Demon on the Down-Low (Supernatural Selection, #3)
After decades of unrequited love, this kangaroo will jump at the chance for a date. Any date.
Lovelorn kangaroo shifter Hamish Mulherne, drummer for the mega-hit rock band Hunter’s Moon, waited years for the band’s jaguar shifter bassist to notice him. Instead, she’s just gotten married and is in a thriving poly relationship. How is Hamish supposed to compete with that? But with everyone else in the band mated and revoltingly happy, he needs somebody. Since he can’t expect true love to strike twice, he signs up with Supernatural Selection. Because what the hell.
When Zeke Oz was placed at Supernatural Selection through the Sheol work-release program, he thought he was the luckiest demon alive. But when he seems responsible for several massive matchmaking errors, he’s put on notice: find the perfect match for Hamish, or get booted back to Sheol for good. The only catch? He has to do it without the agency’s matchmaking spells, and Hamish simply will not engage.
But Zeke starts to believe that the reason all of Hamish’s dates fizzle is because nobody in the database is good enough for him. And Hamish realizes that his perfect match might be the cute demon who’s trying so hard to make him happy.
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With every step down the dim corridor toward the rehearsal studio, Hamish’s stomach knotted tighter. Gods, I hate this.
He used to be so chuffed for every rehearsal, for every concert, even for the miles on the road when Hunter’s Moon couldn’t cut through Faerie to their next gig. Because every minute was one more he could spend with her. Any minute might be the one when Tiff finally paused between one bass progression and the next, and glanced back at Hamish with love instead of annoyance.
Now? All those moments he used to cherish were nothing but torture, because Tiff was glancing with love, all right—at her wife. Or her boyfriend. Or both at once.
But when he peeked in the studio door, the room was empty except for a tall, dark-haired fae stretched out on the studio’s ratty orange sofa—and he wasn’t even part of the band.
Hamish heaved a relieved sigh and sauntered into the room. “Oi, Niall. You looked better after you got pulled out of hell.”
Niall McTierney, the band leader’s boyfriend, didn’t even flinch at Hamish’s greeting. “It wasn’t hell. It was the underworld. In Govannon’s forge, to be exact. There’s a difference.”
Hamish tossed his backpack behind his drum kit. “Govannon’s forge. Hades’s joint beyond the Styx. Sheol. All of ’em sound like hell to me, so why muck about with different names?”
Niall didn’t bother to open his eyes. “Try visiting each of them, and you won’t ask that question. From what I’ve been told, compared to Sheol, the forge is a bloody picnic, and Hades’s gloomy court is a four-star resort.”
“Remind me to stay out of all of ’em.” Hamish grabbed his drumsticks off the snare, then sat on the sofa arm, nudging Niall’s legs out of the way so he could plant his feet on the threadbare cushion. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“You asked about underworld names. I answered.”
“The question was implied. Why—” Hamish started to beat a double paradiddle against the sofa back “—do you look like shite?”
“Working on a case. It’s kicking my arse. Now stop pounding on the furniture so I can sleep.”
Niall’s command was ridiculous, so Hamish ignored it. “A rehearsal studio’s the wrong place for a nap, mate. Doesn’t your brother”—he added the sole of Niall’s boot into the beat—“the Faerie Kiiinnng have a spare room in that bloody great Keep of his? For that matter, what’s wrong with your own house?”
“I’d like nothing better than my own house, but I haven’t been home in thirty-six hours, and I’ve got approximately fifty-eight minutes before I have to meet an informant. I thought I’d use at least a few of those minutes to kiss my boyfriend before you lot start rehearsal. Unfortunately—” he cracked an eyelid and peered up at Hamish “—he’s late. And so is everybody else. Except you.” He closed his eyes again. “Imagine my joy.”
“You know you love me. Who else would you get to go bungee jumping or cliff diving with you?” Hamish switched to a nine-stroke roll. “PI business is booming, eh?”
“Last I checked, you had a business partner. Isn’t Mal pulling his weight, or does he look like five miles of bad road too?”
“I wouldn’t know.” Grimacing, Niall shifted his shoulders as if he were trying to find a more comfortable spot on the sofa. Pointless, mate. You ought to know that by now. “I told him I’d handle this one so he can get ready for his wedding.”
Hamish missed a beat. Weddings. Gah! He gathered his sticks in one hand and forced a smirk that he hoped looked superior and not constipated. “Did you volunteer, or did Mal’s fiancé threaten to put a druid curse on you if you made him work leading up to the ceremony?”
“It was my idea. But there might have been a druid curse looming on the horizon.” Niall groaned, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes. “If I’d known how much paperwork was involved in being a PI, I’d have turned the job down flat.”
“Nah. You’d have taken it. When it comes to duty to the supernatural community, you’re a goner. And Mal’s just as bad or worse. Crusaders, the both of you.” Hamish flipped a stick in the air. “Seeing you like this makes me glad I’m a care-for-nobody.”
Niall snorted. “You care, all right. You just pretend otherwise.”
Hamish fumbled the next stick toss, and it clattered to the floor. Not talking about that. Not now. Not ever. He retrieved his fallen stick, then got up and set the pair of them back on the snare on his way to the mini-fridge. “I thought you had that human photographer working for you? What’s his name? Matt? Isn’t he pulling his weight?”
“He’s tied up on surveillance for this case, but he couldn’t handle the paperwork anyway. He doesn’t have the clearance.”
“Then hire some bloody office help.” Hamish grabbed a couple of waters out of the fridge. “Or is the supe council so stingy you can’t afford it?”
