Shadowland – Karen Chance

John turned off a side street onto Las Vegas Boulevard, the early morning sun already hot enough to soak his singlet in a dark line down the front. He dragged the arm of his hoody over his face, ignoring glances from the few tourists sober enough to be up at this hour. Most of whom were doubtless wondering why he hadn’t driven two miles to run the treadmill in an air conditioned gym. He dropped his speed to a more pedestrian friendly four miles per hour, and liŌed a hand at a street vendor who had waved at him. He didn’t know the man, but he’d learned it was expected. Like people asked him how he was as a casual greeƟng, despite not knowing him or giving a fig how he was. John felt it was too personal of a quesƟon to ask a stranger and didn’t like the insincerity of it. There were plenty of other things he didn’t like about Las Vegas: the otherworldly heat and arcƟc air condiƟoning, which seemed designed to give everyone pneumonia. The paucity of sidewalks and, especially, of crosswalks, which explained why his coworkers regularly took a car to go two blocks. The fact that everything seemed new. He’d never experienced a physical craving for old buildings before living here. Some old buildings, he amended, as his run brought him back to a new structure that had deliberately been designed to look old. Dante’s casino, hotel and generalized debauchery den loomed large at the end of the Strip, like a bad dream. Even in Vegas, a town not known for the subtlety, or indeed the sanity, of its architecture, the place stood out: a faux stone monstrosity with fake mold, fake turrets, fake everything except for the monsters. They were real enough.

He should know. He was one of them. But right now, he was a hot and sweaty monster badly in need of a drink. And not of water. The hotel doors showed him back a flushed face, sweaty blond hair and somewhat evil green eyes, because he hadn’t had his morning fix yet. He jogged in between the writhing eight-foot statues that guarded the entrance and through an eye-wincing lobby intended to resemble someone’s idea of Hell. Which one? he’d almost asked on first arrival, before stopping himself. But at least it was mercifully clear of damned souls at the moment, being barely seven A.M. Geƫng up early in Vegas meant you pracƟcally had the place to yourself.

But newly arrived sheeple off the latest red-eye and hardened gamblers weaving their way back to bed at dawn had prompted the casino to keep a few breakfast opƟons open. One of them had turned into John’s favorite way to reward himself for a good, long workout. He could smell it from here, the siren call of his drug of choice, suffusing the air all the way out into— He stopped in his tracks, just inside the main drag. It was always a bit of a shock, designed to look like an Old West ghost town with the ghosts sƟll in residence. But for once it wasn’t the fake wood buildings or the fiberglass tumbleweeds or the dancing neon skeletons over the casino coffee kiosk that had him stopping abruptly. And doing a double take. The front counter of the liƩle booth was lined with cobweb doilies on which sat the usual diabeƟc-coma-inducing pyramids of doughnuts and pastries. And something new. Something awful. “What is that?” he demanded, transferring his glare from the case to the Goth girl standing behind it.

She looked like an extra from Beetlejuice, all wild black hair and dead white makeup except for raccoon-dark circles around her eyes. But her expression indicated that he was the one being scary. Her gaze dropped to the item in quesƟon, which was wedged between a tower of zombie cake pops and a bunch of “fruit cups” laced with custard and cream. “M-muffin?” she asked, as if she wasn’t sure. He couldn’t blame her. The monstrosity spilling over the edge of a shiny gold baking cup was big as a couple of clenched fists, a bloated alien of a sweet menacing the other nearby treats. And then he noƟced the liƩle heart-shaped sƟcker that someone—some fiend—had aƩached to the front of the foil. “Heart healthy?” he asked, outraged. “It—it has fiber,” the girl insisted weakly. “Where?” All John saw was candied fruit, crystallized sugar and what looked to be toasted almond slices sticking out of the dessert-for-a-family-of-four disguised as breakfast.

And then he bent closer. “Is it leaking something?” he inquired pleasantly, meeƟng the girl’s eyes through the curved glass of the bakery case. She swallowed nervously. “R-raspberry jam?” “Good God.” “Watch your language,” someone said from behind him. John glanced over his shoulder to see the casino’s dandified manager standing there, in a summer-weight off-white suit and dark Ɵe. It made him look like a young Mr. Roarke, an image helped by his Spanish coloring. And hurt by his dyspeptic expression. The expression was not unusual when its owner was looking at John.

But it was odd that a four-hundred-year-old vampire had yet to learn to control his face beƩer than that. Especially when said vampire was possessed by a demon who had once shared body space with the illustrious Casanova. John glanced down at his sweaty khakis and oversized hoody. The laƩer was hot and was usually stuck to him by the Ɵme he’d gone half a mile in the desert heat, but it was necessary to conceal accoutrements of which the local police might not approve. The buƩ of one of them was peeking out from under his left arm. He pushed it back into place. “Better?” “No!” Casanova had adopted the name of his demon’s old host, but had clearly failed to master the man’s charm. Or perhaps he had, and John simply didn’t rate the gold star treatment. Which was actually somewhat refreshing aŌer all the faux American niceness he encountered. Some days, John became quite tired of being smiled at.

