Cover Reveal for Armageddon Rules
Posted by Laurel Wanrow
Congratulations to my crit partner J.C. Nelson! What a cover! Marissa is rocking this one.
Marissa Locks, newly appointed partner of the Grimm Agency, has a reputation for making a mess of magical matters—although causing Armageddon is a new low, even for her…
Marissa is due for a little happily ever after. After all, she did kill the evil Fairy Godmother, end a war, and snag a sweet promotion within the Fairy Godfather’s magical-problem-solving Agency. But between maintaining a relationship with someone whose amorous advances can cause third-degree burns, dealing with a killer-poodle infestation, and helping her best friend, Princess Ari, learn to wield spells more powerful than curing a hangover, she’s not getting as much peace and quiet as she hoped. When an enemy from her past appears to exact a terrible revenge, Marissa’s life goes from hectic to hell on earth. With Grimm inexplicably gone and Ari trapped by a sleeping spell, Marissa decides to fight fire with hellfire—and accidentally begins a countdown to the apocalypse. With the end of days extremely nigh, Marissa will have to master royal politics, demonic law, and biblical plagues in a hurry—because even the end of the world can’t keep the Agency from opening for business…
A Texas transplant to the Pacific Northwest, JC Nelson lives with a family and a flock of chickens near rainy Seattle.
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In my defense, I didn’t mean to start the Apocalypse. It wasn’t just my personal aversion to oblivion, I had a clear financial motive: the end of the world is bad for business.
Speaking of business, that Monday began the same way almost every Monday had for the last three weeks: with a plague. Last week it was frogs.
I rolled into the office at about nine forty-five, and, as usual, the Agency was pure chaos. Rosa–our receptionist–was opening a fresh container of Taser darts and we’d only been open for forty-five minutes.
“Miss Locks, you gotta help.” A man in an orange jumpsuit with “Corrections Department” stamped in block letters down the side grabbed my shoulder as I walked past, spinning me around. “I gotta get me a wish.”
Strike one: Escaping from a garbage pickup crew. Strike two: Putting grubby fingers on my brand new top. Strike three: Calling me “Miss” instead of “Ms.” Locks. Far as I was concerned, Miss Locks left the building the day I turned eighteen and hadn’t been seen around here since.
“I’ll make a few calls.” To the police, if possible. To the morgue, if necessary.
He nodded gratefully and sat down on a bench.
I slipped through the “Staff Only” door, made it to the kitchen and almost poured a cup of coffee before the screaming started. One should never face disaster without caffeine. So I got my coffee and headed back out to the lobby, strolling through the door to see exactly what we’d been struck with.
Rats ran everywhere. They scrabbled on the walls, gnawed on the furniture and covered the floor like a shag carpet from 1973. In the middle of the lobby stood a teenage girl, six foot tall, rail thin with platinum blonde hair. Her clothes hung in tatters from bony white arms, and red blotches surrounded each of her many, many piercings. Her extravagant collection of tattoos spoke of poor impulse control and even worse decision making skills. She looked up at me with baleful eyes. “Please. I need help.”
I glanced around the room. The couple nearest the door held a cage with a amphibian I could only loosely call a frog. In the corner waited a group of kobolds. Roughly five feet tall, and with humanoid features except for their scaled skin and forked tongues, these Germanic lizard-men came every Monday to demand and be refused Grimm’s help in forming a professional soccer team. That left the homeless guy by the door, a man we called Payday George. He still hadn’t figured out this wasn’t a payday loan joint, probably because most days I felt sorry for him and just give him a twenty. I opened the staff door and waved to the girl. “Come on.”
Rosa glowered at me, mumbling curses in Spanish. She hated when I picked clients, and if she had her way, we’d take them one at a time, from number one to number six-hundred in exactly that order. Even if fifty-three was a starving fungal giant and sixty-two was a samurai with a serious shitake addiction. To her credit, Rosa kept her mouth shut. One does not argue with the boss.
We headed down the hall to a conference room, me, the girl, and enough rats to supply a hot dog factory running three shifts, seven days a week. I took a seat on one side of the table, she took a seat on the other and the rats took seats everywhere. Flicking one off my knee, I began the interview. “So what exactly do you want me to do for you?”
Tears smudged the sludge of makeup she wore, and she waved her arms around. “Duh. Isn’t it obvious?”
Absolutely. Obvious that she needed help. Figuring out which kind first, that was the hard part. I walked over and ran my fingers through her tangled, crispy hair, took a good look at all sixteen rings in her ear and the tasteful depiction on her shoulder of what was either Bob Dylan in “The Man in the Long Black Coat”, or a velociraptor playing acoustic guitar. “We can help. First, let’s take out those piercings. I’ll get you some alcohol and a prescription for some antibiotics. Your hair is crunchy from whatever you used to bleach it, and the tattoos are going to take years to remove.”
