The existence of my immortal soul was debatable as far as I was concerned. Furthermore, if I lost my soul, I’d adapt. I always do. Adaptation is my specialty. I practically invented the word.
I removed Shazam’s paws from his ears, ignoring the explosion of wails and hisses. “Shazzy,” I said firmly, “I will not die on you. I promise.”
He snarled around hiccupping sobs, “Can’t make that promise!”
“You know Mac, right?”
“Thinks I’m fat and hates Hel-Cats,” he spat.
“She does not. She’ll give me the elixir of immortality. I’ll ask her for it.” And if for some unfathomable reason, she wouldn’t or couldn’t, there was always Ryodan. Or Lor, or whichever of the Nine I had to coax, bully, or keep killing until they did for me what they did for Dageus. “I will not die,” I said sternly.
He squirmed in my lap and peered up at me with teary violet eyes, sniffing. “Promise?”
“Promise. I won’t leave you alone. Not ever. Pinky swear.”
“Pinky swear is everything,” he said, awed, blinking back tears.
I’d taught him well. “It is. And I’m pinky swearing right now. Show me one of those adorable toes.”
He raised a paw and spread fat, velvety, black-padded appendages. I hooked the pinky of my right hand around his toe—
“Not that one. Other,” he said impatiently.
“It’s black. It blows people up.”
“Why is that?”
“I’m me,” he said smugly. “Better, smarter, more.”
Oh, yes, we belonged together, ego to ego, emotion to emotion, God, I loved this little beast! Laughing, I hooked finger to toe and said, “Shazam O’Malley, I do hereby solemnly swear I am going to love you for all of forever.”
“Then nine million more days?” he demanded.
Smiling, I finished the vow we’d taken long ago, Silverside. “Uh-huh. Because not even all of forever will be enough time to love you.”
“I die,” he gushed, and fell over on his back, paws in the air, lolling happily.
“Never leaving you, best friend. You can count on that.”
Eyes gleaming, rumbling with contentment, he followed me into the bathroom and sank back to his haunches on the counter to watch with keen interest as I did something I rarely did.
Put on makeup.
Tonight I was wearing armor. The right dress, the right hair, smoky eyes, and crimson crushed-velvet lips. Since I didn’t dare show up naked to battle with Ryodan, I was going the opposite route: as the stunning, powerful, sexy woman I can be if I feel like it.
Sighing, I thumbed on my flat-iron thinking, what a bloody waste of time but my mood seems to mimic my hair. When it’s a wild cloud, so am I, and tonight I wanted to be sleek and polished. It takes an unusual, thick tree sap I found Silverside to straighten my hair. I brought a leather pouch of the stuff back with me but I’m almost out. I have no idea what I’ll do then.
As I began my makeup, a faint rustling sound in the shower drew my attention. In the mirror, I watched the antenna and head of a cockroach pop up from the drain. You never know if a roach is a simple Earth-born insect or part of the nefarious Papa Roach that used to hang out at Chester’s, preying on the waitresses who’d permitted his vile segments to burrow beneath their skin and eat their fat away—the AWC version of liposuction. Ergo, I treat them all as the enemy.
I pretended I hadn’t seen it until it cleared the grate, then grabbed a can of hair spray, whirled in freeze-frame and blasted it with a noxious burst, snarling, “Not on my turf, you little shit.”
The cockroach hissed at me and gave a whole-body, violent bristle, choking and sputtering as it vanished back down the drain.
* * *
Not all redheads wear red well. It has to be the right shade to go with our coloring. My hair is copper flame, my skin snowy, and my dress tonight was bloodred.
My still-black arm and collarbone proved a challenge. I had to keep it covered, although, frankly, blowing Ryodan’s ass up rather appealed to me at the moment and, hey, he always came back.
Still, I’d been unpredictably violent once today and I try to limit myself to once in a given twenty-four-hour period.
Ergo, my dress had three-quarter sleeves, hugged my body like a second skin, and was cut so low in the back that the tramp stamp at the base of my spine Ryodan tattooed on me years ago was beautifully framed, drawing the eye to that sensual hollow.
