ride in style.'' Jo flashed Evan a grin.
''Oh, Kernossus! Don't tell me...''
''Yep. I'm babysitting Jim Bob's Doozy. Yee-haw!''
The two women exited, Evan muttering under her
breath, ''Oh, ye gods and martyrs! Protect this faithful servant from
the curse of cold iron... and Jo's everlastin' foot of lead!''
They pulled up to the crime scene in the souped-up Duesenberg owned by Jim Bob Matthews. The information broker had converted the old if stylish auto into a screaming purple and turquoise hot rod with tons of gleaming chrome and a supercharged and expertly ''tweaked'' customized Porsche engine that could blow away damn near anything else on the road. It was street legal - just.
Jo loved driving Doozy; Evan hated it when she did. When they finally rolled to a stop, the orange-haired woman peeled her white-knuckled fingers from the ''oh shit'' strap and said, ''That wasn't the Autobahn, you know. Was it truly necessary to go a hundred-thirty?''
Jo grinned. ''Yeah, just like it was necessary to crank it up to a hundred-seventy when that dude in the Beemer tried to pass me.'' She chuckled evilly. ''Damn, I wish I coulda seen his face!'' She climbed out of the car and went around to the passenger side, opening Evan's door and helping the shaken woman out. ''Aw, c'mon, Ev! It ain't all that often that Jim Bob goes off to Bangkok and leaves the Doozy in my - if I may say so myself - more than capable hands.''
Evan brushed a lock of orange hair from her face. ''Capable? More like homicidal! Or suicidal, I vow, the way you drive.''
Before Jo could protest, a new voice called out, interrupting their ''discussion.''
''Hey, Tate! You gonna schmooze with your girlfriend or you wanna see this stiff before the meatwagon shows up?''
Jo turned and smiled hugely. ''Bear! Damn, man, it's good to see you!'' She enveloped the enormous police officer in a hug. ''You know Ev, right?''
''We've met.'' Lt. Benjamin ''Bear'' McTierney worked homicide; he and Jo had been friends ever since they'd met four months ago while working opposite ends of a case involving a tong gang in Little Manchuria that had been smuggling both illegal aliens and Chinese vampires into the city. ''How you doing, Ms. Reilly?''
Evan raised one brow. Bear was, as his name suggested, a big, burly man gone slightly to fat upon his promotion from streetwork to desk jockey. He wore his brown hair slightly longer than regulation and pulled it back in a ponytail that emphasized his short thick neck. There was often laughter, as well as sadness, in his eloquent blue-green eyes. ''Hello, Bear,'' she replied. ''I hope you won't get into trouble over this.''
Bear scratched his beard, a monstrous thatch of fur that joined heavy sideburns and mustache, swathing his face in mink brown hair. ''Yeah, well... just don't touch anything, okay? I'd hate having to explain to the forensic guys that the beautiful fingerprints they just found belonged to my gay buddy and her gorgeous partner.'' He grinned.
''Of course.'' Evan laced her arm through Jo's. ''Shall we?,'' she said. As they approached the yellow taped perimeter, Jo said, ''So, Bear? Whatcha got so far? Any witnesses?''
Bear held up the tape to allow the two women to enter. ''Nope. Nary a one. Momma Fat's girls suddenly forgot how to speak English, and when we brought in a translator, they forgot how to speak Cantonese, too.'' He sighed, escorting them into a small alley between two brick warehouse buildings, and stopping when they reached the body.
''Peter Boswell, attorney. That's all we know so far, pending official I.D. The first man on the scene got it from his wallet, which was still in his jacket. Nothing stolen.'' Bear squatted down, his big thighs making the seams of his cheap polyester pants groan in protest. ''Somebody really did a number on this guy. We still haven't figured out the weapon that was used on the first victim, but I know it's the same killer did both. The wound patterns look the same to me, only I'm not jumping to any 'official' conclusions until after the autopsy.''
Jo nodded. Boswell's body was sprawled on the street, amid heaps of trash and vile smelling pools of dark liquids. His empty eye sockets were filled with congealed blood; his face and hands were marred with deep gouges. The front of Boswell's shirt was in tatters, a gaping hole in his chest clearly visible. Most shocking of all, the crotch of his pants had been torn away...
Bear gulped, averting his eyes. ''Yeah... nasty, huh? We haven't found it, either. Or the one that's missing on the other victim from a month ago. Or the hearts. Or the eyes.'' He rose, waving away a newbie technician who had come stumbling back from vomiting outside the lines to finish taking pictures. ''We got no leads, nothing. The FBI says it looks like we've got a serial killer on our hands, but they won't be able to do a profile or anything for at least six months. Christ!'' He tugged his beard. ''If the murderer keeps the same pattern he's started, that'll be another six victims. One every twenty-eight days.''
Evan's head came up. ''Twenty-eight days?,'' she asked. ''He's on a lunar cycle, then.''
''So far. It's still too early to come to any definite conclusions.''
Jo crouched down and examined the victim's wounds, keeping her hands ostentatiously in the pockets of her jacket.
Evan drew Bear aside. ''Why did you call Jo?,'' she asked. ''What does this have to do with...''
Bear interrupted. ''With the weird ass shit she gets involved in?'' He looked around then said softly, ''I found something on the first victim. Same thing on the second. I've been holding it back from the released reports.'' He dug into a pocket and handed Evan an envelope. ''I'd appreciate it if this goes no further than the three of us,'' he continued, nodding to Jo.
As Evan opened the envelope, Jo sauntered up and put a casual arm around the smaller woman's shoulders. ''Whatcha got there?''
Evan spilled the contents into her hand... and sucked in a breath. ''Morrighu, Badb and Nemain!''
Jo peered down... on Evan's palm nestled a claw, curving and sharp as a razor. The end was blunted, as though it had been clipped off deliberately rather than torn off accidentally. Jo looked up at Bear and raised an eyebrow. ''That's wolverkin, all right.'' She sniffed. ''Maybe there's a rogue running around...''
Evan knew there was a small community of wolverkin, or werewolves, who dwelled in the city. They lived in a compound near the stockyards; a sprawling, brawling tribe who were incestuously close and almost xenophobically fearful of outsiders. But... ''It would have to be a rogue, Jo. If the wolverkin had broken the Pact, there'd be more than one victim in the streets.''
Bear scratched his head. ''Wolverkin? Rogue? Pact?'' He looked at both women. ''Something you should tell me? Or is this one of those spooky things I really don't want to know about?''
Jo grinned. ''You don't wanna know. Leave it to me, Bear. I'll check out that angle and get back to you. In the meantime, can you forward copies of the autopsy reports to me on the sly? Not that I can read 'em, but Ev's smarter'n me; she'll figure out all that medico mumbo-jumbo.''
Bear nodded. ''Yeah, I can do that.'' A uniformed officer strolled by and when he reached the big man, whispered, ''Apache attack, watch your back.'' As he disappeared, Bear frowned. ''You gals have to scoot. Internal Affairs is on the prowl. They catch you around here and I can kiss my cheap gold retirement watch goodbye.''
''I hear ya.'' Jo hastily put the claw back in the envelope and shoved it in Bear's jacket. ''We're outta here, big guy. No worries.''
Jo led Evan away, sticking close to the wall and hiding behind the dozen or so officers who suddenly materialized in a welter of frenzied activity. Everybody wanted to look good for I.A.D. or at least, not be caught doing any less. The Commissioner was digging into the shadowy corners of the police department, determined to sweep away any slackers, troublemakers or downright corrupt officers he could find, and Internal Affairs was his broom.
When they reached the Doozy, Jo said, ''Ev? You got connections with the wolverkin?''
''A few. Why?''
'''Cause I don't really know 'em that well. Got one who could vouch for me with their alpha, the Howler, but he's honeymooning in Hawaii with his new mate.'' Jo saw Evan into the car, shut the passenger door, and walked around to climb in herself. Shoving the key into the ignition, she said, ''Home? Or Howler's place?''
Evan considered a moment. ''Howler, I think.'' She settled her doctor's bag beneath the seat; she hadn't needed it. ''If Lunabiter or Slashcatch is there, we'll be all right.''
Jo started up the Doozy, revving the powerful engine and making Evan wince. ''You got it, baby. To the Fur-Filled Mansion, and don't spare the horsepower!''
They took off with a squeal of tires on asphalt
and Evan's yelp of protest floating back behind them.
Lunabiter frowned. ''You say the police believe it was one of us?'' She was the dominant female of the pack; 'top bitch' as Jo would say. Luna appeared to be a wiry woman in her late thirties, dark hair streaked with broad bands of gray; eyebrows so heavy and thick they met at the bridge of her nose; and a pair of midnight black eyes.
Evan hastened to explain. ''Nay, there's a policeman who's investigatin' the murders. He found wolverkin claws on both victims and asked Jo and me to look into it because he knows Jo often investigates the unusual, but he really knows nothin' save that murder has been done.''
''We have no rogues,'' Luna replied flatly, lines at each corner of her mouth deepening. ''If we did... rest assured the unlawful one would not live to kill twice.''
Evan nodded. From everything she'd heard of wolverkin, what Lunabiter said was true. The tribes were scattered, but they all lived under one law - the Pact. One of the chief tenants was: they did not kill humans - ever - and if they had to do so for self-defense, they used mundane weapons. After the Great Slaughter by the Church in the 1400's, which decimated the wolverkin population almost to extinction, they wanted only to live quietly, drawing no attention to themselves in order to survive. Those who broke the Pact were punished swiftly and harshly; there was only one penalty, and that was instant death.
Jo leaned forward, elbows on her knees. ''So, you have no idea how a pair of wolverkin claws got on the victims? They were pretty mutilated...''
Luna slashed her hand through the air, inches from Jo's face. ''No! The Howler's tribe has NO ROGUES! None here have violated the Pact.'' Her black eyes flashed. ''None!''
Jo held up her hands. ''Okay, okay. Shit! Don't get your tail in a knot, sweetheart.'' Luna snarled, and Jo continued, ''Sorry. But you can't deny the claw I saw, and Evan saw, was wolverkin. Any idea how it could've gotten there?''
''No.'' Luna was growling softly to herself and her dark hair stirred on her shoulders, trying to rise. Wolverkin only changed into their wolf shapes for three nights out of the month - before, during and after the full moon - but even human, they retained many of the wild qualities of their alters.
''Luna, think, please.'' Evan's gray eyes locked on the werewolf's black. ''No one accuses you of anythin'. But we need your help to end this confusion.''
When Lunabiter didn't answer, Jo rose with a regretful sigh. ''C'mon, Ev. She ain't cooperating and I ain't busting my ass no more.''
Luna stirred. ''Wait, human.'' She seemed to be considering something. ''Sit.'' Jo sat back down again and Luna rose, calling over her shoulder as she left the room, ''Stay here. I'll be back.''
''Sit, stay, roll over, play dead. Goddamn if I don't feel like a friggin' trained poodle.'' Jo rubbed her chin. ''If she asks me to fetch, I'm gonna whack her on the nose with a rolled up newspaper, I swear.''
Evan chuckled and patted Jo's hand. ''Luna's an acquired taste, colleen. But she is more reasonable than most of her folk, and she's willin' to acknowledge my imaginary status and speak to us. That's more than some of the wolverkin would do.''
''Yeah... their motto's 'Bite first, ask questions later.''' Jo looked around the room. The furniture was leather, but much of it patched, torn and sagging. The floors were scuffed wood, stained with unidentifiable substances, and huge puffs of hair were gathered in every corner. ''I see the wolverkin ain't exactly the Donna Reed's of the housekeeping world,'' she said aloud.
Lunabiter came back into the room, leading Slashcatch by the hand. He was a teenager with a shock of white hair that fell over one blue eye. Luna pushed the youngster down on an ottoman that leaked stuffing, and said, ''I have only heard rumors of what my bloodchild is about to tell you. I ignored them, believing what I heard was harmless, or twisted out of all meaning. But now... I have reason to believe it is not.''
Slashcatch looked chagrined. Peering at Jo and Evan with his visible eye, he said, ''Me and some of the others... there's this shop down on 4th and Main. One of those occult deals? Anyway, the owner said he'd pay big for wolverkin claws and stuff - you know, blood, hair, urine, even...'' He gulped, clearly embarrassed. ''You know. Stuff.''
Evan's brows drew together in puzzlement, then she said in sudden comprehension, ''Oh!'' Leaning over to Jo, she whispered, ''He's too embarrassed to say, but the dealer also wished to acquire sperm.'' Jo nodded, and Slashcatch continued.
''Anyway... I mean, who's gonna give some magic practitioner blood or anything, right? We aren't stupid. But he offered to pay in cash. So, some of us cut off a couple of our claws and sold 'em. No big deal.''
Lunabiter wrinkled her nose, lifting her lips in a snarl. ''Except now, you and your packmates have foolishly endangered the tribe!'' She cuffed Slashcatch on his head with one hand, rocking him on his seat. ''Puppy! Do you know how close you came to violating the Pact? Do you want the police to hunt us down like animals? Stupid, milk-toothed, blunt clawed puppies!'' She cuffed him again.
''Take it easy, Luna!,'' Jo gritted, half-rising from her chair. Her hands were balled into fists. Evan gave her a startled look, then grabbed Jo's upper arm and squeezed warningly, shaking her head and mouthing silently, ''no.'' Jo reluctantly sat back down again, guts roiling and the taste of bile in her mouth.
Jesus Christ!, Jo thought, wiping her mouth with the back of one hand. My old man used ta do that kinda crap to me. Hitting me like that, always yelling I should take a swing, take my best shot I was so fuckin' tough, I was such a mean bitch... Hell! One and only time I did, it felt real good... right up until he got up off the floor and beat the holy shit outta me.
Lunabiter glared at Jo, then turned her black eyes back on her son. ''Did you never think, youngling, how this human knew about the wolverkin?''
''No,'' Slashcatch answered sullenly.
''We'll go have a little talk with the man,'' Evan said, rising and motioning to Jo to do the same. ''If I can, I'll retrieve the remainin' claws from him. Slash, how many did you sell?''
When the teenager didn't answer immediately, Luna cuffed the side of his head again. ''Six!,'' Slashcatch exploded, saliva spraying from his mouth, voice rising in a whine. ''Six, okay?! We only sold six!''
''That's enough.'' Jo looked at Luna with cold blue eyes. ''Don't hit the kid anymore. We're going. Evan'll bring your stuff back.'' She turned and left the room, hands jammed into her jacket pockets.
Luna ran a shaking hand through her dark hair. ''I know you're not of Fenris' Kin, Evan, but...''
Evan nodded. ''I'll do what I can.'' With a worried
expression, she hastened from the room, hurrying to catch up with Jo's
long legged stride.
Jo was silent all the way home. It wasn't until she'd flopped down on the sofa in their apartment with a beer clenched in one fist that her taut body finally began to relax.
Evan puttered around, sensing the moment was not right; plumping pillows, watering plants, cleaning imaginary spots on the kitchen counter. She and Jo had both had to move following their confrontation with Eridu and his demonic horde six months ago. They'd gotten a place together in Bougainvillea Towers, a turn-of-the-century former hotel that had been converted into luxury apartments. A small balcony with floor-to-ceiling French doors was off the living room, and the view they had of the city at night was spectacular.
Jo took a swallow of beer and rolled the sweat-beaded bottle on her forehead. ''Shit. I'm sorry, baby. I totally lost it in there.''
Evan sat down beside Jo and laid a hand on her knee. ''It's all right, colleen. Want to talk about it?''
''Not particularly.'' Jo blew out a breath. ''Aw... crud. My old man was a real piece of work. A high story man, worked construction all his life. Big, tough son of a bitch, real mean when he got drunk. He used to knock the stuffing outta me fairly regular. Mom, too. I guess I just can't stand it when people push kids around, hit 'em and stuff.''
Evan snuggled closer to the taller woman, laying her head on Jo's shoulder. ''Slash isn't exactly your normal teenager. And wolverkin live by different laws than we do. But I can see why you'd get upset.''
''I know.'' Jo gulped the rest of her beer. ''I just got a real hot button when it comes to that. Don't take much to set it off.''
''Well... t'is all right, colleen. Luna isn't the type to take offense easily. When do you want to go look for this shop?''
Jo checked the cheap Timex knock-off strapped to her wrist. ''In about an hour, Ev. I gotta go see a man about a dog.''
Evan's eyebrows rose, but she refused to take the bait. ''Fine. We'll meet over at Babylon High about seven, hmmm?''
''Babylon High? Astarte's place? What the hell for?''
It was Evan's turn to be enigmatic. ''I want to ask a goddess about her supplicants.''
Jo checked up and down the street. For midday, it was pretty quiet downtown. Only the Dragoman Heights Building, a massive, Art Deco skyscraper that dominated the skyline, was bustling with business; the ornately Gothic fountain in Dragoman Square, with its hideous chimerae and water squirting monsters, played host to dozens of suit-clad people devouring their brown-bag lunches and chain-smoking.
The shop she stood in front of was called ''Old Curiosities.'' Behind the fly-specked glass of the window, a stuffed baboon in top hat and tails menaced a trio of blank-faced porcelain dolls. In addition, a swooping paper dragon and an open parasol of some strange matte black fabric were included in the collage. There was something about the display, something faintly menacing, that made the hairs on the back of Jo's neck rise.
Jo hadn't wanted Evan to come along; she knew the other woman would disapprove of any strong arm tactics she might have to use to get information. So, I sorta lied. Big deal. No prob. She can go doggie and chase a Frisbee in the park or something. I'll tell her all about it when we meet tonight. Besides - sometimes I miss working alone.
Jo pushed open the door, squinting to adjust her eyes to the interior gloom. Almost immediately, a raspy voice said, ''May I help you?''
The man behind the counter was inhumanly tall and skeletally lean; Jo identified him as a ghoul. His loose, blousey shirt would hide the extra elbow joint, and quick movements of his spidery fingers concealed the fact that he had six on one hand, four on the other. His hair was magenta and hung down to his shoulders in greasy strings.
The man's eyes were hidden behind round lenses of smoked glass. He smiled, careful not to show the sharp points of his teeth. ''Miss? Are you looking for something in particular or just browsing?''
''Actually, I'm wondering about something.'' Jo leaned casually against the waist-high counter, putting an elbow on its scarred oak surface. ''What's a nice ghoul like you doing in a place like this?''
The man drew back and hissed, and Jo chuckled. ''Aw, c'mon! The pun wasn't that bad!''
''What... what do you want?'' The ghoul eyed the platinum blonde woman with concern. ''Money? I don't have much...''
''I ain't interested in money. I'm interested in information.'' Jo squeezed her eyes into slits. ''Let's exchange names, dude. I like to be on a friendly basis with the people I deal with.''
The ghoul hesitated. Among its kind, to exchange names with another was tantamount to trusting the other person with one's soul.
Jo reached into the inner pocket of her beat-up leather jacket and produced a crumpled business card. Laying the card on the countertop, she slid it to the ghoul with one finger.
Silently, it picked up the card and scanned it. Then, it nodded, licking its lips with a long, purplish tongue. ''K'klitni,'' the ghoul said, giving Jo his name. ''How did you get my pater familias' name?''
Jo plucked the card from K'klitni's hand. ''Jo Tate. I did your daddy a favor once. Now, I wanna know how come you're buying up so much wolverkin stuff. Word is, it's a hot commodity and a seller's market. 'Fess up, K'klitni. Whatcha doing with that stuff?''
The ghoul toyed with a lock of its oily magenta hair. ''I have clients who want special things sometimes.''
''And one of your clients wanted wolverkin artifacts? Name?'' Jo smiled, leaning closer to K'klitni, who backed away a pace.
''The name he gave me was an obvious fake. You still want it?'' When Jo nodded, the ghoul continued, ''Albert Mage. And the address is just a drop-off on Kirlian Avenue.''
''So how many claws did you sell him?''
''Six. All I got. He wanted other things, too, but... I was unsuccessful in acquiring them.'' The ghoul drew off its glasses; its eyes were chartreuse and pupilless. ''He paid well.''
''Several hundred pounds of food. Medical waste, by the look of it.''
