Bela Talbot had been responsible for messing up Jo's hunts in the past.
Well, it had just been the one time, but she'd got herself in between Jo, her shotgun, and a jewelry box with a seriously unhappy spirit trapped inside. Bela had provided unasked-for advice on Jo's method of hair care, swiped the box after somehow managing to empty it of its haunted occupant, and left Jo to deal with a confused and pissed-off ghost that had just awoken from decades of sleep in a bejeweled version of Aladdin's magic lamp.
Needless to say, Jo wasn't exactly thrilled to see her again.
"I've heard all about you," she said. It was true -- she'd got an earful and a half from Bobby on the subject. Then an even longer one from her mom once she'd had the opportunity to speak to Bobby and get all the details.
Jo's right hand twitched.
"Oh, my ears are burning," Bela said, her mouth curving upwards in a distractingly familiar smirk.
She looked amused and unruffled, despite the fact that she was standing near the dead body of a Black Dog. Jo was no stranger to blood and gore herself, but the corpse in front of her was definitely not going to make her dreams any sweeter. Bela's lack of reaction was -- unnerving.
"All my daring and heroic exploits, no doubt?" Bela added.
"Not exactly," Jo said. She didn't elaborate. She was pretty sure Bela was under no illusions about her reputation in the hunting community.
"Ah, well," Bela said with a mock sigh. "Ever the unappreciated hero."
Jo tightened her hand on her shovel and widened her stance. Last time they met there'd been weapon-pulling and name-calling and jewel box-thieving, and Jo was not particularly in the mood to repeat the experience. Her gun was tucked into the back of her jeans and her dad's knife was strapped to her thigh just in case, but Bela was being kind of obvious about keeping her hands in plain sight so Jo didn't reach for them. Still, she wasn't going to take her eyes off Bela for a second.
"Look," Jo said, trying to remain calm. "I wasn't exactly expecting company. You mind telling me what the hell you're doing out here in the middle of nowhere?"
She didn't add: Where I happen to have killed a Black Dog.
"Oh, don't worry. You don't have to put on the kettle or tidy away the pornography just for me," Bela said. "I'm here for one little thing and then I'll be out of your hair." She paused. "Okay, two little things."
"Yeah, how about no," Jo said. "This is my corpse and I don't want you or your sticky fingers anywhere near it."
"Sticky fingers?" Bela looked affronted. "Sweetheart, my fingers may be light, but they are not sticky."
Jo glared. "What the hell does that matter?"
"Professional pride, of course," Bela said. She cocked her head a little. "Don't you want to know what I want? You won't even miss it, promise."
"Yeah, right," Jo said. "Just like I wouldn't miss that jewelry box back in Colorado? It took me two days to finally torch that spirit's stubborn-ass remains."
Bela was smirking in a way that made Jo's palms itch. "Oh, that," she said.
"Yeah, that," Jo snapped.
"You'll be happy to hear I made a very handsome profit on that jewelry box," Bela said. "You wouldn't believe how many clients are interested in a box that can contain a moody spirit like that for decades."
"Oh, yeah, great, thanks for letting me know," Jo said shortly. "I was real worried about it."
They stood staring at each other for a moment. Jo smiled grimly. This time she was not going to let Bela freaking Talbot get away with anything.
Of course, it was just then that a whirlwind of wet autumn leaves blew up around them and Jo's head went dizzy and her vision went blurry, and she fell heavily to the ground.
She woke up to Bela waving a bottle of something totally foul-smelling under her nose.
"Eugh, gross, what the hell," Jo said, and pushed her hand away.
Bela slipped the bottle back in the inside pocket of her jacket and rocked back on the balls of her feet. "Well? Are you going to lay there all day?"
"What are you -- " Jo said and sat up. Her head swam a little, and she reached for her gun, which had fallen on the ground next to her. It was a reassuring weight in her palm -- even if Bela didn't seem concerned by it. Jo wasn't sure what to make of that. She blinked furiously. "Okay," she said, and cleared her throat. "Okay, what the hell was that?"
Bela shot her a look and stood up. "I'll give you one guess, Sherlock."
Jo scowled and scrambled up after her. She wasn't about to give Bela any more opportunities to look down on her, literally or metaphorically. Bela flicked her eyes lightning-quick over Jo's shoulder towards the dead Black Dog, and then settled back on Jo's face. "You're a hunter, aren't you?" Bela drawled, as if she hadn't even considered looking in that direction. "Surely you can make some reasonable deductions of your very own."
Jo was, abruptly, furious. She twisted around to look at the Black Dog. It was still there, but it had been -- had someone moved it? Had Bela --
"What the hell did you do to my corpse?" Jo demanded. She stalked over to the dog. It had been turned over and there was a rough incision running down its chest, an incision that certainly hadn't been there before Jo had killed it. Jo drew her sleeve across her mouth and nose to muffle the stench, and pulled out her knife to peel back the skin and cracked ribs.
Bela didn't look particularly guilty when Jo whirled around, but Jo guessed thieves had plenty of opportunities to practice playing innocent.
"This body is not a goddamn cadaver for you to play organ donor with!" she snapped. "I don't know what the hell you plan on using it for, but give it back! Now!"
Bela looked unsurprised by the accusation. "Heart and liver, I suspect?" she said calmly.
Jo didn't have a clue about the liver -- she hadn't got that far and she wasn't sure she'd be able to identify the liver on a Black Dog anyway -- but she focused in on the fact that Bela clearly knew exactly what the fuck was going on.
She took a breath and ignored the stench of the dog's guts in her nostrils. "Okay, let's pretend for a minute that I believe it wasn't you. Just what the hell is going on?"
"A fine question," Bela said. "The short answer being, it looks like both of us have just been royally screwed."
Bela, surprisingly, didn't argue much when Jo insisted they stay to bury the Black Dog. It was what Jo had been out in the middle of nowhere to do in the first place and she intended to damn well finish the job. Unsurprisingly, Bela wasn't much help. They did only have the one shovel but that seemed like a very convenient excuse, really, when Jo was waist-deep in a muddy grave and Bela was lounging idly next to an oak tree.
