Two hours later, Brittney carried a platter of eggs down into the back room of the club. "It's not great, but it'll feed us."
"Looks good to me," Conner said, smiling. He helped himself to a serving. Then he made plates for everyone else. When Chloe pushed hers away, her face nauseated, Sarah slid it back toward her.
It turned out that shape-shifting wasn't Sarah's only skill. She knew a lot about injuries and first aid. She'd cleaned Conner's face, her own shoulder, and put a makeshift splint on Chloe's leg.
"Eat. It'll help," she said.
Chloe sighed and picked up her fork.
"Shouldn't she go to the doctor?" Brittney asked, glancing at Chloe's sheet-wrapped leg.
"No point," Chloe said. "I heal faster than humans. It won't be bad for long, maybe a week. I've just got to be careful and deal with it."
"Lucky," Brittney said. "Do you remember when I broke my arm in high school, Harper? Eight weeks in a cast. I almost lost my position on the squad."
"Uh-huh. Conner, are you all right?"
"I'm fine," he said, holding up a forkful of egg. "Just wondering if Brittney has an aversion to salt."
Brittney scowled at him. "I told you I can't cook well."
"I think it tastes fine," Sarah said, shooting Conner a dirty look. "Besides, I didn't see you breaking your neck to offer to cook."
Conner rolled his eyes and shoveled more egg into his mouth. The others ate too, and for a while, it was quiet but for the clink of silverware and teeth.
"How did they capture you guys?" Harper asked. She shot a glance at Alec, remembering how irritated he'd looked when she started to ask in the car. She'd let it go then, but not now.
Sarah was the one to answer. "There were more of them than we expected, and they circled on us. Caught us on both sides. Forced us in the cage — I'll give them that. It was smart because there wasn't room for me to transform, or I could have broken the bonds."
Brittney frowned, putting down her fork. "Why didn't we stay and finish them?"
Conner spoke. "Because even if we took them out, there would be more. And we could have done it, sure, but we would have suffered. And we're already injured, no reason to take more hits when we should prepare for more."
"Then what?" Harper asked, feeling frustrated and a little overwhelmed. "We just assume that I'll spend the rest of my life besieged by demonic attacks until one of them succeeds?"
"No," Alec said. He'd hardly touched his food.
Harper waited, but when he didn't elaborate, she rolled her eyes and said, "No…?"
Conner groaned. "Aw, come on."
"I saw the tattoo," Alec told him.
"What's a Jahres?" Brittney asked.
"Not a what, a who," Chloe corrected. "He's an upper demon who has shown up a few times over the last year or so to give us trouble. Collector of power—"
Conner snorted. "Yeah, 'cause he had nothing on his own."
Sarah glanced up at their monitors, frowning. "I thought he disappeared to Costa Rica."
"Bad pennies always come back," Chloe told her. "You know, he's not even good looking."
"Really?" Alec asked, shooting her a look of disdain.
She shrugged. "What? If a demon is going to keep coming around, it would be nice if he was at least attractive. Sometimes eye-candy is the silver lining."
"Eye-candy? And I thought I was shallow," Conner teased. "Besides, you have a weird definition of attractive. You didn't like me with long hair, and we all know that—"
Alec cleared his throat. "He's here; that's what matters. If we can end him, the rest will fall in line."
"But why would they?" Harper asked. "Wouldn't others keep trying?"
"There will always be someone trying to make a name for themselves," Alec said, shrugging. "But when you get stronger with your powers, they won't pose a threat. And those that would be more dangerous will stay away. Jahres is respected and feared. His death will make any demon with half-a-brain decide that if he can't kill you, with all his followers, they won't have a chance."
Though everyone else looked convinced, Sarah seemed uneasy. "But Jahres has survived us so far. We have more liabilities now — how can we take him out?"
Harper felt her face turn red.
Sarah saw this when she looked over and reached out to touch her arm. "Harper, I didn't mean it that way. You're not the problem, but he has more ways to come at us now, and he'll be more motivated."
Conner added, "But so are we. He was a nuisance before, and now he's a problem."
Sarah considered. "But after the storage units, they'll know we're coming. We can't just walk in."
Alec cleared his throat. "Right now, rest. I'm next to useless when the sun is up."
"And when it's down—" Chloe began, eyes twinkling.
"Go home," he said. Then to Harper and Brittney, "Not you two. You can come back to my apartment for now where it's safe."
"All right," Harper agreed.
