King lead Dante on the quickest route back to Jess' truck—in a straight line. Although this made for a short journey, it also made for an arduous one. Dante had to use his shoulder as a battering ram to get past thick brush, and by the time he emerged next to the truck from a close copse of mesquite trees his coat sported a mess of scratches and gouges in the supple hide.
"And here I thought leather was good for ranchers," he said with disgust as he laid Jess down in the bed of the pickup. He jammed his fingers into one of Jess' jean's pockets and was rewarded by the truck's keys. "Let's get you home, Jessica," Dante murmured as he rounded the pickup and opened the driver's side door. It was an old vehicle with a bench front seat that could sit three people if they squished together, and the seats were covered in blue cloth that was so well worn it was almost gray. A box of shotgun shells and a small rifle lay on the floorboards. Dante settled in and slipped the key into the ignition, fumbling for a moment before locating the right key on the ring (She's got, like, ten on here! he thought). The engine didn't catch immediately, and it took two false starts to get it going. Once it ran with a low growl that did not sound entirely healthy, Dante reached across the cabin and opened the passenger side door, hopped out of the car, and went to pick up Jess.
King had joined her in the pikup bed, and he sat with one dinner-plate paw pressed to Jess' shoulder. His golden eyes were fixed unwaveringly on her face, and when Dante neared the pair King's eyes flickered to the devil hunter in a too-intelligent way before resettling on Jess. A growl blossomed in the dog's chest, a low rumble of distant thunder.
Dante didn't get too close. "We need to get her somewhere safe," Dante said.
King didn't act like he had heard, and continued to growl.
"I need you to let me put her in the truck," Dante said, and reached out a hand. King immediately turned and snapped at Dante, hackles bristling like porcupine quills.
Dante did not flinch, and King's teeth sank into Dante's hand like hot needles through ice cream. The dog did not release Dante's hand, and their eyes met and held each other for a long, silent moment.
"I'm not going to hurt her," Dante told King. "I'm going to keep her safe. It's a lot to ask, but I need you to trust me. Okay?"
At first, Dante thought that the dog was just a dog, not the uncannily sentient being King had proved himself to be. But then King's jaws opened by a fraction on an inch and the teeth slid from Dante's hand with surgical precision. The dog licked Dante's blood off its lips before gently nosing Jess' cheek, and then it jumped out of the truck bed with fluid grace. The truck trembled and rose a good inch and a half when the dog's weight lifted off of it, and King slipped off into the underbrush as Dante wiped the blood off of his hand. The deep puncture wounds had already sealed.
Lifting Jess into his arms, Dante tried not to notice her too-hot skin and trembling body as he carried her over to the passenger side of the truck and deposited her on the seat. He shut the door, and the force of the slam made her slump bonelessly toward him. Her forehead came to rest on the window, and sweat soon dripped off of her brow to course down the glass.
Dante jogged to his side of the cab, jumped inside, put the truck in drive, and stepped on the gas only to realize that he had no idea where he was going. Before he even had a chance to swear, however, King appeared before the truck and began to trot off into the brush, looking back over his shoulder at Dante every few feet.
Dante didn't hesitate to follow. The truck trundled over the uneven terrain with the solid placidity of an aging elephant, but it never got stuck. Whether that was testimony to King's well-picked path or the quality of the truck was anyone's guess.
Soon the party emerged onto the dirt road they had originally met on, and the going became world's easier. King bolted down the path so fast Dante nearly lost sight of him around the road's curves, but thanks to the well-worn wheel ruts that had been dug into the ground over years of use the truck was able to keep up with the sprinting dog. Still, twice Dante had to pull Jess up out of the truck's floorboards when she was bounced around too much, and Dante suffered several bites to the tongue when an unexpected lurch sent him flying six inches out of his seat. He learned—eventually—to keep his jaw tightly shut, but not before tasting the coppery flavor of blood in his mouth.
The drive lasted an excruciating twenty minutes, but the brush soon began to thin out. The road grew more and more distinct, the wheel ruts deeper, and it led the party to a large clearing ringed with pecan trees. More dirt roads branched off into the trees, but Dante held little interest in them. He was, instead, intent on the house in the clearing's center.
