This story is a standalone; however, it does contain mild spoilers for FLYTRAP (Harrietta Lee, #3), as it takes place shortly after.
CW: Animal abuse/harm/death, kidnapping, endangered child, murder, gun violence
A very small girl in a very big winter coat approaches me while I’m lugging a heavy garbage bag out of a pawn shop. “Hi,” she says, her arms rocking a wrapped bundle back and forth, “are you the lady around here who smells like dead things?”
I look at her, then down at the garbage bag, then back at her. I drop the bag. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s me. What’s up?”
The girl is short and stout, her frizzy brown hair tamped close to her head by two pink barrettes. The tip of her nose is berry red from the cold, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “Milo said you could help us.”
A little head pops out of the blanket in her arms—a fuzzy brown puppy head covered in spiky baby fur, like a kiwi fruit with soulful eyes and a wet nose. It yaps, squinting into the light.
“This is Milo,” the girl says, tickling the puppy’s nose with a finger.
“Ah, of course. Hello, Milo.”
“Yip!” Milo says, then worries the tip of the girl’s finger with his teeth.
I have no idea why this girl is talking to me, but as I button my black coat over my festive, snowflake-patterned sweater, I take an educated guess. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”
She nods vigorously. “Bad people are chasing me. It’s not fun.”
“Doesn’t sound fun. You want to go talk about it in a public place?”
She tilts her head. “What does that mean?”
“I mean, do you want to talk to me in a place with lots of people, so that if you feel threatened by me you can call for help?”
She tilts her head further. I might be imagining it, but it looks like her puppy echoes the movement. “That’s a weird thing to say if you want me to trust you.”
“You’re right. I don’t want you to trust me. I want you to be wary of every adult you talk to, because you’re a kid, and it’s the smartest way to be.”
“Okay, then.” We start walking together down the snow-powdered sidewalk, her with her puppy in a blanket, me with my lump-ridden garbage bag. “What’s in your bag?”
“It’s a dead thing. Probably the reason Milo said I smelled bad.”
Milo squints, then yaps skeptically. The girl shakes her head. “No, Milo says the smell is definitely coming from you.”
“Ah. Lovely.” I itch the burn scar spread across the right side of my neck, the one that marks me as a failed necromancer, dabbler in demon blood, and mortal enemy of the demon Beelzebub. Well… “mortal enemy” might be pushing it. I’m more like a house spider skittering around his rooftop penthouse, being chased by a maid with a broom.
The girl and I get to a crosswalk. As we wait for the stoplight to change, I shift the weight of my garbage bag from one shoulder to the other. “What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?” the girl returns, not missing a beat.
“Hah, cagey. I’m Harrietta Lee, Harry for short.”
“You have a princess name, but you don’t look like a princess.”
“Greatest tragedy to ever befall my mother.”
The light changes, and we walk across the street with a small crowd of people bundled up in parkas and coats, holding their collars up against their necks as they puff white clouds into the air. Even while we’re surrounded by noisy cars and strange people, the puppy remains calm and content in the girl’s arms.
“What should I call you?” I ask.
“Like the mouse?”
Her eyebrows furrow violently. “I hate the mouse.”
“Okay, then. Mini, like ‘small?’”
A little smile lights up her face. “Yeah, I like that better.”
We’re approaching the entrance to a public park, where a stone fountain spits water into a twig-strewn bowl. People are sitting on the surrounding benches, shivering, eating hot dogs from a nearby food stand. I sit on the wide, damp rim of the fountain and put my garbage bag down. Mini sits with me and places her dog gently on the pavement. Milo moves forward to sniff my bag, the blanket unraveling behind him. He’s so small I could scoop him up in one hand.
“Where are your parents?” I ask Mini.
“Seattle. They’re both school counselors, and they have some big speech to make at a conference. They left me here with my tía so I wouldn’t miss class.”
“And where’s your tía?”
“I don’t know.”
Before I can ask more, she reaches for the lip of my garbage bag and pulls it open. A frozen, grinning muzzle covered in badly matted white fur emerges; the thing’s glued-open eyes face me, forcing me into a staring contest I can’t win.
“What a weird-looking dog,” Mini says. Milo stands on two legs and braces his fuzzy, too-big paws on the edge of the fountain, curiously sniffing the dog-not-dog’s face.