Jo suppressed a shudder. Ghouls exclusively ate human flesh; in the old days, they'd lived in graveyards, catacombs and tombs, devouring the dead. Now, they usually got themselves into positions where they could, in a quasi-legal sense, feed themselves and their families without unwanted attention.
''Mmmm... sounds finger-lickin' good. Listen, K'klitni - this Mage dude comes around again, I want you to give me a buzz, okay? Do this for me, and I'll see what I can do about an arrangement with the coroner's office.''
K'klitni's eyes glowed brighter and it licked its lips again. ''Yes. You have a deal.'' Jo handed the ghoul one of her own business cards, and left the shop, letting the door bang closed behind her.
Once out on the street, she drew in a deep breath
and began walking south, back towards the Doozy she'd left parked in the
Babylon High was a nightclub with a guilty secret - a constant stream of beautiful women who came and went, chauffeured in limousines to five-star hotels to grace the bedrooms of high level executives, wealthy industrialists, and, frankly, anybody who could afford their specialized services.
The club was run by Astarte, the Babylonian goddess of love and sex; her call girls were sacred prostitutes transplanted to a much different place and time, although their worshipful mission was the same - generate sexual energy to please Astarte, who fed on the ''sacrifices.''
''A sex goddess in a Puritan society who camouflages her worship behind the mask of illegal prostitution. She's a smart one, Astarte,'' Evan said.
Jo nodded, replying, ''Whatever,'' and took another sip of her astonishingly expensive beer. ''Bet she ain't hurting for cash, either.''
The two women sat at a tiny table in the neon-lit interior of the club. A stage featured three gyrating dancers who wore masks and nothing else. From the ceiling swung gilded cages, where other women, and those who appeared to be women but were not, performed explicit sex acts.
Jo watched the stage. She'd never been to Babylon High but she'd heard about it. When two of the women began licking and caressing the third, she turned to Evan and muttered, ''Maybe I should take notes. Or pictures, huh?'' Evan grinned in response.
Their server, an androgynous figure wearing a bright red tuxedo, returned to their table. ''Ms. Ishtar will see you now,'' he/she said in a fluting voice. The server's eyes were outlined heavily in kohl, and his/her lips parted in a slight, condescending smile.
Jo tossed a ten dollar bill on the table and grabbed her beer bottle. She and Evan threaded their way through the banks of tables and across the dance floor, where couples danced to the heavy industrialized beat of the wildly popular underground band, Winchester Goose.
When they reached the backstage area, Jo dug a finger into her ringing ear. ''What the heck kinda band name's that, anyhow?,'' she asked Evan. ''I mean, even Strawberry Alarm Clock's name had a sorta rhythm to it, even if didn't make any sense.''
Evan grimaced. ''It's an Elizabethan euphemism. A winchester goose is a swellin' in the groin caused by venereal disease.'' She pushed her way past a troupe of sweaty, spangled dancers.
''Oh? So now they're not only a crummy, loud band, they're a crummy, loud band with really gross pretensions? Jeez...'' Jo shook her head. ''Just gimme Molly Hatchet or Led Zeppelin anytime.'' She grinned when Evan made a face of mock disgust.
They arrived at a door guarded by two extremely large men, both black, both armed to the teeth. Jo waggled her fingers at one and said, ''Hi, guys. Jo Tate and Evan Reilly. We gotta invitation from the big, bad momma herself, so open sesame.''
The man glared and folded his massive arms across his chest. ''Nobody allowed,'' he said in an unfriendly tone. ''Ms. Ishtar's not to be disturbed.''
Evan pushed back a stray lock of orange hair. ''Listen, gentlemen. Astarte's waitin' for us and it's not a good idea to keep her waitin', if you know what I mean. Why don't you just ask if she's expectin' us?''
The other guard leaned down until his face was inches away from Evan's. ''Maybe you don't hear so good. Beat it, slitch, and take your white trash girlfriend with you.'' He poked Evan in the chest hard with a thick finger, almost making her lose her balance.
The shattering of glass was shocking as Jo smashed her beer bottle against the man's head, sending him staggering back with a heavily bleeding cut over one eye, and then menaced the other with the broken neck. ''Listen up, goddammit!'' she snarled, blue eyes glowing with fury. ''Nobody touches her! NOBODY! Now get that fuckin' door open or I swear to God I'm gonna do somebody, right here, right freakin' now!''
The uninjured guard was swinging up the sawed off shotgun he carried on a strap over his shoulder, and Evan hastily snarled the Rann of Morfessa, casting up one hand to catch a swirling, glowing sphere of fire in her palm and sending it hurtling towards the guard.
The fireball burst against the shotgun and the metal barrel immediately glowed red hot and began to melt. With a screech, the guard pulled the strap over his head and let the ruined firearm fall to the floor, where it turned into a molten puddle in seconds, leaving only a scorched stock behind.
The other man, blinking blood out of his eyes, was in the act of reaching for his own gun when the door abruptly opened.
''What is going on here?'' a woman's voice said.
''You said you didn't want to be disturbed, Ms. Ishtar,'' the first guard said, dancing away from the smoking metallic puddle that threatened his shoes.
''Idiots!'' The woman called Ms. Ishtar, seen only as a silhouette, seemed to shrug her shoulders. ''I told Hari I was expecting visitors.'' The two guards looked at one another, then back to their employer. ''Ah, well... I will deal with Hari later. Ladies, please, come inside.'' Ms. Ishtar moved away from the door.
Jo let the jagged bottle neck drop from her hand and straightened her leather jacket. As she walked past the bleeding guard, she said, ''Better put some ice on that, shithead. And next time you manhandle somebody's girlfriend, better make sure they ain't tougher'n you coupla pussies.''
Evan merely gave the other man a look from her stormy gray eyes that made beads of sweat break out on his brow, then she swept inside the room on Jo's heels.
The door closed behind them. The room was opulently furnished, the floor a tiled mosaic that depicted sex acts of every variation, even some that were mindboggling. Jo's brows rose as she contemplated one scene; she finally nudged Evan and whispered, ''You think that's two guys and an octopus, or three women and a she-male contortionist?'' Evan didn't reply.
Ms. Ishtar, or Astarte, motioned the women to sit down on a curved sofa covered in sable throws. ''Refreshments?'' she asked.
As Astarte busied herself at the bar, Jo studied the goddess. She was tall, well over six feet, but lushly proportioned. Her hair was auburn, eyes golden brown, and her skin the shade of clover honey. She was also unbelievably, even inhumanly beautiful; the sheer perfection of her features would have caused Helen of Troy to gnash her teeth in envy.
Astarte walked across the floor carrying a tray, stiletto heels clicking on the tiles. ''I apologize for my associates. They are often overly fierce in their protection of me.'' She shook her head and smiled, revealing even white teeth. ''I am grateful that you did not annihilate them, Gifted One.''
Evan replied coolly, ''I didn't think it necessary to do more than warn.'' She accepted a glass of Scotch and took a sip, then her eyebrows rose in appreciation.
Astarte chuckled. ''I've had that blend laid aside for a century or so.'' She handed Jo a glass of beer, then sat down opposite them in an overstuffed chair, crossing her legs and making her scarlet miniskirt ride up, showing an expanse of smooth, golden flesh. ''Now... what can I do for you, ladies? Your note was a little unclear, Gifted One, if intriguing.''
It was Evan's turn to chuckle. ''Aye, I thought that would get your attention.'' The note the Celtic woman had sent had merely read, It's eight o'clock... do you know where your priests are?
Evan continued, ''There've been a pair of murders. Both men, and both had their genitalia removed, among other things. Would you know anythin' about that?''
Astarte shook her head. ''My cult does not deal in murder, Gifted One. Unlike some other gods, the sacrifice of human life is not pleasing to me. True, some of my male priests, like Hari, have voluntarily chosen to castrate themselves in the Ultimate Sacrifice, so I see why you'd at least suspect there was a connection. However, Cybele's priests were exclusively eunuchs; why not go question Her?'' The goddess smirked, knowing her rival Cybele's worship, and that deity, had died out centuries ago.
Evan ignored Astarte's spiteful dig. ''Do you know of any reason why wolverkin claws would be found on the bodies? T'was not the wolverkin who committed the murders; this much we know.''
''I would say...,'' Astarte began delicately, then stopped. ''Hmmm... have you considered it was a ruse? To make you suspect the wolverkin?''
''Naw. Wouldn't cut no ice with the police.'' Jo stretched out her legs, nursing the beer. ''They don't even know about wolverkin, not really. And the claw from an animal - I mean, only a complete friggin' moron would think the cops'd fall for a thing like that. Identical mutilations on both bodies? No animal does that.''
Astarte smiled again. ''It seems as if you have a mystery on your hands. I wish you luck in solving it.'' This was clearly a dismissal, but Evan refused to take the hint.
''Does the fact that both men visited prostitutes before their deaths mean anythin' to you?,'' she asked. Jo was startled by this new information but quickly pulled on a nonchalant facade.
The beautiful goddess frowned. ''I... It was not any of my priestesses, I assure you.''
''No. It wasn't.'' Evan rose. ''My thanks for your time, Astarte,'' she said, taking Jo's arm and leading her to the door.
After they had gone, Astarte got up, crossing the
room to her desk, then dialed a number on her telephone. ''Hello?'' she
said, lips curving into a seductive smile. ''Armand? I have a job for
They arrived back home, stopping to pick up ribs from a barbeque joint near their building.
Once inside, Jo eagerly tore into the greasy ribs, muttering through a big mouthful, ''Mmmph. I almost forgot. Got something for you today.'' She wiped her hands on a napkin, then reached into a pocket of her jeans, pulling out a small, flat box.
''What is it?'' Evan asked, laying down a french fry and taking the box.
''Aw, jeez. Just open it, willya?'' Jo gnawed another hunk of meat off a rib, ignoring the sauce smeared on her face.
Evan flipped back the lid of the box... and caught her breath. Inside, nestled in white velvet, was a bracelet. ''Oh, Jo! It's beautiful!'' She took it out and held it up to the light, admiring. Each link in the bracelet was fashioned into the shape of a gold running wolf alternating with platinum quarter moons. ''Where did you...?''
Jo wiped her mouth. ''I was downtown this afternoon, had some time to kill, and I saw that in this antique shop window. I hadda get it for you... I figured it was fate or something.''
Jo's words registered and Evan narrowed her eyes. ''Downtown? You were downtown today?''
''Uh, yeah.'' Jo suddenly realized she'd made a mistake. Sortof. ''Shit.'' She ran both hands through her platinum hair, forgetting she had barbeque sauce on her fingers. ''Well... okay, I fucked up, I guess. I found the shop Slashcatch was talking about and talked to the owner. A ghoul, if you can believe that. Told a great story about a client who asked him to get the claws, and took delivery at a mail drop. I checked that out, too. Run by this Ukrainian dude whose name has about a hundred consonants to one vowel. Nearly tied my tongue in a knot questioning him.''
''Oh?'' Evan pursed her lips. ''Any reason why you didn't see fit to invite me along on your little jaunt?''
''Honest, baby. I didn't mean nothing by it. I just... well, sometimes I work better alone. That's all.'' Jo leaned an elbow on the table. ''Are we gonna have an argument about it now?,'' she asked mournfully.
Evan looked at Jo's barbeque-sauce-laced hair, and the splatters of grease and sauce on her face, hands and shirtfront. ''No. But I think next time, you could at least tell me what's goin' on.'' Her feelings were hurt, but she decided to let it pass - this time.
Jo sighed. ''I'm sorry. I'm a major screw-up. I don't know why you put up with me.''
''Because I love you, that's why.'' Evan leaned over and delicately licked a smear of sauce from Jo's face. ''I think I'd like to finish my dinner in the bedroom,'' she said pointedly.
Jo brightened. ''Yeah... sounds like a plan to me.'' She stood up, wiping her hands on the legs of her jeans. ''I'm looking forward to dessert, myself.'' She winked at Evan, who replied, ''You'd better wash your hair first, colleen. I'm not wantin' to get a hairball lickin' that mess clean.''
Jo touched her hair, winced, and said, ''Oh, shit!'' before heading for the bathroom, muttering curses under her breath.
As the sound of running water came from the bathroom, Evan giggled... then went to join her lover.
Across the city, in the ruins of what had once been the Gralloch Music Conservatory, a man sat on the marble floor, smothered in heavy robes, breathing the incense fumes that swirled in graceful patterns around his head.
Berresford Ellis was a sensualist; he'd criss-crossed the globe in his endless search for new experiences, new heights of ecstasy. Having inherited a fortune from his oil baron father, he'd been able to completely indulge his sexual appetite, but as time had passed, he'd grown jaded and dissatisfied, needing more and more stimulation to excite his dampened senses.
Then he'd discovered magic.
On the floor in front of him was an ebony cane, the carved silver knob set with a huge smoky garnet. In the depths of the jewel could be discerned a flickering, undulating shape; Ellis held both hands over the stone and recited an incantation in a harsh, unmusical tongue.
A hazy form appeared in front of him, then rapidly coalesced into the shape of a woman. She was completely nude, with long brown hair foaming down to the floor and a necklace of human teeth that hung around her impossibly tiny waist. The woman was incredibly beautiful, except that her eyes were scarlet, like an albino's; and from the knees down, she had feathers and scaly feet like a bird's.
''You summoned me, master?'' the apparition said. Her voice had oddly deep undertones to it, like a man's groan.
''Karcis, I need you tonight.'' Ellis licked his lips. ''You promised.''
The succubus Karcis parted her gleaming lips in a silent laugh. ''I require another sacrifice to manifest myself in your world again, O master,'' she said. ''Let my servants free again this night and you shall have all that you desire.''
''You said the last one would break Paracelsus' binding,'' Ellis replied sullenly. ''I don't like this.''
Karcis stepped forward and laid a cool hand on Ellis' face. ''The old mage is stronger than I thought,'' she said. ''Another mortal life, and we will be together forever.'' When Ellis frowned, she continued, ''Just you and I - a paradise of endless delights, all for your pleasure alone. Only I can satisfy you,'' she said seductively, leaning down to flick her overly long tongue against the man's ear. ''Let me be free... help me...''
Ellis' hands came up to touch Karcis' heavy breasts and the succubus moved back, out of his reach. ''When the next mortal life is given to me, I will come to you in all my power,'' she said, and vanished.
Ellis gritted his teeth and cursed. Even the light touch she had given him was enough to make his manhood throb. The succubus was unlike any other woman he'd ever had... she was a glorious banquet of sexual delight, far more imaginative and uninhibited than any human female. He had to have her... no matter the cost.
With a sigh, Ellis got up and went to a large wooden
cabinet that stood in one corner of the room.
"Oh, God, that feels good...,'' Jo moaned, tossing her head from side to side. She lay on her back, knees up and thighs wide apart, both hands buried in Evan's wild orange hair.
Evan lapped at Jo's sex, wriggling her tongue against the other woman's hard clit, two fingers deep inside her thrusting hard and fast. When Jo moaned again and started to tremble, she pulled her fingers out and sat up, grabbing a pillow and sliding it under platinum blonde's ass.
Jo spread her thighs even wider apart as Evan mounted her, lowering her own sopping pussy to brush against Jo's tight curls. Evan braced herself on both hands with a sigh of pure pleasure.
Jo gasped, then reached down and pulled apart the lips of her vulva, feeling Evan do the same to herself with her free hand. Evan squatted down further and began to pump her hips up and down, around and around, sliding wet flesh against flesh, rubbing their clits together, hot juices mingling. Releasing Jo's nipple, Evan panted, ''Okay for you?''
Jo groaned, ''Yeah... oh, yeah, maybe up a little, right there!'' and put both hands on Evan's ass and squeezed, grinding her pussy into the other woman's with quick movements of her hips. ''Mmmm... fuck me...'' Both feet were in the air, bobbing in time to her lover's rhythm.
Evan panted, muscles in her back and shoulders shifting as she rode Jo hard, making her ass bounce against the bed. ''Shit,'' Jo gritted, and her hands clenched on Evan's ass harder, hips working and rolling in waves.
She was almost there. Evan mashed her pussy down harder, pumping faster, screwing her clit around in Jo's heated slickness, sweat pouring off her face and down her tattooed back, gray eyes narrowed. Then, with a yelp, she came, hips shuddering convulsively, barely registering Jo's full-throated scream, ''FUUUUUCK!'' as she, too, started quivering in orgasm.
After a long, timeless moment, the heart-stopping pleasure eased, and Evan collapsed on top of Jo, gasping for breath. Jo panted, eyes closed, but her hands came up to smooth her lover's long, sweat soaked hair. ''God... I needed that,'' the platinum blonde said. ''Have I told you lately how much I love you?''
Evan smiled against Jo's throat, her pulse beginning to return to normal. ''You only want me for my body,'' she replied teasingly.
Jo relaxed slowly with a sigh. ''Yeah... and what a body!''
Evan chuckled and rolled off the other woman, nestling against her side. ''Next time, you get on top,'' she said.
''Lazy...'' Jo turned over so that she was face to face with Evan and hooked one long leg over hers, drawing their bodies closer. ''I think I'm gonna get a new tat,'' she said. ''Whaddya think about doing one around my navel?''
''Protect the seat of life? I'll make a design for Bald Henry to copy,'' Evan replied, snuggling her head under Jo's chin and putting an arm over her waist. ''I'll get to work on it after this murder business is finished.''
Jo ran one finger over the armband tattoo on Evan's tricep, tracing the pattern of interlocking lines that formed a complex grid of dark blue. ''I still can't get over this artwork. It's just so, well, cool!''
''T'wasn't cool at the time. We tattooed ourselves not just for decoration.'' Evan held up her hand. A circular design had been etched on the webbing between thumb and forefinger. ''This was my clan mark,'' she said, eyes growing darker with remembered pain. ''I got it when I was eleven, after I'd killed my first man.''
Jo gulped, eyes widening. ''Holy shit! You killed a guy when you were only eleven?''
''Yes.'' Although their bodies were still close, Evan seemed to retreat inwardly. ''He was a raider, a Saxon from the north. They came in their dragon boats, burnin' and lootin' all along the coast; they left nothin' but death and fire in their wake.'' She sighed. ''I didn't find out about my shiftself until after I started the moon bleedin' when I was thirteen. And I hadn't been given to the Druids yet for trainin'. So...'' She stopped, hesitating.
''Yeah? And? C'mon, Ev. Tell me. I wanna know.'' Jo prodded.
Evan took a deep breath. ''And I stuck a wooden knittin' needle in his eye when he was rapin' me... then, when he was blinded and screamin', I ripped out his throat with a broken piece of board. T'was hard, you know,'' she continued dreamily, ''but I was pretty strong, even so young.''
Jo shuddered in sympathy, then pressed her warm body against Evan's suddenly chilled one, hugging her close. ''Jesus... I'm sorry, baby.''
Evan hadn't finished yet. ''After he was dead, I left the hut. I was covered in blood - his, my own, my older sister's... she died, colleen, tryin' to keep the raider off me. When I got outside, it was chaos. Fire everywhere, folks screamin', the dead piled about, and those motherless bastard's laughin' and tossin' more torches, and pullin' up their britches after rapin' the women.
''I was so angry. I've never been that angry in my life. I stood there, on the shore, listenin' to the groanin' and cries for help from the wounded - some of them my own blood kin - and I wanted so very, very desperately to kill them all, destroy every one of the raiders. That... that rage built up inside me until I thought I would explode into a thousand pieces. And that's when it happened.''
Evan fell silent, lips pressed together. Jo rubbed her back and said, ''What happened, Ev? What did you do?''
Evan sighed, and a tear slipped down her cheek. ''I did. I killed them. Have I not told you before that I had a talent for the magic? Well, that day I found it. I reached out in a way I'd never done before, just reached out and grabbed the power - it was like ridin' the lightnin'; like dancin' in a bonfire; and one by one, the raiders began to die.
