Belling the Cat

Prompt: Character Buildinator - Thief/Adventurer/Demon/Cat Lover

(This is not a new character for me. But I couldn't resist when I saw what the Buildinator produced.)

This story starts at a place called Scarlet's. Y'know, Scarlet's is probably the nicest club in the infinite multiverse, though most folks ain't gonna find the atmosphere particularly welcomin'. The regulars are usually armed to the teeth and a little skittish.

See, Scarlet's caters to very specific clientele, namely, folks what kill other folks for a livin'. Now to be fair, I ain't a member of the Assassin's Guild myself. But without me, all those Brothers and Sisters would sure be hurtin' for work. Outta respect, they buy me drinks when I come in. Wasn't always that way, of course.

But if you were to visit Scarlet's right now, and look real close at the bar back, you'd notice there's a piece of creepy taxidermy just above the good scotch. It's a mouse holdin' a bell, and underneath it is the beginnin' of a long tally. The Assassin's Guild actually keeps track of how many times I've kicked the bucket. Last time I saw it, that tally went around the room eleven times, and Scarlet's ain't exactly small. This tradition got started cause Scarlet herself was with me the first time I died. In fact, she's the one who gave me my name. That night more or less set the pattern for the rest of my life, cause ever since then I've been gettin' iced by dames, or because of dames.

There are lots of ways to die, some bad, some a little worse. Good ways, I don't think there are any. But if you gotta go, lyin' in the arms of a beautiful woman is maybe the best way there is.

I speak as an authority on the subject, bein' Death.

So, no shit, there I was, playin' cards with three assassins includin' Scarlet herself, when outta St. Claire's mouth comes the worst idea ever conceived of in the mind of man. Now, I say this from my present perspective. At the time I heard it, St. Claire's plan didn't sound too bad to me. The thing about bein' young is, most young people figure they're immortal. A near-death experience is what puts the fear in you, because when you come back, you've gotta process the fact that all you saw on the other side was dark.

"St. Claire," Scarlet said, puffing on her cigar. "You dumb piece of shit." She used the same tone somebody nicer mighta used if they was informin' you of the death of your mother. Spoke real slow, and made those words burn a bit. "Who's gonna do it?"

St. Claire didn't look happy with the way Scarlet shut him down. I wasn't well-acquainted with the man, but he had a feral look about him what told me probably didn't eat regular and didn't go out much in daylight. He wore a real flashy red suit, which limited his likely occupations to pimp or drug dealer, and he walked with a cane that looked like a silver snake. Accordin' to Scarlet, he wasn't a Snake, but knowin' that didn't make me like em' any better.

Anyway, I'm gettin' ahead of myself.

Right then, St. Claire was talkin' our ears off, but I was occupied chiefly with admirin' Scarlet's magnificent tits. She was dressed in a little skin-tight number covered in gold sequins. My brother Dante hadn't told me nothin' about how she looked. That was a real testament to her efficiency in wetwork, cause Scarlet is a dark-chocolate Venus with legs that go on for days, and lips that any red-blooded man would lick poison right off of. Of course, it ain't likely that you'd get close enough to kiss her if she meant to kill you, considerin' that before she opened her club, Scarlet made her livin' as a sniper.

Now, keep in mind that at the time of this particular story, I was brand-new to the Brotherhood. I had maybe three or four runs under my belt and was still carryin' a gun, not because I could use it, but because I thought it made me look tough and didn't realize what a goddamn liability it was. I felt like I'd been blessed by all the saints and angels, sittin' at a table with Emmanuel St. Claire, Scarlet Le Roi, and Rembrandt Fajatu. Truth was, I was only in cause Scarlet liked playin' Euchere, and Dizzy Kaufman, unbeknownst to all of us, was busy gettin' his brains blown out at the time.

"You're asking us to bell a cat, Saint," Rembrandt said.

Rembrandt was the fourth man in our game. I stared at him longer than I should have. He's weird lookin'. His skin's kinda blue and he's got these fishy-lookin' eyes with pupils that don't quite track. Like St. Claire, he was a tacky dresser. Under his long white coat, he was wearin' some sort of shiny, bullshit lounge-wear shirt. Don't tell em' I said so, but he kinda reminds me of the Frostmeiser in those ol' Christmas specials.

"Whaddya mean, bell a cat?" I asked, cause I was an idiot.

