Authors: Joshua Ingle
“Happiness is important, yes,” Shenzuul whispered to Joel. “Your most important goal. And yours more important than anyone else’s.”
“What if your happiness and my happiness are mutually exclusive?” Joel said to his ex-wife. Looking shocked by his question, she stopped a few feet away from him.
“Peace,” Thorn whispered to Angela. “Give him a few minutes. Let him cool down.”
If Angela heard Thorn at the back of her mind, she ignored him. “I just feel like you treat other people so nice, then you were always so mean to me. And your parents, too. I just want us to get along again like we used to.” Actually, they never had.
Joel approached her, briefly hugged her, and gave her a passionless, forceful kiss on the lips. “There. We’re getting along now, right? Let’s go get in bed. Problem solved.”
Angela was on the verge of tears again. Thorn would have whispered something to her, but now Shenzuul was too near. She went on the offensive, lying so she could hurt her ex-husband. “You know what? I never wanted you in my life. You were just a mistake that was forced on me and I’d get rid of you if I could.” Thorn peeked over Angela’s shoulder at Shenzuul, who returned his gaze.
“You have no idea,” Joel said, just in front of Shenzuul. “No idea how much I feel the same way.”
When Thorn and Shenzuul arrived at Max’s Sports Bar in Underground Atlanta, the “Roadside Killer” was all over the news. He abducted young women whose cars had stalled on freeways around Atlanta, the reporter said, and typically at night. Their mutilated bodies turned up in ditches and creeks a few days after each disappearance.
His name is Garrett
, Thorn wanted to yell at the restaurant’s patrons,
and he works in a tech repair shop in Midtown
. Shenzuul had been busy with his murderous charge in his time off from Thorn’s lessons. The fourth girl had been found earlier today (Thorn had seen the third in the tech shop), catapulting Atlanta’s hunt for the killer into national news. Shenzuul’s star was rising in America’s demon world, though he was still low enough to be Thorn’s protégé.
Not for much longer though. One way or another.
Thorn had tried to concoct a strategy to either kill Garrett or lead the police to him without alerting Atlanta’s demons that Thorn was responsible, but he came up empty. The best plan would be to disgrace Shenzuul, then deal with Garret surreptitiously.
While Shenzuul had been with his killer, Thorn had spent time alone with Amy, who was nearly ready to make some positive strides thanks to Shelley’s influence. She was already being kinder to her mother, a sluggish alcoholic who had verbally abused her daughter on occasion throughout Amy’s life. Amy even grew concerned over the latest in a series of unstable men her mother was dating, frequently calling to check where her mother was, if she was all right, if she needed a ride home.
Thorn guessed that Shelley saw a slightly younger version of herself in Amy, which was why she made it her job to help the girl out. “You have to tell Lexa no,” she’d said to Amy earlier. “Did she give you a deadline for the money?”
“Yeah, she’s meeting me at the bar tonight. But no. I mean what am I supposed to tell her?”
“Tell her you’ll pay her ass back based on the schedule you originally agreed on.”
“What if she gets mad?”
she gets mad? She’s a crazy ho. You don’t need her as a friend.”
Amy had chewed on that for a few moments.
“No one should have to play second fiddle to another person’s plans for them. It’s your own life, so live it, and get her out of the way. What’s the alternative? Drop out of college?” She gave Amy’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “I’ll be there too if you need me.”
Thorn had worked hard for this, and Shenzuul was not yet skilled enough to undo his work. Thorn was counting on that in more ways than one…
“Target humans while they’re young,” he said to Shenzuul and his followers as he led them through the crowded restaurant, past a family with four little children squirming in their seats. “Like fast food joints do. If you market to kids, you can hook them for life. Then they’ll market to
kids too.” His followers already knew this, but to Shenzuul it might be new information. He hated telling it, but it was a necessary setup for his trap. They made their way toward Amy, who was waiting on a table at the far end of the dining area. “We’ve developed a parenting culture in which self-esteem is the most important virtue to instill in your child. If a demon can minimize all the other virtues, nothing will keep a child’s self-esteem in check, and it will grow into narcissism.”
Shenzuul sniffed at the bait. “But you not do that with Amy. She insecure. She anch—anchous.”
