I landed next to Contressa Vexus and blew a wisp of her hair out of my face. It was the kind of nuts that you couldn’t tame even if you tried. The hair, not her face. That windblown brown mop and that chartreuse one-shoulder top looked like they belonged on a stripper, and her wings and horns threw a dash of cosplayer into the mix.
“No,” I agreed. “More like a frizz-headed floozy.”
Contressa beamed and squeezed my shoulder. “Exactly. The Reaper’s enemies see another wigged-out demon around him and think I’m a thief like them.”
I resisted the urge to brush dirt off the shoulder she touched and re-adjusted my pinstriped blazer. “Look, it’s Thursday, and I’ve got another performance eval with The Reaper before the day's harvest.”
She nodded and her scalp creature bounced with the motion. “Like the one I interrupted yesterday? Got it. You go harvest. I’ve got pets to let out.”
Contressa spread her wings and took off before I could ask whether or not her pets had the same crazy hair. I watched her shrink into the distance over South Fountainia, where she crossed in front of the neon Imp Schnapps sign on the roof of the company’s headquarters.
The Reaper emerged from his office behind me moments later, and I heard locks clicking in sync with his stone-on-stone voice. He joined me at the railing and gripped the onyx carvings along the sides with one bone hand. In his other, he held up a pair of manila folders, complete with papers and ink pen. “Shall we go to The Down South Lounge? I will call it a business expense.”
I heard the things he didn’t ask, turned from the Fountainia skyline, and slid the writing materials into my waistband. Then I smirked at The Reaper. “You forgot your scythe.”
He went back in to grab Seversoul and locked up again, shaking his horns.
Fifteen minutes later, The Reaper and I touched down on Acedia Boulevard among skyscrapers, restaurants, and private magic dealers who went to Hell’s colleges and sold their services at exorbitant prices. Smack in the middle of the street was a three-story bar with entrance balconies lined in red, purple, and gold lights from the ground up. A grin snuck across my face as I gazed at the sign and its cursive violet letters that read, ‘Down South Lounge,’ with a shocking blue margarita glass beneath it. One gold angel wing and one scarlet demon wing burst from the glass’s sides, and the sign was so huge it might as well be a wall unto itself.
I looked over one shoulder at The Reaper and Seversoul, its haloxite side facing me as he held it haft down in front of him. Reap hadn’t mentioned how close we’d come to Contressa finding out about these case notes. Did he do that to scare me into doing better, or was he showing faith in me? Gritting my teeth, I chose to believe the latter and leapt the first-floor railing patterned with iron swirls. Then I grinned. The Lounge’s railings were a foot higher than most balcony railings. Part eye-catching decoration, part sobriety test.
Hildariel the bouncer stood with arms crossed in front of The Lounge’s glass double doors. She stood a foot taller than me, with blonde roots showing in her dyed-black hair, and her halo hovered inches above her hairline. Her long face, track suit, and blonde-feathered wings screamed, “tri-athlete” and “bodybuilder” at the same time. She looked down her nose at me and spoke in a mellow tone. “You are here earlier than you were yesterday. Brought a new friend, did you?”
“This is my boss,” I said, stone faced. “Hildariel, meet The Reaper.”
Reap floated between the railing and the balcony above and touched down, holding Seversoul with one hand in the traditional old-man-with-a-staff fashion. “Our business here involves The Soul Fountains. Is the owner in?”
The bouncer stepped back toward the doors, her feathers ruffling in fear. Reap was a good five inches taller than her, and I came here enough to know Hildariel was used to being the tallest one in the room. She pulled one door open and straightened up. “Come on in, Mister Reaper. You are welcome anytime.”
Now that the bouncer was too cowed to give away anything more to The Reaper about my personal life, I congratulated myself. I’m not manipulative, just socially savvy.
We entered The Lounge and paused in the doorway, taking in the gloriousness. Everything in the expansive room, from the dark floor tiles to the vanilla colored ceiling, was just as I remembered it from last night, and last year, and last decade. Behind us to either side in the doorway were LED signs that spelled out what was on each floor in addition to the bars. First floor was games. Second floor was the frat party floor. Third floor was the nightclub and VIP rooms. Rooftop was the concert venue.
A long bar of polished wood ran along half the length of the right wall. Twenty or so cushy barstools seated the usual nighttime crowd of alcoholic angels and drunk demons. Hundreds of bottles of every liquor in the Three Domains sat on shelves behind the bar, interspersed between flatscreen TVs. At the far end of the bar past the beer handles stood a digital jukebox complete with glowing touch screen. Beyond that were two ping-pong tables with enough space to play an aggressive game without tackling anyone nearby.
I ignored the coin-op arcade at the back and the dart boards and pool tables along the left wall. We weren’t here for games. Crossing to the bar, I drew out a stool near the wall and put my back to it so I could see every drinker and patron that came and went. The Reaper followed wordlessly, sitting next to me and scaring the living bejeezus out of the blue-horned, blue-winged demon nearest to him. The demon booked it back to the arcade area and I drew out my Blood Magic folio from an inner pocket of my blazer.
The Reaper spun on his barstool to face me, holding his scythe tight in one fist. “Didn’t you warn the regulars that I was coming?”
“Nah,” I said, twiddling the folio. “This way, no one will listen in. Nia’s the owner, and I’ll introduce her as soon as she’s not busy.”
I produced the haloxite-tipped lancet pen I used here in modern times in place of my old knife. Then I flipped to the folio’s ‘noise’ section and drew out an ad for noise-canceling headphones. I ripped it in half, lanced my pinky, and placed a drop of orange blood on each half. Passing one half to The Reaper, I said, “Hold onto this while you’re talking. I’ll hold my half while I write, and no one will hear what you say except us.”
We took our halves and I let the Blood Magic flow. All noises except those The Reaper and I made faded to near-nothingness. I laid paper and pen on the bar and added, “On the other wing, we won’t hear jack either, so keep an eye out in case anyone followed us.”
Glancing behind him, The Reaper nodded his approval and said, “Two humans that everyone knows by name were involved in this case.”
I squashed the urge to order a Sin and Tonic from the dark-skinned bartender demon. It’d be pretty embarrassing to mute oneself and then start shouting. He’d probably think I was a mime. Facing The Reaper, I raised one eyebrow. “And who would they be?”