After she saw the dealer’s nerves flash across his face, Ileana knew she’d been made. She was on her feet in seconds, whirling away from the table. Her cards fluttered to the floor as she stepped toward the floor’s exit, knowing she wouldn’t have much time.
No time. She made it half a dozen feet before a server stepped in her path. She moved to the left, and he did too.
“Get out of the way,” she commanded. The chains burned against him, and he did as told. She ran, but another came to block her. A row up, she saw an inferni who’d be happy to join in and a harpy looking bored with nickel slots. Resigned, she stopped and turned to the vampire and succubus coming after her. “Hello.”
“You are to come with us,” the vampire said. Her voice was higher than Ileana expected, closer to that of a choir girl than a body-builder.
“Where’s Sarah?” she demanded.
“The guests of the San Francisco come for personal fulfillment of pleasure. Give them half a reason to tear you apart, and they will,” the woman said. “I’d advise against making a scene.”
“I won’t,” Ileana agreed. “But only if my friend is safe.”
“She’s as safe as you are,” the vampire said, her girlish voice full of venom. “But for now, she’s unharmed. Come now.”
Ileana walked with them, unsurprised when each took her by the arm. They went past the bar, around a false wall, and through an arch. A set of elevator doors waited.
The succubus pushed a button, and they opened. Sarah was waiting inside, next to an inferni in a tailored suit.
“Harper!” Sarah stepped toward her, but the demon grabbed her arm to hold her back. He didn’t speak, but he didn’t need to. Ileana saw the ripped sleeve of Sarah’s dress and the drying blood beneath her nose and knew the other woman hadn’t succumbed as easily.
“These — these things were bragging about — well, you don’t want to know.” Sarah shot her captor a withering glance of disgust.
Ileana shook her head, more upset at herself than Sarah. “I should not have left you alone out there.”
“What?” Sarah narrowed her eyes.
The vampire shoved Ileana, but she stepped into the forward momentum, so it did little to unbalance her. She saw Sarah’s expression and knew that Harper would have fallen.
“I’m not the enemy,” she said right away.
The vampire joined them, hitting the button for floor B2.
Sarah glared at her, but when she spoke, her voice was no higher than a hiss. “You’re not Harper either. Who the hell are you?”
The vampire scoffed before Ileana could speak. “You are such children at this. Your emotions control you more than anything else. Don’t you get it yet? Your friend was even weaker than you. She couldn’t handle this place either, but whereas you embraced some sort of anxious anger, she just became someone else. Pathetic.”
“Be quiet,” Ileana commanded, but the red flush on her cheeks undermined her.
Sarah stared at her. “Is that true?”
Ileana said nothing. Her face still burned. She wasn’t used to comments from demons getting the better of her. Their opinions mattered little and less.
“Don’t worry,” the vampire said to Sarah, almost bored. “Your friend is coming back. Just in time, too. How grand.”
Ileana looked at Sarah and saw that her unfettered rage was shifting to reasoned anger. “The lower floors don’t have whatever amplifies.”
“Bravo,” the vampire said. “You’ll both be in your right minds. Terribly sad, isn’t it?”
The woman meant to mock them, but she didn’t know Sarah — the kickboxing shapeshifter was better at logic than passion.
Just like that, Ileana was Harper again.
“Oh god. Sarah, I’m sorry. I didn’t — I wasn’t thinking — when we split up, I—”
“It’s fine,” Sarah said, cutting her off.
Harper took her meaning and closed her mouth. She was scared and not in the same way she’d been only a few moments before. Ileana was afraid of failure, she thought, but for her, there were more frightening possibilities.
The elevator stopped.
“Where are you taking us?” Harper asked.
The vampire smiled.
“Oh god,” Sarah said, rolling her eyes. “Please tell me it’s not another small, dark room. Oh? Is it? Did you add mold and sulfur too? And it’ll be cold. Cramped. So vile that we couldn’t possibly expect anything but the worst. You know, you could just torture us without all the show.”