"It's an old story. A bunch of mice planned to put a bell around the neck of a cat. That way, they'd be warned if the cat was coming. Trouble was, the mice couldn't decided which of them would risk death to get that bell tied on," Scarlet explained.

"I'm willing to pay," St. Claire said. From the suspicious looks Scarlet and Rembrandt gave him, I gathered that whatever he was offering wouldn't be nearly enough.

"How much?" Rembrandt asked.

"$750,000. Each," St. Claire replied.

I damn near gagged on my drink. Back in those days, I was lucky if I made a few hundred bucks a week. "I'll do it," I said, not havin' the slightest idea what I was agreein' to.

Scarlet cackled. "Oh lord, kid, no! You've got no idea what he's asking!"

"So?" I replied, tryin' to salvage what was left of my pride. I didn't like that Scarlet had called me "kid". Of course, some Etone are a lot older than they look, and whether I liked it or not, I was a "kid" when it came to understanding our business. "That's good money. I'll do it!"

St. Claire smiled slightly. He slid a paper across the table, and I took a look at it. It was a picture of a man. Long hair, real pale. He was sittin' in a nightclub booth with two women, both of em' smokin' hot, and the way he casually leaned back made it seem like he was comfortable, like that sort of thing was normal for him. I was sure he was rich, but he looked like he got dressed at a thrift shop, in a stupid shiny shirt like Rembrandt's which showed off most of his chest. Looked like he probably worked out, but I didn't get the impression that he washed too often. Notably, he had a pair of cat ears what seemed like they were stuck on his head. Ears might've been fake, or they might've been shoddy shapeshifting. It was hard to tell.

"So who's this guy?" I asked.

"Your mark," St. Claire told me. "That's all you need to know. Now, you're not going to start a fight with him. Hell, if you're smart, you're not even going to talk to him. He'll be at Day Owls tomorrow night. All you have to do is wait until he's distracted, and get close enough to hit him with this."

Hearin' the words "Day Owls", I perked up a little. I was real familiar with that club, on account that several of my friends worked there. It was as if the powers that be were givin' me everything I needed to be movin' up in the world.

St. Claire pushed somethin' that looked like a jewelry box across the table and I opened it. Inside was a glowing syringe filled with whitish liquid.

I felt a little touch of the grave, though I didn't know what that sensation was at the time. Still, $750,000 was a lot of money, more than I'd ever seen in my life. "What is this? Poison?"

"It's the bell for our cat," St. Claire said. "Nanites. Tiny robots."

I must've given him quite a look, because that sounded like crazy shit to me.

St. Claire lit a cigarette. "Do I need to sweeten the deal?" He asked.

I hesitated. "If I'm gonna risk pissin' this guy off, it'd help me to know if he's comin'. How do I hear your bell ring?"

"I'll give you a password," St. Claire said. "It will allow you to access his location coordinates from your link. You should have a reasonable head start if he decides to hunt you down."

Scarlet smiled slightly. St. Claire had obviously sparked her interest.

"Heh. If you take this job, you'll need that," Rembrandt said. It was the first he'd said in a while. He was looking over my shoulder at the photo, and obviously he knew who the mark was. "You know, Saint, when you first got started about tagging a member of the Family, I figured you meant one of the kids, not Panther. Him I would not fuck with," he added, notably lookin' at Scarlet and myself.

"Panther?" I echoed, trying the name out. I'd heard it before. He was a heavy hitter. A guy like that, it made sense that a lot of folks would like to know what business he got up to. I suddenly understood the reason for the "bell".

Scarlet blew a smoke ring. She seemed to be considering the deal, tracing one of the girls in the picture with her long red nails. Probably, she could get close to the man if she flirted with him. That'd be a helluva distraction. St. Claire's plan began to sound even better.

Scarlet turned to me. Surprised, I sucked half my drink up my nose. "Are you sure you're up to this?" She asked.

"Yeah," I said, feelin' brave. "I can do it. My buddy Dante is a bartender at Day Owls. That place is real dark, and way too crowded. If Scarlet distract em', I can stick em'."

I stared for a long while at the picture in front of me, still stewin' on the name "Panther" and Scarlet's little story about the mice wantin' to stick a bell on a cat. The cat name wasn't lost on me. It was a spooky coincidence, if it was a coincidence. I kinda suspected I'd stumbled into a setup, but it still seemed like it could be worth the risk. "There's one thing I wanna know. What do you get out of stalkin' this guy?" I wondered.