Jo kept a careful eye on her. The thing was, though, that Bela had been afforded plenty of opportunities to ditch Jo and she was still there. Not to mention, she had waved her bottle of eau de disgusting under Jo's nose to wake her up after -- after whatever-the-hell-it-was had knocked her senseless. Bela clearly still wanted something, and whether she had knocked Jo out with some kind of magical whammy to perform lightning-quick canine surgery, or whether some other mysterious third party had whizzed through to do it, Jo wasn't inclined to be a doormat anymore.
Bela managed to keep up with Jo all the way back to the gravel parking lot despite her unfortunate choice of footwear. She didn't complain either, so Jo slowed down a little in compensation. There was no point in being completely rude. They'd managed to remain civil for at least an hour, which had to be an unpredecented event.
Well, until Jo ruined it by opening her mouth.
"So why don't you tell me what the hell happened to my Black Dog?" she said, deliberately leaning against the shiny door of Bela's Mercedes. She was probably leaving dirt and leaves on the windows, and she felt stubbornly pleased about that. Her own truck was still a quarter of a mile down the gravel road. She could make out the glint of metallic red in the light of the late afternoon sun.
Bela raised her eyebrows. "Are you telling me you don't recognize a curse when one smacks you in your skinny, flannel-clad chest? What are hunters teaching their kids these days."
"A curse," Jo said flatly.
"What did you think your mysterious fainting spell indicated?"
"I didn't faint."
"Oh, of course not," Bela said, condescension dripping from her voice.
"Cut the evasiveness. What the hell does a curse have to do with the makeshift heart surgery on my Black Dog?"
Bela glanced towards the trees. "There is a particular ritual," she said, "that requires the heart and liver of a freshly killed Black Dog. It -- well, I won't bore you with details that you are unable to understand. Suffice to say, I heard rumors of a Black Dog in the area, I leaked that information to some colleagues of mine in the -- ah, hunting community, and, ta-da, here you are." Bela looked askance at Jo. "Only now it seems that you have drawn all the wrong kind of attention. Someone else got the chance to catch up to us and leave us sitting here with a pretty little curse to show for it."
Jo stared at her. "Wait -- I drew the wrong kind of attention?"
"Well. You're not exactly an expert at blending in, are you?"
Jo felt anger flare bright and hot inside her. "Screw you," she spat. "You can keep your explanations and your internal organs and your goddamn curses, too. And keep the fuck away from me in the future."
"Believe me -- at this point, nothing would please me more," Bela said. Her voice was practically a snarl.
Jo gritted her teeth and stalked quickly towards her truck. She'd had more than enough of this -- this crap and she was looking forward to nothing more than waving at Bela's receding figure in her rear view mirror.
She was almost at her car when she felt a something sharp twist in her chest. She let out an involuntary gasp and took another step. But everything in her gut went hot and tangled and messy, and all of a sudden her head was pounding a nauseating rhythm and there was a deep aching pull in her chest. She turned and stumbled and let out a cry, only dimly registered the wrecked noise Bela made in response. Then she was gripping Bela's shoulders, her fingers digging tight and urgent into the leather of her jacket, and Bela's arms were locked around Jo's back, pressing back just as desperately.
"Well, this has just turned up roses, hasn't it," Bela said flatly, and Jo raised her head.
They were still kneeling in the gravel parking lot, tangled up in one another. The thrumming in Jo's head was lighter now and she felt drained. There was a jagged rock digging sharply into her shin and she winced and shifted away from it. The movement was enough to make Bela drop her hands away from Jo's arms and shrug Jo's hands off her shoulders. A pulse of loss fissured through Jo's body at that, jagged and deep and confusing, and she didn't think she was quick enough to hide the emotion on her face. She stood up quickly to hide her embarrassment, flexing the feel of Bela's leather jacket out of her fingers.
"Okay," she said, putting the pieces together. "A binding curse, right? We're bound to each other's presence."
"Well done, you," Bela said, her voice threaded with sarcasm.
Jo scowled, tamping down the fury that rose from deep in her gut. She could see how much Bela loved this, doling out information one little morsel at a time, keeping Jo dangling as long as she could. It was so damn humiliating, Jo wanted to cry. But it was also unfortunately necessary. In fact, it was now becoming clear that it was physically inescapable.
Jo could suffer through this without snapping Bela's neck in two. She would.
"Well, if you're such an expert, why don't you tell me how long it lasts? Or, hey, how about how the hell we get out of it?"
"It so happens that I know exactly which object is responsible for this particular curse," Bela said, her smile as smug as a cat with a bowl of cream. "It's a ring called Lover's Knot. The curse-thrower needs to tie a strand of each of our hair together, wind it through the Lover's Knot, and so bind us together." She shrugged one shoulder, a gesture that made her hair tumble over the leather of her jacket. "I presume it was easy enough to clip a piece of your hair while you were sweetly dreaming in the rotten leaves."
"Your hair too," Jo pointed out. She brushed one such rotten leaf from the cuff of her jacket and then paused. "A lover's knot?" she repeated.
Bela smirked. "A fanciful title only."
Jo eyed her warily. Curses and spellwork involving love were usually the most dangerous, especially for the people who got tangled up in them unaware.
Of course, lucky for Jo, her feelings for Bela ran in rather the opposite direction.
"Right," she said. "And you know all this how?"
"This ring was, at one time, in my possession," Bela said.
Jo grinned. "Someone stole it off you, huh?"
Bela's amused superiority bled off her face. "Of course not. I sold it."
"I don't suppose you happen to remember to who?" Jo demanded, clenching her teeth.
"I never forget a transaction, sweetheart. Her name is Rachel Fiori," Bela said. "Not her real name, I might add."
"A -- friend of yours?" Jo asked carefully.
"Well, I would't ask her to feed my cat," Bela said lightly. "We are more in the way of rivals than colleagues." She tossed her hair a little. "She paid me more than the pretty little thing was worth. I doubt she's found anyone willing to buy it off her to make a profit."
"So now she's cursing you with a nice side of poetic justice," Jo pointed out grimly. "And I get caught in the crossfire. Thanks."
Bela didn't say anything to that. She didn't need to, though. It was all crystal goddamn clear.
"First thing's first," Bela said. "We need to test the length of our leash."
