It was the usual Friday night at the Den on C, the neighborhood bar in New York City I had managed for almost a decade. That was a long time by human standards, but then again, I wasn't a standard human. I was something more—or less. The jury was still out on that one.
A group of pool-playing coeds had stopped by after hanging out at a beer garden in the East Village, but they were starting to trickle away as the midnight rush eased off. Some would end up in the chic bars popping up just to the south on the Lower East Side, leaving behind the regulars, mostly older Latino men and a smattering of working-class guys covered in ghostly drywall dust. A few crowded tables of arty hipsters still filled the back, where everyone was loudly talking over one another.
I swung open the front door wide to catch the mild night air of early spring, trying to ignore the metallic tang of exhaust. A few streets below Houston was Delancey Street, where the lights were much brighter and the avenue opened up wide to accommodate the steady flow of cars over the Williamsburg Bridge. The congestion always got worse late Friday night, choking the streets with fumes and honking horns as too many people tried to get in and out of Manhattan at the same time.
I could see my own reflection in the narrow glass pane; the light from the aluminum shade overhead cast a speckled pattern across my face. Wisps of dark hair touched my forehead, cheeks, and neck. I had tried to stay faithful to my original, human appearance, a heart-shaped face that was pretty enough, capable looking rather than delicate. I had aged myself over the years to look like I should—twenty-eight this spring.
Behind me, the opening strains of "Kiss Me," the original version by Six Pence None the Richer, with its tinny drums and silly, sweet vocals, came through the speakers hanging high in the corners. I knew the words by heart: "Kiss me, beneath the milky twilight / Lead me out on the moonlit floor. . . ."
It lifted my heart for a moment, like the song always had ever since the year I'd been turned. But that touch of minor key, the slight note of sadness, resonated much deeper than it should have. It meant so much more to me—all that I had lost; all that I would never be.
I knew better than to try to ignore my regret. That made it worse. The pain that came with the past was something I just had to endure.
Since I became a demon.
"Possessed" is the correct term, I reminded myself. I'm possessed by a demon.
I was a human-demon hybrid, the only one alive. No longer sustained by food or drink, I lived off emotions—any would do, but my preferred elixir, the feeling I'd do anything to provoke, was the simple yet all-powerful feeling of respite: relief from sorrow or pain. That was why I was known as Allay.
Plenty of people came to my bar looking for a little release from their pain. I provided all of the usual services bartenders typically gave their patrons: I served them drinks and listened to them when no one else would. And when it was really bad, I would pat their hand and steal away some of their pain. But taking energy from people, even the bad feelings, caused an imbalance in their system. I took only enough to make them feel better, and then for my reward I would sip a drop of their brief contentment.
I had to be careful, for their own good, not to go too far. When people were drained of their emotional energy, they could turn schizophrenic, manic, or so depressed they killed themselves. Some people became physically ill and died.
I wasn't sure, but I thought emotions were the seat of the soul. That was why they radiated so much energy.
But how can you recognize a soul when you don't have one?
When the song was over, I decided it was time to call it quits and spend some quality time with my patrons. I could afford to hire only one bartender a shift, so I tended bar during the busy hours, along with restocking, dealing with salesmen, maintaining the books, and cleaning up the puke from the bathroom floor when my janitor and all-round handyman, Pepe, couldn't make it in.
The Den on C was narrow and deep like most of the other storefronts along the avenue, with a scarred mahogany bar along one side. There was enough space to put two tables against the front windows and a few next to the bar. In the back, there was an old pool table that I had refelted a few years earlier. I thought the bar's best feature was the floor, with its tiny black and white hexagon tiles. It made a pleasing old-fashioned pattern in spite of the cracked and missing tiles. My customers liked the bar-long mirror hanging from the ceiling that let them see behind them without turning around.
With my demon insight into people's emotions, I could have talked my way into a bartending job anywhere in the city. Every week a new hot spot opened up for the celebrities and party girls who clattered over the narrow cobblestones in their spiky heels.