“It’s a taxidermy figure,” I say. “I got it from a client who couldn’t make my full payment. I said it was fine, he could just owe me a favor, but he insisted on giving me—this. I tried to sell it, but my pawnshop guy wouldn’t take it.”
“He likes objects that hold traumatic memories. I figured, a stuffed dog corpse would have a lot of trauma in it. But apparently the dog had an amazing life, and when he died, the guy who stuffed him did it with a lot of love and care. So it’s practically overflowing with positive memories.”
The kid looks preoccupied. She pets the dead dog’s face with a finger, only replying with a, “Hmm.”
“Hey…” I lean over to get Mini’s attention. “You said you don’t know where your aunt is? Is that why you’re in trouble?”
“Yeah, that’s part of it.” Milo is trying very valiantly to climb up to the rim of the fountain. Mini picks him up and sets him in her lap. “My tía got taken by some people who said she’d broken the terms of a contract. She tried to run, but they got her and they dragged her away. I didn’t see exactly where they went, because I was hiding. But she dropped this.” She lowers her hand and shakes her arm, letting a bracelet slip out of her sleeve and down her wrist. It’s made of knotted black string and green beads, with a white limestone medallion like a thick coin. “And they left him.” She holds Milo up by his tummy, and waves at me with one of his little paws. He pants, his tail wagging happily.
I give Milo a courteous little nod before I respond to Mini. “Hang on, tell me if I got this right. You said, your aunt was taken for breaking a contr—”
Milo is suddenly wiggling frantically, barking up at Mini like a very distressed squeaky toy. Mini clutches him to her chest and stands, her eyes going wide. “They’re here!”
I stand with her. “Who’s—”
I turn just in time to see a stun gun closing in on my throat.
My neck seizes up like I’ve pulled a muscle, but fifty muscles at once and so painfully I can’t scream. I feel myself jerk in shock, tripping backward, the stun gun making a CRACKLE-POP noise as it disconnects from my skin. Mini’s scream is cut off as a hand closes around her mouth, and I see the brown blur of Milo being tossed into a plastic shopping bag.
I hit the ground, finally managing a wheezing gasp. Arms hook under my armpits, dragging me backward along the icy ground until the dark interior of a utility van swallows me whole. The last thing I see of the outside is screaming bystanders on benches, the owner of the food stand running out toward us with his apron flapping—and then the doors slam shut.
I hear yelling, struggling. An LED light on the ceiling flashes on, and Mini cries out as she lands heavily on the floor next to me. Something jabs me in the stomach as it falls; I oof, then recognize it as the wooden base of my taxidermy figure. Two men in jeans and black jackets loom over Mini and me, bracing themselves against the walls of the van as it peels out onto the street. Mini and I slide violently across the floor.
“What’s all that?” a panicked, angry voice shouts from the driver’s seat.
The man standing over me shrugs. “We were supposed to get the girl and the dog, right?”
“The little girl and the little dog!” the one next to Mini shouts, holding up the wriggling plastic bag with Milo still inside. He jabs his finger down at me. “Who the fuck is that?”
“Well—she’s a girl too, right? And she has a dog. Dead dog, but, dog. Two girls, two dogs, I figured we’d be safe and get them all, right?”
The other two men erupt in anger. I hear hurled insults, one voice shouting, “This is why we got blacklisted from the guild!”
“It’s fine, it’s fine! Just pull over, we’ll dump the wrong one out the—”
The plastic bag swells like it’s filling with water, full to bursting within seconds. The goon drops it in a panic—it explodes in a burst of brown fur and snarling teeth, slamming him against the wall and rocking the entire van.
“Vincent!” someone screams.
Mini faces me, her teeth chattering. I grab her and curl myself around her as something wet splatters onto my face and in her hair. The mass of brown fur rockets over me, and the van shakes again. The driver is screaming in pure animal fear, his head swiveling back and forth between the windshield and the back of the van.
In all the chaos, I don’t even hear the crash; all I know is, I’m hurtling through the air with my arms wrapped tightly around Mini’s head, my back smashing into a leather seat and my head colliding with something squishy, warm, and covered in fuzz.
…Mini’s face is in front of me, her chubby cheeks bloodied and a black gap where one of her teeth should be. She shouts at me to get up. I try, I’m trying, but I hurt too much. I can’t even tell what part of me is hurting, only that it is.
“Milo! Bring her!” Mini turns and calls.