The vampire looked offended, but only for a second. Then she sneered, “You’ll sing a different tune soon enough.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Sarah said. “But that will be from pain, not fear. You guys aren’t scary, just pretentious. I should have seen it with the Latin.”
The vampire jabbed the button to open the doors. Before they stepped out, the inferni gave her a look. She looked furious for a second, then shrugged. “Fine.”
She grabbed Harper by the arm and jerked her forward. The inferni took Sarah by the arm too, and they all ventured forth. When Sarah didn’t fight, Harper didn’t either.
“If you’re wondering why we’re here, I can save you some time,” Harper said as they walked through an empty room into a narrow hall.
“They know who we are — they already know what we want,” Sarah told her. She caught Harper’s eye and smiled. The confident reassurance was much different than how she’d been before.
When they finally stopped, it was before a giant black door that made Sarah laugh. “How cliché.”
“You didn’t want cold and cramped,” the vampire reminded her.
“Yeah, but come on,” Sarah said.
Harper winced when the vampire tightened her grip, knowing she’d have a bruise there tomorrow.
The man with Sarah stepped forward, drawing her with him. He placed his hand on the door, and Harper saw that his palm was a dark red web of veins. The door clicked, then swung forward an inch.
“How mysterious,” Sarah said.
“Can’t you shut her up?” the vampire hissed at the inferni. She tugged Harper. “Come on then. Through the door.”
Harper glanced at Sarah, and the two went inside. She expected the torture chamber that Sarah described, but instead, they were in an off-white room with bright florescent lighting, a long table, and wooden chairs. There was a mirror opposite them. They didn’t look too bedraggled, she was happy to see.
“Sit down,” the vampire said. She let go of Harper and shoved her. This time, without Ileana’s reflexes, Harper stumbled and would have fallen if not for the table. She caught herself on it and straightened.
Sarah said, “Okay. Do we get to meet your leader now, or is that you? I’d be disappointed, tell the truth.”
“Sit down,” the vampire repeated, her face darkening.
Sarah sat, and Harper did the same.
“Get him,” the vampire said to the inferni. He looked at her, then she cursed and went to the door. “I wouldn’t have hurt them. Much.”
Then she was gone.
“Great,” Harper said. She wanted to speak with Sarah, but the guard at the door stopped her. Even if he hadn’t spoken, he could. He could listen too.
Later, the door opened again. Harper had no idea if it had been five minutes or fifty.
The demon who stepped inside might have passed as a man once before, but not now. He’d augmented his demonic features with silver jewelry and body paint. On his face protruded six horns — two above his eyes, two from his cheeks, and two from the corners of his mouth.
His skin was a deep maroon, and Harper knew, whether from instinct or Sight, that he’d created that pigment himself. It was the same for his flat chest, devoid of muscle despite his otherwise well-sculpted body.
He was freakish, but the modifications made him less frightening to her.
“Hello, ladies,” he said, walking to the other side of the table to face them. He didn’t sit.
“Nice place you’ve got,” Sarah said.
“It’s not mine,” he told her. “The San Francisco — no. I’m merely borrowing a room. You know that, though. Afterlife has been here before. Didn’t you agree to leave our resort alone? You don’t have the manpower to take it on, and yet here we are.”
Sarah glanced at Harper, who nodded. She turned her gaze back to him. “Not the manpower in Afterlife, no. But we didn’t come here with pitchforks and stakes to burn you on. We came here with tech.”
“Oh, do tell,” he said, smiling. Harper wasn’t surprised to see that he’d capped several teeth with gold crowns. “I love a good twist. Is it a bomb? Please say it’s a bomb.”
Harper spoke up. “It’s a cell phone.”
He gave her an incredulous look. “A cell phone? What’s that? God, ladies, I’m joking. You have a phone, all right. Cat out of the bag, what’s next?”
