It was good to hear the old Barracuda rumbling again. She still needed new paint and body work, but I’d had the day to kill, so the engine was back in top shape. I let the motor purr for a second in the hotel lot, before I shut it off. “That kid, I’ll tell you.” I shook my head as I stood up out of the car. “Knives everywhere, not even kidding. And the catsuit, with the heels? Is that a thing? That’s what the kids are doing these days?”
Honey got out of the other side, brushing a stray lock of hair out of her good eye. She leaned on the roof of the car, pursing her lips as she thought it over. “No, I don’t think so.” She leaned back in and retrieved an aluminum baseball bat she’d liberated from the umbrella stand next to my front door and brought along. “I think they’re into mistaking leggings for pants and wearing those godawful Ugg boots. Also, glitter. At least, that’s what I see in the bar.”
“And who gets into a fight in heels on purpose?” Honey came around the car, smirking, and did a slow look down from her own sturdy tennis shoes to my black heels. “This is an exception,” I groused, leveling a stern finger at her as she snickered.
“Sure, if you say so. So, where is this guy?” Honey looked up at the roar of an airplane soaring overhead. We were across from the Wayne County Airport, in the parking lot of the Marriott on Flynn. The airport was a behemoth, lending an air of civilization to the area. There was a hospital southwest of the airport, and some shopping and restaurants just down the expressway a bit in Romulus, but on this side of the airport, the surroundings were mostly woods and farms. It was an odd juxtaposition of rural and urban, butting up against each other uneasily.
I hooked a thumb over my shoulder at the Marriott and straightened my black dress. It wasn’t the little black dress I saved for special occasions, but it was a nice dress, knee-length with a tight bodice and a flowy skirt, and a cute little matching jacket. It was too light for the weather, but that didn’t bother me, of course. Icy wind gusted across the wide open spaces, bare fields and runways, and I patted my hair back into place and snagged my clutch purse off the dash. “He’s in 3012, on the third floor. At least, that’s what Tyler said.” I slammed the door shut and snapped my fingers, locking the car. “What’s the time?”
Honey glanced at her watch. “Just a little past five. Relax, we’ve got plenty of time.” She was much more sensibly dressed in jeans and a heavy Michigan State hoodie, with the bat resting on her shoulder. She still looked good, though. The jeans were tight, and her green eye patch matched the hoodie. She’d just pinned her hair up, and hadn’t taken more than two seconds to do it – I’d watched her – but it looked bed-tousled and sexy on her. I’d have just looked sloppy. One of these days, I was going to have to work out how she did that. Honey gave the bat a couple of practice swings, and grinned at the whiz as the metal cut through the air.
“I don’t know if they’re going to let you in with that,” I said, nodding at the bat.
She snorted. “They won’t let me in at all, if the desk manager has a good memory. I got 86’d from this place once, when I was working a party. We’ll go in the back door. And I’m bringing the bat. I like to be prepared.”
“Suit yourself. I don’t think it’s going to come to that.” I tucked the clutch purse under my arm and started across the parking lot, heels click-clacking on the cold pavement. We ignored the main entrance, heading around the side of the building. The sun was just going down, making my shadow a long streamer behind me. It only haphazardly bothered to mimic my movements. She was almost patiently waiting for sunset, when she’d be free to explore my surroundings less conspicuously.
“With you around?” Honey raised her eyebrows at me. “We’ll see. So anyway, now what? You’re all out of trouble, now?”
I sighed. “Doubt it. Oh, the Knights are willing to pretend I’m acceptable, but I expect they’re just biding their time. Damian is going to have to replace Jada. Grace too, probably – she disappeared after last night. And whoever gets their jobs, Day is going to have to explain to them that he’s got a hollowman living in the city.”
“Can’t you just go back in the closet?”
I gave her a dirty look. “Nope. Too many people know for that to work. Word would get out. Honestly, I should just skip town and change my name and hope for the best, but who knows? Maybe I can make this work.”
“Ah. That’s why you’re going out with – what’s his name? Leonard, you said? Friends in high places, and all that?”
“I’m not going out with him.” She leered, and I couldn’t help but consider the possibilities of staying in with him. “But yes, totally. Brownie points with management can’t hurt.”
