Demon Chaser V by David Berardelli

EXTRACT FOR
Demon Chaser V

(David Berardelli)


PART 1

THE SCENE OF THE CRIME

CHAPTER 1 - THE FIRST DEMON

Bruno Stone sensed something odd about the skinny brunette the moment she came into the crowded diner and took a seat five tables up, across the aisle.
Just a few minutes ago, Bruno finished his medium-rare, twenty-four-ounce T-bone, double fries, and a huge slice of the diner’s baked apple pie, and had been in the process of sucking down the last few inches of his giant chocolate shake when he spotted the brunette coming in with a dorky redheaded dude close at her heels.
Bruno immediately began wondering why he was so fascinated. He saw weird people all the time. In Hollywood, you witnessed all sorts of fruitcakes. There were throngs of folks who would do anything under the sun for a little publicity. Other nutjobs would walk through fire just to get a glimpse of a celeb. Or touch one. Or have their picture taken touching one. Or just being seen on the same street.
Bruno just couldn’t figure out what was so damned special about the brunette. She certainly wasn’t anything to write home about. Here, in a place where luscious babes could be seen on any street corner and behind any register in any 7-Eleven or Walmart within fifty miles, it was common knowledge that the only female worth a moment of your time was that one special babe who could set your junk on fire with a single glance. In this area alone, starlets and bosomy mega-celebs alike could be seen crossing the street or standing at the pump in ultra-tight tank tops and bikini briefs, bending over to coax a few gallons of overpriced gas into the tank of their Lexus, or Porsche.
This broad could hardly measure up. Or find herself in the same ballpark. Or even in the same county.
For one thing, her hair wasn’t perfect. It was long—which gave her a much-needed point or two in the running. But it was also straggly and windblown. Its appearance gave you the impression that she’d just run a comb through it once or twice after spending a few hot minutes knocking boots in the backseat of a pickup.
Imperfect hair just didn’t push his buttons. Especially in a place where high-priced stylists ran ultra-modern salons on every block.
Small titties didn’t do much at all, either. The brunette was skinny—which was okay in a place where six ounces in the wrong area could mean the difference between landing a prime spot in a cosmetic commercial or being told to hit the road.
But flat boobs? Definitely not okay where sensational babes with long legs, perfect hair, bodacious jugs, fat lips and a flawless face were an absolute necessity.
The brunette had a nice face. It wasn’t glamorous or even unforgettable, but it was easy to tell that those big brown eyes might have the ability to turn a guy into quivering Jell-O.
Her open-toed sandals also caught his eye. He’d figured them as top-of-the-line designer originals. The diamonds glittering the sides in long, wavy rows looked real. And the bright blue streak spanning the outside of the shoe just below the gems—as if fashioned meticulously by an expert hand—told him she’d obviously spent considerable cash on them.
Since he’d been living in this neck of the woods the last seventy-five years, Bruno was familiar with just about every outlet in the city. It was important to be aware of fashions in his line of work.
Those sandals easily went for five hundred, maybe seven-fifty—more than triple that, if the diamonds were legit. Judging by the loose-fitting red tee shirt and snug jeans that looked like a last-minute raid of the local Goodwill box, he figured this broad couldn’t afford such pricey shoes. She’d either stolen them or found them in one of the trash bins near Hollywood & Vine.
Even though she was much closer to ordinary than hot or even mildly attractive, he still found something strangely appealing about her. This fascinated him, and he found it difficult to concentrate, even with the six mouth-watering beauties sitting at tables, sipping their vanilla shakes through straws stuck in the center of their collagen-swelled lips.
Nowadays, he’d tailored his outward appearance to affect the look of the average big-name actor. He’d chosen Matt Damon, Hugh Jackman, and a couple of the earlier James Bond hopefuls as his template. With his lean, buffed body and tanned face, Bruno had no trouble attracting the female of his choice.
Every so often, three of the babes—the two blondes and the willowy redhead—glanced his way, giving him that familiar “love the pecs, big boy” look, while the other three—the sultry brunette, the spectacular-looking Asian, and the anorexic black woman with huge fake boobs—settled on his face.
Bruno was almost certain that he’d nailed at least two of them. The redhead looked vaguely familiar. So did the Asian. As he recalled, the blonde liked to be tied down with scarves while she gave him the hummer. One of the others also tweaked his memory, but since there had been so many, he couldn’t be quite pin it down. Something about leather, or rubber.
Tinsel Town squirted out succulent babes just as fast as McDonald’s chucked burgers and fries, and everyone tended to look like one another. Especially babes. Thanks to the cosmetic dudes driving around in Maserati’s and living in hilltop palaces, you could have just about any face you wanted if you had the cash. The boob peddlers had been raking in ridiculous piles of jack for the last five or six decades. And, of course, you had the dudes pawning off huge, pouty lips. Then there were the facelift guys pulling in five K each time they spent a pleasant afternoon slicing up a babe’s face while she sat drooling in the chair.
But since everyone turned out beautiful and happy, who really gave a shit?
Bruno gave the luscious sextet a final glance.
Sorry, babes, he wanted to tell them, but that chick over there—the plain, flat-chested one sitting at the table with the wild-haired dork—has my interest this morning.
No matter. He could hook up with any or all of them later on. Bruno had been considered prime babe candy the last seventy-five years, when breathtaking beauties like Gene Tierney, Rita Hayworth, Faye Emerson, Hedy Lamarr, and Ava Gardner turned the silver screen into bubbling froth.
Back in the day, he’d tailored his physical appearance to favor Errol Flynn, or Tyrone Power. Not close enough to be mistaken for either, but enough to create enough sexual attraction to satisfy his enormous appetite. He’d nailed Lamarr and Emerson a few times, even played handsies and grab-ass with Ava once or twice. But that was a lifetime ago, in another world. Women were more sophisticated and challenging back then. They demanded sweet talk—as well as flowers, candy, and the offer of a weekend of luxury and unbridled passion in the Swiss Alps. Nowadays, all you had to do was tell them you knew Spielberg or Cameron, and they were all over you, tugging at your zipper.
Bruno focused on the brunette’s dorky red-headed friend. Weird dude, considering his looks and the fact that he’d just picked up something from the floor—a piece of eggshell, or potato skin—and tossed it into his mouth.
Bruno wanted to gag. A dude had to be seriously messed up to grab something right off the floor in a crowded diner and suck it down. True, this was Tinsel Town, mecca for the beautiful and glamorous, but the germs here were just as disgusting as those in any Mexican or Colombian jail.
Bruno pushed aside his chocolate shake. Two hundred years in the Valley of Decay, avoiding disgusting things crawling out of the swamp, and now here in the mortal world, the center of society’s most gorgeous creatures, a red-headed dork makes me want to puke?
He told himself that he shouldn’t worry too much about this. For one thing, he wasn’t even sure the dude was a male. He saw no hint of machismo coming from the mortal—nothing that would even suggest that this dude peed standing up or even had genuine erections.
It took considerable observation to convince him that the redhead could be a guy. Bruno didn’t know if it was the hand gestures, how the dork fidgeted in his seat, or the fact that he was sitting the way a dude sat—slouched, his legs spread wide under the table. Also, he scratched the back of his neck the right way, vigorously and right out there for the world to see, rather than slide his hand gently beneath that thick mat of red hair to make it look like he was massaging his neck—as a babe would.
