Harper yawned. There was coffee on, but she wanted sleep, not caffeine. It had been several hours since she’d left the unders and kept hope someone would suggest bed.
After Harper had led the kids to the buffet line, she’d gone to the parking lot and waited. Conner came out within thirty minutes, unstable on his feet, but in a new overshirt and with a washed face.
She’d called them a rideshare. He had told her she was supposed to be gone already, bragged about convincing some guy in the mens’ room to give up his shirt, and then dialed Alec’s number. It had gone to voicemail, but Alec, Chloe, and Sarah arrived at Afterlife twenty minutes later.
They were all tired; she could see it in their faces.
Sarah was now finishing up with Conner. When she’d seen how bad he looked, she insisted on cleaning the bullet hole and coating it in ointment. His argument about demons healing faster hadn’t swayed her; faster and better didn’t mean immediate or without risk of infection.
“So the kids,” Alec mused.
Harper glanced at him, trying to ignore the urge to close her eyes. “Yeah?”
“James wasn’t with them.”
Alec leaned back, taking out a pack of matches. He shot a look at Sarah and settled for tossing them hand to hand. “But there were those barrels…”
Conner hissed as Sarah placed a clean linen bandage on his shoulder. To Alec, he said, “He wasn’t killed. At least not there. Those bodies were the parents.”
Sarah clenched her teeth at that, put on the last strip of medical tape, and said, “Done. You need sleep. All of us do.”
“The kids were alive, parents dead,” Alec said, as though he didn’t hear her.
“Kids don’t put up much of a fight,” Conner said. “They were scared and docile. When I commanded them as an incubus, none resisted. Parents might have.”
Alec nodded, but he was looking off at nothing, and Harper wondered if he was even listening.
Chloe must have thought the same, because she cleared her throat and said, “Alec? Care to share with the class?”
She shook her head. “Forget it. Everyone go home. It’s been a long night, and we have to rework our game plan tomorrow. Well, today, technically. Later today. After sleep.”
Conner frowned, and leaned forward.
“Nope,” Sarah said, cutting him off before he could speak. “You look like hell, and Alec isn’t much better.”
“I’m fine,” Alec said, surprised into paying attention.
“You might not be all bloodied up, but I can smell your leg,” Sarah snapped. “The wulfser venom won’t kill you, but that bite wasn’t shallow.”
Harper stood, too tired to sit through a back-and-forth. “Well, I’m going to crash. Night.”
Chloe shot her a grateful look and rose too. “Come on, Sarah. The sheep are waiting.”
“Call if you need me,” Sarah told Conner and Alec. Then she left with Chloe.
Harper was halfway up the stairs when she realized Alec wasn’t following her. She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, then turned back and opened the door, calling, “A few hours, that’s all.”
Neither answered, so she stepped back in, meaning to read them the riot act. But then she saw the way Conner was staring at the table, hands clasped atop it. Alec had pulled his chair up next to him, and was gently clasping his shoulder, speaking in a quiet voice.
She left, closing the door softly. Up in the apartment, she considered a shower but couldn’t summon the energy. Instead, she ditched her pants, crawled under the top sheet, and was asleep within seconds.
She woke sometime later, stiff but refreshed. She heard Alec puttering around in the kitchen and got up. A quick shower helped her legs feel moveable again, and she pulled on a tank-top and some leggings.
“Hey, that smells good,” Harper said, stepping up to the tall bar. She perched on a stool and sniffed the air. “Onions?”
Alec finished pouring water into the skillet. It sizzled and snapped, and he tilted it around. “I’m caramelizing them to top the chicken. Here, grate this. I need a half block to finish the cream sauce.”
Harper stared at him. When he put the block of parmesan cheese before her, she yawned. “You know it’s breakfast time, right? I was expecting—”
“Eggs?” Alec guessed. “You should really broaden your palate, Harper.”
She picked up the grater, brandishing it at him. “You know—”
“That it’s not breakfast time? I know,” Alec said. He turned back to the stove, leaned down to inhale, then added a few shakes of coarse salt.
“Did you sleep?” Harper asked. She gave in and started grating cheese into the bowl.
“Much better without someone tip-toeing around my room,” Alec told her. He wasn’t much for smiling, but his tone was light-hearted and she smiled for them both. His good humor was contagious.
“So what’s with the closet? It’s a little cliche.”
Alec snorted. “Oh, I’m the cliche?”
“I converted it, I’ll have you know,” Alec told her. “I’m not tucking myself in next to jeans and coats. I just find it easier to relax in the dark. You can’t get that in a bedroom, not completely.”
She gave him a critical look. “Yeah, uh-huh. You hang upside down, don’t you? I bet there’s a coffin in there.”
He snatched the cheese bowl from her. “And as a bat, yes.”
“How would you get in the coffin?” she asked, laughing.
