Mrs. Kowalski was seventy years old and weighed maybe a hundred pounds max. She was wearing an oversized mint green tee shirt with dancing avocados, loose black capris, and green Crocs. Her frizzy gray hair was piled into a messy knot on top of her head, and she had fireballs in each hand.
“Mrs. Kowalski, please,” Nessa said. “You missed your court date. We need to get that straightened out.”
“I’m not going to jail!” the old lady shouted.
She threw the fireballs.
Nessa and Pim dove for cover. Her Familiar was invisible due to an unfortunate Gypsy curse but he was not fireproof. The fireballs whizzed so near she saw sparks fall on Pim’s gray fur. He was invisible to others, not her.
She pushed him to the ground to sweep the glowing embers away.
Pim squeaked out a meow and pointed at her hair with one paw.
She put a hand to her blond hair currently pulled back in a ponytail and squealed. Her hair was burning. Patting at it wildly she perhaps wasn’t paying as much attention to Mrs. Kowalski as she should have.
Nessa heard a whoosh and looked up. The woman ignited two more fireballs even larger than the last.
“Eek!” Nessa yelled scrambling for cover on her hands and knees behind a couple of industrial-sized plastic garbage cans.
They were in the parking garage for the Redondo Beach Pier. Mrs. Kowalski worked a late prep shift for one of the fish restaurants there.
“It’s not a big deal, Mrs. Kowalski,” Nessa yelled, trying to keep her voice calm. “Pansie or Rose Marie can meet you at the court tomorrow morning and bond you out again, I’m sure.”
Truthfully Nessa had no idea if this was possible. Pansie and Rose Marie were the amazon-sized enforcers at her current place of employment Barracuda Bail Bonds. The twins had schooled her to say things like that if the person she was trying to apprehend proved skittish.
She and Pim were only a couple of weeks into their new careers as bounty hunters. Deadbeat Dad had skipped town leaving his nineteen-year-old daughter as collateral with Barracuda Bail Bonds. Most bail bonds offices do not take humans as collateral. Even in Los Angeles. Only her dad’s debt wasn’t money, it was magic. Roman Barracuda was also a Voodoo King. He decided Nessa’s special talents as an Elemental Witch could help him collect on the supernatural scum that tried to skip out on their financial obligations.
As if Nessa didn’t have enough problems. She’d been cursed from birth thanks to her now-dead mom’s deal with a Fallen Angel. He’d been after her soul since she emerged from the womb. Parents! Can’t live with them. Wouldn’t exist without them. Total pain in the ass. Or maybe that was only magical ones.
Nessa had expected some weirdness chasing supernatural felons.
Until now, fireballs had not been on the list.
“Please stop throwing fireballs,” Nessa shouted.
“But I like fire,” Mrs. Kowalski said in a raspy voice, doing a sort of jig. “And I like throwing them at you.”
Mrs. Kowalski adjusted her aim. The trashcans shot up in the air like flaming missiles leaving behind the smell of melting plastic.
“Suck the air out!” Fiona screamed from behind a big metal dumpster.
The woman threw a fireball at a pile of cardboard boxes in the dumpster. They went up with a whoosh.
“Ahhh!” Fiona screamed, running for the exit ramp, her Jimmy Choo’s click-clacking on the tarmac.
Fiona was also a new addition to the Barracuda Bail Bonds office. The privileged young witch was serving an Infernal Court community service sentence. Her real estate-related black magic spells had put several people in the hospital and caused the death of a sacred herd of sheep. Though she didn’t really mean to kill the sheep.
How bounty hunting worked as community service, Nessa was a little unclear. Fiona was also her new roommate because Nessa’s Aunt Emerald liked money.
Nessa wasn’t sure which was worse: having her as a partner or living with her.
Mrs. Kowalski was not a witch. She was a Firebug. A low-level demon who could conjure small fires. Small being the operative word. The file from Mr. Barracuda said the woman’s fires were limited to garden sheds, piles of trash, an occasional old car. Small-time stuff. Her husband used to keep her under control with amulets to suppress the urge to burn. After he died, her son couldn’t be bothered.
