Location: Aboard the Brimstone
Time: About a month after the end of Shax's War
Spaceships weren’t so bad if you forgot you were in space. Most times, Corny managed just fine. He kept busy helping where he could and learning where he couldn’t. He had a pair of strong demon arms to sleep in and he had Rosa to take care of.
Sometimes though, it’d hit him. Sitting alone in the galley or walking a quiet corridor, he’d remember and he’d have to force himself to breathe. Outside the Brimstone was…well, near as he could reckon, it was nothing. Just the damned deadly, black, airless empty.
That day’s conniption had hit him hard. Not like the ship was that big, but he had a moment when he didn’t know where anyone was and with the panic rising in him like a spring flood, he’d forgotten how to use the comm. Gasping and shaking, he’d crashed to his knees.
“You all right, cowboy?” Ms. Ivana said softly from the corridor speaker. “Want me to call your big horny demon?”
“No…no.” Corny leaned against the wall, pulling in shuddering breaths. “It’d just make me look a damn fool. I’m fine. Just…gonna go see Rosa.”
“You do that, sweetheart. But I’m monitoring.”
Of course you are. “Yes, ma’am,” Corny said aloud. He did have manners and it wasn’t in him to be rude to a lady.
He whistled sharply when he reached the steps to the hold and grinned despite himself when Rosa’s chocolate-brown head popped up from her stall. The little mustang nickered at him and stomped a hoof as if telling him to stop dawdling. He’d worried that Captain Shax would want to get rid of her, but he hadn’t counted on Shaxy’s soft spot for horses. The little demon adored Rosa, insisting on a plasticrete stall and a fake grass track around the perimeter of the hold for exercising her. Not a bad life for a cow-herding horse. No more cattle drives and dusty trails for Corny’s girl.
His heart calmed as he lost himself in brushes and currycombs, Rosa happily nudging at him when she thought he’d missed a spot. He’d reach content when Rosa suddenly picked her head up, ears pricked forward as she looked up at the landing. The movement didn’t alarm him. Couldn’t be anyone but crew. Still, he was surprised when he turned to find Heckle sitting up there, hoofed feet swinging over the side. The imp’s tail was long enough now to curl around the bottom rail of the steps. Ver said it would have a triangle-shaped pointy end when it grew out full again. Poor little guy. Getting all sliced up in that evil lab.
“You lookin’ for me, little bit?” Corny called up.
Heckle shook his head, his black hair falling over one eye. “Prince…um, Captain Shax said I should try my new wings.”
Right. The hold was the only place as had enough room for that. “They look like mighty fine wings, there.”
As if he had to check, Heckle twisted around and spread his wings. They weren’t anything big and fancy like those huge feathered deals Ness had. Just little bat wings, but they looked the right size for him now. Still, the imp stayed planted on his butt. Maybe he was scared.
“Your horse is pretty,” Heckle finally offered after staring wide-eyed for several minutes. “Is she sick?”
“Rosa? Naw. She’s fit as ever.” Corny stopped brushing to glance up at him. “Why?”
“She never breathes fire. Doesn’t she get enough sulfur and stuff?”
Corny laughed. “She’s not one of them night mares like Shax had, Heck. Just a regular ole horse. No fire.” He took a mental leap, spurred on by Heckle’s unwavering attention. “You wanna come help?”
In a scramble of hooves, all elbows and knees, Heckle careened down the stairs and trotted across the floor. Rosa seemed to understand that the little guy was a mite skittish, so she was careful and moved slow for him. Heckle caught on quick and brushing Rosa seemed to make him as pleased as a lizard on a sun-warmed rock.
After Corny had shown him the basics and let him help with the feed, Heckle finally seemed to be satisfied. He went out to the middle of the cavernous cargo hold and gave his wings a few flaps, rising about a foot off the floor. With a shy grin for Corny, Heckle started flapping in earnest, making little circular flights around Rosa’s exercise track.
