Time: August 2017
Place: Earth, Houston area
"This is so not my fault," Shax insisted as he hunched farther into his jacket.
"How the fuck is this not your fault?" The smoke from Verin's nostrils barely made it to steam before the pouring rain obliterated it.
The floodwaters had raced in too fast to do more than escape. Shax had planned it so carefully. Wait until the property owners had evacuated, slip in and take the lovely heirloom collection of Victorian jewelry. No worries. In and out. Except when he looked out to see if the street was clear, the street had become a raging river.
The waters had risen with such voracious force that they couldn't even get down the stairs to the first floor. Verin had ripped a door from its hinges and they escaped the flood from the second floor French doors on their makeshift raft.
He patted his pocket to make certain his procurement was safe. At least he'd had time to snatch a few things. Not that he felt terribly triumphant about it as he crouched on a dubious plank of wood, drenched to the bone, whirled about on the muddy currents.
"Not my fault," Shax snuffled and tried to stifle a bout of bone-rattling sneezes. "We should've had plenty of time."
"Yeah, well." Verin shoved his dripping hair out of his eyes. "Stupid humans and their stupid fucking around with the climate, anyway. Now what?"
"Keep an eye out for higher ground. We'll make for what we can." Shax squinted through the rain, wary of large flotsam that might capsize their craft, and saw something swimming nearby. "What's that, Ver?"
Verin half-turned at the tug on his sleeve. "Cat, I think."
"Poor thing. She looks tired." Shax crept carefully toward the edge of their door. "Psss, psss, psss. Come here, kitty. You can ride with us."
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Shaxy."
The little black and white cat grabbed on and climbed aboard eagerly with Shax's help. She huddled beside him, eyes huge, shivering.
"See? She doesn't take up any room."
Except, a little farther on, they found a Pomeranian puppy barely holding to a branch, and a few minutes later, another cat with a kitten clinging to her back.
By the time a fire department rescue boat came for them, Shax and Verin had steered their door to a hill-island that stuck up above the flood. Somehow, illusion spells had held and what the rescuers believed they had found were two young men with kittens peeking out of their jackets and a small herd of animals—four dogs, six cats, a rabbit and a goat—huddled around them.
"All these yours?" One of the men in the boat called out.
Shax shook his head. "No. None of them. Just fellow flood travelers."
"We're gonna have to take a couple trips." The most senior firefighter shook his head. "We had a report of two people stranded but we didn't expect a damn Ark."
"Yes, sir. Take Ver first with some of the little ones," Shax said as he handed the Pom pup across.
"What's all the fucking good Samaritan act for, Shaxy?" Verin hissed in Shax's ear.
"Distraction. We're the good guys here. Unlikely they'll ask us many questions since they'll be worried about half-drowned pets." Shax patted his arm and spoke so the men could hear him. "Go on, Ver. I'll be all right for a bit here."
Verin took both kittens and the mama cat, still glaring at Shax as the rescue boat putted away. The goat butted gently at Shax with a soft maaaa.
"Yes, yes. Of course I couldn't let you all drown. But keep it to yourself, all right? I do have a reputation to maintain."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok, planet Barbary
Julian glanced from Heckle to Mac and back. "Surely, he didn't mean everyone. That is, Verin's a professional, with centuries of weapons experience. And Ness is a soldier while Corny apparently had frequent need to use his pistols. Certainly, Shax isn't history's best shot, but he does well in close combat."
"While me and Heck are non-combatants." Mac's frown made Heckle want to smooth the creases from his forehead but now wasn't the time. "That it, Parallax?"
Heckle flipped his wings onto his back and tried to think taller. "I…I fired the big gun."
"So you did. Cracking good job of it, too. All right, Mr. Numerus. Let's see this lovely new toy the captain gave you." Julian stopped his pacing and stretched out a hand. "Not that it's a toy, of course."
Heckle bounced on his hooves and handed the box over. Captain Shax had said Julian was to assess and instruct everyone since they were docked planetside outside New Bangkok. From what Heckle understood, they were safer here than anywhere else in the quadrant right now—the perfect time to take stock.
