Tadin was very relieved to be back in the apartment. Shelley had no problem working down in the gallery, but it made Tadin very nervous. There were too many windows. He felt much more at home in the bedroom, seated in the armchair, watching Shelley wind down for the night. The apartment consisted of a kitchen, living room, a small bathroom, and, of course, the bedroom. After her nightly routine, Shelley curled up in bed with her beloved, if a little senile, black cat, Kismit, (Tadin hated that name) and dozed off with a book still in her hand.
As she slept, Tadin got up from his seat and walked over to the edge of the bed — not to watch Shelley, but to see what she had been reading. Careful not to wake her, he reached down and slid the book from her limp hand.
It was a romance, of course; the kind with two people kissing passionately in each other’s arms on the cover. This one had a picturesque beach that was way too bright. Corny as the cover was, the couple looked a lot warmer than Shelley’s room felt right now.
A chill breeze drifted in through the window. Even with Fall threatening to change to winter at the drop of a hat, Shelley still kept the window open at night until the last possible moment.
He was just settling into a worn copy of Great Expectations when he felt a dramatic shift in the temperature. It felt like someone had just opened an ice box.
Sitting up in the armchair, he glanced around the room. For a second he thought it was just his imagination, that the sudden cold was natural. But, then he looked over to the window and saw a figure standing outside.
“Hello, Tadin.” The figure’s voice was raspy, reminding Tadin of an old newspaper machine that needed grease.
He set his book down on the end table and tried not to make any sudden movements.
The figure wasn’t human by any means, though it was definitely male. Tadin encountered many variations of the same, but this creature was a lot taller than most, standing nearly five-and-a-half feet tall. Normally they were four feet at most. Instead of skin, this creature was cloaked in bubbling, burnt flesh with the consistency of melted linoleum. His face looked like a deformed goat, with horns protruding from a crop of stringy hair.
The creature was unmistakably a demon.
“What are you doing here, Aleister?” Tadin said, getting to his feet. “I haven’t seen your hideous mug in a long time.”
“Yes,” Aleister said, his face twisting into a disturbing grin. “Not since you passed, all those years ago. I was wondering where you’d set up camp.”
He took a step forward until his head poked through the curtains, and Tadin heard the sound of hooves on the fire escape outside. Kismit hissed up on the bed.
“That’s far enough,” Tadin said. He didn’t know exactly what Aleister was doing peering into Shelley’s bedroom, but normally with demons, they only came for one thing, and that was to collect the souls of the dead — and occasionally torment the living. If Aleister was here for him, he could try and run for it. If he was here for Shelley, there wasn’t much he could do to fend off a demon on his own.
“Not nervous, are you?” Aleister asked. He reached out a three-fingered hand and stretched it across the room, waving it in the air a few inches above Shelley’s bed.
“I said that’s enough,” Tadin stepped forward this time, fists clenched. “You’re not allowed in here without permission.”
“Of course. Demons aren’t welcome anywhere, are they? But we take what we want — without setting foot.” He licked his lips.
“What do you want?”
“You know what I want,” Aleister’s hand came to hover above Shelley’s chest, right over her heart. The demon leaned down, breathing in a long, deep drag of Shelley’s aroma. “Can you believe how delicious that smells? Just like a red wine. It gets better with every passing year. Oh, I crave it.” His eyes slid shut and he straightened back up to look at Tadin. “I could do so many things to this one. What would you like? Cancer? Tremors? Alas, I have to control myself. This one is not for me. Yet. I answer to someone a lot more powerful.”
Of course, thought Tadin. Aleister was merely a messenger. He should have remembered that from the first time he saw the creature. Aleister worked for someone of higher rank — someone he’d evaded since his death.
“Tell Haures I’m not going anywhere.”
“Believe me, that’s exactly what he wants,” Aleister ran his tongue across the front of his teeth. “Makes you easier to collect.”
“So, he’s still haunting that old bar down on Exchange Street?”
“Of course,” Aleister said. “You know his kind. They’re very territorial. They need an unassuming place to keep their collections. They also like to see them grow regularly. He’s had your name on the list for a long time. You’re quite valuable to him. Like I said, with age comes value. There’s a big reward waiting for me for taking you in.”
“Sorry to disappoint, but you’re not taking me anywhere,” Tadin said, and Kismit hissed once more at the demon.
Aleister gave him another eerie grin and reached down to the bed, this time taking a lock of Shelley’s brown hair into his hand.
“You think I forget,” he started, “that you spirits only have enough energy to manipulate the physical realm in small pieces. What if I took this girl instead of you, hmm? You couldn’t rescue her from my grasp if you tried, and even if you were to wake her, you’d only heighten her fear with consciousness.”
“You don’t intimidate me!” Tadin took another step forward. “I may be a spirit, but I can still kick your ass.”
“Oooh! Prove it.”
Tadin lunged across the room, his feet leaving the ground, and he slammed into Aleister’s chest.
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