For her part, Rosa watched with growing agitation, snorting and stamping, her head turning to follow Heckle’s flight path. When he rose higher than the landing at the top of the stairs, she reared and let out a distressed whinny. The sound startled Heckle so badly, that he squeaked, lost his rhythm, and landed in a curled heap.
“You all right?”
“Yeah.” Heckle uncurled slowly, shoulders hunched. “Did I make her mad?”
Corny opened the stall door and let Rosa out, where she snorted and tossed her head. “No. I reckon it was more of a worried thing. Guess she wasn’t happy with you goin’ up so high.”
“Oh.” Heckle tucked his knees up, obviously thinking. “I’m sorry, Rosa. But it’s hard to keep to five feet off the floor.”
She ambled over and lipped at Heckle’s hair, making him duck and giggle. Wasn’t unheard of for Rosa to take a shine to someone, though she was offish with most people. She obviously liked Heckle, though, and a strange idea hit Corny sideways. Probably had something to do with consorting with demons, his odd thoughts.
“Heck, I wanna try something. You game?”
Half an hour later, Verin came looking for him and stopped on the landing to stare. “What in all the fiery fucks of Hell’s fuck kitchen?”
Heckle flew along the circle of Rosa’s track, a slim nylon rope tied around his waist. At the other end of the rope, Rosa trotted with the nylon held between her teeth.
“Heck’s just havin’ some flight practice,” Corny said with as straight a face as he could manage.
“Great. But why’s the little twerp a fucking horse balloon?”
Corny snorted. “Horse balloon, my sweet ass. Rosa just got a mite worried about him flying around by himself. This makes her happy.”
They watched for a minute, Verin at the top of the stairs, Corny at the bottom, in nearly identical stances, arms crossed over chests, until Heckle spotted Verin.
With a bright grin, Heckle tugged gently on the rope. “Look, Verin! I’m a horse balloon.”
Verin let out a choked sound and Corny held up a hand. “Don’t. Don’t you dare.”
“Didn’t say a damn thing, cowboy,” Verin sputtered on a laugh. “Not even I told you so.”
Location: Aboard the Brimstone
Time: Several days after the end of Shax's War
The new scarf Papa Ness had bought him wasn’t cooperating. Leopold sat on his haunches with a frustrated peep, the rainbow-colored scarf clutched in both paws. He’d tried to weave it into the lining of the nest, but the shadows had hidden its bright colors that way. Then he’d tried working it in along the top, but it clashed with the pink dress socks he’d stolen from Papa Shax.
His textile thefts weren’t secret. He knew that. But for whatever reason, his fathers chose to ignore the little bits of laundry larceny. Papa Shax had gone so far as to declare loudly in Leopold’s hearing that he must have misplaced his blue velvet micro shorts and he’d simply have to buy a new pair. He wasn’t sure he understood Shax yet. Ness was uncomplicated—sweet and kind, though fierce when he needed to be. Shax was…a demon and had ulterior motives hidden in all things, though his ulterior motives often included the welfare of people he considered his. His lover. His ship. His crew. His only son. Who was a pink hedgehog that started life as a figment.
The full truth was a bit more complicated, having to do with removed angel body parts being unwilling to die and possible scraps of demon DNA in the mix, all brought to a rolling boil by Ness’s desperate thoughts of Shax during a terrible, dark time.
“Leopold?” Shax’s call over ship comm interrupted his thoughts. “Come down to the galley, my dear. We have business.”
Startled, Leopold fell over onto his back and had to roll himself up in a ball before he could right himself and waddle to the comm to peep acknowledgment. What could this be now? He draped his new scarf atop his nest and scurried to the galley where he found Shax sitting at the single, long table.
He patted the bench beside him. “Come up with me. I’ve decided your apprenticeship begins today.”
