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Lost In Paradise

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The next three days, Jo barely sleeps.

Bobby comes up trumps with a spell that lets her narrow down the demon's location to a road on the outskirts of Denver. For about an hour she thinks she's got the job in the bag, until she drives out (her patched-up car sounding like it might break down again at any second) to discover that the street is nothing but warehouses, some empty, all pretty sizeable. If you wanted to stash a half-dozen missing kids out here, you'd be spoiled for choice.

Scanning for EMF gets her nothing, no obvious sulphur either – not that she was expecting anything different. This is one hell of a crafty demon, it's not gonna slip up near its hiding place. Nothing for it but the tried and tested hunter method: pull out a fake badge and go have a poke around. Then come back under cover of darkness and have a bit more of a poke around.

She spends a whole day talking bemused site managers into letting her wander around their premises, finds nothing, heads down to the Black Cat for her Friday night shift, drinks about a gallon of black coffee, grabs a sawed-off and a salt canister, spends another four hours breaking into the abandoned warehouses. When the sun starts dragging itself up over the horizon, she admits defeat and drives back to her flat.

Looks like either Marax has hidden the children someplace she just didn't know was there or didn't manage to get a look at, or else it's using some kind of magic to conceal itself. Judging by the fact it managed to snatch six kids without leaving any trace at all, she's guessing it's got some serious mojo up its sleeve. Probably has about twenty different concealment spells on wherever it's hiding out.

Major research time.

Jo is starting to feel seriously out of her depth.

Demons are sort of her speciality, hunting-wise, or so she'd thought. After spending the next day knocking back espressos and caffeine pills as she scours every grimoire and demonological book she has, to no avail, she's starting to re-think that. Starting to think maybe it's just that the black-eyed fuckers are everywhere these days, and she's ended up tangling with them more often than ghosts or monsters, because she has got nothing on how this goddamn thing is hiding from her. Not a fucking clue.

When she finishes looking through the last grimoire, Jo realises she's spent thirty-six hours getting nowhere, she's only got three more days before those six poor kids get slaughtered, and if they die it'll be her own fault, and on top of that her next shift at the bar starts in three hours. Before she knows what's happening, she's in tears over her desk.

She cries for maybe ten minutes – really awful, racking, full-body crying that scrapes her throat raw and makes her stomach churn – then lays her forehead on the desk, breathes deeply, and calls Bobby again. Part of her is screaming not to, that it's admitting defeat, come on, she's supposed to be a real hunter now, can't she even sort out one wretched demon without running back for help like a stupid little girl who can't save herself? And oh fuck, she wishes she didn't have to, but there are lives at stake here, and Bobby knows more about hunting than anyone else in the States, and she's just so tired.

The surly, long-suffering, "What now?" she gets when Bobby picks up almost makes her start crying again with relief. Might be stupid, but as long as Bobby's about, rolling his eyes and perpetually infuriated by everyone and everything, she knows it'll all be okay.

She gives him the short version – went where the spell sent her, had a look in all the buildings, couldn't find a thing, looked through all her books, couldn't find a thing, deadline's coming, what the actual fuck. Pretending her voice isn't shaking, that she's perfectly stable and coping absolutely fine, yes sir, just checking in for a second opinion.

"First things first," Bobby says, in his best pissed-off-kindergarten-teacher tone, "go eat something and for Christ's sake get some sleep, you moron."

To Jo's eternal embarrassment she does a kind of burst-into-tears-laugh-hysterically combination.

"I'll look through my stuff for you. Books you've got ain't scratching the surface. Sounds like it's big-time crap you've got yourself into this time."

"Tell me about it." She's managed to get herself more or less back under control, enough to sound reasonably normal as she says, "Thank you, Bobby. Seriously. Just, thank you."

He does one of his I'm-pretending-not-to-give-a-shit grunts. "Go sleep. And don't do anything stupid, y'hear me?"

"I'll try," she says, and smiles at his exasperated sigh as she hangs up.

Theoretically, she should probably have some food – she had a big bowl of cereal when she got home this morning, which was ... hours ago, damn, pulling all-nighters is such a mind-fuck – but her eyes are puffy and aching, and her limbs are so heavy, and now Bobby's told her to, all she wants to do is sleep. Even sticking a frozen pizza in the oven feels like too much right now. It's as much as she can do to drag herself over to her bed, set an alarm on her phone and crawl under the covers.

Three hours isn't enough, she'd sleep for three weeks if she could, but right now it sounds like heaven.

Jo's out as her head hits the pillow.

She dreams she's back home, sitting on the swing seat out behind the Roadhouse, watching the sun set in red and gold over the desolate beauty of the Nebraska plains. She spent so long chafing at the bit sitting here, dreaming of road trips and roaming hunters, wishing she was somewhere else, far away – some big city or beautiful sea-shore or wild mountain range. All those painful teenage years, waiting to get away from home, and now the Roadhouse has burned down and there's a lump in her throat at the sight of it, even in a dream.

