Later, Alicia will realize that the whole mess really started when she woke up hungover, went to make coffee, and saw the short guy through her kitchen window.
"You're supposed to tell me when people are on the property," she told Jack, glaring at him with all the post-whiskey-fueled unhappiness she could muster. "You suck."
Jack chirped at her and flicked his tail. She thought about what dinosaur-skin gloves would look like. Familiars. All attitude and no compassion.
She looked out at the short guy again. He was definitely going through her mail.
She cranked the window open a few inches. "Get off my lawn right the fuck now or I will set you on fire."
"Not without a license," he said without looking up. "And there's a notice from the Association of Witch Practitioners right here saying you need to renew."
"What the AWP doesn't know won't hurt them." She hoped the hangover gave her enough of a growl to sound intimidating. She couldn't summon a directed flame at that moment if her life depended on it.
"Ha. Yeah." He carefully tucked her mail back in the box and waved. "I'm going. Bye."
She watched him go until the coffeemaker beeped at her. "I choose not to try to find an explanation for that," she informed the coffee and Jack. "It's not that I couldn't figure it out. It's that I choose."
Jack sneezed and ran away with the can opener. Alicia poured her coffee and very deliberately forgot about the whole thing.
A week later, she's eating breakfast at the diner down the street, trying synchronize her fork movements to Jack's chirps of delight over his plate of tater tots, when someone slides into the booth across from her. "Not interested," she says, not looking up from her food.
She licks her fork. "Fuck off."
"I want to hire you."
She looks up slowly, brushing her hair back behind her ear with calculated threat. It also lets her get a good look at the guy invading her booth: medium height, skinny as fuck, all bones and angles, with dirty-looking light-brown hair and huge-ass sunglasses hiding his face. "Do you often go around acting like you're trying to pick up hookers at 10 AM?"
To his credit, he doesn't blink. "That's not really relevant."
"You're Alicia Simmons. The demon hunter."
Jack makes a noise that sounds very much like a giggle. Alicia snaps her fingers at him and he hops onto the seat next to her, rubbing his head against her arm. "I'm retired," she says, watching Jack instead of the asshole in the sunglasses. "You can leave now."
"Just hear me out. Please."
"Let me guess. You got yourself into a mess and now you want someone to bail you out, because you think you're special and your shit don't stink and you shouldn't be expected to deal with the problems you brought on yourself."
He's quiet just long enough that she glances at him. He shrugs. "Yeah. That's pretty accurate."
"What did you do? Cross into an ifreet's territory? Invite a vampire into your house? Get hooked on succubus porn and they jacked the rate up on you?"
"No." He frowns down at the table, running his fingers over the fake woodgrain pattern. "More stupid than that."
"More stupid than succubus porn. That's saying something." Jack chirps in agreement and climbs into her lap.
The guy looks up again and studies Jack thoughtfully. "Is that a lizard?"
Alicia sighs. Every fucking time. "You ever see Jurassic Park?"
"Procompsognathid, yeah." She kisses the top of Jack's head. "Because I just couldn't get a cat like everybody else."
He shrugs again. "You get what the giver gives you. Dinosaur, though. That's pretty rad. What's his name?"
"Jack. Short for Jackson. Short for Samuel L." She smiles despite herself. "Long story."
"I know the guy who did the theme song for Snakes on a Plane."
She raises an eyebrow at him. "That's not really relevant."
This time, he's the one who smiles. "Fun trivia, though."
"What's your name?"
He folds his hands in front of him on the table. "Mikey Way."
"And what kind of a situation do you want to hire me for, Mikey Way?"
He doesn't move, but his hands clench together more tightly. She's tempted to slip into her second-sight and see what he looks like that way. Probably radiating tension like a starburst. Any empathic vampires in the neighborhood could feed off him for days, if her wards didn't keep them over on the other side of the highway.
"I haven't got all day," she says.
"I need you to help me kill a demon."
"I figured. Any demon in particular?"
