The particular smell of rain-soaked concrete greeted Ember’s nostrils. She followed the demon out the back door of Kathy’s Korner Diner. Water gushed out of the downspout in a white froth, spattering her with droplets. The deluge hissed as it crashed into the back parking lot’s graying blacktop. It was the same all over Cauchemar, even though the rain had ceased at last.
Ember watched the demon limp across the parking lot, one hand clutching his shoulder. She saw a brief glow of white light, and the agony etched across his handsome, thin featured face diminished.
“There,” Ember said, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring at the demon B.L.C. Bubb. His white suit and red tie belied his arcane nature. Ember knew that a pair of discrete, pointed horns lurked beneath the bowler-style hat on his head. “I’ve let you heal your little boo boo. Now tell me what your favor is so we can get this over with.”
Bubb eased himself onto an overturned pickle bucket, gasping in pain. “Not quite healed, just yet, but I am able to palaver.”
“So, let’s palaver. What’s the favor? I’m not letting you leave without telling me.”
Bubb leaned against the red-brick wall, seeming very tired. Ember was well used to his normal smirk of smug supercilious superiority. Seeing the frank, tired expression on his face now disconcerted her.
“I’m not sure I can tell you, just yet.”
“Hey, do you want her to stick Celestial steel through your other shoulder, pal?” Kali, Ember’s tiger-striped, tabby, cat familiar, glared at Bubb with her yellow eyes. “Or maybe she should stick it right up your demonic—”
“Kali,” Ember said. “Back off. He doesn’t look so hot.”
“Is that a demon pun?” Kali asked. “If so, it’s a pretty good one.”
Bubb glanced at Ember, his usual cockiness missing in action. “When I say I can’t tell you, just yet, I don’t mean any malice, believe it or not.”
“Oh, I don’t believe you.” Ember glared at the demon, hating herself feeling any sympathy for him at all. Normally she eschewed combat magic. Ember preferred trickery and defense to hurting people. Apparently, that applied to demons as well. “Look, do you need me to perform a healing spell on you? I honestly didn’t think you’d be hurt this badly. I thought you were a much more powerful demon.”
“He has to be. He used weather magic.” Kail’s tail twitched as she stared up at Bubb. “Weather magic takes enormous power.”
“Did I?” Bubb’s brows climbed high on his slender face. “I don’t recall ever making the claim that I had used weather magic.”
“You implied that you were responsible for the rain,” Ember snarled. “We’re not playing this game anymore.”
“Oh, I was most certainly responsible for the rain.”
Ember forced her anger down. It worked to Bubb’s advantage. “You’re talking in circles, and I have no patience for it.”
“Ember, now is not the time for you to know,” Bubb said. “I know you have no reason to trust me. That’s good. You shouldn’t trust anyone at this point. You shouldn’t trust anything, either.”
Ember growled. “Is this your latest mind game? Just tell me, Bubb. What’s the favor?”
“I can’t tell you, yet.”
“Can’t, or won’t?” Kali brandished her claws and hissed. “You know cat scratch fever is lethal to demons, right?”
“Now is not the time,” Bubb said. “But I promise you, that time is coming. Very soon.”
“Is that another threat?”
Bubb shrugged. “Take it how you will.”
Ember’s eyes narrowed to slits. “I know how deals with demons work. I know my soul is forfeit if I don’t agree to do your favor. But if your favor involves harming another living creature, I’m willing to break the contract. And, if I’m going to break the contract, I see no reason why I should go down alone…”
Bubb’s eyes widened. “I’m not sure what I find more surprising, Ember. The fact that you’re making threats…”
He stood up, as spry and dexterous as before he’d taken a sword through the shoulder. “…or the fact that I believe them. I’ll take your words to heart, my good Madame. I’ll be in touch.”
“You’re not going anywhere, jerk,” Kali snapped.
“Let him go, Kali.” Ember shook her head in disgust as Bubb disappeared around the corner of the diner. “We don’t want to play into his hands. Again.”
“Remember when we used to run a bar?” Kali asked.
“Yes. I miss those days. Sometimes, but life is about change.” Ember laughed. “Bar owner, housewife, foster parent, deputy…I’m getting a little bit confused about which hat I’m wearing today.”
“Well, your best bet is not to let Bubb get to you.” Kali sniffed. “Whatever his game is, a big part of it is keeping you scared and off balance.”
“I think, after today, he’s learned that I can only be pushed so far,” Ember growled. “Don’t pretend like you didn’t feel bad about hurting him,” Kali rubbed her face on Ember’s leg. “Don’t let Bubb make you heartless. For all we know, that’s what he’s wanted all along.”
Ember leaned over and picked her familiar up. She buried her nose in Kali’s soft fur and sighed.
“Come on, Kali,” Ember sighed. “Let’s go tell Cedric what I’ve done.”
“I’m not sure what he can do about it.”
“Probably nothing, but…I don’t want any more secrets between us.” Ember set her jaw hard. “Not ever.”
Ember walked in the sun as she made her way across Cauchemar’s main drag. It was as if the mighty daystar wished to make up for its many days shrouded behind an iron-gray curtain of clouds. Sunlight dappled the waters of the swollen Cauchemar Lake near the center of town. Reflections tinged the art deco roofs of downtown and the creole cottages of the residential district, alike.