Alec shrugged, adjusting the flames under his pans. “I’m sure I find a way. Here…”
He added a few shakes of marjoram, pepper, and paprika, then stirred in the cheese, adding heavy cream as he did. After letting the flavors blend, he dipped a spoon in, blew on it, and offered it to her.
Harper leaned forward to taste it. It was better than she expected. “Well, this settles it. I’m never leaving, you’re stuck with me.”
He turned away and opened the oven. He took out the hot, peppered chicken.
“You should be working in a restaurant,” Harper told him when he fixed her a plate.
“I was a gourmet chef. Back in the eighties. Not my cup of tea.” Alec made a plate for himself. He leaned a hip against the counter, holding his plate while he ate.
“They didn’t teach you etiquette?” Harper teased. “Five-star quality food should be enjoyed, not shoveled down.”
“Five-star?” Alec scoffed. “Well, compared to hot pockets, I imagine anything would taste good.”
Harper pointed her fork at him. “I bet you’ve never had one.”
“Uh-huh. I’ve seen your shopping list,” Harper countered. “I bet you squeeze your own juice.”
“I don’t like juice,” he said.
Harper rolled her eyes and took another bite. “Heard from the others today?”
“Glad you covered etiquette before now,” Alec said wryly.
She swallowed, then stuck her tongue out.
“Conner just left,” Alec said. When she gave him a curious look, he elaborated with, “He crashed on the couch. His car was back near the unders and even then, he would have made quite the sight walking through Afterlife in his incubus form.”
“Gotcha. How’s he doing?”
Alec shrugged again. “Never had a kid myself, so can’t say I know just what he’s thinking. But Conner’s got the right kind of head for this. I’m not worried.”
Harper nodded, remembering the way they’d been the night before. She finished her food, then rinsed off her plate.
“What’s our next move?” she asked after. “Or should we wait for the others?”
Alec shook his head. “Sarah’s working this morning, and Chloe had an appointment somewhere. We’ll meet later.”
“Okay,” she said. “I could use a relaxing morning after yesterday.”
“Afternoon,” he corrected, “and too bad.” Alec checked the clock. “We’ve got somewhere to be in about an hour. You’ll want to bring your gun.”
She thought about how nice it would be to lounge on the couch with her phone, catching up on her emails and texts, maybe watching some new sitcom. But thirty minutes later, Alec was driving them across town.
“This is a bad idea,” Harper told him. “Going after a demon on my own?”
“You’re not alone.”
“Yeah, but it’s daytime,” Harper said. “You can’t help.”
He shot her a look. “I’m weak in the day, not paralyzed. I could kick your ass still.”
“So humble,” Harper said, gripping her purse tighter.
He ignored this. “The focus here is information. She knows about Trentreen and our goal is to get her to talk.”
“You’re sure about her?” Harper asked. “I mean, you said she’s a substitute teacher. That’s not very…”
“Demonic?” Alec shrugged. “Most succubi don’t bother with kids, that’s true. But if she’s taking them to Trentreen, it’s good cover.”
Harper wrinkled her nose.
He took a sharp turn into a residential area, then looked at his phone.
“Alec! Eyes on the road!”
“Calm down,” he said, but dropped the phone into the cup holder.
She wanted to be calm, that was the thing. But since leaving Afterlife, it felt like there was a balloon in her chest that kept expanding. A thought kept returning, and that was about the others. Any of them would be better here.
The house that Alec parked in front of was quaint and nondescript. The front yard was small, pleasant, and hinted at being a rental. No grass to maintain, no personal touches.
“Remember to keep calm,” Alec told her as they got out. “She’ll try to make you think otherwise, but we are in control of this conversation.”
Harper checked her purse and nodded. “I got it. Let’s get this over with.”
They went up the driveway and knocked on the door. Harper thought about the demon who’d been after the Perseca powers. She’d set the trap for him by herself, and that time she wasn’t half as nervous as she was now. The thought of that success bolstered her courage some, and she rang the doorbell, squaring her shoulders and fixing her smile in place. Alec was right: they were in control.
Then she heard a scream.
For half a heartbeat, she froze. Then she yanked open the screen door, tried the knob, and found it unlocked.
Alec said something, but another scream came from inside and she heard only that. She took her pistol out, ran inside, and looked around. There was nothing abnormal about the entryway, nor the livingroom just after, other than a lack of decoration.
“Harper, stop,” Alec said, right beside her. He grabbed at her arm and spoke low. “Calm, remember?”
“She’s got someone here,” Harper snapped back, though her voice was quiet too.
“And that means we need every advantage we can get,” Alec said. “Now shut up and listen.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him off, but there was something happening. She stared at the floor, struggling to hear better.
“Is that… it sounds like a movie,” Harper said.
