Neil decided that fighting off werewolves would have been easier than finding a pair of pants that fit Lou. Even his largest sweatpants were obscenely tight, though it was hard to appreciate the view right now.
The flower shop had been fully repaired thanks to the Architect, but Neil remained shaken from the attack and the mental overload of the morning’s revelations. He tried to put on his customer service armor to function, but he just felt numb as he locked up the shop, hoping still that this was some sort of crazy dream.
He’d wake up in his bedroom, maybe a bit hungover, and all of this insanity would be gone.
Lou grabbed his shoulder, unfortunately confirming that Neil was very much awake. “Are you ready?”
Neil gazed into Lou’s icy eyes and sighed. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Hey.” Lou’s expression softened. “I’m going to help you, okay? We’ll figure this out, I promise.”
“Yeah, sure. We’ll just somehow remove the magical bracelet full of crazy ghosts so more werewolves don’t try to kill me.”
“Exactly.” Lou led Neil down to the end of the block where a big black pickup truck was parked.
They passed the torn remnants of the suit Lou had been wearing, prompting Neil to ask, “So, when you shift…”
“Yes, we have to be naked.” Lou opened the drivers’ side door and sat behind the wheel. He waited for Neil to slide into the passenger seat before he added, “Normally, I’d strip first, but I was kind of in a hurry.”
“How did you know we needed help?” Myrna asked, materializing in the backseat.
Neil flinched in surprise. “Jesus!”
“Yes, I was wondering that myself,” Flanders popped up beside Myrna and nearly filled the whole cab.
“Jesus!” Neil gasped. “Why do you guys keep doing that?”
“Why are you still wearing ugly shoes?”
“Flanders.” Lou sighed. “Compact version?”
Flanders turned up his nose as if to chastise Lou for ordering him around again, but he shrunk once he saw how he was squishing Myrna against the window. He was now the size of a large dog. “My apologies, Myrna.”
“Oof! No problem!” Myrna straightened out her apron. “So! Lou. How did you know?”
“Took me longer than I care to admit to realize I’d lost the Reliquary,” Lou said as he cranked the truck. “I remembered holding Neil’s hand and decided to circle back here, thought maybe it had slipped off then. Saw the wolves through the broken windows as I drove by so I parked, shifted, and hauled ass.”
“What happens now?” Neil asked. “You got some kind of magical jeweler who can take this thing off?” He tugged at the bracelet. “Because right now it’s very attached to me.”
“It’s complicated,” Lou said carefully, pulling out onto the street. “The spirits have free will and they can refuse a new owner. That’s why it’s so important to have good relationships with them all so they’ll help you when you need them.”
“Lou was a great owner,” Myrna confirmed sweetly. “I am going to miss him, but I do think you’re gonna be a swell owner too, Neil!”
“I’m not gonna be the owner,” Neil said quickly. “I, I have too much work to do!”
“We could help with that! I’m very good at gardening, you know.”
“He doesn’t want you guys. I do.” Lou cut his eyes at Myrna through the rearview mirror. “You know I need you.”
“I know that, but it’s not up to me.” Myrna shrugged. “It’s up to Buffy.”
Lou gripped the steering wheel tighter.
“Let me guess,” Noel drawled. “Is Buffy the one spirit you didn’t have a good relationship with?”
Lou gritted his teeth.
“Great.” Noel glanced out the windshield. “I’m going to guess sawing off my hand won’t work?”
“No. Trust me, I would have already if it did.”
“Wow. I bet you’re super popular at parties.”
Lou snorted. “I do just fine at parties, thanks.”
“Where are we going?”
“My home.” Lou stopped at a red light. “I’m about to be late for a very important meeting and I want to make sure you’re somewhere safe.”
“That’s very sweet coming from the guy who was willing to saw my hand off.”
“The other monsters will not stop until they can take the Reliquary from your lifeless corpse. Sawing your hand off would have been pretty merciful if you ask me.”
“All right, Leatherface, whatever you say!”
“I am trying to help you,” Lou growled, hitting the gas a little harder than he probably needed to once the light changed. “We just have to get through the meeting and—”
“Then we figure out a way to return the Reliquary to me and you can go back to your perfectly boring little life.” Lou sighed haggardly. “I have people in the city depending on me and I need the Reliquary to protect them, all right?”
“More monsters?” Neil crossed his arms.
“The less you know, the better. And you already know way too much.”
“I guess this means our date is off, right?”
“What?” Lou scoffed.
“Our date? Tomorrow? Don’t tell me you forgot!”
