I almost never worked in Antioch. It was a distance thing. It meant a couple of hours or more of a commute, which meant four or more hours blocked out per trip, and that was a problem when you had to keep strict track of time. Vampires hated road trips.
I solved it in two ways. For one, I had special treated windows in my car, so worst case I could just hole up there. And for the other, I brought a Designated Daytime Driver.
“It seems like kidnapping cases are all you ever do anymore,” Meg said as we drove down Highway 4.
“Nah, last week it was infidelity,” I said. “Spied on someone’s text messages and everything. Those are the higher-paying jobs, anyway.”
“Why didn’t you call me?” Meg asked.
“Because it’s slimy and sleazy and I can take care of it myself,” I said.
“Yeah, but it’s my thing,” she said. “Come on, cheating husbands is like, my job.”
“No, Meg,” I said.
“Oh come on, it’d be fun,” she said. “Just imagine what I could do.”
“And that’s why the answer is no,” I chided. “You’d kill them. Killing people is not my job.”
Meg rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, you’re just afraid I’ll upstage you.”
“Upstage me?” I asked. “You mean with the wings and claws and hellfire?”
She stuck out her tongue. “With the wings and claws and hellfire, yes. Because I have style.”
Megaera, the Erinyes, the Primordial Fury who punished oathbreakers and philanderers, was my backup driver. Of course, she was under a human glamour this whole time, and didn’t look like the bronze-winged nightmare from Hades that she usually was. Right now, she was an adorable redhead in my passenger seat. Annoyingly taller than me, but so was everybody else so I really couldn’t blame her for this.
“So, why is the great Lucy December, Vampire Detective, answering calls all the way out in Antioch?” she asked me.
“They sounded like they needed help,” I said. “And I’ve gotta help.”
“Yeah, but Antioch?” Meg asked. “How’d they even know to call you?”
“I dunno, word of mouth?”
“In the middle of the night,” she added.
I shrugged. “Maybe that’s why. They heard about me somehow and knew I take late-night calls, so here we are.”
“In Antioch,” Meg said.
“Yeah, I know, right? Maybe we’ll ask.”
Antioch wasn’t exactly the most prestigious place to live in California. Sure, it had its good and bad points like anywhere else, but there was a reason why it was ranked as the #1 most miserable city in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Do you think they’ll be able to pay your bill?” Meg looked out the window as we turned down a side street. There was a car up on blocks, its windows broken.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” I said. “Besides, kidnapping doesn’t pay my bills. Adultery does.”
“Looks like there’s plenty of that here, too,” Meg said. “John picking up a streetwalker at five o’clock.”
I glanced that way briefly, but shook my head. “He’s probably just asking directions.”
“Says you,” Meg said. She licked her lips as she continued to peer out the window. “He deserves to go to Hell. I want to drag him there.”
“Meg, focus,” I said. “Kidnapping case.”
She sighed. “I guess I can check on him later. Who knows, maybe I’ll just scare him into repentance,” she said that last word as if she spat it.
“Be more Eumenides, less Erinyes,” I said.
She stuck out her tongue. “Mercy isn’t my thing.”
Yes, we did bicker like an old married couple, thank-you-very-much.
“Here it is,” I said as I parked against the curb.
“An apartment complex that looks like a cheap motel,” Meg commented. “What a surprise.”
“Be nice,” I said. “Just because they don’t make immortal god-money doesn’t mean they aren’t still people.”
“Want me to check out their sins?” Meg asked as she pulled on the door handle. I hit lock at the same time.
“Hey,” she protested.
I looked Megaera in the eyes. “I said be nice.”
She pretended to pout for a moment, but gave me a genuine nod of her head. “All right,” she said. “I’ll be as nice as marshmallow fluff.”
“That stuff is foul,” I said, and got out of the car. She followed me. “All right, 704 Stivic Drive, Apartment 205.”
I felt for the people who lived at 704 Stivic. This wasn’t a place where you chose to stay, not if you could go anywhere else. Bars on the windows, double locks on the doors, refuse in the parking lot – the kinds of things that a pair of attractive single ladies would notice when wandering around in the middle of the night.
I knocked on 205’s front door. A young woman answered, holding a baby.
“Hiya, Keisha Stewart?” I said. “I’m Lucy December. I’m here answering your call from a couple of hours ago.”
“And I’m Meg,” Megaera waved.
‘You came?” she asked, her tone incredulous.
“Of course I came,” I said. “I work nights. May I come in?”
Invitations were important for vampires.
She didn’t step out of the doorway. A toddler peeked out from behind Mrs. Stewart and peered at me. I gave him a little smile and a wave. He hid behind his mom again.
“Dwayne, my husband, blew a tire on the way home from work,” she said. “He called to tell me where he was and that he’d be late, but then he didn’t call back. And he isn’t answering his phone, and he’s never done anything like this. He’s never gone so long without an update or something.”
Well, okay. Lots of dads say they’ll be late and never return. It’s like going out for a pack of cigarettes. But I gave her the benefit of the doubt.
“All right, where did he say he was?” I asked her. “And have you reported this to the police yet?”
“He told me the cross streets. There’s a bar or something there, and he said he was gonna go in and ask for help,” she said, and told me where her husband was when he had called, and what type of car he drove. “And no, I’m not calling the cops.”
“Thanks for the info. And you’re supposed to report a missing person as soon as you can,” I said. “I’ll do my best, but the police are going to put a lot more resources into this than just one person.”
“The cops here won’t,” she said. “You gonna find my husband?”
“I’ll do my best,” I said.
The little guy gave me a shy smile
“Hi,” I said to him.
His mom moved a little bit to hide him from sight. “Just find my husband, okay? Please.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Oh hey, one more thing. Just out of curiosity – I work out of San Francisco and all. How’d you find my number?”