"Ah. I'd wondered but didn't get a good look at the Yule party." Julian lifted the shining red pistol in both hands. "Haven't seen one in years."
"It's an antique?" Mac crowded closer, obviously intrigued now.
"Oh, no, no, no. State of the art. But they're usually custom jobs. I do wonder where Shaxy picked this one up." Julian replaced it in the case. "Dual ordinance Trema is what you have here. Capable of firing plasma charges or projectiles with equal accuracy. Enormous stopping power for such a small weapon." He flashed his brightest smile. "Shall we go?"
"Now?" Heckle's squeak echoed down the corridors and he clapped a hand over his mouth.
Julian's eyes sparkled. "Or you could call my assistant and make an appointment. Now's fine if it's convenient for you gentlemen."
"Not me." Mac took a step back, shaking his head. "This is for Heckle. Concentrate on him."
"Heckle, you take that arm." Julian hooked an arm through Mac's and waited until Heckle had a hold on the other. "His demonic highness said everyone, yes? Or are you suggesting that I can't handle more than one at a time?"
"Never that, Agent Parallax," Mac said with his rumbling chuckle. "I'm sure you're an unparalleled multi-tasker."
Unparalleled Parallax… Was Mac making some kind of pun? That wasn't really a pun, was it? Heckle couldn't ask now, though. The conversation had moved on and he'd lost the chance to ask. That didn't make him as anxious as it used to. It didn't bother him when Julian flirted with Mac, either. Julian flirted with everyone. Except Verin, who acted like he hated Julian. Heckle was pretty sure they just liked snarking at each other.
A quick tube ride from the spaceport, the range was bigger than Heckle could've imagined. Made sense, he imagined, since crime lords and syndicates controlled the city domes of Barbary. Lots of bodyguards and mercenaries who had to keep up on important skills. Still, he thought the grenade launcher firing lanes were kind of overkill.
Julian signed them in, procured a plasma pistol for Mac and registered Heckle's pistol with the range master, who fussed and cooed over it like it was a cute kitten or something. I guess if weapons are your job, it is pretty cute.
"All right, gentlemen. Have either of you been on a firing range before?" Julian asked before they entered the lanes.
"Been a long time," Mac admitted.
Heckle shook his head.
"Quick review of rules, then." Julian waved a hand at the people firing at targets. "Weapons ranges are, for those of us in the industry, sacred spaces. You may have rivals from several sides of a conflict here today but no violence will happen here. Somewhat ironic, I know. But no one breaks the rules because no one wants to be banned."
"We won't shoot anyone," Heckle blurted out.
"I know, my dear imp." Julian patted his shoulder. "I want you to feel safe, too. Weapons stay in their cases until you are in your lane. Muzzle pointed downrange at all times. If you hear cease fire on the comm system, weapons down on the bench. Easy enough?"
It wasn't much to remember. Heckle managed a nod, excitement and anxiety warring in his stomach. Most of the anxious little knots were old ones. Leftover fear that someone would yell at him for touching things he had no right to. But this was his weapon, given to him by his captain and today, an interstellar government assassin was his instructor.
Mac leaned down to give him a soft kiss before they separated to side-by-side lanes. "Just do your best, little bit. You'll be fine."
Heckle waited in his lane, struggling not to fidget with his pistol's case, while Julian got Mac set up and practicing. So much to watch, but Heckle focused on Mac and how all this worked. There were holo targets at the ends of each lane, adjustable, it looked like, so they could appear closer or farther away. The silhouette shapes disturbed him a little—Heckle didn't want to think about shooting people until he had to—but Mac seemed to take it in stride. He took his five shots, put his pistol on the bench (muzzle facing downrange) and checked the screen on his right.
Three of five, the computer stated in a cheerful voice while the screen showed the hits, two on the torso, one clipping the shoulder.
"Not bad at all, sir, for claiming to be rusty." Julian beamed and clapped Mac on the arm. "Keep at it. Remember, center mass. Heads are too chancy to aim for."
"Unless you're you," Mac said with a sidelong glance at Julian.
