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Black Magic Sanction

Black Magic Sanction: Page 37

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Expression unchanging, he pulled open the man door fixed in the garage door. "Jax!" he shouted, and the pixy zipped back, tucking himself into the outside pocket of Nick's faded cloth coat just as the sun spilled in across our feet. "Just across the street," he said again, squinting at the bright spring sun.

Pierce and I followed. His fingers moved against mine, taking my grip more firmly, and I stifled a start when a budding sensation of warmth grew in the cup of my hand. What in hell is he doing? I thought, then yanked free. Pierce smiled, and I glared at him. It hadn't been a power pull, but it had been something. And I didn't like his jaunty new step either.

The building Nick was heading toward looked bigger than most. I was guessing it had once been a theater, with SALTY CHOCOLATE in faded letters where the movie titles would have been. Dinner theater? I wondered, changing my mind when we entered the barred door to find a wide foyer with an unlit neon sign proclaiming it was the Salty Chocolate Bar. There was another set of barred gates; beyond them were a quiet space full of tables, a dance floor with three poles, the smell of Brimstone, and a long bar. The bar had a stripper pole, too. No one was in there, but the dark light display made me remember Kisten.

"You live above a strip bar?" I said, and Nick gave me a sidelong glance, pulling a single key out from a pocket and unlocking a side door covered in thick paint the same color as the walls. It opened to a narrow stairway with faded carpet and bare walls going up what must have been three stories. I sent my gaze all the way up and winced. This was going to kill my knees.

"Upstairs, last door at the end of the hall," Nick said, gesturing for me to go, and Jax flew up first, vaulting from Nick's pocket to make a steep, glittery ascent. It looked like the two of them had been working together since Mackinaw, and I wondered if it was only the fact that Nick was a thief that made Jenks and me that much different.

The stairs creaked, and it smelled old, like coal-stoves-and-pigs-roaming-the-streets old. The occasional window through the brick wall lit the way. Pierce was behind me, and I glanced up when footsteps started down. It was a very tall woman, and I stood aside when we met somewhere in the middle. She was wearing black lace and fur, both fake. Too much blush.

"Hi, hon, love your hair," she said to me, her voice decidedly husky, then to Nick, "Hey, lovey. Where's Jax?"

"Upstairs," Nick said shortly, clearly not liking the woman, or man, I was beginning to suspect. I smiled noncommittally as she passed with her boots clunking, but before I could take another step, she made a sound of recognition.

"Tom!" she exclaimed, and Pierce threw himself against the wall when she reached for him. His expression was scared, and he grabbed his hat from his head when it started to fall.

"Hey, man!" the woman said, punching him on the shoulder to make Pierce's eyes go even wider. "Tom, Tom, the magic man. That was some serious shit you did last time you were here. Where you been? Word was you got cacked by some broad under the city. Shoulda known it was nothing but salty water under the bridge. I didn't know you knew Nicky. You going to be here tonight? I got a table for you. You just say the word, and I'll have a couple of my best girls for you, too. No charge, no cleanup fee."

No cleanup fee?

Nick watched Pierce's frightened expression. I, too, was surprised. Tom was a known face down here? Great. Just freaking great.

"You mistake me for someone else... ma'am," Pierce managed.

The woman looked at me and laughed. "Oh, right. Yeah. My mistake," she said. "See you around. Bye, Nicky," she said, her voice shifting higher. "You working tonight?"

Nick shook his head. "Not tonight, Annie. I'll be showing my friends the sights."

"Plenty of sights in the club," she said deviously. With a little wave, she continued down. Her shoulders were wider than Glenn's and she carried herself with much the same easy grace.

"Annie owns the building," Nick offered. "Owns the club. Takes good care of her girls."

"Takes your rent?" I guessed, and Nick nodded.

"Doesn't ask questions," he added, passing me when I didn't move fast enough for him.

fit bet, I thought, sliding over when Pierce came up beside me.