It was a small house ringed on three sides by a screened-in wrap-around porch. The side of the house without the porch had a tin overhang that sheltered four vehicles from the sun: a large silver pickup truck that was in better condition that the one Dante was driving; a Crown Victoria town car in a deep shade of green that was at least twenty years old but still in pristine shape; a battered old jeep with a roll bar and a tattered canvas covering; and an red Honda ATV with mud caked on the tires.
Dante pulled the truck into a space under the overhang; it was just wide enough to accommodate the vehicle, and Dante had a feeling that this was its usual parking spot. He jumped out of the car and pulled Jess from the cab. Hefting her into his arms, he trotted out from under the overhang and noticed the two sets of stairs on either side of the line of cars. Both sets led up to doors leading into the screened-off porch, and it took a fancy bit of maneuvering to pull the left door open and step into the shady interior without dropping his precious cargo.
He was on one of the short sides of the house. There wasn't a door leading inside on that leg of the porch, so Dante had to go to the end of the walkway and make a left onto the longer stretch of porch. Here there were windows looking in on what appeared to be the living room, but the double glass doors leading inside were locked.
Swearing, Dante moved to the end of that stretch of porch and turned onto the shorter side opposite the one he had earlier investigated. Lucky for him there was a large wooden door leading inside on that side of the house, and a jiggle of the battered brass knob revealed it to be unlocked. He all but kicked the door down in his haste to get inside.
The door led into a laundry room, of sorts. It stretched off to Dante's left, occupied by a washer and dryer and a long, thin table covered with cleaning products and a toolbox. On the other side of the washer/dryer set was a white door propped halfway open—Dante could see a toilet and a sink in there, a fact he filed away for future reference. Directly across from him was a door going deeper into the house, and to his immediate right was a door that led into what Dante assumed was a closet.
He took the door in front of him. It led into a kitchen separated from the living room by a row of counters and the transition from red tile to hard wood flooring. Otherwise, the two rooms were one and the same. The kitchen had three counters, two of which were occupied by stove burners and a sink; the third was empty and served as the barrier between the kitchen and living room. A large wooden table took up space in the open center of the three counter tops. Three mismatched and battered sofas formed a ring around an old TV set in the living room, and in the middle a coffee table made of gnarled mesquite wood sported a pile of Guns & Ammo magazines. Light from the high windows and locked glass doors illuminated the dust motes drifting through the air, making the scene look like something out of Little House on the Prairie. Pictures of covered wagons and cowboys covered the walls, as did framed newspaper clippings and the occasional photograph.
Dante immediately laid Jess down on the longest couch and began to examine her hand. To his utmost relief, the red glow had not spread past her makeshift tourniquet. Rather, it had regressed to surround and fill the wound through which it had been injected. The wound itself, however, was disgusting to look at—it leaked red fluid too bright to be blood, and a cracking cake of red fluid filled the crater in Jess' hand.
"Gotta clean and bind this puppy," Dante murmured. He stood and walked into the kitchen, and with haste he began to throw open all the cabinets in his search for bandages. He found absolutely nothing. "What rancher doesn't have a first aid kit?" Dante said, grinding his teeth.
Something nudged the back of Dante's calf, and he jumped at the sight of King sitting sedately on his haunches. He was even more surprised by the white box marked with a blocky red cross that lay innocuously on the red tile floor.
"Did you get that for me?" Dante asked, stunned into asking the obvious,
King, by way of response, sneezed like a freight engine and nosed the kit onto the toe of Dante's boot.
Dante didn't waste any time pondering over the situation. Grabbing a large plastic bowl he had found during his raid of the kitchen, Dante snagged the first aid kit off the floor and took a roll of bandages and a bottle of antiseptic out of it. He poured the fluid into the bowl, soaked the bandages in it, then diluted the antiseptic with water from the sink. He also grabbed the horseshoe-patterned dishtowel by the sink before taking all of the items over to Jess.
Cleaning her hand was an exacting process, one which required all of Dante's attention. He didn't notice the sun going down, nor did he notice King pawing open the door Dante had come through and slipping outside. It was only after the dishtowel had become stained crimson with blood and the antiseptic-water was more pink than clear that he realized King was gone and that night had fallen.