And Casanova’s mood meant that he didn’t have to bother with the social niceƟes, either. They loathed each other. It would only make the creature nervous. “You look like a refugee from Platoon,” Casanova snapped. An evil thought occurred. John acƟvated the appropriate facial muscles, as wide and as charmingly as he could manage with a disƟnct lack of pracƟce. The creature paled. His work done, John returned his attention to the girl hovering behind the case. “Two coffees,” he told her. “A sixteen ounce espresso and—” he broke off at her look.

“What?” “I…” she spread hands covered in black, fingerless gloves. “We don’t have…I mean, an extralarge espresso is four ounces…” She must be new. “Yes, I know,” John said impatiently. “Give me four of them in a cup.” “Four of them?” “In a cup. And one medium coffee with cream and sugar. A small amount of sugar,” he added. “Four double shots and he’s worried about sugar,” she muƩered, wandering off in the direction of a silver machine in the corner. “All right, what is it?” Casanova demanded. John ignored him in favor of deciding on breakfast.

Not his own; he didn’t eat this much sugar in a year. But for a certain blond-haired menace with a sweet tooth, who was perfectly capable of popping down here and ordering the raspberry monstrosity if he didn’t come up with a suitable substitute. “Well?” The shrill demand came almost immediately. PaƟence wasn’t one of the creature’s virtues. Of course, John had yet to discover anything that was. “Well what?” “Well, what are you up to now?” A slim hand descended on John’s shoulder with the crippling grip of a veteran rugby player. And was abruptly removed, smoking slightly, when John sent a pulse of energy through it. The creature cursed. “Nothing,” John said mildly. “You’re paranoid.

” “I’m paranoid?” Casanova hissed. “You’re the one jogging with no fewer than five weapons —” “Six.” “—and then coming in here to terrorize my staff!” “I’m here to buy breakfast,” John pointed out, as the girl came back with a drink holder that smelled like heaven. Not that he would know. He took the coffee with a junkies’ thoughtless smile. It caused her to blink again, but for a different reason this time. Damn it. “Or seducing them,” Casanova muttered. “I’ll leave that to you,” John said dryly, transferring his attention back to the case. “There’s a coupon special on today,” the girl offered, suddenly friendlier.

“Four mini blueberry for two dollars.” “I don’t have a coupon.” She smiled. “I might could find one for you.” “No, you can’t,” Casanova said, shooƟng her a glare. Which she didn’t see because her eyes had never left John. “That won’t be necessary,” he replied, as repressively as possible. Which obviously wasn’t repressive enough. “Hey, where are you from?” she asked brightly. Britain by way of Hell.

“Ohio.” “Really? “Cause you sound English or something.” “I sound Welsh.” She looked confused. “Isn’t that the same thing?” “No!” “Are you going up there?” Casanova demanded, before John could elaborate. Just as well. He wanted to discourage the girl, not traumatize her. “What about that one?” he asked, poinƟng at the least unhealthy-looking item he could find. “That one?” She looked doubtful. “Yes, what is it?” “Applesauce donut,” she said disapprovingly, as if wondering how something without icing, coconut or any type of sprinkles had gotten in there.

“I’ll take it. The one in front,” he added, since it looked to be the smallest. The girl might have rolled her eyes, although it was hard to tell through that much makeup. But she found the tongs and fished it out. The casino manager’s grip, meanwhile, returned to John’s arm. And sent up sparks this time because John hadn’t bothered to lower his shield. The creature cursed some more and snatched it back. “Answer the question!” “What question?” “Are you going up there?” No, I thought I’d drink both coffees myself, John didn’t say, since the vampire had no sense of humor. And since it wasn’t entirely unknown. “If you mean to Lady Cassandra’s rooms, yes.

” “Lady Cassandra.” There was no doubt about the eye roll this Ɵme. But Casanova knew beƩer than to elaborate. “Then take her a message.” “Take it yourself.” “I have! And been ignored. In my own hotel!” John scribbled his name and room number on the pay slip and handed it back, in exchange for a small white bag. The girl glanced a liƩle too long at the number, and then smiled at him again, this time long and slow and deliberate. And bugger. The familiar yearning pain slammed into John, hard enough to make his breath catch.

He wanted, just that fast, just that stupidly. And he saw that want reach out and touch her, staining her cheeks, quickening her breath, causing a small pink tongue to flicker out to moisten ridiculous black-dyed lips– He closed his eyes. He didn’t know her; wasn’t interested in her. But the starving thing that lived at his core didn’t care. And he couldn’t even blame his reacƟon on a parasiƟc infecƟon like Casanova. The vampire could banish his other half, should he ever Ɵre of it, but John didn’t have that opƟon. An incubus didn’t possess him. It was him. And one of these days, it would destroy him. But not today.

He slipped an arm around Casanova’s waist, and leered into the surprised demon’s face. “All right then, why don’t we go up together?” “What the—” He leaned in. “You can carry the coffee, darling.” “Go to hell!” John watched the girl turn away, frowning, and shove the pay slip into the cash register. “Not for her.

.

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