Sarah got up, stretched, and turned to Chloe. "Your car, but I'll drive."
Conner stood, waited until Chloe passed over her keys, and then helped her stand. "I'll walk you to your car."
Once they'd gone, Harper and Brittney followed Alec up to his apartment. Once inside, he went straight to his room, not even bothering with a goodnight.
"Probably wants to drink his blood in private," Brittney muttered.
"Not funny," Harper said, sitting down on the couch.
Brittney gave her an odd look. "He's kind of an ass, don't you think? Well, whatever. I need another shower. Want to take one first?"
Harper shook her head, unsure why she felt so irritated. It wasn't like Alec needed her to defend him. "Go ahead."
Brittney shrugged and went in. When Harper heard the water turn on, she stretched out on the couch, wishing she had her laptop. It would be a melted mess, though. She wondered if her insurance would pay out on it too. Or at all. Did they cut checks for arson? She'd have to find out.
On her phone, Harper browsed the internet, though her thoughts were on the nexus. A family heirloom full of power. Generations of her biological family would have contributed to it. She sort of wished she had it now, even just to look at. To feel.
At some point, she heard the water turn off, though Brittney didn't come out after. She heard a heavy snore though and shook her head, smiling. That snore had plagued her best friend since childhood.
"An elephant," Harper murmured, remembering their first sleepover. She'd called her that after hearing her snore, and their friendship almost ended there. Then Harper had shown her the dozen books she'd had on elephants, and Brittney had realized it was a compliment.
She'd almost died. Harper tried to send the thought away, but she couldn't. It kept returning, that nagging image of the demon pressing the knife to Brittney's throat. And Harper hadn't ended it there; she'd let Brittney go after Afterlife with her.
That was an entirely different can of worms. Afterlife. Conner, Chloe, Sarah, Alec. The four of them were risking their lives to help her. What if they were hurt? She thought of Chloe's leg. Hurt worse, then. Killed.
"It's their choice," she told herself.
She glanced at Alec's door, remembering the way he'd looked at her — no, at Ileana — in the village. He couldn't walk away. That meant the others couldn't either. She was putting them all at risk. Harper didn't know if she cared about them as individuals, not yet anyway, but she knew deep down that they weren't bad people. They didn't deserve to die for her.
There had to be a better way than this.
Tiptoeing, Harper got up and put on her sneakers. She went to Alec's fridge and drank the rest of his orange juice straight from the carton. Then she took out her phone and turned it off. She set it on the counter next to the empty container.
She left the apartment, went past the bar, and straight out the club's front doors. The sun hit her in the face, making her wince. She enjoyed the heat of it for a moment, then walked, all too aware of how alone she was.
After five blocks, she took a left and went down three more, hoping her navigation was accurate. When she saw the tall yellow slide in the distance, she smiled and went into the park.
Some little kids were playing on the equipment while their parents watched. She nodded to these moms and pops as she went by. Set away from the more playground was another set of swings next to some benches. Probably for older kids. It was empty over here, even though school hours would be finished for the day.
She sat on a swing, pumping her legs. The motion was idle at first, and then her pace picked up as thoughts raced around in her head. Higher and higher she went, her fear vanishing as she flew upward. It was replaced with a steely resolve. And she couldn't pretend it was all selfless either, not up here where the air tasted so clear.
She went all the way down, then halfway back up, she launched herself from the swing, just as she did so many times as a child. Her landing wasn't as graceful as it might have been at eleven, but after a few staggering steps, she found her balance, and then she was laughing.
"Come on, then!" she called out, raising her voice just below a yell. "I know you're around, so come and get me. I'm right here, out in the open. Don't make me wait!"
She did wait, though not for long. Scotch, Neat came not five minutes later. He was alone or at least seemed to be. He kept looking around, his suspicion clear.
"There's no one else," Harper said, sitting back on the swing. "Good to know I'm being watched, though."
"And where are your friends?"
"Where are yours?" she asked, hoping she sounded sharp, not scared.
He smiled. "I thought it better to come to you myself. This is an open area, public enough. I believe in discretion as much as you do, Miss Hawthorne."
"You? Discreet?" Harper laughed. "You burned down my apartment complex and a bar."
"One unit, not the entire complex," he corrected. "And if the authorities suspect arson, then what? The men who investigate will consider nothing outside their preconceived, biased realities."
"Unless they're told."
"If circumstances were different, I'd say that you should learn to make more plausible threats," he told her. "If you intended to alert the city to our world, you wouldn't be here. You chose a location that was private enough to speak but public enough to be certain we wouldn't leap upon you. You're playing a game, but not one you expect to see headlines about."
