It was a slow Thursday evening. A light rain fell, turning the smog into mud on everyone’s windshields and making the sidewalks steam. I had settled in with my good friend Captain Morgan for a nice long weekend binge. Maybe I could forget some of the things giving me nightmares. Here in Memphis, being a private investigator and sometime-skip tracer is one of the messiest jobs around. The only worse one is beat cop.
I had emptied my pockets onto the desk: a crucifix (which was mostly useless except on brand-new vamps), Star of David (ditto, and it only worked on Jewish ones), garlic, wolfsbane, rose petals (all smelly), cold iron and salt (very effective), a .44 with silver bullets, .22 with regular ones (pretty useless), holy water (even less useful) and a couple ash stakes.
I hate this town. If it isn’t winter ice storms, it’s summer heat and humidity. Being a normal who knows about the Nightside of Memphis only makes it worse. The Nightfolk know I know. That’s even worse. The benign ones hire me. The nasty ones, well, let’s just say I don’t carry all that stuff ’cause I like the bumps it makes.
She walked in the door as I poured myself a second drink. I couldn’t tell much about her looks, what with that black cloak all bunched around her. Most dames don’t go that big, though. Me, I’m tall, but even I don’t fill the doorway like she did. She kept the hood up, and I only saw the lower portion of her face.
“Investigator Admire?” she asked.
“D.J. Admire, at your service, lady.” My name is Dixie Jolene. I hate it almost as bad as I hate this town.
“Miss Admire, I need your help.”
“Most people who come in here do,” I told her and took a drink.
“My sister, Asanath, is missing. I last saw her going into a bar. We’re from out of town, and she doesn’t know where’s safe and where’s dangerous. She can take care of herself, but she hasn’t checked back in four days. I’m worried.”
“I don’t usually take missing persons cases,” I began. It was a lie, of course. I’d done missing persons almost exclusively for the last six months. I didn’t want another one. The last three were all in various phases of dead when I found them.
This gal bothered me and I couldn’t think why. “I can make it worth your while, Miss Admire.” Then again, the lady could be very persuasive. Especially when she sat that fat bankroll on my desk. “Five hundred dollars. Consider it a retainer.”
“Fill out this form,” I told her. I passed over the standard contract. “I get seventy-five dollars a day plus expenses for missing persons. Your bankroll will do for five days. I’ll need all the information I can get on your sister, where she was last seen and that other stuff.”
“Oh, you needn’t worry, Miss Admire. My sister looks just like me.” The lady unhooked her cloak and let it fall to the ground. She unfurled a huge set of bat wings. I’m no aerodynamicist, but I know there was more lift area on those than she really needed. The hood had been covering a set of horns and she grinned, showing a pearly pair of fangs. A slim tail found its way up on the desk and took over the pen as she stretched her slim, taloned fingers.
“No more sooky cases!” I snarled, slamming the glass into the desk. The last time I’d worked for a succubus, she’d tried setting me up with her brother as payment. These demons never pay if they can welsh.
“Really, Miss Admire? Imarishka told me you were the best. I suppose I can always try R&G Detective Services, but I would prefer to deal with a woman.” She laid down the pen and picked up the bankroll. “I’m staying at the Peabody. Contact me if you change your mind.”
I watched as she left and poured myself more Captain Morgan. I’d take her case, but not just yet. Sookies were always more trouble than they were worth. Sis probably just went to find herself some entertainment.
It started to rain harder. I hoped the infernal bitch got soaked.
After a couple of brief chats with my good friend Captain Morgan, I caught myself turning the sooky’s card over in my fingers.
All right, I’d give her a summons. I needed the dough. My landlady, Frau Blucher-—name changed to protect the psychopathic—-was making ugly noises about the rent. My license came up for renewal next month and my weapons’ permits the month after.
I double-checked my bankbook, half-hoping I’d missed carrying a one and had suddenly found an extra grand somewhere. Crap, my bank account sucked. Missing persons only paid my dailies, unless I brought the person home alive.
I had to revise my rates.