They faced one another and, as they met each other's eyes, each took a steady step back. Jo was waiting for it, so the light tug in her chest on the fourth step was expected. It grew sharper with the fifth and sixth, not unbearable, but noticeable. At the seventh step, the muted pounding in her head started, loose against the back of her skull and it got louder and deeper with the next step. At the ninth step, Jo's limbs started to tremble, and the bitter, roiling feeling that had destroyed her earlier exploded in her gut. She gritted her teeth against the sensation, kept her eyes locked with Bela's, and they took the tenth step back together. Then the eleventh and then the twelfth and --
Bela gasped, the sound shockingly loud over the pounding in Jo's head, and Jo lurched forward before she even consciously decided to move, reaching out desperately for the grounding touch of Bela's body. They barreled into one another, hands clasped and mouths panting. They stood like that for a moment, and Jo tried not to think about how relieved and soothed she felt at just the casual contact of this other person.
"So basically we've got twenty feet to work with," Bela said, finally. "Twenty-four feet, utter max."
Jo looked up to meet her eyes and was abruptly conscious of how close they were standing to one another. She dropped Bela's hands and stepped back, ignoring the sharp contraction of her heart at the movement. "Well, that's just great," she said. "What the fuck are we supposed to do now?"
Bela raised her eyebrow, and if losing contact with Jo's skin had affected her, it didn't show on her face. That rattled Jo in a way she didn't quite know how to explain. "And here I thought you were a hunter," Bela said. "We're going to break the curse, obviously. We're going to find the little asshole who did this and unwind our hair from that bloody ring. And then each of us can go our merry way and never see one another again."
Jo ground her back teeth. "Fine by me," she said shortly. "Yes. Let's do that."
She turned and started towards her truck.
"Where do you think you're going?" Bela said.
Jo turned to look at her, and then looked at Bela's Mercedes. "Oh no," she said firmly. "We're definitely taking my truck."
Bela let out a disbelieving laugh. "I don't think so, darling girl. There's a life expectancy on that thing and it is fast approaching flatline."
Jo glared at her. "If you think I'm letting you drive me anywhere, you're so far beyond reality --"
"Well, all right, then," Bela said, and leaned comfortably back on the car. She crossed her arms loosely across her chest and gazed levelly at Jo. "I guess we'll spend the night in this abandoned parking lot in the middle of nowhere. Unless you have some cash for a taxi?"
Jo thought seriously about that option for a moment. But the money in her wallet was the last of her winnings from hustling pool in that bar outside Naugatuck. She'd overplayed her hand a little and overestimated the desire of a few sloppy drunks to get beat by a little blonde girl. It was only because she had a) been near the door when things turned ugly and b) pulled her dad's knife out of her boot that she'd got away with any grocery money at all. She certainly wasn't in a position to throw her winnings around on things like cab fare when they had two cars there already.
It went against all her instincts to get in the car with Bela, though. To give Bela the control to take the wheel and drive. The women was slick and smooth, and God, for all Jo knew she'd cast the curse herself.
But -- Bela didn't look inclined to move. And Jo really didn't have a lot of cash.
"I'll get in your car if we go to a fresh hotel. Not your place, not mine. Somewhere new. And cheap," she added. If someone had been following her -- or, far more likely, Bela -- Jo didn't want to go back to a place this curse-throwing person might have already staked out.
Bela made a moue of distaste but she nodded, and Jo decided that in this case a compromise was as good as a win.
Bela had to walk across the parking lot with her so she could grab some of her stuff. Jo was acutely conscious of the take-out containers on the floor of the passenger seat, the unopened package of cheap wool socks on the dashboard, the clothes strewn across the back of the cab. She moved awkward under Bela's gaze, feeling as though her life had been suddenly exposed under the bright floodlights of a football stadium.
She used her body to shield Bela's view of the combination lock on her weapons chest and snagged what she needed as quickly as possible.
Bela didn't make a single crack about the state of Jo's truck, though the lift of her eyebrows conveyed precisely what she thought of it. Bela's own car didn't reveal much of anything except that she was very clean; even her hexbag was tucked inconspicuously behind her rearview mirror. Jo let her own pursed lips and wrinkled nose speak for her, too. By the annoyed glance Bela threw her, she was pretty sure the message was received.
Jo was supposed to phone her mom that night to check in. She'd received a text that afternoon that read, simply, expecting you. Typical grade-A guilt-inducing mother-speak. But just the thought of talking to her mom with Bela in the room made her cringe. Not only was the potential for snide commentary far too high, there was no way she'd be able to talk to her mom freely, and Ellen would only freak out if Jo gave her the keyword for it isn't safe to talk now.
Maybe later she'd be able to sneak in a call while the shower was running or something.
She also thought it was only fair that she shower first, considering she was the one who'd been digging graves all afternoon. It turned out that Bela was inclined to disagree, and ten minutes later they had to flip a coin to settle the matter. Bela then rejected Jo's suggestion of pepperoni pizza and Jo countered by refusing Bela's offer of the local Italian restaurant that had received a four-star review in last month's Food and Wine. It took them almost forty minutes to decide on the least greasy of the nearby diners, and the conversation during the meal that followed was stilted to say the least.
Jo didn't think she'd argued with anyone so much over stupid things since she was fifteen and clashing constantly with her mom. She didn't tell Bela that, though.
Jo had ordered a Rueben (mostly because she thought the smell of sauerkraut might annoy Bela), but the food settled oddly in her stomach. She watched the way the muscles in Bela's jaw jumped and moved as she ate. Jo found herself wanting to press her fingers along that jaw, touch Bela's cheeks, stroke the smooth skin of her neck.
She cleared her throat and looked away.
They hadn't planned ahead, when they came in, to choose a seat near the bathroom. Jo had to get up with Bela after they were finished eating and wait outside. She stared at a colorfully garish print on the wall in the hallway. The frame was a little crooked.
You're going to get through this, she thought to herself. You're a Harvelle. Pull yourself together.
The room felt crowded when they got back, despite the fact that it was several star-ratings higher than Jo's usual accommodations. Well, she wasn't paying for it -- though from what she could tell, Bela wasn't either. The name on the credit card Jo had glimpsed was Karla Bow.
All of Jo's things looked worn and rough on the expensive-looking bedspread. Between that and Bela's elegant leather suitcase, the room seemed to turn very unfamiliar very quickly. Jo went into the bathroom to wash her face and found herself frowning at Bela's toothbrush next to the sink. It was pink.