“The council pays just fine, not that either of us need it. But Mal has unrealistic expectations of what office help should be. If he can’t find someone who meets his sky-high standards, he says he’d rather go without.”
“Easy for him to say.” He dropped one bottle on Niall’s belly, causing Niall to flinch—although he caught the bottle before it rolled onto the floor. “He’s off gallivanting with his fiancé.”
Niall pushed himself up and swung his feet to the floor. “If it was me getting married, I’d want the same.” He cracked open the water and downed half of it in one go.
“Speaking of that . . . why aren’t you and Gareth getting married? Isn’t waiting two hundred years long enough?”
“I’m waiting for the right moment.” Niall leaned his head against the sofa back, holding the water bottle upright on his belly. “Somehow, when the band is still touring and I’m barely conscious half the time and chasing an impossible target the rest, the ideal moment hasn’t exactly presented itself. Besides”—he closed his bloodshot eyes—“I wouldn’t want to steal the spotlight from Bryce and Mal, and neither would Gareth. When you spent two hundred years being a dick to your brothers, you’ve got a lot of arrears to make up.”
When Niall had first shown up again after a couple centuries of being MIA, Hamish hadn’t trusted him. What kind of idiot bloke would abandon the love of his life—who actually loved him back—and do a runner? If Tiff had ever given Hamish the least hint that she was interested, he’d have been her slave for life.
He still was, worse luck. But at least he and Niall were mates now.
“Hmmm. Seems to me you need a break. How about we head out after rehearsal and do some bungee jumping?”
“Are you mental? It’s February.” He peered at Hamish through slitted lids. “Not that you’d know by your outfit.”
Hamish waved the comment away. “Shifters run hot. Come on, Niall. It’s winter in Portland, but you’re fae. You can gate us through Faerie in the twinkling of a kelpie’s eye and we could be in midsummer in Cairns.”
“You do realize,” Niall said, tapping one finger against his water bottle in a non-rhythm that set Hamish’s teeth on edge, “that someday Gareth is going to find out about those trips and he’ll go ballistic on our asses?”
Hamish shrugged and took a swig of his own water. “You were tied up in hell for a couple centuries. Can you blame him for wanting you to be safe?”
Niall cocked an eyebrow at him. “It’s not me he’s worried about, boyo. He knows I do that daredevil shite. He just doesn’t know I do it with you.”
“Me? Why would it matter whether I—”
“Aside from the fact that you’re his friend, and have had his back in some of his worst times—” Niall winced “—including ones that I caused myself, you’re the drummer in his band. It’d be a little hard for Hunter’s Moon to hit their tour stops if your arms—or other bits—were broken.”
Hamish’s fist tightened on the water. “My other bits are nobody’s business.” Literally. Nobody was interested in his other bits, least of all the person he really wanted to be interested in them. “They could fall off from atrophy and nobody would care.”
Niall scrunched his face. “I’m not talking about those bits, you wanker. I mean your legs, your head, your back. Although . . .” He tossed his empty water bottle into the recycling bin. “Maybe we should talk about them.”
“How about we don’t?” Hamish put a little don’t-fuck-with-me into his tone while he ditched his water and grabbed his drumsticks off the snare. “Gotta warm up.”
He should have known Niall wouldn’t listen. The mad bloke had spent two hundred years resisting torture to keep Gareth safe. He knew how to persist, damn it.
“She’s worried about you, you know.”
“Tiff? Yeah. So worried she can’t help but glow with bleeding happiness. Do you know how weird that is? She’s always been nearly as surly as Gareth was gloomy.”
“Trust me. I’m aware. I thought she might remove my spleen when I first showed up here. But some people are capable of being happy and worried simultaneously. Tiff’s not exactly shallow.”
Hamish counted off on the snare rim, but couldn’t make himself go any further. He laid the sticks on one of the toms.
“She’s always there, Niall, just like she always was. I always had hope before, you know? That maybe one day she’d turn around and say, ‘There he is.’” Hamish ran a finger along the snare rim. “Except every time she turned around it was to tell me to sod off for something. And now when she turns, she never gets more than halfway because her wife is standing in the wings.” He flicked the hi-hat with a fingernail. “Her wife or her boyfriend. Her wife’s brother. I mean, come on—twins? How the bleeding fuck could I ever compete with that?”
“I heard”—Niall’s tone turned tentative—“that Vitor asked you out.”
Hamish snorted. “No. Not just no. Hell no.”
“Not into blokes? Or not into the poly thing?”
“It’s not that. I mean, I’m not picky.” Except I’ve been in love with the same person for decades. “But if you’re in love with somebody, the last thing you should do is hook up with their friend. Or worse, their boyfriend. You’re too close and not close enough at the same time.”
“Ah. That makes sense, I guess.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I like Luci. Who wouldn’t? I mean she’s probably the nicest person—certainly the nicest jaguar shifter—on the planet. And Vitor is fucking hot, not to mention a little bit nuts, which would be attractive on anybody who wasn’t Tiff’s boyfriend. But I can’t.”
Niall stood up and strolled over to stand in front of the bass drum. “So date somebody else.”
“You got somebody in your back pocket? Because I haven’t found anybody else who’d—”
“You haven’t found anybody else because you haven’t looked. You’ve been focused on Tiff.” Niall lifted a hand, as if he’d pat Hamish on the shoulder if the kit weren’t in the way. But then he let it drop. “And she’s out of reach, boyo. She always was.”
Hamish sighed. “I know. But I need time to process.”
“I get it. But you may not have the time.”
“What do you mean?”
