Monsters In Hollywood, Book 4
They wouldn’t be able to keep the secret much longer.
“What are our options?” Lena sat at the head of Calypso Production’s conference table, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art visible through the floor to ceiling windows at her back.
Jane sat at her right, a copy of the script in front of her. “Without the rest of the pre-pro crew, we can’t go forward. We need more people.”
“If we bring them on, we have to tell them the truth.” Luke, Lena’s boyfriend, tapped his fingers restlessly on the table.
“No. No more people. We have to keep this quiet for as long as we can.” Margo’s voice was grim. The usually sassy Latina was dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans, hair back in a loose ponytail. Her fiancé was seated next to her. The over six-foot tall Runako leaned forward, planting his elbow on the table hard enough to rattle the cups.
“I’ll protect you.” Before Runako had, er, kidnapped Margo, the real magnitude of what they were doing hadn’t hit the five friends who owned Calypso Productions. They’d known they were taking on something big when they agreed to make a movie about Runako, Luke, Henry and Michael’s people.
When Runako and Margo fell into the hands of those who wanted to dissect and kill Runako, then barely escaping, the project had gone from exciting challenge to grim life-or-death battle. If they screwed this up, they would lose more than production costs.
“Once it’s out that we’re releasing a monster movie in the summer, everyone will start asking who’s working on it,” Lena said. The reality of Hollywood was that if they were going to produce a summer blockbuster, they needed to attach blockbuster names to the project, above the line.
“It’ll come out at some point anyway, and wasn’t that all part of our publicity campaign?” Cali, the movie’s director, held up a copy of a Hollywood tabloid, folded back to a picture of Akta with Runako, Henry and Luke on the red carpet at a charity gala. They’d purchased the tickets and sent Akta, who was a recognizable star, with the guys as a way of introducing them to Hollywood.
The caption under the picture read, “The stars of Calypso Production’s top-secret new project. Akta Patel and her unknown escorts.”
Akta tipped back in her chair, bracing her knees on the conference table. She sat between Henry and Luke, who would star in the movie with her. Calypso Productions had only recently learned that Henry and Runako were both actors—Henry considered the best actor of their people. They’d started script read-throughs, and it fell on Akta to give them, along with Luke, a crash course in acting for the screen. Jane, the resident screenwriter, had written the script for them, so they’d basically be playing themselves, but still, if they didn’t translate to the camera the whole thing would fall apart.
“Our publicity campaign is to make sure everyone falls in love with them,” Lena said, gesturing around the table at the guys, “so that when the movie comes out, and then they come out, they’ll already have people on their side.”
“We know that, we helped come up with that plan.” Cali wasn’t known for her patience. “But I’m telling you, we’ve gone as far as we can with just us. Two producers, half the lead actors, a screenwriter and a director don’t make a movie. If we’re serious about starting production—” Cali motioned to Margo, who, in her role of line producer, had been working up start-date-less timelines. “—we need a production schedule, we need the rest of the above-the-line people. We need to know how we’re making this movie.”
“What does above the line mean?” Runako looked to Margo.
“It basically means anyone who could have any real influence in how the movie is made, or the storyline.”
“But we are all here.”
Margo grimaced slightly. “Yes and no. We know what we want to do, we have a lot of it figured out, but usually a casting director is above the line, and in our case special effects may have better ideas as to how to shoot this. Special effects—which usually means actual real effects like blowing up cars and fake blood—means we need the special effects coordinator.”
“But it will be easier to make, we won’t need all those special effects…” Akta interjected.
“Fucking actors.” Cali threw her hands back. “So when Runako’s character dies do you want me to actually kill him? What should I do on the second take?”
“Fine, sorry. What do you need?”
“At least a director of photography, production designer, visual effects (VFX) supervisor and special effects supervisor. Location scout. Casting. SpecFX makeup since we have no idea what it will take to make-up these three.” Cali jabbed her finger at the men. “Akta, don’t talk to me about how you were art director on some crappy indie film or I swear to God I’ll come across this table. We need big guns.”
“Who are you thinking of?” Lena’s voice was calm as she tried to keep the tension down.
“If we’re serious about keeping this tight, I know who we could get to serve as PD. She’d be able to pull up-and-comers in visual and special effects.”
There was a beat of silence as everyone put together who Cali was talking about. The four men seated at the table looked blankly at each other.
“Uh, Cali, she hates you.” Jane bit her lower lip.
“Yea, I don’t know why.” Cali slumped back in her seat, tugging on the frayed cuff of her USC sweatshirt.
“You told her she was getting fat senior year.”
“She was getting fat, and I said it in a nice way. I thought she’d appreciate the heads-up. Sixty hours a week in front of her computer or sketching crazy stuff while eating those weird fish crackers was not doing her any good.”
“There’s no nice way to tell someone they’re getting fat, and telling her she was fat was the least of what you did,” Akta said.
“Well, now she’s one of the best creative minds in the industry.” Lena was twirling her pen as she considered. “She’s never handled a summer action film, but she’s an amazing designer, has contacts at Industrial Light and Magic, and she knows everyone.”
“Exactly. We need her.”
The mountain rose out of the mist, jagged and white. Henry circled the southern slope, dropping lower with each pass, until he entered the clouds that frothed around it. His wings snapped as he drew them in, the thin membranes ballooning up as he caught the mountain’s updraft. There were patches of snow at this elevation, but the speckled black stone of the mountain dominated the sky.
Henry spread his claws and angled in. He hit with a thud, claws on all four limbs digging into the rock. Stone screamed as he slid down a few feet, his massive bodyweight pulling him. With a snap he folded his wings against his back.
He clung there for a moment, checking to be sure that he wasn’t about to fall, before raising his head and squinting at the mountain face. Twenty feet above him a shadow in the rock was barely visible. With a grunt he started climbing.
The cave entrance was nothing like the cave mouths on the mountain Henry and the rest of his clan called home. Once inside the narrow passage Henry dipped his chin and roared. The sound reverberated down the dark passage.
There was no response, but he hadn’t expected any.
At least, not yet.
Wings tucked tight to his back, Henry proceeded down the twisting, uneven passage. He could just make out the shapes of the rock walls as gray shadows, though there was no light in the tunnel. After twenty yards, the natural tunnel abruptly ended in a beautiful carved stone passage.
Torches in bronze metal brackets lit the high, wide space. The floor and walls were the same black stone as the mountain, but the smooth texture revealed the chips of quartz buried in the rock, causing the passage to sparkle with reflected light.
The far end of the passage was blocked by heavy doors made of blocks of stone held together by crisscrossing bands of metal.