“No! I’ve just had slightly bigger things to worry about.”
“Well, now you don’t have to worry about it because I don’t date guys who have thought about cutting pieces of my body off!”
“The fuck do I care! I’ll just cancel the fucking reservation!”
“They really are adorable, aren’t they?” Myrna cooed.
“That’s a word for it,” Flanders said dryly.
“We are not adorable,” Neil argued. “We’re a giant barrel of red flags—”
“Everyone! Quiet!” Lou’s voice boomed. “I need to think.”
Myrna and Flanders shrank back, though Neil could clearly see Flanders silently mocking Lou. He sighed and looked back out the window, absently clicking his tongue. Every time he did it, Lou’s eyebrow twitched, so he kept right on doing it.
Lou’s eyebrow continued to wiggle in annoyance all the way to the Byron Tower, one of the tallest buildings in Somerstown. It was a massive skyscraper with a gleaming exterior of steel and tinted glass, a shadowy behemoth leering over the otherwise bright skyline. Neil had thought it was the headquarters for a bank or some sort of tech company, so he was surprised when Lou pulled into the Tower’s private parking garage.
“This is where you live?” Neil asked.
“Yes.” Lou pulled into a parking space that had a bronze placard with his initials. “My family owns the building. One of the floors is mine.”
“Wow, an entire floor. Are you sure that’s enough to hold your shit attitude?”
“Very funny.” Lou rolled his eyes and climbed out of the truck.
Neil got out too and then followed Lou to an elevator. Lou pressed the up button, and the doors opened immediately. He stepped in, ushering Neil to join him. Neil turned around just in time to see the elevator doors closing in Flanders and Myrna’s faces.
“Hey!” Neil scowled. “Why are you leaving them?”
“They’ll be fine.” Lou hit the button for the twentieth floor. “They can’t exactly wander off, you know. If you’re ever separated from them, they’re drawn back into the Reliquary and they can respawn from there.”
Myrna popped up next to them.
“See?” Lou said. “Just like that.”
“Where’s Flanders?” Neil asked.
“He’s taking a break.” Myrna smiled sweetly. “Truth be told, I think setting all those wolves on fire tuckered him out.”
“Yes, arson can be so tiring.”
The elevator dinged to signal their arrival, and Lou led Neil out into a lavish lobby. The carpet was plush, the wallpaper a rich brocade, and there was a big door across from the elevator. Lou unlocked the door, but he paused to glance at Neil over his shoulder.
“Please don’t touch anything.”
“Uh, okay.” Neil frowned. “Got it. No touching.”
“All right. Let’s go.” Lou opened the door and then quickly urged Neil inside.
It was a spacious apartment with impossibly high ceilings and a giant window wall from which sunlight poured into the living room. The floors here were wooden and covered in colorful thick rugs. The oversized couch was dark orange and the coffee table had a rainbow mosaic tile top. It was surprisingly warm and inviting, maybe even a little kitsch, and there was also an alarming number of cacti.
Some of them were in pots and planters on the floor, and more were crowded onto big racks beside the window. There were countless varieties from angel wing to Easter and even a massive Saguaro, and several Neil didn’t even recognize. A tiny golden barrel cactus in a mug was perched on the coffee table, and there was a big pillow shaped like a prickly pear cactus on the couch.
Neil was not surprised to catch a glimpse of some cactus-themed dish towels in the kitchen.
“You really like cactuses, huh?” Neil whistled. “Like, a lot.”
“Just wait here.” Lou grumbled, marching off through a doorway just off from the living room.
“He loves them,” Myrna whispered gleefully. “He has cactus pajamas, socks, boxers. You name it.”
“Wow.” Neil tiptoed into the living room to get a look at the mosaic pattern on the table. It was of a wolf howling at a colorful sunset, and he saw the night-blooming cereus had a special stand of its own next to the couch. Lou must have made it all the way here to drop off the cereus and then realized he’d lost the Reliquary. He also noticed that the cacti all had names written on little plaques on their pots.
The Saguaro was named Rocky, the angel wing Sephiroth, the golden barrel Puffy, and so on.
It was actually pretty charming.
“He names them?” Neil asked.
“Of course!” Myrna grinned. “It’s good for the plants! I helped pick some of them out too.”
Neil actually laughed. “Not what I was expecting.”
“And what were you expecting?” Lou asked as he emerged from what was presumably his bedroom as he had changed clothes. He was wearing a new suit and was just sliding on the jacket.