Something grabs the back of my coat collar, and I feel the fabric under my armpits pull tight as I get dragged again. I reach up and realize—that’s sunlight, on my fingers. I squint at the back of my hand as I’m dragged out the open back doors of the ruined van, into the light—
I’m staring at a paved footpath flanked by tall, open metal gates, surrounded by dead brown grass. A park. The grip on my collar loosens and I fall flat on my back, hitting my head on asphalt. When I crane my neck even further backward, I see—is that the fountain? From before?
I roll onto my side, then gasp in pain and flop onto my stomach. My lower back is absolutely killing me, but I manage to prop myself up on my elbows. Yeah, that is the fountain Mini and I were sitting at earlier. There’s the same benches, the same food stand—even the same food stand guy, staring at me with his bushy mustache quivering.
Mini’s face appears as she tugs my arm, helping me to my feet. One of her pink barrettes has been torn from her hair and is dangling at her shoulder.
“We need to go through another door,” she says, shaking. “Come on, Milo.”
The enormous, four-foot-tall hound at her side with dripping, finger-long fangs and a mane like a hyena answers, “RUFF!”
Mini grabs my hand and directs me to brace my other on the hound’s back. It has chunky, sturdy muscles; their rolling rhythm soothes the spinning of my head, and we stumble down the pavement, toward the nearest coffee shop. I grip Mini’s hand tightly in mine as we push open the coffee shop’s door—
—And exit onto a familiar sidewalk. As cars zoom past on the street in front of me, I turn around to see a giant neon sign in a window, proclaiming “GOLD 4 CASH.”
“Pawnshop,” I mutter. “We’re back at the pawnshop.” Mini sinks down to the pavement, curling into a ball. I collapse on my knees in front of her. “Mini? Mini, are you hurt?”
She sobs, but shakes her head. “I’m okay. I’m okay.”
“What about your mouth, you’re missing a tooth—”
“No, that was a wiggly baby tooth. I think… I think I swallowed it.”
I hear a “Yip!” next to me, and I turn to see tiny little Milo with his face matted with dark blood, bouncing anxiously toward Mini. She uncurls herself to pick him up and holds him close as she buries her face in his crusty fur. He squirms, trying to lick her face, whining.
I see her bracelet dangling from her wrist. Close up, I can recognize the script on the white medallion: ancient Chinese, Greek, and Gaelic.
“Hey—I know that magic,” I find myself saying. “I looked into it after meeting the Typhon Group. Threshold magic—using the entries and exits to doors, archways, and tunnels as portals.”
Mini looks up, still trembling a little. “You know it?” she whispers.
“Yeah, where did you say you got it?”
She curls her hand around the medallion. “My tía dropped it, while she was trying to escape. I picked it up, after, same time that I met Milo. I learned to use it by accident—then I practiced. And now I’m running.”
“You said your tía had this on her when she tried to escape. Tell me about that, about how she disappeared.”
Her breath comes harsh and fast. “She didn’t make it to the door in time—there were these, these things catching her, dragging her, shaped like dogs, but, but—they sounded like people.” Her eyes water, unsteadily trying to stay focused on mine. “This voice was there, telling her that there was a contract, that it was broken. Then the dog-looking things dragged her back into the apartment, and they all disappeared.”
I breathe out, “Hellhounds.”
Mini breathes out, “Oh.” Not incredulously, or with terror—with relief, like she’s finally heard the answer she needed to hear.
I hold her shoulders, calming her, helping her up. “I think I have a lot to explain to you, Mini.”
We take a moment to wipe the blood off each others’ faces. We’re both in black coats, so it’s easier to hide the stains on those. For Milo, the best we can do is clean his muzzle so it looks more caked with dirt than gore.
We went north down the sidewalk last time we were at the pawnshop, so this time we go south. It’s an odd walk; I feel like I’ve jumped back two chapters in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and now I’m choosing to go left instead of right on Page 36.
“There are two kinds of Hellhounds, and neither of them actually have any hound in them,” I explain to Mini, keeping a watch around us as I hold her hand. She has Milo tucked close to her armpit, and he looks like he’s being lulled to sleep by the rhythm of her walking. “The first is just people who work for Hell. Mercenaries, who took one job from a demon and can no longer get work from anyone but demons. I think that’s what those men in the van were.”
“Okay,” Mini murmurs, squeezing my hand, “what’s the second type?”
