A Blast from the Past (A Damned If You Do Tale)
Some old flames are too hot to handle.
Something demonic is starting fires all over town, and it’s up to hunky detective Lars Thornsson and his partner, Chelle Rochelle, to solve the case. The attacks have neither rhyme nor reason—and when Lars identifies the arsonist, he realizes his troubles are just beginning. Not only is he injured as the firestarter gets clean away, but Lars manages to mortally offend his succubus lover, Rael, in the process.
Rael has problems of his own: his cheating ex, Levi, wants him back. And Levi’s a powerful demon who won’t take no for an answer. With Levi ready to attack Lars to get what he wants, Rael has to work out what he’s willing to do to save his lover. Up to and including sacrificing himself.
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Dressed in nothing but a pair of Lars’s boxer shorts riding low on his hips, Rael hummed a happy little tune to himself as he sashayed into the kitchen. He switched on the TV with a flick of his tail.
Time for today’s edition of Devon’s Plate. The well-coiffed host, Devon LaGrande, was just introducing his guest for this week’s “Sauce from a Sorcerer” spot, a cute young guy with hair the color of dark chocolate and tight little buns Rael would just love to see sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Mr. LaGrande’s intro described the guy as the hottest kitchen witch this side of Salem, and Rael was inclined to agree. Man, that boy was smokin’. Right now he was slicing beef with the wickedest looking knife Rael had ever seen and putting it into a bowl of spicy marinade as carefully as if he were laying a baby into a bassinet. His familiar watched, unblinking, from a small tank on the counter.
“Honey, if I wasn’t already spoken for, I’d marinate your meat anytime,” Rael murmured to the TV.
It had to be a trick of the light, but Rael could have sworn the witch’s familiar gave him a knowing wink. And man, that smiley-faced bearded dragon was the cutest familiar ever. Kind of made Rael wish he had a familiar of his own.
Rael felt a pout coming on and resisted the urge to shimmy to the bathroom and check it out in the mirror. Oh, he loved living with Lars, and he got a real kick out of cooking for his man—seemed only fair, feeding his lover when he fed off Lars nightly—but it did get kinda lonesome when his big hunk of a detective was out at work. Rael couldn’t get too mad about Lars’s job, seeing as that was how they’d met, but damn, did he miss his man when Lars was gone.
And Lars was fixing to be back late tonight—some department thing or other. Rael sighed. He hated eating late.
After all, him being a succubus, it wasn’t like he could start without his lover.
Detective Lars Thornsson snapped the file shut and leaned back in his chair with a sigh of relief. The chair groaned, signaling that it didn’t share his enthusiasm for the change in position, but hey, Lars’s 240-pound frame was all muscle, so he figured the chair would just have to suck up and deal. “I’m all done, C, how about you?”
His partner, Chelle Rochelle—about a third his weight but way more than three times as mean—looked up and scowled. “I’m nearly through. Jeez, Thornsson, a whole frickin’ morning on paperwork. Those demons are out there pissing themselves laughing at us. You know what we should do next time we catch one? Make it fill out the damn reports. The asshole’d be begging us to banish it back to Hell before it was through.” She dotted a final i, jabbing the pen clean through several sheets of paper and, Lars suspected, into the desk beneath.
“I think that counts as cruel and unusual punishment, C,” Lars said with a wry smile.
“Kiss my ass, Thornsson. The Constitution was set up to safeguard human rights. Operative word, human. And I don’t give a damn what you were telling yourself while you were banging Hell Slut a couple months ago, demons are not human.”
Lars counted to ten very slowly in Norwegian in his head, like his dad had taught him. Rochelle was just blowing off steam. Paperwork made everyone cranky.
Not that you could really tell the difference with Rochelle. But he could hardly complain about her being less than tactful about his demon lover, seeing as how he’d been less than honest with her about it not being just a one-time thing. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was kind of awkward, professionally speaking, to admit he’d just shacked up with one of the very beings the Paranormal Enforcement Agency was set up to police. His mood softened just thinking about Rael waiting at home, with that cute smile of his, that perky little ass, and damn, that tail . . .
Lars glanced up again, startled, at the sound of Rochelle cracking her knuckles. “Done and dusted,” she announced with a satisfied air. “Hey, are you going to old Makler’s send-off tonight?”
“Wouldn’t miss it, C. Him and me have worked together near on forty years now.”
She grimaced. “You do know that age thing of yours really creeps me out, Thornsson, don’t you?”
