Bar owner Triva Iktomi knows that inhuman creatures of light and darkness roam Las Vegas-especially since she's a bit more than human herself. She's just been approached with an unusual proposition. Something has slaughtered almost one thousand demons in six months. And the killing isn't going to stop unless Trixa and her friends step into the fight...
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My mama had a saying for every occasion under the sun, but even she didn't lay claim to that one. I didn't know who did, but everyone had heard it. It had been around forever. Don't cry over spilt milk. There's no point to it. You can't change it, can't put it back, can't make it better. You simply cleaned it up and went on.
Because that was life. Life wasn't always fair. And some things in life couldn't be undone. They could be avengeddamn straight, they couldbut not undone.
They could teach a lesson…; if anyone was around to learn from itor smart enough to get the point.
Yet the bottom line was always the samespilt milk was spilt milk. An inconvenience or a pain, an annoyance or sometimes even a tragedy. But whichever it was, it didn't matter. You might want to, but you couldn't turn back time. You couldn't close your eyes and pretend it was a bad dream. You couldn't avoid the truth and that was a cold hard fact.
You couldn't unspill that milk.
You couldn't make it better. You couldn't make it right.
I stood and looked at the shattered glass, jagged tears glinting in the sun. I looked at the metal coated with bloodso very much bloodthe same color as the darkest crimson rose, and I decided the hell with old sayings.
was undoing this.
was making this right.
And I'd like to see the son of a bitch who thought he could stop me.
Life was a trick.
That was what it boiled down to in the end: life was one big trick, one huge April Fools'. You might think that could be a bad thing…; depending on whether you were on the giving or receiving end. But that didn't matter as much as you'd think it would. It was what it was. At the very end of it, we all ended up on both sides. The universe was fair that way, because everyone, without exception, had something to learn. We were all naughty in one way or another.
And tricks were lessons in disguise. They taught you right from wrong, safe from dangerous, bad seafood salad from good seafood salad. Have you ever had bad seafood salad? That's the worst eighteen hours of your life and a lesson you'll never forget. Have you ever put an old lady in the hospital after mugging her for her Social Security check? The lesson regarding that, you might not live long enough to remember or forget.
Life was a trick, a trick was a lesson, and I was a teacherthe majority of the time. I didn't teach in a school. The world was my school, and I had a zero-tolerance policy. I taught the teachable. And the others? Those who couldn't or wouldn't learn? What's a woman to do in that situation?
Apply a "Darwin's rules" attitude and let the pieces fall where they may.
My name is Trixa, and I'm not a woman. I'm female, most definitely that, but I'm not precisely a woman. Trixa was one of the names I'd had in my lifetime, one of manywe con artists had quite a few. This one though…; This one was one of my favorites, because I was a trickster, born and bred of one of many trickster races. It was why I enjoyed the name so much. I'd rubbed who I was in the face of my enemies for the past ten years and not once had they seen past a simple name. Demons, some were stupid and some were bright, but all were arrogant, which made them blind. The same went for angels. As they were flip sides to the same coin, it wasn't surprising. And humans…; Please, don't even get me started on humans. They were the entire reason we tricksters existed. Or since we had predated them, I guess we chose them as a reason to exist. Those of the supernatural world never were quite as much fun to fool, to put in their place, and life could become fairly pointless without a purpose. Everyone needed a purpose.
Without a purpose, why get up in the morning? Why eat? Why not just meld with the earth that made you and wait to turn into fertilizer? Someone could grow some nice marigolds in you. I liked marigolds, but they weren't much of a career choice.
Taking humans down a notch or ten, that was a purpose all right, and damn entertaining too. Not that I ever received a shiny red apple for educating the masses, but taking prideand more than occasional excessive gleein my work, that was enough. Although jewelry would've been nice too. I liked jewelry better than marigolds.
A variety of tricksters were loose in the worldpucks, also known as Pan, Robin Goodfellow, Hob, and so on. They were one race of identical brown-haired, green-eyed cocky immortals. All malein appearance anyway. A person would need several PhDs in biology to get a handle on their actual reproduction, but you didn't need a GED to get a handle on anything else regarding them, physically speaking. Sexually speaking…; not speaking at all because it was rude to with your mouth full. They not only cowrote the Kama Sutra, but they posed for it as well. That's all I'm saying.