“Engineered beasts, made of human parts but not human anymore. Shaped like hounds, but… not. They’re created and owned by a demon called Uphir, this mad scientist, Dr. Frankenstein type. I only really know him because my kind, blood witches, regularly pay him for knowledge. Other demons pay him to hunt down humans who skip out on demon deals, and then the hounds drag the humans to Hell.”
Mini turns abruptly to me. “My tía’s in Hell?”
“I—” I suck in a breath through my lower teeth. “…Sorry, kid, I should’ve found a better way to say it. But yeah, I think so. I think she sold her soul for something.”
Mini stops walking, her head ducked. I slow down with her, anxiously. But then she looks back up. “She won the lottery ten years ago.”
“She moved into a mansion. And she got a really hot, young boyfriend. So… demon deal. I see it.”
“Thank gods you’re smart,” I mutter as we resume walking.
“You said the Hellhounds come if you try to get out of a deal?”
“Yeah, which means your aunt broke a contract. She didn’t fulfill her end of a trade, or maybe she promised her soul in ten years but tried to run.”
Mini has her bracelet on the arm that’s holding Milo; she palms the limestone medallion, the green beads rolling on her wrist. “She called this her comfort bracelet. She was really jumpy, and anytime there was a loud noise or something moving really fast, she’d get startled and hold onto this white bit. I think she bought it about six months ago, on eBay—same time she ditched her mansion and her boyfriend and came to live with my parents and me. Do you think she knew what it could do?”
“Probably, yeah. Threshold magic isn’t the worst escape plan I can think of if you’re running from demons. But, uh, you still have to be able to reach a door before the Hellhounds reach you. I don’t think your aunt knew that.”
Mini winces, tightening her grip on the medallion. “I’ll keep that in mind. So… if my tía is the one who broke a contract, why is everyone after me?”
“Well…” I stop, and I look down at the fuzzy, sleeping body cradled in her arm. “I’m not sure it’s you they’re after.”
I take Mini into a pastry shop and get her an egg sandwich and hot tea. The lady behind the counter coos at Milo as she hands me my change; Milo pants back, happy to be adored. We sit at a table across from each other, and I gently take Milo into my lap to inspect him.
Parting the disheveled brown fur on his back, I don’t see much. But when I flip him over and scratch his tummy with my thumbs, I feel them—stitches. I breathe out.
“Milo is a Hellhound,” I say.
Mini makes a face. “Didn’t you just say there’s only two types of Hellhounds, and neither of them are dogs?”
“Yes, you’re an excellent listener. But there’s a third type, one that’s not supposed to exist anymore. It’s what the engineered hounds are supposed to imitate.”
I push Milo’s lips up, checking his teeth; I’m not normally an animal person, but this little puppy is just so cooperative. He growls playfully, like he’s proud to be showing off his big, oversized fangs. “There used to be real, actual Hellhounds,” I explain. “Deadly, loyal for all eternity, best trackers in Hell or on Earth. Hellhounds fought to the death for their masters—not a great strategy, as it turned out, because it drove them to extinction. Last pack died out in a turf war sometime in the… I don’t know, thirteenth century? Sometime medieval.”
Mini busily chews her egg sandwich, taking sips of her tea in between bites. “So someone made new Hellhounds. Like in Jurassic World, where they clone dinosaurs and bring them back.”
I snap my fingers. “Yes! Uh, wait—no, not like that. The new hounds aren’t clones, they don’t have a shred of original hound DNA in them. They’re just… subjugated, damned human souls in damned human bodies, skinned and sewed and warped and broken and reformed until they look like… that. Like if you wanted to make a dinosaur, but you caught three alligators, took them apart, and reassembled them to look like a T-rex. And, uh, there was a really unfortunate alligator’s brain in there, feeling all of that happen.”
Mini blanches, the hands holding her sandwich shaking. “That—that’s messed up.”
“Yeah…” I feel bad for making her scared. I hold up Milo, making him wave a happy little paw at her. “—But! Milo’s not like that. Either he’s the last of the old Hellhounds, or he really is a DNA clone. Or maybe he’s a new and improved model with classic looks.”
Mini cups both her hands around her tea. “Like when you attach a typewriter keyboard to an iPad?”