She’d been careless a few weeks ago and gotten caught torching a She-Shed. When Mrs. Kowalski didn’t show up for her court date, Barracuda sent Nessa to find the elderly woman.
He did not say anything about fireballs.
She hadn’t been hard to track down. When her cell number just kept sending Nessa to voice mail, she called the Seafood Buffet restaurant Mrs. Kowalski worked at. The bonds office had it on file. The manager put Mrs. Kowalski on the line. She was apologetic, saying how sorry she was to cause “That nice Mr. Barracuda any trouble.” She thought it was the twenty-fifth of next month, not this one. Yes, she’d meet them after her shift finished. She worked prep in the kitchen until midnight.
Yawning and complaining, Fiona had driven Nessa and Pim to the Redondo Beach Pier parking garage. They arrived a little after eleven. Nessa didn’t mind the late-night gig. There was a lot of reading to finish for her classes this semester at Santa Monica City College. Juggling classes with the odd demands of her new job was still a work in progress.
She and Pim went to the back entrance of the seafood restaurant a few minutes before midnight. They were quickly joined by Fiona. She declared waiting in a car in a deserted garage was too much like the beginning of a slasher movie.
Nessa pointed out that with Fiona’s talent for black magic curses, she could probably exsanguinate anybody who tried to attack her.
Fiona had said with some satisfaction that this was true. But the garage was still creepy.
Mrs. Kowalski came out. Pim’s head popped up. Nessa wrinkled her nose. The smell of fish on the woman was potent.
Nessa politely made the ‘Bond Enforcement Agent. You missed your court date,’ speech she’d memorized. Instead of coming quietly, as promised, Mrs. Kowalski whacked Nessa up the side of the head with her purse and took off at a gallop.
She was fast for seventy years old. Fast but clumsy. Looking over her shoulder, she tripped over one of the parking stoppers. Something metal clattered to the ground. She didn’t seem to notice and kept going.
They were her car keys. Pim grabbed them on the run with his teeth.
It wasn’t until Mrs. Kowalski made it to her car that she realized she’d dropped her keys. She spun around, eyes blazing and not in a metaphorical sense. Actual flames burst from her eyes, nostrils, and mouth.
Pim immediately transformed into his werecat alter ego. As a werecat, he was completely visible although a little nearsighted. They weren’t sure if that was due to the curse or just a personal problem. With his belly scraping the ground, he began to creep behind the woman.
Mrs. Kowalski was not having that. She shouted a word in the demon language making the fireballs triple in size. Clapping her hands together, she spun creating a circle of flame that licked all the way up to the garage ceiling.
Cackling out another word that set Nessa’s teeth on edge, she watched as a second set of arms tore through Mrs. Kowalski’s shirt.
“What the fuck,” Fiona screeched. “Why does she have four arms?”
“Firebug,” Nessa shouted back. “Bugs have six awk!”
She didn’t get to finish her sentence. Mrs. Kowalski began windmilling all four arms and the fireballs she conjured flew across the garage like artillery fire.
Here, there, everywhere.
Pim and Nessa jumped from dumpster to dumpster.
This capture was turning into a dumpster fire in every possible sense.
Pim stayed close to Nessa, spitting angrily. He would attack eventually, heedless of the flames. His job was to protect her, not himself.
Fire alarms were going off all over the building. Only a matter of minutes before a butt load of emergency vehicles roared in from the Redondo Beach Fire Station.
Nessa put one hand on her summoning belt, fingering the sigil for air. She was an Air Elemental and these sigils had been embroidered by her grandmother with thread soaked in Nessa’s own blood. The belt buzzed under her fingertips, the magic anxious to be released. Spells wanted to be used. Within seconds she held a whirlwind dancing on her fingertips.
She hurled the spell at the old woman. It roared into life, expanding exponentially as it spun across the cracked concrete sucking up trash, sand, dirt, and burning garbage cans.
