Devils bargain, p.1
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       Devils Bargain, p.1

         Part #1 of Red Letter Days series by Rachel Caine
 
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Devils Bargain
Chapter 1

 

  For all my kick-ass girls.

  You know who you are.

  Everything you do matters.

  Sol's Tavern was a place for serious drinkers.

  It had no elegant decor, no pretty people sipping layered liqueurs. Sol's had a bar, some battered stools, a couple of slovenly waitresses, and a surly guy to pour drinks. There was a dartboard with Osama bin Laden's face pasted on it behind the bar, and for a dollar a throw, you could try your luck; the proceeds went into a faded red-white-and-blue jar that promised - however doubtfully - to go to charity.

  But the best thing about Sol's, to Jazz Callender, was that it wasn't a cop bar, and she wasn't likely to run into anyone she'd ever known.

  Jazz pulled up a bar stool and set about her business, which was to get so drunk she couldn't remember where she'd been. She caught the bartender's eye and nodded at the empty spot in front of her. Their conversation consisted of a one-word order from her, a grunt from him, and the exchange of cash. Sol's wasn't the kind of place where you ran a tab, either. Cash on the barrelhead, one drink at a time.

  I could get to like this place, she thought. And knew it was a little sad.

  As she leaned her elbows on the bar and picked up her Irish whiskey, Jazz scanned the bar's patrons in the mirror. She didn't actually care who was there, but old habits were hard to break, this one harder than most. The faces clicked into her memory, filed for later. A couple of unpleasant-looking truckers with bodybuilding hobbies; a fat guy with a mean face who looked as if he might be trouble after a few dozen drinks. He was drinking alone. There were two faded night-blooming women in low-cut blouses and dyed hair, years etched as if by acid at the corners of their eyes and mouths.

  Jazz was still young - thirty-four was young, wasn't it? - but she still felt infinitely older than the rest of them. Seen too much, done too much. . . she wasn't going to attract a lot of attention, even from the bottom-feeders in here. Especially not dressed in blue jeans, a shapeless gray sweatshirt with an NYU logo, and clunky cop shoes left over from better days. Her hair needed cutting, and it kept falling in her eyes. When she looked across at herself in the mirror she saw a wreck: pale, raccoon-eyed, wheat-blond hair straggling like a mop.

  Her eyes still looked green and sharp and haunted.

  Sharp. . . that needed to change. Quickly.

  She tossed back her first whiskey, clutched the edge of the bar tight against the burn, and made a silent again gesture at her glass. The bartender made a silent pay me first reply. She slid over a crumpled five, got a full shot glass of forgetfulness and slammed it back, too.

  The door opened.

  It was gray outside, turning into night, but even the glimmer of streetlights was blocked by the man coming in. Tall, not broad. Her first thought was, trouble, but then it turned ridiculous, because this guy wasn't trouble, he was about to be in trouble. Over six feet and a little on the thin side, all sharp angles, which would have been okay if he hadn't come dressed in some self-consciously tough leather getup that would have looked ridiculous on a Hell's Angel. He didn't have the face for it - lean and angular, yeah, but with large, gentle brown eyes that scanned the bar skittishly and looked alarmed by what they saw.

  His badass-biker leathers were so new they creaked.

  Jazz resisted the urge to snort a laugh and repeated her pantomime with the bartender. Behind her, she heard the squeak, squeak, squeak of the new guy's leather as he walked up, and then he was climbing onto a bar stool next to her.

  "Love that new-car smell," she told the bartender as he poured her a third shot. He gave her a cynical half smile and took her five bucks. The fool did smell like a new car - also some kind of expensive aftershave that reminded her of cinnamon and butter - very nice. So maybe he did have some sense after all, biker leathers notwithstanding. Idiot. She imagined what kind of welcome he'd have gotten if he'd walked into a bar like, say, O'Shaugnessey's, over on Fourteenth, where the cops congregated. They'd have probably directed him - with velocity - to the gay leather bar down the block.

