The creaking stairs blew dust in the late autumn air as Chelsea followed her dog into the building. “Seriously, Bent, you need to drink less. Walking you up and down these stairs is killing me.”
The third floor came quickly, despite her bitching. Bentley had slipped his collar and leash as soon as they came inside and now loped ahead of her. He butted the doorknob on Amber’s apartment twice.
“Coming, you obnoxious shit.” Amber’s words were irritated, but the affection was plain in her voice and face as she opened the door.
Chelsea found herself beaming as Bentley yipped and headed inside. “He’s got you as trained as Andy.”
Amber smirked at her. “Didn’t you ask his opinion on your shirt this morning?”
Chelsea laughed. “Well, mostly, it’s just the two of us, so I guess I just got in the habit of talking to him.”
“And he talks back.” Amber shook her head. “Just the two of you, huh?”
Disappointed littered her good mood. Of course Amber wanted to talk now; Chelsea had somewhere to be. “Most of my partners have been short term since I hit the road.”
“When was that? You talk about it like it’s been forever.”
“Right after you…” Chelsea sighed. “I took off after you did. Been living out of my car ever since. I found Bentley, well, about a year ago now.”
Amber swallowed, her face tight. Before she could work up the courage to ask whatever it was, Chelsea kept talking. “Andy called while I was out. I just wanted to change my shoes.”
“And take off those earrings, right?”
Chelsea shook her head, feeling the weight of the copper hoops as they swung. “I guess. Wouldn’t be the first time I wore them in a fight.”
“You’re gonna lose an ear.”
“Oh my Christ.” She giggled suddenly. “Keegan would never stop with the Van Gogh jokes.”
Amber chuckled as well. “You two still talk?”
“Oh, yeah.” Chelsea softened for a moment. “We hooked up in South Dakota for a few months and stay in touch.”
Face blank and dark eyes intense, Amber studied her for a long moment. “Tomorrow is my day off. So whenever you get back, I want to hear all about South Dakota.”
“Deal.” Heart painful against her ribs, Chelsea fought down her sudden nerves. “But my shoes…”
Once she had traded her sneakers for work boots, she and Bentley headed for the address Andy had texted. The man himself, all tall curls and black eyeliner underneath a huge backpack, waited for them outside a false brownstone Chelsea had been to before.
She frowned at him. “We’re heading back to the sewers?”
He smirked. “This city has vast underground tunnels that aren’t well regulated. Otherwise known as a breeding ground for things that go bump in the night. But we’re waiting for Charlie.”
“Of course we are.”
Andy held out a hand for Bentley. “And how’s my good dog?”
Charlie showed up as the moon rose. Dressed in a well-tailored suit and braids neat, he seemed to be missing the flash of cameras as he walked. “Sorry I’m late. I had a meeting with my agent.”
Chelsea shared a grin with Andy. “How’d that last shoot go?”
Charlie struck a pose, smiling blindingly among the machines behind the false front. “They loved me and the ad will be out in about a month. That’s what my meeting was about.” He froze. “Oh that reminds me. Andy, we might have to find a way to copy this key card. My uncle said he has to fire me for missing too much work. Friday is my last day.”
Andy patted his arm as he walked past the model. “Thanks for the head’s up, and congrats on getting out of the sewers, brother.”
Charlie preened visibly and Chelsea found herself saying, “Have you ever worked as an art model?”
Confusion painted Charlie’s face. “Like nudes?”
Andy’s vicious chuckle brought on a blush, which Chelsea fought to ignore. “Not necessarily. You can just sit, with clothes on.”
“Hm.” Charlie studied the ceiling, mouth scrunched up. “No, I don’t think so.” He smiled, obviously confused at her change of subject. “I have to get going. I’m late for dinner with my girlfriend.” He rushed out the door.
Andy sniggered. “He thinks you were hitting on him.”
“Yeah, cause you laughed.”
“Whatever. We have some rats to catch.” He waved her forward, already pulling out his phone.
Chelsea hurried after him, out the door and into the damp tunnels that would, eventually, take them to the sewers. “Like vampire rats or something?”
“Kind of.” Andy turned a corner. “These things are nearly as long as Bentley, if not as heavy, but it’s not their size, it’s their poison.”
Andy nodded. “These are what’s known as a scourge. Get bit and you die, or you turn into a rat.”
“Like a reaver.”
“Like a reaver,” Andy agreed. “Good news. They really are rats, so afraid of light and noise, and we have both. Better news: unlike rats, they are very solitary and don’t like a ton of competition, so they don’t like to gather in groups, just one or two at a time.”
They walked in silence after that, Bentley striding between them. Eventually, they got to an intersection with running water and Andy began to unpack his gear.
The lighting rig had a cool foot-controlled pedal and a simple bullhorn worked for their noise. It was the half-rotten meat for bait that caused a problem. Bentley was highly interested in it, and both Chelsea and Andy lost a little patience keeping him away.
Eventually, a scraping from the dark caught Bentley’s attention. When the fur on his spine went up, Chelsea and Andy drew weapons.
Slowly, the splashing and gasping came closer. Andy handed out ear plug before holding up a hand, demanding that she hold still. Chelsea put in the earplugs and grabbed Bentley’s collar.
Eventually, Andy lowered his hand and stepped on the foot pedal. Light flooded the tunnel. Chelsea pressed the button on the bullhorn blasting the siren noise.
In the new brightness, two giant rats were swimming in circles in the water. Andy grinned at her. “This is where your hatchet is a liability.” He pulled out his staff, a tiny metal tube, and threw it in the air. It sprang to life, silvery and thin, right before he caught it. Then he slammed one end of the staff into a rat, pinning it in the water.
The other rat let out a scream and headed for the bank they stood on. Chelsea pulled her ax, but Bentley got to the second rat first. He pounced on its tail, blood squirting as the rat screamed and turned.
Adrenalin pumping through her veins, Chelsea beheaded the monster with a single blow. “Stay away from my dog!”
Breath heaving, she pulled on Bentley’s collar. He dropped the monster immediately, tail wagging. “Good job, Bent.” She turned back to Andy, who was struggling to drown his rat still. “This is where a blade comes in handy.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Any more back talk and I reduce your cut of the money. Start taking pictures already, newbie.”