“Hi there,” Ruby said with a dazzling smile. “Welcome to Stubb’s Coffee. What can I whip up for you today?”

“Hmph. Elizabeth Kilgore, is it?” McNabb said. “Didn’t I see you working at the QuickStop the other day?”

“Why yes.” Ruby’s smile lost a bit of its dazzle but none of its razzle. “I have several part-time jobs, Mr. McNabb, and thank you very much for asking. You’ll find that it takes all that–and more!–to support oneself, one’s family, and one’s student loans in Higbee. When one isn’t making vice-principal money, that is.”

“It’s Major McNabb; you ought to remember that from school if you remember anything at all.” McNabb slapped down five dollars. “Just a plain mud, and make it snappy.”

“Of course, sir, right away.” Ruby quickly made the change and called out the order–to no one, as it happened, since she was working the shift alone, but that was what the employee handbook demanded. “Though you’ll find that you’re not entitled to use that rank now that you’re just a civilian, I think. This isn’t a Regency romance, after all.”

“Hmph, that’s about what I’d expect from one of Kilgore’s bastards,” McNabb said. “No respect.”

The espresso machine whirred and complained as it was forced to spit out something so mundane as ‘plain mud.’ “It’s funny that someone complaining about a lack of respect would call someone ‘Kilgore’s bastard’ isn’t it?” she said.

“Match the enemy in their choice of weapons,” McNabb said. “You were disrespectful first.”

“Is that what you say to the teachers when you pressure them not to take their full leave?” Ruby said, sweetly. “Or when you make your pregnant teachers think they might be fired if they don’t come back when there’s still leave on the clock?”

McNabb stared daggers at her as the coffee apparatus continued to steam and moan.

“You see, Mr. McNabb, I make it my business to know what’s going on around town,” Ruby said. “If there’s information, it’s almost always interesting, hmm? And people gassing up or getting coffee do love to talk.”

“And what do they say about your wetback mother, huh?” McNabb said with a smirk. “About how close she’s come to getting hauled away by ICE all those times, for being a welfare queen and a stain on the good name of the Kilgores?”

The coffee finished, Ruby handed the steaming cup to McNabb with a sippy lid and a straw. “I wouldn’t know, Mr. McNabb,” she said, sweet and icy as a popsicle. “No one ever seems to bring it up. Except you, of course.”

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Simona Osborne answered the door herself. Though she hadn’t been seen outside her house in many years, she was impeccably dressed, with fashionable clothes that were only a decade or two out of date draped over her, as well as a boa made of something that looked both fancy and authentic. “Well, Sheriff Decker. Now, this is a surprise. Tell me, is it common for members of our local law enforcement to deliver baked goods to elderly women, or did you make a special exception for little old me?”

Decker roughly pushed the bag of breads and cookies into Simona’s hands. “A delivery was the only way your boy at the gate would let me through,” he groused. “Nobody respects this badge anymore.”

“Oh, they surely don’t, Sheriff, they surely don’t,” cooed Simona. She set the great bag o’crusty goodies on her floor. “After all, the badge is just metal on its own. It’s the person behind the badge that commands respect. Or not, as the case may be.”

“You’re such a nasty woman,” Decker spat. “Don’t think I haven’t heard about what goes on in this house.”

“Oh, is that why you’re here? To investigate the salacious rumors? Well, then, let me put your mind at ease, Sheriff. They’re all true. This house is in fact owned by a woman of advanced years and independent means, who enjoys both her privacy and the freedom it allows.” She flashed a smile of lightly tobacco-browned teeth, before taking a quick drag on her cigarette holder. “And I’m sure there’s pirate gold clutched in the arms of a dead husband in the witch’s coven I keep downstairs too, though I must admit that I prefer the Xbox and Netflix to murder and spellcasting these days.”

Decker made an exasperated noise. “See? That’s just the kind of thing I’m talking about. People agree with me, lots of people, when I look at this place and wonder where the money’s coming from. How many drugs are you selling, Osborne? How many humans are you trafficking?”

“Sounds like a question for my accountant,” said Simona coolly. “Why don’t you send him a nice lawful subpoena and find out?”

“Mr. Osborne was always talking like that too,” Decker said. “I remember my father, great man that he was, always saying that Osborne was acting like he had something to hide.”