She gave me an odd look. “I saw one of your flyers,” she said.
“Flyers?” I asked.
“Yeah, they’ve been all over the place the last few days. Now are you gonna go look for my husband or not?”
“I’ll go look right now,” I said and, not wanting to prolong the conversation further, turned and left.
“So,” I said to Meg once we were back in the car. “What do you think?”
“She didn’t trust either of us,” Meg said. “Probably afraid you’ll kidnap her kid or something.”
“You’ve gotta wonder what life is like for that family,” I said, and fired up the engine. “Let’s go.”
“You realize he probably just ditched them,” Meg said.
I shrugged as we pulled out of the lot and began to drive down the street. “Maybe, maybe not. If he did, then he’ll just have to answer to The Fury, right?”
“Maybe,” Meg said, and looked out the window. “Wait, look out! Stop!”
I jumped on the brakes and nearly hit a telephone pole. “What? What?”
Meg opened the door and jumped out of the car.
“What the hell, Meg?” I asked. “This isn’t manic pixie dream girl time. Please explain what you’re doing.”
She jumped back in the car, holding a piece of blue paper. “Lucy, look at this!”
I grabbed the paper. “What?” I asked. “It’s just. Wait. What?”
It was my ad. The one I put on a bunch of local social media networks, the Classifieds, and the Yellow Pages. Up in San Francisco, that is, not Antioch. But there it was, photocopied on a flyer that had been pinned to a telephone pole just next door to this woman and her missing husband.
“Huh,” I said. “That’s weird.”
“Yeah, totally not a deliberate attempt to draw you out here in the middle of the night,” Meg said. “So, wanna dodge the trap? Call it a wash, go home, make some popcorn?”
“Nope,” I said. “Missing person, remember?”
“Who’s probably halfway across the state with his girlfriend,” Meg said.
“Nuh-uh,” I started driving again. “So someone’s been spamming my ad around this neighborhood, right? And then this guy goes missing just in time for his wife to find the ads and call me?”
“That’s why I said it’s a trap,” she said.
“Yeah, that’s the problem. Whoever’s doing this kidnapped that guy. How safe do you think he is?”
“If he’s really missing,” Meg said.
“Occam’s razor,” I said. “Which sounds more likely? That someone went to all the trouble to set up the flyers but then waited around until they got lucky? Or that they engineered the need for the call, too?”
“I guess you have a point,” Meg admitted.
“And worse, what if this isn’t the first one?” I asked.
“The first what?” Meg asked.
“The first time they set this up. Not everybody’s family is going to call the number on a random flyer on the street,” I said. “So what then? How many people could we be talking about?”
Meg narrowed her eyes. “I see your point. Let’s drive.”
The real downtown is nothing like the commercialized downtown you see on touristy web sites. The street where Stewart had disappeared was just as run-down and sketchy as the place where we had talked to his wife. It was more than just the graffiti, or the litter, there was something else in the air that put me on edge. Cities were dangerous after dark, and even though Meg and I were immortal monsters, that didn’t make a difference. Sometimes the real night life was even worse.
I parked on the street, next to the empty shell of an abandoned gas station. The intersection was dominated by a pawn shop on one corner and a dive bar on the other, with an empty lot taking up the remaining space.
“Well, at least our options are limited,” I said to Meg. “Pawn shop or bar.”
“I don’t think they’ll answer the door at the pawn shop,” Meg said. “Not at this hour.”
“So I guess it’s the bar,” I said. “The Coal Furnace. Trendy name.”
“Doesn’t look like a trendy place,” she said as she got out of the car.
“I dunno,” I shrugged and opened the door, stepping out. “You’ve gotta be trendy to survive nowadays. At least the craft beers are good.”
“I’m telling you right now, if the menu even uses the word ‘tapenade,’ I’m out,” Meg said as we crossed the street.
“But you like tapenade,” I said, and then glanced to my left. “Oh hey, would you look at that.”
Megaera followed my gaze. “What did she say he drove?” she asked.
“Dark blue Silverado,” I said. “Flat tire, remember?”
“Just like this one?” Me asked as she approached the truck. She tapped the flat tire with her foot.
“Exactly like it,” I said. I peered in through the window. “Well, he got it into the parking lot. That’s nice, I guess.”
“Any signs of a struggle inside?” Meg asked. “Maybe a bloody murder weapon?”
“Nope,” I shook my head. “But with any luck he’s sitting in the bar, half-drunk, and he just forgot to call her back.”
“I think I see his cellphone inside,” she said.
“What? Really?” I asked and leaned to peer inside. “Yeah, I think I see it.”
“Wow, what a mystery,” Meg said.
“I know, right?” I shrugged.
She chuckled. “Husband gets a flat tire, stops at a bar, doesn’t answer his phone. So, how much are you gonna charge for this one?”
“It’s on the house if it’s that embarrassing,” I said. “Should we bring him his phone? I think I can pick a truck door lock if I try hard enough.
Meg just opened the door. “No door can bar a Fury, remember?” she winked and took the phone. “Wow, look at all the missed calls. Poor guy.”
“I didn’t think it was literal like that,” I said. Meg tossed the phone my way, and I caught it. Yeah, he did have a lot of missed calls.
“It’s not,” she said. “He just left his truck unlocked.”
“Okay, that’s weird,” I said. “Out here? At night?”
“What can I say? People are stupid,” Meg said. “Come on, let’s go inside. Give him his phone, guilt-trip him a bit, maybe help him with that tire. Everybody’s happy and we go home by three.”
“Well, he won’t be,” I said. “She seemed pretty upset. I can only imagine.”
We stepped through the door and into the bar with no clue what we were getting ourselves into.