A rat jumped into my coffee and poked its head out. The girl stared as I fished it out by the tail, set it on the table, and handed it a sugar cube.
“What about the rats?”
I took another sip of coffee, which tasted Parisian, with a hint of rat. “What about them?”
“The only thing I need is for you to get rid of the rats.” She shivered.
I pushed a box of tissues across to her. “What’s your name?”
She scratched out a tissue and wiped her eyes. The tissue caught in her makeup and left shreds clinging to her cheeks. “Elizabeth. I like Beth.”
I brushed the rats out of the way and sat down on the table, my mind already made up. “Well, Beth, I have good news and bad news. Good news is I can help with the hair, the piercings, and I’ve got a lady in my wardrobe department who can teach you how to use less than a pound of cosmetics a day. The bad news, I’m not going to do a thing about the rats.”
She stared at me as her brain tried to process what I said. I leaned across and patted her hand. “You look hungry.” Truth was, she looked like one of those commercials for starving kids. I used to watch TV, and every once in a while I’d see commercials where you could mail order a kid for fifty dollars a month. Always wanted to try, but given my track record with pets, I’d signed an agreement with animal control that anything more than a goldfish required daily home visitation. Anyway, Beth reminded me of those kids.
“I can’t eat. Every time I try to eat the rats take it from me.”
I should’ve asked about her credit. I should’ve asked Rosa if her application was complete, but one look at her said I’d found my charity case for the week. “I’m going to order a pizza or two. I’ll have one of my employees bring a barrel of garbage up from the dumpster to distract your companions. I need you to sit tight for a bit, okay?”
She nodded and put her head down on the table. Walking out the door, on the way to my office, I made a mental note to have the table cleaned, or burned, or both.
My office, incidentally, was almost the biggest in the Agency. That was only right, since for most things, most days, I was in charge. I was a partner, the junior partner, but definitely not a silent one. On my desk sat a vase with yellow flowers. Daffodils, my favorite. The card attached read “La fille du majordome est mon amant. Love, Liam.” His attempts to learn French from the foreign film festival went about as well as my Spanish by mail lessons, because the butler’s daughter was not his lover. My dad was an accountant, and Liam and I didn’t even have a butler.
I pulled a towel off the full length mirror in the corner and made a call. “Grimm, how’s it going?”
Grimm snapped into view in the mirror, looking more like an English butler than a sentient manifestation of magic. Grimm was the Fairy Godfather, founder of the Agency, once my boss, and sometimes my friend. He could grant wishes if he wanted to, but most people didn’t need wishes. They needed solutions to their problems.
Just so we’re clear, I had no magic. I wasn’t a princess, witch, half-blood or anything like that. The only magic I could work was performed with bullets, bacon or boobs. Anything that couldn’t be handled with the big three, I called in Grimm. I didn’t call often.
He smiled, making the wrinkles in his face crease together. “Marissa, my dear, it is only Monday. Do you require my assistance already?” His voice always reminded me of some nature documentary narrator.
I shook my head. “Nah. Nothing we can’t handle yet. Got a new Piper though. She can’t be more than seventeen.”
Grimm slid his glasses forward to look at me over the thick, black edges. “What, may I ask, is she piping?”
I shrugged. “The usual for newbies.” New Pipers, particularly girls, always started with brainless, easily to influence creatures like rats or teenage boys. “If we can get her trained, this year’s Poodling will go a lot easier.”
He raised one eyebrow and pursed his lips. “And if you can’t, my dear?”
Grimm had never appreciated my term for our yearly pest control operations. Every year, like clockwork, infernal energy welled to the surface. Instead of manifesting as something reasonable, like a six headed hydra, or flaming squid, it tended to take the form of small, white, dog-shaped creatures with a taste for murder. “If I can’t, she can supply kingdom with organic, free range rats. Can you tell me where Ari is?”
Arianna, my right hand woman, my best friend, my Girl Friday, or at least Girl Thursday. At her name, Grimm’s lips turned down. “I already checked. She slept through her alarm, missed her bus to the Agency, and failed her civics test. On top of Arianna’s Department of Licensing disaster, she’s planning to call in sick.”
Ari had spent the last two years in college. Grimm and I had running bets on what she planned on majoring in. Grimm always said “Do what you are best at.” From what I could tell, Ari was going to major in failing the driver’s license test. “She failed this weekend? Couldn’t you intervene?”