This dork seemed to be the type you’d expect to see in a circus. Among the freaks—like one of those midget acrobats, or maybe someone they could refer to as a “Plant Man,” since he reminded Bruno of something he’d seen behind the Castle of Demons, where Olivier kept his assortment of oddities in his rock garden. This dude was about as tall as the brunette and just as skinny. But that hair was what caught his attention right off. It was fire-engine red and looked like it had been shaped with a leaf blower into some sort of crimson palmetto bush.
He looked about twenty-five. Judging by his odd behavior—plus the fact that he selected his groceries from a dirty diner floor—this weirdo had a slew of issues any shrink would have been happy to dive into. Though the floor-scraps thing might not be enough to coax the average shrink to snatch up his notebook, Bruno suspected this dork had a boatload of other things going on that were way far from normal or even believable.
The skinny blond waitress hurried down the aisle, stopped at their table, then scribbled their order onto her notepad. Bruno wasn’t certain, but even though the crowd was making more than enough racket, he thought he’d heard the red-headed dork order something that sounded like coffee grounds and eggshells.
Seriously?
After scribbling their order, the waitress turned, came over and slid his bill onto the table, then scurried up to the counter and handed the cook the new order.
Bruno decided right then that he wasn’t going anywhere until he saw with his own eyes what the waitress brought back to their table.
Coffee grounds? Eggshells?
He’d seen some seriously off-the-wall diets during his time here. Hell, in the last seventy-five years, he’d seen every sort of oddball meal plan under the sun. But this one really made him scratch the back of his muscled neck in total confusion. It made him even more suspicious about what this dork was doing with the brunette.
No babe in her right mind would spend time with a skinny dork who lived on coffee grounds and eggshells—not to mention whatever he could scrape up from the floor in a crowded greasy spoon.
Bruno knew all about nutcases. As a mortal, he’d spent his teen years in correction facilities, then in and out of state penitentiaries for the next ten for grand larceny, extortion, and kidnapping before he was capped by a trigger man hired by a New York Senator for nailing the big man’s sixteen-year-old daughter.
Spending considerable time in the Dark Place had given him an even closer view of insanity. He’d seen quite a bit with the supers in the Castle of Demons, the subs in the Valley of Decay, and the inferiors crawling around the slimy shores of the River of Blood. And when Balberith had called him back up into the mortal world, he’d seen and stumbled across more weirdos than there were stars in the skies.
Since then, he’d been paid to thin the herd whenever the opportunity presented itself. Working with the West Coast drug lord Lorenzo “Big Man” Stefano gave him a myriad of different ways to be creative when sending deserving mortals down to the Dark Place.
He wondered if this redheaded fruitcake would be a problem. Not knowing how the two got along, Bruno had no idea if her bud might object to his advances. If so, this just might force him to perform a quick dump job.
He kept his eye on the brunette. Yeah, there was something about her. Her hair? Her face? Her slender frame? All three were definite possibilities, of course. But there was something else about her that made him want to walk right up to her table and give her a single dose of the Bruno Stone charm before carting her off to his pad on the Strip.
Just then, she glanced his way. Bruno wondered if she’d somehow read his thoughts. Impossible. Mortals couldn’t do such things. But it happened nonetheless, and in that one single moment, just as those large brown eyes fixed on him, she flashed him a half-smile.
Bruno experienced a splash of warmth.
What the hell was going on?
How could this plain-looking babe do such a number on him?
Weird. And totally bizarro.
But captivating at the same time.
There would be no problem getting her in the sack. Her half-smile said, I see you watching me, babe, and I want you, too. You’re a hot, good-looking hunk.
True, her smile wasn’t one of those gleaming numbers that showed bright, shining teeth, dimples and glittering eyes. This babe was obviously the shy, quiet type. The kind who spoke softly and smiled instead of laughed.
All he had to do was smile back, introduce himself and politely ask her to follow him to his pad.
No problem at all.
And how the hell could there be? Bruno Stone had been nailing any piece of tail he pleased since the mid-forties. There was not one babe he couldn’t attract or seduce.
After all, he was the demon spirit Agnus. A Romeo in the mortal world. An incubus in the truest sense of the word.
And since he had the afternoon free and didn’t have to concentrate on beating down Big Stefano’s latest renegade coke runner until the next morning, Bruno Stone would take this doe-eyed brunette to his double bed for a hot, sudsy evening of pleasure.
The waitress rushed to their table, carrying a tray. The brunette had ordered buttered toast, three strips of bacon, and a small cup of coffee. Her weirdo friend was given a large bowl filled with what looked like burnt coffee grounds topped off with crushed eggshells, a large pitcher of water and a glass of orange juice.
This made no sense at all. The dude was skinny and obviously didn’t need to follow a restricted diet. Anyone who feasted on coffee grounds and eggshells should be dead—or at least suffering from IBS, colon abscesses, diverticulitis, or other similar gut problems.
But apparently he was still on his feet—even with such a weird diet.
Bruno wanted the brunette. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about the nutcase sitting with her, crunching eggshells and swallowing coffee grounds.
Bruno planned to enjoy himself. He wanted to take her back to his loft and hump away the afternoon and evening, until the next morning, when he would calmly cap the back-stabbing drug runner for Big Stefano, for his usual five-K fee.
***
Chip munched on an eggshell. He hadn’t said much since Tiffany had changed her appearance one block down the street, while they were waiting for the light to change. That was more than twenty minutes ago. Aside from ordering his lunch, he hadn’t said a word to her. He wasn’t looking at her, either. He seemed to be watching the street activity.
“Anything interesting out there?” she asked.
“This place is weird. Really weird. I mean really, really weird.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’ve counted at least five people walking past.”
“So? There are probably ten times that out there right now.”
“You didn’t let me finish.”
“Sorry.”
“I can’t tell if they’re male or female.”
Tiffany nibbled on a piece of bacon and gave a slight shrug.
“They also have tattoos where there shouldn’t be tattoos,” he added.
Tiffany saw no reason to reply. This area was notorious for weirdos of all shapes and sizes. She remembered being shocked by their appearance when she’d first come here, but after a few days, she hardly noticed them at all.
Chip tilted his head. “That doesn’t bother you?”
“Why should it?”
“It bothers me…”
“Why should it?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. It just does.”
“You saw weird spirits down below, right?”
“I hate to burst your bubble, Tifferoo, but we ain’t down below no more.”
“I’ve noticed.” Tiffany nibbled on some toast.
The diner was crowded. She gave the room another cautious glance. Her latest disguise would easily keep the attention away from her—especially from the male hunks with raging hormones. Which would be perfect, of course. She was obsessed about staying under the radar.
The radar, of course, came from the super demon, Breath Mint—or whatever the ugly brute called himself. He’d been after them ever since they’d snuck out of Orlando, Florida.
But even though they were now in Southern California, they were far from safe. Breath Mint had a long reach. He’d found them in Pittsburgh and would have had them brought back to Florida to face their fate if they hadn’t defeated the demon hunter Andras and shipped him back to Orlando on a chartered plane.
Although that was a major triumph, Tiffany knew this would enrage the super demon even more. Breath Mint would undoubtedly send someone else after them. This, of course, made her more determined than ever not to let down her guard.
Tiffany had no intention of returning to Hell. Even though she, like Chip, was dead, and had been able to maintain a lifelike appearance for the last six months, she saw no reason to return to that dark, miserable, foul-smelling place.