“I never thought I’d miss the sun so much,” Kali purred. She leaped up onto the flat, stone railing of the bridge spanning the rain-swollen, rushing Cauchemar river. “What do you make of Bubb claiming he didn’t use weather magic?”
“In the next breath he said he was responsible for the rain, though. I don’t think we can trust a thing that comes out of his mouth.” Ember glanced over the railing as a black shape darted through the swollen, muddy waters of the river.
For a moment, she thought it might be a hapless resident swept away by a flash flood. She soon realized it was a tree limb, black with moisture and gnarled like an arthritic finger.
“It really was close, wasn’t it?” Kali stopped to peer over the railing. “I mean, the water is less than an inch from the bottom of the bridge.”
“It was close. Too close for comfort.”
They crossed the bridge and turned into the gravel lot of the Sheriff’s Station. The humble, one-story structure consisted of a small lobby, four desks, and Cedric’s office in the back. Only one of the desks was occupied at any given time, when Deputy Smothers was on duty.
Ember and Kali crossed the polished, hardwood floors to Cedric’s office. She rapped on the door, then peered inside. Why do I feel like a kid at the principal’s office?
Cedric turned toward her, his wide, sensuous mouth drawn into a smile. His blue eyes and golden-blonde hair, combined with his hardbody physique made Cedric appear more akin to a California surfer than the Sheriff of Cauchemar County, Louisiana. Ember’s arcane sense could detect the lupine aura about her shifter husband’s form.
“Good morning,” he said. “How did your meeting go?”
Ember flopped into the chair on the opposite side of the desk from Cedric and rubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands. “Not well. I agreed to do the favor for Bubb.”
Ember glanced up at the sound of Cedric’s gentle declaration. She found no judgment in his eyes, only worry. “How did you know?”
“The rain stopped, for one. For another, I can just tell by the way you walked into my office.”
Ember groaned. “Is it that obvious?”
“Pretty much,” Kali said, licking her paw while sitting on a stack of papers.
“Kali, those are important reports you’re sitting on,” Cedric said.
“Yes, without them my furry bottom would not be properly cushioned.” She stopped licking her paw. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. Focus on your wife, that’s what’s important right now. Carry on.”
Cedric cocked an eyebrow and Ember couldn’t help but laugh. In the years they’d known each other, Ember had yet to see a time where Kali didn’t get the better of Cedric in their duels of wit. “What does Bubb want you to do?”
“He told me it’s not time for me to know yet.” Ember’s jaw worked silently for a moment while she literally chewed her words over. “I don’t think he was lying, oddly enough.”
“He’s a demon, they trade in lies.”
“I know. It’s just all…” Ember sighed. “Look, I think the rain really wore on me, not to mention that last case. Bubb probably just wants me to sweat. The best thing I can do is forget about him until he shows his face again.”
Cedric thought for a long moment, then nodded. “That’s probably for the best. Besides, we’re going to be mighty busy with the Cauchemar Blues Festival coming up.”
Ember slapped herself on the side of the head. “Oh my Goddess! I’d forgotten all about it. That’s, like, this weekend, isn’t it?”
“Yup.” Cedric stood up and stretched, then snagged his hat off the wall hook. “In fact, we’re late for a meeting with Major Petit at the station north of town.”
“So we can coordinate with the state troopers for security,” Ember nodded. “I remember, now. Sorry I made us late.”
“Ah, Petit’s probably not there, yet, himself. We used to joke he had a disease that destroyed punctuality in a hundred-foot radius all around him.”
Ember grinned. “There’s a curse that will do the same thing. Of course, that’s dark magic.”
Ember felt a tightness in her belly. Cedric glanced down at her as he held the glass exit door open, and she passed through.
“Are you all right, Dear?”
“I’m fine,” Ember said, squinting in the sunlight. The clouds had scooted away to the horizon, baring Cauchemar to the fury off the Louisiana sun.
“Something’s bothering you. No more secrets, remember?”
Ember turned to him and stopped in her tracks. A slight smile came to her lips. “No more secrets. All right. I’m worried, because, well—”
“She hurt Bubb pretty bad with a spell,” Kali said helpfully. “He was in rough shape and she feels bad about it.”
“With all Bubb’s done to you, and this family, I’d say you shouldn’t be worried.”
Ember sucked in a deep breath through her nostrils, then let it out through her mouth. “Cedric, it’s never that simple for a witch. Magic is shaped by your intentions. If your intentions are good, the effect will generally be good. If the intention is to be destructive, then the effect will generally be destructive.”
“I follow you, so far. I did marry a witch after all. You’re worried about being tempted to use dark magic, yes?”
Ember started. “Yes, you do understand. That’s exactly the struggle. Dark Magic is kind of like steroids to a witch. You can channel way more power, but, the more you use it, the more it poisons your mind. Eventually, you lose the ability to feel empathy for anyone. Even yourself. From there on, your only desire is to increase your power.”
“It’s like a crack addict trying to get high,” Kali said, her paws on the back seat of the cruiser. “They try to use the magic to fill the emptiness inside, but it’s temporary, at best. And, like any drug, you build up a tolerance to it.”
Cedric pulled out of the parking lot and onto Cauchemar’s main drag. “Then I understand why you’re worried, Ember. Don’t worry. You have a family to keep you grounded.”
Ember smiled and patted his arm, but on the inside she knew Bubb had already used her family against her once before. Her love for them might wind up being a curse rather than a boon.