Since Harper couldn't argue with that, she instead said, "This isn't a game. I have an offer."
Scotch, Neat spread out his hands. "I'm listening."
She didn't hesitate. "I want to help you find the nexus."
He tilted his head. "Why should I believe you are willing to help Jahres?"
"You shouldn't," she said, stepping closer. She hoped he couldn't hear her heart, how quickly it raced. "Aren't you tired of him?"
His expression was curious and perhaps indulgent. "You call upon me so you can make an offer, then immediately rescind it? Are you a fool?"
"Maybe," Harper admitted. She mimicked the way he liked to spread his hands. "Or maybe you just don't like to listen. You were the one who brought up Jahres, not me. I said I wanted to help you."
His face grew still. "And what reason would you have for that?"
"You know, I've heard a lot about Jahres," she said. "If he's so powerful, why hasn't he come to finish me himself? I'm not impressed."
"He's scared, that's why," Harper said. "He doesn't know that he could take me on, and he's too cowardly to try, so he sends men like you. And you're just too happy to risk your life to help him get more power."
He offered a thin smile. "To betray Jahres is to welcome death."
She laughed. "He sounds like the popular girl in some lame chick flick everyone is too scared to stand up to. But guess what? Someone always does, and the popular girl always ends up as a loser. The one who stood up to her? They get whatever it was they wanted. Wouldn't you rather be the one that others respect and fear instead of just another terrified lackey?"
Scotch, Neat's jaw clenched then flexed with anger, but he was quiet while considering her words. "What do you get from this?"
"He won't stop," Harper said. "He'll keep coming after the people I care about until they're dead. But with you, maybe we can… make a deal. You get your power, and then you leave Vegas. Go anywhere else, just not here. You don't come after Afterlife or anyone else that's close to me."
He eyed her, then bowed his head. "That is an arrangement I can honor. You have my word."
Though she wanted to, Harper didn't roll her eyes. The word of a murderous, demonic arsonist meant little to her. This wasn't the time to point that out. "Okay, good. There's another reason I'd rather work with you instead of another lesser demon. You procure rare goods. Does that mean you have a… talent for finding lost artifacts?"
He narrowed his eyes. "The nexus is cloaked, as you know. Your bloodline hides it, and I have yet to get around that obstacle."
"Yeah, I know," Harper said. "But you didn't have my help before. I have the Sight. Together, we can find it — I will See it, you have to track it when I do, okay?"
"How will you do that?" he asked, sounding both skeptical and curious.
She tugged the locket from beneath her shirt. "I can't describe the Sight any better than you can describe your talents. Be quiet now. I need to focus."
He looked irritated at the command but said nothing.
"Ileana," Harper whispered, looking down at the necklace her ancestor had once worn. She closed her eyes and folded her fingers around it, welcoming the vision she knew would come.
Instead, she heard words. They were in Russian, and this time, she couldn't understand them. Light laughter followed, then a sob.
Harper opened her eyes, the ones in her vision, and saw a young girl kneeling before a bed. There was a woman propped up on pillows, her face gaunt and lined but smiling. She spoke in English, her words heavily accented. "Hush now. Today is to rejoice. You have your cake and your gift?"
The two were faded in quality, as though she was looking at old photographs come to life.
The girl started to answer, but the woman held out her hand. "Reba."
"I have no wishes to celebrate," Reba said, her words stilted and forced. "I do not have wishes for my cake, and the gift I want is home. Mama, please, can we go home?"
The woman touched the girl's cheek. "Sweet child, this is our home now. Do not lose yourself in grief for what was. Your aunt has a daughter, did you know? She is your age. You will be fast friends, perhaps sisters of a sort in time. You must show her your smile, let her hear your laugh. She will love you, as I have."
Reba took her mother's hand, tears rolling down her cheeks. Her grip was so gentle, so careful. "Mama, you cannot go, you must not. You must not leave me with them, these strangers."
"They are family, Reba."
"You are my family!" Reba's chest hitched. "You must now stop this. My Babushka — no, no, my grandmother, she said to me, she said that our family has the blood, that we… Mama, I do not have the words…"
The vision disappeared, replaced by another so quickly that Harper's stomach threatened upheaval. She was outside, standing on a neighborhood sidewalk, rays of sun hitting her face.