This would be their last stop before returning to Peoria, where her mom lived. Once they’d finished their business here, Tiffany promised herself that she’d maintain a quiet existence. And since she and Chip had already purged Peoria of two dangerous demons just a week earlier, she was confident that their future might turn out all right.
However, her business here had to be completed first. This was where the good-looking, fast-talking creep at Johnny Rock’s pool party had slipped her the roofie that killed her. And until she’d settled her business with him, everything else had to wait.
But right now, she was concerned about Chip. Chip wasn’t exactly the most reserved soul she’d ever known. He wasn’t silent very much—which told her something was amiss. And she didn’t think it had anything to do with the weird people he was watching.
“What’s really wrong?” she asked.
No reply.
“I know something’s wrong, so I really wish you’d tell me about it.”
Chip used a spoon to scoop up some burnt coffee grounds and shoved them into his mouth. She’d always found this disgusting, but it made sense. For the last three thousand years, Chip had been a flower living in the super demon Olivier’s rock garden behind the Castle of Demons in Hades City. Chip’s spirit form was that of the Cypripedium Calceolus, commonly known as the Yellow Lady’s Slipper. His mortal form was that of a skinny, wild-haired young guy with tiny green eyes, pointed ears, and a tongue that could, on occasion, roll out of his mouth and touch the floor.
“Why won’t you talk to me? Is it because of the weird people you’re watching on the street?”
“Is what because of the weird people I’m watching on the street?”
Tiffany groaned. He was becoming difficult again. “You know what I’m talking about…”
“What was that?”
“Will you please tell me what’s wrong?”
“About what?”
“Never mind.” Sometimes it was best to ignore him.
Chip washed down the coffee grounds with a slug of water from the pitcher. He put down the pitcher and belched loudly. Several people from nearby booths turned in their direction, many of them glaring. Chip never seemed to care what others thought of him. He stared at her, his eyes dead-steady. “You don’t look like my good buddy.”
“I know. I changed my appearance.”
“That’s most likely why you don’t look like her.”
“I am her. You know I am. You saw me change.”
“I was there, remember?”
“Yes. I remember.”
“I was right there. Beside you. I had a ringside seat. I was standing, but I still had a ringside—”
“I get it.”
“Your golden hair turned a drab mousey brown—”
“I know. I made it do that. On purpose.”
He lowered his eyes and shook his head. “Those luscious melons… My God—”
“Oh stop…”
“They…” He looked like he was about to cry. “They just… disappeared!”
She was beginning to get angry. “I know. I was right there when I made them smaller.”
“Non-existent.”
“Whatever.”
“Flat.”
“Get off the subject, now.”
He stared longingly at her chest, sighing deeply.
“I’m up here,” she reminded.
He continued staring.
Tiffany struggled to keep from losing her calm. Men could be so ridiculous. “I had to do that to keep everyone from staring at us. You know how people—especially men—look at me when I’m me…”
No response.
“Chip? Did you hear me?”
“I know, I know…”
“Is this why you’re acting so…stupid?”
“Define stupid.”
“The way you’re acting.”
He blinked. “You just don’t look like her—like you!”
“I thought you’d remember what I was forced to do in Pittsburgh, when Andras was sent after us.”
“How could I forget something like that? First, you’re Tifferoo, that luscious, mouth-watering babe I’ve been doing all sorts of mischief with since we came back up from the Bad Place.” He took a breath. “Now? You look like one of those hippy babes from the sixties. The ones that got arrested for breast-feeding their kid on a crowded bus, or in front of a library.”
“But this is me!”
“I know.”
“Then why can’t you get past this and stop treating me like a stranger?”
He picked up a chunk of eggshell and munched noisily. “There’s a nifty reason for that.”
“I imagine there is. I also imagine you’re about to tell me. I just hope this explains why you’re acting so weird.”
“Me? Weird?”
“You. Weird.”
He looked hurt. “It’s like…like I don’t know who I’m talking to.”
“How can you say that?”
“Right now, you’re just some icky-looking brunette chick who sounds like Tifferoo, but—”
“I am Tiffer—Tiffany.” She forced herself to keep her voice down. “Can’t you understand why I’ve come back to this horrible place?”
He went back to watching the street activity. He reached up to scratch his head. “That guy—or chick—just copped a feel from that fat guy in a suit when he—or she—walked by.” Chip was shaking his head. “I kinda think that fat dude’s wallet is in the wind.”
It was getting more difficult to keep him focused.
“Chip, try to keep up.”
“I’m cool.” He turned. “Go ‘head. Spit it out.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Problem?”
“Yes. Problem.”
“About what?”
“Our coming back here. Why I have to change my appearance so we can stay under the radar.”
“I get it.”
“Then why are you so bummed out?”
“That’s easy. You don’t look like my good buddy.”
“I thought I explained all that.”
“You did, but I think I might’ve forgotten. Lots of distractions out here, ya know. Guys who look like chicks who look like guys—”
“These people are dangerous. They’re movie people. They live well and dress well, but every one of them deals with the worst characters imaginable. Mob guys. Drug runners. Politicians. And I need to tread lightly if I want to find the man responsible for killing me. Can you understand any of this?”
Before he could reply, she added, “And there’s a reason for the no-puppies thing, too.”
He was staring at her chest again. And looking pitiful. Again.
“As I just said, I don’t want people noticing me. You know darned well that Breath Mint has his spies out here—as well as everywhere else.”
Chip sighed tiredly. “The demon’s name, Muffin, is Braithwaite.”
“Whatever.”
“Anyone would think you’d have learned that by now.”
“Maybe I hate him too much to keep his name in my head. Maybe I don’t want his name in my head at all. Maybe he doesn’t matter to me. Maybe—”
“I get it, Honey Buns.”
“I’m so glad.”
“Well, I guess you’ll be pleased to know that your efforts have not exactly been in vain. If I didn’t know who you were, I wouldn’t waste a moment moving these beautiful little green orbs in your direction.”
“If people were watching me, we’d have a much rougher time doing this. And who knows? Breath Mint—or whatever you want to call that monster—would certainly know we’re here by now.”
“Good point.”
She lowered her head.
“Why the sudden tragic look?”
She moved closer. “My plan hasn’t worked. Not entirely.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
She didn’t want to draw attention to herself and hoped Chip wouldn’t make the situation worse. But he had to know something was going on. “To be blunt, not everyone has been ignoring me.”
“Please enlighten me with a generous dose of clear elucidation, then. Unless, of course, you’re too busy wallowing in personal tragedy to indulge.”
She didn’t want to tell him about the guy five tables down. The muscular, good-looking guy who’d been staring at her the last five minutes. For one thing, Chip might turn around and look at him. For another, she had the strong feeling that there was something very strange and extremely dangerous about the guy. But she felt she had no choice.
“Tiffers? Some much-needed clarification? Please?”
“I really don’t want to talk about it right now.”
“When would you like to talk about it?”
“When we leave.”
“Why then?”
“Because this concerns someone...in this room.”
“And?”
“I don’t want to point him out because you’ll turn around and look at him. And then he’ll know we’re talking about him. And then something’ll happen as things usually do whenever people are involved. And then—”
Chip lowered his voice. “You’re not talking about that dark-haired dude sitting a few tables down from us, are you, pray tell? Wide shoulders? Small waist? All sorts of ugly veins squirming around on his forearms? The dude wearing the tight red tee shirt advertising California’s sandy beaches?”
Tiffany stiffened. “H-How did you…how could you possibly—”
“I had this feeling. And a clear image that popped into my coconut just a few minutes ago.”
“That’s very peculiar.”
“Tell me about it. I’m just an inferior. I’m not supposed to be able to pull crap out of the air like that. Just tricks and illusions for all ages and occasions—”
“If don’t didn’t know any better, I’d think your powers were actually…growing.”
“Forget about the powers. Just produce some money so we can pay our way out of here.”
“I haven’t finished my toast…”
“Forget the toast. We need to get rid of that guy.”