''They collapsed, just fell like poleaxed oxen. I found out later that their hearts had burst within their chests, their blood dried and baked to a powder within their veins by the heat of my anger. T'was not till days later, when the Chief Druid of Eire, Cathbadh, came himself to see me, that I learned what I'd done. I went to live with the Druids, then; I had precious little family left, and precious little to lose.''
Jo kissed her forehead. ''Jesus. I'm so sorry, baby.'' Her blue eyes gazed into Evan's. ''You... hell, you survived, right? You're here, here with me, and I'm gonna protect you and love you as long as you'll let me.''
Evan smiled faintly and reached out to touch Jo's cheek. ''Aye. You are here, colleen. And I love you for it.'' They kissed... and the phone rang, startling both of them.
''Aw, shit!'' Jo spat. ''Just ignore it, Ev. Let the machine pick it up.''
''Answer it.'' Evan's gray eyes took on a distant expression. ''T'is important.''
Groaning, Jo rolled over on her stomach and grabbed the phone. ''Yeah? This better be pretty fuckin' important... no shit!'' With a convulsive heave, she sat up, running a hand through her hair and making it stand up in a quiff. ''Okay. Yeah, I said okay, goddammit! Gimme ten minutes.'' She slammed the phone down on the nightstand, braced her elbows on her knees and covered her eyes with both hands.
''What is it?,'' Evan asked.
''It's Bear. He's dead. GodDAMMIT!'' Jo punched her fist into the wall above the headboard.
Silently, Evan got up and began to get dressed.
Detective Hammond ''Piglet'' Russell was waiting outside the all night coffee shop on Preservation Parkway. A small, compact man with a neat blonde goatee and green eyes, he had been Bear McTierney's best friend.
The Duesenberg hot rod squealed up into the nearly deserted parking lot, back fender bumping against the street and striking sparks. Russell sipped his steaming latte and wiped his mouth with a paper napkin.
Jo wrenched the door open as soon as the car came to a halt and scrambled out, Evan following her at a slower pace. ''What happened?'' the platinum blonde asked. She wore a pair of shredded jeans and a man's sleeveless undershirt that was on backwards and inside-out.
Russell waited until Evan joined them, then said, ''Good ta see ya, ladies. How ya'll this evenin'?'' His exquisite manners and soft southern accent had targeted him for a lot of ribbing when he'd first joined the force, but after taking a bullet to protect his partner in a firefight during the Republic Bank stand-off, he'd earned a reputation for bravery and a great deal of respect.
''Shit, Piglet! I ain't here for a friggin' lesson in Emily Post!'' Jo glared at the smaller man. ''What the fuck happened to Bear?!''
Russell took another sip of his latte. ''C'mon inside, we'll talk about it over some caw-fee, don't stand here in the chilly air.'' He pronounced it, ''a-yuh.'' He led the two women inside the coffee shop to a private booth and quietly ordered drinks from the weary-looking waitress.
By the time their coffee arrived, Jo was jiggling in her seat, on the verge of exploding with frustration. She ignored the mug in front of her. ''Now... I want some answers, goddammit! Give!''
Russell's green eyes were sad. ''Ah got the news over the radio 'bout nine o'clock this evenin'. Bear was found outside his apartment buildin' by a lady jogger. He'd been kilt same as the other two... eyes, heart and penis gone. Been dead sev'ral hours. Funny thing is, we didn't find no more claws. Just the original two. Bear'd taken ta carryin' 'em around on him. But there's more...''
He nodded to the waitress, signaling for a refill of his latte. ''Bear's been actin' funny all day... said he found a connection between the murders, had ta do with this burglary a coupla months ago ovah in the Diamond District. Some rich gentleman got hisself robbed of a buncha rare, museum quality artifacts... black magic things, Ah heard. Anyways, Bear asked fer the file this afternoon, was goin' through 'em and gettin' more and more excited like. Then he told the sergeant he was gonna go home and study 'em up some more. Nobody heard ennythin' else till the 911 call.''
Jo's mouth was set in a straight, tight line. ''Jesus... poor Bear. Damn!'' She shook her head. ''I gotta personal stake in this now, Piglet. You make sure I get everything, you hear me? Everything!''
Russell nodded. ''Yeah, Ah figured you'd be wantin' ta get in on it. You was Bear's friend, too.'' He reached into the soft sided briefcase on the seat beside him and pulled out several manila files. ''Here. The first two autopsy reports on the victims... crime scene photographs, everythin' we got. Copies, but good ones. And Ah made copies of the burglary case notes; Ah don't see no connection myself, but Ah ain't smart as ol' Bear, neither. Now, don't let nobody know you got 'em, okay?'' He looked slightly anxious. ''If ya'll get caught, you didden get 'em from me.''
''I hear ya.'' Jo pulled the files across the table and put a proprietary hand on them. ''Thanks, man. I owe ya one.''
Russell stood up. ''Naw,'' he replied, handing their waitress several folded bills. ''Ah done it fer Bear, 'at's all. Ya'll just be careful. Ah got me a feelin' this ain't ovah yet. Good evenin', ladies.'' With that, he left, swinging back out into the night.
Evan laid a hand on top of Jo's. ''Colleen...''
''No.'' Jo grabbed the files and hastily rose, nearly bumping into the hovering waitress. ''Let's go. We got stuff to do.''
They left the coffee shop, Evan aching to put her arms around Jo and comfort her... and Jo was silent and withdrawn all the way home.
Ellis was covered in sweat and gasping for breath. Karcis smiled, showing small, needle sharp teeth. ''Are you satisfied, O master?'' the succubus asked.
''Y-y-yes,'' Ellis stuttered, reaching out for her again, but Karcis scuttled off the bed, the teeth on the thong around her waist clicking dully.
''Where... where are you going?'' Ellis asked, sliding off the bed. His body was lean, without an ounce of fat, the muscles well defined and sleek.
''I must return to my imprisonment,'' Karcis replied, her form beginning to shimmer. ''That last life was not strong enough... I feel the protective barriers rising again, and I must go back lest I be destroyed.''
''No!' Ellis put both hands in his hair and yanked. ''No! NO! NO!You said... you promised!'' he whined.
Karcis licked her lips. Her image was fading... ''In three days, we will try again. My servants are weary now.'' Her voice echoed hollowly as she vanished completely.
Ellis stumbled into the next room. The Gralloch Music Conservatory had been built in the grand, Art Nouveau style, and had hosted many important concerts and benefits. He remembered going there as a child to see ''Cosi Fan Tutti.'' But a fire in the seventies had destroyed much of the old landmark. His corporation had purchased the land and building, intending to tear down the wreck and build a mall, but for now, it was his home.
Plenty of money can buy anything, even discretion. A suite had been restored on the second floor. Ellis lived in luxurious style, and it was no coincidence that his magician's work room was located next to the bedroom.
In the center of the bare marble floor stood a stand, and on that stand
was the cane with the garnet jewel of Karcis. Ellis stared at it, remembering.
He'd heard of the alchemist Paracelsus' ebony cane, supposedly set with a fabulous stone that contained a spirit that did all his bidding. Further research into the history of the alchemist and the stone revealed several interesting things.
The garnet, called the Eye of the Beast, had belonged to an 12th century sorcerer in Jerusalem called Abraham Balai. It had been captured in the fall of Jerusalem by a Crusader, a Templar Knight whose identity was lost to time. After that, it disappeared for a few centuries before turning up on Paracelsus' cane.
But before Abraham Balai, the stone had supposedly been the property of one of the Magi, that sect of mysterious magicians who had secretly ruled the Persian Empire before its defeat at the hands of Alexander the Great. This Magi had imprisoned a Div - an evil female spirit named Karcis - within the stone, binding it with the Rule of Solomon to do his bidding. Paracelsus had used the Div Karcis as well, during his endless and ultimately fruitless search for the Philosopher's Stone.
Ellis went to the cabinet in the corner and opened the doors. Resting on a shelf was a box, filigreed gold over iron, set with turquoise and carnelian studs. With trembling hands, he pushed back the domed lid of the box...
Inside, the space was much larger than the dimensions of the box suggested. He looked at a score or more of tiny female shapes, iridescent wings folded close to their bodies. Their faces and forms were exquisitely beautiful in miniature, but their fingers and toes had sharp hooked claws, and their delicate mouths were filled with razor sharp teeth. These were peris, Karcis' servants... despite their small size, they were rabid killers, descending upon their victims and literally eating their way into their favorite parts of the flesh - the eyes, heart and genitalia.
Ellis had released the peris three times already... the first, two months ago when he'd first made contact with Karcis after hiring a professional to steal the cane and Paracelsus' instructions from the collector who owned it. During that all-too-brief communication with the Div, Karcis had told him she had to have a human sacrifice in order to manifest, and given him the peris, with instructions on how to release and control them.
The wolverkin claws had been his idea. The peris weren't very bright, and needed something to focus on in order to find their victim. And the victims deserved their fate; they were corrupt men, black souls steeped in sin.
Those claws were unique, and he'd known if they were instructed to destroy a human who had one, or any wolverkin artifact for that matter, they'd do precisely that. Karcis' sacrifices were, of necessity, male; and if they'd had sex recently, the power she received was better for her purposes. So he'd formulated a fool-proof plan...
Wolverkin were very, very careful and distrustful almost to the point of xenophobia; how many humans could there be with claws in their pockets? There was no room for mistakes in this dangerous business, and he thought he'd managed to get things just exactly perfect...
Besides, he'd kind of hoped the police would put the murders down to animal attacks. So far, he hadn't read anything in the papers about them and thought he was fairly safe. After all, there was really nothing to connect him with the killings. Except one.
He closed the lid of the box and walked slowly back to the bedroom, and the phone rang. He'd bribed a workman from the telephone company to run an illegal and off-the-record line to the Conservatory.
''Hello?'' he said, answering the phone. ''What? What do you mean, you didn't get the chance to plant it on him? But...'' Ellis stopped, brows drawn together in consternation. ''No. No, it's all right. We'll do it again in three days, all right? Yes, the usual payment. Yes, I'll pay you for this one, even though you fucked it up. Now, listen to me! I'm really disappointed... you didn't do what you were supposed to, but I'll pay you anyway for your time, just like we agreed. But don't push it, bitch! Hear me! DON'T push it!'' He slammed the receiver down and wiped his suddenly sweaty brow.
If his confederate hadn't planted the claw as planned - if the peris hadn't killed that person - who the hell had they killed?
Ellis suddenly felt sick... and very, very scared.
Evan looked up from the file she was studying. Jo was scowling fiercely, her face a study in concentration. Evan laid aside the folder. ''Jo, tell me about your father.''
''Huh?'' Jo's blue gaze flew up to meet the other woman's. ''What the... what the fuck does that have to do with the price of blowjobs in Beijing?''
''From a few things you've said, I gathered... well, that he wasn't a very nice man, colleen. I was just curious.'' Evan had been reading the first victim's autopsy report; he'd been an office worker with a construction company and she'd suddenly remembered that Jo had mentioned that her father had been a construction worker. Now she wondered why Jo never talked about her family...
''Shit... um... yeah, 'not a nice man' don't quite cut it, baby. He was mean sober and meaner drunk. Used ta beat the all-fired holy crap outta me and my mom.'' Jo shrugged and turned back to the burglary report she'd been studying. ''Least he didn't do anything, you know, sexual. But he liked to use his fists. Anyways, he fell off a big mother skyscraper he was workin' on; he'd had one too many whiskeys at lunch and lost his balance. But the company hushed it up and paid mom his pension and insurance and stuff.''
''And your mother? Where's she now?''
''Mom died a coupla years ago. Breast cancer. By the time they caught it, it was too friggin' late. She died in this hospice across the state. I didn't find out about it until they called me to find out what kinda funeral arrangements I wanted ta make. Buncha heartless bastards,'' Jo fumed. She looked up from the file. ''What brought this on?''
Evan gave her lover a slight smile. ''As I said, colleen... curiosity. You never talk about your family.''
''Ain't got none. Well, except my crazy old aunt who lives in Bluebottle, Georgia. Real bubba-ville hick town. She's my mom's older sister. I ain't seen her in about a hundred years.'' Jo cocked her head to one side and, much to her surprise, yawned hugely. ''Jeez... I'm wiped. I gotta get some sleep; it's friggin' three o'clock in the morning.'' She tossed the file aside. ''You comin', Ev?''
''In a minute. I'm almost done here.'' Evan watched as Jo uncoiled her length from the floor and stretched, one hand wandering down to scratch her denim covered ass. As Jo padded from the room, Evan picked up the burglary folder and scanned it quickly.
She was on the point of laying it aside and getting on with the autopsy report when something caught her eye. Evan read more carefully... then she closed her eyes, leaning back on the sofa.
Kernossus! the Celtic woman thought, suddenly feeling every one of her two thousand plus years. She's back.
Evan sat like that for a little while longer... then got up to join her lover in restless sleep.
''Yer kidding, right? Tell me you're jerkin' my jane, here, baby. I'm beggin' ya!'' It was eleven o'clock in the morning, and Jo had gone from grouchily sleepy to fully alert with Evan's news.
''I'm entirely serious.'' Evan took a bite of the breakfast burrito she'd concocted, licking salsa from her lips.
''Aw, shit! Shit, shit, SHIT!'' Jo spun away from the kitchen counter. Oh, Jesus Christ! she thought. Not another one! ''Another fuckin' demon! A goddamned, mother fuckin', hellfire and brimstone belchin' demon! Shit!''
''Jo, calm down. A Div is only like a demon. They're from Persian, not Christian, mythology.''
''You think I give a flyin' fuck where the bastard comes from? I don't care if he's straight outta Disneyland, Ev! It's a DEMON!'' Jo suppressed the urge to race into the bedroom and start packing. ''I'm getting too old for this shit. At least tell me this one's not gonna start paying house calls, willya?''
Evan chuckled. ''I don't think so, love. But Karcis is a bit different from most Divs I've heard about. For one thing, she's sexually oriented, like a succubus. That's why poor Paracelsus never found the Philosopher's Stone; Karcis could've given him the time of his life, but she doesn't really possess much arcane knowledge. She does, however, have ambitions. One of them's to permanently cross over into this plane.''
''Great! Just great! Another demon who wants to rule the friggin' world! Can't they be a little more original? Like, wanting to totally fuck up the economy? Oh, wait... I guess that's already happened,'' Jo said sarcastically.
''Jo... as near as I remember, Karcis doesn't want to rule the world. She is shootin' for goddess status; once she crosses over, if she can get enough worshippers under her belt, she'll be ridin' high and mighty as the leading figure of a cult. If not... well, she thrives on negative sexual energy. Maybe she'll get a job at the Cutting Edge.''
Jo rolled her eyes and smothered a snort. The Cutting Edge was an exclusive, members only S&M club. ''Yeah, right... I can see it now. 'Coffee, tea, or nipple clamps?' Jeez, Ev... so is she as dangerous as Eridu? I mean, can we expect a buncha her buds to come charging in here, champing at the bit to break our heads?''
''Well...'' Evan hesitated. ''Let me explain. How I made the connection was this: the coroner's office is completely baffled by the wounds - they haven't figured out what weapon was used because nothing they can think of makes sense. 'Looks like tiny bite marks; maybe a customized tool?''' she quoted. ''Then I read the burglary report. One of the items stolen from that collector, Armand Duvalier, was an ebony cane set with a garnet the size of a baby's fist. I happen to know that cane was once owned by Paracelsus and that Karcis was trapped inside; how Bear figured it out, I'll never know. But...''
''But? Oh, Christ! Tell me there ain't no buts, Ev! I don't think I can stand it!''
''As I've already said, Karcis is Persian. She has servants who attend her... peris.'' Evan quickly explained what peris were, and what their function was.
Jo shuddered. ''Like getting nibbled to death by fuckin' ducks... Great! Wonderful!'' She threw her hands up in the air. ''I tell ya, if it weren't for the retirement benefits, I'd quit this chickenshit outfit in a heartbeat!''
Evan giggled. ''What benefits, colleen?''
''Oh, yeah, that's right... there ain't none!'' Jo scrubbed her face with a hand. ''Goddammit. I think I'm moving to Bermuda or something.''
''After this is over?''
''Well, no, not really. I hear there's some wild and woolly things that go down in the Islands, too. Ain't nowhere on this planet safe.'' Jo sighed. ''All right... so now what?''
''Now, I think we should talk to Monsieur Duvalier. The police haven't been able to trace any of the stolen items, and I'd truly like to know what information he has on Paracelsus' cane.''
''Okay. Whatever.'' Jo grabbed a burrito and crammed half of it into her mouth, salsa running down her chin. ''Mmmph... foo wan tek t' fimfmofile?''
''Hmmm? Chew and swallow, colleen. Gibberish isn't one of my languages.'' Evan smiled.
''I said,'' Jo repeated, gulping. ''Do you wanna take the Pimpmobile?''
''The Lincoln? Yes!'' Evan grinned. ''How about you finish breakfast, while I call Monsieur Duvalier?''
''Sounds like a plan to me.'' Jo stuffed the rest of the burrito into
her mouth and reached for a second; as Evan left the kitchen, she detoured
briefly to kiss a bit of tomato and jalapeno from the tall blonde's chin.
Armand Duvalier's family had escaped the Revolution with their fortune intact, fleeing for the relative safety of England. They had eventually returned to France, just in time for World War II, where they'd collaborated with both the Nazi's and the Resistance, hedging their bets while acquiring even more wealth and priceless artworks.
Duvalier was slightly pudgy, with neatly trimmed black hair and brown eyes that were set just a shade too close together; this, along with a long, sharply pointed nose, combined to give him the look of a well-fed weasel.
He now lived in America; the black sheep of the Duvalier family, he'd been tossed out on his ear when he was seventeen after getting expelled from university for extortion, sexual escapades and selling drugs. He'd managed to get his own fortune by marrying well, and often, to wealthy geriatric widows who were charmed by his European suavity and the hint of scandal in his background.
The Frenchman took a puff of the black cigarette in his hand, set in an ivory holder. ''Oui, mam'selle Reilly. I collect the occult, you see. It is a fascination of mine.'' He tapped the cigarette against the side of a crystal ashtray. ''I have many rare artifacts.''
''You keep them here?'' Evan looked around. Duvalier lived in the penthouse suite of the Coeur de Lyon, a towering edifice built for the fabulously wealthy, and situated in the heart of the Diamond District, the city's stomping grounds for the rich and privileged.
Duvalier laughed. ''We have good security, the best! My cases were filled, a lifetime's work, a good deal of it gone - poof! - in a moment. However...'' He crushed out his cigarette, blowing a stream of smoke from his nostrils. ''The thief was not so professional, in my opinion. Oh, he managed to evade the alarms... but he did not know what he was doing otherwise.''
Jo leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. ''How's that?''
''You see here?'' Duvalier crossed to one of the massive mahogany cases the lined the walls and opened the door. Reaching inside, he withdrew a book with a battered cover of dark red leather. ''Unprofessional!''
''May I?'' Evan reached for the volume, and Duvalier handed it to her with a shrug. She opened it reverently, read a moment, then breathed, ''The lost Sword of Moses... Jo, do you know what this is?''
''Not a clue. Fill me in, Holmes.'' Her blue eyes twinkled at the expression of scholarly lust on Evan's face.
''One of the famous lost grimoires. There's a extant copy of the first Sword of Moses in the British Museum, but it's long been known that a companion volume existed, tho' none have ever seen it.'' Evan closed the cover of the volume. ''I can see why you believe the thief to be a novice, monsieur,'' she said, handing the book back to Duvalier, who replaced it in the cabinet and sat back down.
''I still don't get it,'' Jo muttered.
Duvalier explained. ''You see, mam'selle Tate, if our thief had known what he was doing, he would have left the little bijoux in the cases - trinkets, really, even if gold and silver - and taken things like this. The grimoire is irreplaceable and the only known copy in existence. He could have named his own price from nearly any collector. He ignored the important pieces, taking only the glitter.'' He frowned. ''But... he took the cane.''
''Wouldn't the garnet be worth much?'' Evan asked.
''Yes,'' Duvalier said thoughtfully. ''But one as big as the Eye of the Beast... there is no one save a private collector who would purchase such a large stone, and all would know what it is upon first sight. Further, if it were cut into smaller stones - even if it could be - it would not be worth nearly as much. Why take it at all?''