“The wedding’s next week. You planning to be the only unattached member of Hunter’s Moon at the festivities?”
Hamish felt the blood leaving his head. “Bollocks.”
Niall pulled a business card from his pocket and held it out. “Here.”
Hamish took the card between a thumb and forefinger. “What’s this?”
“Supernatural Selection. Matchmaking agency for supes.”
Hamish scowled at the card. “Why do you have something like that? Planning to ditch Gareth, are you?”
Niall chuckled, completely unperturbed. “Not hardly. I’ve only just gotten him back. No, this case is connected to them. It’s run by a witches’ collective, and the matches are facilitated by spells—guaranteed perfect. As I understand it, they’ve got a range of services, including short-term casual contracts. They can find you a date for the wedding. Somebody you can have a good time with, even if you say ‘so long’ after the last bite of cake.”
Hamish studied the logo—a stylized frontward and backward S, forming a heart. “Perfect you say?”
“That’s their brand. Although they’ve had a bit of a scare recently.”
“Related to your case? What’s the deal?”
Niall shrugged apologetically. “Can’t say.”
“Right. Snoop-client privilege.”
“We’re investigators. Not snoops.”
“You’re supe snoops. Own it, mate.”
A laugh echoed in the hall outside the practice room. Tiff. Tiff laughing. The sound curled in Hamish’s chest and squeezed his heart until he gasped.
He tucked the card into his back pocket. “Guaranteed perfect matches?”
“That’s what they say.”
Tiff strolled into the room with her arm around Luci’s waist, Vitor grinning down at her. Vitor caught Hamish’s eye and winked.
Strewth. “Good.” The fates knew Hamish hadn’t had any luck finding his own match. If he couldn’t have Tiff, it didn’t much matter who it was.
As soon as Vitor cleared the door, Spence and Josh entered together, although it must have been one of Josh’s days where he didn’t want to be touched, because Spence was close but not in actual contact. But the way they looked at each other—as if they didn’t need anybody else to be happy . . .
Then Gareth walked in, frowning down at the sheet music in his hands. But the instant he glanced up and saw Niall, his face lit up like the sun, and he walked straight into Niall’s arms.
All this love. It’s enough to make me hurl.
Hamish didn’t need love. Love did nothing but kick you in the bollocks. But a match? A partner? A mate?
Yeah. He could go for that. Because he was done being alone.
I wonder what it’s like to be able to go wherever you want.
Zeke parted the curtains of his apartment’s living room and peered at the humans on the street five floors below. Sure, some of them were striding down the sidewalk as they scowled at their phones, or were huddled in their jackets against the wind that flipped their hair, but far more of them were laughing, smiling, chatting with friends, or peering into the windows of the Pearl District’s eclectic storefronts.
As a demon on the pilot Sheol work-release program, Zeke wasn’t allowed abroad in the Upper World. Although he could use the translocation door on the fourth floor of the building that housed Supernatural Selection’s office to access other supernatural realms, he was forbidden to walk out the front door.
Even being allowed down on the first floor would be nice. On peril of his work visa, he couldn’t go below the second floor where his office was located, but the aromas wafting from the street-level falafel restaurant regularly tempted him to the edge of his endurance. And sometimes the distant laughter of the people in the street was so joyful that it lifted his heart—something he could never confess.
After all, demons weren’t supposed to have hearts, any more than they were supposed to have souls. At least not our own.
Zeke sighed and rested his palm against the window pane, the glass chilly against his warmer-than-human skin. It was nearly time for his Supernatural Selection shift, and it was bound to be boring as, well, hell. He had no client appointments, and hadn’t for weeks, not since the Johnson/Moreau . . . thing.
He still wasn’t sure how that had happened. There was no way a shifter, however inactive, should have been the perfect match for a vampire—and Zeke could have sworn that they had nothing in common whatsoever, had never even met. Yet the spell had not only allowed their contract when Rusty Johnson had waltzed in and proposed the match, it also refused to return any other alternatives for either one of them. In the resultant uproar from both the vampire and shifter communities—none of which seemed to bother Mr. Johnson or Mr. Moreau in the least—the witches’ collective who owned the agency had bowed to the pressure and taken the spells offline for “evaluation.”
None of the other counselors had had such peculiar results. Of course, none of the other counselors were still in training. None of them are demons either. And they’d all been granted indefinite paid leave—the vampire-shifter boycott had seriously reduced Supernatural Selection’s client pool.
But Zeke didn’t have the option of leaving. Unless he wanted to admit defeat and return to Sheol, he was stuck in this building, on effective house arrest, not to mention double probation: Magistra Lenore, the director of the collective, was conducting her own evaluation, both of Zeke’s general performance, and of how he’d managed to subvert the spell.
I didn’t mean to subvert it. It just happened.
He doubted Magistra Lenore would accept that particular excuse, despite how eloquently Quentin Bertrand-Harrington, the incubus whose match had been the first to implode, had argued that the spell was merely correcting itself.
Even self-correction didn’t explain how Rusty Johnson, the inactive beaver shifter who was supposed to be mated with bear shifter Ted Farnsworth, had finagled a match with vampire Casimir Moreau.
Everyone knew that vampires and shifters were inimical. How on earth had the spell not rejected that particular pairing, regardless of the clients’ wishes?
And that was the question, wasn’t it? If the spell could misfire so wildly, yet result in two apparently mismatched couples who were both deliriously happy, how on earth had it been accomplished? Since it shouldn’t have been possible for it to be accomplished on earth, the witches’ hypothesis was that other forces must be at work.
