MaryJanice Davidson meets Charlaine Harris in this fabulous new urban fantasy from Jane True author Nicole Peeler.
The chubby little human was doing his damndest to hump my leg, but the palm I’d placed on his forehead kept him at arm’s length.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said, panting up at me as he air-humped, his eyes glazed.
I sighed, feeling bad for the guy. He was wearing full nerd garb, including a pocket protector and an extremely unfortunate, thin, brunet comb-over. One leg of his corduroys was pegged for biking, and I thought I could see a fanny pack peeking at me from over his rounded hips.
He was hardly Purgatory’s average customer, since our clientele was more apt to sport fangs, gills, or claws than this guy’s sad clip-on tie. This dude was all human and also, considering his dilated pupils and complete lack of reserve, very obviously glamoured out of his mind. He wasn’t here by choice.
“Mister, you’ve got so much mojo in your system you’d hit on a grizzly. Who brought you here?”
The man jerked his head toward the bar, where a blonde wearing a pornographically tight silver dress flirted with Trey, tonight’s werewolf bartender. I’d seen her around a few times—the daughter of a succubus and a human, she’d sought refuge in steel-stained Pittsburgh after being rejected by her mother’s Tribe.
But a sad childhood was no excuse for a messy feed.
“Let’s get you home safe,” I said, putting an arm around the human to lead him to the door. He acquiesced willingly, his arm fumbling around my waist, one hand moving to my ass. I gave a warning shimmy, the coins on my scarf-belt jingling like a rattler. He jerked his hand back, only to sweep it up my bare back.
“Lyla, what the fuck?” The voice came from behind me, pitched to a petulant whine. I turned to find the silver-clad hoochie eyeing me reproachfully.
“He’s my catch,” she said. “You don’t even eat people.”
My lips pursed as I sought her name. I never forgot a face, but after a thousand-something years on this earth, names weren’t my strong suit.
“Crystal?” I hazarded. I knew it was something strippery.
“Diamond,” she said, hissing like a cat and taking a step toward her prey.
“Right. Sorry, Diamond. I wasn’t poaching, just helping this gentleman outside. You know the rules.”
Diamond’s wide red mouth bowed in a frown. “This place has rules?” A long, graceful arm swept open, indicating the pool table, where a pooka was currently snorting a line of faux-brosia off the bared tits of a weredeer.
“Granted, not many,” I acknowledged. “But there are a few. One of which is no luring humans on premises. If they wander in on their own steam, they’re fair game. But something tells me that’s not the case here, is it?”
As if to prove my point, the human stared fixedly at my cleavage, one glassy pupil dilated, the other a pinpoint. He looked like the CPA version of Marilyn Manson.
Narrowing her eyes, Diamond took a step forward. “I’m sure we can work something out. I just want a little of his vitality. You can have his wallet.”
I moved between her and the little man. Annoyingly, he took his opportunity to grind up on my behind like a corpulent schnauzer.
“That’s generous,” I said, swatting him away. “But no. What we are going to do is put this guy in a taxi and send him home to his wife.” I grabbed for the pudgy hand groping for a boob, raising it so Diamond could see the gold wedding ring glinting on the human’s finger. “As for you, feel free to stay for the show. I’ll buy you a drink. But you’ll have to find your next meal elsewhere.”
“Fuck you, Lyla,” Diamond said, her red lips receding alarmingly, succubus-style, to reveal her hitherto-hidden fangs. “You’re not the boss of this place.”
“No,” I said quietly. “I’m not.”
And with that I let my Fire flare as much as my unBound state would allow. Unnatural black flames licked along my pale skin, blending upward to ignite my long tresses till they lifted like raven wings framing my face.
Behind me I heard the human groan. I hoped he hadn’t soiled his pegged corduroys.
“But I can easily be the boss of you, dear Diamond.”
She crouched, hissing at me again, but my flames were already licking at her skin like thirsty tongues. Not burning, though. Not yet.
Her head drooped and she dropped to one knee, submissive.
“Bertha, call this gentleman a cab,” I said to the bouncer lurking at the corner of my vision. Big Bertha nodded, her massive frame lumbering over to where the human stood, quivering in genuine fear and glamoured lust. Bertha’s fuzzy monobrow twitched at me, waiting for my next move. This was why we all loved her: despite her size, she let us fight our own battles, unless we needed her.