“Can I help it if my mom’s an immortal?” Lars grinned the smug grin of a fifty-seven-year-old with the face and body of a guy less than half that age.
“No, but you could work on getting a few more wrinkles to make the rest of us feel better. Take up smoking, become an alcoholic—hell, whatever works for you. Don’t just sit there looking like a poster boy for Oil of fucking Olay.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” Lars assured her, although if he were going to try to get a more lived-in appearance, he figured he’d rather stay up all night with his hot little sex demon. With the tricks Rael knew, staying up all night was no idle boast . . .
“Hey, Earth to Thornsson. Somebody eat your brain? I said it’s lunchtime. You coming to get a burger?”
Lars felt himself flush. “Uh, thanks, C, but I’m brown-bagging it today.”
Rochelle snorted. “You? When did you get all Martha Stewart? What you got?”
Telling himself that there was absolutely no reason to be embarrassed, Lars brought out the Tupperware container Rael had handed him with a kiss this morning, and opened it up. Inside was an artistic arrangement of meat, salad, and rice Lars vaguely recollected having heard described as a bento. The little mound of rice had a smiley face on it and—Lars winced—two little horns made out of red pepper. Looked kinda tasty, though.
Rochelle glared at the lunch as if she wanted to see it on death row—hell, like she’d cheerfully wave it to the chair and then start working on the jig she was planning to dance on its grave. “You’re still banging him, aren’t you, Thornsson?” she asked flatly.
Lars winced. “You got a problem with me and Rael being together?”
“No, but you do. Jeez, Thornsson, a hookup’s one thing, but getting domestic with a demon? Leaving aside the fact that if O’Reilly finds out, he’ll pin your ass to the break room dartboard, Hell Boy’s bad news and you know it. He’s a frickin’ succubus! What the hell do you think he does all day while you’re at work? Sit around putting nail polish on those cloven hooves of his?”
“Uh, Rael doesn’t actually have hooves.” Although he was occasionally partial to a little nail polish, Lars thought fondly. “He likes watching cooking shows on TV. And, you know, trying out recipes, that kind of thing.”
“Sure he does. Probably out banging half the neighborhood. Ten’ll get you twenty, if you put a tail on that little creep you’d get a hell of a lot more than you bargained for.”
Lars swallowed, his face growing hot. Rochelle was closer to the truth with that tail dig than he was comfortable admitting to a coworker. Although not in the way she’d meant it. “I trust Rael, okay?”
Rochelle shot him one final, disgusted look and stomped off.
Lars was just finishing up his bento, digging into the corners of the box to coax out the last delicious morsel, and Rochelle had long since slammed her ass back in her chair and demolished her knoblewurst on rye, when Captain O’Reilly stormed past.
“Thornsson, Rochelle, get your asses in here!” he barked at them, then lumbered into his office, leaving them to follow like a couple of ducklings behind mama duck. The captain had the waddle down pretty good, too, Lars noted with a grin he kept to himself.
Rochelle’s eyes were lit up like a casino on payday. “What’s up, boss?” she asked, dropping into one of the chairs across from the captain’s desk. He liked to pretend the chairs were there to make his subordinates feel more comfortable, but it was common knowledge that he just didn’t like people looking down on his bald spot. “We got a new case?”
O’Reilly scowled at her over the top of a small mountain of paperwork bordered by a graveyard of dead coffee cups, the dregs in them blacker than the captain’s temper. “Uh-huh. Firestarter. Been targeting a whole bunch of businesses downtown, no damn logic to it I can see.” He ran a hand over his head, smoothing down the comb-over no one had the guts to tell him to get rid of. With the possible exception of Rochelle, who Lars figured probably just didn’t give a damn.
“How do they know it’s one of ours?” Lars asked, sitting in the other chair.
O’Reilly barked a laugh. “Figure it’s just some kid who never learned not to play with matches? Not a chance, Thornsson. Fires all started in the same way, inside an enclosed space of some kind, no sign of any explosives or flammable liquids being used—and temperatures that’d make a thermonuclear reactor seem like a shady spot on a winter’s day. It’s gotta be a demon. Either of you two hear anything lately about any illegal immigrants from Hell?”
“Uh, no, boss,” Lars said, guiltily aware that there was one hanging around looking decorative in his apartment right now. He kept his fingers crossed that Rochelle wasn’t about to spill.
“I got nothin’,” she said shortly.