Demon Chaser V by David Berardelli

EXTRACT FOR
Demon Chaser V

(David Berardelli)


PART 1

THE SCENE OF THE CRIME

CHAPTER 1 - THE FIRST DEMON

Bruno Stone sensed something odd about the skinny brunette the moment she came into the crowded diner and took a seat five tables up, across the aisle.
Just a few minutes ago, Bruno finished his medium-rare, twenty-four-ounce T-bone, double fries, and a huge slice of the diner’s baked apple pie, and had been in the process of sucking down the last few inches of his giant chocolate shake when he spotted the brunette coming in with a dorky redheaded dude close at her heels.
Bruno immediately began wondering why he was so fascinated. He saw weird people all the time. In Hollywood, you witnessed all sorts of fruitcakes. There were throngs of folks who would do anything under the sun for a little publicity. Other nutjobs would walk through fire just to get a glimpse of a celeb. Or touch one. Or have their picture taken touching one. Or just being seen on the same street.
Bruno just couldn’t figure out what was so damned special about the brunette. She certainly wasn’t anything to write home about. Here, in a place where luscious babes could be seen on any street corner and behind any register in any 7-Eleven or Walmart within fifty miles, it was common knowledge that the only female worth a moment of your time was that one special babe who could set your junk on fire with a single glance. In this area alone, starlets and bosomy mega-celebs alike could be seen crossing the street or standing at the pump in ultra-tight tank tops and bikini briefs, bending over to coax a few gallons of overpriced gas into the tank of their Lexus, or Porsche.
This broad could hardly measure up. Or find herself in the same ballpark. Or even in the same county.
For one thing, her hair wasn’t perfect. It was long—which gave her a much-needed point or two in the running. But it was also straggly and windblown. Its appearance gave you the impression that she’d just run a comb through it once or twice after spending a few hot minutes knocking boots in the backseat of a pickup.
Imperfect hair just didn’t push his buttons. Especially in a place where high-priced stylists ran ultra-modern salons on every block.
Small titties didn’t do much at all, either. The brunette was skinny—which was okay in a place where six ounces in the wrong area could mean the difference between landing a prime spot in a cosmetic commercial or being told to hit the road.
But flat boobs? Definitely not okay where sensational babes with long legs, perfect hair, bodacious jugs, fat lips and a flawless face were an absolute necessity.
The brunette had a nice face. It wasn’t glamorous or even unforgettable, but it was easy to tell that those big brown eyes might have the ability to turn a guy into quivering Jell-O.
Her open-toed sandals also caught his eye. He’d figured them as top-of-the-line designer originals. The diamonds glittering the sides in long, wavy rows looked real. And the bright blue streak spanning the outside of the shoe just below the gems—as if fashioned meticulously by an expert hand—told him she’d obviously spent considerable cash on them.
Since he’d been living in this neck of the woods the last seventy-five years, Bruno was familiar with just about every outlet in the city. It was important to be aware of fashions in his line of work.
Those sandals easily went for five hundred, maybe seven-fifty—more than triple that, if the diamonds were legit. Judging by the loose-fitting red tee shirt and snug jeans that looked like a last-minute raid of the local Goodwill box, he figured this broad couldn’t afford such pricey shoes. She’d either stolen them or found them in one of the trash bins near Hollywood & Vine.
Even though she was much closer to ordinary than hot or even mildly attractive, he still found something strangely appealing about her. This fascinated him, and he found it difficult to concentrate, even with the six mouth-watering beauties sitting at tables, sipping their vanilla shakes through straws stuck in the center of their collagen-swelled lips.
Nowadays, he’d tailored his outward appearance to affect the look of the average big-name actor. He’d chosen Matt Damon, Hugh Jackman, and a couple of the earlier James Bond hopefuls as his template. With his lean, buffed body and tanned face, Bruno had no trouble attracting the female of his choice.
Every so often, three of the babes—the two blondes and the willowy redhead—glanced his way, giving him that familiar “love the pecs, big boy” look, while the other three—the sultry brunette, the spectacular-looking Asian, and the anorexic black woman with huge fake boobs—settled on his face.
Bruno was almost certain that he’d nailed at least two of them. The redhead looked vaguely familiar. So did the Asian. As he recalled, the blonde liked to be tied down with scarves while she gave him the hummer. One of the others also tweaked his memory, but since there had been so many, he couldn’t be quite pin it down. Something about leather, or rubber.
Tinsel Town squirted out succulent babes just as fast as McDonald’s chucked burgers and fries, and everyone tended to look like one another. Especially babes. Thanks to the cosmetic dudes driving around in Maserati’s and living in hilltop palaces, you could have just about any face you wanted if you had the cash. The boob peddlers had been raking in ridiculous piles of jack for the last five or six decades. And, of course, you had the dudes pawning off huge, pouty lips. Then there were the facelift guys pulling in five K each time they spent a pleasant afternoon slicing up a babe’s face while she sat drooling in the chair.
But since everyone turned out beautiful and happy, who really gave a shit?
Bruno gave the luscious sextet a final glance.
Sorry, babes, he wanted to tell them, but that chick over there—the plain, flat-chested one sitting at the table with the wild-haired dork—has my interest this morning.
No matter. He could hook up with any or all of them later on. Bruno had been considered prime babe candy the last seventy-five years, when breathtaking beauties like Gene Tierney, Rita Hayworth, Faye Emerson, Hedy Lamarr, and Ava Gardner turned the silver screen into bubbling froth.
Back in the day, he’d tailored his physical appearance to favor Errol Flynn, or Tyrone Power. Not close enough to be mistaken for either, but enough to create enough sexual attraction to satisfy his enormous appetite. He’d nailed Lamarr and Emerson a few times, even played handsies and grab-ass with Ava once or twice. But that was a lifetime ago, in another world. Women were more sophisticated and challenging back then. They demanded sweet talk—as well as flowers, candy, and the offer of a weekend of luxury and unbridled passion in the Swiss Alps. Nowadays, all you had to do was tell them you knew Spielberg or Cameron, and they were all over you, tugging at your zipper.
Bruno focused on the brunette’s dorky red-headed friend. Weird dude, considering his looks and the fact that he’d just picked up something from the floor—a piece of eggshell, or potato skin—and tossed it into his mouth.
Bruno wanted to gag. A dude had to be seriously messed up to grab something right off the floor in a crowded diner and suck it down. True, this was Tinsel Town, mecca for the beautiful and glamorous, but the germs here were just as disgusting as those in any Mexican or Colombian jail.
Bruno pushed aside his chocolate shake. Two hundred years in the Valley of Decay, avoiding disgusting things crawling out of the swamp, and now here in the mortal world, the center of society’s most gorgeous creatures, a red-headed dork makes me want to puke?
He told himself that he shouldn’t worry too much about this. For one thing, he wasn’t even sure the dude was a male. He saw no hint of machismo coming from the mortal—nothing that would even suggest that this dude peed standing up or even had genuine erections.
It took considerable observation to convince him that the redhead could be a guy. Bruno didn’t know if it was the hand gestures, how the dork fidgeted in his seat, or the fact that he was sitting the way a dude sat—slouched, his legs spread wide under the table. Also, he scratched the back of his neck the right way, vigorously and right out there for the world to see, rather than slide his hand gently beneath that thick mat of red hair to make it look like he was massaging his neck—as a babe would.