“Hey, you do what you have to. Who am I to judge?” Honey snorted a laugh at my expression. The worst part was that she had a point. Seeing Leonard would smooth a lot of ruffled feathers, but it left a sour taste in my mouth. Figuratively speaking.
We reached a side entrance and Honey tugged at the door without success. A small sign informed guests that they could use their keycards to unlock the door. I waved my skeleton keyring over the cardreader, and it clicked open obediently. We stepped inside, and my shadow grumbled about the cheerful fluorescent lights. It was just getting dark, and coming in here was unfair, she felt. The hall dimmed slightly as the shadow flowed ahead, poking under doors and around corners, finding the elevator.
“Up here,” I said, pointing. It was much like any other airport hotel you’d ever seen. Worn and shabby and trying hard not to let it show. To the casual glance, it was quite nice. But my shadow and I could taste the old stains under the newer carpeting and feel the scars glossed over with plaster and paint.
“What does Irish think about it?” Honey gave me a sly look, eye twinkling.
“What’s he think of what?”
“You. Dating this Leonard guy. I mean, I don’t judge, but it’s kind of his thing, isn’t it? Judging.”
“I’m not dating him!”
“Oh, just going to fuck him?”
“Jesus, Honey! This is just business.”
Honey leaned back slightly to peek at my legs. “Mm-hmm. Are those stockings or pantyhose?”
My mouth fell open. “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
“Pantyhose are for business. Stockings are for fun, babe.” She poked me in the shoulder, grinning with evil glee as my face heated up.
“I don’t even own pantyhose. I hate pantyhose. They ride up.”
“Whatever.” She flipped a dismissive hand at me as we reached the elevator and she punched the button with the end of the bat. A dapper-looking businessman gave us an odd look, and Honey favored him with a lascivious grin, licking her teeth. “Hey there, sideburns. All alone in town?”
“Uh…” he took a step back, fiddling with his wedding ring with his other hand, and nodded towards the elevator as it dinged open. “Ladies first. I’ll take the next one.”
“Maybe we can share a ride later? You know, when we’re… going down?” Honey purred, blowing him a kiss as we stepped into the elevator and the doors slid closed. I had to smile. The look on his face… “So?” She elbowed me. “What’s he think?”
“Nothing!” I shot her a dirty look and stepped out of range of her pointy elbow. Truth was, I had no idea what Irish might think. I may have neglected to mention accepting Leonard’s proposition. It wasn’t like I’d done it on purpose. It just worked out that way. The subject didn’t come up, that’s all. Of course, I did wait for Irish to be well out of earshot before I’d said yes to Leonard… but Irish had been there when he’d asked me to dinner. Was it my fault Irish hadn’t asked me about it? “What does his opinion matter, anyway?”
Honey favored me with an exceedingly dry look, and then rolled her eye upwards, shaking her head. “So what about Gianna? That bitch is dead by now, right?”
“Hardly,” I snorted, relieved to be off the topic. Also, a little annoyed to be so relieved. It was no skin off my nose if Irish hadn’t asked about Leonard; what did I care? “I’m sure Duane’s working on it, but after the way Day cleared them off, the Eldest is going to have to be a lot quieter about taking out the deAngelos. He lost a lot of his own guys, too. More than Gianna lost. I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere near as easy as he’d like.”
“Too bad.” Honey pursed her lips, leaning on her bat. “Although I can’t believe I’m rooting for that asshole.”
The elevator dinged open. “Rooting for him? What, you’re not running a book?”
She led the way down the hall, apparently knowing her way around the hotel already. “My numbers guys favor Gianna if he tries anything before replacing his lieutenants. Three to five odds, you want in?”
I laughed as we turned a corner, almost bumping into a cleaning lady with a giant cart full of sheets and supplies. She gave us a suspicious look, and, laughing, we breezed on past her.
“Shit,” Honey hissed at me, glancing back over her shoulder. “So much for kicking in the door.”
“It’s not as easy as you think. These doors are sturdier than they look.” Arriving at 3012, I knocked on the door and sent the shadow slithering inside.
“Oh, I know.” Honey blew out her breath, studying the door. “It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve kicked one of these open.”
