Hotter than helltown: an urban fantasy mystery (preternatural affairs book 3)

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CONTENTS

Hotter Than Helltown

Copyright

About

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Dear Reader

HOTTER

THAN

HELLTOWN

A Preternatural Affairs Novel

SM REINE

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

This book is sold DRM-free so that it can be enjoyed in any way the reader sees fit. Please keep all links and attributions intact when sharing. All rights reserved.

Copyright © SM Reine 2014

Published by Red Iris Books

1180 Selmi Drive, Suite 102

Reno, NV 89512

SERIES BY SM REINE

The Descent Series

The Ascension Series

Seasons of the Moon

The Cain Chronicles

Preternatural Affairs

Tarot Witches

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About Hotter Than Helltown

A killer is mutilating bodies in Los Angeles. Agent Cèsar Hawke is on the case, but the murderer is ahead of him—way ahead of him.

Wiping the memories of the dead so that the team’s necrocognitive can’t talk to them? Done. Preventing magical reconstruction of the crime scenes? Oh yeah. And the murders keep getting more brutal while Cèsar struggles to catch up.

The best way to heat up a cold case is to go to Helltown, where Los Angeles’s most powerful evil hides out, but even those demons are afraid of the murderer. Their fear adds one more question to the growing pile of unknowns:

What kind of bad guy is too hot for Helltown?

CHAPTER ONE

YOU WANT TO TALK annoyances? Let’s talk annoyances.

When creatine powder leaves clumps at the bottom of my daily protein shake, that’s a minor annoyance.

My neighbors having sex on the other side of paper-thin walls at all hours of the night, every night, keeping me awake and reminding me of my own nonexistent sex life? Significant annoyance.

Having to spend three months living at a Motel 6 in New Mexico, waiting for a witch to slip up so I can arrest him? Huge annoyance.

And yet I would take any one of those annoyances over dealing with crank calls at work. Fake reports of preternatural interference spawn paperwork. Lots of paperwork. They require money from our pathetic budget to organize an investigation. For that matter, they require investigators like me—trained witches who know how to hunt down other witches.

All for nothing.

Responding to crank calls is easily my least favorite part of the job with the Office of Preternatural Affairs.

The worst part is that the callers always seem to know what kind of report is going to end up wasting the most time and money. The OPA’s budget is always written in blazing red numbers, so we ignore most tips until we have a slow week, which could be a year later, could be never.

But if someone reports a dead body, we have to go look for it every goddamn time.

Even when it’s an obscene hour of the morning and I’m not supposed to be at work, getting tipped off about a dead body means putting on my monkey suit, driving into the office to grab the file, and then heading to the alleged scene to search for a victim that doesn’t exist. And then there’s all the paperwork in triplicate that comes after that.

Guess what I was doing on my Saturday morning.

Hint: It didn’t involve sitting around on my couch with a hand down my pants while I reread the Wheel of Time series yet again.

“On the bright side, we can get comped for the donuts,” said Suzy Takeuchi as she opened the driver’s side door of our SUV. She flicked a Dunkin Donuts receipt at me. I had to drop my folder to catch it. “Hang on to that. I expect to get paid back.”

I skimmed her purchases. “Two dozen donuts?” She was a tiny woman, like about as big as my bicep. I couldn’t imagine her fitting one of those pastries in her face, much less twenty-four of them.

“They’re notallfor me.” She pushed a maple bar into her mouth until her cheeks bulged like a hamster wearing a suit and tie.

Not that eating two dozen donuts would have hurt Suzy. She was a gorgeous woman with a waspish waist that our standard-issue suits couldn’t conceal. Great legs, too. If she’d put on a few more pounds, she probably would have just improved her already mind-blowing curves. I loved a woman with curves.

Of course, Suzy’s curves are none of my business, and she’d knee me in the balls if she knew I was thinking about her. At our office, she’s “one of the guys” and happy to prove it—either with her sharp wit or her sharp, bony joints slammed into delicate places.

With Suzy, it was always safer to keep my thoughts to myself.

She offered the donut boxes to me. I set aside the manual I’d been reading—our organization’s requirements for witches about to become aspides—and lifted the lid on the top one.

The donuts smelled better than orgasms and looked like a month’s work at the gym begging to get blown in thirty seconds.

There was a raspberry-filled one in the corner. My favorite.

Suzy slapped my hand when I reached for it.

“Not for you,” she said around a mouthful of maple bar, spraying me with sugar. “Put them in the back seat if you don’t have any self-control.”