White bandages and gauze covered the wound and kept it from leaking, but Dante couldn't do much else for Jess except make her comfortable. Reaching out a hand, he pulled the baseball cap off her head and set it on the floor. To Dante's surprise, a thick braid of dark hair fell to Jessica's chest like an ebony snake. It stretched nearly to her ribcage, and when whisps of it fell to frame her face it softened her long, narrow features into something close to attractive. Not pretty, exactly, but... handsome.
Yes, handsome was the right word.
Dante tucked a pillow behind Jess' head and found a blanket draped over the back of one of the other sofas to pull over her body. There wasn't anything else to do but wait until she woke up. Standing and stretching, he put the extra materials back in the first aid kit and poured the bloody astringent down the kitchen sink, then washed water through the dish towel and hooked it over the back of one of the kitchen chairs to dry. Looking at the newly cleaned cloth, Dante turned his head to sniff at his shoulder.
An open archway at the border of the kitchen and the living room led into a shadowed hallway that ran parallel to the living room and kitchen. There was a door at each end of the hall—bedrooms, both of them—and two doors in the middle. One, Dante found, was a closet. The other, a bathroom with an old-fashioned sink, toilet, and a small shower. The floor-to-ceiling cupboard inside the bathroom had had its door taken off; the bare hinges had rusted after seeing the steam from many showers. The top four shelves were filled with towels: bath towels, beach towels, hand towels, washcloths, all of different colors and cloth types and conditions. The bottom shelf was filled with roll upon roll of toilet paper. A porcelain fixture on the wall above the sink held two toothbrushes and a tube of toothpaste.
She's in a relationship, Dante thought when he saw the extra toothbrush. I wouldn't have guessed.
He left his clothes crumpled on the floor as he turned on the shower and stepped in. The water never rose above lukewarm, but the goo ran down the shower despite his chattering teeth and the cheapness of the Walgreens-brand unisex shampoo. Feeling chilled but refreshed, he took a raging pink beach towel patterned with blue hibiscus out of the cupboard and regarded his clothes on the floor with distaste as he dried off.
"New clothes," Dante said, wrapping the towel around his waist. He did not relish the idea of feeling his filthy clothes rubbing against his clean skin. "Gotta get some clean clothes."
He went out into the hall, but before he could take two steps he tripped over something and fell headlong to the floor and nose to nose with King. The dog held a bowl in his mouth, and one of his eyebrows had risen in a 'What took you so long?' kind of way.
Twisting around to see what had tripped him, Dante found a huge bag of what appeared to be—
Dante looked back at King. "You want me to... feed you?" Dante asked. "Is that it?"
King dropped the metal bowl with a loud 'clang' and barked twice. Dante picked up the bowl and stared at it as he rose to his feet, one hand clutching the towel around his hips.
"Why the hell does the bowl say 'Peanut' on it?" he asked, staring at the letters carved painstakingly into the metal. He looked at King. "You don't look like a peanut to me."
King heaved to his feet and padded back into the living room. Dante followed in time to see the huge animal drop to its belly and sweep one dinner-plate paw beneath a rather ruffly pink sofa. A high-pitched yelp, to Dante's surprise, emanated out from under the couch.
King sat up at that point and put one of his paws on the couch cushions as if to say 'You see?'
The devil hunter couldn't help but sigh. "At least let me put on some pants, first."
King sneezed indignantly, but he got up and loped past Dante toward one of the bedrooms. Interestingly, its door was shut and Dante had to open it for the dog.
It was a child's room. Rodeo clown wallpaper and cartoon cowboys were the biggest decorating theme, and even though the cowboy-and-Indian bedspread had been recently laundered, it was moth eaten and threadbare. Toys and action figures and stuffed animals lined shelves covered with dust.
King pawed at the closet opposite the bed, and Dante opened it to find a wardrobe that did not belong to a child. The pants and shirts within—an ensemble made up almost exclusively of blue jeans and plaid button-down shirts—were a size too large even for Dante, but a plain black leather belt hanging off the back of the closet door fixed that problem before it became much of an issue.
The moment Dante had finished dressing himself in a red shirt and blue jeans, King hooked his teeth delicately into one of Dante's pant legs. The dog proceeded to drag the devil hunter back into the living room, and Dante dropped to his knees to peer beneath the couch's ruffly skirt.
A pair of eyes as large as silver dollars stared back at him.