This dork seemed to be the type you’d expect to see in a circus. Among the freaks—like one of those midget acrobats, or maybe someone they could refer to as a “Plant Man,” since he reminded Bruno of something he’d seen behind the Castle of Demons, where Olivier kept his assortment of oddities in his rock garden. This dude was about as tall as the brunette and just as skinny. But that hair was what caught his attention right off. It was fire-engine red and looked like it had been shaped with a leaf blower into some sort of crimson palmetto bush.
He looked about twenty-five. Judging by his odd behavior—plus the fact that he selected his groceries from a dirty diner floor—this weirdo had a slew of issues any shrink would have been happy to dive into. Though the floor-scraps thing might not be enough to coax the average shrink to snatch up his notebook, Bruno suspected this dork had a boatload of other things going on that were way far from normal or even believable.
The skinny blond waitress hurried down the aisle, stopped at their table, then scribbled their order onto her notepad. Bruno wasn’t certain, but even though the crowd was making more than enough racket, he thought he’d heard the red-headed dork order something that sounded like coffee grounds and eggshells.
Seriously?
After scribbling their order, the waitress turned, came over and slid his bill onto the table, then scurried up to the counter and handed the cook the new order.
Bruno decided right then that he wasn’t going anywhere until he saw with his own eyes what the waitress brought back to their table.
Coffee grounds? Eggshells?
He’d seen some seriously off-the-wall diets during his time here. Hell, in the last seventy-five years, he’d seen every sort of oddball meal plan under the sun. But this one really made him scratch the back of his muscled neck in total confusion. It made him even more suspicious about what this dork was doing with the brunette.
No babe in her right mind would spend time with a skinny dork who lived on coffee grounds and eggshells—not to mention whatever he could scrape up from the floor in a crowded greasy spoon.
Bruno knew all about nutcases. As a mortal, he’d spent his teen years in correction facilities, then in and out of state penitentiaries for the next ten for grand larceny, extortion, and kidnapping before he was capped by a trigger man hired by a New York Senator for nailing the big man’s sixteen-year-old daughter.
Spending considerable time in the Dark Place had given him an even closer view of insanity. He’d seen quite a bit with the supers in the Castle of Demons, the subs in the Valley of Decay, and the inferiors crawling around the slimy shores of the River of Blood. And when Balberith had called him back up into the mortal world, he’d seen and stumbled across more weirdos than there were stars in the skies.
Since then, he’d been paid to thin the herd whenever the opportunity presented itself. Working with the West Coast drug lord Lorenzo “Big Man” Stefano gave him a myriad of different ways to be creative when sending deserving mortals down to the Dark Place.
He wondered if this redheaded fruitcake would be a problem. Not knowing how the two got along, Bruno had no idea if her bud might object to his advances. If so, this just might force him to perform a quick dump job.
He kept his eye on the brunette. Yeah, there was something about her. Her hair? Her face? Her slender frame? All three were definite possibilities, of course. But there was something else about her that made him want to walk right up to her table and give her a single dose of the Bruno Stone charm before carting her off to his pad on the Strip.
Just then, she glanced his way. Bruno wondered if she’d somehow read his thoughts. Impossible. Mortals couldn’t do such things. But it happened nonetheless, and in that one single moment, just as those large brown eyes fixed on him, she flashed him a half-smile.
Bruno experienced a splash of warmth.
What the hell was going on?
How could this plain-looking babe do such a number on him?
Weird. And totally bizarro.
But captivating at the same time.
There would be no problem getting her in the sack. Her half-smile said, I see you watching me, babe, and I want you, too. You’re a hot, good-looking hunk.
True, her smile wasn’t one of those gleaming numbers that showed bright, shining teeth, dimples and glittering eyes. This babe was obviously the shy, quiet type. The kind who spoke softly and smiled instead of laughed.
All he had to do was smile back, introduce himself and politely ask her to follow him to his pad.
No problem at all.
And how the hell could there be? Bruno Stone had been nailing any piece of tail he pleased since the mid-forties. There was not one babe he couldn’t attract or seduce.
After all, he was the demon spirit Agnus. A Romeo in the mortal world. An incubus in the truest sense of the word.
And since he had the afternoon free and didn’t have to concentrate on beating down Big Stefano’s latest renegade coke runner until the next morning, Bruno Stone would take this doe-eyed brunette to his double bed for a hot, sudsy evening of pleasure.
The waitress rushed to their table, carrying a tray. The brunette had ordered buttered toast, three strips of bacon, and a small cup of coffee. Her weirdo friend was given a large bowl filled with what looked like burnt coffee grounds topped off with crushed eggshells, a large pitcher of water and a glass of orange juice.
This made no sense at all. The dude was skinny and obviously didn’t need to follow a restricted diet. Anyone who feasted on coffee grounds and eggshells should be dead—or at least suffering from IBS, colon abscesses, diverticulitis, or other similar gut problems.
But apparently he was still on his feet—even with such a weird diet.
Bruno wanted the brunette. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about the nutcase sitting with her, crunching eggshells and swallowing coffee grounds.
Bruno planned to enjoy himself. He wanted to take her back to his loft and hump away the afternoon and evening, until the next morning, when he would calmly cap the back-stabbing drug runner for Big Stefano, for his usual five-K fee.
***
Chip munched on an eggshell. He hadn’t said much since Tiffany had changed her appearance one block down the street, while they were waiting for the light to change. That was more than twenty minutes ago. Aside from ordering his lunch, he hadn’t said a word to her. He wasn’t looking at her, either. He seemed to be watching the street activity.
“Anything interesting out there?” she asked.
“This place is weird. Really weird. I mean really, really weird.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’ve counted at least five people walking past.”
“So? There are probably ten times that out there right now.”
“You didn’t let me finish.”
“Sorry.”
“I can’t tell if they’re male or female.”
Tiffany nibbled on a piece of bacon and gave a slight shrug.
“They also have tattoos where there shouldn’t be tattoos,” he added.
Tiffany saw no reason to reply. This area was notorious for weirdos of all shapes and sizes. She remembered being shocked by their appearance when she’d first come here, but after a few days, she hardly noticed them at all.
Chip tilted his head. “That doesn’t bother you?”
“Why should it?”
“It bothers me…”
“Why should it?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. It just does.”
“You saw weird spirits down below, right?”
“I hate to burst your bubble, Tifferoo, but we ain’t down below no more.”
“I’ve noticed.” Tiffany nibbled on some toast.
The diner was crowded. She gave the room another cautious glance. Her latest disguise would easily keep the attention away from her—especially from the male hunks with raging hormones. Which would be perfect, of course. She was obsessed about staying under the radar.
The radar, of course, came from the super demon, Breath Mint—or whatever the ugly brute called himself. He’d been after them ever since they’d snuck out of Orlando, Florida.
But even though they were now in Southern California, they were far from safe. Breath Mint had a long reach. He’d found them in Pittsburgh and would have had them brought back to Florida to face their fate if they hadn’t defeated the demon hunter Andras and shipped him back to Orlando on a chartered plane.
Although that was a major triumph, Tiffany knew this would enrage the super demon even more. Breath Mint would undoubtedly send someone else after them. This, of course, made her more determined than ever not to let down her guard.
Tiffany had no intention of returning to Hell. Even though she, like Chip, was dead, and had been able to maintain a lifelike appearance for the last six months, she saw no reason to return to that dark, miserable, foul-smelling place.