Alec nodded, then motioned to the hall. They went, keeping as quiet as they could. At the first door, Harper paused. The sound of tinned laughter sounded off, followed by a familiar actor’s voice.
“Go on,” Alec said, gesturing for her to open it.
Harper hesitated, but she had her gun. She opened the door a crack at first, expecting the worst. But she saw nothing but an old sofa sitting before an even older television. There was a western movie playing.
“It was just a movie,” she said, pushing the door open further. She watched for a moment, then laughed, relieved. “Thank god.”
Something about Alec’s voice made her turn around. The succubus was right behind him, her smile wide. “I wondered if Afterlife would come.”
Harper pointed the gun at her. “Back away. We just want to talk.”
The woman shifted a little so she could show Harper that she too was armed and dangerous. “I hate using guns, please don’t give me a reason to. Put it on the ground, kick it here.”
Despite the muzzle against his side, Alec looked wholly unconcerned by the situation. “Do it, Harper.”
Harper put her gun down and pushed it toward the woman. We’re in control, she reminded herself, but that was hard to claim at the moment. “We came here to talk.”
“Did you now?” the demon’s eyes glittered with mirth. She was beautiful, anyone would think so, but Harper thought she might just be rotten under the skin.
“Since you know who we are, I suppose you know why we’re here,” Alec said.
The succubus gave a dramatic sigh and withdrew her gun from Alec’s side. She scooped up Harper’s, stuck it in her waistband, then gave them both a look of incredulity. “It’s always the children with people like you. You know how I feel about kids?”
She paced in front of them, her pistol enunciating her words. “I think they stink. I mean that too, they smell terrible. They’re dirty, they’re needy. Constant needing of things. You know what that’s like? No, none of your gang has any kids.”
Harper glanced at Alec. The woman’s behavior felt erratic, but her only experience with something like a succubus was Conner. Maybe this was common.
Alec didn’t notice her attempt to catch his eye. He was frowning at the demon, but it wasn’t anxiety she saw.
“So you know a lot about us then?” he asked.
She pointed the gun at him again, holding it with both hands. She mimed pulling the trigger, held the gun up to her lips, then blew.
“Yeah, you could say that. Who doesn’t? If I have to hear about your lousy little gang one more time — well, I won’t have to, will I? Your brains would ruin my rug, but there are other ways to die.”
“Oh great,” Harper said. “Look, maybe we can work something—”
Alec spoke over her. “I bet you know all about that. The other ways. When did it happen?”
She glared at him. “You hush now.”
But he didn’t. “I bet working at the school is hard. Constant reminder, right? But taking the kids below, that’s a whole level of grief counseling that I never would have thought of. Was it your psychiatrist who recommended murder?”
“Shut up!” she screamed at him, her voice thrumming from the sudden volume. Then, back in a normal voice, without pause, “I live to eat. To feast. Hunters or the hunted.”
Alec laughed. “Quoting Charles Brain? You really are a substitute teacher. Tell me this, when you leave them down there, do you feel accomplished? Like you just brought down an elk? Oh lord, if I had known we were dealing with a depressed — wait, Harper, a widow survives their spouse. What do you call it when a parent survives their kid? Besides pathetic.”
Harper stared at him, lost for words. She managed, “Uh… I don’t know. Not pathetic, though. Are you — did you lose someone?” she looked at the demon. “Is that why you’re a succubus?”
The word seemed to act as a trigger, and she shimmered into her demonic form. Unlike Conner, her skin was pale purple, almost lilac. Her tattoos pulsed a striking midnight blue.
Harper felt a flash of heat in her face and a rock in the pit of her stomach.
“So much for Afterlife’s reputation as the best. You don’t become a succubus. You’re born one. Not you. Me, I was born a demon, just as all those before me, and all those around me.” Her eyes glittered again, amused somehow. “Guess what? I like it!”
Alec nodded. “I bet. Easier, huh? Harper’s right, pathetic is too kind. I hope your kid suffered, and I hope they still do. You believe in hell, right?”
Harper inhaled sharply. “Alec, don’t—”
“Be quiet,” the succubus said, shaking. “You shut your mouth, you know nothing, you never will.”
“I know you never deserved a chance at humanity,” Alec said, colder than Harper had ever heard him. “You were a waste when trying, and a waste when you gave up. Can’t commit to either; not good enough to be both. Trentreen has you bring the kids, then you leave, you run away, because you’re a coward. A cowardly demon. It’s disgusting. You’re disgusting. A freak.”
She stopped shaking. She lifted the gun again, and Harper saw everything happen with the perfect clarity of Sight.
She lunged at the woman, but Alec grabbed her. The crashing report of the gun filled the small house.
The rug, Harper thought, her thoughts running together. It was ruined after all.
She must have spoken aloud though, because Alec’s reply was quick and curt. “She won’t be the one replacing it. Come on, we’re done here.”