“Funny that, a doctor not wanting to spill secrets to a lawyer, hmm?” Simona smiled. “Now, was there something I can do for you, Sheriff? If you have business with Dr. Osborne, you know where to find him in the graveyard.”

“You’re hiding folks in this house,” Decker said, red in the face. “Folks that ought to be rounded up. Criminals and rapists, most likely. Vandals and the like, responsible for desecrating our statue, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn. I need to take them in, ask some questions about what’s been going on in town.”

“Oh, of course, Sheriff,” Simona said with a warm smile. “I’d be happy to show you all of the fugitives I’m allegedly harboring. All I ask in return is a small gift.”

“Hmph. A bribe, you mean?” Decker said.

“A warrant. Though your first thought going to ‘bribe’ does explain an awful lot about the state of law enforcement in this city.”

“If you don’t obey, when I come back with a warrant, you’ll wind up in the county slammer along with every last wetback you’ve got in your basement,” Decker sneered. “Every last peso they’ve given you won’t do you much good when you’re behind bars, you stupid old half-blooded bitch. You’ll wind up where you should’ve been when your father was whoring around with your mother.”

“Oh dear, such a predicament. If only I had known, I would’ve arranged to be born to parents that met the approval of Teddy Decker,” Simona said. “Remind me to say the same to all of your half-brother and half-sisters running around Higbee when Teddy Sr. used to make legal…housecalls.”

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“I remember these halls. I mean, the lockers were painted a different color, and the trophies in the case were different, and that hallway definitely wasn’t there, but it’s close enough to fall right into that uncanny valley of memory,” Gnat said.

Charlie, beside him, glanced up and down the deserted hallway of Higbee Middle and High school. “Bad memories,” she said. “Kids are jerks, especially here.”

“I’ve told you about where I spent most of my time, right?” Gnat gestured to the computer lab. “In there! Mecca for milquetoasts, nirvana for nerds. Don’t you think?”

“If you were a dinosaur, you’d be a thesaurus,” said Charlie. “I just always used my phone.”

“W-well, yeah, but you’ve got to have a phone to use it,” Gnat said. “Poor geeks like me always got the rough end of it there. No phone, no internet at home, so it was always the computer lab at school or the library for me.” He paused. “Of course, that meant the assholes knew exactly where to find you.”

“They find you no matter where you go,” Charlie said. “When I was down in the weight room trying to pack it on, they still found me. Maybe different assholes, but probably pretty similar.”

“I KNOW RIGHT?” Gnat cried. “How do they do it?”

“They can smell blood in the water. Like the shark-sensei in Great White Densetsu Oh No!.”

“Oh yeah, a classic,” Gnat said. “I don’t think they have it in this universe. Their loss.”

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Sheriff Decker’s hand was on his pistol. It was one of his favorite tactics, to lightly rest his palm on the handle as if to coyly say “Maybe I’ll draw steel on you, maybe I won’t. We’ll see. But either way, it’ll be because I want to.”

The Margrave stood stock-still in the face of that implied challenge. The few Richemont Dairy night-shift workers that hadn’t run away stuck to the periphery, flattening them behind idled machinery.

“You deaf?” Decker snapped. “Get out here with your hands where I can see them.”

“Or else?” The words had a playful, mocking tone. “Mayhap the lady likes her hands where they are.”

Decker lingered there a moment, hand still on the oiled leather of his gun belt, now stinging a bit from sweat. He could feel the workers’ eyes boring into him, their quiet laughter–it was always quiet but always there–about the soft boy born with a silver stick up his ass. He didn’t know how to use the gun, other than what he’d seen in the movies, but that didn’t matter now. He had to show them, those snickering sons-of-bitches, that Theodore Decker Jr. wasn’t soft.

The revolver popped easily free of its holster, and Decker brought it to bear on the Margrave, supporting his shooting hand with the other in a weak cup-and-saucer grip. “Put young hands in the air, or these boys will see some fancy shooting,” said Decker.

“Show them, then,” the Margrave said. “It would be a shame for them to miss such fanciness.”

Decker pulled the trigger, the heavy double-action jerking his aim upwards. The shot, when it came, was so loud that the sheriffs eyes widened in surprise, and he nearly let the thing spin out of his hand. Everyone dropped like a stone, fearful of ricochets. Without a moment’s hesitation, the Margrave darted forward. By the time Decker had overcome his shock, she was chest-to-chest with him. The gun was easily batted aside.