“Like when you—uh, yeah. Sure. I think? Point is, Milo is special. I think he was created, and then somehow got left behind when the other Hellhounds came for your aunt. And he stuck with you, because he loves you.” I hold Milo out over the table, and Mini pushes aside her empty sandwich wrapper to take him, smiling. “But the demon who made him wants him back, so he keeps sending other Hellhounds after you.”
Mini’s eyes go wide as she holds Milo up against her cheek. “No. I’m not letting them take him.” Milo wags his butt, licking her hair.
I chew the inside of my mouth. “Mini—Mini, you can’t run forever. If you and Milo separate, there’s still a chance they’ll stop hunting you—”
“No! He doesn’t want to go back! I don’t want him to go back!”
The woman at the counter looks over at our table, concerned. I feel a helplessness rising in me, the complete lack of control I feel in the face of a screaming child. “Mini—look, we can figure something out, okay? There are people I know, people we can ask for other options—”
Something crashes through the window, raining glass onto the tables. People scream; my chair screeches as I stand up, then the backs of my knees catch on the seat as a mass of writhing flesh bowls me over to the floor.
The first thing I see are the paws, as I catch them and try to wrestle them away from my face—hairless, the size of my own hands, and thick with bumpy, ridged callouses. Then I see—they are human hands, swollen fingers flayed to the first joint, the exposed bone sharpened into white, talon-like claws.
A protruding jaw snaps at me with rows of teeth that don’t quite lock together right, the corners of the mouth ripped up and back to resemble a wolf’s maw. The nose is crushed back into the face, and the eyes—they’re hazel eyes, human eyes, bulging out from where the lids are peeled back and held in place by stitches.
I let energy bleed out into my palm and form a jagged, sharp shard of scarlet like broken glass. There’s no layer of fur to stop me from slashing the front of the hound’s throat; its blood splashes into my eye as it crushes me with its weight, gurgling. I wheeze as I kick it off.
“Milo! Milo!” Mini screams.
I slip on blood as I scramble on all fours toward Mini’s voice. She’s standing on top of a table in just her socks, heaving her boots into a writhing, howling pile of flesh and tearing muscle. Milo is bigger than each individual Hellhound, but there’s four of them and only one of him; he’s disappearing under their mass, and I can only see the black pads of his back foot kicking weakly in the grip of a Hellhound’s jaws, the flash of his blood-crusted nose and teeth as he whimpers in pain.
I lunge for the hound nearest to me. Its back quarters are pale with strained skin and scant muscle stretching over angular bone; I sink a shard into the base of its spine, just above the vestigial stump of its tail. Its legs spasm as it collapses onto its stomach, and I grab it by the flank to stab it again. Milo’s wounded leg scrabbles for purchase on the floor, but he finds just enough leverage to twist out of one Hellhound’s grip and close his jaws around its face. Its eyes and cheek disappear in a spurt of meat and blood—it howls, slicing at Milo’s thick neck with bone claws.
I’m reaching for the next hound when a high-pitched screech comes from above—Mini cannonballs from the table onto a Hellhound’s back, knocking it flat to the floor. It’s all I can do to grab her and roll out of the pile of bodies, bone claws swiping in our wake.
“Let me go!” Mini shouts, wriggling in my arms. “Milo needs me!”
“You’re like ten! Milo needs you to not die!” I shout back, lashing out with a boot to kick a Hellhound square in the jaw.
As the kicked hound recoils, Milo rears up behind it, taking it down with a vicious bite to the back of its neck. Then he yelps as claws rake across his back, another torn face rising behind him to clamp down on his ear.
“Stay here!” I tell Mini, then dash back into the fray. I go low, ramming into another hound’s side as it runs to attack Milo—we’re both thrown across the floor, and I crash into the hound that’s already had half its face bitten off by Milo. It’s twitching, erratically; I still it by jamming a shard into its cavernous eye socket.
The pack started with five Hellhounds; three are now on the floor, dead or incapacitated, and Milo is eviscerating a fourth with powerful kicks to the abdomen. The last remaining hound rises from where it slid across the floor, snarling wetly as it charges again—I barely reach it, my shard slicing a bloody line down its side as it careens toward Milo.
Milo tears its face open with his teeth, sinks his jaws into its barrel-like chest, and shakes until it goes limp.
People are screaming, shouting. I see bystanders on the sidewalk with lifted smartphones, obviously recording. “Mini!” I shout. “Put your shoes back on, we’re going out the employee door!” Milo is limping, sinking lower and lower to the floor as his Hellhound-bulk shrinks back into that of a little mutt puppy. He yelps weakly as I scoop him up. Mini grabs my arm, and we rush to the back of the pastry shop, barging through the unlocked door marked “Employees Only.”