“Really?” I put my eyebrows up.
“Girl’s gotta get paid,” she said, tone bland, although her lips twitched into a quick smile at my double-take.
I knocked again as the shadow felt around the room. She was stretched thin, a barely-perceptible hint of shadow creeping through the gloom. The only light inside came from the television, ESPN talking heads chattering statistics at each other. It left her lots of room to roam, filling the shadows and dark places and reporting her findings to me. There was a pizza box on the table, dirty laundry and half a bag of chips on the floor, and a room service tray with service for two on the table. Both meals were eaten, I noticed with some surprise. Salmon and steak, respectively. On one of the beds, she found a man just swinging his feet to the floor. He was a bigger guy, built like he’d played football in his younger days but had gone pudgy since then. Shirtless, wearing nothing but boxer shorts, and tasting of sweat. There were food scraps under his fingernails and in the hair on his chest and stomach, and he hadn’t showered or shaved recently. The nightstand held an expensive briefcase within easy reach, unlatched and full of interesting toys. And, standing quietly in the corner, a small corpse.
“Who is it?” he called, crossing the room and grabbing a robe from a hook in the bathroom. I stepped aside and let Honey stand in front of the peephole, as he approached the door. “Hello? I said, who is it?” He grabbed the door knob and twisted it, and I nodded at Honey, who put her shoulder to the door, hard, just as he started to pull.
The door whipped open and Honey shot in, giving the bigger man a good, hard shove on her way, and I stepped in behind her, catching the door and slamming it shut behind me. The shadow moved at my command, settling to the floor and thickening like an ink stain seeping up through the carpet. The windows went black as well, and the temperature plunged as the man sputtered and staggered off the wall.
“What the hell?” he snarled. Honey planted the blunt end of her bat in his chest and pushed, sending him reeling deeper into the room before he could react. The bed caught him in the back of the knees and he dropped back on it with a big, stunned whoof of a gasp. I stepped around Honey as darkness and lacy ice crawled up the walls in fractal designs.
“Jacob Stills. Hello.” Coils of shadow reached up off the floor to curl around his bare legs. They were no more solid than smoke, of course, but their touch was ice-cold and unearthly. He let out a little squeal at the frigid touch and scrambled back on the bed, jerking his feet up, his breath coming in billowing white gasps. Streamers of darkness clung to his legs and dragged itself up on the bed after him. “You may have heard of me. I’m Alice Frye.”
“Oh shit,” he spluttered, kicking at the shadow, which accomplished nothing at all. “What the fuck?” He shoved himself back on the bed, grabbed a slender rod from the briefcase on the nightstand, and lashed out at me with it.
I caught the stick in my hand, and he’d swung hard enough that the wood on my palm made a sharp slapping noise and stung like a bitch, but the shadow numbed the pain even as he triggered the artifact. For a moment, hot blue-white light flashed and arcs of electricity crawled up my arm. My shadow inhaled, and drank the energy like it was lemonade.
I licked my lips thoughtfully. “Mmm. Tingly. What is that, like a lightning rod? Not too shabby, Jacob.” I jerked the rod out his hand and snapped it in my hands. Another flare of light as the rod broke, and again my shadow was ready and waiting to consume the released power. Inside the wooden dowel, there were some golden wires and a copper chain connecting the two halves as I tossed the broken artifact aside. Jacob scrambled away, crab-walking over the bed, wide-eyed. Breaking the damn thing hadn’t required any special effort on my part – it was just made shoddy, that’s all. Pools of darkness had gathered on the bedspread, and clung to his hands and legs as he flopped around, trying to flick it off him.
I dragged a fingertip along the side of the bedside lamp, leaving a little trail of sparks as the bulb came to life. I’d had time to redo my nails, and the effect complimented the way I’d shrugged off his attack like I’d planned it that way. The lamplight highlighted the drifts of darkness floating through the room like a malevolent fog, clinging to the walls and creeping up furniture. The television was crowing about some extreme diet supplement or other, and it was clashing with my whole intimidating mistress of the dark vibe.