But it was too late tonight. I’d get going first thing tomorrow. Or maybe Saturday. I watched the rain fall and killed the bottle.
Saturday after lunch, I took the card and went to the mirror. Most of my clients just use my cell-phone, but mine doesn’t work across dimensional barriers. Something about AT&T not being compatible with whatever Bill Gates had set up for the outer planes in terms of telecommunications. At least good silver still worked across all the planes.
I read the card twice and took a nice deep breath. Stumbling on a summoning spell would get me hauled out to the Hell-planes a lot quicker than my booze would send me there. I gave the chant and she appeared in the mirror, pausing to check herself out.
“I’ll take the case,” I said. No time for chit-chat. “Seventy-five a day, plus expenses. The five day retainer I keep, regardless of how soon I find her.”
She nodded. “Agreed. Do bring her back.”
“I will.” She vanished and I stifled a sigh. Looked like the Captain and I had to postpone our serious date. I took a quick kiss from his sweet glass lips, capped him off and headed out. I didn’t drive, not for in-town work. My poor little beater didn’t like stoplights much. The trolley ran late, and the werewolf behind the wheel looked worn-out but mellow. He gave me a funny look. Humans don’t take public transportation much, unless they’re poor or work with the Nightfolk.
I checked the moon phase on my watch. It showed a three-quarter waning. No wonder the driver--Chet, I read from his license--looked neatly shaved and mellow. I didn’t approve of the current rash of lycanthropes moving in. The old Irish queens down in Cooper-Young had been all right. They, like this one, had been working. The local pack had gone to hell when Old Man Camomescro had died and his nephew Dan had moved away. They’d been good men, civic minded, not like Zoltan, an asshole who couldn’t keep the riff-raff out.
Three years ago, we had one ’thrope attack, and that one a transient. This year alone, we’d had five, and every damn one had been a local layabout. Things were gonna get ugly for the furry folk if Zoltan didn’t step up as alpha.
At the corner of Beale and Riverfront, I rose to get off. Six shapes skittered past me off the roof of the trolley, heading down to the riverboats. Chet scowled and thumped the roof to dislodge any more that might be up there.
“Lousy gremlins on my trolley. Bet the little brutes were chewing my wiring for a snack as they hitched down to the barges.”
“Probably headed to Tunica,” I said. “Not much for them with Libertyland shut down.” I hesitated a second. “Are you part of Zoltan’s pack?”
He sniffed at me, a little worried. “No. He’s a cousin, but I haven’t joined up. My cousin Dan says he’s a jerk, but Memphis is a great city. The wife and I love it.”
So he had a mate. That always helped. Dan had been a local college prof, and a nice guy. I handed Chet my card. “If you or your wife need anything, I work for the Nightfolk.”
He smiled. “I thought you looked tough enough to handle this neighborhood. How much trouble can we find driving and teaching handicapped kids?”
I looked at him. Unsmiling. “You’d be surprised.” I climbed down and walked away from the trolley stand. He clanged on through the afternoon. I walked down three blocks and over two, ducked into an ally and knocked on a painted-over basement window.
“Yo, Mag. It’s D.J. I got sugar.”
A tiny pink hand, the size of a Ken doll’s poked out of the window. “Sugar first, Admire. You still owe us from last time,” Mag squeaked.
I dropped a single pixie stix into the outstretched hand. “More when you talk to me, Magnolia.” He hated the use of his full name. “Plenty more. I need to hire the Spyders.”
“Door’s open, D.J.” Mag sounded mellower now. Wasn’t even giving me a hard time about calling him by name. Pixies sure did love their sugar
I went down the ramp and crouched when I opened the door. I duck-walked under the fourfoot high ceiling down into the hideout. If you were a foot tall, the room soared vast and spacious. I was just glad I wasn’t claustrophobic.
I sat on the floor and the Spyders surrounded me, their doll-sized bodies supported by butterfly wings that most of them had dyed black. Some of the males dyed them brown and put a black fiddle-shaped mark on the lower wings. The females favored red hourglasses. I knew those marks meant they’d made a kill. It might be a mouse, or it might be a human. I was always polite and kept my word to the Spyders.
