Former private investigator Cèsar Hawke has one rule: He doesn’t deal with dead bodies. That’s why he enlisted with the Magical Violations Department in the Office of Preternatural Affairs. He’s happy tracking down witches that commit petty crimes, but he leaves the homicides to other agents.
Except that he’s been assigned to a new team—a team that handles special investigations—and the job has suddenly changed. Now Cèsar has to deal with dead bodies. He also has to deal with necromancers, murderous cults, and demons that can stop a man’s heart with fear.
This isn’t the job he signed up for, but it’s the job he needs to do.
If he survives the first week.
If you saw me sitting down in the old Soup Express building that Wednesday morning, you’d think that the spineless piece of shit stool pigeon that I was interviewing was human. You’d be right about the spineless piece of shit part. The human part? Not so much.
You could have passed Connie on the street corner with no information about her but the shifty-eyed way she watched the world, and you’d instantly know she was the type to spill the beans for enough money. She looked as slimy as her personality: greaseball face, a wig likely styled with canola oil, damp patches at her groin and underarms. The chunky gold watch and necklace she wore were the kind of jewelry owned by CEOs and high rollers, not assholes with Sharpie eyebrows and Juicy sweats.
If Connie had been smart, she would have sold that watch for whatever the pawnshop would give her and headed for the border. Not to a country without an extradition agreement, but a country without an overlord.
Connie wasn’t smart, so she was in an empty, condemned building with me.
She was regretting it.
“We haven’t met before, have we?” she asked, mopping at her forehead with a fistful of dusty napkins from the counter. Before the economy crashed, Soup Express had been one of those places where you ordered at the register and got your food delivered to your table—an uncomfortable mix of fast food and sit-down—and they’d left behind a lot of detritus.
I fought the urge to lean back as Connie sat in the chair across from me, arranging her long, narrow limbs into the pretense of a casual posture. Slouched back, ankles crossed, arms behind her neck. Might have been convincing if she’d held still like that longer than two seconds. She couldn’t stop fidgeting.
Jesus, she didn’t smell right. I expected someone that looked like her to reek of body odor and cologne. Instead, she smelled like rot.
“No, we haven’t met,” I said. Fortunately. “How many contacts do you feed information to, if you can’t remember them all?”
Connie shrugged. It was a short, twitchy gesture, more like someone was tickling the back of her neck and she was trying not to look back to see who it was. “You know how it is. Drop some lethe, lose a year.”
I didn’t know how “it” was. I didn’t even know what “it” was.
I casually lifted the cover of my manila folder and skimmed the top page. Fritz had left me a sticky note about lethe. It said, “Street drug for demons. Stimulant. Subcutaneous insertion via intake bracelet or inhalation via sinuses.”
My eyes flicked up to Connie. Her watch had slid down her bony wrist, revealing an iron band on her forearm. The intake bracelet.
I pretended that I hadn’t noticed it, or at least, that it didn’t surprise me. I wanted Connie to think this was a normal day of the week for me. Like it was part of my morning routine to squeeze information out of spineless piece of shit stool pigeons.
It wasn’t. My job was not so much intimidation and hexes and shooting guns as much as pushing papers from one side of my desk to the other, and occasionally tracking down non-violent perps.
At least, that’s what my job used to be, before I had a bounty put on my head by the incubus mafia. One thing had led to another, I’d gotten promoted to a special team, and the status quo had changed in kind of a big way.
Now here I was, working with demon informants.
A demon. Jesus.
This part definitely wasn’t normal for me.
I had one demon contact. One. And Monique was an artisan, a shut-in, someone who presented no real threat to humanity. And even though a skinny chick like Connie was as unintimidating as I could imagine, I didn’t know what kind of demon tricks she might be able to pull.
These days, frankly, it felt like I didn’t know anything about…anything.
Not that I could let Connie catch on to that.
“We need to talk about the infernal energy event that we detected this weekend,” I said. The words came out smooth. Infernal energy event. Those were three words I’d never put together before in my life, but I thought I made it sound pretty natural.
Connie’s face crumpled like she was about to start crying. “Oh man.”
I let the manila folder drop closed. “So you know about it.”
“Don’t need to ask me about this one. Find someone else. Anyone else.”
I was mostly new to demons, but not new to dealing with informants. There were two kinds of them: the kind that needed intimidation to loosen up, and the kind that needed money. I thought Connie might snap if I tried to intimidate her. Couldn’t imagine pulling the “look at how big and scary I am” moves on a lady anyway, even if she was a demon-lady.
Sliding my wallet out of my pocket, I set it on the table in front of me.
“Let’s take this nice and slow,” I said. “Start from the beginning. Where do you work, Connie?”
Her fidgeting stopped when she spotted my wallet. She swallowed hard. “I hold down a job at Craven’s Casino. Part-time. Janitorial work’s a good way to get info. It’s like I’m invisible in the uniform, you know? You’d be surprised what people say around the staff, like we’re not even there.”
Now she was talking. That was good.
“Craven’s Casino is owned by demons, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Uh, yeah. Obviously. John Ascuaga’s not going to serve long pig ribs on Thanksgiving.”
Who the hell John Ascuaga? What the hell is long pig?
If there was any way to make an investigation more difficult than throwing me at my first demons, it was throwing me at my first demons in an unfamiliar city. But I kept my face smooth as I jotted down the notes to look up later. Just had to look good, look confident, keep Connie talking. My Steno pad already had a full page of notes about this investigation and I’d been working on it for less than twenty-four hours.