“Guns, knives, and torture devices?” Neil tried not to stare as Lou adjusted his tie, but Lou did look so handsome in a suit.
He’d looked nice in those gray sweats too.
“Those are under my bed,” Lou teased. “I’d offer to show you, but my family is waiting. We need to go.”
“And what family is this? Your family?” Neil made a face. “More werewolves?”
Lou huffed. “Just don’t talk to anyone, okay? Especially Absolis and Vilanos.”
“Who the fuck are they?”
“Two of his brothers,” Myrna interjected with a helpful smile. “They’re fae princes and quite clever, so you would be wise to avoid them. Their dominion is the Ethereal, so anyone from that realm who wants to live here in Somerstown answers to them.”
Neil stared. “And the Ethereal is what now?”
“Oh! Right.” Myrna grinned. “There are four realms of existence. There’s Earth, which is simply called Earth. Boring but really just says what’s on the tin, you know? Then there’s the Celestial—”
“Myrna,” Lou warned as he glanced at his watch. “Let’s just go, all right?”
Myrna made a zipping motion across her lips with her fingers, batting her eyes innocently at Lou. The second his back was turned, she looked at Neil and mouthed, “I’ll tell you later.”
Neil winked at her and mouthed back, “Thank you.”
Lou was already at the door. “Today, please?”
“Of course! Right away, sir!” Neil said with sugary sweetness as he caught up. “Anything else, sir? Adjust your tie for you, sir? Bend over so you can kiss my ass, sir?”
Lou actually smiled. “Save it for after our date.”
“You mean, if I still go out with you.”
“Oh, you will.” Lou winked. “You like me.”
Neil didn’t have a response to that except to blush as he stumbled after Lou to follow him back out into the hallway. They headed into the elevator again, and Lou pressed his hand against the panel.
A new row of buttons appeared, but none of the numbers made any sense.
“Three and a half? Twelve and three quarters?” Neil read out loud. “Thirty three point three?”
Lou ignored him and pressed the one that said thirty three point three.
“Some of the floors aren’t technically in this dimension,” Myrna whispered loudly.
“No. Right. Of course not.” Neil scoffed. “Why would they be?”
The elevator dinged and the doors opened to reveal a surprisingly normal waiting room. Neil wasn’t sure what he had been expecting, but certainly not this. Everything was clean and modern, though the various landscape paintings hanging on the walls were a bit dreary. There was a redheaded young man sitting behind a desk beside a large set of double doors. When he saw Lou, he jumped to his feet.
“Sir!” he said. “They’re getting ready to start—”
“I know!” Lou barked, ignoring the man as he made a beeline for the double doors.
“Who is that—” the redhead stared at Neil.
“My guest! Who is walking far too slowly.” Lou glared back at Neil.
Neil decided to walk even more slowly just for that remark, and he gave the receptionist a friendly smile. “Hi, how are you? My name’s Neil. I like candlelit dinners, moonlit walks on the beach, and really big—”
“Come on!” Lou grabbed Neil’s arm and dragged him through the doors with him.
The new room was large, round, and made entirely of black stone. The walls were lined with shelves crammed full of books and scrolls, and the only light came from burning sconces framing the heavily curtained windows. There was a circular table right in the middle with five ornate gothic chairs. They looked like thrones, though one in particular stood out because it was the largest and directly opposite of the door.
It was creepy, dreary, and definitely much more on brand for what Neil would expect out of a family of monsters.
There was quite a crowd of people in here, all men in suits or other fashionable attire, and every fiber in Neil’s being screamed at him to turn around and run. After all, while these men looked human, he was very certain that none of them were.
And, oh great, they were all staring at Neil now.
“Myrna, find a seat for Neil,” Lou said quickly. “I need to talk to my brothers.”
“Of course!” Myrna gently touched Neil’s shoulder. “Here, follow me.”
Neil let Myrna lead him over to a small chaise beside one of the bookshelves, and he sat down heavily. He watched Lou approach two lithe young men who were practically identical in stature and build, though one had warm brown skin and silver braids and the other was pale with golden curls. Their suits were the same style, a fitted jacket with a pink orchid in the lapel, sleek pants, and a cropped dress shirt to show off their lean stomachs.
They were both absolutely stunning.
“That’s Absolis and Vilanos Mostro,” Myrna whispered.
“Why are you whispering?” Neil whispered back, well aware that anyone looking at him right now would think he was talking to himself. “No one else can hear you, right?”
“Oh right! Well, that’s them. They’re the fae princes I was telling you about. Absolis is the fellow with the long braids, and Vilanos has the fluffy curls. Anything from the Ethereal must answer to them.”