The left door opened.
“Why are you here?”
Henry couldn’t see the speaker. The voice was low and rusty, speaking the old language with a faint accent this clan had never lost—because they’d never given up their ways.
“We need your help.” His answer was blunt, but the question had been too.
“You went to the humans.” It was halfway between a statement and a question.
“Yes.” Henry, Luke and Michael’s mission to expose the existence of their people to the humans before the situation deteriorated into war or mass suicide had not been a secret. There’d been opposition, Runako being one of the most vocal, but this clan, which had never integrated into the larger single clan the “monsters”—to use the human word—had formed, remained neutral.
“Has the war begun?”
“No, we met some humans who will help us. They have a plan. To succeed we need your clan’s help.”
“Who among us?”
Henry unfolded and refolded his wings. There was no good way to ask this. “Tokaki Baekko.” The other monster’s full name echoed in the hall, the last “o” bouncing back to Henry like an accusation. He unfolded his wings and wrapped them around his arms and chest as a shiver overtook him.
“Tokaki? You would leave our clan defenseless.”
“You would be welcomed at the great clan. It would be safer for you there, even if Tokaki doesn’t come with me.”
“Your great-grandfather’s grandfather may have given up on his breed, his clan joining with another, then another, until there was only one, but we have not.”
Henry bowed. Though he couldn’t see the other monster, he had a feeling he was being watched. “Forgive me. I meant no insult, only to offer you safety.”
“We are safe, with our warriors, in our mountain.”
The clan lived in one of the coldest, most remote mountains in China. Henry thought they were stupid for staying. The humans here were expanding faster and more aggressively than anywhere else—it was only a matter of time before the monsters were found.
“You are safe, for now.” Henry couldn’t help but add the little dig, reminding the unseen speaker that they could not continue this way forever.
“Tokaki goes to the great clan every year to train the ones you call warriors.” The sneer was subtle, but Henry caught the insult.
“Yes, and we appreciate that.”
“Then why would you need him, unless you’ve lied to me about the war?”
Henry took a moment to mentally curse in both his own language and every one of the human languages he’d learned. He’d walked right into that trap. “There is no war. You surely have ways of knowing that.”
“And my first question?”
“Why we need Tokaki? We need a warrior who can…plan fights. Fights that look real but aren’t. Fights like the ones used in training.”
“How will this help your mission with the humans?”
That was what Henry had been hoping he wouldn’t be asked. He had no idea what this little holdout clan’s exposure to human culture was. He assumed they at least knew what a movie was, but what, if anything, did they know about making a movie?
There was a long pause. Henry could hear the sound of thick flesh, maybe scales, scraping against stone.
“It is said that Runako has joined your mission with the humans.”
“Runako thought we were fools until he met the humans who have decided to help us and heard our plan. Now he is with us.”
“That comforts me. Runako is a warrior, he will not let anything happen to my brother.”
Henry flared his wings in a show of elation, barely biting back the roar of triumph. Tokaki was coming with him.
The scratch of scales against stone increased. The door was knocked open a little wider and Henry watched as a blue snake-like body covered in diamond-bright scales undulated past.
When the dragon was out of sight, Henry let out a breath. This was only the first part of what was sure to be a difficult mission. Tokaki wasn’t winged, and Henry had never asked how the other monster got from his home to the protected caves in the Rocky Mountains the larger clan called home. Henry had to get him all the way to Los Angeles. Then Henry would have the pleasure of introducing him to all the joys and stupidity of the human world, as they’d be sharing a condo.
Until last week, Runako and Michael had been living in the condo also, a nice place with many of the things Henry had seen on human TV commercials. Cali’s father owned the building and had agreed to let them use it. Michael, who fell in love with Jane the first moment he’d seen her, had just bought a house with her in Los Feliz, and Luke and Lena, who’d been the first to fall in love and move in together, were currently house hunting.
Runako had moved in with Margo since they were engaged and he’d been spending most of his time at her little guesthouse anyway. Runako was fixing up his cave to make it more human friendly—Margo complained a lot about the bathroom—and planning a festival where he could introduce Margo to others in the clan, most of whom had very bad feelings towards humans.
That left Henry all alone in the condo, surrounded by human things, human smells and a building full of human beings.
The first night it had been so overwhelming, he’d taken to the sky, flying hard and fast, hoping no one saw him. He’d bedded down in a tree in Griffith Park after avoiding night joggers, some werewolves and the humans known as geeks who’d been having a mock Moon of Endor lightsaber battle between the trees. Any other time he would have found this seriously awesome and gone to get Luke (who’d picked his human name for Luke Skywalker), but that night he’d been sick of humans.
When they’d decided they needed to ask Tokaki to come out and help them choreograph the fight sequences between the monsters—Runako, Henry, Luke and Michael all knew how to fight, they just didn’t know how to mock-fight—he’d volunteered, wanting an excuse to leave the human world behind for a little while.
The air vibrated with old magic and the crystals in the floor brightened. Ripped from his musings, Henry spread his wings, braced his legs and prepared for an attack. It was not that he didn’t trust these males…he just didn’t trust them.
A massive white tiger, almost the size of an elephant but with a long body and thick legs that kept it crouched low to the ground, shouldered open the right door. The tiger’s head was massive, much wider than a real tiger’s. Two large, dark eyes dominated the face over the snubbed nose and tusk-filled mouth.
The tiger slid fully into the corridor, big body undulating with an eerie lack of sound. The stone-block doors scraped shut behind him.
“Tokaki, it has been too long.”
The tiger tilted his head, mouth opening to reveal an over-large jaw of huge, white teeth.
“Mir’ek, you have been too long among the humans.”
Henry jolted, unused to being called by his real name anymore.
“I…have learned much there.” Tokaki was looking him up and down, and Henry had to stop himself from worrying that his time in the human world had made him soft or weak. “We should leave. How do you travel?”
“That is not your place to know.”
“It is when I’ve asked for your help, and so your safety is my concern.”
Tokaki laughed. The great drafts of laughter came out as a chuffing sound, blowing between his teeth as he swung his head side to side. “I do not need your protection.”
Henry gritted his teeth. “You will have it.”
“Tell me where we go.”
“Los Angeles. It’s a city in the human country of the United States, next to the Pacific Ocean.”
“I know Los Angeles.”
“I will meet you there,” Tokaki said as he brushed past Henry. Up close his fur was striped with pale gray bands.
“We need to go to the clan’s home first. You cannot be among the humans looking like that. Let her give you the spell that gives you a human form.”