"It's Family business," St. Claire replied. "I could explain, but you still wouldn't understand."

Rembrandt had also mentioned "the Family", not that I knew what that was.

"Can I talk to you for a minute? In private?" Scarlet asked, tugging on my arm. I obediently followed her around the back of the bar.

"Kid," she said. "We are better off not knowin' why we're doin' this job."

"So we're doing it?" I asked.

Scarlet nodded. "St. Claire is offering us a lot more than he thinks. If we get that password, we can know where Panther's gonna be at any given time. We could sell that intel to every hitman in the multiverse. And because none of em' are going to succeed, it'd be the gift that keeps on giving," Scarlet replied. "I can think of at least five people who'd pay half a million, easy, if they could know when and where to find em' alone."

"You don't think anyone would just kill him?" I wondered uneasily. "This guy death-proof?"

"Nobody's death-proof," Scarlet shrugged. "But killing Panther ain't gonna be easy. He's a helluva thief. Got reflexes you wouldn't believe. He can fight, and he knows some wicked magic. Also, he's got a thing for cats."

"Why does that matter?" I wondered.

"Well, cause I've heard they call em' "Panther" because he can turn into one," Scarlet explained. "He's a shapeshifter, and whatever he really is, it ain't human. If we fuck this up, Rembrandt's right. There's a good chance he'll kill us."

That bit of information did not sit well with me. St. Claire must've guessed I was getting cold feet, because he gave me a look from across the room.

We returned to the table.

"So... Rembrandt?" St. Claire asked.

"Not a chance. Have fun, idiots. Don't say I didn't warn you." He pushed his chair out and left the table.

"Rembrandt!" Scarlet protested. When we heard the front door slam, she stared at his cards lying face-up on the table and frowned. "I hate when he does that," she complained. "We weren't finished with our game!"

"Business before pleasure, dear," St. Claire said. "We can start again when Dizzy gets here."

Dizzy, notably, wasn't ever gonna play Euchere again, but that was somethin' none of us knew.

"What about you two?" St. Claire asked.

Scarlet gave me a sly little wink and the temperature in that little room shot up by a thousand degrees. If I hadn't been willin' to do the job for the money alone, I would have done it for her at that moment. "I'll be the bait. I'll get your mark into place, but I'm not going to be the one to pull the trigger. Plausible deniability, you understand. My price is that password."

I still couldn't guess why nobody but me seemed to care about the cash.

"Good. You know, an opportunity like this doesn't come knocking every day," St. Claire said. "What about you, kid? Are you still in, or do I need to sweeten the deal?"

I considered.

"I dunno. Could you make me death-proof?" I asked, makin' a little joke.

A great big grin spread across his face. I figured at the time, he thought I was funny. Maybe he liked my spunk. Maybe he knew all along, what was gonna happen next. I got no idea. Not that it matters.

Suffice to say, you should be careful what you wish for when you're drinkin' with a god.

The line was real long at Day Owls. Maybe a hundred people snaked halfway down the block, and security guards were everywhere. I heard somebody say it was DJ Evermix spinning. That explained the usual club crawlers… but there were also dozens of wannabe Etone on the street.

Even bein' relatively new to the Brotherhood, I knew how to spot someone posin'. No self-resepectin' dimension traveler wears a coat that don't zip, or shoes that aren't good for runnin'. The girls in particular were always missin' links, because links are heavy, ugly, and goddamn expensive.

However, they're also a necessity out in the Dark. I rubbed a little dirt off of my link, and rolled my right sleeve up just a little. I didn't want to look like I was showin' off, but I wanted to make it clear that I wasn't just one of the "kids".

Y'see, at that time I still hadn't made a name for myself. I was workin' on gettin' a contract from the Coven of Darkness, which was part of the reason I spent so much time around Day Owls, hasslin' Dante. He didn't seem to mind too much, so long as I remembered to give him a good tip at the end of the night. Dante never did give me much advice, except to come up with a good name. I gave a lot of thought to namin' myself, but nothin' sit particularly well with me.

The other thing that didn't sit well with me was the syringe full of tiny robots in my pocket.