Antioch was the last place where I expected to see a redneck bar, and so the Coal Furnace took me by surprise. Maybe it was the Confederate flag behind the bar, but I had the feeling that this just didn’t fit Antioch’s demographics.
The air reeked of stale cigarette smoke and cheap booze soaked into the floorboards. It was the kind of place where the drinks were served in dirty glasses and the food came out of a microwave. Where the customers sat alone because they weren’t there for company. Where the jukebox only played out of date noise rock and thrash metal. Shards of broken glass and crumpled cigarette butts mixed with discarded peanut shells on the splintery wooden floor. The dank lighting barely pierced the miasma-like haze covering the room, coating the tables and bar top like a lair of ash.
Absolutely no one in the Coal Furnace looked like the missing Mr. Dwayne Stewart. They weren’t even the right ethnicity.
“Well, this looks like a wash,” I said to Meg, and looked at her. Megaera’s eyes were narrowed. Her stance had tensed up, alert. Ready for something. I looked back across the room, trying to follow her gaze.
In the corner behind a pool table that had long since lost its level, sat a biker. At least I guessed that’s what he was – his leather pants and sleeveless jacket festooned with patches and buttons screamed motorcycle rider. His long, lank hair hung greasily past his shoulders, framing a thick, unkempt beard that covered a craggy, weather-worn face. My eyes were drawn to the iron cross tattoo on his bare shoulder, surrounded by other images that were more outwardly fearsome, but no less dangerous. He wasn’t watching us directly, but we clearly had his attention from the moment we came in.
So naturally, I chose to completely ignore him. I poked Meg lightly in the shoulder to get her attention before we moved to the bar.
A man in checkered flannel nudged his friend, gestured to us, and muttered “dykes.” Meg turned to say something, but I nudged her again to stop her before she said a slur of her own.
“Focus, Meg,” I said. “Missing person.”
I finally stepped up to the bar and took a seat.
“Want anything, hon?” asked a tired-looking bartender who seemed well beyond the point where she gave a shit.
“Yeah, sure, I’ll take a beer,” I said. “I also need to know if you’ve seen somebody here.”
“I see lots of people here, hon,” she said. “This is a bar.” She grabbed a glass and started filling it at the tap. No microbreweries here, nuh-uh. And I bet they didn’t even have tapenade,
“Tall black man in his thirties,” I said. “Fade haircut, no facial hair. Should’ve been wearing an A’s hoodie.”
“No offense, sugar, but does this seem like the kind of place he’d go to?”
“His truck’s parked out front,” I said. “Flat tire. Figured he came in here asking for help.”
She set the glass down on the bar. “Like I said, does this look like the kind of place where a black man would ask for help?”
“I figure it’s the only place,” I said. “It’s either here or that pawn shop on the corner, and they’re closed.”
She shrugged. “Ask around if you want. Just don’t expect to get much help here.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“And pay up front,” she added. “I don’t know you well enough to open a tab.”
I rolled my eyes and took out a debit card.
“Cash only,” the bartender said.
I reached back in my wallet, but then Meg tossed a few coins on the countertop.
“American money, please,” the bartender said to me.
I looked at Meg for a moment. “Drachmas? Really?”
“Hey, it’s money,” she said.
I shook my head and put a few bills on the counter. “Those coins are probably worth a lot at the pawn shop, too,” I said. “Think of it as a tip.”
“I guess,” the bartender said as she gathered everything. The bills were enough, so she didn’t pursue it.”
I took the beer and turned away from the bar. “Why’d you do that?” I asked Meg.
“I’m in a mood, and I don’t like this place,” she said. “So why not?”
“Because we’ve got a job to do,” I said. “Might as well ask around a little bit and see if anybody here’s seen him. Who knows, maybe he did stop at the pawn shop when it was open or something.”
“Or just took an Uber,” Meg shrugged. “Could be he’s still waiting at a mechanic, or he went to see a movie.”
“It’s eleven at night,” I said. “And he didn’t take his phone with him, remember?”
She pursed her lips and nodded. “Yeah, that’s the sticking point.”
“Welp, time to ask around,” I said, and took a sip of the beer. I forced myself to hold a straight face and not choke.
“How is it?” she asked. “Good?”
“Tastes moldy,” I said. “I really wasn’t expecting that.”
“I was,” Meg said. “They clearly don’t clean their equipment.”
I handed her the glass. “Enjoy,” I turned to start canvassing the room. Might as well ask around, see if anybody was more forthcoming than the bartender. Meg stayed behind to chat with her, though. Maybe she’d get some info that I couldn’t.
I approached the pair who had been making snide comments earlier – two big guys, one wide and one tall. One in flannel, one wearing a jean jacket. I had to remind myself that we were in California and not Kentucky for a second.
“Hey guys,” I said. “Nice weather we’re having.”
“I don’t fuckin’ know anything about any blacks in here,” flannel guy blurted out.
“Oh hey, you were listening in?” I asked. “Cool.”
Tall skinny guy elbowed flannel guy.
“Well hey, it was worth a shot,” I said, and moved away from them immediately. Meg was back by the bar, and I shot a glance her way before taking stock of the room as a whole. There were about seven people in here, including the bartender. A couple of bikers, a few more hillbilly types, and a pair of guys who looked like they just went on a hunting trip somewhere somehow in the urban Bay Area.
I didn’t have anything against country folk, personally. Everyone was different, and living in a city didn’t make me superior in any way. But every single person in this bar looked like they were waiting for the South to Rise Again, and they all radiated their own individual brand of bad vibes. I considered for a moment, and thought it was plausible that Stewart took one look inside and then decided to go somewhere else for a lift. I mean, he wasn’t just limited to what was on this block, right? Maybe we could go past the pawn shop a little to ask around. Maybe now was a good time to grab Meg and go widen our search. Maybe putting some distance between us and the collection of hicks and bikers would be a good idea right now.