Tokaki twisted, his head coming back at an impossible angle so he could look at Henry. “I do not need the wise one’s spell. I have always had a human form.”
With that Tokaki padded down the corridor and out of the cave.
Henry remained frozen with shock for no more than a moment, but by the time he reached the mouth of the passage the white tiger was gone.
This is Lena from Calypso Productions. Jo, we’d love to talk to you about our current project and having you on as a part of our team.
Joanna slid her gaze toward her answering machine, considered throwing her paintbrush at it and then decided against it. It would be a waste of good paint.
It wasn’t the first, and might not be the last, message Lena—or Margo—left for her, but she wasn’t calling any of them back. Jo had a beef with Mercedes, or “Cali”—that stupid nickname irritated her every time she thought about it—and knew that a Calypso Productions project meant she’d have to deal with her.
“Gonna call them back?” Laughing blue eyes peered at her from inside a historically inaccurate Greek warrior helmet.
“Hold still,” she told her model. He was perched on a stool in the middle of her studio space, naked except for a short linen “kilt” she’d made out of a dishcloth. And the helmet. She couldn’t forget the helmet.
“Seriously, I think you should call them back. I’ve heard about their movie.” This is why you can’t sleep with actors. They talked. To you.
Jo didn’t answer. Dabbing her angle brush into the indigo oil paint at her elbow, she deepened the shadow under the warrior’s jaw. She was working on character concept and design illustrations for a comic book adaptation of a fight-to-the-death movie. It was, at best, going to be a bad remake of 300, and at worst would go straight to Blu-ray and maybe be shown in theaters overseas.
And she was doing the work on spec, with no guarantee of a paycheck anytime soon.
And rent was due. Again. It happened every month.
Jo brushed out the excess paint on a rag draped over the table, then dumped the brush in a cup of mineral spirits before stepping back. She’d been illustrating the “darkest hour” scene, one in which the look of the movie would do more to convey the desperation, hopelessness and eventually determination of the hero than the actor’s crappy acting. She didn’t need the model—the character was almost a caricature, which fit with the feeling and world she’d built. She was working with the model because they’d asked her to.
Sleeping with him because she wanted to.
Unclipping the sheet of canvas paper from her easel, she hung it with clothespins along a wire that ran the length of one wall.
“You need some nudes?”
The actor—Andrew, no Alex, crap, what was his name?—curled one arm around her waist. He slid her loose, striped cotton shirt off one shoulder. The smock-style top fell to her waist, where it caught on the wide belt she’d added to dress up the comfy ensemble.
She was naked underneath, her right breast now exposed.
Whatever-his-name-was cupped her breast, kneading it like bread dough.
This is why you can’t sleep with actors.
“If I needed nudes, they’d be of you, not me, and as far as I know the script doesn’t have any nude scenes in it.”
“Maybe we should write our own.”
“Unh, that was really, really bad.” Jo knocked his hand off her breast and pulled her shirt up.
“What’s your problem?” With his arms crossed, helmet on, Jo could almost, almost, see the warrior they would make him into.
“Not wanting to sleep with you right now isn’t actually a problem. You get that, right?”
“We’ve been having fun, why’d you get bitchy all of a sudden?”
Because I know you slept with me for power, not because you actually find me attractive.
“Keep it up and I’ll make them take my chakra-cleansing therapy out of your pay. You are pissing me off and messing with my ch’i.”
“Fine, whatever. Crazy—” He turned away so she didn’t hear the rest of that sentence, which was probably good for him.
“When you call the director to throw an actor hissy fit about this, which I know you will since you’re too new to handle any of it like a grown-up…” Jo plucked down the first of the illustrations she’d done, a landscape showing an idyllic B.C.E. Mediterranean village washed in white sunlight that brought out purples and greens in the scene, “…tell them I won’t be staying on as production designer. They’ll have to find someone to head Art who can execute based on my sketches and notes, or they can start over.”
“Wait, Jo, sweetheart.” The Greek warrior dropped to one knee beside her, causing the kilt to ride up to his hips. He’d definitely been interested in “writing a nude scene” with her, and his interest was slow to…go down. Ha. Ha.
Taking her smile at her own bad joke as encouragement, which it most definitely was not, he took her hand, crumpling the corner of the painting in the process. Jo hissed at him and pulled it away.
“Oh, uh, sorry about that. But don’t quit the movie just because of us.”
“There was no us, there was sex. We only had sex because your body is ridiculous.” Jo sighed a little as she looked over his nakedness again. Maybe she shouldn’t let this go. “It’s almost criminal that your arms and abs are that cut. I appreciate good art, and your body is good art.”
“You were…using me?” He blinked. Blinked again.
“Pretty much.” Jo shook her hand free of his and took her painting over to the massive high-resolution scanner set-up on a desk in one corner of her studio, which occupied an entire floor of a building.
“That’s not fair.”
“Really?” Jo looked over her shoulder. “You’re going to bitch because I decided to sleep with you because you’re hot? And you think I don’t know why you slept with me.”
“I…I slept with you because you’re gorgeous.” He tipped his head and kicked up one side of his mouth in a half smile. The effect was ruined when the helmet started to slide forward and he had to grab it.
“Nice try. Gimme another one.” Jo checked her laptop to make sure the scan of the painting was loading. She’d email over the scans, then messenger or hand deliver the paintings once the production actually got underway and they had a pre-pro team with some office space where the paintings could be posted.
“No, really, you’re nice and you’re—”
“You slept with me because this is your first movie but it’s not mine, and you know just enough to realize that I could help your career. Am I close?”
“Jo, please. If you quit the movie they’ll think it was my fault, and they’ll fire me.”
“Let me give you a little advice. First, I doubt this piece of shit is getting made. For your sake I hope it does because, really, your body is ridiculous.
“Second, you don’t actually know where the little man in the boat is.”
“I…don’t know what that means.” He finally took off the helmet, his dark hair standing on end.
“So hot, and yet…”
“They’ll fire me. I’m easy to replace. You’re not. I heard them say so. My agent said this was my big break and not to screw it up by—”
“Sleeping with anyone? Yikes, time to go get tested since you apparently do this repeatedly.”
He followed her as she took the painting off the scanner and slid it into a large protective envelope, went back to the drying line and took down the next finished oil painting.
“Don’t call me that.”
“It’s a pretty name.”
She glared over her shoulder and he slumped. “Please, don’t quit the movie.”
“I’m not quitting this movie. I’m taking a better job. That’s what you’re going to tell the director, and that’s why you’re not going to get fired.”