She shifted the SUV into gear and followed the mechanical GPS voice’s instructions to get back onto the road. We weren’t far from the scene of the supposed crime now. We just had to drive a few miles into endless suburbia, find 7245 Cherry Tree Lane, and talk to the resident to make sure there was nobody dead inside. Easy.

I stuck the boxes on the floor behind me. “Why’d you buy two dozen donuts if you’re not eating them or sharing?”

“I didn’t say I’m not sharing them. I’m just not sharing them withyou.”

“Love you too,” I muttered, opening the case file to review it one more time.

We had received the anonymous tip that morning. The woman had claimed to hear a disturbance at 7245 Cherry Tree Lane around three in the morning, and said she “just knew” that it was a murder.

When she’d been asked how she “knew,” she’d changed her story, claiming that she’d seen a body through the window. She also said that it had definitely been a murder by a demon, although she mysteriously didn’t know what kind.

And then she’d hung up.

We’d gotten three other tips like that in the past month. Always on the weekend, always vague, always resulting in a very grumpy Agent Suzy Takeuchi on the scene. She’d been on call the entire month, so every single one had landed on her desk.

This one was obviously fake, too, but Suzy had asked me to suffer with her this time. I didn’t have to go. I wasn’t on call. But I’m useless against a woman asking for my help, even at four in the morning on a Saturday, and Suzy knows it.

Luckily, crank calls aren’t very common. When you work for a secret government agency that doesn’t officially exist, your phone number doesn’t get publicized, either.

When it does happen, it’s usually bored, sex-drunk incubi who want to giggle over all our black SUVs rolling out to the middle of nowhere. Thanks, guys. Real funny.

Man, those donuts smelled good.

“They’re an investment,” Suzy said, finally swallowing the rest of her sugar-bombed breakfast. “You don’t like waking up early on Saturdays, do you?”

“I love waking up early on Saturdays. I love having a whole long weekend to myself so I can brew potions and lift weights and not wear these stupid black suits.” And readThe Great Huntagain. I hated being interrupted at the good part.

“But you don’t love going into work on Saturdays. Nobody loves going in to work on Saturdays. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone else had to do that?”

“Someone usually does,” I muttered. I’d been on call the month before Suzy and I hadn’t had to deal with any pranksters.

“The donuts are for dispatch,” Suzy said. “Next weekend, when some asshole calls in a dud, dispatch is going to look at who’s on call. They’re going to see my name on top with Aniruddha as my secondary if they can’t reach me. And then they’re going to say, ‘What, wake up Suzy? That nice agent who brought us frosted donuts? No, I’m going to call the other guy.’”

“Or they’re going to say, ‘Wow, we should wake up Suzy, she brings us donuts on the early mornings,’” I said. “And then, when you return without donuts, they’ll realize you were making empty gestures in a cold attempt to toy with their emotions.”

She shot me a sideways look. “That’s not how it works.”

“You’ll find out next weekend, won’t you?”

The neighborhood slowly turned from gas stations and convenience stores into houses. A few had barred windows, but this was still a pretty nice part of town. No graffiti on the signs, cars that were less than ten years old. Not somewhere I’d expect a murder to happen.

According to the GPS, Cherry Tree Lane was still a few miles away. I reopened the OPA witch’s manual to take another shot at reading an incredibly boring chapter on herbal quality regulations.

I didn’t care about herbal quality regulations. I didn’t care about the spells that aspides needed to know, either. An aspis was a witch bound to a kopis—a demon hunter—to act as his magical shield, protecting him from the mental powers of demons and strengthening him in battle. I’d never planned on becoming such a thing. That wasn’t my life. I was a former detective, not a fighter.

But then I had gotten into trouble with the OPA. The only way to get out of it had been to agree to become Director Fritz Friederling’s aspis.

Now I was taking the aspis approval test in a couple of days, and I needed to know everything in this stupid, boring manual if I wanted to keep my job. Possibly my life. With the OPA, it was hard to tell how serious they were about any given situation.

Secret government organizations are exempt from a lot of labor laws. You know, like the ones that say, “Don’t kill your employees for insubordination.”

I’d been struggling to study for weeks, but skimming the manual made me feel like I was going to pass out. Great sleep aid. I wished I’d thought to bring energy potions with me when I’d met Suzy that morning.

“You know, I’m pretty sure Malati in dispatch has a crush on me,” I said, putting my finger on the page so I wouldn’t lose my spot.

“Her and every administrative assistant in the department,” Suzy said, rolling her eyes.

“I could talk to her about your position on the on-call list…if only I weren’t so hungry.”

“Don’t be such a baby.”

“Don’t be stingy with the Dunkin,” I said.