“The sheriff has had his shot,” she said. “Now let’s see what he has for an encore.”

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“Seems a bit dead tonight.”

The Demon’s Hole bartender, a cyclopean demon who went by Ayers, looked across the polished bloodwood at Nuby. “That’ll be the zombies,” he said, gesturing to a party of four decidedly rotten patrons taking up a booth on the far side. “I know the stench can be a bit much, but you know my policy. Everyone’s welcome.”

“So long as they have money,” said Nuby with a light smile. “And as long as they don’t do more damage in a brawl than their tab allows.”

“Hey, it’s a business, not a charity,” said Ayers.

“So tell me about this succubus you’ve seen coming in here lately,” Nuby said. “The one you said needed someone of my talents and proclivities.”

Ayers nodded at the door. “Here she is now.”

The succubus turned and saw a boisterous demon sweep in, his huge gut jiggling behind his well-tailored suit. A pair of tiny bat-wings twitched in tailored holes on his back, while his hooves clapped loudly on the Demon Hole’s abysstone floor. Behind him, at a pace’s distance, followed a succubus. She was dressed in comparative rags, walked hunched-over, and wore a silver cord around her neck that was linked to the shining brass buttons on the demon’s waistcoat.

“Oh, Ayers,” Nuby said. “You were right. That poor thing is not equal to the dignity of her station or our proud sisterhood. I will have to take this on as an emergency fixer-upper at once.”

“That’s Siseneg and Hori,” said Ayers. “Have a look.”

Nuby sipped her Abyssal Snoworm Tequila Slammer demurely as she watched from her barstool. Siseneg took over a booth, filling an entire side of the thing, and immediately ordered one of everything on the drinks menu. By the time he’d finished it, the demon had engaged in three fights, killed one of the zombies–inasmuch as they were able to die–and loudly argued politics until knives were drawn.

It was boorish, but frankly, Nuby didn’t particularly care. What interested her, though, was his treatment of Hori.

Siseneg seemed to enjoy parading her around, when he wasn’t fighting or arguing, simultaneously pointing out Hori’s great beauty while nevertheless lingering–and laughing–about every flaw he could see or imagine. When she attempted to squeak out anything, he would silence her with a bellow and a jerk of the silver cord. And two out of the three fights were caused by Siseng deeming Hori to be looking too closely at distant patrons.

“Ayers,” Nuby said softly. “Slip a little Acheron bladderweed into the next round, would you?” She slid a coin across the bar.

Biting the money approvingly, Ayers shrugged. “You want to make him angry? There are better ways to do that.”

“No, just piss him off.”

After the next drinks were imbibed, Siseneg indeed tottered off, making an off-color comment about needing to “flood the Styx.” He left Hori tied to his booth like a dog waiting for her master to return, and as soon as the privy door had slammed–with enough force to bring down some plaster–Nuby was up and walking over.

“I haven’t seen you here before,” she said, locking eyes with Hori. The latter immediately looked away, shyly–missing the sight of her fellow succubus quickly and effortlessly sawing through the silver cord with one sharp nail.

“Siseng doesn’t usually bring me,” Hori said quietly. “I only get to come when he’s seen folks around our place that he ‘doesn’t trust around me.'”

“Come, I’ll introduce you around.” Nuby gestured to the other side of the bar, where three hulking demons sat, alert, and constantly nursing a never-ending supply of canned beverages supplied by the bartender. “Those are Redbullius, Monstera, and Rockstarian; they competed for the souls of sleep-deprived mortals are but three of the demons in servitude to a greater power, a being that trades souls for sleep, hushed trades made in the carbonated darkness.”

“Are you making that up?” said Hori. She either hadn’t noticed, or didn’t care, that Nuby had led her away from her table and her silver cord.

“I’ll never tell,” hissed Nuby with a wink. “What I will tell you about, my dear, is how marvelous we sisters are. How long has it been since you tasted a little seduction, slipped a wee knife between welcoming ribs, or manipulated a spider’s own web to strangle him?

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The circle was drawn fresh, laid out in blood taken from a virgin ram that was the seventh son of a seventh son. The book, laid out before Anovi on an ornate wrought-iron stand, was properly made–inked in ichor drawn from the sac of an abyssal squid, bound in the flesh of a cold-blooded murderer by a morally questionable bookbinder, the eldritch runes within carefully calligraphied by a seventh-level monk of art history.

