*The Watcher in the Darkness Series and all characters contained therein are the sole copyright of K.M. Spires. All rights reserved.*
The Watcher in the Darkness series contains adult situations, graphic violence, and lots and lots of bad language. Rated M for Mature, seriously.
Demons are everywhere. They can be in anything. They can take the form of anyone, and most smell like nothing at all. La Llorona’s was the sort of place people needed reservations to get into. Even so, I felt like I was walking into a lion’s den.
Between my tattered hoodie and the holes in my jeans, I stood out like a sore thumb. The other customers waiting in the lobby stopped what they were doing to stare at me. Even the string quartet in the corner stopped playing for a few seconds. An older man pulled out his cell phone, ready to call the cops.
The elegant hostess made her way through the crowd with a smile on her too-perfect face. She had the sort of beauty that didn’t occur in nature. Not without a demonic pact. “Welcome to La Llorona’s,” she said. Her tone was pleasant, like I was any other customer, but her emerald eyes were empty. “Right on time. Your table is ready. Just follow me.”
She didn’t bother to gather a menu or silverware as she led me through the overcrowded restaurant. I tried not to breathe in the layered stench of seared meat, cooking oil, and spices. She showed me to a dark booth in the corner, near the kitchen. She gave me a wink as I sat down then walked away without another word.
I began to wait. And wait. Then, I waited some more.
My left leg shook and my claw nubs tapped an uneven beat against the tabletop. I became hyper-aware of every sound. Diners slurped and smacked up their nauseating dinners. The drone of so many conversations going on at once was like the hum of a beehive. There seemed to be a crazy number of affairs and criminal transactions going down around me. Silverware scraped against plates and pans of grilled meats sizzled. Humans heartbeats crashed like waves against the shore.
Two hours and twenty-seven minutes later, I accepted that I’d been stood up. Muttering curses under my breath as I formulated a Plan B, I slid to the end of the booth. Before I could stand, the kitchen door swung open. A waitress in a puffy blouse and multicolored skirt came out, a tray perched on her shoulder.
“Here you go.” She set a steaming plate of steak, melted cheese, grilled onions, and peppers in front of me. There was also a rice dish smothered in some caustic-smelling red sauce.
“I didn’t order this,” I said, which was code for: I’m not paying for it.
“No, I did.” A tall, well-dressed man slid into the booth across from me. He appeared to be from India, or maybe Pakistan, and had the same cultured accent as Gwen. Dressed in a dark grey suit and tie, his shirt was blood red. Manicured from his beard to his fingernails, his hair was so oily that it looked wet. His eyes glistened like a cobra scales as he smiled at me with perfect teeth. “Sorry to have kept you waiting.”
He didn’t mean it. The man smelled human and clean. His blood type was O positive, and his body heat was normal. His pulse, his breathing, everything about him seemed ordinary. It was the aura of power surrounding him that was inhuman.
“Skin-rider,” I said without thinking.
The man’s smile dimmed. “This is how you greet someone you’ve never met? Charming. Clearly, everything I’ve heard about you is true, Tobias.”
I knew, to the core of my being, this man was my enemy. “I take it you’re Khalid?”
“Ah,” he said as he leaned back in his seat. “So, it was Sweet Gwen that directed you to me. That’s a relief. I would’ve been heartbroken had it been my Karen.”
I knew he’d called her that just to get to me, but damn if it didn’t work.
“So, how can I help your master, Tobias? I assume you’re here to settle Gwen’s debt?”
“What debt? Wait, what master?”
My ignorance amused him. “You entered into a contract with Gwen, did you not? It’s all anyone can talk about lately. You swore to perform unspecified boons in exchange for a reunion with Karen? Gwen upheld her end of the bargain, though I had no idea that was her intent at the time.”
I waved his words out of the air. “First, she’s not my master. Second, Gwen has no debt to you. Karen got paid for her services. So, what’s the problem?”
“The problem, my friend, is that Gwen did not pay Karen. She indebted her. Almost ten thousand dollars, if I am to understand the circumstances of your exorcism.”
Oh, right. That bolt of lace. Fuck.
Khalid’s lip curled in distaste. “Also, the manner in which my Karen had to debase herself to entice that wicked ghost sickens me. Especially considering you were the one foolish enough to become possessed in the first place. Had Gwen been forthright with me, I never would’ve allowed Karen to go there. So, yes, I declare that Gwen is indebted to me. We can take the matter to the Supreme Authority, if she wishes to dispute—”
“No, no, no.” I had no idea what the Supreme Authority was, but it sounded serious. “There’s no need for that. Wait, I was ‘foolish enough to become possessed’? Like I had a choice in the matter? Are you one to talk, demon?”