I might've done a little unnecessary rockin' back and forth, because I was real uncomfortable. To be fair, I would've been more nervous if the place had been a nada club. Places like that, they search you for drugs or weapons at the door. The best thing about Etone joints is that if you're flashy enough, you can walk right in with a fuckin' bazooka.

I kinda shuffled my way into the back of the line, bein' careful not to cut anyone real big or mean-looking.

"What are you doing, kid?" Scarlet demanded.

I slowly turned.

Scarlet had just gotten out of a cab, and she'd cut everyone. Nobody was complainin', and a couple fools were even snappin' pictures. The minute I laid eyes on her, I couldn't look at nothin' else.

She was wearin' a stupidly short red dress that clung to her curves like a second skin, a rhinestone-encrusted link with all kinds of crazy modifications, and battered combat boots. Her coat said "Scarlet" on the back in cursive. Underneath her name was a skull and crossbones, except the bones were a pair of rifles.

I couldn't help but stare at the Walther PPK she was openly carrying. You don't gotta be a firearms expert to recognize James Bond's gun.

If Day Owls had a red carpet, they would've rolled it out for her. She was spectacular.

The doorman gave me a look as I followed Scarlet inside, like maybe he'd be rememberin' me in the future.

Considerin' how much of my life I'd spent bein' relatively insignificant, it was a shock, suddenly bein' somebody. Or rather, bein' with somebody. Not that I resented Scarlet. In fact, I was kinda hopin' we'd get to know each other better. That, of course, hinged on me not fuckin' up our job.

Once we were inside, I went to the bar. My buddy Dante gave me a look, and I realized he'd seen me walk in with Scarlet, who was busy making her way to the back, where all the heavy-hitters sat in their curtained booths. When she found our mark, she was gonna order a gin rickey. I wasn't sure if that was a real drink or code for somethin' else, but I could keep my ears open.

At that point, we'd meet in the center of the dance floor. Scarlet would bring our mark with her, and I'd get the syringe in him. To keep from blowing her cover, Scarlet would pretend to be horrified, help the old man lick his wounds, and then meet me back at her place before midnight.

It seemed foolproof.

Word to the wise. Shit that seems foolproof never is.

The club got real loud when the DJ started spinnin', and the strobe lights made the dance floor feel a little bit like it was fallin' toward the ceilin'.

It took me a minute to realize I'd walked right into an arcane fog. It's similar to the sensation of lyin' on the grass lookin' at the night sky and gettin' sucked up into it. Strictly speakin', magic users ain't supposed to fog public places, cause a magical high is worse than gettin' dosed with drugs. The assholes that do it think they're addin' to the energy or some shit. To be fair, there are folks who'll pay loads of money to get high on magic. Other, like me, ain't keen on it. I felt glued to the floor, and not in a good way. I never did hear Scarlet's drink order, and it wasn't till a girl elbowed me in the kidneys that I stumbled off the dance floor.

I fell face-first into the chest of a guy a full head taller than me. He didn't move an inch, despite the fact that I was practically hangin' from his shirt as the real world came rushin' back up around me. I mighta puked on his shoes, but he didn't react if I did.

"Are you all right?" The guy asked, helpin' me stand.

"Yeah, yeah," I told him, as I slowly got my head on straight. "Stay off that floor, brother. Some spellslinger is foggin' the shit out of it."

"Egh. Come sit over here," he offered, leadin' me towards a booth. I sat. More accurately, the guy plunked me down. Like I was a little doll he was puttin' on a shelf.

Now, I'm not a small guy, but I sure felt like one. The man who'd helped me out was at least six foot four, and as I'd observed from fallin' on him, he was stupidly strong. When I our eyes met, I felt that dizzying sensation again. Wasn't him foggin' up the dance floor, but he had magic in em'. Old, raw, powerful magic.

It wasn't till I saw that he was wearin' a trashy-lookin' red disco shirt and cat ears that I realized who he was.


Scarlet was already sittin' in the booth across from me. She looked worried when she caught sight of me, but when Panther glanced at her, that little bit of concern evaporated an' she was strictly business.

"Can we get a glass of water over here?" She asked a waitress.

The waitress nodded.

"Give him some space," Panther said.

His entourage scattered.

I figured him for forty or so, lookin' him over. Catchin' his eyes, I didn't want to guess. I could feel time just bleedin' off him. I realized I'd had that same sort of feelin' meetin' St. Claire, and I wondered what that meant.

