Bloodstone

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BAYSIDE HEALTH CLUB, A FORMER GYM ANGLING TO GO upscale, is where Bostonians go to pump some iron, get sculpted, and trade in their beer bellies for the sexier kind of six-pack. I’d read the brochure. It has a weight room, state-of-the-art exercise equipment, a lap pool, and full-time personal trainers and nutritionists on staff. Everything you need to get motivated and get buff.

But I wasn’t here for a workout. The duffel bag I carried didn’t hold gym clothes. It was loaded up with bronze-bladed daggers and two bottles of holy water. This afternoon, I was here to kill a demon.

As Boston’s only professional demon exterminator, I kill other people’s personal demons for a living. Often, that means I get rid of the demons that give you nightmares or gnaw at your guts with guilt or worry. Harpies—revenge demons sent by a sorcerer—are also big business.

Today, though, I was after a different kind of demon. Bayside Health Club had an out-of-control Peccatum infestation. Peccatum, Latin for sin, describes a type of demon that contaminates people’s personal behavior. A Peccatum looks kind of like a giant octopus, but with seven tentacles instead of eight. Each tentacle represents one of the seven deadly sins—Anger, Greed, Pride, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, and Sloth—and can branch into an infinite number of tendrils. The tendrils snake out and wrap themselves around their victims, ensnaring them in whichever sin the Peccatum has sent forth. When a victim indulges in that sin, the demon feeds.

Bayside, like a lot of businesses, had paid for this Peccatum, buying it on the black market. A whiff of sin in the air can make a place feel edgy, a little dangerous, and a whole lot of fun. Bayside’s owner had told the sorcerer who conjured the demon to keep it small and to stunt all the tentacles except for Envy, Pride, and a thin strand of Lust. Those sins were good for business. But the Peccatum had gotten out of control, and now Gluttony and Sloth had taken over. How—who knew? Maybe someone showed up for their workout feeling lazy, calling Sloth forth from the demon. Maybe a nutritionist appointment made a client fixate on forbidden foods, stirring thoughts of Gluttony. Or maybe the sorcerer did a sloppy job of binding the demon. Since conjuring demons is illegal, anyone who buys demons on the black market takes that risk. No money-back guarantees from a sorcerer. If you complain, you might find a Harpy handling customer service.

As I pulled open the door and walked inside, the receptionist barely glanced at me. She leaned back in her chair, feet up on the desk, eating a cupcake. Frosting dotted the tip of her nose, and the number of empty wrappers that littered the floor around her would do any zombie proud. (Zombies are worldclass eaters. They don’t go after brains so much, but they adore junk food.)

“I’m Victory Vaughn,” I said. “I’m here to . . .” I glanced around. Business owners don’t like to advertise that their business is infested by demons, but there was no one else in the lobby. “I’m here to fix your Peccatum problem.”

“Yeah, whatever.” She waved a hand vaguely toward the club’s interior and let the empty cupcake wrapper fall to the floor. Then she sat forward and put her head down on the desk. Her snores riffled Post-it notes like a gentle breeze.

Great. Sleeping Beauty would be no help at all. I checked my watch. This was supposed to be a quick-in, quick-out job. Tonight my werewolf boyfriend, Kane, would be meeting my sister for the first time. In a few hours we were due at her home in Needham for dinner. For all kinds of reasons, being late would spell disaster.

I’d have to track down this Peccatum myself. I opened my senses to the demon plane. The room dimmed, and the stink of sins filled the air, making me cover my nose against the stench. Gluttony smells like flatulence and belches, Sloth like long-unwashed bodies caked in shit. The sounds of a Peccatum at work filled my ears: burps, openmouthed chewing, farts, sighs, snores—a symphony of gross bodily functions. The receptionist let loose a gentle burp in her sleep. Peccatum tendrils coiled around her, wrapping her tightly in their embrace. Gluttony and Sloth both gripped her. Gluttony is sickly yellow and sharp-edged, like a serrated knife to saw at the guts with hunger. Sloth is gray and more diffuse. It enfolded her like a warm, fuzzy blanket.

I let her sleep. Cutting off the tendrils would do nothing more than alert the Peccatum I was here. To kill the demon, I had to get its head.

Of course, “head” might not be the best term for the blobby main part of a Peccatum. It had no eyes, no ears, and no mouth, although it could sense people around it, mostly through their weaknesses. The demon’s main body was a roiling mass of oily mist, globbed up into a big ball of ugly.

I opened my duffel bag and removed a belt that looked like something a Wild West gunslinger would wear. But instead of guns, the holsters held water bottles. I hadn’t brought a pistol for this job; shooting the demon wouldn’t work. Although bronze is lethal to a Peccatum, as it is to any demon, the bullet passes through the thing’s misty head too quickly to do any lasting damage. The mist merely fills in the hole. It takes a thorough dousing with holy water or prolonged contact with a bronze blade to kill a Peccatum.