"Yeah." He laughs, a choking little giggle that doesn't have much humor in it. "The one I sold my soul to."
That night at work, a good eight hour later, Alicia still can't get Mikey Way's face out of her head.
When he said it was a sell-your-soul deal, she shook her head and told him to get his affairs in order. But he said please again, and for some reason she told him to come back tomorrow, she needed time to think.
And now here she is, thinking. Wiping down the bar, staring at her reflection in it, and thinking.
Jack chirps at her from where he's guarding the top-shelf liquors. She ignores him, but puts her towel down and goes to do some refills. She's good at her job, but not one of those bartenders with the seemingly mystical ability to show up exactly where she's needed and when. Most bartenders with that ability actually did have a low-grade empathy gift. She does not.
She likes her job: tending bar and acting as back-up bouncer as needed for Roughside, a bar that started out with an ill-advised cowboy theme that had faded into a "leave your fellow patrons alone and they'll leave you alone" theme over the years. Their regulars don't start trouble and are good at defusing it before Alicia has to. It's a hell of a lot less stressful than freelance supernatural security and recovery, that's for sure.
Demon hunting. Fuck. She's retired. For perfectly good reasons. She doesn't need to justify them to a pretty boy in stupid sunglasses, not that he asked her to.
Jack is intently trying to make love to a bottle of Patron. Alicia swats him and wonders what the hell she's going to do if she takes this case. She's rusty. The demons are not. The only hope she's got is that they're still stupid.
Not, it would seem, as stupid as her potential client. "You sold your soul," she repeats after he tells his story the next day, "to be able to play the bass."
He nods over the rim of his coffee cup. "Yeah."
"Not like Robert Johnson's deal. Not even to be the best in the world. Just... to play the bass."
"To be functionally good. Yeah."
"Because you didn't want your brother to start a band without you."
He sets his cup down carefully. "Things were really intense in Jersey back then. I'm not sure I can really explain it if you weren't there."
She rubs her forehead and looks away for a minute. "How did you find me?"
"How did you even get my name, first? Then how did you use that to find me? And you found me here, not at my house. How? Do you have a Finding gift?"
"Oh. No." He rubs his hands on his thighs and shakes his head. "Nope, nothing like that. Um. More mundane, more... creepier, I guess. I have a friend who knows people, he got your name, he tracked you down, I figured anybody who lives this close to a good diner would go there, I staked the place out."
"That is indeed both mundane and creepy." She sips her own coffee and searches for her composure. "I should break your nose for that."
"Or my friend's."
"Oh, don't worry, if I ever meet him that'll be first on my list."
"He's a good guy. He just didn't want to see me, you know. Dead."
She exhales and rubs her face again. "Why'd you make this deal? You had to know how it works. Demons make the rules really clear, and also there's sort of a whole fucking genre of literature about it."
He runs his finger through a puddle of spilled coffee and draws a slow spiral on the table. "I was twenty-one. I was depressed. I was fucked up. I didn't think I was going to live to thirty anyway--fuck, I didn't think I was going to make it to twenty-five. Why not sell my soul? What difference did it make?" He glances up, but looks down again before he meets her eyes. "I don't feel that way anymore."
"Getting out of a deal like this is a lot harder than getting into it, you know."
"I know. And I know you might not be able to pull it off. I just want a fighting chance."
"With me doing the fighting."
"Well." He makes a face and gestures at himself. "I mean, look at me."
Alicia shakes her head and threads her fingers together, bracing herself while Jack climbs up on her shoulder. "My rates are not cheap."
"I assumed as much."
"I'm going to need you to answer my questions and do what I tell you without arguing."
"And if you do end up demon food, you'd better not haunt me."
"Can I haunt if my soul's been dragged off to hell?"
Amazing how much basic metaphysical fact people utterly fail to learn. "A ghost isn't really part of the person. A ghost is an echo."
"Then how can I promise?"
"It was a joke."
"Oh." He frowns slightly, then makes an apologetic face. "That's probably going to happen a lot."