"Drink up," Panther offered me water when the waitress brought it to him.

"Thanks," I sighed. "God, I hate fog. Messes with my head somethin' fierce."

"Mine as well," Panther nodded. "If I learn who cast that spell, I think I'll teach them a thing or two."

"You a magic-user?" I asked, though I already knew the answer to that. I remembered St. Claire's warning back at Scarlet's. If I was smart, he said, I wouldn't even talk to Panther.

My fingertips brushed the syringe in my pocket.

It was the perfect opportunity. My mark was right there. Even still, I hesitated.

There was somethin' so likeable about em', and that bothered me. I wondered if maybe I oughta be tryin' to get in his good graces rather than stickin' a needle in em' and pissin' em' off. $750,000 was a whole lotta cash, but workin' for somebody like Panther, a brother didn't need money. Trade in favors was the core of the Brotherhood anyway. It seemed better somehow, to be livin' off respect.

Of course, that was when I saw Dante out of the corner of my eye. He was ignorin' the bar, and his boss was sittin' right next to him sippin' on a Bloody Mary what was probably more Type O than tomato juice. The fact that ol' Germaine was also starin' at me told me everything I needed to know. Though I didn't see all of em', a whole lot of people were probably watchin' to see whether or not I had the balls to do what St. Claire had hired me to do.

I had to do it.

I took a deep breath and jammed the syringe into Panther's arm. The smile on his face evaporated. He didn't say one word, but I realized in a heartbeat that I'd made a serious mistake. Like he was brushin' dust off his shirt, he casually whacked me with the back of his hand.

It was like gettin' hit by a fuckin' train. I flew twenty feet into the stage, and slammed into an amp. Sparks went everywhere, and a whole pile of equipment jumbled up behind me. Nothin' I hit would slow me down, till I went into the concrete wall.

Scarlet screamed, and she wasn't the only one. The club started emptyin' fast. The only folks not runnin' were reachin' for weapons.

I got no idea what happened next. For a solid minute, all I was capable of percievin' was pain.

"I'm good," I said, standin' up. "I'm good."

Everyone stared at me. The music had stopped when Panther backhanded me, but when I got back up, the lights all came on.

Scarlet had her gun drawn, and her hand was shakin' as she lowered it.

About that time, I felt a weird sort of suckin' pain in the middle of my back. Somethin' clunked to the floor and I realized it was a microphone stand. The front of my shirt was wet with blood. My coat had a gapin' hole in the back.

I'd been fuckin' impaled.

I was dead.

My legs went out from under me as I realized that. Scarlet rushed over to my side.

"Shit, kid," she said, wiping my face with her sleeve. "Don't move, okay? Get a cleric!" She yelled.

The world started to go dark... and then it didn't.

I started feelin' a little steadier, and I guessed that the metal had missed my vitals. I saw the back door swingin' on its hinges and realized that Panther had left the club.

The syringe with half the fluid in it was still in my hand, and I realized I hadn't finished what I'd set out to do. I forced myself to my feet.

"Damnit, kid!" Scarlet protested. "What are you doing? You almost died!"

"I'm not a kid. I'm gonna get my fuckin' money," I said.

It was about at the door that I felt a weird itchin' sensation. I looked down at my chest, pulled my shirt aside, and saw that I wasn't hurt at all.

But if I wasn't almost dead, where the hell had all that blood had come from?

I chalked it up to the fog I'd sucked down on the dance floor. If I ever figured out who the magic-user was that'd caused me to start trippin' balls on the most important, reputation-formin' night of my life, I swore I'd shoot him.

The first step I took out the back door was followed by a bullet ricocheting off a dumpster not four feet to my left.

I tried to draw my own gun, but it wasn't in my pocket. Probably, it was somewhere in the pile of wrecked sound equipment, which seemed like it might also be the final resting place of one of my kidneys. I'd been too quick in assumin' that I was okay. Though I hadn't noticed it at first, I was still leakin' blood from somewhere.

Feeling my heart jackhammering in my ears, I held onto that syringe and looked around the corner.

Panther was standin' in the middle of the alley, illuminated by a single streetlight with his hands held over his head. Blocking his path to the street were a dozen guys in black suits.

Scarlet touched my shoulder. She put a finger to her lips, warning me to be quiet.

"Who are those guys?" I hissed.

"Snakes," Scarlet said. She sounded certain.