Forces like the alleged insidious evil agenda of the first demon allowed out of Sheol since a succubus and her dragon shifter mate defied the high presidents of Sheol and founded the first Upper World ’cubi dynasty eons ago.
Yeah, the Sheol C-suite demons were still pissed about that. And since time didn’t mean much when you were immortal, they really knew how to carry a grudge.
A yellow glow shimmered on the window in front of Zeke, blurring his view of the street. Letting the curtains fall shut, he turned to face his mandated monitor: an angel interface, manifesting as a pillar of supercilious light, that was his constant shadow. Assuming light could be a shadow.
“What is it now?” The AI flared magenta at Zeke’s wrist level. “I am not late. My appointment with Magistra Lenore isn’t until six.” Green edged the magenta in a double pulse. Not a good color combination. “Why? There’s no point in going down early. She won’t see me until six, and there’s nothing to do in the office. I’ve already notified all the clients that their matches are on hold.” The green crept outward in amoeba-like tendrils. “Just because you’re bored up here—”
“Haven’t you learned by now that arguing with one of the angelic host is pointless for someone like you?”
Zeke whirled to see Melchom, his Sheol supervisor, standing in the kitchen doorway, wearing a black cutaway morning coat, white shirt, and gray trousers, his chin-length hair slicked back under a top hat. Channeling the Edwardian era today. You never knew with Melchom. He monitored the time stream from the turn of the last century forward, and complained bitterly that it was boring at the same time he complained that no other supervisor was responsible for more than a single century and he was approaching a century and a quarter.
“Supervisor. To what do I owe the p-pleasure? It’s not time for a check-in.”
Melchom stepped out of a circle of brimstone dust. I’ll have to vacuum again. “Demons live for chaos. Such paltry things as schedules are for the lower orders.” He glanced dismissively at the AI. “Or for priggish rule followers.” The AI pulsed gold. “Oh shut up, you self-righteous git. You can’t hope to win a curse war with an upper-echelon demon, no matter how successfully you’ve managed to neuter Ozul-y—”
“Zeke. Please.” Zeke glanced around furtively, never sure what kind of surveillance spells might be in effect in the apartment. It was owned by the witches’ collective, after all. “Here in the Upper World, I’m Zeke Oz.”
“Don’t be so skittish, boy.” Melchom settled in the wingback chair in the corner, crossing his legs and folding his hands in his lap. “No demon has been summoned by name since 1999. Practitioners can get anything they want now from Amazon without resorting to blood sacrifice.”
“That doesn’t mean we should be careless with our names. If anyone should—”
Melchom’s eyes flared red. He might dress like a British MP from 1906, but he was still a demon—even if he was only in charge of Sheol’s civil service. “Don’t question me.” His voice reverberated in the cramped room. “Regardless of this ridiculous program, you are still my minion.”
Zeke bowed his head. “Of course, Supervisor. Forgive me. I meant no disrespect.”
“That’s better.” Melchom’s voice returned to normal, and Zeke dared look up. “Now. You.” He made a shooing motion at the AI. “Go away.” The AI sparked like a downed power line. “Nonsense. You’re not required to monitor him when I’m here. Get out.” Melchom narrowed his eyes. “Unless you want me to report you to your supervisor. Regardless of your pompous attitude, the only difference between the demonic and angelic hosts is one of relative address.”
The AI slunk toward its own bedroom, with a final flash of indigo before it slammed the door.
“I saw that,” Melchom called. “Don’t flip off a demon lord unless you’re ready to face the consequences.” He shook his head. “Really. If it weren’t so irritating—and therefore a perfect sort of torture—I’d lodge a protest against that creature for insubordination.”
Zeke twisted his fingers together, uncertain of whether he was allowed to sit in Melchom’s presence this time. “It doesn’t consider itself under our jurisdiction, you know.”
“Yes. Isn’t it amusing?” Melchom steepled his fingers, tapping them against his thin lips. “I’m extremely disappointed in you.”
Zeke hung his head. “I’m sorry, Supervisor. As I told the magistra, I don’t know what happened to cause the spell to misfire. I did everything according to protocol, but—”
“Not that, you fool, although that’s part of the problem. Have you learned nothing from me in the last centuries about the lovely stultifying effects of bureaucracy? You’re not supposed to be efficient. And you’re definitely not supposed to exceed their expectations. Those disasters were the only things you actually did right, and then you had to ruin everything by fixing them.”
Zeke blinked. “You can’t mean . . . Surely you didn’t want me to fail?”
“Your personal failure or success is irrelevant.” Melchom’s mouth pinched. “But you’re a demon. We make people miserable, not happy.”
Zeke was well aware of that, but he’d never enjoyed tormenting humans, supes, or other demons, for that matter. That was one of the reasons he’d jumped at the chance for the work-release program. He’d been surprised that so few other volunteers had stepped forward. He’d expected to have to fight for the opportunity, but instead he’d had no opposition whatsoever. Even the AI had had to be recruited. Maybe that’s why it’s such a jerk all the time.
“But then why place me here?”
“Don’t be naive.” Melchom’s contemptuous gaze nearly cut Zeke to the bone. “Nothing makes people more miserable than love.” He folded his hands on his knee. “Since I’m here anyway, I’ll accept my tribute now.”
“Don’t make me scourge you, boy.”
Zeke sighed and shuffled to the bookshelf to take down a wooden box with a protection sigil carved on the lid. “I wasn’t expecting you until next payday, Supervisor, so I don’t have much left. I had to buy groceries.”
Melchom tutted. “You see how ridiculous this is? If you were still in Sheol—your proper place, need I remind you—you wouldn’t need to eat.”