"You're bad at jokes?" She hopes so. He'll automatically be sixty percent less cute if he has no sense of humor.
"I'm bad at beautiful women who can hurt me."
She blinks. "I think that's a compliment?"
He just smiles. She looks at him suspiciously, takes a deep breath, and puts her hand on Jack's back to keep herself focused. Client. Not flirtation. Not cute. Client.
"I need to do some research," she says. And some sit-ups. And visit the range. "Meet back here in a week?"
"A week?" He frowned. "There's sort of a timeframe..."
"Well, how long do I have?"
He squints up at the ceiling. "Um. Exactly that one week."
Jack sniffs Alicia's hair, makes a sound of pure distress, and jumps away to hide under the next table.
"If you live through this I'm going to kick your ass," Alicia says. "And if you die, go ahead and haunt me, I'll summon and banish you every night for a week."
She gives herself two days of research, keeping her books under the bar at work and calling Mikey at all hours with questions. What invocation he used, what time of night, if he was really really sure he hadn't put in a skill or success minimum.
"I swear," he tells her, mumbling into his phone rough and sleepy in a way that makes her picture him all disheveled in dirty sheets until she sternly shuts that thought down. "All I asked for was to be good enough for Gee to let me in."
"Couldn't you have bribed him or sucked his dick or something?"
There's an uncomfortable silence. "Gee's my brother?"
"Oh." She could press the joke, but there's not time, really. "Okay, well, I need the demon's name."
"Name. The name you summoned him by. Or her. Its a minor part of the summoning, the hard stuff is making sure I don't open a temporal portal or call lord of hell to trap me in my lies, but--"
"Why are you lying?" He sounds extremely alarmed. "Jesus. Don't lie to them."
"I'm not lying. But if I get the details of the deal wrong they'll say I am, take advantage of it, and kill everyone in a two block radius."
"If I don't have the name, either I won't summon shit or I'll only get you and me killed. Well. And Jack."
That's probably sarcasm, but she happens to agree. "So. Name?"
There's a long silence. "I don't..."
She closes her eyes and kicks at her chair. Of course. "You did a general summoning?"
"Are those what the ones in the back of porn magazines are?"
He has no right to be cute while he's being this annoying. "It still had to tell you its name before you sealed the deal."
Another silence. "I was really, really drunk."
"You little shit." She sighs. "Now we have to find an empath who can do sub memory extraction."
"Oh! I know a guy."
She's only half-surprised. "You know a guy."
"I totally do. I'll call him in the morning. I think you'll like him."
"I sincerely doubt that," she says, and hangs up. "I'm retired, Jack."
Jack has no sympathy. He never does.
Mikey's friend lives in a swanky house in a swanky neighborhood. Swanky enough on both counts that Alicia mentally revises the bill she's planning to present Mikey with if they both live. If he's got friends who live like this, he can afford to pay her a very comfortable return on possibly getting sucked into hell.
She's calculating how many months of rent she'll pay in advance vs. how much she'll spend on boots when the front door opens and she finds herself staring at the short guy who was going through her mail that day. He's wearing a tight gray t-shirt, a black leather collar around his neck, and a giant smile as he launches himself past her and wraps all four limbs around Mikey.
"This is Pete," Mikey says, hugging him back and then pressing a quick kiss to his hair. "Stand up, Pete, and say hi to Alicia."
"We've met," Alicia says. "I believe I owe you one being-set-on-fire."
Pete settles on his feet and shrugs, offering his hand. "Save it for later, maybe? Gabe's gonna be pissed if you burn me up before we all have the hors d'oeuvres. He's been working on them for hours."
"Ooh, are they the little wontons?" Mikey asks hopefully.
"Of course, dude, he knows you love those." Pete hugs Mikey again and then holds the door open for them both, gesturing grandly. "Come in. Take your shoes off."
"I'll keep mine," Alicia says firmly.
Pete looks dubious. "Gabe's got a thing about the floors."