Jo frowned, thinking. ''Okay... see if this makes sense. I've heard about some collectors who hire thieves to boost a rival's collection. Happened to some stamp guy a few years back. Could somebody've been sent to steal one specific thing and taken the other stuff to cover it up?''
''It's possible,'' Duvalier allowed. ''If this were the case, I would say that the object in question was the Paracelsus cane.''
''How so?'' Evan asked.
''The other things that were stolen - they were unimportant. A seal ring belonging to Dr. Dee, a necklace purported to have been worn by Marie Laveaux, things like that. The cane was the only truly important piece that was stolen.''
''Monsieur Duvalier, do you know what the cane was?'' Evan, too, leaned forward, fixing her gray eyes on the gentleman.
Duvalier scratched his cheek. ''Oui,'' he replied simply. ''If you mean that the jewel was the prison of a demonic entity. If the Eye of the Beast had been an ordinary garnet, mam'selle, do you suppose it would hold any value for me, despite its former owner?''
Jo sighed. ''See? Demons. Shit fire and spare the matches!''
''What my associate means, monsieur,'' Evan hastened to say, ''is that we've had experience dealin' with such before. Was anythin' else of occult value taken?''
It was Duvalier's turn to sigh. He closed his eyes a moment, then opened them again. ''Oui. Paracelsus' personal journal. All his working notes, everything. In it, there was the spell he used to summon Karcis, to bind her to his will. As far as he was able.''
Evan's eyes widened. '''As far as he was able?''' she repeated.
''He could receive no information on the Philosopher's Stone. However... you may not know that Karcis can be freed. If enough lives are sacrificed, the bindings put on her will be broken. And I pity the mage who frees her; the ending of his life would completely shatter Karcis' last tie to the Eye.'' Duvalier smiled. ''Let us hope the thief, or his employer, is not such a fool.''
''Aye.'' Evan was silent a moment, then she stood up and shook Duvalier's hand. ''Thank you, monsieur. For your time and for your information.''
''To help two such beautiful ladies, I would go to far more trouble,'' he answered, kissing Evan's hand while Jo scowled.
When he held out his hand to Jo, the woman sneered slightly and flipped her fingers at him in farewell. As she walked beside Evan to the elevator, the platinum blonde muttered under her breath, ''Greasy Euro-trash sonnuva bitch.''
Evan gave her a startled look, but remained silent.
Back in the penthouse they had just vacated, Duvalier pursed his lips, then got up and poured himself a cognac.
Just as the glass touched his lips, a voice behind him said, ''Well, Armand? Do you think they can do it?''
''Oui, Astarte. I believe they can.'' He turned, green eyes meeting the
goddess' golden brown... and smiled. ''I do believe they can.''
"I figure the bastard's getting antsy,'' Jo said as they drove home in the night-black Lincoln limousine she called the Pimpmobile. It had been converted into a hearse at one point in its checkered career, and Jo had gotten it cheap from a man who swore it was haunted. It had been, but between them, the two women had managed to lay the restless spirit to peace.
Evan twisted a lock of orange hair around one finger. ''The killer? Perhaps. He kills one victim, then waits a full twenty eight days for the next.'' She shifted in her seat, moving closer to Jo. ''Then, the day after the second murder, he kills again. We know it wasn't a copycat; what made him step up his schedule?''
''I told ya. He's getting antsy. I know from psychos, okay? He shot his wad too quick or something, wanted to cream his jeans again, so he gets Karcis or her peris to do Bear. What I wanna know is: how come he didn't leave a claw on Bear?''
''Nuh-uh. Bear was laying there for hours before that health nut chickie found him.'' Jo jerked the wheel, steering the car around a sputtering VW, and cruised back over to the exit lane. ''We know he's got four left, right? I mean, that's part of his ritual or some weird ass shit like that...''
Jo seemed to contemplate the matter as she drove the Pimpmobile through the exit and turned west to the Bougainvillea Towers. Suddenly, she slammed on the brakes in the middle of the lane, setting off screeching tires and bellowing horns behind her. ''Holy motherfuckin' shit!'' she screamed. ''I got it!''
Evan twisted her neck around, looking at the cars piled up behind them, and turned back to her lover. ''By Kernossus, woman! Are you tryin' to get us killed? Let's go!''
Elated, Jo stomped on the gas, making the big car lurch forward, tires squealing and smoking. Once she'd straightened out the wheel, Jo looked at Evan with a huge grin on her face. ''Oh, baby... I got it! I got the bastard by the friggin' balls!''
''What ARE you talkin' about?'' Evan was starting to get annoyed. ''And will you BY DANA watch where you're goin'!,'' she yelled as Jo narrowly avoided hitting a white-faced man on a motor scooter.
Jo banged her fingers on the steering wheel in a syncopated rhythm. ''Ha! I know how come Bear got killed, and how come he ain't got no claw! Jesus Christ! That fucker really screwed the pooch this time.''
''I find that phrase so offensive,'' Evan said, reaching out one hand to yank the wheel to the right in order to avoid hitting a pedestrian.
''Sorry.'' Jo jerked the car over, cutting off an infuriated woman in a Toyota, and rolled up into the Towers parking lot. Getting the Lincoln into their assigned compact car space usually involved plentiful cursing, sweating and even the creation of new, original blasphemies, but today, Jo manhandled the Pimpmobile into position with nary a swear word in sight.
Cutting off the engine, she turned to Evan. ''Listen, baby,'' she began eagerly. ''We know the first two victims were with prostitutes before they were killed, right?''
''Yes,'' Evan admitted cautiously.
''Okay. Now, I happen to know Bear was clean; never did the walk-on-the-wildside, freakout boogaloo with no hustler. But - there was one thing he had in common with the other two dudes.''
Jo waited expectantly, holding her breath while Evan frowned, puzzled. Finally, the Celtic woman shrugged and said, ''I'm still baffled, colleen.''
''Well, we've been assuming that the killer left the claws on his victims as a kinda calling card, but what if his victims already had the claws before they got killed?'' Jo's blue eyes sparkled with excitement.
Evan mulled this over a moment... ''Mmm... but how would they... Oh! I see!'' She scooted so close to Jo that their thighs touched. ''If the claws were bein' used as some kind of... hmmm... trackin' device by the peris; then Bear had them, and they focused on him instead of their intended victim.''
''Riiiight,'' Jo purred. ''So - and tell me if I'm a babbling idiot over here - that would mean that it was the prostitute who was the common cause in the first two murders, right? I mean, she hadda plant the things. So our murderer has a partner, who maybe don't know what she's gotten into, and yesterday she FUBAR'd the killer's plans by not planting the claw on her john, and Bear was just in the wrong place with the wrong stuff at the wrong friggin' time.''
Jo looked smug and patted Evan's cheek. ''Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition,'' she said. ''Now all we gotta do is find that prostitute.''
''But the police...''
''Fuck the police! They can do interviews from now till doomsday, but the shit's fixing to hit the fan, if it hasn't already; and besides, I think the ladies of the evening ain't too fond of cops and not likely to be passing out info, not even the time of day. Personally, I think we oughta pay the coroner's office a little visit...'' Jo gave her lover a significant look. ''Maybe do some of that voodoo that we do so well.''
Evan leaned over and kissed Jo on the mouth, murmuring, ''Yes. Tonight when it's quiet.'' She put a hand on Jo's thigh and squeezed. ''After I give you a prize for bein' so smart and figurin' it out, Jo Tate. And this time, you're on top.''
Jo closed her eyes and sighed happily, murmuring, ''Mmm-mmm good.''
A wolf with fur the color of ripe tangerines slipped through the hole she'd dug beneath the high wire gate that surrounded the perimeter of the Angelicus County Coroner's Office. Wriggling on her belly and clawing at the hard packed dirt, she managed to get under the fence and took off at a dead run across the treeless field behind the sprawling, low-slung edifice.
When she reached the building, Evan sent a thought to her lover, ::Jo? Are you 'bout ready?::
Jo thought back, ::Yeah. Roger-dodger, 10-4 good buddy and all that kinda shit. Kiss for luck, baby... tongue optional.::
Evan's tongue lolled out of her mouth in a wolfish grin. She reared up and planted both enormous paws against the locked doors, threw back her head and howled.
The long, wavering cry echoed across the parking lot, and reached Jo's ears. Huh!, she thought. This might work. If there ain't no pooches around here what needs a good screwing.
::I heard that!::
Jo winced. ::Sorry, Ev. Present company excepted:: She grinned. ::You already had yours, anyhow.::
Jo's short, platinum blonde hair was hidden beneath a black baseball cap; she wore black jeans and a brand new inky T-shirt. The sleeves were pushed up to her elbows, but she wore gloves on both hands.
Jo waited, listening.
Evan scrabbled at the door, howling mournfully. Finally, one of the doors opened cautiously. ''What the hell...?'' came a puzzled male voice.
::Now, Jo!,:: Evan drny, and knocked the white coated employee down, insinuating herself inside. She sniffed; the man who'd come to the door was out cold. The wolf took a quick look around, spotting the desk where a security guard gaped.
Growling hideously, she leaped across the intervening space with a single, fluid bound, hitting the guard in the chest with her full weight. He fell over, squealing in panic, trying to draw his gun. But he was old, very overweight, and simply no match for Evan in her shiftself. She clamped her jaws around his jowls and squeezed carefully, judging the exact amount of pressure she could bring to bear, then jerked her head sideways, slamming the guard's head into the side of the desk. With a shudder, he fell unconscious.
Evan reared up and nosed the gate buzzer, finally hitting it on the third try. From the banks of security monitors, she could see the razor-wire topped gated open slowly, and then the black clad form of Jo scuttling through and sprinting across the parking lot.
When Jo got to the front doors, she heard the buzz, and hit the right one with both hands. Getting inside, she crossed the small lobby with a few quick strides, then joined Evan behind the security desk.
''Gotta fix that tape,'' she muttered to herself. In a few minutes, she'd rewound the entire videotape and started it recording again, over the portion that would show the illegal entry of a wolf and a woman. They would leave by the back, out the ambulance bay.
That task finished, Jo blew out a breath and turned glowing blue eyes
on Evan, who nosed the platinum blonde's hand with her muzzle. ''Good
girl... you wanna Scooby snack?'' Jo quipped, and snickered as she led
the way through the swinging doors that would take them to the morgue.
A single employee was on guard outside the morgue; a pimply faced intern who had on a pair of earphones that leaked Metallica in a tinny blare. He had a comic book in front of his face, one of the new ones featuring impossibly big-breasted women in skimpy costumes; and he was devouring Ding-Dongs, one right after the other.
''Oh, shit, this is gonna be too friggin' easy,'' Jo said under her breath. She whipped off her T-shirt, revealing the fact she wore no bra to confine her small, pert breasts.
::Jo? What in the world are you doin'?:: Evan's plumed tail stopped wagging and fell.
''I'm gonna give that kid one helluva wet dream. Stay here, baby. Lemme handle this.'' Jo sauntered out of the hallway, straight into the room, scanty hips swinging back and forth like a pendulum.
For a minute, the intern didn't notice the intrusion; his slightly bulging eyes were fixed on the comic book. But soon, those eyes rose and bulged even further, and the comic book went one way, the headphones another. ''Um... uh... you...,'' he squeaked, then cleared his throat, prominent Adam's apple bobbing up and down. ''You lost or something?''
''Naw, I ain't lost. You're Andrew, right?'' Jo had spotted the young man's nametag. She leaned a buttock on the corner of the desk. ''I'm Bambi. I'm s'posed to give you a strip-o-gram from your buds.''
''Huh? A s-s-strip-o-gram?'' Andrew reached out and mechanically picked up a Ding-Dong, then let it drop when he noticed it in his hand. ''For me? B-b-but it's not my birthday or anything.''
''Aw, c'mon, stud! Who cares it ain't your birthday?'' Jo bent over and ran a finger down over Andrew's downy chin, smiling widely. ''You're not shy, are you?'' She lowered her voice to a husky purr. ''I like 'em shy.''
Adam's apple bobbing even more wildly, Andrew sputtered, unable to say a word.
Jo edged closer, leaning down further until her breasts were practically touching his face. ''You gotta private place we can go, Andrew? Someplace we ain't gonna be disturbed for a while?'' She nearly lost it when Evan's scathing comment, ::I'd give him five minutes, if that!:: sounded in her mind.
Andrew rose, bumping his chair back with a squeal of metal on tile. ''Um... yeah... we got an employee lounge over there,'' he said, pointing down another corridor. ''Uh... there's not much of a crew this late at night. Just the cleaning guy, the security guard and my friend, Joey. You... you want to go there?''
''Sure, you hunka burnin' lovemuffin.'' Jo got up and grabbed Andrew's hand. ''Lead the way.''
Evan watched her lover tow the boy into the employee lounge; a few minutes later, she exited alone. ::Well? P'raps I should've placed money on his longevity - or lack of it:: Evan sent in an acid tone.
''Don't get yer pretty tail in a knot, baby. I cold-cocked the kid before he could even put his dirty paws on my luscious little boobies. Andrew's off in la-la land, dreaming about getting his rocks off with strippers named Bambi, and probably doing nasty things to the pile of linen I stuck him in. Now, shall we go?'' Jo snatched her shirt up off the floor and pulled it over her head.
Inside the morgue, it was cold, the temperature much lower than the rest of the building. Jo rubbed her hands down her arms. ''Brrrr... it's colder than a witch's tit in here!,'' she complained.
::I'm nice and toasty warm:: Evan thought.
''Yeah, but you're wearing a friggin' fur coat!'' Jo eyed the handwritten chart that hung on the wall. ''We want E-26, Ev. That's the first guy, whassisname.''
::Felix Yoder. Ironic, isn't it?::
Jo scanned the doors of the stainless steel corpse coolers, looking for the number. ''What?''
::Felix... in Latin it means, lucky.::
''Yeah, well I guess old Felix's luck ran out, Ev. Happens to the best of us.'' She found the drawer she was looking for; pulling down the handle of the door and popping it open, Jo drew the drawer out.
Yoder's corpse was in a black bodybag. Jo unzipped it, praying it wouldn't be too gross and that she wouldn't disgrace herself by heaving all over the dead man.
Evan shifted back into her skinshape. She, too, was dressed in black from head to toe, and her orange hair had been twisted into a tight braid that hung down to her waist. ''Mmmm,'' she murmured, looking at Yoder's body. ''I'm takin' it that Karcis' isn't too choosy about her men.''
In life, Felix Yoder had been short, grossly overweight, and hairy. His bottom lip protruded in a perpetual pout and his hairline had receded drastically. A line of black, waxy thread stitches marched from his pubis to just beneath the gaping hole where his heart had been removed; so much of the surrounding tissue was gone that no amount of stitching was going to close the wound.
His body had been held pending further findings; as Yoder wasn't married, nor did he have many relatives, the coroner's office hadn't had any trouble retaining the corpse.
Jo wrinkled her nose and grimaced. ''Ugh! Damned if I want to end up stark naked with strangers staring at me and putting their greasy hands all over me! I want that, I'll get a job as one of them exotic dancing chickies.''
''Dollar bills in your G-string? Aye, I can see that,'' Evan replied with a smile. ''Ready to do the spell?''
Jo yanked down her shirtsleeves. ''Yep. Ride 'em, cowgirl!'' She walked over to Evan's side of the drawer.
''Yee haw,'' Evan said with a grin. She held out her hands, palms up, and Jo covered them with her own. Even through the surgical gloves they wore, each woman could feel the other's warmth.
Evan began chanting under her breath - the Rann of Clear Waters Gazing. This spell would cause an image to form of the events leading up to Yoder's death, and hopefully, the person or persons behind it.
Jo fed Evan energy in a steady stream, tapping into the ley line she'd scouted out earlier. Eyes closed, Jo gathered the magic as she had been taught, drawing it into herself, then shunting it to the Celtic woman, who continued to chant.
When the last words of the Rann spilled from Evan's lips, Jo opened her
A vaporous cloud had formed above Yoder's body; a ball of swirling mists that, as Jo watched, rapidly coalesced, becoming more solid and opaque. It was like looking through a slightly fogged window; Evan said a few words under her breath and the image cleared into crystal clarity.
I'll be damned! Jo thought in wonder. This is better'n cable at a fuck n' suck hotel, and I didn't even have to spend the quarter.
They watched as Yoder, on top of a woman in what appeared to be a cheap hotel room, furiously banged back and forth for several minutes, fat ass cheeks wobbling. He stopped, quivered for a long moment, then rolled off her.
''Where's the zoom on this sucker, baby?'' Jo leaned forward as the woman's form was revealed.
Evan muttered something, and the image of the women abruptly filled the gazing cloud and froze.
Jo dug a slim pencil camera out of her jeans. She'd picked up the miniature equipment in a spy shop, and it took excellent pictures, but the film was more expensive than the camera itself. She held it up to her eye and snapped several pictures, hoping Evan was right in that, although the images were magical in origin, they might still be captured by mundane equipment. Jo had wanted to consult a parapsychologist but there hadn't been time.
''Next time, see if you can get the dirty dyke channel,'' Jo murmured. Evan gave her a raised eyebrow, but spoke the commands that would make the image continue.
They watched as Yoder got dressed, handed the prostitute several bills from his wallet, and departed. As he walked out the door, Jo said, ''Ev... rewind this thing and slow it down. I thought I spotted something.''
With a sigh, Evan did, and when Jo said, ''Freeze! Right there!,'' she hastily blurted the appropriate word.
Jo pointed. ''See? When he's handing her the cash, she takes it with her right hand but her left comes up, too, over on the side. I bet she's sticking the claw in his jacket pocket. Smooth move. I gotta wonder if this hooker's a dip on the side.''
''Pickpocket.'' Jo nodded. ''Go on - we're just getting to the good part. Want to hold my hand when the bad guys show up? This is gonna be a regular slash fest, and no Freddy or Jason or Michael Myers in sight.'' She sighed. ''I wish I'd brought some popcorn.''
The images continued scrolling, through the peri's sudden, vicious attack. Yhe small creatures abruptly appeared and swarmed around Yoder, who waved his arms, mouth open in a silent scream. When they started burrowing into his flesh, Jo averted her eyes. ''Okay, enough's enough. I don't think we need all the gory details, do we?''
''Oh, not so tough as you thought, hmmm?'' Evan teased, but slashed her hand from side to side and the gazing cloud began swirling again, around and around, disappearing slowly as if being sucked down a drain. When it was gone, she sighed. ''Now, let's do the next one. I think it'll go faster this time.''
They repeated the ritual for the second victim, Peter Boswell, and finally for Bear McTierney. This last was hardest for Jo; she could barely make out the images in the gazing cloud through her tears. But she gulped them back and took the pictures; it was the same woman, all right, and by the time they'd finished, Jo was ready to hit the street and start searching.
''Let's go,'' Evan said wearily. ''I'll go into fur, colleen, just in case we meet anyone else while we're still in the building.'' She changed to her ShiftSelf, again becoming the gray-eyed she-wolf.
''You know, baby, every time you do that I get the willies,'' Jo said. ''Okay, to the ambulance bay, faithful sidekick! And try not to piddle on the floor. I didn't see any newspapers around.''
Evan shook herself, settling her fur into place, then led Jo out of the morgue.
Their exit from the building was uneventful. When they were both back in the Lincoln and on their way home, Evan back in her skinshape, Jo frowned. ''I know it's two o'clock in the morning, Ev, but I want to drive by Sy's place. He's up, always is - don't think the man's slept since 1972.''
Evan nodded and yawned. ''All right. But then I want to go home and to bed, Jo. I'm mortal tired.'' She yawned again, and Jo chuckled.
''Here... put your head down in my lap, baby. Take a little nap till we get to Sy's lair. No funny stuff, though,'' she added as Evan slid down and nestled her head on Jo's thigh. ''Don't wanna rear end some poor dude 'cause my girlfriend was frenchin' my pussy while I was driving. Try explaining that to the traffic cops.''