This would be their last stop before returning to Peoria, where her mom lived. Once they’d finished their business here, Tiffany promised herself that she’d maintain a quiet existence. And since she and Chip had already purged Peoria of two dangerous demons just a week earlier, she was confident that their future might turn out all right.
However, her business here had to be completed first. This was where the good-looking, fast-talking creep at Johnny Rock’s pool party had slipped her the roofie that killed her. And until she’d settled her business with him, everything else had to wait.
But right now, she was concerned about Chip. Chip wasn’t exactly the most reserved soul she’d ever known. He wasn’t silent very much—which told her something was amiss. And she didn’t think it had anything to do with the weird people he was watching.
“What’s really wrong?” she asked.
No reply.
“I know something’s wrong, so I really wish you’d tell me about it.”
Chip used a spoon to scoop up some burnt coffee grounds and shoved them into his mouth. She’d always found this disgusting, but it made sense. For the last three thousand years, Chip had been a flower living in the super demon Olivier’s rock garden behind the Castle of Demons in Hades City. Chip’s spirit form was that of the Cypripedium Calceolus, commonly known as the Yellow Lady’s Slipper. His mortal form was that of a skinny, wild-haired young guy with tiny green eyes, pointed ears, and a tongue that could, on occasion, roll out of his mouth and touch the floor.
“Why won’t you talk to me? Is it because of the weird people you’re watching on the street?”
“Is what because of the weird people I’m watching on the street?”
Tiffany groaned. He was becoming difficult again. “You know what I’m talking about…”
“What was that?”
“Will you please tell me what’s wrong?”
“About what?”
“Never mind.” Sometimes it was best to ignore him.
Chip washed down the coffee grounds with a slug of water from the pitcher. He put down the pitcher and belched loudly. Several people from nearby booths turned in their direction, many of them glaring. Chip never seemed to care what others thought of him. He stared at her, his eyes dead-steady. “You don’t look like my good buddy.”
“I know. I changed my appearance.”
“That’s most likely why you don’t look like her.”
“I am her. You know I am. You saw me change.”
“I was there, remember?”
“Yes. I remember.”
“I was right there. Beside you. I had a ringside seat. I was standing, but I still had a ringside—”
“I get it.”
“Your golden hair turned a drab mousey brown—”
“I know. I made it do that. On purpose.”
He lowered his eyes and shook his head. “Those luscious melons… My God—”
“Oh stop…”
“They…” He looked like he was about to cry. “They just… disappeared!”
She was beginning to get angry. “I know. I was right there when I made them smaller.”
“Non-existent.”
“Whatever.”
“Flat.”
“Get off the subject, now.”
He stared longingly at her chest, sighing deeply.
“I’m up here,” she reminded.
He continued staring.
Tiffany struggled to keep from losing her calm. Men could be so ridiculous. “I had to do that to keep everyone from staring at us. You know how people—especially men—look at me when I’m me…”
No response.
“Chip? Did you hear me?”
“I know, I know…”
“Is this why you’re acting so…stupid?”
“Define stupid.”
“The way you’re acting.”
He blinked. “You just don’t look like her—like you!”
“I thought you’d remember what I was forced to do in Pittsburgh, when Andras was sent after us.”
“How could I forget something like that? First, you’re Tifferoo, that luscious, mouth-watering babe I’ve been doing all sorts of mischief with since we came back up from the Bad Place.” He took a breath. “Now? You look like one of those hippy babes from the sixties. The ones that got arrested for breast-feeding their kid on a crowded bus, or in front of a library.”
“But this is me!”
“I know.”
“Then why can’t you get past this and stop treating me like a stranger?”
He picked up a chunk of eggshell and munched noisily. “There’s a nifty reason for that.”
“I imagine there is. I also imagine you’re about to tell me. I just hope this explains why you’re acting so weird.”
“Me? Weird?”
“You. Weird.”
He looked hurt. “It’s like…like I don’t know who I’m talking to.”
“How can you say that?”
“Right now, you’re just some icky-looking brunette chick who sounds like Tifferoo, but—”
“I am Tiffer—Tiffany.” She forced herself to keep her voice down. “Can’t you understand why I’ve come back to this horrible place?”
He went back to watching the street activity. He reached up to scratch his head. “That guy—or chick—just copped a feel from that fat guy in a suit when he—or she—walked by.” Chip was shaking his head. “I kinda think that fat dude’s wallet is in the wind.”
It was getting more difficult to keep him focused.
“Chip, try to keep up.”
“I’m cool.” He turned. “Go ‘head. Spit it out.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Problem?”
“Yes. Problem.”
“About what?”
“Our coming back here. Why I have to change my appearance so we can stay under the radar.”
“I get it.”
“Then why are you so bummed out?”
“That’s easy. You don’t look like my good buddy.”
“I thought I explained all that.”
“You did, but I think I might’ve forgotten. Lots of distractions out here, ya know. Guys who look like chicks who look like guys—”
“These people are dangerous. They’re movie people. They live well and dress well, but every one of them deals with the worst characters imaginable. Mob guys. Drug runners. Politicians. And I need to tread lightly if I want to find the man responsible for killing me. Can you understand any of this?”
Before he could reply, she added, “And there’s a reason for the no-puppies thing, too.”
He was staring at her chest again. And looking pitiful. Again.
“As I just said, I don’t want people noticing me. You know darned well that Breath Mint has his spies out here—as well as everywhere else.”
Chip sighed tiredly. “The demon’s name, Muffin, is Braithwaite.”
“Whatever.”
“Anyone would think you’d have learned that by now.”
“Maybe I hate him too much to keep his name in my head. Maybe I don’t want his name in my head at all. Maybe he doesn’t matter to me. Maybe—”
“I get it, Honey Buns.”
“I’m so glad.”
“Well, I guess you’ll be pleased to know that your efforts have not exactly been in vain. If I didn’t know who you were, I wouldn’t waste a moment moving these beautiful little green orbs in your direction.”
“If people were watching me, we’d have a much rougher time doing this. And who knows? Breath Mint—or whatever you want to call that monster—would certainly know we’re here by now.”
“Good point.”
She lowered her head.
“Why the sudden tragic look?”
She moved closer. “My plan hasn’t worked. Not entirely.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
She didn’t want to draw attention to herself and hoped Chip wouldn’t make the situation worse. But he had to know something was going on. “To be blunt, not everyone has been ignoring me.”
“Please enlighten me with a generous dose of clear elucidation, then. Unless, of course, you’re too busy wallowing in personal tragedy to indulge.”
She didn’t want to tell him about the guy five tables down. The muscular, good-looking guy who’d been staring at her the last five minutes. For one thing, Chip might turn around and look at him. For another, she had the strong feeling that there was something very strange and extremely dangerous about the guy. But she felt she had no choice.
“Tiffers? Some much-needed clarification? Please?”
“I really don’t want to talk about it right now.”
“When would you like to talk about it?”
“When we leave.”
“Why then?”
“Because this concerns someone...in this room.”
“And?”
“I don’t want to point him out because you’ll turn around and look at him. And then he’ll know we’re talking about him. And then something’ll happen as things usually do whenever people are involved. And then—”
Chip lowered his voice. “You’re not talking about that dark-haired dude sitting a few tables down from us, are you, pray tell? Wide shoulders? Small waist? All sorts of ugly veins squirming around on his forearms? The dude wearing the tight red tee shirt advertising California’s sandy beaches?”
Tiffany stiffened. “H-How did you…how could you possibly—”
“I had this feeling. And a clear image that popped into my coconut just a few minutes ago.”
“That’s very peculiar.”
“Tell me about it. I’m just an inferior. I’m not supposed to be able to pull crap out of the air like that. Just tricks and illusions for all ages and occasions—”
“If don’t didn’t know any better, I’d think your powers were actually…growing.”
“Forget about the powers. Just produce some money so we can pay our way out of here.”
“I haven’t finished my toast…”
“Forget the toast. We need to get rid of that guy.”