My gums twitched then three molars dropped onto my tongue. The teeth rattled around my mouth like jagged marbles. Khalid smirked as I spat them into my hand. “I am one to talk, bloodsucker, because the unwilling cannot become possessed. Tell your master that I require Karen’s fee over again, and that she must erase Karen’s debt. If Gwen is amenable, I will consider the matter settled.” Khalid began to slide out of the booth, then he hesitated. “Out of respect for our friendship, I will take it in trade, if Gwen can’t afford to pay me.”
I held out my hand to keep him from leaving. “Wait. I’m not here for Gwen. I’m here because I need to find Karen.”
“Of course, you do, but Karen has no wish to be found.”
“You don’t understand. I need to see her. I need her help. She’s the only…” I looked around then my voice dropped to a whisper, “She’s the only necromancer I know.”
Khalid didn’t follow my example. “She’s the only unlicensed necromancer I know, as well. Not to mention, she’s the most powerful one I’ve ever met. Needless to say, she is my treasure, and I am protective of her. The bloodsuckers haven’t had a chance to capture her and regulate her powers yet. If I have my way, they never will.”
My hands balled into fists, but I struggled to keep my tone even. “I just need to talk to her for five minutes. Karen will want to help once I tell her what’s going on.”
Khalid nodded once. “So, what sort of undead are we dealing with that you feel you can’t handle it without my Karen?”
“Stop calling her ‘your’ Karen. She’s not your property, and she’s not some delicate flower you need to protect from the rest of the world.”
Khalid arched an eyebrow. “Is she not? Had you treated her with greater consideration, she might not have felt the need to erase you from her life. Also, I call her mine because Karen belongs to me. She entered into a contract, willingly. Eagerly. I own her.”
Khalid grinned when he saw how much his words bothered me. “You made her your slave. That never would’ve happened if I’d been around.”
“But you weren’t.” Khalid took a cold tortilla chip from the untouched basket on the table then popped it into his mouth. “You and I have varying definitions of the word slave. Karen is well-compensated for her time, and she is with me voluntarily. But enough semantics. Tell me what sort of undead we’re dealing with or this meeting is concluded.”
There was no way to soften the truth. “It’s a revenant,” I said with a sigh.
Khalid pursed his lips as he mulled this over. “This meeting is concluded.”
Before he could leave, I said, “Karen will be fine. We may be dealing with a revenant, but a revenant is still just another undead. Karen is the only person in this city that’s safe from Justine. Besides, I’ll be there. I’ll protect Karen until she can subdue her.”
Khalid tapped himself on the skull behind his ear. “Like you protected yourself?”
Asshole. “I underestimated her,” I said, though I hated to admit it. Especially to him. “I guess, deep down…I never thought that she would attack me. I was stupid. I won’t make that mistake again.”
“If that’s the case, then why do you need Karen?”
“Look—” I caught myself before I called him a demon. Maybe I could learn. “Khalid. All I need is for you to tell Karen that I have to talk to her for five minutes. If she isn’t your slave, then she should be allowed to decide for herself whether she wants to see me.”
Khalid waited for me to finish. “What’s in it for me?”
“What’s in it for…how about doing the right thing?”
Khalid scoffed. “The right thing? Who decides right from wrong?”
“You’ll save lives. How is that a grey area?”
“Human lives?” I nodded, because this should’ve been obvious, then watched as Khalid lost interest. “Aren’t you sweet? I understand why Gwen likes you. Birds of a feather, and all that. I’m sure, as a vampire, you rejoice at the explosion of the human population. As a being that predates recorded history, let me assure you that the number of humans on this planet is catastrophic. We are on the brink of a mass extinction the likes of which hasn’t occurred since The Great Dying. Half of humanity could vanish tomorrow and the earth’s resources would still be taxed. Consider the metric tons of carbon these creatures vomit into our atmosphere before you appeal to one such as me on their behalf.”
Oh, right. Infernal. “Fine, what do you want?”
Khalid shook his head in contempt. “Haven’t you learned not to approach my kind with vague offers yet, bloodsucker?” He folded his hands on the table. “Go on, then. Entice me.”
This was a game to him. I hated him more and more with every passing second. “Money?”
“I have money,” he said. “You don’t.”
“I can get some. How much do you need?”
Khalid tilted his head. “Really? Pray tell, how? Will you fail to rob another bank?” His eyes brightened with understanding as his smile turned snide. “No. You plan to approach your grandmother, as though Hlin would help you.”
I frowned. Was he reading my thoughts?
Khalid shook his head. “I don’t need money. Offer me something else.”
What else could he want? Besides money, I knew of one other motivating factor. I hoped I was wrong as I said, “Sex?”
He didn’t even blink. “Are you offering?”
“No,” I said before he’d finished the question.
“Then what about it?”