I put on the belt and fitted my liter bottles of holy water into the holsters. Then I strapped on two thigh sheaths, each loaded with a bronze dagger. I checked that everything was snug, the caps on the bottles tight. I was ready to track down the demon.

Unlike other demons, which manifest only after the sun goes down, Peccata are active around the clock. After all, sin is a 24/7 affair. But Peccata don’t like sunlight, so the sorcerer would have conjured it in a dark place, a closet or a windowless room. I set off to explore.

The first room off the hallway was the weight room. Inside, bodybuilders lay on benches, sleeping or staring into space. Some sat on the floor, slumped against the wall, heads nodding forward. The whole room was filled with a thick, stinky fog of Sloth.

That was the trouble with Sloth. It’s so lazy and diffuse it has a hard time holding its own shape, so it’s difficult to follow Sloth tendrils back to their source. I needed to find some gluttons. The tendrils that enwrapped them would lead me to the demon.

But, really, what was the hurry? I yawned. It was only late afternoon, but already I’d had a long day. I deserved a break. My eyelids drooped. My body felt too heavy for my legs to hold up. I could just lie down right here and . . .

No. I was in a hurry. I shook off the sleepy feeling and stepped back into the hallway. Fluffy gray tendrils puffed toward me, following. Bits of gray fluff clung to my legs.

There are two ways to avoid a Peccatum’s tendrils. One is through virtuous living and iron-clad willpower, and I’m sure that works great for some demon-killer, somewhere. But I’d come prepared with option number two.

From my pocket, I pulled out a crystal atomizer and misted myself with its contents. Not perfume; holy water. It makes the wearer temporarily invisible to the Peccatum. I’d misted myself before I entered the health club, but the effect wore off as soon as the holy water evaporated.

The fresh misting of holy water did its thing, and the reaching Sloth tendrils drifted toward the floor. They lay there like dust bunnies.

I went back to the receptionist and picked up the trail of Gluttony. The jagged yellow tentacle snaked down the hall, branching off into several rooms. I ignored the branches and followed the main tentacle, which grew thicker and sharper as it went deeper into the club.

The tendril led to a door marked CONFERENCE ROOM. Next to the door was a placard: WINNING LOSERS SUPPORT GROUP. Gluttony—in a dieting club? Uh-oh. I spritzed myself with holy water and opened the door.

Half a dozen people sat around a conference table stacked high with extra-large pizza boxes. With my senses open to the demon plane, I couldn’t see their faces. Gluttony tendrils covered them like kudzu in a Georgia forest. All I could see was slice after slice of pizza disappearing into Gluttonypossessed lumps.

“Did you bring food?” a lump demanded.

The holy water made me invisible to the Peccatum, but not to the humans it possessed. I reeled my senses back from the demon plane, making the tendrils disappear, to see who was speaking. A plump woman of about thirty had paused mid bite to address me. Pizza sauce was smeared on her face, and a string of mozzarella dangled from the corner of her mouth.

“No, I—”

“ Then get out!” she shrieked. “There’s not enough for you!”

Five other angry faces glared at me. “Yeah!” a man yelled. “We’re starving here.” He turned to a college kid who wore a baseball cap adorned with a slice-of-pizza logo. “Call your boss and order a dozen more. Extra large with everything.”

“Double everything!” someone added.

“And garlic bread!”

“I want a calzone!”

“A meatball sub!”

As the dieters clamored for more food, the kid pulled a cell phone from his pocket. Between bites of pizza, he placed the order. Or tried to. It was impossible to keep up with all the shouted demands.

Looking at all the empty pizza boxes, I was glad Tina had quit being my apprentice several weeks ago. Tina’s a teenager and a zombie, and that combination makes her a nonstop eating machine. Plus, like all zombies, she’s super strong. Holy water or not, if Tina had walked in on this pizza fest, she’d have taught everybody here a lesson in Gluttony. And it’s a little distracting when your apprentice gets possessed by the demon you’re trying to kill.

“Didn’t I tell you to leave?” the plump woman snarled. “ There’s not enough to go around.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’m not hungry. I’m here to do some maintenance.” I didn’t have time to waste with the Winning Losers, anyway. I had to find the Peccatum. Another spritz of holy water, and I stepped inside. I opened to the demon plane a little, enough so I could make out both the faces of the support group members and the tendrils that gripped them. They regarded me suspiciously, ready to fight to defend their pizza. I stayed near the wall, studying the floor, trying to see where the main tentacle left the mass of tendrils. Soon they forgot about me and started arguing over the few slices that remained.

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