“I’m not getting fired? Thank you. I…wait, does this mean you’re going to go work on that top-secret action movie Calypso is doing?”
Jo tapped the edge of the envelope against the desk. If she was totally honest with herself, she’d realize that she’d known since the first phone call that she’d at least talk to them. If they really were making a summer blockbuster—and that was what all the industry papers were saying—they had money. Money meant a paycheck for their production designer, who would be able to keep her studio space downtown.
“Hey, if they’re looking for actors, would you pass my head shot along?”
Jo slid her gaze sideways to what’s-his-name, who was hopping around pulling on jeans.
This is why you can’t sleep with actors.
* * * *
“You must be Joanna. Welcome to Calypso Productions.”
A perky, flaming receptionist in paisley silk and boating stripes skirted the reception desk to greet her. Jo reigned in the wave of self-consciousness and held out her hand to complete the shake. From the way the receptionist’s eyes darted to her hand and back she guessed he’d seen the ink she hadn’t been able to get off. Caught up in sketching, she hadn’t had time to do more than wash her hands before heading out the door, which left plenty of black smudges across her fingers.
“She prefers to be called Jo. Thank you, Kurt.”
Lena, all blonde perfection in a tailored black skirt and draped royal blue blouse, stood in a doorway behind the reception desk.
“Jo, it’s good to see you. I’m really glad you came.”
“Lena, you haven’t changed much. Thank you for thinking of me for your project,” Jo said. They shook and Lena invited her past the reception desk and into the back offices with a graceful sweep of the hand.
Knowing the other woman was behind her as they went through the doorway, Jo took a moment to tug at her clothes, making sure they were all in place.
Jo had accepted long ago, strangely right around the time she’d gained a bunch of weight she’d never lost, that she would never be one of those polished business types. That wasn’t her personality, her career path and wouldn’t be her aesthetic. Jo had embraced the artist look. She liked to think of herself as a living parody of how an artist should dress, a walking mockumentary, but she had a bad feeling she was the only one who got the joke.
Today she was in black jeans with a Celtic design painted on her right calf, a tight black tank top and a loose gray cashmere sweater that stopped just below her breasts but fell long on the sides to brush her hips. A heavy owl pendant swung from a suede thong around her neck. Her mess of frizzy hair was pulled back on one side to show off the feather extensions she’d had put in the other day.
“We’re meeting in the conference room. Right down here.”
“Who exactly will I be meeting with?”
The hall was short—it was only a few feet before they were at a frosted glass door. Rather than open it, Lena put her hand on the vertical stainless pull and turned to face Jo.
“You’ll be meeting with all the Calypso partners. Myself and Margo, who both called you. Cali, who you also know from the production program.”
Jo bared her teeth in a smile. “Of course. Cali.”
Lena’s only response was the slight raise of a brow. “There’s also Akta and Jane, who were at USC with us, but not in our program.”
“I remember both of them,” Jo said, and it was only a partial lie. Jane was a quiet, girl next-door type who liked to dance and Akta an Indian girl with all the exotic looks of her ethnic background but the confidence and mannerisms of a Los Angelino. The prestigious and intensive film production program Jo had been in with Cali, Margo and Lena often led to all-night sessions in editing bays. Everyone relied on their friends to provide food, water and eye drops. Cali and Jo had been editors on their senior movie and practically lived together in the editing bay. Luckily, when Cali’s posse of friends showed up to bring her food, they usually brought something for Jo too.
Remembering her socially awkward college years—she’d been so far behind she’d been awkward in college instead of high school—made Jo want to curl up on the floor and die. Pushing those memories down in a little box in her brain where she could lock them away, Jo gave herself a quick imaginary slap and tuned-in in time to hear the end of Lena’s sentence.
“…and is currently out recruiting a lead stuntman for the fight scenes, but Luke, Michael and Runako are here.”
“And they’re all in the movie?”
“We’ll answer all those questions inside.”
Lena opened the door, again using an oh-so-graceful gesture.
Jo stepped inside and stopped. She was pudgy rag lady walking into a room of glossy mannequins. The women were all older, updated versions of the girls she remembered from USC. The men were something else.
One guy was clearly Native American, either from the U.S. or from Central America. The blond had the coloring of a surfer—gold skin, sun-bleached hair and blue eyes. The last man was black, with a shaved head and pile of muscles.
She’d seen two of them before, in photos, standing in front of a backdrop at some Hollywood event or another. In photos they were hunks of hot man candy.
In person they were ridiculous.
“Jo, please have a seat.”
Jo took a seat at the end of the glossy conference table. Lena walked to the far side. Jo saw Lena brush her fingers against the dark-haired guy’s shoulder as she passed him. Interesting.
“Jo, on behalf of the group I’d like to thank you for joining us. While some of us,” she smiled, a little too widely, at Cali, “know you from USC, the gentlemen don’t, so we’ll go around and introduce ourselves.”
One by one they made introductions, and Jo was able to piece together the information she’d missed out on when she spaced out in the hall.
The black guy was Runako—he must be African, with a name like that, though his accent didn’t seem African. Actually, his accent didn’t sound like anything she’d ever heard before. From the way he touched Margo’s shoulder it was clear they were something.
The blond was Michael. When he looked at her during his introduction, Jo was struck by his intensity. The surfer dude look must be a carefully calculated front. He should be dressed in a power suit with a lawyer haircut.
The Native American guy had kind eyes and a great smile. Strangely, he had the same odd accent as the African. Which made almost no sense, but there it was. He seemed to be the leader of their little group, and when they were done introducing themselves he passed the conversational ball back to Lena.
“You know why we’ve asked you here—we’re looking for a production designer.”
“You said that in the million and one messages you left me.”
“Well, I’m glad they all got to you. We know you’ve done some PD work—”
“I’m going to stop you right there.” Jo leaned forward. Her owl medallion clanked onto the table. Around the table everyone shifted. Some leaned forward—Margo, Cali and Lena—while the others leaned back—Jane, Akta and all three men.
Jo looked around, assessing everyone’s reaction to her interruption, before she spoke. She opened her mouth, and—
“Were you going to say anything else, Jo?” Cali, seated at Lena’s right and about as far away from Jo as she could be, said.
“I was, but clearly it’s been too long since you heard yourself speak, Mercedes, go ahead.”
“Don’t call me that, Joanna.”
“Seriously?” Margo asked. “I have nieces better behaved than this.”
“Are you toying with me?” Jo demanded, staring across the table at Cali, a girl she’d once desperately wanted to have as a friend. “Is that why you brought me in here and then dared to review my credentials, when you’re the one making some top-secret movie that, frankly, may not even exist.”
