Some coming of age this is.
It’s List’s eighteenth birthday, and he’s seriously beginning to regret this whole detecting-stroke-demon-hunting thing. Three pairs of eyes, none of them human, and he takes a cautious step. A floorboard creaks, the noise too damn loud in this kind of silence. He’s dead meat.
Eighteen’s apparently old enough to maybe become a partner in the firm, and to go on a solo demon hunt. Yeah, you read right. Melinda’s gone on about how she and Mary’ll “only be a step behind,” but he’s been on enough hunts like these to know that a step behind isn’t close enough. A second too late and he’s dead. He pretends not to know, though – he doesn’t have to make this harder than it already is.
He wants to freeze up, panic and pretend this isn’t happening. Instead, he thinks of what ‘s waiting for him: Mom told him to be back for dinner, and she’s gonna murder him if he misses it. No – actually, she’s probably gonna give him that soft look of disappointment and be all, “I thought better of you” and “Well, it’s your birthday, not mine, but…” That’s about worse.
“I want…” he begins. He licks his lips nervously. “I’m guessing you’re the people to ask?”
Three of them. Not one – three. One of them – looking like a sweet-faced blonde with rouged cheeks and immaculately applied red lipstick, the kind of girl next door you’d take home to your mother – smiles. “I take it you’ve heard of us?” she says.
Yeah. Girl found glassy-eyed in an empty house, all the furniture taken. She was breathing but there was no spark, like she’d been hollowed out from the inside. Demon probably took her and fed on her; left her behind when it was done. She was dying, but her mind was already gone. (He’s never known what he thinks of the whole “eternal soul” thing. Maybe it’s all bullshit. If it isn’t, though – well, her soul must have been gone. She wasn’t her anymore.) The sight made him so angry he felt sick. So angry that he’s almost… almost looking forward to this. Yeah, that thought isn’t exactly reassuring – in fact, it brings a whole new wave of nausea in its wake.
Anyway, the case led them here, in the end. The descriptions matched this house, these demons. He got sent here, and now he’s standing, smiling at the sweet little blonde who’s killed six women in three months. “Sure,” he says. “Though, uh, most of your clients weren’t in much of a position to recommend you.”
She laughs. “Oh, I do like the ones with a sense of humour.” Her face straightens out, losing the smile. “They fought us. This is a fair deal. Capisce?”
“Yeah,” he replies. “Uh, capisce.” He nervously widens his smile. “So what, do we shake on it?”
She pauses, considers it. “Why not? Yes, let’s do that.”
“Right. I want… I want Mom to be happy. She should, uh, get a big house, and, well, have someone. Can I have that?” Shit, he can hear Mom scolding him for how he’s asking. “Please,” he adds hastily, cringing.
“He’s sweet,” the blonde says to the one next to her – a tall, sallow-faced man in a perfectly pressed grey suit. It’s the kind of thing List would wear if he, y’know, actually had money. “Sure you can,” she tells List, sugary-sweet, her voice high and her smile all molasses.
He turns away from her, swipes a hand through his hair in nervousness he doesn’t need to fake. He draws the small flask out of his pocket, his back still to her; he prays he isn’t too obvious. (That’d be just his luck, wouldn’t it, getting killed on his first time out. It’s only half a joke. Please, God, Christ, don’t make Mom have to see him in a coffin. Outliving your kids – well, it’s awful, and it’s not like it’d be expected; he’s never been sickly, never gotten himself in trouble with the wrong people. He’s careful like that.) He faces her, giving her a nervy smile. “Sorry,” he says. “Just drinking for luck.”
Dutch courage is a pretty good excuse, now he thinks about it. He takes a swig – Jesus, that’s foul; how long was this stuff at the altar before they picked it up? – and pretends the holy water is Melinda’s best scotch. (Not that he’s swiped any. None that she knows about, anyway.) He fakes screwing the cap back on – only a little twist, that’s it, barely a turn at all – and approaches the thing posing as a woman. He holds out a hand.
“Don’t close the deal,” he remembers Melinda saying. “Whatever else you do, don’t close the deal.”
“Or you’re a little screwed,” Mary had added helpfully. Gee, thanks.
She brings her hand up to meet his, and he…
He soaks her with the holy water. The cap flies off to somewhere he’ll probably never find it; she screams; he, on reflex, yells too. Well, it’s more of a shriek: a damn little-girly shriek. It’s not pretty and it’s not subtle, but he just wants to make it hurt. (Six women in three months, and that’s just the ones they know about. Christ.) It’s just a distraction – the demon’s been in her too long for them to get it out. The next step is… is…
He grabs the revolver at his hip, aims, and – Safety. He’s left the damn safety on, how could he forget? He thumbs the catch, backing away from her as she claws at her face and screeches, the other two moving fast, too fast for him to keep track of. He aims, lines it all up and prays…
Six women she’s killed; it only takes three bullets to end it. Once, twice, again, and then she crumples. He’s always surprised by how loud guns are – things go sorta fuzzy, his ears ringing and sound slipping away from him.
“List!” he hears a voice call. Mary. Thank God. He spins to face her, and she frowns, suddenly at his side. “Give me that.” He shrugs and does, glancing around him for the other demons, because they’re gone, where are they – He feels someone, something, grab his elbow. “Run!” Mary orders, so he wrenches himself away and hoofs it a few steps.
He can’t just leave her.