Julian's smile only widened. "Exactly. Unless you're me."
He came to help Heckle next, showing him how to load and unload both plasma charges and the metal-tipped projectiles, then how to switch between ammunition. When it came time to fire, Heckle's nerves had almost vanished.
"Both hands, my dear," Julian cautioned as Heckle raised the pistol. "The only person I know who can fire accurately with a pistol in either hand is Verin, but you don't need to be like him. Steady. Use your wings for balance if you like. Site down the barrel like we practiced. Breathe in. Breathe out. Fire."
Heckle depressed the trigger button, surprised when the pistol didn't kick back much. The projectile hurtled down the lane and put a hole through the center of the target. He readjusted, aimed and fired four more times in rapid succession before he put the weapon down properly with a little huff of relief.
Five of five, the computer voice chirped. But when Heckle checked, only one hole showed on the target.
"Hmm." Julian stepped closer and tapped on the screen. "Computer, enlarge please."
Still, it showed only one hole. "What did I do wrong?"
"Wrong?" Julian turned to him in astonishment. "Oh, sweetheart, you couldn't be more right. That's five shots placed nearly one on top of the other. See here—the tiny bits of ragged edges, here and here? That's the only evidence that you even fired five times."
Heckle blinked at the shot group and shivered. "I did that?"
"Did what, Heck? How'd you do?" Mac leaned around the lane divider.
Julian's smile was amused and maybe a little shaken. "Well. Ah, let's just say that if Heckle weren't otherwise engaged, I'd hire him to be my bodyguard."
Time: After Beside a Black Tarn
Place: Triton Station
Verin stormed into the galley and kicked one of the benches. Hard. Yeah, it hurt his taloned foot, but it left a good dent in the metal. Dents helped.
"What's the matter, Grumpypants?" Ms. Ivana cooed in not quite her smartass voice. "And where's your cowboy?"
"They kept him at the fucking hospital," Verin growled. It's just a cough, he'd said to Corny the night before, and now his cowboy was in the intensive treatment unit. Guilty, yeah. He felt like the biggest asshole just waving off Corny's pain.
"Oh." Ivana dropped the bitchy tone for concerned. "What did the doctors say it was?"
Corny had started coughing after the donkey-fucking disaster of Shax's house theft plan. It'd started off slow —a short fit of coughing in the morning when he got up, another maybe halfway through the night. After a couple of days, the coughing grew more persistent, but Corny hadn't been concerned, so Verin wasn't. What'd he know about humans and colds and shit?
But it'd gotten worse. The previous evening, Corny could barely talk without hacking. When they'd woken up that morning, Corny had said it felt like a hay wagon had collapsed on his chest. Verin had to call for a transport to the station's med facility 'cause there was no way in all the rings and caves of hell that Corny would've made it walking.
"They have to do some fucking nanobot procedure." Verin leaned both palms against the counter. "Clean out his lungs."
The silence after that statement was so out of character, Verin lifted his head. "Ivana?"
"Clean what out of his lungs?" she finally asked, hushed and clipped.
Verin cleared his throat. "Smoke."
"Your hissy-fit smoke?"
"No, don't be stupid. That's steam, most of the time." Verin had to clear his throat again. Fuck. "Cigar smoke."
"Cigar smoke." He could almost see Ivana tapping her fingers and raising her manicured eyebrows.
"Yeah. Shut up. Shaxy said I couldn't smoke in the galley anymore and smoking in the shitbag hold's a fire hazard. What the fuck was I supposed to do?"
"So you smoked in your cabin." Ivana snorted. "In that little enclosed space with Corny right there."
"There's filters and shit! Corny said he didn't care!"
"Uh-huh. So what now, Lizard Feet? Are you quitting?"
Lizard Feet? Ivana hadn't called him that in years. She had no fucking right and Verin did not feel guilty. Feeling guilty was for suckers and humans. "Like it's any of your business. I'm going back to the med center for some peace and fucking quiet."