She turned the taps on full-blast and phoned her mom.
"Hi," she said when Ellen picked up.
"Where in seven hells are you phoning from? It sounds like a tin can."
"It's a bathroom."
There was a pause. "How are you? You all right?"
Jo shifted her feet uncomfortably.
They had set up a system: phone calls twice a week like clockwork or Jo could expect a vicious battery of calls and texts and, on one extreme occasion, a surprise visit from a local hunter. He had been as unimpressed with the situation as Jo. And, as a bonus, Ellen wouldn't demand Jo come home every time they spoke.
Of course, "home" was now a sparsely-furnished, white-walled apartment outside of Lincoln, Nebraska that had already managed to become a network point for every hunter in the midwest. Jo had been there exactly once, two nights hard driving after she heard about the Roadhouse, and she'd hated everything about the place. Seeing her mom in that empty kitchen, her face bruised thick with anxiety and exhaustion, made Jo want to yell and rage and smash things.
Instead she'd run again in the middle of the night.
The other thing about their system was the firm understanding that Jo would be honest about where she was and what she was hunting. But the problem was, Jo didn't want to always be the girl who ran crying to her mommy whenever she caught wind of a hunt. That was exactly why she'd left the Roadhouse in the first place. She was a hunter; she was a Harvelle; she could handle herself.
Jo didn't like lying to her mom but, after all, it was a simple proximity curse. It was inconvenient and frustrating but it was hardly life-threatening.
Well, unless Jo was driven to kill Bela out of sheer exasperation.
Besides, her mom would flip her shit if she found out Jo was working with Bela Talbot.
So: "I'm doing fine," she said. It wasn't even a lie, exactly.
The pause this time was long enough that Jo started to believe her mom could hear every speck of dishonesty in her voice.
"Are you still working on the Black Dog in Connecticut?" Ellen said at last.
"Something related to it," Jo said. "Unraveling a curse. I'm actually -- working with someone on it."
"A hunter?" her mom said in surprise.
That itched a little. Her mom never seemed to think she could play nice with others. That wasn't true at all -- people just had a hard time keeping up with her and Jo was not into babysitting. She always did better on her own, anyway.
"Not exactly," she said. "A bystander, kind of."
"Don't worry, Mom. I'm not being stupid about it. I promise."
Her mom sighed, a light gust of breath. Jo could picture the way she was holding the phone tucked into her shoulder, her hair falling into her eyes. She would probably be sitting at that uneven garage sale table that didn't suit her at all, blank white walls behind her.
"Okay. I believe you."
Jo's chest clenched unexpectedly and her throat felt suddenly raw.
"Curse magic is dangerous and unpredictable," her mom added.
"I'll be careful."
"Be safe, Joanna," her mom said, and, as always, it sounded like an order.
"Do you have a plan for tracking down this Rachel person?" Jo said when she came out of the bathroom.
"Oh, yes, please do leave everything to me," Bela said.
Jo felt her whole body stiffen at the sarcasm laced in Bela's voice. "You were the one who dragged me into this mess," she pointed out sharply.
Bela huffed. "As it happens, I have some connections in the spirit world that should be able to pinpoint her location."
"What -- like, Ouija boards?" Jo said skeptically.
Bela glared at her. "More sophisticated by far."
Jo shrugged. "Fine. So?"
"The spirits require -- something of hers." Bela looked straight at Jo, her eyes gleaming bright, and something in Jo's chest sparked. "Tomorrow we'll need to find out where she was staying and get hold of something she had contact with in the last few days."
"Oh, great," Jo said and flopped back onto her bed with a sigh. "So your spirits are the ghostly equivalent of bloodhounds. I can't wait."
Bela, it turned out, was both a light sleeper and not a morning person. Jo took great pleasure in leaving the door to the bathroom propped open and proceeding to drop her hairbrush on the bathroom tiles twice before giving a very deliberate flush. She flushed a second time, just for good measure.
Bela was sitting up in her bed when Jo came back out again and she did not look pleased.
"Mornin'," Jo said cheerfully.
Bela blinked and pushed her way past Jo into the bathroom. Jo heard the shower running a few minutes later, and didn't feel the least bit guilty that she'd snagged the last of the full-size towels for her own two-minute shower.
The sight of Bela clutching the ends of a hand towel that barely brushed the tops of her thighs made Jo start laughing uncontrollably. It was the look on Bela's face, really. She just looked so goddamn perturbed.
Jo was completely unprepared for Bela to drop the towel altogether, though. She caught a flash of a dark nipple against the glow of shower-pinked skin before she turned away, her face flushing. Something flared hot and unexpected in her gut, and she frowned furiously and did her best to ignore Bela's smug chuckle.
Bela had identified five hotels in Hartford in which she suspected Rachel would choose to stay. They were each sophisticated carbon copies of one another: sleek entrances, elegant lobbies, inconspicuous staff.
At the first hotel, Bela charmed the front desk manager into looking for her friend's name in the computer. There was no luck there, of course, though Jo could have predicted that. Even Bela's freshly printed photo of a dark-haired woman staring directly into the camera failed to elicit recognition. Jo was curious why Bela had a photo of Rachel saved on an USB key in her car, anyway, but Bela muttered something briefly about wanted posters and then clammed right up.
At the second hotel, Bela pulled out an FBI badge so unexpectedly that Jo twitched in alarm. She tried to look as much like a credible federal agent as possible -- which she knew for a fact was not an alias she could pull off easily -- while Bela, with supreme confidence, demanded to see a list of hotel guests. Still nothing.
At the third hotel, Jo faked a fall on the tiled floor and then sweet-talked the security team, after they bandaged her arm, into letting her and Bela watch the previous day's security footage. Zilch again.
By that point, Jo was convinced that Bela didn't know Rachel nearly as well as she thought she did. They'd wasted an entire half a day on nothing more than guessing games, and Jo was not in the mood to do any more dancing until they'd learned some basic steps.
"What?" Bela said, her eyes narrowing in confusion, when Jo said as much.