Harper was feeling less sure by the moment, so she let Sarah speak. The shapeshifter leaned forward. “GPS triangulation. We sent a mass text to about a dozen people when we got here, letting them know where we were and that we might be in danger. The police will trace the logs and see that our messages lined up with your precious casino. We might not have the manpower, but I bet the police do. They’ll cause problems, anyway.”
He blinked. “Oh, you’re good. You knew that your service would stop in the doors, so you sent it from the parking lot.”
“There’s a flaw with your plan,” he said.
Sarah glanced over at Harper, then back to him. “I’m sorry?”
He laughed. “Oh, come on! You have to see it? No? Okay. Your plan works — if you never go home. But you will. Because we don’t plan to kill you, imprison you, or even torture you. You get to go home, ladies. So there’s no need for your little backup plan.”
Harper felt a shiver run down her spine. Something wasn’t right here. “Why? I mean, you brought us down here. For what purpose, if you’re letting us go?”
“You came for a reason,” he said. He looked at Harper, then Sarah. “You lost a friend, and you wanted to find him. The San Francisco is all about fulfilling your desires, ladies. I’d hate for you to leave a bad review on social media.”
Sarah glanced around. “But—”
“Shh, don’t ruin the surprise,” he said. He walked over to stand behind them. When he set a hand on Harper’s shoulder, she tried to shrug it off, but his grip was firm. “Turn it on.”
Behind them, the silent inferni flicked a switch. The pane wasn’t a mirror. It was a one-way window into a cell. They were on one side, and Conner was on the other. He didn’t look hurt, but he was bound to a chair with thick chain.
“Conner!” Harper leaped to her feet, but he didn’t even blink. He couldn’t hear her.
“Let him go,” Sarah said.
“Or what? You’ll tell all your friends you were here?” the demon laughed. “Calm down, ladies. Does he look hurt? No? See, I don’t plan on him dying either. He can walk out of here with you.”
Harper didn’t buy that for a moment. “Sure.”
“No, I mean it,” he said.
“What do you want?” Sarah asked, eyes narrowing. “That’s what this really is, isn’t it? A negotiation?”
He smiled. “That’s right. Here…” He motioned the inferni forward, took a cell phone from him, and set it on the table. “No service here, except for that. See, I like tech too. One of the most expensive phones out there — you can only get it in Sweden, and lord. But it can make a call from almost anywhere.
“One of you will pick up that phone, call Alec Morodan, and tell him to come here. His membership needs to be renewed.”
“No,” Sarah said right away.
Harper shook her head. “No. Why would you want him?”
The demon shrugged. “He’s a great find. Handsome, inspiring. He’ll be an outstanding leader with us. Much better than he ever was to your little thing.”
“Like he’d do that,” Harper said, laughing. “You don’t know Alec. He wouldn’t join you.”
He shrugged. “The San Francisco has a way of bringing out the best in a man. And once he’s indulged once, well, there’s no reason to turn back.”
“You’ll have to come up with an alternative plan,” Sarah said. “We’re not calling him.”
“Nope,” Harper agreed, thinking about the effects the casino had. Sarah had lost all sense of regulation, and she’d literally become someone else. Alec would have trouble here.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
They both nodded.
He sighed and waved at the inferni. “Tell her.”
The demon left.
A moment later, they watched the vampire who’d brought them here walk into Conner’s cell. He said something, but they couldn’t hear him. She replied, but they couldn’t hear her either.
She took a black bag and shoved it over Conner’s head.
“Stop,” Harper said.
The vampire looked at the mirror for a second, though she couldn’t see them. Then she drew a gun from her vest.
“No,” Harper said, rising again. The demon behind her gripped her shoulder as she did and forced her back down. “No! Don’t!”
“Last chance,” he told them.
Harper felt a lance of ice shoot through her. She wasn’t sure she could speak until she did. “You can’t threaten us like this — it’s a bluff, that’s all. We’re not calling Alec.”
The vampire raised the gun, cocked it, and set it against Conner’s temple.
Harper closed her eyes and waited for the shot. Or the screams. Neither came.
Instead, Sarah said, “Hello? Alec? We need you.”