Members of the Nakhet Syndicate, better known as "Snakes", have got a pretty shitty reputation. Us Etone would rather deal with Peacekeepers, and that's sayin' something. If Snakes were tryin' to kill Panther, my first impression of him had probably been accurate. He was a good guy, and Scarlet and me were the ones on the wrong side.

"You think they're here because of the little robots?" I asked, staring at the syringe in my hand.

"That'd be way too quick. And Panther's got a lot of enemies," she reminded me.

"Yeah, well... I just added myself to that list," I grimaced.

"You know, we can walk away now," Scarlet told me.

"And piss off St. Claire by not finishin' his job?" I paused. I was tryin' from my hidin' place to work out what Panther was sayin' to the Snakes who had em' cornered, and wonderin' if anyone saw where Scarlet and I were. "I'll pass."

"Might be a way we can still work this to our advantage," Scarlet admitted. "Follow my lead." Slippery and quick, she used the dumpster and the shadows to her advantage. It was almost impossible to see her move, and she was real sparkly. Nobody even shot at her, but as soon as I stuck my head out, the bullets were flyin' again.

"Fuck!" I swore, collapsin' right at Scarlet's feet. "Are they shootin' at us or him?"

I couldn't see much around the dumpster, but I did get the impression that Panther hadn't moved an inch. He casually cracked his wrist and knuckles, first the left, and then the right. He notably wasn't carryin' a weapon, though from his attitude toward the gunman, it was obvious that he didn't expect to need one.

Despite all the bullets zinging around, Panther didn't blink. All he did was casually walk up to the first of the men in black, pick em' up, and separate his head an' spine from the rest of his body. Blood sprayed all the way over to where we were hidin'. Scarlet took a look at the situation, and picked two shots.

With her first, she took out a Snake.

With her second, she hit Panther square in the back of the head. His neck jerked forward. He staggered, but he didn't fall. Very slowly, he turned around and stared at us.

I stared at Scarlet. "I thought we weren't supposed to be killin' him," I said.

"We're not," she replied.

Panther did not look happy.

Scarlet blew him a kiss.

"Why are you shooting me?" Panther demanded.

"Testin' a theory," Scarlet replied. "Somebody did their homework. That syringe worked on you, but my gun won't."

"What was that you shoot into me?" Panther wrinkled his nose.

"A tracking serum," Scarlet replied.

His eyes narrowed. If I'd drank more than two sips of water, I would've pissed my pants.

A Snake, seein' that his bullets were bein' ignored, charged Panther with a katana.

Panther backhanded that idiot like he'd backhanded me, and that poor sucker flew through the air an' hit a power pole.

He turned back to us.

"Now, I'm very annoyed presently. You have thirty seconds to tell me why I shouldn't kill you," Panther said. He'd been nice enough, helpin' me off the dance floor, but at that moment, he was the single most terrifyin' individual I'd ever laid eyes on. He seemed to be gettin' bigger as I stared at him, and paler. His catlike features melted away, but he kept his long black claws, and his teeth were lookin' real sharp. His yellow eyes, which I'd taken for contact lenses or a fancy illusion, burned in the dark. Didn't have no horns or wings, but the way he carried himself said it all.

He was a goddamn demon.

"Well, we figured you might like to know who put us up to this," Scarlet replied.

Panther stopped. "And why would you give me that information?"

"Because we obviously can't shoot you and kill you dead," Scarlet replied.

Panther smiled slightly. Then he frowned. He realized that the Snakes were gone.

It made sense, really, that they'd run off after discoverin' their would-be victim was death-proof. Still, I got the sinkin' feelin' that we hadn't seen the worst of what was comin'. I heard the sound of a helicopter. Didn't think nothin' of it at first, but then I realized that it was closer than I thought, and its shadow was funny-lookin'. Instead of havin' flashin' police lights installed on it, that chopper was bristlin' with guns.

Scarlet's eyes got wide, and she dove back into the club.

Panther and I glanced at one another, realizin' what was about to happen at the exact moment it was too late to change anythin'.

We both went down in a hail of bullets.

When I tell people about the first time I died, I tell em' it was because I was at the wrong end of a machine gun. I usually leave out the part about the microphone stand. I ain't really sure that was a proper death anyway.

Gettin' shot to shit by the helicopter sure was though. All I remember thinkin' as the blackness hit me was… well, I guess this is it.