Not far, there was a moving van and a compact car. Next to them, she saw two women and a man. They were the only thing of focus, like the scene from before, so she stepped closer to listen.
"Do we have to unload today?" the man asked, stretching his arms. "I'd rather relax."
One woman laughed. "Tommy, how can we relax unless we find the box with the blender and our margarita glasses? We have to unpack those, at least. Right, Reba?"
Harper looked at the third member of this little party, and she could see that girl from the first vision in her face. She was smiling this time, though. "Well, yes, but we have to get the rest too. We don't have to unpack, but we need to unload at least. Otherwise, we'll be charged for another day on the van, and I'd rather use that money on ice and mixer. We have to celebrate, after all. Look at our house, Sasha! It's like we imagined as girls."
The scene changed again, but it wasn't as jarring this time. Now she was in an attic with Reba and Sasha. Clutter, which had a fine layer of aged dust, surrounded them. Half a dozen boxes stood open, packed with extra newspaper to pad whatever was packed inside.
"You should go rest," Sasha said, not looking at Reba. "You've been up here all day."
Reba pulled a garbage bag close and added to the trash inside. "There's only a week left until we have to move. I'm fine."
"But your doctor wanted you to rest more, to take it easy," Sasha said.
Harper stepped closer, wondering if Reba was sick with whatever illness had taken her mother. But then she saw the swell of her belly as Reba looked down. She nearly placed her hand on the curve that could only be from pregnancy, then hesitated when her palm was only inches away. She jerked it back and snatched up a nearby box, one that was tattered and falling to pieces.
She pulled it open and lifted out a circular glass orb filled with a swirl of colors. She stared at it, then made as if to add it to the trash.
"Reba, no!" Sasha reached over and snatched the orb away. "Why would you throw this out? It's an heirloom. It belonged to your mother… my aunt. It came from our grandmother and her grandmother before her. They say it holds power inside it."
Reba snorted, giving it a scornful look. "A childish notion that my mother never outgrew, even on her deathbed. The magic she claimed from it didn't save her — or do anything else either. It's trash, but if you want it, you keep it."
Sasha frowned. "I will then. Maybe someday you'll change your mind."
And she turned, placing it in a box. Harper's vision doubled, and she saw Sasha's hands, but she saw another pair too, putting the box on a garage shelf, and she saw the garage fill, then empty again, but the box was missed somehow, pushed into a corner. And it filled again, then emptied, then filled, and still, nobody noticed the box, now faded with age.
Harper opened her eyes and saw Scotch, Neat watching her.
"The house isn't huge, but it has a garage."
The demon tilted his head, staring into her face. After a moment, he smiled. "This, I can work with. It is near a school, one for younger kids. There are two houses on the left of it, then a vandalized stop sign. Garden boxes in the front, but they are empty, and the grass is dead."
"How do you know that?"
His smile was almost a sneer. "You said it yourself; I have a gift. The nexus is cloaked, but the house you've seen is not. We will find it and go there now."
"Just us," Harper reminded him.
He offered a hand to the gypsy on the swing, and she took it. They left to the empty afternoon, walking to the street.
"Here," he said, stopping in front of a car and taking out a set of keys.
"What kind of car is this?" Harper asked, curious. It was long and sleek, with only two doors and a narrow design she was sure she hadn't seen before.
"It's not an American brand," he said, looking at it fondly. "It is a rare model from Germany; there were only a dozen produced… I gather you would prefer not to walk?"
She shot him a look, then got inside. There was no seatbelt, and she was certain there were no airbags either. The car might be rare and beautiful, but she much preferred modern comforts. She didn't say so, though, only watched out the window as he drove.
The day grew later, but the fading afternoon light wasn't much of a distraction. Instead, she read street signs, looked at shops and stores, and admired the casinos' lights and logos that were littered everywhere. When they passed into a residential area, she looked at each house. They all had their features, things that made them unique. A faded blue home on Pleasants Drive, a freshly painted yellow one with a dead lawn and a fallen tree on Sally Street.
Harper only noticed how much time had passed when she realized she was reading house numbers with the aid of porch lamps and headlights. Snapped out of her silent observing, she looked over at Scotch, Neat.
"You have no idea where to go, do you?" she asked, her hopes fading.
He slowed the car, then stopped, smiling. "Look, Miss Hawthorne."
They were at a stop sign, she realized. A vandalized sign with houses to its right. The third one down would have flower boxes out front.
Her heart felt as though it might beat out of her chest, and for a moment, she thought she might not want to find the house after all.