“Were you at work when the event occurred, Connie?”
She stiffened. Gave a jerky shrug. Gnawed on a fingernail. “I don’t know.”
Time to rephrase.
“What were you doing on Sunday night at ten o’clock?”
“Working,” she said.
Okay. We were getting somewhere. “Did you notice any strange behavior in the casino that night?”
“It’s always strange in Craven’s, amigo.” Connie tore her thumbnail off, spit it onto the floor. “Our cocktail waitresses wear assless chaps and they let people fuck them. They encourage it. But anyone who fucks them turns up dead. And you don’t need chips to gamble on the floor; you can toss anything valuable on one of those tables and play. Or you can put down nothing at all and let the dealer figure out what you owe. The dealers are happy to take blood or flesh half the time. So you wanna talk strange? At Craven’s?”
She painted an ugly picture. I was starting to feel a little hot. I caught my hand loosening my tie and made myself stop.
It was easy enough to imagine what a demon-owned casino might be like. Helltown, in Los Angeles, played by similar rules—the trade of flesh and blood and souls. Demons liked money, but they liked organic currency much, much better.
I’d been quiet too long. I tried to remember what we were talking about.
“Did you see anything stranger than usual? You know what I mean.”
“David Nicholas was irate,” Connie said. “Normal levels of irate, but…” She stopped. “I don’t know. I just—I don’t know.”
David Nicholas? I flipped through the dossier. No way to make the search look casual now—his information was toward the back. We had no photo, no information on aliases or species. All it said was that David Nicholas was the name of the manager running Craven’s Casino.
I doubted that he was human. Hard to imagine a human that could keep charge of that kind of hellhole.
“Did you speak with the manager? Do you know what was bothering him?” I asked.
Connie shook her head. “No. I avoid him. Everyone smart avoids him.” Her fingers crawled across the table, toward my wallet. I resisted the urge to put it away and instead opened it. Green paper poked up on one side. Connie’s glassy eyes brightened. “I heard him laughing.”
“Cackling,” she said. “David Nicholas was storming around, biting heads off like usual, and then he went into his office for a while. I felt the—this event thing—and when he came out of his office again, he was happy. Happier than I’ve ever seen him.”
I made note of it. “When did he go into his office?”
“Dunno. I was busy mopping the first floor shitters.”
“Is that early in your routine at work, or late?” I asked.
So David Nicholas’s momentary disappearance probably coincided with the infernal energy event.
It wasn’t much information. It was barely anything at all. I drummed the end of my pen on the table, frowning hard at Connie. She shriveled under my gaze, so I made myself stop. Didn’t want to intimidate her. Hated seeing fear in a woman’s eyes.
“I want to pay you, Connie. If you can tell me anything about what caused the event—including rumors you may have heard—you can walk out of here two hundred dollars richer.” Fritz had actually given me a thousand dollars in cash before sending me into Soup Express for the chat, but I didn’t think Connie was that tough a nut to crack.
“It’s because of her,” Connie whispered, staring fixedly at the floor.
I followed her gaze. She was watching a spider skitter across the dusty concrete. It was a harvestman, a daddy long legs. Connie looked petrified by it.
“They’re not venomous,” I said, bending down to scoop the harvestman up in my fingers.
Connie jerked back, shooting to her feet, sending her chair crashing to the ground.
“Oh man,” she said again, rubbing her hands over her face, raking furrows through her greasy hair.
I went to a cracked window. “There you go, buddy.” I ushered it off of my hand. It delicately stepped off of my fingers and vanished outside. Snow aside, it was a pretty warm night in Reno, Nevada—the harvestman would be fine.
When I turned back to Connie, she had plastered herself flat against the wall. She was shaking harder. Didn’t look like fear anymore. It looked like she might be having a seizure.
“It’s her,” she said again. “She saw me. She knows I’m talking. I’m dead.”
“Who is ‘she?’”
“She wants to find it—she—she knows that it’s there, down in my nest. She’s been asleep for so long and now she’s trying to wake up and she’ll come for me down there.” Tears rolled down her sweat-slicked cheeks. “I said too much. She knows that I said too much. She’ll kill me.”
My heart folded in on itself. “I can protect you. Let me help.”
There was something in Connie’s hand—something velvety black. For a moment I thought she’d snagged my wallet while I was distracted, but it was still on the table.
Whatever she was holding, it had shiny parts.
“I need backup!” I shouted, drawing my gun, moving to take cover behind the stairs.
The informant moved too fast for me to stop her. But she didn’t attack me.
She dragged the blade across her throat.
It wasn’t sharp enough to cut with a single swipe. She hacked at her own neck, mangling the flesh. Black blood gushed over her hands. She cut herself open from ear to ear and exposed shining meat under the skin.
I forgot my gun and rushed to stabilize the wound.
She sagged in my arms.
The back door to the restaurant exploded open. Agent Suzume Takeuchi ran in, gun drawn but aimed at the floor. “What happened?” she asked, scanning the surroundings.
Connie’s blood was stinging my skin. I dropped her and tried to wipe my hands clean on my jacket, but the blood started burning a hole through the breast. I took the whole thing off, swiped my hands dry, and dropped it.
“Jesus,” I said.
Suzy nudged Connie with the toe of her shoe. She didn’t move.
Our informant had killed herself.