Not true. Well, he might not need to eat, but he’d still be hungry. All low-level demons like Zeke were. It was one of the ways the upper echelon demons controlled them. Occasionally feeling almost full was an unexpected bonus of living in the Upper World.
“Mainstreaming demons into the Upper World supe community is important. The council said—”
“The council. Pfaugh!” Melchom snorted, smoke curling out his nostrils, and held out his hand with its perfectly manicured claws. “Why would we want to be mainstreamed? Hedged in with rules, regulations, and ridiculous secrecy constraints. Homogenized like the dynastic ’cubi. Virtually castrated like the vampires. Even that annoying AI has its wings clipped when it’s here. And why? Because the council is too fainthearted to exercise their true power and put humans squarely where they belong.” He grinned, displaying his pointed teeth and equally pointed tongue. “At the bottom of the food chain.”
Zeke’s fist closed around the small handful of bills and coins. “You don’t really, um, eat them. Do you?”
“Not their flesh. That would be . . .” His snout wrinkled in distaste. “Unappetizing. But the brush of their anguish? The sweetness of their guilt? The tang of their despair? Delicious.” He waggled his fingers. “Hurry up. I don’t have all day. The inhuman resources department is undergoing an audit today, and there’ll undoubtedly be lashes to hand out.”
Zeke offered the money. “I’m sorry there’s not more, Supervisor.”
Melchom rolled his eyes. “Don’t be an idiot. You know I can’t accept that currency.”
“If you’ll wait a moment, I’ll ask the AI to convert it.”
Melchom waved one hand as if trying to dissipate a bad smell. “Not now. My stomach couldn’t stand it. Have it ready for me next time.” He lifted his lip, exposing a fang. “And I expect you to have the full measure by then. Perhaps fashioned into a tasteful golden calf. I’m in the mood for a little gratuitous idolatry.”
“But the witches don’t pay me that much. And the conversion rate is—”
“Then you’d best find a way to supplement your income.” Melchom bared his teeth fully. “The only reason the overlords agreed to this ridiculous arrangement is because they thought it would benefit them. If it doesn’t . . .” He shrugged. “We’ll shut it down and put you back where you belong—firmly under my hoof.”
Before Zeke could properly abase himself, Melchom vanished in a puff of smoke reeking of sulfur. Zeke coughed, staggering to the window to open it and clear the air.
When he turned around, the AI was looming in the middle of the room in a sullen swirl of turquoise and ochre, still flashing random sparks.
Zeke scowled as he set the box back on the shelf. “He sends you out of the room because he doesn’t like you.” A bolt of pink shot through the light pillar. “Yes, I’m aware the feeling is mutual.” He slapped his money into the obsidian crucible on the coffee table. “Could you convert that for me, please?”
Green infused the AI as it drifted over the table.
“Yeah, yeah. I know. Take your cut.” When the pillar retreated, the crucible held a gold nugget no bigger than Zeke’s pinkie fingernail. He peered at it, then fixed the AI with a narrow-eyed glare. “That’s not—” The AI flared white on one side, illuminating the clock. Five minutes to six?Shit. “You know what? Never mind.”
He grabbed his tie off the back of the barstool and raced out the door. Some days he’d almost prefer Sheol to being saddled with an angel.
Hamish eyed Niall, who was sauntering along the sidewalk next to him, hands in his pockets, glancing around with a half smile on his face. “You know, mate, you don’t need to escort me. I always keep my appointments. I’m not about to skive off the Supernatural Selection orientation—” Hamish made air quotes with his fingers, even though he hated people who did that. “Not after filling out that bloody questionnaire online. I thought you said the whole thing was handled with spells.”
Niall blinked at Hamish as if he’d just noticed he was there. “What? Oh. They are. Usually. But they’ve had a couple of—” Niall squinted into the air, head tilted to one side as if he were listening to something, then smothered a laugh. “Let’s say irregularities.”
Hamish cocked an eyebrow. “That’s not what you were about to say. Come on. Spill.”
“It’s not me. It’s—” Niall rubbed the back of his neck with a grimace. “Gareth ever mention the ethera to you?”
“If it’s something you two get up to in bed— Ow!” Hamish rubbed his arm where Niall had punched it.
“Nothing close, arsehole. Show some respect. No, they’re . . . spirits for lack of a better word. Sort of a supernatural interface between realms. Since I was out of pocket for so long, they try to be helpful. Kind of like supplying subtitles for popular culture.”
“So you hear voices?”
He sighed. “I do. Whether I want to or not.”
“Yeah? So what’d they say about the Supernatural Selection situation?”
Niall’s mouth quirked in a crooked smile. “They very obligingly referred to it as a fuckup.”
Hamish barked a laugh. “Oh, that’s grand. You recommended me to a shite matchmaking agency? What, I don’t rate one that does a decent job?”
“Oh, they did a decent job despite the irregularity.” Niall emphasized the word to the air at large, which was just weird. “Two of the most successful matches in recent years, even though nobody—including the men involved—would have believed it to begin with.”
Huh. Maybe if this place could snatch success out of the maw of fuckup, they could do something to fix his sorry-ass social life. “So why are you visiting? If you’re thinking of cheating on Gareth—”
“Don’t be an idiot. I’m interviewing the collective’s director for the case.” His brow puckered. “There’s something dodgy going on, and the witches want Quest Investigations to prove it wasn’t a problem with their spellcraft.” Niall stopped in front of a glass door between a Mediterranean restaurant and a new age-y bookstore.
“Think you can do it?”
