“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…” Words tumbled from Inara’s mouth but she didn’t hear them. Instead, her mind played a highlight reel of her sins as she confessed: … a stab to her heart as she watched herself splatter a young woman’s brains across a white tile floor. Turning away, she strode across a dark green shag carpet littered with dead bodies. Her soul ached for the man-child with dead eyes. The tall, gorgeous dark-skinned man with the giant sword grimaced when Biff tore out his soul to save Inara. Her power held her target against the wall, and the man pissed himself in terror. Flames danced through her fingers as she burned the hulking werehyena alive.
I can still smell the burnt hair.
Adrenaline shot through her veins when the weight of the deaths hit her. She squeezed her eyes shut, searching for control. Not again! Her hands shook. The small confessional spun. Breathe. An exercise meant to center. Breathe. The spinning slowed. Her heart rate returned to normal.
The priest said nothing.
Sweat streamed down her back. The wooden confessional box was stuffy, but more than that confessions were always a nerve-racking affair. Will this be my last confession? Will the Order decide I am no longer useful? The fear weighed on her like an anchor when she walked through the door of a church to recite her sins.
The silence stretched, interrupted only by the creaking of the priest’s wood bench when he shifted his weight. He fell into what sounded almost like laughter. Probably a sudden coughing fit, it was quickly cut off. She shrugged off the strange behavior. A slot opened in the wooden partition of the confessional, and a manila envelope dropped through, a new target, a new mission.
“What, no penance?” She already knew the answer.
Fuck ’im! He needs to tell me that I get no penance.
The priest exhaled loudly in annoyance. “Vestal Caan, you are one of the few beacons against the darkness. You chose to sacrifice your soul so others might bathe in the glow of the Almighty in Heaven. There will never be penance to absolve you from your sins. Not now, not ever.” The old confessional shook when he stood to take his leave of her.
The truth struck Inara hard. I didn’t choose this life. Such bullshit. A couple of minutes passed as she mentally collected herself. She scrapped lint off her sleeve before she stood. Her footsteps echoed through the empty church. The air was stale. The wind gusted outside the building.
Inara loved this church, Our Lady of Victories. The moniker inspired confidence in the woman who kicked wholesale butt for a living. The beauty took away some of the bite of her existence. A massive pipe organ gleamed in the balcony. Cherubs and saints adorned the yellow and green walls. This was one of her favorite churches in the world.
Her smile faltered. Sadly, the Order planned to buy the church and renovate the building for their own purposes. They are going to ruin it. I know they will.
A stained-glass window portraying the Virgin Mary stopped Inara in her tracks. The depiction gave off a spectacular resonance, holy or magical, she wasn’t sure. She took a moment to bask in the glow. Her reverie broke when the gusting wind rattled the side doors of the sanctuary, a violent shake that vibrated her bones.
Can’t hang around here all night. Work to be done.
Inara tucked the unopened manila folder under her arm and pushed through the church’s big green double doors. The wind struck her fiercely in the face causing her auburn hair to blow wildly. She squinted her hazel eyes but paid the gale no further attention. The car sat right where she left it on Isabella street: a double-parked volcanic-orange Mini Cooper rental.
Not her first choice but her usual Escalade had been unavailable.
The car dipped when Inara dropped into the driver’s seat. The passenger seat was occupied by Bifrans. Well, he occupied the body of that tall, gorgeous dark-skinned man from Ghana that slept in the passenger seat. The man wore a cheap black suit that she’d bought at the airport. Biff always preferred a suit over jeans or khakis.
Inara turned the key in the ignition and laid on the horn to wake up her snoozing demon partner. Pushing all her feelings away, she grinned. Annoying him was among her favorite pastimes. He batted open one deep-blue eye and gave her the finger before rolling his face toward the passenger door.
She dismissed the cloaking spell from around the car with a wave of her hand. Then she extended her arm in front of her. A purple ball of light appeared at the tips of her fingers. She gave the bit of magic a nudge, causing the sphere to accelerate ahead of her.
As the magical ball bobbed forward, cars turned off the street, the drivers suddenly needed to be elsewhere. Their reactions to the spell meant travel sucked for everyone else, but her work always proved more valuable than anyone else’s.
Satisfied with the spell she smashed her foot down on the gas pedal. The engine protested while the wheels spun, sending up smoke. They gained traction, and the car leapt forward. She turned to see Biff’s reaction. To her disappointment, he snored unperturbed.
Inara followed the path cleared by her sorcery. She was headed to Chinatown or, more precisely, the Jacob Wirth Restaurant. A chuckle escaped her. Something about eating German food in Chinatown amused her. A full belly would help her plan for the evening ahead. Good preparation equaled good results.
Most of the time. On occasion everything went to shit anyway.
She lightly jabbed the demon’s ribs. “What’d ya say, Biff, you up for some German
He continued to snore. Probably pretending just to annoy me.
Inara turned into Allen’s Alley and parked on the side of the road, across from the shopping center that housed the restaurant. The time on the dashboard clock read 6:01 p.m. A line stretched out the door, but she wasn’t worried.
Leaning across the car with mischievous intent, she shouted, “Biff Tannen, this is your wake-up call! Break dancing at the gates of hell! Archangels falling from the sky! It’s apocalypse now!”
His eyes cracked open before he deigned to face her. “If you’re trying to scare me, you’re doing a piss poor job, Vestal Caan. It takes more than screaming in this man’s ear to induce a fright. I am Bifrans—”
“Blah, blah. Shut up, Biff. You sound ridiculous. And I told you Bifrans the Magnificent sounds like some cheesy magician. You really should consider a new title for yourself.” She flashed him a grin full of vitriol.
“That’s not what I intended to say.” He scowled at her.
Inara winked in response. “Stop pouting. It’s time for dinner. We have a new target to hunt down and exterminate.”
“I don’t like being interrupted. And cease calling me Biff. It takes all the power out of my name if you trivialize it like that. I loathe being trivialized. Loooooathe it.” His scowl deepened. “Antagonizing me will work against you in the end. On the other hand, throwing me an extra soul from someone in this fine establishment might make things a little easier on you when I take your soul home. I sense a blonde server that led a good and wholesome life. Her soul would do fine. The scent of her purity makes me salivate.” His eyes gleamed as he licked his lips.
“Not happening, Biffo. I’m sure there will be plenty of bad souls for you to play around with on our new job. You can’t take any souls until I say so, which I don’t. Peaches, peaches, and more peaches.”
The ridiculousness of having to say peaches made her shake her head, but the word was the agreed upon command that kept Biff from going off the rails and taking souls whenever the urge overcame him. Peaches was the only word he’d agree to for some reason.
What a weirdo.
An odd toothy grin spread across the face of Biff’s meat suit while the body shook with his robust gluttony. “That might be the case, Vestal Caan, but I yearn for good wholesome souls. They possess a savory aftertaste that sinners lack. I hope for the day when you might loosen my chains a bit. Everyone deserves a free pass from time to time.” The man across from her attempted a charming smile, but the eyes opened too wide and the mouth was rictus stiff, making him appear crazed.
Inara shuddered. Biff creeped her out when he discussed the flavor profile of various souls. His dry tone made his words extra unnerving. Any hope of a witty retort died with that speech. Steadfastly ignoring her unsettling memories of him feeding, she got out of the car, cast her Park Anywhere spells on the mini, and headed to the restaurant. Biff followed with a self-satisfied smirk. One day she hoped to slap that smugness right out of him.