Excerpt: Dance Only for Me

Jackie caught the goblin right square between its crazy ass eyes and sighed as the fool thing dropped like a sack of flour to the warehouse floor. He holstered his revolver in a single, smooth move and touched the brim of his hat to the cluster of goblins huddled in the corner. “Ma’am,” he said to the one at the head of the pack, who had hired him to do something about a goblin that had tipped from average goblin crazy to crazier than a pack of elves gone drunk and frisky.

He walked over to the body to make certain it was dead and wrinkled his nose at the smell wafting off it. He’d caught whiffs of it before, but now the thing was holding still it was a sight easier to catch. “Poor thing’s mind done been scrambled like eggs at Sunday brunch.” He tipped his hat back to look up at the head goblin as she approached him. “Ain’t got a clue how he was poisoned, but I were you, ma’am, I’d be checking right careful for a traitor in your midst. This sort of thing is near always personal.”

The goblin’s mouth tightened and she gave a terse nod. “Thank you, sorcerer.” Reaching into the pocket of the heavy butcher’s apron she wore, she pulled out a book not even as big as his hand and carefully covered in plastic wrap. “Your payment. We’ll take care of the rest.”

“Ma’am,” he said again and stood up, resettling his Stetson and brushing warehouse dust of his clothes.

Outside, dusk was steadily approaching, the hot air cooling as the sun fled. He lightly touched the pistols at his hips, still unsettled from a goblin acting so unlike itself, but made it to his pick-up without incident. Once inside his truck, he drew the revolver he’d just used and removed the bullets in it. Tucking them away in a pouch on his belt, he traded them for the bullets he normally used, meant to incapacitate rather than kill. He holstered the revolver, then settled into the driver’s seat and buckled his seatbelt in place. A light touch to the steering wheel started it, and without a backward glance, he drove away from the warehouse and through the streets of the city.

He was happy to leave it behind for long stretches of empty, dusty road, happier still to pull into the driveway of his house. Another whisper of magic turned the truck off and he scooped his hat off the seat, not bothering to put it back on as he strode down a cracked and worn walkway and up the stairs to his house. Magic thrummed over him as the wards he’d so carefully placed triple-checked he was indeed the master of the house.

Hanging his hat up by the door, he shrugged out of his beat up denim jacket and hung it up beneath the hat. Next he unbuckled his gun belt and hung it next to the jacket, then pulled out each revolver and checked they were good to go. Reaching into the discarded jacket, he pulled out the book.

Wandering further into the house, he couldn’t quite believe that everything really was packed and ready. He combed a restless hand through his hair, then sighed and glanced at the clock over the living room archway—and remembered it was packed up like everything else. Blowing out an irritated breath, he turned on his heel and strode through the hallway to the kitchen, then on down the hall past it to his bedroom.

He put the book in the nightstand and dumped his wallet, chalk case, and phone from his pockets on top before he double-checked the phone for messages. Seeing none, he smiled in relief. If Roman hadn’t called or texted then he must have been able to get away from work and would actually make it. Grinning, Jackie stripped off his clothes and threw them in the general direction of—oh, hell, he’d packed the hamper.

Rolling his eyes, he strode into the bathroom and got the shower going, double-checking that he hadn’t been an idgit and packed all the towels. No. He still had some sense left, then. Climbing into the shower, Jackie quickly scrubbed down and shaved. Clambering out, he toweled himself dry as he returned to the bedroom.

He’d packed most of his clothes, but he’d left out a few nice bits. Pulling on his good, dark denim jeans and a dark red button down, he then sat down to pull on his boots. Returning to the bathroom, he combed his hair and dug up the fancy cologne his mama had bought him a million years ago.

Back in the bedroom, he slipped his chalk case into his back left pocket, wallet in the back right, and his phone … he paused, smile fading when he saw he had a text. Touching the screen to bring it up, he stared unhappily at the message: Can’t make it. Last minute meeting with a client.

