Late Names

Hey there! This is the page for Late Names, a short(ish) story set in the Ethereal Earth universe.

First, a few warnings:

The events in the story fall just after the second book in the series, Fate Lashed. Now, that doesn’t mean you won’t still have a good time if you haven’t read the first two books, but you will probably have a better time if you’ve at least read the first one. That is *ahem* available for sale here. But if you’re just here to test me out before committing…hey, I understand that too. The story will still make sense.

I should also tell you that there is some CONTENT here. Like cursing and violence and some scary monsters. So if you’ve somehow come under the impression that I write and narrate picture books about precocious caterpillars, you may safely bail out now.

And finally, this will only be here for a limited time. Eventually this story will join several others in a collection I’ll be putting together for sale, and then Audible and Amazon will grump at me for giving it away. So don’t dawdle. I think it’ll hang out here for at least two months until Book 3 comes out, but who can say? Well…me, I guess. I can say. But I’m also incredibly forgetful, so there’s no telling what’ll happen.

Otherwise, enjoy! The story was written with a more serious tone befitting the subjects, but I think it still has the same flavor of the books. And it does have a bit of information that leads in to Book 3, so…

Late Names
Written and Narrated by Josh Erikson

LATE NAMES

an Ethereal Earth Story

by Josh Erikson

November 8th, 9:47pm

“I don’t know what to say. I wish things had gone differently tonight. I wish I would have told you sooner. And I wish I wouldn’t have told you at all. Sometimes I feel like I could have gone on pretending to be someone I’m not…it would have been easier. Maybe even convinced myself if I’d tried hard enough. At least then you’d talk to me. Might let me in the house. But then we’d both be living lies, and these would just be different words in the same message. I wish you could see how fucking stuck that makes me.”

10:23pm

“Are you getting these?”

10:47pm

“Fine. Don’t reply.”

December 13th, 2:04pm

“Kurt kicked me out last night. So you got your wish. Said it was too weird even for him. At least you two agree on that. I’m sleeping in the car now, if you care. And who knows when he’ll cut off my phone.”

2:56pm

“Nothing to say? … Whatever.”

January 7th, 1:18pm

“It’s been weeks. I wish you’d pick up. Just ONE word. Things are…hard. Alright? Not easy to admit that. A nightmare, really.”

1:31pm

“I stopped using, if that helps. Can’t afford it. And I’m trying to make things right. One good thing about Kurt being out of my life now. No easy access.”

1:44pm

“Okay, it kills me to ask…but I could use your help.”

1:49pm

“Please.”

2:01pm

“Say ANYTHING!”

4:18pm

“Fine. Forget it.”

January 9th, 6:49pm

“Hey.”

January 14th, 8:18pm

“Hello?”

January 20th, 11:32am

“Hi…”

January 24th, 8:31pm

“Don’t worry. This’ll be quick, then you can go back to pretending like I don’t exist. I can’t do this anymore. I’ve tried again and again, and basically everyone I’ve ever known is just shitting on me now. But you’re the one that was supposed to stick with me. BLOOD. What a joke.

So I’m done.

I’m out of your life.

I hope you’re happy.”

10:13pm

“…Mom?”

– Texts submitted into evidence re: Evan Corning, male, 17 – Missing, presumed dead

Jacob tugged on his cuff to check his watch and noted that he was already late. Ten-thirteen. Shit.

The day had been fuller than he’d anticipated, juggling all his regular projects in addition to preparing for the meeting that night, and he’d pushed it farther than he should have—especially considering how important this day was. It was the culmination of weeks of delicate legal, social, and political positioning in both the human and Umbra worlds, and every moment of delay could cost real lives out on the streets. They finally had a chance to restore the peace between Umbras and the Knights of Solomon in Nebraska, and now he found himself regretting the extra fifteen minutes he’d taken to pick out the perfect powder blue shirt to go with his suit that morning. Then he caught his reflection in a shop window as he neared the parking garage, and the way his dark complexion played against the light color changed his mind right back. It was never a bad choice to take care of yourself before taking care of everything else.

Jacob pulled the wireless earpiece out of his jacket and pressed it into his ear, then mumbled, “Call Chloe,” as he rounded the last corner.

“Yes, boss?” his new assistant said before the first ring finished.

“You there yet?” he asked.

“Yes sir…which is how I know you’re not. I sent the driver for you an hour ago, but now he’s not picking up. Everything okay?” Her tone was technically still deferential, but there was a layer of annoyance in there too, just sharpening the edge. That was good. He could use someone to keep him honest since Joseph and Uklek had died—even if she had apparently sent the driver to the wrong place.

“Slight change of plans, but nothing to worry about. I had to shoot downtown to get some undigitized records from the seventies. Something Mama Tempe wants for tonight. And since I’m the only one around here who knows how to sweet-talk bureaucrats anymore, she asked me to do it myself.”

The sound of other people talking behind her was just audible in the background, and Chloe was clearly trying to keep her voice low as she replied. “You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t normally see you as much of a sweet-talker…and if I politely disbelieve that there were any government functionaries for you to talk to at ten-o-clock at night.”

Jacob chuckled as he neared a homeless man curled up with a rust-red stocking cap pulled low against the January wind. “Well, there may have been some light burglary involved too. But as far as Tempe and Kamuzu are concerned, I did it purely with my charm. Got it?”

“Ah,” she said, drawing it out with a hint of amusement. “What they don’t know can’t hurt them?”

Jacob scoffed. “I don’t know what the hell can or can’t hurt those old fucks, but they both have some antiquated ideas about how things should be run in this town. They like to play by rules that don’t exist anymore, which is why they send me to get shit done. A hundred and eight years old in this body and I’m still technically the junior fucking Baron of this city.” He nodded to the homeless man as he passed, then dropped a twenty into the guy’s lap. He was an Umbra of some flavor, but James didn’t bother looking any harder to find out which. With an aura that sickly, the bastard might not even live long enough to spend the cash anyway. “But if I’m going to play errand-boy, I’ll do it my way and damn all their ideals. Results matter more than anything else these days. Especially tonight.”

“Got it,” she replied. Chloe was new enough to his organization that she still sounded a little bemused at the flippant way he talked about the other two Barons, but she wasn’t so new that she seemed all that surprised anymore. Her transition back to business was smooth as ice. “So what do you want me to tell them, boss? I’m outside the meeting right now and people are starting to stand up from the table already.”