But he had left his phone. Nobody leaves their phone behind anymore. And if they do, they go back to fetch it. There was no logical reason why Dwayne Stewart would just leave his phone in the car and go wandering to who-knows-where in the middle of the night.
From the looks of things, Meg hadn’t been making any progress with the bartender. She stood alone, leaning against the bar, sipping at that sour moldy beer.
“Hey, Meg,” I said as I approached her. “Find anything?”
Meg set down the glass, smiled widely, and said, “Dunno. We’re getting out of here now. Spider-sense tingling.”
“What?” I asked, but then nodded. “Yeah, this place is skeevy, but I really think this is where we need to be to find Stewart.”
She took my arm and began to nudge-walk me toward the door. “Don’t care, we need to get out now.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, we–”
The biker stepped in front of us and closed the door. I heard the lock click shut. He shot us both a grin. I couldn’t tell if it was my imagination, but his eyes seemed to flash a full red in the dim light.
“Now now, you think you’re just gonna leave without saying goodbye?” he asked, looking at both of us with a grin. “That’s fuckin’ rude.”
“Yeah, I’d stick around longer,” I said. “But I’ve got places to go, people to save. You understand.”
“No, can’t say that I do,” he said. “Name’s Moseley. I own this place.”
“Well, you’ve got a nice establishment, Mr. Moseley,” I said. “Thank you very much.”
“Seems like you didn’t care for our beer,” he said. “Why’s that?”
“Your staff needs to clean the taps more,” Meg said. “Let’s be honest, dude, the health inspector would have a field day in here. Now, my friend and I need to leave. We’re sorry if our presence caused you any disruption.” She put special emphasis on that last word.
“Disruption ain’t the half of it,” Moseley said, and now the red in his eyes was unmistakable. “Seems like you were rude to Roz, too. She’s a hard worker, that Roz. I just hate seeing bad customers being rude, causing a fuss, harassing the regulars. Wanna know what I think we should do to people like you?”
“The same thing you did to Dwayne Stewart?” Megaera asked.
I reached into my coat, hand just over the butt of my gun.
He chuckled. “Man, for a pair of dumb bitches, you two are pretty sharp.”
A demonic sigil that I did not recognize flared to life on Moseley’s forehead, outlined in glowing lines the shade of embers. He drew a Mauser from inside his jacket, and I went on instinct, pulling my Bersa from its holster and firing. The bullet struck him in the chest just as he shot at me, and he stumbled back a little bit, bracing himself against the glass door. His shot grazed my side, and I felt the bullet burn as it went through and past, like it was on fire – hotter than any gunshot wound I could remember. Another explosion roared from behind us and Meg went down, shot in the back. I turned to see Roz the bartender brandishing a shotgun from behind the bar. Her eyes smoldered the same color as the fiery sigil on her forehead.
“Meg!” I called out, even though I knew nonmagical weapons couldn’t do any permanent harm to her.
“Good shot, Roz!” Moseley cheered. Without even wincing from the bullet he just took, he turned his gun on me again. I shoved him hard into the door, and the glass shattered behind him as he fell backwards through it. Another shotgun blast rang out, the buckshot shattering the glass to my right. Moseley caught himself on the door’s metal frame, though he had to drop his gun to do so.
I turned in time to note the other customers in my peripheral vision as they got up, sigils burning on the foreheads as they each reached for weapons of their own, and leveled my gun at Moseley’s face. Meg still laid prone at my feet.
“Okay, everyone!” I shouted. “Put your weapons down, or I’m giving this guy a lead nose job! My friend and I are going to leave right now, and you can all just sit down and let us do so.”
Moseley laughed. “You wanna threaten me with a little pop-gun? Come on! Do it! Take your shot! Do it! Do it!”
So, I had a philosophy about killing human beings. And that philosophy is: Don’t. Sure, there were exceptions. If an impromptu gunfight breaks out, that’s different. If my life or the life of another person is in immediate danger, that’s different as well. But I understood that I was a vampire, and most of the time there wasn’t much that a normal human could do to me. I’d take the pain of a few bullets if it meant preserving a life.
But Meg was down. Meg didn’t go down. And these guys had their very own Mark of the Beast burning on their foreheads. If nothing else, I could bluff.
“Don’t tempt me,” I said to him.
“Then do it!” Moseley repeated, and reached to grab my gun. My hand tensed and I fired on instinct, not even trying to shoot him. The bullet ripped through his hand and tore off two fingers before obliterating his jaw, sending teeth and bone fragments flying as it ricocheted through his head. Gore splattered the shattered remains of the glass door in its frame when the slug exited his cranium, taking chunks of brain matter with it.
I stood there, stunned for a moment.
And then Moseley, his face completely intact, wagged a finger that should not have been intact at me.
“You can’t hurt me with that,” he said.
Well, holy shit.
So I immediately kneed him in the groin. I put all of my tiny vampire strength into it. Mosely crumpled from that, but he didn’t move out of the way of the door, and I dove to the side on instinct just in time to avoid the gunfire that followed. I could see sparks from the impact as each bullet flew up more flame than it should.
The odor of sulfur began to stink up the bar. Hellfire.
Holy shit again.
“You stupid bitch! You walked right into it!” Moseley said. He grabbed his gun from the floor and aimed it at me again. So did everybody else in the room. “We set up this trap for you, and you walked into it like the brainless piece of trash you are! Now what are you gonna do, huh? What are you gonna do?”
“Well, I guess I’m going to have to kick all your asses,” I said, though my voice honestly sounded pretty hollow. And squeaky. Can’t forget the squeaky.