Mag fluttered over and stood on my knee so he could talk to me face to face. His dye job had started scaling off, showing his real swallow-tail colors. He yanked up the collar of his black leather jacket like a tiny hoodlum, a move that would have looked extremely silly if he weren’t a dead ringer for foot-tall James Dean.
“Word is, D.J., finding that last floater drove you into the bottle.” He fanned his wings in my face. “Sure smells like it.”
“I had two. Now, we gonna talk addictions? Because you know, Sugar Anonymous meets down at First Congo every Saturday. Pixies are welcome.” I tossed another pixie stick out into the gang and they tore it open. “I’m doing Missing Persons for a succubus. Her baby sis went walkabout and the sooky’s oh-so-worried. Betcha Lilith or Asmodeus is on her ass about it.”
“Sooky?” Mag shook his head. “D.J., you gotta stay away from demons. Who’s gonna bring us the good dope if you get Taken Outside?”
“Speaking of...” A female in a black corset dress fluttered up, bright red hourglasses on her dyed wings.
“Hi, Jasmine,” I smiled. I pulled a bottle of Coke, the real cane-sugar, glass-bottled stuff, out of my coat and popped the crown cap. I poured it into the big shallow goblet on the floor. Pixies couldn’t handle corn syrup. It gave them hallucinations. They clustered around. I laid out ten regular pixie stix in front of Mag. “That’s your retainer, along with the Coke. The job pays a case of Coke a week, guaranteed one case minimum.” I pulled out one of those giant two-foot long pixie stix. “And ten of these.”
“D.J., for that kind of pay, we’ll ice anyone you say.”
“All I need is info. Keep your eyes and ears open, Mag. Here’s what your sooky looks like.” I let the mildly telepathic pixies take the image I projected for them. “I expect daily reports and instant notification if you find her. There is a bonus for finding her.”
Jasmine giggled and fell off the rim of the goblet. Some pixies can’t hold their soda.
“The Spyders are on it for you.”
“Thanks, Mag.” I left as he fluttered over for his own drink. Mag was a sloppy drunk and he liked big girls. I didn’t feel like fending off an amorous Ken doll. I breathed the Memphis stench with pleasure once I had crawled back up to the street. The sugar odor in the hideout made my sinuses feel like they were stuffed like cotton candy.
I walked, making a mental list of places a succubus on the town might enjoy. Strip clubs, either to feed on the free-floating lust or pick up some cash working. Not the brothels. The vampire cartel had those sewn up, and nobody crossed the King. It wasn’t a matter of living to tell about it, it was more like what the old man would do to you once you were dead.
Elvis’s crossing over to the Nightside in ’77 created a huge shakeup in the Nightfolk. He never claimed to be anything but white trash with more money than God, and the old-style superiority-complex vampires were scandalized. But he surely kept the vamps in line. We hadn’t had an exsanguination in twenty-seven years. I didn’t have enough clout to see my own vampiric territory manager, let alone the King. So screw the bloodsuckers, they weren’t in on this.
Bars, casinos and dance clubs. I could skip the Pumping Station and Backstreet, at least. Those were purely incubi hunting grounds. But I couldn’t rule out churches. Some demons like the irony of feeding on the faithful. I didn’t know how they managed holy ground and all that, but I had a sneaking suspicion it was because there was no such thing as holy anything. It’d sure explain why none of the crosses seemed to work. I’d catch early service at St. Mary’s, late services at First Congo and then the evening one at Six Flags over Jesus, or rather Bellevue Baptist. I’d check Idlewilde Presbyterian and a couple others if this ran into next weekend.
I headed down to the bus stop. Presidents Island, and maybe a run over to the truck-stops in West Memphis. Lonely men came off the boats and the road looking for a lay. But, the little lady didn’t know what I knew. As we turned onto the Island, I rubbed the odor killer I bought from the morgue under my nose.