“Diamond, release him,” I said, keeping my voice pleasant.
Resting on the carpet, Diamond’s hands clenched into fists, but I felt a small pop as her magic fizzled.
“Wha’?” said the human, Bertha already leading him up Purgatory’s stairs, toward the entrance guarding the outside world from the freaks that found shelter behind our doors.
I approached the figure hunched on the carpet. “Thank you, Diamond. Like I said, your next drink is on me. But please remember not to bring your own dinner into the bar next time.”
She didn’t look at me. I felt the resentful shift of her power, but she didn’t attempt another challenge. An Immunda, Diamond was no real opponent. She could glamour using the magic she took feeding from humans, but other than that she may as well have been one.
Her vulnerability made me sad. I’d been powerless once, after all.
Pushing thoughts of my curse aside, I stepped over Diamond and headed backstage to our dressing room.
The show must go on.
* * *
I could hear Rachel’s bass voice crooning even before I opened the door.
The not-so-eensy willy
Went up between my legs
Up go my berries,
So pretty like Old Gregg’s…
“It’s tucking song time!” I called as I entered the dressing room I shared with my best friend, Yulia, our resident will-o’-the-wisp, and Rachel Divide. Rachel was a human, but a powerful psychic. She was also a drag queen and the lover of my oldest friend and current boss.
“You bet yo’ white ass it’s tucking time.” Rachel’s syrupy Southern accent wrapped around me almost as tight as the gaff she was hauling up between her legs. She reached for her Spanx as I sat down at my dressing station.
“Are you doing ‘Old Man River’?” I asked, noting the sequined gown hanging off the corner of Rachel’s trifold mirror. It was extra glamorous, which usually meant we were in store for some Showboat.
“ ‘Old Man River’ is my favorite,” Yulia said, peering down her nose at herself as she layered on her signature silver eye shadow. Her Slavic accent was thick, proof she was concentrating.
“Mine, too,” I said, reaching for my liquid eyeliner.
Rachel was shoehorning herself into her Spanx, sweating with the effort. Not for the first time I was grateful that belly dancing precluded support garments.
“Jesus H. Christ, I swear to God that one day Imma burn these damned drawers.” Rachel hauled the Spanx the last of the way up, then did a few deep squats to get them situated. Her tucked-away junk didn’t move an inch, and I wondered how the hell that could be comfortable.
When she was done, Rachel smoothed her hands over her round belly, then pivoted on her heel to check herself out from the back. Obviously satisfied, she reached for her sparkly tights.
“You doing the snake dance again?” Yulia asked me.
“Yep. That head took forever to make. I’m getting my time’s worth.”
“Whatever, girl. You just like getting your hands on my man,” said Rachel, leering at me mischievously in the mirror.
I grinned back, finishing the thick lines of eyeliner with expert precision. “He’s certainly not bad eye candy, for an antique.”
Rachel grunted obscenely, fanning herself. “He’s not old, he’s wise. Lawd have mercy, the things he can teach a girl!”
“Age does have its benefits,” I acknowledged, reaching for the glittery bronzer I used all over my body.
“And you should know, old lady.” Yulia was belting herself into her own costume—a sort of dominatrix-meets-ice-queen-meets-showgirl hybrid.
At over a millennium old, I didn’t take offense at that comment. However…“You’re hardly a spring chicken,” I said, dryly. Yulia had been leading unwary strangers off the path for a few centuries herself.
“I was never a chicken anything,” she said, letting her wisps glow faintly, individual strands of light floating around her like celestial tentacles.
“She’s more of a peacock,” Rachel clarified, hitching up her tights and reaching for her gown.
Yulia’s graceful white arm extended along with one of her wisps to pluck the gown off of Rachel’s mirror and hand it to her. Rachel nodded her thanks, the heavily eye-shadowed skin around her rich mahogany eyes crinkling in amusement.
“Hey, you heard from Aki?” Rachel asked.
“The kitsune?” asked Yulia.
“Yeah, he didn’t show up for work yesterday, or today. That ain’t like him.”