Evan giggled, then closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. It seemed as if only a few moments had passed before she heard Jo's voice saying softly, ''Hey, Ev, honey... we're here. C'mon, baby. Wakie, wakie.''
Evan sat up, rubbing her eyes. ''Hmmm? Oh, all right.''
Sy's lair, as Jo had called it, was situated in a small, solidly middle class neighborhood. But unlike his neighbors, Sy Cosenza's house was surrounded by a high, barbed wire fence; security lights on tall poles were placed at strategic points in the yard, and the entire place was peppered with video cameras, motion detectors and other paraphernalia.
Jo walked up to the gate, where a black intercom box was mounted next to the mailbox. Thumbing a button, Jo said, ''Hello? Sy? Hey, man, open up. It's Jo. I gotta job for ya.''
The intercom crackled to life. ''Jo? Who's that with you? I'm reading two on the infrared.''
''Aw, jeez, Sy! It's my partner, Evan. You remember Ev, right? From the Christmas party? Carrot top, built like a brick shithouse, cool tats in places you ain't seen yet.'' Jo winked at Evan and smiled hugely.
''Oh. Yeah, sure, I remember Evan. Hang on a sec.'' With a hum, the gate slid back slowly. Sy's voice came from the black intercom again. ''It's pattern Beta-4 tonight. You remember?''
''Yeah, I know it. Thanks. We're coming in.'' Jo took Evan's hand and led her into the yard. ''Step only where I step, baby. Sy's got the whole friggin' place mined with army surplus shit. He's got explosives rigged on some kinda computerized system; changes the pattern regularly. Real paranoid sonnuva bitch.''
They wound around in serpentine fashion until they got to the front porch of the house. A pair of video cameras turned in their direction; the two women waited and finally, the door opened.
''Come on in, ladies,'' Sy said, carefully staying behind the door.
They went inside and Sy immediately closed the door behind them; it was six inches of solid steel in a heavily reinforced frame, and it slammed home with a thud. He swiftly threw several bolts, chains and locks, then turned to his guests.
''Sorry about the fuss, Evan, Jo,'' he said, running a hand over his thinning blonde hair. ''One can't be too careful these days.''
Sy Cosenza was a medium sized man in his early fifties with sad, hound dog eyes set in permanently dark circles, sagging jowls and a heavily lined forehead.
Jo reached into her jeans pocket and Sy immediately whipped up a semi-automatic Glock. ''Slowly,'' he cautioned.
Evan sucked in a breath and considered taking him out, but a warning look from Jo convinced her to calm down.
The platinum blonde drew the miniature camera from her pocket. ''See? It's just a camera, man. I want you to develop the film... rush job. I'll pay ya for it.''
Sy held out his hand and took the camera, holding it up to the light, the barrel of the gun steady on Jo. After a moment, he lowered the Glock. ''Sorry. They've been hanging around again, trying to get to me.'' He tucked the gun into the back of his pants. ''I have to be careful.''
Evan was convinced the man was mad, but if Jo trusted him, she would, too. But only to a certain extent. One more threatenin' move, she thought, and I'll be seein' if he's immune to a magic bullet.
She looked around while Jo explained to Sy what they wanted. The windows of the house were covered by metal shutters; electronic equipment, much of it unfamiliar to her, beeped and hummed and glowed. There were weapons everywhere, enough firearms to take a small country by the look of it. Several gas masks, and a full environmental suit with oxygen tank, were in one corner. There wasn't much furniture; just a sagging couch, some halogen lamps, and, oddly enough, not a television in sight.
Sy was saying, ''I can have the pictures for you tomorrow. Want me to have them delivered?'' The man was clearly nervous; it was apparent he didn't like visitors violating the sanctity of his lair.
''Yeah, that's cool.'' Jo dug into her pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. ''A hundred okay?'' she asked, peeling off twenty dollar bills.
''Sure. I'll even throw in some more film; CIA grade, not that retail crap.'' Sy took the money carefully between his thumb and forefinger, then tossed it into small lidded box of some dull metallic material. He then turned around and marched out of the room without a word.
At Evan's look, Jo sighed. ''He's gone to wash his hands. Sy's convinced the government's adding mind altering chemicals to the ink on the money; that box is lead, to keep the spooks from tracking it by the tiny microchips they've implanted in the paper.''
''Jo, that man is...''
''I know, baby. Total bug-fuckin' nuts, but real smart. Genius IQ, degrees up the wazoo, went to MIT for Christ's sake. He was gonna be a professor or something, but he went to Vietnam instead. Came back with a hunk of shrapnel in his brain and mucho paranoid delusions.'' She shrugged. ''He may sound crazy, Ev, but you know what they say: if you think somebody's after you, they probably are.''
Evan laid a hand on Jo's arm. ''Is he dangerous?''
''Um, yeah, probably, if he felt cornered. Way I see it, the only guys likely to bother him are the IRS, 'cause he ain't paid taxes in years, and if those bastards come banging on his door and get blown away, is that such a bad thing?'' She smiled. ''I'm kidding. I don't Sy'd actually kill anybody. He just acts like a big, bad motherfucker.''
Sy returned, wiping his hands on a towel. They looked red and raw and he smelled faintly of bleach. ''All right, Jo. You'll have your pictures in the morning. Now, if you'll excuse me... I was working on my newsletter when you arrived and I've got to finish. My reading public needs me.''
He showed them to the door, and it slammed shut behind them. Evan asked softly, ''Newsletter?''
''Sy doesn't have a reading public.'' Jo led Evan off the porch and back into the yard, guiding her to the safety of the street. ''He does this newsletter every month, then he mails copies to every politician on Capitol Hill, the state, even city officials right on down to the neighborhood volunteer Crimewatch dudes. I gotta friend on the Commission who calls him Mr. Conspiracy.''
They climbed back into the car. ''Do you think someone's really after Sy?'' Evan asked.
''Dunno.'' Jo started up the Pimpmobile and put an arm around Evan's shoulders. ''But if they weren't, he'd be awfully goddamned disappointed.''
Evan yawned, then snuggled up to Jo and slept all the way home.
They spent several hours on the street the next night, going from prostitute to prostitute, showing photographs of the mysterious woman who'd been an accessory in at least two deaths.
Finally, they hit paydirt. ''Yeah, I know her,'' the woman said. She wore a silver tinsel wig, neon pink tube top, and a lime green leather miniskirt that left little to the imagination; bright crimson lipstick was a startling contrast to her rich black skin. ''That's Wanda. We call her Wonder Woman 'cause she does the freakshow stuff mostly.''
''You know where this Wanda hangs out, Kadijah?'' Jo handed the prostitute a fifty and waited.
Kadijah licked her lips and accepted the bill, folding it into quarters and tucking it into her top. ''Yeah. How come you wanna know?'' She eyed Evan up and down, fake eyelashes fluttering, then slewed her coffee brown eyes back to the tall platinum blonde. ''You want a threesome, honey, I can provide. Or maybe you want to try something your old lady ain't gonna give you. The black berry's got the sweetest juice, you know.'' She leaned closer to Jo, who drew back a little.
''Naw, sweetheart. This is strictly business.'' Jo flashed Evan a grin. ''B'sides, I get enough at home to keep my motor running happy.''
''Uh-huh.'' Kadijah snorted. ''Whatever. You ever change your mind, you call me, hear? For you, I gotta special rate. Specially you wanna go solo.''
Evan suppressed the urge to grab Kadijah by her augmented breasts and shake her. ''Listen, all we want to know is where we can find Wanda. So quit flirtin' around and just tell us.''
The prostitute snorted again and rocked her head back and forth, hands on her hips. ''Huh! Listen to her, Miss Thang over there. Whatcha gonna do, Miss Thang? You gonna get all mean and tough on Kadijah? Gimme attitude? Fuck you! I ain't gotta take no shit from you, white ass, fake orange headed, freak cunt!'' The glittery tinsel of her wig blew in her face.
Evan lost her temper. With a snarl, she reached out and pulled Kadijah to her, shoving her face close and showing her teeth. ''Tell us where we can find Wanda, or I'll be showin' you how mean and tough I can be!''
She shoved the other woman back and Kadijah stumbled on her stiletto heels, nearly falling. ''Diseased whore's get!'' Evan followed the prostitute, staying intimidatingly close. ''Talk! Now! Or I swear to Lugh I'll beat you till you can't move!''
Kadijah's eyes were wide as she took in Evan's threatening stance. ''Shit, lady! I was only fooling around! Chill! Chill! Okay, momma, you want to know where Wonder Woman hangs out? Try Augustine Street, okay? Augustine Street!'' She continued in a mutter to herself, ''Damn crazy bitch!''
Evan panted, and Jo wrapped a hand around her arm, leaning down to put her mouth close to the smaller woman's ear. ''Way to go, bad cop. My turn now.''
The platinum blonde smiled at Kadijah. ''Sorry 'bout that, sweetheart. My old lady gets hung up on stuff, you know? Anyway, thanks for the info and stay safe.'' She shoved a twenty at the prostitute, who took it with a trembling hand, and led Evan away.
Back in the Pimpmobile, driving through the light traffic, Jo said, ''I coulda sworn you were being jealous or something back there, Ev. You didn't think I was serious or nothing about Kadijah, right?''
Evan was silent, breathing heavily through her nose. Finally, she said, ''I've no right to be jealous, truly. If you want to see Kadijah, or anyone else...'' She gulped. ''I don't mind.''
The effect of these words was instantaneous. Jo wrenched the wheel to one side, pulling up into a supermarket parking lot. It had rained earlier, and small puddles of water reflected the bright yellow and green sign above the store as well as the glaring sodium lights.
Slamming the Lincoln into park, Jo shifted in her seat to face Evan directly. ''Just what the fuck is that s'posed to mean?'' she asked vehemently.
''I don't...'' Evan shook her head. ''Nothing, colleen. Nothing.''
''Don't gimme that shit! Goddammit, Ev! We've been living together for six months. I know I ain't so good with words, for sure I ain't no poet or nothing, but I love you. I want us to stay together.'' She scrubbed at her pale hair, making it stand up in spikes. ''Whaddya mean, it's okay for me to want other women? I don't want nobody but you!''
''I...'' Evan was flustered. ''I only thought...''
''Look. You're my main squeeze, right? I mean, I love you. It ain't easy for me to say, 'cause I ain't had much practice, but I need you, Ev. I don't care you're older'n me, I don't care you gotta run around in a fuckin' fur coat sometimes, I don't care about magic or nothing. I just care about you. You ain't gotta worry I'm gonna dump you for some other woman, baby. Ain't gonna happen, not in this lifetime.''
Evan started to cry. ''But Jo, you don't understand.''
''Then explain it to me. I'm listening.'' Jo folded her arms across her chest, trying to dull the ache in her heart.
''Colleen, it's not just a question of love. I love you as well. But do you not see? You'll grow old, Jo, and I'll remain the same. I've held myself away from love and commitment for a long time because of that.'' Tears dripped down her cheeks. ''I'm immortal. You're not. I'm not sure I can stand watchin' you slip away, year after year, until you breathe your last and I'm left alone again.''
''Oh. Shit.'' Jo unfolded her arms and laid a hand on Evan's knee. ''Okay. I think I see where you're coming from. But lemme ask you a question: would you rather stay alone forever, or would you rather have somebody with you, somebody who loves you, even if it's only for a little while?'' Her blue eyes searched Evan's.
The Celtic woman sighed, then snuffled. ''I don't know. I don't know which is worse or which is better; I've been through them both.'' She accepted the worn handkerchief Jo offered and wiped her face. ''I do love you, Jo. Somethin' fierce. Just for right now - can we take it a day at the time?''
Jo drew her hand back. Well, at least she ain't telling me to take a flying leap, she thought. ''All right, baby. Whatever you want. I ain't proposing yet; but someday, I'm gonna get down on my knees and ask, and you'd better have an answer for me, like a definite yes or no, okay?''
''Okay.'' Evan nodded and blew her nose delicately.
Jo started the car again and pulled out of the parking lot, back out onto the street. ''And no more of this, 'it's okay to see other people' shit, either. I don't want nobody else, and if I catch you making eyes at some other dyke, I'm gonna get real pissed real quick.''
Evan gave a small chuckle. ''No worries on that score, colleen. Now, where to?''
''Well, I know this little place on Augustine Street that's got these killer chili dogs,'' Jo replied with a smile. ''Smothered in stewed onions. And they sell Maalox, too.''
Evan rolled her eyes. Jo and her stomach, she thought. It's a wonder and a mystery to me how she stays so thin. ''And after? I take it we're goin' to look for this Wanda?''
''Got it in one!'' Jo turned right and they headed into the outskirts
of the downtown area... a rough neighborhood that was not quite a complete
slum, but deteriorated a little more, night after night, in a slow, downward
spiral of corruption and vice - The Hinterlands.
Jo ate three chili dogs to Evan's one, and was sucking on a cold Coke as they wandered down Augustine Street. Small shops had metal grills over their fronts; there was a prevalence of bars, pawn shops and tattoo parlors. The neon sign over one bar read, ''The Sacred Fist'' - and from the dozens of motorcycles parked out front, it was a biker hangout.
Jo stopped to admire a gleaming chromed machine. ''Mmm, always wanted me a Fatboy,'' she said dreamily.
''No. Absolutely not, Jo Tate.'' Evan clung to Jo's hand possessively. ''You're not gettin' any murder-cycle. I'm not havin' to identify your body after you get yourself killed.''
''Aw, c'mon, baby. It ain't that dangerous.'' Jo's eyes gleamed as she fantasized about the wind in her hair, Steppenwolf's ''Born to Be Wild'' blasting through her helmet, throbbing machine between her thighs, bugs in her teeth. Ugh. Ick. Back to the throbbing machine... oh, yeah.
''The way you drive, colleen, you'd be dead in a week.'' Evan tugged Jo onward. ''B'sides, I'll not be gettin' on one of those things.''
''What? You never wanted to be a hot biker chick?'' Jo drew the Celtic woman closer, wrapping an arm around her waist.
''No,'' Evan replied pertly. ''Oh, Jo... wait a moment. Is that not Wanda up there?''
Jo peered. A small group of hookers was congregated just up the street from where they stood. As she watched, a Ferrari cruised up and a cluster of women scurried over, bending down and posing, while the rest cat-called and whooped.
One of the women was smoking a cigarette, leaning back with one leg bent, foot resting against the brick wall. She wore a lavender fake fur midriff top, a short white skirt slit up both sides, and knee high plastic boots. Her strawberry blonde hair was caught up in two ponytails, and as the Ferrari glided away from the curb with its triumphant passenger, she spat and took another moody drag off her cigarette.
''Yep. That's the one, all right. C'mon, Ev. Let's go ask Ms. Wanda the Wonder Woman a few questions,'' Jo said.
When they approached, however, something in their stance must have made Wanda suspicious. Shooting them a look from heavily outlined eyes, she flicked her cigarette away and began walking rapidly up the street, the small trick bag over her shoulder banging into her hip.
''Shit. There she goes.'' Jo began walking faster, Evan right at her side. Wanda looked over her shoulder, then took off at a dead run, racing down the trash littered sidewalk.
''Goddammit! You go fur, Ev. I'm gonna try and cut her off this way,'' Jo gritted as she veered off and sprinted down an alley.
In mid-stride, Evan changed to her shiftself and the she-wolf put on an astonishing burst of speed, loping after Wanda - past a trio of winos, who shook their heads, muttered something about Sterno, and went back to sleep huddled in their Salvation Army coats.
As Wanda scuttled around a corner, Evan managed to grab the hem of her skirt and dug her paws in, legs straight, causing the woman to fall, sprawling, on the sidewalk. ::Jo! I've got her!:: she sent.
Wanda rolled over, eyes wide as saucers in her pinched looking face as she took in the massive wolf whose bright orange ruff was standing around her head like a mane. Sobbing, the woman scrambled in her trick bag, finally pulling out a canister of Mace. Before she could press the trigger, however, a foot kicked it out of her hand.
It was Jo; the tall platinum blonde was gasping for breath, and leaned over, hands on her knees. ''Jesus Christ, woman! We just wanna talk to ya, that's all! What's with the Roadrunner act?''
Wanda's mouth worked but no sound came out. She got to her knees and was clearly thinking about bolting, but Evan came forward on stiff legs, growling. The prostitute's eyes rolled back in her head and Jo grabbed her arm, hauling her to her feet. ''C'mon, sister. No fainting, now. The nice doggie ain't gonna hurt ya.''
::I'm goin' to get you for that, Jo:: Evan sent, but she sat back on her haunches and stopped growling.
''See? Nice doggie.'' Jo held Wanda up, supporting her weight with a hand around her waist. Her other hand reached into the trick bag and pulled out a wolverkin claw. ''Oh ho! Whadda we got here?''
Wanda suddenly struggled to pull free. ''Lemme go! Don't touch that, it's mine! Put it back!''
Jo held her arm in a tight grip. ''Nuh-uh, cookie. How's about you tell me where you got this little pretty, huh? Who gave it to you?''
Wanda struggled some more, but soon realized it was futile. Jo was a lot stronger than she looked. ''I don't... I can't tell ya, okay? It's just this thing, right? Why you wanna hassle me? I ain't done nothin'.''
''Yeah, yeah, right.'' Jo let go of Wanda but kept the claw in her hand. ''Let's go someplace private-like. You gotta story to tell me about this here claw, and I'm dying to hear all about it. In detail.''
Wanda shook her head, wisps of strawberry blonde hair sticking to her sweaty face. ''No way. He'd kill me if I told.''
''Who'd kill you?''
''I already said too much.'' Wanda tugged at the hem of her fake fur top. ''I gotta go. Gimme that thing,'' she said, reaching for the claw, but Jo snatched it out of reach.
''Listen, cookie. You got a coupla choices here: either you can be a good girl and cooperate, and I'll make sure you're protected and stuff, or I can just beat the hell outta ya and get what I want anyway. Up to you.'' Jo cracked the knuckles of one fist ostentatiously. ''I been needing a good workout anyhow.''
Wanda was clearly scared out of her wits, but while she wasn't exactly bright, she wasn't stupid, either. She licked her lips nervously and said, ''Okay. I'll tell ya what ya wanna know. Only, you gotta protect me from him! He can do stuff... weird stuff, magic stuff. I mean.'' She dropped her voice to a whisper. ''He's like some black magic dude or something. He can kill people just like that!'' She snapped her fingers.
''Okay. Where you wanna go talk? After we chat, I'll make some arrangements.''
''We can go to the Palm Court. It's just down the street. I'll meet ya there.''
''No way, sister! You think I'm dumb or something? You come with us, all nice and quiet, and I'll even chauffeur you there in style.'' Jo grabbed Wanda's arm again. ''C'mon. March.''
::She's very scared, colleen:: Evan sent. ::I can smell the fear in her.::
::Yeah, I know. She's just a kid:: Jo replied silently. If Wanda was twenty, she'd be surprised. ::We'll take her to this Palm Court place. Must be a hotpillow joint.::
::Rents rooms by the hour. Never order room service in a hooker hotel, Ev. And never eat the popcorn in a porno theater.:: Jo's mental image of what they might use for butter in such a place made Evan's ghostly giggle echo through her mind.
The platinum blonde and the wolf escorted Wanda to the Lincoln, garnering very little attention. The street people had seen stranger sights...
But a man dressed in stinking rags looked up as they passed, then hurried to the nearest pay phone.
A few moments later, he spoke into the cracked receiver: ''Hello? Let me speak to Ms. Ishtar. Yeah, I'll hold. But it's important.''
His eyes narrowed as he watched the big black Lincoln drive away.
The Palm Court turned out to be just what Jo predicted: a motel dedicated to the prostitution trade. Jo rented a room for two hours from the bored clerk, paying cash, then got them all inside.
A Queen sized bed was covered in a stained gold lame bedspread; the rest of the furniture consisted of a cheap formica nightstand, a table with a TV bolted to the top, and a rickety chair. The place stank of stale cigarette smoke and disinfectant, with an underlying odor of rank sweat and sex that made Evan wrinkle her muzzle and wish her nose wasn't quite so sensitive.
