The alarm rang again. Harper reached out to find her phone, refusing to open her eyes. Two hours more, she thought. Then she'd get up; alarm be damned.
The repeated pounding in her head wouldn't stop, though, making it impossible to fall back asleep. Or was that someone at the door? She groaned and chucked her phone at it before shoving a pillow over her head.
"I'm coming in," Alec said from the other side.
"Don't you dare!" Harper bolted upright, clutching her blanket to her chest. Her stomach heaved in protest, and she could taste a night's worth of fizzy vodka shooters in the back of her throat. She swallowed, winced, and glared at the door.
"Too late," Alec said, opening it. He raised his eyebrows at her phone, the rumpled dress near her bed, the abandoned heels, and the loose contents spilled from her purse.
Harper flushed, gripping the blanket tighter. "Don't give me that look. We were celebrating."
"Yeah? Again?" Alec rolled his eyes. "It's been two weeks since Jahres. You'd think by now—"
"We weren't celebrating that," Harper told him, frowning. "Don't you listen? Chloe's apartment is finished. She moved back home."
"Uh-huh. Come on, out of bed."
"I need a bit," Harper told him.
"For?" Alec gave her a look full of impatience.
Harper stared at him, forgetting to feel hungover for a second. "Well, I could come out now, stark naked. No need to brush my teeth either, or bother looking human."
Alec shook his head and turned to leave. "Just make it fast. We've got a case."
"What kind?" Harper asked.
"You always look human," he told her, ignoring the question. He was smirking when he closed the door.
She got up, rinsed out her mouth, and combed her hair. Then she washed her face and dug through a shopping bag for clothes. Her entire wardrobe had burned with her apartment, but she'd let Brittney take her shopping when her last pair of well-fitting jeans had ripped.
"Human, right," she muttered, pulling on a striped t-shirt and green cargo pants. She tied her hair up, picked up her phone from the ground, and went out. Alec had already gone.
Harper rolled her eyes, but his impatience didn't surprise her. The two weeks as his house guest had gotten her used to this. She went to get bottled water from the fridge and saw another container of eggs. Alec sure had a thing for them. She shrugged and took them out.
Hangover food used to mean microwaved burritos or dry cereal, but Alec was always cooking, and he was good at it. The peppered onions and mushrooms in the scramble almost made up for the way he'd barged in.
After eating, she rinsed off her plate and went downstairs. The rest of Afterlife was already there. Chloe and Sarah were laughing at something on an iPad, dressed in matching shorts and tops. Conner was opposite them, gorging on fries.
"Morning, sleepyhead," he said, shooting her a grin.
"Shut up," she muttered, looking at her phone. She realized she must have hit snooze a few times on her 10 AM alarm because it was almost noon.
Conner affected a wounded look. "I see how it is."
Despite that, he got up and strolled to the mini-fridge. He retrieved a ginger ale and tossed it at her. "This'll feel better than coffee."
She smiled and gulped half of it down. "Thanks. Where's Alec?"
"Said something about milk," Sarah said. "Hi, Harper. Sleep okay?"
"I would have liked more," Harper said, her smile turning rueful. "You went running? God, I could hardly manage the stairs. And Chloe, you drank more than I did!"
"High metabolism and fast healing," Chloe told her, looking pleased. "I've never been hungover."
"Lucky," Harper muttered, then drank the rest of her soda. She tossed the can in the recycling bin and sat. "Alec told me we have a case."
"We do," Conner said. His smile disappeared. "We'll wait for him before going into specifics."
"Hungry?" he asked, holding his fries to her.
"I ate," she said. But the smell of hot oil was tempting, even after the eggs. She took one, savoring the flavor. When Conner kept holding them out, she gave in and took the rest.
While she ate, she focused on her Sight. Alec had told her that using it should be natural, so she practiced whenever she could.
Conner was easy enough; his brown eyes and black curly hair disappeared when she focused. He became the incubus he was, attractive even while demonic. Part of the charm, she supposed. There was something different about him today, though. She tried to sense what, but that was beyond her abilities.
If she'd kept the power from the nexus, she would have known. Generations of power, and it had been hers. Sometimes she was still shocked she'd given that up.