There had to be some way to blame Shax for this. It hadn't started until after the last crap job, then the galley banning. It was Shax's fault, damn it. Like it always was. Verin managed to fume, stomp and steam all the way back to the room they'd assigned Corny for after the procedure. Only a few minutes passed before they brought Corny in…and Verin's fume-fest abruptly died.
Corny didn't have much more color than the frost-white sheets. The wheezing had stopped but so had everything else.
"He's not...?" Verin couldn't say it. Hell's gates, no. Please.
"We'll take the stasis field off before we transfer him to the bed, Mr. Hammer." The taller of the two masked and gloved attendants said. "He came through it like a champ."
Verin sagged in the visitor's chair, silent, watchful and aching as they settled Corny into bed.
"He'll have to stay with us overnight, of course. But the docs don't foresee any problems."
He nodded, unable to locate where his voice had gone. Probably rolled under the bed. When the attendants left, Verin gathered Corny's cold hand up in both of his. He couldn't put his head down with all the tubes and wires. His horns would get tangled. So he waited, uncomfortably and impatiently, until Corny opened his eyes.
"Hey, cowboy." Verin didn't even try for a smile. Wasn't happening.
"Hey, there, tall, dark, and horny." Corny pulled up a ghost of a smile with his whisper. "You look terrible."
"Ha! Look who the fuck's talking." Verin was going for teasing but his voice cracked and wavered. "Nah. You look a fuckton better. Corn, I—"
"Ver." Corny squeezed his hand, a pitiful ghost of his usual sure grip. "I'm a mite tuckered but I'm gonna be right as rain soon. It's all right."
Verin nodded and pressed Corny's knuckles to his forehead until he could sound like himself again. He didn't want to leave when they told him visiting time was up but, yeah, he got it. Cowboy needed his rest. Slouching back to the Brimstone, he didn't even care that he was wreathed in smoke and people were crossing the transport lanes to get away from him. So much not caring.
When he climbed up the Brimstone's ramp, Shax was waiting for him. "Ver, how is—"
"Not talking. Shut the fuck up."
Vision still clouded by his own personal smokestack, Verin brushed past and kept going to his cabin. Quit smoking. Ha! Fat fucking chance. Centuries of smoking behind him. Centuries. He wasn't giving up something he enjoyed for some stupid human. He'd told the damn cowboy not to come with him. It was Corny's own fault.
He kept trying to tell himself these things as his eyes welled up and his chest tightened, as he kept returning to the image of Corny blue and gasping on their bunk. Damn all fragile humans, anyway. Except now he was crying and he hated crying. Still, he let himself for a few minutes, ugly, heaving sobs, finally gathering himself together as he retrieved his boxes of cigars from the cabinet over the bed.
No one had to know but Corny. He could… Maybe in bars and shit like that. Quietly, making certain no one saw him, Verin made his way to the airlock and placed the boxes of cigars inside.
"Wouldn't do this for anyone else. Hope you know that, cowboy," he whispered as he cycled the airlock.
The next day he'd be able to bring Corny home and as he watched the boxes turn end-over-end out into space, Verin was surprised at how little it hurt to watch them go.
Time: Directly before the beginning of Shax's War
Place: Opal, Planetary Resort
Theft. Ness strolled through the resort's entertainment district, pondering. It wasn't as if he thought he could reform demons. That was a silly thought, though one held by certain fringe religious sects. Shax was a thief, well…because that's what he was. Verin was one more out of habit. Corny wasn't a thief but he shrugged at the necessity of letting demons be demons and added that they could've made a living in more horrible ways.
Ness stopped to peruse a shop window full of pastries. Wonderful things. Pastries. He stepped inside to buy several of the delicate miniature fruit-filled danishes and two chocolate-iced confections he didn't have a name for and considered the question while he devoured them. Shax never stole food. It was an interesting distinction that Ness couldn't quite puzzle out. Shax also tended to steal from wealthy humans or ones who had annoyed him, though he wasn't above taking something from a shop when he wanted an item. He always paid for items he had specifically ordered or ones specially made for him.
The flexible morality of thievery was quite baffling.