“Anxious, yes,” Thorn said. “But if you are subtle, you can create both narcissism and insecurity symbiotically. Amy thinks she deserves to be popular, but is often afraid too leave her house lest others judge her. Scared to death that she’ll become like her insolvent mother one day, she looks down on the poor, sees them as victims of their own foolishness. This is all my doing, for only a master of subtlety could orchestrate this.” Sadly, this was all true. Thorn had sown a similar mix of narcissism and insecurity in Jed, Madeline, and many other of his charges.
“Psh. Easy to do, Thorn. Watch me now. See Lexa at other table with friends?” Thorn turned to see where Shenzuul was pointing, and indeed, Lexa was lounging with several young guys and girls in a corner booth. “I make Amy go try be social, and embarrass herself when Lexa ask for money. Watch.”
Game, set, match.
All afternoon, Amy had been rehearsing her speech to tell Lexa off. Shelley was sipping lemonade now at a table nearby, waiting to back Amy up if needed. When Thorn’s followers saw Shenzuul whisper to Amy, followed by Amy’s takedown of Lexa, Shenzuul would be accused of causing Amy’s first big step toward achieving personal freedom. Many of Thorn’s followers had been with him since he’d first chosen Amy as his charge in her early childhood, and had witnessed the painstaking work Thorn had undertaken to ruin her life. For most of that work to be undone in moments would outrage them—and the Judge. Thorn would be free of Shenzuul, and since so many witnesses were here, Thorn would be free of suspicion that he himself had caused the incident.
The only wild card was Lexa’s group of friends at the table, but Thorn was sure Amy would get Lexa alone before confronting her.
Shenzuul drifted over to Amy, then whispered softly in her ear. Other demons in Underground Atlanta were starting to take note of Thorn’s presence, and stopping by Max’s to investigate the commotion. Amy began her walk toward Lexa’s table.
This will be one hell of a show.
Amy waved nervously at Lexa, who nodded back. “What up, Amy? You our waitress tonight?”
“No, someone else’ll be by in a minute. I just wanted to say hi.”
Then Chaz turned around. He’d been angled away from the aisle so neither Thorn nor Amy had seen him. Shenzuul whispered to Amy again and she backed away a step. Thorn had to restrain his own impulse to rush to her aid.
“Have you met my new boyfriend?” Lexa asked. “This is Chaz.”
Chaz had clearly not expected the encounter. His expression displayed just as much shock as Amy’s, though he seemed less emotionally affected.
“N—” Amy started. “No, I—I mean yes. We—we’ve met.”
“Oh? How do you know each other?”
Did Lexa plan this?
Thorn had never seen her and Chaz together before.
Could this truly be a coincidence? Was Shenzuul involved?
The short demon in the shabby suit whispered yet again to Amy. She stuttered, unable to answer Lexa.
“Amy’s my ex,” Chaz said quietly to Lexa, who wrinkled her brow at the realization. Even Thorn couldn’t tell whether her surprise was feigned.
“Right,” Lexa said. “Well this is awkward. Amy, let’s go chat alone. Sorry, babe.” She stood, smooched Chaz on the cheek, and inched her way between him and the table. When she reached Amy, she grasped her shoulder and led her away. Thorn followed closely behind them.
No, not in front of my followers.
Whether by design or not, Lexa had Amy right where she wanted her. The timid girl wouldn’t be able to confront Lexa in this flustered state. If only he could whisper something to her, reinforce her convictions somehow.
When they were just out of earshot of Lexa’s table, Shelley rose to meet them. Thorn clenched his fists in apprehension. The gaze of every demon in the restaurant lay on the three girls.
“Hey!” Shelley positioned herself in front of the back exit.
Lexa rolled her eyes. “Out of the way, fatty.”
“Do you care about her?” Shelley asked Lexa.
The odd question caught Lexa off guard. “What?”
“Do you care about Amy? Simple question for someone who says they’re a friend.”
Lexa tightened her grip on Amy’s shoulder. “You know what I feel like here? I feel like you two think I’ve served my purpose. You got my money, so now I’ve outlived my usefulness as a friend. And now you gang up on me?”
hit a nerve.” Shelley glanced at Amy, who was gazing out into the dining area, trying to avoid the confrontation.
Lexa defiantly placed a hand on her hip. “Hey I’m not the one who borrowed money. I’m not the one who tags along with the pretty girls trying to look cool. I’m not the one who sleeps with guys to make myself feel better about my crappy life. There are words to describe girls like that, Amy, but I’m not gonna use them.”