Leopold clambered up, careful to keep his back paws on the bench so no one could yell at him about putting his butt on the table. Metal contraptions, some as small as his paw, others as large as his head lay spread out across the table, while in front of his father sat a rolled up piece of leather.
Shax gave him a bright smile and waved a hand over the table. “Consider this Lock Picking 101. Your very first lesson. I’d considered starting with pick-pocketing, but I’m afraid your size doesn’t lend itself well to that particular discipline.”
“These are all locks, then? The mechanisms themselves? Why not digital?” Leopold leaned over and sniffed at the leather roll.
“We’ll work on digital locks another time, my dear. Yes, most locks you’ll come across these days are electronic, which is why most common thieves are equipped to deal with them. But we aren’t common thieves, and you’ll find many wealthy, ah, patrons will employ mechanical locks simply because the modern thief no longer bothers to learn about them.” Shax gave a disdainful sniff. “My son needs to understand every sort of lock.”
Leopold peeped his assent and watched in fascination as Shax unrolled the leather to reveal a meticulously ordered set of metal rods from tiny to finger length, some with bends and hooks or odd protrusions.
“One set of tools of the trade. Picks and probes. We’ll start with the easiest and let you get a feel for it.” Shax picked up a medium sized padlock and one of the least complicated rods. With the rod delicately inserted in the lock, he gave it a twist and a nudge, and the lock sprang open. “Now you try.”
There was something peaceful and warm about the lesson. Papa Shax was infinitely patient and no one disturbed them, though Leopold suspected they had been told not to interrupt. There was a feel to it, one Leopold began to pick up as they practiced, as well as small sounds that told him whether he was successfully moving the bits and pieces or not.
Comfortable and intriguing as the lesson was, Leopold still found himself getting frustrated. Many of the picks were too big for him to handle effectively. He just couldn’t quite get the right angle with some of them. Finally, he shook out his aching paw, curled in far enough to reach his quills, and plucked one.
“Um, Leopold?” Shax eye him with concern, one eyebrow raised high. “That can’t be good for you.”
“It will grow back soon. I want to try something else. Give me a moment.” Leopold studied the pick and nibbled at his plucked quill until it mimicked the shape of the pick he had been using. He inserted the modified quill into the lock and began feeling around with it.
“That’s not going to do much, my dear,” Shax said with a soft smile. “It’s simply not stiff en—”
The click of the lock opening cut Shax off. For a moment, the demon Prince of Thieves sat open-mouthed, his black eyes wide. Leopold sat back with a peep, as shocked as his father that it had worked.
“Well. Ah. Hmm.” Shax took the quill from Leopold and studied it, turning it this way and that. “I…hmm. I suppose I should think about a modified set of tools for you. Smaller hands and all that.” He returned the quill and gave Leopold a pat on his spiny back. “In the meantime, please, by all things unholy, don’t pluck yourself bald while you practice.”
Location: Aboard the Brimstone
Time: Two weeks after the events of Beside a Black Tan
Verin rubbed at his right ear. “What in fucking tar pits is that sound?”
“Not much for me to go on, grumpy pants,” Ms. Ivana scolded from the speakers in the pilot’s pod. “These poor old deck plates and ducts make a lot of sounds.”
“That!” Verin pointed to the back of the pod. “That damn scritch scritch noise.”
“Oh, that. Honey, you’ve got a tiny biological in the air ducts.”
“What, like a hermit crab?”
“Body temp’s too high for that.” Ms. Ivana paused. “Small mammal’s my guess. I can’t get a good visual in there.”
Verin snorted a puff of steam. “Thought you had fucking cameras everywhere.”
She laughed, damn AI. “Wouldn’t that be fun? Horny little vid cams screwing all over the ship. No, hot shot. I don’t. But I might have one over your bed. Your cowboy is to die for.”
“If your voyeuristic ass horns in on me and Corny, I’m finally gonna reprogram you. Should’ve done it years ago.” Verin cocked his head to the side. “There. There it is again. Can you track the little fucker?”