“Honey, kill that, would you?” There was a shattering crash, and I didn’t need the shadow’s senses to let me know she’d taken the bat to it.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled. He had a big, booming voice, but the shadow was muffling the sound, now, so I didn’t worry about being overheard. I wrinkled my nose as I studied him. He wasn’t at his best at the moment. He smelled bad, and he’d peed himself a little – just enough to leave a dark spot on his paisley boxers. His face and his bald head were stubbly, and the salmon crumbs on his chest complimented the smear of steak sauce on his chin. Nonetheless, he rallied, sucking in his gut and puffing out his chest. “Do you have any idea who you’re fucking with?”
“Do you? I think the better question here, is what the hell are you doing?” I retorted, raising an eyebrow. “As in, doing in my city, selling artifacts to my customers, and lying to my Knights about who made those goddamn rings for Carl Meiter.”
“Oh… oh fuck,” he groaned. “Alice Frye? Black Alice? Oh, shit.” He scuttled backwards off the bed, stumbling to his feet on the far side, between the two beds now. He was covered in goosebumps, and his skin was already going blue. “Oh, look, seriously, I didn’t realize they would come after you, you know? I was just covering my own ass. I never said…”
“You did too.” I leaned a bit, looking past him as the corpse stirred. Small and delicate and leathery, it approached slowly around the end of the other bed, and Honey pulled her breath in hard as the little dead girl stepped into the light. She had gorgeous, carefully-arranged blonde curls, and wore a well-starched little frilly gingham dress. Her color was good – she even had a little bit of rosiness to her cheeks, but her eyes had the same blank cataract stare that Gene had.
“What the fuck is that?” Honey tightened her grip on her bat, bringing it up to swing, expression aghast. “Jesus, do all of you people make zombis? Christ, Alice!”
“Don’t hurt her!” Jacob shrieked, dropping to his knees and holding his arms out, beseeching Honey to lower her weapon. “Please, she’s just a child! She’s all I have!”
I stepped to Honey’s side, wisps of shadow swirling in my wake. I put a hand on her arm, gently lowering the bat. “No, Honey. Jacob didn’t make her. I did.”
I kept one eye on Jacob, who remained on his knees, hands clasped to his chest. “Analisa, sweetheart, come to Daddy,” he crooned. The zombi, which had been approaching Honey, one dainty fist upraised, paused, and looked back at him with wide, dead eyes. “That’s right, babygirl. Never mind them. Come here.” She turned and went to his side, where she knelt down and burrowed her face into his chest, hugging him as he clutched her tight and stroked her hair. “Shh, don’t you worry.”
“Oh, God,” Honey breathed.
“The higher-ups from Cleveland brought the body to me a couple of years ago. They were having a little issue with Jacob, weren’t they?” I grinned at him, and he flinched, scooping Analisa up, cradling her in his arms and stepping up on the second bed to get out of the thickening shadows pooling and swirling knee-high around the floor. Darkness dripped down from the ceiling as he stepped up, and Jacob dropped to his knees, gaze skittering around the room as the dead child cuddled against him and nibbled at his ear. “You see, Honey,” I explained, “they kept finding dead girls in Cleveland.” Honey looked up at me, and I held her gaze. “Dead girls who had been molested,” I finished.
“What’s that got to do…” Honey’s voice trailed away as she realized what I was getting at. “Oh my fucking God. You don’t mean molested girls who turned up dead, do you?”
“Nope. I said it right the first time.” Jacob was holding the zombi close, trying to shield her with his body from the clinging icy shadows. Frost had formed in his eyebrows and stubble, and his lips were blue… his fingers and toes were starting to darken, too, and I had the shadow ease off a little. We didn’t want frostbite to settle in and damage those skilled hands of his, after all. Analisa wasn’t the brightest of zombis, though, and she didn’t understand what was going on. Even as he huddled over her, watching me with panic in his eyes and shivering, she kissed his cheek and wiggled her ass against his lap. “Jacob’s Knights had heard about my success with Gene, and brought me the latest victim. The hope was that… she… would keep him occupied.”
Honey wrenched her arm out of my grasp, and looked like she was on the verge of hitting me. “And you did it? You gave that poor child to that monster? Please please please tell me we’re killing him!”