Evan was still in her ShiftSelf as a wolf, having communicated to Jo that since Wanda was nervous already, there was no need to have her further frightened by what she would believe to be a werewolf.
Jo had agreed, commenting wryly, ::She's already damned near pissed her panties. Wouldn't want her doing a brown shower act without getting paid.::
Wanda perched on the end of the bed and lit a cigarette. Evan sniffed the smoke, suddenly craving one herself.
::No way I'm asking, Ev. It's weird enough, you acting like Rin Tin Tin. B'sides, you'd look silly with a coffin nail hanging out of your muzzle, and how ya gonna smoke anyway? Not like you got lips or nothing.:: Jo smiled as Evan got up and nosed her leg.
''So, Wanda, you got my full attention, here,'' Jo said out loud. ''How's about you tell me how you got in this shit.''
Evan sat down by Jo, listening intently while Wanda spoke.
''There's this guy, right? I met him a couple of months ago at this club, you know, that one over by the Masonic Hall? The Hairy Eyeball?'' Jo nodded, and Wanda continued. ''Anyways, he told me he was a magician, could do all kinds'a stuff. Showed me some real freaky things. He gimme a lot of money, told me to plant this claw on my next john. I figured it must be kinda a joke or somethin', so I done it.'' She shrugged and tapped her cigarette ash on the floor. ''Month later, same deal. Then, a coupla days ago, he gimme another one, only I kinda forgot. He was majorly ticked when I called him and told him I didn't do it. But he paid me anyway, and I was s'posed to do it again tonight. Then you guys showed up.''
Evan sent, ::Ask her if she knows the men are dead.:: To herself, she thought,What's that noise? Sounds like a refrigerator... maybe the soda machine outside.
''Lemme ask ya, cookie - you know what happened to those guys you planted the claws on?'' Jo dangled one arm down and laid her hand on Evan's head, stroking the soft fur with her fingers.
Wanda shook her head. ''Nope.''
''They're dead. Both of 'em. Plus, a cop who had the first two claws on him. The police ain't happy campers right now.''
The cigarette dropped from Wanda's nerveless fingers and began to smolder on the dirty gold pile carpet. She quickly crushed it out with one boot. ''Oh, my God!'' Wanda exclaimed, on the verge of tears. ''Oh, my God! What'm I gonna do? I don't wanna go to jail! I didn't do nothin' wrong! You gotta help me!''
''We will.'' Jo stroked one of Evan's upstanding ears absently. ''You know this magic dude's name? Where he lives? Anything?''
''I dunno.'' Wanda used one finger to rub off streaks of runny eyeliner from beneath her eyes. ''No, wait. Told me his name was John Smith, like I was gonna b'lieve him, right? But he said something this one time. Said he lived in the Gray Lock, whatever that means.''
::Gray Lock?:: Jo scratched her head with her free hand but continued petting the wolf. ::Mean anything to you, Ev?::
Evan cocked her head to one side. ::Mmmm... a little to the left, Jo, my ear itches:: she instructed, then, ::Let me think... oh! Ask her if it could be the Gralloch.::
::Gotcha.:: Jo turned her blue eyes back on Wanda. ''Maybe it was the Gralloch? The old Conservatory place down south?''
''Yeah, maybe.'' Wanda crossed her legs and began to wag her booted foot up and down. ''Sounds like what he said. Hey, I got his phone number, too. Hang on a sec.''
Evan was getting annoyed. What is that noise? Her ear began flicking back and forth.
As Wanda started sifting through the contents of her trick bag, pulling out packages of condoms, lipstick, keys and a few bills, looking for her employer's phone number, Jo sent, ::I got an idea. We get outta here, I'm introducing her to Sy.::
::You jest, colleen!:: Evan sounded shocked. ::Whyever for?::
::Huh. Sy may not look it, but he's a pretty good guy under all that tin-foil-hat paranoia shit. We can rig up protections around his house, and for sure he can protect Wanda from any mundane threat, right?::
::Hmm. You just might be onto somethin' there.::
The humming noise that Evan had been hearing just on the edge of her perception got louder... and she suddenly realized what it was. ::Jo! Get Wanda in the bathroom! Now!::
Without questioning, Jo leaped across the room, snatched the startled prostitute up, and hustled her into the bathroom, Evan on her heels. As she slammed the door shut, Jo sent, ::What the hell?::
Evan sat down facing the door, and abruptly shifted to her SkinShape, making Wanda scream and slide down the wall to huddle against the toilet.
''The peris. They're coming,'' the Celtic woman said shortly. ''Lock the door.''
Jo's face paled.
"Whadda we do?'' Jo asked, nervously scrubbing her hands on the front of her jeans.
''I'm going to set up a protective shield. This ceramic tile will hold an electric charge.'' Evan began to chant the Rann of the Iron Shield, pulling every scrap of power she could from the faint ley lines near the motel, as well as pooling her own personal energy and the reserves in the rings she wore on each finger.
Wanda was still screaming. Jo bent over and slapped her sharply, rocking her head back. ''Willya shut the fuck up, cookie?'' she said to the hysterical prostitute. ''We got problems enough without you making us deaf.''
''I don't... what... what's happening?'' Wanda whimpered.
Jo squatted down next to the terrified young woman and put a hand on her knee. ''Listen. Some really, really bad shit is fixing to go down. Now, me and my partner, Ev, we're gonna take care of you. But you gotta be quiet, okay? Let us work.''
''How... I mean, she was a wolf...'' Wanda started crying again.
Jo blew out an exasperated breath. ''I'll explain later.'' Rising, she muttered, ''If there is a friggin' later.'' The tall blonde shifted to her Othersight in order to see the magical energies Evan was manipulating.
The humming was loud enough now that she could hear it, too. As bars of blue-white energy began forming up around the door and settling against the walls and ceiling, Jo stepped back a half pace, eyes wide. The wooden door was beginning to splinter under the force of the peri's attack.
''Oh, SHIT!'' Jo spat, then began transferring her own magical resources to Evan, praying they could get the protections up in time.
Evan never faltered, continuing chanting while the door was rapidly chipped away, holes appearing in the smudged white surface. Sweat pouring down her brow, she gasped the last line of the spell and stepped back herself, bumping into Jo.
The door was reduced to splinters and sawdust in a few moments, and the women had a clear view of what was going on in the other room.
All the furniture had been reduced to shreds and tatters; even the television was nothing but a heap of twisted metal and wires. Small forms buzzed in mid-air, looping and hovering on blurred iridescent wings, just beyond the coruscating blue-white shield that Evan had gotten up just in time.
One of the peris came closer and Jo stared, fascinated. A tiny winged woman, exquisitely beautiful, with over-large black eyes, itty-bitty pink nipples and a wisp of down between her smooth legs. As Jo watched, the peri opened her mouth and hissed, showing needle sharp teeth, and reached out one clawed finger to touch the shield.
Jo flinched as a surge of blue-white energy crackled, making the peri shriek in agony and convulse as pure powerful magic seared her flesh. The creature dropped to the carpet with a muffled thud - a charred, smoking corpse that resembled a charcoal briquette.
The death of one of their own seemed to infuriate the peris further. They all began screaming shrilly in rage and redoubled their efforts to find a hole in the women's defenses. Chunks were ripped from the walls, but the peris were defeated each time by the shield. The screaming grew louder, more frantic, and their flying more frenzied.
Jo put both hands on Evan's shoulders, ignoring Wanda weeping behind them. ''Jeez, baby. These things killed Bear and the others?''
''Yes.'' Evan watched as the peris destroyed the room further in their efforts to get into the bathroom. ''I don't know what they'll be doin' when they find they can't get in here.''
''Maybe they'll go away,'' Jo murmured. ''I only got the room for two hours.'' She squeezed Evan's shoulders, then turned and said to Wanda, ''We're safe. Hear me? They can't get in. We're safe.''
Wanda continued crying softly, hands covering her face.
Jo sighed. ''Shit.'' She sat down on the edge of the bathtub. ''I need a drink.''
Evan sat down cross-legged near her lover, and propped her elbows on her knees. Jo began kneading the muscles of her shoulders, and she let her head droop forward with a sigh of her own.
The peris kept screaming, and Wanda kept crying.
Jo looked at her watch. ''Jesus! They've been at it over two hours, Ev. Think they're gonna get tired anytime soon?''
Evan glanced at the open doorway. The peris were still hovering just beyond the shield. Large holes had been eaten into the walls and other peris were stationed there as well. It seemed as if they were determined to wait as long as necessary to flush out their prey.
They can't be after all of us, Evan thought. And we only just met Wanda.
She scooted around to face the prostitute. Wanda had finally fallen silent and stared into space, clearly in shock. ''Wanda?'' Evan asked softly. ''I need to ask you a question...''
A banging on the front door of the motel room startled them. A man's voice came through. ''Hey! You only got the room two hours! C'mon in there! Either you pay for another hour or get lost! I gotta business to run here!''
''Oh, shit! It's the friggin' clerk!'' Jo got up and walked close to the cracking magical shield, shouting, ''HEY! DON'T COME IN HERE, MAN!''
The clerk banged on the door again. ''I gotta master key! Open up or I'm gonna do it myself!''
''SHIT! NO, DON'T COME IN HERE!'' Jo reached out one hand to the shield, then let it drop. ''GODDAMMIT, YOU FUCKIN' IDIOT! DON'T COME IN! THERE'S DANGEROUS SHIT IN HERE, MAN! YOU'LL GET KILLED!''
There was the sound of a key scrabbling in the lock, then the front door was flung open wide and the clerk entered, saying, ''I don't give a good goddamn what you people are doing in here, either pay up or...'' He suddenly noticed the hovering peris, who had all turned to see the intruder. The clerk continued in a small voice, ''get out.''
He looked at Jo, her form clearly visible in the open bathroom doorway. ''What the fuck?''
Jo put one hand over her eyes as Evan moved up next to her and wrapped an arm around her waist. ''There's nothing we can do,'' the Celtic woman said. ''You warned him, colleen.''
''Yeah, but... aw, shit.'' Jo peeked out from between her fingers...
The peris shot towards the clerk in a buzzing crowd, swarming around him. He waved his arms wildly, yelling, ''Fuck! Get away! G-g-get away from me! Ow!'' He'd connected with one peri, who nipped him in return.
He stumbled backwards, hand bleeding, until he got to the threshold and fell over in a heap, panting and chanting, ''Fuck... fuck... fuck...,'' between gasps. The peris immediately formed up at the doorway, then shot off like arrows back to their former positions just beyond the shield that protected the bathroom.
Jo looked at Evan. ''Well, I'll be goddamned!'' She watched the clerk get to his feet and stumble away. ''They didn't have him for a midnight snack! What the hell's going on, Ev?''
Evan frowned. ''I think... Jo, do you still have that claw?''
''Yeah.'' Jo dug one hand into her jeans pocket and came up with the object. ''What about it?''
''I have an idea.''
The claw had been placed on the sink. Evan held both hands up to the shield, then glanced over her shoulder.
Wanda was directly behind her, with Jo bringing up the rear, her hands locked around the prostitute's upper arms. If Wanda faltered, Jo would drag her if she had to.
''Ready?'' Evan gathered herself, preparing to drop the shield.
''Yeah. Ready when you are.'' Jo drew in a deep breath and tensed her muscles.
With a muttered command and a slash of her hands, Evan let the shield drop and led the other two women into the motel room, Jo having to literally shove the paralyzed Wanda along.
The peris swarmed around on iridescent wings, dark hair fluttering, eyes wide and unblinking. They hissed, dipping up and down, hovering, claws extended - but they didn't attack.
''C'mon, colleen. I think it's workin'!'' Evan led them across the room and out the door as the peris buzzed and hummed. ''They'll only attack if the victim's got the claw!''
As soon as her feet hit the sidewalk, Evan sprinted for the Lincoln, keys in her hand. She had the driver's door open as Jo picked up Wanda and carried her bodily to the car, shoving her inside. ''Get in, goddammit!'' the platinum blonde muttered to Evan, who dived in.
Jo slid into the seat, slammed the door and started the engine. Peris had poured from the motel room and were squealing and humming in a cloud around the car. But it seemed as if their earlier purpose had been lost. They weren't trying to get inside; they looped around in mid-air confusion, and when Jo got the Lincoln in gear and drove away, they stayed behind.
Jo kept her foot on the gas as they peeled away from the motel, one eye on the rearview mirror. Evan was twisted around in the seat, looking out of the back window. The peris gathered into a cloud again, then shot off into the night with a rising wail, disappearing back where they'd come from.
Jo wiped her sweaty brow with one hand. ''Jeez... you are such a fun date, you know that, baby?'' She put one arm around Evan's shoulders and pulled her close, planting a kiss on her lover's forehead. ''How's Wanda?''
Evan glanced at the prostitute. Wanda was slumped against the passenger door in a dead faint, a thin line of drool snaking down the side of her mouth.
''She's out, Jo. Where to now?''
''Home.'' Jo sent the Lincoln shuddering around a corner and drove like a maniac through the rain slicked streets, and kept her arm around Evan, who snuggled closer and closed her eyes, deciding this was not the time or place to comment on Jo's insane driving habits.
''Yes,'' the Celtic woman murmured. ''Take us home.''
Karcis stood in the center of the workroom. Her form was slightly blurred, as if seen through a warped glass. ''Soon, master,'' the Div said. ''Soon we will be together for eternity.''
''I don't know. I just don't know anymore.'' Ellis paced nervously back and forth. ''I mean... they killed a cop. That's big trouble.''
The story had broken in the newspapers that morning. Headlines screamed, ''Serial Killer On Rampage'' and ''No One Safe From Crazed Murderer!'' A few details about the mutilations had gotten out and the media was having a field day. Charles Columbia, Chief of Police, had held a press conference that afternoon, lamenting the death of ''one of their own'' and vowing to bring the killer to justice.
Karcis smiled. ''He was a man like any other, O master.'' Her hands slid up her body, along her curves, to clutch and knead her full breasts. ''Another life and I will be yours completely.''
Ellis looked at the Div, taking in her perfection. ''I don't know...,'' he whined.
Karcis smiled again, and her form shifted, hair shrinking to a short, curly mop, curves altering, body reshaping itself, until she stood there as a young man, flat muscles and belly, penis bobbing between his/her legs. But the eyes were still crimson, the feathers and bird's feet had not changed. ''Just think, O master, what delights await you...'' He/she tugged on his/her penis, shaking it a little. ''I can give you what no other woman can. I am all things.''
Ellis gulped, his mouth suddenly dry, and tore his eyes away from the sight. '' I just...,'' he began, and stopped. A buzzing hum had sprung up. ''The peris! They're coming back!''
Karcis snarled, ''No! NO! They have not given me a life!'' and shifted back to her female form.
The peris swarmed into the room, screeching shrilly. Ellis covered his ears and shouted, ''Make them stop!''
Karcis barked a command and the peris fell silent. She held out a hand, palm up, and one of the peris backwinged down to perch on her palm. The Div held the creature up, looking it in the eye. ''What happened?'' she asked, breasts quivering as she drew deep breaths through her nostrils.
The peri squeaked, voice just at the edge of human perception. Ellis dug a finger in his ear and shuddered; the sound was like nails on a chalkboard.
When the peri finished speaking, Karcis was silent - then shockingly, her hand abruptly closed, crushing the tiny creature. Black blood dripped from her fist and her eyes blazed with crimson fury. ''Fools!'' she shouted. ''You have failed me!''
The remaining peris began squeaking in consternation, banging into one another as they sought to escape their mistress' wrath. Karcis pointed a finger out the open window. ''Back! Go back, worthless slaves! Find me a life, I care not what kind, but find me a life and return to me! Go! GO!''
''No!,'' Ellis exclaimed, trying futilely to stop the peris as they swarmed through the window and back into the night. ''You can't... no! Stop them! Now!'' He turned to the Div. ''We'll try again tomorrow night... You can't just... what if they kill a child or something? You can't... I mean... the others were dirty, they deserved what they got, but...''
Karcis turned her crimson eyes on the spluttering man. ''I need a life. I will have a life. So much the better if it be untainted of sin and pure.'' She drew closer to Ellis, just beyond arm's reach. ''I will have it!''
Ellis ran shaking hands through his hair and began chanting the commands he'd gotten from Paracelsus' journal, the incantation that would bind Karcis to his will. He reached the end of the spell and stepped back, confident he could now force the Div into obeying.
But to his shock, Karcis laughed, an unpleasant sound that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. ''You are a fool as well, O master,'' she said with a sarcastic twist to the last word. ''You can command me no longer. I am too strong now and soon, I will be free of the jewel, free to do as I please. You cannot stop me.''
As Ellis stumbled back, eyes wide and jaw dropping in shock, the Div continued with a sneer. ''And yours will be the final life I need to break my chains forever.''
With a wail, Ellis sank to the floor, knowing in his very bones he could
not escape - and Karcis' laugh echoed on and on, filling the room with
the sound of demonic scorn.
"So what can we do to stop her, Ev?'' Jo glanced at her lover, who sat on the other end of the sofa. ''Hello? Earth to Lassie! Come in, Ev!''
''Hmmm? Oh...'' Evan smiled. ''Sorry. I was thinkin'...''
Jo snorted. ''Like that's such a surprise.'' She took another gulp of the sweat beaded bottle of Harp in her hand. ''So whadda we gotta do to stop this Karcis?''
''Well, last time she tried breakin' free - this was around the 1500's or so - the Egyptian mage summoned Al'Quiset, a djinn - not a djinni - to deal with her.''
''So how come we can't do the same? And what the hell's a genie, anyhow? Barbara Eden in a harem get-up? What's the diff?''
Evan stifled a laugh. ''Ah, no, colleen. See, the eastern mythology has man and angels, but betwixt the two are the djinn and the djinni. Djinn are good, like guardian angels. Djinni are evil, like demons. A Div is a descendent of a djinni. The djinn have power over the djinni; Al'Quiset was able to force Karcis back into the jewel long enough that the Egyptian could renew the bindin's on her.
''But we don't have that option. Most of the djinn are gone. The few who remain are imprisoned in bottles and such. We haven't the time to go searchin' for a magic lamp.''
''I see your point.'' Jo sighed. ''So if she busts loose, whadda we do about it?''
''We'll have to keep her from killin' the mage that summoned her, for one. Until she does, she can't be fully freed. There's this spell we can do. It'll cause the life energy she's stolen to return to the Wheel - the afterlife, if you will - and out of her reach. Once she's weakened, we can renew the bindin's on her.''
''Great. Another shitstorm we gotta wade through.'' Jo tugged her earlobe. ''Well, before we do this, I gotta drop Wanda off at Sy's place. I already called and told him we were coming. Anything else?''
Evan shifted on the sofa until she was pressed against Jo. ''Mmm, I can think of one or two minor things that need takin' care of,' she said in a husky purr.
''Does dangerous shit always make you horny, woman?'' Jo asked, but she slid one hand through Evan's hair and bent her head, tongue flicking out to trace the other woman's bottom lip.
Evan opened her mouth, allowing Jo access, moaning softly as her lover's tongue slid inside, tasting and probing; her hands gliding up Jo's back, holding her close as their breaths mingled...
''Um... I gotta pee. Where's the bathroom?''
They abruptly sprang apart, startled blue eyes and gray staring at Wanda, who shifted uncomfortably. She'd woken up in a strange bedroom and hearing voices, had wandered into the living room to see what was going on.
''Uh, yeah... bathroom's down the hall to the right.'' Jo made a face to Evan, who laughed softly. ''Shit. Okay, I'm outta here. Wanda? You go pee and then I'm gonna take you someplace safe where you can hole up a while.'' The platinum blonde got off the sofa and stretched. ''Ev, I'll meet ya at the Conservatory in an hour.'' She leaned down and kissed Evan's mouth lightly.
In a few minutes, Jo and Wanda left the apartment, and Evan was alone.
She ran over the requirements of the spell she would be using and gathered together the components. Going into the second bedroom, which they used as a workroom, she lit candles and stripped down, anointing herself with oil and murmuring a blessing of protection.