She ate another fry and turned toward Chloe. Her aura was there, lilac this morning. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't see her as a fairy. Chloe winked at her.
"You could tell I was trying?" she asked.
Chloe giggled. "Sorry, but you scrunch your eyebrows when you concentrate."
"It's true," Sarah said. "Not always, but when you're trying really hard."
"Great," Harper sighed.
Chloe looked far too amused, then stood, twirled, and took on her fey appearance.
"So dramatic," Conner said, tone dry. "Love the twirl, real1ly. Really shows that maturity."
"Oh hush," Chloe said. "We all know that when it comes to drama, you take the cake. Besides, Sarah sort of shimmers when she transforms. If she can shimmer, I can twirl!"
Sarah didn't rise to the bait, just smiled. She couldn't help how she changed, Harper knew. And of them all, she was the least likely to be grandiose. Even if she had the coolest transformation. Her white-wolf form was beyond beautiful.
Conner and Chloe launched into an argument that started with who was more prone to show off and then diverged into vanity and egotism. Harper might have joined in, but her head started pounding again, and she wanted to go back to sleep.
Alec turned up nearly thirty minutes later with a grocery sack. He put away a half-gallon of milk and a few cans of coconut water. Then he sat down, kicked back, and took a cigarette from a fresh pack.
Sarah shot him a dirty look. "Those are terrible for you."
"Will they kill me?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. "How? High blood pressure?"
Chloe laughed. "Did you just make a joke, Alec? I'm sorry, who are you again?"
"Second-hand smoke isn't good for the rest of us," Sarah said, annoyed. "Besides, the law prohibits people from smoking in — thank you."
Alec had put it away. "Uh-huh. Wouldn't want to put you in harm's way. Moving on. Conner, it's your show."
"Conner's?" Harper asked, surprised. "I thought you had a case for us."
"You thought wrong," Alec said.
Conner cleared his throat. "Remote?"
Chloe looked at him, eyes twinkling. "But I usually—"
"Give it to me," Conner said. She passed it over, and he turned on the right-most monitor. The Afterlife logo bounced around off the edges, but after he pressed a few buttons, a woman came up on the screen. She was wearing thin glasses and a posed smile. Harper thought her fashionable pixie cut suited her well.
"This is Emma," Conner said. "She's a witch — an old friend of mine."
"A friend?" Chloe repeated, teasing. "By that, you mean—"
"Yes, Chloe, I used to sleep with her," Conner said, looking irritated for once. "Can we get back to it? She needs our help. This is James…"
He clicked a button, and a boy replaced the woman. He shared her dark skin and blue eyes, beautiful at his young age of six, maybe seven.
"Her son?" Alec confirmed.
"Yes. And someone has kidnapped him."
All of them sat up straighter. Sarah leaned forward, "Conner, we don't do kids. She needs the police."
Conner shook his head.
"Sarah's right," Harper chimed in, feeling uneasy. "If a kid is missing—"
"Not a kid," Conner snapped. "I told you, his name is James. A demon called Trentreen took him. We call the police, they get in our way, and they're not going to catch him. James dies, that simple."
Chloe shifted in her chair. "Conner, maybe we—"
Alec cut her off. "Why take him? What's the motive?"
"Alec," Sarah said.
He ignored her, still looking at Conner.
"He's an eater," Conner said. When Harper looked confused, he elaborated, "He feasts on people. If they've got magic, even better. He absorbs it for a time and can keep feeding on it when he's low on fresh prey. They're like his fat."
"Is James a witch too?" Harper asked.
Conner shrugged. "Trentreen kidnapped him instead of killing him outright, so it's safe to say he's at least got his mother's magic in his blood. He'll want to fatten him up first, so to speak."
"Why not take her then?" Harper asked. "She'd be more… filling?"
Alec nodded at the screen. "Look at him. Can't imagine he gave much of a fight. A witch in the prime of her power, though… No, Trentreen is watching her, waiting for the right moment."
Conner scowled. "She'd be hard to take, yeah. Okay, let's start with info. Everything I know, I got second hand. We need to question Emma. Sarah, you want to do it?"
"I'll need to go soft," Sarah said. "We don't know how much she is willing to accept help or how much trust she'll extend. Might be best if you come with since you have history."