“They got started early then,” he replied as he pulled open the door to the garage stairwell. “Probably past their bed times. Tell them I’m on my way. Maybe ten minutes, tops. Tempe made these records sound like the centerpiece of her argument, so let her explain why I’m—”

He stopped suddenly as he heard an odd scuffling behind him, and he turned back to find the homeless man dragging himself up to his feet. At first, it seemed like the guy was simply rousing to go spend his new windfall or maybe find a warmer place to sleep. But then the Umbra settled into a weird, simian crouch and lifted a gnarled finger to push up the bottom edge of his crusted cap. The eyes beneath were dark and sparkling with mischief that belied the initial appearance of frailty, and then the lined face split wide in a grin full of long, yellowed teeth. Jacob started to ask what he wanted, but couldn’t get it out before the redcap screeched and charged.

For an instant, Jacob only froze there, holding the door open with one hand and clinging to his briefcase with the other. Then the stomp of heavy boots dragged his reflexes up to the surface. His first instinct was to go for the gun in his jacket, but that idea immediately died as it passed through his finer mental filters. He was in the middle of the city, out on the street, and it wasn’t so late yet that he might get away with murdering someone in plain sight—Umbra or not. So instead, he anchored himself on the door and brought his briefcase up to rest along his forearm like a shield to slam into the redcap’s face just as it reached him. The creature grunted in shock at the blow but didn’t stop, and the momentum bore them both straight down to the ground.

Everything became a mess of scrabbling hands and struggling for position, with the redcap initially on top but quickly sliding to one side as Jacob muscled it over. Then they were grasping at one another frantically. The redcap snarled and spit in something like frustrated glee as it tried to get its twisted fingers around his neck, and Jacob did everything he could to hold it back while worming his way into position to use any kind of regular fighting technique. But it was too messy and too fast, and even in the chaos it was immediately clear that the redcap was stronger by far.

So Jacob did the only practical thing left to him and dropped his glamour, revealing his wide, pointed teeth…then he tore out the thing’s throat.

His teeth sank in, feeling the flesh part and sinew tear. And there was an instant when his baser pishtaco instincts took over and prompted him to feed, regardless of how little fat there was to be had on the wiry thing. But then the foul taste hit his mouth as the leathery skin came away, and something dark began oozing up from the wound. The redcap made a gurgling noise of animal terror, then ripped itself back and away to one side with both hands going to its throat. When it moved, some kind of necklace fell away too, and it hit the ground with a soft shink next to a splat of that vile blood. Then the redcap was scrambling to its feet, suddenly desperate to get away.

Jacob rolled up to his knees and spit everything from his mouth as he watched the redcap sprint into a dark alley, and for a moment, he considered chasing. The only thing keeping him aloft as a Baron of this city was the law of the jungle, and that meant always striking first and last. But he recalled then that redcaps were devilishly hard to kill, sometimes living on even after decapitation, and they rarely attacked so directly. They preferred weaker targets to drag into the shadows and play with, which made it odd that the thing had chosen him. A hundred other people on the street that night would have been easier to hit, and he couldn’t imagine what kind of desperation or madness might have been fueling it. Then he caught a glimpse of the necklace on the ground and felt the faint whiff of magic dissipating through the broken links where his teeth had severed it…and suddenly he had the answer.

Jacob generally preferred the more overt tactics of the blade and gun, so enchanted items had never been his forte. But as he watched the last traces of magic fray apart and slip back through the veil, he realized that this was something he had actually seen before. It was something he’d known intimately from his darker days, in fact, and seeing one of them again made his mouth taste even worse. It was a geas of no small strength, and supposedly forbidden in this more civilized era. A binding. A collar.

“Boss!” Chloe said as Jacob’s brain finally quieted enough to absorb the buzzing in his ear. “What the hell is happening?”

He retrieved his briefcase and pulled himself to his feet with a grunt, then spit one more time before replying. “Yeah. Still here. Just got jumped by a redcap of all things. Vicious little shit.”

What? How…” She paused then and there was a muffled noise like she was now holding her other hand over the phone to quiet her voice further. “I’m getting a little worried. I don’t know enough about any of this to say for sure, but the more I look around, the weirder it feels here. They’re all smiling and shaking hands now like they’re wrapping things up already, and…” Her voice went tense and fell to a whisper. “I can’t find any of our guys. They were here a few minutes ago, and now it’s like they all left. Should I be worried?”

Jacob looked down at the mess he was leaving, then toed the necklace with his shoe to make sure it wasn’t about to explode or anything. “I’ll be there in a few minutes,” he said as he turned back to enter the stairwell. “I’m sure the guys are around. Just hang tight until—”

Chloe gasped suddenly, then her voice went loud and very professional. “Yes…of course. I understand. This…is him.” There was a pause and a shaky breath. “Mr. Jimenez? Mama Tempe is here.”

“I know that. Tell her I’m—”

“No,” she cut in again, this time more forcefully. She sounded nervous. “She’s right here. She would like to speak with you.”

Then the phone rustled as it changed hands.

“Jacob,” Mama Tempe said in her tremulous island lilt. “Or James, or Javier, or whatever you go by these days. You could pick a different letter for your aliases, you know.”

He stiffened and stopped at the base of the stairs. There was something unusual in her tone, and it made his heart start thumping a little faster. “Tempe, good,” he said, keeping it normal in the hope that it would remain that way. “I got the files. Buy me some time to get across town and—”

“I’m going to cut you off right there, Jacob. We won’t be needing the files tonight. Or ever.”

He couldn’t quite suppress the grunt of annoyance that passed through his lips then, so he doubled down instead and just said the first thing that popped into his head. “Huh. Well, that was a big fucking waste of my time.”

Tempe made a disapproving noise at the curse word, then clicked her tongue to punctuate it. “Yes. That is it exactly.”

He started to chuckle bitterly as he prepared another profanity-laced reply to ask why she’d sent him across town at the last minute then…but it all wedged in his throat as the obvious answer landed hard. His thumping heart became almost audible. “God damn it,” was all he could get out.

“We honestly expected you to see it coming from farther away,” she said blithely, as if telling a boring story. “It is the obvious solution, after all.”

Jacob leaned his shoulder against the wall and brought his free hand to his jacket to ensure his gun was still there. “Tempe,” he said, trying to stay calm, “what did you do?”

“What else was there?” she asked in return. “After all, there was really only the one thing they wanted, in the end.”

The thumping grew louder and Jacob suddenly realized that it wasn’t coming from within him, but from behind.

He whipped around to look through the glass door and found seven more redcaps coming to a reluctant stop directly across the street. They were all down in that ape-like crouch and grinning maniacally over necklaces glowing with a binding geas. And behind them, holding their ethereal leashes, were seven Knights of Solomon. A big truck passed on the street between them, and Jacob turned and sprinted up the stairs.