There was my partner at the bar, Leo, better known as Loki, who was a god first and foremost, and only a trickster because he excelled at it and enjoyed it, but not because he'd been born one. His was a calling, not a birthright. There were also those among us who were just spirit…; energy, gossamer molecules strung together like a kite string, no more solid than the wind, and even I had trouble understanding them. And kicking back to have a margarita with them to talk work, that was completely out of the question.
Then there was my kindshape-shifters. We were hundreds, thousands of legendsCoyote, Kitsune, Kokopelli, Nasreddin, Raven, Maui, Velestoo many to name. Most people had long forgotten those names, but we were still only a Wiki away. We weren't immortal, but we didn't have to worry about watching our cholesterol either. I'd been around to see the sky darken half a world away when Pompeii had died. My brother and I had watched it and for a moment we were put in our place. We had held hands and felt an unfamiliar feeling of mortality sharp and cold cut through us as the sky turned from blue to black. We could trick all we wanted, but nature itself would always have the last laugh.
But now? Now I was still a trickster, but a shape-shifter no more. I was a thirty-one-year-old humanI was actually all human races on Earth. I had done that always. Genes speak to genes on a level people can't begin to detect, and if I were all people, then I went into every situation with the tiniest of edges, my foot in the door. It had been more helpful back in the day…; when family, clan, tribe, had mattered to a constantly warring people. They were still constantly warring, but the genes mattered a lot less now. And that was a good development for humanity in general, but I still tried to keep that edge.
While I was all races, two did rise to the top. That's what people saw. Eyes I'd admired the last time I'd been on the Japanese Islands, the mouth that was fond memory of the years I'd spent in Africa, and wildly corkscrewed black curls and skin that were a mixture of both places. I'd spent a lot of time rethinking that hair every morning when I fought the good fight with it and usually had my ass kicked and my brush broken. Ah, well, who the hell was I to say what it should do anyway?
Did all of that make me a romance heroine who had men flinging themselves at my feet to protect my dainty foot from a puddle? Carrying all my groceries like I was a fairy princess with a wet manicure? Hell, no. It had them tilting their heads trying to figure me out. People liked to label things. I puzzled them, which was good. People needed to be puzzled, curious, unsure. That's what kept you alive in this world. It was what made life interesting.
No, I wasn't beautiful. I chose this body. I made it. Why would I want to be beautiful? Fields of wildflowers were beautiful. Waterfalls were beautiful. Secluded beaches were beautiful. Size-zero vacant-eyed and vacant-stomached runway models were beautiful…; at least that's what society told us, but society had a vacant brain to match those vacant eyes. Not one of those things, vacant or otherwise, could put a pointed heel of a boot through a demon's stomach and a bullet in his scaly forehead. I could. I was unique.
I could not…; would not be tagged, identified, labeled, or stamped.
Unless it was by the fashion industry. I scowled at the sweatpants and T-shirt I was wearing as I came down the stairs that led to my apartment over my bar, Trixsta. The sign in the window was red neon to match everything else red in my life. Did that mean I wore a lot of red clothing? Maybe. But more than that, it meant I signed my work with the colornames changed; colors never did. I applied that signature to all my work, and I still did my work, my true workhuman or not.
And Las Vegas was the perfect place to do ita city of deceit and sin. It was a wonderland for both tricksters and demons. We did have demons aplenty, but as far as I knew, there were only two tricksters here currently: me and the one fiddling with the television.
Leo turned the TV on and wiped a film of beer off the screen. My bar was small; the brains of my clientele even smaller. It was the only excuse to waste good beeror mediocre beer with good beer prices. If you couldn't tell the difference, that was your lesson for the day. A trick a day kept boredom away, but the thought of making money off the drunken or idiotic couldn't cheer me now, not with what I had to do.
"Exercise," I muttered, and then repeated it because it was simply that horrifying. "Exercise." I glared at Leo as if it were his fault. It wasn't, but he was the only one around to blame, so I took the opportunity. "I have to go run, lift weights, and do other things banned by the Geneva Convention. If your Internet steroids arrive, don't go wild and take them all at once."
With his long black hair pulled into a tight braid, copper skin, and eyes as dark as his hair, he looked pure American Indian, and he would look that way for four or five more yearsbut for one exception. That exception showed itself right then. Leo disappeared in front of me and where he had stood flapped a raven who croaked, "Must be jelly. Jam don't shake like that." I thought about swinging at him, but I settled for retying the knot on my sweatpants. Lenny or, as we called him in raven form, LenorePoe, you couldn't avoid itlanded on the bar. "Want fries with that shake?" he added as he preened a feather.