Ivana sniffed in obvious offense. “What kind of a question is that? Of course I can.”
“Don’t get your panties in a double knot.” Verin scowled, head down, arms crossed over his chest. “We need to get it trapped somewhere with a damn access panel.”
Corny stuck his head into the pod. “What’s got you all riled, Ver? There’s enough smoke in the corridor to make jerky.”
“We’ve got a ballsy mouse or something in the ducts. Noise is driving me bugfuck nuts.”
“Critter must’ve snuck on with Rosa’s feed. Guess we don’t have space mousetraps.”
“Fuck you, cowboy. Not funny.” Verin regretted the words when he glanced up to find Corny frowning at him. So damn hard to know when his cowboy was serious sometimes. Not that he’d apologize. Corny was a big boy. “Ivana, can you make it go toward the galley?”
“What do I look like, a mouse herder?” Ivana snapped.
“Don’t get pissy with me, Ms. Thing. I dunno, make the damn ducts colder here so it heads to a warmer spot? Then shut the vent closures either side when it gets to the galley?”
Corny’s lips curled up into a slow grin. “Not just a pretty face, are you? Might could work, Ms. Ivana.”
“You’re the animal herder, cowboy,” Ivana purred. “I’d try anything for you.”
The unsubtle sexual innuendo raised Verin’s hackles, and wasn’t that fucking stupid? Getting jealous over an AI’s flirting. Corny got an empty packing crate while Verin jogged down to the engine compartment and snagged a mag-screwdriver. Ivana’s play-by-play as she thermally herded the vermin followed him, as did the soft thump of each duct closure marking its progress down the ductwork. They probably looked ridiculous, crouched by the access panel in the galley, but fuck it. Extermination would happen, even if he had to do it with his ass sticking up in the air.
He took out the last screw, hands on either side of the panel. “Ready?”
“The big mean rodent is trapped, big guy,” Ivana sang out. “It’s all you.”
“All right, DeGroot,” Verin growled. “You go in high, I’ll go in low.”
Corny’s tongue protruded from the corner of his mouth as he crouched, crate in hand. He looked fucking adorable, or adorably fuckable. Verin snorted at his own sappiness. He yanked the panel. There was a squeak and a scrabble of claws as light flooded the shaft. A flash of gray zipped by on the left and Verin dove for it.
Too bad Corny did as well.
They slammed heads, or rather Corny slammed into Verin’s horn. Poor cowboy fell hard on his ass, shaking his head. Verin raced after the sneaky-ass vermin, cursing and sending up clouds of smoke as he kept diving for it and it kept eluding him. His damn horns clanged into doorframes and corridor plates.
“What in blazing sulfur pits is going on out here?” Shax stood in the doorway to his cabin, wearing nothing but a pair of briefs, the little twerp. He’d either been napping or screwing around. Yep. Mostly naked angel at his shoulder. That would be the second option.
Verin was too busy tracking the rodent asshole to answer. There. Down by the turn in the corridor. Creeping forward on his hands and knees, Verin stalked the little fucker, waiting for it to stop and sniff the air. Easy…easy…now!
He misjudged and smashed his head on the corner with a clang that resonated through his body. Bloody fucking troll shit. His head pounded. When the corridor stopped pitching from side to side, he was looking up into Shax’s face. Asshole looked like he was trying not to laugh.
“All right there, Ver?”
“Go fuck a Tesla coil.”
Farther down the corridor, Ness crouched with one hand held up near his face. When Verin squinted, he made out a moving gray thing on Ness’s palm.
“Poor little thing,” Ness crooned. “Did the mean demon scare you?”
“What…is that?” Corny asked softly, peering over Ness’s shoulder.
Now that Verin could focus, he saw the huge black eyes and the prehensile tail wrapped around Ness’s wrist. The freaky rodent flipped around and walked up the underside of Ness’s forearm, using paws with suction cups in the pads.