"I don't know that I should," Conner said. "Trentreen and I have a history; he'll recognize me a mile away. Hell, he might recognize any of you."
Harper asked, "Because we're Afterlife?"
"Sure. That's part of it," he said. "But I wouldn't be surprised to find that he's been keeping tabs on me and my associates."
Chloe perked up. "Hey, I've got an idea. Let's ask Brittney to talk to her."
"No," Harper said right away. "She's not part of this. She's human."
"So? Even better," Chloe said, looking excited. "It makes sense. Trentreen won't recognize her. She can speak with Emma without rousing suspicion. In fact, I can have her take my old cover story… if he sees an FBI agent there, he won't suspect Afterlife. He'll think Emma did what any parent would. Could make him lower his guard."
"FBI?" Harper repeated.
"Do you think we always walk in, guns blazing?" Chloe asked, her eyes twinkling. "Some things require finesse, Harper. I mean, I can't do it, not anymore. Got made. But Brittney… well, why not? She'd look pretty believable with my badge in hand."
"Because she'd be in danger again," Harper said.
"That's her choice," Alec said before an argument could begin. "Make it happen. Explain the risks of helping us, but get her on board if you can. Sarah, since you're not going to speak with her, maybe work on better camouflage."
"Cats aren't noticed much," Sarah mused. "I could practice that."
Alec nodded. "Conner, you're with me. I want a full rundown on this demon. Everything you know, gossip and all."
"And me?" Chloe asked.
"Well…" Alec looked over at the mini-fridge, then back to her. "I did some light shopping, but not enough. Mind doing a grocery run?"
"Seriously?" Chloe gave a long-suffering sigh. "Chloe, get us coffee. Chloe, get us food. Chloe, do my shopping. What's next, picking up your dry cleaning? I'm a fairy, not a maid."
Alec shrugged. "I'll find someone else."
Her eyes widened. "And risk them getting the wrong brand of almond flour? You couldn't handle anyone else picking out your foods, Alec. Harper, care to go with me?"
Sarah shook her head, speaking up first. "After she speaks with Brittney, I'm going to show her some hand-to-hand defense while I practice shifting. She's nowhere near fit enough to hold her own. Sorry, Harper."
"It's fine," Harper said. "Sorry, Chloe. Maybe next time."
Chloe huffed, grabbed her purse, gave the group a look of annoyance, then left.
"Maybe I should have—" Harper began, worried.
"She likes her drama," Conner said, dismissive. "Chloe's fine. Call Brittney."
Harper grabbed her phone and hit the contact for Brittney. The phone rang four times before her friend answered. She sounded half-asleep still. "Harper? Do you know that time it is?"
"Do you?" Harper asked, happy she wasn't the only one hungover.
"Too early," Brittney said, then yawned. "All right, I'm up. What's up?"
"We need your help with something if you're willing."
Harper glanced around the room, uncomfortably aware that Conner was staring at her, looking impatient. "Yeah, me and the others. Afterlife. It could be dangerous, though. If you'd rather not, that's—"
"I've got nothing else planned for today," Brittney said, cutting her off. "But if this involves fighting our way out of a demon-infested warehouse, you'd better tell me now. I'll skip the heels."
"I make no promises," Harper said. "For now, your shoes are safe. A demon kidnaped a boy, and we need you to speak with his mother. Chloe has an FBI badge for you to use and see if she has anything else that might help us find her kid. You'll have to wear a suit. Maybe the navy, it's a good color on you."
"Demonic kidnapping?" Brittney asked, sounding awake now. "Has to be, for it not to be real FBI involved. Give me an hour to shower and dress, and I'll swing by for details. Afterlife?"
"You owe me," she said, then hung up.
Harper put her phone away. "She'll do it."
"Good," Alec said. "Conner, I'll need that info now. I'll sleep later. Harper, Sarah… go on. Go practice."
"Come on," Sarah urged Harper. "Right out here."
As they left the bat cave, Harper gave Sarah a critical look. "I can't just learn to use magic for defense?"
Sarah smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. "You can. You will. But you'll learn to fight, too. No easy way out of this, Harper. Time to fight."