“You fucking sold me out?” he shouted as he took the steps two at a time. “I’m a Baron of this goddamned city!”

Tempe’s voice remained calm in his ear. “A Baron, yes,” she replied. “Which means you know quite well the responsibility attached to the title. And that you only retain it so long as you have the strength to do so.”

He grabbed the railing and wrenched himself around the first landing just as he heard the door slam open behind him and heavy booted feet hit the stairs. He tried to remember what floor he’d parked on, then realized how stupid that thought was. Even if he made it to his car, he’d have to take a long, slow drive around the inside of the garage to get to the bottom, and by then the Knights would definitely be at the exit waiting for him. And that was if the redcaps on his heels didn’t swarm him long before then. He’d panicked and trapped himself.

Jacob dipped into his preternatural speed and started vaulting up the stairs. “Why?!” He could hear the redcaps still somehow gaining on him.

“Oh, don’t play the victim, Jacob,” she replied. “Not when your decisions got us here.”

He pulled around another landing and caught a glimpse of what he thought might be his car, then sprinted past as he heard the excited breathing growing closer behind him. “I was keeping the peace!” He whipped around another landing. “Justice! My fucking job!”

Tempe’s answering laugh was almost a wheeze, but it also sounded a touch regretful. “So you say. But the peace you kept that night was for only one person for whom you had grown inexplicably fond. No thought for the rest of us. You can’t have imagined the act of killing several Knights of Solomon would go unaccounted for? You are more devious than that to—”

His attention was suddenly ripped away as a hand caught his ankle mid-stride and he slammed face-down into the stairs. The impact knocked the breath from his lungs and sent the briefcase toppling through the railing to crash somewhere below, but he managed to catch himself on the top step to keep from sliding down with it. Then the redcap was on him, grabbing at his back and gibbering like a maniac. Jacob lashed back desperately with an elbow and somehow caught the thing on the jaw, rocking the monster just enough for one instant of free movement. So he wrenched his hips over to get onto his side, then plunged his hand into his jacket to come out holding his little Glock 9mm. There was a slow moment of dawning confusion in the redcap’s eyes as it looked down at the thing pressed into its chest, then the trigger went back and the muzzle flashed, and the stairwell became one ringing, writhing jumble of chaos.

The redcap went sprawling backward with a wail as it tumbled into its oncoming companions, and it was all Jacob could do to get back to his feet and scramble across the landing and onto the last set of stairs. He reached the top floor and pushed through the door with a wordless yell, then jumped through and slammed it closed behind him as he leveled his gun through the glass. Six redcaps immediately boiled up the stairs behind him, followed closely by the seventh who looked little worse for having been shot directly through the heart. They gnashed their long teeth and crouched low as if preparing to barrel straight through the glass…then all at once there was a pulse of energy through their bindings, and they began growling and spitting and hopping furiously. They seemed barely in control of themselves. Feral. Jacob watched the display as he tried to decide how best to spread out his ten remaining rounds, but then all seven creatures quieted as a new figure came up the stairs behind them.

The Knight of Solomon was wearing black tactical gear free of any identifying marks, and he held his gun casually to the side as if he wasn’t at all worried—though the charms and bastardized hexes festooning the weapon were all active and ready to add significant bite to any bullets it fired. Then the man waved something glowing with magic, and all the redcaps awkwardly parted as he stopped on the landing just before wading in among them.

“Are you going to come quietly, Baron?” he shouted through the door, adding a condescending inflection on the title.

The man was obviously enjoying this moment, and a quick search of his face showed nothing but sheer pleasure. Which meant there probably wouldn’t be any way to negotiate out of this.

So Jacob fell back to tried-and-true tactics. “Fuck. You.”

The Knight smiled and nodded as if hearing exactly what he’d wanted, then he turned and walked down to the landing below while saying something into his earpiece. Six of the redcaps immediately rose and scrambled back down the stairs to disappear, but one stayed and simply settled onto its haunches to eye the door and chuckle menacingly. It tapped its seeping bullet wound several times, then pointed straight at Jacob’s chest and licked its lips.

The Knight leaned back against the wall into a crouch of his own, then slowly brought his weapon up to sight on the door. Not an attack. They were just penning him in.

“It would be best if you go along quietly, Jacob,” Mama Tempe said suddenly. “We have been assured that your trial will be fair. Especially if you can lead them to your Gabriel friend. They are very interested in him right now for some reason.”

Jacob took a few steps back until the stairs obscured the Knight below, then he lowered his aim to the waiting redcap. “Sure. And what’s ‘fair’ mean to these people, Tempe? Even when we had a steady pact with these fucks they were quietly picking us off as they saw fit. They don’t care about balance or peace, and you know that. They want supremacy.”

“Careful,” she said, “you are starting to sound like the Maerrywell Clan.”

He glanced up at the dark sky and laughed. “Yeah? Well, maybe I’m suddenly starting to understand their point of view.”

She sighed long and loud, and then her voice went a little soft. “Here is how I would play it, were I you. Give up gracefully before any further damage is done. Then give them anything and anyone they want. My hope is that they will use you as an example of cooperation between our peoples, and you will then be free to live on. Start somewhere new.”

He thought about that for a moment, imagining what his life might be like after this. He’d done more and worse to survive in his various incarnations across the centuries, but this time it didn’t quite feel the same. Giving himself up to the Knights of Solomon would feel like admitting he was less than them—that every Umbra was—and that their authority was righteous and valid. If he walked away in handcuffs to make some kind of bargain for his life tonight, it would be more of a defeat than if they just shot him dead in the street. If a Baron could be laid low by up-jumped humans so easily, what hope would there ever be for anything like equality for those Umbras with a fraction of his power?

No, he decided. This wasn’t just about survival for him now. This was about falling on the right side of something bigger than this one moment and one city. And more importantly, he would never be chained again.

“I’ve got lots of friends, Tempe,” he said. “What if I choose to fight back instead?”

She went silent for a while, then came back sterner. “You won’t. Your people are dead or in custody. Your properties are being seized even now. And your bank accounts have all been frozen. Those friends of yours, they will not come tonight. You are alone, Jacob.”

The words hit hard, and he felt every impact as his world crumbled down around him. It had taken decades to build up this life, to build up an organization that skirted the law in so many ways while still giving him a respectable public face, and to finally claw his way into a position of real authority to make real change. And if she was telling the truth now…it had all gone to shit in about an hour.