"Ask him to be cool just this once?" Mikey asks before Alicia has to hurt the guy. "She's doing me kind of a big favor."
"It's not a favor if you're paying for it," Pete says philosophically, but he nods at Alicia before running off down the hall.
Mikey toes off his sneakers and touches her arm lightly. "Follow me."
He leads her to a large, high-ceilinged room with a tiled floor and several tables full of the paraphernalia of a magician. "This Gabe guy is practicing?" she asks, eyeing the goods. "A professional?"
"No. He's a musician. He's the one who did the Snakes on a Plane song, I told you about him." Mikey pokes at a flask of green powder and shrugs. "But he's got a lot of hobbies, and a lot of friends."
"All of whom are licensed, I assume."
"I don't ask."
That's probably wisest. Alicia shoves her hands in her pockets to keep from flipping through the stack of books on the nearest table, or maybe pocketing one of the amulets tossed around like loose change. She could buy a car with what some of those would bring on the secondary market.
The smell of crisp fried wontons announces their hosts before the doors open. Pete comes in carrying a tray of small plates, with a tall man in yoga pants and a Kiss The Cook apron behind him.
"Mikey Way," he says, waving both hands at him. "I can't believe you've had this shit going on and never told me. Bad manners. Really bad. But we'll figure it out, never fear. And Alicia Simmons, for real in my house. It's awesome to meet you. I heard about the shit you did in San Francisco, laying a whole graveyard, that must've been intense."
"Very." So is this guy. As far as she can tell, she's never seen him before, which means he's never gone through her mail, so there's a point in his favor. "Nice setup."
"It keeps me busy. Wonton?"
She takes one more to keep her hands busy than because she's hungry. Mikey has stuffed two in his mouth at once, and Pete is squatting down to hand one to Jack as if she's not going to notice. She gives Jack a sharp mental jab, which he completely ignores, and she gives up. She is not in charge of this party. Fine. That's just fine. Great, even. She doesn't even want to be.
It takes her a minute to realize Mikey's addressing her, while the other two guys are fussing over Jack. "What's their deal?"
Mikey follows her gaze and blinks. "Long story."
"What's the short version?"
That just fucking figures. "When can we get started?"
He smiles slightly and shakes his head. "Can't wait to get out of here, huh?"
It stings, even though it shouldn't, and she defends herself even though she doesn't have to. "I'm not good at... people."
"That's not true at all."
"No." He glances at her and grins. "But it sounded good, didn't it?"
Thank all the little gods she ever met, Gabe starts talking before she has to respond to that. And he starts with a monologue, so she has a minute to squash down the thought that if she isn't very, very careful, she could end up entirely too fond of Mikey Way.
"...and because I always help out my buddies, friends, and soul brothers, I'm gonna exercise my little talent right now to help you help Mikey." Gabe clears his throat and puts his hands on his hips. "So what do you need to know again?"
Alicia's very glad she missed most of that. "The name of the demon he sold his soul to."
"Awesome. You mind shielding for me while I do this?" He gestures vaguely. "I got wards on the house, but better safe than sorry, you know?"
"Of course." Even if he hadn't asked, she would have offered; she has manners. She remembers that she still has her boots on and amends that. She has manners about magic.
"Okay." Gabe tilts his head back and shakes out his hands. "Mikey, think about that night, pull up as many details and specific memories you can, I'm gonna surf your aura and dive into your cute little skull. Don't try to bounce me or we both end up hurt."
"I know how it works." Mikey closes his eyes and puts his hands behind his back. Alicia draws a slow breath, centers herself, and switches into second sight so she can ground her energy and cast the shield.
What she sees rocks her hard enough that she almost has to re-center, but before she can do anything, Gabe starts humming and she has to turn her focus to keeping them all shielded. Pete stays back toward the wall, out of her shield range, and she mentally bumps him up a few points in her esteem. Good magical etiquette is worth a lot, and who really cares about mail fraud anyway?