“Yeah, I thought you’d say something like that,” Moseley said.
“Enough!” Megaera shouted, her voice echoing with celestial and infernal power.
The Fury rose to her feet, her human guise shed and gone. She stood tall, her skin burnished red, her eyes bloody pools, her talons jagged metal. Bronze knife-feathered wings stretched out and framed her form, and in her hands she wielded celestial flames.
“Whatever hellspawn gave you your powers pales in the presence of Heaven,” Megaera said, and waved a clawed hand at the demoniac bar staff. “Stand down, or face judgement!”
“Roz, shoot her again,” Mosely said.
Roz adjusted her aim and fired from the hip. Megaera dodged to the side, flaming buckshot ricocheting off her metal wing. She flicked both wings, flinging knifelike feathers in the air. Roz ducked, but the blades were aimed high, and they struck the Confederate flag behind the bar, severing the ropes holding it in place. With its bindings gone, the heavy cloth collapsed over Roz, covering her before she could get out of the way.
“Nice one!” I said.
And then Megaera threw a ball of holy fire at the flag and bartender. It exploded, shattering and igniting bottles of liquor as the flag-enshrouded woman went up in flames, shrieking.
Stunned silence covered everybody else in the room.
“Yikes, Meg,” I said.
The Fury looked at me. “Spare me your moralizing,” she said. “They’re vulnerable to fire.”
I moved just as gunfire erupted from the other demoniacs, intending to dive out the broken window. Megaera grabbed me and pulled me aside and further into the bar, away from Mosely. He missed me with his shot, which was good, but now his friends were moving to block us from the exit.
I whirled around and grabbed a table, kicking it on its side and ducking behind it as a makeshift shield. Megaera dropped in beside me. Flaming bullets pitted against the heavy wooden table, some piercing and some simply embedding in its surface.
“Meg, we’re boxed in,” I said.
Megaera nodded, and gestured to a door on the other side of the room. Maybe it was a storage closet. Or a restroom. Or the kitchen, it was hard to tell. At the next break in the gunfire, she rose and hurled another exploding fireball at the shooters. They scattered at the impact, but I knew it would only be a moment or two before they surrounded us and caught us in the crossfire. I looked at my ordinary non-magical gun with bullets that weren’t on fire, and stowed it back inside my coat.
When Moseley moved around the table and into my line of sight, I dove into a spear tackle, crashing into the biker’s midsection. He stumbled back as I caught my feet on the floor, rooted myself, and flipped him into a suplex. Nobody expected the suplex, especially when it came from somebody as tiny as myself.
As he flopped on the ground, I snatched the gun out of his grasp. The Mauser felt evil in my hand. It wasn’t just in my head, and it was enough to give me pause. The weapon had a long hungry history of innocent blood, and the infernal enchantments coursing through its inner workings filled it with an active burning hatred of me and everything I stood for. But it was still just a machine, and I could use it, so I leveled it at Moseley’s head.
“How about this? will this hurt you?” I asked.
“Fuck you,” he said.
Tall jean jacket guy ambushed me from the side, firing at me with a revolver. I was forced to leave Moseley as I dodged out of the way, burning bullets piercing through my coat. Moseley almost got hit in the crossfire, and rolled out of the way.
I shot at the tall man as I ducked back behind the table, winging him with one of those burning bullets. He yelped and grabbed his shoulder, dropping to his knees. Suddenly the table lifted from the ground, and I turned to see Megaera hoist it over her head and toss it at the other men in the bar, forcing them to scatter as it shattered against the ground. Jean jacket guy ran away from me in the confusion. She was keeping them from forming an organized firing squad around us. I appreciated that.
The exit was blocked now by the flannel guy and two other men in hunter’s camo. Moseley had lost his gun, and jean jacket guy was still in pain and out of the fight, but that left one other wild card, a huge man in a cowboy hat wielding a hunting rifle.
I fired a couple of times at the three by the door, and although the bullets missed because I couldn’t take the time to aim properly, the gunfire forced them to move and disrupted their attempts to shoot back. The big man in the cowboy hat steadied his hand and fired, the round tearing through one of Megaera’s metal wings in a shower of sparks, knocking her off-balance. These bullets were dong more damage than they should have been, to both of us.
“Dammit!” I shouted and turned my aim to him, shooting twice. He took a burning bullet in the side and dropped his gun, clutching at the wound. “Are you okay, Meg?”
“I’m fine. No time to talk,” Megaera said and hooked her claws into a chair, tossing it at the three other gunmen before they could aim again. “Get to the door!”
I nodded and reluctantly moved further into the bar, dashing to grab the doorknob and test it. Unlocked. I opened the heavy metal door to reveal a short cheap, rickety staircase. Basements were rare in California, but not unheard of – particularly in hilly places like this. And hey, maybe there was another exit down there.
“This way!” I shouted.
Moseley grabbed jean jacket guy’s gun and fired. The bullet took me high in the shoulder and lodged in the bone, burning. I fell backwards into the stairs, clinging to the doorknob with my good hand and swinging a little bit.
Megaera barreled past me, grabbing me before I could completely lose my balance and slamming the door shut. She locked the door and then slashed at the handle with her claws, shearing it off. She blasted it with a short burst of flame, melting and fusing the door to the frame.
“That will keep them for a bit,” she said. “Now hold still.”
Meg grabbed me and shoved her claws into my shoulder. The pain was exquisite, but I felt relief when she tore the burning bullet from my body and flicked it aside.
“Thanks,” I said as my vampire-healing started to take effect. Megaera and I stepped down the stairs. “Well, I guess we’d better hope there’s a back door somewhere down here.”