Jo ignored her and detoured by the fireplace in the lobby to see if she could snag a complimentary newspaper. It was then, as she skirted around a table with a large modern-looking bouquet and Bela strode confidently for the exit, that they discovered that their safety bubble had shrunk to about seventeen feet.
They collided in the middle of the lobby and dropped to their knees on the tile. Jo clutched desperately at Bela's hand and struggled to breathe through her squeezed lungs. They ignored the people hovering anxiously over them and Jo felt her pulse slow, falling into a familiar rhythm with Bela's thumping heartbeat.
"Fuck," Bela said, her voice twisting around the word with a snarl.
Jo thought that summed things up nicely.
"It's a diminishing curse, then," Jo said.
They were back in Bela's car. Despite Jo's distaste for the sense of arrogance inherent in owning a Mercedes, she had to admit the way it enclosed the two of them was, well, peaceful. Bela, sitting just there in the driver's seat, was close enough for Jo to touch.
If she wanted to, at least.
Which she didn't.
"It does look that way," Bela said. She brushed her hand over her face. Her eye make-up was smeared just a little in the corner, and she looked uncharacteristically tired.
"Screw the rest of the stupid hotels on your list," Jo said. "The town library's only a few streets over. Let's see what we can find out there."
There was dead silence from the driver's side of the car. Jo looked over. She was rather viciously pleased by the look of utter dismay on Bela's face. "What in God's name could we find in a public library?"
Jo stared back at her. "Don't you -- jeez, research, obviously. You were in town for days and this Rachel person was following you. Ten to one she left footprints all over somebody's lawn."
"Leaving footprints is not generally part of our modus operandi," Bela said, her voice threaded with condescension.
Jo stretched her mouth into a genuine grin. "I'll bet you," she said.
The library was quiet on a Tuesday afternoon, and Bela's glowering presence did little to detract attention from them. Jo dragged her over to a corner where the weak winter sunlight filtered through the windows and handed her a stack of week-old newspapers.
Bela glared at her.
"Read up," Jo said.
Bela was supremely unimpressed by the local interest stories including an incumbent winning the school board election or a hometown girl competing in a regional spelling bee. She was not subtle about her distaste for it, either. They'd almost reached closing time when Jo handed her an article about a break-in at Marpole's Antiques, and Bela's only reaction was to glower at her. Jo just gave her a triumphant grin and pointed out the description of the suspect (dark-haired woman) and the items stolen (half a set of enbalming jars).
There was also a paragraph describing other items in the store -- which were, incidentally, in excellent condition and quite reasonably priced.
"Looks like your friend is a sloppy thief," Jo said. "What do you think's the likelihood she touched the other half of this set?"
"It looks like Mr. Marpole's business partner wrote this article," Bela said in disgust. But when she looked up, her eyes were gleaming in a way that made Jo's heart speed up. "And if Rachel took those jars, she would have inspected the whole set first. Very carefully."
Jo folded up the newspaper with a snap. "Okay then," she said. "Think you can do any better than Rachel?"
They waited until after midnight. Bela had called somebody -- Jo didn't know who and she could barely make out the hushed phone conversation -- and somehow got the power shut off for the whole block. That took care of the alarm system. Jo didn't want to think about what kind of favors Bela might have cashed in.
Jo fiddled with a ground floor window catch and got them inside with very little trouble.
The other embalming jars were on display near the front. Bela wrapped them both carefully in her scarf.
"We're returning these when we're done," Jo said, her voice hushed but firm.
Bela huffed in annoyance, but didn't bother to argue on the way back to their hotel.
Bela point-blank insisted that Jo wait in the bathroom with the fan on while she conducted her oh-so-mysterious summoning of the spirits or ouija boarding or whatever the hell she was doing. Jo spent the first ten minutes with her ear pressed futilely against the door, and the next half hour sitting on the toilet and fuming. Bela could have at least mentioned that communing with the otherworld would take long enough that Jo might enjoy some reading material or a sudoku puzzle or her cell phone or something. She glared at the gleaming tile of the shower stall and contemplated flushing Bela's pink toothbrush down the toilet.
After about forty-five minutes, Bela knocked on the door and let Jo come out. There was a musty smell of rosemary and oil hanging in the air, a fainter scent of candles. Bela's hair was more disheveled than Jo had ever seen it, and there was a smudge of ash or something on her cheek.
"Rachel's been in town," Bela said. "East."
Jo stared at her. "East?" she said in disbelief. "Almost an hour of up close and personal with your precious spirits and all you get is east?"
Bela looked down her nose at Jo with derision and, all of a sudden, looked fierce and confident. "I meant we go east to Chicago," she said scathingly. "Rachel is in the Blackstone Hotel. Room 1446, to be exact."
They caught a few hours of fitful sleep and then drove straight for Chicago. Jo had a decent knowledge of the fastest routes through New England, particularly the ones that would bypass toll routes, and Bela had a habit of ignoring speed limits, but it still took them a day and a half to reach the city limits.
They had pulled over to the side of the highway for a few hours, though it was cold and neither of them slept much. Bela was clearly reluctant to hand the wheel over to Jo, but she did to let them make good time, dozing fitfully in the passenger seat. She woke up a few times, abruptly, her gaze flying to Jo's face and then out to the road, as if trying to reorient herself. Two days ago, Jo would have found the routine funny, might even have poked Bela about it to the point that neither of them would get any sleep. But now, besides the fact that she needed to rely on Bela being sharp and awake the following day, she knew exactly how Bela felt. She couldn't remember the last time she'd woken up in the presence of another person, either.
Which really didn't speak well of her romantic -- or sexual -- life. But that was besides the point.
Falling asleep with someone required a heck of a lot of trust. Falling asleep with someone who you knew for a fact carried weapons and had, at one time, pointed them in your direction, required even more trust. And falling asleep with someone who carried weapons, had once pointed them at you, and was currently at the wheel of your car, was an even more fucking vulnerable position.
Jo was a hunter, and she'd been a hunter since she was six years old and her dad had shown her how to read his EMF reader. She knew intimately that there wasn't a lot of room in a hunter's life for other people. Not if you expected to stick around very long. Not if you expected them to stick around very long.
They reached Chicago just as the sun was setting low in the cloudy sky. There was snow on the ground. Bela was awake again, and she directed Jo to the Blackstone. It had been Rachel's location two days ago, of course, though neither of them had said that aloud. Jo didn't object even though it was once again well outside her usual price range.