"Blue horns," Gabe says dreamily. "And a bull nose. Little... like a moustache, but I guess it's just hair. Eight fingers on each hand, creepy... oh." His energy spikes and swirls as he disengages from Mikey. "His name's Shada Ingame."
Alicia lowers her shields slowly, drawing the energy back into her heart. "Thank you. That was easier than I expected."
"I'm like a six," he says without a trace of smugness. She still has her second sight up, so she can see that, looking at him.
"More like a six-five," she says, and he grins.
"My dad always told me to use whole numbers so I don't look like a pretentious dickbag."
"You are a pretentious dickbag, though," Pete says, and Alicia blinks rapidly as she sees the bond between the two of them, bright and sparkling and warm. Oh. Oh. Soulbond. True love's the short version, indeed.
She goes back into normal sight before she turns to Mikey. "I'll go do some more prep, and we should be good to summon two nights from now."
Gabe frowns. "Are you leaving already?"
"I've got a lot to do." She runs her hand over her hair and glances at Gabe, then back to Mikey. "Walk me out, though?"
He raises his eyebrow, like he knows she's only asking to get him alone, and it's not for any fun reason. But when she starts walking, he follows along.
Outside, the air is cool and damp, and she draws a deep breath before she speaks, not looking at him. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Tell you what?"
He sounds genuinely confused. She wants to punch him. "I looked at you in second sight."
"Oh." He exhales and she finally looks at him; he's wincing. "Um."
"Who did that to you?"
He shrugs, looking down the driveway. "Some guy in Detroit."
"You were attacked?"
"What?" He looks at her again, genuinely startled. "No! No. I bought it."
"You wanted that?" She can't help it; she switches sight and looks at him again. His aura is still the same horribly mutilated thing; she can see where someone took some powerful metaphysical energy and burned off his gifts, whatever they were. Or chopped them off and cauterized the wounds. Whatever the metaphor, it was a butchery. "You wanted someone to do that to you?"
He wraps his arms around himself and looks at her, meeting her eyes more steadily than she thinks he has yet. "You don't know."
"So tell me."
"This isn't relevant to what you're doing."
"I fucking want to know why you would pay somebody to do that. If you're just some sort of occult masochist who gets off on getting yourself in fucked-up situations--"
He drops his arms to his sides and steps back. "Wow. Fuck you."
"Then tell me what the real answer is!" She takes a breath and plays her trump card. "I'm going to risk my life for you, you don't get to hide behind privacy."
He turns and walks away, stopping out of reach and staring down the driveway. "I was a high-grade empath," he says, his voice cracking in the still evening air. "I was like a fucking eight. I felt everything. And I'm in a fucking rock band. You try going on stage in front of a room full of kids getting off on what you're doing. You try it as an empathy eight and tell me you wouldn't have it all cut off, too."
"Why didn't you just quit the fucking band? Why mutilate yourself?"
He drags his hands through his hair and shakes his head, the moment of anger broken. "Cause it was all I ever wanted. Be in a band. Play songs on a guitar and make kids dance. I didn't need the empathy. I needed that."
She stares at him for a long moment, then rubs her eyes. "I'm sorry."
The silence stretches out again, until she clears her throat and steps toward her car. "So I'll see you in two nights. My place. We'll go to a crossroads."
She hesitate with her hand on the car door. "You sold your soul to be in the band. You cut out your gift to stay in it." He nods and she shakes her head, climbing into the car. "You need a fucking keeper."
Mikey picks her up at 10:30 and she directs him out of town, squinting at the GPS on her phone while Jack chirps merrily from the back seat and tries to climb inside her prep bag. "Yeah, take this road until we're out in some undeveloped land. Jack. There are sharp things in there and you are going to cut your little balls off."
"Dinosaurs have balls?" Mikey asks.
"They have to make little dinosaurs somehow." She settles back in the passenger seat and takes deep, slow breaths.
"Are you okay?"
"It's been a while since I did a summoning."
"If I did it, you shouldn't have any problem with this one."
She smiles despite herself. "You had a nice tasty soul to offer him. I'm not offering shit."