Shax’s smile had slipped. “That’s a spacer rat. Evolved specifically for ship environments. Ness, my darling, my own, it’s no better than a cockroach.”
“Don’t say that. He’s so cute!” The damn rat was on Ness’s shoulder now, nuzzling under his chin, the little suck up. “I’m keeping him.”
The shock on Shax’s face was hilarious. “But—”
“Leopold has an arthropod. I don’t see why I shouldn’t have a rat.” Ness’s jaw was set, and Verin started to enjoy this. Twinkles was standing up for himself these days. Didn't hurt that Shax still felt guilty about the whole Julian misunderstanding.
“Cupcake…” Shax started, then trailed off and shook his head. “Fine. Don’t let me catch him in the food stores. I suppose you’ll want to name him.”
“Yes.” The rat had taken a defiant perch on Ness’s shoulder. Verin swore it was laughing at him. “His name is Nicodemus.”
Corny’s face hove into view. “Need a hand there?”
Grumbling, Verin recalled he was still flat on his back on the deck plates and he let Corny haul him up. No hardship to let his head rest on Corny’s broad shoulder while he got his balance.
Just as the world was steadying, Ivana’s voice broke through the soft murmurs of conversation. “Excuse me? Is someone going to put my access panel back, please? A girl could catch her death from the draft, you know.”
Location: The Karnak Casino, Ra Station
Time: Approximately two years after Potato Surprise
“What name is the reservation under, sir?”
“Bond. Julian Bond.” Julian struggled to keep his expression disinterested, but damn, how he had longed to say those words. Ever since Shax had shown him vids of the Old Earth hero, he had indulged gleeful fantasies about being Bond.
When the central office had asked if he had a name preference for this assignment, how could he resist?
Security, discreet in maître d' guise, activated the door lock on the ornately embossed golden scanner pergola and let Julian proceed. The fact that central had snagged him an invitation here at all was remarkable. That no one questioned him once he was on the guest list was not even slightly shocking. In keeping with the rarified surroundings, Julian was in formal attire, scarlet frock coat and ridiculously tight synth-silk pants. Minimal ceramic weaponry that the scanners would miss, minimal hidden electronics, likewise.
Tonight was all about finesse rather than hit hard and run, and since the casino had the best high-tech security money could buy, this meant he was on his own, without backup surveillance. He had the means, he had the method—what he didn’t have was an exit strategy. Sometimes it was best to delay planning of that final piece until one had a feel for the room. The gaming tables gleamed with exotic woods and precious inlays. The staff all were beautiful young people, elegantly uniformed, perfectly coiffed. The guests were a cross section of every corner of the galaxies wealthiest excesses from diamond-encrusted gowns to titanium body enhancements.
He accepted a flute of champagne from a lovely in a skintight black bodysuit with little silver bells around the waist, then scanned the crowd for a likely companion for the evening. Someone flashy and memorable so his exit later would be conspicuous. Blonde Amazon with the raucous laugh. Perhaps. The…oh, sweet gods. The heavens had smiled on him. But how had the little brigand managed to get in here?
A middle management type bustled up to the casino guest in question. “Prince Shax! Such a pleasure to have royalty at the Karnak. Please let us know if there’s anything we can do for you.”
That answers that. Julian waited for Shax to turn just a hair and spot him, then he lifted his glass in salute and appreciation for Shax’s evening ensemble. The emerald green pants hugged every luscious bit of Shax’s gorgeous legs and the tails on the suit coat were just short enough to offer hints and peeks at his perfect ass.
Shax said something soft and flirty to the casino employee that made him blush and chuckle. With a beautifully executed platform-soled turn, Shax swept a drink off a passing tray and stalked toward Julian. “Well, hello there handsome. Don’t I know you?”
“We’ve met socially.” Julian offered a wry smile and extended his hand. “Julian Bond. Your mother introduced us.”