I shrugged. “I gave that corpse to him, yeah. The check cleared, and it wasn’t like the body objected. It’s just meat, Honey. And it worked, too. No more bodies turned up. Jacob got his true love and Cleveland got a stop to the murders. And no, we’re not killing him. I have enough enemies without pissing off the Knights in Ohio.”
“Thank you!” Jacob wheezed, teeth chattering so that we could barely understand him. The dead girl smiled at us, picking up on Jacob’s glee.
“Alice. It doesn’t have any teeth.” Honey’s voice was full of dull anger.
“That’s not my fault,” I said. “She was like that when they brought her to me. Artificers are rare, that’s the thing to keep in mind, Honey. Apparently, they didn’t want to lose the resource. It was worth a lot of money to them to try this experiment, in the hopes that they could keep their artificer.” I’d modified the blueprint quite a bit from Gene’s design, resulting in a considerably weaker meat puppet. Analisa was made to be pretty, and affectionate, and obedient, but that was about it. Oh, and fragile. Because they thought it might be a good idea to keep Jacob afraid for her well-being.
Honey turned aside, and threw up on the closer bed. I turned my attention back to Jacob, stepping up close to him and taking his chin in my fingers. I lifted it gently, forcing him to look away from his darling zombi and at me. “Jake, I’d really love to kill you, for a whole lot of reasons, but Tyler and Damian said I can’t, because it would piss Cleveland off. I did ask, but they were firm on this. So, lucky you, you get to live. But I’m going to need you to get out of my city right this second. Like, fucking instantly, if at all possible.”
“I – I – my flight…!”
“You flew here? From Cleveland?” I rolled my eyes. “Well, of course you did. Damian was footing the bill, wasn’t he? He needed that ring examined, and you were the closest artificer.” I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “I guess you’d better rent a car, then. And if I find out you billed us for it, I’ll be taking a little trip south, okay?” I put on a sweet little smile, and Jacob shuddered backwards on the bed, shaking like a leaf.
“Yeah. Yes. Tomorrow. First thing.”
“Tomorrow.” I turned the smile into a frown. “Tomorrow.” I shrugged, standing back and turning my head to look at the zombi. “Analisa, look at me.”
She looked up, focusing on me for the first time since I’d come in the room. She went still, and gave the very real impression that she remembered me. Good.
“Give me your left arm, Analisa.” The little creature extended her arm toward me, despite Jacob frantically clutching at her and pulling her away from me. “No, not like that. I mean take it off, and give it to me.”
Jacob screamed as Analisa took hold of her left bicep and pulled. It shouldn’t have worked – the girl was well-preserved and not very strong. Not like my Gene at all. But with a dry tearing noise, like someone ripping off a piece of jerky, the muscle and skin separated like, well golly, like magic. Jacob struggled with her, trying to wrest it from her grip, to hold her back from me, anything – but he was too afraid of hurting her to use any real force against her. And when she slapped him with her own severed limb, the shock of it knocked him back like he’d been hit with a wrecking ball.
I took it from her outstretched arm and nodded politely to her. “Thank you, Analisa. That is all.” Like I’d flipped a switch, the zombi forgot all about me and went back to fussing over Jacob. He was moaning, with tears streaming down his face. She picked up on his distress, but couldn’t understand what had upset him. She was visibly distressed by it, and was patting at him with her remaining hand and trying to calm him. “Jacob!” I laughed. “Why are you so surprised? Did you really think I’d build your pet fucktoy and not put in a few contingencies?” I held the arm up, giving it a good shake. “Now where were we? Oh, right. ‘Tomorrow.’ Really? Are you sure about that? Because I’m going to overnight this thing back to your address and it isn’t going to stay fresh forever.”
I flipped the arm around so I could wave it good-bye at him. His mouth hung open in a combination of outrage and horror. I sauntered over to the door as the shadows thinned and faded and the room warmed up noticeably. I took one of Jacob’s shirts off a hanger in the little closet nook by the door and wrapped the child’s arm in it. Wouldn’t do to alarm the cleaning staff. “Oh, and Jacob? Never cross me again. I built a receiver in her, too. Tiny little thing, made from a chip of quartz. I just have to dial a number, and she’ll come apart like a ball of yarn. Now that you know about it, you could try to find it or disable it… but surely I would have thought of that, right? What might happen if you make a mistake?”