“And do you realize that this is a job interview? We’re trying to hire you.” Cali leaned forward. Her hair, which Jo was used to seeing up in a quick ponytail, had been styled, blow-dried or something, so that it swung softly against her cheek in a glossy mahogany wave. She wore a fitted mock-corset top with a suit jacket, which made her look like an expensive hooker or a lawyer trying to get her client off the old-fashioned way. Her boobs swelled above her top when she leaned forward.
“Put those things away. I’m not about to buy whatever it is that,” Jo wagged her finger at Cali’s cleavage, “is meant to sell.”
“Ladies, please calm down. Clearly you two have some issues—”
“This is a custom Victoria Whiteland,” Cali screeched.
“Oh, you spent a huge amount to look like that? I’m sorry.” Jo cocked her head and frowned in mock sadness.
“Cali, stop, you’re being a pain.” Jane had a restraining hand on her friend, though she was fighting to hide a smile.
“I’m being a pain? She—”
Luke turned to Michael. “They’re practically the same person.”
If it had been a movie there would have been a comical screech as the ping-ponging five-way conversation ground to a halt. As one the women turned to look at Luke and Michael.
“Um…” Luke said, looking desperately at Lena.
“I’m afraid you’re on your own for this one.”
“Jane?” Michael said. “I love you, and I’ll come back for you.”
Jane laughed. “Don’t you dare run out of here.” She released Cali, who sat back in her chair.
“There went my plan.” Michael scooted his chair away from Luke’s. “For the record he said it, not me.”
“You are both stupid,” Runako added. “I’ve been around human women far less and even I knew better than to say anything.”
Margo rolled her eyes. “What do you know about human women?”
Jo shook her head slightly. It was probably just the fact that she was riled up from the mini fight but she would have sworn she heard them both say human women. That was one hell of a qualifier.
“Maybe we could take Cali to the zoo.” Akta was sitting closest to Jo and as the bickering started, Jo had been vaguely aware of Akta rolling her eyes and pulling an iPad out from under the table. She looked up from the tablet and added, “There’s a white tiger running around Hollywood, so the L.A. zoo probably has an empty cage.”
“A tiger?” Michael asked.
“Oh, you actually read now? I figured you were just playing Angry Birds like always.” Cali leaned forward to snarl down the table at her friend.
“A white tiger?” Michael asked.
“Clearly I’ve lost control of this meeting.” Lena tapped her pen on the table and the women looked to her. The moment Akta’s attention was diverted, Michael stood up, reached across the table and snatched Akta’s gadget.
“Michael, please.” Lena frowned.
“Lena,” Luke said nothing more, just her name, but Jo watched as the power shifted, the atmosphere darkened. If this were a movie, a little wind would swirl through the room, the sunlight streaming through the glass exterior wall would dim and they would all be washed in blue and indigo.
This was real life, so none of those things happened, but Jo felt the shift. “‘Residents of the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Park area have spotted a massive white tiger,’” Michael read, finger flicking to scroll down the page. “‘Some accounts claim the tiger is taller than a full-grown man and as long as a shipping container. Police are investigating these reports. At this time the L.A. Zoo states they are not missing any animals and do not have a white tiger. They’ve agreed to work with animal control to find the animal, which may be an illegal pet.’” Michael stopped reading, set down the iPad, put his elbows on the conference table and his head in his hands.
“Michael, what’s wrong? What does this mean?” Jane was half out of her chair.
“Fuck, fuck.” Runako jumped to his feet. “Why are you sitting there? We need to find him and explain to him that he’s been seen.”
“Who’s been seen?” Margo clutched Runako’s sleeve. “Is that tiger…?” He looked at her.
“Oh,” Margo looked around the table. When her gaze met Jo’s and Jo raised her eyebrows, wordlessly asking for a clue as to what the hell was going on, Margo simply grimaced. “It’s really, really complicated.”
“I’m sorry I interrupted your lover’s quarrel by attending the meeting you invited me to.” Jo’s dramatic rant was cut short when all three men turned and walked out of the room.
Lena jumped and followed them out.
“Shit,” Cali said, flopping back in her chair.
“Luke, not here, if you’re going to change we can go to Akta’s house. She’s closest to the sightings.” Lena’s voice drifting through the open conference room door. Around the table the women were gathering purses and bags and leaving. One by one they walked right past Jo, faces grim. They didn’t even notice her.
Surprise, surprise. “Jo.”
She looked up from her owl pendant, which she’d been stroking absently. Cali stood beside her, one hip propped on the conference table. She radiated restless energy and quick sharp intellect—the kind that prevented her from observing social niceties.
The girl had grown into a woman and learned to dress up, but underneath Jo would bet she was still the same blunt, judgmental, self-absorbed bitch she’d been in college.
“So, this went well? Fantastic.” Jo picked up her fringed hobo bag. “Thank you for wasting my time. Clearly you all have quite a few personal issues going on here. When you want an actual professional, call me.” Jo pushed back her chair and stood.
Cali looked her up and down, then met her gaze. “You’d never have believed us if we told you, and the video might not be enough. I don’t know why I listen to Lena when I know I’m right. Come on.”
Cali grabbed Jo’s arm and hauled her out of the conference room. They turned away from the reception desk and continued down the hall to an exit door. When Cali pushed it open to reveal a set of utilitarian steps, Jo balked.
“This is officially kidnapping.”
“You’re really whiney, has anyone told you that?” Cali started down the steps, dragging Jo by the elbow.
“That hurts, it really does. Not as much as drinking toilet wine will hurt you, when I have you arrested and in prison for abducting me.” Cali stopped outside a door marked Garage.
“You want to know what our movie is about? Come with me and you’ll get to see, first hand, what we’re going to show the world.”
Jo knew exactly how many prayers, to how many different deities, she could make on a trip from the Miracle Mile to the Hollywood Hills. Cali screeched to a halt, whipping Jo into the passenger door of her low-slung sports car.
With a whimper, Jo threw open the door and rolled herself out. “Blessed safety.”
“Quit bitching. I had to make up the time we lost. I wasn’t going that fast.”
Cutting her eyes to the side, Jo thought about braining Cali with her purse, but there wasn’t anything heavy enough in there.
Cali grabbed Jo’s elbow, but she pulled free.
“I’ll walk, thanks.”
Cali grinned. “I forgot how much fun you are.”
Cali pushed open the front door of the tasteful Spanish-style home tucked into a curve of one of the Hollywood Hills’ badly signed roads. Chaos spilled out.