“And the Ethereal is what now?”
“A dangerous and magical world that shadows our own.”
“Okay. Makes perfect sense.” Neil watched a man with fierce eyes and salt and pepper hair in a sharp blue three-piece suit approach Lou and the twins. He had a white flower pinned to his jacket, maybe a lily. “And who is that guy?”
“That’s Mr. Heiss.” Myrna was whispering again.
“Not Mr. Mostro?”
“No. I don’t know! They just call him Mr. Heiss. He has dominion over anyone from the Celestial, a realm most people consider to be Heaven and Hell. It’s between Earth and the Ethereal, but also above and below it? It’s complicated. Anyway. It’s full of angels, demons, and all manner of hellhound type beasts. Mr. Heiss is a very powerful demon.”
Although they didn’t join the conversation, a young blond with a thick metal collar and a man with unnaturally bright red hair hovered near Mr. Heiss.
“And them?” Neil asked quietly.
“The guy with the crazy red hair is Azazel, also a demon,” Myrna replied.
“And the twinky little blond?”
“Sariel, a fallen angel.”
“Right, of course, ha.” Neil scrubbed his face. “So, what’s Lou in charge of then?”
“Earth. Earthly monsters like werewolves, other shifters, vampires—”
“What?” Neil squeaked. “Vampires are real too?”
“Of course they are.” Myrna patted Neil’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. Lou only allows two in the city at a time and one works for him. He’s right over there—”
Neil resisted the urge to scream and instead, a strange gurgling sound came out. “Great. Wow. I feel so much better.”
“Do you want some more tea?”
“No, no, I’m okay.” Neil glanced around the crowded room again. “So, no one else here is human?”
“No.” Myrna followed Neil’s gaze. “The man in the blue suit whose face looks like a cat’s ass? That’s Luke. He’s a changeling. Part of the twins’ gang.”
“And those are the ones who eat people?”
“Great. Awesome. What about that big guy over there? The one in the green sweater and the glasses? What’s he? A fucking yeti?”
“That’s Francis. He works for Lou. He’s one of the Franks.”
Neil wanted to throw up. “Seriously?”
“He’s really more of a golem technically, but the name sort of stuck.” Myrna chuckled. “There’s quite a few of them running around, and they all look alike. There’s Frank, Frankie, Frank Junior, and so on. Everyone says Francis got the most brains out of the bunch, and now he’s the accountant for the whole family.”
“That’s lovely. So very lovely.” Neil sighed.
“Do you see that man in the black pinstripe suit?” Myrna pointed. “The one with the rose?”
The man in question was a mature Black man with a neatly trimmed goatee and closely cropped hair. His eyes were dark, his skin a rich shade of brown, and his expression stern though not unhandsome. He didn’t look like he smiled very much, and he did indeed have a red rose in his lapel.
“That’s Q. Mostro,” Myrna went on. “He’s the head of the family and in charge of the Other.”
“Christ, what’s that?”
“A realm that exists within the fabric of space and time hidden between all the other worlds.”
“What the fuck kind of monster is he?”
Lou walked over then, murmuring, “I can hear you talking to yourself from across the room.”
“I’m not. I’m talking to Myrna,” Neil retorted.
“But no one else can hear her, you know.”
“You can!” Neil snorted.
A brunet in a slick gray suit hurried over to join Lou, asking hurriedly, “So, what’s the plan, boss? What are we going to do?”
“Michel,” Myrna whispered. “Werewolf, Lou’s second.”
Neil nodded to indicate he’d heard her.
“We are going to sit back, relax, and let the meeting happen as planned,” Lou replied firmly. “The Reliquary is still in my possession, and that’s all that matters.”
Michel’s brow furrowed, and he glanced at Neil. “And this is—”
“No one you need to be worried about.” Lou glared until Michel retreated. He looked back to Myrna and Neil. “You two, just stay put and stay quiet.” He touched Neil’s cheek, offering a small smile. “Maybe when this is over, we can talk about that date?”
Neil blushed furiously. “Eat me.”
“Maybe for dessert.”
Neil was too flustered to spit out a reply, staring Lou down as he walked over to the round table. “He is such an asshole.”
“I know.” Myrna patted Neil’s knee. “But he really does like you!”
“I don’t wanna know how he’d act if he didn’t.”
“Let us begin,” Q. said, his voice a velvet rumble that had a unique resonating quality. Even though he was speaking quietly, his words filled the large room as if he was using a microphone. He sat in the largest chair, glancing at the others expectantly.