“Oh, of course.” Shax took the offered hand and turned it into an excuse to tuck his hand into Julian’s elbow and walk with him. “Fancy that. Mother insisted I pay a visit here.”
“Did she now?” Julian had just spotted his target at the Argos wheel table. He leaned in to whisper. “Fancy being my very visible arm candy for the evening?”
“Of course. What do you need me to do?”
“Stay by me and be an attention whore, dear. I just need people watching you.”
“Playing to my strengths. Smart man,” Shax murmured.
The target wasn’t remarkable in any way, average height and weight, middle-aged, except that his understated clothes would have outpriced a small interstellar ship and his security loomed behind him. Apparently, Shax followed his gaze and took the cue easily.
“Oh, Argos! Julian, do you mind? I do love this game. So exciting!”
Julian offered him a tight, indulgent smile, clear to everyone watching that he was reluctant but thoroughly invested in the lovely demon prince enjoying himself. Shax maneuvered them over so that Julian was beside the target. To anyone watching, the move made sense since the only open spot at the table was next to Mr. Expensive Suit. Shax surveyed the table and placed his chip sensors with unholy glee.
“Blue peacock. Gold ships.” Shax stretched to reach a betting square in the center for his remaining sensors. “Five blue peacock. Almost…”
“Your highness,” Julian said with amusement, as he and everyone around the table watched Shax wiggle his fine little ass as he bent over the table. “I could get you a rake to—”
“No! I can do this. I’m not that short.” With a last push of his outstretched fingers, Shax reached his chosen square, stood back up and straightened his jacket. His horns sparkled in the lights of the spinning Argos wheel and Julian’s heart cracked all over again at how gorgeous he was.
Concentrate. Just get this done.
All eyes were on Shax as his biggest wager hit and he squealed in delight, clapping his hands.
“Highness?” the croupier held the electronic rake out, ready to add the winnings and push them to Shax.
“Let it ride, m’dear. I feel lucky tonight!” Shax gave Julian a quick peck on the jaw and returned his attention to the table.
Three spins of the wheel later, through which Shax flirted with everyone at the table, his highness had quadrupled his winnings. then lost it all. He managed to look incredibly fetching as he turned his face up to Julian, smile bright but just a hint wobbly. “Ah, well. I never did know when to stop.”
Julian pulled him into a one-armed hug. “Never mind, highness. Shall we go up to dinner?”
“Perfect idea.” Shax stood on tiptoe to give him a sizzling kiss. “I do hope they have flambé. I like a little heat with my meals.”
All eyes were on Shax as he glided away from the table on Julian’s arm and up the spiral stairs to the third floor. Once they were ensconced in a lovely private room overlooking the casino floor, with a bottle of wine and an absolutely exquisite vegetable korma, Shax finally asked, “Well, did you accomplish whatever it was?”
“Oh, yes,” Julian answered with half an eye still on the floor. Mr. Expensive Suit was still at the Argos table.
“But nothing happened. No explosions. No bloodshed.” Shax’s disappointed pout was adorable.
“Keep watching, sweetheart. Any moment now.”
Right on schedule, Mr. Suit turned purple and toppled like a domino. He hit the absurdly thick casino carpet with a thud and chaos ensued as his security grabbed hold of the hapless patrons who had been on either side of him and casino management hurried to the scene.
“Julian,” Shax said softly. “We were down there over forty five minutes ago.”
“Hmm. New topical poison. Takes a bit to take effect. Will have broken down in the bloodstream by the time someone thinks to check. A simple accidental brush of hands.” Julian picked up Shax’s hand from the table and kissed his knuckles. “You were perfect, by the way.”
They sat watching the pandemonium below, Shax humming softly to himself until Julian caught the tune.
“Stop humming Secret Agent Man.”
About The Brimstone Journals
Extra treats for our Brimstone readers, Brimstone Journals will post every Tuesday. Short scenes from characters' lives before, after or during the stories.
About the Author