Used to be, this place shut down at five o’clock on Friday, like all honest businesses. Then about twenty years ago, some genius got the bright idea of importing zombie labor from the coast. Just like that, the longshoremen were out of a job and all their payroll went into the bosses’ pockets. A longshoreman costs forty grand a year, plus benefits. A zombie costs about a grand. They may only last three months in our climate, and they’re slower than mud, but they’re cheap and tireless and OSHA doesn’t mess with zombie ops.
Nowadays no one goes to Presidents Island. Not unless they have to. My odor-killer didn’t cut all the stink, and the poor truckers who hadn’t known about the zombies loading them, well, they all sat in their cabs looking a uniform shade of sickly green.
A few questions of the dock bosses made it clear I was the first female to set foot on the island in a long time. I headed back to town pretty fast.
Beale gleamed in neon, just firing up for the night, so there was no time for a shower to get the zombie reek off of me. Swell. I looked like a tough and smelled like a vagrant.
The carriages stood in their lines along the sidewalk. Most of the drivers were human, but I spotted another lycanthrope in the group. Some ’thropes were very good with animals, while others couldn’t get within a block.
Cinderella’s pumpkin coach, twinkling with little lights, clopped past, filled with two pretty high school girls and their dates. The fake unicorn in the traces was a nice touch. I got a closer look at the driver, and decided someone had a better job scruffing up a real unicorn to look fake.
The girl behind the reins looked about sixteen, but you can never tell with half-Sidhe. We don’t get too many down here. The way the moon caught her hair and seemed to shimmer on her pointed features, giving her away to those who knew. Most of the folks just saw a pretty girl in rubber elf-ears driving a fake unicorn and hauling a tacky carriage.
The ’thrope, whose cabriolet I was leaning on, grinned at me. “I hate her. She works steady all night because she’s so pretty. Half the girls are in love with the fairy tale and the rest, boys and girls, fall in love with her.” He waggled his shaggy eyebrows, looking adorably puppyish. Most ’thropes past puberty couldn’t carry that look off, especially the wolves. His horses could smell both the pixie sugar and the zombies and couldn’t decide whether to nose at me or shy away. “Need a ride, Ma’am?”
I handed him a card. “I need information. I pay well for useful intel. I’m a P.I. and I work for the Nightfolk. I’ve got a succubus gone missing that I need to find.”
“Not many demons around tonight.” He sniffed at me. “You stink of silver.”
I opened my shirt and showed him the heavy silver chain I wore. “Keeps my throat intact.”
“Wise lady. I’ll keep you posted.” He tipped his hat.
I strolled off into the muggy evening. The thick air didn’t clear my head, it just made it feel like my hangover was starting early.
I ducked into the Hellzapoppin’ All-Demon Revue, the only all-succubus strip-joint in town. The succubus in mid-air shed her last stocking and turned a lazy double somersault. The applause lights on the tables flashed.
I ignored it and hunted down Nymphonia, the manager. She took me to her office just before the blaring rendition of “U Give Love a Bad Name” could deafen me.
“What do you need, Admire?” she growled. Nymphonia hated cops, and I fell into the category of being one step below John Law.
“Any new girls looking for work this week?
“New succubus in town. She’s dodging her sister who wants to take her home.” I passed over a card. “Look, if you get one looking for work, give me a call. I’ll make it worth your while.”
She agreed and showed me out fast. I didn’t expect much. Demons were notoriously unreliable and Nymphonia had a talon in half the pies on Beale. She probably didn’t remember me five minutes after I left.
I walked along Beale, taking in live music floating out of doors and ducking crowds of tourists and locals out for an evening on the town. It was late and I wanted a shower, so I caught the trolley home. I glanced at the newspaper on the doorstep and compared it to the one on my desk.
“Mayor in funeral home scandal.” Nothing new there. It seemed half the local political family lived in the family business, which was a funeral home. Even the ordinary folk knew that. The paper made it sound like typical chicanery. My paper read, “Undead voting rights in question. Mayor alleged to be identity-stealing ghoul.” Same story, different spins. Dead folk had been voting in elections for over a hundred and fifty years, but it got trickier when some of the dead folk sat up and demanded the right to pull the lever themselves.