Within forty minutes, she'd finished most of the spell and sat back on her heels, the orange hair around her brow dark with sweat. All that remained was a single command and a handful of salt, and Karcis would lose the magical energy she'd stolen. Hopefully, the Div could then be forced back into the jewel. Rising, Evan blew out the candles, then staggered back, clutching the skin above her heart.
Danger, death danger, jumbled images that suggested pain and injury... sheer soul killing fright rose up in the Celtic woman's breast. Jo was in trouble! Gray eyes wide, Evan scrambled into her clothes then headed out the door, not even bothering to lock it in her haste to get away, get to Jo, get there NOW! As she ran down the hallway to the stairs, her lips lifted in a snarl of pure rage.
If anythin' happens to my Jo, she thought savagely, taking the stairs in a controlled foot-flickering tumble, t'is a grand killin' there'll be this day!
Sprinting through the lobby, heart in her throat, she reached out to the mental bond she shared with her lover. ::Jo? Jo, are you all right?::
The answer came faintly. ::Aw, shit... I'm dead. They fuckin' got me, baby... Sorry... love you...:: and her mental ''voice'' trailed off into terrifying silence.
::No! NO! Jo?!! Answer me!:: But there was no reply.
Hitting the revolving door hard with her hands, Evan got outside the building and leaped into the taxi waiting at the curb. ''The Gralloch Conservatory, 'Restes!'' she barked to the driver. ''And hurry! There's a life at stake!''
Orestes the satyr didn't reply; he peeled away from the curb with smoking tires and the stink of burning rubber, and headed for their destination, his hoof planted firmly on the gas. Evan had summoned him earlier and he'd been waiting for the woman ever since.
Evan leaned back against the seat and panted, body covered with cold sweat. She felt nauseous, dizzy... again and again she reached out, calling, ::Jo? Jo? Please, answer me!:: but only silence greeted her efforts.
Leaning forward, the Celtic woman banged her fist on the Plexiglas divider and said, ''Go faster, 'Restes!''
His mud brown eyes met hers in the mirror. ''Who hurt?'' he asked in his rumbling voice, expertly guiding the taxi through traffic.
''My... it's Jo, my Jo, she's hurt, maybe dyin'... hurry!''
The satyr scratched the wild brown locks that tumbled across his forehead. ''Okay,'' he replied simply, then mashed down on the accelerator hard, making the taxi leap forward with a roar.
Evan was pressed back into the seat as Orestes took her at her word and made the taxi fly. Again and again, the satyr narrowly avoided accidents and ran red lights with complete unconcern. Evan closed her eyes, whispering prayers to the gods to keep the woman she loved beyond all life safe until she could get there.
::Hold on, Jo:: she sent desperately, hoping Jo could hear her even if she could not reply. :: Hold on, my love. I'm comin', I'm on my way... I love you.::
And the taxi rocketed through the streets on its desperate mission.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
It had taken Jo less time than she'd thought to convince Sy to let Wanda stay at his place. She'd concocted a story about the young woman being stalked by ''possible government agents, you know, the dudes with all them initials,'' and Sy had suddenly become fiercely protective.
''Don't worry,'' he'd said, putting an arm around Wanda's shoulders and hefting a Remington 12-gauge shotgun. ''They won't get you here. You're safe. I'll protect you from them.''
Wanda, having decided to get over her initial fright, was feeling much better. Apparently, she'd convinced herself that the peris were just figments of her imagination. Or something.
''You know,'' she whispered to Jo, ''this guy ain't half bad. I'm glad we got outta that motel, though. They had really bad mosquitoes.'' With a sunny smile, the prostitute accepted a hastily procured soda from Sy, and Jo grinned.
Whoo-hoo! the platinum blonde thought. Am I a matchmaker or what? Cupid, step aside, son, 'cause Jo's in town and doin' the Dating Game thing!
Indeed, it seemed as if the paranoid Sy was really warming up to Wanda, who listened, fascinated, to his stories, twining a lock of her strawberry blonde hair around and around one finger. Both of them had forgotten that Jo was even in the room.
Which is totally cool by me, she thought. I gotta rig some protections around this joint anyway.
She stalked around Sy's house, muttering an incantation under her breath and sketching invisible symbols using water and salt she'd gotten from the man's kitchen. Doors, windows, attic trapdoor, the whole nine yards. After she finished, Jo let herself out, making sure she marked the threshold as she left, and climbed back into the souped up Doozy.
''Okay. Nothing's getting in there now. Where to? Where to?... I can go back to the apartment and pick up Evan... no, she's probably left by now,'' Jo said to herself, checking her watch. ''Maybe I'll just cruise on over to the Gralloch, scope things out before she gets there.'' She started the engine and pulled out of Sy's neighborhood.
The ruined hulk of the Conservatory was dark; broken windows gleamed like jagged teeth in the moonlight. It was nearly 3 a.m., and a soft wind blew from the east, rustling through trees and scattering leaves along the wild, weed-thick grounds.
Jo parked on the street, and spent a moment just looking, probing the building with her eyes, seeking any sign of life. There wasn't any. She got out of the car and sauntered to the boarded-up door, tugging a baseball cap on her head and tucking the black Xena T-shirt she wore into the waistband of her jeans.
Yeah, I gotta be cool, like Xena on TV, she thought with a grin as she walked slowly around the perimeter. Do the whole wild-warrior-momma with an attitude thing. Yi-yi-yi, motherfuckers! Drop yer drawers and kiss yer hairy asses goodbye 'cause Jo the Barbarian Wench is kickin' bootie and takin' names!
As she walked, keeping to the charred walls of the building, Jo began to think about Evan. She's so fine... got manners like a real lady, so loving, gotta love that bod, too. Ev's fuckin' built! And cool tats. That hair... man, naked with that wicked orange hair, like lookin' at a bonfire or something between her legs... and she cooks and keeps stuff clean, even does my friggin' laundry, she's so caring, so good to me. If that ain't love, I sure as hell don't know what is. And I love holding her, talkin' to her. I can tell her anything. She's my best friend and my baby.
Jo fingered the small box she had been carrying around in her jeans for a month. She'd gotten Evan a ring, had it custom made by this jeweler she knew. Paid cash, too, so her lover wouldn't find it on a credit card bill or in the checkbook. She'd been wanting to ask Evan for a commitment, propose they stay together forever.
Let's mate for life like swans... or wolves. Jo thought.
Suddenly, a slight noise behind her made her whirl around - straight into the baseball bat swinging toward her head.
Dimly, through a brilliant burst of light and pain, she heard Evan's frantic sending, asking if she was okay.
::Aw, shit...:: Jo sent as she fell, spiraling down into darkness, ::I'm dead. They fuckin' got me, baby... sorry... love you.::
And then she surrendered to oblivion.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
Ellis paced back and forth, back and forth... he'd tried to run earlier, but Karcis had dragged him back screaming, using her demonic power to shackle him to the workroom.
The peris returned, squealing shrilly in triumph, and began feeding life energy to the Div. Karcis' form brightened, glowing with power, becoming more and more solid until, with a sound like the shattering of pure crystal, some unseen force stretched thinner and thinner finally frayed - and broke into a thousand invisible fragments.
''Free...'' Karcis breathed, stretching luxuriously. ''Free!''
Ellis stared at the Div, his face haggard. ''So what did they kill? An innocent woman? A priest? A child?''
Karcis turned to face the man, eyes blazing bright crimson. ''No. If it is any consolation, son of Adam, the sacrifice was old and male, steeped in vice and corruption.'' She licked her lips. ''But it was enough. At last, I am free!'' The talons of her bird feet scratched at the marble floor.
Ellis looked dully at the ebony cane of Paracelsus on its stand. The garnet, the Eye of the Beast, no longer glowed; it seemed dark and lifeless, every hint of inner light blown out like a candle.
Karcis suddenly frowned as one of the peris screeched imperiously. ''There is a daughter of Eve outside. She has power, that one.'' The Div gestured. ''I want it. Go, man. Bring her to me. Alive.''
Ellis felt the ties the demon had placed on him tightening, compelling him to rise. ''I won't... you can't make me...''
''You will. You have no choice.'' Karcis' lips stretched in a mirthless smile. ''Make sure you do not kill her. I will sacrifice you both together; that will be more than enough to break the final binding on my power and allow me to dwell in this plane forever. I will become a goddess and the human cattle will bend down and bow their heads to me... I will only have a small corner of the world, but it will be mine!'' She clenched her hands into fists. ''Now, go! Bring me the woman!''
Ellis struggled against the compulsion, but in the end, had no choice but to surrender to it. He watched as his body, no longer under his control, walked downstairs, picking up a baseball bat and gliding through the hidden door to the outside, silently stalking the tall woman in a baseball cap who was sneaking around the building.
He swung, careful not use all his strength, straight at her. She turned around, mouth open, hands coming up but it was too late. The bat connected solidly to her temple and she crumpled in a heap on the ground.
Ellis tossed aside the bat and grabbed the woman's heels, dragging her back inside the Conservatory, and in some small part of his mind that was still able to process thought, he screamed an apology, over and over again.
Evan was out of the taxi before it came to a full stop, wrenching open the door and tumbling out.
She was trembling, but with rage rather than fear. ::Jo! Hang on! I'm here!::
Evan was held in the grip of a profound fury but she managed to keep a rein on it, locking down the negative emotions and channeling that energy into her magical reserves.
As she ran full-tilt towards the door, she changed to her ShiftSelf, picking up speed and hitting the boarded-up opening with her full weight and the impetus of fear-spawned anger behind her.
The boards splintered under the she-wolf's charge and she was through, falling to the littered floor, claws scrabbling on slick marble, thick orange fur dusted with bits of wood. Her paws slid as she scrambled, muzzle up and casting back and forth, seeking Jo's scent.
There! The elusive odor she knew better than her own.
She raced up the stairs, belly low to the ground, tail streaming straight out behind her, following Jo's scent. ::Where are you, love?:: she sent. ::Jo! Can you hear me?::
Faintly, she heard Jo's reply. ::Yeah... I'm here. Dunno where. Jeez... anybody get the number of the truck that hit me?::
::JO!:: Evan almost shouted in relief. ::I'm comin'. Just hold on...:: She sniffed, orienting herself, then took off down a corridor, nails clicking on the marble floor.
::Hey, no hurry, baby. I ain't going nowhere.::
In the workroom, Jo tugged ruefully at the bonds on her wrists and ankles. She was flat on her back in the middle of a pentagram drawn on the floor; the ropes were fastened to staples set directly in the black and white marble. Beside her, a man who was also tied down alternately wept and giggled.
Oh yeah, she thought. He's gone.
She winced as her head throbbed in time to her pulse. Shit. I got one mother of a headache. Suddenly, a figure loomed over her and her blue eyes went wide.
::Um, Ev? Does a Div have red eyes and feet like a friggin' bird's?:: Jo smiled weakly and waggled her fingers in hello as the demon-chick grinned widely, showing needle sharp teeth. ::We gotta live one here, baby. Watch yer ass!::
::Karcis!:: Evan had reached a closed door. Her muzzle quested by the crack, snuffling. The scent was strongest here. ::Just a moment longer, love. I'm right outside.::
::Be careful. Looks like Karcis is getting a little impatient.:: Jo watched as the Div reached out into the air and her hand wrapped around the handle of a hook-bladed knife whose razor sharp edge glittered. ::Oh, SHIT!::
But there was no reply.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
Evan changed to her SkinShape, pushing orange hair out of her face. Twisting her fingers together in a complicated knot, she barked a single word, and with a horrible screech, the door blew off its hinges, flying across the room and sailing through a window, leaving broken glass in its wake.
She jumped through the opening, skidding on the floor and nearly falling, but managed to wrench herself back up and ran, barely registering that she seemed to be in an elaborately ornate bedroom, decorated like something from a whore's nightmare.
The room beside that one was open. She came to a halt at the doorway, hands clutching the framework convulsively.
The Div Karcis knelt at the apex of a pentagram drawn on the floor. Within the center of the symbol, Jo and a strange man were bound. Candles flickered everywhere, wax dripping down and pooling in strange shapes on every flat surface. Karcis held a knife whose hooked blade glinted cruelly; she held her other hand flat on Jo's forehead, forcing her head back and exposing her vulnerable throat.
''NO!'' Evan roared, the sound seeming to fill up every available space within the room and rebound back, growing in strength and fury. Without thinking, Evan changed to her ShiftSelf, and the she-wolf, with a howl of pure rage, leaped across the intervening space, straight at Karcis.
The Div looked up, beautiful face twisted in a grimace. A bolt of concussive force slammed into Evan in mid-air, throwing her back and into a wall. She hit hard, cracking the plaster, and slid down to the floor.
Karcis smiled evilly, then said, ''You cannot stop me, child of oaks. I am too strong for you. I will kill these two and then I will be free!'' She laid the edge of the knife against Jo's throat, drawing a bead of dark blood that slipped down the woman's pale flesh. ''I would kill you as well, but walk away now, and I will grant you your life. What means this mortal to you anyway?''
Evan shifted back to her SkinAhape and licked a trickle of blood from her lips. She crouched down on the floor, hands flat in front of her, back bowed, growling softly, the incongruous sound bubbling from her human throat.
Jo lay absolutely still, eyes watering, but she said, ''Ev... will you marry me?''
Evan was startled out of her rage-trance. ''W-w-what?''
''I said, goddammit, will you marry me! It's time, baby. Yes or no?'' Jo stopped talking as Karcis pressed the knife harder into her neck.
For a long heartbeat, Evan considered, drawing up from her memory everything the other woman meant to her - and how empty her life would be without the tall blonde who had come to be the other half of her soul.
Kernossus and Dana help me, the Celtic woman thought. I cannot live without her. She is my world. I love her too much to give her up. These misgivin's of mine are foolish. Oh, Jo. I throw my heart entirely into the Cup of Truth and trust to Fate, my soul friend, my love.
Without another moment's hesitation, Evan replied simply, ''Yes.''
Karcis sneered, ''How sweet. Now, will you go, oak child? Or will you die with these mortals?''
But Jo was hardly as helpless as she appeared.
She reached inside to the power within, and squeezing her eyes shut, sent a lash of energy to the bonds on her wrists. The ropes burned through in a second and her hands shot up, fastening around Karcis' wrists and forcing the knife away from her throat.
''Do it now, Ev! NOW!'' Jo shouted, as Karcis cursed and struggled, the
knife coming closer and closer.
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
Dipping a hand into the pocket of her shirt, Evan uncoiled from the floor and was across the room in a bound, tossing a handful of salt into Karcis' face and shouting the final line of the spell she had set up before.
The Div screamed shrilly, clawing at her face, the knife falling with a clatter. Evan burned through the ropes on Jo's ankles with a word, then dragged her lover out of the pentagram.
Jo panted, ''That guy! Gotta be Smith!'' and rolled over on her stomach, hand going to the knife she carried in a sheath that hung down the back of her neck. Drawing the blade, she scrambled on hands and knees back to the pentagram, Evan yelling behind her, ''Jo! Get out of there!''
''Can't let her kill 'im, she'll get free,'' Jo muttered as Karcis fell over on her back, bird's legs kicking, sharp talons gouging chunks from the floor dangerously close to the man's head.
She was nearly depleted of energy. Shot my wad with that last one, Jo thought, and started sawing at the ropes on the man's ankles. He wailed, babbling, ''I'm sorry! I'm sorry!'' over and over.
Evan hastened to help as Karcis shrilled, ''Kill them! Kill them all!'' and the peris swarmed out of the cabinet, humming with deadly purpose.
Jo ignored the buzzing peris, even as one fastened itself on her cheek and bit down, making her swear, ''Fuck! Get offa me, you piranha bitch!'' She continued cutting through the man's ropes and another peri started chewing on her ear, blood dripping on her T-shirt. More were coming, lighting on her hair, her chest, trying to get to her eyes.
Getting his ankles free, she looked up to see Evan, a deep gash above her eyebrow dripping blood, and peris clawing and biting at her shoulder and face, slice through the ropes on the man's wrists with a muttered word. Jo grabbed his ankles and heaved, getting him out of the pentagram, then stood shakily above him, reaching up to snatch the burrowing peris off her face and ear, shaking her head violently and jumping up and down to dislodge the rest.
Evan got up, too, then began waving her hands in a weaving motion and chanting hoarsely. Peris began exploding, one after the other, with a sound like popping corn and a wet splattering as bits of wet flesh and black blood hit the floor and walls.
The remaining peris shrieked, their voices rising higher and higher, beyond the human register, and continued swarming in deadly earnest. Jo managed to dredge up a tiny amount of magic from somewhere and threw up a weak shield around herself and the man. Shit! I don't have enough power to protect Ev, too! Fuck, fuck, FUCK!
Karcis began to glow, her screams getting louder and deeper, like the bellowing of a bull in pain.
''Jo! Get him out of here!'' Evan shouted, shaking blood from her eyes. ''Go!''
''No way in hell, baby! You can't get rid of me that easy!'' Jo was in an agony as she watched a peri chew a chunk from Evan's arm. ''Shit! C'mere, Ev! C'mere! Get in the shield! C'mon, get in the friggin' shield!'' The man was screaming and Jo kicked him in the head, knocking him unconscious.
''Not enough power,'' Evan gritted as another peri exploded, literally in her face. ''I can't... stay there... I'll be fine.'' She was getting weaker, both through blood loss and exertion. She'd drained her reserves and had only a little left.
''GodDAMMIT!'' Jo shouted. ''Hang on!'' She closed her eyes, seeking - and her senses detected an enormous amount of power, right in the room. Shifting to her Othersight, Jo saw it was Karcis who was the source of the magical surge; Evan's spell was sucking the stolen lifeforce from her, gathering it into a shimmering, swirling ball of energy.
Licking her lips, Jo reached out just as Evan screamed, ''NO! DON'T! IT'S TOO WILD! YOU CAN'T CONTROL IT!''
I ain't gonna stand here and watch Ev get eaten, Jo thought, and
with an effort that made her dizzy, reached out with her senses and took
hold of a lightning bolt. ::I love you, baby:: she sent, and that
was her last coherent thought for a while.
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
Pure power sizzled through her, making Jo's pale blonde hair rise like dandelion fluff around her head. Her blue eyes were wide open, pupils fully dilated, lips parted as she emitted a series of high pitched screams, body jiggling up and down convulsively as if she'd stuck her finger in a light socket and cranked up the voltage.
Evan screamed as well: ''NO! JO! LET IT GO!''
Tell me again why the hell I thought this was a good idea, Jo thought, suddenly at one distance removed from the searing agony she'd felt before. It was as if a wall had come down between her mind and her body, separating the essential ''her'' from the burning meat of her flesh.
Suddenly, a presence invaded her mind. ''Mortal,'' a voice breathed, ''Let me use you. I can harness the energy and send Karcis back where she belongs...''
Who the fuck are you? Jo thought wildly.
''Astarte.'' The goddess' presence was powerful, with such strong overtones of sexuality that Jo felt a sudden spurt of dampness between her legs.
Great. I'm dyin' over here and my stupid pussy's doing the jungle boogie!. Okay, Astarte. I let you take over, and then what?
The goddess' voice was eager. ''Send Karcis back into the jewel forever!''
Jo projected a negative tone. More than that. I give you what you want, you heal Ev and me, fix us up, get rid of those goddamned peris, too.
How do I know you'll keep your word?
''You do not. Like most mortals, you will simply have to deal with me on a basis of faith.'' Astarte's voice was amused. ''Do you have faith, daughter of Eve?''
Jo thought about Evan. Her lover, mouth set in a rictus, was blasting peris left and right, but she was bleeding heavily from dozens of wounds and wouldn't last much longer, not with the drain on her magic. Her body's extraordinary healing powers couldn't keep up with the amount of damage the insatiable creatures were doing to her.
Okay. You gotta deal. But if you cross me, I'm gonna kick your ass, goddess or no goddess! Jo sent, then braced herself.
