The perfect scumbag entered the bar around ten. I straightened, my bottle of cream stout pressed to my lips, and focused my gift on him as he crossed the crowded room. He blended in well. The leather jacket, tight T-shirt and faded jeans were the standard fare for a Saturday evening at Kilpatrick’s. But the malice oozing from his pores—definitely not. It tasted foul, like burnt oil. Yeah, this guy was a class-A asshole. Just the sort I was looking for to be my next soul donor.
I swigged my beer, but even old Sam Adams was helpless to defeat the nasty coating the guy left on my tongue. Luckily, the bleached blonde two tables over did a better job. I didn’t know why she was so morose, but that banana-cream sadness of hers washed away some of the guy’s foulness. Tasty and energizing, and—most importantly—guilt free.
Steph, my best friend and occasional partner in quasi-crime, returned from the bathroom and sat across from me. “Jess, you almost done with the beer? I need a smoke break.”
“I thought you were trying to quit the nic-sticks.” Much as I wished she would quit for her health, I hated when she tried. Diffuse anxiety like that was the one negative emotion—well, besides evil—that bugged me. Not only did the taste remind me of spearmint, which I couldn’t stand, it made me jittery.
“I can’t quit until Jim does. How am I supposed to give it up when he’s smoking in the apartment?”
“Fair point.” As he was the first decent guy Steph had ever dated, I couldn’t be too annoyed with Jim for the smoking thing. Everyone has their goods and their bads—something my twisted-to-hell-and-back gift had been reminding me of since I turned eighteen.
With the bottle, I motioned to my scumbag. “I’m going hunting. You in?”
Steph assessed my target, her long purple nails tapping against her lip as if there should be a cigarette between her fingers. “What’s he going to do?”
It was a good question, yet not one I could answer with certainty since my goal was to prevent the crime. Even when someone’s intent was so overwhelming I gagged on its foulness, I couldn’t always get a read on the specifics. Sometimes, though, emotions were tied to plans, and plans to images that I could tap into.
Granted, most of the time I’d be happier not knowing those details. To me, evil was evil. I’d been cursed to taste it for ten years now, and it was unmistakable. Still, if it eased Steph’s mind…
I closed my eyes and stretched out my gift toward the scumbag. My nervous system danced as a giddy energy swept through me. This guy’s cruelty could power me to run a marathon.
And that was bad. Damn it. I bit my tongue, and the pain grounded me. Furious at myself for lurking in his heart so long, I dragged my attention back to my beer. I’d need to scrub out my head with a Disney movie later.
“Once and would-be future rapist,” I told Steph. “Keep an eye on him? I have to go check for work. And don’t be so obvious that you’re staring.”
Steph’s sneer faded as she picked at the last of the French fries.
I worked my way through the chaos near the restrooms, wishing the bar was less cramped. There simply wasn’t enough room for the pool tables and the dartboard. And whose brilliant idea had it first been to give drunk people darts to throw anyway? As if using a bar’s bathroom wasn’t already an unpleasant proposition. But Steph’s cousin owned Kilpatrick’s, and he lived for the arguments and brawls. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was a rage addict. Really, though, he was a Boston-Irish dude with a perverse sense of humor. Almost as dangerous.
Both bathrooms were unisex, but it was the one on the right that I needed. I knocked.
“Use the other one.”
“Other one’s occupied.”
I leaned against the wall and watched my scumbag sidle up to a vanity addict at the bar. Peachy. Had my would-be rapist found his victim? If they left together, how was I going to ditch her? Targeting rapists could be such a pain, and yet it was also incredibly satisfying. Must be something in my female DNA.
Oblivious to the guy’s intentions, the vanity addict smiled at him. Shuddering, I wondered how far gone she was.
As a kid, it had been my dream to join the Angelic Order of the Gryphon and become one of those humans who cured addicts and fought the preds who enslaved them. Then somewhere along the way a pred had cursed me, twisted my magic into a lousy imitation of its own power. Because of that, I’d been denied my dream. But also because of that, I’d grown up more determined than ever to save humanity. I just got to be picky about who I helped.
The person on the right finally finished, and I prayed the bathroom wouldn’t stink worse than usual.