Lena was pacing in the foyer, phone against one ear, hand over the other. “I’m calling regarding the tiger sightings. No, I haven’t, but I live in the area and wanted to know where exactly the animal has been seen.”
Cali led Jo past Lena, who widened her eyes when she saw Jo, but then nodded.
The living room was decorated with a mixture of Spanish and Indian styles that somehow worked well together. Given ten minutes, Jo could have removed enough clutter and rearranged the furniture and knickknacks to make it a useable set. All those years slogging her way up the ladder of the art department, including a stint as an art director for some low budget romantic comedies, had left their mark on her.
Akta was also on the phone, her long fall of black hair pulled over her shoulder. As Cali and Jo entered she hung up, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, still no answer on Henry’s phone.”
“We have to assume Henry’s dead.” Runako was standing near a sliding glass door in the back wall, his hand on the door. “We go now. We attack.”
“Don’t say that,” Luke leapt off the couch where he’d been sitting with his head in his hands. “Henry may be in the air, that’s why he’s not answering.”
“Why would Tokaki be here without him?”
“I don’t know, but that’s what we’re going to ask. We’re not going to attack.”
“Luke, Runako may be right.” Michael was pacing in front of the TV. “We haven’t heard from Henry, and Tokaki is here.”
Luke turned away from the other men, shoulders heaving.
Jo didn’t realize she was shaking her head until Cali whispered, “Stop shaking your head. It’s all going to make sense in a minute.”
A thick ball of dread was forming in Jo’s belly. There was some seriously bad stuff going on here. Someone might be dead, and it sounded like they were going after the killer. The only people who took care of their own problems like this were people who couldn’t go to the police…because they were really, really bad guys.
Looking between the three men, Jo couldn’t decide if they were arms dealers or drug traffickers. Or maybe they were spies; they clearly weren’t native English speakers.
“Cali, I have enough problems itemizing deductions every year.” Jo put on her best smile, hoping a note of levity would get her safely out the door. “I do not need to get mixed up in whatever this is and have the government breathing down my back.”
“If you fear the audit, you give it power. I’ve been through two.” Cali shrugged. “Trust me, Jo, you’re going to want to see this.”
“Someone’s dead, they’re about to go kill another guy…I just got here and I can tell that’s what’s going on. You were never the brightest bulb, but I was, so if you were hoping I wouldn’t notice your friends planning a murder…”
“You are such a goody goody—what’s a little murder between friends?” Cali glared at her when Jo didn’t laugh, pursed her lips, then took a deep breath.
“Don’t listen. This is not the part I wanted you to see.” What did Cali want her to see?
Jo’s brain leapt from one ridiculous possibility to the next—smuggled diamonds, no, the Hope Diamond, some secret new movie technology they were going to shoot with, the first scenes from Star Wars: Episode Seven.
If she were smart she would turn and walk out of here. She would go to the first house she could find, knock on the door and hide out until she could get a cab up here.
If she were smart.
Jo found herself pulling out one of the bar stools positioned at the counter and settling in to see what would happen. It was like the moment in Goodfellas when the girlfriend stuck the gun in her purse—a bad, bad move. Whatever madness was happening here…the truth was she wanted to see it. Her gut told her whatever it was Cali’d brought her here for was something big. The tension between members of this group of too-pretty people was so emotional and thick it was almost visible. Jo imagined their emotions making trails of color through the air behind them as they moved.
“Okay, the last reported sighting was yesterday, not far from here. I’ve got it up on the map.” Lena passed her phone to Luke, who’d perked up when she entered the room. “Did we hear from—?”
“No.” Akta stood, nervously twirling the fall of her hair into a rope.
“Okay. Luke, you’ll—”
“He’ll be fine, we have to go.” Michael grabbed Jane, who sat silently on the arm of a chair, and kissed her hard.
“Knew it,” Jo muttered.
“Margo, come here,” Runako demanded. He cupped the back of her head and kissed her long and deep.
Akta threw a pillow at them.
“Now, we leave.” Runako released Margo, tossed the pillow back to Akta and opened the sliding door. The three men strode out.
“Come on, this is what I wanted you to see.” Cali jerked her head and Jo followed the other women onto the patio. There was a pool, a massive dining table under an arbor against the back of the house, and a variety of deck chairs.
Cali herded her over towards a chair, forcing her to stand in front of it.
“What are you doing?”
“You’re going to need this chair, just stand there.” Cali stood on her left and Akta came to stand on her right.
“Hey, Jo. I didn’t really get to talk to you. Welcome to my house.”
“Nice to see you again. Sorry to barge in unannounced, Cali kidnapped me.”
“Ha! That wasn’t kidnapped. I could tell you about kidnapped.” Margo, checking something on her iPhone, didn’t even look up as she said it. “Okay, LAPD isn’t reporting any choppers up in our area, you’re good to go.”
“You, uh, have a lovely home,” Jo told Akta, feeling like a massive, lumbering dolt next to the petite beauty. When in doubt, observe the courtesies.
“Thank you. It’s a great entertaining space. If you join the project—which I certainly hope you will, we’ll get toge—”
“Holy crap!” Jo slapped a hand over her mouth, but it was too late, the other women were already snickering.
One piece of clothing at a time, the men were stripping down. As Runako, the quickest of the group, shucked his pants, Jo gasped. He bent to pull off his pants and shoes at the same time, leaving him butt-ass-naked.
Six-plus feet of dark perfection glimmered in the afternoon sun. Streaks of light danced across the muscle definition in his back, shoulders, arms and ass.
“Oh, that’s just ridiculous. I can see the muscles in his ass he’s so ripped,” Jo blurted out.
“I will cut you.” Margo said pleasantly. When Jo looked over Margo made a V with her index and middle fingers, pointing them first at her own eyes, then at Jo, in the universal sign for Bitch, I’m watching you.
“Uh, how am I getting the evil eye when her man decided to get naked?”
Akta snickered at Jo’s comment. “It’s Margo.”
“And…there go the other two.”
Michael, who was a pretty gold color all over—no tan lines there—and Luke were now equally naked.
As ridiculous as the men were naked, and they put what’s-his-name the actor to shame, what caught Jo’s attention were the tribal style geometric tattoos each man had. It wasn’t until she saw twisting vines and geometric leaves on Michael, who had the lightest skin of the three, that it caught her attention. “That’s serious ink.”
“You have no idea,” Akta murmured.
Lena, Margo and Jane were clearing away the men’s discarded clothes.
“Come back with your shield or on it,” Jo murmured the Spartan wives’ creed to herself.