Dante sat up. He looked at King. "That's Peanut, I guess."
Dante thought about what to do for a minute before finding the bag of dog food and filling Peanut's bowl with it. Then he set the bowl in front of the couch and waited.
Results did not take long to manifest. The couch's ruffles quivered as a small black nose poked out and sniffed the air, and the nose was soon followed by a puppy's face. Ears as large as a bat's overshadowed liquid brown eyes, and when the rest of the puppy tumbled out Dante nearly laughed. It was as fat as any puppy Dante had ever seen, with a round little belly and stubby legs that looked too short to carry the rest of the dog. It was golden brown with a white stomach, paws, and tail, and as it began to wolf down the food Dante had poured it he felt a stab of recognition worm through him. He recognized the dog's breed, something with a country's name in it. A German Shepard? No. A Spanish something-or-other hound? No, definitely not.
The puppy finished its meal in record time, then clambered onto Dante's lap with a sigh. It rolled over, exposing its tummy, and Dante smiled as he gave the dog a belly rub. "Peanut's a good name for you," he said as the dog squirmed happily.
He shot a glance at Jessica. She still slept like the dead, and with one final pat Dante pushed Peanut out of his lap and walked into the kitchen. Both dogs trailed at his heels.
Luckily for Dante, there was a phone bolted into the wall next to the fridge. He picked it up and dialed home.
The phone rang twice before being answered. "Devil May Cry," a female voice said, and since the words sounded more pissed off than smoothly seductive, Dante surmised that it was Lady.
"Hey, Lady," Dante said. "Why the hell are you at the office? I haven't seen you in weeks."
There was a brief pause before: "You picked a great time to leave Trish behind, you jackass."
Dante winced. Trish had been his on-again, off-again partner for a long time, but since she had a habit of disappearing for months at a time without warning, Dante did not feel too bad leaving her with his agency for only a few days. Lady, on the other hand, was never around unless she needed something or Dante called for her help, mainly because she and Trish didn't see eye to eye. The fact that Lady and Trish were—presumably—working together in his absence did not bode well for the levels of demon activity back at home.
"What's going on?" he asked Lady.
"Demons. Lots of 'em. Trish called me this afternoon. You're gonna owe me a lot of what you're making on your little vacation."
Dante bristled. "Goddammit, Lady!"
"Hey, my services don't come cheap. You better get back here soon or the bills will pile up."
"Yeah, about that," Dante said, sighing in irritation. "Things down here are... well, they're pretty ..."
"Fucked up?" Lady supplied.
Dante chuckled. "Sounds about right, yeah. I'm going to stick around for a few days, see what I can uncover." He quickly filled her in on what he knew—the demon knowing Jess, Jess' suspiciously slow heartbeat, Oakland's request—but he left out the part about King's intelligence. Lady would just tell him to kill the dog. She was like that.
"I don't like this," she said the moment he stopped talking, "not one bit. And I think Oakland's hiding something."
"But not Jess?" Dante asked.
Lady paused. "I'm not too sure about her," she said. "She sounded kind of clueless to me, but keep your ear to the ground."
"Sure," he said. "Can I ask for a favor?"
"Mmm, might cost you. Think carefully."
"Can you look in the library for anything about demons injecting stuff into their victims?" Despite Lady's dark history with her father, she had inherited all of his possessions after his death, and that included his collection of demonic literature. She still used it to help pick apart cases, and the collection was probably the most valuable asset Dante had on his side.
"I'll see what I can do," Lady said.
"I'll call you in a couple of days," Dante told her. "Take care of yourself until then. Don't make any unnecessary risks, and—"
"Goddamn it, Dante, you sound like I've never done this before. Just hurry and finish up down there," Lady told him. "Trish is going to kill you if you leave her alone with me any longer than you have to."
Dante grinned. "Okay, okay, bye."
"Don't get killed," Lady said with acidic cheer, and hung up.
Dante placed the phone back into the cradle, disquieted.
Why did he get the feeling that Lady's final words would be much easier said than done?
I've been in a funk for the past few days, but despite that I am fairly happy with this chapter. Hope you liked it. Please review and tell me how I'm doing.
Oh, and no conflicts have been resolved yet. Dante thinks he has a few things figured out, but he has a lot to learn.