Guess you only know just how much you love something when you lose it.

She kicks her legs so she swings, just gently – and then she hears quiet footfalls behind her. Doesn't look around because she knows, the way you know things in dreams, that whoever it is will come sit beside her on the old swing seat.

The chain creaks and there's warmth at her side, another arm pressed against hers. Now she looks, and it's Anna, Anna with her hair lit up by the sunset, a halo of fire.

"Hey," Jo says, and leans her head on Anna's shoulder, because it just seems right. Sitting next to a mysterious redhead on a swing seat, watching the sun go down, the Roadhouse at their backs and the endless plains at their feet ... this is a good dream.

"Where are we?" Anna asks. Her hair is soft under Jo's cheek, her shoulder is bony even through her jacket. She smells sweet and heavy, like the scent of rain fresh on the earth, and that's weird, because Jo doesn't normally smell things in dreams. Then again, she doesn't normally have freaky customers wander into her dreams either, so she figures she'll roll with it.

"The Roadhouse. It's a bar for hunters. My mom ran it for, like, twenty-five years. It was our home." She sighs, listens to the noise coming from behind them: faint strains of classic rock on the jukebox, raucous laughter and drunken shouting. Suddenly she misses it all so bad she could cry. All of it – even cleaning up after the fights, and the impossible-to-banish smell of stale beer, and patching up hunters who dragged themselves through the door only to collapse from blood loss. Fuck.

Gently, Anna says, "Was?"

Jo swallows hard, tries to sound blasé. "It got burned down by demons, 'bout two years ago now. Lost a lot of good people, and all."

And she hadn't been there. Ash died, near two dozen other hunters along with him, all folks she knew, some she'd known all her life. Her friends died, her mother only escaped by a fluke, their home burned to the ground, and she'd been halfway across the country. Goddamn it, won't that ever stop hurting?

A moment's pause, then Anna lays her hand, feather-light and hesitant, on Jo's tight-clenched fist. "I'm so sorry," she says, and for once that platitude, which Jo's heard over and over like a broken record, ever since her dad died, rings true.

There's depth behind it, that's the thing. Anna sounds old and worn-down, worn out with how much she means it. And so Jo uncurls her fist, lets her hand relax under Anna's soft touch, and tells her, "It's okay. Not your fault."

They sit quietly for a while, Jo couldn't begin to guess how long, just breathing in Anna's rainstorm smell, listening to the chaotic murmur of the Roadhouse, watching the sky darken. It could go on forever. She thinks if it did, she wouldn't mind.

Then Anna says, "You're scared you won't be able to stop Marax," and even though she sounds totally calm and non-judgy about it, that yanks Jo right out of her trance.

She pulls her hand away, sitting up and twisting round to face the other girl, heat rising fast in her cheeks. "I'm not scared," she snaps.

Anna doesn't rise to it, just smiles ever-so-slightly, and says, "That's good, Jo, because you can. You will."

Even though a moment ago she was protesting that she wasn't scared, no sir, not at all, that makes Jo snort. Because for all this weirdo chick comes along with some crazy to-do list from angels, then shows up in her dreams acting like she can read Jo's mind and also see the future – she doesn't actually know shit about Jo. If she did, she'd see that she's drowning over here. She got thrown in at the deep end, sink or swim, and she's not exactly doing the freaking backstroke.

She doesn't say all this, just shakes her head and tells Anna, "You are so talking out your ass right now."

"Jo." Suddenly Anna is standing up, looming over her. Her hazel eyes are bright with that fierce conviction she had when she spoke of angels. The same bone-deep certainty runs through her voice as she smiles, lays a cold hand on Jo's bare arm, and says simply, "I believe in you."

Jo's about to protest again – you've met me like once, also this is imaginary, I don't need a pep talk from my subconscious – when the sound of the alarm on her phone shatters the dream and drags her back to reality, gritty-eyed and groaning.

Working at the Black Cat on two and a half hours of sleep in two days, with her mind swimming with demons and missing children and angels and cryptic redheads, is a pretty fucking surreal experience. Even for Jo, who's seen and done some weird shit in her time. She has ingested arguably too much caffeine, and her hands are shaking as she pours shots and wipes out glasses, and everything is a little too bright and loud and interesting, like someone went crazy with the world's saturation controls. Everyone's looking at her a bit weird, she's talking fast and twitching, but really, come on, cut a girl some slack.

Pretty much every time anyone orders a drink she has to get them to repeat it, and she keeps reaching for the Jack Daniels no matter what they ask for, because she's always been a Jack-and-coke fan, and focusing on what anyone's actually saying is far too hard right now. After the couple of days she's had, it just seems to float on past her, because who the fuck cares about these idiots and their overly-specific booze orders? There's a fucking high-calibre demon in town and angels are real, and it is just unspeakably bizarre that everyone else is just getting on with normal life. Why aren't there people running screaming down the streets? Where's the mass hysteria and the end-is-nigh preachers and the panic buying of rock salt?