After locking the door, I climbed on the toilet seat. One of these days, I was going to get a better method for communicating with potential clients. Alas, it had taken a solid three years for word of mouth to spread that the mysterious Soul Swapper communicated via a plastic container hidden behind a tile in the ceiling of the right-hand bathroom in Kilpatrick’s Nutty Irishman Bar on Boylston Street.
Yeah, who was I kidding? I’d never find a different way to communicate. Not as long as what I did required anonymity.
On my tiptoes, I pushed the tile aside and grasped the edge of the Rubbermaid container. Already I could see strange handwriting on the notepad inside. Sweet. Potential client, here I come.
I skimmed the note, which was signed with only initials. Good for J.G. Some morons signed their whole names. Not that any of this business was technically illegal, but it sure skirted the line so close that I’d need a better lawyer than I could afford if I got busted.
Okay, so maybe it was a slight, eensy, teeny, nano-bit illegal. Or would be if someone had the foresight to make a law about it. But people didn’t devote time to making laws about things deemed impossible.
Things like me.
I wrote back to J.G. Monday, midnight, the Hatch Shell. Then I tucked the whole thing back in the ceiling over the toilet.
Escaping from the restroom gave my nose a new appreciation for the odor of sweat and stale liquor. My scumbag was putting the moves on the addict, and Steph was twirling her lighter around. Magical addicts and typical addicts—in some ways they weren’t so different.
Whereas nicotine was Steph’s metaphorical demon, the vanity addict’s demon was literal. Sort of. We shared the planet with five races that preyed on human weakness—anger for the furies, greed for the goblins, jealousy for the harpies, lust for the satyrs, and pride or vanity for the sylphs. Once, humanity had referred to them as monsters or demigods. Back in the Middle Ages, the Christian Church had collectively given them the name demon. These days, however, most humans just called them predators, or preds, for short.
Not that the name mattered.
In the end, all it meant was that in the vanity addict’s case, somewhere in Boston was a sylph who’d broken the addict’s soul, binding the vanity addict to itself and using that connection to drink in the addict’s negative emotions. Like me, the sylph got a magical hit from humanity’s negativity. And while Steph got miserable if she went too long without nicotine, the vanity addict had lost all ability to feel happy or good about herself without the sylph’s approval.
Sadly, in the end, both types of afflictions could be deadly.
I finished my beer and tried not to let pity bog me down. Steph would—rightfully—kick my ass if she could hear me comparing her to a vanity addict, and if I let my heart break over every magical addict I met, I’d be as wretched as they were. The problem with having magical blood was that I could identify addicts, and addicts were everywhere. Most people would freak if they realized how many prominent politicians or celebrities had a pred on their back, but there was truth to the whole cliché about selling your soul for success.
Thirty minutes later Scumbag finally made his move. Idiot, I wanted to yell at the addict. Although she couldn’t read the guy’s intentions, she had to have heard the news about a serial killer targeting twenty-something-year-old women in the area. I despised victim-blaming, but really—a little paranoia was not a bad thing to have.
Lips pursed, I watched the would-be rapist help her down from her barstool. Some people were simply too trusting. Fortunately for her, I was on the case.
Steph knew the drill. Ten seconds after Scumbag and his lady headed out the door, we followed them into the night.
The subway’s yellow lights turned everyone a ghastly hue. As much as I loathed the thought, I extended my gift toward Scumbag. The odds of losing him were too good. My mind latched on to his anticipation, and the feeling made my skin crawl, yet at the same time adrenaline flooded my veins.
I cursed the blissful rush, which was why I’d started hunting people like him in the first place. It was that or let my own shame overwhelm me. What I’d become wasn’t my fault, but the words “not my fault” were overused and hollow, however truthful they were.
Scumbag and his addict got off the train at one of the last T stops. That was going to make concealing ourselves a lot more difficult.
“How are you going to get rid of his date?” Steph asked as we hightailed it out of the station.
The night was darker along the city’s edge, and we had to hang back to stay unseen. The couple cut across the small parking lot and headed into residential streets. A few drab trees had been hacked to make way for power lines, and their unnatural branch formations seemed to flip off the neighborhood.
“Got me. Maybe I can swipe his blood while you distract her.”
“I don’t know. Throw your wig at her?”