"You'll be the one who's fried and served up with mashed potatoes and cornbread stuffing when I get back," I promised, enjoying the vengeful mental image. "I'll make you the early-Thanksgiving special."
If birds could snort, Lenny would have. At one time, three months ago, Leo might've been able to give me something to think about. After all, he'd been a god; I wasn't. But both of us were human, more or less, now, at least for the next four or five years, thanks to my showing off and an artifact who thought the experience might do Leo some good. For me, there were no shape-shifting powers, no powers of any kind except a natural biological defense against telepathy and empathy and the ability to tell my own païen kind when I saw them no matter what shape they wore. Leo was one up on me. He was stuck in human or bird form, and it was my fault. I'd drained my batteries by overusing my powers to take down the killer of my brother in an extremely showy and vengeful way. I wasn't sorry. The bastard had deserved it. He'd killed my family, my only sibling. For what I did to him, things dismemberment-loving demons themselves would've applauded…; no, I wasn't sorry. I would never be sorry for that. I'd only regret I couldn't do it a few more times.
Oddly enough, even after that show, a sentient artifact that I'd been using as a bargaining chip against Heaven and Hell had thought at the time that I was a good influence on Leo/Loki. The Light of Life, the artifact, had decided he should stick around with me for those four years it would take me to recover my shape-shifting abilities. As it was more powerful than were Leo and I combined, it didn't ask us for permission either. It neutered himon the god part at least. The rest of him, I assumed, was in working condition. Although as I had to exercise, it would've been nice for Leo to have suffered a slight bit more. We'd see how many funny quips about my weight he'd make while buying Internet steroids and Viagra.
Not that my humiliation stopped there. My mama had laughed herself sick when I told her anyone or anything thought I was a good influence. Then again, Leo had been a very bad boy in his day. He had once wanted to end the worldRagnarok, the Norse end of daysand that had just been for kicks and a way to waste a boring afternoon. But that had been when he was Loki, a long time and a lot of raging darkness ago. He was different now. So many say they want to change; he was one of the few I'd seen do it. He was one of the few with a will stronger than the shadows that had filled him up, shadows that were there still but leashed. Is it nobler to be born good or to be born on the farthest end of the bloody spectrum and have chosen to be good? When I looked at Leo, it was an easy question to answer.
Ancient artifact or not, he would've stayed with me, to help if worse came to worst. He was that way. I would've done it for him if the situation were reversed. Friends…; You didn't take them for granted. But that didn't mean I had to listen to his jokes about my ass. That was the great thing about being a shape-shifter. Calories? Fat grams? Whatever. Turn them into extra hair or an extra inch in height or shed them as pounds of water. Or in the other direction, if you wanted to be a two-hundred-pound coyote with the voice of an avalanche, take the extra you needed from the dirt, rock, or the moisture-soaked air around you.
But now I was human, and had discovered living off diner food…; It was less than a block away; what could I do? I packed on five pounds in two weeks. She Who Would Not Be Labeled had become She Who Must Find the Nearest Gym. Leo, with his damn male metabolism, was still sucking down all that was fried with no signs of a potbelly as of yet.
Men. I hated men sometimes.
But I hated demons more. And as I ran down the sidewalk toward the grubby gym seven or eight blocks away, I got to prove it.
I kept a slow and steady pace. It was February now and still not too bad. When it came to summer, I'd drive to the gym, seven blocks or not. If you ran in the Vegas summer heat, you were either insane, suicidal, or a fire elemental out for a stroll. I ran past porn stores, liquor stores, more porn stores, a tiny car lot…; and that's where I stopped. I saw the blinding flash of a grin and puppy dog brown eyes, man's best friend, as a perfectly tanned hand patted the cloth top of a black convertible as the mouth moved a mile a minute, pouring like the best caramel syrup over a pudgy tourist. A car salesman. A used-car salesman. If you're after someone's soul, you should be a little more imaginative with your disguises than that.
Not that this guy was after someone's soul. I usually didn't interfere there. That was between Heaven and Hell and that tug-of-war known as humanity that lay between them. They had some reasonable enough rules set up. First, you had to be of agemature mentally; no trading your soul for a Tonka Toy or a pony. These days that tended to mean you were old enough to drink, vote, and die. Second, you couldn't trade your soul for a righteous and selfless act. You couldn't trade it to save the polar bears or stop world poverty or even save your child. Hell and demons either weren't allowed or simply couldn't do good, no matter how many souls they received in exchange. Which made senseevil did not beget good. Bad luck for the polar bears.