Well, hell. That was the third date in a month, and they’d scarce seen each other for the past four. He had a sinking feeling his holidays were going to be mighty lonely, though he had hoped that wouldn’t be the case. Well, wouldn’t be the first time, and he could keep aiming for it to be the last.

Jackie sighed. What the hell was he supposed to do the rest of the night when he’d gone to so much trouble to clear his schedule for Roman? He’d been so eager to tell Roman his surprise. He sat down on the edge of his bed and glanced at the nightstand, picking up the framed photo he always kept there. It showed him and Roman about six months after they’d started dating—nearly two years to the day—when Roman had helped him hunt down a missing elf. He’d gotten his ass kicked by another sorcerer that day, but he’d gotten himself cleaned up well enough before the elf’s grateful mother had taken a picture of them.

They looked nothing alike, him and Roman. He was plain as dirt, which fittingly enough was about the best way to describe his hair and eyes. No matter how hard he’d once tried he’d never got past being skinny, neither. He didn’t look much removed from his Wild West pa, though mama said she’d managed to make him a touch more civilized. Roman, by contrast, was stunning, gussied up near as fine as any vampire, hair a pretty shade of gold and eyes the blue-green of the sea that Jackie hadn’t seen in years.

Sighing, Jackie set the picture back on his nightstand and deliberated between working on his grimoires or rustling up dinner somewhere. But damn it all, he wanted to see Roman. He was tired of never seeing his lover. He really couldn’t wait to be moved and living in the same city as Roman, even if he still felt gut-torn about leaving the place he’d lived all sixty-nine years of his life.

Now there was an idea. He hadn’t yet had a chance to start looking around for a place to stay, since he wasn’t just going to presume Roman wanted him to move right in. Moving to the same city was enough of a surprise, though he kinda hoped …

Well, he had a whole night and nothing to fill it with, so why not get a jump on finding some place to stay? Maybe he could stop by to see Roman at his penthouse, too, when he finally finished up his late meeting.

Plan in mind, he left the bedroom, grabbing his leather duster from the closet before heading out. By the door, he buckled his guns into place, settled his hat on his head, then turned and headed out to the backyard.

Climbing down the back porch, he stepped onto the large, smooth slate work area he’d had put in going on ten years ago. He pulled his chalk case from his back pocket, running a thumb over the familiar engraving of two crossed revolvers and the runes magic, fire, and metal, which had always represented the Black family. It had been a present from a man he had taken on as an apprentice for a short time, one of the few objects Jackie held dear.

He drew out a piece of chalk and set the case aside, then began to draw out a spell circle for teleporting, meticulously drawing every rune, working from the inside out. When he was done, he checked it twice, then thrice. Satisfied, he put the chalk away, stepped into the circle, and vanished as he spoke the activating mark.

The odors of the city washed over him and Jackie wrinkled his nose; it was gonna take him an age to grow accustomed to that smell: asphalt, gas, cars, too many people, food and animals and refuse. It was nothing at all like the plains that surrounded him on all sides back home.

Stepping out of the empty lot where he’d appeared, he stared down toward the heart of downtown where he could see Roman’s building. He resisted the urge to head for it and focused instead on the taller building about a few blocks away from it. Territory was territory and he wasn’t fool enough to enter a territory uninvited without announcing himself.

He walked quickly, glad he’d worn his duster when the clouds above cut loose with a cold autumn rainstorm fit to raise an ark. Jackie was near soaked through by the time he reached his destination, shaking water off as best he could before pushing through revolving glass doors into the building proper.

“Howdy,” he said to the security guards at the desk. “I’m here to see his Highness, if’n he might be gracious enough to see a visitor for a few minutes.”

The guard nodded, but asked, “What’s your reason for visiting?”

“Moving here, I’m hoping,” Jackie said, taking off his hat and combing fingers through his hair. “If he’s busy, I can leave a card and come whenever he’s inclined to see me.”