In her mind, she built a world around these men who were so clearly warriors. Jo wasn’t sure if it was their muscles, their height or the fact that they’d spoken so calmly about death and killing that made her think of them as warriors, but that was what they were. Their world would be full of beautiful savagery, with wood—no, wait, stone—furniture carved with the same tribal patterns of their tattoos. Gold light would spill through temple doors. She’d decorate it with pale textiles and minimal, ornate metal decorations shaped like beasts.
“Jo.” Cali’s voice was a far-off whisper. “I remember that look, you’re building worlds in your head—”
“Shut. Up. Akta. Jo, I don’t want to interrupt your magic, but you need to watch this.”
There was a sharp pain in Jo’s upper arm. “Ow. Did you just pinch me?”
Jo focused on the men, who she’d been looking at but not seeing as she built a world in her head.
Their skin rippled.
There was no other way to describe it. Jo felt as though she were looking at them through a sheet of water, or heat vapor, but nothing else was wavering but their bodies.
The tattoo that adorned each man started to glow.
“What is this? What’s happening?” Jo tried to step back, but her calf hit the chair behind her.
“Magic.” Akta gave her a little push and she sank down into the chair.
Horrible sounds came from the men. There were cracks and pops that sounded like bones breaking. With a hard snap Runako’s legs bent back, his knee joints now going the wrong direction.
Jo covered her mouth with her hands, gagging.
Runako’s skin darkened from deep brown to shiny black. Real, pure, black. His shoulder blades tented the skin of his back, even as the other bones in his body seemed to wither and dance autonomously.
“What…what’s happening?” Dark spots danced at the edges of Jo’s vision.
“Just watch. I know it’s gross the first time.”
“I don’t—ack!” Jo threw herself back in the chair, pulling her legs up to her chest in a move born of instinct. Two huge bat-like wings of shiny blue sprouted from Runako’s back.
Next to him, Luke’s skin had turned maroon, the tattoo that covered his upper arm and one side of his back glowing in the afternoon light. As she watched the skin on his back split, two obsidian wings sliding out from the bloody rips. They grew, spreading until they glittered like pure evil in the sun.
“They’re demons. Oh God. They’re demons.” Jo whipped her head from Akta to Cali and back. The women must have sold their soul to the Devil—damn, she’d always assumed it was a figure of speech when industry people said they’d sell their soul for success—and now were recruiting her to be the next snack/slave/sacrifice.
Time to go.
“Jo, they’re not demons.” Jane walked over to stand beside Akta. She had a kind, almost pitying look on her face.
“Um, of course not. I, uh, shouldn’t have said that. But you know I have another appointment, so I need to get going.” Jo’s teeth clattered around the words as she fought to pretend this wasn’t the most frightening moment of her life. The utter lack of reaction from Cali and her friends was almost as frightening as the demons.
“We’re not crazy, and neither are you.” Margo joined them, closing the gap between the women and the edge of the pool, leaving no space for Jo to walk back into the house.
“Who said crazy? Certainly I didn’t. There are more things in heaven…” and hell.
Jane crouched in front of Jo, cupping her knees. Oh no, she was not about to have her soul sucked out through her knee. Jo jiggled one leg to shake Jane’s hand loose.
“Jo, look at Michael.”
Jo immediately closed her eyes. Maybe it was like Medusa or Bill the vampire on True Blood—if you looked at them, you were doomed.
Someone flicked her earlobe.
“Ouch, that hurt.” Wincing, Jo twisted and opened her eyes to see where it had come from.
Cali was poised, thumb and middle finger cocked for the flick. “Just look at him.”
“We don’t have time for this.” The deep, melodious voice touched something inside Jo, seeming to rumble along the edge of her soul.
Almost against her will she turned.
An angel stood before her.
Eight feet tall with massive white feather wings, the angel had normal arms and legs. His skin was pearly with silver shadows. A long spill of white hair fell over one shoulder.
Jo gaped at the angel for a moment. He was beautiful, but not peaceful—she could easily imagine this creature with a sword in his hand.
The demons rumbled up on either side of him, their distinctly non-human bodies—goat legs, bat wings and talons—a stark contrast to the angel’s.
Well, of course it’s a contrast, they’re demons from Hell and he’s an angel. Duh.
“Oh no, oh no.” Jo looked around her. The other women had also sunk into chairs, except for Jane, who seemed unaffected by the angel. “I’m dying, aren’t I? Is this, I mean, is he—” she pointed at the angel “—here to take me to heaven?” When she spoke five sets of eyes turned on her, peering at her with various levels of interest and concern.
“She’ll be fine,” the blue winged demon said. “We don’t have time. Margo, keep calling Henry.”
“Be careful.” Margo blew the demon a kiss.
The demon winked?
The red-skinned demon leapt into the air with a massive beat of his wings. The angel and other demon followed him up. They moved fast, and within a few breaths they were gone.
“How did I die?” Jo asked. She could feel tears starting at the corners of her eyes and her throat was tight. “I didn’t think it would be like this. My life didn’t flash before my eyes or anything.”
Lena took her hand. “Jo, you’re not—”
“Meh, let her think she’s dying. Maybe she’ll have some startling revelation about how she wants to live her life.” Cali plopped down in the chair next to her, adjusting her corset with a few sharp tugs.
“Cali, you’re being a bitch.” Lena’s voice was sharp. She turned back to Jo, tone softer. “Jo, you’re not dying. Those weren’t demons, that wasn’t an angel.”
Jo shook her head. “I saw them.” Her stomach was knotted, her entire upper body had broken out in a cold sweat and she was now openly crying.
“I know. We saw them too. What I’m telling you is that they’re not demons, not an angel.”
Jo looked from one woman to the other. They each nodded, smiling at her.
“‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,’” Jane said, finishing the Shakespeare quote Jo had started earlier.
“Then what are they?”
* * * *
Tokaki felt them coming.
The presence of others of his kind—if not his breed and clan—pulsed through him.
Opening one eye, he looked up. The sky between the short trees was clear and free of wings, but they were coming.
He yawned, cracking his heavy lower jaw. When he closed his mouth his teeth slid together, the sound soft as a jian slipping from its sheath. Tokaki rolled to his feet, stretching his back legs as he snaked his head side to side. The muscles in his neck—thick and heavy—were necessary to control his wide head but cramped easily.
Lifting onto his back legs, he sank his claws into the trunk of the closest tree. Flexing his paws, he watched his claws sink deep, piecing the dark bark to reveal a lighter meat within the tree. Raking his claws down the trunk opened great wounds. The tree screamed, the birds around him crying out.