EXTRACT FOR
Demon Chaser V

(David Berardelli)


PART 1

THE SCENE OF THE CRIME

CHAPTER 1 - THE FIRST DEMON

Bruno Stone sensed something odd about the skinny brunette the moment she came into the crowded diner and took a seat five tables up, across the aisle.
Just a few minutes ago, Bruno finished his medium-rare, twenty-four-ounce T-bone, double fries, and a huge slice of the diner’s baked apple pie, and had been in the process of sucking down the last few inches of his giant chocolate shake when he spotted the brunette coming in with a dorky redheaded dude close at her heels.
Bruno immediately began wondering why he was so fascinated. He saw weird people all the time. In Hollywood, you witnessed all sorts of fruitcakes. There were throngs of folks who would do anything under the sun for a little publicity. Other nutjobs would walk through fire just to get a glimpse of a celeb. Or touch one. Or have their picture taken touching one. Or just being seen on the same street.
Bruno just couldn’t figure out what was so damned special about the brunette. She certainly wasn’t anything to write home about. Here, in a place where luscious babes could be seen on any street corner and behind any register in any 7-Eleven or Walmart within fifty miles, it was common knowledge that the only female worth a moment of your time was that one special babe who could set your junk on fire with a single glance. In this area alone, starlets and bosomy mega-celebs alike could be seen crossing the street or standing at the pump in ultra-tight tank tops and bikini briefs, bending over to coax a few gallons of overpriced gas into the tank of their Lexus, or Porsche.
This broad could hardly measure up. Or find herself in the same ballpark. Or even in the same county.
For one thing, her hair wasn’t perfect. It was long—which gave her a much-needed point or two in the running. But it was also straggly and windblown. Its appearance gave you the impression that she’d just run a comb through it once or twice after spending a few hot minutes knocking boots in the backseat of a pickup.
Imperfect hair just didn’t push his buttons. Especially in a place where high-priced stylists ran ultra-modern salons on every block.
Small titties didn’t do much at all, either. The brunette was skinny—which was okay in a place where six ounces in the wrong area could mean the difference between landing a prime spot in a cosmetic commercial or being told to hit the road.
But flat boobs? Definitely not okay where sensational babes with long legs, perfect hair, bodacious jugs, fat lips and a flawless face were an absolute necessity.
The brunette had a nice face. It wasn’t glamorous or even unforgettable, but it was easy to tell that those big brown eyes might have the ability to turn a guy into quivering Jell-O.
Her open-toed sandals also caught his eye. He’d figured them as top-of-the-line designer originals. The diamonds glittering the sides in long, wavy rows looked real. And the bright blue streak spanning the outside of the shoe just below the gems—as if fashioned meticulously by an expert hand—told him she’d obviously spent considerable cash on them.
Since he’d been living in this neck of the woods the last seventy-five years, Bruno was familiar with just about every outlet in the city. It was important to be aware of fashions in his line of work.
Those sandals easily went for five hundred, maybe seven-fifty—more than triple that, if the diamonds were legit. Judging by the loose-fitting red tee shirt and snug jeans that looked like a last-minute raid of the local Goodwill box, he figured this broad couldn’t afford such pricey shoes. She’d either stolen them or found them in one of the trash bins near Hollywood & Vine.
Even though she was much closer to ordinary than hot or even mildly attractive, he still found something strangely appealing about her. This fascinated him, and he found it difficult to concentrate, even with the six mouth-watering beauties sitting at tables, sipping their vanilla shakes through straws stuck in the center of their collagen-swelled lips.
Nowadays, he’d tailored his outward appearance to affect the look of the average big-name actor. He’d chosen Matt Damon, Hugh Jackman, and a couple of the earlier James Bond hopefuls as his template. With his lean, buffed body and tanned face, Bruno had no trouble attracting the female of his choice.
Every so often, three of the babes—the two blondes and the willowy redhead—glanced his way, giving him that familiar “love the pecs, big boy” look, while the other three—the sultry brunette, the spectacular-looking Asian, and the anorexic black woman with huge fake boobs—settled on his face.
Bruno was almost certain that he’d nailed at least two of them. The redhead looked vaguely familiar. So did the Asian. As he recalled, the blonde liked to be tied down with scarves while she gave him the hummer. One of the others also tweaked his memory, but since there had been so many, he couldn’t be quite pin it down. Something about leather, or rubber.
Tinsel Town squirted out succulent babes just as fast as McDonald’s chucked burgers and fries, and everyone tended to look like one another. Especially babes. Thanks to the cosmetic dudes driving around in Maserati’s and living in hilltop palaces, you could have just about any face you wanted if you had the cash. The boob peddlers had been raking in ridiculous piles of jack for the last five or six decades. And, of course, you had the dudes pawning off huge, pouty lips. Then there were the facelift guys pulling in five K each time they spent a pleasant afternoon slicing up a babe’s face while she sat drooling in the chair.
But since everyone turned out beautiful and happy, who really gave a shit?
Bruno gave the luscious sextet a final glance.
Sorry, babes, he wanted to tell them, but that chick over there—the plain, flat-chested one sitting at the table with the wild-haired dork—has my interest this morning.
No matter. He could hook up with any or all of them later on. Bruno had been considered prime babe candy the last seventy-five years, when breathtaking beauties like Gene Tierney, Rita Hayworth, Faye Emerson, Hedy Lamarr, and Ava Gardner turned the silver screen into bubbling froth.
Back in the day, he’d tailored his physical appearance to favor Errol Flynn, or Tyrone Power. Not close enough to be mistaken for either, but enough to create enough sexual attraction to satisfy his enormous appetite. He’d nailed Lamarr and Emerson a few times, even played handsies and grab-ass with Ava once or twice. But that was a lifetime ago, in another world. Women were more sophisticated and challenging back then. They demanded sweet talk—as well as flowers, candy, and the offer of a weekend of luxury and unbridled passion in the Swiss Alps. Nowadays, all you had to do was tell them you knew Spielberg or Cameron, and they were all over you, tugging at your zipper.
Bruno focused on the brunette’s dorky red-headed friend. Weird dude, considering his looks and the fact that he’d just picked up something from the floor—a piece of eggshell, or potato skin—and tossed it into his mouth.
Bruno wanted to gag. A dude had to be seriously messed up to grab something right off the floor in a crowded diner and suck it down. True, this was Tinsel Town, mecca for the beautiful and glamorous, but the germs here were just as disgusting as those in any Mexican or Colombian jail.
Bruno pushed aside his chocolate shake. Two hundred years in the Valley of Decay, avoiding disgusting things crawling out of the swamp, and now here in the mortal world, the center of society’s most gorgeous creatures, a red-headed dork makes me want to puke?
He told himself that he shouldn’t worry too much about this. For one thing, he wasn’t even sure the dude was a male. He saw no hint of machismo coming from the mortal—nothing that would even suggest that this dude peed standing up or even had genuine erections.
It took considerable observation to convince him that the redhead could be a guy. Bruno didn’t know if it was the hand gestures, how the dork fidgeted in his seat, or the fact that he was sitting the way a dude sat—slouched, his legs spread wide under the table. Also, he scratched the back of his neck the right way, vigorously and right out there for the world to see, rather than slide his hand gently beneath that thick mat of red hair to make it look like he was massaging his neck—as a babe would.
This dork seemed to be the type you’d expect to see in a circus. Among the freaks—like one of those midget acrobats, or maybe someone they could refer to as a “Plant Man,” since he reminded Bruno of something he’d seen behind the Castle of Demons, where Olivier kept his assortment of oddities in his rock garden. This dude was about as tall as the brunette and just as skinny. But that hair was what caught his attention right off. It was fire-engine red and looked like it had been shaped with a leaf blower into some sort of crimson palmetto bush.
He looked about twenty-five. Judging by his odd behavior—plus the fact that he selected his groceries from a dirty diner floor—this weirdo had a slew of issues any shrink would have been happy to dive into. Though the floor-scraps thing might not be enough to coax the average shrink to snatch up his notebook, Bruno suspected this dork had a boatload of other things going on that were way far from normal or even believable.
The skinny blond waitress hurried down the aisle, stopped at their table, then scribbled their order onto her notepad. Bruno wasn’t certain, but even though the crowd was making more than enough racket, he thought he’d heard the red-headed dork order something that sounded like coffee grounds and eggshells.
Seriously?
After scribbling their order, the waitress turned, came over and slid his bill onto the table, then scurried up to the counter and handed the cook the new order.
Bruno decided right then that he wasn’t going anywhere until he saw with his own eyes what the waitress brought back to their table.
Coffee grounds? Eggshells?
He’d seen some seriously off-the-wall diets during his time here. Hell, in the last seventy-five years, he’d seen every sort of oddball meal plan under the sun. But this one really made him scratch the back of his muscled neck in total confusion. It made him even more suspicious about what this dork was doing with the brunette.
No babe in her right mind would spend time with a skinny dork who lived on coffee grounds and eggshells—not to mention whatever he could scrape up from the floor in a crowded greasy spoon.
Bruno knew all about nutcases. As a mortal, he’d spent his teen years in correction facilities, then in and out of state penitentiaries for the next ten for grand larceny, extortion, and kidnapping before he was capped by a trigger man hired by a New York Senator for nailing the big man’s sixteen-year-old daughter.
Spending considerable time in the Dark Place had given him an even closer view of insanity. He’d seen quite a bit with the supers in the Castle of Demons, the subs in the Valley of Decay, and the inferiors crawling around the slimy shores of the River of Blood. And when Balberith had called him back up into the mortal world, he’d seen and stumbled across more weirdos than there were stars in the skies.
Since then, he’d been paid to thin the herd whenever the opportunity presented itself. Working with the West Coast drug lord Lorenzo “Big Man” Stefano gave him a myriad of different ways to be creative when sending deserving mortals down to the Dark Place.
He wondered if this redheaded fruitcake would be a problem. Not knowing how the two got along, Bruno had no idea if her bud might object to his advances. If so, this just might force him to perform a quick dump job.
He kept his eye on the brunette. Yeah, there was something about her. Her hair? Her face? Her slender frame? All three were definite possibilities, of course. But there was something else about her that made him want to walk right up to her table and give her a single dose of the Bruno Stone charm before carting her off to his pad on the Strip.
Just then, she glanced his way. Bruno wondered if she’d somehow read his thoughts. Impossible. Mortals couldn’t do such things. But it happened nonetheless, and in that one single moment, just as those large brown eyes fixed on him, she flashed him a half-smile.
Bruno experienced a splash of warmth.
What the hell was going on?
How could this plain-looking babe do such a number on him?
Weird. And totally bizarro.
But captivating at the same time.
There would be no problem getting her in the sack. Her half-smile said, I see you watching me, babe, and I want you, too. You’re a hot, good-looking hunk.
True, her smile wasn’t one of those gleaming numbers that showed bright, shining teeth, dimples and glittering eyes. This babe was obviously the shy, quiet type. The kind who spoke softly and smiled instead of laughed.
All he had to do was smile back, introduce himself and politely ask her to follow him to his pad.