Mrs. Kowalski stood her ground, cackling gleefully. Bringing both hands together she screamed out some nasty words in the demon language that sent more shivers up and down Nessa’s spine.
Pim howled a challenge right back.
With one more word, Mrs. Kowalski hurled a shaft of flame directly into the wind. The wind caught the blaze spinning it in a heartbeat into a firestorm.
“Eek!” squeaked Nessa.
Mrs. Kowalski flamed even more brightly, feeding fireballs into the whirlwind as it danced in circles around her. Out of desperation, Nessa grabbed hold of the wind and threw it at the wall behind the already flaming dumpsters, ordering it to stay there.
Belatedly the garage’s sprinkler system took notice of the heat and began fitfully spraying water.
Mrs. Kowalski laughed harder. In seconds she was spinning an enormous ball of fire between both hands.
“Air!” Nessa heard faintly. “Like in Faerie! Take the air out!”
Nessa had only just learned of this ability as an Air Elemental. She and Fiona had been on a misadventure in Faerie to bring back a runaway felon. When they were attacked by a group of fairies, Fiona told her she could not only manipulate air but remove it. This frightening revelation saved them both.
“Do it!” Fiona screamed.
Mrs. Kowalski hurled the fireball. Nessa dropped to the ground, covering Pim with her body as the fire whooshedoverhead. Nessa held her breath and closed her eyes against the searing heat. It was gone in a heartbeat, roaring down one of the garage ramps, causing god-knows-what kind of damage.
She had to get Mrs. Kowalski under control if only to keep the garage and maybe the neighborhood from going up in smoke. The whirlwind Nessa had summoned only fanned the flames higher. The garage was going to turn into an inferno if she didn’t do something fast. Maybe Fiona had the right idea.
She looked at Pim. He was still in werecat form. Werecat Pim was not always quite as sane as feline Pim, but he seemed pretty focused at the moment.
“What do you think?” she asked. “Suck out the air?”
He nodded vigorously.
Taking a shaky breath, Nessa mentally probed for the cage locking away the dark energy of her mother’s legacy. Nessa was a powerful witch. Her grandmother had taught her well. The magic of a Fallen Angel, however, was on a whole other level. As her mother had tragically learned only after passing it on to Nessa.
She barely cracked the cage open. Even so, the power surged. For a heartbeat, the world went black as the angelic energy demanded to be released. Mentally digging her feet in, Nessa permitted only a tiny sliver into her consciousness before shutting the cage door.
Mrs. Kowalski was capering around on her skinny legs. Her hair had come loose and she looked like a cackling witch out of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. She was throwing fireballs with one set of hands and juggling them with the other.
Her face had changed. Shifting into something far less human than before. Her eyes were as big as saucers, her mouth wider. It wasn’t glamour, Nessa could see through glamour. The firebug must have the demonic ability to mold her features like clay. That’s how she passed as a human.
Taking a deep breath, Nessa sucked in air, imaging it flowing into her instead of out. Reversing the nature of her elemental energy.
She rubbed the sigil for air on her belt counterclockwise, the other hand outstretched, chanting, “Veni ad me, veni ad me, veni ad me,” in Latin. “I imperium caeli. Veni ad me!”
A sonic boom of energy burst from Nessa on the last word, engulfing Mrs. Kowalski.
Mrs. Kowalski froze mid-cackle balanced on one leg. She swayed unsteadily for a moment or two. The fire went out of her eyes as they got impossibly wide. She began to wriggle all over like an eel before collapsing in an untidy heap. The fire in her hands poofed to smoke.
Magic rushed back, washing over Nessa in a wave of warmth. Once summoned, magic had to go somewhere. Nessa flung her hands wide, sending the air swirling through the parking garage, setting off car alarms from the remaining automobiles.
The garage turned into a fuzzy blur as Nessa fell to her knees, gasping.