The lobby was as elegant and modern as the three they'd visited two days ago. It also had an honest-to-god gold couch. Bela threw a raised eyebrow in Jo's direction, as if to say told you I knew her tastes, but Jo avoided her gaze and pretended not to understand.
An elderly couple looked down their noses at Jo's bedraggled appearance. Yeah, so she'd spent the last two days in a car with a woman who hit every last one of her nerves. She glared back at them.
Tonight was also check-in night with her mom. While Bela arranged for a room at the desk, Jo texted: no time to talk 2nite. on a case. Fingers crossed that would cover it.
Bela came over to Jo, her dark hair gleaming in the soft muted lamplight of the lobby. Jo ignored the way something in her belly fluttered. Times like this, she missed bare bulbs and fluorescents and kitschy lampshades. Give her a tacky motel with a seedy bar any night of the week.
"I got us a single with a king-size," Bela informed her. "It was the last room left with a jacuzzi tub on the fourteenth floor, and I am in dire need of a neck massage."
Jo's brain was caught on single. "What?" she said.
"Don't worry, darling," Bela drawled, reading her expression with frustrating ease. "Your virtue is safe with me."
She smiled wolfishly and, despite herself, Jo shivered. She opened her mouth to object but Bela turned and glided away, and Jo was forced to follow her to the bank of mirrored elevators.
Her cell vibrated. Make time, it read.
Great. Just great.
"What happened to getting the room closest to Rachel's?" Jo hissed in the hallway outside their room. They were at the other end of the hallway from 1446. "You can have all the jacuzzi tubs you want when we're done here."
Bela arched an annoyed eyebrow and swiped the keycard to open the door. "The girl at the desk told me the occupant of room 1446 is out for the evening."
Jo sighed loudly as she followed Bela inside. "Well, then, c'mon -- let's search her room."
"She's not stupid enough to leave the Lover's Knot there," Bela said, and her voice was low and exasperated. "She'll carry it on her person."
That was a fair enough point, but they were just so goddamn close and Jo's palms were itching to do, something.
"Maybe she is stupid enough," she muttered.
Bela leveled her with a glare and pulled out her laptop. She pointedly swung the desk chair around to the edge of the desk so that her screen faced the wall.
"I don't want to read your stupid emails," Jo snapped.
Bela didn't reply.
She was probably busy rearranging the important criminal activities that Jo's abrupt presence in her life had interrupted or something.
Jo took the opportunity to retreat into the bathroom, turn on the shower, and call her mom. She had to admit that the jacuzzi tub did look pretty relaxing.
Her mom made a hmm noise when she picked up. "Don't tell me. A bathroom again. What exactly are you chasing?"
"Okay," Jo said, and steeled herself. "Don't be mad. I didn't want to tell you 'cause I didn't want you to worry, before. But I -- may have been, uh, cursed. A little."
Ellen let out an explosive breath. "A little?"
Jo explained as briefly as she could. Her mom started to say something when Jo dropped Bela's name, but she cut herself off with an audible snap of her teeth. Jo hadn't been expecting the restraint but it was definitely appreciated.
"Where are you?" Ellen said, her voice a little rough, when Jo finished.
"It's too far for you to come," Jo said firmly. "I'm actually -- I'm not working this one alone, so."
"You're working with Bela Talbot!" her mom exclaimed. "You know her reputation. You can't honestly believe you can trust her!"
Jo thought about the casual yet confident way Bela held her gun, the collection of who-knew-what dangerous ingredients she kept in the cloth bag in her suitcase, the silky grin on her face when she'd slipped away from Jo with that goddamned jewelry box. The way her gaze always seemed to stay cool and calm, her poise unruffled.
Then she thought about Bela's single perfectly-packed suitcase and the spotless interior of her car. The photo of a Siamese cat Jo had found tucked in her glove compartment. The way her nails dug into Jo's skin while their breathing slowly calmed and their heartbeats relearned each other's rhythm.
"I know her reputation," Jo said. "Don't worry, Mom -- I'm not going to trust her completely. I'm not an idiot. But right now we have the same goal." She paused and listened to the familiar sound of her mom's worried breathing. "Besides, we don't have any choice."
"I have two contacts in Indiana," Ellen said. "I'll call them right now and see how fast they can get to you --"
"Don't," Jo interrupted. "You can trust me to do my job, Mom. You have to trust me."
There was a long silence on the end of the line. Jo waited, her heart thumping loud in her ears over the noise of the shower.
"You are going to call me tomorrow evening," her mom said finally. "No options. You hear me, Joanna Beth?"
"I hear you," Jo said, and something in her chest eased. "I'll call."
"There you are," Bela snapped when Jo came out. "I'm about ready to eat an elephant."
There was a restaurant nearby with a decent view of the entrance of the hotel visible through a bank of arched windows.
Jo bought two shots to start the evening off and drank both of them herself.
Bela smiled at the guy serving them. Jo watched the way her lips curled around her teeth, a smug smirk and a seductive grin all at once. All fake, of course. Everything about her was fake. Except, Jo thought bitterly, for her false sense of superiority.
Jo fiddled with her empty shot glass as Bela smoothly flirted her way into drinks on the house.
"That boy would be welcome in my bed anytime," she said, settling herself comfortably back into her chair.
Jo frowned and kept her eye on the hotel entrance. It was snowing, fat, wet flakes drifting past the windows. "He's not that attractive."
"Oh, don't be jealous, darling," Bela drawled.
"What? I'm not jealous."
"A girl has needs, you know, that are difficult to satisfy when she has a five foot four limpet attached to her at all times."
Bela's suggestive smirk was ridiculous and Jo was not falling for it, that was all there was to it. She narrowed her eyes. "No fucking way," she said. "I refuse to be -- to be banished to the bathroom while you have sex in our hotel room."
"Oh, do you like to watch, then? I'm sure I could arrange that."
Jo glared at her. She didn't think she could be chained to a worse person. Bela was the most irritating, provocative, arrogant person she had ever met. And she was just sitting there, smug and superior, as though Jo was her plaything and Bela would be happy to bat her around all night.
Well, Jo could damn well surprise her.