At the desk, the second guard hung up the phone he’d picked up the moment Jackie had announced his reason for being there. “His Highness is busy, but his Steward will see you. Take the last elevator on the right; swipe this card to access the penthouse.”

“Much obliged,” Jackie replied and took the card, then walked over to the elevators and did as instructed.

On the floor second from the top, the elevators pinged open to reveal a handsome set of rooms decorated in earthy tones and lit by warm gold light and a bank of windows along one wall. A young man stood up from where he’d been sitting on the couch and hell if the boy didn’t look like trouble collared only because it felt like being collared. At his side was a dragon with scales that looked like polished silver. It growled low and easy as they approached him.

Jackie held out a hand. “Thanks for seeing me, Steward. I hope I ain’t putting you out none.”

“Not at all,” the Steward replied. “What brings you into Clan Mordred territory?”

“My lover lives here and I’m hoping to move here this week or next. I’m spending tonight looking around.”

The Steward nodded. “Well, be welcome, sorcerer. What’s your name?”

“Jackson Black, but most folks call me Jackie.”

“I’ve actually heard that name. I think Amr mentioned it once. I forget …” the Steward frowned thoughtfully, and Jackie marveled at how young he seemed to be a Steward. Granted, age could be a hard thing to gage in abnormals, but it was more his air, that glint of trouble in his eyes. Made a man curious, but Jackie knew enough to avoid curiosity when it knocked. “Ah, I know. The guns should have reminded me a lot sooner. You’re the one that killed that demon in California.”

“That was me,” Jackie replied, good mood fading. He hated to be reminded of that story. “Never did care much for California, though the ocean is pretty enough.”

The Steward made a face. “They’re all crazy over there, though in their defense, I did piss them off. Serves them right for being stupid, though.” He winked.

Jackie laughed. “Sure enough.”

“If you run into any trouble here, just let me know. Otherwise, welcome. I’m sure Amr will want to talk to you eventually, but I’ll tell him to leave you in peace for a little while. Have a good night.”

“Ya’ll take care,” Jackie said and settled his hat on his head before shaking the Steward’s hand again and heading out.

Back on the street, the rain had only gotten worse, thunder cracking and booming so loud the world seemed to shake. Settling his hat more firmly in place, Jackie headed quickly down the street, not really sure where he was going, but not inclined to wait around fancy buildings until the rain cleared.

He had been walking for nearly half an hour when he heard something that didn’t belong. In the brief pause between claps of thunder, he heard someone shout—angry, a little scared. There was a reply, he thought, but the thunder drowned it out. Jackie hastened in the direction he thought it had come from, pausing as silence came again—then increased his pace when he heard a bit more fear in the angry voice than had been there before.

Jackie reached the end of the alleyway just as a third voice joined in and watched as a tall, skinny man knocked a smaller, broader man to the ground. A woman stood nearby, dressed in little more than what amounted to a bikini. The man on the ground snarled and Jackie felt magic on the air in the moment before he sprang up and lunged—

A shot cracked out, drowned out in the rolling thunder, and the bastard went flying back, forehead rippling with runes. He grunted and went still as stone on the grimy ground. Jackie holstered his revolver and touched his fingers to the brim of his hat. “Ma’am, Sir. Ya’ll alright, there?” He approached the man he’d knocked out and checked him over, made sure the magic didn’t do anything it shouldn’t. Content he’d survive, Jackie left the fool where he’d fallen.

“Yes, thank you,” the woman said, shoving wet hair from her face. She peered at him, skin yellow from the light above the doorway. Jackie could hear and feel bass, though he couldn’t hear any music, so they must be behind a club. “Who are you?” she asked, wary but curious.

Jackie started to reply, but it was the fellow beside her who answered, “I’ve only ever heard of two sorcerers who run around like this is still the Wild West. One of them was in France last I heard, which means you’re the younger one.”