Tempe apparently read his shock even over the phone, and she filled in the silence. “You know I have rarely approved of your particular profession, and we have not always gotten along as a consequence. I think your Robin Hood crimes do more harm than good, and no one has ever benefited from your illicit drugs. But I could never fault you for upholding the welfare of the Umbras in this city. You were a steady and good Baron, and that is rarer than you may know.” She took a long breath. “But there is one core tenant in Voodoo—and indeed, all religions—that separates the merely good from the truly great. And it is why you and I are where we are tonight.” Her voice went distant then, like she was holding out the phone for someone else to take. “Sacrifice, Jacob. Learn to use it before it uses you.”

The line went dead.

He stood there for several long seconds, staring at the redcap but not really seeing it, wanting to empty his clip into thing, or scream into the sky, or rip out his earpiece and crush it in his fist. But he didn’t do any of that. Instead, he took a deep breath that felt like it lasted forever, then let it all out in one long, low, “Fuck.”

Jacob pulled the earpiece out and dropped it in his pocket, just in case anyone he knew happened to live through the night. Then he backed up a few more steps to give himself plenty of time if the redcap decided to push through after all. But even more importantly, he needed to increase his field of view and find a way out. He was on the top floor, so there was no going up any further, and he assumed the other stairwell on the opposite side would already be similarly guarded—probably top and bottom. Those were death traps. Which left only the ramp of the garage itself, slowly winding down the inside perimeter and full of places to hide for both him and the Knights alike. It was probably his only bet for a fighting chance, but even so it felt like a stupid option. At best, there would be three redcaps and three Knights waiting for him down that path, and he had ten bullets left to fight them with. Even with super speed and perfect shots, he seriously doubted his chances. He might be able to take hits for long before going down, but there were definitely limits. He needed a third option.

A little moment of insanity overtook him then and he suddenly had the urge to just vault over the side rail and see what happened. He was at least eight stories up and knew he’d never walk away from it, but it still seemed like the safest way out. Not for the first time, he cursed his pishtaco origin and the general lack of super powers it gave him. A little vampiric or skinwalker magic would have come in pretty handy right about then. But even so, he couldn’t resist a quick glance over his shoulder just to check the distance and maybe find a conveniently placed awning.

And that’s when he spotted the girl.

She was wrapped in a heavy white coat that looked a size too big, and her lank brown hair was drifting to the side of a gaunt face as she stared wide-eyed back at him from only a few steps away. She was dirty and disheveled and completely human for all he could tell. And though she might have been anywhere between twelve or twenty at first glance, something in her eyes gave her a few extra years. She was clearly scared, and also sad. But more importantly…she was clinging to the outer railing, standing on the outside.

It took Jacob a second to catch up to what he was seeing, but then he felt his expression go hard. “What’s wrong with you?” he snapped. “Get outta here!”

She flinched at the words, nearly toppling off the ledge before clamping her hands back down on the railing. Then he realized that the glamours would be making her see only a man pointing a gun at another man in the dark. She already seemed shocked with fear, and she still had no idea how much worse the danger was. He was flustered and forgetting the rules. He needed to talk to her like a human.

Jacob slid a glance back at the redcap to check its position, then called more calmly back over his shoulder. “Alright, lady. Nobody has to get hurt tonight except maybe me. So just climb back over carefully and walk slowly down the ramp, okay? You’re not involved in this. Keep your hands up and they’ll let you through.”

But after a moment of standing there, waiting to hear the scuffle of her coat and shoes slapping against concrete, he snapped his eyes back to see that she was still stuck to the railing—like his words had just flown by into the night.

“I said get the fuck outta here!”

This time she flinched a little but otherwise stood her ground as if doing something heroic by defying him. A bit of resolve entered her features then, and she straightened and shook her head tightly. Apparently talking wouldn’t do it. Which meant her fear wasn’t all a reaction to him, and her mind had been made up long before he’d arrived.

Jacob let out an irritated grunt and waved dismissively with his free hand before turning fully back to the redcap and his own problems. “Whatever. Jump if you’re going to. I don’t have time for any more bullshit tonight.”

He heard her suck in a surprised breath, clearly understanding then that he wasn’t a cop or there for her at all. There was a long pause as her unimportance sank in, then her shoes scraped on the railing and she emptied her lungs in a shaky exhalation that sounded convincingly like her last.

That was fine. He had his own shit to worry about, and even the smallest scrap of it was more important than some random woman and whatever her problems were. Jacob eyed the block around him, looking for any connecting wires or nearby buildings, but it was all empty air on every side—just streets and alleys of unforgiving concrete waiting at the bottom. It wouldn’t be a nice way to end his story. Not nice for anyone, really.

He reached for his earpiece again, racking his brain for someone who might still be on his side and able to help—then all at once he growled and turned to lunge back toward the girl, snagging her big coat just as her fingers left the railing.

The woman stiffened as her momentum stopped, then she screamed as Jacob hefted her up and over and sent her stumbling down to her knees with a shove.

“Dammit!” he yelled as he brought his gun back up to aim at the redcap. The creature had risen slightly from its haunches at the movement, but it was still on the other side of the door, waiting. “Whatever the hell got you up here tonight, fuck it. Okay? Or at least go kill yourself somewhere else. This isn’t your finale, and you’re distracting the hell outta me.”

He watched her out of the corner of his eye as the words landed, and he saw each one push her down a little farther. Her shoulders slumped and he felt like a real asshole for that, but it couldn’t be helped either. This was one too many things to deal with right then.

“What the shit did I do to deserve this?” Jacob asked the universe at large. Obviously nobody responded. He knew there were any number of gods out there who might realistically answer, but then that would’ve required him to actually believe in any of them. He glanced back over the railing to the ground below and saw a Knight casually positioned at the vehicle exit, ready with the powerful aura of his gun visible even from that distance. There was no easy way out of this, and definitely no divine miracles anywhere in sight.

“Get up,” he said to the young woman, resisting the urge to nudge her with his foot. She didn’t need that.

But again, she only shook her head, the movement strengthening as she embraced it. “No. Fuck you.”

The words came out dark and thick with venom, and they almost made Jacob angry enough to lash out…until he realized what she was trying.

“I’m not doing it for you, lady,” he said. “So you can cut that shit right out. I’ve got ten rounds left and none are for you.” Then he took a few slow steps away in case she tried to force him. “Now kindly repay my stupid act of goodwill and get your ass gone. It’s about to get messy up here.”

She rolled back from her knees to sit on the concrete, then sighed long and loud. “Do you think I give a shit?”

Jacob almost exploded then, unleashing all of his frustration and fear and fury on the woman because she was there and an easy target, and because she was maybe the only bit of control he had left. It would have felt good to spread that poison around to someone else rather than dealing with it. It would have felt good to break something.