She stood and reached down to twist her hand into Bela's hair, pulling her to her feet and keeping her still while she pushed their mouths together. Bela stiffened, and her mouth dropped open in shock. Jo grinned and bit at Bela's bottom lip, feeling elation and arousal rise up singing from her gut. She felt Bela's whole body respond: mouth opening wide for Jo's tongue, fingers curling around Jo's hips, tense muscles shivering into deceptive pliability.
Jo had a moment to think What in God's name are you doing, Harvelle? before she felt Bela's sharp teeth clack against hers and her long fingers stroke the skin of Jo's flushed throat. Bela made a noise of approval and encouragement. When Bela pushed her body against Jo's, Jo pressed back instinctively, shivering as Bela's body heat seeped through their clothes and into her skin.
"I didn't know you liked to play this way," Bela breathed into Jo's mouth, a grin whispering in the corner of her lips.
"Shut up," Jo hissed back, and suddenly she wanted nothing more than to be so close to Bela that they wouldn't be able to tell each other apart. If their stupid fucking curse made being separated so supremely painful, if she could feel the aching tug of loss in her chest whenever Bela took a single step away from her, then to be so close -- so intimate -- so indistinguishable --
Bela's hand had maneuvered Jo's hip so that her leg was pressed up between Jo's thighs. Jo bit her lip and moaned, rocking forward instinctively into the pressure before it occurred to her that, at the very least, there was an audience of Bela's flirtatious bartender watching her ride Bela's thigh in the middle of the restaurant.
"Isn't it convenient -- we've got a room already," Bela said, nipping at Jo's neck. Each little bite made Jo's pulse leap, a spark of electricity under the surface of her skin that bled through to the depths of her bones.
At that moment, Jo didn't give a fuck about Rachel fucking Fiori.
"Yes," she said. "Let's go."
Jo had only ever had sex with men, though she did have a brief but intense crush on Sarah Ealing during her one ill-fated semester of university. Sarah had lived on Jo's floor; she had thick brown hair and habit of tucking a pencil behind her ear. She wore a bright red peacoat and Jo, who had never owned anything that would make her so conspicuous, had desperately coveted it -- and Sarah.
But that was the extent of her -- of her experience. When she'd thought about it, or the possibility of it anyway, it was -- well, not this.
They tore at one another's clothing and left scratches across the fading scars on their skin. They rolled over and over, limbs curling around one another, searching for for leverage. They dug hands into hair, into the soft skin of asses and the bones of hips. They slid fingers over peaked nipples, across soft bellies, between sweat-damp thighs.
At one point Jo landed flat on her back, her mind streaking white hot at the intensity of it, and she couldn't help laughing. It was all too much, the way she wanted to soak into Bela's golden skin, to claw her way into Bela's chest cavity and hear the thunder of her heartbeat in synchronous harmony with Jo's. Too much feeling -- too much sensation -- too much everything -- and it burst from her throat in feverish laughter even as she locked her thighs around Bela.
Bela hesitated, her fingers still wrapped tightly around Jo's wrist, her other hand curled between Jo's thighs.
"Is that a mid-performance review?" she said. Her voice managed to sound honey smooth, though her breath came a little shorter and her eyes flashed dangerously.
Jo grinned, this time in pure delight. She leaned up to suck at the hollow of Bela's neck, using just enough hint of teeth to hear Bela gasp lightly.
"Don't strain yourself," she said. "You're getting a B for effort."
"A B?" Bela said, outraged.
As Jo discovered, low-balling really could yield positive results.
Jo woke up early the next morning with her face tucked into Bela's neck and their legs tangled together on the king-size bed. Bela's hair smelled of her expensive flowery shampoo, and it was soft against Jo's cheek. Her heartbeat was the same soft and steady rhythm of Jo's. Jo felt hazy and warm and sleepy, and she let her breath out on a sigh.
"What if this is our life now," she mumbled without raising her head. She didn't know whether Bela was awake to hear her -- she wasn't sure she wanted Bela to be awake to hear her. But, she thought, as her brain slowly started grinding into action, maybe they'd missed their chance with Rachel last night. Maybe she was gone. Maybe this was what they had to live with, forever: intimacy and closeness and constant contact.
In that warm, hazy moment, she wasn't sure how she felt about the possibility.
But Bela stiffened next to her and pulled away, rolling off the bed and making straight for the bathroom.
"It isn't," she said flatly before she closed the bathroom door, and Jo curled her arms around herself to steal back the lost warmth.
"From the amount of time you spend in the bathroom," Bela said, her voice snappish, when Jo was finished splashing water on her face. "I'd expect a little more care when it comes to your personal appearance."
She spoke as though perfected coiffed hair and too much eye make-up were things Jo should strive for. Jo glared. "I don't think my personal appearance is any of your concern," she said stiffly, abruptly conscious of her tangled, unwashed hair and baggy t-shirt. "You weren't complaining last night."
"Last night I was exercising my only option," Bela said, matter-of-factly.
Jo's heart stuttered in her chest. "It's not exactly sunshine and puppies for me here, either," she shot back.
"Oh yes, I can see we're both having a terrible time," Bela said.
Jo was, quite abruptly furious. "I just need you to know," she said, gritting her teeth. "Since you seem to think this is somehow pleasant for me, I need you to know that I hate this. I hate this and I hate this curse and I hate you."
Her heart was beating a rapid rhythm against her ribs, and she felt strung so tight and rubbed so raw she might explode out of her skin. This. This was what it felt like to be so incandescently, furiously angry she had trouble thinking. Like her body was ready to flail and thrash and explode with the emotion inside of her, visceral and wild and desperate.
Except she couldn't. She couldn't do anything. She literally could not leave this hotel room without a personal fucking escort from Bela Talbot.
This was what it felt like to be trapped.
There was a silence. Bela looked at her, her eyes cold and direct. "The feeling is mutual, darling," she said. "But that doesn't change the fact that you're a lonely little daddy's girl who can't bring herself to face the fact that she can't go home."
Jo felt the air punched from her lungs and she couldn't find a single word to say in response.
They didn't speak as they glided down the hotel hall at six in the morning to stop outside Room 1446. They didn't have to speak; they'd been preparing for this confrontation from the beginning.