We come out on a sidewalk. Again, behind me, is the neon sign proclaiming “GOLD 4 CASH.”
“The pawnshop? Again?” I ask.
Mini’s eyes are swimming with tears. “I’m sorry, I can only take us to places I can see in my head, and I couldn’t think fast enough—”
Something warm and wet runs down my hands. I look down and see little Milo, one of his ears torn off and an eye swollen shut, his hind leg bending in the wrong direction, gashes opened up in his side and stomach. He keens, sadly.
“Mini,” I say, “my phone is in my left pocket. I need you to take it out and search for the nearest vet.”
I ram the clinic’s door open with my shoulder, and Mini scurries past me inside. “We need help!” I shout.
Two receptionists are behind the counter, one of them reaching into a cupboard for some papers, the other sitting and speaking on the phone. The one by the cupboard shouts into the hallway, prompting a veterinary technician in blue scrubs to hurry down the corridor toward us. “Car accident?” they ask.
“No, a fight.”
The vet tech sees Mini’s face soaked with tears, then Milo’s condition, and blanches. “Jesus Christ.” They tell the receptionists to call a doctor somewhere else in the building, then hurry us down the hall.
We enter a windowless room with a metal table and a sink by the wall. The vet tech reaches for Milo—he yelps, thrashing in my arms.
“He doesn’t like strangers!” Mini cries out.
“I know, honey,” the tech replies, “but we need to help him, and that means we need to look at him—”
“Let the kid hold him,” I say. “He trusts her, and you can still look at him.”
Though I try to transfer Milo to Mini’s arms as gently as possible, he still whimpers and cries. “It’s okay,” Mini murmurs, her eyes swimming. “I love you, Milo. You’re going to be okay, okay?”
She lifts him gently onto the table at the center of the room. The vet tech reaches for him, pressing fingertips to his chest for his heart rate—but there’s a noise behind us like a pebble bouncing off a metal sheet. The vet tech collapses from view.
I don’t think, I just swing backward with my elbow. I connect with an arm, and a handgun with a long silencer clatters against the wall. Mini shrieks. I swipe a shard at the figure in the doorway—they leap nimbly back, and I slam the door in their face.
There’s no lock on the door; as the knob jostles and something slams into the other side again and again, I have to plant my soles and push with everything I have. “Go, go, go!” I shout at Mini.
Mini is looking around frantically, her hair springing. “There’s no other door!”
“The cabinet, under the sink behind you!”
Panic-stricken as she is, Mini doesn’t have to be told twice. She crouches and pulls open the cabinet door, revealing a a few plastic boxes and metal piping. She hugs Milo to her chest as she crawls through—her heel has just disappeared from view when the door BANGs open, throwing me onto the floor.
A slim man in a black jacket and pants stands above me, his gloved hand pointing a silver handgun at my forehead. His face is an upside-down triangle, starting from the point of his goatee to the square hairline of his long, tied-back black hair. He has sharp eyes, and a sharper grin.
“The girl and the dog,” he says.
“Not here,” I spit.
He glances at the open cabinet door, piecing together the story quicker than I would’ve liked. “I’ll find them.”
“Sure you will, Hellhound.”
He smiles at me acidly. “You’re one to talk, Hell-touched.”
He slams his pistol into my face—my head spins as I hit the floor. I faintly hear him coming into the room to pick up his dropped gun. “You’re lucky, witch. Uphir’s above me, Beelzebub’s above Uphir, and Beelzebub doesn’t want you dead before he can make you his bitch again.”
By the time I get back up, one side of my face swelling, he’s gone. I stumble out of the room into the lobby, where the two receptionists and a vet are cowering behind the counter. I brace myself on the countertop, cringing as the side of my head throbs—a tiny hand grabs mine, and I screech.
“It’s me, it’s me!” Mini squeaks, popping up behind the counter with Milo limp in her other arm.
“Mini! You were supposed to get out of here!”
“I know, I know, but the cabinet door was too small, I had to picture another door that small and the only one I could remember was the cupboard back here—I had to hide until the guy left—”
She rounds the counter, and I hug her close to me before grabbing her hand.
“You know what, never mind all that, you did good.” We speed toward the front door. “You know where we’re going to go?”