But he didn’t. Instead, he took a long breath and stared down hard at her. “If anyone here is lacking in shits to give, it’s me. Okay? So don’t push it.”

She finally looked up at him then, and her eyes were the deep cold of someone who had long since given up. “Then why did you stop me?”

“I don’t fucking know!” he yelled, unable to hold it back entirely. This distraction was costing him time he definitely didn’t have, and it certainly wasn’t putting him in a better mood. “Maybe because a street full of ambulances and police won’t improve my situation. Or maybe because I happen to like this street and I don’t want to see your brains staining it. Either of those good enough for you?”

When she didn’t reply, he steamrolled on. “But if you think it’s because I give a damn about you, you’re barking up the wrong redwood.” He moved back toward her suddenly, startling her to attention and pointing with his free hand toward the glass door. “You see that weird asshole there? The one crouched down like a gorilla made of shit and sinew?” He watched her until she nodded. “That ugly fuck wants to eat my heart tonight. And you goddamned better believe that’s not a metaphor. He wants to reach into my chest and tear it out with his bare fingers, then gnaw through the raw muscle until it slides into his gut. And after that, he’ll dip his hat in the open wound to give it a nice fresh coat before slapping it back on his head. Which is why we call him a redcap.” He leaned in closer. “And there are six more down there. Plus their masters, who are actually worse in their way. All waiting for me.”

Jacob watched the information sink in and do something as it landed in her, sparking a new emotion in those dead eyes. He was sure someone like Gabe would have been able to read it and finesse her more, slowly reeling her in until she was dancing to his tune, but Jacob had never bothered perfecting that delicate skill. He preferred cutting right to the end in most things. The goal right now was just to get this woman walking away so he could safely forget about her. And if she was convinced her life was bad enough to end, he figured the quickest remedy would be to give her a little taste of his.

“And that’s not even the worst part,” he went on. “I just lost my whole life in the last ten minutes. And it’s actively crumbling out there as I’m up here talking to you. I doubt there’s anything I can do to stop it now, but I’m sure as hell not salvaging anything by being stuck in a goddamned parking garage.” He met her eyes and gave her the full force of his own dead stare—something forged of several lifetimes. “So you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t have much sympathy for whatever petty shit brought you up here. You think you have problems?” He brought two fingers up to the side of his head and tapped hard. “Try dealing with PTSD from a war that happened two hundred years ago in Bolivia. Or being a gay, black slave in the eighteenth century.” He fought back a bitter laugh. “Or being one in the twenty-fucking-first century for that matter. Then talk to me about how hard life is. If you’re not having nightmares about piles of limbs outside a medical tent or getting burned at the goddamned stake, you’re not really so bad off, are you?”

Her eyes flashed for an instant, and then confusion rose up to smother it as she put his words together. “…What?”

“Yeah,” he said, turning away. “What. Nothing about nothing makes sense tonight, so welcome to the club.” He’d kept his gun up and trained on the redcap the entire time, but the woman was now acting like she’d forgotten all about it—like it had been edited out of her narrowed perception. So he jiggled the weapon in her direction for a second to remind her it was there and that this wasn’t about to turn into a therapy session for either of them. Not as a threat, just as perspective.

“Now if that’s settled,” he said, sighting back on the redcap, “get your ass moving already so I can get back to saving my own.”

The whole conversation had taken maybe two minutes, but it felt like an eternity had passed while the Knights and redcaps were undoubtedly getting into position and calling for backup. Too much time wasted. Stupid. He started making a mental list of anyone he knew with a helicopter and a death wish. It wasn’t a long one.

Miraculously, the woman did rise then, standing a few feet away and looking between him and the door. Even with its glamour on, the redcap was more than creepy enough in its low crouch and broad smile, and the woman’s face soon reflected that realization with a hint of the worry that should have been there the whole time.

She turned back to Jacob and studied him. “So you’re the good guy here?” Her voice had lost some of the defeated, broken quality, and the question sounded sincere.

Still, Jacob couldn’t help but laugh. “No such thing. Just bad people and worse people. If you’ve been waiting for a ‘good guy’ to show up, it’s no wonder you don’t want to be in this world anymore.”

Just then, a vehicle screeched to a stop down below and Jacob whipped around to see four big vans disgorging something like two dozen more Knights. A flash of light caught his eye at the end of the block, and he nearly cursed aloud as he saw the police cordon settling into position there. A matching set of cruisers pulled up at the other end a second later, and then a lone Knight stopped in the middle of the blockaded street and pointed at the roof of the garage—directly at him. Jacob took a quick step back out of view, and then he did curse aloud…prodigiously.

Time was up. First Tempe had distracted him with a bogus errand across town, then this random woman had just happened to pick this night and this spot to distract him long enough to keep him there. The trap had gone off flawlessly. Almost too well, actually.

He looked back at the young woman as he heard the first muffled orders being shouted below, and he couldn’t believe how thoroughly he’d swallowed her bait. Even then, she looked convincingly confused.

“Man, I really am a fucking idiot,” he said.

To her credit, she didn’t break character. “I don’t know what you—”

“Oh, shut up,” he said, fighting back a bitter smile. “You’re good. I’ll give you that.” Her face didn’t move, but he didn’t need it to. “So what am I supposed to do now? Take you hostage? Or was I supposed to let you jump? Either way, that’d give the Knights a damned good justification for an easy kill, wouldn’t it? Much easier to turn me into an active threat with the human police if I’m already a murderer.”

She opened her mouth to respond again, but he cut her off with a growl. “Not gonna happen! I may not be firing on all cylinders tonight, but I haven’t suddenly gotten stupid either. They want me, they’ll have to take me clean. No human shields, no bullshit. Just me against half the fucking Knights in the Midwest. That’s fine.”

“Look,” she said, lifting her hands palms-out as if assuring him they were empty. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Then she seemed to come to some decision. “But…I have a car up here if—”

“If what?” he interrupted again. “If I want to take a nice drive right into that hornet’s nest down there?” He fought back the urge to point his gun at her, keeping it on the redcap. Though she had probably turned out to be the most dangerous thing up here with him. “I need you to go now. Walk down, drive down—I don’t give a shit. But your job is done. You kept me up here like they wanted, so scamper on back and collect whatever they promised. God knows you’ve earned it.”

“But—”

“Go!” he yelled. Then he dropped his glamour and bared his teeth, giving her a full look at the centuries-old nightmare the people of the Andes had conjured in him. He knew it wasn’t nearly as hideous as many of the Umbras walking the world, but his visage certainly wouldn’t be inspiring any sonnets either. And it did the trick.

The woman gasped and brought her hands to her mouth as she backed away, her eyes flicking to his deepened brow line, his hollowed cheeks, and his mouth full of razor teeth. She turned and ran.