But it wasn't. Cause you know, if it was, I wouldn't have just told you this story.

When I came to, it was Scarlet that I saw first.

"Holy shit," she whispered. There was awe in her voice.

I slowly sat up. "What happened?"

"You were dead," Scarlet told me.

"For what, five minutes?" I hazarded a guess.

I felt weird, like half the bones in my body had been crushed, and they were just healin' all at once, at a rate I couldn't wrap my brain around.

"Try five hours," Scarlet replied.

That was when I realized we were in the morgue. The fluorescent lighting, industrial steel tables, and the general coldness of the place would've made it obvious where we were, even if it hadn't been for the half-dozen additional corpses covered with bloody sheets. A tattoo of a snake on one clammy hand told me that the bodies were our friends from the alley.

"Fuck," I said. It seemed like the thing to say.

My right arm was itching, and so I scratched it. A bullet fell out. The wound closed over quicker than I could process that it was actually there.

"You're regenerating," Scarlet observed.

"Guess so," I paused. It seemed like too much effort to move, so I stayed put.

"This ever happen to you before?" She pressed.

"No," I admitted. "Are you… really, really sure I was dead?"

Scarlet rolled up her sleeve to show me a bandage. "I got grazed, that's all. Four hours ago, your own mama wouldn't have recognized you."

"Hunh. Guess that explains my headache," I grimaced.

I slowly sat up. My hands were sticky, and my shirt was covered in blood, most of it, apparently, my own. Three more bullets, crushed from impacting somewhere in my body, tumbled out of my clothes and clattered harmlessly across the floor.

"How do you feel?" Scarlet asked.

The last of my wounds closed up, and I slowly stood. "Like death warmed over," I said. "That sucked. I need a drink."

"I'll buy," Scarlet offered. She opened up her coat, showin' me several great big wads of cash. Had to be a couple thousand dollars at least.

"Did St. Claire pay up?" I wondered, hopin' something good came of the mess I'd gotten myself into.

"Actually, Panther did," Scarlet replied.

"He's not dead either?" I wasn't sure if that should've surprised me or not.

"Death-proof, apparently. Like you," Scarlet shrugged. "And as it turns out, St. Claire is a relative of his, so he's more pissed at him than us. I suppose this is what we get for messin' with the Family."

"What exactly is the Family?" I wondered.

Scarlet grinned. "You really don't know?"

"Like you said, I'm a kid," I told her. I didn't like admittin' that, but it felt necessary. See, the first step to movin' up in the world is to acknowledge where you actually are, which for me meant absorbin' the fact that I was sittin' in a morgue on account of my own stupidity, and only still alive because St. Claire had apparently "sweetened" my deal with him. Couldn't figure how he'd done it, till Scarlet told me.

"Well, the Family are demons, but they're not your normal demons. They think they're the children of the Goddess of Chaos," Scarlet admitted. "And we ain't so sure they're wrong."

"Shit," I said.

There wasn't nothing else I could say to something like that.

"So it was St. Claire that made me death-proof?" I wondered.

"Could've been. Could've been you were always immortal," Scarlet shrugged. "How would you know if you'd never died before?"

Immortal is a helluva word. I stewed on that one for a long while.

Finally, I slid off the table. Somethin' jingled, and I realized there was a bell tied around my wrist.

"What's this?" I asked.

"Coroner put it on you," Scarlet replied. "Apparently, the walkin' dead are a real problem in this town."

"Well, that's a relief. I thought you were gonna say a mouse did it," I admitted. It was a little joke, or at least as much of one as I could manage considerin' the circumstances. I had no notion of how death-proof I really was, not then, but I was absolutely certain that nothin' in my life would ever be the same.

Scarlet grinned very broadly.

"Well," Scarlet said. "We'd better get out of here before the coroner gets back. C'mon, Death."

I stared at her. I heard what she'd said all right, and what came to my mind first was an image of the grim reaper with his scythe. When I looked down at what was left of my own shirt, that image sorta changed into somethin' I'd seen in a Tarantino movie once, a pissed-off gunman in a sharp black suit and tie, all his shit completely soaked in blood. I suddenly felt under dressed.

"Did you just call me Death?" I asked.

"I never did get your name," Scarlet winked.

Arm in arm, we staggered off to find some place where we could still get booze at three in the morning.