What I could see in the dim lighting was a mess. The stairs led to storage – cases of booze, piles of filthy and oily rags, crates of matchbooks, stacks of collapsed boxes, bags of garbage. But it wasn’t a dead end, there was another open door behind it.
A loud bang shook the heavy door at the top of the stairs.
“I can’t open it!” came a muffled voice from the other side.
“Fuck it, break it down!” Moseley shouted. Another thud.
“I need you to buy some time,” Megaera said to me.
“What?” I asked.
“Hold them off,” she said. “I think I’ve figured out how to solve this, but it’ll take some time. You need to make that time. Can you hold them off when they break down that door?”
“Meg, there are like five of them left,” I said. “What are you planning?”
She shook her head. “I have to go to Hell to do it,” she said. “And you really don’t want to follow me there. Can you keep these bozos busy for a few minutes while I fix everything?”
The door rattled again on its hinges and caved in a bit.
“Shit, I can try,” I said. “But are you sure you’ll be safe doing that?”
Megaera nodded to me. “Safe? I’ll try. And I’m sorry for leaving you in the lurch like this,” she said. “But you’ll do fine. Just remember, fire hurts them.”
“Meg,” I said. “Please be careful. Don’t–”
She disappeared in a plume of flame before I could finish that sentence, leaving me alone in the basement. I took a deep breath and sighed.
Another loud crash signaled that they were using Roz’s shotgun to try to blast the door down, snapping me out of my reverie. I immediately took stock of the room – the narrow stairs, the wider storage, the door beyond, the clutter surrounding me.
A second blast rattled the door even more. It had begun to bend outward from its frame. Dammit, I had seconds to act.
I grabbed a bottle of booze, a filthy rag, and one of the matchbooks. I broke the neck of the bottle, soaked the rag in alcohol, and then stuffed it in until it touched the booze inside. It took three matches to set the rag alight, but soon it blazed to life in my hands.
A third loud bang broke the door from its hinges, sending it toppling down the stairs. I jumped and nearly dropped the bottle, but hearing Moseley shout “There she is!” brought me back to earth.
“Shoot her!” They crowded the doorway at the top of the stairs, and I threw the ersatz Molotov cocktail.
It hit cowboy guy in the face and shattered, splattering liquid and shards of broken glass everywhere. The alcohol inside the bottle was high enough proof to catch fire, spreading liquid flame all over him and the room at large. I drew up Mosely’s stolen Mauser and fired, adding burning bullets to the blaze that had already started to overtake the doorway and stairs.
I knew that I shot the man in the cowboy hat, but I couldn’t tell if I hit anybody else for sure before the gun clicked dry. The big man fell headlong onto the fragile wooden stairs, breaking through them even as the fire began to spread. The other men in the doorway were in chaos, their chase broken off for the moment.
I threw the gun away and got out of there before the fire reached the rest of the flammable junk in the room. I opened the next door and dashed into a short hallway, the walls lined with more storage. I locked the door behind myself and then kept going, pulling down shelves as I ran. You know, to slow down my pursuers. Or maybe just to be petty and make a mess, the jury could make a call on that one later.
Meg said she needed time. How much could I give her? And was there another way out of here, or had I just trapped myself inside a burning building?
Okay, one more door. This had better lead to an exit, or maybe just a storeroom of weapons or something. But it felt like it should open up into the alley out back, so there was that. I pulled the door open, slipped through, and then locked it behind me again.
Okay, of the various options on the table – storeroom, closet, bathroom, exit – I really wasn’t expecting a temple. But here I was, standing in a vaulted stone-tiled chamber dominated by two things: A massive furnace up against the wall with what looked like swords lodged into the coals, and an altar in the dead center of the room. Windows high up against the walls signified that yes, I was almost out, but there was another complication.
Dwayne Stewart lay on his back, tied to the altar. I couldn’t tell if he was dead or alive.
“Cut me loose!” he shouted. “What the fuck’s going on in here? Untie me! Help me! Who the fuck are you? Cut me loose!”
Okay, he was definitely alive. That was cool.
“Hi,” I said as I approached. “Uh, I have your phone.”
“Cut me loose!” he repeated, trying to struggle against his bonds.
“Yeah, lemme see here,” I said, and inspected the ropes. Damn knots. Did I remember to bring a knife with me? “Your wife sent me, by the way. Damn, these knots look nasty.”
“What the fuck is going on in here?” Dwayne asked. “I just had a flat tire! I didn’t expect a bunch of redneck Jim Jones racist-ass Neo-Nazis to sacrifice me to the motherfucking god of deep-fried twinkies or whatever the fuck they were talking about!”
“God of deep-fried twinkies, that’s a new one,” I chuckled. “Okay, I don’t have a knife on me and I don’t know shit about the kinds of knots they used. Gimme a second, I’m gonna look for something I can use in here. They’re kind of chasing me right now and I don’t know how much time we have – oh hey, maybe the swords’ll work.”
“Swords?” Dwayne asked. “Swords? They have fucking swords in here? What the fuck is this place?”
“Yeah I know, right?” I asked as I moved to the furnace. I noticed the same demonic sigil on the furnace that I had seen on the bar people’s foreheads, though I still had no idea whose symbol it was. And what I had mistaken for swords were actually some sort of ceremonial fireplace poker. It was an easy mistake to make – they had crossguard hilts, and no hook on the end of the poker, but telling from the shape of the shaft, they weren’t actually swords. Clearly built for stabbing, though. Big metal pointy things were good for that.
“Damn, what is this place?” I asked.
“That’s what I’ve been asking!” Dwayne chimed in.
I tested the handle. Cool to the touch. I didn’t want to put my hands anywhere near the red-hot shaft of one of those pokers, but I figured I could burn off some of his ropes with one of them.