Tipping his hat again, Jackie replied, “Jackson Black, ma’am, sir. Sorry to say I don’t know you on sight. Maybe we should get the lady inside? Her clothes might be good for business, but they can’t be very warm.”

She laughed. “No, they’re really not. Come on in, least I can do is buy you a beer.” She hustled them inside, but paused to look out at the man still lying out cold on the ground. After a moment, she let the door swing shut. “What’s going to happen to him? I’ve never seen someone do whatever it is you did.”

“Rune bullet,” Jackie said, shaking off what water he could, grateful the duster cut the worst of it. “Old trick of grandpappy’s. These were his once.” He patted the revolvers. “Pa’s got his own set, and the good Lord alone knows what he’s shooting over there in Europe. Russia, last I heard, but he could be clear to China by now knowing him.”

“Interesting,” she said. “My name is Candi. Thank you again for the help. I swear I punch that asshole twice a week and kick him in the balls once a month and he still comes back. Even banning him hasn’t really done much good; he’s too good at sneaking in.”

Jackie smiled. “Well, he’ll think twice when he wakes up sometime tomorrow. My bullets ain’t necessarily meant for killing, but they ain’t meant for making friends, either.” They reached the end of the hall and he pushed the door open and held it for them, then removed his hat and followed them out to the main portion of the club.

“Welcome to Club Heaven. Looks like there’s some open seats by the stage. I’ll bring you a drink and some towels. Anything in particular you favor?”

“Beer’ll do, ma’am. Any lager’s fine, I ain’t picky. Appreciate it.”

Candi smiled and slipped away, and Jackie followed the other guy. A witch, if he had to guess—the guy didn’t radiate enough power to be a sorcerer. They reached the stage area, where a pretty lady in a dress that was more imagination than fabric spun and twirled with more grace than he’d ever possess.

Another woman came up seemingly out of nowhere. “Can I take your hat and coat?”

“Much obliged,” Jackie replied and handed them over before taking a seat. The other man settled next to him, lightly touching the bruise on his left cheek with a rueful smile. It looked like it hadn’t been much of a hit, but Jackie was glad he’d been there to stop the fight before a worse hit had been thrown. There were deep lines etched into the man’s face, and if he was less than a hundred and fifty Jackie would be surprised. Age was a hard thing to gauge, but the man had that air of someone who’d been around awhile—and he knew Pa, which most young folk didn’t anymore. “Never did catch your name, Sir.”

The man held his hand out and smiled. “Name is Holiday, Robin Holiday. I’m a paranormal investigator for this territory. It’s been a lot quieter since Rust was deposed by Mordred, but it’s still far from boring.” He fell silent as Candi appeared and set a tumbler in front of Robin and a beer in front of Jackie. She kissed Jackie’s cheek. “Thanks again for the help, Mr. Black.”

“Jackie’s fine, ma’am, and you’re welcome. I hope he thinks twice afore he comes back again.”

“I hope so, too,” she said and vanished again as the dancer on stage finished and another came on. Jackie watched her for a few minutes, impressed at how easy she made it look, almost disappointed that women generally weren’t of any interest ’cause he felt right then that was his loss.

Robin cleared his throat and Jackie turned to him. “Something on your mind, sir?”

“Oh, stop with that sir nonsense. And yes, actually. You’re the good luck I’ve been waiting for, I hope.”

Jackie’s brows rose at that. He took a swallow of his beer before asking, “How you figure?”

“I’m stuck on a case,” Robin said, staring at his drink as he traced the rim. He let his hand fall after a moment, pushed the drink away, and folded his hands together in front of it. “The truth is I’m old, pushing four fifty and feeling twice that some days. The case I’m on is just too taxing. I can’t do the running around it requires. I’m sure you’re busy—”

“Nothing that can’t wait,” Jack cut in and briefly rested a hand on Robin’s shoulder. “It’s gotten a mite too wet for apartment hunting, and I’m always happy to help where it’s needed. What can I do?”