“Marissa, I did intervene. She mistook the accelerator for the volume control and drove three blocks through the market at full speed. Again. It took every bit of magic I could pull off to make certain no one got more than a little run over.”
“I’ll go fetch her.” Ari usually rose with the sun, and by now, she could have walked into the Agency. And Grimm hadn’t said she was sick. Only that she planned on calling in sick. The more I thought about it, the more I figured there had to be another reason. “Did she fail one of your magic tests too?”
Grimm’s expression said it all. He wouldn’t meet my eyes, his face turned down. “Not exactly. She failed my pretest. I asked her to summon a dog with eyes the size of cup saucers. What she summoned hasn’t tread the earth since the Jurassic age.”
Grimm had spent the last few years training Ari in magic. He traded passing tests in college for new lessons on how not to kill herself with magic. I remained unconvinced it was a fair trade. Grimm said he was taking his time because he didn’t want her exposed to evil. If that were true, he wouldn’t have made her take Calculus.
I picked up my purse and took my jacket. “I’ll be back soon. The Piper’s in 2A, I suggest nobody opens the door. The Kobolds need to be turned down, Rosa will send away Payday George, and there’s a frog prince waiting in the lobby.”
Grimm sighed and faded out of view. I wonder at times what he ever did without me.
Ari lived in a brownstone about twenty minutes from the Agency. Technically she lived alone. I knocked, and she answered without bothering to check the peep hole. Her yellow sundress with matching hat made her pale complexion look a lot better, and she kept her red hair pulled back so that it didn’t fall into her face.
I pulled my nine-millimeter from my purse and pointed it at her. “What have I told you about answering the door without looking first?”
Ari ignored me and shuffled back inside. “I can see through the door, M, and Yeller would take care of anyone who bothered me.” At the sound of his name, a dog the size of a Shetland pony padded forward. Only Ari would keep a hell hound as a pet. He looked like Cujo crossed with an alligator and a zombie. None of those crosses improved his disposition.
He stared at me, the gun in my hand, and began to growl, long and low. I put the gun away, since I’d grown somewhat attached to my hands. “Hey, Yeller. I have a poodle for you in the trunk of my car.” Yeller bared his teeth at me.
Ari left the door open and walked down the hall. “Come on in, M. I’m making tea.”
I hated Ari’s apartment. She lived there because it was the only thing she could afford. She could afford it because it was haunted, and I don’t mean “things that go bump in the night” haunted. I mean “things that devour your spirit.”
Inside, the apartment still looked as if the previous owner lived there (which he didn’t) and like he was still around (he was). Ari brought out a tea kettle and poured three cups, then sat back on a couch, the cover of which looked like woven hair. She clinked her spoon against the cup, like ringing a dinner bell. “Larry, I’m having tea with Marissa. Are you going to join us?”
The basement door blew open, and a ghastly form made of shadows flowed out.
I nodded to it. “Larry.”
It looked at me with those dull red orbs that passed for eyes, a look that said it would rather be devouring my spirit than sipping tea. “Marissa.”
That one word took five syllables. I didn’t have the patience to talk with liches. I was supposed to have evicted this one a few years ago. Evictions were cheaper than exorcisms and worked about as often, but the day I went to court to close it, I made a nasty discovery.
I still remember standing there in my business suit with my property attorney at my side, while we waited for the lich to fail to make an appearance. They never showed – being bound to the place of one’s death limited mobility options. Right as the judge was getting ready to approve it, the courtroom door swung open.
In lurched a postman, his mail bag still hanging from his side. He moved in awkward, jerky movements like a teenager at his first dance. The postman staggered to the bench and handed a scrawled paper to the judge. A few minutes later, when I should have been filing the new deed, I was sitting outside asking our lawyer how we got beat by a possessed postman.
I spent the better part of the next year fighting him. Well, technically him. Whether it was the grandma in her walker, or the hipster on his single speed bike, they all developed an unholy knowledge of property law when possessed by Larry the Lich. I think the low point was getting hit with attorney’s fees by an eight year-old-boy.
At that point we actually did research and discovered that before death, Larry the Lich had been Larry Gulberson, Attorney at Law. That was before he took up a more respectable profession, committing unspeakable acts of evil.
So we negotiated a new contract. Technically, Grimm and Larry did, and Ari sublet the top three floors from an undead spirit of wrath. He wasn’t a terrible landlord for someone bound to this plane only by the sheer weight of his hatred and malice. Ari claimed he wasn’t that bad, once you got past the glowing eyes, spectral form and tendency to devour the meter man. She always did find the positive things.