Pim was by her in an instant back in feline form. He laid a paw on her hand. He willed some of his own energy into her body. It flowed in like a drink of icy water. That give and take of power was part of a Familiar’s job. Pim wasn’t her pet, he was her partner.
The world came back into focus. Nessa hauled the sliver of angelic power kicking and screaming back into its cage. Biting her lip, she mentally turned the key.
She tried to tell Pim she was okay but a fit of coughing put a stop to that. The smoke from the dumpster fires filled the garage, making it hard to breathe. Her eyes were streaming.
Fiona’s kitten heels came click-clacking up the ramp. Fiona had dressed like they were going to dinner in Beverly Hills instead of a stakeout: Jimmy Choo heels, a vintage Pucci skirt and blouse ensemble, and a Dior bag. Fiona was all about luxe.
Nessa was mostly about surviving. She was dressed in jeggings, a faded Hollister tee with palm trees, a loose navy zip hoodie, and high-top canvas Chucks. Her backpack was from Old Navy. And this was her good one. The only style Nessa’s clothes screamed was ‘bag-lady-in-training.’
Nessa got to her feet. Fiona stopped nearby, holding a handkerchief over her nose and mouth. The smell of fish was now mixed with burnt charcoal. Fiona looked ready to run at any sign of sparks from the old lady.
Mrs. Kowalski did not look very sparky.
She lay motionless, arms and legs splayed at odd angles.
“You know,” Fiona said blandly, pulling the handkerchief away and fixing Nessa with a look. “I meant you should suck the air out of the fire, not her lungs.”
Nessa’s mouth dropped open. “You... you said to do what I did in Faerie.”
“Yeah, use your air superpower. I never said kill her.”
Oh-my-God, she had murdered Mrs. Kowalski.
It was true. She’d targeted the air summoning spell at the old woman, not the fire. Nessa had felt the air wash over her as she summoned it. First hot from the fire in Mrs. Kowalski’s body, then warm and wet from the woman’s lungs.
The fire had stopped because Mrs. Kowalski couldn’t breathe.
Nessa staggered over on shaky legs, mumbling silent pleas the whole way.
“Is she pushing up daisies?” Fiona asked, following behind. She didn’t sound like she cared one way or the other.
Pim was there first, sniffing at the woman’s face. Nessa was so nauseous she had to pause for a minute before bending down.
With her fingers on the woman’s neck, she felt for a pulse. It was there. Steady and strong. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
“Do we call 911?” Fiona asked prodding the woman with one foot.
Nessa realized she didn’t know the protocol. Could she still get her bond receipt if Mrs. Kowalski went to the hospital?
She called the office, switching the phone to speaker. Even though it was after midnight, Barracuda was there. He was always there.
“What?” he shouted so loudly Nessa winced. “You set fire to the Redondo Beach Parking Garage?”
“Not us, Mrs. Kowalski,” Nessa whined. “It’s not our fault.”
“Yes, it is,” he shouted. “Do not call the police. Get yourselves and Mrs. Kowalski out of there now. Call me when you are clear.”
He clicked off.
Fiona ran to her car. Burning rubber, the Audi screamed into a drift turn coming to a stop only a few inches from the unconscious firebug.
Fiona might be a bitch, but she drove like a demon.
Together they lifted Mrs. Kowalski onto the back seat. Luckily her second set of arms had shrunk back into her body when she collapsed.
Fiona sped out of the garage as the first fire truck turned the corner.
“CCTV!” Nessa said in a sudden panic.
“Forget about it. There are only cameras at the entrance and exit. After I dropped you off to wait for the fire lady, I blacked them out with lipstick before driving in. We’re clear.”
Maybe having a black magic witch on probation wasn’t such a bad thing.
Once they’d put some distance between themselves and the parking garage, Fiona pulled over. Nessa got the handcuffs and leg shackles on Mrs. Kowalski. The leg shackles seemed a little excessive. Barracuda had been clear about using them. Skips could still run in handcuffs.
Nessa called her boss back.