Jacob sighed and let his glamour settle back in place on reflex, then he finally focused on getting away. The Knights would undoubtedly be preparing to swarm up any second now, and it was obvious they weren’t interested in taking him for questioning. Whatever Tempe had said, the Knights couldn’t possibly care that much about finding Gabe. The guy was a two-bit conman who was probably even then lounging somewhere in Europe with his fake passports, and there was no chance he was valuable enough to justify this much effort. No, what the Knights wanted tonight was vengeance. And they were about a minute away from getting it.

He eyed the redcap through the glass door one last time, then lowered his gun and turned toward the nearest building. It was a full alley-width away, and the wall was one smooth brick surface without any convenient fire escapes or ledges. But there were several decently sized windows with glass that looked fairly old, and one of the few things he did have going for him was that he was tough. And he could generally heal from anything that didn’t kill him outright. Eventually. Hopefully…

Jacob found a closed window a few feet below his level in line with where he was standing, then he lowered himself into a runner’s stance and tapped every ounce of speed he could muster. It might not be enough to get him across the alley—let alone through the glass—but it was certainly better than dying without a fight. And if he did end up bouncing off hilariously and crashing to the ground, maybe he could hold onto consciousness long enough to make the bastards pay a small price for it. At the very least, nobody could say he tucked tail and turned coat. He shoved his gun into his jacket and gritted his teeth.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the door swing open, and he surged forward without another thought. His dress shoes slapped on the pavement as they ate the distance to that side of the garage, and soon he could see the exact spot on the railing where he wanted to land his first jump—a little rusted patch that might give him an extra bit of traction as he vaulted up and over. He imagined the sequence of moves exactly as they needed to happen, how he would push off from his first foothold and try to maintain his speed as he balanced the momentum to jump the distance and hit the window just right. He would tuck in hard as he hit, then hopefully go straight through and roll to come up running. It was an impossible maneuver, but all the same he felt a surge of excitement as he took his last long step. He’d been in suits and behind desks for too long. This was what he was made for.

But just as his foot connected with the railing, a heavy body slammed into him from the side and sent him flying into a parked truck. He hit the metal hard and felt the window crack beneath his shoulders, then the redcap was suddenly looming in front of him. Jacob wrenched out his gun and brought it between them, but the redcap’s long arm flicked out faster and smacked the weapon straight from his grip. The metal skittered across the concrete somewhere to the side, and then the monster was on him, grabbing his lapels and slamming him into the truck over and over again. And it was laughing.

Slam.

Jacob tried to fight back, using any scrap of jujitsu or krav maga he could summon, but nothing would congeal in his brain as waves of pain flooded him with every impact. There was simply no defense against such brutal, manic strength.

Slam.

He lashed out with his fists as he fought to break the creature’s hold, pounding its forearms and neck and head, but the redcap took every blow without flinching and only shoved harder each time.

Slam.

Jacob felt the truck rocking violently behind him and the metal collapsing, and soon his legs were struggling to find solid ground beneath him. It was like they were going numb with every strike, and he was horrified at the sudden realization that they might not even bear his weight anymore.

Slam. Slam. Slam.

Then the redcap gave one final shove before pressing him there, holding Jacob against the crushed door with one hand and splaying wide the gnarled fingers of the other. Jacob reached out desperately and clawed at the binding geas around the thing’s neck, hoping to tear the necklace free and gain a bit more time, but then he froze as the creature stiffened its fingers and drove them straight into his chest.

He gasped as he felt the redcap’s ragged nails dig through his muscle and cartilage, then his throat closed entirely as the filthy fingers wormed through his ribs and around his sternum. He tried to scream in rage and pain, but nothing would come. And all he could see was that gruesome smile full of long, yellowed teeth. Then the redcap let go with its other hand to hold Jacob suspended only by the grip it had on his skeleton, and everything became agony.

“Okay, that’s enough playing,” the Knight called as he sauntered through the door.

In one hand, the man held his gun vaguely pointed in their direction, and in the other he held the glowing fetish linked to the redcap’s geas. The thing looked like a kind of voodoo doll, which wasn’t much of a surprise at this point, and the Knight gave it a little flick to one side. The redcap matched the movement with Jacob, shaking him just enough to send screaming pain through his ribs and shoulders and back. And it only ended when a few ribs finally snapped with a hot wave of fire inside him. Those fingers dug a little deeper.

The Knight chuckled. “Now, no more playing.”

The man moved closer as he lifted a finger to his earpiece. “Everybody hold for a second while I verify position. Go on my mark.” Then he dropped the hand back down with a smile. “Do you have any idea how many favors I had cash in to get command of this mission? How many deals I had to make? I’ll be paying this night down for months.” His smile widened. “But when you ran up those stairs…” He let out a long breath. “…I knew it was all about to be worth it.”

Jacob felt the redcap’s fingers tightening beneath his skin, wanting to finish the job and tear open the ribs to get inside. The thing wanted the blood—needed it—and it was only the geas that kept it at bay.

The Knight went on. “I mean, technically I’m not even supposed to be back on the roster. I’m still on medical leave.” He took a few steps closer and lifted his hand to show it was encased in some kind of plastic brace from the thumb down. “A Hunter got me pretty good last Fall.” His smile fell and he paused as if letting the words emanate extra meaning. “At the arena.” He raised his weapon. “But you know all about that night, don’t you?”

Jacob tried to snarl something defiant, to say that he did and that he didn’t regret a single thing about it, but still nothing would come. He couldn’t even breathe.

The Knight took aim at Jacob’s head, but seemed to think better of it. Then he flicked the fetish around to prompt the redcap to move to different positions and line up the perfect chest shot. It would have been a ridiculous display under different circumstances—especially since Jacob knew the fetish didn’t have to physically move like a joystick to control the bond—but eventually the man appeared to grow frustrated and he stopped. He moved his finger again up to his earpiece, and this time he was close enough that Jacob could hear the voices buzzing back through it.

“Not yet,” the Knight said. “He’s armed and aiming blindly down the stairs. I’m going to try to get a clean shot, but I don’t want anyone else in harm’s way yet. We all know this fucker won’t hesitate to kill us. Hold until my go.” Then he lowered his hand and gave the fetish another quick flick. “You’ll have to stand on your own, I guess. I need your pretty face for identification. And I really should aim for that nice mess on your shirt so the police don’t ask too many questions when we drag you outta here.” He flicked the fetish once more and the redcap suddenly yanked its fingers out with a snarl.