Niall shrugged and opened the door. “Not if the problem really was with the spellcraft.”
Hamish followed Niall into the building and up a staircase. “You’re not filling me with confidence here, mate.”
“Can’t help that.” He gestured to a door with the Supernatural Selection logo on it. “This is your stop. Good luck.” Niall continued up another flight of stairs.
“Luck,” Hamish muttered. “Shite. I don’t need luck. I need a bloody miracle.”
He pushed the door open, the slight tingle as he passed the threshold a tip-off that the place was secured by perimeter spells. The empty reception area wasn’t particularly big—guess they’re not hosting speed dating for trolls—and the decor screamed Pleasant! Tranquil! Intimate! in a way that set Hamish’s teeth on edge. He was a drummer, sod it. He didn’t do pleasant or tranquil or gods-help-him intimate.
The reception desk at the end of the room was vacant. No clients and no staff. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the Supernatural Selection brand.
“Oi! Anybody home?”
A weird golden light spilled from an archway behind the desk, and a moment later, a man with a mop of dark curls hurried into the room. He blinked big dark eyes behind wire-framed spectacles that glinted with some kind of obvious spell, and Hamish didn’t need to be the Oracle of Delphi to tell the guy was frazzled to within an inch of his pert little arse.
“I’m so sorry no one was here to greet you.” His smile was clearly forced. “I was waiting to meet with Magistra Lenore, our director.”
Hamish grinned. The guy was just so cute. “Yeah? About anything interesting?”
“Yes. No. I mean, well, you, I suppose.”
“You’re saying I’m not interesting?” Hamish slapped a hand over his heart. “I’m crushed. Although impressed by your instant insight. I mean, we’ve barely met. Usually folks wait until they’ve known me at least an hour before they figure that out.”
The guy’s lips twitched, as if he were about to smile for real, but then a pillar of dingy yellow light as big around as Hamish’s bass drum oozed out the door behind him.
The hairs lifted on Hamish’s arms and the nape of his neck. Settle down. It’s a pillar of light. Hamish was used to lighting effects—he was a bloody rock musician, and Hunter’s Moon demanded state-of-the-art tech—but that much wattage without an instrument to generate it kicked his kangaroo instincts into fight mode.
The guy must have felt it too, because as soon as the light cast his shadow onto the desk, his almost-smile disappeared and he seemed to shrink at least two inches. “I beg your pardon. I meant no disrespect.”
“Hey. It was a joke, mate. No worries.” Hamish extended his hand. “Hamish Mulherne.”
The guy shot a sidelong glance at the light, and reached across the desk. “Welcome to Supernatural Selection, Mr. Mulherne.” He took Hamish’s hand, and a prickle of some kind of power raised Hamish’s hair a little more—but not in a bad way. “I’m Zeke. Zeke Oz.”
“Oz, eh? Then we’ll get along fine.”
Zeke blinked. “We will? Why?”
“Oz. You know. That’s a nickname for Australia.”
“Oh. Of course.” Zeke’s tongue flicked out to lick his lower lip. “Mr. Mulherne, I’m afraid—”
“Call me Hamish. I don’t stand on ceremony. Ever.”
“A-all right. Hamish, I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding. Well, not a misunderstanding so much as an oversight. Or rather, not an oversight, but a . . . a scheduling difficulty?”
Hamish grinned. “You trying to say somebody bollixed something up?”
Zeke blew out a breath. “Yes.” The light turned greenish, like it had been hit with a vomit-colored filter. “I mean no. But Supernatural Selection is not currently accepting new clients, nor arranging matches for our current clientele. I’m not sure how your intake appointment slipped by. I’ve been contacting all our clients personally over the last few days, and I deactivated the intake website myself. How— If I may ask, how did you arrange this appointment?”
“Me? The usual way, I reckon. I got your card from a mate of mine who’s doing a spot of work for your witches. Hit the website. Filled out the form. Got an email with the appointment time.”
Zeke’s eyes widened. “You— The website— But that’s impossible.” He turned to his computer and typed something, his fingers moving almost too fast to see. What kind of supe is this guy anyway? He pointed to the webpage on the monitor. “You see?”
The screen read Our sincere apologies, but our site is down for maintenance.
Hamish shrugged. “Don’t know what to tell you, mate. That’s what happened, and here I am. Can we move forward?”
“But that’s just the thing. We can’t move forward because the matchmaking spells have all been dismantled.” He waved a hand at the screen. “For . . . for maintenance.”
“Need a bit of dusting and vacuuming, do they? A little spit and polish?”
Zeke’s eyebrows drew together. “Of course not. There were a few incidents that—” Dark-blue sparks flashed inside the bilious light, and Zeke flinched. “The reasons are immaterial. Suffice it to say that Supernatural Selection is committed to finding the perfect match for each of our clients. When our spellcasters discover ways to enhance the process—”
“Make the matches more perfect? How does that work out?”
“Not more perfect. Of course not. But to streamline the process. To—to—”
“To not bollix it up?”
Zeke’s nostrils flared, and red glowed in the depths of his eyes for an instant. “That’s not what I said.”
“Relax, mate. I know you lot had some . . . what did Niall call it? Oh yeah. Irregularities.”
Zeke’s already pale skin drained of all color, and he sank into his chair. “You know? Does everyone know? Is it public?”
Hamish sat down on the other side of the desk and held up his hands, palms out. “He didn’t spill any details. In fact, he kept it close to his vest, so don’t get your knickers in a twist. But since he’s the one who recommended I sign up with you, he can’t think it’s too bad, eh?”