I took a long hot shower with the lemon soap and went to bed without a drink. If I was going to early services, I needed my sleep.
Church was a bust. Just humans at the services. St. Mary’s bored me and I dozed off at First Congo. At least I sat in the back and didn’t snore.
After a quick burger from the joint on the corner, I documented yesterday’s contacts, then made notes of how much the trolley and the bus and the sugar had cost me. I scribbled down the rest of the places to check. As always, I left one office window open for my pixie informants.
Turned out, I needed it today. The little cutie stood there on my desk, all purple hair and black denim that matched her wings. She wiped her little brown hand across her forehead. The humidity made me mop my own.
“I’m Kudzu.” She stood with her feet apart, her fists balled up on her tiny hips as if daring me to make something of it.
“Nice to meet you.” I rose and went to the kitchen. I keep a box of sugar cubes for just such an occasion. I set it in front of her on a china plate from my old tea set.
“Mag sent me.” She warmed up considerable after the first bite of the sugar. “We found your demon, yeah. Been eating pretty good. She’s over at the Rescue Mission, yeah, sucking the souls outta drunks.” She took another bite and looked up at me, looking a little drunk herself.
“Thanks, Kudzu. Enjoy the sugar and you can stay here until you’re sober enough to fly. I have an extra bed.” I gestured at the very soft Barbie bed I’d had forever. The sheets were clean, since it almost never got used.
“Thanks. You’re okay for a Big.”
I grabbed my coat and headed for the Mission.
Baby Sister had covered her wings with a cloak and her horns with a hat, but she couldn’t hide her sexiness. The poor schlub lying limp in her arms had never stood a chance. She kissed him again.
The sooky dropped her prey, already a shriveled husk that crumbled when she stepped on his arm as she walked toward me. “Hello, lovely thing. Are you lost?” she purred as she walked toward me. “It’s not safe for pretty ladies to be out alone in this town, even on a Sunday afternoon.”
I leveled a talisman at her. She just smiled, her fangs white in the sunlight.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I said. “You think you can reach me before I say the six word incantation. Now I’ve already said five of them, and being that this is a Chucalissa banishing totem, the most powerful talisman in the world and will send you straight back to the outer planes, you gotta ask yourself a question. Do I feel lucky?” I brandished the talisman again. “Well, do ya, bitch?”
All right, Dirty Harry I’m not. But I find the psychological edge that line gives me is invaluable. You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish in three seconds when your opponent is distracted by hysterical laughter.
Besides, I’ve learned a few things out here on the Nightside, and one of them is that demons don’t watch movies. Act in them, certainly. Write them, of course. Finance them? Oh hell, yes. The whole points system is too fiendish to be the invention of humans. But they just don’t watch them.
Asanath laughed and took another step. Oh well, I warned her. Under the Joint Planar Summoning, Banishing and Transportation Treaty, that’s all I have to do.
“Flxgeprt!” I yelled, wishing the nice little old talismonger I bought my gear from would use sensible charms. But she was a traditionalist and liked her unpronounceable ones. She said it kept folks from setting off the talismans and charms accidentally.
Asanath vanished and the amulet felt heavier. A little anti-climactic maybe, but I never liked the kind that went in for big showy spells. Fireworks aren’t really necessary. Demons lie. I lie. It wasn’t a banishment charm. It was a binding one. I tucked the amulet in my pocket, nice and safe and headed home.
Well, crap. It was only a lousy two days plus expenses. At least I got to keep the retainer. And there would be a nice bonus for delivering Baby Sister all in one piece.
I put Sis out on my desk and summoned my client. Kudzu had found the end of my breakfast Coke and was laying the Barbie bed giggling at something two inches from her nose. My client came in, claimed her wayward sister who was still in the amulet and paid the bonus. In cash even.
Another successful case.
I had just unscrewed the cap on that nice, delayed date with my handsome, spicy Captain, when the next round of trouble walked through my door.
I hate this town.