"Law sakes' alive," the shaken man whispered as he snuck glances down at the woman, still making her boot-clunking way downstairs. "I suspicion wearing Tom's appearance isn't a powerful-good idea anymore."

His accent had gone full into the early 1800s, proof that he was shaken, and I gave him a sour look. "You got that right," I said, following his gaze to the bottom of the stairwell where the woman blew kisses to us before slipping out the side door and locking it firmly. "Why don't you put yourself back together? I like you looking like you."

Pierce glanced at the stairway. "I didn't want to be spied with two faces in the car barn."

"Garage," I corrected him, and he softly repeated the word, brow furrowed.

Nick's steps were soundless as he reached the top. A building-long hallway stretched with doors on one side, windows on the other. It looked like it had once been an open balcony looking out onto the side street, long since bricked up to give some protection from the elements.

"It's the one at the end," Nick said, seeming as eager as us to avoid any more encounters.

Someone was yelling at someone about their choice of TV and eating all the yogurt as Nick hustled down the hall, me trailing behind with my sore knees, looking out to the blah brown building across the street in the cold spring sun. I felt a tweak on my awareness, and I wasn't surprised when Pierce shuddered, and I looked to see him like himself again. Even his fingers were different.
Not so thick, smaller, more dexterous.

Nick stopped at the last door, doing a double take as he saw Pierce. "That's a good one," he said as he fished out a second key. "I'd never have known it was you if you hadn't been sitting next to Rachel. Demon magic? Must have cost a lot."

Pierce shrugged, eyes on the brown building across the street. "Someone died for it. And this is the disguise, sir."

Nick hesitated with the key in the door, clearly having second thoughts.

"Thanks for letting us crash at your place," I said, not wanting to have to go back downstairs and grab a bus. "I'm amazed you found us, with me looking like an old lady."

His expression softening, Nick twisted the key and unlocked the door. "Remember the library? When we broke in to see the restricted section? You were wearing the same thing."

I laughed, but Pierce was appalled. "You are a hoister, Rachel? Lifting books from a... public institution?"

My smile grew fond. "I just wanted to see them. I didn't walk off with anything." Nick had, though. Slowly my smile faded. That had been the night I'd met Al. He'd torn my throat out at the request of Ivy's old master vampire. I'd survived, obviously, but that was the beginning of everything that put me here, shunned and beholden to the very demon who'd tried to kill me. "I needed a look at the spell books," I finished softly.

"Then why didn't you simply ask?" Pierce asked. "Surely if you had impressed upon the librarian your plight, he would have allowed you access."

"They wouldn't have made an exception," I said sadly, knowing I was right. "People just aren't that way anymore."

Good mood thoroughly gone, I entered Nick's apartment. As I crossed the threshold into the one large room, I rubbed at the demon mark I'd gotten that night, wondering if that one decision could be responsible for the entire rest of my life. Why Pierce was scowling, I hadn't a clue. It couldn't be Nick's place. It was nice. Really nice. In-any-neighborhood nice.

It was a corner apartment with windows on two sides and a rack of plants under a skylight in the kitchen. Jax was dusting heavily among the greenery already, and the place smelled like a conservatory: green and growing. The kitchen was faded, small, and clean.

"Make yourself at home," Nick said as he dropped the single key conspicuously on the Formica kitchen table and sat down to take off his tatty sneakers.

I came farther in as Pierce shut the door, his flat black shoes making a slow turn on the low carpet. It was all one big room, with trifold screens to loosely define areas. Shelves lined the walls between the windows, each holding stuff that I'd classify as knickknacks if I hadn't known they were probably priceless. Some had spotlights. It reminded me of a museum, and I couldn't help but wonder if Nick had had this place before we broke up.

The living room was a couch before a wide-screen TV bolted to the wall, out of view from the windows thanks to the screens. Beside it in the corner - also out of sight - was a stack of expensive equipment, everything black and silver and piled as if they were worth nothing, but nothing was likely what he'd paid for them.

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