I closed my eyes. “I don’t know.” I rubbed my face with both hands, then my gut tossed a notion into my brain like a hand grenade. I shrugged as I said, “Gwen?”
Khalid’s arrogance disappeared.
Sensing I’d struck gold, I said, “I can bring you Gwen.”
His face darkened. “You think you have the power to bring me Gwen?”
I nodded. “I know I do. I’ve dealt with de—I’ve dealt with her kind before. I know how to get the upper hand, even with the strong ones. I can bind her in iron, or poison her with salt. It all depends on how you want her, dead or alive.”
Anger flashed in his eyes like lightning. “You overestimate yourself, bloodsucker. Even if you could bring her to me, what good would it do? She belongs to those human larvae, just as she belonged to their parents, and their parents before them. Just as she will belong to their children. Gwen has been lost to me for…a very long time now.” Khalid looked at me at last. “Do you know how she came to be called Gwen?”
I shook my head. “I’ve given it no thought whatsoever.”
“When her slavers brought her to this country, they said her name was Giver when they passed through Ellis Island. Apparently, the clerk that filled out their paperwork had terrible handwriting.” Khalid made a disgusted sound. “She’s been known as Gwen for so long that she’s practically forgotten her True Name. But I never will.”
“So, what do you want?” I said, defeated.
“Tell you what. Settle a bet for me.”
My eyes narrowed. “What bet?”
“You, my bi-species friend, have been the subject of great debate. Specifically, your dietary needs.”
“What about them? And who’s debating?”
“Those that matter.” Translation; other demons. I couldn’t say I appreciated it, but I guess eternity gets boring. “There haven’t been many of your kind born that lived to adulthood. Needless to say, human-vampire mules haven’t been extensively studied. Some contend that you can only survive on blood, given your vampiric heritage. Others contest that you could eventually be weaned to human food, given the proper motivation.”
Distrust tightened every muscle in my body. “What sort of motivation?”
Khalid plucked a small piece of paper from his shirt pocket then slid it across the table. It was a wallet-sized photo of Karen. “Eat,” he said.
As I probably should’ve expected, Khalid pointed to the plate of greasy meats and vegetables.
I closed my eyes as I turned away. “I can’t.” I couldn’t even smell the burning spices without gagging.
“You can. You choose not to.”
“I choose not to because I’ll just puke it up.”
“Maybe you won’t,” he said. “Mind over matter.”
Beads of oil sat atop the rubbery melted cheese. The meat fats had congealed into grey lard. “I can’t.”
Khalid replaced Karen’s picture in his shirt pocket. “Oh, well.”
“Fine!” I said, and my shout drew the attention of the neighboring tables. I didn’t break eye contact with Khalid as I stabbed a forkful of meat with enough force to crack the ceramic plate. I shoved the entire thing into my mouth, and the blend of peppers set my tongue on fire. I forced myself to chew, and chew, and chew the leathery beef while Khalid looked on with amusement. I’ll never know how I managed to swallow.
When I did, Khalid nodded toward the plate again.
Do it for Karen, a weak voice shouted over the clammy nausea that snaked through me. Do it for Karen. I took another bite, this time of the maggoty rice. It was just as revolting but softer, so I was able to swallow it whole. Khalid nodded in approval as I breathed hard through my mouth. We stared at each other for several long seconds, then the contents of my stomach surged up my throat. I didn’t make it to the nearby bus tub before I projectile vomited everything I’d eaten that day.
Chaos erupted. My waitress dropped a tray of drinks on the nearest table as she said, “I’m not cleaning that up!” Her protest was almost lost in the shouts of outraged customers demanding a refund.
Khalid chuckled as he got to his feet. He placed several hundred-dollar bills on my table then said, “I guess I was wrong.”
Intestinal cramps doubled me over. I hugged my stomach, panting, as I said, “You’ll tell Karen to contact me, right?” When Khalid didn’t respond, I repeated, louder, “You’ll tell Karen that I need to talk to her, right?”
Khalid gave me a thin smile. So slight that I almost missed it, he shook his head in denial. Furious, I snatched my glass of water off the table. It sloshed over my hand as I threw the contents into his face.
Khalid blinked, stunned, then growled deep in his chest. He picked up an unused napkin to blot his cheeks and nose. “Holy water only works if you have faith, half-breed,” he said before tossing the napkin at my feet. He moved with the graceful silence of a serpent as he turned to walk away.
I pressed the heel of my hand into my stomach and bowed my head, but only to hide my smile. I picked up the napkin, folded it several times, then held it to my nose. Embedded deep in the linen fibers, Khalid’s scent was made stronger by the water. Most importantly, buried under it all, I caught a whiff of jasmine.
I shoved the napkin into the plastic baggy hidden in my back pocket. So far, so good.