Zeke glanced over his shoulder at the light before meeting Hamish’s gaze as if he were facing the guillotine. “No. I suppose not.”
Hamish tilted his head, squinting at the turquoise tendrils snaking through the light. If a column of light could look smug, this one did. What the hell was that thing? “If you don’t mind my asking, what’s up with the lighting effects?” Hamish flicked a finger at the effect in question.
“Lighting eff—” Zeke glanced over his shoulder. “Oh. That’s the AI.”
“AI. Artificial intelligence?”
“No. Angel interface.”
Hamish snorted. “Right.”
“No. Seriously. The angelic host can’t interact directly with beings on this plane of existence without risking contamination.”
“Contamination of who? Us or them?”
The AI pulsed red, and splotches bloomed on Zeke’s cheeks to match. “Um . . .”
Hamish chuckled. “It just said something rude, didn’t it?” Zeke’s expression turned bland, which was a dead giveaway as far as Hamish was concerned. “Don’t worry. I won’t ask for a translation. But why were you inflicted with a sentient follow spot anyway?”
Zeke tugged on his shirt collar. “It’s required.”
“Why? A safety measure in case the lights go out? Couple of flashlights could handle that.”
“No. I— I’m a demon. As part of the pilot Sheol work-release program, I’m required to have an AI observer at all times.”
“Fuck me dead.” Hamish leaned forward in his chair, his foot searching vainly for his bass pedal, because if ever he needed to pound on something . . . “You’re joking, right?”
Zeke half rose from his seat. “If you’d rather not work with a demon, I understand. I can—”
Hamish lunged across the desk and caught his wrist. “That’s not the fucked-up part, mate. Hells, I’ve played on the same bill as Death Metal Porcupines. Nothing could be worse than that. I mean they’re treating you like a prisoner, and this thing is your bloody guard.”
Zeke sank back in his chair, his gaze focused on Hamish’s hand. “It’s for everyone’s safety and comfort.”
“That’s what the bloody Victorians said about the poor blighters they shipped off to Botany Bay.” He released Zeke’s wrist. “And if you don’t mind my saying, you don’t look all that comfortable.”
Zeke’s lips twitched again. “Compared to Sheol, anything is more comfortable. Now, back to the issue at hand. Without the matchmaking spells, we’re not able to provide you with our normal services, so—”
“So provide me with different ones.”
Zeke’s mouth dropped open. “We—we don’t have any different ones. Our brand is to provide your perfect match.”
Hamish leaned an elbow on the desk. “Look. I don’t need perfect. In fact, I don’t believe in perfect.” Rather, I know who my perfect would have been, but she’s permanently unavailable. “I just want someone who’ll do. You know what I’m saying?”
“That’s not really what—”
“Look, mate. You said you’ve been calling people for days telling them to put their dreams on hold. Aren’t you tired of that?”
Zeke rolled his eyes. “You have no idea.”
“Then look at this as a treat. I’m not picky. You know something about your clients, am I right?”
“Yeeesss.” Zeke couldn’t have sounded any more uncertain if he’d tried.
“Then find me a partner.” Hamish leaned back in his chair, rested one ankle on the opposite knee, and laid down a single stroke roll on his thigh with his fingers. “There’s absolutely no way you can screw this up, because I know going in that perfect is a giant load of shite.”
Zeke goggled at the big kangaroo shifter across from him, whose grin caused a dimple to crease one cheek under his golden scruff. Supernatural Selection forbade him from contradicting a client outright, but . . .
“You . . . you don’t think love is real?” Zeke wanted to demand that Hamish hold still and stop that driving rhythm that set up an odd resonance in Zeke’s chest. Sheol was all about the chaotic and unexpected. Zeke wasn’t used to organized, structured rhythms, and the sound made it hard for him to think.
“I didn’t say that. Love’s obviously real. But it’s not perfect. And it’s not symmetrical. One bloke can be in love up to his eyeballs, but the one he’s arse over teakettle for?” Hamish shrugged, but didn’t stop hammering on his thigh. “Maybe up to their ankles. Or worse, maybe up to their eyeballs over some other person.” He scowled. “Or persons.”
Clearly there’s a story there. If the spells were still active, Zeke was certain Hamish’s mind would be changed regardless of his backstory, because Supernatural Selection could absolutely find him the perfect mate. Not that the perfect mate guaranteed love necessarily, but ever since Zeke had been a counselor-in-training here, it had happened every single time.
Even when it shouldn’t have. The Johnson/Moreau pairing was inexplicable, yes, but he still got hot behind his eyes when he thought of the Farnsworth/Bertrand-Harrington disaster. Yet that had turned into one of the most successful marriages in the supe community, judging by the way the two men doted on one another.
But Zeke’s past mistakes were immaterial right now. The main thing at this moment was to convince Hamish Mulherne to postpone his search for a match until after the spell was back online—and until Zeke could figure out not only how Hamish had accessed the website in the first place, but how he’d been able to opt out of entering any match preferences. It was almost as if the spell had still been in effect.
If only he’d stop that distracting sound.
Zeke took a breath. “Mr. Mulherne, I’m not entirely certain why, if you don’t believe in . . . in symmetrical love, or in the possibility of a perfect match, you’ve chosen to seek out our services.”
“That’s obvious, innit? You lot are in the business of pairing people up. I’m unpaired.”
“Just to be clear—you don’t believe in love or in a perfect match, yet you still want to be paired?”
“That’s it. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Like I said, I’m not picky.”
“Don’t you think you ought to be?” Zeke couldn’t help the edge of annoyance in his tone. If you’re not picky, go hit the Bullpen. Surely the shifter bar could provide plenty of choices for the non-discriminating.
