Low Midnight Page 2

I’m grateful as well, Amelia said. I’m not sure I would have liked you, if we’d met in your younger days.

“I’m still surprised you like me now,” he said. “You saying I’m not just a relationship of convenience?”

Hm, you’re that, too. But still, I’m glad I met you when I did. She knew without him having to say it, that in his young wild days she might have tried to talk to him, but he sure as hell wouldn’t have been able to listen. He would have been one of the ones she’d driven mad.

Amelia was one of those forks in the road that no one could have predicted.

*   *   *

SCREAMS, TERROR, the smell of death, a prison drenched in blood, fear sliding into a riot, unnatural and haunted. A monster, a shadowed thing with legs and arms but no visible face, with long claws and a wicked laugh. It had haunted those prison walls and would have killed him. It had already sliced open three men’s throats, leaving their cell mates screaming in insanity and setting the whole prison at the edge of disaster.

Cormac had faced the demon down with nothing but his orange jumpsuit and bare hands. Then she’d been there, in his mind, guiding his hand. The spirit of a long-dead magician, a Victorian adventurer hanged for murder, who’d found a way to keep her soul alive—she said she could destroy the demon, but she needed his body, his living flesh and muscles, in order to do so. Finally, Cormac believed her. And not just because he didn’t have a choice.

She had knowledge, but she needed him to fuel her spells. Her fire burned through him, tore the demon to pieces—

He woke up sometimes still expecting to see the washed-out ceiling of his prison cell, to feel the pressure of the bars on his back. He still shivered when he remembered that feeling, that something was lying in wait for him, waiting to rip open his throat, and he had no place to go.

Then he remembered her touch, the fire she brought with her.

He’d resisted her. He’d hated giving over part of himself, no matter what the reason. She hadn’t been very happy about it either—she’d begun by trying to dominate him. Grab control and exert her will without having to argue with him. Slip on his body like a new suit. Of course, that wasn’t an option.

They needed time to figure it out, but in the end they learned that they were stronger working together than they were apart. They could do more. They had a better chance for survival. And that was all either of them ever wanted.

*   *   *

HE BOTH did and didn’t want to go to New Moon that night. He usually felt like that about the downtown restaurant that Ben and Kitty owned. The sense of obligation was … discomfiting. He didn’t like feeling that he owed them, or anyone, something. Loyalty was difficult. It was an anchor holding him in place. At the sametime, knowing he belonged here, with people who wanted to see him—that was a prize. A trophy for surviving, not just prison but his whole life so far. The number of times he probably shouldn’t have made it, the number of guns he’d faced, the number of monsters—both human and supernatural—he’d sought out and mingled with hadn’t given him great odds.

Yet here he was. The feeling of belonging was growing on him, like a pair of leather boots finally breaking in to mold to his feet.

The place was a few blocks south of Colfax, part of a collection of funky shops and restaurants that had sprung up around Broadway and the art museum in the last decade, an old brick block of a building that might have been a small-scale factory or warehouse sixty years ago, gone through refurbishment a couple of times over, and now had what reviewers called character.

He hesitated outside the restaurant’s front door and took a deep breath.

He told himself not to flinch when the calls rang out. What did you shout at an ex-con newly off parole anyway? Happy freedom day? Happy not-on-parole-anymore? He was determined not to smirk at whatever banner she’d hung up. He wouldn’t frown too hard at the proceedings. Depending on how earnest Kitty was about the whole thing, he might even smile.

You are making far too much of this.

Oh yeah? he thought. Just wait.

When he opened the door and entered the restaurant, nothing happened. In fact, everything looked normal. Everything sounded normal. Something jazzy played on the speakers, barely audible over the ambient noise of the crowd. The bar ran along one side of the interior, straight from the front door. Tables, about three-quarters occupied, filled the rest of the space. A pair of waitresses maneuvered among them on the hardwood floor, carrying trays, pitchers of beer. The ceiling was fashionably unfinished, painted ductwork and rafters giving the place an airy feel. The crowd was young to middle age, professional. The guy working the bar, Shaun, was the regular manager. He was always polite to Cormac, but usually glared at him with some suspicion. He knew Cormac’s history. Cormac ignored him.

He walked in, and nothing changed. Nobody shouted surprise, nobody jumped out from behind anything. He stood a moment, wondering what was wrong.

Kitty approached from the bar, carrying a mug of some dark and dangerous-looking beer, which she offered him. Her smile crinkled, an expression of vast amusement.

“Congratulations,” she said, and that was all.

Blinking, he took the beer, holding it at a slight distance as if he didn’t know what to do with it.

“Surprised?” she said, lips parted in a grin that showed teeth. A challenging grin. Ben approached, coming up to look at him over her shoulder.

“You set me up,” Cormac said to him.

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