Steph nudged me in the ribs. Unfortunately for her, she’d begun losing her hair in college when she was still Stephen. Male pattern baldness on a thirty-year-old woman was a bit more disconcerting than it was on a thirty-year-old man.
I grabbed Steph’s arm and pulled her into the shadows with me as the addict led the way toward a house up the hill. A swarm of imps danced around the nearest streetlight. The largest of them was no longer than my longest finger, but their wings beat in an effervescent haze. Not quite glowing and not completely transparent, they caused funky shadows to flit about the houses, making it difficult to see.
I kept a wary eye on the imps as the addict unlocked her front door. Imps were attracted to magical blood, and a single sting could leave me powerless for several minutes. Neither me, nor the addict who didn’t realize she was depending on me, could afford that.
“Looks like he’s making a call. Let’s go.”
I charged across the street, Steph struggling to keep up in her three-inch heels. We weren’t going to make it. Scumbag was already putting away the cellphone.
The porch’s screen door slammed, and the light turned on. He hadn’t gone in yet. I ducked behind a scraggly rhododendron. A couple imps swooped down from the streetlamp, and I swatted them away, cursing under my breath.
What was this guy up to? He paced between the clutter and sorry furniture on the porch, playing with a knife and looking up and down the street as though he expected company. Creepy. Lights were on upstairs, and I could make out the addict moving around.
I checked my watch. Scumbag’s impatience tasted like bitter tea. The last thing I wanted was for someone to arrive as I did the magical equivalent of bashing him over the head. On the other hand, waiting around all night wasn’t going to do me or the addict any good. Not to mention I had to get up for work tomorrow morning.
“Hide if you don’t want him seeing your face,” I told Steph, then I pulled my hood around my head.
I crept to the front of the porch, gathering magic into a ball in my stomach, then cracked the door. Scumbag looked over in surprise.
“Hi.” Simple, to the point and the perfect word for exhaling a gush of power. A smoky cloud blew from my lips and coiled around Scumbag’s head. He couldn’t see it, but he felt it. His face slackened.
The smoke vanished, but my gut registered the familiar tightening that told me the magic connected us like a rope. If I were a pred, that rope would make my victim an addict. Preds had a harder time creating that bond, but when they did, they could extend their ropes for miles or give the magic a tug and send an addict’s emotions spiraling toward them. Since I wasn’t a pred, I had to rely on words to manipulate people, every bit as effective but only so long as my victims heard me.
“Come with me.”
I didn’t wait for him to follow. He couldn’t help but obey. Until I broke the tie, he was incapable of anything but lusting and yearning for me, and was thus highly malleable. Though I had to admit, the thought of this bastard yearning for me made me want to hurl.
It was bad enough that I’d been cursed with a pred’s ability to get a magical high from human misery. Talk about living with guilt. But also being cursed, specifically, with a satyr’s ability to drive people mad with lust? Definitely not something I’d have asked for. And not something I understood. If I had a deadly weakness, it would have to be rage or jealousy. I mean, I had a temper and I knew how to use it. And as for jealousy, much as I hated to admit it, the fact that I didn’t wear a Gryphon uniform constantly ate away at my insides.
So why, for the love of dragons, did I not tempt with one of those emotions? Why lust instead?
I could only assume it was some quirk in the universe, not that different from how I ended up with a mop of dark brown curls when my parents both had straight hair. In other words, shit happened. Usually to me, it seemed.
Scumbag followed me into the rhododendron’s shadow, oozing evil like an infection oozed pus. Steph was on the ball tonight and had already pulled out the blood-collection kit from my backpack. All I needed—or rather the preds I traded with needed—was a couple drops. Steph worked for a local hospital’s IT department, and she’d swiped me one of those thumb-pricking devices diabetics used to monitor their blood sugar and Gryphons used to monitor an addict’s magic levels.
Scumbag stumbled over the rhododendron’s roots and landed against me. I shoved him off, but he didn’t want to let go.
“Can I do you here, beautiful?” He had some sort of Eastern European accent, and his hands fumbled with his belt buckle.
It had to be the nature of my magic, but unrequited lust tasted like the best thing on earth to me. If I was longing for a steak, it melted on my tongue like filet mignon. If I desired ice cream, it tantalized my taste buds like a chocolate peanut butter sundae. Tonight, it filled my mouth with the flavor of a hot brownie straight out of the oven.