All that remained was the incantation, spake forth in the Darktongue, to bring forth the unholy knowledge that Anovi sought and finally give him the vile insights into evil that he craved.

H’bin odommoc t’necov menomead ecce!” Anovi cried, reading the vile sigils in a voice that grew more distorted, more profane, with each twisted syllable.

The effect was immediate. Anovi’s elaborate summoning circle flared to luminescent life, as the blood of an unfortunately-lineaged goat became the conduit to the iron city of Dís in the chaos and evil of the infinite Abyss. There was a roar, a smell of brimstone mixed with lemongrass, and a pillar of fire burst from the circle, rising upward to scorch the stone arches of the desecrated abandoned chapel where Anovi had made his unholy workshop. Within the flames, a dark shaped writhed, stark in its inky inhumanity.

“Yes, yes!” he cried. “Demon! I command you to heed my words and obey my commands!”

Abruptly, the fire sputtered out like a candle being huffed out by an errant breeze. As Anovi coughed and swatted away the wispy smoke, he saw that the circle was occupied by…

…a young woman with short blond hair and an aristocratic raiment and bearing. If not for the distinct reddish hue of her flawless skin and the batlike wings trailing behind her, Anovi could have mistaken her for a royal courtesan.

“A-as the one who brought you here, I command you!” Anovi continued, “share with my the eldritch secrets of the Abyss, that I might become the most most brilliant the world has ever seen!”

“Hmm.” The succubus looked Anovi over with a cocked eyebrow, and bit her lip coyly with a meaty fang, drawing forth a single droplet of blood. “I’d say you’re rather poor clay to be fashioned into the most brilliant lover the world, but it’s your summoning circle. We’ll start with Demogorgon’s Double-Kangaroo Scissors and then teach you the Backdoor Mailman–an musty standby in Dís, you see, but sometimes the old ways are the best ways.”

“W-what?” Anovi stammered. “I didn’t mean-”

“Of course you did,” the succubus said with a wicked smile. “You wouldn’t have summoned me otherwise. Now, if you’re still alive and in one piece after the Backdoor Mailman, we’ll try the Frothy Walrus of Doom, and of course the the Cheerleader And The Angry Nighwatchman. I’d advise removing anything flammable before that one…”

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“You there!” ‘Major’ McNabb cried. “What are you doing over there?”

Gnat looked up. “O-oh! Hello there. I’m just in the process of, ah…cataloguing the various architectural anomalies of the school, here. Ah, for comparison.” Sweat prickled up and down Gnat’s brow.

“Boy, are you trying to bluff your way out of answering a simple question with a bunch of ten-dollar words?” snapped McNabb. “If this were the army, son, I’d have you drop and give me push-ups until the only things you could gasp out were ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘sir.’ You catch my meaning?”

Gnat, looking miserable, wilted under McNab’s steely gaze. “No…sir?”

The vice-principal sighed, irritated by the response even if it had obeyed his request to the letter. “In the army, you serve up a sir sandwich when you’re in this kind of hot water,” he said. “Tell me again, real slow now, and using real small words, why you are slinking around my school, and see to it that the first and last words out of your mouth are ‘sir.’ Got it?”

“B-…uhm…Sir, but this isn’t the Army,” Gnat said. Then, hastily, again: “Sir.”

“That’s what people keep telling me when I give them orders,” McNab grunted. He held up his phone. “I’ve got the number to the HPD called up. Can you give me one good reason why I shouldn’t hit call? Like a polite explanation?”

“Ah…well…sir…you see, I…”

“Out with it!” McNabb snapped.

“I was looking to see how the school had changed,” Gnat blurted. “From before.”

The vice-principal looked at him, suspicious. “From before? Boy, you look like you’re not old enough to have graduated from here even on the five-year plan. Your parents students?”

“Yes! Ah…uh, sir, yes sir!” Gnat chirped. “That they were, sir, yes. Indeedy.”

“Uh huh. Sounds like two generations on the five year plan to me,” McNabb said. “Well, let me tell you, son: ain’t nothing changed about this building since ’94, when they added the new football field and the new band room. Your parents remember it just fine.”

“Any chance I could…see inside? Sir?”

“Boy, school is out for the summer and we do not do tours. Come back when school is in session.”

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