Robin smiled, and until the tension bled away, Jackie hadn’t realize just how much was there—but he supposed someone four hundred and fifty years old would know a thing or two about hiding tension. Still, Robin seemed a touch too stressed for just one case, especially with all the experience he obviously possessed. “I’m greatly in your debt. Finish your beer and then we’ll go back to my office. I’ve heard quite a few things about you, and from the way you took care of that man in the alleyway, I suspect it wasn’t all as exaggerated as I thought.”

Jackie snorted at that. “Ain’t hard to point and shoot, pops.”

“In the pouring rain at a target you couldn’t have seen well and whose abnormal capabilities you couldn’t have known? Candi brushes him off as just a general nuisance, but that fool out there is suffering from wendigo rot. He won’t completely succumb anytime soon—he got someone to bind the disease for him, but the binding won’t hold forever. I’m just waiting for one good excuse to put him down once and for all.” He sighed, sounding for a moment every bit of his age. “Not that I could, anymore. I’m getting too old and too slow. Won’t be able to run away much longer,” he added, the last bit of it slipping into a sad whisper.

“Rather have a quick mind than a quick body,” Jackie replied, tamping down on his own trepidation, wondering what the bigger picture was that he wasn’t seeing yet. “Both don’t hurt, it’s true, but if I had to pick, I’d rather be slow-moving and smart than a quick fool. But if it’s an able body you need, that’s easy enough for me to offer.” Jackie finished his drink and reached into his pocket for his wallet. Pulling out a ten, he folded it twice and held it out as the dancer drew close. She smiled and took it, then spun away to the next cluster of men.

Jackie rose and helped Robin to his feet before heading for the door. Candi met them there, frowning in concern. “Leaving already?”

“Work never seems to wait the way it should, ma’am. I’m right grateful for the beer, though. Ya’ll need anything, feel free to give me a holler.” He pulled out his wallet again and extracted a business card, handing it to her. Another woman helped him into his jacket and handed him his hat. He settled it on his head, then touched the brim. “Ladies, ya’ll take care now.” He pushed the door open, leading the way back into the night. At least the rain had settled to a drizzle.

He followed Robin down the street, but they hadn’t gotten much more than a block away when Robin slowed, stopped, and glanced around anxiously. He shivered visibly, mouth flattening, but he said nothing to Jackie except, “Stay close and keep alert.”

Jackie nodded and followed him more closely, keeping his hands read to grab and shoot. They walked another two blocks, then turned right—and stopped again. “Did you hear anything?” Robin asked.

“Nothing I don’t expect to hear,” Jackie replied. “But that don’t mean much. There’s plenty that gets by my fool ears. I ain’t feeling nothing, though, pops. Let’s just hurry and get wherever we’re going.” Robin nodded and headed off, and they walked about another block or so until Robin led the way up a set of broken, uneven stairs into a building that might have been nice once, but hadn’t seen good days in a long time.

The house smelled of must and pipe smoke. Robin reached out a hand and touched the wall, and with a shimmer of magic, lights flared throughout the faded house. “You can hang your coat and hat there,” Robin said, pointing to hook along the wall behind the door. Jackie shrugged out of his duster and hung it and his Stetson up, but kept his guns.

Robin’s mouth quirked faintly, but he didn’t say anything, just led Jackie into a living room old-fashioned enough it had probably been called a parlor once. He settled on a sofa that reminded Jackie of his mama, stirring an old ache that was never really gonna heal. An ache that ran so deep in his pa, the man had run off to Europe like a damn fool. “So what do you need me for, pops?”

“This,” Robin said and pushed a folder across an ornate coffee table. “Get you something to drink? Beer, coffee …”

“Coffee would be just fine, thank ya kindly,” Jackie replied and scooped up the file while Robin walked off to see about the coffee.

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