“Fine. Eat one. It’ll go straight to your ass.”

“You’ll be the first to notice, I bet.” I grinned at Suzy as I reached back for a jelly-filled donut. I couldn’t quite reach with my seatbelt on—it had locked into place. I untethered myself and reached again.

She slammed on the brakes.

My shoulder smacked into the dashboard, sending the case file and manual flying. “Hey!”

Suzy gave me a look of wide-eyed innocence. “Oops. I almost missed the house. We’re here!”

Muttering to myself, I scooped up the papers, opened my door, and tossed the folder onto my empty seat. I was pretty sure my shoulder was going to bruise.

Cherry Tree Lane was even nicer than the rest of the neighborhood. We’re talking the kind of lawns that look like they’re maintained by gardeners, not neighborhood kids. There wasn’t a barred window in sight.

The residents looked to be fairly old: no sign of toys scattered across the driveways, lots of tacky lawn angels among the begonias, ramps for the disabled built up to the patios.

“Quiet here,” Suzy remarked, checking her gun as she rounded the car to my side. She used to carry a Glock, but she’d switched to a Beretta after her last sidearm ended up getting her falsely accused of murder. Guess she’d held a grudge against the gun.

“Bet the squealing tires woke up all the nice old people when you hit the brakes,” I said.

“Poor fuckers, getting disturbed when they try to sleep in on a Saturday.” She tossed a slender leather wallet at me. “You left this on your desk.”

It was a fake FBI badge that looked as good as the real thing. Probably made by the same vendor. The OPA and the FBI are both government organizations, after all.

I bet FBI agents don’t have to worry about their bosses killing them if they fail to pass a certification test, though.

The badge had my name, Cèsar Hawke, and it said I was a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Not sure what made their agents so special, but there you go. I grimaced at the bad picture and jammed it in my pocket. “I’ll let you talk to the homeowner,” I said. “Go ahead, ring the doorbell. Wake up the poor old people.”

Suzy hopped up the stairs. “My pleasure.” I hung behind her as she pushed the button, keeping an eye on the street surrounding us.

It felt like someone was watching us even though the street was empty. It was a nice morning, already about sixty degrees, with bright blue skies. If there were old people in the neighborhood, it was already well past time for front yard puttering.

But the street was silent, the curtains were all drawn, and it still felt like someone was watching.

“Been studying for your test?” Suzy asked as we waited. She must have noticed me reading the manual.

“Unfortunately,” I said.

“But you’ve already memorized it all, right? Your test is on Tuesday.”

I’d been trying to memorize it, but I hadn’t even gotten through the whole thing. A million-page epic fantasy series was easier to read for the seventh time than the hundred pages ofThe Guidelines for Union-Affiliated Aspides.

“The test will be a breeze.” I didn’t look at her as I said it.

Suzy hit the doorbell again. “You’re so full of shit.”

“How hard can the test be? I’ve already been a witch my whole life. I should already know everything I need to be an aspis.”

Suzy snorted. “Keep telling yourself that. Where are these assholes?” She pounded on the door. Considering her fist was about a quarter the size of mine, she sure could make a ruckus. It should have been loud enough to wake up everyone within a three-block radius.

Even so, nobody poked their heads out of their houses to see what was going on. The street was still totally quiet.

My sense of unease was growing, and it had nothing to do with pre-test nerves.

“Have I mentioned that crank calls are my least favorite part of the job?” I asked, trying to peer through the curtains by the front door. They were printed with a pattern of ugly kittens and impossible to see through. “Bet this tip sent us to an abandoned house.”

Suzy just grunted in agreement.

Abandoned house or not,someoneshould have been trying to figure out what an SUV with government plates was doing on the street by now.

“See if you can find an open window,” Suzy said. “I’ll verify the address with dispatch.”

I stepped around the rose bushes and spotted one of those little bathroom windows high on the wall. Those never had curtains. Perfect for looking into the house.

Bracing my foot against the garden fence, I lifted myself up to peer down at the bathroom.

It looked a heck of a lot like my Abuelita’s old bathroom. Floral print everything. Safety bars by the toilet and shower. Extra TP rolls kept on a wooden dowel decorated with hand-painted cats.

The bathroom door was open so that I could see into the hallway beyond. The carpet was black.

My stomach twisted. I dropped into the bushes again to catch my breath. It was suddenly a lot harder to breathe.

Old people didn’t have black carpet.

Then I lifted myself up again for a second look, wedging my fingers in the window’s crack so that I could force it open. The change in air pressure wafted the scents of the house out at me—tobacco, mothball, and pennies.

