A Shot in the Dark

K.A. Stewart


Two years ago…

“F ire in the hole!” I grabbed the kid by the front of his shirt and dragged him into the water, falling on top of him to protect him further. Problem being, there was room for one man at the bottom of the pool, but not two. Half submerged as I was, the explosion was enough to deafen me, the sound wave skipping across the top of the water to smack me upside my very thick skull.

As I felt things pelting down on me, splattering my shoulders and the one arm I couldn’t get under the water, I was forced to admit that this had not been one of my better ideas. I pressed my forehead against the kid’s, trapping him under the water, and held my breath until spots danced before my eyes. Pondering just how I’d gotten to this point, I was pretty sure that somehow, it was the poodle’s fault.

Now, I hate poodles. They’re not even real dogs. They’re more like rats in sheep’s clothing. The constant “yip yip yip” should be blared over loudspeakers to end police standoffs. And no cute fluffy animal should be pink. It’s just wrong on so many levels.

So I hope you can understand the amazing amount of restraint I exercised, not half an hour earlier, as someone’s pink, yappy, woolly rat barked and snapped around my ankles. One quick stomp with my heavy boot and it’d be all over for the glorified rodent. I had a feeling my client, the dog’s owner, would object to me murdering her darling Mitzi or Bitsy or whatever the hell its name was. She seemed the objecting type.

“Now you’re certain you can do this? You come highly recommended, but…” It was the umpteen thousandth time she’d asked the very same question.

“Ma’am, I can’t promise anything. Yes, I think I can do this. But there is always an element of uncertainty. Anything could happen.” I was tired of pointing out to her that the contract was already set, so she was stuck with my services whether she liked it or not. If not for that, and my own personal honor, I might have bailed a long time ago myself.

She sniffed, her jaw tightening in displeasure. I got the feeling that she was used to getting absolute answers. From her dyed hair to her real pearl necklace, from her trimmed-in-real-mink coat to her purse by some designer I’d never heard of, Mrs. Effingham was a lady. The kind that expects you to use the word with a capital L like some kind of title. When she snapped her manicured fingers, she expected the world to come running. Guess that explained how her kid wound up like he was.

Junior was standing behind Mummy, shoulders stooped sullenly. He obviously didn’t want to be here, despite the fact that he was the guest of honor. His very expensive haircut was ruined by the fact that he probably hadn’t showered in days, and with his hands stuffed in his pockets, he practically oozed teenaged angst. Occasionally, he would look up at his mother and this flicker of absolute hate would pass through his eyes, but most of the time he gazed vacantly into space.

The breeze carried a faint hint of lilac and the promise of a spring shower. From the manor house behind us, I could catch the smell of something in the soup genre being prepared for dinner. Though, it probably wasn’t soup, it was something fancy like bisque or… whatever rich people eat. Nothing out of a can for this family, no way.

It was definitely the fanciest backyard I’d ever been in. Tall stone walls marked the borders, stately and dignified. The elaborate koi pond put my own water garden to shame. I mean, what they called a pond, I’d call a pool and me and my buddies would be swimming in it. And I would forever be envious of the barbecue grill (apparently unused) sitting on their expansive patio. The gas grill was almost big enough to require its own garage.

Dressed in my tarnished mail, with a sword hanging on my left hip, I stood out on their carefully sculpted lawn like one of those tacky yard ornaments. Maybe the one of the old farmer mooning. Damn good thing their neighbors couldn’t see into the yard. The high walls prevented that, and cast long shadows across the grass, creeping slowly toward us as the sun made its way downward in the sky.

Beyond the walled garden where we stood, down the hill in some quaint New England village, a church bell tolled the half hour. The time was drawing close.

“Mrs. Effingham, if I could have you return to the house while we do this. I only need Elliot here with me.” And take your gawd-awful yappy dog with you.

“I prefer to remain with my son, thank you.”

I finally turned to face her, drawing up to my full height to make sure I got the “looking down” part just right. Scruffy and uncouth as I am, I know how to be intimidating when I need to be. “That wasn’t a request, Mrs. Effingham. That was an order. This is not a spectator sport.”

Splotches of color flared under the caked-on makeup on her cheeks, not an attractive look at all. “How dare you? I am paying you good money-”

“You are paying me to be an expert in what I do. So we either do this my way, or I walk now, and your darling little boy goes to Hell. With or without the hand-basket.” Sometimes, I’m just an asshole. I admit it. I couldn’t have walked away, not with the contract set, but she didn’t need to know that. She gaped like a landed fish for a few moments before jerking the poor poodle into her arms and stalking across the landscaped lawn to the house.

Only then did I get a faint smile from Junior. “Man, you royally pissed her off.”

“I have that effect on people.” With Mummy gone, I could feel some of the tension go out of my shoulders. Sad when I’d rather face a demon than an upstanding social matron. Guess I could understand some of Junior’s rebellious tendencies. “How are you doing?”

He shrugged his shoulders, finding the grass infinitely more interesting than looking at me. “Okay.” Not much on public speaking either. I figured it just never got to be his turn to talk with his mother around.

“Do you understand what’s going on here?” In all my negotiations for this particular challenge, I’d had very little chance to actually talk to the kid. Mummy had handled most of the details.

“Yeah. Guess so.” He shrugged again and kicked a bare patch in the grass.

“Do you understand that this is your only chance? If I fail, your soul is bound for Hell when you die. No getting out of it, no reprieve.” There ought to be an age limit on demon contracts. A sixteen-year-old shouldn’t be able to just wish away their soul on any little thing that catches their fancy.

Scuff scuff went the sneakers.

“Do you even want your soul back?”

His fidgeting stopped, and after a moment, he nodded. I was just happy to get something that wasn’t a shrug. “I’m cold all the time now. I want to warm up.” Most likely, the chill was in his mind, but whatever worked.

“Even if I win, if you do this again, you’re on your own. Mommy can’t buy you out of this again.”

Junior nodded once more, his dark brows almost meeting above his eyes. “Yeah, I got it. She’s been screaming it in my ear for weeks now.”

“She’s just worried about you.”

Junior snorted. “No, she’s worried that I’m gonna embarrass her. Can’t let anybody know that Ava Effingham’s boy sold his soul for a freakin’ car. Somebody else’s kid probably sold theirs for a Harvard degree or something, much more respectable.”

I had to give the kid a teeny weeny bit of credit. He’d sold his soul for a ’72 Corvette Stingray. I mean, at least he sold it for a car, not some piece of crap. Of course, I’d only seen pictures of the vehicle. It was currently in a pile of scrap in some auto yard, chunks of the telephone pole that killed it still embedded in the metal. The boy was lucky to be alive.

See, that’s the thing about demon contracts. They never say what you think they do. Just because the demon promised you a car, or whatever it was, doesn’t mean that it said how long you get to keep it.

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