“Do I hear sirens?” he barked. “Those better not be the police.”
“Um, fire trucks. Not near us though.”
“Hmph. What are you about? This was a simple apprehension.”
“It wasn’t so simple,” Nessa started to say.
“Save it. Is she awake?”
“When she wakes up, take her to the police station. Turn her in and get a receipt.”
He clicked off again.
Fiona took one of the stun guns out of the Dior handbag. She had several glammed-up Tasers with designer logos. “If she tries to start a fire in my car, I am going to zap her so far back into dreamland she’ll think disco never died.”
Mrs. Kowalski blinked her eyes open a couple of minutes later looking around blearily.
“I don’t feel so good,” she wheezed.
Nessa and Fiona gave each other alarmed looks. They dragged Mrs. Kowalski out by her feet just in time.
When the heaving finally subsided, Mrs. Kowalski said, “Where am I?” Her speech was slurred and her eyes unfocused. At least flames weren’t shooting out of her eyeballs anymore.
Nessa explained the events of the evening.
“I did what?”
“You threw freaking fireballs at us,” Fiona shouted, wagging her finger at the woman. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Fireballs?” She shook her head. “No, no. That doesn’t sound like me. I don’t remember that at all. I never hurt anyone with my fires. I just like burning things.”
Fiona whipped out her phone, tapping it. “Look.”
A movie of Mrs. Kowalski, four arms windmilling in a ring of fire, lit up the screen.
“You filmed it?” Nessa pointed an accusing finger at Fiona. “While we were being firebombed?”
“Meow, meow, meow?” said Pim angrily.
Fiona made a face, “Well, duh!”
“You can’t share that on social media.”
Fiona sniffed, “Sure I can. Anonymous website. Nobody can find me. Not stupid, you know. I’ve already got twenty thousand followers for my magical bounty hunting blog. This will take it viral.”
“The Infernal Court won’t be pleased.”
“How will they know?”
The film showed the trashcans shooting up in the air and Mrs. Kowalski winced.
“Oh my.” She sounded sincerely upset.
“Were you high?” Fiona asked looking from the screen to the older woman. “Because you look high.”
What she looked like was crazed: eyes burning, smoke shooting out of her nostrils, fireballs rocketing across the tarmac.
“No, certainly not.” Mrs. Kowalski pressed her lips together. “Really, young lady. What kind of a person do you think I am?”
“You’re not really a person,” Fiona pointed out. “You're a demon.”
Mrs. Kowalski sniffed, “Words. I consider myself a person. I’ve lived in the human world for over a century. My husband was human, rest his soul. And I do not do drugs.”
Fiona snorted, “Yeah, sure.”
“What’s the last thing you remember clearly?” Nessa asked.
Mrs. Kowalski screwed up her face until her wrinkles had wrinkles finally saying, “Before work, I ate dinner. Then I took my supplements.”
“With vodka?” suggested Fiona snidely.
Nessa elbowed her.
Fiona frowned. “What? It’s got to be something.”
Mrs. Kowalski continued like she hadn’t heard Fiona. “I’m not as young as I used to be. It’s hard to find the energy to keep working the late shift at the restaurant day after day but Social Security only goes so far.”
Nessa helped Ms. Kowalski into the backseat as Fiona got behind the wheel once more.
“Then… let’s see… I had that energy drink,” she said, trying to adjust her manacled feet. “That’s right. I got a free sample and I had it in my purse. When I finished my shift at the restaurant, I took it out and drank it. Tasted real good,” she smacked her lips. “Real good. Drank it right up. And you know what? I did feel better. Like I could do anything. Not a care in the world.”
“Drugs,” Fiona snorted.
“What drink was this?” Nessa asked as she and Pim settled themselves in the front seat.
The woman screwed up her face thinking. “Buzz, buzzy, buzzing…Big buzzing. The label was purple with I think a bee on it. Anyway, something with buzz.”
“Buzzed is right,” Fiona said putting the car in gear. “Buzzed out of her mind.”