Oh yeah, she forgot, everyone else is utterly oblivious to all that good-vs-evil monster-hunting bullshit. Whoops.

It's a bit like being back in grade school, screams she couldn't let out searing her throat, listening to Miss Clarke go on and on and on about fractions and verbs and geography and knowing it was all useless. Knowing there were things out there, things that killed her Dad, things that meant her Mom kept a gun under the bed and salt near the doors, and teachers always told you about stranger danger and not to play with matches and look both ways when you cross the road, but none of that could keep you safe from all those things.

So Jo's got like three days to go before innocent kids get murdered on her watch, and one hell of a powerful demon (pun very much intended, all the Harvelles know that at times like this, you either laugh or you cry) to tackle, but she's gotta eat and she's gotta make her rent, so it's stupid college kids and their stupid drinks for the next few hours. And then bed because otherwise she might actually lose it and go postal.

After a while, the too-caffeinated buzz starts to fade, and the clink and shine of the bottles, the cold glass in her hands, the words whizzing past, it all becomes kinda hypnotic. She's moving on autopilot, almost sleepwalking. The maddening, circling-the-drain whirl of her (angels demon hunting) thoughts slows right down. The jittery adrenaline wave she's been riding since Anna walked in two nights ago, that's peaked and just left her worn out and blanked out.

It's maybe one-thirty in the morning, near the end of her shift, when she heads down to the basement to bring up another case of Heineken. Tired as she is, she trips and only hunt-trained reflexes stop her pitching headfirst down the stairs. A fresh spike of adrenalin cuts through the fog, snapping her all the way back to alert clarity, aware of the rail in her hand, the brick wall she leans on, looking down the stairway at the shadowed crates of new bottles, thinks, Christ, that was close. Could've broken my neck and died down there, now that would be fucking embarrassing.

Then it hits her, a lightning flash of a realisation in the voice of her mother's exasperated scolding:

Joanna Beth Harvelle, you didn't check under the fucking buildings.

That thought carries Jo through the remainder of her shift, lifting her, granting her enough of an oh-hell-yeah-I'm-on-this rush to make it without passing out or killing anyone, to somehow drive herself home safely, and stagger up to her flat and into bed. For about ten seconds she considers changing into pyjamas and possibly showering, then she falls asleep face-down, fully-clothed, with the lights on, which pretty much settles it.

No weird dreams this time.

She wakes up, squints at her bedside clock and has to get hold of her phone to check whether it's one in the afternoon, or if she was so tired she slept right through into the next morning. Turns out it's the afternoon, thank god, because between sleeping and working and poring over useless grimoires, she's wasted enough time as it is.

Praise the lord, there's a pizza in the freezer, and since it's actually the afternoon it seems totally legit to have that for breakfast. Cooking was always Ellen's strong suit, not Jo's.

A shower, a change of clothes, and a double pepperoni pizza and half a carton of orange juice later, she's feeling borderline human. It still feels like there's sand under her red-rimmed eyelids, her shoulders still cramping up with tension, but compared to yesterday, she's a million dollars. Ready to hunt herself a demon, in fact.

Bobby, bless him, has emailed her a primer in demonic concealment-wardings, bullet-pointed and all, with sketches of the sigils used and all. He's also ranked them in terms of the power needed to make them work, ranging from pushover to if you see this DO NOT FUCK WITH ANYTHING UNTIL I'M THERE. That gets printed out and stuck in the notebook she uses as her journal, aping the leather-bound, smudged and stained record of her dad's hunts, the book she read over and over obsessively as a kid, that she keeps with her even now.

So she's got a load of sigils to look out for, and the impatient part of her aches to just haul ass back down to those goddamn warehouses and see if she can spot any. After all those hours spent at her desk yesterday getting nowhere, actually doing something seems so inviting. But it's a stupid idea and she knows that, like looking for a needle in a haystack, and maybe she's cracked some jobs by just charging in and thinking later, but she's also gotten burnt enough times to know there's a time and a place for being sensible, too.

A few of the buildings have floor-plans or blueprints that are publically accessible online. As for the others ... well. Jo's not a genius like Ash (then again, she's not a lunatic like Ash either), but in the three years he was based at the Roadhouse, he taught her a lot. Some of it, in among the drinking games and Pink Floyd trivia, was even useful. It takes her a good few hours, when he probably could have done it in twenty minutes, but by hook or by crook she gets herself the rest of the blueprints.

A quick perusal tells her three of the warehouses have basements or underground levels. Two of them are still in use, and she had been shown the basement when she'd inspected one of them. The third is abandoned, and although the blueprint clearly shows a set of stairs leading down to the basement, she'd seen no sign of them when she broke in two nights ago.

Fingers tingling, she starts loading up on rock salt and holy water.