But I felt comfortable at the Den. They needed me here. When I found the bar, Alphabet City was still riddled with crack dealers and the gutters were strewn with empty vials and dimebags. But there were also vibrant murals decorating every long brick wall—images of trees, cars, people, animals, and exaggerated renderings of city buildings in hot tropical colors. The lower facades of the old tenements were painted bright red, turquoise, and green, and the air was usually pungent with the smell of cilantro, fried plantains, and roasted pork. Now the neighborhood was full of trendy bars and restaurants, and bakeries that sold cupcakes for five bucks each.
I hung up my black apron and realized it had been a good shift as I sneaked half my tips into Lolita's jar. Lo deserved it. She brought a friendly, fun vibe to the bar. All I did was pour and serve with a smile, touching my patrons to steal away their emotional energy.
Suddenly my hand froze on the tip jar, my senses tingling. The feeling was so mild, I almost mistook it for my own guilty excitement at finally being able to feed off my patrons. But the sensation built, and I knew what it was.
A demon is coming.
Nobody else in the bar could tell. But one of the cats who had adopted the bar as home suddenly rose to his toes in the deep window frame. Snowplow's back arched and his tail puffed out like a Christmas tree, tapering to its Angora tip. He was a misplaced purebred, but to me, he was the best demon-alert device in the city—and his sirens were blaring. As he leaped onto the bar, his claws scattered napkins, and a couple of people snatched up their glasses as he dashed down its length.
"Watch out!" Lolita said as Snowplow's final leap took him up into the duct leading to my second-floor apartment. She scooped up the overturned gin and tonic the cat had knocked over. "That was a good one. At least seven feet, maybe more."
Customers at the bar were complaining loudly while I hurried over to the open door. I needed to figure out who was coming. From this position, I could retreat upstairs to my fortified apartment, if I needed to. I hated to abandon my patrons to a hungry demon; they were all I had other than Shock. But I might have to in order to call in reinforcements. As the very last resort, I could call Vex for help.
Not that I'd ever had to resort to that.
Lo wiped up the spill with a wet towel as Carl, one of our regulars, bitched, "That stupid cat leaves white hair all over me, and I don't even touch it. Now it steals my drink?"
"Shut up—you'll get another one." Lo's sly smile took the sting out of her blunt order. Carl smiled sheepishly in return as he brushed at his mismatched shirt and baggy jeans. He liked it when women told him what to do, and both Lo and I in our different ways had figured that out early on.
Lolita was my rock, always there for me for the past five years. She was tall and voluptuous with an hourglass figure and a lusty swagger that caught everyone's eye. Lo took full advantage of the sensual charge she ignited in both sexes, flirting indiscriminately. She was open to all kinds of relationships, but she was slow to slap a label on anything or create expectations that couldn't be met. She liked no pressure, and not pressuring other people. That meant she rarely let people go, not for good, and the interlocking family she maintained openly and honestly included a number of relationships that continued to meander and grow organically. One of them was sitting right now at the end of the bar, chatting up the prettiest girl in the place; Boymeat was Lo's friend, her former playmate, and younger brother in her family of free spirits.
Lolita was just as vulnerable to demons as anyone else, but having her at my back made me feel safer. Especially this time; I didn't recognize the approaching signature formed by the unique energy waves that radiated from each demon. The signature, getting stronger, resembled Shock's distinctive buzz, but it was much more chaotic and jarring. It reminded me of Pique, the latest horror to invade my territory and feed off my people.
If Pique was coming that fast, it couldn't be good. He was constantly on the move, like a shark, stirring up trouble, provoking people to feed off their irritation. Even worse, Pique liked to drain his victims of all their emotions.
A yellow cab pulled up outside. The signature was much clearer—a buzzing, tingling feeling that ran along my skin. It rose in intensity until it abruptly broke off. Then the buzzing restarted, rising again.
It was Shock's signature. She was the most important person in my life. Shock had always been a demon, whereas I had started out human and made my transformation into demonhood as a teenager. She became one of my first friends after I had been turned, and she was the only demon who'd never tried to hurt me or take anything from me. Shock had the same progenitor as Plea, the demon who had turned me, so among demons we were considered siblings. Everyo...