Lots of pennies.

The carpet definitely wasn’t black. It was wet.

I tromped through the bushes, opened the side gate, and let myself into the back yard.

There was an open window behind the homeowner’s green trashcan, giving me a perfect view of the hallway beyond the bathroom. I didn’t have to guess at what could have left the carpet soaking wet now. I could see everything perfectly.

The bloody footprints. The smeared handprints on the wall. The mutilated body in the kitchen.

Okay. So I take it back.

Responding to crank calls is mysecondleast favorite part of the job.

CHAPTER TWO

YOU AND I LIVE in totally different worlds and you don’t even know it.

There’s the world that everyone sees—the world that everyone considers to be real. That’s the world that you live in. It’s boring and mundane. Magic doesn’t exist. The greatest dangers are having a heart attack after eating too many Big Macs or forgetting your wallet on the bus.

The world I live in? It’s a lot more dangerous.

Unfortunately, it’s also real. And just because you don’t see what’s happening in my world doesn’t mean that it can’t kill you.

Everybody is caught in a hidden war between the forces of good and evil. Even you. And for now, evil is winning. It lurks in the dark corners of hospitals, preying on the weak. It owns businesses in your hometown and skips out on state taxes. Evil watches you through your window as you prepare to sleep in perceived safety.

My job is making sure you never need to know that this kind of evil exists.

I’m Agent Cèsar Hawke. I used to be a private investigator, but these days, I roll with the Office of Preternatural Affairs—also known as the OPA. We handle everything magical or not-human that makes life dangerous for ordinary folks.

That means bad witches most of the time. Sometimes that means demons. Yeah, like the things that come from Hell.

It used to be that I only handled witches with the Magical Violations Department. That’s my specialty. But Suzy and I got enlisted in a special team led by Director Fritz Friederling, my future kopis, and now we investigate internal affairs. We investigate everything else, too.

If trouble doesn’t fit into one of the usual boxes, we’re on top of it.

We’re the men in black, armed with magical potions, pentacles, and handguns. Conspiracy theorists hate us. Nobody else knows we exist.

That’s the way we like it, and we plan to keep it that way.

Pretty amazing how quickly the somnolent little neighborhood came to life once all of the OPA homicide investigators showed up.

We’d cordoned off the yard with yellow tape so that the gawkers couldn’t interfere. And there sure were a lot of gawkers from the neighboring houses, all of them as old as I suspected. Made me uncomfortable to think that they were all looking at me, seeing my face. I preferred being a spook.

Fortunately, they wouldn’t remember anything once they signed our enchanted witness statements. Not my face, not the murder, and none of our staff or equipment.

That touch of magic was almost as impressive as how quickly Suzy’s donuts had vanished.

I lifted the lid to find that they were all gone, including the glazed one with the raspberry filling that I’d been eyeballing. There was nothing left but crumbs and a few stray sprinkles.

“Really?” I muttered, shooting suspicious glances at the rest of the staff on site.

The forensics team had shown up in black vans with government plates to match our black SUVs. We’d also gotten a Union unit on site in case there was anything dangerous in the house. They’re like the military wing of the OPA, and they get involved anytime someone needs to be shot at.

We’d quickly discovered that nothing was lurking in 7245 Cherry Tree Lane, though. Now the whole Union unit was milling around in the front yard, smoking cigarettes, violating regulations left and right.

I was willing to bet one of those assholes ate my donut.

To be fair, after seeing all that blood, I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to stomach the red-colored jelly anyway.

“Anything left?”

I turned to see Harding, the unit’s witch, hovering hopefully behind me. He was a skinny black guy with a goatee and white tattoos encircling his wrists.

“Only the tragic scent of a donut graveyard and deep regrets,” I said, stepping aside so that he could peer into the back of the SUV, where Suzy had set out the Dunkin boxes.

“Darn,” Harding said. “I never get to the good snacks in time.”

Maybe the gluttons had been the forensics team after all.

“Sorry, man.” I gave him a sideways look. “You’re with the Union. You deal with demon murders all the time, right?”

“Sure.” He wetted a finger with his tongue, stuck it in the corner of the box, and then sucked the sugar off of his skin.

“Any guesses what breed of nasty killed this guy?”

“Could be anything. This is Los Angeles, after all. Helltown’s only fifteen miles that way.” Harding flapped a hand vaguely toward the south. “I’d bet our killer is already gone and we’ll never figure out what did it or why. Big damn waste of time.”

With another longing gaze at the empty donut box, he ambled back to his team.