Lars breathed again, feeling suddenly much more inclined to forgive her earlier digs about Rael. “You know, Captain, it’d be helpful if we knew what kind of demon we were dealing with,” he said, trying to change the subject. “After all, it could be a fire sprite, a dragon . . .”
“So get on it, then!” O’Reilly snarled, rolling his eyes. “Damn it, Thornsson, you want spoon-feeding?”
“Uh, no, sir. We’re on it.”
The captain nodded curtly, then jerked his head toward the door. Lars and Rochelle took the hint.
“You owe me, Thornsson,” Rochelle muttered as they left O’Reilly’s office.
“Thanks, C. I won’t forget it.”
“You’re damn right you won’t. Now, gimme those files. We got to get an angle on this damn pyro. Hell, screw that, I’m gonna need a coffee before I deal with this shit. You want I should grab you a cup of that fairies’ piss you drink?”
Lars nodded and sat back down at his desk. He was still on the first report when Rochelle got back with the coffee. He sipped at his skinny mochaccino gratefully. “You see this?” he commented. “The first attack was a florist’s shop on Crowley Avenue. Who the hell would want to burn down a florist?”
Rochelle threw back half of her espresso doppio, glared at it briefly, then shrugged. “Hell, what do I know? Someone with a real bad case of hay fever?” She grabbed the next file. “Now, a furniture shop, that I can understand. The guy probably got screwed into spending three grand on a sofa that wouldn’t fit through the fucking door. Fucking asshole salesmen.”
Lars grinned. “I told you, you should always take a tape measure when you go furniture shopping, C.”
“Fuck you. It was an impulse buy, okay?”
After a frustrating half hour spent reading and re-reading the reports, Rochelle tossed the last file down in disgust. “Jeez, what the hell’s going on with this creep? He hits a florist, a furniture store, a bakery . . . what the hell kind of a game plan is that?”
“Maybe he doesn’t have a game plan.” Lars rubbed his chin. “After all, it could be one of the lower creatures, or maybe some kind of fire sprite—do they even care what they burn? At any rate, I figure we should start with the bakery.”
“Why? That fancy demon food not doing it for you?”
“Funny. Lunch was delicious, actually. No, I just thought we should start at the place where there was a witness.”
“Jeez, some kid in diapers sees an imaginary frickin’ cat and you figure that’s a reliable witness?”
Lars shrugged. “Hell, C, you got any other leads?”
“Well,” Rochelle drawled, lip curling, “we could ask your boyfriend what all his friends have been up to lately, but my guess is he’s too busy screwing around on you to get to the phone right now . . .”
Lars went cold. “Rochelle, that was way out of line.” And definitely not true, he told himself.
She slammed her hands down on the desk so hard the files jumped. “Damn it, when are you gonna wake up and buy a clue? He probably blows guys like you eat hot dogs.”
“How’s that?” Lars asked, holding onto his temper with both hands. “With onions and ketchup?”
Rochelle snorted. “Thornsson, I do not want to hear what you guys get up to in the bedroom. Or the kitchen. Whatever.”
“What is with you, C? Hell, I know this job doesn’t exactly show you demons at their best, but you’re acting like this is fucking personal.”
Rochelle’s jaw set so firmly that Lars figured the Apocalypse wouldn’t shift it. “You want to go to the bakery? Fine. We’ll go to the bakery.”
She stormed out, leaving Lars no choice but to follow.
The bakery itself was nothing but a burned-out shell, so where they actually went was the baker’s apartment three blocks away. It seemed the baker had taken to heart the old adage about never trusting a skinny cook. Lars figured the guy who opened the door to them was probably about as wide around as Lars was tall. But he was bucking the jolly-fat-man trend with an expression that was distinctly gloomy. Well, in the circumstances, Lars could understand that.
He introduced himself and Rochelle, and tried to ignore the baker’s glare that said plainly, “I have lost my livelihood and now I have to deal with this?”
“Listen,” the baker reeled off in a tired voice, leaning against the already sagging jamb of his front door. Framed like that, he resembled a poor attempt at squaring the circle. “I already told my story a hundred times. I wasn’t there, the bakery was closed, it wasn’t an insurance scam, and we don’t know how it started, okay?”
Lars nodded patiently. “Sir, I’ve read all the reports from the initial investigations, and we’re pretty certain there’s a paranormal element to the case. That’s why we’re here. Can we come in?”