“Yeah, I think so—”
I see the merc hurtling toward us a second too late—I spin and grab at Mini the same moment he does. Bloody fur in one of my hands, black thread in the other—when I stumble to a halt, Milo is wheezing in my arms, and the snapped string of Mini’s bracelet is dangling between my fingers, the medallion spinning.
The merc is standing across from me some five feet away, his arm wrapped around Mini’s throat. She has her teeth sunken into his forearm, growling like a wolf, but he simply tightens his grip and raises his gun—I skip backward until my spine is pressed against the front door.
“Drop the gun!” I shout.
“Drop the dog,” he answers, pressing the muzzle against Mini’s head. Mini’s dark eyes widen, and she sniffles with her teeth still clamped on his sleeve.
I curl my hand around the medallion, raising it up so he can see the green beads dangling. “I have threshold magic, and you can’t kill me. You shoot that girl, I go through this doorway, you lose the dog forever. You fail your mission—and you know what happens to Hellhounds who disappoint their masters.”
The merc’s mouth twists in distaste. “You go through that doorway, I shoot the girl.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what we in the business call a stalemate.”
The only sound is Mini’s soft crying, and panicked whispers from behind the receptionists’ counter. The merc tilts his head. “Do you really think this is going to end well for you?” he asks.
“Actually, I do. Do you really need the girl, or just the dog?”
He considers, briefly hollowing his gaunt cheeks. “Just the dog.”
“Cool, because my priority is the girl. You make damn sure that girl comes back to me alive and unharmed, and I’ll give you the Hellhound.”
“No!” Mini screams, then chokes as the merc’s arm tightens around her throat, her mouth opening and closing silently. It kills me to ignore her, but I have to in the moment.
“A trade, exactly as I said. We seal it by contract, under your boss’s name.”
The merc shrugs. “Fine with me, honestly. Killing kids isn’t my favorite thing.” He keeps his gun pointed at Mini as he pulls the glove off his other hand with his teeth, then tears into the fleshy part of his palm with a sharp canine. I reach into my coat and slice my thumb against a razor blade in my pocket.
We keep our distance, but hold up our palms parallel to each other. Our blood drips to the tile floor in unison as he speaks. “I call upon the name of Uphir to bind this contract.” A searing pain flashes through my hand and down my arm—I push air up my throat, focusing so I can hold still. The merc grunts and shakes his hand out.
“Impatient bastard. Whatever, he signed the paperwork.” He holsters the gun but keeps a hand on Mini’s trembling shoulder. “The dog. You’re bound by demonic contract, no backing out now.”
“True.” I cradle Milo in one arm, pat his fragile little Hellhound head with the other. “Sorry, buddy,” I whisper. And I sink a two-inch shard into the top of his skull.
He spasms once—he’s so weak, I barely feel his paws kick against my forearm. Mini screams. I grab under Milo’s belly with the hand still holding Mini’s bracelet, and with my other, I grab the other Milo—the Milo-shaped echo that slips through my fingers like melting ice cream, that I have to shove into my breast pocket in the hopes that it’ll stay consolidated for just a few minutes longer.
I march up to the merc, dumping the cooling corpse into his arms. He’s forced to let go of Mini to catch it, and I shove her safely behind me.
“Contract never said the dog had to be alive, did it?” I say, my face inches from his.
He stares down at the dead puppy’s matting brown fur, then back at me. “That was petty of you. Good for me, my orders didn’t strictly include bringing the dog back alive. Thanks, sweetheart.”
“Fuck you,” I growl.
His arm snakes out—I pull back, but he catches Mini’s bracelet by the knotted string. He tosses it to the floor and stomps on it with his steel-toed boot; the limestone medallion cracks into three jagged pieces. He grins. “See, I can be petty too.” He whistles as he pulls a velvet sack out of his jacket, slipping Milo’s body into it as he walks out the front door.
I hear sobbing and sniffling behind me. I turn to Mini. “Mini, I’m—”
She punches me in the stomach as hard as she can, which is surprisingly hard. I cough, grabbing her black coat with the hand that’s not still in my breast pocket. “Mini, wait—”
She kicks me in the shin, then the other shin. I hop and curse, barely hanging onto her coat—she unzips the front in one long motion, rips her arms out of the sleeves, and runs out the door into the street.