  Her comment hadn't been any kind of invitation to talk, but the guy swiveled on his bar stool, held out a big, long-fingered hand, and said, "Hi. "

  She looked at the hand, which was well manicured, then glanced up into his face. His soulful brown eyes widened just a little at the direct contact. Now that he was closer, she could see that he looked tired, and older than she'd thought, probably close to her own age, with fine lived-in lines at the corners of his eyelids. He had a nice, mobile mouth that looked as if it wanted to smile and didn't actually dare to try under the force of her stare.

  Normally, she might have thrown him a break. Not today. And not in that getup.

  She turned back to her drink. The whiskey was setting up a nice nuclear fire in her guts; pretty soon, she'd start to feel relaxed, and after throwing a few more peat logs on, she'd start feeling positively good. That was why she was here, after all. It was a private kind of ritual. One that didn't involve making new friends.

  "I'm James Borden," he said. "You're Jasmine Callender, right?"

  The hand was still out, holding steady. It occurred to her a half second later that he shouldn't know her name. Especially not Jasmine. Nobody called her Jasmine. She felt tension start to form in a steel-hard cable along her back and shoulders.

  "Says who?" she asked the mirror. No eye contact. He was staring at the side of her face, willing her to turn around.

  For a second, she thought he was going to answer the question, and then he reverted to a lame-ass pickup line. "Can I buy you a drink?"

  He shoots, he misses by a mile. "Got one. " She nudged her full glass with one long, blunt-nailed finger. "Blow, James Borden. "

  He leaned closer, into her personal space, and she smelled that aftershave again. The urge to move into that warm, inviting scent was almost irresistible.

  Almost.

  "Jasmine - " he began.

  She turned, stared him in the eyes, and said, "If you don't want to get blood all over that nice new outfit, you'd better back your biker-boy wannabe ass off, and don't call me Jasmine, jerk. "

  He leaned back, fast. His expression was one of shock for a second, then it shut down completely. His eyelids dropped to half-staff, giving him a belligerent look. Good. He matched the leathers better that way.

  She held his gaze and said, "If you have to call me anything, call me Jazz. "

  "Jazz. " He nodded. "Got it. Right. Like the - okay. I was sent to deliver something to you. "

  And the cable along her spine ratcheted tighter, tight enough to crack bone. God. She wasn't carrying a gun, not even a pocketknife. Even her collapsible truncheon - a girl's best friend - had been left on the hall table at home. Great. Of all the nights to tempt fate. . .

  He must have read it in her face, because he smiled. Smiled. And the smile matched the eyes, dark and gentle and completely not right for a guy pretending to be a Hell's Angel reject.

  "Don't worry, it's nothing bad," he assured her. "In fact, I think you'll find it pretty good. Not a subpoena or anything. "

  He started to unzip a pocket on his leather jacket. The zipper was stiff. As he tugged at it, she asked, "How'd you find me?"

  He didn't look up. His head stayed down, but she saw tension accumulating in his shoulders for a change. "Sorry. . . ?"

  "How'd. . . you. . . find. . . me. " She kept her voice cold and flat. "You follow me from home? You watching my house?"

  "Nothing like that," Borden said. "I was told where to find you. "

  She rejected that one out of hand. "I've never been here before, asshole. How could anybody tell you to come here to find me?"

  He conquered t
he pocket's zipper and wrestled out a red envelope. "Here," he said. "I'll wait until you read it. "

  "Because?" She didn't take the envelope.

  "Because you're going to have questions once you do. "

  He gestured with the envelope again. Big, red, square, like a thousand Valentine cards she'd never gotten over the years, but it was long past Valentine's Day and she was in a far-from-romantic mood.

  She let him hang there for a good thirty seconds, watching his outstretched hand slowly sag with rejection, and thought, Well, what the hell, at least I can throw it back in his face if I actually take it.

  She was reaching for it when Borden lowered the envelope and sat back, staring over her shoulder.

  She felt alarms going off in the back of her head and risked a look. A shadow loomed behind
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