I frowned, thinking. “No,” I said. “I haven’t. And come to mention it, he was supposed to borrow that costume for me, from the Heinz Museum.”
Aki was technically Purgatory’s dishwasher, but like any kitsune worth his fox fur, he was also a fabulous thief, spy, sneak, and general ne’er-do-well. Needless to say, he was a great friend to have in your corner. Able to get virtually anything, he also knew everyone and everything that was happening in our fair city of Pittsburgh.
“I’ll text him,” said Yulia, reaching for her phone.
“Please do,” said Rachel. “But I already did, like nine times.”
“He’s probably on a job. Or lying low,” I said, since lying low was the natural consequence of the majority of Aki’s jobs outside of Purgatory.
Yulia tapped away at her phone, while her wisps delicately placed feathers in her hair, much to my jealousy. My own Fire was nowhere near as compliant as her wisps, even if it was worth a hell of a lot more in a fight.
“Maybe he finally quit after being spurned by Lyla too many times,” Yulia said, arcing a brow at me in her mirror as she tapped one last time and put down her phone.
I rolled my eyes. “Ohmigod. You’re not bringing that up again. Aki is like a zygote compared to me.”
“Girl, everybody is a zygote compared to you,” Rachel said, tutting at me in her own mirror. “You are like a gabillion years old. If you use age as an excuse not to get any, you will have to go down on Methuselah.”
“I am not going down on Methuselah. That shit’s gotta be bitter by now.”
“Well, then, you will never get some.” Rachel slipped her ball gown up her generous frame, a frame that needed very little extra in the way of padding to look utterly feminine. “ ’Cuz Methuselah,” she added helpfully, “is the only motherfucker on this planet older than you.”
“Mmmhmm,” purred Yulia.
I glared at both of them. “Ladies, I have bigger fish to fry than dudes.”
“Like what?” Yulia asked, turning around to face me.
“Like my curse, for one,” I said.
“Whatever, Lyla,” she said, rolling her eyes dramatically. “The point of your curse is you don’t have to do anything. Just not get Bound again. And there haven’t been any Magi in Pittsburgh since… well, probably since forever.”
“I know, but still,” I said, sounding prim even to my own ears.
“But still what?” asked Rachel, motioning toward Yulia, who sent a wisp snaking out to pull up Rachel’s zipper. “The fact is you’ve been alone for longer than I’ve been alive. And that’s fucked up, girl.”
“I haven’t been alone! What about that siren? And that werewolf. And those two trolls… they were brothers!”
“And yeah, you fucked the hell out of them,” said Yulia. “I had to leave the apartment you were so loud. But those were all one-night stands, Lyla.”
“Hey,” I started, but Yulia cut me off.
“Fine, one-week stands. But they were stands, angel moy.”
“So, there’s more to life than your curse,” Rachel said, gently.
It was my turn to roll my eyes. “How can I do anything when I’m not even free?”
“But you are free,” said Yulia. “You haven’t been Bound in centuries.”
“As long as I’m living as a jinni, I’m not really free,” I said, my jaw clenching involuntarily.
“I know you think your situation is different, sugar,” Rachel said, her voice gentle. “And it is certainly unique. But when it comes down to it, we’re all bound to different things. And one of the only bindings worth anything is what you make with other people.”
“And I do have those ties,” I said, my exasperation coming out in my voice. “Look at you assholes, grilling me an hour before I have to go on stage. If I’m not bound to you bitches, whom am I bound to?”
Rachel laughed her big, booming laugh and Yulia smiled, but it was sad. “And we’d do anything for you, zaichik. But just as there is more to your life than your curse, there is more to any life than freedom. I worry about you.”
I stood up, opening my arms to my friend. “Don’t worry, you two. Seriously. I’m so close to being human again. When I am, I can start over. I’ll be different. I promise.”
Yulia came and gave me a hug, her always-cool skin making my own flesh goose-pimple reflexively.
“Not too different, please,” she whispered, and I hugged her hard.
“If you two hookers make me cry off my makeup, I’ll shave your eyebrows,” said Rachel, her voice quivering slightly. We broke off our hug immediately, knowing she was completely serious.
Nothing, not even friendship, could get between a drag queen and her makeup. Not without feeling the wrath of fabulous scorned.