She felt herself squeezed further in a distant pocket of her mind as Astarte oozed within, the goddess' presence nearly overwhelming, coil upon coil of divine power filling her like some vast and unimaginable serpent whose scaly length could reach to the stars and back.
''An apt metaphor,'' Astarte said with a chuckle. ''Snakes are sacred symbols of my worship.''
Yeah, yeah, Jo sent, intensely worried about Evan. Will you fuckin' get on with it!
The crackling blue-white power that engulfed Jo was abruptly tamed, lightning harnessed to the Sumerian goddess' hand. With a full throated laugh, Astarte began wrapping strands of energy around the struggling Karcis, whose efforts to free herself made the goddess' laugh again - but in cold triumph, without a trace of amusement.
Strand after strand, magic spun as thin as spidersilk, settled over the Div, surrounding her, wrapping her as tight as a mummy. In a few moments, Karcis was nothing but a heaving bundle of blue-white power and muffled shrieks could be heard issuing from her shroud.
Evan fell to her knees, one eye gone, unable to continue, her face a mask of blood, and Jo screamed to the goddess, DO SOMETHING! NOW, GODDAMMIT!
Astarte sighed, then reached out again and sent the Div back into the jewel with a blast of energy that nearly blinded Jo's mage senses. When she was able to ''look'' again, she saw the garnet on Paracelsus' cane was a crimson blaze, and deep in the heart of the jewel could be discerned a white, twisting form. As she watched, the criss-crossed bindings were re-woven and reinforced by the goddess, trapping Karcis back in the bitter prison she had known for centuries.
One by one, the peris dropped to the floor, already dying, their tiny bodies rotting rapidly, going from grotesque corruption, to skeletons not unlike those of baby birds, and finally to dust that was lifted up and swirled away on a breath of wind from the broken window.
With the last bit of power, Astarte healed Evan's wounds, wiping away her injuries with a touch, restoring her eye.
''Mortal, there is not enough to heal the both of you.'' Astarte's voice sounded slightly regretful.
Forget about me. Just heal her, Jo replied.
In moments, Evan was returned to full health and Astarte withdrew from Jo, leaving behind a sense of smug satisfaction that made Jo frown.
Wonder what the hell she's so friggin' happy about? she thought, then, Oh, shit!
She was back in control of her body, and Jesus Christ! It felt like every bone in her body was broken. She collapsed on top of the man, having just enough presence of mind to banish the protective shield before pain and sheer exhaustion took over and she whimpered helplessly.
Evan, after staring a long moment at the cane and wondering what had just happened, hastily got to her feet and crossed the room to fall on her knees beside Jo. Rolling her over and off the unconscious man, she winced in empathy, noting the injuries to the other woman's face and ear, the livid burn that ran from her temple and snaked around her throat.
And probably goes all the way down her body to her foot, Evan thought. Just like a lightning strike.
Jo clutched Evan's sleeve with a bloody hand. ''You... okay?'' she croaked.
''Yes, I'm fine, love,'' Evan replied, casting out her senses, looking for any scrap of magic she could find to use for healing Jo. ''Lay still.''
''Ev, look in my pocket.'' Jo tugged on Evan's arm insistently. ''My... pocket...''
''In a moment...''
''No... now. Do it now. Please?'' Jo's eyes begged Evan to do as she asked and the Celtic woman sighed.
''All right, all right.'' Evan quickly patted Jo's pockets until she detected a lump, then stuck one hand inside and pulled out a jeweler's box. ''What's this? Jo, I need to heal you, we don't have time for this...''
''Open it.'' Jo coughed up a wad of bloody sputum; Evan wiped it away, then opened the box.
A ring was inside; white gold, a wolf with head thrown back, howling at an opaque gray moonstone. The workmanship was exquisite and Evan caught her breath.
''Put it on.'' Jo waved a hand weakly. ''Put it on... gotta do stuff right, bein' as how we're engaged an' all.'' She coughed again, then began retching helplessly.
Evan shoved the ring on her finger, tossing the box over her shoulder, then rolled Jo over on her side. She'd breathed the superheated air around her when she'd grabbed the wild magic and her lungs were damaged.
Finally, just as Evan was at her wit's end, she caught a trace of magical energy flowing nearby. She tracked it to its source, and realized it was coming from a church.
The worshippers were singing joyously, a spirited hymn in praise of the Crucified One. A stream of positive energy flowed upward, powerful and pure, but Evan hesitated.
It's like stealin', she thought. I'm not sure I should do this, there could be repercussions. But Jo needs it, I cannot let her die.
She tentatively reached out, and suddenly the power was there, jumping to her grasp as if it had been trained to her hand. Evan sent silent thanks to the Christian God for His generosity, then began chanting the Ranns of Healing that would restore her lover to health.
As she chanted, she had the sensation of vast wings fluttering around her, white flames and gold swirling and dancing on unseen currents, heart-achingly beautiful music floated through her mind. As soon as she finished and Jo was healed, she released the remainder of the power, keeping back not a jot for herself.
Slowly, the wings slipped away and the music died - and Evan opened her gray eyes to look directly into Jo's blue.
The platinum blonde smiled weakly. ''Gee, that was fun. Let's do it again sometime... NOT!''
Evan returned her smile, feeling a profound sense of gratitude, then
leaned down and captured Jo's mouth with her own, holding her soul-friend
in a tight, warm embrace.
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
Berresford Ellis, number five on Forbes' list of the ten wealthiest Americans and considered to be one of the most eligible bachelors in the world, was discovered this morning wandering the grounds of the condemned Gralloch Conservatory of Music.''
The news anchor shot the camera a significant glance, raising his eyebrow for added emphasis, and continued, ''Mr. Ellis had been missing for nearly four months before he was found by police, who had been given an anonymous tip. Doctors at Lovecraft Memorial Hospital have reported that while Mr. Ellis is in good physical health, he is severely delusional and his mental state is such that he has been involuntarily committed to Collins Asylum pending further examination. In further news, the police have reported no further success in identifying the serial killer who has recently been terrorizing the city...''
Jo pushed a button on the remote, turning off the television, and settled back on the sofa with a sigh. ''Poor Ellis. I gotta kinda feel sorry for the guy. I mean, I know he was an idiot for getting involved with Karcis, but hey! With tits like that, who can blame him?''
Evan punched Jo's arm, making her wince and say, ''Ow! I'm gonna have a bruise there tomorrow!''
''Aye, and other bruises as well, if I've anythin' to say about the matter,'' Evan replied with an arch grin.
Jo grinned back foolishly and pulled Evan close, hugging her tightly. ''I love you, even if ya do beat me black and blue.''
''I love you, too.'' Evan snuggled her head beneath Jo's chin, molding herself to the other woman's lean body. ''We need to return that cane to Monsieur Duvalier,'' she said.
''Yeah, later. Right now, I got this problem.''
''Mmm? What's that?''
''Well, you see, when Astarte was inside me, she was making all these goddess sex vibes things, and right now, I'm horny as hell.'' Jo looked down at Evan, and her grin grew even wider. ''I could screw a stick shift or something, I got it that bad.''
''Oh, really?,'' Evan purred, raising a tangerine eyebrow. She pushed her hand inside the waistband of Jo's jeans, sliding down to the crotch of her cotton briefs. ''My, my, colleen... you're certainly wet.''
''Uh-huh.'' Jo shifted on the sofa. ''Soakin'.''
''So I see.'' Evan felt around some more, rubbing Jo's pussy through her briefs. ''I'll have to be doin' somethin' about that. If you flood anymore, we'll be washed out of the apartment entirely.''
''Oh, yeah,'' Jo moaned, raising her hips, hands going to the zipper of her jeans. ''Wouldn't want that.''
Evan helped Jo skin out of her jeans, then pulled off the bloodstained Xena T-shirt, tossing it on the floor.
As Jo watched, Evan peeled off her own top, letting her full breasts bounce free of their confinement. Jo reached up and gently squeezed one, then tugged the firm flesh, pulling Evan over until she could wrap her lips around the turgid nipple and suck, her other hand sliding around Evan's back.
Evan moaned deep in her throat, arching her back as Jo suckled, pulling strongly, making waves of pleasure shudder through her body.
The Celtic woman reached back and wriggled out of her own jeans, managing to keep from dislodging the nipple in Jo's mouth. Jo nibbled a bit more, then began licking Evan's breasts, first one then the other, and her tongue wandered in warm, wet patterns up the other woman's throat until she reached her lips.
Evan shifted, pressing her lover down into the sofa cushions, and opening her mouth, thrust her tongue past Jo's lips, fluttering and sliding in sweetness and heat. Her hands glided up Jo's arms and she laced her fingers with the blonde's, holding her captive while she sucked on her lower lip, making Jo groan.
''Oh, Jesus, baby... yeah...'' Jo began rubbing her sopping pussy on Evan's knee, damp dark blonde fur sliding up and down, wet and hot against the Celtic woman's flesh.
''Mmm... yes, that's it...'' Evan kissed Jo again, sensuous and deep, pressing her knee into the other woman's sex and rotating it in small circles. Jo arched her back slightly and hissed through her teeth, clutching the other woman's fingers in a tight grip.
Evan bent her head down and gently bit one of Jo's small pink nipples, holding it between her teeth and rolling it back and forth. Then her wet tongue began flicking it back and forth rapidly. ''Oh, God...'' Jo's hips were jerking up and down faster. ''Get over here... I want you in my mouth...''
Releasing Jo's hands, Evan turned around, straddling her body, mouth hovering over the blonde's pussy. Jo put one leg up on the back of the sofa, the other foot flat on the floor, spreading herself wide. As Evan pushed aside the lips of Jo's vulva with her fingers and settled down for a long, loving taste, she lowered herself on the other woman's waiting mouth.
Jo looked up at the flamboyant orange curls above her. Murmuring, ''Oh, yeah, c'mon baby... you know I love the way you taste,'' she reached up and pulled Evan's hips down further, thrusting her tongue into the slick red folds.
They sucked and licked, using their fingers and tongues... Evan began sliding her tongue over and over Jo's hard clit, feeling the other woman tremble beneath her and a fresh burst of thick musky fluid flowed into her mouth.
Jo's squealing, ''Ooooh, yeah! Oooooh, oh oh oh! JEEEEEESUS!'' was muffled, but she convulsed as she came, clipping Evan's head between her thighs as her ass banged up and down and she quivered, panting and moaning.
As soon as she caught her breath, Jo began licking Evan's pussy again, thrusting her tongue deep inside, over and over, fucking her with that velvety length. Evan rose up, licking her lips, and began riding the other woman's face, hips undulating in waves. Jo reached up with both hands and fastened her fingers on Evan's nipples, squeezing and twisting gently.
Evan threw back her head, wild orange hair falling over her shoulders and back, knowing she was on the verge of an explosion. When Jo sucked her clit, wriggling her tongue carefully on the sensitive tip, she came with a small, breathy howl, pressing back and rocking her hips, smearing her juices all over Jo's face.
After, they lay coiled together on the sofa, sweaty bodies pressed tight, arms around each other.
Evan kissed Jo's shoulder, tracing an old scar with her tongue. ''I love you, Jo Tate.''
''I love you, too.'' Jo took a deep breath, praying she wouldn't fuck this up. ''Eiobhan Reille.'' She beamed proudly, glad she'd gotten the bartender from the Ulster Arms pub to teach her the correct pronunciation of her lover's name.
Evan's gray eyes went wide, then she smiled back and traced Jo's mouth with one finger. ''Very good, colleen. We'll have you speakin' a proper language in no time.''
''Uh-huh. Don't hold yer breath, baby. Blue ain't your color.''
Evan giggled, and the morning turned slowly into late afternoon, but
not slowly enough for two lovers in love.
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
This time, when the guards in front of the backstage door to Astarte's office saw the two women coming, they moved aside hastily and opened the door, nodding politely.
''Glad to see you learned some manners, boys,'' Jo said in passing, reaching out to pat one flinching guard's face.
Evan merely glared, shooting the big men a look from her stormy gray eyes that made them cower.
Once inside, Jo drew a deep breath. Oh, man, this is gonna be sweet. ''Helloooo? Yoo-hoo, Ms. Ishtar... hey, c'mon out, you got com-pan-eeee!''
Astarte walked gracefully from the other room, clad as usual in a designer evening gown. Her hair was twisted into seven braids whose ends had been pinned to the top of her head, making loops of shining brown plaits that framed her impossibly beautiful face. The goddess' scarlet lips stretched in a smile. ''Welcome, daughter of Eve and child of oaks! You honor my establish...''
Those words of welcome were never finished. With several long strides, Jo marched up to Astarte, drew back her arm, and with her full weight behind the swing, punched the goddess dead in the face.
Astarte staggered back, one hand clapped to her mouth. Armand Duvalier raced from the other room, putting an arm around the Sumerian goddess' waist. ''What do you think you are doing?'' he yelled, green eyes swiveling wildly. ''Do you know who this is? Do you know who've you just insulted?''
Jo spat, then replied, ''Yeah. A double-dealing bitch of a whore goddess who's too good to do her own fuckin' dirty work.''
Evan tossed the cane to Duvalier, who caught it in a fumbling grip. ''And you, monsieur... you played your part as well.''
''Uh-huh.'' Jo crossed her arms over her chest. ''We figured it out. The way I see it played is that you, Mr. French Dude, lost the cane and the journal to some thief hired by Berresford Ellis. That part was true. What you didn't tell us was that you were one of Astarte's worshippers and the goddess knew what was going down the minute she heard Karcis was on the loose.''
Evan continued, narrowing her eyes, ''Karcis was a threat to you, Astarte. If she'd succeeded in gettin' herself freed, you'd have a rival for the relatively few devotees you've got. So, she had to go, and fast. But you didn't have enough power to eliminate her yourself. You needed help.''
Jo took up the thread again. ''So, along comes me and Ev, two mortals who just happened by sheer coincidence to stumble into this friggin' shitstorm, and I bet you got so excited you nearly wet yourself. You wouldn't have to go toe-to-toe with Karcis. Oh, no, we'd do it for ya. And if we got killed in the process, eh, to hell with us. We're just so much meat to you.''
''So you watched, and you waited, and you planned.'' Evan took a step closer to Astarte. ''And when we'd nearly lost our lives tryin' to send Karcis back where she belonged, you stepped in 'cause we'd raised enough power that you felt confident enough you could do it yourself without riskin' anythin'. Of course, I'd thank you for savin' our lives, but that was just incidental to you, wasn't it? By that time, you'd vanquished your rival and a gesture on your part didn't mean much.''
Jo concluded, ''So we just come here to say one more thing: fuck YOU!''
The two women waited, holding their breaths, not sure how Astarte would react.
When the goddess threw back her head and laughed, Jo and Evan exchanged a glance and moved closer together.
Duvalier released Astarte and stood to one side, still holding the cane. While the goddess roared with glee, he asked, ''The journal?''
''We didn't find it. But without the cane and the jewel, Paracelsus' journal isn't worth all that much, is it?'' Evan flicked her hair back in a contemptuous gesture.
Astarte's laughter finally ran down into chuckles, punctuated by giggles. At last, she wiped the tears from her eyes and sat down heavily on a nearby ottoman. ''Oh, my,'' she said breathlessly, ''I have not had that good of a laugh in millennia.''
Jo frowned. ''You think it's funny? Goddammit, I oughta...''
The goddess held up one hand. ''No, daughter of Eve. If you hit me again, I will have to take steps. This one I will allow to pass. I deserved it, according to your lights.'' She still smiled. ''You are correct. I did use you both.'' Her golden brown eyes flickered from Jo to Evan. ''If you feel I owe you something for your services, tell me what it is.''
Jo sighed. ''You don't get it, do you? We're not friggin' puppets, and I really, really hate having my strings pulled.''
''Yes, but consider this: We both got what we wanted. You wanted Karcis imprisoned; so did I. She would not have only been a threat to me, Jo Tate. The Div was a sexual predator; she would have drained her victims dry, and gone howling for more. I, on the other hand, am much more benevolent.'' Her eyes glittered and she touched her cheek. ''To a point.''
::Well? What now?:: Jo sent. They hadn't expected this reaction.
Evan thought a moment. ::I, for one, would be content with an apology, colleen. But I doubt we'll get it.::
''I am not so proud as that, child of oaks,'' Astarte said, picking up the silent exchange. One of her braids had come down and slithered across the shoulder of her satin dress. ''I am sorry I used you. Perhaps I was wrong; if I had actively helped you instead of staying in the shadows, it might have been that Karcis would have been trapped sooner.''
''Hmph.'' Jo looked at Evan. ::I think that's about all the apology we're gonna get, baby.::
Duvalier cleared his throat at Astarte's prodding glance. ''I believe you were admiring a certain volume of mine, mam'selle Reilly,'' he said. ''It would do me great honor to present it to you as a gift.''
Evan's eyes lit up. ''The lost Sword of Moses?'' she asked. ''You'd really give it to me?''
''Yes.'' Duvalier sighed, rubbing his dark hair with one hand. ''I will have it delivered to your apartment tomorrow.''
Jo took an aggressive stance. ''What about me, huh? Gonna blow me off now?''
''No.'' Astarte looked at the platinum blonde shrewdly. ''What is it you desire from me, daughter of Eve? Physical beauty? Boundless passion? Irresistibility to women or men? Sexual skills beyond all other mortals?''
''Um, no.'' Jo scuffed one foot on the floor. ''Actually... see, there's this girl, Wanda. She ain't got much, and what she does have ain't worth much, if you take my meaning. She got caught up in all this friggin' mess and it wasn't her fault. Anyway, I thought maybe you could give her a job. Not as a call girl or nothing like that. Maybe a waitress or file clerk or something. Help her turn herself around, make a new life. Maybe help her get into school...''
Astarte smiled. ''I believe that can be arranged.'' She walked around to a delicate Louis XVI desk and picked a piece of paper. ''This is also for you,'' she said, handing the paper to Jo.
Jo accepted the paper and turned it over. It was a check, and the amount of zeros after the first digit made her eyes widen. ''Holy shit!,'' she exclaimed. ''I mean... thanks! Jeez, this'll come in handy. How come guilt money's always so much more than payin' a friggin' bill?''
''You're welcome.'' Astarte grinned.
Jo stuffed the check in her pocket. ''But that don't mean I ain't still pissed! Jeez, Astarte - next time, warn a gal, willya?''
''I will keep that in mind. Have your Wanda come to the club tomorrow night; rest assured, I will find her proper employment.'' Astarte turned around, a clear dismissal; Evan and Jo left the office and headed back through the noisy, crowded club to the outside.
It was about an hour after dusk. The moon was a silver horn of plenty spilling a wealth of stars across the evening sky. Evan put her arm around Jo's waist and sighed. ''Well, colleen... satisfied?''
Jo fingered the check in her pocket. ''More or less.'' She examined the slightly swollen knuckles of her right hand. ''Damn. Remind me next time that goddesses have fuckin' hard heads, willya? Hmmm... you know, I hear there's this Greek diner over on Barnabas Circle makes a mean souvlaki.''
Evan laughed, then stood on her toes and kissed Jo beneath the diamond dusted sky, the moonstone on the ring she wore catching the lunar light and glowing, but not more brightly than the happy Celtic woman's gray eyes.
''I love you,'' she murmured in Jo's ear, and was rewarded by her soulmate's grinning reply, ''Ditto, baby... ditto infinity.''
And in Collins Asylum, Berresford Ellis, buckled tightly into a straightjacket, rocked back and forth on the floor of his heavily padded cell, whispering in sing-song fashion, over and over like a mantra: ''I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm sorry...''
Lt. Hammond Russell turned away from the observation window, fingering his blonde goatee. ''Close it up, Ah've seen enough,'' he said to the white coated attendant.
Whistling the theme from the old 60's TV show, ''The Avengers,'' Piglet Russell turned and walked away, a file stamped ''CLOSED'' tucked beneath his arm.
Behind him, Ellis continued to chant, ''I'm sorry...''
Moonlight streamed through the high barred window, illuminating the look of lunatic horror on the man's lined face, and the howling wasteland of emptiness in his eyes.
Berresford Ellis wasn't home anymore... nor would he ever be again.