"I guess that's true." He grips the steering wheel tightly, tensing and then relaxing his shoulders. "It's weird knowing I won't play again."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm either going to get eaten or he's going to take the talent back."
She shrugs. "You can learn how to play for real this time. You have the calluses and the muscles. Those won't go away."
"Still." He shakes his head. "I feel like I based our whole career on a lie."
"Not your whole career. Bass is just one line in the music."
He glances at her, his eyebrows up. "Wow. Burn."
She matches his look. "It's true and you know it."
"Still, you could cut me a little slack."
"Nope. I couldn't. Your slack comes from me saving your ass." She checks her phone again. "Next stop sign, turn left. We've got about another half an hour to go."
He hits his turn signal, even though they're the only ones on the road. "What are you going to do?"
She does another round of slow breathing. "Well, first I'll put up a protective circle and shield it. That won't really help either of us, but it's good manners."
"Then I read a really long incantation that we both hope I set up correctly, summon Shada Ingame, tell him his deal is dissolved, and ask him to accept it and leave nicely."
"And he doesn't."
"Not even a little bit." She flexes her fingers slowly. "Then I kill him with a big knife."
He frowns. "You mean you try to kill him."
"No, I mean I kill him. There is no try, here."
He hits the gas a little harder, his jaw clenched tight. "We should watch Star Wars together, if we live."
Jack croons from the backseat and Alicia casually covers her smile with the back of her hand. "I think I'd like that."
The crossroads she picked out is on the grounds of a ranch owned by a regular at the bar. The county road crosses a service road used to go out and check on pampered purebred cows. They won't be disturbed by traffic at this time of night. Mikey parks the car a hundred yards away and Alicia carries her duffle bag to where the paths meet, dropping it at the center.
She can feel the energy buzzing under the ground, wanting to crawl up into her skin and bones. She gently pushes it back and gets her chalk out of the bag, marking off her circle. This site has been used for magical rituals about a million times; the energy is loose and easy like dirt that's been worked over and over again. She centers herself, reaches into the ground with her gift, pulls, and the power for her shield rises up around her.
She's in second sight again, so when she kneels to unpack her bag, everything inside it is glowing. So is Jack, with the green-white light of a familiar, and Mikey's poor stunted aura. He really does need someone in his life to keep him from doing things like that.
Once her knife is safely fastened at her hip, she sprinkles water, lights a candle, toes up the earth, and draws as deep a breath as she can. "Here we go."
Shada Ingame is, as predicted, not inclined to acquiesce to her request. His horns and nose hair are exactly as Gabe described them, only about twice as ridiculous, so she somewhat ill-advisedly laughs at him while he's only halfway through his ranting refusal.
Killing demons is hard. Killing pissed-off and also embarrassed demons whose nose hair has been insulted is harder. Mikey Way owes her a fucking weekend at the beach, a new pair of boots, and possibly a couple of handjobs.
She tells him that while he hauls her back to the car, Jack running anxiously alongside them. Alicia's topless, her t-shirt tied around her upper arm to try to stop the bleeding where Shada Ingame's claws got through. It's not really working, and it hurts like a sonofabitch.
"I'm serious. Boots and orgasms."
"And a beach house. I got it." He opens the car door, braces it on his hip, and helps her inside. "I need to get you to a hospital."
"No, you need to go back and get my shit."
"Dude. You're bleeding."
"Dude. That's not a kit I can buy at the fucking mall. That is one-of-a-kind, precious shit. Go get it."
He stares at her for a minute. "I think you need a keeper, too, you know."
"Are you volunteering?" She laughs and shuts her eyes, bracing herself against the pain. Jack curls up next to her, crooning frantically. "Because I'll hold you to that. I don't forget."
He brushes her hair back off her face, his touch so gentle she almost gasps. "I believe you."
She does her best to glare at him without opening her eyes. "Go get my stuff."
He does as he's told. It's amazing.
She's probably going to marry that guy.