I’m not vain. I’ll never be girly. But I do like being a woman every now and then and I’m grateful for five feet ten inches of strong flesh and bones that has an appealingly lean yet feminine shape. My ass and legs are my best feature, powerfully muscled from endless motion. After taping my neck with Gorilla Tape because black went better than silver with my ensemble, I slid black and rhinestone stilettos on my bare feet, smudged my smoky eyes one last time, swept my hair up into a sleek, high Lara Croft ponytail, blotted crimson lips, and nodded to myself in the mirror. I debated leaving my hair down to cover the tape, but in a fight—and I was certainly hoping for one or ten—my hair unrestrained is a royal pain in my ass. I added the final piece: a three-inch-wide choker of glittering diamonds and bloodstones that concealed a garrote. Although I hated that it felt like a collar, it covered the tape, held a weapon, and was easily removed.
“He doesn’t stand a chance,” Shazam rumbled.
“The one I smelled on our mattress. He’s back. I smelled him on you before. He makes you smell different when he’s around.”
Okay, that was disturbing. “Different how?”
“Like Pallas cat makes me smell.”
Okay THAT was disturbing. “I don’t think so,” I growled.
He shrugged. “We deny at our own peril…”
“What? What do we deny at our own peril?”
“The cry of the flesh for the Dionysiac experience.”
Eyes narrowed, I peered suspiciously at him. “Where did you even hear that? Is that from some documentary you watched on theatre or history or something?”
He shrugged again. “It’s why I eat. My flesh cries a lot.”
“As in Dionysus. The God of Bacchae. Wine and orgy,” I said stiffly.
“I chose one of your gods, not mine, better not to bofflescate you.”
Good grief. “Do Hel-Cats have gods?”
“Most things do. Look suspiciously like themselves.”
I wanted to have this conversation. Shazam was in an unusually lucid mood. Gods were a hot topic on my plate. And it was 8:01.
I did not want Ryodan in my flat. He’d have more time to look around, copy something else. “Please be here when I get back,” I told Shazam. “I miss our cuddles.”
His smile was instant, enormous, and swallowed his head, all fangs and thin black lips, and there was that elusive, nagging reminder of something I couldn’t place again. Shazam smiling made me think of something else, something I’d once seen but apparently hadn’t considered important enough to file away with a neat label. “Me, too.” He bounded off the counter, stalked to the mattress, turned around three brisk times, and plopped heavily to the bed. “Can we put the mattress back up high soon? I like it there.”
“Soon as I get back. I see you, Shaz-ma-taz.”
“I see you, too, Yi-yi.”
I tugged on opera-length black silk gloves studded with diamonds, which ended where my sleeves began, grabbed my sword, slid it across my back, tucked three blades in a thigh sheath, and stalked out the door.
You drive me crazy like no one else
I WENT SLOWLY DOWN FOUR flights of stairs, not because of my heels but because I was abruptly off-kilter the moment I closed the door of Sanctuary and locked it behind me.
Ryodan was picking me up. I was wearing a dress. I had no bloody idea where we were going or what we were doing.
Out of control on all counts.
For two long years I’d been mistress of the empty Mega-pod, dominatrix of every detail. There’d been no surprises. I’d not once lost hold on my emotions. Not even when I killed Bridget. I hadn’t slumped into a puddle of grief and self-abasement—and I’d wanted to. That’d been one of my tougher things to box. I’d killed yet another innocent. But, no matter what happened, I went on, steady and committed, doing what needed to be done, being what people needed me to be, and I dealt with however it fractured me. I was proud of myself for that. I considered it a sign of my maturity.
Yet a few thoughts about him on the way to his club had whipped me into a frenzy of uncontrolled emotion and I’d become a tornado, whirling dizzyingly about, dizzying even to me.
I stopped, centered myself with a breathing kata, and only when I was composed did I resume descending. I wasn’t about to repeat my earlier volatility. If he brought up the kiss, I’d shrug it off as PMS. Men use it against us all the time. If that didn’t shut him up, I’d employ the “hangry” excuse. He knows how often I need to eat to function at peak performance, has seen me shaky and feverish.