He looks over his shoulder at the sound. In front of Mary, the guy in the sharp suit – the one who must’ve grabbed List – falls, a bullet in his chest and a hole in his forehead; there are bloodstains on his tie. List stares.
“You should’ve shot her in the head,” Mary tells him. “Would’ve been faster.”
He nods more than a little numbly; what the hell else can he do? He keeps staring at her. To be honest, he’s grateful he managed to hit anything at all, and that’s mostly down to her. (Apparently an ex-Army dad and a rough neighbourhood make you pretty good with a gun. Who knew?) His hands are shaking, he realises a couple minutes later. He swallows, heading over to the corpse – the blonde girl. The thing that looked like a blonde girl. He stares at her – it, he reminds himself, it – and the shaking increases as he looks into those blank eyes. Jesus, he killed…
“List.” Someone nudges him. Right, Mary. “You did what you had to,” she tells him.
He nods, still hollow. “Sure.” It comes out more sarcastic than he intended.
“You did,” she says, more firmly.
Their heads snap round to follow the noise. What the hell – ? Oh. The third one.
They run to the door at the same time. In the hallway, Melinda has been shoved against the wall by the third demon, its hand round her throat. She gasps for breath, her eyes wide, and it grins. List is halfway there when Melinda knees it in the crotch, sending it reeling, and it takes an elbow to the face before it can even recover. Now it’s Melinda who’s got it by the throat, putting her whole weight behind the move, and it claws at her as it’s shoved against the wall…
Blam. A bullet to the head and it’s falling to the floor. Melinda holsters the gun, exhaling. List didn’t even see her draw; damn, she’s fast. She shuts her eyes a moment, sighs, and then turns to smile at them. “Are we finished here.”
Sure, List is about to say, but then he freezes. “Mom.”
“Damn,” Melinda says, wide-eyed. “Come on.”
As they’re walking to the door, Melinda clasps him by the shoulder. “Well done.” Wow. Her smile grows a little. “You’ll be a fine hunter indeed.”
“Thanks,” he says, not quite sure how to reply to that. They head away from the scene maybe a little faster than usual. He will not be late.
“Alister!” Mom says, like this is a surprise, smiling at him as she opens the door.
“Hey, Mom.” He changed and hastily shoved the bloody clothes into the wash at his place; he’s still a little rumpled, his top button undone, but it’s good enough. He steps into her arms and hugs her tight, glad to have some little slice of ordinary in his life. “Sorry. Got held up at the office.”
“There were some problems with the filing system,” Melinda lies smoothly. She doesn’t even blink; how does she do that?
Mary follows them in, all perfume and politeness, talking about how it’s lovely to see you, Miss Kord, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? She kisses Mom on the cheek, and they make their way through to the kitchen. Mom’s made a cake. He winces; he doesn’t even want to think about how much the ingredients must’ve cost. He knows if he says anything she’ll tell him in nicer words to piss off, it was her choice and it’s made now anyway, so he shuts himself up. Besides, it’s a good night: he led his first case and got out in one piece, and he’s a man. Kind of.
Mort is leaning against the counter, glowering at them. A slight eye-twitch indicates he might be happy, or he might just have dust up his nose, List isn’t sure. The landlord sighs, stands and walks up to List. “Hey, kid.”
“Still?” List asks.
Mort nods. “You’re gonna be ‘kid’ ’til I’m in my grave.”
Fair enough. “I can live with that.”
“Miss Schwartz needs dome shelves put up. Or are you too busy with this lot these days?”
List looks over to where Melinda and Mary are talking to Mom. They seem to be getting on OK – at least, no-one’s gotten killed yet. They’ll probably be fine without him unless something really major comes up. “I’ll be there Monday?”
Mort nods, content. “She’s in 205.”
“I remember.” He used to help Mrs. Schwartz with her shopping pretty regularly; she’s getting on for eighty, needs someone around sometimes. She always seemed to like him, but it’s been a while.
“Good,” Mort says with another nod. His eyes are on Melinda. “She pays you better than I do, I bet.”
“A little,” List lies. (A lot.)
“Well, you had to get off your ass sometime.” Mort – maybe five foot four, definitely over fifty, mostly bald and a little soft around the edges – meets List’s eye, and for a second he’s a different man. List heard he was in the army, not so long ago – it’s in the spine, in the way he moves. For a second there, Mort is awful intimidating, and List wonders if he knows what’s really going on: if he knows they aren’t just chasing crooks and cheating husbands. “Just… look after yourself. For your mama, if nothing else.”
List nods. Mort claps him on the back turning unusually, scarily cheerful. List figures it’s his mom – she has that kind of effect on people. She makes you want to be better, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try to resist, you’re a sucker for it. “Elizabeth, you fed this kid? He’s skinny as a rail.”
“I’m working on it,” Mom replies.
They all end up sitting at the table and starting on the cake.
“Your Victoria sponge is delightful,” Melinda tells Mom, and it’s so weird to see them in the same room. Melinda is the office and scotch and demons. Mom is home and coffee and safety. The two probably shouldn’t meet, he reckons. Mom seems to like her, now that a few months have gone by and he hasn’t got killed or shortchanged for wages yet, but they don’t exactly make the effort to talk.
List grins at Mom awkwardly and nods, his mouth too full to say much. They sit, they eat, and List prays no-one notices the blood on his socks.