I gave the would-be rapist a more forceful shove, and he hit the side of the house. Scumbag was disturbed by my refusal yet undaunted. I had to be quick. I knew where those hands of his would be next, and I had no desire to see him whip out that particular weapon.
“Not tonight, thanks. What I want is a little blood.” I held out the lancet.
“What do I do with this?”
Maybe because I was a mere human wielding a pred’s power, my magic didn’t simply drive people lusty. It made them dumb to boot. “You put it like this, and press down.” I positioned it for him.
“Will you do it for me?”
I shot her a dirty look. “What’s your name?”
I swallowed down my disgust and grabbed his hand. “Pete Donovich, do you offer your blood freely? Say it.”
“I give, offer, my blood freely.” His words were starting to slur.
I clicked the device and gathered a couple drops of blood in a vial. Mission almost accomplished—the quasi-legal part anyway. After all, it was perfectly legal for a pred to bargain for someone’s soul so long as the person gave it freely. The blood symbolized the contract and gave the pred a means for calling the person when the agreement kicked in.
Using my magic to convince Pete, or anyone else, to donate blood was technically legal in the sense that preds did it all the time and it was damn hard to prove coercion in any court. Ethically, I’d be the first to admit it was wrong. But since Pete intended to tie up the vanity addict in this house, rape her and do about twenty other things to her that would require serious drinking on my part to forget, I wasn’t going to lose sleep over stealing his soul.
No, if I lost sleep, it would be from the nightmares Pete gave me. And because of that, I couldn’t let him waltz into the addict’s apartment now that I was done.
“Turn around and kneel.”
If I had the power, this guy would be locked up for life. But, alas, the Gryphons considered me a failure, my gift a dud. Granted, if they knew the truth about me, they’d probably hunt me down like a pred, so life could have been worse. Yet there were times when all this secrecy got in the way of doing good deeds.
I gathered the magic once more. “Forget me.” Then I sent it shooting out through my hands and into Scumbag Pete’s head. He moaned.
With a decisive chop, I snapped the rope of magic that connected us. The pressure in my gut vanished. Pete shook himself. Before he could figure out what was going on, my steel-toed boot met his skull. He grunted and collapsed. One scumbag off the streets, if only for the night.
I fished through Pete’s wallet and pocketed his ID. I’d never remember his name without it, and the pred I traded with would need it. Besides, in the ten years I’d been passing myself off as a vigilante for the hopeless, I’d nicked quite a few souls. I had to have some way to remember the faces of those who I’d taken blood from because I could only do it once per person. After I’d handed a soul over to one pred, another pred couldn’t have it at the same time.
“Did you see that?” Steph asked.
“Thought I saw a shadow move.”
I scanned the vicinity, closing my eyes and stretching out with my gift. Theoretically, it was possible that if anyone was watching, they wouldn’t be miserable or frightened or nervous or angry or feeling any other negative emotion. And if that was the case, I’d miss them completely. It was damned unlikely though. Everyone was unhappy about something.
But all I picked up on was some marital discord across the street. “I’ve got nothing.”
Steph frowned. “A van pulled up a couple minutes ago. I don’t like this.”
“Well, we’re done. Let’s get out of here.”
We started down the street, and Steph grabbed my wrist. This time I’d caught it too. A flicker of black to my left. The shuffle of feet cutting through un-mowed grass. Steph’s breath rattled in my ear as I reached under my jacket for my knife.
With a dry mouth, I took a couple steps in the shadow’s direction. Yet still my gift registered no signs of life. Disturbing. Maybe whoever we saw wasn’t human? Even more disturbing. My knife would be useless, and I didn’t have a protective charm on me.
“Jess!” Steph’s harsh whisper made me jump. She beckoned me back.
I squinted into the hazy darkness and decided she had a point.
Steph relaxed once the subway’s glow encompassed us again, but I kept checking over my shoulder. That van had parked close to the addict’s house, so why hadn’t I sensed the driver? Why hadn’t I sensed anything in the bushes? I swore I felt that absence of emotion standing behind me the whole way home, but all I saw were humans.
Paranoia. If this business of mine didn’t kill me, it would drive me insane. One of these days, I’d take up a normal hobby. Something just as useful. Maybe knitting.