“I want you to hire you to find my sister.”

Defiance gleamed in the kid’s eyes. Freckles dusted her snub nose, wild red hair tamed into a ponytail. She was missing her front teeth, and I was pretty sure she was adorable to regular folk. But I wasn’t regular, and I didn’t like kids.

Leaning forward, I tap a well-chewed fingernail on the pile of tens she’d slammed down on my desk after marching into my office, unannounced.

“You can’t afford me.” My eyes darted to my office door, wondering where our receptionist was. The boss of Sundown Security, Leona Fontana, had hired a service droid a few months ago. But the dwarves in the basement workshop had gone on a bender one night, and the droid had found itself the target of compressor rifle test.

After that, Leona had stuck with hiring neutrals. Sandy, the latest, was an ex-flight courier, so she wasn’t a regular mook from the pollution-slick streets of the city. She’d seen enough not to be freaked when one of the Brimstone Slayer gang members shuffled in heaving blood-soaked sports bag. Demon heads were big money on the black market, and Sundown Security dealt in all manner of trade. A multi-faceted security company, we dealt with everything from personal security to the hush-hush business of unregistered magically augmented weapons. That was my speciality.

“My sister said if I ever had a problem, Brenda Karger would help me because you owed her,” the kid said.

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Who’s your sister?”

“Brittle Battlestone.”

My hands dropped to the table with a thud. “The leader of the Brimstone Slayers?”

“Yup.”

I swore. She was right. I did owe Brittle Battlestone a blood debt from a past situation I didn’t care to be reminded of. I debated throwing the kid out and locking the door, when Leona entered. She saw the kid, who’d introduced herself as Pia, and did a double-take.

“Who’s this, Brenda?” she asked. An old queen with a viper tongue, Leona had spent most of her human life in pursuit of eternal youth. When extensive surgery couldn’t satisfy her, she’d converting to vampirism in the belief it would make her young again. But she’d been wrong. Dead wrong.

Get it?

Never mind.

“Pia. Brittle Battlesone’s sister,” I told her. “Brittle’s missing. The owner of Mr Fong’s wanted her to come over, something about a munger egg infestation. She never came back.”

“Brittle’s my best demon hunter,” Leona told me. “You’d better find her.”

“I’m not a detective,” I said, scowling.

“Yes, you are.” Leona pointed to one of the many fake certificates she’d littered my wall with. I didn’t have any formal training, but to work for Leona I had to keep up the pretence I did. And no one could fudge the system like Leona. She swept the money off the table and pocketed it.

“This should be enough,” she said.

“I’m worth more than that,” I said sourly.

“Not today,” Leona purred. “And I’m coming with you, I have some business with Mr Fong.”

“I’m coming too,” the kid said.

“No.” Leona and I both answered.

 

*   *   *

 

Outside, the San Francisco sky was a turmoil of grotty grey clouds. With the government relaxed all emission trading fifty years ago, the rise of coal mines, factories and refineries spewing out pollutants into the air and water supply, things had gotten bad pretty quick. The air today smelt like wet cigarette smoke soaked in gasoline and around us are bustling shops and graffiti-scarred row-houses.

We caught a rattling electric module and Leona punched in our destination into the passenger supplied keyboard, while I struggled to fit in the back with a bulging hockey bag, stuffed with essentials.

Most people in the City relied on masks when the pollution really hit you in the back of your throat. But it was only the mooks who worried about that. A regular protection charm clipped to your ear was enough protection against the elements. Though if acid rain started up you were straight up screwed and could kiss your clothes goodbye.

The module battled traffic to Mr Fong’s on the edge of Chinatown, little takeaway joint that sold tepid broths full of creepy delights and a cook who spoke fluent shezuan death metal.

At the shop, we find the front door unlocked and inside deserted. A metallic clank came from inside the kitchen at the back. Leona signalled to me like I was an idiot and couldn’t hear the noise for myself. I chewed my lip nervously. A munger egg infestation could be controlled if caught early. A nice bonfire would see to that. But once hatched, they grew to adult size within hours. Then you were in real trouble. It wasn’t that mungers were hard to catch or kill. It was the smell. Oh, and your inevitable death as they ate your soul via your brain. You know, the usual.

Leona inched towards the kitchen. My nose wrinkled at the thought of what we’d find and I quickly unpacked my bag. I’d faced a full grown munger once before and wasn’t relishing the idea of meeting another one. I had tried to explain to her we needed fire for eggs and a blade for slicing heads, but Leona had rolled her eyes and loaded her handgun with silver bullets. Vampires. Always thinking silver could do anything.

I adjusted the flame thrower at my side, the sheathed sword strapped to my back digging into left shoulder. Leona darted through the kitchen door. I heard the pop of her gun and realised she’d fired. My sneakers hit the ground, drawing my sword as I slammed a shoulder into the doors. Inside, a munger had Leona in an head-lock. I grimaced. That had to smell so bad. To my left were half-devoured bodies of the missing staff.

The munger was a humanoid shape, covered in a foul sludge that would cling to your clothes for days. Its eyes were black pits within folds of skin and slime, its knotted fingers webbed. It swung a slobbering hand towards me, and I copped a mouthful of slime. I wanted to shriek, but then the rotten stench hit me and I collapsed to the ground heaving. Leona screamed and I forced myself to my feet, trying to control my churning stomach. Wiping my eyes clear, I swung my blade at the demon. It deflected, then shot at me again. I ducked, avoiding another steaming spray of ooze. Rushing forward, I swung my blade again, this time finding flesh.

The munger shuddered, then its head toppled, landing on the ground with a splat of flesh and gore. Leona broke free, clothes slick with shiny gloop. The demon’s body jerked a few times, then exploded with a wet popping sound. Slime smacked into my face with a wet slap, though I was smart enough to keep my mouth closed. When I wiped my eyes clear again, I saw Leona was covered in a mound of quivering, steaming, putrid flesh. She cleared some of the slime from her face with a disgusted sound.

“That was revolting,” she said.

“I don’t see Brittle,” I remarked, checking out the bodies.

“Check the meat locker.” Leona pointed to a huge silver fridge at the end of the room. I hurried over, unlocked the door and opened it. Brittle stumbled out. She wore sweat-stained knock-off sports gear, greasy hair twisted into buns. A  katana blade was clutched in her hand, kawaii charms dangling from the hilt. When she saw me, she relaxed and lowered her sword.

“Took your time,” she said.

“I’m here now,” I said. “What’s the rush?”

“That is.” She scowled, jerking a thumb over her shoulder. “I was close to being baby munger food.”

Peering behind her, I spied a small cluster of leathery eggs and the veins pulsating along the sides. Close to hatching time.

“Stand aside,” I told her, sheathing my sword and trying not to think of the cleaning job later.

“Don’t need to tell me twice,” Brittle muttered, slipping by me.

I raised the flame-thrower and widened my feet, steadying myself.

“That going to do the job?” Brittle asked from behind me.

I grunted a yes. My rig was loaded with dragon’s breath and would blaze up anything, including demonic nasties.

“I’ll wait outside,” Leona said. “It stinks in here.”

Flipping a side switch, the pilot light burst into existence, a bright blue flame hissing over the muzzle. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the smell was going to follow her for days.

“What are you waiting for?” Brittle asked.

I didn’t bother replying. It wasn’t easy to kill another living thing, even if it was a soul-munching monster. But someone had to do it.

With a sigh, I pulled the trigger.