A tear fell down Amy’s cheek. Shelley didn’t give an inch. “So it’s Amy’s fault that you use her? It’s Amy’s fault that you let her borrow your money and then try to control her life?” Now even human heads were turning to view the exchange. Chaz watched the argument from his corner seat.
“Yes, it fucking is. I’ve been a bitch to lots of people, but I take responsibility for that. I don’t make myself a victim. I don’t blame boys, or my parents, or my friends for my problems. Unlike some people.” She looked directly at Amy when she said the last bit. “I’m strong. Maybe Amy should try being strong too. It’s not that hard.”
“Stop it!” Amy yelled as she yanked free from Lexa’s grip. Shelley jumped at the outburst. So did Thorn. “It’s not hard to be strong when you’re pretty. When you have money and friends. When you don’t need to take medicine just to avoid having panic attacks in public.” Now both Lexa’s hands were on her hips. She smiled at Amy’s rant, as if it were cute. Shenzuul wore a horrified grimace. “You’re not God, Lexa. You can’t judge people, and you can’t make them worship you, though I know you’d love to. The only way you can feel happy is by conquering people. You can’t coexist. People have to adore you or they’re worthless to you. But the twist is that nobody likes you. They won’t say it to your face because they don’t want to get in a fight like this one, but your friends care as little about you as you care about them. Because you’re so damn concerned with being cool that you’ve forgotten how to be nice.”
Lexa’s body grew rigid. Her hands were shaking so badly that Thorn could practically feel the effects of her adrenaline himself.
“If you ever knew how to be nice in the first place,” Amy said in closing. The bar’s managers were making their way toward the girls to break up the argument.
“Nobody likes me?” Lexa said as a challenge to Amy, too loudly and boldly.
Covering her own weaknesses
, Thorn knew. “Boys like me. Your ex does.” She grinned over at Chaz, but he meekly turned away, offering no support.
Amy met Lexa’s gaze and stepped toward her. “I don’t need a boyfriend, Lexa. Unlike some people.”
Thorn fought the urge to pump his fist in celebration. Amy had done it! And without any help from him. He was proud of her.
The managers arrived and separated the girls. When Lexa returned to her seat in a huff, Shelley patted Amy on the back, her excitement palpable.
All around the restaurant, a fury had erupted in the demon horde. Nearly two hundred were here now, shouting for justice, swarming around Shenzuul and taunting him, all over the actions of a nineteen-year-old girl. Confusion bled from Shenzuul’s eyes. He spun in all directions, ready to defend himself against any assailant. Amy’s victory was Thorn’s victory, and it tasted exquisitely sweet.
“What are you smiling at, Thorn?”
At the comment from the demon next to him, Thorn realized he had been smiling, and corrected his error immediately. He chided himself for letting his inner jubilation show through, and turned to address his accuser.
It was Marcus.
Silhouetted against a football game on a wall-mounted television, the large demon loomed over Thorn.
No, not here. He would not attack me in the midst of a crowd.
Marcus moved forward into the light, and his emaciated body startled Thorn. He appeared desperate and hungry; not at all the hardy demon Thorn remembered. The icy scowl that haunted Thorn’s memories had been replaced by a grim urgency.
“Help,” Thorn called. Fear welled within him. “Help. Help!” Demons around him turned from Shenzuul to Thorn as Marcus stepped even closer.
“You still want to die?” Marcus asked. His voice sounded crazed, and white foam leaked from the corner of his mouth. “Do you still want to die, Thorn?” He raised a fist to strike. Thorn threw his arms up to shield himself from the blow.
Shenzuul pummeled into Marcus, sending him hurtling across the room through pillars, tables, oblivious servers and customers. Marcus spryly regained his bearings a short distance from the group of demons.
“Stay away,” Shenzuul warned him. “You no welcome in Atlanta.”
!” Marcus said. “
Shenzuul yelled a few Swahili words back at him in an equally vitriolic tone. The crowd gradually advanced on Marcus as he backed toward the front exit. In the wake of Thorn’s “triumph” at the Christmas Eve shooting, Thorn’s followers would not welcome Marcus back into demon society, as his antagonism toward Thorn was widely known. They wanted him out of the city as much as Thorn did.
Even though some of these very demons sided with him when I was low and he was in power.