So Ari went with me when we needed to hunt uglies. She helped me out when I needed to tame something nasty. Even if she was part princess and part sorceress, I trusted her
I stood at the coffee table. “You’re late. Work started hours ago.”
“I didn’t feel like coming in today. Summer semester tests are next week and I need to study more.” Ari made a terrible liar, her cheeks bright red, her hand over her mouth.
“I need your help with a new Piper. She’s a mess. Got so many piercings she looks like a tackle box, and more tattoos than the Detroit Lions cheerleading squad. I could use a hand.” I took my tea and sat down beside her. As I did, I winced where the fabric of my pants rubbed fresh burns.
Ari looked at me and nodded. “Liam singed you again?”
“Yeah.” My boyfriend, Liam, burned with more than desire.
Ari stood up. “I’ll get you some ice. Where’d he get you this time?”
I gave her the look.
She stopped for a moment, then opened her mouth. “Oh. You want burn cream?”
“No. Remind me to ask Grimm for help when we get back to the Agency.”
Ari nodded. “How was the film festival?”
“Wonderful. I watched this movie –all in French—you’ve got to see it” I stopped, since Ari’s eyes glazed over like I’d wrapped her in a plastic bag again. Liam stayed by my side through three days of foreign language films. I think he spent more time watching me than the movies.
“You’re thinking about him. You get that smile when you do.” Ari blushed, happy for me that at least I’d found my happy, if not the ever after.
“We’ve got work to do. I’m sorry about the driving test. I’m sorry about the magic test, and I’m sorry about the civics exam. I’ve got a lobby full of potential clients and I’m missing my right-hand woman.”
Ari stared at me for a moment. “We don’t get the results of the civics test until tonight.”
“Well, in that case I have a feeling you’ll be doing the makeup exam. Now go get dressed for business and we’ll try doing something you’re good at.” She left me with the lich, and as she walked out the mood in the room changed.
I knew Grimm negotiated safety for folks who stayed out of the basement. As the lights flickered and black smoke began to ooze out from the lich like tendrils, I kept my cool. “Larry, you hear about her driver’s test?”
The tendrils paused for a moment and stopped snaking toward me. Larry nodded.
“When it comes to driver’s tests that girl is cursed.”
The lich shook its head, managing to keep it attached. Not bad for someone who’d been dead a few years.
“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t mean actually cursed. She just has really bad luck.”
Again the lich shook his head. Then he drifted over toward one of the towering book cases and began to point one-by-one at black bound tomes as if counting. It stretched out a skeletal hand toward one and beckoned to me with the other.
If it were anyone other than Grimm who laid out the contract Ari signed before moving in, I’d have worried. We rented a truck to move the paper version of the contract after Grimm drafted it. I took out the book the lich pointed to and gave it a glance, trying to make sense of triangle based hieroglyphics.
“I don’t read anything but English.” I went to put the book back but it held out a hand, stopping me. One claw touched the book and a vapor-like mist seeped out from what remained of the finger bones. Through the mist, the letters crawled like maggots, re-arranging themselves into words I could read. Also, I wasn’t hungry anymore. Celestial Law, Volume Three Hundred, read the title.
I opened the book, and a wind began to whip through the room, blowing Ari’s mail into the air and flipping the pages until at last it died down. Again the lich did the maggot words thing. I read the chapter title. “The Exchange Principle.”
I struggled through the first paragraph, then followed a bone finger to a single sentence. “For everything given, something must be taken. For every Blessing, a Curse.”
At the words ‘blessing’ and ‘curse’ I shivered for reasons of my own. Blessings, Curses, no real difference. I’ve had a Curse do great things for me and a Blessing do awful things. I had one of each. “This isn’t about me. I was talking about Ari.”
It shook his head again and pointed up the stairs. That got my mind got to work. Ari, through no fault of her own, was a princess. Born to a royal family, though the royal families these days had long since traded throne rooms for board rooms. My point being, as part of their contract with the universe, members of the royal families had what could only be described as ridiculous luck.
Reality itself bent over backwards to make things work out for them. Vicious creatures like hell hounds loved them, evil creatures like Wraiths tolerated them, and hungry creatures like wolves would rather eat gym sock soup than a single bite of princess. But maybe, I thought, all this came at a cost. If the only cost was not being able to drive, that was quite a bargain.
“Larry, are you trying to devour Marissa again?” Ari stood on the stairs dressed in a standard black business suit with white shirt. She looked almost professional, but still cute.
The lich shook his skull and held up his hands.
“He was explaining something to me. On his best behavior, I promise.” I exchanged a glance with the lich and returned the book to its place. Then I took Ari and got the hell out of the haunted house she called home.