The baker waved them through in silence. Lars ducked his head, emerging in a cozy-looking living room filled with large, squashy chairs and bright, plastic toys that made Rochelle’s lip curl. Lars cleared his throat. “I understand your daughter was at the bakery when you were closing up on the day of the fire, and saw some sort of cat?”
The baker rolled his eyes. “My baby’s only two. She calls everything with a tail ‘kitty.’”
Lars couldn’t help wondering what she’d make of Rael. “Can we speak to her, sir? It’s important.”
The guy clearly wasn’t happy about it, but he turned and yelled, “Ruby, honey? The nice detectives want to talk to you!”
The child who scuttled in shyly had to be the smallest little girl Lars had ever seen. He hadn’t even realized they made them that small. If she stood next to her father’s feet, Lars figured he wouldn’t be able to see her past his gut. She goggled up at Lars with big, wide eyes like he was Godzilla or something. Shuffling his feet a little, Lars tried to appear less threatening. “Uh, Rochelle . . .?” he began.
Rochelle glared at him. “Way to gender-stereotype, demon lover.” She hunkered down anyway and gave a forced smile at the kid, who promptly fled and buried her face in Lars’s trouser leg. Lars was uneasily certain he’d be left with a snot-mark just below his knee.
“See, she likes you!” The baker beamed at Lars. Rochelle he fixed with a glare that seemed to say, After I hang, draw, and quarter you, I will bake you into one of my pies and eat you with mustard and relish.
“Uh, Ruby?” Lars said tentatively.
Big, dark eyes gazed up at him from under lashes almost as long and lush as Rael’s.
“Sweetie, can you tell us about the kitty you saw before the fire?”
She considered. “Pretty.”
“How pretty, sweetie?”
Ruby was clearly well on the way to learning her dad’s repertoire of expressions. The one she turned on Lars said quite plainly what a moron he obviously was. “Pretty,” she repeated, loud and clear for the terminally hard-of-thinking.
Lars racked his brains. “Uh, was it a pretty color?”
The kid grabbed him by one finger, which was about all of Lars that she could fit in her doll-sized hand, and pulled him along with a surprisingly strong grasp. She led him to a room that seemed to be entirely carpeted with paper and crayons.
“Kitty!” Ruby beamed proudly.
Lars peered at the scribbles, all variations on the theme of Early Toddler Abstract, his heart sinking. Then his eyes narrowed. Maybe there was something to be learned from her explosions of color? “Was it all these colors, sweetie?”
Ruby smiled at him indulgently. It seemed maybe he wasn’t a total imbecile after all, and might one day, given luck and the attention of trained professionals, develop into a functioning member of society. “Pretty kitty.”
Squatting down, Lars grabbed a piece of paper that wasn’t totally covered in childish scrawl, and sketched a lizard-shape on it, which he then filled in with a mosaic of colors. “Is this your kitty, sweetie?”
“Kitty!” Ruby squealed in delight, hugging Lars’s knee.
“Gotcha.” Lars straightened up carefully so as not to send the witness flying. “Rochelle,” he called, “I know what we’re dealing with here. Our firestarter’s a salamander.”
“Whoop-dee-fucking-doo,” Rochelle muttered under her breath as they left the apartment. “You have any idea how frickin’ hard it is to catch those overgrown lizards without getting rotisseried?”
“Well, it’s hardly the worst thing it could have been.” Lars reminded her reasonably. “A couple of the guys had a dragon to deal with back before you joined the department. Warczynski nearly got fried before they figured out some way of getting it to land so they could banish it. You know those charms don’t work unless the demon or whatever’s in contact with the earth.”
“Well, duh. So we’d wave something shiny at its scaly ass. Jeez, don’t you ever read fairy tales?”
Lars frowned. “I wonder if there’s something similar for salamanders? It’s odd, isn’t it, that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of research done on them.”
“Yeah, well, it’s kinda hard to write up your notes when you just got your ass barbecued by your frickin’ subject. C’mon, Thornsson, we need to get our asses back to the precinct if we’re gonna make it in time for Makler’s send-off. Unless, of course, you’re in a hurry to get home so you can check your boyfriend’s knees for carpet burns.”
Lars took a deep breath. “Hell, C, you don’t stop, do you? I trust Rael, okay?”
She sneered. “Just don’t come crying to me when he carves out your heart and serves it up to you on a plate. And you’d better hope like hell that ain’t literal.”
Word Count: 16,800
Page Count: 64
Cover By: Imaliea
Series: Damned If You Do
Release Date: 06/22/2013