Tokaki spun in a circle, waking his limbs. He wanted to be ready when they arrived.
With a little huff, he leapt forward, moving with snake-like grace and mystical speed. Tracing his way up the mountain, Tokaki stopped when he reached the rocky outlook he’d discovered on his first day—nearly a week ago. From here he could see much of the city spread before him.
The ch’i of the humans who bumped along in the city, like so many petals tossed on the surface of the sea, was a dirty, colorful steam, rising from the hot mass. This city was nothing compared to some he’d seen in Asia, but the ch’i was a wild mix of peoples, carrying traces of forgotten homelands and cultures.
Resisting the urge to lie atop the outcropping and gaze over the city, imagining what possibilities it might hold, Tokaki remained on his feet. He could feel them, directly above him now. They were high, hiding in a skin of clouds in the upper layer of the sky.
A shiver of warning raised the fur along his spine and Tokaki looked up to see three shapes barreling down on him. Carefully stepping back, one paw at a time, he made room for them to land on the rock.
Wings of black, blue and feathered white spread to slow the descent. One by one they landed.
Tokaki grinned. He knew his smile was no pleasant thing, with his wide jaw and many teeth, but he couldn’t help it. He was happy.
“You are here. I’ve been waiting for you.”
The one with maroon skin stood in front. Tokaki had trouble telling the winged ones apart, but he was fairly sure this was Chevo. He looked over each shoulder at his companions, then back to Tokaki.
“Tokaki, where is Henry?”
* * * *
Jo lifted the mug towards her lips, hand shaking.
“Why don’t I pour a little out so you don’t burn yourself?” Jane took the mug away from her.
“It might help if you talked with us. We’ve all been where you are, all felt what you’re feeling.” Lena was on the couch next to Jo, rubbing her back.
“Except I didn’t handle it like such a baby,” Cali snarked, unseen, from the kitchen.
“You were banished to the kitchen for a reason,” Lena yelled. “Shut up.” Jo put her head in her hands. She couldn’t think.
Non-human creatures, with human-level (or smarter, crap, what if they were smarter?) intelligence were real. Angels, demons, Big Foot…all real, but not in the way people thought.
“Why am I surprised?” Jo stood, shedding the throw someone had tucked over her shoulders despite the fact that it was a warm California summer day.
“That’s what’s worrying you?” Jane, mug in hand, looked from Lena to Jo and back.
“Jo, we don’t understand. What do you mean?”
“There’s all the evidence in the world that there’s something on this planet with us besides us. All the evidence in the world—and yet I’m shocked and scared and…” Jo took the mug from Jane, rubbing her index finger around the rim, as if she could create a note.
“There’s better evidence that says there isn’t anything but humanity. Angels, demons and monsters aren’t real.” Cali emerged from a hallway in a T-shirt and jeans with her hair up in a ponytail. She looked like the dowdy twin sister of the woman who’d argued in the conference room with Jo.
“But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” Jo replied.
“Technically, no. But we’re not talking about technicalities, we’re talking about people’s beliefs.” Cali folded her arms, challenging Jo to understand this, to work it out in her own mind.
“Beliefs…holy shit. What does this mean for religions? What will the reactions of church people be? I’m not all that religious and I’m a little freaked out.” Jo couldn’t stand still any longer. She skirted the coffee table to pace back and forth in front of the sliding door out to the patio.
“Do you realize what would happen if people knew?” Jo pointed at the sliding glass door, at the pool side chair where her world had changed. “What would happen if the world knew?”
When she looked back at the living room five grim faces greeted her.
“Oh…fuck.” Jo took a desperate gulp of tea. It needed whiskey.
“Pretty much,” Lena agreed.
Jo’s brain was now whirling so fast it actually hurt. “You’re going to—”
“And you want me to—”
“We’d be delighted to have you on the project,” Akta chirped, as if there wasn’t the most insane conversation ever.
“Are they going to—?”
“Yes.” Cali was cross-legged on the floor, with her back against the half wall that separated the kitchen from the living room.
“Oh. Wow.” Jo tried to imagine the reaction she’d just had—the shock, fear, delight at knowing the world was magical, and frustration—on a global level. People would die. A lot of people would die.
Unless something happened, unless there was a way to ease the world into this, it would be a disaster.
“A movie. You’re going to announce it, them, the truth, with a movie.”
“A movie about what would happen if monsters were real and if humans found out about it,” Jane said, smiling.
“Great. It’s almost Wag the Dog, but better.” Jo continued pacing, mind whirling with possibilities. A movie about the reality of the mythical creatures mankind had known about, but not believed in. A movie that would foreshadow…what?
Jo paused mid-step as she put the pieces together and figured out exactly what they were planning.
“After the movie, they’re going to show themselves, like that?” Jo pointed backwards, towards the sliding door. She was vaguely aware of the sound of the door opening.
“We’re still working on that part,” Jane admitted, fishing through a tote bag.
“I brought you a copy of the script.”
Lena sat forward in a sharp movement, raising one hand. Akta’s eyes got wide, but she was smiling. Margo let out a little whoop and grabbed for her phone.
“Jo, don’t freak out.” Cali was staring her down, every line of her body radiating tension. “Try and be calm this time.”
“This time?” Jo’s heart rate tripled. What were they talking about, what were they looking at? It wasn’t her. It was as if they were looking at something right…behind…her…
“You must be the production designer. Nice to meet you.” The rumbling voice was so close Jo felt it vibrate in her eardrums.
Cutting her eyes to the left, Jo saw the tip of one massive, pale blue wing.
She lost it.
With a scream she whirled and punched him/it with a low uppercut and everything she had. It wouldn’t have been much if sheer dumb luck, plus a drastic height difference, hadn’t landed her blow—which included a mug of hot tea—right in his naked crotch.
With a groan the monster covered his cock and balls with talon-tipped hands and doubled up, wings wrapping over his whole body until no part of him was visible. Where there had once been a monster there was now a six-foot pale blue lump, which seemed to be changing color even as Jo stumbled back.
Akta brushed past Jo. She raised her hand, as if to touch the leathery wing, but pulled it away, fingers curling into her palm.
Heart in her throat, Jo fumbled backwards until she hit the counter. Setting her cracked and empty mug on it, Jo sank down on the floor next to Cali. Adrenaline was singing in her bloodstream, even as the flood of yet another emotion in an already packed afternoon threatened to flatten her.
Cali patted her knee. “Jo, meet Henry, our last monster and star of the movie. Turns out he’s not dead after all.”
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