Lou sat to his left, Mr. Heiss to his right, and Absolis and Vilanos took the remaining seats.
“The first order of business is addressing the most recent attack from the mostri ribelli.” Q.’s eyes cut to Lou. “How many are dead?”
“Three,” Lou replied. “All wolves.”
“The bodies?” Mr. Heiss asked.
“How gone is gone?” Absolis sounded like he was smiling. “You know our dear Luke is always up for some fresh snacks.”
“I was more concerned with cleaning up a crime scene than Luke’s snacks,” Lou said flatly. “Sorry I didn’t save him any.”
“Ah, well.” Vilanos shrugged. “Perhaps next time.”
“Is the scene secure?” Mr. Heiss asked firmly. “No loose ends?”
“We’re good,” Lou promised, “but we need to find out where these bastards keep coming from—”
“Who is that?” Q. hadn’t been listening to a word Lou was saying, instead having noticed Neil and staring him down.
“My guest,” Lou replied briskly. “He is Othniel Ricci, Shiloh Ricci’s nephew. He’s helping me get the cereus ready.”
“Ah.” Q. nodded as if that explained everything.
Neil was very curious as to why that was such a satisfactory answer, and he looked to Myrna, hoping she had some information to offer like usual.
Well, so much for that.
Absolis and Vilanos turned around in their chairs to peek at Neil and smiled at the exact same time. They were still beautiful, but that was very creepy.
“Why, Mr. Ricci,” Absolis crooned, “you are a handsome little speck of human, aren’t you?”
“And such lovely taste in jewelry,” said Vilanos, eyeing the Reliquary on Neil’s wrist. He pretended to be shocked and gasped loudly. “Why, isn’t that the Reliquary right there?”
“Oh!” Absolis let out a similarly dramatic gasp. “Why, brother! It is! Imagine that.”
Q. narrowed his eyes. “Louis? Is this true?”
“It’s only temporary,” Lou said quickly. “That I promise you.”
“And exactly how is it going to be temporary?” Mr. Heiss pressed. “How did you lose it to this human?”
“I didn’t lose it—” Lou protested.
“He must be very special,” Absolis purred as he looked over Neil hungrily.
“Very special,” Vilanos echoed.
“I bet he would love to come see our gardens.” Absolis exchanged a sly smile with Vilanos. “The roses are especially lovely right now.”
“You’re not taking him anywhere,” Lou warned.
“Why not?” Vilanos smiled sweetly. “Who says he wants to stay here with you?” He batted his eyes at Neil. “We are so much more fun than Lou, I can promise you that.”
“Don’t listen to them,” Myrna cautioned, reaching over to take Neil’s hand. “They will try to bewitch you. Ignore the very pretty men!”
Mr. Heiss leaned over to whisper something to Q., and Q. nodded in apparent agreement.
“The Reliquary must stay in our family’s possession,” Q. said. “We cannot—”
“And it is,” Lou cut in sourly. “It’s not as if I actually lost it. I know right where it is.”
“With a human.”
“A human whose family has served ours for decades,” Lou argued.
“But is it truly safe being stuck to that fragile meat sack?” Mr. Heiss wondered out loud. “How certain are we that killing him won’t get it off? Perhaps you should let someone else try.”
“Maybe what the Reliquary just needs is some fresh ownership,” Absolis suggested. “You should let us take the mortal. We’ll be able to get the Reliquary off.” He winked at Neil. “The human too.”
“No, you cannot do that either.” Lou stood up fast enough to knock his chair back.
“Pfft, and why not?”
“Because I am claiming him.”
“What?” Absolis scoffed.
“That’s cheating!” Vilanos complained.
Neil froze as Lou lumbered over toward him. He had no idea what was happening, but he instinctively rose as he approached. He was also tempted to use him as a shield since Lou was the only one who didn’t seem interested in killing or molesting him right now.
Mr. Heiss and Q. exchanged a surprised look, and Q. clarified, “Could you please elaborate?”
Lou threw his arm around Neil’s shoulders and smiled as if that explained everything. “There. Satisfied?”
Neil cringed, hissing under his breath, “What are you doing?”
“Just trust me,” Lou mumbled back. “I’m going to keep you safe.”
“I don’t believe you—”
“Shh, I’ve got this!”
“Louis.” Q. did not look pleased. “On what grounds are you claiming this human?”
“Ah, yes, of course.” Lou smiled. “I am claiming him as my mate.”