Hamish’s brows snapped down and—thank Lucifer—his fingers stilled. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t you think you should at least consider what—or rather who—would make you happy long-term? And how you’ll make your partner happy as well? The match involves at least two people. You can’t expect the other party to do all the work and make all the sacrifices simply because you’re lazy.”
The AI jerked forward, its nimbus enveloping Zeke’s shoulder, and a shock passed through his body. Zeke’s eyes clenched shut, his muscles seizing. Pain! Then it vanished as the AI backed away—although not as far as it had been before—while Zeke panted in the aftermath. Yeah, yeah. I get it. No being rude to the client, even if we want him to leave.
When he opened his eyes, Hamish was half out of his chair, reaching across the desk. “You okay, mate? Need a bit of a lie-down? Should I call someone? Get you some water?”
“No. No, I’m fine. Just a . . . momentary, er, glitch.”
“A glitch, eh? You sure? You’re still looking a tad rocky.”
“I’ll be all right. But could you excuse me for a moment?”
“No worries, mate. Take your time.” Hamish sat back down and began that distracting drumming again as Zeke stood up and escaped the lobby.
The AI, of course, followed.
Zeke refused to look at it as he nearly ran toward the private staircase to Magistra Lenore’s office. “I know I shouldn’t have been cheeky, but you heard him. He doesn’t want perfect. There’s no way we can make him happy.” The AI pulsed a sullen, faded indigo. “That’s easy for you to say. Do you know the problem with somebody who doesn’t know how to ask for what they want?” He pointed a finger at where the AI’s chest would be if it were an actual person. “They’ll never get it. Because they wouldn’t recognize it if it bit them in the ass.”
He turned and ran the rest of the way up the stairs. Magistra Lenore’s door was open and he didn’t hear voices. The fae who’d appropriated Zeke’s scheduled meeting time with her must have left. Zeke took his courage in his hands, ignoring the AI’s snarky magenta flashes, and peered inside. She was standing at the window, her back to the door.
“Magistra? Could I have a moment?”
“This is not a good time.” She didn’t turn. “Tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry, but this can’t really wait.”
She sighed heavily and turned, her face morphing from Crone to Maiden without passing through Mother. But then, Magistra Lenore wasn’t the Mother type. “Then be quick.”
“There’s a prospective client downstairs. Somehow he was able to register and obtain an appointment even though—”
“You informed me that you had disabled the registration software.” Her face slipped toward Crone again.
“Yes. I did. However—”
“And took the appointment scheduler offline.”
“Of course. But—”
“Then the problem is yours to resolve.”
Zeke’s palms grew damp, something that never happened outside the deepest recesses of Sheol—demons were very heat resistant. But not panic resistant, apparently. “Magistra, how can we—” She shot him a look. “I mean how can I find his perfect match without the spells? If we— If I don’t succeed, it will reflect poorly on the Supernatural Selection brand.”
“No, Mr. Oz. It will reflect poorly on the success of the Sheol work-release program. This is your last opportunity to prove you shouldn’t be sent packing and the entire experiment shut down as a failure. You’ve made error after error, and I have to ask whether those errors were intentional.”
Zeke’s stomach plummeted. “Wh-wh-what?”
“Demons are well-known to thrive on chaos and strife, to seek it out, to engender it in others in an attempt to ensnare souls since they own none of their own. What better way to cause strife than by interfering with love?”
Has she been talking to Melchom? “I swear to you, Magistra, that I never—”
“Do not swear.” Her face was fully Crone again, and pitiless. “Vows taken in this place hold a power you, as someone who is unused to our magic, can never comprehend. You have one chance to save the program.” She raised one grizzled eyebrow. “To save yourself. Make Hamish Mulherne happy, whatever it takes.” She turned back to the window. “Now leave me.”
“Are you stupid as well as incompetent? Go!”
Zeke went, the AI bouncing along at his side as if it were skipping, glowing a smug electric pink. “Shut up. Nobody likes hearing ‘I told you so.’”
Although Zeke kept his tone sharp, inside he was quaking like a gelatinous mound. Thank Darkness that the AI couldn’t read minds, because if it knew how terrified Zeke was, he’d never hear the end of it.
The AI flashed yellow.
“I’m coming. Keep your shirt on.” Zeke trudged down the stairs. “Assuming you have a shirt,” he muttered. “Or a chest to put it on.” Turquoise bloomed inside the yellow. “Yeah, yeah. I’m sure you’re a paragon of angelic beauty. Pardon me if I don’t believe it until I see it. The angelic host’s benchmarks don’t exactly align with the demonic, you know.” Silver joined the turquoise. “Well, that suits me too, so don’t gloat.”
He forced one foot in front of the other. This is a disaster. The entire fate of the work-release program lay on his shoulders, on his ability to find a perfect match for a man who wouldn’t articulate his definition of perfect, who didn’t believe in perfect, who didn’t even know what perfect meant.
No pressure. I just need to find what Hamish Mulherne is looking for and when I can’t, it’ll bite me in the ass. In other words, he’d have his old life back and he’d do anything to avoid that. If he couldn’t make Hamish happy—
Wait a minute . . .
Zeke froze, the AI bouncing past him. Magistra Lenore hadn’t said Zeke had to make Hamish a perfect match—only to make him happy. That was splitting hairs perhaps, but she was right about the power of words within the confines of the Supernatural Selection building.
She’s given me an out.
Now all he had to do was figure out how to take it without jeopardizing his job, his life in the Upper World, and his nonexistent soul.