No problem at all.
And how the hell could there be? Bruno Stone had been nailing any piece of tail he pleased since the mid-forties. There was not one babe he couldn’t attract or seduce.
After all, he was the demon spirit Agnus. A Romeo in the mortal world. An incubus in the truest sense of the word.
And since he had the afternoon free and didn’t have to concentrate on beating down Big Stefano’s latest renegade coke runner until the next morning, Bruno Stone would take this doe-eyed brunette to his double bed for a hot, sudsy evening of pleasure.
The waitress rushed to their table, carrying a tray. The brunette had ordered buttered toast, three strips of bacon, and a small cup of coffee. Her weirdo friend was given a large bowl filled with what looked like burnt coffee grounds topped off with crushed eggshells, a large pitcher of water and a glass of orange juice.
This made no sense at all. The dude was skinny and obviously didn’t need to follow a restricted diet. Anyone who feasted on coffee grounds and eggshells should be dead—or at least suffering from IBS, colon abscesses, diverticulitis, or other similar gut problems.
But apparently he was still on his feet—even with such a weird diet.
Bruno wanted the brunette. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about the nutcase sitting with her, crunching eggshells and swallowing coffee grounds.
Bruno planned to enjoy himself. He wanted to take her back to his loft and hump away the afternoon and evening, until the next morning, when he would calmly cap the back-stabbing drug runner for Big Stefano, for his usual five-K fee.
***
Chip munched on an eggshell. He hadn’t said much since Tiffany had changed her appearance one block down the street, while they were waiting for the light to change. That was more than twenty minutes ago. Aside from ordering his lunch, he hadn’t said a word to her. He wasn’t looking at her, either. He seemed to be watching the street activity.
“Anything interesting out there?” she asked.
“This place is weird. Really weird. I mean really, really weird.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’ve counted at least five people walking past.”
“So? There are probably ten times that out there right now.”
“You didn’t let me finish.”
“Sorry.”
“I can’t tell if they’re male or female.”
Tiffany nibbled on a piece of bacon and gave a slight shrug.
“They also have tattoos where there shouldn’t be tattoos,” he added.
Tiffany saw no reason to reply. This area was notorious for weirdos of all shapes and sizes. She remembered being shocked by their appearance when she’d first come here, but after a few days, she hardly noticed them at all.
Chip tilted his head. “That doesn’t bother you?”
“Why should it?”
“It bothers me…”
“Why should it?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. It just does.”
“You saw weird spirits down below, right?”
“I hate to burst your bubble, Tifferoo, but we ain’t down below no more.”
“I’ve noticed.” Tiffany nibbled on some toast.
The diner was crowded. She gave the room another cautious glance. Her latest disguise would easily keep the attention away from her—especially from the male hunks with raging hormones. Which would be perfect, of course. She was obsessed about staying under the radar.
The radar, of course, came from the super demon, Breath Mint—or whatever the ugly brute called himself. He’d been after them ever since they’d snuck out of Orlando, Florida.
But even though they were now in Southern California, they were far from safe. Breath Mint had a long reach. He’d found them in Pittsburgh and would have had them brought back to Florida to face their fate if they hadn’t defeated the demon hunter Andras and shipped him back to Orlando on a chartered plane.
Although that was a major triumph, Tiffany knew this would enrage the super demon even more. Breath Mint would undoubtedly send someone else after them. This, of course, made her more determined than ever not to let down her guard.
Tiffany had no intention of returning to Hell. Even though she, like Chip, was dead, and had been able to maintain a lifelike appearance for the last six months, she saw no reason to return to that dark, miserable, foul-smelling place.
This would be their last stop before returning to Peoria, where her mom lived. Once they’d finished their business here, Tiffany promised herself that she’d maintain a quiet existence. And since she and Chip had already purged Peoria of two dangerous demons just a week earlier, she was confident that their future might turn out all right.
However, her business here had to be completed first. This was where the good-looking, fast-talking creep at Johnny Rock’s pool party had slipped her the roofie that killed her. And until she’d settled her business with him, everything else had to wait.
But right now, she was concerned about Chip. Chip wasn’t exactly the most reserved soul she’d ever known. He wasn’t silent very much—which told her something was amiss. And she didn’t think it had anything to do with the weird people he was watching.
“What’s really wrong?” she asked.
No reply.
“I know something’s wrong, so I really wish you’d tell me about it.”
Chip used a spoon to scoop up some burnt coffee grounds and shoved them into his mouth. She’d always found this disgusting, but it made sense. For the last three thousand years, Chip had been a flower living in the super demon Olivier’s rock garden behind the Castle of Demons in Hades City. Chip’s spirit form was that of the Cypripedium Calceolus, commonly known as the Yellow Lady’s Slipper. His mortal form was that of a skinny, wild-haired young guy with tiny green eyes, pointed ears, and a tongue that could, on occasion, roll out of his mouth and touch the floor.
“Why won’t you talk to me? Is it because of the weird people you’re watching on the street?”
“Is what because of the weird people I’m watching on the street?”
Tiffany groaned. He was becoming difficult again. “You know what I’m talking about…”
“What was that?”
“Will you please tell me what’s wrong?”
“About what?”
“Never mind.” Sometimes it was best to ignore him.
Chip washed down the coffee grounds with a slug of water from the pitcher. He put down the pitcher and belched loudly. Several people from nearby booths turned in their direction, many of them glaring. Chip never seemed to care what others thought of him. He stared at her, his eyes dead-steady. “You don’t look like my good buddy.”
“I know. I changed my appearance.”
“That’s most likely why you don’t look like her.”
“I am her. You know I am. You saw me change.”
“I was there, remember?”
“Yes. I remember.”
“I was right there. Beside you. I had a ringside seat. I was standing, but I still had a ringside—”
“I get it.”
“Your golden hair turned a drab mousey brown—”
“I know. I made it do that. On purpose.”
He lowered his eyes and shook his head. “Those luscious melons… My God—”
“Oh stop…”
“They…” He looked like he was about to cry. “They just… disappeared!”
She was beginning to get angry. “I know. I was right there when I made them smaller.”
“Non-existent.”
“Whatever.”
“Flat.”
“Get off the subject, now.”
He stared longingly at her chest, sighing deeply.
“I’m up here,” she reminded.
He continued staring.
Tiffany struggled to keep from losing her calm. Men could be so ridiculous. “I had to do that to keep everyone from staring at us. You know how people—especially men—look at me when I’m me…”
No response.
“Chip? Did you hear me?”
“I know, I know…”
“Is this why you’re acting so…stupid?”
“Define stupid.”
“The way you’re acting.”
He blinked. “You just don’t look like her—like you!”
“I thought you’d remember what I was forced to do in Pittsburgh, when Andras was sent after us.”
“How could I forget something like that? First, you’re Tifferoo, that luscious, mouth-watering babe I’ve been doing all sorts of mischief with since we came back up from the Bad Place.” He took a breath. “Now? You look like one of those hippy babes from the sixties. The ones that got arrested for breast-feeding their kid on a crowded bus, or in front of a library.”
“But this is me!”
“I know.”
“Then why can’t you get past this and stop treating me like a stranger?”
He picked up a chunk of eggshell and munched noisily. “There’s a nifty reason for that.”
“I imagine there is. I also imagine you’re about to tell me. I just hope this explains why you’re acting so weird.”
“Me? Weird?”
“You. Weird.”
He looked hurt. “It’s like…like I don’t know who I’m talking to.”
“How can you say that?”
“Right now, you’re just some icky-looking brunette chick who sounds like Tifferoo, but—”
“I am Tiffer—Tiffany.” She forced herself to keep her voice down. “Can’t you understand why I’ve come back to this horrible place?”
He went back to watching the street activity. He reached up to scratch his head. “That guy—or chick—just copped a feel from that fat guy in a suit when he—or she—walked by.” Chip was shaking his head. “I kinda think that fat dude’s wallet is in the wind.”
It was getting more difficult to keep him focused.
“Chip, try to keep up.”
“I’m cool.” He turned. “Go ‘head. Spit it out.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Problem?”
“Yes. Problem.”
“About what?”
“Our coming back here. Why I have to change my appearance so we can stay under the radar.”
“I get it.”
“Then why are you so bummed out?”
“That’s easy. You don’t look like my good buddy.”
“I thought I explained all that.”
“You did, but I think I might’ve forgotten. Lots of distractions out here, ya know. Guys who look like chicks who look like guys—”
“These people are dangerous. They’re movie people. They live well and dress well, but every one of them deals with the worst characters imaginable. Mob guys. Drug runners. Politicians. And I need to tread lightly if I want to find the man responsible for killing me. Can you understand any of this?”
Before he could reply, she added, “And there’s a reason for the no-puppies thing, too.”
He was staring at her chest again. And looking pitiful. Again.
“As I just said, I don’t want people noticing me. You know darned well that Breath Mint has his spies out here—as well as everywhere else.”
Chip sighed tiredly. “The demon’s name, Muffin, is Braithwaite.”
“Whatever.”
“Anyone would think you’d have learned that by now.”
“Maybe I hate him too much to keep his name in my head. Maybe I don’t want his name in my head at all. Maybe he doesn’t matter to me. Maybe—”
“I get it, Honey Buns.”
“I’m so glad.”
“Well, I guess you’ll be pleased to know that your efforts have not exactly been in vain. If I didn’t know who you were, I wouldn’t waste a moment moving these beautiful little green orbs in your direction.”
“If people were watching me, we’d have a much rougher time doing this. And who knows? Breath Mint—or whatever you want to call that monster—would certainly know we’re here by now.”
“Good point.”
She lowered her head.
“Why the sudden tragic look?”
She moved closer. “My plan hasn’t worked. Not entirely.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
She didn’t want to draw attention to herself and hoped Chip wouldn’t make the situation worse. But he had to know something was going on. “To be blunt, not everyone has been ignoring me.”
“Please enlighten me with a generous dose of clear elucidation, then. Unless, of course, you’re too busy wallowing in personal tragedy to indulge.”
She didn’t want to tell him about the guy five tables down. The muscular, good-looking guy who’d been staring at her the last five minutes. For one thing, Chip might turn around and look at him. For another, she had the strong feeling that there was something very strange and extremely dangerous about the guy. But she felt she had no choice.
“Tiffers? Some much-needed clarification? Please?”
“I really don’t want to talk about it right now.”
“When would you like to talk about it?”
“When we leave.”
“Why then?”
“Because this concerns someone...in this room.”
“And?”
“I don’t want to point him out because you’ll turn around and look at him. And then he’ll know we’re talking about him. And then something’ll happen as things usually do whenever people are involved. And then—”
Chip lowered his voice. “You’re not talking about that dark-haired dude sitting a few tables down from us, are you, pray tell? Wide shoulders? Small waist? All sorts of ugly veins squirming around on his forearms? The dude wearing the tight red tee shirt advertising California’s sandy beaches?”
Tiffany stiffened. “H-How did you…how could you possibly—”
“I had this feeling. And a clear image that popped into my coconut just a few minutes ago.”
“That’s very peculiar.”
“Tell me about it. I’m just an inferior. I’m not supposed to be able to pull crap out of the air like that. Just tricks and illusions for all ages and occasions—”
“If don’t didn’t know any better, I’d think your powers were actually…growing.”
“Forget about the powers. Just produce some money so we can pay our way out of here.”
“I haven’t finished my toast…”
“Forget the toast. We need to get rid of that guy.”