No, Heaven and Hell could play all the games they wanted. As one puck had first said a long time ago, caveat emptor. Buyer beware. Grown-up boys and girls should know better and if they didn't, well, Darwin had something to say about that too.
But this sleazy guydemons and pucks both loved the used-car-salesman frontwasn't after a soul. I could tell by the especially bright glint in his gaze. He was after some old-fashioned fun. Ripping, shredding, tearing a man to pieces and if his soul whizzed upward like a skyrocket, I doubt the demon much cared. Maybe he wasn't hungry. Demons ate souls. God no longer sustained them with his light and love and Lucifer was fallen himself. He couldn't. Demons had to feed themselves and Hell was nothing but one big pantry. But demons enjoyed other things than a light snack. They had hobbies the same as anyone else. Theirs simply happened to be killing. To a one, killing was their one true passion. Trading for souls was entertaining and good nutrition, but killing someone…;
Souls were a McDonald's hamburger, but killing for sheer butchery alone was an all-day ride at the amusement park. This demon was going for the loop-to-loop roller coaster all the way. It was Sunday and the lot was closed, but he had lured some dumb-ass tourist lost from the main strip into the lot. The road to Hell is paved with a lot of things…; some of them Hyundais. I sighed and hopped the rope that acted as an imaginary barrier between sidewalk and lot to follow the two men inside the tiny two-cubicle office. The shades were down. In Vegas, winter or summer, the shades were always down or that purple couch you bought six months ago would now be lavender, and a pale lavender at that.
Rather the same shade as the face of the tourist who was panicked and struggling to escape the one hand that held him by the neck. He was bent backward over a desk, his flailing arms knocking papers and salesman of the year awards onto the floor, and sometimes…; just once in a while, you did get annoyed with the gullible. But you were more annoyed with one damn stupid demon who had set up shop literally six blocks from your territory. A human had been running this place three days ago, a potbellied pig–shaped man with a comb-over and enough nose hair to trim into bonsai trees. That alone marked him as nondemon, but he was gone now and a demon had moved into his place.
Demons were so easy to spot it wasn't even close to a challenge. This one had shiny blond hair, soulful brown eyes, not one but two dimples, and he threw off sex appeal by the bucketfulsplus a manly I-could-be-your-best-bro, bro. He would appeal to men, women, and little old ladies. His charisma covered the spectrum. As I had made this body, so did demons make theirs. And they always liked theirs bright and shiny as a new penny. It was bait after all, part of the lure.
"Six blocks." I pulled my gun, a Smith & Wesson 500, from the holster in the small of my back. That's why I kept my T-shirt loose. To cover the toys. "You set up your perch here"I waved my other hand at the room around us"sniffing for the innocent, the unwary, and the idiotic like this poor schmuck, and you do it six blocks from my place. My home. My territory." He gaped at me. While I hadn't bothered to find out about him before now, neither had he bothered to do the same regarding mea little sloppy on my part, a little fatal on his. The sloppiness stopped now. I blew his head off before he had time to blink his eyes or blink back to Hell.
He shimmered for a second into a man-sized brownish-green lizard with dragon wings, dirty glass teeth, a once-narrow but now-shattered reptilian head, and oozing eye sockets. The Smith had taken care of that. I doubt his eyes had been that same soft and soulful brown anyway. Then he was a pool of black goo on the worn carpet of the office, and while I felt for the cleaning lady, I had security tapes to wipe, a tourist to toss out on the street, and a gym to get to before all the elliptical trainers were taken. The tourist rolled to the floor, gurgled, and either passed out from lack of oxygen or lack of intestinal fortitude (balls for the more succinct of us). I wasn't disappointed. A little judgmental, but not disappointed. It would actually make things easier on me.
"Good old what's-his-name. I'm surprised he lived to this millennium." The voice came from behind me. A familiar one, not in a good way either. I looked over my shoulder to see Eligos"Call-me-Eli," he would always say with a grin that would suck the oxygen out of a room and half the brain cells out of your head. If you were human. Truly human, not just temporarily human. But that didn't mean I couldn't tell he was something to see all the same. Damned and damn hot, what a combo.