After Colwyn and Alex returned from the morgue with the corpse of Jack Willingham, Jacob commandeered it, wheeling the unfortunate realtor into the embalming room. They waited for his report in Colwyn's office. Alex was glad to see the glaring Marta had left for the day.
“She knows what y'all are,” she said to Colwyn, who sat behind his desk. He thumbed through a catalog featuring caskets, making notes on a legal pad.
“She should. She's been Jacob's significant other for several years.”
That tidbit, offered so casually, startled Alex. “But she seems so intelligent … so confident.”
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Why does that surprise you?”
“In my experience, most humans who get into relationships with demi-demons are abused so the demon can feed on their fear.”
“Not all of the demon blood are sadists. Jacob treats Marta very well.”
Alex knew many victims were unaware of their lovers' hellish ancestry until it was too late. In such instances, humans were kept in the relationships with threats by their demonic lovers. Such had been the case with her own foster mother, a crumbling husk of a woman.
Marta didn't seem to be the pathetic broken creature that usually chose a demonic lover. Alex's brief contact with the woman had given her the impression of a self-assured person. Not only that, she'd sensed a fierce protectiveness for the Planters from the receptionist.
Alex considered questioning Colwyn more about the situation then thought better of it. The reason Marta kept company with Jacob wasn't her concern; the potential threat the woman posed was. Still, the subject had a morbid allure.
“What about you?” Alex asked, keeping the fascination from her tone.
“My wife died seven years ago. No one's been worth my time since then.” Colwyn kept his eyes on the catalog.
“Was she human?”
Shock again, but Alex kept her voice even. “Did she know your ancestry?”
“Of course.” Colwyn turned a page. “We couldn't be married for nearly fifty years without her noticing how slowly I aged. I told her as soon as I realized how deeply I felt for her.”
“That must have been an interesting conversation.”
He didn't respond. She considered dropping the subject then decided to ask one last question. “How'd she die?”
“Heart attack. She was 65 years old.”
Alex looked at him. Colwyn’s age was impossible to gauge; he might have been anywhere from 30 to 45 years old.
Colwyn switched on a brass desk lamp and glanced at her. “I'm 80 if you're wondering.”
“Yeah, I was.”
He stared at her thoughtfully. Alex wanted to fidget and fought the urge.
He asked, “Is an interrogation standard procedure in dealing with demi-demons?”
Alex started to shift in her chair and made herself sit still. “No, I guess not.”
“Simple curiosity then?”
She looked Colwyn directly in the eye. “I have a hard time imagining anyone with an ounce of self-esteem choosing to be with one of you of their own free will.”
“Brutally honest, aren't you?” The corners of his lips twitched with suppressed amusement.
“We're in a position where it would be a hazard to be anything else.”
“Agreed. Still, if you're that way normally, I feel sympathy for your better half.”
Her chin lifted. “I don't have one. As a Segreto I took a vow of chastity.” Alex waited for Colwyn to laugh.
He didn't. “I see. Well, we all have our faults.” He grinned. “I'm only kidding, so don't look so outraged. You should relax a little, Miss Williams. You'll live longer.”
“Thanks. I’ll take your advice under consideration.”
He snorted laughter. “Do you drink? There's a bar in the corner. Help yourself.”
A drink sounded good, especially after his unexpected teasing. Alex wished Colwyn didn't have a sense of humor. It made him seem too much like a human. She stood with as much dignity as she could muster and stepped over to the well stocked bar. She felt him watch her as she searched around and grabbed a beer out of the small refrigerator. “Plenty of booze here. Is the funeral business that stressful?”
“Many of our clients' families appreciate a drink.”
“I bet. Not a drinker yourself?”
“Jacob and I sometimes have something at the end of the day, but we rarely go overboard. We've buried too many victims of drunk drivers to go that route.”
The conversation died. Colwyn returned to his catalog while Alex roamed the room. She inspected the oil paintings that decorated the walls and admired the landscapes. The scenes appeared so idyllic that she ran her fingers over the rough pigment of one to reassure herself of its hard reality.
“You like that one,” Colwyn said from his desk. She turned to see him watching her. Cold prickled her skin.
“It's very nice.”
“It's one of my favorites. I bought it from a young painter in France back in the early sixties. I'm no artist myself, but I think he might have become one of the greats if he hadn't overdosed a few years later.”
Alex looked away from him and back at the painting. The story of its creator's untimely end lent it additional poignancy. “Quite the tragedy.”
“Yes, it was.” The feeling in his voice made her heart lurch.
Afraid to meet Colwyn’s intense stare again, Alex spoke with her back to him. “I'd think it wouldn't have much effect on you. You deal with death on a daily basis.”
“Death wears two faces, Ms. Williams. One is tragedy, the other is release. Release occurs after a life fulfills its promise and becomes more tedium than joy. Tragedy, which happens all too often, is a life cut short before its potential has been reached.”
“My sister also painted beautifully. Perhaps she could have been a great artist too, but we'll never know now. I call her death a tragedy. Which do you think it was?”
The veiled accusation brought Alex around to face Colwyn. He watched her, his gaze calm but watchful. Before she could think of a response, the increased vibration of her demon recognition heralded Jacob's entrance. She gaped.
The giant demi-demon stumbled in to lean against the door frame. His face chalky, he staggered towards the desk.
Colwyn jumped to his feet. “Are you all right?”
“Just – just need to sit down,” Jacob gasped.