“You monster!” the pedo-necrophile snarled at me.
I held the door open for Honey, since the doorknob was frosted over. We showed ourselves out while Jacob sputtered behind us. The door clicked shut behind us, leaving Jacob and his horrifying little zombi alone in the freezing cold and dispersing dark, and Honey glanced over at me.
“Are you sure you can’t kill him just a little?” I felt a little sorry about that myself, and shook my head as she glared at me. She wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand and hefted the bat, looking back at the door. “Can I?”
“Probably not a good idea. Damian would figure out you were with me.” I juggled the arm and my clutch purse, grinning wickedly. “But you know all sorts of people, and if something should happen to him in Ohio…”
“I guess,” Honey said with a shiver of disgust.
“Let’s go see if we can catch your businessman.” I gestured towards the elevator with the bundled-up arm.
“Nah. I’ve lost the mood.” Honey gave me a haunted look, and I glanced at the bundle, putting it down to my side, out of her immediate view. “Seriously, his bosses let him do that? And you agreed to help?”
I shrugged. “Better that than real girls, if they aren’t going to put him down.” I grimaced. “You’ve always been curious, now you see. The Arcana are –”
“Assholes,” Honey finished scathingly as she turned on her heel and stalked back down the hallway. “Just – just fuckers! Who leaves that alive? That bastard should at least be put in prison! Just because he has a useful talent, they let that monster keep breathing?” She realized how loud she was being, and shut her mouth with an audible snap, punching the elevator call button.
I followed Honey into the elevator and the doors slid shut behind us. We turned to face them, Honey fuming silently. I remained quiet, too. After all, there wasn’t much I could say to that.
A few moments later, the door dinged open on an empty lobby, and we stepped out. We left by way of the front door, my heels loud on the pavement despite the noise of the expressway and airport.
We reached the car and I opened it, setting the arm down in the back seat. Honey stood by the passenger side door, staring into the middle distance. A plane was just circling to land. We watched it come in, hundreds of tons of metal gliding through the air like magic. Air traffic controllers used magic mirrors to track the movements of planes. People on the concourse watched illusions on television screens and spoke to loved ones with enchanted cell phones. Horseless carriages roared along the highway and pure magic flowed along the power lines strung up along the roads, crackling with potential. This was the world that people like Jacob and I had built.
Finally, she looked over at me. “They didn’t kill him because they’re using him.”
“That’s right.” I nodded, pulling my cigarettes out of my little purse and tossing it in on the dash.
“And they didn’t kill you because…?”
I smiled. It wasn’t a particularly happy smile. “Right.”
“You’re a resource.”
“Got it in one.” I lit a cigarette and slid the pack across the roof of the car to Honey. She caught it and took a cigarette for herself. “Jacob is still alive because he isn’t more trouble than he’s worth. And that’s saying something. He was a lot of trouble.”
“And what happens when someone decides you’re more trouble than you’re worth?” She raised an eyebrow at me, and I slid her the lighter. A disposable Bic, embarrassingly enough. I added a new lighter to my to-do list. It was a long list.
“Well. I’m going to have to make sure that doesn’t happen.” I sat down in the car, and Honey stowed her bat in the back seat, following suit.
“You?” Honey laughed out loud. It was a long, musical laugh that dispersed the tension that had built up since we left that hotel room. “Damn. I’m thinking you’d better put out tonight.”
“Bitch!” I exclaimed, but Honey was smirking at me. “Just for that, I’m making you stop at FedEx.”
“Not likely.” She shuddered, checking the time on her watch. “We can stop before I drop you off for your date with The Devil. Hope you can find your own way home, chica. I’m out on the town after I drop you off. After that little escapade, I need a drink. And maybe someone warm to drink with.” She gave me a sidelong look as I started the car. “What’s Irish up to, you think?”
I put my eyebrows up, and gave Honey a long cool look.
“Mmm-hmm,” she said, smirking at my reaction. “That’s what I thought. You got your work cut out for you, girl.”
“Don’t I know it.” I flicked ashes out the car window, and headed out of the parking lot. “But at least I enjoy my work, right?”