Jacob instantly found himself falling, landing hard on his knees but miraculously somehow staying there. His legs felt numb and heavy, but the muscles in them were still mostly doing their jobs. Though when he tried to straighten, the fire in his chest nearly bent him back over.

The Knight lined up his shot again and nodded in approval. His finger tensed on the trigger. Then he grimaced. “Dammit. Where did your fucking gun go? We promised your people a fair trial. Gotta make sure that’s by your body otherwise they might think this was in cold—”

Suddenly a gunshot rang out and the man was twisting with an impact at his back. He stumbled several steps toward Jacob and then spun to bring his weapon up and return fire. But something stopped him in that instant, and instead he lifted the fetish and stabbed it sharply forward, sending the redcap bounding after the gunman wherever they were. Then the Knight turned back with his weapon leading.

But Jacob was already rising. He pushed himself up on shaking legs and lunged forward, driving into the man and snatching both of his wrists to hold them out to either side. Then he slammed his forehead into the Knight’s nose three times, feeling it give a little more with each strike. And on the final blow the man simply crumpled like tissue paper in his grasp.

Jacob slid his hand down to snatch up the fetish before it slipped through the Knight’s fingers, and he sent a brief command to force the redcap to stop whatever it was doing. He had no idea who had saved him, but they might be the only friend he had left in the world right then. The Knight’s gun fell to one side with a crack on the concrete, and Jacob kicked it away as he cast the man off in the other direction.

He wanted to collapse, but knew he couldn’t afford the luxury. So he immediately dropped into a guard stance, expecting to see that the fetish had failed and the redcap would be bounding back toward him. Then he spotted the creature crouched low a dozen paces away, its back heaving and one hand raised above someone it had clearly pinned. The thing had been ready to strike before he’d stopped it. Jacob sent another mental command for it to move away and go block the door, and when the monster obeyed, it left behind its thin victim, shaking inside her big white coat.

He moved first to the gun at her side and snatched it up, then stood over her and stared. He wanted to ask her why, and who the hell she thought she was, and what the hell she thought was going to happen now that she’d done something so completely stupid. But there wasn’t time. Not for anything but getting away. Now.

“You said you have a car up here?” he asked.

She took a deep breath, then nodded.

The little blue sedan screeched around the first corner of the parking garage, clipping the back of a parked van as it careened crazily down the ramp. It hit the second corner going far too fast and slammed sideways into three vehicles there before rolling on with the momentum and revving back up to speed. The first of the Knights were caught by surprise as the car came flying toward them, and Jacob heard them react with wordless cries through his stolen earpiece as they dove for cover. Then the car whipped past them and around the next corner with a few new holes.

“He’s on the move!” the Knights screamed through their radios. “Blue sedan. Third level, coming fast!”

The vehicle scraped by a concrete pylon as it cut the corner, and the side mirror went flying off with a snap. The Knights and redcaps on this level were more prepared, but that meant they’d only had time to jump behind some parked cars while they took shots at a solid ton of speeding metal coming toward them. Their guns barked and zapped, bringing with them the punch of added hexes that flashed and spat fire as they struck. And several found flesh by pure luck. There was no pain, fortunately, but there was plenty of new blood running thickly down the powder blue shirt. Though nothing bad enough to kill. Not yet.

Then the car was spinning down onto the second level, slowing just enough to take the corner…and run straight into a wall of redcaps rushing to leap atop it. They pounded the roof and windows with their twisted fists, and one immediately went sliding off the hood to leave gouged claw marks in the metal as it passed. Glass shattered all around and the car jerked hard to both sides, clipping vehicles to peel the clinging monsters off. The sedan scraped hard against the back of an SUV, throwing sparks and monsters to leave screeching, broken bodies littering the ground behind. And soon only two remained with nails embedded in the metal. A hand snaked through the window and snatched at the blue shirt, but then the car jerked with a squeal of tires around the last corner, and the fingers ripped away with a shred of fabric. The orange and white stripes of the barrier arm came into into view…and the engine roared up to full speed.

“He’s gonna run it!” the Knights shouted through the radio. Gunshots began sounding from every direction, and then the car was being riddled with bullets.

The two redcaps cried out as they took some of the stray hits, but most of the shots made it through and found their mark. The blue shirt became little more than a bloody rag in an instant. Though by then it was too late to stop the momentum.

The sedan slammed through the barrier and over the tire spikes out onto the street.

“Stop him!” the voices screamed in his ear. They were all talking over one another now, all shouting conflicting commands until only the loudest made it through. “Converge on the vehicle!”

The car’s engine sounded terrible, having taken something like a dozen hits. But it was still going. And it still responded when the accelerator went straight to the floor. The wheels thumped and screeched alarmingly as the shredded tires began tearing free, and the sparks flying behind were spectacular. It was virtually impossible to keep the thing on a steady course now, but the street was wider than the garage, and the target this time was much bigger. Just a little farther.

“Fire! Fire!” a Knight ordered.

More bullets came tearing into the vehicle, this time slamming through the seat and into shoulder blades and arms and neck muscles, injecting their hexes to ensure the onslaught wouldn’t be survivable. It was only a matter of seconds before the magic would become too much. Just a little farther…

Then the police officers standing behind their vehicles joined in, firing their mundane bullets through the windshield as the little blue sedan screeched toward their roadblock. They probably didn’t know what was going on beyond the driver being dangerous, but they weren’t taking any chances either. They got off several rounds each, adding more damage to the total score, then they scattered to either side as the car crashed through their blockade and plowed into the street beyond.

“…going to kill someone!”

“…backup!”

“Go, go, go!”

The orders came fast and confused, each one piling on top of the next until none of it made sense and the street behind was filled with Knights and redcaps desperately following in vans or on foot. There were thirty or forty of them, all here for him, all chasing, and all ready to finish killing him. A deep redness finally began creeping into Jacob’s vision, filling his eyes and mind with a confusing mix of pain, fear, and bone-deep hatred. Then the car passed through a red light and drifted into oncoming traffic. There was a flash of movement to the left, a tremendous crash…and then the world went blank.

Jacob threw the fetish aside with a curse and looked down the street to where a big semi truck had plowed into the woman’s blue sedan. His ear was still filled with the shouts and curses of the Knights as they all swarmed away to converge on the wreckage, but his eyes were slowly going back to normal as all traces of the connection to the redcap bled away with the thing’s death. It had been a surprisingly good driver for being a horrible little by-blow of folklore, and the geas had worked exactly as he’d remembered. It turned out no matter how vile something was, the world could always find a use for it. He hoped that remained true for a little longer that night.

“Let’s go,” he said as he made for the stairs. “We have maybe thirty seconds.”