Perhaps if I tried it, though? Things might become clearer? Shax's love of certain foods had certainly become clearer when Ness had tried them. Sexual desire had as well. Maybe theft worked in similar ways.
The last delicious pastry had met its inevitable end just as Ness reached the end of the resort's shopping park and wandered into one of several entertainment clusters. This one was more young-person oriented than the one he'd visited with Shax the previous evening. Fewer gyrating, glittering dancers. More holo-adventures and games.
A few parents shrank away from him and pulled their children close. It hurt Ness a bit to see but he supposed he understood their reaction to a gray-winged angel stalking through their midst, and he probably should've worn something other than black leather. For the most part, though, the other guests ignored him, too intent on their own amusements.
He stopped where a small crowd had gathered, curious what held their attention, and peered over shoulders to see. The crowd surrounded a small track with a sign in the center that announced Wublit Racing. Wublits, apparently, were fuzzy spherical creatures on which the only indication of top or bottom was the several dozen tiny feet on one side. Whether they came in a riot of bright colors naturally or had been dyed, Ness couldn't be certain.
The dozen wublits, each in its own padded lane, apparently knew there would be treats at the end of the course. When their holding gate dropped, they raced like mad for the finish, careening off lane walls, falling over and rolling only to scramble back up and scurry on, all to the shrieking delight of the human onlookers. A neon yellow one appeared to be the crowd favorite, though the flame red one had fans, too. During the first race Ness watched, the yellow beat the red one to the treat trough by a skitter-roll.
"Do the children, er, gamble on the outcomes?" Ness asked a well-dressed man to his right.
"It's all in good fun, Mr. Angel." The man looked him up and down with a disapproving nose wrinkle. "Don't go all holy roller."
"As if I had any right to," Ness said softly as the next race started.
The man had three children with him, though he seemed more invested in his own betting than how the kids were doing. He also wore a gold and presumably diamond bracelet so heavy that it clunked every time it hit his wristcomm.
Shax would steal from this sort of person. He displays the bracelet to let people know how wealthy he is. It's not as if he needs it.
Ness waited until the man's focus returned to the race. Cerulean wublit was unexpectedly in the lead. The crowd surge forward to see, packed in tight. The man had his left hand on one of his kids' shoulders. Gently, Ness unhooked the clasped, caught the bracelet as it fell, and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. The man was too caught up in the scramble of wublits to notice.
Initially pleased with himself, Ness began to walk away. The bracelet seemed to weigh heavier with each step he took. He turned back in time to see the man herding his children away from the wublit course, one of them obviously elated, the man himself disgruntled and annoyed. Yes, he'd been annoying and condescending, making assumptions about Ness on appearance alone.
But the weight of jewelry in Ness's pocket was reaching critical mass and no matter how he justified it, he was taking something that did not belong to him. He spun about and hurried after the little family group.
"Excuse me, sir?" Ness held the bracelet out to him. "You dropped this."
"Oh. Um. Thanks." Red-faced, the man took the bracelet and hustled his small brood away, perhaps chagrined over being rude to Ness. One could hope.
Not quite depressed but no longer in the holiday spirit, Ness made his way back to the room he was sharing with Shax. Lovely room with a huge bed and a view of the seaside—their own private sanctuary. Even better, Shax was there, sorting through some of his shirts.
"Hello there, gorgeous." Shax greeted him with a bright smile. "What've you been up to?"
Ness crossed the room to gather Shax into his arms. He needed to hold his demon, needed his heat, his strength, his cheerful amorality as he told the story of the wublits and the bracelet. Shax stroked his back and kissed him softly when he was done.
"Ah, well. Worth a try, I suppose." Shax leaned back to look up at him. "Don't feel bad, cupcake. It's not for everyone."
"You're not disappointed?"
Shax let out a huff. "Of course not. I can manage enough thievery for both of us and you have other talents of which I'm mightily glad. It's a perfect arrangement."
"Perfect." Ness pulled him close with a soft sigh and kissed his hair. Morality could go…bugger itself. He'd found where he was accepted for what he was, as he was. Really wasn't any more complicated than that.
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