I run after her, but she makes it to a crosswalk before I do. She races across, bobbing between clumps of pedestrians; by the time I reach the curb, the stoplight has changed, and a flow of moving cars is between her and me.
On the other side of the street, she turns to look at me one last time, her chin trembling. And then she runs, and runs, and runs.
I walk a white dog on a leash down the sidewalk, fifth time in as many days. The first time, I took him to the pawnshop and the park with the fountain where Mini and I first sat and talked. The next two days, I expanded my radius. On the fourth day, the dog got excited, spinning around and around on the sidewalk a few blocks down from a K-12 school. So today I’m walking up and down that stretch of pavement, intermittently kneeling to let the dog sniff the kid-sized black coat draped over my arm.
I’ve just stood back up when a small figure comes around the corner. A little girl, this time in a purple coat. Brown hair, brown face, hair pinned back by two symmetrical white barrettes.
“Mini!” I shout.
Her face crumples. She clutches the straps of her backpack and turns to run.
I let go of the leash, and the dog bounds toward her with a dry, rattling noise escaping his throat. His ankles twist out from under him every time his feet hit the pavement, but even with that odd gait he reaches Mini before I do. He tackles her to the ground, cutting off her shriek.
“No, Milo, no!” I shout, waving my arms as I run toward him. “No tackling kids! Bad dog!”
Mini is sobbing on the ground—and laughing so hard she loses her breath, her arms wrapped tightly around the dog’s neck as he happily licks her face.
“You fixed Milo!” she chokes out.
I bend over and brace myself on my knees, panting from the run. “Yeah, I did. I’m sorry, Mini, I didn’t have time to explain in the moment—I had to kill Milo’s original body when I handed him over, so I could keep his essence. I figured, he’s already a kind of experiment, so he should be—I don’t know, replantable? It was a big risk, but it was better than letting that guy shoot you.”
“Thank you thank you thank you…”
We sit on the sidewalk as Milo runs in circles around her, Mini giggling and petting him wherever she can. He headbutts her shoulder, then throws himself in her lap and tosses his legs in the air, all the while violently wagging his tail and making that weird, dry growling noise. Mini scratches his tummy—then her hand catches on a line of stitches going down his middle. She peers at it, then leans down closer to his face, inspecting his lopsided, bulging eyes, the way he can’t quite close his mouth because his lips are stretched back from his teeth.
“Hey,” Mini says, “isn’t this that dead dog you had when I first met you?”
“Yup. I forgot about it during the car crash, left it behind for the police to find. Remember my pawnbroker, the one who likes objects with trauma energy? Three dead mercs must have been traumatic enough for him, because he pulled some strings to get the dog out of evidence lockup. I had to spend a fortune to buy it from him—haggling asshole—but I figured, it would be easier to implant Milo in a body that’s already been preserved.”
Mini nuzzles her face against Milo’s forehead, not looking the slightest bit less happy. “So that’s why he stinks.”
“I know, I’m sorry—he doesn’t eat or shit or sleep either, but when he gets bored he’s willing to lie down and rest with his eyes closed. You’re going to have to—I don’t know, tie an air freshener to his collar? And anytime he gets wet, you gotta blow dry the everloving shit out of him.”
“That’s fine, I can do that. I love my stinky dog.”
Milo barks, but it sounds like a raspy “Yuff!”
“How are you doing?” I ask Mini. “Are you okay? Who are you staying with?”
“I went back home and called my parents to tell them my tía had disappeared, and I’d been alone for days. They freaked out and came back home, there’s a missing persons report filed and everything. They pulled me out of school for a bit, and I’ve been to all kinds of therapy and stuff.”
Milo nuzzles against her face again. Mini giggles, rubbing behind his ear. He goes even more cross-eyed than he already is, and when he pants, his breath is horrific. I wince. “I, uh, tried my best, but he still looks pretty goofy. Will your parent let you keep him, do you think?”
Mini shrugs. “They have to. I’m traumatized, remember? I’ll just tell them he’s the only thing that makes me forget about my tía.”
“Ha, nice,” I laugh. I pull a pen and a torn postcard out of my pocket, scribbling on it and then handing it to her. “Call me if you ever need anything, okay?”
Mini’s eyes sparkle as she hugs her ugly, stinky dog. Milo pants happily against her, his glassy eyes rolling awkwardly, one by one.
“Thank you, I will. But I think we’re going to be alright.”