“These look like sacrifice tools,” I said, and began to draw one of the pokers from the coals. “I’m going to try to burn off your ropes, is that okay? I’ll be careful not to touch you.”
“Just get me loose!” Dwayne said again. There was a click and a thump from behind me. “Oh no! Look out!”
“What?” I asked.
And then Moseley’s fist met my jaw in the mother of all running punches. My hand clutched the ceremonial poker as I positively tumbled across the floor, fetching myself against the wall.
“Gotcha,” Moseley said, his eyes glowing the same shade of red as the coals, the demonic sigil blazing on his forehead.
I raised the sword-poker in front of me, grasping it by the handle. Most of the shaft was still radiant with heat, and some coal debris on the tip burned.
Moseley laughed. “You wanna lightsaber fight with those? That’s funny. I’m gonna whoop your ass.”
He pulled another poker out of the furnace and brandished it. “On your guard or whatever shit the French say.”
I scrambled to my feet and held the not-sword in front of me. Moseley cracked his shoulders and grinned, beginning to pace around me. I shrugged off my coat, letting it drop to the floor to give myself more flexibility and less of a target for his burning weapon.
We sized each other up. I paid attention to how he moved, how he carried the weapon. His level of control, the intensity in his demonic eyes, the tension in his muscles, the particulars of his stance. Thought about what the chances were that he had been in real duels like this before, or whether he’d act more like a brawler or a stick fighter. We paced near the altar, staring each other down.
“Kick his ass!” Dwayne shouted. “Fuck him up!”
“What?” I asked.
Moseley walloped me on the temple with a hit that would have easily smashed an ordinary person’s skull. As it was, I reeled from the fiery heat and the pain, drawing on my supernatural durability to move with my momentum and keep my footing. I brought my poker up in a parry for his next attack and jumped back, putting some distance between us.
“That’s what you get for looking away, bitchface,” Moseley said. “Next one’s gonna split your head like a melon!”
He came at me with a high downward swing at my head.
Now, here’s the thing. I knew a little bit about medieval swordfighting. This was because I had, indeed, done swordfighting in the medieval period. And sure, I was a little rusty through the years, and these were weighted far differently than actual swords, but some things never leave your muscle memory. So when I saw that basic overhead strike, I barely even had to think before I brought my poker up to imitate his, sparks flying as the burning shafts collided. Then, instead of pulling back or trying to redirect his weapon, I reached and grabbed the other end of the shaft of my poker – even though it burned my hand – where it reached past his wrists. I pulled it back and rotated the entire weapon, locking it with his crossguard and twisting his forearms together until he was forced to lose his grip on his own fire poker sword. I pulled back and, using the natural momentum I had just gained, flung his weapon back over my shoulder.
I would never forget the look on Moseley’s face as his poker clattered to the ground five feet away and he realized just how royally screwed he was.
“Wait,” he said, and then I beat the shit out of him with a red-hot fire poker.
Fire hurt them, right? So I figured that burning, glowing metal was close enough. And I pummeled him. It only took a couple of strikes to knock him down, and then I cut loose on his head, his face, his shoulders, or anything else he had left unguarded. I still cared about human life, but right now Dwayne Stewart’s life mattered more than his would-be murderer, and if Moseley’s patron demon wanted to heal him, I figured it would do just that. In the meantime, I beat him until his face was unrecognizable pulp and those Nazi tattoos were burned off his skin.
I had no clue if Moseley was dead or alive when I finished, but I was beyond caring at this point. I tossed the poker well out of his reach just in case, and took a fresh one out of the fire.
“Hey Dwayne, you still with us?” I asked. “I’m gonna try burning those ropes again. Hold still.”
Stewart looked at me with the kind of awe usually reserved for some kind of warrior goddess. “Where the hell did you learn to do that?” he asked.
I shrugged and began to saw at the ropes with the fiery poker. “I dunno, here and there. I’ve had practice,” I said. My burned hand began to heal, as did the wound on my head.
“Practice doing what?” he asked. He began to sit up as he was freed.
I shrugged. “Practice beating the shit out of redneck bikers. What else? Now, I think we’re going to have to go out the window. Are you comfortable doing that?”
Dwayne Stewart stood to his feet, stretching now that he was no longer bound. He looked up at the window. “Dunno, but I guess I don’t have much of a choice.”
“That’s the spirit,” I said. The window was a little high, but I could just barely reach it. Dwayne was taller, so he’d likely have no real difficulty. I smashed it open with the poker.
“No bars on these windows,” I said. “What’s out there? Barbed wire?”
“Looks like a razor fence,” he said.
“That’s okay, I can still get you out from there,” I said as I scraped the poker along the windowsill, scraping off all the glass that I could. “The point is getting you out of this building before it burns down, okay? Wrap your hands in your shirt or something for the glass, and I’m going to give you a boost. If there’s a path out, take it and don’t stop until you’re in a public place with people around. I’ll try to catch up, but don’t leave anything to chance.”
I picked up my coat and handed him his phone. Then I gave Dwayne a boost, and he climbed out the window.
“Let me help you up,” he said, reaching back to me – ground level must have been a little higher on the outside.
“Sure thing,” I said, but recoiled when I heard the door to the ceremonial chamber slam open behind me.
“They’re getting away!” shouted the big fat flannel man. “And look what they did to Moseley!”
“Dammit. Run!” I told Stewart and turned around. Flannel man, jean jacket man, and one of the hunters had entered the room.
I turned and brandished the burning poker. It was three on one, but I was pissed.
“Bring it,” I said.
“Those are the special ceremonial fire irons,” Flannel guy said. “Put it back!”
“Do I look like I’m about to put it back?” I asked. “And what’s with the fireplace theme, anyway? The Coal Furnace? The stuff here? You wanna tell me what’s up before I burn you like a Yule log?”