Harding approached one of the men smoking on the lawn. The two of them were indistinguishable from the others in the unit. Black polo shirts, black utility pants, black combat boots. But something about the way they moved was different. Like they were two hands from the same body.

I was willing to bet anything that those guys were bound as kopis and aspis. The Union made sure to attach a witch to every demon hunter right after training; kopides were way too vulnerable to demon powers without a magical bodyguard.

The OPA was different. We mostly employed witches, and few of us were assigned to kopides.

But I was going to have to become the same kind of bodyguard as Harding in just a few days. It would be a permanent relationship, seeing as how the bond was unbreakable.

I’d be like that with Director Friederling once we were bound: two halves of a whole.

The idea was seriously creepy.

“You done moping around yet?” Suzy called to me from the doorway. She was holding half of an apple fritter in one bare hand. The other hand was gloved in blue and stained with blood. Not only had she gotten one of the last donuts, but the crime scene hadn’t made her lose her appetite. I wasn’t sure if I admired or hated her.

“I’m not moping,” I said, stepping around the crime scene photographer as he emerged from the house.

“Fine. Done being a big sissy about blood yet?”

Giving me shit was Suzy’s hobby. Usually, it was kind of funny. Today, I was not amused. Someone had died in that house just a few hours earlier. They’d been murdered messily. Painfully. And the killer was still out there.

Yeah, I definitely was not in the mood for bullshit.

“What’s your problem?” I snapped.

“Put on gloves and I’ll show you.” She stuck the rest of the fritter in her mouth and headed back inside.

They’d set a box of rubber gloves and plastic shoe covers on the table just inside the front door. I plucked two latex-free gloves out of the box so that I could handle the resident’s mutilated cadaver.

I didn’t put on the shoe covers.

It’s never a good sign when they want you to don plastic booties for a crime scene. That means there’s a good chance you’ll ruin your shoes if you don’t. And that means sloshing around in blood and whatever else the victim might have spilled.

Suzy was right about one thing. I don’t like blood. Don’t have to be a sissy to dislike blood, okay? But the sight of the booties alone was making my stomach twist.

I went in without them.

First thing I noticed was that the clock in the entryway had stopped at three thirty-seven that morning. It was one of those big round clocks with a different picture at each hour, and in this particular case, it pictured various kitten breeds. It didn’t have a power cord, so its batteries must have died.

I stepped into the living room. The clock on the side table had stopped at three thirty-seven, too.

“Did you notice the clocks?” I asked Suzy.

She snapped a second glove onto her bare hand. “Yeah. Apparently the power got knocked out for all the houses in about a half-mile radius.”

“These clocks are running on batteries.”

“Demons.” Suzy shrugged, like that was explanation enough.

The living room was trashed and the forensics team worked at tagging everything: the shattered TV, the couch vomiting its upholstered guts from a slash in the back, a dent in the drywall, a curtain that had been ripped down, the spilled ash tray.

I stood back to study it, trying to form a timeline of the struggle in my mind.

Entry to the house hadn’t been forced, so the fight hadn’t started near the front door.

It had started near the TV.

The resident had been surprised from behind. He’d been knocked into the entertainment system—that dent in the LCD panel was probably from his head—and then he’d pulled the TV down on top of him when he fell. But he’d recovered fast. He’d gotten out from under the mess to fight back.

The attacking demon had had a knife, though, and the victim had been unarmed.

So he’d tried to run. He’d jumped over the couch—hence the slash in the leather—smeared blood on the walls in the hallway, and made it all the way to the kitchen before succumbing.

That’s where Suzy was waiting for me now, along with a puddle of blood warping the linoleum.

“Meet our victim,” she said.

She was crouching beside the body I’d glimpsed through the window. He’d bled out through a gash severing the arteries in his throat, giving him that stereotypical second grin.

His face was bloody from the nose down—mostly because his nose and lips had been cut off—but his closed eyes were clear. It took me a second to get past the hamburger on the bottom half of his face to realize that this wasn’t an old man. No crow’s feet, no bags under the eyes, no wrinkled forehead.

“This doesn’t look like the guy who should live here,” I said.

“That’s because he didn’t.” Suzy flipped his wallet open. “Jay Brandon. Thirty-three years old, lives all the way out of town in Lone Pine. Seems he was visiting his mom.”

“Where’s his mom?”

“Luckily for her, not here. We haven’t found her yet.”

I took a second look at Jay Brandon, trying to see past the blood. Trying not to think of him as a human being who had just been alive hours earlier. Someone who had hobbies, friends, and a job. I wondered if he’d ever read the Wheel of Time series and then tried not to think about that, either.

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