He collapsed in a chair. Colwyn hurried to the bar, poured a huge glass of whiskey, and rushed it to his brother's side. Jacob took it with shaking hands and swallowed a mouthful. Alex came as close to them as she could before the thrumming in her body swelled to an uncomfortable level.
She said, “I don't have to ask if it was Lilith. You look like hell.”
Colwyn perched on the edge of his desk and glared at his brother. “I thought you'd be better prepared after last time. If I'd known this was going to happen, I'd have babysat you.”
“I was prepared. Something weird is going on.” Jacob shuddered. “I'd swear her power is strengthening. The force coming from this body was much worse than the first one.”
Alex controlled a shiver. “How could that be? Is it because this death's more recent?”
Jacob gulped more whiskey, draining the glass. “So little elapsed time's never made much of a difference before. I'll be damned if I know what's going on.” He looked Alex up and down. “Are you sure you can stand against her?”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I don't have much choice, do I? Otherwise, we all buy the farm.”
He grunted disbelieving laughter. “Right now my money's on Lilith.”
“Don't give up just yet. She's been defeated before,” Colwyn reminded him.
“Right,” Alex agreed. She opened the closet and pulled her jacket out. “And for now she's got no idea we're on to her. That's a huge advantage that I'm determined to make use of.”
“You're leaving?” Colwyn frowned.
“I'm sure you'll miss me, but I've got to start checking Willingham's files to see what places he's rented to women. Got a pen and paper?”
“Here.” He handed her a memo pad and a pen from his desk. Alex scribbled her phone number and handed it back. Colwyn’s hand brushed hers, and the jolt it sent through her body made her jump.
She stammered, “Call me if anything else shows up.”
“What will you do when you find her?”
“What I'm supposed to. I'll try to banish her back to the ether and buy us another few years of peace.”
“Alone?” Colwyn’s frown deepened.
“That's pretty much the plan.” She shrugged her jacket on.
Jacob snorted. “Huh. Fat chance.”
Colwyn folded his arms over his chest. “I want to go with you when you confront her.”
Alex stared up at him. “Why? Men can't—”
“I know, we have no power over her. But if there's anything I can do to help get rid of her, even if it's just to distract her long enough for you to do some damage, I'd like to.” Colwyn smiled a little at her open-mouthed astonishment. “Remember, we've got just as much to lose as you.”
Jacob shot to his feet, his face a thundercloud of rage. “Damn it, Colwyn, you'll get yourself killed. Let her handle it. She's the trained murderer.”
The elder Planter glared back. “Two seconds ago you didn't seem so confident of her abilities.”
“Well, maybe I was wrong.” Jacob gave Alex such a look of hatred that she gasped. “Say I am mistaken and she does defeat Lilith. What's to keep her from turning around and destroying you? When she's finished with Lilith our use to her is done. We'll be just two more demi-demons to be slaughtered.”
Both men stared down at her, and their hard eyes drove Alex back one involuntary step. “I thought we'd called a truce.”
Colwyn nodded, but his expression remained calculating. “We did, and as far as I'm concerned it still stands.”
“And you?” she asked Jacob.
His face, so placid earlier that day, wrenched into a snarl. “I don't like you or what you stand for, which is nothing less than genocide. Yes, we're demonkind and we feed on pain, but not all of us cause pain. Yet you still kill us indiscriminately! Who are you to decide whether we deserve to live or die? Who punishes you for your crimes?”
His muscles bunched with tension, straining the seams of his shirt. “If Lilith wasn't such a threat, I'd pass my own judgment on you.”
The agony behind the thin veneer of Jacob’s anger shocked Alex. She'd never expected such an honest emotion from one of them. Heaven forgive her, she almost felt sorry for him. “Mr. Planter, I'm not the person who killed your sister.”
The sudden fury on his face sent her hand diving into her shirt for her crucifix. Before she could yank it out, he turned on his heel and stormed out of the room.
Colwyn's expression remained impassive as he watched her. She withdrew her empty hand from the neck of her shirt.
“You came armed.”
“I'd be a fool not to have. But only for my own protection, not to antagonize y'all.” Alex rubbed her forehead. “I thought your brother was going to attack me.”
“Jacob's upset from the exposure to Lilith's power, plus the whiskey did him more harm than good. He's usually laid back, but when he does explode, look out.” Colwyn’s eyes glared into hers. “He makes a good point about the probability of you turning on me, you know.”
Alex shrugged. She had every intention of exterminating the brothers the first chance she got. “It could work both ways. Once I get rid of Lilith, you could very well do the same to me.”
“That's true. I suppose we can't guarantee each other's safety in any case.”
Alex licked her lips. “Tell me, do you hate me as much as your brother does?”
Colwyn took so long to reply that she thought he wouldn't. After a long pause he said, “It's very hard not to. It's true you personally didn't kill Lena but if you came across her today, you'd do so, wouldn't you?”
The question dismayed her. Still, he expected an answer, and she had only one to give. “Yes, I would.”
They stared at each other, their faces grim. Alex wished she could leave, but instinct told her this conversation wasn't over yet. Finally Colwyn shook his head and sighed. “At least I can count on that honesty of yours, which is more than I'd have given any Segreto credit for. My offer to help remains. Should you decide to take me up on it, just call.”
She nodded, and at last her feet carried her toward the door. “I'll consider it. Good night, Mr. Planter.”
He didn't answer. Alex hurried from the funeral home.