“Hell no, it’s not for outsiders,” Flannel guy said. “Now we’re gonna beat your ass and take back that ni–”
A man-sized fireball exploded in the center of the room before he could finish his racial slur. Megaera arose from the flames, holding a demon by the throat. He was small. A lot smaller than I had expected. Hobbit-size. Skinny, greenish-yellow, his big bug-eyed head adorned with a massive bulbous nose. The tiny demon held a burning coal shovel in one hand, which he ineffectively swung at Megaera as he thrashed against her iron grip.
And then everything fell into place for me.
“Wait, Ukobach?” I said. “Are you serious? That guy? No wonder I didn’t recognize the sigil.”
“She’s got the Lord!” Flannel guy said he and the other two remaining henchmen took a step back. “Put him down!”
“Seriously, Ukobach?” I asked again. “I didn’t even know he ranked high enough for a sigil.”
Meg tossed Ukobach to the ground. He tumbled like a rag doll but then stood to his feet, brandishing the coal shovel.
“Who dares try to challenge me?” the demon asked in a squeaky, nasally voice. “I am he who tends the Furnaces of Hell!”
“Aren’t you also the guy who invented fireworks and deep-fried food?” I asked. “No wonder rednecks love you.”
“My machinations are eternal,” Ukobach said. “I have granted these loyal servants a taste of my infinite power!”
“Yeah, if you haven’t noticed, we’ve kind of beaten the shit out of your servants and set their bar on fire,” I said.
“Stand down, Ukobach,” Megaera pointed a talon at him. “Withdraw your blessing from your servants and return to your post. Otherwise you will be harmed and beaten and punished for your transgressions.”
“You have no authority over me!” Ukobach declared. “Take one step against me and I shall burn you with hellfire!”
“I serve the Heavenly authorities by casting sinners into Hell,” Megaera said. “Don’t think I won’t tell your bosses that you’ve been usurping past your station. They won’t be very merciful toward your ambition.”
“I will not allow you to leave here alive,” Ukobach said.
“Yeah, you don’t really look like you’re gonna stop us,” I said, and brandished the red-hot poker at him.
Ukobach laughed. “You seek to threaten me with fire? Fool, I cannot be harmed by flame!”
Yeah, I figured that. But okay, see, the thing about a fire poker is, it’s also made of metal. So I beat the shit out of Ukobach with a red hot fire poker.
To his credit, he tried to raise his shovel against me, but Ukobach wasn’t exactly known for his strength, and I was in a really bad mood. The poker won.
“I give up!” Ukobach eventually shouted, his face a nearly-unrecognizable mess by that point. “Just stop! Please!”
I gave him three more whacks just for good measure.
“Lucy, you can stop now,” Megaera said.
“Meg, I’m kind of working through some stress here,’ I said, brandishing the poker at Ukobach. He cringed.
“I’ll take it back!” he squealed. “I’ll take back the powers I gave them! I promise!”
“And?” I asked.
“And?” he looked at me, confused.
“I dunno, what else are you going to do?” I asked. I pointed the bloody tip of the poker at his broken nose.
“And I will leave their victims alone,” Ukobach said. “I won’t seek revenge against them or you or anybody else.”
“And?” I asked one more time.
“What else could you possibly ask for?” Ukobach asked.
“Is the building on fire?” I asked. “Put it out. I don’t want to burn down Antioch.”
“Oh,” Ukobach. “Uh, okay. Fine.”
Megaera took a step forward. “If you do not remain true to your word,” she said. “I will know. And your superiors will know.”
The demon cringed. “All right, all right! Just leave me alone!”
He vanished in a puff of smoke. The three rednecks, who had been gawking at this with their mouths open, all changed. The red left their eyes. The sigils on their foreheads dimmed and vanished. Even the poker in my hands and the fire in the furnace went cool, with only a small stream of black smoke curling into the air as a reminder.
The flannel guy touched his forehead and looked at his hands.
“It’s gone?” he asked. “Our power’s gone?”
“Gone with the wind,” Megaera said, looking at them with her bloody eyes.
“So hey, I guess it’s, uh, it’s all over now, right?” he asked, backing away. “Lessons learned, nobody got hurt, and we can all go home? No need to be divisive?”
“Hell, no,” I said. “You’re going the fuck to jail.”
It was nearing sunrise when we finally went home, and I let Meg drive. I had to call my contacts in the SF police department to get them to call mutual friends in Antioch to get anything done, but by the time we left we could rest assured that things were more or less the way they should be. It was nice watching the Stewart family reunited – even more satisfying than kicking Ukobach’s ass had been. I lingered long enough to watch as Dwayne picked up both his kids in his arms, and Keisha looked back to me in relief, hiding the tears from her eyes. I gave her a warm smile and a tip of my hat before I turned to go talk to the police and finish wrapping this up.
As t turned out, the former demoniacs were in more than a little bit of trouble. They had months of extremely blatant nefarious behavior to answer for, and no more super fire powers to help them. And besides that, more than likely, nobody was going to hear from Ukobach for another century or two, not if he was smart. For once, a case was actually completely wrapped up with a little bow.
“So hey, did she pay you?” Meg asked as we merged onto Highway 580.
“Hm?” I asked.
“Keisha Stewart,” she said. “Did she pay you for rescuing her husband?”
I shrugged. “They didn’t look like they had two pennies to rub together. Like I said, adultery pays my bills way more than kidnapping.”
“You didn’t even ask for a pittance?” she asked.
“Eh, I dunno,” I said. “Sometimes the good deed itself is the best reward. That, and beating up Neo-Nazis. You don’t have to pay me to pound the shit out of Nazis. I’d do it for free. I’d pay good money for the privilege.”
Meg grinned. “Damn straight,” she said.