Bela worked the lock while Jo stood guard in the quiet, darkened hallway. Jo was decent at picking locks that required a key, but key cards were outside the realm of her experience. She tried to watch Bela's trick out of the corner of her eye, but Bela's shadow fell over the lock just enough to keep it hidden. When it clicked open, they slid into the quiet room. There was a distinct scent of embalming fluid. Jo wrinkled her nose. Then, as they both heard an ever-so-slight change in breathing, they found the glint of one another's eyes in the dark.
Jo sprang for the bed, tackling Rachel before she could move to defend herself. Jo trapped her flailing limbs with her weight and a knifeblade to the ribs, while Bela hit the lights and pointed her gun at them.
At that moment, Jo honestly wasn't sure Bela wouldn't shoot both of them.
"Bela," Rachel hissed. Her lip was bleeding. Jo rolled her, and then pulled her hands roughly behind her back. Rachel was slight but strong, and she managed a vicious kick to Jo's ankle and an elbow to her ribs. Jo grunted and threw a glare at Bela over Rachel's shoulder.
Bela acknowledged Rachel coolly. "It's been a while, darling. Can't say I'm too happy to see you. Why don't you give us the ring like a good girl and we can be on our way?"
Rachel grunted. "Why the hell would I want to do that?" She twisted her head to peer up at Jo, and then turned back to Bela with a smile on her lips. "Don't tell me -- things are getting a little too cozy for you? I've gotta tell you, Blondie here looks like a truly delightful life partner."
"You think it's funny playing games with someone's freedom?" Jo snapped, and yanked on the bindings on Rachel's wrists.
Rachel didn't take her eyes off Bela. Bela reached out and brushed Rachel's curling dark hair off her shoulder, her touch surprisingly gentle. Then she smiled, a long, slow, curve of her mouth, and undid the chain around Rachel's neck. She pulled it from under her shirt to reveal a tarnished silver ring hanging on it, bearing the intertwining pattern of a lover's knot.
There was a small silence while everyone stared at it.
"Well? Is that it?" Jo said. "Is that the ring?"
Rachel made a small noise that might have been a laugh. Jo scowled down at her.
Bela had to use a pin to unhook the tiny clasp on the inside of the ring. She pulled out a wispy curl of hair, dark and blonde woven tightly together. It was kind of grotesque, Jo thought, and she shuddered a little as Bela held it under the light.
"Yes," she said simply.
Rachel hadn't looked away from Bela again. "Time's running out, isn't it?" she said, her voice quiet.
Jo was well aware that time was a factor for the curse -- well, it always was for diminishing curses. She had learned over the past few days how to read the way her heart contracted minutely with every one of Bela's movements and she estimated their current range at fourteen feet. She didn't want to think about what it might mean if their circle kept getting smaller.
Bela, however, was looking at Rachel with a strange expression on her face: sad and scared and betrayed all at once. It was only there for a quick moment and was difficult to catch in the muted light. Taken aback, Jo thought she must have imagined it. For here was Bela regarding Rachel with a very familiar mixture of disdain and dismissal. Rachel stared back at her unblinking.
"Time's always running somewhere, darling," Bela said. "You know that." She pulled a lighter out of her pocket and with a snick set their intertwined hair ablaze.
There was a sharp scent in the air the moment after. Jo blinked and tried to figure out if she felt any different.
"Was that it?" she said at last.
Bela shook her head. But in the next moment, Jo dropped onto the bed behind her, her chest suddenly squeezing so painfully tight she thought her ribs might be caving in -- caving in and shredding a piece of her heart in the process. Tears pricked hot and heavy behind her eyelids and she gasped out loud.
A delighted laugh echoed oddly in her ears, and Rachel pulled easily away from her.
"No," Jo tried to say, and she heard Bela's voice say, "Stop -- Rachel --" before, once again, she blacked out.
Jo was a little dizzy when she came to, but otherwise she felt pretty much normal. Bela drank a whole glass of water before she said a word, and then it was only, "Good. It's done."
Jo wasn't so sure.
But they tested themselves before they went back to their own room, pacing slowly and hesitantly backwards from one another. Jo kept waiting for the leap of her heart as Bela stepped further and further away from her, but there was nothing, just her own single, steady heartbeat.
"You'd make a decent thief, you know," Bela said.
Jo suspected that was supposed to be a compliment. "You'd make a terrible hunter," she said honestly.
Bela had offered Jo a ride to the bus station, and now they were faced with the somewhat awkward task of saying their goodbyes. But Bela smiled at Jo, and for a moment it seemed like her whole body was glowing, open and wide and welcoming.
"Maybe I'll see you around," Jo offered, and the prospect didn't seem as terrible as she'd once thought.
Bela's smile slipped, just a little, in the corners. "Maybe," she said.
Jo watched as Bela's Mercedes eased into traffic and moved smoothly away from her.
Then she hefted her backpack on her shoulder and turned to walk the other way.
Jo took the bus back to Connecticut and had to hitchhike out to where she'd left her truck. It was still sitting there, untouched, with a light dusting of snow covering the roof. She'd left some kind of perishable item in the back seat though and it was growing a particularly rank strain of mold, so she drove to the nearest gas station, opened all the doors, and cleaned out the cab of her truck.
It wasn't a designated day to phone her mom, but while her truck was still airing out, she found herself dialing anyway. There was a chill, bright crispness to the air, and the sun was shining against the blue of the sky and bouncing brilliantly off the fresh snow.
"Hi," she said before her mom could say anything.
"Your truck still there?" Ellen said.
"Yeah," Jo said and then didn't say anything else. She listened to her mom take a sip of coffee on the other end of the phone. She knew it was coffee. It was eleven-thirty in the morning, and her mom always drank coffee until four pm. Then she usually switched to whiskey.
"Did I tell you I bought a couch?" her mom said into the silence. "Pete Granger helped me move it in last week."
Jo fiddled with a frayed hole in her jeans. "I'd like to see it," she said.
"Mmm," her mom said agreeably.
Jo bought a cup of terrible coffee from the gas station. She sat in her cab to drink it and looked at the stolen embalming jars she still had to return to Marpole's Antiques. She should probably wait until after dark to do that.
And after that -- well, Lincoln, Nebraska seemed as good a destination as any.