The woman was breathing quickly and her eyes were wide with fear, but she nodded and followed. “Where do we go?”

Jacob hit the stairs and fought down the urge to tell her to go wherever the hell she wanted. She had saved him, after all, so a little courtesy was probably in order. She’d also screwed him just by being there, sure, but that seemed a little petty right then.

He looked down at the filthy rags he’d swapped with the redcap. “A stash. I need some clothes that don’t smell like carrion. And money…and way more bullets.”

The first two stashes had been compromised, because of course they had. But fortunately he was tricky enough and old enough to know not to keep all his eggs in one basket. Unfortunately, he hadn’t thought to stop for a shovel.

Jacob jammed the tire iron into the hard earth and levered it up, pulling dead grass and roots with it while trying to stay relatively quiet. The park was empty and dark at that time of night, but the evening had reminded him all too well not to take any chances.

“So…” the woman began as she sat against the tree and watched. “…You’re some kind of…vampire?”

They were the first words she’d spoken since leaving the parking garage, and Jacob wasn’t sure if he was more irritated by the question itself or the hopeful note in it. He grunted as he worked. “No. I’m a… You know what? Don’t worry about it. And stop watching so much damned tv.”

The woman chewed her lip for a minute while he dug, then she slid a little closer. She could probably barely see him in the pitch black. “But your face… And those things. Redcaps?” Her body shook then with a very real shudder. “I feel like there’s something more you’re not saying, and…I want to know what it is.”

“No,” he replied simply.

Her face fell, but she didn’t let up. “Why not? I saved you, didn’t I?”

Why not,” he said as he found the straps of the bag and began moving the dirt from around them. “Because you don’t know what you’re asking, is why not. And because I’m not in any place right now to give it to you smooth and easy.” He hefted hard on the straps and the bag slowly came free with a rush of debris. “But mostly because it worries me that you sided with me so quickly. You see a monster who doesn’t immediately try to eat you, and you just assume he’s a fucking misunderstood hero in some story? I’ll tell you, lady, you gotta stop that shit real fast.”

She watched carefully as he shook the bag off. “You’d rather be dead?”

Jacob tried to find a good retort to that while also searching for the zipper, but in the end he was too tired to do both simultaneously. “Yeah, well…” He opened the bag.

The clothes were old and nothing to be proud of, but the sealed plastic had kept them dry and clean. And anything was better than what he had on. He changed there in the dark, casting the rags back into the hole to cover up before he left. The money inside would be enough to keep him comfortable for a few months until he could figure out something else, and the ammo and spare gun would be enough to keep him safe from most things as long as he could stay hidden. It was something.

Then he turned and studied the woman as she sat there waiting. She looked small and tired, and she was obviously far past being overwhelmed by the night. She’d gone from trying to kill herself one moment to throwing in with a fugitive monster the next. And that was just the extent of the trouble she knew about. He reflexively ran through a quick list of ways he might use her to gain any further advantage…but then dropped the idea. It probably wasn’t worth the effort. The city would be teeming with people searching for him now, and he would have to travel light and fast to stay ahead of them. She was baggage. Though he probably did owe her a thanks, at least. Maybe in the form of a little cash he really couldn’t spare. Definitely in the form of getting her away from him.

“You got anywhere to go from here?” he asked, knowing the answer already. Her car had been full of bags and the kind of trash you only built up while living in it.

She shook her head, also knowing that he already knew. “Nope.”

Jacob grunted as he dug through the bag to find the passport, extra clips, and the big wad of cash. “Well, it’s not safe being around me, okay? Not by a long shot.”

She sighed slowly, but this time it didn’t sound quite so defeated. There was something kindled in her now that hadn’t been there earlier—a sense of having found a handhold at a precipice. She glanced toward his voice in the dark. “Is it more or less dangerous than sleeping in my car without any friends or money and looking like I’m…” She stopped as if searching for the right words, then just gestured to herself. “…Like I’m pretty open to suggestions.”

Despite everything that night and the darkness of the implication, Jacob couldn’t stop a little sliver of smile. “Fair point. But you can’t tell me you don’t have anybody. Just about anything is better than running with a target on your back. Because that’s what I’m doing. Go back to your life.”

She shook her head tightly, then straightened a little. “Nothing there. I’ve made some mistakes and lost some friends. Family too. Some of it was my fault, I’ll admit, but mostly people couldn’t get past my, uh…truth.” She said the last word like she wasn’t anywhere near past it either, and like she wanted to say more, but didn’t dare.

Jacob knew where this conversation led. And he also knew he should be avoiding it at all costs in favor of sorting out his own problems. But something in the woman prompted him to speak anyway, something he’d thought he’d carved out of himself long ago. So many changes tonight. So many weaknesses laid bare.

But it wasn’t like he had an appointment to make anywhere either.

“What’s your name, kid?” he asked.

She seemed taken aback for a moment, and even that crumb of positive attention put a little life back in her. “Evan,” she said quickly. Then her face went pale and she snapped her eyes back down to the ground. “Sorry. Eva. I…uh, old habits. Sorry.”

Jacob nodded as he kicked dirt back into the hole. “It’s a good one. A good choice. And you certainly don’t need to apologize for dead names. I’ve got more than a few myself.”

He stopped and considered all that had happened that night, then all that had happened over the last few weeks and months. Everything he’d owned and built and defined himself by was now gone at a word, and he’d be starting over with less than nothing. He’d have to skulk around the city a bit and check the carnage for himself of course, but he held no illusions that anything of his life would be salvageable. If Mama Tempe and Baron Kamuzu had indeed sold him out, they would have done so down to the last cuff links on the last man. Chloe would have been the last to die. It was over in this city. Done.

He held out his hand. “I used to be Jacob, but…you can call me James. It’s the most salvageable version of me at this point.”

Eva looked at his hand, then up to his face for any signs of deception. “I’m not looking for pity or charity. I just want someone to treat me like me for once. Be honest with me. Everyone I know thinks I’m broken and weird, but—”

James raised his hand to stop her, then lowered it with a groan of effort. His ribs were still on fire, and the rest of his body felt like it was barely holding together. “No offense, lady, but we’re all a little broken. And your shit friends and family don’t know the first fucking thing about weird.” He turned and started back toward the road, calling over his shoulder. “I’m guessing the people who made you feel that way are a bunch of assholes I wouldn’t swerve to miss on the street. But trust me when I say I could tell you stories that would make you feel like the most normal-ass, vanilla person in the whole goddamned universe. No matter what your particular ‘truth’ is. Okay?”

After a moment she caught up to him and matched his pace. Her eyes were wide and eager and finally alive as she nodded. “Okay.”

So he did.